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The Adventures of Young Will Potter — A Seafaring Novel

Peter Argonis

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The Adventures of Young Will Potter

 

A Seafaring Novel

by

Peter Argonis

 

 

 

© 2024

All rights reserved by the author

 

 

Table of Contents

1. Involuntary Volunteer

2. Purser's Steward

3. Heir

4. Mister Potter

5. Wooing Abigail

6. Clerk

7. The Princess Royal

8. Dido

9. The Egyptian Campaign

10. Of Prizes and Spoils

11. Almost a Gentleman

12. Laid Up

13. Illustrious Circles

14. Wedding Bells

15. Commissioning

16. Changing Fortunes

17. Surprises

18. Domestic Bliss

19. Mulberry Street

20. The Mediterranean Fleet

21. Spartan

22. We Happy Few

23. A Hero’s Welcome

Acknowledgements

Appendix 1: Sailplan, full-rigged ship

Appendix 2: Ranks in the Royal Navy

Appendix 3: Structure of the Royal Navy

Appendix 4: Rated and unrated ships and vessels

Appendix 5: Watches and times

Appendix 6: Gun salutes

Appendix 7: Nautical terms

Appendix 8: The Compass Rose

Appendix 9: The Winds

Appendix 10: List of Accounts a Purser had to submit to the Victualling Board.

Appendix 11: The Articles of War

 

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1. Involuntary Volunteer

Shaldon, June 1795

The Honourable William Parker-Edwards was looking down from his dais at the tall youngster who stood before him in shackles. Will Potter had never caused trouble before in his 16 years of age. He was a ship chandler’s apprentice with Master Warren, who had given testimony for him. Yet, the case was decided before the assizes even convened, for young Will Potter had beaten up the son of Walter Prentiss, a large landowner and businessman. The quarrel was over a girl and young Prentiss had been the first to swing at his rival, but Potter had hit back and broken his opponent’s jaw and nose.

It went against the judge’s grain to convict a young man for defending himself against a ruffian — and the younger Prentiss was known as such — but he could not ignore the pressure from the older Prentiss who demanded young Potter be flogged and jailed. He was not certain however if the jury would follow him, for the resentment against the Prentiss family was wide spread.

Then again, the judge had another option, for war with France was declared, and the Royal Navy needed any man it could get. Just now, HM sloop Serpent (16) was lying at anchor in the roads off the shore, and her First Lieutenant, Mister Barker, was attending the proceedings, ready to collect any convict who came his way. Parker-Edwards cleared his throat.

"William Potter, you stand accused of vicious battery against Mister Edwin Prentiss, having injured him greatly and without just cause. A conviction that I have no doubt this jury of honest men will hand down to you would see you flogged severely and sent to Bodmin Prison for a year, with hard labour added. Be still!" he thundered at the young man who was opening his mouth. "I am not finished. Given the deathly threat His Majesty’s dominions are facing by the forces of the Godless new French government and seeing how the Royal Navy alone is standing between them and our homes and families, I offer you to volunteer for service in the Royal Navy. Here is Mister Barker of the Serpent sloop. Sign up with him, and be forgiven your misdeeds. ’Tis an honourable way out for you and one that will benefit King and Country."

William "Will" Potter was barely believing his own ears. Yes, he had beaten up Prentiss when the rotten scoundrel had grabbed Will’s girlfriend Eve, but on the day after, Will learned that Eve had turned against him, claiming that she welcomed Prentiss’s interest and that Will was not really her friend. He was in a pickle to be sure, and to be offered a way out of the almost certain flogging was a great surprise. Therefore, he quickly nodded his assent, not daring to speak up for fear of ruining his chance.

The judge nodded at the lieutenant. "Mister Barker, kindly enlist the man. No need to give him hand money."

Prentiss shot up from the spectator bench, but the judge held up his hand. "Hold your peace, Mister Prentiss. The county must meet its quota of volunteers. If you rather wish to volunteer your son…?"

Prentiss sat down quickly and the judge banged the gavel.

"Next case!" he ordered, whilst young Will Potter was delivered into Mister Barker’s care.

Barker looked the young man over. "Come, you!" he ordered, leading the way outside.

There was a boatswain sitting in the shade under a tree who jumped up when his First Lieutenant emerged from the assize building.

"A volunteer, Mister Penryn," he announced, leaving Will with the warrant officer who grinned.

"Sit down there, but stand when Mister Barker comes out again. What trade did you learn, lad?"

"Ship chandler’s apprentice, umh … Sir?"

Penryn grinned. "I work for my pay. Call me Mister Penryn!"

"Aye, Mister Penryn?" Will answered, unsure of himself.

"Easy, lad! You haven’t been read in yet. So, ship chandler’s apprentice, huh? I bet Mister Evans can use you."

"Umh, Mister Penryn, who is Mister Evans?"

"Purser. You can become purser's steward over time. Not a bad job, it is. The Tars will be right friendly to you seeing how you’ll dole out the rum. Just don’t you forget old Timothy Penryn," he ended with a grin. "So you volunteered, huh?"

"Yes. I sort of beat up an alderman’s son. He’s a scoundrel, but his father wanted me in prison."

"Judge offered you a way out, huh?"

Will nodded.

"Lucky you! Judge could’ve convicted you first, have you flogged, and then volunteered you," Penryn opined.

"Maybe so, Mister Penryn," Will sighed.

~~~

Will was standing with another three volunteers, young men like himself, and with another fifteen convicts from the last three days of the assizes. They were looking up from the waist of the sloop and to the quarter deck. There stood the Master and Commander, Mister Elijah Brooke, a weathered man in his mid-forties, with grey hair but amazingly lively blue eyes.

"Landsmen! You are entering an honourable service today. Once entered into the muster roll, you are a part of this ship’s company and expected to do your duties cheerfully and bravely, be it in a gale or be it in the face of the enemy. I will now read to you the Articles of War, as laid down by their Lordships Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain.

"Article One. All commanders, captains, and officers, in or belonging to any of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war,…"

Commander Brooke thus proceeded to read the Articles of War, all 35 of them. Will stood there with the other recruits, trying to listen and understand what was said. It was a long list of possible misdeeds, and the punishment for most was death, and where not the punishment was often even more fearsome, such as severe floggings. Will actually shivered a little hearing all this.

He was used to corporal punishment, having grown up in an orphanage until being apprenticed at age ten. He had been lucky then, for Master Warren was a gruff but good-natured master. Yet, even good Master Warren at times saw fit to administer a beating to his apprentice, for the various infractions the young boy was apt to commit. Yet, the worst Master Warren ever doled out as punishment paled in comparison to the mildest punishment listed by the Articles.

Commander Brooke was now coming to the end.

"Article 35. All other crimes not capital committed by any person or persons in the fleet, which are not mentioned in this act, or for which no punishment is hereby directed to be inflicted, shall be punished by the laws and customs in such cases used at sea.

"Having been read the Articles of War, you are now members of this good ship’s company. Listen well to the officers and warrant officers when they give you orders and obey them cheerfully, and nothing bad will befall you! You will now be de-loused and given proper clothes, and then meet your mess mates who will help you to fit in. Dismiss!"

Several warrant officers descended on the recruits, and they were ordered to strip naked. Their heads and their pubes were shorn bare. Then a deck wash pump was rigged — Will recognised it as something Master Warren had in stock — and four recruits had to man it. Then each of them had to step under the cold water with a brimstone and scrub himself clean. Naked, bald, wet and shivering, they were then led for’rard where a small man in an officer’s coat was squinting at them.

"Who of you is Will Potter, ship chandler’s apprentice?"

Will stepped forward quickly. "Sir!" he blurted, standing stock-still.

The officer nodded. "You’re a tall one. Put on pants, a shirt and a jacket from the left pile there, then help me!"

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Will managed to say before he went to the pile of clothes and quickly put on a shirt (threadbare), pants (patched but clean) and a jacket (patched and bleached). He then stood at attention before the man.

"I am Mister Evans, the purser. I’ll give you a try as my helper. Now give each man a bundle of clothes as I tell you, from tall to medium and small," he ordered, pointing at the piles from left to right.

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Will hurried to say.

"You’re a volunteer?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"Good. Get a medium kit for this man!"

For the next ten minutes, he helped his new superior to hand out clothes and other items — their kit — to the recruits. When they were finished, warrant officers picked men and went off with them to show them their stations. Evans gave Will a nod.

"Now get yourself two kits from the bottom of the pile and put those rags back. You stepped in the clover, Potter. Just see to it that you follow my orders and don’t disappoint me."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Will hurried to answer, dropping his clothes and picking two bundles from the bottom. Those were the same items, only fairly new. The shirts were really new and warm on his skin. "Thank you, Sir!" he offered.

Evans nodded benevolently. "Now, let's bring those kits back to the storage. Then I’ll show you your first tasks."

His first day in the Navy was a busy one. He had to hand out the provisions for the noon meal to the cook’s mate, learned how to handle the big balance, and afterwards how to pick choice pieces of salt meat for the captain and the wardroom. The stewards gave him measured nods when they stood to receive the goods for their masters, and one of them, the wardroom steward Mackeray, told him that they would share their mess with him. Unconcerned with the presence of the purser, Mackeray then asked for extra helpings for their own noon meal. Will briefly glanced at his superior who nodded quietly.

Will learned that as the youngest member of their mess, he was responsible for picking up their food at the galley, for the stewards were busy with serving their masters. Will realised that his was a privileged position in the ship nonetheless, for he could pick his own food.

After a hurried noon meal, Will followed Mister Evans down into the hold of the sloop. As a ship chandler’s apprentice, Will had seen a few ships’ holds before, and he did not feel out of place too much. He learned where the purser’s stores were located and how they were secured against the rolling of the ship. This was new to Will, for the chandler’s shop stood on solid ground, but the principles of stowing made sense to him.

Late afternoon came, and the purser and his new helper had a very important task to fulfil. Mister Evans showed Will how to prepare the Grog by mixing three parts water, a tenth part of lime juice and one part of rum for the evening Tot, the evening rum ration for the men. It was also Will’s task to dole out the rations — a quart per man — as the hands stood in line to receive it.

As the one doling it out, Will was the last to receive his tot. He tried it, not having any experience with ardent spirits for Master Warren was very much against them. It was not much to his liking, but it served to cover the taste of the stale water that came from the casks. With his mess mates, he sat drinking the Grog and eating the last of his hardtack allowance. The wardroom steward showed him how to knock the hardtack against the deck to chase out the weevils which had to be collected as feed for the chickens that Commander Brooke kept on board for his eggs and sometimes his Sunday dinners.

After supper, the purser had Will bring up the hardtack rations for the next morning before he was allowed to turn in. He and the stewards shared a small chamber next to the sick bay, on the lower deck, where they slung their hammocks in two tiers. Being the youngest, Will had his hammock in the lower tier where it was colder if less smelly.

Will was dead tired after the day, but he still lay awake for some time thinking of Eve and her treason. It was bitter for him, even though he knew that her father, Robert Wicklow, the keeper of the Ferry Inn, was behind her change of heart. The man never liked Will, and he would be a willing tool for the Prentiss family. Will began to dream of the future, of perhaps returning one day, his pockets full of prize money. He was a volunteer after all. If he learned the trade of a purser, he might become a purser himself one day and be called "Mister Potter". From Master Warren, Will also knew that some pursers became quite wealthy in their positions. So in his semi-waking dream, Will returned as a well-to-do gentleman to confront his wayward girlfriend with her poor choices.

In his current reality, he was roused before the crack of dawn by the shrilling of the boatswains’ pipes. With his mess mates, he rolled out of his hammock. Somebody lighted a tallow lamp, and in its dim shine they rolled up their hammocks before rushing to their stations. Will almost lost his way in the darkness, but the wardroom steward grabbed him and dragged him along.

He managed to be waiting at the store room before Mister Evans appeared.

"Good morning, Sir," Will greeted his superior who seemed to be less than awake.

"Mornin’, Potter," came the grumbled answer and Will resolved to be silent until his superior’s mood bettered. "There’s more stores comin’ aboard t’day, meat casks mos’ly," Evans mumbled between yawns. "Have to move the older casks first. My compliments to the officer of the watch, an’ we’ll need a work party of eight to haul up the casks."

Will could not resist. "May I ask why, Sir?"

"No, God dammit! Lemme have a coffee first. Mackeray! Where are you lazy bastard? Coffee!"

Fortunately, Mackeray appeared in just this moment with a steaming cup of coffee which Evans gulped down in just a minute.

"Ah! Better!" he exhaled. "More, Mackeray! Now, my lad, to answer your question, meat stored in salt brine lasts about a year. Of course, we never wait until the hold is empty before we get new casks. What, pray, will happen if we put the new casks down on top of the old ones?"

Will thought briefly, a little surprised at the change of mood of his superior. He had learned his trade though, and the answer was simple enough.

"They’ll never get used, Sir, and they’ll spoil."

"Good lad! So, before the new casks get delivered, we hoist up the old ones, put the new ones at the bottom, and the older ones on top, oldest first."

"Thank you, Sir," Will answered, understanding the principle.

"Have to teach you the trade, my lad. Now, what happens on a long voyage, when we hoist up one of the last casks and the meats are rotten?"

Will nodded. "The Captain gets upset, Sir."

Evans even laughed now. "And God beware that ever happens! So, my lad, get me a work party."

When the dawn turned into a bright morning, they were hard at work. Fifteen fifty-gallon casks had to be hoisted up and stood on the deck. Mister Evans collected the ship’s surgeon, Mister McSwain, and together they inspected the casks, opening them and smelling at the brine and the meats. Whilst inspecting the seventh cask, the two gentlemen wagged their heads and Evans waved at Will to come closer.

"Now, my chandler’s lad, what is your learned opinion of this piece of… whatever it once was?"

Will looked at the piece of meat and and sniffed carefully. It was rotten. He smelled the brine too as Master Warren had once taught him.

"Sir, the brine is too thin and now the meat is rotting."

Evans looked at the surgeon. "Picked a winner, I did." He turned to Will. "Can you write, lad?"

"Yes, Sir. Master Warren sent me to the Sunday school."

"Excellent. Go and heat a poker in the galley fire until it glows. Then burn the word "Rotten" deep into the side of the barrel. Deep, you hear, or those rascals at the Victualling Yard will plane it off and give the barrel to some other poor idiot. Shoo!"

Will scampered down to the galley and told the cook of his purpose. Fifteen minutes later, he burned the letters deeply into the side of the offending barrel, to the amusement of other warrant officers. Even the First Lieutenant came to inspect drawn by the smell, and he chuckled seeing Will’s handiwork.

"He’s a sly one, is our Mister Evans."

The clerk from the victualling yard was less enthusiastic, but even he had to concede that the contents were not fit for human consumption. The lighter unloaded another cask to replace the rotten one, and the offending cask was unceremoniously emptied over the side. Will then had to climb down into the hold and direct the stowing of the new casks first, followed by the older ones until the section earmarked for meat casks was crammed to capacity. The numbers of the casks were carefully entered into the Victualling Book, together with the date, as a reference for later. Will was very impressed with his superior’s diligence and he said that much to his messmates.

"Evans’s an honest one. Most pursers, they don’t give a damn ‘bout the rot in the casks. Some, they buy rotten casks at cheaper price and pocket the difference. Not Evans. Best food I ever had," the gunroom steward opined, which told a lot for he was an old hand, a former topman grown too old for the work aloft, and now looking after the "young gentlemen" — the midshipmen and master’s mates.

As if to reinforce that point, Mister Evans gave Will a first lesson in the accounting side that afternoon. The Navy paid a shilling per day for each rating, for food, drink and clothing, and the purser had to make the best use of that money whilst turning in a profit, for pursers received little pay. It was simply assumed that they would split the difference and make up for the poor pay. Evans explained to Will what to look for to get enough and good enough food whilst saving money.

Then, on the next morning, HM sloop Serpent weighed anchor. In the small ship, every man had to help with the manoeuvre, and Will found himself with the twelve Marines and some other idlers pushing a capstan bar to winch up the anchor cable. It was back-breaking work for the men, and Will cheered with the others when the anchor broke from the ground.

"Anchor cable up and down!" a junior midshipman squeaked from the forecastle, and the men were fairly running around the capstan now, heaving up the anchor.

Up in the rigging, the topmen unfurled the topsails, and Will had to help on deck heaving the braces. He was a raw recruit and had to be told where to go and which way to heave, but he was strong already for his age. Still, a knotted rope wielded by a bosun’s mate — the starter — hit his back twice, to give him better direction.

Once the topsails were set, the topmen rushed further up to unfurl the topgallant sails, and again those had to be braced properly. Will followed the lead of an able seaman to the correct place and heaved when told so. This time, the bosun’s mate did not see the need to wield the starter.

Over all these frantic efforts, Will almost missed the actual process of the sloop going to sea. When he finally had the time to look around, the shoreline looked distant already, and the small man o’ war was hit by the first waves of the English Channel. Around Will, men’s faces turned green and the bosun’s mates used the starters to direct the seasick recruits to the lee side. Whilst a number of recruits — landsmen in Navy parlay — were leaning over the lee side railing heaving their hearts out, Will felt only a little queasiness which disappeared quickly when Mister Evans collected his helper for the morning’s work. Hard work was the best way to distract Will from feeling sick, and he spent the entire morning attending to the various tasks Mister Evans found, and by noon time he even felt hungry again and wolfed down part of his hardtack allowance together with a lump of cheese.

As the helper of the purser, Will was not part of a watch, meaning that he would be worked all day but had the night off. Yet, if all hands were called for manoeuvres at night, he had to fill in as a deck hand together with all the other "idlers". That happened a lot during the first days as the small ship was beating up against the wind to reach Plymouth. It was a welcome sound to hear the anchor cable rushing out. From his mess mates who heard a lot of gossip whilst attending their duties as stewards, he had already picked up the news that they were headed for the South Sea, escorting three ships that carried convicts to Botany Bay, as they had done for three years already. Will shivered a little thinking that he could be one of those wretched people transported half way around the world — that was how Mackeray had told it — to a penal colony, never to return. He, at least, might see England again.

~~~

Ten weeks later on a Sunday, Will was manning the slop chest, selling items for the personal use of the sailors. He was sitting in the waist of the ship, under the quarterdeck, with three chests of wares whilst the crew was queuing up in front of a makeshift table. As Will knew by now, the slop chest was a source of steady income for Mister Evans. The wares included clothing items, eating utensils, and most popular, tobacco, all of which were sold at a profit for the purser.

For Will, this extra chore was a welcome change from the usual routine, as each of the men had different wishes or needs. The mood of the waiting men was good too, for Serpent was sailing along steadily under the trade winds, rarely requiring any work aloft, and logging a steady six knots under easy sail, allowing the prison transports to keep up. The steady movements of the ship had also helped the new men to acquire sea legs and overcome the bouts of seasickness so frequent in the first weeks of the voyage.

Having been a merchant’s apprentice, Will conducted the sales with good efficiency and the line of waiting men decreased steadily. So far, Will was not unhappy with his new circumstances. He was kept busy, sure, but he was allowed to do and learn more things than under Master Warren’s rule. Mister Evans was also a fair man, and Will was promised a small share of the purser’s profit after their first voyage.

Of course, some of the hands had tried to talk him into shady deals, but Will was not stupid enough to go behind the purser’s back. He felt that he owed a lot to Evans already, and he was not eager at all to get acquainted with the cat of nine tails, either. Like the other hands, he had seen two floggings so far, meted out to men who had been caught asleep whilst on watch, and he was mortally afraid of being subjected to such an ordeal himself. He also knew that he had fallen right into the clover with his assignment as purser’s helper, and he was smart enough not to risk his plum assignment.

So far, the small ship had no purser's steward assigned, which was a petty officer’s rating, and Will thought that after two or three journeys, doing his duties diligently and not falling afoul of the Articles, he might reach that rating. This meant for him to get a seaman’s rating first, of course, and that might happen after the return from their current journey. With this in mind, he applied himself to his additional duties during all-hands manoeuvres, but also during gun drills, with the same diligence. Already, he was in charge of swabbing the breech of the larboard six-pounder on the small ship’s quarterdeck during the drills, and one time, they had even fired the small gun twice.

So far, he had not been sent aloft into the rigging, for this was a task reserved for the topmen, who were the self-appointed elite among the ship’s ratings, and he was not sorry about this at all. He was rather tall and, in consequence, lanky due to his recent growth spurt, and the ratlines did not look inviting to him.

Over his musings, Will had finished the task and, after one last look around, he closed and locked the slop chests, found Mister Evans, and returned the keys to him. Then he had to ask the officer of the watch, Mister Overley, for a couple of hands to move the chests down to the hold before he enjoyed a few precious moments of idleness. Not for long, though, for the stewards and cook’s mates lined up to draw provisions for the late meal. Since his own mess mates, the stewards, had to serve their masters late into the evenings, they and Will had their supper before the officers. After that, all Will had to do was to select the foods for the next morning’s breakfast in wardroom and gunroom before he reported to Mister Evans and was allowed to sling his hammock.

~~~

Three days later, they sighted St. Helena Island, the first planned stopover of their journey, where they stayed for a week, refilling their water casks and replenishing other stores from the only ship chandler on the remote island. Mister Evans and Will were quite busy during the stay, but Will found that feeling solid ground under his feet was an enjoyable change for him.

The prisoner ships also took provisions and even allowed some of their human cargo to visit the shore for a few precious hours. Those were mostly the families, wives and children, of the deported prisoners. One of those, a girl of Will’s age named Becky, had been put in charge of all the small children, and she and her charges were allowed on the shore every day of their stay. Will always found a way to see her from up close and strike up a bit of talking. She was travelling alone in one of the transports, with her father in another ship and her mother not alive anymore, and she was open to a little dalliance. They kissed and made out quite a lot, setting off her small charges into giggling fits, and once Will was even allowed to fondle her small breasts under the homespun dress. That was all, but it gave Will much food for his dreams for weeks to come. His parting gift for her, an ounce of brown sugar, made her kisses even sweeter, and he hoped to see her again at their next stopover.

The ships continued the journey, now heading for the Cape of Good Hope. The Mary-Anne prisoner transport sprung a leak during the rounding in heavy weather and could barely be saved by work parties from the ships who rigged a furled sail over the leak. Still, changing crews of prisoners from the squadron’s ships slaved at the pumps to keep the ship afloat, and the ships landed at a small town on the eastern side of the Cape, Simon’s Town, for a brief stay during which more permanent repairs were made to the damaged transport. They were also able to take fresh water there, plus some fruits and meats to help them make the final, long approach to New South Wales.

As Will learned from the stewards who overheard everything, the captain was heading for the Bass Strait, between Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, to make use of the strong westerly winds in the Roaring Forties, rather than running the Timor Strait and then giving a wide berth to the great reefs on the eastern side of Australia. Sailing the Bass Strait was also dangerous, but it saved them almost a thousand miles on their way to Sydney, their port of destination.

Indeed, the small squadron picked up continuously favouring winds. On some days, the ships made over one-hundred and fifty miles and never less than ninety, and in just ten weeks they arrived at the sun-baked Sydney Cove. This had to be the most miserable place on the face of the Earth, Will thought. It was as hot as a furnace, melting the tar of the deck seams, and looked barren and forbidding.

Will’s heart went out to poor Becky as he saw her being landed and he had to fight the tears welling up in his eyes.

"Nothing anyone can do, my lad," Mister Evans said at his side. "It’s a right shame for a girl being dropped into this cesspool, but she’s a right pretty one and may find a husband quickly, maybe even from amongst those rascals that call themselves officers."

"Yes, Sir," was all Will could respond.

"Well, no use in crying over spilt milk, my lad. Let’s get those water barrels ready and then find out if there’s anything in the way of provisions we may pick up."

In a way, working from dawn to dusk replenishing the provisions was the best diversion for young Will. Commander Brooke was not one to dawdle. No shore leave was given to the crews of the squadron and the captains of the transports were rushed into loading whatever cargoes were available and needed in England. A mere two weeks passed until the squadron went anchor-up.

Rather than returning through the Bass Strait and beating up against its violent western winds, Brooke chose the northern route after consulting the sailing master, Mister Gorran. Progress was good on their northern leg, but once reaching the Coral Sea, they had to give the coast a wide berth to avoid the long stretch of reefs which lay before it. Both the captain and the master carefully shot the sun with their sextants to make certain that they were far enough to the North before the convoy changed course to west.

Now they could catch the south-easterly trade winds prevalent in that region. With the quarterly winds driving them comfortably, the convoy carefully navigated its way through the Torres Strait and into the Arafura Sea. Sailing on a western course for a thousand miles until they sighted Timor, Captain Brooke ordered a west-southwest course straight for the Cape of Good Hope. The five thousand miles from Timor to the Cape took them two months, with the last weeks beating up against adverse winds south of Madagascar and against the strong westerlies of the Roaring Forties. Everybody was relieved when the ships could finally drop anchor in the protected bay at Simon’s Town. For a few precious days, the men could revel in the luxury of fresh water whilst work crews under Mister Evans cleaned and filled the water casks. Even fresh meats were to be had, and another group was busy slaughtering hogs and local cattle breeds and storing the bits in salt brine. This latter group was in effect overseen by Will, with Mister Midshipman Dancer in nominal command.

After a week of hard work, eased by the availability of fresh water, vegetables and meat, the victualling was almost completed. The last water casks were being brought aboard and stowed when Will, who assisted Mister Evans and Boatswain’s Mate Drummond in directing the work, made an unpleasant discovery. In a corner of the hold, far to forward, where small casks were to be stored, he saw what looked like white and brownish growth covering the darkened beams and planks of the hull. This looked strange to him and he found Mister Evans.

"Sir, I saw something in that corner for’rard. Looks like the dry rot, Sir," he reported to his superior.

Both Evans and Drummond looked up.

"Rot, you say, laddie?" Drummond asked.

Will nodded. "Yes, Mister Drummond."

"Show us, my lad," Evans said.

When Will pointed out the corner, shining the small horn lantern on the affected area, both men knelt down, and then Mister Evans took the lantern to examine the beams and planks.

"Dry rot, indeed!" he announced gravely. "Find the First Lieutenant, Potter. My compliments, and I need him down here!"

Quickly, Will scrambled up the companionways to the lower deck and then to the main deck and aft to the wardroom. He knocked on the door of the First Lieutenant’s cabin and waited.

"What is it?" the gruff voice of Mister Barker sounded.

"Landsman Potter, Sir, and Mister Evans sends his compliments, Sir."

The cabin door swung open and Barker peered at him. "Yes?"

"Sir, we were storing water barrels in the hold, and Mister Evans thinks there’s dry rot down there; for’rard, Sir."

"Wait!" Barker said and closed the door in Will’s face. Not a minute later, the door opened again, and Mister Barker, now fully clothed, stepped out on the deck. "Show me, Potter!"

With Will leading, they quickly descended into the for’rard hold where Evans and Drummond were still shining the lamp into the affected corner. Evans rose from his knees.

"Sir, we have dry rot down here."

"Bloody Hell," Barker swore. "Show me, Mister Evans!"

Will kept out of the way whilst the high and mighty First Lieutenant examined the damaged wood, cursing under his breath all the time. Then he turned and his gaze found Will. "You discovered this?"

"Y-yes, Sir," Will said with great apprehension, for coming to the attention of the First Lieutenant was something a lowly rating like Will should avoid at all costs.

"I’ll let the captain know," Barker then said. "Halt the stowing. In fact, let’s winch up the casks again. There may be more of this."

With that, he was heading for the companionway already, no doubt on his way to the captain’s cabin.

"Now, that looks like a longer stay," Drummond remarked before getting the work parties reorganised.

Mister Evans shrugged. "Better this than the bottom falling out in heavy weather. I’d say you made a big step up in the Nº1’s esteem, my lad, although Mister Willis will find this less than amusing."

He was actually smiling as he said this. Mister Willis was the ship’s carpenter, and Evans deeply despised the man as everybody knew. It was Willis’s duty to inspect the hull for dry rot, and he had clearly failed doing so. Of course, being a man of mountainous proportions and huge girth, he had not been able to inspect the hull behind the water casks during the journey, but he had clearly neglected his duty in the last days when the casks had been heaved up to the deck for cleaning and repair.

The captain appeared not long after, and he, too, inspected the damage.

"Damnation!" he swore. "Where’s Mister Willis?"

"At the shore, Sir," Barker answered. "Said he needed to get nails and bolts from the smithy they are running."

"Signal for the shore to send him back!" Captain Brooke said calmly. "I’m eager to hear his explanation for this."

To Will’s great relief, Mister Evans tasked him with doling out the food stores for the cook and his mates, which kept him busy and away from the hold. Mister Evans appeared a while later, smiling smugly and giving Will a pat on the shoulder.

"Wait for Sunday, my lad," he told his helper. "There’ll be a reward for you."

"Thank you, Sir. Will we have to stay for repairs?"

"A week at least. Acting carpenter Brown must find some timbers ashore to replace the rotted knee and deck beam. Ship must be careened for that."

There was a clear emphasis in Evans’s voice, and Will dutifully asked.

"And Mister Willis, Sir?"

"Was relieved of his duties pending a Court of Inquiry to be held after our return. No post captains around here for a court to assemble. Anyway, the stores must be unloaded, and we better get started."

For the rest of the day and half of the next, the crew transferred meat and water casks, gun powder kegs and iron shot to the transports, avoiding the hassle of landing them on the shore. Then the small ship was towed to a sandy beach north of the small settlement where the bow anchor was brought ashore and wedged tightly between two massive rocks further inland. All available men, even the petty officers and some crews from the transports, then manned the capstan and pulled the small ship up the flat beach until the bows were completely out of the water.

The carpenter’s mates and the cooper’s mates then removed a section of the copper sheeting over the rotted planks before the damaged wood was carefully pried away. Next, parts of the knee and a deck beam were replaced with new timbers and the hull was closed again with fresh planks, seams and tar. The cleaned copper sheets were nailed in place again to finish the repairs.

All this had taken three full days of hard work, but the rest of the crew had not been idle either. Work parties had made use of the chance to scrape and chisel the accumulated growth off the hull whilst the surgeon, Mister McSwain, fumigated the entire hold with sulphur, exterminating the dry rot where it had not yet damaged the timbers, but also getting rid of the foul smell of the bilge.

With another Herculean effort, the beached ship was then pulled back into the shallow water until she was afloat again. For a full day, the bilge was sounded hourly, until Mister Barker declared himself satisfied with the repairs. Serpent was then towed back to where the convoy was waiting. Stores were lowered back into her holds, the magazine and the shot garlands were stocked, and then the gun breeches were lowered onto their carriages again. After eight days of frantic work, Serpent was a seaworthy ship again.

As it happened, the next day was Sunday. The crew assembled on deck in divisions for a brief Sunday service, followed by the obligatory reading of the Articles of War. Captain Brooke then looked at them and gave them a nod.

"You officers and men worked hard this last week. You worked well this week. So today will be your day of rest. Rope yarn Sunday and a double ration of grog for all!"

The men broke out in cheers, but Brooke silenced them with a hand gesture.

"All of you worked hard, but some of you did even more. Able Seaman John Jones!"

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Jones sang out from the ranks.

"I’m rating you carpenter’s mate. You did good work down there in the hold!"

"Thankee, Sir!" a grinning Jones answered whilst his mess mates clapped his shoulders.

"My felicitations, Jones! Able Seaman George Pike!"

"Aye, aye, Sir!"

"You’re the new captain of the foretop!"

"Aye, Aye, Sir!" Pike answered stolidly.

"Seaman Oliver Brewer!"

"Aye, aye, Sir!" Brewer shouted.

"I’m rating you Able Seaman, Brewer."

"Thankee kindly, Sir!" Brewer replied with a wide smile.

"Landsman Will Potter!"

Will swallowed briefly before answering. "Aye-aye, Sir!"

"I’m rating you seaman, Potter. Keep learning and doing your duties!"

"Aye, aye, Sir! Thank you Sir!" Will answered as required, but grinning widely, whilst the stewards, his mess mates, also whacked his shoulders.

Of course, the rumour mill already knew the reason for Will’s new rating, and it had not hurt his standing. Willis was disliked by most of the crew for his irascible temper, and even with all the work that had to be done, the men had enjoyed the extra days at anchor, with fresh food and water. Also, Mister Evans was respected by the warrant officers and ratings, and some of that had rubbed off on Will. All in all, he found his new life very agreeable.

The former carpenter, Mister Willis, was already gone, traveling in one of the transports as a mere passenger on the captain’s orders. It would not do for the acting carpenter, Mister Brown, to do his duty with his cashiered superior still around. Also, Mister Evans opined that it would not be beyond Willis to seek revenge on those he deemed responsible for his downfall, and Captain Brooke would have none of that.

Thus, Will thoroughly enjoyed the day of leisure after he had done his part in dispensing the double rations of grog. With his master’s agreement, he helped himself to a few pints of ale from a fresh cask, a drink less potent than grog and more suitable for a youngster.

Right with the crack of dawn, the boatswains’ pipes shrilled through the small ship, driving the crew to their stations on deck and aloft. With the other deck hands and idlers, Will threw himself against the capstan bars to weigh anchor whilst the topmen loosened the sails. After ten minutes of concerted efforts, the small man of war was gliding over the smooth surface of the bay, with the six transports following closely. Outside the bay, Serpent hove to and let her charges pass before taking her customary position to windward of the convoy.

Everybody on board noticed how lively the ship responded to sail and rudder with her bottom freshly cleaned. Commander Brooke, standing on the windward side of the small quarter deck, was smiling with satisfaction when Serpent easily climbed the first rollers of the open sea. The feeling of elation was short-lived for Will, however, for the cook and his mates were already waiting for him to draw the food rations for the day, and with a sigh, he went below to tend to his duties.

2. Purser's Steward

Plymouth, 1798

It was two years later, and Will was weaving his way through the crowds of workers along the quays of Plymouth Dock. He was to deliver a note from Mister Evans to the commissioner’s office, and he was in a hurry, for new stores were expected. Nevertheless, he frequently felt for the breast pocket of his coat where he carried the letter, but also his own pass that would protect him from the ever-prowling press gangs.

At the conclusion of his second journey in the Serpent, Captain Brooke had given Will an acting rating as purser's steward. This had Will drawing the pay of a petty officer and enjoying the new position when the ship was bound for New South Wales again. Indeed, two weeks ago, after the conclusion of his third journey to Sydney, Will received a permanent rating from the Plymouth commissioner, the local representative of the Victualling Board.

Therefore, he was wearing new trousers, a white shirt, a blue reefer jacket, sea boots and a straw hat, identifying him as a petty officer of the Royal Navy. Still, when entering the building housing the Port Admiral’s office, the Marine sentries stopped him and a Marine sergeant came forward.

"Whereto, young man?" he asked.

"Purser's steward Potter, Serpent, with a letter from Mister Evans for the Commissioner, Sergeant," Will answered quickly, showing his pass.

The sergeant made like he was examining the pass and then waved Will inside where he quickly found a clerk to deliver the letter. Once outside again, he headed for the pier where the side boat was waiting for him and for the surgeon’s mate for the ride back to where Serpent was lying at anchor. The whole bustle along the quays had been unaccustomed and even a bit frightening for young Will in the beginning, but by now he felt quite at home amongst his fellow sailors.

A little bit ahead of him, a young man was moving in the same direction, followed by a porter who was pushing a wheelbarrow with the young man’s sea chest. The young man was tall like Will, but he was wearing a less-than-fitting midshipman’s coat, along with a bicorne hat, white breeches and sea boots. He looked insecure and awkward.

Will quickly found out that the young midshipman was also heading for the Serpent’s long boat. Three days before, master’s mate Calloway had been transferred to a small frigate, and Will suspected that the young man would be the replacement. A poor replacement, to be sure. Calloway was a man with seven years of seagoing experience whilst the young midshipman looked green even to Will’s eyes.

This became obvious when the young man haltingly spoke up.

"Please, is this the S-serpent’s boat, Sir?"

The boat’s coxswain was manfully trying not to roll his eyes. "Yes, Sir."

"I n-need transport to the ship."

"Aye, aye, Sir. We should be going soon, Sir, but I’ve orders to wait for the surgeon’s mate and the purser's steward. May I ask your name, Sir?"

"M-midshipman H-horace Trent, Sir. M-midshipman Ordinary."

The coxswain, John Melvin, was uncomfortable. "Sir, I ain’t no sir; I’m the cox’n, Sir."

"S-sorry," Trent almost squeaked, blushing hotly.

"Umh, Sir, here comes Will Potter, Sir, purser's steward. Will, this is Mister Trent, Midshipman Ordinary."

Will quickly spoke, "Good morning, Mister Trent."

"G-good morning," Trent stuttered shyly, barely looking up.

Will shrugged at the coxswain. There was an uncomfortable silence until, fortunately, the surgeon’s mate, O’Leary, was approaching, accompanied by a merchant’s apprentice pushing a wheelbarrow with sick bay supplies for the ship. Again, introductions were made, and then the supplies were loaded into the boat’s bow and covered by a tarpaulin. Trent climbed down awkwardly and sat on the stern sheet with Melvin whilst Will and O’Leary took the aftermost thwart.

Shoving off from the quay, the six oarsmen propelled the longboat forward whilst Melvin used the tiller to steer them through the maze of anchored ships, adroitly avoiding collisions with larger boats, and heading to where Serpent was at anchor. Facing the stern, Will had more time to study their new shipmate. The young man was still uneasy and looked around with wide eyes at the ships they were passing. Will also noticed that the young man’s sea chest was old and worn, likely a hand-me-down or bought used. The same was certainly true for his coat, and the bicorne hat also looked worn. For these things, Will had an eye, for his former master had also dealt in used sailor’s kits. Then again, a sprig from a well-to-do family would not be posted into a 16-gun sloop headed for New South Wales.

"Avast pulling!" Melvin ordered, and a few moments later, they were challenged by the officer of the watch.

"Boat ho!"

Aye-aye!" Melvin hailed back. They were shipping a midshipman, after all. "Longboat with supplies!"

The longboat gently bumped against the hull of the sloop, and the bowman hooked the bowline to the main chains. Trent was supposed to leave the boat first, but he took three attempts to reach the Jacob’s ladder and doused his sea boots in the bargain, before he managed to climb up the ladder and entered through the port. Grinning at each other, Will and O’Leary followed him with ease.

The rest of the boat crew entered the ship through a gun port, bringing in the medical supplies by the same route. Will quickly shed his good coat and his best trousers and dressed in his work clothes. Then he reported to Mister Evans.

"Ah, Potter," Evans greeted him. "Back already?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you met our newest officer?"

"No, sir," Will smiled. "Mister Trent said he is a Midshipman Ordinary, sir."

"Yes, he is utterly useless and a nuisance," Evans answered. "Went to the Naval Academy at Portsmouth instead of learning seamanship under a real captain and in a real ship. So, my lad, did you deliver my letter?"

"Yes, Sir. The commissioner was not in, Sir, but his secretary took the letter and signed the receipt."

"Very good. That lighter with the pork barrels will arrive at two bells. Is everything ready in the hold?"

"Yes, Sir! I took Mister Brown and Mister Drummond to inspect everything, and nothing’s amiss." Mister Brown held a carpenter’s warrant now, having replaced Mister Willis two years ago.

"A pity that! I could have used a long overhaul in an English port," Evans remarked. "All right, you can issue today’s rations to the cook now."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Will answered smartly and left. MisterEvans was giving him more and more tasks and responsibilities, and so far, Will liked that just fine. In return, he had less duties to perform on deck and was excused from all hands manoeuvres. It was a comparably comfortable position he was holding. He was also given a tenth of the purser’s surplus, which he estimated at over £11, and as soon as the commissioner provided the monies, he would get a petty officer’s pay for the last year, £36 10s, or two shillings per day. That was infinitely more than what Master Warren had given him in all his apprenticeship, and he would be able to save almost all of it, since his living costs were covered whilst sailing in the Serpent.

He had also accompanied Mister Evans when the purser purchased the wares for the slop chest. After a year spent in the tropics, most crew member were in bad need of a new or newer kit, meaning trousers and shirts, whilst the warm jackets and shoes had seen little use and would last for another journey easily. Still, they found a shop where Mister Evans purchased a few used jackets and shoes for the inevitable losses and for possible new recruits.

Sailors’ knives, tobacco pipes, sewing kits and other items were also bought, but also tobacco for chewing and smoking and even a box of cigars. The list of items on which the crew was willing to spend their meagre pay was long, but the two men worked their way through the list that Mister Evans had used for years.

Sailing regularly to New South Wales and back, MisterEvans had discovered that many items he purchased for the slop chest were also in great demand in the colony. Therefore his purser’s locker held a far greater number of wares than was necessary for the needs of the crew. Evans and Will spent the next afternoons on the shore going through the stores of wholesalers, selecting merchandise and bargaining. Evans even allowed Will to invest in these wares with his own savings, making him in effect a junior partner of the purser. Will had already learned a lot during their stay in Plymouth harbour and, having a vested interest, he was willing to do a lot of the legwork involved.

Another point of concern were foods and drink for the wardroom. Mister Evans, who knew the wardroom members — 1st lieutenant, sailing master, surgeon and purser — intimately after over five years, used his knowledge of their preferences to stock up the wardroom pantry with the help of the steward, Mackeray.

Meanwhile, the prisoner transports had fitted out, too. Those ships were not Navy vessels, but privately owned, and their masters did their own provisioning. Nevertheless, Mister Evans made a profit from them, striking deals for them against a provision. He also received kick backs from the wholesalers for bringing business to them. Will was amazed at the multitude of ways to earn a pound here and a shilling there for a crafty purser. Still, he had to acknowledge that Mister Evans kept the crew in decent food. He was meticulous in inspecting provisions, and he seemed to know most of the tricks used by the victualling yard to slip rotten foods to unsuspecting ships.

There was a myriad of things to do for purser and steward whilst in harbour, far more than when they were under way, and Will rarely had a chance to venture ashore.

"Just as well," Mister Evans had grumbled. "You want to be a purser one day, you must save up for the surety, my lad."

Will already knew that a purser in the Royal Navy had to post a substantial surety with the Victualling Board, and he also knew that there was no way for him to save up such a sum from the pay of £36 per year he was drawing as a purser's steward. Whilst Mister Evans's surety as purser of the puny Serpent was only £800, the purser of a first-rate had to post £2,000. He already had more than £65 to show for the first three years serving in Serpent, but he would have liked to sample the pleasures found in the taverns around the harbour with a small portion of that.

Wonder over wonders, however, the day came when they were stocked and provisioned, and with Mister Evans grumbling, the 1st lieutenant gave Will a three-day pass for shore leave. Questioning his ship mates, Will knew which places to avoid ashore. He also left most of his savings in Mister Evans’s strong box, only taking along £ 2 in small coin. Following the advice from his seasoned shipmates, he then wandered towards a place known as Pelham’s Tea House which did not serve teas at all but was a friendly middle-class house of convenience.

His new clothes and shoes obviously passed inspection by the doorman, and with his breath held, young Will entered the establishment. Inside, he found a number of small, round tables with dainty chairs, obviously the tea room furnishings. Only one table was free, and Will sat down carefully on one of the chairs. A moment later, a pretty wench approached his table. Will knew that his eyes were wide as he regarded her. She was tall and slender, with dark blonde hair, a pretty face, and a smallish bosom that nevertheless threatened to spill out of the tight bodice she was wearing for a top.

"Good evening, Gov’nor," she smiled. "What’ll you have?"

Gathering his courage, Will smiled back. "You," he said.

The young woman laughed brightly. "Oh, my! A cocky young sailor! I meant, what would you want to drink?"

"Oh," Will uttered, blushing. Obviously, the wench served drinks only. "I’m sorry. Ale?"

"Ale it is!" the wench winked and patted his shoulder. "We’ll see ‘bout that other thing. You want some company? What’s your name, sailor?"

"P-potter, Will Potter, purser's steward. And yes, I’d very much like some company."

"Well then, Will, I’ll be back with your ale right away."

Indeed, she returned to his table in short time with a mug of ale. She placed it in front of him and sat down on the other side of the table.

"This your first time in this sort of tea house?" she asked.

"First time for any tea house," Will answered. "I haven’t been ashore much in the last three years."

"Are you with the Channel Fleet?" the girl asked.

"No, we escort the prisoner transports to New South Wales. Takes about a year, back and forth, with no tea houses on the way."

The girl made a face. "Prisoner transports, huh? That's a sad business."

"It can be. I mean, we’re not transporting them, only escorting the convoy, making sure the Frogs or the pirates don’t get ‘em. What’s your name?"

"Lydia, and that’s my real name. So you haven’t done much with girls?"

"I had a sweetheart in Shaldon. I was apprenticed to a ship chandler, and she is an innkeeper’s daughter. Some rich guy was feeling her up, and I broke his nose for him. She… she didn’t back me up. She said she wanted his … attention? It was the cat o’nine tails for me or the Navy. You can guess what I took."

The girl nodded sagely. "Maybe she had to serve the patrons? Many inns are like that."

"I wouldn’t know that. I was never allowed to visit the inn. My master forbade it and the innkeeper wouldn’t have allowed me inside anyway. I was an apprentice merchant with no money."

"And now you want to find out what it’s like to be with a girl?"

Will nodded earnestly. "The others on board brag about it all the time. They say it’s the best thing in the world."

"It can be, but for the girl it can be bad if the man is too rough. You said you beat up a man and busted his nose. Are you a rough man?"

Will shrugged. "I’ve had scuffles with other boys and with men, but I’ve never hit a girl."

Lydia nodded. "You also savvy that I’ll not be your sweetheart, right? No getting jealous, right? This is my trade. You can be my first man today, but you won’t be my last. It’ll cost you a half crown for me and a shilling for the landlord. That’ll get you a half hour with me. An hour is an even crown."

Will nodded. "How much for spending the night? The others told me it’s nice to cuddle and sleep together and I should try that."

"Did they? Well, for two crowns, I’m yours for the night, sailor."

Will swallowed. This was five days’ pay. Yet, when would he get the next chance to bed a girl, let alone one as pretty as Lydia? He looked into her eyes and nodded.

"Two crowns it is then. How… I mean, should I give you the money?"

Lydia smiled. "You’ve really never done this before. You pay the landlord, Will. Then we’ll go up to my room. I’ll get my share of the money after you’ve left. It’s safer for me if there’s no money in my room."

"Rough men, huh?" Will asked, understanding the concept.

Lydia nodded. "You want to go upstairs right away?"

Will was undecided. "Can we get something to eat later?"

Lydia shook her head. "Sorry, there’s no kitchen. You want to eat first?"

"I thought that maybe… you know? … we could have a supper someplace. You must be hungry too."

"You don’t have to do this, Will."

"I don’t have to do anything," Will smiled. "I just thought we might have supper and talk some."

"If that's what you want, I shan't say no," Lydia laughed.

They went to have supper in a nearby inn after notifying the landlord. Lydia was fun and treated him like a sweetheart all the time. Being with her and talking to her indeed took away much of the insecurity Will had felt, and when they returned to the tea house, they went directly upstairs to Lydia's room where Will received a friendly introduction into the pleasures of the flesh. Each bout of lovemaking lasted longer, with Will learning how to hold back, and they were completely worn out by the time they fell asleep, a little after midnight. Still, Will was up and ready again in the morning for one last romp with the pretty Lydia.

After a hearty breakfast in the neighbourhood inn, Will bid farewell to his one-night sweetheart and returned straight to the Serpent, falling into his cot and sleeping until the next morning.

———

Finally, the ships of the convoy were ready, and once again, Will watched boat load after boat load of wretched prisoners being shipped to the transports. Having stood before the assizes himself, he felt pity for them. Those convicted to transportation were not hardened thugs or murderers. They were more likely poor people, sometimes convicted for stealing a single loaf of bread.

Two days later, the ships of the convoy weighed anchor. Serpent had received five new hands, landsmen, as replacement for the losses that had been incurred due to falls and fevers, Generally, the crew was healthy and hardened, but the work aloft was fraught with dangers, and even stowing water casks sometimes led to injuries. In his three years in the Serpent, Will had witnessed eight burials, and the surgeon, Mister McSwain, had treated countless injuries, twice resorting to the amputation of a badly mangled arm or leg. Now the new men, still unsure of their tasks and roles, were placed at the capstan, together with the deck hands and the idlers, bending their backs against the capstan bars until the anchor broke free, whilst the top men loosened the sails. It was exciting and scary at the same time to embark on yet another journey around the world.

One of the changes that had come to Will was his new accommodations. He no longer slung his hammock with the stewards but shared another tiny cabin on the orlop deck with the captain’s clerk and coxswain. This meant that he would not sleep in the lower tier anymore as the three men could berth side by side. There was even a small desk for Will and the secretary to share. More importantly, all three had rather regular working hours, unlike the stewards who worked until the last of the officers turned in. The captain’s coxswain, Jerry Hall, in particular had an easy life, with the captain’s gig not used in weeks and months whilst they were en route. He helped out in the captain’s cabin and saw to the readiness of all the ship’s boats, but he was far from being overworked. At fifty-two, he was also the oldest crew member, with over forty of those years spent as a sailor. He had an entertaining yarn to spin, and Will learned many things from him. The clerk, Mister Edwards, had been a vicar in training when he was caught with the priest’s wife and had to find a different vocation. Under his tutelage, Will improved his penmanship but also his language, for as randy as Edwards was, he was a learned man nonetheless. He, too, had many stories to tell, but none of them dealt with seamanship.

As the small convoy was beating against the western wind, word filtered down from the captain’s cabin and the wardroom that Serpent had an additional task to perform, namely to call on the port of Funchal on Madeira to deliver mail to the British representative there. This was confirmed to Will by Mister Evans who had to change his own plans. They would be able to take water at Funchal, but also to buy provisions, allowing them to proceed to Simon’s Town without stopping at St. Helena. It also presented an opportunity for the crafty purser to stock up on Madeira wines, both for the wardroom and for sale in New South Wales. Hence, Will received orders to rearrange provisions to make room in the hold for the precious wine casks. This kept Will rather busy for days, as the small ship was crammed with provisions already, but with the help of carpenter and cooper, he was able to squeeze some water casks into other spaces and load other goods on top of them. In return for his effort, Mister Evans allowed Will to be a partner in this endeavour. Carpenter and cooper each got rewarded from the slop chest. Will suspected that the captain was also part of the scheme, since nobody raised any questions.

They spent five days at Funchal, victualling the ships and taking fresh water. Will spent much time in Serpent’s hold, stowing supplies, brandy, wine and water casks, but also dried wine berries for the slop chest. He and Mister Evans also negotiated the victualling of the transports against a three-point interest. The master-owners of the transports availed themselves of that service for even with the purser’s interest, they paid less than if they were bargaining by themselves. As always, Will received a tenth of those takings, which he invested in his share of the merchandise they were shipping.

Will also had two evenings of shore leave. He, surgeon’s mate O’Leary, and the gunner, Mister Whales, acquainted themselves with Madeira wines in the taverns lining the harbour. They even found a small whorehouse in a dark side alley. It was nothing like his night at Pelham’s Tea House in Plymouth. It was a hurried rutting on a dingy cot in a backroom, and he never even learned the name of the wench. He relieved his needs, and that was it.

On their second night, whilst on their way to the brothel again, they bumped into Horace Trent, and without much ado, they took him along. Poor, shy Horace Trent received his introduction into the ways of the flesh that night, but he surprised his shipmates by his decent command of Portuguese. Stammering he was as always, but he negotiated better rooms and prettier girls for them all. Once they were finished, they spent another hour in the common room with the girls, and Trent taught them some rudiments of the language with which to compliment the giggling wenches. Will decided that he liked his second evening in the taverns of Funchal better than the previous one, and the three seasoned sailors paid for Trent’s tab to show their appreciation. The young man thawed considerably, and they learned a bit about him on the way back to the ship.

Like Will, Horace Trent was an orphan. His father had been a solicitor in Tavistock, but when Horace had been twelve, both his parents died of the smallpox. He and his younger sister Abigail then moved in with his uncle, a cloth merchant of Tavistock, who took care of the children, although not well off himself. Young Horace was sent to the Royal Navy Academy, nevertheless, whilst Abigail remained with her uncle as an unpaid housekeeper. Horace wanted nothing more than to make his way in the Navy, win prize monies, and then care for his sister. That was quite an optimistic plan, Will thought, as Horace Trent was easily four to five years away from earning an officer’s commission, but he could certainly sympathise with the young lad’s plight. The story also accounted for the shabby sea chest and ill-fitting coats.

From that evening on, a tentative friendship developed between Will and the young midshipman, within the boundaries of their respective stations on board the sloop. Once the small convoy weighed anchor two days later, for the 3,000-mile journey to the Cape of Good Hope, they could often be found sitting together during grog hour.

They had a rough rounding of the Cape, and everybody was happy to drop anchor at Simon Town, for fresh water and a few precious days of rest. Of course, for Will, the stay meant a lot of work, but he saw this as a price to pay for the rather easy life he had whilst the ship was underway.

Weighing anchor again, they set out on the last leg of their journey to Sydney. The winds were not favouring them, and the journey took over four months. During the last two months, they had to shorten the water rations, first to three quarters, and during the final approach, to half rations. That was extreme hardship for everybody involved since the sun was beating down on them mercilessly. Will kept a vigil at the water casks down in the hold to prevent the crew from stealing water, and Mister Evans made a show of doling out water out on the deck for everybody to see. There could be no doubt that officers, warrant officers and crew received the same meagre four pints of greenish slime, to which the water had deteriorated during the long passage. They could only imagine how much the prisoners had to suffer in the transports, and burials became an almost daily occurrence.

Finally, they arrived in Sydney Harbour, and when Commander Brooke's gig left the ship for the port admiral's office, Will was the next to sail ashore in the longboat, with two empty water casks. He could not, would not prevent the men of his detachment from drinking their fill before they attended to the water casks, but not an hour later, the first of the casks was hoisted on deck, for officers and crew to slake their raging thirst.

The transports with their small crews rather shipped the convicts to the shore as soon as possible, and Will could see that the militia was providing water for them right down at the beach.

For the next three weeks, the ships provisioned as best as possible. There was not enough salted pork to be had, and they had to take on a few barrels of salted mutton instead. Hardtack was another problem, but they could buy enough flour for the cook to produce something akin to ship's biscuit. There was no tobacco and very little ardent spirits available, nor were Peas, but beans could be had.

There was also the matter of selling the merchandise they had brought along. Knives, axes, saws and other tools found buyers quickly, but also cloth bales and four large casks stuffed with used clothing. There was literally a bidding contest when they landed six barrels of West Indian sugar, and the officers and administrators bought all the Madeira wine they had brought along. Their profit was almost £ 380 of which Will's share was an incredible £ 92, almost tripling his invested monies. If they reached Plymouth and received their pay, Will's fortune would be at over £ 150. For the return passage, Mister Evans bought a half ton of wool from a large sheep farmer which would add to their profits at least in a small way. Still, Will began to see where he would be able to save up for the surety he would need to be a purser one day.

After three weeks, the small convoy weighed anchor again for the return to England. As was his custom, Commander Brooke took the northern route, keeping well clear of the Great Barrier Reef and then passing the Torres Strait on their way west. It was hot during the days, but nevertheless, Brooke had the crew exercise at the guns almost daily as they crossed the Arafura Sea, seeing that they were approaching the pirate-infested waters south of Timor and Java. The men sweated and cursed, but even for Will, the improvements were noticeable. In the previous years, he had been too new and too busy with his other tasks, but now he was a petty officer, and the ship was short on warrant officers. On their second day of gun drill, he was summoned to the after cabin. Entering, he saluted and stood stiffly.

"You called for me, Sir?"

"Yes, Potter. You’ve been with us for over three years, right?"

"Yes, Sir."

"We’re a bit short of warrant officers, and young Mister Trent is not really up to his tasks yet. I want you to help him with the quarterdeck carronades on this journey. You seem to have what it takes to make the hands listen to you, and we don’t really need a purser's steward when we’re at quarters. Think you’re up for it, Potter?"

"I’ve never served at the carronades, Sir, only the six-pounders."

"That can be remedied easily. Will you give it a try?"

Will swallowed briefly, but then he nodded. "Aye-aye, Sir!"

"Good man! See Mister Whales during the afternoon watch. He’ll teach you all you’ll need to know. Those carronades are important should we meet those pirates in their proas. They’re as fast as snot, damn them, and if they close in, the canister from the carronades may make the difference. Very well, return to your duties now, Potter!"

"Aye-aye, Sir," was all Will could respond.

In the afternoon, Mister Whales, the gunner, had Will exercise at one of the quarterdeck carronades with two sailors under young Horace Trent. Time and again, they practiced the steps. Swabbing the breech with a wet sponge, then swab, was crucial to extinguish the glowing remnants of the previous charge. Ramming home a practice cartridge came next, followed by a wooden practice ball and the wadding. Then Will had to simulate the priming charge, train the carronade on its pivot, and then pull the laniard of the flint lock.

With the breech of a 12-pounder carronade only 3 ft 3 in long and weighing less than a half ton, running it out on its slider was rather easy. After ten repeats, Mister Whales declared himself satisfied with their performance. Then, whilst Trent and the two sailors cleared away the gun, Whales gave Will instructions on how to direct the fire of more than one carronade, always making certain that the breeches were swabbed properly.

When Will was finally released, it was time already to prepare for the grog hour, and when he doled out the grog rations, the hands teased him about his gunnery drill, which he took in stride. Mister Evans was not above some snide remarks himself, but for Will, the drill was at least lifting some of the monotony of the long journey.

———

Six days later, early in the forenoon watch, the masthead sang out.

"Sail ho! Three… no, four sails a point to starboard. Tanja rigging, Sir!"

Mister Barker, the 1st lieutenant, immediately climbed into the rigging, carrying a big glass. He remained up there for a few minutes, and when he climbed down, he rushed aft with a grave look on his face. The weather being calm, Will, from his position in the waist, could hear him well as he reported to Commander Brooke.

"At least five of those proas1, Sir, heading straight for us."

"Pirates, likely as not," Brooke opined. "No chance to evade them either. Well, let’s give them a lesson! Beat to quarters, Mister Barker!"

For the first time in his life, Will heard to drum roll that called them to battle quarters beat in earnest. With quick strides, he rushed to his small cabin and put on his coat, belt and long dagger. He was barely done, when crew members already struck the bulkheads around him. He ascended to the quarterdeck to find the gun crews already pulling the canvas covers off the carronades. The deck hands were readying fire buckets and strewing sand on the deck.

Will took a deep breath and tried to remember the gun drills of the last days. There was young Horace Trent, pale and swallowing heavily. Will ascertained that the port side carronades had their crews complete and that the shot garlands were unlocked.

"Port side carronades ready, Mister Trent," Will reported.

"Thank you, Potter," Trent acknowledged him. "Let’s arm ourselves."

At the arms chest, they found cutlasses and pistols and proceeded to load the latter. Trent almost dropped the pistol in his nervous haste.

"Easy there!" Will whispered. "The hands are watching us. Now’s not the time to look scared."

Trent nodded, but Will could see the fear in his eyes. "It’s not about me, but what’s going to happen to my sister if I don’t return."

"Stop this!" Will hissed. "We’ll just have to lay the carronades right and blow those rascals to Kingdom Come. Let them have a full load of canister and see if they still want to board!"

Trent swallowed, but then he took a deep breath. "Of course!"

Meanwhile, Serpent had taken the lead of the convoy, whilst the transports with their meagre crews were preparing for the fight as well. They mounted six-pounders at the most, and not more than six or eight of those, and even for those, their crews would be stretched thin.

Will looked at the captain who stood by the wheel studying the approaching fast vessels with his glass.

"They’re a bit spread out, aren’t they, Mister Barker?" he commented.

"Yes, Sir. Awfully considerate of them, isn’t it?" Barker replied with a devilish grin.

The captain turned to them. "Mister Trent, this is your first action. Keep a cool head! I want those carronades to be fired with maximum depression. We must hole them for good. Watch the roll of the ship before you fire. Take your time, and don’t waste shot!"

Trent's Adam's apple moved up and down, but then he nodded. "Aye-aye, Sir!"

"Now, let’s spread some canvas, Mister Barker, before they can close ranks!"

At Barker’s commands, the top men set the topgallants again, adding to their speed, and precipitating immediate action. Will watched the curious little ships opposing them. They were light, with a single, tilted rectangular sail, and stabilised by outriggers on both sides, giving them superior speed. The boat in the lead was trying to avoid the charging ship-sloop, but under the added sail, Serpent was showing a nice turn of speed herself.

Commander Brooke was heading for the lead proa on a converging course that would allow the bigger and sturdier ship to ram the frail pirate vessel. The other skipper tried his best to prevent that, but he had to go to the wind in the last moment to avoid being cut in half. That was Serpent’s chance, and Captain Brooke timed their attack perfectly. For a brief moment, both vessels were sailing alongside, broadside to broadside, Serpent with the higher momentum, and the pirate proa picking up speed again. Brooke’s pipe shrilled, and the main deck six-pounders went off.

Will took a deep breath.

"Take aim! Elevation downward. One more moment! Wait! On even keel — fire!"

The short 12-pounders discharged. Jumping aside to look past the whirling smoke, Will could see that one shot had ploughed through the assembled men on the deck, but there was also a splintered hole in the planking close to the waterline.

"Swab out the breeches! Bring the fresh cartridges! Round shot and wadding. Prime the pan! Take aim! On even keel — fire! Swab out the breech!"

Will looked at the opposing vessel. He had not even noticed the second broadside from the main deck, but it must have devastated the small vessel. Now the carronade shots added to the wreckage. Will could see that the small ship was lying deeper already, the previous shot hole in her flank now in the waterline.

"She’s holed, Sir, and sinking!" he yelled at the captain.

"So I see, Potter," Brooke nodded coolly. "Avast firing! Mister Barker, let’s go about! The next one’s close already. Stand by your guns, men!"

The second proa was heading for them, and that one was better prepared. She was bravely firing her pop guns, four-pounders perhaps, at the man-o’war, and her deck was crowded.

"Mister Trent! After the first round, switch to canister! Aim a bit higher, but not into her rigging!"

"Aye-aye, Sir!"

"Main deck! Hit her in the waterline, then switch to grapeshot!"

Midshipman Courtland, who had the main deck guns, acknowledged the order and went along the deck to make certain that the gun captains had understood. Everybody had somehow stuffed their ears against the din of the guns, and they were liable to overhear commands.

Now the enemy was abreast of them, a pistol shot away. Will could see that his carronades had a perfect field of fire and the deck was steady. He looked at the captain who nodded back.

"Carronades, fire!" he yelled. He was answered by the two reports and a split second later, by the main deck guns.

"Swab out the breeches! Powder charge and double canister load! Ram home the wadding! Prime the pan!" he yelled at the correct time intervals.

The pirate was heavily damaged but was coming closer, and her crews were brandishing grapnels and cutlasses. For a brief moment, Will swallowed heavily. It was his duty, and his own survival hinged on killing all those men. He carefully judged the slight roll of the ship and ordered the carronades fired. Over 40 pounds of musket balls smashed into the crowded deck, creating mayhem amongst the crowded would-be boarders. Then the seven larboard six-pounders added to the bloodbath. Splintered wood was flying everywhere, but men were also cut down in numbers. Still, as the ships were about to bump into each other, there had to be a strong dozen of half naked, brown skinned men who were ready to board.

"Repel boarders! Everybody, repel boarders!" the captain's voice sounded over the deck.

Swallowing heavily, Will readied his cutlass and repeated the order to his gun crews.

"Arm yourself! Now! Hurrah, Serpents!"

When the first head appeared above the bulwark, he had to force down his fear, but he struck fiercely with his cutlass and saw the skull split open. With an effort, he pulled the weapon from the lethal wound, letting the dying man drop between the two hulls.

At his side, the gun crews were fighting four boarders who had made it to the deck. Caught in the mad mix of fear and fury, he leaped forward, hacking at the shoulder of a pirate. The man screamed, but his pain was short, as his opponent, Charley Buckley, rammed his cutlass into the wounded man's chest.

"Thanks, Will!" he panted, before turning to support a shipmate.

Then, a wave of men from the starboard battery entered the fray, dispatching the remaining pirates and cutting the grapnel lines that still bound them to the sinking proa.

Looking up, Will saw that the remaining proas were beating feet already, having watched two of theirs sunk in mere minutes. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and as the excitement ebbed away, his legs began to shake, and he leaned against the taffrail.

"Your first fight, Potter?" the captain suddenly spoke up close to him.

Will stood upright immediately. "Yes, sir, with killing anyway."

"You handled yourself well, young man. Better than poor Mister Trent."

Alarmed, Will looked around the deck, but he could not see his friend.

"Couldn’t make himself move, the poor lad. Got a knife in his belly. Sometimes it’s the fear that kills you."

"I was scared, too, sir!" Will blurted.

"Well, who wasn’t?" the captain shrugged. "Yet you did your duty. Let’s clean up the deck now, shall we!"

With the rest of the pirates retreating under full sail, the small convoy resumed its previous course whilst the crews fastened the guns again and raised the bulkheads. It took a lot of scrubbing with pumice, sand and water, to rid the decks of blood stains and other traces of the fight, but by nightfall, only a solitary bundle at the foot of the main mast — one of the starboard carronade crews — reminded them of the deathly struggle. That, and the occasional moaning from the sickbay where the gut-stabbed Horace Trent was lying.

From what Will learned through rumours, Horace's chances were slim. The sawbones, Mister McSwain, had been overheard saying that only a miracle could save the young lad. The knife had stabbed him deeply in his stomach, and wounds like that almost invariably caused the gangrene. In spite of being afraid of what he might see, Will went to visit his friend when he had finished his duties for the day. The sickbay was dimly lit by a few horn lanterns, and Will could barely recognise Horace Trent.

"Hey, how are you faring? Is the food any better down here?" he asked in a weak attempt at humour.

"Hey, Will. No, it‘s the same slop you dole out every day. Not that I can eat anything. My tummy hurts too much."

"Sorry, mate. Can I get you anything?"

"Mister Mac says I shan‘t make it, not with a half foot of dirty iron through my belly. Think you might come down here with some paper, ink and quill? I want you to write a letter for me, to my sister and to my uncle. Will you do that?"

"Sure, mate, but don‘t you give up that easy! Remember how Mister Mac said that Jimmy Dugan would live just fine after that gun truck ran over his foot? He‘s dead now. So what Mister Mac says isn‘t always right."

Horace shook his head. "Still, I want that letter written. Will you deliver it, too? I have some money saved; you can use that for the coach ride to Tavistock. Will you, please?"

Will nodded. "Right away?"

"Might be better," Horace grimaced when he shifted a little in the cot and the pain hit him.

Will found Mister Evans and asked for the use of inkwell and quill which the purser granted immediately. Using a wooden board on his knees as table, he then wrote down what Horace Trent wanted to send as his last greeting to his sister and uncle. Folding the sheets into a letter, he used a few dollops of candle wax to seal it before writing the address ‘Albert Trent, Market Road, Tavistock‘ on its face.

He then spent the next hour with his wounded friend, getting him water and asking him about his family. According to Horace, his sister, two years younger than himself, looked like an angel and had a disposition to match. She could also read a whole book in one afternoon, if she had the time and a book, that was, as the Trents were not wealthy. His uncle was a hard working man, caring to his nephew and niece, but prone to melancholy at times, often leaving the running of his shop to his young niece.

At four bells in the evening watch, Mister McSwain, the surgeon looked after his charges and shooed Will out. With his own chamber on the same deck, Will could hear Horace Trent's weak moans as the surgeon inspected the wound. With all the excitement, fears and worries of the day, Will had a hard time falling asleep. Apparently, his mess mates noticed.

"Hey, mate, what's up with you?" Jerry Hall, the captain's cox'n whispered.

"Can't sleep," Will whispered back.

"That business with young Trent?"

"That, and the fighting."

"You did well, mate. Captain said so, too. Everyone saw that you have the guts to be a real tar."

Will snorted. "Real guts! The bloke I killed wasn't yet over the bulwark, and I just split his head whilst he was helpless. The other, I hit from behind. Real guts!"

Jerry chuckled. "What? No circling each other, no facing off, no fancy swordplay? Get a grip, Will! You are alive, and them devils are shark bait. That, my young friend, is what counts. You let them devils get on deck, and you're the dead-un. Them's awfully quick and sneaky with those knives and hatchets. Them's no gennelmen, and neither are you, my friend. You work for your pay like the rest of us. You wanna return to Plymouth and find a doxy or two, split some tail, and maybe, one day, find a sweet lass to stay. You let them brown devils on deck, an' there's no more doxies for old Will Potter, only a hammock and two round shot."

That was by far the longest speech Will had ever heard out of Jerry Hall, and it made him think.

"Is fighting always that crazy and wild?"

"If you board or get boarded, sure. It's stab or get stabbed, shoot or get shot, kill or get killed. It's you an' your mates, an' bloody Hell to all others. Simple, really."

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