Ship of the Damned, part twenty-three
by Sue N.

Stewart crossed hesitantly into Indefatigable, and felt at once as if
he had entered a different world. The ship was quite probably the
most beautiful one he had ever seen in his life, her decks
immaculate, her rigging taut, her sails pristine. More telling still,
the men moved about her with an air of calm purpose, of confidence,
of security. These men did not skulk about in fear, did not hang back
sullenly, did not eye each other or their officers as potential
enemies. He heard pleasant jesting among them, even snatches of
laughter, and wondered what it must be like to serve in such a ship.

No wonder Mr. Kennedy had seemed so out of place in Resolute...

"May I help you, sir?" asked a quiet voice behind him.

Startled, Stewart whirled about and stared uneasily into the face of
a man he assumed must be the sailing master. Though his face was
grave, the man's eyes were kind and reassuring. "I-- Sair, I am--
Midshipman Stewart of--" After all that had happened, he hesitated to
say the name, certain it must now sound as a curse to all in
Indefatigable. Swallowing hard, he let the name die unspoken. "I was
wondering," he went on softly, his green eyes wide and dark in his
freckled face, "if there has been-- any word of Mr. Kennedy?"

Bowles studied the boy intently for long moments, reading the
uncertainty, the sorrow, in that dirty young face. He knew how
difficult it must have been for the lad to come into Indefatigable,
where any Resolute would now be looked upon with deepest mistrust,
even anger, and had to admire his courage. It was also plain the boy
had fought, and, from his question, Bowles could guess upon which
side. He was, the sailing master decided, entitled to both an answer,
and some kindness.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said quietly, "I've not heard anything yet. He
was taken down to the surgery, if you would like to inquire there."

Stewart was tempted, sorely tempted, but knew he could not. Not yet.
"I brought his dunnage across," he said quietly. "I didna think he'd
care t' hae his belongings in Res-- o'er there. And when I was
packing them, I found these." He reached into his jacket and pulled
out the letter and notebook. "I thought-- I thought they might be
important... I've nae read them, of course," he added hurriedly, as
if he feared he were suspect, "but they were layin' out, on his
table, as if-- well, as if he were writing them when-- when it--
happened. As I said, I thought they might be important, but I-- I
didnae ken if I should be the one--" He winced and bowed his head,
suddenly ashamed. "Well, I canna imagine that Captain Pellew would be
too eager to see any of us from Resolute just now," he whispered.

Bowles felt a rush of sympathy for the boy, for what he had been
through, for what he must be feeling now. "It was very thoughtful of
you, sir," he said quietly, gently. "I am certain Mr. Kennedy would
appreciate it."

"It was the least I could do," Stewart said softly, his eyes stung by
tears. "He was so kind to me-- I'd almost forgotten what that was
like," he murmured. Abruptly he raised his head and stared up at the
master. "He smiled a lot, and laughed. That's something we haven't
seen much lately in Resolute."

"Yes, he does smile a lot," Bowles murmured, pained by the memory of
the lieutenant's thoroughly irrepressible sense of humour. "It's one
of the things that makes him such a popular officer here." He studied
the boy a moment longer, appraising him. "Unless I miss my guess," he
said musingly, "you fought with Mr. Kennedy, did you not?"

Stewart swallowed hard and nodded, wiping angrily at his tears. "Aye,
sair, I did. I mean, I tried-- Mr. Kennedy was counting on me," he
said quietly. "I couldnae let him down."

Bowles smiled slightly and reached out to tap the letter with a
forefinger. "Then take these to Captain Pellew, sir," he said
quietly. "Mr. Kennedy may be counting on you yet."
**********

Pellew paced about his cabin like a caged cat, his every muscle so
tight it hurt, his nerves raw, his temper boiling dangerously just
below the surface. His dark eyes snapped, and a muscle twitched in
his clenched jaw. He was an explosion waiting to happen.

And it was for just this reason that he had called Bracegirdle to
join him in the cabin, for he feared what he might do to Thorne if
left alone with him. The man had been found belowdecks -- BELOWDECKS!
-- in Resolute an hour after the mutiny had been quelled, and had
only just been "escorted" to Indefatigable by Captain Clarke himself.
More damning still, he had barely a scratch upon him, while
Lieutenant Kennedy might very well be dying beneath Hepplewhite's
hand.

Pellew very much feared he was fully capable of murder just now, and
needed Bracegirdle to stay his hand.

"I would very much appreciate it," he growled in a low and deadly
voice, "if you could explain to me what the bloody hell happened on
your ship!"

Thorne seemed to take no notice of the captain's fury, seemed to have
no understanding of the danger or precariousness of his present
situation. As calmly as if he were master here, he arched a slim
eyebrow, his grey eyes cold, and regarded Pellew with something very
near boredom. "I believe, sir," he answered laconically, "it is
called mutiny."

Pellew whirled around at that and stalked toward the lieutenant with
a predatory tread, his dark eyes hot as coals. "Do not be
impertinent!" he spat through clenched teeth. "By God, sir, I warn
you: at best I have a low tolerance for such, and I am very far from
my best just now! If you try me, I shall break you into pieces and
feed them to the sharks!"

Thorne stiffened at the insult to his dignity. Narrowing his eyes
slightly, he stared icily at Pellew, hating the man for his arrogance
as he had hated Sidney for his softness. "I apologize, sir," he
grated harshly. "I certainly meant no impertinence--"

"Damn what you meant!" Pellew hissed. "I sent a lieutenant and
fifteen men into your ship, Mr. Thorne, with the warning that you
were to see to their safety. Now, seven of those men are dead, and
Lieutenant Kennedy may die, as well! I demand you tell me what the
bloody hell they died for!"

Outrage coursed and churned through him in bitter waves at Pellew's
treatment of him. "Sir, I must protest--"

"Protest, and be damned!" Pellew answered furiously. "I have said I
want an explanation, sir, and an explanation I shall have!"

Thorne scowled furiously at the captain, his hands clenching tightly
at his sides, his grey eyes flashing. "Very well, sir!" he spat.
"Here is your explanation. Resolute was manned by cowards, brutes and
drunkards, and at their first chance the dogs rose against us to
butcher us in the night! Does that explanation suffice, sir?"

Bracegirdle stiffened in alarm at Thorne's tone, certain his captain
would never countenance such blatant insubordination. To his
surprise, however, Pellew did not throttle the man at once, but
merely stood before him, that dark, burning gaze raking scathingly
over Thorne's damnably neat figure.

"And yet," he said through clenched teeth, "I see no evidence of
ëbutchery' before me. Pray tell me, sir, how you managed to escape
these brutes and cowards without a mark upon you?"

"I was fortunate--"

"You were hiding!" Pellew countered ruthlessly. "Captain Clarke said
he found you in the surgery--"

"I considered it wiser than confronting alone a pack of armed
brigands," Thorne retorted coldly. "How would it have served my ship
for me to have sacrificed myself--"

"You shall have to ask Lieutenant Kennedy," Pellew spat, "IF he
survives! I believe he became quite the expert in sacrifice while
serving in your wretched ship!"

Thorne's eyes narrowed at the mention of Kennedy, as his resentment
of the lieutenant boiled to the surface. "Kennedy!" he spat. "That
boy was more hindrance than help the moment he set foot in Resolute!
He opposed me at every opportunity, questioned my orders, my
methods-- He is wilfully insubordinate, and I intend to have him up
on charges the mom--"

"Lieutenant Kennedy?" Pellew barked in disbelief. "Insubordinate?
Good God, he is the farthest thing from insubordinate I can imagine!
He would never--"

"HE OPPOSED ME!" Thorne shouted, his face reddening deeply. "He did
not like the way I disciplined the men! He thwarted our bosun's
attempts to keep order, he questioned my orders before the crew-- For
all I know, it was his example that finally sparked the men to
mutiny!"

Pellew stared at the man in utter astonishment, too stunned now to be
angry. "Mr. Kennedy... inspired your men... to mutiny?" he repeated
softly. "Mr. Kennedy, who held the quarter-deck against vastly
superior numbers, who rallied your men to fight for your ship, who
went so far as to attempt to disable that ship so Indefatigable would
be certain to overtake her, who put himself in danger when you would
not-- THIS is the man you say inspired the crew to mutiny?" He
stepped closer to Thorne and stared searchingly into those cold grey
eyes. "My God, sir," he breathed incredulously, "have you taken
complete leave of your senses?"

Watching in silence, Bracegirdle was every bit as outraged as his
captain. That an officer, a first lieutenant, should hide while his
ship was in the throes of mutiny, leave another officer to face that
mutiny, and then blame that officer for that mutiny, was as
reprehensible and as cowardly a thing as he had ever known. Thorne
disgusted him, sickened him, and he began to regret that Pellew had
called him here to stop him from killing the detestable bastard.

Good Lord, if ever a man deserved killing, it was this one!

Before Pellew could say another word, there was a soft knock at the
door. At a nod from the captain, Bracegirdle went to the door and
opened it, frowning at the sight of a midshipman he did not know.
"Yes?"

Stewart swallowed hard and licked his dry lips, his green eyes very
wide. "Beg pardon, sair," he said softly, "but-- but the sailing
master said I should-- deliver these to the captain." He held out the
letter and notebook. "They're Mr. Kennedy's."

At the sound of that name, Pellew turned sharply about, his soul
flooding with dread. "Mr. Kennedy?" he rasped, impaling the boy with
his dark gaze. "He-- he is not--"

"I dinna ken, sair," Stewart admitted softly, stepping within. "I've
nae seen him." Again he held out the letter and notebook. "I brought
his things o'er from Resolute, and these were among them. This," he
tapped the letter, "has your name on it. I thought they might be
important."

Pellew went forward and took the items, his gaze never leaving
Stewart's face. "Thank you, sir. You were on the quarter-deck, were
you not?"

Stewart blushed darkly, amazed that the famous Captain Pellew should
have remembered him. "Aye, sair, I was," he said softly, dropping his
gaze to the deck. "Mr. Kennedy said we were to hold it at all costs.
God knows, we tried!" he whispered, closing his eyes against the
memory of it.

"Mutiny is an ugly business," Pellew said gently, "the scourge of any
navy. And it is regrettable that you have been touched at such a
young age by it. But it speaks well that you stayed at your post when
another, lesser man might have been tempted to hide himself until the
danger had passed."

Bracegirdle chuckled quietly at the captain's verbal swipe at Thorne,
who also recognized the insult and glared menacingly at Pellew. But
Stewart's head came up sharply and his green eyes flashed, his slim
frame straightening.

"Och, sair, I could ne'er hae hidden meself!" he said with quiet
force. "That would hae been cowardice! As Mr. Kennedy said, Resolute
is the King's ship, and our duty was tae hold her for the King. If a
man's nae prepared to fight and die for his ship, then he's nae much
of an officer, is he?"

Pellew smiled thinly, fully aware of Thorne behind him. "No, he is
not, Mr.-- I do not believe I know your name."

"Och, sair, I beg your pardon! It's Stewart, sair, Midshipman James
Stewart."

Pellew arched a dark brow. "James Stewart, eh? An auspicious name for
a Scotsman, is it not?"

Stewart blushed again. "Not of those Stewarts, sair," he murmured.
"We ne'er held with the uprising."

Pellew chuckled quietly. "Hm, good thing for England. And for
Resolute." He held out his hand. "I will take those now, Mr.
Stewart." He glanced at the boy. "Have yourself tended by the doctor,
and then rest. I dare say you have earned it."

Stewart handed Pellew first the notebook, then the letter. "Sair, if
I may, I-- Well, ye might ought to read the letter first. The way it
was laid on the table, it looked as if he wrote it-- for that
purpose."

Pellew nodded and glanced down, hit by a twinge of pain at the sight
of Kennedy's unmistakable, untidy hand. "I shall, Mr. Stewart. Now,
take you to the surgeon, and get some rest. That, sir, is an order."

Stewart stiffened and sauted crisply. "Aye aye, sair. And thank ye,
sair."

Pellew smiled slightly. "Thank you, sir." He lifted the letter. "I am
indebted to you for this."

Stewart blushed again, then turned and left, more than a little in
awe of having actually conversed with the fabled Captain Sir Edward
Pellew.

That estimable person stared for long moments down at the letter,
studying Kennedy's hand and seeing signs of unsteadiness in it. Not
trusting his composure -- or his restraint -- he glanced up at
Bracegirdle, who was regarding him with concern.

"Mr. Bracegirdle," he said softly, suddenly feeling weary beyond
words, "take our... guest... below and see if you can't find him some
quarters. I will send for you when I have read this."

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant answered quietly, easily reading the
distress in those dark eyes. "I shall see about Mr. Kennedy while I
am gone, sir, and send word if there is any... change."

Pellew nodded his thanks, once again grateful for the man's unfailing
intuition, and wondering how the same Navy could produce both a
Bracegirdle and a Thorne. Sighing tiredly, he turned the letter over,
and carefully broke the seal.

Thorne burned with outrage, realizing he had been dismissed, and
without a direct word to him. Infuriated by the insult, he opened his
mouth to make some protest, but was silenced by Bracegirdle's glare.
Returning that stare with one of his own, he turned sharply on his
heel and stalked out, silently damning Pellew's intolerable
effrontery.

So this was where Kennedy got it!

Pellew's hands shook slightly as he opened the letter, and a soft,
wordless groan escaped him as the first words filled him with a
terrible ache.

"Captain Pellew--

"It is under a black cloud of fear and a heavy burden of sorrow that
I take pen in hand to write what may well be my words of farewell to
all in Indefatigable. As you are now reading these words, I can only
assume my fears have come to pass, and that mutiny did, indeed, break
out in Resolute. May God have mercy on us all.

I do not know whether I shall survive, though I pray so with all my
heart, for I have no dearer wish than to return to service in
Indefatigable. But my fate tonight rests in other hands, hands that
even now are reaching for weapons..."

Pellew staggered as if struck and crushed the letter between shaking
hands with a wrenching groan, his heart breaking for the boy he had
sent into that ship. But, knowing he owed it to Kennedy to read what
might well be the lad's final words, he made his way on unsteady legs
to his desk and sank weakly into his chair. Steeling himself for more
anguish still, he laid the letter on the desk and smoothed it
carefully, his dark eyes deep pools of agony.

Kennedy gave a detailed, horrific description of conditions in
Resolute, including the flogging that had killed Willie Dudley, and
Thorne's disposal of his body afterward. Pellew read the words with
sick horror, his heart going cold within him, his rage at Thorne
turning deadly. It appalled him that an officer should so mistreat
the remains of one of his men, that he could be so callous, so
uncaring, and so stupid. And the more he read, the angrier he got.

Thorne threatening Kennedy with arrest for daring to demand a proper
burial for a dead sailor, and putting the lad on watch and watch for
it... the bosun given a free hand to appease his unholy lust for
violence... midshipmen so bereft of conscience they could not
comprehend what drove an officer to risk all for the sake of what was
right... a captain so weak he would surrender to madness rather than
face down the evil in his midst... Thorne refusing to heed Kennedy's
warning of impending mutiny, and again threatening the young man with
arrest...

"Resolute is a floating hell, sir," Kennedy went on, the splotches of
blurred ink on the paper given mute testimony to his torment. "The
men are so cruelly treated, beaten and abused as if they were
animals, insulted and harassed at every turn by officers who have
abandoned their consciences, their humanity, and sunk into sheer
brutality. I do not wonder that the men now so ardently crave our
blood, yet I cannot express what horror fills me at the thought of
having to spill theirs. While my mind assures me I may be forced to,
still my heart tells me they are Englishmen, and with all that is in
me I shrink from the prospect of killing my own countrymen..."

Pellew groaned again and buried his face in one shaking hand, his
soul in tatters. God, how could he have allowed this? How could he
have sent Kennedy into that ship, when all the signs had warned of
something dreadfully wrong? Did he, then, bear the blood of the
injured and dead upon his hands, as well?

With an effort, he lifted his head and resumed reading, though every
word tore into him like a knife. Worst of all, though, so painful it
tore a wrenching cry from him, was Kennedy's absolution of the men
who might very well have killed him.

"They were not bad men, for the most part, and should likely have
made a fine crew under better officers... For whatever horror this
night brings, those who led them -- or failed to -- are every bit as
responsible as those who do the killing... I ask you not to hate
them, sir. Pity them, rather, for what they might have been, and for
what they have become..."

Against all force of habit, tears slid slowly down Pellew's weathered
cheeks, and his heart ached as if it had sustained a mortal blow. He
tried to imagine what terror had gripped the young man as he had sat
alone in his cabin, forced to confront the likelihood of his own
death at the hands of shipmates, and wondered how Kennedy had ever
found within himself the courage, and the calm, to frame his feelings
into words.

"...what an honour and a privilege it has been to serve in
Indefatigable, with her splendid company of officers and men, and
under a captain whom none could ever rival..... And if I have not
turned out to be quite the officer you had hoped... I sincerely
apologize..."

Apologize? Good God, for what? What more could any captain ask of his
officers than this?

"...tender my fondest regards to Horatio... the truest friend one
could ever wish in this life.... And if I should not survive this
night, sir, please tell him good-bye for me--"

Pellew could bear to read no more, could not force himself to finish
those last few words of farewell. With a hand that shook as if from
palsy, he turned the letter over, then bowed his head and wept
silently, bitterly, for Kennedy, for the good men who had died
through no fault of their own...

...and for the men he would see hanged because they had been pushed
beyond the limits of their endurance.

Oh, God, merciful God, he should have sent Resolute to the bottom
that first day he saw her!
*********