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Authors: Richard Woodman

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Then he went straight to his cabin and flung himself on his cot.

Drinkwater woke at dawn. He was cold and cramped, gritty with dried sweat and foul exertion. The stink of the hold and the discharge of black powder clung to him. He rubbed his eyes and the colours leapt before him and dissolved into the deep red of blood. Drawing his cloak about him he went stiffly on deck.

He had given no thought to the fate of the ship in the aftermath of Huke's terrible, unnecessary death. It seemed almost miraculous that this neglect had been ameliorated by the regular rhythmn of the ship's inexorable routine. The realization steadied him and, as he acknowledged Jameson's salute, he saw it was raining.

‘Ah'm verra sorry about Tom Huke, sir.'

‘Yes. He should never . . .' He caught himself in time. He could not possibly blame Huke for his own death. ‘He should never have been so zealous,' he managed.

‘He was a guid first luff, sir.'

Jameson's almost pleading tone, as though explaining Tom's character for this Johnny-come-lately of a captain, was the last act of the night. It reminded Drinkwater that the junior lieutenant sought his, Drinkwater's good opinion. ‘I know, Mr Jameson, I had already learned that.'

‘He has dependants . . .'

‘I know that, too.' Drinkwater shouldered the burden of command again and could almost feel the mood of the third lieutenant lighten.

‘Will you gi'e Mr Beavis a temporary commission, sir?'

And with that remark the sun rose yellow behind a distant mountain, shining pallidly through the cloud and throwing a rainbow against the purple islands to the westward. The ship's routine had sustained them through the hours of darkness, and now the rigours of the naval service demanded their attention again.

‘I expect so, Mr Jameson.'

Jameson seemed satisfied. The preoccupations of uncertainty were at an end. He and, Drinkwater supposed, Mr Mosse, could rest easy. He realized suddenly that he might have brought Quilhampton across from the cutter and that the fact had not escaped the two lieutenants.

‘Do you think Mr Mosse is likely to be as good a first luff as Tom Huke?'

‘Well, sir,' Jameson began, but then the impropriety of the thing occurred to him, as did Captain Drinkwater's arch condescension. Jameson felt put in his place and Drinkwater strode off in search of Frampton and hot water, savagely indulging in his rank.

The ship's routine, which had seen
safely through the night, had not proceeded smoothly. News of the irregular events in the hold had spread like wildfire and the berth deck had buzzed with claim and counter-claim, rumour and inaccuracy. What emerged as fact was that a group consisting of the pressed American merchant seamen had, by an act of what was popularly regarded as ‘treachery', attempted to cripple the British ship and render her helpless under the guns of an enemy. Whatever the private and internecine tribulations
which beset the company of the British frigate, it was widely understood that when in the face of the enemy they sank or swam together. Claims of American ‘patriotism' were thus easily dismissed, as was any idea that Sommer had acted treacherously. They were united by the white ensign which fluttered above the quarterdeck.

During the minutes that elapsed while Drinkwater and the marines ferreted in the hold, an aimless disorder had reigned above them. In this anarchic state, with all the ship's noncommissioned marine officers in the hold, men milled about, increasingly curious, spilling from hammocks and wandering into places they would not normally visit. Even the officers were affected, waiting round the orlop hatchway, or on the quarterdeck, gossipping intently until Birkbeck began to see the dangers inherent in this general laxity.

Mr Templeton was not exempt from the effects of this electricity. He was already in a state of high excitement at the revelations of the interrogation and now, in the gloom of the orlop, he came across Greer. Somehow, unaccountably, their hands met and, encouraged by the general dissolution of order, the intensity of a mutual passion overwhelmed them. Unseen, they retreated into the fastnesses of the ship far from the after hold where they stayed throughout the remainder of the night.

An hour after dawn
was hove to and Huke and Malaburn were buried. Then the yards were squared away, the sails filled, and the frigate stood inshore again. When under way, Drinkwater sent for one of the American prisoners. Danks brought the man before him.

‘Who was Malaburn?' Drinkwater asked.

The American prisoner shrugged. ‘I don't know. A patriot.'

‘Had you seen him before you came aboard?' The American remained silent.

‘Please believe me,' Drinkwater said quietly, ‘I can soon make you talk. Do you know how Malaburn killed the first lieutenant? No? Then I will tell you. He waited beneath the carpenter's walk for Mr Huke to pass overhead, and then he thrust a boarding pike upwards through the grating!'

Drinkwater's words rose in tone. The man winced involuntarily
and Drinkwater's voice sank to its former modulation. ‘Come now; had you seen Malaburn before you came aboard?'

‘I hadn't . . .'

‘But others had, is that right? Shall I get one of the others?' The prisoner shrugged.

‘I can hang you, you know,' Drinkwater said quietly. ‘Have you seen a man hanged? The victim dances and then, when he cannot draw breath, he evacuates himself. It is not a pretty sight, but I shall do it if you do not talk.' Beads of sweat stood out upon the prisoner's pallid brow.

‘Did Malaburn have anything to do with your escape from Dartmoor?'

The prisoner swallowed and nodded. He had to cough to find his voice; then he admitted, ‘I'm told he did, but, honestly Cap'n, I don't know how. I didn't see him when we got away.'

‘Got away? You mean from Dartmoor?' The American nodded. ‘How did you get away?'

‘We were a stone-breaking gang, on our way back from the quarry. The guards were bribed, I guess; we were told to stop and then our leg-irons were struck off by the guards. We left them – the guards – trussed beside the road. I didn't think of anything much at the time, except being free of going back to that gaol. I didn't see anyone at the time except the guards. I guess the whole thing was arranged. Others in the gang said they'd been told something might happen, but I hadn't. Happen I was just in the right place at the right time. It was only when we came aboard that Malaburn was pointed out to me and I was told to do what he said. When I asked why, I was told it was he who freed us from the chain-gang and that I was to obey his orders and he would see us safe back to Boston.'

‘Who told you all this?'

‘Hopkins, a Boston man like myself. We were taken out of a merchant schooner by one of your damned British cruisers more than a year ago. He seemed to know we were going to be released that day and what to do. The guards were quite friendly towards him and it was Hopkins who made us lash them together.'

‘Hopkins is one of the others in the bilboes, sir,' put in Beavis who, with Sergeant Danks and a marine, was part of this
impromptu, drum-head court martial. ‘D'you want to see him?'

Drinkwater shook his head and continued his interrogation. ‘You didn't see Malaburn until you came aboard this ship?'


‘And how did you get to Leith?'

‘We didn't know we was going to Leith, and I daresay had we known how far it was we'd have refused. Hopkins said Bristol was closer, but orders were to lie low . . .'

‘But how did you get across country?'

‘We moved at night, slept rough, under the stars – that's kinda natural for us, Cap'n, if we're used to trapping . . .'

‘Go on.'

‘After about a week, Hopkins orders us to lie low for a day, then he comes back one afternoon with a carter, orders us into the back and tells us all is well. I don't recall where we stopped, though we stopped many times, but it was always at night in a town, and we were taken care of in a barn, or a byre, or once in a house.' The prisoner paused and seemed to be making up his mind before saying, ‘We were kindly treated, Cap'n, people were mighty well disposed to us.'

‘And when you arrived in Leith, you were shipped directly aboard a merchantman?'

‘The brig
Ada Louise
of Hull, aye.' The American paused, then added, ‘We seemed to be expected, though we had no issue of clothes.'

Drinkwater knew enough now from this and the earlier interrogation. ‘Take this fellow forward again, Danks, and make sure he is secure.'

‘Aye, aye, sir.'

‘Mr Beavis, signal
for Mr Quilhampton to come aboard.'

‘Ah, James, come in, a glass?'

Drinkwater was light-headed with a perverse and inexplicable exhilaration. Lack of sleep and the death of Thomas Huke had strung his nerves to a high and restless pitch, for he had woken with the thoughts tumbling over and over in his mind, and the short encounter with Jameson had been merely a symptom of his mental turbulence. From the interrogation of
the American he had added substantially to his mental jigsaw puzzle.

He poured two glasses and felt the wine hit his empty stomach. It was, he knew, unwise to take drink in such circumstances, but such was the state of his excitement and so intense was his desire to seize those small opportunities he saw before him that he shunned the path of reason. Something of Drinkwater's state of mind communicated itself to Quilhampton.

The younger man had seen these moods of deliberate endeavour before and wondered then, as he wondered now, why he did not consider them reckless. He was certain that, in any other officer, he would have considered them so and was tempted, for an instant, to marvel at his own faith in Captain Drinkwater, but then fell victim to his professional obligation to listen and understand what was being said.

At their meeting in Leith Road, Drinkwater had told James Quilhampton the background of their mission. Now he expatiated, rationalizing the cascade of ideas that had occurred to him in the turmoil of the night.

‘Something about the man Malaburn, the way he spoke to me, the coolness of his actions, bespoke
, James. Don't ask me how I know, one simply forms convictions about such things. He
left Leith for Norwegian waters; he sprang a group of Yankee prisoners from Dartmoor and trepanned them to Leith to help him in the business of stopping us from thwarting the American rendezvous here in the Vikkenfiord. Suborning a carter who must have been a republican accomplice, and a host of republicans
en route
, to deliver and succour them is the work of no ordinary man. Then he bribes a boarding-house crimp and spirits them aboard a ship he knows to be short of men, or pretends to be, thereby arranging for their concealment at Leith. The master or mate of the
Ada Louise
must have been in his pocket and 'tis fairly certain they were in the plot, for they issued no slops to the new hands and merely put up with their presence until the press arrived.'

‘So they appeared to be brought aboard
in the usual manner?'

‘Yes, I imagine so. Tom Huke suggested the matter had been easy.'

‘Too damned easy,' Quilhampton said slowly. He paused, then went on, ‘And this Malaburn knew about that Neapolitan business?'

I'm damned certain he did. He knew Leith was the point of departure . . . Damn it, he
have known from the start, mark you!'

‘The devil!'

‘He planned to cause us to anchor and deliver us to the guns of the two American ships. Whether they are national men-o'-war or privateers matters little. Combined, they mount enough weight of metal to outgun us. Make no mistake about it, Mr Malaburn knew all about them, and us. He must have been overjoyed to see that Dane appear just as I thought we had beaten a timely retreat.'

‘You knew nothing of the fort, then?'

Drinkwater shook his head. ‘No. Nothing.'

‘Your escaping serious damage and towing through the passage must have been what persuaded him to hide, then.'

‘Yes. He had only the one chance with the men he had sprung from gaol. He could not confer much with them on board for fear of arousing suspicions and, when he appeared to have lost his opportunity, he sought to cause us maximum embarrassment. Between you and me, James, when we got clear of that confounded Dane, I was exhausted. I wanted Malaburn left until morning, but Huke . . . well, no good will come of raking the matter over again.'

‘You risked him doing something desperate like setting fire to the ship,' Quilhampton said in defence of the dead Huke. ‘I would probably have done what Huke did.'

Drinkwater looked at his friend, but said nothing. ‘Huke has dependants,' he heard Jameson saying, as a wave of weariness again swept over him.

‘But why take Huke? Why not just hide and lie low?' Quilhampton asked. ‘He could, in all probability, have evaded capture and slipped overboard at any later opportunity.'

Drinkwater sighed. ‘He was desperate. He did not know what other opportunities might offer. I will pay him the compliment of saying he was a determined man. Huke's
appearance was fortuitous; a bad blow for Malaburn. I don't suppose he meant to kill Huke, merely to wound him in the leg, to take him hostage. He could then negotiate with me . . .' Drinkwater frowned, still puzzling over those few brief words he had exchanged with Malaburn.

‘The one thing that makes no sense, James, or at least I can make no sense of it, is the fact that
he knew me
, knew my character well enough to know that if he extracted some form of parole, he thought I would honour it. That is uncanny.'

‘Perhaps you imagined it, sir.' Quilhampton's face was full of solicitude. ‘I don't imagine holding a hostage binds one to a parole.'

BOOK: Beneath the Aurora
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