Still Life with Lobster
By elisabeth

Captain Pellew gazed at the shifting, grey clouds with relief. The storm had been nasty, but reasonably short, and long experience told him not to expect any more rain from that sky. Indeed, he thought there was a very good chance they would see sunlight before noon, and if the wind held in direction and perhaps even increased a little, they would see England well before sunset. No doubt that would be a relief to the seasick lobsters belowdecks. The Indefatigable turned troopship! His nose wrinkled at the thought. But a well-armed troopship, he told himself smugly, remembering the Republican forces rabbiting away under his canonfire. His eyes swept over the activity on deck and came to rest on the three miserable horses stalled awkwardly before the mainmast. They had spent the night in a panic, and who could blame them? Kinder, really, to have shot the beasts in France, and much more convenient. Major Edrington had been expecting to order it, but Pellew had been in such a temper after the trip from Quiberon to Muzillac that he wouldn't have left an empty knapsack, and certainly not three good beasts, for those horse-eating Frenchmen. Still, the news of the horses' distress had cleared his dinner table in a hurry. Poor Adjutant Stanley, whose animal hadn't survived the retreat, had been left trying to fill in the conversation after the Major and both captains had made their excuses and hurried out to see to their mounts. His eye caught a glimpse of red as the tarp that formed an improvised roof over the horses' stalls shifted. Looks like one of them is still there, he thought. Good Lord, that's never the Major, left in the rain all night!

It was. As Pellew came nearer, he could see the man sitting in a sling formed by tying his sash across the corner of the stall and with his face buried in the chestnut horse's mane. His position looked precarious, and the captain slowed his approach. Too late, for the horse had noticed him and it stretched out its neck with a plaintive whicker. "Well, good morning," he said to the beast, rubbing its nose and politely failing to see the Major's lurch and startle as his headrest moved. "A bad night, I know, but you'll have earth under your hooves tonight, if the wind holds fair." He kept his attention on the horse until his peripheral vision told him that Edrington had gained his feet and regained his dignity. "Good morning, Major. Whatever possessed you to spend the night out here? I'm sure we could have found you a drier bed."

"Quite all right," Lord Edrington replied, "Marmalade here was convinced that sea-monsters were going to eat him if he were left alone even for a moment."

"Marmalade?" the captain asked, amused. "A curious name for a horse."

"It was worse when I bought him," came the answer. "The previous owner called him 'Marmaduke'." The major's nose wrinkled slightly with distaste. "I altered the name directly the money changed hands, but left enough so its owner could recognize it." As he spoke, the major rubbed the chestnut's withers and the horse cocked an ear back and sighed. "Yes, I know you hate sailing," he told it calmly, "but soon we'll be back to England. You like England, no one shoots at you there, nor blows things up in front of you. Although he did very well at the bridge," he continued to Pellew, "I was half expecting him to throw me and head for Spain, but he wasn't disturbed at all, unlike most of the humans." The Major's voice drifted a bit as he looked back into his memory, "... poor girl. Another hundred yards and she would have been safe."

"It was a great pity. But why was she there at all?" Captain Pellew had wondered about this since Leiutenant Hornblower's report, but he could hardly ask the grieving young man. "Mr. Hornblower is an excellent young man, but I must confess I do not see what would cause this woman of a Republican village to throw up everything and follow him. The gratitude his actions at the village had earned him did not require so great a return, nor was her reputation damaged beyond repair. Even the information she gave him only confirmed what he had already learned from other sources, so the Republicans would have had no cause to send her to the guillotine the Marquis de Moncoutant had so thoughtfully provided."

"It was hardly safe for any woman at the village with two armies fighting there," Edrington pointed out, "especially for a young, beautiful woman recently in favour with the enemy--both enemies, for a kitchen servant, as the Marquis identified her, would hardly attain the position of schoolteacher in a village controlled by Republicans if she did not support their cause. I can easily see what led her to follow Hornblower out the window, but there is no guarantee she intended to follow him any farther than that. There must have been a dozen hiding places in the fields and woods that a local resident would know and could reach while the Republican soldiers were chasing the Navy uniform."

"Her injured foot would have changed all that." Captain Pellew nodded, considering.

"Indeed. I do wish she might have been saved; it was most disheartening to see her lose her race so close to the finish. It was distressing to Mr. Hornblower as well; any soldier--or sailor--considers saving females part of that for which he fights and one rarely gets so clear an opportunity. Lieutenant Hornblower behaved commendably throughout, although I do wish he had arrived at the river a bit earlier. He very nearly ended up having to swim across like his predecessor. What is it about Horatios and bridges?" the Major asked, obviously wanting to shift the subject to something more cheerful.

"That, I do not know, sir," Pellew responded, as glad for the change as the Major. "I will have to do my best to keep him from such temptations by keeping him on ships until he has learned to be careful of bridges. He is shaping up to be a fine officer and I, too, do not like to see my efforts wasted." He stood aside as Edrington climbed through the beams of the stall and watched the man finish retying his sash. "Breakfast will be at four bells of the forenoon watch, Major. I do hope we can supply something to make good last night's loss."

"It was a pity to leave the conversation last night, although that loss has already been made good," the Major returned smoothly. "Perhaps if we took a position nearer the rail, it might be more convenient," --this was in reference to the soldier who had emerged from under the far end of the tarp at the sound of their voices and was now hovering at the edge of the stalls and obviously wondering whether he should be shoveling something-- "unless you require any fertilizer?"

"Hardly, on a ship, sir," Pellew responded, a bit startled at the idea.

"One never knows what cost-cutting ideas the upper ranks have developed. I should think that with such an abundance of sun, air and netting for supports, the Admirality would have encouraged horticulture as a means of supplementing the food supply on His Majesty's ships."

Was the man serious? Pellew looked sharply at Edrington. The earl's face held an expression of sober inquiry, but his eyes were dancing. Pellew was struck by a memory of playing word games with his brothers as a child at home. Israel had had just such a look, proposing some absurdity for his elders to demolish. It had been a long time since Pellew had had leisure with any brother Captains, men with whom one could joke and chat without loss of dignity. He decided to join the game the earl was offering. "There would not be sufficient extra water for plants, Major. I think you have forgotten that we do not camp by any streams out here in the ocean."

"Water would be a consideration. However, fresh provisions do not require as much water for preparation as dried or salt, so some would be saved there. Better yet, perhaps a member of one of those scientific societies would breed salt-tolerant plants for the war effort. Fresh provisions are said to be excellent at countering scurvy, and you can imagine the effect of having such things at hand, sir."

Pellew could imagine the effect in more ways than one. In his mind's eye, pea and bean vines climbed the ratlines, melons and cucumbers spilled out of the match-tubs, and, to crown the ludicrous image, window boxes filled with herbs ran along the sides of the quarterdeck. He bit back a laugh; he would lose points in this game by showing his amusement. That picture would be in his mind for days, emerging to tease him at the least suitable moments. It took a couple of deep breaths to maintain his composure, then he turned a eye on Edrington's deceptive placidity. He had to remind himself forcibly that the Major was not actually one of his brothers and that the most appropriate response would not be polite. Instead, he looked the man over with an air of mild concern and said, "I think perhaps we ought not to have let you stay out in the rain all night. I hope you will go below and dry off before breakfast, for everyone's peace of mind."

"I am requested not to smell like a wet horse at breakfast? I understand you, sir. I would not distress your cook, or my dining companions, for the world." Major Edrington gave Pellew an amused glance and raised a hand to rub his jaw absently. "Actually, perhaps the scientific gentlemen should forget the salt-tolerant plants and concentrate on a soap that would lather well in salt water, which would be more useful."

"That is an innovation I would like to see as well, Major," Pellew replied with feeling, thinking of the many unsatisfactory shaves he had endured due to want of lather. The Major turned to inform his soldier that his relief would be up presently and the two officers started walking aft as the sun made its first appearance between the fast-moving clouds. They parted at the main hatch; one of the 95th's sergeants, with a private trotting behind, could be seen coming up the ladder and the Major waited to speak with him before going below. Captain Pellew walked towards his quarters, his mind filled with contentment at the warmth of the sun and the steadiness of the wind. His mind's eye supplied a sudden image of apricot trees espalied against the quarterdeck bulkhead. He laughed aloud at the absurd picture, startling the sentry, and entered his cabin. How long had it been since he had spoken with Israel? Too long, but he had time to write a letter before breakfast if he started now.

 

Author's note: "What is it about Horatios and bridges?" The episode of the first Horatio and his bridge may be found in Livy's History of Rome. If you can't find your copy of Livy (I dumped mine years ago), then enter the words Horatius [note changed spelling] Livy bridge into your trusty web search engine and it should come up.