Here's my homage to Master and Commander author Patrick O'Brien, of whom I'm a thirty-year fan. I'm also partial to redemption.
By Michael Oren
It wasn’t the clang of the dog watch bells that stirred Captain Kit Whittaker from a flat-bottomed sleep or even the rumble of greased leather pumps on the quarterdeck overhead. Rather it was the sound—a cross between a hiss and a slap, barely audible but to those who’d spent much of their lives in battle—of a cannonball punching through sail. A moment later came the report, a breviloquent crack that shivered through the keelson and confirmed what Whittaker already guessed. Without waiting for the topman’s calls or the order from the officer of the watch, he drew on his breeches and boots, his brass-buttoned frock with its single gold epaulet and buckled his cutlass belt. He rushed to the ladder but suddenly paused, remembering to retrieve his bicorn.
The weather outside was wintery with a crosshatched wind uncertain of its course and the ocean worried by sleet. Cloud banks shrouded the ship. The only light came from an anemic moon and its reflection on the nibs of whitecaps. Still, it enabled Kit to see the dismay on Lieutenant Furrier’s chinless face as well as on the helmsmen’s craggier mugs. The boatswain, Cutbush, appeared and reported that the stays and shrouds were all intact, the jeers and halyards, too, but there was no denying the ragged hole in the topgallant sail or the knowledge that it was made by powder-propelled iron. But fired from where, Kit pondered, by whom?
He did not wait to find out. “Lieutenant Furrier,” he calmly commanded, “kindly beat the men to quarters.” And Furrier, shouting those words in near-panic, set the drummers rattling and the pipers tooting and the crew of the HMS Elysium—gunners, seamen, powder monkeys and ship’s boys, the purser, cooper, sailmaker and armorer, nearly two hundred of them—hurling from their hammocks and clambering up from the orlop and berth-decks to the gunrooms and fo'c's'le. They swiftly manned the carronades, the 18, 9, and 24-pounders, primed and ran them out. The frigate’s thirty-four guns could fire once every hundred seconds, disabling, if not sinking, any craft. Lobster-coated Marines, perched in the trestletrees above, could rake its deck with musketry. If only they could site it.
And they might have, if not for this damned fog. Yet Kit sensed that his predator was out there somewhere and that he had only moments, perhaps less, to spy him and position the Eylsium for combat.
“Sir,” came a high-pitched voice from somewhere below him, and Kit, peevishly, glanced down at a midshipman of no more than thirteen years who barely rose to his captain’s belt. “Your glass.”
Swiftly erasing his scowl—one must not reveal any petulance—he nodded at the doe-eyed boy so recently torn from his mother, his face fraught with terror and awe, and accepted his offer of telescope.
“Thank you,” Kit said, and lifted the lens to his eye. He scanned, he peered, but detected nothing. But two decades before the mast told him that the next round would not be single shot from a bow chaser but a broadside that could blast the Elysium to splinters.
But, just then he saw it, merely a bowsprit and only for a second, but it sufficed for an old salt like the captain. “Three points forward starboard beam,” he announced, and ordered the quartermaster, “Hard rudder left!”
He watched the Elysium, a lithe old lady, a veteran of Trafalgar, Tamatave, and Jobourg, turn seventy degrees north to present her flank to the enemy. The wind, four points to port, filled up the mainsails and the jibs. Seawater lashed the strakes. “Furrier, if you will,” the captain remembered. “Kindly run up our colors.”
The Union Jack soared and the Elysium tacked, turning athwartships, and not an instant too soon. Curtain-like, the miasma parted to emit the muzzle-bristling hull of the Insouciance, 42. Its captain, Jean Marique Blanchet, who had lost all—an arm, an eye—but his life to Kit Whittaker, was sorely bent on revenge.
And he would have it, as the Insouciance erupted in a torrent of fire, the balls, launched low on the down-roll, skimming the waves to nick the sternpost and smash the taffrail but otherwise missing their targets. The following volley would not be so errant, Kit reckoned.
“May the starboard guns commence firing,” he commanded Furrier in a firm but measured voice. “Kindly await the upward roll.” More quietly, his eye still to the glass and in a tone tempered by years of hardship and brine, he vowed, “So, Blanchet, we begin. Our final clash.”
* * *
Herbie Kantrowitz leaned back in his old creaking chair, away from his large chestnut desk with its single gooseneck lamp. The lump in his throat, he felt, could rival that on his neck, the one the doctors biopsied. But if he were sad tonight, it was not because of the results. He was about to write—in longhand, as always, with an eyedropper fountain pen in a composition notebook—just as he’d done for decades, only this time was different. This story was his last. This was Kit Whittaker’s swansong.
For if Herbie were short on life, Kit was running out of war. A captain in the Royal Navy, he’d fought the French for twenty-one years, since 1794, but now faced his most grievous challenge: peace. In the wake of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, there’d be no more boarding enemy ships or seizing them for the prize money, no more raids, blockades, or actions. No swashbuckling, certainly. Kit might as well turn in his epaulet and retire with his dour wife, Margaret, to the Cotswolds.
So this was Whittaker’s final battle, his showdown with Jean Marique Blanchet, the French privateer who’d locked gunports with him since Cape Finisterre, an adversary as dashing as he was dastardly. Yet Herbie was of half a mind to let him win, to give his hero the departure he deserved, in a blaze of grapeshot and cannister, going down in history—and to the Davy Jones’s locker—unyielding. Immortalized with dying words that evoked those of Whittaker’s own hero, Lord Nelson: “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Or maybe not. Perhaps he should give the day to Whittaker along with the Insouciance, its colors struck in surrender. For as loathe as Herbie was to conclude the stories, he was grateful for Kit for his years of service—to Britain and to fiction but most of all to the traveling costume jewelry salesman who created him. For without the captain, Herbie would have remained just that, a nobody, instead of the semi-celebrated Brian O’Rourke. Without Whittaker, Herbie could never have grappled with grief.
Years later, when asked by O’Rourke fans how he came up with Kit, Herbie would reply that, on the contrary, the captain came up to him. One day on the local train from Wilmington to Albany, above the clang of tracks underfoot, he could almost hear the smack of Hessian boots and a scabbard’s jangle against armrests. Herbie looked up from his book, Under the Meteor Flag by Harry Collingwood, to see a man a foot taller than he, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, somewhat plump for his frock and breeches but with an internal solidness that showed through. His face, at once fine-featured and set, was incised with the hieroglyphs of war. Removing his bicorn, he unleashed a long flaxen queue, and, clacking his heels, presented himself. “Captain Christopher Fox Whittaker, R.N., at your service, sir,” he announced, then added, with a whisper and a wink, “But you can call me Kit.”
Herbie was shocked but not surprised. For years he’d been reading C.S. Forester and Dudley Pope, Dewey Lambdin and Alexander Kent, authors obsessed with the Age of Sail and the Royal Navy’s duel with Napoleon. He was already fluent in the language of the sea—terms like “sheeted home” and “heave and aweigh”—and the art of catching wind in canvas. He knew a capstan from a catharping, a foresail from a jib, and could worm, swab, load, ram, copper, prick, and fire any cannon with dexterity. Such details helped him pass the time on his benumbing sales excursions until the day when, quite unexpectedly, they saved him.
That day found Herbie close to a breakdown. His mind, as fiercely as Boney’s flagship, ignited by Lord Nelson, blazed. His wife of twenty years—not incuriously, also named Margaret—had left him.
He’d always wondered how any woman, much less a statuesque blue blood with a thirst for daiquiris, built, he used to say, like a frigate, would even glance at him. A lowly merchant of brooches and necklaces made from genuine Lucite, he was also short of stature, of hair and shoulders, with a right foot that was not so much clubbed as mangled. Limping through life, Herbie couldn’t participate in sports with the other boys, couldn’t dance at any prom or stroll aimlessly on a beach with a girlfriend. In fact, he never really had one, not before Margaret, who showed up at one of his klatches. There, after gifting her a pair of rhinestone ear clips, he jokingly asked her out for dinner and was flabbergasted when she deigned to say yes. To go out with a man like him, much less marry him, she had to be crazy, he thought.
Which, in fact, she was. Maybe it was the daiquiris or the inbreeding, but Margaret Kantrowitz proved to be certifiably, percussively, mad. With voices in her head and venom in her heart, she smashed the few pieces of china they possessed and shattered what remained of his confidence. “Creeple,” she called him, and “Jew peddler.” Pills didn’t help nor did the stints upstate, and somehow Herbie knew that one day Margaret would vanish. And when she did, it might have come as a relief, even a blessing, if not for Noah.
Bright and agile, centered and strong, Noah was his parents’ opposite. A pretty baby, he grew into an angelic boy with umber ringlets and eyes resplendent with blue. Endowed with an inherent understanding of anguish, he put up with his mother’s tantrums and attended to Herbie’s gloom. The latter darkened appreciably after Margaret’s departure. What was he, a man half the year on the road, to do with a ten-year-old who still needed his lunches packed and carpools arranged for soccer? Noah needed a father, not an itinerant bangle vendor.
That was the knowledge haunting him on the torturous train to Albany. He considered alternatives—getting out of the junk jewel business and opening a convenience store, hobbling between the racks, or trading collectibles online—but felt incapable of any. Despairing, he wondered if Noah weren’t better off in some other home, with a real family and a dad who could run with his kite.
But then, just at this nadir, somewhere between Rhinecliff and Poughkeepsie, he heard the sword clatter and the Hessian heels click and looked up to find Captain Kit. “Handsomely, Herbie,” he told him. “The Elysium weighs anchor at dawn.”
Herbie had never authored a book before and had trouble enough listing inventories, but still, inexplicably, he felt the series inside him. Felt that the dozens of naval books he devoured had prepared him for his own—and Whittaker’s. He invested in a fountain pen and a notebook and sat in the cracked leather armchair Margaret had left him and leaned onto her large chestnut desk. And he chose a penname—who would read a naval book by an author named Kantrowitz?—something misty and vaguely Celtic. Portentously, he switched on the goosenecked lamp and began.
It opened with Kit a mere midshipman, not much older than Noah, homesick, seasick, and surrounded by officers and ruffians. Another boy might have deserted, but not Whittaker. He learned to sail and navigate, to close haul and hove and clew. And he learned—starting with the Glorious First of June then at the sieges of Malta and Corfu—to fight. By the time of Trafalgar, in 1805, he was already a seasoned lieutenant, and after distinguishing himself in that fracas, received his own command. A captain’s epaulet and a ship, the HMS Elysium—aptly christened, as for him her holds were heaven-like.
Thirteen cannons, the traditional salute, erupted as he bounded up the gangplank. All hands huzzahed and the pipers trilled as Captain Whittaker strode along the gunwales and ascended to the quarterdeck. There, he was met by a midshipman who reminded him of himself at that age, eager and scared, who proffered him a brass-plated draw tube. “Sir,” the young boy submitted. “Your glass.”
And so the adventures unwound. The odysseys around the Cape and the Galapagos, through the Spanish Main and the doldrums, and the relentless quest for prize. Rather than sink an enemy vessel, captains preferred to capture and sell them, with profits distributed by rank. This made Whittaker something of a rich man—intermittently, for he was also a spendthrift—and very popular with his crew. But one prize unnervingly eluded him: the Insouciance captained by that arch-buccaneer, Blanchet.
“We’ll get him this time,” Noah assured him, night times by his bedside, when Herbie, his fingers freshly inked, read aloud from the notebook. “We’ll keelhaul him, Noah swore, “Kit’ll put him over a barrel and show him the cat o’nine!”
If he couldn’t run with his only son’s kite or kick around a soccer ball, Herbie could at least share his books with him. And Noah hung on them; he lived in them. Together, they would design the most derring-do plots and conjure the most waterlogged characters. Spinning a globe, they would chart the Elysium’s routes, each one more hazardous than the last.
“There,” Noah would shout, stabbing some far-flung channel.
“I don’t know, Noee, those are pretty treacherous currents. White horses, icebergs.”
“Don’t be such a paddy wester, Dad. Nothing’s too tough for Kit Whittaker.”
He’d read to Noah and the boy was submerged. The sea in his eyes and wind in his hair, his face like a figurehead’s rivetted. But not only Noah loved the Kit Whittaker books, so, too did a small but fervent body of fans. They kept ordering back copies and counting the days until Brian O’Rouke’s next page-turner. Letters arrived, effusive praise but also criticism for detail he’d gotten wrong—giving Whittaker a straight, rather than a braided, pigtail. And while they didn’t make him rich, his readers at least rescued him from the Northeast Regional. Herbie could stay at home, packing lunch bags and shepherding Noah to practices and, in-between, reef and unfurl the mizzens.
Financial security also enabled him to take most summers off and embark on trips with his son. They visited every historic seaport and every schooner, barque and brigantine still floating. Dashing to the poop deck, the Noah would identify the parts: “Transome, toe-rail, scuttlebutt, pawls!” And Herbie, gimping to keep up, hailed him with thirteen ovations—his meek but adoring stand-in for cannons.
* * *
Fire leapt from the Elysium’s guns like seamen abandoning ship. The barrage of 24 pounders—the report could deprive a man of his legs—heaved the hull port-ward and shivered it fore to aft. Smoke enveloped the deck. Through it all, his eye still to the glass, Whittaker rattled off his commands. “Helmsman come about 30 degrees starboard, trim the royals, hard to the wind.” To himself, he uttered, “Here I come, Blanchet, right at you.”
Blanchet responded with yet another fusillade of iron. Chair and spider shot to slice the Elysium’s rigging, heated shot to set its sails alight. From bodies shorn of limbs and heads, blood coursed across the quarterdeck and dribbled onto the gunrooms below. “More sand!” the armorer, slipping, pleaded, desperate to absorb the gore.
But Whitaker didn’t slip. He didn’t falter or even flinch but remained ramrod calling out his orders. “Hold fast, men!” he exhorted. “Remember you are Englishmen, not Froggies. Remember your king and duty!”
Next to him, Cutbush, the boatswain, caught a whiff of grape in his midsection, effectively slicing him in two. The next round was sure to find the captain. The lens of his glass framed his adversary perfectly, leaning over the taffrail in his double-breasted greatcoat and the tricolor cockade on his bicorn. Blanchet, his one remaining arm holding up his own telescope to his sole surviving eye, was laughing.
“The last laugh shall be mine,” Whitaker swore just the mainmast collapsed behind him. Just as Furrier, tears streaming over where his chin should have been, cried, “Captain, sir, should we strike the colors?”
“Surrender?” Whitaker scarcely shrugged. “Never, Lieutenant. Better the bottom than disgrace.”
* * *
Life would have gone on that way for the three of them—Herbie, Noah, and Kit—cruising and harassing, tricing and trimming and generally having fun. Soon, Noah was skipping soccer, foregoing friends, solely to race home each day to hear the very latest installment. As if for the pound of surf, Herbie would listen anxiously as the front door burst open and slammed. He wouldn’t even have to leave his desk or swivel in his old creaking chair. Soon, Herbie knew, his son’s florid face would join his father’s crammed in the lamplight.
Until the day there was no slam. Only a knock, deep and foreboding, and men in uniform—not sailors—reporting. They spoke in a language as foreign to him as sea-talk to landlubbers. Yet he somehow made out a few words. A bicycle, a stop sign, a van. That and expressions of sorrow that even Kit Whittaker could identify, the policemen’s heads lowered, lips muttering, “our sincerest condolences…”
Herbie would never write again. Would never live and why bother? Handicapped and abandoned, stunted and nondescript, there’d been nothing exceptional about his existence but his one blessed boy. And now, with Noah gone, there was no reason to eat or sleep or even get up from the large chestnut desk. His chair no longer swiveled or creaked. The ink in his pen turned crusty.
“Bear up, man,” urged a familiar voice, warm yet stalwart. There was Whittaker again, more material than he was even on that Albany train and staring at him gravely. Surrender was no option, the captain told him. “Harden up and haul wind.”
And Bernie, obedient as a seaman, wrote. Obsessively, joylessly, churning out a book every year as the end of the wars approached. As his own conclusion, foretold by that lump in his neck, neared as well. He wasn’t at all sure he could finish this, the final edition of the Captain Kit Whittaker series, the decisive battle with Blanchet. Exhausted and shivering suddenly, he wasn’t convinced he’d survive the night.
Yet still that question plagued him: who should carry the day? The hero or the blackguard? Virtue or avarice? Triumph over his own life’s many tragedies or vengeance for the agony they wrought?
Lamplight dimming, Brian O’Rourke, a.k.a. Herbie Kantrowitz, scuttled his notebook and pen. He beached his head on the top of the desk and listened intently but for what—a drum, a pipe, the snap and groan of sails? Or the boom of cannons, perhaps, welcoming a new skipper onboard?
* * *
Boom. BoomBoomBoom. He counted them, one after another, until they reached thirteen. Only then did he awake. Only then did he glance down at his uniform, its brass-buttoned frock and single gold epaulet, his sword belt, breeches, and boots. From bow to stern, he looked over the ship with its carronades run out and crew assembled for battle. With pikes and pistols, they jabbed the air and cheered “Huzzah! Huzzah!” greeting their freshly commissioned captain. He gazed up at the sky, pristine now that the fog had lifted, with only a cloud of canvas above. Beyond lay the sea, green as forest glass, and hull-down on the horizon, the French privateer Insouciance.
Marching up to the poop deck—marching, not limping—he instructed a lieutenant to double-shot all the guns and load them with langridge and fire arrows. “There, men, lies our prize,” he declared with his eyes still fixed on the enemy. “And we shall take her!” Officers hollered, seamen cursed, and a stern chaser sent Blanchet a calling card.
With his fingers, the captain combed back his golden queue, and crowned it with his bicorn. The name Elysium was stitched in indigo on its brim. He was about to give the order to open fire when a familiar voice preempted him. A deferential voice, but sweet.
“Sir,” it said, and then repeated. “Sir.”
The midshipman raised his face, his azure eyes and amber ringlets, to the captain. He offered him the brass-plated tube. “Sir,” the angelic boy smiled. “Your glass.”