The opening pages of my debut novel The Tramp Steamer.
A young man's attempt to escape the shame of his family name and the boredom of his dreary island home will take him on a wild journey. In a world powered by steam and clockwork, Lochlann West will sail to the end of the world, where the discovery of a forgotten ship and a terrible crime will uncover a plot that threatens the stability of the entire world...
Please note that as an author from the UK the following words are correctly spelt...
Neighbour, Harbour, Colour etc... Thanks...
Revised to 2 POV
THE TRAMP STEAMER
By Neil D Campbell
Anthony West looked up as a signal flare lit the sky like a comet, and for the briefest moment The Northern Star shone like its celestial namesake. His neck strained as he watched the slow arcing star and drew an etched-silver pistol from the inside pocket of his frock coat. Maida was low in the sky and her sister moon Bala was still full. Best be swift, the Breach will be wide tonight.
Glancing towards the periphery of the dock, West could see two of his lackeys struggling with a heavily laden cart that would more usually be yoked to oxen.
“Hurry lads!” he shouted. The men quickened their pace. Bells rang out in the night. West followed the sound to its source and stared up at the High Hill. Torchlight flickered on the higher terraces. They were on to him.
He turned back to watch his subordinates’ progress. The men had nearly reached the steamer’s berth. West looked up at his ship. Although a few oil lamps shone in her hurricane eaves she appeared deserted and in repose. West brushed past his men to stand on the wide wooden jetty where his ship sat at dock. He whistled curtly, and within seconds the steamer had sprung to life.
The twin red funnels of the great ship began to huff; thread-like wisps changing swiftly into great plumes of dark smoke. West's men struggled to get the cart over a makeshift gangplank. The nearest of the two fumbled, and the cart lost its footing, causing a woolen blanket to fall into the cold dark water, followed instantly by an armful of precious pewter and silverware. West cursed the fools under his breath and snatching his bull-whip from his belt, he lashed out an impossible distance. The man smothered a scream as the blow opened a gash a hand-span wide on his bare shoulder. Working with renewed urgency, they struggled to get their burden on board.
West turned back to regard the city; the torchlight had reached the lower terraces, where the fat merchants kept their pretty villas and prettier wives. He sheathed his pistol; his gun would do him little good against the pursuing mob. He took a second to light an amber cigarette with a broken match, the smoke stinging his eyes. The pain jogged a memory. What had his sister Felicity said? Eyes the colour of tin. He liked the image and smiled to himself stroking his beard with a calloused hand.
Close, so very, very close!
The Northern Star was ready for departure. Anthony West followed his men, kicking away their temporary gangplank. As he paused for a second to look down into the dark water where his man had lost a portion of his haul, he cursed again. Quite how much he had lost to the fumbling idiot would annoy him greatly on the coming voyage, and West made a mental note to make sure the offender would starve over the coming weeks for his ineptitude.
He knew the second he hit the quarterdeck that the ship was free of its moorings, the sway of the sea was clear to the seasoned sailor. He let out another shrill whistle, and the ship began to creep out of the port.
Samson West followed the sound of the bells to the Lost Rock. There, by the alarm bell, he found his mother crouching in the mud. In twenty years he’d never seen her leave the house without powder and rouge, but here she was kneeling in the rain wearing only her nightgown. As he draped his coat over her damp shoulders, she looked back at him with eyes as bleak as a thousand winters. His crombie dwarfed the slight woman and he instinctively sucked in his gut.
“He’s taken everything,” she said “Everything!” Samson nodded and helped her to her feet. A crowd had formed around his mother, and Samson knew that there would be less than a handful of them who would not know to whom she was referring. Anthony... So brother, what have you done now?
The Port Marshal also arrived embarrassingly late; it seemed the whole town had made it to the High Hill before him. He had arrived so late that he’d probably learned most of the story from others making their way back from the spectacle.
“He's making for the wash,” the Marshal said to the Wests.
“Of course he is!” Margret replied. “He's no idiot. He’s heading for the Empire or perhaps Mismeer. Not even Anthony would dare the breach!”
Samson looked the Marshall over. Did he really think Anthony would flee to the Gates? Or to the Steppes? Character aside, Anthony was one of the most cunning captains on the isles, did the fool think he would seek shelter on one of the neighbouring communities?
“We can't catch that ship. I assume you know that?” his question was aimed like a pistol at Margret. “Was it not you yourself who built him the fastest boat in the isles?” Margret nodded, but Samson also knew the answer.
Samson’s eyes returned to his mother. She said nothing, but he guessed her boast sounded less appealing, handed back to her. Samson knew there was not a sloop, schooner or barque on the isle could match The Northern Star's grace and speed.
“They will catch them, they must,” she replied. ”What of the frigates and corvettes? I presume they are to be sent in pursuit?”
“They are being prepared as we speak,” the Marshal replied, ”although I should warn you, some of the council will object to their use.”
“A gaggle of geese, they object to everything,” she retorted.
The crowd parted and a well dressed young woman strolled towards them.
“Felicity,” Samson said, “it’s good to see you.”
“And you brother,” she answered,”so he finally did it. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.” Samson shrugged his shoulders and turned to face his mother again. Felicity also focused on the older woman.
“We'll catch him, Mother ..... I’ll bring him back! There’ll be some reason for this madness I am sure of it.”
“I'm sure you’re right my dear. This is all some misunderstanding,” she turned to regard Samson. “Just bring him home .... Please!” she whispered to the pair. Samson knew his mother better than to think she actually believed they would succeed. To him her colourless tone was a poor attempt to hide her profound disbelief in their abilities.
Margret turned away from the official, to look out over the bay, Samson followed her gaze down into the harbour, the time for talking was over and there was nothing more to be achieved here on the High Hill.
“I’ll catch the bastard,” he said, noting with quiet satisfaction the sting his particular turn of phrase had caused his mother. With that bitter victory Samson left his sister and mother and made his way through the crowd towards the path to the dock.
Samson's crew was already aboard The Western Dream. He had long suspected some treachery from his braggart brother and had insisted the ship be ready to respond to whatever subterfuge the hoodlum was planning. As he ran down the High Hill path, fatigue forced him to stop and catch his breath by the cathedral gardens. The over-powering scent of lavender clogged his throat as he fought for air. Portly and unused to such vigorous exercise it took him a moment to find his second wind, but rage drove him on and he pulled himself to his feet and hurried off once more toward the docks.
The Western Dream, his own ship, was moored out in the bay. As soon as he reached the harbour he quickly boarded her tender; The Last Resort. She was a clockwork launch, sleek and fast, just shy of thirty feet. Once aboard he wasted no time, and within seconds Samson had her tearing towards her mother ship at full click.
Within the hour The Western Dream was in full pursuit. Samson stood on the bridge surrounded by his officers. “How far ahead is she?” He asked the helmsman.
“She has an hour on us at best and we're approaching twenty knots,” he replied.
An hour? Samson thought, it may as well be a week! Even at twenty knots they would never catch the faster ship.
“Any sign of my sister?” he asked the navigator. The young man shrugged, took a brass eyeglass to the port window and stared out into the dark seas behind them.
“She's gaining on us sir. She must be running in the red,” he replied.
“So she has joined the chase,” he said, ”she must have taken the funicular to the bay she couldn’t have passed me on the path. If we are to catch The Northern Star we’ll have to run the red ourselves! I want engineers by the boilers. We'll catch the son of a bitch even it means tearing this ship to pieces.” His order acknowledged, he took his own telescope to the port window.
Felicity definitely appeared to be gaining, but was veering wildly off to port. On a hunch he turned to the navigator; “Plot the course of The Southern Swell would you please. I have a feeling my sister may be planning something reckless.” With that, Samson left the bridge and went below.
Half an hour later a tinny voice in the com-pipes summoned him back to the bridge.
"She's heading for the Breach, sir," the navigator said, eyes as wild as the murderous waters he had just been plotting.
“The stupid bitch! Where in hell did she find that crew? Change heading, we have to stop her,” Samson ordered. The navigator looked helplessly around him. The young man fumbled, scattering his pencils all over the chart, but he swallowed hard and began plotting a new course that would take them out of the placid waters of the wash and into the chaos of the breach.
Samson patted an iron wall of his ship as if she were a favourite lover. She was an ocean going vessel, strong, safe and easily capable of the month long journey to the empire. But to Samson’s knowledge no ship had ever successfully crossed the Breach. So many expeditions had been lost to its murderous waters that sailing even as close as this was illegal and in theory punishable by prison, but it was not the law that he feared. What had his father told him on their first voyage together? Beware the Breach lad, remember in the history of the isles not a single ship has been able to determine even how wide the Breach is.
His ship had only just altered course, but Samson could already feel the fury of the legendary waters. He looked nervously out across the dark sea, but it was a futile exercise. Samson knew there was no definite border between the serene canal that formed the wash and the perpetually raging rip tides of the Breach, only a steadily worsening sea, where the cold waters from the ice flows of the north met the wind driven swells of the southern ocean. Beyond the Wash, the Breach ran like an impassable barrier, a thousand miles of wild white treacherous water. Samson knew the waters were teacherous at best, but the proximity of the Mada the elder moon could only mean higher seas and a fiercer sea..
Minutes after the ship changed course she was already struggling. The swell had risen rapidly and the steamer was now traversing waves of ten feet and more, she was coping well, but the same could not have been said for The Southern Swell.
“How far off is she?” Samson asked his pilot.
“Too far sir, she's foundering. See for yourself,” the helmsman passed Samson his eyeglass and motioned him to port. Samson scrutinised the sea intently. He managed to catch the ship in the tiny glass eye for a just a second, a league ahead; the vessel had water pouring over her decks as she attempted to mount a peak of thirty or forty feet.
“She's on her beam ends!” Samson roared as he caught sight of the little ship toppling over. In that moment he saw his world shatter. The ship keeled over on the lip of a great wave, and careered down a wall of water on her side. Her lights went out as if some great entity had pinched out her wick. From somewhere aboard an unseen figure managed to launch a flare. It ascended at a poor angle, barely reaching the height of the highest wave.
“Quickly," Samson screamed into the com-pipes, "I want every man with a good set of eyes on the port side. Launch the flares, damn it, we'll not let them all drown.”
Within minutes the entire crew was gathered on the port decks of the ship, frantically scanning the nightmare waters for signs of life, but even Samson knew they were searching in vain. There was nothing out there in the dark night but the cold killing sea.
“How many?” Samson asked in a voice he'd borrowed from someone else, somehow stronger and braver than his own.
“Full complement sir, fifty - maybe more,” the helmsman answered unable to take his eyes from the wheel.
The Western Dream clung to the sea for all she was worth, lurching and rolling in the violent ocean.
The minutes that followed were cruelly slow for Samson. There was nothing out there in the blackness but death. The ship pitched and rolled at awkward angles, but the choppy sea was taking its toll. In the gale force winds the first mate’s voice was barely audible.
“We must turn back sir, we're taking on water. The bilge pumps are having no effect. Please, sir, think of the men,” he yelled. Samson couldn’t look at him he could only nod as he dismissed his crew-mate with a wave.
The pilot swung the great wheel back to starboard. Slowly The Western Dream returned to the wash. Samson looked out into the now placid water. The cloudy night had turned the sea the colour of midnight. He looked to the north and saw The Northern Star - not his quarry, but its bright namesake – which even now shone like a beacon through the foggy sky.
Samson and his crew returned to Havant that night shame and grief their only cargoes. As they inched their way back to the island, Samson discovered that half the able ships on Havant had joined the chase, but one by one they too had abandoned the race. The Western Dream had become the flagship of a failed fleet, limping sadly back the way she had come. Nearly fifty cogs and sloops crawled behind her, each one beaten, flying their colours at half-mast.