Euclid's Wall Excerpt
Captain Ethan Scott sat in his cabin and pored over the navigation chart showing the Celtic Sea. The chart covered the southern coast of Eire from Ciarrai to Rosslare. It had been copied from some old encyclopedia or map. In addition to fathom markings, it displayed useful navigation reference points. Sprinkled across the chart were a number of crosses that marked the resting spots of ships sunk during the world wars of three centuries past.
Fifteen miles to the north was the Llandovery Castle, a hospital ship torpedoed in 1918 by a U-boat that had then surfaced and rammed the lifeboats. Seventy miles northeast, RMS Lusitania was on the last leg of its voyage when German submarine U-20 fired its last remaining torpedo. Struck amidships, Lusitania sank in 18 minutes with the loss of 1200 out of the 2000 souls onboard.
Tales of the sea had always fascinated Ethan Scott. He’d learned of both disasters as a boy from a water-stained book salvaged from the ruins of a Devonshire library. He remembered wondering how the ancients could have been so cruel to one another considering the high level their civilization had attained. Like most boys, he often daydreamed of living during that golden age, or the even greater one that followed.
What he never expected was to one day find himself in the same position as the Lusitania’s captain.
Scott’s ship was the 2000-ton, 200-foot sailing barque Hellespont, currently en route from Oslo, Kingdom of Norway, to Southampton, Duchy of Hampshire. His cargo was a premium load of timber bound for the Duke’s shipyards. They were also carrying various naval stores, including turpentine, tar, and pitch.
The direct route would have been down the Skagerrak, across the Jutland Bank, straight south across the North Sea (threading their way among the tangled wrecks of oil drilling platforms), and then down the English Channel to the Solent and the approaches to Southampton.
The trouble with the direct route was that his ship would never have made it. Somewhere along the European coast he would have encountered a Norman battleship and his proud craft would now be flying the Crescent and Fleur-de-lis.
Ever since the Duke of Hampshire and the Calife de Normandie went to war over Guernsey and Sark, ships plied the channel in heavily guarded (and heavily taxed) convoys. Not wanting his profits this trip confiscated in payment for the Duke’s ‘protection,’ Scott chose the long way round to deliver his cargo.
Upon clearing the Skagerrak, he sailed west for the Faroes, turned sou’sou’west to give Eire a wide berth, and then turned back southeast to round Bantry Bay and make directly for the Scilly Isles and Lands End.
Here, passing south of County Cork, his ship had entered the unavoidable area of maximum risk. Like the captain of the Lusitania, there was a non-trivial probability that he would encounter an enemy raider.
No sooner had the thought formed than a cry of, “Sail Ho!” filtered through his cabin’s open skylight.
The cry triggered a rush of adrenaline. Scott’s inclination was to rush up on deck to see for himself. He restrained the impulse. One of the most iron laws of the sea was that the captain must remain unperturbed even as his ship is being dashed against the rocks in a storm. As anxious as he was for news, he willed his hands to continue marking the day’s progress on the chart in front of him. Ten minutes later, his patience was rewarded. There came a knock on his door.
The door opened and in strode his first officer.
“What is it, Mr. Wingate?”
“Sail on the horizon, Captain, nor’nor’east. The ship is still hull down, but she’s probably Norman. She changed course toward us as soon as we spotted her.”
That news was as unwelcome as it was expected.
“Any idea of her rate?”
“Not a battleship, sir. She’s only showing two masts. Probably a brigantine. I’d say privateer or pirate.”
Scott nodded. While bad, the news wasn’t the worst possible. If they encountered one of the Calife’s first line units, their only hope would be to flee. Barring that, they would have to strike their colors. A privateer they might fight off, and if that proved impossible, they could always surrender. A pirate in Norman employ was a different matter. While a privateer would seize his ship and imprison his crew, a pirate would merely kill them all before sailing off with his ship.
“Break out the Long Tom and rig it out to port. I will be up presently.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Scott sat in his chair for five minutes more to polish the myth of the imperturbable captain. As he did so, he let his eyes scan the chart. If the enemy was coming down from the north, she was probably out of Cobh. That was where the Calife’s raiders were based in alliance with the Eirish.
Cobh was a thorn in Hampshire’s side. The deep water harbor there was the best in Europe and had been the home of the old Irish Navy.
Finally, Scott scraped his chair back from the chart table and stood.
The wind was up today and they were on a beam reach, causing Hellespont to heel to starboard. That meant the unknown coming toward him was running before the wind and could out sail him.
The iron logic of the situation required that he either fight or flee southward. Diverting south would make it devilishly difficult to steer back to Southampton. He didn’t relish spending two weeks beating his way north again just because he’d fled at first sight of a strange ship.
He slipped into his heavy coat and then retrieved a key tied to a string around his neck. Kneeling before the strong box bolted to the deck, he used the key to open the lock.
Nestled inside, padded by strips of cloth, were a second box and a book wrapped in oilskin. The box was wooden and polished, with a long strap attached. This he slipped over his head before reaching for the book, which he deposited in the capacious right-hand pocket of his coat.
* * *
Scott’s coat and hair were immediately plucked by a brisk wind as he came on deck. He climbed to the quarterdeck where the First Officer was stationed next to the helm.
“Where away, Mr. Wingate?”
“Just abaft the beam,” Wingate responded. Around his neck hung the ship’s binoculars, an expensive pair with U.S. Navy proudly embossed on the prism cover. They were not the most expensive antiques onboard, but their loss or damage would leave an officer in hock for the next several voyages. As soon as the captain appeared, Wingate lifted them off and held them carefully with both hands until Scott relieved him of his burden.
The captain put the strap over his own neck, and then climbed to the weather-side railing. Hellespont was trimmed for the condition of the wind. Her mainmast and foremast courses were gasketed to their yards, and only top sails and t’gallants were deployed. The spanker was trimmed out and heavily bowed by the wind. Two jibs were full taut forward.
The ship was heeling eight degrees starboard and doing slow rolls of five degrees either side of that value. After a life at sea, Scott instinctively braced his feet, wrapped one arm around a handy line and lifted the binoculars. After a quick search, he had the enemy ship in his field of view.
As the First Officer had said, it was a two-master, a brigantine. It was just coming hull up, which placed it about five miles off. It could have been anything — a coastal freighter, a courier, or a deep sea fisher. However, the fact that it had immediately turned toward Hellespont made it a warship. Nor was it likely any Hampshire brigantine would be this close to Cobh, and if it were, it would steer clear of any and all ships it encountered.
That made it either Eirish or Norman, and while the native Celts had no love for Hampshire or its Duke, they were in no position to provoke their powerful neighbor. Simple deduction made the intruder a Norman commerce raider. Nor did it matter if the deduction was wrong. His actions would be the same regardless of the ship’s identity.
Satisfied that they were facing an enemy, Scott lowered the binoculars and waddle-walked his way back to where his first officer stood braced against the ship’s motion.
“You’ll have the conn, Mr. Wingate, and I will be forward with the gun.” He handed the binoculars back. “Muster all hands. If we need to run, we’ll want the sails reset as quickly as we can manage.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
In addition to Wingate, the quartermaster and his helper gripped the wheel and a young pimple-faced boy in an officer’s uniform stood to one side. Scott turned to him.
“You my talker, Mister Ralston?”
“Yes, Captain,” the boy said, his voice breaking on the first word.
Scott smiled. “Nothing to be nervous about. We’re just going to give him a demonstration of why he should leave us alone. Get your speaking gear on, listen carefully; repeat my orders in a loud, clear voice and you will do fine.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
With that, Scott nodded to Johnson and Feld, the two steersmen, turned and descended the ladder to the weather deck. From there, he continued his descent.
One thing about a ship at sea, he mused, was that its decks were cluttered. In addition to the forest of ropes and lines for the rigging, all of which had to be tied off somewhere, there were the ship’s boats hanging on their davits, tucked in and tied down to prevent damage in heavy seas. There were the many ventilator funnels, the cook fire smokestack, and a plethora of other things to take up valuable deck space. And then there was the cargo.
The shorter timbers from Norway had been laboriously passed down through both forward and aft hatches and were lashed in place in the hold below. However, the most valuable cargo, the big square-trimmed trees destined to become masts and yards were too large for the hatches. These had to be carried in the ship’s waist, lashed to temporary scaffolds in every available corner.
Scott had loaded as many large timbers as deck space and the ship’s stability would allow. As a result, the best route forward was below decks, through the crew’s mess. Though the First Officer had not yet given the order for the crew to assemble, Scott found most of them already there.
As he walked forward with his wooden box, he nodded to the men. They had all heard the ‘sail ho’ cry and the order to mount the Long Tom. He found them too nonchalant for his peace of mind. One senior seaman, Thaddeus Long, asked, “We going to fight, Captain?”
“Hope not,” he replied. “We’re just going to give them something to think about.”
When he reached the foc’s’l, he mounted the ladder there and reemerged into the wind. Onboard Hellespont, the foc’s’l was nearly as tall as the quarterdeck. As Scott clambered up, he came upon a flurry of activity.
Six sailors were rigging heavy chains to a squat iron frame midway between foremast and bowsprit. One end of the chains hooked to the iron platform that surmounted the structure, and the other to heavy rings screwed into the ship’s heaviest beams. The sailors were tightening the turnbuckles with six-foot-long iron bars, pulling them as taut as one man’s strength could manage.
The working party then moved en masse to the watertight locker on the port side. There they removed bronze bolts securing the lid, and opened it to expose a long metal tube cradled within. Two of them maneuvered a hook over the box, attached a lifting chain, and then heaved together. Slowly, with fits and starts, the ship’s armament rose into view. Its course through the air was guided by two additional seamen pulling lines to keep the load from swinging.
The cannon had begun life in the mid-twentieth century as a 105-millimeter piece of field artillery. It was a howitzer, and thus, despite the sobriquet of “Long Tom,” wasn’t really that long. Salvaged from the rubble after the Destruction, it was modified for shipboard use by the addition of a pair of trunnions mounted on heavy iron rings. Only seventeen feet long, the gun weighed one ton, and was dainty compared to some of the cannons that graced the sailing ships of an earlier era.
The two seamen on the guide lines maneuvered it into its cradle with the skill of long practice. The final pair of seamen quickly tightened up the clamps that made it one with the firing stage. When they finished, the cannon’s barrel pointed off to the north and its breech overhung the firing stage to the south.
As old as it was, the gun was better than anything that could be produced today. Even when used with the inferior propellants available, it could reach out to the horizon, a capability that Ethan Scott was about to demonstrate to some unknown Norman raider captain.
* * *
“Afternoon, Master Gunner!”
“Afternoon, Captain,” Chief Standish replied.
“Feel up to ruining some Norman’s day?”
“We’re going to try, sir. Do you want to fire manually or electrically?”
“I don’t want him to get close enough for a direct shot. We’ll fire electrically as a demonstration. Rig the mercury switch and the battery. Zero the mercury switch at negative 8 degrees tilt. Once we have the range, we’ll wait for a trough and fire on the up roll.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“You and Bidwell are the powder monkeys. Get me two charges each. Use the aft passageway and, for God’s sake, don’t go near the galley stove. Souter, I want four shells stacked over there,” he said, indicating a grate forward of the firing position. On the double!”
“Aye aye, sir,” came three simultaneous responses.
While Standish went to the forward locker to obtain the electrical gear, Ethan Scott moved to a glassed-in case. He fished the book out of his pocket and set it under the glass cover before unwrapping and securing it with two brass hold downs. He then carefully removed the strap from around his neck, fit the wooden box into its clamps, and opened it.
Inside was a wonder from another age. On the side, in slanted gold text, were the words BUSHNELL RANGEFINDER 4000. Beneath was a warning in bright white letters on a red background: Caution! Staring into the laser will cause blindness.
Outwardly, the device looked like half a binocular. A long twisted pair of wires extended from its side. These were obviously a recent modification. The wires were wrapped individually in strips of linen covered with varnish. The rangefinder had its own carrying strap, which Scott secured around his neck before plugging the wires into the battery Standish had secured to the deck. Another wire ran from the box to the mechanism the gunner was mounting to the firing stage.
“Ready for electrical firing, Captain,” the gunner said just as a green light illuminated on the rangefinder.
“Very good, Master Gunner. Get a round into her.”
Standish issued orders and Souter shoved a 4-inch diameter projectile into the open breech. He pushed it into the barrel with a small rammer.
“All right, we wait,” Scott announced. The raider was still beyond the range of his instrument. He lifted the rangefinder’s eyepiece to his own eye and centered the enemy ship in the crosshairs. With ten power magnification he could make out the Crescent and Lily on the mainsail.
“She’s Norman, all right,” he announced.
As they waited, Chief Standish climbed into the firing saddle and cranked the barrel into alignment with the target. “Crosshairs pass right through him on every roll, Captain.”
“Keep on target, Chief. I’m turning the ship to give you a better angle.” He picked up an instrument that looked like an ancient telephone, but which was connected not to wires, but a pair of flexible tubes that disappeared into the deck. “Are you there, Mr. Ralston?”
“Here, Captain,” the youth replied with surprising clarity even though his words had a hollow echo to them.
“Tell the helmsman to bring us one point to port.”
“One point to port, aye,” the distant voice responded.
Scott watched as the wan sun moved in the sky, causing the forest of fuzzy shadows on the deck to shift in unison. They were now trending north, closing with their enemy more quickly. However, the maneuver had put the enemy ship on their beam, giving the Long Tom more sweep of azimuth before it ran into the ship’s rigging. Also, there was less chance of the muzzle blast impinging on delicate lines or cables.
“Helmsman reports maneuver complete, Captain.”
“Very well, Mr. Ralston. Stand by for further orders.”
Another ten minutes passed, by which time the raider’s insignia was clear to the naked eye. Judging that the time had come for action, Scott lifted his instrument and centered the crosshairs on the enemy’s mainsail. He pressed a stud and was rewarded by the sight of a small red dot reflecting back at him. The rangefinder emitted a beep.
Releasing the stud, he lowered the device and read the digital display. “Three thousand four hundred yards, Master Gunner.”
Scott strode to where the book still rested beneath its covering of glass and quickly flipped pages until he found the column of numbers he was looking for. Using his finger to mark the intersection between the row and column headings, he raised his voice and said, “Two bags of powder. Elevate gun to 28 degrees relative to the stage.”
There was a quick flurry of activity as Seaman Kranker rushed forward and rammed two dirty socks filled with powder into the open breech, tamping them forward to rest against the base of the projectile. He then rotated the breechblock closed and secured the locking handle.
“Ready to fire,” he announced loudly as he backed out of the recoil zone.
Chief Standish watched through his telescopic sight as the enemy ship once again transited the crosshairs, then stood back with a large red pushbutton in his hand.
“Alignment dead on, Captain.”
“Very well. Wait for it…” Scott waited for Hellespont to complete its roll to port. As soon as it began moving back to starboard, he yelled, “Fire!”
Standish pushed the red button. Nothing happened for long seconds. Then, as the box containing the mercury switch rolled level, the gun emitted a loud boom and bucked backward.
The shot was accompanied by an acrid cloud of powder that blew back on them and then was gone with the wind. The noise rumbled their chests and deafened their ears. Scott ignored the sensations as he lifted the rangefinder to his eye.
Long seconds passed before a plume of water erupted in front of and to the left of the oncoming raider. It looked to be only one hundred yards off target.
“Damned good shooting!” he yelled to make himself heard over the ringing in his ears. “Reload. We’ll try to make him shit his pants with the next one.”
The gun crew jumped to swab out the breech with a wet mop, then rammed another projectile and two bags of powder in before closing the breech.
“No need, Captain,” Standish reported as he reacquired the target in his telescopic sight.
There had only been a dozen books in the small hamlet where Ethan Scott grew up. In addition to the one with stories of the sea, there had been a picture book of African animals. The book was a favorite of all the young girls, and therefore, of interest to the young boys. Scott had read that, too. He was reminded of a picture in which a gazelle had been caught in mid-leap, running from a lion. The animal’s leap into the air had been higher than needed to make its escape. The caption explained that individual gazelles did this to demonstrate their athletic ability to lions. In effect, they were saying, “Go eat someone else. I’m too hard to catch.”
That was just what Hellespont had done. They’d demonstrated they were too well armed to be captured by a mere brigantine. After one shot, the enemy commander ordered his ship to veer off. He was now on a non-intersecting course.
“Stay at your posts for the next hour,” Scott ordered. “If he doesn’t come about by then, unload and dismount the gun, oil it down, and pack it away. I will be in my cabin.” He gave similar instructions through the speaking tube to the helmsmen at the stern.
He repacked the rangefinder in its wooden case, taking great care to wipe spray from its exterior and lens before returning it to its soft bed. Next to the cannon, the laser was the most valuable object aboard and even more irreplaceable. How the ancients managed to invent such a wonder, he knew not; but their wizardry had probably saved his ship today.
He wrapped the book of firing tables in its oilskin cover and slipped it back into his coat. Turning, he made his way past the foremast and down the ladder, treading carefully with his precious cargo. He had already put the skirmish out of his mind. He was wondering instead how he was going to tell the owners that he had fired one of their valuable hand crafted projectiles.
* * *