Council Of Fire – Snippet 07
The keepers of the house shall tremble
Aboard HMS Namur
In the Atlantic Ocean
If he had been able to sleep that night, Admiral Edward Boscawen might not have survived the experience. Of such things is history made; the whim of chance, the roll of dice on the backgammon-board, the choice of this path rather than another.
But sleep had not come that night and he instead found himself on the quarterdeck of HMS Namur, bound for the roadstead of Toulon, where he would command the squadron charged with bottling up De la Clue’s fleet and preventing its escape from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. It was a post with distinction, but not without its perils; after all, not two years since, a colleague–Byng–had been hanged on his own deck for being less than ardent in his pursuit of the enemy.
Boscawen accepted the assignment without comment or complaint. Hawke would have made his displeasure known–but Boscawen was not Hawke. Brilliant as he was, the man had a pernicious skill in raising his fellows (and his superiors) to anger.
The province of the quarterdeck is customarily sacrosanct, a private refuge for the master of a vessel. A captain, or an admiral, would hardly expect to be disturbed in his contemplations save in the case of some weighty matter that could not be handled by subordinates. But Admiral Edward Boscawen was unusual among his peers, and his crew knew it; thus, when he heard the polite clearing of a throat, he was not surprised or upset. He turned from his contemplation of the ocean to see Francis Perry standing at the top of the stair. The boatswain immediately saluted.
“What is it?”
“I beg your Lordship’s pardon,” Perry said, tugging on the brim of his cap. “I would not disturb you, sir, but . . .”
“No matter. Come over here, boy, the deck isn’t on fire.”
Perry stepped tentatively onto the quarterdeck and crossed to stand before his admiral. He had the look of someone who indeed expected the quarterdeck to burst into flames if he stepped on it.
“All right then. I assume you’ve been given the dog watch for some reason, Perry, and I’ll not inquire. What demands my attention?”
“You told me to keep you personally informed of all that happens belowdecks, My Lord. I wanted to let you know that the men are about ready to keelhaul young O’Brien.”
“What’s he done now?” O’Brien was a young lad, younger than Perry, who had been impressed at Dublin a year ago. Boscawen recalled what he knew of the boy. He was not given to thievery and had not taken up his race’s propensity for drunkenness–indeed, he had served well in attending to the officers’ mess and seemed to be learning his skills as an able seaman.
“It’s the dreams, My Lord. He cries out in his sleep and disturbs the men that are on watch.”
“I should make them work harder so that they sleep more soundly. Go on.”
“It’s not just the noise, beggin’ your Lordship’s pardon. It’s what he says.”
“And what does he say?”
“He talks about . . .” Perry looked away from Boscawen, and cast his gaze toward the southwestern horizon, beyond the bow of Namur, where the apparition of the comet was clearly visible. It had become brighter in recent days, even more than had been predicted. “He talks about the comet.”
“And what of it? It’s a natural phenomenon. It is nothing unusual, merely the passage of an object through the heavens. Nothing to be afraid of.”
“That’s not what he says, sir. He says that it will strike and change the world.”
“Nonsense. It is an once-in-a-lifetime event; every seventy-odd years it returns, passes through the sky once as it heads for the sun, and once as it heads away–and then it is gone, not to be seen until our grandchildren’s time.”
“I know that, Admiral, and you do too–but O’Brien says otherwise.”
“Perhaps a few lashes will change his mind.”
“Sailing master has already given him a taste of the cat, beggin’ your Lordship’s pardon. It didn’t change his tune a whit, sir.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since we left Portsmouth, My Lord. Whenever it was visible in the sky. A few nights there were clouds, but otherwise . . .” Perry let the sentence trail off, like the strands that extended from the tail of the comet.
“Where is the man now?”
“Ranford and Leacock are keepin’ him company aft, My Lord.”
Ranford was an able seaman from Cornwall; he’d sailed with Boscawen for a dozen years. Leacock was a Scotsman with a foul temper, but one of the most agile riggers aboard Namur. Both good men, for what they were.
“Have O’Brien present himself to my cabin at once. We’ll not make a spectacle of this–but it’s not to go any further. Understood?”
“Loud and clear, sir. And–My Lord–”
“What is it, Perry?”
“There can’t be . . . I mean, there’s no chance that there is any possible way . . .”
“No,” Boscawen said. “It’s the fever-dream of a homesick Irish lad. This is the last you’ll hear of it.”
While he waited for the lad to be brought to him, Boscawen drew a thin volume from his writing desk and opened it. It was a copy of A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, Halley’s 1705 work, a gift from Frances at his departure from England. The book was even more remarkable because it was a first edition, including the strange afterword that had been absent in later printings.
Make of it what you will, his wife had told him. It might be a load of rubbish, dear, but . . . one hears things.
Halley had already become the secretary of the Royal Society by the time the work was published; he was rational and logical–the narrative, tables and diagrams were remarkably clear and well thought out. But the last four pages diverged from that rationality and logic.
In ye passage of 1682/3, Halley wrote, the sublimation of Ã¦theric patterns insinuated itself into the minds and hearts of those subject to such effects. It might be, or might have been, that the eye of the Eternal God was turned away, allowing those things that He might not sanction to enter into the mortal realm . . .
Load of rubbish, Boscawen thought. His wife was most insightful in that way–indeed, in all ways.
Boscawen’s reverie about Frances was interrupted by a rapping at the door of his cabin. The young Irish cabin boy stood outside, his cap in his hand; he managed some sort of salute and stepped into the admiral’s inner sanctum, looking around him as if it was a sort of place he’d never seen.
“Close the hatch, if you please. O’Brien, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. My Lord,” he added hastily.
“Very good then, O’Brien. Tell me what it is that is causing such ire belowdecks.”
Boscawen was using his best admiral’s voice; he kept his face stern, looking straight at the lad. That usually made seamen and even junior officers glance down, or at least away–but O’Brien met him gaze for gaze.
“The comet, an’ it please your Lordship,” O’Brien said. “The comet is coming.”
“Anyone can see that–”
“Nay, my Lord,” O’Brien interrupted. “‘Tis coming. ‘Tis almost here. And when it arrives the world changes; the old powers will rise.”
The fact that an unrated seaman interrupted an admiral was singular enough–but the intensity of the boy’s expression made it a striking moment, one that Boscawen would remember much later.
“Where are you from, O’Brien?”
“Ireland, Admiral, sir. Connemarra.”
“And where you come from, O’Brien, do they believe in the true and living Creator?”
“Aye, sir,” he said, crossing himself in the Roman way. He smiled for just a moment, then returned to his former serious intensity. “Of course.”
“And in Connemarra do they teach the Bible?”
“I do not recall any discussion of the rising of ‘old powers’ in Scripture, lad. The coming of the Saviour swept all of those ‘old powers’ away, did it not? And the comet–it is no more than an apparition, a body moving through the heavens. What effect could it possibly have?”
“It will change the world, my Lord.”
“That is no answer. I think you have not accustomed yourself to life at sea, young O’Brien, and you have an ague or a fever.”
“I beg to disagree with your Lordship,” O’Brien said. “I am hale and quite settled. I am learning the skills of an able seaman.”
“And yet you speak nonsense. How . . . how do you know of these ‘old powers’? Your foolish nightmares?”
“My mum was a water-finder, My Lord. She is a wise-woman. So is my Gran. ‘Tis a family gift, since the comet’s last coming.”
Sublimation of Ã¦theric patterns, Boscawen thought to himself. Rubbish.
“I cannot affect your thoughts, young O’Brien,” Boscawen said. “It is not in my power. But your actions are subject to my orders. Your comments on this matter are disrupting the sleep–and work–of the other crew, and it is my order that they cease. Do you understand?”
“I cannae control my dreams, my Lord.”
“Then you shall sleep on deck, away from others. As long as the comet is in the sky, until it passes–as it ultimately will–you shall make your bed in the lee of the pilothouse.”
“Under the open sky.”
“That’s right. Then you can bay at the moon and pray to the comet if you like.”
“Thank you, sir. I should like that very much.”
Boscawen raised an eyebrow. “We will see if your tune changes the first time we have heavy weather. But you will be sure to secure your hammock well so that the storm does not toss you overboard.”
“I will see to it, sir.” He saluted again, a sloppy job, but at least it showed effort. “Thank you, sir,” he repeated.
“See to it at once,” Boscawen said. “Dismissed.”
And that, as far as Admiral Boscawen thought, would put an end to the disturbance.
* * *
There was heavy weather almost at once. A few days later Namur was sailing close-hauled; the wind was coming from the northeast, pushing them further out to sea. The Spanish coast was not in sight. Indeed, very little was in sight–except the comet, further up in the sky than it had been, and brighter, its light pushing eerily through the storm-clouds.