Council Of Fire – Snippet 18
“Nor do I, Monsieur, but if Divine Providence has placed us here, I would assume that It has some purpose for us: myself, you, my companion.
“You asked me what has happened to the world you knew. I cannot say except to suggest that it is gone forever.”
With exaggerated care, Messier placed the round shot in the place from where he had picked it up and tucked his handkerchief back into his vest.
There was a compromise. Pinfold wanted to send Namur packing, water-casks full but otherwise not reprovisioned. Pascal was in favor of seizing both Achille and Lady Ann, the two cargo ships in Bridgetown Harbor, to supplement the ship’s stores. Instead, Pinfold let Namur‘s purser gather the most important items–flour, sugar, pease and rum, primarily–and they left the rest for the other ships in the squadron. Pinfold’s letter went off to Admiral Cotes; there was no ship bound for London to take his complaints to the Victualing Board–he would wait for the next supply ship to take it back. Messier and his female companion remained on board Namur, no longer the problem of the governor of Barbados.
Boscawen did not expect another supply ship–not in the next few weeks; perhaps never again. And he didn’t care what Thomas Cotes said–if there was no way to contact London, the chain of command would be confused enough. Two days after arriving at Barbados, Namur set sail for Jamaica. Whether or not there was a personal conflict ahead, Admiral Boscawen was expecting to reach Kingston before Governor Pinfold’s letter. Whether his voice would be louder remained to be seen.
The charts Boscawen was able to obtain told him in detail what he already knew: that the trade winds blew more steadily from north to south. Ships departed Jamaica for Barbados and Barbados for Europe–going in reverse was more of a challenge to sailing.
“But sail it we must, and shall,” he said. “Mr. Pascal, I should like to see wind filling those sails.”
“We are making–” Pascal checked his watch and looked up at the topmast–“a bit over four knots, my Lord, and we are sailing four points to port.”
“And Saint Lucia is well behind us.” Boscawen looked out to sea, watching the waves. “I wish I was more comfortable with this.”
“Over my career, Pascal, I have prided myself on preparation and planning. I had specific orders for my ship and the other vessels in the squadron–the Mediterranean Squadron. We are not fitted out for this assignment. The men are improperly clothed, our hull is not properly proofed against boreworms. I have inadequate charts.”
“With due respect, my Lord,” Pascal said, “Whatever the circumstance, we are here, and not at the bottom of the ocean, or shipwrecked on the . . . what was it O’Brien called it? The Place of Bone. I agree that the situation is not ideal, but we are officers in His Majesty’s Navy–as I am sure you would tell me yourself if I were making such observations.”
Boscawen fixed his junior with a stare that had caused many a junior officer to wilt. “You are being extremely forthright, for a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Navy, sir.”
Pascal did not look away. “My Lord, do you think we will ever see England again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nor do I, Admiral. And if we never do, then I daresay that the social order to which we both have become accustomed will be severely changed. Our place in it will depend on our own will. I . . . have no reason to tender you anything but obedience and respect while aboard Namur, sir, but there are assumptions that are likely to be challenged.”
“I should think that would be obvious. Sir.”
Boscawen considered a response, but just as with the governor at Barbados, he wasn’t sure what the point of it would be. The man was right; all the polite veneer that constituted military discipline, not to mention civil society, would be upended if this was their world–if the realm and the King were out of sight and inaccessible.
And for now, there was nothing but open ocean–at least several hundred miles of it–before they reached Jamaica.
“Pascal,” Boscawen said. “Look at the waves.”
The lieutenant looked out to sea, away from the bow. “Waves, Admiral?”
“Look ahead, a few points to starboard. Something is interrupting the waves. Ask the top if he sees any land.”
“Aye, sir.” He shouted the order to the sailor in the topmast. “But we are unlikely to find an island out here–”
“I do not trust our charts. It’s possible that something was overlooked.”
Pascal touched his cap and nodded, walking back toward the pilothouse. Boscawen looked through his spyglass again, in the direction from which the cross waves were coming. There was something . . . a small formation, like a tiny island, several hundred yards away . . .
. . . And as he watched, he saw it begin to move.
“Beat to quarters!” Boscawen said. “Division officers, prepare all guns to fire! Come about–” he called out a heading that took them in the direction of the formation.
It takes only a few minutes for a well-trained crew to prepare and run out the guns on a warship. Namur had an exceptionally well-trained one–Boscawen had picked most of them himself, including a fair complement of Cornishmen loyal to their Cornish admiral.
The ship’s gun crew was separated into six divisions, each under the command of a junior officer. Namur had two decks of guns as well as bow- and stern-chasers. The process of preparing the main broadsides was a demonstration of the well-oiled machine: loading the cartridge, pricking it open through the touch-hole, loading the shot, applying the rammer, rolling the gun carriage out through the port, and waiting for the order to pull the lanyard to set off the gunlock on order so that the entire broadside was fired at once. The recoil from the discharge pulled the gun carriage back inboard, where it was stopped by the breech rope. Then the cannon was swabbed, and the process was repeated. A good crew–and Namur‘s crew certainly qualified–could do all this three times in the space of five minutes.
Boscawen assumed that the object he saw was another ship–and in mid-ocean, it was as likely to be an enemy as an ally. The guns could always be hauled back in if he spied a Union Jack.
Namur‘s sails caught the wind, and its smooth bow cut smoothly across the crosscurrents generated by the other ship–except, as they approached the target, it became apparent that it was no ship. The dark form that Boscawen had seen was the top of a head that slowly rose from the waves, water washing off the skull, and then the torso, of a great, fanged, tentacled thing–a creature from nightmare, a sea-creature. A more lyrical person, like his beloved Frances, might have called it something like a kraken.
It loomed up, fifteen or twenty feet in the air–which suggested to Boscawen that there was likely a great deal more of the creature submerged nearby. It was not an island or a ship–it was some terrible enemy.
In the face of a thing he had never before seen, in the middle of an ocean he had never before sailed, Admiral Edward Boscawen had only one thought.
“Gun-captains! All guns–fire!”
The kraken was a terrifying thing, but the gun-crews were too busy to see what they were firing at, which was just as well. Even his brave Cornishmen might have hesitated in the face of the impossibility of it. They fired on the roll, after Namur turned to present its broadside; after two cannonades, the being–which, for all Boscawen knew, had never encountered round shot before–retreated beneath the waves.
When all was quiet again, and the guns were secured, Boscawen stood for a long time at the rail of the quarterdeck, holding it tightly as he gazed overboard into the dark, choppy sea below.
What has happened to the world I knew? he asked himself once again. But from the wind and the waves there came no answer.