Shore leave, even for a few days, was a blissful thing for Archie Kennedy. Though he loved his career and all the excitement that came with it, a few days away from Simpson and the hell he gave him almost constantly was something he desperately needed to rest his weary mind and body, preparing himself for whatever that man was to put him through next. Unfortunately for Archie, reaching the docks on this occasion didn’t quite mean that freedom was upon him, as Simpson had invited the rest of the Midshipmen to join him at one of his favourite late night haunts. And by invite, he really meant ordered. Not doing what Simpson asked was really not worth it if you wanted a quiet life. Archie was the exception to this rule, only because he didn’t get a quiet life anyways. But disobeying orders would only make the hell he was forced to live even more hellish. So he forced himself to nod in agreement hoping that it wouldn’t be too long before Simpson was too drunk to notice him slip away.
The place was seedy, the downstairs room of some already dodgy looking tavern and as he descended the stairs, Archie already knew this was a place he didn’t want to be in. Flickering torches on the walls and candles on the tables gave the room its only real light, a glow of red and orange, as barmaids in low cut dresses served leering men at the tables. Looking around as he took his seat, Archie could see that the barmaids were not the only ladies the men had their eyes on. Women and girls, some even younger than him, were being pushed forward towards the men at the tables by their masters, forced to sit on their laps and give them attention, whatever the men wanted or whatever they could afford to pay for. Archie saw Simpson’s eyes light up as he saw a particularly beautiful blonde woman and beckoned her over with his finger. She obliged without hesitation, clearly she had been doing this for a while, and the next minute she was sat on his lap, her hand caressing his face as his hands made their way up the skirts of her dress. Archie couldn’t watch anymore, the whole idea of these girls being forced to do these things making him feel sick. He sipped at his drink, hoping it wouldn’t be long before Simpson was drunk enough to forget he had even brought him there.
“Looking for a bit of entertainment, Sir?”
Archie jumped at the voice at his ear. As he looked up he saw a man grinning toothlessly at him, holding a young woman tightly by the collar of her dress. Her face was heavily made up, her dark brown hair pulled tight and piled upon the top of her head and Archie felt she was probably a good few years older than him, though the terrified look on her face made her look like a child. He shook his head, respectfully.
“No. Not tonight. Thank you…”
“But all your friends are having fun…” the man persisted, gesturing over to the other midshipmen of the Justinian who had all indeed decided to each find a lady of their own. Archie shook his head once more.
“I’m fine. Thank you. I have little money…”
“This one is as cheap as they come…” he insisted, pushing the young woman forward as she tried to disguise a yelp of fear, “You won’t need much for her to show you a good time…”
“No. Thank you.” Archie said, a little more forcefully this time, and the man backed off, “I am not interested…”
As he saw the look of anger on the man’s face towards the young woman, Archie regretted slightly the force in which he refused. And as the man dragged her off and he heard her cry out a little in pain and fear he couldn’t shake the niggling feeling of guilt at what might happen to her now. Glancing over at Simpson and the others, he noticed they were far too engrossed in their own fun to even notice him anymore. So taking the last gulp of his drink he got to his feet and made his way up the stairs, hoping he could find out where the man had taken her. He wasn’t sure what, if anything, he could do but he knew he couldn’t just walk away. As he got outside he breathed in the fresh sea air of Portsmouth thankfully after so long in the dingy, smoky downstairs room. He was just getting his bearings when he heard a scream and instinctively ran towards the sound. As he got round the corner he saw the young woman, cowering on the floor as the man stood over her.
“You stupid girl! What the hell am I going to do with you if you can’t make me money? I couldn’t even offer you to that sailor for next to nothing!”
As he grabbed her from the floor and threw his hand down against her cheek which made her scream out in pain, Archie stormed over.
“Leave her be!”
His voice was stronger than he ever thought it could be, but as the man glared at him, the niggling anxiety crept back into his chest. The man scoffed, throwing the woman to the ground as he walked up to Archie.
“You had your chance in there.” He sneered, “Changed your mind have you?”
“Then if you haven’t then leave us alone. I’ve got business to deal with…”
Archie watched, horrified as the man rolled up his sleeves and marched back over to her. She looked over at him and he couldn’t bear the fearful, pained look in her eyes.
The man turned back to Archie as he reached into his pocket and took out the week’s wages he had just been given.
He said, handing it out to the man who took hold of a coin and held it up to the streetlight.
“You said you had no money. This is a lot of money. For this she will do whatever you please…”
Archie shook his head and the man looked at him in confusion.
“I don’t want her to do anything. I want you to let her go. Set her free from her employment, or imprisonment or whatever you class this as being. Let her go free into my care.”
His voice was stronger than he felt. He could feel his limbs trembling as he spoke but he couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. The man looked at him in bafflement.
“You really want her?”
Archie looked down at the woman again, huddled on the ground like a frightened animal. She could barely look him in the eye, she was so petrified of what was happening. Swallowing loudly, Archie nodded. The man grinned, holding out his hand to Archie who passed him over the money. The man walked over to the woman and crouched down. She flinched away as he brought his face close to hers.
“He’s paid me more than you could ever make me anyway…”
He spat in her face before making his way back into the tavern. As Archie walked towards her, she shook her head in fear, shuffling backwards until she hit a wall and could go no further.
“Please, Sir…” She whispered tearfully, still shaking her head, “I know you paid him but I don’t want...I can’t...I…”
Archie crouched down next to her, his heart breaking at her words.
“I meant every word I told your master…”
He spoke with a soft voice and as she looked at him properly she saw he had kind eyes and a gentle face.
“I don’t want you to do anything. All I want is to get you away from here and safe…”
He smiled gently at her.
“My name is Archie Kennedy. I’m a midshipman of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. I will not hurt you. I promise you.”
He looked down the street, pointing towards one of the buildings.
“I have lodgings for a few days just above the bookshop in the high street. It’s not much but it is safe and warm and away from the streets…”
The young woman looked up at him with tears in her green eyes, trying to understand why he would want to help her. She was almost certain that he was genuine, yet she still couldn’t understand why.
“Why?” She whispered eventually, shaking her head, “Why are you being so kind to me?”
He smiled, but there was a sadness behind it that she couldn’t quite understand.
“We all need someone to show us a little kindness.” He answered eventually, “The world can be a dark place. Sometimes a little kindness is the light you need to see you through…”
He got to his feet again, holding out a hand to help her up. Yet she hesitated. Sensing her hesitation, he spoke again.
“Trust me. I will not harm you. I swear it.”
His blue eyes never left hers. And in that moment she decided to trust the stranger who had come to her rescue, taking his hand and letting him pull her to her feet. He led the way down the high street towards the little shop he pointed out. She could feel the chatter of her teeth and the goosebumps prickling at the bare skin of her arms with the frosty weather. She had nothing but the clothes she was standing in and spending most of her time locked away in that tavern meant she had little need of a cloak. Then suddenly the bitterness lifted as she felt herself being wrapped in a heavy, warm material and as she looked down she realised he had given her his cloak, still warm from the heat of his own body. He smiled at her and for the first time she couldn’t help but smile back as she followed him onwards towards his lodgings.
The lodgings were small but cosy. Both the living room and bedroom had open fires in them, which Archie lit as soon as he walked in. And the bedroom also housed a tin bath which the young woman couldn’t help but look at longingly; she couldn’t remember the last time she had bathed properly.
“Once the fire takes hold properly I shall draw you a bath…”
His voice made her jump and as she looked at him her cheeks reddened slightly as she realised he must have caught her staring at it.
“No. No it’s fine. I’m fine, thank you, I…”
Archie chuckled at her panicked babbling, seeing a lot of himself in her.
“I insist.” He said, gently, “Forgive me, I haven’t even asked your name.”
She smiled shyly at him.
He smiled back at her.
“You have a very pretty name…”
He said before coughing and turning away, trying to disguise the reddening of his own cheeks. Both of them relaxed into a comfortable silence until the water for the bath was warm enough and he busied himself drawing it up. Eventually it was ready and he walked over to her, in his arms a towel and a shirt.
“I...don’t have anything else you can wear.” He said, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment once more, “It’s clean, and it should fit…”
“It’s fine…” Nell replied, taking them from him, feeling the soft cotton fabric under her fingertips, “It’s very kind of you…”
He smiled shyly once more before turning and leaving, closing the door behind him to give her privacy. As Nell unbuttoned the filthy, revealing dress she had been given and forced to wear, she let it fall to the ground and as she walked towards the bath, she felt a sense of freedom wash over her that she hadn’t felt in a long time. Dipping her toe into the water she discovered that it was not too hot, just perfectly warm and she allowed herself to step in and let it fully immerse her. The tears started to fall down her cheeks and she let them. The simple pleasure of a bath that she had been denied for so long, the kindness of one person after so much cruelty just forced this wave of emotion to crash over her. Eventually, once she had cried all that she could, she tipped her head backwards, letting the water rinse the dirt from her hair and soften the layers of caked on makeup which her master had made her wear. She scrubbed at her face, wanting to rid herself of it. She could still feel the sting of her Master’s hand against her cheek which would stay long after the makeup had been washed away. Once she felt clean, she rose from the bathtub, reaching for the towel to dry herself before grasping hold of the shirt he had given her. It was a simple man’s shirt with a cord fastening at the neck, but it was the most precious thing she had ever been given. Slipping it over her head it was big enough to cover her down to her knees and it was the softest and most comfortable thing she had worn in the longest time. Feeling slightly self conscious after ridding herself of everything she had known herself to be for the past few years, she padded from the bedroom, opening the door into the living room where she saw him sat at the table, reading a book by candlelight, a small plate of food in front of him. He felt her presence, and looking up from his book he looked over and had to do a double take. He didn’t recognise the girl he had rescued from the streets an hour ago. With her dark hair loose, falling in curls down her back, and the makeup scrubbed from her face he realised that the woman he thought was older than him was in fact most likely his own age or younger. And more beautiful than he even imagined. Realising he was staring, he cleared his throat, getting to his feet and offering her a seat.
“You must be hungry.” He said, “Please. There isn’t much, but you are welcome to share…”
Part of her still couldn’t understand or cope with all of this kindness and wanted to refuse, but the grumble of her stomach made the decision for her and she accepted the seat, taking a plate and filling it with a slice of bread, some cheese and meat as he poured her a glass of water. The food was so good and so needed that she almost forgot her manners, and had to wash down her first mouthful with the water so she could thank him. He smiled, nodding his head in acknowledgment before returning to his book. As she tore off pieces of the bread to eat, Nell turned her head on a side, trying to read the title on the front of the book.
She didn’t realise she had spoken aloud until he looked at her in curiosity.
“You can read?”
He looked mortified with himself, shaking his head as he placed the book down on the table.
“Forgive me. That was incredibly rude of me to assume that...I shouldn’t have...I…”
Nell shook her head, letting him know that she took no offence but the look of embarrassment lingered on his face.
“I was schooled by my parents at home for many years…” she explained, trying to stop him from looking so horrified with himself, “They wanted me to have an education. So they taught me to read and write and do basic sums. Then they died. Illness took them. Three Winters back. My Mother first and then my Father. I tried to keep the house running but I couldn’t. That’s why I ended up on the streets and finally with my Master…”
Nell never told the story. She hated pity. She never wanted to be pitied by anyone. But for some reason she wanted to tell him. And the look on his face was not one of pity. It was one of sadness but not pity. It was almost one of understanding. He opened his mouth to speak, but she shook her head, letting him know it was alright.
“I loved reading.” Nell continued, “The idea of being able to transport yourself into another world through words was always magical to me…”
Archie grinned widely.
“Me too. Having a world you can go to and escape whatever is happening in this one. It’s like a safety blanket…”
Nell nodded in agreement.
“I’ve missed it terribly…”
She sighed and Archie watched her closely. Suddenly he got up from his chair and walked over to his bag, hunting in it for a few moments before finding whatever it was he was looking for and walking back over to her.
He said, holding out in his hand a copy of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Nell stared at the beautiful leather bound book in his hands before looking up at him and shaking her head.
“I cannot accept that. It is yours. It is far too precious…”
“I have read it a hundred times over…” he replied, softly, “I practically know it word for word. It’s time someone else got some joy from it. Please…”
Nell felt the tears pricking at her eyes as she took it from him, her fingers sweeping across the embellished words upon the cover.
“Thank you…” she whispered, tearfully, “I will treasure it…”
He smiled at her, watching as she stared at the book in amazement. She stifled a yawn, not wanting to appear rude, but she could feel the tiredness creeping over her.
“You should get some rest.” Archie said, having spotted her fatigue, “You take the bed. You are in more need of it than I. And I shan’t take no for an answer…”
Nell knew it was pointless arguing with him, so she smiled her thanks and wished him goodnight as she walked to the bedroom and closed the door behind her. She knew that she should really head straight to bed, but the draw of the warm fire and the magic of a book in her hands after so long was too much of a temptation so she instead settled herself down on the rug and began to read.
Archie also continued his book, sat at the table, enthralled by the words, not wanting to stop reading until the candle started burning too low and his eyes began to feel heavy and he knew that it was time for him to retire. Placing the book down on the table, he blew out the candle and was beginning to decide on which chair looked the most appealing to make his bed for the night when he suddenly decided to check that Nell had settled alright. Moving quietly to the door, he opened it gently, not wanting to make a noise as he looked in. He smiled softly as he saw her, fast asleep on the rug, her face resting against the open pages of the book. He walked over to her, sliding the book from under her head and closing it before bending down and lifting her from the floor, carrying her over to the bed in his arms before placing her down gently and covering her with the blanket. She shifted in her sleep slightly and he watched her until she settled again before placing the book down on the bedside table, blowing out the candle and leaving the room to find some peaceful sleep of his own.