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Council of Fire: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, September 2, 2019 14:44 EDT



The keepers of the house shall tremble

Aboard HMS Namur

In the Atlantic Ocean

    If he had been able to sleep that night, Admiral Edward Boscawen might not have survived the experience. Of such things is history made; the whim of chance, the roll of dice on the backgammon-board, the choice of this path rather than another.

    But sleep had not come that night and he instead found himself on the quarterdeck of HMS Namur, bound for the roadstead of Toulon, where he would command the squadron charged with bottling up De la Clue’s fleet and preventing its escape from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. It was a post with distinction, but not without its perils; after all, not two years since, a colleague–Byng–had been hanged on his own deck for being less than ardent in his pursuit of the enemy.

    Boscawen accepted the assignment without comment or complaint. Hawke would have made his displeasure known–but Boscawen was not Hawke. Brilliant as he was, the man had a pernicious skill in raising his fellows (and his superiors) to anger.

    The province of the quarterdeck is customarily sacrosanct, a private refuge for the master of a vessel. A captain, or an admiral, would hardly expect to be disturbed in his contemplations save in the case of some weighty matter that could not be handled by subordinates. But Admiral Edward Boscawen was unusual among his peers, and his crew knew it; thus, when he heard the polite clearing of a throat, he was not surprised or upset. He turned from his contemplation of the ocean to see Francis Perry standing at the top of the stair. The boatswain immediately saluted.

    “What is it?”

    “I beg your Lordship’s pardon,” Perry said, tugging on the brim of his cap. “I would not disturb you, sir, but . . .”

    “No matter. Come over here, boy, the deck isn’t on fire.”

    Perry stepped tentatively onto the quarterdeck and crossed to stand before his admiral. He had the look of someone who indeed expected the quarterdeck to burst into flames if he stepped on it.

    “All right then. I assume you’ve been given the dog watch for some reason, Perry, and I’ll not inquire. What demands my attention?”

    “You told me to keep you personally informed of all that happens belowdecks, My Lord. I wanted to let you know that the men are about ready to keelhaul young O’Brien.”

    “What’s he done now?” O’Brien was a young lad, younger than Perry, who had been impressed at Dublin a year ago. Boscawen recalled what he knew of the boy. He was not given to thievery and had not taken up his race’s propensity for drunkenness–indeed, he had served well in attending to the officers’ mess and seemed to be learning his skills as an able seaman.

    “It’s the dreams, My Lord. He cries out in his sleep and disturbs the men that are on watch.”

    “I should make them work harder so that they sleep more soundly. Go on.”

    “It’s not just the noise, beggin’ your Lordship’s pardon. It’s what he says.”

    “And what does he say?”

    “He talks about . . .” Perry looked away from Boscawen, and cast his gaze toward the southwestern horizon, beyond the bow of Namur, where the apparition of the comet was clearly visible. It had become brighter in recent days, even more than had been predicted. “He talks about the comet.”

    “And what of it? It’s a natural phenomenon. It is nothing unusual, merely the passage of an object through the heavens. Nothing to be afraid of.”

    “That’s not what he says, sir. He says that it will strike and change the world.”

    “Nonsense. It is an once-in-a-lifetime event; every seventy-odd years it returns, passes through the sky once as it heads for the sun, and once as it heads away–and then it is gone, not to be seen until our grandchildren’s time.”

    “I know that, Admiral, and you do too–but O’Brien says otherwise.”

    “Perhaps a few lashes will change his mind.”

    “Sailing master has already given him a taste of the cat, beggin’ your Lordship’s pardon. It didn’t change his tune a whit, sir.”

    “How long has this been going on?”

    “Since we left Portsmouth, My Lord. Whenever it was visible in the sky. A few nights there were clouds, but otherwise . . .” Perry let the sentence trail off, like the strands that extended from the tail of the comet.

    “Where is the man now?”

    “Ranford and Leacock are keepin’ him company aft, My Lord.”

    Ranford was an able seaman from Cornwall; he’d sailed with Boscawen for a dozen years. Leacock was a Scotsman with a foul temper, but one of the most agile riggers aboard Namur. Both good men, for what they were.

    “Have O’Brien present himself to my cabin at once. We’ll not make a spectacle of this–but it’s not to go any further. Understood?”

    “Loud and clear, sir. And–My Lord–”

    “What is it, Perry?”

    “There can’t be . . . I mean, there’s no chance that there is any possible way . . .”

    “No,” Boscawen said. “It’s the fever-dream of a homesick Irish lad. This is the last you’ll hear of it.”



    While he waited for the lad to be brought to him, Boscawen drew a thin volume from his writing desk and opened it. It was a copy of A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, Halley’s 1705 work, a gift from Frances at his departure from England. The book was even more remarkable because it was a first edition, including the strange afterword that had been absent in later printings.

    Make of it what you will, his wife had told him. It might be a load of rubbish, dear, but . . . one hears things.

    Halley had already become the secretary of the Royal Society by the time the work was published; he was rational and logical–the narrative, tables and diagrams were remarkably clear and well thought out. But the last four pages diverged from that rationality and logic.

    In ye passage of 1682/3, Halley wrote, the sublimation of ætheric patterns insinuated itself into the minds and hearts of those subject to such effects. It might be, or might have been, that the eye of the Eternal God was turned away, allowing those things that He might not sanction to enter into the mortal realm . . .

    Load of rubbish, Boscawen thought. His wife was most insightful in that way–indeed, in all ways.

    Boscawen’s reverie about Frances was interrupted by a rapping at the door of his cabin. The young Irish cabin boy stood outside, his cap in his hand; he managed some sort of salute and stepped into the admiral’s inner sanctum, looking around him as if it was a sort of place he’d never seen.

    “Close the hatch, if you please. O’Brien, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, sir. My Lord,” he added hastily.

    “Very good then, O’Brien. Tell me what it is that is causing such ire belowdecks.”

    Boscawen was using his best admiral’s voice; he kept his face stern, looking straight at the lad. That usually made seamen and even junior officers glance down, or at least away–but O’Brien met him gaze for gaze.

    “The comet, an’ it please your Lordship,” O’Brien said. “The comet is coming.”

    “Anyone can see that–”

    “Nay, my Lord,” O’Brien interrupted. “‘Tis coming. ‘Tis almost here. And when it arrives the world changes; the old powers will rise.”

    The fact that an unrated seaman interrupted an admiral was singular enough–but the intensity of the boy’s expression made it a striking moment, one that Boscawen would remember much later.

    “Where are you from, O’Brien?”

    “Ireland, Admiral, sir. Connemarra.”

    “And where you come from, O’Brien, do they believe in the true and living Creator?”

    “Aye, sir,” he said, crossing himself in the Roman way. He smiled for just a moment, then returned to his former serious intensity. “Of course.”

    “And in Connemarra do they teach the Bible?”

    “Aye, sir.”

    “I do not recall any discussion of the rising of ‘old powers’ in Scripture, lad. The coming of the Saviour swept all of those ‘old powers’ away, did it not? And the comet–it is no more than an apparition, a body moving through the heavens. What effect could it possibly have?”

    “It will change the world, my Lord.”

    “That is no answer. I think you have not accustomed yourself to life at sea, young O’Brien, and you have an ague or a fever.”

    “I beg to disagree with your Lordship,” O’Brien said. “I am hale and quite settled. I am learning the skills of an able seaman.”

    “And yet you speak nonsense. How . . . how do you know of these ‘old powers’? Your foolish nightmares?”

    “My mum was a water-finder, My Lord. She is a wise-woman. So is my Gran. ‘Tis a family gift, since the comet’s last coming.”

    Sublimation of ætheric patterns, Boscawen thought to himself. Rubbish.

    “I cannot affect your thoughts, young O’Brien,” Boscawen said. “It is not in my power. But your actions are subject to my orders. Your comments on this matter are disrupting the sleep–and work–of the other crew, and it is my order that they cease. Do you understand?”

    “I cannae control my dreams, my Lord.”

    “Then you shall sleep on deck, away from others. As long as the comet is in the sky, until it passes–as it ultimately will–you shall make your bed in the lee of the pilothouse.”

    “Under the open sky.”

    “That’s right. Then you can bay at the moon and pray to the comet if you like.”

    “Thank you, sir. I should like that very much.”

    Boscawen raised an eyebrow. “We will see if your tune changes the first time we have heavy weather. But you will be sure to secure your hammock well so that the storm does not toss you overboard.”

    “I will see to it, sir.” He saluted again, a sloppy job, but at least it showed effort. “Thank you, sir,” he repeated.

    “See to it at once,” Boscawen said. “Dismissed.”

    And that, as far as Admiral Boscawen thought, would put an end to the disturbance.



    There was heavy weather almost at once. A few days later Namur was sailing close-hauled; the wind was coming from the northeast, pushing them further out to sea. The Spanish coast was not in sight. Indeed, very little was in sight–except the comet, further up in the sky than it had been, and brighter, its light pushing eerily through the storm-clouds.



    O’Brien did not seem the least discomfited by sleeping on the deck, under the overhanging shelter aft of the pilothouse. No complaints reached the admiral’s ears; but while he was making his rounds of the deck, bundled in his greatcoat, he paused to speak to the lieutenant of the watch.

    “Pascal, isn’t it?”

    “Aye, my Lord.” Lieutenant Pascal touched his cap, looking away from his black servant–or slave, he wasn’t sure which–who was coiling rope beside him.

    “Have you heard anything regarding the Irish boy sleeping on deck?”

    “O’Brien, sir?”

    “Yes. That’s the one.” Boscawen tilted his head more upright; since an injury in battle some years before, he had a tendency to hold it sideways. “Has there been any complaint from the watch?”

    “Complaint? I don’t know of any, my Lord. He talks in his sleep, but no one pays him any mind.” He glanced–just for a moment–at his boy, then returned his attention to the admiral.

    It might have been to check on the work, but Boscawen sensed that it might be more than that. “Boy,” he said to the servant. “Does he speak English?”

    “Quite well, sir. Gustavus, give your attention to the admiral.”

    The black let go the rope and stood upright. He was young–probably no older than the Irish lad–but unlike many of his race, he held his head respectfully but not especially subserviently. Some in the Service might have thought that an insult, particularly if he was a slave; but Boscawen was neither affronted nor particularly interested in others’ reactions.

    “Gustavus is your name?”

    “Yes, it please your Lordship, that is the name I have been given.”

    “I thought it an unlikely name for a black.”

    “I am named for a great king, so ’tis said, sir. I take it with pride.”

    “What is your actual name, may I ask?”

    “My mother named me Oladuah, My Lord, which means ‘well spoken’ in my native tongue. I have been called Michael, and also Jacob. But I answer to Gustavus just fine.”

    “What do you know about O’Brien?”

    “O’Brien, sir?”

    “Now answer the admiral, Gustavus,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “You know what he wants to know.”

    Gustavus–Oladuah–looked from his master to the admiral, and then said, “He is a seer of the future, my Lord. He has seen the coming of the fiery star.”

    “You mean the comet.”

    “Yes, my Lord.”

    “He told me that the comet is going to change the world. Do you believe him then?”

    “Of course, my Lord. It is the signal of the end of days. The return of the Saviour, as is taught in the Scriptures.”

    “That’s not exactly what O’Brien told me,” Boscawen said. “Is this some belief among your tribe?”

    “I do not hold to the beliefs of my own people any longer, my Lord,” Gustavus said. “I have been blessed and baptized as a servant of Jesus and follow Him. Surely the signs of His return are evident in the heavens?”

    “The comet has come and gone many times, Gustavus. This time is no different.”

    “I . . . fear to dispute with you, sir,” Gustavus answered. “You asked what I thought–and I am honored to be asked; but I risk your anger by giving you an answer you do not want.”

    “You are well-spoken for a . . .”

    “A slave, my Lord,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “I bought him in Virginia Colony. And he is very bright; not just for one of his kind, but even when compared to many whites.”

    “Truly,” Boscawen said. “Gustavus, how do you disagree with me?”

    “I do not wish to anger your Lordship.”

    “You do not. Answer my question.”

    “You say . . . you say that the fiery star has come and gone, and this time is no different. But truly, each time is different–last time and this time. There is a legend among my people that divine spirits came out of the fiery star and began to walk among them, and that when the star came again, they would be reunited with the God-above-all. When I received the Gospel, I heard those words repeated in a different form. Now I know it to be true.”

    Gustavus raised his eyes toward the sky, where the comet seemed brighter and closer than ever.

    Boscawen followed his gaze, and then looked down and across the main deck of the ship. The sky had grown dark and the wind had picked up; many others had stopped their work and were looking toward the heavens.

    “It comes,” said a voice, somewhere aft, in an Irish accent.

    Father Frederick, the ship’s chaplain, stood near the foremast; he caught Boscawen’s eye. He looked frightened.

    “Pascal . . .” Boscawen began, then turned on his heel and walked rapidly, with as much dignity as he could manage, to Namur‘s pilothouse. Above him, the sails began to flutter as the ship drifted into the wind. Pascal and his slave followed behind.

    Inside the little cabin, the officer of the watch was trying to maneuver the ship’s whip-staff with the change in the wind. Boscawen gestured the young man aside and took control of it himself.

    The wind had begun to blow hard, and the sky was filling with an eerie yellow light despite the dark clouds. Boscawen had been on the sea for most of his adult life and had crossed the Atlantic a number of times–a perilous undertaking even in good weather–but this defied description. The swells had grown deep, and Namur was gradually giving way, being blown this way and that; even under his steady hand, the ship was beginning to become unmanageable.

    Pascal and Gustavus appeared at the pilothouse doorway.

    “Hail the crow’s nest,” Boscawen said, not looking away. “Tell me what he sees.”

    There was some shouting between the lieutenant and the lookout. Pascal put his head inside the doorway.

    “It’s like nothing he’s ever seen, My Lord. The sea–the sea–”

    “Out with it, man.”

    “It’s parting, sir.”


    “Yes, My Lord. Like the Red Sea. Almost directly due north and south.”

    “That’s impossible. It must be three hundred fathoms deep.”

    “As you say, sir. But it’s happening. It’s almost as if the rays of the comet are–are dredging up the ocean.”

    “And dropping us into it?”

    “It seems so.”

    Boscawen could hear Father Frederick shouting over the din. He was quoting Ecclesiastes. In the days when the keepers of the house shall tremble . . .

    “Parting,” Boscawen repeated.

    Pascal was white-faced, but to his credit he stayed at his post. Gustavus stood beside him, unmoving.

    Boscawen tilted the whip-staff as far to port as he could manage, turning the ship to starboard. As it slowly came about, the scene came into view: an unbelievable sight–the ocean parting, one half cresting to the east and another to the west, revealing dark indigo depths below. It was as if Namur was somehow climbing a great wave, higher and higher, the sea carrying it up into the air, and the motive force causing the waves to part was a cascade of yellowish light, looking very much like the tail of a comet.

    It was impossible, but it was happening–and it was carrying Namur further out to sea.

    “The wave–” Boscawen gestured. “That wave would have hurled us against a lee shore. If we manage to survive this, we’ll have to beat our way back toward land. And when it hits–”

    Pascal opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. He could not seem to find words to describe it.



    It was difficult to tell when day ended and night began, and it was impossible to imagine how Namur remained upright. In the face of impossibility, the crew responded to the commands of the officers, shortening sail and keeping the lines from fouling. The swells broke the jib and the winds shredded the sails on the foremast, but somehow Namur remained seaworthy.

    And sometime during the ferocious afternoon someone made Father Frederick stop praying aloud–and at some point, the young Irish cabin boy, along with two other crewmen, disappeared from the deck, lost in Namur‘s struggle to keep from being swallowed by the impossible sea.

    Finally, Namur was becalmed, the waves settling and the clouds parting above, revealing the tiniest sliver of a moon. An exhausted Edward Boscawen, who had never left the pilot’s cabin nor given up the whip-staff to another, gathered his officers in the wardroom after issuing a double ration of rum to everyone aboard.

    When everyone was settled and the appropriate salutes had been offered, he spoke. “Gentlemen,” he said. “I invite your comment.”

    No one answered for several moments, exchanging glances. At last Commander William Marshal, Namur‘s second-in-command, cleared his throat. “Admiral, this is uncharted water for all of us.”

    “It is a very unusual situation, to be sure.”

    “No, My Lord, more than that. I have received the report from topmast lookouts–and it truly is uncharted water. Land has been sighted eastward–it is very sharply defined, like a range of mountains.”

    “Where do you think we are?”

    “In the North Atlantic, sir, but somewhere in the tropics. The star sightings put us be between 13 and 15 degrees north latitude.” As Boscawen began to respond, Marshal continued, “Begging the Admiral’s pardon, sir, I know that seems ridiculous–we had not even passed Cape Finisterre last night, but the stars are–the stars.”

    “We rode an impossible storm, Commander. 15 degrees north would put us . . . near the Cape Verdian Islands, I suppose.”

    “It doesn’t account for the mountains, My Lord,” Lieutenant Pascal said. “We looked at the charts, and while there are peaks on the islands, they don’t correspond to the sightings.”

    “We’ll see what the lookouts report in the morning.”

    “The sightings were made before night fell, Admiral,” Marshal said. “The man knew what he saw.”

    Boscawen gave his executive officer a stern look. “What do you recommend, then, Commander?”

    “At the very least, My Lord, we should investigate.”

    “Without charts and soundings? If this truly is unknown water, I don’t think I relish the idea of running aground.”

    “It will be a good exercise for the crew, sir. Something to take their mind off–the comet.”

    Boscawen considered this, then nodded. “Very well. We are in open ocean, with no convenient anchor; we will come about and begin to tack northward with shortened sail. In the morning we will . . . carefully . . . investigate this coast. In the meanwhile, I suggest we all get whatever rest we can.”

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