The Memoirs of George Sperryhawke

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Chapter 4: The Isabella

So began the most illustrious career in the history of maritime commerce. The Isabella was an old barn of a hooker, one-hundred-and-fifty tonnes of sturdy oak and twenty-eight sails housed upon the wild sea. As this was my first voyage I had no conception of how curious a thing this ship was. We had no first mate, nor any second mate, nor a porter, nor a supercargo. There was only the captain, the chaplain, a cook & Purser, the carpenter & surgeon, and twelve Seaman.

Dobbin was very democratic in his tendencies, and disgraced himself by working side-by-side with the men in their duties. Not only did our Captain Choose to labor, but insisted that the Chaplain also participate in these filthy chores, which he deemed were, “pleasing to God.” I fear it was this concession to egalitarianism that made the ship so disorder’d a place. We were constantly off course and the men’s daily labors were so confused & overlapping that while some trivial duties were attended to thrice each afternoon, other duties of greater import were neglected.

Knowing that many of my readers are ignorant landlubbers, I will condescend here to explain a little what life at sea is like. The day itself is divided into four watches of six-hours a piece, which are measured by a sandglass in the Captain’s chambers, and marked by the ringing of a bell.

Shortly after four in the morning, the Carpenter and the Boatswain came to the deck to begin daily repairs, whilst the Cook lit the fires in the galley and began preparations of the Skillagaollee, and the scotch Coffee. The boys were dragged from their births at Five, coiled away their hammocks, and then made to wash down the decks with water & vinegar, and polish the planks with Holystone. This work continued until near Eight O’clock, when the Boatswain piped the crew for the Morning Meal. The men were then given a half hour respite from their Labor whilst they consumed the morning gruel, which was ladled from a wrought iron soup-tureen with a dirty teacup.

Ours days were then spent on the foredeck doing work both tiresome and gruesome. It is mind bending how often sails need mending; and the sheer quantity of them —- the Spanker, the fore spencer, mizzen skysail, the lee ditto, etc. —- assured us that our work could ne’er be complete. In addition, we were charged each day with squaring the yards, flemishing the ropes, and keeping the planks dry to prevent Rotting, which invariably occurred anyway. Indeed, the innumerable mizzens were constantly being hollowed out by Rot, and the Fore-masts were no better. Twice I complained that if these sails & beams required so much attention, then perhaps we should procure better Instruments of sail in the first instance. And yet in this Suggestion I was rebuffed by the Captain, who used to say that, “better Equipment is an expensive substitute for good men.”

This work continued until the midday meal was prepared and served. The comestibles at the Dinner hour usually consisted of salt beef, potatoes in their jackets, and biscuits, along with a half a ration of rum & water. At six, the watch was changed again, and the Quartermaster put any man intoxicated in irons on the foredeck, where he would remain until the next morning’s breakfast.

Apart from these regular Duties, as Chaplain, I was also responsible for discipline of the crew, giving of the last rites to any man on his death bed in the infirmary, and most importantly, conducting service on the Sabbath. Where Discipline was concerned, my time was spent Chastising the men who had been put into irons and mediating disputes between the Crew to avoid further outbreaks of Violence; and indeed, my success was often measured by the number of dogs put into chains during that day. The most common punishment administered was flogging —- although on some ships, keelhauling remains in vogue. Keelhauling, though much feared by the men, is an absurd punishment that consists of tying a man to a large ball of Lead, and thence throwing him over the Bow into the sea, whereupon he is pulled with Great Force underneath the ship, and thence recovered and rescued whence he reaches the Stern. It has never seemed to me such a terrifying ordeal as all that, and is really not so different than going for a leisurely swim.

* * *

That second morning, one of these sea-dogs had been put into chains and I was brought round from my cabin to administer the proper punishment. His confinement was centered on the schooner-deck, where his shame & Degradation were on display for all to see. This fellow —- who was called O’Grady by the men, and universally acknowledged as their Champion —- had been chained at the ankles, and again at the neck, and tied smartly about the mizzenmast. He clearly was Disturbed to be confined in such a degrading manner, but I made it clear by my expression that I had no sympathy for his vanity, and that he would have no leniency from me.

“Alright then fellow, what have you done?” I asked.

“Mr. Reverend, Sir,” growled O’Grady, “the Purser only gives me twelve ounces of tobacco when he was made to give me a full pound. He keeps the other four ounces for his-self, and sells ’em off to another.”7

“And so? Why have you been put in the brig?”

“Well when Mr. Samson refuses to correct the account, I punch him right in the nose, to make him give me the other four ounces.”

“You must know that violence is prohibited?”

“What is me to do?” cried the beast, and shook his chains mightily. “The Pursuer has cheated me!”

“Christ commands that you turn the other cheek,” I said this, though in truth I sympathized with the lad. “For such violence, your punishment is one hour of contemplative prayer, no dinner this evening, and twelve lashes of the Cat’s tail.”

“Tis rather harsh, Mr. Reverend Sir!”

“Indeed, and the next time you quarrel with the Purser, you shall come to me first, and I will mediate the conflict without violence. Understood?”

“Aye, do your worst,” snipped O’Grady.

O’Grady’s shirt was removed, and I seized up the weapon, though I confess I did not half like the thought of ripping the boy’s flesh open with such a beastly instrument. I can and will employ Violence when necessary —- but to whip a man for trifles has always seemed to me a barbarous exercise. And yet, were I to be lenient in this first test of my Authority, the men would take as a sign that their liberties and licenses were permitted, and the Ship should suffer further deterioration or Morale and discipline. I thus raised up the Tail, and came down hard upon his shoulders. O’Grady was first silent as the flesh dripped from his Back. Another blow directly upon the wound! And now O’Grady’s whole body contort’d and bent like a top-sail in a hurricane. I wrapped the leather firm around my fist to deliver the third, fourth, and fifth administrations, and threw all of Strength into the lash which finally succeeded in opening his lips from whence escaped a desperate howl of despair.

“Christ almighty!” screamed the Chairman.

“Blasphemy!” I cried, and continued to deliver Blow after Blow until I had reached the twelfth and final administration. O’Grady was by that time nearly unconscious, and I was pleased that the men aboard witnessed their mighty Chairman reduced to such a pitiful and disgraceful figure.

“Untie him, and wash out the wound with vinegar & Rum. And make sure he’s back on Duty by the third bell!” I cried as the dogs dragged their champion off the mizzen-mast.

* * *

Because the ship was such a disorderly mess, I found most of my time increasingly taken up with these matters. Each night one or two of the men were found drunk, or disorderly, and put into the brig for my attention at first light. Sometimes these men were ten or twelve hours in regaining their sobriety, which of course only resulted on their labors falling to the other men, who were in turn forced to perform more work for their drunken brethren. And when I delivered blows from the Cat’s tail, their Injuries were such that they were another two days in regaining their Mobility. This seemed to me a highly ineffective and inequitable manner of discipline and I conveyed my doubts to Dobbin.

“I fear too many men are put into chains for very small offenses. And this Cat’s tail is a monstrous device. It may well be useful in a Navy with three-hundreds men, but we simply cannot afford to have a fifth of our crew bandaged up. It impedes the Timely completion of our efforts.”

“Aye George, but we must have discipline. And so we must harshly punish trivial offenses so as not to contend with Larger offenses.”

“Quite,” I nodded. “But all the same, we must come to a different arrangement with the men. And our Puruser, Mr. Samson, is a monstrous fraud. Half the men sent to the brig are there for disputes over the rations apportioned by Mr. Samson, who all seem to agree is cheating the men foot & tooth.”

“Aye, tis the business of the Purser to seek to cheat the men. So long as the common enemy of the crew is the Purser, it shall never be the Captain,” Dobbin smiled wryly, and it seemed to me just then that perhaps this Dobbin as not half so naïve as he led me to believe.

“All the same. We must change our methods. The men’s characters and habits are not affected by corporal punishment.”

“I trust the Lord works through you, George,” smiled the Captain, and returned his attention to his charts.
“As I have said, you have a free hand to deliver punishment & keep discipline.”

* * *

My second Great duty was conducting the Sermon. Now the Captain, who was a great man for Calvin, observed the Sabbath strictly. He allowed no work to be performed on the Lord’s day. And since I was the chaplain of the Isabella, it was my duty to perform services and the Eucharist.8 On that first Sunday of the voyage, the men were gathered on the foredeck by Eleven O’clock. I had arranged a makeshift pulpit atop the Quarter-deck, and I led the men in several hymns. I then began my sermon, and read from the Hebrew scriptures, which I knew would please Dobbin.

“For the Life of the flesh is in the Blood, and I have given it to you upon the Altar to make an atonement for your souls; for it is the Blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” But after an hour or so of reading from the Leviticus, I found myself growing exceptionally bored, and the men were unable to stay awake. I thus resolved to end the written sermon, and opine on more practical matters of religious import.

“Look here fellows, let’s concern ourselves with matters of Final importance,” I said, closing the Good Book and rapping my fist upon the pulpit. “The vast majority of you, within forty years, will be burning in Hell. In fact, Two-Thirds of you are destined to hell, and of the remaining One-Third, Two-Fifths will most likely go to hell, and only Three-Fifths stand a good chance of getting to Heaven.”

I could tell the men were intrigued by this more so than the rules of Leviticus, but were confused by the fractions.

“That is, of you 16 lads, 12 of you will be in hell in forty years, save the Captain and myself, owing to our Rank, and love of virtue. So really, if we take as our denominator all 18 of us, that greatly reduces any of your abilities to escape the fiery dungeons. At best, under the absolute best scenario, God shall save three of you.”

This information interested the Crew, who each looked about them as if to determine who among them should win that Divine lottery.

“Now Hell, as you know, it a rather awful place. It is beneath the earth -- likely in the center of the Earth where everything is hottest -- and is presided over & managed by the Devil. It is full of fire, and is a House of Torment, Torture, and Cruelty, from which there is no appeal or Repose.”

“Now, it is my Duty in life to save as many of you from Hell as divinely possible. I should like to have each you of catalogue your Virtues, and vices. Bear in mind that lying about your virtues or vices, is indeed a terrible sin and will be but another reason for damnation.”

The men were eager to confess their crimes –- in rather sordid and unnecessary detail. It is a trait of the lower orders that they have little conception of decency or shame. They shall just as soon tell you of the time they buggered their sister as stand you a pint of cider. After an hour of the most revolting confessions that I could tell were disturbing the conscience of the great Moralist, I ordered the men to stop, and contemplate in silence these unspeakable crimes. I then performed the Eucharist, and absolved the congregation of their sins for the day.

After the sermon and service had concluded —- an exceedingly long Three hours —- I retired to my cabin, eager to rest from all that work. But no sooner had I put my head down on the pillow, then there was a knock at the door.

“Who in God’s name is it?” I asked.

“Forgive me Father George, but tis I, Timothy.”

“What do you want lad?” I replied.

“Only a moment of your time, Sir. Only a moment. But I can come back later if it is not convenient for you.”

Timothy was the pathetic club-footed Dutch boy. I confess my heart was pitied by him, as he was a regular butt of jokes from the Men.

“Very well, very well,” I said, and raised myself from the bed and ordered him to enter the room.

“Yes Mister Reverend Sir,” Timothy began, “I have come to inquire further into the substance of your very fine Sermon.”

“Is that so?” I asked.

“Yes Father. You see I am very concerned that I should be sent to Hell. Your sermon terrified me mightily for I fear that I am full of Sin.”

“As you should be,” I poured myself a tankard of cider, and whispered under my breath, “for God likely thinks you a detestable coward.”

Timothy accepted my summation without complaint, and thereafter began to inquire into all sorts of particulars engendered by my Sermon. The boy, who was a rather precocious chap, was much interested in the mechanics & logistics of eternal damnation.

“Well for starters, Father, I wonder what should happen if God accidently sends me to Hell? Surely that must happen? God intends a man to go to Heaven, but somehow he is lost in the shuffle, and gets sent to Hell? For example, once I was accidentally assigned to the sugar-cane trading ship Margaretia when in fact I was supposed to be assigned to the whaling ship the Pilgrim. Does that ever happen and if so, what are the methods of appealing such an Error?”

“No, that never happens, and there is no Appeal from God’s judgment,” I rejoined. “God cannot maketh a Mistake in assignment. Since God is all knowing, and all righteous, if he were to make a mistake, it would not be God making it, but some other devil.”

“I see, thank you Father,” Timothy nodded and fell silent. But I could tell he had another issue.

“Yes, have you something else to say my Son?”

“Yes, father. I suppose I would like to know how this selection & sorting of souls is accomplished? That is, do God and the Devil negotiate over which souls shall go to hell and which to heaven?”

“Indeed,” I responded and answered his question as Logic best determined. “Every Year, God and the Devil meet at a mutually agreed upon Location with all the Divine death certificates from the preceding year. Of course they have with them their assistants and scribes. And Christ Jesus sitteth on the Throne of Judgment and a trial of sorts is conducted to weigh the competing virtues, and vices, of the Dead man.”

“And is assignment to Hell a relative proposition, or an absolute? That is, shall one be confined to Hell because his actions were absolutely bad, or because in relation to his neighbor, they were not quite as good?”

“Both,” I said, a bit taken aback by the inquisitiveness of this unlettered cabin boy. “God will judge you both according to absolute standards of conduct, but if it is a close call, he then shall Judge you according to your relative merit or relative sin as against the collective merit or sin of your neighbors.”

“And how does a man’s virtues balance with his vices? That is, let us suppose a man is both exceedingly sinful, and yet, also does a great many good & noble deeds. Let us say a man is slothful, indolent, greedy, and gluttonous. And yet, let us also suppose that the man is a great lover of the Scriptures, and gives to the poor and never once worshipped a graven image. How does God judge this man’s soul?”

“It is an accounting like any other. God assigns values to each Sin, and to each Virtue, and tallies them up.”

“And yet that is a very strange thing if you consider it,” Timothy responded and put his finger to his lips. “Imagine that you have two men. And let us suppose the first man’s sins measure at 10,000. And his virtues measure 10,001. Well I suppose that man is going to Heaven? But now let us imagine a man whose vices measure 10,000. And his virtues measure 9,999. Well that man is going to hell? And yet, is there really such a difference between those two men? I don’t suppose that your average person could distinguish between their characters at all. So it seems odd to me that one man earns eternal salvation, and the other earn eternal damnation, when in fact the difference in their lives and characters was truly negligible. Doesn’t that seem unjust, Father? Don’t you see a problem in that?”

“The difference might have been that one man dropped one shilling in the alms box at church or offered a single kind word to an old crone. Otherwise the men might have been equally wicked and grotesque, and yet for the price of a single shilling in the alms box, one man has escaped eternal torment? Why I don’t know that I can accept that system at all.”

“You are supposing that the Almighty does not know who is Good & who is Evil?”

“No Father, not a bit of it. But if in fact God’s judgment is an accounting system, I am only concerned about how I should gain salvation. How am I to know what my Accounting is at any moment? Just consider it. On a spectrum of 1 to 100, where 1 is a blood-thirsty Heathen and 100 is a Saint, it seems to me that 50 is likely the cut-off. Is 50 the cut-off, Father? So anyman at 51 or higher is in Heaven and anyman at 50 or below is in Hell?”

“No!” I barked and corrected this boy’s estimation. “50 is most surely not the cut-off. To merit Salvation under such a spectrum, a man would need to be . . . well, at least an 85. No man is getting into Heaven because he is only a little more good than evil.”

“Well I suppose that does change things a little,” replied Timothy. “And yet, on the other hand, does it even matter where you draw the line? If you were to draw it at 85, you have the same problem with men who are at 86 and men who are 84. Only consider the problem as you have now described. The men whose virtue is between 83 and 86, why I shouldn’t think there is any so much difference between them. A man at 86 might be a little better than a man at 83, but not by so very much. Surely it is unjust for the Saints, whose virtue is 100, to share the blessings of eternal paradise with men at 85, who only barely managed to escape damnation, and whose characters are at best a mixed-bag. And on the other end, why should a man at 84 be lumped together with the wretched Sinners at 7? Oh father, it is intolerable to think of it! How can a sinner of 85 sit at table with a saint of 99 and both praise the justice of God? How can they do it? And how can the decent man who only barely escaped paradise be tortured on the same Rack as the godless heathens & Adulteresses? Is that justice, Mr. Sperryhawke?”

“Stay a moment -- you have forgotten the issue of Faith,” I rejoined, thinking I had at last bested this precocious little chap. “Faith is the ultimate issue.”

“Faith? Well indeed father, but how shall we measure it? And then what becomes of virtue and vice? Shall an ignorant, sinful fool who believes in Christ be welcomed into Paradise, when a kind-hearted & charitable Chinaman be cast into the darkest corner of the hell-Fire simply because he never heard the gospel?”

“Well,” I stumbled a bit, “it’s difficult. Both faith and works are part of the calculation –- dammit man, your blasphemy is intolerable!”

“And that’s just the point! Oh Father, that’s exactly the point. It’s intolerable. I quite agree. The whole system is intolerable! And how does God measure the absence of sin? Does a man receive some sort of credit for not bearing false witness against his neighbor? Let us suppose that a man had an opportunity to profit himself in a very great way by bearing false witness, but chose not to, because of his love of God, does that man receive credit? Surely, that man is more deserving of credit than the man who never stood to gain anything from bearing false witness?”

“That is enough!” I shouted and slammed my fist on the table. “You have angered God with your Blasphemy today. You must cease this hostile interrogation! Now, tell me what Sins trouble your conscience, or else be gone!”

“Oh a great many, father. A great many indeed. To begin, I was born a bastard.”

“I see. Tis a terrible crime to be born a bastard. But the sin is mostly of your parent’s. It does Color & deteriorate your own-soul of course, but with adequate penance, you may overcome this affliction.”

“And what is the measurement of my sin of being born a bastard? How does it compare to, say, taking a sick child into my house and feeding him?”

“I could not presume to speak for the Almighty, but in that instance, I should think bastardy is measured at a 2 in Sin and feeding the sick child is about a 5 in virtue. Have you taken a sick child into your house and fed him?”

“No father, not a bit of it. Oh father not a bit of it. But listen. What if I were to pay a friend to take in a sick child? Should I receive credit for that Deed?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“But consider it, Father. Let us suppose that I was planning to buy myself a new horse. And I very much wanted this new horse. But instead of buying the horse, I gave the money to my friend to help the sick man. Surely I am worthy of some credit for that act? Or let us suppose that I gave the money directly to the Sick man so that he could obtain physic? Surely that is worthy of some recognition by God?”

I considered this. “Yes, I suppose in that situation, your actions would be pleasing to God. But dammit man. You cannot first inquire as to the reward for an Act and then decide whether to perform the Act. That very question is dis-pleasing to God, and thus is sinful.”

“I quite understand, father! That I quite understand. Only the question does not come about through only volition on my part. It is not as though I wished to think of that question -—it simply appeared in my mind!”

“Then you must keep it to yourself. Virtuous men do not have such questions.”

“I see. And only, please do not become cross, but if I have the question, and then do not speak it, is that pleasing to God in some way that shall be accounted for?”

I gave Timothy a stern glance so that he should understand this line of inquiry was at an end. “What other Sins are you hiding from God besides your bastardy and club-foot and evil Mind?”

At last Timothy recited for me his various sins, and made a confession of sorts. He had been idle, and taken the Lord’s name in vain. He had been covetous, and spiteful, and harbored hate in his heart for his father who sent him to sea.

“I must say boy, that the heavens resound with the cries of the angels for your crimes. It shall be no easy task to wipe clean your Soul from these wretched offenses against God. All I can advise is that you obey the Decalogue, be an honorable servant, and most importantly, love God with all your Heart, and all your mind.”

“Yes of course, I shall eagerly try all of this. But father, I worry it shall not be enough to absolve me and I am most eager to avoid the Hell-fires. I rather think I should like to be a bit more proactive. I have prepared a small offering for the Church,” said Timothy and removed three-pence from his duck-trousers. “I wonder whether such an offering would be pleasing to God?”

My heart was moved by this boy’s naivety. It was obvious to me that his family had not yet extracted itself from Papist superstitions.

“I fear you cannot buy absolution from God’s command to love, my son. Keep your coppers.”

“But the hell fire, sir! It scares me most terribly!”

“Look here Timothy,” I said, thence coming to a resolution, “you may best Serve Christ by serving those who Serve Him. Me, that is. I shall take you into my employ, and you shall pledge eternal allegiance to me. In time, you shall become gifted in the ways of virtue and love, and will undoubtedly earn God’s favor.”

And so Timothy became my squire. It is true that he was a deformed bastard, and so not a proper attendant for a godly man such as myself, but he was not entirely without Ability, and was obsequious to a fault. He attended me in my rooms, and kept them tidy. He followed me as I performed my duties, and I even put him in charge of ensuring the men were not neglectful of their penances. In all he was a fine servant, and his offered indulgence resulted in me transforming the manner I administered punishment on the ship.

* * * *

“Good heavens, what have you done now?” I said to O’Grady, who I found chained to the mizzen-mast one morning just after dawn.

“I’s found coupling with the cabin-boy,” boasted this beast, seeming to think it an entirely un-shameful occurrence.

“Good god man, have you no decency?” I shook my head in disgust. “Look here old boy, I can see that my methods are not correcting your Character in the way they should. Thus, you may either receive the punishment, which is nine lashes of the cat’s tail and no dinner for three days, or else, make a suitable offering to Mother church.”

“An offering?” he said.

I glanced to Timothy, whom I had appointed the Chaplain’s accountant. Tis not suitable for a man of God to discuss money.

“For buggering a cabin-boy,” Timothy whispered, “the Lord demands three shillings.”

“And then I keep my supper, and no lashes?” inquired O’Grady.

Timothy nodded, and O’Grady consented to the arrangement. And so it was that I largely replaced torture with indulgence, whereupon I agreed to accept coin, biscuits, or other small trinkets, in recompense for their crimes. I found the men highly receptive to this new method. They understood the concept of a fine well, and though they were poor, I did not demand Large sums. Soon, I had nearly half the ready copper & silver on the ship, and so began to resort to accepting notes promising payment upon completion of the voyage.

Whence the work for the day was completed, the lads retired to the foredeck for cards and supper. Now although the Captain was a stern man, he was not without Sympathy for those petty amusements so necessary to making this life Tolerable for the lower-Orders. Thus it was that the men were allowed their Liberty whilst not attending Duties; and the Liberty the men valued above all things was chiefly their nightly games of cards & dice. I recall watching them at play, and was ashamed at how amateur & foolish they were with the cards. These men had no notion that the Science of cards is rather a simply operation of mathematicks; such that any man who can keep the numbers in his head & make simple computations is not dependent upon chance.

They had often invited me to table, but I had always refused as it did not seem like the proper thing given my station. But they continued to impress upon me their desire for my company, as they were eager to play with a Churchman whom they believed should have no knowledge of cards.

“Aye, give us a chance to win back our coppers!” cried the chairman O’Grady, referring no doubt to the Indulgences.

“I cannot gamble away sacrifices to God,” I rejoined. “Ridiculous. That money is safely in Escrow and is inviolable. But, perhaps I could give you a chance to win some of my own coppers.”

These low-fellows did not play Faro, but instead played a bizarre game of hearts, which I found even easier to best them in. There were six Salts at table, seated around a candle, and I made a seventh and the cards were dealt. But these fellows were so utterly without guile, that even my magnanimity of spirit could not assist them. By the end of the Round, I found myself in possession of nearly all the chips, even after several attempts to let the lads win a worthless hand or two. I raked the chips from the table into my purse, and passed the Deal onto the boy seated to my left.

“You wouldn’t be cheating us would you, Georgie?” inquired O’Grady.

“You have had a bad evening old boy, and so I shall forgive the insult just this one time,” I remarked. “A gentleman from Cambridge does not cheat at cards.”

“Let’s just see about that,” O’Grady took up my hand, and saw I was holding a double Ace. “Aye, tis a miracle that the Reverend has more aces than the deck herself!”

I stood from the table, and ever so slowly began to move away from the motely gang. “Now hold back rogues!” But the monster O’Grady grabbed me firm by my collar, raised me up, and hung me on a nail, whence all the others descended upon me like a tribe of Savages set upon a Grain silo.

That night a gang of starving dogs felled a mighty Lion, leaving the magnificent creature in a pool of blood just there on the foredeck. Such a sacrilege I think had not been wrought since the Roman garrison nailed our Savior to the cross upon Calvary. That the crew of the Isabella should have the cruelty, baseness and indignation to chastise a man of God, of the Church, for besting them in a game of chance is a worrisome comment on our generation. And yet, mercy compels me to pray earnestly for those poor Souls when I think of the terrors that await them at the final judgment.

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