Work Header

Six Bells in the Morning Watch

Work Text:



The ship’s bell rang overhead, and Jack was awake in an instant, his thoughts shifting automatically from half-remembered dreams to the delightful realities of breakfast. He climbed out of his hanging cot and pulled on his breeches, trying to detect amongst the familiar stink of pitch and bilgewater the distant smoke of the galley stoves warming up.

With the ship so close to shore, the usual hard tack and salt pork of a long voyage had been enlivened not just by porpoise-meat sausages and flying fish, but by the portside delights of beefsteaks and bacon and soft tack dripping with butter. Perhaps he might call for fried onions, too, the scent of which would often tempt Stephen’s appetite when nothing else could. Yes, certainly there must be fried onions, and perhaps a batch of scones to follow, for Stephen was still too thin by far and was known to have a weakness for fresh-baked scones. Jack threw on the clean shirt Killick had left out for him and tied his hair back in a hasty queue, his mouth watering as he debated the rival charms of marmalade or damson jam.

There was the hurried patter of leather soles, and a midshipman stuck his tar-smeared head round the sleeping-cabin’s door.

“Sir, oh sir?”

“What is it, Mr Williamson?”

“Mr Mowett’s compliments, sir, and he says the Doctor speaks of climbing to the maintop.”

Jack doused his lantern and caught up his jacket. “Thank you, Mr Williamson. Jump down to the Doctor’s cabin as quick as you like and fetch his hat, the straw one with the mended brim.”

He hurried through the coach and up the ladder to the maindeck, where in the early dawn light he saw Stephen by the weather rail, supporting himself with one hand on the ratlines and peering up the dizzying height of the mainmast with the singularly baffled expression of an incurable landsman. Mowett, the officer of the watch, was hovering a few feet away in the manner of one who had been summarily dismissed but would nevertheless be held to account for whatever happened.

“Pass the word for Bonden, Mr Mowett,” said Jack, and then to Stephen, “I hear you think of taking the air on the maintop, my dear Doctor. A capital notion, and just the thing to whet my appetite for breakfast; if you do not object to my company, that is.”

Stephen looked round, his pale unshaven face breaking into a smile. “Not at all, Jack, I should like it of all things. I was merely contemplating, before beginning my ascent, upon the opposing merits of the several approaches to the same lofty pinnacle. The larboard and starboard routes, that is to say,” he continued, producing his naval terms with some satisfaction and gesturing towards the wrong side in each case. “The method that appears eminently preferable when the ship inclines itself to the left becomes somewhat more inconvenient when it tips in the contralateral manner, and so you see my predicament.”

“I do, too,” said Jack. “It has puzzled the Admiralty for centuries. Allow me to point out, however, that you must grasp the shrouds, not the ratlines. No, Stephen, the upright ropes.” He took Stephen’s hands, closing them around the cordage. “Hold hard, and Bonden will guide your feet.”

He glanced up at the rigging, a dark mesh cross-hatching the pink-flushed sky, and swung himself into the shrouds. Stephen, who had never managed to acquire the least veneer of seamanship in all his years afloat, could hardly have climbed a staircase by land in his present weakened state, never mind a swaying mass of ropes whose angles were perpetually shifting in the ocean swell; but with Bonden placing his feet for him on the ratlines, and Jack holding him bodily against the shrouds with each leeward roll of the ship, he reached the top in perfect safety, if at no creditable speed. Bonden and Awkward Davies darted over the futtock shrouds ahead of him, and while Jack heaved from below, they hauled the Doctor through the lubber’s hole and deposited him like a parcel in the maintop itself, bidding him to “hold hard and not move an inch while they ran down for his breakfast, not a bloody inch, now, sir!”

“Some coffee too, for the love of God,” gasped Stephen, sinking down on the folded studdingsails.  

“Bonden,” Jack called, in a moderate gale-force bellow, “a flask of coffee for the Doctor, double strong, and none of your invalid pap, do you hear me there?”

“Aye aye, sir. Double strong it is,” came the distant reply.

With the basket of breakfast arrived at last, Jack and Stephen sat companionably in the top and shared the coffee out cup by cup. From time to time Jack dipped into the basket, dishing out its savoury contents at long intervals and without comment, so that Stephen, lost in contemplation of a faraway group of gulls, absentmindedly consumed twice what he might have been persuaded to eat in the cabin. In the steady breeze the Surprise was running along under courses and forestaysail alone, and her furled topsails left the view clear fore and aft: clear all the way to the horizon, where dawn was cleaving the sea from the brightening sky. Slowly, slowly the blazing sun rose, and the ship slipped almost imperceptibly onwards, with nothing in all that vast emptiness to mark her progress but for the gulls, now miniscule specks in her wake.

Jack took up his pen and inkhorn and settled down to write the latest of his endless letters home.

HMS Surprise, at sea
28th July 1805

My dear Sophie,

What a pleasure it is to inscribe this letter “at sea”! We were tied up so long at the victualling wharf in Valparaíso, with its villainous filth spoiling our new paintwork, that I was beginning to suppose we should be stuck there until we ground upon our own beef-bones. We have completed our stores and repairs at last, however, and we sank the land last night. Another four hundred miles to Juan Fernández, with this grateful south-easterly at our backs, God willing, and then nothing but blue water sailing until we drop anchor in the Galápagos islands.

Tom Pullings is to take the Acheron back to Portsmouth as soon as a new mainmast can be swayed up in her, and he carries all my previous letters with him, along with my dearest love to you and the children. This one I hope to bring round Cape Horn and deliver by my own hand, but I intend first to spend a fortnight or so in the Galápagos, weather permitting, and if the Admiralty should query it, why, they may kiss my arse hand!

He paused to cross the offending word out more thoroughly. Sophie, who had always been deeply fond of Stephen and inclined to take his part against all comers, was unlikely to question the wisdom of taking a frigate of two hundred souls several thousand miles out of her way so that her surgeon might gather a few nondescript beetles, and if the Admiralty made any great difficulty about it, Jack could reasonably claim to have been protecting England’s whaling fleet, who were well known to call at the islands for tortoises and fresh water. He dipped his pen and bent again to the paper.

I pressed a dozen of the Acherons and left the rest for Tom, as we could not spare much in the way of a prize-crew. It will be safer, I hope, to have them working their own ship than bottled up under hatches, and there is no great fight in them now that their captain is gone, though they fought bravely for as long as he lived. If we had not come up to them so quick, I doubt Tom would have survived to see Valparaíso; he has another fine great cutlass slash to add to his collection of scars as it is.

You will be relieved to hear that Stephen is on the mend, too, although it was touch and go at first. He is surely the most contrary wight afloat, to have survived two such bloody, desperate battles without so much as a scratch and then done himself a mischief by tumbling headfirst over a stern-chaser the moment we were safely back in harbour. You would not have believed it without you had seen it done: he caught his foot on the carriage of the starboard long-nine (the one the men call Thunderer), tripped backwards over Aphasia the goat, and went staggering the full width of the quarterdeck like a Merry Andrew at Bartholomew Fair until he landed squarely on First Blood, the larboard gun – perhaps in hindsight a foolish name for anything in poor Stephen’s path.

It had not been amusing at the time, of course. Two of the afterguard had dashed to pick Stephen up and been shocked speechless by the crimson stain spreading across his shirt. Coming too soon after his accidental wound at the hands of Howard of the Marines, the blow had burst open some of his own careful stitching, the incision having not yet fully knitted. He had said little, merely letting himself be led below to the cockpit, clutching at his bloodied chest and calling for his instruments, but his hands had not been quite steady as Jack watched him reach yet again for needle and cord, and that deathly pallor had not left him throughout the weeks that the Surprise lay in harbour.

The poor fellow was up and checking on his patients long before he was well enough, of course, Jack wrote, as he refused to be treated as a patient himself. It was all I could do to keep him in his hammock a day or two in Valparaíso; we had a shocking long butcher’s bill, both Englishmen and French, and he would be up and tending to them as soon as he could rightly stand, white as a ghost though he was himself. You know how stubborn he has always been – mules ain’t in it.

There came a volley of shrieks from the midshipmen down on deck, carrying so clearly that they might have been skylarking a foot or two from the maintop itself. Jack laid down his pen, and he and Stephen leaned over the heaps of studdingsails to watch them for a while.

“What is it that they are kicking about, for all love?” Stephen asked at length. “It resembles nothing so much as the urinary bladder of a moderate-sized ruminant.”

“Exactly so,” said Jack. “A tanned sheep’s bladder, I believe, stuffed with oakum.”

“How very mediaeval it looks. Tell me now, my dear, is it not a most heathen thing for Englishmen to play at football? I was under the impression that you naval officers decried all amusements except cricket and the slaughter of beasts and fellow seamen.”

“So we do, so we do, and I daresay the mids would be practising their murderous aim this very moment, was not young Blakeney amongst them.” Jack nodded towards the smallest boy, whose empty sleeve was flapping as he darted after the ball, pursued by Williamson and Boyle. Lazy ignorant useless howling little brutes they assuredly were much of the time, but, like most youngsters Jack had known in the service, they possessed an instinctive sympathy for the sick or maimed that lifted them on occasion to true nobility, and their kindness to Blakeney was as unfailing as their solicitousness towards Stephen, who could hardly take a step beyond the great cabin without one of them running to assist him and bid him mind his step and keep one hand for himself and one for the ship. A promising midshipmen’s berth, then, and not devoid of seamanship; Jack reminded himself that he must find places for them all when he finally reached Portsmouth.

The improvised football disappeared down a hatchway, and the young gentlemen followed it, shouting and hallooing to each other as they went.

“Humph,” muttered Stephen. “They will be lined up in the sickbay by dinnertime with all their pitiful scrapes and contusions, their souls to the devil.” He sat back against the sun-bleached planking, a tolerant smile belying his words. The fresh air seemed to have done him some good at last; he was looking healthier than he had for a long time, with the wind ruffling his unbrushed hair and bringing a flush to his sallow cheeks.

The Surprise heeled a little more in the strengthening  breeze, her lee forechains half-hidden now by the spray of her bow wave. The helmsman held her steady with one hand on her wheel, while all around him the larboard watch in their duck pantaloons and loose shirts rasped the decks clean with holystones and swabs.

“How busy they all are,” said Stephen, “and how idle we by comparison, and yet I feel not the slightest inclination to follow their example and find an unscoured corner of the ship at which to scrape.”

Jack yawned widely. “A post-captain can hardly be seen to do his own scraping. Besides, the men must earn their rations. There would be no point in keeping a dog and . . .” He hesitated, the words “biting it yourself” floating uncertainly across his mind.

“Eating it, perhaps?” suggested Stephen.

“No. No, that ain’t quite it.”

“Going out like a lamb? Getting up with fleas?”

“Nor those, neither,” said Jack, scratching hard at his nankeen breeches. “Proverbs be damned. At any rate, to work is the men’s plain duty, and our plain duty is to stay out of their way.”

“Why, then, soul, we may rest in the comforting assurance of a duty well done.”

Stephen stretched himself across the piles of sailcloth, yawning as widely as Jack. He took up the book that Bonden had brought for him, but within a few minutes it had sunk again unnoticed to his knee, its pages fluttering shut around his fingers as his eyelids grew heavy and began to droop. Jack closed his own eyes, listening to the thrumming of the breeze in the rigging and the rush of water under the keel. The clanking of the chain pump had ceased at last, but the soft, hypnotic scrub-scrub-scrub of holystones went steadily on as the men made their deck fit to greet the newborn day.

When he glanced at Stephen a little while later he found him already dozing, a half-eaten slice of toast falling from his hand. Reaching over cautiously, he set the toast aside and tucked Stephen’s book and spectacles into his upturned hat for safe keeping. Above them Bonden and Davies, without waiting for orders, had quietly rigged an awning across the topmast shrouds to shield the maintop from the sun, and in its shade Stephen was fast, fast asleep.

Far below, the quartermaster turned the watch glass and the marine sentry stepped forward to strike six bells in the morning watch. All well, all well, came the cries from the lookouts at the mastheads, and Jack settled back against the topmast, feeling its creak and give as the Surprise danced through the following seas with that playful frisk which no trimming of the sails could ever cure her of, no matter how carefully her holds might be stowed. The sun was well up from the horizon now, and from his perch Jack could gaze out over a vast disc of white-flecked blue, cut rule-straight by the wake and endlessly renewed under the pristine sky; an infinite blue, as if he might lie here forever with Stephen by his side, to the end of the world and back. Filled with a wordless contentment, he closed his eyes and let himself drift.