HONOR AND CONSCIENCE
It was like drowning in tepid water, that was the worst—air so humid it was like sucking in water the temperature of his own body, so that if it were not for the observed rise and fall of his own chest, and his own careful observation that he was not, in fact, suffocating, Bliven Putnam might well have believed he was drowning. He had seen the brawling rivers of the Appalachians, which became the highways of commerce because the mountains were too steep, too rugged and forested, for wagons to pass through. But here in Florida the land was untenable for an opposite reason. Here one must travel on the rivers because—and it was nature's triumphant irony—most of the land was too soggy upon which to march or ride. So here he was, in the stern of a longboat pulled by twenty sweating sailors, with a platoon of marines bristling with rifled muskets and bayonets like a caterpillar hunkered down along its keel. The oarsmen swept in silence up a sluggish warm river whose name was exhausting to pronounce, followed by three more boats, pulling slowly into a probable Indian war. What in God's name was he doing here, in God's year 1834?
Bliven might have thought that now as a senior captain he would have been assigned a more dignified duty, coursing the deep in a ship of the line or at least in his own frigate. As a youth he would have contested for a prestigious command but now, at forty-seven, quite gray at the temples and his face lined with salt spray and the responsibilities of command, it did not rankle him. He had set out as a boy to see the world, and now he had done so to his satisfaction. It weighed on him as never before that Clarity had spent most of her life waiting for him to come home. He wanted to see his boys: Ben was seventeen now and in his first year at Yale College; Luke was thirteen, bored with school and as restless as he himself had been. Perhaps there was still time to be a father to them and not just some distant memory of awe and a uniform.
Bliven would not say that he was tired—of the Navy, or of command, or of his life. He knew well that in the pecking order of naval officers, it was his own lack of avidity, his lack of competitiveness, for a major command that worked against him. That was well; he was content. The United States now deployed the navy of a major power, and the officers' ranks were full of peacocks to strut and peck at each other. Abruptly he belayed that line of thinking. He should not mock, he scolded himself, for there were fine officers among that top line of command. Isaac Hull, Jacob Jones, and some other old hands were still vigorous and at their duties as they entered their old age. John Downes, now an impeccably experienced commodore, had just taken the fine frigate Potomac with her forty-four-long, thirty-two pounders to Malaya and taught those pirates the lesson that Bliven had lacked the firepower to do in 1820. There began to be talk now of mounting an expedition to explore the south polar regions, the last command on earth that he would have wanted, although the chill of an iceberg would be very welcome at this moment. Competition to lead it was sure to be fierce, and his own treasured first lieutenant from his first tour on the Rappahannock, Michael Miller, who had advanced to his own creditable commands, was a contender.
The fondness of his recollection of Miller made him question whether perhaps he was tired after all. He had only the barest acquaintance with his present complement of boy-lieutenants, nor did he desire to know them more intimately. They were careerists at the beginning of their ambition, essentially uninteresting, and uninteresting because they were uninterested, lacking in passion for any other pursuit than their own advancement. Indeed, they hearkened back to the species of officer he recalled all too clearly from his boyhood on the Enterprise, duelists who tended to their duties only as needed, and not sparing to abuse those who served under them. The obligation to occasionally dine with them made him long for home as never before. Alan Ross, thank God, was still with him, continuing in the service as his steward and continuing now in private employment as his valet when they were not at sea.
Bliven had tried for a time to keep together the core of his companionship from the Rappahannock in those days, but he had not been able. Wise Dr. Berend had retired to a town practice in his native Virginia, and so much to refute his complaint of the insufficiency of friends over the family he had outlived, he died much loved by his community and at a far advanced age. Tall Fleming, his wizard of a carpenter, was seized by his family in Roxbury after the Pacific cruise and never permitted to return to sea. Of those he relied upon in earlier years, only Evans Yeakel, his ever-alert bosun, remained. When Bliven had returned to the Rappahannock the year before and been piped aboard, Yeakel caught his eye and grinned so fiercely that he could scarcely finish the accolade on his silver whistle. Indeed, he had never left the ship even as Bliven himself had advanced to two other commands, becoming one of those traditional bosuns who attached themselves like barnacles to their vessels and sometimes found themselves at a loss how to carry on after she was paid off or broken up. Bliven had come back aboard to find Yeakel gray as a rat, and thicker, but still nimble despite accommodating the truss that supported his rupture—a new condition for him but a common malady among career seamen.