“It’s Tom – Thomas Kydd, who was o’ Guildford.”

“Joe Bowyer – an’ keep it quiet, lad,” Bowyer said, from the corner of his mouth. “It’s always ‘silence fore ’n’ aft’ when we’re handling sail for exercise.” He snatched a glance aft. “Jus’ that we’ve done a dog’s breakfast of the sail drill, and someone ’as to catch it in the neck,” he muttered, his voice oddly soft for a long-service seaman.

Kydd noticed the petty officer closest to Tewsley: his face was set and hard as he watched the officers and in his fist was a coiled rope’s end. Kydd stood with the others, unsure even where to put his hands, but the confidence in Bowyer’s open face was reassuring.

Tewsley had the calmness of age, but he also kept his eyes fixed on the group on the quarterdeck.

The Captain turned on his heel and took position before the man at the wheel. He looked up once at the maze of sails and cordage, then down to the teams of waiting men. “Hands to make sail,” he ordered. His voice came thinly, even with the speaking trumpet.

“Sod it!” Bowyer’s curse made Kydd jump. “Captain’s taking over.” Kydd puzzled at the paradox. “Th’ Captain shouldn’t take charge?” he asked.

Bowyer frowned. He gave a furtive look aft and replied gravely, “’Cos he’s not what you might call a real man- o’-war’s man – got his step through arse-lickin’ in Parliament or some such.” He sucked his teeth. “Don’t trust him in sailorin’, yer might say.”

The Captain raised his speaking trumpet again. “Stations to set main topsail.”

Lifting his voice, Tewsley called, “Captain of the quarterdeck!”

Kydd looked about in surprise, expecting another gold-laced officer. Instead the hard-faced petty officer came forward.

“Carry on, Elkins.”

The petty officer rounded on his men. “Youse – double up on the weather buntlines, and you lot t’ the clewlines.” To Bowyer he ordered tersely, “Lee clewlines.”

Elkins moved to the bitts at the base of the mast from which hung masses of ropes, and Kydd noticed that there were openings in the deck on each side down which ropes passed to the deck below. “Stand by topsail sheets, you waisters!” Elkins bellowed.

Bowyer crossed quickly to the row of belaying pins at the ship’s side, just where the shrouds of the mainmast reached the bulwarks – the men already there moved to make room for him.

As much to them as to Kydd he said, “Now, Kydd, when I casts loose, you tails on to the line with the rest o’ them land toggies.”

The tension was almost palpable. Most of the ordinary sailors Kydd could see around him were clearly not of the first order, and he guessed that they were stationed here because they could be brought more under eye from the quarterdeck. All were uneasy and watchful.

The man at the wheel now had a second assisting him in the freshening wind, and the ship showed a more lively response to the hurrying seas.

The Captain brought out a large gold watch and consulted it ostentatiously. “I shall want to see topsails set and sheeted home at least a minute faster. If this is not achieved” – he glanced about him – “then hands will not be piped to dinner until it is.”

At Bowyer’s snort, Kydd turned. “He means no grog until he gets ’is times,” he growled.

“Stand by!” A boatswain’s mate placed his call to his lips, eyes on the Captain, who nodded sharply.

The peal of the call was instantly overlain with shouts from all parts of the deck.

“Lay aloft and loose topsail!”

Men shot past Kydd and into the main shrouds to begin a towering climb to the topmast. Bowyer jumped to the clewline fall and lifted clear the coil of rope, thumping it to the deck behind him. Kydd was shouldered roughly out of the way as the line was handed along until all had seized hold of it. He joined hesitantly at the end. Bowyer expertly undid the turns until one remained, the line of men taking the strain. He looked across in readiness.

Tewsley was staring hard upward and Kydd followed his gaze. Men had made the ascent up the shrouds to the maintop, and were even now continuing on past and up the topmast shrouds, moving up the ratlines in fast, jerky movements. They reached the topsail yard – an arm waved.

“Lay out and loose!”

Kydd was startled by Tewsley’s roar, which seemed too great to have come from his slight frame. In response seamen poured out along the yard on each side and began casting off the gaskets retaining the sail. Watching them moving far above, he felt his palms go clammy at the thought of the height at which they were working, much higher than the top of any building he had ever seen. He stole a glance back at the Captain, who stood impassively, still holding his watch before him.

The sail began dropping from the yard.

“Sheets!” Tewsley snapped.

“Topsail sheets!” roared Elkins, to the deck below, and was answered by an instant rattling of ropes against the mainmast.


Bowyer cast off the last turn and the lee topsail clewline swung clear.

The rough hairiness of the rope felt alien to Kydd, but being at the end of the line, he manfully put all his weight on it – and was immediately pulled off his feet.

He scrambled up, roundly cursed by those in front.

From nowhere came the hiss and fiery crack of a rope’s end over his back. The pain caught him by surprise, clamping his chest in a stab of breathlessness. He swung round to see Elkins coiling his rope for a second lash. Instinctively he threw up his arms to shield himself.

Surprise, then cruel satisfaction passed over Elkins’s face. “Well, damn me eyes! Raise yer ’and to a superior officer, then, you mangy dog!”

Bowyer threw in his position as first on the line. Racing up behind Kydd, he felled him with a glancing blow to the ear. “No, he wasn’t, Mr. Elkins – he’s a iggerant lubber who doesn’t know ’is ropes yet.” Panting and staring at Kydd rather than Elkins, he continued, “Give ’im a chance to learn – only bin aboard a dog-watch.”

Ears ringing, Kydd staggered to his feet.

“Silence!” Tewsley strode over, his face red with anger. “Take charge properly, Elkins, or I’ll have you turned before the mast this instant.”

Elkins wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his eyes following Tewsley. “Ease away clewlines.”

Taking up position in front of Kydd, Bowyer threw over his shoulder, “Sorry fer that. See, yer heaves on the sheets, but when settin’ sail you overhauls the clewlines ’n’ buntlines – let it out, mate,” he said, tugging at the line to let it go forward.

Kydd did as he was told, too stunned by events to question anything.

“Handsomely!” Tewsley growled, as the rope surged.

On the main yard, at the weather tip, a man sat astride the yardarm, his feet in the “Flemish horse” footrope at the end, his task to keep the loose line of the sheet fed into the sheave at the best angle as the sail was sheeted home.

Querulous, the Captain called across, “Get your men to work, Mr. Tewsley-they seem to have gone to sleep!”

“Er – sir, we -” began Tewsley, in astonishment.

The men at the clewlines and buntlines didn’t hesitate: unskilled as they were, and under the Captain’s eye, they lost no time in paying out the line faster and faster.

“Avast there,” roared Tewsley, but it was too late. At the topsail, the clewline dropping the corner of the sail had been slackened faster than the sheet pulling from beneath could keep up. Instead of a controlled glide to the yardarm, the topsail was now free to flog itself about in sweeping lashes. The topsail sheetman at the end of the yard ducked and parried, but there was nowhere to hide. The cluster of three massive blocks at the lower corner of the topsail, now a plaything of the hundred-foot expanse of sail, bounced the man off the yard. He fell in a wide arc outward and into the sea, his piercing shriek of despair paralyzing Kydd until it was cut off by the sea.

Kydd rushed to the side and saw the man, buffeted by the side wake of the ship, quickly sliding astern and away into the gray seas. The man’s arm raised briefly to show he had survived the fall and Kydd turned to see what would be done. The Captain, however, did not move, frozen in a stare forward.

“Sir!” the young officer of the watch entreated. It was not clear whether the Captain had indeed taken over the

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