It was a wild storm: the sea was running high. The gale roared with demonic shrillness and the waves lashed the ship mercilessly, sending it careering at one moment and dipping heavily the next. The captain could do nothing. His voice was swept away in the death-wind as he called to the bo’sun, but the bo’sun’s voice came back, thin and distant: ‘Here, captain.’
‘Get all hands on deck,’ the captain called. ‘Briskly, or we’ll run ourselves aground. Quick, quick!’
The bo’sun fought his way through the savage, piercing spray to gather the crew together and he put them to work on bringing the sails down. ‘Heave, my hearties!’ he shouted. ‘More muscles there, my hearties! Briskly, briskly! Lower the topsail: listen out for the captain’s whistle!’ He staggered to the deck rail and shouted out to the savage storm: ‘Blow till you burst your lungs! As long as we have room to move.’
The passengers climbed the ladder from their quarters with great difficulty, and lurched on to the deck one by one. They were Alonso, the king of Naples, his brother, Sebastian and his son, Ferdinand: Antonio, the Duke of Milan: and Gonzalo, an elderly courtier. They were returning to Naples after attending the wedding of Alonso’s daughter in Tunisia.
Alonso, struggling against the cutting gale and unremitting thunder and roar of the sea, made his way to the bo’sun. ‘Be careful, good bo’sun,’ he shouted. ‘Where’s the captain? Drive the men harder.’
‘Stay below,’ said the bo’sun.
‘Where’s the captain, bo’sun?’
The bo’sun ignored him and called to the men. ‘Can’t you hear the captain’s whistle?’ He turned briefly to the king. ‘You’re in the way. Stay in your cabins: you’re only helping the storm.’
‘Now, my good man,’ said Gonzalo, ‘calm down.’
‘Not until the sea calms down. Get away! What do these roarers care about the title of king? To your cabins, and be quiet! Don’t bother us!’
‘My good man,’ said Gonzalo. ‘Have you forgotten who you have aboard?’
‘No-one I love more than myself,’ returned the bo’sun. ‘You’re a state councillor. If you can order the elements to be silent and calm the sea we won’t touch another rope. So use your authority. If you can’t then thank God that you’ve lived so long and go to your cabin and prepare yourself for what may happen. Come on, lads!’ he yelled. Then to the royal passengers: ‘Get out of the way!’
As they made their way back to the hatch that led down to the cabins Gonzalo, who hardly ever stopped talking, nursed his hurt pride. ‘I get great comfort from this fellow: I don’t think he’s destined to drown: he looks like someone who’s going to die on the gallows. Let’s hope that Fate will stand fast with the hanging. We could turn the anchor rope into a noose because it’s useless to us! If he wasn’t born to be hanged then we’re in a dire situation.’
The crew were winning their battle with the topsail. ‘Down with the topmast!’ the bo’sun instructed. ‘Briskly! Lower, lower! Bring her down. Damn this howling they’re doing. The passengers are louder than the weather and the noise of our work put together.’
Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo were back. ‘Again?’ said the bo’sun. ‘What are you doing here? Do you want us to give up and drown? Do you want to sink?’
‘Damn your throat, you bawling, blasphemous selfish dog!’ said Sebastain.
‘Are you going to help us?’ said the bo’sun.
‘Hang you, mongrel,’ shouted Antonio. ‘Hang, you whoreson, insolent loudmouth. We’re less afraid to be drowned than you are!’
‘My money’s against him drowning,’ said Gonzalo, ‘even if the ship were as fragile as a nutshell and as leaky as an incontinent woman.’
The ship was lifted high by a giant swell then came crashing down. The passengers and the bo’sun were flung to the deck. The bo’sun scrambled to his feet. ‘Bring her close to the wind!’ he shouted. ‘Swing her mainsail and foresail: we’ll brave the open sea. Turn her!’
The sailors had lost control and were sliding about the slippery deck. They cried out in their panic, gave up and started praying. The bo’sun took out his flask. ‘Are we going to die with dry mouths?’ he said defiantly.
Gonzalo made a massive effort to get up. ‘The king and prince are praying,’ he said. ‘Let’s join them because we’re all doomed.’
‘I’m sick of this!’ exclaimed Sebastian.
‘We’re cheated out of our lives by drunkards,’ said Antonio. ‘This loud-mouthed rascal – I hope you drown ten times over!’
‘He’ll be hanged yet,’ said Gonzalo, ‘even though all this water contradicts it.’
A dazzling flash lit up the sky and the elements seemed to be making a last effort to destroy the world in its fury. The ship turned on its side and everyone on board wailed and yelled at once. A cacophony of voices filled the air, competing with the storm. There were prayers and farewells to their families – wives, children, brothers, sisters.
Antonio refused to panic. ‘Let’s all sink with the king,’ he said, and his friend took his lead.
‘We’ll take our leave of him,’ he said.
Gonzalo clung to the deck rail, trying to cope with his seasickness and his fear. At this moment he would exchange a hundred miles of sea for an acre of barren ground, even if it was covered with heath, furze, broom, anything. But he longed for a dry death.
Then all the human noise was silenced as the ship’s timbers split with a monstrous creaking that could have come from hell.