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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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.

All in all, the 'tween-decks space of HMS Royal Duke reminded Hoare less of a man-o'-war than a counting-house or some other kind of lay monastery that, like those of the early Irish Christians, accommodated both sexes in mutual, uncomfortable celibacy. If his command was intended to be a countinghouse, what was he doing here, he who had never in his life more than walked through one? His heart sank.

"May I show you your quarters, sir?" came Clay's voice at his side.

"If you would be so kind, Mr. Clay."

The other went to the glossy teak door set high in the after bulkhead of Royal Duke's great main compartment and signaled the Marine sentry to open it for his commander. The man wore the same uniform as his mates. On this second sight, Hoare found it oddly familiar.

"What's your name?" he asked.

The marine looked about him to see whom his Captain might be addressing. "Me, zur?" he replied at last.

"Yes. You."

"Yeovil, if you please, zur. Gideon Yeovil, of Harrow-barrow. That's north of Plymouth…"

"Very good, Yeovil. And… isn't that a rifle you're carrying?"

"Yes, zur. We Johnnies in Royal Duke, zur, we'm all Riflemen."

That explained the green uniform. It was the same as the one some unknown genius had designed during the late American war, for the first Riflemen in the Army. Hoare had seen it in Halifax then, but hardly ever since. As sharpshooters, Riflemen were better off unseen, and the lobster coat had drawn fire as a whore did sailors. Hoare wondered if the same principle might not save lives among the soldiery in general but set the idea aside as absurd. After all, he supposed, Lobsters were meant to stand there and be shot at. But not his lobsters, by God. Now that he had his very own live, unboiled green lobsters, he would guard their lives just as they guarded his.

Hoare stepped into a blaze of sunlight pouring through the cabin windows. Struck not only by the sun, he stood stupefied. Though he must still stoop, this was luxury.

The book-lined space might be lower than the Captain's quarters in a fifty-gun, two-decker fourth-rate ship of the line and half the breadth, but it was little shorter. It was laid out in a similar fashion. A wide, heavy table stood before a comfortable chair just forward of the glazed window opening onto Royal Duke's gallery, his gallery. Other chairs stood about the black-and-white diaper-patterned canvas laid on the deck underfoot. Suspended from one overhead beam was an enormous construction whose purpose eluded him. It was evidently still another chair-but a chair for what? It could have held a young elephant.

"What on earth is this?" Hoare whispered.

"Sir Hugh's special chair, sir," Mr. Clay replied. "Admiral Abercrombie was wont to visit Captain Oglethorpe quite frequently when we lay in Greenwich."

"Sir Hugh Abercrombie must be a very big man."

"A very great man," Clay said in a neutral voice. Personal size, Hoare realized, might be as sensitive a topic for this wee man as commercial sex or whispering was for himself. He would have to be very mindful of this.

He was about to ask Mr. Clay to assemble the officers when he remembered that in addition to the two of them, if his memory was correct, Royal Duke counted only King's warrant officers in her complement, plus, of course, the seamen and a boy or two. He decided, instead, to query Clay about their mission.

"Take a seat, won't you, Mr. Clay?" Clay complied. Hoare noted in passing that the poor man's toes did not reach the deck when he sat.

"Did Captain Oglethorpe leave a servant when he died?"

"Oh, yes, sir. Whitelaw by name."

At the sound of his name, Whitelaw himself entered, bringing with him a tray of delicacies: a decanter of what looked like a tawny port, glasses, and a plate of biscuits. He was portly, but portly in the way of a wild boar: heavy, solid, and probably extremely strong. He placed the refreshments on the table and withdrew without a word.

"Tell me about yourself, Mr. Clay," Hoare whispered when he had poured each of them a glass.

The little Lieutenant was quite willing to speak of himself When he first went to sea, he told Hoare, he was no smaller than other midshipmen of the same age.

"I simply failed to grow," he explained, apparently feeling no more embarrassment about his stature than Hoare did about his silence.

Hoare needed little time to learn that his Lieutenant was mentally quick. Though small, he looked physically fit-nimble, in fact. He had, he said without affectation, been out twice and obtained satisfaction each time.

"I chose swords both times," he said. "My adversaries were so surprised at being up against such an unexpectedly long reach on the part of such a miniature opponent that, on each occasion, I drew first blood with no ado."

Since one of his maternal uncles was an Admiral and an Earl-. "My stature may be negligible, sir, but my standing is not." Mr. Clay's interest had sufficed to overcome any reservations the examining board might have had about his lack of stature, so he eventually found himself a Lieutenant. But since his commissioning, Mr. Clay had never seen action. Most of his service had been in auxiliary vessels or, naturally enough, in cutters, brigs, and others of the smallest men-o'-war.

He had been seconded to Royal Duke a year ago. He knew her crew and her mission from main truck to keelson, for the late Captain Oglethorpe, as he faded out of life, had lately relied more heavily upon him every day. In these last months, Mr. Clay said frankly, he had commanded the yacht in all but name.

"And to tell you the truth, sir," he said, "I am happy to be relieved of full responsibility for both the vessel and her business. A person with my limited experience in the world of statecraft has no business meddling in the sorts of affair that come aboard us here."

Of these affairs, there were four important ones at present, Clay explained. The first was the dissection and improvement, for similar use against the French, of the clockwork timers whose provenance Hoare himself had just run down in the course of a previous Herculean labor for Admiral Hardcastle. The second was the plugging of an information leak that had appeared among the clerical staff in Portsmouth. The third was an inquiry into a sharp reduction in morale and hence in productivity among certain mateys in the Navy Yard. The fourth involved breaking the cipher that Hoare had encountered during his inquiry last spring. Clay had sensibly delegated the day-today pursuit of each mission to a different individual.

"If I may, sir," he said, "I propose that we summon each in turn to tell us about his task. Or hers in one case, for Taylor is responsible for the cipher."

"Very good," Hoare said. "Let us begin with Taylor, then. Will you pass the word for her?"

Taylor still wore her spectacles but had pushed them to the top of her head. Hoare thought they made her look like a highly premature grandmother.

"Be seated, if you please, Taylor," Hoare whispered. Clay's face took on a surprised look, as if he was none too sure that Royal Duke's Captain was wise to address a hand with "please," let alone inviting her to be seated in his presence.

"Tell me," Hoare asked, "what progress have you made in deciphering the set of messages… that originated with the affair of the infernal machines last spring?"

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