A Monstrous Rescue (HMS Monstrous Alternate Universe)
by Sarah in Australia; with invaluable contributions from Ruth C.

Chapter One

Several months into Monstrous's maiden voyage, Captain Victoria Jones took some time out of what was a necessarily hectic schedule for one carrying the mantle of responsibility - the lot appointed to any commanding officer in His Britannic Majesty's Navy - to reflect upon the incredible nature of her mission thus far. Awash in golden afternoon sunshine, her day cabin almost glowed; the rich warmth of its timber decor reflected the autumnal light, lending it an intoxicating air as a fine raisin musket or rich sweet sherry. Having just dismissed her Clerk, Constance Lovelace, after half a day together spent pouring through report after report, Victoria allowed her mind to wander over a pot of tea and considered the miraculous way in which everything had fallen into place for vessel, Captain, and crew.

Tipped to fail by a host of naysayers throughout the halls of Admiralty as little more than an extravagant and reckless folly, Monstrous, to a woman, had proven herself famously upon every level. Not only had five hundred women from what could only be described as the more colourful side of life been thrown together in an environment utterly alien to them all, but they had availed themselves magnificently; each and every one of them giving of their best whether learning the skills necessary for a life at sea, the protocols and right behaviour with regards to the chain of command, or standing as one in the line of battle that would cause many a man to find himself in the asylum for the insane or a slave of the bottle.

Yes, not a small number of incidents had taken place, but dealt with in a fair-handed, consistent, and just manner. The girls concerned saw the truth of it all, even if a handful became acquainted with the cat (I am not referring to Max, Master Tindall's feline companion), though one did offer comfort after the other had been unfortunately met. Furthermore, for the most part, Monstrous' senior officers, Midshipmen, and ancillary staff seemed to get on extremely well; the young Middies in awe of their Lieutenants and Captain - animated with a hope that regardless of their station in life, anything was truly possible. Even the position of Admiral was open to any woman willing to exercise the self-discipline, intellectual endeavour, and courage necessary to accomplish such a lofty yet not unattainable goal.

From those first few weeks together at sea, through engagement with the enemy and deadly tempest, Captain Jones and her girls had grown from strength to strength; certain the French even now shuddered in terror at their name.

Notwithstanding such an excellent report, one point stood out in stark contrast against this background of success, that of Lieutenant Elaine Harvey. From their first meting, Jones sensed something was amiss. Was it the way in which she seemed to look down her nose at her surgeon? Was it her confiding with regards to Judith Elliott's infamous past (Harvey being firmly of the opinion she should have been hanged from the yardarm immediately, not treated to a formality of a court-martial serving little purpose other than to be seen as following Naval guidelines)? Or was it the manner in which some of the younger crew idolized or feared this officer depending upon their perceived level of usefulness to her plans? Captain Jones simply did not know.

If this were not vexing enough, her First Lieutenant Ruth Christian, early on in the piece, had taken it upon herself to strip a measure of Harvey's power for the good of the crew, leading to Elaine ranting, raving, and fuming in the Captain's cabin for over an hour afterwards. She carried on like a spoiled child, in her opinion, as to the unacceptability of such a high and mighty act from a pauper who would most certainly have thought differently if she had the presence of mind to know the standing in which the name of Harvey was held.

Truth is, the Captain mused, Ruth knew all too well the true nature of Elaine and her brood of vipers; perfectly familiar with the unscrupulous means by which their fortune had been accumulated. Aware, if it came to blows, her background (not that she cared for such an hierarchy) sat head and shoulders above that of her junior's common ancestry, notwithstanding Ruth's current lack of both land and fortune. She thought the sea and its endless possibilities in addition to the warmth of friendship to be found there far more worthy than the finest silver, gold, and houses combined.

Rumours below decks even had it that Harvey had stood by, not lifting a finger on the night of that storm, when Monstrous' First Lieutenant and Captain's Clerk were almost lost to the sea. If it weren't for the heroic actions of the ship's Master, William Tindall, both women would have fallen to the mercies of the deep, well and truly. Unfortunately, nothing could be substantiated as no concrete witnesses could be found; the storm reportedly consumed each and every person's energies in the act of staying alive that night. Hardly likely, Jones thought. A more probable scenario revolving around the application of fear and intimidation to anyone with knowledge of what truly took place. Ghosts, shades and half-shadows! Vacuous as the morning mist. Time and prayer would only prove any suspicions Captain Jones held with regards to her Third Lieutenant. In the meantime, she could only but trust to the wisdom of her other senior staff when dealing with this rather thorny problem. Damn Hammond and his wretched influence!

A sharp knock at the door brought Victoria jolting back into reality as she summoned the visitor inside past the ever watchful eye of the Marine guard alert at her post. Captain Ellis, Jones noted, kept her division in fine form and accepted nothing less than the utmost perfection from her women - even if they had drawn the short straw of sentry duty. Acting Lieutenant, Nerissa Morgan, after paying the appropriate salutations, informed her Captain another vessel had been sighted at some distance; an English ship as it turned out, being none other than the Grasshopper. Dismissing Nerissa, Jones made her way up onto the quarterdeck. First Lieutenant, Ruth Christian, was awaiting her Captain's directive, and, on duly receiving it, commanded Monstrous' course be altered to head towards the other ship. Upon drawing nearer, Grasshopper signaled their Captain wished to pay his respects and come aboard. Monstrous issued a reply, welcoming the Captain and senior staff to their vessel.

Soon enough, a jollyboat ferrying Monstrous' guests pulled alongside - Jones, her Lieutenants, and all were on deck, eagerly anticipating their arrival. With due fanfare, Victoria welcomed her fellow commanding officer, excitedly (though with a level of restraint befitting her station) introducing her senior staff and other relevant persons. (Judith offered a sidelong glance in Hera's direction upon instantly recognizing their distinguished guest, and bit the corner of her lip so that a smile might be hastily stifled).

Soon enough, it became Dr. Phillips's turn to recognize a member of the party - Dr. Heppelwhite, who, as it turned out, elicited a somewhat less favourable reaction in Monstrous' surgeon than that of Judy at the sight of Captain Bracegirdle. Judith's services not presently required (Constance taking care of Victoria and her visitors upon this occasion), the two women, at the dismissal of the assembly, hurried to her office in the orlop to discuss what had just transpired. Hera was barely able to contain her irritation, fast becoming angry that that laudanum-soaked quack was still in the service. She was amazed he hadn't been hung from the yardarm years ago for incompetence and shuddered just a little from such heated emotions. Both women having seated themselves, a pot of peppermint tea proved the only thing for it.

"So, who is that man, Hera?'

"Only the most shameful excuse for a doctor in the fleet." Hera replied contemptuously.

Judith noted the gossip must have been true after all, as her friend had never been heard uttering so much as a peep concerning her fellow practitioners, save the most professional opinions, this scathing comment most definitely out of the ordinary. Judith, however, laid store in their proceeding conversation, consoling Dr. Philips that Heppelwhite would most likely not be aboard for long, and at any rate, neither Captain would stand for any form of interference on his part. Hera laughingly added his sour expression could only have been the result of Bracie's curtailing of his treatment of the crew and, ehm, 'off duty' activities. As it turned out, she was frighteningly close to the truth. Only Hammond himself spared the fool an ignominious exit at the end of a rope upon the death of another Captain in his care: Andrew Martial, a fine, measured and sober man, strong of constitution and by no means prone to 'madness' as had been Heppelwhite's assertion, necessitating, of course, 'appropriate treatment'.

Indeed, Admiral Regent had not only personally forbade the stocking of this brew aboard the vessel to which he would be posted, but had called discretely upon Dr. Phillips and another fine doctor - an Anglo-Spanish fellow currently serving Captain Pellew - for alternative methods and medicines that no man aboard Bracegirdle's ship would be unduly disadvantaged by the hobbling of this miscreant.

Their spirits having lightened somewhat, Hera turned to her friend, poised to ask a few questions of her own with regards to Judith's reaction at the sight of the good Captain Bracegirdle. Before a single word could leave her lips, however, both women were interrupted by none other than the man himself accompanying Captain Jones, her officers, and a small group of unfamiliar faces save one, following behind. Impressed by the order and cleanliness of Monstrous's sick berth, Victoria introduced Dr. Hera Phillips to her guests, a veiled expression of disgust upon Heppelwhite's face not escaping Judith's notice, making herself scarce in the background (commencing a quick inventory of Hera's supplies - keeping herself busy and her gaze averted from Grasshopper's Captain) Of course, she consoled herself with the fact any feelings of affection she experienced upon the mere sight of this fine fellow were naught but the results of being widowed for the past few years, the likes of herself hardly being an appropriate match despite the fact he had only recently come out of mourning for his own dear late wife). Her heart however would not obey, fluttering about at the sound of his voice as though she were a girl of sixteen.Oh! This simply would not do.

With the traveling circus moving on to view other parts of the ship, Heppelwhite, in the interests of professional development (Hera quietly scoffing at such a term emanating from someone who did not know the first thing about the subject of which he was speaking), requested to spend a few moments with Monstrous' surgeon, Dr. Phillips cringed upon both Captains' ascent. Tactfully excusing herself, Judy was certain she felt something inappropriate as she edged past him in the narrow companionway, a little shocked though nonetheless dismissing the incident as a mere thing - a trifle to be expected from one so low of caliber aboard a ship of women.

Over the coming weeks, it transpired that both vessels had been issued orders to work together in the seemingly endless campaign against the French. This was as much an exercise to ascertain the level of disruption or otherwise when two ships of virtually opposite gender (save William aboard Monstrous, and Grasshopper's Fourth Lieutenant, a reserved girl of twenty two named Jane Preston) worked together in the arena of naval warfare. Splitting both rank and file seamen, plus junior and senior officers evenly between the two ships, tactical exercises were carried out that the effectiveness of the two mixed crews could be established (any initial inappropriate behaviour zealously stamped out). Returning to their vessels at close of day, only one stow away slipped through the nets, a seaman by the name of Janet Hardy, who was promptly picked up by Jones' detachment who had been charged with the duty of scouring both ships for 'intruders.' A stay in Monstrous's brig and the withholding of her rum ration and ten percent of her pay for a month was punishment enough that she mend her ways promptly.

Another member of this dual crew had, however, seemingly made no efforts to mend his ways, the repellent odour of rum accompanying Heppelwhite everywhere he ventured. Sensing it before he'd even entered the officer's wardroom, Judy cringed at the thought of having to serve him for the duration of Grasshopper's sojourn. Not merely a cantankerous and fickle diner, whenever alone with Judith, he had taken to inappropriate behaviour. Firstly consisting of little more than the odd lewd comment, it gradually escalated to a level Monstrous' officers' steward could no longer ignore - fast bordering on unacceptable. Whilst Judy had indeed managed to quietly bring this to Lieutenant Christian's attention (a dressing down fit to strip the very paint off the walls from his Captain given without a moment's hesitation), this served only to fuel his behaviour.

On more than one occasion, Acting Lieutenant Nerrissa Morgan had heard both Heppelwhite and Harvey in supposedly secret conversation plotting and scheming over the rum bottle about how to advance their mutual agenda of upset and eventual sabotage. Upon Ruth exhaustedly snapping at her for indulging in gossip and unsubstantiated tales, Nerissa was loathe to take further action, trusting in her superior's ability to extinguish this fast growing bonfire as troublesome as any burning hulk. She had done, in her opinion, the right thing and could only now step back. Nerrissa was oblivious to the fact, however, that the First Lieutenant was well aware of Harvey's complicity with Heppelwhite, but without evidence, could not very well accuse a fellow officer of an offense.

At the end of a tiring day of yet more maneuvers, tactical training, and other innumerable drills combined with a re-provisioning at sea, Judy, upon serving the evening meal to double the number of officers for yet another night, wearily saw to the setting aright of the galley for the following day. She hoped for an indulgence in a quiet game of dominos or cards with Hera, if she too was not beyond it herself. All was peaceful save Zenny's dreaming in an out of the way corner, Grasshopper's officers having made their way back to their own vessel. Putting away a cooking pot, Monstrous' steward thought nothing of a creaking floorboard outside the galley, assuming it to be no more than one of the girls heading to her cabin. Utterly shocked was she, therefore, when none other than Grasshopper's vile surgeon caught her unawares, issuing a painful crack to the side of Judy's head prior to dragging her into the empty room beyond. Having pinned her against a bulkhead, reeking of spirits and slurring his speech badly, Heppelwhite took great glee in calling his victim any number of debased names whilst filling her in on his plans for his quarry. Judith froze with fear and was utterly unable to prevent his disgraceful advances upon her person. He muffled any screams with a grimy hand, and Judith's blood rose quickly as fright morphed into fight, ineffective punches rained down upon her assailant, sadly, to no effect. Sick with panic, she struck a reflexive blow with her knee only to miss her mark - though startling him enough to loose her mouth for one almighty scream, which was sent ringing through the companionway. Maddened with rage, Heppelwhite punished her for such an act of defiance, another crack to the head rendering Judith unconscious with no time being lost by her attacker in trying to rid her of her tunic that he may gain the victory he sought.

Making his way through the decks, heading above after taking an opportunity to speak at length with Dr. Phillips concerning the efficient function of her realm, Captain Bracegirdle, musing upon her candid advice concerning the quack he'd been burdened with at the behest of Admiralty, found his thoughts sharply interrupted by a woman's cry of distress close by. Instinctively heading for the source of the terrified scream, it was all he could do not to take aim and shoot the wretch there and then - the sight of one of his men (if that is what you could call him) violently assaulting an obviously unconscious woman where she lay (a nasty bruise already visible upon her pale face in the lamplight) causing the bile to rise in his stomach. Wishing not to put her in any more danger than necessary, Bracie fired his pistol a hair's bredth from the assailant clear into the ceiling stopping him in his tracks. Turning in drunken fury to gaze upon this intruder into his activities, Heppelwhite's jaw slackened upon the sight of his Captain before him, fearsome anger (a rare sight indeed) colouring Bracegirdle's features. In an instant, First Lieutenant Christian, Marine Captain Joan Ellis, and Lieutenant Harvey arrived at the entranceway aghast at the sight they encountered (except Elaine, her features schooled into impassivity). Ordering his surgeon be placed under arrest, Joan and her girls willingly obliged, promptly escorting their captive to the brig, wherein they spared no time clapping him in irons till further action could be taken.

Meanwhile, Ruth curtly dismissed Harvey before dropping to her knees beside Judy, quickly checking for a pulse. Gravely concerned at the steward's tenuous heartbeat, weak and fast, plus her shallow breathing, she requested Captain Bracegirdle assist her in getting Judy to Dr. Phillips immediately.Wasting not a moment, Bracie, with effortless ease, carefully gathered Judith up prior to both he and Lieutenant Christian heading to the sick berth.

Upon entering therein, Hera's face paled at the sight before her; the officers' steward's helpless and sorely abused form cradled almost lifelessly in the arms of the Grasshopper's Captain. Being directed to a corner cot, Bracie gently laid her down, an expression of deep worry etched upon his features - almost too afraid to ask the inevitable question so fearful of the answer he could at that point not face. Aware of his obvious turmoil, Hera softly assured him that his quick action boded well for Judith, her chances of recovery being fair. Phillips added, matter-of-factly, the next day or two would be vital in determining how she would rally concerning the effects of the trauma to her head. All that could be done was to keep watch and make the patient as comfortable as possible.

Noticing the doctor's obvious fatigue (she too having been most busy this past day), Bracegirdle offered to keep vigil for a few hours that Hera might get some much needed sleep. She gladly obliged after informing him of things to be watchful of, making it clear he call upon her if any of them eventuated. Requiring a few minutes of privacy so as to examine Judy more extensively, Bracie tactfully exited Dr. Philips's domain, obediently waiting outside as instructed.

Ruth, who had been taking everything in whilst hovering in the background, quickly made her way to Captain Jones's cabin that her commanding officer might be notified of this shameful occurrence. Alone with her patient, Hera was now free to look over her; an assortment of cuts and bruises combined with her ripped clothing testified to the horrid ordeal. Investigating more closely, Phillips breathed a deep sigh of relief she wasn't aware she'd been holding upon the discovery of Judy's small clothes still intact, her discretion (physically at any rate) gratefully untouched. If it weren't for Bracegirdle being in the right place at the right time she mused, the outcome could have been far bleaker for the poor soul before her.

Offering a prayer of healing, Phillips made short work of the ruined outer garment and removed Judith's corsets. Filling a basin with clean warm water infused with medicinal herbs, she set to work gently bathing Judith's injuries, encouraged by her patient's deepening breathing and steadying heartbeat. Offering one more brief prayer, the ship's surgeon added a few sprigs of lavender to the coals in a nearby brazier; the calming aroma wafted throughout the room and soothed shattered spirit and frayed nerve alike.

Tucking the quilt (a wonderfully soft old thing of faded hues donated in actual fact by the steward herself) about Judy, Hera, satisfied her charge was both presentable and comfortable, permitted Bracie to once more enter whereupon he took a seat by the woman's side. Taking her leave, Hera could not miss the expression of tender compassion colouring his countenance (visible from that same mirror which had revealed another's concern upon the night of the storm). Satisfied Judith was most definitely in safe hands, Phillips closed her cabin door to leave them in peace. Gazing upon her, Bracie, with a feather light touch, smoothed away an errant lock of hair that had fallen across her brow, softly caressing away any tension that dared intrude upon her unconscious features.

His mind gradually finding a semblance of calm once more, Bracegirdle's thoughts wandered back to the first time he had occasion to meet the indomitable Judith Elliott. It must have been over four years ago now he thought, soon after gaining his own full commission. Having only just been appointed to Grasshopper, itself a new vessel, Bracie, in the course of his duties, had been invited aboard a fellow Captain's ship, the gentleman a most kind and generous host; a man by the name of Rodrick Urland. To Bracegirdle's shock, this fellow's steward was none other than a woman - virtually unheard of in recent years - Collingwood going to great lengths to stamp out such practices once far more common across the navy.

Nonetheless, there she was; a rather flamboyant character in her early thirties, widowed it turned out, by the name of Judith Elliott. Upon sampling Rodrick's fare, Bracie humourously quipped the man had better keep her under guard lest she be spirited away by any number of fellow commanders who would doubtless fall to her culinary magic - even a Captain's table rarely consisting of such quality. With a knowing smile, Urland had proudly informed him of Judith's extraordinary background including not a few useful connections in the spice trade coupled with a genius for ingenuity the envy of many a better man - her fresh water distillation units (adapted from more conventional technology) the talk of the Navy (Judy making not a small profit from their manufacture and sale.all thanks to a sailor more interested in a couple of crowns than his golden egg - a rum-still he parted with readily, cursing the damnable thing to the sky).

It came as no surprise, therefore, when he learned of Judy's rather controversial exit from naval life - Foster in his mind deserving everything she dished out - though it would never be prudent even to murmur such, let alone say it aloud. And here she was once more, vulnerable as a lamb beneath his watch care. Grasshopper's Captain could not help but smile warmly at the woman's tenacity, glad providence once more shone upon her in the leading to Monstrous's domain.

Soon enough, the hours had fled past, Hera once more attending at Judith's bedside much delighted with the improvement of her condition, the unconsciousness resembling sleep as opposed to coma. Unexpectedly, at that minute, Captain Jones entered quietly, having charged Heppelwhite and stripped him of his position before seeing him transferred to Grasshopper's brig where he would stay until he could be deposited at the nearest English port wherein the justice system could take over. Shocked to see Judith's normally pleasant features so cruelly marred, Dr. Phillips assured her Judy would most likely fully recover, confident the next day or two would see her awake and gaining in strength. Adding everything was under control, Victoria left the sick berth, making her way back to her cabin where a fitful sleep awaited her; grieved such an offence could have been carried out beneath her very roof as it were.

Unwilling to leave Judy's side, Hera could do little but insist Bracegirdle would achieve nothing by exhausting himself in staying, eventually convincing him it would fare much better if he were to get some sleep and return refreshed in the morning if he so chose. Lingering for a few moments longer, he softly caressed her cheek before kissing her forehead ever so gently, Judith's features responded with an expression of deep calm, prior to Bracie quietly making his way back to the sanctuary of his own ship.

Chapter Two

Wakefulness stole upon Judith Elliott as a creeping mist, gradually permeating her senses; the dark dreamlessness of the abyss lifting as the dimmest of voices and low lamplight seeped into focus incrementally. Along with this gradual, ever growing awareness came a sickening pain throbbing at the side of her head as if someone had struck her a savage blow. Indeed, dear readers, this is precisely what had happened; Dr. Heppelwhite (now in chains awaiting delivery to the nearest British port) on account of the heinous attack visited upon Monstrous's officer's steward. If it were not for fortune fair placing Captain Bracegirdle at the right place and time, she may well have succumbed to the wretched designs leading to disgrace or worse.

Whimpering with the agony of it all, Judy attempted in vain to turn her head away from the new source of discomfort - a barely glowing lantern hung from the beam overlooking her cot. Having not the strength to manage even this, a small cry was all she could muster, unbidden tears pricking behind her eyelids fluttering close once more in order the light's harshness be blocked out. Ever so quietly, a soft voice (that of a woman) called her name through the fog of half-sleep. Gentle as a summer breeze, and comfortingly familiar, it called Judy forth, guiding her over an immeasurable distance of time and space till recognition finally dawned, a blurred vision of her surroundings finally falling into place.

In barely a whisper, Judith called out to the owner of the voice, amazed she could be heard. "Hera, is that you?" In short order, the smiling face of Dr. Hera Phillips filled Judith's field of vision, an expression of relief clearly visible upon her features.

"Welcome back. For a while there, I was not even sure if you would awaken."

With a look of puzzlement, Judy asked as to how long she had been laid up in Monstrous's sick berth; the answer of 'several days' eliciting a sharp intake of breath. Almost immediately, the pain that had greeted her upon first opening her eyes was back, again more intrusive than ever. Reaching a tentative hand to the side of her head, she enquired as to what had transpired over this past week to cause this predicament, a single hissed name enough to ignite all too clearly memories of events better left forgotten in Judy's opinion.

Quickly vanishing momentarily, Hera returned carrying a tray loaded with provisions that she might tend her patient's needs. Assisting Judith into a sitting position, Hera offered her a small cup of something warm, bitter and earthy prior to tending any healing wounds requiring attention. With trepidation, Judith dreaded the question that simply had to be asked.would she be all right?

Well aware from where her friend and patient was coming, Dr. Philips was glad to at least be able to assure her that her honour had not been compromised, mutual feelings of relief virtually palpable. The ship's surgeon's herbal restorative taking effect, Judy's surroundings ceased their infernal spinning little by little as the pain diminished from a white-hot hammering thud to more tolerable levels. As if reading her mind, Hera brought forth a curious round pillow, its cover beautifully woven with designs harking back to the physician's people.

Having warmed by the sick berth stove, filled with some type of grain or dried pulse yet not uncomfortable to rest upon, Judith obligingly lay back down on it, its heat coupled, with the faintest scent of peppermint, soothing the pain wonderfully and bringing calm to her spirits. Sleep once more beckoning, still one final question longed to be asked: who rescued her from the grip of that cur? Her eyes heavy with sleep anew, Hera's only reply was that of an enigmatic, knowing smile as the quiet claimed her again - this time calm and comforting as an embrace.

Walking slumber's realm, Judith was naturally unaware of another's arrival at her side. Having been hastily informed of Judy's recovery, Captain Bracegirdle took the first opportunity available that he might see it for himself. Once again entering Monstrous' sick birth, Hera greeted the visitor, leading him through her quiet domain to Judith's side - still occupying the very cot upon which he had laid her the better part of a week prior. Assured Judy was simply asleep, having regained consciousness almost an hour previously, he was left alone with the officer's steward. Taking in her visage, the ugly bruise that so terribly discolored the right side of her face upon that fateful night already appeared to be receding.

carefully, so as not to disturb her, he dared trace the outline of her features with the gentlest of touches, marveling at this woman's amazing strength. Not only had she picked herself up from the ruin of widowhood, with admirable courage, Judith had also carved out a role within a Bastian not known for its welcoming of the fairer sex into its ranks. She had heroically defended her captain against another who deserved neither the title nor respect it carried, survived the ensuing court martial process and its sentence only to take up this self same life upon the first opportunity that came her way. Through such a venture, Judy not once uttered words of bitterness or complaint but met every challenge with an eager spirit, emboldened by obstacles many others would have considered impenetrable.

Gradually, Bracie found a new emotion making its presence felt alongside his contemplation.that of fondness mingled with a growing attraction in and of itself somewhat unnerving. This was neither the time nor place for such feelings to be asserting themselves. Fearing their misplaced origins, Bracegirdle fobbed them off as merely the results of having spent these recent times working closely with a ship of competent, capable women - a life at sea more often than not leading to, how could one put it, isolation. Furthermore, it was only natural for him to take a liking towards steward Elliott. After all, both shared a common ground - that of bereavement's bitter blow. Nonetheless, he found himself incapable and unwilling to douse that tiny yet persistent spark slowly coming to life within the depths of his heart. Noticing Judy's stirrings, Bracie decided it best to disturb her no longer; politely bidding good day to Dr. Phillips on his way out - the responsibilities of command ever demanding his attention.

Back aboard Grasshopper, Samuel Jacobson listened patiently as his captain paced agitatedly back and forth across the vessel's great cabin. Two days had passed since he last called upon Judith who was now rallying well, while her assistant, Yasmine, took care of the steward's duties as she made her way back to full recovery. His heart sorely vexed, he could not bear the fact age coupled with experience made absolutely no difference when dealing with matters of the heart; its intrigues and foibles just as disconcerting as they had been all those years ago when the first flush of fondness bloomed toward his beloved late wife.

"What am I to do sir?" he questioned.

"For a start, Captain, you might like to take a seat before you wear right through the rug upon the floor."

Mindful he'd been going back and forth for the better part of the last half hour, he duly obliged, welcoming Jacobson's proffered pot of tea.

"Sir, if I may be so bold, Miss Elliott is a fine woman, capable and intelligent. Indeed, she has survived circumstances that would be the ruin of many a fine man."

Still troubled, Bracegirdle could not settle. "That is true, Samuel, her reputation is exemplary in my opinion, and despite her past brush with Admiralty, it is just, I fear terribly my affections may not be returned."

"Sir, all you can do is spend time in her company as circumstance permits. Earn her trust and gain her friendship, for this will form a solid foundation from which you will not fall. As for matters of the heart, you are a praying man, sir, commit your troubles into the care of the almighty, and you will not be disappointed regardless of God's will."

Only partially placated, Captain Bracegirdle could do naught but follow his wise steward's advice. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Soon enough, the press of his position carried him through an endless list of priorities; not the least of these working in with Captain Victoria Jones, herself a testament to everything admirable in a wise and considerate leader of His Britannic Majesty's Navy. Taking his leave after yet another taxing day, Bracie headed out onto Monstrous' deck, the golden late afternoon light set her sails aflame with delectably warm hues. Lost in thought, it was all he could do not to run straight into Judith, leaning against the rail, her gaze far out to sea, Zenny with her mistress.

Bidding her greetings, Judy offered discrete salutations before enquiring how he fared She was still completely unaware the gentleman by her side was in actual fact her saving grace. Easily enough, the two fell quickly into friendly conversation before Bracie, almost against his better judgment, requested Judith accompany him for a turn about the deck - such a beautiful afternoon, too lovely to let go to waste. Biting her lip endearingly to stifle a smile, she graciously accepted, happy to take her companion's proffered arm.

Far too swiftly, their time together drew to an end as Bracie needed to head back to Grasshopper. In but a few days, both vessels would go their own ways not to cross paths perhaps for months to come. Why, now of all times, did fate conspire to bring into his sphere someone he could all too easily lose his heart to? Notwithstanding these warring emotions, Bracie, as if detached from the exchange watching from afar, heard himself cautiously ask if Judith would be so kind as to do him the honour of meeting with him tomorrow around this time for another walk? At her hesitant yet willing reply, Captain Bracegirdle could have sworn he was a mere lad of eighteen courting for the first time, so tumultuous was his fond heart.

Chapter Three

Ten days had run their course since Judith's terrible assault at the hands of a now locked up though not at all penitent Dr. Heppelwhite. Easing herself back into the everyday routine of shipboard life had, if truth be known, proven a welcome distraction for a multitude of emotions reeking havoc upon the steward's heart. Furthermore, exercises between the Grasshopper and Monstrous were finally drawing to a conclusion. The demands of her duties would at last return to a more manageable level; not that Judy felt in any way put out by extending her hospitality (on the contrary. Nonetheless, even with their modest contribution to her larder, such pressure upon her essentially finite resources would begin to tell in but a short time.

Taking in the sunset at sea; a simple pleasure that had grown into a welcome break for contemplation and reflection, a now familiar figure once more quietly stole upon her meditation. Turning to face him, Judith smiled warmly, offering her customary genteel salutations to the man standing before her. Returning the gesture, Captain Bracegirdle enquired after Judy's well being prior to once again offering his arm as the two took their now almost anticipated walk about Monstrous's deck. Needless to say, speculation amongst the rank and file crew was gaining momentum with regards to whether or not the Grasshopper's captain would indeed ask for the hand of steward Elliott prior to his departure in but a few days' time. Squinty boots for one had wagered an entire month's rum ration upon such a notion; having, in secrecy, observed the good captain living up to his honourable and trustworthy reputation when attending Judith at her direst hour of need. The two companions however, now enjoying one another's company remained by and large oblivious to such goings on.

Though their conversation was engaging as ever, Judith could not dismiss an almost insignificant, well hidden yet nonetheless apparent note of discomfort visible within Bracie's demeanour. It would appear no small thing was dogging him beneath the surface. Sensitive to his disposition, she all too quickly found herself barreling into the only conclusion she could draw - its revelation painful as any physical blow. Surely, Bracegirdle would by now be all too aware of the events which had taken place over the past ten days or so; after all, his surgeon, the villain at the centre of the whole affair was now held captive in Grasshopper's brig for heavens sake. All of a sudden the ramifications became acutely clear. It simply would not do for a man of the captain's standing to be seen with one, a woman at that, who had bean thus treated - her injuries still visible (their healing not quite complete). Kicking herself repeatedly for such stupidity, Judith's heart lurched sickeningly as she considered her selfishness over the preceding days. What in heaven's name possessed her to even dream of bringing the gentleman's exemplary reputation into question by being seen parading around in public with one now little better than some of the poor women who made up Monstrous's compliment? The steward's colour fast paling, she let her hand fall from Bracie's arm; an expression of fear and self recrimination barely hidden beneath her carefully schooled expression. Bracie now clearly concerned regarding Judith's notable change of mood gently enquired as to what might be troubling her so; her response of such being no more than the consequences of her injuries hardly convincing. Offering to escort his companion to Dr. Phillips, a quiet yet over-zealous 'No thank you sir, I shall be quite able to manage on my own' caught them both unawares. Not taking no for an answer, captain Bracegirdle, catching sight of Marine captain Joan Ellis, called her over whereupon he issued orders (Orders mind you!...Judith's countenance shifting from one of self-loathing to fiery indignation in an instant, that she accompany Judy to the ship's surgeon directly. Acutely embarrassed, , Judy cast Bracie a look of wide-eyed confusion mingled with irritation and a good deal of hurt. On his own account, Bracegirdle found himself completely at a loss as to why he had acted so impetuously. What was this madness that was unraveling his sanity? How could the soul whose very life he had saved (thereafter tending with such kindness and innocent affection) turn upon him thus? Surely she knew! Had the woman seen some type of deficiency within his character? Were the years that separated them of concern? Was he continually being measured against her late husband thereupon to be constantly found wanting? Was his background less than suitable? Gazing out over the horizon, , Captain Bracegirdle's heart was caught in an ocean of disquiet more turbulent than any storm-tossed sea. Not even as a young man had he been left feeling so inadequate by one to whom he was drawn. And what of background anyway? As far as he was aware, Judith's upbringing was not too far removed from his own - the two of them being children of Christian Ministers; Indeed, Bracie, upon delving into his memories of those long ago formative years was certain he remembered Judy; Not an Elliott of course, but a Charlton- Daughter of the renowned missionary to the East Dr. Justin Charlton. Yes! How could he forget the girl? All questions and curiosity (to her parents' mild embarrassment quietly speaking in Arabic when wishing only to be understood by them and not the assembled party gathered for luncheon under his father's roof! Goodness, How could he have not made the connection earlier?? Indeed, he still possessed a beautiful Arabic translation of the Lord's prayer - its unique calligraphic style as clear before him as if he were holding it in his hand (the artifact gracing his day cabin as it turned out; a present from Dr. Charlton upon his return from yet another sojourn in the Jordan Valley and its regions. Such a realization helped not one iota to settle his current state of vexation. Only the quiet approach of Samuel Jacobson broke the fellow's introspection; inviting him to dine with Captain Victoria Jones (Jacobson offering his assistance to the young and eager to learn Constance Lovelace; this impressionable young maiden, if truth be known, not a little taken by her rather charming and delightfully proper tutor - not at all like some in his position she had met in her all too brief experience aboard ship). Conveying his compliments along with an expression of acceptance, Bracie, after speaking briefly with Captain Jones's first lieutenant, made his way to her domain. For the evening at least, his troubles would need to be suspended.

After silently allowing Joan Ellis to escort her to Dr. Phillips, Judy was finally left in peace. Her humour gloomy indeed, all she could do was sit in silence brooding over a pot of chocolate whilst Hera endeavoured to discover what had taken place that this usually cheerful soul could be reduced to such unhappiness quite apart from any recent run-ins. Gradually piecing everything together, no easy answers came to Hera; all she could advise as both counselor and friend was for Judith always to remain true to herself and absolutely honest at all times. In actual fact, she mused, simply allowing Judith to vent would be more helpful than any sage words of wisdom.

Monstrous senior staff not requiring her services this night (Captain Jones extending her hospitality with the assistance of Jacobson and her clerk Constance, naught remained to be done but see her officers were presentable before their commander and ensure a simple meal was ready for Hera and Joan upon the conclusion of their shift. This now tended to, it was all Judith could do that her aching heart remained contained. Throwing caution to the wind, (Zenny keeping watch by the galley stove) she made her way into her tiny cabin, now safe within, she sought refuge beneath the covers of her tiny bunk; once safe and secure Judy allowed an unstoppable force to have its way; one denied for perhaps years - the force of grief and sorrow. Not since the passing of her late husband had this stoic woman allowed the tears to fall, but fall they now did; her bitter weeping surely audible to anyone who might chance by her door.

Chapter Four

Evening, crisp and clear fell upon Monstrous, her crew, and guests. With military precision, Judith Elliott, her injuries virtually now healed, hurried about the crowded galley busily preparing the evening meal - the process made none too easy by the presence of First Lieutenant Ruth Christian and Marine Captain Joan Ellis - this cramped kitchen barely large enough for one, let alone three. Both officers, tankards of rum in hand seemed intent upon rendering the provision of her usual delicious fare an outright impossibility, picking at this, surreptitiously tasting that, whilst subjecting the officers' steward to a barrage of questions more reminiscent of an interrogation session than informal pre-dinner conversation.

True to her manner of uncomplicated honesty (tending towards bluntness) Joan led the 'charge'.

"What's with you and Grasshopper's Captain, eh, Judy? I've never seen a fellow more in a tizz than Bracegirdle at the moment - quite out of sorts if you ask me."

Concentrating upon the task at hand - the rather complicated steps necessary that her batch of Italian meringue might be transformed into delicious nougat for the night's sweets course didn't end up ruined, Judith absently attempted to deflect this line of enquiry.

"I don't know what on earth you're speaking of; the last I saw of Captain Bracegirdle, he was discharging his duty with aplomb."

Turning from two pairs of eyes currently rolling in disbelief, she once more vigorously attended the copper bowl; its contents of boiling sugar syrup and egg white demanding her all.

''Sirs, I tell you, that man is a curse to any sensible lady!"

Taking umbrage at this latest remark, Ruth, till now silent, could hold her peace no longer.

"Judith, I do not believe I have heard such an uncaring and harsh comment directed at perhaps the most decent man I have met in my life come from your lips. What has gotten into you these past days, woman?"

An unusually raw nerve having been touched in one so amiable with nary a criticism for another of good character, Judy, (troubling emotions having tormented her since the rather dramatic turn in their relations) wheeled around on her companions, her expression alight with hurt and anger.

"How could you say such a thing? He could not even deign to tell me the truth! Oh yes, the good Captain was indeed a gentleman, but it was plain, plain as day, my condition disgusted him. I could see it, not overtly, but simmering beneath; a troubled gaze here, a forced word there. He simply did not wish to openly spell it out. that I am damaged, tainted, and inappropriate to be seen with in public. Little better than a common woman of the night!"

Unable to conceal her tears any further, steward Elliott left the nougat lying on the slab on which she'd been working it and darted into her cabin whereupon the door was promptly locked, bitter primal weeping unmissable to those outside.

Turning to one another in astonishment; unable to believe their usually steady as a rock colleague and friend had reacted so, Joan descretely departed to her own cabin, confident in Ruth's ability to deal with the situation at hand.

Allowing a little time to elapse (Judy's sobs growing quieter and less constant), Lieutenant Christian cautiously knocked at the door in front of her. After some moments, a drained and fraught 'come,' accompanied by the sound of a lock being released, Ruth quietly entered, sincerely taken aback by what had just happened. Sitting on her modest cot, , a string of worry beads in Judy's hands, Ruth softly made her way to the woman's side, sitting down next to her.

With undisguised curiosity, the first officer took in steward Elliott's private realm - a living testament to her unusual and at times colourful life. Though by no means as overtly plush as Lieutenant Harvey's quarters, Judith's cabin, though small, was indeed unique; evidence of her international upbringing and life experience clear for all to see. From an overhead beam, a small yet beautiful Chinese lantern hung, softly illuminating its surrounds. Though practical, the chair and seachest set in one corner of the room were adorned with carvings most lovely - the woman's Christian name spelled in decorative relief upon one side of the trunk. Pillows, cushions, and a well-loved down quilt in vibrant blues, purples, aquas, and deep sea greens brightened the otherwise drab bunk upon which the two sat. Atop a compact, similarly carved desk crammed in next to her bedding were strewn papers, a bible bound in burgundy leather (evidence of its frequent use visible along the well worn guilt edges of its pages), a map magnifier sitting by this volume, the tools of the writer carefully set to one side. Adorning the bulkhead immediately above hung a modest collection of framed verse, many examples rendered in unrecognizable foreign scripts. Central amongst these could be seen an incredibly intricate work, each concentric circle more detailed than the other. Back to the desk, Ruth's eye was drawn to a currently doused table-lamp sitting unused next to a miniature in bronze - an eastern shepherd shouldering a wounded lamb (it's symbolism not lost upon Monstrous's First Lieutenant). Finally, the conical form of a brass censer completed the picture.

In stark contrast to the opulence of Elaine's cabin, Judith's quarters created an atmosphere of peace and refuge - a lifetime of memories; the open heart of its occupant quietly visible for all to see. Judy was the first to break the silence.

"Ruth, please, I am truly sorry for lashing out like that. Honestly, I do not know what came over me. I would be a liar if I were to say these last two or three days have not been difficult, but that does not earn me the right to mistreat my friend and a superior officer so shamefully."

"Judith, all I wish to do is to help you. It is obvious that things have not quite been right, truly, since the incident." Amazed she was herself now counseling one who had proven a wise and sensitive confidant, Ruth dared continue.

"In all honesty Judy, I cannot believe Captain Bracegirdle would think you any less of a person."

"How can you be certain? You were on deck that afternoon - Goodness, you didn't even intervene when he ordered Joan escort me below. Now, friend, tell me exactly why he's been walking on eggshells beneath that kind exterior. The answer's obvious. I know my eyes are not as good as they once were, but I've not been blind to this."

"Are you quite certain of that?" Ruth asked, a gentle, knowing smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"What are you inferring?"

"If the man was that putoff by your reputation and so concerned for his own, he would not have spent virtually every possible moment available by your side when none of us thought you would pull through!"

Silent, her jaw agape, Judith's countenance paled at this most recent revelation

"What are you trying to say, Ruth?"

"He cares for you, damn it! How could you be so hardened?"

"Me? Hardened? Explain yourself!"

"Heavens Judy, even the women below decks show more perception at times."

"Speak plainly, please."

"Truly, you do not know?"

"Know what?"

Saints have mercy!"

"What?"

"You honestly do not know."

"No!"

Ruth brushed a hand across her forehead in disbelief. "The man saved your life without a moment's hesitation for goodness sake!"

Upon hearing this, Judith found herself extremely grateful for the fact she was seated. As Lieutenant Christian continued, her irritation over steward Elliott's apparent incomprehension barely masked.

"How do you think you were delivered into the care of Dr. Phillips then?"

'I assumed.'

"Assume nothing! Bracegirdle himself bore you in his arms directly into Hera's keeping. Not only this, but he selflessly chose to keep vigil by your side for hours afterwards that our physician might gain some much needed rest."

Aghast at this news and its implications concerning her own thoughts and subsequent treatment of the Grasshopper's Captain, Judith sat mute, utterly unable to formulate a coherent response.

"Oh Ruth, What have I done?! Lord have mercy!"

Grasping her friend's hands, Lieutenant Christian desperately tried to offer some sort of reassurance, well aware of the manner in which Judy would tear herself to shreds at the thought of so terribly mistreating one as undeserving as her dear rescuer.

"He will surely never wish to set eyes upon me ever again." Judy replied despondently.

"I am certain that is not the case at all."

"How can you know?"

"Bracie (Ruth not missing the smile such a term of endearment brought to Judith's lips) does not strike me as the type to keep score in such a manner."

"But Ruth?"

"Let us simply say, I have my sources."

"I dare not ask. Nonetheless, how can I possibly rectify this mess?"

"By approaching him honestly and sincerely."

"Do you think he will actually listen? He is after all a Captain and I am merely an officer's servant . . ."

"Somehow, I do not think that will be a problem; you have my word on this point. Just trust me here, that is all I ask."

Offering a comforting smile, Ruth faced her friend, the two women sharing a quick hug of mutual understanding.

"Lieutenant, I have a meal to finish. The navy, as we all know, sails upon its stomach ..."

Laughing, Ruth doubted that fact occurred to those who frequented the halls of Admiralty.

The galley long since set in order, Judith ventured up on deck for some much-needed quiet time alone. A chill wind cutting through even the Monstrous's timbers, Judy drew her wrap ever more tightly about her shoulders as she peered out to sea. A crescent moon, barely more than a sliver of ice, cast its reflection in a thousand needle-thin shards upon the ruffled waters . Shivering just a little, she remained oblivious to a figure slipping silently through the night, making his way to her side.

'It is indeed a wonderful sight is it not?'

Judith could not help but visibly jump upon instantly recognizing the familiar voice.

"Sir, a good evening to you, Captain."

"My dear, there's no need for such formality, I have come to you in friendship."

Judy stammered, unable to find the words she so desperately wished to say; the tumult of her heart rising up to greet her. Turning to face Captain Bracegirdle (his ample silhouette unmistakable even in the darkness) Judy bowed her head in sincere humility; grateful that the flush of colour upon her cheeks remained safely invisible.

"Captain, What can I say? I am truly sorry for the horrid way in which I've treated you over the past few days. I owe you my thanks - indeed, I owe you my very life."

'Till but half an hour ago, I remained completely unaware that it was you who saved me nearly a fortnight gone. 'I am such a fool'.

"My dear Judy, a fool you most certainly are not. Unknowing? Yes. But a fool, by no means."

"Sir, I will understand completely if this terrible thing I've done has caused you grief enough as not to wish my company here on in."

"Oh, my sweet, sweet girl, your company is all I have wished for..."

Barely able to contain the rush of emotion, Bracie dispensed with words, drawing a now silently weeping Judith tenderly into his arms, casting a most accommodating boat cloak about them both. Judy, unable to put one thought in front of another, allowed herself to surrender into the warmth and gentle compassion of this incredible man - her very soul overwhelmed by his capacity to forgive, to love. Soothed by the peaceful rhythm of his heart, all time and space lost meaning for her as they both stood, content in one another's embrace. Only the sound of quiet footsteps broke this magical spell. To their mutual thanks, the intruder was none other than Samuel Jacobson, here to advise that his Captain might wish to head back to Grasshopper. With knowing tact and sensitivity, Jacobson left as quickly as he had come.

Standing before her, his hands softly resting on Judith's shoulders, Bracegirdle gazed enraptured upon her, an expression of open adoration illuminating his features. Stooping to kiss her delicately upon the forehead, Judy truly believed she would swoon then and there on the spot right where she stood. Swoon she did not, however, as Captain Bracegirdle took both her hands fondly between his own, securing her promise to join him aboard Grasshopper the following evening for dinner - hastily assuring her all would be right with both Captain Jones, her officers, and that her reputation would be in no wise compromised - the presence of Samuel a guarantee of that. Finally, reluctantly releasing her, Bracie made his way toward the waiting jollyboat as Judith hurried below, her spirits tormented with unnumbered feelings; Ruth quietly following after her friend, a knowing smile lighting her own heart.