Chivied by the boatswain’s mate, the pressed men moved on down to the dim orlop deck, to a cursory glance by the surgeon, then back to the lower gundeck. They found themselves trying to keep out of the way in the busy confusion of preparing the ship for sea.

Kydd had the chance to take in more of his surroundings. A few yards away from the capstan, the weak winter sunlight still penetrated through the main hatches on all the decks, on down even through the orlop below to the hold, casting an unearthly bright glow on the seamen taking the last of the stores aboard. On either side, great cannon stretched away into the distance, the implements of gunnery ready to hand beside them, lashed to the deckhead, while more homely articles were stowed at the ship’s side in neat vertical racks between each gun.

The main jeer capstan was at the center of the deck, all gleaming polished wood, its massive shaft extending up to disappear through the low deckhead. Kydd could almost feel the vessel’s strength – the sweep of mighty beams, the thick angular knees and the wrist-thick rope breechings of the guns. The gunports were still open, and through them he could see the wan glitter of the sea a few feet below. He went to the opening and looked out.

Several miles away over the sea, he could see the dull green and brown scarred cliffs of Sheppey. Halfway along the undulating coast was the square tower of a Saxon church on the skyline amid a tiny huddle of rain-washed gray dwellings. He wondered briefly who could be living in such a bleak place. With a pang he realized that for all the chance he had of setting foot there, they might as well have been on the moon.

He pulled back inboard, and despite himself his pulse quickened. Whatever else, he was now caught up in the age-old excitement of a ship ready for sea, outward bound; maybe to lands far away, perhaps to meet mermaids and monsters, and even adventures like the ones described by Mr. Swift.

The light from above dimmed to nothing as, one by one, the hatches were secured. Now only the light reflected through the gunports from the sea remained.

Shortly, from forward, Kydd heard irregular muffled thumps as a party of men began to close and seal the gunports. Now the cold sunlight and chill breeze were cut off, and an oppressive gloom advanced on them. There was no natural light or air now, only a suffocating closeness with uneasy overtones of dread.

Then lanthorns were lit, their dull yellow-gold light catching the flash of eyes, buckles and seamen’s gear, and revealing a nervous young officer arriving down the hatchway ladder.

As Kydd’s eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he saw that the gundeck, which before had seemed a spacious sweep of bare decks, now appeared crammed with men. It was difficult to make sense of all that went on, but there was no mistaking the role of the big capstan. Deck pillars around it were removed and capstan bars more than ten feet long were socketed and pinned in a giant starfish pattern, a taut line connecting their ends to ensure an even strain on all.

“Nippers! Where’s those bloody nippers?” bellowed a petty officer.

A ship’s boy stumbled up with a clump of lengths of rope, each a few yards long.

“Bring to, the messenger!”

A rope as thick as an arm was eased around the barrel of the capstan, the ends heaved away forward to be seized together in an endless loop. Activity subsided.

“Man the capstan!”

Kydd found himself pushed into place at a capstan bar, among a colorful assortment of men. Some, like himself, were still in shoreside clothing of varying degrees of quality, others wore the scarlet of the marines.

“Silence, fore ’n’ aft!”

Men stood easy, flexing arms and shoulders. Kydd gulped. It was only a few days since he had been standing behind the counter, talking ribbons with the Countess of Onslow. Now he was a victim of the pressgang, sent to sea to defend England. It crossed his mind that she would be outraged to see him transplanted to this context, but then decided that she would not – hers was an old naval family.

“Take the strain, heave ’round!” The distant cry was instantly taken up.

Following the motions of the others, Kydd leaned his chest against the capstan bar, his hands clasping up from underneath. For a moment nothing happened, then the bar began to revolve at a slow walk. A fiddler started up in the shadows on one side, a fife picking up with a perky trill opposite.

“Heave around – cheerly, lads!”

It was hard, bruising work. In the gloom and mustiness, sweating bodies labored; thunderous creaks and sharp wooden squeals answered with deep-throated shudders as the cable started taking up. The muscles on the back of Kydd’s legs ached at the unaccustomed strain.

“Well enough – fleet the messenger!”

A precious respite. Kydd lay panting against the bar, body bowed. Looking up, he caught in the obscurity of the outer shadows the eyes of a boatswain’s mate watching him. The man padded back and forth like a leopard, the rope’s end held on his side flicking spasmodically. “Heave ’round!”

Again the monotonous trudge. The atmosphere was hot and fetid, the rhythmic clank of the pawls and the ever-changing, ever-same scenery as the capstan rotated became hypnotic.

The pace slowed. “Heave and a pawl! Get your backs into it! Heave and a pawl!”

Suddenly a pungent sea smell permeated the close air, and Kydd noticed that the cable disappearing below was well slimed with light blue-gray mud. A few more reluctant clanks, then motion ceased.

“One more pawl! Give it all you can, men!” The officer’s young voice cracked with urgency.

Kydd’s muscles burned, but there would be no relief until the anchor was won, so he joined with the others in a heavy straining effort. All that resulted was a single, sullen clank. He felt his eyes bulge with effort, and his sweat dropped in dark splodges on the deck beneath him.

It was an impasse. Their best efforts had not tripped the anchor. Along the bars men hung, panting heavily.

There was a clatter at the ladder and an officer appeared. Kydd thought he recognized him. The man next to him tensed.

Garrett strode to the center of the deck. “Why the hell have we stopped, Mr. Lockwood? Get your men to work immediately, the lazy scum!” The high voice was spiteful, malicious.

Lockwood’s eyes flickered and he turned his back on Garrett. “Now, lads, it’s the heavy heave and the anchor’s a-trip. Fresh and dry nippers for the heavy heave!”

Kydd was exhausted. His muscles trembled and he felt light-headed. His bitterness at his fate had retreated into a tiny ball glowing deep inside.

“Now, come on, men – heave away for your lives!” Lockwood yelled.

The men threw themselves at the bar in a furious assault. The heavy cable lifted from the deck and thrummed in a line direct from the hawse. Nothing moved.

“Avast heaving!” Garrett screamed.

The men collapsed at the bars, panting uncontrollably.

Garrett sidled up behind Lockwood, whose pale face remained turned away. “You have here a parcel of lubbers who don’t know the meaning of the word work,” he said. “There’s only one way to wake these rogues up to their duty, you’ll find.” He moved forward and glared at the men contemptuously. Only one side of his face was illuminated, adding to its demonic quality.

His chin lifted. “Boatswain’s mates, start those men!”

Unbelieving murmurs arose as the petty officers hefted their rope’s ends and closed in.

“Silence!” Garrett shrieked. “Any man questions my orders I swear will get a dozen at the gangway tomorrow!”

“Heave ’round!” Lockwood called loudly, but with a lack of conviction.

The men bent to their task, but their eyes were on the circling boatswain’s mates. There was no movement at the capstan. A vicious smack and a gasp sounded. Then more. Still no displacement of the thick cable, which was now so tight that it rained muddy seawater on the deck. The blows continued mercilessly.

Kydd heard the whup a fraction before the blow landed, drawing a line of fire across his shoulders. The buried resentment exploded, but a tiny edge of reason kept him from a cry of rage or worse.

There could be no possible escape. While that anchor was so fiercely gripped by the mud they would remain at their Calvary.

“’Vast heaving!” The bull-like roar of the boatswain broke into the agonized gasping of the men. He was not

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