Chapter One One
Sunrise, but no sun.
The merchant ship Marie tied up at the Liverpool docks hours ago, beneath an overcast sufficient to obliterate the moon and the stars—and now that dawn has arrived conditions have not improved. The fog over the Mersey is so thick that a careless man might step off the pier and vanish forever, straight down.
But Jacob Marley is not a careless man.
The Marie belongs to him, every plank of her hull and every cable of her rigging and every thread of her sails. Every other plank and every other cable and every other thread, to be precise. The rest are the property of his business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge could tell you exactly which plank and which cable and which thread, because that is how his peculiar and peculiarly focused mind works. Marley relies upon him for that. The two have been shackled together in business for exactly eight years now, although it seems like a thousand. They may as well have emerged together from the womb.
Scrooge lies abed at this cruel hour, rigid as a corpse behind his curtains, sorting his dreams into stately columns and rows. Marley is out here, dockside in the damp, to oversee the unloading of the Marie and the modifying of her identity to accommodate a modified world.
The ship’s crew, weary from their journey but invigorated by landfall, have dispersed to tavern and knocking-shop, where their arrival has the routine and rhythmic quality of a changing of the watch. Whether standing at a brass rail or stretching out upon some ghastly damp cot, each man assumes a position only recently vacated by a recently satisfied customer. These previous are not merchant seamen like the men of the Marie but Royal Navy men instead, just now reporting back for duty upon a moored ship known to Marley by reputation. She is the HMS Derwent, recently in from Plymouth on her maiden voyage, although the newspapers have been full of her for months. A newly christened brig-sloop of nearly four hundred tons, she is slated to sail for the African coast at the turn of the year—and there to begin interdicting the heretofore perfectly legal slave trade. The Derwent is but the first of many ships set to engage in this devilish work, under the oversight of His Majesty’s newly constituted West Africa Squadron. To Marley’s way of thinking, it is all a great waste of iron and men and shipping capacity.
He watches the sailors as they strut and stagger past, youngsters sharp and gay and confident of their place in the world despite their recent immersions in grog shop and whorehouse. And once the Derwent has swallowed them whole he turns his attention to the unloading of the Marie. Armed with a fistful of negotiables, he enlists a rough band of longshoremen from alleyway and flophouse. Man after man they squint into the daylight with a cough or a groan or a regretful shake of an aching head, and then they fall to emptying her decks and purging her hold like an army of half-crippled insects, bearing away bales of fragrant tobacco and white cotton, barrels slowly aslosh with molasses, and hogshead after hogshead of refined sugar—a pharaoh’s ransom heaved in teetering pyramids upon the quayside. Marley observes them closely, keeping watch upon the forward hatchway for the emergence of a set of heavy strongboxes. In all truth he cares little for the Marie’s legally manifested cargo, as long as these particular boxes—chained each to each like prisoners, labeled Scrooge & Marley in a fierce and florid hand—remain secure. The ordinary goods are but passing through his clutches on the way to their true owners, while the strongboxes belong to him. And partly to Scrooge, of course. The instant he spots them he orders them borne straight to his carriage, their weight sufficient to set the weary springs groaning. The customs agent, in exchange for a secret handful of Spanish dollars, fails as usual to notice them.
His most important mission accomplished, Marley turns his back upon the laboring men and strides up the gangway and proceeds belowdecks. He seeks Captain Grommet, master of the Marie for longer than anyone can say, and he finds him sharing a ration of rum with Mr. Flee, her first mate. The two have been allied far longer than Scrooge and Marley, although to less cumulative financial effect. Grommet, clad all in black, is a hatchet-faced skeleton thin enough to conceal himself in the Marie’s rigging. Flee, discounting the jut of his evil-smelling corncob pipe, is as square and solid as a sea chest stood on end. This present tot of rum is clearly not their first of the morning.
“Ahoy there,” Flee hiccups, not grasping their visitor’s identity in this chamber whose only light drips from a waterous green deck prism mounted overhead.
Grommet silences him with a baleful glance. He brings himself to his feet, unfolding like a conjured specter. “Good morning, Mr. Nemo,” he says, in the oily tones of an undertaker hopeful of finding work.
Marley clamps his thin lips into a razor-cut line but does not correct him, for it is his custom in all matters relating to the Marie and her various cargoes to do business under that name. “Grommet,” he says. “Flee.” His eye is on the jug.
“I know, I know,” confesses Grommet. “It is a bit early.”
Marley offers the hint of a smile. “That’s nothing to me.”
“Very good, Mr. Nemo,” says Flee, hoisting his cup. “Very good indeed. You’re a true gentleman and a kind master.”
“I am not so true,” says Marley, reaching into the depths of his overcoat to withdraw a pair of envelopes—one marked “G.,” the other “F.” He holds them close to his vest, as if deciding whether or not he should provide these two with their pay after all. “Nor am I so kind. The simple fact is that I shall no longer be your master, although whether or not you stay on with the ship will likely be your decision.”
Grommet’s black eyes flare. “You’re selling her?”
“So it would appear.” Marley reaches out and tucks an envelope into each man’s pocket, with a tenderness prompted more by the negotiables within than by the individuals under his employ.
“It’s that damned Slave Trade Act, ain’t it?”
“That and certain other concerns.” For Marley never tells anyone his entire business.
Grommet’s mind begins working. “Perhaps we could arrange to haul some other cargo on that leg.”
“Some other cargo?”
“Anything you wish.”
Marley scoffs. “What I wish, Captain Grommet, is that you could name for me some other cargo whose value equals that of a hold packed with men.”
Grommet cogitates. Flee chews his lip. They can think of nothing.
“In the absence of such miraculous cargo,” Marley goes on, “Mr. Hawdon and I have elected to sell the Marie and leave the business of slaving to the Americans.”
“Just so. I’m certain that you’ll get along famously. The new owners are a pair of Quaker gentlemen: a Mr. Bildad and a Mr. Peleg.”
Grommet makes a mental note, the gears within his bony head grinding almost audibly. The names seem to ring a very old and rusty bell.
Marley turns on his heel and makes for the companionway. “By the sound of it, they’re Old Testament fellows. Believers in the Almighty and so forth. If I were you, I’d mind the rum.”
Marley follows the last few men down the gangplank to the quay, where he enlists a brace of them to help rig a long plank across the Marie’s stern. Together—Marley is as willing to bark his knuckles as the next fellow—they suspend it from the quarterdeck rail, just below the wooden plate that bears the ship’s name. That sorry panel is as disreputable-looking as the rest of the ship, having like the balance of her endured two or three decades of nautical abuse with little in the way of cosmetic or even mechanical attention. Under close examination, it would seem to have begun life either a shiny black or a deep oceanic blue, with incised letters done up in gold leaf, the letters themselves surrounded by nosegays of stylized flowers similarly executed. Marley studies it from every perspective, noting with satisfaction that the fog has begun to burn off and the sun to emerge at a favorable angle. Then he scrambles down and strides toward his carriage.
He returns bearing a folding table in one hand and an ancient portmanteau in the other. Regaining the scaffold, he sets up the table and opens the portmanteau wide. A single glance reveals within its depths a collection of rags filthy and filthier, burnt candle ends, slender vials containing traces of pigments everywhere along the spectrum from earthy to brilliant, iron nails gone mostly to rust, a much-used wooden mallet, the broken stubs of a score of Conté crayons, a stoppered vial of some clear solvent, an array of mysterious hand-built tools that resemble medical instruments or devices of torture, at least one corroded knife, various lengths of string, graphite powder leaking through the weave of a rough cotton bag, straightedges straight and otherwise, a set of cold chisels in various sizes, a dozen lucifers bound up with twine, quantities of bear grease and whale oil sealed up in little tin tubs bearing carefully lettered labels, paintbrushes of the highest quality and the lowest, and atop it all a single plover egg, painstakingly wrapped in cotton wool.
With these implements he works a miracle, for although Marley possesses many talents, the greatest of them is forgery.
Within an hour’s time the Marie has been rechristened the Mariel. No observer should ever guess that the new painted letter was not incised and gilded thirty years prior, right alongside its fellows. Even the floral sprays around the name have been shifted and augmented, balancing the design and fooling the eye. Marley is satisfied, and Marley’s standards are the very highest. As he dismantles his works and regains the carriage he congratulates himself upon having committed an act almost godlike, for back in his locked desk at Scrooge & Marley are official papers documenting the tragic loss of the Marie somewhere in the Atlantic, one week ago today. They will prove useful with the insurers.