Pacific Odyssey:

Book I

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

Supercargo’s Assistant

 

 

When the Spaniard was brought to him, Supercargo George Bowman took one look at the man’s pallid face and shoved a bucket across the floor to him.  The young man gratefully took it, sank to his knees, and was promptly and thoroughly sick.  Bowman sincerely hoped that he didn’t have someone on his hands who would be hanging over the rail the whole trip.  When the sickness had seemingly passed, the Spaniard tried to stand up but was unable to.  Confusion crossed his features before he sank back to his knees and then collapsed onto the floor, unconscious.   “What the…?” Bowman asked, jumping up from his chair and rushing to the young man’s side.

“He isn’t sick, is he?” asked Henry, the young sailor who had brought the prisoner in.  There was fear in the sailor’s eyes and he backed a step away from the fallen man.

“It would seem obvious that he is,” Bowman said.  “But with what?”

“Mister Bowman, what is wrong?”  

Both men looked up from the prostrate Spaniard to see a slender woman standing in the doorway.  The woman’s little girl stood behind her skirts, peeping at the scene before her.  “They brought me one of the new sailors and he simply collapsed on the floor,” Bowman explained to Victoria Meachem.  

With a word to her daughter to wait outside in the hall, Victoria walked in the cabin, gently pushing Henry out of the way.  She checked the unconscious man, feeling his forehead, and then checking his breathing and heartbeat.  “There seems to be nothing that indicates illness.”  She noticed the bucket.  “Was he seasick?”  

“Yes, ma’am, he was.  But there didn’t seem to be anything in his stomach,” Bowman replied, pointing to the almost empty bucket.  

Victoria leaned back, pondering.  She had dealt for weeks with her husband’s illness, first the seasickness and then the wasting disease that she could only attribute to the food and his delicate stomach.  Reaching down she felt the Spaniard’s stomach and was answered with a groan as he slowly started regaining consciousness.   “I can’t be sure, Mister Bowman, but I am guessing that it has been a while since he has eaten,” she said as the man’s eyes opened and slowly focused on her.  “How long has it been since you ate?” she asked him, hoping he could understand.   

With Henry’s help he sat up, leaning against the cabin’s doorframe.  The Spaniard looked puzzled for a moment, then comprehension dawned.  “Eat?” he asked, making signs of consuming a meal. 

Victoria nodded.  “Yes.”

His brow furrowed in thought.  “I do not know.”  He paused.  “It is two days from Los Angeles to San Diego.  Then a day . . . and then here.”  He looked back into her eyes.  “I . . . they….”  He made signs that Victoria took to mean that he had been poisoned or drugged.  She assumed the latter.  “I think three days,” he said more decisively.  He tried to pull himself off the floor.  Henry grabbed his arm and helped him to a chair.  Putting his head in his hands, the Spaniard just groaned.   Victoria now recognized this man as the prisoner that the watch had said was dangerous.  This was the same man who had saved his comrade from death.  For some reason, Victoria didn’t see any danger in him.   

“Henry,” Bowman said to the young sailor.  “Go down to the galley and get this man something to eat and drink,” he explained.  “And tell Billy that I don’t care a rat’s hind end whether he’s fixing for the captain’s table right now or not.  I can’t deal with a man who’s sick, and all he needs is something to eat to settle his stomach.”  He muttered a few healthy invocations about the treatment of Spanish prisoners.  

“Henry, wait,” Victoria ordered.  “I don’t think this man’s stomach can handle a normal breakfast just yet.  Have Billy make some kind of broth from that beef the captain bought in San Diego.  Bread will work nicely and some of the fresh wine, watered down.”  Henry glanced at Bowman and then left the room when the older man nodded. 

“I think that he’ll be all right now, Mister Bowman,” Victoria said softly.  “We will go and take our own breakfasts in the cuddy saloon now.   But call for me if he gets sick again.”

“Thank you, madam.  I appreciate the help,” Bowman answered, nodding.   When she left the tiny cabin, he turned back to the sick man, only vaguely wondering what Mrs. Meachem had been doing on this level, when the cuddy saloon and her own cabin were on the deck above. 

“So,” he began.  “Those Californianos are unable to take care of their own?  They have to starve their own prisoners before selling them?”  His voice shook with indignation.

The Spaniard looked up and started to explain a little of the circumstances of the past few days, but suddenly realized that Bowman had spoken to him in Spanish.  His eyes widened in surprise and he was speechless.

“Young man,” the cargo master chuckled.  “There is no need to gape at me as though I suddenly had grown another head.  My pronunciation is probably atrocious, but I did not spend two years as a prisoner of the Spanish without learning some of the language.”

The young Californiano struck him as being intelligent, but he hoped this man also had some learning under his belt.  He had yet to see his request to Capt. Beatty come to fruition.  For the past year, every time the China Star docked and took on new hands, Bowman requested to have as an apprentice any man who could read and write.  

He rose stiffly, feeling his joints creaking, and walked back to his little desk.  The young man laid his head against the cabin wall and closed his eyes.  Bowman could see him swallowing, trying to control the heavings of a deprived stomach.  “Take deep breaths.  Maybe that will help until your meal comes.”  The Californiano did not verbally acknowledge his suggestion, but Bowman saw his chest rise and fall in a more deliberate breathing pattern.             

In a short while, the sailor brought in some bread, cheese and a mug of beef broth.  “Mister Bowman, I managed to get a mug of the soup that Mrs. Meachem requested, but you should have heard Billy cursing and dancing in the galley.  Said he wasn’t going to send special food and wine, too, so I just settled for the soup,” Henry reported.  He handed it to the young man, who took the mug gratefully. 

After the sailor had left, Diego slowly sipped the broth.  It was barely warm, had no spices or vegetables with it, only a little salt, but it was like heavenly manna to his palate.  The lurching of his stomach settled to something easily controlled.

“Drink it slowly at first.  Let your stomach get used to it,” the Englishman admonished, studying him carefully. 

Diego nodded.   While he slowly drank the broth, taking a bite of the crusty bread every few swallows, he discreetly studied the Englishman, who had gone back to working on his books.  An older man, perhaps close to his father’s age; he didn’t seem to have the same harshness as the others on board this ship that he had met thus far.  The man had gray hair, with mutton chop whiskers that extended down his jaw line, stopping short of becoming a beard.  His eyes were blue gray and his cheeks were ruddy, an indication of years of exposure to sun and sea.  He was stocky, but not fat.   The appearance would almost make one think that this was a jovial individual, but Diego knew that appearances could be deceiving.  

Finishing the broth and not feeling any ill effects, he continued to eat the bread, then he nibbled on the cheese.  While cheese was practically an unknown commodity in southern California, owing to the fact that cows were not kept for milking, Diego had developed a taste for cheeses while in Spain.  This sample would not rank with any of them, but the hungry did not pick and choose.  And he was hungry.  The old man looked up and cleared his throat.

“Now, we will begin at the beginning,” he said.  “What is your name?”  Diego told him, just as he had the captain.  “All right then, Diego de la Vega, what crime landed you in jail and ultimately on the China Star?”

“Only the crime of being a de la Vega.”  Diego answered simply.   The man motioned for him to continue.  “There is a revolutionary group from Mexico that has begun a spree of terror against those landowners who profess loyalty to the King of Spain.  I can only suppose they do this in order to cause dissension and secure the support of the peons of California to their cause.  And as long as Spain owns California, we will be royalists, my father and I.  They thought that by kidnapping me, they would channel my father’s activities into finding me, and I suppose they may be correct in that assumption.”  He had learned much of Jorge’s agenda when the revolutionary had bragged about his accomplishments as he was taking Diego to the jail in the Presidio de San Diego.

“Very vindictive,” the officer murmured.  “So, you are the son of a wealthy hacendado, eh,” he said.  “I suppose that you are able to read and write Spanish quite well, then.”   

Diego nodded. “I spent three years at the university in Madrid.  I also know French and German, not fluently, but enough to converse.”            

The man beamed a self-satisfied smile. “I have died and gone to heaven.  I finally get someone who is intelligent and educated.”  He looked at Diego with hope.  “And you speak and understand English.”  He sighed and leaned back in his chair.  

“Not very much,” Diego answered in English before reverting back to Spanish.  “I learned the basics from a fellow passenger on my ship to Spain.  I also had an instructor at the university whose mother was English, but we only conversed in that language privately, and that was very seldom. I read it better than I speak it.  I have a few books of English literature back at home.  Even though they are considered illegal, I have enjoyed them,” he explained.  “I am sure that my pronunciations are extremely bad, also.   I have had very little opportunity to speak English to anyone in Los Angeles.   With England and Spain not very amiable at the moment, learning English openly at the university, or speaking it in the pueblo might have been dangerous, to say the least,” he added with a smile.  

The old man smiled again.  “I do believe in miracles!” he exclaimed.  “This whole sordid adventure is misfortune for you, but you have been sent by a kind deity to me.”  He explained, “As you can see, I’m getting a little old for this kind of life and sometimes I get low and can’t keep the books as well as I should.  By the way, my name is George Bowman.  I am the supercargo, and whatever other position for which a literate man is needed.  I will be your patrón for the duration of this trip.  The other person you have to answer to is Capt. Beatty, and I might warn you, if you have not already found out, he is not fond of Spaniards.  He only bought the indentures of you men because we were shorthanded, and needed more sailors to properly run the ship across the Pacific to Singapore.”  He paused a moment before continuing.  “So I would concentrate on learning the King’s English as soon as possible.”  

Diego felt it to his advantage to learn English as well, if for no other reason than to get along better with the captain.  And somehow, deep in his heart, the young man felt it would help him escape his indenture.  “I also wish to become fluent in your language.   I think that will happen sooner if we speak less Spanish.”  

“You are a very open minded Spaniard, Diego.  No offense, but that has been unusual among most of the Spanish since the days of the Armada and more recently, since the defeat at Trafalgar,” he commended the caballero.  “I agree.  We will only use Spanish at the beginning so that I know you understand the meaning of a word or phrase.  The next thing is to get you properly attired.  My assistant is not going to wear rags such as those.”  

Diego looked down at his clothing, the rough woven trousers and tunic that Jorge had dressed him in sometime during that drug-befogged trip to San Diego.  He scratched where the cloth itched the worst.  

“How are you feeling now, Diego?” Bowman asked.   

“Much better,” Diego answered truthfully.  “But is there something to drink?  I still feel thirsty.”  

Bowman pointed to a mug on his desk.  “If you have no qualms about sharing, you may finish my ale.”  He watched carefully as Diego slowly got up and made his way to the supercargo’s desk.  The young man staggered a bit, but whether that was due to the motion of the ship or his sickness, Bowman couldn’t tell.  “Do you feel up to a trip to the purser to get your issue of clothing?” Bowman asked.  

“Yes, I believe so,” Diego answered, finishing up the drink and looking regretfully at the bottom of the mug.   

Bowman laughed.  “There will be a barrel of drinking water outside the purser’s cabin.  When we have just left a port, water is more plentiful.  When we’ve been to sea for a while, the only extra water is that which collects in the rain barrels.  “And Diego,” he added, “be aware that you are not on a higher strata of society here.  Even though I am your commanding officer, with Captain Beatty commanding both of us, you are a new sailor and among the lowest of the low.”  Beatty paused for a moment and gazed at Diego thoughtfully.  “While I do understand your circumstances, as long as you are on board the China Star and under the terms of your indenture, you will have to act with great deference to almost everyone-- officers, passengers and, at first, even the senior sailors.”  

Diego remembered his days as a passenger to and from Spain.  “Ah, I make way for almost anyone I meet, in other words.”  

“Yes, except in times when doing so would interfere with the safe operation of the ship,” Bowman answered.  “And you use the words ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ when addressing officers or passengers, unless you call them by their title and last name.  Much, I am assuming, as others did for you back in California.”  

Diego pondered and remembered that he had treated Bowman pretty much as an equal since he had recovered from his sickness.   “My apologies, Mister Bowman.”  

Bowman nodded.  “None needed, Diego. I just want you to begin your life on this ship with as much advantage as you can get.”   He called a sailor, who took Diego to the purser whose cabin was on the same level as his own.  The corridor was narrow and the ceiling was low enough for him to have to stoop slightly to avoid hitting his head.  Diego could see that space was at a premium.  Several cabins held hammocks or hanging cots, with only the barest bits of space left over for storage of chests and chairs.  He began to appreciate the room in the supercargo’s cabin, cramped though it was, but he couldn’t help but wonder where he’d be sleeping at night.   

The purser was a thin, almost gaunt man, about a head shorter than he was.  His dark brown hair was slightly gray at the temples and his steel-blue eyes glanced up at him before looking back down at the clothing that was laid out on the narrow table in front of him.  Items lined the walls, hung from hooks, or were neatly stacked on the floor.   A hammock stretched from two hooks in one corner and a cabinet was attached to the wall next to a porthole.  Diego wondered how the man managed to make his way to his hammock.  He continued to stand waiting, unsure whether to say anything or not.  Turning to ask the sailor who had accompanied him, Diego saw that the other man had left.  He was on his own.  “Sir,” he began.  

The purser muttered and continued to sort the clothing.  Diego waited for a little longer.   

“Sir, Mister Bowman . . . um, sent me,” he said haltingly.   

The purser finally looked up and stared at him, his piercing eyes seeming to measure him.  “I suppose he wants me to fit you out with a sea packet?”  He muttered some more.  

“Fit out?” Diego asked, bewildered.  The purser had talked out of the side of his mouth, punctuating the question by spitting into a container at his feet.  “Mister Bowman sent me for . . . clothes.  He does not like….” Diego finished his sentence by pointing to his rough woven shirt.  

Suddenly the purser’s face cracked into a tobacco stained smile.  “S’pose not, my lad.  S’pose not.  That is pretty rough cloth.”  He looked Diego up and down again and motioned for him to come closer.  Diego complied and the man began pulling items off of piles on the floor.  Soon there was a stack sitting on the table in front of him.   

“Can’t guarantee the fit,” he said, spitting into the container again.  “What do they feed you back there in California to get you so tall?” he asked.   

Not sure how to answer that question, even though he thought he understood it, Diego just smiled, shrugged and said, “I do not know, sir.”  

In the end, Diego was fitted with light colored blue trousers and a cotton shirt, that, while not as comfortable as the button up calzoneros he was used to, were certainly better than the prisoner’s clothes he had been wearing.  Neither article of clothing was new and he assumed that when sailors died, the purser confiscated the dead men’s clothes.   However, they appeared clean.  He pulled at the material of the shirt he had just put on.   At least they do not itch.  Diego was also issued some low-cut buckle shoes, a belt, a scarf, a hammock, and a blanket.  

“Here, lad, ye’ll need another pair of trousers and a shirt,” the purser said, putting the articles of clothing on top of the small pile that Diego already had.  

“Thank you,” Diego said.  The officer spat and then motioned to him to return to the supercargo.  As he was leaving the purser’s cabin Diego banged his head against the door beam.  “By the Saints,” he shouted in pain.  The Briton laughed heartily at him.  There was also laughter from the narrow corridor.  Apparently this was a common occurrence.  Diego laughed along with him, not hearing any derision in the man’s voice. 

“Spaniard,” the purser chuckled.  “You’re too tall to be a sailor.  You’ll knock your brains out before we get to the Sandwich Islands.”   

Diego thought he got the general idea of what the man was saying.  “You might be right,” he said as he left, remembering to duck this time. 

 

 

 

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