KATHARINE'S DUTY
by Kyle

Chapter 16 - Winds of Change


Geoffrey Thaxton awoke to the unmistakable sound and feel of a ship under full sail. The hull no longer merely accepted the lazy slap of the harbor swells, but met the sea's current with determined, driving force. The wind sang in the rigging and Geoffrey's cabin had a recognizable list to . . . larboard, he gauged. While he was not a sailor, he did have frequent occasion to be transported on such vessels and his powers of observation were honed to recognize conditions of sail.

He closed his eyes and tried to predict what he would find when he went abovedecks - an azure sky, somewhat unusual for this time of year, but present nonetheless, for the winds must surely be fair and high, he thought, for the ship to be making the progress he suspected by its motion. He tried to put the pieces together in his analytical mind - the Indefatigable had been in port, but only for a short while, a matter of just days, enough time to completely re-supply her, but not to fully freshen her sails or her hull for maximum speed and efficiency. He knew the captain's reputation was such that the ship would be kept always at her working best, for he would allow nothing less. Still, any ship would not operate at top speed under the fairest of conditions without clean sails and a scraped hull, therefore, the Indy would be slightly impaired.

Judging from the sounds above, Geoffrey envisioned the sails: fore, main and mizzen, tops and topgallants, still reefed some, for the hour was early and the winds were still uncertain. He judged from the lack of the distinctive sound, that staysails had not yet been hoisted, and therefore they were still in the currents and winds of the channel, meaning that that they had not been underweigh for too terribly long. The hour, therefore, was early, the sun low, breakfast in the works, not over and done with. He had not slept the morning away, and Captain Pellew would have no reason to think him lacking in attention or eagerness where his orders were concerned.

Reasonable deductions - Geoffrey Thaxton's stock-in-trade. Oh, he could glance at his pocket-watch and confirm the time of the morning, but that would take all of the challenge and purpose out of the daily games he played with himself to continually sharpen the skills on which members of his profession relied. Observation and deduction, not assumption and guesswork, are what kept him alive and useful to the Crown.

Geoffrey did not, however, want or intend to keep Pellew waiting, so he freshened up and dressed quickly, and headed to the captain's cabin, not waiting for an invitation. He only hoped that Sir Edward had the foresight to request an extra breakfast tray - Geoffrey was starving.

In the corridor, he passed a young midshipman, who rushed by him with his mind on the task at hand, before he realized that his task had just walked by him. Geoffrey had stepped aside and greeted the passing boy with a nod, then kept his eyes on him, sensing that he had been sent with a message for him. In a moment, recognition set in and the boy turned with a start.

"Mr. Thaxton, sir," he said with some embarrassment.

Geoffrey was amused at the predictability of the situation.

"Hmmm?"

"Sir, Captain Pellew has requested that you join him in his cabin for breakfast . . .sir," the young man said.

Geoffrey smiled, satisfied with his take on human nature.

"Yes, I well imagine that he has. I am on my way presently."

The midshipman brought his hand up toward his hat, then, remembering that he was addressing a civilian, quickly brought it down to avoid further embarrassing himself.

"That is well, Mr. Thaxton. Shall I escort you?"

"Thank you, young man, but that is unnecessary. I believe I know the way and I promise I shan't keep the captain waiting."

"Very good, sir." The boy made his way past Geoffrey and gave a respectful nod of his head as he passed, leaving Geoffrey thinking, quite nice, but the salute really would have been rather charming.

Thaxton ventured up the companionway into the morning sun hung low in an azure-blue sky. He turned and looked up at the array of sails swelled full with the strong air, taking in every detail of the configuration. He looked starboard and larboard and saw the faint smudges of land that were the outer ends of safe and familiar waters.

Geoffrey Thaxton allowed himself a smile of utter satisfaction before heading toward the Captain's quarters.

"Damn, I'm good."


* * * * * * * *

"Come."

The marine guard opened the captain's door and Geoffrey entered. Pellew was at his writing-desk, the ship's log before him, a packet of orders - the orders - securely waxed and unopened on top of the log. Geoffrey quickly took stock of the cabin and saw nor smelled any evidence that breakfast had yet come to the captain. Good! I haven't missed anything!

"Captain Pellew, sir, good morning." Thaxton stood just inside the door, waiting to be invited further, as it appeared that the captain was still engrossed in his work. I may be a spy and somewhat of a scamp, but I am a respectful one, at that.

"Good morning, Mr. Thaxton, and come in. I am finished here."

Geoffrey's stomach lurched in anticipation as, before the marine guard had the opportunity to close the door behind, the captain's servant, Cooper, rushed in with breakfast, fresh and hot. I'd best enjoy this meal, Geoffrey thought, for in a week or two the stores will no longer be fresh and it will be only the invigorating sea air that will spark my appetite, and not the food."

The captain rose from his desk and moved to the head of the gleaming mahogany table that was the center of his day cabin. Geoffrey sat to his right and noted the fine appointments of the captain's quarters, tasteful yet not outplaced elegance - fine pieces to be sure, but chosen for their function and style, not for show, and not merely because the man wished to surround himself with the trappings of his wealth and station. The appearance of the cabin fit everything Geoffrey had come to know about Sir Edward Pellew, for he had, of course, done his studies, always a prudent task in his line of work. A man of means, certainly, but a man of substance and honor ahead of all else. And a man with exceptional taste. Not surprising, then, that he has taken a fancy to Kitty, if the rumors at the Admiralty are to be believed. He suspected they were.

"A fine morning to sail, Mr. Thaxton," Pellew said.

En garde. Geoffrey would engage his opponent.

"Indeed, Captain. I should say . . . the westerlies are tamed a bit from the north, the seas are calm . . . once we are clear of the channel and let the sails out, we shall be making . . .oh, say . . . eight or nine knots?" Thaxton said confidently, relishing the look of surprise that flashed, however briefly, across the captain's face. Geoffrey knew that Pellew was far too controlled to allow his true reaction to betray him.

"Ten, actually," the captain countered, as though Thaxton's analysis of the conditions were no more a revelation than the fact that they were underweigh.

Lunge and parry.

Geoffrey admired the captain's composure. It would serve him well in the weeks to come.

"Ah, yes . . .ten, of course, sir."

"I appear to have misjudged you, Geoffrey, for I had pegged you to be a mere mortal spy. I had fully expected to have you green to the gills with seasickness by now. You are either quite comfortable on the sea, or you are as fine an actor as I have ever seen."

Riposte.

"The former, certainly," Geoffrey said with a smile, "and a touch of the latter. It is a fine skill to have in my profession. But then, that comes as no surprise to you, does it?"

Counter-riposte.

Pellew snapped his attention to Geoffrey, his brown eyes flashing a warning, but his composure in tact. Just what is he getting at? He paused briefly, considering a prudent course.

"Perhaps not."

Touch

Geoffrey knew he had struck a nerve with Pellew. Why do I let myself get carried away with these games? I mean him no ill will, surely.

Geoffrey opened his mouth to speak, but Pellew was moving ahead.

"In any event, Mr. Thaxton, as soon as these trays are cleared away, we shall open the orders from Admiral Lord Hood and see just where these tempered westerlies shall be taking us."

"Of course, Captain." Geoffrey noted observantly the pattern of the captain's use of Geoffrey's Christian name. When discussing business at hand, it was "Mr. Thaxton," and when trying to gain an upper hand, it was "Geoffrey." A likely and logical pattern.

* * * * * * * *

"Vigo, it is then," Geoffrey said after Pellew had read the orders, "No surprise there."

"No surprises, Mr. Thaxton? I, for one, am quite surprised at both the brevity of this order and at our destination. There is no mention of method or means, just that I am to place myself and my ship at your disposal and all orders are to be issued at your discretion. This is most unusual!

"I assure you, Captain, that the Admiralty is merely allowing room for flexibility and contingencies in this plan, and not meaning to neither insult your command nor your intelligence. This engagement will pose a multitude of snares and snags and they are entrusting me to navigate through them just as you must navigate to Vigo."

Pellew considered this. "Very well. I can appreciate the need for such measures, and grant that specifics are best left in your apparently capable hands. However, our destination alone is somewhat problematic."

"Problematic, sir? How so?"

Pellew sighed with some impatience. "Are you familiar with the Spanish coastline near Vigo, Mr. Thaxton? It is open and welcoming, to be sure, fair haven for ships, but hardly conducive to a covert mission of espionage. Low, sloping lands down to wide harbors and coves, but beyond, rocky shoals and no easily approachable landing beaches for depositing you with any measure of stealth."

"A fair assessment, Captain, and I agree. But you will not be depositing me on shore, nor is stealth our goal. At least not at the outset. Deception will be our first approach."

Pellew straightened to his full height and pursed his lips, his thoughts bringing a tension to his face that was unavoidable. It was clear to him that the orders from the Admiralty were a mere formality. Thaxton was in charge.

"Deception, Mr. Thaxton?"

"Yes, Captain. We shall go in directly to the cove at the villa of Castel-Moncayo, under a flag of truce."

Pellew looked hard at Thaxton. "Are we that certain that the Duke's allegiance to Spain is so questionable as to allow us to simply drop you on his doorstep?"

"We are fairly secure in that knowledge, yes."

Pellew would not relent. "While sailing in under a white flag would be easier and more efficient for my ship and my crew, I would have supposed that sailing in under the cover of darkness would afford us a more surreptitious approach which we will need, will we not, if we are to conceal the duke's disappearance for a time?

"In good time, Captain, in good time. But before we can arrange for that, we must ascertain precisely what the Duke's role is, confirm that there is a plan afoot that resembles an invasion and replace the orders for same. The first step is to gain entry and access to the Duke."

"And your plan for that would be . . ."

"Actually, Captain, that plan is well in place already. You see, as soon as we understood the nature and significance of the documents smuggled from the Duke's home in Valencia, we immediately took steps to ensure that the Duke would be receptive to a visit from the British Navy. A courier was dispatched days ago to deliver a letter of introduction and requesting the opportunity for a naval emissary to call on him to discuss concerns of mutual advantage. You see, the Duke wishes to be viewed as a gentleman of business, not of politics, with uncertain loyalties to the Spanish government and its policies. We have concocted a proposal to him which will appeal to his sense of . . . commerce."

Edward's mind processed what he was hearing. A naval emissary? A visit from the British Navy . . .

"You, Captain, are such an emissary."

*Damnation!* "Me, sir? I am no emissary, no diplomat!"

"You are required to be now, sir, although what you truly are is a diversion, so that I may be left to do what I do best. For I shall accompany you as your aide-de-camp as it were, and your interpreter, should it be necessary. During our stay at the villa, a matter of days, if my guess is correct, we shall be able to observe just what the Duke's situation is, and, should it be required, to arrange for him to be . . . diverted elsewhere."

Edward grasped the situation and chafed at its irony. No sooner have I placed Katharine safely at home and she has denounced her connections to the espionage game, than I am drawn into it to the hilt, without my knowledge and, if I were to be honest, against my will! Oh, Katharine, how you would rail at these circumstances!

Pellew paced away from Thaxton, a scowl wringing his face into a contortion of knit brows, pinched lips and a jaw tightened by the clenched teeth within. He took a deep breath to counter the shallow intakes that his rising tension had brought on, and spoke with deliberate control.

"It would appear, sir, that my participation is such manner is a foregone conclusion, is it not?"

"Yes, Captain, I am afraid that is the case. I apologize for not being more forthright with you yesterday, but the Lords Hood and Grenville felt that it was best to be discreet until we were under sail, in the event . .."

"In the event of WHAT?" Pellew roared. "In the event that I refused my duty? In the event that I protested such use of my ship and its resources?" He was not certain which made him more angry: the fact that they duped him, or the fact that they felt the need to do so. Did they really suspect that I would not accept and carry out these orders as I would any command from my superiors? Is there no end to their insulting insinuation?

"Captain, I assure you. No one doubts your steadfastness, least of all, I. There were a number of reasons to be cautious, all of them valid, and none of which cast aspersions on your honor."

Pellew took a deep breath and willed himself to calm. He turned and strode away from the table, his hands clasped and clenching behind him. This was a time of war, and one was required to react to an order without hesitation. There was no point in protesting his role further, only in preparing himself for this new duty.

He turned back to Geoffrey with determined fire in his eyes.

"Tell me."

For the next hour, Thaxton carefully, and in great detail, laid out the plans, both definite and those which required more contemplation, for his ally. His explanations had been met at every step of the way by Pellew's insistence to confirm just what his role, and that of his ship, would be.

Pellew was convinced that Thaxton's plan was sound under the circumstances. They would have time over the next weeks, as they sailed toward the Spanish coast, to refine and clarify, but Edward understood what his duty was, and unfamiliar as it would be to him, he recognized the necessity for it. One detail gnawed at him.

"One thing puzzles me, I'm afraid, Mr. Thaxton. You mentioned that this overland courier is delivering a letter of introduction to the Duke announcing my arrival, and that said courier set out days ago. It is my understanding that the information upon which this plan is based was quite recently acquired. How is it so?"

"You are correct, Captain, and perhaps I misspoke. You see, I was at the Admiralty at the time dear Kitty brought those documents home with her - quite an exciting occurrence, I must say, but it did not really surprise me, knowing Kitty as I do."

Knowing Kitty . . .?

"I mean, I knew she was talented, but I never dreamed she would be the one to acquire such vital information, when the King's Agents are toiling away trying to turn the tide of this war, and here she is . . .the actress - who brings it home. It makes one wonder how . . ."

Edward did not like his tone.

"MR. THAXTON," he interrupted, with an edge to his voice that came dangerously close to revealing that he felt much more than friendship and admiration for the woman, "you should know, sir, that I hold Miss Cobham and her efforts on behalf of the King in the highest regard, and I will brook no condescension or disparagement of her character aboard my ship . . ."

" . . . how she had the strength and fortitude to endure her unending attempts at returning home." Geoffrey's voice matched the timbre and volume of the captain's and when he finished his statement, the two men locked eyes, neither knowing quite what to make of the other.

"Yes. Right," Pellew conceded, relieved that he apparently had misunderstood Thaxton's remarks.

"Captain Pellew, sir. I mean no disrespect, certainly, and I must apologize for baiting you. I do let my tongue run playfully away before my prudence catches up. Allow me to explain. I, too, hold Miss Cobham, Kitty, in high esteem. We met in Florence, and it was I who started her on her journey home. I knew of the Duke and his ventures and suggested to her that she exploit a friendship with him to her advantage. When I learned just to what end she had managed that, I was duly impressed, I assure you. But I should have expected nothing less than success from the woman. She is quite resourceful and tenacious."

. .and stubborn, strong-willed, obstinate . . . and captivating, enchanting, tender, warm, passionate . . .
Edward felt his stern countenance soften as a wave of emptiness washed over him, seeming to sluice away the preceding days' emotions with the wave's current.

"Yes . ..that she is," Pellew replied, clearing his throat against the rising swell of ardor that was becoming familiar to him whenever he thought of Katharine.

Geoffrey recognized the ploy and had no doubt that Kitty had won the heart of Sir Edward Pellew. He made a mental note to be particularly mindful of the man should their situation become sticky, for he would dread Kitty's wrath should anything happen to the gentleman captain.

A moment passed with each man hesitatingly adrift on personal reflection, before Geoffrey concluded their meeting.

"Well, Captain, I believe you have a course to plot, and I have further plans to formulate. I shall leave us to our respective tasks." Geoffrey gave a polite bow and made his way to the door. He paused with his hand on the latch, and turned back to the captain.

"Despite the apparent distaste with which you view our mission, Captain, I assure you that its chances for success are quite high, and its importance to the Empire cannot be overestimated."

"Mr. Thaxton, I have no doubt of either of those statements. My "distaste," as you put it, stems from the manner in which it was communicated, more than the mission itself, and certainly does not lie with the man on whose shoulders the responsibility has befallen. I trust your judgement, sir, not because I have been ordered to, but because I . . . I do. I dare say, it shall be an interesting diversion from merely broadsiding the enemy."

A small, genuine smile crossed Thaxton's face and he was once again mindful of having chosen the right compatriot to stand beside him on this one. He lifted the latch on the door and exited, hearing the captain's voice calling to the marine guard as he did so.

"Sergeant, send for Master Bowles!"