An Inescapable Justice is my free ghost story for Halloween (or Hop tu Naa for my Manx friends) 2021. It is set on a Royal Navy frigate in 1800 when Hugh Kelly of the Manxman series is twenty-five years old and has just received his first appointment as a post-captain.
Earlier this year I read a fabulous book called Mutiny on the Spanish Main by Angus Konstam, which told the story of the mutiny aboard HMS Hermione in 1797. It has been described as the bloodiest mutiny in the history of the Royal Navy and the descriptions of what went on that dark night were terrifying and upsetting. All the ingredients, in fact, for a ghost story…
The story of the runaway slaves joining the Royal Navy to gain their freedom has some truth to it. There are references in several books, including Black Salt by Ray Costello and the fabulous Black and British by David Olusoga, and I’ve used both these books extensively in my research for this story and for the next Manxman book.
The existence of black sailors in the Royal Navy is well documented. There were probably more of them than we realise, given that sometimes the only record we have is the birthplace of sailors and it is very likely that some black recruits or pressed men were born in Britain. During Britain’s slave trading years, their position aboard ship was still potentially risky, given that some Royal Navy officers were active supporters of the trade and even plantation owners. There was also the risk of being captured by the enemy, all of whom were slave-owning nations at this time and sold back into slavery. Still, it was a risk worth taking for some.
There was undoubtedly racism in the Georgian navy, but it was still possible for black sailors to forge a successful career. One man, John Perkins from Kingston, Jamaica was made post-captain of the 32 gun frigate HMS Meleager in 1800, the same year that my fictional Manxman achieved the same rank. Perkins, who was mixed-race was previously promoted as a lieutenant to command HMS Drake, a 14 gun brig. The promotion was made by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker who is featured in this story. The Drake formed part of a small squadron commanded by Captain Hugh Pigot, which made some very successful captures in the months before Pigot’s death during the mutiny aboard the Hermione.
I hope you enjoy the story. It’s free, so please share as much as you like, and have a look at my other free short stories here.
An Inescapable Justice
An unseasonable squall blew for forty-eight hours at the end of August and drove a number of British frigates into Port Royal in need of shelter and repair. One of them, the 24 gun fifth-rated HMS Herne brought an unexpected prize in the shape of a French Privateer. The Santa Maria had been taken by surprise on the edge of the storm and Lieutenant Luke Winterton stood at the window of his lodging house bedroom watching them come in and thought it astonishing that the French ship had come off worse in the encounter, since it looked to be in far better shape than the Herne.
Luke, who had just been appointed to serve as second lieutenant aboard the Herne, surveyed it gloomily. He had done his research when news had come of his new posting, and he knew that the Herne had served out on the Jamaica station for four years now and had seen hard service. She was probably due to go home for a refit and there had been talk of her doing so on the death of her previous captain from yellow fever, but instead she had been patched up and recrewed under a new captain and sent out again in search of prey.
Luke watched until both ships had settled at anchor and observed the flurry of activity from small boats about them. In particular he noticed that the captain of the Herne had his prize well-guarded and that interested Luke, because it tallied with what he had learned of the young Manxman who had transferred from the Starlight at the end of the previous year. Captain Hugh Kelly’s rise to post-captain at the age of twenty-five had occasioned considerable surprise in many naval quarters as he had no family connections, no wealthy patrons and had not really been born a gentleman at all. What he did have, however, was an impressive reputation for success in both single and multi-ship actions and a reputation for good fortune in the matter of prize money.
Luke had hesitated when the posting had been offered to him. Kelly did not seem like a man with much influence in the navy and Luke was ambitious. He was also bored and permanently broke, however, and was tired of junior posts aboard warships which seldom had the opportunity to take prizes or achieve glory against the enemy. Luke wanted a frigate command of his own and at the very least, he thought that serving under Kelly might give him some ideas about how to achieve it.
With the afternoon well-advanced, Luke dressed for visiting and took himself to the elegant white mansion which was occupied by Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica Station. Parker was a pleasant-faced, plump man of around sixty. Luke found him very welcoming on his arrival and had been shocked to discover that Parker’s respectable façade concealed a distasteful history of scandal and sexual adventuring. Nevertheless, he knew that Parker approved of him, and hoped for an early introduction to his new captain.
Luke was not disappointed. A steward disappeared with his card then reappeared to usher him into a sunlit drawing room where Parker was entertaining a number of callers, all of them navy officers. Parker came forward to greet him.
“Well now, well now, this is most fortunate,” he said cheerfully. “Most well-timed. I have just been telling Captain Kelly about you, Mr Winterton, and here you are in person. Have you dined, sir? Of course you haven’t, it’s far too early. You shall stay to dine, I’ve invited Captain Kelly. Come and be introduced.”
Captain Hugh Kelly was tall and broad shouldered with brown hair worn long and tied back neatly. He had a distinctive face with well-marked cheekbones, and he regarded Luke from a pair of intelligent grey eyes.
“Lieutenant Winterton, it’s good to meet you. Welcome to the Herne. If you watched us come in, and I’m guessing you did by your prompt arrival, you’ll see we’ve some repairs to complete before they let us sail again. I’ll be taking her over to the shipwright’s tomorrow to let him have my requirements. Are you free to join me, it’ll give me the chance to introduce you to your fellow officers?”
“Yes, sir, I’d be happy to,” Luke said, a little taken aback by Kelly’s decided manner. He had discovered, during his enquiries about his new captain that Kelly had reached his present position through sheer hard work and talent after joining the navy as a volunteer at fourteen. He was the son of a Manx farmer with no particular pedigree and although Luke respected the success he had made of himself, he had not expected Kelly to appear quite so at home in Sir Hyde Parker’s drawing room. He had an unusual accent which he made no attempt to hide, and there was nothing of the dandy about him, but he looked like a man very comfortable with his place in the world. Luke, who had been having second thoughts all the way to Jamaica, wondered if he had made a better choice than he realised.
The impression grew over the next ten days, as Luke got to know his new captain and fellow officers. Lieutenant Pryce had previously served as second lieutenant on the Herne but Lieutenant Vernon had served with Kelly on his previous ship, the Starlight, as had a number of his warrant officers and crew. Luke knew that was a good sign. He was cautious in his questioning, but over a convivial dinner in a Port Royal tavern a few days before the Herne was due to sail, he felt confident enough to ask for more information.
“Kelly?” Pryce said. “Well you’ll get to find out yourself soon enough, Winterton, but if you want my opinion he’s a brilliant captain. Not what you’d expect, of course. Not many come up from the bottom the way he has, he’s got the luck of the devil. But you’d never know he came from humble beginnings, and he’s the best seaman in the navy.”
“He’s also making his fortune,” Vernon said, pouring more wine. “And mine along with it, I hope. He only took command six months ago and we’ve taken four prizes – three privateers and a French merchant ship. Bloody good money, especially this last one. They were carrying specie – the army pay chest, no less.”
“This is his first post-command, isn’t it?”
“Yes, though he had an independent command of the Starlight for more than two years. The only reason he moved because the Herne is a post vessel, and he wanted his captaincy. He told me he misses the Starlight, she was a good ship and bloody fast.”
“What’s he like with discipline?”
“He’s not soft, if that’s what you mean,” Vernon said. “But he’s not overly keen on the cat.”
“It’s not bloody surprising, given that he served more than two years under that bastard Pigot.”
Luke felt a little frisson of horror. He had been with the Channel Fleet when news arrived of the bloody mutiny aboard HMS Hermione, which had left Captain Hugh Pigot and nine others dead.
“I didn’t know that. Not on the Hermione?”
“No, the Success, Pigot’s previous command. Kelly don’t talk about it, but I suspect he was waiting for the chance to leave. He was master’s mate under Pigot. Apparently the bastard liked him and supported him in applying for the lieutenant’s examination when he was with the Success. When they transferred Pigot to the Hermione, he wanted to take Kelly with him, but Kelly chose to go back to England under Wilkinson. He must have made friends somewhere along the way, because he was only ashore a couple of months, and they gave him the Starlight. If he’d gone with Pigot, they’d likely have slit his throat along with the rest. You stick with him, Winterton. He’s a lucky charm.”
After two weeks at sea with Kelly, Luke was beginning to agree. Kelly was young for his command, and Luke could think of a number of cases where this had been a disaster, but the Manxman ruled his ship like a captain of many years’ experience. He kept a proper distance between himself, his officers and the rest of the crew and had an unconscious authority which deterred any thought of over-familiarity. At the same time, he was not unapproachable. He invited both commissioned and warrant officers to dine regularly, enjoyed a game of cards and took a lively interest in what was happening with the crew.
He was also a superb seaman. They encountered French ships six days out, and Luke’s burst of enthusiasm quickly died when he realised they were about to run into a small and well-armed convoy where they would be hopelessly outnumbered. Kelly was on deck within moments, issuing orders to take the Herne about and out of danger. Luke watched anxiously as the crew swarmed over the rigging and the ship manoeuvred smoothly round and set course for safety. Kelly and his officers stood watching, with Kelly occasionally giving an instruction about the positioning of the sails. His orders were clear and very specific, and Luke realised that Hugh Kelly knew the rigging of this ship as well as the bosun or any of the topmen.
Initially it looked as though one of the French frigates was going to give chase. Luke glanced over at his captain and saw that Kelly was watching the vessel with an air of calm detachment which was either very reassuring or very worrying.
“Should we take evasive action, sir?”
“We are taking evasive action, Lieutenant. We’re moving really quickly in the opposite direction. They’re not going to catch us as a convoy, and they’d be idiots to try it alone. If he gets too close, we’ll deal with him, but he won’t. He’s just posturing.”
Luke wanted to ask how Kelly was so sure, but he felt silly saying it, so he kept quiet and watched. After ten minutes the frigate turned again, re-joining the convoy. Kelly remained on deck until the sails of the convoy were out of sight, and then issued further orders, gave a smile and a little nod to his first officer, and left him to take over.
The Herne had a crew of two hundred and thirty men and was somewhat under strength. Luke found they were the usual mixture of volunteers and pressed men from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. He remembered when he first joined the navy as captain’s servant, he had been astonished at the number of foreign sailors in British service. Ten years on, he was accustomed to the polyglot mixture of cultures and languages to be found below decks.
They had taken on a dozen new men who had been picked up by the press gang in Port Royal. All were experienced sailors, most from merchant ships, and at least two had served on Royal Navy ships before. There were also three volunteers. Luke was surprised when they appeared to be formally signed on, since he had not seen them come aboard and nobody had mentioned them until after the ship sailed. There were two men and a skinny underfed boy, all dressed in little more than rags. The men were both African and one had appalling scars criss-crossing his back. The boy looked as though he might be of mixed race, and he was jumpy and terrified, looking over his shoulder as he waited his turn to sign on.
Luke watched as Flanagan, one of the Bosun’s mates spoke to each of the men in turn, signed them up then sent them to the purser for clothing and supplies, the cost of which would be taken out of their pay. There was something about the boy that bothered Luke. He had come in search of the Bosun on another matter and located him at the ship’s rail drinking from a battered pewter flask and watching the process.
“I didn’t know we’d any volunteers, Bosun.”
Bosun Bryan turned amused blue eyes towards him. “Aye, they turned up at the last minute, sir. Barely made it aboard.”
“Does the Captain know?”
“Aye, he spoke to them earlier.”
“No reason. It just seems unusual.” Luke hesitated, and then said carefully:
“I suppose he’d want to make sure he wasn’t taking runaway slaves aboard, wouldn’t he?”
Bryan did not reply for a moment. Then he said:
“No. Why the bloody hell would he want to ask a stupid question like that of three able-bodied volunteers? I was there at the time, and if my memory serves me right, I think he asked them if they’d sailed before and if they understood what they were signing up for. He’s a careful man, the Captain.”
Luke did not believe a word of it and did not think he was supposed to. He eyed Bryan with growing appreciation. “Has he done this before?” he asked.
“Oh, he’s known for it in Port Royal. There’s always one or two, word gets out.”
“I bet that makes him popular with the plantation owners.”
“To tell you the truth, sir, he doesn’t mix that much with the plantation owners,” Bryan said confidingly. “I’m a bit worried about the lad, though. He looks like he’s not had a square meal for a year, I’m not sure he’s strong enough to be much use yet.”
Luke had been thinking the same thing. “Does he speak English?”
“Of course he does. They all come from English plantations. Skinny little runt, but it took some balls to run.”
“That depends on what he’s run from,” Luke said soberly. He came from an Anglican family with a firm commitment to the ending of the slave trade and he knew, in more detail than he wanted, the conditions on the West Indian plantations which might have caused these men to risk their lives for freedom aboard a Royal Navy vessel. “Look, when he’s got his kit and has been fed, send him along to me, Bosun. I didn’t bring a servant aboard and it might suit him until he’s had a chance to settle in a bit.”
The Bosun regarded him with a tolerant eye. “Ho! Abolitionist, is it? I thought you might be sir. You’ve got that look. You should talk to the Captain about it, it’s something you’ve got in common.”
“I guessed that, if he’s sneaking runaways aboard his ship on a regular basis. What about the others? The pressed men?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Merchantmen, for the most part. The only one I’m not sure about is the tall one with the scar on his shoulder.”
Luke looked. “Looks like a burn.”
“Looks like he burned off a tattoo,” Bryan said grimly. “A while back, because it’s healed.”
“Could be. He sounds English and he’s come from a merchant ship, so it’s probably none of our business. But I like to keep an eye out for anything different. Check with the Captain, sir, about the boy. But I think he’ll approve.”
The boy’s name was Elijah, and he had been born in the slave quarters of a plantation on the opposite side of the island. His mother was African, and had been taken as a girl, clearly able to remember the village of her childhood. Elijah was reticent about his father, saying only that he was a white man. Luke suspected that Elijah was the offspring of the kind of casual sexual violence that was common on the plantations and may not ever have known which man was responsible. His mother had loved him, cared for him as well as she could, and died two years before, exhausted and defeated, leaving Elijah to survive alone.
She had talked often to him of freedom and the possibility of escape, and Luke suspected that it had fuelled his determination after her death. There was little hope of escape on the island of Jamaica but Elijah had heard some of the men talking about the Royal Navy, and the possibility of gaining freedom in return for service.
The boy seemed grateful, during those first days at sea, for food and clothing and the absence of beatings. Luke, who knew the hardships endured by the crew, thought that it was an appalling indictment of the conditions of Elijah’s childhood that he found life on board an improvement. The food was monotonous but plentiful and the work of an officer’s servant was not onerous. It was the first step towards an officer’s commission for young gentlemen aiming for promotion, but the Herne was not the kind of ship sought out by ambitious youngsters, and already had its full complement of six midshipmen. Luke just wanted somebody to keep his kit in order and serve his meals and he found Elijah to be an intelligent youth who was keen to learn.
His interest extended beyond his immediate duties. Elijah was twelve, and Luke was surprised that he knew his date of birth so exactly until Elijah pointed out without any irony at all that every slave born on the plantation was carefully logged as a piece of property which might later be sold. He had worked in the fields and the sugar mills for long back-breaking hours, but he was too young to have been worn down to despair as his mother must have been, and after a few weeks of enough to eat, no beatings and a certain amount of freedom, Elijah began to relax enough to allow his personality to emerge. It was quickly clear to Luke that Elijah had enough personality for several twelve year olds. He had shown a willingness to answer Elijah’s questions from the start, and within three weeks, he realised he was composing answers to them in his sleep.
He discovered Elijah to be a useful source of below-decks gossip. He berthed with the other boys and was beginning to share their lessons. There was no schoolmaster aboard the Herne, so lessons in navigation as seamanship were given by the Captain. Elijah was the youngest of eight boys and could neither read nor write. Luke had wondered if he would be excluded on account of this, but he discovered, to his surprise, that Kelly also ran lessons for those of the crew who wished to improve their literacy and they were well attended. Elijah took his place among them and learned fast. He talked endlessly to Luke about his lessons, the other boys and his fellow students and Luke realised he was learning more about the crew through his loquacious cabin boy than he had ever known on previous ships.
Captain Kelly held a morning briefing with his three lieutenants each day before breakfast. After the meal, his officers were then expected to do the same with the six midshipmen. The meetings were generally routine, but Luke found them a useful way of exchanging information which he might otherwise not have thought important enough to share. He was finding the crew fairly easy to manage, although he was already able to identify a few of the usual troublemakers, but he was not aware of any significant problems until Lieutenant Vernon spoke at the end of the meeting one morning.
“I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, sir, but there was another disturbance below decks last night. Fighting.”
“No, I’ve heard nothing,” Kelly said. “Who was involved?”
“Cain and Thomas, sir. And the new man – Reid.”
“Reid?” Luke said. “I think the Bosun mentioned him. Thought he might be a deserter, joining under a new name.”
“He said the same to me,” Kelly said. “Not that I care particularly. Has this happened before, Mr Vernon?”
“No. But Reid was involved every time. I think he’s trouble.”
“If he’s got the energy to be up in the night fighting, we’ll give him something else to do,” Kelly said decidedly. “Change his watch, Mr Pryce, and tell the Bosun I want his berth moved. Have you written them up?”
“Not formally, sir. Bosun gave orders that the three of them should be started by the Bosun’s mates. I think King carried it out, gave each of them a dozen of the best.”
The practice of ‘starting’ referred to being struck by a length of rope which the Bosun’s mates carried for the purpose. It was used as a method of informal discipline without resorting to flogging and did a good deal less damage. Still, it was painful, especially when used on the younger boys and Luke had known it to be over-used. He was interested to see his new Captain’s reaction, but Kelly’s face gave nothing away.
“All right, we’ll leave it at that for now, I’ll have a word with the Bosun. But for future reference, Mr Vernon, if it happens again, I want it written up. It’s hard to get to the bottom of a problem if your only response is to hit them a few times and move on. I’d like to know what started it.”
“I could ask Elijah, sir,” Luke said. He wished he had not spoken as both Pryce and Vernon turned to stare at him in astonishment. Kelly lifted his eyebrows.
“Do you think he might know?”
“He’s a talker, sir. And he’s not been here long enough to share the other boys’ scruples about tale-bearing. He might know something.”
“I’m not sure I’d encourage my cabin boy to gossip to me like that,” Pryce said. Kelly laughed.
“Wouldn’t you, Mr Pryce? You’re missing out then, I encourage Harris to talk to me as much as possible, it’s a revelation. But Mr Winterton is right, they know he’s my servant so they’re careful what they say in front of him. I’m going to ask him about Reid all the same. I’d be interested to know what your lad says, Mr Winterton.”
Luke mentioned the fight to Elijah that afternoon when the boy brought back his newly cleaned boots. “I hear there was some trouble last night. A fight, or some such. Did it wake you up, Elijah?”
“It woke everyone up,” the boy said. “No one could sleep through that noise.”
“What was it about?”
The child shrugged. “The usual, sir. Mr Reid making a noise and waking all the men. Mr Cain and Mr Thomas was furious. They said if he don’t shut up, they make him.”
Luke masked a grin at Elijah’s matter-of-fact retelling of events. He was about to remind the boy that Cain, Thomas, and Reid were seamen not officers and should not be addressed as mister, but he decided against it. Elijah had a lot to learn and there was no point in pushing him too fast. Instead, he said:
“What’s his problem, bad dreams?”
“Very bad, sir. Nightmares. As if the devil himself visits his bed.”
The boy’s voice was serious, and Luke was unexpectedly touched. He watched for a moment as Elijah collected up several items to be laundered.
“Do you have bad dreams, Elijah?”
Elijah did not turn around. “Sometimes.”
“Flogging, sir. And being hanged from a tree.”
Luke’s stomach gave a little lurch. “Hanged? Have you…did you…?”
“Yes, sir. Runaways, mostly. Like me.”
Luke paused for a long moment. He was aware that he was in danger of stepping over a line. Elijah was not his responsibility, and an officer needed to maintain a proper distance from his servant, no matter how engaging the child was. Luke could see from the rigid line of Elijah’s back that the boy was upset and trying to feign indifference. He reflected that although he had known hardship in his early days in the navy, as a young gentleman he had never needed to fear being flogged, let alone hanged.
Luke got up, went to Elijah, and put his hands on the boy’s thin shoulders. Elijah visibly flinched. Luke turned him around and squatted down to his level.
“Listen to me,” he said firmly. “You’re not a slave any longer. You’re my…”
“Are you sure, sir?”
Luke stopped and stared at him in surprise. “Yes,” he said.
“Because some of the men were talking to Jackson and Berry, telling them they might still be taken back to the plantation. That just because…”
“Utter rubbish,” Luke said flatly. “They’re in the navy. They’re bound to this ship, but beyond that, they’re free. We’ve at least one free African below decks who will testify to that, he’s been in the navy for several years.”
“And me?” Elijah said. “I am your servant. Am I free?”
Luke stood up, took the boy’s hand, and sat down on the edge of his hanging cot, motioning for Elijah to sit at the opposite end. He could feel the child’s agonising awkwardness at sitting in the presence of an officer and a white man.
“You’re bound to the navy for the length of this voyage,” he said. “Once the ship is back in England, the crew will be paid off and your life is your own. If you try to leave before then, it’s desertion. But that’s the same for every man on this ship. As for being my servant…I thought it might be easier for you. To settle in. When you’re ready, Elijah, you can choose your own path. You’re too young to climb the rigging or man the pumps just yet. And I thought while you were learning to adjust, this might be easier. But if you’re not happy…”
“I’m happy, sir.” Elijah was staring down at the deck, but he looked up abruptly. “Don’t remember being this happy before. It’s why I’m scared they’ll take it away.”
Luke met the steady dark eyes and realised he had already lost the battle. “If they want to take it away – or take you away – they’ll have to come through me,” he said. “Now get yourself out of here with that laundry. How is your reading coming on?”
“It’s good, sir.”
“We’ll find time to practice tomorrow morning. And you should start on arithmetic. If you’re going to make master’s mate one day, you’ll need to be able to add up a column of figures.”
He had spoken in jest, but Elijah jumped to his feet. “And if I want to be Master one day?” he asked.
Luke could not repress his smile. “Then you’ll have to work bloody hard.”
“Then I will,” Elijah said solemnly. “Bloody hard.”
It was dark below decks once the below watch had settled for the night. The crew was divided into three watches, which did duty at different times. Captain Kelly liked to swap the watches around, to keep men on the alert and stop them getting complacent. Elijah had no knowledge of life aboard a ship, but he gathered from the grumbling of some of the old hands aboard the Herne that this was not usual and caused some resentment.
Elijah wondered if the Captain worried about that. On the plantation, his mother had told him that the masters and overseers worried all the time about the simmering resentment of the slaves, which was why any hint of rebellion or even asking the wrong question, was put down with such bloody brutality. She had pointed to the scores of field hands and mill workers and the handful of white men and asked Elijah what he thought. Elijah had been a small child, more concerned with getting enough to eat and avoiding the bite of the overseer’s cane than thinking about the workings of plantation life.
Now that he was away, though, he could see what his mother meant. Here, in this small wooden world aboard a ship, the Captain’s word was law, but Elijah thought that would only work if the men believed it. Back on the plantation if the slaves rose in rebellion, as he knew they occasionally did, the owners could rely on help from their neighbours and the government officers. Out here, Captain Kelly was on his own, with the support of a few officers. The other boys told Elijah that the red coated marines were there to protect the officers from mutiny, but Elijah could not see what was to stop them joining in.
As far as he could see, Captain Kelly was not worried at all. He went about his business calmly and pleasantly, and although there were some grumblings about his methods, and dark warnings that things were better done the old way, nobody seemed interested in any more than that. It would have made sense to Elijah if the men seemed cowed by the sight of regular floggings, but it was not so. During his first month on the Herne, there were three floggings, all for drunkenness and none more than twenty-five lashes. Mostly, it seemed, the Captain regarded his crew with tolerant approval and mostly it appeared to go both ways.
Lying in his hammock alongside the other boys, Elijah was wakeful although he wasn’t sure why. His conversation with Mr Winterton earlier had unsettled him. He had thought that he was finding his place below decks. Nobody beat him, the boys treated him as one of their own and most of the men were casually kind. Elijah was overwhelmed by the availability of regular meals and his own blankets and had thought, until today, that this was all he would ever need.
He had been shocked at Mr Winterton’s declaration of support and even more shocked at the idea that he might aspire to be more than a servant or a common seaman. But what had shocked him most was that something inside him rebelled at the idea that he would be satisfied as a master’s mate. If promotion were possible at all, Elijah decided he wanted to go further. He was horrified at his own daring and at the same time dazzled to realise that here, in this strange, enclosed world, where he came from, and the colour of his skin might not matter much at all.
The sounds reached him as he lay thinking about it, and he knew by now what they meant. Ordinary Seaman Reid’s hammock had been moved to the starboard side of the ship, well away from the men he had been fighting with, but it seemed to have made no difference to his nightmares. The muttering was still low, but Elijah knew it would get louder, and soon enough would arouse the wrath of men tired out by a day of hard labour and in need of sleep.
Elijah sat up and slid quietly from his hammock. For the first few days, he had often ended up in a heap on the floor, being unused to the height, but he had grown accustomed to lowering himself down carefully and his bare feet made no sound on the deck. He was curious about Reid’s horrors, but it was more than that. He sensed that Lieutenant Winterton wanted information about the disturbances below deck. Apart from his mother, Elijah had no experience of loyalty or affection, but he realised as he padded silently between the hammocks, that he would risk a lot to win a smile and a good word from Luke Winterton.
Elijah approached Reid’s hammock from behind. The man was moving about, making the hammock swing from side to side. There was little space between the slung hammocks below decks on a frigate and Elijah could understand why Reid’s neighbours found his night terrors exasperating, although with a child’s acceptance, he felt sorry for Reid who clearly could not help it.
As Elijah got close, he saw Reid sit up, clutching at the sides of the hammock. His face was ghastly in the dim yellow lamplight, shiny with sweat and eyes wide and staring. Elijah came closer, but habit kept him far enough away to avoid a blow.
“Mr Reid. You’re dreaming again, sir.”
Reid did not turn his head and Elijah was not sure he had heard. He stood watching, still not willing to move closer. “Mr Reid, sir. Wake up now, before you rouse the whole ship and get them fighting you again.”
Reid finally seemed to hear him. He turned his head and stared at Elijah with wide eyes. “I saw him,” he said.
Elijah stepped a little closer. “I don’t know who you saw, sir, but I think you saw him in your dreams,” he said softly. “There, now, you’re awake. He’s gone.”
Reid turned his head and peered into the darkness. “He’s not gone,” he said. “He’s waiting for me.”
Elijah felt a little chill. His belief in ghosts and the supernatural was absolute, having been raised on stories of the ghosts of his departed ancestors but he had not really thought of them as terrifying. It was clear that whatever Able Seaman Reid saw in the shadows was not some benign spirit of a grandfather or great-grandfather but something dark and evil. For a moment, Elijah wanted to turn and run, to hide in his hammock with a blanket over his face. Then he told himself not to be a coward. He had seen plenty of horrors during his short life, and a boy who had just decided on a career in the navy should not run away at the first sign of trouble.
Instead, Elijah moved forward and very tentatively put a hand on Reid’s arm. The man was freezing and shivering violently.
“It’s all right, Mr Reid,” he said. “You’re safe here.”
Reid turned to look at him and Elijah saw that his eyes were bloodshot, heavy with exhaustion and shining with unshed tears. “I’m not safe anywhere, boy,” he said. “Never will be.”
He turned back to look into the shadows between two of the mess tables and Elijah followed his gaze. He could see nothing to occasion the look of fear on Reid’s face but he had experienced both bad dreams and real terrors and he felt desperately sorry for the man.
Reid looked down at him, and Elijah thought he was trying to smile, though it did not really work. “All right, lad. Thanks for waking me. Back to your berth now, it’s not for you to worry about. Go on, off you go.”
He eased himself back into the hammock, reaching out a hand to ruffle Elijah’s short black curls. Elijah, knowing himself dismissed moved away from the hammock, careful not to bump into any of the others slung nearby, and made his way forward to where the ship’s boys slept. As he did so, he heard a sound, and looked back. He could see the shape of Reid in his hammock, and beyond the dark shape of the mess table and benches. Between them, something moved. Elijah strained his eyes through the darkness, expecting to see a rat scuttling along the bulkhead.
Instead, he saw a face.
Luke was surprised and a little impressed at his servant’s account of his night-time activities. He had thought that Elijah might provide some gossip about the new recruits, but he had not expected him to investigate in person. He listened in silence to Elijah’s tale.
“That’s very interesting, Elijah. I’m beginning to suspect Reid is a drinker.”
“He did not seem drunk to me, sir.”
“I agree it’s unlikely unless he’s managing to steal it, or saving up his grog rations for a binge. But that might be the problem. If he’s been a heavy drinker and his supply has been cut off by the press gang, he could be seeing the strangest things in the darkness. Or maybe not. Madness takes many forms, and he wouldn’t be the first man I’ve seen with sickness of the mind, poor bugger. I’ll mention it to the Captain again, and maybe speak to the surgeon.”
“I do not wish him to get into trouble,” Elijah said quickly. “He is…he seems like a good man.”
“Good men can be drinkers, Elijah. Or have brain fever. But sick or drunk, he’ll be a liability aboard this ship. We need to keep an eye on him.”
Elijah looked unconvinced. “There is another thing, sir. What if it is not drink or madness, but that he sees something real?”
Luke gave a little smile. “Something that nobody else on this ship can see or hear? That doesn’t sound very likely to me, lad.”
“I saw something,” Elijah said. He spoke so quietly that Luke was not sure he had heard him correctly at first, but then the boy looked up from troubled dark eyes. Luke sat on his chair to get closer to Elijah’s level.
“What did you think you saw?” he asked gently.
There was a flash of anger in the child’s eyes. “I did not think I saw anything. I did see it. A man. A man’s face. But it was only for a moment and then I could not see him. I wanted to go back, to look properly, but I was afraid, so I did not. I am sorry.”
“Sorry for what? Elijah, you’re a cabin boy, you’re not yet the Master and it’s not your responsibility. Look, I think you should forget about this. I’ll speak to Captain Kelly and have a word with the surgeon, get him to look at Reid. There’s another possibility that we’ve not mentioned. Reid is a pressed man, and maybe he has good reason not to want to be in the navy. It’s not unknown for a man to fake an illness to get discharged.”
“He is not pretending, sir.”
“We’ll see. In the meantime, I want to see what you can do with that page of arithmetic. Bring it back to me later and we’ll go over it together.”
Luke decided to leave the matter there. He could sense Elijah’s unease and supposed it made sense. Talebearing was serious enough between shipmates and friends, but on a plantation where a brutal flogging or a hanging might be the result, Luke thought that the slaves probably had an even more strict code of honour than a frigate’s crew. He took his concerns to Captain Kelly instead. Kelly heard him out in silence.
“That’s interesting, Mr Winterton. Have you spoken to any of Reid’s other shipmates?”
“In passing, sir. None of them seem to think Reid is a drinker. It might be that they’re covering up for him, but I doubt it. He’s not been here long enough to warrant that kind of loyalty. They don’t have much to say about him at all. He’s quiet, hasn’t really made friends, keeps his head down. A bit of a loner.”
“Some men are like that,” Kelly said. “He could just be naturally that way, or he could be trying to hide from something. Why did you come to me?”
“I’ve no objection. I’m just curious. Discipline is a matter for the Bosun and his mates. Illness is a matter for the surgeon. And if you just wanted to chat about it, I’d have thought it would be more natural to talk to your fellow lieutenants. But you’re in here, talking to me.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Luke said stiffly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t…”
“Yes, you should. I’m happy that you did. I just want your reason. Your real reason, not the one you’re making up just now in your head.”
Luke almost jumped guiltily, having been caught doing exactly that. Kelly seemed to realise it, because he grinned and got up to collect a bottle of wine and two glasses. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve a reason for asking. Be honest with me.”
Luke thought for a moment as Kelly poured the wine. “I think Lieutenants Vernon and Pryce believe I’m a little mad,” he said finally. “In fact, Mr Pryce has openly said that he doesn’t approve of my choice of officer’s servant.”
“He believes that the position should have been given to one of the boys who would be able to benefit from it, rather than an illiterate ex-slave who can never be more than a common seaman. And he thinks I show favouritism to Elijah.”
“Well he’s right about that,” Kelly said. “Of course you bloody do. That’s why the position of officer’s servant is used as the first step to a commission. An officer is supposed to both teach and mentor his servant. I think you’re doing that very well.”
Luke stared at him in surprise. “You don’t object?”
“If I’d objected, Mr Winterton, you’d have heard about it long before now, and not through my first officer. I understand you’re starting the boy on arithmetic. I was going to suggest it. He’s racing ahead with his reading and writing, he’ll overtake some of the other boys in a couple of months. Once I think he’s caught up enough, I’m going to include him in the rest of my lessons.”
“He wants to be a master’s mate,” Luke said. He could not believe he was telling Kelly this. “Actually, he said he’d like to be a Master one day.”
“Well he’s twelve. He has the right to change his mind a dozen times a day at this age. But if he sticks with it, he’s going the right way about it. You carry on with young Elijah and ignore Mr Pryce. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, he’s got his head so far up his backside it must make walking difficult. He’ll either have to get used to me or find another ship. But that’s not your problem. What about the Bosun?”
“The Bosun’s a good enough man, Captain, but I think his mates make too much use of the rope. If there’s a disciplinary problem, I think it needs to be dealt with openly. That kind of informal beating can leave men feeling badly used and with no chance to speak up for themselves. Whatever is going on with Reid isn’t going to be solved with a dozen of the best from a knotted rope. And I certainly don’t want them using it on my servant because he opened his mouth.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“He’s your Bosun, sir. I didn’t think it was my place.”
“He came with the ship. But you’re right, it’s now my ship. Which is why I need my officers to speak freely to me, I can’t be everywhere at once. Bloody Pryce. I wish you were my first officer, I’ve a feeling you’d do a better job. However, we’ll work with what we have for now. Thank you for being frank with me. Now that I know, I will follow them around until I catch them at it, and then I’ll deal with them. Now about Reid. What’s your honest opinion?”
Luke could not respond, having choked on his wine at Kelly’s extraordinary statement. He regained his composure under the Manxman’s amused gaze. When he could finally speak, he said:
“Thank you, sir. As for Reid, I think I’d get the surgeon to talk to him. And then watch him. I don’t like the thought of having to check every knot he ties, but until we’re sure, we can’t assume he’s reliable.”
“I’ll speak to the Bosun, and we’ll find a job for him that isn’t going to put the ship at risk if he makes a balls-up. If he really does have some kind of brain sickness, we’ll have to release him on medical grounds. There’s no room for a madman on a thirty-two gun frigate.”
“It’s a terrifying thought.”
“It is. Did your boy say anything about what Reid sees in these dreams of his? Did he tell him?”
“A dead man,” Luke said.
“Predictable, I suppose. I wonder if has dreams of something that’s happened in his past? It makes a sickness of the mind look more likely.”
“Elijah didn’t say.” Luke sipped his wine. “I think he frightened the boy. Elijah said he thought he saw something himself down there.”
Kelly grinned. “A dead man?”
“A man with blood all over his face, staring at him from a dark corner.”
Kelly’s smile faded. “Seriously. He thought he saw that?”
“He thought he saw something. As you said, sir, he’s twelve. And something tells me he’s seen more horrors in his short life than most of us. He’s bright and imaginative. I think I had a few bad dreams myself down in the midshipmen’s berths when I was a boy.”
“Did you? I don’t remember if I did. Tell young Elijah not to worry about it. He’s a good lad, but Ordinary Seaman Reid is my responsibility. He should concentrate on arithmetic.”
Luke rose to leave. “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Oh – with regard to the boy. He should have a surname, to enter into the pay book. Some of the former slaves who sign up take their old master’s name or the name of the plantation. I don’t think Elijah knew what to say when the bosun’s mate asked him. He’s currently down as ‘Elijah, a mulatto boy.”
“I doubt that was his description of himself,” Luke said, irrationally irritated.
“Probably not. Tell him he can choose his own. He can borrow mine if he likes.”
Luke laughed. “And what will Lieutenant Pryce say to that?”
“The Pryces of this world spend their time looking for something to object to, Mr Winterton. I’m happy to oblige.”
Luke reached the cabin door when a thought made him turn. “Sir?”
“Do you think he could do it one day? I mean, Elijah. If he really wanted to.”
Kelly gave a broad smile. “Ever heard of John Perkins?”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“It’s Captain Perkins now, like me he’s just made post. When I first got to know him he was still a lieutenant but had independent command of the Drake, a fourteen gun brig. He’s a very good man. He wasn’t born a slave, but his mother was, like your boy. I’m not saying he didn’t have to fight prejudice every step of the way, but he still made it. He commands the Meleager out here, if we run into him, I’ll introduce him to your lad.”
“I’d like that, sir.”
“And then there’s me. Whoever thought a Manx farm boy would be sitting in this chair at the age of twenty-five? I didn’t get here without enduring a few snubs and sneers along the say, there are different kinds of prejudice. But here I am. Anything’s possible, Lieutenant.”
As he made his way to the quarterdeck, Luke realised that he was beginning to think that might be true.
Elijah was in a bad mood for the rest of the day, angry at being disbelieved. Mr Winterton had been very kind about it because Mr Winterton was always so, but Elijah felt as though he had been laughed at then dismissed.
He had been wary of the Lieutenant’s questions about Reid, not because he felt any particular loyalty to any of the men but because he had a child’s understanding of the importance of not tattling to an authority figure. On the plantation there had been those who tried to curry favour with the masters in the hope of better treatment. They were despised by their fellow slaves and treated like pariahs. Occasionally they were beaten. The stakes were too high in plantation life to be able to tolerate talebearers.
Elijah supposed the stakes were high aboard the frigate as well, given that a man could be flogged, but on the Herne it seemed to him that flogging was reserved for serious breaches of discipline. He was not afraid that Reid would be flogged because of his nightmares, but he did not want to get a reputation as a sneak or a spy. He was still getting used to this strange new world and he hated the thought of being ostracised.
Still, he felt sorry for Reid and hoped Winterton might be able to do something to help him, though he was not sure what. He did not think anything could be done for a man so haunted. What he had not expected was to find his own brief glimpse of Reid’s ghost to be so casually dismissed. It seemed that the Lieutenant gave no credence to the existence of ghosts or spirits. Elijah could not understand how anybody could doubt what he had so clearly seen.
Half an hour before sunset every day, the ship beat to quarters. Elijah initially found this burst of activity just as the day was winding down to be completely bewildering, but he had become used to it. It was a daily rehearsal of clearing for action with an enemy. Once he understood its purpose, Elijah became fascinated by it. He could not believe how quickly the officers and men could reach their stations, strip the decks clear for action then take up position beside their hammocks which would be neatly stowed in the hammock nets along the ship’s rails. When all was done, Captain Kelly would emerge from his cabin or step down from the quarterdeck and walk the length of the ship with measured tread, running shrewd grey eyes over every corner of the ship. Occasionally he would pause and ask a question or speak a word to his clerk who paced behind him, and a note would be made in the clerk’s book.
When the inspection was over, the drums beat the retreat, and the officer of the watch would step forward to report to the Captain that the sun was down. It was a formal ceremony to end the day and playing his small part in it gave Elijah a satisfying sense of belonging. Afterwards the second grog ration was served along with supper, and then there was a rare spell of leisure time. There was no regular band aboard the Herne, but several of the men played the fiddle and there was dancing. The men played at cards, backgammon, or draughts, some of them read and others went up to walk on the deck or to sit smoking their pipes.
Elijah generally used the time to practice his reading, but this evening two of his messmates intervened, removing the book, and ignoring his protests.
“You’ll get it back,” Davison said. “You spend too much time with your nose in it and you’re making us all look bad with the Captain for being so diligent. It’s time to play truant for a bit. We’re going to play fox and geese, we’ll teach you.”
Elijah capitulated without a fight. He had watched the other boys playing their games rather enviously and he was flattered that they wanted to include him. He enjoyed the evening, playing fox and geese and draughts, listening to the sound of the fiddle and the laughter of the men dancing and he realised that his bad mood had faded. Here in this strange wooden world, a long way from the sweltering misery of the cane fields and the flick of the overseer’s lash, he was beginning to feel accepted and valued and at home.
In the excitement of winning a game of draughts, he forgot all about the book until he was settling into his hammock to sleep. The thought roused him to wakefulness. The book belonged to Lieutenant Winterton and Elijah felt privileged to have been allowed to borrow it. He looked around him. Most of the men were in their hammocks already, but there were still a few loitering who might provide cover for his illicit expedition. He lowered himself cautiously to the deck and slipped over to Davison’s hammock.
“Davison, where’s the book?”
“Shh! You’ll get us both caned.”
Elijah lowered his voice. “I don’t care about that, I want the book. It’s Mr Winterton’s.”
“Bugger. I left it over by the mess table, on the bench.”
“I’m going to get it.”
“You’ll get in trouble.”
Elijah ignored him. There were still two covered lanterns lit in the marines’ berth and he could just see enough to weave his way between the closely hung hammocks. It was not far but was made more difficult by the need to dodge low-slung hammocks. Several times Elijah accidentally bumped against one and received a soft curse and on one occasion a cuff around his head.
He had just reached the far side of the ship when the lights were extinguished. Elijah froze. With the ports closed the darkness was complete. Around the mess deck, Elijah could hear several voices raised in exasperated complaint as the men who had been slow to get into their hammocks scrambled to do so. He stood still, hoping that his eyes would adjust to the dark. Eventually they did a little and he was able to make out the light coloured shapes of the hammocks, but it was impossible to see any detail. Elijah realised that his progress back across the deck was going to be slow and possibly painful with stubbed toes and bruised shins. It would make him very unpopular. He thought some uncharitable things about Davison, forgetting how much he had enjoyed the evening.
Now that he was here, his first priority was to find the missing book. Elijah felt around for the shape of the mess table. Once he had located it he groped about, presuming that Davison had simply put the book down on the wooden bench. It was a huge relief when his questing fingers located the worn leather cover.
With his prize in his grasp, Elijah stood up and considered his route back, trying to memorise the way he had come. It was impossible, given that he had weaved his way between the hammocks and finally he decided his best option was to take the most direct route to the opposite bulkhead and then feel his way forward until he reached the berths of the ships’ boys. He was hoping that Davison and his friends would help to guide him as he approached.
Elijah took a deep breath and two steps forward. He stopped at a sound coming from further back. It sounded like something between a sob and a groan and Elijah had no doubt about who had made it. Reid’s new berth was on this side of the deck, and Elijah was sure it was his voice. He paused, listening, wondering what to do. Reid was not his business, and he knew he was likely to get into trouble for wandering about the mess deck in the dark.
At the same time, Elijah wanted to know. His resentment had mostly gone but there was a lingering sense of injury and a stronger sense of having a point to make. There was something down here tormenting Ordinary Seaman Reid each night and Elijah wanted to find out what it was and ideally put a stop to it. He had no idea if that was possible but the thought of going back to Winterton with a solution to the problem was very appealing. Elijah stood for a long moment, balancing his curiosity against his terror.
Curiosity won out. Elijah set the precious book carefully back on the mess table, well out of the way of the hammocks slung between the tables and threaded his way forward. This time he bent low, ducking under the hammocks where possible and received fewer complaints, although as he felt his way round another mess table a voice from nearby said:
“What the bloody hell are you doing wandering about in the dark, fella? You try robbing my kit and you’ll lose your bollocks.”
Elijah moved on in silence and the speaker, apparently satisfied that he had gone, lay back. Days aboard the Herne were long and exhausting and Elijah had noticed before that the men settled to sleep very quickly. He could already hear the low rumbling of snoring around the mess deck, a noise so familiar that it was part of the regular nightly sounds of the ship and disturbed nobody.
Reid was not snoring and did not sound as though he was sleeping at all. He was moving about in his hammock and Elijah thought he might be sitting up. There were a few muttered comments as Elijah approached which suggested his new berth mates were becoming as irritated as his previous ones.
“Reid, if you don’t pipe down, I’m going to knock you out.”
“Do it quick, Barlow, and we can all get some bloody sleep.”
Elijah reached the hammock just as Reid’s bare feet hit the deck. He straightened, bumping into the hammock next to him and there was a muted roar of anger.
“Reid, if you can’t sleep, piss off and be awake somewhere else.”
Reid gave a little sob, turned, and began to make his way aft at a stumbling run. He made no attempt to avoid the hammocks and his progress raised a clamour of angry voices as he crashed into sleeping men. Elijah followed as quickly as he could, stubbing his toes on benches and tables and stumbling over a section of raised decking. He had no idea where Reid was going but he was sure he should not go there alone.
“Elijah, is that you?” The voice was Davison’s, calling from his hammock. “What are you doing, for God’s sake, you’re going to…”
“I’m going after him, he’s sick,” Elijah yelled back. “Get the surgeon, somebody, I’m scared he’ll hurt himself.”
Reid had reached the ladder which led down to the orlop deck and the hold. Elijah heard him go down with a clatter and a muffled thud which suggested his speed had caused him to miss several rungs and fall to the bottom. He did not cry out though, and Elijah hesitated at the top, peering down trying to see if Reid were injured. After a moment, he heard sounds of movement which suggested that the man was at least mobile.
“Mr Reid,” he called softly. “Mr Reid, sir, keep still. You’re not well and you’ll hurt yourself down here in the dark. Mr Reid, it’s me, Elijah. Can you hear me?”
There was no answer, but another muted crash marked Reid’s progress. Elijah felt sick with apprehension. He looked over his shoulder, hoping that help would come. There were sounds of movement but no sense of urgency. Elijah suspected that when somebody came it was more likely to be the bosun’s mates and they would be carrying a length of knotted rope instead of a sleeping draught. Elijah had avoided the attentions of the bosun’s mates so far, but he had been beaten regularly throughout childhood. It had given him a certain hardy indifference to all but the worst treatment, but he did not really want a dozen stripes from the rope or the rattan cane which was used on the boys. He certainly did not think it would help the terrified, crazed man who was stumbling around blindly on the orlop deck, and it was that thought which finally sent him cautiously down the ladder in search of Reid.
The orlop deck and lower hold were used for storage and with so much flammable material about, candles and any other kind of naked flame was strictly forbidden down here. Elijah did not think it would be possible to find anywhere darker than the mess deck but here, there was not the faintest chink of light. He stood still, locating Reid by the sound of him bumping into barrels and boxes and by the harsh sobbing sound of his breathing. He sounded as though he was about to have a seizure and it finally drove Elijah cautiously away from the security of the ladder.
He could not move quickly because of the need to feel his way, but he followed Reid who seemed to be making his way aft. Elijah had been down to the stores on errands for Winterton a number of times but had never troubled to memorise the layout and he was not sure where Reid might be going or even if he had a plan at all.
“Mr Reid, can you hear me? I don’t think we should be down here, sir, it’s not safe. Stay still and I’ll come and help you back up, they’re getting the doctor.”
“Don’t come any closer, boy,” Reid yelled. He sounded terrified. “Keep back. Stay away or he’ll be after you too.”
“There’s nobody else here, sir. Just me.”
Suddenly there was a faint light. Elijah stopped, looking around him. At first he thought somebody had finally reached the ladder with a closed lantern, but the light was not coming from that direction. Instead it was ahead of him, a yellowish glow in the direction of Reid’s voice. He wondered if Reid had somehow found a light. It was not bright, but it made it possible to move with more confidence. Elijah followed the light until he saw Reid.
Reid was on the starboard side of the ship fumbling at a door. Elijah stopped some distance away. He still could not see where the light was coming from. Either the door was unlocked, or Reid had a key, because the door swung open, and the tiny room was filled with an eerie glow. Elijah took an involuntary step back. He realised Reid was in the dispensary and if he had a key, he should not have done, because the room was kept locked when the surgeon was not using it.
“I’m here,” Reid said. For a moment, Elijah thought he had managed to reach him, but he realised immediately that Reid was not talking to him. He was facing the source of the light, which seemed to be in the dispensary, and he was talking to somebody out of Elijah’s line of vision. “It’s what you wanted. It’s over. I can’t stand it anymore. Let me go. Just let me go.”
“Then go,” another voice said.
Fear flooded Elijah’s body. He had known, somewhere inside, that Reid was being haunted by something not of this ship and not of this world, but the sound of that voice turned his blood to ice. It was a man’s voice, not raised in anger, speaking in even tones. There was nothing wrong with the voice except that Elijah knew it could not be there, that no other man had come down onto this deck and that the voice was also the source of that eerie, inhuman light.
“Go where? Where can I go that you won’t find me?” Reid said.
“Go where you sent me,” the voice said. “What was it you shouted, you and the others, when I was on my knees begging for my life? Kill him. Cut him down. Throw the bugger over. Make the bugger pay.”
Reid sank to his own knees. He was sobbing loudly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was drunk, I was stupid…I’ve regretted it ever since.”
“Five of you,” the voice said, with remorseless calm. “They caught four. Three hanged in Port Royal and one in Portsmouth. But you were clever. Always one step ahead of the Royal Navy, until you got caught out by a press gang.”
Reid’s voice was choked with tears. “What do you want? Shall I give myself up? Do you want to see me tried and hanged?”
“A trial?” the voice mocked. “I didn’t get a trial. Someone suggested it that night. It was you who said I didn’t deserve it. It was you who used the first lieutenant’s sword to cut me down. Then they all joined in. Still, you didn’t quite kill me. I was still alive when you threw me overboard for the sharks to finish off. They can smell blood.”
Elijah wanted to turn and run but his feet seemed rooted to the deck. Horribly, he felt himself drawn closer, walking slowly towards the door. Reid was still kneeling, his face shining with sweat and tears in the unearthly glow. He was holding something in his hand and Elijah did not need to see it closely to realise it was a surgeon’s knife.
The other man, who was no longer a man at all, stood in the corner of the room looking down at Reid. Elijah had seen his face before in the shadow of the mess deck that night, but now he could see the whole of him and the sight both sickened and terrified him. He was young, possibly not even twenty, and dressed in the uniform of a midshipman. The coat was soaked in blood and there were wounds all over the man’s body. The worst of them was a huge gash down the side of his head. In his hand was a regulation officer’s sword, with blood dripping down onto it.
The man did not look at Elijah or even seem to know he was there. His gaze was fixed onto Reid. As Elijah watched in frozen horror, the man raised the sword very slowly and Reid lifted the knife, keeping exact time with it. It shook violently in his grasp, almost as though he was trying to resist, to push back against whatever was forcing him to move, but it was too strong. His eyes were lifted to the bloodied face and his expression was pleading. Elijah desperately wanted to scream or move but he could do neither. He knew what was about to happen, but he could do nothing to prevent it.
Abruptly there was a sound, then another light, this time from the ladder and much brighter. Voices called out and broke the dreadful spell. Elijah gave a little cry of horror and dropped to his knees with his hands over his face, but he was not quick enough to miss the moment when the man dropped his sword abruptly.
Reid made a horrible gurgling sound and there was a muffled thud as his already kneeling body hit the deck. Elijah did not move. He was crying silently, and he could hear the sound of men scrambling down the ladder and see bright bobbing lights from their lanterns as they ran towards the dispensary. Over all of it, he heard the voice once more, soft, and remorseless and filled with both anger and sorrow.
“I thought you were my friend,” it said.
Hands grasped Elijah, hauling him to his feet. “What the bloody hell are you doing down here, you little bastard?”
“Oh Christ. Oh dear God, what a mess. Somebody call the surgeon. Reid’s cut his throat down here, I think he’s dead.”
“Of course he’s bloody dead, look at him. How the hell did he manage that? And why?”
Somebody shook Elijah violently. “Stop that crying boy, you’re in real trouble. What happened? Did you have anything to do with this? Did you do this?”
“Get him out of here, Bentinck. This’ll have to go before the Captain, it might be murder. Lock him up and speak to the Bosun.”
“I’m here,” the Bosun’s voice said. “Bloody hell, is that Reid? Killed himself, has he?”
“Either that or this little bastard did it. We’ll put him in irons until the Captain…”
“Take your hands off him before I cut them off, you bloody imbecile,” a voice roared. For the first time, Elijah took his hands away from his tear-streaked face. He looked around to see Lieutenant Winterton striding towards him. Both bosun’s mates released Elijah and stepped back smartly and Elijah was not surprised. He had no idea the placid, good-natured Winterton could look and sound so furious.
Winterton reached him and glanced over at the dispensary. Elijah had still not been able to bring himself to look, though the smell of blood invaded his nostrils, strongly metallic, almost like a taste in his mouth. He felt very sick.
“Suicide,” Winterton said quietly. “The surgeon is on his way down, he’s just getting dressed. If any other man was involved in this he’d be soaked in blood. Which my servant very clearly isn’t. Find something to cover the body, Williams. Poor bastard. Whatever was wrong with his brain, it’s driven him to this. Elijah, are you all right?”
Elijah felt an arm around his shoulders, and he felt suddenly desperate for comfort. He missed his mother with an ache, and this was the first time since she died that anybody had embraced him. He felt sick and shaky and horribly alone. He was trying hard to control his tears, but they were getting worse, and he felt his shoulders shake.
“Don’t you want him questioned, then, sir?” Williams said, sounding faintly affronted.
“We’ll need to ask him some questions, but not right now, he’s had a shock.”
“Aye, he’s young to have seen something this horrible,” the Bosun said. His tone was kindly, and Elijah realised he was holding out a flask, which smelled strongly of some kind of spirit. “Take a mouthful, lad, it’ll settle your stomach for you.”
The smell of rum, combined with the stench of blood made Elijah’s stomach lurch. He clamped his mouth shut, shaking his head violently, then realised to his horror that the deck seemed to be shifting beneath his feet. For a moment, he thought the ship had rolled, then the wooden planks rushed up to meet him and he fell gratefully into darkness.
By the time the sun rose, bathing the decks of the Herne with a rosy glow, Luke was beyond tiredness, having spent the past hours questioning various crew members, supervising the removal of Reid’s body to be prepared for burial and tending to his cabin boy after his dramatic collapse. He carried Elijah to his own cabin, ignoring offers of help from the Bosun and his mates, and settled him into his hanging cot. Elijah fell asleep immediately, so Luke went about his duties. He found Jonathan Davison, who was the oldest of the ship’s boys, and questioned him about Elijah’s presence below. Davison was white-faced and nervous but spoke freely enough.
“It was my fault, sir. I took his book away. I mean your book. He’s always reading, and we thought…I thought…he should join in with us.” Davison looked up at him with worried blue eyes. “He never plays, sir. I don’t think he ever got the chance. We taught him some games. He enjoyed it. We had a laugh. But I forgot the book, left it over on the mess table. He remembered it at bedtime and slipped out to get it. I’m very sorry, sir.”
“Davison, take a breath. You’ve nothing to be sorry for and I’m grateful. You’re right, he’s not had much chance to be a child. As for the book, it’s just a book.”
“I’ve got it in my berth, sir. I went to find it, once the lamps were lit. I’ll return it.”
“Thank you. As for the rest, it wasn’t your fault. He had a thing about poor Reid and his nightmares, he’d spoken to him before. All right, dismissed, lad.”
Having spoken to those of the crew who had been involved in the drama, Luke went back to his cabin. Elijah was still asleep, his dark head pillowed on one skinny arm and his lashes, ridiculously long, forming feathery half-circles on his cheeks. Luke stood watching him for a while, reluctant to wake him. Before he could decide, however, the boy stirred, shifted a little and then came wide awake with an expression of startled terror on his young face. Luke came forward quickly, sat down on his wooden chair beside the cot and reached for Elijah’s hand.
“It’s all right. It’s me. You’re in my cabin and you’re safe. You passed out earlier and I brought you back here to get some rest.”
Elijah gripped his hand hard for a long moment, the dark eyes on his face. Then he shifted in the cot and sat up.
“I am sorry to have been so much trouble, sir.”
“None of this was your fault, Elijah. Here drink this. It’s ale, not grog. I don’t think your stomach is ready for that just now. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I need to give a report to the Captain, and I don’t think I can do that without your story.”
“Yes, sir.” Elijah sipped the ale. He looked younger than his twelve years, like a small child in a nursery cot, and Luke watched him and thought about how accustomed he had become to Elijah’s cheerful presence about his cabin and in his life. His previous officer’s servant had been a supercilious youth, the younger son of an aristocratic family, who had made it clear he was only doing the job until he received his promotion to midshipman. Luke much preferred Elijah.
When the boy was ready, Luke took him gently through the events of the night. Elijah told his story simply and well. Only at the end did he hesitate. Luke thought he might know why. He watched for a time as Elijah fumbled for words, then took the boy’s hand again.
“Tell me everything,” he said firmly. “I know what I said last time, and I’m sorry. I found a tale of ghosts below deck hard to stomach. But I want to know exactly what you saw and heard, and I swear to you that I will believe you.”
There were tears on the boy’s cheeks as he recounted the end of the story. When he had finished, they sat in silence together for a while, then Luke got up.
“Thank you,” he said. “You can stay here…”
“No.” Elijah shifted in the cot. “Thank you, Mr Winterton. You have been very kind. But I should go back to my duties and my berth.” He hesitated. “I would like to speak to my friends.”
Luke masked a smile. “If you feel well enough, I think you should. Davison is worried sick about you. He found my book and brought it back, by the way. He’s a good lad.”
“Yes, he is. I would like him to be my friend.”
“I think you’re all right with that, Elijah. If I need to know anything more, I’ll come and find you. You’re relieved of your duties until tomorrow. Longer if you need it.”
“I will be there to serve your dinner this afternoon, sir.”
Luke grinned, watching him go. Then he took himself off to Captain Kelly’s cabin and made a full report.
“I don’t know what to make of it, sir,” he said, when he had finished. “Clearly Reid killed himself because of something he saw and heard. I’d guess it was something he was involved in from his past, but…”
“Oh it was,” Kelly said. He got up and walked to his desk. “Thank you, Mr Winterton. An excellent report very well presented. Can I ask you to write it up for me? It’s up to you what you include and what you leave out, I’ll leave that to your discretion.”
Luke watched his Captain as he rummaged through several files on his desk. “Sir, may I ask…”
“Yes, of course. You’ve earned the right. I’ve wondered about Reid ever since the Bosun said there was something off about him. I should have thought of it immediately, but it’s been three years and I thought we’d caught all those we were going to.”
“The Hermione, Mr Winterton. On the night of the twenty-first of September 1797, the crew of the 32 gun Hermione mutinied. Over a period of several hours, they slaughtered Captain Hugh Pigot and nine other officers. There were three midshipmen among the dead. There were also two midshipmen among the mutineers. One of them was the twenty-three year old son of a Somerset doctor by the name of Edmund Onslow. His mother’s maiden name was Reid.”
“Oh dear God.”
“One of the surviving midshipmen was a man called Casey. I met him. Only nineteen when that happened, and he’d the guts to stand up to the mutineers and refuse to join them. Previously, he also had the guts to stand up to Hugh fucking Pigot and his bullying and brutality. When they were looking to bring the mutineers to justice, the Admiralty circulated pages of detail about the men, their appearance, and their part in the mutiny. A lot of them have been caught and hanged, but Edmund Onslow seemed to have vanished without trace.
“I kept in touch with Casey. He really impressed me. We’ve exchanged letters regularly and he told me a lot about the events of that night. One of the things that upset him the most was Onslow. It seems that he was particularly friendly with another of the midshipmen, a young fella by the name of James Gardner. I knew Gardner, he used to serve aboard the Success when I was there under Pigot. He was a nice lad. Pigot seemed to like him, tended to favour him over those he didn’t like. But he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Pigot. He didn’t deserve to die. Casey wasn’t present when Gardner was hacked to death on deck then thrown over the side for the sharks. But he was told by those who were that Onslow was one of those who did it.”
Kelly pushed the papers to one side and got up. He went to the door of his cabin and gave some instructions to the marine on duty outside then returned to his desk. “I’ve ordered breakfast for both of us. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I can tell you with complete certainty, Mr Winterton, that Lieutenant Pryce will be after a transfer off this ship within six months. If you stick around, you’ll get promotion to first lieutenant. After that, if you work hard and keep your nose clean, who knows?”
Luke had a feeling of great content. “Thank you, sir. It’s possible by then that I’ll be looking for a promotion for my servant. I think he’ll be ready.”
“I think that’s very possible if he goes on the way he’s started.”
“What do you think he saw down there, sir?”
“I have no idea, Mr Winterton. I wasn’t there.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, sir?”
Hugh Kelly paused for a long time. “I believe in justice, Mr Winterton,” he said finally. “Gardner deserved that. However it happened, I think he got it.”
“And Captain Pigot?”
Kelly grimaced. “Now that’s another story. I chose not to remain with Captain Pigot, because if I had, I’d have been done for shooting him in the head. I’ve never met a nastier, more spiteful bastard in a long navy career. The problem with mutiny is that it never stops where it should. Now come to the table, have some coffee, and have breakfast. You’ve bloody earned it.”
Afterwards, Luke went back to his cabin. He was not entirely surprised to find Elijah there putting clean laundry away in his clothes chest. The boy straightened and gave an odd little bow.
“Elijah. Didn’t I tell you to take the day off?”
“Yes, sir. And I will. Davison and Brown…my friends…are going to teach me how to play chess this evening.”
“Good. It’s an excellent game for training the mind. When you’re ready, we’ll try a game or two.”
Elijah’s smile was tentative but happy. “Thank you, sir.”
“Right, off you go. Captain Kelly has invited his officers to dinner, so you’ll not be needed. Take some time. You’ve had a horrible shock.”
“Elijah – just one thing.”
“I spoke to you before about your name. When you joined up you’d no surname and you signed using a cross in the book.”
“I’d like to sign you up properly as a volunteer officer’s servant. With a full name and you should sign it yourself. Have you given any thought to it?”
Elijah hesitated. “I do not know, sir. You told me I could use any name. Possibly the captain’s?”
“Elijah Kelly sounds very good.”
“It sounds like a proper name, sir.”
Luke paused for a long moment. “I prefer Elijah Winterton,” he said casually. “But it’s up to you, lad.”
The boy looked at him from grave dark eyes. “I will practice writing it tonight, sir,” he said seriously.
If you like ghost stories with historical themes, the Historical Writers Forum have just published Hauntings: an anthology of historical ghost stories, which includes one of my own, An Unquiet Dream which is set during the Peninsular War. It’s available on Amazon on Kindle and in paperback and has some great stories, so why not give it a try. The paperback would make a good Christmas gift for the spook-lover in your life.
I’m currently working on book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, An Indomitable Brigade and I’ve also make good progress on This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, following the further adventures of Captain Hugh Kelly.
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