Saturday, February 9, 2008


The Captain turned his attention back to the green island in front of him, trying to recapture his former mood. Nevis was a small island tucked into the West Indies like an emerald dropped into the sapphire sea, a popular crossroads from merchants coming up from Brazil, west from Britain or north from America. A sailor had once remarked that “all islands are alike—if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” but Hollee had a special fondness for Nevis. He had never known a proper home, but everytime he returned to the small island he relaxed.

They had been at sea for nearly two weeks, beginning in Charleston with a cargo of tobacco and had slowly worked their way down the islands, selling and trading for sugar, rum and any other material goods that Hollee thought might do well in America—a country starved for pretty things after seven years of war. He maintained a particularly good relationship with merchants up and down the eastern Atlantic due to his insistence on running a tight ship and his high level of personal integrity. The older men remembered the first Captain Hollee fondly and were eager to deal with his serious and honest nephew. The younger men were happy that he did not try to cheat them but accounted for every penny. And his crew was pleased to have a constant stream of work and a captain who did not belittle them too much—only if they deserved it.

The Windsong was not an exceptional flyer, but she made good time for a brig. The ship had originally been French—captured in a fight by the English navy, she had been burned almost to a hulk during the action. The original Captain Hollee had seen an investment and had bought it at auction for a song, refitted it and began his business in the West Indies. Because of her unfortunate beginnings there was always something awkward about her appearance, though she was sturdy enough. Her most unique feature was her six guns—very unusual for a merchant vessel. The four situated on either side of the waist were discovered under the wreckage of the decks after the auction—originally there had been five, but the fifth had exploded the first time the crew had fired it—and the bow and stern chasers were a present from a grateful silversmith who had sent the Windsong to England filled up to her decks with his wares. They had made it, but after hearing the stories of the pirates encountered along the way, the smith had purchased two small carronades as a present. That had meant much less than his continued business, so that even to this day the current Hollee often found himself making the occasional trip to England, laden to the waterline with silver.

There was nothing in the hold that wouldn’t keep for a few days, and Hollee had already determined to have a week off at Nevis. The crew were looking to it almost as much as he was—more so, if Pritchard’s actions were any indication—and at the thought he looked up into the yards. Several faces peered down at him, looking to see if he was still angry, and he gave them a half grin, indicating that he would not hold this episode against any of them. The ship relaxed, and talking started up again, snatches of laughter. Hollee turned and went into the captain’s cabin, remembering to duck as he did so.

“Everything all right?” he asked, smoothing his hair back into its queue. Sitting at his table was John Waggs, a pile of coins in front of him and a ledger book open at his right elbow. The crew would be paid off once they reached port, and John was marking down their allowances.

“Oh yes, I’m nearly finished.” he said, smiling. “How’s Pritchard?”

“Drunk and down below. I never thought the man was a drinker, but apparently he’s decided to take it up. If he does it again, I shall have him off my ship.”

“There’s a first time for everything, I daresay,” John said amicably.

John Waggs had been the other part of Hollee’s inheritance. He had sailed with the Windsong since she was first refitted, and was older than any man on board, including her captain. He held the position of first mate, but—owing to the smallness of the ship and his intense loyalty—he also served as purser, carpenter and, occasionally, surgeon. He wore his grey hair short, and it frizzled around his sunburned face, his shirt open in the front. Like most of the sailors he went barefoot, but kept his ankles bound with linen. Although Hollee had never heard him complain, he spent less and less time aloft, and the captain suspected arthritis or something worse was wearing the old man down. He would be nearly seventy soon, although he had forgotten his age.

“We’ve done all right for ourselves this time, haven’t we?” John said, turning the ledger so that Hollee could look at its neat columns, though there was no need.

“We haven’t made port yet,” Hollee said lightly, glancing out the window. “And unless I’m much mistaken, there’s our welcoming party now.”

Outside the window a frigate was flying up to meet them, her blue ensign flapping in the wind. She was making signals to stop and allow her crew to board. Hollee went on deck, scooping up his hat as he did so. The Windies (as his crew called themselves) had seen her already and were waiting attentively for their captain to give the order.

“Back sails,” he said, “Let her come alongside. You there—Campbell, for god’s sake man, put on some trousers.”

Campbell, who had been enjoying a wash, gazed at him reproachfully.

The frigate pulled up as the Windsong slowed, and soon the two were running side by side. The Windies together, their speed dropping. The Naval men onboard the boat moved about efficiently, but with an air of boredom. It was their job to ensure that no one was smuggling goods into Nevis, and they had performed this maneuver hundreds of time. Still—unlike the Windsong, the Boreas was a ship of the line and her captain could flog any one of them for a whole list of indiscretions, so they moved smartly, if mechanically.

A boarding party was gathered at the rail of the Boreas. Hollee quickly lifted his hat in salute, and the captain of the other ship did the same. A launch had been lowered into the water, and the party now quickly climbed into it.

“Jesus,” Campbell muttered, at Hollee’s elbow and now, thankfully, clothed, “A captain and a first lieutenant? Just what do they think we’ve got in here, doubloons?” Hollee privately as he watched the boatload of men row toward them. The gold braid on the uniforms flashed in the sunlight. “Mr. Campbell, if you please, show some courtesy this time.” Campbell was Scottish and liked to tell anyone who would listen that he had lost relatives at the battle of Culloden. Hollee suspected his profession had less to do with a nautical tendency than a need to leave Britain for political reasons. The Scot scowled at the redcoats standing on the deck of the Boreas.

In due time, the captain of the Boreas was hauled onto the Windsong and was shaking hands with her captain. Captain Mannington was a loud, large man who had been stationed in the West Indies for twenty years and had grown fat and complacent. He blew a breath smelling of wine into Hollee’s face and inquired after the trip.

“It went very smoothly, sir, no complaints at all,” Hollee replied blandly, thinking about the pirates that had menaced them off the coast of Florida. Brief excitement had reigned as he had ordered the stern chaser to be loaded, but the single shot had gone wide of the mark—and that was enough to convince the pirates to leave off. Mannington waved his hand, not absorbing a single word he said. His first lieutenant stood on the deck behind him awkwardly, while down below the boat’s crew talked in low voices about the best place to drink in Nevis. Mannington seemed distracted. His red face was more corpulent than usual, streaming under the sun. He stood gazing about the deck, almost as if he were lost in contemplation. “Shall we go below and inspect the papers, Captain?” Hollee asked politely. “I daresay you could do with a glass of wine after that row. The sun is fearful hot, isn’t it?”

“Not very thoughtful of you, putting in at the height of the day!” roared Mannington with something like his old self again. But the comment seemed forced, unnatural. Hollee led the way into the cabin, leaving the poor flustered first lieutenant on the deck to be stared at by his ship’s crew, a powerful object of curiosity to them.

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