Here is the seventh episode of Dr Michael Apichella’s adventure novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds.
Editor’s note: Since the last episode, Johnny was pressed into the Merchant Navy under renegade Captain Pollard and forced to take part in transporting men and women sold into slavery in Africa to the American colonies, a legal but repulsive trade in Johnny’s mind.
When Johnny resists Pollard’s authority, he himself is sold as a white slave to an African chieftain. With the help of another slave, Johnny escapes captivity and is rescued by Captain Evans of the Royal Navy’s HMS Fortitude.
When he learns the Fortitude is not sailing directly back to England, but now hunting for Pollard on the high seas for crimes against the crown, he becomes rebellious, falling out of favour with captain and crew. Captain Evans takes up the story.
As noted in the ship’s log: We set sail on 14 March 1746 after repairs following engagement with Pollard near St.-Louis Louga.
Signed on new crew member, Landsman John Pilgrim, now promoted to Able Seaman, and embarked on mission to intercept pirates suspected to be frequenting the Canaries.
It is my sincerely held belief that under my tutelage John Pilgrim might rise to Ship’s Corporal and even Boatswain; time shall tell.
But more of this later.
Our destination in the Canaries from Africa would be an easy northwest bearing, providing the wind remained favourable and that we did not encounter the French, forcing us to exchange shots with them, more out of decorum than actual open conflict.
The first Mate rapped on my door. ‘Sir, news that a French fleet lurks nearby!’
Since I lost my lookout in the last skirmish, I duly summoned Johnny Pilgrim to my cabin and gave him his orders.
‘Having noted your physical dexterity, Johnny, my lad, and seeing how you climb the topsails like an old sea salt, from today you are our topsail man.’
The normally sullen boy brightened noticeably.
‘Hereafter keep a sharp lookout for vessels flying the French flag as well as to alert me about changing weather.’
Regarding the former, Johnny straightway proved to be worthy indeed. Hawk-eyed Johnny soon alerted me of a French fleet running ahead of a water spout, scattering them.
‘Enemy sailor over the side,’ cried Johnny, pointing, but the poor devil disappeared under the boiling brine before we could come about and try to rescue him.
Each day more valuable reports echoed on the decks below. ‘Avast! Captain Evans! Squall approaching as the crow flies!’ And ‘Beware, men! Approaching enemy ships four miles off starboard!’
Noticing Lieutenant McAndrews as he stood on the quarter deck, I hailed him, pointing with my chin to the topgallant sale. ‘Yonder Johnny is good as a guardian angel, nay, better, don’t you agree?’
‘Aye, Captain. But your angel had best look to his better nature when he chances to come down to the main deck. Then he is the devil himself.’
‘What? Has Johnny stolen apples from the cook’s barrel?’
‘No, Sir. While he never stole anything,’ admitted McAndrews, ‘But ever since he learned we are no longer making for England, he’s taken to leading sailors in exclaiming salty oaths, a few they had never heard before meeting him. Some vigorous enough to make me blush if truth be known, and I’ve heard a fair few blasphemies in my time.’
‘The worst, I assume, he learned on Pollard’s tub?’
‘Aye, but he talks sedition as well. I have it on good authority that Johnny wishes he had never signed up for the navy and has threatened to run away first chance he gets.’
‘Stuff and nonsense. Having a lad about his age at home, I have heard such big talk in boys before. Most of it hollow. Still, I have a mind to chastise the boy myself for this naughtiness.
But as Mr. Voltaire has said, there is no such thing as a sinful lad as much as there is an idle lad, and I aim to keep that boy busy, so there shall be no further mischiefs, and no need of punishment, methinks.’
McAndrew’s face flushed at my conciliatory words. ‘While I yield to the point, take it from me, Sir. What that lad needs about now is a short sharp hiding. Spare the rod, spoil the child. After that, he will soon cool his heels. Do take my advice, Sir.’
I laughed off his advice and bid him a good day. But now I wish I had harked him, for while I still despise all forms of corporeal punishment, preferring other means to make boys into men, with hindsight, it is my opinion that had Johnny Pilgrim chanced to meet me when first he put to sea, and not that devil Pollard, he might not be wont to use other people’s good will for his own advantage.
Troubled by Johnny’s waywardness, and seeing him falling rapidly from favour with most of the officers, it came into my head that if I granted Johnny some new responsibility, he would begin to demonstrate accountability of his own initiative.
Teamwork being the order of the day, Johnny was, therefore, brought down from his crow’s nest and given over to be part of a mess on my say so. Had I but foreseen the woe this would lead to, I’d have left him in the masts.
Young Johnny took umbrage at the change in his status and duties, as my first mate Mr. Sykes, an owlish man with bushy eyebrows and a beak-like nose told me.
‘After your Mr. Pilgrim was placed in my mess, he promptly left my cabin and climbed back up to the topmast
and stayed out of sight, ignoring shouts to come down straight away. When I climbed up to the tops and ordered him down from the lookout to work with in the ship’s scullery, the little blighter swore at me and climbed higher up.’
As we approached Tenerife, I sent for Mr. Brainerd, our Bosun, demanding if he, too, had observed such insubordination from Johnny.
‘Indeed, Captain Evans. In fact, defiance is typical of him when assigned to a particular watch. And while the men would not tell tales of him, it came back to me that when others are tarring, chipping or painting, or, indeed, serving tables or scouring pots and pans, Johnny slips below deck to kip or smoke his pipe, or otherwise idling his time away.’
I am ashamed to say – giving way to the tyranny of the urgent ignoring my officers’ low opinion of Johnny – I turned a blind eye to his sauce, a habit beginning to affect the morale of the others, and a lingering problem I was mulling over at the precise moment Mr. McAndrews knocked and entered my stateroom.
‘Sir, we are now within sight of the port of Las Galletas.
From all early intelligences, it appears that Pollard is not moored in the harbour or in any nearby creek or inlet.’
Not overly disappointed as we hadn’t seen any sign of him on the ocean, I decide on my normal optimistic outlook. ‘But we will not know of a certainty if Pollard and his crew were there unless we send a team ashore to make enquiries.’ It was then that the bright idea of giving Johnny an important responsibility may well be the antidote for his increasing insouciance. ‘Mr.McAndrews, I, therefore, order you to take young Johnny Pilgrim and put ashore to make enquiries of unfamiliar ships’ movements in this vicinity, for even if the enemy has not stopped in this port, his presence will have been noted, I dare say.’
‘But Sir. Johnny Pilgrim? I strongly request you select another man. Why reward this loutish boy’s incorrigible behaviour? Anybody would make a much better travel companion for me.’
‘Mr. McAndrews. It is my hope this important but lively diversion will buck up young
Johnny and make him a true crew member, as it were, and an asset to our company. Now move man. We have no time to spare.’
Mr. McAndrews gives his account
Upon landing, Johnny and I went up to a pub. ‘I will speak with that old sailor Johnny.’
You sit here near the door.
‘Aye, Sir. And if I and if see anyone suspicious, I’ll follow him.’
‘If you do, see that you keep our purpose to yourself. If our investigation gets back to Pollard –’
‘He’ll fly sure as we’re talking now.’
‘Aye. And if separated, hi you back to our launch and wait for me.’
‘With a good will, Sir. I hate Pollard as much as any man jack on the Fortitude, I do.’
Presently, Johnny slipped away heading for the harbour. By then, I’d gleaned a plenty of information about Pollard’s crew from my man. Before taking leave, I switched to the price of fish and the weather so as not to appear to be overly interested in Pollard. After buying the man final ale, I excused myself and made to rendezvous with Johnny so we could make our report.
Running back to the launch, I stopped dead in my tracks at the harbour. Johnny Pilgrim was nowhere to be seen.
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved
For the next episode, visit the Bury Free Press website next Sunday at 6pm.