A Sea of Troubles

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Authors: David Donachie
place at the very prow of the ship and it was one designed not to be overheard because Pearce had made it plain to the rest of the crew that he wanted some private space to talk to his friend-cum-servant. He should have known better; if you could not keep a secret on a ship of the line – it was held as an absolute truth that Jack tar could hear a whisper through six inches of planking – the chances of doing so in a cramped armed cutter were zero. A ship’s crew were always agog to know what was being planned; captainsmade decisions regarding their future, including matters of life and death, without so much as a by your leave and since they cared for it more than any officer it was as well to know what fate awaited them over the metaphorical horizon.
    Not that all were privy to what was being discussed; the bosun, known to all as Birdy, slight of frame if well muscled, had slipped into the space below the prow under the bow chaser gun port, open on a warm day to let in to the ’tween deck air enough to dry out the timbers. Birdy learnt enough to make out that if nothing had been said that the crew should be concerned about, what he had overheard meant a threat to their temporary commander and soon, once he had extracted himself from his eavesdropping, that was disseminated.
    It would be stretching things to say that the crew of HMS
loved John Pearce – few of the lower deck loved any officer and the armed cutter had as well a small number of endemic malcontents who hated him just for his coat. But in the main they had come to esteem him, given the contrast with the real ship’s captain, a well-named tyrant. Unlike Rackham, Pearce was honest and fair-minded, given to smiling instead of scowling, polite when called upon to be so instead of in a state of constant ire at slights and failures real or imagined.
    He had also shown real flair in a fight, as well as trust in the crew to perform to their best and had said how pleased he was when they did. Sailing through that armada of merchant ships without alerting them or their escorts had been skilful and much appreciated; if he had failed, the best his crew could have hoped for wasa French dungeon, with a watery grave a real possibility. Given that their opinion of him stood as it did, one of their number was elected to speak for them all.
    ‘A word, if you please, Captain?’
    Half sat on the prow bulkhead and deep in conversation with Michael, Pearce had not noticed the approach, which had been made by a master who in such a small vessel, like the rest of the crew, worked barefoot.
    ‘Mr Dorling.’
    Looking up into the man’s face, round and clean-skinned, he sensed that Dorling was worried, for his normally smooth forehead was slightly furrowed, while the eyes, small for the size of his head, were narrowed. A fellow who always appeared to Pearce as serious – hardly surprising given his responsibilities at such a young age – his temporary commander felt that underneath lay a personality much more inclined to humour than misery; in another life and at another time Dorling would have been a companion of sharp wit and scant respect.
    Given the master did not speak immediately, this allowed Pearce to look beyond him and see that, if they were trying not to look in his direction, the whole crew were somehow attached to this approach, the only disinterested person the Count de Puisaye, who was sitting in a quarterdeck chair plying a makeshift fishing rod; Amélie was in the cabin avoiding the sun, which she was sure would damage her delicate skin.
    ‘It has come to our attention, sir, that you seem in some way troubled. If I were to refer to smugglers I think that would nail the concern.’
    Having looked at Dorling as he spoke these openingwords, a sharp shifting of the eyes caught the fact that everyone else on deck, who should have been engaged in the raising of sails for drying, was immobile, which only lasted till they realised he was looking in their

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