Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 34 : Tanguel

Thorton suddenly paused his pacing. Beneath his feet the sound of female pleasure drifted up through the planks. Captain Tangle was making love to his wife in the bed where only this morning Peter Thorton had lain. Did she know it? Did she guess? Would some member of the crew tell her, just to spite him? What would she do when she knew? They were agonizing questions. They made his face white and his heart black with jealousy. He paced and paced, like a lion in his cage. Or maybe only a leopard. He was not great enough to qualify as the 'king of the beasts.' No, it was Tangle who qualified for such a title. Pace, pace.

The marine turned the hourglass and struck the bell. "Six bells and all's well!" he called. From various corners of the ship the men on watch called back, "All's well!" Thorton counted them with half a mind. All the lookouts were accounted for. 

The noise below died away, was quiet for a little while, then began again. The quartermaster grinned. "He's a right lusty man, our captain."

Thorton glared at him. "That is an improper remark, Mr. Vendabal."

"Aye aye, sir." The quartermaster stopped smirking and pretended to see and hear nothing further.

Thorton's face turned red to think that maybe he and Tangle had been overheard, even though he had always bitten back his cries and smothered his face in the pillow. He thought they had been quiet enough, yet how could he be sure? 

He turned to the rail and stared at the land. It was a green and pleasant land full of rolling hills. Behind it rose the great brown bulk of the Atlas Mountains. In myth it was the place where Atlas held the sky on his shoulders. Thorton felt as if the burden had been shifted to his own shoulders. So. This was the country that had given birth to the mighty corsair. It was deceptively placid. Perhaps it was boredom that had driven the men of Tanguel to the sea. He took his spyglass out of his pocket and studied the land. He could make out the white dots of sheep, brown cottages, the occasional brilliant costumes of peasants. 

The xebec ran ahead of them. No matter how much Tangle had cursed her loose ways, she was still faster than the galiot. On her quarterdeck Kasim Rais was of no mind to set a speed that galiot could keep. He began to skylark, tacking back and forth across the wind. Each tack required his men to lower the sails to the deck, heave them around the mast, and raise them up again. He was showing off. Thorton pulled his watch out and timed them. They took between thirteen and twenty-one minutes for each tack. How Tangle would rage at their ill work. He was displeased that his crew could barely get their own sails around in ten. His goal was five. 

Thorton did not know the area, but some of his men did. Midshipman Kaashifa said, "Should I get the lead out, sir?"

Thorton turned around. The expression on his face made the other man step back half apace. The renegade lieutenant schooled himself to civility. "Do you think it necessary?" 

"Aye, sir. We're coming up on Tanguel. That's the Shepherd's Rock there. There are shoals here." The xebec wasn't zipping along any more. She was a mile ahead and slowing. 

"Very well. Get the lead out."

The carpenter's mates went forward and sent their lines over. Their calls were passed back and Thorton paid close attention. There was little enough water here as he discovered. Fortunately, the Terry was a shoal draft vessel. Slowly they gained on the Sea Leopard. Tangle came out of his cabin, glanced over the side, and mounted to the poop deck. "Shepherd Rock Shoals," he commented.

"Aye, sir. We're casting the lead," Thorton replied.

"Carry on. The Sea Leopard is waiting for us?"

"Aye, sir." He did not mention that Kasim had been showboating for his benefit. How chagrined the other captain would be to learn Tangle had seen none of it. He had been busy below attempting to beget offspring number seven. For his part, Thorton was about to choke on a great ball of spite. He stood very stiffly in his turban and short jacket. They came up quickly on the Sea Leopard's stern. 

"Damn him, she's aground!" Tangle growled. He swore some vile Turkish oaths. 

Indeed she was. The Sea Leopard sent her boats over with tow cables. No matter how hard the men bent their backs, she did not move. Tangle was about to eat nails and spit grape. He paced violently, whirled around, and said, "Mr. Thorton. I'm promoting you to captain. The Santa Teresa is your command now. Do as you think fit. I'm going below."

Thorton was quite astonished. His jaw dropped. He stood their stupidly with his mouth hanging open while he tried to make sense of the situation. Tangle was the owner of the Santa Teresa, he could appoint whom he pleased as her captain. As the owner, he was the ultimate source of orders and the captain was his agent. Generally speaking, owners did not travel with their ships, but when they did, they could, if they chose, exercise command. Or they might leave the operations of the vessel to the master they had hired. Perhaps making him captain of the Terry was his way of compensating Thorton for not having given him a prize. Or maybe it was just a furious Tangle speaking out of spite for his brother-in-law. He might change his mind when he calmed down. Thorton had a moment of nostalgia for the soul-deadening bureaucracy of the British navy where everything was certain because it was done according to protocol, signed and countersigned, and written down in the copybooks. 

He gave his first command as captain, "Mr. Kaashifa, make a signal, 'Query.'"

Kaashifa ran the signal up. There was no answer from the Sea Leopard. Thorton scowled and wondered if Kasim was refusing to acknowledge, so unseamanly he hadn't seen the signal, or just an idiot. 

"Make a signal, 'Send boat.'"

Once more the signal was run up and got no answer. 

"Damn them for the imbecilic offspring of a misbegotten whore," Thorton muttered in English. 

Kaashifa did not understand that language. In Spanish he asked, "Sir?"

"Send them a boat with some good stout fellows in it. Ask them if they want a tow."

The boat was sent, but the offer was rudely refused. The boat came back. The Sea Leopard's captain was too proud to accept help. Kasim tried kedging next. The boats came in and fetched her anchor and hauled it away and let it drop. The sound of the Arab chant came to them as the fife and drum set the tune for hauling the line. 

Thorton tilted his head in curiosity. "Is their capstan broken? That sounds like a line-hauling chantey." 

Kaashifa gave him a sideways look. "There are no capstans on xebecs, sir."

Thorton gave him an astonished look. "How do they haul their anchors?"

"The same way we do. By hand."

Thorton watched dumfounded. A galley had the benefit of its two hundred slaves to haul anchors, but xebecs were crewed by freemen. It was one thing to haul a ship by the brute labor of bondsmen, but quite another to warp a ship with the proud backs of free men. The Sea Leopard kedged and sweated, sweated and kedged, until at last with a great sucking sound, she came off the mud. She ran out her sweeps a few at a time and began to stroke raggedly. It took a long time to get into cadence as they rowed backwards towards the Terry

Kasim was at the tafferel shouting in Turkish. What he said Thorton didn't know. Turkish might be the familial language of the Tangueli clan, but Thorton was ignorant of it. "What's he saying?" he asked Kaashifa.

Kaashifa gave him a sideways look, then edged away from the English captain. "He says, 'Move your stinking galley, you goddamn sodomite.' An exact quote, sir." His voice was apologetic. 

Thorton scowled. That the words were in Turkish meant that they were addressed to Tangle, not himself, but he did not take them kindly. Tangle knew his brother-in-law and had removed himself from command before he flew into a rage and did something stupid. Now Thorton had to control his own temper and deal with the son-of-a-bitch himself. 

"Thank you, Mr. Kaashifa. No blame attaches to you for making an accurate translation. Come forward with me, please. Mr. Vendabal, you have the conn. Maintain position." The quartermaster murmured his acknowledgment.

Thorton walked briskly to the bow. Standing at the rembate, he swept his eyes across the water. There was plenty of room to pull off; the Terry had stopped well short when they realized the Sea Leopard was aground. Kasim hopped up on the lazyboard that extended aft the transom and made a rude gesture when he saw Thorton. He shouted something in Turkish that did not sound friendly.

"Back up, or I'll ram you!" Kaashifa translated for him.

Thorton said, "I'll have the long gun loaded and run out, if you please."

The gun captain gave him a long look, then replied, "Aye aye, sir." He called for his crew, and they swabbed the cannon and their boy ran for a cartridge. 

"Touch my ship and I'll blow you a new asshole!" Thorton bellowed at Kasim. "Translate that, Mr. Kaashifa." Kaashifa reluctantly came to the rembate and shouted in Turkish.

Kasim was a swarthy man, but he turned a little pale when he found himself staring down the barrel of a thirty-two pounder at short range. "Are you insane?" he shouted. Kaashifa did his best to turn invisible while continuing to translate.

The Sea Leopard's sweeps were slack and she drifted. Her momentum continued to carry her toward the Terry. Thorton stepped through the gate in the rembate and walked out to the end of the bowsprit. It was a dangerous gambit. With his limited Arabic, he bellowed, "I am Peter Rais Thorton of the Santa Teresa. Stand off or die!" 

Two thoughts simultaneously crossed Thorton's mind: first, that Tangle would probably be delighted if Thorton blew away his execrable brother-in-law, and second, that Tangle would be furious if he put a hole in his precious xebec. Both thoughts were immediately followed by the conclusion that they were irrelevant. What mattered was that he had no intention of giving way to an oafish nincompoop. Having threatened death, he was bloody well determined that he would fire the cannon if necessary. Was it Tangle who had told him, 'I never bluff'? Perhaps it had been. He was not about to begin his career as captain by letting some swine who thought he was a seaman tell him what to do.

Kasim turned and gave orders. The sweeps were flustered, but they started pulling instead of backing. They moved forward a bit and Kasim went forward on his quarterdeck to bellow and swear. His rowers pulled and his rudder turned. He pulled along side the mudbank, backed, turned, and with another rude gesture for Thorton, pulled into the deeper water. They crept along towards Tanguel, then stopped. 

The tide had gone out. The Sea Leopard could not get over the sandbar into the harbor. Thorton walked the prow back to the foredeck to listen to the call of his own leads. "Three fathoms and rising bottom." A moment later, "Two and a half fathoms and sandy mud."

Thorton directed, "Send out a boat and take soundings ahead." 

The galiot's boat went into the water. The gang sounded the way for a couple of pistol shots ahead. The report came back, "Minimum depth, two fathoms and a quarter. Three fathoms on the other side of the bar, sir."

"Pass the word to Mr. Vendabal. Slowly and carefully pass the Sea Leopard on her larboard. We're going over the sandbar. Out sweeps. Brail sails."

The commands were echoed in Spanish, Arabic, and Turkish. The fore and mainmast hands went to their posts and brailed up the sails while the unskilled seamen fetched the sweeps from where they were carried in outriggers along the quarters. 

Thorton called loudly in Spanish, "Let's show them how real sailors handle a ship! Handsomely, lads, handsomely!"

The drum beat and the oars dipped in unison into the water. Slowly, majestically, with each oar in perfect time, they eased around the Sea Leopard. Thorton smiled to see how well the men comported themselves and how gracefully the Terry moved. Up until then the men had not taken any particular pride in their skills; rowing was something they did because they must. But now as they passed the clumsy xebec, they became aware of themselves not just as rogues who happened to work a ship, but as seamen, by Allah. 

Somewhere in the ranks a man began to sing. His song was taken up by the other men, the lusty male chorus keeping time with the sweeping of the oars and the beat of the drum. The song thrummed in Thorton's veins and he fancied the deck itself served as a great sounding board to magnify the voices and project them across the sea. The Terry swept past the Sea Leopard like a monarch of the seas passing a peasant. On board the xebec sailors in their motley colors stood at the rail and watched with sulky eyes.

Thorton on his poop deck felt like the king of the world. His heart was bursting with pride and pleasure at the beauty of his vessel. But being the master of such a vessel carried heavy responsibilities and he must attend them. So he turned away from the Sea Leopard and considered his own situation. 

It was a very bad place for an invader. It was a narrow meandering channel with mud flats aplenty; to be stuck there was to be stuck under the guns of the stone fort that commanded the headland. Three guns saluted them with puffs of smoke. No wonder it had once been a thriving base for the Sallee rovers. It had excellent natural protection and was not far from the Pinch, as the rovers called the Strait of Gibraltar. Round ships had surpassed the galleys of the Middle Sea and nations that clung to such an antiquated way of going to sea were being left behind. Still, with her entrance silted up like that, Tanguel had no choice. She was a relic of the past. 

The galiot made it safely into harbor. "Pass the word to Isam Rais. We have arrived."

Tangle and his wife came up to the poop deck. He was dressed in his French blue uniform and pantaloons, boots and sword, white turban on his head. His buttons and gold lace gleamed. The sky blue of his wife's silks fluttered around him. She clung to his elbow as if she would never let him go. He smiled at Thorton.

"I admit my curiosity got the better of me. I stood in the coach and watched. My compliments, rais." Tangle's baritone was warm and approving. 

Thorton flushed a little. Had Tangle ventured onto the deck, he would have seen him—and so would the men. The older captain had kept out of sight on purpose. 

"Thank you, sir," Thorton replied. 

Tangle looked back. "Is the Sea Leopard aground again?"

"No, sir. She hasn't enough tide to get over the sandbar."

Tangle nodded. "It could be a good harbor if they'd ever dredge the damn thing. I'd love to strike at the Spanish Plate Fleet. Tanguel would be an excellent base. Tanger's a good one too, but 'tis in Spanish hands." He sighed. 

Thorton looked at the town with its mud brick houses and faded whitewash. The fishing fleet was out and a pair of rotting galleys were dying on the beach. Two more were drawn up in good order, but they seemed deserted. He did not see any watches on them. The beach itself was a beautiful half-circle of tan sand. A small river carried fresh water down from the mountains. The land was high enough to be dry in most seasons, but there were marshes to the north where it became difficult to tell land from sea and channels might shift with a storm or even a good hard surf. 

The biggest building was an old mosque. Its blue dome and minarets loomed over the town. Beside it was a library and a bathhouse. Other important buildings ranged about the square. The main road ran straight and broad from the harbor to the mosque. The biggest dock ran out from the foot of the road into the harbor. There were many empty places along the dock. The vessels were various small craft: feluccas and brigantines, demi-galleys, barques, and sloops. Off to the side was a dockyard where a galiot was up on stocks. 

A crowd in dusty and faded colors lined the waterfront to see the strange vessel come in. The Sea Leopard had touched there before cruising the coast in search of Tangle; the people of the town had an air of suppressed excitement. When they recognized the blue figures on the poop deck, they burst out cheering. Tangle smiled and waved his hand, and his wife waved her hand, too. Sunlight flashed and glinted on her jewelry.

A man with a very large white turban, black vest and long white shirt was waiting at the end of the dock. He was flanked by soldiers and clerks. Thorton brought the galiot's larboard side along the end of the dock. Mooring lines were made fast. Thorton was the captain now, so he went to the weather deck and spoke to them over the rail. He had Kaashifa along to translate. It was a welcoming committee. No harbor fees would be charged; Isam Rais was a hometown boy and entitled to dock his vessel for free. There would be a banquet in his honor at the governor's palace on the morrow. The entire crew was invited. The man addressed Thorton very civilly but kept looking past him to the poop deck where Tangle and his wife were resplendent in blue and gold. 

Thorton at last sent Kaashifa to fetch them. Now the official was truly delighted. There was a great deal of salaaming and bowing with his hand pressed to his turban to keep it from falling off when he bowed so low. Tangle smiled and accepted the honors with a gracious inclination of his head. Thorton had never seen a king, but he thought Tangle acted like one. The Tanguelis spoke Turkish mixed with Arabic; he heard 'Peter Rais' but very little else that he understood.

Tangle turned to him and explained. "This is my cousin Rahmat bin Sahm. He's the harbormaster here. He and his wife will host me and my wife. I expect you will want to stay with your vesse, captainl. I'll have our dunnage removed from your cabin as soon as the wagon arrives." 

He made other introductions, but Thorton did not remember any of the names. Besides the harbormaster, there was his deputy, a health inspector, officers of the local militia, a representative from the palace, an imam, representatives from the merchants' and mariners' associations, and other functionaries, along with a number of Tangle's kinsmen and curiosity seekers. 

Thorton stood erect and replied, "Aye aye, sir."

Tangle touched his sleeve. "And get that insignia changed before the banquet. It will be a formal affair."

"Aye aye, sir. Shall we ask the harbormaster to send help to Kasim Rais, sir?"

Tangle sucked his teeth thoughtfully. Then his eyes twinkled. "Aye. It would be the gracious thing to do." Not to mention, it would infuriate Kasim.

The harbormaster nodded. "I will send lighters to take off part of his load and we will tow him over the sand bar."

That done Tangle and his wife went ashore. The harbormaster's deputy remained behind to loiter and gaze upon the sight of the victorious galiot. He addressed Thorton in polite Arabic, but Thorton understood only part of it. Kaashifa had to translate into Spanish for him.

"He wants to know if you took many prizes."

"Tell him Isam Rais took three. They are supposed to rendezvous with us here. A brig, a ship, and a snow." The harbormaster's deputy was burning with curiosity. Thorton could tell it by the way he kept hanging around. But he maintained his dignity and conversed in slow Arabic with the midshipman. "You may talk to him as much as you please. I must tend the ship." He stepped away.

Thorton was a little at a loss. He had helped a ship to get ready for sea without her captain on board, but never had he been responsible to bed her down. A momentary panic stitched through his breast. He took a deep breath to steady himself. 

The townspeople grew bolder and came right out on the dock until the deputy shooed them away. Some of them were women begging for knowledge of their menfolks. Thorton sighed. What did Tangle want done with the crew? He had promised them liberty when he saved the sinking galley in the Bay of Biscay. But Thorton was loathe to let any man go ashore; they needed the crew. 

"Deputy harbormaster. I need to unload my captives. What shall we do with them?"

"We will take them to the prison," he replied. 

That required a detachment of soldiers to be brought from the fort.. The receipt for the prisoners had to be signed, which meant their roll had to be called. None of this was done with anything resembling speed. The soldiers strolled around the harbor from the fort to the dock and Thorton nearly went mad with the waiting. They ported their arms sloppily—sloppily in the eyes of a naval officer accustomed to the brisk exactness of the Royal Marines. At last the prisoners were dispatched. Meanwhile, the lighters unloaded what they could from the xebec, then towed her in. She came to the dock and took a berth near the shore. She had to back up, twist and turn, and try again. Kasim Rais used the 'bump and fidget' method of docking. Thorton wanted to strangle the man. 

Turning his back on the Sea Leopard, he saw square sails beyond the headland. The stranger fired a single gun in acknowledgment of the fort's flag and received a single gun in response. 

Thorton pulled out his glass and studied the vessel a while. "Maynard! He can't get that snow in here!"

As they watched, the snow slowed and stopped. Twenty minutes later, it crept forward about a fathom and stopped again. The harbormaster's deputy called to his boats and they went out to meet her. A few minutes later they returned empty handed. They explained that the boy captain was heaving casks over the side to lighten the load. His boats were shepherding them into a group and lashing them together to form rafts. It took about two hours for enough of the hogsheads to be jettisoned to raise the vessel. When at last she was light enough, she glided slowly over the sandbar. She towed the rafts behind her. Her boats tended the rafts to keep them from fouling. 

Slowly she came into Tanguel's harbor with her men straining at her sweeps. The sun was sinking in the west behind her and turned her topsails to orange. Maynard released his rafts, then neatly put his snow into the dock. He moved slowly and carefully. The snow had only four sweeps, but he used them to turn her until she was properly lined up. He eased into her berth and her sailors leaped to the dock to tie her mooring lines. Her crew finished by flemishing the lines. Tangle preferred the lines on his vessel to be off the deck with their coils neatly pinned, but either way was a seamanly way. By contrast, the Sea Leopard's lines were whichever way they happened to be left. Some coiled, some not, some on deck, some in a heap, some lashed to the pinrail. Thus the personalities of the various captains could be read at a glance. 

Thorton sent his own people to help break up the rafts and haul the casks out of the water. They needed to use the yardarms and antennas as cranes to lift the hogsheads. Leaving Kaashifa on the quarterdeck, he descended to the dock and went over to look up at the boy officer on the snow's quarterdeck. The snow was a high-sided vessel compared to the lateeners, and Thorton had to strain his neck. 

"What on earth have you got in there anyhow?" he called in English. 

"Tobacco," Maynard replied. He was very tired and his face was drawn. He leaned heavily on his crutches.

"That will sell," Thorton replied. It was not an especially valuable commodity, but it was certainly marketable. "I'll send word to Tangle that you're here. He's at his cousin's house. There's a fancy dinner for us at the palace tomorrow, so get a good rest and wear your best uniform for it."

Maynard saluted with something less than crispness. "Aye aye, sir."

"And Maynard. Well done." Thorton returned the salute smartly.

"Thank you, sir." A smile crossed the boy's weary face.

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