THE SAIL TO ENGLAND
November 6th, 1796
I awoke this morning feeling considerably better, though a bit embarrassed at my behavior with Miss Cobham last evening. Here I had an opportunity of conversing with one of the greatest artists of our time, and I go and fall asleep at the table with my head practically in my desert! What must she think of me?
And there cannot be too many dinners such as that one ahead, for though we sail to England, and I expect the journey to take a good three weeks (more if we have any further complications from our enemies), I cannot exclude my officers from my company entirely. And to dine with the officers means to dine with The Duchess, and not Miss Cobham.
Still, I had needed the sleep. I remember Mr. Brandon's wry remark, about Mr. Hornblower's collapse, that even he must admit to being mortal at some points. I guess this means that I too shall have to make that admission.
I found Miss Cobham...er...the duchess above decks, having risen early. The men have rigged a bit of a hammock swing-chair for her, and she is resting there very nicely, a blanket drawn round her disguising her rather manly attire. And I waited for the blistering wit that she WOULD wield against me, in keeping with her role.
She did not disappoint. "Good Morning, Sir Edward. I trust you slept rather well?" With just enough of a smile on her face at the last line to make me blush, for no damned reason at all.
"Your Grace." I muttered tersely, and headed to the quarterdeck, where Lieutenant Bracegirdle awaited me.
"How was your dinner last evening, Captain?" He asked in all innocence, only a spark in his blue eyes indicating he had picked up on Her Grace's double entendre.
"Intolerable!" I snapped, knowing full well it had been anything but. "I shall not hope to have it repeated too often." This was true...sadly, I had no hope that it would be.
"Mm, she is a bit of a harpy, eh?"
"Mr. Bracegirdle, this is not fit discussion for the quarterdeck. Report if you please!"
And so he did, and my day went on as usual.
Except that I kept running into her. Turn a corner, and there she was!
"Mr. Bowles, she's a fine ship, it seems to me. What do you call these different sails here, Mr. Bowles, and can you tell me what they do?" She purred, and Bowles, with a chuckle, explained the difference between a top gallant and a mizzen sail, and how each of them would function. For about half an hour.
Then, as Cousins was noting the wind, she seemed to nudge him, teasingly asking him what he was marking down, and how long it had taking him to learn such things. He looked not at all displeased!
Finally, at the end of the day, when I was making one of my routine trips around the ship, I stopped by Sick Bay and found her seated with Brandon, who with a blushing face was very earnestly explaining to her the uses for all his concoctions and potions. She made several vague innuendoes that I have grown accustomed to hearing from the Duchess. And though Brandon was not yet fifteen, he seemed to stand a bit taller and took care to smooth his hair back while in her presence.
Enough of this! I stormed back to the Quarterdeck and approached my first Lieutenant.
"Lieutenant Bracegirdle!" I finally snapped. "I will see all of the officers in my cabin in half an hour if you please!"
Once I had them assembled, I was to the point.
"Gentleman, we have a long sail ahead of us to England. We are liable at any point to encounter enemy ship, and must be prepared. I expected, when I came above decks this morning, to find my crew performing in the exemplary way I have come to know you capable of. Instead, what do I find? That the presence of ONE WOMAN has thoroughly rendered each of my officers, no matter his rank, to be incapable of focussing ON HIS DUTIES!"
The assembled men paled before me; Bowles looked downright ashamed.
"Gentleman, I would request that you refrain from having any further conversation with...the Duchess other than polite greetings while you are on duty. Off duty, you may engage in any conversation you would not be embarrassed to have at a society dinner. If any one of you should be so foolish as to disregard this request, you will suffer dire consequences. Any commissioned officer will find himself on extended watch; any midshipman will find himself having a lengthy and painful conversation with Mr. Andrews! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"
There was a moment of stunned silence followed by several hasty "aye-ayes". I dismissed all men but Bracegirdle.
He was studying me carefully. "Well, I think you made your point clear, Sir."
"For their sakes I hope so." I added gruffly. "I cannot stand travelling with women on board for exactly this reason!"
"In defense of the men, Sir...she did make a point of seeking them out."
I closed my eyes. "I am aware of that, Mr. Bracegirdle. However, it is only my men that I have control over, therefore it is their behavior that must be modified."
He smiled. "Yes, it would hardly be appropriate for you to issue an order to a Duchess." He cleared his throat. "Will you be dining with her this evening, Sir?"
I shook my head. "After just blistering the ears of my officers for being too familiar? I think not. Make sure she is well provided for, if you will." I turned suddenly and looked quizzically upon him. "How is it, Lieutenant Bracegirdle, that you have managed to withstand her effects this day?"
He got rather pink. "I move quickly, Sir."
I was not satisfied with that answer, strangely; I felt there was something much amiss there. But I was in no humor to pursue it.
After he left, I considered the situation. The entire problem could be alleviated, of course, if only she could not be The Duchess of Wharfedale. As Kitty Cobham I felt she would be far less likely to torment my men. I must have a word with her later.
Strangely, that thought does not seem to bother me!
I should have known better than to think I would need to seek Miss Cobham out.
I was on my evening rounds, missing Hornblower as always, when a soft footstep approached, and I turned and looked down into her eyes. Not the shrewish gaze of Her Grace, although they did look rather perturbed.
Somewhat abashed, I took a look to see which officer had the watch. Cousins. But he was too far to hear our conversation.
"Your Grace." I said very quietly. "Or is it Miss Cobham?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh, so you are permitting yourself to speak with me, though it would seem that your men have been ordered to run away from me!"
"I gave no order for them to run. I merely told them to keep their minds on their duties, instead of on socializing."
"Well, I can imagine how you told them! I had a headache and went bellowdecks to see young Mr. Brandon, and he about passed out when he saw me. Handed me a packet of powder, told me to mix it with water, and if I'd please leave his sick bay immediately."
Stunned and angry, I turned to her spluttering. "He was so rude to you?!?"
She arched her eyebrows and gave me a puzzled glance. "No, he was not. I lied about that last bit. But really, he might have been, considering you threatened to have him or the other Mids half beaten to death for speaking with me while on duty."
"Half beaten to death? Who told you such a thing!" I was determined, it would seem, to be angry this day.
She rolled her eyes. "YOU did, you silly goose, or am I misinterpreting the meaning of having a 'lengthy and painful' conversation with your bosun? I am not entirely green to travel on board a ship, Sir!"
Oh, Lord! "I had forgotten that you could hear so much when you are in your cabin."
"Sir Edward, you were yelling so loudly I could probably have heard you at Don Massaredos!"
I smiled at that image. "Well, then, Hornblower is having a good laugh at your effect on the men...myself included it would seem." I cleared my throat. "Just out of curiosity, how did Brandon react to your arrival?
She sighed. "Professional obligation got in the way of his abject fear of you, I am sorry to tell you. Without ever directly meeting my eye, he asked what my symptoms were, asked if I had a tendency to stomach upset, and then decided that Willow Bark would do better for me than Feverfew. Then when I tried to thank him, he went beet red, and excused himself from the room, asking Johnson to please show me back to my quarters."
I sighed. "Johnson was not there for the conversation in my cabin. I hope you did not torment him too badly."
She was growing exasperated. "Am I so intolerable?"
I turned to her, and with a quick glance a Cousins, leaned in closely. "Ma'am, you are anything but intolerable. The Duchess of Wharfedale, however, is another matter. Although I know you are playing a part, my men do not! And it is not fair to them. Were you acting as yourself, I do not believe you would be so...distracting."
She looked away suddenly, out towards the sea, her head away from mine. The moonlight seemed to make her hair glow in the evening. Really, she was quite a fine woman...She raised a hand to her face, wiping her cheek.
She turned back to me presently. Yes, there had been tears there, but why?
"Forgive me, Sir. I know that as a mere actress I am not a distraction, but as a woman of title I am."
I stepped back. "That is NOT what I meant."
She shook her head. "Oh, but it was, Sir Edward. Kitty Cobham amuses you, makes you laugh...but it is the Duchess of Wharfedale you would dine with."
"I believe I dined with Miss Cobham last evening..."
She cut me off. "On board your ship. Away from the world's eyes. As no doubt your men's eyes would be turned away from me should they know what I really was." She muttered something under her breath then, and dashed away.
I ought to have run after her. But Cousins was on the quarterdeck, and his eyes were keen, though he endeavored at the moment to pay me no mind.
I am too old for this. I have forgotten, I suppose, how to treat a woman. Come to think of it, I was never very good at it. My late wife had joked once that if she'd had to wait for me to court her, she'd still be unmarried. I'd managed to find the one woman on the planet who seemed to want to hear me talk of my ships, my crew, my duty. I could not praise myself to her the way some men did, nor could I make any compliment I paid her sound sincere, even though it was. She loved me anyway. She even told me once, not long after we were married, that she loved me because of the fact that I forgot she was a woman, but treated her instead as a mate. A soul mate.
But Anne is long gone, dead nearly twenty years. And Miss Cobham, for the second time in two days, has referred to herself as a Drury Lane Whore...for I did catch her mumbled statement...for reasons I do not understand. I would never have hurt her feelings so by wish, and would not care to do so again by accident.
It is all an enigma. I must discover what has caused her such pain, or this will be the longest trip to England in my life.
Pellew's Perspectives, The Voyage to England, Part 2 1/1
Disclaimers: I borrowed most of these characters from CS Forester and the creators of the miniseries, and am just taking them out to play with the figments of my own imagination!
November 7th, 1796
I slept fitfully at best. I found my entire conversation with Miss Cobham to be most unsatisfactory. Whatever had I done to make her think I held her in such low regard? And if I could not figure out what it is that I had done, how on earth could I undo it?
With the sunrise, I decided to walk on deck to clear my head. And saw her there, standing, solitary, staring out at the empty sea stretching before us.
At first I thought of turning around and returning to my cabin. Her pose did not invite company. But I changed my mind. There was only one way out of this my dilemma. And I made a direct line towards her.
"Good morning, your Grace." I said softly.
She did not turn. "Sir Edward."
I plunged forward. "Ma'am, I have been at sea for most of my life. I have had very limited exposure, I am afraid, to socializing with the fairer sex. It would seem that somehow I have offended you. I can assure you it was unintentional. And I would beg, Ma'am, that you would please tell me exactly what it is that I did, so that I might not do it again?"
She looked down at her hands folded in front of her. "You have not offended me, Sir Edward. I am afraid I have offended myself. And that is my cross to bear."
I looked puzzled at her. "Ma'am, if this is about the situation with the men yesterday, please understand, all I wish is that they be able to perform their duties. You are an attractive woman, and to combine that with the overt flirtatiousness of the Duchess, well, it's a lot for even the most seasoned seaman to bear!"
She gave me a slight smile. "She is a bit much, her Grace is. But it's been nice to pretend to be her, to be a better woman than I am." Her voice trailed off.
"I will not have you say such things!" I said, perhaps a bit more harshly than I intended. "From what I have heard, Kitty Cobham is a far better woman than the Duchess of Wharfedale."
"I am afraid Mr. Hornblower would not agree with you."
I looked at her in surprise. "It is Mr. Hornblower who told me so." I furrowed my brow, truly at a loss this time. "Indeed, he has nothing but the highest regard for you."
Her face softened a bit then. "He's a fine boy, and most generous. But I am afraid he is not being entirely truthful."
"Ma'am, I am at a loss as to how you can spend so much time with Mr. Hornblower and ever think him capable of being untruthful. To deceive the enemy, perhaps...but to deceive me?" I shook my head. "In the years I have known him, Mr. Hornblower has gone out of his way to be thoroughly honest; more honest than I would wish him to be, at times."
She looked me in the eye for the first time this morning. "What about protecting a woman's honor and reputation? Do you not think he could be untruthful then?"
I remembered my conversation with Hornblower the night before his return to Spain. "Ma'am, even there you underestimate him. When I taxed him for your true name, saying that I knew you to be an imposter, he grudgingly gave it to me, then went on to say that you were a most patriotic woman who'd been forced to make terrible sacrifices..." She turned abruptly away again. "He begged of me not to ask him to betray your honor by asking him how. So I did not. If I had ordered him to do so, he would have, though he'd have despised me for it, and rightly so. But you can rest assured that his regard for you is genuine, as is mine."
She looked up at me, as sorrowful a look as I'd ever seen. "Perhaps, then, I can take Mr. Hornblower's regard at face value. But when you do not know my story..."
I shook my head. "I do not need to. Mr. Hornblower's word is enough for me."
She gathered her shoulders in great resolve. "But not for me, Sir Edward. I cannot keep this from you, and accept your kindness." She closed her eyes. "I will be as honest with you as I have been forced to be with myself."
Something about the pain in her face touched me greatly, and without thinking I reached up, moving a wayward curl off her cheek. "Please, Miss Cobham. Tell me anything." I whispered.
But before she could open her mouth again, I heard Bracegirdle's voice boom over my head. "Sail to larbord."
I turned away, all thoughts of her problems out of my head. "Ma'am, excuse me if you can."
"Sir...She's flying French colors."
"How many guns, Bracegirdle?"
"We can take her then. No others in pursuit?"
"No sir, She's alone."
"Call hands to quarters, if you will."
I turned back to Miss Cobham. "Your Grace..."
She nodded. "Yes, I'd best get myself out of the way, looks like you'll be busy enough without me."
"Bellow decks would be safest for you at the moment."
She gave me her sauciest grin. "Aye, aye, Captain!" And saluted me smartly. Then she disappeared, and I turned my attention to the ship sailing before me.
We have hit the jackpot with this battle.
Her name was La Verit , and she was carrying a division of French troops to the mainland. I now have sixty soldiers captured, in the belly of Indefatigable, plus four officers. Many men and most of the ship's crew were killed.
I have dispatched Midshipman McGill, the eldest one at twenty-four, with a contingent of men to take La Verit to Gibraltar, and report there for orders. The soldiers remain with us, to see the inside of an English prison.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a highly ranked officer in their bunch...Colonel Etienne De Vergess, supposedly a gentlemen of some distinction. I do not speak French, but his English is quite good, and he was most polite and formal when I spoke to him. He seemed almost amused when he found out what ship he was on, but declined to tell me why.
So it was not entirely surprising when Mr. Cousins sought me out well after the battle. "Sir, If I may...my French is coming on pretty well, Sir." He hesitated.
"Thank you, Mr. Cousins, but the officers all speak English, and I do not require your services as a translator." I said, returning down to my log books.
"Yes, Sir, but...well, I think there's something about one of the officers I should tell you, Sir."
This time he had my full attention. "Very well, Mr. Cousins, report."
"Yes, Sir...I was with Sergeant Forbes assisting in stowing the prisoners down below, Sir. They were speaking pretty freely, Sir, so I didn't let on that I could understand them. I thought it might be important information. They didn't say anything about any other ships, though. What they did say, Sir, was about Colonel DeVergess."
"Indeed?" I said, intrigued now.
"It seems, Sir, that the Captain of La Verit , seeing himself to be outgunned, was most desirous of running, Sir. La Verit was reputed to be a speedy ship, and he felt he would be able to avoid pursuit."
"DeVergess, however, did not take kindly to the idea of running. And even though her crew was minimal, in order to take on as many soldiers as possible, I guess, he insisted that she fight."
I nodded. An officious Army Colonel giving...or trying to give...a sea captain orders. I could sympathize. "More fool the Captain for giving in, Mr. Cousins."
He shook his head. "That's just it, Sir. From what the men were saying, he didn't give in. And DeVergess shot him, and the first Lieutenant, dead when they refused to fight."
I leaned forward, in shock. "Are you certain of this, Mr. Cousins?"
He hesitated. "I am certain that that is what they are saying Sir. I do not know it to be true, of course, but if it is, it seems to me that DeVergess is not a man to be trusted."
"No enemy ever is." I said. But still, this was disconcerting. It spoke volumes about the man's honor, and changed how much respect I might have offered him on account of his rank. "Your report is duly noted, Mr. Cousins. That man will bear watching."
I looked up at him. "Good work, Mr. Cousins. Excellent, in fact."
He blushed slightly. "Thank you, Sir."
"Keep your knowledge of the tongue to yourself, if you will, and let me know if anything else reaches your ears."
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
Well, well. This poses to be a pretty set of problems, now!
Bracegirdle was present at my request, as well as the trusted Sergeant Forbes, when I had my formal interview with DeVergess. He was smooth, far too smooth for my tastes; even the slight injury he'd received, as noted by the bandage on his cheek, could not erase the smug look from his face.
"Colonel..." I said, formally, keeping a watchful eye on him. "My apologies for being forced to conduct this conversation in my native tongue. I am glad that you speak it so well."
He gave me a slightly insolent smile...or was that my mind playing on the information from Cousins? "Indeed, Sir, I am always glad to have an opportunity to practice my English. Though I am surprised you have no officer who speaks French."
Wanting to keep my Midshipman out of this, I answered warily. "My second Lieutenant is fluent. Unfortunately, Mr. Hornblower is currently...away from the ship."
He turned his head at me, his eyes laughing at some private joke of his own. "Bad luck for you, then. Perhaps some of your younger men would be interested in learning the language? After all, it will be a long journey, and might pass the time."
"Unfortunately, our younger men have far too much to occupy themselves, as we are very short handed right now."
He smiled again. "As you wish, of course." He looked around at my quarters. "You have much space, here, Captain, but not much opulence."
"I am a simple man, I am afraid." I said, slightly acerbically.
"Oh, I do not criticize, you, Sir. I confess I know little of the needs of a naval Captain. It is perhaps unfair to compare them with my own." He shrugged.
"I trust you find your own situation adequate."
"Under the circumstances, Sir, I can hardly complain. The food, perhaps, is not what I am accustomed to."
That ought to have been my cue to invite the man, as a senior prisoner, to share my table. Damned if I would!
"I can well understand, we do not run much in the way to fancy food on board a ship. I myself have grown so accustomed to biscuit and boiled beef that I forget what a ragout tastes like." I nodded to Forbes. "You will be permitted one hour of exercise, each day. Sergeant Forbes here will be your guard."
He raised an eyebrow. "A guard? If you wish, by all means, Captain, though it seems a bit paranoid to me. After all, to where can I run?"
I gave him my most phony grin. "Well, you see, one can't be too careful. Wouldn't want you to take a cheep shot at me. Naval Captains are after all favorite targets...or so I understand."
His eyes narrowed to slits then, and his smile froze. "I do not take your meaning, Sir."
"No?" I replied, my own smile more forced. "Ah, well, perhaps there has been a miscommunication. In any event, this is my ship. Those are my orders."
I nodded to Forbes and DeVergess was quickly whisked away.
Bracegirdle placed his hands behind his back. "I do not like that man, Sir."
"We are in agreement, then, Lieutenant." I leaned backwards. "Mr. Cousins has indeed performed us a valuable service."
"It is good to be prepared." He agreed. "Am I wrong, Sir, or did he almost laugh when you brought up Mr. Hornblower's name."
I shook my head. "I noted it myself. I wonder why? I cannot imagine that they should ever have met."
"No, they seem to be a most improbable pair."
"Well, it is of no concern. Let us resume course, Mr. Bracegirdle. England awaits."
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
November 7, Continued...
It was after dinner that evening that I thought I might look in on Miss Cobham, as our conversation had been so abruptly ended this morning. However, to my surprise I found Mr. Brandon exiting her quarters!
"Mr. Brandon? I trust you have a reason for being here?" I said, rather sternly.
He looked startled to see me, as well. But he spoke quickly. "I'm sorry, Sir, her Grace is not well, I am afraid. She sent for me."
"Unwell? She was not hurt in this afternoon's action, was she?" How could I have missed that?
"No, Sir. But perhaps the smoke and the noise disturbed her. She was suffering from headaches yesterday, and the action seems to have made it worse. She declines food and I have just provided her with some St. John's Wort...she is most desirous of sleep, it seems."
"Did this come on her suddenly?"
He frowned. "She says not, but to be honest, Sir..." He looked up at me beseechingly. "I would not question her, Sir, but she seemed fine before the battle began...I saw her when she first went belowdecks. Afterwards, she came out just as Mr.Cousins was bringing along the prisoners. Johnson was working on one of them, the Colonel, I think, while I was tending to one of our own men. I noted her looking in briefly, but she seemed to lose all color and rushed out. That was the first I noticed of her ailment."
I shook my head. "Did you go after her."
"Yes, she was leaning over pretty badly, nearly fainting, Sir. I offered to bring her in to sick bay and have her rest, but she declined pretty forcefully, said it was the sight of the blood that did it to her."
"Not unlikely..." I murmured.
"Yes, Sir. But..." He looked over at her door. "She told me yesterday, when you saw her visiting me, that she'd helped care for her sick husband. Doesn't seem likely that a mild wound would make her so faint now, does it?"
Of course, what Brandon didn't know is that it was the Duchess who had the husband and not the woman in his view!
"Do not let it worry you, Mr. Brandon. I am certain that the Duchess will do just fine after a good night's sleep."
"Aye, Aye, Sir." But there still was concern in his eyes.
I felt it a bit worried myself, but returned to my logs, for there was much to be recorded.
November 10, 1796
Three days later, however, with the Duchess still declining to leave her cabin, though the weather was mild and the sea air fine, I found myself calling for Brandon. I requested, briefly, that he examine her again.
He returned to me on the quarterdeck within five minutes.
"She will not see me, Sir."
I looked up, startled.
"What do you mean she will not see you. Did she not let you in?"
"Yes, Sir. But she declined to be examined. Said her headaches were much better, but she preferred the company of her room at the moment, as she has been quite sea sick."
"Sea sick?" I exclaimed. The ship was hardly moving...in fact, if the wind didn't pick up soon, we would have to revise our estimated time for arrival in England!
"Yes, Sir. That is what she says."
"Does she look sea sick, Mr. Brandon."
"No, Sir, she does not."
"Is she green?"
"Has she exhibited evidence of nausea? Does it seem as though she's been vomiting?"
"Does she keep to her bed?"
"No, Sir, she was sitting up reading."
"Have you ever known someone who was sea sick to take to READING, Mr. Brandon.?"
"Then I do not believe she is sea sick. So I kindly request of you to return to her chambers, Mr. Brandon, and discover what is ailing her. For your own sake, do not return to me without a better answer than sea sickness!" I snapped.
Brandon blanched. "But Sir, I cannot force her to be examined!"
"What of your orders do you not understand, Mr. Brandon? Shall I repeat them for you?" I asked menacingly.
He held his composure, somehow. "No, Sir. I understand you clearly." He said evenly, without emotion. And he turned and walked slowly away, no doubt wondering what he could to do to avoid my further wrath.
I was not proud of my outburst. But my anxiety for her welfare was made worse by the continued irritating presence of that damned DeVergess above decks. Even now he strolled but a few feet away from me, smiling secret thoughts and occasionally making offensive statements to Forbes, well within my earshot.
Forbes must have sensed my irritation, for he shooed the man back to his prison cell some ten minutes earlier than would have been necessary. Not that I think DeVergess minded, since he took it as confirmation of his success of driving me mad!
Fifteen minutes later, a pale and resigned Brandon approached me.
"Well, Mr. Brandon?" I snapped.
He swallowed once. "Sir, her Grace permitted me to perform a cursory exam. I regret to inform you that I have utterly failed in your request of me, as I cannot find a single thing wrong with her from a medical standpoint. Her balance is fine, she has not vomited, she is not running a fever, her lungs are clear, and she admits her head is no longer bothering her. She gives me no reason to keep to her cabin, except that she chooses to." He met my eyes in an unwavering gaze, his body taut with expectation. Cousins, on watch, stood a few feet away, and I could feel the waves of sympathy for his friend.
"I see." I turned my eyes away from him. "Then if there is no medical reason otherwise, you will kindly tell her Grace that I expect her presence at dinner tonight."
I felt Cousins let out a sigh of relief on behalf of Brandon, who did not himself let go.
"Yes, Sir." He paused before turning away. "But Sir, if she declines?"
I still looked out towards the sea. "She shall not be permitted to decline, Mr. Brandon. I expect you to make that clear to her."
He nodded, still wary. "Aye, Aye, Sir."
I expected her to be angry. I expected the same fire I'd seen from her when she defended my men from my apparent wrath and lack of care, during the Hepplewhite incident. Surely, she would come firing at me with all she had, on the defensive from my invasion of her privacy.
And then of course there would be Brandon to defend. For I have no doubt that the only way he was able to convince her to submit to an examination had been to throw himself on her mercy! And I had been certain she would 'save' the boy from the wrath of his irrational captain. Yes, she would remonstrate with me heartily on all of these things.
But she did not. She came in to my cabin nervously, looking around. On seeing that we dined alone, she relaxed a bit, but sat in stony silence across from me. Her eyes were cast downward, her face pale, dark shadows under her eyes.
"Miss Cobham? I have been most worried about you. Indeed, despite Mr. Brandon's reports to the contrary, I must say you do not look in good health."
She looked up at me. "Please, Captain Pellew, do not torment the boy more than you already have. He is quite right, Sir. There is nothing wrong with my health. I simply have not been sleeping well." But her voice was soft, her mind, far away.
Disturbed, I tried another approach. "Ma'am, yesterday, when we first approached La Verit , we had been in the middle of an important conversation. You had been about to tell me something. Your situation has been praying on my mind ever since. Please, ma'am, I am still here to listen...if you wish."
She gave me a brief smile that never touched her eyes. "It was hardly an important conversation, Sir. And I have since realized it was a very foolish one. The events cannot be changed. So what, Sir, is the point of dragging you into my problems? You have far greater concerns than mine, Captain."
"Ma'am, when you are a passenger on my ship, your concerns are mine."
She shook her head. "The problem did not occur here. It is not the fault of you, or your men, but of my own questionable judgement."
Pouring out another glass of wine, I took one more chance. "Ah, well, no doubt it concerns some WOMANLY folly whose importance you overestimate."
I waited for her vitriolic response. Instead, she sipped delicately at the wine, eyes indulgent in their gaze. "You are trying to make me angry. To get me to break down that way." She chuckled. "The same way you tried to enrage me this afternoon, by scaring Mr. Brandon half to death before you sent him to me. Not really fair on the boy for you to use him in that manner. He took your threats quite seriously."
I sighed. "How do you know I was not serious in making them?"
She shrugged. "I had not had you pegged as a cruel man, Captain Pellew. But then, you would not be the first officer who's ever fooled me as to your nature. To be a man who gives favor, and then in a heartbeat removes it--perhaps, indeed, that is your own particular form of cruelty."
Instead of getting her angry, she was doing a fine job of angering me!
Changing subject abruptly in an attempt to contain myself, I spat out "What is it with addressing me as Captain Pellew, anyway? What happened to 'Sir Edward.'"
"An unpardonable informality, I'm afraid, Captain. I was enjoying liberties received as the Duchess of Wharfedale that I am not entitled to as Katherine Cobham."
We seemed to be at an impasse here.
"Ma'am, I do not know what you think of me, but I can assure you I was not BORN Sir Edward..."
There was a commotion outside my door that stopped my sentence. I got up quickly.
An apologetic Forbes, with a black eye, was standing there.
"Sir...I have made every effort short of shooting him to stop this, but he is shouting down the entire ship, saying he must see you immediately with important information..."
"He" was DeVergess, who now strode into my office as if he owned it. Forbes pulled him back with a jerk.
"Colonel DeVergess, am I to understand that you have struck the Marine guarding you, Sir?"
"I must beg your pardon, but the man was most obtuse. I have important information regarding..." His eyes wandered to Miss Cobham, and he smiled wolfishly. "Although I was unaware that you were entertaining. This is, perhaps, fortuitous. Is it not, Miss Cobham?"
Oh, God, he knows!
And I took one look at Miss Cobham's face, and I realized she was close to fainting, her eyes fixed on DeVergess in mute terror. So it was HE who had her so frightened in sick bay!
"Forbes, please escort Miss...her Grace...to her cabin, and then return to me so I might dismiss this...man!' I snapped.
Forbes, bless his heart, took everything in stride, and walked up to Miss Cobham gently.
"Your grace? Ma'am?" She looked up at him, shaking. "Please, if you will, let me help you to your cabin."
She followed weakly, with one last backward glance at me, a look that made no sense. "I'm sorry." She whispered. "Forgive me." And leaning heavily on Forbes' shoulder, she let out a brief sob.
"There now, ma'am, there now." I heard him say, and then he was gone, leaving me with this...man!
He stood before me, a quiet smirk on his face, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from slapping him, though I didn't know why. I motioned for him to sit down, and paced behind the table. My eye was on the drawer where my pistol was kept.
"Sir...I would like to know the meaning of this diversion."
"Am I correct in assuming, Captain, that you are aware of the Duchess of Wharfedale's real name?"
I turned on him. "I am in charge here, Colonel DeVergess. You would do well to remember that."
His smile grew wider even as his eyes grew cold. "You are not the first Captain to say that to me recently."
I do not know how I held myself in check.. But I stared him down, coldly, and finally he gave in.
"I merely wished to be certain that you WERE aware of her, nature, if you will. She can be a very deceptive creature. Your Lieutenant Hornblower is aware of this, no doubt; if only he were here to warn you of her. But of course, it is difficult for the boy to speak from the prison cell she abandoned him in."
Well, it would seem the damned Frog's information was not quite so exact as he thought it was. He obviously was unaware of Hornblower's escape from and return to Don Massaredo's. "Am I to understand then, that you have an acquaintance with Mr. Hornblower?"
He smiled, thin lips drawn back over his even teeth. "Indeed. I met the...boy...while I was visiting Spain. Miss Cobham was there also. It would seem that she had duped the boy thoroughly, no doubt for some reason of her own. I must admit, I had your man wrong; I thought he was a spy as well."
"As well?" I asked, unable to keep the edge out of my voice.
"Come now, Sir, you must admit that Miss Cobham was a spy. Pretending to be a Duchess. Of course, I felt that Hornblower was pretending to be a Captain. I simply could not believe anyone would be foolish enough to give the boy his own ship. I was wrong, it seems."
That pistol in my desk was fairly calling out to me.
"Mr. Hornblower is one of the finest officers this Navy has ever seen. And Miss Cobham is one of the most talented women in England." I spat out.
He arched his eyes pointedly. "Talented? Indeed, I had the joy of tasting her... talents... while she was in captivity. Talented, and quite lusty."
The sound of my hand against his face rang out loud in the cabin. His head spun, and he half rose in anger, but I pushed him back into the chair.
"How dare you, Sir!" I sputtered. "How dare you make such a statement on my ship!"
He looked at me triumphantly, even as he wiped a spot of blood from the corner of his mouth.
"I say only what is true. She was most eager to provide me with favors in exchange for keeping quiet about her true nature...that she is no Duchess, just another Drury Lane whore."
And the pieces began to fall together. "My God, what sort of a man are you, that would demand favors of a woman in exchange for silence? Where is your honor, Sir?"
"Unlike the English, my libido is more in need of satisfaction than my honor." He smiled again. "But, judging from your reaction, perhaps I underestimate the English libido."
I raised my hand yet again, but was disrupted by the knock on my door.
Forbes came in and sized up the situation with a glance. "Sir, she's resting now, although she's pretty upset." He looked with disgust at DeVergess. "Is he giving you problems, Sir."
I shook my head.
"DeVergess, let me say this. You are wrong about Miss Cobham. She is a fine artist who had the misfortune to be a long way from home without the means of returning. And may I add, that as an officer in the French Army, you would have done your country a profound disservice if she WERE a spy, and you let her buy your silence. Furthermore, Mr. Hornblower, Sir, knows more about being a man than you ever will."
I nodded to Forbes. "Take him away, Forbes. Keep him in solitude. Do not let him near other men. Do not let him show his face above decks again. His privileges are revoked."
DeVergess looked over Forbes with disdain. "And how will you keep this one here from spreading the word about your guest?"
Forbes slammed him back against the wall. "I do not serve you, Colonel. I serve my Captain. And if her Grace prefers one name over another, what business is it of mine?."
I smiled. "You see, Colonel, a good leader finds himself with good men. Not that I would expect you to know anything about that."
I motioned him away, and then sank with weary legs back into my chair.
Powers slid in then. He probably had heard most of what went on, but I trusted him implicitly, as I could trust Forbes.
He placed a pot by my side, and two cups. "Her Grace, Sir, will be needing this about now. Perhaps it would be best if you brought it to her."
I looked down at the items doubtfully. "I doubt if she wishes to hear from me at this moment."
But Powers was already gone. I could hear, now that silence had returned to the cabin, her muffled sobs. And I picked up the tea and went to her.
To my surprise she gave a muffled "enter" to my knock at the door.
She was sprawled face down across her cot, her face pounded into the meager pillow. I placed the tea down on the small table and went towards her. When she did not move, I sat on the cot beside her, gently stroking her hair.
With resolve she stopped crying, but did not lift her head. "Please , Sir Edward, spare me the words. There is nothing you can say to me that I have not already said to myself."
"Isn't there?" I said softly, laying my hand on her shoulder. "What about, 'I'm sorry.', ma'am? I'm sorry that you should have been so cruelly victimized by an officer?"
She shook her head. "I was not victimized, Sir Edward. He did not rape me. I gave myself willingly."
I stroked her cheek gently, wiping her tears away. "Willingly? If he gave you no choice, then how can you say it was willingly?"
Her head turned on the pillow, her eyes seeking mine. "I ought to have resisted."
I was incredulous at the self-loathing she was heaping on herself. "At what cost, Miss Cobham? To lose your life? Is that what you think I should have preferred you to do? Is that what you think Mr. Hornblower would have preferred? You have sadly misjudged us, or any other honorable man, if that is so."
She shook her head. "Many men would think less of me for what I have done."
I helped her to sit up, and handed her the tea. "Then many men are fools."
She took a long sip, and handed the cup back to me. "Thank you, Captain." She shivered suddenly, and I took the wrap lying at the foot of the bed and drew it around her. And without thinking, I drew her close to me, embracing her as she rested her head against my chest.
"There, now, it will be alright. DeVergess is in confinement and cannot hurt you any more. He will not be permitted to speak further, and Mr. Forbes is trustworthy."
"I cannot tell you, Captain, the turn it gave me in Spain, the night he recognized me at dinner. Horatio had only just found out, but we had not spoken yet. We were in the middle of doing so, when DeVergess bounded into my room. He threatened me, he threatened Horatio...If I had demurred we both would have been arrested for spies, and shot. And the dispatches...and the safety of the other men...how could I let that happen?"
She sniffed, and I held her a bit tighter. Not that I minded.
"Horatio...I thought he might run DeVergess through at his accusations; in the end I practically had to throw the lad out of the room. He did not like it one bit, Sir, but the next day, we had it out, as it were. He was very kind to me. I think he is still young enough that he did not understand that such men existed."
"Yes, well, when you are twenty, enemies are all honorable, allies are trustworthy, war is fought for sound reasons and God is on your side."
She laughed then. "Oh, don't do that to the poor boy when he's not even here to defend himself. It's not fair."
I looked down at her. "I didn't mean it as an insult. I was twenty once, too. Sometimes, I envy him his sureness in his beliefs."
With a deep sigh, she nuzzled up closer against my chest, and I resumed stroking her hair. "Before I left Spain, I sent him a book...are you familiar with Cervante's Don Quixote?"
I was. And the imagery presenting itself to me, of Horatio leading a Naval attack against a flotilla of windmills, was too much, and I burst out laughing.
And she joined me, sitting back in my arms and looking up at me, tears of mirth in her eyes this time. "Do you suppose he'll ever understand, Captain?"
I shook my head. "It is doubtful, your Grace."
Startled, she tapped me on the side of my arm, the way she once had with her fan. "For what reason, Sir, do you call me that?"
"Ma'am, if you insist on calling me Captain instead of Edward, you leave me no choice but to address you formally."
"Just Edward? What, and no title?"
"Blast titles. Stupid things anyway."
She looked up at me. "I could only do that if you were to call me Kitty."
I placed a gentle hand under her chin. "Kitty, or Katherine?"
She shook her head. "Kitty. Katherine is more for the stage."
"Very well, then, Kitty it is..." I ran my finger along her cheek. "No more tears on my ship, Kitty! D'you hear?"
"Aye, Aye...Edward." She answered softly.
I caught my breath. The temptation came over me suddenly, the burning need to hold her closer to me, to taste her lips, touch her soft skin; yes, to make love to her all night, was almost more than I could bear. But how could I? After all that transpired this evening, how could I use her in this manner? Even if my motives were entirely different, even if our desires were mutual, as I suspected they were.
So I kissed her, gently, on her forehead, and pulled her in close to me, pulling the blanket round her tightly. "Sleep, Kitty. You are safe here with me, I shall not let anyone harm you again."
And I rocked her, back and forth, listening to her soft rhythmic breathing, and wishing for different circumstances, and a different ending.
I woke in the middle of the night still in her cabin, grateful that no emergency had set one of my men in search of me. How on earth to explain this, no matter how innocent?
Although, of course, it was innocent by action, not thought. My thoughts were still very much guilty. I desired her so fiercely that even now I felt my heart race while looking at her, felt the pressure building inside. I must leave here before I do something I shall regret.
But I did not move at first. She rested gently on my shoulder, her hair spread out along the sheets, one hand resting lightly on my chest. I began running my fingers through her tightly curled hair, enjoying the sensation as each strand sprang back towards her face. She did not wake up, but nuzzled closer to me, her hand sliding over my shirt...my too thin shirt...and my breath came faster.
I swallowed and carefully lifted her hand off of me, before my body overcame my better intentions. Slowly, I slid out from beneath her, and she curled up with the pillow instead, a peaceful expression on her face. I wanted badly to kiss her just once, but I was afraid of where that might lead, and I walked quickly away to my own cabin, passing the Marine on duty with one cold look.
Well, there are worse things the crew could think about me, I suppose, than to believe I have been intimate with a passenger on my ship. Indeed, it might only add to the respect and affection they purportedly had for me. That it made ME uncomfortable would not even be considered.
I returned to my own bed, which now seemed cold and empty, and sighed. Sleep will be difficult, I fear. My thoughts were too full of her...her smile, her eyes when she said something particularly witty, her courage. I can still feel her touch against my shirt. Kitty, Kitty, whatever have you done to me? I smiled briefly at the thought of Hornblower learning of my feelings for her, picturing him furrowing his brow and biting his lip, and then the wide eyed expression of shock on his face when he realized...Of course, there wasn't anything for him to realize, yet!
I heard her voice in my ear, Lady MacBeth, and the language never sounded so rich. She was Shakespeare...
I felt myself finally drifting off, the thought of her voice lilting its way through my favorite sonnets resounding in my mind...
November 17, 1796
The weather is very foul for England, we are only just not becalmed. We are just North of Oporto, a dreadfully poor distance to have traveled in eleven days, with still over a thousand miles to Portsmouth.
DeVergess has not been a model prisoner, sad to say. He is leading Forbes and the other Marines a dog's life. He has tried to bad mouth Kitty, but is having no luck in that regard; having established himself as a man of violent and uncontrolled temperament, none of the men believe his ranting. Indeed, the men are inclined to defend her wonderfully.
Meanwhile, she has toned down her act around the rest of the ship, though I still refer to her as "Your Grace" in public. We have dined together each evening, with the other officers present. It has been rare moments indeed when we were able to speak with each other in private, but oh! Those moments!
"Edward..." A soft voice spoke behind me.
I looked around quickly to discover that we were, indeed, alone, or at least not able to be overheard. "Kitty...you startled me!"
She stood beside me. "I seem to have rather a knack for that, Edward." She inhaled deeply. "Another lovely day!"
"Blasted nuisance!" I snapped in disagreement.
She smiled at me. "Not enough wind, then?"
I grumbled. "Hardly any, and when it does pick up it always seems to be the exact opposite of how we'd need it. Terribly frustrating. I wish this nice weather would go away. I need wind!"
She smirked. "Be careful what you wish for...Besides, are you in such a hurry to dump me off in England?" She quipped, the Duchess once more.
I took her cue. "Naturally not, your Grace." Cousins passed close by with a smart salute and an easy "Good morning, Ma'am." Once he was out of earshot, I continued. "Kitty, I have enjoyed your company immensely...but if we are much delayed I will have to institute rationing. I cannot begin to tell you the disaster that was the last time it happened..." I shivered.
"I know, Horatio told me about your struggles on our walks. I think it affected him greatly."
"Hmmm, did he also tell you about his sail on the Plague ship?" I asked, knowing Horatio's reticence to talk about his own skill.
"Plague ship? He never mentioned such a thing!" She exclaimed in surprise.
I was more than happy to oblige her with the story, amusing myself by imagining how he'd blush if he could hear me. Of course, I could never let him hear me praise him so...wouldn't do at all! But I enjoyed the ability to do so in front of Kitty.
She sighed when I finished the story. "Poor Horatio, having to shoot that man Bunting...I forget sometimes, just how young he is." She smiled slyly at me. "He'd be mortified at your praise no doubt."
"Completely, Kitty." I agreed.
"Silly lad; I must do something with that tendency towards reticence, or he'll end up marrying the first silly goose he meets who preys on his sense of responsibility, instead of attracting the kind of woman he deserves."
"Ma'am, I shall leave the organization of Mr. Hornblower's personal life to your direction." I said, tipping my hat to her.
There was a sudden rise of breeze, momentarily only, and she shivered slightly.
I was tempted, oh, so tempted, to put my arm around her to keep her warm. For though my behavior towards her has been nothing but gentlemanly and gallant, my thoughts have only been of her touch and her warmth. Were it not for knowing the violation done to her by DeVergess, I might even now reach over and...
I came to my senses with a start. "Yes, Mr. Bracegirdle, what is it?"
"Sir, Mr. Bowles bade me tell you, he believes there is a storm brewing."
He has no idea.
Meanwhile, the air was clear, although the breeze was freshening. Still, Bowlsie has an uncanny way of knowing these things.
"Your Grace, Mr. Bowles is usually right...I suggest you prepare yourself for some rough weather."
She gave me a smirk. "You see, I TOLD you to be careful what you wish for!"
I tried not to watch her walk away, keeping my eyes to the front. "Well, Lieutenant Bracegirdle, prepare the men, warn the cook...the weather cannot be so bad as what we encountered in October...can it?"
Blast the world to hell!
Kitty had no idea how right she was when she said to be careful what I wished for. Instead of the peaceful but slow weather we had been enduring, we are in the midst of a hellish gale. For twenty-four hours the ship has been pitching violently, our men worn out just trying to keep us going. Finally, however, I have decided it is no use. We would have to heave to.
"Take in the rest of the sail, Mr. Bowles..." I ranted, as hoarse as I could be.
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
The work began, the men working quickly, the sail coming in. I saw the divisions working together. The process was slow, and compounded by the combined shortages of having Hornblower's men in Spain and McGill's men sailing La Verit back to Gibraltar. I noted Mr. Brandon above decks, in the rare occasion when he was needed more here than in sick bay. Though understandably not as assured in Cousins, he was able enough, and Bowles had enough sense to set him to those tasks he was capable of.
The wind shifted suddenly, and the ship tilted so I was genuinely afraid we might pitch men into the sea. Bracegirdle, next to me, tried to keep light of it. "Imagine Horatio here, with his stomach!" I was not in the mood for it, and spun away, keeping a sharp eye on all of the crew.
Without warning, the sickening sound of splintering wood rang out. To my horrors, the top portion of the mizzen mast began to fall. A sail not taken in quickly enough, or perhaps done improperly, the right shift of the wind, the wrong angle of the ship, and disaster. There were screams of men as they scrambled to get out of the way; the ripping sounds of the sails as she came down, the tangling ropes dangling loosely, it was chaos!
There was no time to think this through now...later, there would be hell to pay. Bowles never lost his focus, but worked furiously with the men to clear the damaged areas. Somehow, it was done, no man shirking, and no man lost. And, more than an hour after it happened, the Indefatigable lay hove-to.
I stood in the rain on my once-pristine ship, my sou'wester barely protecting me against the driving wind. The damage could have been worse, but was bad enough, I fear. I dismissed those men down bellow whom could now be spared, and with exhaustion they obeyed meekly.
Bracegirdle stood beside me, in respectful silence. We both stared up at the damage. Finally, he spoke.
"Perhaps it's not as bad as it looks, Sir."
I was not so sanguine.
"Mr. Bowles...prepare a report for me on the extent of the damage, how long it shall take to repair, and when we shall be able to get underway, weather permitting."
Bowles didn't need to be told twice. "I've already started, Sir. You'll have all your answers with all possible speed."
"Good. I will be in my cabin until that point."
And in a mix of disgust and despair, I whirled away, and prayed to God that we should not encounter the enemy before we should be fit again.
Powers tried to bring me lunch, but on a good day I would have found trouble with the cold pease, mutton and biscuit he brought me. Today I nearly threw it back at him.
Kitty came in to my quarters about forty-five minutes later. "I suppose, Edward, it's a useless gesture to ask if I can do anything?"
I was no longer simmering, but had sunk in to resignation. "No, Kitty. I thank you for your concern. As long as we avoid any French or Spanish, the problem should not be too great. Otherwise, well, you might end up on your fourth ship in an attempt to get home."
"Fifth." She murmered with a smile. "This is my fourth. Le Reve, El Cinquanta, Almeria and Indefatigable. And four always was my lucky number, so don't worry."
I gave half a chuckle. "Let us hope it holds up, then. For all our sakes." I cleared my throat. "Are you still willing to dine with me this evening? I cannot guarantee I will be in good spirits, and the food might leave much to be desired..."
"I shall be happy, Edward, just to keep you company if that is what you want. Shall the other officers join us?"
I shook my head. "I am most definitely not in the mood for the Duchess of Wharfedale this evening, thank you!"
She smiled at me. "As you wish, Edward. I will see you again this evening, then!" And she left me with my work.
Finally, Bowles reported.
"Sir, the damage is not quite so severe as I had at first feared. And the weather is clearing, or at least the rain is stopping. We should be able to rig the mast up by the midday tomorrow; we shall also have to repair the sails, though. I should say that it will be forty-eight hours total before we are able to get underway at full speed.
"And if we were to try to get underway in our current situation?"
"I wouldn't advise it, Sir. Repairs will take much longer on a moving vessel, and our maneuverability would be severely compromised. I actually think we're at less danger from an enemy hove-to than we would be moving, in our current state."
"I see." I cleared my throat and reached for my log book. "Any casualties?"
"Waits suffered a badly wrenched arm as the riggings fell, but miraculously, nothing worse than that. Mr. Brandon is attending him."
I nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Bowles. Please begin effecting the repairs immediately. I shall come up to inspect the work later on."
I filled in my log books with just one last thought brewing in my mind: How had this happened? But the first step was to fix the damage. The blame could wait.
It was midway through the first dog watch when I came back on deck to see how things were going. The weather had temporarily cleared, though the sky was still overcast, the wind had died down and the rain had stopped. I noticed Kitty about fifty feet away from me, but did not approach her in my current mood. Rather, I walked away from the quarterdeck, so as to get a good view of the proceedings.
I stood back and watched my men work. I was sullen, stern, and grim. And so were the men, knowing as well as I did that it was nothing short of miraculous we had lost no lives with the mishap. And that it would be even more miraculous if we did not encounter an enemy and lose lives while we are incapacitated. The work went on in quiet, the men purposeful and determined, the officers straining to get everything completed.
Footsteps approached, and I found myself staring into the pale face of Cousins, who seemed to be in some inner turmoil of his own.
"Yes, Mr. Cousins, what is it?" I asked, tersely.
"Sir, I understand from Mr. Bowles that the damage to the mizzen mast was probably caused because of failure to get the mizzen main sail in, in a timely fashion?"
"Yes, Mr. Cousins. That, combined with the sudden change in wind, is what did us in."
He swallowed once, then set his shoulders and met my eye. "Then I must take responsibility, Sir. The error was mine."
Mr. Bracegirdle was beside me, and cast me a quick glance, but I did not move. This was, in fact, unexpected; I had thought I would have to make a detailed inquiry to find a culprit, and in past experience, would have seen various men trying to blame each other, in hopes of avoiding the cat. Here, instead, I had a valued young officer seeking responsibility for this catastrophe.
"How so, Mr. Cousins? Explain yourself, please."
He swallowed again, but didn't falter. "I misjudged the situation, Sir. Normally Mr. McGill would have taken his division on that task. In his absence, I have added his responsibilities to mine. Mr. Brandon had offered to assist me by taking some of the men to the mizzen mast, but I declined his help. I was foolish enough to believe I had time to take care of the duties of two divisions with one. As a result, we were late in getting to the mizzen sails and when the wind veered, we were unprepared." He took a deep breath. "I understand that through my misguided sense of my own abilities, Sir, I have caused great damage to be done to the ship. I am only thankful that no lives were lost in my folly, and I pray that we will be able to get the ship underway before further damage is done."
I studied him for some moments, letting him feel the full force of his anxiety, as I chewed over my options. Yes, the boy had a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders, and I am glad that he spoke up forthrightly about his wrong doing, but I cannot overlook this. He had an offer of help that he declined, and as a result we could all be prisoners within a week.
"Your prayers will not be of much help against French cannon-fire, Mr. Cousins, will they?" I said, sternly.
He was the picture of misery and I wanted to feel sorry for him, but it was not a luxury I had. He would have to be punished. The question was, how? My eye traveled momentarily to the riggings...
The wind was picking up again, and I knew we had another storm brewing. I looked to the horizon, and could see it might very well be as bad or worse than the one we had just escaped. It was cold out, and the November rain could be bitter and icy. And my mind was made up.
"Very well, Mr. Cousins. Mr. Bracegirdle, send for Mr. Andrews."
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
I turned back to Cousins, who did not flinch, though he had cause. Only the paleness of his lips gave hint to his fear. "We shall see, Mr. Cousins, if a dozen strokes cannot serve to remind you of your limitations."
I felt sick, although probably not as sick as he did! But on the outside, I was cold, and unmoving, every inch the blasted naval officer I am supposed to be. Except that Foster or Hammond probably would have gone for two-dozen or more. But Cousins is a good man, who made a mistake, and though I must see him punished, I will not see him completely demoralized.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught Kitty returning below decks. Well, if she wanted to know me at my worst, she was getting a good view of it! Though she had the ability to escape to her cabin. Technically, so did I, but that would be cowardly.
So as Mr. Andrews and his mates approached, I prepared to follow Mr. Cousins to the gun and to witness his punishment. And though no one would ever know it, I would feel each stroke as if it were my own.
She was waiting for me, in my cabin, dinner on the table, when I returned from my distasteful duties. With a sigh, I sank down in the chair and stared morosely at my food.
"A bad time of it, Edward?"
I did not even look up. "Sometimes, Kitty, I hate my life."
Her chair scraped against the floor, and her footsteps sounded quietly. I felt her behind me, running her fingers through my hair and over my neck. She reached forward and wrapped her arms around me, and I sighed at her touch. Her voice was kind. "I know you do not like this. It's not in your nature."
"I had no choice. I could have confined him in the riggings, I suppose, but eight hours, in this weather, would it really have been better?"
She was reaching down, unbuttoning my coat, tugging it off, and I let her, used to years of Powers performing the same function for me. She tried to sooth me. "He would have suffered more that way, I am sure. Why, I did not even hear him cry out."
I shook my head, as she worked my vest off of me. "He's a strong lad; it would take more than twelve to make him cry out. It's the humiliation of it all that will be the worst for him." Old memories and old wounds flooded into my head now, and I wondered if such self doubts had beset my own Captain, as they did me.
Her hands stroked the back of my neck, over my shirt. "Does it help you to know that on the Almeria I saw boys beaten severely on a nearly daily basis?"
I rubbed the sides of my temples. "A little, I guess. But Almeria is not my ship."
"She's not anybody's ship now, is she?" She whispered into my ear.
I chuckled slightly, then caught my breath as she loosened my shirt, and began stroking my naked shoulders, massaging them, and trying to rub the tension out of me. "Kitty..." I gasped, half pleading, half begging, not sure if I wanted her to stop or continue.
"Shhhh...it's alright, Edward." She loosened my hair, and gently ran her fingers through, her finger-tips stroking my scalp from my forehead backwards, to the nape of my neck and down, and I found myself helping her remove my shirt. "There now, that's better..." she murmured, resuming the gentle massage, her touch electric.
Better for whom? 'Kitty, please,' I thought, 'I am only a man...do not drive me to fail you.' But I said nothing, just allowed my tensions to be lifted in the easy rhythm of her hands. No, not lifted, converted, from the tensions of duty, to tensions of a different nature.
She came around in front of me suddenly, her hands now on my chest, and I lifted my head to her. Her face was slightly flushed but her smile lit up her face, her eyes hopeful. I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her down to me, and she sat on my lap. I cupped her face with a trembling hand. "Kitty, I do not wish you to stop, but if you do not I fear...I fear..."
She leaned in to me and kissed me, her lips barely brushing mine, just enough to stop my stuttering words.
"Edward, I do NOT fear you." She said, then more softly still. "I want you...if you'll have me."
If? If? Oh, Kitty! "I suppose, ma'am, you'll do" I said in a mock gruff voice, and she playfully smacked me on the shoulder with a giggle. And this time, I kissed her, pulling her in close to me, tasting her lips, and I felt myself letting go, getting lost in her very being. She responded with passion and force, her arms around me, her hands entwining in my hair. I let my mouth travel down to her chin, her throat, even as I began working her way out of the borrowed shift she wore, so that I could feel her bare skin against mine. Taking her mouth in mine one more time, I pressed her to me, putting years of frustration and desire into the moment. Finally, with a slight gasp, she sat back from me.
"You must breathe, Edward!" She teased weakly, her hands resting on my chest.
"Must I?" I said, running my thumb over her parted lips. "It did not seem essential at the moment." And quickly with my arms encircling her bare waist, I stood up from the chair, and in one easy movement picked her up and swooped her to my bed.
Leaning over her, feeling her hands stroking my chest and then downward, I shivered slightly. "Kitty, I do believe this is the first time I shall make love to someone wearing breeches."
She laughed out loud then. "Just more of a challenge for you then." And slipping into her Duchess's voice, she cracked. "I hear you rather like a challenge, Sir Edward."
"Indeed I do, your Grace." Indeed I do. "I feel this particular challenge shall be most enjoyable."
"Mmmmhhmm." She murmured, her hands still investigating my body. Impishly her eyes met mine. "Show me."
I am wide-awake. By rights I ought to be exhausted. I smiled as I realized that was probably the most physical exploits I've been through since my adventures rowing outside Madeira. According to Brandon's logic I ought to be soundly sleeping...perhaps the type of exercise has something to do with it. Shall I ask him tomorrow morning?
Only Kitty's sleeping presence was enough to keep me from laughing out loud at that thought. SHE was certainly worn out enough, although she had the most peaceful expression on her face! I, on the other hand, am giddy beyond recognition!
And why should I sleep anyway, when I can stay awake and watch her, curled up tightly against me, her hands resting against the tangled sheets near her face. I reached over and traced them with my fingers; her hands were so small, dainty; her fingers were as thin as reeds.
We had been restless, both of us, losing ourselves in the urgency that first time, and then slowing down to discover each other before the second. I remembered her hands, their touch, how she had seemed to find every sore spot on my body, as if she wanted to heal me. Every wound I've ever carried, every scar I've ever gained, in my lengthy service at sea, each one with its own painful memory accompanying it, she had stroked with her hands, kissed tenderly, ministered to as if they were her own. Somehow that had almost brought me to tears.
Kitty, my sweet. You do not know what you have done to me. How you have changed my life, made me feel a whole man again, a human being in the fullest sense of the word. For once I am more than Captain Pellew. I am your man.
I must have slept finally, for I awoke to see her dressing quietly.
"Kitty?" I murmured, a fear rising in my breast that she would have regretted our evening.
But not so. She smiled at me with such tenderness that all fear was gone in an instant.
"Edward!" She came over to me. "I did not wish to wake you." She kissed me tenderly, then pulled away before I could seek more.
"There has been a bit of commotion above decks, Edward. Powers was just here, and indicated that it is possible Mr. Bracegirdle will be attending you shortly. I thought it might be best if I made my escape before then."
"Good old Powers." I murmured, rising. "Kitty, wait..."
She turned back to me, taking my outstretched hands for one more kiss, which I was happy to oblige her with. And holding her in my arms, I looked in her eyes. "Kitty, I love you. I think ever since that first dinner in Gibraltar, I have been in love with the woman behind the mask she wore."
Tears sprung into her eyes, and her smile trembled. "Oh, Edward , I felt your pull on my heart from that same moment; I did not think so fine a man could ever be captivated by...someone like me."
I took her chin in my hand. "Enough of that, Ma'am. I will not hear you putting yourself down so!" I kissed her forehead, and she hugged me. It was while she had her head buried in my chest, that I said what I most wanted to say. "If it will only take a title to remedy that tendency, ma'am, then you have one if you wish it." I coughed, slightly.
She looked up at me, puzzled. "What are you saying, Edward?"
I cleared my throat. "I am asking you to be my wife. To become Lady Pellew."
The emotions running over her face were surprising, and the tears were back. "Oh, Edward, I can't, I can't." She would have dashed from my arms, if I had not such a tight grip on her.
"Shhh, shhh, Kitty." I kissed her teary cheeks again. "It is alright."
"But I cannot marry you, Edward."
I smiled ruefully. "I heard you the first two times. Do you love me?"
"With all my being, but..."
I held my finger gently over her lips. "Then that is enough. I cannot say that I am not disappointed, but I suppose I was ahead of myself. I will accept you on your own terms. As long as I can have you in my life."
She gave me a brave smile again. "For as long as you want me." She blinked, and swallowed. "I want you to know, Edward, that it isn't because...well... there isn't anybody else, only you."
I would have pursued this, but Powers arrived. Completely nonplussed, he murmured. "Sir, I believe there is an English ship been sighted, offering assistance."
I nodded. "Tell Mr. Bracegirdle that I shall be above decks shortly."
Kitty moved away from me. "Best get myself back to where I belong..."
"This IS where you belong..." I whispered, and she blushed.
"Good day, Sir Edward."
I accepted Powers' help with my uniform, even as I smiled over my memories. I was confused by her rejection of my offer of marriage, but if she loved me, then time will see a more favorable answer, I am sure. In the meantime, I still have a ship to run!
In what might have been an awkward situation, Mr. Cousins had the misfortune to be the officer of the watch when I came above decks. He stood stiffly beside Mr. Bracegirdle, no doubt on edge. I sought to put him to ease immediately, in the only way I could: by behaving normally.
"What ship, Mr. Cousins?" I asked, nonchalantly.
"The Calypso, Sir."
"Mmhm. Her signals?"
"She is asking if we need assistance, Sir."
"Very well, then. You may signal back that I should like to have a brief meeting with Captain Hammond, and would appreciate it if he could receive me in an hour's time."
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
His signaling was smooth and unhesitating...far more so that that of Calypso. I nodded approval.
"Calypso responds that Captain Hammond will await you, sir."
"Very good." I looked up to the mast. The storm that threatened yesterday had never fully materialized; we were subject only to a steady rain. However, it had slowed repairs a bit.
"Our estimated time to return underway, Mr. Bracegirdle?"
"Mr. Bowles says by tomorrow morning."
"Mmhm." I turned back to Mr. Cousins. "Mr. Cousins, what do you know of the state of our food supplies?"
He answered quickly. "I was speaking with Cook about them yesterday, Sir. It seems that the prisoners have taxed our provisions greatly."
I nodded, expecting no less. "Inquire to Calypso of their days out of Gibraltar?"
"Yes, Sir." He followed my instructions swiftly, and we awaited the answer.
And waited. Cousins frowned, and shifted from foot to foot. He glanced at me uneasily. But my mood was light (understandably), and I turned to Bracegirdle with a smirk. "It did not seem such a difficult question to me, Lieutenant. I wonder what part of it confuses them?"
"Signaling problems, I assume." He replied, with a raised eyebrow.
Cousins chimed in... "Here's our response now, Sir..." Then he frowned even deeper, and inhaled. "They do not understand the request." He bit his lip. "Sir, shall I repeat?"
I placed my hands behind my back, annoyed with Calypso. "Yes, Mr. Cousins, same question. And yes, you did signal correctly. Must be a new man, there."
He relaxed, then, and repeated the process. Finally, after a fairly cryptic mix of signals, we got a swift and accurate answer.
"Two weeks, Sir."
"Looks like he replaced the signaler." Bracegirdle added.
"Whomever it was had no business being near a signal flag to begin with." I added, and then grinned. "Well, however we obtained the information, the important thing is, he's only been out two weeks."
Cousins looked up at me cryptically. "Sir?"
"We shall transfer the prisoners to Calypso, assuming I can convince Hammond that it will be for his greater glory. Thus easing the strain on our own provisions. Only two weeks out, he shall have ample supplies for the extra guests."
Comprehension dawned on his face. "I see, Sir.
Bracegirdle looked at me. "Will you be able to convince him of that?"
"Without a doubt. He'll be giddy with the idea my needing help from him! The man will positively gloat."
Cousins' face burned red. "Sorry, Sir." He muttered, deeply shamed.
"Tcha! I have never given two cents for Hammond's opinion of me, Mr. Cousins. And if the result of all this is that I can get that bastard DeVergess off of my ship, then it is well worth a few days delay."
Cousins looked doubtful as I walked away. Well, there was nothing I could do about that. Like Hornblower, he was hard on himself. It would take time, or some sort of monumental event to erase his feeling of failure.
I returned to Indefatigable, feeling disgust along with accomplishment.
I had consoled myself yesterday, after my incident with Mr. Cousins, that I was probably not as hard on him as a Hammond might be. I had no idea how accurate that was, for as I had set food on Calypso I was greeted by screams. The screams of a ten-year old boy on the receiving end of what would be a total of thirty-six strokes, I was told, for his errors in signaling my ship earlier. And why, I asked, seeming indifferent but really seething, was a ten-year old ship's boy handed such an important task? Apparently Hammond felt that signaling was bellow the skill level of HIS midshipmen. So a child is paying dearly for the foolish decisions of his officers.
I studied Cousins without seeming to do so, as he remained on watch. Would Hammond have had him in the riggings, eight hours through the freezing rain? With the possibility of sickness, and even death, the result? Was that a just verdict?
Cousins still looked disconsolate, and I realized that in most ways he was harder on himself than I ever could be. I remembered when Bracegirdle told me that the men feared my word more than my lash. Well, Hammond had his own way of doing things. But I believe I shall turn out finer officers in Hornblower, Kennedy, Cousins and Brandon with my methods, than Hammond will produce in a lifetime.
"Mr. Cousins, your watch is almost over, I believe?"
He snapped to attention. "Yes, Sir."
"Good. I shall keep the deck; I would like you to get Sergeant Forbes and round up the prisoners for transport, including DeVergess. Captain Hammond will be sending his boats and Marines to us shortly for transfer."
"Aye, Aye, Sir." Cousin's moved briskly away, no doubt relieved to be out of my watch, with an active duty to perform.
Bracegirdle approached. "So he agreed to it?"
"Naturally, as I thought. More than happy to help me out in my misfortune."
"Did you warn him about DeVergess."
"I did...I do not think DeVergess will find much relief in switching ships."
"Nevertheless, I shall be glad to be rid of him, Sir."
Remembering the things he had done, I felt the anger burning inside me. "You have no idea how much I agree with you, Mr. Bracegirdle."
As if on cue, Kitty came above decks, and I could barely suppress a smile. Spying me with my First Lieutenant, she eased into her duchess voice. "Sir Edward, Mr. Bracegirdle. Rain or no rain, I felt I had to escape that miserable little cabin fer a bit."
Bracegirdle tipped his hat to her, and then with an uncanny sixth sense and a sidelong look at me, murmured, "I believe I shall go forward and see if there is any sign of Hammond's boats."
Kitty raised an eyebrow at me as he retreated. "Bless me, does he KNOW?"
"If he does, Kitty, it is by intuition only."
She stood beside me, wearing an old cape of Brandon's. "I was afraid, Edward, that you might be angry with me."
I looked to her in shock. "For what? For what happened this morning? No, Kitty; I was precipitous. I understand that. As I said, what is most important to me is having you in my life."
"That I can promise you, Edward."
I cleared my throat. "I must let you know, Kitty, that if you do wish, I can have you moved to Calypso. You WILL reach England faster that way."
She placed her hands behind her back. "No, I think not, I've gotten rather fond of the men on board here, even their tyrannical Captain!"
"More fool you!" I said, unable to stop from smiling.
"I do feel I should explain something to you, about this morning..."
I turned at the sound of Forbes and Cousins, beginning the process of lining up the prisoners.
"Kitty...while you know I would love nothing better than to talk with you, I would suggest it wait. We are bringing the prisoners-ALL of the prisoners-up on deck for transport to Calypso. You might be happiest in your cabin."
She caught my meaning. "I would agree with you. This evening, then?"
I felt my cheeks burn. "I am counting on it, Kitty!" I whispered.
She smiled, and gently grasped my hand, sending a thrill through my body. "Till tonight, then, Edward."
I felt almost feverish as she slipped away. Lord, you would think I was a love-sick school boy, and not a man of nearly fifty! Clearing my throat, I looked around quickly, just in time to see Cousins approaching with a salute.
"The Marines will not be bringing DeVergess up until the rest of the prisoners have gone, Sir. McAnn and Forbes agreed he was likely to be less of a distraction that way."
"Very good, Mr. Cousins. Have you over-heard anything from the men that would indicate trouble?"
"Nothing new, Sir. Apparently they've been most happy to be away from him. It would seem he is not an inspiring leader, Sir."
I snorted. "They have more sense then their officers, then."
Hammond's men arrived, and the transition began.
Reg Cousins was still feeling pretty down about his role in the mizzen mast disaster yesterday. He knew his Captain enough to know he would not be made to pay the price for it indefinitely; with his punishment his crime had been absolved. In everyone's eyes but his own.
Until he had made this mistake, he had felt his career was well on track. He was serving with the best captain, on the best frigate; the master, Bowles, kept the ship running like no man ever seen; the Lieutenants were smart AND battle-tested, and unusually helpful to a young midshipman who wanted to learn. Only Mr. Hunter had lived up to the Navy's reputation of eating its young alive, and Mr. Hunter was well kept in check by his superiors. And then, with Mr. Hornblower being captive in Spain, more and more responsibility was given to him, and he had thrived on it!
But yesterday he had made a colossal blunder, a mistake Mr. Hornblower would not have made in a million years. Over confidence. And he had to question, now, whether he would ever be the type of officer he WANTED to be. Like his Captain. He had not blamed the man for ordering him beaten yesterday. He rather was surprised that he was let off so easily. And he doubted whether he could ever do anything to make up for it. Though the Captain had been remarkably generous so far...he looked sideways at the man. He was, indeed, most charitable all day, addressing him as though nothing had changed. In fact, somehow he had the impression the man was happy, like he'd had good news or something. Very unusual for a man normally so guarded in his emotions.
Cousins twitched his neck in his collar and returned his gaze to the now empty deck. Forbes was bringing up DeVergess. And he felt, without seeing, Captain Pellew's mood change abruptly, into black anger. But that was not surprising; there wasn't a man on board Indefatigable who wouldn't be happy to throw that man overboard. Instinctively his hand went to his pistol, the one he'd had foresight to put on before transporting the prisoners. Because you never knew.
But Forbes and McAnn were well capable, and handed DeVergess over to Hammond's men. Captain Pellew stood forward, and Cousins, without being bid to do so, followed him. He just felt the situation was tense.
Hammond's men had the man, now, Forbes and McAnn off to the side. Pellew said nothing, just stared the vile man down. DeVergess smiled coldly.
"Captain Pellew, I must thank you for your...hospitality."
And it all happened so fast...he had one of Hammond's marine's pistols, and brought it up to Pellew's head, inches away. Cousins saw Pellew's eyes fly wide; the flint moved back, and Cousins went forward, grabbed DeVergess' arm to swing it away, while removing his own gun. There was a shot; Pellew went down, a red stain appearing on his clean white vest, and he did not hesitate. DeVergess gave him a final sneer even as Cousins fired, literally blowing the sneer off of his face, and the evil bastard pitched backwards into the sea.
For one second it seemed Indefatigable stood still, feeling the wound to her Captain as though they shared one body. And then hell broke loose.
Forbes began screaming for Brandon, McAnn charged the careless Marine who'd lost his gun. And Cousins knelt beside Captain Pellew.
"Sir!" He cried out, his voice constricting. The patch of red was growing; he had saved the Captain from a direct shot to the head, but the wound might well prove fatal anyway. If only he'd been a second faster, or DeVergess a second slower..
The Captain's eyes opened...this, at least was a good sign. He blinked at him. "Mr. Cousins...well done." He whispered.
Cousins felt his whole body shaking, but held himself steady. "Don't you worry, Sir...Drew and Mr. Johnson, they'll see to it all right. Drew won't let you down."
Brandon was there, then, his face pale and taut. "Get him bellow, men. Johnson and I will take care of him. Quickly, now!"
And Forbes and Morris bore Pellew down to the sickbay.
Cousins could not stop shaking, he felt as if the Ship were tilting. But he looked up and saw what no one else had. There was no officer here. In the rush to get the Captain bellow decks, Bracegirdle and Bowles must have followed; Brandon, of course, would be needed, and the two younger, newer mids, Anderson and Holloway, were probably bellow. It had been Bracegirdle's watch.
So Cousins stayed on the quarterdeck, effectively assigning himself a double watch. Triple, if need be. Anderson was due on next, but not for several hours. Besides, the lad had only been with the Indy since their last trip to Gibraltar, he felt funny under the circumstances leaving him alone.
"Mr. Andrews, let's keep the repairs going. Mr. Brandon will notify us when the Captain's out of surgery, and Captain will be very angry with us if we've stopped work." He refused to even think about the alternative Drew might notify them about.
Her Grace came above decks just then, as pale of face as Cousins had ever seen.
"Mr. Cousins...please...is he..." She held her hand to her throat.
"Mr. Brandon is with him, Ma'am, and between him and Johnson there's not a thing they can't do." He said it with more bravado than he in fact felt, but somehow he knew she needed to be assured. "Please, ma'am, return to your cabin...I will be sure to notify you if anything happens."
He was stunned to see her burst into tears. "Ma'am?" He asked, but she waved him off.
"Oh, what've I done?" She cried, returning to her cabin in distress.
Cousins had never felt so helpless in his life. He could not go after her and abandon the deck. And he'd have never expected her to take on so! Why, when she first came on board, it had seemed the Captain could barely tolerate her. Of course, he'd seemed to soften a bit towards her lately. He shook his head. All he could do was keep the watch.
And keep it he did. Captain Hammond came on board, blustering and important, but Cousins handled him well and directed Anderson, who'd come up early for his watch, to show him down to Lieutenant Bracegirdle. Hammond informed him that he would need to keep Anderson with him in case an officer was needed to ferry messages between the deck and the wardroom. Well, Cousins couldn't very well refuse, now, could he?
Meanwhile, Mr. Andrews had taken over the task of seeing to repairs, to the Mizzenmast that HE'd broken, occasionally coming forward with a question or two. There were an unusual number of men assisting. Cousins realized that in the despair with Pellew's injury, the men had decided they'd rather be working than worrying in idle. The mizzenmast was fully splinted, the riggings were almost fully reset, and he could see men working on repairing the sails. They might even have been able to set sail this evening. He nodded his approval, even as his body began to protest the abuse he was putting it through. No use in worrying about it; what had to be done, had to be done.
And so it was that darkness fell, and Cousins was in his twelfth hour of watch, excepting the brief interruption he'd had to handle the prisoners. And, of course, he had not slept well last evening. He did not know how much longer he could stand. Valiantly he fought against the waves of sleep coming over him, knowing he could be court-marshaled for sleeping on his watch. Then again, it wasn't his watch...
"Sir...you'll be needing this."
He came to with a start. Powers, beside him, with coffee and some cold chicken.
"But that's the Captain's supplies, Powers, I can't accept it."
"Under the circumstances, Sir, I think he'd insist. Why don't you sit for a spell, Sir?"
His tiredness came over him suddenly. "I...I..." He tried to refuse, but Powers gently urged him downward, into the Duchess' hammock-chair, and he sank in gratitude. The shaking started again, and as unquestioningly as if he'd been the Captain himself, Powers held the glass to his lips.
His hunger and thirst engulfed him, and he devoured the food greedily. The coffee warmed him a bit, but sitting he realized just how cold he'd become, standing in the steady rain for so long. A sudden, sinking knot tied up his stomach. "Is there no word, yet?" He whispered.
Powers looked startled. "Has nobody spoken to you then?"
Lips trembling, Cousins could only shake his head.
Powers laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Mr. Brandon got the shot out clean, under Mr. Johnson's direction. He's lost a lot of blood, and as I understand it these next hours will be telling, but it seems that if he wakes up soon, and if fever is avoided, he shall recover fine."
The initial sob of relief escaped before he could stop it, and he clasped a hand over his mouth. He was seventeen, for God's sake, not a blubbering child. Powers gripped him more tightly, so as to steady him, and with a gulp he managed some restraint. "Thank you, Powers. I would appreciate it if you could relay this message to the Duchess...I promised her I would keep her informed, as she was most upset."
Cousins noticed the change in Powers' face, indecision there. But he only said quietly, "I am certain that she is upset, and I will go to her." He stood, for once looking uncertain as to how to proceed. But as he left he did turn around to Cousins. "Sir, you really should not remain on watch much longer."
Cousins agreed with him heartily, but was hardly in a position to do anything about it! So he simply thanked the man as he went off, and took another sip of the rapidly cooling coffee.
He was totally unprepared for the booming voice from behind.
"YOUNG MAN! JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, SIR, SITTING DOWN ON WATCH WHILE YOUR CAPTAIN BLEEDS!"
His nerves frayed beyond belief, Cousins shot up and dropped the coffee cup...Captain Pellew's very expensive China coffee cup...which shattered into a thousand pieces, and in despair, he looked up into Captain Hammond's purple-red face.
Oh, God Save me! He thought. But he was unable to get even one word out of his mouth.
"What sort of a midshipman are you, to be this irresponsible, Sir! Where is your Bosun!"
Dear God, I am to be beaten again...Cousins nearly retched. From Hammond's demeanor, he was certain he was looking at more than a dozen, this time. He'd been on watch, in the rain, for fourteen hours, he had slept little after his punishment the day before; he was so cold...and this man seemed to want to have him practically hanged! Anderson, whose watch this properly was, might have said something, if only he weren't a terrified boy just two month's at sea. And in desperation, he looked to the side, wondering if it might not just be better to throw himself overboard.
Mr. Andrews appeared, and was having words with Captain Hammond...words Cousins couldn't quite make out, as the faces seemed to be losing focus and the world seemed to buzz. He heard Andrews stamp his foot down, and that brought him back to his senses for a bit.
"...I'm telling you I won't do it...That boy saved Captain Pellew's life, was the only officer to hold the deck after he was shot, organized the entire repair of the mast, and has been on duty longer than any officer ever should be...I do not know how he is still standing...and I will not beat him..."
The world seemed to be fading away again...I broke the Captain's cup...he'll be furious when he finds out...if he lives; and I ate his provisions, can I be hanged for that? Flogged? Around the fleet, maybe? Do they do that to Midshipmen? Certainly Hammond might.
"What is the meaning of this commotion?" Lieutenant Bracegirdle arrived suddenly, like Solomon between the fighting mothers. And then he took one look at Cousins and gasped. "Good lord, Mr. Cousins, have you been on duty this entire time?"
"Yes, Sir...I was the only officer..." His voice trailed away "I'm afraid Captain Hammond caught me sitting down while on watch." He whispered softly
Bracegirdle's face was both perplexed and guilty. "Mr. Anderson, should this not be the end of your watch?"
Anderson found his voice, in the presence of his admired First Lieutenant. "Sir, Captain Hammond commanded me to stay with him in case he needed errands run. He relieved me from watch."
Bracegirdle turned to Hammond. "This is my fault, I'm afraid. We are very short staffed, and with Mr. Bowles remaining with Captain Pellew in the surgery and myself in conference with you..."
"BLAST IT, MAN, THIS BOY WAS FALLING ASLEEP AT THE WATCH, AND YOUR BOSUN WILL NOT FOLLOW INSTRUCTION TO PUNISH HIM FOR IT."
Bracegirdle's lips grew tight, as he held his hand up to quiet Andrews. "I will handle this, Sir. Please, you will be needed on your own ship, and with Captain Pellew showing all promise of being out of the woods, we have detained you long enough."
"YOU WILL SEE THIS MAN DISCIPLINED?"
"I can assure you, Sir, that all appropriate punishment will be meted out."
Had Hammond known Bracegirdle better, he'd have understood his meaning. But he was stupid enough to believe he'd gotten his way, and soon found himself in his own boat, returning to Calypso, to make sail for England.
Cousins, however, was still uncertain of his standing, and more frightened than he cared to admit. Not until he heard Mr. Andrews expostulating and the Lieutenant's reply did he have an answer as to his own fate.
"Good God, Andrews, of course I don't expect you to deal one blow to that boy... he's a hero. Let Hammond think otherwise; what will he ever know?"
Cousins, with a sigh, suddenly felt the world tilting, and before he knew it the deck seemed to hit him in the face.
Lieutenant Bracegirdle stood over him in concern. "Mr. Cousins, are you alright, lad?"
Cousins didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. "M'abit faint, Sir. But I can manage."
Bracegirdle's kind face smiled down at him, though his eyes were wet with tears. "I'm sorry, Lad, I should have counted the officers better."
"Your mind was on the Captain." Cousins tried to rise, but the trembling started all over again.
"As was yours, I'm sure." Bracegirdle turned to Andrews. "Can you carry him down to sick bay? He needs a solid bed, dry clothes, a warm blanket and a good shot of brandy."
Cousins was more solidly built than Brandon, but Mr. Andrews was an old campaigner, and no boy was going to be an obstacle to him. Cousins felt the strong arms lifting him, and finally feeling himself relieved from the pressures of duty, let the darkness come.
Cousins was vaguely aware of movement around him, of kind hands prying his soaked uniform off, feeling his dry nightshirt suddenly in its place. There was a relatively soft and steady bed beneath him, instead of his swinging hammock, and heaps of blankets. Gradually the buzzing in his head subsided, and he opened his eyes, blinking.
A worried Andrew Brandon stood over him, a cup in his hand. "There, now, Johnson, you were right; soon as we had him settled in he's come to." Drew raised the cup to his lips and he drank...brandy, as prescribed by Lieutenant Bracegirdle. It burned nicely in his stomach, and his head fully cleared. "Thanks." He sank back on to the pillow, as Johnson also joined in the vigil over him.
"Captain Pellew?" He had to ask.
Brandon stood to the side and let him see. The Captain rested on a bunk a few feet away, and to Cousins' relief he saw the man's face was pale but peaceful, not furrowed in pain, and not feverish. He relaxed then, and made no attempt to hide the tears in his eyes, not from Drew, who would understand.
"Thank you." Drew held the cup forward again and he drank more.
Johnson laid a hand on his forehead. "No fever yet, thank heavens, though you might catch cold, standing out there in this weather for so long." He chided him gently. "Sleep is what you need now."
Cousins looked over both of them. Johnson's face was etched with fatigue, and Drew's eyes were red, his hands not quite so steady as usual. "Looks like you both could use sleep yourself."
Drew nodded. "Aye, probably, but we keep arguing over which of us will stay with the Captain and which of us will get some sleep, and so neither of us will go."
Cousins half-smiled, knowing that with what Drew owed Pellew, he'd not want to be far from him. And Johnson, too, seemed to be in Pellew's debt, though he did not know the circumstances. "The thing is, we all owe him so much..." He muttered, not even realizing he'd spoken out loud.
Johnson nodded. "Yes, we do. Never seen sick bay such a popular place until this afternoon, so many men just wanting to see how he's doing. Of course, after today, Captain will be in YOUR debt."
Cousins stared at him, and half rose. "No, that's not true...I didn't do anything!"
Drew gently but firmly pushed him back down. "Listen to me! You must rest, and we can't have any excitement disturbing the Captain. And, you great idiot, you saved his life!"
Cousins would have protested further, but Drew foisted more brandy on him insistently. "Listen, Reg, I heard what happened. DeVergess had a clean shot, inches away from Captain Pellew's face. If that shot had gone off like that, we wouldn't have been able to do a thing but pray for his soul before we buried him at sea. No Doctor on this earth could have saved him."
Cousins felt the brandy taking effect, and knew he would not be awake much longer. "The shot still told." He managed to whisper.
"Aye, in his chest, where he'd have a fighting chance. And God was with us, there; the bullet hit a rib and lodged in his muscle; we were able to get it out without much difficulty. The only real fear, other than infection, was that he'd lost too much blood. But he's strong as an ox, Reg, and thanks to you, he'll be back scowling at us in no time."
Cousins tried to smile, but found it remarkably difficult. "Least I sent that bastard to hell."
Johnson re-tucked the blankets around him. "You did. He's nothing but shark food, now. And a good thing for him, because if you hadn't shot him, the men would have torn him limb from limb. And I think Bracegirdle would have let 'em." He looked puzzled, and paused. "How is it you came to have a gun with you, anyway."
Cousins tried to hold on to consciousness to answer. "I just thought...it was so tense, it seemed like it would be prudent...to be prepared. I just thought..." The sweet darkness was claiming him, and the last thing he heard was his great friend Brandon's voice.
"He 'just thought'? Lord, him and Mr. Hornblower, don't know what gift it is that they 'just think' these things. Must be some sort of extra brain cells that govern insight like that."
No, Drew, I'm no Mr. Hornblower, I'm NOT, he thought. But the warmth and the brandy had him now, and sleep would come.
When next he came to, he saw Drew in a chair, leaning back against the wall, dozing quietly, placed neatly between his Captain and his friend. He felt warm and comfortable, and had no desire to move, more than to turn his head to Captain Pellew. He was relieved to note the man's chest rising and falling in a steady manner.
There was a soft footstep, and then Powers appeared. Cousins was too tired to speak, else he'd have thanked the man for his kind assistance earlier. But Powers was not there to speak to him this time.
"Mr. Brandon, Sir." He whispered.
Instantly awake, Drew rose quickly. "Yes, Powers. Captain's fine, no sign of fever."
"Thank goodness, Sir. But I..." He hesitated. "Sir, when you're the Captain's servant, sometimes you know things. Mostly they're things he expects me to let the other men know, without seeming to tell them himself, if you know what I mean."
Drew smiled. "I think, Powers, we're all pretty aware of how Captain Pellew runs things."
"Yes, Sir. Thing is, sometimes you also know things that normally you'd never tell anyone, cause he trusts you, and he's, well he's entitled to be happy, isn't he?"
Cousins could see how perplexed Drew was. "Of course he is. I don't know a man on board the Indy who wouldn't wish that."
"But under the circumstances, Sir...well, I'm trusting you, you see." He looked pleadingly at the young medic.
Drew nodded. "You can trust me with anything pertaining to Captain Pellew. He's been very good to me, and I would do anything for him. And I know I am speaking for Johnson, as well, and for Cousins, if he were awake."
Powers took a deep breath. "It's the Duchess, Mr. Brandon. She's not...anyway, that doesn't matter. What does matter is, she and the Captain, well, they're kind of...he loves her, Mr. Brandon. They love each other."
Cousins, had he more strength, would have exclaimed with delight. But he could only lay there quietly, a smile not visible in the darkness on his face. Drew, likewise, once the shock of it wore off, wore a smile of pure wonder. "Bless me, I'd never have guessed!" He looked down affectionately at Pellew, then, with understanding, turned back to Powers. "And she'd like to see him, would she? Maybe sit with him for a bit?"
Powers relaxed. "Yes, Sir. She's inconsolable right now. I think if she saw he was doing alright, she'd feel better. And I think he'd like to see her here, when he wakes up."
Drew nodded. "Send her down. I will give up my place to her. Wouldn't like to abandon it normally, but I think I can trust him to her care." He smiled again.
Powers nodded. "She's right outside. I'll send her in."
Cousins understood her reaction earlier that day, now. The sobs and the anxiety. They loved each other...his Captain was in love! How amazingly wonderful.
Brandon was giving her hurried instructions and whispered assurances that he would be just a few feet away, in Hepplewhite's old quarters, should conditions change.
Her Grace nodded towards his own bed. "What of young Mr. Cousins?"
"Just seems to be exhaustion, right now. He should sleep through. But if he does wake up, Ma'am, he's a loyal man. He is trustworthy."
Her Grace's voice was soft and fragile. "I should say so, Mr. Brandon. He saved Captain Pellew's life, and then he held that deck all evening. The boy's a hero."
No, I'm not, Cousins thought. And I do wish people would stop saying so.
Brandon chuckled. "You'd not get him agreeing with you, but I believe your right. I understand he had a run-in with Captain Hammond?"
"Yes, he did, and I nearly shot that stuffed fish myself, the poor boy taking such abuse. The Captain would never have one of his men treated such."
"No, ma'am, he never would. That's why I've been sitting here all evening, why Johnson had to be ordered by Bracegirdle to a bed, why all the men have been trickling through to check on him. It's why Reg...Mr. Cousins, would have gladly taken a bullet for him." Brandon cleared his throat. "I'm glad you're here to be with him, Your Grace."
And he slipped away into the darkness, leaving her in the chair, pulled up to the Captain.
"Well, Edward," he heard her whisper. "You've not kept your dinner appointment with me. And here I thought you were a man of your word. You owe me, Sir..." He watched her stroking the man's head with tenderness. "And I expect to collect payment of my dept soon."
He saw her lean over and kiss the Captain on the forehead, and closed his eyes. He was still tired, and besides, she deserved the privacy.
And he went to sleep with one idea: if only once in his life a woman should look at him as her Grace had looked at Captain Pellew, he would consider himself a lucky man indeed.
I opened my eyes, feeling as though my chest had been ripped open. Then I remembered that it had been.
Kitty sat beside me, her head tucked into her arm, sharing my pillow. Beyond me, I could see Mr. Brandon moving quietly. Well, Kitty, I guess the secret is out.
I tried to sort out the events that had lead to my being here.
I had been on deck. Mr. Cousins had been shadowing me, something I found a tad annoying, but I had no desire to come down on the boy in his present mood. I approached DeVergess, in all his smug glory, wanting to witness him going over. I was daring him, in my mind, to say one more word about Kitty, my fist fairly itching. Cousins remained beside me, and I felt him tense up, realized he had his hand on his gun. I remember thinking that was a dangerous and unnecessary thing for him to do, for DeVergess was no threat.
And then I found myself staring down the barrel of a pistol, one that blasted Frenchman had swiped from his new guards. Wide eyed, I knew I was done for. And then Cousins struck, having been more alert than I for this eventuality. The arm swung, and there were two shots; one causing me a searing pain in my chest and sending me to the deck, another I just saw blow through DeVergess' head. Cousins. Excellent shot. I heard a splash, and then world went black for a moment.
I had opened my eyes and saw a frightened Cousins leaning over me, with words of encouragement. I think I complimented him, and I remember from his frightened face that he must have taken that as a sure sign of my impending demise.
Arms had me then, arms carrying me, and I blacked out once more.
Then there was Brandon, pouring brandy down my throat, trying to sooth me. Johnson cleaning instruments. Bracegirdle and Bowles holding me down, and I realized I was about to be cut open. That meant the shot must still be inside, which was bad. I looked up into Brandon's face, calm now; he would let the fear hit him afterward. I remembered the bright boy who this spring I had helped remove an appendix in his first ever surgery.
The last thought I had, before the searing pain overcame my consciousness, was, with Bracegirdle and Bowles here, who had the deck?
And that all I remembered until waking just now.
Brandon was helping someone up...Mr. Cousins! Had he been hurt in the attack? No, just very weak, he seemed. They spoke in forced whispers.
"You sure you're alright, Reg?"
"Drew, I've been sleeping for what, fifteen hours? You said I have no fever, no sore throat, and it's stopped raining outside. Besides, with only four other officers left, someone will want relieving."
Brandon did not look convinced. "Well, if you end up taking a watch, do try not to stay out there fourteen hours this time!" He paused. "In fact, If I don't see you back down here in four hours, I will come after you!"
"I'm serious, Reg. We're underway, the ship is running alright, stop blaming yourself for the accident with the mizzenmast! Are you planning on punishing yourself forever? Isn't saving Captain Pellew's life atonement enough?"
Cousins winced, and I knew Brandon had been dead right about his feelings. "I didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't have done."
Brandon grabbed his arm firmly. "Anybody else would have protected Captain Pellew. But you were the only man PREPARED to do so!"
Cousins shook his head, and then looked down. "If the mast hadn't been damaged, we'd never have been transferring the prisoners, and DeVergess never would have shot him."
I somehow found my voice.
My voice sounded strangely gruff and low. Brandon and Cousins whirled around quickly to my side, careful not to disturb Kitty.
"Sir..." Brandon said, taking my temperature. "Sir, you shouldn't try to talk."
Cousins stood at the foot of my bed, a mixture of helplessness and hopefulness. I met his eyes firmly. "I am forever in your debt, Mr. Cousins."
Brandon looked back at him with a smug, I told you so look on his face. He held a mug of water up to my mouth and I sipped. Mr. Cousins, meanwhile knew not how to look, his face flushed, his hands trembling.
I continued, though Brandon would try to shush me. "DeVergess...would have tried something eventually. I am alive because of your foresight." I closed my eyes for a moment, then met his glance one more time. "Forget EVERYTHING else. That is an order."
He kept his composure I know not how, but keep it he did, setting his shoulders. Swallowing, he finally said the only thing he could. "Aye, Aye, Sir." Clearing his throat, he turned to head out to watch.
Brandon was firm. "Remember, FOUR hours."
And with a brief grin, Cousins saluted him as well.
I sighed. The brief exchange had been exhausting. I looked to Kitty suddenly and I smiled, then glanced awkwardly at Brandon.
He met my eyes with a look as calm and unperturbed as can be. "You just relax, Sir. You gave us all quite a scare, but everything is alright now." Following my glance to Kitty, he gave me a half smile and a nod. "EVERYTHING is alright, Sir."
And he headed out, leaving me looking down at Kitty with wonder. Apparently the men have accepted her as a part of my life without question. They are good men. I am very lucky. I smiled one more time, and felt myself drifting off again.
I awoke next to the feeling of gentle hands changing my bandages. I opened my eyes to find Kitty awake and performing the duty deftly.
"A nurse too? You have many talents..." I murmured.
She nearly dropped the dressing. "Edward! Oh!"
Her hand went to her face and she moved up beside my pillow, tears in her eyes, hands smoothing my hair back. "Mr. Brandon told me you'd been awake earlier, but I'm afraid I didn't believe him. Oh, it is GOOD to hear your voice!"
I smiled, and let her minister to me. There have not been many instances in my life where I've let someone care for me, not since childhood. I remembered the hard time I gave Brandon when I'd had that head wound... But somehow, actions that would have bothered me performed by my men, seemed natural performed by her. The way she tenderly cleaned my wound, brushed my hair, assisted me with water, all were welcome comforts.
And mostly, there was her gentle chatter, the mere sound of her voice was medicinal to me. I could listen to her forever.
"What day is it?" I asked, realizing for the first time that the ship's movement meant we were underway.
"November 20th. We should be in England in six days' time, as the wind has picked up."
I was saddened by that fact, because with my injury, the chance of our being able to be together, to make love one more time, before I returned her were lessened. For a man who'd been living in near celibacy for far too long, that somehow seemed most distressing. And Lord knows when I shall get to England again.
"I am sorry our trip has been...interrupted, Kitty. And that your...cover has been blown."
She held my hand gently. "Shh, now, don't you fret, Edward, all I want is to see you get better, see you back on your quarterdeck barking orders to the world. And as for my cover, well, it seems strange now to ever think that we found it necessary to keep things secret from them."
"Bad for discipline..." I said with effort.
"Rubbish. Never seen more disciplined men in my life, and the esteem they hold you in is nothing short of remarkable. Despite your continued crankiness and your peculiar mood swings!"
I chuckled, and then winced. "Oh, don't make me laugh, Kitty!"
She held my hand tighter. "Sorry, Edward. But they ARE fond of you, you know. From Lieutenant Bracegirdle down to the youngest powder boy. And after seeing the way that Captain Hammond behaves, it's no wonder they're anxious to keep a good Captain when they've got one."
I frowned. "Hammond? However did you see him?"
Kitty hesitated. "Never mind, Edward, he came on board to check on you after you were first shot. He's well on his way to England now."
I was too tired to pursue this further, but I knew I would find out eventually. What had the man been doing on my ship, and how exactly had his behavior upset Kitty?
She lifted my hand suddenly, kissing it, tears down her face. I squeezed her hand gently, glad to have her with me, even for so short a time.
She cleared her throat, and kept her eyes on my fingers. "Edward, I feel I must tell you...what I had planned to tell you over dinner that night, before DeVergess so rudely interrupted our plans...why I cannot marry you."
I would have stopped her, but she looked at me plaintively. "Please, Edward, let me get this out."
I nodded, and she continued, a faraway look in her eye.
"I grew up on a small farm in the north, Edward, the daughter of a family neither wealthy nor poor. When I was fifteen the smallpox struck my house; I was spared, but my parents and brother were all struck down. I was cut adrift, to use your language. But a neighboring farmer offered me his hand in marriage, most likely with an eye towards the property. Michael Brooks, his name was. Well, I was in need of a home, and he was a good man, so even though I didn't love him, I married him. And we were happy enough for two years. But then, there was an accident...a horrible accident on the farm..." She closed her eyes. "He didn't die, Edward, but he didn't recover, either. He was left feeble minded, addled. He even became violent. And I was only seventeen. Before I knew it, Michael's brother Charles swept in and took over the farm. He had Michael put in an institution, and I found myself on the street, friendless, without family."
I felt tears in my own eyes now, imagining her despair. And as a woman, what options had she? She could not join the Navy, ply her own trade. It was a hard life indeed.
She smiled at me, wiping the tears off of my cheek. "It was a long time ago, Edward. And I was lucky. I fell in with an acting troop, and somehow, found myself one of the few acceptable careers for a woman, even if it is not always considered reputable. But the material point is, I am still married. Michael Brooks still lives, in an asylum in Northampton. And under the laws of the Church of England, he shall remain my husband until the day he dies."
She kissed me on the cheek. "I love YOU, Edward. Indeed, you are the only man I have ever loved! But I cannot marry you."
I felt a great relief then, to know and understand her. And I felt very peaceful, as well. "Kitty", I said gently. "The laws of the Church of England are one thing. But I believe God is bigger than the Church, and more forgiving. And more just. Therefore, in the eyes of God, if we love each other mutually and exclusively, then I believe we are married."
It was strange, that, and of course would not pass muster with any stogy clergyman. Yet how many Captains and Admirals had mistresses while married to other women, and the Navy winked at that? And I, who would never have considered infidelity an option, cannot legally marry a woman who ought by rights to be set free from a man who had essentially abandoned her. The stupidity boggles the mind.
Kitty laughed, though, at my little speech, blinking tears out of her eyes. "Well then, I must forgo the dream of being Lady Pellew, and you must content yourself with a relationship with an actress. And we shall be apart more often then not. But I am yours, Edward."
"We are each others."
And holding her hand tightly still, I fell back asleep, in total happiness despite my wound.
Brandon has finally permitted me to return to my own cabin. The men may be fond of me, but when forced into inaction, I am more than capable of getting on their nerves. After snapping at Brandon and Johnson for about the fifteenth time yesterday, they decided to let Powers handle me.
And the food, such as I am permitted, is barely edible. Cook has sent me dishes two and three times, and I send it back...not hot enough, too salty, no flavor. Powers is not cooking for me, as Brandon has deemed that I am to be served only soft food, porridges and the like.
And I am not permitted up on deck! An issue I would fight, except that I have noticed that walking across my cabin exhausts me. Oh, in my heart I know they are all right and I must take it easy, but it is so vexing! This is my ship, and I feel as though I've abandoned her.
I have requested that every officer leaving the watch to report to me, so at least I may be updated. And I await Cousins now...his shift ought to have ended half an hour ago. Where the devil is he?
The knock at the door answered my question.
"Ah, Mr. Cousins, so good of you to stop by, glad to notice your punctuality!" I said acerbicly.
He stood to attention. "Sorry, Sir; we have caught up to Calypso and Mr. Anderson is still learning the signals. Lieutenant Bracegirdle requested that I remain to assist him."
I was torn between the desire to continue chewing somebody...anybody...out, and genuine curiosity at the exchange with Calypso. Curiosity won. "What says Calypso?"
"Captain Hammond inquired as to your recovery, Sir, and reports no difficulty with the surviving prisoners."
"Mmhmm..." I nodded, looking out the window. "Hammond's a lucky bastard that you dispatched the worst of them before he got on board! He certainly owes you, Mr. Cousins." I quipped.
I had expected some witty sally from him, but when I looked at him he had lost all color, and was still standing to attention stiffly.
"Yes, Sir." He said, very formally, eyes forward.
I looked at him keenly. Wound or no wound, I know my men. Cousins has always been forthright, even when not to his benefit. But he was holding something back now. "Mr. Cousins, have I said something to upset you?"
His face grew red. "No, Sir."
I took a deep breath. "Mr. Cousins, I know I am not of the best temperament lately; I am very frustrated at my forced inaction. But I hope you understand that I do not mean any offense."
He blinked. "None taken, Sir."
I stared at him. I ought to press him, but I am smart enough to know he may be under conflicting orders. Bracegirdle very likely told him to hold back anything but the most simple of information, and it would be cruel of me to place him between us. No, I would deal directly with Bracegirdle on this one!
"No other information from Calypso?"
"Not as of yet, Sir."
"And the weather holds?"
"Yes, Sir, still fair for England."
"And Mr. Bowles believes we shall arrive when?"
I sighed. Only two more days with Kitty, then. I turned back to the sea, then, my mind wandering.
Cousins hesitantly interrupted my thoughts. "Is there anything else I can get for you, Sir?"
I turned back to him with a start. He was no longer so formal, and I realized the offer was made genuinely.
"I don't suppose you have access to a good beef steak?"
He gave me a timid smile then. "No, Sir, and in any case if I provided you with solid food Mr. Brandon would have my head!"
"Well, I guess I know where YOUR loyalties reside!" I teased him gruffly, and he smiled a bit wider. "Very well, Mr. Cousins, you are dismissed."
"Aye, Aye, Sir."
I sighed. My irritation was replaced with tiredness. A nap was in order.
I awoke later to notice a particular stillness about the ship. But I was much refreshed, feeling almost normal as long as I didn't move my shoulder too quickly. Soon, Mr. Anderson, a little pipsqueak of a lad with black hair and big eyes, was reporting.
"Beg your pardon, Sir. At the Calypso's request we have set anchor."
I frowned. "For what reason?" I grumbled.
Mr. Anderson, still new enough to be absolutely terrified of my every move, stuttered out, "S-sir, I believe Captain Hammond wished to send over some sort of d-dispatches, Sir...since you're doing well...th-there coming over now?" He swallowed nervously.
Hammond again! What was up with this man? And then a sly idea came over me. "Young Mr. Holloway has the watch now, does he not?"
"And unless I miss my guess, Lieutenant Bracegirdle is at dinner."
"Yes, Sir. I was to notify him of the dispatches as soon as they arrive."
"Mr. Anderson, please return to the deck RIGHT NOW and await the dispatches, then bring them to me immediatey! That, young man, is a direct order from your Captain! You DO know how to follow an order, do you not?" I intoned in my most stern voice.
Anderson, as I expected, just about quaked in his boots. "Yes, Sir?"
"Then I suggest you get to it!"
I raised an eyebrow and frowned hard at him!
"I m-mean, Aye, Aye, Sir!"
I nodded sharply, and he just about ran out of my office, which is as well, because I started laughing shortly afterwards, and it would never do for him to have heard that!
Kitty, however, DID hear, and came in to check on me.
"What on earth are you up to, Edward?" She asked, curiously.
I gave her my most innocent look. "Who, me? I have only been sitting here taking reports from the officers coming off watch. Mr. Brandon gave me permission, Kitty."
"Why do I think you're up to more than that?" She sat beside me on the bed, and I leaned up against her, her arms around me securely.
I glanced up at her. "I am not up to nearly as much as I'd like to be..." I said, with a wicked grin, my hands stroking her trouser-clad thigh!
"Belay that, mate!" She said, squeezing my hands. "You just took a shot to the chest. I want you alive for more than one night."
I sighed and let her resume stroking my head, most frustrated. A week ago I was wanting Kitty, but had to fight the inclination of my body with my mind. And now that we've become one, I find mind desiring things my body cannot accomplish!
Powers brought in food, with a smile. "With permission of Mr. Brandon, Sir, he says you might find this more appetizing than your usual fare of late."
Kitty got up to fetch the small table over to me. "What is it?" I asked, wary.
"Soup, Edward...Chicken soup."
Well, that was an improvement.
"I made it myself, Sir." Powers smiled.
"Thank you, Powers. I have missed your cooking."
Powers slipped out, and Kitty began feeding me, which did not disturb me nearly so much as it might have once.
There was a knock at the door, and she got up and stood to the side.
Young Anderson entered with a stack of missives.
He swallowed nervously. "Sir...these are for you."
I scowled at him. "Well, bring them here!" I snapped, trying to ignore Kitty's glare.
He hurried up to me, and presented them.
There was one letter addressed specifically to me from Hammond, the rest appeared more official and were for Bracegirdle, no doubt some sort of sailing nonsense that Hammond sought fit to share, even though my crew was more than capable of finding England on their own. I scowled at the boy again, and handed him back all of the missives but the one with my name on it. "Very well, Mr. Anderson. You may take these letters to the Lieutenant. Try not to get lost on your way there!"
"Yes, Sir...I mean, No, Sir..." He looked up at me with those calf's eyes of his, and I relented.
"You may go now, Mr. Anderson." He went to make a hasty retreat, and I called out to him. "Mr. Anderson?"
He turned, pale and shaken...whatever had he done now? "S-sir?"
"Well done, Mr. Anderson!"
And, as they usually did, he flushed with pride at the extremely unexpected compliment!
Kitty shook her head at me once he had left. "You are incorrigible, Edward!"
I smiled. "I know it seams strange to you, but it WORKS Kitty. The boys need to be terrified of me at first."
She raised her eyes. "At first?? When do they stop, Edward?"
"Oh, Hush! I hardly think Mr. Hornblower is afraid of me any longer."
"Only on days ending with Y."
I ignored her and set down to check what nonsense that pompous fool had seen fit to ply me with.
This is what I found:
I am glad to hear from Bracegirdle that you are improved. I thought one of the Navy's bright lights had been forever extinguished by that dastardly Frenchman. Well, he has gone to Poseidon, and shall disturb the Crown no more.
I hope to see you resuming control of your ship soon. I cannot tell you, Sir, how disappointed I was to see the way SOME of your men took advantage of your INCAPACITATION. Why, when I arrived on board, only a bedraggled Midshipman, looking more like a drowned rat than an officer in His Majesties Navy, was there to great me, and it seemed like every man on ship was milling about above decks, pretending to effect repairs, while showing no outward concern for their FALLEN CAPTAIN.
I assume that the Midshipman in question, a Mr. Cousins, HAS LEARNED his LESSON. For as I was leaving I found him sitting down on his duty, eating dinner and half asleep. I can assure you, Sir, after my orders he will not have been SITTING DOWN anywhere for some time. But I find a solid thirty-six strokes will make their impression, Sir. Though that Bosun of yours did fight me on it...I recommended to Bracegirdle that the taste the CAT himself, but I cannot say whether or not he HEEDED MY ADVICE.
I look forward to seeing you UPRIGHT in Plymouth, Sir, where we shall raise a GLASS to your good health."
I stared dumbfounded at this...letter...unsure of where to even begin. Cousins, who saved my life, tortured for it? This was permitted to happen? THIS was why he was in sick berth? No wonder he lost all color when Hammond's name was mentioned earlier!
Kitty looked to me in alarm. "Edward, your face is beet red. Whatever did he write to you?"
I held my voice steady, but my hand shook in anger as I handed her the letter. "Perhaps you'd better read this."
Kitty took the dispatch from me, and began. Soon, she was growing red also, and she looked abruptly up at me. "Edward, it isn't what you're thinking...Mr. Cousins did nothing wrong. Please do not be angry with him."
I was hurt...hurt that she felt the need to defend him to ME, and protect him from ME. "I am not angry with Mr. Cousins, Kitty, I am ashamed...ashamed that one of my men, a young man who I owe my life to, no less, was so cruelly treated, so viciously abused, and nobody even sought fit to notify me of it. As it is, I cannot believe that this was permitted to occur, while I was incapacitated."
She was confused and looked back down at the letter, then smiled at me in relief. "Oh, Edward, it didn't happen!" She folded the letter and put it aside. "Mr. Cousins was not beaten! I heard the whole confrontation."
"Then, tell me, please, what did happen?"
"After your injury, with Lieutenant Bracegirdle following you bellow, it was left to Mr. Cousins to keep the quarterdeck. From what I understand, he made certain that the mizzenmast repair was kept going, and helped to organize the men and took responsibility for any decisions on the work. By the time I heard Hammond come on board, he must have been out there a good seven hours, so 'drowned rat' is probably not a bad description. Of course that self-important fool had probably just come from his own warm cabin. He inquired after you, and I thought Mr. Cousins was quite diplomatic. What happened next, though, is Hammond commanded Anderson to stay with him, and I gather it was supposed to be his watch next."
I was stunned. "Did Hammond not enquire as to the rotation of the watch? He must have known I was short of officers to begin with!"
Kitty scowled. "There was no enquiry about it, it was an order plain and simple, and he showed plainly that he was not about to be questioned."
"So who kept the deck?"
"Mr. Cousins, of course. Powers brought me in some food at one point, but we agreed that Mr. Cousins might be able to make the best use of it. Powers told me he had to about force the boy to sit down for a spell, but he thought he would collapse if he didn't. It turns out that nobody had even told him of your condition, and he almost lost all composure when he finally learned you were going to be fine. But what struck me is, the boy actually suggested that Powers take the time to notify me of your condition! He was worried about ME!" She smiled sweetly at the memory.
"So Powers had just headed back to me, when I heard that...that...man start screaming at him, and calling for the Bosun, demanding that Andrews give him thirty-six strokes with the cane THIS INSTANT. That boy had by this point been on duty more than fifteen hours, and not fifteen uneventful hours, in horrible weather, with only the food Powers brought him; I cannot imagine the lad's thoughts at that moment. But I knew if Hammond appeared to be getting his way then I would have thrown myself in front of the lad."
I tried to imagine Hammond's reaction if she had done that, and in the midst of my conflicting emotions, had to fight to suppress a grin. "What did save Mr. Cousins?"
"Mr. Andrews, at first. As Hammond said, he flat out refused. And then Bracegirdle came above decks and realized that Mr. Cousins had been forgotten in the afternoon, and soon divined the problem. He got rid of Hammond."
"He told him he'd take care of the situation, and when Hammond asked that Bracegirdle make sure that Cousins was disciplined, he very neatly replied that he would see that all appropriate punishment was meted out. And all appropriate punishment WAS meted out..."
"None at all!" Ha! I thought. If I am not careful, Bracegirdle will find himself with a command of his own and leave me, with political skills such as that. "Good for Bracegirdle." Then, the memories stirred again. "But then how did Mr. Cousins come to be in the sick bay when I woke up?"
"He passed out right after Hammond left. It was nothing more than exhaustion and exposure, poor boy."
Kitty sat beside me, holding my hand, squeezing it gently. "You see, Edward, Lieutenant Bracegirdle knows well how you prefer to manage things. He would not permit cruelty on any ship of yours." She kissed my hand, but I fitfully pulled it away from her. "Edward, what is it?"
"You said just now, Bracegirdle knows how I prefer things done. So why is it, Kitty, that on reading this letter you assumed I blamed Cousins for the incident? That I would accept and approve of how Hammond thought he handled things?"
She stroked my shoulder. "I am sorry, Edward. I know full well that you are not an abusive man. But you have admitted yourself that you try to keep the young men afraid of you, that you find it necessary for discipline that they should quake at your command. Without knowing the circumstances of Mr. Cousins behavior, might you not have been angry at him for embarrassing you in front of another Captain?"
I turned to her. "Never! Never would I be angry with an officer for embarrassing me, Kitty! My command is not about the preservation of the reputation of Sir Edward Pellew! Anger would be for dereliction of duty, for failure to perform up to my expectations. I was ANGRY with Cousins for the damage done to the mizzenmast, but he paid for that, and it is over. To be angry with the boy for somehow holding a deck in miserable weather, through three watches? For keeping the ship running, the repairs being performed, for his concern for you? For doing the best he could in what were impossible circumstances? I would never chastise a man for that, Hammond be damned!"
I closed my eyes, the anger tiring me. "I am sorry, Kitty...I did not mean to be so upset with you, but if YOU cannot understand me, then what are the chances that my men do?" Suddenly, that mattered more than anything, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth, and a heaviness in my heart.
"Oh, Edward, I am sorry!" She held my head to her chest. "I am certain that your men know you better...for they are fond of you! I have never seen men so loyal, so proud of their ship, of their service. You are a good Captain, and I never meant to question that!"
I sighed, knowing she was right, in more than one way. For I have gone out of my way to keep the men distant, to keep them afraid of me. For discipline's sake, I told myself. But the simple truth was, I was afraid. Afraid to lose a Hornblower or a Cousins after permitting them into my heart. But that was a lie; for the Hornblowers, and the Kennedys, and the Cousins, and the Brandons, were in my heart anyway, even though I chose not to show it. It did not hurt any less to lose one, it only made it impossible for me to show any grief outwardly.
"I love you, Kitty." I said softly, feeling drowsiness returning to me. "And thank you for explaining this to me, and thank you for listening to me. The simple truth is, I will never be able to be so good a Captain as I wish, as good a Captain as the one I idolized, the one who I will always hold in my heart as the finest ever seen."
Kitty chuckled, stroking my hair. "Pity Mr. Hornblower, then, Edward, for in ten year's time he'll be thinking the same things about you!"
We were not far outside Portsmouth, the men upbeat at the prospect of fresh food and maybe a visit or two from their...wives. I was now permitted up on deck, provided I didn't over do it. And believe me, I have men enough around me to raise holy hell if I even try.
Mr. Cousins stood just a few feet away, giving instructions to his division in a cheery manner. He has shown no ill effects from what I have learned was the devil's own watch. The only change I can see in him is an inclination to be more prudent, to think things over carefully, and to seek the opinion of others. Which is a good thing. I do not wish to destroy his self confidence, and I thank God he trusted his instincts the day DeVergess decided to remove me from this world. But a good officer knows when to err on the side of caution.
I moved beside him now, and he stood a bit more to attention, set his shoulders a bit more firmly.
"Your division is well trained, Mr. Cousins."
"Thank you, Sir. They are good men."
"Indeed they are. We are, I think, very fortunate on Indefatigable."
He looked at me seriously. "Yes, Sir. Very fortunate indeed."
I cleared my throat. "You know, of course, that I received a report from Captain Hammond as to the conduct of my officers and my men during the period which I was stricken."
He colored deeply. "Yes, Sir. Captain Hammond sent dispatches over three days ago, I believe."
"I wish to commend you, Mr. Cousins, on your handling of the watch for...how many hours? Twelve?"
I shook my head. "Fourteen hours, Mr. Cousins, that is not human! You ought to have requested relief."
"Yes, Sir. But for the life of me I couldn't see how to do that. And even if Mr. Anderson had not been commandeered by Captain Hammond, he's only been here two months; it would have been a bit much under the circumstances to expect him to take the watch by himself."
'Mmm. So you would have remained above decks, regardless?"
He met my eye clearly. "In absence of a more superior officer, Yes, Sir, I would have."
I smiled. "You're a good man, Mr. Cousins. You've got good instincts. Please, though, try to stop saving the Indefatigable on your own. The workload will kill you! And I would like to keep you alive through the war."
He blushed even deeper. "Yes, Sir."
"That is, if Captain Hammond doesn't kill you first!" I added wryly.
His eyes widened. "Sir, I..."
"At ease, Mr. Cousins. Hammond is not known for his restraint, or his sense. You did the best job you could under exacting circumstances. Fortunately, Lieutenant Bracegirdle and Mr. Andrews understood that, even if Hammond didn't."
His face began returning to his normal color. "Yes, Sir. I am very thankful for that."
"Mm, well, I will be meeting with Hammond in the next few days, Mr. Brandon permitting. We'll let him labor under the illusion that you've been properly 'spoken to' and hope he doesn't see the entry in the Gazette where you are commended for saving my life."
Cousins looked at me, dumbfounded. "But, Sir, I didn't...I mean, I don't deserve..."
"Mr. Cousins, you know I am not effusive with praise. Therefore, when I do bestow it, I would appreciate it if you did not try and duck, but accepted it gracefully. Unless you're telling me you'd rather you hadn't saved my life, in which case I could arrange for a transfer to Calypso at any time..."
"Sir, of course I didn't mean that...and I...you know, I..."
He swallowed, struck speechless, and I raised an eyebrow. "Not interested in a transfer? Very well, then, the entry will go through, and you will be celebrated. Try not to take it so hard. Carry on, Mr. Cousins."
I walked away in a better mood than I ought to be, given my circumstances with Kitty. Behind me, I heard Mr. Brandon sidle up to his friend.
"Sounds like Captain Pellew is back to normal, eh, Reg?"
"And then some!"
I chuckled appreciatively, and then returned to my thoughts of Kitty. She would be leaving me tomorrow morning. I do not know how long I will be in Portsmouth. And in any event, she will be heading for London, to Drury lane. I sighed, wishing I could see her on stage, have an opportunity to praise HER. And of course, there was so much else I wished, as well.
Nov. 25 continued...
Finally, I decided to seek council for my pressing questions, and I headed to sick bay.
Mr. Brandon was there alone.
He looked up brightly. "Are you feeling alright, Sir?"
"I feel better than you'll tell me I do."
"You certainly look better than you OUGHT to." He came up to me, as I sat down on a bunk. "Headache, Sir."
"No, I feel fine, I tell you!" I grumbled.
He looked puzzled. "So why are you here, Sir?"
I frowned. "Am I alright?"
"Am I back to normal? Can I carry on as before? As if I'd never been shot?"
"I wouldn't go so far as that, Sir." He hesitated.
"Well, then, how far would you go?" I snapped, frustration getting the better of me.
He sat down across from me. "Sir, you know yourself that one minute you feel fine, and then the fatigue sneaks up on you. I can see it in your face when it happens. Every day, Sir, is a little better than the day before, as long as you don't over-exert yourself. Remember, your body had a tremendous shock to it. It absorbed a direct shot, lost blood, and then had to handle the indignity of me cutting into it, cutting in to bone and muscle, to remove a foreign object. You must respect your body's need to heal."
I shook my head. "You're not telling me what I need to know."
He met my eye, unblinking. "I am telling you the truth, Sir. As I always have." He paused. "Perhaps, Sir...you are not asking me what you want to have answered?"
He was right, of course. I looked into the face of my fourteen year old doctor, and wondered how exactly I was supposed to ask him if it was alright for me to make love to my mate? And how would he know the answer, anyway?
"I need to talk to Johnson." I said abruptly.
Brandon was startled. "Sir...I will get him for you...but his answer will be the same as mine."
"This is a question I cannot ask you, Mr. Brandon."
Damn him if he didn't look hurt. "Very well, Sir. Although I would be happy to try and find an answer if you'd only tell me..."
"This is not something you can help me with, Mr. Brandon. I need to talk to a grown man." I snapped. "Now if you please, fetch Mr. Johnson for me, and then leave us in private."
"Aye, Aye, Sir." He said, the hurt now very evident on his face, which bothered me. But what else could I do? We'd both be mortified if I told him what was on my mind.
Johnson entered, looking more than a bit puzzled himself. "Sir, Mr. Brandon said you requested my attendance?"
"I did." I looked around to make sure I could not be overheard. "I need your opinion as a man and a Doctor...and I am trusting you to keep this to yourself!" I snapped.
"Of course, Sir."
I took a deep breath. "Am I...physically capable...of making love to a woman?"
The astonishment on his face would have been priceless, if not for the fact that I was the man who asked the question!
He cleared his throat, and frowned. "I assume...Sir...that...you've...oh, hell!"
I closed my eyes. "Just for the next five minutes, Johnson, forget I am your Captain and pretend I was a patient you were seeing in a surgery in your little village back home!"
He nodded. "Very well, then, I'll be blunt. I assume you've felt yourself capable of being *aroused* by a woman?"
I answered him just as bluntly. "I'll go one step further. I have BEEN aroused. But I have been fearful of acting on it."
"I see." He thought it over. "You show no sign of infection. How much did you sleep yesterday?"
"In total? About ten hours."
"Hm, more than normal for you, I'd guess, but not that bad; your fatigue is waning." He scratched behind his neck. "You've had no pain around the wound?"
"None, although I've been cautious with my right arm." And then I confessed. "My shoulder has been a bit sore, but I wouldn't call it painful."
"I see." And he gave me half a grin. "Well, then, I'd say you were, ahem, ready for action, sir, with two caveats. One, don't let any activities replace your sleep, and two, don't use your right shoulder."
I almost laughed. Almost. "Thank you, Johnson. This has been a major relief for me, as I am sure you can appreciate."
He nodded. "I can well imagine, Sir." Then, he grinned. "And I can understand now why you didn't confide in Mr. Brandon!"
I blushed. "Good lord, Johnson, the boy is just fourteen, after all!"
"Bless my heart, when did that happen?"
"Actually, it happens tomorrow...we were going to have a bit of a celebration at dinner in the wardroom, if you'd care to join us." He then added, deadpan. "Unless, of course, you have...other plans, Sir?"
I shot him a withering stare. "Her Grace disembarks tomorrow, I will be happy to raise a glass to Mr. Brandon's birthday, and you may again consider me your Captain. Good Day, Johnson."
He came to attention and saluted me smartly, and I left to return to my cabin, and to Kitty!
"Powers, send for Miss Cobham for me, if you will. And tell Mr. Bracegirdle that unless there is an urgent matter, I do not wish to be disturbed."
"Yes, Sir...he will be happy to oblige."
I snickered. That he would. I'd been making him crazy for the past two days, being far more involved than he thought I should be in day to day operations. Let him think that I am finally heeding his advice to rest.
Kitty came in through the door, suddenly, and Powers silently closed it behind her. And I felt my heart in my mouth, fearful that she would turn me down, that she had reconsidered her decision to commit herself to me. For we were near to England now, to the life and the friends she knew before coming in to my world.
"Edward, my love, what is it?" She asked, coming over to me and hugging me gently.
I looked down at her soft eyes, and touched her cheek with my left hand. "Our time remaining is so short, Kitty. You shall disembark tomorrow."
She nodded. "I know, Edward. And I plan to take up lodgings in Plymouth until Indefatigable returns to action."
I stroked her neck, caressing her beneath her glorious hair. "That is wonderful of you, Kitty, but you should know that I might be ordered back into action in two weeks, or two days. And I cannot guarantee time away from the ship, and a Captain is never supposed to sleep anywhere other than his own Cabin."
Kitty arched her shoulders under my touch. "Yes, but no matter what the chances are of you being able to visit me, I want to be available in case you should."
I kissed her, gently at first and then with a growing insistence, pulling her body close against mine, releasing her only after I felt her surrendering into my arms.
"Let me make love to you, Kitty, one more time before we return to port. I feel as though I will never be able to live again without your touch, without the feel of your touch on me. I might return to sea immediately, it might be six months or six years before I can see you again. Or, it might be that I might never return..."
"Don't say that!" She implored, her eyes wide, brimming with tears.
"It is the truth, Kitty, brought all the more home to me by my recent experiences. And I don't want that to happen with any more regrets hanging over my head. I have shut myself off from love for long enough."
She swallowed, and I kissed her on the tip of her nose, eliciting a smile. "There is nothing on this earth I desire so much as to be with you. But, are you sure that you're feeling alright, Edward?"
I smiled. "I am medically cleared, Kitty, so long as I am careful of my shoulder. But I do not plan on using my shoulder!" I whispered in her ear, and she shivered.
Then, turning her head to one side, she replied. "I ought to ask just how you found yourself medically cleared, but I don't suppose I want to know that." She reached up and stroked my face gently, then began to undo my vest. "So, Edward, if I am to make love to you, but you are required to be careful, then it seems you must leave yourself to my command, Sir."
Her hand found its way inside my shirt, and stroked my chest and torso gently. "I surrender, Ma'am." I said softly.
She moved around me, removing my coat and vest, being tenderly careful of my injured shoulder, and led me to the bed. Leaning over me, her hands on my bare waist, she gently continued, "And you accept my terms, Sir?"
"Willingly..." I moaned.
"Then you just sit back, my love, and leave everything to me..." And she removed her own shift, before leaning in to me again, and kissing me so tenderly it almost made me cry.
The next afternoon, Brandon and Cousins, in a rare mutual moment of relaxation, watched as their Captain gingerly went over the side to his boat, so that he might meet with Admiralty. He still favored his right arm slightly, but other than that seemed as fit as ever. Indeed, he walked with a certain jauntiness that surprised them (although perhaps it would not have surprised Johnson!).
The Duchess had been sent off this morning, and they would miss her. The officers knew that the Captain would miss her most of all. But somehow, Cousins couldn't help but feel that she would never be far from them, in spirit if not in body.
Meanwhile, he was sanguine, enjoying the crisp November air, and looking forward to the little surprise he and his mates had worked up for Drew in order to celebrate his birthday. And, according to Johnson, the Captain had agreed to make an appearance, assuming nothing too great went down with Admiralty.
Reg was glad, now, that the Captain knew of his run-in with Captain Hammond. He would have been making himself sick with worry about what Hammond would say about him otherwise. Even though he was pretty certain that Captain Pellew didn't think much of Hammond to begin with, and that he would never have approved of the punishment Hammond had suggested for him, not for the crime of sitting down after having been on watch for fourteen hours! He just hoped that Hammond didn't do too much to upset Pellew, the Captain didn't need that.
He took a quick glance at Drew. He'd been morose ever since yesterday, and had displayed a remarkable reticence to speak about it. And moroseness sat poorly on him; he was a young man born to be sunny in the face of things that would have broken most men.
Cousins decided to take matters into his own hand, and nudged him gently. "What's with you this morning? Worried about your patient being up and about?"
Brandon looked even more depressed, which he'd have not thought possible. "He's not MY patient any more." He mumbled.
Cousins was startled. "You've been transferred out of sick bay?"
Brandon shook his head. "Not yet, although I suppose it's just a matter of time."
"C'mon, Drew, you're the resident medical genius; you took a ball out of Pellew's shoulder, for God's sake, and the men revere you."
Brandon's shoulders slumped. "Captain Pellew prefers Johnson."
Cousins looked at him in disbelief. "Johnson's a skilled surgeon, Drew. I thought you said you've learned much from him?"
"I have...and I'm not jealous, but I thought Captain Pellew TRUSTED me. But yesterday, he flat out declined to speak to me of his ailments and sought Johnson out instead, saying I couldn't help him, that I was just a boy and he needed a man's opinion. So I must have done SOMETHING to displease him."
Reg shook his head. That didn't sound like Pellew, to not trust Drew. He turned to his friend. "Tell, me, exactly, how the conversation went yesterday."
Brandon, who had been so stung by its nature that he'd just about committed it to memory, was happy to oblige.
When he was finished and looked up at his friend, he noticed Cousins had the most peculiar expression on his face.
For good reason. Reg Cousins had grown up on a farm, with seven brothers and sisters, all younger. In a four room farm house. Where his father bred sheep. As opposed to Andrew Brandon, sixth child of Lord Exton, growing up in an estate which probably had more like forty rooms. Drew had been pretty sheltered from the facts of life. Whereas they were a WAY of life for Cousins! And he had a pretty good idea, given Her Grace's presence on board, and the fact that the Captain had retired remarkably early last night, of what it was that he didn't wish to address to Drew!
"What is it, Reg? Where did I fail him?"
Oh, my! "I think, Drew, the Captain probably wanted to know if the injury would, um, hinder his relationship with the Duchess."
"Why on earth would it?" Drew asked, innocently. "And why couldn't he ask me that himself?"
Cousins tried again. "Drew, he was thinking about the relationship in ACTIVE terms." Drew just stared at him. "Oh, for heaven's sake, don't those medical books of yours ever discuss the process of childbirth?"
Drew frowned. "Of course they do, but what use is that on a ship with three hundred men?"
Cousins sighed. "And what happens when those men make trips to port and visit women who are NOT their wives?"
Drew grimaced. "Illness, disease; they may leave pregnancy behind, but certainly not that I'd ever see...OH!" His eyes grew wide and his mouth was open. "You mean the Captain and the Duchess...OH!" And slowly the blush spread from his neck to his temples.
Reg slapped him on the back. "Cheer up, lad, you probably didn't want to be having that conversation with him anyway!"
Drew, stunned, perhaps, to learn that his Captain was in fact a man just like the crew after all, simply stared at his barge as it approached the dockyard. Then he blushed deeper. "Reg, with a wound like his, would he...have been able to..."
Cousins shrugged. "Judging from his behavior this morning, I'd say Johnson thought he could."
Darkness was just falling as I was rowed back to Indefatigable. After meeting with Hood, I now know we shall be permitted two weeks in port, to do a more thorough job of repairs, and also have an opportunity to replenish supplies. Hood was most superficially concerned about my health, though he never allowed any feelings to touch his flinty eyes. He also indicated he DID HAVE a plan for Indefatigable, but whatever the plan is, it is not ready yet, and must be postponed, until "certain parties" have been readied.
Somehow, I trust this man less than Hale. I cannot get a handle on him. Bureaucrat or soldier? Neither seems to fit him. All in all, he has left me with a sense of impending doom, that I cannot shake.
Not to say that Kitty did not try her damndest to do just that! For a woman who yesterday was so concerned with my health, she did her utmost to tax me this afternoon! I blush to remember some of her...well, all right, OUR...actions in the short hour we had together before I had to prepare for my return. She has taken lodgings at an inn in Portsmouth, until we depart, when she will return to her London habitat. I have been most seriously instructed to write her often, or she shall return to Gibraltar and try to book passage as the Prince of Wales! I bet she'd do it, too!
I cleared my throat as we came upon the Indie's side, and grasped my package. Damned my arm...no way for me to carry it and climb aboard without using my sore shoulder. Frustrated at the helplessness, I snapped at poor Bracegirdle, just starting his watch, as my nimble coxswain hoisted my cargo up behind me.
"You've made good time, Sir." Bracegirdle said, completely unfazed by my blistering language.
"Hmph. For once, Hood had not much to say. He seemed utterly unfazed when I handed him those dispatches that nearly cost Hornblower's life. We are to remain for two weeks, by the way."
"Excellent, Sir, we shall be able to refit up properly."
I nodded. "And a good chance to give some of the more trusted men an opportunity for leave, perhaps. Have you anyone you wish to visit?"
Bracegirdle got rather pink. "In Portsmouth? Oh, No, Sir."
Hm, something there, perhaps. And a long ago memory, of Bracegirdle's lightened mood before I dragged Hornblower to a miserable dinner at Government House, crystalized into a theory. I decided to take a shot. "Oh, of course, your wife is at Gibraltar, is she not?"
Bracegirdle spluttered. "Sir...who told you? I have tried so hard to keep my marriage quiet..."
Ha Ha! This was NEARLY as good a shot as the one I'd used to fell Simpson, and left a far better aftertaste! "Aboard his ship, Lieutenant Bracegirdle, there is not much that escapes a Captain's notice!" And I wondered if Hornblower would laugh, if he could only hear me, as I left my stunned Lieutenant on deck and entered my cabin.
Powers awaited me. "The young gentlemen, Sir, will be just starting their dinner celebration now, I believe."
"Excellent, Powers, I am glad not to have missed it. You provided them with the chickens, as I requested?"
"Yes Sir, your last two. Mr. Cousins was most pleased by the donation."
"Well, we are in Port, I can easily revictual." I removed two large jugs of cider from my parcel, and made my leave.
I could hear the laughter from the Midshipman's berth as I approached, and hoped I would not put too much of a damper on their mood. But Brandon looked up smartly as I entered, and though Anderson and Holloway immediately seemed to shrink, Cousins rose at once and offered me his seat at the head of the table.
"We're pleased you could join us, Sir!"
I handed my bottles over to Brandon as I sat down. "Happy Birthday, Mr. Brandon. Though I am myself not inclined to believe you are really only fifteen!"
Brandon blushed as Johnson put in, "Only when he's not in the surgery, Captain."
He took the bottles gratefully. "Thank you, Sir. It has been quite a year, indeed."
He poured out glasses of cider to those who preferred it to beer...which is to say, Anderson and Holloway. Johnson, Forbes, Cousins and I had the beer instead. Cousins, meanwhile, presented me with a plate of stewed chicken that actually smelled quite fine. I took a hesitant taste, and found it almost exotic in flavoring, with a hint of cinnamon.
I looked around. "Gentleman, I am impressed. To whom do we owe the pleasure of this fine cooking?"
Brandon looked indulgently to his left. "That would be Mr. Holloway, Sir."
"Excellent work, young man!"
Holloway, who had copper-red hair and more freckles than a clear night had stars, stammered slightly. "Th- Th- ank you, Sir, but it's your ch- chicken."
I looked sternly down my nose at the boy. "Young man, when I give you a compliment, please do accept it gratefully!" He paled, those freckles standing out even more. And giving in, I smiled. "Better yet, pay your thanks for the chicken by giving Powers your recipe."
Brandon raised an eyebrow at me. "Would not Powers be offended, Sir?"
Dryly, I replied. "Perhaps. We wouldn't want to put him in a FOWL mood." And I winked expressly at him
Cousins, Brandon, Johnson and Forbes burst out laughing, Cousins nearly choking on his beer. Anderson and Holloway knew not how to look at this bit of familiarity. And worse, Forbes perpetuated it.
"It would be a shame to ruffle his feathers, Sir!"
Fresh laughter broke out. And Cousins, with a gasp, gave us... "He might feel a bit hen-pecked, to be sure."
Finally, even Anderson and Holloway gave in this time. With a gasping chuckle, and somehow preserving my dignity, I dabbed at my eyes as the laughter died down. And as the table at last quieted, I pursued my original subject. "What is your secret, Mr. Holloway?"
More at ease in my company finally, he could give me an answer. "It's the spices, Sir. My father was an officer with the East India Company, Sir. He always brought back some strange things, and Mum would see what she could do with 'em. This is one of her experiments."
Brandon's eyes lit up. "Some wonderful herbs and extracts there are in the east, I've heard. I should very much like to travel there some time and speak with their men of medicine."
Anderson was shocked. "They're heathens, Drew...I mean, Mr. Brandon."
I smiled at the boy. "You may use your first names with each other, Mr. Anderson, if it is as you are accustomed. I do not wish to put a damper on your party!"
Johnson looked curiously at Brandon. "You're quite serious about this, aren't you, Drew? That there could be some new medicines out there that we haven't heard of before?"
He nodded. "Heathens or not, the Muslims, the Indians, the Chinamen, they've had civilizations that have been around many centuries. They are very different cultures than ours, to be sure, but I believe we could learn much from each other."
I raised my glass. "Then, Gentleman, let us hope to return to the days when His Majesty's Navy could focus on exploring new lands, like Captain Cook before us, instead of spending so much time trying to blow other human beings to pieces because of the flag they wave."
Brandon and Johnson, having seen too many of those pieces, too much brutality even in their young years, nodded sagely, and they all raised their glassed. "Here here, Sir!"
I looked around in anticipation. "Well, gentleman, is there to be no entertainment? And do not suggest whist, young men, for I am well aware that that would please no one save Mr. Brandon and myself."
Cousins grinned back. "Aye, Sir, we've some talent..."
I leaned back expectantly. "Well, that is a relief! The last midshipman's dinner I was at saw a certain Mr. Hether endeavoring to teach an unfortunate Mr. Hornblower the finer points of pipe playing, to his extreme discomfort! So do not feel you have too much to live up to in that department!"
With a grin, Holloway got out a fiddle, and soon the berth was alive with jaunty music. Forbes sang, with a blush, some rather salty songs. I think he struggled to clean them up a bit, considering the age of the company. And Johnson, despite his emphatic protests, was enticed into a jig contest with Mr. Anderson, and managed to beat the younger man with ease...some twenty minutes later!
The evening wore late, and Brandon looked at me expressively. I knew I should retire, rest my still recovering body. But I, too, had a contribution to offer.
"Gentleman, I should very much like to tell you a story..."
And I began, weaving a tale based in my own youth, of an adventure I had shared once with my good friend Grey. A tale that saw us in the Indies, and described vividly the nature, the natives, and the eccentricities of men they should never meet. Holloway and Anderson were spellbound immediately, and Brandon and Cousins soon followed, as I detailed a savage attack from a savage tribe, that found my friend and I dodging spears and learning an entirely new way to fight, one not taught in any book of seamanship.
A change in tone, then, as we discovered a tribe who offered their friendship and their hospitality, and even Forbes and Johnson found themselves being wound in. I relayed the humor and pathos of our dinner with our new friends, learning their customs, Captain Kent accepting a gift from their stately Chief, and offering one in return. The old Chief would pass away days later.
And I played up Grey's heroics, as I downplayed my own, when the savages attacked our new friends, hoping to gain ascendancy with the loss of their ruler (not unlike some recent monarchys, I might add!). We came to their defense, fighting along side them as allies. And behind my every word, was the memory of my own beloved Captain, Captain Kent, whose wisdom and judgement and courage I now told of to these boys fighting so long after his own death.
When I stopped, Anderson and Holloway looked mesmerized, stars in their eyes, no doubt dreaming of the adventures they would have. Brandon, who knew of Grey's death, looked at me softly, and then exchanged glances with Cousins. They, too, knew what it was to lose a compatriot.
I rose slowly.
"Gentlemen, this has been a most welcome diversion in a time of war, and it is sad that it cannot be repeated more often. We will be in Portsmouth for a fortnight yet, then we return to Gibraltar, to engage our enemies once more. We must spend our time readying for battle. But no matter where your future takes you, I hope you all remember this evening, as I can assure you, I shall. Good evening."
They all stood quickly. "Good evening, Sir."
And I left them then, my young men, my good officers, my future lights. Someday, perhaps, Captain Cousins will tell his midshipmen of his fourteen hours on watch; someday, Doctor Brandon will relay the story of his first appendix removal, with the assistance of his Captain, on an ill-equipped ship. Forbes shall tell his regiment of duping an incapable Doctor into deserting. How they shall remember me, I can only guess.
But I know I shall always remember them.