This Thing Of Darkness
Copyright © 2005 Harry Thompson
The right of Harry Thompson to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2010
eISBN : 978 0 7553 7605 6
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Table of Contents
Harry Thompson made his name as a television producer. He also wrote a number of highly acclaimed non-fiction books.
This Thing of Darkness
is his first and only novel. After a brave fight against illness, Harry Thompson died in November 2005.
is completely brilliant. It’s not just quite good - it’s stunning. It utilises all Harry’s gifts for travel writing and observation. As a single legacy, it would be pretty impressive, but look what else he accomplished as well. You look at his age and you see 45 and you can’t believe how much he acheived’ Ian Hislop
‘Thompson proves a master storyteller, whose vigorous command of character, period detail, weather conditions and fleeting emotions lifts the reader straight from his chair into the middle of a sudden storm, an intense argument, a mood of exhilaration or despair, a squalid street in New Zealand or a desolate landscape in Tierra del Fuego. What sensible reader wants a novel as engrossing as this one to stop?’ John Spurling,
The Sunday Times
‘Beautifully managed, pacy, gripping and vivid’
Independent on Sunday
‘This is a fascinating read’
‘As a devotee of that master of the sea story Patrick O’Brian, I can say this is definitely in the same league’ David Shukman,
‘Harry Thompson catches the atmosphere, and the language, of Victorian Britain with much skill, and paints a vivid picture of the grim existence aboard’
‘The meticulous research enriches this fascinating tale’
‘The spirit of Patrick O’Brian is not far away ... a superior adventure story’
TO MY FATHER
without whose help this
book could never have been written
‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’
Act V, Scene 1
This novel is closely based upon real events that took place between 1828 and 1865.
Port Famine, Patagonia, 1 August 1828
An icy wind shouldered its way into the Straits of Magellan from the west, pummelling the cliff walls and scouring the rocks as it passed. Its thirteen-thousand-mile journey across open ocean completed, it sought out the ancient glaciers of its birth in anger. As a grimy late-morning light ahead signalled the dawning of the brief southern day, it funnelled at speed through the narrows at York Road, before sweeping left into the bay of Port Famine. Darting and jinking as it hunted for a target, it picked out the solitary figure of Captain Pringle Stokes where he knelt. It buffeted him and tore at his clothes. It tugged at his thinning forelock in mock deference. It cut through the sodden wool of his coat, turning his skin to gooseflesh and congealing the blood in his veins.
I am so emaciated,
he thought bitterly,
I can feel my shoulder-blades almost touching each other.
He shifted his weight as another furious gust did its best to hurl him to the ground. His knees jostled together in the cold gravel. His ceremonial scabbard, the badge of his rank, scratched uselessly at the smooth stones. He plastered the damp strands of hair back into place - a tiny, futile act of vanity - but the wind merely caught them again and flung them aside dismissively. This place, he thought.
This place constitutes the sum total of my achievement. This place is all that I amount to. This place is all that I am.
Further down the beach, Bennet and his ratings, all drenched from the waist down, were still struggling to pull the cutter ashore; ants, going about their irrelevant business in the service of an unheeding monarch half a world away. A curse on His Majesty, thought Stokes, and a curse on His Majesty’s government, in whose service they found themselves marooned in this wretched place. As he inspected them, the bent, sullen figures seemed to be winning their little war. They were probably wondering where he’d gone. Curiosity, he had learned, is one of the few feelings that boredom cannot kill. As soon as Bennet had the boat secured, they would follow him up the shingle. He did not have much time.
He had conceived his plan weeks ago, but today he would put it into practice. Why today? Nothing marked out this shoreline as different from any other. It was as wretched as the rest. Which was precisely why today was so apt. He had realized it, suddenly, when he had stepped out of the boat.
Today was the day.
Stokes lifted his head heavenwards, as if seeking reassurance. As always, an obdurate black wall of rock met his gaze, shrouded in lifeless grey. Somewhere above him, hidden from view, was the snow-capped spur of Point St Ann, christened by one of his predecessors - Carteret, or Byron perhaps - in an attempt to imbue this place with spiritual familiarity, a sense of the proximity of God. Yet if ever God had abandoned a place, this was it. The ragged beech forest above the shoreline lay silent. There were no animals to start before a sudden footstep, no birds to soar and swoop, no insects even. Here was a scene of profound desolation. He and the men under his command were alone.
The only man with whom naval etiquette would allow him to converse, that damned fool Captain King, was a couple of miles away at least, another stupid speck in the wilderness. King had spent the winter beating up and down the east coast in the
At least the sun sometimes shone upon the east coast. This was truly a place where ‘the soul of a man dies in him’. For if the sharp point of St Ann herself was unable to tear a hole in the suffocating blanket of cloud, then what chance did human beings have of living and breathing in such confines? A curse on King, and a curse on that fat buffoon Otway as well.
The time had come. His frail, icy fingers, lean from long months of low rations, reached down and grasped one of two pistols that hung from his belt. They were pre-loaded on board, of course, prior to any shore excursion, as per Admiralty orders. He couldn’t even shit without following Admiralty orders. Would the lords care, he wondered, would they be secretly impressed by his gesture, or would they take offence? Or had he already been forgotten, he and his men, their futile labours destined to be mislaid for ever in the ledger of some consumptive little Admiralty clerk?
The pistol weighed heavy in his hand, and for the first time that day he felt nervous. For one tremulous instant he sought a friendly reflection in the gunmetal, but its dull gleam refused him even that consolation. Instead it offered only a reflection in time, of a sunlit September afternoon eight thousand miles ago, of himself in the doorway of Forsyth’s gunshop at number eight Leicester Street. A day when the piece in his hand had shone handsomely, speaking to him of foreign travel, of exciting times ahead, before his life’s path had narrowed and hemmed him in. The assistant had stepped out into the street to demonstrate the revolutionary copper-cap percussion system. Mock-aiming the weapon with (he had to admit) a dash of theatricality, the smartly attired young captain had attracted admiring glances from passers-by, or at least he had imagined so. What price those attentions now? It was half as reliable again as a flintlock, the assistant had said. Well, he would be needing that reliability today.
With a deep intake of breath, Stokes rested the barrel carefully against his front teeth, and curled a tapering finger round the trigger. His lips, suddenly dry, closed painfully around the freezing metal. A warm gush of fear welled in his bowels. Another gust plucked mockingly at his hair, daring him to go ahead. He had to do it, really, if he was any sort of man. To pull back now would be the ultimate, the crowning failure. So do it then.
Do it now.
His hand shook. Three. Two. One. Now.
Whether it was a last-second change of mind that caused his hand to jerk sideways, or a surge of fear, Stokes never knew. At the exact moment that the powder flashed and the iron ball smashed upward through the roof of his mouth, his hand dragged the barrel round to one side.
And suddenly, the wind was stilled. The crash of water on stone ceased. The clouds receded, and all the brutal discord of the Patagonian winter was gone, replaced by the purest, blinding agony. And then a tiny thought within made itself known: that if he could go through pain of such dazzling clarity and be conscious of it, he must still be alive.
Rio de Janeiro, 13 November 1828
‘It took Stokes twelve days to die.’
Captain King’s voice carried the faintest hint of accusation. He sat forward, his eyes fixed upon the admiral.