They say the mad hear demons calling to them, as clear as a man in the street calling their names. I heard tell once that they would be mad and happy all their lives were it not for these voices. It is the voices that drive them to their destruction; moral, physical or both. So it may be with my numbers. I can no more forget twenty-three ells of bengal or the precise proportions of the blue cr”pe to the incarnate and of the incarnate to the white than a man could shake the lunacy from his head by standing up and saying: `I am whole.’
To be sure, the disease was common enough at the time. There was hardly one in the country who could not hear the sweet music of so many pounds, so many tons of this or that commodity, so many per cent.
The demons whispered it in the taverns, it sighed out of the pillows in duchesses’ bedrooms, the pages of merchants’ ledgers and scholars’ tomes fanned it into their ears, the bleating of the sheep on the high hills was strangely altered in the ears of their shepherds. If others further off could not or would not hear it, they were either ill-wishers or fools who deserved no part of the spoils.
I was the historian of these numbers. I became – may I say it? – the Herodotus of our comic tragedy. There was not a pound of ship’s biscuit, a box of candles or a pint of lime juice but was counted out and set down in my chronicle. Kinghorn canvas: two thousand eight hundred and thirty two and a half ells to be sewn together as required by three hundred and thirty pounds of thread and five hundred needles. Enough to blow a nation’s hopes half way across the world and over its insane edge.
The numbers keep me here, staring at my own form in the black glass of the window. That and the sound of my own blood too loud in my ears. Too much of claret and fine Virginia to thank for that.
One, two. Three? No, two of the clock. I’ll not find sleep tonight, and to tell the truth am resolved not to seek it for fear of what might come to me. Even the clocks quarrel in this country. One, two again, further off. Now is the hour, it says. If they could heave up their stones and rush at each other I swear we would have a ten years’ war of the clocktowers.
Two? Two of what? Two ounce of onion seed, butter two firkins, glass two hampers wherein granados four hundred, ninety and three. Or four perhaps? No. No, three definitely. There is so much to be forgotten now, but the numbers I swear will never leave me. I am a man haunted by numbers. They were my vocation. How gilded Fortune called me to them!
`I take it you can keep a ledger?’
`As well as any man, sir!’
`Well, then, we’ll see what use we can make of you.’
Hence the numbers. I wrote in those ledgers but never read them. To have gone to the page would have dishonoured me: I was the Imam of the Grand Totals, they were my five-times prayers called out in account-room, warehouse, quay and hold.
`How much of soap, Mr Mackenzie?’
`White, four boxes, thirteen hundred pounds gross. Black, two firkins.’
Ah, yes. Thank God for the soap. We washed the seas clean with it.
Hammock hooks, twelve hundred; cordage (two inch), one coil; spunyarn thirty-six balls; pipes, nine casks being 129 gross; cheeses 77, being 940 pounds; guns 879; horn spoons, three dozen; deep lead one; hand lead one; shot, lead 223 pounds.
They pinch me in my sleep. I wake at four, bruised by memory. My skull echoes to the ghostly sound of `Ship’s biscuit! 10,000 pounds to Dolphin, 20,000 to St Andrew.’ How fat the tropic fish must be today!
They will be my last thought, my very last I don’t doubt it. Pale and enfeebled I shall lie on my fatal bed, my faithful daughter (should I ever have one) holds my fevered hand. Suddenly, I jerk upwards and with my last strength, shout, `Shoes, eleven hodgets, being a thousand eight hundred and twelve pairs!’ and fall back, a bloodied foam on my lips.
Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall flee them, knowing as I go that they are no more to be evaded through time and space than the Furies themselves. I shall take them with me on my back, the original Scots pedlar, the chapman of my own and my people’s past. Wherever and as fast as I go in the world, the numbers and the names shall come with me and this night I cannot see an end to it.
But three days ago I saw a nation fouled by its own failures. As did the unfortunate Captain Green from his fine vantage-point, kicking in the wind, his posthumous eyes looking at the wreckage of his own incorporated ambitions, ash to the waterline. They wouldn’t even give him the drop.
Not all had lost their wits. I have the evidence here in my pocket, some privy-paper broadside thrust into my hand by one in the greedy crowd, or by the author himself perhaps, too proud of his own wit to ask for the `Two Pence’ demanded at the head. Here it is: Every Man his Own Empire or, Worcester Sauce for a Scotch Lamb. He should be thankful the bleating flock were not in the reading mood or he would have joined the enterprising captain. I would have spoken with him, but no sooner felt the paper in my hand than he was off into the crowd like a thief. Men of sense have become a secret fraternity, the members of which dare not open their mouths even to make themselves known to each other for fear of being set upon. As it is, I only took it from my pocket after returning to my lodgings. That was not a day to let men look over your shoulder.
He is right, of course: even in our revenges we are not one hundredth part of what we imagine ourselves to be, and the stretching of Captain Green’s neck will not sweeten a single Scotsman’s palate. I wonder if he is still there, staying on to fight, or was he that one that passed us on the road, galloping headlong for the border?
My head nods at my own image in the window as if my real and phantasmal selves would stop and talk awhile. But I will not have it. For days past my dreams have been nothing but drownings and hangings. What world is a man in when he must prefer the dead life of exhaustion to sleep?
A quarter of a day must be staggered through, or less. Half a night. My travelling companions and I have so stirred up the lees of our little tale that there is no help for it now. And so I have dug it out once again. Hidden like contraband, its cack-handed binding cracking as I open it. My old friend, my confessional, my hiding-place, my self, salted and dried, stitched in sailcloth, all but done with.
Hear the story of a Britishman.
I should not have hurried. Delay after delay we suffered, and for all the confidence of the announcement no one believed that the next day would see our departure. The men who had refused to board were angrily protesting that they had been right and demanded to know why they had been shipped on a vessel that hadn’t moved an inch since they had been drummed up in the town and put aboard. In the days before making sail Captain Galt paced his quarterdeck sending out black glances of fury in equal measure towards the city (the source of our unaccountable delay), and whatever colonists were airing themselves on the main deck at the time. It could not be denied that they are not all of the finest cut, but I was not without some sympathy for them. Besides, a characteristic that may prove troublesome in a period of enforced idleness might become a golden virtue in the circumstances to which we are committing ourselves. We must have the men to master whatever we find, and I do not doubt we have them here. In their further defence I might say that our good captain’s attitude seems to come from the natural dislike of the salt for the fresh and, willy-nilly, I am of the latter tribe.
We itched with inactivity. The sound of brawling from the holds became common, and we suffered less intellectual irritations from the many millions of stowaways we carried in the form of fleas and lice. Dr Munro blamed it on our immobility. Little air passed through the holds and the weather continued unpleasantly warm. The currents about were slow and for hours each morning after the wastes were put out the water remained foul.
It was in the last hours of the day that I scratched and sweated in my cabin and made too much of my officers’ allowance of brandy; another privilege of my inheritance of the ailing Mr Vetch’s position. I drank his health, drank it again and then just drank. Towards midnight I went up on deck. Being but three days past midsummer there was still light in the north, even though I could hear the clocks striking midnight over the water. I stood awhile enjoying the sky and the quiet and for a few moments was relieved of that excess of human closeness which was weighing on us all.
Captain Galt appeared at my shoulder without a sound. I almost cried out in my surprise and was not a little chagrined to be found standing at the rail, bucket in hand.
`Sleepless, Mr Mackenzie?’
`A little, sir,’ I admitted. `I find it very warm down below.’
`It can be.’
We stood for some time gazing at the light over the hills and I began to learn of that costiveness which is our captain’s chief characteristic. He caught me scratching at myself privily. `That will ease when we are underway.’
With that he walked away as silently as he had arrived, and in a manner which made me feel that he had seen quite enough of me and that I had little more to expect from such a quarter. I reflected that I could have wished for a better introduction.
I went below to spend another uneasy night and with no expectation at all that the next day would be any different from the last ten. I had wished to ask Captain Galt his own opinion as to whether we would indeed sail, but failed at the necessary moment, partly for fear that the question would seem impertinent and partly because of my sudden awareness that my breath must have smelt strongly of brandy and that it would be better if I kept as much of it as possible to myself.
It was this shameful excess that accounted for my waking the next morning to find the ship already in full clamour. Feet drummed on the deck above my head and great shouts were made and answered in what seemed quite another language. I cursed myself and rushed up on deck in angry disbelief that I could have missed such a moment, only to find that we had not yet moved an inch. Feeling not entirely myself, I clutched the rail and felt a deeper swell push up through my feet. I noticed Captain Galt talking to Mr Cunningham by the helm and was trying to make my way into his line of sight and ask him if our great venture had indeed begun when a strange greenness seemed to overcome everything and I was suddenly aware of nothing but the smell of fresh timber and tar as my head struck the deck. I was told later that I was unconscious for no more than a minute and that in that time Dr Munro cast his eye over me and pronounced my case to be of no great interest and that the business of the ship should continue undisturbed. This it certainly did, for when I came to myself I found I had been propped against the rails and my first sight was of sailors stepping over my legs carrying between them a great coil of rope from one place to another. I put the matter down to the rudeness of my levee and the shock of thinking I might have missed the moment of our departure. Dr Munro thought little of my theory, however, and declared that I had been the victim of a `spiritous syncope’ and ordered no further brandy. I noticed Captain Galt’s great back turned to me and hoped, vainly I suppose, that my humiliation had gone unnoticed.
By the time I had regained my full awareness, the activity was above me. Men, and sometimes boys who seem hardly more than half my age, were making their way about the masts and spars as if there was no possibility of error, as if they might step back and stand on the air a moment while untying some mysterious piece of harness before stepping back to cling to wood or hemp.
I struggled to my feet and felt the heightened and cooler air that we were setting ourselves to catch. About us I could see the same fervour on the Endeavour and the St Andrew. A little behind us the Caledonia, the command of Captain Drummond as he now is (and I hear he is most insistent on his new title), seemed to have got ahead of the rest of us in her preparations. A little sail was already set and she strained at her anchor.
Being at the time as completely ignorant of the science of the sea as it is possible to be, I imagined that the moment of our departure was still some way off. I was all the more certain of it when I noticed one of the small ferry-boats making its way out to us from the harbour. Only a moment later I was proved wrong when Mr Cunningham put his head back and bellowed up at the masts some word I was unable to understand. There came a strange sussuration from above, which rose to such a loudness that I ducked, causing some ungentlemanly laughter from the two or three nearest members of the crew. I looked up to see great sheets of whiteness streaming down from the spars; the sails that had so struck me when I first saw her approaching through the clearing sea-mists. For a while they fluttered ineffectually against the masts, but we were slowly turning windward and when the angle was sufficient they filled out, cracking like whips, straining after the wind. Our signal gun was fired and answered by all our companions. The commodore’s pennant flew from our masthead as we moved as a group into the open sea.
For a moment it seemed as if even this departure might prove abortive. The boat that was making its way to us from the harbour (now with someone standing in the middle of it) did its best to reach us. As we started to move off I could see tiny puffs of smoke from it and hear the remote phuts of musket fire. All this I observed from the main deck and was sure that from their superior vantage-point on the quarterdeck Captain Galt and his officers would see the same, but they were talking closely together and were quite unaware of the situation. Torn between my relief to be under way and my duties as an officer of the Company I decided that I ought to draw Captain Galt’s attention to what could be a matter of great importance. The quarterdeck being so busy with men greater than myself, my presence in that world being so new and unexpected, the unfavourableness of my first encounter with our captain the night before, my less than total recovery from my indisposition, in short for a multitude of good reasons, I did not succeed. I did cry out that someone was bringing a message, but was not heard, or at least not noted, and the boat soon shrank into the distance, the last I saw of it turning about to go back to the harbour.
For days we had bobbed in our own filth, land on three sides of us that a strong man could swim to. For the landsmen, we had taken but half a step from home and that was already strange enough. Then, within an hour of our departure, we were in a world transformed, all that we had known shrunk to the thickness of a ledger line. For the captains and the crews there was a return to their element at the very same moment we left ours. Looking back from the space of only a few weeks I can see that I suffered from no little pride in my sudden inclusion on the expedition. Yet that was a land pride, a coin of no currency at all at sea. I learned this quickly during the first days of the voyage when those born and bred in salt and tar lorded it over the rest of us, and I was made to feel at one with my charges, carried off with no more say on my fate than a box of wigs or a bolt of cloth.
On the subject of wigs and cloth, and of the ten thousand other things that men of business call goods, I may set down my new purpose on our great venture. More to the point, I may set down here my private irritation that for all my intrepidity and all my good fortune in Mr Vetch’s difficulties my position has not been advanced by so much as the fourth part of a hair’s breadth. Of course, I was never so beyond myself to suppose that I could fill Mr Vetch’s shoes, and for the privilege of a place on the expedition I readily agreed that a new position be cut to my more modest dimensions. A day before being rowed out, I learned that I was to be Superintendent of Cargoes, which pleased me well enough. Since then the title had been likened to the uniform of an Irish field marshal: there is more to the wearing of it than the acting out. In effect I am doing what I was most particular to avoid doing, that is to say exactly what I was doing before, only now I do it afloat.
And the author of this gentle witticism? None other than him I call the fourth part of a hair’s breadth. To wit: Mr Shipp (no less), my subordinate. I addressed him pleasantly enough on our first meeting.
`I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Shipp. Tell me, was it your name that led you into this trade?’
`It was my father’s name, sir. And he had it afore me.’
Well, that was the way we started and there has been little improvement since. Mr Shipp’s story, or what of it I can piece together from other members of the crew, is that he started as an ordinary seaman and served both in our and the English navies. This career came to an end when he suffered a rupture that made him unfit for strenuous work, whereupon, being able to read, write and calculate, he made a virtue of necessity and, as it were, moved up a deck. It appears that he has found himself suspended between one order of men and another, and his whole situation was rendered all the more uncomfortable by my arrival. He had started to move into my cabin and was therefore displaced by me and forced to go back and find a hook for his hammock with the other men. Whenever I think of him I pray for patience. To be fair, though, I cannot fault his work.
And so to settle at last to my theme. For surely not a grain of what we do now must be lost. The Scotiad (perhaps even the Roriad?) – Day the First: In which little honour was won, and the mystery of the boat explained.
The elation of being in motion at last was short-lived as we dropped anchor off the coast of Fife, barely more than half a day’s good ride from where we had started. The weather remained fair and we could clearly see the towers of the old cathedral at St Andrews, about which I knew my brother might be walking. We did not enter the harbour, it being too meagre and silted for our vessels. I considered that if our halt was to be for some time I might take a boat and visit my brother, but the opportunity did not arise. At least, it did not arise legitimately: the next day when our journey had been re-started it was discovered that two men from our own Rising Sun had gone ashore, either by swimming or on a boat that came out to them from the harbour as part of a criminal arrangement. They took their two months’ advanced pay with them. All officers of the Company were sworn to say no more of the matter for fear of the influence it might have. The precaution was pointless, however, as Mr Shipp was able to tell me the story in all its details. Indeed, he knew rather more than I did. There are no secrets on ships, it seems.
But to the point, to the point: what was interesting was not what went into the harbour, but what came out of it. Another boat, no less, with another figure standing in the middle of it, with three others aside from the oarsmen. A signal gun was fired from a little mound above the harbour, allowing for no mistake on this occasion. The boat came alongside and was greeted by Captain Galt in full view of the crew and all the colonists on deck at the time. Captain Galt showed no surprise at all, but I was astonished to see that it was none other than Mr Paterson himself. He called up to us. `Mr Paterson and three to come on board!’
Captain Galt and Mr Cunningham conferred with one another and then Mr Cunningham called down to the boat. `Three, sir?’
`My wife, clerk and Reverend Mackay.’
There was further conference, longer this time. Being perhaps conscious that more of the planters had come on deck and were taking a keen interest in the proceedings, a brief paper was written out and sent down to the boat. The contents of this were debated at length. Eventually a reply was written on the back of it by Mr Paterson and it was sent back up to us. Captain Galt looked at it briefly, handed it to Mr Cunningham, went up to the quarterdeck and into his cabin and took no further part in the business. Mr Cunningham, a little embarrassed, I thought, added another two or three words and returned the paper. The Reverend Mackay clambered on board, and as his chest was being hauled up on a rope, the boat pushed off and made for the Caledonia, on to which Mr Paterson, wife and clerk embarked.
It was shortly after this that Mr Shipp was telling me what he should not have known about the two deserters. I thought it might please him if I asked him his opinion about this new shipment of ours.
`Can’t understand it,’ was all he would say, `can’t understand it at all, young master. To take the Reverend on here and give the others to the Caledonia. It’s not what you’d expect. Just can’t understand it at all.’
Dr Munro was more helpful. He says Reverend Mackay, whom he describes as a great glorifier of God, is a close friend of Mr Paterson and would not come on the expedition, as the kirk party wished him to, without him. Which explains well enough why they came as a pair but not why they came at all, it being supposed so recently that they would not come. After all, Mr Paterson is not young.
Even so, I was happy to have our originating genius on board. It would have been nothing less than an injustice if he were not to share every part of a venture that would never have started to our minds without him. I took the opportunity to express this sentiment to him on a recent occasion and he seemed exceedingly pleased.
When we resumed our voyage on the next dawn there was a feeling that we were at last fully laden.
* * *
There, I have caught up a day. Though I can see nothing from this windowless hutch I am sure that sunrise can be no more than an hour or two away. Although I have taken only a single step I cannot write another line for the moment. The matter breeds monstrously and tomorrow I will lose everything I have gained as I must spend the day on the Caledonia examining a discrepancy Mr Paterson believes he has discovered in the stores.
Less than two weeks at sea have opened more secrets to me than all my days up to that wondrous departure. If Mr Paterson cares as much about a missing barrel of ship’s biscuit, as his note suggests, I’ll throw a guinea in the sea.
For now, sleep.
They have returned. One of the oarsmen is calling me. These are the last breaths of clean air, the last of a table that doesn’t yaw beneath the pen. The last of civilization, save for what we take with us …
It is the end of the seventeenth century, and the Rising Sun, the biggest of a five-ship flotilla, is making the perilous trip to Darien on the northern coast of Panama. With it go all the hopes and fears of the Scottish people who, driven at last to defiance of their jealous and powerful neighbour, wholeheartedly throw themselves into the scramble for empire and trade, the quest for untold riches and the discovery of a promised land.
Our narrator is Roderick Mackenzie, a young Scot of ambition, cunning – and naivety. Having secured for himself one of the much-coveted places aboard the Rising Sun as Superintendant of Cargoes he becomes the expedition’s self-appointed chronicler – a task that turns out to be very different from the one that he had anticipated, as optimism turns to despair, comradeship to rivalry, and the brave colonial life to a long and heartbreaking struggle with rain, mud and disease.
The Rising Sun is a tour de force of historical fiction, bringing to life the bustling atmosphere and exuberance of Edinburgh in the 1690s and also, in stark contrast, the sinister menace of the jungle which proves more than a match for man. Mackenzie’s journal takes us on a voyage of physical discovery, but more engrossing is the journey he makes into the depths of men’s souls, not least his own, as the essence of civilization is tested to its utmost …
For days past my dreams have been nothing but drownings and hangings. What world is a man in when he must prefer the dead life of exhaustion to sleep?
Douglas Galbraith was born in Scotland in 1965 and educated in Glasgow and St Andrews. He has lived in the south of England for the last ten years.
They say the mad hear demons calling to them, as clear as a man in the street calling their names. I heard tell once that they would be mad and happy all their lives were it not for these voices. It is the voices that drive them to their destruction: moral, physical or both. So it may be with my numbers … I was the historian of these numbers. I became – may I say it? – the Herodotus of our comic tragedy. There was not a pound of ship’s biscuit, a box of candles or a pint of lime juice but was counted out and set down in my chronicle. Kinghorn canvas; two thousand eight hundred and thirty-two and a half ells to be sewn together as required by three hundred and thirty pounds of thread and five hundred needles. Enough to blow a nation’s hopes half-way across the world and over its insane edge ….
Copyright ” 2000 by Douglas Galbraith. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.