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Captain from Connecticut

by C.S. Forester

 

Chapter One

Although it was mid-afternoon it was nearly as dark as a summer night. The ship swayed uneasily at her anchor as the wind howled round her, the rigging giving out musical tones, from the deep bass of the shrouds to the high treble of the running rigging. Already the snow was thick enough on her to blur the outlines of the objects on the deck. On its forward side the square base of the binnacle was now a rounded mound; the flemished coils of the falls were now merely white cylinders. The officer of the watch stood shivering in the little shelter offered by the mizzen mast bitts, and forward across the snow-covered deck a few unhappy hands crouched vainly seeking shelter under the high bulwarks.

The two officers who emerged upon the quarter deck held their hats on to their heads against the shrieking wind. The shorter, slighter one turned up the collar of his heavy coat, and attempted instinctively to pull the front of it tighter across his chest to keep out the penetrating air. As he spoke in the gray darkness he had to raise his voice to make himself heard, despite the confidential nature of what he was saying.

"It's your best chance, Peabody."

The other turned about, and stood to windward with the snow driving into his face before he answered with a single word.

"Aye," he said.

"The glass is still dropping. But it can't go much lower," went on the other. It seemed as if he were talking for the purpose of encouraging himself, not the man he was speaking to. "The west wind'll veer nor'easterly tomorrow, but by that time you'll have weathered Montauk, please God."

"Please God," echoed Peabody — but it was more like a prayer, in the tone he employed, than the other man's speech.

"Well, good-bye, then. The best of good fortune, Captain Peabody."

The two men shook hands in their heavy furred gloves. Peabody raised his voice against the storm — it was a penetrant voice, nasal yet with a tenor musical tone which somehow made it more readily audible against the wind.

"Call the Commodore's gig. Pipe the side for the Commodore," he said.

"Compliments in this weather?" asked the Commodore, a little surprised, but Peabody gave him no explanation. He was not going to allow a blizzard to interfere with the decent and proper routine of his ship.

The figures huddling for shelter under the bulwark came to life and scuttled across the deck and down into the gig. Other figures, black against the snowy deck, came swarming up from below. It was strange and unnatural that their feet made no sound on the deck. They were like ghosts in their noiselessness, treading the thick carpet of snow. Not even the marines, in their heavy shoes, made any sound. Feebly the pipes of the boatswain's mates twittered in the shrieking wind as the Commodore went over the side down into his waiting gig. Peabody watched him down into the boat, saw the bowman cast off the painter, and then turned back to face the wind again.

"Man the capstan, there!" he shouted. "Mr. Hubbard, fore and main topmast staysails. Three reefs in the tops'ls, ready to sheet home."

He stood with his hands behind him, facing into the bitter wind, and making no attempt whatever to shelter from it. Forward he could just hear the voice of the boatswain as he gave the word to the men at the capstan bars. Then he heard the clank-clank of the capstan; it was turning slowly — very slowly. It was hard work to drag the big frigate up to the anchor against that wind. There were men aloft, too; their movements disturbed the snow banked against the rigging, and it was drifting astern in big puffs visible through the snow. Another unexpected noise puzzled Peabody for a moment — it was the crackling of the frozen canvas as it was unrolled. And the frozen ropes crackled, too, like a whole succession of pistol shots, as they ran through the sheaves. Little lumps of ice stripped from them came raining down about him, whirled aft by the wind.

Peabody looked over the starboard quarter. Somewhere in that murk and darkness was the Long Island shore, and Willet's Point, too near to be pleasant, he knew, although invisible. On the larboard bow, equally invisible, lay Throg's Neck. It was only the protection of the guns of Fort Totten and Fort Schuyler on these two points which had enabled him to bring his ship thus far in peace. Beyond them the British Navy cruised unchallenged over the length and breadth of Long Island Sound, yet the watch over the Narrows was stricter still, so strict that in his considered judgment it had been better to make the attempt to reach the open sea by this back door to New York. Were it not for the land batteries the Hudson and Hell Gate would be at the mercy of the British squadrons, just as Long Island Sound was. Hardy — the captain who had kissed the dying Nelson in the cockpit of the Victory at Trafalgar — lorded it off New London in the Ramillies, burning fishing boats and capturing coasters, and keeping Decatur and Jones blockaded in the port. Peabody thought of the starving seamen and dockyard hands who begged their bread on the waterfronts of New York and Baltimore, of the ruined businesses and the disrupted national economy. Hardy and his brother captains were strangling the Union slowly but certainly. Whether the Delaware would help to break their stranglehold in the slightest was more than he could say. He could only carry out his orders, interpreting them as best he could towards that end. If necessary, he could die.

The gale bore back the boatswain's hail from forward.

"Straight up and down, sir!"

"Heave away!" shouted Peabody. "Sheet home, Mr. Hubbard."

There were two quartermasters at the wheel beside him; the spokes turned in their hands as the Delaware gathered sternway. The canvas slatted wildly as the yards were braced round.

"Hard a-starboard," said Peabody.

The Delaware hesitated and trembled. Her sails filled with a loud report, and Peabody felt the movement of the deck under his feet as the Delaware lost her sternway and began to move forward. She was heeling now as the treble-reefed topsails caught the wind. So thickly was the snow driving that it was impossible to see what was happening. Peabody had to rely on his other senses, on the feel of the ship, on his long-trained instincts, to draw his conclusions about what she was doing.

"Keep her to the wind," he said to the quartermasters. They, too, would have only their long experience to help them in their task. Only by the feel of the wind in their faces, and by the sound of the sails if they steered too close to the wind, could they tell whether they were obeying their orders or not.

Under the pressure of the wind upon her scanty canvas the Delaware was moving forward precipitately through the water. The surface was rough enough to give her a distinct motion, and the sound of her bows crashing through the waves was audible through the noise of the wind. She was lying far over with the pressure of the wind, despite the fact that her topgallant masts had been sent down; she was behaving like a blood horse in the hands of incompetent stable boys. No one save a madman or a blockaded captain would dream of taking a ship to sea in conditions like this, with a treacherous shore under her lee and snow so thick that it was hard to see a dozen fathoms away. But it was only in conditions like this that the Delaware stood any chance of evading the attention of Hardy and his watchdogs. She might as well, reflected Peabody bitterly, be piled up on the Long Island shore as lying rotting at Brooklyn.

He bent over the lighted binnacle, and studied the compass, and then turned his face back towards the snow while he made his calculations. His mind worked slowly but with infinite tenacity, and he had no need of paper and pencil as he moved mentally from point to point of the course he had in mind. They would weather Elm Point comfortably, he decided.

"Heave the log every glass, Mr. Hubbard," he ordered.

"Aye aye, sir," said Hubbard. Hubbard's breast and the front of his thighs were white with snow as he turned to acknowledge the order; glancing down, Peabody saw that his own clothes were similarly coated. A master's mate and a hand came aft, trudging through the snow on deck, their foothold precarious on that giddy slope. The hand would wet himself thoroughly with the dripping long line as he hauled it in again, and the water would freeze in that biting wind. It would be an uncomfortable night for him, thought Peabody, but discomfort was part of a sailor's life when necessary. The safety of the ship depended on the accurate estimate of her speed and distance traveled. He turned to the quartermasters.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"A little, sir," said one of them.

From those tough seamen the two words were the equivalent of a long wail of misery from a landsman. Peabody knew they would be numb and stupid before long.

"Mr. Hubbard!" he said. "Relieve these men at the wheel every half hour."

"Aye aye, sir," said Hubbard.

Hubbard was marking on the traverse board the speed and course.

"What's the speed ?"

"Five knots and a bit more, sir." Even when Hubbard was shouting into a gale his voice bore the faint echo of the South Carolina which had given him birth.

The Delaware was showing her good points, doing five knots close-hauled under staysails and close-reefed topsails alone — the Baltimore shipwrights who built her away back in 1800 had left their impress on the shape of her hull, despite the specifications of the Navy Department. Five knots, and it would be more when they had weathered Elm Point and brought the wind abeam. High water at Montauk Point was at two a.m. Peabody stood with the wind whistling round him and the snow banking against his chest while he continued his calculations. In a blizzard like this he could be fairly certain that the British squadron would be blown out to sea; if not, it was so dark that he could hope to get through unobserved. In these conditions his ship was in a hundred times greater danger from the navigational difficulties than from the enemy, and it was only then, as he bitterly realized, that he stood any chance of getting to sea at all.

The relieved quartermasters were stumbling forward now, bent against the wind. He could tell from their gait how numb and stiff they were — they had been standing with their arms extended, holding the wheel, in an attitude which fairly invited the wind to pierce them to the heart. He would be feeling cold himself if he allowed himself to do so, but he would not. He went on facing stubbornly into the wind. They must. be abreast of Elm Point by now.

"Nor'east by east," he said to the men at the wheel.

"Nor'east by east, sir," they echoed.

"Hands to the braces, Mr. Hubbard."

"Aye aye, sir."

The Delaware steadied herself on her new course, heeling to the wind, rolling rather more now, and pitching far less. Peabody had never known the Sound to be as rough as this — it was the clearest proof of the violence of the blizzard.

"Seven and a half knots, sir," said Hubbard, marking up the new course and speed.

That was what he had expected. Now they would weather Montauk comfortably before dawn. For a few hours he could relax a little — relax as far as an American captain could possibly relax when sailing in the heart of his own country's waters in the midst of enemies.

The wind that was blowing about him from the Connecticut shore must now — he worked out a neat trigonometrical problem in his head — have passed just over the farm where he was born and spent his childhood. The memory made him shiver a little, although the blizzard did not. It was not often that those memories came back to him, except in nightmares. Against his will they forced themselves into his mind as he stood staring into the darkness. It was not the poverty, or the hunger, or the winter cold, which he hated to remember, although they had been poignant enough at the time. The bare bones of that farm had stuck through the skin of the soil, and no one could have hoped to gain more than the barest living from it. There was nothing hateful now about the memory of poverty. But the other memories made him shudder again. That tall, gaunt father of his, with the yellow beard and the blazing blue eyes — he winced a little in the darkness at the vivid mental picture. The bottle beside him and the Bible in front of him, and the furious texts foaming out of his mouth, drunk with rum and the Old Testament — that was one way in which he could remember his father. And then another memory, insidiously creeping into his mind, of his father lurching across the room, still mouthing texts, and unbuckling the heavy belt from his waist; lurching across the room to where a terrified little boy stood cornered, reaching for him with a huge calloused hand, dragging him away from the sheltering walls. How that little boy had screamed under that searing belt! That little boy was now Captain Josiah Peabody, of the frigate Delaware.

Those memories had him on their treadmill now, there was no escape from them. There was his mother, dark and beautiful — he had thought her beautiful — who used to take him into her arms and rock with him and pet him; as a big baby, before he became a little boy, he could remember the bliss of those embraces. Then after that he knew that her step was uncertain, that her laugh was too loud and misplaced. He knew the reason for her red cheeks and staring, foolish gaze. After that he shrank from his mother's drunken caresses just as he shrank from his father's clutches — they sickened him equally as much. He remembered the nausea which overtook him when he smelt her breath as her soft arms closed about him. Then Uncle Josiah, for whom he was named, had come to the farm, very extraordinary in his appearance to the little boy, with his hair tied into a neat queue, and a laced neckcloth and gloves and riding boots. Uncle Josiah had taken him away — Uncle Josiah was an elegant gentleman, strangely enough; his nephew could guess that queer things had happened to Uncle Josiah during the past few years. Uncle Josiah had a lace handkerchief which wafted the perfumes of Paradise about the room when he applied it delicately to his nose; apparently he was a wealthy man, and the source of his wealth, unbelievable as it might be, was somehow connected with a war which had begun the other side of the ocean.

He was engaged in the most multifarious businesses, obviously, seeing that he received as many as six letters a day at one of the taverns when they stopped on their way to New York. He had friends, too. A mere word from him to one of those friends made young Josiah a boy in the Coastguard Service, where the beatings were not nearly as severe and where the nightmares of a loving mother gradually ceased in intensity. There was the fresh, clean wind of the sea to blow about him, and the boys who berthed with him were not weakly malicious, as had been his younger brothers and sisters. And the cities he visited were vast and intoxicating, from Portsmouth down to Charleston; and somehow the lessons which the mastercommandant of the cutter taught him had a peculiar, delicious charm — algebra, when he was introduced to it, gave him pleasure as great as maple syrup or honey had done.

And then, when his voice had broken and his beard had begun to grow, there had come a call for officers in the new Federal Navy. Uncle Josiah said another word for him to another friend, a word which made his nephew a lieutenant at the age of sixteen. It was the last service Uncle Josiah was to do for him, for Uncle Josiah, two months later, paid the penalty of having become a gentleman, and died in Baltimore twelve paces from the pistol of another gentleman who had been his friend until the sudden disclosure of a queer scandal regarding the outfitting of privateers for the war against France. Josiah knew nothing of his death for some months, for he was at sea in the Constellation with Truxtun. Josiah could remember with peculiar vividness those early battles, with the Insurgente and the Vengeance. He could remember as well the color and the heat and the rain of the West India islands, where Truxtun had displayed the Stars and Stripes — the memories were a little overlaid by others, of Tripoli and Algiers and Malta, but they were still keen enough. He found himself wondering whether he would see those islands again, and then checked himself with a hard smile, for he was under orders to proceed there at present. The immediate problem of weathering Montauk Point and breaking the British blockade had for the moment driven the equally difficult problems of the future clean out of his head. But it was as well that he could smile — most of the times when his weakness had lured him into going back over old memories he could not smile at all.

He shook himself, now that the spell was broken, back into his proper state of mind. He lifted the traverse board into the dim light of the binnacle — he realized that he must have been standing on deck motionless during two or three hours. The Delaware had held her course steadily during those hours, and must be well out into the Sound now. New Haven must be on their larboard beam. He could feel his way about Long Island Sound as surely as he could about his own cabin, thanks to his years in the Coastguard Service and to further years commanding one of the gunboats on which Mr. Jefferson had lavished so much of the national income in an attempt to buy security cheap.

The sea had been a second mother to him, and a kinder one than the traditional stepmother had ever been, he reflected, in an unusually analytical mood. The Navy had been his father. Then to continue the analogy the Delaware must be his wife, to whom he devoted all his kindly care, and all his waking thoughts. He was more fortunate in his family than most men were. He struggled again against this dangerous bit of brooding. He knew that with advancing age came a tendency to dwell upon the past. Perhaps now that he was thirty-two — close on thirty-three — he was beginning to show signs of it. Realistically he remembered how, as a lieutenant of sixteen, he had looked upon men of twice his age as old; and captains especially so. Truxtun, in the Constellation, had seemed almost senile, but then Truxtun must have been in his fifties or so. On the other hand, Decatur was the same age as himself, practically, and Decatur still seemed young to him. Perhaps, after all, he was not so very old at thirtytwo. It was a satisfactory conclusion to reach, especially while he was the most junior captain in the list, and while his country's freedom had still to be defended — and while this very night he had to break a blockade enforced by a squadron of ships of the line.

Enough of this nonsense. He turned to face the snow-covered deck, and was surprised to find that he could hardly move; the bitter cold of the blizzard had stiffened him to such an extent that, now that his attention was called to it, he walked with difficulty. As the Delaware heeled before the shrieking wind his feet slipped in the treacherous snow, and he slid away to leeward and cannoned into the bulwarks, his feet struggling to find a foothold in the scuppers. That was the penalty for dreaming, he told himself grimly, as he rubbed his bruises. Uncontrollable shudders shook his body, and his teeth were chattering. It was ridiculous that he should have allowed himself to grow so cold. He struggled up the deck again to the weather side and under the slight shelter of the bulwark, where he flogged himself with his arms, beating off the thick layer of snow which had accumulated on the breast of his pea-jacket. He trudged forward along the spar deck to get his circulation going again; the foremast shrouds on the weather side here were coated completely with ice — the frozen spray taken in over the weather bow — so that shrouds and ratlines were like the frames of windows of ice, hard to see in this shrieking darkness, but plain enough to the touch. A fresh shower of spray blew into his face as he felt about him; there must be a good deal of ice accumulating on the running rigging. Certainly, the anchor at the cathead was welded to the ship's side by a solid block of ice. He made his way aft again.

"Mr. Murray!"

"Sir!" said the officer of the watch.

"Set the watch to work clearing away the ice. I want twenty hands clearing the running rigging."

"Aye aye, sir."

Even with the gale blowing he could hear a few yelps of dismay among the crew as Murray gave his orders. To lay aloft in the blizzard was to face a torture as exquisite as anything the Indians had ever devised, and there would be frostbite among the crew after this, even if no one broke his neck struggling along the frozen foot ropes with a precarious hold on the icecoated yards. Yet it had to be done. The whole safety of the ship depended upon his ability to handle her promptly and to let go the anchor, if necessary. His calculations of her course and run might be faulty. He might find Orient Point close under his lee, when he really intended to give it a wide berth, and the knowledge that he might not be completely infallible gnawed at his conscience. Because of that, he stayed out on the exposed deck, where the blizzard could work its will on him. If the men had to suffer because he could not be sure of his position to within a quarter of a mile he was going to suffer with them; Peabody was not aware of how deeply ingrained into him was the Old Testament teaching of the father whom he had grown to despise.

Something white over the starboard quarter caught his eye — a fleck too big to be a mere breaking wave. He rushed across the deck to look more closely. There it was again — something white in the hurtling gray of the snow. He sprang up into the mizzen rigging, with the wind shrieking round his ears, and the sea hissing beneath his feet. That white fleck was the spray about the bows of a ship. As he leaped back again to the deck he found Murray there — Murray had seen it, too. Murray stabbed at the darkness with a gloved hand, and shouted in his ear, even grabbing his shoulder in the excitement of the moment, for Murray was of an excitable temperament. It was a ship, close hauled under storm canvas on the opposite tack to the Delaware. She was close abreast of them. She would cross their stern within a yard of them, Peabody decided; near enough. The bowsprit and martingale which circled in the air under their noses were coated with ice, he noted. Through the snow he could see the curve of her bow with two broad stripes of paint and a double line of checkers — a two decker, then, Hardy's Ramillies or Cochrane's Superb.

"A Britisher!" shrieked Murray, quite unnecessarily. There were no United States ships of the line. Murray turned away towards the helmsman, and then back to his captain for orders, quite unduly excited. There was nothing to be done. The ships were passing rapidly, and Peabody could be certain that the British guns, like his own, were secured by double breechings. By the time a gun could be loaded and run out the ships would be invisible to each other again; but Murray did not possess the imperturbability of his captain nor his fatalist ability to accept the inevitable.

Already the two decker was passing rapidly — a well-thrown stone would have landed on her deck. The glimmering snow with which she was coated showed up faintly in the darkness; against the whitened decks Peabody thought he could see the dark forms of her officers and crew. The poor devils were having as miserable a time of it as were his own men; worse, probably. Beating about Long Island Sound in a New England blizzard was no child's play, especially in a clumsy, pig-headed ship of the line — Peabody remembered how bluff and inelegant had been the bows she had presented to him when he first caught sight of her.

Now she was gone, engulfed in the darkness She might put about in pursuit, but it did not matter. At a hundred yards the ships were as invisible to each other as at a hundred miles, and by the time the two decker could go about and settle on her new course she would be a couple of miles at least astern. It was even likely that she had not recognized the Delaware as American — there were few enough American frigates, and those all strictly blockaded. It was one of the ironies of history that the last vessel one would expect to see in Long Island Sound was an American frigate.

But on the other hand, the fact that he had been seen at all decided him to take one more risk on his passage to the open sea. It would be high water in Plum Gut in two hours from now, four and a half fathoms at least, and with this wind blowing probably rather more. He would head the Delaware through there, and chance all the dangers of Orient Point. Peabody did not think that any British battleship would have the nerve to follow him through.

Peabody studied the compass in the binnacle, and occupied his mind with the fresh problem in mental trigonometry as he worked out the conditions arising from the changed situation.

"Bring her two points farther off the wind," he said.

"Two points farther off the wind, sir."

Peabody looked aft into the darkness. The night had most certainly swallowed up the British two decker. He wondered whether there were any parallel mental processes going on in the British captain's mind. Whether there were or were not he could not tell, and certainly he was not going to stop to see. Daylight might perhaps show, and he was quite capable of waiting till daylight.

 

Captain from Connecticut by C.S. Forester
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