A Fine Boy for Killing - and the scum of the earth...

Chapter Eleven

By the middle of the next day the Welfare was making heavy weather of it, and the quality of the people had become a problem that threatened her with real danger. Not all the beating in the world, not all the starting by the boatswain and his men, could turn the scrapings of many a gutter, the scourings of many a jail, into seamen.

Already they had lost one man over the side. He had dropped with a long scream from the fore topsail yard as the labouring ship had staggered drunkenly between two big seas. He had bobbed off almost slowly, his face clearly visible between the creaming grey crests, looking imploringly at the struggling frigate. One of the helmsmen had allowed his eyes to stray for a moment to his lost shipmate and a sail had almost been caught aback. Captain Swift, who had been hovering near the wheel, gave a snarl and punched the seaman full in the face while the master and the other helmsman clawed the helm up to get her off the wind once more.

William Bentley, as befitted a young gentleman, was now on the quarterdeck and fighting his sickness manfully. He was not alone. Jack Evans was a vile green colour and Simon Allen, another mid, was as sick as a donkey. The youngest of the young gentleman, James Finch, had gone below to the berth, which was a very bad move. Bentley was not officially on duty, but to skulk below in a storm, when the crew of scum had to be bullied, cajoled, and given example to, might damn him in Swift's eyes forever.

So William stood on the quarterdeck, muffled in his tarpaulin coat, soaked under it to the very skin in freezing water, and suffered in silence. His sickness was awful. He would have welcomed any way out of it. Every now and then, like the others, he vomited, violently, painfully. Then turned his eyes to sails and cordage, wind and sea, once more.

The wind had hauled farther and farther round in the night, as it gained in power. The Welfare was now close-hauled, under double-reefed topsails. Her lee rail was low, and green seas swept the deck every two or three minutes. The process of the gear stretching and working-in that Mr Robinson had explained to him the day before was unfortunately still going on. It was their main problem.

William watched the boatswain with something approaching admiration. For a common man he showed an uncommon determination and endurance. The few really good seamen under his control worked like a team of fine animals, and even the gutter-rats could be made to pull, usually at the correct moment - the gutter-rats that were capable of moving, that is.

The boatswain's great strength had stood him in good stead. For he had been on deck for nearly twenty hours, fighting canvas and men. As he sheltered under the weather bulwarks for a moment the midshipman stared at him. His black beard was streaming, his body was like a great sponge - and he was laughing into the teeth of the gale. He did not even wear a tarpaulin jacket, merely a thick flannel shirt that had split almost to his belt. He was a giant.

To windward, the prospect was bleak. The cloud was so low it almost skimmed the wave-tops. These were high, and creaming, and marched in never-ending succession that he found oddly frightening. There was no reason William could see why they should ever stop. Great, grey, cold mountains, that could bear down on the Welfare until she gave up the uneven struggle. He gritted his teeth. It was the sickness merely. That would go; that he would defeat. And his uncle, and Mr Robinson, and that mad boatswain - were they worried? Not a bit of it. Allgood was laughing.