Chapter 1 - a Test of Wills
Katharine awoke with a startled cry and sat up quickly, a clutch of fear jolting her. It took a moment to acclimate herself to her surroundings, but once she did, the fear slipped from her and a rattled sigh escaped her lips.
She took in the sights, sounds and smells that reminded her of where she was - the small but comfortable cabin with the narrow cot she was huddled on, the cast-off sailor's clothing draped neatly over the chair in the corner, the discreetly curtained window in the door. She breathed in deeply, welcoming the hint of fresh, salty sea air she smelled, and the slightly musty dampness that was inescapable aboard ship. She heard the gentle yet insistent rush of wood against water, the hull cutting through the ocean swells, and felt the comforting sensation of the ship moving purposefully forward, ever closer to home. She heard the muffled voices - English voices, thank God - and sounds of morning activity on the decks above. All were welcome sensations, as she remembered that she was safely aboard *Indefatigable* and not back in her accommodations at the prison fort, where, in her fears, this oft-repeated nightmare was destined to deposit her.
Katharine would have welcomed the persistent, wondering thoughts of Sir Edward that had visited her nights . . . before. But since El Ferrol and he unfortunate encounter with that sly, devilish Frenchman, Colonel deVergesse, her sleep had been haunted by memories of that tortuous night. deVergesse had remembered Katharine from a performance he had happened to see in London, and had made it quite clear that he was considering exposing her deception to Don Massaredo, which would have led to further discoveries that would have sealed, not just her fate, but the fate of Hornblower and his men as well. Katharine had bought his silence, as deVergesse had expected her to do, with her dignity and self-respect, assuring that her true mission and its prize of war, as well as the dispatches Mr. Hornblower had trusted her to protect, would not be discovered.
She knew that her diversion with deVergesse had probably saved their lives, for he certainly would have denounced them all as spies and a hanging death would have finished them. That knowledge, however, did little to assuage the shame she felt at having to use her body as an instrument of her duty. It was shame that brought the nightmare. She felt destined to re-live that night and the still vivid memories of his breath and his touch on her that, even now, made her skin crawl.
Katharine recalled Horatio's reaction to her admission of how she had kept her secret from deVergesse. How could you...? Those words had stung her then and she carried his look of disgust with her since that morning. Oh, he had understood, later, and knew that she had done what had to be done, but for a woman to play such a card, even in the name of the Crown, was an unpleasant thought for him nonetheless. It would be for any gentleman, she chided herself.
No! What was done was done, and Katharine's nature would not allow for such indulgent self-loathing. It could not. Her duty would not be complete until she walked into Lord Grenville's office in London and handed over the captured packet of documents she was carrying. She needed to keep a clear and mindful head, for she knew she must remain guarded, even in the safe confines of this ship. It was still a long journey to Portsmouth, *Indefatigable* was a ship of war, and much could still happen. She would not risk failure now.
Katharine shook off the feelings of shame and doubt as she shook off the layers of thin blankets that had provided a warm, if not peaceful, night's sleep. She quickly slipped out of the borrowed nightshirt she was wearing and put on her borrowed clothing, bracing against the chilly air of the November morning. As she finished arranging her hair as best she could with few adornments, there was a knock on her cabin door. She crossed the cabin and unbolted the door, opening it to a wary, but ever-smiling Mr. Bracegirdle.
"Begging you pardon, Your Grace," he began, with a slight bow and touch to his hat, relieved not to have found her either still asleep or in a state of undress. "I trust your accommodations were satisfactory?'
"Why, yes, Lieutenant, and good morning!" Katharine replied in her buoyant Duchess tone. "I can't thank you enough for your kindness in allowing me your cabin, sir. I slept well, and I do hope you did the same, considering how I have inconvenienced you."
"Yes, I did, ma'am, and there is no inconvenience. I have use of Mr. Hornblower's cabin and it suits me well."
"I am glad of that , Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Your Grace, Captain Pellew requests that you join him in his cabin for breakfast this morning, if it pleases you." Bracegirdle had added the last part of the request himself, as the Captain had not been quite that gracious when asking for her presence. That had puzzled the Lieutenant a bit, as Captain Pellew was by nature a consummate gentleman, and such a courtesy would normally be on his lips quite naturally. *What was it about this woman that unsettled the Captain so, he wondered.
Katharine had not counted on a meeting with Sir Edward so soon this morning, but knew it could not be avoided. The Duchess would be her usual pleasant self, perhaps a bit subdued, and the time would pass quickly. Katharine steeled herself for the encounter, and welcomed the escape from her thoughts that "playing" the Duchess in front of the Captain again afforded her.
"It pleases me greatly. I am delighted and honored by his request," Katharine said, speaking the words that were expected of the Duchess.
"May I escort you to the Captain's quarters, Your Grace?"
"I am honored once again, sir. Let me get my cloak." Katharine reached for the heavy cloak and slipped it on her shoulders as she preceded the Lieutenant out the door.
"Come!" Captain Pellew responded to the firm knock upon his door.
Katharine entered the Captain's cabin with the Duchess' aplomb and greeted Sir Edward with a well-rehearsed smile, which belied her inner thoughts.
"Ah, Your Grace, good morning. I trust you are well-rested?" The Captain's words were gracious enough, but his tone left Katharine cold. How much had he learned about me from Horatio?
"Yes, Captain, I am beginning to feel like my old self again. How kind of you to ask me to share breakfast with you this morning."
Sure now that the Captain and the Duchess would settle into courteous pleasantries, Bracegirdle backed silently out the door, but as he was closing it, the Captain turned his attention to him.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, would you be so kind as to join us, please?"
This was unexpected, thought the Lieutenant. The Captain had not mentioned it earlier. Katharine felt relief at the thought of the Lieutenant remaining with them, knowing the conversation would likely remain lightly sociable in his presence, and not turn to more sensitive matters.
"As you wish, Captain. Thank you." Bracegirdle re-entered the cabin and closed the door behind him.
Bracegirdle was no longer certain that this was merely a Captain's social courtesy to take breakfast with the Duchess. The Captain seemed troubled and uneasy, not shifting comfortably into his "Sir Edward, the gentleman" mode, as he had seen him do so often with guests aboard the ship. *He appears as a Captain with ship's business to attend to, rather than a host with a lovely lady to entertain, he thought.
Katharine had not missed the signs, either. Sir Edward rocked nervously from toe to heel, and reminded her of a caged animal just biding time until either his next meal or his release to freedom. She began to feel just as uneasy, her own tension rising, growing more and more certain that she would be the Captain's prey. She willed herself to smile and remain calm, the picture of clueless aristocracy.
"Well then, shall we?" The Captain gestured for them to sit, and, despite Katharine's misgivings, she appreciated the comfort and the fine meal before her. Cooper had set a lovely table for them and they dined on fruit, biscuits and a warm porridge flavored with molasses and sugar. Breakfast was not entirely unpleasant, although conversation with Sir Edward was strained. He remained somewhat tense and distracted, but was polite when called upon. Mr. Bracegirdle seemed thoroughly charmed by her practiced anecdotes.
When they were finished, Cooper cleared the table and left the cabin. Katharine thought that was an excellent idea for her as well - to leave quickly. She stood to leave, and the two officers were on their feet before she finished the motion. Ever "the Duchess," she held her right hand out to Sir Edward, in expectation of the formal kiss that would be bestowed there.
"Captain Pellew," she said in her most solicitous tone, "I cannot thank you enough for such a lovely way to begin my day - fine food and the company of two such fine gentlemen."
Katharine caught the embarrassed smile on the Lieutenant's face, at such blatant flattery, but the Captain remained unmoved. He accepted her hand, but did not bend to kiss it, merely looking at her with steely determination.
"The pleasure was mine . . . Miss Cobham."
Katharine's smile disappeared at the utterance of her given name in this company, and she slowly pulled her hand away from Sir Edward's. Her eyes never left his, matching his intimidating look with the strongest one she could return. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a confused Mr. Bracegirdle glance to his Captain for an explanation of the unfamiliar name. The Captain was not forthcoming with such an explanation, keeping his intense gaze on Katharine, a look of triumph growing on his face as he realized that his knowledge of her identity had taken her by surprise.
The tension in the room was becoming unbearable when the Captain finally spoke.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, we are honored with the presence of, not the Duchess of Wharfdale, but a woman of distinction just the same." Pellew's tone dripped with shameless sarcasm, and, thought Katharine, did him no credit.
"Allow me to present to you Miss Katharine Cobham, ëKitty' to her many admirers, a shining star of London theatre. Her most recent role was that of a Duchess, by marriage, mind you, not by station, who charms her way into the lives of many and makes fools of us all."
Katharine's cheeks burned with embarrassment at being revealed in such a belittling manner. So, Horatio had reported my deception, and Sir Edward feels the need to crow about it. So be it. I've done nothing wrong, and have nothing to answer to him about. Still, her eyes found her shoes for a brief moment, and she closed them against a rising need to explain and defend herself to this man. Why does it hurt so to find that he thinks so little of me? Am I so distasteful to him that he would, as it seems, enjoy my disgrace?
Pellew watched Katharine's reaction to his unkind words, and for a moment felt a pang of doubt about the manner in which he spoke of her to his First Lieutenant. He was being ungentlemanly, he knew, but could not put down the weight of his own embarrassment and anger with the Admiralty for not making him a party to her true mission and the need for her presence on Hornblower's run with La Reve. Matters had been taken out of his ever-capable hands, and he hated the loss of control - or was it trust - that that represented. And is there a possibility that the capture of La R've and now the loss of my men is somehow related to the dangerous game she plays? No, he had no tolerance for pleasantries at the moment, and would see this through as he had begun it. Look not on her as a woman, Edward, but as a challenge to your sense of order and right in matters of war.
The look on Mr. Bracegirdle's face was one of embarrassed confusion, not fully understanding the picture before him, but taking a cue from Pellew's egregious tone of voice. The Lieutenant wisely kept silent, waiting for further explanation.
"We have been bowing and scraping to an actress, Mr. Bracegirdle, as has the half the fleet, the Governor of Gibraltar, and the French and Spanish, as well apparently, although I must say that I'm not as concerned for their foolishness as I am for ours. I am afraid that we have all been duped. Is that not so, Miss Cobham?"
Katharine considered her answer carefully. She swallowed the hurt that had settled within her, and held her head high, her blue eyes just as determined as his brown as she matched his icy gaze. She called upon her skills as an actress to hold her voice steady and firm, and to remain in control, despite her discomfort and the intimidating tactics Sir Edward use with practiced perfection.
"What a foolish question, Captain," she finally spoke up, "for you would not risk ridicule of me unless you were certain of your facts. It serves me no purpose to deny what you no doubt already know."
"A wise decision, madam, for I am certain of another fact."
"And that would be, sir...?"
"That your purpose and your presence on my ship, and earlier, on La R've, have been misstated to me all along, and for that, madam, I am most unappreciative. I now know of your employ and of certain documents which, I believe, are still in your possession."
The Lieutenant looked wonderingly to Pellew for details. The Captain's eyes remained on the woman, watching, reading every nuance of her as though she were an enemy ship crossing his bow. Unappreciative? He must be a far sight more than just unappreciative to cast such cold and wary regard on a woman, actress or not. The woman, Bracegirdle thought respectfully, was a worthy match for him, not shrinking a bit under the imperious demeanor of his Captain, which had been known to reduce many an errant Midshipman to mush. Bracegirdle wondered for a moment if they even realized he was standing there with them, so lost were they in their contest of wills.
Katharine's composure took a hit, but she would not allow the damage to show. Her thoughts went to the packet of documents safely and perennially tucked under her clothing. Horatio had not known of the documents she carried, nor did he know that she was more than a weary actress stranded abroad conniving her way home. But Captain Pellew seemed to know all. She opened her mouth to speak, but the Captain, realizing that Mr. Bracegirdle was there for a purpose, continued on.
"You see, Mr. Bracegirdle, the King's secret service has seen fit to employ Miss Cobham here as an intelligence agent, no doubt to make use of her unbound talent for pretense, and the Admiralty is anxiously awaiting a packet of documents she had acquired before the ill-fated sailing of *La Reve. Are my facts correct, Miss Cobham?"
Katharine bristled at the solicitous tone, but responded calmly, "They are, Captain. I am indeed an agent of the Crown, when they deem it necessary to make use of my services."
Bracegirdle's eyes went wide with surprise at this unconventional and unexpected revelation, and his mind raced with questions. He kept silent, deferring to the Captain, of course, but fascinated by the turn of events.
"Your services, indeed, madam." Pellew commented. "Yes, the most recent dispatches from London informed me of your mission to secure information about the communication between the French and the Spanish. I understand that you have in your possession some documents bearing the signatures of those responsible and the new seal of their alliance. Information which may eventually prove vital to His Majesty's
Army and Navy."
Katharine bristled at the way the Captain used the word, "services," and felt her temper begin to ignite. She held it in check, for she feared that if she did not, it would erupt with a torrent of such force that rational thought would desert her entirely, her words and actions betraying her. She was still a long way from home, and it would not do to make an outright enemy of the man responsible for getting her there. She clenched her hands at her sides and took a deep breath. How dare he? And how could I have ever entertained thoughts of this man and I...
"Yes, Captain," Katharine said, willing her control to remain, and choosing to ignore Sir Edward's most unpleasant insinuation. "I have such documents, and I am certain that the Admiralty is most anxious to finally receive them. It has been quite a trial to find my way home." She forced a smile at him, and saw that it was received with an unamused glare. "Indeed, Sir Hew was of the mind that their contents could possibly bring..."
The Captain's eyebrows shot up at the mention of Sir Hew's name, and his eyes flashed with a questioning spark. "Sir Hew?" he interrupted. "Sir Hew was aware of your plan?"
"Aware? Indeed! It was Sir Hew that made certain that my path crossed with Mr. Hornblower after the
*La Reve* capture. It was the most expeditious way to get the documents to the Admiralty."
"And Sir Hew didn't deem it necessary to inform either myself or Mr. Hornblower of the nature of his guest or the importance of the cargo?" Pellew fairly boiled with the realization that he had been manipulated and his men endangered by such a decision.
"Sir Hew and the Admiralty as well, mind you, felt that it was safer for the men not to know the truth. In the event of capture, such knowledge would have endangered them further. It was best that the responsibility remain mine alone."
"Ah, yes, a vital decision that could turn the tide of war, left in the hands of an actress! Now, why hadn't I seen the value in that?" Pellew's eyes narrowed at Katharine. It was clear that he took Sir Hew's decision as an insult and a personal affront to his rank and experience. "Well, no matter. You are on a Naval vessel now, and we will make matters right."
*I will not give him the satisfaction of seeing me lose control over my emotions! Before Katharine could compose a reply, Pellew unwittingly proceeded with a request which would prove her downfall.
"Whilst you are on my ship, madam, the documents shall remain in MY possession. Mr. Bracegirdle is here to bear witness to the fact that you turned them over to me and they will be safely stored for the remainder of the voyage. Now, if you will be so kind as to hand them over..." Pellew held out his hand expectantly, and Bracegirdle began to understand why he had to endure this confrontation.
That was the final straw for Katharine. After all she had done to protect not only these documents, but the other dispatches as well, not to mention the fate of Hornblower and his men, the Captain was expecting her to simply hand over to him that for which she had paid so dearly.
"Hand them over, sir?" Katharine repeated incredulously. "I think not!"
" I can only wonder, madam, of the circumstances that must have led you to . . . acquire . . . such important information, and marvel at the talents you must possess, that a woman of your experience would have such an advantage over those skilled in military matters. However, this game that you play..."
This was more than Katharine could bear.
"Captain Pellew," she began, through clenched teeth, "I can assure you that I hardy think of this business as a game! As for the manner in which I came into possession of this information, believe me when I tell you that it was entirely..." Katharine paused to consider her words. *No! Enough deference to this man! ". . . is none of your damn business! My duty is to my King and country, and the only man to whom I will give these documents and an explanation of my actions, is the man who charged me with this duty in the first place!"
Katharine watched Sir Edward's face blanch at the change in her tone, and noticed that poor Mr. Bracegirdle appeared as though he would rather be strapped to the mast in a raging storm, rather than in this room at this moment.
"I have no intention of turning anything over to you, Captain. I have managed quite well to discharge my duty thus far, and have every intention of seeing it through myself to completion. And I certainly will not explain my actions to the man who is merely ferrying me home, by virtue of the fact that he happened to pluck me out of the sea!"
Bracegirdle's eyes flew wide with the shock that anyone would challenge the Captain's authority in this manner, and at the impertinence of this woman's words! He awaited the Captain's own thunderous explosion, for he was certain it was no longer possible for him to contain it. The Captain, however, appeared to be rendered speechless for the moment, and Katharine continued unrelentingly on.
"And, for all your staunch and upright propriety, I have seen a side today of the great Captain Sir Edward Pellew which is most unbecoming! Your sense of propriety is sorely misplaced, sir, when you dare to speak so disrespectfully to an Englishwoman who is no less determined than you to fulfill her duty to the Crown. You know nothing of me, and your remarks have been most insulting. You, sir, are no gentleman, and I resent your most distasteful insinuation that..."
The Captain snapped back to life with that affront to his nature, and, eyes flashing the fierce anger mounting in him since this woman's assault began, roared at her, "YOU RESENT...?"
"Oh, don't waste your bellowing on me, Captain!" Katharine shouted back. "I am neither one of your officers nor one of your sailors, and I am under no obligation to quake in my boots at the sound of your voice! I have done my duty, sir! Now, kindly do yours and get me the hell back to England!"
And with that, Katharine turned on her heel and stormed out of the cabin, leaving the two officers in her wake, utterly astonished and uncharacteristically agog.
"That will be all, Mr. Bracegirdle!" the Captain managed to hiss. "You will, of course, speak of this to no one!"
"Of course, sir," he replied, infinitely relieved to be out of the line of fire from either of the formidable parties. He closed the door behind him and leaned heavily against it for moment. He could hear the Captain pacing angrily on the other side of the door, letting off steam in increments, no doubt in fear of the damage that would be done if he were to do otherwise.
The Lieutenant sighed. This is going to be a very long voyage home for us all!