“Mr. Talbot! Mr. Talbot, the bottle stands by you,” rang out the voice of the captain, and the midshipman, blushing to the hairline, rushed to pass the wine on. It was his first time messing with the captain, and the faces around the wardroom table were already drink-reddened and, at present, smiling indulgently upon him.
“Sorry, sir,” Talbot managed, but the captain was especially jovial this evening, and took no notice.
“A toast!” the captain roared.
“Here we go,” murmured the grizzled old sailing-master, just audibly.
The captain swayed to his feet and raised his glass. “The death of the brigand!” he cried, his aristocratic lip curled in a sneer.
The officers rose as one. “The death of the brigand,” they repeated obediently, though Talbot noticed that a few were almost smiling.
“Tomorrow, men,” the captain growled. “Tomorrow, I shall have my revenge.”
“The wind is in our favour, sir,” said the first lieutenant, Mr. Pendersley. “We shall take the Jezebel and hang every man jack aboard.”
The captain glowered, wordlessly, at his second-in-command.
“Except the cursed brigand that commands her, sir,” Pendersley hastened to add, “who shall be left to you, to wreak your personal revenge on. Sir.”
“Quite right,” murmured the rest of the officers, except Talbot, who said, “But—"
A master’s mate tried to sit on Talbot immediately, but the captain had heard. “Stand down, Jenkins! What was that, my boy?”
“Sorry, sir,” Talbot stammered. “I meant nothing by it. I just wondered why you must — or, I suppose, why we have been following this particular pirate ship.”
One could hear the ship creak and roll in the silence that filled the wardroom.
The captain leaned forward, and Talbot sucked in a nervous breath.
“I will tell you the tale,” he growled. Half the officers relaxed in relief. The other half — the older members of the Indefatigable’s quarterdeck — shifted in their seats a bit, as if settling in for an oft-repeated yarn. The master actually rolled his eyes, and kicked Talbot’s shin under the table.
“It began when I was naught more than a midshipman, not so old as you yourself,” the captain said, a faraway look in his eyes. “I was sent to sea under the command of Captain Dawson, my mother’s eldest brother. He had a passion for chasing pirates.”
“One the captain inherited,” piped up Pendersley, who was a bit of a wag.
The captain searched his lieutenant’s face for any sign of blasted innuendo, but it was naval-issue blank. He gently fingered the miniature around his neck, and resumed his narrative…
“Today’s the day, lad,” said the master, and Arthur stiffened at the appellation. He was one of the young gentlemen, after all.
But he was curious, so he asked: “What day is that, sir?”
“Pirates,” growled the master, and a shiver went up Arthur’s spine, fearful and pleasurable at once. “Look there, two points off the larboard bow.”
“Pirates,” the boy tried to growl back; it was more of a mew.
“Your first bout,” the master said, glancing into the horizon. “The captain won’t take prisoners. Should be a bloodbath. Sharpened your sword?”
“Yes,” Arthur said, with dignity. Then he scarpered off.
Instead of going to his quarters, though, he went belowdecks, right to the door of the fo'c’sle. Squinting into the darkness, he hissed, “Reg!”
An urchin of a ship’s boy emerged. “I told ye not to call me Reg!” he whispered hotly. “If the rest of the crew find out, I’ll be our Reginald till we reach world’s end.”
“Yes, sorry, sorry,” said Arthur impatiently. “But no one’s possibly going to think your real name is Deadeye Jack.”
“They might!” Reg muttered. “’Slike a proper pirate name, that is…” There was nothing wrong with either of Reginald’s eyes, but it was early days yet, he was only fourteen. He could always hope.
“Speaking of pirates,” Arthur said importantly, dragging the cabin boy into the hold, where they could speak in private.
Reg perked up. “Wot’s this then? We finally taking on the black horde?”
Arthur nodded. Reg fairly leapt into the air. “You sure?”
“That’s what old Farragut says. They’re in our sights. We’ll be beating to quarters soon. But you mustn’t mention it to anyone else. It wouldn’t do, you know,” said Arthur awkwardly. “For them to know that we’re friends.”
“’Course not,” Reg said quietly, looking away.
Arthur felt a twinge of guilt. He threw a lazy arm around Reg’s skinny shoulders. “Just fancy, though. And if we board ‘em in the smoke” — their conversation tended to rely heavily on the vocabulary of the adventure-story — “I bet we could each kill one!”
“Yeah, at least,” Reg said. His excitement seemed forced, now.
“No need to be frightened,” Arthur said softly. “I’m not. I’ll have a gun, the captain says. I’ll look out for you. Always, I will.”
“I’m not scared!”
“I know,” Arthur said. “I was just saying."
“Well, don’t just say!” Reg said fiercely, and punched him. Arthur quickly punched back. It was exciting to rough around with Reg. If they got caught, they’d surely get in trouble, and that made the stakes all the higher.
They tussled and grappled and swore quietly, for the utter joy of it. Suddenly Arthur realized that Reg wasn’t struggling, and was in fact simply embracing him. Then he remembered the pirates, and their sharp cutlasses, and how they’d send honest English boys off the plank and into Davy Jones’s locker.
So he hugged Reg back, as a goodbye, in case.
The drums began, and they separated. Reg studied a moment. “Good luck, sir,” he said, finally.
“Arthur,” he insisted. Reg just nodded, mutely. “Good luck, Jack.”
“Is this a hugging story?” Talbot did not say. Instead, he asked, “He was your friend, sir? A mere cabin boy?”
“Aye,” said the captain. “I was foolish then, and less conscious of my place. I don’t suggest you follow my example,” he concluded impressively.
But after a pause, he added, “Not that Reg was a mere cabin boy. He was a thoroughgoing seaman even then. Salt to the marrow.”
Talbot apologized for having offended. The captain waved his hand, magnanimously.
“Yes, he was my friend,” the captain said. His face darkened. “But he used the battle, the smoke and confusion, to slip away. He stowed away aboard the pirate ship, and never told me. I thought he’d been killed! I felt — well, never mind how I felt.”
The captain thumped the table. “The scoundrel! He betrayed…”
The wardroom officers exchanged glances.
“…England,” the captain finished lamely. “And England will never forgive.”
“Aye, I bet ye didna know I was a navy man to start,” said the captain, thumping his sullen new recruit on the back. “Took the King’s shilling and all! Knew the Articles of War frontward and back, and still do.” He guffawed.
The recruit snorted, and looked away, not wanting to show curiosity. But it got the better of him: “Why’d you want for to turn buccaneer, then, cap’n?”
“Ah,” Deadeye Jack said. “I’d grown big on tales of pirates. Me mam, God rest her, thought the navy more respectable like, but it warn’t for me. The captain a tyrant, and everyone bowing and scraping to him and his bloody officers! No chance of advancement for the foremost jacks. I’d rather sail with sworn brothers, share and share alike.”
The captain puffed his favourite pipe. He was restless on the edge of a fight, and with him, no less.
“Let me show ye something, lad,” he said. He pulled his well-worn portrait out of his coat. “Do ye recognize this man?”
The recruit grunted. “Seen ‘im somewhere,” he said.
“I should say so,” growled the captain. “He’s a famous ‘un now. His Majesty, God rot him, can boast no finer seaman, I’ll be bound. And listen here: he’s my sworn nemesis.”
“Congratulations,” the recruit did not say. But the captain seemed to be waiting for a response. Instead, he asked, “’Ow’d that come about, then?”
“I’ll tell ye.”
Reg adjusted his eyepatch. His eye was fine, of course, but lately the crew’d been calling him Spotty Jack instead of Deadeye, and he thought the patch might draw attention away from his complexion.
“All ahoo, there, Spotty?” said the bosun, thumping Reg on the back. “Got some grit under your lid?”
“Just thought I’d try it out,” mumbled Reg.
“Well, me lad, you’ll want your depth perception with ye today,” the bosun said, scanning the waves.
“A prize?” Reg said, suddenly straightening.
“Could be a merchantman. Or not. Not showing colours, but that means nowt. Could be a proper fight.” The bosun grinned a bloodthirsty grin. “Just squeeze a few of those spots at ‘em, Jackie boy, and you’ll drown His Majesty’s whole fleet!”
Reg was barely listening to this last gibe at his expense. They’d been becalmed for ages; it was longer since he’d gotten to do any proper pirating. “Arr,” he said, experimentally.
“What was that?” said the bosun, sharply.
But Reg was already running off to his sea-chest to find his flint-lock.
“FIRE,” Arthur cried to his gun crew. He’d only just passed for lieutenant, and everything about this engagement felt important, especially himself.
The broadside hit home with the satisfying cracking and splintering of wood. The marines were firing from the tops. Arthur’s blood sang. And now to board.
Life seemed sped-up, heightened. Arthur leapt aboard the pirate vessel two moments before his stomach, firing blindly into a mass of ruffians. “Come on, men! At the sea-scum!” he cried. Glancing behind him—
He realized no one else had boarded yet. He could see Captain Dawson standing on the quarterdeck, his face a mixture of horror and derision, his arms windmilling ineffectually.
He turned back. He was surrounded by pirates, who appeared to be giggling. “Heh heh heh,” the buccaneer captain agreed.
“Stay back,” Arthur said. “I am apprehending this ship in the name of His Majesty.”
“Are ye now,” said basically everyone.
Arthur thought quickly. Quick as a thought, he grabbed a young, rather pretty pirate with an eyepatch and pulled him back toward the rail, his sword at his neck.
“No closer, or the little one gets it,” Arthur cried.
The other cutthroats exchanged glances. “Seems a fair trade,” a one-legged pirate said.
“It’s just ole Deadeye.”
The words seemed to awaken a remembrance in Arthur. He looked closer at the pirate pressed flush against his body, who was blushing like a boy.
“Wait a moment,” he said. “Is that — Reginald?”
The pirate crew quieted in an instant. One could hear Dawson's steady stream of curses on the other ship.
“Our Reginald? From the Peerless? I thought you were dead!”
“Oh, my God,” whispered the crew. Sniggers were popping out in the quiet.
“Shut up, shut up,” Reg moaned.
“What happened to your eye?” Arthur cried. “For God’s sake, are you all right? Did they do this to you?” And his fingers fumbled at the strings of Reg’s eyepatch, crazily, needing to see.
“Don’t—“ Reg tried, but it was too late, and the patch fell, disclosing an eye in perfect condition and the superlatively mortified mien of his old friend. The pirates, as one, howled with laughter.
“What the hell,” Arthur said, looking angry now, “is all this, then?”
Reg, with a mighty effort, twisted himself free and drew arms.
“I’ll tell you what this is,” he hissed, drawing himself up to his full height. “This is me, swearing revenge. I’ll ha’ it for this day and the dishonour you’ve brought upon me, you posh little swaggering woodcock!”
“Oh yes?” said Arthur, whipping stripes into the air with his sword. “You’re no match for the steel of a true Englishman, you scurvy — brigand! I’ll pitch you in the drink!”
“I’ll hound you to the very gates of hell!” Reg shrieked, and leapt forward. There was a sharp clang.
A moment later, the buccaneer captain had separated them by the napes of their necks, like squabbling kittens. During the previous exchange, he had parleyed across the narrow space with Dawson.
“A nephew of mine,” Dawson had said, in a defeated tone. “Do you seek a fight this day, Bill? For I would be willing to take the boy and a rain check both.”
“Oh, aye,” the buccaneer captain agreed. “Got lots of loot aboard I don’t want to risk on the likes o’ thee. Not as if you’re my nemesis, now.”
And the captains laughed.
Presently, the sullen young men were being held apart by other pirates, most of whom were repeating some variation of “Our Reginald” in faraway voices as they wiped mirthful tears from their eyes. “Dead to me, dead to me, I will spill your blood,” chanted Reg under his breath.
“Did they really think your name was Deadeye Jack?” Arthur mumbled spitefully. “Your eyes are fine. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone with less dead eyes in my life! They’re so blue. Like cornflowers.”
Reg continued his chant, and merely blushed a bit. So did Arthur, once he realized how his insult had gotten away from him.
“Here, Reginald,” said the buccaneer captain, striding over. “It’s been a trying afternoon for ye, I know. We must return this wee poshie to the bosom of his crew. Care to pitch him overboard? I thought it might be a satisfaction. His uncle don’t mind.”
“Aye, sir,” Reg said glumly. The other pirates released him.
With a cold glower, he advanced and grasped Arthur’s arms, hard, between his hands. An involuntary shudder possessed Arthur for a moment at the roughness of it. Reg pressed him backwards, close and overpowering, until his back hit the rail.
“You,” Reg murmured, dangerously. “I’ll have you, one day. This isn’t the last you’ll see of Deadeye Jack.”
“I’ll let you know when I first see this ‘Deadeye Jack,’” Arthur whispered back. Reg was close, and warm. “All I see is a brigand. And I’ll look out for him, night and day, all my life.”
“Aww,” said the bosun, who was close.
“Are they kissing?” yelled the ship’s carpenter, who couldn’t see.
“NO,” they both yelled, blushing. “We’re swearing vengeance,” Reg added.
“Comes to much the same thing, in my hexperience,” said the bosun.
The splash came quickly after that, and Arthur swam back to his ship.
Not that Deadeye Jack had told the recruit the whole story. He glossed over his mortification quite smoothly.
“And my prophesyin’ that day proved true, lad, for we’ve been at it hammer and tongs ever since. He’s given me chase round the Cape, and I’ve chased him right back from the China Sea to the Land of Fire. A pair of immoveable combatants, locked in an eternal struggle.”
He puffed his pipe. “That’s what one o’ them newspapers called us,” he added, complacently.
The recruit stared at the captain open-mouthed. “And ye’re just tryin’ to get him back for embarrassing ye in front of yer old crew, cap’n?”
“Ah, no,” said Deadeye Jack. “That’s how it started, belike, but he’s offered me loads more insults since. Have ye not heard tell of the battle,” he leaned closer, “where he had the overweening audacity,” he sneered,” “to cut off—“
The recruit leaned in, curious despite himself. The captain had no visible missing limbs, but you never knew.
“A lock of my hair,” the captain growled.
The recruit sighed.
“Ah,” the captain said, nostalgically. “Epic battles, the lot. I tell you true, Talbot—" he continued to address the midshipman, and rightfully so, for most of the veteran officers had nodded off under the influence of both the captain’s wine and his oratory, “there is no better precaution you can take, if you want your career to have real meaning to it, than to take on a blood feud early, and prosecute it all your life.”
“Aye.” The captain smiled, fondly. “I don’t doubt one day you’ll meet a bold and seedy ‘un who will make you his sworn nemesis, and it will be a lucky day for you. But I doubt he’ll be as noble a cutpurse as my brigand. I doubt such another exists on the seven seas.”
“Are you crying, sir?” Talbot did not ask. Instead, he took a last swig of wine, and said, “May I ask you one last question, sir?”
“Name it, m’boy.”
“It seems to me that in many of the stories you’ve told me of your engagements with the brigand — the gambit on Desolation Rock, for instance, or the sea-fight at Almeira, or half a dozen others,” Talbot hesitated a moment, “well, it seems like you’ve had many opportunities to kill him before, sir.”
The captain was flushed. “Have I? Well…”
There was a long pause, punctuated only by the master’s snoring.
“There was always a reason,” the captain said, finally. “On Desolation Rock I disarmed him — can’t kill an unarmed man. Wouldn’t be cricket.”
“At Almeira, it transpired that he had a touch of influenza-like symptoms. Kill a man weakened by disease! Utterly against the rules of engagement. I sent him grapes, afterwards.” He shifted in his seat. “With a very angry note,” he added.
Talbot said nothing.
“It was good form,” the captain mused. “I’m a prisoner to it. But I’ll kill him tomorrow.”
“And even if I don’t,” the captain said, brightly, “we can see whether this miniature’s still accurate.”
The fight came upon them early, in the grey dawn.
Such battles are made to be written of, when each ship’s broadsides are executed with precision, and the wind alone seems to decide the victor.
Suppose it, then, that the Jezebel and the Indefatigable were as matched as two peas, that they ripped and raked each other so as to give credit to the very Age of Sail. Give it colour in your imaginations, and let my pen pass over it. Any fearless deed you could picture to yourself did indeed happen, that day.
For our heroes, the battle narrowed to a vivid point:
The Indefatigable’s men having boarded, their captain at their head, it was short work for the brigand captain to find his nemesis.
“Done for now, ye are,” he cried joyfully. Such moments were meat and drink to him, more potent far than rum.
“Say thou so?” roared his nemesis. “My yardarm longs to feel thy weight, triple-damnéd fiend!”
Reg smiled. Arthur’d clearly been working on that one.
A clang of steel, and they were at it.
“You’ve been practising,” the brigand huffed.
“One must stay fit, we’re not nineteen anymore,” his nemesis returned.
“No need to tell me,” Reg cried, with a slash and a parry. “I spends half my life with aches and pains I never used to have.”
“Oh, you never age,” Arthur grunted.
The brigand blushed, and his nemesis grinned to see it.
“I’ve got a shot, cap’n!” the sullen-faced recruit cried.
Reg turned; time slowed. Other members of the Jezebel, more acquainted with their captain’s feelings, were trying to stop him.
All too late. The shot rang out, and Arthur dropped. Blood bloomed in the whiteness of his shirt.
A roaring woe burst from the legendary throat of Deadeye Jack, who dropped to his knees at Arthur’s side, and smote his mighty breast thrice with his fist.
“No, no,” Arthur mumbled, and Reg chafed his hands.
“How is’t with thee?”
“Not as I would wish,” Arthur admitted.
“Ye must not leave,” Reg said, voice low.
Arthur smiled, gently. “What voice could call me back, but yours?”
Reg closed his eyes, and wept.
The men of the Indefatigable, seeing their captain down, aroused themselves from their initial paralysis. Pendersley, seeing advancement fall upon him all in a moment, called the retreat. They swung back aboard their ship and cut the lines that held them.
The men of the Jezebel swabbed up the blood, and began to sand away the splintered remnants of the fight. They spoke in low voices, and avoided each other’s eyes.
Arthur woke in a cabin full of grapes and oranges. The smell of fruit hung heavy in the air.
“Send for the captain,” a curt voice said. A sullen-faced young pirate rose — he was obviously nursing a black eye — and left the room. The world swam, and Arthur closed his eyes.
When he next opened them, Reg was bent over him, scrutinizing his face with a canny eye, and they were alone.
“Am I not dead, then?” Arthur asked, lamely. He was trying to remember how much he had committed himself to at the end — in his last words, as it were.
“Not yet,” the brigand grunted. Looking satisfied, he limped over to a chair and sat.
“I thought I might have gotten you in the kneecap,” Arthur managed.
“Oh, aye? I think not. It’s just stiff, like. Been sleeping in odd poses somehow.” And indeed, Reg’s chair looked well lived-in, on inspection.
“Nay, yer not dead,” Reg continued, after a comfortable pause. “Wouldn’t be surprised if it were given out that ye were, though. Ye looked sorely when any of the King’s men saw ye last.”
“Shot through the heart, I thought,” Arthur said. “And thou to blame.”
“Aye,” Reg said shortly. “Gave the whelp what shot ye a shiner like a diamond, for all that. He’s lucky he weren’t keelhauled into the bargain.”
Arthur began to probe at his bandages with his fingertips. “How am I alive?”
“Don’t touch it!” Reg snapped. “Here. ‘Twas in the pocket of your jacket.”
The brigand handed him a steel engraving. Reg’s own face shone out of it, bristled and fierce, wearing his battle-scarred hat.
“Happen this saved thy life,” Reg said. “Our sawbones thinks so.”
Arthur held it up next to Reg’s face, and squinted. “Pretty fair likeness still. Though you’ve gained flesh since Almeira.”
Reg smiled, despite himself. “Oh, aye? You’re grey at the temples, my son. I’ll have to redo my—" He prudently left off.
Arthur laughed all the same, and settled back comfortably into his pillows. “Well, well,” he said. “What’s next, enemy mine?”
“’Spect you might be allowed to make a daring escape once the surgeon gives his say-so,” Reg said, carelessly.
Arthur nodded. Not much the brigand could do to him now, injured and almost a guest. He quite understood. Even pirates have a code. Still, he felt a bit deflated.
“Or,” Reg said, rising, and Arthur looked up. “I could keep ye close prisoner a while longer.” He sat on the edge of the bed, and Arthur felt his own pulse, quick and strong, at his neck.
“I could, at that,” Reg said gruffly, taking his hand loosely between nervous, roughened fingers. “Because for all anyone knows, you’re dead. Which could mean a bit of holiday from all this vengeancein’.”
“Or even a long one,” Arthur said, his eyes locked on Reg’s bright blue ones.
The brigand laughed, but still seemed uncertain.
“How close a prisoner?” his nemesis asked.
“Very,” Reg murmured, almost bashfully, and leaned down, and kissed him.
It was a cautious start — Reg clearly didn’t want to put pressure on his wound — and exploratory, and ticklish from piratical whiskers, but Arthur hardly waited a moment before rushing upwards to meet it, like a wave.
He thought they might strive with tongues as violently as they had with swords, but Reg merely met him and marked him, stroke for stroke, press for press, waiting and willing. Propping himself up with one arm, Arthur slid a hand into Reg’s hair and held him firm and close, losing himself or finding himself, reviving or dying away, he knew not.
Here were depths worth sounding. But dead men tell no tales.