The Assiduous Quest of Tobias Hopkins
Chapter 20 - Intruder
On the Tuesday morning, Toby and John found the Dunstan moored alongside a jetty at the east end of the harbour. She rode so high in the water that it was impossible to secure a gangplank on such a narrow jetty: the only way to board was by a ladder which had already been set fast amidships. At least it gave them the opportunity to inspect the work done to the hull of the vessel. The shipwright had given them one day to check the inventory and inspect the repairs before they were required to pay the balance. Toby read out each item on the list while his Mate checked the condition.
Everything appeared to be in good order. However, as the vessel had been transported from the beach on two jibs and the mizzen, the remaining sails had been stowed away in a locker below the forecastle deck. It took the two men most of the morning to drag the canvasses out from the confined space. They stretched each sail across the main hatch cover to check for wear and tear. There was no shade out on the deck and, as the day grew hotter, tempers shortened.
“So, the fore-topsail is fine.” Toby ticked the item on his list. A bead of sweat dropped from the tip of his nose and landed neatly onto the centre of the page.
“Fore course sail, I think you’ll find Captain.”
Toby sighed. “No, we’ve already checked that.” He marched over to the stack of canvasses piled neatly against the poop bulkhead. He lifted the top two and prodded the third one with his index finger. “It’s this one, here!” He gave his Mate an exasperated look.
“That’s the main topsail, Sir. This one,” John lifted the corner of the canvas spread out across the hatch, “is the fore course.”
“So, correct me if I’m wrong. What you are suggesting is that we rig that sail up along the first spar of the foremast and stretch it out to the end of the yard – even if it rips?”
“T’wont rip, Sir.”
That did it! Toby stomped over to the locker room and returned with a coil of rope. He gave one end to John to hold at one corner of the canvas while he knotted his kerchief around the rope where the sail ended.
Without a word, Toby coiled up the rope, slung it over his shoulder and scrambled up the shroud to the first futtock of the foremast. He eased his way along the yard and attached his line to the end of the spar.
John sat at the edge of the hatch, crossed his legs and took out his pipe. Giving the occasional glance to his captain, he filled the bowl. Toby, shirt soaked in sweat, was now edging his way along the main spar thirty feet above his head.
While the town of Port Royal was hiding from the uncompromising heat of the midday sun, to the casual onlooker, a man could be seen balancing at the very end of a yard arm forty feet above the clear blue waters of the bay. Below him, on the hatch cover of the main hold, sat another man sucking on his hand-carved pipe. A cloud of blue smoke drifted across the quiet waters of the bay as the man aloft made his way along the spar. He was halfway across the starboard arm when he seemed to change his mind. The man on deck glanced up to note that several coils remained over his captain’s shoulder; a good measure before the loop marked with a red kerchief. He sucked at his pipe and followed the flight of a solitary pelican gliding across the still waters of the harbour.
At about eleven before noon they were surprised to see Midshipman Matthew Wilkins, step over the rail. The boy said he'd been staying with a friend in temporary lodgings the previous night and they had to vacate the room by ten that morning. News had got around that his Captain and Mate were inspecting a new vessel.
"Is this it?" As soon as his feet hit the deck, Matthew took a quick glance forward and aft and frowned. "Not very big, is it."
Before Toby could answer, John intervened. "That's maybe, lad. But 'tis the only ship up for sail right now."
"But I thought you said we were going back home." Matthew still looked puzzled. "Not just trading around the coast here."
Toby was about to explain when John continued. "What would you prefer, lad? Continue lodging in this town with your temporary friends until we find a larger vessel, or head back home as soon as possible?"
Matthew looked back over his shoulder towards the town and appeared to be considering these options. It hadn't gone unnoticed the kind of company Matthew had been keeping since they arrived in Port Royal, and, considering his age, this was of some concern to the Mate.
"I think, while you're here, you can lend a hand and help us with this inventory. What do you think, Captain?"
Toby, who was looking up at the mast he had descended, still puzzled about the length of the spar, glanced back at Midshipman Wilkins and the Mate. "Er, what was that again, Mister Fowler?"
"I was saying to young Matthew here, he could help us with this muster. I'm sure he could do with the extra wage."
"Yes, quite so, Mister Fowler." He turned to Matthew. "Go down to the fo'c's'le locker and you'll see some hawsers coiled on deck. Fetch them up here and lay them alongside the pile of canvasses over there."
"One at a time, mind," John added. "No point in damaging yerself."
As Toby and the Mate continued to work their way through the pile of sailcloth, Matthew occasionally appeared with a coil of rope slung over his shoulder. After a while the stack of rope alongside the diminishing pile of sails gradually got higher.
It was as they were inspecting a topsail, a scream was heard from the forecastle deck. Both men dropped the canvas and ran forward.
When they reached Matthew he was laying on deck with his hands clawing at the rope which had somehow wrapped itself around his neck. It took both men, with much effort, a good minute to unravel the coils from the boy's throat.
Once the boy had got back his breath, he appeared to have recovered and both John and Toby thought he must have been acting out a game to fool them. However, on close inspection of Matthew's neck, the rope had left an impression; marks about his throat, like the scolding of a hot wire. And it was the same with his hands; a blistering across his palms where he had attempted to release the coils. And yet, when Toby and John inspected their own hands, there was nothing.
Although Matthew said he no longer felt any pain, both men suggested he should find the bursar, Mr Davies, and get it seen to.
After the boy had gone the two men both came to the same conclusion: that this was yet another example of of Matthew's afflictions. But what to do about it, they had no idea, apart from pray the manifestations would eventually go away.
It was one hour after noon. While Toby and John were still sorting through the heap of canvases on the main deck of the Dunstan, a skinny man stood outside the door of their room at the Spar and Halyard. He gave the door a quiet tap and waited. From the bunch of irons in his hand he selected the first and tried the lock. The key failed to turn. He chose another. This time he had it. The iron turned with a clunk. The man slipped inside and took his bearings: with no window to let in the daylight, the room was dark. In the gloom the man could just make out the shape of an oil lamp at the table with some flints conveniently placed beside it. He measured the distance and closed the door.
Once the room was illuminated, he set about his task. First the items on the table. From the pocket of his jerkin he took a scrap of paper and studied all the words inscribed on it.
Edward Hopkins, Cptn. E. Hopkins, Edward James, father, Father
He picked up the first item; a hand written letter which started with the words; My Dearest Toby and ended with Your loyal and dearest friend, Elizabeth Thomas. None of these words appeared to match those he had been given. The next looked promising; another letter which, this time, began My dearest Sarah, but this also proved to be a false lead.
The only other items on the table were a ship’s log and a cloth-bound book. He picked up the book and flicked through the pages; nothing hidden between them. He placed it carefully back on the table, adjusting its position a fraction.
There were two beds in the room. Thrown across the first were a number of vestments and a seaman’s kitbag. He eased it open and reached inside. The bag was stuffed with clothes and the only things he could find were a collection of modelling tools, two clay pipes and a volume of navigation tables. The man stood back and studied the room thoughtfully.
There was a knock at the door. The man held his ground; he was not prepared for this.
He took his cudgel from his belt and moved to the door. He opened it a fraction. The figure through the gap appeared to be little more than a boy; a creole of about fifteen years.
“What do you want? I’m very busy!” said the skinny man.
“You is Captain Hopkins?” The boy was out of breath.
“I got important message. It from Miss Beatrice.”
“She say you is in danger. Three men come to farm. Three bad men. They hurt Miss Magdalena. . .” The boy caught his breath, “but she all right now.”
“Good. What else did she say?”
“Miss Beatrice say you must get away. The men come look for you. She say one is. . .is a. . . duh,” the boy stamped his foot three times on the floor.
“A Dutchman?” the intruder suggested.
“Yes, yes. That what she say. She say you must hide. Go from here.” The boy thought for a moment. “That the message.”
The door closed as the boy had finished the final word.
The man looked about the room. There was another kitbag, under the second bed. He pulled it out. Apart from a few items of clothing, the bag contained the Holy Book, a collection of papers bound with string with the title; An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues, and a small box. The collection of papers didn't promise much. He opened the box. Apart from the ring, there were a number of worthless items, a paper with some jottings and a letter. He studied the jottings.
These were in a script he was not familiar with and didn’t seem to follow the usual way of writing. Also, none of the writing appeared to resemble the words he was asked to look for. He turned his attention to the letter and screwed his eyes at the bottom of the page. There were some more strange jottings, similar to the ones on the paper. However, just above this was a more familiar script: Your ever loving husband and father, Edward James Hopkins.
The man pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket. He looked from one to the other. There were four words at the end of the group; father, Edward, James and Hopkins. They all seemed to match.
The man pocketed the letter and replaced the remaining items in the kitbag. He took a good look around the room before extinguishing the lamp. He then left, taking care to lock the door behind him.
Copyright © 2014 James Faro