And God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed life into his nostrils, and man became a living soul, and he beheld all he had created and he said it was very good. But the Lord beheld the man made in his likeness, and he beheld his solitude, and he said it is not good that he is alone. And the moral of the story? Everybody needs a partner.
The first time Miranda meets Thomas Hamilton, she feels like she’s standing too close to the sun. He is describing the colonies in the New World in a way she has never heard before – not as economic ventures offering wealth beyond imagining, as her father does, but as redemption. A new Eden and a moral imperative for a world cast from God's grace. His resolve feels feverish, infectious. Men orbit him in fiery debate, and when he turns to draw her into the conversation, she feels her face warm. She knows she wants to feel this forever.
Thomas courts her in a way that feels unhurried and deliberate. Miranda basks in it, willing his attentions to last forever even knowing they can’t. Her heart holds sins that someone so upright as Thomas Hamilton could never forgive. Foolish indiscretions have cost her position, respect, and friendship, but none cuts as deeply as the thought that they will soon cost her Thomas’ affection. She prays that time will slow so she can hold onto it a little longer.
Then one day he calls on her wearing a grim expression. “My father came to see me this morning,” he says. “He was exceedingly eager to share some scandalous news about someone I’ve come to hold very dear.”
She is unsurprised that the Earl Alfred Hamilton has rifled through her past and uncovered her improprieties. She imagines that the gruff autocrat has presented them to his son as a challenge. Something along the lines of “rid yourself of the whore,” most likely.
Thomas is looking at her, his face thoughtful but not angry. She knows she must confess everything to him, if only so his father’s words are not the only ones in his ear, but she doesn’t want his expression to change either. His disappointment might very well break her heart. But Miranda has always valued forthrightness, and clings to it now. “I would have told you. I wanted to tell you…” she begins, but Thomas holds up his hand, leaving her words hanging in the air.
“We are kindred spirits, you and I,” he tells her. “I believe that, with all my heart. Since I met you, my sweet, I’ve known that we were united in our hopes for enlightened thinking and the opportunities that it presents…” He pauses and adds weightily, “Opportunities both spiritual and physical.” He grips her hand tightly until she looks into his face, smiling down at her. “What you might have done changes nothing for me,” he says. “In fact, I believe it opens a new door for us. I have things I have wanted to tell you as well.”
Instead of giving her up in the face of scandal, he confesses his own proclivities. His words are honest and absent of shame despite an apparent apprehension over her reaction. She quickly dispels his fear. “Can you believe that I do not already know this?” Miranda has brothers, three of them, and she sees how they act with both men and women. They are not like Thomas. But they are not full of his love either, of his all-encompassing faith in humanity, of his hope and his warmth. He will be more than a husband to her; he will be her sun.
Three months later, they are married despite the objections of the elder Lord Hamilton. Somehow his opposition buoys her spirits and inspires her talents to bloom. As Thomas rises in the government, the Hamiltons become a force in London society. Their drawing room, filled with candlelight and flowers, books and music, is the site of sophisticated salons. The brightest minds of the country attend, seeking the rigour and respect of Thomas Hamilton. They find his wife always at his side, playing her part as the consummate hostess. Her mother had labelled Miranda precocious as a child, but now her wit is a valued asset. Men who present themselves to discuss the matters of the day leave charmed by the insights of Lady Hamilton.
And some do not leave so quickly. Both Thomas and Miranda conduct affairs discreetly, muffled behind heavy panelled doors, although never in secret from each other. Miranda is not a jealous woman, and with Thomas it would be as foolish as being jealous of the sun for shining on other faces. On the contrary, she believes the arrangement works well for both of them. She is never troubled by his desires, nor is he by hers. Sharing their beds with others cannot diminish what they have – a love both mutual and equally matched, paired with true affection and undying respect. The men to whom she and her husband are drawn do not change that.
Still, there are whispers. She should have remembered that London’s gossip-mongers are insatiable and unstoppable. Their attention has long been fixed on the conduct of the Hamiltons’ salon, certain that free thought and egalitarianism go hand-in-hand with debauchery. When Thomas’ dashing young friend Henry Pearse comes from Ireland to stay with them, suspicions are inflamed. Miranda braces herself but knows she can weather the storm; she has been through this before.
But then Thomas’ name is whispered instead of hers, and Miranda feels the ground quake under her feet.
He, of course, tries to apply reason to this, as in all things. “Is this about the Marquis?” Thomas asks, referring to a brief romance she had enjoyed while in Brussels. “You know it doesn’t bother me who you bring to your bed, and I rather think I’m the only one whose opinion should matter here.”
Stupid man. Stupid, beloved man. “It’s not who I’m bedding that they’re talking about this time,” she says, the titters of gossiping voices echoing in her mind. “There have been whispers about you and Henry.”
For a second, the light dims in his eyes. It’s 1700, after all, and men are still hanged for sodomy and less. “That’s impossible. He would never say anything. How could anyone know anything?”
She hates to see him fear this, hates to see the worry lining his face at the threat of discovery. She takes his hand. “Don't worry, my love,” she tells him. “I know what to do.”
Miranda lets it be known that she seduced Henry Pearse. With the sin resting securely on her shoulders, the gossip crests. She remembers with painful familiarity what comes next, starting with the friends who will distance themselves from the tarnish her reputation carries. She braces for the burning shame that will settle in the pit of her stomach when she sees those who once visited her home in the streets, knowing they will no longer meet her eye, knowing they will whisper to others of her shame.
It comes as no surprise that Lord Alfred Hamilton uses her transgression to confirm his loathing, just one more reason to dismiss his son as ineffectual and Miranda as wanton. Soon he will return to the Bahama islands where his disapproval will be swallowed in the seas. It hurts more when her brothers, slowly won back following her earlier transgressions, make it very clear that they will have no more of her. She wonders if it’s because they fear what their wives might do to them; she’s certain that their wives won’t do for them what she has done for her husband.
Her admission exacts a price, but soon she realises that it is one well worth paying. Her isolation stings, yet somehow holds less heat than before. She forces herself to resume her duties as Lady Hamilton as if nothing has happened. Before long, she can pretend that nothing has.
It’s almost a year before another scandal arises. This time, she doesn’t hesitate to assume blame. It’s easier this time; being deemed a pariah only hurts if you care for those who judge you. Now Miranda knows that her happiness is not at all dependent on their regard.
Time passes and this scandal disappears, too, and the one that follows. Thomas doesn’t, and that is the only thing that matters.
I rather envy you. I remember what it was like the first time I met him. There’s a feeling one gets when in the presence of a truly great man, something quite indescribable. I imagine you’re having it as we speak.
The first time Miranda Hamilton sees James McGraw, she feels like she is seeing a looking glass. His bearing, the way his inner grace tempers his upright military stance, mirrors the posture she affects in her salon. His gaze is fixed on Thomas, just as hers has been so many times. He sees the same brightness there that she does.
Watching him watch her husband, she glimpses their next scandal.
She visits her husband's study that evening, finding him poring over books just as expected. Planting a sweet kiss on his forehead, she says, “I met your naval liaison today.”
“Oh?” Thomas looks up and his brightening smile confirms her suspicion. “And what did you think of him?”
“A very striking man,” she warns, “I might need to borrow him from you.”
“Darling, you’re not to distract him. I have very important work for him to do.” Thomas leans back in his chair, abandoning his books for the moment. “Did I ever tell you why I requested him?”
“No, I don’t believe you did.” Miranda moves a candlestick out of the way and settles on the edge of the desk. Her husband is a natural storyteller and she likes nothing better than to hear him weave his words around her.
“It was a few years ago, when I was commissioning the new bastion at Tilbury Fort. On the road back to London, my carriage stopped at Tilbury Ness. The driver stopped to pick up a package, and left me with a sight so horrific that I was shaken to my very quick.”
Shadows darken his features, making him look grim. She waits for him to continue, but he seems frozen by the memory. “What was it?” she prods.
“A body… the body of Captain Kidd. A man convicted of crimes against the Realm and gibbeted at the mouth of the Thames as a warning against would-be pirates.” Thomas looks despondent as he turns his face up to her. “He’d been hanged years before that. They tarred the body black so it would last. He hardly looked human anymore.”
Struck by the image, he rubs his hands across his face. Not knowing what to say, Miranda clasps her husband's shoulder. “After that, I wanted to know everything I could about piracy in the New World. I learned about Kidd, who by many accounts wasn’t even a pirate but a privateer for the Crown. And so many others… so many people who hoped for a new start and ended up at the end of a noose–” He broke off, and it’s a long moment before he says. “I knew then that we had failed them, Miranda.”
“And your handsome liaison,” she says, hoping the thought will lift his despondency, “he will help you with the pirates?”
Thomas offers her a thin smile. “That’s my hope, yes.”
“Well, then I promise not to distract him too much, for your sake.”
Despite her assurance, it is not long before she embarks on an affair with Lieutenant McGraw. It begins playfully, as do all her trysts, by testing that push and pull between two minds, two bodies. She loves the challenge of discovering what a man is capable of emotionally, to see where his limits are and what he will do when his boundaries are reached.
She recognises that James is a fine match for her. Extreme intelligence and devastating smiles are her weakness, and he is generous with both. He is a gentleman in a mindful way, not like those who are born to it, but as one who appreciates the control it affords. She loves how he calls her “ma’am” so properly in public and whispers her name so greedily in bed. She enjoys teasing him – as she might tease her younger self – about being so concerned for other’s opinions.
“At the moment,” he confesses as they lie tangled together in her sheets, her head resting on his chest, “there’s only one opinion that concerns me.”
The darkness in his tone tells her that it is not her estimation he solicits. She tilts her head to look at him. “You are still worried that Thomas might object to our liaison?”
He smirks at her use of his title, but nods. “Your husband is an extraordinary man. I've never met anyone who comes close to him. The thought that we might cause him pain or mistrust–”
Miranda wonders if he even realises that he is gushing over Thomas. He doesn’t seem to – he sounds so earnest that she thinks it must be an honest glimpse at his feelings for her husband. She stops his troubled words by pressing her fingers to his lips. “Do you think Thomas would ever begrudge what brings me so much happiness?” He starts to protest but she quickly adds, "Or what brings happiness to you, whom he holds so close in his heart?”
Under her breast, she feels James tense. She understands his hesitation to admit his attachment to her husband, even with her. A man of his dubious standing, in a profession that demands they be suppressed, in a society that demands they be persecuted, would have learned to expertly hide away any hint of such sin. Thomas, on the other hand, views this suppression as the sin. She wonders whether James can learn to be so free.
“My husband is, as you say, extraordinary. His love is so great, so expansive, that it encompasses the entire world. He believes that loving one person should generate more love, not less. And,” she adds, kissing the tip of his chin, “he can hardly imagine that one might deny it to themself to the detriment of their own happiness.”
Evoking Thomas between them sparks a bright glimmer to James’ eyes. Miranda is not surprised by it. She has always recognised that as much as she is James’ lover, she is also a reflection of Thomas to him, rather than the true object of his desire. She has wondered if this observation should upset her, the fact she does not possess this man’s full attentions. Strangely, the idea amuses her. She and Thomas are like minds; that James aligns so perfectly with them both only makes him more special.
“It is a beautiful sentiment,” he admits after a moment, “but one I fear the rest of the world doesn’t share.” His words bear a harsh undercurrent that makes her wonder what face the rest of the world has shown him.
“Then we must band together to protect him from the world. But from ourselves? Never.”
James’ love – even if that is not what he names it yet – will be a bulwark for Thomas’ idealism, grounding and nurturing her husband’s optimism with a pragmatic view of humanity. And, she hopes, giving both men what they so obviously desire.
Perhaps she can move that along a little bit. “I’ve told you before, I love Thomas deeply. What you and I share could never diminish that. Nor,” she adds slyly, “could what you and he might share, someday. She places her hands on each side of his face so he must look at her, must hear her words. “I would see you both find happiness, in whatever form it might take.”
He looks at her warily, as if uncertain of what he’s heard, as she smirks. Then, with a chaste kiss, she bestows her blessing and seals her hopes for the two men that she loves.
“But now,” she says, rising from the bed with a sigh, “we must forego our happiness. Thomas’ father has returned to London and we must all be on our best behaviour.”
Despite a still dazed expression, James hurries out from under the covers as commanded. He dresses efficiently, restoring the veiled formality that he presents to the world before giving her a last kiss. Miranda, left awaiting her lady’s maid, sets about drawing her own veils. Even expertly done, they will never be enough for Thomas’ father. He is the embodiment of the world that threatens Thomas. At least now she has an ally in the fight.
People can say what they like about you, but you’re a good man. More people should say that. And someone should be willing to defend it.
After Lord Alfred’s furious departure, Miranda is not surprised that her husband rises to kiss James – it would have been more surprising if he could have resisted the man’s sincere declaration of loyalty and love. And she’s definitely not surprised that James takes less than a second to overcome his hesitancy and give himself up to that kiss. This man, once so concerned with propriety, abandons it for something so much more rewarding, and it pleases her even as she feels she is intruding on their private moment.
But then Thomas, still in James’ arms, extends his hand to her. Miranda takes it and is pulled into the two men’s embrace. Thomas kisses them, first James, then her. Her cheeks flush as James watches intently, and when she turns toward him, his eyes are hungry and bright. Then, without letting either of them go, Thomas leads them to his bedroom.
Their next months are a study in contrasts. The Hamiltons’ place in society dwindles after the Earl’s condemnation. They keep up all the necessary appearances, but their salon never recovers after Thomas reveals his aims. Lord Ashe is the only true friend who remains in their confidences, and if not for the company of Kitty Ashe, Peter’s wife, Miranda fears she would be starved for female companionship.
On the other hand, their lives feel more complete than she had ever imagined. The Hamiltons have shared lovers before, but it has been rare, and their tastes too divergent. This time feels different; James is already so beloved by both of them. She quickly grows accustomed to falling asleep nestled alongside their bodies, and waking up to tangled limbs and morning kisses.
She’s never seen Thomas happier. Too often his heart has been heavy, his conscience worn down with the world’s injustices. Now, motivated with purpose and compassion, his step is light and he laughs without hesitation. James is a worthy partner for him, and together they envision a future so bright that it cuts through her doubts and convinces even her pragmatic mind that life might be fair and happy and beautiful. She hopes they can create a world that will allow them.
Inside their own four walls, this life already exists. Miranda has always loved this house, and now that spring has arrived, she fills it with flowers. Their fragrance wafts through the rooms where, at any time of day, she can find her two men pouring over books and papers, or animatedly discussing a facet of their plan, or just curled comfortably together on the window seat overlooking the garden. At night, the three of them dine in dark panelled rooms shimmering with the light of dozens of candles. James had once mentioned how candles were scarce when he was growing up in his grandfather’s house, and Thomas’ proclamation of “let there be light!” had ensured that the house was never dark again. Together they have made this place a happy home, and Miranda wishes it could always be this way.
It’s then that the whispers begin. James is at the Hamilton’s home more often than decorum allows, and people start to talk. Although she’s been through this more times than she can count, the whispers seem to echo louder now.
These warning signs are different, too. She is in her carriage, waiting as James and Thomas inspect some transport ships, when she notices a small clique of naval officers commenting on the two men. She cannot hear their words, but their manner is unmistakably derisive. Thomas is not the first man James has slept with, of that she is sure, and these men seem to know it too. When the gang leader sees her watching, he doesn’t shy away; instead he holds her gaze in a clear and menacing challenge. This bold show of disrespect is unconscionable, all the more so because she feels helpless to combat it. When Thomas and James return she cannot even tell them what is wrong.
As the summer drags on the rumour mill churns, thriving in those long, boring days of August. She hates to engage in London’s favourite pastime, but knows she must be there to hear each infraction. More importantly, she must hear what’s not being said, as this is where the real danger lies. This level of vigilance tires and irritates her, and it affects her feelings towards James and Thomas as well. The two men remain wholly unaware and unconcerned, able to carry on with their lives and their love as if danger is not stirring just outside their door. Their naivety breeds a curious sense of envy and resentment in her. She feels tempted to destroy it – easily done with scant evidence and her ample fear – but she still loves them both too much to bring herself to this act. Instead she grows irritable with them, which in turn makes her angry with herself. She wearies of their endless theorising and their utopian outlooks. She joins them in bed rarely now, and even when she does, she can feel the gulf between them widening.
September begins, and James announces he will soon depart for the Bahama islands. Miranda feels guilty over the relief she feels, especially when she sees Thomas’s pained expression. But things do quieten in James absence. Almost she can believe that things will be all right.
I have been the subject of enough ridicule and innuendo to know the difference between a little danger and mortal danger, and I am telling you that what you and Thomas and I face right now is the latter.
The Earl’s men arrive just as the Hamiltons are finishing their breakfast. There are three of them, their faces set in almost identically grim, unforgiving lines, and Miranda wonders if they’ve been chosen specifically to mirror their employer’s visage. Thomas ushers them into his study, where they remain for a worryingly long time. She tries to occupy herself with reading, but cannot help glancing at the door regularly, willing it to open.
When it finally does, her husband looks pale.
“I would speak with my wife before I go,” he declares. He holds the door open to her, and reluctantly the Earl’s agents yield. “And Mr Bailey,” he calls to their butler, “please send for Lord Ashe immediately."
She joins her husband with as much poise as she can muster, even though she wants to run into Thomas’ arms. He masters the same dignity and she hopes that she is the only one who notices his strained demeanour. “I didn’t know you were taking a trip,” she says when the door closes. She tries to make her voice carelessly light, but it sounds false.
Thomas doesn’t answer. He is leaning against the door as if for support, his face stricken. Her heart rises to her throat as she asks, “What’s happened?”
“My father knows about James.” He says the words slowly. It sounds like he cannot believe them, even as they come out of his own mouth.
“No.” Miranda shakes her head. "How could he? We’ve been so careful...” Despite her fears, this feels too sudden. She feels like she should have had a warning, some definitive juncture at which she could have averted this outcome. Without it, what Thomas is saying cannot be true. “Lord Alfred is only trying to scare you. It must be a bluff.”
Instead of finding hope in her words, Thomas just looks more shattered. “Sadly, it’s not. His men have provided sufficient detail to prove that he knows exactly what has been happening here.”
“Detail?” Her heart freezes at the thought. Has someone employed in their household betrayed them? Someone that they have trusted? The idea makes her feel exposed and sickened. “I don’t understand,” she says. “What’s happening?”
Seeing her distress, Thomas draws her into his arms. She tucks her head under his chin and clings to him as if he could make this whole nightmare go away. “I’ve brokered an agreement with my father,” he tells her. “You and James will be safe, but you must leave England immediately.”
Leave? This was what James had suggested, and the thought of starting anew had enticed both she and Thomas. Now it makes her world spin. “Then you will join us,” she says, “once we’re settled?”
At this, Thomas blanches. “I’m sorry, my love. My father is very specific on that point.”
“We’re to go without you...” Miranda’s mind refuses to register this non-sensical thought even as tears sting her eyes. “But where will you be?”
“Never mind that now.” He holds her hands, kisses them, kisses away the tears on her cheeks. “Darling, you must be brave. The only way that you will be safe – that James will be safe – is by leaving the country without me.”
She shakes her head. “You know James will never accept that."
"He will if you insist on it. My father wants to have James court-martialed. Do you know that that means? He will be hanged.”
“Hanged…” This is her nightmare. This is what she fears.
Thomas has sounded so strong up to this point, but now he is broken. “I cannot bear to lose him. I might lose everything else, but to know I was his ruin – you must help me convince him. Promise me that you will take care of each other.”
Before she can say a word, sounds of a scuffle break through the door and she hears Peter Ashe arguing with the men outside. Then they are pounding on the door, wrenching it open, dragging Thomas from her arms. Peter is trying to stop them but they are stronger. He is pushed roughly aside, as is she when she tries to reach for Thomas again. It is all too fast, too violent, and Miranda feels the world spinning out of control.
“Where are they taking you?” Peter manages to ask, and this time Thomas answers. “Bethlem.”
Her composure vanishes at this word and Miranda wails. Everyone knows of London’s notorious madhouse, has heard ghastly tales about the conditions there. She tries again to reach for her husband, but Peter catches her arms and she’s not certain whether he is holding her steady or holding her back. And Thomas, Thomas is being led away like a lamb to the slaughter. He looks over his shoulder and catches her eye, and for a second his brave façade slips. “Forgive me,” he says.
She lets out a choked sob. Before she can protest that there is nothing to forgive, that he has given them love and lives they could never have imagined, Thomas is gone.
Peter takes her hand, leads her to the parlour, urges her to sit down. He calls for her lady’s maid and instructs her to pack for a journey. He sends messages to the bank to secure funds and a timetable for sailings to Calais and Amsterdam. He tells Mr Bailey that James will soon be returning from the admiralty with bad news, and to have a coach prepared so he can quickly vacate his premises. He works efficiently and Miranda is grateful that he can adapt so quickly to their sudden change of fortune.
For herself, she is lost to inaction. All she can do is wander through the dark paths of her mind. She had said that what they had couldn’t last, but now she despises her words and her traitorous thoughts. She had only spoken them as a caution to keep them vigilant. They were never meant to be a prophecy. They were never supposed to wreck their lives.
We won’t be with your friends. We’re not going to Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam.
The next days are a blur. James rejects Peter’s suggestion to stay in Europe and insists on returning to Nassau. Miranda cannot bring herself to care where she will end up.
As ships can no longer sail directly to Nassau, arrangements are made for passage to Antigua. They travel as a married couple, but Miranda feels it must be the unhappiest marriage on earth. James attends to her as best he can, sympathetic to the travails of her first sea voyage, but his concern is not enough to still her rage that simmers just below the surface. She had foreseen this; she had warned them both of what could happen. Both had disregarded her fears with that ludicrous naivety of men who think themselves invincible.
She carefully reins in these thoughts, these words, with the decorum that she has learned from life in London society. She cannot speak of her regrets and resentments; once set free they will never allow themselves to be bottled again.
Being on deck allows her to escape their tiny cabin. She claims a small space on the stern instead, a tiny sanctum where she can feel the wind blowing away her past and watch the endless waves separating her from everything she knows. Thomas is ever in her thoughts. She cannot imagine the indignities being thrust upon him. In that madhouse, she fears that no one will recognise who he truly is, so refined, so generous with his respect and solicitude. Even at the moment of their defeat, he had exuded grace.
But was his concession the only way? Could the Earl really have seen his only son hanged? Did his antipathy run so deep? She knew him as a cruel, cold-hearted man but this ran so far afoul of human nature that her mind rejected it. On the other hand, she harboured no doubt that he would have seen James prosecuted. Thomas had insisted, and Peter had concurred, that this was the only way that both men could live. She knows this is true. But should she have accepted that? Should she – could she – have traded one for the other?
Her mind ties itself in knots over these speculations. The only way she is able to untangle it is to take stock of what she has left: a few dresses, her sturdiest shoes, a small cache of china, sewing notions, a few beloved books. The necessities of life boiled down to a few trunks. But even this proves unsettling. She can’t help but wonder if these are the right things. James and Thomas would know the mechanics of what one needs to start a new life. They could tell her the amount of biscuits and salt pork to store, the blankets to be allocated, the rations of small beer required. But who is able to tell her if she had packed the right books, the ones she will want to read in a dozen years? Who could explain what to do for shoes once hers are torn from the rough rocky shore? What would count for music in this strange new place, other than the songs of unfamiliar birds?
James seems to have no such qualms. He has brought with him only a single bag and a small sailing chest; no quarter is given to sentimentality. She watches him move among the sailors with the appearance of composure. Even without naval dress, he looks at home on the rolling deck. Only when she sees his hard-set face, the mask he turns to the horizon and the future ahead, does she recognise the same tormented thoughts.
He is the only one with whom she might share her doubts, yet when they speak, each pointedly avoids the main subject of their regard: the man they’ve left behind. They are together, but they are both so alone.
One night after dark, James enters their quarters wearing a laboured expression. Without a word, Miranda sets aside her book and rises to set out the supper she has laid aside for him. She motions for him to sit, and he does, but makes no move to eat.
“We make land tomorrow,” he tells her. “We need to talk about what comes next.”
Her eyebrow arches at this surprising topic. “I assumed we would travel on to Nassau, once we find a ship willing to carry us.”
But James shook his head. “I don’t believe Nassau is a suitable place for you. By all reports, the violence there has not lessened. There is no governor in charge, there is no law, there are only the pirates.”
“A suitable place -” She repeats his shocking words, unable to believe them. After all the hopes pinned on this island by Thomas and James, he would now try to deny it to her? Miranda’s face contorts in disbelief at this notion. “You mean to leave me behind?”
“Miranda,” he says with a coaxing tone that she has not heard in weeks, “you would not be safe in Nassau. If you were to stay in Antigua…”
“I think we’re both past being safe, don’t you?”
Her words come out with such bitterness that James starts as if she’s slapped him. “Pardon me?”
“You and I, there is nothing ‘safe’ in our lives anymore that I can see. There has been nothing safe for some time now. Nassau or Antigua or London, they all harbour dangers. At the moment, I really can’t imagine Nassau’s are the most frightening.”
She knows she treads perilously close to the anger that she has kept in so long. Only the pained expression on James’ face stops her. The distress and heartache that he’s been trying so hard to hide bubbles close to the surface. His jaw is taut as he fights to bite it back, but his eyes – his eyes can’t conceal how vulnerable he is right now.
Miranda’s heart softens. She knows what he feels, and knows that while her pain for her husband is immense, James feels it just as keenly. In a world that saw them both as aberrations, Thomas had offered acceptance and love. They have both lost that, and if they are not careful, they will lose each other too.
The truth is, she could never trade James’ life for Thomas’. He is the other part of her and they need each other if they are to survive this. “Thomas wants us to take care of one another, and we are going to honour his wish. We can’t do that with a sea between us.” Blinking back tears, she says with gentle firmness, “And on Nassau, we can take back control of our own lives.”
His gaze at first is guarded, until a hint of his old boyish grin, the kind that would slip out whenever her honesty surprised him, crept across his face. “Then you know my intent?”
“You intend to captain a pirate ship,” she answers, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “And you intend to make them feel your rage.”
“And you don’t condemn me for it?”
“No.” She wipes away a rebellious tear. “If anything, I envy you.”
James stands up. He takes her hand and pulls her into his arms. It is no passionate embrace, nor a desperate clutching. He just holds her there, and for a long moment nothing hurts. The ship rolls and they brace against each other and neither of them lets go.
Finally he moves to kiss her forehead. “I need you to cut my hair,” he says.
She nods against his chest, then pulls away and motions towards the chair. By the time she’s found her scissor, he has tugged loose his ribbon and let his hair spill over his shoulders. Shimmering candlelight picks up its fiery glints, carrying her back to their bed just a few weeks before – Thomas’ fingers carding the thick curls, smiling as if delighting in a sea of rubies; James nuzzling the hollow of her throat with that beard that she is not used to and making her laugh; a briar of tangled limbs and tangled black and auburn locks, and Thomas shining golden in the middle of them...
“Are you all right?” James’ hand on her arm shakes her free of the memory.
“I’m fine,” she assures him, tucking these thoughts away. Perhaps she will be strong enough to return to them later, after the ache has dulled and only their sweetness remains. For the moment, she returns to her task, managing a fairly decent chop that leaves James looking far from the respected lieutenant he once was.
“There you are, Captain McGraw,” she says, setting her scissor down.
“Flint,” he corrects her. “James McGraw is gone. From here on out, it’s Captain Flint.”
“Well, you do look the part,” she admits as she nudges his chin up to inspect her work. The name suits him, matching that steely look she has seen in his eye during this voyage, the hard tone of his voice. “I suppose Nassau is no place for Lady Hamilton either,” she says quietly. “My father’s name then. I will be Miss Barlow again.”
“Mrs Barlow,” he amends quickly. “If you’re alone, it will be safer if you are a married woman.”
“I am a married woman,” she says pointedly. She has given up a lot of things, but this is not something she is willing to abandon. She is about to add that a word can hardly make anyone safe anymore, but then she sees that James looks like he’s been struck. A word can still hurt, she reminds herself, even if it cannot protect. “Forgive me,” she says. “I’m just tired. Mrs. Barlow will do.”
She imagines it will be liberating to take a new name, to adopt a new life. The next day, as she steps off the gangway onto the island sand, she tries to leave who she was behind like a snake shedding its skin. She can almost get away with it. Everything is unimaginably different, from the light that strikes the white sands with a ferocity unknown in England to the almost overwhelming scents of cinnamon and overripe fruits.
The town of English Harbour itself rises from the beach and stretches up the hill along wide, straight streets that suggest the Queen’s perfect order can be imposed on this place. As if to dispute that, the settlement is bounded on all sides by such a profusion of green that she has never seen, and exotic plants with blooms of red and yellow decorate the cottages. An imposing church of unpainted wood overlooks the landscape as if to sternly remind good Anglicans that they shall not be tempted by these lush surroundings, but still it seems to call out to her. Thomas would be rapturous upon seeing this. He loves beauty and flowers and life, and her heart aches that he cannot share it with her.
Nassau is rougher and feels even further from home. The harbour has an unsteady energy, like violence about to erupt. James does not want her to stay there for long, and this time she agrees. They purchase a small house in the interior; it had been abandoned when its owners fled the recent troubles, and James secures it at a very low price. He hires an overseer as well, Mr Wells, who with his family will look after the property. Miranda appreciates his efforts, even knowing that it is all in preparation for his leaving. Each day that they are there, he seems more suited for this place. He tells her of meeting a quartermaster, Mr Gates, who will help him assemble a crew. He tells her of the personalities and the power struggles in the town, on the water. He tells her of a teenaged girl who, six months earlier, had been known only for using her sex to sow dissension among the crews, and now was taking the reins of the island’s commerce.
“What a strange world this is,” Miranda writes in one of her letters to Thomas. She writes a few lines to him every night, recounting the vivid details of her day and the stories that James shares with her. Then, carefully, she drops each page into the fire.
“You became a captain of a pirate crew in four months?”
“I became a captain of a pirate crew faster than that.”
James sets sail at Easter. Miranda misses him, but without his presence in the household she begins to find her own place. Although the church holds no appeal to her, she is drawn to the community of women on the island. Mrs Wells shows her how to tend the garden and Miranda finds an unexpected joy as the seedlings emerge. She joins the women making soap with the winter’s ashes, and although her tale of widowhood is greeted with scepticism, they accept her offer to stir the rendered fat until her arms ache. A few of the women seem less judgemental, as if they might have secrets of their own to hide, and these she befriends. They never become true confidantes, but from them she learns where to buy cloth, and vinegar, and twine, and how to negotiate a fair price for each. She calls on them not by hailing a carriage but by traversing lush jungles that once would have frightened her, picking flowers whose names she doesn’t know.
As she becomes Mrs Barlow, the woman she once was recedes. She asks Mr Wells to hang the portrait she has brought from England, of Lord and Lady Hamilton in happier times, but then has him take it down the next day. These two people don’t exist anymore. Now when James comes home he finds a woman with adust skin and nails lined with dirt, no matter how hard she scrubs.
He kisses her rough hands like he might still think they are beautiful.
“Did I ever tell you that I once fought another lieutenant to defend your honour?” he asks, pulling her up onto his lap.
“How recklessly noble of you.” She kisses him deeply, leaning into the solid feel of him. He has changed too; each time he returns to her, he brings fresh scrapes and bruises. He brings money too – enough, he says, that she’ll never have to make her own soap again – and after one surprisingly profitable hunt has a harpsichord delivered to their home.
But the greatest gifts he brings are the books plundered from sailing ships. She had no idea that naval officers read so well and with such variety: from The Pilgrim’s Progress to Jonathan Swift, books of poetry and romance to translations of Homer and Shakespeare’s complete works. For their first Christmas together, James gives her Les Mille et une nuits, which he surprisingly found on an English merchant ship. Miranda immediately takes these tales into her heart. She feels an odd kinship with Shéhérazade and delights in translating the stories for James.
Their small bookcase is filled to overflowing by their second year on Nassau. When careening and poor weather force James ashore for a fortnight, he and Mr Wells set to work building a larger one. It fills nearly the entire sitting room wall. With the wood hewn clean and rubbed with palm oil until it shines, Miranda thinks it would not have looked out of place in Thomas’ study.
Later, as they fill the new shelves, James’ hand lingers on the copy of Meditations gifted to him by Thomas. “Do you still believe they will release him?”
His question is unexpected, but her answer is the same as always. “Without us, yes, I believe the Earl will eventually relent.” She knows James is sceptical. In truth, she is as well, but she cannot abandon hope. More importantly, she cannot steal that hope away from James. “Thomas is his only son. He will not forget that.”
They have not spoken of this for a long time, not since Peter’s last letter. In it he had written of swarms of visitors at Bethlem, paying the wardens for a glimpse of madness and immorality. The indignity of this had enraged them both. Peter had insisted that he was doing everything in his power to protect Thomas. Miranda worried it wasn’t enough.
“You still write to him?”
“I do, yes.” Not daily, as she once did, but she still sets aside time each week to compose her unsent letters.
James’ brow furrows, troubled as if it matters what she says in letters that are reduced to ash. His next words surprise her. “I imagine I am talking with him, that he is still arguing for pardons. He always insists that, fundamentally, these pirates all seek the same ends.” He shakes his head as if to clear this voice. “Now I think that if we had opened that door, a few would have gone through it, but most… most are hungry for more. Until they win a worthy prize, they will not stop.”
Miranda glances around their home. Every luxury it contains comes from the spoils of plunder. This is something that her husband, upright and honest, would struggle to accept.
James follows her eyes. “It never stops, does it?” He rubs his hand across his face in frustration. “After every prize, after every death… I try to tell him why I did it.”
“Whether or not he understood, he would always forgive you.”
“And will you?” He looks at her and she sees the torment in his eyes. “Once you said I was more concerned about what people think of me than what I actually did. That was true then. But not now. You and Thomas are the only two people alive whose opinion still matters to me.”
She answers with a kiss and leads him to their bed. Their lovemaking is so often rushed, driven by James’ long absences and Thomas’ missing presence that always haunts them. Tonight she takes the time to explore his body. It’s not the same young officer’s that she had seduced all those years earlier. This one has been tempered in battles that his younger self had only heard of. Yet even with this new hardness, with its sinewy muscles and leathered skin, he feels right and familiar. Even the new scars he had brought back from his latest voyage no longer feel strange under her fingers. They’re already part of him, like all his scars before.
He matches her pace, at first caressing her with calloused hands and leisurely kisses, gradually building her need for him. His fingers find her sex and she groans as they slip inside. He coaxes her to climax with just his touch, leaving her trembling and wet, before pulling her astride him. She comes again with him deep inside, crushing his climax against her breast.
When morning comes, James goes back to his men on the beach. She goes back to her routine. And somehow, life goes on.
And then it doesn't.
Peter’s letter arrives just after the new year, only a few weeks shy of their third anniversary in Nassau. Miranda breaks open the seal and the words that spill out shatter their world.
“...Thomas has taken his own life…”
Grief consumes her. She wants to believe it isn’t true, that Thomas would never so violate the tenets of God. He would know this act would condemn him, and that despite dedicating his life to virtue and goodness, he would spend eternity lying in unconsecrated ground. This thought sounds absurd to her after so long living on this heathen island, but Thomas is devout and such things still matter to him.
Which leads her to the torment that must have driven him to this. Three years in that place, and the daily, never-ending torment to his soul – how could she not have seen it? Peter’s repeated insistence that Thomas is as well as he could be has been an easy pill to swallow. Even in this letter he writes, “When I visited him a week past, he was in good spirits, and mercifully relieved a burden that had been troubling my conscience.” This sounds like her Thomas, always free with his forgiveness. How could she have ever thought a man like this could survive in a place of such madness and sorrow?
And yet she has always thought there might be a reprieve for him. She had accepted that she would never see him again, but she clung to the hope that he might still be freed, that he might still find happiness. Now her delusion repels her. Had it simply been convenient naivety on her part, to assuage her guilt for leaving him to this fate? For her selfishness in abandoning him and going on with her life?
Her impotence seems to take on a life of its own, consuming the woman she was. She could not save her husband, and now she cannot avenge his death. Nor can she stop James, who grieves by embarking on a spree of such savagery that it is remarkable even on this unruly island. For the inlanders, it confirms the inherent violence of the pirates. For the beach, it secures Flint’s vicious reputation. None of them care to know the real reasons he strikes out at the world. None of them realise that Nassau’s fiercest pirate captain feels as impotent as she does in the face of such overwhelming pain.
Miranda wishes that she had such power in her hands.
And then her former lady’s maid writes with news of Lord Alfred’s voyage, and she feels powerless no more.
You’ve heard the stories, haven’t you? She’s a witch who pledged my soul to the devil and anoints me with the blood of infants to keep me safe in battle.
The rumours are different this time. Instead of a vulgar adulteress ensorcelling young men, now she’s the witch conjuring the winds that drive the Walrus and sacrificing babies to protect their captain. She is the reason Flint is ever more bloodthirsty, spewing his terrible cruelty across the wide Atlantic.
At first Miranda has no idea what is being said of her. Her connection to the inland community has all but vanished, which she assumes is due to her known association with Flint, and she has never had any affinity with the women of the beach. So it is Mr Gates who tells her what he has heard said of their captain. He seems surprised that it bothers her; he has dismissed it as just another irrational notion among these superstitious people. “If anything,” Mr Gates adds, “it helps him keep the crew in line.”
She doesn’t explain that it’s not the rumours that bother her so much as the fact that she did not hear them directly. It is hard to admit this, even to herself. She is as isolated in this place as Prospero’s daughter, but unlike her namesake, her exile turns her away from innocence toward the very darkest of thoughts. If she were truly a witch, she would make the terror unleashed by Captain Flint seem like a child breaking a toy. If she had any power at all, she would raze this island and everyone in it. She hates Nassau and its inhabitants, with their tiny minds and brutish ways. She hates herself for stooping to revenge, but even more she hates that she was not able to kill Lord Alfred with her own hands. She hates Thomas for dying...
She cannot hate James, but sometimes she does. She knows he sometimes hates her. They cleave together as the last two people who loved Thomas, but it is not enough.
Miranda wants her life back.
As if she really were a witch, her wishes conjure the first stirrings of change. It starts with James’ news of the Urca de Lima. The thought of such a prize, one they’d both thought out of reach for so long, gives him a new urgency and resurrects his idea of transforming Nassau on its own terms.
“Thomas was right about the promise of this island. He just didn’t see it correctly. I do.” His eyes shine with such zeal that for a fleeting moment she wonders if what is said of him is true: has he gone mad with power? She peers into those eyes, seeking the man she once knew, but he is well hidden behind the fresh cuts and a knife wound still bleeding on his shoulder.
“Even if you’re right, how can you even consider this with the Navy at our doorstep?” And Richard Guthrie lying unconscious in our guest room, she silently adds. Mr Gates had delivered the injured man to her this morning in full sight of Pastor Lambrick’s spies. No doubt this has now been added to her list of demonic deeds.
“I know these men,” James insists. “Yes, they’re selfish blackguards half of the time and disloyal curs the rest. But to a man, they will do what it takes to protect what is theirs.”
“I do not doubt that,” she concedes, “but there’s a big difference between protecting the gold in their pockets and an abstract notion of a civilisation they’ve never even known. And now you’re asking them to become an army – to fight for a country that doesn’t even exist.”
“You’re asking whether they will fight for Nassau.” He leans back in his chair, wincing a little as his bandage shifts. “Some won’t, but I believe a good number will. And if we win…” He shrugs. “This is the only way I can imagine achieving what we all wanted.”
But did we want it this way? Miranda wonders. Back in their drawing room in London, she had never imagined going to such bloody ends. Nor, she is certain, had Thomas. Her peace-loving husband would have minimised bloodshed. He would be horrified by the people she and James have become.
She is debating whether to point this out when the sounds of a coughing fit come from the guestroom. Quickly, she excuses herself to attend her patient.
The rest of the day is a whirlwind as she goes about feeding and nursing two obstinate men who resent their wounds and everything that reminds them of it. Just as she sits down for a moment’s rest, Mr Guthrie’s daughter arrives and demands to see her father as if she was already Queen of Nassau. Miranda has long been eager to meet this girl that James has told her of, the one whose favour can make or break a crew’s fortune, but his description does not match the reality standing in her home. She speaks crudely, stomps her feet and leaves without a word of thanks, and Miranda is shocked to find that this partner in whom James puts so much faith is no more than an unpolished girl playing at being a grown-up. It does little to bolster her hope for Nassau’s future.
Her mind keeps returning to James’ plans, though, and his stubborn determination to revive their ancient aims. She wants to challenge him, but an aphorism from Marcus Aurelius keeps returning to her mind: Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. The thought draws her to their bookshelf and a well-worn copy of Meditations. As she thumbs through the familiar pages, the impulsive notion to share it with Richard Guthrie pops into her mind – if not to elucidate James’ actions then perhaps to help him deal with his daughter’s vitriol.
She is not surprised when James takes offence. She even realises that, in a way, this is what she had wanted. He tries to punish her with isolation; he wants her to feel alone even as they have sex, even as they lay beside each other in bed. That he resorts to this rather than airing his frustrations stings, but she has suffered enough solitude that it does not hurt her anymore. In fact, from the way he lurks in the periphery of the room the next morning, casting furtive apologetic glances in her direction, she wonders if he might have punished himself even more. He wears a shameful expression that she recognises from years past. Miranda confronts him, knowing well how easily his shame turns to fury, and how much she welcomes it. The two of them have suppressed their feelings for too long. Now his anger has an honesty that his complacency does not.
“Things will get better here, I promise they will,” he tells her, but these are just words. He means them in that moment, she’s sure of that, but they will be set aside for the next prize, the next crisis, the next time he can shut out his grief with blood and violence.
Miranda is tired of waiting. She has been passive for far too long, and when Richard Guthrie offers her a way forward, she picks up her quill.
To the Honourable Justice Addington Thomas, Massachusetts Bay Colony,
I petition you under the advisement of your friend Mr Richard Guthrie to bestow your favour and influence. You may know Captain James Flint by reputation through stories of his past misdeeds, but you might not know of his desire to repent...
This path you’re on, it doesn’t lead where you think it does. If he were here, he’d agree with me.
When James storms out her door, she feels a fleeting fear that it is the last time she will see him.
Miranda cannot bring herself to regret writing to beg for his pardon. She is sorry that the letter had been found, as much because it never reached its destination as for the problems it caused with the Walrus’ crew. But she cannot regret what she had written, or what she still hopes for: a life beyond these small shores, and the love that she still feels for a man named James McGraw.
But what if this man has gone too far away from her – too far from himself? What if the woman he loved as Miranda Hamilton no longer exists. The breach between them has widened since Thomas’ death and she’s not even certain it can be repaired. She’s not sure that she knows how to start.
The answer comes in an unexpected guise, starting with a second surprise visit from Ms Guthrie in as many days. The first time, Miranda had pitied her. Eleanor had assumed that because James jealously guarded their private life, she must be beneath notice. Miranda could not be upset by the girl’s clumsy posturing. She was only puffing up her chest like the men she knew, trying to make herself bigger by belittling another. The world in which she had been raised is rough, but it is transparent, full of parries and ripostes with nothing hidden. Miranda is from another world, one where what is unseen, what is unspoken, is the most remarkable of all. Eleanor could never understand that.
But Miranda has less patience the next time Eleanor darkens her doorstep. Just that morning, she had been pleased to find La Galatea waiting for her there, with “I’m sorry” inscribed within. James’ apology does not mean they can cross the breach, but at least it means he still wants to.
And now this girl is back in her home, making demands as if Miranda is one of her warehouse lackeys, making threats as if she has any clue what it means to care for a man like James. Her words are such an affront, coming from such a place of ignorance, that Miranda’s composure deserts her. Expelling Ms Guthrie from her house is her only recourse, but Miranda longs for the demonic powers that so many have ascribed to her.
When Pastor Lambrick appears the next day before dawn, Miranda wonders why she had ever lamented her isolation. The chain of events that have intruded on that solitude seem to have taken on a life of their own over the past weeks.
And then, unknowingly, the pastor hands her the link that pulls Miranda’s entire life together: Abigail Ashe, the daughter of Peter and Kitty. Like parting heavy drapery in a dark room and being surprised by the sun shining on the other side, she suddenly sees a way forward.
But as she rides to the beach, she wonders if it will ask more of her than she has to give.
You and Peter weren’t the only ones committed to setting Nassau set to right. You weren’t the only ones who paid a heavy toll to that end. I’ve stood aside too long. If you and I are to be partners, we ought to be partners.
For a few harrowing moments, Miranda was certain that she had lost James – first to his spite, then to his enemy Captain Vane. Needing to reassure herself that he still lived, even if he hated her, she returned to the tavern and hears Captain Flint making the same case that she had just made to him.
Of course he would hear reason.
As he outlines their plan to the Guthries and Captain Vane, she wonders if he has heard her other words. This entreaty to return Abigail is an opening for him to return to what he once wanted for the island. Could it also include what he wants in his heart?
She cannot be offended by his hateful words earlier, even if it had been painful to hear them. She is well aware that they came from anger and frustration, feelings with which she is intimately acquainted. She could matched him, blame for blame – but no, what would that accomplish other than shatter them both?
Instead she had left him with Thomas’ book. She had brought it to him as a reminder of what they had all once wanted, but now she hopes it will be a reminder of what he had once been – someone with the capacity for love and hope. Perhaps there is nothing more between them now, and that is something she will truly regret. But if James can open his heart to find love and hope again, she wishes him such good fortune.
Still, she stays. She is not optimistic about repairing the breach between them – it feels greater than ever before – but now there is something greater at stake. While the others argue about Peter’s reaction when his daughter is returned, her heart goes out to the terrified girl in the fort, and to her distraught friend who loves her so. Peter had been a doting father; Miranda remembers him bringing her presents of oranges and sweets from the market, and delighting as she entertained them on the piano. Never had there been a prouder parent.
When Captain Vane begins to speak, her worries grow. His greed and disregard for anyone else’s welfare confirms the redoubtable stereotype that England holds of piracy. To think that Abigail is in the care of this man appals her. And to hand her over to the men of James’ crew, men he has described as blackguards and worse – that can be little better.
There is a part she can play here. She will stay for Abigail, to give the girl the reassurance of a familiar face in the midst of these frightening men. And for James, so that when Peter sees them standing side by side, perhaps he will see more than the renowned Captain Flint; perhaps he will remember an idealistic young lieutenant who was once a good friend, and the dreams they once shared.
And yes, for herself as well, because she has stood aside for far too long while others orchestrate the future of this island. Her future. She is annoyed with her passivity. And when James tells her that she should go home, she tells him so. She can tell that he is surprised by her decision. It’s nice to feel like she can still do that after all these years.
Their conversation is interrupted by a man from James’ crew. Miranda would have taken no notice of him had James’ whole body not tensed at the sight of him. Her first thought is that this man is one of the disloyal ones that James has talked of, and wonders if he will attack his captain before the blood from his fight with Captain Vane is dried. But there is no attack; instead, the man looks warily at her, then at James, and with a start she sees something that intrigues her. James looks guilty, flashing an apologetic look at her as he turns away. On the other man’s part is a comportment that suggests possessiveness, an uncertainty about how to proceed in her presence. She feels sized up – not like she had during Ms Guthrie’s clumsy attempt to define her, but more intimately. Perhaps he is only protective of his captain. But she suspects there is something more to it.
She sees it again as they ready to sail for Charles Town. Abigail has been traumatised during her captivity, and Miranda knows kindness and normalcy are the best cure. Clothes are easily laundered and mended, but her request that that the ship’s stores be stocked with quality foods meets a wry smile from James. “You’ll need to talk to the cook then.”
The man he introduces her to is eminently circumspect of her, and she wonders if he might believe in her fabled powers. “I’m not a witch, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she advises him with a smile.
He looks suitably embarrassed, although he recovers with a shake of his wiry curls. “It’s not that, ma’am.”
“Oh? What is it then?”
“When I heard the captain had a companion, I wondered what that person would be like. You’re not what I imagined.”
Miranda smiles, curious how much thought this man has given to his captain’s tastes. “What exactly did you imagine?”
Misinterpreting her expression, Silver quickly answers, “Meaning no offence, you just seem more… refined than I would have thought. I expect you would be a lady in another world.”
Now it is her turn to look embarrassed. With her weather-worn complexion and a dress that was fashionable a decade ago, she’s sure no civilised person would mistake her for nobility. “In another lifetime, perhaps,” she concedes.
He watches her with clear eyes, bluer than the ocean, and a frankness she hasn’t enjoyed since Thomas… well, for many years. She finds it very welcome, and suspects that James does as well. “Tell me, Mr Silver, how long have you been sailing with Captain Flint?”
“Nigh on six months, ma’am.”
“Even in the short time you’ve known him, you must have seen that your captain is at his best when he has an anchor. Someone by his side who reminds him just who he can be. I have been that for him in the past, as was Mr Gates.”
Silver scratches his head, stressing his scepticism. “And look what happened to him.” Miranda grimaces. She’s heard rumours of what happened to the quartermaster, and fears the part she played in his demise. “With all due respect, ma’am, I’m not convinced that Captain Flint’s side is the safest place to be.”
“I don’t recall ever saying it was safe,” she reminds him, “but I cannot imagine much in your profession that is. I understood that the prize at the end was what made the danger worthwhile.” She lets him mull this thought over for a moment before saying, “In any case, I am here to discuss supplies for the journey. We will need fresh bread and butter, ham, cheeses. And something for pudding – perhaps sweetmeats? And tea, of course.”
“And partridges and turtle soup? Shall we have those too?” Silver adds.
“Yes, if they can be found.” His mocking tone vexes her and she quickly puts a stop to it. “Mr Silver, I know this is not the crew’s normal fare, but this voyage is different. We are transporting a kidnapped child who has been threatened, starved, and abused for weeks. A few good meals cannot make up for that – I don’t know if anything can – but if it will make her more comfortable, I will see it done. Now, will you help me?”
Silver, managing not to look too abashed, simply asks, “Do you want supplies for the entire crew or just yourselves?”
Miranda thinks of all the disappointments these men have had lately, even losing their greatest prize, and makes a decision. “The whole crew, I think. Don’t worry,” she adds quickly, seeing the protest on his lips, “I will cover the expense.” It’s not a long trip to Charles Town and she has some gold kept back in case of an emergency. If she does not use it now, then when?
With his objections spent, Silver looks quite pleased. He will undoubtedly be a more popular cook than usual on this voyage. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll see to it right away.”
He turns on his heel to go, but she calls, “And Mr Silver?” He swings back around to her and she’s once again struck by the pure colour of his eyes. “I believe you might find your captain’s tastes are much wider than you imagined.”
The man actually blushes and beats a hasty exit, leaving Miranda to snigger to herself, her intuition confirmed.
A decade has passed since she was on board a ship, and this Spanish man-of-war dwarfs the brig that had brought them from England. Yet Miranda once again commands a spot on the deck where she and Abigail can escape the stale below-deck scents. The two of them sit peacefully, like the eye of the storm as the crew buzzes around them. Writing becomes Abigail’s solace, gradually easing her taut features while the fresh weather restores colour to her cheeks. Miranda has a book open on her lap, but her eyes are anywhere but the page. She watches the girl who in every feature reminds her of Kitty Ashe, now buried in a foreign land. Miranda thinks it is good that her friend has not had to suffer her daughter’s capture, but regrets that she cannot see how her little girl has grown up.
Seeing this girl – this young woman – makes Miranda feel the passage of time for the very first time. Abigail has grown up in a London that Miranda has never seen. What changes these years must have wrought while she has languished on a tiny island, while Abigail and the rest of the world have gone on.
While James has gone on, she realises. She watches as he directs his crew, the authority he commands, even the fear he evokes. It’s a side of him that she hasn’t seen before, and it’s more impressive than she had imagined. She had expected a roughness to his men, and it is there, but there is a competency too that she credits to their captain. She cannot imagine His Majesty’s fleet sailing more admirably.
And always, wherever James is, there is his shadow. She notices this if no one else does, the way Silver jealously guards his place at the captain’s side, not even seeking approval, just recognition. At first she thinks James is unaware of his presence, but she soon amends this. It’s only when Silver is there that James pays him no attention; if the cook is called away by other duties, his absence is felt keenly. James’ eyes search for him along the bow, up the rigging, across the deck – they meet hers, and for a moment before he looks away, she tries to tell him that she understands.
That night, as she and James sit together in the great cabin, he asks if she still recognises him. She answers yes, for she does – in his half-smile, in the impulsive flash of his eye, she still sees the man she used to know. What she doesn’t say is that she sees a familiar longing, one that has been long absent from him. It’s in the way he looks at Silver, listens to him speak, and reacts – oh, he reacts as if he’s crawled through a desert only to find an oasis awaiting him.
James has promised her that things will change. After meeting John Silver, at last she believes him.
The Earl was no friend of yours, yet he grants you gifts from his own home. Why would he do that?
Betrayal is a funny thing. In the abstract, it can make you feel helpless and vulnerable, remind you that you are insignificant and uncertain of the forces lined up against you. When betrayal has a face, one belonging to an ally, a friend, it can give you power. It can give you truth.
The truth comes as the clock chimes the hour, answering questions that Miranda has asked for years. How had Peter understood what was happening so much more clearly than she and James had? How had he arranged their departure with unearthly speed? What transgressions had he unburdened with Thomas just before he took his life?
Was his friend’s duplicity, on top of everything else, more than Thomas was able to bear? Was this the final treachery that had extinguished his hope?
Miranda cannot be silent. All the torment she has been through, all that James has gone through, has done, out of remorse and self-hatred, and it should all have been directed at this Judas instead. Thomas would forgive him - of course he would - but Miranda is far beyond that. She feels mighty, a fury fuelled by blind rage.
And then a shot is fired, and she feels nothing.
The last time Miranda saw Thomas Hamilton, he was begging for her forgiveness.
The last time Miranda saw James McGraw, he was poised for vengeance.
Between these two men, Miranda nestles, and finally sleeps.