Damage to her mast means Sea Witch has to be repaired, but the nearest shipyard is at Gibraltar. Unfortunately for Captain Jesamiah Acorne, several men he does not want to meet are also there, among them, Captain Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy, who would rather see Jesamiah hang.
Then there is the spy, Richie Tearle, and manipulative Ascham Doone who has dubious plans of his own. Plans that involve Jesamiah, who, beyond unravelling the puzzle of a dead person who may not be dead, has a priority concern regarding the wellbeing of his pregnant wife, the white witch, Tiola.
Forced to sail to England without Jesamiah, Tiola must keep herself and others close to her safe, but memories of the past, and the shadow of the gallows haunt her. Dreams disturb her, like a discordant lament at a wake.
But is this the past calling, or the future?
"Rot? How could there be rot? Master John Benson, back at Appledore several months ago, checked and repaired everything needing checking and repairing."
Captain Jesamiah Acorne stood, legs spread, arms folded, chin tucked to his chest, his leather three-corner hat pulled well forward over his eyes against the glare of Gibraltar’s late afternoon summer sun. He was seething with frustrated anger and failing to keep his annoyance under control.
"Benson? I do not know him. Good chap, is he? And where is Appledore when it’s at home? Never heard of it." The master shipwright, an English Kentish gentleman by his accent, pulled the stub of a worn graphite pencil from behind his ear and scribbled a few more calculations on the wedge of crumpled paper he held in his hand. Frowned at what he’d written, then said: "It will take us several weeks to find and fit a new mainmast."
Jesamiah swallowed down a bellow of outrage.
"You can have rot and not know it, Cap’n," Chippy Harrison said, looking as grim-faced as Jesamiah.
"You’re my ship’s carpenter. You should have known about it," came the unjustified response.
The answering retort was as tart. "I told you about it as soon as I did know. ’Tis not easy to spot when rot’s starting to take hold at the mast partners or where it passes down through the deck. Hard to see it there. Above and below, there were no sign back in Devon. Benson, as good as he is, would not have found it. Nor would I. Not unless the whole mast had been unstepped. Which it weren’t as there didn’t seem to be no need, though, as I recall, I advised you to do so, but you were in a hurry to sail. Benson also suggested looking further, but you again said no. If we’d looked it would’ve meant taking up the deck, knocking out more bulkheads, shifting gawd knows what else…"
"All right, I get the gist," Jesamiah answered, refraining from churlishly adding, You still should have seen it. He knew, as well as anyone, that discovering rot, especially where it was well hidden, was nigh-on impossible even to an experienced eye. Plus, he had indeed said no to further investigation; Chippy was right, so the blame, in the end, was his own. However, knowing facts did not help ease the frustration or annoyance.
Chippy Harrison, ignoring his captain’s disgruntled expression, continued defending his reputation as a ship's carpenter, his arms waving about to emphasise his points. "We could not have seen every little detail. If we’d taken everything apart, we’d still be wallowing in Appledore harbour."
Jesamiah took a mental deep breath. Maybe that would have been a good thing? Had they not sailed for Spain his best friend and second in command, Claude de la Rue, would still be alive, and the god-awful things that had happened might not have happened. On the other hand, worse things could have occurred. If there was anything worse than losing a friend and having your wife kidnapped. He closed his eyes a moment, remembering but wanting to forget. It had been back in the spring, and his wife, Tiola, was now well and safe, but good people, women and children included, had died there in that house in Spain. Horribly. Aye well, he wished he were still in Appledore or anywhere else, come to that, but he wasn’t, he was here in Gibraltar with a rotten mast that needed replacing, so it was no good chasing the what-ifs around in pointless circles.
Until a few days ago, he had been happily cruising between the islands of the Canarias, a Spanish-held region and archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, sixty or so miles from the western coast of Morocco. The eight main islands had proved lucrative for trade, Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and La Palma being the best stop-overs to sell his original cargo of fine furniture and wine. In ancient days, the chain of islands had been known as The Fortunate Isles. Jesamiah had mentally changed that to Fortune Islands, for with the profit from the furniture and wine, he had acquired a hold full of gold in the guise of tubs of expensive Cochineal dye and bales of ready-dyed crimson wool, all of which he had sold halfway across the Atlantic in the Azores, for another handsome profit and an alternative stock of goods to sell back in the Canarias. But good fortune deserted him when the damage to the mast had been discovered. Reluctantly he had headed for Gibraltar, the nearest port where he could expect suitable repairs. He had hoped for a speedy replacement mast and somewhere different to sell what was left of his cargo. The latter had gone well, the former was looking distinctly unproductive.
The shipwright sniffed loudly and, tucking the pencil stub back behind his ear, announced, "From our first quick look, it has not too badly taken hold, but bad enough. We will know more when we strip her down. We will need to strike the t’gallants and topmasts and all the yards, rigging and such, then pull the mast and put a new one in." He sniffed again and squinted at his rough notes and calculations. "A lot of work. Could easily eat up four, five, maybe six weeks if we have trouble getting a replacement mast."
"Six weeks!" Jesamiah spluttered. "I can’t wait around here for six weeks! Ain’t you got a suitable mast in that bloody great warehouse of yours over there?"
"I might have. I will not know until I look."
"Well go and look, then!"
The shipwright, refusing to match Jesamiah’s foul temper – the situation was nothing new to him – scratched at the stubbled whiskers on his chin. "I cannot be doing that, Captain, not until the morrow. A few hours ago, I might have had a chance for a quick rummage, but," he withdrew a gentleman’s gold watch from his waistcoat pocket, squinted at it, frowned, "I am about to lock up for the night. My wife will have my guts for her stocking garters if I arrive home late for supper."
Jesamiah swallowed a few choice words about wives and what they could do with their garters, stockings and suppers. Said instead, "A few hours ago I was clearing my holds ready for your inspection." Added, "What’s it going to cost?"
The shipwright looked again, more solemnly, at the scribblings on the top sheet of his notes. Made a few adjustments. "This is only a rough tally. I will get a more accurate estimate to you tomorrow morning." He made another adjustment and showed the result to Jesamiah, who whistled incredulously.
"’Struth! And they call honest seamen pirates! For that much," he said, thrusting his face closer to the shipwright’s, "I expect the work to be done in no more than three weeks."
"I’ll do my best, Captain, but we have several frigates in harbour; any Royal Navy vessels requiring my attention will take precedence."
The thought, sod the bloody Navy ran through Jesamiah’s mind, but judiciously he only said, "Help him look for a mast first thing tomorrow, Chippy." He nodded a curt dismissal to both his ship’s carpenter and the Gibraltar shipwright, turned on his heel, thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his old buckram coat and strode away, not trusting himself to glance along the wharf towards where his beloved Sea Witch was moored.
"Gallows Wake" by Helen Hollick
is the first of Helen Hollick’s Captain Jesamiah Acorne books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Nor was it necessary to have read the previous books to thoroughly enjoy this one; Hollick expertly weaves enough backstory into the narrative to explain what’s happening without taking away from the focus and momentum of the story.
Forced to put into a shipyard in Gibraltar for necessary repairs to his ship, Acorne finds himself in danger from several sides. Both his distant and immediate past are catching up to him – and his wife Tiola, pregnant with their first child. With a brood of children saved from capture to take care of, both Jesamiah and Tiola have their hands full. But Tiola has her own past to reckon with, and she too is in danger, especially after her return to England without Jesamiah.
Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake
have returned from previous books, again, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story – Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human – blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.
I’m not a student of sailing ships, but the scenes on board ship felt authentic. The author’s nod to a classic story of the West Country amused me, but also helped set the mood and landscape. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope there are more to come!"