Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 7 : The Coast of Cherbourg

Thorton returned to the small cabin he shared with Perry. He didn't know what to say and he was holding a very fine hat. Perry looked at him in surprise. "Where did that come from?" He was fully dressed which relieved both of them.

"Achmed gave it to me to compensate for turning me out of my cabin."

"Say, that was damned decent of him. The hat is nice, too. Have you tried it on?" So Thorton put it on his head. He had to bend his knees to keep from mashing the hat against the deckhead. "Zounds! You look positively dapper!"

A knock sounded on the door. Thorton opened it and the blackamoor handed him a triangular tin. It was the hat storage box. 

Thorton said, "Thank you. My compliments to Mr. Achmed." He shut the door.

Perry laughed. "You should see your face."

"I'm having a very strange day."

"You certainly are." There was a pregnant pause. "Look here. We're still friends, right? Your personal affairs are your personal affairs. I certainly won't say anything to anyone."

Relief flooded through Thorton and he sagged. He put a hand against the wall. "Thank you," he said with great feeling.

"Well then, no more of that. Best put your fine hat and coat away to save for the right occasion." 

That was a practical action to take, so Thorton opened the tin, packed the hat in its tissue paper, and put it away under the bunk. He folded the coat and stowed in carefully in his sea chest. He cheered up thinking that he had both a new coat and a new hat and was still friends with Perry. Then there was a sudden scramble of feet overhead and the cry of 'Land ho!" came down to them.

"Grab your sou'wester, we're going out!" Perry scrambled into his sea boots and Thorton got out his oilskin.

Arriving on deck they discovered land in the offing. It was quite sunny on the shores of France while it was drizzling and dripping in the English Channel. The idlers congregated at the rail. The crowd included lieutenants and midshipmen as well. They continued to approach the coast and the French fishermen looked up from their nets and shielded their eyes. It stopped raining but water kept splattering down as the sails dripped. Achmed came out dressed in an oiled robe with a hood over his head. They changed course to parallel the coast. Headlands passed and they saw whitewashed cottages with thatch roofs clustered at the edge of the water: fishing villages. The bucolic scene continued throughout the afternoon. As the sun slid down the western sky fish-boats started heading home. By evening the Ajax had raised Cap Lévy and the town of Cherbourg come into view. 

Cherbourg was a decent harbor, made better by French moles and forts, and worse by English bombardment during the late war. The French were at work rebuilding the mole damaged by the English. It was a substantial improvement over the old one. It formed a long causeway that protected the harbor from the northeastern waves. There had been many windmills on the old mole on account of the constant wind, but they had been reduced to rubble by the English assault. The rubble was now being used to fill in the enlarged embankment.

"Hoist the colors," Captain Bishop ordered. The sight of the British ensign must have alarmed the townsfolk. "Take us in." The sailing master gave directions and Perry and Thorton were pleased to be idle watchers as Forsythe gave orders. They remembered the last time they had been here.

Perry pointed. "Look. That is where the Dauntless grappled the Martinique."

"And the Hermes under Horner came to our rescue. I admit, I was pleased to see her."

Perry laughed. "You were formidable that day. I think the men were more afraid of you than the French!"

"Do not tease me about it!" Thorton objected.

"You made lieutenant, didn't you? And you never tell the story, not even when you are drunk."

"I don't get drunk."

"You should." 

"Besides, the Dauntless went down anyhow. That is not the sort of thing to brag about."

"But you saved me and some other men from drowning when it did."

Thorton was uneasy with praise. "You would have done the same for me."

"I can't swim! I couldn't have done it."

It was not a difficult thing to enter a harbor in the late afternoon with a steady wind and a broad channel. The hands were at the head with lead lines, calling the bottom as the Ajax eased into the channel. Fish-boats parted and hugged the shores to either side to let the frigate pass. Suddenly a cry went up, "Line fouled!"

Then there was a series of thuds and scrapes along the bottom. Thorton was amused and sorry for the officers on duty. Cherbourg was a deep harbor, but they'd managed to find shoals anyhow. Then there was a sudden hard thump that jolted them on their feet and they grabbed the rail.

"Balls, that's bad," Thorton said.

"Back sails! Fall off!" Bishop roared. "Damn it, Mr. Blakesley! Aren't you minding your way?"

Blakesley was the unhappy sailing master. "I am, sir. The channel's supposed to be eighteen fathoms deep! The chart must be in error!"

Many hands, Thorton and Perry included, were peering over the side. The water was murky, but there was a line of something in the water. A log . . . no, a mast. 

"My god. The Dauntless!" Thorton exclaimed. He turned to Bishop, "Sir, there's a wreck in the channel!" 

Bishop swore again. "Damn ye, I said BACK SAIL, ye foul lot of teagues! Riley, mind your business, and cane the laggards!" His stentorian bellow carried the length of the ship. Properly motivated by threat and insult, the foretop hands backed the sail and the rotation of the vessel slowed a little.

Bishop bellowed again. "Mr. Forsythe! Take the launch and set the stream anchor. Take Mr. Chambers. Teach him the importance of not swinging our stern like a doxy. Mr. Thorton! Take the pinnace and Mr. Maynard. Show him how to set a kedge off the larboard bow." With the wind blowing from the north they could not sail off. Worse, the stern continued drifting forward, causing the ship to slowly pivot on the wreck. 

The captain continued issuing orders. "Mr. Perry, you will supervise the warp. Smartly, men, smartly!" 

"Aye aye, sir!" came the various replies. They moved quickly to their posts, bawling orders as they went. "Kedge detail on deck! MacDonald! Forsythe! Chambers! Maynard! Prepare the launch! Prepare the pinnace! Hands to the capstan! Hands to the hawse!" 

MacDonald piped up the boatswain's mates and sent one to each of the boats and another to the capstan. The launch was launched and the crew climbed into it, Thorton followed them down the ladder to drop into the pinnace as it came along side. They waited for the kedge anchor to be brought to them. Although it was nowhere near as big as the bower anchors, it was not a trifling object, and the hands had to wrestle it forward. It took a few moments to run the cable out through the hawse-hole, then bend it back and bind it to the ring at the top of the stock. That done, it was carefully lowered over the side. The men received it into the boat. "Haul away easy."

Thorton repeated to his men, "Haul away easy." They began to row away from the Ajax. Thorton took his bearings and told the mate, "Make for that windmill on the shore. Handsomely lads, handsome does it." The men rowed slowly and the line was paid out. 

Thorton ran out far enough and waited. He asked Maynard, "Have you ever kedged?" 

Maynard shook his head. Blond curls flopped over his shoulders and gleamed in the French sun. "Not personally, but I've seen it done. We were aground on the Fair Banks in the Courage last year." 

On board it was Perry's job to supervise the anchor cables and capstan. They had to wait a while as the stream anchor—a much larger beast than the kedge—was lowered gently into the launch and rowed away. It disappeared beyond the stern. 

Bishop bellowed orders from the quarterdeck, then Perry's voice came across the water, "Heave!" The men relied, "Ho!" The boatswain's pipe pulsed with short rising notes, setting the rhythm for the haul. Chanteys were not permitted in the British navy; the boatswain set the pace with his call. As the men worked the capstan, the stern pulled on the anchor. The cable tightened and the anchor bit into the sea bottom, and slowly the stern was dragged back towards the north.

Bishop shouted, "Mr. Thorton, are you ready!"

Thorton stood and yelled back, "Ready on kedge, sir!" 

Bishop broke out into a stream of invective and the heaving of the hawser stopped. Perry must have run into a complication with the cable. The men in the boat waited. Thorton stayed alert; he did not want to be found deficient in any way. His own self-respect required it. He was still smarting from the emotional turmoil of the afternoon, but there in the boat with work to do and the sun shining on the water he was rather glad he hadn't killed himself. What a fool he had been to think such melodramatic thoughts! Still, he felt a bit wobbly inside.

The matter on board was sorted out, and the stern was warped a little further. Finally Bishop bellowed, "Kedge away!"

Thorton rechecked everything, then relayed the order to his own hands. "Down anchor!" Down it went with a splash. He watched it go, then commanded, "Out oars. Take us two fathoms off." Once the boat was clear, he sang out, "Kedge away!"

 The capstan creaked and the boat slowly pulled off the obstacle. There was a loud scraping noise and the hull shivered once or twice, then suddenly the hawser went slack and the capstan spun as the men were spilled on deck by the sudden loss of traction. There was profanity on board, and he could hear both Perry and Bishop cursing. The boatswain's pipe shrilled belay.

Bishop screamed, "You said the kedge was set, Mr. Thorton!" 

Thorton pressed his hand to his brow. How could he know the kedge had not bitten until they hauled the line? It was certainly not his fault it had pulled loose from the bottom. Anchors did that. It was not at all unusual to have to reset an anchor.

"Your pardon, sir!" Thorton called back.

On deck the men righted themselves. The kedge was hauled up, the boatswain's pipe recalled the boat. They rowed in and received the kedge again. 

Perry looked over at him. "Ready?"

"Aye aye, sir."

"Let the line run," he heard Perry tell his work gang. Again the pipes passed the order.

Thorton said, "Out oars. Row, men." Once more they rowed away. Once more the kedge was dropped and the capstan worked. He heard the heave-ho on board, the ship scraped a little more, then suddenly glided free. 

"She's clear!" he shouted.

Perry looked over, word was passed, and the boat return was piped. Thorton ordered his men to give wide berth to the anchor rising up. He thought he spotted something unnatural below the waterline of the larboard side, but it was difficult to discern through the murky water. He didn't dare come in too close while they were getting the kedge up, so he said, "Let's go around the other side." They did, he came up the starboard ladder.

"Mr. Thorton!" Bishop roared. Thorton hurried to the quarterdeck and saluted. "And what do you think you were doing skylarking at a time like this?"

"Begging your pardon. I was inspecting the hull, sir."

Bishop screamed until his face was red. "THAT IS THE CAPTAIN'S PREROGATIVE YOU INSOLENT WHELP! Six stripes of the cane before sunset tonight! Your behavior has been entirely SLACK today!"

"I'm a commissioned officer! You can't beat me!"

Those were not the words to ameliorate the captain's temper. "I CAN and I WILL! I will teach you a LESSON for your impudence! I will have ORDER and OBEDIENCE on my vessel!"

Thorton's face fell. "Aye aye, sir," he said woodenly.

Bishop was beside himself. "It is my duty. MY DUTY! And you, running off with my boat to prevent me from carrying out my duty!" 

There was nothing that he could say that would help. "I'm sorry, sir." 

"SILENCE! I'll deal with you when I get back. Go to your cabin."

"Aye aye, sir."

So the captain went over the side into the launch and inspected the hull for himself. When he came back aboard he said, "All is well." 

Perry had finished getting the anchor up. The great ship, finding herself balked by the wreck, moved abreast of the mole that was being rebuilt and anchored there. Thorton was worried. He put his head out of his cabin door but didn't dare leave. When he saw the wardroom steward, Humphrey by name, he inquired, "Are we holed?" The man assured him that all was well. "Quietly tell Mr. Perry I want to see him, please." 

Perry came back from supervising the stowing of the boat and stuck his head in. "Hullo. You're having quite the day, aren't you?" he said cheerfully.

"Are we holed?"

"Captain Bishop says no. Why?"

"I think I saw something in the larboard bow, but I couldn't be sure. Will you check the cable tier, just to give me peace of mind?"

"The boatswain's making an inspection now."


Perry returned to the deck. A few minutes later word was passed to Bishop, "Boatswain says we're taking water in the cable locker, sir."

Bishop was angry again. "I'll inspect it myself. You young idiots couldn't tell bilgewater from your own piss." He stormed down from the quarterdeck. MacDonald and his mate were moving cable and had found the source of the leak. They touched forelocks respectfully.

"As I thought. Bilgewater."

"No, sir. A hole." The boatswain was standing in water up to his ankles.

"What! We didn't hit that hard."

"No, sir. But we ran onto a spar from the wreck and it punched a hole in the bottom. Water's coming through. The hole is about so big." He mimed four inches by two inches with his hands.

Bishop swore. "And that rascal Thorton delayed me in my inspection. This could have been caught sooner."

MacDonald stared at him. "Aye aye, sir." The captain hadn't spotted it; the bosun had found it during the routine inspection. He really didn't see how it could possibly be Thorton's fault. But it wasn't his place to say so. "I'll need the carpenter, sir."

"Pass the word, Mr. Chambers."

As leaks went it was minor and was soon mended. In the meantime, the call of all hands on deck was piped and the order was passed. A marine came to the wardroom and escorted Thorton out on to the weather deck where the grating had become a permanent fixture. 

Forsythe called, "All hands to witness punishment." He wore his dress uniform with its white facings. With calm water his seasickness had subsided and he was no longer green.

Bishop stood before them and in his abominably loud voice, informed them, "Mr. Thorton has willfully usurped his superior officer's authority by taking the launch on a tour of inspection, thereby delaying his captain in the execution of his duties and endangering the safety of the vessel. He is hereby sentenced to twelve lashes of the cane."

Thorton groaned inwardly. There were no arguments on this vessel, no careful considerations of additional evidence or mitigating circumstances. He handed his hat and coat to Humphrey to hold, then his waistcoat, stock and shirt. Stripped to the waist he took his place before the grating. 

"Prepare to receive your just punishment, Mr. Thorton." Bishop's voice was spiteful.

Thorton leaned forward and grabbed the grating. He set his jaw resolutely. The cane whistled down. MacDonald was a philosophical sort and set about thrashing him. Even if Thorton didn't deserve to be caned for delaying the captain's inspection, he probably deserved to be caned for something. Young men always did. The first red welt laid across his back, then another, and another. McDonald worked methodically until Thorton had twelve welts crisscrossing his back. It stung like hell but the blond lieutenant pressed his face against his forearms and didn't cry out. He comforted himself with the thought that this didn't hurt nearly as bad as the humiliation of revealing his secret to Perry. But it hurt enough. Finally it was over and he was allowed upright.

The caning had restored Bishop's good humor. "Let this be a lesson to you not to overstep your bounds, young man." 

"Aye aye, sir," Thorton replied mechanically.

Bishop inspected his back. "Ha. That's nothing. Get dressed and report for duty."

Thorton pulled his thin white jersey over his torso, grimacing a little as the fabric scraped across the welts. Some of them were bleeding. Well, it wasn't the first shirt he'd ruined in naval service. He pulled his linen shirt over top of it and buttoned it up, then carefully redid his stock. Humphrey helped him into his coat and handed him his hat. 

"Sir," he saluted Bishop.

The captain replied. "You know the quarter bill. To your place."

"Aye aye, sir." He did know. This was his watch to be off. He wasn't due on until midnight. Apparently Bishop did not know the quarter bill. His lieutenants had it memorized. Thorton marched aft.

Achmed was standing in the back of the officers and off to the side, arms crossed over his chest. Thorton never looked at him, just passed him by and descended the ladder to the wardroom. 

Captain Bishop said, "Dismiss hands, Mr. Forsythe."

Forsythe shouted, "Dismissed!" 

The hands went their various ways. Naturally Thorton was a topic of conversation. "Initiative doesn't pay on this boat." Achmed overheard it. No, he thought to himself, it certainly doesn't. He would have to befriend Thorton. Surely resentment against his treatment would make him receptive to Achmed's blandishments.

Bishop had reports to write so he went to his cabin. The sailing master recorded the punishment in his log. Perry was off duty so he came to check on his friend. Thorton was lying on his stomach his seachest, still dressed.

Perry spoke softly. "Let's get you cleaned up." His hands were gentle as he helped the miserable lieutenant ease off the coat and bloody shirt. Salt water stung, but Perry got his friend's back cleaned up, then washed Thorton's jersey in the bucket. "I got the bloodstains out before they set," he told him.

"Are we holed?"

"Little one. Boatswain found it on routine inspection. 'Tis fixed now." Thorton grunted. "Move over." 

Thorton scooted next over next to the bulwark. Perry sat down next to him. "About earlier. When I said I'm fond of you, I meant I love you like a brother as Christ commanded us. I'm an orphan. You're like family to me."

Thorton smiled a little. He rolled onto his side and winced. "I don't have a brother, either. Well, I have a stepbrother, but that hardly counts."

Perry clasped his hand. "Brothers then?"

"Aye, brothers," Thorton replied. He could live with that. It gave his heart some ease. With that he was able to close his eyes and rest a little. 


  1. Instead of "the launch was launched", how 'bout "the launch was lowered"? Or was this 'echo' intentional?

  2. And instead of "the crew climbed into it", suggesting that they are ascending, "the crew tumbled into it", with the suggestion of descent.