Authors: Matthew Skelton
ALSO BY MATTHEW SKELTON
For Thomas and Oliver
The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena.…
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
he boy can hear something scratching at the sides of the boat—a restless scraping sound, as though the sea has grown claws and is seeking a way in. For countless days His Majesty’s Bark the
has been drifting through uncharted waters, crossing new latitudes, until it can go no further south, blocked by an impenetrable reef of ice and fog.
Is this it? the boy thinks. Have we finally reached the edge of the world?
He shifts uncomfortably under the blankets he has heaped on top of himself and tries to sleep, but it is so cold that the hairs in his nostrils stick together, stitched shut. For several hours his dreams have numbed him, carrying him back to London and the fields surrounding the Foundling Hospital, where only a few years ago he was making twine and weaving nets. Now he is awake on the far side of the globe, the blood slowly freezing in his veins.
The cold decides him. He must move.
The boy swings his legs over the edge of the hammock and drops to the ground. All around him men are slumped in sleep, but he takes care not to rouse them as he creeps through the cramped quarters to the stairs. For many it is their second or even their third voyage to the southern reaches of the globe and they are accustomed to such hardships. Their faces have been scoured by wind and rain, and their beards are grizzled with frost.
He finds his childhood companion, Felix Hardy, sprawled against the bulkhead door. By rights Felix ought to be above, on watch, ensuring that the boat does not run aground on the sheets of ice, but the big, burly youth has sneaked down during the night and dozed off in his heavy fearnought jacket. The boy watches him for a moment, but does not have the heart to disturb him. The ghost of rum is still warm on his friend’s breath and a smile is slung across his ruddy face. Instead, the boy bunches his own jacket more securely round his narrow shoulders and climbs the wooden steps to the deck.
Outside, the light dazzles him with its brightness. The icy fog that has dogged them for weeks, ever since they rounded the tip of Cape Horn, has lifted and the sky is a pale powdery blue. Icebergs the size of cathedrals throng the sides of the boat.
The boy has never known such a desolate, beautiful place. Suddenly all of the privations he has suffered—the wretched
food, the hard physical labor, the bouts of seasickness—slip away and leave him charged with excitement. Remembering the thrill he first felt when he boarded the ship at Deptford Yard, dreaming of a life of adventure, he skates from one side of the deck to the other, taking in his wondrous surroundings.
And then he senses something. A crackle in the air, a hint of sound, as though the ice itself is breathing.
All at once he can hear Mr. Whipstaff’s instructions in his ear, training him in the arts of navigation: “Invisible forces be at work in this world, boys; and while we cannot always divine their origin, yet can we discern their presence. Let your mind be your compass and it will seldom steer you wrong.”
In an instant, the boy is climbing the rope ladders to the top of the mast, to get a better view. The rungs are braided with ice and slip underfoot, but he is used to scaling such heights, even in stormy weather, and soon he is standing on a little platform high above the frosted deck. Up here, the air is even colder and ice fronds form on his lashes, but he brushes them away with his sleeve and stares into the distance.
Nothing. Nothing but a shining white immensity of ice and water, for as far as he can see.
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a short brass spyglass and holds the freezing lens to his eye. His hands are so cold, the world trembles. Even so, he manages to guide the glass across the barren wastes.
And then his breath escapes in a silver cloud—a dissolving yell. For, barely visible against the horizon, something
has loomed into view, a precipice far larger than any he has seen. A luminous shelf of ice, a whole continent perhaps, made, it seems, of shimmering light. It towers above the water, girding the horizon like the gateway to another world.
The boy’s heart clamors inside him. He must alert the captain.
His foot is on the ratline, ready to descend, when something holds him back. A suspicion, a doubt. Bright blue flames have appeared above the mast and the air flickers with a quiet intensity. He looks up to see a scintillating stream of particles rippling overhead, passing back and forth across the sky.
The boy stands perfectly still, wondering if he has imagined it, and then glances down at the small sphere he wears on a cord round his neck—his terrella, the miniature globe on which he has been charting his travels. Some of the particles have drizzled down, surrounding it, disappearing into the metal with short, sharp flashes of light.
Slowly, as if filled with the miraculous substance, the orb begins to glow.
Startled, he drops his spyglass, which rolls across the platform and tumbles into space, hitting the deck below with a resounding thud. Instantly, the light around him dissolves and the noise is picked up by the surrounding ice, echoed and multiplied. Explosive cracks burst through the silence like cannon fire, and icebergs calve into the sea, sending huge,
crashing waves spilling against the side of the boat. The boy is nearly thrown from the mast.
Almost immediately, there is a rumble from below. Cries of panic, footsteps on the stairs. Men appear on deck in disarray, seeking out the cause of the disturbance. Felix is at the belfry, clanging the bell with all his might. The ship is a hive of noise and activity.
Numb with shock, the boy clings to the mast and stares dumbly into the distance, where, to his dismay, the apparition he has seen has vanished behind a gathering wall of mist. Flecks of powdered ice drift before his eyes, blurring his vision. All that remains of the icy continent and the flames above the boat is a ghostly, lingering glow. “Ahoy there! Boy!”
The boy looks down and sees first Mr. Whipstaff and then the captain standing below him on the deck. He opens his mouth to answer, but cannot find the voice to speak. Words fail him. Instead, he gazes down at the terrella, shimmering faintly still against his chest, and hides it deep in the folds of his coat. He knows instinctively that no one will believe him, that gleaming particles have rained down from heaven and filled his sphere with light.
Jittering more than during his first days at sea, he descends from the mast and manages to coax his shaking legs to carry him the rest of the way to the captain.
“Yes, what is it?” says Smiling Jack, with his customary frown.
The captain is a tall, gallant individual, dressed in a dark blue uniform with golden braids. He has been in a surly mood ever since the boat was blown off course and became stranded in this icy landscape.
“Speak up, boy.”
“Able Seaman James Flux,” whispers Mr. Whipstaff in his ear.
“Explain yourself, Flux.”
James averts his eyes. “My spyglass, sir,” he says, running his fingers through his wavy hair. “I dropped it from the mast. It … it shattered on the deck. I’m sorry, sir.”
The captain glances from James to Felix, who has sheepishly approached, holding what remains of a dented spyglass in his hands. His hard emerald eyes narrow with suspicion.
“And you were the boy on watch?” he asks.
“Yes, sir,” says James, unwilling to look at Felix directly in case he incriminates him.
“And pray tell me, Flux, did you see anything that warranted awakening the ship in such a manner?”
The boy doubts again that anyone will believe him; he has heard too many tales of sailors who have mistaken common gleams of light for unnatural phenomena at sea. “No, sir. There was nothing, sir. Nothing but ice and emptiness, sir.”
The captain considers his verdict for a long time. “Very well,” he says eventually. “At least you have found us a favorable wind. For that, I suppose, we must thank you.”
The boy lifts his head. Only now does he feel the cold, cutting breeze on his cheeks.
Raising his own spyglass to his eye, the captain quickly scans the horizon, but finds nothing of interest and hands the instrument back to Mr. Whipstaff, who swiftly sheathes it in a polished tube. With a visible shudder, he turns to his second in command.
“Tell the men, Mr. Whipstaff, to raise the sails. Today, we head for New Holland. I have had enough of this accursed climate.”
A cheer greets this announcement and the men are soon hoisting the sails, which flap and swell above them.
“And you, Flux,” says the captain, bending down to speak to James privately. “Either you are incredibly lucky or you are damned loyal. Do I make myself clear?”
“Now get to work. I shall be keeping my eye on you.”
A short while later, once the boat is plowing through the waves, James sneaks back to the stern and watches the icebergs recede into the distance. He is not aware, at first, of the other boy standing close beside him.
“You saw something from the mast, did you not?” says Felix, his reddish brown hair flapping behind him. Like most of the seamen, he has tied it back in a knot—although in his case, it looks more like a frayed rope than a ponytail.
James, locked in his thoughts, knows all too well that Felix will not move, will not budge from his side, until he shares his secret. There is a strong, safe silence between them. For the first time he manages a smile.
“Aye, something strange and mighty powerful, I shouldn’t wonder, Felix,” he says, peering into the waves that chop and churn behind the boat, erasing all memory of their passage through the water. His hands reach for the terrella beneath his jacket and he feels a strange tingling sensation pass through his fingers.
“I reckon,” he says at last, “that I seen the Breath of God.”