The next few weeks passed in a blur of mediocrity and half-accomplished tasks. Bush drove them hard, as if determined to reclaim all that was lost, but there was little to be found. Enough, perhaps, to keep him from moving on, away from Carson's Cove - but there had not been even the slightest glimpse of Carson's elusive sloop.
The day began inauspiciously indeed. A cold and penetrating rain fell from bleak skies, dripped from the rigging, and made its way down Fanshawe's collar with a relentless efficiency. He drew his tarpaulin coat more closely about him, resignedly aware of the futility of his efforts. Dawes had taken Greyhound to the north; perhaps their hunt had been more fruitful, though most assuredly it was no more pleasant. Fanshawe wondered idly about his old friends ashore; on days like this one he could almost...almost...envy them their glittering society, and their utter unfamiliarity with physical discomfort.
He awkwardly opened his telescope with fingers damp and stiff with cold, and scanned the rocky, irregular coastline. His eyes watered in the wind.
"Fine day, eh?"
Fanshawe started, and turned to find Bush at his side. The man was, unbelievably, completely serious. His blue eyes were alight with pleasure, with the pure enjoyment of this life unfettered by the mundane, dragging tasks of life ashore - perhaps even with the pure enjoyment of being alive at all.
The enthusiasm proved infectious, and Fanshawe smiled in reply, forgetting - for the moment, at least - his earlier complaints. "Aye, sir...that it is."
Bush nodded, and turned his attention to the coast. Fanshawe raised his telescope and feigned the same, instead surreptitiously studying his captain's profile: impassive, unmoved, one might even have said stolid were it not for the gleam in those eyes. How simple a thing it would be to underestimate this man, he mused, though it would indeed be a grievous error - and loss - to do so.
As Fanshawe watched, he saw Bush's eyes narrow and sharpen, his attention clearly caught by some irregularity of the mind-numbingly dreary, rock-strewn coast. "There, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush indicated a black and forbidding outcropping jutting far into the sea, foam boiling around its base. "There. What do you see?"
Fanshawe quickly located the movement, and carefully studied its source through his telescope: he frowned in puzzlement. "It appears to be a ship's boat, sir...though there has been no larger vessel in sight." He scanned the coastline in either direction: it appeared deserted, though its irregularity afforded perfect concealment for any vessel blessed with a sufficiently shallow draught to work inshore. And so it had: there, at last, was the source of the boat, as a sloop appeared from a nearby inlet and tacked round the headland. "Is it Carson, do you think, sir?" he breathed, at once hopeful and strangely apprehensive.
As the sloop flitted nimbly from them, a white puff of smoke
appeared at her stern; a flat bang reached their ears. Bush grinned
with satisfaction. "There is little doubt of it." He
raised his voice so that all might hear. "We have hunted
her long enough, Mr. Fanshawe
...today, she is ours!" Bush swept a glance over the deck: his men were poised, waiting. "Run out the bowsprit! Set all jibs'ls!"
It was done in a moment. The additional jibs flogged briefly, then billowed like a great white cloud as they caught the wind and hardened. With the increased press of sail, the Witch leapt forward like a live thing in hot pursuit of her prey. "Clear for action!" Bush bellowed. By God, he thought, how I have missed this.
It was nothing like the preparations on a ship of the line, but his men bent to their tasks as diligently as if it were: Bush observed with a trace of pride that, within bare moments, the Witch was as ready as she would ever be. His men were clearly eager to engage; the air was palpably charged with their excitement. Best give them something to do, Bush thought: the powder in the always-ready bowchaser might well be damp. It would be wise to clear it and reload afresh. He turned to the gunner. "Try a ranging shot, Mr. Reid."
The gunner nodded, carefully took aim, and pulled the lanyard. The men cheered as one of the sloop's tops'l yards abruptly sagged, its sail hanging uselessly. The sloop valiantly persisted in her attempt at flight, but the distance between the two vessels began to close with dramatic speed.
Despite the cheers, Bush scowled and paced the deck. No. It had been too far: they should not have hit her, despite the gunner's skill. There had been no flying spume where the ball had taken a lucky skip from a wave crest. No, it should have been a clean miss, falling well short. But...his eyes narrowed against the cold wind. But there was the evidence, the ruined yard, its sail drooping helplessly like a broken wing. The sloop was clearly struggling to make good her escape. Bush stopped abruptly, transfixed, studying the sloop. "A broken wing...my God," he muttered. He spun around, eyes blazing. "Put her about!"
He pressed the telescope to his eye, desperately seeking the small boat, finding her already nearing the rocks just offshore. "Put her about, by God!" he bellowed. "Break off this chase...we must take that boat! Work her in as far as you dare, Mr. Drummond. She's already too far inshore for us to follow...pick your men and stand by to launch the larb'd boats on my signal, Mr. Fanshawe. You must cut that boat out and take it! Do not allow them to land!"
"Sir?" The doubt in Fanshawe's mind was clearly evident in his voice.
Bush did not turn from his relentless study of the boat, and the three men now visible in it. "Grouse, Mr. Fanshawe."
"Grouse, sir?" Fanshawe frowned, missing the allusion entirely.
As the Witch slewed dangerously onto her new tack, Bush spared a glance at the young man at his elbow. "Have you never gone shooting on the moors, Mr. Fanshawe?"
Fanshawe eyed his captain as if the man had gone mad, yet managed a respectful "No, sir."
"In spring, the hen protects her nest when you come near. She feigns a broken wing, fluttering wretchedly nearly at your feet, inviting your hot pursuit - an easy catch, to be sure. She draws you after her, only to fly safely away when you are sufficiently far from her clutch." He raised an eyebrow at Fanshawe's obvious astonishment. "I have not always been at sea, Mr. Fanshawe."
"Assuredly not, sir." Fanshawe agreed, with a masterful immobility of countenance.
"There is something in that boat, Mr. Fanshawe, that we are not meant to find. Carson has done his best to draw us away, but he will soon discover that we will not take his bait so easily."
Fanshawe nodded firmly. "Rest assured, sir...we will find it, whatever it is." He strode from his captain's side, barking his orders. Bush stood at the rail, listening to the young man. He smiled, watching him - though the smile was long gone before Fanshawe could detect it.
Soon, he stood at the entry port looking down at his lieutenant as the young man clambered into the lowered boat. "I wish you success, Mr. Fanshawe...once you have taken her, search the boat thoroughly and report to my cabin with anything you have found."
He watched the boats row briskly off towards the coast: wishing he were with them, knowing that as captain his place was here. It was time young Fanshawe tried his wings. It was difficult enough, though, to go below and sit outwardly unruffled at his desk, waiting powerlessly for the fledgling to return. Had any captain worried so about him? he wondered. He smiled wryly, as he doubted it.
It seemed an age before he heard a boat, then two, bump alongside. He forced himself to wait, carefully schooling his face to stillness. At last, a tap on the door. "Come," he called flatly.
Fanshawe strode in, wetted by salt-spray but proper, his hat tucked neatly under one arm. He was followed by three men, herded through the cabin door by the glowering bos'n. "The boat was empty, sir, save for these three men. And they carried nothing at all."
The men remained silent, staring defiantly at Bush, though their poisonous gaze was for naught as Bush did not deign to raise his eyes from the papers. "We could do with three able hands, bos'n. As they obviously carry no protections, you may press these men." He at last looked up to study them dispassionately. "You are now in the King's service, gentlemen. You will serve him well, or suffer the consequences." He slowly rose from the desk and moved to face them, running an appraising eye over them as if measuring their fitness.
Bush suddenly reached out and grasped the middle sailor's wrists, forcing his palms upwards. It was as he had suspected from the man's carriage, his walk, everything about him: the hands in his own were smooth and uncallused, the nails scrupulously clean. "You are no seaman," he snapped.
The other two began to protest, but the man pinioned in Bush's grasp merely stared back at him.
Fanshawe studied the man for a moment, and shrugged carelessly. "Il ne nous est d'aucune utilite. Voulez vous que je le tue, Monsieur, et que je le jette par dessus bord comme nous l'avons fait pour les autres?"*
The man remained immobile, but his sudden pallor was quite beyond his control..
Bush's half-forgotten, limping French was sufficient enough
to grasp the gist of Fanshawe's words, particularly when considered
in light of the reaction they elicited. He looked from one to
the other: Fanshawe was attempting to suppress a triumphant smile.
"This man is a Frenchman, sir...I believe he is the cargo that was not to fall into our hands. Perhaps we ought not to toss him overboard after all."
Bush nodded firmly. "No doubt. Bos'n, take these men below and put them in irons." As the bos'n roughly shepherded them out of the cabin, Bush turned back to his lieutenant. "Well done, Mr. Fanshawe."
"Thank you, sir." Fanshawe acknowledged, his face impassive, hands clasped behind his back, the very picture of decorum...though no amount of decorum could completely eclipse the delight in his eyes.
The Witch had made her scheduled rendezvous with Greyhound: Dawes now sat in Bush's cabin, decidedly disappointed at having missed the action entirely.
"I wonder, sir..." he mused aloud, falling silent as he realized that it was not his place to question his captain's judgment.
He looked up to find his captain staring intently at him, though not in anger. Bush raised his eyebrows. "You wonder what, Mr. Dawes?"
"Well, sir," Dawes said slowly, as if still working through his thoughts. "Could it be to our advantage if Carson does not know for certain that we have taken these men?"
Bush studied him closely. "I do not know, Mr. Dawes. But I think you may be right."
"In that case, sir, may I suggest..." Dawes' confidence was expanding by the moment. "Perhaps we ought not to return to Mount's Bay, and instead put in elsewhere." He paused, considering it. "Bournemouth, perhaps. I know it well, and can discreetly engage horses from a family friend. We can have these men safely in Admiral Chadwick's hands before Carson is any the wiser."
Dawes was thinking rapidly, now, and Bush did not interrupt him. "And sir, I would select Sergeant Stokes and two men of his choosing as their escort." He grinned. "Stokes is a fair hand with horses, I know - and only a very brave man would dare challenge him."
"Indeed," nodded Bush, envisioning the huge marine. The man's grotesquely scarred face would give anyone pause. Interesting how a liability in any other circumstance had become a valuable asset - though he also knew full well that Stokes himself would doubtless not agree.
As it happened, it was Dawes who apprehended Carson; surprised him on a lee shore, with the wind against him. One day earlier, they had packed their three captives off to Whitehall in the able though none-too-gentle hands of Marine Sergeant Stokes and his men, and were now returning to Mount's Bay, running southerly along the coast.
Bush was seated at his desk, grimly labouring over the current - and as yet unfinished - entry in his logbook. Writing had never been a favourite pastime, and now, knowing that his books were destined for scrutiny within the Admiralty, it had become a daunting chore indeed. He looked up sharply at the sound that reached his ears. Gunfire! Ship's cannon - a 10 pounder, no doubt. From the s'thrd. He forced himself to return to his writing, as he heard footsteps clattering down the companion ladder.
"Enter," he called, in response to the urgent rap upon the cabin door, though he continued to write even as Fanshawe bustled in.
"Captain Bush, sir...we have heard..."
Bush replaced his pen in the stand and looked up at last. "Gunfire. I heard it as well, Mr. Fanshawe."
"I believe it must be Greyhound, sir...if so, we will be up to her shortly. We cannot be too far astern."
"Indeed." Bush rose from the desk and shrugged into his jacket, doing his best to conceal his excitement; it took all his control not to rush on deck as Fanshawe was clearly keen to do. "So, Mr. Fanshawe...let us go see what she has uncovered."
Bush emerged on deck and cast an eye upward; Fanshawe had obviously made all sail before going below. They were taking full advantage of the wind, and - as the young man had correctly assessed - ought to arrive in support of Greyhound within minutes.
As they did, though their presence was wholly unnecessary: the confrontation - if one could venture to deem it so - was already long over. Bush studied the tableau as they ran down upon it; he could easily visualize the scene as it must have played out. Dawes must have surprised the sloop deep in the inlet. With little sea-room, and the wind against her, the sloop had been trapped on a lee shore, and Greyhound's single shot had been sufficient to induce the sloop's commander to cooperate, and lie to. There was little else he could have done - and lived. Though the sloop was much the same size as either one of the cutters, she was carvel built - her light hull and shallow draught were built for speed, and incapable of withstanding even the cutter's frail broadside.
Dawes was, obviously, already aboard her. One of Greyhound's boats idled alongside the sloop; Bush could see the bright red splashes of the marines' coats as they stood guard, crowding the sloop's narrow deck. He studied her carefully through his glass as they drew nearer; clearly this was the vessel that had vainly tried to lure him away. She was a trim and well-kept craft; perhaps not held to the navy's fanatical precision, but ready for anything nonetheless. Greyhound rocked alongside, her guns run out and trained on the sloop - she, also, was ready for anything.
As was the sloop's captain: Carson himself stood on deck, calmly assessing Bush in turn as he made his way through the entry port. This was Bush's first opportunity to meet Carson face-to-face; aside from the brief glimpse of him in the Two Brothers, the man had remained a near-mythical figure. However, Bush thought wryly, unlike most men Carson managed to retain those near-mythical proportions up close as well. The man was extraordinarily tall and solidly muscled, his square-jawed, handsome face crowned by a mane of waving auburn hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck. He was every bit the landsman's image of the dashing sea captain - an image which most quite fail to achieve.
May I welcome you aboard, Commander Bush." Carson said silkily, stressing Bush's de facto rank, whilst making a great show of studying the single epaulette on Bush's left shoulder. "It is indeed a pleasure to meet you at last. Your men were just completing their inspection."
As if in confirmation of his words, Dawes' clear grey eyes appeared over the coaming of the hatchway. He quickly mounted the ladder to stand beside his captain, shaking his head. "Sir...we have found nothing out of order here...and I have looked very thoroughly indeed."
Bush raised an eyebrow. "Nothing?"
Carson folded his arms and looked down at the young lieutenant. "Nonsense, Mr. Dawes," he said roundly. "Tell your commander what it is that you have found."
A crimson flush crept over Dawes' collar and rapidly ascended to his hairline. "Er...two bottles of pickles and a flying fish put up in neat spirits, sir."**
"Illegal contraband, indeed." Carson declared. "Wouldn't you agree, Commander Bush?"
It was Bush's turn to change colour, though his tone remained cold and emotionless. "Perhaps you do have nothing today. You must, after all, still dispose of the goods you removed from the Customs House."
Carson raised a disdainful eyebrow. "I know nothing of that: I merely ordered my men to post my note to you. They chose the manner of doing so on their own initiative. But it is no concern of yours in any case. Theft is a matter for the constabulary, is it not, Commander?" Carson smiled unpleasantly. "And I expect your recent experiences have made you well aware of the extent of their enthusiasm in that regard."
Bush roughly took hold of his anger, forcing it inward; Carson was baiting him, and he refused to allow himself to rise to it. He knew - as they both knew - the theft would be entirely ignored by the authorities ashore. But there was, still, one card left to play. He swept the deck with a casually disinterested glance, and coolly raised an eyebrow. "You appear to be missing a boat."
Fury flared briefly in Carson's eyes, though his face remained blandly impassive. "Yes," he drawled mildly. "A regrettable accident."
"Indeed." Bush offered a wintry smile. "We, on the other hand, have recently acquired one."
The two men eyed each other with thinly veiled antagonism. Carson drew himself fully erect and regarded Bush contemptuously, pointedly emphasizing the difference in their heights. "Get off my ship, Commander. You have no business with me this day."
The smaller man was not to be so easily intimidated, nor would he be goaded into an impulsive response. He studied Carson - the damned traitor - with undisguised disdain, though his voice was flat and expressionless. "One day I shall be pleased to watch as you dance the Tyburn jig." His eyes narrowed; they looked almost inhuman, soulless and remote. "And dance you will. I shall see to it."
Bush took a step closer, nearly thrusting a shoulder into Carson's broad chest. The big man looked down into those pale and merciless eyes...and hesitated. He had always held the upper hand, had always been the dealer of fear, and of death, and had taken his full enjoyment in it...but this man remained unafraid. Like him, this man - a King's Officer - had also dealt death...but this man had confronted fear, and pain, and death before. They were nothing new, and had no hold upon him. He had faced them, stared them down, and emerged still living from their grasp. This knowledge was indisputable and strangely unsettling, and Carson recoiled from its touch.
Fanshawe watched in awed silence. He was well acquainted with the power of his captain's blazing wrath - he had been the unhappy target thereof, often enough - but had never before seen this chilling menace. Carson and Bush could not be more different, oil and salt-water; he wondered fleetingly whether the mixture were explosive.
Carson's eyes flickered briefly away; Bush seized the moment. "Mr. Fanshawe, Mr. Dawes. We are finished here." With dignity intact, he turned his back on Carson, and left him.
Bush sat motionless in the boat, his face devoid of expression, though inwardly shaking with suppressed emotion. Wondering what had possessed him to press the confrontation - and why Carson had so readily withdrawn from it. As a King's Officer he had never been much troubled by challenge. He had encountered many a rough customer, true enough...but that was in his world, and not in this one. In his world he had been supported by the uniform on his back, the Articles of War...and the ever present spectres of the lash and the noose. Seamen, no matter how belligerent, were steeped in the notion of subordination. Carson, however, was subordinate to no one. Or...Bush blinked in astonishment at the notion...or was he?
His men had been working with industry and dedication; thus, with some distaste, Bush had brought the cutters into harbour and ordered the hoisting of the 'Easy'. Soon the calm waters would be aswarm with local boats bringing all manner of young - and not so young - ladies aboard, to be wooed and won in what little privacy might be found in the cramped and uninviting darkness below decks. He knew full well that his men would be far more relaxed without his gimlet eye upon them, so he gratefully went ashore, leaving Dawes and Fanshawe in command of the cutters. It would be nothing new for Dawes, he was certain. But for Fanshawe? He grinned to himself at the very thought. Fanshawe's patience would be sorely tried indeed, and he would doubtless receive something of an education this night.
He would spend the night at the Two Brothers, despite the galling memory of Mara Bryce's disgusted rebuff. For reasons he could not even begin to explain, he had looked for her upon his arrival...and had found himself disappointed to discover that she was gone, sitting up with an ailing friend. Thus he dined hastily, alone, and retired early to his customary room. He found it as he had left it - impersonal, and cheerless. He wasted no time in dousing the light; though sleep, when it eventually came, was fitful.
Annoyed to find himself wide awake once more, he heard the inn's clock strike three. He shifted irritably on the bed; he had never slept well ashore, in this unaccustomed stillness. The four walls oppressed him; he had to get out, into the air. He sat on the edge of the bed, quickly lacing the leather sleeve that joined wood to flesh with the ease borne of long practice, not sparing it a second thought.
He dragged on a shirt, leaving it loose, and breeches... one stocking, one shoe. He did not concern himself with the balance of his uniform: there was no real need for propriety, as no one would be abroad at this hour, he was certain, and he would be only a moment, merely needing but a breath of clean air. He quietly made his way down the stairs, stepped into the night, and began to slowly pace the worn cobbles of the street, hands clasped behind him, thinking hard. He knew he was missing something...but what?
It seemed to him that he had a number of unrelated, disjointed facts with no clear thread to connect them. He knew that Carson was the ringleader...that much was obvious, and that the man had considerable support from amongst the townspeople. Even his passing confrontation informed him that Carson was driven by more than simple profit; he had seen this man's kind before. Carson was a bully, one who enjoyed his power over others, enjoyed the mixed fear and admiration in others' eyes, and savoured every moment of their anxious, submissive obeisance. And, until their arrival some months ago, no one had overtly challenged that power. Turpin, who had the official status to do so, was reluctant to place himself in harm's way, and in fact had already suffered at the hands of Carson's men for his grudging aid to the Navy's efforts.
Bush frowned a moment: it was not quite true that Carson lacked a challenger amongst the citizens of Mount's Bay. By providing information to him, Mara Bryce was repeatedly providing that challenge, while knowing full well that she placed her life in jeopardy. But she did so for no clear purpose, it seemed; she obviously loathed him and the Navy he represented almost as much as she despised Carson. Bush smiled humourlessly. Perhaps she regarded the Navy - and himself - as the better of two bad bargains.
But was it all so simple, that this was no more than the same smuggling of goods that was rampant all along England's coasts? If it were, he would most likely not have been placed here. Admiral Chadwick knew more than he disclosed, that much was abundantly clear. But Chadwick did not consider sharing that information - or the identity of his informant - with him. But why? The admiral may not have been thoroughly convinced of his integrity from the start - but he certainly appeared to have become so during their brief meeting. So if his reticence was not rooted in mistrust, what was it? Chadwick might have come to his own conclusions, but may be unconvinced...or...or was reluctant to believe them, and wanted confirmation...
Dear God, he thought hopelessly, it was all so... Bush stopped, suddenly aware of the large, bitter drops now pattering on his shoulders. As he stood in perplexed consternation, the skies opened; the rain became a sheeting deluge. He turned to beat a hasty retreat into the shelter of the inn, but was shocked to find the inn's small light glimmering faintly in the distance. Deep in thought, he had walked a considerable way. Making a run for it was, unfortunately, a thing of the past; to even attempt it now on the uncertain footing of the rain-slick cobbles was to surely invite disaster. Thus Bush was soaked to the skin by the time he reached the parlour of the quiet, slumbering inn.
Chilled, he stirred the embers of the dying fire; it flickered up into reluctant life and he stood before it, grateful for its feeble warmth. He had run his hands through his sodden hair in a futile attempt to dry it when it occurred to him that despite his pacing and agonized deliberation, he was no closer to a solution. Only wet. He sighed helplessly and leaned closer to the fire, resting his head against the forearm he had laid along the mantel. This was sheer folly. Hornblower would be able to see it clearly...but try as he might, he could not. He thought suddenly of Griffin, the Revenue officer who had sacrificed his eyes in pursuit of the smugglers, and grimly realized that he was no better off than that unfortunate soul: he also groped blindly in an unfamiliar darkness, the answers unseen and just out of reach of questing hands, as invisible to him as if they had not been there at all.
This was not the life for which he had been born. Seamanship, the thousand details of welding a raw company of lubbers and landsmen into fearsome fighting jacks; and transforming tons of timber, acres of canvas, and miles of rigging into a formidable fighting machine and keeping her that way despite gales and waves and enemy shot all striving to tear her to pieces: all that he could do, and do well. Could still do - he knew it. But that had been taken from him forever, and he was left with this. This. The thought, the planning, the insight that separated the leader from the led. And this? This was too much. He leaned heavily against the mantel as if rooted to the spot: motionless, overwhelmed.
He did not notice the slight squeal from the hinges of the carefully opened door, nor did he hear the soft tread of approaching feet in the outer hall. And he remained also quite unaware that Mara Bryce stood in the doorway, quietly watching him, her shoulders sagging under the weight of her despair.
"Oh, Eli..." she breathed, disconsolate. "What shall I do now?"
* "So he is of no use to us. Do you wish me to shoot him, sir, and put him over the side as we have the others?"
**True enough; this was the 'cargo' found when revenue officers boarded the pleasure yacht Atalanta in 1828. This incident provided much merriment throughout the smuggling fraternity for some time thereafter.
God, it was so cold. Mara Bryce shivered as she scurried from the inn to the henhouse, its outlines still indistinct in the predawn gloom. The previous night's rain had brought with it a blistering chill, glazing the grass under her feet with ice-rime that crackled frostily with every step. She had spent the better part of the night tending to old John Barnes until his fever had finally broken. He was now resting comfortably, though there was no respite for her, as her healthy - and hungry - patrons would soon be volubly demanding her urgent attention. She slipped inside the squat and ramshackle structure, placed her lantern on a hook, and began to gather the morning's eggs, yawning hugely as she did so.
Her basket was barely half-full when she abruptly became aware of the indistinct murmur of voices. It startled her...she rarely encountered anyone about at this hour. Her fatigue was forgotten: she was instantly alert, straining to make out the words, muffled as they were by windows tightly shuttered against the cold.
"...oh, aye...'twill be a rich 'un tonight." She heard a rumbling chuckle. "An' 'arry 'imself says 'e'll be waitin' ashore fer it. Says'e canna trust no other...not wi' this 'un."
"Carson's Cove, then?" This was a new voice, louder and more distinct.
"Nay....not wi' them damned rev'nue men nosin' about. Prussia Cove, t' th' north'rd."
Both men laughed, this time, and began to move away...Mara could hear the crunch of their footsteps on the frozen grass. She stood, hardly daring to breathe, listening until she could hear them no longer. Her heart sank; she knew what it was that she must do, but an overwhelming fear and foreboding gripped her and held her motionless. She closed her eyes against it for a moment, then took a deep breath and eased the door open, peering tentatively around it. Not a soul was in sight. She slipped out and cautiously darted back to the inn.
Mara abandoned the basket, eggs - and her lodgers' breakfast - wholly forgotten, and took the stairs two at a time, holding her skirts free of her ankles. She rapped urgently on the door to Bush's room. Receiving no response, she turned the knob, calling quietly "Captain...Captain Bush!" The door swung open to reveal an empty room: vacant, showing no sign of any previous occupation. The bed was neatly made - one might have bounced a shilling upon it. He was gone.
She clattered back down the stairs and ran to the window that overlooked the bay. She took the telescope from its customary shelf, ignoring the usual catch in her throat at the sight of it, and snapped it open. She sighed with relief...even in the dim light, the fine glass revealed the outlines of a cutter: the Witch still rode peacefully at anchor. But not for long, it seemed, as she could see vague figures hurrying about on the jetty. Clearly there was no time to lose. Mara turned to her desk, tore a scrap from her ledger, and penned a few brief words. She sanded the ink and shook it, glancing hurriedly about the room, wondering how she might deliver it without arousing suspicion. Her gaze settled on the abandoned basket. She thrust the note among the few eggs residing there, and hurried out the door.
The quay was crowded with stores and knots of busy seamen, though Mara easily located the tall, fair-haired figure in the midst of it all. "Lieutenant Fanshawe, sir!"
He turned, his momentary annoyance at the interruption rapidly giving way to genuine surprise. "Why, Mrs. Bryce!" Fanshawe felt distinctly protective feelings for this woman - despite her often brusque treatment of his captain, she had taken considerable risks to aid them as best she could. And perhaps some measure of his emotion was a reflection of his captain's own protective concern, typically kept well-hidden - though he alone had seen the full force of it first-hand. Thus he smiled kindly down at her. "Have you come to see us off today, madam, and to bring us good fortune?"
She ignored his well-bred cordiality. "No," she snapped, abruptly handing him the basket. "I have come to bring you this."
Fanshawe peered into the basket, frowning as at first he saw nothing more urgent than a few speckled hens' eggs. He extracted the note and unfolded it, eyes widening as he read and digested both its implication and its importance. He tucked the note deep amongst the eggs once more and scanned the bustling men, his eyes settling on a familiar figure. "You there, Poole!" he called sharply.
Poole immediately added his burden to his neighbor's, ignoring the man's mute protestations, and obediently trotted to Fanshawe's side. The young lieutenant nodded a brisk approval. "Deliver this to Captain Bush immediately, Poole. Go with the next load of stores."
"Aye, sir." Poole tugged at his forelock and accepted the basket, eyeing its contents curiously. "Eggs, sir?"
"Eggs, Poole," Fanshawe said with finality, clearly indicating that no further discussion of the matter was warranted. "See that Captain Bush receives them at once."
He turned to Mara, though the effusive words of thanks died on his lips at the sight of her back as she headed up the track towards the Two Brothers. "Thank you, Mrs. Bryce," he called after her. "For the eggs."
She looked back then and nodded, smiling slightly at last. "For the eggs."
In the shadows cast by the quayside chandlery, a still figure followed Mara Bryce's departure with his eyes. He had watched her breathless arrival, and had carefully noted the exchange of the egg basket and its hasty delivery to the Witch.
Harry Carson smiled, deeply satisfied. The deed was done.
"Tonight, sir?" the master repeated, incredulous. He shifted a wad of tobacco from one grizzled cheek to the other, studying the note and frowning speculatively. "But it'll be a dirty night for sure...the barometer's droppin' like a vicar's britches in a knockin' shop..."
"Indeed, Mr. Drummond." interrupted Bush sternly, though the master was relieved to see an ill-concealed flicker of amusement in his captain's eyes. Fanshawe and Dawes managed somehow to confine their own to a shared droll glance.
Though all colourful imagery aside, Drummond was undeniably quite correct. Dawes frowned. "But would Carson risk landing valuable cargo in such weather?"
Bush was silent for a moment, considering it. "Perhaps." He had read the signs as readily as the master had done, and knew a run would be a chancy proposition at best. But...if the cargo were worth the risk, it most certainly would be worth the capture. He returned his attention to the chart. "I might," he mused. "Particularly if I knew that my pursuers read the weather as well as I. The very improbability of a run might prove to be an effective cover indeed." He grinned at them; the mounting excitement in his blue eyes was plain. "But we shall be waiting for him."
Both the Witch and Greyhound departed as soon as was decently proper, outwardly displaying little of their captain's inward urgency. They backed their sails just north of Prussia Cove, sending small parties ashore and discreetly overland as dusk began to darken the already leaden skies. The master was no fool and knew his weather; as they settled in to wait the wind blustered round their ears, driving sharp crystals of ice that stung any flesh imprudently left unprotected.
Bush suppressed a shiver - it would not do to reveal his discomfort - still, he turned up his collar in a futile attempt to block at least a portion of the sleety onslaught. He scanned the cove, its details now growing indistinct in the rapidly gathering darkness. This was a far different landing spot: instead of the barren, rocky beach of Carson's Cove, dense reed beds extended nearly to the edge of the muddy shoreline. Bush noted with satisfaction that the landing party was concealed quite effectively within the reeds; even as he was fully aware of their presence he could see no outward signs of it. The wind that whistled through the trees behind them whipped through the reeds: they swirled and thrashed before it, successfully concealing any disturbance caused by their occupants. Fanshawe was at his left, his men ranged behind them; Dawes and his men were similarly arrayed within the reeds on the opposite side of the cove. They were ready for anything, from any quarter.
Bush smiled despite the piercing wind and the trickle of icy water that was already beginning to seep its way into his sea-boot. Carson's fear of these men must have exceeded his fear of the weather to induce him to risk landing valuable cargo on a night like this one. Bush found this notion surprisingly warming.
His warmth diminished as the night dragged on. There was no movement at all, from land or sea, save for the brutal wind and a single shot fired into the darkness by an idiot seaman who swore he had heard something creeping about in the rushes. Investigation at dawn revealed little. Perhaps something had been there, but it was most likely no more than the fool's overactive imagination - a thing for which he would pay dearly at the gratings, if Bush's present state of mind was any indication.
Dawn also heralded the return of Greyhound and the Witch; their boats were a welcome sight as they battled inshore through the heavy sea. Bush surveyed the cove with disgust as he watched his men clamber stiffly into the boats. They were all nearly frozen, and it was all for naught. He attempted to console himself with the thought that throughout the past months they had been successful more often than not, though it remained a cold comfort indeed.
He would try again tomorrow.
The night passed crouching in the rushes followed by hours spent on deck in the biting wind as they clawed their way back to the shelter of Mount's Bay had done Bush no good. He trudged miserably up the track toward the Two Brothers, feeling as if the wind's raw chill had penetrated his very bones. He had spent most of his life cold, wet, or both, and had always accepted it without complaint. But today? Today every old wound was reasserting itself; his damaged leg ached abominably, far more than the usual daily reminder he had learnt to live with. Must be getting soft ashore - or too damn old, more like, he dourly reflected. Still, he looked gratefully at the brightly-lit windows of the inn that, to his intense relief, was in sight at last. Strange, how such a place had come to feel remarkably like home. He opened the door, and a gust of warm, smoky air perfumed with the scent of roasting beef - beef that had never seen the inside of a cask - rushed out to greet him. He smiled with wholehearted appreciation and did not begrudge the last few steps to the crackling fire. As he began to strip off his sodden boat-cloak, he felt hands assisting him, and heard a female voice at his back. "Please allow me to take that for you, sir."
He turned, still smiling, to find Mara Bryce bundling the dripping garment over one bony arm. Her usually grim features softened at the sight of his honest gratitude, and she blushed and dropped her eyes. "I...I will hang this to dry for you, sir," she stammered, inexplicably moved. She had used her anger and her sorrow as a shield for so long; it was a perplexing thing to discover that it was not, after all, impenetrable. Her defenses had begun to weaken two nights past as she silently watched this man as he stood oppressed by the twin burdens of responsibility and self-doubt. It was only then she had realized that she was not alone in her loss, or in her pain.
This evening, well aware of his past night's failure - in Mount's Bay, news traveled fast, amused derision even faster - she had watched his laborious approach from the window, and had recognized the effort that was apparent in his face at every step. It had awakened the ache of memory, and with it, other emotions thought long forgotten.
She frowned, nonplussed. "Please, sir...sit. I'll bring you something hot."
His smile faded: he was in no mood for whatever scornful comments she must surely have in store. "Ah, Mara..." he sighed, vaguely mustering the feeble jibe. "Whatever would I do without you?"
To his astonishment, she did not respond with her usual sharp retort; instead, he was rewarded with a faint smile before she turned away to hurry off to the kitchen. Had he been any less wet, less frustrated, or less miserable, he might have reacted with alarm at her abrupt change of demeanor; as it was, however, he was merely glad of it, accepting it without question.
He made his way to a table and sank into a chair with a dejected sigh, tiredly running a hand across his brow. Mara was back in an instant with a mug of dark and steaming tea which, judging from the heady fumes rising from its surface, was laced with a substantial measure of brandy. She placed the mug on the table before him, her fingers lightly brushing the back of his hand as he reached for it, almost - but not quite - by accident. He looked up, bewildered. Surely he was mistaken.
Perhaps not. Her face was a study in genuine concern - and, for a moment, the flicker of an expression that he knew well. He had seen it often enough, before...but hardly expected to ever see again - certainly not here, not now, and most assuredly not on the face of this woman. He stared up at her, taken too flat aback to do anything more, and she smiled more openly.
"I'll bring your dinner, Captain Bush."
'Captain', was it now? What in God's name had gotten into this woman? He leaned thoughtfully on an elbow and watched her as she returned to the kitchen. He had reluctantly come to believe that that aspect of his life was over. While in France, he had observed that Brown had made no attempt to conceal his popularity with the women of the de Gracy household. And Hornblower? He sighed, and slowly shook his head, still incredulous that a man so profoundly gifted could be so very unaware of the capacity of others. He had known all about his captain's dalliance with Marie, though Hornblower had apparently thought his first lieutenant had lost his vision, or his senses, and not simply part of a leg. But all that had gone on around him; even after his convalescence had ended it was painfully clear that no one had considered him in that particular light.
There had been a woman in Portsmouth, since, with a ready smile and laughing eyes; they had passed more than a few agreeable evenings together. Bush had flattered himself then with the thought that her interest had not been purely financial, though in the cold light of day he had been less than convinced. But Mara Bryce? Indisputably the last person on earth he would have expected to do so now. Still...with a bit of meat on her bones, and that smile on her face, she might not be half bad, at that...
He was abruptly startled from his bemused meanderings as a shadow darkened the surface of the table. He looked up to find Brendan glowering down at him, a daunting sight indeed. The big man planted himself unbidden in the chair across from him, leaned across the table and immediately came to the point. "Ye'll not harm my sister," he growled.
Bush stared at him in astonishment, taken aback by the force of the man's words, not to mention that until a mere moment ago, the thought of Mara as anything other than a mercurial and sharp-tongued harridan had never - or, hardly ever - crossed his mind. "I am a gentleman and a King's Officer," he snapped, his words frigid and stiff with indignation. "She would come to no harm at my hands."
"Ye'll keep yer bloody hands off her, y' will."
He initially felt a flash of outrage - how dare the man - but something in the burly man's eyes made him bite back his furious retort. Utter sincerity and concern...much the same protective feelings he might have for the well-being of any of his own sisters. And...and perhaps, something more. He sat back in his chair, and nodded. "Tell me."
Brendan blinked, seemingly taken aback by the sudden acquiescence, and cleared his throat. "My Mara's had a hard time of it, she has, sir, an'...an' I fear for her. You'll know she was married, sir..." He smiled sadly. "You'd never guess it now, sir, but she was a diff'rnt woman, then. Her man - Eli Bryce - was master's mate in the old Impulsive. He was a rare 'un, Eli was: smart, an' a natural-born leader. His Cap'n - a damn fine man himself, by all accounts - could see it plain, an' promised to try to get 'im commissioned. We was so proud of him: ye'll know that a few fine captains have come up from belowdecks. But Impulsive was lost in '97, off th' Spanish coast. Eli was pulled from the sea, but bad wounded - his leg broke to flinders - an' they brought him home. His cap'n came here...imagine that, sir, here...to see him, an' to tell him that he could sit for his lieutenant's examination when he was well. An' brought him a fine telescope...to use when he made cap'n, he said." Brendan sighed heavily. "They done their best to save his leg; the Admiralty'd not want 'im with one...er...beggin' yer pardon, sir..."
"Go on." Bush's face was expressionless.
"Mara nursed 'im for months, but his leg...it wouldn't knit, and had to come off. He seemed to be gettin' better, after that - even up and about a bit - but he took a turn for the worse - fever, it was - an' left us. My Mara lost the child she carried soon after. She ain't been the same, since...not till you come along. I ha' seen how she looks at you, 'specially when you can't see her...but make no mistake, sir. She don't see you. She sees her Eli, and what might ha' been."
"She's done her best to deny it, sir...to you, to me, an' to herself...but she can't. I want to see her like she was, again, sir - happy, y'know - but you'll not stay here. You'll go, and she'll be left again. An'...well, sir..." the big man sighed. "I don't know if she could bear it."
Brendan fell silent; the two men eyed each other speculatively for a long moment. Bush nodded, touched by the depth of the man's love for his sister, and smiled gently. "I do understand. You can trust me, Brendan...I swear I shall not harm her."
"Hmph." Brendan shot him a dubious scowl in return. "And ye'll answer t' me if ye do." He indicated the kitchen with a ham-sized fist. "She's in there alone, just now."
The man was right. The thing had to be done, and done straight away while matters were still well in hand. Bush sighed and rose to comply. He met Mara just inside the kitchen door; she looked up in surprise from the laden tray she carried.
"Mara..." He took her burden from her, setting it aside, and placed his hands lightly on her narrow shoulders. For all her strength of temperament, she felt startlingly fragile, as though she could easily break with the slightest mishandling. He knew suddenly that it was indeed true: he would most certainly shatter this woman if he misused her. His expression altered as the realization struck him, and she did not miss it.
She looked him squarely in the eye. "There is someone else."
Bush studied her gravely, somehow knowing that no good would come of telling her of her brother's words. He looked fondly into her eyes, smiled ruefully, and - to his shame - seized the convenient lie. "There is, Mara. I cannot betray your trust."
She smiled through her disappointment, and sense of loss...he was every bit the man she had imagined him to be. "I understand. Forgive me, Captain."
He nodded. "Forgiven. And...thank you." He studied her - with a degree of regret that astonished him - as she turned away. Strange, it was, how something he never had suddenly seemed as something lost. But he had told her only half a lie, he realized. Her rival was not of flesh-and-blood, but his devotion was no less passionate. He would forsake anyone and everything at her merest call. The sea was his true love...and the bond with her would outlast all others.
Mara Bryce none-too-gently escorted the last shambling patron from the Two Brothers and gratefully bolted the door behind him. She leaned weakly against it, heaving an enormous sigh of relief and exhaustion: the sooner this night was over, the better. She had made a bloody great fool of herself with her clumsy and unwelcome advances, she thought, as she disgustedly returned the scattered chairs to some semblance of order - though using, perhaps, a bit more force than was necessary.
She ran a weary but appraising eye over the room, judging it sufficiently ready for the morrow, and began to bank the fire for the night. Something nagged at her, unsettled her - she turned, and started in fright as her eyes detected a shadowed form watching her from the depths of the faded wing chair near the hearth.
She gasped in involuntary alarm. "Captain Bush!" A moment later, she mastered her distress sufficiently to recover both her voice and her composure. "Please forgive me, sir, I did not see you there; I was just locking up," she declared formally, as though she were addressing a stranger. "But you may stay as long as you like, sir...may I bring you something more?"
Bush studied her expressionlessly. Even after her initial shock had passed she seemed discomfited and ill at ease, and he regretted being the cause of it. Perhaps there was something he might yet offer, to make amends... He indicated the full glass of brandy in his hand. "Another, thank you."
Mara nodded, though frowning slightly; Bush was typically most restrained in his consumption of spirits. This was unusual; perhaps his damaged limb still plagued him. In any case, it was none of her affair. He could drink himself into insensibility if he cared to do so.
Bush turned back to the fire, listening as she busied herself with the decanter.
She reappeared at his elbow, proffering a brimming glass. "Will there be anything more, Captain Bush?"
"Yes." He smiled tentatively up at her, and indicated the adjacent chair. "Please...will you join me?"
He looked as self-conscious as she felt; she had to smile at that, and wordlessly settled into the chair by his side.
Bush handed the brandy back to her. "Here...it was intended for you, after all." He studied her carefully; when he finally spoke, his words were not at all what she had expected. "Your brother Francis...did he speak of Trafalgar, and...and after?"
Mara eyed him curiously, but slowly shook her head. "No. He was so very deaf when he finally returned to us. It was...too difficult."
"I am sorry that I did not know of it." Bush offered a rueful half smile. "We were all somewhat deaf for a time, after Trafalgar...I fear I failed to notice." He leaned back into the chair and sipped at his brandy, lost for a moment in the memory of it: he was once again a young lieutenant bellowing to be heard amid the raging din and bloody horror of the lower gundeck, the great guns roaring out destruction from all sides... He shook his head abruptly, marshalling his thoughts, in the present once more. "Mara, may I tell you of your brother?"
Her grateful smile provided all the answer he required. He regarded her for a moment, considering what he might tell her...enough, but not overmuch. Some aspects of a sea battle even he did not care to recall, allowing the terrible images to become with time muted and blurred, almost surreal. He would spare her that, at all costs; some things were best left to lie in the dusty vault of memory. But he would tell her what he could.
He took a deep breath, and began. "I was fourth lieutenant aboard Temeraire. Your brother served in my division; I knew him to be a steady and reliable man. But that day, he was my right hand...and," he smiled gravely, "at times, my left. We were engaged on either beam..."
In the end, perhaps, he told her too much. Told her of her brother's unflagging energy and discipline as they drove the harassed and decimated gun crews from one battery to the other, eventually pounding both enemy vessels into submission. And told her how the bloody offal under their feet, merely dragged aside in the heat of battle, became his men once more after the guns were stilled.
He told her of the aftermath when, numb and stupid with shock and exhaustion, he had been sent as prize-master into the Spanish prize Monarca. Nearly voiceless from shouting, he had motioned for her brother to accompany him; the man had followed without even a flicker of protest. And he told of the long and hopeless night as they fought to keep the foundering Monarca afloat during the storm that followed on the heels of the battle - and of the sense of defeat and despair that consumed them as they had watched her slide beneath the roiling waves.
He fell silent for a time, then turned to her. "You should recall your brother's service with pride." He smiled slightly. "As I do."
Nearly overcome, she impulsively touched his arm. "I thank you, Captain Bush."
The brief touch warmed him as the brandy had not. He awkwardly caught her hand as she withdrew it. "William." It was half a question, half an appeal.
Mara nodded. "William it is, then." She rose, and smiled down at him. "I shall bid you good night, William...morning comes early, and I got no sleep last night."
He watched her as she left him. It could be no other way, he
mused. He had given his solemn word. It was his honour - and,
absurdly, his lie - that left him sitting in this chair, alone
but for the dying fire.