paused. A groan sounded in the dark. “Only ’cos we’re born in a cottage, not a mansion, we’re no better’n a flock of cunny sheep – do this, go there, yes, sir, no, sir. Whatever they say, we do. You see any whoreson gentleman down here, then? Not a chance!”

“You’d better keep your trap shut once we’re at sea, mate,” Truscott said.

“Don’t you worry, Mr. Sailor Man,” Stallard retorted. “I may know a thing or two about that – you just be sure you know where you’ll be standin’ when it comes down to it.”

Kydd bit his tongue. Stallard was mad if he thought he could get away with his petty seditions here – there was no chance of a mad gallop away into the night and anonymity in this closed community.

“Yer frien’ had better learn quick,” said Truscott, in a low voice. “If he gets talkin’ wild like that he’ll be decoratin’ a yardarm before he knows where he’s at.”

Stallard glared at him, then slithered over to Kydd. The lanthorn gleam caught his eyes. “Kydd knows what it’s all about,” Stallard said. “Ain’t that right, mate?”

Kydd said nothing.

“We’re town-mates, from Guildford,” Stallard told the figures draped on the casks about them, “and they’ve learned there to have a care when they deal with us – or they could get a midnight visit from Captain Swing.” He cackled. Noticing Kydd’s silence, he added, “We stand for our rights in the old town or we lose ’em. That’s what we say, ain’t it, me old cock – ain’t it?” He thrust his face into Kydd’s.

Kydd kept quiet.

“Well, then! I do declare! Can it be Kydd’s a toady to the gentry – a stinkin’ lickspittle? Mebbe a -”

Something gave way. Kydd threw himself forward and smashed his fist into Stallard’s face, but as he did so he cracked his own head against the low deck beams. Stunned, he fell back, and Stallard dived on him, punching, clawing, gouging.

“Stow it, you mad buggers!” Truscott thrust himself between them, pulling Stallard off Kydd by his hair.

Stallard knelt back. Dark runnels of blood came from his nose and smeared over his face. “Don’t think I’ll forget this, Kydd!” he said.

Kydd looked at him contemptuously. “You’re gallows – bait, Stallardy’r cronies won’t save y’ now!”

He was interrupted by a clumping at the grating, and a petty officer appeared at the hatchway. “Up ’n’ out – move yer scraggy selves!”

They emerged onto the orlop deck, the dull yellow glow of the lanthorns appearing almost cheerful after the Stygian darkness of the hold.

Awaiting them were a pair of marines, in scarlet with white crossbelts and muskets, standing rigidly. The boatswain’s mate had two seamen with him.

“Topsides, gemmun!” the petty officer rasped. “First Lieutenant wants to make yer acquaintance.”

They were herded together, making their way along several gundecks and up endless ladderways to the main deck. Here they were assembled on one side, sheltered from the fitful drizzle by the extension of the quarterdeck above before it gave way to the open area of the boat stowage.

The Master-at-Arms arrived, flanked by his two corporals. He was a stout, florid man with dark piggy eyes that never seemed to settle. “Toe the line, then!” he rumbled at the petty officer.

Shoving the pressed men together, the petty officer showed them how to line up by pressing their toes up against one of the black tarry lines between the deck planking.

From the cabin spaces aft a small party of men emerged; a lectern and a small table were set up. Then an officer appeared in immaculate uniform and cockaded bicorne.

The Master-at-Arms stiffened. “Pressed men, sir!” he reported, touching his hat.

The officer said nothing but stopped, glaring, at the line of men. He took off his hat and thwacked it irritably at his side. He was short, but built like a prizefighter. His dark, bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes gave him an edgy, dangerous look. The rich gold lace against the dark blue and white of his uniform cloaked him with authority.

In his sensible country fustian, which was now filthy and torn, Kydd felt clumsy and foolish. He tried to look defiantly at the officer while the wind flurried down the boat space, sending him into spasms of shudders.

“I’m Mr. Tyrell, and I’m the First Lieutenant of this ship,” the officer began. “And you’re a parcel of landmen and therefore scum. A worthless damn rabble – but you’re now in the sea service of King George and you’ll answer to me for it.” He stomped across until he was within arm’s length.

Kydd saw that the dark eyes were intelligent as they roved up and down the line. “Forget what you’ve heard about jolly Jack Tar and a life on the rolling waves. It’s a nonsense. We’re now at war, a hot bloody war, and there’ll only be one winner at the end, and that’s going to be us. And we win it by courage and discipline, by God!” He paced past them in a measured tread. “So listen to me! On board this ship you’d better soon understand that we have only one law and that’s called the Articles of War. The quicker you learn that, the better for you.” He paused. “Show ’em the cat, Quentin.”

The Master-at-Arms looked at the boatswain’s mate and nodded. The man stepped forward and, from a red baize bag, carefully extracted a thick, ornate rope handgrip ending in nine strands of much thinner line, each carefully knotted. He teased out the yard-long strands so that they fell in cascade in front of him.

“Every man jack of you is now subject to the Articles of War – and there it says that the penalty for disobedience is death…” Tyrell held his audience in a deadly fascination. “… or such laws and customs in such cases used at sea,” he snarled. “And that means I may need to ask Mr. Quentin to scratch your back with his cat. Isn’t that so, Quentin?”

“Aye aye, sir, Mr. Tyrell.”

In the shocked silence Tyrell paced back to the table, then turned, his eyes cold. He let the silence hang, doing his work for him. No sound from the men broke the deathly hush, but the mournful keening of a pair of seagulls carried clearly across the water.

Tyrell handed his hat to the clerk and took his place at the lectern. The clerk opened a large book and prepared quill and ink. “You will answer my questions now and this will help me decide how best you will serve. I will rate you here and provide watch and station details later to the officer of your division.”

He glanced at the clerk. “Volunteers?”

“None, sir,” the clerk said, expressionless.

Tyrell’s eyebrows rose. “Begin.”

The clerk consulted his book. “Abraham Fletcher,” he called.

A scrawny, apologetic-looking man shuffled forward.

Raising his eyes heavenward, Tyrell asked sarcastically, “Profession, Mr. Fletcher?”

“Tailor’s cutter,” the man mumbled.

“Sir!” screamed the Master-at-Arms, outraged.

“Sir!” agreed the man hastily, knuckling his forehead.

“Then you’re just the man the sailmaker would like to see,” Tyrell said. “See that Mr. Clough gets to know about him. Rated landman, Mr. Warren’s division. Next.”

It did not take long to deal with them all: Tyrell was clearly in a hurry. “Get them to the doctor. If he refuses any, he’s to give his reasons to me personally.” The book slammed shut. “Then they muster at the main capstan, lower deck. Tell the boatswain.”

A single long squeal from somewhere aft cut through the bustle. All movement ceased. A seaman near Kydd stirred. “Something’s on, lads,” he muttered.

Minutes later, out of sight on the deck below, several boatswains’ pipes shrieked out together – low, high, low. Their slow calls were a barbaric yet beautiful and frail sound carried on the buffeting wind.

“Ah, Captain’s come aboard,” the seaman said.

Tyrell hurried off up the ladder.

“He’ll have to come up this way, mates,” the seaman added.

The Captain appeared from below. He was wearing full dress uniform, sword and decorations with white gloves and gold-laced cocked hat, and was accompanied by a small retinue. He moved slowly, his lean figure ungainly, bowed. Before he began ascending the ladder to the deck above, he stopped and looked about him – suspiciously, Kydd thought.

Over the distance of the width of the deck his eyes rested for a moment on Kydd, who froze. The eyes moved on. The Captain resumed his stately climb up and out of sight.

Nobody spoke.

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