The Lieutenant’s eyes remained fixed on the indigo horizon as he descended the stairs two at a time. Occasionally his eyes swept over the stern itself and, listlessly, checked the grounds for any sign of threat or alarm. But with a ship like the HMS Narcissus, the most significant disturbance the crew had seen in a month was a mouse that had burrowed into the food supply. So long as they kept one eye open, the crew was free to do as they pleased during night watch. Some were confident in the ships ability to navigate the Atlantic, others were cocky. The Lieutenant, on the other hand, had merely allowed his midnight to four watches to become routine.
A look to the left, to the right, a general sweep of the whitecaps and, for the next little while, his job was done. At least – this was the way it usually worked. But tonight, the first hour of the watch had just slid seamlessly into the second when something on the Lieutenant’s routine round through the main deck slowed his pace. The Lieutenant listened carefully, but his ears were met only with the soft lapping of the waves against Narcissus’s bow and the shuffling of his own boots on the deck. Every hour, nearly on the hour, the watch men made their rounds before settling back onto the barrels and nets to whittle or play the flute as they waited for the next walk-through. But tonight, silence seemed to have engulfed the starboard.
The stale quiet sent a shot of adrenalin through the Lieutenant’s chest that he hadn’t felt in years. He poked his head around the foremost and stared into the bleak shadows that layered the deck. His mind jumped to an acronym his father had once taught him while on holiday from his merchant ship. Though he had found it useless on countless occasions before, his father’s rough voice now echoed in Lieutenant’s ears: “On watch, when something shouldn’t be, remember, son, you’re out to S.E.A.”
His fingers tapping against the handle of the pistol fastened to his waist. “Ship: How’s she runnin’? Look for any visible damage…” …main sail, main mast, fore sail… she’s awl there. “Entity: Take account of awl crew on-deck. Who, or wot, is there, but shouldn’t be? What’s missin’?” The Lieutenant strained his ears, now, and listened for the soft ruffles and bumps that would confirm the presence of an entity on the starboard. Nothing, he confirmed. What’s missin’? Only awl the bleedin’ watchmen… “Alarm: Identify threats. Is there cause for alarm? But remember: the bell itself is last resort.”
“Abner! Abner!” Lieutenant Brian hissed the name over his shoulder. “Ab-ner!” The raggedly dressed man scrambled up from his game of draughts and, after recollecting the mass of silver coins he’d lost thus far in tonight’s game, dropped to the main deck and approached the Lieutenant from the back.
The Lieutenant’s typical ego refused to grant the gunner so much as a sideways glance over his shoulder. Rather, he kept his eyes fixated on the exterior of the Captain’s cabin. There was a tightly wound shadow in the far corner that appeared to shift every so often. He drew the pistol completely from his belt, now and pointed at the spot with the hilt. “Who’s on starboard watch, Abner?”
The portly man inhaled deeply and drummed his meaty fingers against his sweat-slicked forehead as if trying to remember. Instead, he answered sarcastically: “Aye, now let’s see. Wot sea dog was it that you assigned to watch, again?” Abner grunted and blew a rum-laden breath in the Lieutenant’s direction. “Wot’s got yer breeches in a knot?”
The Lieutenant Brian now turned to peer down at the gunner. In the background, the game of draughts had slowed and the other three watchmen stole glances at the spectacle. They jeered Abner’s self-inflicted misfortune among themselves. As the Lieutenant spoke, he gave Abner restrained jabs in the gut with the hilt for emphasis. “Probable cause fer alarm,” he announced pointedly. “And feel free to remember so while yer tied ter the mast and the others keep watch. Boys?”
Lieutenant Brian addressed the other watchmen with the last bit. With no hesitant looks exchanged among themselves, the three, just as poorly dressed crewmembers also scrambled to their feet – shoving uncounted handfuls of the gambled pay into their pockets – and advanced on Abner. While the men carried out orders in the background, complete with celebratory jokes of the Lieutenant made at Abner’s expense, Lieutenant Brian spun the pistol in his hand so the barrel pointed toward the quarter deck and neared the Captain’s cabin. As the lanterns faded to faint glows among the forecastle’s new game of catch-Abner, his attention narrowed in on the suspect shadow.
As the distance lessened the image sharpened. In the weak light of the lanterns mounted outside the Captain’s door, the Lieutenant could make out little more than the lump he’d already spotted. Up-close, however, he discovered the lump to be curled beneath the ragged remains of a flour sack. Who, or wot, is there, but shouldn’t be? The phrase rang in his head a second time. Who, or wot? Who, or whot? The Lieutenant chanted these words to himself as he cocked the pistol, closed his free hand around a fistful of the rough material, and yanked the sack away. “But shouldn’t be!” The last part of the chant came out aloud. Ripped suddenly from his thoughts, the phrase echoed over the main deck in a frenzied yell the Lieutenant sheepishly recognized to be his own.
Wedged between the stairs and the cabin wall lay a young boy, his tanned skin was spotted by smudges of grime and his ginger hair matted in unwashed curls. He propped his head on a freshly stocked basket of wool and stirred but didn’t wake. Was it Luke? No, Louis... No… The Lieutenant shook his head as if to clear it of futile attempts to recall the latest recruit’s names. The new bloomin’ ship’s boy ‘ad the watch!
Lieutenant Brian stole a sideways glance at the Captain’s cabin and, with a grimace, prayed briefly that he hadn’t been loud enough to wake anyone inside it. He forced the pistol back into place on his belt and, having composed himself, he pushed back his hair, which in the heat of the moment had begun to slide over one eye. With a gruff, inconvenienced growl and a swift kick to the basket, the Lieutenant barked a sharp “Get up!” at the boy
The basket slid into the rail, toppling over and spilling its goods over the unwashed deck. It dropped the boy’s head to the deck, as well. The ship boy’s sleep-glazed eyes flew open and, upon registering the man who stood above him to be the Lieutenant, he leapt to his feet. Before he could plead his case, however, the Lieutenant had already begun pacing between the cabin wall and main mast, staring at his freshly shined boots with a frown. “Sleeping while on watch,” he said pointedly as though speaking to himself. “Now I already ‘ave a man tied to the mast, but we do ‘ave the plank. Maroonin’. Keel-haulin’. Floggin’. Wot will it be, ship boy?”
The young boy listened to the Lieutenant rattle off the list of punishments. When the man finally paused for a breath, he clasped both hands in front of his chin and dove desperately into a hastened explanation. “Ah, Lieutenant, don’t throw me off jest yet! Ah’ve never not slept dis much in me entire life.” The words exploded forth from the boy in a stumbling scramble laden with an Irish accent. He gulped down mouthfuls of air, crinkling his nose as he spoke and scowling as a just explanation escaped him. “Ah have learned me lesson, and I can be a gran’ ship fella! Oi swear it, oi can be gran’!”
The Lieutenant raised his eyebrows and tried to look as though considering the weight of the world while, in reality, he tried to hide the grin that, despite his better judgment, spread across his face. “What’s yer name, boy?” “Liam, sir.”
“Come with me, Liam.” Brian commanded, turning on his heel. “Yessir!” Liam answered earnestly, saluting his superior and following him across the deck.
They passed a handful of hard tack between them as they sat. Brian gnawed at the uneven edges of the tasteless snack; Liam, however, rolled his up a floorboard of the forecastle and caught it as the ship dipped in the waves and rolled it back.
“See that, boy?” Brian elbowed Liam softly in the side, and tossed a handful of hard tack at the ship boy’s piece. The ship dipped among the waves and sent all the pieces sliding to one side. “All you ‘av ter does is find somethin’ ter keep yaw ‘ands busy an’ yaw eyes open.” Liam nodded enthusiastically, then added: “Six coins says at least ‘alf of de ‘ard tack rolls back on de next wave.”
The circle of watchmen, who had made their way back to the main deck, erupted into boisterous laughter. Lieutenant Brian, the first to regain his composure for the second time that evening, insisted the men quiet down. And though they tried to obey, with their hands clamped over their gaping jaws, they continued to roar with laughter and all but rolled right across the deck alongside the hard tack. “Eight nights on board and you’ve already got de lad gambl’n,” another man roared between chuckles. Liam, hardly fazed at all by what he hadn’t meant to be a joke, smiled politely but went on rolling the beige chips. As the ship dipped and road another wave and all but the largest two chips came skittering back to his feet, Liam cheered.
“Six coins, then,” Liam insisted, repeating the words over the second round of laughter. Lieutenant Brian hung his head and chuckled under his breath. He motioned Liam to move closer. The boy stuffed the hard tack back into the pockets of his white, cotton britches and obeyed, scrambling into place next to the Lieutenant.
“We didn’t mean gamblin’, Liam,” the Lieutenant explained with a lopsided smirk. He reached forward and ruffled the boy’s greasy head of hair. “Now don’t go takin’ a page from any of these dog’s books – we only meant for you fer find somethin’ that’ll entertain you. Somethin’ good, that’ll keep ya outta trouble. Somethin’ loike…” “Story telling?” the watchmen interjected, offering up a wide, toothless grin along with the suggestion. “Sure. Somethin’ loike story tellin’. You think you can ‘andle all that, boy?” Liam shrugged dismissively. “But oi don’t ‘ave any stories jest yet.”
Several low chuckles bubbled through the other watchmen. “Good thing owd Brian e’yer ‘has ‘nough to go ‘round!” they cheered. Liam, however, just sported a doubting expression, his arms folded across his narrow chest and his eyebrows furrowed. “Wot kind av stories?”
The Lieutenant wriggled one arm free of his coat. He rolled the cotton sleeve of his shirt past his elbow, and brandished the forearm full of carefully drawn figures for all the group to see. Some of the watchmen cheered at the sight of the tattoos, others simply let his arm wave past them without so much as exhaling as it passed. But Liam just snorted.
“Go ahead and pick wahn, you doubtin’ Thomas. I’ve got a tale for every last wahn of them – you’ll see wot kind of stories.” Without dropping his haughty expression, the ship’s boy leaned forward on his barrel and surveyed the array of drawings.
Finally, he settled on the darkly colored image of a mermaid. Her tail swept down along his forearm and was encircled by a rising sun and typhoon. Liam jerked his finger in her direction before leaning back against the barrel, crossing his feet at the ankles.
It was the Lieutenant’s turn to scoff. “Ah, the Mermaid Minnie – quite the tale of the flapping fish and the girls I loved on nights like this with the moon above,” he projected in a bold and suddenly more sophisticated voice. He pronounced each word purposefully, careful to ensure each word was void of his usual Cockney accent. “I’m glad to tell it – but you best not be standing while I do, boys. Sit back, lads. Make yourself comfortable.”
”We’d been biding our time in the Indian Ocean for months. Earlier that year, the ship had suffered a blow to the bowsprit. The Captain put word in to the Admiralty, but it wasn’t until summertime that he approved us docking at Madagascar for repairs. The supplies were dwindling, everyone was restless. The newer recruits were…” “Where’s de hole?” “…what, Liam?” “De ‘ole to de bowsprit - oi want ter see!” “…it was years ago, on a merchant ship. Anyway, the new recruits were growing-” “‘Ow auld were you?” “Oh, keep up, Liam! …Twenty, but the new recruits were starting to grow impatient. We’d already waited the better part of a week for the repairs to be done and in the mean time the Captain had us unloading cargo. “The sun beat down on us like crazy; the workload was infinite – for the first nine days, hardly any of the men had downtime enough to go through the town. But it wasn’t long before a few lads and I gave a couple of the new recruits the slip…”
The town was pushed right up against the coast. The unpaved streets were crowded by throngs of people and boisterous music that echoed throughout the cool, dark interiors of taverns. At first, we settled into places like these – keeping between crowds and out of sight, relaxing in the damp shadows of different pubs where a few trays of cheap drinks were purchased and passed around. But as the humid hours of the morning became a searing midday, we found ourselves down on the shoreline. One by one, the lads – reluctantly – returned to the ship. Soon enough, I was the last man on the beach, but neither my high spirit nor my overworked muscles were quite ready to follow the lads back.
The sunlight collided with the salt-ridden tide, reflecting the strong rays in blinding flashes of white. I shielded my eyes from the blazing ocean and continued my lazy stroll through the sunburned sand. My thoughts wandered between what grueling exercise the men were being put through onboard and just how many taverns I could stretch my last few coins between. It was a complicated and disappointing configuration, but as I deliberated over the matter and attracted a headache in the process, an uncharacteristically forceful splash that rained down on a cluster of boulders and light giggle stole my focus.
My eyes darted over the horizon, sweeping first over the whitecaps and second over the calmer waves that ruffled the water. There was a second shower of water that pelted the rocks and enveloped the rough, gray stones in salty bubbles. I quickened my pace, jogging to the granite formation. A shorter wave sprayed against it, dampening the front of my shirt with light droplets. I wiped the sheen of water from my face with my shirtsleeve. Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed something dark and slender slip beneath the rolling waves. It dove deeper and deeper until I could no longer tell a difference between the color of the water where I stared and the spot I had seen the figure. The only remaining tell-tale signs of its presence were the faint ripples and translucent that floated at the surface.
Briefly, my chest swelled with nerves. This edginess quickly became a familiar shot of adrenalin that coursed through my veins and compelled my hand to clutch the handle of the dagger at my side. Brandishing the short but deadly blade, I leapt easily onto the first rock and then single-handedly pulled myself onto the larger of the boulders. I glanced briefly over my shoulder; on the distant coastline sat the Triton. Unfortunately, none of the lads were watching. The waves clawed at the base of the rocks, reaching and lunging for my dull boots. Naturally, I escaped unscathed and perfectly dry. I pointed the dagger down toward the waves and turned in a slow, courageous circle, watching closely for any…
Another spurt of nerves exploded in my chest and all but pitched me over the boulder’s edge. “Don’t go doing that just yet, Pirate. I won’t even know what name to give the mortuary.” The voice belonged to the bronzed face that peered up at me from in between the waves. The lightly freckled skin was framed by thick wisps and curls that had escaped the woman’s raven hair. She furrowed her eyebrows and hid her jade eyes from the sun. Her crimson lips were lean and curved upward into a mocking half-smile.
“And what name is it I shall give should you drown?” I panted hoarsely. I sank to a kneeling position and pressed my back against the damp granite. I’d swallowed the surprise but still warred with my unsubtle signs of shock, urging my short breath and unstable limbs to disappear.
“Lady Eton, Margarette, Minnie, Edith, Thomas.” She rattled off the list sarcastically. The Lady Eton gathered the floating skirt of her gown dress in both her slender, gentle hands and trudged toward the shore.
Good mannerly, I diverted my eyes by rolling them and leaped back to the ground, going the same way I had come. Fine fistfuls of sand puffed up from the beach and sprinkled over the toes of my boots. I kicked one heel against the rock to dislodge them. “You can fantasize giving him any name you like, though I must warn you: you won’t have the chance to do so in real life. I can swim.” “And I suppose it is you who will deny me that chance?” “Of course, Pirate.”
By now, I had given up shielding my eyes. Really, there was little other choice – after tromping through the ocean in her day dress, the Lady Eton had decided to then parade about the shoreline, outfitted in the same, water-logged gown. Sure, the dress was a bit more… form-fitting than usual. But as always, I was a midshipman before sailor and in her best interest – no lady should be left defenseless and company-less on the shore. I am as much a pirate as you are a Thomas,” I informed her matter-of-factly. I stuck the dagger back in place at my waist and removed my grip from its handle. “I am the Midshipman Dawkins, with the Triton, down from the Atlantic.”
I gave her a grandiose bow and went to peck her outstretched hand, though the Lady Eton instead tightly gripped and shook my own hand. “The Atlantic! So you are from England.” I scowled and tried to decide the sincerity of the exclamation. “You say you are a midshipman, Mr. Dawkins, but I’ll have you know it is an Eton tradition to say all good pirates are from the British Isles.” I snorted and chortled under my breath. I clasped my hands behind my back and stared at my boots. “And you will not renounce this… opinion?”
“Very good, Mr. Dawkins. As a matter of fact, I refuse to.” When I looked up again, she was partway down the beach. She wandered the sand with hooded eyes and a thin half-smile. I glanced over my shoulder at the merchant ship to reassure myself the men had not marooned me. With the sails billowing over my shoulder, I scrambled to catch up. I composedly clasped my hands again behind my back and strutted near the shoreline alongside the Lady Eton.
“My Grandfather was a pirate, you know,” she added thoughtfully, squinting out at the darkening horizon. I surveyed the sky and the stars that had begun to fade in. “So this makes you of pirate lineage?” I waited for conformation and then whistled lowly to myself. Lady Eton awarded me a sideways glance, but her expression remained haughty and mischievous. “That’s funny – at first impression, I took you more for the mermaid type.” “Pity,” she frowned. “Are all the midshipmen as gullible as you?”
I scrambled to stop as she turned to sit down and stare out over the sea. A cooler air moved through the beach, ruffling the leaves of the palm trees and rousing thin sheets of sand that blew up from the ground. I fanned the collar of my shirt, pulling at the cotton that was stuck to my skin with sweat. I recalled the countless nights the lads and I had spent on board the Triton, making up stories and telling legends of mermaids and sea serpents, among other things. “Oh, they’re quite real,” I insisted. “You grow up on a ship, spend enough time at sea, my lady, and the mermaids, the Kraken – all God’s creatures from under the oceans are just as real as those that live on the surface.”
The Lady Eton laughed half-heartedly. “I’d have liked to grow up on a ship, Mr. Dawkins. Fortunately, the ocean has been kind to me. The waters are a refuge for more people than only those who have the ships to sail upon her.” She brought her eyes easily to mine and for a moment we sat with the tide lapping towards our ankles and the sun moving lower over head. The wind rustled her hair and blew it around her lips. Lady Eton waited, wide-eyed, for my retort.
But, of course, I though it possible she was too enraptured in her emotions to be thinking clearly. So, as a midshipman and therefore gentleman, I was obliged to… honorably refuse the overabundance of responses that immediately came to mind. Instead, I let the Lady Eton have her space. “Did you hear that?” I cupped a hand to one ear and pointed at the ship, docked several hundred yards down the beach. Lady Eton blocked the orange light of the setting sun from her eyes and squinted in the direction I gestured in.
“Hear what?” “The ship bell,” I blurted, standing and beginning to back away from her side down the beach in the Triton’s direction. “It’s a, uh, signal… for the crew. It-it actually is for midshipmen. Yes, it means… it means the Captain is calling all midshipmen off the land. They probably want to give me an award or something. Of course, it’s something really… really, you know, important. Dangerous. War. Pirate attack. Assassination attempt on the King. Could be anything.” “Could be anything?”
“Anything.” I shook my head ‘yes,’ biting my lip and backing farther away. I gave her an awkward half-wave, remembering at the last moment to stoop into a proper bow. “You know, I didn’t actually hear anything, Mr. Dawkins.” “It’s a midshipman thing. Have you ever heard of sea-legs?” I rambled, swallowing mouthfuls of air and tripping over my own feet. She nodded. “It’s like that – sea-ears, or something.”
“And it’s dangerous,” she sighed, humming to herself and wrinkling her nose as if pondering the matter. Lady Eton tapped her fingers against her chin and paced slowly. “I suppose it wouldn’t be safe for a lady to be wandering the beach alone, then? I mean, the sun is about to go down, and if there is some pirate running amuck in Madagascar to revolt against the King… I suppose you will just have to stay, then.” I allotted Lady Eton her personal space. Again. “You don’t have to be afraid,” she laughed. “I do have a mind, Mr. Dawkins; my thoughts need not scare you off.”
“Y-yes, I suppose so.” “And how much would a Captain miss one tiny, insignificant midshipman? Surely a ship of the British King has enough men to suffice.” “I-I’m sure he does. I mean, he does. But I am very instrumental and… important in, you know, dangerous things.” Lady Eton scowled and shot me a scrutinizing glare. Immediately, I fixed my answer. “Not much, I suppose.”
“Then it is settled!” She clapped her hands together triumphantly and flashed me that smug, victorious half-smile. I returned a shakier version of the smile, but just as quickly, her expression changed. Lady Eton’s eyes shone with mischievousness. She trudged knee-deep into the water, sending thick waves and ocean spray shooting up around her waist with each step. Once the warm ocean water lapped at her waist and the waves touched the edges of her sleeves, she waved me in.
I abandoned my boots and socks at the water’s edge, crumpling them into a pile and stuffing them as far back from the nearing tide as one toss would allow. I pulled my pant legs up past my legs and trudged as far as the sandbar. “I won’t come any further,” I announced, folding my arms over my chest and squaring my shoulders. I borrowed her smug expression and left her with one of bewilderment. “See, a midshipman can always expect compensation for matters of great danger and great interest.”
Lady Eton scoffed, her head flung back and her hair flung wildly by the wind. “You claim you’re not a pirate, yet only such a creature would be so forward!” “Forward would be demanding,” I yelled. “Midshipman Dawkins only asks his ladies, especially those with a mind.” I turned back and squinted at the shore. The water struggled to reach my abandoned articles. “Honestly, though, I can go back to shore.”
The Lady Eton hung her head dramatically as she trudged, with some difficulty, to the sandbar. Her dampened hair was plastered against her face and her wet dress dumped streams of the salt water down my front.
“Be good, Thomas,” I whispered sarcastically and narrowed my eyes. My wide, blistered hands wound around her waist and pressed the thick, soaked material to her back. It stuck against her skin. “Just one kiss?” And, you know – being a midshipman, I was forced to make another courteous decision last-minute. The evening had only cooled slightly and the humidity still clung tightly to any breeze that blew through the island. The poor Lady Eton was exhausted from the afternoon’s conversation, and from her morning swim. It was, after all, quite possible that she was suffering from dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke…
But a gentleman wouldn’t wish hypothermia on a lady either. So naturally, I – being that gentleman – couldn’t allow Lady Eton to spend another moment in a sopping wet dress. Of course, it was all for her well-being.
By the end of the month, my pockets were light. I’d created a habit out of slipping down the gangplank while the morning was still cool and vacant, returning reluctantly each night in time for watch and making brief, unregulated appearances onboard only for the Captain’s walkthroughs. Fortunately, Margarette Eton had made the habit of accompanying me in my ventures. We had dined at nearly every restaurant on the island, though most of our time was spent on day-picnics at the shore. I would oblige her nautical questions with wise and clever answers; in turn, she illustrated to me the ocean’s generosity, providing compensation for my expenditure any time that I would ask her. Eagerly, we experienced many hours of such wonder, exploring the long waves and the independence their glimmering whitecaps and incandescent bubbles promised. I was a lucky and captivated man, and for once the feeling of ocean waves beneath me was not muted by the oak floorboards of a ship.
It was a freedom unknown to a midshipman of the Triton, and I refused to have it renounced just yet. I spent several uneventful watches staring after the yellow glows of candlelight and timing them as they blinked out across the town. Meals on-board the Triton were drowned in uninteresting chatter among lads about how many taverns they’d each made it to the night before and who had to stay onboard for watch tonight. Every so often I’d oblige the lads and accompany them to a tavern or two, wasting money on myself only when coerced into doing so. I sipped drinks, sometimes forcing a single pint of ale to make the long stretch of tavern-hopping. But while enduring the painfully dull routine of a midshipman, I plotted. And before long, I had formulated a faultless plan.
We set sail any day now. I forcibly relaxed against the railing. My head bobbed up and down, stealing glances every few seconds at the emptying boardwalk but scanning fruitlessly for the Lady Eton. I busied my hands with polishing the brass buttons of my uniform for the umpteenth time that evening and re-straightened my cravat. I listened to the familiar first-watch bells clatter aboard the Triton. I looked out over the harbor.
If I squinted enough, I could just barely make out the shadows of watchmen taking post at… “Lady Eton? Lady Eton!!”
The woman had come through the doors of a restaurant that opened onto the boardwalk. I was sure she had glanced briefly in my direction, but snapped her head back around and hurried in the opposite direction without stopping to say ‘hello.’ A blond-haired boy in a dark overcoat paraded next to her. He broke free of her as I shouted her name again, going to bury his head at a market where he pretended to survey a selection of trout.
I scrambled up from the table I had occupied for the past half hour, tugged the waist of the jacket back into place and re-re-straightened the cravat. “Minnie!” The woman in the red dress finally slowed her brisk stride. I saw her shoulders stiffen and, after a brief hesitation, the woman turned to face me. “…Midshipman Dawkins.”
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” I admitted and grinned involuntarily. I moved close to her and touched her smooth face with my hand.“I’ve made dinner reservations; are you hungry?” Tonight, she paraded about the boardwalk in a floor-length, ruby gown spotted by rich spots of gold and crème. Her usually natural raven curls had been brushed and pinned back against her head and was decorated by two pearls that hung from both earlobes. Her half-smile was polite and concise. “How very sweet of you, Mr. Dawkins. Unfortunately, I’ve already eaten.”
“Very well, so we skip dinner.” My mind jumped to the gold band that sat, wrapped in satin, in my jacket pocket. I stuck one hand beneath the lapel and fished for the parcel. “There was something I meant to discuss with you tonight anyhow.” My fingers closed around the cloth. However, before I could drop to a knee and properly present it to the Lady Eton, she laid one hand on my arm and stilled the gesture. “I’ve come only to say goodbye, Mr. Dawkins, and to wish you and the Triton fair weather.” I chortled. “You shouldn’t joke, Minnie, it’s not becoming of a lady.”
Lady Eton bit her lip to keep from scoffing, but rolled her eyes nonetheless. My spirits swelled with the promise of a challenge that my opening line held. I eagerly awaited her retort, already planning just how much sarcasm I could fit into my… “No, Mr. Dawkins, I’m afraid I leave the joke to be on you.” Her words were acidic, though I excused them when I recognized the competitive glint in her jade eyes once again. I squared my shoulders and stretched to my full height. “Is that so, Miss Eton?”
“Quite so,” she snapped. At first, no one spoke. “Now I do hate to order little boys about, Brian, but you seem in desperate need of the direction.” “Is that so?” Dramatically I stooped to my knee and casted a haughty, lopsided half-smile in her direction. She narrowed her eyes at me and glowered. When she offered no addition to her remark, I added:
“I can see how ordering me about pains you, my lady, though you are oh-so good at it, my lady, and it just so happens you are fortunate enough to have me. See, I – unlike you – have no reservation to order little girls about.” I lowered my voice to a sarcastic whisper, leaning nearer Lady Eton to deliver my remark. “This would be the part where I propose marriage and where you refuse. See, a woman such as you must think twice about marrying a man such as me. A midshipman for husband? Surely, you would work yourself into a fit, spending so many nights concerned for my state aboard the Triton and awaiting my return…” “Allow me to save you the explanation by refusing now.” I clucked my tongue at her and flung my hands out, rocking forward on my knee and staring into her eyes.
“Of course, you reconsider,” I continued. “You take the ring and try it on for size. We spend a glorious night together at the beach and, in the morning, my bride accompanies me to the gangplank. You force me to promise I shall return; we embrace. Perhaps you cry a little, but that, my dear lady, is the part where we say goodbye.” “What a lovely story,” she mused derisively. “Unfortunately for you, it has no place other than in your fantasy.” “Ahh, but we are in love!” Lady Eton smacked my hand back from hers and warily stole glances from the corner of her eye to see if the people who passed us by had heard.
Just to ensure they had, I threw my head back and added: “Dear, dear Madagascar! While I was here the ale was poor, the sun unbearable, and you have yet to fix my ship! But you have given me the Lady Eton, my flame, my love, and for that reason alone God bless this island!” Several of the women clapped lightly and a few of the men whistled. “Mr. Dawkins, I told you – my flame of love’s blown out!” she whined and, amidst the ruckus we’d created, called for the boy who ogled the trout. “Lord Forell!”
I tilted to the side to search out this Lord Forell.
The boy clumsily dropped an armful of the scaly creatures. They flopped to the ground where the slimy lot slid down his boots and collected a thin coat of dirt beneath the wooden stand. Bewildered, he scanned the boardwalk for the person who shouted his name.
“Lord Forell!” she called again, waving her arms to get his attention. Finally, he spotted her and, stuffing a fistful coins – much to the disappointment of the shopkeeper – back into his overcoat headed in our direction.
His complexion was ghastly pale and framed by thin tufts of blond hair that had managed to escape his comb. “Lord” Forell, as she called him, had a spindly, stretched-out stature and stood with his shoulders slumped forward. A pair of wide, blue eyes and pasty, spit-covered lips took up most of his gaunt face. Worst of all, he wreaked of month-old trout.
“Lord Forell, this is the midshipman Dawkins. He is with the Triton, the ship docked just off our island.” The Lady Eton cleared her throat and poked her nose higher in the air as she took note of my discomfort. “Lord Forell and I met the other day at my parent’s farm. I have found I do not have quite the same taste for the ocean as before.”
She cut her eyes in my direction as she said this. “And you… you’d be glad to know I’ve grown. I’m no longer so gullible.” I cut my eyes in her direction in turn, awarding her only a brief glance before fixing my eyes back on the Triton. I creased my eyebrows together and flung a haughty, unbecoming expression in her direction. “I no longer entertain such fleeting thoughts as mermaids.”
I took a couple of steps towards the couple, sending Lord Forell back a bit. “Oh, yes!” Lord Forell announced loudly once he’d reached a safe distance from me. I started straight at him but refused to satisfy the Lady Eton with a glance. “The Lady Margarette was telling me you pirate type fancy a fairy tale or two onboard!”
Swiftly and gallantly, I tore the dagger from my belt. In two strides, I had the blade laid flush against Lord Forell’s cravat. The Lord cackled nervously, clearing his throat in between giggles. His wide-lipped, ashen smile quivered and dropped.
“Midshipman Dawkins to you,” I hissed through clenched teeth. Off to one side, I heard Lady Eton shriek and yell something of no interest to me. “And I’ll have you know, the only fairytale you’ll find is the Lady Eton. But don’t worry, kid: the only place she belongs is in men’s fantasies.” But of course I took mercy on him.
I released my hold on the Lord’s collar and shoved the dagger back into place. Averting my eyes from the sight of them, I stormed to the railing and looked out over the cool, still harbor. The indigo waters lapped at the beams of the boardwalk. I listened to the rhythmic crashing of these waves. Behind me, Lady Eton spoke to Lord Forell in a hushed, rushed voice. Their footsteps replaced the sound of the waves as they quickly departed in the opposite direction.
“Don’t worry, lad: she won’t stick around for long!” I yelled over my shoulder, ignorant of the people who once clapped and whistled at the spectacle and now gaped as the Lord and Lady made their exit. “She’ll just be part of another man’s fantasy in no time!” Eventually, the footsteps faded and, in accordance to their departure, I released my tense hold on the ropes. I kept one hand clasped tightly to the handle of my dagger as I spun around on my heels and slumped back into my table.
The onlookers had begun to move on, now. “Drinks!” As quickly as if she had been watching from the sidelines and awaiting my orders, a petite woman hurried to the table, a tray of elegant, glass goblets filled with red wine balanced on one hand. Her raven hair was thick and unruly, and was kept back from her olive eyes with a honey-colored hair-band. She wore a black and silver beaded gown and casted a coy, half-smile in my direction as I studied her tanned face.
She arranged all six goblets on the table in front of me. She turned to go, but I interrupted. “Ah, don’t go doing that just yet, love. I won’t even know what name to find you by should the Triton dock again.”
From the quarter deck, the two o’clock bell chimed, though the tinny sound was drowned out by strident laughter that echoed from the forecastle. The story had ended – the men laughed and Liam giggled, though the boyish, high-pitched sounds were quickly disguised by impartial snickers. The Lieutenant dismissed this with a wave of the hand and tipped his head forward in a bow. The crew applauded, but as he moved to stand the ship’s boy grabbed the Lieutenant’s shirtsleeve and held fast.
“‘Owld it jist a minute!” Liam ordered, adding “please” after a moment’s hesitation. He frowned and did his best attempt at a serious expression. “I don’t find it very funny. It’s probably not even true!” “‘Course not,” Brian grumbled sarcastically under his breath. He tugged his clothing free from the ship boy’s grip and straightened the cotton sleeves. Turning to Liam and in a more authoritative voice, the Lieutenant added: “Feel free to favor the crew with an explanation, Liam. Why would I get the bloody tattoo if the story ain’t ever ‘appened?” The boy frowned while he pondered the question and formulated a response.
“Yer said it yourself, didn’t ye?” he asked finally. “Lots of sailors believe in mermaids, de tattoo’s not dat impressive.” Brian clapped a hand on Liam’s scrawny shoulder. “Lad, there used ter be only wahn mermaid I believed in. I’ve come ter find the rest of them are only good in stories.” “And now?” a watchman interjected.
“And now I find she, too, is best left ter the fantasy.” A couple of the men exchanged knowing grins or a few more chuckles, but Liam remained unconvinced and stubborn. “So ‘tis a mermaid from another story, dat doesn’t mean…”
“Oy, boy! I swear by me tattoo, it’s true!” the Lieutenant interrupted impatiently. He settled back into a comfortable position on the deck.”Now, there are two more bells left in the watch. Quit bein’ so stubborn and pick another tattoo, or you can settle in the quarter deck ‘til mornin’.” Liam glanced hesitantly between the grimy faces of the watchmen and, with a slight defeated look and pout, pointed to the indigo tattoo of a cyclone. “Typhoon Tessie it is.”
I was sailing under the Captain Roderik Acker the first time I encountered pirates in the Indian Ocean. In all the idle hours I and the other boys had spent at sea we conjured childish fantasies of such battles, fabricating stories and imagining the heroicness the pirates promised to cast upon us. We retold fragmented legends we managed to recall from our upbringing. But nothing quite compared with the anticlimactic facedown between our Captain and theirs; no part of our encounter lived up to our gallant expectations.
Our crew had been tracking the mob for nearly an entire month aboard the Starling, but we had yet to close in enough for arrest. Our navy ship trailed just a mile of their rudder. The distance endlessly stretched on and with each wave and ripple that dove beneath the ship the distance only seemed to swell. Before we knew, the maps had been thrown to the wind and the Captain seemed to take on a different spirit. He granted the ship a mind of its own, and with it we found ourselves circling the coast of Java. We thrived off such excitement. Within a week we’d closed the gap that ran between our ship and theirs; within two, we were back on schedule; we roped the pirate ship and towed our prize proudly in our wake, their fortunes nestled safely in the hold of our own ship. The third week after the seize, we received word from the island’s governor, a Mr. Willem Voet. During the fourth week, we were to be honored for our capture.
The applause was all-consuming. It echoed off the crème and silver walls, bouncing between the ashen marble floor and genteel chandelier. The ruckus buzzed in my ears, refusing to die down and quickly losing my favor. A few of us shifted uncomfortably, though it didn’t do the trick; the applauders overlooked the hint and continued to cheer our crew. Fourteen of the Starling’s men stood in a line across the center of the room, clad in meticulously fitted navy jackets and vigorously polished dress shoes. Tonight, they had each traded his own musket and breeches for a silk cravat and manners.
For the past five nights they had endured hour upon hour of the Captain’s eager ramblings; up and down the boardwalk they practiced their orderly march, refined their posture for bowing, and developed semi-acceptable dancing skills. Finally, they stood before the governor of the island they had defended by way of sword and pistol a mere few weeks before.
And finally, I stood among them, all but double over in a pretentious bow as the latest Ensign for the HMS Starling. Eager clusters of the island’s natives gathered around to gape at the show. We straightened up. We stared straight ahead. We kept in formation and ignored these irritating, lopsided bunches that seemed to specialize in nautical gossip and hanging onto every word, every gesture, and every eye roll. Still, the game went on. The locals would clap.
The governor would recount another dreary part of our “adventure,” although he did manage to gorge the reality of our encounter with fantasies, adventure, and an overdramatic ending in which we imprisoned only their Captain and bestowed the remaining pirates unto a vicious sea. And for the rest of the introduction, we waited with forced patience for the speech and praise to quiet.
Captain!” the governor roared cheerfully and clapped the Captain on the back with a spindly hand. This man had thick unkempt hair that hung loosely framed his square jaw. It swung in rhythm with his movements as he spoke animatedly and bobbed his head in accordance with almost everything he said. “Last but not least, I should like to thank you and your crew for the bravery and expertise with which you defended our city and defeated these… salty sea dogs.”
I stifled a laugh, though it came out a snort. I tried to turn the noise into a discrete cough. With one ear, I half-heartedly listened to the Governor recount the highlights of his version of the story for the umpteenth time that evening. Every one of the sailors seemed to puff out their chest a little more and bow a little deeper with every grandiose and adventurous detail that the man awarded our story. I, on the other hand, felt the temptation only to laugh as the governor continued with his unsuccessful attempts at nautical vocabulary. Some giggled right behind me.
I tilted my head toward the noise and listened to the soft laughter. They belonged to a young woman who stood apart from the other groups. She shielded her mouth with one hand, almost as if to hide the laughter. Her slender, gloved fingers, however, couldn’t quite hide the demure smile that played upon her lips. She laughed at the governor’s terminology, as well, and her half-smile would grow wider at the sight of such bewildered expressions that crossed his face in accord to the word ‘pirate.’ Every time the governor mentioned it, a childishly wide grin replaced his serious expression and his eyes swelled so large that I could see the flames of the candelabras reflected in his pupils.
I, too, found it amusing. However, I found the giggling woman riveting. To me, she looked European. Her skin was tinted pink in the places most exposed to sun. Her golden tresses seemed to escape the unpitying Javanese sun that had bleached so many of the women’s hair, and brushed lightly against the blush beneath her slate gray eyes. She wore long, ivory gloves and floated between friends in the most elegant of gowns. It had a low neck lined with lace and fell to the floor in neat pink folds. She casted me a modest smile once or twice but allowed me only one sly wave. Mostly, she pretended not to see me.
I felt a sharp jab in the ribs from a mate on my left. I tore my gaze from the angelic face of the woman long enough to glare at the lad and roll my eyes. He returned the expression and motioned back toward the governor, who had busied himself with shaking the Captain’s hand. I, mid-wave to the lady, dropped my hand back to my side and joined the rest of the line in one final bow. There was a dull ache at the base of my back as I double over into the familiar position. I wondered how many of the men were going to be sore by the time we…
“Let the ball commence!” This time, the uproar came from the crew.
Each of the men broke away from the line and went in his own direction, several of which included migrating to the refreshment table. The cheering gave way to music and the soft, fleeting sound of small talk. The change in sources of boredom was tremendously welcome and as I tried to spot the woman in the pink gown, I even considered subjecting her to my crude dance skills. I spotted her halfway across the room. She looked brilliant, she looked intrigued, she looked… like she was enjoying her minuet with Captain Acker. I groaned aloud, admiring his latest catch at the same time that I mourned my latest loss. If I wait for the song to end… Better yet, if some of the men need to see Captain Acker right away, then he must.
I felt a light tug at the hem of my coat and looked down to see the governor’s daughter. “Ah, the Lady Voet!” I exclaimed and swept into a wide bow, all the while swearing to myself that never again in my life would I bow of freewill. The little girl casted me a polite smile and dipped into a curtsey into response. “Mr. Brian Dawkins, Ensign of the HMSStarling, at your service.” “Charmed,” she said in a way that seemed rehearsed. “You can call me Lady Voet if you like, Mr. Dawkins, but my name is Ottilie.”
“Miss Ottilie?” She gave an approving nod to the new title. “Now tell me, Miss Ottilie, what is it you and your brother do at these celebrations?” She tilted her head to one side, allowing her onyx bangs to spill briefly over her eyes. “Usually we dance and play games, same as anyone else. Gillis is quite bothered by the celebration today, though. He says it’s not as fun when the only interesting guests are a boatload of men.” Miss Ottilie pondered the thought but came up with only a frown. “Whatever that means… Walk with me, Mr. Dawkins.”
I obliged her, hunching over so that she could take my arm. We circled the room in a slow cadence; Miss Ottilie waved at people she seemed to recognize on our way past. “Tell me, Mr. Dawkins, what is it you lot does at celebrations?” “Practically the same as anyone else,” I said. “Except perhaps we dance a little less, skip out a little earlier, stay up a little later, and drink a little more.”
I snorted at my own wit. Ottilie’s expression, however, remained civil and unaffected. I cleared my throat uncomfortably and inelegantly. “…Never mind.” Miss Ottilie shrugged it off. As we came full circle around the room, the song ended and the orchestra readied themselves to play laboulangera.
“I must wonder why, if you claim to dance at a party, you only stand there,” she pondered aloud and dropped her hand from my arm. “I should like to think if I was being honored by a governor, I’d at least make an effort to have fun.” “I’ll have you know I do have fun, Ottilie! You should see our navy ship. The sea is the ensign’s most loyal source of amusement.” Her azure eyes twinkled roguishly and she shot me a bashful yet excited grin. “Oh, Mr. Dawkins. The sea is to the ensign as the dance is to the gentleman.”
I snapped my head in her direction but, for the sake of her age, resisted an eye roll. Instead, with a forced patience I indulged her girlish fantasies for the second time that evening and took her hands as we joined the line of dancers. In between miscalculated steps, maladroit turns, and mulish spurts of sweat that trickled down my back, I whispered: “Believe you me, Miss Ottilie. If only you knew the stories of the mermaids and pirates I have seen, you would be on the ensign’s side instead.”
And so the night continued, gorged with forced politeness and practiced manners. The other men and I indulged several of the other women’s fantasies between daring tales of piracy, bravery, and victory and gauche attempts at the quadrille. It was a silly game, and we easily enthralled them. The majority of younger men found this to be both in their interest and favor. I, on the other hand, found the entire production relatively tedious.
“She’s barely twelve. It’d be better if you shouldn’t cosset her childish expectations of dancing with the sailors.” The careful caveat came from behind me, and belonged to the young woman in the pink dress. For the first time she had freed herself of a dancing partner. For the past hour, I had sought refuge between several complimentary trays of ale and a myriad of obnoxious, seafaring jokes the other refugees and I swapped loudly. Now, my group had dwindled and I was one of the last of the crewmembers who clung to the refreshment table. The remainder had long since ditched the party and took to the town in search of ale that’s served with entertainment.
I’d yet to join the hunt. “And you would be…?” “A wary friend.” I glanced at her over my shoulder but turned quickly away to swallow the last drips of wine from the bottom of my cup. The steward had busied himself with wiping down some glasses, but took a break to present me with another bottle of wine.
I waved the man away and forfeited the empty cup. I abandoned my position next to the table. “Well well, Wary Friend, you needn’t lose sleep over the matter. I assure you, the only thing “cosseted” was laboulangera.” “A beautiful dance.”
“Indeed, Ms. Friend,” I said over my shoulder in a bored voice. I crossed the room to the front door where two young men were taking hats and cloaks, all the while listening to the woman’s quick footsteps follow closely behind.
“Ensign Dawkins.” One man took my name while the other ducked into the nearest cherry door where the articles were stored. I folded my arms across my chest with great importance and leaned against a table that displayed gold candelabras. “You are leaving?” Ms. Friend frowned. I nodded my head ‘yes.’
“As ensign, it’s important that I keep the other lads in line. Half the crew’s running amuck through Java, the other half is holed up in the Starling. The Captain won’t be back until the celebration ends, but we sail early in the morning. It’s essential that we already be assembled.” With every step I’d danced nearer fatigue; with every goblet of wine I drowned all of my patience. Now I stood only feet away from the lady in the pink dress, a lady I had been desperate to meet only hours ago, completely exhausted and verging on impatience. I was lying through my teeth, blurting whichever falsehoods came to mind first and thinking only of my hammock aboard the HMS Starling.
The man emerged from the room, holding a top-hat in one hand. “But surely you have time for one more dance,” Ms. Friend insisted eagerly. She twisted two fingers of her glove together, intertwining and entangling the silk. She smiled at me keenly and awaited my response. I groaned and waved the servant with the top hat away. He, too, grumbled, but disappeared dutifully again behind the cherry door. “Surely there is one more country dance left in me.”
“Surely there is one more country dance left in me.” Stubbornly, I refused to bow and I offered her my arm instead. She smiled and nodded, coiling both hands gently around my forearm and traipsing civilly half a step behind. I made a beeline for the entryway that led back into the ballroom, but as I neared the crowd of dancers, the Lady Friend resisted.
“Oh, not in here!” she exclaimed. “Come, Mr. Dawkins. We’ll dance in the parlor.”
There was something uncomfortable about dancing to the muffled music that filtered through the walls and knowing a celebration was being held in the next room over but purposefully keeping away. On the other hand, there was also something completely comfortable about the way she went about her flirting. She had introduced herself to me as Lady Teresa, a recent but close friend of the Governor Voet. She was on holiday from the British Isles, and was as equally enraptured with the night’s stories of piratical adventures as the other women.
“Really, Miss Teresa, I must be going,” I whispered lowly as we neared the end of our fourth dance. She folded her lip down into a pout and batted her thick eyelashes at me. I ignored the gesture and leaned her back into a dip for lack of a response.
“Oh, right. Those… duties of the ensign you mentioned,” Miss Teresa said once she had righted herself. We broke apart and I humored her with an extremely brief peck on the cheek.
Unsatisfied, she pulled me back and, coiling one arm around my waist and snaking the other hand through my meticulously combed hair, went in for a more affectionate goodbye.
“Really, Miss Teresa,” I hissed and backed away, rubbing my lips with the cuff of my jacket sleeve. “You are a wonderful dancer; I quite enjoyed your company. I thank you very much and… regret that I must go.”
She whined briefly, tilting her head to one side and pulling loosely at my arm as I brushed past her. I pulled my arm loose and hurried to the servants, who brought out my top hat at the mention of my name, though they did so with an air of inconvenience. “Must you really?” I swore aloud and exclaimed that yes, for the hundredth time I mustreally.
As I fished in my coat pocket for coins to tip the servants with, she leaned in close and batted her eyes at me once more. I tried to lean back, though she insisted on sharing personal space and only closed any gap I put between us. “Then I suppose this is farewell, Mr. Dawkins,” she whispered with bated breath. She exhaled in my face; I winced, and found it to reek of sour wine and stale bits of the evening’s feast. “But it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately for you, I find that your reputation precedes you.” She dropped back to her flat feet and leaned back from my face, only to circle me in a slow cadence.
“Never mind; keep it!” I waved my hand dismissively at the servant and spilled a handful of uncounted coins onto the table. I shook my head to rid myself of the light voice that chattered on behind me and hurried for the front door. “I live in the little chateau on Sugeng Rawuh Street…” The doorman nodded as I blew past and reached for the handle of the door.
“I’ve got it, thanks,” I said and shoved my hand in front of his. I yanked open the front door and spilled out onto the marble steps, encompassed in the cool night that blew through the town. I took the stairs two at a time. “I’ll leave a handkerchief at the window!”
A few hours’ worth of ale and familiar, maritime company was more than enough to lift my spirits. We’d taken the town by storm, charging down the brick streets, horsing around, and being a disturbance in general to the sleeping people of Java. At one point during our nocturnal escapade, one of the lads took to obnoxiously singing the pieces of a song he’d picked up at port and somehow managed to recall. After the first verse, the rest of the lads joined in.
There'll be girls for ev'ry body in that good, good old town,For dere's Miss Consola Davis an dere's Miss Gondolia Brown;And dere's Miss Johanna Beasly she am dressed all in red,I just hugged her and I kissed her and to me then she said:Please, oh please, oh, do not let me fall,You're all mine and I love you best of all,And you must be my man, or I'll have no man at all,There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!
We quieted down after a pale of dishwater was tossed at us from a second story window. The metal bucket clattered into the gutter. While the rest of the lads made a mocking game out of playing catch with the pale, I proudly declared I had a different engagement and declined the invitation to tour the remaining bars. I went on to hunt the Sugeng Rawuh Street alone.
The silk, embroidered handkerchief fluttered on the sill of an open window. In the room the glass looked into, I could see the orange and yellow flicker of candlelight. The building stretched the length of the block, her room pinned between two others. I couldn’t see the harbor from Sugeng Rawuh; the street was set back in the town, hidden by streets that crossed in front of it and sported equally as chunky, foreign names. The whole length of the street had been abandoned for the night.
I listened to the far-off sound of the lads’ voices, busting into the third verse and doing a terrible job of sticking to the actual lyrics. I shook my head to free my attention and hoisted myself onto the ledge of the first window. The white wood creaked beneath my weight but held fast. I clambered my way up the side of the house, jumping from windowsill to balcony until I reached the second floor. I poked my torso into the warm, dimly-lit room and groped for something to hold. I settled for the curtains, using the crimson velvet to hoist the rest of me inside.
I knocked my head against the window as I scrambled to my feet.
A blond woman was stretched the length of the love seat. She leapt to her feet and a small gasp escaped her lips as a string of nautical exclamations escaped my own.
“Mr. Dawkins!” “It would seem so.” She casted me her best – albeit awkward – attempt at what she thought was a seductive smile. I only nodded in response, and turned to stare out the window at the ground that lay below. Somewhere on the bricks lay the handkerchief I had jarred on my way up.
“I regret to inform you I came up alone, though. Your hankie seems to have taken a dive for the pavement… I can retrieve it, if you like.” “Oh, no, no! It’s quite alright, it’s just one hankie.” I straightened and circled the room at a slow gate, surveying the rich colors of the wood that danced in candlelight. “Yes, I suppose it is. This is a beautiful room, Ms. Teresa.”
Her eyes followed my every move. Her hair had been let loose of its stylish confines and now played naturally around her eyes. She wore a silk and lace nightgown that reached the floor and flowed easily around her petite frame. I averted my eyes and racked my brain for more small talk. “Did you decorate it yourself?” “Yes and no,” she said quickly and breathlessly. “My hu-… Hungarian friend did the room; I chose the colors, though.” “Hungarian friend?”
“Yes. From Hungary,” she replied quickly, stumbling over her own words. Her eyes darted about the room, searching for something else to turn the attention on. Her eyes fell on the gold and cherry, four-poster bed. “You must be simply exhausted. Fighting pirates, saving islands, keeping your men in line…”
It was Miss Teresa’s turn to circle me. She moved slowly, carefully, and dragged a finger along my shoulder and forearm the entire way. “…entertaining a woman like me. Surely you want to get comfortable, Mr. Dawkins.”
Her face hovered inches away from mine. As she whispered the last words, she drew closer and closer until she planted a kiss on my mouth for the second time that evening. I nodded enthusiastically. “Surely.”
The bedroom flickered into a cold shadow that enveloped us and I led her to the bed, where gently she laid back and we…
“Played a rousing game of draughts.” Liam’s eyes darted skeptically between the faces of the men, all of which sported cheesy smiles. They nodded their heads in unison, repeating the Lieutenant’s words. “Humph,” Liam sighed aloud, frowning as he considered this. Finally, he concluded: “Oi never considered playin’ it in bed. Oi suppose it is more comfy.”
Each of the men exhaled in unison with one another. Just as the Lieutenant was about to return to the story, the ship’s boy interrupted again. “Did ye win or lose?” The Lieutenant made an awkward, stuttering groan as he scrambled for an answer. “…we tied.”
I caught up with a couple of the man late the next morning. They were slumped against a wall, two idle objects in the way of all the others who had busied themselves with preparations to sail at evening tide. From across the dock, I could hear both sailors lamenting how many hours they had been without wine or ale. But I could tell just by looking at the boys it hadn’t been that long.
I strutted along the dock, my chest puffed out a little more and my noise poked a little higher in the air than the night before. I bit off the last bit of apple I’d taken from breakfast and chucked it at the water. The waves lapped up the core, bubbling over top of it and drawing it deeper and deeper until I couldn’t see the red fruit any longer.
I came up behind one of the boys and gave him a light tap on the noggin to announce my arrival. “Where’ve ye been, Brian, my boy? The Captain sure missed yeat roll call!” one of the men roared, scrambling to his feet and pulling the other boy after him. I recognized them to both be a part of the newly promoted midshipmen for the Starling. I struggled to remember seeing them at the celebration last night, and shrugged off the effort once I came up empty handed. “Och, he missed more than that, Garrett! Did ye hear, Brian? The Starling’s getting a new Captain! Ole Acker here has found himself a wife – he’s stayin’ in Java tuh play a game uh house!”
Both men roared with drunken laughter, and Garrett clapped me on the back with one hand.
“Now, if that ain’t news,” I muttered to myself under my breath and awarded the announcement a low whistle. I quickly overcame the surprise, however, and exchanged my bewildered expression for a cocky, lopsided grin. “Will you listen to that, Garrett? A new Captain and a woman – this must be my lucky port!”
“An’ a woman?” he echoed. “Did ye catch that, Luthor? Dawkins here has gone fishin’ an’ caught himself a mermaid!”
“Ahh, not a mermaid,” I groaned with a sarcastic scowl and dismissive wave of the hand. “An adventure; a typhoon.” “Look out when she rains, mate, or you’ll catch cold!”
I scoffed and sauntered at the head of the group on our way back to the Starling. Over one shoulder, I haughtily defended the metaphor, uninterestedly justifying to the drunken imps just how Miss Teresa had a way of creating… “Hot an’ rough waters is awl she makes, mate!”
I surfaced from my ego long enough to look where Luthor pointed.
A market was set up at the far end of the dock. Fresh fruits and vegetables crowded the wooden trays, vibrant spots of color against the monochromatic clay buildings. It was not these colors, however, that caught neither my attention, nor the shopkeeper who hoarded the fruits as though he was deathly afraid of encountering a customer. It was the blond woman who haggled for them.
“That’s the typhoon, that’s my Tessie!” I erupted, motioning frantically in her direction and scrambling to figure out what to do. If I stop to say ‘hello’… I could always say ‘goodbye’… Or rather, if I just continue toward the Starling and walk in the middle of the boys… “Relax, laddie, we know.” “…you do?”
There was a split second of silence before the boys erupted in laughter once again. “Sure we do – an’ now awl the other men in Java!”
I stared at the market as a man dressed in navy uniform, our former Captain Acker, rounded the corner. But instead of passing Lady Teresa by and continuing toward the HMS Starling, he stopped next to Tessie.
“T-that’s not so bad,” I stuttered, desperate to regain composure in front of the lower ranking men. I tried to shrug it off and broadened my shoulders. “Oh, well. It still doesn’t change a thing about last night.” She took his hand.
“Nah, but there is somethin’ that does.” “…That’s the Captain’s wife!”
The forecastle deck brimmed with raucous laughter once again. The three o’clock bell chimed.
“So what ‘appened?” The question came from Ezra, a young boy that Brian easily recognized as part of the Narcissus’s regular crew. He’d been recently promoted from midshipman; Brian had seen him giving orders around the deck once or twice and carrying the flag, though the two had never spoken. Still, Ezra sat forward, listening intently to the stories and good-naturedly awaited a response. Brian rewarded him with an affable smile. “Wot was there ter do?” Brian chuckled and turned his attention from annunciating. “She gave me the scare of my young life, so I boarded the ship with Garrett and Luthor. The Lady Teresa staid on land with Captain Acker, and, as planned, we sailed at evenin’ tide.”
“Blimey, skip! Ya left her there?” Ezra groaned with a wide grin and smacked the palm of one hand against his forehead. “And wot do ya suppose I should ‘ave done? Gone up ter the bloody Captain, reintroduced myself as ‘is former ensign bride’s…” The Lieutenant’s eyes shifted toward Liam. “er…friend?” The sound that followed the Lieutenant’s rhetorical question was a crude mixture of boisterous laughter and rapid questions. All at once, all the men made sarcastic remarks about just what he should have told the Captain while others shouted questions about the remaining tattoos Brian sported on his forearm.
Lieutenant Brian stuck his thumb and index finger between his lips and whistled over the commotion. “Wahn more story, wahn more story,” he promised, motioning with his hands for everyone to settle down. Reluctant to succumb to silence yet again but also excited for the third tale, the group obeyed and relaxed back into place. The Lieutenant cleared his throat and swept his arms out to the side as he turned to Liam and bowed. “Very good, me boy. Now: would ya do the honors?” Liam’s face lit up in a boyish grin. “De harpoon, please.”
My feet had touched solid, English soil for the first time in eighteen months. My first few weeks aboard the HMS Lightning as sub-lieutenant had passed quickly, and for a recent capture we had made in the east Atlantic, the crew had been rewarded with a brief holiday ashore. The holiday passed quickly, hours wasted in familiar taverns surrounded by familiar friends and accents. On our last day of freedom, I took a coach that delivered me to my home in the British Isles. Upon my return, however, I found my younger sister to be ill. Her husband had passed away the fall before; both her children were enrolled in finishing school. I requested extended leave from Captain Ramsey the following morning.
I listened with one ear to the rough sound of a carriage pass over the cobblestones behind me. With the other ear I strained to pick up the conversation going on between the passengers and make sense of shards of gossip I could hear the women passing. Even here, my reputation and stories of my seafaring adventures had preceded my arrival. Even here I was met with indulgent, female fans and young, adoring sailor wannabes miles before I was greeted. I could practically hear them cheering from the docks before we’d even spotted England on the horizon. Though at home, it seemed the attention was far more tolerable than in foreign countries.
I’d paid a recent visit to London, where I deposited the last of the navy’s payment with the Barclays and was fitted for a new uniform. I strode proudly though the streets, my pockets heavy with the recent pay and a new top hat balanced perfectly atop my newly trimmed hair. I ducked through backstreets and alleyways, basking in the familiar scents of familiar foods that rose in bakeries I had visited as a boy and the crisp, English breeze that had blown in from the coast. At the same time, I hunted for the fish market – a feat I’d yet to accomplish during my stay. My nieces had drawn me directions. There were several misspellings on the map’s labels and the paper they had ripped from an etiquette book was smothered in amateurish sketches.
It took me an hour to realize they had mistaken Tavistock Place for Tavistock Square and Tavistock Square for Tavistock Street. Shortly thereafter I discarded of the map and took to asking for directions, instead. I’d made it as far as Wardour Street before I encountered Harpoon Hannah.
She wore a light pink bonnet tied down over yellow ringlets of her hair. The back was decorated with fine rosebuds that were hardly the size of the tip of my pinky finger. A full, white cotton dress fluttered around her ankles as she paced back and forth in front of the jeweler’s window. She had full, pink lips that formed the perfect frown and thin, yellow eyebrows that were knitted together and gave her the most innocent yet troubled of expressions. I banished the looming thought of the fish market to the back of my mind for the time being and crossed to the other side of the street once a buggy had passed.
Casually, I strolled nearer the stain glass window that she peered in. Edging closer and closer, I feigned interest in the various necklaces displayed through the glass until we were within arm’s length of one another. “Which one was it that caught your eye, but refuses to give it back?”
She jumped slightly at the sound of my voice but, with a light blush that crept along her neck, pointed to a gold encrusted necklace anyway. “Ahh,” I hummed and nodded my head slowly. “Quite the ornament for quite the lady.” She laughed softly, but righted herself quickly thereafter and showed no further signs of having heard me. I rocked up on my toes, then back on my heels, fidgeting in the awkward silence.
“As sub-lieutenant of the HMS Lightning, I assure you, I am a good listener. See, aboard the ship, it’s practically my job to…” I trailed off as I pondered the thought. I’d already extracted another giggle from the shy girl. “Actually, my job is to order about the crew and ignore the lot entirely; but as I’m not on the ship, I can’t really be sub-lieutenant today, anyway, now could I?” “I suppose… no, I suppose not,” she stuttered, dropping her gaze to the cobblestones and staring at her shoes. I followed her gaze. “What a lovely pair of slippers,” I complimented dryly. “Where did you get them done?”
She directed me to a small shoe shop that resided several miles from where we stood. I imagined the shopkeeper fitting her with a pair of slippers. In my imagination, he was a portly man with an angular beard and round spectacles with thick lenses, each the size of a cherry. In my imagination, he looked a rather lot like Father Christmas – or at least, just how I imagined the gentleman would look.
A Christmas cracker popped into the shopkeeper’s meaty hand in the picture in my mind. I snorted aloud at the image, turned it quickly into a cough, and distracted my mind with more normal things to ponder… Like whether or not this girl was shy with everyone, or with only men, or strictly with such suave, good-looking sub-lieutenants such as… My head snapped up to the sound of footsteps hurrying away.
“Wait, wait – my thoughts needn’t scare you off!” I caught up to her and swiftly caught her hand in mine. I planted a soft peck on the top of her ungloved hand. Such soft skin. “What if I need to get myself a pair of shoes? I wouldn’t even know what name to give the shopkeeper should he ask what angel referred me to his store.” At this, she grinned.
“You can tell him Hannah Harvey sent you.” She turned to go again. “You could come along to say ‘hello,’” I suggested. “You seem to know a fine slipper when you see it, Hannah Harvey. I could use your keen eye by my side.” She laughed boldly over one shoulder but didn’t stop pulling away. “Unfortunately for you, my keen eye and I have an appointment at the tailor’s.”
I sighed dramatically. “That is unfortunate.” She briefly cast me a half-smile. As she set off down the street, she assured me: “We will meet again, sub-lieutenant.”
I stood still a moment longer, frozen in the middle of the walkway. Slowly, I reemerged into reality as a carriage unloaded nearby and its occupants shouldered past. A few of them seemed to recognize me, from picture or from uniform. But rather than answer any questions or greet any more Englishmen, I just tipped my hat as they glanced back and ducked into the jeweler’s. A brass bell tinkled as the door opened and closed.
The room was done up in rich browns and burgundies. The decorations were sparse but lavish; a collection of gold and silver jewelries were displayed in long cases that to me looked like glass caskets. I surveyed the room and approached the gentleman who ran the shop. He surveyed me as well. “Can I… help you… sir?” he sneered, dragging his eyes over top of my uniform with an inconvenienced expression. I self-consciously brushed imaginary lint from the front of my jacket. “The gold and sapphire necklace in the window.”
The man moved slowly, glancing to the left at the window display and then forcing his eyes back to mine. Clearly, he had heard me – still, he made no move to comply. “A fine piece.” “Yes… a fine piece I wish to purchase,” I edged, resisting an eye roll and instead settling to glare at him with an incredulous expression. I narrowed my eyes to slits and matched his displeased expression with one of my own.
“And do you have the money to purchase such a piece, Mr…?” “Dawkins. Sub-Lieutenant Dawkins.” I watched his expression fall slightly. He fumbled with his monocle, readjusting it so he could scrunch is furry eyebrow down over it in a deeper frown. “If you cannot afford the full price now, Mr. Dawkins…” I expected him to suggest I put down several gold pieces toward the necklace and return to make a second payment. Rather, he finished with: “You may show yourself to the door.”
I was still for a split-second. I snapped to attention and busied myself with fishing out sufficient coins from my pocket. Impatiently, the clerk droned on. “I am not running a toy store, Mr. Dawkins. Browsing would be fu--”
I slammed a fistful of the silver pieces on the counter all at once. I clutched the remaining coins in my other fist, and dropped them, one by one, onto the top of the pile – in front of the shopkeeper’s taken aback expression. “Fu-fu-futile,” he finished and swallowed a large gulp of air. “The gold and sapphire necklace, please,” I repeated significantly.
The gentleman readjusted his monocle once again with a shaky hand but obeyed this time, turning quickly to the window and removing the necklace from display.
“Gift wrapped,” I added stiffly as he worked.
He nodded over one shoulder and inhaled another gulp. A moment later, the shopkeeper returned to the display case with a pearl colored box that sported a cherry red ribbon on top. “Is the gift wrap to your liking, sire?” I shook my head and we exchanged necklace for silver. “W-we also specialize in repairs. If there is any trouble with the necklace… o-or with any of your jewelry-”
“I’ll let her know,” I interrupted intolerantly and wedged the box under one arm. “Now, how do I get to the tailor’s from here?” “M-men’s?”
The little, brass bell tinkled again as I pulled open the door. “No. Women’s.”
The dressmaker’s shop was plagued with lace and chartreuse wallpaper. Little, miniature dresses lined the front of the window and several rolls of paper that displayed sketches of several different fashions adorned the walls. I shuddered as I stepped over the threshold.
“Sir? Is there something I can do for you?” I made a beeline for the plainly dress girl who ran the downstairs of the shop. She poured over a thick booklet of pages marked November.
As I approached, she slid the cedar pencil in between the pages and closed the cover. On the front of the booklet was written Appointments. “I am looking for a Ms. Hannah Harvey.”
The girl provided me with a well-mannered smile and motioned toward a couch that faced the atrociously feminine wallpaper. “I believe Miss Harvey is in the middle of a dress fitting, but you are welcome to wait, sir.”
I awoke with a start to the sound of light chatter and footsteps coming down the staircase.
I leapt up from the couch, holding my top hat steady on my way up and smoothing the front of my uniform. “Have the dress brought to my grandmother’s by the weekend...” “Miss Harvey!”
She jumped and clasped one hand over her heart. The girl at the counter reached for her elbow and steadied the startled woman. My face reddened and I apologized brusquely. “Mr. Dawkins,” she gasped and took the remaining steps two at a time. I crossed the room quickly and saw that seemed to be having an easier time bringing herself to look me in the eye. “What a surprise!”
“Y-yes, I imagine it is.” I fumbled with the package I had concealed behind my back. “I imagine this is quite a surprise as well, no?”
I revealed the gift and clasped my hands behind my back as I allowed her the time to peek under the lid, spot the necklace, and squeal accordingly.
Lady Harvey thanked me profusely, ordering the bookkeeper to put the parcel with her dress and have it, too, delivered to her grandmother’s by the weekend. The bookkeeper obliged and nodded politely as she took the package for storage in a back room.
The moment we were let alone in the parlor of the dressmaker’s shop, Lady Harvey confessed: “I am taking lunch at the Winchel’s tea shop this afternoon. I am wondering if you would like to join me…”
Her voice was hopeful, but at the same time still slightly meek. I awarded her a reassuring smile and offered her my arm. She took it gently.
Six – Miss Harvey’s “magic number” – or so my mates called the number of drinks it took a person to loosen up. There was one other man who sat in the corner by the furnace. He’d escorted a blond haired woman to a table across from the room from ours. The woman’s chaperone settled into a plush seat at the table adjacent to theirs and enjoyed several trays of jam and biscuits. All the while, her eyes were continuously darting back to check up on the couple and I could tell by the way she reacted to what the pair were saying that she had taken to eavesdropping on their conversation. Still, the other gentleman seemed to be having an easier time with the lunch than I.
Nine – the number of wine goblets it took me to relax in the imperious presence of lace curtains and doilies and look past the fact I was dining in a tea house with a roomful of women.
“…and I’ve lived with the woman since I was a child. She refuses to go out, now, and being so frugal… I want to thank you again for the present; I don’t mean to complain, but with my grandmother dictating my trips to the market, if it hadn’t have been for you, I’d have had hardly any chance at all that to purchase…” “Oh, look: desserts!”
The young girl, dressed in a uniform dress and apron, balanced a tray of tea on one arm and pushed a trolley of sweet treats between tables with the other. Desperate to interrupt the Lady Harvey’s newfound, never-ending voice, I called the server over. She busied herself with setting our table with porcelain mugs for tea, but I waved the teapot away and asked that she instead bring a second bottle of wine in the teapot’s place. “Miss Harvey, do you care for something sweet?”
The conflicted young lady glanced between her purse and the frosted and sugar coated trolley with a clear expression of temptation. Finally, she sighed audibly and dropped her hands into her lap. “I don’t suppose Grandmother would approve.” Her head snapped up and her eyes glinted all of a sudden. “In fact, I know she wouldn’t, as something just like this happened when I was nine. She and I had gone out to her brother’s farm, and he’d taken us out to dinner--”
“The luncheon is on me, Miss Harvey,” I interrupted, rushing so fast that I stumbled over my own words. I turned to the servant, who had already begun backing away to attend to the next table. “Desserts!” I demanded.
Miss Harvey’s eyes grew wide as the trolley rolled in front of her and a grin spread over her childlike face. She stared down into the treats with wonder and, after only a moment’s hesitation, began piling her dinner plate with sweeter, more sugary foods than the cucumber sandwiches we had previously… endured. She went straight for the bread and butter pudding, sugar cakes, and candy flowers.
I slumped back into my chair and exhaled deeply. Another server emerged from the double doors at the back of the room and presented us with a second bottle of British red wine. I took it gratefully and went for my tenth glass. I filled Miss Harvey’s glass, as well, though she hardly noticed. She busied herself with the remaining lemon cream, comfit, and orange marmalade she had spared in her first round of desserts.
The weeks passed quickly. My sister had recovered almost completely, though remained weak and confined to her bed for some time. I hired one of the girls from down the street to tend to her, taking over the duties myself once the child went home for the night. The girls continued their schooling and, in between fruitless instructing the two on the construction of a legible map of London, I courted the Lady Harvey.
With each day that passed, my pockets grew lighter and lighter. By the end of the week, I was out another fistful of silver coins that were put toward the companion of Miss Harvey’s necklace, a pair of gold and sapphire earrings.
Conversation soon dwindled to nothing more than vapid small talk between her and me. I practiced my trick of showering her with material prizes in order to skip the more tedious parts of her company, though I failed to perfect it while ashore.
My efforts were rewarded once with a kiss, one day, behind a shop where we had a new, jade outer coat fitted for her. But the time left in my leave was dwindling, as were the bronze and silver pieces I’d invested in the bank. The HMS Lightning was back in port; the night before I boarded the Lady Harvey and I attended an opera.
“On some nights aboard the Lightning, the lads and I can see the Northern star.” We walked the streets of London in silence, Miss Harvey’s face set in a cold frown. She was sulking, and insisted upon walking a good two or three feet behind me. She dragged her feet along the cobblestone, scuffing the toes of the new shoes I had made for her last week. When I reminded her of this, she only was adamant that she didn’t care. “They are my shoes, Mr. Dawkins,” she had retorted. “I shall scuff the toes if I like; I shall buy a new pair if I dislike it.” Naturally, by ‘I’ she had meant ‘you.’
“I suppose it’s difficult to see in the city.” She had given up responding to my small talk several blocks back and now trudged along in silence. I listened to the first bell of the watch ring aboard the Lightning. The tinny sound washed out over the harbor and echoed through the backstreets of London. “I sail at morning tide… you did hear me tell you earlier, no?” I didn’t turn around when she scoffed. Any time I looked in her direction, she only fixed her head in the opposite direction. Instead, I waited for her to catch up so we could cross the street. “I heard you the first eight times, actually.” Her voice was sarcastically aloof. I forced myself to not be bothered by the retort.
“As far as I know, the Captain has made no plans to dock back in England for a bit,” I continued calmly. “I am obliged to send a quarter of my pay to my sister and nieces, but I figure half of the pay will suffice for you. Until I return, that is.” “Oh, Brian!” She squealed as we came to the other side of the street. I took advantage in this break in silence and turned to face her. Lady Harvey’s face had lit up with a wide grin. “My dear, don’t thank me qui--” “Look!” I followed her twinkling eyes. They stared into the window of a bakery lit by candles. The aroma of freshly baked bread and almond gingerbread filtered out through the open window.
“Now, dear--” I groaned, but was instantly interrupted. “Oh, Brian, dear, couldn’t we just this once?” she whined, tugging at the collar of my jacket and stamping her foot like a child. I brushed her hands away and stared at her with an incredulous expression. “Just this once?” I echoed. “Will it always be ‘just this once’?”
Her smile dropped and was replaced by that scowl. “I don’t know what you mean,” she pouted. “I don’t understand why you can’t just treat a lady every once in a while, Brian. You even refuse to support me while you’re away!” “I’m doing what I can! You’re already promised more of what I ought to make this year than my family!” She immaturely narrowed her eyes at me. I half wondered if she’d go so far as to stick her tongue out, too.
“Oh, and is that why you’re keeping the other quarter, Mr. Dawkins?” When I refused to entertain such a thought with a response, she hissed the word selfish under her breath. I groaned inwardly. I already felt bored with the conversation. Per usual. My shoulders drooped as I slumped against the brick wall of the bakery.
“I don’t have any money left, Hannah,” I admitted, spacing my words carefully and purposefully. “I’m down to my last…” I resisted the temptation to revert to a more nautical exclamation. “…red cent. There is nothing more for you to take.” She quieted her voice to a discontented whisper. “Take? Take? Is that why we are walking home from the theatre? Is it because I take so much that you insisted we not call for a carriage?”
If I say ‘yes’… The Lady Harvey growled under her breath when I did not answer. “Then I regret to inform you I have nothing left for you to take, either, Mr. Dawkins,” she huffed. The Lady Harvey stomped off toward her home. With a peculiar sense of relief, I watched her go and, once she had disappeared from sight, slipped across the street into the tavern.
One – the number of mugs of ale it took for me to forget the lass. Two – the number of mugs it took for me to spend my last red cent.
“What a wench,” Ezra huffed in disbelief. This time, at the end of the story the lads had groaned. The Lieutenant, however, simply shrugged off both the statement as well as the sailor’s sympathy.
“Ah, it wasn’t awl that terrible. I was young,” he said dismissively. “I healed.” “Oh, an’ ah bet the ale helped with that, skip!”
The group indulged in a final round of laughter as the final bell clanged in the background. Wordlessly, all five men turned to stare at the brass structure from the corner of their eyes. At first, nobody moved toward the hammocks. They all stared at one another but avoided eye contact with the Lieutenant.
Almost as if the bell had broken a trance, the Lieutenant stood, straightened his uniform, and ordered in a stern voice: “The watch is over, lads, Liam. Ter the hammocks.”
Slowly, as if savoring the last tendrils of the cool evening, one by one the men began to stand and, under the Lieutenant’s supervision, move below deck.
Lieutenant Brian’s convivial smirk had been replaced by a cold expression of authority. The brass buttons of his Lieutenant uniform glinted in the moonlight.
As Ezra descended the stairs below deck, he casted Liam a lopsided smile. Liam returned the expression with a convivial smirk of his own. “A whale av a tale, awl right. A gran’ whale av a tale.”
The tangerine rays hammered against the whitecaps of the Atlantic and reflected against the waves in flashes of white. The shore included a thin stretch of pearl colored sand that also sparkled in the sunlight, but consisted mostly of pebbles and cement benches. One by one the men hurried down the gangplank and crowded ashore. The Captain and Lieutenant led the HMS Narcissus into France.
“So what do I do? I grab our Captain’s sword and run the first mate through, straight in the ribs!” The cluster of ship’s boys erupted into wild applause and cheers. “The Captain was taken immediately to the infirmary. I, of course, had to take over in his absence. We tore out of port faster than you've ever seen us do on the Narcissus and chased down the imps. And let me tell you, mates: it was a bloody battle! Guts and brains were flying everywhere - we had pistols and cannons and pirates' swords!” Ooh’s and ahh’s rippled through the foursome.
“But for King Louis’ officers, it was easy as pie. Within the hour we were down to the last pirate. Half my crew was bloodied; at least a dozen of the men were missing limbs. I'd boarded the Arachnid as offense at the beginning of the battle.” The boy lowered his voice now for dramatic effect and spaced his words purposefully. “It was just me and the pirate.” Several of the boys inhaled sharply, but didn’t exhale. They all leaned closer. The boy who told the story narrowed his eyes and raised a finger. He sliced his finger through the air in front of his neck, signifying the death of the pirate. The exhalations came as whoops and hollers. “And wha’ ‘appened then, Perry?” “Wha’ ‘appened then? We’d awl ready killed awl t’pirates, you waif!”
Liam listened to Perry snap at Amos’s question, but only with one ear. Finally, he spotted Lieutenant Brian in the crowd of eager French onlookers and the Narcissus’ men. “That’s a wonderful tale – a whale av a tale, Perry,” Liam interjected, interrupting the argument that had developed over the end of the story. “But ah’ve got ter run; I’ll catch you lot at dinner!” “You’re going? Must you really go?” The young girl who’d asked the question looked disappointed. She had thick, caramel colored hair that hung only as far as her jaw and sprung out around her navy eyes in carefully combed waves. She wore a soft yellow dress that brushed the wooden beams of the boardwalk with the hem.
“Ah’ve got ter speak wi’ de Lieutenant.” Liam lowered his voice and leaned in as he added: “Important business… You know: pirates.” She rolled her eyes and creased her eyebrows into a childish glare. “Don’t give me that rubbish, Liam,” she insisted. “Perry has enough tall tales for the both of you. Besides, I like your stories.” The girl’s glower lessened slightly and threatened to turn into a half-smile. “Especially the one about the mermaid.” “Firstly, that’s ship’s boy Pendleton,” Liam retorted. “But secondly… t’anks.”
Both children broke out into wide grins. The young girl waved goodbye as he began making his way through the crowd. But before he’d disappeared completely, Liam Pendleton turned back over his shoulder: “Oh, I almost forgot! Say I write down de mermaid’s story wan day. I won’t even know wot’s the full name that goes on de dedication page!” The young girl blushed. “Belle Bromfeld!”
With a satisfied nod, he left it at that. Liam rewarded the rest of them with a distracted goodbye wave and took off at a run in the Lieutenant’s direction. He elbowed his way past livestock and other children, squeezing past women’s dresses and in around adult’s legs with difficulty. Thankfully, the Lieutenant had paused near the blacksmith’s to entertain two more of the crewmen and a woman they had picked up at the taverns. Before long, Liam had caught up. “…oh, she was a real mermaid – a real swordfish, too! Stabbed me right in the--”
“Brian! Brian!” The group of officers, plus the lady they escorted, looked up from their laughter. Quickly, all but Brian’s wide grins disappeared and were replaced by the formal, grim expression of narrowed eyes and frowned mouth the men usually addressed crewmembers with. “Lieutenant Dawkins to you, ship’s boy,” the first officer snarled. “That’s quite alright, Mr. Cradshaw,” Lieutenant Brian interrupted, holding a hand up to silence the midshipman’s response.
“Now, feel free ter find somethin’ ter keep yourself busy; you can also feel free ter show yourself back ter the Narcissus, but I am ter ‘ave a word wif the young Mr. Liam, ‘ere.” He replied with the same level of petulance Mr. Cradshaw had shown the boy. “…Preferably without interruptions.” Mr. Cradshaw remained still. “…Preferably without a third wheel, as well." The Lieutenant cleared his throat to fill the silence. “Mr. Cradshaw?” “…Lord Dawkins?” “…Preferably without your interruptions.”
Midshipman Cradshaw gave his Lieutenant and curt nod and turned to the rest of his group. Grumbling amongst themselves at the dissatisfaction of missing out on the ending to the Lieutenant’s story, they sauntered around the opposite side of the boardwalk in search of other entertainment. Perhaps a tavern.
“Now, wot was it ya wanted ter tell me?” “Thar’s somethin’ oi want ter show yer, Lieutenant.”
Liam rolled the left sleeve of his cotton shirt to the top of his elbow. He revealed a blotchy patch of skin at the very top of the underside of his forearm where the inky images of a ship wheel and bell had been stamped. The skin around the edges of the tattoo was still hot and angry. The Lieutenant ooh’d and ahh’d over the carefully drawn figures. “And do these tattoos come wif stories?” Liam cast Brian a cheeky grin. “You jist pick wan, you doubtin’ Thomas.”
Brian pointed to the bell, the more discrete of the two. “Ah, de Banyan Belle!” Liam said as he rolled his sleeve back down. Brian chuckled and clapped a hand on Liam’s narrow shoulder.
“Come on, lad, I’ll buy ya a drink.” Brian and Liam aimed for the oak tavern door at a leisurely saunter. “Now, the Banyan Bell: is that a good wahn?” “Is that a good one?!” Liam repeated with an incredulous scoff. He pronounced each word purposefully, careful to ensure each word was void of his usual Irish accent.
“The tangerine rays hammered against the whitecaps of the Atlantic and reflected against the waves in flashes of white. The shore included a thin stretch of pearl colored sand that also sparkled in the sunlight, but consisted mostly of pebbles and cement benches. One by one the men hurried down the gangplank and crowded ashore. “The Captain and Lieutenant led the Narcissus into France…”