A Sailor's Christmas

Chapter Two

As the boat drew up to the starboard side of the Minerva, a voice rang out: "Boat ahoy!"

Jenkins must have informed the boatman of the identity of his passenger, for he properly called back, "Minerva!" There was a scurry of activity on deck; the boatman's reply had alerted them that the captain was arriving.

The boat moved alongside the ship, and Wentworth reached for the ropes tossed down from the entry port; to his relief, he caught them on the first attempt. His long months on land had not completely destroyed his sailor's reflexes. He went up the side as the bosun's calls sang their shrill salute. A tall young man with ginger hair tied in an old-fashioned queue stepped forward and touched the brim of his bicorne hat. "Welcome aboard, Captain Wentworth. MacKenzie, first lieutenant." His voice held a touch of Scots brogue, and his blue eyes met Wentworth's levelly.

"Thank you, Mr. MacKenzie. Call the ship's company, if you please."

MacKenzie gave the command for all hands, the bosun's calls twittered once more, and seamen erupted from the lower levels of the ship and assembled on the deck. Wentworth looked them over critically; they stood quietly and attentively, not talking among themselves or shifting restlessly, as idle seamen were prone to do. Clearly Captain Merriam had run a tight ship, and his lieutenants had carried on in his absence. It boded well for a cruise without excessive incident.

Wentworth removed his commission from his pocket, unfolded it, and read it aloud. "By the Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland..." The commission, worded in a high-flown language never used anywhere but Admiralty documents, gave Captain Frederick Wentworth, R.N. legal command of the Minerva. He finished reading the commission, folded the paper, and said, "Mr. MacKenzie, you may dismiss the ship's company. See to the transfer of my dunnage from the boat, and then report to me in my cabin."

MacKenzie touched the brim of his hat once more. "Aye aye, Captain." Wentworth made his way aft to his cabin.

The captain's cabin took up the entire end of the ship behind the quarterdeck. Wentworth opened the paneled wooden door; to his left and right were canvas bulkheads that could be easily removed when the ship was cleared for action. The bulkhead to the left formed the coach, fitted up with a dining table; to the right was the sleeping cabin, where the square-sided canvas cot slung from the deckhead swayed gently with the rocking of the ship. The slight movement of the cot made Wentworth feel queasy; he was a good sailor, but the first twenty-four hours at sea were always uncomfortable for him.

He passed into the great cabin beyond. The windows of the stern gallery swept from one end to the other; someone had drawn back the crisp blue muslin curtains, and the grey morning light filtered through the glass. A polished wooden desk stood before the gallery, and the rounded breech of an 18-pound gun framed it on either side, draped in the same blue muslin as the curtains. It was a tastefully and expensively-furnished apartment, and gave no indication that when the canvas bulkheads were stripped down and the handsome furniture struck into the hold, two gun crews could perform their deadly work there.

There was a knock on the door, and Lieutenant MacKenzie entered. Shuffling feet and low laughter could be heard behind him. "Your dunnage, Captain," he said, as several pigtailed sailors carried Wentworth's sea chest and other possessions into the sleeping cabin.

"Thank you, Mr. MacKenzie. Here," Wentworth added, handing the younger man a folded sheet of paper. "You may relay my instructions to the officers." Every captain had their quirks, and regulations were flexible enough to permit each captain some leeway in running their ship. The ship's officers would make their own copy of the instructions, and would be expected to follow them without any reminders from the captain. Fortunately, Wentworth had kept a copy of his instructions from the Laconia, and had made a fair copy for the officers of the Minerva.

MacKenzie looked down at the sheet of paper, but did not move.

Wentworth, accustomed as are all Royal Navy captains to instant compliance with his commands, looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Well? What is it?"

"We already have instructions from Captain Merriam, sir."

"And now you have instructions from me."

"If Captain Merriam were not returning to the Minerva, sir--"

"When Captain Merriam returns to the Minerva, the officers will of course comply with his instructions. Until that time, you will oblige me by complying with mine. That is an order, Mr. MacKenzie."

There was only one possible response, and MacKenzie gave it. "Aye aye, Captain."

Wentworth held eye contact with the first lieutenant for a moment. The young man's face revealed nothing; his blue eyes were expressionless. "Carry on, then."

"Aye aye, Captain." MacKenzie turned on his heel and left the great cabin.

Wentworth sat down at the desk, looked around him at the strange cabin, and gave a heavy sigh. This cruise was not going to be as peaceful as he had anticipated.


Wentworth began to feel more comfortable once they were at sea. The regular routine of the ship, with daily gun and sail drill, was helpful in that regard, and after their initial war of wills, MacKenzie obeyed every order to the letter. He was distant but civil, a state of affairs both unusual and unwelcome to his captain. Wentworth was accustomed to a warmer relationship with his first lieutenant; he called James Benwick his friend without reservation. The captain of a ship of war was necessarily a man alone--overfamiliarity with underlings could be detrimental to discipline--but aboard the Minerva, with men he barely knew, and missing Anne acutely, Wentworth felt more alone than he had in his entire naval career.

The Minerva proved a sweet sailer, and she made excellent time, reaching the Canary Islands a fortnight after departing Plymouth. They adjusted course westward across the Atlantic with the trades, on schedule to arrive in Tortola at least a week before the convoy was due to depart. To a landsman, such an indirect route--southwest from England almost to the coast of Africa, and then turning west to cross the ocean--might seem strange, but experienced sailors knew that it was the best route to take advantage of the trade winds.

Wentworth's initial impression of tight discipline on the Minerva proved correct, yet the men showed no sign of discontent. When church was rigged on Sundays, the sailors sang the hymns with gusto, always an excellent barometer of a ship's mood. Some captains would have allowed the uneventful routine to make them complacent, but Wentworth was edgy. He had sufficient experience of command to know that the peaceful interlude could not possibly last.

Three days after they turned westward, several of the men reported for gun drill in a state of advanced intoxication. Wentworth sent MacKenzie to investigate, and it turned out that one of them had got hold of a freshly-emptied rum cask, which he filled with water and hid in the cable tier for a week. The rum that had soaked into the oaken staves of the cask mixed with the water and produced a potent grog. The man shared his wealth with four of his messmates, and they had foolishly consumed the entire cask with their dinner, with the result that the youngest member of the mess, who could not have been more than eighteen, amused his fellows by spending the first dogwatch curled up on the deck moaning, and occasionally vomiting into the scuppers.

Wentworth sighed and rubbed at his forehead as he listened to MacKenzie's report. "Are these men habitual drunkards?"

"No, Captain."

"Very well. Stop their grog for a fortnight. Put it about that any man found giving or selling them his tot will suffer the same fate." The prospect of a fortnight without grog, one of the few comforts available to a sailor, was usually sufficient to guarantee adherence to regulations.

MacKenzie hesitated, then said, "Permission to speak freely, Captain."

Wentworth stared at him. "Granted."

"Captain Merriam has a standing punishment of a dozen lashes for drunkenness."

Wentworth waited several beats before responding. "I am not Captain Merriam." He felt that flogging too often lessened the effectiveness of the punishment, and saved it for more grievous offenses than simple drunkenness. Repeated episodes of drunkenness, perhaps, or thievery, or desertion; such offenses tore apart a ship, and a spell at the gratings was indicated, but sailors drinking to excess upon occasion was an expected if unpleasant cross for a captain to bear.

"I understand that, sir. If you were to remain as captain of the Minerva, I daresay a change of routine would be acceptable, but to let these men get by without a flogging, when Captain Merriam will punish as he always has upon his return, cannot be good for discipline."

MacKenzie was correct, Wentworth admitted to himself. He looked at the lieutenant shrewdly. "What punishment would you give, were you in command?"

"If this were my ship to command henceforth, sir?"


MacKenzie opened his mouth to speak, and then hesitated.

Wentworth said, "I will hold your answer in confidence, Mr. MacKenzie. I am simply curious."

"I would stop their grog, Captain, and perhaps give them an unpleasant duty. They could clean the head and roundhouses for a fortnight."

"A much more lasting lesson than a dozen lashes, I daresay."

MacKenzie had warmed to his subject. "I would make sure that the Admiralty knew of the purser's failure to rinse the rum cask, as well, and advise that he be fined. It is right in the instructions--the purser is to rinse out the empty rum casks with seawater, to prevent just such an occurrence." The young man's blue eyes met Wentworth's. Gone was the reserve of the past few weeks; they burned with indignation, and his brogue was more pronounced than usual. "The men did wrong, and deserve punishment, but should the purser escape when he has placed temptation in their path?"

Wentworth said nothing, but smiled warmly. After a moment, MacKenzie's lips quirked at the corners, and he relaxed visibly. "Shall I bring the men in, Captain?"

"If you please, Mr. MacKenzie."

The five men crowded reluctantly into the great cabin, prodded by the bayonets of two overzealous Marines. "Belay that," Wentworth growled. "Take off those irons." The Marine sergeant released the men from the irons and, at a nod from the captain, left the cabin.

Wentworth looked over the miscreants. Their expressions ranged from defiant to nauseated to the wide-eyed fright of the youngest. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," said Wentworth. He was truly angry with the men--angry that they had endangered themselves and the ship by getting drunk, and angry that they had placed him in the position of having to punish them so severely. "You all know that pirates are preying on shipping in these latitudes. Did you think you could work a gun or a sail when you were too drunk to stand? Did you expect your shipmates to fight for you, when you were unable to fight for them?"

The men stared uncomfortably at the deck; even the defiant oldster, his thick plait reaching down to the center of his back--the mark of a longtime seaman--dropped his gaze. The boy began to cry silently.

"You leave me no choice," said Wentworth. "A dozen lashes each. Mr. MacKenzie, you will inform the bosun's mate."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Take them away."

"Should they be put in irons, Captain?"

"No. They can go back to work, and pull their weight. I cannot carry idle men. The punishment will take place the day after tomorrow."

The men were led away, and Wentworth was left alone in the great cabin. He spent a few moments watching the churning wake of the ship through the stern gallery, and finally sat down to note the event in the ship's log.


Wentworth forced himself to go out on the quarterdeck the next day, though he knew what he would see: the bosun's mate seated by the mainmast, deliberately crafting five cat o'nine tails, one for each man to be flogged. The thin ropes were bound together, the handle was covered with red baize, and it was placed into a bag made of the same material. Two red bags sat on the deck next to the bosun's mate, bulging with their ugly contents.

The lieutenants and midshipmen immediately vacated the windward side of the quarterdeck, the acknowledged domain of the captain on every ship. Wentworth paced slowly up and down, dreading the moment that would carry him closest to the terrible sight of those red baize bags. At one point he glanced at MacKenzie, who was taking the noon readings with the young gentlemen. Their eyes met; MacKenzie nodded briefly; his eyes flicked away to the bosun's mate and back to Wentworth. That the first lieutenant was displeased with the prospect of the floggings was oddly comforting.


Wentworth stared down at his dinner; he had no appetite for it. Strange; he had witnessed floggings before, had ordered them, and had watched them with a clear conscience though without enjoyment, but the morning's punishment had affected him deeply.

Flashes of the day's events replayed incessantly in his mind: the grating raised in the gangway, the five men lashed to it in their turn; the cat cutting into their backs with each heavy, deliberate stroke of the bosun's mate's arm; the sun glinting off the hilts of the officer's swords, full-dress uniforms being worn out of respect for the gravity of the occasion; the pale face of the youngest man as he was led to the grating, and his screams of pain during the flogging.

That was it, he admitted to himself as he pushed the food around his plate. It was the boy. He was little more than a boy, after all. The young man--his name was Burns, Geoffrey Burns, Wentworth had learned--had gone to the grating as bravely as his elders, but while they had stood their punishment without comment, he had cried for mercy halfway through, and his screams and sobs still echoed in his captain's mind.

And what would Anne think of her heroic husband, the sea-captain, today? The man who ordered a boy whipped for drinking himself sick?

He sighed and pushed the plate away. I've grown soft, he thought ruefully. I've been too long upon land. The swift and simple justice of the sea seemed barbaric when he tried to see it through Anne's eyes. Thank Providence he had left her in England.

His only comfort, and it was a small one, was that the crew watched the punishment stoically; there was no shifting of feet, no murmuring, nothing that would indicate displeasure with the justice being meted. They knew the men had been drunk, they expected a flogging in the case, and they were content. Would that I could be so, Wentworth thought wearily.

Jenkins came in, banging the door shut behind him. "You ain't eating, Captain," he chided. "Mrs. Wentworth will have my head on a boarding pike if you come back from the Indies looking the starveling. You eat up now, sir. You'll have me thinking you don't like my cooking."

"You are hardly the Parisian chef you style yourself, Jenkins."

The steward snorted. "I'd like to see some fancy Frog cook do better with shipboard stores, maggoty biscuit, rancid butter--"

"Such a recitation is hardly calculated to help my appetite."

The steward subsided. "No, Captain."

After a pause, Wentworth asked, "Have you heard anything about the boy who was punished today?"

"The surgeon's tending to him, Captain. He'll get by. They all do." With these words of dubious comfort, Jenkins left the cabin.

Wentworth poured another glass of Madeira, entirely in sympathy with the men he had punished that day; just then, it seemed an excellent idea to take a cask of grog and drink himself into a stupor.

~ Continued in next chapter

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