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What Ho, The Carpenter’s Mistake

(an addition to POB’s Post Captain, following p. 231)

The next day the gale blew itself out into ordinary dirty channel weather, and Mr. Rossall, the senior bo'sun's mate and one of the oldest men in the ship, came to Stephen. His broken belly had come to trouble him again, he said, after all the to-and-fro in the gale, and so few real seamen aboard. He’d been rushing about like a lad of twenty, and he felt his belly broken again, saving your honor, and hoped he could be trussed up.

Stephen trussed him up properly in a canvas belly band and gave him the three large green pills of chalk and sugar he reserved for such injuries. But his patient lingered still, seeming to wish to say something more. Stephen was skilled at getting gruff sailors to tell him what they were shy about—it was almost always a matter of incautious love ashore, of intimacies gone wrong—and he soon made Rossall willing to talk.

At last, when the old fellow was sure Stephen would not bring him up short, he said he had an observation, like, one which he hoped the doctor could somehow mention to the Captain, since he and the Captain were such old friends. A mere bo’sun’s mate, like himself, however experienced, could never venture to do so, knowing how opposed the great man was to those peculiar constructions which almost filled the hold. He had seen his Captain shake his head and mutter sulfurous expressions more than once when he had inspected the big sliding keel cases and the even bigger tin tunnel of the secret weapon. But them sliding keels might be the answer to the Polychrest’s enormous leeway under any point of sail except dead astern, he and some of his old shipmates thought, if the Captain would only try them.

With the storm blown out Stephen and Jack had planned an evening of music, and Stephen was impatient to get to the main cabin before the last of the fresh Stilton was gone. “And how might that help us, Mr. Rossall,” he said impatiently. “What do I know of your sliding keels and such things? Never a bit! But if you think it will ease the Captain’s mind, I will certainly tell him what you say.”

“Oh sir, he’ll be in such a state if he only hears the name of those sliding keels. If you can only speak to him first, to smooth my way, so to speak, and then call for me once he is no longer in rage?” Stephen agreed, and asked Mr. Rossall to follow him aft and then stand at the great cabin passageway and wait until he was called.

Once Stephen entered Jack’s cabin, he saw that he was already too late, for toast and Stilton—and Stephen had seen what a very blue and richly veined Stilton it had been too, not yet dried out at all--were no longer. “Gule, or gluttony, is a beastly sin, as I have often told you, Jack. And you are growing too heavy entirely.” Stephen was obviously ready to prose on, but with a sharp look Jack brought him up: “Stephen, your movements are tolerably obvious. Even though you have delayed until you have missed our cheese, you still have a bolus in your gullet. What is it?”

Stephen was a generous fellow at heart, and having a goal in view, explained patiently, though with a peevish look at the cheese dish, that Mr. Rossall, the bo’sun’s mate, wished to see Jack, but felt too shy to ask through his bo’sun in the usual way. Jack was impatient to begin their night of Locatelli, but aware too that Stephen had planned some maneuver, so he agreed, and Stephen went to the companionway door and told Mr. Rossall the way was prepared for him.

Once it Jack’s cabin, Mr. Rossall told his story again, all tangled up and shy before his new captain, but certain of what he had seen. Jack knew the man for a thorough seaman, as knowledgeable in his place as any petty officer on the ship, and he listened carefully.

Mr. Rossall told a long story of his youth as a shipyard apprentice in Boston, back before the American War, and what he had seen there when Lieutenant Schank brought his sliding keels down from Canada. As he listened, Jack thought: “Schank! ‘Old Purchase’ Schank. Everyone in the service knew him, of course. How could he have forgotten Schank? Schank, who would try anything new! Of course. He had made sliding keels work back before the rebels in American drove the Royal Navy out of Boston, and later he put them in bigger boats than harbor skiffs too. The Admiralty had even built one or two ship sloops with sliding keels much like those abominations below in Polychrest’s hold.”

When at last Mr. Rossall’s tale was done, Jack thanked the old bo’sun’s mate, told him that indeed he remembered Captain Shank and his sliding keels now that he was reminded of them, and assured him that he would consider dropping a keel. Mr. Rossall left the cabin with relief.

“Oh Stephen, I am so sorry, to spend so long on ship’s matters,” said Jack, whose head was full of the possibilities for changing the Polychrest’s wayward misbehavior into something resembling that of a decent ship. However, music was on the schedule, and he took up his violin and he and Stephen began to frown and pluck, seeking a reasonable tuning. “Damn the barometer for what it does to honest cat gut. Well, I suppose we shall have to play with what we have, in tune or not. That is your frequent custom, Stephen, in any case,” a comment which led to such a strange sound from Stephen’s viola that the watch on the quarterdeck above started and looked about anxiously, sure that some new horrible thing was about to happen to the ship.

The next morning, after the hands had eaten their gruel and drunk their scotch coffee, with a special issue of a pint of “Blue Ruin” gin for every man to recompense them for their evil times in the gale, Jack ordered a really able seaman and his one prime quartermaster to the helm, with Mr. Goodridge just behind them at the con, and set all ordinary sail to a handsome breeze broad over the larboard bow. Then, to the consternation of some old sailors in the crew, he ordered the leeward keel to be slid down. In the event, it would not at first slide, but with two sledges firmly pounded on baulks set to its top, it would at last go down, first one foot, and then, much more easily, five more.

It was a sea change. At once Polychrest pushed directly up to the wind, as close as any man could wish, at least for an object built in Hickman’s yard. Jack was amazed. She could not be called close-winded perhaps, but she held her course and did not gripe but only a little. He had to admit his sweet Sophie brig could do little better! Of course Sophie had not been at her best on a bowline, but she had sailed well enough to take two dozen fat prizes, and a fine big xebec frigate too! He only hoped the Polychrest could have half that success, he thought, touching a belaying pin on the mizzen fife rail. On the leeward side of the small quarterdeck Mr. Goodridge looked aloft and then, as his mark, at some rocks in the surge off the French coast and shook his head in disbelief. She behaved almost like a Christian ship.

Jack rubbed his hands together happily, thinking of how he would wipe Admiral Harte’s eye now.

© 2006 Michael Orth