The Midshipman (Short Story Sunday)

Steampunk short story

He had heard many of his fellow officers complain of homesickness, but as William Parker sat on the port gunwale of the Nephele and watched the coast of Lemnos drift slowly below them, he could not imagine such a feeling himself. That morning he was assisting Mr. David with the spyglass. William’s task was to spy out shoals and coves and other geographical features that could prove useful to the Admiralty, while Mr. David, looking through the gridded scope, copied the shore’s outline onto a roll of paper. Mr. David had himself designed the small table which sat on his lap and allowed him to feed blank paper and roll up used paper as required, through the use of a hand-crank on one side. William greatly admired Mr. David for his ingenuity, and offered to help him as often as his midshipman duties allowed.

“Possible site for landing C1,” William reported, lowering the spyglass and pointing to the corresponding spot on Mr. David’s chart. The gentleman duly noted this in his precise hand.

Their progress was leisurely. The wind had carried them almost to the southern tip of the island when the lookout called. A ship had been sighted due west, and William regretfully left Mr. David and joined the officers on the poop deck to await orders. The Captain was inspecting the ship through his glass. William trained his own borrowed glass down to the western horizon. It was difficult to make out much about the ship at this distance, but it was one of theirs – probably a 36 or 38-gun frigate – and it was lying at anchor with its sails furled.

“Mr. Peter,” said the Captain. “Give the order to start up the engines. Mr. Mayhew, set a course west. Mr. Simpson, order the men to beat to quarters.”

The men waited at their stations and the Nephele’s engines propelled her towards the strange ship. As they neared, William could see figures on the deck, but only a few. The crew slowed the Nephele down expertly until it hovered almost directly above the stranded ship – it was the Pegasus – and threw down the mooring ropes. William couldn’t see any damage from where he stood, but perhaps the ship was taking on water.

The seamen of the Pegasus made fast the mooring lines. The Nephele was almost still – only swaying gently with the breeze and up and down slightly as the swell caused the Pegasus to tug on the ropes. Lieutenant Simpson stood up on the bowsprit and called down.

“What happened?”

William couldn’t hear the reply, but Mr. Simpson turned to the Captain and explained. “They say a French frigate attacked them and headed due south. They were in too much of a hurry to stay and sink the ship.”

“And what happened to the rest of her crew?” asked the Captain.

Mr. Simpson shouted down, and again reported the answer to the Captain. “Taken prisoner,” he said. “These men only escaped because they’d rowed ashore to gather provisions. It sounds as though the French are planning a surprise attack.”

“Hmm.” The Captain thought for a few moments.

“We ought to give chase,” said the Lieutenant. “The Nephele can travel much faster than a frigate.”

“Yes,” said the Captain, “but not if we’re hampered by the Pegasus. On the other hand, if we are required to use force, we will need its guns.”

The Nephele wasn’t a man of war. Cannons were too heavy for the light airship, and apart from a large hunting harpoon at the stern, she had no weapons. Her main purpose in a battle was to provide reconnaissance. She had never been in a real battle, however, so her usefulness was still unknown. The French had observation balloons, but nothing as sophisticated as the Nephele. Nor would they, unless they could unlock the secret of the distillation of ideal air.

“Even if we were to take the Pegasus along, she couldn’t stand up against a whole French fleet. But if we spy them out, perhaps under cover of darkness, then we may have enough time to return to ten-”

“That is a fair point,” cut in the Captain. “We have no time to lose. Throw down the ratlines and help the seamen on board. We will return to aid the Pegasus once we’ve found the French.”

William was turning to oversee the men, when the Captain detained him. “Mr. Parker, would you help Mr. David put away his instruments and stow the charts in my cabin?”

“Aye, Captain.”

William was a little disappointed not to be able to see the boarding manoeuvres. He thought that one day he would enjoy climbing up the ratlines to the airship himself. It would be dangerous, but thrilling.

Mr. David had already folded away his table and writing equipment, and William helped him carry them back to the Captain’s cabin where they were kept safe. Mr. David opened the lap-table, and William helped him remove the paper and roll it into a tight cylinder which they tied up with string and placed on the desk for the Captain to seal. Usually the Captain would have followed them into his quarters to perform this duty, but today they found themselves waiting.

“I expect the Captain will be busy questioning the new seamen,” said Mr. David. “You should get back on deck.”

As he was leaving, William heard a sound like a gunshot. That was strange. No one on board the Nephele was allowed a gun or powder because of the danger to the inflammable air. As he emerged on deck, the shouts and cries began, and it took William several moments to assess the chaos that had overtaken the usually disciplined crew. They were fighting, but not amongst themselves. The ship was suddenly crowded with strangers, and from among the din that reached him, he realised that they were speaking French. William looked around for the Captain, and could just discern him in a dense knot of fighting, near the point where the ratlines were attached. The Captain and his men were trying to cut away the ladders and stop the enemy from swarming up to the airship. They had been tricked.

William considered cutting the mooring lines, but unless they were released in tandem, the ship could tilt dangerously. It was already leaning with the weight of the men fighting near the ratlines. William drew his rapier and rushed to join them, but he couldn’t get near the Captain. Then he noticed the harnesses that he and Mr. David had used for securing themselves on the gunwales. They were meant to be used for repairing the ship, so they could be lowered and wheeled along the hull. Not entirely sure of what he planned to do, he sheathed his sword, then he jumped onto the gunwale and slid himself into a harness. From this angle, he could clearly see the stream of men swarming up the mast of the Pegasus like bees, and onto the ladders than hung down the side of the Nephele.

William began working the pedals that operated the harness wheel. A few men had noticed him, but they were hampered by the need to hold on, and the threat from above them as Lieutenant Simpson managed to break through the barricade of Frenchmen on deck and drove his sword down into the uppermost man on the ladders. The man cried out, then hung limp, impeding the others. William pedalled desperately. As he neared, he drew his sword and holding it with both hands, began to swing and saw at the ropes of the ratlines. A man fell from deck, nearly colliding with him. William was afraid it might have been Mr. Simpson, but he couldn’t tell. He heard the man’s scream, and the awful sound of the body hitting the ship below. He swung harder, hacking blindly now because of the sweat dripping into his eyes. Finally one rope broke, and a few men swung and danced in the air before losing their hold and plummeting to their death. One man pulled another along with him in his attempt to save himself.

William’s arms ached from the effort, but he wheeled the harness further along in order to tackle the next rope. This brought him even closer to the enemy, and as he swung the blade once more, with his failing strength, one of the Frenchmen drew his sword and slashed at him. William tried to parry the attack, but his assailant’s sword sliced across his upper arm and through the leather harness. Ignoring the pain, Will held on to the harness and continued to swing his sword single-handedly. It was no good. One more hit from the Frenchman and the sword flew out of his weak grip. The Nephele swayed, and brought William closer to the ratlines. The Frenchman landed another blow, this time catching the rope from which the midshipman hung. William looked up at in alarm to see the rope fraying. He began to wind himself back up towards the deck – a harder task than letting himself down, especially with an injured arm. He was almost there when he heard the unmistakable creak and whip of a rope snapping. The Nephele leaned dangerously to port and her hull crashed into the Pegasus’s mast. William heard cries and the sound of shattering wood. The airship gave a violent jerk, as if to shrug off the Pegasus and its crew, but the motion was enough to break the harness rope. William reached out his hand to grab hold of the gunwale, but missed. Everything around him slowed down as his mind raced. Try to hold on. No. What about the ratlines? Too far. The Nephele growing smaller. One or two faces turned towards him. Lieutenant Simpson, his expression horrified. William was going to be smashed against the deck of the Pegasus. Or maybe he would catch the side of the ship and his back would be broken. It would be fast. And the last thing he would see would be his ship. It was sinking against the mast of the Pegasus, pushing it over too. Then the Pegasus’s hull was on his left, and then the waters closed over him, obscuring the Nephele from view. His last thought was that she had saved him, and he must save her. Then nothing.


A wave rolled over him. Stinging salty water filled William’s nose and mouth, and he came to, coughing and flailing in the dark. His hands clawed up rough sand and he realised he had drifted to shore. He struggled to his feet, spitting out water and rubbing his eyes free of brine. In the light of the stars he could just discern the outline of the beach, bordered by outcroppings of rock. He stared out to sea, but with no moon in the sky it was a vast, impenetrable blackness. It seemed likely to him that the sea had carried him towards the western coast of Lemnos, but he had no idea of his position, or where he might find the nearest village.

He was still attached to the remnants of the harness. He pulled it apart, and as he was taking off his wet coat, he felt the weight in his pocket and realised that it was the spyglass. He had forgotten to return it to Mr. David. He couldn’t see the instrument in the weak light, but he thought he would probably have to take it apart and rinse out the brine. Still, it would be useful for starting a fire. He took off his shirt, and inspected the cut on his arm. It had been washed clean by the sea, and although it ached, he felt sure that it would heal quickly. He tore the hems of his britches and tied them together into a bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. Then he wrung his clothes out one by one, and felt warmer for the exercise, until he dressed once more in the cold, clinging fabric.

He didn’t know how long he would have to wait until sunrise, so he began searching the beach for driftwood. Before long he had built up a small pile, but the sky was already lightening. He picked up the spyglass where it lay safe on top of his coat, and looked through it. The lenses were misted with water, and dried salt. He inspected the device, and discovered that the brass pieces unscrewed quite easily. Once he had them apart, however, he realised that he didn’t have a dry cloth to clean the glass. He wiped away the moisture as best he could, put the instrument back together, and stowed it in his coat pocket. There was no point in building a fire now that the sun was rising. He needed to find food, and a way to warn whichever British ships were in the Aegean, that the French were preparing for an attack somewhere south of Lemnos.

Putting his squelching boots back on his feet, he clambered up the hill at the end of the beach. It wasn’t very high, but it allowed him to see that he was on a small headland. He scanned the horizon in every direction, first with his bare eyes, and then through the murky spyglass. No Nephele. If the French had managed to overpower the crew, then they must have driven the airship to join with the rest of their fleet in the south, probably leaving the Pegasus behind. William would have no hope of reaching them, and even if he did, what could he do by himself to help the crew? On the other hand, if the crew had managed to repulse the French, then the Captain would have returned to warn the British ships, as Mr. Simpson had suggested. William hadn’t been aware of any other British ships stationed in the Aegean, but clearly his superior officers had. But where were the ships, and why were they there?

William’s stomach growled loud and long. He wondered whether he might be able to catch a fish… Fish! That was it. They had seen several fishing boats as they floated along the coast. Of course it would be one of the main food sources on a small island like this one. If he was on the west coast as he supposed, then he could follow the shore northwards and hopefully encounter those fishing boats. They would lead him back to whatever settlement they came from. And perhaps they would be able to help him find a British vessel.


The shore was difficult to navigate, and several times he had to take detours inland, but around midmorning he caught his first sight of a fishing boat, and soon after he came upon a girl shepherding her goats. She started when she saw him, and looked afraid until he held up his hands and showed her that his scabbard was empty. She must have been about his age, dark-haired and olive-skinned. He tried a few words of Ancient Greek, but she shook her head. Then he resorted to gesturing, and motioned to his mouth and rubbed his belly to ask if she had food. She reached into the leather satchel that hung around her shoulder and took out a chunk of white cheese and some bread wrapped in a handkerchief. The sight of the food was almost more than William could bear, but he waited politely as she cut into her provisions and offered him half of the bread and cheese. He ate greedily, and when he had swallowed the last bite, she held out a flask of water for him to drink.

“Thank you,” he said, hoping that she could understand his gratitude from the tone of his voice.

He looked around and pointed down the rough path that she must have taken. “Is this the way to the village?” he asked. She nodded, and said something that he, in his turn, didn’t understand.

“Goodbye. And thank you.”

He saw the village almost as soon as he began walking down the trail. It was built into the crook of a sheltered bay, and a row of brightly-coloured fishing boats were still pulled up on its beach.

Before he descended, he took out the spyglass again, unscrewed it, and tried to wipe it clean with his now-dry shirt. Then he put it back together and scanned the horizon. There was still no sign of either the Nephele or the Pegasus, but he saw a small merchant ship heading north.

He folded up the spyglass, and headed down to the boats. One of the fishermen was just stowing his nets, getting ready to head out. He looked wary when he saw William approaching, but not afraid like the shepherdess. Once again William tried to speak a few words of Ancient Greek, but the man shook his head. He must have been a Turk. William picked up a stick and drew a picture of an airship as best he could in the pebbly sand.

The man nodded, and made some motions which William understood to mean that he had seen the airship pass by on the previous day, far out in the west.

“Did it go south?” asked William, indicating.

The man nodded again. Then he pointed at William and said something that sounded like “English”. William nodded vigourously.

The Turk took the stick from him and drew a rough shape in the sand. William recognised it as a map of the island.

“Ingiliz,” said the man, jabbing the stick at a point on the eastern shore.

“English?” asked William. “That’s where the fleet’s moored?”

The man nodded again. Then he called out to another man who was hitching his pony to a cart. They exchanged a few words in what sounded like a mixture of Turkish and Greek, and then the Turk gestured William to the cart. When William looked uncertain, the man drew a line on the sand-map, from west to east.

William understood that the man with the cart would take him across the island to the English. He shook the Turk’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you.” Then he walked to the cart and, despite receiving neither acknowledgement nor invitation from the driver, he hopped on, and within a few minutes was on his way.


The cart’s progress was slow, and made slower when shortly after noon, the driver stopped, tethered the pony, and went to take a nap in the shade of some olive trees, leaving William to chafe at the delay. Afraid that he would be left behind if he fell asleep, but feeling an overwhelming lethargy, he took off his coat, folded it into a pillow and made himself as comfortable as possible in the small cart. Nor did he wake until nearly sunset. They were driving along the track, and when William turned to look at the road ahead, he saw that the sea was now in front of them. He watched eagerly for a sight of the English fleet that the Turk had told him were stationed on the eastern side of the island.

But he was yet to see a ships when, an hour later, the driver pulled up in a village much like the one they had left. William jumped off, stretching his legs and looking around.

“English?” he asked, spreading out his hands.

The taciturn driver spat out an olive pit, and pointed to a house near the shore.

William was afraid that he had travelled all this way across the island for nothing. The sun was setting and he wanted nothing more than to eat a warm meal and drink some water.

He walked to the house that the driver had indicated. There was a light inside, but no one answered when he knocked on the door. Then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A tall man was dragging a boat ashore. William watched as the man reached into the boat and deposited several fish – some of them still alive – into a wooden bucket. Then he turned and headed towards the house, only noticing William when he was quite close. He gave a start, and although he couldn’t say exactly why, William could tell at once that the man was English, and of course the man could tell by William’s uniform that he was a midshipman of the Royal Navy. They regarded each other for several moments.

“Well, younken, how can I help you?” said the stranger at last.

William wondered what an Englishman was doing on this remote island. “My ship was overrun by the French,” he said shortly. “I was thrown overboard. I need to find the British fleet and get help.”

“Huh. Good luck with that.”

“Do you know where the fleet’s moored?”

“I don’t know that there is a fleet.”

“Didn’t you see any ships pass by?”

“Oh, I see plenty of ships pass by, but I take no notice of them. I like living a quiet life. I get my fish from the sea, and my fruit from the tree, procul discordibus armis.”

William looked past him at the sea, hoping against hope to see a familiar sail, but there wasn’t so much as a boat in sight.

“Is that the mainland?” he asked, pointing to the horizon where a series of hazy hills rose up and melted into the sky.

He Englishman followed his gaze. “That’s the island of Tenedos directly to the east. Behind it is the mainland.”

“How far is it?”

“The mainland? Oh, nine, maybe ten leagues. I wouldn’t go there if I were you, though. At least not until the Sultan makes up his mind which side he’s taking.”

“What do you mean?” asked William, following the Englishman inside. “I thought he had a treaty with Britain.”

“He does, but old Boney has other plans. He wants access to the Black Sea, but he can’t just sail through the Dardanelles.”

So that was why the French ships were grouping in the Aegean. If the Ottomans switched sides, then the French navy would defend them against the British.

The Englishman had begun gutting the fish.

“The treaty forbids fighting ships from entering the straits, doesn’t it?” William asked.

“It does, and even if a ship does enter the Dardanelles, the way is so narrow that the Turks can easily bombard them from both shores. They don’t stand a chance. You have to engage the Ottomans in open water if you want to best them.”

The Englishman invited him to stay the night. He cooked the fish, which was delicious, and, his tongue loosened further by some strong-smelling liqueur, he talked late into the night about ships and politics. For a man who professed a desire to live a quiet life, he seemed to be very eager to discuss naval battles, and soon William was convinced that the Englishman was just what he had suspected – a former seaman. Whether pensioner or deserter, commoner or officer, William couldn’t tell, but he mistrusted the man, and was careful not to give away any information about the Nephele.

William lay awake after the stranger had fallen asleep, thinking. If the British were mounting a force to oppose the French, they would need a safe harbour where they wouldn’t easily be seen by trade vessels on their way to Constantinople. If he were to choose a location, where would it be?

A sudden idea caused him to sit bolt upright. Tenedos, the man had said. That was the island that the Greeks had used for cover, to trick the Trojans into thinking they had retreated. If it had worked for them, surely it would work for the British navy too. Without knowing exactly why, he felt a deep certainty that Tenedos was the place. He was also certain that the Englishman wouldn’t help him.

Moving as quietly as he could, William picked up his boots and tiptoed out of the door. The pebbles bit into his stockinged feet as he made his way to the boat that was barely visible in the starlight. The sea was as smooth as a sheet, and made only the barest murmur as it met the shore.

What was he doing? He had never rowed for more than half an hour in his life, and then it was only a short way up the Thames. Now he was considering rowing ten leagues in the open sea, possibly against a current. It was madness, but William was desperate. He felt a pressing sense of duty, and a growing frustration that he wasn’t doing enough to save his fellow countrymen. What if the French mounted a surprise attack and destroyed the British fleet, all because William was too slow in bringing them the news? He would never be able to forgive himself.

So he pushed the boat as quietly as he could into the water, jumped in and began rowing.


How he made it through that dark night, William never knew. After just half an hour of rowing, his arms and back began to protest, the cut that he had forgotten about beat the Heart of Oak, and his hands blistered. Worse, the persistent blackness played tricks on him. Again and again he thought that he heard a ship’s bell, and stopped rowing to listen, but could neither see nor hear any sign of a ship. Although he kept Polaris as squarely to his right as possible, he became convinced that he had drifted off course, or was going around in circles. At one time he started as if waking up from a dream, but felt sure that he hadn’t stopped rowing. He shipped his oars and washed his face with cold seawater. His chafed hands stung, but he felt more awake. The north star was still to his right, though when he turned to look at the shore he could see nothing. He continued to row, forcing himself to count a hundred strokes before he rested for twenty beats.

At long last the sky grew lighter. William felt like a child who had endured a long feverish night alone, and finally saw his mother enter the room. He wept, grateful that no one could see him. When he had given vent to his emotion, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and turned to look at his destination. It was closer, but he estimated that he still had two or three hours to travel before he landed. The beach he had started out from was now too small to discern. He wished that he had taken some food from the Englishman as well as the boat. He decided to cast the fishing nets, although the thought of eating raw fish didn’t appeal to him.

He flung the nets clumsily at first, then drew them in and tried again. He waited until the sun was a few degrees above the horizon, before he hauled them in. He was amazed to see how many fish he had landed in so short a time. Homer had been right to sing the praises of such a bountiful country. William picked up one of the thrashing fish. He had no rapier and no knife to kill and gut it, even if he did pluck up the courage to eat the thing raw. He held it, feeling sorry as he watched its gills working uselessly. Then he threw it back in the boat with the others. Perhaps he could barter the fish for some bread on Tenedos.

Even when the island loomed above him, he could see no sails. This didn’t surprise him. If they were using Tenedos for cover, the fleet would be tucked into an inlet on the south side, away from the entrance to the straits. William duly adjusted his course south-west. The current was with him now, pulling him towards the shore. He shipped the oars again, and sprinkled water on the fish to keep them fresh. He wondered whether it would be faster to row around the island, or to walk across it. From what he could recall, Tenedos was even smaller than Lemnos. It couldn’t take much more than two or three hours to cross on foot. But if he walked, he would have to wait for one of the boats to bring him aboard ship, and the Captains might not even notice him, or think him worthy of being picked up, especially if they were expecting an attack at any minute. He would row.


He passed by more empty inlets and bays than he could count, but finally as he rowed around a small peninsula, he saw a sight that made his heart skip. A tall mast peeped from between two great boulders. Then as he rounded the peninsula, another mast, and then… a sight that almost made him weep again: the white, cloud-like balloon of the Nephele. He had not expected to see her here, or so soon. She must have escaped the French after all, and travelled overnight to regroup with the British fleet. William felt as if his trials were over. Within a few hours he would be back aboard his ship, and perhaps even on his way to his first action. In his excitement, he rowed with renewed strength.

He passed the final rocky obstacle, and beheld the entire fleet before him, spreading out into the Aegean sea. Repairs were already underway on the mast of the Pegasus and the hull of the Nephele. Both ships were still bound together, and William could see that the Pegasus was riding higher than the other sea-ships, because the Nephele was pulling her upwards. She had the same effect on William’s spirits. He took out the spyglass and inspected his ship. She didn’t show much damage besides the hole in her hull, but some men were working on the starboard engine. William’s glass travelled down to the Pegasus, and then to the other ships. He didn’t recognise any of them, and as he read their names, he knew why.  The Foudre, the Pluton…

He had made an enormous error. He had found, not the British fleet, but the French. He lowered the spyglass slowly. His mind was awash. Now he could hear conversations drifting to him from the ships, and he wondered how he hadn’t noticed before. Now it was too late to turn back. Someone would have seen him. But he had taken off his coat and waistcoat while he rowed. Would they recognise him as an English officer? Surreptitiously, with his back to the ships, he slipped off his stockings and shoes, and tied all of his clothes up in a bundle using his coat. He had drifted towards the shallows. He leaned down and picked up a large rock from the water, then he wedged this into the bundle of clothes and pushed the incriminating packet into the water, praying it wouldn’t float back up. He hoped that his dirty smock, torn britches and tanned face would give the impression of a local fisherman.

It worked. Almost immediately a voice called to him from the shore.

He tucked the spyglass into his britches and began to row towards the voice. If the Nephele was here, then its crew must be too. They were probably being held captive in one of the ships. He would have to find a way to free them, and get them back to the airship, and then get the airship back to the British fleet, wherever that was.

William reached the shore, jumped out in his bare feet, and pulled his boat onto dry land. The French officer who had called him sauntered over and looked at his haul. He picked up a fish, sniffed it, and finding it fresh enough, picked another two. Then he whistled for a servant, and handed the fish to him. William saw that the French had made a temporary camp on the beach, probably while they foraged for food and water on the island. He tried to keep his gaze disinterested, while taking in every detail. Three marines were standing guard, and a group of seamen were hauling some sort of heavy artillery gun into place. No, it wasn’t a gun. It was one of the engines from the Nephele. And standing under heavy guard, with his hands tied before him… Mr. David. The Frenchman must have interpreted William’s slack jaw as an expression of awe. He snapped his fingers to get William’s attention.

“Did the Englishman send you?” he repeated.

William pretended not to understand, but his mind was whirling. So the Englishman had been here, seen the French fleet, and brought them fish, had he? William was glad now, that he had stolen the man’s boat.


“Ingiliz,” said William, hoping that the Frenchman had as little knowledge of Turkish as himself.

“Bon.” He ordered William to take the fish to the cook.

William gathered the fish into the net, and then looked at the officer for instruction, keeping his expression blank and stupid.

“À L’Achéron!” he said pointing. “Vite!”

William obeyed. He threw his net full of fish back into the boat, and rowed out. He had a good view of the beach now, and he was sure that Mr. David was watching him too, although he made no motion. What did the French want with the Nephele’s engine? That was easy – they had nothing like it. They would want Mr. David to tell them how it worked, or to build them another one.

As he rowed under the shadow of the graceful Nephele, William felt the strangest sensation. A wave of longing engulfed him from head to toe. Longing to be floating above the cares of the land and the sea. Longing to be with people he knew and respected. Longing to know exactly where he stood and what would happen next. Longing for home. Not for England, but for his true home – his ship. He finally knew what it was to be homesick.

He drew up along side the Achéron, tied his boat, and hauled his net with difficulty up the ladder. William thought that the officer on deck would order one of the men to take the fish out of his hands, but everyone ignored him. The men were busy getting the ship ready for battle, and the officer only gave him a cursory nod. William shouldered the net, and went below deck to find the galley. He had never been on an enemy ship before. He tried to remain calm, and keep to his role as a fisherman. The cook was exasperated by how few fish William had caught. He thrust a knife into his grasp, and pushed the midshipman into a corner, indicating that he was to gut the fish. When William hesitated, the cook punctuated his order with a sound clout on the boy’s head.

William got to work, listening hard all the while in case he should catch any talk about the attack, or the prisoners. He was disappointed. At least until he had finished his work. Then the cook handed him a bucket of gruel and a ladle, and ordered him to take it to the hold. It was clear that the man wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to use an errand-boy. William took the bucket with delight, not even feigning difficulty understanding. The cook was busy preparing a dinner for the officers, and the galley was redolent with herbs. William’s stomach growled, and he snuck a mouthful of the gruel himself. It tasted vile, but he still thought it was better than raw fish.

Looking as purposeful as he could, William wound his way around the busy seamen, looking for the hold. He reached a door being guarded by two armed men. One of them reached for his keys when he saw William with the bucket of gruel, so he knew that he had the right place. The door was opened, then closed behind him. In the dim light, William could see many figures leaning against sacks and crates. He had a feeling that they had been talking before he came into the cabin, but now they all looked at him in silence.

“Mr. Parker?”

William recognised the voice. “Mr. Simpson!” he whispered, putting the bucket down to clasp his shipmate’s hand. Mr. Simpson embraced him.

“I thought you had drowned,” said the lieutenant, slapping William on the back.

“Mr. Parker,” said another voice. The Captain moved into the light. “It’s good to see you, but we have no time to lose. What can you tell us about our position?”

William hastened to explain, while a fellow midshipman took the bucket and began ladling gruel into a bowl. “We’re moored on the south side of the island of Tenedos, Captain. The Pegasus and the Nephele are here, but they’ve removed one of her engines and brought it to shore. Mr. David is being held on the shore too, but I couldn’t speak to him.”

“And what of the British?”

“I haven’t seen them, sir. I thought they’d be here.”

“Hmm. They may be moored off Imbros, waiting for the wind to change.”

A guard banged loudly on the door, making William jump.

“Mr. Parker,” said the Captain, hurriedly. “If you have a chance to warn the fleet, take it. No matter what the cost. Do you understand?”

William swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

The door to the hold opened, and the guard motioned William out. A painful lump formed in his throat as he glanced behind him to see the remaining crew of the Nephele. Their fate rested with him. No one else knew that they had been captured except for one small midshipman, and what could he do alone?


As he was descending the ladder to his boat, the officer collared him. William looked up at the man with genuine fear. Had he been recognised? Was he about to be thrown in the hold with the rest of his crew?

“Back to shore,” the officer shouted in French, enunciating each word.

When William continued to look at him blankly, he gestured towards the shore. “Go back. To. The. Shore. Comprends-tu?”

William looked in the direction that the man was pointing, and nodded. He couldn’t have been found out – the officer still thought he didn’t understand French. But William had no idea why he was wanted on the shore. Probably for more errands. Or more fish.

He rowed slowly. The excitement and fear of the last hour had made him forget his weariness, but now he found that his arms were so sore he had difficulty bending them at each stroke. He felt as though he were plying two cranks that needed oiling. When he pulled the boat onto the beach, the officer nodded towards Mr. David. William saw that his shipmate’s hands had been untied, but he was still being guarded.

“Come here,” said Mr. David, gesturing for William to approach. “I’ve asked them to let you help me. Do you understand English? A little? Good. Now, I need a hand dismantling this engine.”

The engine had been placed on a large wooden crate that had sunk deep into the sand under the weight. Mr. David took a spanner from his tool roll and began loosening a bolt.

“It is vitally important to know where each bolt belongs, and to ensure that they are all properly tightened. Now, we remove this plate, and here is the ignition chamber, and the Volta cell next to it. Sometimes it take a few tries to get a spark, but it’s important to keep trying. If all else fails, one can remove this plate, light a match and ignite the ideal air, but only if there is an emergency. Otherwise… no flames!”

Mr. David prattled on in this way as they took the engine apart. William had no idea why the engine had been brought ashore, or why it couldn’t stay in one piece, but Mr. David’s intention in calling him to help, and in telling him how to work the engine was clear. He thought the midshipman could steal the Nephele, and having stolen it, work the engines alone. William was dubious, however. How could he man the engine, steer the ship, and check the air pressure all at once?

“The pressure regulates itself,” said Mr. David, as if reading his thoughts. “This mechanism allows surplus ideal air to be diverted to the engine and relieve pressure in the balloon. It is useful to have someone to check it nonetheless, but not necessary. A well-regulated engine runs itself, although admittedly it still can’t steer. Adjusting for wind direction, wind speed, the engine speed, the weight of the ship… all these factors require careful consideration, but with a little practice, one man could do it. That is the great difference between seafaring ships and airships, as I will tell the captains when they’re assembled here this evening.” He cast William an intense look that was at odds with his off-hand tone. Tonight. Whatever William did, he had to do it tonight.

By noon, they had finished all the work, and a boat arrived from the Achéron with food and drink. Mr. David shared his ration with William. Bread, cheese, and olives. Apparently the French thought Mr. David more important than the prisoners on board the ship. After they had eaten, William motioned that he was going to sleep in his boat, which he did, pulling the nets over him to shield himself from the sun.


William was woken by loud voices. He felt as though he had slept for quite some time, and he could tell by the light that the sun was close to setting.

“You have no qualms about telling us all this?” he heard a man ask. “The English won’t like you giving away their secrets.”

The captains must have arrived. William lay very still in the boat, hoping that everyone had forgotten about him.

“These are not their secrets,” replied Mr. David. “This engine was invented by a Frenchman.”

There were sounds of disbelief.

“It is true,” he insisted. “The inventor went to Napoleon with the plans, and instead of granting him a patent, Napoleon only laughed at him.”

“How do you know this?” asked one man.

“I know this because it is I who invented the ideal air engine.”

“You are a Frenchman?”

“Yes, I am.”

William was astonished. He would never have suspected by his accent or his manner that Mr. David could be French. He had a moment of doubt. Could he trust the man? Where did his loyalties lie? But he dismissed the question almost as soon as it was formed. Yes, of course he could trust Mr. David. Hadn’t he done everything he could to help William recapture the Nephele? Whatever lies he told the French, William was sure that Mr. David was on his side.

“And you sold your invention to the English simply because Napoleon snubbed you?” asked a captain.

A couple of people chuckled.

“No. I did not sell my invention. But the English allowed me to build it, and I allowed them to use it.”

“They gave you money.”

“They gave me opportunity.”

“This is all mincing words,” said an angry captain. “The long and the short of it is that you have sided with the English. You are a traitor, sir.”

“If I am a traitor, then so is Bonaparte, for it is he who has deprived you of this great leap forward. I am here, trying to remedy his error.”

“Very well, very well, gentlemen, let’s continue, or we will be here all night,” said another man, impatiently.

William thought that he must be anxious for the dinner that the cook of the Achéron had been preparing. If the captains were going to be celebrating, then they would be slow to respond to the loss of the airship. It was the perfect opportunity.


He had meant to listen to the conversation between the captains, but William found that he had fallen asleep again, and when next he woke, the sky was dark, and the beach was quiet. He raised himself inch by inch and peeked over the side of the boat. The shore was deserted. Mr. David must have been taken away, but whether he had been placed in the hold with the others, or whether he had been invited to dine with the captains, William didn’t know. He also didn’t know what time it was. He could hear distant voices drifting to him from the ships, but he couldn’t tell if they were the captains, or the officers on watch. It didn’t matter; the sooner he reached his ship, the sooner he would be able to free her.

He eased himself out of the boat, slowly and quietly. The beach might be empty, but the fleet would still have lookouts on each ship. He would have to swim, and not splash about too much. He entered the water at a crouch, took a deep breath, and dove. If the air was dark, the sea was darker still. He swam as far as he could under the surface, then came up for air. Six more dives, adjusting his course each time, and he was near enough the Pegasus to hear the men on deck. He listened. It sounded like they were playing a card game. There was a light almost directly above him, so William swam quietly to starboard, and found it dimmer, as he’d expected. Hopefully that meant that the men were facing the other way. Even better, he found that an end of one of the mooring lines had slipped off deck, and was trailing in the water. It was sloppy seamanship. William had no trouble climbing up the rope, hand over hand. He felt that the rowing and the subsequent rest had strengthened him.

He had planned to sneak across the  deck and up the mainmast, but the mooring line would take him all the way to the Nephele. Her white balloon was just visible over the hull. When he came level with her keel, he stopped and looked down, revelling in the breeze that caught him at this altitude. He felt like shouting for joy. Far below him he could see the two officers in the lantern-light, the cards spread between them. Other figures were just visible too, on the decks of other ships, but no one had noticed him. He reached out a hand to touch his ship, and stroke the strong timber. He was home.

He climbed the last leg and clambered over the side of the ship. A cursory glance around told him that the deck was unoccupied. He wasn’t surprised that the Nephele had been left empty. Seamen were seamen. They preferred to be floating on the sea and mistrusted ships that floated in the air.

He turned to release the mooring rope that he had just climbed up, but he realised that the sound of the falling rope would alert the sailors below. William hadn’t accounted for this. He had hoped to allow the Nephele to drift quietly in the night sky until he was at a safe distance from the French, and could start the engines. Engine, he corrected himself. Engine… That gave him an idea. There would be spare ballonets in the hold, in case the engine’s pressure-regulating ballonet broke. He rushed to find them, then brought them back on deck and used the engine’s pump to fill them with the ideal air and seal them tightly with a few deft knots. The ballonet wanted to float up out of his hand, but he wasn’t sure whether it would hold the heavy rope. He tied the ballonet to the first rope, then released the rope from its lock. The Nephele’s stern rose slightly on one side, but the other ropes kept her in place. Cupping his hands under it, William let go the ballonet. It swayed slightly, rose, and held. He breathed a sigh of relief.

As fast as he could, he filled the other ballonets, and tied them to the remaining ropes. Then he began releasing the moorings. First the one diagonally opposite, then the other diagonals. The Nephele creaked in protest, and began to tilt, sending William sliding across the deck. The ship was eager to be away. With difficulty he regained his balance, sprinted to the final rope and released the lock. The ballonets disappeared from view as the Nephele rose joyfully upwards.

William’s luck was in. The wind had changed direction while he slept, and now blew to the north. It would take him over the island, and the French, looking out for threats coming from the sea, would be less likely to see him until he was well under weigh. If the Captain was right, and the British were moored off Imbros, it would also take him nearer to them.

He leaned on the gunwale and watched the French fleet grow smaller. It looked like a scattered constellation. William’s only regret was that he had not been able to free Mr. David, his crew and his Captain. But he would come back for them. What could he not do, now that he was home?


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Another airship story, I know! I actually intended to rewrite a story that I started in a write-along a long time ago, about the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and wealthy families living in de-commissioned airships, etc. But I soon realised that what I really wanted to write was a good old-fashioned sea-faring tale.

Of course I naturally gravitated towards the northern Aegean (my naval navel), and this story became an alternate version of the Battle of the Dardanelles (1807). I found a very useful description of the islands in the Naval Chronicle for 1812, although I ignored the Russians because they complicated matters. But if I ever expand on this story, I would love to complicate matters! :)



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