Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 4 : The Sallee Envoy

The Sallee man and his servant hove alongside that evening. The shadows were lengthening and the watch was lighting the lanterns. The envoy was a portly gentleman of average height with a curled mustache and thick beard streaked with grey. He was sumptuously dressed in a large white turban and a green brocade coat decorated with a pattern of vines. The sleeves were narrow and the skirt was full, worn over green pantaloons. His scimitar hung from a red sash around his waist. His servant was a tall thin blackamoor dressed in a red shirt and fez and black pantaloons above red leather slippers. Their arrival attracted considerable attention, but the Turk was used to being stared at by infidels and beamed benignly at them. 

"Peace be upon you. I am Achmed bin Mamoud, the Sallee envoy." He flourished his fingers in their direction. "Permission to come aboard?" His voice was simultaneously congenial and booming.

Thorton received him. "Welcome aboard, Your Excellency. I am Lieutenant Peter Thorton. This is Midshipman Archibald Maynard. Mr. Maynard will show you to your quarters." 

Maynard rolled his eyes at being called 'Archibald' instead of 'Archie' but said nothing.

Achmed gave Thorton a little bow, so Thorton bowed back, deeper and longer. He had never seen a Turk up close before. He was quite curious. Maynard was staring in fascination at the African. 

Achmed noticed Maynard's look and explained. "That is my servant, Keb. He is a eunuch." He spoke English with a moderate accent. "Is Captain Bishop here?"

Maynard was titillated; Thorton was scandalized. They were hard pressed to keep a professional demeanor. Thorton replied, "He is, sir. I will notify him immediately."

"Excellent." Achmed remained where he was, clearly waiting for the captain to appear.

Thorton fidgeted mentally, then he said, "Mr. Maynard, go tell the captain that Mr. Achmed has come aboard, then show his servant where to stow his things."

The blackamoor apparently did not speak English, so Maynard directed him with gestures. The two went off. The envoy studied the lieutenant as he waited for the captain. The man he saw was above average height, but not remarkably so, broad enough in the shoulder to be manly, but not of exaggerated size, and broad also in the hip so that his torso was something of a rectangle. He was lean, so could most properly be called a sturdily built man of no special proportions. He had a sallow complexion and facial features that were somewhat square. His nose was a triangle no bigger nor smaller than it ought to be, his lips tightly closed, while his grey eyes gazed levelly back without revealing anything. He was an expressionless man. 

Achmed's brown eyes regarded him with something like sympathy as he chatted. "How long have you served under Captain Bishop, Mr. Thorton?"

"A few days, sir."

"That isn't very long to get to know a man. What is he like?"

"He is an Englishman, sir," Thorton replied as if that conveyed all that needed to be known. Perhaps it did.

Achmed waved a hand. "I had assumed as much," he said pleasantly. "I was more curious about the man than his nationality."

Bishop appeared on deck and Thorton realized the captain had deliberately snubbed the envoy. Word had been passed when the turban had been spotted and Bishop should have been on deck to greet the dignitary. Achmed knew he had been snubbed and was summoning Bishop. Tit for tat. Achmed continued smiling and nothing about his look or voice conveyed any resentment. 

Captain Bishop forced a smile and gave a little bow. "Your Excellency. Welcome aboard the Ajax. Mr. Thorton, you were remiss not to notify me immediately when you sighted our guest."

Thorton shot a look at Bishop that told Achmed that Thorton had done his duty and did not appreciate being blamed for the captain's boorishness. Thorton remained stiffly at attention and gave a gravel-voiced answer, "The wherryman was quick, sir." Not my fault, he was protesting inside. But that could not be said.

Achmed waved a be-ringed hand and smoothed it over by taking control. "Say nothing of it, Captain Bishop. In fact, I would be delighted if you and your officers could join me for supper. I suppose you have had your dinner already, but I have brought some delicacies with me, including Turkish delight and good Madeira wine I'd like to share. My man is an excellent cook." 

The only place capable of hosting such a dinner would be either the wardroom or the captain's cabin. Achmed was very politely intruding himself into their affairs and offering a bribe that he knew would be irresistible to men fed on the King's largesse: good food and wine. Bishop was hooked. "You are very gracious to offer. We would be pleased to join you during the last dog watch. Mr. Thorton, make it so."

"Aye aye, sir."

"May I have a tour of your very handsome vessel, Captain? You look to have everything in excellent order. How soon will we be leaving?" 

The envoy fell into step beside the captain who could not help to be flattered by the compliments. He gave the foreigner an officious tour, lauding the excellent condition of the vessel, the sated state of her stores, the excellence of her men, and so forth. Those men who overheard were surprised and pleased. "He's strict, but he appreciates us," they told one another. They warmed to the man immediately.

Thorton sent messages to the galley to make ready to receive the envoy's man and to give him whatever he wanted to cook. The blackamoor proved fluent in French. With the number of men aboard selected because they could speak that language, he was able to make himself understood. He drafted the cook and boys and put them to work. Soon delicious smells were wafting up from down below and Thorton's mouth was watering. He sincerely hoped that he would be invited to the table. The captain and envoy passed him and paid him no mind as he stood at attention. 

Thorton caught up to the captain. "Sir, may I ask if you would prefer dinner in the wardroom or your cabin?"

"My cabin, of course. That is where dignitaries should be entertained. You shouldn't ask such stupid questions."

Thorton burned but replied, "Very good, sir." 

Bishop went into his cabin and Thorton started away. Achmed was waiting in the coach. He had overheard their encounter. "Ah, Mr. Thorton. Would you be so good as to attend me? I have some questions."

"Your servant, sir," Thorton replied, stepping over.

"My first question being, exactly where is my berth? My servant knows, but by the smells issuing from the hatchway, I assume he is busy in the galley."

Thorton was chagrined. Of course the stranger would not know his way below decks. "This way, please. I will show you the way, sir."

Thorton descended the ladder to the gundeck. He arrived in the wardroom, which was nothing more than the space in the stern aft the guns. It was lined with little cabins for the officers: commissioned to starboard, warrant to larboard. The cabins were made of planks, and unlike the usual English frigate, would not be struck for action. She carried her guns forward of the cabins. The mizzenmast raked through the space and the dining table was built fore and aft of it in a continual run. Passing the salt from one end to the other required maneuvering it around the mizzenmast. Square windows in the upper portion of the stern lit the space. 

Thorton took Achmed to the cabin that was third from the rear on the starboard side. The four cabins there housed the first, second, third, and marine lieutenants in order from the stern forward. The marine lieutenant was technically below Thorton in rank, but being the senior marine officer aboard, reported directly to the captain. The cabins on the opposite side housed the sailing master, surgeon, chaplain, and pursuer. The midshipmen slept in the cockpit, but messed with the gunroom with the gunner and boatswain. The Ajax was small for a frigate and did not have as many officers or gradations of status as a regular British frigate. On the other hand, she was graced with a chaplain who would also serve as schoolmaster for the boys, and a proper surgeon instead of a mere surgeon's mate. Peacetime provided a superfluity of officers needing berths. 

Thorton stopped before the louvered door of what had briefly been his cabin. He opened it politely for Achmed. What a sight to behold! The spartan cabin had been turned into one of luxury. The bed was draped in blue and green silk comforters and blindingly white linen sheets. Two pillows were upon it. A portable cabinet had been set up and a mirror in a gilt frame was on the wall above it. The envoy's shaving things were stowed in the pockets provided for them—the Turk had been to sea before and knew that everything needed to be secured so that it would not go rolling around. A carpet of green and gold was on the floor and cushions were stacked in a corner. The lamp hanging from the deckhead was bronze work of Oriental delicacy. In short it seemed to Thorton that he must be staring into an Ottoman harem. He was quite dazzled.

Achmed had no trouble recognizing his room once the door was open. He stepped inside. "Come in, come in. Have a seat. I'm afraid I have no divan to offer you, but take a cushion."

Thorton stepped onto the carpet and remained stiffly standing. "I am on duty, your excellency. What can I do for you, sir?"

Achmed was opening his cabinet and producing a bottle of ruby red wine and a gold cup. "Wine?"

"No thank you, sir."

If Achmed was taken aback by a man who refused the opportunity to enjoy Oriental luxury when given the chance, he showed no signs of it. He looked over the man's shabby coat and found it at odds with his demeanor which was correct to exactitude. "Have you ever been to Brest, Mr. Thorton?"

"Aye, sir."

Achmed looked at him for further information. None was forthcoming. "Yes?" he encouraged the English officer. Thorton nodded. No sound passed his lips. Achmed had to make his request explicit, but as was his nature, did not ask it straight out. "I have never been to Brest myself. I wonder if you could acquaint me with any details about it."

"When my other duties are completed, I would be happy to do so, sir."

An officer that would rather work than satisfy his own curiosity about an important guest was a novelty. Achmed was accustomed to being stared at and whispered about, queried and laughed at, secretly or openly. He knew exactly what an exotic bird he was to English eyes and was pleased to use it to his advantage. He held the cup of wine in his hand, still smiling. "You should try this Madeira. It is excellent."

"Thank you, sir. I look forward to supping with your excellency." He made no move to take the wine.

Achmed was not one to force a battle he couldn't win. He inclined his head graciously and gestured. "I look forward to getting to know you better. It is going to be a long trip. We should be on comfortable terms, yes?"

"Very good, sir. If you don't need me . . . " Thorton bowed, stepped out, and shut the door behind him. 'A long trip?' France was merely across the Channel.


  1. A nice touch, if I may say so, to have Peter described through Achmed's eyes rather than directly by the narrator, and to save that description until the fourth chapter, after we have had a chance to form our own impression of Peter.

    The idea of a wardroom with stern-windows on such a small frigate seems unusual, but perhaps we are to suppose that she was built according to one of Fredrik af Chapman's designs in his 'Architectura Navalis'; many of these show even smaller vessels with two tiers of stern-windows.

  2. I'm glad you're enjoying the book and that you've taken a moment to drop me a line. Chatting with readers is the pleasure that rewards the pain of going through the publishing process.

    As for the Ajax -- you have nailed it. She is indeed based on a Chapman frigate. Many readers assume the story is set in the same time period as more famous naval fictions, but it is not. It is mid-18th century. Thus Chapman & Falconer are essential resources.

    That being said, it is a work of fiction. All the 'history' is completely imaginary.