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Hoare and the Headless Captains: A Maritime Mystery Featuring Captain Bartholomew Hoareby Wilder Perkins
TWENTY MILES to the south, Bartholomew Hoare, cruising in his pinnace in the Channel, knew he had bungled, and bungled badly. The sudden gust laid Neglectful nearly on her beam ends, to the ugly tune of crashing crockery in the cuddy below. There was no escaping it; he had misjudged the rate at which the weather to seaward would degenerate and the westerly storm strike the Channel. As a result, he and Neglectful were about to experience a very nasty October gale. He wasted no more time but brought her to the wind, reduced sail to a storm jib and a corner of mainsail, then hove her to and went below to lash down all the gear he could, wedge unlashable items securely, and pad everything breakable that had not already broken.
Remembering what had happened once last autumn, when he had neglected this precaution, he lidded tight the hod of cannel coal he kept for his galley stove. He lashed it to the side of Neglectfuls mast away from the stove itself. He would not have gritty black chunks and slurries fouling the cuddy again for months, not if he could help it. He put on his precious suit of Dutch foul weather gear, took two turns of line around ankles and wrists, pulled the suits visored hood over his head, and fitted to his body a canvas harness well equipped with D rings from which depended short lengths of line ending in pelican hooks.
Just as he was about to double-secure the pinnaces cuddy hatch, he remembered something else. He reached back below, took up a towel, a jug, and a bag of biscuits. With one last look below to satisfy himself that Neglectfuls innards were as snug as he could make them, he finished securing the hatch.
Neglectful was moving slowly but well. She rid herself easily of the seas from the west that were already sluicing across her deck and made a comfortable two knots nearly directly due south. Hoare could imagine she was looking forward to their mutual ordeal.
As it roared heavily across her larboard bow, the wind carried the spray down Neglectfuls modest length. Hoare could swear that most of it was directed at his head and shoulders while he sat at her tiller, nursing her along. Wind and spray dropped for a moment whenever a rogue sea took her under its wing and put her under its lee before sweeping her skyward, leaving her exposed once more and rushing on toward its end. Hoare guessed the wave would crash ashore somewhere near Pevensey.
Whenever the seas passed beneath the yacht, lifting her into the wind, she felt the weight of the gale more deeply, and her moments of respite in the combers lee began to become more welcome to Hoare. Depending on whether Neglectful was riding a crest or cowering in a trough, the gale either howled in her exiguous shrouds or moaned emptily above her reeling mast.
This blow was no squall. At this rate, it would build for the next six hours or so, hold for another four, and then pass on to bludgeon Bonapartes Frogs. Or so Hoare judged. But considering his failure to predict the strength of this blow, he had to doubt himself more than usual. It might be no more than four hours before he could safely fall off and run down, home to Portsmouth. It might be fourteen hours. Objectively, Hoare knew that this weather was nothing, but . . . in a twenty-six-foot boat, alone, at his age, surely he should be anxious—or, failing that, proud.
He wondered in passing if this blunder of his had not been intentional. Perhaps he had been trying to tell the world that he, Bartholomew Hoare, Lieutenant, RN, might be forty-three, mute, and beached forever by the Admiralty, but that, when face-to-face with Nature in the raw, he was any mans equal. Perhaps he was seeking an excuse to take shelter in Weymouth, where he could continue his suit for the hand of the widow Graves. In any case, he and Neglectful were in for a long watch together. He made his lanky, brown, silent self as snug in her cockpit as he could under the circumstances and hooked his harness into the eyebolts set into the coaming. The tiller under one arm and his bag of provisions at his feet, he let his memory take him four days back, to when Admiral Hardcastle broke the news.
“Now, as to Royal Duke.” Rear Admiral Sir George Hardcastle, KB, paused to await Hoares reaction.
That afternoon, Sir George wore his own hair, as he commonly did except on formal occasions. It was stone gray, cut short, and formed into a bang over his forehead in the fashionable Brutus cut. Brute he was often called, in fact, and he enjoyed the appellation, for he sought the reputation of being a grim and a merciless man.
To a large extent he had succeeded. Reputations too numerous to mention had been destroyed at his hand, leaving their owners—junior officers for the most part, but a sprinkling of Commanders and Post Captains as well—bereft, dangling more or less helpless on half-pay. Irrespective of whatever interest they might have, it collapsed when Sir George Hardcastle turned his adamantine will upon it.
“Royal Duke, sir?” Hoare remembered his Admirals having once made passing mention of her and her late Commander—Ogilvy, if he remembered, or some such name. Oglethorpe, that was the name. What had Royal Duke to do with Hoare in any case, or he with her?
“Yes. Admiralty yacht, now lying in Greenwich. A hundred tons or so, brig-rigged. Eight brass four-pounders. Crew of thirty, more or less.”
Hardly fit to stand in the line of battle, Hoare thought. And undermanned for even that trivial armament.
“She never takes the sea,” Sir George had continued, “but rests in her home port, almost like a receiving ship.
“In fact, in some respects, she is a receiving ship, and in other respects a manufactory. For, you must know, Royal Duke serves the Navy as a mobile secret information bureau whose people maintain copies of all files relating to the efforts of foreign powers—Frenchmen for the most part, of course, but Swedens, Dutchmen, even Russians, Yankees, and Turks as well—to damage and defeat the Royal Navy by means of stealth.
“Pour me a glass, sir, and help yourself.”
When he wished, as he did now, Sir George Hardcastle, Rear Admiral of the Blue, could address his listeners as if they were the House.
“She also includes a small corps,” the Admiral continued, “who are charged with defeating, frustrating, and foiling the enemys knavish tricks. This corps have not yet been put to the use for which they were intended, and Admiral Abercrombie has decided, among other things, that this must be remedied. Most of her crew are actually half clerk or assassin and half seaman, if that. All can read and write, though I am told tis hard to credit of some. Thus, she is manned in quite an unusual manner, as you are about to discover.”
Here the Admiral had interrupted his discourse again, ostensibly to take refreshment but actually, Hoare suspected, to appraise his listeners reaction. He avoided making any but waited with suppressed amusement. Finally, Sir George grew tired of waiting.
“For you appear, sir,” he went on, “to be well regarded in certain Whitehall corridors, as one of those experts in your own right. I imagine they believe you largely responsible for breaking up that gang that was blowing up so many of His Majestys ships. Those affairs of Severns missing Master and that Bourbon Duke also stand to your credit. Accordingly, Their Lordships of the Admiralty have been pleased to put you into Royal Duke.”
I am to go to sea again! Hoare cried to himself. To be sure, with a company of only thirty, Royal Duke could hardly support more than one Lieutenant, but even so, he would, under his commanding officer, of course, once again be an officer of a fighting ship. Or, more probably, he would be a mere supernumerary, one of those experts the Admiral had mentioned, though precisely where they thought his expertise might lie eluded him. Just the same . . . to be at sea again!
“Of course,” the Admiral went on, “you could hardly expect to fill poor Oglethorpes shoes in every respect. After all, he was a Post Captain, seventy-five years of age, and wise in the ways of the ungodly. No. The best rank I—Their Lordships, I mean—have seen fit to bestow upon you is that of Master and Commander. You will read yourself in as soon as she makes Portsmouth from her present berth in Greenwich under the temporary command of her Lieutenant.”
Hoare had simply sat there, bereft of words. Together, those three words Master and Commander put teeth into his new commission. His title was to be more than nominal: Commander was an appellation often used to recognize deserving Lieutenants who thereafter languished on half-pay for lack of an actual vessel to command. He was to be “Master and Commander,” on active service, confirmed in command of his own vessel. He was only three-and-forty now; with luck, he would make post after all before he died, despite his disabilities of name and voice.
“While you will be Master and Commander in actuality,” said Sir George, thereby figuratively nailing Hoares rank to the mast of advancement, “you are not, yourself”—here he paused and read from a paper before him—“ ‘expected to issue spoken orders with respect to the working of the vessel under your command. Instead, you may give instructions to your Lieutenant, who in his turn will order the crew as conditions require.
“In other words, in all circumstances where your lack of a voice would endanger Royal Duke, her mission, or her men, your Lieutenant will be—to coin a phrase—your executive officer. That will, of course, almost always be the case on deck and under way. You know that as well as I.
“However,” Sir George added, “the case is hypothetical. Royal Duke can sail, but she must not sail. Lest she be taken by the French, secrets and all, she must never go to sea. ‘This is the first and great commandment. ”
Hoare nodded. It was his crushed voice box that had cut short a promising career at sea and put him ashore—forever, as he had believed for ten years and more. Well, half a loaf . . . To all intents and purposes, Royal Duke might as well be a mere idle hulk, but she would be his, his to command.
“The arrangement is unprecedented, sir,” Sir George continued. “It demonstrates a highly unusual degree of trust on the part of Their Lordships in your ability to, er, navigate, so to speak, the uncharted waters on which you are about to embark. It will require an especially high level of mutual trust and accommodation between yourself and your Lieutenant. However, I reassure you that your command is not merely pro forma. It is de facto as well.”
Sir George paused again, this time to admire his own mastery of Latin.
“And de jure, of course,” he added triumphantly. Sir George was an accomplished and articulate flag officer as well as a grim and a merciless man, but, as Hoare knew, had gone to sea at nine and even as a midshipman had never sailed under the instruction of either a schoolmaster or a chaplain. An officer of the old school, he was more comfortable with action than discourse. Perversely, in Hoares opinion, this inclined Sir George all the more to parade whatever classical crumbs he might have gathered up from under the tables of more learned men. It might also explain his excursions into periphrastic orotundity.
“In short, the duties of Master in Royal Duke will be assumed in practice, as a rule, by your First Lieutenant.”
“May I ask, sir, who my Lieutenant is to be?” Hoare whispered.
“You may ask, sir, but you will receive no answer. I exercise my privilege of being irritating to my subordinates whenever I choose. Let you reveal yourself to the man, and he to you, when you read yourself in.
“I can state, however, that I briefly entertained the name of Peter Gladden, who, as you will remember, was your colleague in defense of Mr. Arthur Gladdens recent court-martial. However, I chose to leave him in Frolic.”
Hoare thought he could guess the reason. Peter Gladden was openly enamored of Sir Georges daughter, and Felicia was known to reciprocate. Her papa the Admiral had given evidence that he did not oppose the connection; Mr. Gladdens parents were both wellborn and wealthy, and since Felicia, however good-hearted she was, was dumpy, spotty, and lacking in presence, he would be hard put to it to find a better match for the young woman. But, as prudent in his role of pater familias as in his position of Port Admiral at Portsmouth, Sir George had probably determined to separate the lovers for a spell before approving the union. Thus, any second thoughts on the part of either young person would have a chance to surface before it was too late altogether to cry off.
“Since your appointment will appear in the forthcoming Chronicle,” the Admiral continued, “I give you leave to christen it as you please without necessarily waiting to read yourself in. You cannot draw your pay as Commander, of course, until Royal Duke has made port and that ceremony has come to pass.”
That was true, Hoare knew. Neglectfuls former owner had fallen into that trap. When the brief Peace of Amiens had been signed with Napoleon, Their Lordships had refused to confirm him in rank and required him to restore every penny of his Commanders pay. Until the weary war had resumed, the poor man had had to scrape along on nothing except his winnings at whist and Hoares payment for Neglectful.
“That will be all for today, then, Hoare,” said Sir George with a wintry smile. “Go, make holiday; make merry. Put yourself in proper uniform, and wet your swab as you see fit.”
Hoare was about to relive the christening of his swab, an occasion that, in keeping with the celebrants advanced age, included Sir George himself and as many Post Captains and senior civilians as it did sprightly Lieutenants and therefore resembled a gathering of stately, convivial walruses. But a gust bore a sheet of cold October rain across Neglectful, and she heeled another strake. Hoare shook himself back to the present. He lifted himself stiffly, to scan the full horizon, first to windward and then, ducking under the boom and its straining trysail, to leeward.
Directly on Neglectfuls lee beam, tossing in the squall that had just passed overhead, a two-masted vessel emerged from the blowing rain. One mast was canted against the other; from both streamed the remnants of sails and rigging. As Hoare watched, the stranger was obscured by a fountain of spray, reappearing to show only a single mast remaining upright.
Timing his maneuver to coincide with the lee offered by an oncoming sea, Hoare eased both sheets and edged Neglectful eastward, off the wind. Trysail and storm jib, which had been straining before, were now pressed to their utmost, and her double backstays hummed in the following gale. Neglectful heaved, nearly pitchpoling, but gained her stride and rushed down the wind, the stranger growing in Hoares vision as the two vessels neared. Another sea lifted between the two craft, reached the other, and hoisted her skyward as it passed under her, to reveal her condition more clearly.
It was perilous. Both masts—she had carried two lugsails, apparently—were over the side now, and she drifted, waterlogged and rolling heavily, bows-on to the seas, the wreckage of her top-hamper serving as sea anchor.
The floating wreck was less than a cables length to leeward when she released a flock of birds. Hoare blinked in disbelief. Yes, they were birds, indeed, and no seabirds. They formed a confused cloud, seemed to veer upwind toward Neglectful, then gave over and let the gale carry them scudding off out of Hoares sight.
Long since, Hoare had distinguished her people. There were two of them, clinging to the stumps of her masts so as to withstand the seas that were washing over their vessel. Both were waving frantically with their free hands, as though they must make absolutely, totally, utterly sure that Hoare saw them and knew their distress. He was close enough now to hear their faint cries, even against the gale.
This would call for his best seamanship. Neglectful closed the gap between herself and the wreck at a full ten knots, heaving and bucking in the scend of the following seas as if she were a wild mare. At top speed, Hoare lashed the helm lest she broach to while he occupied himself with the rescue. As they passed, Neglectful and the stranger would present their larboard sides.
Hoare snatched up a grapnel to which he had long ago spliced a light dock line and clambered forward into Neglectfuls eyes. Shifting the clips of his harness onto her forestay, he stood erect, whirled the grapnel in a circle, and let it fly. Before the grapnel could even strike its target, he had dropped the line into a bronze chock, taken a turn, and braced himself.
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