A Stolen Pistol · Dawn in Richmond, Attended by Ravens · A Messenger from the Navy Department · Disappointing Conversation with Commodore Rousseau · Arrival of a National Dignitary
The first thing Ker Claiborne realized that morning was not that this was the day he was to fight a duel, but that his monkey was no longer in the bed beside him. The sheets still smelled of ape, but the animal wasn't there.
Rubbing his eyes, peering across the room in the vibrating grisly light that preceded dawn, it took him some seconds to make out the furry shape of C. Auguste Dupin, holding one of his master's pistols. And even then sighting down the barrel at him.
Fully and suddenly awake, he threw the coverlet back. Then froze, hearing the ratcheting click of the hammer being pulled to cock. Remembering how intently the beast had observed him as he cleaned, oiled, and loaded the finely crafted Bertrand & Javalet. How he'd watched his master extend the weapon, aim, and squeeze.
Hurling himself from the bedclothes, Ker cuffed the pistol aside just as it went off. The washbasin exploded, showering him with water, bits of Wedgwood, and jagged splinters off the corner of a carved oak Bible box dated 1709, when the Wythes had arrived in the New World. Then all was pandemonium in his father-in-law's house. Screams came from the other bedrooms. His own was a reeking box of sulphurous smoke. The howling, chattering ape ricocheted along the baseboards like a squirrel with its tail afire.
-- Ker, are you all right in there?
The voice outside his door belonged to his father-in-law, old Thomas Wythe. -- Quite all right, sir, Ker called.
-- What's that?
He raised his voice. -- I said, thank you for your concern. Only an accidental discharge, while loading my sidearm.
Ker lunged, collaring Dupin by the nape with one hand and scooping up the weapon with the other. He replaced it in the case and set the lock, then remembered he'd done exactly that the night before. The monkey tried desperately to sink its teeth into his arm. Really, he could see why his wife had lost patience with it. She'd found it in their nursery, holding their toddler upon the windowsill. She'd told him in no uncertain terms that if he was going to Richmond, it was going with him.
A knock. He opened the door to find Wythe and his young cousin Harker Bowen in rumpled nightdress. Wythe's pepperbox revolver was pointed at the floor. -- Rather early to be loading a pistol, Ker, he observed.
-- I have an early appointment, sir.
-- May I ask what sort of appointment?
-- The kind which requires a loaded pistol. He met the older man's gaze and saw he understood; saw also he ached to ask more. But of course could not. Ker bowed. -- If you'll excuse me.
-- Certainly, said Harker. Down the hallway, his mother-in-law, dressed only in a loose cotton volante, turned away too. Only Wythe lingered. He pressed Ker's arm. -- Who?
-- A man of no consequence to you. A naval acquaintance.
-- If he is of no consequence, why, you need not take the field.
-- I wish it were avoidable, but it is not. I left letters in the Bible box for Catherine and Robert. Will you make sure they get them? If necessary?ar
His father-in-law blinked, stroking a graying mustache. -- Of course I will. You're wearing fresh linen, my boy?
-- Yes sir.
-- Then God be with you, son, and may He have mercy on us all.
When Wythe had gone downstairs Ker stropped his Canton, then guided the razor around mustache and small Vandyke. He combed his hair, which he'd allowed to grow out to cover his ears, and threw on his one presentable suit of civilian clothing, a brown sack, with an embroidered vest, black cravat, soft-brimmed hat. Dupin gibbered to himself in the corner, turning over the shattered pieces of crockery.
As he drew on yellow kid gloves Ker's amusement faded, replaced by a cold rawness to reality, to each passing second, as if his nerves had been skinned. This could be the day he died. Perhaps it was as well he'd left his wife and son in Norfolk. If the worst happened...too late to think of that. No gentleman could neglect a challenge. He could face death. To lose one's honor...for their sake as much as his, that one could not contemplate.
A small, cased ambrotype of a dark-haired woman stood on the sideboard. Ker looked into Catherine's eyes for a moment, kissed the cool glass, then folded the case with a snap and pocketed it. He tucked the pistol-box under one arm, and the struggling ape under the other. At the landing he handed Dupin to a startled servant, along with a silver coin that closed her open mouth.
The sun had not yet risen. As he turned his gelding's head for the river, the hills were taking shape from misty darkness. The sloping land carried him easily down toward the James. To his right rose the church spires and tobacco warehouses of the city, crowned by the Parthenon-like Capitol. A repeated, metallic clanging rang from the Tredegar Ironworks. The tap of drums began in the distance, reveille tattooing from the militia encampments on Chimborazo Plain and Maddox Hill. As Aquila neared the river its voices rose to meet them, the rush and chuckle of rapids and the groaning of mill wheels.
As he rode, his thoughts slipped back to the decision that had brought him here. U.S.S. Owanee had returned from Africa to find the country splitting like a rotten stick. Every Southerner in the Navy had to make a decision. Stay with the old flag, or follow his home country into an unimaginable future. Ker had revered the Stars and Stripes. It meant government by consent of the governed, freedom to strive and live according to one's own lights.
Only gradually did he realize that the Lincolnian victory had given it a different import: shackling unwilling states into a union now hostile to an entire society. Till at last he'd acknowledged, heart like cold stone, that it was not for him to divide prudence from folly, right from wrong, and loyalty from treason. Virginia had seceded, and he as much as any Spotsylvania farmer was bound by that sovereign act.
Lieutenant Henry Lomax Minter had seen his gradual process of decision in a different light.
A hail; his mount shied, and Ker gentled it, patting its neck. He called in a low voice, -- Good morning, Jennings.
Obadiah Jennings Wise was tall and dark, and sat his horse with the grace of a rider from childhood. He too was in civilian clothes, a tweed coat and hunting breeches, though he was in the Light Infantry Blues. Wise was the passionately secessionist editor of the Richmond Enquirer and a dedicated duelist. Jennings, as his friends called him, had been with Ker in the bar of the Spotswood Hotel when Minter had passed insulting words.
Wise indicated the box under his arm. -- You needn't to bring your own, you know.
-- I'm sorry, this is my first time. They're not unknown where I grew up, but they're rare. And of course, in the Navy --
-- Very much so.
They cantered toward a silver-rose glow nestled within gradually bleaching darkness. Lofty shadows resolved themselves into ships off the City Dock, awaiting their turn to take on flour and tobacco. -- Shall I review the formalities, then?
-- Please do.
-- I met with Mr. Valentine last night. He engaged as Minter's second, you will recall. We attempted to settle the matter before proceeding to the ground. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an honorable conclusion. Unless, of course, you wish to drop the challenge?
-- It was not I who challenged.
-- It was you who gave Minter the lie.
Ker cleared his throat, obscurely irritated by the punctilio, the forms. -- Not so. It was he who lied, in his intimation I remained with the Union too long, and for base reasons.
Wise said briskly, -- Then the quarrel is irreconcilable, and we must proceed to the ground. Once there, we will dismount, see to the weapons and make our final dispositions. Remember, to take more than three seconds aiming is ungentlemanly. Let us canter; the morning is growing bright.
He urged his mount forward, and they rode down out of the cover of the oaks that shaded the grounds of Hollywood Cemetery into the sloping open that ran along the edge of the canal. Beyond, the James burned with the steadily focusing light of the incipiently rising sun.
Two silhouettes, horses and men, spurred forward from behind a stone-built canal house. Ker recognized Valentine, and beside him a clean-shaven, freckle-faced young firebrand whose red-blond hair fell nearly to his collar.
Henry Lomax Minter's piercing green eyes examined Ker, then Wise as the latter rode up to them. Wise lifted his hat, a salute the others returned.
Ker sat his horse, listening to the denial of ravens as they discussed the oncoming day. The poetry of a man he'd once met returned to him. His lips moved, whispering the word. Nevermore to see his wife. Nevermore dandle his son. Nor see the sun rise, nor heed the dark music of the night sea.
He drew a slow breath, dismissing regret. No choice remained to him but to fight. For this was what honor meant: to back one's conduct with one's lifeblood, and to demand of others the same accountability. Without that base, that rock, beneath the relation of man and man, what sort of society could exist? Some things were worth a life. So be it!
Valentine and Minter separated, and the latter swung down to the dew-laden grass. Ker dismounted too. A black boy ran from the cottage and caught up their bridles. He felt in his purse and tossed the servant a dime, conscious, as he did so, that each commonplace act might be the last. The thought gave each moment a significance beyond itself. The raven-croaking dawn, the silver shimmer of the river, the hoarse panting of the gelding as it was led away, seemed to carry a message beyond words that he could almost for a moment interpret. The very leaves seemed to tremble with sympathy and, yes, with joy. If this were his last day, by God, it was a lovely one!
-- Mr. Minter, he said. -- I trust I find you well this morning.
Minter bent the brim of his hat but did not extend his hand. -- Very well indeed, Mr. Claiborne. Somehow his lazy-voweled Mississippi speech sounded both carefree and menacing.
-- You persist in saying I behaved dishonorably?
-- I only state the truth, sir. You captained a vessel for the Republican scum, even after Sumter. For the pay, or due to a sluggish liver -- does it really matter why?
-- We should have no more speech, said Wise, striding up to them. He thumbed out his watch, then glanced at the sun, which had just appeared as a stamped-out disc of heated iron above Chimborazo Hill. -- Once met upon the ground, principals may only exchange greetings. Mr. Valentine and I have charged my pistols single load and single shot, on our honor and in each other's presence. Is this ground acceptable?
-- Uh huh, Minter said, squinting at the sun. His manner was cool, his expression ironic, but as the light grew Ker saw he looked pale. Ker agreed too, feeling detached from the proceedings, as if he were watching from the far bank of the river.
Jennings's big single-shot pistol dragged his arm earthward. The ball would be deadly at close range. He'd watched men die of sepsis, of stomach wounds. He swallowed, suddenly terrified. Not of death, but of dying. Lord, forgive this act of folly; forgive us both.
-- The principals are ready? said Wise. -- Back to back, then. Ten paces, to march at my count; then turn and fire. Ready.
Straightening his shoulders, lifting hollow steel to the brightening clouds, he felt Minter's back against his own. In a moment he'd try to kill this other man. This former shipmate. No Southern gentleman could have acted otherwise. Why then did it strike him suddenly as inexplicable, as uncanny? Could it be, he suddenly wondered, that Minter might be right? That some subterranean motive, like a deep-buried spring beneath reason and explication, had made him delay for a reason darker than he admitted even to himself?
Even now, did he not yearn for reconciliation with the flag he'd served so long?
At that moment he heard distant thunder. He did not move or look. He waited, pistol raised, thoughtless and at peace, for the command to pace, and turn, and fire.
The thunder resolved into hoofbeats, growing closer, louder.
-- Lieutenants Minter and Claiborne? called an unfamiliar, peremptory voice. -- These proceedings are against military law and regulation, and are declared null and postponed until the cessation of hostilities. By order of the Honorable Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy. You will both accompany me at once.
They dismounted a block west of the Capitol, before the four-story brick pile that had till a week before been the Mechanic's Institute. Now the War and Navy Departments of the new government divided it between them. Early though it was yet, workmen in canvas trowsers and red neckerchiefs were carrying lumber and paint buckets, and hammers clattered deafeningly in the stairwell. Climbing to the second floor, Ker could not help contrasting plain new desks and chairs, bare floorboards and freshly whitewashed wainscoting with the decaying carpets and general fustiness at Main Navy in Washington. He'd left his card here without response. Now, it seemed, they'd pulled whatever string demanded attention. He wished he was in uniform. -- Can you tell us the nature of this summons? he asked their escort again, a dandyish, barely civil young fellow who'd introduced himself as Mr. Quoddy.
-- I told you, I'm only the clerk.
-- We're to see Mr. Mallory, is that what I'm to understand?
-- Oh, hardly. Quoddy paused at a door and put his ear to it. He rapped, then shooed them inside. -- The Secretary is occupied with important matters. You're for Commodore Rousseau.
Ker's heart sank. Lawrence Rousseau, chief of the Bureau of Orders and Detail, was a snarling bruin of the old school. Minter stood aside for Ker -- he was senior, or had been when they'd both written USN after their names. He came to attention before the mahogany schoolmaster's desk. -- Lieutenant Ker Claiborne, reporting as ordered.
-- Lieutenant Henry Minter, reporting as ordered.
Before him, not so much manning as overwhelming the desk, sprawled a bulky, white-maned old man in dress blues. Ker had known Rousseau was very senior, but was not prepared for decrepitude. The Commodore's long hair was white and silky, and his skin, where it was not mottled by age, almost transparent. His hand trembled as he handed a paper to Quoddy, then blinked up with vague, wandering, watery eyes.
-- These are the young gentlemen who were playing at a duel? he demanded sharply.
Behind him Quoddy grinned. Minter said nothing, so Ker had to respond. -- Yes sir.
-- Claiborne and...Winter?
-- Minter, sir.
-- Academy whelps, no doubt.
-- I am class of '56, sir, Ker said. -- Mr. Minter is my junior by a year.
Rousseau searched tremulously through his papers. Holding a sheet of foolscap before his glasses, he glanced over it. -- Your current status, if you please?
-- Lieutenant, Virginia Navy, commissioned the first of this instant, Ker said.
-- I am currently on the rolls of the CSN, as of the twenty-seventh of April, said Minter.
-- Then you are both under military discipline. There will be no such foolishness as dueling until our new nation's independence is secure.
-- Beg your pardon, sir, Ker said, -- but I had already applied at this office for a clarification of my assignment.
Rousseau rattled the foolscap like a snake's warning. -- What have you been doing to date, young sirs?
Ker reminded him that during the interval between Virginia's secession from the Union and her admission to the Confederacy, the Commonwealth had organized her own navy. Since only two or three ships were in commission, though, he'd been posted to Fort Powhatan, an earthwork battery below City Point. Minter's tale was even shorter; he'd been in Richmond a month, without orders or employment.
Rousseau tapped his finger on the table, then applied it to his brow as if pondering some transcendental mystery. -- A hundred and twenty officers resigned from the United States Navy. A praiseworthy display of loyalty. However, the Congress at Montgomery has authorized an officer corps to a total of only thirty-eight. Four captains, four commanders, and thirty lieutenants. The single resource we possess in superamplitude is junior officers. Fortunately, we shall not need them. The petty tyrants in Washington may strut and threaten, but their rodomontade cannot be carried so far as war.
-- What do you suggest for us, then, sir? Minter said. -- We are as desirous of serving our country as those senior to us.
-- To those who feel they must serve, we suggest the Army, said Quoddy, behind the commodore. -- Several of our former sea-officers have found billets with the volunteer units now being formed.
-- And what of Merrimack, sir? Ker asked Rousseau.
-- What of her, sir?
-- I called on the new commander of the yard in Norfolk. He has set his men to raising her. Will she not require a complement, when she is refloated?
-- I simply cannot employ you, said Rousseau, tone final. -- There is talk of enlarging the Navy List, but even if that eventuates, I can offer no hope of preference. There simply are no commands to be had.
Minter said, -- If that is so, sir, why did you interrupt our duel? We could perhaps have reduced the supply of superfluous lieutenants for you.
This got a frosty look from Rousseau and a disbelieving stare from Quoddy. Ker decided he might as well terminate the interview. -- I will leave my town address, sir; please consider me ready at any time to render service, should the situation change.
-- That I will do, Lieutenant, that will I do. Rousseau extended a palm soft as old doeskin. -- Thank you both for coming by.
Outside, on the street, Valentine and Wise threw their cheroots into the trampled mud of Ninth Street. -- What news? Wise said, lifting his hat to a passing lady. -- Good, I hope?
-- I fear not. Ker explained, and they stood glumly for a moment before Valentine said, -- Well, perhaps a libation will set things in order. Unless you wish to resume your quarrel.
Ker looked at Minter, who hesitated, then shook his head. -- We've been placed under interdict.
-- Excellent, excellent. Suddenly both their seconds were in good humor, the awkwardness was gone.
They were adjourning to an oyster-house for breakfast when Ker heard his name called from above. He looked up to see Quoddy motioning him back from an upstairs window.
-- The commodore wondered if you have had any acquaintance with twelve-pounder boat-howitzers, Quoddy told him at the top of the stairs.
-- Rather intimate. Both at the Academy and in active service afloat.
-- In West Africa, during the uprising at Kisembo. Is there a purpose to this quizzing, sir? What's the commodore want?
-- We just got authority to commission twenty officers in the artillery of the Confederate Army. Your response to be given tomorrow.
-- I do not believe that I --
-- Tomorrow, sir. If you truly wish to serve.
Ker nodded, contemplating orders that were not orders, a suggestion that he leave the Navy, presumably forever. Looked up into Quoddy's red-cheeked, smirking visage once more. Then left without a further word.
He was looking for the others when a heavy gun went off down by the river. Followed, at measured, even intervals, by more, one after the other. Ker counted them in growing puzzlement. Thirteen. Fourteen. After fifteen detonations the guns fell silent, followed by a distant roar he only gradually realized was the thunderous cheering of an unimaginable multitude.
Copyright © 2003 by David Poyer
A Novel of the Confederate Raiders
A Country of Our Own
A Novel of the Confederate Raiders
But when their first cruiser proves too slow and small, Ker joins Commander James Bullock in London to buy or build a ship of war that can sweep Yankee commerce from the seas. A daring coup puts Ker in command of the most dangerous raider ever to range from Brazil to Boston, but the bloodiest battle is yet to come -- a confrontation between the ex-opium clipper C.S.S. Maryland and the Union cruiser that has trailed her across a quarter of the world.
A Country of Our Own is historical sea fiction at its best -- authentic, engrossing, and masterfully paced -- from the master sea-yarner The New York Times Book Review says "knows what he is writing about when it comes to anything on, above, or below the water."