Wilder Perkins: Hoare and the headless Captains

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Wilder Perkins Hoare and the headless Captains
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    Hoare and the headless Captains
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Here the Admiral had interrupted his discourse again, ostensibly to take refreshment but actually, Hoare suspected, to appraise his listener's reaction. He avoided making any but waited with suppressed amusement. Finally, Sir George grew tired of waiting.

"For you appear, sir," he went on, "to be well regarded in certain Whitehall corridors, as one of those experts in your own right. I imagine they believe you largely responsible for breaking up that gang that was blowing up so many of His Majesty's ships. Those affairs of Severn's missing Master and that Bourbon Duke also stand to your credit. Accordingly, Their Lordships of the Admiralty have been pleased to put you into Royal Duke."

I am to go to sea again! Hoare cried to himself. To be sure, with a company of only thirty, Royal Duke could hardly support more than one Lieutenant, but even so, he would, under his commanding officer, of course, once again be an officer of a fighting ship. Or, more probably, he would be a mere supernumerary, one of those experts the Admiral had mentioned, though precisely where they thought his expertise might lie eluded him. Just the same… to be at sea again!

"Of course," the Admiral went on, "you could hardly expect to fill poor Oglethorpe's shoes in every respect. After all, he was a Post Captain, seventy-five years of age, and wise in the ways of the ungodly. No. The best rank I-Their Lordships, I mean-have seen fit to bestow upon you is that of Master and Commander. You will read yourself in as soon as she makes Portsmouth from her present berth in Greenwich under the temporary command of her Lieutenant."

Hoare had simply sat there, bereft of words. Together, those three words Master and Commander put teeth into his new commission. His title was to be more than nominal: Commander was an appellation often used to recognize deserving Lieutenants who thereafter languished on half-pay for lack of an actual vessel to command. He was to be "Master and Commander," on active service, confirmed in command of his own vessel. He was only three-and-forty now; with luck, he would make post after all before he died, despite his disabilities of name and voice.

"While you will be Master and Commander in actuality," said Sir George, thereby figuratively nailing Hoare's rank to the mast of advancement, "you are not, yourself"- here he paused and read from a paper before him-" 'expected to issue spoken orders with respect to the working of the vessel under your command. Instead, you may give instructions to your Lieutenant, who in his turn will order the crew as conditions require.'

"In other words, in all circumstances where your lack of a voice would endanger Royal Duke, her mission, or her men, your Lieutenant will be-to coin a phrase-your executive officer. That will, of course, almost always be the case on deck and under way. You know that as well as I.

"However," Sir George added, "the case is hypothetical. Royal Duke can sail, but she must not sail. Lest she be taken by the French, secrets and all, she must never go to sea. 'This is the first and great commandment.' "

Hoare nodded. It was his crushed voice box that had cut short a promising career at sea and put him ashore- forever, as he had believed for ten years and more. Well, half a loaf… To all intents and purposes, Royal Duke might as well be a mere idle hulk, but she would be his, his to command.

"The arrangement is unprecedented, sir," Sir George continued. "It demonstrates a highly unusual degree of trust on the part of Their Lordships in your ability to, er, navigate, so to speak, the uncharted waters on which you are about to embark. It will require an especially high level of mutual trust and accommodation between yourself and your Lieutenant. However, I reassure you that your command is not merely pro forma. It is de facto as well."

Sir George paused again, this time to admire his own mastery of Latin.

"And de jure, of course," he added triumphantly. Sir George was an accomplished and articulate flag officer as well as a grim and a merciless man, but, as Hoare knew, had gone to sea at nine and even as a midshipman had never sailed under the instruction of either a schoolmaster or a chaplain. An officer of the old school, he was more comfortable with action than discourse. Perversely, in Hoare's opinion, this inclined Sir George all the more to parade whatever classical crumbs he might have gathered up from under the tables of more learned men. It might also explain his excursions into periphrastic orotundity.

"In short, the duties of Master in Royal Duke will be assumed in practice, as a rule, by your First Lieutenant."

"May I ask, sir, who my Lieutenant is to be?" Hoare whispered.

"You may ask, sir, but you will receive no answer. I exercise my privilege of being irritating to my subordinates whenever I choose. Let you reveal yourself to the man, and he to you, when you read yourself in.

"I can state, however, that I briefly entertained the name of Peter Gladden, who, as you will remember, was your colleague in defense of Mr. Arthur Gladden's recent court-martial. However, I chose to leave him in Frolic."

Hoare thought he could guess the reason. Peter Gladden was openly enamored of Sir George's daughter, and Felicia was known to reciprocate. Her papa the Admiral had given evidence that he did not oppose the connection; Mr. Gladden's parents were both wellborn and wealthy, and since Felicia, however good-hearted she was, was dumpy, spotty, and lacking in presence, he would be hard put to it to find a better match for the young woman. But, as prudent in his role of pater familias as in his position of Port Admiral at Portsmouth, Sir George had probably determined to separate the lovers for a spell before approving the union. Thus, any second thoughts on the part of either young person would have a chance to surface before it was too late altogether to cry off.

"Since your appointment will appear in the forthcoming Chronicle," the Admiral continued, "I give you leave to christen it as you please without necessarily waiting to read yourself in. You cannot draw your pay as Commander, of course, until Royal Duke has made port and that ceremony has come to pass."

That was true, Hoare knew. Neglectful's former owner had fallen into that trap. When the brief Peace of Amiens had been signed with Napoleon, Their Lordships had refused to confirm him in rank and required him to restore every penny of his Commander's pay. Until the weary war had resumed, the poor man had had to scrape along on nothing except his winnings at whist and Hoare's payment for Neglectful.

"That will be all for today, then, Hoare," said Sir George with a wintry smile. "Go, make holiday; make merry. Put yourself in proper uniform, and wet your swab as you see fit."

Hoare was about to relive the christening of his swab, an occasion that, in keeping with the celebrant's advanced age, included Sir George himself and as many Post Captains and senior civilians as it did sprightly Lieutenants and therefore resembled a gathering of stately, convivial walruses. But a gust bore a sheet of cold October rain across Neglectful, and she heeled another strake. Hoare shook himself back to the present. He lifted himself stiffly, to scan the full horizon, first to windward and then, ducking under the boom and its straining trysail, to leeward.

Directly on Neglectful's lee beam, tossing in the squall that had just passed overhead, a two-masted vessel emerged from the blowing rain. One mast was canted against the other; from both streamed the remnants of sails and rigging. As Hoare watched, the stranger was obscured by a fountain of spray, reappearing to show only a single mast remaining upright.

Timing his maneuver to coincide with the lee offered by an oncoming sea, Hoare eased both sheets and edged Neglectful eastward, off the wind. Trysail and storm jib, which had been straining before, were now pressed to their utmost, and her double backstays hummed in the following gale. Neglectful heaved, nearly pitchpoling, but gained her stride and rushed down the wind, the stranger growing in Hoare's vision as the two vessels neared. Another sea lifted between the two craft, reached the other, and hoisted her skyward as it passed under her, to reveal her condition more clearly.

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