The Hold

Captain Samuel Bowen, master of the schooner ‘Harbinger,’ moved across the deck and opened a door which revealed a flight of steps that led below deck, first to the lower deck and then further down into the hold.
He lit the lantern that was hanging on a hook by the door and began to descend down the steps, wrinkling his nose at the stale smell of the unwashed sailors’ bodies that still lingered there.
He passed through the lower deck and went down the steps into the hold, where the odour was a not unpleasant blend of tobacco and cotton. He listened for the scurry of rats, but heard nothing, perhaps they had deserted the ship’s empty larder for a more nourishing diet ashore.
He whispered the agreed code softly into the darkness.
“The smell of the hold reminds me of more prosperous days.”
“They will return” someone in the darkness whispered back.
A few seconds later a match was struck, and a few seconds later a lantern was lit.
Werner looked pale, Bowen decided – paler than when they had last met in the hold six weeks’ earlier. Some of his hair was beginning to fall out, and he seemed to have lost a tooth.
“How are you?” Bowen asked, somewhat unnecessarily
“Pretty good, considering I live in a dungeon” Werner said wearily.
“Oh yeah, and I feed the cat” he added.
“A ginger tom, whose starboard ear has been lost at sea?” Bowen asked anxiously.
“He’s Nelson, our formerly prolific but now sadly unemployed ship’s cat and rat catcher, “ Bowen explained.
He studied Werner carefully.
“The glamorous life of a Union agent, spending his days in the hold of a British ship in a hostile Confederate port, feeding the ship’s cat and only emerging at night in order to spy on any Confederate shipping movements which might take place under cover of darkness” he said sardonically.
He didn’t believe that the Union secret service had placed Werner in the hold to spy on Confederate shipping in the Chesapeake bay, for there was hardly any shipping to spy on.
He suspected that he was spying on him, instead.
“It was good of you to lend us your ship for such a noble purpose” Werner said, with a forced smile.
“I had little choice, as you’re aware, it was either that or antagonise the Union government” Bowen said resentfully.
Werner smiled to himself.
As the captain of a British ship in a Confederate port, Bowen was at the mercy of the Union government.
If he tried to sail from the port he could be intercepted by Union navy ships which were enforcing the Union government blockade of the Confederate ports.
“As you’re aware, we have a good relationship with the Union, and we would like this good relationship to continue, we have no wish to damage it” he said diplomatically
“Then stop your blockade runners from trading with the Confederacy” Werner said harshly.
Bowen shrugged his shoulders helplessly, as if the mostly British-owned ships that slipped through the Union blockade to secretly trade with the Confederacy were nothing to do with him.
He paused thoughtfully.
Werner was suffering from the early stages of scurvy, as a result of his unhealthy living conditions and poor diet.
Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of the long hours that he spent alone in the hold in complete darkness, he was losing his composure.
In a few weeks, when his health and state of mind had deteriorated even further, he would become more agreeable.
“I’m disappointed with you, Mister Werner. And I think that if your President Lincoln was here, he would be disappointed with you too.”
“I will visit you again when you are feeling more amenable” he finished.
He climbed up the ladder that led to the lower deck and watched while the armed British sailor who was guarding the hold shut the hatch tightly.
“Do not allow him out of the hold for the next twenty four hours” he ordered him.
“Aye aye captain.”
Bowen went up the steps to the top deck thoughtfully.
Werner must be taught a lesson.
If Mister Lincoln confined his ship to the port, he would confine Werner to the hold.
Far below in the depths of the ship Werner licked his lips thirsty, for it was punishingly hot in the heat of the Virginia summer.
His tongue touched something and it moved slightly.
He was losing another tooth.

Continued in The Hold part 2 and The Hold part 3

Author: Paul Gresham

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