English Harbour stank.
There wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb the foetor that hung on the hot afternoon air, a combination of rotting rubbish and sewage from on shore and the sickening smells of a ship that had not long since come out of a bloody battle. Even the few inches of water in the bilges that defied the pump’s best efforts were contributing their own little share, to go with the brimstone stench of burnt powder and the hellish reek of gore from the orlop, where men had died in screaming agony under the cross-eyed Surgeon’s saw or, if they were very lucky and extremely hardy, lived through the purgatory of an emergency amputation and the slapping of hot pitch on the stump. Lieutenant Merriot closed his eyes briefly and wondered if he would ever get that image of the tortures of the damned out of his head.
But, by God, the ship was going to be clean and fit to fight again if the bosun’s mates had to push what was left of the crew until they dropped! The Hector was a hive of activity from stem to stern. The mizzen topsail yard had been fished and sent aloft again, rigging was being spliced and tarred afresh, powder was stowed below in the magazine and shot in the locker, brasswork was being scoured with brickdust, and the frigate was surrounded with a gaggle of bumboats from which food and water were being unloaded. Like any officer worth his salt, Merriot pretended not to notice the whores also being discreetly slipped below decks. If the men had any strength left for wenching by the time it was too dark to work, good luck to them.
And staying on board the ship, in charge of the repair work, was preferable to going on shore on Antigua or any other West Indian pest-hole you cared to name, for all the beauty of the tropical flowers and the smell of the green grass after months at sea. Enemy action was a death a man could face; better a musket-ball through the head or even to be smashed to pulp by a twelve-pound shot than to get the black vomit, which could fall on a man who’d been the picture of health at dawn and leave him puking his guts out by sunset.
As Captain Anselm had discovered, and good riddance to him.
Merriot’s attention was drawn by the pink-cheeked and eager Midshipman Callow. “Yes?” he demanded tersely. Callow flinched visibly. He’d never make an officer until he got the better of his nerves.
“S-sir, the Fourth Lieutenant’s compliments, and the water has been stowed,” Callow stammered. Merriot dismissed him with a nod and turned his attention back to the quayside a cable away, where the press-gang were waiting to return with the sweepings of English Harbour’s gutters and jails and, if they were unreasonably lucky, a few prime seamen that Admiral Sir John Strachan had been able to spare them. His eyes narrowed and he slid out the telescope’s eyepiece, focussing on the short, youthful figure boarding the longboat. A single gold epaulette adorned one shoulder, gleaming as though it hadn’t had time to dull since being sewn on. No more, Merriot cynically doubted, had the ink on this boy’s commission had time to dry since he was made post.
“God!” Merriot muttered, slamming the telescope shut with undue vigour. “What’s the Admiral sent us now?”