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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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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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.

It was perilous. Both masts-she had carried two lug-sails, apparently-were over the side now, and she drifted, waterlogged and rolling heavily, bows-on to the seas, the wreckage of her top-hamper serving as sea anchor.

The floating wreck was less than a cable's length to leeward when she released a flock of birds. Hoare blinked in disbelief. Yes, they were birds, indeed, and no seabirds. They formed a confused cloud, seemed to veer upwind toward Neglectful, then gave over and let the gale carry them scudding off out of Hoare's sight.

Long since, Hoare had distinguished her people. There were two of them, clinging to the stumps of her masts so as to withstand the seas that were washing over their vessel. Both were waving frantically with their free hands, as though they must make absolutely, totally, utterly sure that Hoare saw them and knew their distress. He was close enough now to hear their faint cries, even against the gale.

This would call for his best seamanship. Neglectful closed the gap between herself and the wreck at a full ten knots, heaving and bucking in the scend of the following seas as if she were a wild mare. At top speed, Hoare lashed the helm lest she broach to while he occupied himself with the rescue. As they passed, Neglectful and the stranger would present their larboard sides.

Hoare snatched up a grapnel to which he had long ago spliced a light dock line and clambered forward into Neglectful's eyes. Shifting the clips of his harness onto her fore-stay, he stood erect, whirled the grapnel in a circle, and let it fly. Before the grapnel could even strike its target, he had dropped the line into a bronze chock, taken a turn, and braced himself.

The grapnel caught in the lugger's bulwarks. Hoare had a lightning memory of the last time that grapnel had been put to use; it had caught a Frenchman between neck and shoulder and pulled him off the schooner Marie Claire.

Now Hoare cleated the far end of the line to one of the sockets he had set to take Neglectful's swivel gun at need. Neglectful lurched steeply to starboard, her timbers squealing in protest as the line drew taut and spun her full about, nearly in her own length, bringing her head to the gale, bucking in the seas aft of the stranger, her two scraps of sail a-thunder.

Between them, the three men heaved Neglectful and the dismasted lugger close enough to each other so that the castaways could scramble across their own swimming deck, take a purchase on Neglectful's jib-stay, and drop onto her bowsprit. The first man made it without incident, but the second missed his timing and went over the side with a shriek of despair, carrying Hoare's grapnel with him, into the widening strip of Channel between the vessels. He had kept a tight grip on the grapnel, however, and the other two men readily dragged him aboard Neglectful, spluttering but no wetter than he had been before his bath.

Especially in foul weather, the Channel hereabouts was a no-man's-land, so until now Hoare could not be sure whether he had saved French lives or English ones.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," the swimmer gasped, crawling after Hoare into the stern sheets, where Hoare could take the con once more. The sentiment might be Papist, Hoare thought, but the words were English. At least, then, he did not face the risk of being overpowered by ungrateful guests and carried off to some Breton port.

The first castaway looked back at the lugger, dwindling in the distance and wallowing visibly. "There goes me livelihood," he said bitterly through chattering teeth.

Hoare gestured to the two to go below and mimed eating, drinking, and dry clothing. They looked puzzled.

"Can't ye talk?" the first arrival shouted at him. Like so many people, he must assume that anyone who could not speak certainly could not hear. Hoare shook his head, smiled an apology, and repeated the motions. The swimmer went below, but the owner waited while his livelihood raised her weary bows into the air and disappeared behind a roller. She did not appear again. Thereupon, the owner joined his companion below.

Hoare kept his yacht's course easterly, scudding before the wind, even though wind and seas were far outpacing her. He knew Neglectful's cleverly formed transom would prevent her from being pooped.

The choking reek of coal smoke, sweeping horizontally from the little yacht's Charley Noble, was followed quickly enough by the more welcome smell of soup a-heating. The gale had not let up, but it had not strengthened, either, and Neglectful rode smoothly enough that Hoare's guests- probably as good seamen as he, if not better-had judged it safe to light her galley stove. Hoare had no spare oilskins, but he had several loose heavy garments that would fit any wet visitor well enough. It was no more than half a glass before the bereaved owner, clad in Hoare's thick Shetland sweater, stuck his head out Neglectful's cabin hatch and reached his host a cup of thick, hot soup, in one of his own thick, hot mugs. It was welcome; events had moved so fast that Hoare had not thought to breach his emergency cockpit supply.

In his other hand, the rescued owner held one of the Roman-style wax tablets that, together with numerous other devices, Hoare carried about for easy communication whenever his feeble whisper could not be understood.

"Name's Dunaway, your honor," he said, "Abel Dunaway. Owner of the Fancy lugger-though that means nowt this day."

Dunaway handed the tablets to his rescuer. His mournful, tanned face bore a week's growth of grizzled beard, and a shag of gray hair dropped into his eyes. He made himself comfortable in the cockpit, face-to-face with Hoare. In Neglectful's narrow cockpit, their knees all but touched.

"Just the same, sir, I owes you for me life, and Jamie below as well, though he must speak for himself. The boy Jethro Slee went overboard this morning, when a thicky murderous gale hit.

"I should never ha' sent him forward to reef the foresail; he went overboard. When I bore up to fish him out, we broached to, and her mainmast went by the board. 'Twere all my fault, my most grievous fault, and I don't know how I'm to break it to his da." Dunaway fell silent and studied his borrowed mug.

"May be lettin' up" he observed after a bit. "What d'ye think, sir?"

Hoare smiled into the growing darkness and shook his head. In point of fact, the moan of the wind in Neglectful's rigging had risen a half-tone. It was nigh time to heave to completely.

"Sorry, sir," Dunaway said. He handed Hoare the waxen tablets. "To whom do I owe my life, then?"

Hoare scribed his name in the wax, added "Lieutenant RN," then recollected himself, scratched the title out, and replaced it with "Commander, RN." He had been a Lieutenant for twenty-two years and still found it hard to remember that he now rated the courtesy address of "Captain."

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