There was a knock, and then he opened the thick door, peered in at me from under his dark brows, took two steps into my cramped quarters —that was all it took to reach me —and handed me what looked like a poem, or at least something in verse. I squinted. Maybe it was an epitaph, perhaps meant for my own stone. All manner of things ran through my mind. A toasting song that the crew needed help with. I did not know which thing it was until upon reading the beginning verses, I realized it was some sort of codicil in matters of love. I looked up from my circle of light, sitting there as I was at my small ship’s desk, with Grey’s Anatomy opened before me and my flasks and instruments behind me.
I reached out blankly and took the writing from his rough hand into my smaller, smoother, ever so slightly trembling one.
“Translate it into German,” he said, boring me with his black eyes and adding a surly “Sir,” then shut the door and was gone.
Why would the mate ask of me such a thing? And in such a tone? So that my other hand wanted to drop down and lie upon my pistol. Was it mutiny on deck? But why? Weren’t we westering along the Gulf Stream, like an evening star ourselves, bound for the Caribbean Islands, perhaps Jamaica or Dominica or Cuba—all places where I knew Germans were as unlikely to be come upon as the Asian races might be on the mighty Saint Lawrence to the north.
The Rebecca, an eight-gun, eighty-ton frigate, had a whole leg bone in her teeth and was doing a smooth prance from the night wind steady over her beam, so that we rose and fell in a comfortable dependable rhythm, the kind that lets a man sleep deeply in his coffin-narrow berth or think unfettered thoughts under the swinging oil lamp above his cramped desk, there to wander in his mind and think of his childhood and mother and even of a woman who smiled at him and invited him to have a cup of cold spring water and linger under a Maritime pine on a hot day, if he might want to. So scratches my quill in ink as I tell you this story.
But this new duty seemed apart. I normally treated injuries caused by rum, hence falling, knife work, more often scurvy, tarantula and rat bites, and the dripping pox.
But I set about to translate what the mate had handed me, and it came out like this, only thanks to my early Lübeck schooling, half remembered.
Gentle lady, so soon the grave
So quickly life flows us past.
I should give everything for
a moment, when you choose me,
and I choose you.
And you smile at me,
And I hold you against me
Into all Eternity
I dipped my quill the right amount and paused to call up again my schoolboy dose of Minnedichtung mixed with the language of the doomful Baroque.
Sanftes Wesen, wir huschen ins Grab,
Was meint ihr
Wie das Leben vorüberfließt.
Was ich alles gäbe
Für den Moment,
Wenn Du mich wähltest,
Und wir uns vermählten
Und Du mich lächelst an,
Und ich Dich an mir halte,
Bis in alle Ewigkeit
I had no sooner blotted the last line, than there was a knock at the door and the mate reappeared and stood over me with conspiratorial impatience and the smell of danger. I rolled the parchment quickly, tied it with a scarlet ribbon. For I had an inkling. And handed it to him, only briefly passing my eyes over his. But there was nothing I could read there, and then he nodded and was gone.
Is this what I was hired to do? Not work on wounded bodies but write poems for unseen courting? They had not trained me for as much at the Bristol Medical Maritime Academy. Not for this.
And so, I took two steps of my own out from around my desk and opened my own door and walked the dark fo’c’sle passageway between bunks of forms drowned in sleep and took the ladder furthest forward, climbing up through anchor chains, mildewed jibs and pitch smeared hawser rope and popped up just aft of the great oak bowsprit with its longhaired figurehead, her overboard nets and their sticky salt coating, emerged into moonlight and the roar of the bow wave just below. And sat down upon a capstan and let my eyes accustom themselves to night – when, just then, the Rebecca rounded up into the wind and began to slow, canvas luffing, flapping with boom and clap enough to wake the sleeping watch below, except that dark figures were already in the rigging to wrap and calm the sails, the way trainers do with wild animals, as I saw them back when I was a boy and things were more clear.
A dark form rode up beside us, a ship as tall as a cliff, also slowing, not fifty yards away. This when I as an officer should have stood up and gone to the captain and informed him of the conspiracy, except that my body as if in thrall to the anchor capstan, was turned to wood and would not rise.
A boat left her side, and one from us as well. Someone shouted an order. Someone gave explanations and excuses. A voice with authority ordered marines, with muskets.
In the walrus moon, across the water, at the bow of each gig, as they came closer to each other, their crews no longer rowing, their oars suspended, I could make out two figures standing, one handing something to the other, a smaller figure, a woman perhaps, because of the pale skin of her face, from which a hood had fallen, and the long dark hair which fell waving down, not unlike the figurehead just beside me.
The oarsmen held the boats together. One raised a small hurricane lantern. She read by both moon and lantern light, looked up and gave a small cry. And they held each other. He climbed from his boat up onto hers, stood, teetering on the gunwale – when a volley of shots broke out over the moonlight and the sighing sea. And he fell back into the arms of those who had brought her. Then the tenders drew apart and began returning, the foreign one now closer to me, so close that I could hear the woman’s moans. Already drums rolled on our deck, and orders of arrest were being spoken.
The men in her boat rowed for their ship, dipping their oars at requiem pace, passing close enough, so that I could see her holding him across her lap. Then they disappeared around the stern of the great ship that had been beside us and had come from where I do not know. If the lady had come to us, I might have been able to save him. In the morning, there was no trace of the other ship. An investigation was already under way. And the mate, when I saw him, gave me a glance meant to warn. And I, because his eyes looked sad, returned his look with the slightest nod, since I was as much implicated as he.