Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Sandwich Islands

 

 

Diego knocked, dread washing over him like a wave.  Beatty had never assigned the punishment that he had promised and this morning’s events couldn’t have made the captain any happier. 

“Enter,” Beatty called out from inside.  Diego opened the door and stepped aside for Mister Bowman to enter first.  Then he walked in and stood before the captain’s small, but ornate oak desk.  

“You have continued to flout custom and defy my orders,” Beatty began, glaring at him.  Diego stood quietly and listened.  “You were supposed to keep those Spaniards in line.  You made an unholy spectacle of yourself carousing with the natives, kissing their women.  I cannot tolerate this.  You are not in California.  You are on my ship and you will obey my rules.  Your punishment will be cancellation of shore leave for the duration of this stopover.  You will not leave the ship.”  

Diego gaped, anger overcame the dread and he prepared himself to argue his case when he felt Bowman’s hand grip the back of his arm.  He said nothing, but his thoughts were churning furiously.   How am I going to mail my father’s letter? I have to get onshore!  

“Captain, please,” Bowman began.  “Diego has been an exemplary assistant.  He did his best with the other Spaniards.  They all know English now, and except for those very few, they have adapted fairly well to life on board ship. Much of that is due to Diego.  And the most important thing, Captain, is that I need him on shore to assist me in the purchase of the cargo and provisions.  His help will be invaluable.”  

“You did fine before I bought this Spaniard,” Beatty growled, his eyes hard and unrelenting.  

“Yes, sir.  However, I am often tired and haven’t made as many profitable transactions at our earlier ports o’call.  If I had someone with me to help me remember and keep things straight, I am sure that our profits would be greater,” Bowman continued to explain.  Diego felt gratitude supplanting the anger and he also felt hope beginning to take root.  The supercargo was trying to appeal to the captain’s sense of greed and risking his wrath doing so.  “We could look over twice as many sale goods, and make more purchases that would increase our profits in Singapore and Canton.”

Beatty’s eyes softened only slightly and he pulled at his chin.  The silence grew long and then longer.  “Very well, but there will still be a punishment.  And I will hold you to that promise, Mr. Bowman, of more purchases.”  He glared at Diego, still stroking his chin.  “You cannot go on shore today, but you can go tomorrow, when you are finished with your shipboard duties.  This morning you will clean the decks; this afternoon, you will work in the hold, cleaning out the bilge and killing rats.  You will work on that until lights out.  And before you go ashore tomorrow, you will make sure you have not only finished all that I have ordered you to do for your punishment, but also all the duties that Mister Bowman assigns you to do.  Any shirking and the original punishment stands.  Do you understand?”  

“Yes, sir, Captain Beatty,” Diego said, keeping his face passive and his voice grateful.   Pompous ass!   “Thank you.”  

“You are both dismissed.  Make sure he gets busy immediately, Mister Bowman.”  Beatty ordered.  

Bowman nodded and they left quickly.   On the way to the quarterdeck, Diego turned to his mentor.  Gratitude filled his heart and soul, and he took a deep breath to keep his voice steady.  “Thank you for helping me, Mister Bowman.”   

The eyes showed a gratitude that could not be put into words and in them Bowman saw reflections of his own son.  “Diego, I wasn’t lying.  I do need you on shore.  And you can’t learn the ins and outs of buying and selling cargo if you are stuck on a ship in the harbor,” the supercargo murmured.   

“Nevertheless, I still thank you.  You took a great risk.”  

Right after dinner, when half of the ship’s contingent had been rowed ashore by natives eager to earn a little money, Diego began the climb down to the foulest, dankest and nastiest part of the ship.  He and ten other men had the unenviable task of clearing out the bottom layer of the ship, the layer where water gathered and became filthy, where rats and other vermin lived and bred.  The water was a cesspool of human filth and vermin excrement.  Barrels were moved up to the deck one at a time, water scooped out with buckets and crude pumps, and when they were able to do so, rats killed and dumped overboard.  After a half an hour of working in such nasty conditions, Diego and the others suddenly found themselves joined by ten California sailors.   

“We thought that this job would be more quickly done if there were more hands to do it,” José said, his smile bright in the dimness of the bottom of the ship.   “And we have had some small experience down here.  We have often received these more desirable jobs,” he added, joking.   

One of the English sailors laughed.  “Come then, my friends.  Let us get this princely job done, because it’ll take us all evening to get the smell off so we can enjoy the company of the ladies on shore tomorrow.”   

Diego gazed at José, gratitude filling his heart.  Gracias, amigo.”  

“Don Diego, we heard about the punishments.  It was not your fault about Juan.  And I should have listened to you when you told us not to throw food overboard,” José said softly in Spanish. 

Diego nodded.  “But the whipping you received?”  

José laughed softly.  “I have received worse from my father,” he quipped, as he began scooping the foul water out of the bilge. 

                                            

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The next day, Diego worked furiously doing everything Bowman instructed him to do.  As he and the supercargo oversaw the loading of sandalwood, some of the men grumbled that the Spaniard was a hard taskmaster.  However, some had already waited a day for their leave and were almost as anxious to get ashore as he was.  The packet was what spurred Diego on; women and strong drink motivated most of the other sailors.  By nightfall, all of the sandalwood that Beatty had purchased the day before from Makealeanu, was safely loaded in the hold.  Diego was astonished at the skill with which the supercargo directed the loading of the wood, in order for it to take up as little room as possible.  He said as much to his patrón.  

“Thank you, Diego,” Bowman said modestly.  “It is something you learn with practice.  And early tomorrow morning we will go on shore and see to that packet of yours, as well as the purchase of provisions and more cargo,” he added.  “We should have two days to accomplish our goal, because we will be at anchor for at least two and a half more days.”  They both stood at the rail, looking at the waves beating gently against the hull of the ship.  They had an almost tranquilizing effect; Diego felt the tension of the past two day’s work sliding away.  

Bowman clapped his hand on Diego’s shoulder and said quietly, but with great feeling, “Diego de la Vega, an old man couldn’t have a better assistant, friend, or son.”  He paused a moment.  “My own son died young, but you and he would be about the same age if he were alive.  I would count it an honor if you would let me consider you as a son.  And please don’t think I’m trying to supplant your real father, I’m not.”  

Diego was shocked by the sudden disclosure the supercargo had made.  He knew Bowman had had a family whose members were all dead, he had talked a great deal about them, but that the old sailor felt that way about him was something Diego had not realized.  In a way, Diego had looked to Mister Bowman as one would a father, simply because he had been a child, so to speak, when he came on board, knowing nothing and having to be taught everything.  Bowman had done that as patiently as a real father could.  He was very grateful to him.   

“I am the one who is honored by you,” Diego said simply,  “Because my own father couldn’t have treated or taught me better than you have.”  

That evening as Diego was standing just inside the corridor leading to the captain’s quarters on the roundhouse deck, watching the sun set over the ocean, he heard Captain Beatty and Mister Bowman conversing in the Captain’s quarters.  As the door was open, Diego felt no guilt about stepping a little closer.   

“Mister Bowman, may I remind you that you are responsible for the Spaniard, including his time on shore?  He will be back on board when we sail, or you will be tried at sea and left in a British brig in Singapore.  Now I have already made sure the other Spaniards will be back on time, but this one seems to have a greater incentive to return to California.  I have invested too much into his indenture to lose him at the first port o’call.  Keep what I have said in mind during your shore leave.  You are dismissed, sir.”  

Diego quickly slipped down the stairs and back to their cabin, and was innocently looking over the manifests when Bowman returned.  But now the Californiano had another reason to dislike the Captain. 

   

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Diego had been up and ready to go on shore since before dawn, feeling a boyish sort of eagerness that he hadn’t felt for a long time.  Bowman grumbled, but was ready not too long after his assistant.  The same native trader, who had taught Diego how to dive, was waiting along side of the China Star to take more of the ship’s compliment to the harbor town.            

Aloha,” Makealeanu said to Diego, who returned the greeting as he climbed into the outrigger canoe.  He helped Mr. Bowman and they were soon on their way to shore.   

The outrigger seemed to fly over the waves, skipping lightly, much as the flying fish did.  Diego watched Makealeanu as he dipped his paddle into the water, seeing the power in the man’s shoulders match that of the waves. The cool, salty-tanged breeze ruffled his hair and combined with the scent of foliage coming from the shore.  Diego looked at the land before them and saw, in the distance, mountains, covered in a variety of shades of green, testaments to the lushness of this ocean-borne land.

A short time later the canoe ground up on the shore and stopped.  Makealeanu leaped out and held his hand out for Diego.   The young man began stepping out without taking the proffered help, but soon changed his mind.  The land seemed to be moving in strange ways and Diego was disconcerted that he couldn’t seem to be able to walk straight.  He kept anticipating the next rise and fall of the deck.  Then he remembered his embarrassment over his clumsiness when he had disembarked in Madrid. 

Makealeanu also helped the supercargo and soon the pair was slowly making their way toward the tiny port town a short distance down the beach.  Bowman chuckled.  “It will only take a short while to get our land legs back, my friend,” he said.   

“I know.  It happened to me when I traveled to Spain, but it’s still embarrassing.” Soon the land acted ‘normally’ and they were passing the warehouses that lined the beach on the outskirts of the town.                

“We shall ask at the trading post about a Catholic mission,” Bowman suggested, pointing to a large, ramshackle building.  Its roof was covered with palm fronds and the sides were mostly open to the breezes that blew from the ocean. 

But when Diego asked for the nearest Catholic mission, the proprietor stared at him for a moment and then laughed uproariously.  “You have to be joking,” he said in a very thick British accent, one that Diego had been told was from an area north of London.   “There are no Papists here.  The closest Catholics are in Mexico, thank goodness.  I would hate to think what the Franciscans would do with these fine women here.  The Congregationalists are bad enough.”            

“Yes, there is one,” Diego said coolly.  “Me.  Now, tell me where I can find a priest or cleric nearby.  A Congregationalist priest is fine.  My time is limited.”  The trader took one look at the irritated man and quickly stammered out directions to the nearby Congregationalist church and school.            

It only took a half an hour to walk to the church, which was built of white clapboard, with perhaps the neatest little white picket fence around it that Diego had ever seen.  He was more used to seeing walls, not little fences.  Even in Spain, the wrought iron structures were higher and more imposing, so he assumed that here fences were for aesthetic value and not to keep something out.   The sound of young voices singing or chanting came to him from a nearby building and Diego assumed that it must be the school.            

As they come closer to the church, a young man in dark clothing approached them.  Diego took him to be the local equivalent of priest.  “May I help you?” the man asked.  “I am Reverend Baxter, assistant to Reverend Davenport,” the cleric added.  He seemed rather young, and very much new at his job.            

“I am Diego de la Vega from the Pueblo de Los Angeles in California,” he introduced himself before Bowman could say anything.  “And this is Supercargo George Bowman from the China Star,” he added.  “I have a matter of some urgency, which I hope you can help me with.”           

Baxter was a little perplexed.  “You sound British, but the name is Spanish.” 

“One tends to learn good English, when one has to live on a British ship for weeks at a time,” Diego said somewhat impatiently.  “I am looking for a cleric to help me.  It is very important.”  He wanted to get this done soon.  Bowman laid his hand on his shoulder to help calm him down.            

“I’m sorry,” the man said.  “We don’t usually get visits from p . . . Catholics... or Anglicans,” he nodded towards Bowman.  “I don’t think that we can help you.”

Diego took a deep breath to calm his irritation.  He decided that he would much rather deal with the native people; they were more direct and less insulting.  However, the man was young, he was American and a cleric and Diego didn’t want to waste his time in anger.  He chose to ignore what the man had been about to say and direct his comments to the matter at hand.  “Sir, I am not here on a religious matter anyway, it is a very personal matter of great importance to me and my family.”            

Baxter realized his mistake the minute that he had spoken the first syllable.  The Spanish were a very proud people, he had been told, and the term papist was an affront to most.  “My pardons, sir, ah, I wasn’t trying to be insulting.  I spoke out of ignorance.  What is your problem?” he asked quickly, presumably to turn the subject of the conversation.           

“I was kidnapped and indentured aboard the China Star.  My father has no idea of my whereabouts or, for that matter, whether I am alive or dead.  I need to know if, being a cleric, you might be able to have this sent to California, in order that my father might be reassured.”            

Baxter paused and thought a moment.  He could hear the anxiety in the young man’s voice and felt a pang of sorrow for his misfortune.  “I am sorry for your hardship, but I don’t know if we can help you here,” the Reverend said.  “I have almost no contact with incoming ships.  But let me go ask Reverend Davenport, just to make sure.”  Baxter went into the church, almost sure of the answer, but still hoping that he might have something that would give hope to this young sailor.  He came out only a short while later, shaking his head.  “I’m sorry, we can’t help you, but Reverend Davenport did suggest that if you go down to Half Moon harbor you might find a ship that could help you,” the young man said.  

Diego saw sympathy in the young man’s eyes.  “Thank you for trying anyway.”            

Bowman spoke up, as much for Diego as to the reverend.  “That’s an excellent idea, Reverend.  It is a somewhat larger harbor than the one we are anchored in and there were several ships there when we sailed in.  Surely one of them is going to Yerba Buena or San Diego.”  Bowman also thanked the young cleric and turned to go.  In his eagerness, Diego had already started walking down the path back to the harbor.   Bowman called to his assistant, and Diego stopped and waited for his mentor.  His body seemed taut with impatience and anxiety.             

“I am sorry, Mr. Bowman,” he said, when the supercargo caught up with him.  “Do you think we will have any luck with the ships in the harbor?” he asked.  They continued on down the little road at a more sedate pace.

“We won’t know until we try,” Bowman said hopefully.  As they went around a bend in the road, a middle-aged woman was waiting for them.

           

 

 

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