Captain Aubrey turned, his golden curls swinging in a dirty, blood-stained mat at his shoulders. He didn’t like the concern he heard tinging his Second Lieutenant's call.
“Yes, Mr. Mowett?”
“Sail on the horizon.”
Aubrey groaned. They weren’t in any fit state to fight. Stephen was below, elbows deep in blood, with most of the men from two of the gun divisions. Pullings, and a prize crew, was already aboard the Ferrare and about to depart.
“It’s hard to tell in all this fog, sir.” Damn.
There was nothing to be done. “Send word to Mr. Pullings. Tell Captain Howard to place a half division of marines aboard the Ferrare.” Aubrey paused to grab hold of the mast as a wave of nausea swept through him.
“Sir?” Mowett inquired quietly.
The captain shook his head, more to clear the sensation than to indicate a dismissal of concern. “Beat to quarters, Mr. Mowett.”
With just a hint of weariness, the blood and powder-spattered second lieutenant turned to shout the order.
“Good morning, Captain Pellew. A fine day, sir!” Hornblower’s cheerful greeting made Pellew smile. The boy was all youthful zeal and enthusiasm.
“A fine day indeed, Mr. Hornblower. Anything to report?”
“No, sir. A quiet night.”
Pellew gave a low grumble of irritation. They had been sailing for two weeks now with no prospect of an enemy engagement in sight. Pellew was growing impatient. Belatedly hearing his own growl of annoyance, he cleared his throat. Best not to let the boy see, he thought. Casting about for a change of subject he inquired after Hornblower’s studies.
As he listened to the boy’s progress with Clarke’s Complete Handbook of Seamanship, he looked at the swirling mass of gray sea before him. Through the fog, a sail appeared. “Mr. Hornblower, the glass if you please.” His eyesight was not what he had been, even with the glass. “Two frigates. Small. Probably 28 guns. Can’t make out the colors.” Passing the glass to the young man he asked, “Can you, Mr. Hornblower?”
He squinted through the glass. “One is ours, I think, sir. She appears damaged. The other is tethered to her.” Taking the glass away from his eye he looked at Pellew. “A prize?”
“But who is the prize, Mr. Hornblower?” wondered Pellew with a grim purse of his lips. “Well, we can’t leave a fellow crew stranded. Beat to quarters, Mr. Hornblower. We might finally get some action at last!”
He sounds positively gleeful, thought Hornblower, as he gave the orders.
“You wished to see me, sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Wales, I did,” intoned Pellew, looking up from his desk. “We are roughly one hour from a rendezvous with the Surprise, commanded by Captain Aubrey. Are you familiar with the ship?”
“Surprise, sir? I saw 'er out of water once, in Portsmouth, sir, for repairs,” replied the carpenter.
“Excellent. She appears to be in a sorry state. From the look of it, her foremast and bowsprit have taken heavy damage. Doubtless, there are other repairs to make as well. I’d like you to go aboard the Surprise and offer what assistance you can to their carpenter.”
“Aye, sir.” The man saluted and left, just as Lt. Bracegirdle came in.
“All preparations are completed, Captain. We should rendezvous with Surprise at 6 bells. Dr. Low is standing by to lend a hand to Dr. Maturin, if needed.”
Pellew nodded and turned his gaze from the Bracegirdle to the sea. “The French appear subdued aboard the Ferrare?”
“They do, sir.” Pellew let out a long sigh. Bracegirdle grinned. “We’ll find a ship to fight, Edward.”
The captain sighed again in exasperation. “Two bloody weeks, Anthony. If I wanted life to be this dull, I would have stayed in Portsmouth.”
Bracegirdle chuckled lightly and mirrored Pellew’s stance at the window; hands clasped behind his back. “Lucky Jack,” he said after a moment. “Have you met him?”
Pellew shook his head. “Never.”
“Neither has anyone else here, apparently. It almost seems as though we needn’t have, though. What with a reputation like his.”
“Indeed,” agreed Pellew.
“Eccleston is hoping for some anecdotes about Nelson.”
“He’ll most likely be disappointed, then,” returned Pellew. “From what I hear, Aubrey doesn’t speak much of his time with Lord Nelson.”
“Odd,” remarked Bracegirdle, “for a man not to speak of his hero.”
“I rather think that that is exactly the reason for his reticence. He could never compare to Nelson, and so prefers not to speak of it.”
Bracegirdle was quiet for a long moment before saying in a hesitant voice, “There, um,” he cleared his throat, “there is some talk of his effect on men of certain...proclivities.”
Pellew turned sharply to face his friend. “Is there now?” he demanded in a hard voice. Bracegirdle lowered his eyes, chastened. “You know I do not listen to that sort of rubbish. I judge a man by what I see him do. Besides, even if that turned out to be the case, the man can hardly be blamed for the reaction of others.” He reflected a moment and added, “and from what I’ve heard tell of the scarring on his face, it seems a rather unlikely tale, at that.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” replied Bracegirdle with apologetic formality. “I simply wanted to alert you to potential reactions from the crew.”
“Consider me alerted, Anthony.” It was a dismissal. Bracegirdle left.
Mowett stood at the rail. “Man the braces. Stand by to luff up!” A moment later Dr. Low, Mr. Wales, and Captain Pellew climbed over the gunwale. As the two captains saluted each other, Pellew noted the sickly pallor of Lucky Jack’s skin, and the blood still matting his hair.
“Captain Pellew," greeted Aubrey with heartfelt, though fatigued goodwill, "it is good to see a friendly face! Before we could make out your colors, we thought we had another fight ahead of us.”
Pellew inclined his head. “I thought you could use the services of Dr. Low, and Mr. Wales, our carpenter.”
Aubrey nodded. “Thank you,” he said simply without further embellished formality. Pellew could see he was exhausted. “Mr. Boyle will take you below to meet our carpenter, Mr. Wales. Dr. Low, I can take you down to Stephen; I was just on my way there, myself.” The doctor nodded. Aubrey turned to Pellew, a trifle sheepish. “Uh, Captain, I would normally invite you and your officers to dine in my quarters, but...uh...at the moment, they are less than suitable.”
“No matter, Captain. I would be honored to have you and your officers dine aboard the Indefatigable.” Looking over Aubrey’s still peakéd face, however, he gave a questioning glance. “That is, if you are well enough, Captain?”
Immediately straightening his posture, Aubrey nodded, and cocked a tight grin. He accepted the invitation with pleasure; though Pellew still thought he looked alarmingly pale. Aubrey gestured for Dr. Low to precede him, and the two made their way down to the surgery, while Pellew moved towards Lieutenant Mowett to question him on the engagement with the French frigate.
Later, as he made his way back to the Indy to dress for dinner, Pellew considered the scarred and bloodied visage of the famous Captain Aubrey. It was hard to imagine such looks inspiring amorous feelings in any sailor, officer, or civilian. Goldilocks, the Pied Piper of Sailors indeed! Hardly! His Aunt Agatha would have had more luck inspiring a romantic liaison than Jack Aubrey.