Run Aground
by Idler

Chapter 24

Hinges creaked and Bush snapped upright, stifling an oath: the movement had proved violently painful, as his chin had sunk nearly to his chest as he slept in the unforgiving wooden chair. The persistent dull roar in his ears and the ache in his skull made focused thought elusive, and he blinked in momentary confusion. Only thick darkness showed outside the windowpane ...dear God, how long had he been here? But Fanshawe's hand was warm in his, and that was all that truly mattered...

No. Clear memory of the enormity of all that had happened struck Bush with the ferocity of a physical blow, banishing any thought of physical discomfort and turning his soul to ice. No, it was not all. Not nearly.

"Get him out of here," a harsh voice rapped sharply, in the manner of one accustomed to demanding - and receiving - ready obedience.

Bush, now fully awake, bristled at the tone and turned irritably toward the source of the command. A stout, balding man stood in the doorway, assessing him with unconcealed distaste. Small wonder, Bush realized with sudden, bitter disgust. He must be a sight indeed...the blanket had fallen unnoticed to the floor as he slept, plainly revealing his still sand-covered shirtsleeves and trousers and, to his chagrin, the absence of a limb.

He opened his mouth to issue a sharp retort - he had a lifetime of experience in dealing with such impertinence - but shut it again as Mara appeared at the man's shoulder, drawing him aside to offer a few quiet words.

The man turned back to Bush and nodded, but did not smile. "My apologies, Captain. I did not realize who you were, given..." He pursed his lips, curbing the tactless remark. "Still, sir, I must insist..."

"Indeed." Bush snapped; he was not above giving vent to his wrath at the man's expense. There was much, after all, to be angry about. "You might have asked."

The man raised an eyebrow at that. "Quite so." He crossed the room to offer Bush a conciliatory hand. "Doctor Philip Greene."

Bush accepted the hand but eyed the man coldly, giving no ground. "Captain William Bush."

"I must attend to your officer, sir, and I would ask that you allow me to do so. I shall inform you as soon as I am finished." Greene studied Bush gravely, assessing the livid bruises on his temple and wondering at what damage lay beneath. "And see to you, as well."

Bush shook his head in firm refusal. "I do not require your attention." Further exercise of his temper, however, was forced to bow to necessity. "Though if I am to leave here, I do require the means to do so." His eyes flickered to the floor where the wooden leg lay abandoned where he had hurled it, far out of his reach.

Greene followed his gaze and nodded. "Ah. Of course." It was plain enough how the thing had come to rest there, thus he prudently refrained from further comment.

As Greene moved to retrieve the errant limb, Bush gently disentangled his fingers from Fanshawe's limp hand. By the time Greene turned back, he was waiting with all the dignity his disheveled condition would permit. He accepted the appendage with a curt nod of thanks, and quickly restored it to its proper place.

Bush stood and turned away, though he was struck by the sudden - and very real - fear that this was perhaps the last time he would see Fanshawe alive. He turned back, and studied the young man for a long moment, then reached down to touch his shoulder. It felt deceptively sound, warm and solid beneath his fingers, and his eyes betrayed him - they burned painfully for a moment, and he had to blink and master his emotion before he could trust himself to face the doctor again.

Composure regained, Bush straightened and nodded to Greene, his face closed, unreadable. He left Fanshawe's side and made his determined way to the door, steadfastly defying the almost overwhelming temptation to look back. Farewells were difficult enough, he had found, and once made were best left behind.

Mara was awaiting him in the narrow hallway, her face a match for his in its severity. "How long has it been since you have eaten?" she demanded. Without waiting for an answer, she took his arm as a lady ought, though Bush had the uneasy suspicion that she was making herself available in case he needed her support. "Come...you must eat. The doctor will find us, when he is done. First, however..." she paused, and eyed him critically. "There is a bit of hot water awaiting you."

They walked slowly and in silence until they reached the door to Bush's own room. To his extreme relief, Mara slipped her hand from his arm, apparently satisfied that he could, indeed, manage this much on his own.

She nodded briskly. "I shall be waiting here, should I be needed."

Bush gratefully closed the door behind him, and proceeded to make fair use of the small comfort Mara had provided. He watched with a strange detachment as the clean, steaming water turned murky, tainted with the grime he methodically washed from his body. It was not the first time he had cleansed himself of the stains of battle - far from it. In a lifetime of service, he had faced the unpleasant, dirty aftermath of many an engagement, and had stood to watch as more than a few fellow officers had been committed to the deep. His mood then had been one of deep regret, but it had been tempered by the knowledge that he, at least, had survived. There had been little time to further pursue such introspection - the frantic activity required to return a damaged vessel to a state of readiness always saw to that.

But this time was far, far different. This was not the carefully ordered world of an efficient First Lieutenant - a world in which, under his direction, all damage was repaired and disorder immediately put to rights. He had always assumed that the gritty details of such matters were not properly the captain's concern. But that, he was discovering, was hardly the case, and that damage extended far deeper than timber and cordage - he could no longer indulge in such simple clarity. As captain, he was now acutely aware that some things could never be put to rights, and were never to be made whole again. Still, the damage must be faced and dealt with. It was simply the way of the Service, like it or not.

He dragged a comb through his damp hair, taming the unruly waves as best he could, and meticulously retied his queue. As he moved, it seemed that every part of his body protested the abuse that had been forced upon it these few days past. Mentally damning his unaccustomed frailty, he dressed slowly and carefully in the clean linen Mara had set out for him - she must have appreciated his regard for proper decorum, and sent someone to the Witch to obtain it even as he slept. He shrugged awkwardly into his uniform coat, tugged his waistcoat into place, straightened his neckcloth, and studied himself critically in the mirror. Mara had brushed the evidence of battle from his coat, and surprisingly, it looked none the worse for wear.

He sighed, disgusted. Pity the same could not be said for him.

He regarded his reflection with a merciless eye, grimly recalling the last time he had done so. He had faced the mirror in the waiting room at the admiralty, just before Admiral Chadwick had offered him this post. It seemed a lifetime ago...and, in fact, it was.

At the time, he had chafed against what he had seen as his future: a future in which he would no longer be regarded as the skilled officer he had become in a lifetime at sea. He had still believed that the man he saw reflected in that mirror was the same man he had always been: capable and strong, resolute and fearless.

But he had been wrong. That man had existed, but another now stood in his place. The man who stared back at him from this mirror looked old. Worn. Tired. The man who once could toil for days without rest had instead slept insensible in a chair while there was work to be done, and duty to perform. His own body had failed him. He had tried his best to carry on as he always had, and had fallen on his face...literally, and most embarrassingly so. It was true, indeed - some damage could never be put to rights, and some things were never to be made whole again. But damage had to be faced, and could not be ignored. True for ships, and equally true for the men who worked them.

Bush squared his shoulders, twitched down his waistcoat for a final time, and glared defiantly at his reflection. He would acknowledge the truth and confront it, and he would do so on his own terms, without excuse or apology. He turned briskly, and barely caught himself in time as the floor lurched treacherously underfoot. He leaned heavily against the washstand until the giddiness subsided. Casting a final disgusted glower at the mirror, he opened the door. Damage must be dealt with and it was time to begin, whether or not he felt ready to do so.

Mara was there in the hallway, patiently awaiting him. He took a bleak satisfaction in the observation that his inner disarray was not outwardly evident, as she nodded a brisk approval at the improvement in his appearance. Though, he recalled with a sudden chill, she had not known him as he once had been.

It was a fair measure of Bush's state of depletion that he allowed himself to be led into a small sitting room and installed at a table near the stone hearth. Mara left him then, after insisting that he would feel much improved if he were only to eat something. Despite her promises, Bush remained unconvinced - the very thought of food made him feel more than a little ill once more.

He did his best not to grimace when she returned to place a steaming plate in front of him. She must have sensed his aversion all the same, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I know. But you must."

It was clearly apparent that she would stand over him until he tried. He made a half-hearted attempt - and soon found that his body triumphed over his emotions.

Mara returned bearing a small glass of brandy just as Bush was mopping the last traces from his plate with a bit of bread. She smiled at him as she settled into the chair opposite his own. "Better," she said kindly, and placed the brandy within his easy reach. As he accepted it, she studied him closely, and was pained by the deep lines of strain still apparent in his face - and there was little more comfort to offer, she thought helplessly, though she did her best. "Be assured, Dr. Greene will do everything one can do. He is...a friend. Brendan rode to Falmouth to fetch him this morning. He was the man who looked after..." she hesitated. "After...my husband."

"Eli." Bush supplied, softly.

She frowned, perplexed. "I never told you."

"But Brendan did."

Her frown deepened. "And what more did he tell you?"

A great deal, Bush recalled, though none of it would be better shared. "Little else," he demurred, unwilling to lie to this woman a second time, as he had regretted the first more than once. The mention of Brendan's name turned Bush's thoughts along a different, and far more pressing tack. He shook his head slowly. "Brendan. He was there, on the beach." His blue eyes narrowed as he defied the pounding in his head to sort through hazy memory. "And he shot Turpin."

Mara nodded. "Indeed he did. And high time it was, too."

"But how did Brendan come to be there at all?" Bush frowned. "Who...who told him of our plans?"

"Of your plans? No one did. Carson knew - courtesy of your man Poole, of course - but he revealed it to none of his men. Brendan was there to help unload and transport the goods." Mara eyed him with thinly veiled disbelief - this man seemed unwilling to accept the simplest and most obvious explanation, thus she felt compelled to provide it with brutal clarity. "He was one of Carson's men."

Bush stared at her, incredulous. "Brendan?"

Mara sighed. "Smuggling is a way of life here, in Mount's Bay. Everyone is involved, whether it be in the act or in the purchase. It was quite true that becoming allied with Carson and his smugglers was a dangerous business...but refusing to do so was frequently fatal." She shook her head slowly in amused disbelief at Bush's evident astonishment - surely it was the blow to his head that had slowed his thoughts to this pedestrian crawl. "And from whom did you think I was getting my information?"

"I never guessed - I had assumed that it was merely overheard...".

"Hardly." She smiled humourlessly. "Brendan obtained it from Carson himself, of course, right along with that fine brandy you're enjoying."

Bush promptly replaced the glass on the table. "You...you were still trading with them?"

"Of course." Mara answered roundly. "How could I do otherwise? I could think of no better means to conceal my aid to you than by continuing my business with him. It was bad enough for me that you were lodging here. Carson always reserved a particularly unpleasant fate for informants."

"But why aid me at all, then?" Bush was still visibly confused. "It was surely not for my benefit - you made that plain enough from the day I first darkened your doorstep."

Mara gravely considered her hands for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not to explain. "You are quite right; it was scarcely that. You - your navy - had cost me my husband." She leaned forward and studied him intently, rapping a forefinger on the table, punctuating her words. "But Harry Carson had already caused the death of one of my brothers; I would not lose another. I have already lost too much. Brendan had joined Carson merely to protect Francis, though..." she sighed heavily. "Though little good came of it. But even after, Brendan could not simply leave his employ - no one who did so remained alive for long - and you and your men were making it equally dangerous for him to stay." She regarded him steadily, her eyes imploring him to understand. "So...it was Carson who had to go. You - God help me - you were my best hope."

Bush stared at her, astounded by her revelation. "So you used me."

"No more than you did me, I'll remind you," Mara snapped. "I did indeed." She glared sharply at him for a long moment, then relented, and her gaze softened. 'At first, ' she added mentally, though she dared not articulate the thought.

Bush interpreted her sudden silence as proof that she had been concerned for no one but Brendan - and herself. He doggedly reviewed the facts as he knew them, finally assembling the pieces of the puzzle that had eluded him for so long. There were still gaps, pieces missing.

"But..." Bush shook his head, and, grimacing, immediately regretted the wisdom of such a precipitous maneuver. "I still do not understand...what was it that made Brendan help us that night?"

"Perhaps it'd be better if Brendan himself explained it."

Bush looked up at the sound of the deep voice to find Brendan smiling down at him, his bulky shape all but filling the doorway. "Good to see you, sir, up and about and takin' nourishment."

"Thank you, Brendan." Bush nodded gravely. "And it seems I owe you my thanks for much more." He indicated a chair, and Brendan settled his expansive frame in it.

He rested beefy forearms on the table, and began. "My pleasure, Cap'n. Harry Carson had many friends in this town, but Mara an' me - we weren't among 'em. I was one of his men - a man has to live, y'see - but I knew him for what he was, sir: the devil himself...a serpent. If you crossed him, he'd strike, an' you'd not go easy. There's nothin' he liked better than to hear you scream an' beg him to let you go quick." His face twisted with disgust. "I'd take my own chances, but I couldn't let that happen to my Mara."

"I'd been told that Harry knew somehow about Mara helpin' you - it's not only Carson who has friends, y'know, sir - so I got her out of his reach quick enough. But I couldn't fathom how he'd found out. I knew of the run that night - we all did - and it would'a been right peculiar had I not been there. So I went, an' I watched. An' when I saw your man Poole with Harry, I knew, an' I knew you'd had a rat in your midst all along."

He leaned across the table, his expression intense. "You'd be walkin' into a trap, sir, and wouldn't likely live to walk out of it. If that happened, Mara would be as good as dead, an' my life wouldn't have been worth much either. My best bet was to stay, an' to help you if I could."

"After you came ashore, an' all hell broke loose, I spotted Cap'n Turpin. At first I thought he had come an' brought men to help you, but when he took aim at Lieutenant Dawes, I knew different. It all made sense to me then. Before you came, sir, Turpin hadn't been able to stop us because hadn't honestly tried to. He was one of us - though he put plenty of us in the gaol to save his own hide." He regarded Bush solemnly. "Dawes is a good man, an' I couldn't let him come to grief because of that scum. So I gave Turpin what he deserved - a bullet in his connivin' brain."

After that, sir, I did what I was able to do, fightin' alongside your men. I saw what Harry did to you, and to young Mr. Fanshawe." He shook his head angrily. "I only wish I could'a got to him before Lieutenant Dawes did...I'd a' gladly killed him myself."

"Soon as Carson fell, his men lost their nerve an' ran. I stayed, an' helped get you an' your wounded back to th' ship." His face sobered. "Poor Mr. Fanshawe...he sensed he was goin' fast, an' he did his best to tell Dawes everything he knew. God, sir...it was an awful thing to watch. An' sir..." he paused, questioning the wisdom of the decision to tell Bush the rest of it. But Bush had to know, and Fanshawe had earned that much. "All the while he kept askin' for you, prayin' you weren't gone. An' when he finally saw you bein' brought aboard still living, he just smiled, and said it had been worth it."

"Dear God." Bush closed his eyes and rested his head in his hand. Had it been?

Brendan watched Bush in silence for a moment, sensing that no more needed to be said. He stood quietly and nodded to Mara, brother's intuition discerning that she would see to the rest. She knew and understood more than most, and he wished for the moment that he had not come between them. He had believed it had been the right thing to do - he still believed that - but perhaps the right thing to do was not always right, after all.

 

******

 

Greene entered the room to find Bush completely oblivious to his surroundings, instead intently absorbed in writing what he assumed must be an official report. He stood quietly and watched for a moment: Bush was scarcely recognizable as the man he had first encountered, now attired as he was in spotless linen and a freshly brushed uniform coat, queue tidied and tightly wrapped. Greene regarded him clinically. There was little to show for the man's recent experiences, save for the worrisome bruising, and a bit more pallor than one might expect from a man of the sea.

Greene cleared his throat, and Bush looked up, his face businesslike and professional. The Captain's mask had been donned along with the coat, it seemed. "Report, Doctor Greene," he demanded sharply, much as if he were on his own quarterdeck.

"Your young officer is still with us, Captain." Greene pursed his lips and frowned as he shook his head. "The damage to his thigh is not overly serious, though you...." he hesitated delicately, ".....obviously know all too well the dangers of any wound. It is, of course, the abdominal wound which grieves me. It is perhaps not as severe as I first feared, however. It seems strange, sir, but he apparently turned toward his assailant even as the knife entered his body, and the blade impacted the anterior aspect of the iliac crest.....struck the hip bone, sir," he added hastily, in response to Bush's dour scowl. "I do not believe the vitals were pierced, though only time will tell."

"So there is the chance he may survive?"

Bush's tone was detached, dispassionate, though Greene could clearly recall Bush gently touching the young man's shoulder as he left him. The gesture had been strangely paternal - and surprisingly affecting - and very much at odds with this brusque captain who now faced him across the table. He could not bring himself to offer false platitudes nor could he brutally dash all hope; thus, he compromised. "Some. But little more. His condition is grave, and the fever is rising. He has a long and difficult road to travel, and I cannot be certain what lies at its end. Even if he lives, he may never be the same, after."

Bush regarded him expressionlessly: there were no cracks in this captain's mask. "None of us are."

Greene blinked. Perhaps the mask did not conceal everything, after all. "Er...no. I suppose not." He regarded Bush with a far more generous eye - this man was perhaps not nearly as remote as he was striving to appear. "Indulge me for a moment, Captain."

Bush sighed: the man would not be rebuffed, it seemed. "Very well." He closed his eyes and submitted to Greene's inspection of his battered skull. The man's cool fingers deftly probed the bruise, and Bush eventually relaxed under his sure touch, answering his questions without hesitation...though perhaps without admitting those details he deemed to be unnecessary. He opened his eyes as Greene finished.

"You have a hard head, Captain Bush." Greene smiled wryly. "Though I suspect you may have been told that before."

Bush allowed a small smile in response. "Once or twice."

"There is no real damage, though you may have the very devil of a headache and perhaps occasional dizziness for a day or so more." Bush guiltily avoided his eye, confirming his suspicions regarding the extent both of his patient's symptoms and his hardheadedness, and Greene found a measure of amusement in that. "There is nothing I can do beyond suggesting rest, decent food, and the tincture of time." He glanced at Mara as she appeared in the doorway with a tray. "It seems to me that you are already in good hands." He patted her narrow shoulder as he passed, and smiled down at her...though, curiously, she did not return it.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 25

 

 

 

Bush had gone the next day, after a night spent at Fanshawe's side. It had been a sleepless night, one in which hope had risen and ebbed, and risen and ebbed again, echoing the rhythms of the tide that now lapped against the Witch's sturdy planking as she rocked at anchor in Mount's Bay. But there was little to be gained by a death-watch, and - even with Carson gone - Bush still had a sworn duty to perform. Thus he had resolutely put to sea, and with a grim determination prowled the bays and inlets of the rugged Cornish coast. But seven days and nights had passed, and all remained deathly quiet: there were, of course, other men whose Trade would flourish in Carson's absence, though it seemed they had all prudently gone to ground for the moment, unwilling to follow too closely in Carson's footsteps.

So Bush had returned to Mount's Bay with a reluctance equal to that which had accompanied his departure. At sea, there had been a curious comfort in the ability to hold unwelcome news at arm's length. At anchor, unfortunately, it could not be avoided for long.

He could, however, send a messenger in his stead, and not confront it directly. He had called for Dawes, and would dispatch the young lieutenant ashore. As Bush sat at his desk awaiting him, he told himself that Dawes and Fanshawe had been close friends, and Dawes would naturally be eager for news - and, in the same breath, he cursed himself for his cowardice.

He was able to offer some small salve to his conscience by reminding himself that he did, admittedly, have a great deal of work to do. He had sent a tersely worded report to Admiral Chadwick before their departure, but the official account to the Admiralty still loomed before him. He hated the process of writing, of painstakingly constructing the formal reports, all the while knowing that his every word would be reprinted in the Gazette for all to see, and worse, carefully scrutinized and dissected by those damned desk-bound warriors at the Admiralty. He had always been a man of a great economy of words, never using ten where one would suffice. It had been a quality highly prized by harried captains, but one which, to his dismay, had suddenly become a grave liability.

Sighing, he dragged out several sheets of paper, preparing for the numerous revisions he knew from experience to be inevitable. He dipped his pen and began: the introductory copperplate was certainly simple enough. It would be the objective account of the action, and his part in it - or lack thereof - that would prove difficult to write. But it had to be written, and the truth of it, bare and unadorned, would doubtless prove to be his undoing. It was grim enough to dispassionately write of the fate of others, but it was a dismal thing indeed to seal one's own.

He knew that he had ultimately done what Chadwick had asked him to do...yet there were still so many unanswered questions. He had blundered badly; stumbling about in the darkness using instinct instead of intellect, and had wrought a great swath of destruction in the process. It was laughable - almost. Despite his initial trepidations, he had eventually managed to convince himself that he might be equal to the task. But he had been wrong, and other men had paid dearly for it. He had stubbornly, stupidly refused to accept his limitations - all of them - and others had died for his conceit, willingly offering their lives as fair trade for his own. Men had died under his command many times before, but it had never been like this. This time, it was not the French, or the Spanish, or the unforgiving sea. This time, his own failure had killed them.

He thought then of Fanshawe as he had left him, fighting his own battle in the small room at the top of the inn's narrow stairs. Dear God, he thought, he had been wrong about so many things, but none so spectacularly wrong as his assessment of that young man. Would there be an opportunity to rectify his error, or was it already far too late for that?

Bush looked up, his blue eyes ice-cold. Some errors, though, could be set right. He thrust the unfinished report aside, as his honour and sense of duty demanded that another missive be written first. He reached for a clean sheet of paper, dipped his pen, and sat staring at the unblemished surface, unwilling to begin, yet knowing what must be done. The Service had been his life for as long as he could remember, and he had willingly placed it above all else. It had been painful to accept the incapacity suddenly forced upon him, and he had seized the opportunity to prove himself still able. But if he truly valued the Service - and his own integrity - he had to openly admit that, for the first time, he was not.

This admission, made in solitude, colored Bush's thoughts darker still. He had always known his own place and, within it, had served his country and his captain well. Until now. This time he had overstepped his bounds, believing himself capable...or worse, had been blinded by another's reflected glory, and had taken some part of it for his own. This notion was truly repugnant, and lent Bush sufficient impetus to at last put pen to paper. He resolutely embarked upon this final journey, the black marks on the paper irrevocably charting his passage. He had not gone far, however, before a knock at the cabin door roused him from the task.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, rubbing his temples with a hand. "Come," he called, his voice sounding, to his ears, surprisingly composed.

As expected, it was Dawes who stepped through the door. "You wished to see me, sir?"

Bush studied the young lieutenant evenly. "Yes, Mr. Dawes. I posted a report to Admiral Chadwick prior to our departure. Go ashore immediately and determine whether his reply awaits me."

"Aye aye, sir." Dawes responded, and stood quietly awaiting his dismissal.

Bush had resumed his writing even as Dawes replied, and he did not look up from it again. "And see to our wounded, Mr. Dawes." It had been strange indeed to have them ashore, and to be unable to check on them as a captain ought. But he carried no surgeon, and the cutters had precious little space for convalescents...and was no place at all for one whose survival was uncertain.

"Aye, sir." Dawes studied Bush gravely, sensing the depth of his captain's anxiety. He offered what small acknowledgment he could. "And I shall report to you immediately upon my return."

"Very well, Mr. Dawes. You are dismissed." Bush continued to write, avoiding Dawes' eye, and maintained - to his own mind, at least - the fiction of detached authority.

The door closed behind Dawes leaving Bush alone once more, and the only sound in the cabin was the relentless scratching of his pen. It seemed not long, however, before Bush heard the distinctive sound of a boat bumping alongside. His heart sank. He had heard no hail, nor pipes - it had to be Dawes, and the speed with which Dawes had returned promised bad news indeed. Had Fanshawe been alive, Dawes surely would have spent more time at his side.

He heard feet on the companionway, and braced himself for the sharp knock at the door. "Enter," he called, briskly, when it came. Losses had to be faced, and accepted with composure, after all.

Bush looked up from his work, preparing to offer Dawes what inadequate condolences he could muster, but was surprised to find instead a slight figure clad in a plain boat cloak. He stared, momentarily speechless, then was out of his chair and at attention in the space of a heartbeat. "Admiral Chadwick, sir. My humblest apologies..." He glowered darkly at the bos'n, who had suddenly appeared, red-faced and panting, at the admiral's shoulder.

The typically unflappable bos'n was stammering with anxiety. "M' sorry sir...I didn't know...'ee come up t' th' larb'rd side like no one a'tall..."

The little admiral deftly defused Bush's explosion. "Had I wished for ceremony, Captain Bush, I would have given you ample time to provide it." He nodded to the warrant officer standing nervously behind him. "Your bos'n is not at fault."

Bush eyed the bos'n sternly, half-convinced at best. "Dismissed, Mr. Garrity," he growled, "and keep a sharper eye in your head."

As the bos'n mumbled his acknowledgment and fled, Bush turned to Chadwick, who had already begun settling himself in one of the cabin's simple chairs. Chadwick glanced at the welter of papers on Bush's desk. "Your official report to the Admiralty, I presume?" Chadwick looked up at him, his face solemn. "I believe I will need a drink for this, if you might spare one."

Bush felt the color drain from his face, though he kept his expression impassive as he poured an ample measure of brandy and handed it to the Admiral. He had expected this, to be chastised and officially removed from duty. He had not truly fulfilled the Admiralty's expectations. It was as simple as that, and would be dealt with immediately, though he had hoped to do so on his own terms. It was abundantly clear to Bush now that Chadwick's discreet and unheralded arrival was a gift, the admiralty's way of offering a last opportunity to resign with some shred of pride intact. And of course, he thought sardonically, without any official admission of miscalculation on their part.

He abruptly realized that he was still standing immobile at Chadwick's side as the admiral regarded him curiously. "Pour one for yourself, Captain...and do sit down."

Bush complied and was grateful to sink into the other chair, as both legs suddenly felt wooden and vaguely threatened to betray him. He took a deep breath and waited, much as a condemned man waits for the executioner at dawn.

"I spoke with Douglas Summerscales yesterday." Chadwick sighed. "And it is even worse than I thought. I had believed...hoped, almost...that the loss of his wife had unhinged him in some way. Difficult as that would be to accept, it would at least explain his actions. But this...dear God."

Bush shifted uneasily; it was painful to know that his own actions had brought about Chadwick's distress. "Loss changes a man, I suppose, sir."

"Does it? Must it?" Chadwick's deep-set brown eyes flashed; his anger was clearly evident and not yet fully tempered by his sorrow. "Douglas...Admiral Summerscales....deliberately betrayed everything he had ever believed in, and betrayed all those who ever believed in him and counted him as friend. And why?" He shook his head in disgust. "Money. Profit. It was nothing more than that. And he is blind to the extent of his guilt."

Chadwick settled back into his chair, his expression grim. "Harry Carson, as you confirmed, had long been in league with the revenue officer Turpin. I had suspected that even before I assigned you to this post, but I had no direct proof. Turpin covered his tracks well, being just effective enough to dampen my suspicions and pass himself off as merely weak, frightened of the possible consequences of interference." He paused for a moment's reflection. "A fear that is not completely unfounded, as you well know. In the revenue service it is the rare officer who pursues his occupation with enthusiasm at the risk of his own welfare." He considered Bush gravely and offered a sad and fleeting smile. "Most unlike our Navy."

Bush offered no comment, so Chadwick sighed and sipped at his drink. "But it seemed to me that perhaps Turpin enjoyed some greater protection. I had proposed that someone be assigned to quietly investigate smuggling in and around Mount's Bay, but despite some initial interest, my suggestions were summarily dismissed. I began to wonder why."

"At about the same time, I noticed a sea-change in Douglas Summerscales." He shook his head sadly. "My dear friend. As a captain, Douglas had been an unholy terror to the French...but he had not been successful in the acquisition of prize money. It had not been important to him at the time, and I believe he harbored few regrets. But then....his world turned upside down. He was high on the captains' list - acting-commodore, in fact - when he caught some dreadful fever in the Indies. He survived it though his health was broken, and he was quite unable to serve at sea again. Douglas returned to England, to a rear-admiral's post ashore and the arms of his lovely wife, and he seemed content with that. Sadly, she fell ill soon after and lived only a few months' time, leaving Douglas with nothing but his debts. He became increasingly bitter and depressed, though I offered to help in any way I could. But he rejected my aid, and somehow began to repay his creditors nonetheless. I assumed that he had accepted another's help, and I would not intrude upon his pride by questioning him further."

Chadwick took another taste of his brandy and paused for a moment, his eyes faraway and deeply grieved. "I had mentioned my suspicions regarding Richard Turpin to Douglas, and he began to take an interest in my investigations. I thought nothing of it...in fact, I was pleased that he had taken an interest in anything at all. I shared my concerns with him, and we often discussed the matter at great length. I thought myself fortunate to have a trusted friend in whom to confide."

"Though my request for an official land-based action was denied, I hold sufficient influence to conduct further private investigation, and thus I did so. I sent a promising young officer to Mount's Bay in the guise of a laborer. He reported that he had become acquainted with Carson and was gaining his trust...and then he disappeared." Chadwick's eyes hardened. "He has not been heard from since, though his body has not been found."

"It seemed at times that Carson had been forewarned of my actions, and I began to suspect that someone within the admiralty supported his dealings and was passing information to him. I could scarcely believe it - certainly I did not wish to - but I could not in good conscience ignore my suspicions. I knew that no one at the Admiralty could legitimately hinder the assignment of a coastal patrol without arousing suspicion. Thus I sent you." Chadwick regarded Bush with a cold and dispassionate scrutiny that made him want to fidget. "You, with no ties to the admiralty. All reports of you convinced me that you were quite unlikely to come to hasty judgment, and would require considerable evidence and persuasion before formulating a conclusion."

'Slow and stupid, in other words', thought Bush darkly, though he sensibly refrained from comment and studied the depths of his glass instead.

"Nor were you likely to become allied with any conspiracy, should one exist." Chadwick considered him intently. "Your honesty was never in doubt."

'But yours?' Bush thought, and this time he could not hold his tongue. "And what of Evelyn Fanshawe?" he asked quietly, though his voice was flat and faintly accusing. "He was a...a pawn in all of this?"

"No." Chadwick closed his eyes briefly, and sighed. "At least...he was never intended to be. I doubt you are aware of it, but he was assigned to you at his own request. He was adamant...and frankly, I thought it would do him good. God knows he was wasting his life as it was. Later, however, as things became more clear to me I recalled that Douglas was quite alarmed by Fanshawe's transfer, and had sent a man along to mind him." His eyes glinted coldly. "Poole, of course. It meant little to me at the time. But dear God...had I only known."

"I continued to discuss my plans - and your reports - with Douglas. I thought nothing of that...until much later, in the course of conversation, it became clear to me that Douglas knew details that I had not shared with him." Chadwick rose and walked the few paces to the stern window, staring out at the bay, and the sea beyond. "It was difficult to believe that I had been so misled. I realized that it was possible the information had come from Mr. Fanshawe: perhaps innocently...or perhaps not."

"And so you summoned us." Bush frowned; that pointless meeting of several months past suddenly had a purpose indeed. "You wished to take our measure."

Chadwick swung round to study Bush intently. "And I did. I remained convinced of your integrity. I also knew that you were unaware of any corruption within your ranks...it was plain to see that you would never tolerate such behaviour, nor would you conceal your knowledge of it." The admiral smiled. "You fly your colours openly enough, Captain Bush."

Bush was in no mood for compliments, and instead regarded Chadwick coldly. "And what did you learn of Mr. Fanshawe?"

"Mr. Fanshawe..." Chadwick sighed, choosing to overlook the challenge in Bush's blue eyes. "Mr. Fanshawe spent considerable time with Douglas and conveyed a great deal of information as to your activities, though there was never any direct discussion of a conspiracy." He smiled humourlessly. "Douglas' new aide is a man of my own choosing, and provided me with exhaustive detail."

"My first impulse was to remove Fanshawe from your command, but I knew that I must not arouse Douglas' suspicions." He winced, perhaps at the recognition of his own callousness. "Perilous as his situation was, I had to consider it a gift. I had hoped that his presence would deter Douglas from deeper and more sinister involvement, or would provide the proof I needed if Douglas overtly attempted to enlist his aid. Perhaps it would provide the means to get to the truth without unnecessary bloodshed. And if not?" Chadwick's eyes were troubled. "If not, it was no different from what I must always do: knowingly send good men into harm's way."

Bush looked up from his drink, angry now and not bothering to conceal it, convinced that he had little to lose. "And that it was," he snapped. "Clearly the admiral found nothing wrong with the spilling of English blood."

"And for what reason?" Chadwick voiced the question that Bush had left unspoken. "Money. Bitterness. Resentment against a Service that to his mind had used him up, and then spat him out upon the beach like Jonah."

"Bitter enough to betray his country." Bush could find no excuse whatever for such behaviour, only a cold and mounting rage.

"No. Not in the eyes of the Admiralty, at any rate, though I view it somewhat differently." Chadwick shook his head in disgust, though perhaps it would be a distinction sufficient to save his friend from death, if not disgrace. "Douglas took a perverse delight in admitting his dealings when I confronted him. He found a curious satisfaction in allowing Carson to operate under his protection for a percentage of the profits. He told me that as long as there were taxes there would be smuggling, and any attempts to stem that tide were futile. He might as well benefit from it instead, and collect 'what he was owed'. He further justified his actions by disposing of any sensitive documents Carson obtained. Douglas was ostensibly transferring them to French agents in Britain, as far as Carson knew...but was actually selling them back to the Crown through a proxy. He proudly maintained that he was reliably keeping vital information out of the hands of the French, and was making a tidy profit besides."

Bush sat immobile, astounded by the extent of one man's self-deception...and self-absorption. He raised his eyes to Chadwick's, and met them steadily. "And does he know of Mr. Fanshawe, sir?"

"He does." Chadwick sighed, and looked away. "I believe that is the one thing he does regret. I suppose in that regard I am as guilty as he, for despite my personal concerns I deliberately sent Fanshawe back into the lions' den, hoping that he would be of use. To his credit, Douglas did attempt to discourage him, and later even offered an opportunity for a most lucrative return to Whitehall, but Fanshawe would not be persuaded to change his mind."

"That is unfortunate, sir." Bush's tone was glacial. "But at least Fanshawe acted with honour, and as befitting an officer."

Chadwick studied Bush solemnly. "Yes, Captain, it is unfortunate. As are many things we must do for the good of the service."

"Yes, sir." Bush nodded formally, his worst fears realized, now firmly convinced of the true reason for Chadwick's visit. He had best seize the bull by the horns and get it over with. "Sir, I do understand your meaning, and I am currently writing my..."

"Captain Bush." Chadwick snapped, stifling Bush's words with a single, stern glower. "Do not act in haste."

Bush sat silently, awaiting the rest. But Chadwick condescended to offer no more, and instead got to his feet and gathered his cloak. Confused, Bush rose as well. As he followed the elderly admiral out of the cabin and up the companion steps he privately lamented Chadwick's most uncomfortable habit of leaving a great deal unsaid. He would be left with even more to brood upon than before.

"Oh. One more thing, Captain." The admiral turned back, and reached inside his boat-cloak. He withdrew an envelope and handed it to the mystified Bush. "It seems I am employed as post boy, as well."

Bush accepted the envelope and turned it over. He studied his name, written in a strong, bold hand that he knew as well as his own.

Hornblower's hand.