It was when The Hornet was wallowing through the Roaring Forties, far to the south ofIndia, that Beresford took ill.
It may have been something he caught on the taint of the air, it may have been some pestilence an insect vomited into some spectacularly decaying bit of food, it may have been some poison dripped into his drink. At any rate he began to shake with a mighty delirium. The sweat upon his face was as heavy as that on the last horse home from a steeple-chase.
Then he started to vomit. The convicts nearby fled from his thunderous puking, watching in a circle, amazed that the scant food allowed them could produce so much matter.
‘There’s a month of dinners coming out,’ said one old man who fancied himself something of a leech.
‘Aye, and not just his,’ said another. ‘I’m sure that’s the bit of pie that went missing from my grub.’
Several convicts pressed closer to try to identify pieces of their food that had unaccountably gone missing.
‘That looks like Bill’s sausage,’ said one young lad.
‘No,’ said Bill, ‘I found that in my shoe. I think it must be part of his innards. They do look like sausage.’
‘Beresford’s been eating his innards?’ said the boy in wonder.
The convicts took a step back, horrified at this example of self-cannibalism.
‘No,’ said the leech. ‘He ain’t ate ‘em. But they’ve come adrift from his guts and worked their way up to his throat. I’ve seen it before.’
‘What happened to him as had it?’ Jack asked anxiously.
The old man made a slicing motion against his throat.
Jack knelt in front of Beresford. ‘What’s ailing you?’ he asked. ‘What can I do?’
Beresford shook his head and gestured him away. ‘Might be catching,’ he managed to groan.
The onlookers gave a collective gasp and struggled even further from the suffering man.
‘The Plague,’ cried one.
‘The Flux,’ said another.
‘The Black Gobbler,’ said a cross-eyed man who loved to tell tales.
The others turned to him, fearful to hear of this hitherto unknown malady.
‘It’s a mix of the Plague, the Flux and the Pox,’ he said. ‘It would be a kindness to blow his brains out now.’
That was more than enough for Jack.
He thrust through the crowd and clambered up the stairs.
‘Help, help,’ he cried, beating upon the sealed trap-door.
‘What’s the racket?’ called a seaman, opening the door and squinting down.
‘Please sir, my friend is very sick with the Black Gobbler.’
‘The Black Gobbler.’
‘Never heard of it. No such thing.’
‘Well it’s terrible, whatever it is.’
‘Piss off,’ said the man, closing the trap.
‘On your head be it,’ Jack cried. ‘When Captain Flowers hears you allowed the contagion to spread, gor blimey for you.’
The trap-door stopped moving.
‘Who’s to tell him?’
Jack could hear the seaman discussing the situation with another. The trap was flung open and a pair of hands descended and hauled him up.
‘Yer can tell him yerself, young ‘un,’ the seaman said. ‘Hop to it.’
Jack was dragged along the walkway, up numerous stairs and eventually, thrust along a passage way. They halted before a well-polished door and one of the seamen nervously knocked upon it.
‘What is it?’ called a voice from within.
‘Begging pardon, Captain but this convict says there’s contagion down below.’
The only reply was silence. The two seamen glanced at each other anxiously. Eventually, the captain called out. ‘Take him up on deck, summon the surgeon, and I shall join you.’
Jack was grabbed by the collar and dragged up another set of stairs to the main-deck. The day-light seared his sight and he threw his hand across his eyes. He felt himself being deposited onto the deck and stood with head bent and eyes tight shut. He began to squint his lids open, very slowly, very carefully, aware that the light appeared to be drenching him like heavy rain. Eventually, he forced them open completely but he protected them from the sun by staring down at his feet. After a few minutes these feet were confronted by three more sets, all shod in highly polished boots.
‘Now then, boy,’ said Captain Flowers, ‘what’s all this talk about contagion?’
‘My friend Beresford has it,’ answered Jack.
‘Look at the Captain when you address him,’ came the grim voice of Lieutenant Bolt.
Jack shielded his eyes and glanced up into Captain Flower’s face. There was no sign of geniality now, merely anxiety and suspicion.
‘What does Beresford have?’ the Captain asked.
‘The Black Gobbler.’
The Captain sighed. He turned towards the man standing next to him, a short, stout man wearing the bloody apron of a surgeon. ‘What think you of this, Mr Wills?’ he asked.
The surgeon bent down to Jack. ‘Tell me boy,’ he asked. ‘What are your friend’s symptoms?’
‘He’s sick as a dog,’ Jack answered. ‘He’s howling like a cat and he’s shaking like a drunkard trying to keep his feet.’
The surgeon pursed his lips and turned towards the Captain. ‘A most exact description. I wish my orderly was as good.’
‘And very poetic,’ said the Captain. ‘Who would think the gutter would breed such a being?’
Jack stared at them, suspicious that they were laughing at him yet also sensing something slightly beyond laughter.
‘And there’s more,’ he continued. ‘Beresford, that’s my friend, has gone and got his innards floating free and puked bits of them up.’ His voice took on a learned tone. ‘And that’s why it’s called the Black Gobbler. Seeing as how he’s gobbling up his own innards.’
The Captain’s eyes widened in astonishment.
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ said the surgeon. ‘But it could be dysentery. Or worse, cholera.’
‘I’ll seal the hold,’ said Bolt.
‘That’s the worst thing to do,’ said Wills. ‘The disease would spread like wild-fire. No our best hope is to bring out this man Beresford and keep him away from everyone.’
‘I doubt any of my lads will be happy to go down and get him,’ said Bolt.
‘They’ll do as they’re ordered,’ said the Captain sharply.
‘Bolt has a point,’ said Wills. ‘If any of the crew touch him they might catch the disease. We need to get him out making use of only the convicts.’
‘Could you carry him out?’ the Captain asked Jack.
‘You must be joking,’ Jack answered. ‘He’s twice my size.’
Bolt gave him a whack across the head.
‘Don’t talk to the Captain in that manner. If you can’t carry him, could you help him out, let him lean on you?’
Jack’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. ‘Oh yes, I could do that,’ he said.
His face took on a knowing look. ‘Would I have to be kept on deck as well, in case I get the Gobbler?’
The surgeon’s eyes went to the Captain who shook his head slightly, a movement which Jack did not catch.
‘Possibly,’ said the surgeon.
‘Quite possibly,’ added the Captain.
‘Then I’ll get him,’ said Jack. ‘I might need a rope though.’
‘Out of the question,’ said Bolt.
‘I think in the circumstances,’ said the Captain.
‘As you wish, sir,’ said Bolt with a sigh. ‘Four feet length I’d advise. Don’t want them hanging themselves.’
Jack was given four feet of strong rope and taken back below. The dark of the hold hit him first, then the stench and finally the noise. He stumbled through the gloom to where the circle of convicts were still watching in fascination as ever more vomit hurled out from Beresford.
‘Captain’s orders,’ Jack said with self-importance. ‘Beresford’s got to go aloft to stop the disease from spreading. And I’m to go with him to look after him.’
‘Like a nursemaid,’ said Trench.
‘Like a maid,’ said Crimp.
‘Very funny,’ said Jack. The last time he had been so jaunty was the long months ago when he had left Fagin’s den with Charley Bates to go off thieving.
He swiftly slid the rope around Beresford’s chest. He then looped the ends and began to pull on it, dragging Beresford along the deck.
‘The sooner you give us a hand the sooner we’ll be out of your hair,’ he cried.
Several men pushed him aside and began to haul on the rope. The vomit on the floor made the ride more smooth and Beresford was soon hauled beneath the trap-door. His head was lolling in pain and delirium.
Jack clambered up the stairs and hammered on the door.
‘I’ve got him, he’s here,’ he cried.
The trap-door opened and a hook descended and caught hold of the loop of rope. Beresford was hauled up like a sack of flour and disappeared through the hatch. Jack clambered onto the steps behind him and hurried after. But as he did so the trap was lowered.
‘Only room for one,’ called a seaman.
‘I’m coming with him,’ said Jack.
‘No you ain’t.’
‘But the Captain said.’
‘Haven’t you learned never to trust the word of a gentleman?’ the sailor said. He slammed the hatch shut and locked it.
Jack was flabbergasted. He had been lied to, used, deceived. He shook his head in astonishment.
A loud laugh filled his ears. He glanced down to see Trench and Crimp staring up at him.
‘All on your lonesome, now are we?’ said Crimp. ‘Let’s see how good a dodger you really are.’ He grabbed hold of Jack’s legs.
Artful is available on Kindle. Please click on the links on this page to find Artful and my other books.