Another day passed as HMS Philadelphia and HMS Mollusk continued onward. The daily routine of life at sea continued unabated as it had since leaving port, with the possible exception of the two ships’ transit through the Virgin Island shallows. But even then, the necessity for continual course changes and adjustments while posting more lookouts and swinging the lead didn’t prove to be that much of a departure from the otherwise repetitious tedium. Things, however, were about to change and, though no one could have predicted it at the time, it would happen in a most important way.
Shore had checked with Mooton who had the watch that afternoon. St. Martin was now bearing East by North at a range of thirty or so miles which meant they could expect to make landfall at Antigua near St. John’s in perhaps a day and a half. Since everything was still progressing apace with minimal distraction or difficulty, Shore felt it a good time to go below to have Deakins remove his bandages and check on how the healing of his left hand was progressing. He now sat upon one of the Doctor’s crates full of equipment and reagents while the ship’s surgeon went about his work.
“It may be that your hand ‘feels fine’ and isn’t giving you any signs of trouble,” the Doctor said with an admonishing tone, “but you really should have come to have me check this more often, Captain.”
“A ship’s captain can’t allow any appearance of weakness to be displayed in front of his men, Doctor,” Shore said, matter-of-factly, “especially when bad news is still fresh in all of their minds. Order needs to be maintained, and any betrayal of fragility on my part only serves to sap the strength of both my control of the crew and their faith in my abilities.”
“Spoken like a true officer of the Royal Navy,” said Deakins, “but developing gangrene for the sake of appearances would only prove self-defeating and ultimately benefit no one.” He continued to unwrap the bandages from Shore’s hand. “The bad news of which you speak is, I take it, related to the cessation of liberty for the crew while in port?”
“Yes,” Shore said with a sigh of disgust. “I shouldn’t be letting that bother me, particularly while we’re at sea, but it’s really only part of the problem. I might be able to temper or abate any rising discord amongst the crew by getting them into action against the enemy. They’d doubtlessly take to it with a will, but the nature of our true mission makes that proposition difficult. The Rapace is our primary objective right now. Engaging her in battle would be gratifying beyond measure of course, but finding her will be no simple task, rest assured. Certainly we’d be obligated to take part in the defense of British civilians, merchant ships or even other warships who were threatened by the French, but we haven’t the leisure to simply sail around in search of monsters to destroy, so to speak.”
“It’s a conundrum, that’s for certain, sir,” Deakins agreed. He had finished removing the bandages and was now pressing his fingertips into different points on Shore’s palm.
“And it doesn’t end there, Doctor,” Shore continued. “Any engagement brings about the very real possibility of this vessel sustaining so much damage that she’s unrecoverable, or even of being sunk. As such, any chance of bringing our true mission to its goal might be irretrievably lost. OWW!”
“Which is?” asked Deakins.
The pain he experienced caused Shore to almost miss the Doctor’s short but highly suggestive inquiry. In any case, it did serve to make him forget about it temporarily.
“Damn it! I did just tell you about my motivations regarding weakness, didn’t I?”
Deakins laughed good-naturedly. “There’s nothing to be concerned about, sir. Your hand is actually healing nicely. You won’t need to wear the bandages anymore, but you’ll still need to go easy on it for a few days. There’s still some healing to be done beneath the surface so resting your palm on anything with a respectable edge might be uncomfortable until that’s complete. Otherwise, I’d say you’re right as rain, Captain.”
Shore calmed down a bit. “Good to know – thank you, Deakins.” The implication embedded within the Doctor’s previous question was now buoyed to the surface of his mind. “As to your inquiry, Doctor, having been at the last conference we had, I think you know that there’s no simple or definite answer to that question as yet.”
“I realize that, sir, but I didn’t mean to imply any impatience or disagreement. You made your point well that day. I also had occasion to speak to Mr. Weyland and I heard about your mutual association with that Major from the First Foot you mentioned. It definitely sounds like people in high places are concerned about something out here.”
Thank you, Mr. Weyland, Shore thought after hearing the Doctor’s reply. He wondered if his marine lieutenant hadn’t found a way to speak with all of the officers to help bring them around to his way of thinking.
“Indeed, Doctor. Who among us can say what ominous signs might have appeared to ministers, members of Parliament, generals, admirals, governors, or perhaps even provincial assemblies that suggested trouble? One might think the threats associated with war itself would be more than enough to consume the minds of such important people; but something else has attracted their attention – something even more threatening. The one important thing about it all is that it’s almost certain whoever initiated the plan for Philadelphia’s mission didn’t know and still doesn’t know precisely what to be worried about. Admiral Haig’s last communiqué seems to have all but confirmed that fact given the very broad and general terms in which it was written. All of the happenings in Nassau might be only one part of a larger scenario that has yet to be played out. Alternatively, they could be serving as a diversion to draw attention away from something else entirely. At least that’s my own assessment of the situation.”
“And most likely a very good one, sir,” Deakins added. “Whatever we may happen upon out here, we can only hope that it brings us closer to understanding the cause of our superiors’ concern.”
Then, as if in response to the Doctor’s statement, it happened.
Midshipman Fortescue frantically burst into the screened-off officers’ berth, brushing clumsily against the canvas screens in his haste. He began to speak, but wound up stuttering clumsily and unintelligibly.
“What’s this, then, Mr. Fortescue?” Shore asked, visibly perturbed. “Have you forgotten how to make a proper report?”
“N-no, sir. Sorry, sir.” The young man took a moment to catch his breath. “Wreckage in the water, sir. Two points off the starboard bow. Mr. Mooton has sent more men aloft and has stationed idlers to help spot and survey the debris. He respectfully requests your presence on deck and wishes to know if we should change course to search for any bodies in the flotsam.”
“I’ll be there momentarily. Tell Lieutenant Mooton he can make whatever change in heading is necessary.”
“Aye, sir!” Fortescue acknowledged with a proper salute. He quickly ran back the way he came.
Shore knew that his Midshipman’s fit of nerves stemmed from the obvious knowledge of what wreckage in the sea almost always signified; and during times of war it took little if any imagination to envision just how it could have happened.
“Come, Doctor!” he said to the surgeon. “If we find anyone alive out there, they may be sorely in need of your help.”
Deakins accordingly followed Shore up to the main deck.
Mooton had brought Philadelphia several degrees to starboard with the intent of coming up on the closest grouping of visible debris. He saluted as Shore walked toward him amidships.
“Afternoon, sir. The forward lookouts reported seeing floating objects a short time ago. The sighting was confirmed by the man aloft on the forward masthead as structural debris from a vessel. Per your orders, we’ve used our agreed-upon flaghoist signal with Mollusk to inform them of our course change.”
“Very good, Mr. Mooton. By now they must be seeing what we are. See if we can’t ask Captain Suggs if he’ll fan out to starboard to help widen our search in that general direction.”
Mooton handed the list of signals to Fortescue who, having heard the Captain’s order, acknowledged and began taking red and blue canvas pennants to the foremast halyards.
“Any sign of living men or bodies?” Shore asked.
“None as yet, Captain.” Mooton answered. “We’ve altered our heading to bring us through the field of wreckage so as to investigate further.”
As they approached, it seemed everyone either had a glass trained toward the floating objects or had been posted along the rails to look for any sign of men in the water. Soon they began to see casks bobbing aimlessly in the waves, spars and splintered yardarms lazily spinning by with pieces of parted halyards still attached, badly shattered planks, stray lengths of hempen rope and small pieces of torn sailcloth. However, it became apparent after a relatively short time that the field of debris was rather sparse and dispersed. It was clear, whatever might have happened to cause this, that the amount of wreckage floating on the surface was nothing close to the volume that might have been expected from the breakup even of a small vessel the size of Mollusk.
“Normally I might be asking if we could tell who the vessel belonged to or if we might determine the type, but I doubt there’s enough of it floating out here to even hazard a guess,” Shore observed as he scanned the surface with his spyglass still to his eye.
“True sir,” Mooton agreed. “I’d say any number of things could have happened here. First, a ship could have been attacked and sunk or broken up somewhere to the northeast and this debris simply could have been carried in our direction by the winds and currents. Secondly, the bulk of the damaged vessel could have been claimed by the sea, taking a good many of her crew to the bottom with her, and what we see is all that remains on the surface. Lastly, if what we’re looking at came from a fight at all, it could have been from an action involving the seizure of a prize which was threatened and damaged before she struck her colors and was boarded.”
“Mmmm,” Shore hummed in agreement with a firm nod. “All more than plausible, but I’m afraid we’re to be left guessing. It doesn’t look like we’re going to find anyone left behind from the incident, and I fear only a survivor could say for sure what took place here.”
That statement would shortly be proven untrue. A few minutes later the shout went up from the forward masthead lookout.
“MAN IN THE WATER!!”
“Where away?” Mooton shouted out in response to the call.
“Port bow, sir!” the lookout shouted back. “Four points to larboard! ’E’s seen us, sir! ‘E’s wavin’ his arms out there!”
“I’ve got him!” Shore heard Caldwell’s voice pipe up from the larboard rail. He saw the First Lieutenant on the crowded deck leaning out with his glass to his eye. “I’m not seeing anyone else yet!”
Shore located the man in the water with his own glass, a dim, relatively featureless form in the distance. However the motion of the waving arms and what was quite clearly a head could be seen amongst the waves.
“Bring us up alongside him, Mr. Mooton! Get as close as you can and have lines and floats ready to pull him in.”
“Aye sir! Helm, come left, East by South a quarter South!”
“East by South a quarter South it is, sir!” the helmsman acknowledged the orders.
Shore kept his spyglass trained on the form in the distance as the vessel drew closer. Before long he could see the man clinging to what looked like a shot away portion of broken railing. He was still waving his arms to them periodically.
“It looks like we may have a live one for you after all, Doctor,” Shore said to Deakins, who had been standing by quietly during the excitement.
“If that man has been out here for any appreciable amount of time, he’ll no doubt be half-dead of thirst at the very least, Captain,” the Doctor said. “Though I hope he hasn’t drunk seawater!”
Shore accordingly sent Hardin below to have the hands bring a water cask on deck so as to have it standing by for this poor soul and any others they might yet happen upon.
“Have you spotted anyone else, Mr. Caldwell?” Shore shouted to the first lieutenant.
“Not a soul, sir, just our one foundling out there so far!” he replied. “No one else reports seeing anything in any other direction either!”
Philadelphia closed upon the floating man slowly but steadily, once again finding herself opposed by the winds after coming to a more easterly course to bring their quarry alongside. At length they had gotten close enough to be able to see the man in some detail. Not surprisingly he looked exhausted and a great deal worse for the wear with a sunburned forehead and a scraggly unshaven face. But it wasn’t until they were very close, with the netting rigged over the side, when they began casting lines and floats in his direction that they noticed a drastic change in the man’s behavior.
All of a sudden he began jabbering loudly in a language no one seemed able to make out at first. His eyes were now open wide in a look of serious fright and his verbal protestations, if that was what they truly were, became even louder and more insistent. He refused to take hold of anything that promised to pull him to safety while waving a weakened arm in a motion that suggested ‘Go away!’ It almost seemed as if, despite the fact that his deliverance was at hand, he was angrily willing his would-be rescuers to move on and leave him behind. Everyone was perplexed and no one could fathom the reason behind this sudden act of defiance.
Deakins stepped forward.
“I’ve heard enough of his speech to make it out, sir,” the Doctor was saying to Shore. “The wind and distance made it difficult at first. He’s a Dutchman, no doubt about it.”
Deakins’ revelation made sense. They were not far from the island of St. Martin, the southern half of which was administered by the Dutch West India Company and could very easily have been the origin or destination of the unfortunate man’s doomed vessel.
“What is he saying Doctor?” Shore asked. “Why does he seem to want us to just leave him to his fate? Can you try and speak to him?”
Before Deakins could even get as far as the larboard rail to make that attempt, the collective reaction from the crew on deck indicated that something else had happened.
“Sir! Sir!” Shore heard Bannon’s voice calling out. “He’s pulled a knife! He’s holding it to his own throat!”
“Dear God! Could he be delirious?” Washburn was asking aloud.
Shore and Deakins dashed to the rail as hands quickly moved to clear the way for the captain and the surgeon.
“Quiet down! Quiet down all of you! Silence on deck!” Shore bellowed. The Doctor couldn’t hear the man while trying to speak to him with the whole crew chattering. In addition, the sight of all those men prattling and pointing at him couldn’t have been any solace to the nerves of the poor soul in the water considering his apparent state of mind.
Deakins immediately began speaking to the man, loud enough for him to hear but slowly and easily enough for him to understand while hopefully not causing him further agitation. The Dutchman still firmly held the knife blade against his neck, wide-eyed and looking to be terribly frightened. When the man originally made no response, the Doctor appeared to repeat what he said. At last, after seeming to consider Deakins’ words, the man responded in a shaky voice that was difficult to hear. His eyes weren’t quite as wide, but the knife was still held in the same place. His aspect was now more one of sad desperation than the half-crazed fright which had originally seized him.
Shore was about to ask Deakins what had been said, but the Doctor, with a raised index finger, was silently asking to have another word first. A second exchange went back and forth between them before Deakins turned to give Shore his answer.
“Sir, he’s saying he won’t allow himself to be taken by an English ship for any reason. As you can plainly see, he’s stated that he’d sooner kill himself than allow that to happen.”
“We’re not taking him captive,” Shore said insistently. “Certainly he understands that? We’re offering to pull him from the sea after he’s been left hopelessly adrift. Please tell him he has nothing to fear. No state of war exists between our countries.”
Deakins relayed Shore’s statement to the man who immediately responded with an angry glare and actually began pointing at them with the hand that didn’t hold the knife. With a wide-mouthed sigh that exaggerated the appearance of the Doctor’s pudgy jowls, Deakins turned to relay the man’s response.
“If that’s true, he says, then why was his ship attacked and taken by the English?”
Shore was unsure exactly how to feel at that moment. From his conversations with Peele, he understood that the Dutch and the Spanish habitually carried French trade, given that the Royal Navy’s control of the seas made it almost a necessity for their colonies in the region. However, he also knew full well that British privateers, in their insatiable lust for profit, had preyed upon the shipping of neutral countries even if they weren’t necessarily suspected of carrying French goods. Such activity was worrisome given that it served to create potential enemies of nations that would otherwise be uninvolved in the current conflict. Still, as the Royal Navy’s power only increased, a good many persons in positions of power seemed more than willing to overlook these incidents since they felt that no one on earth could truly challenge Britain’s mastery of the seas. That opinion wasn’t necessarily shared by all, however, including Admiral Haig if his last set of orders were any indication. In the end, there was no help for what had happened here. What was done was done, and if a British vessel was involved Shore couldn’t change that fact. Considering the man’s desperate situation, he could think of no viable reason for him to be telling falsehoods while threatening to take his own life.
Shore turned to one of the hands standing nearby who held a lifeline with a float attached. He made a suggestive glance at the implement and the man handed it over to his captain without a word. Shore then stepped to the edge of the deck where the section of railing had been removed to allow for the netting to be rigged over the side.
“Doctor,” he called to Deakins, who came to stand next to him, “I’m going to speak directly to this man and tell him he has nothing to fear. I want you to translate what I say, as I say it. Please make sure he understands.”
“Yes sir,” the surgeon said, comprehending what the Captain was trying to do.
Shore looked at the man, who was only perhaps twenty or so yards away, and maintained eye contact as he spoke. He crouched down at the edge of the deck while holding the float, in an effort to lend a more sincere aspect to what he was about to say. As he spoke, he paused at intervals to allow the Dutchman to hear Deakins’ translation.
“My friend, I don’t know who it was that attacked your ship or the reason behind it. If it was in fact a British vessel, then I assure you it was not an act sanctioned by my government. My ship is a vessel of the Royal Navy and it does not participate in unprovoked assaults on the people or property of neutral countries. We happened upon the wreckage left behind from whatever transpired here and found you as a result. We mean you no harm whatsoever; you have my word as the commander of HMS Philadelphia and as a gentleman. We are offering you your life - no more, no less. Now, if I toss you this float,” Shore began to ask, holding it up in his hands, “will you put that knife away and allow us to render you aid? We only want to help.”
The man seemed to listen intently, looking back and forth from Shore to Deakins as the words of the captain were translated by the ship’s surgeon. After the last word was spoken in Dutch by the Doctor, the man seemed to consider what had been said, still holding the knife to his throat. For a few seconds it seemed as if the effort to assuage his indignation might fail. Then, he suddenly broke down in a fit of sobs as he tossed the knife away and gave what looked like a nod of assent. Shore accordingly tossed the float into the water where the Dutchman could grab hold of it. He handed the line to members of the crew standing nearby and they began pulling the man to the side. Two other hands descended the netting partway to aid the exhausted sailor in climbing.
Neither Philadelphia nor Mollusk managed to locate any more men who might have been thrown overboard in the attack of the Dutch ship. Eventually, realizing that there wasn’t another soul to be found, they agreed upon a resumption of their transit toward St. John’s. The one sailor they had pulled from the sea now sat upon the deck with a tarpaulin thrown about his shoulders greedily swilling water from the cask as the Doctor looked him over. The weakened, traumatized man would drain the tin cup he drank from completely dry before holding it out with a shaking hand to have it ladled full again. Even though fresh water kept stored in casks for any appreciable period of time tended to take on a characteristically strange putrescence, it might as well have been Olympian ambrosia to this person who had been stranded and immersed for days in stinging brine.
“Well, Doctor?” Shore asked the surgeon after he had completed his initial examination.
“He’s absolutely parched, physically exhausted and his nerves are shot through. He also has some cuts and bruises, but that’s only what I see after looking him over superficially. I don’t yet know if he’s suffered any greater harm.”
“Did he tell you any more about his experience?”
“I asked him what you told me to,” the surgeon answered. “It was difficult getting a proper answer due to his extreme fatigue and the partial state of shock he’s in. He didn’t know much about the ship that fired on and boarded them, save to say it looked like it was an English brig. While his ship and crew had the means to defend themselves, he said that everything happened so quickly they were surprised and boarded before much could be done. He was knocked overboard after enemy shot tore away part of their taffrail. He started to shake nervously at that point so I decided on not pressing him further, and as ship’s surgeon I have to insist that you do the same for now, sir.” Deakins shook his head and pushed his spectacles further up onto his nose. “I must say, he’s lucky to have escaped any greater injury than he seems to have suffered, but as I said, I need to examine him further.”
“A brig, you say?” Shore asked, his intellect beginning to work. Certain possibilities began to suggest themselves to him, but they were still only suppositions that as yet lacked any real substantiation. He put the thoughts in the back of his mind.
“Well, have him taken below and seen to,” Shore told Deakins. “I’ll have Coteral get him some grog to warm him up. I’d also like to have a word with him about what happened once he’s had a chance to rest and recover his wits.”
“I’m not sure exactly how much he’ll tell us, sir,” the Doctor told him. “Even if he is of sufficient coherence to respond rationally after his experience, I don’t know how cooperative he’ll be. I can’t imagine he’ll be very well-disposed toward Englishmen after what happened to him even if we are his rescuers.”
“I understand that, Doctor,” Shore said, “but so long as his condition allows it, I need to try. I have a feeling there’s something here we might very well have missed if we hadn’t come upon that wreckage or discovered our friend over there – something quite important.”