The Price of Steel
by Lady Atropos
The Price of Steel
a romantic sort of AU by Lady Atropos
Thanks to Wendy, the wonderful beta-er
[disclaimer: I do not own or claim to own the creation of or the rights to sell any of these characters and all that crap. I also have not based the Callowrights on anybody; if that is your name, I am sorry. Please don't sue me]
archive: yuppers, if ya don't mind [translation: yes, please J]
rating: PG-13; in some spots in this episode, some implications may get a little graphic, so the second half of this, below the stars is rated R.
~a note from the author: To all those who haven't read the books, y'all can skip this note, and go to the story if you want to. To those who have: in case you weren't aware, CSF wrote Beat to Quarters first, even though it really comes somewhere in the middle now. Because of that, he was already bound to keep Lady Barbara from strutting into HH's life until then, since it was already published that then was their first meeting. However, I do wonder sometimes, that if CSF hadn't had that roadblock, if she would have made an appearance earlier. Therefore, I've changed a few small details to fit it in, and I wrote this to see how HH and Lady Barb would have hit it off had they met earlier, under different circumstances thanks! -Hannah S., aka Lady Atropos. PS, this is my first ever fan fic, so I hope it isn't too bad~
To Non-Note Readers: here's where the story starts!: Please Stop Scrolling, sir
The Price of Steel, Part I
The Master and Commander of HM Sloop Retribution, Horatio Hornblower, walked down the docks of Kingston, his second-best sword at his side. He searched keenly for his newest, well, his first command in his new rank, the very ship that he had helped to capture. He felt an unaccustomed surge of pride at the remembrance of "his noble action," and, as usual, that little wave was immediately stemmed by his inherent self-analysis; he sneered at himself for his use of that over-elaborate phrase. "Your noble action" had been referred to by many an unknowing newspaper writer, or many a King's officer, and it tended to gloss over the decidedly ignoble actions that many times were committed in the process of the King's service.
If the public had heard of his sick fear at looking over the edge of the cliff at the cannon on which Wellard's life hung, if they knew about his consuming anxiety that his plan wouldn't work as he recited it to that poor devil, Buckland, or if they knew of the sheer lonely, black grief that froze his mind and his heart when the man that they assumed was a threat to the service had died for Horatio's reputation, the public would have used a very different phrase to refer to his conduct with which, Horatio thought helplessly.
The news about these far-away happenings probably wouldn't
be anywhere near as glamorous by the time they reached England,
either; not due to the scandal involved, but simply because the
population back home wouldn't care about what would be by that
time a long resolved matter involving an unlasting victory in
a distant sea. Sheer apathy: that was what he
and his men had to look forward to. Horatio wasn't concerned for his own fame; he was still an agonizingly shy boy in his most secret thoughts, and always would be, even though to the world he was an authority-bearing young commander. Horatio, in his current rank, could expect to be ignored if he achieved an unlikely victory, just as he knew that he would be a professionally ruined, severely reprimanded, sorry son of a bitch if he committed even the slightest of errors.
With the usual indecision of the Navy, the "higher authorities" would pass off a hard-won triumph as simply a part of the duty expected of an officer, if they perceived that giving a valiant, but unheard-of, man praise didn't further *their* careers in any way. At the same time, they had every right and power by law to ruthlessly destroy any small man for an even smaller misjudgment. When it came to a large man and a large derangement, "such as insanity," thought Horatio, they had every *responsibility* and *obligation* by law to cover it up, make it vanish.
Such were the vagaries of Lords and Earls who had never had to rise through the ranks themselves, whom by friends or family in Court had been steadily promoted, trampling all those unfortunates who stood in their way and making no allowances for more worthy men of lesser birth. "If I ever become Captain," thought Horatio, "if I ever get that kind of power, I'll show the Navy how to be a leader." Once again, he was overcome by a sick wave of self-loathing, as he chided himself that he wasn't a leader now, and would never make a leader. Not even Captaincy could make a leader out of him, he reproached himself. Horatio was never comfortable when he saw that men respected him, and that was not because of the cowardice that he suspected of himself, either; he wondered bleakly if the men would still trust him if they knew what went through his head before every battle. Would they still use the name of his courageous spirit as a rallying cheer if they knew how, in the aftermath of his dearest friend's death, every bright Kingston day, every cheerful harbor afternoon was dark to Horatio, holding for him alone the memory of a twisted captain's horrifying mental state at the moment of his demise?
Horatio tried in vain to shake off these lonely thoughts as he stepped up to the end of the dock. A couple of wherry men in a diminutive rowboat looked up at him expectantly, assuming correctly that a man wearing a naval uniform, especially one with the much sought-after epaulette on his left shoulder, standing at the end of the docks at Kingston would request, would require passage to one of the ships anchored there. Horatio didn't need to say a word as he concentrated on swinging his gangling frame awkwardly into the boat, and as soon as he was positive that he wasn't about to lose his balance and pitch himself overboard in a most undignified manner, he murmured "Pull for the Retribution."
He was a very unsociable passenger that night, but even if he hadn't been haunted by his depression, even if Archie had been sitting next to him, he would have been too reserved, no, just too timid to utter a word. The thought of his old friend's outgoing companionship made Horatio sink even deeper into his misery and embarrassment without him. It was a cruel service, in which men were expected to die, but not slighted like that. Horatio knew, through his all-too-wide understanding of his own human weaknesses, that he would not have been able to harden himself to the prospect of Archie's death by the King's service; but to see him die like that, without honor or even infamy to memorialize him, was too much to think about, even to Horatio's intellect.
No, for Archie to have died in infamy would have been just as hard to bear, especially since it was Horatio who would have borne the infamy, who would have richly deserved, in his own eyes, the horror of the scorn of his peers at being so indiscreet, rather than have a friend give his life to spare him of it. His last gift... Horatio burned with a desire to turn back time, to absorb the blame himself, to bear the apathy of the population in England and the distaste of the Admirals in the West Indies, even that of Pellew himself, rather than have Archie leave the world without the praise and attention that his friend deserved.
Horatio was once again jolted from his reverie as he realized that someone aboard his ship had called out "Boat ahoy!" several times to catch his attention. The wherry man looked at him inquiringly, wondering what reply to make, and Horatio had to shout "Retribution!" hurriedly to warn the first lieutenant and the officer of the watch of their captain's approach. It was a strange tradition, but well understood enough, so that even with his sudden appearance, the side boys barely had skidded to their places at the entry port, and the boson's whistles started their infernal scream just in time to hand him up. His little unspoken, mental rush of curses upon himself for his absent-mindedness was in some small way stemmed by the pleasant surprise of having such an efficient crew. And no wonder; here was Bush, like a staff of reality for him to lean upon, his face wreathed in smiles at seeing his new Captain coming onboard. Bush used to be Horatio's senior in rank, and he still was in age, but though Horatio would not have guessed it himself, after the younger man's exemplary proving of himself at Samana Bay, Bush made the transition from senior to junior with quite some complacence and a large amount of respect. That was the kind of regard that Horatio so hungered for in his most distant day-dreams, and that was the very kind of regard that he most felt he didn't deserve when it was granted to him.
Sad thoughts of lost friends, Bush's comforting cheerfulness, and the spectacularly ordered chaos of a ship preparing for sea were the elements that ushered the departure of the Retribution, leaving Horatio surprised at the subsidence of his stinging pain into a dull throb in his head, a blunt blade turning in his heart. He resigned himself to block all thoughts of Captain Sawyer, and with all the flexibility of mind to be found in an intelligent and youthful officer, he shook himself free at last from the mad captain's residual nightmarish grip on his thoughts. But at night, in his unconsciousness, gloomy images of insanity and meaningless, grotesque bloodshed flitted their spectral shadows across his dreams, and he woke many times in the night with the lingering, oppressive memory of knowing that something was irreparably wrong. He missed Archie more every day the Retribution sailed on, taking him farther from the man's slandered, traitor's grave. On some remarkable, clear moments, he thought he felt a cheerful presence in his tiny cabin with him in the deepest of nights, in the very early watches, as if Archie were smiling that, through his sacrifice, his friend was on the way to command.
They were not dreary days, as Horatio worked the Retribution through the islands of the Caribbean, on his way to the wide Atlantic. They were days of recovering from a loss felt keenly by only him, and the hints that the crew saw of his depression were not enough to bring down the spirits raised at sailing under a Commander so early distinguished, with the prospect of setting foot in England once more. That was more than enough consolation for most men who had been on the Renown previously; and it was overwhelming for the men assigned to the Retribution from Kingston, for those men had not seen England in years, maybe even decades.
So Horatio coaxed his ship through the coastal waters, and coaxed his crew though the sailing maneuvers that they would need when they reached the ocean; coaxed the outgoing convoy he was assigned to accompany away from the places where privateers were known to lurk, and, a far last compared to his duty in his eyes, tried desperately to coax himself away from fruitless brooding and helpless despondency.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
/ the night before Retribution and the convoy leave port, in Kingston /
Lady Barbara Wellesley. Lady Barbara. What a strange name to her ears!
At twenty whirlwind years of age, this was the first time she had heard her formal name addressed to her like that from a stranger. "Your ladyship" "Her ladyship" Silly phrases those were, too, when all her life she had been called Barbara, and she had painfully learned the value of her Christian name. 'Barbara' was a name passed through the family, so her governesses and nurses had told her from a very young age, a name to be proud of, and if she refused the distinction of having such a beautiful name as Barbara by insisting on her little imaginary role-playing games, she would get a smart whipping! Well, the role-playing games had ended with her childhood, but the thought of escaping her name still persisted. She had always felt oppressed by the strange demands made upon her because she held her name, both as Barbara and as Wellesley, demands that she carry aloof manners and a lady-like disinterest in anything remotely amusing. Yes, strange phrases and strange lessons, for it was a strange life that she led, indeed! With a family that was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful in England, the name of Wellesley alone could do all the speaking for itself, without the mystic, royally granted title of rank before it. Lady Barbara, truly!
With the influence of her family behind her, Barbara had done more travelling by the tender age of twenty than most girls back in England would probably ever experience in their lives. Therefore, she gained a fairly wide knowledge of the outside world before she was even 'brought out' into society. That was why her 'bringing out' was occurring in the distant port of Kingston. That caused her further reflection on the meaning of her name, the purpose of each of the three parts just recited by her mother and repeated by the man in the inn; 'Lady' meant she had power and money, 'Wellesley' told of how much power and money, and 'Barbara' indicated that she was female. That was the clearest way to put to the world the reason why her mother was 'bringing her out;' to be married, as quickly and as young as possible, to the highest bidder. It disgusted her that these names should be used together as a sign of respect, when their purpose here was to represent her attributes as an item for sale.
The man standing by her mother smiled coldly, as he bowed to her. He was in his late sixties, and he had interests in her marriage. Not personally, thank God, but interests in having her married to his son, who happened to be in his late thirties. Unfortunately, to her fiercely independent mind, any marriage looked bleak, and the still sizable gap in age between herself and his son, whom she had never met, was no better than the phenomenal difference between the father and herself. She, with her wisdom of the relationship between a man and a woman that her elders considered unhealthy for a unmarried female her age, knew that if she married, she would become another man's property.
Barbara also knew that it was within the fringe of the law for a husband to beat his wife, and that, by law, it was considered perfectly natural that he should have the right to exert himself on his wife, whether she wished it or not. She knew that Sir Callowright, the elderly man before her, did beat his wife; in an inn few secrets are held. Barbara happened to be "blessed" with the fortune of residing for her stay in the same inn as her potential suitor and his family. There were a few nervous evenings as she bit her lip and begged the wall to be thicker as she heard the poor woman's supplications to the brute of her husband next door, mornings when the usually bright Lady Callowright was unusually subdued and quiet. Barbara was too horrified after that experience to guess at the other form further violence towards the unfortunate Lady could assume.
Barbara, in her strangely sublime way, wished, begged that whatever unknown entity that had control over the actions of men would make Sir Callowright stop his mistreatment of his wife; yet in the same supplication, she fervently told herself that she would never become trapped like Lady Callowright. She knew that if she married the young, or, well, younger Sir Callowright, his son, she would be beaten and, worse, restrained in her beloved independence, by the man who had been taught by that monster's example how a husband should treat a woman.
The worst aspect of this situation was that she was to leave for England on a merchant ship in a convoy within a matter of hours, and the Callowrights hadn't managed to soil their name in her mother's eyes; in fact, they were getting along quite handsomely. Sir Callowright gazed down upon Barbara with an entirely assumed fondness, that she saw right through in his chill gray eyes, but that her mother believed in entirely. Barbara loved her mother, and she knew that her caring mama only had Barbara's good in mind, but what her mother perceived as 'her good' differed vastly with her own ideas. Her father would have understood her, just like her father always found a way to understand this tenaciously, passionately, fiercely independent girl of his. Yes, Barbara loved her mother, but their relationship had always been a little strained compared to the unbounded freedom she enjoyed under the fond eye of her father. She missed her father dearly.
The fat West Indiaman ship would depart at first light tomorrow, to travel through the last of these spectacular islands that she had grown to love, in the company of a convoy of other fat West India Company ships, all under the protection of several outgoing frigates, a second-rate bearing an old Admiral home from his last command, and an unlikely looking sloop with a commander whom, so she had heard, had well, one cannot believe such outlandish rumors. Still, the thought intrigued her, that her welfare may, at one point, depend on a man who had it did not do to dwell on such things. The problem that occupied most of her mind of late was that she was to be separated from her mother on that ship; the separation was not bad, in fact, she would have reveled in the thought, if it had not been that that meant she was under the care, if that is what it could be called, of the Callowrights.
Lady Callowright was simply adorable, with a pleasant cast of features to gaze upon, a fine blush to her cheeks, and a dash of sunburn. She was kind, and calm, and would do her duty to every situation, whether it called for her to interpose in an argument at a dinner party, or protect Barbara from an unwanted marriage. But for all of the good lady's urgings, the affair seemed to be set, and Barbara cringed at the thought that the lady's defense of Barbara's rights may have inadvertently gained the poor woman another beating. That was what happened that night.
Barbara lay despondently in her bed, unable to sleep because of the plans she was trying to form to escape this situation. Suddenly, she heard all the wrong sounds, all the dreaded thumps and suppressed sobs and thrashes. "No, not this night. Lady Callowright did her duty for me, now I must do my duty for her!" She thought fiercely. "Oh, God, what can I do? What can I do? Please, there must be something" Her thoughts swirled in her head, and the room swirled outside it. Then, she heard it from the next room:
"Oh, God, NO! Let go of me Somebody, help" Lady Callowright's voice cracked in agony as she was dragged down again; Barbara could hear the dead weight of a forcefully pulled body hitting the floor. There was only one thing for it She dashed out of her room, just able to perceive the footman at the door, strained but unable to interfere with the goings-on of the people in the rooms. She crashed against young Sir Callowright's door, and pounded furiously, tears of anxiety stinging in her eyes unshed as her world came crashing down, pounding at the door and pounding at her senses until she was nearly hysterical.
The door finally opened. By that time, Lady Callowright's screams were audible in the hall. Young Callowright seemed nonplussed. "What are you doing?" He demanded.
"Your mother you must help me, you can hear them now"
"What is that to you? Do not meddle in the affairs of your betters, young snippet, and don't ever wake me again." He yawned languidly at the conclusion of his speech, just as his own mother let forth another piercing scream for assistance, for help, for oblivion, for death. The door swung shut in her face, and she let out an involuntary sob against it before taking the plunge that would decide her fate. She swept past the footman again, who could do nothing to stop her, and threw herself against the Callowright's door, scratched and kicked and shoved, jangled, pounded, and even bit until the lock gave way and she burst in.
That was where her plan went to naught; she stood framed in the doorway, with a look of horror on her face. Lady Callowright was laying on the floor, stricken by unbelievable pain. Her skirt was in rags, ripped to shreds in her struggles, and her hair tumbled from its formerly neat and modest bun, drifting askance across her pale face. At the sight of the brave young girl, she fainted away; finally letting the mental and physical pain that she had suffered whisk her into happy oblivion. Barbara panted, as if she had run a great distance. It seemed as if all air had been drawn from that horrid place. Sir Callowright picked himself up, his face red with rage and heat.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY COMING HERE? GET OUT, I SAY!
"You must stop, this instant, I will not let you do anything of that sort on the voyage"
"I WILL DO WHATEVER I DAMN WELL PLEASE, BECAUSE I AM A MAN, YOU ARE A WOMAN, AND SHE," pointing to the prone figure on the floor, "IS BUT MY WIFE!" Callowright slammed his way into the back bedroom, leaving Barbara with the kindest, most mistreated woman in her world lying bleeding, swollen, broken at her feet. Barbara looked, supplicating, at the doorman still outside the shattered door, and he sprang into life, entering the room, and hoisting the sorry woman on his shoulders. "What do you want done, ma'am?" He asked in the most welcome, most relieving sentence Lady Barbara had heard uttered all day. She dashed into her room, snatched a reticule with her money in it, and was back with the beginnings of a plan forming in her mind. Unconsciously, she had just exercised the power that lay in her title that she so little understood; the footman was a puppet to her, drawn into her service by a mere summoning stare.
"Bring her with me, if you please," she said, trying to control her voice. She lead the way out the door of the inn, into the streets that she knew so well through her casual wanderings, and past a back alleyway to the docks. There were more than a few perplexed wherry men gazing at the strange procession, and Lady Barbara dared them with a glance to ask anything about it.
"You, man, row her to the Cascade. Tell the men there to take her in, that she has the money to pay for a passage to" she wracked her mind. The Cascade was the first ship to detach from the convoy-she was headed to New Orleans before she would finally return to Portsmouth. That would give Lady Callowright the choice to continue on back to England, or to seek refuge from a broken marriage in America; Lady Barbara sincerely hoped that, when taken out from under the nightmare influence of her husband, she would chose to stay in America, even if it meant that Barbara would never see her dear friend, and idol, again. But the choice must be Lady Callowright's. "passage to England, if necessary." She slipped into Lady Callowright's torn dress nearly all the money in her reticule, which contained all the emergency money she had in the world from her own revenues, besides her parents, and then gave a half a crown to the wherry men, hoping that the money sent the right message to them. The man nodded conspiratorially, making a gesture to show that his mouth was sealed shut. They shoved off, after the footman gently lowered the now weakly groaning woman into the boat. Then Barbara turned to the footman.
"Now I must leave you." He understood why she could not come back; the Callowrights would reject her and her mother certainly wouldn't understand her. She was on her own, to make her own way back to England, to rejoin her father. "I cannot express how grateful I am to you."
The footman was taken entirely aback. " 'twas nothin'" he could only mutter incoherently. He paused, once again reassessing the peculiar situation, and then ambled back down to the inn. A man who worked at an inn at Kingston must be well aquainted with scandal.
Lady Barbara cast about, and then slunk down the side streets of the dockyards, until she came to a place with which she was well familiar. She had passed by once, long ago, and dropped a guinea to a beggar's family groveling in the street. They said they would do anything to repay her. Now was their chance.
"A shilling for your clothes." She addressed the youngest girl, who was dressed in her brother's outrageously too large hand-down clothes. "A shilling for your clothes, and you can keep my gown." The darling girl looked up with her grimy face, and nonchalantly pulled off her shirt. In the streets of Kingston, after all the profanity one experiences, modesty is but a vague myth. The rest of the family looked on, puzzled.
Barbara took one of her petticoats out from under the others, and ripped it into two wide shreds, which she used to bind her bosom to herself in as inconspicuous a manner as possible, after following the beggar girl's suit and letting her gown slide to her ankles. She handed off her own dress as he slipped into the ragged shirt, and then passed off the last of her petticoats after she dropped into the baggy duck trousers, which were more likely than not stolen from some unwitting sailor in a tavern, who, if he was very drunk, could very well have or have not have been wearing them at the time. That was all the better for completing her disguise. She tossed the amazed girl two shillings, all that she had left, in a fit of lighthearted madness, and tossed the boy a kiss on the cheek. Binding her hair back at the nape of her neck with the ribbon she had unceremoniously torn from the petticoat wrapped about her chest, she sauntered down the docks, the very picture of a young boy. Winking at the confounded wherry men at the end of the dock, she dove into the warm water, and swam towards Retribution.
to be continued