The sky was the deepest blue, except in the west where it was still black. A star winked out. Then another. And another. In the east, the shade of the sky grew paler. Dawn was coming.
In the still of the night, the Dutch ship had drifted, moving little without wind to propel it. A single lookout in the crow’s nest high atop the mainmast blinked, barely able to keep his eyes open after four hours of being on watch with nothing to see.
Another crew member on duty at this early hour and just as eager to find his hammock, sat in the stern of the deck. He had a mass of white canvas at his feet, passing large, curved, canvas needle and thick thread through the jagged edges of a tear, closing it up.
In the galley, the cook was already up and about, though still groggy. He yawned wide and dumped another mass of salted beef into a huge pot. It would boil for thirty or forty minutes to kill all the germs that accumulated after being housed in barrels of brine. One could say that the meat was, technically, edible, but it was not something anyone would otherwise eat if given the choice. Sadly, at sea, where you were days and weeks or even months from shore, choices were something that only came to you in your dreams.
The chef opened a crate of hardtack and made the ultra-dry crackers ready to distribute. Then he stuck a spigot into a fresh cask of ale. Well, it would be sour beer by now. The taste was unpleasant but it would soften the hardtack and wash some of the old beef taste away.
The first of the sailors on day duty rose from his bunk and stomped up the stairs. He travelled the length of the deck until he reached the prow. Climbing down into the triangular area under the mast that stuck forwards at the front of the ship, the bowsprit, he reached the head. Four boxes with holes in the seat were nailed to the grate floor, two on each side of the area, with the bowsprit between them. Pulling his pants down, he sat on one of the boxes. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the ocean was still calm.
Only moments later, a second sailor joined him on the toilet only a half meter from his. The two chatted in low tones as they noisily voided their bowels. On a ship at sea, only the captain was accorded any privacy, the only one with his own berth and his own toilet.
Captain Beestje Konijn, the man in charge of this 12-gun barque, groaned and rose from his bunk within that private berth. He made use of his private facilities, then went so far as to shave in his own mirror. By the time he was finished, he was starting to feel awake.
A smile grew. It was his favourite time of day.
He reached under his bed and pulled out a black, leather case. Opening it, he gazed down in reverence at the beautiful brass instrument inside. Taking up a felt cloth, he lovingly polished the metal free of dust that was only in his imagination.
This world was forever set in the year 1675. To Beestje’s dismay, it was only after taking an administrative job in this virtual prison, that he realized that the tuba, his passion, had not been invented until 1835. Thus, it did not exist in this place.
Unable to bear only being able to play on his time off in the real world, Beestje set upon a plan. First, the real world, he made extensive study into how tubas were manufactured. Travelling to Amsterdam in the prison, he hired elite metalworkers and craftspeople and, slowly over a two-year period, he secretly had them build him a tuba. The very one before him now. It was unique, the only one of its kind here. And it was magnificent, his pride and joy.
How dearly he loved to start each day with its sombre yet triumphant tones.
From on deck, he could see the sun about to break through the horizon. Easing into his deck chair near the wheel in the quarterdeck, he put the big, brass instrument in his lap.
Piercingly bright, golden-orange rays shot up into the sky and reached across the deep, dark ocean.
Beestje Konijn began to play. The first, warbling notes of Vittoria Monti’s Czardas came into being, signalling to the crew that the day had begun. He did his best to imitate the legendary tubist,Øystein Baadsvik, but he knew that he did so poorly compared to that virtuoso. It was not easy to do with a tuba that which had first been written for the violin. Yet it was a challenge that he’d set himself and was determined to master.
“Sail ho!” a sleepy voice called down from above.
Beestje did not pause as he played. The first mate was up and about, looking sharp, and other crew were appearing as well. They could handle things until he finished. But he did stand and look out over the rail.
In the night, another ship, a brigantine, had drifted close to their own, unseen in the darkness but now illuminated in the dawn light. It looked as if it had been the victim of a storm or battle. The sails were all haphazard and some hanging loose, ropes dangling instead of being tied off. A French flag flew at half-mast, a white flag on top, indicating the ship was in distress. Most telling of all, the ship was listing at a dangerous angle.
At a questioning look from the first mate, Beestje nodded. They would provide aid. And the difficult notes of the tuba continued to drone on in that deep, bass sound as the wheel was turned. With sun came wind and they slowly coasted closer to the French, eventually turning and coming broadside to them so that they drifted in tandem about fifty meters apart.
The first mate cupped his hands. “Ahoy! What trouble? Do you need assistance?” He looked sharp in his long, very blue coat with red lapels, red sleeve cuffs and crimson stockings. A green feather stood out from his black tricorn hat.
Beestje, his lungs and lips aching, found the final notes of the difficult piece and Czardas came to a sweet end. Not his best rendition, but not bad either.
The French captain was dressed in a sapphire-blue coat that ended at the waist, tightly fit to his trim body. His legs were encased in tight, white pants with white stockings. An iconic French bicorn rested on his head, similar to the kind made famous by Napoleon. But where the army man had worn his sideways, the navy wore theirs with the points front and back.
To Beestje’s surprise, the French captain did not look worried at all, despite the condition of his ship.
“A beautiful music, Captain!” he praised, shouting back.
“Thank you!” Beestje called.
“Allow me, if you will, a chance to play my own in return!” the Frenchman shouted with a sly look. He swept his hat from his head and bowed.
Ponderously, the French ship somehow rolled back upright. Then the portholes on the near side dropped open. Eighteen black cannon poked out.
Beestje’s eyes widened. Panic gripped him. He turned to the crew. “Prepar—“
Eighteen cannons fired. A cloud of white smoke filled the space between the two vessels. Eighteen cannonballs crashed into the Dutch ship, making the entire ship shudder underfoot, many of the shots aimed at the waterline, blasting holes in the hull.
“Man the pumps!” the first mate shouted.
“Return fire!” Beestje commanded, the tuba dropping to his side in one hand as he pointed at the traitorous French.
Dutch sailors and crew scrambled. But before they could mount any kind of defence, a second volley slammed into them, chewing up the wooden ship and doing hellish damage.
A shot rang out and a bullet pinged off the tuba in Beestje’s hand. He took a step back, startled, then flashed a dangerous look at their attackers.
The French captain, looking smug, lowered his rifle. With a mischievous smirk, he shrugged.
“How dare you?” Beestje screamed. It was hard to tell which incensed him more. The sneak attack by the French in a time of peace, or the fact that the man had taken a shot at the tuba. It was a crime against music, against culture. It was entirely uncivilized!
The ship groaned and tilted to starboard. Water was filling the lower decks.
A third volley pounded into them. This one carved a swath of the upper deck clean of sailors and the marines who’d come up from below with their guns, attempting to retaliate.
Beestje pounded his fist into the wheel, feeling helpless. Now they listed too badly to fire back. The Dutch ship was sinking fast and there was nothing they could do about it. Why was this happening? They were at peace with France!
A rifle shot cracked the air.
The tuba was knocked from his hand and fell to the deck. He turned shocked eyes on the other ship.
The French captain was laughing so hard that he doubled over.
The spine of the Dutch ship broke. The forward and rear sections collapsed in on themselves. Sailors shouted and screamed as they plunged into the abyss to drown.
Beestje clung to the wheel as they sank. Seeing the precious, unique tuba sliding away from him, he reached out—too late—and it sank out of sight. Never again would it play another note.
“Ah, mon ami! It sounds even better now—underwater!” He chuckled and his villainous crew laughed along with him.
A terrible, burning desire for revenge exploded within Beestje’s breast. Ignoring the steep cant of the quarterdeck and the water lapping at his leather shoes, knowing he and his entire crew were about to die, he raised a fist at the French and shot daggers out of his eyes, his voice full of fury. “I hope you stinking frogs realize, of course, this means war!”