'The Honourable Member for Molton.' The Speaker of the House of Commons, in his full-bottomed wig, gave the floor
to Edmund Burke in the crowded chamber.
Rubbing his long nose, the orator stood and glanced across to the opposite benches at the slumped figure of the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, who seemed resigned to events. It
would not do, however, to underestimate Pitt, even if, as a man of peace, he seemed unsure of his direction in this new war with the French.
Burke drew himself up and spoke effortlessly above the disorderly hum. 'Is this House aware that at this very moment, in a time of crisis without parallel in the history of these
islands, His Majesty's government sees fit to let its chief means of defence, the Navy, its sure shield . . .' he paused and looked impressively about him '. .. rot at anchor in its
ports, while the enemy is at liberty to issue forth on his awful missions of destruction?' He was aware that behind him, ready for any excuse to interject, was the fat,
mustard-waistcoated figure of Charles Fox. Discredited for his earlier support of the French Revolution, he was nevertheless leader of His Majesty's loyal opposition — and a
'No doubt the Honourable Gentleman is sensible of the fact that our most valuable possessions in the Caribbean lie trembling in daily expectation of a descent by the enemy? That the
City clamours for protection for its commerce? That we, the loyal Whigs,' he ignored the raucous splutter behind him that could only have issued from the embittered Fox, 'demand as
conditional to our continued support to this Ministry that measures be taken to protect our commercial interests. And strong measures, which are swift, effective and decisive!'
Pitt slouched further down in his seat. What did they know of the real situation? Admiral Howe with the Channel Fleet was in port, true, but he commanded the only strategic fleet
Britain possessed at this time, and would answer to the nation for its preservation until it was fit enough to grapple with the enemy. Howe would not jeopardise its safety. Still
watching Burke, he leaned over to the man on his left, and whispered, 'Desire the Admiralty to make a showing off the French coast — just two or three ships of force will
suffice.' That would be enough to mollify Burke, who had only spoken to point up his own grand gesture of conciliation. Howe could spare two or three of the more elderly vessels.
'Allow that it is a matter of some urgency,' Pitt added wearily.
From the quarterdeck of the ship-of-the-line Duke William, nothing could be seen of the passengers in the ugly little hoy thrashing its way through the grey-green seas
towards them. It was making heavy weather of it, bluff bows slamming into the short, steep waves kicked up by the stiff northerly. Drenching sheets of spray were flung skywards
before whipping aft over the small craft.
Duke William's officer of the watch lowered his telescope with a grunt of exasperation. It was important to know quickly the results of their swift press-gang raid inland.
Duke William had to be in a position to catch the evening tide to enable them to reach Admiral Howe's fleet at Spithead before it sailed.
With a new Captain and a hard horse first lieutenant, the old ship had a poor reputation and would never attract volunteers. Furthermore, this was a full five days after the
declaration of war against revolutionary France, and the Impress Service and individual press-gangs had between them cleared the Thames of seamen.
From his own pocket Captain Caldwell had paid the hire of a pair of coaches to take a press-gang in a lightning swoop down the Portsmouth road, hoping to pounce on seamen who had
taken refuge in the country or, failing that, seize some sturdy rural lads. An illegal act, but they could be spirited away well before magistrate or sheriff could intervene, and
once at sea they were beyond reach.
The hoy drove on, its single-reefed mainsail board taut, its angle to the tide-driven waves resulting in an awkward screwing motion. Sprawled miserably on the bottom boards under a
tarpaulin were some thirty wretched, seasick men and boys, the press-gang harvest.
Taking an appreciative pull from a bottle, the petty officer in charge returned it to his shipmate and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. 'Get it inside yer, Davey, while
yer've still got the chance, mate.'
The two men crouched in the lee of the weather gunwale, knowing they were out of sight from the ship. It would be their last chance before arriving aboard out in the great Fleet
anchorage of the Nore.
Spray rattled again on the sail, and a thin, cold rain drifted across them. As the petty officer hunkered down further, his black hat wet and gleaming, his shoe caught a lump in the
tarpaulin, bringing a muffled cry. He lifted the edge, and a dark-haired young man of about twenty stared up at him with dull brown eyes. The petty officer grinned, and dropped the
The young man tried to ease his position, but it was hopeless: confined as he was by other wet bodies, seasickness and the continual violent motion of the hoy he lacked strength to
move. Nearby, a pale flaccid face lifted. The empty eyes looked into his and as he watched, a weak spasm produced from slack lips a green ooze that tracked across the sunken cheeks.
The sight brought on the inevitable, but there was no more of his meagre breakfast to bring up. Subsiding weakly after a series of dry heaves, Thomas Paine Kydd laid his head once
more on the wet, hard boards.
Only a few nights earlier, he had been enjoying warmth and companionship in the Horse and Groom in Merrow village, a public house that dated back to the first King Charles; its age
and solidity spoke of the bucolic calm of that part of England. Three miles up the road was Guildford, a popular staging halt on the way from London to the trading ports of the
south and west. There, in the last days of the peace, he had seen from his wig shop in High Street grim faces of naval officers staring from coach windows as they clattered over the
cobblestones on their way to the Angel posting house.
He had heard in the shop that this war was going to be quite different from the stately clashes of empires earlier in the century. It was not going to be a traditional war against
France. Instead, it would be a fight to the death against the howling mob that had overwhelmed all the forces of the state, and had now put to death their own king. In the Horse and
Groom there had been bold talk that night, and this time not only from Stallard and his crew, as usual ensconced in secret conclave in the snug. It was widely held that the midnight
rides of 'Captain Swing' and a rash of rick-burnings were the work of Stallard and his men, and Kydd tried to avoid their company.
The loss of the American colonies and the fall of Lord North, spectacular victories in India and the rise of the younger Pitt had not disturbed this quiet corner of England, so it
had been all the more shocking when a wider world had come smashing in on the night the press-gang had made its move. Tipped off by a sheriff's man who wanted to rid himself of
undesirables, they had sprung their trap with practised ease.
One minute it was noise and laughter, the next an appalled silence in the smoke-filled taproom at the sight of sailors appearing at every exit. They were in costume like that to be
seen in the theatre, complete with pigtail, black tarred hat and short blue jacket. And each had a cudgel in one hand, which he tapped slowly in the opposite palm.
Patrons were allowed to leave, but at each door they were separated into those who would go home to relate their escape to wide-eyed loved ones, and those who would begin a long
journey to their fate on the high seas. Kydd had struggled, but under the weight of superior numbers was soon over-powered.
The trip east to the Isle of Sheppey had taken two days. They had avoided towns, and the men had been handcuffed to a tarpaulin-covered wagon like common criminals. Kydd had felt
bitter and hopeless by turns, not able to find comfort in cursing as Stallard seemed to do, or in the fatalism of the two merchant seamen also caught up in the press.
They were kept for two more days in the dank holding cells in Sheerness's Blue Town, at the tip of the desolate island at the mouth of the Thames. A bleak garrison town, it seemed
to Kydd that he had arrived at the end of the earth. He was almost relieved when it was time to board the hoy. Then he saw, for the first time, the forest of masts set in an
iron-grey winter sea, and knew he would need all the courage and strength he could muster for whatever lay ahead.
Now he tried to ignore the steady trickle of icy rainwater on its way to the bilge that coursed down his neck and back.
Suddenly the tarpaulin was flung aside, and Kydd took in the brightness of the pearly winter sky above, the reluctant stirring of damp men and, dominating all, the colossal form of
a great ship. It seemed all gunports and lines of yellow and black timber, unknown fitments and black ropes. It towered up to the deck-line, and then above to an impossibly complex
structure of masts and yards, black and ominous against the sky.
His eyes sought meaning in the rush of detail. The massive sides of the ship were near enough to touch. At such proximity the pockmarks of age and battle were all too clear, and at
the point where the fat side of the ship met the muddy grey waves of the Thames estuary, dark green weed betrayed the urgency with which the ship had been summoned from her foreign
station. In the dark beyond the open gunports Kydd could discern unknown movement. From a small opening near the waterline discoloured water dribbled on and on into the sea.
'Let's be havin' yer then, me lads!' the petty officer said, and released them with a brisk clinking of metal. Kydd rubbed his wrists.
High above, a figure in a gold-laced coat and black cocked hat appeared at the deck edge. 'What the devil — My God, get those men inboard at once, or I'll have the hide off
someone's back, I swear!'
The sailor moved quickly. 'That prick Garrett,' he muttered. 'Watch, you bleedin' lubbers - like this!'
He moved easily along the gunwale of the hoy to where a series of small steps marched vertically up the tumblehome of the ship's side. On each side were handropes, shiny with use.
Stepping lightly across at the highest point of the hoy's wallow, in one movement he transferred his weight to step and handrope simultaneously and swarmed up the ship's side.
The remaining sailor blustered at them from behind, and the first man moved forward. He grabbed the ropes but his feet slipped on the rain-slick wood and he fell into the sea still
dangling from the rope. He squealed in fright until the sailor hoisted him up by the scruff of his neck. The others held back in fear. 'Fer Chrissake, get up there!' the sailor
No one moved. The hoy rose and fell, the slap of waves between the two vessels loud and forbidding.
Something stirred in Kydd. He pushed the others aside, snatched a look upward and acted as he had seen the seaman do. He jumped across the chasm between the two vessels, his feet
scrabbled on the narrow step and he paused to gather his strength. Then he began to climb, not daring to look down. A sudden shaking of the handrope showed that his example had been
Kydd emerged over the thick bulwarks on to the upper deck. It was a scene of unutterable complexity, the deck sweeping far forward, massive cannon in rows along it, and above him a
black web of lines connecting masts and spars higher and thicker than any tree imaginable. The rock-like stillness of the ship was in noticeable contrast to the lively movement of
The high irritable voice shrilled, 'Over there, you fool!' The officer was standing near the ship's wheel, legs akimbo. 'There, you damn' idiot!' he snarled, and stabbed his
telescope towards the mainmast.
Kydd shambled weakly towards it, tripping on a ringbolt in the deck.
'Good God!' the officer exclaimed. 'So this is what we're going to meet the French with!' He turned to the plainly dressed older man standing with him. 'Heaven help us!'
The man's expression did not change but he murmured, 'Yes, Mr Garrett, heaven indeed help us.'
The young farmhand had finally stopped howling in terror at the black, malodorous confines of the lower hold and was now looking up through the hatch grating at the marine sentry
and sobbing quietly. The rest lay draped over the bulk stores, mainly huge casks, that extended out into the noisome gloom.
The air was so thick it was difficult to breathe. Although Duke William barely noticed the waves, creaks and cracks randomly punctuated the darkness, terrifying for those
who could not know what they meant. The only relief from the all-conquering darkness was the dim wash of tawny light that patterned down through the gratings from the few lanthorns
on the deck above.
Lying back on a cask top, Kydd strained his eyes at the shadows of the hold. Around him he could hear moans and coughs, weeping and obscenities. Men moved restlessly. At the very
edge of his perception, he became aware of movement, out of sequence with the ponderous creaking from the working timbers. Then he heard the scrabble of tiny paws as pinprick
flashes of red appeared and disappeared. He shuddered and fixed his gaze resolutely on the lanthorn.
A broken mumbling started on one side. A voice Kydd recognised as Stallard's snarled back and the mumbling stopped. The man next to Kydd stank, a musty uncared-for rankness. Kydd
inched over the top of the big cask to get away - and slid off with a cry. He fell into what seemed to be a shingle beach. He stood up in confusion, and moved forward. Each step
into the shingle ballast brought a renewed roiling of an acrid stench.
A shape appeared over the edge of an adjacent cask. 'Give us yer hand, mate,' it said. Kydd hastily scrunched over and did so. The human contact was gratifying and he found himself
hoisted surprisingly easily on to the top of the cask. 'Don't want ter go wandering around too much, cully. Yer can find dead 'uns an' all down there!'
It was difficult to make out who was talking; Kydd kept silent.
The man eyed him. 'Truscott. Didn't move meself fast enough when they came.' He grunted. 'Shoulda known better. A pox on the bastards, anyway.'
Kydd felt a surge of anger at those who had torn him away from his rightful place in life to this world of squalor and misery. 'What happens now?' he asked.
'Why, that's easy enough. We go before the First Luff who'll rate you landman 'n' me able seaman — mebbe quartermaster's mate if I'm lucky. And then we gets to be part of the
crew of this 'ere vessel.'
'So how long'll this be — I mean, when can I go back home?'
The man chuckled harshly. 'Forget home, lad. You're crew of the Royal Billy all the time she's in commission — you gets to leave her only if she goes to Davy Jones's
locker by bein' wrecked ashore or sunk in an arguyment with a Frenchie.'
'But . . .' The idea was too overwhelming to take in.
'Look, chum, you're a pressed man,' said Truscott, 'same's me. We don't get to go ashore, we gets paid less 'n a private soldier and we've less say about what we do next than a
common bloody trull — so do yerself a great favour and get used to it. You're now a foremast jack in a man-o'-war, 'n' that's that.'
Kydd breathed deeply, reaching for calm, but frustration boiled within him. He smashed his fists on the cask and gave a long hopeless roar of impotent rage.
Truscott sighed. 'Don't take on, lad. Nothin' you can do now. Listen — there's them who are goin' to suffer,' he glanced significantly at the broken farm-boy, 'and they're
goin' to be the muckers who'll be on every shite chore there is, fer ever more. 'N' there's them that'll work it out 'n' make right Jack Tars of 'emselves — and that's no bad
life when you comes at it the right way.' He cleared his throat. 'Ye'll not expect to be one right off, but—'
'You're just talking piss 'n' wind, you are!' Stallard's acid voice cut in from the dark as he scrambled over to them. 'He wants to know why he's a prisoner down here in this
stinkin' hole, not what wunnerful prospects he has!' His voice rose as though he was addressing a crowd. 'We're here because we ain't got no rights - none!' He paused. A groan
sounded in the dark. 'Only 'cos we're born in a cottage, not a mansion, we're no better'n a flock of cunny sheep - do this, go there, yes, sir, no, sir. Whatever they say, we do.
You see any whoreson gentleman down here, then? Not a chance!'
'You'd better keep your trap shut once we're at sea, mate,' Truscott said.
'Don't you worry, Mr Sailor Man,' Stallard retorted. 'I may know a thing or two about that - you just be sure you know where you'll be standin' when it comes down to it.'
Kydd bit his tongue. Stallard was mad if he thought he could get away with his petty seditions here — there was no chance of a mad gallop away into the night and anonymity in
this closed community.
'Yer frien' had better learn quick,' said Truscott, in a low voice. 'If he gets talkin' wild like that he'll be decoratin' a yardarm before he knows where he's at.'
Stallard glared at him, then slithered over to Kydd. The lanthorn gleam caught his eyes. 'Kydd knows what it's all about,' Stallard said. 'Ain't that right, mate?'
Kydd said nothing.
'We're town-mates, from Guildford,' Stallard told the figures draped on the casks about them, 'and they've learned there to have a care when they deal with us — or they could
get a midnight visit from Captain Swing.' He cackled. Noticing Kydd's silence he added, 'We stand for our rights in the old town or we lose 'em. That's what we say, ain't it, me old
cock — ain't it?' He thrust his face into Kydd's.
Kydd kept quiet.
'Well, then! I do declare! Can it be Kydd's a toady to the gentry - a stinkin' lickspittle? Mebbe a—'
Something gave way. Kydd threw himself forward and smashed his fist into Stallard's face, but as he did so he cracked his own head against the low deck beams. Stunned, he fell back,
and Stallard dived on him, punching, clawing, gouging.
'Stow it, you mad buggers!' Truscott thrust himself between them, pulling Stallard off Kydd by his hair.
Stallard knelt back. Dark runnels of blood came from his nose, and smeared over his face. 'Don't think I'll forget this, Kydd!' he said.
Kydd looked at him contemptuously. 'You're gallows-bait, Stallard — y'r cronies won't save y' now!'
He was interrupted by a clumping at the grating, and a petty officer appeared at the hatchway. 'Up 'n' out - move yer scraggy selves!'
They emerged on to the orlop deck, the dull yellow glow of the lanthorns appearing almost cheerful after the Stygian darkness of the hold.
Awaiting them were a pair of marines, in scarlet with white cross-belts and muskets, standing rigidly. The boatswain's mate had two seamen with him.
'Topsides, gemmun!' the petty officer rasped. 'First Lieutenant wants to make yer acquaintance.'
They were herded together, making their way along several gundecks and up endless ladderways to the main deck. Here they were assembled on one side, sheltered from the fitful
drizzle by the extension of the quarterdeck above before it gave way to the open area of the boat stowage.
The Master-at-Arms arrived, flanked by his two corporals. He was a stout, florid man with dark piggy eyes that never seemed to settle. 'Toe the line, then!' he rumbled at the petty
Shoving the pressed men together, the petty officer showed them how to line up by pressing their toes up against one of the black tarry lines between the deck planking.
From the cabin spaces aft a small party of men emerged; a lectern and a small table were set up. Then an officer appeared in immaculate uniform and cockaded bicorne.
The Master-at-Arms stiffened. 'Pressed men, sir!' he reported, touching his hat.
The officer said nothing but stopped, glaring, at the line of men. He took off his hat, and thwacked it irritably at his side. He was short, but built like a prize-fighter. His
dark, bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes gave him an edgy, dangerous look. The rich gold lace against the dark blue and white of his uniform cloaked him with authority.
In his sensible country fustian, which was now filthy and torn, Kydd felt clumsy and foolish. He tried to look defiantly at the officer while the wind flurried down the boat space,
sending him into spasms of shudders.
'I'm Mr Tyrell, and I'm the First Lieutenant of this ship,' the officer began. 'And you're a parcel of landmen and therefore scum. A worthless damn rabble — but you're now in
the sea service of King George and you'll answer to me for it.' He stomped across until he was within arm's length.
Kydd saw that the dark eyes were intelligent as they roved up and down the line. 'Forget what you've heard about jolly Jack Tar and a life on the rolling waves. It's a nonsense.
We're now at war, a hot bloody war, and there'll only be one winner at the end, and that's going to be us. And we win it by courage and discipline, by God!' He paced past them in a
measured tread. 'So listen to me! On board this ship you'd better soon understand that we have only one law and that's called the Articles of War. The quicker you learn that, the
better for you.' He paused. 'Show 'em the cat, Quentin.'
The Master-at-Arms looked at the boatswain's mate and nodded. The man stepped forward and, from a red baize bag, carefully extracted a thick, ornate rope handgrip ending in nine
strands of much thinner line, each carefully knotted. He teased out the yard-long strands so that they fell in a cascade in front of him.
'Every man jack of you is now subject to the Articles of War - and there it says that the penalty for disobedience is death . . .' Tyrell held his audience in a deadly fascination,
'. . . or such laws and customs in such cases used at sea,' he snarled. 'And that means I may need to ask Mr Quentin to scratch your back with his cat. Isn't that so, Quentin?'
'Aye aye, sir, Mr Tyrell.'
In the shocked silence Tyrell paced back to the table then turned, his eyes cold. He let the silence hang, doing his work for him. No sound from the men broke the deathly hush but
the mournful keening of a pair of seagulls carried clearly across the water.
Tyrell handed his hat to the clerk and took his place at the lectern. The clerk opened a large book and prepared quill and ink. 'You will answer my questions now and this will help
me decide how best you will serve. I will rate you here and provide watch and station details later to the officer of your division.'
He glanced at the clerk. 'Volunteers?'
'None, sir,' the clerk said, expressionless.
Tyrell's eyebrows rose. 'Begin.'
The clerk consulted his book. 'Abraham Fletcher,' he called.
A scrawny, apologetic-looking man shuffled forward. Raising his eyes heavenward Tyrell asked sarcastically, 'Profession, Mr Fletcher?'
'Tailor's cutter,' the man mumbled.
'Sir!' screamed the Master-at-Arms, outraged.
'Sir!' agreed the man hastily, knuckling his forehead.
'Then you're just the man the sailmaker would like to see,' Tyrell said. 'See that Mr Clough gets to know about him. Rated landman, Mr Warren's division. Next.'
It did not take long to deal with them all: Tyrell was clearly in a hurry. 'Get them to the doctor. If he refuses any, he's to give his reasons to me personally.' The book slammed
shut. 'Then they muster at the main capstan, lower deck. Tell the boatswain.'
A single long squeal from somewhere aft cut through the bustle. All movement ceased. A seaman near Kydd stirred. 'Something's on, lads,' he muttered.
Minutes later, out of sight on the deck below, several boatswains' pipes shrieked out together — low, high, low — their slow calls a barbaric yet beautiful and frail
sound carried on the buffeting wind.
'Ah, Captain's come aboard,' the seaman said.
Tyrell hurried off up the ladder.
'He'll have to come up this way, mates,' the seaman added.
The Captain appeared from below. He was wearing full dress uniform, sword and decorations with white gloves and gold-laced cocked hat, and was accompanied by a small retinue. He
moved slowly, his lean figure ungainly, bowed. Before he began ascending the ladder to the deck above he stopped and looked about him - suspiciously, Kydd thought.
Over the distance of the width of the deck his eyes rested for a moment on Kydd, who froze. The eyes moved on. The Captain resumed his stately climb up and out of sight.
Chivvied by the boatswain's mate, the pressed men moved on down to the dim orlop deck, to a cursory glance by the surgeon, then back to the lower gundeck. They found themselves
trying to keep out of the way in the busy confusion of preparing the ship for sea.
Kydd had the chance to take in more of his surroundings. A few yards away from the capstan, the weak winter sunlight still penetrated through the main hatches on all the decks, on
down even through the orlop below to the hold, casting an unearthly bright glow on the seamen taking the last of the stores aboard. On either side, great cannon stretched away into
the distance, the implements of gunnery ready to hand beside them, lashed to the deckhead, while more homely articles were stowed at the ship's side in neat vertical racks between
The main jeer capstan was at the centre of the deck, all gleaming polished wood, its massive shaft extending up to disappear through the low deckhead. Kydd could almost feel the
vessel's strength - the sweep of mighty beams, the thick angular knees and the wrist-thick rope breechings of the guns. The gunports were still open, and through them he could see
the wan glitter of the sea a few feet below. He went to the opening and looked out.
Several miles away over the sea, he could see the dull green and brown scarred cliffs of Sheppey. Half-way along the undulating coast was the square tower of a Saxon church on the
skyline amid a tiny huddle of rainwashed grey dwellings. He wondered briefly who could be living in such a bleak place. With a pang he realised that for all the chance he had of
setting foot there, they might as well have been on the moon.
He pulled back inboard, and despite himself his pulse quickened. Whatever else, he was now caught up in the age-old excitement of a ship ready for sea, outward bound; maybe to lands
far away, perhaps to meet mermaids and monsters, and even adventures like the ones described by Mr Swift.
The light from above dimmed to nothing as, one by one, the hatches were secured. Now only the light reflected through the gunports from the sea remained.
Shortly, from forward, Kydd heard irregular muffled thumps as a party of men began to close and seal the gunports. Now the cold sunlight and chill breeze were cut off, and an
oppressive gloom advanced on them. There was no natural light or air now, only a suffocating closeness with uneasy overtones of dread.
Then lanthorns were lit, their dull yellow-gold light catching the flash of eyes, buckles and seamen's gear, and revealing a nervous young officer arriving down the hatchway ladder.
As Kydd's eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he saw that the gundeck, which before had seemed a spacious sweep of bare decks, now appeared crammed with men. It was difficult to make
sense of all that went on, but there was no mistaking the role of the big capstan. Deck pillars around it were removed and capstan bars more than ten feet long were socketed and
pinned in a giant starfish pattern, a taut line connecting their ends to ensure an even strain on all.
'Nippers! Where's those bloody nippers?' bellowed a petty officer.
A ship's boy stumbled up with a clump of lengths of rope, each a few yards long.
'Bring to, the messenger!'
A rope as thick as an arm was eased around the barrel of the capstan, the ends heaved away forward to be seized together in an endless loop. Activity subsided.
'Man the capstan!'
Kydd found himself pushed into place at a capstan bar, among a colourful assortment of men. Some, like himself, were still in shoreside clothing of varying degrees of quality,
others wore the scarlet of the marines.
'Silence, fore 'n' aft!'
Men stood easy, flexing arms and shoulders. Kydd gulped. It was only a few days since he had been standing behind the counter, talking ribbons with the Countess of Onslow. Now he
was a victim of the press-gang, sent to sea to defend England. It crossed his mind that she would be outraged to see him transplanted to this context, but then decided that she
would not — hers was an old naval family.
'Take the strain, heave 'round!' The distant cry was instantly taken up.
Following the motions of the others, Kydd leaned his chest against the capstan bar, his hands clasping up from underneath. For a moment nothing happened, then the bar began to
revolve at a slow walk. A fiddler started up in the shadows on one side, a fife picking up with a perky trill opposite.
'Heave around — cheerly, lads!'
It was hard, bruising work. In the gloom and mustiness, sweating bodies laboured; thunderous creaks and sharp wooden squeals answered with deep-throated shudders as the cable
started taking up. The muscles on the back of Kydd's legs ached at the unaccustomed strain.
'Well enough — fleet the messenger!'
A precious respite. Kydd lay panting against the bar, body bowed. Looking up he caught in the obscurity of the outer shadows the eyes of a boatswain's mate watching him. The man
padded back and forth like a leopard, the rope's end held at his side flicking spasmodically. 'Heave 'round!'
Again the monotonous trudge. The atmosphere was hot and fetid; the rhythmic clank of the pawls and the ever-changing, ever-same scenery as the capstan rotated became hypnotic.
The pace slowed. 'Heave and a pawl! Get your backs into it! Heave and a pawl!'
Suddenly a pungent sea smell permeated the close air, and Kydd noticed that the cable disappearing below was well slimed with light blue grey mud. A few more reluctant clanks, then
'One more pawl! Give it all you can, men!' The officer's young voice cracked with urgency.
Kydd's muscles burned, but there would be no relief until the anchor was won, so he joined with the others in a heavy straining effort. All that resulted was a single, sullen clank.
He felt his eyes bulge with effort, and his sweat dropped in dark splodges on the deck beneath him.
It was an impasse. Their best efforts had not tripped the anchor. Along the bars men hung, panting heavily.
There was a clatter at the ladder and an officer appeared. Kydd thought he recognised him. The man next to him tensed.
Garrett strode to the centre of the deck. 'Why the hell have we stopped, Mr Lockwood? Get your men to work immediately, the lazy scum!' The high voice was spiteful, malicious.
Lockwood's eyes flickered and he turned his back on Garrett. 'Now, lads, it's the heavy heave and the anchor's atrip. Fresh and dry nippers for the heavy heave!'
Kydd was exhausted. His muscles trembled and he felt light-headed. His bitterness at his fate had retreated into a tiny ball glowing deep inside.
'Now, come on, men — heave away for your lives!' Lockwood yelled.
The men threw themselves at the bar in a furious assault. The heavy cable lifted from the deck and thrummed in a line direct from the hawse. Nothing moved.
'Avast heaving!' Garrett screamed.
The men collapsed at the bars, panting uncontrollably.
Garrett sidled up behind Lockwood, whose pale face remained turned away. 'You have here a parcel of lubbers who don't know the meaning of the word work,' he said. 'There's only one
way to wake these rogues up to their duty, you'll find.' He moved forward and glared at the men contemptuously. Only one side of his face was illuminated, adding to its demonic
His chin lifted. 'Boatswain's mates, start those men!'
Unbelieving murmurs arose as the petty officers hefted their rope's ends and closed in.
'Silence!' Garrett shrieked. 'Any man questions my orders I swear will get a dozen at the gangway tomorrow!'
'Heave 'round!' Lockwood called loudly, but with a lack of conviction.
The men bent to their task but their eyes were on the circling boatswain's mates. There was no movement at the capstan. A vicious smack and a gasp sounded. Then more. Still no
displacement of the thick cable, which was now so tight that it rained muddy seawater on the deck. The blows continued mercilessly.
Kydd heard the whup a fraction before the blow landed, drawing a line of fire across his shoulders. The buried resentment exploded, but a tiny edge of reason kept him from
a cry of rage or worse.
There could be no possible escape. While that anchor was so fiercely gripped by the mud they would remain at their Calvary.
'Vast heaving!' The bull-like roar of the boatswain broke into the agonised gasping of the men. He was not contradicted by the two lieutenants.
'All the idlers to the bars — that means all you boatswain's mates, and you, the fiddler!' He tore off his own faded plain black coat and went to the capstan. 'Shove along,
matey!' he said, to an astonished marine.
'And it's one, two, six an' a tigerrr!' he roared. 'Heeeeave!'
Men fought the bars as though against a powerful opponent. Kydd threw himself at the capstan bar in a frenzy of effort. Spots of light swam before his eyes and he knew no more than
the hard unyielding wood of the bar and the gasps and groans from beside him in the sweaty gloom.
Quite unexpectedly there came a single clank. Then another. Kydd found himself moving forward.
'Walk away with it, lads. Anchor's atrip.'
Almost sobbing with relief, Kydd kept up the pressure, desperate to avoid a loss of momentum. The clanks now came so regularly that they were almost musical.
A shout came down the ladder from the relay messenger, acknowledged by Lockwood, who turned quickly and ordered, 'Vast heaving! Pass the stoppers!'
Light-headed with relief, Kydd hung from the bar.
'Well done, lads!' the boatswain said, and retrieved his coat. Garrett was nowhere to be seen.
Kydd gazed muzzily down the length of the ship, then felt the gundeck fall to one side with a stately, deliberate motion, slowly, then faster. He clung dumbfounded to his bar.
An old seaman chuckled. 'Don't worry, mate, she's casting under topsails, just taken the wind. Now let's see those shabs topside do a bit o' work.'
The roll slowed and stopped, then returned, remaining at a small but definite angle. Incredibly, there was no other indication that this massive structure could now be moving
through the water. Quickly, the capstan and gear were secured, and Kydd fell back with profound relief.
A boatswain's mate appeared at the top of the ladder and piped, 'Haaaands to supper!'
That made Kydd keenly aware that he was fiercely hungry, but in the hubbub nobody seemed to care about the bewildered pressed men who stayed where they were, not knowing what they
Others rushed down the ladders, rudely shoving them out of the way as the mess was rigged for supper. Tables hinged to the ship's side were lowered into place between each pair of
guns. Benches and sea-chests became seats, lanthorns shed light over the tables.
Kydd hovered in the darkness at the centreline of the deck, watching friends greet each other, others hurrying past with mess-kettles and kids. Before long the savoury smell of the
evening meal washed past him. He was left alone. He watched the jolliness and familiarity with a pang, realising that it reminded him of the fellowship and intimacy of his local
tavern, and he longed to be part of it.
His stomach contracted violently and he could stand it no longer. Hesitantly he approached the nearest mess, who were listening with appreciative attention to an engrossing yarn
from a small, dark-haired sailor clutching a wooden tankard and gesturing grandly.
The story finished with a flourish and helpless laughter, and they returned to their food. Kydd stood awkwardly, wondering what to say. The conversation died away, and they looked
up at him curiously. 'I'm - I'm new on board, just been pressed,' he began.
They roared with laughter. 'Never have guessed it, mate!' a stout, red-faced sailor said, eyeing his country breeches.
'Just wondering, have you anything I can eat?' Kydd said.
'Why, which would be your mess, then?' the stout man replied.
'Only just got on the ship . . .' Kydd tried to explain.
'Well, Johnny Raw, you'd better go aft 'n' ask Mr Tyrell ter give yer one, then, hadn't you?' A hard-faced man leered and looked around for approval.
'Shut your face and leave him be, Jeb. Shift outa there, younker,' the stout man said, thumbing at a ship's boy sitting at the end of the table. 'Bring your arse to anchor, mate,
we'll see you right.' He added, 'Dan Phelps, fo'c'sleman.'
Kydd introduced himself, sat down and looked around respectfully.
The hard-faced man leaned across to him. 'So yer new pressed, are yer? Know about the sea, do yer? No?' He didn't wait for a reply. Jabbing his pot at Kydd he snarled, 'Yer'll
suffer, yer clueless lubber. You're really gonna hurt.'
The conversations tailed off, and around the table sea-hardened men stared at Kydd.
Phelps's eyebrows rose. 'Give no mind to 'im. We has a sayin' - 'Messmate before a shipmate, shipmate before a stranger, stranger before a dog.'' He glared around and the talk
Kydd remained quiet.
Phelps chuckled, then turned to the old man at the ship's side and called, 'Crooky, lend our guest some traps - we can't have him keelin' over on his first day.'
Kydd nodded gratefully as a wooden plate landed in front of him filled with a grey oatmeal mix and occasional lumps of meat. Ravenous, he spooned up some of the oatmeal but was
instantly revolted. It was rancid, with flecks of black suggestive of darker secrets. The meat was a mass of gristle and definitely on the turn. There was nothing for it: he was
famished, so he bolted it down without pause. The gristlebound hunks stayed in the bottom of the bowl.
The repulsive food restored his energy, and Kydd's spirits rose. He finished his meal and looked up, aware that he had been too hungry to pay attention to his duties as a guest at
table. 'Er, where are we going, d' y' reckon?' he asked. It was still a matter of amazement to him that their busy world was travelling along while they sat down to table.
'Give it no mind, lad, it's not our job to know the answer t' that.' Phelps sniffed and leaned over to the grog tub. He waved his pot at the old man. 'Light along a can for my
frien' here, Crooky.'
Kydd gingerly took a pull at his tankard. It was small beer, somewhat rank with an elusive herb-like bitterness, but he nearly drained it in one.
'I thought sailors only had rum,' he said, without thinking.
Phelps grinned. 'We does, but only when the swipes runs out.' He pursed his lips. 'You sayin' as you want to try some?' he said, in mock innocence.
Kydd looked around, but the others did not seem to notice; they were all comfortably in conversation. 'Are you offering?' he said.
'Wait there,' said Phelps, and lurched heavily to his feet. He went forward out of sight, and returned with his jacket clutched tight around him as though against the cold. He
resumed his seat. 'Give us yer pot, mate,' he instructed. Kydd did as he was told, and caught the flash of a black bottle under the table. Then his tankard was returned.
He waited casually then lifted it. It caught him by surprise. In the dull pewter of his tankard was a deep, almost opaque mahogany brown liquor. Its pungent fumes wafted up with a
lazy potency, which dared him to go further.
The buzz of conversation swirled around him. He took a swallow. This was not issue three-water grog, but neat spirit, and its burning progress to his stomach took his breath away.
He surfaced with a grin. 'A right true drop!'
Phelps's eyebrows lifted. 'You'll not get that sorta stingo usually, cully, but if yer play your cards right with Dan Phelps . . .' tapping the side of his nose '. . . yer mebbe
could see more of it.'
Kydd raised his pot again. This time he was prepared for the spreading fire, and gloried in the flood of satisfaction it released. His whirling anxieties subsided and his natural
cheerfulness began to reassert itself. He finished the last of the rum with regret.
The piercing squeal of the boatswain's call abruptly cut through the din. 'Be damned. Starbowlines — that's us. Fust dog-watch.' Phelps lurched to his feet, and disappeared
into the throng.
The mess traps were cleared away rapidly and Kydd found himself the only one still seated. 'Move yer arse, mate,' he was told, and once more found himself alone in the midst of
Instinctively, he turned to follow Phelps, who, he remembered, his head swimming, had left with the others up the main hatch ladder. It led to an almost identical gundeck to the one
he had left, so he continued on up the next ladderway, muscles alive with discomfort, emerging into darkness. The night had already fallen.
Overhead, past the hulking shadows of the boats on their skids above him, he saw the paleness of huge sails in regular towers, each at the same angle and each taut and trim. Nearby,
but invisible, he could hear the regular plash and sibilance of the sea, and as he stood he became aware of a background of sounds meshing together. It was a continuous and oddly
comforting interplay of creaks, dings, slattings and all manner of unfamiliar mutterings.
Out into the starless night on either hand the darkness was broken only occasionally by the flash of a white wave. He felt rather than saw that they were travelling steadily through
the water, a hypnotising, unchanging sliding which gave no impression of headlong speed and he marvelled once again.
He was still comfortably warm from the rum, and ambled along, wondering at the vast mystery of the ship with all its unfathomable shapes, sounds and implied dangers. The sights
above disappeared abruptly as he passed under a deck, the unmistakable outline of a bell in its belfry silhouetted briefly against the pallid fore course.
Loath to return between decks he noticed a short ladder leading upwards. He mounted, and found himself directly under the sails, the downdraught from them buffeting him with a
deluge of cold air. He looked about quickly. Forward there was nothing but darkness, but aft he could make out men standing together, eerily illuminated by lights coming up from a
He moved towards them along the gangway next to the boats.
'Where you off to, matey?' A sailor had him by the arm. It was too dark even to make out his face.
'Lay aft, that man!' Garrett's high-pitched voice came from among the cluster around the lights.
There was no point in hiding, he had done nothing wrong.
'At the run!' Garrett screamed. Tortured muscles burned as Kydd staggered over to the group. They were around the ship's wheel and the light from the binnacle was shining up into
Garrett stalked up to Kydd and peered into his face. 'When I say move, you fly! Stand at attention, you scurvy rogue. Who the devil do you think you are that you can just stroll
about my quarterdeck under cover of night?' Garrett leaned forward, jutting his face at Kydd, who flinched. A stale smell of brandy hung about the officer.
Kydd stood rigid, all traces of the rum falling away. He had no idea what offence, if any, he had committed.
'Nothing to say?' Garrett asked dangerously. 'Nothing to say? You know you're caught out, and you know I'm going to punish you.' Garrett swayed forward, looking closely at Kydd's
shore clothing. His head jerked up. 'Ah. So you must be one of that sorry-looking crew the press brought aboard today.'
'Then you'll have to learn that common seamen don't just wander about on the quarterdeck when it suits them. It is reserved for officers only - for your betters.' He rocked on his
heels and cocked his head skyward as if looking for inspiration.
'I've a mind to give you a spell in the bilboes to help you remember.' His gaze snapped back to Kydd. A vicious look, and then a saintly smile spread. 'But I'm too soft. I'll let it
go — just this once. But if it happens again,' the voice rose to a biting crescendo, 'by Harry, I'll make you rue the day you ever set foot in this vessel!'
Somewhere high above a sail started a fretful slapping. The man at the wheel eased a spoke or two and the noise stopped.
'Get below — now!'
Kydd turned wordlessly and made his escape. He hadn't asked to be part of this. He was a wig-maker of Guildford and belonged there, not in this alien company.
He plunged down the ladders. He was friendless and unknown here, cut off from normal life as completely as it was possible to be. Not a soul aboard cared if he lived or died; even
Phelps must regard him as a form of street beggar deserving of charity.
At the end of the last dog-watch, hammocks were piped down and Kydd was tersely advised to be elsewhere. Once hammocks were slung, every conceivable space was occupied. 'Get the
softest plank you can find and kip out on that,' was the best advice he was offered. These men would be relieving the watch on deck at midnight and had little sympathy for a lost
soul overlooked by the system.
Worn out by the trials and challenges of the day, some instinct drove him to seek surcease in the deepest part of the ship. He found himself in the lowest deck of all, stumbling
along a narrow dark passage past the foul-smelling anchor cable, laid out in massive elongated coils.
Kydd felt desperately tired. A lump rose in his throat and raw emotion stung his eyes. Despair clamped in. He staggered around a corner, and just at that moment the lights of a
cabin spilled out as a door opened. It was the boatswain, who looked at him in surprise. 'Got yourself lost, then?' he said.
'Nowhere t' sleep,' mumbled Kydd, fighting the waves of exhaustion. 'Jus' came on the ship today,' he said. He swayed, but did not care.
The boatswain looked at him narrowly. 'That's right — saw you at the jeer capstan. Well, lad, don't worry. First Luff has a lot on his plate right now, sure he'll see you in
the morning.' He considered for a moment. 'Come with me.' He pulled at some keys on a lanyard and used them to open a door in the centre of the ship.
'We keeps sails in here. Get your swede down there till morning, but don't tell anyone.' He turned on his heel and thumped away up the ladder.
Kydd felt his way into the room. It stank richly of linseed oil, tar and sea-smelling canvas, but blessedly he could feel the big bolsters of sails that would serve as his bed, and
he crumpled into them.
He lay on his back, staring up into the darkness at the one or two lanthorns in the distance outside that still glowed a fitful yellow. Then he jerked alert. He knew that he was not
alone and he sat up, straining to hear.
Without warning, a shape launched itself straight at him. He opened his mouth to scream, but with a low 'miaow' a large cat was on his lap, circling contentedly. Kydd stroked it
gently and the animal purred in ecstasy, then stretched out comfortably and settled down. Kydd crushed the animal to him. First one tear, then another fell on to its fur.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Julian Stockwin