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Revelation (Matthew Shardlake Mysteries)by C J Sansom
We would strike the rocks, the ship would break apart, and we would all
drown. Of this, I was certain.
His Majestys ship the Happy Restoration was beating up to Kinsale
harbour, into the teeth of a hard northerly gale that had blown up with
sudden, unforgiving fury. We had weathered the Old Head, somehow
avoided smashing ourselves to pieces on Hake Head, and were now
edging toward the chops of the harbour mouth itself. Vast seas drove
the ship every way at once, the timbers screaming against the waters
that sought to tear them apart.
On the quarterdeck, we three men tried desperately to keep our feet,
clinging to whatever stood fast, fighting the bitter and freezing Irish
rain that drove straight into our faces. There was the ships master, John
Aldred, splendidly confident in his ability to bring us safe to anchor, as
drunk as Bacchus after a rough night in Southwark. There was the best
of his masters mates, Kit Farrell, my own age, watching the shore and
the sails and the rigging with a strange dread in his eyes. And there stood
I, or tried to stand, clinging desperately to a part of the ship I could
scarce, in my fright and inexperience, have named if called upon to do
so. Matthew Quinton, aged twenty-one, captain of his Majestys ship.
Strange as it sounds, the prospect of my imminent demise was almost
less dreadful to me than the prospect of surviving. Survival would mean
having to report to my superiors that we had spectacularly missed our
rendezvous with the Virginia and Barbados merchant fleets, which we
were meant to escort to the Downs in that year of grace 1661. They
were probably still out in the endless ocean, or sunk by the weather, or
the French, or the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the corsairs, or the ghost
A torrent of spray ended my aimless reflections in time for me to hear
Aldreds latest pronouncement. ‘Be not afraid, Captain! Plenty of sea
room, if we tack but shortly. Th is breeze will die from the west as fast as
it sprang up, as God is my judge.
Aldreds eyes were glazed, not from the salt spray that stung us mercilessly,
but from too much victuallers ale and bad port wine. Kit Farrell
moved behind him, braced himself against a huge wave, reached me and
shouted above the roar of the sea, ‘Captain, hes mistaken - if we try to
tack now, well strike on the rocks for certain - we shouldnt have had so
much sail still aloft, not even in the wind as it was . . .
But the tempest relented as he spoke, just a little, and a shout that
Aldred would never have heard before now carried to his ears as clear as
day. The old man turned and glowered at Farrell.
‘Damn, Master Farrell, and what do you know of it? he cried. ‘How
many times have you brought ships home into Kinsale haven, in far worse
than this? We would have the Prince Royal next, I feared. ‘Dont you know
I first went to sea on the Prince Royal, back in the year Thirteen, taking the
Princess Elizabeth over to Holland for her marriage? Near fifty years ago,
Mister Farrell! And next it would be Drake. ‘Dont you know I learned my
trade under men whod sailed with Drake? Drake himself! And last would
come the Armada: Aldreds drunken litany of self-regard was almost as
predictable as dusk succeeding dawn. ‘Blood of Christ, Ive messed with
men who were in the Armada fight. So damn me, Master Farrell, I know
my business! I know the pilotage of Kinsale better than most men alive,
I know how to bring us through a mere lively breeze like this, and God
strike me down if I dont! And as an afterthought, as the wind and the
spray rose once more, he leaned over to me, gave me a full measure of
beer-vapour breath, and said, ‘Begging your pardon, Captain Quinton.
I was too fearful to give any sort of pardon, or to remind Aldred
yet again that my grandfather had also fought the Armada, and sailed
with Drake to boot. Drake was the most vain and obnoxious man he
ever knew, my grandfather said. After himself, that is, my mother would
The ever-strengthening wind struck us in full force once more,
snatching a man off the cross-beam that those who knew of such things
called the foretopsail yard. He flailed his arms against the mighty gale,
and for the briefest of moments it looked as though he had fulfilled the
dream of the ancients, and achieved flight. Then the wind drove him
into the next great wave bearing down on us, and he was gone. All the
while, Farrell and Aldred traded insults about reefs and courses, irons
and stays, all of it the language of the Moon to my ears.
Kit Farrell started to rage. ‘Damn yourself to hell, Aldred, youll kill
us all! He turned to me. ‘Captain, for Gods sake, order him to bear
away! Weve too little sea room, for all of Aldreds bluster. If we brade
up close all our sails and lie at try with our main course, then we can
run back into open sea, or make along the coast for the Cove of Cork or
Milford. Easier harbours in a northerly, Captain!
Uncertainty covered me like a shroud. ‘Our orders are for Kinsale—
‘Sir, not at the risk of endangering the ship!
Still I hesitated. Aldred began to snap his orders through a speaking
trumpet. After eight months at sea, four of them in command of this
ship, I was now vaguely aware of the theory and practice of tacking. I
remembered Aldreds tipsy and relatively patient explanation. No ship
can sail right into the wind, Captain, nor more than six points on either side
of it. To go towards the wind, you must sail on diagonals. Like a comb, sir,
like the teeth of a comb. Make your way up the teeth to the head of the comb.
I had seen it done often enough, but never in wind that came straight
from the flatulence of hells own bowels.
Kit Farrell watched the men on the masts and the yards as they
battled equally with those few of our sails that were not yet reefed, as
they said, and to preserve themselves from the fate of their shipmate,
our Icarus. Between the huge waves that struck me and pulled me and
blinded me and knocked the breath out of me, I looked on helplessly
at the activity about the ship. I could see only sodden men taking in
and letting out sodden canvas in a random fashion. Farrell, bred at
sea since he was nine, saw a different scene. ‘Too slow, Captain - the
winds come on too strong, and too fast - too many raw men, too
much sail aloft even for a better crew to take in or reef in time - and
the ships too old, too crank—
The spray and rain eased for a moment. I saw the black shore of
County Cork, so much closer than it had been a minute before. Waves
that were suddenly as high as our masts broke themselves on the rocks
with a dreadful roaring. I ran my hand through my drenched and
thinning hair, for both hat and periwig were long lost to the wind.
Aldred was slurring a mixture of oaths and orders, the former rapidly
outweighing the latter. Farrell turned to me again, his face red
from whip-lashes of rain. ‘Captain, well strike for sure - we cant
make the tack, not now - order him to bear away, sir, in the name of
I opened my mouth, and closed it. I was captain, and could overrule
the master. But I knew next to nothing of the sea. The master controlled
the movement of the ship and set its course. John Aldred was one
of the most experienced masters in the navy. I knew nothing; I was
a captain but four months. But John Aldred was a deluded drunk,
lying unconscious in his cabin long after this sudden storm blew up.
I knew nothing, but I was a gentleman. John Aldred was old, with
bad eyes even when sober. I knew nothing, but I was an earls brother.
I was born to command. I was the captain. Farrells eyes were on
me, begging, imploring. I knew nothing, but I was the captain of the
I opened my mouth again, ready to order Aldred to bear away as Kit
had told me. ‘Mister Ald— I began, but got no further.
A great wave more monstrous than all that had gone before smashed
over the side. I shut my mouth a fraction too late, and what seemed a
gallon or more of salt water coursed down my throat. My height told
against me, for a shorter man would have been able to brace himself
better. The ship rolled, I lost my footing and slid across the deck on my
back. Farrell pulled me up, but my senses were gone for moments. I
coughed up sea water, then vomited. I heard Farrell say, very quietly, ‘Its
too late, Captain. Were dead men.
As I retched again, I opened my eyes. The men high on the yards
were climbing down with all of Gods speed - and falling, too, I saw
with horror. The few sails we still had spread were loose, mere rags
blowing free on strings. Aldred was clinging to the rail, staring at the
shore. He was mouthing something, but I could hear barely anything
above the roar of wind and the awful crashing of water on rock. Farrell
took hold of me again, and as I lurched forward through the gale, I
made out Aldreds words.
‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak: O Lord, heal me;
for my bones are vexed . . . The sixth psalm of David. The old words
were a comfort, now, at what I knew was the moment of my death,
and I found myself mouthing them with Aldred, unheard above the
thunder of the seas that gathered at last to crush us. For in death there
is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? I am
weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my
couch with my tears. Mine eye is consumed because of grief . . .
A vast wave struck our right broadside and turned the ship almost
over, driving the hull across the water. We must have ridden up onto a
great submerged rock, for our frames roared their agony, and I saw the
deals of the deck begin to tear apart as our back broke. The foremast
sprang with a loud crack. The force of the water and the impact of
our grounding threw Aldred across into the nearest mast, the one that
seamen call the mizzen, which folded him like paper around itself,
crushing his innards and backbone as it did so. I saw one of his mates,
Worsley, take the full weight of a cannon that had not been lashed
secure, driving him off the deck and to his maker. I saw these things in
what I knew to be my last moments, as my feet left the deck and I felt
only water, and wind, and then water.
The old mariners on Blackwall shore will tell you that drowning men
see their whole lives flash before them, and see the souls of all the drowned
sailors of the earth coming up to meet them, no doubt as Drakes Drum
beats out its phantom galliard to welcome them to the shore beyond.
That day, as the Happy Restoration died, I learned more of drowning than
most men. I heard no drum, saw no souls swimming to meet me, and the
pathetic apology that was my twenty-one years of life did not flash before
me. There was only the most unbearable noise, worse than the greatest
broadside in the greatest battle, and the screaming of my chest as it fought
for just one more breath. Then there was the face and horn of a unicorn,
and I knew that I was dead.
‘Take hold, Captain - God in heaven, sir, take hold!
I opened my eyes again, and the unicorn bent upon me the unfaltering
stare that only a creature of the dumbest wood can give. Kit Farrell
was holding me fast, his other arm taut around the head of a wooden
lion. Between us lay the harp of Ireland, the fleurs-de-lis of France, the
lion rampant of Scotland and the lions passant of England. It was our
sternpiece. Somehow, the proud wooden emblem of our country had
broken free from the ship, and become our raft. Somehow - by a miracle
of wind and tide or Farrells kicks into the sea - we had come into a pool
between two great rocks and wedged there, safe from the worst blasts of
I swallowed air as if it were ambrosia, and gripped my unicorn with
all my strength. I looked at Farrell. He was looking beyond me, so I
turned, and saw a sight that is with me to this day, as vivid as it was at
that very moment.
My last sight of my first command was her bow. It reared into the air,
and a great wave pushed it higher still, pushed it toward the heavens. Our
new figurehead, the crown and oak laurels, was suddenly clear against the
sun in the west, as the gale blew itself out and the sky began to brighten.
Then the last great gusts blew the bow onto the western shore, where it
shattered like so much kindling. A moment before, I saw dark shapes
trying to crawl like ants up the deck, up towards our figurehead. The
strike against the rock threw some into the sea, some against the teeth of
the shore. The last of our men were gone. His Majestys ship the Happy
Restoration, formerly the Lord Protector, was gone.
I see that sight in my dreams, all these distant years later, as vivid now
as it was that October day. I still see the sight, and I still reckon the cost.
Upwards of one hundred souls, drowned or broken on the rocks. God
knows how many widows made, and orphans cast onto the streets. All
damned to oblivion by my ignorance, indecision, and pride.
Some hours afterwards, we were sitting on stools and swathed in blankets
in front of a blazing fire. We were in a barracks room of the old
James Fort, on the west side of Kinsale harbour. There were twenty nine
survivors from the wreck of the Happy Restoration. Kit Farrell and
I were the only officers. The Governor of Kinsale had been attentive
and sympathetic, sending over bowls of broth and jugs of a fiery Irish
drink, both of which burned the throat in equally harsh measure. But
the victuals served their purpose, and slowly, feeling returned to limbs,
my cheeks began to flush, and I finally rediscovered my tongue.
I drew breath. ‘Mister Farrell, I said. ‘Thank you.
Perhaps I should have said more. This man my own age had saved
my life, perhaps saved far more than he would ever know: the fate
of an earldom, at the very least. But my throat and lungs were sore
from the storm, the seawater, and the governors largesse, and I had
no breath for speeches. Nor in truth could I face unburdening myself
to another at that moment, for God knows what depths of anguish
and guilt might have spilled forth. Kit Farrell seemed to know this.
He pulled himself a little higher on his stool. Struggling to speak, just
as I had, he said, ‘It was the sternpiece, sir. It was carried away by the
same wave that swept us from the deck. Then he smiled, the proof of a
small private joke, and said, ‘Brazen incompetents, Captain. Corrupt
as a Roman cardinal. Old treenails, probably, so they could take the
new ones bought for the job down to Southwark market and sell them.
Deptford shipwrights, sir. Villains to a man. Deptford yard refitted
her when the king came back, and they took down Noll Cromwells
arms and put up the kings.
I took another measure of the increasingly attractive Irish drink. ‘So
they cheated when they fastened the sternpiece?
‘And much else on that curse of a ship, for it to break apart as it did,
but they saved our lives by doing so. God bless them, Captain Quinton.
‘God bless you, Mister Farrell. But for you, Id never have caught
hold, and never seen this world again. I thought of my wife and all
that I had so nearly lost. I thought upon the scores of men who had
perished. I felt an uncontrollable pain; not a wound, but something in
my gut and throat that began to swell and tighten. I fought back my
shame, forced myself to look my saviour in the eye. Then I raised my
cup to him.
‘My brother is an earl, and friend to the king, I said, awkwardly. This
was entirely true. ‘We are a rich family, one of the richest in England.
This was entirely untrue, though once, things had been different. ‘I owe
you my life, Mister Farrell. We Quintons, weve always been men of
honour. Its lifeblood to us. I am in your debt, and my honour demands
that I repay you.
He was probably as embarrassed at having to listen to this appalling
pomposity as I was in uttering it. A man of my own rank would have called
me a fool, or boxed me about the head. But a man of Kit Farrells rank
would have known nothing of gentlemanly honour, although evidently he
knew enough of sympathy and discretion. He sat silently for some minutes,
gazing into the fire. Then he turned his head towards me and said, ‘One
thing I would like, sir. One thing above all others.
‘Name it, if its in my power.
‘Captain, I cant read or write. I see men like yourself taking pleasure
from books, and Id like to know that world. I see that writing makes
men better themselves. Reading and writing, theyre the key to all. I look
around me, sir, and I see men must have them these days if theyre to
advance in life, be it in the kings navy or any other way of this world.
Knowing words gives men power, so it seems to me. But Ive never
found anyone willing to teach me, sir.
I had a sudden memory of my old schoolmaster at Bedford - Mervyn,
the meanest sort of little Welsh pedant - and wondered what he would
have made of his worst pupil turning teacher. Then I thought of other
men, of my father and grandfather, and in that moment I knew what
they would have me say. ‘Ill teach you reading and writing, Mister
Farrell. Gladly. Its the smallest of prices for my life, so I should not
ask anything else from you in return. I retched up more Irish salt sea,
and something grey and indescribable. I reached for the governors
fire-liquid and burned away the taste. ‘But theres something Id have
you teach me, too.
‘Teach me the sea, Mister Farrell. Tell me the names of the ropes,
and the ways to steer a course. Teach me of the sun and the stars, and
the currents, and the oceans. Teach me how to be a proper captain for
a kings ship.
I held out my hand to Kit Farrell. After a moment, he took it, and
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