The sound of rolling glass permeated Bligh’s slumber and he woke slowly to the smell of rot and dampness. Looking down from his repose, he saw an empty olive-green rum bottle rolling from beneath the surgeon’s desk and under a hammock occupied by Harper. The young topman lay sleeping and, judging by the rum fumes emanating from him, was well sedated. From what he could see of the boy’s ankles, Bligh did not think that the boy would ever again climb rigging. On top of the table lay slouched the surgeon himself, drunk. Bligh sighed and looked around him. As a place of well-being and recuperation, the sick bay of the Cleopatra left a lot to be desired. Situated in the aft part of the lower deck, there was little light and even less fresh air. Bligh took a moment to wonder why surgeons, always lecturing about how bad airs contributed to disease, were put to work in one of the dankest, dingiest parts of the ship.
Bligh’s stomach churned with hunger. He set his jaw and eased himself down from his hammock, taking a moment to steady himself as the side of his head throbbed and his legs wobbled underneath him. At least, he thought, he was not in irons. As for Spratt, Bligh dreaded to think what had become of him.
“Awake, my lad, are we?”
The doctor had risen from slumber and was staring bleary eyed at Bligh, one hand supporting a face lined from sleeping on his desk.
“As far as I can tell,” answered Bligh with a wan smile. He had always liked the surgeon. Although the doctor spent the majority of his time drinking himself to death in the bowels of the ship, he took his task seriously and looked after his charges. “What’s the time?”
The doctor fumbled with a pocket watch.
“Should be coming around to first watch. Reckon you’ll need a shot of rum before going up above after a bang to the head like that.”
Bligh moved his hands to the side of his head, where he felt a bandage neatly tied.
“First watch? Good God! I’ve been out cold all day?”
The doctor laughed. “Why, boy, you’ve been dead to the world for three whole nights!”
Bligh paled. If the captain was true to form, then whatever punishment he had deemed fit for Spratt would have long been administered.
“And William Spratt. Has he…?”
The doctor’s face fell and he shook his head. “One hundred and fifty lashes. A damned mess I was left to clean up, and still the captain had him back on duty this afternoon. A bleeding disgrace…”
Bligh waited to hear no more but ran out of the sick bay and up the stairs towards the main deck. He and the company of men who were assigned to him were due to be first watch this evening.
One hundred and fifty lashes! Men had died from less and Bligh dreaded what he would find when he came upon Spratt. Captain Cowan had to be confronted before things went too far, as they had on the Hermione. A captain who punished indiscriminately, disregarded shore leave that the men had earned, and cut rations on a whim did not deserve to have command of a seventy-four. Bligh was not one for grand gestures and God knew that his position as a midshipman did not lend itself to making a statement, but he could not carry on letting his men suffer. Acheson and Spratt were drunks, yes, but they were competent seamen. They were no shirkers and the crew had felt a keen sense of injustice when Acheson was punished. That sense of near-mutiny that he had experienced when the women were being put off the ship was sure to have been stoked even further by Spratt’s punishment.
And yet. As Bligh made his way towards the quarterdeck of the ship the atmosphere he experienced was not that of a ship in tumult. Up through the lower deck he walked, where seamen were humming as they holystoned the planks. Past the entry port where he passed sailors whistling to themselves as the watch changed and they headed for their hammocks. Around the capstan head where men were gathered, talking quietly and contentedly.
Bligh struggled to marry the disillusioned and mutinous atmosphere he had sensed three days ago with the satisfied and efficient vessel he was now climbing through. The seamen he encountered had the same distracted contentment that had been so evident in Acheson when he returned from the surgeon and there were none of the small, subversive groups that had been so prevalent. The ship, disarmingly empty after being purged of wives and whores, shone with elbow grease. What had occurred to prompt this change?
Bligh wondered idly whether he had been moved ships whilst unconscious, such was the difference in atmosphere on the Cleopatra. After finding Lieutenant Tanner on the quarterdeck and announcing himself, Bligh was instructed that he was not required that evening but was simply to recover and to report for duty again in the morning.
The midshipman made his way towards the prow of the ship where Spratt would be carrying out his watch on the forecastle, apprehensive of what he might see in the light of the setting sun. The faint bustle of Bantry made its way to him over the clear, still water, and the midshipman shivered as the December cold made his head hurt.
There were six lookouts on deck on the first watch but none could have looked as forlorn as William Spratt did from a distance. As the bell sounded once, shouts of ‘all’s well’ came from each lookout. Spratt’s croak barely reached Bligh, let alone the lieutenant. The seaman stood hunched and crooked, with his head bowed towards the deck.
“Bill,” said the midshipman, approaching the seaman from behind.
Spratt turned on the spot with obvious discomfort but it was a genuine smile that framed his few remaining teeth.
“Young master,” he grinned; an expression which soon changed to one of sheepishness. “Are you alright, young master? I didn’t mean for you to… I shouldn’t ‘ave…”
“Never mind about that. What about your back? It is outrageous what happened!”
“Ah, young sir,” replied Spratt, looking embarrassed. “There’s a price to be paid when an old tar like me thinks he can decide how a ship’s run, and the proof of that’s on me back.”
Bligh looked at the seaman’s blue jacket. Even in the moonlight the midshipman could still make out blood seeping through bandages and fabric.
“Good God! Are you not incensed? You should still be in the sick bay!”
Spratt shifted his feet uncomfortably, grimacing with pain.
“A humble tar must take his lashes,” he said woodenly, taking a piece of tobacco that he had been chewing from his mouth and idly inspecting it. “This is as dry as a haddock!”
“You’re wrong!” spluttered Bligh, ignoring shushing motions from the older seaman. “There are letters we can write, people we can petition! A back like offal and a trip to the West Indies to consider. I’ll make a stand for you, Bill, if all it means is that I am flogged alongside you!”
Bligh’s passionate whisper had gravitated into a shout and Spratt was looking around him in a panic, terrified in case someone would hear.
“No, master! I’s done the crime, and I’ll dance with the cat like any honest seaman. That Cap’n Cowan is just looking to make his mark, that’s all. Can’t blame a man for that.”
Spratt did not look at his midshipman as he spoke but instead stared across the water to the small town, where lanterns winked from across the bay. “Besides which, the Caribbean? Good for prize money they say. A seaman’s life passes on the edge of the grave anyway. Why should the West Indies be any different?”
Bligh stood on the forecastle deck, open mouthed and listless like a cutter in a dead calm. He was desperately trying to reconcile the seaman who two days ago was advocating outright mutiny with the appeasing, conciliatory man he now saw.
“And,” carried on Spratt, “Get us strapped to a grating and you won’t be able to enjoy the charms of Ugly Bertha.”
The seaman winked at him.
“Ugly Bertha?” mumbled Bligh.
“There’s women survived the captain’s purge,” smiled Spratt. He raised his eyes and blew out his cheeks. “Just about every man has paid her a visit now! You should get yourself down there.”
“You won’t…you’re not…”
“Sir, I won’t have you getting yourself into trouble for an old seaman like me. You’ve fought my side in this and Acheson’s too. That kind of thing’s not forgotten, but we’ve to face facts. He’s a captain, and we are anything but.” Spratt put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go below decks, and find Bertha. I guarantee she’ll take your mind off this business, and if nothing else you can talk about the captain in peace. ”
“Dan’s of the same opinion, sir. Best just to get on with it. Bertha’s in the aft hold. Don’t be seen going down there, sir.”
Three bells sounded as Bligh made his way down through the ship. He heard the master-at-arms on his rounds to check that all lights were out and scurried down a stairwell to avoid him. The tin and horn lantern provided a dull smear of light that threw sinister hues onto the dark walls of the ship as he descended. Gradually the sounds of wind, chatter, and life faded away, and Bligh found himself deep below the waterline. A foetid, foul stench rose from the blackness, as though Bligh were entering hell itself.
When he had started descending the midshipman had not known where he was going but slowly it began to dawn on him that he was heading for the aft hold, where Ugly Bertha was reputed to ply her trade. It was not the pleasures of the flesh that drew Bligh down but rather a sense of solidarity and shared toil that he had found wanting from his fellow seamen. Surely a whore whom Captain Cowan would throw overboard at a moment’s notice would share his mistrust of the man.
He passed the great guns, in between which he had spent many a night huddled and listening to Spratt spin tales of mermaids, denizens of the deep, and witchcraft. The seaman would often have an audience of twenty or more, midshipmen and lieutenants included. On more than a few occasions Bligh had gone to his hammock wide eyed and sleep had been a long while coming. The same unease seeped into his bones now like the sea mists beginning to form in the bay.
Some spell or black magic seemed to have taken hold of the crew now, thought Bligh. How else to explain the crew suddenly becoming loyal to a man who had flogged them mercilessly, cut their rations, and exchanged shore leave for a trip to the West Indies from which a good number of them would never return? The gaunt face of the captain had not been seen for days if Spratt was to be believed and Bligh felt himself quail at the thought of a man who could occasion such a change in attitude without so much as a word to his crew.
The hull of the ship creaked and moaned around him as he half-felt his way down into the main hold. Barrel upon barrel of salt beef, Blackstrap wine and water was here, ready for the journey to the West Indies and already turning sour. The light from Bligh’s lantern stretched out a pitiful distance and he could hear rats scurrying away into the corners of the huge space. Making his way towards the aft hold, Bligh shivered as the oppressive atmosphere seemed to seep into his bones. If there was a place for witchcraft and hauntings, then this was it. Darkness closed around him and he imagined the cold Atlantic embracing the hull, unceasingly searching for a way into the Cleopatra and looking for a handhold with which to drag it down to the icy depths.
His lantern unveiled nothing but rotting wood and pools of dark, stagnant water. The midshipman shivered as he thought of the hundreds of men asleep above his head. What was he doing down here, alone and wandering? Bligh was about to turn and head for the orlop deck when his ears caught a faint noise. It could have been no more than a rat pattering away into a shadow-filled corner, or a barrel shifting in the swell. Raising the lantern once more, Bligh rounded a stack of crates, and was struck dumb by what he saw.
An array of light momentarily blinded him and when he had recovered his worst fears about the supernatural had been realised. Amid the roughly hewn timbers of the hold, underneath the drips of saltwater filtering through four decks and in between the barrels, crates, and chests, sat enthroned a goddess. In contrast to the dark and dingy setting she was ethereal. Dressed in a green dress of finest lace and with jewels glimmering from her ears and neck, candles surrounded her on every side and she seemed to glow with an unearthly light.
To be continued…
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0.