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A Parliament of Roses

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I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.


- T. S. Eliot The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock


Dramatis Personae:

Lord Peter Ashe, a peer of the Realm and Governor of His Majesty’s Colony of Carolina.

Sir John Verney, Baron Verney, MP for Buckinghamshire, a character of great moral stature.

Lady Cornelia Edmonton, a woman of noble birth and respectable social standing, abiding in Bath.

Miss Mirabelle Edmonton, her daughter.

Mr Raymond Cave, Earl Otway, Miss Mirabelle’s fiancé and naval officer (quite a useless one though)

Miss Laetitia Barbauld, Miss Mirabelle’s school-friend and poetess.

Miss Lesham, a chaperone.

Clara, a chamber-maid.

Captain James McGraw Flint, a pirate.

Billy Bones, a pirate.

John Silver, a pirate.

Including other persons unworthy of note.


 

In June 1716, the Bath Times published an article, the excerpt from which follows:

…following the introduction of the Captain and Crewe of the ship Seahawk, all veritable Corsairs and men most Wicked, to the salon of Lady Edmonton. High Society at Bath was awed at the Courteous and Pleasing manner in which those felons conducted themselves among Gentile Companie. None the less, your faithful servant’s eyes are not easily deceived by Outward Pleasantries. Soon enough the Pirates gave a slip in abducting Lady Edmonton’s only daughter, the impeccable Miss Mirabelle Edmonton (lately betrothed to Mr Raymond Cave, Earl Otway) to the most Awful effect of scaring the Maiden half to Death. Through great peril, Miss Edmonton was delivered of these felons and to safety, the Crewe of the Seahawk themselves were apprehended and subjected to the Strictest form of Justice.


 

- If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. And shall surely be put to death.

Captain James Flint did not believe in God, who allegedly wanted him and others like him dead. Flint’s only deity was the sea – impassive void eyes staring from Miranda’s aging face.

- We have been taught that way. You can’t expect anyone to act differently. – Peter Ashe brandished a Bible as if to prove that the words were not his own and therefore beyond his power to change them.

They were in Lord Ashe’s study, its white panelling still warm from where the rays of midday sun hit it. A fine longcase clock ticked away the seventh hour.

- What exactly are you trying to infer? – Flint asked wearily, arms close by his sides, close to the weapons he currently did not possess. A habit, little else. They have been at it for ages – the captain arguing his case of an amnesty for Nassau, the governor of Carolina hinting at some past misdeed that he did not want to, but felt necessary to admit.

- I was a witness to Alfred Hamilton’s accusation against you. – Lord Ashe finally ran out of evasive clauses, his admission causing Flint to flinch.

- What of it? – the majority of Thomas’ social circle were aware of the… ordeal, that was hardly anything new.

- In court, James! I testified against you. Lord Alfred would not build a case on mere hearsay, he needed… a witness. I had no choice! – he was pacing the length of the study, gesturing frantically to punctuate his words. The Captain just felt tired, and hot, and thirsty. An image of Thomas, alone in a dank cell, flashed before his eyes only to be smothered by the more basic human urges as his mind sank into torpor. He had already mourned for Thomas and there was only that much anger and grief a spirit could process before degrading into coarseness, where betrayals were common ground. He was glad Miranda was still on New Providence, far and secure with her temper and her capacity to feel.

- I am truly sorry this had to happen. – Peter spread his arms in defeat.

- It would appear, such a turn warrants a favour. – it was a mad dash, but a well calculated one none the less. Surely, guilt would be a strong enough drive to turn the governor to his cause.

- How do you mean? – arresting his soliloquy, Lord Ashe turned to face his interlocutor.

- Help me establish an independent colony in Nassau, and I will call us quits. Forgive Miranda’s and mine mutilated lives, and Thomas’ disgrace.

The potent atmosphere bore down on them both, lending gravity to Flint’s words. Sweat trickled down the nape of his neck, but he was too intent on holding Lord Ashe’s gaze to wipe away the itching droplets.

After a few moments, Peter nodded and resumed his seat at the mahogany desk.

- Very well. – the cicadas sawed out their love-songs outside the study windows. It was going to be a very long night.

***

For once, Lord Ashe was courteous enough to offer tea, and when that was served and drunk and taken away, he uncorked a bottle of brandy, to allay the hoarseness in both their voices after hours of debate.

- To gain the ear of anyone of import in the House of Lords you need to be backed by half the landed gentry. Which is exactly what I am proposing here. Go to London, let them see you as you are - a man, not a wicked creature from across the sea.

- And then what? - Flint rested his hands on the table. - Become another curiosity to them, no better than a talking parrot?

- That is not to be excluded, but your exoticism will stoke their desire to know you. Before long they will be clinging to your every word. The pause was made uneasy by the suffocating tropical heat.

- Just, for the love of God, James, don’t tell them the truth.

The captain nodded, hiding a smirk behind an intricately carved glass. Over the last weeks he had lied so much, Flint wasn’t even sure the truth existed at all. But that was nothing compared to the lies he lived back in England, the lies he told himself.

- Would London be a safe initial bet? – Flint smoothly changed the topic, guiding Ashe to discuss particulars.

That got him thinking.

- Hm… perhaps not. But by the time you may hope to arrive, it will be early summer. The livelier part of the high society will have retired to Bath. It’s quieter, but still suitable for your purposes; and far enough to stand outside immediate threat from the Admiralty.

It has been ten years, but somehow Flint had no doubt the stiff-collared thralls of His Majesty had not forgotten their slip. Yet whereas he vaguely knew his way around London, could visit some public houses for the liberally minded and suchlike, Bath was terra incognita.

- You suggest I turn up at the bathhouse and start preaching, like captain Lilywhite? – seeing Peter’s befuddled expression, Flint realized he had no idea who Lilywhite was and promptly corrected himself. – Like an utter nut-job.

Judging by the subsequent pause, Lord Ashe had expected that exact scenario, or had simply not thought that far ahead.

- I hope I do not need to tell you that such a course would be counter-productive. So I will require some manner of introduction.

- Ah, yes. - Peter nodded several times absentmindedly. – And that is why you’ve come pleading for my help.

Through their talk he had recovered some degree of confidence regarding his superiority over this pirate captain. He became abstracted, already formulating a certain plan of his own.

- No. You will help me so I do not blow a hole in your head. – Flint bared his teeth, dropping a hand under the table, as if to draw his non-existent pistol. It had the anticipated effect though – Lord Ashe recoiled.

The clock whirred and chimed a long trill, followed by twelve strokes. Something in it kept bothering Flint with its familiarity, but he could not pinpoint what exactly. He shifted in his seat, glancing at the exit.

- Go. Tell your story.

- I am taking my men with me. They deserve to be heard as much as I do.

Lord Ashe groaned inwardly – why did this man have to be so insufferably obstinate; how would a bevy of rowdy rascals improve his matters?

- Very well. There is a certain patron in England to whom I may apply for help. But mark my word – nothing is certain.

- It never is. We leave in two days. – Flint was already up, flexing his back like a predator stretching before a strike. Peter hesitated in the face of his resolve.

- So soon? But we will need a ship to be provided for. And if I am to accompany you, some arrangements are to be made.

- The Seahawk will be ready to sail in two days. – it was neither an offer, nor a question. The captain was merely stating a fact; one Peter Ashe, bound by the favour, was obliged to honour. Well aware of this, Flint turned and saw himself out with brisk efficiency.

***

Despite Ashe’s doubts, Captain Flint’s promises were promptly delivered on. By sun-up on the second day the Seahawk was rigged and stocked for her voyage across the Atlantic.

When the governor made it to the quay, bracketed by personal guard, a sloop was already waiting for him. Motioning for his entourage to stay back, Lord Ashe stepped into it and resigned himself to fate.

- Your luggage, sir? – one of the rowers asked, rather spoiling the image of a noble gentleman sacrificing himself to the ruthlessness of pirates, that Peter Ashe was hoping for.

- It will be brought in later, along with my valet.

- Very well, sir. – the sloop splashed away from the pier, wobbling before the rowers caught the rhythm. Lord Ashe was certain half the cannons in Charles Town were trained on the Seahawk, and would not have remained silent had she been within their range. Yet here he was, being called ‘sir’ and asked about his luggage in an oddly courteous way.

The bulk of the ship drew near, casting a shadow over the sloop.

- Welcome aboard the Seahawk, Lord Ashe. – the clear-voiced sailor who helped him aboard was leaning on a crude crutch on account of missing a leg. – My name is John Silver and I am charged with showing you to your quarters, since I’m pretty much useless for anything else. Apart from cooking your supper, that is. So there, I hope you will find everything agreeable. This way, please.

Silver chattered so confidently and so much, that after a couple minutes Peter Ashe despaired in trying to get a word in. Meeting the Captain would have to wait. They descended into the tween’ deck, his guide wielding the crutch with surprising dexterity, past the galley and several unmarked doors.

- And here we have the guest cabins, and this is yours. – Silver stood aside, allowing Lord Ashe to squeeze past him into a low-ceilinged cubby-hole. As the governor turned to thank the man, he promptly bumped his head on a low beam. – Apologies for the size. The Seahawk is a man-o-war, ill-suited for leisure cruises.

- This will be sufficient. – Ashe replied dryly.

- Wonderful! Make yourself comfortable, your luggage should arrive any moment. – the pirate stepped back into the corridor, intending to leave.

- I require to speak with your captain.

Silver chewed on his bottom lip before replying.

- Therein lies a tiny complication. The Captain is currently overseeing the castoff, he is very busy. You will certainly see him at dinner, but not before that.

Before Lord Ashe had a chance to respond, a lanky dark crewmember barged in, with a sizeable sea-chest and a molested valet in tow.

- And here are your possessions. – Silver beamed. – Thank you, Nial. Do make yourself comfortable, Lord Ashe. I will come to collect you for dinner.

- The matter is urgent. – the sailor merely shrugged his shoulders at that and shut the door in Peter Ashe’s face, preventing any further argument.

- What on earth are you doing here? – the governor turned to his valet, Victor, who was diligently removing bed-linen from the sea-chest. – I have made no provisions.

- A runner came, sir. With instructions. He said they were from you, sir. – Victor turned to his master and bowed as much as keeping proper distance in the tiny cabin allowed.

- Damn! – Lord Ashe had no intention to travel, indeed, his lack of provision regarding the luggage was not a case of absentmindedness. The previous evening, as Flint left his mansion, Peter sent a note to Captain Hume of HMS Scarborough to apprehend the pirate vessel and ferry himself back to Charles Town. He expected to be ashore before sundown.

Furious, Lord Ashe strode to the door with the express intention of confronting Captain Flint to inform him that the Seahawk was, even as they spoke, hounded by the Scarborough, and that Flint was in no position to demand anything of him, even less – transfer him anywhere against his desire. The door was locked. And turned out, as the man tried to force it, to be made of sturdy wood. Banging on it and swearing profusely had no effect but to alarm Victor, so for the second time that day Peter Ashe resigned himself to fate.

It wasn’t exactly fear that washed over him as he slumped into the single chair and rested his elbows on the rickety table. It was a mixture of guilt and regret, and somewhere in the back of his mind an image of Thomas shaking his head at him in hurt disbelief.

It was probably night by then, not that Ashe could tell in the confines of his cabin. When did he even begin to regard the cramped space as his? It was quiet save for the creaking sigh of the ship and the occasional trail of footsteps that resounded above him. So the Scarborough failed. With that conclusion Lord Ashe fell into a fitful sleep.

***

On the second or third day, when he was finally allowed above deck, he swept his gaze over the pristine horizon, hoping to see the three-mast outline of the Royal Navy man-o-war ploughing the waves. Nothing.

- What a swine you are, Peter. – Flint said wearily, leaving his place at the wheel to join Ashe. There was no real malice in the words and that made the governor feel guilty. – You should have told your men not to wag their tongues when you set Captain Hume on us. It was far too easy to drop his spies the wrong coordinates.

Lord Ashe pursed his lips. - What will you do with me now?

Flint levelled him with a long stare – same as he did in Thomas Hamilton’s study years prior, with a look of a trusting man who had been taught better than to believe those around him – and walked off without a word.

Weeks passed in harnessing the fickle westerlies, scrubbing the deck and, in the case of Lord Ashe, waiting for an uncertain sentence to be passed. A couple times the creamy smudge of a sail would appear on the horizon, then float away again. The sky turned surly with clouds.

It was the first day of proper rain, Peter Ashe standing at the bowsprit, head tilted backward to wash the salt and grime off his face, that Flint approached him again. They haven’t spoken in days, the Captain being careful to avoid all contact, or just too busy to pay his passenger any attention.

- You will do as you have promised and then you can sod off. For all I care, you are stupid enough to not pose a threat. The Scarborough incident proves that. – Flint started without preamble.

Lord Ashe attempted to draw the Captain into a conversation with some vague comments, but the other clearly wasn’t listening, so he went back to getting soaked.

Early next morning, the Seahawk came into view of the British shore. The cliffs that greeted her were grey with moisture – a striking change after the azure water and bone-white sand of most Caribbean ports – one crowned with an oblong building of rough stone.

- What’s that? – the Captain shouted up to the crow’s nest.

Jonesey, currently on lookout duty, shrugged his shoulders, then figuring that was insufficient, he added - Dunno, Capt’n! A madhouse, or a prison!