Council Of Fire – Snippet 11
Part II: Awakening
The change came not like a wave but like a creeping fog: it took time for men of all kinds to realize what had happened, and why their world would never be the same.
–John Quincy Adams,
The Time of the Change: A Chronicle, 1814
You are the man you have always been
The days had been long. The nights were longer, it seemed; they sailed close-hauled, avoiding ice floes bigger than Neptune itself–it was as if some great sheet of ice had separated itself and crumbled into giant pieces, and was now floating southward like a fleet of ships looking for an enemy to engage. Collision with the smallest of them might tear the ship apart.
To Saunders’ surprise, the young General Wolfe spent a considerable amount of time on deck, showing little sign of the terrible seasickness that had plagued him before the awful fog had passed over Neptune. Wolfe was reserved and aloof most of the time but had spoken forthrightly about his vision on the night of the fog–he had seen his brother Edward, with whom he had served in Flanders during the Pragmatic War a decade and a half earlier.
“I saw my old mentor Admiral Wager,” Saunders had told him, in a moment of disarming honesty that Wolfe seemed to appreciate. “And Mr. Prince told me afterward that he had seen his father, Prince Frederick.”
“Yet none of that can be,” Wolfe had replied. “Ned died in 1742, and His Highness in 1751–”
“And Sir Charles Wager in 1743. No, sir, you are correct–these are impossible visions. But they are hard to dismiss. Each of us saw someone who was dear to us. And it was not only the officers. I have heard many accounts of visions by other officers and crewmembers–it’s a wonder that we were able to hold the course and keep the ship in order.”
“Words fail me, Admiral. I do not know what to say . . . but it is reassuring to think that it was not only me. I scarcely feel myself to be the same man.”
“Are you the man who led the assault on Louisbourg last year?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“Then you are the man that you have always been, General Wolfe. I daresay that is enough for the king . . . and his great-nephew.”
There were numerous things that troubled Saunders during their navigation through the ice-strewn waters. His charts were scarcely adequate, though the skills he had learned through the years served him well. But accounts of North Atlantic currents and winds were useless, either due to their position or–he scarcely wished to admit it–because something had fundamentally changed while they were making the crossing.
Just as surely as the comet was no longer in the sky, it was clear that the distant land had changed. Saunders and Prince made a series of careful observations on clear days with calm seas and mapped a range of jagged mountains to the north and northeast, almost at the limit of their vision. Prince climbed the topmast to confirm what they saw from the quarterdeck–a scene which was probably not foreseen at the Court of St. James when he was added to the expedition; but he came safely down at least. They marked the mountain range to lie well west and south of Iceland–where no such terrain was known to be.
At last, with provisions beginning to run low, they sighted land to westward; the northern extremity of Newfoundland, which seemed just as rocky and inhospitable as he remembered it. That placed them at 51 or 52 degrees north latitude, at least four hundred miles north of their intended destination . . . and of the other ships in the squadron there was no sign.
The ice persisted as they traveled southward, enough so that they were unable to reach Louisbourg harbor until two weeks later. It was still iced in, as it had been the previous year. This was not lost on Wolfe, who had hoped to be a part of an expedition against the great French fortress of QuÃ©bec, had the season not already been too far advanced to make it practical.
1759 was not 1758, however; and regardless of the weather, Louisbourg was now in His Majesty’s hands, and the gateway to the St. Lawrence was open.
It took another two days to reach Halifax on the southern coast of Nova Scotia. Both Saunders and Wolfe hoped to find other ships waiting for them that had somehow survived whatever event had occurred out on the ocean. Instead there was only one, which they identified at a distance as the 70-gun Somerset, a part of another squadron sent to meet them in the Maritimes.
“Do you know this officer, sir?” Prince said to Saunders, as they watched the boat row across from Somerset to Neptune. The commander of Somerset was clearly visible; he was a stout, stern-faced man, who sat in the middle of the boat, holding his hat to his head against the stiff wind–the only seeming concession to the chill inclemency that seemed to be characteristic of the area.
“The captain of Somerset? Not very well,” Saunders said. “I know he has been in His Majesty’s service since an early age and was advanced by both Vernon and Knowles–which speaks well of him.”
“Not to mention the ship he commands now.”
“Somerset is a third-rater, but it’s a fine vessel nonetheless,” Saunders said. “I believe it was here at Louisbourg, so I am sure General Wolfe knows the gentleman.”
The Prince did not answer. It was clear that the admiral and general had become cordial during the last few weeks aboard, but he still found Wolfe distant and haughty, even when paying his respects to a prince of the blood.
“Why is Somerset here in Halifax, My Lord?”
“He was attached to Admiral Knowles’ squadron, which was intended to rendezvous with us at Louisbourg. That his ship is the only one here does not bode well. They were to have transported a portion of the troops intended for the QuÃ©bec expedition–and if they are not here . . .”
“I don’t need to observe, sir, that the rest of our ships are absent as well.”
“I don’t need to be reminded of that,” Saunders snapped back, and immediately thought better of it. “Yes. Yes, of course. And now there is an impossible range of mountains in the ocean. I wonder if . . . they had a similar experience to ours.”
“I assume you’ll ask him yourself, sir.”
“I expect we’ll both have questions that require answers.”
Hughes was piped aboard with all due ceremony. Wolfe was present to greet him, though he seemed to have no particular regard (or, for that matter, disdain) for the captain of Somerset. After formal greeting and review of the honor guard, Saunders led Hughes, his executive officer and General Wolfe to his own cabin.
“Is Somerset the only ship of Holmes’ squadron on station here, Captain?” he asked when the four men were settled.
“I regret to say that it is,” Hughes said. In person he was a substantial man, still relatively young–though Wolfe himself was several years his junior–Captain Hughes more than filled the sea-chair he was assigned. “We were separated in the Atlantic during the crossing. There was . . .”
Saunders saw a troubled expression on Hughes’ face, but wanted to hear the man’s firsthand account. “Please proceed, Captain. What happened?”
“It is almost impossible to believe, my Lord. I was in flag distance of Devonshire, a ship very slightly large than my own; we were in a heavy blow, somewhere near the thirtieth degree of west longitude. I had just given the order to close haul when something began to happen.”
Once again Hughes paused for several seconds, as if gathering his thoughts. “There was a cloud, rather like a bank of fog–except that it was glowing. Eerie, really: like a river mist filled with tiny lights. I lost sight of Devonshire in the fog–and when it cleared, I caught sight of it again–and it was as if it had been lifted in the air, a hundred feet or more.”
“Out of the ocean?”
“Yes–yes, sir. And it looked as if it was caught–I don’t know quite how to describe it. It was as if a shoal of rocks had come up out of the ocean, and Devonshire was caught on them, a hundred feet in the air, and then it fell crashing into the sea.
“A great wave, the like of which I’ve never seen, sir, drove us away from the spot, and it was the last I saw of Devonshire or any of the rest of the ships of the fleet.”
“A shoal of rocks in the middle of the ocean?” Saunders said. “Are you sure, Captain? That is an extraordinary tale.”
“I swear by Heaven and by my oath as an officer in His Majesty’s Navy, My Lord, that it is true. I’m not sure, but I believe we were able to make out the shoal a day or so later when the weather cleared. But it wasn’t just a shoal then, it was like a mountain range.”
“In the ocean.”
Saunders exchanged a glance with the prince, then stood and walked to his chart-table; he picked up the annotated chart of the North Atlantic and brought it to where the portly captain was sitting.
“The mountains extend northward well above fifty-three degrees latitude, Captain. We have observed them as well. If your observations are correct, it suggests that we are–in some way–separated from Europe, perhaps permanently.”
“Permanently, My Lord? How could that possibly be?”
“How could there be a mountain range in the ocean, Hughes? Which begs the question–what has happened to Knowles’ squadron, and to mine?”
“And the troops intended for the assault on New France,” Wolfe said. “What of them?”
Hughes did not respond, but all the men knew the answer.
“Without resources, Admiral, it will be impossible to carry out His Highness’ orders here in America. Without troops, there is no possibility of investing QuÃ©bec.”
“Without a way home,” Saunders said, “we may have to decide our own course.”
He looked directly at Mr. Prince, who appeared uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
“Are you suggesting that we abandon our orders, Admiral Saunders?” Wolfe said quietly. “Because if so, you are jumping to a rather sudden and unsettling conclusion. I’m not sure I am ready to go along with that, not just yet.”
“We will have to take stock of our situation, General Wolfe,” Saunders replied. “It is not merely a matter of force projection. Our ships’ support–stores, sails, every tot of rum and coat-button–depends on contractors based in England and supplies coming across the ocean. If that chain is cut, more than war planning is affected.”
“Obviously,” Wolfe said.
“I assure you, sir, it is more obvious for those on whose shoulders responsibility falls.”
“Are you suggesting that I–”
“With due respect, sirs,” Mr. Prince interrupted–a presumption that would never be accepted from anyone of lesser status–“I don’t think anyone is suggesting anything. We have an extraordinary situation, and we must think of the welfare of our ships and our men in view of what has happened and what is happening.”
Wolfe considered the words, and the man who had made them, and settled back into his chair without further comment.