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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"Our thanks again, Captain," said the owner, gripping Hoare's hand with both his own before he disembarked. "Call on Abel Dunaway of Langton Herring, by Weymouth, whenever you have the need."

The man Jamie followed suit. "Thenkee, sir," he said now, in no unfriendly tone, knuckling his forehead awkwardly. He followed his skipper ashore, leaving Hoare to heave Neglectful up to her grapnel through the surf. He took reefs in mainsail and jib and fell off before the wind toward Portsmouth and home.

Chapter II

Francis Delancey, the Port Admiral's Flag Lieutenant, smirked at Hoare. Delancey wasted no time but ushered him into his master's presence.

"You take your God-damned good time, sir, in obeying the orders of your superior officer," the Admiral declared. "I've cautioned you before: I will have no man loiter about at his ease while I await his attending me at whatever hour it pleases his slovenly self."

The heaps of paper on Sir George's desk did not appear to have changed in the ten days since Hoare had last seen it, nor did the Admiral look any less restless. Delancey gave Hoare a sour look and departed.

"Man's in a temper," Sir George said of his aide, sailing out of his own little squall as easily as he had sailed into it. "Your friend Gladden took my Felicia aside the night before Frolic weighed anchor, having received my permission to pay her his addresses. As if the slyboots hadn't been 'payin' his addresses' to the poor fat thing this year and more! Puts Delancey quite in the shade, just when he thought he was about to have a free run at my little girl. Ha!

"Anyhow, as I told you the other day, I'd thought to put young Gladden into Royal Duke as your Lieutenant, but the incumbent brought her in yesterday, as I suppose you noticed, and when he reported here, I had second thoughts. What would I do with him, after all?"

This was ominous. If Sir George felt he must ask the question, even if only rhetorically, what else he could do with Royal Duke's present Lieutenant if he were to put Gladden there in his stead; what sort of monster awaited him?

"Here are your orders. Now, take yourself off and read yourself in. I'm busy."

Back in the anteroom of the Port Admiral's office, Hoare must eat 'umble pie and ask Delancey where his command might lie. The Flag Lieutenant replaced his sour look with a sneer.

"Look yonder," he said, pointing.

Admiral Hardcastle had assigned Royal Duke to a mooring a mere cable's length offshore, a mooring that could have taken Victory through a hurricane with ease. The little brig dangled from it like a fierce mouse with its teeth clenched in a tomcat's tail. Hoare left Admiralty House, his precious orders in his hand, and once on the Hard hailed a wherry, with an ear-piercing whistle through his fingers, to take him out to his tiny command.

The wherry man first looked him askance, as if to ask, "Wouldn't it be quicker to swim out to her?" But, after all, every one of His Majesty's ships that was fit to sail had been shoveled out of Spithead to back up Nelson's fleet, and the roadstead was all but empty. Empty as the Admiralty's cupboard. These days, the pickings for watermen must be thin, indeed. An occasional light, spitting sprinkle, moistened them on the way.

"Royal Duke!" the wherry man cried at the end of the perilous voyage, in answer to the hail from the yacht's watch signifying that he had her Commander aboard. The man treated Hoare as if he carried two swabs instead of one-and that one on the inferior larboard shoulder-and offered him a hand to help him aboard. But to reach Royal Duke's flush deck would involve no climb at all; the boarding port that was opened for him in her bulwark was below his chin. Hoare handed the man the customary shilling and reached his portmanteau up to a hand on deck.

After pausing for a heartbeat to savor what was to come, Hoare hoisted himself aboard his command-his command! — with a single heave of his arms. The thin skirl of a boatswain's call sounded, followed by a thunder of booted feet as all hands formed to receive him. He could easily have out-tweetled the piper with his own silver whistle, the one he used to signal those persons he had trained to its calls.

But where was his Lieutenant, that mysterious, unemployable monster whom Sir George must perforce leave in place for lack of anything else to do with him? The person facing him was a mere midshipman.

"Welcome aboard, sir," said the boy in a surprisingly big voice, raising his round hat in salute. Wishing he had only half as much voice, Hoare looked at the speaker more sharply. This was no mid, as he had first thought, but a Lieutenant. Moreover, he was no lad, either, but a man of at least thirty. He was less than five feet tall.

"Permit me to introduce myself, sir," said the minikin.

"Harvey Clay, at your service. I look forward to serving under you, sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Clay," Hoare whispered. He felt unutterably pompous as he continued, "It is, indeed, a pleasure to make your acquaintance, and I am happy to have you under my command.

"I shall inspect the ship's company."

In a double rank facing him, Hoare's second surprise now presented arms-no fewer than six strangely uniformed men.

"Who the hell are these? Or what?"

"Our Marines, sir."

Hoare had never seen a Marine in any uniform other than the regulation bright red coat and white breeches. These men's coats and overalls were a dull green. Instead of pipeclay and twinkling brass, their accouterments were finished in lusterless black. Their Sergeant presented his gleaming halberd as smartly, nevertheless, and the men presented arms as crisply, as any other contingent of Jollies he had encountered. Hoare passed on to the crew.

He had long since decided that eye-to-eye contact was his best way to make an instant appraisal of another's character. The first one or two seamen offered no surprises, being the kind of cheerful grinning horny-footed creatures Hoare had known since he was twelve. But here he left familiarity behind. He was stopped by the appearance of the third hand. Cheerful and grinning like the others he might be, but this man had the longest, hairiest arms Hoare had ever seen on a human being.

"Who are you, sir?" Hoare whispered. The man looked at him from under his beetling brows in a startled way; perhaps he had never been called sir before in all his days.

"Iggleden, sir. Foretopman." An appropriate rating; the man might have been a gibbon. He bared enormous yellow teeth in a grin and brought his right hand to his low, hairy forehead in salute. The movement was an impressive one.

"Second-story man, sir, as well," said Mr. Clay. Iggleden must have overheard, for he grinned still more widely and bobbed his head.

What had this little Lieutenant said? Hoare withheld comment and continued his inspection.

The appearance of the remaining hands on Royal Duke's spotless deck was equally unexpected. Hoare found himself viewing a row of men who, while they looked fit enough in their varied jumpers and petticoat breeches, must hardly ever have faced wind and weather. Except for a blackamoor and one manifest Oriental, their intelligent faces were noticeably paler than that of the typical tar, and three of them actually wore spectacles. In the navy, this was unheard of. The Oriental might be a Japanese, or he might be a Chinese; Hoare had never been able to tell one nation from the other, let alone identifying individuals.

Hoare now found himself staring into the green eyes of a woman, an unmistakable, full-bosomed woman, and a fine-looking woman at that, as he could not help observing. Her eyes were level with his own, which made her nearly a six-foot woman. She wore a seaman's roundabout jacket and loose trousers, not as if she had dressed up in costume for a masquerade or a prank, but because they were simply what any seaman or seawoman would wear.

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