Council Of Fire – Snippet 08
O’Brien did not seem the least discomfited by sleeping on the deck, under the overhanging shelter aft of the pilothouse. No complaints reached the admiral’s ears; but while he was making his rounds of the deck, bundled in his greatcoat, he paused to speak to the lieutenant of the watch.
“Pascal, isn’t it?”
“Aye, my Lord.” Lieutenant Pascal touched his cap, looking away from his black servant–or slave, he wasn’t sure which–who was coiling rope beside him.
“Have you heard anything regarding the Irish boy sleeping on deck?”
“Yes. That’s the one.” Boscawen tilted his head more upright; since an injury in battle some years before, he had a tendency to hold it sideways. “Has there been any complaint from the watch?”
“Complaint? I don’t know of any, my Lord. He talks in his sleep, but no one pays him any mind.” He glanced–just for a moment–at his boy, then returned his attention to the admiral.
It might have been to check on the work, but Boscawen sensed that it might be more than that. “Boy,” he said to the servant. “Does he speak English?”
“Quite well, sir. Gustavus, give your attention to the admiral.”
The black let go the rope and stood upright. He was young–probably no older than the Irish lad–but unlike many of his race, he held his head respectfully but not especially subserviently. Some in the Service might have thought that an insult, particularly if he was a slave; but Boscawen was neither affronted nor particularly interested in others’ reactions.
“Gustavus is your name?”
“Yes, it please your Lordship, that is the name I have been given.”
“I thought it an unlikely name for a black.”
“I am named for a great king, so ’tis said, sir. I take it with pride.”
“What is your actual name, may I ask?”
“My mother named me Oladuah, My Lord, which means ‘well spoken’ in my native tongue. I have been called Michael, and also Jacob. But I answer to Gustavus just fine.”
“What do you know about O’Brien?”
“Now answer the admiral, Gustavus,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “You know what he wants to know.”
Gustavus–Oladuah–looked from his master to the admiral, and then said, “He is a seer of the future, my Lord. He has seen the coming of the fiery star.”
“You mean the comet.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“He told me that the comet is going to change the world. Do you believe him then?”
“Of course, my Lord. It is the signal of the end of days. The return of the Saviour, as is taught in the Scriptures.”
“That’s not exactly what O’Brien told me,” Boscawen said. “Is this some belief among your tribe?”
“I do not hold to the beliefs of my own people any longer, my Lord,” Gustavus said. “I have been blessed and baptized as a servant of Jesus and follow Him. Surely the signs of His return are evident in the heavens?”
“The comet has come and gone many times, Gustavus. This time is no different.”
“I . . . fear to dispute with you, sir,” Gustavus answered. “You asked what I thought–and I am honored to be asked; but I risk your anger by giving you an answer you do not want.”
“You are well-spoken for a . . .”
“A slave, my Lord,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “I bought him in Virginia Colony. And he is very bright; not just for one of his kind, but even when compared to many whites.”
“Truly,” Boscawen said. “Gustavus, how do you disagree with me?”
“I do not wish to anger your Lordship.”
“You do not. Answer my question.”
“You say . . . you say that the fiery star has come and gone, and this time is no different. But truly, each time is different–last time and this time. There is a legend among my people that divine spirits came out of the fiery star and began to walk among them, and that when the star came again, they would be reunited with the God-above-all. When I received the Gospel, I heard those words repeated in a different form. Now I know it to be true.”
Gustavus raised his eyes toward the sky, where the comet seemed brighter and closer than ever.
Boscawen followed his gaze, and then looked down and across the main deck of the ship. The sky had grown dark and the wind had picked up; many others had stopped their work and were looking toward the heavens.
“It comes,” said a voice, somewhere aft, in an Irish accent.
Father Frederick, the ship’s chaplain, stood near the foremast; he caught Boscawen’s eye. He looked frightened.
“Pascal . . .” Boscawen began, then turned on his heel and walked rapidly, with as much dignity as he could manage, to Namur‘s pilothouse. Above him, the sails began to flutter as the ship drifted into the wind. Pascal and his slave followed behind.
Inside the little cabin, the officer of the watch was trying to maneuver the ship’s whip-staff with the change in the wind. Boscawen gestured the young man aside and took control of it himself.
The wind had begun to blow hard, and the sky was filling with an eerie yellow light despite the dark clouds. Boscawen had been on the sea for most of his adult life and had crossed the Atlantic a number of times–a perilous undertaking even in good weather–but this defied description. The swells had grown deep, and Namur was gradually giving way, being blown this way and that; even under his steady hand, the ship was beginning to become unmanageable.
Pascal and Gustavus appeared at the pilothouse doorway.
“Hail the crow’s nest,” Boscawen said, not looking away. “Tell me what he sees.”
There was some shouting between the lieutenant and the lookout. Pascal put his head inside the doorway.
“It’s like nothing he’s ever seen, My Lord. The sea–the sea–”
“Out with it, man.”
“It’s parting, sir.”
“Yes, My Lord. Like the Red Sea. Almost directly due north and south.”
“That’s impossible. It must be three hundred fathoms deep.”
“As you say, sir. But it’s happening. It’s almost as if the rays of the comet are–are dredging up the ocean.”
“And dropping us into it?”
“It seems so.”
Boscawen could hear Father Frederick shouting over the din. He was quoting Ecclesiastes. In the days when the keepers of the house shall tremble . . .
“Parting,” Boscawen repeated.
Pascal was white-faced, but to his credit he stayed at his post. Gustavus stood beside him, unmoving.
Boscawen tilted the whip-staff as far to port as he could manage, turning the ship to starboard. As it slowly came about, the scene came into view: an unbelievable sight–the ocean parting, one half cresting to the east and another to the west, revealing dark indigo depths below. It was as if Namur was somehow climbing a great wave, higher and higher, the sea carrying it up into the air, and the motive force causing the waves to part was a cascade of yellowish light, looking very much like the tail of a comet.
It was impossible, but it was happening–and it was carrying Namur further out to sea.
“The wave–” Boscawen gestured. “That wave would have hurled us against a lee shore. If we manage to survive this, we’ll have to beat our way back toward land. And when it hits–”
Pascal opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. He could not seem to find words to describe it.
It was difficult to tell when day ended and night began, and it was impossible to imagine how Namur remained upright. In the face of impossibility, the crew responded to the commands of the officers, shortening sail and keeping the lines from fouling. The swells broke the jib and the winds shredded the sails on the foremast, but somehow Namur remained seaworthy.
And sometime during the ferocious afternoon someone made Father Frederick stop praying aloud–and at some point, the young Irish cabin boy, along with two other crewmen, disappeared from the deck, lost in Namur‘s struggle to keep from being swallowed by the impossible sea.
Finally, Namur was becalmed, the waves settling and the clouds parting above, revealing the tiniest sliver of a moon. An exhausted Edward Boscawen, who had never left the pilot’s cabin nor given up the whip-staff to another, gathered his officers in the wardroom after issuing a double ration of rum to everyone aboard.
When everyone was settled and the appropriate salutes had been offered, he spoke. “Gentlemen,” he said. “I invite your comment.”
No one answered for several moments, exchanging glances. At last Commander William Marshal, Namur‘s second-in-command, cleared his throat. “Admiral, this is uncharted water for all of us.”
“It is a very unusual situation, to be sure.”
“No, My Lord, more than that. I have received the report from topmast lookouts–and it truly is uncharted water. Land has been sighted eastward–it is very sharply defined, like a range of mountains.”
“Where do you think we are?”
“In the North Atlantic, sir, but somewhere in the tropics. The star sightings put us be between 13 and 15 degrees north latitude.” As Boscawen began to respond, Marshal continued, “Begging the Admiral’s pardon, sir, I know that seems ridiculous–we had not even passed Cape Finisterre last night, but the stars are–the stars.”
“We rode an impossible storm, Commander. 15 degrees north would put us . . . near the Cape Verdian Islands, I suppose.”
“It doesn’t account for the mountains, My Lord,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “We looked at the charts, and while there are peaks on the islands, they don’t correspond to the sightings.”
“We’ll see what the lookouts report in the morning.”
“The sightings were made before night fell, Admiral,” Marshal said. “The man knew what he saw.”
Boscawen gave his executive officer a stern look. “What do you recommend, then, Commander?”
“At the very least, My Lord, we should investigate.”
“Without charts and soundings? If this truly is unknown water, I don’t think I relish the idea of running aground.”
“It will be a good exercise for the crew, sir. Something to take their mind off–the comet.”
Boscawen considered this, then nodded. “Very well. We are in open ocean, with no convenient anchor; we will come about and begin to tack northward with shortened sail. In the morning we will . . . carefully . . . investigate this coast. In the meanwhile, I suggest we all get whatever rest we can.”