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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"Captain," he said to himself. "Captain."

Dunaway managed a grin. "A new creation, I'll warrant, Captain," he said, as if he had been reading Hoare's mind. Hoare nodded again and returned the grin.

"Fancy?" he wrote. "Smuggler?" He knew very well she was no fisherman. There had been no sign of nets or trawls aboard the lugger, and her rig had been better suited to another calling.

"Fisherman," Dunaway said. Hoare shrugged.

A heavier sea came within a hair of breaking over Neglectful's stern. Cleverly formed or not, her stern sheets risked being overburdened within minutes.

"Sea anchor," he wrote. He tapped Dunaway's hand and pointed to the tiller with raised eyebrows. The other nodded.

"Aye aye," he said.

Hoare crawled forward once again, securing the idle grapnel as he went. Timing his moves to coincide with one of the periodic lees afforded him by the sea, he cracked the forward hatch, reached down, and dragged out Neglectful's seldom-used drogue. He hitched its pendant beside the useful grapnel, took in the scrap of storm jib, and signaled Dunaway to let the yacht work herself around into the wind. He gave the sea anchor ten fathoms or so of scope and cleated the line before crawling aft again.

Since she was no longer running with the wind, Neglectful's rigging began to shriek instead of merely moaning, but she rose willingly to the seas, now breasting them instead of fleeing them. Her trysail held her in place, so that once he had lashed the tiller again, she would do her duty as long as Hoare called on her to do so. He motioned Dunaway below and followed him, catching up his bag of sustenance as he went and securing the cuddy hatch behind him.

Neglectful's builder had not designed her to accommodate more than two. With three sizable men below, she was cramped. A man-o'-warsman, as used as any sardine to living bump-bottom with his shipmates, would have hardly been troubled, but Hoare had never gone to sea as less than a very junior mid. He saw that the proximity of two companions would become irksome in no time and resolved to set them ashore as soon as the weather permitted. Meanwhile, he accepted the fresh mug of his own pea soup that Jamie, the swimmer, offered him. Strangely, the rich smell of the soup blended cozily with the smell of wet wool that both his guests gave off as they began to warm up and the pervasive reek of Stockholm tar.

"Thank you," Hoare whispered, as much as to see if he could make himself heard above the muffled cacophony here below as to give the man a polite response.

"No; thank you, sir," Jamie said. His voice was unexpectedly cultured, but with a slight accent. French perhaps? His unweathered face was open and innocent. "Bose Mr. Dunaway and me 'ood be feedin' the fishes long since if it were not for you."

"A grand piece of seamanship," interjected Dunaway. "Both Jamie and I owe you our lives."

"Permit me, sir, to drink your healf in this most uncommon good soup," Jamie added.

"Permission granted," Hoare whispered with a smile. "If you'll steer your mugs this way, I'll even bless 'em with this." He wedged his own mug securely in his corner of the padded starboard locker, withdrew a jug from its bag, and, having drawn the cork with his teeth, poured a noggin of black rum into the others' extended mugs, remembering to christen his own before restoppering the jug.

"What brings you to sea, sir, alone, in such weather, if I might be so bold?" Dunaway asked.

"Pure foolishness Mr. Dunaway. I am about to take command of one of His Majesty's ships"-here he must take a breath-"and I knew that from that moment my time will no longer be even as much my own as the Port Admiral's office has allowed me these past years.

"As… a man who makes his living from these waters, you may find it hard to credit that there are some of us who fish almost as much pleasure out of them as you do cod."

More, almost certainly, Mr. Dunaway, Hoare thought, considering your real calling.

"And the name of your vessel, sir?" Dunaway inquired.

"Neglectful, Mr. Dunaway. Today, that is." With this, Hoare steered the conversation into very familiar waters.


"Today. Lift up one of the floorboards under your feet, if you will, and look at its underside. Any one of them will do."

Dunaway did as directed. He snorted with surprise.

"'Inconceivable'" he read.

"Yes. I also call her Insupportable, or Molly J, or Dryad, or Serene, or Unspeakable. I change her name according to my mood of the moment-most often at the outset of a voyage, but sometimes, if the luck is bad, in midpassage as well. As you see, I keep several trail boards below, and face the spares into the bilges for a cabin sole. It makes no difference to her; she answers to none of them. She just answers her helm, and very well, too, at that."

He knew these lines by heart.

Dunaway gave a bark of laughter.

"I recognize you now, Mr. Hoare. I should ha' done so earlier. You're the sharp cove as caught that Frog Moreau and his gang."

Dunaway and the man Jamie exchanged a glance. The stuffy, warm air in Neglectful's cuddy grew a trifle ominous.

"Do not be foolish, gentlemen," Hoare whispered. "I know who you are, and you know I know it…"

He interrupted himself to take a breath, as he must from time to time whenever venturing more than a short sentence or two.

"… Pray do not make war on me; it would not be worth your while."

He displayed a small pistol he had won from the mate of an American brig only a year ago.

"As long as your trade does not diminish His Majesty or his Navy, and as long… as long as I am not under orders to suppress smuggling, your trade is no concern of mine.

"I would like your word of honor, both of you, that you will permit me to land you both, unharmed and secure… at the first landfall we make where a landing can be made without risk to my little Neglectful.

"Failing that, I shall be forced to shoot one of you and require the other to leave this little patch of dryness in the middle of a very wet Channel."

With this, Neglectful gave a little extra lurch, as though she agreed with Hoare.

The two guests exchanged another look; Jamie shrugged.

"You have our word, sir," Dunaway said.

"Will this do, or shall I beat back up into Weymouth?" Hoare asked his passengers the next morning. The gale had gone its way, yielding to an easy westerly breeze. The tiny harbor of West Lulworth lay a mile on the larboard beam, next to its landmark, the Durdle Door.

"Don't trouble yourself for us, Captain Hoare, sir," Dunaway said. "What with this and that, we'd as lief not even pass through Weymouth. No, Lulworth will do just fine. Fact is, I've folk in Lulworth.

"Now, by your leave, Jamie here and I will shift out of the clothing you so kindly lent us and be on our way."

Without too much difficulty, Hoare persuaded the two men to keep their borrowed gear for the time being, carry their own still-soggy garments, and send Hoare's clothing to him in Portsmouth.

"It will reach me at the Swallowed Anchor," he told them. To tell the truth, he wanted to see if they were as trustworthy as he hoped, for he could see the opportunity of putting their apparent skills to use in the future. But then he remembered.

"At Royal Duke, I mean after she enters port," he said. He was no longer to lodge ashore. He had a ship, or would have, soon.

Hoare dropped Neglectful's useful grapnel again and let out its line while swinging her inshore, driven by the still-heavy breakers. He had Dunaway raise her sliding keel into the trunk that split her cuddy fore and aft, so she was able to grind none too gently onto the shingle. Her passengers could now step ashore all but dry-shod.

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