Wilder Perkins: Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities

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Wilder Perkins Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities
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    Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities
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Wilder Perkins

Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities

Chapter I

Bartholomew Hoare and Eleanor Graves first met on the east reach of Portland Bill, across two sprawled bodies. It was late on a gray afternoon in mid-June of 1805- Trafalgar year.

The week before, a water hoy, returning empty from supplying the ships on the Brest blockade, had brought in Scipio's launch. Scipio, 74-a seventy-four-gunship of the line-had not been reported since she departed Plymouth five weeks ago, bound for that same Brest blockade. The launch was awash, empty, charred in places, badly mauled. Scipio had been well-found, well manned, and there had been no adverse weather on her presumed course.

The condition of the lonely launch had shouted "explosion" to Hoare. Moreover, he had had a brief encounter in May with the contents of an oddly well-made keg. The keg, of the small, ten-gallon size known as an "anker" to the vintner trade, had been picked up by a Coastguardsman on a country roadside near Corfe. It might have been poorly packed on a pony; the pony might have escaped from a midnight caravan; the caravan might have belonged to one of the region's flourishing smuggler gangs. Whatever the anker's provenance, its contents-strange pieces of clockwork-were far more interesting to His Majesty's government, and to Hoare, than mere brandy would have been.

Caught in the narrow grooves between the anker's tarred staves he had found grains of a fine grayish sand, of which he had kept a sample. The anker had been officially spirited out of Hoare's possession and taken off, he believed, to London. It was when he put together the two bits of information- the anker's contents and the ruined launch-that he had placed his suspicions before Sir George Hardcastle, Port Admiral in Portsmouth. An hour later Hoare had set off westward on a wearisome fourteen-hour day of tacking down-Channel in his own little pinnace-yacht Inconceivable, bearing the sand with him.

He had landed last night in Lyme Regis and had spent most of the day conferring with old Richard Dee about where the anker might have come ashore. Old Dee, Hoare had learned a year or more ago, had sold his fishing boat and gear when his aching bones got the better of him and on the proceeds had retired to an overturned barge on the western outskirts of Lyme. Here he had taken up the subject of sand. He claimed to be able to tell the source of any handful of sand, provided it derived from any beach between Land's End and Dover.

Hoare had found himself hard put to it to understand Dee. To his ear, the Dorset dialect comprised nothing but zs and oos. The man sounded like a giant obsolete bee. Moreover, since a spent ball had crushed Hoare's voice box at the Glorious First of June and old Dee was quite deaf, Hoare's remaining whisper of a voice was useless.

To communicate at all, then, he had had to dredge up an interpreter. Young Mary, the oldster's granddaughter, had had some schooling; she could pick up Hoare's whispers, relay them to her gaffer, and interpret his buzzing replies. Hoare felt indebted to her, although finding even her milder accent hard to understand at times.

He had begun by testing Dee's reported gift, using sand specimens whose provenance he knew and which he had brought along in tiny apothecary's vials. He had wholly failed to catch the old man out. Hoare had even set Dee a trap by combining dead-white sand from the Conqueror's landing place at Pevensey with a blood-red grit that he had collected on the beach below the cliff at Goonhilly Downs during a recent passage from Cornwall. Dee had peered at the pink mixture, rolled it between thumb and forefinger, smelled it, and cackled.

"Gaffer says, 'Ye'll not gammon Dickon Dee that easy,' sir," young Mary said. When the sand master went on to tell Hoare exactly where he had picked up both moieties, Hoare had to admit his feeble ruse. As penance, he had bought the old fisherman a second pint before offering him the specimen that he really wanted him to identify.

"Buzz. Ooo. Zuzz."

"He says: 'Now you'm goin' to tell me you didden pick her up on way past Weymouth,' sir," the girl said. " 'But you'll be wrong again. That there sand be from off easterly side of Portland Bill, she be.

" 'Halfway up the Bill, where the tide sets shoreward,' he says."

This time, Hoare had taken Dee at his word. After tipping young Mary and buying the old man his third pint, Hoare had hoisted his lanky self back aboard Inconceivable and cast off from Lyme's stone pier.

Today, the westerly wind was wet, raw for the season. Little spits of mixed rain and spray carried across the Bill to sting Hoare's face. Before taking her back up-Channel to her berth in Portsmouth's Inner Camber, he would collect another bit of sand from the spot old Dee had named and see for himself how well it matched his sample. While there, he would snoop a bit to see if any interesting flotsam besides the well-made anker had drifted ashore there.

Now as close to his goal as guesswork permitted, he slipped into Inconceivable's bows and lowered her kedge, deep enough to hang below her keel as a makeshift lead. The tide might be making, but he had no wish to ground her tender bottom on the knobby cobbles whose round tops crowded out the sand hereabouts like so many black grinding teeth.

It was now that Hoare first saw Eleanor Graves: a short woman in brown, her brown hair blowing across her face in the spray-laden gusts. She rose from behind an overturned shallop, to face two tinkerlike men with long cudgels who were approaching her along the beach at a purposeful trot. Fifty feet from her, and the same from him, Hoare could hear their jeering voices.

Putting two fingers into his mouth, Hoare blew a piercing whistle. The attackers paused. Then, seeing they had only one man to contend with, one turned to await Hoare's landing while the other continued his purposeful advance.

The woman reached back. In her left hand she held a sling-a sling! She twirled the ancient weapon underhand as if she were heaving the lead in a man-of-war's chains and slung a rock at her leading assailant. It struck him full in the forehead; he dropped, his legs twitching like a pair of gaffed salmon.

The other attacker stopped in his tracks. This was his mistake, for now the woman took a full step toward him and let fly another rock. She threw it this time, using her right hand and not her left. She must have hit her target in his nose or mouth, for Hoare saw him clap both hands to his face and heard a choked cry of pain.

Inconceivable grounded with a soft crunch at the feet of the two men. Hoare pulled the tiller from its straps to serve as a makeshift quarterstaff and launched himself over her bows at them. There was no need; the two were in no condition to fight on.

"Davids two, Goliaths zero," whispered Hoare to himself, and stepped up the shingly beach toward the woman in brown.

She had already whipped out a length of spun yarn from a coil hidden somewhere about her person and had bent over to secure her first target. The cold rage in her face changed to welcome on seeing Hoare's naval coat, and she finished knotting the man's limbs together in a neat cat's cradle behind him. "Well met, sir," she said, and cut another length of spun yarn. "Would you mind…?" She handed him the second hank.

The woman would not be able to hear his whispered reply over the louder whisper of the soft surf, so Hoare simply nodded and turned to and triced up the other.

"I am in your debt, sir," she said in a clear contralto voice, "for coming to my rescue, even though I appear to have managed by myself.

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