Chapter 7 -To English Ground
Katharine rested her quill on top of the inkwell, and stood up from the small table in her cabin. She had finished her letter to her brother, Richard, writing of her anticipated return home, and was now ready for sleep. She stretched slowly and released her cramped muscles, tightened by the long stretch of sitting and the pervasive shipboard dampness.
She never heard him enter her cabin.
She felt his breath on the back of her neck as a hand lifted the cascade of her hair over to the side. His other hand drew a barely-there fingertip line down her neck, pulling the back of her collar down and out of the way. Katharine's head dropped forward, savoring the sensation. Hot, silky kisses followed the same line and settled in the tender curve where neck meets shoulder. His arms went around her at the waist, pulling her back into him in a tight lock.
Katharine lifted her head and leaned it to the side, allowing his lips to cover more territory in a most sensuous manner. She felt, rather than heard, a breathless sigh tremble from her as every fiber of her being was awakened by his touch. She tilted her head back into his shoulder, trying to turn her body to his kisses, but the full length of his body held her firmly against the edge of the table.
Something was not right.
His embrace turned cold, sending a freezing shiver down the length of Katharine's spine. His kisses became like shards of ice, penetrating to Katharine's heart wherever they were laid. She struggled against his firm hold, only to be clutched tighter, and more menacingly.
"So the good Captain thinks you a lady, does he?"
That voice! Katharine stopped struggling, frozen with dread and confusion.
"I think his first impressions of you were more accurate, dear Kitty. Are you not an actress pretending to be a lady?"
His heavily accented French smothered Katharine, as she fought to breathe against his unrelenting closeness.
"Does he know that your talent for seduction and temptation surpasses your skills onstage . . . and that you use them to gain advantage -to get anything you want?"
His words hissed in her ear, making Katharine's blood cold with the remembrance of the purposeful night she had spent with him back at El Ferrol.
"Just what is it you want from the noble Captain Pellew, Kitty? Respectability? He cannot give you that. He will see you for what you truly are, just as I do. "
His hands moved to grasp her shoulders and Katharine felt herself being shaken.
"Miss Cobham . . . Katharine . . . wake up! Miss Cobham!"
Katharine sat up in her bed with a jolt, awakening to find herself bathed in a cold sweat, her shoulders held firmly by Dr. Hilliard, who looked intently at her with frantic worry.
"Miss Cobham! You were dreaming! It's all right now, do you see where you are? It's all right now. It was just a dream."
Katharine looked at him with unseeing eyes, trying to focus them on him, on her surroundings. Slowly the veil of incomprehension lifted and she began to breathe again.
"A dream . . . a nightmare. Oh, God."
Hilliard's hands slipped from her shoulders as he saw she was adjusting to wakeful relief.
"A nightmare . . but I . . . how did you . . . ?"
"I was passing by your cabin, returning to the sick berth, after my latenight stroll on deck. You were crying out. I was not certain at first if you were asleep, or if you were in danger of some kind. I knocked on your door, but your cries just became more anguished. Forgive me for entering your cabin in this manner, but I feared for you. You sounded so desperately afraid."
Katharine absorbed the reality of the situation now, and pulled her meager blanket up under her chin. In her nightmare struggle, Katharine's nightshirt and blanket had become a disheveled tangle around her, and she was not sure just what the doctor could see of her. She wished not to know.
"Oh, no . . . doctor . . . I was . . . that is . . . I appreciate your concern. I am grateful, and sorry that I worried you. It was just a nightmare. I am fine, now . . . really . . ."
"Forgive me for saying so, ma'am, but you look anything but fine. You're trembling so, I can almost hear your bones chattering together. And your skin is cold as ice. I see such fear in your eyes. Is there anything I can do?"
And then, acting on instinct, he added, "Shall I send for the Captain? Perhaps he could . . ."
"NO!" Katharine was surprised at the strength and conviction of her reply, as was Hilliard.
"I mean . . . no, thank you, Doctor. There is no need to trouble Sir Edward. I had a nightmare, that's all, probably brought on by my nerves. We are so close to home, and I am a bit apprehensive, after being away so long, and with much to deal with when I arrive. I shall be fine, really. Thank you, though."
"Well, I could at least give you something to help you sleep, if you like. I have several preparations which . . ."
Katharine would have liked to rely on a medicinal sleep, but recalled hearing from Mr. Kennedy about the effects of such potions on one's demons. Sleep may indeed come, but if the nightmares were intensified by a drugged sleep, staying awake was a better option.
"Thank you, again, Doctor, but I should like to try to sleep on my own. I have recently suffered with nightmares such as this one, and have become somewhat accustomed to fitful sleep. But, please know, I do not take your concern lightly. I truly appreciate you wanting to help."
Hilliard pause a moment before saying what he hoped would come out the right way.
"Forgive my boldness, ma'am, but I have noticed that there seems to be a certain . . . closeness . . . growing between you and Captain Pellew. I believe he is quite fond of you, ma'am, and knowing him as I do, he would want to know that something is troubling you to this depth."
Katharine was touched by his words and the sentiment they conveyed, but she was unmoved.
Truth be told, she would have loved to run to Edward, to let him kiss away her tears, to feel his warm and protective embrace, for, in his arms, she felt that no harm or unpleasantness could violate her. But this was different. It is precisely that I have opened my heart to Edward, and all the hope that I allowed in, that these thoughts of deVergesse and indiscretion are haunting me.
"Sir Edward has enough on his mind right now without having to bother with my sleeplessness," she said as casually as she could.
Hilliard considered this. He did not wish to intrude further into what was developing between Edward and Katharine.
"Very well, then, ma'am, if you think that is best," he said, rising from her side and heading to her door. He stopped as if weighing whether or not to say one last thing. After a moment, he turned back to Katharine.
"If I may, ma'am, allow me to say that Sir Edward is a friend, and a fine man, perhaps the finest I have ever known." Hilliard chose his words with great care. "He has carried a cold heart in him for many years, and substituted his duty to his ship and his men for the warmth of a loving relationship, thinking he could not have, or did not deserve, both."
Katharine had not really thought before about Edward's past. Had he loved before? Had his heart been broken? Did his honor and duty interfere with his heart's wishes?
"I see him awakening, and his heart warming, and it is your doing. He needs someone to care about, to look after, as much as he needs and wants to be loved. Trust him with your fears, ma'am. I do not believe you will regret it."
Katharine was surprised by the young doctor's insight, and touched by his honest words about his friend. But she could not see herself bringing her feelings of guilty shame to Edward. I was less than honorable with deVergesse. Could I ever speak of that with Edward, after he spoke so earnestly about guarding my virtue aboard this ship? Would he ever understand?
"Thank you, doctor," was all she said, but it had the effect of dismissal.
He smiled a nervous smile, and backed out of the cabin, fearing he had said too much.
Life on board Indefatigable* resumed its quickened pace, and her crew performed their duties with heightened excitement on their planned last day at sea. After a sleepless and distressing night, it was all a blur to Katharine, to be merely endured and not enjoyed.
She had not been able to get back to sleep at all after her dream of deVergesse and her talk with Dr. Hilliard. She had grown accustomed to unpleasant thoughts of the French officer disturbing her sleep, but this time, it was different. She had long been stung by Horatio's admonition - How could you? - but now, she was hearing those dreaded words in her mind in Edward's voice. Katharine, how could you?
And she was angry. Why should she be bothered so by an act that had been so necessary to preserve her alias and protect Horatio and his crew? Her duty had been to guard the documents and dispatches she was carrying, and she had done that. Why did she feel so guilty about the means she used to that end? She was not puritanical by any stretch, nor virginal, but using deVergesse that night continued to haunt her. Why?
Because I now find myself in love with Sir Edward Pellew, honorable gentleman and captain's Captain, and, by his own admission, a man with steadfast virtue, aware of situations that could "cheapen" a man and a woman. And that is the effect the deVergesse has on me -his violation . . . no, I cannot fairly call it violation, for I was a more than a willing participant , I instigated the arrangement -has left me feeling cheapened. By both the act and the ease with which I performed it. I hardly feel like the lady that Edward has been so careful to protect.
The day passed slowly for Katharine, and she stayed to herself, only to emerge abovedecks for fresh air and a brief stroll to relieve the tension she was feeling in her whole body. She had seen Edward a few times, only in passing, while she was on the deck. Their eyes met with a knowing glance of shared understanding and hopeful anticipation for the days ahead. Katharine was always the first to look away, as she feared if Edward looked too closely, he would see the dark signs of a fitful night and the uncertainly now plaguing her. She did not expect to see Edward privately on this day, as he was busy with his officers, logs, reports, correspondence, and all the necessary details that must come to his attention.
James Hilliard had again checked on Katharine. She had assured him she suffered no ill effects from the night's distress, and that she had slept well after their talk.
Cooper came by Katharine's cabin to give her fresh clothing and blessedly warm water for washing, with the Captain's compliments, along with his invitation to join him for a late meal again that evening. Katharine gladly accepted the clothing and washwater, knowing she would need to feel her best to get through her trials at the Admiralty the next day. She hated to do it, but she graciously declined the Captain's invitation, asking Cooper to convey her appreciation for the gesture, and her apology. She was simply too tired to do anything but freshen up and retire early, she had said. And given her appearance, Cooper had no trouble believing it.
By evening, Katharine's eyes burned from lack of sleep and her body, though considerably cleaner and fresher than before, sagged against her efforts to remain awake and forestall the haunting visions she was certain would come.
A familiar sort of knock on her cabin door jarred Katharine from her haze, and she heard his voice.
"Katharine?" he called quietly. "It's Edward."
A part of her wanted to keep Edward on the other side of the door, to remain closed off from him, from his concern, from his affection which, in her present state, Katharine did not feel she deserved.
"Edward . . . I'm quite tired and . . . indisposed right now . . ."
His voice came back, even quieter than before. "Katharine, please, just for a moment."
And she heard herself answering, "Come in."
Edward had expected to see Katharine that night, at least briefly, wanting to wrap his arms around her, telling her that they had only a day before they would be at their ease at Rosecliff, and free to explore their newly discovered feelings for one another. He had expected to feel her return his embrace with welcoming and loving arms and kisses that would be less tentative than their first, and therefore, much sweeter. But after Cooper told him that she declined his invitation to join him that evening, and he had expressed concern for her health and well-being, a worried Edward now just wanted to see for himself that she was all right.
He entered the cabin to find Katharine looking wan and pale, her eyes red-rimmed as if she had been crying. He crossed to her, instinctively enveloping her in a protective embrace. She curled into his body, wishing to not ever be parted from it.
"Oh dear! Cooper said you did not look well! What troubles you? Are you ill?" The concern was evident in his steady voice, and Katharine ached for bringing this on him.
"No . . . I'm fine, really. Just a bit overcome, I think, over the prospect of finally coming home," she lied. "I haven't slept well."
Edward stepped back to look at her seriously. He tipped her downturned face up so to him that her eyes would have to see into his. "Katharine, tell me the truth. Is it because of last night? Are you having second thoughts about . . . us . . . about coming home with me? Because, if you are . . ."
It was hopeless. She knew then and there that she loved Edward with all her heart, and she would not let insecurities and fearful thoughts drive her from him. I will lose those thoughts, or deal with them head on, for I do not wish to imagine my life without Edward in it.
"No, of course not. No second thoughts."
The relief on Edward's face was plain. He held her close again, and this time, Katharine clung desperately to him as if parting would separate them forever.
"There, there, love. We'll be through tomorrow soon enough, and once that is behind you, you'll be able to look ahead clearly and see only good."
Katharine nodded her head against his chest and decided to believe that.
"Now. Forgive me for saying so, dear lady, but you look positively awful. You need to sleep or you'll be no match for those pompous, arrogant admiralty types in the morning. They should not be deprived of the privilege of being taken down a few pegs by Your Grace* should the situation turn ugly, just as I was!"
He smiled wickedly, and dropped his voice to a delicious purr. "And you'll be no match for me once we leave the Admiralty!"
Katharine blushed at the suggestion, and smiled, for what must have been the first time all day.
"Aye, aye, Captain. Sleep it is, then. I certainly do not wish to disappoint the Admiralty -or you."
"No chance of that. No chance at all." He kissed her deeply and yet with no intent of taking it further. It warmed Katharine beyond her belief.
When they parted, Edward returned to his captain-self, and informed Katharine that, because of the favorable conditions, they most likely would be arriving in Portsmouth before dawn and once the sun was up, they would be on their way shoreward and then on to London. She was prepared. She asked him to include her letter to her brother, as well as announcement of her presentation to Lord Grenville, in the packet of posts that would depart the ship as soon as it was moored. He took them, and returned to his cabin to catch what little sleep he could before their arrival in port.
Katharine leaned against the door wearily after closing it to his departing footsteps. Yes, she would push any thoughts but those of tomorrow's meeting and those of Sir Edward, from her mind. She would firmly capture the duty-bound necessity of her unpleasant actions and take it to heart. It has nothing to do with my feelings for Edward. It cannot.
She willed herself to sleep, for Edward.
By the time Katharine came above deck in the morning, Indefatigable* had been in Portsmouth Harbor for hours. The ship would have gleamed in the early morning sun had there been any, but the day had dawned somber and overcast, and there was a raw chill in the air. Captain Pellew's discipline and the crew's pride and respect for their home had brought the ship and her crew into port looking every bit the finest ship in the Navy.
Katharine's eyes swept the quarterdeck for Edward's presence, but he was nowhere in sight. Master Bowles gave her a salute of sorts, and she waved a response, smiling warmly.
"Miss Cobham, ma'am." Mr. Bracegirdle was at Katharine's side.
"Oh, good morning, Lieutenant," Katharine replied, matching his cheery tone.
"The Captain's compliments, ma'am, and he's asked me to say that he left the ship quite early this morning to pay his respects to the Port Admiral, and that he will meet you on the quay. He said you might be quite anxious to depart for the Admiralty, so, the jollyboat awaits."
"Well, then, I am ready. Let me not keep the Captain waiting."
And that was it. Her days on the Indy*, once thought interminable, were at an end. She had grown fond of the quiet, yet jovial Lieutenant, Edward's second-in-command, and would miss his easy laughter and shining eyes.
"Now, Mr. Bracegirdle, you must promise me that your interest in the theatre will continue, and that we will have an opportunity to debate and discuss more of the acting process. I expect to find you in my audience the next time your duty permits, sir."
Bracegirdle smiled. "I look forward to that, ma'am. It will be a pleasure. Just as it has been a pleasure to have you aboard this ship."
"Well, that is easy for you to say now, sir, but I am certain you did not feel that way last week when your Captain was in my line of fire! If ever a man looked less pleasured by a woman's presence than you did at that time, I am certain I have not seen it!"
The Lieutenant responded to her good-natured teasing with an even bigger smile. "Yes, ma'am, I do recall wishing for a goodly dose of French cannon fire at the time, but I dare say, once that passed, it was a pleasant voyage indeed."
Katharine searched his face for a sign that he might be aware of the more personal nature of her relationship with the Captain, and thought she saw a discreet twinkle in his eye. Her hand came up instinctively, and he took it, bestowing a courtly kiss, reminiscent of those she had expected, even demanded, as "the Duchess."
"Farewell, your Grace, he said with a flourish. Katharine could not help but smile.
Bracegirdle escorted her over to the entry port. James Hilliard was waiting there.
"Miss Cobham, good morning. Ready to depart?"
"I am, doctor. Will you be going ashore now as well?"
"Not just yet, ma'am. This afternoon I will be heading in to make purchases for the stores in the sick bay."
"Is there a possibility that you will be able to get out to Rosecliff to visit with your aunt and uncle?" Katharine wondered if he knew of her planned visit there.
"I am not certain how long we shall remain in port, but if it is an extended stay, I should very much like to see them. At the Captain's invitation, of course," he added. "May I say, ma'am," he spoke a bit more quietly, "that I expect you will enjoy meeting them yourself, as they will you."
Katharine blushed at the knowledge that he was aware to her visit to Edward's home.
"Not to fret, ma'am. Edward told me of his invitation this morning when he included my greetings to Aunt Margaret and Uncle Henry with his advance post to let them know you would be accompanying him. I am most pleased. I do hope it will afford you an opportunity to ease . . . troubled thoughts."
"Thank you, doctor. Please know that I have very much appreciated your attention and concern while I have been aboard. I hope we have the opportunity to meet again, perhaps at Rosecliff."
"I hope for that as well. For now, however, your duty awaits!"
As she sat in the jollyboat, Katharine was aware of the stiff scratchiness at the back of the moleskin britches she wore, and instinctively, her hand went around her waistband to make sure the canvas-wrapped packet of documents was securely tucked there. Imagine presenting myself to Lord Grenville in this fashion! Oh, well, let him see me this way. Let him know the lengths to which I have gone. And then be done with him!
Expectantly watching the approaching quay, Katharine's heart swelled with emotion when she saw Edward standing there, keenly eyeing her approach. She drank in the sight of this man, with whom so much lay ahead. Captain Sir Edward Pellew was indeed a presence. He stood on the quay, as he carried himself at all times, as the commander he was. Square-shouldered and straight of spine, formal and seemingly unapproachable. Edward Pellew stood within the Captain, and was every bit as distinguished as the outer man, and was, Katharine was beginning to understand, infinitely more approachable. She loved them both, for one was not whole without the other. He could never sacrifice duty for love, nor, she prayed, would he have to sacrifice love for duty.
The small boat docked, and Edward was there to assist Katharine as she stepped foot on English ground for the first time in far too long. She was finally home. A homecoming, yes, but a new beginning beyond.