With plans thwarted and the trap harmlessly sprung, the two cutters resolutely continued their fortnight's patrol. Oddly, there was nothing, no untoward activity; it was as though smuggling were suddenly a thing of the past. Bush had the terrible creeping notion that his every move was being watched and anticipated, though his practical nature eventually succeeded in thrusting those fears aside as unreasonable. Carson must simply have moved his business elsewhere. Thus Bush ordered his ships back to Mount's Bay; it was time for supplies and, perhaps, some cautious questions.
Bush stood aft, hands calmly clasped behind his back, impassively watching as Fanshawe supervised the loading of the stores. He turned his attention to the quay as a heavily laden boat cast off, and was surprised to find Munro, Greyhound's one-eyed bos'n, aboard amongst the water-butts. He had sighted the man bustling about ashore, overseeing the allocation of provisions to the two cutters. While aboard Greyhound, Bush had found him to be a steady, reliable man despite his somewhat piratical appearance: Dawes delegated his authority with intelligence, it seemed. Munro scrambled aboard and approached Bush with a salute and an incompletely suppressed half-smile. "Sir, there is a messenger from the revenue service waiting on the quay. He ordered me to give you this."
Bush broke the seal on the note and opened it; his expression darkening as he read its content. "So Captain Turpin 'requires' my presence immediately." He looked up sharply at the bos'n, his blue eyes flashing cold fire. "Turpin and his damned cutter interfered with our work in Carson's cove a fortnight ago; he will not interfere with my work today. Tell his messenger that I will come to the Customs House when I am ready to do so, and not before."
"Aye sir," acknowledged Munro, turning away before Bush could notice the successful escape of an exultant grin. No trumped-up revenue officer would order a captain of His Majesty's Navy about. His captain, particularly. Come to think of it, it was difficult to imagine his captain as intimidated by anyone at all.
The sun was still well above the horizon when Bush found himself able to relax his vigilance and survey the deck with a sense of satisfaction. Working parties were busily completing what few repairs were needed after a mere two weeks at sea; fresh stores had been delivered, and were even now were being stowed neatly in the hold. There was little else requiring his attention; he reluctantly returned his gaze to the quay. Turpin's uniformed messenger was still waiting patiently, standing immobile in the very spot he had occupied throughout the afternoon. Earlier, it had pleased Bush to make the man wait, though now that all was complete he could hardly continue to do so with a clear conscience. He sighed inwardly, knowing that he could put off his interview with Turpin no longer.
Reluctantly he went below, slipping out of his faded and stained working jacket and into his second-best. That, he decided with some disdain, would do for the likes of Turpin. He studied himself critically in the small and clouded mirror fastened to a bulkhead, harrumphed, then straightened his neckcloth and retied his queue. He had his pride, and would not appear before Turpin unkempt, though the man hardly deserved even that small courtesy.
Satisfied, he reemerged on deck, and wordlessly touched his hat to the side party as they piped him off. The boat crew, sensing his mood, covered the short distance to the quay in no time at all - though after he was safely ashore shared private grins, confident that a squall or two loomed on the horizon for a certain Revenue Officer of their acquaintance.
Bush favored the messenger with a look of frigid disgust; the man had watched with an ill-mannered curiosity as he had awkwardly stepped out of the boat and maneuvered across the uneven cobbles. "I am now ready to meet with Captain Turpin."
The uniformed man considered him sadly. "Sir, I fear that Captain Turpin has some unhappy news." He said no more, no doubt in repayment for being pointedly ignored all afternoon. Bush, for his part, felt it beneath his dignity to press him further, though his mind entertained a variety of possibilities - each more dire that the last - during the silence that persisted all the way to the Customs House door.
The messenger opened it. "Captain Bush, sir."
A curiously muffled voice came from within. "You will forgive me if I do not get up, Captain Bush." Bush's eyes widened as they gradually adjusted to the dimness. Turpin was seated at his desk, a wide and bloodstained bandage enveloping his head. The man was barely recognizable: one eye was empurpled and nearly shut, his lip split and swollen.
"My God!" Bush blurted, forgetting his temper. "What happened?"
Turpin eyed him angrily, the livid bruising of his face adding weight to his outrage. "I warned you, Captain, what would happen if you continued to interfere with Carson and his men. But it was I who paid the price, this time."
Bush caught his breath. "And...your children? Your wife?" he asked quietly, dreading the answer.
"Your concern does you credit, Captain, though it is somewhat late." Turpin's words were heavy with irony. "They are safe enough...for now. But you continue to interfere at their peril. Not to mention mine." He shifted uncomfortably and glared up at Bush, no doubt bitterly resenting every ache and bruise. "I was completing my reports late two nights past when Carson's men burst in, taking me by surprise. I was outnumbered and quickly overcome; they bound my wrists and ankles, then kicked me insensible. When I recovered my wits the next morning...well, sir..." he snapped, abruptly gesturing to the door to the storeroom. "Open the door and see for yourself."
Bush stumped over to the door and wrenched it open. "Dear God..." he breathed, aghast. The room was nearly empty; only a few small casks and boxes listed forlornly against one wall. Mere days before, this same space had been nearly full to bursting with confiscated goods - goods which Bush and his men had accumulated during months and months of laborious patrol.
"And this was left for you, Captain Bush, driven into the door on the point of a knife." As Turpin held the note toward him his lace cuff spilled away from his hand, revealing the purple bruises encircling his wrist. "Perhaps I ought to be grateful that it was not instead driven into my back."
Bush accepted the note, and began to read. His eyes widened, his eyebrows climbing skyward. He looked up at Turpin, his face like thunder. "This is absurd."
"Indeed," Turpin snapped. "But despite its excess, it is not to be taken lightly."
Bush's face was grim as he heaved himself through the entry port. "Come," he said shortly as Fanshawe approached, his handsome face full of questions.
Fanshawe dutifully followed Bush into the Witch's tiny cabin. "Shut the door," Bush said over his shoulder, without turning around.
"All the goods, Fanshawe...everything we have collected, all we had accomplished..." Bush's voice was quiet, emotionless, though the bleak look in his eyes as he slowly turned to face the young lieutenant belied his apparent composure. "All gone. All of it is back in Carson's hands once more."
"Dear God," Fanshawe murmured softly, and frowned. "But...are you certain that it was Carson who did this, sir?"
"Quite. Only the goods confiscated from Carson and his associates were taken. He left that which was not originally his - though that left little enough."
"Honour amongst thieves, sir?"
Bush grunted derisively, not dignifying the comment with an answer.
"And Captain Turpin, sir? Was he...?"
"Beaten. But he saw Carson's men clearly enough. And..." Bush withdrew a paper from his pocket and handed it to Fanshawe. "They left this for me."
As Fanshawe's eyes moved over the paper, his expression began to waver. His lip twitched despite his best efforts to control it, and he began to read aloud.
"To Captain Bush on board the cutter Witch of Endor now lying at Mount's Bay.
Damn thee and God damn thy two Purblind Eyes thou Buger and thou Death looking son of a Bitch. O that I had been there (with my company) for thy sake when thou tookes those men and goods of mine on board the Witch of Endor these months past. I would cross thee and all thy Gang to Hell wher thou belongest thou Devil Incarnet. Go Down thou Hell Hound into thy Kennell below and Bathe thyself in that Sulpherous Lake that has bin so long Prepared for such as thee for it is time the World was rid of such a Monster as thou art no Man but a Devil thou fiend O Lucifer. I hope thou will soon fall into Hell like a star from the Sky; there to lie (unpitied) & unrelented of any for Ever and Ever Which God Grant of his Infinite mercy. Amen.
Mount's Bay January 14 1812 & fast asleep."*
Fanshawe looked up; the hand he had clapped over his mouth all that separated him from dissolving into gales of laughter - though the sight of Bush's grim features sobered him considerably.
"You find this amusing, Fanshawe?" Bush growled. "Despite the extravagant words...the consequences are grave. It is far more than an affront to our pride."
"My apologies, sir." Fanshawe's eyes widened as the full implications finally struck home. "But sir...how shall we tell the men? With the goods now vanished, they will not get their expected bounty."
Bush shook his head in warning. "You will say nothing, Mr. Fanshawe. Our men have done their duty, and I shall see they do not suffer for it." His share of the bounty for the confiscated vessels themselves was unaffected by the loss; he tried not to think of how much his sisters would have appreciated the additional funds. His own needs were few enough...the bulk of his pay would have to suffice, for them.
"And, Mr. Fanshawe, there was something else. A letter, from the Admiralty: Admiral Chadwick wishes a meeting. He also suggested that you accompany me, as your uncle is eager to learn of your progress." Bush sighed. "God knows, there is much to be done here...but we must depart tomorrow for Portsmouth."
The coach ride was interminable; the ill-sprung vehicle seemed to lurch to a stop at every dusty little town between Cornwall and Portsmouth, and covered the short stretches of clear road between at a leisurely - and most agonizing - pace.
Fanshawe had fumed and fretted, though Bush had merely settled himself in a corner, pulled his hat down over his eyes, folded his arms, and apparently gone to sleep. Rather, observed Fanshawe affectionately, as accustomed to inactivity and boredom as any common tar.
They reached Whitehall at last; Fanshawe took his leave of his captain, and disappeared into the Admiralty House with all the delighted anticipation of one finally returning home after an extended stay in a foreign land. A thing which was doubtless close enough to the truth, Bush thought with no small amusement. For himself, though - this place was foreign territory indeed.
Chadwick did not keep him waiting long; an anxious aide soon ushered Bush into the opulent office.
"Ah, Captain Bush," Chadwick nodded, indicating the chair placed opposite the massive desk. "Please sit down." He shuffled idly through a stack of papers for a long moment, then raised his head to study Bush with steely intensity. "So, Captain Bush...tell me; how are you faring?"
Bush tried his best not to shift under the Admiral's careful scrutiny. This was not at all what he had been expecting. "We have done well, sir." He placed his logbook on the admiral's desk. "It is all in my reports, sir."
Chadwick did not look at it; instead, held Bush's gaze. "In your words, Captain."
"Yes, sir." Bush took a deep breath, and launched into a careful accounting of the past months' activities: the vessels taken, and cargo confiscated. "My officers and men have performed with courage and distinction." He sighed. "But sir, it was all for naught."
Ah, thought Chadwick. Now he is coming to it. "Oh?" He settled back in his chair, folding his arms. "And why is that?"
Difficult as it was to do so, Bush knew the words had to be spoken. "All the contraband, sir...all that was stored in the Customs House, awaiting transport...all of it is gone. Carson's men raided the Customs House four nights past, and took back all we had taken from them. We were at sea at the time, sir." He steeled himself for the recriminations to come; instead Chadwick merely grunted an acknowledgment.
Bush frowned; the admiral did not appear to be the least bit surprised by the news. "So you knew of this, sir?"
Chadwick smiled tightly. "Before you did, Captain."
"Sir?" Bush's frown deepened.
"Rumour, Captain, nothing more." That it was clearly much more was patently obvious even to Bush, though Chadwick's expression made it equally evident that further queries would be most unwelcome... and would remain unanswered
"But I do still have these, sir." Bush extracted a packet of papers from the inner pocket of his uniform coat. "A signal book, and these letters. The importance of the signal book is clear, sir... but I see no significance to the letters; they discuss mere trivial matters. I assume the lugger from which we took them must have been carrying the post."
"You read them, then, Captain?"
"No, sir." Bush reluctantly admitted. "Lieutenant Fanshawe translated them for me. And Captain Turpin offered to do so as well."
Chadwick pursed his lips, lost in thought. "And what of Turpin, Captain? Do you believe that he was involved in this affair? "
"No, sir," Bush replied, shaking his head emphatically. "Turpin's injuries were real enough. Carson has threatened the lives of his wife and family, and I have every reason to believe that he would make good those threats were Turpin to act against him."
"As you have so boldly done."
"Well...yes, I suppose so, sir." Chadwick was astonished to see Bush color slightly, as if faintly embarrassed at the approbation. "We have."
"And I trust you will continue to do so." The elderly admiral rose, signalling that the interview had reached its end. He slowly walked Bush to the massive door, then swung round to face him, eye to eye, all trace of formality gone. "But have a care, Captain Bush; I fear you are navigating treacherous waters."
Bush grinned. "I have weathered worse, sir."
"Indeed." Chadwicke thrust out his hand; as Bush took it, the admiral studied him closely. Bush's blue eyes were lively in his tanned and weatherbeaten face, his hand hard and calloused in the admiral's frail grip. Chadwick returned the smile. "And so you have."
Bush manfully stifled a despairing sigh. The return journey from Portsmouth to Mount's Bay was rapidly proving to be fully as tedious as their arrival; perhaps even more so, as Fanshawe seemed determined to recount - in extraordinary detail - his meeting with his uncle, Admiral Summerscales. Bush had retired early the previous night, and had thus been spared an immediate recitation, though now it appeared he was a captive audience with no avenue of escape. "Of course, I told him everything," Fanshawe had declared.
This was a thought which discomfited Bush in the extreme; in fact, it made him cringe. The less heard on that subject the better, he thought, and thus replied to Fanshawe's incessant commentary with the most noncommittal of sounds, though the young man - to his dismay - continued undeterred. Bush allowed the words to fade into the background as he considered his own audience with Chadwick. He had expected far worse; in fact, had feared immediate reassignment. Chadwick's response - or lack of it - to the loss of the contraband was indeed perplexing. And even more disquieting was the notion that Chadwicke had somehow known of the theft. But how...
Bush dragged his thoughts back to the present. The coach was quiet, and Fanshawe was regarding him with a decidedly wounded expression. His distraction must had been obvious; the thought shamed him. He of all people should know better, as he had been the unhappy recipient of a similar careless disregard often enough.
He sighed; guilt was far worse than boredom. "My apologies. Go on, Mr. Fanshawe..." though his words were interrupted by a quick shake of the young officer's head as he felt the coach's leisurely progress slow even further.
"No matter, sir." Fanshawe peered briefly out the dusty window and turned back to his captain with a gentle smile. "It can wait. It appears we have an opportunity to leave this infernal box at last."
Both men disembarked gratefully at the steps of a small post house. The coachman had informed them that the horses were to be rested - from what, precisely, Bush was not certain - and there would be sufficient time for some refreshment.
They stooped to enter through the low doorway, and found the post house crowded and buzzing with conversation. They eventually managed to locate a small vacant table; and had hardly seated themselves before a plump serving girl appeared, bearing two brimming mugs of ale. Bush took a long and appreciative draught, sat back in the chair with a contented sigh, and grinned at his young lieutenant. "Good stuff, this..."
In place of a reply, Fanshawe frowned, cocked his head as if listening to some far-off sound, and held up a hand in warning.
"What is it, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush studied the young man, concern mounting in his eyes.
Fanshawe wordlessly shook his head, then abruptly pushed back his chair, rose, and approached a nearby table. He spoke quietly but urgently with the men seated there, then returned, his expression grimly set. He sat down heavily and searched Bush's face for a time, as if reluctant to speak.
"Sir..." He faltered, and began again. "Sir...those men passed through Mount's Bay this morning. I could not help but overhear..."
"Spit it out, damn you." Bush growled, denying the sudden chill in his bones. God, what was it? His ships...his men...
"Sir..." Fanshawe took a deep breath. "They say that an innkeeper was found dead in Mount's Bay this morning...a woman. They did not hear her name...but rumours mention smuggling...and Harry Carson..."
"Dear God." Bush closed his eyes for a moment, stricken. "Mara."
* Quoted verbatim - aside from the necessary substitution of names and dates - from a note left for the captain of the revenue cutter Speedwell, c.1700.
Bush sat in shocked, defeated silence for a space, then passed a hand over his drawn face and sighed explosively. The legs of his chair grated a harsh complaint as he thrust it violently from the table; it teetered a moment as Bush rose and strode abruptly for the door without a backward glance.
Fanshawe scrambled to his feet and followed, eventually joining his captain as he stood on the steps of the inn, staring at the empty mail coach with a poisonous loathing. "Damn..." Bush snarled. "We cannot depart from this squalid little town for an hour at least, and then travel at a snail's pace besides." He regarded his young lieutenant intensely. "And that will not do. Find us some sort of transport out of here."
Fanshawe skeptically considered the ramshackle stable that leaned adjacent to the inn. "I cannot imagine they have much to offer, sir."
"Goddamn it, Fanshawe, anything will serve. A phaeton or a dung-cart...I do not care. Just get it." Bush's eyes flashed dangerously. "NOW."
"Aye, sir." Fanshawe nodded and hurried off, caught up in Bush's urgency.
Bush's face was dark with an ill-concealed mixture of anger and resentment as he glared at the horses dozing, listless and slack-hipped, in the stableyard. Time was, he thought irritably, that he would have had a mount saddled and been long gone by now. But...damn it...not anymore.
He began to pace with the feverish intensity of a man who knew that he must, simply, move - even if there was nothing more to be done. To his relief Fanshawe eventually appeared, nervously driving a rather disreputable looking cart; though the horse, to Bush's eye, appeared sound enough. The young man looked up guardedly, as if expecting his captain's disapproval. "I am sorry, sir...this is the best I could find."
Bush grunted disparagingly. "It will do, Mr. Fanshawe. It must." He hoisted himself into the seat and slid over, taking the reins from his surprised lieutenant. He gathered them up with an easy familiarity, and immediately set the horse into a brisk trot.
The cart rattled and bounced along the narrow road to Mount's Bay. Bush concentrated on the driving, saying nothing, though his face was pale and pinched with apprehension. Fanshawe watched him closely, though he could not begin to fathom his captain's thoughts. He had been initially somewhat astonished at the intensity of Bush's reaction; but, upon reflection, he came to realize that perhaps it was not so surprising after all. Bush was of course accustomed to the necessary losses of battle: but Mara Bryce had been a civilian, and a woman, and - if rumour were true - her loss may have been a deliberate, violent act.
Fanshawe sighed sadly, deeply troubled. Admittedly, Mrs. Bryce had been a forbidding soul, though she had softened somewhat in her treatment of Bush's lieutenants when Bush himself was absent. And of course there was the disconcerting encounter in her kitchen; she had obviously been weeping, and thus was not entirely the prickly and unreachable creature she had first appeared. Neither, come to think of it, was his captain.
And the depth of his captain's despair was too painful to watch and endure in this useless, frozen immobility. Fanshawe could withstand it no longer, and quietly ventured "We do not know for certain, sir, after all...perhaps it is someone else."
Bush rounded on him with fearsome rage; he had never before
seen his captain so angry.
"Damn you and your damned childish prattle, Fanshawe! " he roared, his face suffused with fury. "It can BE no one else. "
They passed the best part of an hour in mute discomfort. Fanshawe, wishing to avoid further exposure to Bush's wrath, prudently held his tongue. He sat stiffly, helplessly wondering what he might say or do...needing to do something, but finding it quite beyond his grasp to argue with his captain on his captain's own behalf. He knew full well that Bush had had no choice but to use the information Mrs. Bryce had provided; he would have been derelict in his duty - no better than Turpin - had he not. And that damning information had been given freely; his captain bore no more guilt for this than he would for the death of any man lost in battle. But Fanshawe also knew that his captain's anger - and his stiff-necked pride - would not permit him to acknowledge the cold truth of it. Thus the wall of silence remained between them, dense and impenetrable.
A heavy sigh prompted Fanshawe to hazard a tentative glance in his captain's direction. Bush's blue eyes were bleak; his gaze did not shift from the roadway before him, but he began to speak, so quietly at first that Fanshawe had to strain to hear the words over the rhythmic beat of the horse's hooves. "I am sorry, Mr. Fanshawe. I have no right to abuse you for my own failure. You bear no blame for this. But if I caused her death...for my own satisfaction...to prove something, that I was still capable..."
Fanshawe frowned. "But sir..."
Bush ignored the interruption completely. "It is one thing to be willing to risk my own life...that is the way of the Navy; I have known and accepted that risk since I was little more than a child. But who am I to have risked the life of another? I should have known. Turpin was right, it is a dangerous thing to interfere."
Bush once again fell silent for a time, but was ultimately astonished to find normal conversation possible and - almost - welcome. "Mr. Fanshawe, do you know what happened to William Galley and Daniel Chater...a Kentish revenue officer and his informant?" His voice was deceptively mild.
Fanshawe, realizing that this time an answer was indeed called for, murmured "No, sir."
"They had had some success against the Hawkehurst smugglers...at least until they vanished. It seems the Hawkehurst men killed them both. They had been beaten insensible, then dragged behind a horse...one was buried alive, and the other thrown - still living - into a dry well, and heavy stones rolled in upon him. And they are not the only ones. Thomas Griffin of Turnbridge had also been an able man. He was found several days after he had gone missing - alive, but tied to a post, with both eyes gouged from his head. He was," Bush said dryly, "far less able thereafter."
Fanshawe concealed a shudder. "You did not ask for her aid, sir. She..." The look in Bush's pale eyes caused him to sensibly leave the rest unsaid.
After what seemed an inordinate stretch of hours, they at last reached the Two Brothers, though Bush's heart sank even as it came into view. The inn was only dimly lit, despite the gathering darkness; its emptiness mocked him, and confirmed his worst fears. He was out of the cart in an instant, wordlessly tossing the reins at Fanshawe, leaving him behind to see to the exhausted horse. He clattered noisily into the inn, moving faster than he had ever thought he could...it was vacant, deserted...and blundered through the common room to burst through the kitchen door.
Mara Bryce, up to her elbows in a washtub, looked up at him blankly.
"Dear God," he blurted. "I...I thought you were dead."
"Dead?" She paused to consider this, momentarily perplexed. Understanding slowly dawned, replacing her confusion with a profound disgust. "Hardly. Disappointed, are you? No...old Liza Fielding - you'll know her as Mother Redcap - must have been struck by an apoplexy last night. They found her in her kitchen this morning." She scowled crossly. "The whole town seems to be there, tonight."
"Disappointed?" Bush repeated incredulously, his overwhelming relief giving way to astonishment. "I feared Carson had got to you...that he gained some knowledge of your aid to us, and ...and silenced you."
Mara stared, speechless for a long moment, then shook her head in a mockery of disbelief. "This possibility has just become clear to you? Then you are even more stupid than I gave you credit." She glared at him, her eyes flashing, and planted her hands firmly on her hips, heedless of the dripping soap. "Or are you simply more callous? You have used me, just as your damned navy uses its men with no thought at all of the risk to their lives, or for those who are left behind. How dare you burst in here, suddenly full of mawkish fear for my welfare? Am I to believe you? I am merely a means to an end to you." Her voice hardened into a derisive sneer. "You keep your damned concern. I do not want it. Least of all from you...you...you pathetic shell of a King's man."
"God damn your eyes, woman," Bush hissed. "I have given..." He bit the words off sharply before he could reveal more to this...this screeching harridan. This witch was intolerable; why in God's name had he been the least bit concerned for her welfare? He could no longer restrain his temper - and he no longer cared to attempt it. He spat the words out, each one laced with a harsh and virulent rage. "Madam, I deeply regret whatever it is was that has been done to you, whatever has made you what you are...but..." he thundered, in a voice still capable of reaching the masthead in a full gale "...may I remind you that I bear no responsibility for it."
She easily matched him in both fire and volume. "And I might say the same to you."
They glared malevolently at one another; each gone to quarters, all guns run out, their anger smoldering like slow-match. Bush's eyes narrowed; he readied his broadside, waited for the uproll...and hauled down his colours. A slow smile spread across his face. "I strike."
She had held the weather gage, after all.
Brendan, retrieving a keg from the cellar storeroom, froze in mid-stride. He had heard the angry voices above him; some poor sot was getting the sharp edge of Mara's tongue, but he had given it little thought. It was surely common enough, anymore. But this? This was a sound he had not heard for...well, for far too long...and had hardly expected to ever hear again.
It was her laughter, silvery and genuine; now joined by a deeper, resonant counterpoint.
And it worried him.
Evelyn Fanshawe stood stock-still in the inn's kitchen door, unable to believe his eyes. Mara Bryce was obviously very much alive - and, to his sheer astonishment, she and his captain were laughing together with unrepressed abandon, like uninhibited children. Despite their mirth, they must have heard him enter: with visible effort, they collected their wits and turned, still smiling, to greet him.
"It seems, Mr. Fanshawe, that you were correct." A trace of apology crept quietly into Bush's smile. "It was someone else, after all."
Fanshawe grinned, delighted. "It pleases me to no end to discover it, sir." He turned to Mara. "Captain Bush was most distraught at the prospect of your loss, ma'am; he ..."
Bush shot the young man a reproving glance, interrupting him before he could reveal too much. "Surely you exaggerate, Mr. Fanshawe," he said, with mock severity - though fervently hoping his lieutenant would perceive the truth veiled within the jest.
Fanshawe did, it seemed, and nodded. "I suppose I do, ma'am - but we were indeed concerned for your safety."
Relieved, Bush turned back to Mara. Too late: the damage was done, the fragile spell already broken. Her smile had flown, and her face had gone suddenly ashen, though it rapidly settled back into its usual closely shuttered mask.
Still deathly pale, she lifted her chin and glared haughtily down her nose at both of them. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have chores to attend to." She marched from the room - abandoning the task in which she had been engaged, entirely forgotten.
Bush mastered his surprise and confusion, hastily concealing it behind the unreadable countenance of a captain. "As do we, Mr. Fanshawe," he snapped. "As do we." He turned on his heel and strode purposefully from the inn, more than willing to leave those dark and unfathomable waters astern.
Fanshawe could do nothing but follow.
Bush nodded to the side-party as he was piped aboard the Witch, infinitely grateful for the return to a world over which he held some measure of control - a world that had sense, and order. He turned to Fanshawe as the young man emerged through the entry port. "Mr. Fanshawe, hoist to Greyhound 'Captain repair on board'. I shall expect you both in my cabin upon Dawes' arrival."
"Aye, sir." Fanshawe responded, touching his hat. "Make the signal, Fitzgerald." He watched attentively as the seaman bent on the proper flag and sent it soaring aloft. Despite the growing darkness, Greyhound immediately repeated the signal and dropped a boat: no need to fire a signal gun. Dawes obviously had been awaiting the summons, and had set a man to watch for it. Fanshawe smiled in admiration: it would be good to see Dawes again.
Belowdecks, Bush stepped into his small cabin, appreciating its homely familiarity. The lamps had been lit in anticipation of his return; the dim light comfortably revealed that everything was the same, as he had left it. He sank into a chair with a sigh, and closed his eyes, seeking a moment's respite from his disordered thoughts. But a sharp sense of discomfort persistently intruded upon that fleeting peace. He reluctantly opened his eyes and looked about the room once more. He had been quite wrong: all was in place, but nothing was the same. He had left this vessel secure in the straightforward knowledge of his mission - to control smuggling on this coast - and had returned sure of nothing at all, except the certainty that there was far more at stake than he knew...or was permitted to know.
The intense preoccupation with Mara Bryce's wellbeing had temporarily driven that harsh reality from his consciousness - an insight that perplexed him in the extreme - but it had now returned with a vengeance. There was no time to consider it, though, he realized as a tap on the cabin door roused him from his musing. "Enter," he called, curtly.
He rose as Dawes, followed closely by Fanshawe, ducked through the low doorway.
"Please be seated, gentlemen." As his lieutenants arranged themselves at the table, Bush poured three glasses of brandy, though leaving his own untouched as he restlessly prowled the small confines of the cabin. He had seen their earnest faces: eager for news, for action, for a plan...
And he had none of these, not yet, but there was no good in keeping it from them. As a subordinate he had been left in the dark more often than not. But he had always known that his captain was fully prepared for any eventuality, ready to emerge victorious by some brilliant stroke of innovation. His silence might cause his own officers to reach a similar conclusion - and he could not bear the thought of it. He ceased his pacing, settling himself in his own chair between them. "Gentlemen, there is precious little to tell you." He studied the two young men soberly. "I am not even certain why my presence was requested. The meeting with Admiral Chadwick was short, and it seemed pointless. He merely required me to recount our progress to date - information which was contained in my reports. But he seemed to wish it delivered directly from me."
Dawes winced. "You must have found it difficult, sir, to tell him of the loss of the contraband."
"Indeed." Bush admitted. "But he already knew of it - before I did, he said."
"He did, sir?" Fanshawe eyed him curiously. "But how?"
"How?" Bush had tortured himself with the same question a hundred times since. "God knows; Admiral Chadwick did not say." He frowned speculatively. "I think the better question asked is 'Why?'. Why did he not share that information with me? And why did he wish to interview me to no apparent end?"
"Begging your pardon, sir..." Dawes hesitated uncertainly. "But did he appear to suspect that you might be in collusion with the smugglers?"
"What?" Bush flared, incredulous, though the fire in his eyes was swiftly extinguished. "I...I do not know," he mused. "I had not considered that. It seemed," he shook his head, as if doubting his perceptions, "more as if he were seeking something from me."
Dawes frowned. "And do you believe he found it, sir?"
"Do you know, Dawes...I think perhaps he did. When the interview was ended, he appeared to be..." Bush groped for words. "Content. Satisfied. He wished me success...and warned me, as I left."
"Warned you, sir?" Fanshawe inquired, intrigued. "Warned you of what, precisely?"
"Of danger," Bush said slowly, remembering the admiral's voice and the intense, almost fanatical, glint of his eyes. "Of 'treacherous waters', as he put it." He carefully studied the rapt faces of his lieutenants. "Though much help that was. So we must be watchful. But in the meantime, we will continue our pursuit of Harry Carson. We will cut off this damned serpent's head before it has the opportunity to strike, and we will use every means we have to do so." He eyed them defiantly; defying his own sentiments as well. "Whatever the cost."
"Sir?" The incredulous gasp escaped before Fanshawe could suppress it.
Bush's eyes flashed dangerously. "Whatever the cost, Mr. Fanshawe. I was concerned for Mrs. Bryce, but..." he hesitated fractionally, "...but I was quite mistaken."
Something in his voice made Dawes look up sharply to study his captain's face. The lines about Bush's mouth had deepened; his blue eyes were grim and troubled. Mystified, Dawes opened his mouth to comment, and closed it again at the almost imperceptible shake of Fanshawe's head.
"But mistaken no longer," Bush avowed, in a tone that brooked no discussion. "I believe there is more in the balance than a few casks of contraband - and it is of far greater importance than any of us."
He watched with a rare touch of pride as both young men regarded him calmly, ready to do whatever he asked of them without question. Each was doubtless full of uncertainty, though neither would dare express such emotion to him. He recalled his own days as a lieutenant, though rarely alone as these men were; the wardroom had seen its full measure of shared anxieties and bravado.
Fanshawe looked up at the sound of the cutter's bell, and made to rise. "I beg your pardon, sir; I have the watch."
Bush shook his head. "I shall take it, Mr. Fanshawe." He regarded the two young officers sternly, though the flickering lamplight revealed a glimmer of humour lurking in the depths of his blue eyes. "Stay, Mr. Dawes: Greyhound can manage without you for a while longer, I should think. And I shall take it amiss if the level of brandy in that decanter has not fallen by the time I return."
As the cabin door closed behind their captain, Dawes refilled their glasses, settled comfortably back into his chair, and studied his friend closely. "That was clearly only part of the story. What in God's name happened?"
Fanshawe snorted derisively. "I wish to God I knew. During our return today, we heard vague rumour of the death of a woman innkeeper here in Mount's Bay; rumour that also alluded to smuggling, and Harry Carson."
Dawes gasped, appalled. "Mrs. Bryce?"
"No, though that was our conclusion as well. When we believed she had perished at Carson's hands, Captain Bush was quite undone - at once both distraught and fearsomely enraged. It was...difficult...to watch, James."
And, Dawes considered wryly, equally difficult to be the only target at hand, no doubt. He must have borne the brunt of Bush's rage and distress, though it was most interesting that Fanshawe had voiced concern and not complaint.
"I have no idea what passed between them when he discovered that we were in error: by the time I found them, they were laughing together." Fanshawe shook his head in well-remembered amazement. "Laughing. And yet...when I clumsily revealed the depth of Captain Bush's concern for her, she became..." He paused, searching for words to adequately describe that which he did not understand.
Dawes grimaced, and supplied a word from his own acquaintance. "Repelled."
"No, I think not." Fanshawe frowned, considering it. "Strangely, James, I believe what I saw in her eyes was terror...the terror of a trapped animal, with no hope of escape. How Captain Bush perceived it, I do not know. He did not pursue it, and has not spoken of her since."
"Small wonder," Dawes growled, and changed the subject. "And you, Ev...what was it like, returning to your old haunts?"
"Extraordinary." Fanshawe stared thoughtfully into the amber depths of his brandy. "It was...an awakening, perhaps. It was a long - and quiet - journey home at times, which granted me much opportunity for thought...and..." he faltered briefly, discomfited. "And an example to observe."
He fell silent, idly tracing the lip of the goblet with a finger, pondering how much to reveal. Dawes made no comment, but Fanshawe sensed the man watching him, waiting, in his very silence inviting him to share it. He had been isolated aboard the Witch for too long with no one in whom to confide: he felt suddenly overcome by the need to articulate the thoughts that had so occupied his mind that day, and the words spilled out, far beyond any control.
"James, I saw that life as I had never seen it before. My old friends welcomed me - their long lost Evelyn - back into their world of wealth and ease. And I had been so eager to return to it. But I found it different, changed. Hollow, somehow. I did not know precisely why - not until this afternoon, when it all became evident. It seems that I am no longer the man I was - if I had been a man at all. That life - everything that I had thought so important - is empty, devoid of anything but the pursuit of pleasure, and has no purpose. No meaning, and nothing to be accomplished or risked. It is a life in which the measure of a man is counted by his titles and his wealth, and not by his ability, or his courage, or his honour." He at last looked up from his glass to study Dawes, his brown eyes intense even in the half-light. "I would not - no, I cannot - go back. Not now, not ever. And, strangely, I am grateful."
"Although we are a most unlovely lot?" Dawes smiled sardonically.
"Because of it, perhaps." Fanshawe heaved a melancholy sigh. "But the Bard has said it far better than I:
'In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
none can be thought deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty; but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks, o'erflourish'd by the devil.'*
Dawes suddenly found himself too moved to speak; drained his glass, instead. The fiery liquid steadied him, and turned his thoughts from their dangerously maudlin course. He cleared his throat harshly. "And your uncle, the Admiral? Did you speak of this to him?"
"I did indeed, though I suspect he hardly believed me at first. He wished to know everything I could tell him about Captain Bush and his methods, and my duties and responsibilities aboard. When I eventually convinced him that I spoke the truth, he began to pepper me with a multitude of questions." He frowned, as a sudden thought struck him. "I do believe I just sat for a proper lieutenant's examination."
Dawes raised an eyebrow. "And did you pass?"
Fanshawe smiled gently. "I believe so. Though he offered me an attractive opportunity to return to..." he hesitated. "To service within the admiralty."
"And you did not accept?" Dawes asked with a ghost of a smile, knowing the answer.
"The Evelyn Fanshawe of six months ago would have leapt at the prospect." Fanshawe's smile faded. "But Ev Fanshawe did not."
Dawes looked up at the sound of the muffled irregular thud emanating from the deck above his head, and listened as it died away for'rd. "Our captain." He studied Fanshawe closely. "Do you still find him...lacking?"
Fanshawe groaned. "I was such an ignorant fool."
"Indeed," Dawes chuckled as he refilled his friend's glass. "But you are learning."
The captain in question paced the weather deck, though his thoughts, to his annoyance, were persistently interrupted by images of his perplexing encounter with Mara Bryce. He at last conceded defeat, and allowed himself a moment to consider it. That woman... He ceased his pacing, and shook his head in resignation. He would never understand her. One moment laughing, the next in flight. It hardly mattered. He had, of course, weakly given in to sentiment, foolishly dismayed that his clumsy attempts at gathering information had caused the death of an innocent - a woman, at that. And she had laughed at his honest concern for her, then been repulsed by the very thought of it. It was not the first time for that, and was surely not to be the last; he had best get used to it. He sighed, resumed his pacing, and forcibly turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand.
It was not long, however, before his mind conjured a sudden memory of another captain pacing endlessly on quarterdecks past. Bush had always observed Hornblower's pacing with a reverence akin to awe: it was not to be interrupted, for he knew with unshakeable certainty that his captain's deliberately measured steps produced immeasurably astute cogitation. Bush realized grimly that his own pacing was no doubt done in unconscious imitation: it was a great pity that duplication of the insight was a far more difficult thing.
He would simply have to do the best he could.
*Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. Act III, Scene IV