Council Of Fire – Snippet 13
Convulsed with madness
The Atlantic Coast
It would have been more to Admiral Saunders’ liking to sail to New York himself, with Prince Edward on his own deck; but in the absence of Admiral Knowles and most of their two squadrons, he was obliged to remain in Nova Scotia and in command of what was left.
There was no reason, however, to detain the prince there. It was unclear what his role might be, but without question he was the man with the highest social rank on this side of the ocean–he might even be able to speak with his grandfather’s authority, if it came to that. Accordingly, he was seconded to Baker’s vessel, and after a careful examination by Neptune‘s ship’s carpenter, he issued orders to Magnanime to sail to New York with General Wolfe and the 40th to rendezvous with General Amherst, who had overall command of land forces.
What lay before them, God only knew. Saunders knew that he did not.
George Baker was a very capable seaman, even lacking the charts that the prince would have thought were vital given the number of obstacles, crosscurrents, contrary winds and hidden perils that lay along the coasts between Nova Scotia and New England.
There was no problem finding something to do aboard Magnanime. Baker had been in His Majesty’s Navy since he was twelve, and was honored to have had a chance to serve with Richard Howe; but he could not run the ship without officers, and Prince Edward had learned more in the last few weeks with Admiral Saunders than in the previous three years elsewhere. Baker took a little time to accustom himself to having a royal prince under his command–the business of addressing him as “Mr. Prince”–but Edward made a point of following his orders to the letter, as an example for the others.
The attack on the ship was frightening, but the loss of Howe–which had happened before Baker’s eyes–was worse, because it was a personal loss. He presented a veneer of authority and confidence, but when Magnanime passed into a fog bank off Maine’s southern coast Edward saw the fear in his eyes return. But there were no monsters in the fog, and none when they emerged.
Instead, there was a new peril, something else that, much later, he realized could be attributed to–blamed upon–the event that had changed the world.
“Heave to!” Baker ordered, and Mr. Prince repeated it. Magnanime turned toward the wind, giving way before the strong westerly, allowing the other ship to approach. It was flying a warning flag and approached only close enough for communication.
“What news?” he shouted through his speaking-trumpet. The other vessel, a small coaster, came alongside at a distance.
“There is illness in Salem,” came the response. “Don’t approach.”
“What sort of illness? Typhoid? Cholera?”
It took some time for the other to respond. “No, nothing like that. We’re . . . we’re not sure.”
“There must be symptoms. What ails the people of Salem?”
“You are from the home country, sir, aren’t you?”
“Why does it–”
“This is Salem, Captain. We . . . there are things you do not know about Salem. About our history.”
“What about your history?”
“It has come back to haunt us, Captain. Years ago we, the town, committed a heinous act. We had thought it was behind us–but it is not. It is best that no one be exposed to it.”
“Is there a contagion?”
“There is no way to know. We cannot prevent you from entering our harbor–but we implore you to stay away.”
Baker exchanged a glance with Prince.
“We will sail for Boston instead,” Baker said. “Do they know what you have just told me?”
“There is a trained band deployed on the turnpike between Boston and Salem, Captain. They know what is happening in Salem–they know very well.”
They knew in Boston.
Magnanime was too deep draught to come all the way into Boston harbor; they anchored beyond Castle Island and Baker took a party ashore. After the encounter at Salem, he decided that a jolly boat was too small. It wasn’t clear what he might encounter, so they hoisted the gig into the water and Baker took two ensigns and twelve men from the 40th as an escort, leaving Prince in command–with orders to keep station and repel any intruders. General Wolfe chose not to accompany him but remained in his cabin. He had not suffered much from seasickness–perhaps some effect of the change–but he saw no point in coming ashore.
Before the gig came in sight of Long Wharf, the most prominent feature of the town’s harbor, two other boats came out to intercept them. The army subaltern in command of the soldiers looked at Hughes, who held his hand up.
“What’s your business, sir?” someone shouted from the nearer boat.
“I didn’t realize I needed permission to come ashore,” Baker answered. “I am Captain George Baker, in command of His Majesty’s ship Magnanime. We are en route to New York but intend to lay over in Boston. I’d like to pay my respects to Governor Pownall.”
The man scowled. “You have quite an escort to pay your respects, Captain. We don’t take kindly to press gangs in Boston.”
“This isn’t a press gang.”
“It’s about the right size for one,” the other answered. “We had an admiral come here a dozen years ago trying to fill out his crew. We sent him on his way.”
Baker tried to imagine what it would mean for a colonial town to send an admiral in the Royal Navy on his way but couldn’t manage it. Impressment wasn’t his intention in any case.
“I should like to visit the governor, sir. Is it your intention to keep me from doing so?”
There was an extended pause; the spokesman consulted with the other men in his boat. At last he said, “No, do as you please. But we’ll be keeping a sharp eye on you, mark my words.”
The ensign turned his head away from the view of the Bostonians and said, “Begging your pardon, Captain, but I think this rustic needs to be taught a lesson in manners.”
“I agree,” Baker said. “But this is neither the place nor the time. Take us in,” he said to the coxswain, and the oarsmen pulled for the docks.
Governor Thomas Pownall placed a glass of port in front of his guest and settled into his own armchair. The governor was a stout man, clearly accustomed to his creature comforts.
“I will confess that I am not surprised by their behavior, Captain,” the governor said. “This is how they are here; independent, willful, discourteous to a fault. It is as if they consider allegiance to the king an option, rather than a mandate.”
“What have you done about this insolence, sir?”
“What can I do? Only so much.” Pownall sighed. “Massachusetts Bay is a chartered colony. While the royal writ conveys some power to the governor, there is considerable authority given to the assembly–the Great and General Court, if you please. Theirs is the power of the purse.”
“That does not excuse their behavior. Or their hostility to His Majesty’s Navy.”
“That derives from an incident that took place several years ago. Admiral Knowles sent press gangs ashore and took a number of tradesmen aboard. It led to a riot. The admiral had at last to relent.
“Years before that, the citizens of Boston took a royal governor prisoner out at Castle William and sent petitioners to London to request the respecting of their rights under their existing charter. If not for the overthrow of King James, I think that those messengers–and the ringleaders here in America–would have wound up swinging from ropes. Instead they were granted a new charter, that remains in force today.” He sipped his port. “Now there’s insolence for you.”
“I have no desire to interfere with, or complicate, your colonial politics, sir. Let me ask a different question.” Baker picked up his glass, then set it back on the tray beside his chair. “Have any ships from Europe come into port recently?”
“We have scarcely emerged from winter. Not too many vessels of any sort have come into the harbor.”
“But none from Europe.”
Pownall frowned, thinking. “Yours is the first in some time. I hadn’t considered the matter until you just mentioned it. Still, it is just past winter, and . . .” Pownall paused, his frown deepening. “You do not ask this out of idle curiosity, Captain Baker. What is your point?”
“You may not see any vessels arriving from the mother country for some time, Governor. Perhaps never again. Something has happened–something inexplicable. I fear we are on our own; what is taking place up in Salem may be a part of it as well . . . they said that the past has come back to haunt them and denied us entry to their port.”
“Denied? I hardly think that they could stop you.”
“They implored us to stay away. There was no explanation other than that. Can you enlighten me on the subject, Governor?”
There was another long pause before Pownall said, “What makes you think that I know anything of this?”
“There is a trained band on the road between Boston and Salem.” Baker reached for his hat. “Governor, my sincerest thanks for your hospitality, but if you do not wish to be honest with me, I will make my report to General Amherst that something is amiss in Massachusetts-Bay and he can decide what to do with it himself.”
He began to stand up, but Pownall held up a hand.
“No. Wait,” Pownall said. “Very well. You seem to be well-informed. Salem . . . Captain Baker, what do you know about Salem?”
“Please enlighten me.” Baker kept his hat between his hands in his lap, as if he was willing to put it on and depart at any time.
“Several decades ago there was a series of trials based on accusations of witchcraft. I know that it’s hard to imagine in our modern time, but not terribly long ago the people of Massachusetts Bay Colony were obsessed with the actions of the Devil. They were convinced that despite their precautions, despite their purity, the Evil One walked among them.
“A number of men and women were accused of performing acts of witchcraft. There were trials, very sensational trials, and public executions. It was a horror–and there is every suggestion that the accusations were false, and the accused were innocent. Even the presiding judges expressed remorse . . . long after the fact, of course.
“A few weeks ago, reports came to me that there had been sightings: ghostly figures, spectres–if you can believe it–claiming to be the victims of those trials. They called for retribution and justice. I sent a trusted member of my council there to investigate.”
“What did he say?”
“I have had no report from him,” Pownall said. “Two men and one woman arrived from Salem three days ago. One of the men–the only one barely coherent–told me that the town was convulsed with madness. It is no wonder that they did not want you to approach.”
“What does that mean? Convulsed with madness?”
“I don’t know.” Pownall rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I cannot venture to say. I have assigned a trained band to watch the road. Coastal vessels have reported seeing fires. That’s all I know.”
“What do you intend to do, if anything?”
“For the moment, nothing. I intend to wait and see if this passes. Ultimately, I shall have to send the trained band north to investigate. God alone knows what they may find.”
“That seems to be the paragon of indecision,” Wolfe said when Baker related the interview to him.
“He was frightened, General. Genuinely frightened. I can only assume that this, like everything else we have seen, is an effect of the world’s change–and it’s unlikely that he knows about all of that.”
“An outbreak of madness in a small village–”
“A range of mountains rising from the sea. Monsters appearing out of the fog. And–spectres of long-dead men and women executed for witchcraft. Irrational things. Supernatural things.
“Tell me, General Wolfe. What are we to make of this? What are any of us to make of this? What will you tell General Amherst?”
“I don’t know.”
“Forgive me for speaking so plainly, sir. But I told Governor Pownall that we are on our own.” Baker grasped the arms of his chair. “I think I told him the exact truth.”
“Captain Baker, I want to know what that means. I embarked from England with a mission, thousands of capable, veteran soldiers, and the confidence of His Highness the King. Now I have . . . a few hundred soldiers, a few ships–enough to carry them upriver to QuÃ©bec, but not enough to take the city from the French. What should I do now? What would you suggest that I tell Sir Jeffrey when we reach New York?”
“No. With all due respect, Captain Baker, I am eager to hear what you have to say.”
“I’ve only been a captain for a few weeks, General Wolfe.”
“And I’ve only been a general for a few months. Neither of us is a seasoned veteran in his current position. We are, both, in positions we never expected to be. So I ask you, Captain-for-only-a-few-weeks Baker: what should I say to Jeffrey Amherst?”
“Tell him . . . what I told you. What I told Thomas Pownall. We are on our own, General Wolfe. I don’t know what is ahead of us, sir. But what is behind us–the world that is behind us–is out of reach.”