The lessons for a young sailor, especially a reluctant one, are not always about wind and waves. Sometimes, they are the lessons of men.
Phineas looked down at the deck in embarrassment. He had said something stupid, obviously. He rolled his eyes. Maybe this was one of those bad luck things.
“There aren’t no free board, ye box head,” Baker whispered. “Freeboard is the side of the ship – when the wind pushes on it, it acts like a sail its own self” He snorted to himself. “Free board. Which one be the free board?”
“Helm a lee,” Lourdburton barked suddenly. The ship wallowed drunkenly in the waves. “Let go the grappling hook!”
A sailor up in the front of the ship threw a big hook into the boat. He pulled on the rope tied to the hook and dragged the boat the last few feet, right up to the side of the ship.
“What do you ye think, Lourdburton?” Uncle Neville called from the waist.
“I’m not to be saying, sir,” Lourdburton replied cautiously. “Dago, I’m thinking. There is clearly a girl in that boat.”
Phineas stared at her. The girl had the dark skin of an African. Her long black hair, which she tossed furiously, made a striking contrast to her flowing pink and white dress. Even though she was a castaway, she seemed so elegant.
“Get away from ‘ere you filthy English dogs!” she snarled in a thick French accent.
“I don’t believe I hear any holystoning,” Lourdburton said tersely.
Phineas scrambled back to his brick and ground furiously on the deck. If he could finish it, maybe they would let him watch.
Baker chuckled out loud from his side of the deck. Phineas scrubbed as quickly as he could, almost catching up with him.
“Hey,” Baker pointed at him. “Do it right, mate. Ye missed a big patch over there!”
Phineas scrambled back to the rearmost corner of the deck and scrubbed the area Baker pointed out to him.
“Stupid sailors,” he muttered.
“Well?” Lourdburton yelled. “Who is she?”
Uncle Neville cleared his throat. Phineas glanced up to see him at the top of the companion ladder, with the girl standing just behind him, one rung down.
“May I present Louise Elisabeth de Bourbon,” Uncle Neville said grandly. “She claims to be a member of French royalty, and a possible granddaughter of the king of France.”
“Royalty!” Phineas gasped.
“What of that boat?” Lourdburton croaked.
“You were right,” Uncle Neville replied easily. “She is Spanish. It seems mademoiselle de Bourbon was being escorted to France by…”
“I was taken prisoner,” the girl interrupted harshly. “We were ‘eaded for Spain, until you English pie rats attack the ship!”
Phineas watched her struggle for words. She looked to be 14 or so years old. She certainly carried herself like royalty, the way she clutched her petticoats around her with one hand while she waved the other furiously in describing her circumstances.
“Pirates,” Phineas gasped.
“Not pirates, but a warship that flies the English flag,” she said angrily.
“Revenge, I’d wager,” Lourdburton replied quickly, “ sloop of war under James Mackay. He’s a good officer.”
“Not so good as the Spanish capitan,” the girl interrupted again. “We fight with the English ship until the sun goes down, but your ship does not win.”
“How did you get away, then?” Lourdburton asked harshly.
“They tow their boat behind,” she answered defiantly. “It is not ‘ard to climb down the rope and into the boat, non? I am cut the rope and the stupid Spanish sail away.”
“They didn’t come back for you?” Uncle Neville asked kindly.
“It was dark,” she replied simply. “I do not think that they know I am not on the ship.”
“Take her below,” Lourdburton said sternly. “Get her off my main deck.”
Uncle Neville stared at the sailing master in surprise. Only then did Phineas notice that Lourdburton had changed. His face glowed beet red, and his remaining hand was curled into a tight fist. His eyes were half-closed, and his brow furrowed deeply in anger.
“And sink that Spanish trash alongside.”
“Well,” Uncle Neville replied timidly, “I would like to examine her…”
“SINK IT!” Lourdburton yelled furiously. “I don’t want any part of that poxy, rat-infested rotwood to touch any part of my ship, do ye hear! Sink it now. Wentworth! Take an ax to it!”
The ship was silent. Uncle Neville and the girl stared at Lourdburton as if he’d fallen from the moon. The sailing master looked as if he were going to burst.
“Sink that miserable boxwood!” he roared.
“Ay, sir,” the sailor name Wentworth said. He jumped into the boat and hacked at the bottom boards with an ax until water gushed in around his feet.
“Clear that grappling hook,” the sailing master roared. “All hands, prepare to make sail!”
He rounded suddenly on Phineas.
“Why aren’t you working?”
“I’ve, uh, finished holystoning the deck,” Phineas replied nervously. He was terrified that Lourdburton’s anger would turn on him. “Uh, sir.”
“Then get off my quarterdeck!”
“What’s this?” Uncle Neville said suddenly. His face was red, too. He stamped the deck indignantly. “What’s this? Our cabin boy, holystoning the deck? On whose authority? Should he not be in the galley? Surely we have enough men to properly holystone the deck without using our cabin boy.”
“Phineas!” Mr. Lourdburton roared in a frustrated voice. “Get you forward this instant and report you to Mr. Duffy.”
Phineas crept rather than walked off the quarterdeck, fearful lest Mr. Lourdburton find some new reason to be mad at him.
“Lucky bugger,” Baker muttered as he went by.
“I am sorry about that dented pannikin, there, your majesty,” Duffy mumbled. “It was what come first to ‘and…”
“I die of the thirst,” the girl said. “It was so deucedly ‘ot, non?”
Phineas stepped into the darkened galley out of the brightly lit waist and closed his eyes briefly until his they became accustomed to the gloom. The girl glanced at him as he walked in. She then turned and spat out the water she had sipped.
“The water may not be too good,” Duffy said sheepishly. “Maybe ye’d like a little bit of small beer, hey?”
“That is taste worse than the salt water,” the girl said.
“Phineas,” he said quickly, “find a good tankard and fetch the lady some beer.”
Phineas lifted the wooden latch from the big cupboard built into the wall and hefted out a pewter tankard. He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and carefully wiped the tankard before lifting the tap on the beer barrel to fill it. The beer poured out thick and brown, with just a slight hint of green.
”Don’t take all day with it, boy,” Duffy grumbled. “‘Er ladyship is thirsty.”
“Is ‘e an officer?” she asked finally.
“Who, Phineas?” Duffy replied with a laugh. “Goodness no, your majesty. ‘E’s just our cabin boy.”
“Why does ‘e dress so pretentiously?”
Phineas blinked at her in surprise. Pretentiously? He looked down at his fine white lace shirt, neatly tucked into his canvas duck trousers, and his nice buckle shoes. He was dressed as a gentleman, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. He cleared his throat to make a sharp reply, but Duffy cut him off.
“And knows better than to offer cheek to royalty, I can tell you.”
Phineas stared at the girl as she took a small sip of the beer. It made her grimace. She looked at Phineas.
“What do you drink?” she asked.
“Me,” he stammered. “I, uh, well, uh, hold on a moment.”
He snatched the tankard from her hand and ran out into the sunshine of the waist. He flipped the beer over the side and ran to the big barrel behind the companion ladder. The heavy lid was cool, slimy, and heavy, but he dipped the tankard in and pulled it out full.
“Here, now,” Gruyere called from the ‘tween decks. “What’s this? That’s a lot of water, in’it?”
“It’s for the princess,” Phineas gasped without bothering to look at him and ran back across the waist and into the galley.
“What’s that, then?” Duffy asked skeptically.
The princess took the tankard gingerly, her eyes on Phineas’.
“This is what you drink?”
“Yes… I mean, yes, ma’am.”
“You may call me Louise,” she said with a gentle smile.
“What is that, then,” Duffy repeated. “From the scuttlebutt?”
“It’s good,” Phineas answered defensively. “Everybody drinks it.”
“Of course they do, ye blockhead. That’s rainwater collected off the sails. But that don’t mean it’s good…”
“It is absolutely adequate,” Louise said.
Duffy shook his head in disbelief.
“That don’t be right for no lady,” he muttered.
“Were you captured by pirates?” Phineas asked.
“Oh, oui. Spanish pirates.”
“I didn’t know there were any,” Phineas said. “I thought France and Spain were on the same side.”
“Oui, France and Spain are allies against you English. But it does not mean that the French and the Spanish are the same, eh?”
“I don’t quite understand,” Phineas replied.
“Well, this ship, this Spanish ship, she is called the San Cristobal. She was filthy dirty, and her sailors leered at me. I was glad to put myself off of that ship. But she is the ship of Spain, a navy ship, non? We were ‘eaded to Cadiz in Spain. They tell me I am to be the ‘guest’ of the Spanish captain, but I know ‘e ‘as taken me as the ‘ostage, non?”
“A hostage?” Phineas asked. She seemed so young to be involved in so much intrigue. He thought suddenly about the morning sun just rising of the trees, and the heavy pistol in his hands as Alfred Townsend ran away. Oh, he knew intrigue.
“Mais, they are going to Cadiz no more,” Louise chuckled. “A piece of the ship is fall off during the battle. The capitan says they must go to Port Royal to make the repairs. This I ‘ear, and know that my time to get off the ship is at the ‘and, non?”
“Well,” Mr. Duffy said. “Ye can just take as much time as ye’d like to get thyself calmed down, so to speak. Poor thing, all alone out in that boat.”
He blinked in surprise at Phineas.
“I thought you was ‘olystoning the deck.”
“Uh, well, Uncle Neville told Mr. Lourdburton I should be up here with you,” Phineas replied simply. He didn’t want to say that he had been caught goofing off when he should have been working, and that Lourdburton was furious at him. “Why was Mr. Lourdburton so angry at that boat?”
“It weren’t the boat,” Duffy answered with a sad smile. “He ‘as a lot to forgive the Spanish.”
“The hook?” Phineas asked gently. Duffy replied with a small nod, then clapped his hands together and leaned on the bellows, sending a whoosh of hot, smoky air into the galley.
“Let us get back to the salt beef, which is in need of a proper stirring.”
“Yes, sir,” Phineas replied, putting his hands on the ladle still standing in the black pot. A thick, gray/pink slime stood on top of the water.
“What is that?” Louise asked in disgust.
“That, your majesty, is a sea cook’s gold. It’s the fat of the meat, what ‘as risen to the surface of the water because fat floats. We calls it slush.” He reached behind Phineas and pulled out a big ladle. He carefully scooped the foam off of the water and poured it into a wooden bucket. The slimy gray-pink goop bubbled and wiggled in the lantern light. “‘Alf of that will be going to Mr. Sturgis as ‘is due – it makes a fine grease. The remaining ‘alf is ours to sell.”
“Sell? To whom?”
“You’d be surprised ‘ow many of the men buy slush.”
“You English are as disgusting as the Spanish,” Louise muttered.
Gruyere was a short fellow with unruly red hair and a curly red beard. His narrow, pointed face reminded Phineas of Alfred Townsend, so naturally he didn’t like Gruyere. He plopped the ladleful of the slimy brown stew Duffy called “skillygolly” extra hard on Gruyere’s square tray, so that Gruyere grunted a little trying to keep from spilling it. Phineas grinned a tiny bit.
“Thankee, mate” Gruyere said kindly.
Phineas nodded and whispered “you’re welcome” rather than say it out loud. Even though Gruyere wasn’t Alfred Townsend, and even though Alfred Townsend had nothing to do with Phineas’ going to sea in his uncle’s ship, Phineas blamed the fact that he been kidnapped and dragged off against his will squarely on Alfred Townsend because he was the one that caused Phineas to try and shoot him. If Uncle Neville hadn’t caught him with that pistol he would never have dragged Phineas off to sea, and Phineas would be at home right now chatting with Susannah Kilburn, and would be the happiest soul on God’s green Earth. But, here he was, ladling gummy porridge like a slave to a score of bumbling, dimwitted sailors who didn’t have sense enough to even wear shoes. Phineas blamed Gruyere because he looked a little bit like Alfred Townsend.
This was the eighth day in a row that he had been awakened long before the sun came up by his uncle.
“Do ye hear that, Phin?” Uncle Neville had asked in the dim glow of a lantern. “That’d be four bells in the morning watch. That be the start of your shift.”
Phineas did in fact hear the bell – ting-ting, – somewhere far away in the ship. The gentle ting-ting sounded like a little golden bell, such as might be on a fine carriage that rumbled past Phineas’ little cottage in Duxbury.
He leaned against the white picket fence across the front of their yard – little more than a stretch of garden between the house and the road – a big chestnut tree, which stood just inside the fence. Susannah stood next to him, leaning against the fence.
The sun lit up the back of her hair in a beautiful golden halo, making her look even more like an angel than Phineas had ever remembered. He sighed happily. She crinkled her nose in laughter.
“Oh, Phineas,” she giggled, “you say the funniest of things.”
“Yes, well, when I have my land I plan to have at least a thousand horses.” It was important to follow up a joke with a fact, lest people didn’t take you seriously. A thousand horses – that was a fact.
“Oh, how I do hope you will have some of those butterfly horses,” Susannah sighed. “I so love the butterflies.”
Behind her the dusty road filled with thousands of beautiful horses, their brilliantly faceted winds sparkling in the sunshine as they leapt into the air and circled round and round and round. Some had people’s faces – Putnam DeVry in horse form smiled and winked at him.
“My!” Susannah exclaimed. “Do you think I might have a dozen for my coach? Oh, that would be the grandest thing in all the world!”
A wonderful coach, painted a dazzling white, its fenders edged with perfect gold stripes, drifted from the clouds, pulled by a dozen butterfly horses. Their wings flickered between blue and purple and a velvet yellow as they flapped in perfect unison.
Susannah waved in that special way she had of making him feel awkward and excited at the same time. She sat in the golden leather seat in the carriage.
Phineas glanced at the driver who, to his instant disappointment, was Alfred Townsend.
“I’m sorry I didn’t put a ball right between your stupid eyes,” Phineas snarled at him.
Alfred smirked and reached out with his right hand. Phineas thought at first he was pulling out a pistol, but in fact he pulled out a beautiful golden bell. Ting-ting.
“Wake up, Phineas,” Alfred said. But it was Uncle Neville’s voice.
He awoke with such a start that he sat bolt upright in his cot and smacked his forehead on the deck beam above his head. He fell back into the cot with a groan.
“Easy there, bucko,” Uncle Neville cautioned him cheerfully. “You need to be mindful of the headspace here between decks, eh?”
Phineas was in no mood to be cheerful. A dull gray light crept in through the beautiful stern windows, but other than Uncle Neville’s flickering lantern it was the only contestant against the sleepy darkness.
He rolled out of his cot and slipped on his cotton duck trousers. He slipped the nightshirt over his head and put on his fine cambric shirt, with the lace facing down the front, tucking it carefully into the duck trousers. The trousers were so big around the waist that he double folded them behind his belt, making a thick pad against his tummy. He carefully pulled on his stockings, then slipped on his black buckle shoes.
Uncle Neville watched him dress from across the cabin. He shook his head in disbelief at the lace shirt, and positively groaned at the stockings and shoes.
“You know, ” he said hesitantly, “that, uh, well, that is a mighty fine shirt ye have there, lad.”
Phineas nodded as brushed his hair away from his face. It was just getting long enough to be a bother, but not so long as to put into a ponytail like the sailors, nor to pile it up on top as if it were a wig. His hair, in fact, was just another annoyance in this most annoying voyage.
“A lot of the men,” his uncle continued, “that is to say that many of the sailors find it easier to work the ship without shoes on.” He cleared his throat nervously. “Ye see.”
“I notice, Uncle, that you wear shoes,” Phineas replied carefully.
“Well, yes, that is so. I am after all, the captain of this ship. Going barefoot would be, well, unseemly.”
“Precisely so,” Phineas replied quickly. He rolled up his nightshirt and tucked it beneath the blankets of the cot. Uncle Neville stared at him, unsure of what to say.
“Yes, well,” he muttered eventually. “Let us get you up to the galley, so that ye might lend a hand to our Mr. Duffy.”
“Oh yes, let’s,” Phineas quipped snidely.
Uncle Neville ushered Phineas quickly out the door and past the two tiny cabins that housed Mr. Lourdburton and Mr. Sturgis, the ship’s ancient boatswain. Neither cabin showed a light beneath its door, and no snores issued from behind them, for their occupants were already up and hard at work.
Phineas trailed grumpily behind.
The cannons sat hunched against the side of the ship like dark, huddled goblins, groaning against their ropes as the ship slowly leaned this way and that. The open air of the waist was cool and delicious compared to the stale cabin.
He gasped – the sky was as full of stars as ever he had seen it. From horizon to horizon and all the way around the blue-black of the heavens was pierced with brilliant points of light, as if someone had sprinkled sugar across the sky. A few were uncommonly bright; sparkling and twinkling so bright they could have been just a few feet above the ship. Off to the left, at the very edge of the sky, the vast gray band of dawn slowly rose from the horizon. He had to stare at it – he’d never seen anything more beautiful in his life.
“Come along, lad,” Uncle Neville called from the other end of the waist. “Work don’t wait for no stars.”
A cold breeze drove down the Kathryn B‘s starboard side and slipped right up the pant legs and the sleeves of Phineas’ fine cambric shirt all morning long.
“But I thought the weather was always warm in the Caribbean,” he whined to Duffy in the galley. He hadn’t meant it to sound whiny, but his feet had been cold ever since Uncle Neville dropped him off in the galley so many hours ago, and his fingers had been cold ever since he dipped them in the greasy washtub before serving the porridge breakfast at first mess, and his porridge had grown cold by the time he got it, and it all just didn’t seem fair.
“It never pays to go whining about the weather, boy. Truth, I believe we lie just west of Spanish Florida, which means we don’t even be more than barely into the Caribbean. This wind has a hint of something in it. Something dirty.”
“Dirty?” the boy repeated with a roll of his eyes. Leave it to sailors to get the weather dirty.
“Well,” Duffy replied, “it be late July, do you see, and the winds here this time of year be normally warm. When you gets a cold breeze like this, it means there’s a change coming. Perhaps a real blow.”
A real blow. Perhaps a hurricane or something, Phineas thought as he chipped dried porridge off the outside of the big iron cook pot. The dry gray pieces fell to the deck, rattling with a slight click when they hit.
“You’ll be sweeping those up ere your watch is over,” Duffy said.
“Why can’t princess what’s her name sweep those up?”
“Princess Louise is recuperating from her ordeal,” Duffy answered patiently. “She’s been through quite a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Phineas asked. He wondered what the girl had been through that he himself had not. Was she kidnapped? Was she yelled at by a one-handed ogre? Had she been attacked by a man-eating manta ray? He thought not.
“Dehydration, for one,” the sea cook said. “She was in that boat for three days.”
“Is that why she’s living in Lourdburton’s cabin?”
“Our sailing master was generous enough to abandon his quarters for the lady, and bunks now with the lads up here in the focs’l,” Duffy replied sharply. “You’d best get that dried porridge off of that pot before the sun goes down.”
Phineas didn’t respond. The thought of a real blow drifted back into his mind. He had overheard a couple of sailors talking about being in real blows, and they made them seem deucedly terrifying.
“Do you think we’re really headed for one?” he asked nervously.
“What? Dried porridge?”
“No,” Phineas said. “A real blow.”
Even the sound of it made him shiver, and it made the cold morning wind seem sinister, as if it pushed them to their destruction.
“Chances are fair, I am thinkin’.”
Duffy turned back to sharpening his cleaver on the grindstone. Phineas had seen a grindstone before, of course, but not the compact kind Duffy used. The sea cook spun the heavy stone wheel by hand, and then stepped on a wooden pedal to keep it turning. He pressed the blade of the cleaver flat against the turning stone, throwing up a shower of sparks.
“And, when next you decide to knock dried porridge off of the cookpot, I’d be obliged if you’d ask me which tool to use instead of simply grabbing my best cleaver.”
“Sorry,” Phineas mumbled.
“It’ll be a flippin’ miracle if I can get this dent out of it,” Duffy muttered. “No sense of a man’s property, babblin’ on about the princess…
“So, about this real blow,” Phineas continued. “How do you know one is coming?”
“Phineas,” he replied, wiping the sharpened blade on his apron, “ye’d like to kill a man with this constant jabber. I said I think maybe there be a chance for a real blow, and there’s an end to it.”
“Your not the captain,” Phineas replied simply. “How do you know all these things?”
“Blast it, boy!” Duffy yelled. “I’m in no mind for… would ye just… go tell Mr. Lourdburton… tell him I’m needing a left-handed awl. Ye got that?”
“But, I thought I was supposed to chip the oatmeal off this…”
Lourdburton stood at his regular post at the ship’s wheel, speaking with that sailor named Taylor. Taylor was the one who had hung his head over the ship’s side back when the voyage first began. The cold wind whipped around them, flapping Lourdburton’s faded gray coat like a sheet on a clothesline.
Taylor, a tall, skinny, young fellow, perhaps fifteen years old or so, with straight blonde hair tied behind his back in a short ponytail, held the spokes of the wheel in his hands nervously, as if they might explode.
“Once more. Ye’ve got to have a firm hand, now, Taylor,” Mr. Lourdburton said curtly. “She’s a lady, and she demands respect. You don’t let her have her head, see?” He jerked the wheel with his one hand. “Like this, see?”
“Aye, sir,” Taylor replied cautiously. He looked uncertainly at the wheel. “Don’t let her have her head,” he murmured to himself.
“That means you must always steer the ship, see?” Lourdburton said with a forced patience. His red face showed how he really felt. “The wind wants to push her down to leeward, and she wants to go, see? If you let her go, we’ll stray off course and she’ll have her own head. Understand?”
“I think so,” Taylor said weakly. Lourdburton sighed angrily and blew out his cheeks.
“Here’s how it works, see? I’ll not be repeating this again. Hold onto them spokes like there’s a hurricane blowing and you’re about to go over the side, see?”
Taylor nodded and tightened his grip.
“You keep your eye on that compass card, see?”
Taylor nodded and stared at the compass in the wooden box on the pedestal before him.
“Steer south by east, see? Don’t deviate from that. If she pushes off to port, she’ll go due south. You don’t want that, because the course is south by east. You have to steer her back, see?”
“Aye, sir,” Taylor responded.
“Good,” Lourdburton snapped, “because if I hear we’re off course again, there’ll be the devil to pay for it.” He spun away from the wheel abruptly, bumping into Phineas, who had worked his way close to him to hear the conversation.
“And what do you want?” he asked gruffly. Phineas took a half step back.
“Uh,” he stammered.
“Uh?” Mr. Lourdburton mocked. “Uh? You came all the way up here to the quarterdeck to say ‘uh’? By thunder, sir, you’ll have to do better. Get you back to your pots and pans until you can figure out how to speak the Queen’s English!”
“Uh, we need a left-handed awl, uh, sir,” Phineas stammered. The sailing master was in such a foul mood it was hard to think straight.
Mr. Lourdburton scrunched his tan face into a scowl, squinting and frowning.
“What the devil…” he began, but trailed off. “What did you say?”
“An awl, sir. Mr. Duffy said to tell you we need a left-handed awl. I think it has something to do with sharpening a cleaver.”
“Mr. Duffy sent you, did he, for a left-handed awl?”
“Aye, sir, that’s what he said.”
The sailing master turned around and winked at the sailor named Gruyere, who had just climbed down the rigging from the mast and dropped, catlike, onto the quarterdeck.
“Gruyere, the lad here has been sent to retrieve the left-handed awl.”
“I think those’d be up in the carpenter’s shop…” Gruyere started.
“A left-handed awl,” Lourdburton repeated with emphasis.
Gruyere smiled coyly.
“Oh, a left-hand awl. Well now, that’s a bit different, in’it? I think I seen one, oh…”
Lourdburton’s raised his eyebrows, and rolled his eyes as if he was about to look up.
“…at the maintop,” Gruyere said grandly. “Yep. That’s were I seen one, plain as day up on the maintop.”
“Looks as if you’ll have to climb to the maintop to find it,” Lourdburton said calmly. “Best get a move on. Mr. Duffy won’t wait all day.”
Phineas looked up the long, slender pole of the mainmast, and swallowed hard. He looked back at Lourdburton, who allowed a small grin to show on his lips. Gruyere, who suddenly seemed to look a lot more like Alfred Townsend, leered like a monkey.
“H… how do I get to the maintop?”