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THE DUCHESS AND THE CAPTAIN
By Sue N.

DISCLAIMER: I did not create these people and don't make any claim to
have done so. They all belong to somebody else.
RATING: G

All right, me hearties, I've decided to try my hand at fleshing out
another episode. This one features our stalwart Captain Pellew and his
remarkable guest, the Duchess of Wharfdale, otherwise known as Miss
Kitty Cobham. It takes place immediately after HH and the boys have
decided to honour their parole by returning to captivity under Don
Masseredo, a decision which has left everyone in shock.

As this story begins, we are on the quarter-deck of Indefatigable,
watching intently over the railing as a small boat pulls farther and
farther away, her crew leaving the safety and security of our ship for
the uncertainty of prison. And away we go!

**THE DUCHESS AND THE CAPTAIN**

The final echoes of the salute were dying away, the booming thunder of
the guns giving way to the customary quieter shipboard sounds: the
unhurried lapping of the long Atlantic swells against the sides of
Indefatigable, the creaking of her stout oak timbers, the oddly melodic
singing of her rigging in the brisk morning breeze. And everywhere the
sound of men's voices, of a crew returning to work. Yet those voices
were oddly subdued; absent was the laughter, the singing, that normally
marked a contented crew. Even the smallest ship's boys seemed touched
by the solemnity that hung over Indefatigable like the heavy grey pall
of gun smoke, seemed to recognize the gravity of such a time as this.

And at the very center of that gravity - or, more like, himself the
very center from which that gravity emanated - was the solitary figure
standing on the windward side of the quarter-deck, his customary pacing
given way to utter stillness. Undisturbed - indeed, unapproachable - in
his solitude, he stood at the railing and stared out over the vast
expanse of water, his dark gaze fixed steadily upon the small boat
drawing ever farther away from him, and ever closer to certain
imprisonment.

"I must go back." Even now, the simple words, spoken with such quiet,
unassailable conviction, haunted him, taunted him. "I gave my parole."

He gave a soft, groaning sigh and turned abruptly away from the sight
of the boat, clasping his hands tightly behind his back and lifting his
gaze to the sky, clenching his jaws as if in sudden pain. He had
understood - or so he had told himself - Hornblower's compulsion to
return, but understanding did not make that return any less painful to
watch. Indeed, it seemed to make it all the harder. The conviction, the
honour behind it, the courage that supported it: all were of a piece
with the extraordinary character of the singular young man at the
tiller of that boat. The loss of such a man, such an officer, would be
a blow to the service, of course; but that loss hit him most painfully
on a deeply personal level. And the pain would not be easily assuaged.

But, conscious now of his own duty, he masked that pain with an effort
and turned to the wheel, where his sailing master and first lieutenant
stood, still staring after that barely-discernible boat. Adopting his
characteristic firm stride, he went to the wheel, trying not to choke
upon the order he must give.

"Mister Bowles, prepare to weigh anchor," he ordered crisply. "I want
us out to sea as quickly as possible." He glanced down at the main
deck, at the hands still gathered at the railings, and scowled, turning
a grim face to his lieutenant. "Mister Bracegirdle!" he barked. "Clear
those men from the deck!"

**********
Bowles watched Pellew's figure disappear below deck and shook his
greying head slowly, his eyes somber. "He's taking it hard," he said
quietly, careful to keep his words from carrying any further than to
the officer at his side. "I would hate to cross him just now."

"He is quite fond of Horatio," Bracegirdle answered, his typically
jovial face now clouded with his own sorrow. "As are we all." He
glanced about the ship, already conscious of her crew's altered spirit.
"I fear our days shall all be darker for his absence. Although," he
made a forced, and not entirely successful, attempt at levity, "if any
man can find a way to reverse so difficult a situation, it would have
to be our young Mr. Hornblower!"

**********
Pellew moved distractedly about his cabin, going to the large stern
windows and gazing out, then turning away and wandering to the table
littered with charts. For long moments, he stared down at one chart in
particular, his eyes tracing as if of their own accord the nor'west
coast of Spain, his chest growing tighter and tighter. All at once, a
harsh, wordless cry escaped him and he lashed out with a hand, sweeping
the charts violently onto the floor. God, how he hated this
helplessness!

He turned abruptly away from the litter and clasped his hands tightly
behind his back, inclining his head sharply and closing his eyes, his
face a taut mask of anguish. He had lost men before, good men, good
officers, but never, NEVER in his entire career had he willingly,
voluntarily, sent good men into hopeless imprisonment! Yet because that
young upstart Hornblower had given his parole to the Dons, he had been
forced to stand idly by and let - LET! - a brilliant young officer, a
midshipman who had already suffered far more than his share of
torments, and a compliment of prime seamen give themselves up to the
enemy and deprive a desperate and beleaguered England of their
services!

But what choice had he? a small, soft voice whispered in his mind.

He groaned again and bowed his head, shaking it slowly. None. He had
had no choice. Hornblower had given his word, and, even in war, that
meant something.

Or so it should. He sighed and resumed his pacing, his agitation
gradually easing. So much had changed in the world already, so much had
been lost, or was threatened, and he knew that, in a world seemingly
gone mad, there were men enough who would put aside honour, count it as
a conveniently disposable commodity, something to be put on or cast off
at will. He did not care to add to their number. Hornblower had given
his word, and even among enemies a man's word should be reckoned his
pledge. Hornblower had thought so, and Pellew could not bring himself
to tarnish the young man's sacrifice simply to spare himself his
present discomfort.

No, his own honour would not permit that. He sighed heavily and turned
back to the scattered charts, silently cursing himself for his loss of
temper. Still weary after yesterday afternoon's battle and the storm
that had followed, and feeling far older than his years, he shook his
head and knelt, gathering the charts and, with them, his composure. Yet
as he straightened and replaced the charts upon the table, he carefully
covered the coast of Spain with that of England.

Home!

**********

Kitty Cobham made her way up to the quarter-deck, hoping to find
Captain Pellew there. Yet she saw only - what was his name? Beall,
Bower - Bowles, that was it! - Mr. Bowles gazing up at the ship's
rigging as if utterly fascinated. She glanced up, but could see nothing
unusual - not that she would have known if there were - and shrugged.
Still trying to get her bearings at sea, she turned about to view the
coast and frowned deeply in sudden alarm. There was much more distance
between ship and land than there had been this morning, the coast
little more than a bit of haze on the horizon. They were leaving
without Horatio and the others. But there had to be some explanation!

"Good afternoon, Your Grace," Bracegirdle greeted as he ascended to the
quarter-deck. "It has turned into a lovely day, has it not? And with a
fair wind, we shall certainly make good time."

"Aye, but to where?" she asked, at the last minute remembering to
employ her broad Yorkshire accent. "We seem to be losin' the coast
rather than comin' closer."

Bracegirdle frowned slightly. "Coming closer, Your Grace?" His
confusion was plain. "That is Spain, enemy territory. The farther we
are from her, the better."

"But Mr. Haige is still there! Surely, we are not abandoning him!"

Bracegirdle tensed at the unfortunate word, his blue eyes narrowing and
darkening. "Your Grace," he answered quietly, "there is nothing we can
do. He gave his word he would return, and he has chosen to keep that
word. Just as his men chose to return with him. We have orders to sail
for England, and 'tis to England we go. We have come as close to Spain
as we are like to get."

Outrage flooded her and she drew herself up to her full height, her
eyes flashing in her lovely face. "You cannot mean- "

"Your Grace- "

"Don't ëYour Grace' me!" she snapped furiously. "I will not stand idly
by and remain silent while you condemn those poor men to prison! Have
you seen those cells, sir?" she demanded, jabbing a finger into his
chest. "Well, I have, and they're not fit for dogs nor Frenchmen, much
less fine English lads!"

Bracegirdle drew a deep breath and released it slowly, controlling his
mounting anger with an effort. Conscious of the effect the duchess'
thoughtless words were having on the men who could not help but
overhear, he stepped closer to her and, pitching his voice low, said
very softly, "Please, Your Grace, there is nothing to be done. The
decision has been made, and by Mr. Hornblower himself. Now, I would ask
you, for the sake of the men- "

"The men be damned!" she cried, not caring a whit who overheard. "I
tell you, sir, I will not allow this!" She swept a scathing glance
about the quarter-deck. "Where is Sir Edward?"

Bracegirdle stiffened and felt a cold wave of dread spreading through
him. The captain had been in a foul, black temper since that boat had
gone. Nothing would be more certain to provoke him into a towering rage
than this woman-

"Did you hear me?" she demanded coldly. "Where can I find Sir Edward?"

"Madame," Bracegirdle said with a sinking heart and churning stomach,
"the captain is not to be disturbed. He left strict orders- "

"But as I am not in the Navy, his orders do not apply to me," she
announced airily. "Good day, sir."

Before the stunned Bracegirdle could stop her, she turned abruptly away
and hurried to the companionway, descending to the main deck with a
nimble grace. Once there, she spied a new, very young midshipman and
smiled brilliantly at him, beckoning him to her.

Upon the quarter-deck, Bracegirdle groaned and only barely resisted the
urge to drop his head into his hands. God, how he wished a Spanish
ship, a French ship, ANY ship would appear just now and give them
something useful to do!

As he watched, the duchess talked for long moments with the midshipman,
whose scarlet blush was visible even from here. The boy was fairly
melting under the duchess' handling, and Bracegirdle could gladly have
broken him in half. Then the boy beckoned below, and the duchess
extended her hand for him to kiss. When he had scurried away from her,
she turned to Bracegirdle, dropped into a low and mocking curtsey and
flashed a triumphant smile. As he swore foully under his breath, she
rose to her feet and sashayed below decks, to Captain Pellew, who had
no idea what was about to explode upon him.

Mr. Bowles wandered over to the first lieutenant, still casting an
experienced eye heavenward. "Sky is clear and wind is fair," he
muttered. "Still," he turned his gaze to Bracegirdle, his expression
knowing, "I sense a storm on the horizon."

"Aye," Bracegirdle breathed, shaking his head slowly. "And a full gale
at that!"

**********

Pellew sat at his writing table and read again the orders that had come
from Gibraltar, his earlier anger now spent and reduced to weary
resignation. He had lost good men before, and had weathered the loss.
It would be - it could be - no different now. Whatever his personal
feelings, a war still raged, and England was still in danger. Her
enemies were closing in, and gaining strength. His country was fighting
for her life, and that, as ever, must be his first and highest concern.

His dark gaze flicked impatiently over the familiar words again. "You
are hereby required and directed! return to England with the utmost
despatch! Portsmouth!"

He sighed and laid the paper down, staring absently at the fouled
anchor that was the distinctive, and unfortunate, seal of the
Admiralty. England. Portsmouth. In all likelihood, a return to Channel
duty. And very probably attached to a squadron. No more independent
command. Sharing prize-money. He sighed again and arched a dark brow.
One did as one must in war!

The knocking at his cabin door interrupted his thoughts. "Come!"

The door opened and he looked up, then scrambled hastily to his feet as
the Duchess of Wharfdale entered. "Your Grace!" he greeted in surprise,
going hurriedly toward her. "This is a most unexpected pleasure!"

"Sir Edward," she returned with a warm smile, extending her hand for
his kiss. "I 'ope I'm not disturbing you?"

"Not at all, Your Grace, not at all! Please, come in." Despite the
polite assurance of his words, he could not entirely smother the
feeling of unease she aroused in him. He never knew from one moment to
the next what to expect from the astonishing woman, and he greatly
misliked surprises. "May I be of some service to Your Grace?"

She made her way further into the cabin and wandered idly about in
silence, studying its orderliness, its understated elegance, and taking
the measure of the man who occupied it from her surroundings. There
could be no attempt at bullying here, no effort to impose her will. She
would have to choose her words - play her role - with care.

He clasped his hands behind his back and watched her every movement,
his uneasiness growing. He did not like the calculating gleam in her
eye, the determined set of her jaw. Abruptly, her expression put him in
mind of a shrewd antagonist, rather than the flighty woman she so often
appeared.

"I've come to discuss your Lieutenant 'ornblower, Sir Edward," she said
at last, turning to face him. "I must admit my deep dismay in this
matter."

He frowned deeply. "What matter would that be, Your Grace?"

"The matter of your unwillingness to 'elp 'im!" she snapped, angered by
his obtuseness. "That young man and 'is comrades are no doubt being
clapped into a cell at this moment, and we are blithely sailing back to
England, as if nothing 'as 'appened!" Her eyes were blazing and a flush
of anger coloured her cheeks. "I expected you, Sir Edward, to do more
for the lad than simply abandon 'im to the Dons!"

Her words struck him a painful blow, pricked anew at the raw wound that
was his conscience. He stiffened visibly, his expression hardening, and
lifted his chin belligerently, only barely biting back a most uncivil
response.

Watching him, she recognized her misstep and regretted it at once.
"Forgive me, Sir Edward," she apologized quietly, "I meant no offense.
But I've grown fond of your Mister 'aige, and simply cannot bear the
thought of 'im and 'is men languishing in that dreadful place! Surely,
sir, England would be much better served with 'im 'ere, on a fighting
ship, than back in prison?"

"Your Grace," he spoke slowly and through teeth he could not force
himself to unclench, "I appreciate your- sentiments in this matter, and
am quite sensible of your feelings for Lieutenant Hornblower. But I
assure you, nothing more can be done. He gave his word, and is
determined to keep it. Likewise, his men of their own free will chose
to return with him. Short of clapping them all in irons, Your Grace,
there was nothing I could do."

"Poppycock!" she flung at him. "You could have ordered him- "

"To go back on his word?" He drew himself up to his full height and
stared at her through hard dark eyes. "Then, Your Grace, you indeed
know very little of me, or of Mr. Hornblower. Shall I order a man to
turn his back on honour? Shall I proclaim to our enemies that officers
of the King negotiate in bad faith? Shall I prove to the world that the
word of an English officer and gentleman means nothing? No, madame, not
in this or any other lifetime!"

"You're not leaving him there!" she cried in disbelief, her accent
slipping for a moment. Fury swept through her in a hot wave, quite
demolishing her former resolve to remain reasonable. "My God, can you
truly be so heartless?"

He inclined his head sharply and narrowed his eyes, his mouth
tightening. "I assure you, madame, the status of my heart has no
bearing upon this matter!" he rasped harshly. "Perhaps I have not made
myself clear to Your Grace- "

"Oh, you've made yourself perfectly clear, Sir Edward!" she retorted,
tossing her head and planting her hands on her hips, returning his
stare with a fury equal to his. "That young man saved my life, saved
those sailors, with no thought for 'is own safety! 'e's proven 'imself
a man of courage and honour- "

"I do not require Your Grace to defend Mr. Hornblower or his character
to me," he ground out through clenched teeth. "Believe me, I am well
aware of his exceptional nature!"

Even through her own anger, she recognized the pain behind his and
suddenly felt for him. Taking a step nearer, she frowned slightly,
thoughtfully, and searched his face, able now to see what the loss of
that young officer had cost him.

"You do care for 'im, don't you?" she asked softly.

The gentleness of her tone touched oddly upon his battered composure,
his embattled nerves, and he turned away abruptly, unwilling to have
his vulnerability so exposed.

"I care for all my men," he answered gruffly.

She smiled slightly, sadly, and moved closer still, instinctively
reaching out to touch his shoulder. But as he stiffened and inhaled
sharply at her touch, she withdrew her hand out of respect for his
feelings.

"Aye, you do," she murmured in her rich, warm voice, her eyes filled
with compassion for him. "But you've a special care for Mister 'aige,
or I'm a greater fool than I thought." She suddenly remembered the
salute, and the expression of mingled pride and sadness with which he
had watched the little boat depart. "'e's a special one, that Mister
'aige," she said softly, deeply regretting her anger and accusations.
"I am sorry for your loss."

He sighed tiredly and turned to her, his anger gone, the tension
drained from his body, his pain all too obvious. He could not speak -
the hard constriction of his throat would not allow it - and for a few
moments he was as human as any man on his ship.

"Well," she said quietly, disconcerted by the depth of emotion in dark
eyes that so plainly revealed a wounded soul, "I've overstepped me
bounds. Again." She tried to smile and failed. "Mebbe I should go- "

"No, Your Grace, please," he interrupted softly, strangely reluctant to
be alone. "I- I know- such ways- can be confusing- " He cleared his
throat and stretched his neck in a cravat suddenly grown much too
tight. "Please, if- if you will permit me, I should like to explain."

It was, she thought, the very least she could do. "I should be
honoured, Sir Edward."

Swallowing hard, struggling to contain his chaotic emotions, he smiled
slightly and gently took her arm, leading her to a nearby chair. "A
glass of wine, perhaps?" God knew his nerves could use the balm!

She nodded and studied him in thoughtful silence as he poured, seeing
much in him that put her in mind of Horatio. What strange world had she
stumbled into, she wondered, where men of war, who meted out death and
destruction, showed also such astonishing nobility? True, she had seen
it in Don Masseredo, but he was an old Spanish courtier, a relic of a
different time and place. And none of it had she seen in Colonel
Vergesse, a man of the same generation as Sir Edward. But young
Horatio, for all his youth and unworldliness, possessed it to the
fullest!

Yet it could not be a simple matter of nationality, for she had known
her fill of so-called English "gentlemen" who could give lessons even
to Vergesse in boorishness and low behaviour. What was it, then, that
set such men apart, that gave to them a lustre that not all the
darkness of war could dim?

Pellew gave a small, tight, tired smile as he handed the duchess her
glass. "Your health, and a safe return to England," he toasted before
taking a much-needed sip from his own.

"Thank you," she murmured.

His anger was gone, but its absence left him strangely restless, and he
began to pace. "I am well aware," he began quietly, "that it must,
indeed, appear I have- abandoned my men to a dismal fate- "

She grimaced in sudden shame and bowed her head. "I am deeply sorry,
Sir Edward! I should never have said- "

"No, Your Grace, it is quite all right, I assure you. For I know that
is how it must look. But I fear I am quite unable to pursue any other
course. Lieutenant Hornblower gave his word, and I could not persuade
him to go back upon it." He wandered to the stern windows and stared
out over the sea that was so much a part of himself. "Indeed, I- I fear
I would have been- greatly disappointed if I had." He frowned slightly,
watching the play of sunlight upon the gently heaving swells. "Our
world is in peril, Your Grace," he said softly, yet with unshakable
certainty. "We are plunged into madness, and civilization trembles upon
the verge of destruction. Yet if, in fighting that peril, in seeking to
stem the madness, we as men must lose our souls and betray our better
natures, then have we truly done civilization a service?"

She cradled her glass in her hand, never drinking, merely watching him
and listening to the words pouring forth in that quiet, supple voice.

"I dare say you are as familiar with man's nature, his faults and his
failings as well as his strengths, as am I." He turned suddenly to face
her, his dark gaze intense. "Are there so many men of honour, of true
courage and nobility left in this world, Your Grace, that we can spare
even one?"

She opened her mouth to speak, then realized she had no answer for him.

He smiled tightly. "Oh, I could, no doubt, make a grand, heroic attempt
to reclaim my men, a valiant if desperate effort that would gladden the
heart of any romantic. I could beat back against the wind and pit my
guns against those of the fortress, showing the world how greatly we
prize our officers and what sacrifices we are prepared to make to
preserve them. But at what cost? And to what purpose?" He arched a dark
brow and swept a hand about his fine cabin in an elegant gesture. "My
ship destroyed, my crew killed or captured. Young Hornblower and the
others still in prison, yet now with the deaths of their comrades upon
their consciences. Tell me, Your Grace, does that sound like an action
your Mister 'aige would countenance?"

She dropped her gaze from his and stared unblinking into her wine. "I
have been a great bloody damned fool, haven't I?" she asked softly,
bitterly, ashamed of her selfishness. "Thinking only of me own sorrow,
me own loss- " All at once, struck by something she had heard in his
voice, she raised her head sharply and narrowed her eyes, staring
searchingly at him. "Bloody 'ell!" she breathed in shock. "You
considered doing it, didn't you? You considered going in there after
them?"

A small smile tugged at the corners of his fine mouth, and his dark
eyes gleamed as he inclined his head. "A good captain, Your Grace,
considers every option. And I have more than once been termed a very
good captain."

Her own smile spread broadly across her face, and she raised her glass.
"I salute you, Sir Edward, and I commend you. I had begun to think I
was quite beyond being astonished by any man!"

He chuckled quietly and raised his glass to drink, his soul, for now,
at peace. And only to her would he come even this close to admitting
how near folly - and useless heroics - he had been drawn for the sake
of his men.

~THE END~