The early morning of May 8, 1846, was greeted by the South Carolina sun slowly slithering upward from its nighttime slumber – the mirror of the ocean’s surface reflecting and distorting its brilliant hues of red, yellow, and orange as it rose – then leapt into the sky, free from the chains of darkness. With the arrival of a new day, the chill that had tightly gripped Charleston began to wage a losing battle with the sweet encroaching warmth. By mid-morning, the coolness of the previous night air would only be a distant dream betrayed by a vague memory.
The cargo ship Trinity Mist rested close to the cluttered dock that signified both prosperity and greed. One hundred and sixty foot long, her bulk barely moved by the tides, the East Indiaman vessel was thirty years past the days of her prime and, essentially, close to ten years over the threshold of her true reliability.
In former years, she had sailed from Western Europe to India and Southeast Asia exchanging European gold and silver for exotic Asian spices and highly coveted Chinese silk. She had now become relegated, or more truly condemned, to spending her last years of service as nothing more than an ocean going pack mule lugging cargo up and down the eastern coast of the United States, occasionally trekking into the states of the Gulf of Mexico. The Trinity Mist was a dying craft serving a growing and hungry nation.
The three masts of the ship rose defiantly from her weather-beaten body and stood at the ready to unleash their sails and bring movement and life back to the vessel. Only the captain’s orders and the winds of God restrained her from bounding from a deep slumber and racing toward the open ocean.
Despite the years of inadequate care and upkeep, signs of her once proud beauty and formidable power still lingered. The painted black line that separated her pearl white underbelly from the caramel colored sides of her hull had steadily lost its struggle with the elements of nature. In the patches where the natural wood had not broken through, random segments of charcoal grey crawled along her sides. For years, her white keel had presented a stark contrast to the greens and blues of the oceans she had passed through. A greenish grunge now coated the underside of the Trinity Mist, the sleek appearance broken by intermittent patches of rugged barnacles. Above the now faded border, her rich caramel sides had lightened. Splotches of assorted tones of brown gave the impression of at least a minimal attempt at upkeep. Two rows of dull brown squares gave testimony of the removal of her cannons and the sealing of her gun ports – a vestige of her might lost forever.
Seagulls and terns hovered and darted between the Trinity Mist and the assortment of other ships moored alongside the docks. The ear-piercing screech of the seabirds added to the increasing din of the morning’s activity. Waves continuously sloshed against the sides of the ship, their energy wasted upon her unyielding mass; the sounds of their splashing adding an inconsistent rhythm to the newly dawned day. An occasional silent and graceful pelican drifted across the background sky before soundlessly plunging beneath the ocean’s waves on pursuit of a morning meal.
A steady breeze swirled the slight hint of salt around Roger Cook while he stood at a distance from the Trinity Mist. He watched the crew as they completed the loading and securing of the last few pieces of cargo to the ship’s deck. In three or four places, wooden crates were stacked and lashed together in awkward heaps that were fastened to the deck. Some of the ship’s passengers milled about, curiously observing the crew’s activities, and lacked the realization that their unwelcome spectatorship was impeding the work of the crew. Coarse words uttered by an occasional crewman succeeded in moving and eventually reducing the size of the audience.
Roger had sailed upon many vessels in his life and he had come to expect, perhaps even delight in, the viewing of this initial intercourse of passengers and crew. The seasoned passenger knew to get out of the way and get to their cabins – the tedious repetition of the mariner’s proceedings having long lost their luster. How many times had he now stood and observed this ritual? Ten? Fifteen? As the images of the preceding ports of his life filed through his mind, they began to lose their distinct characteristics, blending into one indistinguishable collage.
Habit made him wait. Experience had given Roger a clear love for privacy and discretion. By not bounding aboard with the majority of the passengers, which was a trait of a novice or first time traveler, he could choose the moment that he wanted and slide unbothered to his cabin. It was not that he was a stowaway, his passage had been paid in full weeks in advance and those other days were long gone, but he did possess a slight aversion to crowds. People were fine. A person could even be a true delight, but everything was best in moderation.
Roger waited until the flow of passengers had ceased and the loading of cargo reduced to a trickle before he boarded. His luggage had been loaded the previous evening. A brown leather satchel, beaten and nonchalantly slung over his right shoulder, gave the only indication that he was not a member of the crew late arriving.
The question, which actually sounded more like a statement of fact, came from the top of the gangplank and to Roger’s right. A young sailor rested against the ship’s railings, his eyes apprehensively searching Roger’s for an answer. Roger nodded his response and continued up the plank. As Roger drew closer, the sailor straightened himself to a more formal stance and extended his height to a few inches over Roger’s six-foot frame.
Roger stopped as he reached the top of the gangplank. “Permission to come aboard?” Roger asked, his question was directed at the sailor but his gaze was focused on the stern of the ship where the flag of this new country flapped crisply in the breeze.
Roger noted the relaxation in the frame of the sailor at this question. Although he had paid the fare for the voyage and had the right to come aboard, he understood how much this custom meant to men of the sea. Roger was well aware that his display of courtesy and honoring of tradition would be passed on to the rest of the crew since he was more than likely the only one who asked to come aboard. There was no intent or desire to manipulate any of the crew but simply the establishing of a realm of mutual respect: a desirous companion in certain situations.
“Permission granted, sir,” the seaman answered, stepping back to allow Roger to board even though he was not actually in the way.
“Jones,” said the sailor as the thrust his large hand toward Roger.
Roger shook the outstretched hand. He sensed restrained power interlace with earnest emotions lying beneath the rough and callous surface of Jones’ grip.
“Roger Cook,” Roger replied, halting in front of Seaman Jones.
Jones smiled warmly, his blue eyes a stark contrast to his sun darkened skin.
“Welcome aboard the Trinity Mist, sir. Your baggage arrived yesterday evening and was stowed in your cabin,” Jones informed Roger. Reaching into his left breast pocket, Jones produced a slightly rusted iron key. He extended it to Roger.
“Here is you key, sir. If anything in your cabin is amiss please let me know as soon as you can.” Taking the key from Jones’ hand, Roger slid it into his trousers’ pocket. Flakes of rust stained the tips of his fingers.
“I’m sure that everything is fine but if not I will let you know,” Roger replied.
“If you will follow me I’ll show you to your cabin. It is the middle one of our three roundhouse cabins and is by far the largest. I think it is the finest one on board.
Jones gave Roger this narrative as he headed toward the aft of the vessel. Up until that brief cabin introduction Jones’ voice had been natural, relaxed. The last little speech sounded like a mini sales pitch and was too formal, too precisely worded to be anything more than a rehearsed show. Roger knew that as much as he hated being given an overly detached greeting he also knew, gauging from Jones’ complete lack of eye contact and emotional inflection, that the Seaman loathed giving it even more.
As they made their way toward the ship’s aft they came abreast of the capstan near the rear of the quarter deck, its top nearly eye level with Roger. The capstan’s arms were worn from use. Although effective in the raising and lowering of a ship’s anchor, the capstan had been replaced in newer craft with drum-sized winches placed in the bow of the vessel. Hidden below the forecastle deck in the most recently constructed ships, these winches had not only increased the speed at which the anchors could be dropped and raised but they also created a safer environment for the crew to work. This capstan was a relic on a relic.
After opening a hatch at the rear of the quarterdeck, Jones, followed by Roger, passed through the cuddy dining saloon and galley, entering a hallway behind the rear of the dining room. Dimly illuminated by oil lanterns that hung along the interior of the ship’s hallway, three cabin hatches lingered in the semi-darkness. Jones stopped and stood by the center hatch.
“Here you are, Mister Cook,” Jones said, nodding his head toward the hatch.
Roger fumbled briefly in his pocket before producing his key, the weight of the cold iron becoming apparent to him for the first time. In spite of both the lock and key’s rusty and quite pitted appearance, the key slid quietly into the lock and after a slight turn, opened with a soft ‘click.’ Roger pushed the hatch inward and stepped inside.
A quick visual survey of the room told him that all of his belongings were securely inside and in order. Roger turned to inform Jones that he was pleased with his accommodations and that all was well but the Seaman had departed, completely unnoticed by Roger.