29th of August – Forenoon Watch
Aye, of course I am in love: I am a hundred kinds of fool. Lynch’s word, setting – it refers to the setting sun. That is the time of day when we must be hard by the telephone, so that either Vaughn can contact us through same, or use it as a landmark to send a message to us, with the messenger arriving, aye, at sunset.
‘Twas not I who solved this riddle, nor any of my men; for this, too, we required the assistance of the most generous and enchanting Lady Meredith – freely rendered, once more, though I feel our obligations mounting, howsoever our kind-hearted and compassionate hostess tosses them away like chaff. We must do something for her benefit, for our honor’s sake. I know not how to redeem my own unwavering embarassment at showing myself entirely doltish in her eyes: such a simple riddle, this, yet I could do nothing with it but press letters on a telephone, ye Gods!
I confess I could not have solved the riddle this past morn, so distracted was I, so suffused with tender feelings – and aye, with feelings less tender, but they are stronger, ‘struth. I was on my couch once more, supine with my eyelids shut in reverie, remembering the sight of Meredith dancing her Yoga, feeling my heart race and my blood burn through me.
Then her voice – ’tis lovely, as well, have I so said? Melodious and soft, the gentle sibilances and the largo of the local dialect giving her words a generosity similar to that which abides in her breast – did break into my fevered dreaming. “Oh, hey,” quoth she – a phrase I have heard before as greeting and exclamation alike, but still cannot fathom. “I had an idea about your word clews.” I opened my eyes and sat up, right joyed that I could behold her loveliness before me once more, even though its perfect simulacrum lives behind my eyes, and dances to the beat of my heart. She came into the room, and graced me with a smile – even as she proved and explicated my idiocy for me.
“I was doing my Yoga –” Aye, lass, I know it well, I thought – “and facing the sun, because a lot of poses are connected to the sun. And because dawn’s the only time it feels warm but not hot, at least in August. And I was finishing the tree pose and thinking, ‘Next is sun salutation,’ and then it hit me. What if ‘setting’ is for the sun? You know – sunset?”
It is well that I am right-handed, for had I worn my club-bandage on the hand I used to strike myself in the brow, aghast at my own blind stupidity, I would have laid myself out across the floorboards. As it was, I fell back against the back of the couch, eyes wide, staring at the ceiling, mortified that I had not instantly known the meaning of Vaughn’s message – and a thousand times more so, as Meredith had seen my foolishness paraded before her very eyes.
“Do you think that’s it?” she asked, delight in her voice.
I sat up and gave her a smile I pray was not over sickly. “Aye, milady. I have no doubt of it.”
She gave me back a smile as bright as the sun itself. “Oh good! So we’ll go on back over there tonight at sunset, all right? Should be about eight o’clock, this time of year.” Then she turned and retired to her chamber above.
I went to Lynch’s and MacManus’s; Shane I woke, gently, though Lynch was already out of bed and gazing out the window at the beauteous morning sky – though he looked somewhat melancholy, I thought. I summoned him to MacManus’s chamber, where I told them both the sure meaning of our clew – and, I here confess, I berated them both, unnecessarily, for their failure to pierce the paper-thin veil that hid the meaning from us. I did not refer to my own failure in that, nor to Meredith’s success, but let them believe I had solved it. Bad enough that Meredith knows me for a dunce, my men must have confidence in me.
I must do more to deserve it, damn me.
Later – First dog watch
We have taken this day to rest; we all three require such after the exertions and exhaustions of the escape. Meredith, after succouring us with the largesse of yet another womanly grace, as she made a large and replenishing meal to break our fast – and by Lucifer, did that taste better than the food of the hospital! – has gone back to St. Vincent’s to pay a visit to her grand-mother, and gather what information she can. Lynch and MacManus and I have been laying on a sort of parapet which encircles Lady Margaret’s home, and allows warm sunlight but has a sort of veil which keeps biting insects away. I think we have recuperated some of our strength, and I am relieved that MacManus has not worsened, shows no signs of fever nor of especial suffering from his wound; I did fear we had forced him to move too much and too soon. But sure and that’s an Irishman, is Shane MacManus: tough as bootleather and twice as salty.
Later – First watch
We have met with some success, though we have not yet won the laurel. I have not spoken to nor received word from Vaughn. But we have confirmation that the lovely Meredith did surmise correctly, and correct as well was our navigation of MacManus’s clew: dusk is the hour, and that telephone is the place. This night, howbeit, was not the night, alas.
We made our way in Meredith’s beast-wagon to the pier where the telephone awaits; we three sailors were attired in manner more fitting the locale and the native semblance that that which we had purloined; Lynch wore a tunic and short breeches that, though they may have belonged either to a younger and shorter Meredith (for the whole woman is nearly of a height with me, and a good hand taller than young Lynch) or even to Lady Margaret herself, were nonetheless suited best to a youth like Lynch: the tunic was black and emblazoned with a skull and crossed bones; over the back were the words “Blackbeard’s Cove – Charleston, S.C.” Meredith had frowned oddly when I inquired as to the identity of this Blackbeard fellow; she said, “You know – the pirate?” I had been forced to nod knowingly and plead befuddlement owing to my injury. MacManus and I were simply attired, in white tunics and the ubiquitous breeches of blue broadcloth, the which Margaret had purchased for us – she called them “Jeans” and “tea-shirts” – on her return from the hospital. Yet another obligation, for yet more kindness.
Lady Margaret is well – her health is improving, too – and the guardians of St. Vincent’s have not tied her to our escape, the which is the talk of the hospital; Meredith described the place as “buzzing like a kicked hornet’s nest.”
Thus incognito, we arrived at the pier, and made our way to the telephone beside Bucky’s Bait Shop; the sun was a handspan above the horizon – by design, as we could not be sure of the precise moment when Vaughn would contact us. And there we waited, for an hour or more; the phone did not ring. The sun set, touched and then vanished behind the tall buildings of the city to the west, but no messenger came seeking we three.
We were discussing how much longer we should wait, when a man’s voice hailed us, his accent thick as molasses and at first difficult to comprehend. “Yew all the ones ‘at ‘air ‘phone’s bin uh-rangin’ four?” (‘Tis as near as I can approximate. I will translate the remaining portions of his speech into proper English.) While we three ancient Irishmen struggled with these words, Meredith leapt to our aid. “Yes, we think so. Has the ‘phone been ringing lately?”
The owner of the voice was a man, white-haired and dark-skinned, large and powerful and solid as a stone tower. He nodded. “Every damn day, just at sunset.” We all exchanged a glance, mine of some chagrin, Lynch and MacManus evincing relief, and Meredith triumphant. “I been answering it, mostly. Nice fellow on the other end, though a mite hoo-doo.” He wiggled his fingers at this last word.
“He means strange, mysterious,” Meredith whispered aside to us in explanation.
“Can you tell us about the man on the other end, friend?” I inquired. We approached closer, and he stood straight. He said, “Well, he talks a little like you do, son. You all both got something of a peculiar accent, you know that?” He grinned, showing his side teeth; he knew, likely from our furrowed brows, that his own speech was none too simple to navigate for we three. The man put out his hand – broad and strong, criss-crossed with more scars than anyone but a sailor would possess – and we clasped and shook. “Name’s Bucky – Abelard Buckminster, for a fact, but folks all call me Bucky, for obvious reasons. This here’s my shop.”
“Fortune smile on you as a friend, Master Bucky. I hope to be such, as well, if we be well-met. I am Damnation Kane.”
He snorted a laugh. “God damn, son, you got a handle as unusual and obscurified as my own. Real pleased to meet you, yes sir.” He released my hand, and I made introductions for my companions.
Then when we all were known, I repeated my query as to the man on the other end of the telephone. “Well,” Bucky said, seating himself atop the table that stood there, his feet, clad in slippers of once-white canvas now more tattered than whole, planted on the bench, “started about – three weeks back, I reckon. That ‘phone started ringing right around seven-thirty, maybe eight o’clock. Now, nobody uses that thing, most days, now that everybody and his granny’s got themselves a mobile ‘phone –” I was forced to ask Meredith later what he had said; I had heard MO-baaahl, and thought our new friend had spoken in some foreign tongue for an instant. Or else was imitating the sounds of an animal, perhaps a goat or a sheep. “But some of my fishing folk leave their ‘phones at home, what with worrying about going in the water instead of on the water, so the ‘phone company keeps it around for them; reckon it makes a few bucks here and there. But nobody don’t never call in to it, not that I heard, not in the thirty years I been sitting in that shack yonder.
“So when it started ringing, and every night, too, around about the same time, I got powerful curious.” He took out a packet of the white tobacco sticks such as O’Flaherty had found when we first came to this land; he placed one between his lips and then offered the packet around; MacManus and I both accepted his kindness. There was some confusion as to which end went betwixt the lips and to which the flame should be applied, but soon enough we three were wreathed in sweet smoke. Then Bucky continued his narrative.
“I got powerful curious, so I answered it. ‘Hello,’ I says. ‘Who is this?’ asks the other side. ‘Bucky,’ I says. ‘You’re ringing my joint. Leastways, you’re ringing one of my walls up something fierce.’ He don’t say nothing for a minute – likely having trouble hearing me with them foreign ears, you know –” We exchanged a grin here, and Meredith laughed – “and then he says, ‘Were you sent to this location?’ And I says, ‘Only when my wife can’t stand me ’round the house no more.’ Then he says, ‘Do you have the word?” Well, I thought he meant the word of Jesus Christ, and I must admit I got a mite touchous with him. ‘I most certainly do,’ I says, kinda uppity; ‘I am a God-fearing righteous brother and deacon of the First Baptist Church of Salvation In His Name here in Charleston.’ I says to him. Then there’s another longish pause, and then he – he apologized to me! ‘I did not intend to impugn – ‘ I had to look that word up, ‘impugn,’ and dang if it ain’t the rarest word I done heard in ten years, and the high-falutinest. ‘I did not intend to impugn your Christian character, good sir, and I tender my most abject apologies for my error.’ And while I was chewing on that wad, he says, ‘I am attempting to communicate with a dear friend and compatriot who has been lost to us for the nonce. To confirm his identity, and ensure our safety from our enemies, near or far, he was told a certain word to repeat to me. That word was the object of my query, not the Word of the Lord of Hosts.’
“Well, that put something different on it. So I accepted his apologies – told him it was damn near the nicest I ever heard in all my sixty-three years – and then I told him I been here every day, heard that ‘phone ring every day, and ain’t nobody come to pick it up. But I said I’d keep an eye out for people paying special mind to this here ‘phone, and if he kept calling back, I’d answer it and tell him, Naw, ain’t nobody come today. He said he was in my debt, and offered me his friendship in payment, and I took that one, too.”
Bucky shrugged, and dropped the end of his tobacco-stick to the ground, crushing it with his heel. “So he’s been calling every day, and I been answering it. I been trying to guess his magic word, too, just to pass the time. Give him a new guess every day. I hope you all knows it, ’cause I tried everything I can think of – tried Abracadabra, and Shazam; Rumplestiltskin, Open Sesame, Wingardium Leviosa – and it weren’t none of those.”
No, indeed: it would most certainly be Clio. Thus we knew the meaning of the second of Lynch’s clews.
Bucky went on, a frown creasing his brow. “But he ain’t called in three days, now. I missed one a week back, when that screamin’ bitch Irene blew through. I reckon if he’s up north of here, he might be caught up the same way.”
My companions and I were filled with confusion by this; who could this Irene be, that she could hold so much sway over the lives of men? And that he could refer to her, to strangers as foreign as we, and seemingly expect us to share in his knowledge? Which expectation was, apparently, not unreasonable, as Meredith was nodding, in comprehension of and agreement with his words. She caught sight of our puzzled faces and enlightened us.
“It was a hurricane, a really enormous storm. It hit land north of here, about – ten days ago?” Bucky nodded, and murmured agreement. She went on. “It rolled up the coast and flooded the North-East pretty bad. Bucky’s right: if your friend is anywhere up around New York or New Jersey – or even Raleigh, they got hit pretty hard – then he might not even have ‘phone service right now.” Bucky grunted agreement once more, lighting another tobacco-stick as we all stared at the silent telephone.
I pray that this storm has spared my beloved Grace, and all of my shipmates who remain aboard her. Ian, my friend – take care of them, in my stead, I beg you.
I had but one question remaining for Master Bucky, before I offered him my sincerest and humblest gratitude for his good service to us and to Vaughn.
“You name your storms after women?”
He laughed and nodded.
There is, it seems, some true wisdom in the men of this time.