In late January of 1863 I was an idler; assigned to the War
Department office at 88 Whitehall Street in the city of New York
after my ship, USS Tisdale, burned when the Rebels took
Time weighed heavily upon me. The war, which some had at
first expected to be over in a matter of weeks -- or a few months
at most -- would soon be entering its third year, and I could not
fail to perceive that matters stood at a most perilous juncture.
In the west, the free movement of our forces up and down the
Mississippi still broke upon the rock that was Confederate-held
Vicksburg; to the east and south, in the Atlantic and the Gulf of
Mexico, Rebel commerce raiders and blockade runners ranged
freely. Everywhere, my brother officers were gaining rank and
experiencing sea-time, whether in gunboats on the inland
waterways or in more conventional warships on the open seas,
maintaining the blockade and chasing Confederate raiders.
Meanwhile, I sat filing papers in an obscure office.
President Lincoln had freed all the slaves in Rebel territory.
My daily hope was that some similar edict would arrive to free me
from my own labors. From my window overlooking the harbor, I
could watch the Navy's vessels come and go -- a species of keen
torture, since I feared that such a long period of shore duty
would see my career stalled, if not derailed entirely, the
ultimate goal of command at sea forever placed beyond my reach.
So it was that on the morning of January 31st
found me laboring at my desk, checking one long bureaucratic list
against another. He had an envelope from the Navy Department in
his hand, with my name on the front. I fairly tore the envelope
from his grasp and opened it.
What it contained was indeed the answer to my nightly
prayer. I was detached immediately from my current assignment
and ordered to travel by fastest available means to the Naval
Arsenal at Watervliet. There I was to inspect and take
possession of a dozen ten-inch Rodman guns, thence to accompany
them to the place where USS Nicodemus might lie, in
order to take
my position as head of her gunnery department.
Nicodemus was new
construction; I would be a plank owner. I was further informed
that Nicodemus was even then being fitted out in
her sea trials.
The remainder of the morning I spent in checking out of my
temporary billet, drawing my health and pay records, and turning
over my responsibilities to a hapless civilian clerk.
I had been staying at a hotel under per diem. I
time in packing, and the afternoon saw me at the Hudson River
Railroad station in my dress blue uniform, purchasing a ticket to
Albany. It was long past dark by the time a hired carriage
deposited me at the gates of the arsenal.
A Marine guard directed me to the duty officer, who saw to
my placement in the bachelor officers' quarters. There I said my
prayers and went to sleep, wondering what kind of craft
might be. I had not heard of her before, though in an eddying
backwater such as my office at Whitehall Street that would not be
a surprise. Still, a sloop of war mounting a broadside of six
Rodmans and, I supposed, lesser pieces besides, would be
sufficient. I was well satisfied with my prospects.
Morning found me in the Arsenal commander's office,
presenting my compliments and my orders. The commander, a
pleasant enough fellow named Winchell who had preceded me by two
years at the Academy, greeted me and offered to accompany me
himself on my inspection tour of the guns. I felt it was hardly
my place to refuse, and I was just as glad to talk again with a
sailor; my previous tour had placed me among civilians and
invalided Army men, landsmen all.
As it turned out, he wanted to do more than talk of mutual
acquaintances while showing off his command to an outsider. He
wanted to pump me for information, information that I sadly
lacked, and which baffled me as well.
"You see, Johnny," he said as we entered the sheds facing
the Hudson where the guns stood, "they're cast to spec, though
why the devil the specs were written that way eludes me."
The guns stood in a burnished rank, gleaming the yellow-gold
"Brass cannon," I said.
"Yes, brass, as ordered," Winchell said, and here he
gestured to a petty officer standing by. "And virgin brass too;
never before made into any other shape."
The petty officer strode over and presented his leader with
a sheaf of paper, which he reviewed, then handed to me. It was
the casting history of each of the Rodmans, from the first
smelting of the copper and zinc to the present.
I checked over the cannon carefully. I was no stranger to
ordnance; the lives of myself and my shipmates, not to mention
the defeat of our enemies, were dependent on the flawless
construction and operation of the cannon. I requested an
inspection mirror and a light, and examined every inch of the
barrels, inside and out. They did in fact appear to be without
scratch, crack, or other imperfection.
I turned to Winchell at length. "You can be proud of your
work," I said.
"Do you wish to examine the ammunition as well?" he
"To the same specifications?" said I.
"The same, virgin brass."
"I can't believe it will be necessary to handle each ball,"
I said, which brought a smile to his lips. Winchell gave orders
that the cannon were to be crated and loaded on a barge for
transport. He then invited me to join him for a belated lunch.
I accepted with pleasure.
Over cigars at the officers' club, I made bold to breach the
"Where is it that these guns that I just signed for are to
"To Brooklyn, for the Navy Yard. So say the lading
documents. They are being loaded onto a barge even now. A steam
tug will tow them. Beyond that, I know nothing."
Across the river in Manhattan I had not heard of a ship
under construction that required brass cannon. I asked Winchell
directly if he had ever heard of such a vessel.
"No, indeed not. But I can scarcely hear of everything.
Perhaps she's been laid in Charlestown."
He kindly walked me to the barge at quayside where my dozen
Rodmans, neatly crated, now lay side by side on a barge. Crates
that I supposed contained brass shot filled a second barge. We
shook hands, saluted, and I presented my orders to the master of
the civilian tug that was to take me down the same river that I
had only lately ascended. The pilothouse of the tug was cramped,
and the smell of the engines pervasive, but I eagerly accepted
the offer to make the journey there.
A brisk wind was blowing, adding its bite to the winter air,
while the sun dipped toward the western hills. A young enlisted
man brought my seabag from my quarters on shore and laid it on
the fantail of the tug, lashed to the rail. Towing hawsers were
made fast to the barges, and with our whistles screaming out we
made way down river. The sun set as we steamed along, the
lighthouses of the Hudson illuminated, as we made our way to the
East River of Manhattan and to the Navy Yard on its eastern
We came alongside a brig, TRIUMPH lettered on her
in gold leaf, where we were evidently expected. The watch soon
appeared with a lantern, a ladder dropped to our deck, and a
working party swung out booms to load the cargo from the barge to
the brig's hold.
I clambered up the ladder, my boat cloak swirling around me,
to salute the quarterdeck and the officer of the deck.
The degree of activity surprised me, and I said as much. I
had expected the guns to be loaded at first light, no sooner, for
the night was a dark and a bitter one.
"Dark and cold, you'll get used to 'em where you're going,"
the officer said. "We sail with the tide or miss a day, and that
won't make the old man happy, not a bit."
He concluded reading my orders by the binnacle lamp, then
handed them back to me and instructed the messenger of the watch
to take me below and show me to the captain's quarters, then to
The captain, as it turned out, was "Uncle Joe" Suffern, of
whom I had heard good report. He was a seaman's seaman, and a
fighting captain. Why he was assigned to such a small vessel and
such an insignificant role as running coastwise cargo I could not
at that time imagine.
"Last of the Nicodemus wardroom," he said,
having offered me
a seat in his cabin and a glass of port. "I envy you. The
outfitting should be done soon. I imagine sea trials shortly."
"Nicodemus, sir? While my orders assign me to
confess that I do not know her."
"You are not aware? You and your guns are being
transshipped to the Naval Experimental Shipyard, Thule."
"I've never heard of that shipyard either, sir."
"Neither had I, until I was assigned to run cargo there.
Not to breathe a word about the place to anyone, not even to a
sweetheart or a wife, those are our instructions."
"I have neither," I said. "But what can you tell me about
"Nothing," he replied, "for I have not seen her myself,
though I have been involved in her construction for over a year
Our conversation was interrupted by a messenger who
announced the loading complete and the cargo made fast for sea.
Captain Suffern excused himself, directed the boy to show me to
my cabin, and took to the deck. I followed the messenger toward
the waist, where I was to be placed in a cabin shared with
another lieutenant. My seabag was already there, lying on the
deck beside a stanchion.
I traded my boat cloak for a short jacket of thick wool and
ascended the ladder to the main deck. The boatswain piped
up all lines, and the crew, well drilled, hurried silently to
"Cast off," came a voice from the quarterdeck, and the
line-handling party on the pier dropped the mooring lines from
the bollards. The same tug that had carried the guns from
Watervliet pulled us stern first into the stream, then cast off.
We hoisted sail, and beneath topgallants and the glittering
stars we passed beneath the Battery. I could see the War
Department building, one window on the top floor illuminated by
the lantern of a late worker. I imagined that it might be my
relief burning the midnight oil, and raised my hat to him as we
As we entered the Narrows the word was passed to make full
sail, and the little brig fairly bounded forward under a fresh
breeze. By sunrise we were out of sight of land, the ship's head
east by north, shaping a course for who knew where.
Extract from the private diary of Miss Columbia Abrams.
This diary was kept in Miss Abrams's personal shorthand.)
March 4th, 1863
When I was still a schoolgirl with my hair in pigtails, I
used to dream of going on adventures. Our teachers warned us,
then and later, that we should strive to keep our thoughts from
dwelling upon such things, lest the power of our untutored minds
should act upon the universe to bring us those dreamed-of gifts
which -- they assured us -- we should not appreciate nearly as
much as we expected.
Perhaps I should not have taken their warnings as an
encouragement, for today I find myself embarked upon an adventure
indeed. Father and I leave Washington today for New York, where
I am to board the ship that will take me northward to a secret
destination -- sworn to the Union and the Constitution as much as
any man in the Naval service.
I begin this journal, therefore, in a spirit of gratitude
toward my younger self, whose persistence in her fantasies of
high adventure and deeds of great renown may have borne in the
end their wished-for fruit. If so, then it is thanks to her that
I have been chosen for the task that is mine to carry out.
While I was a student at the Hadley Female Academy, I
dreamed -- as did most of my classmates -- of playing a part in
the great struggle of our time, to preserve the Union and to
advance the cause of Abolition. I feared that my contribution
would be limited by my gender to the singing of inspirational
songs, since my knitting is so bad that only a truly desperate
soldier would want socks or a muffler from my hand. But thanks
to Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his friend Captain Sharps, I have
a place in this venture; indeed, I recall Mr. Vanderbilt saying,
when first Captain Sharps put forth his extraordinary proposal,
that my father was fortunate to have a daughter so aptly suited
for the work.
At the same time, because I have vowed that in these pages I
shall write only that which is true, no matter how much
dissimulation might be required of me elsewhere, I must admit
that I feel a certain amount of apprehension. Not fear -- or at
least not yet, though I own it could become such -- but we live
in a time of war, and in such a time, to be aboard a ship in the
Union's service is to face the prospect, or rather the certainty,
I can only hope that when the hour of battle comes I will
comport myself with courage and dignity, as befits a daughter of
the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a graduate of the Hadley
A letter from Mr. Wm. R. Sharps, Philosophiae
Doctor, to Mr.
30 April 1861
I have striven, I have persisted, I have endured, and my
efforts have been crowned on this date with success.
Long I have labored toward this end. By the time the
renegade filibustero William Walker escaped the condign
that you meted out to his confrere Garrison, and whisper
vows made on his part to dark and bloody gods, I had already
found the missing pages of the Grey Book.
Copies of the Grey Book are common enough, as volumes of
arcana go. The text contains enough chants and invocations to
make it a favorite of dabblers, while the cognoscenti,
its reputation as an exercise manual for beginners, largely hold
it in contempt. Most of the modern versions are based on the
Aldine Press edition of 1501; Aldus Manutius, for his part, drew
his text from the San Marco manuscript of the Liber
which scholars of his day accepted as both the most ancient and
the most complete.
I was, myself, no metaphysician when I first encountered the
text; merely a student of paleography and epigraphy and textual
transmission. My work with the Grey Book was meant, at the time,
to be nothing more than a research exercise, confirming -- by
means of diligent comparison between the various extant
manuscript versions -- that Aldus had typeset the San Marco
Pallidus as nearly word-for-word as possible.
The task demanded close reading, not just of the Aldine
Press edition and the San Marco MS, but of all the manuscripts of
the Liber Pallidus known to be extant at the time of the
printing. I performed the task to the satisfaction of my
instructors (indeed, I took my degree with highest honors on the
basis of that work), but I kept to myself what else I had
determined in the course of my investigations: that the San Marco
MS is a deliberately defective text. There are no visible
excisions; the scriptorium that produced it created an incomplete
copy de novo.
Comparison with the Regensburg Codex -- held now in a
private library in Massachusetts, and long ignored by scholars on
the grounds of being younger than the San Marco MS, as well as
having been unavailable to Aldus working in Venice -- bears this
out. Internal evidence indicates that the two manuscripts derive
from a common ancestor. In the case of the Regensburg Codex, the
missing text was literally excised, the pages cut from the
binding with a sharp knife.
In a leap of intuition, I realized that the text missing
from the San Marco and Regensburg manuscripts must have contained
the rituals and requirements needed to shape the trivial
invocations of the Grey Book into tools of great power -- power
so great that an entire generation of European savants saw fit to
neuter their own work rather than let it survive into the age of
the printed word.
The realization enraged me: those sages of old had
understood that the many copies of a text made by a printer could
not be held close and controlled as could a single manuscript;
and they had despised the common crowd. Well then, I said to
them, or to the shades that I fancied hovered still about the old
handwritten texts, here I am, child of the New World and the
common man, and I shall find your secrets out.
I became from that moment a man obsessed. My earlier
studies meant nothing to me, save as a preparation for the
metaphysical disciplines into which I now threw myself. I
exhausted the libraries of New York, Arkham, the Vatican, Köln,
Ličge, and St. Petersburg. What books could teach me, I learned;
when I could learn from books no further, I sought living masters
to teach me more. Always, wherever I went and with whomever I
studied, I kept in mind the missing pages of the Liber
and in time my diligence was rewarded. I found the lost
of the Grey Book (in the wine cellar of a fortress in Carpatho-Ruthenia --
an amusing story, worth telling over brandy and
cigars, but not germane to my present communication), and bent my
energies toward transcribing and translating those portions which
had been purged from the younger manuscripts.
With some effort, I established that the unknown script in
which those sections were written was no cipher, but the alphabet
of some ancient and now-unspoken tongue. I persevered, hunting
down the meaning of the words in spite of their unfamiliarity --
seeking out known scripts and alphabets of similar appearance,
comparing the shapes and the arrangements of the letters,
striving always to bring together sound and sense and ultimate
By the time I had reached my new goal, that of being able to
translate and understand the recovered portions of the Grey Book,
the rumblings of political events in my natal land had called me
hence from fair Europa. I am a scholar, to be sure, but not one
of the type who regards academia as a hermitage, and holds
himself aloof from the struggles of the day. If great events
were in train, I desired to be a part of them.
It was on that account that in the spring of 1859 I wrote to
you with my initial proposal for a revolutionary new source of
motive power, drawn from the energy of elemental spirits. My
readings in the full text of the Liber Pallidus had
that this was the knowledge that the Renaissance savants had
purposely lost; the metaphysical studies I had undertaken while
searching for the lost portions of the book enabled me to develop
the recovered techniques even further.
From the beginning I had known that my goals would be best
furthered by the impressment of a spirit of air. The fiery
spirits are beings of great puissance, but not to be lightly
trusted around gunpowder, or around anything of wooden
construction; and their bellicose nature, once roused to a blood-hunger,
is not easily controlled. The spirits of earth are heavy
and sullen, and indisposed towards cooperation with others not of
their kind, while those of water are at best a fickle lot. Air
is the only way.
In the autumn of last year, I took the funds you had so
kindly invested and used them to put together an expedition above
the Arctic Circle. Could I have driven northward as far as the
Pole itself, so much would have been the better for my
intentions, but even failing that -- as in fact happened -- the
clear air and the unceasing night provided close to an ideal
environment for my workings.
When we reached a latitude and longitude which I determined
to be suitable, I ordered the other members of the expedition to
retreat to our previous encampment, and not to return until at
least a week had passed. They did so, leaving me with a winter
shelter constructed primarily of snow and canvas. I lost no time
in commencing the work.
I shall not speak overmuch of my toils. A large area of
smooth ice had first to be inscribed with circles and sigils
carved with sharp metal before being picked out in charcoal:
hard labor in the cold night, and hazardous for a man working
alone, but not so hazardous as the projected work itself, which
carried with it risks to both flesh and soul.
In order to accomplish my goal, I would have to complete not
one, but two rituals, the first to make ready a temporary housing
for an elemental spirit, and the second to draw an elemental into
the circle and subject it to my will. Before I could think of
doing either, I would have to undergo several days of fasting and
meditation. The food supplies that my men had left behind would
do little except tempt me -- so after I had finished the physical
work of making the circle, and had eaten a final meal, I burned
My resolve was fixed. Either I would succeed in binding an
elemental to my service, or I would perish in the attempt.
I withdrew into my shelter, and gave myself over to the
esoteric ritual, not heard beneath the sky in half a thousand
years. I had with me a vial of clear glass that I myself had
created, small enough to fit into a pocket, with a golden stopper
affixed to the neck by a cord. It was but a little container for
something as large and formless as an elemental of air, but
according to the Grey Book it should suffice until I could
perform the further and less harrowing rites needed to transfer
the spirit into a more capacious permanent housing.
When I had completed all the mental exercises set forth in
the Grey Book -- a matter that took some time -- I detached
myself enough from the work to assess the vial, and was pleased
to see that to my inner eye it glowed with the aura of successful
consecration and reinforcement. This was good. I was tired,
also, as though I had spent a whole day lifting and moving heavy
things. I put aside the exhaustion as a matter of no
consequence, and sank back into meditation.
This time, I worked to make myself ready for the greater
task of calling and compelling the elemental. Time passed; I did
not count the days or the hours, but focused my effort and
attention on the coming ritual. When I judged that I was ready,
I took a sword and a thurible and the glass bottle with me out of
the shelter, and went to the circle I had prepared some days
The weather had remained clear during the time I had spent
in meditation; no snow had fallen to obscure the pattern I had
cut into the ice. I placed the stoppered bottle in the center of
the circle -- taking infinite care not to disturb any of the
charcoaled lines -- and retreated again to the edge. I had set
the incense in the thurible alight before I left the shelter; now
I took it up and began walking the circle's outer perimeter,
intoning the first staves of the invocation as I did so.
When I had made three complete circuits in this fashion, I
stopped, set the thurible down beside me, and used the sword's
edge to unleash the hot flow of my own blood. The blood flowed
copiously; I stretched out my hand over the circle in the ice and
let the drops of liquid fall onto the charcoal-filled grooves
beneath. Within seconds, the entire pattern glowed bright red.
I let my voice rise into a shout.
"Come down!" I cried out, in the language of the
which I will not reproduce here. The old savants were right, I
think, to keep it hidden. "I name you -- I seize you -- I compel
you! Come down and enter the place that I have prepared for
This was the sticking-point. If I failed, I would not have
the strength to try again, or even to hold out until the men of
my expedition returned. Quite possibly, I would not survive the
failure long enough to die waiting for them -- the spirits of air
may not be so aggressive as those of fire, nor as coldly vengeful
as those of earth or sea, but their anger when roused is
nonetheless sudden and strong, and nothing of elemental nature
bears compulsion lightly.
The glowing red lines that bounded the circle pulsed first
bright then dim then bright again. In its center, the glass
bottle began to vibrate and glow.
"My will is strong!" I shouted. In the ancient
the ritual words rose up toward the night sky as an ululating
shriek. "My preparations are complete! Come down, I compel
The glass bottle shone blue-white like a captured star, and
the red lines of the circle roared up into a chest-high wall of
flame. Everything paused for a moment -- light, flame, voice,
heartbeat, everything. Then there was a quiet popping noise, and
all the light died. I had barely enough strength left to seize
the glass bottle and drag it and myself together inside the
shelter. The stars vanished. Snow fell.
The rest of the expedition found me upon their return. They
tell me that I was more dead than alive, but even in that state I
would not relinquish my hold upon the vial which held what I had
so laboriously won. Even now it sits before me, pleasing to my
Thus I have fulfilled the first part of our great project,
precisely as promised. What comes next is a matter for further
discussion; to which end, if you are willing, we should confer
upon my return to New York, which should take place within a few
days. Until then I remain, of course,
Your ob't s'v't,
Wm. R. Sharps, Ph.D.
The Narrative of Lieutenant John Nevis, USN,
Although I was not obligated by my orders to do so, I had
myself placed on the Triumph's watch bill. I stood my
the quarterdeck observing the sea, listening to the crack of
canvas, hearing the groans of the cordage and tasting the salt
spray on my lips. I had languished too long on shore, and the
uncrowded expanse of the ocean was balm to my soul.
The high North Atlantic in winter is no easy sea, nor was
this passage completely peaceful. For twenty-four hours at one
point we battled mountainous seas under storm-jib alone, while
Uncle Joe stood on the quarterdeck as if he were rooted there,
using all his skill to see us through.
Still, a week and a day after our departure from New York,
light came without a sun, and we sailed through chilling mist so
thick that it might be cotton wool; so thick that the foremast
was not visible from the wheel, the sails dropping and the only
sound the bell struck by the quartermaster as he turned the glass
each half hour.
"We're close now," Uncle Joe said, and instructed the
Boatswain to commence sounding. Thus we proceeded, making bare
steerageway, for most of the day, the fog never lifting, but
occasional bits of ice floating by on the sullen swell.
Toward the end of the forenoon watch, a voice from out of
the mist cried "Ship ahoy!" and the lookout sang back, "United
States Brig Triumph!"
With a plash of oars a cutter came alongside and passed us a
line, and within an hour, as dark was falling, I found myself
standing on a wooden pier attached to a stony shore. Through the
mist nothing else could be seen save a warehouse, a heap of coal,
and, incredibly, an ornate railway station. A single track ran
beside it, and a locomotive attached to a passenger car and ten
flatcars stood waiting.
I entered the station in search of both warmth and
enlightenment. Once within, I was gratified to find a jolly
pot-bellied stove nearly red from the fire that burned inside it,
and a Navy petty officer sitting at a desk. I saw that his hat
bore the ribbon "Nicodemus", so I strode up to him and
where the ship of that name might be found, that I might present
"A bit of a trip yet, sir," he replied. "First, I must ask
if you are carrying any gold or silver, or any items made of
"Why, yes, all three," I said.
"Before you can board the train for the yards," the man
said, "I must ask you to leave them here. For your silver and
gold money I will exchange greenbacks. For watches and rings you
will be given a receipt. As well as your sword, any pistols, and
This was most unusual, but in the course of my career the
Navy had asked many unusual things of me. The man was sober and
serious in aspect, so I complied.
"I suppose the nails in my boots will pass muster?" I said
with a smile.
"No, sir. I must ask you to leave them behind as well.
We've felt boots, sir, and warmer they are than standard issue."
He reached beneath his desk and pulled out a pair. "Here, sir,
let me make your receipt, and I'll put all your goods in the
lockroom with the rest."
Stripped of money and weapons, and re-shod, I passed through
the other door of the station to the platform, and onto the
passenger car. The words "Department of the Navy, Thule
Shipyards," were painted along its side. I could see my brass
cannon being loaded onto the flatcars. At last I was to find out
what manner of vessel I had been assigned to, and whence the
mystery. I noted that the locomotive also was made of brass, as
were the rails on which it stood.
Without my watch I could no longer tell the elapsed time,
but it was not much longer ere the locomotive gave a lurch and we
I was the only officer in the railway car. Some half-dozen
other men rode with me, bluejackets wearing the uniform of
Nicodemus and the sullen expressions of men returning
liberty. If that railway station was the only place they had to
go for entertainment, small wonder that they looked dour. I did
not speak to them, nor they to each other, and truth to say I
dozed. I suppose the trip lasted some hours.
Nights are long in the far northern latitudes, and it was
still dark when a whistle from the locomotive and a slowing of
the train announced that we were nearing our destination.
With a final chuff of steam and squeal of brakes we came to
a halt. I stood, shouldering my bag, and stepped from the car.
The air was thick with mist, and curiously lighted. A pervasive
glare surrounded the station, a twin to the one where I had
embarked. I soon saw that it came from gas lamps set on brass
poles, one every twenty feet or so. Somewhere out in the dark,
there would be the rounded, cupola-topped bulk of a gas-house,
but I could not see it -- or, indeed, any structure save the
railway station itself -- through the all-enswathing fog.
I walked back along the platform to inspect my cargo. The
crates were covered by a rime of ice perhaps an inch and a half
thick. As I watched, a working party appeared, ghostlike in the
fog, with wagons and teams of horses, their breath steaming into
the mist. They began working to shift the crates. The utter
rapidity of all the evolutions I had witnessed so far, combined
with the silence in which they labored, impressed me.
The liberty party had by this time debarked the train as
well to shuffle through the station. I turned to follow them. I
had no desire to get lost in the cold and fog on an unfamiliar
Wherever the sailors were going, they went quickly, without
the roistering that is almost universal at fleet landing. What I
found on the other side of the station was a long wall, half
again as tall as a man, broken by a gate whose lintel bore the
words: THULE EXPERIMENTAL SHIPYARD, then, in smaller letters
below, Authorized Personnel Only.
How likely is it, I asked myself, that unauthorized people
will find themselves standing here? Indeed, it seemed to me that
I stood at the very edge of the world.
For all the ferocity of the warning above the lintel, no
guard stood at the gate for me to present my orders to. Nor was
there a sign of the group of sailors I had been following. The
mist had swallowed them. The light was brighter here, though,
and ahead of me I thought I could make out a tapping sound,
though what could be producing it I could not tell.
Since my eyes told me nothing, I decided to follow my ears.
The ground was all of clean snow, but trampled flat in a welter
of footprints leading in every direction.
The fog was thick, as I mentioned. I could scarcely see the
poles holding the lights before bumping into one. But the
tapping sound ahead of me grew louder, so I persevered. My
cheeks were stinging with the cold, and my lungs hurt with the
effort of breathing.
Before long I perceived that I was no longer walking on
trampled snow but on ice, perfectly smooth. Shortly afterward, I
came to the source of the sound: a party of sailors, swinging
picks, chipping away at the edge of the ice. Beyond then was
black water, and beyond that the smooth sides of a ship. The
line of sailors went out of my sight to the right and left.
Among them were some with long-handled rakes. When a piece of
ice was chipped free, it was swept up and away.
I turned to my right and walked behind the sailors as they
engaged in their peculiar task. It seemed as though they were
endlessly laboring to keep the ice away from the sides of the
vessel. I walked sixty paces before the line of men made a
ninety-degrees turn to the left, and I followed it to pass under
the ship's bows, then thirty paces after another corner. A third
corner took me under her stern. I was not surprised to see the
name Nicodemus painted in dull gold on the
Another turn and thirty more paces brought me to where I
supposed I had started, still without a clue as to how I was
meant to get aboard the ship. No brow, ladder, or companionway
had appeared during my circuit, nor had I seen a boat in the
At that moment I saw a light moving on the deck above me, so
I sang out, "Hello the ship!"
"Aye aye!" came the answer.
"Lieutenant John Nevis, United States Navy, reporting as
ordered for duty aboard USS Nicodemus," I shouted
"Oh, bugger," replied the voice. "Go to the house and
report to the captain in the morning."
"Bugger yourself," I called back, cold, tired, and annoyed.
"I haven't a clue where this house might be."
"Hopkins, take the lieutenant in tow and stow him away,
would you?" the voice called. A moment later, a young sailor
stepped up beside me, saluted, and reached for my seabag.
"You'll learn your way around here quick enough, sir," he
said. "But you might as well know that they don't do things here
the way they do anywhere else in the fleet."
That I could well believe, though I had no desire to show
over-familiarity with the ordinary seamen by telling him so. I
believe Hopkins understood my silence, for without another word
he shouldered my bag and started off. I followed, from the ice
to a slope, all snow covered, and thence to the porch of a
pleasant house of clapboard, its shutters closed tight against
"Here you are, sir," Hopkins said, saluted, then faded away
into the fog. For my part I returned the salute, turned the
knob, and pushed into the vestibule. The three officers inside
the house quickly introduced themselves: Lieutenant Dodge,
Lieutenant Vincent, and Ensign Seaton, all line officers. Dodge
was the senior man, and first officer for Nicodemus;
junior, in charge of decks and masts; I myself, with the guns,
came third in seniority. Ensign Seaton, for his part, was
attached to the yard itself, rather than making one of the ship's
"Come," said Lieutenant Dodge after I had introduced myself.
"You must be half frozen and completely tired after your journey.
Let me show you to your cabin here ashore."
"Gladly," I replied. "But first, tell me, what manner of
place is this?"
"The God-damnedest shipyard that I've ever seen," Dodge
replied. "If the Navy needed to build a ship in a dark, cold,
and cheerless place, the Portsmouth yards would have served the
purpose quite adequately. Lovely duty here; there's a girl
behind every tree."
"I did not see any trees . . . ." I began, then quieted.
Dodge shouldered my seabag, and led the way up the stairs to
a corridor on the upper floor. Seaton followed with a kerosene
lamp. He opened the first door on the right, and we all followed
The furnishings were spare, but adequate, with two narrow
beds, a washstand, two desks, two chairs, and two wardrobes. A
register in the floor let heat from the fire below flow up,
though not much of it; the exterior wall's inner face glittered
"This bunk is mine," Dodge said, pointing to the one closest
to the window, "and that press. Stow your gear where you will."
He lighted a candle from the lamp, then he and Seaton
departed, pulling the door closed behind them.
I could see my breath in the air of the room. Nevertheless,
the bed looked entirely inviting. I stood my seabag in the
wardrobe, hung my clothing over the back of a chair, blew out the
candle and by feel alone crawled between the cold sheets. I said
my prayers while curled in a ball, only my nose sticking out, and
soon fell asleep.
What seemed an instant later, a tremendous hammering fell on
the door. I started upright. The window was as black as it had
been when I arrived.
Before I could say a word, an enlisted man in a peacoat and
gloves entered, and placed a lighted lamp on the near desk.
"Good morning sir," he said, but did not stay for reply,
instead tramping out and shutting the door behind him.
I rose and dressed, wearing the same clothes I had traveled
in, and with lamp in hand descended to the drawing room where I
had encountered the other three officers the night before.
Some hours had apparently passed. The card party had been
cleared away, and the three officers I had previously met were
dressed with coats and gloves of their own. My coat was over my
arm, and I donned it now, after first placing the lamp on the
Two other officers had joined the others I already knew,
bringing our company to six.
"Ah, there you are," Dodge said. He had been consulting a
small notebook, which he replaced in his inner pocket as I
arrived. "Off to break our fast. Join us?"
"With pleasure," I said, for my last meal had been a hasty
one while still coming to land the day before.
"Come on, then. You can tell us the latest news of the war
while we eat -- there's no newspaper or telegraph, as you can
imagine, and no letters to come or go."
"Not a line," said Dodge. "The Thule Shipyard doesn't
exist; and neither do we, so long as we're here."
No wonder the sailors on the train had appeared so glum and
silent, I thought, but I said nothing. The six of us went out of
the door, down the steps, and made our way in a gaggle across the
creaking snow to a long and low structure, where smoke rose from
chimneys at each end and a line of windows glowed yellow.
We entered, Dodge in the lead, and walked between tables
flanked by benches, all filled with sailors eating their morning
portions. We proceeded to a spot half-way down where a thin
partition set off a single table with chairs.
One officer was already there, a sheaf of papers under his
hand -- ship's plans, from the look of them. He glanced up when
we all arrived, rolling the plans and placing them in a case
leaning against the partition.
"Welcome to the mess," Dodge said. "Time for introductions
These were quickly performed. The gentlemen I had not met
the evening before were two more ensigns, by the names of
Williams and Bash, and the officer who had met us was a
lieutenant named Cromwell. The last-named was a lean and
bespectacled individual, a graduate of the Academy and latterly
of France's École Polytechnique; I was given to know that he
the engineering officer aboard Nicodemus.
"I viewed the ship briefly on my arrival," I said to
Cromwell, "and did not see sidewheels or a sternwheel on her.
Will you be using an Ericsson screw, or are the wheels not yet
"Propulsion is no concern of yours," was all he replied.
...our story continues in Land of Mist and Snow by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Get your copy today!