The Price of Steel
by Lady Atropos
The Price of Steel, Part II
a romantic sort of AU by Lady Atropos
same disclaimers, archive, and note as previous
after aiding Lady Callowright escape from a violent husband, Barbara has no choice but to swim to her freedom, and find passage to England posing as a boy on the unlikely-looking sloop, Retribution, under an even more unlikely commander
Barbara bodily pulled herself up the stern, grasping the rudder pintles. The stern cabin windows were open in the steamy late evening of the lower latitudes, and, to Barbara's infinite surprise and gratitude, nobody was in the compartment. She hoisted herself onto the sill, her feet dangling out over the sea, and thought out her next step.
She needed to get inside the cabin, but she would leave a trail of damp footprints; she had not brought shoes, since she couldn't swim in them. The beggar girl didn't have any at all until Barbara gave the poor thing hers, and anyway, if Barbara had come on board, wearing a boy's clothing and a young woman's shoes, it would not take a great leap of imagination to guess what would happen next.
She looked down, and with a gasp, she saw another potential foil to her plan so far. When her baggy clothes were dry, with the aid of her re-worked petticoat, they obscured any vestige of a form beneath. But now, with the water of Kingston harbor still dripping from her shirt sleeves, she realized that the cheap, light fabric stuck to her sleek, decidedly feminine figure like a second skin. She must never get soused in the view of anyone; she was like the cursed figure in the Oriental tales she had read on her voyages, doomed to dwell in the body of the other sex when drenched in cold water, turning back to normal only after bathing in warm. Her situation she regarded as worse; any water, she saw now, would ruin her disguise in a way that not all the hot water in the world could mend, and on top of that, she was to serve on a ship, of all hiding places!
She could hear noises-unmistakably the noises of some one boarding the ship the more conventional way. Just around the stern of the ship, on the starboard side, she heard a voice, quite close and quite distinct, cry "Retribution!" She glanced about, and inspiration hit her. In the far corner of the tiny cabin, there was an even tinier alcove blocked by a canvas screen. A closet of sorts, no less! She swung herself over the sill and let her feet hang into the cabin. The bosons were piping now the captain may be in here any minute! She panicked for a half a second, not sure if she could do it there were footsteps on the companionway her trousers caught a string on the sill, and she struggled desperately to rip the thread away timing the move perfectly with the sway of the ship, Barbara leapt onto the cot, and from there lunged into the wardrobe, just as the cabin door swung open.
The alcove wasn't large enough to hold a person normally, but, fortunately, the captain didn't seem to have unpacked yet, and what little space there was, was empty. Barbara squeezed into it, and, barely breathing, sank out of sight. The man who had entered the cabin tumbled awkwardly to the window, his back turned. Even though he must be a seasoned sailor to have this command, it seemed almost as if, unthinkable though it was, he had actually lost his sea-legs! Barbara was intrigued, and she also felt sorry for him; she had never been sea-sick before in her life, but this man, with his back turned to her, looking out of the window, seemed so vulnerable, just through the simple error of mistiming his step in the unfamiliar ship.
Fortunately, as far as she could hear and see, he was not sick yet, but she knew from long experience of seeing men walk as he did in a ship, that he would be sometime in the not-too-distant future. With two long, beautiful fingers, he absently plucked the miniscule shred of worn canvas from a splinter on the sill, and wiped the damp off of the bottom of the casement with his sleeve. He turned, cast about the room too quickly for Barbara to get a clear view of his face in the shadows, and, to her relief, halted his search for an explanation there.
Spray, Horatio thought, Just spray from passing oars. The harbor life had not ceased because a tragedy had just taken place; the world could turn even without Archie there to liven it, but in his obstinate grief, Horatio hated it for doing so. He wanted all of his duties to stop, so that he could simply glide down the steep and slimy slope of depression all alone, without everybody else trying to buoy him back up. He fell back against his cot, and reflected on the fact that he had just received the first Captain's honors of his life. It was not the same without Archie there to welcome him back. Tomorrow he would sail, but tonight he would not sleep even as he hungered for oblivion. He tried not to think, and, well after the moon had risen, his world finally drifted off in a haze of exhausted slumber.
Barbara had waited all that time, no longer even daring to peek through the canvas curtain, until she heard his breathing was steady and slow, and it was safe to come out. She stepped quietly from her closet, and, the cabin being so small, stole a look at the commander. She brought her face close to his, and her mouth opened slightly at the materialization of his features in the moonlight.
His head was crowned by deep brown locks, that fell into soft, loose curls over a smooth forehead. She reached down, almost involuntarily, and brushed away one that had slid lazily across his cheek with the very tips of her fingers, barely daring to touch him. His cheeks were hollow with pain or long waiting, probably both, but the bones of his face were cast perfectly beneath it, and long eyelashes cast their moonlit shadows down their slope. His mouth was set in a way that would suggest he hadn't smiled in a very long time, not truly, with real happiness. He had been oppressed by something were the rumors true?
He stirred in his sleep, and Barbara felt his breath escaping by her cheek as he sighed. Their faces were quite close. Without even thinking, she slipped a little closer, and was startled to find that she had advanced towards him, when his eyes flickered up at her momentarily. Was her plan up? Had she spoiled it, foolishly inspecting nothing more than a pretty face? She cursed her foolhardiness, when the eyes flickered shut again, and his head turned away, so that the tips of her fingers dragged across those cheeks gently. A slight crease at the corner of his mouth and she saw that he was smiling calmly in his sleep, the change evident as some unknown happiness grasped his dreams, the only place happiness could be found. Complacently, languidly, he wriggled onto his side and sighed again.
Barbara was glad that she may have given that to him, in thought of all the trouble he would surely get from her later. But he looked so sad! The most melancholy, deep brown eyes had looked into hers; they were entrancing, so full of a softness that could never be expressed in a cruel service, in a cruel world. Barbara slipped back into her closet; no way to get past the sentry at the door, but she could sit in that cramped spot, strangely glad to know that now her unsuspecting new roommate could sleep peacefully in her presence.
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"Mr. Bush, lay her close hauled on the starboard tack, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir. Helm a-lee!" The Retribution started turning sweetly into the wind, the swing of the newly added underwater turning force counterbalancing the forward force of the above-water sails. "Fore sheet! Fore top-bowline! Jib and stay sail sheets! LET GO!" Bush was the perfect seaman, the best first lieutenant a heart could wish for; he timed all these orders just at the right moment to keep turning the ship without losing vital inertia while she was pointed right in the eye of the wind. Horatio's thoughts soared; it was exhilarating to see the way mere men on earth could manipulate the elements to their will. A hundred years ago, sailing close hauled and tacking like this would be impossible. Now, today, the odds were ever increasing that the wind you got was one you would be able to sail by, not because the wind was kinder, but because ships were smarter.
The sails luffed thunderously; the flapping filled the ears so that nearly nothing else could be perceived, but for Bush's steady bellowing. "OFF TACKS AND SHEETS!" The yards braced round to the new tack, quelling the hideous noise of suffocated canvas, as the sails began to breathe again. "Mainsail haul!" Retribution lay over to her new course, her deck decidedly heeling to port, so that Horatio nearly slid down the weather side and would have crashed into the little group at the helm if he hadn't grabbed the weather hammock shrouds just in time. He regained his composure and walked as casually as his unwanted skids and slides allowed.
"Well done, Mr. Bush."
"Thank you sir." Bush beamed at his unsure captain; no, Bush never got seasick, and Horatio couldn't help but be jealous as he felt a wave of nausea rise in the back of his throat. He struggled to stay still, and then he realized that he had nothing more to do; all he had to do was keep his ship in sight of the convoy and on his station, and to do that, he wouldn't have to tack again for at least another four hours. Suddenly, he was hit with another wave of dizziness as the back of his mouth burned. Whatever he did, he must make sure that the men on deck don't see him sick, even if they guessed it already.
"Very well. Call on me if oh, you know when I want to be called." And with those powerful words, Horatio could do nothing but dive below. Two days at sea and he was sick as a dog! He cursed himself even as he was sick, leaning out the stern window and praying that none of the officers on the quarter deck could hear. Then he collapsed on his stuffy little cot again, the depression that invariably follows seasickness catching up with him. He thought of Archie, of his first day on the Justinian, and of Wellard's first day on the Renown. He groaned involuntarily, and writhed over so that his body was on a slight angle to that of the deck swaying below him, and his arm was flung over his eyes and his head.
Barbara saw all of this, and she felt the greatest pity for him. In her bound breast there rose an instinctive urge to dash out into the cabin, and to fetch him to her and tell him that the world would be alright. Her legs were stiff with standing for so long in the little closet; she had stolen out when the captain was gone from it, but only for short times, so as not to imperil her secrecy. At first, her timid ventures were only to conform to the necessities of living-to steal food, to relieve herself, but, after she was more acquainted with the routine of her roommate, to creep out and explore the layout of the cabin, all the obscure nooks for hiding and possible outlets for running, and plot her escape. When she felt particularly daring, she would just stand at the very back, and take in the fresh sea air that was denied to her in her tiny prison, in hurried gasps from the window that was always open. It was strange that the window should be open, when most people of her day thought that fresh air was a peril to the health, but Barbara had the feeling that the strange commander shared her conviction that this was not the case. She was nearly faint with constant observance, waiting for her moment, which was taking agonizingly long to come. She told herself that such impulses were only the by-products of an overworked mind, but the longer she gazed at the helpless figure on the cot, the harder she had to grip the edge of the bulkhead to keep from running out and and doing what? She was not quite sure anymore.
It was midnight the next night that Barbara's opportunity came. The captain was summoned to the quarterdeck to receive the signals from the leading frigate, passed down the line, finally, to the diminutive sloop in the leeward corner. She could tell from the angered muttering and curses filtering down through the skylight that the captain and his officers were not pleased with the progress of the convoy. They could easily have been through the Windward Passage by now, but the company ships insisted on shortening sail at night, so as not to disturb their passengers, thus turning a day-and-a-half's distance with a fair wind into a two-day excursion, and counting. The Navy ships were full of cross officers who felt they should be going along faster, and the Company ships were full of indignant laborers and masters who felt they should not be imposed on.
At the moment, frantic messages were being exchanged, and simple signals were being horribly misread, as the convoy scattered, trying to slow down while their escort was still racing out ahead of them. The commander was pacing the deck above Barbara, apparently making some sort of decision. Horatio Hornblower, that was his name; she had seen it written on a letter on his desk, which happened to be tiny, just like the rest of the fittings in the cabin, only the bare necessity. Captain Hornblower that was almost enough to make her giggle hysterically if she let herself, in her dazed state. But she must gain a hold over herself; this was a calculated risk she was taking.
She had given up on trying to slip past the sentry at the door the moment she had the time and senses to realize it was hopeless; that was the first night she had come on board. Now she followed through on a different plan, one that exposed her to one of the first risks she had seen in hoisting herself through that window, but one that could potentially pay off in a greater way than being caught by a marine as she sauntered out of the door! She could feel by the motion of the deck beneath her bare feet that the ship was hove-to; that could last the whole night, or just long enough to receive a boat, but Barbara must wring all advantage out of it while she could.
Barbara lowered herself out of that mysteriously open window, and couldn't suppress a gasp as her calves were grasped by chill water. Painfully, using the rudder pintles again, she dipped all the way into the Caribbean's swirling fantasia of moonlit color and silky water, and the last thought that went through her head before she plunged full into the ocean, and began to swim by the side of the stationary ship was "Horatio Hornblower! What a strange name to have, indeed!"
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"Sir!" It was Bush again. "Sir! Look at what we've found in the cable tier!" Bush was standing in the door, and Horatio could make out a small crowd behind him. Bush receded to give his captain a better view, and with a perplexed wave of the arm, presented a youth held by the arms by two worthy seamen. Barbara thrashed there, trying to get away, but there was no way out of the situation now. She looked up at Horatio, fear shining in her eyes, caught.
to be cont'd