Dewey Lambdin - A King`s Commander
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"I'll see to 'em, sir," Maggie Cony suggested, with a knowing wink. "Will an' me c'n cosset 'em inta th' boat."
"Aye, thankee kindly, Ma… Mistress Cony," Lewrie amended.
Her and Cony's own git birthed, and back on her pins nigh on a year, she was a handsome young wench; thatchy-haired like her new husband, blue-eyed, with a face never meant for true beauty, but a strong, open and honest, and pretty, face after all.
"And I'll keep a weather-eye on 'em, sir," Maggie promised. "As Will is wont t'say."
"And I on your man, mistress," Lewrie promised in turn. "Get him back to you, a warranted bosun someday, safe and sound."
That had been a proud and happy moment, to stand up for Cony in a dockside chapel as he took his bride, at last, four-square in his best rig as boatswain's mate, a petty officer, now. Though his swaddled son, born during their last cruise aboard Cockerel, had not taken well to the festivities, and had wailed through half of it.
"Adieu, m'sieur," Sophie said, wan and weepy once again, her green eyes brimming. "Bonne chance."
"Adieu, mademoiselle… adieu, Sophie," Alan replied, giving her a hug, too. "I trust you'll fall in love with little Anglesgreen. And find peace and contentment there. Fall in love with our family, too. As they already have with you," he stressed, hoping to get one last hint driven home.
"Bonne chance," she said again, stepping back and dropping him an aristocratic curtsy in congй. "An', merci beaucoup for aw' you do pour moi, m'sieur."
She rose, and fixed him with a curious, hard stare for a trice, her fine reddish-auburn hair flickering about her face and the shroud of her traveling cloak's hood, her green eyes intent in her slim and gamin face. "Poonish ze Rйpublicains zat tuer… zat keel ma Charles, m'sieur Lewrie. Ah pray fo' you' success."
"Merci." He nodded. "Merci, beaucoup. Caroline…?"
He gave her his arm to walk her to the starboard entry port, and a waiting bosun's chair slung from aloft on the main-course yard.
"Alan, should the wind not serve…" she hinted desperately.
"Beat down to Saint Helen's Road, my dear, a few miles, and lay-to, till one comes fair," he said, a touch of severity in his voice. "Admiral Howe was lucky he had a favorable slant, t'other day. And then, off for Gibraltar, quick as dammit."
Out of long habit, he cast his eyes aloft to the impossibly long and curling coach whip of a commissioning pendant atop the mainmast truck. Then aft, to the Red Ensign that flew over the taffrail on the flagstaff. Red, for an independent ship, one sailing free of fleet or squadron, under Admiralty Orders. A few days before, Portsmouth Harbor had teemed with warships; stately lst-Rate 100-gunners, 2nd Rates, 3rd-Rate 74's, and frigates, from the mouth of Southampton Water down into Spithead, west into the Solent as far as Buckler's Hard. Now, it yawned vast and empty. The French were out. And so was the Channel Fleet, under elderly Admiral Howe.
"Admiralty Orders, dearest." He sighed. "With dispatches aboard. 'Make the best of my way, with all dispatch'… Should the wind come useful, we'd cut cables, instanter, and scud out under jibs and spanker, and no one'd mind us losing our anchors, 'long as the dispatches were on their way. I'm sorry. I truly am."
Didn't mean t'sound harsh, he told himself; mean ev'ry word of it, swear I do. But, there it is.
"I'm sorry, Alan," Caroline replied weakly, her lips atremble. " Tis just that I'm selfish for one more hour, half a day…"
' 'Tis just as hard for me, Caroline," he said with some heat. Meaning that, too. "God help women who marry sailors. Even in time o' peace, we're an undependable lot."
God help sailors six months from home, too, Lewrie told himself ruefully; them that can't keep their breeches' flap buttoned! Or their hearts content with what waits for 'em at home.
He'd played up bluff, hearty and cheerful, from his first sight of her, praying he wouldn't give the game away some night in his sleep. By muttering the wrong name in a moment of ecstasy, or those first few muzzy moments 'pon waking. Why, a man'd be a fool, who…!
Right, then, I'm a fool, he thought; always have been, probably always will be! A proper wife, the mother of three fine children (and thank God for small mercies that little Charlotte was left ashore today at their lodgings-the squally, squawly chub!).
He took Caroline's hands in his, looked deep into her beautiful hazel eyes; those merry loving eyes with the riant laugh-folds beneath which reflected her warmth, her caring, giving cheerfulness. In a face as slim and patrician as anyone at Court. For a year over the dreaded thirty, Caroline was as graceful, as lithe and lovely as a swan, sweet as swans-down to touch. No, this was no frumpy matron he'd married; not one to surrender easily to hearty country cooking and stoutness.
Caroline ran the farm better than most men, presented him with a clean, orderly, well-run household as gracious, as stylish, as any great-house in England. Though there had not been time to see it, she swore that the gardens, the new furnishings, the finally finished salon and bedchambers for guests, were marvels. Everything Caroline turned her hand to was marvelous; everyone said so! Since their first tumbledown gatehouse home on New Providence, she'd been a wonder when it came to housewifery, at hosting-a spectacular blend of practical frugality when called for, a commonsensical North Carolina plantation domesticity, allied with a rich planter's, a rich squire's, easy and noble airs.
A sensible woman, well-read and so easy to talk to, about silly things, about matters of import beyond the stillroom, nursery, and bloody fashion! Tongue-in-cheek waggish, she could be, too; a grown woman's wry and witty waggishness, not the prattlings of some girlish chit fresh in her first Season in Society, still redolent of milk-pap and primer-level humor.
Light brown, sandy-blond hair, still distressed into stylish witches' ringlets, for "а la victime" was still all the "go"; a style that bared a graceful but strong neck and shoulders.
And I've cheated on her? he wondered; to himself, of course! Why, a man'd be a total …!
"It's time, I fear, beloved." He sighed heavily. "Else we'd never, and…"
"I know," Caroline whispered, patting the broad dark blue lapels of his new uniform coat. One last stroke of her gloved hand on his cheek. One last proper, public, buss… soft and fleeting on the lips, at a proper distance at the entry-port gate. An incline of her head for a departing bow. A doff of his new gold-laced hat with the wide gold tape about the brim so new it hadn't gone verdigris in salt air yet.
She accepted his help into the bosun's chair. One last squeeze of adoring fingers, as they had together once before, so long ago, at Charleston, after he'd evacuated her family from the impending Rebel takeover of Wilmington… twelve bloody years ago, and a bit, Alan marveled in reverie! Winter o' '81, and Fated t'be husband an' wife e'en then? Damned if we didn't both know it, too! Straightaway!
Then, up and away, to a falsetto squeal of the stay-tackle's blocks, the creak of the main-course yard as it swung her outboard oн Jester s hull to dangle over the buoy-tender that was below the mainmast chain platform.
Down there, Hugh was squirming against Mrs. Cony to crane and see everything about a ship getting underway. Sewallis…
Poor, sad Sewallis, Lewrie thought, still doffing his hat to them all, finding something new to be rueful about as he attempted to recall how much attention he'd really given the lad.
Prim as a parson, face reddened by wind and emotion, and about as screwed up as a hanged spaniel's-looking just about that happy, too! Slim little scholar's hands clasped tight below his waistcoat as if in supplication.
Sophie de Maubeuge, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, too tearful (thank bloody Christ!) to recall her earthly savior's-ahem-Fall from Grace! And pray God it don't suddenly come to her, either, Lewrie asked his Maker most earnestly! Poor chit; not a relative left alive, either guillotined-or killed in that last sea battle that got me this ship as prize. Fate's been slamming her doors on Sophie's fingers everywhere she turns. Titled aristocrat-slam. Marryin' Charles de Crillart? Slam, he was killed when we took Jester. Now she's off the ship for a strange house in a strange new country. Catholic convent girl. Slam, slam, slam. Have to pretend to be-or learn to pretend to be-the same as any country-raised English girl. Go for Church of England in a year'r two… if she has any sense at all.
God save her; in my house? Part o' my family? He shuddered suddenly. Poor little mort! Nigh a daughter, to the likes o' me?
"Good-bye!" he called down, once Caroline was safely settled on a thwart amidships of the sturdy buoy-tender. "Write often, as will I! All of you! You mind what I say, Sewallis?" he cried, meaning to offer the lad a crumb at the last, to atone. "I wish to hear all about your progress. And your puppies! They should be good hunters, by the time I'm back, hey?"
"Uhm, excuse me, sir, but…" Lieutenant Knolles interrupted with a sorrowful cough into his fist. "There's a veer to the wind, and…"
"I saw, Mister Knolles," Lewrie replied from the corner of his mouth, still posed at the bulwarks with a gay grin plastered on his "phyz" for his family. "Hands to stations, then. Heave us in to short stays."
A Marine drummer began a roll. A fiddle screeched as one of the idlers tried his tuning and sought the proper key. Spithead nightingales began to peep, as newly warranted Boatswain Porter and his Bosun's Mate Will Cony, both off that ill-starred Cockerel frigate, piped the commands for stations for leaving harbor, and up-anchor.
A precious, breathless moment more, as the buoy-tender's oarsmen stroked the boat away, clear of Jester's side. "Give way, together!" her midshipman called from the stern sheets and tiller-bar. One moment more to lift his cocked hat in salute to kith and kin, then put it firmly back upon his head and turn, dismissing them, as he must, and stride purposefully to the center of the quarterdeck.
He let out a heavy, lip-puffing sigh that bespoke both his impatience, and his relief. Swung his arms and clapped his hands before him unconsciously, to release a scintilla of how tautly he'd forced himself to pose, this last day in harbor.
Relief, that he'd not blown the gaff. Relief, that, no matter how dear he cherished them all, he was off to sea, and they were no longer the center of his universe. Not when a greater, wider world awaited.
Impatience, of a certainty, to be off and doing in that greater world, which was now filled with strife and the stink of gunpowder; in a proper ship, well-armed and able. A ship he'd already proved on the passage home, which could take the worst of the Bay of Biscay gales and swim as proud as any 5th-Rate frigate. Fast, sleek, with a clean entry and forefoot; not so fine as to bury under opposing waves, but cleave them and ride up and over. Deep enough in draught to grip the seas, resist slippage to leeward; long enough on her waterline to tear across the seas like a racehorse. Wide enough in beam to carry her artillery and stores safely, to be sea-kindly as well as fast…