The North Water (5 page)

They are rowed ashore by Drax and Jones. Cavendish talks all the time, telling them story after story about the vicious knife fights that he has witnessed and the ugly Lerwick women he has fucked.

“By Christ, the ungodly stench of her quim,” he says. “You would not fucking believe it unless you were standing there.”

Sumner is sitting next to Black in the stern of the rowing boat. Before leaving his cabin, he consumed eight grains of laudanum (just enough, based on previous experience, to make the outing bearable, but not to make him look like a complete fucking fool) and is enjoying the sounds of the water plashing against the blades and the oars creaking in their oarlocks (he is happily ignoring Cavendish). Black inquires whether this is his first visit to Lerwick and Sumner confirms that indeed it is.

“You will find it a backwards sort of place,” Black tells him. “The land about here is poor and the Shetlanders show no interest in improvement. They're peasants and they have the peasant virtues, I suppose, but nothing else. If you walk about the island a little and see the miserable condition of the farms and buildings, you'll soon know what I mean.”

“And what about the townspeople? Do they make some profit from the whaling trade?”

“A few do, but most are merely corrupted by it. The town as a whole is as filthy and iniquitous as any port—no worse than most perhaps but certainly no better.”

“And thank fucking God for that,” Cavendish shouts out in response. “A decent drink and a good wet slice of pussy is what a man requires before he commences the bloody work of whaling, and fortunately those are the only two products that Lerwick excels in.”

“That's quite true,” Black confirms. “If it's Scottish whiskey and cheap sluts you're after, Mr. Sumner, you are certainly in the right place.”

“I feel fortunate to have such experienced guides.”

fortunate,” Cavendish says. “We'll show you the ropes, will we not, Drax? We'll show you all the ins and all the outs. You can rest assured about that one.”

Cavendish laughs. Drax, who has not spoken since they left the ship, looks up from his oar and stares at Sumner for a moment as if deciding who he is and what he might be good for.

“In Lerwick,” Drax says, “the cheapest whiskey is sixpunce a glass and a decent whore will set you back a shilling, or possibly two if your requirements are more specialized. That's about all the know-how anyone needs.”

“Drax is a man of few words, as you can see,” Cavendish says. “But I like to blabber so we make a fine team.”

“And what about Jones here?” Sumner asks.

“Jones is a Welshman from Pontypool, so no one ever understands a word he's fucking saying.”

Jones turns around and instructs Cavendish to go fuck himself.

“See what I mean?” Cavendish says. “Complete fucking gibberish.”

*   *   *

They begin at the Queen's Hotel, then move on to the Commercial, then the Edinburgh Arms. After leaving the Edinburgh Arms, they go over to Mrs. Brown's on Charlotte Street and Drax, Cavendish, and Jones each pick a girl and go upstairs while Sumner (who can never perform after laudanum and so makes the excuse that he is recovering from a dose of the clap) and Black (who insists with a straight face that he has promised to remain faithful to his fiancée, Bertha) stay downstairs drinking porter.

“May I ask you a question, Sumner?” Black says.

Sumner, peering back at him through a thickening haze of intoxication, nods. Black is young and eager but he is also, Sumner believes, more than a little arrogant. He is never openly rude or disdainful, but one senses sometimes a self-belief which is out of scale with his position.

“Yes,” he says, “you certainly may.”

“What are you doing here?”

“In Lerwick?”

“On the
. What's a man like you doing aboard a Greenland whaling ship?”

“I explained my situation in the wardroom the other evening, I think—my uncle's will, the dairy farm.”

“But then why not find work in a city hospital? Or join another practice for a time? You must know people who could help you. The job of surgeon on a whaling vessel is uncomfortable, dreary, and badly paid. It is usually taken by medical students in need of funds, not a man of your age and experience.”

Sumner blows twin tubes of cigar smoke out of his nostrils and blinks.

“Perhaps I am an incurable eccentric,” he says, “or just a fucking fool. Did you ever think of that?”

Black smiles.

“I doubt either is true,” he says. “I have seen you reading your Homer.”

Sumner shrugs. He is determined to stay quiet, to say nothing that might suggest the truth of his estate.

“Baxter made me an offer, and I accepted it. Perhaps that was rash of me, but now we have begun I'm looking forward to the experience. I intend to keep a diary, make sketches, read.”

“The voyage may not be as relaxed as you think. You know Brownlee has a great deal to prove—you heard about the
, I'm sure. He was lucky to get another ship after. If he fails this time, that will be the end of him. You are the ship's surgeon, of course, but I have seen surgeons made to hunt before. You wouldn't be the first.”

“I'm not afraid to work, if that's what you mean. I'll do my share.”

“Oh, I'm sure you will.”

“And what about you? Why the

“I'm young, I have no family still living, no important friends; I must take risks if I'm to get on. Brownlee is known for being reckless, but if he succeeds he may earn me a good deal of money, and if he fails no blame will attach to me and I'll still have time on my side.”

“You're shrewd enough, for a young man.”

“I don't intend to end up like those others—Drax, Cavendish, Jones. They've all stopped thinking. They no longer know what they're doing, or why they're doing it. But I have a plan. Five years from now, or sooner if I get my share of luck, I'll have my own command.”

“You have a
?” Sumner says. “And you think that will help you?”

“Oh yes,” he says, with a grin which hovers between the deferential and the supercilious. “I expect it will.”

*   *   *

Drax comes back down first. He lowers himself into a chair beside Black and lets out a long and noisome fart. The other two men look at him. He winks, then waves to the barmaid for another drink.

“For a shilling I've had worse,” he says.

Two fiddlers start up in the corner and some of the girls begin to dance. A party of deckhands from the
arrives and Black walks over to talk to them. Cavendish appears, still buttoning up his britches, but there is no sign of Jones-the-whale.

“Our Mr. Black over there is a smug-looking little prick, int he?” Cavendish says.

“He tells me he has a plan.”

“Fuck his fucking plan,” Drax says.

“He wants his own ship,” Cavendish says, “but he won't get it. He has no fucking idea what's going on here.”

“And what
going on here?” Sumner asks.

“Nothing much,” Cavendish says. “The usual.”

The men from the
are dancing with the whores; they are all whooping and stamping their feet on the floorboards. The air is filling with sawdust and peat smoke. There is a warm, fetid odor of tobacco and ashes and stale beer. Drax looks disdainfully across at the dancers and then asks Sumner to buy him another whiskey. “I'll give you my note of hand,” he offers. Sumner waves him away and orders another round.

“You know, I heard all about Delhi,” Cavendish says to him, leaning in.

“And what did you hear?”

“I heard there was money to be made. Loot aplenty. You get anything?”

Sumner shakes his head.

“The Pandys cleaned the city out before we got inside. They took it with them. All that was left when we arrived was stray dogs and broken furniture; the place was ransacked.”

“No gold then?” Drax says. “No jewels?”

“Would I really be sitting here with you two bastards if I was rich?”

Drax gazes at him for several seconds, as if the question is too complex for an immediate reply.

“There's rich and rich,” he says eventually.

“I'm neither one.”

“You saw some famous butchery though, I'd bet,” Cavendish says. “Some heinous fucking violence.”

“I'm a surgeon,” Sumner says. “So I'm not impressed by bloodshed.”

?” Drax repeats, with a mocking carefulness, as if the word itself is girlish and faintly absurd.

“Surprised then, if you like,” Sumner says quickly. “I'm not surprised by bloodshed. Not anymore.”

Drax shakes his head and looks across at Cavendish.

“I'm not too surprised by bloodshed myself. Are you surprised, Mr. Cavendish?”

“No, not too often, Mr. Drax. I generally find I can take a little bloodshed in my stride.”

After finishing his drink, Drax goes upstairs to look for Jones but can't find him. On his way back to the table, he exchanges words with one of the men from the
. As Drax sits down, the man shouts something back at him, but Drax ignores it.

,” Cavendish says.

Drax shrugs.

The fiddlers are playing “Monymusk.” Sumner watches the grubby, mismatched dancers as they swirl and stamp about. He remembers dancing the polka in Ferozepore in the days before the mutiny, he remembers the damp heat of the colonel's ballroom and the mingled scent of cheroots and rice powder and rosewater sweat. The tune changes and some of the whores sit down to rest, or bend over, hands on knees, to better catch their breath.

Drax licks his lips, gets up from his chair, and walks to the other side of the room. He edges between tables until he is standing next to the man he argued with minutes before. He waits a moment, then leans forwards and whispers some carefully chosen foulness into the man's ear. The man spins round and Drax punches him twice in the face. He raises his fist a third time, before he can deliver the blow, he is dragged backwards and is set upon by the other crewmen.

The music stops. There is screaming and cursing and the noise of breaking furniture and smashing glass. Cavendish goes over to help but is immediately knocked to the ground. It is two against six. Sumner, watching, would prefer to stay neutral—he is a surgeon, not a brawler—but he can count well enough, and he understands his obligations. He puts down his glass of porter and steps across the room.

*   *   *

An hour later, Drax, raw-knuckled, cock-sore, and reeking of whiskey, rows a diminished party back to the
. Jones and Black are absent, Sumner is coiled in the stern groaning, and Cavendish is lying next to him snoring loudly. The sky above them is moonless and the water around is the color of ink. If it were not for the whale ship's lanterns and the speckled lights of the shoreline, there would be nothing to see—they would be surrounded by emptiness. Drax leans forwards and then pulls back. He feels the heaviness of the water and then its release.

When they reach the ship, Drax wakes Cavendish from his stupor. Together they pull Sumner up onto the deck, then heft him down to steerage. His cabin door is locked, and they have to fish in his waistcoat pockets to find the key. They lay him on the bunk and pull off his boots.

“This unfortunate fellow appears to be in need of a surgeon,” Cavendish says.

Drax pays no attention. He has discovered two keys in Sumner's waistcoat pocket, and he is now wondering which lock the second one opens. He looks around the cabin, then notices a padlocked trunk sitting next to the medicine chest underneath the bed. He gets down on his haunches and prods it with his forefinger.

“What are you doing?” Cavendish asks him.

Drax shows him the second key. Cavendish sniffs and wipes a fresh smear of blood from his split lip.

“Probably nothing in there,” he says. “Just the usual shite.”

Drax pulls the trunk out, opens the padlock with the second key, and starts looking through the contents. He removes a pair of canvas trousers, a balaclava helmet, a cheaply bound copy of
The Iliad
. He finds a slim mahogany case and opens it up.

Cavendish whistles softly.

“Opium pipe,” he says. “My, my.”

Drax picks the pipe up, looks it over for a moment, sniffs the bowl, then puts it back.

“That's not it,” he says.

“Not what?”

He pulls out a pair of sea boots, a watercolor box, a set of linens, a woolen vest, three flannel shirts, a shaving kit. Sumner shifts onto his side and groans. The two men stop what they are doing and look at him.

“Check the very bottom,” Cavendish says. “There might be something hidden at the very bottom.”

Drax sticks his hand in and delves about. Cavendish yawns and begins scratching at a mustard stain on the elbow of his coat.

“Anything there?” he asks.

Drax doesn't answer. He puts his other hand deep into the trunk and pulls out a grubby, dog-eared envelope. He removes a document from the envelope and hands it across to Cavendish to read.

“Army discharge papers,” Cavendish says, then, after a moment: “Sumner's been court-martialed, no pension, out on his ear.”

“For what?”

Cavendish shakes his head.

Drax rattles the envelope, then tips it upside down. A ring falls out. It is gold with two good-size gemstones.

“Paste,” Cavendish says. “Must be.”

A small, rectangular looking-glass with beveled edges is attached by brass corner pieces to the bulkhead wall above Sumner's head in testament to the vanity of some previous occupant. Drax takes the ring, licks it once, then scrapes it across the surface of the glass. Cavendish watches him, then leans forwards and looks hard at the resulting line—long, gray, and undulant like a single hair plucked from the scalp of a crone. He licks his index finger and wipes away the dust so as to better gauge the true depth of the scoring. He nods. They look at each other carefully; then they look down at Sumner, who is breathing heavily through his nose and appears to be soundly asleep.

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