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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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.

"And who have we here, may I ask?"

Like Iggleden before her, but more gracefully, she knuckled her forehead.

"Taylor, sir, Sarah Taylor. Master's Mate."

"And your duties?"

"Cryptographer, sir. And geometer, when needed."


"A superb navigator, sir," Clay murmured. "Theoretically, that is."

Those cautionary words reminded Hoare of Sir George's admonition: Hoare must keep close to his desk and never go to sea.

A neat turn of phrase, Hoare thought. Perhaps he should keep a little commonplace book for clevernesses of the kind and pass it on to his biographer when he died famous.

In addition to Taylor, two other hands were female. The Royal Dukes were, as Sir George had told him, indeed, "manned in quite an unusual manner." So that was why the Admiral had all but bitten his tongue to keep from laughing out loud.

"You must explain all this to me later," Hoare told his Lieutenant, handing him the commission still clutched in his hand. "First, however, I must read myself in. At least, I shall begin to do so; you will be so kind as to read the balance on my behalf when my voice gives out."

"Aye aye, sir," Mr. Clay said in an undertone. Then, in his normal, enviable full-bodied voice: "Off hats. Fall in aft." The Royal Dukes broke ranks and gathered around their vessel's mainmast.

Hoare began. "By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain and Ireland, et cetera, and of all His Majesty's plantations, et cetera. To Bartholomew Hoare, Esquire, hereby appointed Master and Commander of His Majesty's ship Royal Duke…

Clay took the paper that Hoare handed him and continued.

" 'By virtue of the power and authority to us given, we do hereby constitute and appoint you Commander of His Majesty's ship Royal Duke, willing and requiring you forthwith to go on board and take upon you the charge of Master and Commander in her accordingly, strictly charging and commanding all the officers and company of the said ship to behave themselves, jointly and severally, in their respective employments with all due respect and obedience unto you, their said Captain, and you likewise to observe and execute the General Printed Instructions and such orders and directions as you shall from time to time receive from us or any other of your superior officers, for His Majesty's service. Hereof nor you nor any of you fail as you will answer the contrary at your peril. And for so doing this shall be your warrant…' "

After twenty-two endless years, Hoare thought as he listened to the dignified ritual, he was in formal command of one of His Majesty's ships, with a firm grip on another rung of the ladder, and within reach of his Post-Captaincy.

Mr. Clay concluded his reading of Hoare's commission, folded it, and returned it to his Commander. "And now, men, three hearty cheers for Captain Hoare! Hip-hip…"






At the last cheer, all hats flew into the air, one of them flung overboard by its exuberant owner.

"Thank you, men," Hoare whispered tritely, "and women." Then, with a glance at his Lieutenant, he gave the signal for him to relay his next words at an audible level. When Mr. Clay obliged, one or two hands looked mystified by the process. "As you can hear, I never speak above a whisper, so I shall usually relay my orders through Mr. Clay. I do have certain signals, however…"

He broke off, withdrew his boatswain's pipe, and blew "All Hands."

"You know that one, I see," Hoare whispered, Clay echoing his whisper out loud for the crew at large. Hoare pocketed the pipe. "But you do not know this one…"

Putting two fingers of one hand to his mouth, he emitted a piercing, rising whistle. Clay jumped, and so did a good half the crew. There was also a fluttering noise dead aft, behind Hoare's back. He forbore to turn in search of the noise's origin.

"That," he continued, "was my summons to Mr. Clay. I have many more such signals, which I wish you to learn in time. You will find me firm but fair. Do your duty, and you will have nothing to fear.

"Dismiss the hands, Mr. Clay."

Hoare took the next few minutes to walk the flush deck of his new command, guided by his new Lieutenant. She was a conventional Navy brig in half-scale. If he remembered Beetle correctly, she was perhaps less cluttered than her sisters. Beetle had been Hoare's very first ship; she had made his fortune for him before he was nineteen. It was all very well that Royal Duke's eight brass four-pounders, bowsed tight against her low bulwarks, gleamed to perfection in the October sun. All the same, they looked like toys and would have little more striking power than so many firecrackers. Her broadside would be a fearsome sixteen pounds, equal to no more than the blow of a single one of a frigate's main guns. Hardly fit to stand in the line of battle, Hoare repeated to himself.

Two strange high wooden cases squatted in her stern sheets. They would surely carry away at the first sign of a breeze. Whatever they were, he must have them stowed elsewhere-if, that is, Royal Duke was going to sea, a supposition that was already beginning to stir in Hoare's mind. For now, though, he suppressed issuing an order to have the obtrusive cases pitched overboard, since upon closer inspection he saw that the cases were neatly divided into pigeonholes. That, he realized, was exactly what the boxes held-holes, pigeons, for the use of. In fact, a few were occupied by murmuring birds. One occupant and then another took wing, circled, and returned; the fluttering that had taken place at his whistle a few moments ago explained itself.

Belowdecks, Hoare found Royal Duke's architecture bewildering. Forward of the guarded doorway to the cabin suite that was to be his own new home, a clean sweep reached into her forepeak. It was low but surprisingly spacious. Unlike every other vessel's he could remember, her 'tween-decks was well lit; thick glass prisms were let into the overhead at frequent intervals, and several skylights admitted the cool October sunshine. Its overhead itself was high enough to accommodate Hoare's height without his needing to stoop. Long hanging tables, interrupted only by the brig's masts and flanked by hanging chairs and benches, stretched along her center line.

But it was the arrangement of compartments stretching the full length of the space, on both sides, that was most unusual. Between their louvered doors-there were no fewer than eight to a side-the brig's builder had set ranks of cabinets and bookshelves.

Several of the crew had already reseated themselves at their tables and were at work over various papers, while others looked over their shipmates' shoulders and still others had congregated into groups. One of these had gathered round a messmate who seemed to be doing magic tricks for them. Any ship's officer who was attentive to his duty would have sent these people about theirs, Hoare thought, and was about to chide Clay but then realized that perhaps they were about their business.

The woman Taylor-"Master's Mate," as she had named herself-had donned spectacles to resume a task that apparently involved the use of mathematical tables and an abacus. Double the length of her neighbors' queues, her own thick sandy pigtail reached the bench on which she sat. A Mate, indeed, Hoare thought.

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