No. 4.—The Lost Axe, Part 1.

CERTAINLY THE MOST unusual of my assignments as captain came shortly after the end of the Spanish War. The successful conclusion I had brought to that conflict had increased my reputation enormously in the admiralty, and it was decided—by whom I do not know to this day—that I was to be trusted with a great secret, a mission of such importance that it could well change the history of the world. So, at any rate, I was told when Admiral Blanderson spoke to me in his private rooms.

“Captain Hornswoggle,” he said gravely, “what I am about to reveal to you is a great secret. The mission on which you are to be sent is of such importance that it could well change the history of the world. I must remind you, therefore, that nothing you hear within these walls may ever go beyond them.”

I swore the most powerful oath I knew, which as I recall was “cross my heart and hope to die,” that I should never reveal what I heard in this chamber; and indeed if the details of the mission had not long since been published far and wide under the Freedom of Information Act, thus releasing me from my oath, I should have taken the memory to my grave.

“It is not often,” the Admiral continued, “that the naval forces are sent in search of holy relics; but such indeed is your mission, which you may regard almost as a kind of crusade.”

The Admiral reached for an ancient manuscript bound in crusty leather. Opening it to a marked page, he turned it to face me. There was a good bit of writing in the old Gothic style, and a remarkably vivid illumination of a jewel-encrusted double-bladed axe.

“This,” the Admiral explained, “is the Axe of the Apostles. It is said to have been blessed by St. Thaddeus himself, whose blessing endowed it with such potency that with it any good Christian, no matter how weak or infirm, will be able to chop enough wood to keep a family of four moderately well supplied through the winter, provided they are not too prodigal with it.”

He looked both ways, as though, even in the privacy of his private chambers, he could not trust that we were unobserved. Then he leaned closer and continued.

“Although your prompt action in the Battle of Batter Bay brought peace with Spain on very advantageous terms (in addition, you must recall, to saving my own life), I need hardly tell you that vigilance is necessary to keep the peace. Were the Spanish to possess this remarkable instrument, there is no telling how they might turn it to their advantage. With so much wood at their disposal, they might perhaps even be in a position to reverse our victory, and dictate to us the terms of the peace.”

This, I agreed, would be a catastrophe for us, and I was willing to do anything in my power to keep the perfidious Spaniards from forcing paella down our throats. The voyage, the Admiral told me, would not be without danger; but in those youthful days I laughed at danger. (Since that time my sense of humor has become more refined.) I assured the Admiral that, wherever the Axe of the Apostles might be hidden, I was the man to find it. The Admiral assured me, in turn, that he had complete confidence in my abilities.

The Axe, he explained to me, had been lost since the time of the Apostolic Fathers; but recent research in ancient records suggested that it had been transported to the Horn of Africa by Abyssinian converts. The Horn in my youth, you may recall, was divided between English and French territories; and it was unfortunately in the French Horn that the Axe of the Apostles would most probably be found. A certain ancient monastery was said to have been its last known location, and a recent visitor to that monastery had reported seeing a large reliquary directly behind the altar which, from its form, most probably held either a double-bladed axe or a banjo.

No time was to be lost. I was assigned a merry frigate, the Indifferent, which was outfitted with everything necessary for a voyage around the Cape—for such was to be our route, in hopes that the Spanish and other unfriendly powers might assume that we were merely another ship bound for the Cape Colony. To make that assumption even more plausible, we brought with us a considerable cargo of silk capes, the profitable trade in which with the fashion-conscious natives gave the colony its name. There was no time for long goodbyes: we set out within two days after my meeting with Admiral Blanderson, and it was just as well that I had no family to speak of, or at least none that would acknowledge me.

We encountered no trouble until we came near the Cape Colony. Then a vicious storm arose from the south so suddenly that we had no chance to prepare for it. The Indifferent was a brave ship and could hold her own in nearly any seas, but no one on board had ever suffered through such a storm as this. The waves appeared as so many Alpine peaks capped with snow, and our ship, which had seemed so generously large when we left port, looked hardly bigger than a dinghy as it was now tossed up to the highest peak, now with dizzying rapidity plunged into the deepest valley. The sturdy crew did what they could to furl the sails; but the howling wind tore the ropes out of their hands, and shredded our sails like excelsior.

By the mercy of heaven we made it through the storm with no loss of life. Our ship, however, was dead in the water, every last one of our sails reduced to tatters, and most of the tatters carried off by wind and wave to parts unknown.

Although we gave thanks for our delivery from the storm, we were in danger of exchanging a quick death for a long and unpleasant one. We had provisions for a while, but without our sails we would drift aimlessly until they ran out.

At this point I bethought myself of our cargo. Inquiring amongst the crew, I found one young sailor whose mother had sent him off to sea with a sewing kit, in case he should damage his fresh uniform during the occasional bouts of vigorous activity which are common to the nautical life. With gratitude and the promise of a speedy promotion, I commandeered his sewing kit, and I put the entire crew to work sewing the capes together into sails. I had to teach most of them to sew, but within a few days we had the most colorful ship in the fleet; and, more to the point, we were moving again, continuing once more our voyage toward the French Horn.

Proceed to the Conclusion.