The Brumous Barquentine

18 Jan

How does one join the crew of a pirate vessel?

It did not prove difficult for the young landsman named Abri. The cold waters of the Gelid Sea had for generations suffered from a multitude of corsairs and picaroons. But never had there previously been a buccaneer ship with the terrifying reputation of the Fumulus and its infamous Captain Parque.

Tall and bony, Abri had the advantage of looking like one who sailed the sea. He read all he could find about the craft of navigation and frequented many a taphouse in ports along the lower coast. At last, he came across a fencing teacher who was able to get him in contact with land partners of Piratemaster Parque. Yes, there was a vacancy as assistant navigator. Abri was granted the assignment of serving on the Fumulus for three months on a probationary basis. He accepted and was informed where and when a rowing skiff was to take him out to the barquentine hovering off shore. This happened as golden Eos dawned over the placid Gelid Sea, dispersing the fog of night with its brilliant light.

The gigantic Fumulus towered larger and larger as Abri and a silent sailor approached the starboard of the vessel, a magnificent four-master. The novice was able to make out and identify the sky sail, fore-topsail, stag sails, studding sails, crossjack mizzen sails, foresail gallant, and rear spanker. He did not know that such an equipped ship could exist and rove the cold sea. Rumors about this schooner came close to its reality.

Dressed in a heavy black peacoat, Abri climbed up onto the deck of the Fumulus with his taciturn escort. At last the latter spoke to his companion. “Please follow me. The Captain wishes to meet and question you.”

The pair made their way through the huge, crowded galley where scores of crewmen were gulping down their breakfast burgoo. The sailor knocked on the quercine door of what proved to be the cabin of the skipper. “Come in,” resounded a powerful, deep voice.

A nod from his guide told Abri to enter on his own.

Captain Parque was a much smaller man than anyone from the outside would have expected. He wore a long cloak of an uncertain dark color and a red neckerchief around his throat. Sharp adamant eyes indicated wide-awake intelligence and perspicacity.

“So, you are to be our assistant navigator,” began the ruler of the Fumulus. “Sit down on the squab. I wish to have a few introductory words with you, young man.”

Taking a full, deep breath, Abri did as he was told.

“You have taken correspondence courses in sea navigation, I have been informed.” Parque’s eyes seemed to take apart the stranger in front of the small desk at which he sat.

“Yes, sir. My knowledge is primarily out of books and sailing a small cutter about in sheltered bays. Not much direct experience, I fear. But I am eager to learn all I can, sir.”

“You will find that everything aboard the Fumulus is rigorous and demanding. I permit no slack whatever under my command. Your apprentice work shall be done under Pilot Wrack. He has been with the Fumulus since it was built twelve years ago. Before that, there was long service by him onboard some of the best barquentines on the entire sea. But now the man grows old and has need of a faithful aide he can trust. Many of the most valuable aspects of navigating can be learned from him. Have you eaten breakfast yet, my boy?”

“No. sir,” replied Abri.

“Go into the galley and tell one of the cooks. Pilot Wrack will come in and take you in tow. That is all for now, but I intend to have you report your progress to me from time to time.” The captain turned away and the new crew member made a fast exit.

Wrack was a small, elderly man with a yellow headscarf and sky blue eyes. He found Abri as the latter finished eating and introduced himself as he sat down opposite his new pupil.

“So, you are willing to study the science of navigation. It is extremely difficult and demanding. I will start you on the most fundamental elements. For example, are you familiar with cloud identifications? They are basic to my professional responsibilities.”

“I am sorry to admit my ignorance, sir,” replied Abri.

“I shall start you marking formations, because nothing is more necessary. Nothing can be accomplished on the vessel without exact knowledge of clouds.”

For a moment, the assistant looked confused.

“I have cloud charts that can be very useful,” smiled the pilot. “Let me go to the bridge and get them for you. Early tomorrow, you will receive your first examination on clouds.”

The two soon left the galley so that Abri could find the small cabin assigned to him.

So many varieties of cloud to memorize from drawings and photographs!

The student recorded in his mind the soft, fluffy flocous and the ragged, wispy fractus; the low humilis and the middling mediocris; the hairlike capillatur and the turreted castellanus; the joined vertebratus and the rayed radiatus; the bald calvus and the undulates marked with waves; the bent uncinus and the twisted intortus; the shining light of the translucidus and the brightness of the perlucidus; the bean-shaped lenticularis and the protruding mammalus; the crowded congestus and the lacunasus with gaps and holes. On and on went the categories of clouds.

Pilot Wrack summoned him the following morning to the tiny map room on the bridge platform.

Abri was surprised that the majority of the questions concerned fog formations at sea level. Dark opacus and misty nebularis seemed the center of the navigator’s interest. Only at the end of the quizzing did any explanation occur.

“The captain prefers to make his attacks when visibility disappears because of mist, haze, or fog. Then it is that he can utilize our evaporator machines. You have been told about them?”

“No,” said the puzzled student. “I have not.”

Wrack leaned forward, lowering his voice some. “Deep in our hull we have apparatuses and engines that turn fish oil into self-propelled clouds of steam. Remember that a fumulus is an invisible veil that conceals the way that smoke can. There is no need for us to raid in the open air, under a clear sky. We can locate promising cloud cover and transform it into solid pea-soup brume. Yes, our ship travels about the Gelid Sea with the potential to produce its own concealment wall. Thick fog is generated below the deck and released upon the locality that has been chosen for pirating. Did you have any knowledge of that?”

“No,” confessed the novice.

“That is why the raids of this vessel always occur in fog,” explained Wrack. “That is the way that Captain Parque engineered everything.”

“I see now,” said Abri with a series of nods.

In a few days, the Fumulus carried out an attack on a fish oil carrier. The evaporators of the pirate ship, working at complete capacity, created a veil of fog that kept the raider out of sight until it was within boarding range of the victim. A dozen teams ran onto the deck of the tanker, overpowering the helpless crew, from the starboard side.

Abri watched the misty scene from the bridge. Pilot Wrack maneuvered the ship on its approach, turning the wheel of control with precise, measured movements of his hands.

“We have taken the oiler,” pronounced Parque, at the outer window of his cabin. “It was easier than I anticipated. What do you think of our operation, Abri?”

“I marvel at the coordination of something so complicated, sir. It demanded magnificent forethought and all-around dexterity by everyone concerned. It was a genuine miracle.”

The commander unexpectedly made a sour face. “This kind of oil does not fetch much on the contraband market. What we need is some expensive, valuable cargo ship. Something with gems or jewelry aboard. That would be the ticket for sure.”

“Such transporters avoid the regions known for their sea rovers,” mused Wrack. “Rare loads are more apt to take unusual, unfrequented routes, those where few others sail.”

“Yes, I realize that,” declared the captain. “My thoughts are directed increasingly to the dangerous waters of the northern latitudes. To the Growler Basin, for instance.”

“We would have to be on the lookout for bergs and floes of ice up there,” said the navigator with audible dread. “There is much that must be avoided in that area.”

All at one, Parque made a decision. “We will turn north at once,” he ordered with authority in his voice.

Abri and Wrack exchanged looks of astonishment as their superior stalked out of the wheelroom of the ship.

An invitation from the captain was conveyed to his new assistant by Wrack. “We have come quite a distance northward, into the septentrional zone of many large seabirds. Commander Parque will soon bring out his crossbows for some recreational archery. I am always his shooting partner and the two of us compete. Now, he wishes me to find out whether you are willing to join us. A weapon will be provided for your use, of course.”

Abri grinned with pleasure. “I have hunted with bows on land since my childhood and know how to handle the most complicated of devices. Yes, it would be an honor to join the two of you.”

The next morning had a clear sky and crisp air.

For several hours, the three men shot arrows at gulls, albatrosses, skimmers, skuas, razorbills, jaegers, murres, puffins, kittiwakes, and dovekies. Piles of dead birds were retrieved, then gathered on the ship’s deck.

The newest member of the crew had downed the greatest number.

“You are an expert archer, Abri,” joyfully announced the Captain. “Come to my cabin and share a flagon of arrack with Wrack and me. What do you say?”

The surprised novice nodded, then the group of sportsmen went off to hold their drinking party.

Parque was the one who did most of the talking, recollecting how he became what he was. “My father was skipper of a commercial transporter on the ordinary maritime routes. He was ruined when his vessel was totally looted by a pirate ship. The unlucky man turned to drink as his lone refuge. Abandoned on land, the derelict soon died, leaving me an orphan. What was I to do? I joined up with my father’s enemies. It was easy for me to find a berth on a small, local privateer. I soon learned the principles of the craft. In ten years, I worked myself up to the captainship of a minor ship. My abilities came to be recognized. On and upward I progressed, to the command of the Fumulus, where you now see me. It is quite a story, one that would make a nice adventure book.”

The Captain smiled at Wrack, then at Abri. The latter suddenly excused himself, saying that he needed to go to his cabin and take a nap. Parque excused him with a wide, warm smile. Only when the new man was gone did it disappear.

“What do you think of him, Wrack? He is an extremely good archer, no doubt of that. In fact, his skill intrigues me. How did the young man develop such dexterity with the bow? He must have been trained. And where would that happen beyond the boundaries of a land army?

“Was our Abri a soldier? Or is he at present an agent of some police unit that sent him to investigate pirate activities? Is he an imposter here to do us harm?”

No answer came from the shaken navigator.

“Keep your eye on him,” whispered the Captain. “Tell me what you notice.”

“Is Parque suffering paranoia?” the head pilot asked himself after many hours of speculation. “At least I shall be keeping my senses awake concerning my apprentice,” decided Wrack. Thus it came about that the newcomer under suspicion fell under constant surveillance.

Wrack began to ask his subordinate about his past whenever opportunity presented an opening. “Did you enjoy attending a general academy on land, Abri?” he asked once on the bridge.

“Not too much, not at all,” was the reply to this.

The other pressed on. “You must have studied geography and hydrography. I say that because I have noted your detailed knowledge of the Gelid Sea.”

“I am interested in all these waters, especially since we have started to sail so far to the north. It is good to have some knowledge of where we are headed and what we might find there.”

One early morning, Wrack knocked on the door of the cabin occupied by Abri. No answer came. The navigator hesitated a few seconds, then reached out and took the door knob. Why not look around the room while his assistant was not there? “I have the right to go anywhere I wish,” he told himself with confidence.

As he looked about the small chamber, nothing appeared amiss. But then his eyes fell on a notebook lying on the work table. Wrack picked it up and looked through the pages. It was a diary of the writer’s experiences onboard the Fumulus.

“But what is the purpose of this?” Wrack asked himself as he perused page after page. “To somehow incriminate the crew of the Fumulus for the piracy taking place wherever the ship sailed?”

An immediate decision was made. He must take this notebook to the Captain. Parque would surely be able to decide whether Abri was a police spy or not.

It was a little after dark that the Captain finished examining the writings. He turned to Wrack and gave him a succinct order. “Bring him to me at once. I may have to throw him into the waters for this, when I confirm my thoughts about him.”

With terrible trepidation, the navigator went off to summon the young man to possible doom.

Wrack still wondered if they had really uncovered a disguised agent with the potential to bring down the pirate vessel. He smiled at Abri as he informed him that the Captain wanted him. He followed his aide into the bridge cabin and waited to see what was going to happen.

Parquet remained seated as he questioned the suspected one. “Why are you keeping a daily journal, my boy?” he began.

The writer seemed to shake with emotion. “You read what I put down?” he said with indignation.

The captain, ignoring this, plowed on. “Why did you describe how the ship operates? Why so many specifics about our raiding methods? Why the sketches of the evaporator that we use? For whom are you making such a detailed report?”

The face of Abri reddened with ire. “How dare you? So what if I write down memories in my free time? It is none of anyone else’s business.”

“I have come to the conclusion that you must be a government spy,” muttered the captain. “We shall have to dispose of you as quickly as possible.”

In a second, Abri decided on what action he had to take. Moving with unbelievable speed, he hurled his body to the outer side of the bridge, to the control panels below the panoramic window looking out at the Gelid Sea. His hands worked instantly, with frantic energy, pulling levers and pushing buttons, as if conscious that his time was short and ending soon.

The other two men, both of them astonished, watched as if paralyzed.

Abri knew how to open the vapor tanks, how to release a bottomless cloud of fog. The white brume rolled forth with incredible speed, engulfing everything around it. The hands of the desperate police agent were causing an irreversible emptying of the vapor supply.

He knew what he was doing: using the cloud to surround and strangle the Fumulus.That was all that was left to him. This was the fateful finale, he realized.

None of the cloud was blown outward or away. All of it was concentrated upon the decks of the ship, penetrating through all the openings and cracks, even the closed doors.

Abri turned to Parque and Wrack, his face burning like that of some madman.

“I have put an end to all future piracy by you and your vessel. My life will be finished now, but so will that of everyone else. No more sea crimes are going to originate from your barquentine.”

Every person aboard suffered death in minutes, including their asphyxiator. No one ever found out how the cloud maker of Captain Parque worked. It vanished along with the barquentine.

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