Major De Lancey and Captain Grant sat on the quarterdeck with a group of officers from the 11th Foot, exchanging surreptitious glances as they listened to the men boasting about the things they were going to do to their wives and mistresses when they got home.
HMS Brunswick had called at Roseau on route from Jamaica to pick up the regiment and transport them back to England and the waiting arms of their lovers, and the men were getting more excited about the prospect with every day that passed.
Grant and De Lancey tried to smile and join in the bawdy conversation - although their anticipation of seeing family and friends again was tempered by the knowledge that their return to English soil would lead to painful separation rather than joyous reunion, they did not want anybody asking why they did not seem happy to be sailing for familiar shores.
Colonel Fitz-Patrick had been willing to turn a blind eye to the nature of their relationship after they had saved that family from the fire, provided they were discreet about it of course, but they were on a Royal Navy ship now. Conditions on board were cramped and overcrowded and the thought of men engaging in such acts, even in the privacy of their own quarters, was considered a threat to the principles on which performance and survival depended. A man could be hanged if he were found guilty of buggery and although ships’ captains often tried to avoid this by charging men with lesser crimes such as indecent conduct or uncleanliness, the punishments for these could be very severe indeed.
They were about a month into the voyage and tensions were running high. Although the army men tried to keep out of the way as much as possible, spending most of their time in the makeshift quarters they had been given in the low cramped space among the 32-pounders on the gundeck, the sailors were beginning to openly resent their presence. The fresh food they had taken on board at Roseau had soon run out and they did not take kindly to having to share their rations with the men they considered as nothing more than cargo. To make matters worse, both sides were increasingly turning to the illegal and highly potent rum that had been smuggled aboard in Jamaica to fend of the boredom of long days with nothing to do but stare at the endless ocean.
Able Seaman Finney, a huge brute of a man with a reputation for preying on the younger ratings, stumbled over to where they were sitting. He was even more drunk than usual and seemed intent on baiting the army officers.
“What about you, soldier boy?” He held out a cup of rum towards De Lancey. “You and your pretty captain there look like you could do with a stiff one.”
The other sailors who had followed him over cackled with laughter. They all knew about Finney’s predilections and it seemed the furtive looks between the two officers had not gone unnoticed.
Grant started to get to his feet but De Lancey gave him a pointed look and he bit his tongue. Ignoring both the lack of respect for his rank and the obvious attempt to get a rise out of him, De Lancey smiled politely. “Thank you, sir, but we have rum enough.“ He could sense Grant’s agitation and thought it best to diffuse the situation by encouraging the others to leave the sailors to their drinking. “We will bid you good night.”
Finney narrowed his eyes and the threat in his voice was clear as he smirked. "It is a pity that you see fit to refuse my hospitality, major. I must make sure to offer a more appealing enticement the next time.”
Grant woke with a start, unsure what had jolted him from his sleep. He had become accustomed to the motion of the ship and the sea was relatively calm but it felt as if something had shifted violently out of place. Seeing nothing amiss in the immediate vicinity, he was about to turn over and go back to sleep when he heard a muffled thud above his head. He pulled on his boots and, taking care not to disturb the men sleeping on either side, climbed the ladder to the upper gundeck, his head emerging just in time to see the shadows of two figures disappearing around a pile of ammunition boxes.
He peered cautiously round the corner - the larger silhouette had looked suspiciously like Finney’s and he had no wish to disturb one of the man’s rumoured assignations - but what he saw made him reconsider his unwillingness to interfere.
Finney had an army man bent over one of the guns with his nightshirt pulled up to expose his bare arse. He was holding a knife to the man’s throat with one hand and using the other to unfasten the buttons on his own breeches. Grant gasped in shock as he recognised a small heart-shaped birthmark on the left buttock, giving away his position to Finney who turned to him with an evil grin.
“Captain, perhaps you would care to watch while I show you how this should be done,” he smirked, “your major here is a very tempting prospect indeed and I think you must learn to share, after all you are on our ship now.”
With Finney distracted, De Lancey managed to turn his eyes towards Grant and give a small shake of his head. “Get out of here!”
“Quiet!” Finney turned back to him and pressed the knife into the side of his neck hard enough for beads of blood to slide down the blade as he used the other hand to free his cock from his breeches.
Grant's capacity for rational thought deserted him. His mind was flooded with memories of the abuse he had suffered at Fort L’Escarpe and every fibre of his being was overwhelmed by a primal need to protect the man he loved from the same fate.
A red mist descended in front of his eyes and he felt the deck shift beneath his feet as if the world had tilted on its axis. Unaware of what he was doing, he picked up a discarded bottle and lunged at Finney, swinging with all his strength and almost overbalancing as the heavy glass connected with a sickening crack.
As Finney slumped to the deck, De Lancey pushed himself up from the gun and stared dumbfounded at Grant. He crouched down and put his fingers to the man’s neck to feel for a pulse but the growing pool of blood on the deck told him he would find none.
“Good God, Grant!” He looked up, his expression a mixture of relief and shock. “He’s dead!”
“No!” Grant was standing motionless with the bottle in his hand, his face spattered with blood from his proximity to the fatal blow and his breath coming in shallow panicked gasps. “I did not mean to .. he was going to ...”
De Lancey stepped over the body and gently prised the weapon from Grant’s grip, glancing around with worried eyes before throwing it out of the open gunport.
“Help me with this.” He took hold of Finney’s arms and started dragging him towards the opening in the hull.
“What?” Grant seemed to notice his surroundings for the first time. “William, for God’s sake what are you doing?”
De Lancey dropped the corpse and came to stand in front of him. Placing his hands on Grant’s shoulders, he looked into his eyes with a searing intensity.
“Nobody saw, nobody knows, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see you hanged for this. If anybody asks, we shall say that the last we saw him he was staggering about on the quarterdeck three sheets to the wind and it will be assumed that he slipped and fell overboard. At the very least nobody will be able to prove otherwise, and even if foul play is suspected there are any number of men on this ship who had their own reasons to want rid of this wretch so the blame is unlikely to fall on us. Now come on for Christ’s sake before we are discovered.”
In a daze, Grant moved round to take hold of Finney’s legs and helped De Lancey lift the body and push it through the gunport into the waves below. He leaned back on the hull, breathing heavily from the exertion and trying to make sense of what was happening.
“William, I ....”
De Lancey silenced him with a look. “Go to my quarters, shut the door and do not move until I get there. I will clean up this mess.” He looked down and shuddered at the sight of the congealing blood seeping into the cracks between the planks. “Go!”
When he got back to his cabin, De Lancey found Grant sitting on the edge of the bed staring blankly at his hands and shaking his head every now and again with a puzzled frown, as if someone had asked him a question he could not understand.
“Christ, Grant, clean yourself up!” He dipped a rag into a bowl of water and threw it in Grant’s direction as he stripped off his blood-stained nightshirt. He splashed the cold water over his chest and arms and dried himself of with the rough blanket before pulling on a clean shirt and passing another one to Grant. “And get that damn thing off!”
When Grant just looked up at him and shook his head again with a confused look in his eyes, he realised how he must sound. Kneeling down beside the bed, he spoke softly. “I’m sorry, I am not angry but we must deal with this.“ He carefully lifted Grant’s shirt over his head and took the rag from his hands, gently wiping the blood from his cheeks and forehead.
“I cannot do this.” Grant was shaking. “ I killed a man, William. I cannot live with this. I will go to Colonel Fitz-Patrick and tell him Finney attacked me - perhaps he will be able to persuade the ship’s captain to consider a charge that does not carry a death sentence.”
De Lancey reached up a hand to Grant’s face. “You will do no such thing.” hHe tried to keep his voice steady. “You will go back to your bunk and remain there until the morning as if nothing unusual has occurred. That is an order, captain.”
A shudder ran through Grant’s body. “But I...”
“No.” De Lancey was insistent. “You are a soldier. You killed a man who was threatening the safety of a superior officer. You have done it before and no doubt you will be required to do it again.”
“In battle, William, I have killed men in battle, not like this. I do not deserve to be fighting alongside truly brave men after this. And I fear I may even be a danger to them.” He stared at his hands again. “I could not stop myself. I saw him hurting you and I could not control my actions. What if something sets me off like that without warning? What if one of the men tries to stop me and gets in my way? God forbid, what if you do?”
De Lancey smiled. “You would never hurt me.”
“Not knowingly, but if I cannot control the anger? No. I will go to the Colonel and face my punishment. You will be safer without me around.”
De Lancey swallowed back the tears that were threatening to undo him. “Remember what you said to me in the fire? That goes both ways. I am not leaving you and I am not going to let you leave me.” He pulled Grant’s head onto his shoulder and stroked his hair. “Let me help you.”
“How? How can anybody help me? There is a wild beast inside me that I cannot control. I thought I could overcome it, tame it, perhaps even use it to my advantage in battle but it is stronger than I am.” He sighed as if resigned to his fate. “There is nothing you can do.”
De Lancey kissed the top of his head. “I can listen. Talk to me.”
Grant had never told him exactly what had happened in the camp and his fear of his own reaction had always prevented him from asking but now he saw no other choice.
“Tell me everything if you need to. I know you are scared you will lose me but I swear to you I am not going anywhere. How could I? You are my life.”