Ship of the Damned, part four
by Sue N.

Pellewís steward Somers poured each of the two
officers a portion of brandy, then discreetly left the
cabin. When he had gone, Pellew took his glass, raised
it, and said, "To the King."

"To the King," Thorne echoed.

Pellew took a sip, regarding the lieutenant over the
rim of his glass. Though he knew it was an irrational
and wholly instinctive reaction, he simply did not
like the cut of the man. It was, he suddenly realized,
something in his eyes...

Thorne cradled the glass in his hand and stood in the
center of the cabin without looking about, as if
holding himself aloof from his surroundings and the
man across from him. He knew of Captain Sir Edward
Pellew -- who in the Navy did not? -- but cared little
that he was in the presence of the man considered by
many the quintessential frigate captain. He was here
merely because custom and courtesy demanded that he
be, and because there was no graceful way of declining
a superior officer's request.

"You earlier mentioned the storms of last week,"
Pellew said at last, knowing he was bound by civility
to make conversation. "I take it Resolute was
damaged?"

Thorne's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned. He knew
Pellew had seen for himself the answer to the
question, and was certain the man was trying to
humiliate him. "Aye, sir," he answered with an edge to
his voice. "Though I fear our crew was rather less
efficient than yours in effecting the necessary
repairs."

Pellew had seen, and had been appalled. Yet rather
than faulting the crew for such deplorable work, he
tended to suspect that the true inadequacies lay in
Resolute's command. It had been his experience that
any crew were only so good as their officers.

"So you may well imagine," Thorne was saying, "how
greatly relieved we were to realize it was a British
frigate we faced, and not Spanish. We are in no shape
for a battle just now."

"Yes, well, you very nearly had one, regardless,"
Pellew said bluntly. "Had you been a few seconds
longer in signalling, we would have fired. In future,
sir, you might remember that any ship you can see,
most likely can also see you. And I doubt any captain
wants the dubious honour of sinking one of his own!"

Thorne stiffened and scowled at the rebuke, his colour
rising, his mouth tightening. His jaw set hard and a
muscle in it twitched, while his pale eyes glinted
like ice. "My apologies, sir," he said harshly at
last, seething beneath Pellew's gaze. "But we recently
lost our signal lieutenant, and have been relying upon
the rather uncertain skills of a midshipman. However,"
a thin smile, almost a sneer, twisted about his mouth,
"you may rest assured that particular problem has been
corrected."

The words sounded a warning in Pellew's brain, and he
narrowed his dark eyes slightly, intensifying his
scrutiny of the man. He had known officers of Thorne's
ilk before, knew the Navy was rife with men who
mistook brutality for discipline and believed a crew
could be beaten into submission. He could well imagine
what form the lieutenantís "correction" had taken.

Thorne could plainly see Pellew's disgust, and was
infuriated by the thought that this man should have
the audacity to stand in judgment of him. "Perhaps,
sir," he suggested bitterly, "you would care to hear
of circumstances upon Resolute. We are a small
frigate, as you can see, yet have been under-manned
since we left Portsmouth. And our numbers have only
continued to shrink." He began to pace tightly about
the cabin, despising the luxury about him, the order,
the evidence that all was right and well in
Indefatigable. "We have run afoul of the Dons twice
this month alone, and the second time were fortunate
to escape with our lives! The first time, we
triumphed, to be sure, and took a sloop. Captain
Sidney dispatched her back to Gibraltar with a prize
crew, which left us dangerously short-handed. And we
lost five more men to the storms. So when that second
frigate jumped us-- "

"Jumped you, sir?" Pellew asked softly, intrigued by
the choice of words. "They came upon you by surprise,
then?"

Thorne turned sharply at that, his eyes darting back
to Pellew. But whatever answer he had been tempted to
make died unspoken before the captain's withering
gaze. He swallowed hard, then said tightly, "Like you,
sir, we had just come through a storm, and were
unprepared for battle. Our sails and rigging in
tatters, masts splintered, three feet of water in the
well-- No doubt the Dago captain saw our state and
took his chance. We fought them, of course, and
eventually fought them off. But the action left us in
even more desperate straights than before. We suffered
forty-three killed or wounded, on top of our losses to
the storm and the men we had packed off on the prize
crew." He scowled bitterly. "We are headed for
Gibraltar, but that is a good three weeks away yet,
and we have little more than half a crew! If we should
happen to meet another Spaniard-- " He broke off and
drank again from his brandy.

Pellew stared hard at the lieutenant, his own brandy
forgotten. For whatever reason, Captain Sidney
appeared to have abdicated his command to this man,
who was no fit leader. And while he would not have
been bothered to see Thorne sunk or blown to the
stars, he was deeply concerned about the men who had
the misfortune of serving under the man, and in that
poor, wretched frigate.

Resolute. God, the name itself was a very mockery...

"As it happens," he said at last, his voice quiet, his
gaze still fixed upon Thorne, "we are bound for
Gibraltar, as well, for victualling and refit. It
occures to me that our ships might sail together. If
nothing else, the arrangement would lend the added
security of extra guns, should danger threaten."

The idea, to Thorne, heaped insult upon injury, but he
could find no rational argument against it. Resolute
was desperately short of hands, and those she did have
were appallingly incompetent, as her near encounter
with Indefatigable had so plainly shown. The crew were
a thoroughly despicable lot -- drunkards, brutes and
cowards -- and would be of precious little use in
another engagement. And no doubt Pellew had noted --
damn the man! ñ the ship's pathetic condition...

But, God, to have to look out every morning and see
this great shining ship, so supremely confident in her
superiority, with this man gloating over his
discomfiture... It rankled. By God, it did!

Yet what choice had he? If they encountered an enemy
ship on their own, they would be destroyed, he had no
doubt of it. Even another storm might prove fatal...

"Sir, I-- I thank you for your offer, and I accept--
on behalf of Captain Sidney." Try as he might, he
could not unclench his teeth, could not make the words
sound the least bit gracious. "We would be--
honoured-- " God, he could choke! -- "to sail with
you."

But Pellew was not yet finished. The thought taking
shape in his mind sickened him, but, again, he felt
obligated to provide some measure of relief -- of
security -- for Resolute's crew. "How many officers
have you?" he asked quietly, steeling himself for the
odious duty.

Thorne frowned and eyed the man warily, not trusting
him for a moment. "Officers?" he repeated stiffly,
alert for some form of treachery. "There are only
Captain Sidney and myself at present, along with a few
midshipmen of uneven quality. As I said, we lost one
lieutenant, and another sailed with the prize crew."
He was on the verge of asking, "Why?" but swallowed
the question out of prudence.

Pellew raised his glass and drained the contents in
one swallow, exhaling sharply as the brandy burned its
fiery path down his throat to his stomach. "I have in
mind, sir," he said harshly, grudgingly, "the-- loan--
to you of a few of my men, and perhaps one of my
officers."

Thorne was shocked, and his expression showed it. For
once, he could make no response, could say nothing
either for or against the proposal.

Pellew stared hard at the man, waiting. He had no
desire to send his men into so sorry a ship, but knew
he could not in charity or duty refuse to render aid.
If conditions in Resolute were as dismal as he
suspected, then she would be a danger to Indefatigable
as well as herself. And if the two ships remained
together, he might at least be able to maintain some
sort of control--

"Sir, I-- I do not-- know what to say," Thorne rasped,
rousing himself from stunned immobility at last. "I--
"

"How many men would you require to put you on a
minimally secure footing?" Pellew asked. "And, please,
bear in mind that I have no surplus of crew, either."

Thorne forced his mind into action, and, for once,
forced himself to be reasonable. He had no doubt that
Pellew would rescind the offer and throw him out of
this cabin and off the ship if he tried to take even
the smallest advantage. "Sir, I believe we-- we would
need-- no more than ten, if they can be spared. If
not, then we shall certainly make do with however many
you might consider reasonable." Ah, God, now he was
reduced to grovelling!

Pellew's very soul rebelled at the notion of sending
even one man into Resolute, into God knew what danger,
but his recognition of his duty would not be denied.
"Very well," he said quietly, praying his reluctance
did not show. "I shall determine what men we can
spare, and-- send an officer to assist you. It is the
least I can do for-- a brother officer." The words
tasted like gall in his throat. "Would you join me
here for dinner in two hours? By then we should have
the men detailed for you."

Thorne bowed his head curtly. "I should be honoured,
sir," he answered coolly, all but choking upon the
words. "And I-- thank you. Sir."

Pellew laid aside all pretense then, and walked slowly
to Thorne, stopping just before him. Staring into the
manís eyes, his own hard as polished stone, he said
quietly, warningly, "Do not thank me yet, sir, for
there are limits to my generosity." As Thorne
stiffened and inhaled audibly in outrage, Pellew
lifted his chin slightly, his own anger tightly coiled
within him. "I am entrusting my men to your care, Mr.
Thorne," he said in a soft and deadly voice, his teeth
clenched. "See that I am given no reason EVER to
regret doing so!"

Anger and resentment stirred in Thorne, but again he
managed to swallow them. "Captain Pellew, I assure
you," he said coldly, "I shall treat your men as if
they are my very own."
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