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Authors: Joan Druett

Run Afoul

BOOK: Run Afoul
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For Helen and Jill, with appreciation for the poisoning

One

South Atlantic Ocean, November 1838

As he slumped exhaustedly in the cutter that pulled from the brig
Swallow
to the expedition flagship
Vincennes,
Wiki Coffin wondered if he smelled as bad as Lieutenant Forsythe. Over the past five days, while the cutter and its battered, miserable crew had been struggling to rejoin the expedition fleet, the steward of the
Swallow
had painstakingly mended and cleaned Forsythe's uniform, and so the lieutenant's appearance was smart enough, considering his bulky frame. Forsythe's lumpy, battered face was reddened and scraped where he had shaved off a week's worth of hard stubble, too. To spoil the effect, though, he stank like a skunk.

Wiki was wearing his best broadcloth, which was even cleaner than Forsythe's uniform, because he wore it so seldom. Despite the urgency of Captain Wilkes's summons, he had taken the time to wash in a bucket of fresh water, and had lashed up his long black hair. Still, though, he couldn't help wondering if the effluvium of the past five days clung to his skin—a qualm that became full-blown as the boat clicked against the starboard side of the
Vincennes.

The oarsman in the bow stopped the cutter by holding on to a dangling rope. Then all six men of the crew silently contemplated Wiki and Lieutenant Forsythe, while Wiki watched them back with great respect. These seamen had also endured five horrible days of bucketing about in the thirty-foot cutter while they struggled to rejoin the expedition fleet. They had regained the brig
Swallow
just four hours before, but now they were as shipshape and smart as if they had never been away. Even the cutter was clean.

Their expressions were noncommittal, but, to Wiki's surprise, as Lieutenant Forsythe clambered to his feet, the men stood, too, and saluted their commander. It was a remarkable compliment, and an eloquent sign of their respect for his seamanship. Forsythe was universally disliked for his unpredictability, brutality, and foul tongue, but it was a tacit recognition that few other officers could have brought the thirty-foot craft to a mid-Atlantic rendezvous with the fleet. Characteristically, Forsythe didn't even bother to return the salute, instead casting his crew a suspicious and aggressive look before turning to grab one of the rungs of the side-ladder.

Wiki reluctantly followed. When they clambered over the gangway at the top of the tall side of the ship, the squad of marines on duty stamped loudly to attention, while the two side-boys, one at each side of the ladder, saluted, and the boatswain piped on his call. A comradely wink from one of the marines was an unwelcome reminder that every jack tar in the U.S. Exploring Expedition knew that both he and Forsythe were in deep disgrace. Wiki lifted a brow in wry acknowledgment, but Forsythe stayed blank-faced as he headed past the mainmast to the great deckhouse where Captain Wilkes and the shipboard scientifics lived and worked. The two men at the ship's wheel, which was stationed just in front of the house, glanced sideways with sympathetic looks, too, and the corporal of marines who was standing sentry in the alcove stamped and saluted with unusual fervor.

Obviously, there was no need to state their business, but Forsythe barked that they were here in reply to the captain's summons. The corporal saluted again, turned smartly, and led the way into the lofty, white-painted corridor beyond the open door. To the left-hand side of the long passage, a credenza topped with wooden spindles half hid a saloon furnished with a table large enough to seat twenty, with revolving chairs screwed to the floor all around. This dining room was empty, and the varnished doors at both ends were closed, as were those to the four staterooms on the far side of the corridor. The soldier kept on going, heading for a set of double doors at the end of the passage, while Forsythe and Wiki followed.

Their steps echoed hollowly, then stopped. With a double stamp as he brought his feet together, the marine knocked deafeningly. At the preoccupied sound of a distant grunt, he opened the doors with a flourish, and stood aside to let Wiki and Forsythe pass through. Then the doors slammed shut again, and Wiki heard the retreating thunder of boots as the corporal marched back to his post.

The room smelled of preserving alcohol and ink. Long rays of bright late afternoon sun streamed in a great skylight, and the glazed windows in the stern let in water reflections, which moved hypnotically over racks of glass jars where enigmatic creatures floated, and the shelves where many books and charts were securely stacked. Rows of chronometers in padded boxes solemnly ticked, not quite in unison. This was the place where the shipboard scientifics worked alongside the ship's officers who had been assigned to surveying duties. Right now, however, only the commander in chief of the expedition was in residence.

Captain Wilkes, though standing, was bent over a chart that had been spread out on one of the tables, filling in figures along the line that marked the last track of survey. For some moments, he ignored their arrival. Wiki stood beside Lieutenant Forsythe, his feet braced apart to counter the slow roll of the ship, and warily contemplated the tall, lean, ascetic figure. The last time he had been summoned here, he'd been given the brief of hunting pirates on Shark Island. It was hard to believe that it had been only four weeks ago. Just as before, every small movement betrayed Wilkes's inner tension. There were patches of red high on the cheekbones of his narrow face, and he occasionally lifted a hand to rub his forehead, as if it hurt.

Wiki already knew that the commandant of the exploring fleet was under great pressure—that he had been under stress for years, for Charles Wilkes had been intimately involved with the expedition since the very beginning. As a decade had dragged by in an endless chaos of political and scientific lobbying and public controversy, he, unlike many others, had remained loyal to the project. After he had been appointed to the position of fleet commodore, following the resignation of his fiery rival, Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones, powers in the navy had received the news with open outrage, but the humiliating acrimony had been the least of Wilkes's problems. Ships had proved unsuitable, and he'd been forced to replace them at incredibly short notice, and then have the replacements provisioned in a navy yard where the outfitters and victuallers had been unwaveringly hostile. The papers had dubbed the enterprise “the Deplorable Expedition,” and it had become the butt of cartoonists and music hall comedians, but Charles Wilkes had stubbornly clung to his vision of an American scientific triumph. Despite his notoriously volatile temper, Wiki still found him admirable.

At last he looked up, right into Wiki's face. “So I finally see you!”

“Aye, sir,” Wiki warily admitted.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself? I
distinctly
recollect giving you instructions to report back without a moment's delay—and yet I had to send Lieutenant Smith with the
Flying Fish
to remind you of your obligations. Almost
four whole weeks
have elapsed since I saw you last!”

“I'm sorry, sir.”

“Being sorry is not sufficient! Lieutenant Forsythe—what is your excuse for keeping me in the dark, sir? I want to know what the
hell
you were thinking!”

Before Forsythe could open his mouth, Wiki forestalled him, saying firmly, “The delay was entirely my fault, sir.”

Captain Wilkes's large eyes opened wide with affront; for the first time Wiki realized how bloodshot they were. He echoed, “
Your
fault?”

“Aye, sir. When we found an American ship in distress at the island, I thought the priority was to render assistance. After all, she was a fellow national—”

“Now, wait a bloody minute,” Forsythe interrupted. The glance he cast at Wiki was inimical. “Who was in charge of the goddamned mission—you or me?”

“Exactly!” Captain Wilkes exclaimed. “You're supposed to be a linguister, damn it—a
civilian!
Your job was to
investigate,
not to decide priorities! Just who the bloody
hell
do you think you are?” He crashed his fist down on the desktop and shouted, “It's high time you carried out the
proper
duties you've neglected to perform!”

“Duties?” Wiki felt puzzled, because he thought he had worked extremely hard, both off and on the brig
Swallow.
“What duties?”

“You were shipped to work as the expedition's linguister, Mr. Coffin—to translate for us, and coordinate with the other scientifics! Not only have you done no translating at all, but you've failed to answer questions about Pacific languages that Lieutenant Smith has posed—and he has now filed a formal complaint about your lack of cooperation.”

My God,
thought Wiki—he wouldn't have believed that even the petty-minded Lawrence J. Smith would do this to him. The overbearing little prig had asked him no questions about Pacific languages at all! And even if Smith
was
the commodore's particular crony, Captain Wilkes should have had the intelligence to realize that the pompous little prawn was far too proud of what he considered his vast and superior knowledge to ever listen to the ideas and opinions of anyone else, let alone deign to ask advice.

He said hotly, “If Lieutenant Smith ever
did
ask questions, I would have answered them to the best of my ability—but he's never given me the chance!”

“That is not what he tells me, Mr. Coffin! And you do yourself no service by accusing him of telling lies!” The patches of red on Captain Wilkes's cheekbones stood out; he was obviously building himself up into a right royal rage. “What the hell did you think you joined the expedition for?” he demanded. “To loaf away your time on board the brig
Swallow,
at the expense of the U.S. Navy? To stand by while Lieutenant Smith carries out all the language-related research, and then grab the honor and glory after the expedition returns?”

BOOK: Run Afoul
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