“Captain Wentworth, thank you for inviting Anne and me. There is no honour quite like taking dinner in the Great Cabin of a frigate.” Admiral Hammond pumped the captain’s hand and then dropped it to move to the side, admonishing the men manoeuvring his niece in the boson’s chair, “Carefully there, carefully, you grass combers.”
Wentworth was glad to be released from the man’s sweaty grasp but bristled at the remark. His men were gentle as a gaggle of nannies with the fair Miss Hammond. The Admiral’s remarks were uncalled for, though it was only natural, as Hammond had no good reputation amongst seagoing men. Stories from his active service were punctuated with instances of cruelty and barbarism, and the captain took this into account.
Nodding to the smiling Miss Hammond as she disappeared over the side, he noticed a little wave. He hoped the Admiral did not see it, as it was meant for his friend, Gilmore Craig, who kept a vigilant watch just next to the accommodation ladder. They were on the verge of carrying off another successful meeting between the two youngsters, and he wanted nothing to go wrong at the very close of it.
With the niece safely stowed, Hammond insisted on another round of handshakes. “Thank you, again, Captain. There are few men whose invitation don’t make me wince and whose company I can abide so well. I wouldn’t mind having more of it.” The man’s meddling was always off-putting, particularly having to do with his niece, but Wentworth would endure for the sake of his friend.
“Thank you, sir. I too look forward to our next meeting, but as you leave for India inside the week, I fear it will be delayed some.”
Still grasping Wentworth’s hand, Hammond pulled him closer. “Yes, but with enough warning and depending on the time of year, I can be back in country in two months time.” Brushing past Craig, he growled, “Good evening,” then gingerly picked his way down the accommodation ladder.
Wentworth and his guest watched them row out and away. Craig finally said, “As much as I would have liked to be in Miss Hammond’s company, I am quite glad the Admiral’s boat is too small to safely accommodate three passengers.”
Wentworth smiled. “Yes, but I’m certain there would only have been two passengers by the time the shore was reached.” Turning, he headed to his cabin.
“Just what did you mean, Captain? Captain?” Gilmore Craig followed.
The Marine opened the door to the Captain’s Great Cabin and the hot air met them full on. At nearly six on a July day, even with skylights and stern windows wide open, the room was oppressive. Fortunately, only in summer was the closeness a nuisance to him. In other seasons, Wentworth took comfort in the closeness of the two rooms. They held minimal furniture—a desk, table and chair with side table in the outer room. His sleeping chamber held a shaving stand, dresser and his cot. He could not think that any accommodations on land could compare, and he was satisfied to endure a few months of discomfort in exchange for such a snug place to call home.
Craig acknowledged the heat with a muttered, “By God,” and continued to press his question about Wentworth’s comment. “And what exactly did you mean by that curious remark?”
Their entry interrupted Michaelson, Wentworth’s steward, who was in the process of carefully removing the china and crystal onto a tray. The man was as meticulous as any woman about the captain’s personal possessions, and it was always amusing to watch him titivating and fussing after such things. After tucking the last of the linen in a basket, he poured the gentlemen each a glass of port.
Wentworth took a drink, unsure his friend would appreciate the humour. “I suppose I meant that, considering Hammond’s disapproval of you and your understandable dislike of him, one of you was sure to hove the other over the side and been done with the whole battle of wills.” He hesitated in taking another drink. “Poor Miss Hammond. To witness such a thing would be a frightful end to an enjoyable evening.” Taking the drink, he awaited Craig’s response.
Gil opened his mouth, then closed it, looked puzzled, then spoke. “It would answer, would it not? The old boy over the side and I get Annie.”
The captain turned and watched a gull perched on a beef barrel, floating past Laconia’s stern windows. His friend’s bloodthirstiness was not so disturbing as Craig’s pet name for the Admiral’s niece.
Holding out his glass to be refilled, Wentworth said, “Let us put that all aside and play. Michaelson, you may set up the table and then leave us.”
“If we are to play, then I am taking off this bleedin’ coat. I don’t mind telling you, when there is no breeze, your cabin has all the appeal of playing chess in Hades.”
Michaelson divested the Captain of the heavy, dress uniform coat. With the removal, Hades cooled considerably. Since it was just the two of them, he followed Gil’s lead and unbuttoned his cuffs, rolling them up.
“I must say, that is a very apt analogy of what it is like playing chess with you, my friend.”
“When it is your turn, there is very little to do and the wait is an eternal one,” said Wentworth with a smile.
Craig began unrolling his sleeve. “I could leave you alone with your sparkling wit, you know.”
Taking his seat, the captain said, “No, no. I shall behave and watch my tongue.”
Michaelson filled their glasses one last time and departed.
An hour or so later, the evening gun sounded. Soon after, he heard the arrival of the shore party. The summer of 1814 was overseeing the end of the war and an enormous number of ships being called back to home port. This being the case, he endeavoured to keep his men in some sort of decent order by granting them a day’s leave by gun crews. With only eight men ashore at a time, it reduced the chances of fighting with other ship’s crews and having to fill his brig for such foolishness.
The board was a strategic mess with only ten turns accomplished. Playing chess with Craig was more an exercise in patience than a lesson in tactical thinking. “Gil, please. Have mercy on my nerves and make a move.”
He slid a pawn forward, which Wentworth immediately captured with his King’s knight. There was no satisfaction in the seizure, but it could be thought of as progress, of a sort.
“You know, I’ve been wondering something.” Craig made a move towards his Queen’s knight, but thought better of it.
“And what might that be?”
“The Admiral makes no secret that he wants Anne to marry a navy officer. You particularly.” He moved another pawn.
“That is the rumour.” It was only one of the rumours in which the clacking tongues of Plymouth engaged. They also had her going to India and being married off to a maharajah so that the Admiral could establish himself a sort of colony of which he would be the undeniable head. The reliability of such talk was suspect at every turn.
“Have you ever thought about her that way? I mean marrying her. Annie is certainly beautiful. I cannot imagine a man not liking those blue eyes and fair hair. And she is educated and has a wonderful sense of humour…”
Taking a deep breath, Wentworth settled in for another lecture on all the graces of Miss Anne Hammond. Since Gil’s meeting her ten months earlier, whenever her name was mentioned he would, unbidden, set about listing her fine qualities. To be sure, she possessed many, but the list was becoming longer with each recitation, and the recitations were becoming more frequent.
The fact was, early in Wentworth’s life he nearly broke himself over a woman named Anne, and ridiculous as it might be, he would rather be hanged than face another over the table, in his bed or anywhere near his thoughts for the rest of his life. However, with the lectures being more frequent, Wentworth might consider marrying the inestimable Miss Hammond, despite Gil’s obvious feelings, just to shut the man up.
“Well, have you?” There was almost an accusatory quality to his question.
The Captain was both amazed and amused. His friend now seemed angry that he harboured no romantic interests in the woman. The absurdity of the human heart would never cease to amaze him. “No, Gil, I have never thought of Miss Hammond in that way. She is obviously in love with you.”
Gilbert brightened. “Do you really think so?”
“Yes. There is a look about her when you are around. Women in love have a look about them.”
“Yes, they do. Now make a move.”
He watched Gil scrutinise the board and realised the words had an ironic double meaning that seemed quite suited to his friend’s situation. Before he knew it, he was contemplating a summer long gone and someone who had said the words to him.
“Now make a move,” the girl said.
“I cannot.” He sat up and tossed his hand of cards into the waste pile. “You have an unfair advantage.”
“How can I possibly have an unfair advantage? You have just taught me this abominable game. And I am losing!” She held out an ill-arranged mass of cards to prove her point. All he cared for was her smile and the way her eyes welcomed his gaze.
“I can see nothing but you.” Gently taking her cards, he tossed them down with his and moved closer. “There. Now it is a draw. Your beauty is no longer an advantage.”
“Not in the game at least.” He was delighted with her mortified expression when the full meaning of what she said burst upon her. “I didn’t mean I am—”
“Yes, you meant every word,” he teased. Looking deeply into her startled brown eyes caused the cards, the picnic, and the quiet countryside to disappear. It also caused the already warm temperature to rise markedly. “You are beautiful.”
“And you are a flatterer.”
“Ah, but you see, flattery is merely a seed of truth stretched to its uttermost. To say you are beautiful is no exaggeration. It is a truth with no limits.”
She looked away.
It was touching that his comments could embarrass her so easily. “What have I said?”
Turning back, her eyes were bright. “In our family, it is Elizabeth who is the beauty. Not I.” Taking up the cards, she began to sort and straighten them.
“She is beautiful, by definition. However, there is no attraction there for me. Since my arrival, there has only been you. I have set my course and will not change it.” He felt panic when the words returned to his ears, but in almost an instant, their meaning was perfectly analogous to his feelings.
“And what is your course?” Her voice was barely audible.
“To make you my wife.”
The thought had been uppermost for days, and when waking that particular morning, he had made no plan to ask the question. However, there was something about her that day, that hour, that minute that made him want her more than he wanted anything else in the world.
Her expression remained quizzical, and she rose to walk a little. He followed.
“What have I done? You do not like the idea of being my wife.” Again, he felt panic, but this time there was no immediate consolation.
He could hear the wind in the plane trees that made up the small grove where they met. He could hear the sound of her picking at a bit of loose bark.
She finally turned to him, she leant against the tree and said, “Look at me, and tell me what you see.”
He took advantage of the circumstance to draw closer than he had ever dared. He too leant against the tree, taking the opportunity to stare at her openly. “I see a woman who takes my breath away, and I see that she loves me as well, and that she wishes to marry me.” After his answer, she smiled and said her feelings were just that. He moved closer for a kiss, but she drew back a little.
Anne Elliot was intelligent and beautiful and her acceptance of his proposal made him feel the world open more widely that he had ever dared consider, but she was still a country girl with country sensibilities. He would not pursue the issue though he wished mightily for more than smiles and the occasional holding of hands.
It was unfortunate that his memories of such a tender moment were polluted by his knowledge of their future. In the past, when he would allow himself to think about her, scenes such as this had been charged with emotion to the point they brought on a rapidly beating heart and the sweats. Now, the memories had lost their edge. Even what he saw in his mind’s eye had dimmed. The face was fair and the hair was deep brown. Her eyes were brown as well and he remembered that she was smiling. Nevertheless, it was like gazing through a fog. It was unfortunate that he had fooled himself into believing she loved him. He learned a few days after the impromptu proposal that her loving him was not the truth. If she had truly loved him, she never would have let him go.
Opening his eyes, he was mortified to find his friend reaching over the chessboard to shake his arm.
“That’s better. It’s bad enough that you take advantage of my poor tactical skills and goad me into playing you, but the least you could do is put a good face on it and stay awake as I humiliate myself.”
“Sorry, Craig, I was just going over a list of minor repairs that we now have the opportunity of doing. I’m having to reach to find things to keep my men occupied.”
“Do you think they will take Laconia from you?”
“Can’t see a reason why not. With Napoleon no longer on the rampage, there is no reason to feed and clothe most of us. I’ve had no official confirmation, but I expect it any day.”
“Damn rotten luck. But surely something will come up.”
“Thrown ashore with half-pay is not ideal, though I don’t come away from my service exactly poor.” Wentworth was known throughout the navy as one of the luckiest captains afloat. There was wild speculation as to his worth, most of it grossly exaggerated, but the truth was, with judicious living, he could be very comfortable for the rest of his life. This was no mean feat considering that he was self-educated, the son of a struggling merchant, and, aside from having a rear admiral of the white for a brother-in-law, unconnected to any real power in the Admiralty. He had done well for himself, but there was still more he wanted. Much more.
Craig looked out the window and then checked his watch. “Ah, time to be off. You know I hate being on the water in the dark.” Rising, he put on his coat and cast about for his hat. Wentworth donned his coat and looked over the chess pieces; the win was his in less than five moves. It was true Gilmore Craig did not care for being on the water after dark, few landsmen did, but he had to wonder if the loss of yet another game might have as much to do with his desire to be ashore.
“Thank you for inviting me to dine with Miss Hammond and her uncle. This subterfuge is wearing thin, I know.”
“Not at all. One sort of chase is as interesting as another,” Wentworth said. “Though I do expect, once the Admiral leaves Plymouth for India, the two of you will find your own ways to meet.”
“Unless, of course, he is able to convince you to marry her before he sails. That’s what he really wants. Blast it, Wentworth, I am what I am. I own a warehouse. I own five warehouses and make a very good living. Nevertheless, because I do not wear that blue and gold coat like you, he refuses to acknowledge I exist. Really, you have no idea how grinding it is to have a man despise you for not being good enough.”
Better than most, the captain knew precisely what such a humiliation was like, though he said nothing to Craig. “As I said, once he is departed, the two of you will find your own way in this.”
“But she is a good girl, Captain. I don’t know that she will go against what she knows to be his wishes, even if he’s thousands of miles away.”
“Then you will convince her, Gil. She is of majority; you said she has some money of her own. I understand very well the claims of authority, but I also think the heart is its own authority. You must not let her put you aside for a misplaced notion of obedience.”
Craig hesitated and studied Wentworth. “That sounds strange coming from you.” He headed to the door, and then stopped. “Just out of curiosity, what do you think of elopements? She has no close family other than Hammond; so who would be the wiser?”
Wentworth picked up his scraper and gave it a brush as Craig worked out another fantastical plan to have her for his own. He opened the door and the Marine stationed outside snapped to attention, Gil prating on as they came up on deck.
“Thank you for a good evening. I appreciate all the arrangements you make.”
“As I said, in a few days you will be able to make your move.”
Craig smiled and shook his head. “You should be a politician, Wentworth. You have a knack for choosing the most advantageous strategy.”
The captain watched him descend into the small boat assigned to row him ashore. Taking a turn on the quarterdeck, the Officer of the Watch gave him a report while a procuress came alongside, offering a bargain price for several of her girls. When she was sent on her way without making a sale, she pronounced a pox on Laconia and all her crew. Wentworth mused that she was too late for some of the men had already obtained their own curses, their own ways.
He turned away from the activity of the quarterdeck and walked along the waist, the men giving their obediences and making a clear path for him. Letting them think he was observing the nightly rituals, in reality, he watched the sun set behind the western hills. As the last of the orange radiance slipped behind the black mounds, he saw the glass turned and bid the officers a good evening.
Michaelson was just clearing away the chessboard and glasses when he entered the Great Cabin. He dismissed the steward, removed his coat, and loosened his neck cloth. Leaning out the stern window, he enjoyed a cool breeze that kicked up.
He had no wish to dive into ship’s daily paperwork or to read. Too early to turn in for the night, he dragged a chair before the windows, took a seat, kicked off his boots, and put his feet on the stern lockers. It was an ungracious pose, but at this time of night, short of a skylarker falling from the rigging or a fire breaking out, only Michaelson would dare to interrupt him.
It felt good to be alone, an uncommon occurrence on a ship of war, but considering where his thoughts had strayed earlier in the evening, it was also dangerous. He’d given no thought to Anne Elliot, or his engagement to her, for some time. As he recalled, the last miserable go round with his memories had been the previous summer. Obviously there was something about the hot weather of July that wrung such oppressive thoughts out of him.
His acquaintance with the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall, Somersetshire, had not happened quickly. Wentworth was a newly made commander in the navy when he arrived but only the visiting brother of a local curate. Social manoeuvring of any consequence took some time. Summer gatherings in the country were few, and the heat dictated the activities. Dinners, cards, and the occasional dance allowed for only a gradual acquaintance. But, the acquaintance, once made, burst into full-blown love on both sides and only intensified after his proposal. They were everything to one another and being apart was agony. For a man whose only example of marriage was his parents’ unhappy union, he was shocked how the thought of her brought him such peace. That peace, as it turned out, was short-lived.
When he arrived at Anne’s home, Kellynch Hall, to speak with her father, he had every expectation of a warm acceptance. Looking back, he knew his expectation to have been foolhardy. How could it have been otherwise when his very first meeting with Anne had begun with an apology for her father and sister’s scarcely hidden disregard of him? Eventually, others in the neighbourhood began to solicit his company—after all, he was an officer of the Crown and fresh from a very successful, highly profitable, and well publicised battle in the West Indies—and the Baronet seemed happy to join the train and to entertain him as though he were welcome and accepted into the man’s intimate circle. He later found that he was not genuinely welcome into any circle of the Baronet’s—particularly not into the family circle.
The interview itself had been short and comparatively silent. After informing Sir Walter that Anne had unreservedly accepted his proposal of marriage, he waited for a reply. There had been a look of astonishment, silence, and a general atmosphere of contempt. Other than making it plain that he was disinclined to do anything financial for his daughter, nothing was said. Wentworth sat for some time, unsure what should be his next move.
He would not beg. It was clear his suit was distasteful to the head of the family. All that was left to him was to make a bow and thank the man for his time, then clear off.
Fortunately, Anne had arranged to be away, visiting her godmother, when he came to the Hall. Both had been certain of a positive outcome, and they had agreed to meet later in a secluded grove that lay between Kellynch and his brother’s tiny house in Monkford.
The Baronet’s conduct left him enraged, and he was glad for the walk. It gave him time to think and see the situation more clearly. By the time Anne arrived, he was rational again and had a plan.
Just hearing her voice and knowing she was near made his breath catch. Such raw, though tender feelings strengthened his determination to outwit her father and make her his very own.
Anne came around a large tree and looked relieved. “I was worried you would not come.”
“And miss an opportunity to be alone with the loveliest young woman of my acquaintance? Never.” She was such a pretty, gracious little thing and he was determined he would not lose her.
“I have been worried that things might not go well between you and Father.”
To lie was useless. Soon enough she would know how things stood between the two men. “It went very badly.” Holding his anger in check, he said it with a smile. Ease and humour were all a part of the plan that was beginning to take shape in his mind.
Her colour drained away and her posture slacked; everything about her diminished markedly. Clearly he should not have been so blunt. He gave her the remaining details laced with hearty self-assurance.
Perhaps he had taken unfair advantage of her when he held her hand and stood closer to her than he had ever dared before. He kissed her fingers and said, “It’s all right though. I have come to believe the old boy was only testing me. He wants to see what I do when laid low; do I crawl away and lick my wounds, or do I stand like a man and pursue what I want.”
Her gaze eventually met his, and though her countenance was still pale, she gripped his hand like iron. “I do not think my father is the sort of man who would test you. I think he cares little about understanding the character of other men.” The tears were pooling in her eyes and threatening to spill down her cheeks. He suspected this had little to do with admitting her father’s disinterest in the moral quality of the man offering for her hand. Removing a handkerchief from his pocket, he was tempted to wipe her tears, but instead put the cloth in her hands. At his touch, she smiled. This tiny respite from the pain was comforting. Now, relieving her internal agony was his only concern.
“Come, have a seat here and let me explain.”
Nearly carrying her to a fallen tree, he seated her. “Annie, I have learnt over the years that when a man is dressing you down, it is best to listen very carefully since they generally say as much by the words they do not use as those they do.” He could tell she only partly comprehended him. Her eyes struggled to stay with his as she blinked to keep the tears at bay. “While your father did not precisely say, ‘I give you my blessing to marry my daughter, Anne,’ he also did not expressly forbid us marrying. All he said outright was that he had no intention of giving us any sort of settlement.”
“I do not understand how you can be pleased with any of this,” she said, trying to pull away.
Drawing her down next to him, he continued. “Don’t you see? He wants to know that I am not after your settlement money. All I need do is stay around here and prove myself. Show myself to be constant to you and your family. I know I can change his mind. He’s only looking out for your good.”
Even as he spoke the words, he only half believed them. While it was true the old goat had not forbidden the marriage, he knew the baronet had no interest but his own at heart. Regardless, he would grasp at anything to keep Anne’s hopes afloat. He was flooded with his own ridiculous sort of hope, and even as he spouted the bilge about changing the baronet’s mind, he came to think it a real possibility. He even considered help from another, untapped quarter.
“Perhaps your godmother would help us. Lady Russell is forever saying your happiness is her chief concern. When you tell her how much we love one another, I am sure she will be glad to use her influence with your father on our behalf.”
At this long-forgotten piece of history, he muttered, “Good God, Frederick, could you have chosen a worse person in which to place your faith?” After many years, he had determined that, had he kept Anne from rushing to her godmother, their engagement might have been saved. Perhaps she had not loved him as deeply as he loved her, but when she broke the engagement it became clear that Lady Russell had worked on her, had used her considerable influence against him, and convinced her that a marriage with him would only bring her grief. If he had not been so eager to use every means at his disposal to win over the father, he might not have lost the daughter. However, half measures were not his way, and, though it was maddening, he long ago forgave himself the blunder. Anne Elliot had made the choice to break the engagement. To lament it now was only a momentary disturbance in his exceptionally ordered life.
Determined to break the hold of such dreary memories, he rose and filled his glass, then settled back in the chair. The freshening breezes were pleasant but brought along the disagreeable smells of the rotting garbage dumped overboard by the numerous ships crowding the channel. In any case, the gentle winds were more welcome than the heat.
The stirring gusts also brought the show of the gulls weaving, screaming, and diving to pick at the leavings of this nautical civilization. The inelegant amusement of watching them would be denied him after he was thrown ashore. Unless he chose to live on the bottom floor of a very busy boarding house, he would no longer have the sound of many feet shuffling, pounding, dancing or skipping above him, as they did now. Even if he found quarters in a basement, landsmen wore shoes and the sound would not have the softness of bare feet. Moreover, no matter where he lived, the floor of a land home would never creak and heave or faintly sway, as did the deck of his ship. Overall, being thrown ashore would be abominable.
Suddenly, he was angry that such melancholy thoughts would choose this time to attack him. Did he not have newer, more pressing worries to override his old, worn griefs? With his usual matter-of-factness, Gil had touched on it earlier. It was certain that Laconia would be taken from him. He had had her for six years — a miraculously long time in the navy for one man to command a particular ship—and she was getting old. At best, a merchant would buy her at auction and she would begin a new, though less dignified, life. At worst, she would go to the knacker’s yard, and be stripped of all useable parts, then broken down into scrap and firewood. The very thought of it was painful. Laconia had taken him further than he had ever expected to go in life. A truer and more trusted friend would have been hard to come by. It was bitter to think about her future, nearly as bitter as his thoughts of his past. Draining the glass and regretting his choice of water, he nonetheless remained seated. The heat and the memories were taking their toll, and he thought it perhaps time to retire. Having no energy to make a change of scene in the present and judging the cruel little history to have no power to harm him, he allowed himself to return to the grove and study the past.
After ignorantly urging Anne to do the single most destructive thing possible in consulting with her godmother, she pulled away from him and, covering her face with her hands, began to shake.
Thinking he had sunk himself completely, he whispered, “What is wrong? Why do you cry? I told you that I shall convince him, never fear—”
Lowering her hands, he could see the colour had come back, and she was now a lovely shade of pink. She was not crying, but laughing. “You have cast a spell on me, Frederick, and I am thoroughly bewitched. I truly believe you are capable of changing Father’s mind.” She paused and, with some hesitation, touched his brow. “What sort of hold is it you have over me?” Her eyes were bright with tears and her breath was quick. She looked intently at him. Finally, she said, “When I first saw you, the warmth of your confidence persuaded me that there was nothing you could not do. And now, now that my heart is hopelessly entangled, I know that my father has no choice but to see your reasoning.”
Joining her in laughter, he said, “You make me sound like those fellows in India that charm animals to do their bidding.” It was then he realised it was he who was being charmed. She moved close to him once more.
“No, I just know that all your future plans and hopes of which we’ve spoken will come to pass. You will see to it that they do. In addition, once we are married, there is no freedom I shall not feel. No joy we will not share. What stirs me is the only thing you ask is that I give you my love. It is a small thing for all that I receive.”
The heat of the day was nothing compared with the heat of his passion. Her words fired every masculine instinct dwelling in him, and all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and follow Nature’s course. But he would not. They would be together soon enough. Regardless, he would have to leave her. The isolation of their meeting place indeed sheltered their trysts, but such seclusion offered nearly irresistible temptations.
“No, it is I who come out the best in this bargain. I never harboured a hope in the world of woman such as you giving me a second glance.” Wentworth had been confident he would marry a beautiful woman, one with sense and intelligence, but to have a well-born woman so naturally elegant and refined as Miss Anne Elliot look his way, much less consent to be his wife, was miraculous.
“It would seem we both have been given our heart’s desires.”
Again, she reached up, this time touching his hair and then caressing his jaw. The velvety fire of her fingertips made breathing impossible. Closing her eyes, she moved close. He supposed she meant to kiss his cheek, but missing her mark, her lips came painfully close to his. It was only natural that he should make a course correction. To begin, as he gently teased her mouth, she was tense, but almost immediately, she relaxed and accepted his kiss.
The fog, which clouded the past, lifted and he was able to clearly see this Anne, still as bright as anything. This was the Annie he loved the most. This Annie had haunted his dreams for years. This was the little brown-eyed ghost he cursed when the occasional black mood settled in.
One hot summer exchanged itself for another and his thoughts shifted abruptly to the bumboat offering reasonably priced female company. He would not boast, but there had certainly been other women in his life. All they knew of him was his rank and that he possessed enough coin to buy an allotted portion of their time. However, such encounters were a two-edged sword; the physical release was welcome, but they left his soul empty. He knew his Annie was the woman he longed for in all those previous encounters. It was the only kiss that ever mattered—the only kiss that mattered still.
“Enough for this night,” he muttered. Rising, he shoved the chair out of his way with his knee and headed to his bed. Though agitated, the sound of several sets of feet above him drew his attention. He stopped and listened. They were unhurried, there seemed to be no emergency, but it was late enough that all should be quiet for the night. A single set of steps moved to the gangway, and he readied himself for the business as hand.
At the obligatory knock, he called in the messenger. It was the youngest of his midshipmen, Mr. Guy. The boy did his duty well enough, but was still overawed by those of superior rank and stuttered dreadfully when required to speak.
“B-beggin’ your pardon, sir. There’s a f-fella come on board who requests to see you. Says his name is Captain Harville, sir, but he’s got no uniform. Mr. Cranmer tried sendin’ him on his way, but then Mr. Eyerly said you knew him and would be right pissed was he denied.” The boy made a face. Wentworth suspected the dust-up between his first officer and coxswain was not intended to be part of the announcement.
“Which you have done, Mr. Guy. Please show Captain Harville to me.” The boy touched his forehead and bobbed, then shot out of his presence as if blasted from one of the forward guns.
The hour being too late for a social visit made the Captain uneasy. They had only been anchored two days, and it had been his intention to visit Harville as soon as matters concerning Laconia had been settled. Though Harville was a good friend and had served on Wentworth’s first command, the Asp, he could still observe courtesy and come on board at a decent hour. He knew the man well and only something dire would bring him aboard at such a late hour. He could hear Harville’s approach. It was slow, but as his friend suffered from less-than-perfect health. Such was to be expected. Though he had time to gather himself, he was not prepared for Eyerly lurching through the door, Harville clinging to his shoulder, searching for some place to put the man. Bringing them to the chair he’d just vacated, Wentworth saw his friend gently placed.
“There you go, sir.” Looking about, the coxswain spied the water and fetched a glass. “Here you are, Captain. The heat can be right taxin’ in here.”
“Thank you, Eyerly. That will be all.” The man made a little gesture, requesting Wentworth to join him at the door.
“He had a deuce of a time makin’ it up the accommodation ladder, sir. I feared for ’im every step.”
“I can see he is extraordinarily unwell. Thank you for informing Cranmer of my desires.”
Eyerly touched his forehead. “Aye, sir. Captain Harville saved my young arse a time or two. It’s only right I help ’im when I can.”
Before the coxswain left, Wentworth requested Hemmings, the surgeon be fetched.
“No, please, I don’t need a doctor.” Harville’s voice was strong enough and firm in its resolve. Wentworth cancelled the order.
Harville struggled up and offering his hand said, “Captain Wentworth.”
Getting a good look at his friend, Wentworth was shocked. The man’s face was as white as Dover’s cliffs and thinner than he remembered. Taking Harville’s hand, he was equally disturbed to find the grip weak and tremulous, the skin clammy. Without letting loose, he carefully pressed him back into the chair. “Harville, I will not allow such formality between us.” Pulling another chair close, he took the seat. Not yet ready to launch into a conversation, he saw the empty water glass and said, “I think you need something stronger.”
He called out the door for Michaelson and ordered a decent wine be brought. Pouring Harville another glass of water, he handed it over. “You look as though you could use this.”
Harville took it gratefully.
“So, what brings you to me? This is a beastly hot night to be taking your ease below deck on a ship at anchor.”
Harville’s lips thinned and he set the glass down. He turned to look out the window and Wentworth could not help but notice that his eyes blinked furiously. The man was spared answering as Michaelson entered and poured each a glass of a robust red wine. As he left, the Captain snagged the bottle from him. His steward’s thrift and hawkish supervision over his private stores was an advantage at times, but this was not one of them.
The door closed and Wentworth straddled the chair next to his friend. Time passed and the only sounds heard were of the bells and calls from other ships, and the lapping water outside the window. Occasionally, a puff of what might be considered a breeze could be felt, but only occasionally.
Life above deck on the Laconia went on apace while Wentworth contemplated the various scenarios that might be the cause of Harville’s surprising visit and undisguised grief. Immediately it came to his mind that one of the man’s children was dangerously ill. The only thing that might be worse was the loss of his wife, Elsa. The thought of such an evil nearly took his breath away. There were things in life one took for granted. It was a fact indisputable that Wentworth would always be an officer of the Navy, it was just as sure that Elsa Harville would be alive and well to care for her husband and family. She had always been the more robust of the two, and the one who buoyed the man’s spirits when his injury brought him low. Nevertheless, there were no real certainties in life anymore. He himself was now thrown ashore with no sign of a ship…
Harville thumped his stick on the floor. No doubt it was a sign of resolve. He turned to face Wentworth. The expression on his pallid face was one of puzzlement and surprise. “It’s my sister, Fanny. She’s dead.” His eyes, and tone of voice, begged for an answer to an unasked question.
For a few seconds, Wentworth could not comprehend Harville’s anguish. There was no mention of his wife or any of his several children. What was the crisis? It was merely his sister—
Thankfully, before he could say anything rash, he clearly saw their positions reversed and it was he whose dear sister, Sophia, was dead. They had not seen one another for years, but the knowledge that her thick, gossip-filled letters would follow him to whatever part of the world he found himself, was a comfort that he now realized was vital to his happiness.
“It was a fever—in June—she was only sick for less than a week and then she was gone.” The statement was of few words, but he might just as well have recited the Articles of War in one breath. He was gulping air and his chest was heaving; his face was growing rosy. All the life was rapidly draining from him.