THE HEADLESS CORPSE
McLeish had changed – not only into a clean shirt but the new surgeon’s uniform approved by the Navy Board. He looked around him as if it was the first time he had been here – and perhaps it was. Gilbert solved the question of what they would have to drink by bringing up a bottle of the late captain’s
with a plate of the consul’s mariquitas – a form of friend plantain – and some stuffed olives. They had a bottle of Muscadet with the fish before moving on to a Burgundy for the lamb: raising their glasses in turn to King George, the Unicorn and all who sailed in her, the union of England and Scotland, the confusion of their enemies, the poet Burns and then, as they became more light-hearted, the Clan McLeish, the genus Pongo and a young lady the doctor claimed to know in Kirkudbright called Catriona. Jerez
As they were well into the lamb and contemplating a second bottle of the red, Nathan remembered what it was that he had wished to discuss, or at least one of the things.
‘I read in the ships log,’ he ventured, ‘or it may have been the captain’s log, I forget which, some reference to a corpse that was discovered in the chain store shortly after leaving Kinsale and heading out into the
‘Oh aye, that would be our waif,’ confided McLeish shaking his head.
‘As in stray. Waif and stray. Our headless waif. Our “orfing” as the people call him. It was found during a rat hunt instigated by the midshipmen, the creatures having offended Mr Holroyd by consuming the best part of a cheese his mother had given him and then pissing upon the plate.’
‘The midshipmen?’ queried Nathan, frowning, for he did not like to think of the young gentlemen behaving so badly, even before his accession to the command.
‘The rats,’ McLeish assured him, after giving him a look.
‘Well, it was practically a skeleton by then.’
‘Excuse me, what was?’
‘The waif, the “orfing”, that we were discussing.’
‘Ah yes, the waif.’
He was a little confused about the waif but comforted himself with the thought that enlightenment might be forthcoming if he let the narrative continue.
‘I examined it at my leisure – what was left of it, for it was negligible to begin with and had been half eaten by rats – whereupon I ascertained that it was the body of a young male, an infant, of between six and nine years.’
‘A boy. Yes. What did you think it was?’
‘I am sorry. Go on.’
‘I was unable to ascertain the cause of death owing to the absence of the head, but my supposition was that it would be starvation and disease. I shudder to think that the rats played any part in it.’
‘Indeed but -’
‘You will want to know how it got there.’
‘It was on my mind to enquire.’
‘The theory was that he was on the run from a cruel parent or guardian and that he climbed into the chain store during the construction of the vessel in
with a view to making his escape or possibly simply seeking a refuge.’ Chatham
‘Yes. I have no idea why he did not make himself know when the ship was at sea, unless he was already so weakened he could not bestir himself but alas, when he was eventually found he was at least a month dead.’
‘Ah yes. That was the most distressing part. And something of a mystery.’
‘Perhaps… the rats?’
‘That was a popular theory but I think not. Not to remove the whole skull without a trace. My own supposition was that it had been spirited away by certain dissident elements on the lower deck who wished to play upon the fears of the more susceptible among their brethren, but I may be speaking out of turn.’
‘Not at all, doctor, please go on.’
‘Well, it may have suited their purposes, do you see, in stirring up discontent. Certainly it proved an effective means of making mischief.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well, the waif was buried with full naval honours off the southern coast of Ireland but the absence of a head deprived the ceremony of dignity, as it were, or conviction, not to say, consolation.’
‘I suppose it would. Though, after a battle I have seen worse.’
‘People are inclined to be tolerant after a battle. And there were those who claimed that it could not put the spirit at rest, as it were, until the head was found.’
‘Which was not achieved?’
‘Alas it was not. And in the days and weeks to come a number of the people claimed to have seen the ghost of the poor boy wandering the lower decks in search of the missing part of his anatomy. Wailing most piteously the while.’
‘Good God, McLeish.’
‘Indeed. But they are more superstitious than a gaggle of girlies for the most part, your average seamen, and I fear that a great many of the ship’s subsequent misfortunes have been laid at the door of this apparition.’
‘So they fear the ship is cursed.’
‘Cursed and doomed. And until the ghost is laid to rest they will continue to do so, in my humble opinion.’
‘These dissident elements that you mentioned,’ Nathan continued after a moment. ‘They were mainly Irish I understand.’
‘And in your opinion, between ourselves, might they have had any valid cause for their discontent?’
‘Besides being flogged half to death, you mean, for every trifling misdemeanour?’
‘Yes. I have read the punishment book. And it does seem as if the Irish contingent suffered, one might say, disproportionately.’
‘One might well say that.’
‘You think Captain Kerr had it in for them?’
McLeish inclined his head reflectively. ‘Speaking as a Lowland Scot, I must confess there are certain of my countrymen that have for some years harboured a particular suspicion of the Irish, especially those of the Catholic persuasion. Captain Kerr’s family being Covenanters had suffered very harshly at the hands of the Irish under Montrose during the Civil War.’
‘I see.’ Nathan was in fact very far from seeing but the origins of the grievance were possibly too obscure for his mind to deal with at the present moment in time.
‘The memory of a Scotsman for a grievance is very long,’ explained the doctor gravely.
‘Well, thank you, Mr McLeish, you have enlightened me considerably.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that.’ The doctor leant both hands upon the table and proceeded somewhat unsteadily to the door.
A moment later Gabriel appeared. Nathan wondered how much he had heard. All of it, most probably.
‘Shall I light the lantern, sir?’ he enquired with the suspicion of a rebuke in his tone.
Nathan noted, with surprise, that it was almost dark. They had been eating and drinking and talking for the best part of four hours. He sat there for a moment longer contemplating but the remains of the last bottle but thought better of it. Instead made his way to the quarterdeck for some fresh air. Tully had the watch.
‘All well Mr Tully?’
‘All well, sir.’
‘I think I will go aloft.’
Tully considered him gravely but was too courteous to suggest a more sedentary activity. Nathan felt his eyes upon him, however, as he groped his way down the ladder to the waist and so to the mainmast shrouds.
He climbed more carefully than was his wont – conscious of the drink he had consumed and paused just below the maintop, considering that it would be prudent to go up through the lubber’s hole for once, but his pride would not permit it – especially with the furtive, measuring eyes he knew would be watching him from above and below. He reached for the futtock shrouds above his head, inclining back at an angle of about 45 degrees. Right hand over left, left over right, his feet searching for the ratlines in the dark… and now he was hanging backwards while the mast described its long, lazy arc through the night sky. He did not look down but he knew what he would see. The distant deck in the moonlight and the rushing sea, the bow rising and falling, rising and falling and the spray flung back over the unicorn’s head, over the unicorn’s flowing mane, the unicorn rushing through the forests of the night, rushing to meet its mate - no it’s virgin, it’s waiting virgin. For Christ’s sake, no poetry, not now. Concentrate. Right hand over left, left hand over right… he missed his footing in the dark and only the desperate strength in his arms stopped him from plunging fifty feet to the deck. The stabbing pain brought a sudden memory of hanging from the manacles in the maison d’arret in Paris… He scrambled over the edge of the top breathing heavily and the look-out scuttled away, knuckling his forehead.
For a moment Nathan considered going higher but a gleam of commonsense penetrated the fogged particles of his brain and then the lookout went swarming lithely up the ratlines to a higher level like one of McLeish’s hominidae, leaving him in sole possession. He stood, swaying slightly with the rhythm of the ship, his arm hooked into the shrouds, and looked down at the deck. It seemed further away than usual. He looked up at the stars. They seemed strangely close. And all in the wrong place. But of course, it was the latitude, the unfamiliar equatorial latitude. He should know them, though, if he put his mind to it.
He was much impressed by Sir Isaac Newton’s opinion that the planets were rocks hurled out from the sun: blobs of liquid fire that had cooled over the millennia and were now held in place by the balance between their own momentum and the magnetism that pulled them back. Doomed to circle in a perpetual orbit, neither going forward nor going back. Like mortal beings compelled to seek their own destiny but held back by their origins, their loyalties, their sense of belonging… their love.
A quick burst of light caught his eye. A comet or fiery meteor? A falling star? Gone, already. What did it mean – if anything? Vainglorious though it was, it was not hard to believe that it had some personal meaning: that someone or something was trying to communicate with him. Waving. Perhaps he should wave back. The crew would love that. First a tyrant and then a lunatic; who climbs to the top of the mast and waves at the stars.
There were those who would say it was a portent of disaster. Or that someone great had died. But did you have to be great for the heavens to acknowledge your passing? Were there not enough stars even for the insignificant? Or were they entirely indifferent to the fate of men and of nations, mere inanimate lumps of rock or liquid fire, hurtling through the heavens in obedience to the laws of gravity? Just as the rushing sea was indifferent to the fate of those that sailed upon it. People prayed. They lit candles before plaster saints. Deliver us, Oh Lord, we pray thee from the perils of the sea… Did it make the slightest bit of difference? If he let go of this slender lifeline he would fall to the deck below and he would die.
Would a star fall from the heavens to mark his passing?
What had happened when Sara died?
Had she ceased to exist the moment the blade sliced through her slender neck? A terrible image of the guillotine on the Place du Trône… Of Sara climbing the steps to the scaffold, her hair shorn to the neck, her chemise torn to the breast and the terror in her eyes… Seized by the greedy hands of the executioners and borne down on to a bloody plank, wet with the blood of those that had gone before her, and slid under that terrible blade.
How could it have happened? Why could he not prevent it?
And what had happened next – apart from the executioner holding up her head to show to the crowd? Was she in Heaven or Hell? Or projected into the vast crowded infinity of the universe? Transported to one of those distant glimmering specks of light?
She had once told him about her homeland in
. He could hear her now, a whisper on the wind… Provence
‘There is a little town called Tourrettes. Near where we lived in Provence. I used to go there as a child. To the market with my father. Tourrettes-les-Vence. A walled town on top of a hill. It is very beautiful. I used to love going to Tourrettes. There is a café in the square where I drank lemonade and ate the little cakes – made of oranges – and watched the people coming to market.’
If she ever left Paris, she had said, that is where he would find her. In Tourettes, drinking lemonade and eating little cakes made of oranges and waiting for him there.
And that is where he saw her in his imagination as he gazed up at the stars. Bleary now from the tears in his eyes.
The first captain we had was a tyrant who flogged us half to death; the second climbed into the rigging at night and gazed at the stars and cried.
He let go of the shroud and stood, balanced on the swaying platform as the ship rolled. If it was in the stars that he should fall, then fall he would. And if it was not…
He threw out his hand as he felt himself fall – and grabbed the rope.
As all drowning men do.