I’m editing this for an alternate history anthology. I wrote it for a different project, but they didn’t appreciate my liberal interpretation of their directions. 😉 Well, it was a risk, and I knew it at the time! Let’s see if the new anthology grabs it!
5 October 1807
While he waited for the Officer of the Watch to officially confirm the lookout’s call, Elphinstone felt his heart begin to lift, despite the brutal heat. They had made it! After nearly eight months at sea, they were almost back in the relatively placid Mediterranean. That blackish smudge bobbing in and out of view on the horizon was the Rock of Gibraltar at last, assuming we’ve sailed true, he quickly thought, brushing his knuckles lightly against the near rail. Not that he had any reason to doubt it.
The young midshipman currently trying his hand as Watch Officer took the glass from his eye and came to Elphinstone. He touched his hat. “If you please, Captain; land in sight.”
Elphinstone nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Marshall.”
“Aye!” he said, touching his hat again to acknowledge the dismissal.
The heat was so beastly he had permitted officers to loosen the first two buttons on their shirts and remove their jackets, and had discreetly suggested to the first officer that the Royal Navy’s discipline would not shatter were the men allowed some small differences in the ships usual standard of dress. Downright slovenly, but it had been a very long, hard voyage, and a man needed some small liberties every so often. He’d had the displeasure in his youth to serve for a while with a Captain whose bo’sun was far too liberal with the cat, and this, to his reckoning, led to nothing but surly, weary men who did their jobs with half a heart, if at all. Let the men get away with small things every once in a while, and save the cat for truly dangerous infractions, like drunkenness or insubordination.
They were long overdue. They’d been lucky to survive the hurricane, but when the mizzenmast cracked, thousands of miles from any possible support, they had to cut and raise another one themselves. They had been fortunate indeed to find suitable timber, and the officers and men had performed admirably, but the process had taken months.
Yet, considering bureaucracy and the order of precedence in Navy shipyards, Elphinstone had to admit that they had probably spent a lot less time ashore than they would have if they’d been required to wait for their turn in a shipyard queue. The HMS Oriole was a fighting-fit 74-gun third rate, but in this long campaign it was the frigates commanded by the Admiralty, and always in short supply that took priority. Elphinstone was as willing to lay a sovereign or two on a quartermaster’s desk to move up a queue as the next man, but he had no great store of sovereigns. Nor could he use political influence or social precedence to bump their spot, as many of his compatriots did as, sadly, he had none. Elphinstone’s Captaincy was the result of promotion, or luck, as he thought of it, not heritage. Perhaps it had all worked out for the best, after all he thought.
Still, it had been a hard schedule of brutal work in terrible conditions. Three were still down with pneumatic lung, two were drinking quinine to fight the staggers and jags, and one of his favourite midshipmen was still convalescent from an accident that had cost him his left hand. Most of the crew were suffering from a touch of scurvy. And it was down to the peas and the beans, rice, biscuit, and what fish they could catch. Elphinstone’s own gums were bleeding off and on. He would be extremely glad of the rest, and make no mistake, even if he were on the beach, which he might be if the admiralty judged his long delay undue.
Young Mr. Marshall returned and touched his hat. “Captain, Parker in the masthead had a telescope and he’s sighted Gibraltar for sure, sir.”
Elphinstone couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the lad. Whatever had possessed a befreckled ginger to take to a life at sea, where the sun could assault his milk-fair complexion with such cruel ferocity? He had blisters on his nose, the Captain saw.
“Very good, Mr. Marshall.” The bell chimed the watch, and Elphinstone smiled. “And it seems your watch has ended. Where’s your relief?”
“Here, sir!” said Jones, who was only slightly older than Marshal. He touched his hat. “Sorry sir; just excited to be back in British waters.”
The lads exchanged the watch and the Captain left them to it. Something about the view bothered him, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. Used to trusting his instincts, he wanted to give himself space to ponder it.
The crew was used to his habit of meandering the deck when he was considering something. They simply went about their work and kept out of his way. Elphinstone avoided sheets and lines, ropes and men with the ease of long habit, weaving through them in a manner that landsmen might never achieve. Although he walked in a small bubble of respectful quiet some part of his mind took note of the snippets of conversation amongst the general ship’s noise. The crew were in high spirits. Their jovial banter at the end of so hard a cruise pleased him. Men speculated about girls they had or might have in port or the places they would go to spend or gamble their pay.
For himself, he thought he might spend a night at the Widow Knott’s, who made a capital lobscouse and spotted dog to match a strong accompanying bitter. Maybe take in an ensemble. He loved music but was not much of a hand at it himself, he simply could not bring himself to the skill, try though he had to scrape at a violin from time to time.
As the familiar peak of Gibraltar’s Rock materialized against the horizon, it suddenly came to him. Where were all the ships?
Gibraltar was a busy port. It should be a hotbed of activity! As Britain’s primary holding in the Med since Trafalgar, it played host to merchants, traders, fishermen, naturalists at study, privateers looking to steal French gold for Spain and England, His Majesty’s Navy, and gentlemen exploring the Continent. Why had they not seen another sail for several days?
“Mr. Boyden,” he addressed one of the sail crew, “pass the word for the First Officer, with my compliments, and ask him to join me on the quarterdeck.”
The seaman touched his hat and went below. Elphinstone lit his pipe and smoked it quietly while waiting.
The squat form of Rawlings soon materialized at his side. How he could be so quiet, Elphinstone didn’t know; the man did not seem to push air in front of him when he walked. Further, he was still fully buttoned, though unjacketed, and somehow seemed unruffled by the heat, though his face was burnished red, just like everyone else. He touched a knuckle to his hat but it was perfunctory. The two had been friends from midshipmen and Elphinstone had specifically requested him when given his command. “Sir,” he nodded.
“What’s amiss here, Rawlings?” the Captain asked him.
Always a much quicker wit than Elphinstone, the dark Welshman scanned the horizon with black raven’s eyes. Almost immediately he replied, “Seems awful lonely out here, sir.”
Elphinstone nodded. “I thought the same. Now why would it be so?”
The clever Welshman took a moment to light one of those foul-smelling cigarillos that he preferred. Elphinstone was amazed that he’d managed to preserve one after all this time. “Nothing good, I think. I would guess a blockade we somehow avoided? But then why no fishermen?”
“Perhaps we’ve just missed a good squall?”
He looked all around clear to the horizon in all directions; not a wisp of cloud in the sky. Smoke puffed out through his nose as he snorted his opinion on the theory. “Well, I suppose it’s possible. All the same, it smells bad to me.”
Elphinstone nodded again. “Aye, I’m inclined to agree. All hands to stations, if you please.”
It was passed along. “Cap’n says beat to quarters!” “Beat to quarters!” The drummer began to rap at the snare and the bell clanged. The deck became a flurry of activity as men took their action stations; full crews to the sails, topgallantmen aloft, marines standing to armsguns. Elphinstone made his way to the helm and Rawlings followed.
“Foine time for this, sir,” complained Winters at the helm. The last wisps of his white hair gave his plump face a cherubic glow.
“Old Boney hardly waits for our convenience!” Elphinstone replied. The helmsman grumbled a grudging affirmative. It would have earned a piercing hawk’s glare from the Captain if it had come from anyone else, but Winters was one of their oldest crew and had served with Elphinstone from the time he was a young reefer. It was hard not to expect a certain level of freespeaking from a man who had once been in part responsible for your schooling and discipline.
But that cavalier statement he’d offered in reply to Winters put Elphinstone’s mind to work. Could a blockade explain the empty harbour? Perhaps Spain had finally gone over to Napoleon. There were rumours that politics were leaning that way. If the Spaniards had managed to catch the Royal Navy unawares . . .?
But no, that was preposterous! The Spaniards did not have enough of a fleet to deal with the sheer numbers of Royal Navy ships at Gibraltar; otherwise, they would have done so long before. Still, perhaps they had seized the harbour and the batteries. Elphinstone had to assume this was so.
“Steady as she goes, Mr. Winters,” he directed. “Let’s not give them any idea we’ve noticed anything amiss.” He did not give command to run up the colours; they’d run them up when they’d arrived back in British waters already.
“Steady as she goes, aye.” The helmsman steered their Oriole with a firm but gentle hand. The Captain was always pleased to see her glide through the water so tight in stays, and his men knew their business. Not a single line or sheet luffed. It seemed that the Sailmaster had been drilling the landsmen hard. He suppressed a smile.
He focused his attention on the harbour and shoreline. Like most harbours, one could not avoid exposing oneself on all sides to the batteries if one intended to dock, so his eyes tried to comb in all directions at once. Realizing the futility of this he said, “Rawlings, if you’ll watch abaft the beam, and Major Johnson, if you’ll look to the bow, I’ll take the port view.”
“Aye, sir,” grunted Rawlings, and the marine captain saluted. He did not change position in any way from parade rest, but his sharp marksman’s eyes scanned the shoreline.
“Of course, Captain,” Rawlings noted, “if they were laying a trap for us, why not blast us to flinders as we came through the Strait?”
A good question. Most of Gibraltar’s defences were on the north side of the peninsula, which was the greatest angle of threat, facing Spain. There were almost none on the Eastern, which they were just passing, because the cliff was impassable. Any ship foolish enough to attempt invasion there would be dashed against the cliff, if it did not run aground in the rocky shoreline and sink itself first.
“Steer her to your liking, lest I say otherwise, Mr. Winters,” directed the Captain absently, and although he listened with half an ear to the sounding of the depths – “Still deeper’n six!” – he tuned out the sailing orders – “Luff up! Luff up!” – as they crept closer to the harbour. His heart plummeted into his boots when he realized that all twelve of the 32 pounders and all ten of the eight-inch howitzers mounted at the front of the King’s Bastion remained silent. They passed the Devil’s Tongue Battery on the Old Mole without incident.
“What the bleedin’ hell?” came a voice from somewhere.
“We’ll have none of that on the deck of a King’s ship!” snapped Rawlings, knowing his Captain’s preferences.
“Sorry, sir,” was the meek response. It sounded like Williams, a seaman assigned to the flanker. He was known to let his mouth run at inopportune moments. But Elphinstone could hardly blame him. He shared the man’s sentiment. Looking around, he saw that every face was pale and nervous.
“I don’t understand it either, lads,” Elphinstone said loudly, “but, in no case can panic help anyone. As Admiral Nelson said, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’”
The men swallowed and nodded, and that nervous tension transmuted into alert eyes and steady grips on musket butts. Elphinstone appreciated the talismanic effect that invoking the name of Nelson, especially here in these waters, had on all right-thinking Navy men.
His private fear however, was only deepened as they made their final approach to the harbour. He could see no evidence of the bustle of activity that the harbour typically offered. All ships were still at anchor, and all the boats were in port. Most disturbing, the flag was mounted at half-mast, and tattered.
“It appears deserted, sir,” observed the marine captain, Major Johnson. His twirled moustache – a bit of a dandy’s affectation in Elphinstone’s opinion, not that he would ever be so rude as to say so – twitched in the expression that the Post-Captain had come to read as dismay.
It certainly did. What on God’s earth could cause such a thing?
“Five fathom!” cried the sounder at last.
“Drop anchor,” he said grimly. Until he knew what was going on, that was quite close enough!
“Lower the anchor!” cried the Sailmaster in response, and heavy chains scraped as the anchor sank.
Elphinstone looked to Johnson. “I think we can consider the circumstances odd enough that we must conclude we are not yet back to friendly English waters. So you’ll lead a shore party to investigate.”
“Aye, sir,” the Captain saluted in the manner of a ground soldier, then he bellowed orders at his men while crewmen made ready to launch a boat.
“Well,” he said to Wright, his senior bo’sun and quartermaster, “I’m sure there are plenty of things to be done aside from idling, aren’t there?”
“Aye, Skipper,” he agreed with a guilty start, and promptly began calling commands to get gear stowed, empty chests and barrels hauled to the cargo doors to unload, and idle crew to begin swabbing the deck and polishing the brass, mending sails that could be mended, and while they were at it, it was high time for a coat of new paint, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t want to look a muck of slovenly lubbers if they were sent home from here, would they?
Elphinstone took his own advice and busied himself pouring over the ship manifest and confirming paperwork from the quartermaster and the paymaster. One of the least glamorous and certainly most stultifying of his responsibilities, but a necessary one. And it was something he could use to distract himself from the creeping worry that nattered at his nerves.
All the same, he found himself scaling the mizzenmast when the Officer of the Watch called out that the marines were returning. Some Post-Captains felt that such things were beneath decorum, but Elphinstone found that doing it reminded the men he’d grown up on the sea, same as they had. Plus, it was good for keeping him fit, as a Post-Captain’s life of paperwork, supervision, and roast dinners with the Admiralty and his officers, was, to put it succinctly, not. He squinted into the glinting of Mediterranean sun on the water as the boat approached, but frowned as they stopped rowing a goodly distance away.
One of the marines began to signal with the semaphore flags. Creeping horror filled Elphinstone’s mouth with a metallic tang even before Jones called that he was receiving a message from the boat. “What sort of deviltry is this?” cried the chaplain. The whole crew stared with horror at the Yellow Jack at the bow.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Diane Morrison