When people start a blog they go at it with great vigor, posting daily. Usually they taper off after a while and then they post every now and then. I’m a good, or perhaps poor, example of that kind of blogger. But that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. I am, it’s just not for the blog.
So, what is it I’ve been doing lately? I’ve been re-writing a century-old tale of the sea written by a master, Harry Collingwood. Harry Collingwood is the pen name of William Joseph Cosens Lancaster (1851-1922), the son of a Royal Navy captain and educated at the Naval College, Greenwich. He was at sea from the age of 15 but had to abandon his Royal Navy career because of severe myopia. Between 1886 and 1913, whilst working as a marine engineer specializing in harbor design, he wrote 23 nautically based novels as “Harry Collingwood” which honoured his hero Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar. (Source: Historical Naval Fiction).
Collingwoods STORIES are excellent, but the style is old and turgid compared to today’s standards. I think it’s a shame that such good stories are left to wither and die of old age. I find stories like “The Log of a Privateersman” at Project Gutenberg. The copyright has long since expired, and this story is over 100 years old. There are a lot of people who download Public Domain books, slap a preface on them while leaving the old text intact, and then offer them for sale online for as much as they possibly can.
What I do is try and make the book read as though it was written in the 21st century, not the 19th. There is hardly a paragraph that I’ve left intact. And it’s not a fast, slash and burn edit, either. This book, which I’m now going through for the final edit, is well over 400 pages long. Collingwood, while writing vividly about action at sea, rarely gets into descriptions of the characters in his books. Almost never. I try to overcome that deficiency.
What follows are the first couple of paragraphs from the book…Collingwood’s original text and my rewrite.
THE CAPTURE OF THE WEYMOUTH–AND WHAT IT LED TO.
The French probably never did a more audacious thing than when, on the
night of October 26th, 1804, a party of forty odd of them left the
lugger _Belle Marie_ hove-to in Weymouth Roads and pulled, with muffled
oars, in three boats, into the harbour; from whence they succeeded in
carrying out to sea the newly-arrived West Indian trader _Weymouth_,
loaded with a full cargo of rum, sugar, and tobacco. The expedition was
admirably planned, the night chosen being that upon which the new moon
occurred; it was a dismal, rainy, and exceptionally dark night, with a
strong breeze blowing from the south-west; the hour was about two
o’clock a.m.; there was an ebb tide running; and the ship–which had
only arrived late in the afternoon of the previous day–was the outside
vessel in a tier of three; the Frenchman had, therefore, nothing
whatever to do but to cut the craft adrift and allow her to glide,
silent as a ghost, down the harbour with bare poles, under the combined
influence of the strong wind and the ebb tide. There was not a soul
stirring about the quays at that hour; nobody, therefore, saw the ship
go out; and the two custom-house officers and the watchman–the only
Englishmen aboard her–were fast asleep, and were secured before they
had time or opportunity to raise an alarm. So neatly, indeed, was the
trick done that the first intimation poor old Peter White–the owner of
the ship and cargo–had of his loss was when, at the first streak of
dawn, he slipped out of bed and went to the window to gloat over the
sight of the safely-arrived ship, moored immediately opposite his house
but on the other side of the harbour, where she had been berthed upon
her arrival on the previous afternoon. The poor old gentleman could
scarcely credit his eyes when those organs informed him that the berth,
occupied but a few hours previously, was now vacant. He looked, and
looked, and looked again; and finally he caught sight of the ropes by
which the _Weymouth_ had been moored, dangling in the water from the
bows and quarters of the ships to which she had been made fast. Then an
inkling of the truth burst upon him, and, hastily donning his clothes,
he rushed downstairs, let himself out of the house, and sped like a
madman down the High Street, across Hope Square, and so on to the Nothe,
in the forlorn hope that the ship, which, with her cargo, represented
the bulk of the savings of a lifetime, might still be in sight. And to
his inexpressible joy she was; not only so, she was scarcely two miles
off the port, under sail, and heading for the harbour in company with a
British sloop-of-war. She had been recaptured, and ere the news of her
audacious seizure had reached the ears of more than a few of the
townspeople she was back again in her former berth, and safely moored by
chains to the quay.
It was clear to me, and to the rest of the _Weymouth’s_ crew, when we
mustered that same morning to be paid off, that the incident had
inflicted a terribly severe shock upon Mr White’s nerves. The poor old
boy looked a good ten years older than when he had boarded us in the
roads on the previous afternoon and had shaken hands with Captain Winter
as he welcomed him home and congratulated him upon having successfully
eluded the enemy’s cruisers and privateers; but there was a fierce
glitter in his eyes and a firm, determined look about his mouth which I,
for one, took as an indication that the fright, severe as it undoubtedly
was, had not quelled the old man’s courage.
It was a miserably rainy night in late October, 1804, when the French lugger Belle Mere hove-to in Weymouth Roads. Silently, three boats were lowered over the side and about forty men, manning muffled oars, snuck into the harbor and boarded the West Indian trader Weymouth loaded with a full cargo of rum, sugar and tobacco that had just arrived the previous afternoon.
The Weymouth was the outside vessel in a tier of three at the dock waiting to be unloaded, so the boarders had nothing more to do when they boarded her then cut her adrift and allow her to glide quietly down the harbor with bare poles influenced by the strong wind and ebb tide.
Because the weather was so foul there wasn’t a soul stirring on the quays at that hour so no one saw the ship leaving. The two customs-house officers and the watchman, the only Englishmen aboard, were fast asleep when the boarding party swarmed over the side of the ship and they were trussed up and gagged before they had a chance to raise an alarm.
The whole operation had been pulled off so smoothly that poor, portly Peter White, the ship’s owner, didn’t know his ship was missing when he got out of bed at the first hint of dawn. He slipped his feet into a pair of slippers and shuffled to his bedroom window to gloat over the sight of his new ship, moored opposite his house on the other side of the harbor. He stared out the window; his mouth opening and closing like a fish’s while his brain tried to process the fact that his pretty ship was missing. He looked, looked again and it finally registered that the ropes that had tethered the Weymouth to the bows and quarters of the ship she’d been tied to the night before were dangling limply into the gray water of Weymouth harbor.
When he finally accepted that his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him he struggled to get into his clothes, hopping first on one foot and then the other as he battled to pull his pants over his heavy, stubby legs and he didn’t bother wasting time trying to don any hose. Huffing and puffing he had little success buttoning his great coat over his massive stomach as he rumbled down High Street, and across Hope Square, scattering fishwives and draymen in his path while leaving a string of oaths distinctly heard above the sound of horse’s hooves and iron-bound wheels rumbling over the cobble stones. Little flecks of white spittle gathered at the corners of his tiny, oddly-shaped mouth as he prayed aloud that the ship, along with her cargo, which represented the bulk of his lifetime savings might, against all hope, still be where she had been when he’d gone to bed the night before. She wasn’t.
Miraculously, though, about two miles off shore, under sail, and headed for the harbor in the company of a British sloop-of-war, was the Weymouth! An hour later she was back in her former berth and made fast to the quay with chains this time, rather than rope.
I had been about 3/4 of the way through this when my old Hewlitt-Packard notebook computer died. I hadn’t been good about backing my work up and lost about 2/3rds of what I’d done. Now I’ve finished the first go-round, backing up to an external drive at the end of each chapter. I’ll run through it once more, adding here, snipping there, and probably around the first of April I’ll put it up for sale.