Only the Ocean is a novel about history, the way history seems to repeat in a great circle, and the way people specifically misinterpret the past for their benefit today.
People read antiquity either through the lens of the “great” people who lived in that time. Take for example the “Victorian Age” or, for a more modern example, “The Obama Era.” Here we see an age for the individuals who made the most impact, when we look at economic numbers and population density. There is also the Marxist context, which tries to look back instead at the laypeople of the time, specifically the most poor. A good Marxist will relate that in every known period, the people at the lowest rungs of society have been been repressed.
Either way, such interpretations are means by which modern people try to use the past to their advantage. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, in fact one could easily argue there is no other way to interpret history but by comparing it to today. We do not want to see ourselves as the single rung of a ladder floating empty in space, but as a series of events that have made us who we are.
Until that interpretation starts to take on a purely manipulative context. Umberto Eco’s essay on the common elements of facism, titled “Ur Facism,” points to how such totalitarian governments have used distorted versions of a country’s history in order to build such regimes. They do this by invoking a “mythic past” that has been destroyed by whatever enemy it may be, be it socialists, liberals, gays, Jews, what have you. This version of history is extremely rose-tinted, to the point of being ludicrous fiction. Mussolini had Rome. Turkey’s Erdogan has the Ottoman Empire. America has, well, whenever the country was last “great.”
It’s within this context that I wrote my story about people who want nothing more than remake what had come before, all amongst a world that is dying, or more than likely, already dead.
Back of the book summary:
Horatio Nelson, the once-great admiral of the Napoleonic Wars, is haunted by his failure at the Nile — a battle he should have won. Even while rising sea levels have swallowed the globe, Napoleon’s France threatens to invade his home. Nelson blames himself for the world’s deformed state, and all he wants is another chance at being England’s hero again.
So when those lords who first shunned him offer Nelson a chance at redemption, he agrees without question.
But his mission proves insane. Nelson’s new ship, the Ariadne, must locate messages from a supposed “God” that may explain the state of their world and prove England righteous in war. Arrayed against him are history’s mightiest empires that have recreated their individual golden ages, even as their greatest cities lie underwater. Nelson’s paltry crew must not only confront the French, but the Roman and Ottoman empires as well.
Nelson, like so many, wants nothing more than to recreate the past. Can he accept that to make the same mistakes as his creator would doom his people as well?
Only the Ocean: Sample Chapter
Close enough to see the shores of France, and the ship sailed like we rode along the edge of a knife. It was as if that broken and rugged coastline was a loaded gun aimed straight at the heart of England, with Napoleon himself standing there with a match and a wicked grin.
You could see it with the men of the Ariadne. They wore their disgust for that country on their sleeves. How could they hate such a maimed thing? It was as natural as breathing to an Englishman. Really though, it was fear. They knew their history.
By the year 1798, the European world watched as the end came ever closer. They saw France swallowed by revolution. First the proletariat broke the ruling classes, before then coming for the monarchy. The monarch himself came apart in two pieces. King Louis XVI of France was led up a platform, and had his head placed in a guillotine. Louis shouted to the crowd just before his head was removed from his shoulders, “I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me. I pardon the authors of my death, and pray to God that the blood you are about to shed will never fall upon France.”
France instead brought its blood to other countries. First to northern Italy then to Germany, fighting against the Prussians and Austrians.
The French then brought their wars to Egypt under the command of an up-and-coming general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who in order to gain more prestige after the battles in Europe, looked to sever England’s command of India. Napoleon’s army rampaged through Egypt, and while his campaign stalled at the walls of Acre, it was England’s navy that would truly end this upstart’s ambitions.
It all happened at the Battle of the Nile. This was to be the turning point, until it wasn’t. France’s campaigns to the west would have stalled, but they didn’t. England would create coalitions against this bloody upstart of an empire-to-be, but now the isle of Albion stood alone.
As if that brutalized country really was the menace these men saw her as. So they looked to anyone who would provide them leadership and promise them revenge. I had hoped the sailors would be different. They were the ones to see those broken cliffs and drowned towers that told of a worldwide reckoning. Yet these men were the most fervent, especially under the dominating eyes of Captain Horatio Nelson. Hatred now ran through their veins, making their blood burn with a patriotic fervor. They were reminded every day there was not one good Frenchman alive. Would they truly ever admit there was something wrong with their world, when their leader spoke of an enemy worse than any tidal wave that would drown yet another city?
But it is what they want. It was what they crafted their lives and country for. Our bodies are just cages for the will of great men. And the great men, those lucky few who were not forced into anonymity, can determine the lives of all those around them, and say they are not really people. Ironic, as it is, since none of us are.
So try, Hussar, convince a man to help end the charade, and don’t be so disappointed when you receive the answer you already know is coming.
It was work on my part to learn their names, everyone from the lowly foremast jack to the petty officers. This is how you gained their trust, by knowing their person without having to ask for it, by looking them in the eye to show your appreciation for the work they do, which only makes them wish to work harder. There was Epicurus Hall, the master at arms who hailed from Jamaica but had worked aboard English ships as long as he could stand up straight. Rackham, the nervous looking coxswain, who was in charge of steering both the ship and my personal barge, told me he had made it his mission to never say a bad thing about another man. For a sailor, that was quite the feat.
Learn these things, their ticks, their birthplaces, their fond memories and let them know that while you may be above them in station, you will take them into the glow of your person and keep them warm with the fervor of their love for home. Be more than a man for the men who swear to fight for you.
Every day I had the crew working at the guns. I was lucky to have Hinton, who made sure that every gun team had at least one knowledgeable gun captain and gunlayer. We laid out a small raft of excess wood two cable lengths into the water, about 1200 feet, and on the run south along the coast of France I spent several middays watching the little jets of water arise from those chopping seas as the gunnery crews tried to destroy that target all while practicing rapid sponging and loading. Some shots came close to the raft, and others hit their target, but aboard my ship these men needed to know how to work the guns at a rapid rate, more so than take longer to aim accurate shots. Despite my years spent away from command, the best strategy remained the same: Come up beside them, and then hammer them with the weight of our shot.
All the while, I was watching for the crew’s reaction to orders, especially those orders that came from me. I knew sailors and their disposition. They were not the type of people to keep their emotions bottled inside, yet I could still not tell how they saw me, whether I was some kind of interloper or a distant figment of the man I had once been. And all the while we stood a good ways off the French shore, concerned that Napoleon’s navy would spot us on the route toward the south of France.
I sat in my cabin, holding Canning’s packet full of notes and orders. I closed it, then opened it again, reread a passage, and bit my tongue to stop from exclaiming.
The door opened on the other side of the cabin and I threw the packet onto the table and turned sharply in my chair.
“What is it?” I said before I even saw Chevalier standing in the doorway.
“Sir, I… sorry to interrupt, but the Hussar requests your ear. He said he had some questions of the terminology the sailors use.”
I paused. “Send him in.”
The Hussar stood in the doorway, a strange and dirty fixture to an overall clean and orderly space. “Hussar, welcome, please come here.”
He had a curious expression etched on his face. He shrugged, then strolled over toward my desk.
“So you’ve been reading, for pleasure, I assume?”
I sighed. “Hussar, your master’s plan is insane.”
“My master?” He snorted. “He wants you to find God, so yes, he is insane. May I ask your point?”
“Because even after all that talk of purpose and mission, he still remains vague in his orders. Let me quote it for you.” I squinted, holding the paper near the lantern at my desk to read through my one good eye.
“Meet with my agent with the fullest haste. He is to find you close to 44 degrees north, off the coast of Bordeaux, southeast of where Arcachon Bay once stood, at a cliff head on the charts labeled as Saint Symphorien. The agent will find you in the bay after sundown, September 12, and he should have information regarding the placement of such items that the crew of the Ariadne should bring into their possession, having to do with Rome.”
I turned and shook the papers at him. “Bordeaux is a huge port. There could be French ships sitting in harbor at this very moment. These charts of theirs are imprecise, hell, they do not even include depths. What if we find ourselves on a reef?”
“These are all very good questions, Captain, but unfortunately I have no answer to any one of them,” the Hussar said. “Besides, Bordeaux is under water, I can’t imagine there’s much of a port left.”
“I know that,” I snapped. The man and his roundabout nature of speech was driving me to my wits end. “You were Canning’s translator, were you not?”
He rolled his eyes. “Do I look like an academic? But I find it interesting that was the word Canning used for me. I must hand it to him, that man could sell water to a camel.”
“But you do understand Arabic, correct? What about any other languages?”
“I do, Captain. Turkish as well, and to a point so would you, if you took the time to look beyond the borders of your little kingdom, here.”
“And what, exactly, do you mean by that?”
He sighed. “I was wondering about you, Captain. I noticed the way orders are relayed here. The way you operate, you want the crew to look up to you, but never level with you. You speak their language, but you choose to be as aloof as a man born on another continent.”
I stood up, still holding Canning’s packet in my good hand. “I do not understand how giving orders on my ship has to do with me speaking Arabic. Hussar, just tell me what you are getting at.”
The Hussar scowled. “I had wondered if what you experienced would make you different from them, from the rest of them, but clearly you’re that much more enamored by this charade for it. You are a man of barriers, you put these walls up between people so they must stand on their toes to see you. Language is just another one of those barriers, and if you took the time to look back, and look at our people and where we’re from, surely then you could see them as equals, at the very least.”
I smiled at him then. I looked at him from his ripped boots to his ragged head. “You are an anarchist, aren’t you? To think a soldier would turn out to be a dissident. No wonder Canning could not wait to see you gone.”
The man’s shoulders dropped. There was a small satisfaction in his dejection, though it seemed this man was not unused to criticism. “Congratulations, captain, you have me down pat,” he said. “So what will you do now, follow Canning’s mad scheme?”
I sat back down and opened Canning’s packet onto my lap. “We’ll do our duty, Hussar.”
The sun dropped behind the Ariadne’s stern until there was only a thin orange line on the horizon. It was the only source of light except for the ship’s lanterns for many miles around. As the line grew thinner and thinner, and finally went out with a blink, the Ariadne moved.
We crept up toward the shore. I could feel the static tenseness as I made the order to reef the topsails. The men tiptoed around the deck, and every order was uttered in whispers carried from man to man.
Men on the ship’s forecastle, standing to the front of the ship, and those sitting with dangling legs in the crosstrees above both reported they could only see a few feet beyond the hull. The only warning we would get that we were close to a reef would be grinding sound far below. We had to rely on Canning’s murky charts, and I found I had been clutching my telescoping spyglass tight enough to crack the lens. From here, only the vague silhouette of those cliffs told us where our bearing was.
We were there for hours, all night it seemed, and we did not catch sight of a lantern on the dark bay. Hinton caught my eye as I stood on the quarterdeck, the raised portion of deck that on this vessel lay directly over my own cabin. He knew the time as well as I, but instead of acknowledging the glance, I moved my spyglass along those black cliffs, looking to spot anything that might hint at movement.
I refolded the glass and stuffed it into my pocket. “We have done all we can,” I told the commander. “Have us clew up and beat away from shore. We will try again tomorrow. For now, please have the carpenter rig buoys for us with simple anchors. Make sure it is nothing at all ostentatious, just enough for us to recognize our own position. They will be much more useful than the charts on hand.”
Our luck turned worse the day after. A huge breeze from the north pushed us south, and it was a full day’s work to bring us back to our original position. It was already late when we arrived, and the wind was blowing directly southwest, right onto shore. Below deck I met with my officers in the wardroom.
“He’s a slow one, sir,” Turtledove said. “Whoever this man is, If I were in French territory, I’d move slow too. I’d make sure I was not being followed.”
“He can be as slow as he wants,” the master Burrows said, “But the cully won’t have his ride tonight, not with that headwind.” His lip started to twitch, which was a sign I was already starting to recognize was his way of showing disapproval. “I still don’t know why we have to go to all this trouble for this man. There is bound to be French shipping near here.”
Hinton frowned. “If he arrives tonight, and sees we’re not here, he might get discouraged. I suggest we take the cutter and row to shore, at least to make sure he’s not there.”
“You try and row into that headwind, commander, and you tell me how you fair.” Burrows was growing red in the face. “You might be as likely to be pulled south and dash yourself against the rocks and the cliffs,”
“Sir,” Burrows turned to me. “This figure, why does he need passage now? It might not be my place to ask, but spies shouldn’t be getting special treatment.”
“No, Mr. Burrows, it is not your place,” I said. “When he takes his first boot to this deck then I allow you to ask all the questions of him, should he deign to relay it. Until then, however, I want to hear no more mention of spies, especially not outside of this room.”
I turned to my second in command. “However Mr. Hinton, we will not risk a boat full of men in this wind. Not for any supposed individual. And I allow you to tell the men that, in those exact words. We station here tonight, far enough off the coast where we will not find ourselves dashed upon the rocks in the dark.”
I spent the whole next day with my finger to the air and one eye on the glass, our barometer that told us the ambient humidity, to see if the mercury dropped at all. The men watched me pace the quarterdeck, over and over. They did their best not to notice my anxiety, but of course they did, and they started to imitate it.
I wanted to see the mercury rise in the glass, to give me some indication that the storm that was causing the headwind was heading inland and missing us. Hours passed, and the glass did not move. The sun traced its ark and hovered directly astern. The time was counting down to make a decision.
Rackham, the coxswain, was standing at the wheel, and he kept giving sideways glances at me. Luckily it was Hoffman who came shouting at him to quit his gawking in his huge, low, German inflected growl. The sun sank behind us, though I didn’t have to watch it, I felt the back of my head warm with it. And that’s when I sensed it, the puff of wind on my cheek coming from the east. The change we needed.
“Mr. Rackham, three points to the west.” I shouted as I raced down the steps to the main deck.
“Aye Aye, sir, three points to the west,” Rackham replied.
“Mr. Hinton, all sail necessary to get us there. Make for our buoy.”
By the time we arrived a thick fog had rolled into the bay. It was dense enough that I could reach out with my knife and carve out a slice. I remained on deck and had my dinner brought out for me. Our lantern hung out off the forecastle, the only light allowed on our ship. The tense atmosphere returned to the Ariadne, and we all huddled there without making a single sound, like evil little insects creeping up a tree while birds hovered nearby. There was always the risk it would turn northerly and blow us toward the cliffs, and we held our breath like any puff of air would send us to our doom.
A sailor gasped. One of the foremast jacks was about to shout before his neighbor smacked him on the side of the head. I turned. There was a small glow in the middle of the water puncturing the center of that fog. I still did not want to take any chances.
“Mr. Hinton,” I whispered to my side. “How well do you speak French?”
He looked solemn. “Not well sir, not well at all. I could never get the accent right.”
I nodded, “Then I will go.” I turned. “Bosun, prepare my cutter. We’ll have to reel them in.”
“I can go sir,” Turtledove called from the main deck. “I speak French. Je parle français couramment, Capitaine.” He smiled.
I nodded, unwilling to give up on the young man’s enthusiasm. “Alright, Mr. Turtledove, take my gig and ten men. No more.”
We watched them row off into that fog, a lantern hanging from their fore. Once the boat was out of sight, the only thing we could see were the two lanterns dancing in and out of sight like the lights behind closed eyes.
Then finally Turtledove and his men crawled out of the darkness towing another small rowing craft behind them. There were two of them in the towed boat, but there was no way to tell who they were in the dark. They pulled alongside, and the lieutenant helped one of the civilians up over the side. This new man stood up to full height, but even that was rather short. His rather pudgy face was framed by thick, graying sideburns. He held a package under his arm.
“Sir,” Turtledove said, “May I introduce Mr. Gabriel Berry.”
“Berry?” I said. “I knew a Berry, several years ago. A fine captain.”
“My cousin,” the stranger said, though the look on his face seemed to shrink. Edward Berry, the captain of Vanguard, had died along with so many at the Battle of the Nile.
As I moved forward to shake the man’s hand, there was a flurry of low guttural sounds from below, where somebody was struggling up from the boat. It was a language I had heard before, but only in church. I first saw an empty hand, then a red sleeve and a gleaming silver helmet. A clean shaven man whose face was rough and tanned rose up from below, heaving himself and all his bulk high enough to finally get a handhold on the starboard rail. The man’s shoulders were veiled in a corrugated and overlapping metal that was tied to his arms with strips of leather, all connected to a chest piece of tiled armor that sat tight around a belt and the leather straps that hung around his waist. I had seen such men in paintings, but they had never looked so real, a full Roman soldier come to life.
“Oh, and, I’m not sure if I will pronounce this right,” Turtledove frowned, trying to keep his composure in the face of such a bizarre scene. “Flavius Rhumanius Andronicus. I’m not sure of his rank, I’m sorry sir.”
We all stared at him. He was stolid, as lifeless as the mannequins sporting the same armor found in the British Museum. His hand rested on the pommel of his short sword that I remembered was called a gladius.
I barely registered the noise in my ear, I realized it was the midshipman Abbot. He was whispering for my attention.
“Sir, sir, excuse me sir. There is something that requires your eyes.”
I took a few steps away from the gawkers standing by the gangway. “What is it, Mr. Abbot?”
“Sir, the afterguard spotted a sail, or at least what they swore was a sail. Only the barest hints of a hull. Several miles off to aft. They say it was only a second before she disappeared into the mist. She might be hunting these same waters, but she was moving south.”
“Could they tell it’s size?”
“No sir, only that she had three masts, they say she could be a man-o’-war.”
I had two choices. If the French did not know our position, we could creep up on her, then hammer her with the wind directly abeam. We could do major damage, perhaps manage to take out her masts then even board her. That, or we could slip away to the north.
I saw the look on Abbot’s face. How could I imagine facing the crew again if I, their captain, told them to run? Would they still see me as Nelson, or someone else?
“Mr. Abbot, give Mr. Hinton my compliments, tell him to meet me on the quarterdeck.”
I moved back to our new guests. “Mr. Berry, I’m sorry but I am forced to delay pleasantries and introductions. Do you know anything about a ship in these waters?”
Berry gave me a wide smile, like he was simply happy to be recognized. “Sir, oh I would just like to say I am honored to meet you, Admiral Nelson.”
“It’s captain, Mr. Berry,” I could not help glancing at the Roman soldier, who was watching with what seemed like only a vague interest. “The ship?”
“Yes, sorry, sir, Captain. Yes, we were having a rough time of it. They were on to me, you see, and there were watchers on the roads. We holed up in an abandoned farmhouse, and only tonight managed to slip away. We did hear shouting on the beach.”
I thanked him and told Turtledove to see our guests sent below. I met Hinton on the quarter deck. The ship was buzzing with silent energy now that we knew an enemy ship was out there, hunting in the mist.
We had to make our way further out to sea to clear the fog, but would the Frenchman think the same? If they had not spotted nor heard us, then there was a possibility she would slink away from the bay and hunt along the coast. I could see it in my head, all the pieces set in their place, and I willed that French ship to think as I did.
“Mr. Hoffman,” I yelled. “Leave the boat behind, the one Berry and his Roman came in on. Leave a lantern in it.” I turned, finding Hinton standing behind me, like he expected this order minutes before I said it.
“Mr. Hinton, please send men to unfurl the topsails and courses. Stress that they should remain silent. We don’t need them to turn. We need to beat away from the lee shore.”
The Ariadne slipped through the water and mist like a bird through smoke, silent except for the small beating of feet and the fluttering of sails.
I needed to keep calm. Never let the fear show on your face. If they were men under my command, then all they saw was confidence. I leaned to Hinton on the quarterdeck and spoke to him at a near whisper.
“I believe it is time to beat to quarters, Mr. Hinton.”
He turned. He smiled at me. “Aye, sir.”
Men were sent to the tops to down the sheets in expectation of the morning breeze that came with the heat of the sun. I heard from below as the cabins, mine included, were stripped down to the bare essentials. My steward fetched and helped me slip into my new coat and captain’s hat. The lower gun ports clacked open, and without a shout or even a grunt of effort they pushed the cannons into position.
So many things to go wrong: an untested crew, an untested ship, and me. I was the charioteer holding two stampeding horses with only one hand.
Then there was silence. Where we went the fog separated like a tearing sheet. The glass was turned, the bell rung to mark the time, and I stood in the forecastle, desperately pleading for the sunrise.
But we didn’t need to wait for the sun to arrive to finally see our prey. We saw their lights through the thin skin of mist.
One man shouted.
I spun. A lookout on the mainmast was pointing off the portside.
We heard bells coming from their ship. There were French voices among that din.
“Shit,” Hinton said. Then he looked at me.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir.”
I looked ahead. Instead I smiled. “I pointed to a midshipman behind me, “Croft, pass the word to Mr. Rackham, tell him two turns to starboard.” I turned to Hinton. “Well, if they know we’re here. We should let ’em know with every voice on board. Of course, let the guns speak. Let the men yell.”
Just as one end of the Ariadne heard the shout raise, the rest picked it up. It was a savage yell, full of curse and bile. The deck vibrated underneath. The sun finally cleared the fog and we saw her.
We were lucky, oh so lucky. The French were sitting still, hovering over the small vessel we left behind. “She is the Diane,” I heard somebody yell. “38 guns on her.”
More men confirmed it, seeing her stern window clear from the crosstrees. I felt a sudden pang of glorious anger. If things were different, if things were as they were supposed to be, that ship would not be there in that harbor. I knew her because she had been at the Nile. I saw the Diane lay waste to ships that could have easily outclassed her.
I rushed down the stairs to the gundeck, my legs felt light as air. I was still smiling. I patted Hoffman’s shoulder on my way through, he was in charge of the portside batteries. I moved past each gun captain. We would meet them on the portside. “Let us get close men. Don’t fire yet. Give it to them in one heap. Let them choke on our iron.”
I saw them, my men, their radiant faces, beaming their smiles back at me. Yes, let them think them equal to me, for this one second. Let them bask in the same expectant glory, at least for this one moment.
We were getting close. I could hear the French yelling. They were halfway into the process of pulling their anchor when we appeared, and now they were scrambling. I could see them running out their own guns. A few seconds more. They might be able to unleash a few balls, but nothing to our tonnage.
I heard Hinton yelling to the few crews on the main deck above. Aim high, he told them. He wanted to knock out their spars, kill their crew, and perhaps even snap a mast.
We were already on her. We could see them, the color of their clothes and hair and the uniforms of their officers. It made me wish for marines then, trained marksmen in the tops could do wonders picking off their commanders. I saw one puff of smoke from their crosstrees. I did not see where the musket shot went.
We had reached the point. I waited for Hoffman to give the order. One second, we were lined up. Two…
“Fire as she bears,” he yelled.
Shot, shot, shot, each cannon going off in a succession, and the balls cascaded down onto the beleaguered Diane. Splinters spun into the air like whirlwigs as our shots hit home. Something white spurted out above their deck railing. All that before the tableau was engulfed in smoke. Hoffman now had the station and I made my way upstairs.
Two puffs of white smoke answered our barrage. One flew into the water directly astern. The other skipped across the water in two great leaps. It went between decks with a crash. I heard a man scream below. I leaned over the portside rail.
“Damage, Mr. Hoffman?.” I yelled down.
The huge German stuck his head out the small hole made by the ball. He looked up at me like a jack in a box. Men below laughed. “Not much sir,” He replied. “One man was sent below to the surgeon, but the damned ball passed through one side and came out the other.”
“Back at it, Mr. Hoffman. Keep the guns hot.”
“Aye, aye sir,” he answered in concert to the crashing of those great guns. There was jubilance in his voice high amid an air of exaltation.
An easterly wind was turning northerly. The new breeze brought a new strain against our sails; they fluttered and warped, and we lost speed.
I ran. I found the young midshipman with the speaking trumpet. Forgetting his name, I just grabbed it from his hand.
“Hands about ships. Reef the topgallants’lls. Sheet them men, quickly now. Quickly.”
I turned and saw Hinton running toward me. Just then a huge crash of more guns going off sent a pall of smoke around the portside. I could no longer see the Diane.
“Get us on a new tack Mr. Hinton. Take us around. At least she will have a hard time coming around as well. Get one more broadside in, then we close on her.”
I raced up the stairs to the quarterdeck. I stood on my toes, trying to get a bead on the French ship, but I could not see a thing through our own smoke, and now the wind was blowing it into our eyes.
Men were watching me. I saw their eyes, their dry lips in among all the smoke. I turned and headed into my cabin. Just in my periphery I caught the Hussar exiting through the balcony door, bathed in the glow of the stained glass. He said something to me but I ignored him and came out the other side. On the balcony I could finally see the Diane. She was moving, her sails had no pocket but they were still moving, how? Their sheets were pressed hard against her masts, filling in the opposite direction. She was moving backward, God damn them.
There were Frenchmen crowded on their starboard side, and they were using the weight to tilt the Diane to make even more of a quick turn. Such a dangerous and foolhardy maneuver, they would put so much strain on their masts, not to mention their rudder. If they failed to tack, they would be sitting ducks. Still, it seemed to be working, and they were making way, coming to a position where they could escape, or worse, come at us and attack.
The French commander was crafty, too crafty for his station. Who was he? Just then the third broadside shook the deck, and the smoke wafted over my vision.
I ran back to the main deck. With the Diane backing we lost range of our cannons, and there was no way we could point our hull toward shore and risk the wind pulling us onto a reef. Rackham was bringing us around with huge turns of the wheel. I felt the deck loping to starboard. When I found Hinton, his smile was gone.
“He is moving beyond us, the devil.” I didn’t want to tell him how they did it. This was Hinton’s chance to shine as much as it was mine. I could see it now, working through the math in my head. After we would come about the Diane would be just out of cannon range, and we would never catch her as she made her way back to Bordeaux where she could shelter among whatever fleet was lurking nearby.
“It was bad luck, sir,” Hinton said. “Just bad luck.”
It was terrible luck. Unlucky that the wind would change, unlucky that we came upon her from this tack. Unlucky that their commander could pull off such a maneuver, all while under fire. I had known this luck before.
I looked down at the water. The waves curved so gently around the Ariadne’s hull like the contours of a stretching body under the bed sheets. The exhaust from the cannons drifted in whisps like pipe smoke now that the guns had stopped firing. My heart felt near to tearing itself apart. Instead I brought my face under control and smiled at the commander.
“Run out the fore chasers. Bring us around as fast as you can. We won’t let them just run off without putting in our two-penny worth.”
We had finally come about. It had taken us in a wide circle so now we were facing northward, just at the same moment the Diane was getting on her northbound tack. I looked down, the faces of the men were powder blackened. Their lips were rough and cracked from the dry smoke. They all watched the Diane run away with the same forlorn expression.
I maneuvered past them on the gundeck and gave them all a paternal look, something I might have used to lightly chastise Horatia.
“What’s wrong men? You have her on the run.”
I started walking up the stairs to the main deck as the cheering started. It built up over a second. Then grew louder. I looked at them from the top deck and shook my head.
“Not in my direction. In theirs.” I said it calmly, but I knew they could all hear me. They all turned and jeered at the retreating Diane.
“Cowards,” they called after her. “Craven frogs.” More and more jeers. In the forecastle Hinton was having two men run out the fore chasers, two 9-pounder long guns. Just effective enough at this range. Four men were at each cannon. They looked at me expectantly. I nodded at them.
Like the air had been punched, two plumes of smoke shot out from our cannons. I could see the shot running out over the open water. One went over the French heads and shot through a sail, the other crashed on their deck. The men cheered again.
We gave them several more shots from our for’ard guns. Most of the balls landed short, but a few struck home. Nothing had damaged them enough to slow them, and I knew it was the end of it.
The men were still cheering. I gave one look at Hoffman, and he knew what I wanted. He went among them, shouting them down. Smacking the men who took too long to understand. But there were smiles on those blackened faces, the grins of men who felt they had won, even if it was hard to call this action such a victory. What mattered was their reaction. Then among them, as the men returned aloft to tack us southward, I looked for the Hussar, that lonely island in an empty sea. But he was nowhere to be found.
Before the door to the wardroom, with my hand on the handle, I heard the Hussar’s voice.
“…known ‘round the ship, really. I expect the captain will chase her as long as he can.”
“And what will they do when they catch up to it?”
“Oh, well to that. I’m sure you can hear at this moment that sound of something rolling on deck. They are bringing balls to the cannon, I should say.”
I opened the door.
“Those are not balls, Hussar, they are powder barrels.”
The Hussar smiled. “I see, powder barrels. Makes perfect sense, Captain, thank you for correcting me.”
“Hussar, I would like to speak to our passengers alone, if you please.”
“Certainly, Captain, I just wanted to make them feel at home, is all.”
The Hussar stood and bowed to the two men. He didn’t look at my face as he crossed behind me and left.
“Oh dear me,” Berry stammered. “I don’t believe I got the man’s name, he seemed courteous.”
“His name is the Hussar.”
Berry tilted his head to the side. “You don’t know his name?”
“His name is the Hussar. It’s what he prefers to be called.”
Berry smiled with a kind of bland expression. “Well, he must simply be shy about his name. I have known such men. Maybe he has a poor family name.”
I looked over to the Roman. I was staring across time, and time was staring back.
Berry started again. “I’m glad we can finally make proper introductions, Captain Nelson. I believe I owe you quite a debt of gratitude for saving me and poor Flavius’ life here.”
The Roman did not stir, even with the mention of his name.
“Of course, sir, it was my duty. Unfortunately, I must let you know that the Frenchman will likely get away. We have a need to continue south, upon my orders.”
“Yes, well,” Berry pulled the papers from under his arm. “I am sure dear Mr. Canning briefed you on my importance, since you waited so long for me. You see, he learned I was going into France by means of a number of well-connected associates to learn of the activities of both the French and Roman governments. Through my activities I came into contact with young Flavius here. The poor man was hiding in a barn, alone.”
“As to that,” I said, a heat rising into my throat. “Mr. Canning did not provide an accurate description of you or your knowledge.”
“Oh, oh well. It’s quite simple. This little cartography expedition of yours. I understand. It should all be top secret to the navy, I am sure. I am no intelligence agent, you should understand.”
I paused. “Cartography?”
“Yes. You see, I have next to me,” he swatted the papers in his hand. “All the maps I could find of the shore of France, Rome, Egypt and the Holy Land. All of this is extremely useful, I assure you. The tyrant Napoleon made a good deal of fuss about modernizing their local charts. Did you know he now plans on mapping the channel? Could you imagine? He has yet to do so, thank the lord. But imagine, sir. Just imagine. Speaking of which, Canning did mention that I could be of use for you in your mission. I am well versed in classical languages, Latin and Greek.”
I could not stop my confusion from showing on my face. I felt near dazed.
“So you have nothing to tell me of Rome? Nothing of an artifact?”
“An artifact? The devil? I’m sorry, so terribly sorry. I’m not sure I see what you mean.”
Of course, Canning would not tell him all the details of his secret expedition. But if Berry were simply a tool, then what a poor and misshapen tool indeed.
I caught the Roman’s eyes again. He continued to look at me square in the chest, like an archer aiming an arrow for center mass.
“But I am confused. Why is he here?” I jutted my chin to the man in armor.
“Oh, well, see, Flavius here is a deserter. A terrible thing, but I am sure he has his reasons. The poor man would have been chewed up and swallowed by the French, you understand.”
“No, Mr. Berry, I do not understand. Why was a Roman in France? Why did he desert all the way here.”
Berry looked shocked. “You mean you don’t know? I thought it would be plenty apparent to everyone in England by now. Well, Rome invaded France.”
If Berry had any mind for the dramatic he would have paused there, instead he kept talking.
“Or at least they tried to. They were sent packing very quickly after the first few months. Can you believe it? I’m surprised you did not know, it was several weeks back. So nobody in England knows? I’m surprised the Romans did not reach out first to England, mind you. It could have been a joint venture. Rome is at war with the Carthaginians, and us with France. It seems the lines of alliances are drawn pretty thoroughly.”
I was tired of the Roman’s beading stare. I turned to him and we locked eyes. The world seemed too dreamlike, the space of that small wardroom was too tight. There was a sudden sense like I was being constricted, that the space occupied by the Roman was a vacuum and I was being pulled in.
That night, fully bathed in my cups, I tried to write to my wife. Oh, I tried.
“To Mrs. Nelson,”
I ripped the page up and threw it in the pile with the rest of them, then I started again. “My Dearest Fanny…”
Gibraltar would be one of the very few places in the Mediterranean where an English ship could resupply and drop her post. The Ariadne had acquired a fair load of it. Officers had written back to loved one’s, but these had accumulated in my own cabin in one large sack. It was on my own orders, as I did not want any of those folded envelopes to get damp in the hold, especially not if my own letters would be among them.
I dipped my quill in my ink pot and the pen flowed with a good enough grace, but I was swimming in something, I knew I was. And I hardly knew what was on that paper but I dared not read back. I was distant from myself, like I was sitting beside that wretched body of mine watching that pen scratch while I nodded silently.
“…and I couldn’t comfort our daughter when she came upon us. I remember the awful things she said to you, she had only said such things with a pubescent understanding of language, but I still felt awful. By necessity we sail to Italy. I know you do not think so, but the Hamiltons are good people. And Emma, Emma is who she is. Can any of us blame her?
And I should have you know that you shall always and forever be mine, even if I am thousands of nautical miles from your doorstep, even despite my shame as an admiral and husband. I wish you could know what happened at the Nile, but I’m too afraid it would haunt you, and you might become one of them.”
I hunched over onto the paper. I had no other arm to hold it as I wrote, so I used two stones to hold it in place. My hand ran into ink, and I felt embedded in the page, and eventually, succumbed, I lost myself to it.
“There was a time when everything was as it should be, and the stories all ended with the right people in the right place at the right time. I could be that for them, all of them, if only they would let me.”
The famed hero of the Nile and Trafalgar was born largely innocuous, the sixth of eight children of his parson father Edmund Nelson and his mother Catherine Suckling, whose family can trace its lineage through the famous Walpole family of England. Nelson aficionado Edgar Vincent, in his book “Nelson: Love & Fame,” wrote in his introduction that “much of Nelson’s behavior suggest a hidden well of insecurity stemming from his childhood,” that being since he was a middle child of a large family whose mother died soon after his birth, that “his need for attention became an addiction.”
Effectively, Vincent says that Nelson decided from a young age he would be a hero. Doing so, he would effectively destroy his body. By the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson would have lost most of his sight in one eye, most of his teeth and his right arm. He would become enamored with a woman named Emma Nelson, who was the perfect person to provide Nelson with all the senseless adoration he could desire.
This interpretation of Nelson was particularly interesting to me in writing this story, since like so many characterizations of war heroes, especially before the time when their own words could be recorded on tape, it is basically an educated guess. It is certainly interesting, and Vincent (if he’s still around) obviously is much better at research than I could ever hope to be, but such a characterization of a man who most other historians only put in a context of what one might see when walking through Trafalgar Square, is quite fascinating. It’s also the perfect context in which to write the kind of story I had in mind.
“I imagine myself as a hot bar of iron held in the blacksmith’s gloved fist. I am struck over and over with his hammer until I am bent. I am quenched by a bath of water, then reheated and struck again. I heat and cool, I repair and dismantle. By the end, of course, I should be strong, but instead I become brittle, somehow hollow.”
The Hussars were a kind of cavalry originating first around central Europe but was later seen throughout practically all European nations during the time surrounding the Napoleonic Wars. They were a kind of light cavalry, meant to harass enemy skirmishers and take out artillery emplacements. What was interesting was their general tactics and dress were adopted all throughout Europe, including France and England. For a good number of their ranks, the general uniform also stayed the same, with a bearskin hat, a gold braided jacket and a coat that was often worn with only one sleeve.
As a foil to Nelson, I needed a character that had forsaken any and all identity, who was too upset with the way the world was that he could no longer stomach being on the same plane as other people. He needed to be someone who fit within and without a paradigm, and I thought a Hussar would fit the bill. The character himself goes through quite the transformation in the book, something I did not expect when originally setting out to write it, but as usual characters take on an identity of their own.
“All of England’s children, so few they were, living out lives on wet stones on the border of drowned towers. They seemed to regard me as less than an animal, as there, but not, and always on the periphery, deigned never to touch their lives again, a stranger to all.”
The beleaguered wife of Horatio Nelson often gets displayed in movies and other media as a kind of jealous hag, one who angers her husband so much that of course he would end up in the arms of a woman like Emma, who offered him nothing but utter devotion.
It seemed to me like something that spoke of just how much power Nelson had over the lasting histories of the people surrounding him. In her letters, Fanny does not share anything but an apparent love and appreciation for her often sour and whining husband. That does not mean the two did not fight, but if asked about her characterization, one might think she was just an anecdote to Nelson’s incredible fame.
But she had a life, in fact she was married before Nelson, and had a son by him. It would take an incredibly caring person, in my mind, to put up with Nelson’s tirades and his constant quest for fame and glory in spite of the hazards to his body and health.
Fanny seems to be unable but try and support the broken people of England. Maybe she formed a habit while caring for Nelson for so long, but maybe its something else. And how long can one truly live only for other people’s sake before you give yourself over to them, body and soul?