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.
“Which you should no be goin’ ta supper with yer head like that,” scolded Killick, Aubrey’s steward, as he dabbed, none too gently, at the oozing wound on the captain’s head.
“Killick, if I wanted to be nagged, I would have brought my mother,” retorted Aubrey, swatting away his hands.
“Which it is my fault fer frettin’ now?” muttered the steward reproachfully under his breath. Aubrey rolled his eyes, but the movement made his head ache, so he stopped.
“Just hand me the cravat,” he commanded wearily.
“Which it is still covered in blood ‘cause I didnae have time tae clean it,” grumbled Killick sourly. Aubrey briefly, and not for the first time, wondered where Killick’s habit of starting every sentence with “which” came from, then dismissed the thought as one of the impenetrable mysteries of the universe.
“It’ll do, Killick.” The protestations coming from his steward’s mouth indicated that it clearly would not do, but there was nothing Aubrey could change about it at this stage.
He doubted whether Pellew would care very much about the state of his cravat. Surely a man who had been thrown off his own ship by his captain, (as a midshipman!), wouldn’t be a stickler for etiquette. Aubrey chuckled as he remembered hearing the gunner from the Alarm tell the story in a pub in Portsmouth. “Told the captain he could swim to Hell for all he cared!” the man recalled Pellew saying. Aubrey laughed again.
That was usually the sort of thing people said to him after he slept with their wives, reflected Aubrey. Certainty Captain Harte had had rather a good deal more to say than that, after he’d found Aubrey in bed with his wife, Molly. That affair had cost him a promotion, and considerable financial stability as he hadn’t been allowed to keep his prize money. Aubrey had learned well from that encounter, though. Better to be called a Casanova than a catamite, to be sure, he thought, but a Casanova with the wrong naval wife ... it was nearly as harmful to one’s reputation.
As he looked at his pale face in the glass, now cracked since the cannon blast this morning, he felt a familiar wave of lowness settle over him. What a marvelous thing it would have been to not have to tarnish my reputation with these affairs. Shaking his head slightly, he gave a sigh. There was no helping it.
“Everything alright, Jack?”
The captain started in surprise. “Stephen! You gave me a fright. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I expect that’s the hearing loss from the canon shot.” The doctor looked his friend up and down, tightening his thin lips into a dour expression of severity, almost as disapproving as Killick’s. “Your color is still pale, Jack.”
“Not you too.”
“I don’t think you’re quite well enough--”
“Stephen, I haven’t eaten since supper last night. If my color is bad, it ain’t ‘cause of my head. It’s my stomach. You know me - prickly and hard to eradicate.”
The doctor gave him a reproachful look, but said no more. As they started out the cabin, Stephen’s gaze fell upon the captain’s ‘cello. A large gash, in a parody of a splintered grin, had left the beloved instrument looking weak and despondent. Stephen quickly turned to speak a word of comfort, but Jack held up his hand. “Please, don’t, brother. Not tonight.” Stephen’s expression softened, and he held his best friend’s gaze for a long moment in sympathy, then he turned and proceeded out the door.
Lieutenants Pullings and Mowett were already waiting for them above deck. We make a rather dusty and tired sight, thought Aubrey, what with all our scratches and plasters and bruising. But, Pellew won’t mind, he was sure. “Gentlemen, lively now,” and they stepped over the side into the waiting jolly boat below.
“Dr. Maturin, I expect you found it as difficult as I did to acclimate to life at sea, at first,” said Hornblower quietly to his dinner companion. The rest of the company were laughing over some nautical pun that the Surprise’s doctor did not understand.
“Indeed I did, Lieutenant Hornblower. I clearly am still acclimating myself,” he gestured to the party with his wine glass, a gentle smile on his face.
“There may be those who would count you lucky to be left out of the Great Naval Pun Tradition,” joked the young lieutenant, his tone growing more animated on the last few words.
“Gentlemen!” cried out Lt. Mowett on the young man’s other side, “Mr. Hornblower here, finds no amusement in our puns!”
Feeling his face flush in embarrassment, Hornblower tried to stutter out an apology.
“What’s this? Is that so?” cried Jack, animatedly. “A midshipman who does not like puns! Pellew! What type of ship are you running?”
Pellew, whose cheeks were aching from laughter, could barely stammer out, “Schooner or later the truth would have come out!” Stephen Maturin groaned, Hornblower turned, very nearly, the color of the marine’s coat, and the rest of the table descended into various states of uproarious hilarity. Aubrey laughed so heartily that a small spray of biscuits flew out his mouth and onto the table. Bracegirdle slammed his hand against the table so hard that the cheese wheel fell into the gravy boat splashing Lieutenant Pullings, who was shaking in silent laughter, a hand over his mouth in a valiant attempt to swallow and not spit out his wine.
Pellew could not remember a time when he had enjoyed himself so much at supper. As he took in Aubrey’s scarred and tired face, flushed with laughter and wine, he found it strangely captivating. There was a charisma about the captain of the Surprise that lured Pellew in. An endearing brusqueness. He recollected that Aubrey, prior to his ascendance to the captaincy, had been demoted to common sailor for an affair with an African girl. Pellew could hardly imagine the shame of such a demotion, but Aubrey had seemed to come out of it well. Indeed, according to gossip he’d heard in the Portsmouth clubs, his time as a common jack before the mast had cemented the loyalty of much of his regular crew. Aubrey never had trouble recruiting, and as far as Pellew knew, rarely had issues with discipline aboard ship.
That was to be admired , thought Pellew. A man who could control his ship without the lash understood the motivation of men, and knew how to harness their energy, and funnel their enthusiasm into productivity.
“More wine, captain?” inquired Pellew, holding up the bottle invitingly.
Aubrey smiled but waved it away. “I wish I could, by God, but I have much to do in the morning.” A shadow passed over his face, and his eyes slid out of a focus as his thoughts migrated towards the unpleasant work ahead. Shifting his gaze to Lt. Pullings he said, “Tom will be setting off soon with his prize crew, so it’s William and I left to turn the capstone, as it were.”
“You are headed to Gibraltar?”
“Indeed we are. We can make basic repairs at sea, but we need a port to refit.”
“How many did you lose in the battle?” This question was addressed to Stephen.
“Eight dead, 42 wounded.”
Aubrey let out a sigh as he closed his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his index finger. The doctor and Pellew both looked at him in sympathy.
“A grave loss,” acknowledged Pellew heavily.
“Mm,” agreed Aubrey tiredly. “‘Specially Jeremy Ducks. Powder monkey.” Aubrey ran a hand over his scabbing cut. “Only eight.”
Hornblower felt his throat constrict in horror. Indefatigable did not, at present, employ any young boys as powder monkeys, but when they had, he was sure the boys had been older. Perhaps eleven? Twelve? “Eight?” he repeated in dismay.
“An orphan, Mr. Hornblower,” returned Mr. Mowett somberly.
“Surely, Mr. Mowett, an Orphan Home, even a poor one, is better than a man-of-war?”
“Most orphaned boys aren’t lucky enough to be in a Home, Mr. Hornblower,” explained Dr. Maturin gently.
“Most sleep on the streets. Tom-All-Alones,” added Bracegirdle. Hornblower had never seen Tom-All-Alones, but he had heard of the miserable place. A place, they said, where hope goes to die.
“But even so,” persisted Hornblower fretfully, “how can that be worse than a warship?”
“Mr. Hornblower!” Pellew’s voice was sharp; a warning. His eyes were on Aubrey’s pained face.
“It’s not my first choice, either, Mr. Hornblower,” replied Aubrey dolefully. “But a ship, even a warship, can offer security for a young lad-- a dry berth, food in his belly, comrades who watch out for him, training in a livelihood. It’s not a bad life.” The men were silent around the table. “Usually,” he added softly.
Pellew observed the shadow deepen across Aubrey’s lively spirit, as his features settled into an all-too-familiar expression of guilt-ridden weariness. He wanted to reach out and comfort the man. A captain’s lot was a lonely one, never more so than when the deaths of the men under one’s command weighed down one’s spirit like an anchor.
“I should like to offer the protection of the Indefatigable to you, captain, as you finish your repairs and make your way to Gibraltar.” Aubrey looked up, startled and caught off guard by the generous offer. “Come, let us discuss details above deck.” So saying, Pellew rose from the table and indicated for Aubrey to precede him.
It was quiet above deck. Only the men of the night watch made their way quietly to and fro across the deck. “Thank you for your generous offer, captain. I wish the security of my men did not oblige me to accept it and inconvenience you.” Aubrey’s voice was low. He was a proud man, but not foolish. He would accept proffered help if the safety of his ship required it. He did not like being beholden, though.
“It is no inconvenience,” reassured Pellew. He gazed at the other man’s face in the moonlight. One earlobe was partially missing; Pellew guessed by cannon fire judging by the clean line of the disfigurement. He knew captains of warships that never got close enough to the action to bloody their uniforms. It appeared Aubrey was not of that ilk. Once again, Pellew felt a sense of admiration for the man.
They both turned to stare into the blackness of the water at the taffrail. His companion had lost his suppertime exuberance, and Pellew suspected it had mostly been a show of good spirits for his officers’ sake. “I am sorry for the loss of the boy,” he offered quietly.
Aubrey gave a deep sigh. “I write them letters home. The families,” he clarified. “They should know how their lad died.” He sighed again--less steady. “It struck me back there that I won’t be writing a letter for him. No one will… no one gives a damn about his life back home.” Aubrey looked into Pellew’s face, willing him to understand. “Weren’t no home at all, really. That ship was his home.”
Pellew laid his hand on Aubrey’s shoulder. “I count it a fine thing for the lad that he was given the opportunity of such a home, even if only for a short time.” Looking Aubrey in the eye, he added, “You were right to take him aboard, captain.”
Aubrey’s lips pressed together in gratitude at the statement, and he inclined his head in acknowledgement. Pellew gave the other man’s strong and muscular shoulder a slight squeeze before dropping his hand. He thought he heard Aubrey utter a small sound of dismay, but he must have imagined it.
“Will the Service for the Dead be held tomorrow?”
Aubrey nodded. “Four bells of the forenoon watch. Then Tom will take the Ferrare to Gibraltar.”
“I and my crew will be there for the Service.”
Once more, Aubrey felt his throat constrict. The kindness of this man was startling, he thought. Clearing his throat he whispered hoarsely, “Captain Pellew, I am truly touched by your continued generosity and kindness.”
“It is no special kindness. I suspect you would do the same. And the name’s Edward.”
Aubrey blinked. “Nevertheless...thank you, Edward.” He turned back to the sea. Pellew smiled.
“Jacob Brecks, Able Seaman. Thomas Fuller, Able Seaman. William Mannering, Able Seaman. Aidan Black, Private. Iain Mercer, Boatswain’s mate. Nehemiah Slade, Steward’s mate. Robert Pugh, Midshipman.” Aubrey paused and cleared his throat. “Jeremy Ducks, Powder Monkey.”
Pellew observed several members Surprise’s crew wiping their eyes at the young boy’s name. They had been fond of the lad, it seemed. As Aubrey finished reading the liturgy for the Service of the Dead, Pellew listened to the familiar splash of bodies being lowered into the sea.
“We therefore commit their bodies to the deep to be turned into corruption looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead in the life of the world to come through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
As little Jeremy Ducks’ body was released from the plank into the sea, Aubrey’s low and sonorous voice began the Lord’s Prayer. Pellew noted that Aubrey never once took his eyes from the quietly crying forms of the nine other Powder Monkeys assembled in front of the youngest Midshipmen. At the prayer’s conclusion, Aubrey replaced his hat atop bandaged head, and Mr. Hollar, the boatswain, blew the whistle ending the ceremony. The men were subdued as they moved about the ship and bid farewell to Lt. Pullings’ prize crew, who were re-boarding the Ferrare .
“Rather remarkable, sir,” commented Bracegirdle at Pellew’s side.
“The community of the ship,” he explained. “She’s a man-of-war. And she sees quite a lot of action, from what I understand. I wouldn’t have expected such sincerity of sentiment amongst such a crew.”
Pellew considered that. The Indy was also a man-of-war, but smaller and with a seasoned crew that signed on year after year sometime. There was action a-plenty for the restless man, and a decent possibility of prize money, too. But he’d had his dry spells, and unlucky streaks, as did any captain, and even after those times, many of the crew chose to stay rather than transfer. Pellew knew such loyalty to ship and captain were uncommon. He had always supposed to reason for this to lie with the lack of charisma on the part of his fellow captains. Competence, skill, and daring, were not traits in short supply in the navy, but the ability to govern, and at the same time, inspire men to follow you into battle, was a less frequently occurring characteristic. Therefore the men who could inspire the fidelity and devotion of a crew-- men like Nelson, or Foster, or Jack Aubrey -- became akin to legend. Epithets grew on them like barnacles - Dreadnought Foster, Lucky Jack, the Nelson Touch. That type of leadership, he reflected, couldn’t be taught or even really learned. A man either had it in his nature, or he didn’t.
“Do you really find it so surprising when they have such a captain as Aubrey? It seems to me these men would go to the ends of the earth for him, if he asked them. As I suspect would I, if I served under him,” he added pensively.
Bracegirdle’s eyebrow raised. “Indeed?”
“Do you see the way they look at him? He is their Nelson.”
“He isn’t the only one men look at in such a light.”
Pellew’s eyebrows drew together in thought. Who else? Aubrey’s officers commanded respect, that was clear, but they were not even in the same league as their captain in terms of the crew’s esteem. “You are thinking of Dr. Maturin?” he asked, turned his gaze to the Irish doctor several feet away. His knowledge and intellect were widely known and respected, and especially appreciated aboard a warship with a constant stream of injuries.
Bracegirdle smiled at his friend. “I’m speaking of you, Edward. Your men look at you with the same expression of admiration and respect as Aubrey’s do.” Pellew colored and felt heat rising to his face. “You are our Nelson, Edward.”
Pellew shook his head slightly, uncomfortable with the praise. “I don’t want to hear your blatherskite,” he said, embarrassed, reverting to the Scottish colloquialism his father used when he was a lad.
“It is true, whether you believe it or not, Edward.”
“I---,” he protested more urgently.
“But it appears,” the lieutenant pressed on, “that you have found your Nelson.” There was a note something in that last line - wistfulness? regret? - that Pellew could not quite put his finger on. But it was there, despite the inscrutable look on Bracegirdle’s face.
“Enough,” Pellew commanded. “We must return to the Indy.”
“Which it is a waste of coffee if ye don’t drink it,” scolded Killick, as he picked up Aubrey’s untouched and cold cup from the side of his letter-strewn desk.
Aubrey ran an ink stained hand over his aching forehead. The steward looked the captain up and down, noting the pinched expression of the brows. “Which the doctor said you should be resting yer head,” he muttered under his breath. More audibly he stated, “I’ll bring more coffee.”
“No need,” returned Aubrey.
“Which it is already hot.” The hunched Scotsman shuffled out of the cabin. Why do I even bother to argue with him , thought Jack. It was like trying to cajole a jailor out of the key . A moment later the steward returned bearing a fresh cup of steaming black coffee. “Which it is sweet for yer head,” he stated emphatically.
“Thankee kindly, Killick,” relied Jack wearily. Satisfied, the steward nodded, and shuffled out again, closing the door behind him.
Jack turned his attention back to the letter in front of him. He had written three letters for families of the the Able Seamen killed in action. He had written two for Willy Mannering, as the lads had let it be known he’d a sweetheart in Hampshire who he was due to wed on his return. It only seemed fair to send the lass her own letter. Such circumstances always made him feel low. The men joined of their own volition, it was true, and it was an exciting life, but whose responsibility was it when some young lad didn’t make it home to his intended? None but mine, Jack thought morosely. Eighteen, and dead from a canon through the hip. This was the cost of service in the navy, Jack knew. But knowing the cost did not make its payment any easier.
Sighing, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper to pen the next letter. As he scribed the name of Private Black’s mother, the words on the page doubled. Blinking, he shook his head to clear it. Bad choice, he instantly realized. The swift movement only intensified the aching in his head. Pressing his hand to the bandaged part of his upper left temple, Jack was surprised to find it wet with a clear fluid. Rising to look more closely in the glass, his arm caught the saucer of the coffee cup, which upset itself all across the desk, soaking the newly penned sympathy letters.
“Hell and damnation!” he cried, snatching the letters out of the brown, sopping liquid. As he reached to save the sheaf of clean paper, he knocked over the inkwell. “Bloody buggering shite!” he shouted. “Killick!”
“Killick! Killick! A towel - now,” he barked out in aggravation. Whirling around he saw Edward Pellew, lips slightly parted, expression hesitant.
At that moment, Killick shuffled in, tea towel in hand, scowl on his face. “New cloth an’ all,” he grubbed. “An' on yer uniform, too!” He shook his head in dismay and vexation at the darkening splotch running from the elbow to the wrist of Aubrey’s white linen shirt.
“Everything alright?” asked Pellew tentatively.
Before Pellew could stop him, Aubrey sighed and ran an ink-stained hand over his eyes and through his hair. Aubrey felt the wetness hit his face. Ink. He had stained his face with ink. In front of Edward Pellew. Closing his eyes tightly, and pursing his lips, he sucked in a ragged breath. “Killick, leave the desk. Bring another wet towel.” His voice was low and dangerous--a man keeping a tight rein on a precariously tethered temper.
Without offering any argument or comment, Killick did as he was bade. It was the Aubrey, not the navy, after all, who paid his wages.
Recognizing the signs of a man who needed time to collect himself, Pellew wisely remained silent, until Killick, who had returned with a vinegary-smelling towel, had departed the room.
As Aubrey scrubbed at his inky face, he pawed despondently at the four letters. He would have to write them again. Good Lord, his head hurt more at the thought. “At least the sheaf was spared,” Pellew remarked quietly, picking up the jute-tied bundle from the floor. Aubrey grunted in acknowledgement.
Spying the captain’s decanter in one of the undamaged corners of the room, Pellew crossed to it and poured two generous measures of wine. Holding out a glass, he cajoled gently, “Come, Aubrey, have a glass.”
Giving his face one final scrub with the towel, Aubrey accepted the glass with thanks. “How can I be of service to you,” he paused slightly, “Pellew?” He would have liked to have used the man’s Christian name, but Pellew had called him Aubrey, so it seemed the intimacy of the previous night was gone.
Pellew waved away the suggestion of service. “I came to see how the repairs were coming along and inquire how else I may be of use to your ship.”
Aubrey took another swallow of wine and sighed. “The lads have been hard at it. The rudder was shot away, and the mainmast needs bracing. Those will be the major repairs. Mr. Lamb, our carpenter, was grateful of your man’s assistance. His apprentice was killed in action two weeks since.” A cloud passed over the captain’s face, and he looked away. So many letters. He shook his head, as if to clear it. “Then there’s the sails to be sewn, the ratlines to restring, the mess took some damage, too.” He thought for a moment, and then nodded, coming to the end of his mental list.
“And your quarters,” added Pellew gently.
“Oh. Yes.” Aubrey cast his eyes around the sadly disordered room. One chair remained undamaged; the rest had been blown to pieces by a canon. The outer wall had been repaired, but the niche where Killick kept the silver service was still nothing more than a cavern of empty space. His eyes lingered on his ‘cello, and without warning began to mist over.
Pellew observed the change in the other man's demeanor, and followed his gaze to the mutilated instrument. “A sad casualty. Do you play much?”
Aubrey could only nod. Pellew was silent, then asked hopefully, “Perhaps there is a man in Gibraltar who can repair it?”
Aubrey sighed. “Had that ‘cello since I was damn near the Poor House. Disrated. Half pay. Could’ve sold it for rent. But couldn’t bring meself to do it. I looked a right fool lugging that beast around to my next berth, but I never gave ‘er up.” He crossed to the ‘cello, and fingered the splintered wood. “Bow’s missing,” he whispered sadly.
Pellew’s heart ached. Aubrey had plenty of prize money now, but he knew from experience how financially precarious a captaincy was. He was sure Aubrey had suffered from hunger and cold during those long months of half-pay. To choose deprivation over the sale of the ‘cello spoke to the instrument’s sentimental value.
Crossing to the other man, Pellew laid a warm hand on Aubrey’s tense shoulder. It was trembling. “Come, Jack. Do not upset yourself. It can be repaired. It’s not beyond hope.”
Aubrey looked up at the sound of his name. There were tears in his eyes. He dashed them away, embarrassed. “Excuse me. I… it has been a… trying day. I’ve been writing these wretched letters. Always makes me low.” Gazing forlornly at the ink stained papers he said in despair, “Now I’ll have to re write them.” The trembling had become more pronounced, noted Pellew. “Hadn’t even gotten to Jeremy Ducks.”
Aubrey’s voice was very low. Nearly a whisper. Pellew had to strain to hear the final sentence. “Don’t suppose I need to write a letter for him, come to think of it. No one to write to…” his speech was cut off by a sharply swallowed sob. He brought an ink-stained hand to cover his face as he shook slightly with the effort to hold in his tears.
For any other man, Pellew would have simply gripped his shoulder--the appropriate response for male emotion. But for Jack Aubrey, such a gesture seemed cold. The man had been so open about how low this dreaded duty brought him. Pellew empathized. How often had he himself wished for someone to comfort him during those moments? Pulling Aubrey into his chest, Pellew wrapped his free arm around the captain’s shoulder. He felt Aubrey tense in surprise, and then relax into inaudible grief.
They stayed in that position for several long moments. As Aubrey calmed, he allowed himself a moment’s enjoyment of the simple comfort of another man’s arms. When was the last time he’d had this? He couldn’t remember. Pellew’s embrace was solid yet tender. Sympathetic but not pitying. A man who understood the pressures of command. Alas, he could not remain in those arms forever. Disentangling himself from Pellew, he groaned. “Your collar!” It was stained in a brownish-blue smudge of coffee and ink.
Pellew didn’t even glance at it. “No matter,” he said dismissively. He was gazing intently at the wound on Aubrey’s forehead, which had begun to bleed. “Should Dr. Maturin take a look at that?”
Aubrey touched the wound hesitantly. “He’ll try to settle me into the sick berth.”
“You look quite pale. And your skin is cold.”
“Don’t you start on me,” growled Aubrey. He wiped at the irritating trickle of blood.
“At least sit down.”
He wouldn’t admit it, especially not in front of Pellew, but he didn’t feel quite the thing. He would go see Stephen later, but he needed to finish those letters first. Pellew guided him into the chair at his desk, and Aubrey was surprised at how much better he felt once seated. Pellew’s hand was still on his right shoulder. Warm and steady. A lifeline.
With his left hand, Aubrey reached up and covered Pellew’s hand with his own. “Thank you.” He wanted to say more. A hundred more things crowded into his brain. But he couldn’t get them out. His head was foggy, and his throat was sore. “I… I… you… I…”
“Hush,” placated Pellew. “I’ll go speak to Mr. Lamb while you return to the letters. I’ll check back here before I return to the Indy .”
The cold hand atop his tightened in a wordless note of gratitude.
Jack finished the final salutation on the last sympathy letter, sprinkled it with pounce, and carefully folded it. Rising to heat the wax for the seal, he felt a rush of heat, followed by cold wash over his body, and his stomach gave an unsettled lurch. His temple was pounding so fiercely that he had all but finished the final letter with one eye closed. Stephen will be furious, he thought. As he pressed his captain’s seal - solid brass with inscribed with his entwined initials, and a seahawk in flight - onto the folded corners of the letter, he felt quite uncomfortably hot and ill. Almost as if he would faint.
He sank heavily into his desk chair. At least, he intended to. The chair, he discovered, was not beneath him. He foggily remembered that he had crossed to the table to reach the candle, and wasn’t near his desk. His head had made contact with the wooden floor when he fell, and it ached furiously now. Bed, he thought. Feel better in bed. But the cot was a long distance - the other side of the floor - and the floor would serve as good a purpose for lying horizontally as the bed. He felt marginally better with his head level to the floor, eyes firmly squeezed shut, and attention focused on steadying his erratic breathing.
He heard the door open. Killick, probably.
“Jack!” The sound of hastening boots on oak. “Killick! Killick there! Send to Dr. Maturin at once.”
He heard rustling of cloth as the man knelt beside him. “Jack?” A rough but tender hand cupped the side of his aching head and lifted it into his lap.
With an effort, Jack cracked his eyes open. The world was spinning around him. He felt nauseous. “Thought the...chair was...under...me,” he gasped out.
“Your head is bleeding, Jack.” Pellew sounded grave.
“Killick will...have my...head...for bleeding…on...another clean...shirt,” Aubrey’s attempt at humor fell flat.
“Don’t try to speak. Save your breath.”
There was a clatter at the door, and Jack saw Stephen’s lanky form scurry into the room. “Jack, why did you not come to me sooner?” He sounded both anxious and irriated. "I need to examine your head. Hold him steady, Captain Pellew."
As Dr. Maturin probed and prodded Aubrey's temple, the captain of the Surprise strove not to shrink away from the pain. When Maturin pressed a particularly sensitive spot on his temple, however, Aubrey could not contain a moan. “You're in pain?” inquired Maturin, almost clinically.
“Of course he’s in pain, doctor! The man can barely get two words out without gasping,” snapped Pellew.
Maturin did not even look out. “Jack?”
Jack nodded and gave a faint affirmative. “Help me move him to the cot.”
The two men struggled to lift Aubrey’s not inconsiderable bulk to standing. Aubrey shook his head quickly. “Sick,” he gasped. Stephen’s reflexes, and familiarly with Jack’s cabin, had the bowl in position under his mouth just as Jack vomited up a stream of clear liquid. The other two men took advantage of his weakened state to manhandle him to the cot. Jack gratefully sank into it as he shut his eyes again against the spinning. “Turn him towards me,” commanded Maturin. Pellew did as he was bade.
More probing and prodding. How could any such small head wound hurt this damnably much, wondered Aubrey.
“Ah ha! Found it.” Without looking up from the wound in his friend’s skull, he asked Pellew to get the tweezers from his bag. Holding them over the candle for a moment, Stephen bent down to within four inches of Jack’s head. “Captain,” he said to Pellew, “hold him steady.”
Jack felt Edward’s warm and steadying pressure increase on his shoulder and forehead. Suddenly, he felt an acute and overwhelming pain, and then...nothing. The pressure in his head diminished, and he could feel his breathing returning to normal. As his body relaxed, he felt Edward’s hands relax as well, and begin a slight but soothing kneading and patting. Jack couldn’t recall a time he’d felt such comfort and soothing from another’s hands.
Aubrey took a few steadying breaths and opened his eyes. The world was no longer spinning. Everything was fixed in orbit again. “Stephen?”
The doctor held up bloodied spike, measuring about an inch and a half in length. “Iron,” he said in a marveling tone. “Probably from a cannon blast. It was embedded in your temple. That’s why the wound wouldn’t heal.”
Pellew’s jaw was slack. “That was in your skull for the past two days?” He looked, astonished, at Aubrey. “How were you even standing upright?”
“Prickly,” the other man responded with a cheeky grin, and a yawn. “And hard to eradicate.”
Stephen smiled. “Indeed. You should be able to rest comfortably now. I’ll just change the bandage, and then leave you to rest. I’ll be back shortly with clean dressings.” He turned and left for sick berth.
The two captains were quiet a moment. Edward’s hands still lay on Jack’s side and head. Pellew let out a sigh, and Jack saw him shake his head as if clearing away a memory. “What is it, Edward?”
Pellew looked down at him and tightened his lips. “I should have insisted you go see Maturin earlier this afternoon. You weren’t standing upright.”
“You could've insisted ‘till saltwater came out your eyeballs. I wouldn’t have gone.”
Edward looked at him, hard. In reproach.
Jack did not flinch. “Come now,” he said good-naturedly. “You can’t mean to tell me that you would have trotted off to see the surgeon, either.”
Pellew opened his mouth to protest.
“Ratlines to rigging, you’dve never gone down yourself. Not when you had pressing duties to attend to and crewmen in the berth as it were.”
Pellew once again opened his mouth to reply, then shut it. He took a breath, as if considering his answer. “It’s a captain’s duty to look after himself so that command and order can be maintained,” he finally said, somberly.
“True,” agreed Aubrey. “But if you tell me that you’d have marched yourself to Dr. Low with a wound such as mine (that didn’t seem serious until the very end, mind you) then you’d fair be a liar, Edward Pellew. And you’re hardly that.” There was silence. “I sense you’re like me, captain. You’d sooner lie about your own well-being for the sake of the crew than have your own needs tended to, if it could be avoided.”
Pellew looked abashed. He was embarrassed to be caught out so clearly, and yet, it was almost enthralling to meet someone who understood him so well. Pellew was suddenly aware that his hands were still gently massaging Aubrey’s body. He abruptly pulled away. “My apologies,” he muttered, looking away, a flush creeping up his neck.
Aubrey let out a sigh, and his face fell. Of course Edward hadn’t intentionally kept his hands there, he chided himself. This was Edward Pellew for Christ’s sake! He was practically an admiral already. He wouldn’t be interested in the likes of me.
Aubrey’s crestfallen expression pulled at Pellew’s chest. Bending down, he placed his hand on Aubrey’s shoulder. “Come now, I’ve upset you.”
Aubrey shook his head, “not at all, Pellew,” he said with false brightness. “Not at all.”
“The last thing I would wish would be to cause you pain,” whispered Pellew.
It was so kindly said, and so hopefully gentle that Aubrey had to rapidly blink away the moisture that threatened to spill from his eyes. Looking Pellew in eye, he said quietly, “you’ve not caused me pain.”
“Say that and you’d fair be a liar, Jack Aubrey” whispered Pellew, repeating Jack’s own words.
There was a clatter at the door, and Stephen reappeared with Padeen carrying a bowl of steaming water and several bandages. Pellew rose and made way for the doctor. “I’ll be by tomorrow to check up on you, Captain.”
Without waiting for a reply, Pellew turned and left the Great Cabin, heading back to the Indefatigable . He felt unsettled, but he couldn’t place the origin of the feeling. What had he said that had caused Jack's sudden change in demeanor? He continued to puzzle over Jack’s reaction throughout the next several watches. When he finally slipped into his cot that evening, the last thing he remembered before falling asleep was the feel of Jack’s full and sturdy body beneath his hands, and the way Aubrey's body had relaxed under his touch.
“If I am needed, I’ll be on Surprise reviewing the charts with Aubrey.” As Pellew took his coat from the wingback chair, he heard Bracegirdle give what sounded like a scoff. Pellew looked at his friend questioningly. When Bracegirdle made no move to speak, Pellew asked pointedly, “You have something to add?”
Bracegirdle stood still. So there was something, thought Pellew.
His lieutenant remained quiet, however. Pellew watched as Bracegirdle deliberated internally, worrying his lower lip. Pellew sighed. "Out with it, Anthony."
Bracegirdle sucked in a long breath through his nose. At last he croaked out, “You’ve spent quite a lot of time with Aubrey this past fortnight.” It was as much an accusation as a statement of fact.
Pellew was taken aback. Whatever it was that he had been expecting Anthony to say, that had not been it. Unintentionally, he felt a wave of defensiveness bubbling up at the implied criticism. "And you do not approve?" he tried to keep his voice neutral, but a prickly tone crept in.
Bracegirdle was silent, which served to stoke Pellew's irritation further. “A fellow frigate is in distress. I offered our aid. I am giving it. That requires contact with Aubrey.” Pellew's tone was challenging. “Do my actions not meet with your approval, Anthony?”
Bracegirdle looked at him, lips pursed, nostrils flared. Still he said nothing.
"Come now, man. Spit it out," commanded a galled Pellew.
Bracegirdle gnashed his teeth together. He should never had mentioned anything, he thought bitterly.
"Are you dumb, man?" Pellew was near to shouting. He disliked a tongue-tied officer.
“It is not your actions I worry about, Edward. It’s your demeanor,” Bracegirdle ground out at last.
Pellew was flummoxed. “My demeanor?”
Bracegirdle gave a sigh of annoyance. “Your outward bearing - your responsiveness.”
“I know what the hell the word means, Bracegirdle! What the devil do you mean by it?”
Bracegirdle gritted his teeth, and shook his head. "It's of no consequence."
"The hell it isn't!" retorted Pellew. "If you have a criticism of me, you will damn well say it to my face!"
Bracegirdle looked imploringly at Pellew, vexed at his own inability to communicate his frustration. "It is not a criticism!"
"Oh, it isn't, is it?" Pellew's peevish tone was bordering on fury. "As the only man on this ship that I count as a personal friend after decades of service together, kindly do me the courtesy of not treating me like a fool."
Bracegirdle closed his eyes. This was not going at all how he had intended it. He had never intended it, at all, come to that! In frustration, he burst out, “Do you realize how much more you laugh since we met Surprise?”
Pellew drew back, confounded. “What?”
“...how much more you smile? Joke?” Bracegirdle gesticulated animatedly. “All the men remark on it! ‘Look at them two, at it again. Two peas in a pod,’ they say.”
Pellew was momentarily struck dumb with confusion.
“Quite frankly, Edward," continued Bracegirdle hotly, "it’s insulting to our men, to the Indy, to see you larking about with Aubrey.”
Recovering his ability to speak, Pellew ground out,“Larking about? Anthony, you sound like an ill-used fishwife."
“I may sound that way, but there’s no denying it!"
"This is what you've to reproach me for? Having a laugh with a fellow captain?"
"Having a laugh!" Bracegirdle scoffed. "Besotted, more like.”
“Besotted!” Pellew’s voice was thunderous.
“I think you've forgotten that your loyalty is to your own crew, Edward, not Surprise.” Even as the words tumbled out of his mouth, Bracegirdle knew he had overstepped the mark.
“HOW DARE YOU, SIR!" bellowed Pellew. “You forget yourself." Bracegirdle immediately stood at attention. An officer receiving a rebuke from a superior. "Accuse me of disloyalty again and I will disrate you," growled Pellew. "You’ll spend the rest of your career a midshipman. Do you understand me, Lieutenant?”
“Aye, sir.” Bracegirdle looked straight ahead. He was speaking to his captain now, not his friend.
“Dismissed,” Pellew growled ferociously. Bracegirdle saluted, and turned to leave.
“Mr. Bracegirdle!" The lieutenant stopped at the door and turned. "You will do well to remember that a captain does not need to justify his whereabouts to his lieutenants.”
Alone in his cabin, Pellew yanked his coat from the chair and pulled it onto his body with the ferocity of a man pulling a Frenchmen off his mother. Of all things to be accused of, (by Anthony no less!) the charge of disloyalty stung. He would give his life’s blood for this ship and her crew. He made no song and dance of it. It was simple fact. If a few pleasurable hours in the company of a fellow captain who understood the burden of command put that fact in question in Anthony’s mind, then to hell with him! Pellew jammed his bicorn hat on his head, and strode out the door.
“That sail is looking well,” remarked Pellew. “Good stitching on the part of your men.”
“Aye, they can sew up cloth better than a French seamstress, haha!” Aubrey was in high spirits. The repairs to Surprise were coming along well, several of the wounded men had just been released from Stephen’s care, and he and Pellew had been spending many long and happy hours discussing tactics, bantering back and forth, and generally enjoying each other’s company.
“I should send them my mending then!” returned Pellew. “My uniform is in a sorry state of disrepair.”
“I would have thought your uniform was … indefatigable!” Aubrey couldn’t help but laugh at his own, terrible pun.
Pellew rolled his eyes and chuckled. “He who would pun would pick a pocket!”
“Perhaps I mast try harder!”
Pellew groaned. “Really, Jack, that one was terrible.”
“Oh, come now, Edward! Be charitable, it were a fair pun,” Aubrey cajoled, “you can’t seafarer than that!”
The crew around them laughed, then turned to Mr. Mowett who was on duty on the quarterdeck. “Come on now, Mr. Mowett! Gi’e us a pun or two!”
“Naval puns? Really, gentlemen,” replied Mowett, without missing a beat. “Isn’t that a bit shallow ?”
The crew laughed uproariously. As Pellew watched Aubrey wipe tears of mirth from his eyes, he was struck by the rugged beauty of his features. Standing in his uniform, the undulating azure of the sea behind him, the light striking the tied-back golden curls, and his face open in unbridled good-humor, Pellew thought he’d never seen a handsomer man. He could understand why so many naval wives had fallen victim to his charms.
Now that was a curious thing, thought Pellew. He doesn’t seem the type to be either careless enough, or insolent enough to provoke the ire of the admiralty by making its chief members cuckolds. Was he so different on land than out here? It was possible , mused Pellew. He’d known many navy men who had a dual nature. But somehow, that didn’t seem to fit with Jack’s character. He was so open and artless in nature - it seemed at odds with the guile and deception that would be necessary to carry out so many affairs.
“Don’t look so downcast, Pellew!” cried Jack, breaking into the other’s thoughts. “A few more days with us and you’ll be spouting off puns, too!”
“Why does that not surprise me,” returned Pellew in a loud voice. The crew of the Surprise gave a cheer, and to Pellew’s delight, Aubrey smiled radiantly at him and clapped his shoulder. “Come, let’s discuss that route.” The two captains made their way through the still-chuckling men to the Great Cabin.
“Do you anticipate being able to make sail by tomorrow?” The route had been plotted for the safest passage to Gibraltar, hopefully shielding the Surprise from any exposure to battle.
“Mr. Lamb assures me that repairs to the rudder should be completed by the afternoon watch today. Sails will be up and out by the dog watch. God willing, we should be on our way by two bells of the morning watch.” Aubrey hesitated before continuing, “I am very grateful for your offer of protection during our journey, but I would understand if you prefer to return to your hunting ground.” He rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous habit he’d never rid himself of. “I had not anticipated any help at all, and...well, I don’t want you to waste your time running us back to port.”
“Nonsense, Jack. It is not a waste of time to protect another man-of-war. I pledged my support and aid, and I intend to see it through.” Pellew paused, then continued in a slightly hesitant tone, “Though I must confess...there are other...selfish reasons for wanting to see you to Gibraltar.” Jack looked up, an unreadable expression on his face. Pellew felt himself flush, “It has been...I have…,” he took a breath and started again, “I immensely enjoy your company, and I would be sorry to take my leave of you so soon after our acquaintance has begun.”
Jack felt his heart hammer in his chest. Did Edward feel this, too, then? Of course, it could be simply as the man had said. He was lonely and wanted for company. Understandable desire in a captain. After all, Jack had never heard any rumors of Edward’s inclination towards men.
Striving to keep his voice composed, but seeking to make his speech sincere, Jack replied, “I must confess, as well, that I was not looking forward to our parting.” He took a breath. “I regret very much that we never had the opportunity to serve together. I should have liked the opportunity to know you more...intimately.” There, he’d said it. Anything more would be reckless.
Pellew blinked. The insinuation was clear. But how was that possible? Jack had slept with wives of half the admiralty; and the sweethearts of the other half! The man’s inclinations were quite clear - and quite enthusiastically applied, it seemed to Pellew from what he’d heard. Was this a trap? Some devious bit of cunning to ensnare him? But to what purpose? Pellew’s mind was racing through these thoughts. Surely, Jack had not been building up their camaraderie just for this?
“Edward?” Jack’s voice was soft, entreating and questioning.
“I don’t...quite think I...understand your meaning,” faltered Pellew.
Jack took a step forward. His face was open, his expression gentle. “I believe you do.”
Edward could feel the hope beginning to rise in his chest, but it was soon drowned in a wave of panic. He put his hands in front of him, as if to ward off an attack. “If this is some sort of...trick…” he couldn’t finish the sentence. He suddenly felt as if he were gasping for air.
Jack took another step forward, and placed his own rough and calloused hands in Pellew’s shaking ones. “It is no trick, my dear,” he whispered tenderly.
The hope in Edward’s chest was so great, he was near to bursting. “But...your...reputation!” he spluttered. “All the women! I mean...even...Nelson’s wife!”
Aubrey flinched as if the other man had struck a blow. He closed his eyes in shame. Without conscious thought, he withdrew his interlaced fingers from Pellew’s, and lowered his gaze to the floor. “I do not expect you to,” he paused and took a breath, “accept my behavior. But allow me to explain.” He slowly exhaled through his teeth and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I knew I were… different... from other lads since I were young. Kept me thoughts to meself, and just tried to rub along and forget it. But I couldn’t.” He turned, and walked to the splintered ‘cello in the corner. “... ‘Twas just my nature, I suppose. One day, though, my father caught me. Beat me within an inch of my life. Told me to get out of his house, and never come back. So I ran off, and joined the navy,” he said in one long breath. He chuckled darkly, “turned out to be the making of me. Men at sea, they don’t--the morals are different--what’s not tolerated on land, is tolerable at sea. At first, it were a blessing to be so… free. But, I were serving aboard the Reliant ,” his jaw clenched at the memory. “I saw a man keelhauled for sodomy.” He looked up then. “Have ye seen what that does to a man?”
Pellew nodded grimly. He’d seen.
Aubrey nodded his acknowledgement, and continued. “Now I’m not afraid of death. When it’s my time, it’s my time. I’ll go with no fuss. But I’ll be damned before I spend my life waiting to be keelhauled.” His voice was hard now, the tone defiant. “I will do whatever it takes, grind whatever grist the mill requires, to avoid a life of skulking fear. If that means I have to sleep with every woman in Christendom, I will do it.” He blinked and shook his head slightly. “Besides,” he added in a brighter tone, “no one’s the worse for wear for it. We all have a good time.”
“And you?” Pellew asked quietly. “Doesn’t such a ‘good time’ wear on you?”
Their eyes met, and held. Finally, without breaking eye contact, Aubrey said somberly, “I choose to pay that price.”
“Whatever the cost? To your reputation? Your spirit?”
Aubrey was silent for so long that Pellew did not believe he would reply. He turned to leave, uncertain what else could be done at this juncture, when he heard Aubrey’s quiet voice say, “as the wind, so the sail.”
Chapter 6: Author’s Note
I have NOT abandoned this story! The next chapter will be up in 2 weeks.
It’s been a very very busy fall. Thank you all for your patience!