Sea Stories

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The Braver Thing
Excerpt

Obed Coffin sat with his hand on the till and his eye on the sail. The launch slipped through the shadows of the tall masts of a man-of-war and beneath the barred windows of the fort, from which some prisoners shouted invective, and others called out for help, and still others sang:

Did not you promise me
That you would marry me

They glided over the clear green water towards the pier, where the hangman erected tarry corpses encased in iron gibbets. Past the crowd of spectators, in the town, it was as if there was a carnival, drunk men wheeling, whores laughing, peddlers shouting, and music. 

While the boat was being moored, the master tossed Coffin a canvas bag.

“Count it, it’s all there,” he said.

Coffin felt the coins in his hands, raised his eyes, and looked around the boat. The master did not meet his eye. None of the sailors objected to him being paid and discharged before the boat was unloaded; rather, they looked relieved. Coffin had served aboard three different merchant ships since his convalescence in the Cape Colony and so it had been every time. He knew (how he knew!) that he deserved their opprobrium, yet how dreadfully it stung, how terrible it was to know yourself a sinner, past redemption, how monstrous it was to be so alone.

“My thanks,” Coffin said.

He climbed the ladder and walked to shore. Behind him, the master crossed himself, and a sailor made a sign against the evil eye. 

The sharp boys, who lurked in a school by the dock, noticed Coffin. A short, subdued fight took place. Once it was resolved, the victorious boy (a tall, thick lout with a cast in each eye) materialized before Coffin.

“Hello sir, what do you need? Something to eat? Drink? A woman?”

The boy turned his head to accommodate his crazy eyes and look over his prospect. Coffin wore a straw hat, a cloth shirt, duck trousers, no shoes. He was emaciated, except for his jutting stomach, and he was missing teeth. Ill luck radiated from him like heat. In his too-large eyes, nascent tears, wild grief, madness.

“Good afternoon,” Coffin said, in a strong Nantucket accent.

“A Quaker!” the boy said, regretting his reference to drink and women. “You must be hungry, Brother.”

“Aye,” Coffin said.

“Right this way,” the boy said. “You don’t want to eat down here, sir, they’ll cheat you, all the cheats are in town on account of all the hangings. They hang three or four a day, and it’s been going on for days, and it will go on for days to come. I don’t imagine you heard of the Governor’s victory?”

The boy took Coffin by the hand, and he misliked its heat, its boniness, but prattled on.

“Yes, Governor Rogers, him that banished the pirates. Well, them rascals that didn’t take the King’s Pardon was holed up in North Carolina. Governor Rogers caught ’em drunk and asleep, and killed a score of the rogues, and took three hundred prisoners. They’ve all been condemned, and now they are being hanged.” 

As the boy led him through the ribald crowd, a woman threw her arms around Coffin and gave him a beery kiss, and the boy screeched and grabbed her wrist, for she held Coffin’s purse in her hand. The whore tried to slap the boy with her free hand, but he bit her arm.

“Oy, you rotten son of a bitch!” the whore cried.

“Let go, you cunt!” the boy returned.

The purse fell, the boy scooped it up and took Coffin (who had made no move to defend his property) by the arm and said: “Lively now.”

They skirted a small sea of bloody vomit and dashed past two men kicking a third and came at last to a public house bearing a sign with three ships above the door, inscribed The Duke, the Duchess and the Marquis.

“Here we are, mate!” The boy grinned so broad Coffin could see the whore’s blood on his teeth, then returned the purse and ushered him through the door.

Inside, it was dark and cool and empty save for one table where three men sat. Their conversation ceased as they looked upon Coffin.

“Hello mate,” one of the men said. “How d’you do?”

Coffin took off his hat and nodded and sat.

“What’ll you have, sir?” the boy asked.

“I do not know, I . . .” Coffin’s throat worked, and he looked as if he would cry. “Perhaps, perhaps I should . . .”

“We’ve some sea pie,” the boy said, cutting him off. “D’you care for some sea pie?”

“I do not know.”

“I’ll bring you a slice, and we’ll see if it answers.”

“The whole pie,” Coffin said.

“It’s quite a large pie.”

“Bring it, please.”

“Well sir, if you want the full pie, that would be,” hesitating, gauging, “a crown.” 

“Very well.” 

“Very well, sir.”

The boy scampered through a door, behind which he and a woman screamed at each other with shocking vehemence. 
The three sailors, each with a tin mug of punch, watched him. He stared at his hands and, after a moment, commenced to weep.

“You all right, Brother?” one of the sailors asked. 

The one who had spoken was young and fair-haired and handsome, and though he was slender, he had a powerful voice. The second sailor was older, with a grey-and-red pigtail, and toyed with a fine gold watch in his hand. The last was tall, and powerfully built, and bald, with burn scars around his mouth. 

Coffin shook his head.

“There now,” the handsome sailor said, and came over and clapped Coffin on the shoulder. “Can’t be as bad as all that, can it?”

Coffin only put his hands in his face.

“Can’t talk about it?” the handsome sailor said. “I’m sure it will all come right.” Then: “Come here about the Cruise, have you? The Adventuring Cruise?”

“Suh-Suh-Scudder,” the red-haired man called to the handsome sailor.

Coffin looked through his fingers.

“I . . .” Coffin began. Guilt, self-hatred, choking him. “I am hungry,” he said, and looked down.

The boy emerged with the pie, and the three sailors, noticing its size (easily enough for four men), its thick brown crust, the greasy juice that oozed from its edges and pooled in its centre, brightened expectantly.

“There now,” the boy said, “I told you it was a large pie. I’ll fetch the . . .”

Coffin pushed a golden sovereign towards the boy and then, with a whimper, began to shovel the pie into his face, while the others watched, wincing. In less than two minutes, a time both terribly short and horribly long, the pie vanished, and Coffin (whose stomach expanded visibly as he ate) was overcome with nausea. He pushed the plate away and looked 
at the men, but they looked away, for Coffin’s eyes seemed to ask them for something that they could never, ever give. 
The boy vanished with the coin. 

The young sailor, Scudder, backed away with a nervous smile and rejoined his friends. 

Minutes passed with no sound save for the bustle from the street. Merchants calling, distant fiddles, all playing the same song (did not you promise me / that you would marry me), a sudden collective laugh, the screech of a whore: “You will not, John Robinson, you will do no such thing!”

The three sailors leaned in and continued their conversation in hushed tones. 
Coffin, bloated, laid his head on his folded arms and made no attempt to listen, but the voice of the handsome youth, Scudder, carried across the room. 

"We weren’t drunk, I tell you,” Scudder said. “Every jack aboard was sober enough to answer the call of all hands, but there was nothing to be done.”

“There ain’t nothing so tuh-tuh-terrible as a lee shore,” the red-haired man said. “Must have buh-been horrible, especially for a buh-boy.”

“I don’t remember too much of it,” Scudder said. “A great big jolt, all the rigging went slack, everything came apart, and I was in the water. I got hold of a barrel and washed up with Johnny, a Mosquito Indian who’d been with Bellamy since they was Adventuring in canoes. Sold into slavery, the poor bugger. Eight men were hanged in Boston, but I was indentured on account of my youth. That’s where I met Billy.” Scudder nodded at the big man. “It was a rough place, that plantation, weren’t it, Billy? But we stuck together then, and we stick together now.”

The big man, Billy Quantrill, said nothing, but his approval was evident.

“So you ain’t nuh-never gone out Upon the Account, then?” the red-haired man asked Quantrill.

“No,” Quantrill said. “I told you, I was a marine.”

“And you’ve never met Kuh-kuh-Kavanagh, yourself, then?”

“No, never,” Scudder said. “I heard his name once or twice.”

“Ah well,” the red-haired man continued. “He was never muh-much of a sailor. Buh-but he was always liked by the men, that’s how he buh-became Quartermaster for Buh-buh-Blackbeard, and he was clever with his coin. After a successful Cruise, many a Gentleman of Fortune gave him some of their earnings, fuh-for to lay aside for ’em, you understand. And he’s duh-done very well for himself, and for all the men who gave him their muh-money. He calls ’em his Investors.”
“That’s all well and good, Johnny,” Scudder said. “But if Kavanagh ain’t much of a sailor, then who’s to be Captain on this Cruise?”

“He’s buh-brought Huh-Hornigold with him,” John O’Brien, the red-haired man, said.

“The same Hornigold that turned pirate hunter?” Scudder asked. “How could we trust a man like that?”

“I ain’t suh-saying we can, Buh-buh-Brother,” O’Brien continued. “I ain’t saying we should go on this Cuh-Cruise at all, but we duh-duh-duh-damn well should go to the Meeting. There ain’t no guarantee a buh-better Cruise will come along. And . . .” O’Brien’s eyes locked with Coffin’s.

The other two turned to look as Coffin stood and staggered out the front door into the sun. Outside, he bent over, hands on his knees, struggling not to vomit, the sun pressing on his neck as the shame hit him, wave after wave of it, the shame. For although he knew he was not fit to live, every time his life was in danger, he shrank away. Why? Why did he cling to this shameful life? 

The door opened with a bang and Coffin started, but it was only the boy, holding his purse.

“Come now, sir, you cannot leave your purse unguarded on the table!” the boy said, pressing it into Coffin’s hand. “Count it, count it, it’s all there!”

And so he did, three little golden Spanish coins, each worth, approximately, one pound, and the change provided by the boy. 

“I believe the men inside are pirates,” Coffin said. 

The boy looked embarrassed.

“Thou said thy Governor ended piracy?”

“Well,” the boy said, “yes, he did.”

“And captured pirates in North Carolina?”

“Well, yes, yes, but here is the thing, sir, the Governor took three ships as prizes, the largest of which you see there in the water. A fifty-two-gun French ship, not two years old. We all believed such a fine ship would be sold into the Service. Instead, as you may have heard, the Governor sold it to Mr. James Kavanagh, who sailed with the Governor during the War of the Spanish Succession, and afterwards went out Upon the Account. As many men did! But he took the King’s Pardon three years ago and has been an honest merchant ever since. Some have said that he means to go back out Upon the Account, and so many of these sorts are in town. So many that they outnumber the citizens. Do you see?”

Coffin looked down the gentle slope to the massive ship on the sparkling water.

“Sir, perhaps you ought to come in and have a glass with our other guests,” the boy continued. “You could stand them a drink. Then you will see that they are not so bad, and they will see that you are an Honest Fellow.”

“How can I get on that ship?” Coffin asked.

“The Saoirse? Every man in the Bahamas wants to sail upon her, on account of the rumours, you understand.”

“I must get on that ship,” Coffin said, and turned his eyes upon the boy, who felt the grisly radiance of the man’s ill luck. 

“Sir, I must say again—”

“Here,” Coffin said, and pressed the purse into the boy’s hands.

Three guineas, an unthinkable fortune to a boy who scraped for every farthing. Still, a voice whispered don’t take it, it’s cursed. And yet . . . the heaviness of the little coins.

The boy’s off-kilter eyes looked at nothing. 

“I implore thee, my friend,” Coffin said, tears in his eyes. “Please, I must, I must sail upon that ship.”

“But why?”

“I cannot . . . I have nowhere else . . . I must . . . I must be Damned. I am Damned. Only bring me to the ship, I ask nothing more of thee.”

Unlucky, unlucky, the voice whispered to the boy, but his whole life, his worldly effects, his person, his past, present, and prospects, were not worth three guineas in ready money. 

“Very well, sir,” he said. “Come with me.” 

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Seasons of War 3-Book Bundle

Seasons of War 3-Book Bundle

Come Looking for Me / Second Summer of War / Run Red With Blood
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Run Red with Blood
Excerpt

Prologue

The night shrouded the carriage in a suffocating darkness as black as the loam of a grave. The rain fell in torrents, pounding against the windows like the fists of a riotous mob. Pools of water had gouged the serpentine road, causing the carriage wheels to swerve and careen, and Emily’s head to repeatedly strike the inside wall. She screamed for the driver to stop, but it seemed the carriage had neither driver nor horses — headlong it hurtled along an unknown track, stoked by a ghostly energy of its own.

Across from her sat Lord Somerton in his sombre suit of clothes, his eyes lost in shifting shadows, his mouth nothing more than a grim slash across a pallid jaw. The pitching motion of the vehicle did little to disturb him. Aside from his finger-tapping on the head of his cane, he sat completely still.

“Where are you taking me?” Emily cried.

There was a slight curling of his lips, but silence was his answer.

The carriage escalated its reckless speed. Wet, shivering trees flew past in the darkness — the twisted fingers of their branches scratching at the mournful sky, searching for a way to escape the night. A set of iron gates suddenly appeared and opened like jaws, intent on swallowing them whole. As they passed through them, Emily grew cold and shaky. She recognized this place. She knew its twisting pathway and the grey, foreboding grounds heaving around it like an angry sea.

Hartwood Hall!

Frantically, she wrestled with the latch on the carriage door. Dear God, no! She had already fled from here once before, stolen away in the night when everyone was preoccupied with dancing and feasting and drinking — no one having seen her except for Fleda, who had wept at her leaving. She had gone looking for Leander and had managed to find him, somewhere near the sea.

The carriage came to an abrupt halt, and the leaden facade of the Hall filled its windows, formidable and startling as an enemy frigate slipping from a swirling bank of fog. Candles burned in the Hall’s sash windows, and scurrying figures poured forth from its doors, rushing toward her. Roughened hands dragged her out into the pelting rain; voices shouted: “Hurry! Hurry! You have kept them waiting.”

The shadowy molesters prodded her toward the house and into the front entrance where the lights flickered upon a hawk-faced clergyman in his black weeds and white collar. In his pious grasp, he carried the Book of Common Prayer. Bound in a tight semicircle around him was an assemblage of familiar faces, yet there was no happy welcome in their stares. The Duchess of Belmont exuded indignation; her heavy husband wheezed disinterest; Glenna McCubbin was a clucking hen of disapproval while Uncle Clarence’s mood was aloof and dark with bitter disappointment.

In his extravagant knee breeches and frock coat, Wetherell Lindsay paced with impatience, his high heels clicking upon the marble floor, reflections of candlelight playing upon his bald pate where his wig was normally affixed. Lord Somerton eagerly steered Emily toward him. Wetherell pulled her roughly to his stout side and attempted to lock up her hands in his, but she pushed away, shaking her head in defiance, refusing to participate in their mad conspiracy. Enraged by the rebuff, Wetherell stomped off into a subterranean passage of the house, instructing the wedding guests to follow him, leaving the servants to douse the candles and shutter the doors. Trailing them was Fleda, a haunting, dreadful sadness in her green eyes. As she walked away from Emily, the masonry and mortar of Hartwood Hall fell around her, disintegrating and then vanishing into the earth.

One wedding guest stayed behind. He stood like a scarecrow in the abandoned field where the house had been. The uniform of an American naval captain hung upon his gaunt frame, the wind trifling with the threadbare fabric of his jacket. The brim of his bicorne hat was cracked and moth-eaten. His feet were naked and bleeding; he possessed no mouth, and where his nose should have been there was only a skeletal cavity. He turned to face Emily. His eyes — cold, dark, and merciless — sent icy fingers scuttling down her spine while the distance between them loudly echoed a familiar word.

Pity.

Unable to move, she watched as he raised a black pistol, cocked the hammer back, and levelled it at her pounding heart.

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