Land of Mist and Snow

(comprising the personal narrative of Lieutenant John Nevis, USN, and selected extracts from the diary of Miss Columbia Abrams, augmented with sundry letters and reports from divers hands)


Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

One (The Narrative of Lieut. John Nevis, USN)

Two (Extract from the private diary of Miss Columbia Abrams)

Three (A letter from Mr. Wm. R. Sharps, Philosophiae Doctor, to Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt)

Four (The Narrative of Lieut. John Nevis, USN, continued)

Mist and Snow

The Narrative of Lieutenant John Nevis, USN

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 Norfolk.

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 a messenger 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 preparation for 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 lost no 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 Nicodemus 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 of brass.

"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 inquired.

"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 question directly.

"Where is it that these guns that I just signed for are to be shipped?"

"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 shore.

We came alongside a brig, TRIUMPH lettered on her sternboard 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 my own.

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 her, I 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 Nicodemus?"

"Nothing," he replied, "for I have not seen her myself, though I have been involved in her construction for over a year now."

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 single up all lines, and the crew, well drilled, hurried silently to obey.

"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 passed.

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.

Mist and Snow

Extract from the private diary of Miss Columbia Abrams. (Note: 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, of conflict.

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 Female Academy.

Mist and Snow

A letter from Mr. Wm. R. Sharps, Philosophiae Doctor, to Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt.


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 vengeance that you meted out to his confrere Garrison, and whisper spoke of 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, misled by 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 Pallidus, 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 Liber 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 first 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 Pallidus, and in time my diligence was rewarded. I found the lost ür-text 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 meaning.

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 convinced me 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 them.

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 before.

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 Grey Book, 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 you!"

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 language, the ritual words rose up toward the night sky as an ululating shriek. "My preparations are complete! Come down, I compel you, come down!"

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 eye.


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.

Mist and Snow

The Narrative of Lieutenant John Nevis, USN, continued

Although I was not obligated by my orders to do so, I had myself placed on the Triumph's watch bill. I stood my watches on 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 enquired where the ship of that name might be found, that I might present my orders.

"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 iron."

"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 so on."

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 were underway.

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 from 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 base.

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 sternboard.

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 water.

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 back.

"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 the night.

"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; Vincent was 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 complement.

"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 in.

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 with ice.

"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 table.

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."

"What, none?"

"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 all around."

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 was 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 mounted?"

"Propulsion is no concern of yours," was all he replied.

Mist and Snow

...our story continues in Land of Mist and Snow by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Get your copy today!

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