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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Wilder Perkins


Hoare and the headless Captains

Prologue

"Coom back 'ere, you Boye!"

On the moor just west of Dorchester, the shepherd watched his dog's behavior in astonishment. Never before had it quit work and run off like that. Even the bellwether looked up as if in surprise.

The shepherd reached out and cut a switch from a nearby pollarded willow as it blew in the heavy westerly.

"Coom oop then; coom!"

From within the Nine Stones Circle, Boye howled. The shepherd felt the hair rise on his nape. He dropped the switch, took a firm grip of his quarterstaff. The dog almost never howled, and the Circle was an uncanny place.

The shepherd stopped between two of the standing stones and gulped.

The dog Boye crouched in a great double pool of congealed blood between two bodies in naval uniform. One corpse lay at the foot of a huge ashlar at the center of the trodden circle. Its severed head lay beside it, gaping at the racing clouds. The other body sprawled on its back across the rough, flat stone, its arms dangling on either side of the makeshift altar. Its head was nowhere in sight. Between the corpses, its own head thrown back, the dog howled again into the wind.

Chapter I

Twenty miles to the south, Bartholomew Hoare, cruising in his pinnace in the Channel, knew he had bungled, and bungled badly. The sudden gust laid Neglectful nearly on her beam ends, to the ugly tune of crashing crockery in the cuddy below. There was no escaping it; he had misjudged the rate at which the weather to seaward would degenerate and the westerly storm strike the Channel. As a result, he and Neglectful were about to experience a very nasty October gale. He wasted no more time but brought her to the wind, reduced sail to a storm jib and a corner of mainsail, then hove her to and went below to lash down all the gear he could, wedge unlashable items securely, and pad everything breakable that had not already broken.

Remembering what had happened once last autumn, when he had neglected this precaution, he lidded tight the hod of cannel coal he kept for his galley stove. He lashed it to the side of Neglectful's mast away from the stove itself. He would not have gritty black chunks and slurries fouling the cuddy again for months, not if he could help it. He put on his precious suit of Dutch foul weather gear, took two turns of line around ankles and wrists, pulled the suit's visored hood over his head, and fitted to his body a canvas harness well equipped with D rings from which depended short lengths of line ending in pelican hooks.

Just as he was about to double-secure the pinnace's cuddy hatch, he remembered something else. He reached back below, took up a towel, a jug, and a bag of biscuits. "With one last look below to satisfy himself that Neglectful's innards were as snug as he could make them, he finished securing the hatch.

Neglectful was moving slowly but well. She rid herself easily of the seas from the west that were already sluicing across her deck and made a comfortable two knots nearly directly due south. Hoare could imagine she was looking forward to their mutual ordeal.

As it roared heavily across her larboard bow, the wind carried the spray down Neglectful's modest length. Hoare could swear that most of it was directed at his head and shoulders while he sat at her tiller, nursing her along. Wind and spray dropped for a moment whenever a rogue sea took her under its wing and put her under its lee before sweeping her skyward, leaving her exposed once more and rushing on toward its end. Hoare guessed the wave would crash ashore somewhere near Pevensey.

Whenever the seas passed beneath the yacht, lifting her into the wind, she felt the weight of the gale more deeply, and her moments of respite in the combers' lee began to become more welcome to Hoare. Depending on whether Neglectful was riding a crest or cowering in a trough, the gale either howled in her exiguous shrouds or moaned emptily above her reeling mast.

This blow was no squall. At this rate, it would build for the next six hours or so, hold for another four, and then pass on to bludgeon Bonaparte's Frogs. Or so Hoare judged. But considering his failure to predict the strength of this blow, he had to doubt himself more than usual. It might be no more than four hours before he could safely fall off and run down, home to Portsmouth. It might be fourteen hours. Objectively, Hoare knew that this weather was nothing, but… in a twenty-six-foot boat, alone, at his age, surely he should be anxious-or, failing that, proud.

He wondered in passing if this blunder of his had not been intentional. Perhaps he had been trying to tell the world that he, Bartholomew Hoare, Lieutenant, RN, might be forty-three, mute, and beached forever by the Admiralty, but that, when face-to-face with Nature in the raw, he was any man's equal. Perhaps he was seeking an excuse to take shelter in Weymouth, where he could continue his suit for the hand of the widow Graves. In any case, he and Neglectful were in for a long watch together. He made his lanky, brown, silent self as snug in her cockpit as he could under the circumstances and hooked his harness into the eyebolts set into the coaming. The tiller under one arm and his bag of provisions at his feet, he let his memory take him four days back, to when Admiral Hardcastle broke the news.


"Now, as to Royal Duke." Rear Admiral Sir George Hardcastle, KB, paused to await Hoare's reaction.

That afternoon, Sir George wore his own hair, as he commonly did except on formal occasions. It was stone gray, cut short, and formed into a bang over his forehead in the fashionable Brutus cut. Brute he was often called, in fact, and he enjoyed the appellation, for he sought the reputation of being a grim and a merciless man.

To a large extent he had succeeded. Reputations too numerous to mention had been destroyed at his hand, leaving their owners-junior officers for the most part, but a sprinkling of Commanders and Post Captains as well-bereft, dangling more or less helpless on half-pay. Irrespective of whatever interest they might have, it collapsed when Sir George Hardcastle turned his adamantine will upon it.

"Royal Duke, sir?" Hoare remembered his Admiral's having once made passing mention of her and her late Commander-Ogilvy, if he remembered, or some such name. Oglethorpe, that was the name. What had Royal Duke to do with Hoare in any case, or he with her?

"Yes. Admiralty yacht, now lying in Greenwich. A hundred tons or so, brig-rigged. Eight brass four-pounders. Crew of thirty, more or less."

Hardly fit to stand in the line of battle, Hoare thought. And undermanned for even that trivial armament.

"She never takes the sea," Sir George had continued, "but rests in her home port, almost like a receiving ship.

"In fact, in some respects, she is a receiving ship, and in other respects a manufactory. For, you must know, Royal Duke serves the Navy as a mobile secret information bureau whose people maintain copies of all files relating to the efforts of foreign powers-Frenchmen for the most part, of course, but Swedens, Dutchmen, even Russians, Yankees, and Turks as well-to damage and defeat the Royal Navy by means of stealth.

"Pour me a glass, sir, and help yourself."

When he wished, as he did now, Sir George Hardcastle, Rear Admiral of the Blue, could address his listeners as if they were the House.

"She also includes a small corps," the Admiral continued, "who are charged with defeating, frustrating, and foiling the enemy's knavish tricks. This corps have not yet been put to the use for which they were intended, and Admiral Abercrombie has decided, among other things, that this must be remedied. Most of her crew are actually half clerk or assassin and half seaman, if that. All can read and write, though I am told 'tis hard to credit of some. Thus, she is manned in quite an unusual manner, as you are about to discover."

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