One minute it was noise and laughter, the next an appalled silence in the smoke-filled taproom at the sight of sailors appearing at every exit. They were in a costume like those to be seen in the theater, complete with pigtails, black tarred hat and short blue jacket. And each had a cudgel in one hand, which he tapped slowly in the opposite palm.

Patrons were allowed to leave, but at each door they were separated into those who would go home to relate their escape to wide-eyed loved ones, and those who would begin a long journey to their fate on the high seas. Kydd had struggled but, under the weight of superior numbers, was soon overpowered.

The trip east to the Isle of Sheppey had taken two days. They had avoided towns, and the men had been handcuffed to a tarpaulin-covered wagon like common criminals. Kydd had felt bitter and hopeless by turns, not able to find comfort in cursing as Stallard seemed to do, or in the fatalism of the two merchant seamen also caught up in the press.

They were kept for two more days in the dank holding cells in Sheerness’s Blue Town, a bleak garrison town, at the tip of the desolate island at the mouth of the Thames. It seemed to Kydd that he had arrived at the end of the earth. He was almost relieved when it was time to board the hoy. Then he saw, for the first time, the forest of masts set in an iron-gray winter sea, and knew he would need all the courage and strength he could muster for whatever lay ahead.

Now he tried to ignore the steady trickle of icy rainwater, on its way to the bilge, that coursed down his neck and back.

Suddenly the tarpaulin was flung aside, and Kydd took in the brightness of the pearly winter sky above, the reluctant stirring of damp men and, dominating all, the colossal form of a great ship. It seemed all gunports and lines of yellow and black timber, unknown fitments and black ropes. It towered up to the deck-line, and then above to an impossibly complex structure of masts and yards, black and ominous against the sky.

His eyes sought meaning in the rush of detail. The massive sides of the ship were near enough to touch. At such proximity the pockmarks of age and battle were all too clear, and at the point where the fat side of the ship met the muddy gray waves of the Thames estuary, dark-green weed betrayed the urgency with which the ship had been summoned from her foreign station. In the dark beyond the open gunports Kydd could discern unknown movement. From a small opening near the waterline discolored water dribbled on and on into the sea.

“Let’s be havin’ yer, then, me lads!” the petty officer said, and released them with a brisk clinking of metal. Kydd rubbed his wrists.

High above, a figure in a gold-laced coat and black cocked hat appeared at the deck edge. “What the devil – My God, get those men inboard at once, or I’ll have the hide off someone’s back, I swear!”

The sailor moved quickly. “That prick Garrett,” he muttered. “Watch, you bleedin’ lubbers – like this!”

He moved easily along the gunwale of the hoy to where a series of small steps marched vertically up the tumble home of the ship’s side. On each side were handropes, shiny with use. Stepping lightly across at the highest point of the hoy’s wallow, in one movement he transferred his weight to step and handrope simultaneously and swarmed up the ship’s side.

The remaining sailor blustered at them from behind, and the first moved forward. He grabbed the ropes but his feet slipped on the rain-slick wood and he fell into the sea, still dangling from the rope. He squealed in fright until the sailor hoisted him up by the scruff of his neck. The others held back in fear. “Fer Chrissake, get up there!” the sailor urged.

No one moved. The hoy rose and fell, the slap of waves between the two vessels loud and forbidding.

Something stirred in Kydd. He pushed the others aside, snatched a look upward and acted as he had seen the seaman do. He jumped across the chasm between the two vessels, his feet scrabbled on the narrow step and he paused to gather his strength. Then he began to climb, not daring to look down. A sudden shaking of the handrope showed that his example had been followed.

Kydd emerged over the thick bulwarks onto the upper deck. It was a scene of unutterable complexity, the deck sweeping far forward, massive cannon in rows along it, and above him a black web of lines connecting masts and spars higher and thicker than any tree imaginable. The rock-like stillness of the ship was in noticeable contrast to the lively movement of the hoy.

The high, irritable voice shrilled, “Over there, you fool!” The officer was standing near the ship’s wheel, legs akimbo. “There, you damn idiot!” he snarled, and stabbed his telescope toward the mainmast.

Kydd shambled weakly toward it, tripping on a ringbolt in the deck.

“Good God!” the officer exclaimed. “So this is what we’re going to meet the French with!” He turned to the plainly dressed older man standing with him. “Heaven help us!”

The man’s expression did not change but he murmured, “Yes, Mr. Garrett, heaven indeed help us.”

The young farmhand had finally stopped howling in terror at the black, malodorous confines of the lower hold and was now looking up through the hatch grating at the marine sentry and sobbing quietly. The rest lay draped over the bulk stores, mainly huge casks, that extended out into the noisome gloom.

The air was so thick it was difficult to breathe. Although Duke William barely noticed the waves, creaks and cracks randomly punctuated the darkness, terrifying for those who could not know what they meant. The only relief from the all-conquering darkness was the dim wash of tawny light that patterned down through the gratings from the few lanthorns on the deck above.

Lying back on a cask top, Kydd strained his eyes at the shadows of the hold. Around him he could hear moans and coughs, weeping and obscenities. Men moved restlessly. At the very edge of his perception, he became aware of movement, out of sequence with the ponderous creaking from the working timbers. Then he heard the scrabble of tiny paws as pinprick flashes of red appeared and disappeared. He shuddered and fixed his gaze resolutely on the lanthorn.

A broken mumbling started on one side. A voice Kydd recognized as Stallard’s snarled back and the mumbling stopped. The man next to Kydd stank, a musty uncared-for rankness. Kydd inched over the top of the big cask to get away – and slid off with a cry. He fell into what seemed to be a shingle beach. He stood up in confusion and moved forward. Each step into the shingle ballast brought a renewed roiling of an acrid stench.

A shape appeared over the edge of an adjacent cask. “Give us yer hand, mate,” it said. Kydd hastily scrunched over and did so. The human contact was gratifying and he found himself hoisted surprisingly easily onto the top of the cask. “Don’t want ter go wandering around too much, cully. Yer can find dead ’uns an’ all down there!”

It was difficult to make out who was talking; Kydd kept silent.

The man eyed him. “Truscott. Didn’t move meself fast enough when they came.” He grunted. “Shoulda known better. A pox on the bastards, anyway.”

Kydd felt a surge of anger at those who had torn him away from his rightful place in life to this world of squalor and misery. “What happens now?” he asked.

“Why, that’s easy enough. We go before the First Luff, who’ll rate you landman ’n’ me able seaman – mebbe quartermaster’s mate if I’m lucky. And then we gets to be part of the crew of this ’ere vessel.”

“So how long’ll this be – I mean, when can I go back home?”

The man chuckled harshly. “Forget home, lad. You’re crew of the Royal Billy all the time she’s in commission – you gets to leave her only if she goes to Davy Jones’s locker by bein’ wrecked ashore or sunk in an argyment with a Frenchie.”

“But…” The idea was too overwhelming to take in.

“Look, chum, you’re a pressed man,” said Truscott, “same’s me. We don’t get to go ashore, we gets paid less ’n a private soldier and we’ve less say about what we do next than a common bloody trull – so do yerself a great favor and get used to it. You’re now a foremast jack in a man-o’-war, ’n’ that’s that.”

Kydd breathed deeply, reaching for calm, but frustration boiled within him. He smashed his fists on the cask and gave a long hopeless roar of impotent rage.

Truscott sighed. “Don’t take on, lad. Nothin’ you can do now. Listen – there’s them who are goin’ to suffer” – he glanced significantly at the broken farm-boy – “and they’re goin’ to be the muckers who’ll be on every shite chore there is, fer ever more. ’N’ there’s them that’ll work it out ’n’ make right Jack Tars of ’emselves – and that’s no bad life when you comes at it the right way.” He cleared his throat. “Ye’ll not expect to be one right off, but -”

“You’re just talking piss ’n’ wind, you are!” Stallard’s acid voice cut in from the dark as he scrambled over to them. “He wants to know why he’s a prisoner down here in this stinkin’ hole, not what wunnerful prospects he has!” His voice rose as though he were addressing a crowd. “We’re here because we ain’t got no rights – none!” He

Вы читаете Kydd
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату