The low thud of a court-martial gun echoed over Portsmouth in the calm early-summer morning, the grim sound telling the world of the naval drama about to take place. Its ominous portent also stilled the conversation on the fore lower-deck of the old receiving ship lying farther into the harbor. There, Thomas Kydd's pigtail was being reclubbed by his closest friend and shipmate, Nicholas Renzi.
"I wish in m' bowels it were you," Kydd said, in a low voice. He was dressed in odd-fitting but clean seaman's gear. Like Renzi, he was a shipwrecked mariner and his clothes were borrowed. A court-martial would try the sole surviving officer, and Kydd, who had been on watch at the helm at the time, was a principal witness.
There was a muffled hail at the fore hatchway. Kydd made a hasty farewell, and clattered up the broad ladder to muster at the ship's side. The larboard cutter bobbed alongside to embark the apprehensive witnesses. In the curious way of the Navy, Kydd joined diffidently with the petty officers, even though with the death of his ship his acting rate had been removed and therefore he was borne on the books of the receiving ship as an able seaman. His testimony, however, would be given as a petty officer, his rate at the time.
The pleasant boat trip to the dockyard was not appreciated by Kydd, who gulped at the thought of crusty, gold-laced admirals and captains glaring at him as he gave his evidence, which might well be challenged by other hostile officers.
In fact recently it had not in any way been a pleasant time for Kydd and Renzi. Their return as shipwrecked sailors to the land of their birth had been met with virtual imprisonment in a receiving ship; at a time of increasingly solemn news from the war it was a grave problem for the authorities how to announce the loss of the famous frigate Artemis. Their response had been to keep the survivors from the public until a course of action had been decided after the court-martial, with the result that both Kydd and Renzi had not been able to return home after their long voyage. As far as could be known, their loved ones had had no news of them since the previous year, and that from Macao, their last touching at civilization.
The cutter headed for the smart new stone buildings of the dockyard. The last half of the century had seen a massive expansion of capability in the foremost royal dockyard of the country, and it was a spectacle in its own right, the greatest industrial endeavor in the land. As they neared the shore, Kydd nervously took in the single Union Flag hanging from the signal tower. This was the evidence for all eyes of the reality of a court-martial to be held here, ashore, by the Port Admiral. The court would normally meet in the Great Cabin of the flagship, but the anchorage at Spithead was virtually empty, Admiral Howe's fleet somewhere out in the Atlantic looking for the French.
The marine sentries at the landing place stood at ease -- there were no officers in the boat needing a salute, only an odd-looking lot of seamen in ill-fitting sailor rig. There were few words among the men, who obediently followed a lieutenant into an anteroom to await their call. Pointedly, a pair of marines took up position at the entrance.
It seemed an interminable time to Kydd, as he sat on the wooden chair, his hat awkwardly in his hand. The voyage across the vast expanse of the Pacific and the early responsibility of promotion thrust on him had considerably matured him, and anyone who glanced at his tanned, open face, thick dark hair and powerful build could never have mistaken him for anything other than what he was, a prime seaman. His past as a perruquier in Guildford town was now unimaginably distant.
"Abraham Smith," called a black-coated clerk at the door. The carpenter's mate stood and limped off, his face set. Kydd remembered his work on the foredeck of Artemis in the stormy darkness. Men here owed their lives to the raft he had fashioned from wreckage and launched in the cold dawn light.
The clerk returned. "Tobias Stirk." The big gunner got to his feet, then he paused deliberately and looked back at Kydd. His grave expression did not vary, but his slow wink caused Kydd to smile. Then he thought of the trial, and his heart thudded.
Kydd followed the clerk, emerging into a busy room where he was handed over to another. Expecting at any moment to appear before the great court, Kydd was confused to be led upstairs to a much smaller room, bare but for a large table. At a chair on the opposite side was a senior official wearing a grave expression, who motioned him to sit down. A junior clerk entered and took up position at a smaller table.
"Thomas Paine Kydd?"
Kydd nodded, too nervous to speak.
"My name is Gardiner. We are here to determine the facts pertaining to the loss of His Majesty's Frigate Artemis," the lawyer announced, with practiced ease. "Your deposition of evidence will be taken here, and examined to see if it has relevance to the case soon before the court."
Perhaps he would not have to appear in court at all. He might be released and allowed home -- but then reason told him that his contribution was a vital piece of evidence. He and Renzi had discussed their respective positions. Renzi was a self-exile with a well-born past, serving "sentence" for a family crime, and had a more worldly view. Kydd had a stubborn belief in the rightness of truth, and would not shift his position by an inch. The result of his stand would be inevitable.
"Were you, Kydd, on watch on the night of the thirteenth of April, 1794?" Gardiner began mildly, shuffling papers, as the clerk scratched away with his quill off to the side.
"Aye, sir, quartermaster o' the starb'd watch, at the helm." The man would probably think it impertinent of him were he to volunteer that, as quartermaster, he would never have deigned to touch the wheel -- that was the job of the helmsman. He had been in overall charge of the helm as a watch-station under the officer-of-the-watch, and as such was probably the single most valuable witness to what had really happened that night.
A pause and a significant look between Gardiner and the clerk showed that the point had in fact been caught.
"As quartermaster?" The voice was now sharply alert.
"Acting quartermaster, sir."
"Very well." Gardiner stared at him for a while, the gray eyes somewhat cruel. His musty wig reeked of law, judgment and penalty. "Would it be true or untrue to state that you were in a position to understand the totality of events on the quarterdeck that night?"
Kydd paused as he unraveled the words. The junior clerk's quill hung motionless in the dusty air. Kydd knew that any common seaman who found himself afoul of the system would be lost in its coils, hopelessly enmeshed in unfathomable complication. Renzi, with his logic, would have known how to answer, but he had been asleep below at the time and had not been called as a witness.
Looking up, Kydd said carefully, "Sir, the duty of a quartermaster is th' helm, an' he is bound to obey th' officer-o'-the-watch
in this, an' stand by him f'r orders. That was L'tenant Rowley, sir."
Lines deepened between Gardiner's eyes. "My meaning seems to have escaped you, Kydd. I will make it plainer. I asked whether or not you would claim to be in a position to know all that happened."
It was an unfair question, and Kydd suspected he was being offered the option to withdraw gracefully from the hazard of being a key witness open to hostile questioning from all quarters. He had no idea why.
"I was never absent fr'm my place o' duty, sir," he said quietly.
"Then you are saying that you can of a surety be relied upon to state just why your ship was lost?" The disbelief bordered on sarcasm.
"Sir, there was a blow on that night, but I could hear L'tenant Rowley's words -- every one!" he said, with rising anger.
Gardiner frowned and threw a quick glance at the clerk, who had not resumed scratching. "I wonder if you appreciate the full implications of what you are saying," he said, with a steely edge to his voice.
Kydd remained mute, and stared back doggedly. He would speak the truth -- nothing more or less.
"Are you saying that simply because you could hear Lieutenant Rowley you can tell why your ship was lost?" The tone was acid, but hardening.
"Sir." Kydd finally spoke, his voice strengthening. "We sighted breakers fine to wind'd," he said, and recalled the wild stab of fear that the sudden frantic hail there in the open Atlantic had prompted. "L'tenant Rowley ordered helm hard a'weather, and -- "
Gardiner interjected. "By that I assume he immediately and correctly acted to turn the ship away from the hazard?"
Kydd did not take the bait. "The ship bore away quickly off th' wind, but L'tenant Parry came on deck and gave orders f'r the helm to go hard down -- "
Gardiner struck like a snake. "But Parry was not officer-of-the-watch, he did not have the ship!" His head thrust forward aggressively.
"Sir, L'tenant Parry was senior t' L'tenant Rowley, an' he could -- "
"But he was not officer-of-the-watch!" Gardiner drew in his breath.
Kydd felt threatened by his strange hostility. The lawyer was there to find the facts, not make it hard for witnesses, especially one who could explain it all.
"But he was right, sir!"
Gardiner tensed, but did not speak.
The truth would set matters right, Kydd thought, and he had had an odd regard for the plebeian Parry, whom he had seen suffer so much from the dandy Rowley. He was dead now, but Kydd would make sure his memory was not betrayed. "Ye should put the helm down when y' sees a hazard, that way th' ship is taken aback." He saw a guarded incomprehension on Gardiner's face, and explained further so there would be no mistake on this vital point. "That way, the ship stops in th' water, stops fr'm getting into more trouble till you've worked out what t' do."
"And you allege that Lieutenant Rowley's act -- to go away from the hazard -- was the wrong one?" Gardiner snapped.
"Aye, sir!" Kydd's certainty seemed to unsettle Gardiner, who muttered something indistinct, but waited.
"We sighted breakers next to loo'ard, an' because L'tenant Rowley had come off the wind, they were fast coming in under our lee an' no time to stay about!"
There was a breathy silence. Gardiner's face hardened. "You are alleging that the loss of Artemis was directly attributable to this officer's actions?"
There was now no avoiding the issue. He must stand by his words, which he must repeat at length in court, or abjectly deny them. "Yes, sir!" he said firmly.
Gardiner leaned back slowly, fixing Kydd with his hard eyes. Unexpectedly, he sighed. "Very well, we will take your deposition."
There was a meaningful cough from the clerk. Gardiner turned slightly and something passed between them that Kydd was unable to catch. Resuming his gaze Gardiner added, "And in your own words, if you please."
Concentrating with all his might, Kydd told the simple story of the destruction of the crack frigate, from the first chilling sight of breakers in mid-Atlantic to her inevitable wrecking on an outer ledge of rock on one of the islands of the Azores.
But he said nothing of the personal heartbreak he felt at the death of the first ship he had really loved, the ship that had borne him around the world to so many adventures, that had turned him from tentative sailor to first-class seaman and petty officer. He also omitted the story of the nightmare of the break-up of the wreck during the night and his desperate swim for his life among the relentless breakers, the joy at finally finding himself alive. Those details would not interest these legal gentlemen.
"Thank you," said Gardiner, and glanced at the clerk, whose hand flew across the paper as he transcribed Kydd's words. "It seems complete enough." His detachment was a mystery after the savage inquisition of before.
The clerk finished, sanded the sheet and shuffled it in together with the rest. "Ye'll need to put y'r mark on each page," he said offhandedly.
Kydd bristled. He had debated Diderot and Rousseau in the Great South Sea with Renzi, and never felt himself an unlettered foremast hand. He dashed off a distinguished signature on each page.
"You may return to your ship," said Gardiner neutrally, standing. Kydd rose also, satisfied with the catharsis of at last telling his tale. "We will call upon your testimony as the court decides," Gardiner added. Kydd nodded politely and left.
* * *
Renzi sat on the sea chest he shared with Kydd. They had lost everything in the shipwreck, nothing to show for their great voyage around the world. Kydd was fashioning a trinket box from shipwright's offcuts and bone inlay to present to his adoring sister when he finally made his way up the London road to the rural peace of Guildford.
"Nicholas, you'll be right welcome at home, m' friend, y' know, but have ye given thought t' your folks?"
Renzi looked up from his book, his eyes opaque. "I rather fancy my presence will not be as altogether a blessed joy as yours will be to your own family, dear fellow." He did not elaborate and Kydd did not pursue it. The sensibilities that had led to Renzi's act of self-exile from his family were not to be discussed, but Kydd was aware that in becoming a common sailor Renzi could only be regarded as a wanton disgrace by his well-placed family.
Renzi added casually, "If it does not disoblige, it would give me particular joy to bide awhile chez Kydd." He didn't find it necessary to say that this would renew his acquaintance of Cecilia, Kydd's handsome sister.
Kydd sighed happily. "I told 'em everythin', Nicholas -- I say my piece afore the court, an' we're on our way home!" His keen knife shaved a thin sliver from the lid, rounding the edge.
Renzi looked at his friend. Kydd's account of his questioning was disturbing. In his bones he felt unease.
"Yes indeed, and we shall -- " He broke off. Above the comfortable patter of shipboard noises a faint thud had sounded, as of a light-caliber cannon in the distance. Activity ceased on the lower-deck as men strained to hear. Another thud. Eyes met -- random gunfire in a naval anchorage was unusual to the point of incredible. Some got to their feet, faces hardening. A move to the hatchway turned into a rush as a third shot was heard.
On deck all attention was on the harbor entrance. Officers on the quarterdeck had telescopes trained and tense chatter spread. Some men leaped for the foreshrouds to get a better view.
It was a naval cutter under a full press of sail, flying through the narrow entrance of the harbor, an enormous ensign streaming and some sort of signal on both shrouds. A white puff appeared on her fo'c'sle, the thump arriving seconds later.
"Despatches -- she's a packet boat," Stirk growled. "An' goin' rapful -- she's got some noos fer us, mates!" he said, with unnecessary emphasis.
The cutter raced along, and made a neat tack about opposite the signal tower. Backing her single topsail she subsided to a stop and hove to, her boat launched almost immediately. It passed close to the receiving ship, the single officer ignoring the shouted pleas for news echoing over the water. It made the landing place, and the officer hurried up the stone stairs. He disappeared among the buildings while the boat shoved off again, to lie off.
It was galling to know that something of deep importance was taking place within a stone's throw, and speculation flew about, opinions ranging wildly from the French at sea on their way to invade to the death of the sovereign.
They had not long to wait. A deeper-throated great gun, probably from the fort more inland, sullenly boomed out and a line of soldiers emerged, trotting in a single line along the waterfront. On deck the excited chatter died away. Another gun boomed, but then Renzi cocked his head. "The church bells are ringing. It seems we must celebrate a victory!"
More bells joined in, and more. From the halliards of the signal tower burst hoists of flags, and the water became alive with craft furiously crisscrossing the harbor. In exasperation men hung from the rigging, watching the growing excitement ashore. A receiving ship's main purpose was as a floating barracks for the victims of the press-gang before they were sent out to their ship, and had well-tested means of keeping men aboard; they would have to contain their frustration for now.
Happily, it soon became clear that boats were putting off to spread the news. A pinnace sped toward them, a midshipman standing perilously in the sternsheets waving madly. Indistinct shouting tantalized, but soon it was close enough for the shrill words of the excited youngster to come through: it was a great victory by Admiral Howe, out in the stormy seas of the Atlantic not three days before. In a rush the boat was alongside and the midshipman flew up the side, pelting aft to the quarterdeck to report.
The seamen lost no time in hanging over the side and getting their story from the boat's crew, the tale disjointed and wild but plain in its essentials. Admiral Howe had been at sea for weeks, knowing that a desperately needed convoy of grain was coming from America to relieve revolution-racked France, heavily guarded, of course. The two fleets met at sea and a running battle over three days had culminated in a titanic clash on 1 June and a crushing defeat for the French.
Willing hands hauled on lines of flags as the receiving ship dressed overall, her token four-pounders banging out to add to the bedlam all around, a delirious show from a nation at the news of a great victory in a major fleet action at sea.
Ashore, the dockyard and the town were filling with people, their shouts carrying faintly to the frustrated men who knew full well what was developing in the taverns and pothouses of the town.
But to their unspeakable mortification, the Artemis survivors were not allowed to join in the merrymaking -- and it was so easy to remember their own wild reception after their victory in a sea duel with a French frigate, the first fight among equals of the war, and they wanted to relive the euphoria. There was nothing to do but stare longingly at the shore and endure, a hard and bitter thing for men who had suffered as they.
The court-martial flag remained at the masthead, but Kydd was not called. Neither was he the next day, and when the flag was hauled down on the third day he shrugged and made ready to leave for home.
It was also the day that Earl Howe and his victorious fleet arrived at Spithead. The town erupted for the second time, and enviously the Artemis seamen watched as the liberty boats swarmed ashore at Portsmouth Point. Incredibly, they were still being kept aboard.
Renzi's disquiet turned to unease. This was neither humane nor sensible treatment for shipwrecked souls, and did not make sense. The loss of Artemis would be overlooked in the delirium of the victory of the Glorious First of June, so there was no point in keeping the men from their families.
A boatswain's mate appeared at the hatchway and pealed a call. "Artemis hands! Haaaaands to muster! Aaaaaall the Artemis haaaands -- muster in th' waist with yer dunnage!"
"Well, bugger me days!" said Stirk. "An' the bastards 'ave remembered we're 'ere!" There was a scramble for their pitifully few possessions, Kydd's own fitting into one small bundle. With lifting heart he tugged on his hat and hastened on deck into the evening sun. Hooked on below was a big launch, manned by a subdued set of seamen he did not recognize. An older-looking lieutenant was standing at the tiller, his mouth a thin line.
"Hey-ho, mates -- and it's bad luck t' any who ain't chirpin' merry in one hour!" said one Artemis, his eyes shining.
"Got th' gormy ruddles sittin' in this hooker!" said another, hefting his bag, "an' the only thing'll cure it 's me comin' alongside some willin' piece who'll show a sailor the way home!"
Kydd grinned, and after their names were marked off in the muster book, he went down with the others into the boat, Renzi close behind. They settled all along the center, between the rowers. But there was no answer to their jocular barbs. The crew of the launch were mute and serious and they kept their eyes in the boat facing aft. Slowly the happy chatter of theArtemis hands died away under a sense of apprehension. The boat shoved off, the men at the oars pulling slowly but economically, as if they had a long stretch ahead.
Kydd looked at Renzi in appeal -- he only shook his head. Suddenly a cutter shot out from the other side of the ship. With a shock Kydd saw that it carried a party of marines, complete with muskets and accoutrements. It curved toward them and fell in close astern, the officer not glancing at it as the launch shaped course to parallel the shore.
"The poxy shabs!" roared Stirk in disbelief. "We're bein' turned over!" He stood up and grasped the gunwale.
"Try it, 'n' you'll get a ball in the guts!" growled the lieutenant. Stirk stood rigid as a storm of protest broke around him. It was not uncommon for ships returning from a distant commission for docking and refit to transfer their company bodily to another ship, without the chance of liberty ashore. But survivors of a shipwreck?
"Silence!" bellowed the officer. "You're under discipline, you damned rascals, and I'll see the backbone of any who doesn't agree!"
Copyright © 2003 by Julian Stockwin