The Chemist

By A.E. Jackson

From the May 2021 issue of CHM

The Mary McQuinn caused quite a stir as she approached her home port of Bristol. Through the long glass, Harbormaster William Nethercott spied the vessel as it crept up the Bristol Channel. Every head turned as the tall ship came to rest beside the crowded dock. Quiet swept over the legion of seamen, deckhands, dock workers, merchants, and women of ill repute. The shrill cry of objection, from gulls and ravens alike, cut through the fog blanketed shoreline.

Seated in the office overlooking the dock, Nethercott watched the peculiar man with suspicion. The gaunt, chalk-white skin covering his body gave the harbormaster pause. It was a wonder the man had walked from the deck of the Mary McQuinn to the office alone. He shunned every offer of assistance. He moved with a deliberate, measured pace. The peculiar behavior made Nethercott consider the scene when Christ called a man forth from the grave. But he was hard-pressed to believe this was one of those miracles. Deep down, he was worried another was to blame.

“Tell me once again how you came to Bristol, uhh…” Nethercott, distracted by the man’s salt cracked skin, ended his abortive search for the man’s name.

“Roderick,” said the man. His head turned slow as a tall ship coming about. His bulging eyes followed, rolling from the window to the desk. The entire effect gave Nethercott a slight chill. “Morton.”

“Yes, pardon me, Roderick. Mr. Morton. Sir.” Nethercott was flustered, and he never got flustered. In a single day in 1743, the Bristol Harbormaster documented nearly sixty-seven square-rigged vessels, thirty-four schooners and sixteen sloops lined up at his docks. And he hadn’t gotten flustered. What was it about this odd man that caused such unease?

“As I was saying, our journey from Bristol to Senegal and back has come to a natural conclusion. We have a good deal of kigelia fruit to unload, and I should like to get started.”

That disquieting sensation swelled within Nethercott. He smoothed the parchment before him and took another deep breath. “I see, Mr. Morton. Do forgive my rudeness, it just befuddles my mind how a man in your condition could—” He searched for words that would neither offend his charge nor conceal his inquiry.

“Speak plainly, Sir. As the harbormaster, I understand, it is your duty to inspect and permit cargo to come ashore. Delay me no longer, I pray you. My time at sea was long and arduous enough. I should like to hasten an escape to leisure with my Madeline.”

“Madeline? Is she meeting you here?” Nethercott was grateful for the reprieve to normalcy.

“The Captain’s daughter, Madeline. Surely, she has disembarked by now, and has been borne away to more pleasant accommodations than we shared these past weeks.”

A sinking feeling came over the harbormaster unlike any he felt in his tenure. He glanced out the rain dappled windowpane, at the ship resting still below a blanket of grey clouds. Only a moment’s glimpse. Like the recoil of an archer’s bow, his shoulders pulled his eyes away from that sight once again.

“For what purpose were you aboard the vessel, Mr. Morton, sir?”

“Clearly, as the Chemist,” Roderick quipped. His thin, pale eyelids slid over bloated bloodshot globes. “It was my expedition into the exotics of Negroland and the Senegalese interior to resolve scientific inquiries of Her Majesty, what paid for the journey. I dare say, you’ve kept me from my duties long enough.” His skeletal frame rose from the padded chair.

A knock at the door caused Nethercott to jump.

“Enter,” croaked Nethercott. His nerve all but dissolved under the hollow gaze of Roderick Morton. “Come in, will you?”

The door opened and a dock worker approached with a leather-bound booklet. Extending a shaking arm to the harbormaster, the man nearly threw the journal as he turned to depart. His head never raised high enough to allow his eyes to take in the specter in the chair before the desk.

“What have we here?” William Nethercott regretted the words as soon as he spoke them. His large hands slowly unwound the leather thong which bound the hitherto secreted words.


1759, August 24

Saint-Louis, Senegal River

Lady Madeline Remington joins me for another excursion into the lush exotic jungles surrounding the Senegal River. We locate a healthy grove of kigelia trees. Their bright red flowers peek through the dark canopy of leaves like starbursts. I pull a fresh specimen from the tree to adorn my love’s flowing hair.  

Crates are filled with the thick tubular fruit. Some up to two feet in length and several inches thick. More detailed measurements and drawings are planned. Our guide warns of consuming the pulp raw. However, I witness several jungle animals taking great pleasure in the readily available supply. Baboons and monkeys, along with elephants, giraffes, and hippopotamuses.

1759, August 29

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Today, we crossed the Equator once again. This time headed for jolly England.

Tonight, a small party to celebrate. Lady Remington wore a stunning pale blue dress. The sheerest fabric I have ever seen. She was like an angel. The wind caught her handkerchief and tore it from her grasp. It floated on the sea. We embraced and watched as it drifted to the darkness below.

She insists I call her Madeline. I never want to leave this ship and the presence of my love.

1759, August 29

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Several of my tests conclude some properties of the fruit to be very beneficial to humans. Others are quite deadly. It seems there is a compound, which is lost during drying, which forces the body to purge itself through violent convulsions.

Until more is known, I judge the fresh fruit as poisonous. Until better tests can be performed, the fruit will be dried before it is prepared for consumption.

Captain Remington jests about the fermentation of the plant. However, wasn’t it so with the Arabian’s dry roasting beans found in their pastures? I will consider his jest. We have the time to experiment.

1759, September 2

West of Morocco, at sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

I insist that Captain Remington instruct his crew to handle the long, sausage-like fruit with care and caution. They are a band of ruffians, hooligans, and a rabble lot. I shouldn’t think one of the men has the intelligence of a louse, but they would be in good company among them.

The crew played a game of fetching, tossing, and running the deck with my fresh samples today. Only when my sweet Madeline intervened did the horseplay subside. She commands the men with a stern voice and a rigid back. Her father’s boldness courses through her veins.

1759, September 3

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Storm forming several nautical miles along the port bow – a majestic and frightening display of God’s immense power. I shouldn’t like to encounter such a behemoth. Captain says the squall will dissipate.

1759, September 7

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Several lost at sea, washed overboard like refuse as the Mary McQuinn rode out the hurricane. Young Timothy Chester, cast from the crow’s nest as we bobbed, hung lifeless in the rigging until lightning rent the cord. Decking bowed and cracked sending splinters like arrows through eye, ear, and throat.

Tempest tossed, the taffrail twisted and tore loose. Men were impaled by the wind propelled projectiles. Main and mizzen masts let drop their sails to drag fistfuls of the crew out to sea. Dead. All dead.

Searching below deck my sweet Madeline lay battered and bruised among crushed crates of kigelia. What shall I do? What shall become of us?

1759, September 10

Adrift, aboard Mary McQuinn

She begs for death. She puts her soul’s fate in my hands and would have me play God… Cry mercy!

1759, September 15

Adrift, aboard Mary McQuinn

A tea of dried leaves or roasted fruit seed should abate the pain. Blood comes now in her gasping cough. Her swollen battered face may contract with a poultice of crushed fruit pulp. I know what must be done.

1759, September 17

Adrift, aboard Mary McQuinn

Food stores depleted, hardtack and some dried meats remain. Beer and water barrels, of the few remaining, all but dry. Kneeling by the cabin bunk, the only prayer I repeat ‘Oh merciful Father, I beseech thee, send Leviathan. Swallow this useless husk-like Jonah and carry me to thine bleeding side.’

1759, September 23

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

A light breeze, and cool. I woke to find the deck swept and reordered. Full inventory was taken with reports tacked to the Captain’s quarters. Enough duties still to go around, what that there were hands to put to task. Old charts uncovered should aide in further navigation. I slipped them under the Captain’s door.

1759, September 27

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Tonight a dinner of fish. A lively crew with a sea chanty in their lungs and power in each step keeps me awake tonight. Perhaps I should venture above deck and demand respect for my sleeping hours.

1759, September 29

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Crew bellowing for more leave but Captain keeps a tight rein on their rebellious nature. My Madeline insists I stay below deck, away from the commotion. We must be near England now. Each time she visits the cold air of the north lingers longer on her smooth cheeks. I do look forward to a carriage ride through the country upon our return.

1759, October 3

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

I ventured a stroll on the deck this eve. To my dismay, I was struck from behind. It seems a dark cadre lay in wait for me to pass and assaulted me with my own hard gathered spoils. Is nothing sacred to their eternal spirits? Be damned… I shall have off this ship, and for highlands trod.

But I am overzealous. My dearest Madeline did put an end to their hijinx and ill intent. She protects me and eases my restless journey.

1759, October 7

At sea, aboard Mary McQuinn

Madeline insists, and I relent. There is nothing I can do to assist in the final leg of our plodding course north to Bristol. I will stay below deck in my cabin until we disembark. The crew continues to become hostile to me, and even now it seems to the Lady Remington. I resign myself to toil in solitude and will rest in retreat until we touch dry land.


William Nethercott moved his eyes from the last journal entry to the date atop his ledger.

October 31, 1761.

“From everything stated in your journal entries, it would appear you had a rough journey, Chemist. But not deadly?” Nethercott ventured with the last of his shallow breath. “Would you agree?”

“Aye,” nodded Roderick. “I sit before thee flesh and blood.”

“However,” Nethercott pointed out the window. “That ship is in no condition to sail. It is a mystery that the ship survived the storm described within at all.” He waved the closed journal, and let it drop to the desk. The loud thump sending an unintended jolt through his spine.

“I do not understand what you imply…” Mr. Morton began.

“Furthermore,” Nethercott revealed, “there was no one else alive aboard the ship to disembark and come ashore with you. You walked alone from the deck to the door.” He pointed at his thick oaken office door. “I do not know how you managed it. Floating the hull of that wrecked ship from somewhere north of Morocco to my sleepy port. That worries me little in comparison to the knowledge that you murdered a poor girl. The daughter of Captain Remington, no less. And no doubt dispatched with the entire crew in the same manner. Only to discard their blessed souls overboard without proper rights. It is abhorrent and reprehensible, sir!”

Roderick launched himself from the chair, like a soldier, called to attention. “I never! There was no such… Why I… How could you?” Nethercott watched Roderick’s skin pale as blood rushed away from the man’s weak and malnourished face. He wavered and fell back into his seat.

Nethercott moved around his large desk with slow delicate steps. He squeezed the Chemist’s shoulders into his broad embrace. Helping Roderick to his feet, the two walked up to the rain pelted windowpane.


With the help of the Harbormaster, Roderick stood at the translucent portal. Slowly. Blood returned to the proper pressure and circulation. Slowly. Eyes strained to see the truth.

He looked out the window to see the Mary McQuinn, tattered and beaten, a shell of the grand ship she was once. Realization washed over him like the cold waves of that damnable hurricane.

Walking at a gentle pace across the deck, his sweet Madeline came in to view. She moved with the peaceful grace and deliberate flowing motion he so loved. Her pale body drifted behind the remnants of the main mast, like a cannonball casualty. Upon the shattered wood, a billowing blue shred of fabric, caught on a splinter, danced in the wind.


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