"By the Sea"
Captain Sir Edward Pellew stood in the small shop and breathed deeply, enjoying the fragrance of fresh bread and buns. It had been some time since he had been able to visit the bakery in Portsmouth, and he always enjoyed taking a couple of loaves aboard ship to relieve the monotony of ship’s biscuit. As he chatted with the baker, he noticed movement toward the back of the shop. A boy, tall, broad-shouldered, with a mop of curly dark hair, was carefully wrapping loaves of bread in paper. He kept his eyes on his work and wore a defeated air.
"New boy, James?" Pellew said briskly.
"Oh. Him," the baker replied. He lowered his voice. "Bit of a pity, really." He cast another glance at the boy, who didn’t appear to be listening. "His father begged me to take him on. They say he was a bright boy, once, but he had an awful throw from a horse when he was 9. Knocked his head hard on a rock. When he came to, it was all gone. Can’t write, can’t hardly read, and can’t hardly remember nothing. It’s took me all of a year to get him to recognize my breads by sight." The baker sighed and shook his head. "His father took it fierce hard. He were a doctor. Had high hopes for the boy ... once ... but now...." He snorted briefly. "Named the boy ‘Horatio.’ Fine name if you were to make a doctor or a sea captain, eh? But no use for a boy who stokes the fires and tends the ovens. I call him Ray."
Pellew noticed that the boy, though he appeared not to be listening, kept flicking his gaze toward the harbor and the ships anchored there.
"Ray," Pellew said softly. "Come here."
The boy looked up at the baker, his large dark eyes dull and defeated. The baker nodded. "Come on." The boy shuffled over, twisting a cloth in his hands, gazing at Pellew’s feet.
"Look at me, Ray." Slowly, the boy managed to meet his gaze for a moment before the eyes, with extraordinarily long lashes, were veiled.
"Ray. Do you like to look at the ships?" Ray nodded. "Would you like to work on one?"
The boy glanced up and for a split second, something flickered in those eyes, then they were dull and empty again. "Can’t read," he muttered. More slowly, he added, "C-c-can’t remember things. No good aboard ships," he spat bitterly.
"Ray. Look at me." Sullenly, the boy met the captain’s gaze. "The cook on my ship has too much to do. He needs someone who can tend the fires and bake the bread. Do you think you could do that?"
The boy’s breath caught audibly in his throat. Again, he looked at the baker, the way a horse will look to its master. The instinctiveness of the movement caused Pellew to tighten his lips. His expression hardened. No doubt the baker had provided shelter and work for this poor boy, but little else.
"I’m no use aboard ships," the boy repeated, doubtless echoing something the baker had told him numerous times to prevent him running off to sea.
"I think you might be of a great deal of use to me," Pellew said. To the baker, he added, "This boy has served you for nine years. Surely his apprenticeship is completed. Shall I give you ... say ... five pounds for your trouble?"
A gleam came into the baker’s watery eyes. "Make it ten."
"Ten pounds," Pellew said scornfully. "You’ve already got a deal of work from him. Five and no more."
"Fine," the baker said with a heavy sigh. "Ray. Get your things. You’ll go with this man here." The boy shuffled off, returning in a moment with a small dingy sack holding two aprons and a change of shirt. Pellew felt a pang. Is that all the boy owns in the world?
As he walked alongside the boy back toward the ship, Pellew was deep in thought. Was this the right thing to be doing? Should he let well enough alone? He’d had to often enough over the years. This time, however, something in him would not let him let the thing alone. It was more than the human compassion for a dumb beast. Something in the boy’s eyes told him that his poor brain was not as dim as believed.
Aboard, he assembled the officers and midshipmen. "Look here, men," he said bluntly. "I’ve taken on a new cook’s mate. His name is Ray." He cleared his throat. "Ray had a blow to the head as a child. He can’t read or write and can’t remember much. I know that skylarking and hijinks are all part of being on board ship. But this lad doesn’t understand that. Playing a trick on him would be like playing a trick on one of the beasts in the manger forward. I want you to hear this, and make sure all your men know this. Any man who tries to play a trick on Ray shall be punished for it. Is that clear?"
A chorus of "Aye, aye, sir," came from the men.
Pellew let a week pass before looking in on his charge. Already he could see a difference. Ray was visibly cleaner and stood nearly straight as he carefully chopped potatoes under the cook’s watchful eye.
"Ray," he said suddenly. This time the boy met his gaze the first time, and even straightened up a little.
"Yes?" The cook elbowed him sharply. "Oh. Sir," Ray added belatedly.
Pellew surpressed a smile. "When you’re done here, report to my cabin." The boy looked to the cook.
"Go on," the cook said. "I don’t need you now." Dutifully the boy followed Pellew, who bade him sit down. As before, the boy’s hands twisted nervously in his apron.
"Ray. Do you ever remember hearing any ... poetry?"
"Poetry ... what’s that? Sir."
"Here," Pellew said, lifting a book from a shelf. "Just listen.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder -everlastingly.
There now," Pellew concluded. "What do you th..." his voice trailed off. The boy was snuffling inelegantly into his shirt-cuff, tears splashing from his prominent nose onto his sleeve. Pellew frowned. "Ray? ... Horatio?"
At the sound of his full name the boy looked up, startled, his great wet eyes like a fawn’s. He swallowed hard and suppressed his sniffling. "It’s ... it’s ..." the boy’s face clouded; he lacked the language to express what he felt. "It’s pretty," the boy finally said. "Sir." He drew a shuddering breath. "Say the last bit again?"
Obligingly, Pellew re-read the second stanza.
"A sound like thunder ev-ev-everlastingly," the boy repeated. Then, abruptly: "Dear child! Dear g-g-girl." He choked and buried his face in his sleeve. Pellew’s eyes widened and went from the boy to the book and back again.
"Horatio." The boy looked up, sullen now. He thought he was in trouble.
"Horatio," Pellew said very softly. "Have you heard these words before?"
"Y-y-yes. Sir," Ray said. "I th-think so. Sir."
"Horatio ... what comes next?" Pellew raised his chin and smiled at the boy, who started breathing heavily, clearly concentrating. Pellew could almost see rust being flaked off long-disused cogs in the boy’s brain.
"Th-th-that ... wakest ... walkest? W-w-with me here," Ray said slowly.
Pellew helped him along, the realization striking him that the next lines surely applied to Ray: "If thou appear untouched by solemn thought/Thy nature is not therefore less divine:/ Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year,/And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,/God being with thee when we know it not."
The boy’s abilities had faltered and Pellew finished the poem alone. "Do you know what this poem means, Ray?"
The boy’s face darkened and his gaze dropped. He began fiddling with the apron again. "No," he said sullenly. "Don’t know."
Pellew said, gently, "It means that our Lord God loves you as much as He loves anyone. From the commander of a ship to the cook’s mate, we are all loved and valued by our Lord."
This time the gaze was incredulous. "God?" Ray made a strangled cough, wiping his mouth roughly on his overworked sleeve. "Did God make me like this?"
"Like what, man?" Pellew said impatiently. "Ray, you love things of beauty. You’re on board a ship at sea, the whole ocean before you. You may have been told that you’re ... useless. But these pretty words that you like say that you’re not. And you’ve remembered something that you have not heard in a long, long time. Ray... you remembered something." He reached across and handed the boy a lightly starched handkerchief, managing not to wince as the boy promptly and noisily blew his nose and wiped his grubby face with it. He met the boy’s reddened eyes. "Ray, I think you are much brighter than you think you are."
"Sir?" Too many pronouns, clearly. Pellew sighed. "Ray, you are useful ... and you can learn things." He cleared his throat. "Report to my cabin every night. I’ll ... ah ... teach you to ... write your name." Dumbly, the boy nodded. "All right, go back to the galley. No," he added hastily. "Keep the handkerchief." When the boy had clumsily exited and his footsteps had receded, Pellew sat back, frowning. Was it possible that the boy had retained some of his former reported intelligence? Was he over-reaching, as he sometimes did?
He made to close the volume of poetry, noting as he did that the verses he had selected by chance were titled "By the Sea."