The frigate, closely followed by a uncommon fast, trim clipper, beat into the channel with a clear ferocity, surprising the wheeling flocks of seabirds used to the relatively calm, unfocused hubbub of work parties loading stores, small boats plying up and down with mail and messages, bum boats. Officers and men alike were busy, even in the increasingly driving wind and rain, with urgent repairs, putting the squadron to rights in preparation for tomorrow's expected fair wind. Briseis had finally arrived and it was no secret that Commodore Aubrey intended to sail with the first tide.
Before the frigate had quite secured her anchor, her captain was slipping down the side and the barge was away.
Heneage Dundas stood hunched, glancing up at the young, pale midshipman, trying not to let the unexpectedly cold late afternoon downpour run down his neck. The typical afternoon rain had turned into a late reminder of winter storms as the warm trades had backed around into a cold, whipping wind seemingly blown down from Hibernia itself.
Jack heard the cry and sprang to his feet with surprise. Heneage and Hamadryad had been twelve hundred miles away in the Channel, he knew with a certainty, at his brother's urgent behest, conveying diplomats for secret negotiations. What was he doing here in Funchal? Were there new Admiralty orders? Had Buonaparte been retaken?
As he hastily sprinkled sand on the last page of the letter to Sophie and grabbed for his coat he heard the clash and clatter of feet and the knock and call of the marine guard.
'Cap'n Dundas, sir' and the door sprang open.
Jack's grin and hearty 'Heneage, you old...' froze as he saw the expression on Dundas' face. In a more formal tone: 'Come in, come in,' and then, seeing the wet uniform, with authority, 'Killick there - coffee, hot and hot to warm Captain Dundas,' as Heneage grasped Jack's outstretched arm, clasping his hand tightly.
'Sophie, my God, not Sophie' sprang to Jack's mind as all his instincts evaluated Heneage's expression, his tenderness, and worst of all, his unwilling glance. With cold mortal dread for the answer he spoke, 'My God, what's amiss, Hen? I thought to see you in Gib in a few weeks, but not here, not now?' then, in a whisper as Dundas' face clouded even further and Jack heard the softly murmured 'Bad news, Jack. From Woolcombe,' - 'My God. .?'
'No, no, Jack,' cried Dundas, "It's Mrs. Maturin - Diana. And Mrs. Williams. The bridge at Maiden Oscott. Pitched straight over."
Jack's heart had stopped as Dundas had uttered 'Woolcombe'; now something quite close to great joy welled over him. Not Sophie! All quite safe! Then, as the rest of the words penetrated, he registered the blow, and his face colored with shame at his relief. 'Stephen,' he thought, 'oh, Lord. How will I ever do this. It will quite kill him, I think.' And then in a sudden tardy fear, 'Brigid?'
'No, she was with Sophie and the children at Woolcombe, thank the Lord. And Padeen.' Dundas recovered himself, sorry for his mistake, for Jack's embarrassment. With an odd glance at Jack, he added. 'but Col. Cholmondeley, who was with her; and Mrs. Williams' companion. The groom survived, though.'
'Cholmondeley? Who the hell was he and what was he doing there?,' a question Jack regretted even as he said it. Jack pushed the thought to the back of his mind, knowing the answer quite well. 'Even at the end,' he thought, embarrassed and angry for Stephen, and not a little uneasy with his own guilty recollections.
Dundas, too, flushed as he considered the unavoidable conclusion.
A few stiff paragraphs - details, arrangements. Discomfort as both Jack and Heneage recalled the past, regretting the deep pain both the event and the circumstance would bring their friend. Jack rose, 'I must tell him.'
'Yes, of course.' Dundas handed over a large Admiralty packet, heavy with seals and ribbons. 'I know what's in it, Jack. It will keep a few moments, but I can not stay, nor is a reply needed . There is an urgent packet for Gib and Mahon as well and I must be off. They are with child in London to hear that the squadron has sailed, and then Lord Keith has some most urgent dispatches. 'You'll convey my concern - my sympathy - to Maturin, Jack?'
'Of course. Godspeed then, Hen.' A pause: trying to delay the onerous duty, delay the moment. As Dundas reached the door: 'You may tell Keith we'll be off tomorrow, if the wind makes its promise,' as he attempted to regain the composure, the necessarily impersonal demeanour of a Commodore in front of the Marine; but it was a much, much older Jack, a profoundly unhappy and heart-sick Jack, who turned to go below.
The water lapped at the ship. Bells, feet rushing about, cries from above: urgent preparations.
'Come, sir.' Killick's rough hands, guiding him up the stairs. Light? 'Where on earth did such brightness come from,' he mused idly. Even so, the miasma, the same greyness that had surrounded him since Jack walked into the sick-berth yesterday, wrapped his soul.
As he waited for the boat, Stephen starred out into the clear, bright harbour, his exterior composure as tightly controlled as ever Sir Joseph might wish, unmindful of the pitying glances of the old Surprises. Every movement, every sound, every sense seemed both heightened and muted. There was nothing left alive in him at all, at all, so how did he come to feel the spray on his face? 'Another wonder,' he thought, 'and where did all this noise come from?', as the bosun's shrill whistle cut through the fog. He wondered that the sheets, the water, the men could make so much noise. 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' was all the world deaf? Could no one do anything in peace? Could no one just go away and leave him in peace?'
Jack's voice, hard, on the quarterdeck now, 'Goddamm it, where is that fool Ward with Dover?" We must be off within the hour if we are to catch the full tide. If he has fouled a cable again . . .' Steps. More whistles.
Stephen eyed the greyish - tern?- as it swooped, snatching a morsel out of the water, wing tips brushing the now almost imperceptible, slow ripples from Pomone's progress. 'Not the usual markings, noted Stephen mechanically. The fleck of black seemed too small, too pale, 'Perhaps a Chlidonias hybridus?' But the observation gave him no pleasure at a new sighting nor distraction from the malignant grief. More creaks, calls; the constant bustle and clamour in the harbour of a dozen vessels preparing to sail, eager to be ready at the signal, their captains shy of falling foul with a now strangely remote and hipped Commodore.
Jack's hand, hesitantly on his shoulder; 'It's time, Stephen. Reade will take you straight back, as quickly as ever he can.'
The wall of grey closed in even more firmly as he was carefully handed down into the stern-sheets of the barge. 'Here now, Doctor. Sit you down there on the extra cloak' That was Bonden. Rough hands guided him, eased him down. Joe Plaice.
And Jack again, 'Stephen, God go with you. My love to Brigid. I would I could come, Stephen.' No reply; no reply possible: an awkward pause. 'Mr. Reade and Ringle are at your command, you know. Sophie will have a carriage at Poole for you. Bonden, give this to Mr. Reade,' handing an oilskin packet down into the boat. 'For Woolcombe,' he added unnecessarily. 'Row dry there, you hear.' As Jack turned toward the quarterdeck a sad-looking unfortunate blundered into his path. 'Get over, you --,' roared the bosun, with the rope-end reinforcing his meaning.
'Commodore? Shall I send the signal to get underway, sir?'
Jack was suddenly put in mind of pretty black hair, of a moment at a fox hunt a lifetime or two in the past, and for several aching heartbeats he only stared dumbly at Pomone's third.
Returning to the reality of naval existence, Jack dismissed the unexpected wound, looked up at the long pennant fluttering above with some dissatisfaction and not a little anticipation - action? prizes? a moment of glory? or a moment of death? - and replied, 'Yes, Mr.Somers, Squadron to proceed with all dispatch. Buonaparte will not wait forever. There is not a moment to lose.'
© 2000 Rowen