Fire Down Below
by Ruth W.
It was the least he could do in the circumstances.
Winter had howled into Old Portsmouth with a vengeance on that
day of December 1799, and suddenly Sally Makepeace's lodging-house
had become a very cold harbour indeed. A young Navy widow with a
baby son, she found it difficult enough to keep the place going in
summer, but in the heart of winter, with no man about the place, she
had been ready to give up and send her two favourite lodgers away.
But Kennedy and Hornblower were old, old friends. Sally had
Archie Kennedy most of her life, and it would have been low of them
to desert her, especially now, when she needed the money more than
ever. So it was that when he woke up, shivering in the middle of the
night, to find the world outside his window blue-white with newly
fallen snow, Archie crept downstairs for wood to make up the fire,
and found the kitchen hod quite empty.
"There's plenty of wood in the shed," Sally came
into the kitchen
behind him, making him jump, pushing her dark curls back under her
frilled cap, "but it's still in great logs. I haven't the strength
to chop it."
The inevitability of it made Archie smile. "I'll get dressed,"
Sally's woodshed was attached to the rear of her lodging-house.
Still sleepy after pulling on his clothes almost in a dream, Archie
stumbled downstairs again, yawning. He found his way into the little
yard, and winced as the cold blast hit him, prodding him awake with
brutal suddenness. The cobbles beneath his feet were slippery with
ice, and as he passed under the washing-line, little icicles broke
off and stuck like hatpins in his hair. His breath like steam on the
freezing air, he pushed open the door of the shed to find Sally
already there, lining up logs for him to chop. The small storm-
lantern which she held in her hand warmed the sap-and-sawdust air
and made it smell sooty. Her face glowed in the halo of light - a
mob-capped angel, to hover over his labour.
He shook his hair ruefully. "I didn't know it was still
said with a tired smile. "We're going to need this wood."
She pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders. "It
colder," she agreed, handing him the axe. "I'm so grateful, Archie."
Kennedy's grin broadened as he stripped off his waistcoat.
dirty work, and the garment was not easy to wash and dry in this
weather. He rolled up his sleeves, biting back the comment he might
have made about expressing her gratitude later. They were alone now,
unchaperoned and in a very informal situation, at a thoroughly
scandalous time of day. It would not do to light any flames he was
not at liberty to fan into a good, warm blaze.
He lined up the first log, lifted the axe, and took a swing.
The wood was dry and hard, and it took eight mighty swings
it down the middle. Then it had to be reduced again, and again in
order to bring it to the right size to go on the fire. It was harder
work than he was used to, but fortunately he was the sort of officer
who was prepared to get stuck in with the men occasionally just to
keep active, and the life he led at sea kept him very fit. It was
not an impossible task, even in his half-sleeping state.
Sally watched him working, and kept herself busy choosing logs
him to chop, breaking up the smaller sticks once he had reduced them
enough, and packing them into baskets. It was hard work for them
both, and despite the cold air, Archie began to sweat Not knowing
how quickly she could wash and dry his shirt, and having no clean
clothing in his bag upstairs, he pulled the garment off and tossed
it onto the woodpile, his dazed mind forgetting all about the
presence of his attractive landlady.
After an hour, the air was full of the delicate but pungent
wood shavings, the baskets were full, and there was a respectable
pyramid of carefully-laid logs and sticks of good size and quality,
ready for the fire. Archie straightened his aching back warily.
Since his spell in the oubliette in El Ferrol, he had found it
necessary to be careful how he treated his spine. If he subjected it
to too much bending and stretching, the muscles were inclined to
lock into a painful spasm, which could last an hour or more.
They both stood back to survey their work.
"That's wonderful!" she said softly. "I haven't
had this much wood
cut all winter. Thank you, my love!"
Kennedy wiped a grimy hand across his eyes, and immediately
he had not. She put up gentle fingers to wipe the smear of dirt from
his cheek, which brought her closer to him than was perhaps wise.
Sally took the axe from his hands impulsively.
"Oh Archie, give me a cuddle!" she requested with
smile. "It's been so long since a man held me close!"
Wishing he had left the shirt on for the sake of decorum, Archie
obliged her, enwrapping her in the kind of hug he might have given
his sister - yet she was not his sister, and he was only human.
Their shadows merged, huge on the wall in the baleful glow
lamplight, as their arms encircled one another. Oh the smell of her,
the soft feel of her hair on his unclad shoulder, the warm, feminine
rustle of her scented skirts. Archie felt like he was pleasantly
drowning. Her hands on his naked back seared him like a brand,
sending a shudder down his spine. It was nice...
He tried to breathe more slowly, but when he spoke the words
out in a tense whisper. "Sally, this isn't fair," he said. "I've
been at sea for six months. Contrary to what is said of us, there
are - appetites - which sailors are not able to fulfil beating up
and down the Channel in a frigate."
He felt her smile against his breast. "I know," she
back. "And I'm just a lonely woman who needs a human being to hold.
This is quite wrong of me." she looked up into his face, her dark,
pretty eyes honest and serious. "I'm taking advantage of you. I'm
He smiled, aware of the irony. "Horatio thinks, given
that I would take advantage of YOU," he said dryly, and was rewarded
with a soft little chuckle. She must feel the tension in him, he
thought she must hear his fast-beating heart and feel his
breathing, for she was not just any friend, but a very nice and very
available young woman who smelled of lavender and made his senses
Yet he was not embarrassed, and neither of them drew back to safety.
"To think we used to share a bed once, when I first came
my sisters," he murmured against her hair.
Her body shook with a little chuckle. "It was a large
wooden box, my
mother told me... pressed into service because we would have fallen
out of a bed! We were all of six months at the time, and I imagine
the closeness we felt was rather different then..."
He rocked her gently. "Hmm... If only I'd known then what
Sally gave him a gentle squeeze. "Thank God you didn't!
You were a
precocious enough child as it was!"
"I always carried a torch for you, you know," Archie
softly. "From the first stirrings of my youth, I used to dream about
losing my virginity with you."
"Did you now?" She sounded almost sad. "Well,
well... Fate had other
plans for us both."
If it were just lust, the young sailor thought, aching slightly,
would be easy. But he knew there was far more to it than that. The
six months he had managed without female company had also been spent
in close proximity to that pent-up bundle of reserve that was
Horatio Hornblower - the man who considered a handshake to be the
consummation of male bonding, and regarded anything more intimate as
There had been many suggestions about Kennedy and Hornblower
the last seven years, because it was quite impossible for anyone
outside the relationship to fully comprehend the bond between them.
Hornblower thought it was perfect, of course - the fine friendship
of two young men who could rely implicitly on one another, loyal
unto death, at times almost telepathic, who would always pull
together when the chips were down. Yet to Archie - used to the
opposite sex in the form of friends, maids, sisters, his beloved
mother, the occasional sweetheart - this distant, manly regard in a
comrade's heart was not enough. He yearned for the warmth of women -
for the powerful intimacy which they seemed to enjoy, and take for
granted in both sexes. And yes, grateful as he was for any gesture
or hint of affection, he yearned for a more physical response from
Horatio, the youthful, brotherly way things had been in Ferrol the
hand on his arm, or the arm over his shoulder, their heads together
as they pored over a book or a game of cards... the easy contact of
the human body. It was not a sexual yearning, but simply a craving
for warmth, love and mutual trustsomething to make him feel
and to hold back the loneliness and alienation which was the
of Jack Simpson that was the part he found hardest to bearoh what
a fine bequest Jack had left, that those demons should still have
life to drive him, even now, even here
The nearest he had come to human contact recently had been
of handclasps with the officers of the Indy, and Lady Pellew's hug,
on the occasion of his promotion to lieutenant!
It was not enough
Dammit, it would serve Hornblower and the bloody Navy right
threw caution to the winds here and now and just let go, which was
what Sally seemed to want him to do. It was what everyone would
expect of him.
But that would be low, and he knew it
Archie was very still, holding her close, but making no move
a gentle caress of her hair. "My mother always says," he said
infinitely softly "that men go to war, but it's the women who bear
all the scars."
She was silent.
He knew his mother and Horatio were right, only a sewer rat
take advantage of a good and vulnerable young woman in her own
woodshed at midnight. He had never committed an act of discourtesy
against any member of the fair sex, (Well, if one discounted the
juvenile incident with his big sister Josephine and the fountain)
and he was not about to start with Sally Makepeace. There was no way
round it, he was an officer and a gentleman, and must behave like
one. Archie fought his wanton instincts and slowed his breathing
with a huge effort.
The exercise in self-control was proceeding brilliantly, until
It was just a touch at first, a soft brush of the lips to thank
for the comfort of a hug, but as often happens with kisses, it grew
like the first lick of flame from a flint, and took light, changing
into something quite different.
To the amazement of both of them it became charged with primal
"Oh my God!" Archie whispered against her hair when
she freed his
mouth to speak. "Oh God, Sally"
For what seemed like an age, Archie stood perfectly still,
closed, holding Sally in his arms like a man in a shipwreck. It was
as if time had stopped. Indeed, he wanted it to, because the moment
he moved, he would have to take this on into whatever uncharted
waters lay beyond.
And she was content to just be where she was in that breath-held
pause, because she felt the same.
Finally Archie took a deep, shuddering breath. "Sal I
difficulty," he whispered softly against her hair. "Whilst we are
encouraged to act boldly and with initiative on shore-duty, we are
also required to do it with honour. The Royal Navy is supposed to be
protecting our women, not seducing them."
It would have made his life easier if she had kissed him again,
slapped his face for being facetious or taken any positive action,
but she did not speak or move, and it seemed she was waiting for him
to take the first step, one way or the other.
He swallowed, nervous as a virgin. "You're beautiful,
allowed himself a weak smile, "and nothing in this world would give
me more pleasure than to sweep you off upstairs to bed but I think
you trust me, and I would die rather than betray that trust. I would
not ever give you cause to dislike or disdain me." He detached her
with a sheepish half-smile, kissing her hands gently. "Please pass
Again she was silent, perhaps relieved, perhaps wistful, it
to tell. Finally she looked up at him, her face glowing with
affection in the lamplight. "You're a dream, you are Archie
Kennedy," she observed softly.
Archie chuckled. "I like to surprise people occasionally
something selfless," he said ruefully. "It goes so against my grain."
Sally shook her head with a fond smile. She had known a lot
in her young life, but none had ever treated her with this degree of
chivalry before. At the moment it was the last thing she wanted, but
she knew she would appreciate it in the morning, and in a month's
time when she would not be watching her body with fear and
suspicion, and worrying about whether the night spent in his company
would leave a lifelong legacy.
She reached for the sleeve of the discarded shirt and tugged
where it snagged on the rough logs. As it came free, it caused a
small cascade of wood, which spoiled her nice pyramid
and knocked over the lamp
For a sailor who spent his life in wooden ships, fire is the
dreaded catastrophe known to man, and Archie watched with round-eyed
horror, as the oil spilled across the stone floor and took light.
"Oh my God!" he said for the second time that night.
He made a valiant effort to beat out the flames with his shirt,
the pool of oil had gone under the woodpile, and his night's work
was starting to kindle. Sally tore off her cap and whacked at it,
but the effort seemed to serve only to fan the fire.
"Where's the nearest water?" he demanded practically,
cracked with fear.
"There's a pump in the yard."
Kennedy licked his lips nervously. "Pails waterbuckets
get anything, Sal and shout for help for God's sake, MOVE! This
will go like a furnace once it takes hold!"
An oil fire in a woodpile, in a wooden building. The nightmare
in his mind as she sped out to do his bidding: little Arthur asleep
in his bedroom and Horatio asleep in the attic - both at the front
of the house, where the noise would not wake them. The house would
fill with smoke, and in minutes it would be too late.
He started to pull the wooden pyramid apart, but the oil had
well under, and flames were licking now in several places, the
original seat of the fire becoming too hot to handle.
Oh God, he thought desperately, should he stay and fight what
be a futile battle against this most awesome of enemies, or should
he speed up the stairs to rescue the child and Horatio But if he
left this to burn, no doubt about it, Sally would lose her home and
her livelihood And in this part of town the whole street could go
up God's life, the whole of Portsmouth could go up with it!
All because a stupid sailor with more sex-drive than sense
compromised a pretty girl in her own woodshed. If this was a penance
for his dalliance, then it was a good one, he considered bitterly.
There was a broom hanging on the wall, and he grabbed it, whacking
at the hot core until it too began to take fire, and he had to stamp
it out and discard it. And here was Sally with the first bucket of
water, which with naval training he did not throw indiscriminately
but poured carefully right into the heart of the fire. Steam and
black soot belched from the flames, filling the shed with acrid
smoke. The stench of burning wood and paint lifted with the ashes on
the air, choking and stifling them. Their eyes streamed and breath
came in snatches as they fought to get the water into the inferno.
Outside there was shouting, as neighbours arrived, and it seemed
that buckets of water began to flow in from nowhere. They must have
organised a chain in the yard.
Not a devout man by any means, Archie whispered a fervent prayer
There were other men beside him now, with old blankets to beat
the fire, and strong hands to wield the buckets. Without hesitation,
he shouted orders at them, where to aim the water, and how best to
use the blankets to smother the flames, and he hardly noticed that
they obeyed him without question.
"Evacuate the house!" he shouted over the din. "Next
door too! Get
A ragged little boy pattered off to give the order.
The women scuttled about, clearing the shed of loose wood which
would feed the blaze, but it was already too late the fire had
taken hold of the timbers in the far wall, and was even now licking
into the beams which held up the roof.
The axe Feverish with fright, Archie cast about in the dense
for the big, heavy weapon Pull down the remains of the shed from
against the wall of the lodging-house, create a fire-brake with any
luck, the wind was not strong enough to bridge the gap, and the snow
would help to slow the spread of fire.
This he could do. He had stood beside Horatio many times, chopping
away burning debris from a beleaguered ship's deck except of
course it was easy to make smouldering wreckage safe if you could
tip it into the sea. Fortunately this time disposal was not his
problem. Many hands were ready and willing to deal with the bits and
pieces. For now, he threw himself into the Herculean task of
splitting off the shed beams from the main frame of the building,
helped by six or seven of the strongest men.
Horatio and Arthur oh God, he should have gone in for them.
turned to find Sally anyone - to see that the sleepers had been
rescued, when there was a grinding creak from the roof timbers, and
the whole shed shifted to one side.
"GET BACK! She's coming down!" he shouted, his voice
someone else's, so loud had the words come out. It was a good thing,
since Mr. Potter from next door was deaf as a post, and only just
caught the warning in time. He pushed the man back towards safety
and turned to run, but tripped on a chunk of discarded wood and fell
All the firefighters scurried to the far side of the yard,
as with a
mighty roar, the wall timbers and the burning roof cascaded onto the
cobbles, sending splinters and glowing embers all over them.
Blinded, half-choked, Archie was aware of Sally screaming his
hands hauling him out from under the fallen timber, a dizzy sickness
of relief that he was not dead, then a cold rush, as someone threw a
bucketful of water over him to put out any smouldering ashes he
might still have about his clothing.
Now Sally's arms were round him, and he clung to her, choking
against her breast, wondering if he would ever breathe normally
again. If not, he could think of worse ways to die.
"You've done it, my love," she was telling him proudly.
He opened his eyes and squinted through the smoke at the scene
the cobbled yard. There was still a merry blaze, but unattached now
to the house, it just looked like an untidy bonfire. And there were
plenty of people here to divide it up, throw water on it and put it
out. He had indeed done it. Naval training had done it, and the
instinctive authority and discipline of the quarterdeck - the
authority of an officer and a gentleman.
He laid his head back on Sally's breast. "So that's TWO
doused tonight," he observed dryly. "Oh God, I need a drink!"