Читать онлайн "A private revenge"

Автор Вудмен Ричард

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In the aftermath of a typhoon, Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater brings His Britannic Majesty's frigate Patrician into the shelter of the Pearl River on the China coast. Seeking the means to refit, he is unwittingly entangled in bizarre events following the British occupation of Macao and Admiral Drury's attack on Canton.

Initially relieved to be assigned the straightforward duty of a convoy escort to Penang, Captain Drinkwater quickly discovers that the convoy's cargo contains a mysterious quantity of silver and a single passenger. An apparently routine task is suddenly complicated by the resurrection of an old, embittered hatred, and Captain Drinkwater finds himself drawn inexorably by treachery, greed, perversity, and cruelty towards a climactic rendezvous in the remote tropical rain forest of Borneo.

Richard Woodman


The Typhoon

























Author's Note

Richard Woodman

A private revenge

For J.P.B.S.


The Damoclean Sword

'Seamen are neither reckoned among the living, nor the dead, their whole lives being spent in jeopardy. No sooner is one peril over, but another comes rolling on, like the waves of a fullgrown sea.'

Samuel Kelly, An Eighteenth-Century Seaman, 1786

The Typhoon

November 1808

Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater gave up trying to sleep. His cot rocked and jerked so violently on its lanyards that his body was never still. He kicked the twisted blankets aside with a sudden spurt of furious annoyance.

His Britannic Majesty's frigate Patrician pitched violently, her bow flung into the air as if her twelve hundred tons were of no consequence, for all her massive timbers. Drinkwater was driven to consider her fabric as a sum of many small and separate parts which, God alone knew, were now subjected to stresses and strains beyond the computation of his tired brain. All that he could consider at that moment was a vivid image of his ship flying to pieces from the pounding she was now undergoing. There was something alarmingly new about this present motion, and the thought led him to conclude that he must have been dozing. Anger had been born out of this interruption of his rest. The knock at the cabin door only increased his resentment.

'Yes?' His voice was sharp and strained.

'Captain, sir, if you please, Mr Fraser's compliments and would you step on deck, sir?'

Midshipman Belchambers's face was grey with fatigue and fright, reminding Drinkwater that he was not alone in his exhaustion.

'What is it?' He raised himself on a precarious elbow and quizzed the midshipman as the cot lanyards alternately slackened and snapped taut so that his awkwardly prone body was feather-light one second and leaden the next. The ship's stern was lifted rapidly as a sea slammed viciously under her transom and against her stern windows over which the dead-lights had been dropped. Water drove in round the sashes, squirting over the settee before running to join the mess slopping back and forth across the chequer-painted canvas on the deck.

Midshipman Belchambers grabbed a corner of the sideboard, his Adam's apple bobbing uncertainly above his grubby stock.

'I can't say, sir,' he gabbled and, clapping a hand over his mouth, fled from the captain's presence.

Drinkwater stared after the boy. The grey gleam of water, mixed with fragments of biscuit from the shattered china barrel, flowed in miniature torrents round the legs of the lashed table, and overturned chairs slid back and forth, back and forth ...

'God's bones!' Drinkwater blasphemed through clenched teeth, hoisting himself carefully out of his cot and seeking a footing in his stockinged feet amid the cold swirl of the water. The shards of porcelain grated across the deck like shingle on a beach as he felt his stockings take up the water. Drinkwater's shins were already criss-crossed with bruises, his old shoulder wound ached abominably, his mouth was foul with the taste of bile and his eyes ground grittily in their sockets, sure evidence of lack of sleep.

He clung upright with difficulty, drawing on coat and cloak, despite the stuffiness of the air. Outside his cabin the marine sentry slithered towards him and they collided amid a confused and embarrassed explosion of apology and profanity. Patrician's motion was unpredictably irregular, a bucking, scending, rolling caused by the seas which slammed her sides and ran below by a hundred leaky routes. A rancid stench rose from the crowded berth-deck below and was given seeming embodiment by the creaks and groans of the labouring ship. Grasping the companionway man-ropes, Drinkwater climbed carefully on deck.

He reached the quarterdeck surprised that it was full daylight. Fraser stood clinging to the starboard hammock cranes.

'What is it, Mr Fraser?'

The first lieutenant shook his head, concern etched in his drawn expression.

'I cannot tell precisely, sir ... the confusion of the sea ... 'tis the worst thing I've seen.'

Drinkwater was suddenly attentive and looked about him, the stupor of exhaustion flung away. Was it a matter of Scots caution, or did a shoal lurk beneath this monstrous confusion of water? He could not tell; his charts were totally inadequate and he had no precise knowledge of their whereabouts. For four days they had run before the storm without a stitch of canvas set and their topgallant masts struck. Two men had been killed getting the heavy lower yards lashed a-portlast so that Patrician offered as little top-hamper as possible to the fury of the wind. The decks were cluttered with lowered spars, yet the big frigate still steered downwind with the speed of a cantering horse.

On the second night of the storm the lower masts had glowed with St Elmo's fire, the corposant running hither and thither in the rigging until their baffled compass had, in the hours that followed, circled gently in a kind of bewilderment that confused Drinkwater. He had lost his old sailing master, killed in the action with the Russian line-of-battle ship Suvorov, and had no one to turn to for advice, as Fraser had now turned to him.

For those four days they had run square to leeward with great seas heaping up astern, their foaming crests breaking and running after the fleeing ship. They had been pooped twice, sluiced from taffrail to knightheads by an avalanche of green water that tore coils of rope from the fife-rails, swept men off their feet and dashed them into the guns. In this deluge arms had been broken, an elbow shattered and a leg snapped so cleanly that it lay like a carpenter's angle. Worst of all two men had been washed overboard. One, Midshipman Wickham, they had not seen again, the other, the marine quarter-guard, had been found clinging to the heads, his feet dragging in the water in the last extremity of distress. The experience made the ship's company more cautious and the second pooping caused less damage.

But this morning the sea no longer drove from astern and the wind no longer roared through the standing rigging to tear the slack stays of the upper masts in great bights to leeward. Nor was the air filled with salt and spray driving downwind like buckshot. Instead, the surface of the ocean rose up in heaps; waves slopped with malignant power against each other, flinging dark columns of water high into the air, from which they fell back in a vast welter of confusion.

In this lashing of the sea Patrician was caught helplessly, the violence of her motion whipping her truncated masts so that blocks flew about aloft with sufficient energy to brain a man sent to secure them. Abrupt enough to throw an incautious man from his feet as she lay down to a roll, Patrician's hull would be thrust back by a wave running in opposition to the first. This conflict of forces assailed her simultaneously, sending wracking stresses through her straining hull while the tortured bodies of her company met the onslaught with instinctive and tiring muscular exertions.

If the air no longer boomed with the sound of the great wind, it was now filled with the huge slop and hiss of the aimless sea, and the desperate cries of exhausted birds. The deck was covered with their pathetic, flapping forms, a variety of species including brilliantly coloured land-birds.

Looking upwards Drinkwater saw the explanation for his surprise at the daylight. For the duration of the storm they had run under a low and oppressive overcast of thick scud. Now the sky was inexplicably clear and the last stars were fading against the blue of the morning, though the horizon that ringed ...