Chapter 1: H.M.S. Sparrow
It was a cold, bleak morning at the anchorage. It had been like this for days now and almost all of Plymouth was covered in snow. Lying at anchor were many men-of-war and quite a few merchantmen. One of the afore mentioned men-of-war was a 38-gun frigate which was preparing to welcome its new lord and master.
Lieutenant Xavier Tolhurst glanced around at the assembled side party. The captain was coming aboard today and in a few moments, it would be Tolhurst's responsibility to welcome him. Tolhurst was the first lieutenant of His Majesty's Frigate Sparrow. He liked his post and was aware of the fact that he was much younger than most first lieutenants. He was also acutely aware of the envy that was usually directed towards him by the second lieutenant. Tolhurst glanced over at him now, resplendent in his best uniform. Alexander Mills, twenty-two years old and a tyrant if ever there was one. It would not be easy for his men if he ever got a command.
Tolhurst turned his attention back to the entry port as the captain's gig had just hooked on with the captain and the third lieutenant, Samuel Ashby. The marines and boatswain's mates sprung into action as the captain's head and shoulders appeared. He stepped forward as the din died down and said in the most formal tone imaginable, "Captain, sir. Welcome aboard. I am Lieutenant Tolhurst, the senior aboard"
"Glad to be here Mr. Tolhurst." He had a well-educated accent and a deep but smooth voice. He had a sturdy frame and was so tanned; he could have originated in the Mediterranean. As they moved along the line of officers and Tolhurst introduced each of them, he tried to gage the captain's emotions, if he had any.
"This is Mr. Ashby, sir, third lieutenant."
"We've met. Haven't we Mr. Ashby?"
Tolhurst couldn't be sure but he could have sworn Ashby was blushing. It did not surprise him; Ashby was notorious for being clumsy. He probably just fell up the stairs at the jetty, nothing too serious.
They finally reached the quarterdeck rail and the captain pulled out his papers and after everyone had removed their hats, started reading in a slow, level, methodical voice. Tolhurst allowed his mind to meander, only one thing stood out and that was the captain's name. Erasmus Veretennikoff. Tolhurst had heard of him once before. He had been stationed at the Nore in 1797, during the Great Mutiny. Oh, please can he not be a tyrant! He thought desperately, anything but! By this stage, the captain had finished reading and had turned to Tolhurst.
"Carry on Mr. Tolhurst."
Tolhurst touched his hat. "Aye, aye, sir."
A few hours later, Tolhurst found himself in the wardroom sipping a scolding hot coffee and reading his book. It was a good book, one of his favourites, about life in the city, something he had never himself experienced. He glanced up as Ashby tramped noisily into the otherwise quiet setting.
"Getting a mite cold up there!" Ashby said in his piping voice. He had just come in off watch and Mills had gone a minute or two before to relieve him. "What are we doing?"
"We were enjoying the peace and quiet until you arrived," said Tolhurst spitefully.
Ashby, at nineteen, was the youngest in the wardroom. Tolhurst himself was just six months older than Ashby, but had held his rank the longest, since he was fifteen. He was now twenty, but did not look it. He had a scar that ran down and across his left eye and lines around his mouth that spoke of horrid pain, both physical and emotional. Tolhurst never spoke of his past and nobody ever asked him. He actually cherished his own mystique as if it were a gift from the king himself. No one in the ship except the surgeon and of course the captain knew what his first name was.
"Mr. Tolhurst, care to join us for a game?" Ashby and Villiers Dancer, the marine captain, were playing cards. Tolhurst simply shook his head and swallowed the last of his coffee. Then he went into his own hutch-like cabin, the personification of privacy.
Once sure that Tolhurst was not listening, Dancer asked in his robust voice, "What's with him?"
"What d'you mean?" asked Ashby, all innocence.
"Y'know! He's all mysterious and never talks when he doesn't have to and nobody seems to know his first name let alone anything about his past or his age!"
Ashby shrugged. It was true; Tolhurst had never shown a change in facial expression from watching a flogging to eating a meal. But he had a great many things in his favour, like he had never taken a man aft for punishment unless the man had requested it. He dealt with most issues himself.
Ashby sighed. "I think he is impossible to know."
A full three days after Captain Veretennikoff had read himself in, the dispatches found their way aboard by way of a water lighter. Another two hours after that found Lieutenant Tolhurst in the great stern cabin. Veretennikoff watched Tolhurst with keen interest. They had not spoken much in the preceding three days and then only about the general running of the ship. All that he had gleaned from the other officers in the private interviews he had had with each was that Tolhurst was respected and popular with the hands but not a lot was known about him and he was not exactly liked in the wardroom. He had also discovered that he knew the more about the lieutenant than anyone else in the entire company.
"Can I offer you a drink?"
"No, thank-you, sir, I don't drink," replied Tolhurst in his brief, to the point manner.
"Don't drink? What's the navy coming to these days?"
Tolhurst just shrugged. He had this awful habit of only speaking when necessary and then only what was necessary.
Veretennikoff decided to begin, as it was obvious that Tolhurst was not going to say much. "As you know, the dispatches arrived today." A pause but Tolhurst said nothing. "We are to weigh anchor at dusk and sail south then east, south again, and east yet again."
"New Holland, sir?"
"Well yes as a matter of fact," said Veretennikoff, surprised that Tolhurst had figured it out.
"I had better prepare the hands, sir."
"Aye, do that."
Once the screen door closed Veretennikoff's coxswain came into the cabin and stood looking at the closed door. "An odd one that un, zur." He had a Devonian accent and his voice had the hoarseness of someone used to yelling orders in half a gale.
"What have you heard?"
"Well zur, one o' the sailmaker's mates says 'e's served with Mr. Tol'urst afore."
"Go on," he was interested now. Any information was better than none.
"Well, accordin' to this man, 'twas in '97, at the Nore, zur, durin' the mu'iny. Their ship weren't spared. 'Twas a big three-decka an' Mr. Tol'urst was the sixth and junior lieutenan'. I was told tha' th' cap'n was a real tyrant, so the crew flogged all the officers, but the sixth lieutenan' scoffed at a mere dozen and continued to taunt 'em until the leader 'ad ordered that 'e be flogged 'til 'e fainted. Accordin' to the sailmaker's mate, 'e lasted one hundred fifty, zur. More'n the rest o' the officers put t'geva, as most of 'em fainted durin' the mere dozen that they got." He chuckled at the thought.
"Well, that does put things into perspective."
"Zur?" But the captain was not listening.
It was half way through the afternoon watch on a sweltering Monday. For almost two months they had beaten south through the Atlantic in half a gale because of a storm that had struck with sudden ferocity. As a result of this, they were now anchored off the coast of Madagascar for repairs to spars and rigging. At dawn tomorrow, they would weigh and head southeast for Sydney.
Mills had the watch. He was tall and sturdy but not large and he did not have any scars to diminish his good looks. He watched as the gig was swayed outboard for the purser and captain. They were going to get fresh fruit and visit the governor respectively. The first lieutenant was there to see them over the side. If Mills were asked to guess Tolhurst's age, he would guess he was in his late twenties. Tolhurst was short and thin, almost frail but he was a competent first lieutenant, if a bit lenient with the men. Mills knew that Tolhurst liked to deal with matters of discipline himself. But I would have taken them aft and to hell with the consequences, he thought spitefully.
He quickly pushed himself away from the quarterdeck rail and found that most of the men on deck were averting their eyes. He was brooding again as he often did when his thoughts turned to the first lieutenant as they often did these days. He saw said first lieutenant ducking under the poop, no doubt going to the wardroom where he would read his book or go through yet another list with the surgeon or sailing master. He wouldn't play cards with Ashby and Dancer, he never did. Mills glanced around at the men on deck and his eye caught sight of a midshipman. "Aloft with you Mr. Aldridge and check the foretops'l brace!"
Down in the wardroom Tolhurst heard the cry and rolled his eyes, Mills was never content to be left to his own thoughts. Little did he realise that Ashby had seen the movement and was smiling to himself. That is until he realised that Dancer had completely outmanoeuvred him in their game.
"Damn you to hell!"
At this point Valentine Lathopolous, the surgeon came into the wardroom. "Can I join you for a game?" he asked in his deep, grating voice.
"Sure, I don't see why not." replied Dancer, always ready for a challenge.
It was at about this time that Tolhurst retired into his small cabin and wasn't seen again until he went on watch.
"Boat ahoy?" came the cry, shattering the silence.
Tolhurst glanced over the side. It was Mills, come from seeing to the water lighters. These particular water lighters were almost to the shore and Mills was through the entry port. With a flourish, he saluted the quarterdeck and strode aft.
"Mr. Tolhurst, all water casks are full." Mills had a well-educated accent and the stern good looks of someone bred for authority. And, in the opinion of Tolhurst and most of the midshipman, he was the personification of arrogance.
"Good. The captain will want to see you aft before you retire for the afternoon, Mr. Mills."
"When are we to weigh," a slight hesitation, "sir?"
"Soon enough Mr. Mills, soon enough."
Typical, thought Mills. He never tells anyone what's happening unless ordered to. He headed down the companion and saw the marine sentry at the screen door.
"Second lieutenant, sir!" shouted the sentry.
"Enter!" came the cry from within.
Mills opened the door and strode in, with his hat crushed under his arm. The captain was standing with his back to the screen door, silhouetted against the stern windows.
Then he turned towards Mills. "Ah, Mr. Mills. Can I offer you a drink?"
"I would relish one, sir."
"Good. Not like some ungrateful souls in this ship."
"Like who, sir?"
"No one you need to concern yourself with, be sure of that." A brief pause. "Tomorrow we weigh at dawn and sail for Sydney, but I suppose you knew that."
"I knew of our destination but not when we were to weigh, sir."
"But didn't Tolhurst tell you?"
"No, sir. Mr. Tolhurst is what some would describe as anti-social. To be quite frank, sir, I'm not sure if anyone on this ship knows his first name, his age or where he grew up!" Mills could not help himself, he was sick of Tolhurst. "He never speaks of anything but the running of the ship and no one has any idea what ships he may have previously served on, sir!" He was almost shouting.
"Calm yourself Mr. Mills. The deck head is not sound proof and remember who has the watch."
Mills calmed himself with an effort. "I apologise, sir."
"At least I know something more of my officers."
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