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A TEMPEST UNBOUND Boston - 9 February 1840 A THOUSAND little deaths have I died since that God-forsaken night, said the portly little man, promptly stifling the murmurs that had followed him into the courtroom. With a flourish he swept the moth-eaten cap from his head, tucked it neatly under his belt, then stroked his gleaming pate. Grunting, he climbed onto the dais and for a long moment stood stock-still with his back to the tribunal, mumbling to himself in singsong. When at last he turned to face them, a lone voice called out from the back of the gallery: Coward! followed by another, Judas! and soon the whole gallery erupted. Order, cried the bailiff, but to no avail. The ruddy-faced man stood on the dais like a preacher in the pulpit, smiling at the sweet irony of their cruel words; to him they were a salve that soothed. He turned again, this time to face the court and with a stubby set of fingers reached for the bowl of his smoldering pipe. Moving his jaw like a shipwrights bellows, he rekindled the flagging embers, re-igniting the old tobacco. And then he wagged the greasy pipe stem at them, parting a pall of fetid smoke as he boldly proclaimed in a scolding tone: A thousand little deaths, aye, but a thousand and one more shall I suffer ere Ive put paid to this cowards penance! He hesitated before placing his left hand on a tattered copy of the Kings Bible, all the while grousing at the formality of the proceedings, then reluctantly raised his right hand to swear the oath. The mans sanguine face seemed to swell and glow under the strain of the words as he spat them out, his tone so bellicose even the chair shivered. To be sure, some thought it actually groaned as he settled himself into it, the legs and staves laboring under the strain of his corpulent bulk. No sooner had the clerk called the proceedings to order than the doors burst wide open. Another hush rippled through the courthouse as the bailiff cleared a path and ushered a sullen yet shapely figure cloaked in black into the smoky stench of the oil lamps. When the woman paused to lift the veil from her pale countenance, her eyes met those of the man on the dais, and his face split wide open into an all but toothless smile, a smile so warm it could have banished the frost from the panes. But the widow Radcliffe quickly chased that smile into the shadows as she demurred and turned her gaze away, cautiously peering round the room. The clerk rose and cleared his throat before he intoned: The witness will please state his full name for the record. As if to belay the request, the sailor raised a pudgy hand and with a nod politely said, In due time, sir, in due time. Then he turned to address the woman directly. The clerk stood up and raised his own hand, but it was too late. In little more than a whisper he said, Times passing may have allayed my grief, MLady, but surely not the agony of my sin, for seldom does the sun rise when I dont awaken with his screams burning fresh and alive in my mind. His words were tinged with a quaking lilt, spoken as if trying to mask the horror with a terseness that, to the sensibilities of many around him, may have seemed beyond the means of a simple sailor. Soft murmurs arose from the gallery of spectators. Order, cried the bailiff. Please, sir. The clerk has asked you to give only your name. But the man paid no heed. As his voice faltered, he carried on, saying, To this very day Maam I bury my head and pray for his safe return. And at that moment his chin quivered ever so slightly under the strain. He paused, cleared his throat and finished in a broken whisper: And, I pray for your forgiveness, as well. Mister MacAirem, please, said the widow, her own words tinged with seemingly over-wrought emotion. You need not beg for that which I have already- The man winced, waving his weather-beaten mitt at her so as to cut her entreaty short. Its Belly, Maam. Just...Belly. As you wish, Mister, uh, Belly, said the widow, and once again she turned her gaze away from him. Are you quite finished, asked the clerk. No, he shouted, and leaning over the rail he went on: Look at me now, but close MLady, and tell me what you see. A good and faithful servant? Belly waited for a reply that did not come. Or an innocent mans executioner? The silence that filled the room was deafening. Which one am I to you? And to Jake and Miss Darcy. Mister Belly, I- Nay, nay MLady, confess nothing for I am bound by my oath before God to reveal what I truly am of my own account. Oengus MacAirem the Gwlyddyn, boatswain on board of the old Prospero - better known to his mates as Belly - may be none but a craven scourge upon this earth, a feckless cur that chose to save his own skin even as I turned my back on your husband and all those mates who sank to their graves. The surly fellow paused a moment. But a mutineer? His fat upper lip curled as he added with a snarl, Ask the man who yet calls himself the chief. Another murmur rose from the assembly. ORDER! Mind, he called out. A coward by any other name is still a coward. The gallery erupted and with a resounding crack! a gavel struck hard the bench. The murmurs were stilled. The court recognizes, Mister Oengus Mac, uh -- Belly is it? Thats MacAirem to you, sir, said the bosun. He looked straight at the widow and said, Now shall you hear the full account that I may be judged as this court...nay, nay - the whole town sees fit. Twas near the end of the noon watch when it hit, but as far back as I can recollect nary a storm so foul ever came down on any ship with such a vengeance, nor with such haste. I reckon an ill-tempered NorEasters what started it, scourging up the waves something fierce, liken if it were hell-bent to do nothing more than take us all down. And when the sea belched that great, green sloosh of hers over our decks, sheathing the Prosperos rotting timbers with foam the likes of a rabid mongrels, I thought twere a sign. Anyway, I would be remiss should I fail to mention that on this dark day, though we were but a mere mote in that dragons awful eye, nary a one of us betrayed the fear in our hearts. As he spoke Belly closed one eye and with crusty fingers pried open the other, ogling at his captive audience. Then he stood to carry on, peddling his own special brand of snake oil, arms flailing as he spoke: All around us the sea sizzled and sputtered, awash with cold fire as lightning fell down from heaven itself. And with it came Lucifers hammer, he said in a whisper, striking hard that rusted old anvil of his with blow after bone-shaking blow, his voice rising now as he wielded an unseen hammer and pretended to beat the rail in front of him, til it split the celestial vault wide open! and his arms flew up as if to part the sky above. He continued: Wide open I tell you! Here he took a deep breath, then raised his arms again. A tempest unbound! he bellowed, his voice ricocheting off the bare walls. O, to be stuck at sea in a storm such as that. I never felt more alive. __________________________ The watch began that day much like any other. We were headed in, a year and eleven months to the day after the Prospero left Nantucket, looking to fill her holds with oil and a good parcel of spermaceti. One of my duties was to see to it the longboats were hauled up proper and the gear stowed Bristol-fashion and such, so I went about my business, keeping a sharp eye on the lads at the pots. I just happened to look up from the break of the poop when some kind of preternatural gleam off the starboard bow caught my eye. I blinked, squeezing the salty spray from beneath my lids and then looked again, but the glow had vanished below the surface. * * * A curious observer streaked through the ocean, propelled by an array of diaphanous fins, a serpentine tail and a delicate brace of webbed claws. Targeting the bulk of a lone ship bobbing in the wind-whipped sea, she circled its dark belly, then paused briefly to study the elegant yet, to her fishified sensibilities, somewhat primitive design. Much to her horror she realized the blackish red streaks on the vessels planking were none but bloody smears. Now even more wary of drawing the mariners attention, the cautious observer broke the surface and summoned the power of the Fin Cephalarvum, her lifeblood and symbiont companion. As she channeled psionic energy from one of its glowing, orb-like eggs the unseen observer gazed from on high the deck of the ship. Looking down upon the deck her minds eye caught the glint of sharpened steel, stained a blackened red, as well as cauldrons bubbling with a frothy brew: a shiver rippled through her body. Then she noticed a cluster of topsiders struggling to launch a tattered fishing net over the rail. Curiosity trumped fear as she drew ever closer and deftly tuned the tympanic membrane just behind her gill slits. Sifting through the deafening crash of the waves, she plucked from the midst of a nearly ceaseless, chittering drone the winsome voice of a young man. Rising and falling like the undulating swells over which they carry, his words filled the spirited observer with the rapture of a homesick girl just returned. In time, the elated observer drew away from the ship, just far enough for one last look, then she dove beneath the rough waves, back into the oceans quiet sanctuary. * * * I purged the apparition from my thoughts, for whatever else it might have been I knew not. And then I looked up and saw the captains first mate, Mister Drake, drop to the deck from his perch in the rigging and he says to me, Belly, he says, Wheres the captain? Jerking his thumb in the direction of a blackening line of squalls, one of which was by then moving in like as if twere on fire, he says, Why has he not given the order? A thing like that waits for no man. Drake was right. The only remedy for such a wicked blighter as the one that bore down upon us that day, liken some great ghost of a steam locomotive belching a monstrous plume of smoke and spewing all manner of -- oh, sorry. The only fix was to shorten sail, or at the very least strike the main and set the trysails. But I wondered, where pray tell was the captain, and why had the order been belayed? So I called out, Havent seen him since his turn on the dog watch. And straightaway I hear the cabin boy chime in, calling out in response, Hes below deck, sir. Taking his fill. I looked at him, failing to ferret-out his meaning and so I says, Taking his fill? And Nick asks me right back, In his cabin, seeming to hoist up his shoulders with his brow. Then he gestures with a flip of his hand, mimicking a hefty swill. Well, quick as you like Drake grabbed the boys arm out of midair and wrested it round his backside and he says, Now then, nevvy-boy. Well be hearing no more of that kind of blather, lest you find yourself back in the hogs pen, chumming with your own kin. And to that Nicky says, But I thought you were my own kin, Uncle Per- But Drake cut him off, wrenching the boys arm up another notch and whispering in his ear in a gravelly voice, Thats Mister Drake to you boy. Then he throws him to the deck and says, The captains a teetotaler, is he not Mister Belly? A bit taken aback I lied and said, Aye. Long as Ive known the man, Mister Drake. Nicky jumps to his feet and says, But I saw him! And then we all gave a start when the hatch suddenly exploded with a BANG! It bounced on the planking with such a force what nearly ripped it from its hinge. Twas quite a sight. The captain staggered onto the deck and just stood there, wiping his stubbly mug on a stained and sodden sleeve, all but drunk by the looks of him. He capped the pocket flask and tucked it inside his open shirt, then looked round and growled, Bo - sun?! I remember thinking, no, Mister Richard. Not now. But, having been summoned so ceremoniously I thought, for the sake of the crew it seemed a rather fitting time to stand and give the report. So, as I drew in a deep breath and commenced to let the captain know the boats were up and the hold was nobbut full little Nicky got into it again, this time with a couple of greenhands fighting over the days catch. I turned round and yanked the lad out of the fracas just in time to see the net come up, this one all but empty as it were, and thats when the first mate called the men to quarters. Best to leave the catch to the crew, lad, he said to Nick, who was fast losing ground to yet another ornery mate. When the stubborn lad balked Mister Drake brushed him aside and called out, Stow that tackle and take in the topsails! Then hoist the storm trysails! Fall to it you men else we soon find ourselves in the grip of that squall with no other course but to founder! Quick as a snake I grabbed his oilskin, all but cutting him off. Mind, a better first mate there never was; could always count on him to put the safety of the crew afore his own. But hear me now, the captain keeps a tight rein on his ships crew. At times, tis better a taught leash anyway, and it doesnt set well with him to buck his orders. First mate or no I cautioned him to hold his tongue. Belay that order, Percy, says the captain. Im in charge of this by-gad banker and Ill never strike sail to a fear. So long as Im captain, I give the order. He looked round and spotted me, then said, Mister Belly? Wheres my report, by-gad? It mattered little that I had just given the man his by-gad report; mired in what appeared to be a rum-induced brain-fog Mister Richard had forgotten and asked for it again. Anyway, I never took kindly to the captain calling Mister Drake Percy, especially in front of the men. Course, bound as brothers un-under the law and such I could hardly intervene; brothers will be brothers. But, no matter. On Mister Richards ship you learn to hold your tongue or feel the sting of the cat. Course, thatd be the nine-tails, dont you know? Mightve guessed that ere I could summon the courage to answer the captains call a second time, Mister Drake would shout his order to the men at the main, Yo! Lower, lower! Bring her hove to with the mainsail. He meant that they should bring the ship to lie in the wind by setting the mainsail against the others. Took little more than that to light the captains fuse it did, if lit it wasnt already. Damn your insolence, sir, said the captain. Youre the chief. You signed the articles did you not, you mutinous blackguard? To hell with your rules, Cliffy, said Drake. For Gods sake man, sober up and order the crew to make the trysails before this squall really kicks up and tries to take us down. Wearing a toothy grin the captain waved off the storm, reached inside his shirt and pulled out that silver flask of his again. He took a long draft and said, Heres what I think, Percy. When you finally sign a crew to that old lugger you call the Molly Mawk, well see how you fare as captain. Til then? As first mate your place is to stand with me and my men. I say well ride out this squall of yours and be back in port with a belly-full and all the quicker. You know why? Mister Richard grabbed a fistful of Drakes oilskin and hauled him in close, nose to nose. Because you and this crew will follow my orders and no other. Let this be a warning to you, Percy. The captain strained his next words through clenched teeth: Question my judgment in front of the crew again and Ill have you clamped in iron and locked away. The captain turned away from Drake, saying, Make the trysails! he says. Then he spun back around and added, What are you so afraid of anyway? To that Drake says, Listen, Cliffy. You and Ive seen mastheads snap like twigs in a gale, three-hundred ton barks keel over like barrels in a pond when the blow was upon them. Here, he paused and lowered his voice. But you and I also know that a good many honorable men, decent God-fearing men have been lost at sea simply because their captain paid no heed, I mean none at all, to the prudence of bracing for the worst when it was upon them. I say let God and the elements temper the will of a prudent man and thats why I gave the order to trim sail. Just you remember, Cliffy - youll not see me back down from this, not without a fight you wont, and if worse comes to worse the blood will be on your hands, not mine. The captain was applauding Drake when he said, Well spoken chief, an eloquent speech if eer I heard one, right boys? And before anyone could so much as clear his throat, Captain Radcliffe bellowed, Christ in Heaven! Tis a mans discretion in these matters that counts for more than mere eloquence! The captain spat on the deck and waved an accusing finger at all of us. Now you listen up you men, lest you forget - I give the order and my word is final. As for you, Percy? Methinks you had best save your mettle for the donnybrook. Course, if its a good fight youre looking for, and he pushed up a dirty sleeve. Now, the captain could be a formidable man to reckon with if you crossed him, so the mates, they kept mostly to themselves. But I, your good Mister Belly, stepped between them and I says to him, Tis the captain youre speaking to, Mister Drake, sir. Best do as he says, eh? At that the chief shook his head and glared at me, saying, Aye, Belly. Tis the captain, a captain much like this ship: three sheets in the wind and hell-bent for destruction. So, with the ships ragged sails stretched to the limit, Captain Radcliffe took the helm and piloted the Prospero headlong into the tempest, sailing un-under a shroud of sooty clouds so black as to turn day into night. Then, Id say not long after Mister Richard disappeared below deck, old Drake pulled a couple of his harpooners aside, all mysterious like: that Irish bloke Kincaid and a slave by the name of Omar. Next thing I know, them two and a few of their focsle mates were hauling out the trysails and commencing to rig them. I gave little Nicky a nod and a wink and then, all at once it seemed, the raging bull that had been bearing down upon us from nigh on about every point on the compass vanished as the Prospero plowed straightaway into the eye at the center of the storms angry maw. Ill never forget it: There we were, in the eerie calm of that glorious place, sunlight washing over me and the mates. All save Drake, it seemed. Twere like as if to lift our spirits clean out of that choppy murk - as if the Lord Himself had intervened. I glanced over to starboard. There at the gunwale stood Nick, looking on as his father pointed a sextant skyward, taking a reading. I watched him hand the instrument to his son and then he made the calculations for the record in his journal. As the men hauled on taut lines, hoisting the last of the trysails into position, I saw Mister Richard check his chronometer against the record and enter that set of coordinates, as well. When Nick try to mimic his father by aiming the sextant and taking his own reading, the chief just smiled at the boy; seemed Nick had made a sighting straight through the back of his head, he did. His father laughed and stooped to show him which end was up, then he pocketed his journal and had Nick go below and stow the sextant in the great cabin. I looked up, whispering thanks to the Almighty for delivering us out of that maelstrom, and then the chief commenced to leading me and the men in a chant. Heave-ho, came the call, over and over as we hauled up the last mess of haddock from the deep. (to be continued)

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The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reasons for remaining ashore. - Vincent Van Gogh, Topsider


6/7/2009 10:42 AM
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