The Pressed Man

HMS Lion, 1794 by W.M. (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Pressed Man is my latest free short story. As my regular readers know, Paul van Daan is the hero of the Peninsular War Saga and makes the occasional appearance in the Manxman series.

Several people have asked me over the years if I was ever going to write the story of the young Paul van Daan’s navy days. I’ve always been very non-committal about it, mainly because I wasn’t sure how I could manage it.

Paul’s boyhood spell in the Royal Navy was a formative period in his life, but readers of the novels will also know that it was very traumatic in places. I think I would have continued to dodge it indefinitely if it were not for my very good friend who is also my editor, Heather Paisley. Having heard some of my ideas about Paul’s brief navy career, she nagged me ruthlessly to at least write the story for her, even if I didn’t publish it. This story is dedicated to Heather, who right from the start told me that she wanted to know where a posh boy came up with the endearment ‘Bonny Lass’ for the love of his life. Once I began writing it, I realised that after all, I wanted to share the story of how it all began.

As this story is freely available, I should issue a warning that there are references to sexual assault. There’s also some bad language. None of Paul’s regular fans will be surprised at the latter.

As always, this story is free, so share as much as you like.

The Pressed Man

April, 1797

The wind began to pick up ten days after leaving Antigua, after a week of depressing calm. The crew were restless and the captain morose and the Boatswain, who had been wishing for months that Captain Dalton had not been appointed to command HMS Hera, awoke to an unaccustomed noise from the men’s quarters. The bell had not sounded, so something was clearly wrong. Geordie Armstrong groaned and swung his legs over the edge of the narrow bunk he shared with his wife.

“What is it, my dear?”

“No bloody idea, Janet. Stay there, bonny lass, it’s freezing.”

His wife ignored him and got up, reaching for her gown. “It can’t be far off the bell, lad and you’ll want your tea. I’ll get to the galley while you find out.”

Geordie stepped to one side to let her reach her shawl. A private cabin was one of the many perks of being Bosun, but it was small, especially for two people. He and Janet had shared such cabins for so many years they were expert in moving around it without getting in each other’s way, as if in the carefully learned steps of a well-known dance. Outside on the wooden companionway they parted, Janet on her way to the galley for hot water, while Geordie made his way down to the lower deck where the crew slung their hammocks.

It was not yet light, but someone had lit a few lanterns. Most of the men were up, in various states of undress, huddling together talking in small uneasy groups. Nobody had given an order yet, probably because it was too early for the bell. Geordie took out his pocket watch and saw that it was thirty minutes to first bell. He debated with himself. He could pipe for the removal of hammocks then send them about their usual business early, which would get them out of the way, but he knew Captain Dalton loathed even the slightest deviation from routine and he was reluctant to have the argument without knowing what had happened first.

“Bosun. Pipe up hammocks and send a message to the galley. I know it’s early, but we need to get them moving.”

Geordie obeyed, dying of curiosity. He had a lot of respect for First Lieutenant Daniel Eaton, and he knew he would find out in time. It was clear that something unusual had disturbed the crew, but Geordie could not imagine what.

He was too busy during the next hour and a half for speculation. Returning to his cabin, he found that Janet had tea ready for him and he gulped it down gratefully, then set off on his inspection of the rigging, while Rashford, the ship’s carpenter inspected the gunports, hatches and boats and Sharpe, the gunner, checked the guns. The three men met at seven-thirty in Captain Dalton’s day cabin to make their reports. They found Lieutenant Torbin, the officer of the watch, already there making his report. Dalton listened in stony silence to the end. When Torbin saluted to indicate he had finished, Dalton said:

“Haven’t you missed something, Mr Torbin? What was that Godawful racket that brought me from my bed early?”

Torbin, who was red-haired and had a very fair complexion, went scarlet and saluted again. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir, it’s just that Lieutenant Eaton said he would report to you about that, he’ll be here any minute.”

“Well unless he’s invisible, he’s not here now. What happened?”

Torbin gulped nervously. “There was a death, sir. Among the crew.”

“Death? Death? What kind of death? Fever? Cholera? By God, if that bunch of scurvy louts we picked up on Antigua have brought sickness aboard my ship, I’ll throw them overboard.”

“Not fever, sir,” Torbin said, in agonised tones. His awkwardness was painful, and Geordie was desperately trying to think of a way of rescuing him without drawing Dalton’s fire himself, when there was a knock on the door and First Lieutenant Eaton entered, saluting.

“Ha, there you are. What’s going on? Torbin is blathering about a death in the night. Is that good enough reason to disturb my sleep at that hour?”

“My apologies, Captain,” Eaton said politely. Geordie hid a smile. Eaton’s unruffled manner made him the best first officer Geordie had ever sailed under, but he knew it infuriated Dalton who was rude, bad-tempered, and incompetent and seemed to find Eaton’s placidity a personal insult. “Perhaps I should wait until these gentlemen have given their reports.”

“No, they can bloody wait. What happened? Who died?”

“It was Mackay, sir.”

“Mackay?” Dalton sounded surprised, probably because he knew the man. Dalton did not bother to learn the names of most of the crew, but Mackay had sailed with him for many years. He was in his forties, a big man from Inverness who was an excellent seaman and an inveterate drunk. “What happened, did he fall out of his hammock onto his head?”

“He was murdered, sir.”

“Murdered?” Dalton froze and sat for a while, his mouth hanging open in surprise. Geordie shared his astonishment. He had been at sea since he was ten years old, almost thirty years, and he had never heard of a murder on board. There had been one or two deaths after a fight which had been tried as murder, but nothing worse.

After a long time, Dalton jerked his head. “Out. You can make your reports later.”

Geordie left and went in search of breakfast with Janet. After the meal he went up to the quarterdeck and smoked a pipe while watching the ship’s marines on their morning parade. He was not disappointed. Just after nine o’clock, as they were beginning drill practice, Lieutenant Eaton appeared and came to join him at the rail. He lit his own pipe and stood smoking in silence.

“The surgeon is inspecting the body at the moment,” he said finally. “He’ll write up a report for the captain and we’ll bury him later today.”

“Aye, sir. Do we know what happened? I mean is there any doubt?”

Eaton shot him a sideways look. “Able Seaman Mackay was found in a dark corner of the hold with his throat slit from ear to ear. Not much doubt.”

“Holy Mary. Anyone suspected?”

“Yes. We’ve arrested one of the new men we picked up in Antigua. He was out of his berth without leave or reason.”

“Any other signs? There must have been blood.”

“Oh there would have been, and that’s what’s suspicious. It seems this man fell overboard with all his clothes on.”

Geordie was startled. “In the dark? How the devil did they find him? And why didn’t I hear the call?”

“There was no call. Nobody saw or heard him go over. His story is that he felt sick and went up for air, came over dizzy and went over the side. He was lucky enough to be near the ladder and the shock of the water woke him up fast. He grabbed hold and pulled himself up.”

“I’m surprised the watch didn’t shoot him.”

“He’d the presence of mind to call up as he was climbing, to identify himself. They pulled him in and hauled him before the watch officer, who was just ordering him put in irons for roaming the ship without permission when they found Mackay’s body.”

“It looks suspicious, sir, no question. But why the hell would anyone kill Mackay?”

Eaton did not speak for a long time. Eventually he said:

“Don’t be bloody naïve, Bosun.”

Geordie felt an odd little lurch in his gut. “Christ,” he said softly. “Do you think that perverted bastard finally went after someone big enough to give him what he deserved?”

“I didn’t tell you the whole,” Eaton said flatly. “They found him dead in a corner. The slash was huge, he’d have bled out in minutes. But whoever killed him cut off his balls and stuffed them in his mouth. I don’t think there’s any doubt why he died.”

Geordie felt sick. “Who could do that? And why?”

“I don’t know, Bosun, but I’m guessing it’s to make a point that any other man who tries buggering the boys is going to get the same. I don’t know if there’s anyone else on this ship who shares Mackay’s nasty habits with the young ones, but if there is, I think he’ll keep it in his trousers from now on.”

“Bloody hell.” Geordie considered himself unshockable, but admitted to himself that he had been wrong. “I wonder what made this man set himself up to defend the ship’s boys? It’s a reet shame he’s like to hang for it, that bastard Mackay has had it coming for years. I’ve only served with him on this one voyage, and I’ve been haunting him ever since young Price went overboard and drowned. It was down as an accident, but the whole crew knew Mackay had been at him for months. I couldn’t get him to testify.”

“You can’t blame him, Bosun. Sodomy is a capital crime, and if Mackay were brought to trial he could easily claim the boy consented.”

“It’s impossible to prove anyway as there have to be witnesses to every detail. I didn’t blame Price, he couldn’t hide from Mackay forever, and he’d have got a good hiding on top of everything else. I tried talking to the captain about it.”

“Several of us tried, Bosun, but Captain Dalton simply said that Mackay was an excellent and very experienced seaman and that’s all he cared about. I’m not sorry the man is gone, it infuriated me knowing he was getting away with it. But it will be a shame if this boy gets hanged for defending himself.”

“Boy?” Geordie said, startled. “It’s one of the boys?”

“Fourteen or fifteen at a guess. I’ve had nothing to do with him. He was picked up with the rest of the crew of that shipwrecked merchantman. All the others did the sensible thing and signed up as volunteers, but this boy refused to do so. He’s a pressed man, and Marshall, who’s the petty officer in charge of his mess, says he’s been difficult from the start. At best, he’ll get a flogging for being where he shouldn’t be. At worst, they’ll hang him.”

“But no blood on his clothing,” Geordie said softly.

“A few stains that might be, but we can’t be sure. If he went in before it dried, chances are there wouldn’t be.”

“Clever little bastard.”

***

Prisoners awaiting trial were kept in irons in the half-deck, an area beneath the quarterdeck which was covered but not fully enclosed. It was used partly for storage, but there were often one or two prisoners chained up to heavy metal rings set into the bulkhead. Discipline aboard ship was largely Geordie’s responsibility, with the help of his bosun’s mates, so when he had given his delayed report to the captain, he gave instructions to his juniors, made a tour of the ship, checking that all was well, then went to inspect the accused. The boy was the only prisoner chained there, a leggy form huddled against the wooden wall in an attempt to keep him out of the brisk wind. His clothing was still very damp, the regulation loose trousers, rough shirt and blue jacket clinging to his body. His tousled fair head was bowed, and his arms wrapped around his knees. He was visibly shivering, and Geordie swore under his breath.

“On your feet, boy.”

The boy looked up, giving Geordie a glimpse of startling blue eyes, then unwrapped himself and got to his feet in one smooth movement. He stood straight, tall for a boy of his age but still heartbreakingly young. Geordie looked him over curiously. He looked well-nourished when compared to the skinny children who often came into the navy from poor households and although he kept his eyes lowered to the deck, he bore himself with a certain arrogance which aroused Geordie’s curiosity even more. Listening to Mr Eaton’s bloodthirsty tale, Geordie had doubted that any boy of this age could undertake the murder of Jemmy Mackay then endure the freezing waters of the Atlantic. Looking at this boy, Geordie was suddenly not so sure.

“What’s your name?”

The boy looked up. “Van Daan. Paul van Daan.”

Geordie did not respond for a minute. The voice was surprising and raised immediate alarm bells. He had served, during his time, alongside men of all nationalities and all social classes. It was not at all unusual for a young gentleman of this age to join the navy, initially as an officer’s servant, and then as a midshipman, with a view to taking the lieutenant’s examination and becoming an officer. Geordie recognised this boy’s accent, and it did not come from any fisherman’s cottage or dockyard slum. He was beginning to wonder why this boy was below decks as a pressed man.

“Van Daan? That’s not an English name.”

“My father is Dutch; I was raised in England.”

The alarm bells were growing louder. Geordie often supervised the signing on of new crew, but the dozen pressed men picked up during their stop at English Harbour had been from the crew of a shipwrecked merchantman. They were obvious targets for the press gang; all were experienced seamen and Geordie had seen no need to get involved. He had a feeling he should have.

Geordie reached for his whistle and summoned one of his bosun’s mates. “Smith, let the watch officer know I’m taking Van Daan below to Janet for a spell. He’s injured and he’s still soaked, and he needs feeding. I’ll return him when he’s fit, and I’ll speak to the captain later to see what charges he’s bringing, if any. Unchain him.”

Smith moved forward readily, but shot Geordie a wary look. “You sure, Bosun? You want to watch this one, he’s like a wild thing. Pushed Marine Bennet right off the dock when they was bringing him aboard and punched the lights out of Snyder when he used his cane on him. Snyder had to give him half a dozen of the best before he went down.”

Geordie studied the boy. He still had the over-long limbs of boyhood, but he had the grace of an athlete and Geordie wondered if he boxed. Geordie had been a very good boxer in his youth and still entered the odd bout during shore leave, just to keep in practice. He was glad of Smith’s warning. Pointedly, he drew the baton he wore at his waist.

“You try that with me, laddie, and you’ll be back in irons with a couple of buckets of cold water over you and a thumping headache to go with it,” he said.

The irons clanked as they were removed, and Van Daan flexed his wrists in relief and rubbed them. “What would be the point out here?” he asked. “There’s nowhere to run.”

There was something about the bald truth of that statement which tugged at Geordie’s heart unexpectedly. He motioned for Van Daan to follow him and led the way to the galley. At this hour the huge stove was roaring, and the ship’s cook and his assistants were busy over the main meal. A savoury smell reminded Geordie of how hungry he was. It was almost dinner time and the captain and the master would be on the quarterdeck taking the noon sight.

There was a wooden bench and table outside Geordie’s cabin which was located in the bow of the ship. Geordie indicated that Van Daan should sit. He opened his mouth to warn the boy again about the consequences of moving, then caught his eye and stopped himself. He did not know why, but he was absolutely certain Van Daan would simply remind him again that he had nowhere to go.

“Janet, are you there, bonny lass?”

“Aye, where else would I be at this hour?” Janet opened the door, a shirt she was mending in her hand and surveyed the prisoner thoughtfully. The boy stared back.

“And who’s this half-drowned rat you’ve brought for dinner, husband?”

Geordie opened his mouth to explain, but the boy was on his feet, and the bow he executed chilled Geordie to the bone. “My apologies, ma’am, I had something of an accident in the small hours. I was feeling sick and leaned over too far. It’s lucky I’m a strong swimmer. Paul van Daan. Pressed man.”

Geordie saw his wife give the youth a long sweeping glance, then she smiled. Janet was a very comely woman with a lovely smile. To Geordie’s complete astonishment, the boy smiled back. “And a bit of a drowned-rat,” he said apologetically.

Geordie put his hand on Van Daan’s shoulder and shoved him back onto the bench. “Will you have a look at that gash on his hand, bonny lass, while I get some dry clothes from the slops for him? He might be about to hang for murder and he’s definitely due a flogging, but we can’t have him freezing to death, it’s not in the regulations. You can eat your dinner here with us and warm up a bit and then you’ll need to go back where you should be.”

“Thank you, it’s very good of you, sir.”

“Not sir, laddie. I’m not a commissioned officer, you should call me Bosun.”

“Sorry, Bosun.”

“And try and pretend to do it respectfully, you arrogant little shit. Do you know how much trouble you’re in?”

“Yes, Bosun.”

Geordie studied him, grunted, and disappeared to find clothing. He allowed the boy to change in the cabin, while Janet set the table and went to collect the food. As Van Daan emerged, Geordie ran his eyes over him, and the boy held out his arms at his sides.

“I’ve not stolen anything, I swear, you can search me. I’m not that stupid. Like you said, I’m in enough trouble.”

Geordie could not help smiling. “Oh sit you down and drink your grog. Here’s my lass with the food. Eat.”

Geordie watched the boy covertly as he ate, while telling Janet about the events of the morning. He did not give the full details of Mackay’s murder, but he could see she was still shocked. Van Daan did not look up from his meal, eating stew with the concentration of a boy who had not eaten for a while.

“I just stopped for a chat with Petty Officer Marshall about you, Van Daan,” Geordie said, when the bowl was empty. “He says you’ve not made a good start aboard the Hera. You’ve barely gone a day without a punishment in the log. Insolence, abusing your seniors, fighting in the mess.”

“If I didn’t fight, I wouldn’t eat, Bosun.”

Geordie eyed him with reluctant respect. “Aye, there’s probably something in that, lad, they’ll steal your rations if you let them. But to put another boy in the sickbay for two days…”

“He had a knife. But I did hit him too hard. I was…I got angry.”

Geordie wondered if he had been about to say that he was scared. He glanced at Janet, who got up. “I’ll get you some more,” she said, sounding alarmingly maternal. “If you’ve been fighting over every meal, it’ll make a nice change to sit and eat like a decent human being.”

Van Daan looked up quickly and smiled. “Oh it does, ma’am. But please, I don’t want to put you out.”

“It’s no trouble for a lad with manners like yours,” Janet said, and bustled away. Van Daan’s smile faded, and Geordie thought that without it he looked very young and very lost. He wondered again what the hell this boy was doing below decks as a pressed man.

“All right, laddie,” he said gruffly. “You’ve been fed, and you’ve had your grog. At least…you’ve barely touched it. Don’t you want it?”

The boy gave a somewhat embarrassed smile. “I can’t stand it,” he said frankly. “I’d rather have water, actually.”

Geordie studied him, then sighed. He got up, went into his cabin, and returned with a bottle and two glasses. Setting them on the table he poured.

“Sip it,” he said shortly. “This is not rum grog.”

Van Daan picked up the glass and sniffed suspiciously at the amber coloured liquid. “What is it?”

“Scotch whisky, laddie. Comes from a little distillery just over the border from where I grew up. My sister sends it to me from time to time. Try it.”

Van Daan took a sip. Geordie watched his expression. He swallowed and coughed a little as the peaty spirit caught in his throat then looked up. “That’s excellent.”

“Spoken like a connoisseur,” Geordie said ironically. Janet was back, setting another plate in front of the boy, along with a chunk of dark bread.

“I need to turn the laundry, husband, so I’ll leave you to it,” she said, with her accustomed tact. Van Daan got to his feet with instinctive courtesy. Janet studied him for a moment.

“Eat,” she said. “You’ll need your strength for whatever comes next. And then talk to my husband, tell him the truth, and listen to his advice. He’s a good man.”

The boy offered his charming smile again and Geordie decided that he was glad Van Daan was not ten years older. “Thank you for your kindness, ma’am. Whatever happens, I won’t forget it.”

When Janet had gone, Van Daan returned to his meal. Geordie finished his grog, since it should not go to waste, then sipped his whisky and waited for the boy to finish. He was looking better, with more colour in his cheeks, and the fair hair had dried to a dark gold, shoulder length and tied back with a grubby strip of linen. Eventually, Van Daan set his spoon down.

“That’s the most I’ve eaten since I came on board. Worth getting hanged for. Thank you, sir…I mean, Bosun.”

“Tell me what happened?”

“I already told the lieutenant. There’s not much to tell. I felt sick. I’m over it mostly during the day, but sometimes at night…I went up on deck because it’s not civil to cast up accounts where men are sleeping.”

“You’re not allowed to wander around the ship at night, boy, they must have told you that.”

“I’d forgotten, I was feeling so ill. Anyway, I must have had a dizzy spell and gone over. Thank God I didn’t hit my head on the way down or I’d have drowned.”

The blue eyes were limpid and innocent. Geordie studied him. Despite his height and surprising air of self-assurance, this was still very much a boy. Geordie thought again about what had happened to Mackay. He could imagine this lad striking out in self-defence, but the cold-blooded killing and mutilation of a man seemed beyond him. At the same time, his story sounded carefully rehearsed rather than natural. Geordie had sent his bosun’s mates to make enquiries among the crew and there was no evidence of anybody else being away from his proper place at that time.

“You must be a very strong swimmer,” Geordie said.

“I am. I learned in the lake as a boy.”

“Which lake?”

“At Southwinds, where I grew up. It’s in Leicestershire.”

“How did you cut your hand?”

“It must have been when I was trying to grab the ladder from the water.”

“A thin cut for a splinter. Almost looked like a knife.”

“No, I’d have remembered if I’d cut it on a knife.”

“You bloody liar,” Geordie said softly. “You killed him, didn’t you?”

“No, Bosun.”

“Well somebody killed him and cut his balls off. Now why?”

“I don’t know, Bosun.”

“Don’t you? I bloody do. Able Seaman Mackay had some very nasty habits with the younger boys aboard ship. I’ve been trying to get somebody to speak up about it for months. One young lad, a boy called Harry Price, drowned himself a few months back, and I’ve always wondered if it was because he couldn’t stand it any longer. What do you think, Van Daan?”

Paul van Daan looked back at him. He had flushed a little, but to Geordie’s surprise he neither turned away or dropped his gaze, although Geordie could see that his fists had clenched together until the knuckles were white.

“I don’t know what to think, Bosun, I wasn’t there when Price drowned himself. But do you know what? I wish I fucking had been.”

The obscenity sounded odd in Van Daan’s well-spoken accent, but his tone told Geordie everything he needed to know. Reaching for the bottle, he poured another shot into each glass.

“What did he do to you, Van Daan?”

“Nothing, Bosun.”

“What did he try to do?”

“Nothing, Bosun. I never met Able Seaman Mackay.”

Van Daan reached for the glass. Geordie watched as he inhaled the rich aroma of the whisky and swirled it around the glass a little before sipping it appreciatively. Somebody had taught this boy how to enjoy good wine or good brandy.

“You’re a bad liar, Van Daan.”

“I’ve been told that before, Bosun.”

“Don’t you know they could hang you for this?”

“Don’t they have to prove it?”

Geordie met his eyes for a long time. He was fascinated by Van Daan’s odd blend of boyish vulnerability and adult intelligence. During his years at sea Geordie had come across a lot of boys of this age, but he had never encountered one quite like this.

Finally he reached for his own glass. “Let’s try a different question. What the bloody hell are you doing here, boy? For one thing are you even old enough to be pressed? And secondly, from your voice and your manner, you’re not a common seaman.”

“No. I’ll probably need to work on that if I’m going to survive the next few months.”

“Who are you?”

“I told you. Paul van Daan.”

“Your family?”

“My father owns a shipping company.”

Geordie stared at him very hard for a while. The boy’s gaze did not waver. Eventually, Geordie said:

“You’re a gentleman’s son?”

“Yes. And I’m almost fifteen. Not quite old enough to be pressed, but close.”

“Did you tell them that?”

“Do I look stupid? Of course I did. Repeatedly. Then I hit people and tried to escape. That didn’t work either.”

Geordie closed his eyes. “Oh shit. Somebody is going to be very sorry for this.”

“Yes, they are.”

Geordie opened his eyes at the tone. Abruptly he was absolutely sure Van Daan had killed Mackay. Geordie suspected he also knew what had been done to him to drive him to commit such an appalling crime. He understood why Van Daan refused to talk about it. Geordie could only imagine the terror of a gently-bred boy thrown into a situation so far removed from the life he was used to. Mackay’s assault, coming before Van Daan had time to even begin to adjust, would have been enough to break most boys. Geordie wondered what it would take to break this particular youth and hoped passionately he was not about to find out.

“Bosun. Captain wants to see you.”

Geordie sighed. “I’d be willing to bet it’s about you, you troublesome wee bastard. Finish that drink and get up.”

Van Daan obeyed, getting to his feet. “If I can stand. It’s stronger than I’m used to.”

“You’ll need to get yourself a stronger head and stomach if you’re going to survive the navy, laddie.”

“You might not have to worry about that for much longer,” Van Daan said. It was a creditable effort, but Geordie could hear the tremor in his voice. He silently applauded the boy. Only a fool would claim not to be afraid when faced with a hanging, but this slender youth was controlling it very well, and Geordie knew that in the noise of battle or the screaming height of a storm at sea, that was what mattered. He regarded Van Daan and decided to be honest.

“You’re going to get hanged or flogged, Van Daan. I’m going to the captain and I’m going to tell him the truth about you. I’m also going to try to convince him that a young sprig of the gentry couldn’t possibly slit a man’s throat and mutilate the body. That won’t be difficult because until today, I wouldn’t have thought it myself. But Captain Dalton’s an awkward man and I can’t tell what he’ll do.”

“It’s all right, sir. I mean Bosun. Just…thank you for this. Thank Mrs Armstrong as well, will you? Whatever happens, I’m grateful.”

Geordie studied him, troubled. “No point in asking you why in God’s name you did it that way, I suppose. Given that you didn’t do it.”

“Is it bothering you?” Van Daan said unexpectedly. “I’m sorry. Look…your wife said I should trust you, but I don’t know you yet, it would be stupid. So I didn’t do it. But if you want me to guess, I’d say the man who did that was pretty sure Mackay hadn’t done that for the last time. Maybe he could have found another way to protect himself. I don’t know what’s possible, I’ve not been here long.”

“I know. You poor little bastard, you don’t know your head from your heels, do you? And then this. But Christ, to mutilate him like that…”

“Once again, Bosun, I can only guess,” Van Daan said gravely. “I don’t know how common it is in this navy for a man to do what he did and get away with it for years. How many boys, I wonder? He needed stopping. Not just for one attack but for all the others he was going to do in the future. And if there’s any other perverted bastard aboard this ship thinking about doing the same thing, I don’t think he’ll be in any doubt about what’s going to happen to him if he does. Maybe you don’t think that’s worth risking a hanging. Maybe I don’t. But I can tell you for sure, that whoever killed him did.”

Geordie suspected that was the closest he was ever going to get to an admission from this boy. Van Daan’s reasoning made terrifying sense given what had happened to him although Geordie was still astonished that a lad of not quite fifteen had not only come up with the plan but carried it through. He felt oddly flattered that Van Daan had admitted even this much. Geordie reached for his whistle to summon one of his mates. Derbyshire was in his twenties and of medium height and watching them walk away back to the half-deck, Geordie realised Van Daan was already as tall and probably still had a few years of growing to do. He hoped the boy survived long enough.

***

Geordie found Lieutenant Eaton with Captain Dalton. The captain was in a foul temper, which was very common. He barked out questions and Geordie responded, keeping his answers short and factual. When he had finished, Dalton sat back in his chair.

“Did he do it?”

“I don’t think so, sir,” Geordie said without hesitation. “He’s a tall lad, but he’s very young and Mackay was a big man. Besides, I don’t think a boy from his background could do what was done. I don’t think it would occur to him.”

“He was the only man away from his hammock.”

“The only one who was caught, sir, but a murderer would be canny enough to sneak back to his place without being seen.”

“What about the blood?” Eaton asked. “He’d have been covered in it.”

“He could have changed. It’s not impossible that he’d purloined spare clouts from somewhere. Dumped the bloody clothing over the side in the dark, sluiced himself down with a bucket of water and got back to bed. Nobody searched, sir, because everybody thought we’d got our man.”

“Damn it, I still think he’s guilty,” Dalton snarled. “He should be hanged.”

“I think he’d get off at a trial, Captain,” Eaton said quietly. “No witnesses and no evidence. They searched his hammock and the few possessions he has. No knife, no bloody clothing. Nobody saw or heard anything apart from Van Daan scrambling back up onto deck half-drowned. He’s a landsman and a pressed man, it’s not impossible to believe he was seasick and fell overboard.”

“Well who the hell killed Mackay?” Dalton roared. “What if he does it again? What if he kills an officer? What if he kills me?”

Geordie met Eaton’s eyes and looked away quickly, suppressing a snort of unsuitable laughter. “I don’t think that’s likely sir,” Eaton said gravely. “It seems pretty obvious that whoever did this was either a victim of Mackay’s unsavoury practices or a friend of a victim. He’s gone. No reason to kill again.”

Dalton did not reply. He was looking down at a log book. Eventually he looked up. “Well that little bastard isn’t getting away with this. I’m ordering a flogging.”

“What’s the charge, Captain?”

“Being bloody annoying,” Dalton said.

“That’s not actually a crime, Captain,” Eaton said patiently.

“Although with this lad, it probably should be,” Geordie said, mostly under his breath.

“Well he’s been in the punishment book every day since he got here, and he was bloody well out of his hammock when he shouldn’t have been. Maybe fifty of the best will teach him a lesson. See to it, Bosun, tomorrow.”

Geordie froze and looked at Eaton. The first lieutenant stared back. Neither spoke. A captain could only order twelve lashes without a formal trial. It was not unheard of for a captain to order more, and within reason, it would be quietly ignored, but fifty was too many.

“Sir, we’d need a trial for that. And besides, you can only use the cane on him, he’s fourteen.”

“He commits a man’s crime, he gets a man’s punishment, Mr Eaton. Anyway, I don’t believe he’s fourteen, any more than I believe the rest of that nonsensical story he told you.”

Geordie looked again at Eaton. “Look, sir, I really believe this boy has been pressed illegally. I talked with him for a long time and it’s obvious he’s well-spoken and educated. I don’t think he should be here.”

“He’s taken you for a fool, Bosun. He’s a practiced liar and probably a thief.”

Geordie could feel his temper rising. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it again at a very tiny shake of the head from Eaton.

“Whatever the boy has or hasn’t done, Captain, I think it would be a mistake to administer as many as fifty without a formal trial,” Eaton said. “It is up to you of course, but even if the boy is over fourteen, he is still young, and we do not know his state of health. If anything should go wrong, I am afraid you could lay yourself open to serious criticism.”

“I am the captain of this ship, and I will not be held to ransom against the word of a dirty little ragamuffin with a fluent tongue!” Dalton exploded. “Flog him. Thirty lashes, and with the cat, not the cane, during the punishment hour tomorrow. As for this pack of lies about being a gentleman, I want to hear nothing more of it. Get out of here.”

Outside, Eaton beckoned for Geordie to follow him to the starboard rail. “You need to stop pushing him about an illegal impressment, Bosun.”

“Talk to that boy for ten minutes, sir, and you’ll agree.”

“I believe you. But for the boy’s sake, you need to shut up about it. It’s recorded in the log that the boy protested his impressment. Dalton failed to listen, he failed to investigate, and he took that boy to sea in the full knowledge that his impressment might well be illegal because he was drunk, and he didn’t care.”

“That’s no surprise to me, sir.”

“Or me. But if it turns out that young Van Daan really is the son of a man of influence, and he makes it out of here in one piece, it could mean the end of Dalton’s career. I would rather Dalton didn’t work that out.”

Geordie felt suddenly very cold. He turned his head. “You don’t think he would…?”

“I don’t know what he’d do. I’ve served under him for five months and the minute I get the chance, I am leaving this ship. I don’t care if I have to go onto half-pay, or take a post as a second lieutenant again, I’m not working under that man.”

“I don’t blame you, sir. I’ve been with the Hera a long time, but if he doesn’t go, I might.”

“A bosun of your experience won’t have any trouble finding another ship, Armstrong. It might take me longer, but I don’t care.”

“Can’t we get a letter out to his father?”

“Not without Dalton knowing. He should write one, though, and I’ll take charge of it. If we’re in port, I predict that boy stands no chance of leaving this ship even if he signs up as a volunteer. But I might be able to send it off.”

“If you’re right about the captain, that won’t help, sir,” Geordie said. “Because if the boy’s father goes to the Admiralty about getting him back, they’re going to write to Captain Dalton directly, asking him about it. All he has to do is make sure Van Daan has an accident and is buried at sea and then he can throw up his hands and claim he knew nothing about it. Without the boy to speak up, who will care?”

“Dear God, you’re right.”

“The only thing we can do is pretend we all believe the captain, let him flog the boy and say nothing more about it. After a few weeks of quiet, the captain will have convinced himself the boy was nothing but a liar and a troublemaker and as long as Van Daan stays out of trouble, he’ll forget about him. When we reach a port with an English consulate, we can get him ashore and out of Dalton’s reach.”

Eaton looked troubled. “How the hell are you going to manage to persuade that lad to keep quiet and keep his head down, Bosun?”

Geordie had already made the decision. “I’m going to tell him the truth,” he said.

***

Geordie brought the boy into the small cabin and closed the door to have the conversation, stationing his wife on the bench outside in case of eavesdroppers. It felt ridiculous to be taking such precautions aboard ship, but Eaton’s words had convinced Geordie.

Van Daan sat at the opposite end of the bunk and listened without saying a word as Geordie related what had happened and repeated his conversation with Lieutenant Eaton. At the end of it, he sat in silence for so long that Geordie wondered if it had, after all, been wrong to speak to such a young boy as though he was an adult.

Eventually Van Daan stirred and looked up. “What do I need to do?” he asked.

Geordie caught his breath and realised that he had not, after all, got it wrong. “Take the flogging,” he said bluntly. “I can’t get you out of it, and it’s bloody painful, lad. I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this.”

Van Daan sat silently for a moment, staring at his linked fingers in his lap. Then he looked up. “To some degree, I do, Bosun.”

Geordie could not help smiling. “Is that a confession, lad?”

“Oh no.”

“I didn’t think so. I’ll take care of you, you’ll be all right, and Mr Eaton will make sure it doesn’t go too far. After that, I’m going to get you signed up as a volunteer. I want you to behave. Keep your head down, do as you’re told and stop demanding to be taken to the nearest English port.”

“Will that work?”

“The captain’s not that bright, laddie. If you stay out of trouble he’ll forget about you. I don’t know how long it will take, but eventually me and Mr Eaton will find a way to get you off this ship. I wish I could do better, but for now Dalton is in charge and you’re a long way from home.”

“I’m sorry, I’m causing you a lot of trouble and you’ve been very good about it. I understand, and I’ll do the best I can.”

Geordie studied him. “What does that mean?”

“Only that I’m not that good at keeping my head down. I’m not sure I can manage it for that long. But I think I know what to do to fit in better. So don’t worry.”

***

Geordie had both attended and arranged many floggings but had never before felt such distaste for the process. Van Daan was the only miscreant up for punishment the following day. At eleven-thirty, Geordie gave the order for the ship’s company to muster by watches on either side of the main deck. Van Daan was brought on deck. Tradition allowed him to plead his case to the captain. On this occasion, Geordie could not imagine what the captain would ask or what the boy would say. He found himself rigid with tension as Van Daan stepped forward. He looked very young, the fair hair lifted in the breeze away from the smooth lines of his face.

“You are accused of absenting yourself from your berth, boy, along with numerous other offences since your arrival aboard ship,” Dalton said, his voice harsh. “Have you anything to say?”

“No, sir.”

“Nothing? No excuse for your behaviour?”

“Only that the life is new to me, sir, and I’ll try to improve.”

It was perfect and Geordie thanked God he had not tried to coach Van Daan since he could not have done better. If he had been in Dalton’s place he would not have believed a word of it, but Geordie could see the captain relax. He appreciated humility and seemed completely unable to see that the boy’s stance radiated contempt.

“Thirty lashes Bosun.”

Geordie gave the order, and Smith stepped forward with the cat. The handle was covered with red cloth and the whip consisted of nine thin pieces of line with each section knotted several times along its length. A new cat was made for each flogging by one of the bosun’s mates. It was their duty to administer the flogging, swapping over after each dozen to ensure that a tired arm did not lessen the punishment.

Geordie had selected the three mates with care and had spoken to them in advance very specifically. He could not prevent the boy’s suffering, but he could ensure that over-zealous administration did not make it worse.

Van Daan was stripped to the waist and bound by the wrists to the wooden grating situated at the gangway. Lieutenant Gordon stepped forward to read the Article of War pertaining to the boy’s crimes aloud and then stepped back. There was complete silence across the deck. Geordie wondered if it was his imagination that the atmosphere was more tense than at a normal flogging, possibly because of the victim’s youth and possibly because of the spectre of Mackay’s unsolved murder hovering in the background.

The cat fell across Van Daan’s back, leaving long red weals. The boy’s body jumped but he made no sound. The cat fell again and again.  Geordie felt himself flinch internally with each blow. He had never felt like this before at a flogging and he could not decide if it was the injustice of it or if it was because of his enormous liking and respect for the boy being beaten.

At the first changeover, the ship’s surgeon went forward to inspect Van Daan’s back. Geordie thought he looked uncomfortable. Eaton had told him that Dr Baird had insisted on registering a formal objection to the cat being used on a boy this young, and Geordie respected him for it.

At twenty lashes the skin broke. Van Daan had still not made a sound, though his body convulsed at each blow. Geordie realised he was clenching his fists so hard that his nails were digging into his palms, leaving marks. He imagined himself punching Captain Dalton over and over until he did not get up and it helped a little.

At twenty-six lashes, Van Daan’s back was bloody and for the first time he uttered a little cry, quickly bitten back. Geordie thought about the other injuries, the bruising and the muscle damage and the battering to the internal organs, and he wondered if the crew would support him if he drew his pistol and shot Dalton through the head. He thought they might.

At thirty lashes, the third bosun’s mate, Petty Officer Ferris, lowered the cat with an air of relief. The surgeon moved forward.

“One moment, Doctor.”

Captain Dalton walked across the deck towards Van Daan. Geordie moved forward as well, ignoring the frantic signals from Lieutenant Eaton. He wanted to hear what was said. Dalton reached up and caught the long fair hair, wet with sweat. He twisted his hand in it and yanked the boy’s head back.

“Do you hear me, Van Daan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you kill Mackay?”

“No, sir.”

“Louder, Van Daan.”

“No, sir.”

“What if I told you I could whip you until you confess?”

Geordie realised he was poised, ready to attack. He had never felt such an urge to kill in his life.

“Well I can’t stop you, sir.” Van Daan’s voice was faint but his tone was loaded with so much contempt that even Dalton could not miss it. Geordie groaned inwardly.

Dalton stepped back. “Another dozen, Ferris,” he said loudly.

Ferris looked over at Geordie, appalled. Geordie took a deep breath. He decided that he was about to commit mutiny and he prayed that whatever happened, Janet would be all right.

“Belay that order, Petty Officer Ferris,” Lieutenant Eaton called out.

Ferris lowered his arm, looking relieved. Dalton swung around. “What did you say, Mr Eaton?” he demanded.

“Sorry, sir, it’s just that you’ve miscounted. The sentence was thirty, and I remember you didn’t want more than that on a boy this young, especially with the cat. It’s recorded in the log, sir.”

There was a long moment of agonised silence across the deck and Geordie silently thanked God that Daniel Eaton had all the intelligence and integrity that his captain lacked. He hoped somebody at the Admiralty realised it soon and gave the man a command of his own. The ship’s log was inviolate and if Dalton continued with the punishment it would be recorded and could be used against him.

Dalton glared at his first lieutenant with sheer hatred then turned to the surgeon and nodded. Geordie felt as though the entire crew let out a collective sigh of relief. He called the order and two of his mates went forward to untie the prisoner.

Abruptly, Dalton stopped and stooped. He picked up a wooden pail of salt water, turned back to the boy on the grating and threw the entire contents over the boy’s back. Van Daan screamed. Dalton turned away and stomped back to his cabin, leaving Geordie and the first officer to stand the crew down.

Geordie ran to the boy as the mates lowered him face down onto the deck. After that one agonised yell, he had made no further sound and Geordie felt a sense of panic. The damage done to a man by a flogging could be completely unpredictable, depending on the physical condition of the victim. Paul van Daan was young, much too young to have been beaten by the cat which was usually reserved for adults. He was also, Geordie discovered, a mass of bruises all over his fair skin, presumably due to the over-enthusiastic use of the cane on the recalcitrant new recruit during his first week aboard ship. Geordie had known a man die from damage to his kidneys after a flogging and he knelt beside the boy, running his eyes over the bloody mess of his back, seeing new bruising coming up beneath the existing marks.

“Van Daan. Can you hear me?”

“He’s fainted, Bosun.”

“Carry him to the sick bay,” Geordie said, getting up. “Dr Baird will see to him there.”

“I will. And please understand, Armstrong, that I will be keeping detailed notes of this boy’s condition. If he dies because of what has been done to him aboard this ship, it will be fully recorded, and I intend to complain to the Admiralty.”

“Good,” Geordie said. “Lift him carefully, Ferris.”

“Get your fucking hands off me,” a voice said distinctly. “Or I will break your fucking fingers.”

The men froze. Geordie motioned them back. “It’s good to see your punishment has settled you down proper, Van Daan. They’re trying to help you, you mannerless young twat.”

“If this is their idea of help, I’ll live without it.” The boy turned his head to look at Geordie. “I wouldn’t mind a hand up though, Bosun.”

“Let them carry you.”

“I’ll walk.”

Geordie said nothing. He watched as, slowly and painfully, Van Daan heaved himself onto all fours. He stopped, wincing at a sudden pain, and put his hand to his side. “Christ, that hurts.”

“You may have a broken rib, it’s not uncommon,” Dr Baird said, coming to his side. “Will you not let them carry you, boy?”

Van Daan turned his head to look at him, and surprisingly managed a shadow of his charming smile. “Thank you, Doctor. I probably sound mad, but I really need to walk away from this. Would you?”

Baird offered his hand without speaking and between him and Geordie, they got Van Daan onto his feet. The tall form swayed for a moment and Geordie stood ready to catch him, but Van Daan steadied himself. He shook his head at the doctor’s proffered arm but did it with a faint smile. He walked carefully, but seemed reasonably steady. Geordie trod behind him trying not to fuss like a hen with one chick. He wished the obstinate whelp had remained unconscious.

Once he had reached the sick bay, Van Daan became more cooperative, and Geordie left him with Baird and went to find Janet. He was not surprised to discover that his wife had expressed her sympathy by laundering and mending Van Daan’s few items of clothing. She had also added to them, and Geordie recognised an old shirt and trousers of his own, spotlessly clean, and neatly darned. He hid a smile, wondering if Van Daan knew that he had been adopted by the fiercest creature on the ship.

Geordie went through the rest of his day as normal, forcing himself to leave the boy alone. Van Daan needed rest in order to heal, and at least in the sick bay he would get solitude and relative quiet. He looked in at five o’clock, after the men had been issued with their second grog ration, and the mess cooks were beginning to collect provisions for supper.

There were eighteen berths in the sick bay which was on the starboard side of the ship. Half a dozen of them were occupied by sick or injured sailors, but Baird had put his newest patient in one of the two curtained alcoves which he reserved for more serious cases, where privacy might be required. Van Daan was asleep, lying on his front, the rough blankets pushed down to his hips to avoid touching his wounds.

Geordie stood looking down at him. In sleep, the boy looked more like the child he really was. What Geordie could see of his body was a mass of red bleeding stripes and black bruising, overlaying the yellowing remains of older injuries. Geordie thought he must have been in pain ever since he arrived on board and was thankful that at least now he would have no choice but to rest and heal. All the same, as he left he paused by the surgeon’s table, where Baird’s assistant was writing up the daily returns in a ledger.

“Keep an eye on Van Daan, will you, Harris? If he makes any attempt to get up and go back to his duties, tell him I’ll give him a kicking that’ll make that flogging look like a picnic.”

Harris grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “Already told him once, Bosun. Don’t worry, we’ll keep him quiet. Poor little bastard. Got balls though, I’ve seen grown men break down sooner than he did. He still a pressed man?”

“I’ll be down to get him properly signed up as a volunteer tomorrow. When he’s fit for duty, I’m getting him assigned to the rigging.”

“He’s a landsman, Bosun. He’ll kill himself.”

Geordie glanced back at the cubicle where the sleeping boy lay. “You need to trust me with this one, Harris. If we don’t keep him busy, he’ll stir up the entire crew of this ship until somebody really does kill him.”

Harris looked amused. “You adopting him, Bosun?”

“I’m going to train him. And I’ll speak to the schoolmaster about moving him up to take lessons with the older boys. He can already read and write, so he can study seamanship. At least it’ll keep him out of mischief. For now, just let him rest. He bloody needs it after what he’s been through.”

***

May, 1798

Geordie was writing up the Boatswain’s accounts in his store cabin, a job he loathed, when First Lieutenant Eaton appeared in the doorway.

“Do you have a minute, Bosun?”

“I’ve got an hour, sir, if it’ll get me away from this.”

“Come down to your dinner bench. I’ve got some news and we’re celebrating.”

Eaton lifted a wine bottle and Geordie grinned and got up. He locked the door carefully behind him. He could guess Eaton’s news and he was pleased for the man although he would miss him. Seated at the wooden table, Eaton poured two cups.

“To the third rate, HMS Triumphant and her new post-captain, Bosun.”

“Congratulations, sir, it’s well deserved. Came with the mail boat, did it?”

“Yes. I’m to sail back with her almost immediately, she’s with the fleet off Toulon. An old ship and in need of an update, but my first post command.”

“You’ll be missed.”

“I wish I could take you with me, Armstrong.”

“You’ll have a good bosun of your own, sir, who knows the ship. Mediterranean Fleet then?”

“Yes, and in a hurry. They’re sending a fleet under Nelson, hoping to engage the French.”

Geordie hid a smile at Eaton’s attempt to sound nonchalant. At his age, Geordie had also longed for battle and glory and the chance to shine. These days he preferred the long, easy days of blockade duty and would be happy to never hear a gun fired in anger again. He raised his cup.

“Good luck, sir.”

“Captain Dalton is going to get Powlett to act up as first lieutenant.”

“Is he sorry to see you go, sir?”

“I can’t tell, Bosun, he’s such a miserable bastard all the time, I’m not sure how I’d know the difference. But I wanted to speak to you about Van Daan.”

“No reply to your letter, then?”

“No, and there should have been. I think it got lost or went down with a ship. I was hoping I might be able to get the boy ashore, but they’re ferrying me straight to the ship, there’s no time. And I’ve no wish to dump him somewhere he might get picked up by another press gang. We need to get him to the British authorities and do this properly. A long way from Captain Dalton.”

“Once you’re away, you’ll be able to write again, sir. Dalton has taken no notice of Van Daan for a long time.”

“He might, if he receives a stiff letter from the Admiralty asking why he has an illegally pressed gentleman’s son aboard and hasn’t returned him to his proper place. Dalton got himself into this because he was too lazy and too much of a drunkard to do his job properly, but if he finds out Van Daan really is everything he claimed to be, I wouldn’t trust him not to quietly find a way to shut him up before he can give evidence about what was done to him. Look, Bosun, I know Van Daan is a bit of a favourite of yours and Janet’s. But I was thinking of taking him with me as an officer’s servant. Once aboard, I’ll promote him to petty officer. I’ll write again immediately to his father, and I’ll write to the Admiralty as well.”

“You’re taking him into battle, though, sir.” Geordie felt slightly sick.

“Probably. I can’t turn the ship round to get him to safety. But the first chance I can, I’ll drop him off at an English consulate. If he wants to go.”

Geordie laughed. “I see right through you, you duplicitous bastard, sir. You’re going to promote him to midshipman as fast as you can and hope he’ll decide to stay on and try for an officer’s commission, aren’t you?”

“Oh come on, Bosun, what would you do in my place? When did you last see a boy with his talent for leadership? I’d be mad not to try.”

Geordie got up. “Just so long as you give him a choice.”

“You’ll miss him.”

“Like a piece of my heart,” Geordie said simply. “We never had children, Janet and me. Told ourselves it was just as well, since it’s meant we’ve been together all these years. But the Van Daan boy reminded both of us what we’ve missed. Still, I’m proud of the man he’s going to become. If he can get there without getting himself killed, the reckless young bastard. Come and find him and tell him the good news.”

Up on deck, there was a flurry of activity up in the rigging as the officer of the watch had ordered the main topsail to be set. The topmen were clambering up the shrouds towards the main top. Geordie and Eaton stopped to watch them, shading their eyes against the sun. They were fast and nimble, scrambling barefooted over masts and sail.

First to the top was a tall slim figure. He had removed his blue jacket and hat, and the sun sparked an occasional golden light off his fair hair. Arriving at his destination, he looked back at his fellows and pantomimed waiting impatiently for the others to be in place, the young face alight with laughter.

The sail had been tightly reefed in and Geordie watched as the men loosed the sail then kicked it out and down, where other crew members eased on the lines. It was a process Geordie had watched a thousand times during his time at sea, and probably performed as many. He watched now as the topmen completed their task then swarmed back down the rigging. It was not supposed to be a race, but the younger men often made it so. When Van Daan was firmly back on the deck, Geordie raised his voice.

“Van Daan. I catch you using the rigging as a race track again, you’ll get a clip round the ear. Get yourself over here, the officer wants a word with you.”

The boy approached at a run, scooping up jacket and hat from a grating along the way and managing to arrive looking vaguely presentable. Geordie reached out to give him an affectionate cuff, knocking his hat off again, partly to prove that he was still just tall enough to make it possible and partly because he knew how much he was going to miss that simple act after tomorrow.

“First Lieutenant Eaton wants to speak to you. When he’s done with you, come down to the stores, I want a word.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, Bosun.” Van Daan eyed him warily. “Am I in trouble? What have I done?”

“Oh, wipe that innocent look of your face or I’ll do it for you, it doesn’t sit well there. And pick up your hat or I’ll charge you for it.”

Van Daan picked up the battered straw hat with a grin. “You couldn’t legitimately charge me a halfpence for this, Bosun, look at the state of it.”

“Well you’re not getting a new one, you’d wreck it in a week. Get along with you.”

It was thirty minutes before Van Daan joined him in the store, and the laughter had been replaced by an unusually serious expression. Geordie pointed to a stool and went for beer.

“So you’ll be leaving us. Officer’s servant, no less.”

“Only until we reach the Triumphant. Then it’s to be petty officer.”

“I’ll be saluting you one day, laddie, I’ve known that for a long time.”

“I don’t think so, Bosun. I’ve been honest with Mr Eaton because it’s only fair. I’ll go with him this voyage. I think I owe him that. But afterwards, since it looks as though it will be possible, I think I’ll go home.”

“To see your father?”

“I’d be happy never to set eyes on him again,” the boy said flatly. “He doesn’t want me there, he sent me to sea in the first place, to teach me discipline, since he couldn’t be bothered to do it himself. Well I think I’ve learned it.”

“Then why leave? You’re good at this, Van Daan. You’ll be a midshipman in a year or so, and you’ll pass the lieutenants’ examination without any effort at all.”

Van Daan gave a little smile. “And post-captain a year later? It’s a nice story, Bosun. Don’t think I’ve not considered it. There are things about the navy I like. But too much has happened here. And besides…a ship is too small.”

Geordie considered it and knew he was right. “Aye, that’s the way of it with you. Some of us feel secure within these wooden walls. Some feel trapped by them. Go home then, laddie, and make your peace with your Da however you can. But if you take my advice, you’ll not let him push you behind a desk in a shipping office, or into the silk suit of a gentleman. You’re not cut out for that. Think about the army. Mr Eaton is right, you’ve the makings of a bloody good officer if you can learn some respect for your seniors and keep your mouth shut occasionally.”

“The thing I will miss about this ship, is you. And Mrs Armstrong. Does she know?”

“Aye, I’ve told her. She’s in the cabin, mending everything you own twice over. You should go and see her and be prepared for her to cry over you, for she will.”

“I might cry over her too,” Van Daan said, getting up. “The packet ship leaves early. I was wondering…”

“Eat your dinner down with us today, laddie. It’ll be the last time, and I’ll miss sampling the whisky with you.”

The boy smiled. “I’ll write,” he said. “And I’ll send you a bottle myself when I can. To remember me by.”

“I’ll not be forgetting you, Paul van Daan. The ship’ll be a lonelier place without you.”

“You’ll be all right, Bosun, while your wife is here to look after you. You’ve been like my family. Some day…I wonder if I’ll ever marry? If I did, I’d like it to be the way you are with her. You’re so close.”

Geordie could feel tears tightening his throat. “Go and see her. And don’t worry about it. When you’ve done sleeping with every pretty girl that’s willing, now you’ve found what to do with them, there’ll be a bonny lass waiting for you somewhere. Write and tell me about her if I’m still alive.”

“I promise I will.”

Van Daan was outside the door when Geordie had another thought. “Van Daan – what are you going to do about the captain? Will you report him, d’you think?”

Van Daan raised his eyebrows. “I don’t see that I can do anything else, Bosun. My father might not like me, but he’s a proud man and he’ll be furious about this. He’s going to want Captain Dalton’s head on a plate with an apple stuffed in his mouth when he sees the scars on my back, and I’m not covering up for the drunken, spiteful bastard. Why, will it bother you?”

“Not at all. I was thinking, it would be good to serve under a different captain. It’s a fine ship, the Hera. Could do great things under a better man.”

The boy studied him for a long moment then gave one of his broad smiles. “I’ll see what I can do for you, Bosun.”

***

The boat left as dawn was just beginning to stain the sky with a pink wash. Geordie stood beside his wife at the rail, his arm about her, watching the oarsmen pull smoothly through the water. Eventually they could no longer see the boy’s face clearly, but Geordie remained there as the rising sun spilled amber and gold across the water. Several sea birds swooped low past the hull, diving for fish then soaring up again. The packet ship waited at anchor, its rigging outlined against the glory of the morning sky. Geordie could see the figures clambering out of the boat and climbing up the side of the fast little ship, and he felt a sudden fierce envy of the boy, setting out on a new adventure with no idea where it might take him.

“I hope he’ll be all right, Geordie. Do you think he’ll write, as he promised? A young gentleman, back with his own kind, he might well forget.”

“Well we’ll have to wait and see, bonny lass. But I do wonder you know, if yonder lad is going back to his own kind or if he’s just left them.”

“I wish he was going directly home,” Janet said. “Packet ships are often ambushed and sunk, and even if he makes it to the Triumphant, he’s likely to be in a battle before he’s safe with his family.”

“He’s fought with us in two skirmishes, Janet, and he’s a man grown now, or very near.”

“He’s just sixteen, and I want to know he’s safe.”

“I think he’ll write. I’m sure he’ll write. Now dry those tears and let’s get some tea before the bell.”

They had finished their tea and Geordie had just called the pipe for hammocks to be stowed for the day when he heard a noise from the quarterdeck above. There was a commotion of shouting and then Geordie heard the Welsh accent of First-Lieutenant Powlett calling down the companionway.

“Bosun, get yourself up here. There’s something wrong with the captain.”

Geordie arrived at the door to the captain’s bedroom, which was on the starboard side of the ship beside the master’s sea cabin, where the charts and navigation equipment was stored. The captain’s servant, a skinny thirteen year old by the name of Fletcher, was holding a jug of steaming water. Beside him was Kingsley, the ship’s master and Lieutenant Marshall who commanded the marines.

“I know he’s in there, sir, he’s been making funny noises. I think he must be ill. Maybe he’s had a seizure.”

“The door?” Geordie asked.

“Locked from within,” Powlett said briefly. “I’ve sent for the carpenter.”

The ship’s carpenter arrived looking exasperated rather than worried, his curly dark hair untidy as if he had just emerged from his bed. The last rays of the glorious dawn gave a slightly garish light to the deck as they waited for Rashford to open the door. Geordie gently removed the heavy water jug from Fletcher and set it down out of the way.

Eventually the door was open. Rashford stood back with the air of a man who did not much care what was found within. Geordie looked over at him.

“I’d get to your inspection, Rash. Will you call Dr Baird first in case he’s needed?”

“I will, but we all know he’s probably dead drunk,” Rashford said contemptuously. “Let me know when I can put the lock back.”

Powlett was stepping cautiously into the cabin. It was spacious, with a curtained bunk, a wash stand and clothing chests, a red velvet armchair and small side table. The furniture was arranged incongruously around the two nine pounder guns and on the opposite wall was a closed door which led into the captain’s day cabin, in which he dined, entertained, and took his ease. The bed curtains were closed.

As Geordie followed Powlett into the room, motioning for the others to stay back, the first thing he noticed was a muffled squawking sound from the bed. The second was the smell, which was appalling. At first, Geordie wondered if somehow a chamber pot had been kicked over, but this was far worse. The livestock pens were situated in the waist of the ship and it was often possible to smell them throughout the vessel if they were not regularly cleaned, but never this strongly.

Powlett seemed frozen in surprise, so Geordie walked forward and drew back the bed curtain. For a long moment, he stood very still, unable to believe his eyes. Captain Dalton lay on the bed. He was naked and had been neatly trussed at both wrists and ankles, which were then tied together at the back leaving him in a painfully unnatural position. The bedclothes were in a heap on the floor and Dalton’s teeth were chattering with cold around the gag which had been stuffed into his mouth.

The only garment which the captain was wearing was his wig. It had been placed very firmly upon his head, glued in place with a dark sticky substance which Geordie was easily able to identify as animal manure. He had a strong suspicion that the animal pens would not need mucking out this morning as they had been very thoroughly cleaned out during the night. The rest of the manure had been plastered over the captain’s body in huge reeking dollops. Beside the bed, left very neatly, was the bucket and shovel that the assailant must have used. The captain’s chamber pot was beside them, pointedly empty. Geordie could not be sure and had no intention of checking, but he suspected that the captain was also wearing the contents of that.

“Oh my God,” Powlett whispered. “Who in God’s name…and how? Fletcher! Get yourself in here and help the captain. Bring the hot water. In fact, we’d better send for more hot water. A lot of it. This is going to take some cleaning up.”

Geordie retreated to give the orders. Then, as he was fairly sure he would not be observed in the mayhem of the captain’s deliverance, he slipped through the opposite door into the day cabin and stood looking around. It was an elegant room, with long windows which let in the light and could be opened to let in fresh air. It was clear that somebody had decided the room needed a good airing because one of the windows was wide open.

Geordie went to the window and stuck his head out, looking upwards towards the poop deck. It would be a scramble, but Geordie decided that should the mad idea ever take him, there were enough handholds for a man to pull himself upwards. It would be even easier for a slender, agile boy.

Geordie went back through the cabin and joined the master on the quarterdeck. “Any ideas?” he asked.

“God knows. The captain isn’t the only victim. The boy who guards the livestock was found tied up, and so was the marine on duty by the captain’s cabin.”

“I’d keep looking,” Geordie said cheerfully. “Check on anybody you think might be suspected of being involved in this, and I think you’ll find them safely tied up and remarkably unharmed. Just free of suspicion. Was the captain hurt at all, do you know? Apart from his pride.”

“Only one injury. He didn’t see the face of his attacker, he wore some sort of black mask over his head with the eyes and mouth cut out. And he never spoke. But before he left he gave the captain a huge whack across the nether regions with what looks like a cat o’ nine tails. Some nasty weals.”

Geordie took his pipe from his pocket and began to fill it. “Aye, that can hurt. All the same, I reckon he got off lightly, when all’s said and done. He can rest easy now. At least until the next packet ship reaches him with letters from England. If you’ll excuse me, I should be starting my inspection.”

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