A Band of Sisters (AU)
by Ruth Christian (with fantastic input)

It took some time, but the women of the HMS Monstrous present you
with our first installment of the ongoing saga. We have each decided
to take up a chapter. We are still pressing, sorry, recruiting
writers if anyone would like to join us.

"We few, we happy few, we band of sisters; for she to-day that sheds
her blood with me, shall be my sister . . ."
Wm. Shakespeare (adapted)

"HMS Monstrous"
Portsmouth

It was a wonderful dream ­ the smell of sausages, toast, and coffee.
First Lieutenant Ruth Christian rolled languidly onto her side in the
fresh, clean cot, floating blissfully somewhere between sleep and
awakening. However, the warm, wet tongue that slid slowly across her
face brought her to instant wakefulness. She opened one eye and
peered over the edge, but in the dim light shining in from the
wardroom had much difficulty distinguishing the source. There was no
need, she knew from whence the greeting came.

"Good morn to you, too, Zenia." She whispered, her voice deepened by
sleep. She reached out to find the big dog's soft head and scratched
her gently between the ears. There was an elated thumping of the
dog's tail on the deck in reply. Zenia had arrived but yesterday
along with the officers' new steward. There had been some grumbling
amongst the seamen, but a sharp word and a piercing glare from their
First Lieutenant had silenced them quickly enough. The steward,
Judith, had assured her that she had plenty of her own provisions for
the dog, and with further reassurances that any `accidents' would be
promptly attended to, all had been settled ­ Zenia was to stay. Ruth
began to notice that the dog appeared to guide Judith upon occasion;
she would bump gently against her mistress when walking, particularly
when below decks.

Still, the smell of sausages and coffee was no dream. Surely Judith
had not begun breakfast before the morning watch? The sound of seven
bells pealed softly throughout the ship ­ half past three; time to
dress for watch. Having completed her mission, Zenia patted quietly
through the door, propelled by that ever-wagging tail. You could
steer a ship with that tail for a rudder, Ruth thought.

She slowly and reluctantly pulled herself from the cot and stretched
to ease the aches that mercilessly assaulted her more frequently
these mornings. She lit a lantern and quickly dressed in her best
uniform, shivering in the cold, damp air. As she braided her hair,
she mercilessly chastised herself for being so weak as to notice the
cold; a month ashore had softened her. Well, some time at sea and she
would be back to her old self.

She would still be beached had it not been for Admiral Regent. She
could never express the enormity of her gratitude for her generosity
in promoting her to First Lieutenant and giving her this rare
opportunity to serve on the first all-woman ship! Ruth had served
with her when she had been a Captain and greatly admired and
respected her abilities. Now, as Admiral, she had risked quite a lot
in guaranteeing the Admiralty that this project would be a success.
The Admiralty was full of nay-sayers when it came to women serving in
the Royal Navy, and Captain Hammond, jealous of her success, had been
the most outspoken opponent.

Captain Victoria Jones was to come aboard today, and Ruth was
determined that she would find no fault with the crew, the officers,
or the ship. She had not served with this new Captain, but had heard
many good things of her. Many of the crew had volunteered once they
heard she was to be Captain; her tenacity in battle, and her
reputation had lured many a woman to sign up.

Ruth found her hat and stepped into the wardroom, nearly colliding
with Midshipman Morgan.

"Good morning, sir." The Midshipman smiled and knuckled her forehead.

"Good morning, Miss Morgan." The First Lieutenant said. "How fared
you your first night aboard?"

"Very well, sir, but . . ." She hesitated.

"But?"

"Well, sir, the ship, it smells . . . different from the other
ships."

Ruth laughed and looked about her, "Aye, indeed it does, but given a
week or so, and the Monstrous will hold much the same odors as the
others."

Yes, the /Monstrous/ did smell, or better put, did not smell. She was
fresh from the shipyard, a 74-gun, third-rate ship of the line, the
envy of the Admiral's fleet. She still held her scent of fresh paint,
sail, tar, and oak, but that would soon enough be replaced by the
overpowering stench of humanity, animals, and, with any luck,
gunpowder.

"Well, Miss Morgan," she continued, "There is one odor by which I am
not confused; Judith is up much too early and, from the smell of it,
has been busily preparing breakfast. Would you care to join me?" she
asked.

The young Midshipman hesitated once again, unsure of her superior's
reaction, and fearing to cause offense so soon.

"Sir, with the greatest respect, but I really do not care for food at
this hour, unless this is an order?"

Ruth well understood her hesitation in declining; it would not bode
well for a Midshipman to get off on the wrong foot so early with the
First Lieutenant, but Ruth took no offense.

"No, Miss Morgan, it is not an order. I'll see you on deck shortly,
you may go." Ruth said kindly.

"Aye, aye, sir, and thank you!" She said cheerily and nearly skipped
to the ladder to go topside.

As Ruth watched her climb the ladder, a smile crept across her face.
The young Midshipman was high spirited, but she was loyal, efficient,
and competent; she had handled her duties extremely well yesterday.
She made a mental note to put in a word for her to the Captain.

Much to her amazement, Judith had just placed a feast out for her.
Zenia was watching hopefully from across the room; her tail began to
wag again as she saw the First Lieutenant glance her way.

"Good morning, sir," Judith said cheerily in a low tone so as not to
wake the sleeping officers.

"Good morning, Judith. Ah, Judith, not that I am ungrateful for this
welcomed feast, but it is not customary for either the officers or
crew to eat until the Forenoon watch begins." Indeed, Ruth was not
ungrateful for the food, the smells emanating from the plate before
her had set her mouth to watering even before she had awakened. But
Naval discipline had to be preserved, and if she could not prove to
her Captain that she could manage the crew, she might well find
herself beached once more.

"Aye, I'm well aware of a ship's schedule Lieutenant." Judith
responded absently, and turned back to her brazier.

"Then you understand fully that the schedule must be kept for order
to be maintained aboard His Majesty's ships?" Ruth asked.

"Aye, indeed it must be." Judith acknowledged, but continued her
cooking. "Now that is very odd, I could have sworn there were more
sausages in this pan; I know my eyesight has not failed me to this
extent."

"Judith, if you please. Since you are so familiar with a ship's
schedule, may I ask why you took it upon yourself to begin cooking
before the appointed time."

Judith turned and smiled softly at the small woman standing before
her. "Because, sir, you needed a good hot breakfast before you began
your duties ­ you barely touched a thing yesterday. Besides, with the
Captain coming aboard this morning, I thought it might benefit you to
have something on your stomach. You have a very busy day ahead of
you."

Ruth sighed wearily. "Tomorrow morning, Judith, please follow the
schedule. There are many who would happily see us fail on this ship.
In everything we do, we must not only meet Royal Navy standards, but
exceed them. I would not have Admiral Regent or Captain Jones made a
laughing stock because we could not maintain discipline among these
women. Do you understand?"

Judith had watched her closely during her reproach. The First
Lieutenant's back had remained as stiff as a boarding pike, but her
face betrayed her emotions; she was most likely a horrid card player.
It was difficult to judge her age; the sea and the war aged everyone
beyond their years, but Judith guessed her to be about forty. She
wondered if the rumors about Miss Christian were true.

Judith gave her that patient smile once again, "Aye, Lieutenant, I
understand, of course I will follow the ship's schedule when we are
at sea, just as required, but we are not at sea at the moment,
and /you/ needed hot food on this cold morning."

Ruth laughed, despite herself, but stopped quickly, "Judith, that is
splitting hairs. I . . ."

Judith held a hand up for her silence. The Lieutenant was about to
reprimand her when she heard the peculiar noise, too. They glanced at
each other and then towards the fore. Ruth strode forward and stepped
down the darkened companionway. The lanterns cast eerie shadows
throughout, and one's imagination could play tricks.

"I see nothing." She said, turning back. "Perhaps it was rats, even
on a ship this new they would come aboard with the provisions." Ruth
stated matter of factly.

"Maybe . . ." Judith commented distractedly and turned to look down
the companionway once more. She glanced over at Zenia who had
remained oddly still. The dog licked her lips and lay down on the
deck, her head on her paws, her eyes darting occasionally towards the
companionway. It was unusual that Zenia would not have reacted to a
noise that Judith heard. She knew she could trust her own ears, and
she /had/ heard something. She turned back to the Lieutenant and the
table.

"Miss Christian, sir, please eat your breakfast before it grows cold.
I do promise you that this will not be a regular occurrence; today is
a special day for us all."

Ruth could not argue with that logic and sat down to taste the fare
put before her. After the first few tentative bites, she devoured the
remainder and drank deeply of the hot coffee; it tasted a bit
different, but it was quite good, and it brought delightful warmth to
her body. The eighth bell rang; Ruth stood quickly and drained the
coffee in the cup before leaving.

Zenia stood and walked over to the table in hopes that a bit of the
scraps might be given to her.

"Sorry, Zenny, she cleaned the plate." Judith petted Zenia's head and
knelt on the deck before her. "Now, tell me the truth, did you steal
those sausages from my pan?"

*********************

The First Lieutenant strode confidently through the second gun deck,
careful to avoid disturbing the hammocks full of sleeping women.
Those whose watch had ended were already asleep. Her mind was
entirely occupied by her duties and had just turned to climb the
ladder when she caught movement from the corner of her eye. She
turned quickly ­ nothing. Were the shadows cast by the light playing
tricks on her? She held her lantern above her head and looked about
the deck again. She heard a scraping sound behind the ladder and
turned back. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she came nose to
nose with one of the seamen.

"Good Lord, woman, you gave me a start." She whispered harshly. "Was
that you making that noise?"

"Beggin' your pardon, what noise, sir?"

"That odd scraping sound."

"I've just came down the ladder, sir." The seaman replied.

Ruth held the lantern nearer to the woman to look her over more
closely. "What is your name, seaman?"

"Mary Sandy, sir, Able Seaman, most just call me Squintyboots." She
casually replied. "My watch is over, and I was just coming down to
sleep." Squintyboots looked down at her boots and then back up at the
First Lieutenant, her eyes squinting slightly.

Ruth couldn't be sure if the strange squint was due to poor vision or
if it was merely a nervous habit.

"Get you to sleep then, Sandy." Ruth replied curtly, still
embarrassed by the fright she had received. Squintyboots walked off,
her boots `clomping' with each step she took. She didn't make that
much noise coming down the ladder, Ruth thought. The Lieutenant
turned and climbed the ladder to the upper deck.

She paused a moment when she reached the top and breathed deeply of
the cold, sharp air. There was no other feeling like it in the world ­
to stand upon the deck of such a ship and know the awesome power
that she held. It was dark yet, and the fore and aft lanterns gave
off an ethereal glow in the fog. She glanced up and could barely make
out the women in the shrouds.

"Sir." Midshipman Morgan greeted her.

"Miss Morgan." The Lieutenant acknowledged. "Did you see that seaman
who just went below, the one with the noisy boots?" She asked.

Miss Morgan looked puzzled, "Seaman, sir? No, I fear I did not."

"Very well, what have you to report?" Ruth asked as she took the
quarter deck.

"All's quiet, sir. The remainder of the provisions will be arriving
first thing this morning. With the assistance of Miss Smith's
division, we will have them stowed below quickly."

"Very good, please see that the Marines remain on alert, I'll not
have any men sneaking on board before the Captain arrives. Also, have
them search the ship before we make weigh, I want any men found to be
thrown overboard. These women were warned that that kind of behavior
would not be tolerated on the /Monstrous/."

"Aye aye, sir," she acknowledged and stepped off the quarterdeck to
begin her round.

That was one problem that was simple enough to dispose of, but there
were many more to overcome. Most of the officers on board
the /Monstrous/ had never served together; trust would be an
immediate issue. As the First Lieutenant, it would be her
responsibility to set the pace and see to it that they sailed
together as smoothly as possible.

Her most troublesome worry at the moment had just come aboard
yesterday in the form of Third Lieutenant Elaine Harvey; a statuesque
beauty with charm and wit better suited to the dance floor at
Almack's. Ruth had known her kind before, just not aboard one of His
Majesty's ships. Admiral Regent had warned her that Harvey might get
the assignment and that trouble would not be far behind; she bred
suspicion, discontent, and hatred like most women bred children.
Women like her was why the rest of them had a difficult time
advancing through the ranks; the men tended to judge them not on
their strategic and fighting abilities, but on their appearance and
sociability. She was far too clever a woman not to be watched.

The only remaining officers not yet come aboard were the Captain and
her Master, William Tindall. That one was a surprise ­ a man on board
a ship full of women. Ruth could only hope the Captain knew what she
was about with that one.

"SIR!"

In the quietness of the early morning, the loudness of the voice
startled Ruth.

"Aye, Miss . . . Smith." It took her a moment to remember the new
Midshipman's name. "If you please, lower your voice an octave, the
crew are still sleeping. Now, it is not your watch, why are you about
so early?" This tiny young woman was at least one person she could
physically look down upon.

The Midshipman stood very erect, very . . . stiff. "Sir, I hoped that
I might be of some service to you or the other officers this morning.
I am willing and able to do whatever might be necessary; I wish to
learn everything there is to know about His Majesty's Navy, sir. I am
up to the task."

Ruth pressed her lips together to keep from laughing at the
zealousness of the young one; she meant well.

"Well, perhaps you won't have to learn everything in one day, Miss
Smith. However, your assistance will be greatly appreciated once the
remainder of the stores is delivered this morn. Your division will be
ready?"

"Aye aye, sir!" She shouted.

Ruth winced, wondering how many tired seamen that one had awakened.
That voice would come in very handy during battle on the gundecks,
and she would learn to moderate it for general conversation ­ Ruth
hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

"Very good, Miss Smith. I wish to have everything below before the
Captain arrives, thank you." Ruth had thought that would serve as a
dismissal, but the Midshipman didn't seem to get the hint.

"That will be all, Miss Smith."

"Oh, aye aye, sir." She touched her hat and left ­ as stiffly as she
had arrived.

Was I ever that young, Ruth wondered absently and then mentally
laughed at herself - yes, young and naïve.

**********************

Eight bells and the fog had given way to a brilliant, beautiful
morning; hopefully, a portent of their future. The sound of the
carpenters hammering and sawing; the seamen stowing away their
hammocks; the smell of breakfast cooking ­ all familiar sights,
sounds, and smells to the First Lieutenant. The last of the
provisions had been delivered and the remaining pressed crew were on
board. Second Lieutenant Claarijke Rackham had overseen the press
gang ­ and a sorry lot they were ­ prostitutes, thieves, and debtors.
This was not the fault of Lieutenant Rackham, the Admiralty had
insisted that the crew be all women, but they didn't offer
suggestions on how to go about finding them. The /Monstrous/ had many
women who had volunteered, but a crew of at least 500 was necessary
to sail her, more really, but they would take what they could get.

Ruth watched as the two Midshipmen approached her; Nerrissa Morgan ­
outgoing, friendly, and garrulous; and Cecily Smith ­ reserved,
enthusiastic, and steadfast; both highly intelligent and committed
women. The /Monstrous/ was fortunate to have them.

"Miss Christian, sir, the provisions are all stowed below." Reported
Miss Morgan.

"Very good, ladies. My compliments to Miss Rackham, and would she
please join me on the quarterdeck."

"Aye sir."

Ruth turned to look at the quay; the Captain was due within the hour,
and everything appeared to be falling into place on board.

"Good morning, First Lieutenant." Came a voice as soft and smooth as
silk, or as slippery as an eel, was a better description.

She had not heard her approach, but knew without turning that the
voice belonged to Miss Harvey.

"Good morning, Miss Harvey," Ruth said with as much cheer as possible
and plastered a fake smile on her face before turning. The Third
Lieutenant stood much too close for comfort, and her 5'11' frame
towered over Ruth's diminutive 5'4", but that did not intimidate her,
she was accustomed to looking up at the male officers. Her uniform
was expertly cut and accentuated every curve. Ruth reminded herself
not to feel inferior in her well-used uniform and cheap cotton
stockings. She had polished her shoes and buckles for over an hour
last night, and they still did not have the luster that Harvey's
carried. Of course, Harvey had brought her personal steward aboard
with her to see to those tasks.

"Miss Harvey, I trust the new landsmen are all situated and settled
in?"

"Aye, they are, but I fear that the cat will touch many a back before
the week is out." Her blue-green eyes sparkled like ice at the
thought.

Ruth shivered involuntarily; she had always felt a failure when
corporal punishment had become necessary.

"Well, Miss Harvey, let us hope they learn quickly and obey orders,
which will keep them from the grating." Ruth was spared further
conversation when the Second Lieutenant stepped onto the quarterdeck ­
she was successful in not breathing a sigh of relief.

`Claarijke," Ruth addressed her informally, without thinking, glad of
her arrival. "The Captain is expected on board within the hour, is
everything in order for her arrival?"

"Aye, sir. The carpenters just finished in the great cabin, and
Lovelace is fussing over the finishing touches." Miss Rackham was
counting off on her fingers as she spoke, not wanting to forget a
thing.

"The idlers are being kept busy below decks stacking the provisions.
The Marines found three men hidden in the cable tiers, and they were
tossed through the gun ports." She was still holding up one finger as
though she couldn't remember what that last item was, or was she
hesitating?

"Aye, Miss Rackham?" Ruth probed.

"The, uh, gentleman's quarters, sir . . ." she hesitated, "we have
them ready."

"A man?" asked Harvey, incredulous over this revelation.

Ruth imagined she could see the gears turning in Harvey's head.

"Does the Admiralty know of this? Really, I was given the impression
that this little experiment was to be ladies only. Imagine, a man
among all these women. Won't he be the cock of the walk?" purred
Harvey as she stepped off the quarterdeck.

Ruth watched as she slithered up to the Midshipmen. How smooth she
is, Ruth marveled. The woman charmed and cajoled the younger women,
and had them giggling and smiling at her within moments. It was
obvious she was winning them over.

"I don't trust that one, Ruth." Claarijke said.

Ruth turned back to look at her, "Neither do I, my friend, neither do
I. I think it would pay us both to watch her closely. I wouldn't be
surprised if one of the dissenters in the Admiralty had positioned
her among us."

"Should we tell the Captain?"

"No, let's not be too hasty. Let's give her a bit of rope and see if
she hangs herself; charming a shipload of women will be much more
difficult than a ship of men."

"Lieutenant!" came the shout from Miss Smith.

"Aye, Miss Smith?" asked Ruth, her voice not so easily carrying over
the deck as Smith's.

Miss Smith walked hurriedly to her, "Sir, I think that is the
Captain's boat that just pushed off from the quay."

Ruth took her telescope and looked over the water, and then closed
the glass smartly. "Indeed it is Miss Smith; please have the Marines
assemble and send word for the other officers to report."

Ruth glanced around the deck to check for anything that might be out
of place. She prepared to walk across, but had to nimbly step around
one of the idlers who had just finished scrubbing and had stepped
into her path. The idler was not so nimble, caught her foot in the
cables, and fell with an ignominious splash ­ the filthy contents of
the bucket soaked the First Lieutenant from waist to toe.

All eyes went to her. Ruth heard a snort of laughter from behind and
knew from whence that came. She closed her eyes to calm herself.

"Sir," Midshipman Smith began in a rush, "this is a flagrant
violation of Article 22 of the Articles of War. This woman clearly
attacked an officer of His Majesty's Navy and . . ."

"Miss Smith," Ruth nearly shouted in her frustration, and then
steadied herself, "this was an accident, not a pre-meditated event."
Ruth heard another snort from somewhere behind her, but she wouldn't
give the woman the satisfaction. She gazed down at the young woman
cowering on the deck.

"What is your name?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

"Tatiana, sir, Tatiana Orrock, I . . . I volunteered." She nearly
squeaked like a mouse in her fear.

All anger left Ruth as she looked down at the terrified girl; tears
were running down her cheeks, making clean paths across the filthy
face. There was no time for sympathy at this moment.

"Ship ahoy." Came the challenging shout from the masts.

"Monstrous," came the answering call from the boat.

The Captain had arrived.

To be continued...