Season 1, Episode 6: On the High Seas

Drays and wagons in a seemingly endless stream pulled up to the docks and a large contingent of workers scurried about, loading them onto the Admiral’s ship. He was due to sail in less than two hours, just beyond daybreak.

But at the moment it was still dark, and a chill wind was blowing in off the sea. Admiral Grey shivered involuntarily as he stood at the edge of the gangway and answered question after trivial question about where to store various supplies. He signed equally endless paperwork acknowledging deliveries, not even having the time to check their accuracy. Normally his crew would do that under the direction of the purser, Mr. McDonald, but there was no time. A palpable sense of urgency pervaded the ship and the dock. Although the crew members hadn’t been briefed on the secret nature of the voyage, and wouldn’t be until the time was right, they were able to sense things. Something was up, and though they didn’t know the details, it was impossible to hide it from them.


Admiral Grey kept thinking about the scene last night at Julianna’s. He had been obliged to part without a proper farewell, and he couldn’t help but see the hurt look in her eyes. Immediately upon his arrival shipboard, at something like one in the morning, he penned a note of apology and expressed his feelings one more time, then sent it off with a messenger, not caring that it was now two o’clock.

But, much as he hoped otherwise, he doubted that he would get a reply. There just wasn’t time, with the ship sailing around seven o’clock and Julianna seldom about before then.

He had almost instructed the messenger to awaken the Huntington household no matter the hour, but then decided against it when he realized that it would likely just cause further trouble. So there was no way a reply would reach the docks— if there even were to be one— before eight o’clock at the very earliest. Too late.

And he had to admit that she might not reply at all. Then he would be gone for who knows how long; certainly the best part of a year. Would Julianna await his return? The Admiral wanted to hold out hope, but logic told him his prospects weren’t good.

Enough! This isn’t the way to start an important mission. Better to throw himself into his work and not think about an uncertain future.

Then he realized that he hadn’t seen anything of that Monticello fellow who said he would be replacing First Mate Hurley. Surely Monticello was a fraud, but what would that be all about? His papers were obviously forged, but why? Did it have any relationship to the attack at the hotel? There was no one to ask and no time to investigate. Maybe he’d leave word for the Naval authorities, but by the time they could even begin to look into things, his ship would be long gone.

The last of the wagons pulled away from the dock and activity slowed. Everything that was coming aboard was now aboard. The Admiral sent for Mr. McDonald, who appeared quickly.

“Sir?” McDonald stood at attention next to the Admiral. He was a short, light-haired man of about thirty, powerfully built, and hardly the image of what one might expect from a purser. He had considerable combat experience.

“Mr. McDonald, it seems we do not have a First Mate, as Mr. Hurley has not returned. A man named Monticello appeared last evening, but he was an obvious fraud.”

“There’s talk among the men about that, sir,” McDonald observed.

“No doubt,” said the Admiral, “but we’ll just let that be for the moment. I called you here to ask you to serve as First Mate during this voyage. As we are short of officers you’ll also still have to do the duties of the purser.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“It’s not an order, Mr. McDonald, it’s a request. Do you stand ready? You may answer as you wish.”

“I do sir.”

“It will be a lot of work and you will have little free time.”

“I am here to work, sir.”

“Very well then. You are now First Mate and my second-in-command. Find your best officer to appoint as Second Mate, and divide his other duties among the rest of the officers. Quick about it, as we’re almost ready to weigh anchor. I’m headed for the bridge. Join me there when you’re finished.”

McDonald saluted and went off quickly to look for a few of the more experienced officers. This was going to be anything but an ordinary voyage.

The sun was peeking over the horizon, and the crew was ordered to departure stations. Admiral Grey, now on the bridge, was ready. The steam engines had been started a couple of hours ago to bring them up to operating temperature.

“Mr. McDonald, give the order roll back the gangway and cast off.”

A small crew released the gangway and pulled it back away from the ship. Then sailors cast off the mooring ropes. The ship sat isolated in its berth.

Too late to hear from Julianna.

“Weigh anchor.”

The turning windlass groaned and the ship tilted for a moment as the anchor was drawn up and into the ship.

“Reverse slow.”

A flock of sea birds flew over, ready to fish in the growing light, as the ship shuddered briefly and then inched backwards out of its berth.

It had just cleared the slip and continued to back so that it could turn about, when from the bridge the Admiral saw someone run up to the edge of the dock, waving frantically.

A message? Should he order the ship back into the dock?

No longer an option. The ship had already begun its turn, and it would cost him too much time to redock just for the uncertain prospects of receiving a message that had nothing to do with official matters.

Duty. It wasn’t always pleasant.

The ship completed its gradual turn, and was now pointing downriver toward the path to the open sea.

“All ahead half.” He’d go slowly in the crowded confines of the harbour, and then would open up when on the high seas.

The voyage had begun.

On the dock, the messenger gave up his frantic waving. He could hardly believe that a message from some high-class girl was so important that he had to rush to deliver it before the ship left. He had told that young woman that he couldn’t promise anything. Oh, well, the pay was the same either way. Not his problem.

Some distance away, in a suburb of London, three young boys, out early and supposedly on their way to school, decided to detour through an open field where they sometimes just stayed and slept away much of the day. But today would not be the same.

They were skipping through the head-tall weeds and grass, looking for a good place to lay down and nap, when one of them tripped and fell.

“Whatcher doin?” one of the boys said, and then gasped. The boy who had fallen stood and looked down. He had tripped over something … and then he too gasped, as did the third. Eyes wide with fear, their hands flew to their mouths.

“Let’s get out of here … ” one of them said, and they all ran as fast as they could to the edge of the field and back to the road. But finally, even they had the sense to realize that they would have to tell someone.

When they got to town they told the constable.

“Ain’tcher s’posed to be in school?” he said. “Y’ask me, yer just trickin’ to get away from yer class. Yer ‘spectin’ me to b’lieve such a cockamamie story?”

But what finally convinced him was their scared look. They didn’t have that smug expression, that slight smile that they would have had if they were just pulling a stunt.

The constable told them to wait in his office. “And iffn yer don’t, yer gonna be in one heap o’ trouble, you hear me?”

The boys nodded. They weren’t thinking about time off, not after what they had seen.

The constable got together a few men and set off for the field. It took them until well into the afternoon— the boys had run off in fright, and weren’t really able to give much in the way of directions, and the field was large. But eventually, one of the searchers found it.

They would later identify the bludgeoned body as that of one Mr. Hurley, an officer in the King’s Navy, murdered and dumped in the field for reasons unknown by person or persons unknown. He hadn’t been robbed. Just killed.

Weeks at sea. Shipboard life had settled into its usual routine, as it always did. They had yet to encounter any rough seas or storms, a bit unusual for the Atlantic, but they were grateful for the good luck; in a few more weeks they would be rounding Cape Horn, and that was never an easy or safe undertaking. The storm lashed Cape at the southern end of the South American continent had spelled doom for many a ship and many a sailor; and the sea didn’t care if you were French or English or Spanish, it took your life without thought or prejudice.

The rumours had died out. The Admiral had refused to fuel them, and the sailors soon tired of repeating the same things over and over. All the Admiral had told them was that they were on an urgent mission, that they were going to Hawai`i, in the middle of the Pacific, and that they would learn more as and when the need arose. No, the Admiral didn’t anticipate combat, but neither would he rule it out completely. He wouldn’t discuss why their shore leave was cut short, he just repeated that the mission was of critical importance.

In fact, he didn’t know a lot more himself. He had read the rather frightening despatches, and there had been a series of strange and unexplained events. He too was mostly in the dark.

He turned back to his logbook. He’d write his entry for the day, check once over the ship, have dinner in his cabin, and then retire for a few hours of sleep. When they reached the Cape, he knew there would be little time for rest.

Paulie awoke. She had forgotten to close the drapes all the way, and bright sunlight was streaming through. She sat up groggily and looked at the bedside clock. Nine in the morning already! She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and rose. Squinting her eyes, she peered through the opening in the curtains.

Outside, everything was covered in a thick blanket of white. It must have snowed a good half a meter. She was supposed to be at Tea Trader at ten. She would never make it. Nothing outside was moving. There weren’t even any tracks in the snow.

She imagined she should call Ted, but there was little doubt that Tea Trader wouldn’t open. Then she saw the message light blinking on her phone.

“This is Ted. Stay home today, Paulie. Don’t try to go out. We’ll open tomorrow. Even if we could open, there wouldn’t be any customers today. Stay warm!”

Her eyes turned back to the book half buried under the covers of the bed. Had she really stayed up so late reading? She seemed to recall sleeping and waking … it was all so vivid. How could a journal be so alive? She saw and heard everything, felt the wind blowing cold from the sea, felt the motion of the ship as it sped across the Atlantic … there was that dark, bearded man, Monticello …

What was going on?

A pot of tea first, and after, back to the logbook. A whole day off. She could read her way through quite a bit more.

Then she looked at the book and realized she had read just a few pages. That was impossible. The story was still fresh in her mind, rich in texture, in color, in feeling

Tea. She went into the kitchen and filled the kettle, wrapping herself in her bathrobe to warm herself from a chill that she now felt from inside, rather than outside.

This concludes Season One of our story. We return in late fall with Season Two.

Story Copyright (C) 2019 Bob Newell. All rights reserved. Images used are believed to be in the public domain.

Paulie enjoys many different morning teas but on this wintry day she chose Alberta Clipper, a full-strength tea suitable for the coldest of mornings. Alberta Clipper features the full colour and body of an Assam/Yunnan base with the unmistakable signature of Darjeeling. It’s available exclusively from Tea Trader.