Folds upon folds of white muslin dropped down from beneath the band of tea rose ribbon tied around her waist and swept down around her tea rose slippers in light, airy waves of embroidered flowers. She’d rolled her strawberry blond hair in rags and then piled them high on her head so they fell lightly around her eyes and mingled with the apple blossoms. Every once in a while, she would finger the strand of pearls pulled loosely around her neck, or fidget with the stems of her bouquet. But mostly, she kept one arm hooked dutifully around that of her recent husband, her chin stuck just high enough in the air and her lips curled in just enough of a smile.
Her sister followed her about in a similar fashion. She was only a year younger than the Missus Magdoline Elizabeth Seabrook, but with her straight, copper-colored hair, which lacked of apple blossoms, and plainness, Theodora looked several years her sister’s junior. Still, the other guests smiled politely as she passed by at Magdoline’s heels and complimented her “fine, elegant gown,” which was really nothing more than the dress her mother, Sybil, had fashioned for Magdoline’s sixteenth birthday, plus a few extra ribbons and curls. It was all rather silly, really, and it was all Lieutenant Brian James Dawkins could do not to laugh in spite of his nieces. _ _
“What do you think of the wedding breakfast, Uncle?” The youngest of the Poole daughters, dressed in an even plainer, baby blue dress and her hair pulled cropped short in accordance with her age, clasped between her hands a plump vine of green grapes. One by one, she popped the grapes into her mouth in between words.
“Your sisters are quite the entertainers, if nothin’ else.” She offered him a grape and went on chewing thoughtfully on her own. “Ah, now there’s me boy.” Liam, two white, round dinner plate wedged between his hands and arms, pushed his way, inch through inch, through the cluster of wedding-goers. They were few in number but filled the antique cottage a little too well.
Once at Lieutenant Dawkin’s feet, he divvied the plates between both hands. “‘Ere yer are, sir. A steamin’ plate of the best of de weddin’ breakfast.” Each of the plates was piled with generous handfuls of raisins, toffees, strips of fish, chicken, buttered roles and cranberry bread. He placed two more mugs, one of coffee and the other of hot chocolate, on the edge of the stool.
“Ah, thank ya, Liam!” Lieutenant Dawkins clapped his hands around the mug of coffee and sloshed the steaming, bitter liquid to the back of his throat.
“Liam!” he snapped. It was all he could do not to spit the bland drink back into the mug. He recoiled from the remaining coffee, shoving the mug back into the gawky boy’s hands and exchanging it for the cup of hot chocolate. He knocked back a couple swings of the hot chocolate to wash the bitterness from between his teeth. In between generous gulps, he ordered: “More sugar.” He glanced down at the now half-empty mug of hot chocolate. “And get yourself another hot chocolate while you’re over there.”
“Aye, sir.” Liam bowed his head a half-inch first at his Lieutenant, then at his Lieutenant’s youngest niece. Biting back any bitter comments that stirred behind his tightly pressed lips, he kept his head bent low as he followed the path back to the large dining table.
Before Dawkins had so much as quit staring at the steamy interior of a mug and it’s thick, chocolaty contents he heard another of the excited shrieks of his parading nieces.
“Oh, Uncle!” They flounced in his direction, Magdoline still hooked proudly onto the arm of Mister Seabrook and Theodora marching, looking obviously alone, at their heels. Magdoline tried to make a show out of relinquishing herself of her husband’s company, but not before Theodora had pushed her way between the couple and under the nose of their Uncle. “What do you think of my dress?” she chattered, holding the skirt out as she twirled. “Isn’t it just wonderful? It’s Maggie’s old thing, but you can hardly tell, can you? No, I thought not. See, Mum and I did it up a little. Some lace here, a ribbon or two there. Wonderful, just like I said, isn’t it?”
She waited for Dawkins to give a quick nod before continuing on with her monologue. “It’s much better than how Maggie had it, don’t you think? Much more… cloche de la balle, non?”
“Oui, mon cher.” Not missing the glare that worked its way across his elder niece’s once smiling face, he extended one hand to take hers. “And ya, dear niece, make a beautiful mariée.” “Ah, merci.” She smiled politely. “And how are things aboard the Merry Gale?” “She’s certainly seen ‘nuff action in her days. But with ole Boney off them waters… Why, the waters ‘re clam ‘nuff ter host a weddin’ on the deck!”
There was general polite laughter, mostly from Magdoline. But before the conversation could continue, Theodora had again interrupted. “What would be bad luck, wouldn’t it, Lieutenant?” Her eyes grew even wider as she processed the thought. “Why, Maggie! How could you even entertain such an idea? It’s bad enough to have a woman aboard, isn’t that right, Lieutenant? But to be married on board?”
“Please, Dora.” Maggie gave her younger sister a light smack with the tips of her fingers. “He was only teasing.” Turning to Dawkins, she added in a lower voice: “Je suis désolé, Uncle. Elle est encore un enfant.” Theodora, whose French was as poor as much as she appeared younger than Magdoline, blushed a deep amaranth.
Thankfully Liam provided a pleasant distraction by coming back with a new round of drinks. “Mesdames, me cabin boy. Liam, me nieces: the Missus Magdoline Seabrook and her sisters, Miss Theodora and Eleanor. Ah, and ‘ere’s the last of ‘em: the lil’ Miss Elvira.”
The youngest of the nieces, wrapped in a white muslin and Prussian blue spencer, marched up, her face scrunched into a scowl upon hearing the use of her full name. “It’s Ellie, Uncle,” she reminded him with a sigh, then stretched her hand out to touch Liam’s and then to him repeated: “It’s Ellie.” “Oh… uh…how’re ye doin’, Ellie?” He scratched at the skin once she removed her fingers like they had left an invisible itch. “I’m alright.”
Eleanor said hello next, then Magdoline, and finally, remembering her manners, Theodora. She doubled over into a great sweep of a bow, her lips pressed tightly together and her eyes downcast at the less than spectacularly dressed boy, who could have been of no more than thirteen years. “Enchanté, Mister Liam. Je m’appelle Theodora Mari Poole.”
Still doubled over in a courtesy and with her head hanging somewhere in the knee region, she lifted a hand toward his face. Hesitantly, and upon Dawkin’s insistence only, he took her hand with the very tips of his own fingers. “Gran’ ter meet yer,” he piped. Theodora straightened, a silly grin plastered across her jaw in place of her usually falsely-languid expression, and took note for the first time of the large mugs balanced in his smallish grip.
“Ah, Liam! Pour moi?” she squealed and snatched the nearest mug. With a not-so-subtle batting of the eyelashes, she lifted the rim to her lips and took a demure swallow. Almost immediately, the brownish liquid came spraying back out between her silly smile.
“Quelle horreur!” she shrieked and shoved the mug back at him.
Just as quickly as she had robbed the stunned ship’s boy of the first mug, she snatched up the second. Sniffing first and recognizing the thick contents to be hot chocolate, she smiled to herself and took a larger, less-lady-like swig. “Trés bonne.” She pointed to the first mug in his hands. “That one could use a little more sugar.”
Lieutenant cut his eyes at the ship’s boy. “Oui?” “Aye, sir.” He forced the words out, against his stirring annoyance, and dutifully, though less energetically, bent his head and retraced his steps for a third time.
“Maggie,” the littlest, Ellie, whined in her small voice, and tugged at the folds of Magdoline’s skirt with her short fingers. “Tell Uncle how you met Mr. Seabrook.” “Oh, no, Ellie.” Magdoline stared down the end of her nose at her younger sisters, brushing the hands of the youngest one away from her new dress. “Uncle doesn’t want to hear that old story again.”
“He’s not the only one.” Theodora had tried, but failed, to keep her voice low. Every one of her sisters but Magdoline, who hardly glanced in her direction, glared or stared up at her. Theodora gave a small cough and, managing to speak quietly enough so that only Elvira and Eleanor could hear, hissed: “Stop gawking, you. Trés enfantin.”
Elvira, who had only just begun her French studies, squished her eyes closed as she translated the short phrase in her head. “Trés enfantin?” she repeated, her eyes flying open. “I can hardly believe that you are calling us childish, Theo-dor-a!” “Oh? And what do you mean by that, Elvira?”
This time, she scrunched up her face from annoyance at being addressed by her full name. She stuck both hands on her hips and was just about to stick her tongue out at Theodora when Magdoline interrupted. “S’il vous plaît,” she snapped. “Behave yourself at my wedding, will you?” Lieutenant Dawkins, who had been pushed to the outside of the circle of the Poole daughters, stared at the place on the forearm of his coat sleeve where his heart tattoo would be. With only a second of hesitation, he straightened and edged his way in between his nieces, the youngest of which had begun to tug at one another’s curls and braids and all of which were tossing insults back and forth, in both French and English.
“Girls, girls, listen to Magdoline, now. ‘Ere. ‘Ave a seat. There ya go,” he said as each of the girls dropped their fists back to their sides and settled on the couch. Magdoline settled on her own half, the folds of her wedding dress cascading down over the sides of the moderately carved wooden frame. Initially, Theodora had mirrored this. However, each of her younger sisters, much to Theodora’s frustration, settled on either side of her. Elvira leaned forward eagerly.
“Have you got a story?” she whispered, wide-eyed.
“Indeed I do.” The Lieutenant smiled. Quickly, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve. He slipped it and the coat sleeve up just enough to reveal the tattoo. The crimson heart had faded against his tanned and scarred skin a bit over the years. The shape of the heart remained, however.
“Liam! Come! Sit!” Eleanor patted the only free space that remained on the couch. “Uncle’s going to tell a story.”
He stepped clumsily over the feet of the other girls, thick drops off coffee sloshing over the side of the mug as he clamored over to Eleanor and squeezed onto the bench. Eleanor and Elvira squished closer together. Theodora, however, remained in place, her nose poked high into the air and her eyes half hooded. “Pass it ter the Lieutenant,” Liam whispered, shoving the mug into Eleanor’s hands. She gave her eyelashes two bats before turning to Theodora and passing it along.
“I suspect your mother never told ya’ how she met your father. Am I right?” “Uncle!” Theodora gasped, scowling at both her Uncle and the mug that Elvira held out to her. “That tattoo is bad enough. What it has to do with our mother, however, je ne sais pas.”
“Non,” the Lieutenant snapped. “Ya do not know. But if ya would êtretranquille and give me the time ter tell ya, ya would.” Theodora’s lips came together, then apart, then together again like those of a fish. Sputtering for words, her eyes wide, she fumbled with the mug, taking it from Elvira and shoving it along toward Magdoline.
“B-b-but… Uncle…!” “…was right,” Elvira finished for Theodora. “Now either laissez or shush yourself.”
Though against his better judgment, Lieutenant Dawkins let a small half-smile creep across his once-neutral face. Bonne, mon cher petit. “It was the dawnin’ of the 19th century. A couple of lads and I ‘ad been caught by a press gang in London and taken aboard the HMS Penelope where we served for the better part of a year. After the battle against the Guillaume Tell, the lot of us sailors was dumped back in England, jobless, homeless, and without pension.”
“Where did ye go?” Liam piped up, speaking around a mouthful of cranberry bread and chicken. Eleanor gave him a small poke in the ribs with her elbow, whispering hush at the same time her fingers wandered over to his breakfast plate and snatched up a couple of grapes. Elvira nudged her. Eleanor passed a portion of the vine to her. Brian chuckled. “Where else could I go? Over the course of the next few weeks, I found me way up to the school where Sybil ‘ad been put up to begin ‘er studies. For the remainder of the year, I stayed nearby, keepin’ an eye on ‘er and ‘er school and the over on the coast.” “Did ye see Annie there?” Liam asked.
Dawkins met this question with a less welcome answer. “No,” he said. “I’d sent Sybil to a school in London. It’s on the other side of England, lad.” The small circle that surrounded Brian Dawkins on either side sat awkwardly silent until he cleared his throat, removed his even stare from Liam’s young face, and continued the tale.
“Early the next year, word of a Spanish ship, La Ferdanista, made its way through England. They were takin’ on English sailors, showin’ off the partido fernandista’s desire for closer relations with Britain. Truth be told, our funds were thinnin’, mine and Sybil’s. And so, with ‘er blessin,’ I joined others on La Fernandista that spring. “We made runs between Spain and England, deliverin’ fine wines and cloths. And aboard, I befriended a Mister Joshua Poole.”
The ecru sun glared down on the steep hillside. For a mile in every direction, there was no tavern, no town, no civilization; only the browning grass and an old Roman lighthouse: the Torre de Hércules. He ran a gloved thumb over the barrel of the flintlock pistol and smiled when the brass caught the sunlight and flashed a bright gold. From across the field, he could hear the other man doing the same. “Señor Dawkins,” he called and slid one pistol back into its case. “Preparaparamorrir.”
“Poole,” Señor Dawkins snapped under his breath. The young, thin man he addressed jolted from where he leaned against the low, sandy wall that surrounded the light house and scampered to his side. As he came to a stop in the grass, flecks of dust and dirt sprayed up and onto the shoes of both men. “Aye, sir?” “Wot is that Spanish rat sayin’?”
“Uh, sir,” Joshua Poole stuttered and stared at Dawkins as if looking at a mad man. “Do you realize that just asked the only sailor, besides yourself, aboard La Fernandista who speaks English what a man who speaks only Galician said?” “Indeed, Poole, I do.”
Silence filled the moments that ensued. Dawkins fiddled with his pistol, an English weapon issued to each of the sailors aboard La Fernandista. He tore the cartridge open with his teeth. “In that case, sir… I do not know.” Dawkins stood the musket so that the muzzle pointed up into the sky. “Very well,” he sighed, looking around the hillside. “Does no one ‘ere speak English? No one?”
Facing Dawkins and Poole was Diego Ignacio Óscar de León, the man with a vengeance. Beside him stood his second, a scraggly, skinny man called Mateo, and Diego’s personal physician. Off to one side stood the mediator of the duel, and behind him, the sister of Diego and the reason for the whole affair: Jacinta de León. Diego glanced briefly at the Englishmen, but then turned back to his weapon and, like the others, offered no reply. “Very well indeed,” Dawkins grumbled. He turned to Poole. “If you’ll just-”
“Espera, espera, Señor!” Dawkins turned back toward the small circle of Spaniards. The portly mediator, his mustache moving up and down as he spoke, advanced with great effort toward the middle of the hillside. When he moved, he favored one foot slightly, letting the other drag a tad and leave a snake-like trail in the dirt behind. “¿Inglés?” Dawkins blinked at the heavy-set Spaniard whose sweat seemed to exceed the annual rainfall in A Coruña.
“Indeed,” he repeated after a moment. “Inglés.” The man’s mustache twitched as his wide lips stretched into a smile and made his cheeks look even puffier. He nodded vigorously up and down, then motioned toward Diego’s gun, then back at Dawkin’s. “Un, dous, tres…a dez. You shoot. Diego shoot.” His accent was thick and his voice was deep. When he had finished, he nodded his head vigorously again. “¿Si?”
“We know how a duel works, sir,” Joshua Poole piped up from behind Dawkins. “Can you or can you not provide translation for Mister Diego and Mister Dawkins?” “¿Inglés?” the mediator asked. “Si. In English, if you will.” Poole sighed and squinted in the bright sunshine.
“Boa. Un, dous, tres… a dez, Señor. El británico shoot. Diego shoot.” His wide grin returned, as did the energetic bobbing of the head. When he moved brown crusts of dirt and filth flaked off the collar of his white shirt, stained with flavescent and fallow streaks. Joshua dropped his head into his hands and groaned audibly. “You know, like… Bang! Bang!” The mediator made a fist with his thumb and index finger extended and made the motion of shooting a gun. “¿Entende?”
Brian Dawkins stuffed the powder down the barrel of the pistol, then took the ramrod and seated the ball and paper envelop on the powder charge. Then he picked the pistol up, balanced the weapon in his palm, and turned to face the Spaniard. “Can ya do me this, lad? Tell Diego over there that I will not kill ‘im.” His eyes flickered to the right, where Diego stood, scowling. Diego waved his second off, who carried the ornate, mahogany boxes with iron clasps where the guns were stored.
“Si, si, si.” Another nodding of the head. “Good. Then go.” The mediator stared, wide-eyed, at the Englishmen without moving. “Adios,” Joshua added from over Brian’s shoulder. The Spaniard clasped both hands in front of his chest, muttered another string of si’s, and bowed his head slightly before turning his back and retreating to neutral grounds between the duelers.
“Diego! ¡O home británico,” he called, cupping his hands around his mouth, “di que vai a matar ti!” He gave a small wave at the Englishmen once the message had been delivered in both English and Galician. Joshua and Brian returned the gesture with weak smiles.
“Se ten atendidoosseusproblemas, lixo británico,” Diego called back at Brian. His strong voice rolled over the steep hillside, somersaulted at the coast that lay beyond them, and was lost in the cry of the waves that slapped at the docks. “Mediador, nasúamarca.”
Joshua leaned close to Brian and whispered, “I think we’re starting.” “Yeah, Poole, I gathered as much,” he hissed under his breath.
“¡A miñamarca!” the mediator echoed, and motioned for both men to turn their backs to one another. “Dezpasos. ¿Se recorda, señores? Bang! Bang!” Brian Dawkins awarded the mediator’s efforts with a half-smile, half-grimace, and a wave of the hand. “Boa. Un, dous, tres, catro…”
On the fifth step, Brian came to where Diego’s sister, Jacinta, stood. Her dark hair was covered by an even darker veil of black lace. Between her slender fingers, she worked the fraying edges of a handkerchief. A long, beaded chain with a bejeweled cross at one end encircled her neck and fell higher than the deep neck of her black Spanish gown. “…seis, sete…”
“¡Por favor!” she yelled out as he passed. Thick tears watered at the edges of her dark, brown eyes. “Do not be afraid,” he whispered, keeping his head and his eyes pointed straight ahead. Further down on the coast, he could see La Fernandista bobbing atop the turquoise waves, smallish silhouettes of men moving about on the top deck and in the rigging. The Spanish naval jack billowed high atop the wind. “…oito…” “They will make me choose between my brother and lover.” More tears spilled over. “But I cannot.”
“You wench!” Joshua grabbed the woman by the arm, turned her face up toward his, and glowered down at the tears that came tumbling out. “Lucky for you, the guns will do the choosing.” He gave her a strong shake. “Next time someone asks if you speak English, it would do you well to tell speak up!” “…dez.”
A little sob escaped Jacinta’s lips. Joshua dropped her arm as if the touch burned him. The ten steps had been counted out. Each man stood his ground, stuck in the dust at twenty paces apart, their fingers outstretched, their backs still to one another, their ears straining to listen for the mediator’s final call.
Each man turned. Brian Dawkins, the challenged, raised his musket first. He squinted his eyes, lined the barrel up with Diego’s silhouette, and touched his finger to the trigger. The first shot sailed directly above Diego’s scalp. Boa.
Brian lowered the musket back to his shoulder. A small smirk played across Diego’s lips. “Lixo británico,” he repeated under his breath, raised a pistol, and focused it on Brian. “You are a fool, Señor Dawkins, if you did not expect me to avenge my sister’s honor.”
Joshua, bewildered, glanced back and forth between Brian and the challenger. “Do they all speak English?” he cried, but the question was interrupted by the sharp crack of a bullet spewing from the barrel of the pistol.
The spherical, lead ball sank into the soft flesh of his shoulder. For the ensuing few seconds, the tension had been lifted. The echo of the crack of the gun rolled out into the waves and faded. Seagulls circled the shoreline a few yards beyond the tower, calling and singing as they dove at the frothy bubbles. A ship somewhere down the line of vessels rang the six o’clock bell. Sunshine filtered through the cutouts in the Roman lighthouse and flickered across the hillside in yellow splotches as wispy, white clouds crawled by.
The peace was interrupted by the dull clatter of Brian’s musket collapsing at the toes of his smudged navy boots. A spot of burgundy, the size of the tip of a sewing needle, appeared on the shoulder of his red doublet. The spot spread and clouded the emblem of the Spanish flag sewn to the breast pocket. Jacinta cried out something in Galician that neither the two Englishmen nor the Spaniards could quite decipher. Then a second shot rang out, drove into the sand at Brian Dawkin’s feet, and sent flecks of the earth spraying up into his face and the oozing red. Then time didn’t seem to move so slowly.
“You’ve cheated!” Joshua cried, flying forth from his position on the sidelines. He made a beeline for the Spaniards, abandoning the straight line only to sidestep and snatch the musket from Brian’s feet.
“You bloody Spaniards cheated!” He was nose-to-nose with Diego Ignacio Óscar de León. But he only bothered him with a momentary glare, and pushed the barrel of the musket against the neck of Diego’s second instead. “You rotten Spaniard. We agreed upon deloping. Neither man was supposed to hit!”
The man blinked back at Joshua. “Leave it alone. ‘Is sister’s ‘onor ‘as been satisfied.” Brian gasped his command from across the field. The fluidity of the words was punctured by his short breaths and the involuntarily whimpers that forced their way past his teeth. He hunched the injured shoulder over a bit, his other hand hovering over, but not touching, the wound. “Listen to the británico,” Diego commanded in a low voice. With one hand, he brushed Joshua’s musket out of the way. The second his fingers left the weapon, however, Joshua brought it back to Mateo.
“On your honor, sir, the duel was made under the conditions of no losses. No loss of blood, no loss of life… It is apparent to me, however, that we have sustained a loss… of your honor.” Mateo only ever glanced at the musket once. “Come now, Mateo! Every one of you Spaniards speaks English. Admit it!” He forced out a few breaths of sardonic laughter.
“Actually,” Diego interrupted once again. “He and the physician are the only ones who actually do not.” “Oh, wonderful.” Joshua grimaced and ripped the pistol away from Mateo. “Then I will entrust you, Mister de León, with the job of translating the message for me.”
He turned back toward Brian. Jacinta, who had managed to stifle her sniffles and sobbing for at least the present moment, had bustled over to Brian and fussed over his injury. She had the front of his Guardiamarina jacket off and lying in the dust. Underneath it was a loose, linen shirt, almost entirely soaked in the thick, scarlet ooze and the acrid stench of iron and undone down to his navel. The very tips of her fingertips had been colored by the wound, as well as the cuffs of her long, black sleeves.
“No thank you, Madam Jacinta de León,” Joshua announced. Once in arm’s length, he grabbed her by the shoulder and separated her from Brian. “You have done quite enough for Mister Dawkins here. Moitasgrazas.”
She stuttered for words and tried to reach past Joshua and lay her hands on Brian once again. Joshua, however, blocked her reach, held her back with one arm, and slipped his other around his friend’s waist. “Do not let him take you from me!” she wailed, her eyes wide and threatening to cry once again. It was all Brian could do not to let out too much a laugh and jostle the hole in his shoulder.
“Mon cher, I ‘ave let your brother ‘ave his fun. Now, it feels as though me innards are poorin’ out through a hole in me shoulder. Is one pain not enough?”
“A pain?! You think me a pain?!” she echoed dramatically and at her highest pitch. “¡O demo sorrisos que me insultarasí!”
Jacinta’s following complaints were incomprehensible, as her words ran together and she put on another grand show of her tears and wailing abilities.
Brian and Joshua were aware, however, that she at once stomped her feet into the ground with such force that the heel of one of her boots became stuck in the dry earth. Under the cover provided by Diego and Mateo’s distraction with freeing Jacinta’s flailing feet, Joshua and Brian slowly turned to face the harbor. “Ata nunca,” they whispered. “E adeus.”
La Fernandista pitched and rolled through another of the rougher waves. As the entire ship tilted, the door of the surgeon’s quarters flew open and banged several times against the wall. Through the doorway hurried Joshua. More slowly and carefully, Brian followed, his shoulder completely hunched over and encrusted in drying blood.
“Up there, on the table,” Joshua ordered, motioning toward the table where plenty a seaman had had bullets and splinters removed, limbs sawed off, and stomachs gutted. It was only with slight hesitation and dislike that Brian eyed the table. Dutifully, and fed up with the sharp ache in his shoulder, he obliged.
He had left his jacket at the lighthouse. Now Joshua helped him off with the shirt, bloated with the maroon shade of his blood. And as Brian worked his stiff shoulder so that he could lay it flat against the table, Joshua went about scouring through the surgeon’s stash of saws, knifes, needles, and threads.
The room was small and lit only by the dim lantern the pair had carried in. The quarters reeked of vinegar which had done little to wash the room of the stench of rotting corpses and flesh, vomit, and bodily fluids. It bobbed up and down with the bow of the ship, the waves crashing and tearing at the outside of the farthest wall where the sturdier of saws were hung with nails. Along the floorboards scampered a couple of rats with matted fur. They crouched behind one of the table legs, their yellow eyes glaring at Joshua as he rummaged through the drawers. They were waiting, the men knew, for the man on the table to fall asleep, or to die. They were waiting, the men knew, for lunch.
“Ah, here we are,” he said as he hunted. From one of the drawers, he produced a strange metal instrument, with two horns and a box on one end and a thin, hollow tube on the other. “The bullet extractor.” Brian had pulled both his feet onto the table and dug the heels of his boots into the soft wood. “I wish ‘e ‘ad shot me in the heart, and that Jacinta was ‘oldin’ the gun.”
Joshua stared blankly at Brian as he collected the bullet extractor and moved the lantern closer to the operating table. “Sir?” “It would ‘ave been more poetic.”
“Here.” Joshua shoved a tin cup at Brian. It was filled partway with rum and partway with opium. Within seconds, Brian had swallowed the strong liquid intended to dull the pain of what was to follow. He stared up at the damp ceiling and listened to the crash of the waves at his feet. Joshua’s fingers were cold. They touched the skin around his shoulder, growing closer to the wound as he felt around for the bullet.
Brian sucked in a sharp breath of air as Joshua’s fingers pressed the raw flesh. He closed his eyes tight and braced himself against the pain. Beneath Joshua’s fingers was a small, round lump, where the bullet lay imbedded in Brian’s shoulder. Neither man breathed at first. Joshua took the bullet extractor in both of his hands, then tentatively touched the end of the probe to the wound. Brian squirmed at the touch and gritted his teeth.
“More spirits before we begin?” Brian considered it, but shook his head quickly. “Quick use of the quarters, remember?” “Aye, aye, sir.” He moved the probe along the path of the bullet. It was within seconds that the probe touched the lead ball, though each second seemed to last a minute in the dank quarters of La Fernandista. Fresh blood welled up around the metal as it scratched into his shoulder anew.
“Almost there, sir,” Joshua mumbled. He squinted in the low light. With the probe touching the bullet, he cranked the handle of the bullet extractor. After several more long seconds during which the sweat broke out along Brian’s hairline and he dug his fingernails into the soft table to keep his body from convulsing, Joshua drew back. The extractor’s probe retracted from the wound. A small, crimson sphere was stuck to one end. “Good, lad,” Brian breathed, relaxing his grip on the table and leaning his head back. “Very good.”
He took another bottle of spirits from the cupboards, uncorked the long neck of the bottle, and poured a good amount of the liquid over the wind. Brian’s breathing became less easy as the liquid seeped into the bullet hole, but evened once again as the blood bubbled back up around it. For a moment, they stood in the quiet. The blood and spirits cleansed the wound.
Joshua turned back to the drawers, where he next retrieved a needle, thread, and the cup of spirits, again half full with the rum. He again shoved it into Brian’s hands, but this time propped up his head so he could drink without support from his arms. Brian guzzled this dose, too, and relaxed back onto the vile table.
But Joshua couldn’t get anywhere near Brian quick enough to sew up the wound because in the ensuing moments, the door to the surgeon’s quarters clattered open again. La Fernandista took an especially large hit from a wave and pitched and rolled violently. The narrow doorway was filled with the blocky silhouettes of a broad man’s shoulders, and several smaller people beyond him. “Los señores Poole y Dawkins… los Guardiamarinas.”
“Capitán!” Joshua yelped. He crammed the needle and thread back onto the table. With one hand, he saluted the man who entered first. With his other hand, he kept the needle and thread from rolling off the table as La Fernandista pitched and rolled again. Two more men, one dressed in a dark suit, the other in plainer clothes. “I was just patching up a scratch on ole Dawkins, here. See, we were practicing our swordsmanship on the main deck and-”
The more fancily dressed man stepped around the CapitánXeralde la Armada, entering the foul-smelling surgeon’s quarters. He stood a good head taller than Joshua, and than Brian, too, if he would’ve been standing. “See there,” Joshua continued, swallowing a mouthful of air in between words. “I just barely nicked him with my sword. The very tip of the sword, actually, made more of a-a hole than a slash.”
None of the men, however, followed the directions of the Guardiamarina and looked at the wound. “My friend and I are members of the Hermanidad.” Joshua and Brian, too, swallowed another mouthful of air when they heard the name of Ferdinand and Isabella’s national peacekeeping association. “Señores, you are hereby dishonorably relieved of service aboard La Fernandista.”
The third man stepped forward and, as he did so, the sound of iron chains rattling against each other echoed in the Englishmen’s ears. On either end of the two chains was a D-shaped circle. On the second man’s gesture, the third man took a key from his waist band and opened one side of each of the four D-shaped circles. “You are furthermore under arrest by the Hermanidad on charges of participation in an illegal duel.Por favor. Your hands, Señores.” _ _
La Fernandista had set sail the fourth morning, taking with her the bells of the watches by which the Englishmen counted both the hours and the days. Without them, they lost count. There were only ever two Spaniards who bothered with the Englishmen. Four, if the two members of the Hermanidad are counted, and five if you count the warden, who came only to quell the raucous sounds of rioting that would once in a while poor from the mouth of the line of cages that laid past that of Dawkins and Poole.
The first was the warden’s boy, a pock faced runt with shirt sleeves and pant legs that were too short for his limbs and brown, stubbly hair that perched too high atop his round head to let his forehead look of a normal size. The sound of this boy, who was sometimes called Ponce but usually answered to Neno, rattling down the stone staircase was the only sound that vaguely marked the passing of time. Often once, but sometimes twice, a day, one square foot after the other Ponce scurried dutifully down the stone stair case, delivered a bit of dried and salted trout and a single overcooked biscuit to the Englishmen’s cell, and scurried back up to await further order at the warden’s side.
The second visitor frequented the cell even less than the meals. Two, three times, maybe, they had met, but always behind Brian’s back. The most recent meal had been brought down, already, this time with three tomatoes, the greening skin sunken and wrinkled. It would be sometime after this, after Brian had long since fallen asleep beneath one of the musty wool blankets, that there would come the scratching at the only window in the cell. Short puffs of Spanish sand would cascade in through the window as the visitor ground their heel into the dry field. And Joshua, hearing the signal, would press his eyes up between the bars, and they would talk. _ _
“Joshua.” This time, Poole had taken the horizontal plank Ponce insisted was a bed. He sat deathly still beneath the wool, straining his ears to listen for his name to be repeated. The quiet ebbed through the cell. There was a footstep here or there that echoed through the ceiling, or the sound of someone turning in their bunk down the hall. But not even Brian made a sound. “Joshua.”
The voice was strange – unfamiliar and low. They pronounced the J at the front of his name like a Y. A slow chill worked its way through the wool, seeping in through his clothes, stiff with dirt and stench, and in through his veins. Still, Brian did not shift, nor did he speak. And Joshua, unsure whether he should be glad that his friend was not awake to hear the encounter, or disappointed that there would be no witness to whatever ensued, sat with his back stuck to the furthest brick wall that formed the back of the jail cell. “¡Viraquí!”
Only a few moments after the voice issued the command did Joshua comply. He lifted himself slowly off the board and dropped the blanket to the floor, his movements kept quiet so as not to wake Brian, whom he hoped was asleep in the corner though it was too dark to be sure.
“Who’s there?” he whispered, standing with his hands wrapped around two of the four bars that closed the rest of A Coruña off from the local jailhouse. “I come with news.” The voice sounded lighter, more familiar, here. Still, there was a strange tone to the accent that fueled the ice within him. “It is your lucky night, Señores. You are about to be delivered from the evils that haunt you.”
“What the devil is that supposed to mean?” Joshua hissed, pressing his mouth closer to the outside air. “I will return for you within the hour, Señor. Please see to it that Señor Dawkins is also ready.” The voice at the window didn’t give Joshua the chance to further respond. Before the words were hardly out of the stranger’s mouth, the stranger had leapt back from the jailhouse window. The only sound that remained was that of the quick footsteps that retreated at a run through the few buildings that sat near the jail.
Once the night had settled down again and Joshua could be sure that the stranger had indeed gone, he released his grip from the window.
He sat for a moment back on the edge of the bed, replaying the words of the stranger in his mind. Then, as if waking from a dream, he stood and swept about the cell in a flurry of preparations.
“Dawkins,” he hissed, feeling around in the dark for the Englishman. His hands felt along the first stone wall, then the second. By the time he made it around to the iron bars, a small bud of panic had begun to bloom in his icy blood. More loudly, he called, “Dawkins!” He’s gone? That blasted kid is… There was a rustling in the back corner.
“What ‘re ya yellin’ on about, Poole?” The sense of panic ebbed. “Some people enjoy the bleedin’ quiet.”
Joshua felt Dawkins sock him lightly in the shoulder. “Get your things, Dawkins, and say adeus. We’re getting out of here. There’s someone willing to help us out.” “I’m only sayin’, Poole. It’s mighty convenient of a stranger to know exactly ‘oo we are, where we are, and to offer ter break us out.” Joshua let the comment hang in the while for a moment. Then finally, he admitted: “Not exactly.”
The doublets of Joshua’s uniform and Monmouth cap were wrapped into a bundle, tied off with a piece of the wool blanket, and set on the benck. In one roll were the biscuits, more like hard tack now than bread, they had saved between meals and to the left of that a bottle of their water rations. They waited in the center of the room, unsure whether the stranger would approach through the window again or try the stairs. “Poole.” Brian’s voice had grown lower, more serious. The room was darkened by the hours of the night. Not even the usual gray patch was visible through the small window. Still, Poole could feel the intensity of Dawkins’ glare on the side of his face. “‘Oo did ya pay off this time?”
Joshua hoped that at this moment there would be the sound of cascading dirt flung through the window, a movement on the stairs, or even the sound of Ponce appearing at the heavy lock clasped around the iron bars. Usually, Joshua would cringe when faced with another confrontation with the little rat boy. But at this moment, he would be grateful for any interruption. “I didn’t exactly pay any one. Don’t count yourself short, Dawkins. You’ve made friends in A Coruña.”
“And what would this friend’s name be, eh?” Joshua allowed for another slack of conversation during which any other sound could’ve interrupted – but didn’t. “It is the mistress of the guard.” “His mistress?” For a moment, Dawkins said nothing more, and Joshua hoped that would be the end of it. “I don’t think I know any such Spaniard. But of course, that would explain ‘ow the Hermanidadknew of the bloomin’ duel…”
“No, sir, she is a much more… recent mistress than that.” Joshua almost stuffed the handkerchief into his mouth for perpetuating the conversation. Still, he added: “She was not a woman of such stature when you last saw her.” “Oh?” Brian hummed thoughtfully. “Then I suppose this mysterious woman ‘ad a name before La maÎtresse?” “Uh, well… yes, I suppose so…” Joshua stalled, drawing out the words. “Aahhht wif it, Poole!” Dawkins barked.
“I-it would be a M-m-miss…” Finally, a couple of cues too late, a small figure appeared at the top of the stone stairs, illuminated by a watery halo of light. This light filtered out between the warped panes of glass of the candle she clutched away from her face. Down past her eyes hung the thick, heavy cloth of a black riding cloak. Neither Englishman spoke, and for the moment, Brian didn’t bother weaseling her name out of Joshua. Each man watched the steady figure with the candle. She crept closer.
“Señores,” the woman whispered when she was close enough to poke her nose between the bars. She dropped the lantern into place at her feet. The heavy scent of carnations floated in her wake, coating the stones and the bars in the sweet smell. “I am here to deliver you from the evils that haunt you.”
“Brian,” Joshua snapped. He stood quickly, pulling his bundle and the water jug along with him. When Brian didn’t move, he nudged the silhouette with his knee. “We stay too long and the other mates smell her perfume, get wind that there’s a lady in the midst, and start up a ruckus.” Slowly, Brian complied. He closed the distance between him and the strange woman. “I don’t recognize your voice. But that perfume…” He let the thought waft through the air after the carnations.
Joshua couldn’t see the fist that flew at his nose in the vanilla light that swirled around their feet. “Jacinta? Ya called for the woman ‘oo ‘ad me shot and arrested?” Dawkins hissed, bent low over the face of his sailor friend, who had sprawled backwards on his haunches.
“It s-seemed like a good idea, b-but sir – you hit me!” He cupped several fingers under his nostrils, checking for blood that did not come. “You ruddy Brit! You hit me?!”
“Come,” Jacinta whispered, either unfazed by or ignorant of the exchange of fists that had occurred only a foot from her feet. “I am here to deliver you. This way.” She revealed a brass key from beneath the folds of the cloak, stuck it into the wide mouth of the iron lock, and turned.
“Please, Señores. The blanket.” One of the men, though she wasn’t sure, nor mindful, of which it was, crammed the blanket through the bars. She stuck the damp wool around the hinges to muffle the screech of the rusted metal as she pulled at the door. Once it was open, she ordered “this way” again and collected the candle from the ground.
Joshua scrambled off the floor and righted his clothes. He collected the bundle from where it had tumbled to the floor, but left the glass bottle of water, which had shattered. One his way past Brian, however, he was stopped.
Brian stuck his flat hand against Joshua’s shoulder, holding him back. “Do not underestimate me, Poole. I will not desert the law of the nation I serve. Neither will you.” “For one, Mister Dawkins, we do not serve for Spain or her Fernandista anymore.” Joshua brushed Brian’s hand away. “And furthermore, you’ve spent the past six months as a Tory on a Spanish ship. Your record’s already twisted.”
He pushed by Brian entirely. “The moment we break free, Dawkins, I’ll book us the first passage back to London. So don’t think of it as an exhibition of your betrayal to Spain. Think of it as an exhibition of… your loyalty to England.” Joshua stuffed the other bundle into Brian’s arms.
“Britannia rule the waves!” he shouted on his way up the stairs after Jacinta. Dawkins scurried up after them.
They were met by the harsh glow of candles past the second door that Jacinta unlocked. On all sides, they were surrounded by dry wood paneling that crackled as they hurried by and flaked down around their feet. At the end of the hall behind them was the thick, metal door that sealed the prisoners off from the warden and company. Though both the light and the small had improved significantly, there remained few pieces of furniture and personal affects in the small surrounding room.
They passed one other cubby in the wall on their way to the side door. Joshua and Jacinta bustled on up ahead. But Brian caught a small movement in the cubby from the corner of his eye. It was the quick swish of thin Spanish lace and the glint off of a cross necklace.
It was early morning, Joshua thought, judging by the light gray of the sky and the thick, diamond stars that still hung from the clouds. The air that blew through the town was slightly cooler than in the jail. When it blew, it ruffled Jacinta’s skirt and stuck the backs of the men’s’ white, stained shirts against their skin and sent chills crawling up their flesh. With Brian farther behind, Joshua kept close step with Jacinta.
“Where will we go?” he whispered. “I am here to deliver you.” The head of the cloak bobbed up and down enthusiastically. “I will deliver you.” Joshua scratched his head. “Yes, but to where?”
They had come to a clearing where the buildings stood back and the ghostly silence of the town gave way to the soft rustle of nightlife. Sparse, dry trees with browning, deadened leaves clung to the sandy terrain for a few yards in either direction. Between the nearest trees waited a solitary horse. “I mount. You mount.” Jacinta gestured back at Brian. “He mount. Clip, clop, clip clop. Yes?” The hood bobbed up down again as she motioned with her hands as if holding reins.
In the same moment, there was a medium sized thud. Jacinta’s eyes slid sideways, her lips slacked around her words, and the head bobbing stilled. She sunk first to her knees, then to the ground with a larger thud. Next to her landed the cracked glass bottle which Joshua and Brian once intended for fresh water.
“Are you mad?!” Joshua roared. Calmly, Brian kneeled at her side and began unlacing the ties of her cloak. “I know her invitation to dinner isn’t at the top of the pile, but, Brian!” He tried to pull the other man away from the limp woman’s body. Brian had nearly worked the entire cloak off of her. “And how do you propose we get to London now, eh? At this rate, we’ll still be standing ship-less outside the jailhouse when light comes. If you think they won’t just throw our ruddy British bodies back in that filthy brig-”
“Cram that handkerchief in your mouth if ya ‘ave to, but stop that yammerin’. We’ll get thrown back inside just as quickly if ya wake the entire town up with your boomin’ voice.” Joshua snapped his jaw closed hesitantly. “Lift the head.” Joshua refused to move. “Poole, the head.”
Brian had relieved the unconscious Jacinta of a single pistol belted around her midsection. He produced the weapon now from behind his back and aimed it at the frozen Joshua. “Get your feet movin’.”
Joshua gave the tightly packed dirt a soft dig with his heel. He cursed under his breath, but trudged still toward the nose of the pistol. Brian lowered it only when Joshua had sank to his knees at the other shoulder of Jacinta. “The head.”
He complied, propping her shoulder onto his knee so that the cloak strings were freed from beneath her. Brian went about undoing the strings that ran farther up her neck. “Sir, I have to object-” “Ya ‘re questionin’ me manners?” Brian did not look up from his work. “I question your judgment. This ain’t the person ya think.” He added under his breath: “Thank God.”
The hood slid over Jacinta’s head. The features, however, were not those of the delicate Spanish woman. They were bloated, grotesque. The double chin was dotted by tufts of whiskers. There was still a fat smile stamped into the jaw. It made the round, apple flesh beneath the beady eyes look even rounder and fleshier. A small noise that resembled something of a gasp escaped Joshua’s mouth as he dumped the head off his lap. “I present to ya not the SeñoritaJacinta de León, but the amado mediator of our duel.”
Brian also relieved the body of a knife, slid into the edge of the mediator’s boot, and a very light pouch of bronze bits. Beneath the cloak, the mediator wore the same shirt and trousers as he had days before to the duel. The armpits were stained with sweat and a few food stains had been added to the chest and neck of the shirt and lap of the trousers. But other than that, his appearance remained relatively unchanged.
“B-but… well… how did you…? I mean…” As a boy, Joshua had spoken in small coherent stutters. Several tutors later, and at the age of thirteen, Joshua had worked his way up to the vocal abilities of a nine year old. He spoke simply and bluntly, but in the following years, more than closed the four year gap. He read less, spoke often now, and had gathered more words from his nautical years than from the university than his parents would’ve liked. Still, in certain moments, some words still regressed to their former way of sputtering jumpily from his lips.
“The first rule of servin’ on the waves is to be observant.” Brian threw a significant look over his shoulder at the dumbfounded Joshua as he got to his feet. “I recognized ‘is mannerisms. That, among several other things. The voice was off, for starters, and ‘e casts a much thicker shadow than Jacinta could. Secondly…” He drew the sausage-like arm of the mediator nearer himself and Joshua. On the back of his badly pocked skin were the smudged words, scribbled femininely in ink, I am here to deliver you from the evils that haunt you. He tapped the marks thoughtfully, then said: “Jacinta was tutored in some English as a girl. “This geezer ‘owever, ‘ad to take notes. “And thirdly, in passin’ through the jailhouse, I saw our little miss Jacinta entertaining the jailer.”
Joshua scowled. “The second most important rule of the seaman is to deduct,” Brian continued. “In the moments since meeting this imposter, I’ve ‘ad time ter do just that. It ‘as become apparent ter me that Jacinta is indeed the recent mistress of the warden. A pity, but I suppose she wasn’t convent material any longer, anyway.” He shook the thought from his mind with a crooked smile. “In bein’ such, she ‘oped to gain access ter the jail cells below. And she did. Though ‘alfway through the affair, she realized she could not distract the warden at the same time she was ter break us out. This realization caused ‘er quite the distress, ya see, Mister Poole. She always took care to vary ‘er visits, make it unpredictable just when she would come to that window.
“But then they became irregular. Seven meals passed. Yeah, Poole, I was awake. Good actin’, ya say? Well, I did spend a bit of me summer with la belle Angelique at le Théâtre Royal. “But then, Jacinta thought of it.” He clapped his hands together for emphasis. “She could not fool the warden into mistakin’ another woman for ‘erself. Nah, she could not do that. She could, ‘owever, fool ya into thinkin’ Jacinta was your liberator when in fact, it was the mediator from the duel. ‘Oo better ter trust than the poor, Spanish woman, kept from ‘er love by a bully of a brother what condemned her to the convent as a child? She knows I would not come to ‘er. But perhaps ya would lead us both at ‘er heels.
“In dressin’ the part of Jacinta, the mediator would also be safe should somethin’ go awry. The warden would not ‘urtJacinta l’innocence, even if ‘e ‘appened upon ‘er in the labyrinth of jail cells. Not that the warden would ‘ave the chance ter ‘appen across ‘im, though. Nah, ‘e would be distracted by the real Jacinta. “Once everyone was out of the jailhouse, Jacinta would finish ‘er business, blow a final kiss ter ‘er amant sans espoir, and meet us in the back of the town. We would go on horseback and flee this retched town, find ‘appiness atop a fat horse. La fin. But, alas, there is a twist.”
With a couple of muffled grunts, Brian propped the mediator up against a low, sandy stone wall that ran along the edge of the trees. “We shall not wait for Jacinta, or the mediator, for that matter. The only place this fat horse will take us is ter the ‘arbor. And you’re walkin’. There, we can sell him and book passage for London.” “Not wait?” Joshua echoed, having somewhat recomposed himself after listening bleary-eyed and thoughtlessly to Brian’s monologue. “Won’t it look suspicious if we just leave them both here?”
“The only thing suspicious will be the sight of the sister of Diego Ignacio Óscar de León sneakin’ from the warden’s bedroom at the light of dawn. But a town enjoys a bit o’ gossip ‘ere and there. And as for this one.” He kicked the sole of the mediator’s boot. “‘E’ll most likely wake up with a ‘eadache, but won’t attribute it ter anythin’ more than a nasty hang over. By the time they ‘appen across one another again and mend the pieces of the story back together, we will be long since gone, mate.”
Brian stuck his hand inside the bag of bits and produced a good sized glass bottle. He uncorked the neck, stuck the uneven glass rim between his teeth, and tilted his head back until his eyes were even with the stars. Joshua watched the bottle thirstily and licked his lips, which had been almost entirely dry for days.
And yet he waited, mostly patiently, for Brian to swallow the last swig, drop the cork in the left hand of the mediator, and tip the bottle against the man’s thigh. A bit dribbled out and soaked into his trousers, adding to the array of stains he modeled. “You’re not at all concerned for the pair of them? Don’t you think that when the warden discovers us missing, they will be the first ones the town points a finger at?”
Brian knelt low to the ground as he gathered the mediator’s cloak into a tight roll and stuck it into the bundle at his feet.
“The mediator is a nobody. At worst, ‘e gets a public thrashin’. Nothin’ that a few good drinks at the tavern can’t soften ‘im up for.” He took the bag and tied it on the horse’s saddle. As he worked, the horse shifted his weight from leg to leg and let out a low whinny. He loosened the rope that bound the horse to a tree by the noseband. “But as for Jacinta, the warden will be on ‘er side. So long as Diego does not find out about their affair, both will be safe.” He wedged the toe of his boot into the stirrup, hoisted himself up into a standing position from which he straddled the horse, and landed in the saddle with a light plop. “Otherwise, I ‘ope the warden ‘as a strong shoulder.”
Brian gave the soft sides of the horse a bit of a dig with the heels of his boots. The wide beast gave his mane a bit of a toss, followed the turn of the reigns to the right, and sauntered off through the street.
“I thought you were kidding about me walking!” Joshua called, projecting his voice only enough to carry after Brian. Neither the horse nor Dawkins turned back. Joshua gave a little more practice to the nautical vocabulary he had mastered in his years out to sea, gave the solid ground another dig with his heels, and stomped off after the silhouette of horse and man. _ _
There was something mocking about the sun that sweltered that day. It laughed at the sight of the Englishmen, one jostling up and down in the saddle of a fat Spanish horse that mistook left for right and ended up in the brush more than once and the other pumping his arms to keep up. And just for them, the sun bristled its rays and stretched its fingers just a little further and took pleasure in driving the little Tories from his land.
Or so it seemed as the ex-Guardiamarina plodded along the hard-pressed dirt and rock. At one point, Brian and Joshua had stopped in a little spot of shade that rested in the remains of a Catholic church. There they had divided four of the thirteen biscuits preserved from their meals taken in the jailhouse. As time neared late afternoon, a gnawing began again in the pits of their stomachs. Dry spit crowded the corners of their lips. They had decided, however, to keep the rest of the food and not rest the horse until they reached the harbor or night fell, whichever came first.
They rode north of the coastline where La Fernandista had docked and worked quickly to cover their trails. Brian had sent Joshua to call upon a farmer, working off in the distance on a small plot of land, or a girl passing by with a large cow shuffling behind at her heels to ask directions to the harbor that lay ahead. For the duration of the sunrise, then the morning, and now the majority of the afternoon the pair had continued in the direction of the pointed fingers.
As they neared the harbor, they passed less farmers and children with calves. Instead, they came upon smaller children, boys and girls, dressed in ragged clothes, dampened, and covered in coats of coal. Factory whistles took over the quiet bubbling of the far-off shoreline, then gave way to the hard slapping of waves against bows and the ringing of brass bells every watch. Afternoon had somehow slipped by without them knowing and tipped into early evening by the time they entered the little sea-faring town of Porto.
“Joshua,” Brian snapped, baked well in dirt, dry sweat, and impatience. He dug into the saddlebag at his foot and removed several silver bits. One by one, he flipped the bits at Joshua, who scrambled on his rubbery legs to catch them. “Take that down to the docks. Get us the cheapest ride, the farthest north. But stay clear of any local boats. I don’t want word gettin’ to A Coruña that any Porto schoolboys know the whereabouts of the runaway Englishmen.”
Lord forbid local boats actually to go London cheaply, Jonathon Poole almost blurted, but settled instead on a hasty, “Aye, aye, sir.” And with that, he turned away and scampered off in the direction of the white sails.
He stumbled down a low, sloping hill that met a tightly packed path that ran in front of creaking after creaking dock. The waves rushed up against the shore and crawled back again, swelling the pieces of wood on which Spanish soldiers marched, children wobbled, and sailors dragged in rough ropes of the day’s catch. Should Brian have been around, Joshua would’ve hesitated to bring it up, and possibly could’ve found the strength to suppress the thought altogether. But alone and to himself, Joshua succumbed to the feeling of homesickness he had felt for the sea. He breathed in the stench of gutted fish mixed with the salt that hung in the air and the waves. He smiled and stepped onto the first dock.
“Pardon, sir.” He tapped the shoulder of a thickly built man who kneeled, coiling a bit of rope. He grunted and tore his eyes away from his work only long enough to throw the scrawny young man a barbaric stare. “P-p-pardon,” he stuttered again and motioned unsurely at the little boat that bobbed gently at the Spaniard’s feet. “My friend and I are seeking passage. Where to and when do you set sail?”
The man whom Joshua so tentatively addressed threw the rope into an uncoiled heap that slid halfway into the crystal blue water. The brute stood with another low-toned grunt and stretched to his full, brutish height. “Um… you know… paddle-paddle?” Joshua mimicked paddling with an oar, drawing on his lessons from the mediator. The thought, however, collided with the ape’s thick skull and only bounced back. It dropped into the water along with the other end of the rope.
Before the thick headed gorilla could figure out how to demand in English a new rope to replace that one that coiled slowly to the bottom of the harbor, Joshua excused himself to the other side of the dock where a scrawnier, less threatening man sunned himself.
The man sat on a wooden chair, the front legs stretching out and the back pushed up against the wall of his modestly sized boat. An awful squeak sounded every tine the waves rocked the boat into the wooden chair. The man didn’t seem to be bothered though. His skin was a dark, leathery brown that gathered in folds at his elbows.
Abandoning his attempt to listen for snores, Joshua cleared his throat and called: “Señor!“ He waited a few moments, but when the man still did not stir, Joshua took the liberty of stepping closer.
“Señor?” He picked up a fork, set next to a tin cup and plate of a mess kit, and hesitantly pointed it in the direction of the sleeping old man. Under his breath, he muttered, “Here’s hoping you ain’t armed and jumpy.” The sole of the old man’s foot was encrusted in a repulsive, sour stench that had gone unwashed for months, untreated cuts and splotches, and grime from untraceable but numerous sources. Joshua gave it a light tickle with the fork. The toes didn’t so much as flinch.
Joshua forced his breaths in and out of his mouth so he could step closer to the cloud of green. This time, he gave the foot a tougher poke. The only movement, however, came from the flakes of dirt the prongs pried from the man’s heel. Joshua gagged and backed away. He jumped, startled by the sight of a girl at the edge of the boat.
She had a mousy stare, Joshua thought, with big brown eyes that concentrated carefully on him and perched on either side of her small, pointed nose. She had murky brown hair that hung lifelessly on either side of her oval shaped face. Her arms were folded on the edge of the boat’s deck and she twiddled her thumbs together.
“Um… hola,” Joshua said, slowly beginning to regain control of his startled, jerky movements. She did not respond, but continued to stare in her quiet manner. “¿Pertenences a estebaro? ¿Élestu padre?” She blinked.
“Oh, entiendo. Todos los españoles se divierten fingiendo que no entienden ingles. Bueno. Vamos; el juego ha terminado.” He gave a little whistle, as if calling to a mutt, and tried to wave her forward.“¿Cuál es el costo de un viaje aLondres, o al puerto más cercano?” Again, she blinked.
Joshua let a long stream of curses burst out into the muggy air. Once he’d got the last of them out, he muttered a half-hearted apology, in English but barely glanced in the girl’s direction while he did so. Dragging his heels as he went, he clamored down from the old man’s boat and set his eyes on the next boat. It was a larger ship on which several apparently well trained and drilled uniforms loaded crates of olive oil. It would be much harder to be inconspicuous on a ship of Spanish officers, but it would have to do.
“I don’t know what kind of Galician that was, sir. But now you’re speaking my language.”
Glancing over his shoulder wasn’t enough to convince him that the strong voice had indeed come from the little mouse girl. No, he had to turn back around completely so that the setting sun beat against his scalp and threw his lean shadow over her even leaner stature. Even once he had a full length view of her and had assured himself that her lips at least moved in time to the words, he only stared.
He could see now how simply she was dressed. The old material of her dress stretched and pulled over her skin, leaving spots of her shoulder bare where the material gaped or had given out. The fabric looked, to Joshua, as if it had once been died purple or blue. Now it was a murky sort of gray, like the very edges of a splotch of mold, and fell down to her toes. She wore no shoes and no jewels. She was a rather plain, spindly thing with skin that would have been beautiful if it had not been pocked and scarred by the sun. She couldn’t be more than seventeen, either, he thought. She moved in quick, nervous gestures that recalled those of a frightened mouse. Still, she had a compelling sort of smile at least did something to mask her plain features and a voice that belonged more to a lion than a mouse. It was enough to force Joshua to turn his back completely on the fine merchant ship.
Now, if her father, or perhaps a brother or an uncle, owned a boat that would sail north for a pretty penny… “It wasn’t Galician,” he admitted. Just as he was to explain how a couple of Englishmen could pick up enough Spanish during a year aboard a merchant ship that employed mostly Spaniards, he cut off the words and proceeded more carefully. “I have been schooled in a bit of Spanish. But you speak English?”
“As best I can, sir.” “And Galician?” “Not as well as I do English, but I try.” There was that smile again, and a little bit of a blush when she tipped her head. He rather liked it.
“And what is your name?” “Matilda.” “No surname?” “None that I know,” she announced in her same strong voice.
“Then you have no relations in Porto and are of no use to me after all.” It seemed simple enough a statement that could have, should have, ended the conversation between the two young people. But the tone in which he said it gave the words an edge of uncertainty that refused to let them go. “I was born in America. I do know that. But I owe every comfort and food I have ever enjoyed to Europe and her people.” His thoughts had already returned to the merchant ship with the boys all in uniform. That, and the low rumbling that had begun in the pit of his stomach.
“Good day, Matilda.” Had Brian already polished off the biscuits? The rascal… There was a moment during which Joshua strode for the merchants and Matilda stared down at her hands before she cried out for him to wait.
“You are looking for a boat?” Had Brian fed that fat old horse the biscuits, too? Because if that hog had been fed before him, well, then… “That is why you are bugging all the sailors?”
“‘Bugging’?” he grumbled. “Label it as you may. A friend and I need to get to London.” “I will take you there!” Joshua felt two, childlike hands squeeze his arm.
“You? Sail a boat?” He tried to lunge into sword position five, a low crouch that Brian had been trying to teach him for ages, to shake his arm free. But when he sidestepped her, she only sidestepped him, too, and ducked back under his chin. She was a short little thing whose forehead came hardly to his lips. But now, she tilted her face to the setting sky so her eyes bored directly into his.
“Yes, me sail a boat.” Though he’d told himself he wouldn’t, he noticed the way she’d exchanged her easy smile for a serious, set expression that, under any other, less desperate circumstances, he would have found the cockiness to find laughable. “I can do it.” “And what do you plan on sailing, ma souris? A barrel that the barkeep’s thrown out into the alley?” He snickered low under his breath and didn’t sidestep her only so he may witness her reply. “I have a schooner.”
“Ah, you have a schooner!” he repeated with mock enthusiasm. His patience bristled as the hunger rumbled again. “And does the schooner have a name?” “Aye, she does.” Her eyes flashed in the orange light as she tilted her head to one side. “What is your name?” “Guardi– Joshua Poole.”
“What a funny little world. My schooner is The Poole as well.” She puffed out her chin and smiled triumphantly. Joshua stared vacantly at her for a moment. “You made that up.” “No I didn’t.” She poked her nose higher into the salty breeze that tussled her hair and blew it askew across her eyes.
“Yes, you did. You asked me my name and then claimed it as your schooner’s.” “No, I didn’t.” When he opened his mouth to insist again that she had indeed, Matilda stuck a hand in front of his face to stop him. “This friend of yours: male or female?”
Joshua blinked, then folded his arms across his chest and tipped his head forward as well to match her defiant stare. “Male.” “So if I was to ask you his name and discover it was Matilda, according to you, I am to instantly assume that you only just asked my name so you could claim it as his?” His confident stare had faltered into confusion. He now scowled as if trying to make sense of the words.
“I said male.” “So?” She stuck both her hands on her hips and scowled. “Mister Poole, we only just met! How am I to know what sort of friends you waste your time with?” “Y-you’re not, I suppose. But you may assume that his name is not Matilda,” Joshua exclaimed, running a hand through his wavy hair. The blond tendrils fell back against his forehead where they danced a little in the breeze that blew over the water.
“Thank you for the permission, but I was only making a point,” she huffed sarcastically. “Now, if you are so convinced that I am wasting your time, then I wish you luck with finding a better boat than my schooner to take you.” She turned her back and, with her hands still at her hips, marched deliberately in the opposite direction of Joshua and that merchant ship. His head trooped tiredly until his chin rested on his chest. With a sigh and another curse under his breath for good measure, he brought his eyes back up.
“Two bits and you take us all the way to London, girl.” She glanced barely over her shoulder and hummed as if thinking it over. “Three bits…boy.” He stared down at the three shiny bits that lay in the palm of his hand.
“All the way to London?” “All the way.” She closed the distance between her and Joshua, her palm outstretched and waiting for payment. The bits stayed clenched in his fist, however, and hesitantly he cleared his throat.
“You aren’t going to get into any trouble, are you? I only mean that my friend and I have gotten into enough trouble as it is…ahem...” He dug the toe of his boot into a spot on the deck where the wood was soft and watched the splinters lift up around the leather. “I mean-”
“The only things you have to worry about is my owning a schooner and your getting on it. I’ve already told you I own a schooner, which I do, so you need not worry about that. And I will tell you now to meet me at the CabaloVermello tonight. Now you have nothing to worry about.” She motioned with her head for him to release the bits. Hesitantly, he dropped the three silver pieces, one by one, onto her thin palm. “Good. Bring your friend and your bags. Adeus, meuJoshuaPoole.”
Joshua had returned from the docks to find Brian leaning, horseless, against the window of a tavern. In his pocket jangled a few doubloons, traded for the well-fed Spanish horse, and around his feet was the bag lying in a heap. He had sold the horse, he reported, to a foreign man, and the saddle to a young woman in a barn, throwing a new shirt into the bargain. Joshua matched the report with one of his own. Quickly, he informed Brian of Matilda, the schooner, and the plan to meet at the tavern. If Brian was disappointed that Joshua had spent all three bits or apprehensive about sailing with a young girl, he made a successful effort to conceal it.
When he suggested, though, that they spend the remainder of their evening in the CabaloVermello, and perhaps even spend some of the horse profits on renting a room so they could freshen up before the voyage, Brian declined. They would arouse less suspicion, he explained, if they did not stay in one place for too long. And that was how the pair of dirty, smelly Englishmen ended up tavern-hopping until dark.
They spent just under an hour in each of the taverns, confining themselves to the darkest corner. They ordered nothing, said nothing, and even Brian averted his attention from any female distractions that may have happened to parade by. But, stubborn as he was, by the fourth tavern even Brian couldn’t suppress the grumbling in his stomach. Curtly he ordered two tankards of ale and forfeited a biscuit to split between Joshua and himself. For the moment, their hunger had at least been muffled. But by the time they had circled the entire waterfront of Porto, added their faces to the crowd of every at least moderately busy tavern, and had only the CabaloVermelloleft to house them, the ravenousness had returned.
For a brief moment, there was a large, wooden plate of baked cod and a platter of rice with fresh vegetables set on the thick, wooden table. But within seconds of being served, the food had been barbarically divided between two forks, crammed into gaping mouths, and sent to squander the rumbling of empty bellies. The food was the best they had ever tasted, and they chased it down first with a glass of wine, and then with a large mug of ale. For the entire meal, they had paid another couple of pretty pennies. But once the banquet had been swallowed, it sat solidly in the pit of one man’s stomach and churned uncomfortably as he kept his eyes on the door for the girl they’d paid the first pretty penny for.
“She is coming,” Joshua said, though whether he meant to reassure Brian or only himself was unclear. Every once in a while, the barkeep would toss out one of the scrawny boys who had been turned out on the town with too much money and too little a tolerance for alcohol, or come nose-to-nose with one of the larger oafs who could no longer match a bit to a tankard. But for the most part, business had reached its peak and no one of interest passed through the massive, red painted doors.
“Indeed.” Brian tried, unsuccessfully, to subtly glance through to the street. The hot night had prompted the barkeep to prop the doors open but even outside the tavern, hardly a soul wandered by. The moon had climbed high against the indigo sky by now and the stars were dangling down like suspended diamonds. He dragged his finger in the sauce at the bottom of the bowl of rice, sucked the finger dry, and then drummed it against the tabletop. “Although I can’t ‘elp wonder when, Joshua?” “Er – soon, sir.”
He stared evenly at Joshua for some length. Finally, though, he seemed to have mustered the willingness to go on. “Do not get me wrong when I wonder if ya ‘ave just given away three silver pieces.” He thumbed the handle of the wooden tankard. “I mean it as no insult to our friendship. But do ya ‘ave any insurance that this girl will show?”
“Yes.” Instantly, he regretted the words. “I mean no. I mean… I have her word, sir.” “Five minutes ago I would ‘ave been daft enough to ‘ope you’d know better than to judge the character of a stranger durin’ your first five minutes in town. I suppose now I can only think that ya do suffer from the ailment induced by a battin’ of the eyelashes and a sashay of the hips, after all.” What had been a disappointed, serious stare broke into a sly grin. “Good lad.” He sat back and drained the tankard of whatever last few drops remained in the bottom.
“Now, all we ‘ave to do is figure out where we will be goin’ for the night, as it does not look like we will be goin’ ter London, then decide just ‘ow ya will go ‘bout earnin’ back those three silver pieces.” He let out a sarcastically contended sigh. “Once we accomplish that, all that is left is findin’ passage ter London. Now, I’d offer ter buy ya another tankard, but-” “‘But’ what?”
The question hung unanswered between the two. Brian’s eyes were fixated on something across the room and whatever the taunting remark he had meant for Joshua, it was quickly drained from his attention. In the dank interior of the crowded tavern, one couldn’t make out much detail of the men. But Joshua need neither daylight nor a candle to see that Brian’s hand had flown to the revolver kept tucked in his belt.
He drew the gun entirely, but kept the barrel pointed down at an angle. “Tell me, Poole. That friend of yours: male or female?” He kept his voice confined only to his table and moved his lips as little as possible.
“Why does everyone keep doing that?” Joshua groaned. “Did you miss the part where I said I met someone named Matilda?” “This is Spain.” Brian Dawkins shrugged. “How should I know what sort of crazies ya attract? Speakin’ of crazies. The mystérieuseMatilda, I presume?” Joshua became aware of the shadow of a person that had come up to his shoulder at the same time the figure dropped into the empty seat beside his. He stared uneasily at the small creature.
“I can spot me a girl from a ‘undred miles away. Even under all… that.” He motioned at the girl. “I see ya ‘ave spent me money well.”
A green, low-reaching cloth had been wound about her forehead to conceal her hair, though Joshua found difficult to determine whether or not her long hair actually remained. On top of the cloth sat a black tricorn hat that she had pulled down as far as her eyebrows and fidgeted with once every few minutes. She had also dressed herself in a loose-fitting shirt that gaped a bit daringly for someone to try passing for a by. But it worked. She had left her coat and vest on a hook by the door, it hardly a step above chopping down the tree for your own coffin to wear the wool-lined article . Even in the nocturne of Porto was humid and allowed for little more than a shirt and trousers to be comfortably worn.
The waistcoat was, however, a good sign that Matilda would do right by her word to take them all the way to London. Joshua also supposed that it served well to disguise her shapeless, although still vaguely feminine, waistline. Below the waist she sported knee breaches, which were about the only form-fitting piece she wore, and a pair of calfskin Revere boots. Even her delicate hands were disguised by a pair of heavy leather gloves that made her fingers look twice their size and encircled her entire wrists. The excessive folds of crude, well-used rancher’s clothes concealed her femininity well. Even Joshua found it difficult to stare in her direction for too long.
“I have taken care of the necesseties,” she said, though with very little interest. She cleared her throat and moved onto the present essentials. “You may call me Mattie. But if you are asked my name, or must address me in front of an audience, you are to say Matthew. And I want none of this ‘girl’ business.” She cut her eyes at Joshua, who instantly averted his stare to the tabletop. “As far as provisions on board go, I’ve already taken it upon myself to seek out the finest wines, cheese, and salted meats that Porto carries.” “Bien,” Brian exclaimed. This time, Matilda’s glare was turned on Brian.
“…for myself. But, not to worry, lads: don’t go thinking I’m about to let you starve just yet.” She patted Joshua’s nearest arm with mock-comfort. “I’ve also taken the liberty of securing the finest hardtack and burgoo for you pair. Which, you owe me another silver bit for, by the way.”
“Another silver bit?” echoed Joshua, who had retracted his hands from the table upon hearing her latest necessity. “If you think we are paying so much as a penny for your so-called“food,” Matilda, well-” “Aboard my schooner, Mr. Poole, I am the captain and you are my guest.” She leaned her elbows on the table, awarding the outspoken Joshua with an even harder, more venomous glare than before. “So tread lightly. You underestimate my willingness to abandon you in Porto while I accompany your friend to London.”
“Gentlemen, please.” Brian, too, shifted in his seat and leaned over the table. “We accept your generous offer for passage ter London.” He motioned at the barkeep. Three more tankards of ale were delivered to the table by a young girl clad in patched-up dress and a grungy mobcap. “Drink up, me ‘earties. Won’t be ale like this ‘til London. And Poole,” he ordered, catching his friend mid-swig. “Find a silver bit for our Captain.” _ _
The cloth sack hung from his fist and collided with his legs, swaying with each step that he took. “Do you not find it suspicious that she dresses as a man?” Joshua chattered, doing his best to keep up with Brian, who marched quickly in the direction of the docks. “I mean, should we not be sailing under a clean man… er… w-woman… uhh…person who won’t arouse suspicion in case we are compromised before London?”
They had reached the docks now. Brian, keeping his stare even and his jaw squarely set, stepped up onto the raised wooden platform to which all the other boats, now empty and abandoned, were secured. “We’re sailin’ under exactly the right sort of man-woman-person, Poole.” Dawkins sighed. “I find it’s best that the third party with which I entrust me secret ‘as a secret of their own. That way, the third party couldn’t possible tell me secret without the threat of me returnin’ the favor. Call it insurance, if ya will.”
Brian started making his way in the direction of the little schooner, which was tied up at the farthest end of the dock. Joshua scrambled up onto the platform and hurried after him. “B-but, sir,” he called. “I-I’m only using the first two rules of the waves. You know: observing and deducting.”
“The only thing you’re observin’ is your nervousness. Ya aren’t used ter havin’ a lady on board, let alone servin’ one.” He stood with one foot on the deck of The Poole. “She’s a pretty one, too. But cupid or no cupid, this ‘ere’s me ticket to London. Porto’s more than willin’ ter keep ya. But so is A Coruña.”
The Poole was a slender creature with an elegant, trim hull that broke smoothly against the waves. She had only two masts, but had been outfitted with a crew of fourteen, including the Captain and the English newcomers. She had also been outfitted with a pair of sleek carronade cannons that stood on her starboard and port. They were excessive, the Captain maintained – just little trinkets to bedeck her Poole while they were in rough waters.
Once Joshua and Brian had boarded the schooner, they were met, much to their surprise, with the sight of all eleven deck hands lined up with their toes pointed at the main mast. They too had been bedecked fancily, thanks to the recent sum of British money their Captain had come by. Each sported a violet baldric and a leather belt from which hung either a dagger or a pistol, depending. And each wore it proudly, like the pendent about Queen María Luisa’s neck.
After dressing in their new uniforms and stowing their bags below decks, Brian and Joshua joined in with the rest of the crew. For the next half hour, the line was dismissed and the Captain’s front of order gave way to the raising of the masthead and sails. The crew made quick enough work of it, however, and before the next bell had been rung, The Poole had crawled from her place among Porto’s other ships.
She clipped along at twelve nautical miles an hour and met the impending nine-day journey with resolution.
Once they were clear of the coast, it became an evening of mild celebration. Once in a while, a member of the crew would indulge his audience in a song in broken English and pieces of Dutch, or recite a story in Portuguese, Spanish, and French. A bit of lamb and orange pieces was brought out from the kitchens, the latter a courtesy that had come from the cabin of the Captain, or so she claimed. And once or twice ThePoole’s striker, Chirayu, lifted his whistle to his lips and played them a low, thoughtful tune. _ _
A full day of unremarkable journey had passed aboard The Poole. At first bell, and again in the evening, exact rations of hardtack, salted salmon, and a flour pudding the cook called duff was handed to each of the ravenous sailors. Each man also received two tankards of a rather distasteful mixture of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg. By the time the sun slinked beneath the royal blue waves, Joshua and nine of the eleven other crew members swung like caterpillars in their hammocks below deck. Rounds of watches began aboard The Poole, and even Matilda forfeited her stance on the quarter deck for a rest in her cabin.
The crew slept with more confidence than they could have the night before. They had broken away from the Spanish coast but continued to fly the Spanish and British flags, since the countries were, for the moment, at least tolerant of one another and The Poole had yet to reach French waters. Should the schooner be stopped by a Spanish or French ship, either the quartermaster, Abram, or, much to Matilda’s chagrin, one of the Englishmen would be called Captain. Between the three of them, the crew could talk their way out of any situation in both Spanish and French. Once they did near France, however, the Captain would give her order for the American flag to be flown, in which the title of Captain would be returned to Matilda until the end of the voyage.
It was good, Brian thought as he relaxed against the railing and turned his warm face into the wind. The sun had dragged the oranges, pinks, and reds into the sea as it set and all that remained now was the navy, misty twilight that clung to the canvas sails. The lapping of the water against ThePoole and the half-hearted notes of Chirayu’s whistle were the only sounds that joined Brian on his watch. The seaman Roldão shared his watch, too. But he stood further down along the main deck, his silhouette obscured in part by the ropes.
Brian had considered going along to say hello to either of the men. He could start a game of droughts, he thought, or test whether or not Chirayu and Roldão spoke English well enough to enjoy one of his nautical tales. But his mouth still tasted of pickled onions and turtle and the soft pitching and rolling of Poole as she swam beneath his feet was too familiar a sensation to distract himself from.
Non. He would enjoy the cool, Atlantic night while it lasted. _ _
“No thank you.” The hold had been purged of any cargo and outfitted for the thirteen men and boys. Hammocks were strung up and tacked to every surface. Sea bags, cut from old canvas sails and brutally stitched together at various points in their past, swung from hooks in the bottom of the main mast. Four men remained below now, including Joshua, who gave his blanket another good twist about his legs as he rolled over in his hammock and waved away the shadow that hunched over him.
“I will not play these games.” The rough sound of the Captain’s voice roused two more of the sleeping sailors from their hammocks. They grabbed the third man by the sleeve of his linen shirt and all gathered their breeches and other articles and scrambled up through the hatch, into the daylight.
“Good. You forfeit. I win,” Joshua grumbled, his face and words half-smothered by his arm. He started to roll over. “Now, if you please, leave me to revel in my victory.”
“No, I will not please!” she roared and lunged forward with both her hands extended like claws. She clamped them around the edges of his hammock and gave it a hard turn so that the bedding twisted, dumping Joshua onto the rough floorboards.
“Insolent Yankee girl!” he screeched, picking himself up off the pitching and rolling floor and righting his drawers and night shirt.
She brought her hand quickly up and across his unshaven face. “If you say I will rise, you will rise,” she hissed, clenching and unclenching her jaw. “Disrespect or disobey me again and I won’t fail to spare the rope.”
He thought bitterly of the bit of rope, probably encrusted with flakes of blood from the backs of the other men it had flogged, and set to clenching and unclenching his jaw in a steaming silence as well. “Do trust me when I say that I have not awoken you just to see you without your trousers on,” she hissed and avoided the sight of Joshua, more undressed than she would have liked. “Trust me when I also say I have not come with good news.”
This managed to hold the attention of Joshua long enough to stop him from sulking in the odd misfortune of having paid to sail under such unremarkable conditions under such an obdurate creature.
“If you would just accompany me to the carpenter Gaspar’s quarters.”
As he kept at the fast-paced heels of the Captain, the only thought on which Joshua could reflect was how she had failed to employ a surgeon. The carpenter, as the man with all the knowledge about saws, would be expected to take on all the responsibilities of a surgeon. And since he doubted seriously that the Captain and the carpenter had conspired to construct him a grand cabin of his own, or to carve a new figurehead in Joshua’s image, there remained one reason, Joshua thought, that he would be called to Gaspar’s quarters.
The other Englishman was sprawled out on a wooden slab in the center of the room. It served, it seemed, as a bed for the sick and injured men who came to surgeon-Gaspar, but also as the work table for carpenter-Gaspar. Brian’s complexion had paled significantly, despite having spent the past several weeks beneath an almost constantly relentless sun. His shirts and jackets had already been removed and set in another of the carpenter’s work spaces. On one shoulder, however, the neat little hole, courtesy of Diego Ignacio Óscar de León and sister, had blossomed into a shiny, pink splotch larger than Joshua’s hand. Through the center of the wound ran winding, bulging veins of white puss.
“It seems his bullet wound has reopened and become infected. I will drain the area of puss, and perhaps I can cleanse it with a bit of spirits. Captain?” Gaspar brought his bushy eyebrows and small, glassy eyes down to look hopefully at Matilda. “Of course,” she said quickly. “Pike!”
The youngest of the crew, a gangly lad of sixteen, maybe seventeen, lunged forward from the doorway where he had followed the procession into the carpenter’s quarters. “A bottle of spirits from my supply. Quickly,” she ordered. Pike brought his hand to his forehead in a salute, turned on the bare balls of his feet, and scampered back out the door.
“Good,” Joshua said. “And then what?” “And then nothing.” The carpenter shifted uncomfortably. “There aren’t many options for a man at sea, sir. If we keep course, we should reach London in another few days. There will be better medical help than I in the city, I know. In the mean time, we hope that the infection is cleansed enough and will keep away from his heart.” “And if mortification of the skin should set in?”
Gaspar shook his head. “I cannot amputate a shoulder. I am sorry.” For the first time since setting sail from the British shore on La Fernandista, Joshua found himself in honest mourning of the absence of his comrade’s sarcastic, and often haughty, chatter. His comrade was, however, otherwise occupied. He had allowed his head to tip back against the edge of the table and took shallow, tentative breaths that he could not slow enough to prevent the incessant burning in his shoulder.
Pike returned now, a bit out of breath and with a thick, brownish bottle tucked under one arm. The Captain distractedly thanked him. Gaspar motioned him forwards. And as the carpenter uncorked the bottle and set about soaking strips of material in the spirits with which he would scrub the wound clean, the Captain and Joshua exited slowly.
“Joshua-” she began. “Change course.” She blinked at him for a moment. He stood with his head slightly hung and his arms loose at his sides. Before leaving the hold, the Captain had insisted that he at least don a pair of breeches and his boots. With the first part he had complied. But now, he stood barefoot in the sunlight, looking disheveled and suddenly tired in his wrinkled, simple clothing.
“What?” “Change course,” he repeated, finally freeing himself from where he stood with his feet stuck to the deck. He ran a hand through his haggard hair. “Where’s Ephraim? The two of you met just after dinner, did you not?” “H-he showed me some maps he had drawn up, but-”
He paced now, back and forth in front of Matilda, who had pressed herself against the rails. She watched his movements with an uneasy expression. “Good.” He scowled harder as he tried to summon a mental drawing of the coast. “We’re mostly past France, now, but there’s sure to be a port. We could buy a couple of horses on land. Of course, if there isn’t a port, you could give the order for us to reverse direction-”
“No.” Joshua glanced up through the greasy strings of his unwashed hair. “Excuse me?” The Captain shrugged and, when she did so, gave Joshua a glance at the thin depression of her collar bone.
“I’m not switching courses.” “I’ll double what I paid you to take us to London. Six silver pieces,” he offered. When her stony expression did not change, he exclaimed: “Six doubloons! Demonio, ten doubloons! You can take the whole pijoteropot of pieces, for all I care. I paid you to get us to London. Now I’m paying you to get him to France.” “I am taking you to London,” she insisted and folded her arms over her narrow rib cage. “You can find another ship to take you back to France from there if you are still so inclined, but it won’t be ThePoole.”
His eyes flared as he glared at her. “You leave me no other option than to take ThePoole,” he said in a morose whisper. “Mister Poole, I have no use for mutineers.” She adjusted the tricorn hat, fitting it lower over her eyes, and set her face, which had slipped into a bit of a grimace, back in its usual stern expression. “Stopping in France would only cast suspicion upon a merchant ship that carries no cargo, was set for London, has a crew of Spaniards, but flies an American flag. I have no death wish for my crew. Any of it. Therefore I can be of no further use to you than passage to London.”
She brushed past Joshua and continued up onto the quarter deck. “Pike, my breakfast? I will take it in my cabin. And pour a glass of wine. No, you need not interrupt the carpenter. Go, retrieve one of my other bottles.” _ _
She was retiring for the night, she had told them. Whether or not they believed that she had shut herself off in her cabin to rest, she was not sure. But there had been not a single soul that questioned the announcement, nor one that came knocking once she had locked the door behind her.
This late at night, only Orville was out of his bunks, looking out over the calm waters of the Atlantic and watching for any dark clouds or ships. Every other man was collapsed in his hammock, his feet numb from marching, his arms strained and taught from pulling in and stringing out sails and ropes, his stomach hollow and still cringing from a rough night of sour burgoo. She envied them a little, her feet and arms and stomachs just as abused. But she did the best to push the thought from her mind. Instead, she focused on hoarding the candle in her fists and slipping between shadows cast by ThePoole’s infrequent lighting.
When she reached the carpenter’s quarters, she crawled inside the door, shutting the wooden panel behind her. The carpenter was asleep in his hammock, pinned up on the other side of the room. He snored and chortled in his sleep, bumbling most incoherently as he dozed. He would not be a problem, Matilda believed, and smiled softly to herself as Gaspar inhaled sharply and choked on the tips of his own hair.
She turned her attention to the reason she had come. He was still laid out on the table, his arm pulled back from his side and the wound exposed to the humid air. Especially by candlelight, his complexion appeared ghastly and pale. Little beads of sweat had squeezed out along his hairline and dribbled down the sides of his face. Taking a bit of the unused cloth in her hand, she mopped up the trails of sweat, then set the candle at the edge of the table and began her work.
“I’ve brought you something,” she whispered. From her pocket, she produced a silver tin. She removed the lid, brought it close to her nose and recoiled slightly as she inhaled deeply. “Actually, it’s from both me and Chirayu. It’s a salve.” She took one of the strips of cloths that had been spared soaking in spirits by Gaspar and dug it into the herbal salve. Once she had worked up a layer at least a quarter of an inch thick on the rag, she touched it to Brian’s bare shoulder.
“He doesn’t speak much English. You know that.” She frowned as she worked the rag back and forth, back and forth over the taught skin. “But he’s smart.” The touch had aroused him from the thick sleep he had succumbed to. He stared at her now through half-opened, glassy eyes. It was the first time he had seen her in anything but her Captain Matthew rig. She wore a long linen shirt that billowed easily around her narrow waste and fell low around her neck.
Beneath it, she still had on her Matthew breeches and a pair of red stockings that began where the breeches stopped. She had cut off the hair, he did note. It hung in loose waves to her ear lobes. For a moment, her hands quit working over the wound. She dropped her fingertips to the edge of the table and bent low. Those spirals of her hair tumbled down and dropped into her eyes and brushed the apples of her cheeks. He could smell a bit of soap on her neck, he thought, and Oh, how she smiled. She brought her voice low. “I will come again,” she promised. “You will make it to London.” _ _
Two more nights passed, during which the Captain did return. On the third night, as they neared the coast of Great Britain, a light storm gave ThePoole a bit of a tussle. During all hours of that night, she remained on deck. The other twelve men were divided into six groups of two who alternately took turns either sleeping, eating, or being sick over the side of the pitching and tumbling ship for the duration of half a watch. By morning, the sky had lightened. The crew was dismissed, except for the last pair that had most recently had a rest. One by one crew members emerged from the hold, slightly more alive and aware than when they had stumbled to the hammocks, bloated with sea water. Gradually, the watches resumed for all except the Captain, who relieved Gaspar of his watch over Brian and settled into the carpenter quarters until late.
For the first half hour, she had thoroughly lathered the wound in Chirayu’s salve and then occupied herself with scrubbing it into the slightly less pink skin for the next hour. By the time the work was done, her arms were throbbing and her back ached. All during her visit, Brian had chattered half-heartedly. She had tried to insist on his resting. But he was much more his stubborn self than he had been during the previous nights during which he was content, if not grateful, to lie quietly as she tended him.
Now, though, both their energy had lagged. He drifted back asleep. Soon thereafter, Matilda found herself staring at her water-logged shoes with bleary eyes and yawning. She considered sending for Pike to wake Gaspar, or doing so herself to wake herself. She just let her head rest on her fist as she thought about it. How long ago did I relieve him? She just let herself sit on the stool and folded her tired arms on the table. He’s had enough of a break. Morning is soon. She just let her head slip down onto her arms. I’ll go in a minute…
“— oh.” The male voice stopped and there was a wooden bang.
She snapped her head up off her arms, moving so quickly that she threw the stool off balance. The stool tipped, clattering to the floor and dumping her along with it, then rolled a bit in each direction in time with the bobbing of the schooner.
“Que o demo,” Matilda muttered crossly under her breath. Still sprawled out on her rump, she got to her knees and began gathering the salve and rags that the commotion had also knocked to the floor. There was another wooden bang as Joshua let the door of Gaspar’s quarters swing shut. “Stay where you are!” she hissed before he took a step in her direction. “Now turn and face the wall!”
“But, Captain-” “Turn and face the wall,” she repeated impatiently. “Good.”
Earlier that night the quarter master, Abram, had been walking with her as they passed her cabin.
“Mi capitán,” he proclaimed and pulled open the heavy door of her quarters with a flourish of his log-like arms. She patted his forearm and smiled a bit, then gave him a superior nod and marched into the dimly lit area without another word.
The walls swelled and creaked around her, the floor still diving and sinking a bit beneath her feet as the rest of the storm calmed. There was a window that looked out onto the deck and several wooden steps that led up to it. She climbed to the top and pressed her nose up against the foggy glass. From the very edge of the window, she could see Abram standing a foot below. She would have to wait only a moment, she suspected, for him to move along to the galley or the hold. But around the corner came the master gunner, Cibrán, and his first mate, Aleixo.
For several minutes, the trio remained in the area before her cabin, chattering away and laughing raucously at something the gunner’s first mate had said. Matilda considered going out to bark in her Captain Matthew way and insist they pipe down. But there was a warm, sweet smell that filled her cabin and suddenly she remembered the inexorable growling of her unfilled stomach.
Pike had laid out the last of the lamb, it seemed. Around the slightly rancid meat was some cheese, ripe cuts of an apple, and fresh vegetables. A glass of her wine sat at the edge of the plate. It looked wonderful, both she and her stomach had to admit. But her nerves were otherwise occupied and she could only bear to sit at the table a moment.
When she found that the men had still yet to move along, she set about undressing. Off came the sopping wet long coat and, after that, her breeches. One by one, she threw the water-logged articles of clothing to the floorboards where they settled in a puddle of salt water until she stood in the center of her room in only a pair of drawers and her bindings. Those, too, she stripped herself of, then toweled off her wrinkled skin and hair.
Then, on with her white linen chemise for bed. She briefly considered slipping on her cassock, a straight jacket decorated with light blue braids and heavy bronze buttons, but it was still damp from this morning.
As she stood now in Gaspar’s quarters, she wore only the chemise, wishing she had brought the heavy coat anyway. While Joshua had his face turned, quickly Matilda looked around desperately for another piece of clothing, but decided for folding her arms over her front instead.
“What are you doing out of the hold?” She folded one arm tightly over the other, taking care to cover herself completely. “Coming to see my friend. What were you doing out of your cabin?”
“Coming to see my crewman.” Brian’s Monmouth cap lay on the table behind her. She quickly snatched it up and stuck it on her head, stuffing any loose hairs up under the knitted cap before crossing her arms once more. “Touché.” “Likewise.” She pushed her shoulders back and stuck her nose into the air. “There. You may turn around.”
“Captain, I-” he began, though she did not wait to hear the entirety of the sentence. Clutching the jar of salve and rag close, she forced her eyes on the wall of the quarters and marched for the door. As she passed, he reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Mister Poole.” She groaned and paused, keeping her eyes on the outline of the doorway, where glimpses of the ocean spraying up on the deck peaked through. “It has been a long and trying time for everyone. I am tired and uninterested in your incessant chatter. However, should I ever be so possessed as to seek it, I will address you – not the other way around. Understand?” “Does that count as you… um… I mean: yes… sir.” She resumed her determined walk right out the door and disappeared.
“Silly girl,” Joshua hissed under his breath as the door rocked violently against the wall as Poole rolled over a strong wave. He latched the door closed and the rocking was reduced to rattling.
“How are you feeling, mate?” Joshua took the liberty of righting the stool and proclaiming it his own. He stared intently at Brian’s wound, now covered in thick ooze. “What is that?!” He recoiled a bit when he inhaled greatly through his nose and got a lungful of a burnt, moldy smell. “It’s one of the Captain’s tricks,” Brian said, eyeing his friend carefully. “She ‘as many.”
“I’ll bet she does,” Joshua grumbled. “That stuff is vile! Has she talked to Gaspar about this? She shouldn’t be allowed to just prance around the ship, flinging herbs and salves at whatever wounded she pleases.” He huffed and sat back with his arms crossed.
“You sly devil.” Brian pushed himself up and stared at Joshua with a completely set expression. “You fancy our petit Captain, non?” After a split second of silence, Joshua hissed: “Non. That girl is not a mouse. She is a rat.”
He stood quickly from the stool, knocking it back over to the floor, and lunged for the door. As he unlatched it, Brian spoke up over the sound of the waves that began to pour into the room with the moonlight.
“Maybe it’s the smell of the salve that’s gone to ‘er head and caused ‘er to make all them confession while she thought me asleep… Or maybe she’s just taken an ‘onest shine to…” Brian frowned for a moment, thinking. “Nah. She must be crazy. ‘Cause she fancies ya too, mate.”
Joshua thought for a moment, his hands resting on the open door. “We’ll be in London by morning. Rest up,” he ordered, his head bent and his eyes focused on the rough floor boards. “Mouth included.” _ _
“These, mates, will be your clothes for the go-ashore day.”
Joshua, and Brian, too, had joined in the line of sailors during this gray morning. “You will wear them any time we are setting foot in London. And remember,” she said, adjusting the tricorn hat that perched on top of her hidden hair and squared her jaw. “You are sailing aboard The Poole, an American vessel, under the command of American Captain Matthew Poole.”
The Captain nodded at Pike, the cabin’s boy. Taking the command, he scooped the pile of dark jackets into his arms and scrambled sideways across the deck, pushing one into the hands of each sailor who stood in the line. Then he went about passing out the white duck trousers and linen shirts that matched the violet baldrics they had been outfitted with at the beginning of the journey.
Her eyes flickered over Joshua, but he showed no visible disturbance at her stealing his surname for a second time. So, taking small measured steps and keeping her nose poked just high enough into the air, she walked the line of the sailors. She stopped when Joshua’s eyes bore into the side of her face and turned sharply so they were nose to nose. “And you, sir, for the purpose of this trip will need a new surname.” She smiled devilishly. “We cannot have the English thinking we are related, for you are but a crewman on my ship. The moment my schooner sets sail you may again be Joshua Poole. Use it before then and-”
“And what?” Joshua said indifferently, his nose just as high as hers. “You’ll leave me back in Spain? Sorry, love, it’s too late for that. Good news is, if I use it in London, we’ll already be in London.” Her eyes flashed and her teasing half-smile set into a glower.
“Yes, I was hoping to abandon you in Spain. But I suppose I could settle for having you thrown over the side a hundred miles, at least, off the coast of England. And remember my rope, Mister Joshua Rato, for it follows cheeky men even onto land.” There was laughter aboard at the announcement of his new last name.
“Guess you were wrong,” Brian said as the Captain stiffly dismissed her crew, turned on her heel, and disappeared to somewhere, anywhere the Englishmen were not. “She is a mouse. And you’re the rat. Mister Rato.”
It rained the morning The Poole reached London. Each of the men, dressed in their go-ashore uniforms, were given the remainder of the afternoon and night to spend in London. They disappeared quickly, some into the shops, most into the taverns, and hardly emerged while the pounding rain turned the sand and soil inside out.
“Mister Dawkins, Mister Matilda: the physician, Master Solly, is here.” The widowed Madam Esther’s soft voice carried barely through the wood of the door.
“What?” Joshua called on his way to the door. In defiance of Matilda’s orders –and a bit of revenge- Joshua had taken her name as his surname when renting the room that evening. “Master Solly, the physician, is here,” she called again in a voice hardly louder than before.
Joshua swept open the door. The wrinkled Esther stood behind a stout man two or three heads taller than she, with her hand still extended to knock. Slowly, she lowered the hand back to her side. “Oh, the physician,” Joshua exclaimed. “Come in, sir. Thank you, Madam Esther.” “Oh, you are welcome!” she exclaimed.
The Master Solly and Master Matilda both nodded in her direction as they disappeared inside the room and shut the door. “Oh.” Madam Esther sighed. Turning to the opposite end of the hall, she screeched to her daughters: “Cathy! Millie! That tea better be hot!”
The Englishmen had rented a room at the Georgeand Dragon for the night. It was small quarters, had two single beds, a chest for clothes and blankets, a bowl for washing faces in, and a table with a candle and one armchair. It was rather cramped, especially once they had invited the Master Solly inside, but it was large enough for the men to have a bath, a hot meal, and a night’s rest before setting out dawn. Their plan was to travel to Oxford and pick up Brian’s sister, Sybil, from her school. Then they would find a place to rent where they could stay over the holidays. Of course it all depended on the physician’s analysis of Brian’s would but, so far, things were going smoothly.
“And this is from a bullet?” The physician peered down at the pinkish spot that remained on Brian’s shoulder. Brian nodded his head. “A Spanish one,” he added, feigning a cringe. Master Solly chuckled as he dug around in the leather bag he had brought with him.
“I will apply honey to the area – it should clear up the puss rather nicely – and dress the area in some clean cloth. You’ll be perfectly fine to set out in the morning.” He eyed him carefully as he drew a jar and a rag out from his bag. “Whoever’s treated the wound thus far has done well. You should be thankful, Mister Dawkins. Here, Mister Matilda, take the jar, if you would. Keep it close to me, now. That’s right.”
“Another pork-pye, Mister Dawkins?”
“Or perhaps some more casserole?”
“No thank ya, girls.” “Well, perhaps just some coffee, then.”
Before Mister Dawkins could refuse through his mouthful of sweet potato, the elder of Madam Esther’s daughters, Catherine, had leapt up from her seat and taken up the tall, painted coffee pot in her hands. “If I may.” She had long, black hair that fell well over her shoulders and did more in the way of covering her up than her low-cut bodice ever could. She batted her equally as long and black eyelashes at Brian now, who gave her his half-hearted consent more out of politeness than willingness.
Rather than walk around his chair, she bent low at the waist and reached across his plate for the mug he’d been sipping at all evening. “Oh!” she exclaimed as she brushed his hand with her own. “Excuse me, Mister Dawkins…” She drew the cup back, a small, strange smile glued to her face, and filled the mug with fresh, steaming coffee. Catherine grabbed the mug around its middle and began reaching for the other side of Mister Dawkin’s plate once more. But halfway through the maneuver, he caught the mug in his own hand, tugged it out of her resistant grip, and set it himself on the other side of his plate.
“Thank ya, Miss Catherine.” He looked to the table for another place to turn his attention. The other daughter, Mildred, had dark, brown eyes and hair much like her sister’s, though a ribbon held it back completely from her face and from her bodice as well. She, too, batted her eyelashes with admirable vigor when any one of the two men, especially Mister Dawkins, so much as glanced in her direction or reached for the basket of buttered rolls set out in front of her. And Madam Esther was just as bad, Mister Dawkins decided, for every time he tried to strike up a conversation with her, she tried desperately to turn it to one of her daughters.
If Mister Dawkins spoke of sailing, Madam Esther boasted of her Cathie’s ability to swim. If Mister Dawkins mentioned his plans to take a carriage the next morning to meet with his sister, Madam Esther reminded him of the precious love between two sisters such as her daughters – a love that was both strong and important, though not so much so that should the proper men come along (and she always eyed Mister Dawkins and Mister Matilda poignantly here) they could be separated.
The only other person that sat at the table was Joshua Matilda. And so it was a conversation with him that Mister Dawkins plunged so desperately into. “This is quite the feast, ain’t it, Joshua?” Brian smiled, though the gesture wasn’t returned quite so enthusiastically by his friend. “On The Poole, great a schooner as she is, the food was no where near as good. Isn’t that right?”
Joshua, who had sunk lower into his seat with each passing minute that the dinner dragged on, all the while bitterly watching Madam Esther’s daughters faun over the prettier of the Englishmen, merely said: “Aye aye, sir.” By then, it was too late for Mister Dawkins to retract the subject on which he had ventured.
“The last time my Cathie went swimming, Mister Dawkins-” “On second thought, Miss Catherine, I would like some more casserole.”
Her face lit up into a wide grin as he passed her his plate and she dished another two spoonfuls of the steaming rabbit and rice onto his plate. The moment the dish was returned to him, he stuffed the food into his mouth, swallowing before he had paused to chew, but honestly enjoying the sweet taste of the meat. Then, washing it down with one last swig of coffee, he swiped his mouth with a napkin and stood.
Each of the girls popped up out of their chairs, too, though Madam Esther came up more slowly. Joshua threw his own napkin into the middle of the food that still sat, untouched, on his plate and got to his feet, too.
“Thank ya very much, ladies, for dinner. It was splendid and your company ‘as been much appreciated.” He gave short bow, clasping his right hand over his left behind his back, which was returned by curtsies all around, though the Madam’s was again slower and less stable. “But I must be going, now, I’m afraid. I promised me wife a new dress from the coast.”
Catherine’s eyes flew open. “But I can think of no obligation Mister Matilda ‘as tonight. I’m sure ‘e would be glad to take ya ladies for a bit of dessert. What say you, Mister Matilda?” Joshua’s eyes widened as well.
“A-actually, Mister Dawkins,” Joshua stuttered. The skin around his eyes had turned pink and he gulped as Catherine and Mildred began fluttering their eyelashes in his direction now. “With all the excitement of late, I have failed to announce that I, too, have recently been engaged.”
The two men stared squarely at each other across the table. Catherine, who had dropped into a chair upon hearing Mister Matilda’s announcement, sat glowering at her dish of small, lady-like portions. After biting her lip for a moment, she lunged at the casserole dish, piled her plate high with the rest of the food, and topped the mountain with a pork-pye.
“Yes, really.” “And wot’s her name?” Joshua’s mind flickered back to The Poole, and he blurted: “Matilda.”
“Matilda?” screeched Madam Esther, squinting at the boys through the dim lighting. “That’s strange!”
“Yes,” Brian said quickly, giving Joshua a purposeful stare. “That is strange. I haven’t met any Matilda’s of late. Have you?”
Joshua swallowed, his mouth and throat suddenly dry. “Y-you didn’t let me finish,” he snapped finally. He grabbed the mug from next to his dish and poured half a cup of coffee down his throat. “Matilda will be her surname…as soon as we are married. Until then, she remains Miss… Dawkins. Miss Sybil Dawkins,” he said, blurting the other female name he heard often.
“Well, isn’t that sweet!” roared Mildred acerbically, stomping the heel of her shoe into the floor. “Mister Matilda is marrying the sister of his best friend!”
“Sweet?!” echoed Brian. “By Jones, that’s the bloody least sweet thing I’ve ever-”
“What’s even sweeter is your bride, mate. Why, if I ever met a gentler girl than your Jacinta de León…” Joshua let the sentence hang in the air. “Yes, I s’pect she’d like that dress from the coast very much. Shall I write her so she may look forward to its arrival, or will you be taking care of that yourself?”
Brian’s glower darkened. “That depends. Will ya be bringin’ a gift from the coast to your Sybil as well?”
Joshua scoffed. “Maybe I am.”
“Wrong answer.” He pushed back his chair and buttoned up his coat. “Ya will be goin’ nowhere near me sister. I suppose ya may stay ‘ere, then, when I call for a carriage in the mornin’. Do what ya wish with your time. Spend it with these ladies. Write the letter to Madam Jacinta. I will be long gone and me sister will be far from ya.”
Brian turned to Madam Esther. “I will take a bath in me room. ‘Ave someone brin’ up the water, if ya will.” His eyes slid back over Joshua. “Ya are dismissed until ya get me sister out of your mind.”
With that, Brian turned and headed up the staircase that led to all the rooms.
Joshua, still standing in the middle of the cluster of girls, bowed his head and excused himself beneath the glare of Madam Esther’s hopeless daughters. He, too, buttoned up his coat and straightened his cravat.
As he left the dining room, he could hear the distressed cry of one of the daughters. “You stupid ninny! You scared them off and now I’ll never be married!” “Not if you eat like that, you horse!” “Mummy!” “Mum!!” “Now, girls…” _ _
“If you keep staring, you’ll wear her out.” Matilda smiled a bit and gave him a poke in the ribs with her elbow. “I’d have to charge extra gold coins for the repair work.”
He failed slightly in returning with a genuine smile. For a moment, the pair only stared at one another. Then, as if remembering just exactly where he was, Joshua squared his shoulders. “I’ve been banned from my room at the George and Dragon.” “Ah, the poor sailor lad: stabbed in the back by the other sailor boy and turned out on the streets of London. You expect me to take pity on you, don’t you?” Remembering her whereabouts, she squared her chin.
“Not pity. A trade.” He nodded down at his right hand, which was clamped around the handle of a woven basket. Slow steam rose from the covering napkin and warmed his fingertips. “Pork-pyes and naplesbiskets, compliments of the Madam Esther and her daughters.”
She lifted the corner of the napkin and peeked at the foods. “Are they any good?”
“Just delectable,” he promised. “The only thing I couldn’t stand was the company.” His eyes twinkled and the pair laughed, their heads bent together over the basket. “Very well. We will see just how delectable these pyes and biskets are.”
A heavy coldness pressed on her body; but something warm lay in her hand. Her hat had toppled off her head and landed somewhere on the deck below. The cloth was still bound around her forehead, though, and held short sprigs of hair in front of her eyes. She pulled pushed the hairs out of the way with her free hand, blinked the sleep from her eyes, and stared up at the white canvas sail. What?
Slowly, her memory of the past night returned and left a sick taste in her mouth. Quickly, she jerked her hand back to her side, wiped it on the skirt of her nightgown, and pushed the sail out of the way.
“¿O que eufixen?” she whispered in horror at the sleeping face of Joshua Poole. She tore the sail back the rest of the way and shoved it over the edge of the top.
“Get up, you swab!” She leapt to her bare feet and gathered the skirt of her nightgown in her fists to protect it from the wind. Matilda desperately scoured the small wood platform for a coat or a blanket and, failing, gave Joshua a swift stomp in the ribs with the heel of her foot. “I said get up!” His eyes were bloodshot and there were still pork-pye crumbs stuck in his stubble.
“What are you doing?!” he roared, scrambling to his feet to escape another blow. He clung to the edge of the platform, his hands closed around one of the Jacob’s ladders. Matilda pressed her back against the mast, digging at the wood with her finger nails and struggling not to hyperventilate.
“Don’t look at me,” she snapped, grabbing her nightgown closer to herself. The wooden slats of the top, a platform balanced high in the mast, were still wet from last night’s rain. The pair had pulled the canvas sail over themselves for shelter and spent the night aloft in one another’s company. Matilda ran her hands down her face. “I don’t understand,” Joshua called over his shoulder. He looked out over the harbor, where the early-rising fishermen had begun to lay out the line for the day and shopkeeper’s dusted off the window displays. He stretched and scratched the spot in his ribs where a bruise was forming. “Why is it we can never make civil conversation without you assaulting me?”
“Sorry,” she whispered. “Are you alright?” He nodded. “My character was the most damaged, I supposed. Am I really that terrible a friend?”
She tightened the knot in her hair cover, then played nervously with its ties. Her nightgown billowed out around her ankles and danced on the strong wind, matching eerily the movement of the sails. “No. You’re not a terrible friend.” “Then what?” Tentatively, he peeked over his shoulder at Matilda. When she didn’t snap at him to shield his eyes immediately, he removed his arms from the rail and brought his eyes back to hers.
“You are a wonderful friend who brings me honest joy, eating, drinking, and talking until we fall asleep under the stars and hold hands beneath the sails. But our time together is supposed to have already ended and then you came back and…” She dropped her nervous hands from her hair and paced to his side of the top. She stared hard at the little buildings on the coast and tapped her own fingers on the rail. “And look there: your friend’s coach has come to take him from the George and Dragon. Don’t you want to go?” She was all too aware of the warmth his shoulder left against hers.
“You must,” she insisted when still he gave no answer. “You must want to go, sir.” She brought her eyes up to his. “I want you to.” “Come now, my Captain,” Joshua whispered and joined her in the briefest, most half-hearted of laughs they had thus far shared. “Do you mean that? Can you honestly claim that you wish me to go?” She bit back her lower lip and turned her face down toward the sea so as to hide the tears from his view.
“You would order me from your ship for good with a light heart, then?” He took a step back. “My Captain?” Matilda swallowed. Her voice breaking, she whispered to the sea: “I would.” She cleared her throat, swiped the sleeve of her nightgown coarsely against the wet that dribbled from her chin and plummeted down into the waves, and cut across the top without meeting his eyes again.
“You have already stolen a peek, sir. I will descend first.” She curled her toes around one line of rope that made up the Jacob’s ladder and pulled herself up with her arms.
“I am glad to say you will again be Mister Joshua Poole by noon. I set sail to America within the hour – I want to catch the morning tide.” Though she faced him now, she kept her eyes fixed on the edge of the top, her gaze even with his boots.
“Besides. What would President Jefferson say of my keeping a redcoat?”
He found difficulty in trying to match the bent, haggard figure before him to the memory of his once chipper friend. He hadn’t meant for last night to be so…
He pushed all thoughts of Matilda to the side as he swallowed his pride and knocked on the carriage door. “I will not inquire as to the space that remains in the carriage. Nor will I doubt your readiness to purchase my passage.” Joshua motioned to the coachman, one of Madam Esther’s acquaintances dressed in a great coat, and waited as the door of the carriage was opened. He then climbed inside.
Less quickly, Brian forfeited another silver coin into the coachman’s hand. Joshua dumped his jacket on the seat next to him and slouched with a frown.
Brian remained relaxed in his seat opposite Joshua.
Silent passage ensued.
“I don’t understand.” Elvira sniffled, her hands drooping in her lap and a couple of diamond tears splattering her eyelashes. “So where does he meet mummy?”
“‘E made good on ‘is word, your father.” Little wrinkles appeared around Brian Dawkin’s eyes when he thought back on the memory and smiled. “We rode all the way to Oxford silently and picked up your mother from that school of ‘ers. We rented a small house on first street for the winter.”
“Joshua stayed with us ‘til Christmas. ‘E kept Sybil company frequently enough, I suppose. I didn’t really notice it, but apparently they were practically inseparable.” Brian grumbled a bit, “Right under my nose, too.”
“But one day, ‘e comes ter me, and says, ‘Brian, I would like to ask for your sister’s hand.’” There were small little whimpers from each of the girls at this. “I thought ‘e was mad,” Brian continued. “I drew me sword on ‘im for ‘is audacity to rekindle that old, sick joke. And at first, I said no. For a week I was stubborn. But she loved him.”
“And so, finally, I relented. On Christmas morning after church, Joshua proposed. It was painful to watch, but your mother was so happy.”
“How could you do that to mummy? And to father?” screeched Magdoline. Her hair had fallen almost entirely out of its perfection, having been handled by nervous fingers so frequently during the telling of the tale. The rims of her eyes were red and puffy as well and she kept a handkerchief nearby.
“Now, now, meschers.” Brian chuckled as he took in the sight of his four, weeping nieces, huddled closer than when the story had begun. “Your mum and father are a good match. ‘E loves ‘er very much.” “Not so!” wailed Magdoline. “He loved Matilda!”
“Yeah, dear, I suppose that ‘e did. But there are different kinds o love, ya see.” He considered the idea for a moment and smiled. “Your father loved Matilda in the Matilda way. Now, ‘e could never love your mum in such a way. But ‘e could not love Matilda in the Sybil way, either, as ‘e does your mum. Never, ever doubt your father’s love for your dear mum; ‘e loves her more than I’ve ever seen a man love a woman before. So, see: ‘tis a happy end.”
Elvira, who had popped out of her seat, sniffed loudly and mopped at her nose. “Whatever happened to Matilda?” she whispered. “She perished in a British act of war against America. The Poole was offered up to America for service.” There were wails all around, and the sad muttering of How tragic’s and So wonderfully romantic’s.
Brian took a seat and pulled Elvira onto his lap. “So, ya see: the point of the heart tattoo is to remind ya to keep your loved ones near, lest they leave ya for marriage. Also, never befriend a lady whose angry brother owns a pistol. And when loves comes out of ‘idin’ long enough for ya to sneak a peek… don’t turn your back on your heart.” There were weak, hopeful smiles all around. Knitting his brow, their Uncle Dawkins added after a moment: “I could do myself some good by rememberin’ that last bit.”
For a moment, they sat in silence, as the wedding breakfast bustled on about them in a flurry of motion and noise. Magdoline reached her hand around to touch Theodora’s fingers. Brian moved his arm from beneath Elvira’s head and cupped it around her little shoulder. And in the corner of their little nook, Liam shyly stroked Eleanor’s fingers. “You know, it would do your father good for ya not to mention ‘er name about the house,” Brian Dawkins announced. “It was a rather sunless day they parted ways and the memory still stings. ‘E never quite forgot about ‘is petite souris.”
The crowd parted a bit and revealed the silhouettes of a man and woman, illuminated by the golden sunshine streaming in through the window.
Brian sighed, lost in a memory. “We sailors rarely do.”