London welcomed us with a stinking swirl of smoky fog. I walked two steps behind my captain and to his left while we left the Indefatigable. We were almost a block from the wharf when an old woman accosted us. She seemed to come from nowhere and startled me with her claw-like hand on the red sleeve of Captain Pellew.
"What?" He was as startled as I, then he paused and pushed back the hood on her black cloak, revealing the face of a withered crone. "Dorcas?"
"Captain Pellew, please help us." Her voice cracked with emotion and the captain put his arm about her as she faltered.
"Come, Dorcas, you shall tell me all about it once we are private. Mr. Hornblower, go at once to the end of the street and procure us a hansom cab." His deep voice was decisive and I obeyed instinctively.
I all but ran to the end of the street and whistled much more firmly than I would have just a year before. But I was an Acting Lieutenant on the Indefatigable and learning the ways of command well from the best captain in the Fleet. My gesture was firm and the cab was open and waiting when Captain Pellew helped the old woman inside.
He looked at me for a moment with an unfamiliar look of indecision on his face then it cleared and he gave me the slight smile I loved so to see. "Well, Mr. Hornblower, instead of a dry as dust trip to the Admiralty, I shall ask you to accompany me on a more delicate mission. This is ... a private affair and I do not command you to come with us."
"Will I be able to help you in any way, Sir?" I wondered just what kind of mission I was volunteering for.
"I believe you will but I must say once again that it is a personal favor to me and not His Majesty's business." His lips firmed and I saw sadness in his gaze.
"Then you have but to command me and I will help in any way I can." I would do anything for this man who was my mentor.
"Devil's business, Sir Edward," the old woman sighed and I saw tears running down the withered cheeks. "And you are both Angels of Mercy if you can save her."
"We will do our best, Dorcas. Now, into the carriage with you. If we squeeze tightly, I believe we all shall fit." He helped her in and followed, leaving me to sit very close beside him.
Our thighs touched all along that side and I found myself short of breath at the close quarters. He called out an address and the cab driver clucked once before the horse began to trot.
"Here, Sir, here's the Master's letter that he left for you." The old woman pressed a long creamy white envelope into Captain Pellew's hand.
There was light from the open windows so he had enough light to read the single sheet of paper the same color as the envelope. I averted my eyes from it and watched the dirty London streets instead. After months at sea, I should have been more excited, I thought. But in truth, I was more depressed than elated. I no longer had family except for some distant cousins.
My new family was the officers and crew of the Indy. The next two weeks stretched out before me like a never-ending prison term. Unless ... I felt a frisson of danger run up my spine. Unless the captain needed me, then this would indeed be a shore leave to remember. I turned my head in time to see him crush the letter in his fist.
"Good God, Dorcas, Stephen ... dead." His voice was hoarse and I knew that whatever was going on, it had struck at his very heart. "I can hardly believe it."
"It was quick, Sir. Master got the croup just like he does . . . did ...every Spring. Two days later," she brushed away more tears. "He just stopped breathing while she was reading the paper to him. When I came to get the tea things, she was on her knees by the bed, weeping as if her heart was broken."
"Damn them, Dorcas. I'm assuming that Charles descended on her and took charge." Captain Pellew's voice held such anger that I watched him wide-eyed. I hadn't seen him this upset, not even while under attack by the French.
"Master wasn't hardly cold before that viper's brood invaded the house. His books were boxed up and sent away, we don't know where." Her voice trembled and she sniffed a little. The captain pulled out his snow-white handkerchief and pressed it into her hands. She thanked him softly and dabbed at the tears. "That's when they sent her to sleep with me up in the servant's rooms under the roof."
"Good God, Dorcas. And no one came to her aid?" Captain Pellew spoke through gritted teeth, his anger white-hot.
"They put it out that she was ill herself and prostrated with grief." She twisted the handkerchief in her hands as if it were someone's neck. "Once the funeral was over, they gave her an ultimatum. She was to act as if everything was all right or Wenton and I would be turned out onto the streets without a farthing. We're nothing more than hostages so she doesn't fight them. Master's will says that the estate is theirs but they should take care of her. Instead they have made her a prisoner in her own home."
The Captain sighed and smoothed out the creases of the letter he'd crushed in his anger. "Mr. Hornblower, I very much fear that I am about to break a law or two. It would be best if we drop you off at the nearest lodging so you can begin your shore leave."
"No, Sir." I took hold of my courage and met his bleak gaze squarely. "You're going to need help in rescuing your friend's widow. Command me in this as you do my seaman's duties and I will try not to let you down."
That gaze was fierce for a long moment but I held my ground and finally his eyes gentled just a little. "Insubordinate to the end, eh, Mr. Hornblower?"
"If I must be, then yes." I said firmly and watched the warmth creep back into his face.
"Well, you haven't let me down yet, young man so I guess I must include you in our plan. Dorcas, where will she be this afternoon?"
"In another hour, she will be in the kitchen garden picking the vegetables for the dinner table. It is the only time they allow her outside the four walls of the town house." Dorcas was trembling and her gaze went from him to me and back again. "Please, can you bring her out today? I know I haven't given you much time but," she bit her lip until it bled and her voice dropped to a whisper. "She's dwindling away before our eyes. I think she's only going on for Wenton and I. She doesn't care any longer if she lives or dies."
"It shall not come to that, Dorcas. God willing and with a little help from Mr. Hornblower's ever-present guardian angel, we shall rescue her at once. If I remember correctly, the kitchen garden is all the way at the back of the property, hard on the lane where the coach house sits?"
"Yes, Sir. The carriage chauffeur is one of theirs but he comes in and has his tea a few moments after she goes out. The gate is locked though and Lord Snow keeps the key." She watched him anxiously while he thought.
I saw the familiar signs of his mind sorting tactics but instead of war, he was planning something even more perilous. A widow had few rights under the law except what the Church might demand. Property was usually entailed to the male issue and it sounded like her dead husband's family had taken hold of the estate with fervor. I was curious about the letter from Captain Pellew's dead friend. Had he foreseen what his relatives would do once he was gone?
And just how good a friend was the captain to be contemplating what appeared to be breaking and entering, kidnapping and general mayhem?
But there was no way that I could ask such a question. I was just lucky that he was willing to let me help. So, I sat and waited to hear his plan. Just then, he banged on the roof of the hansom with the gold knob of his ebony cane.
"Driver, I've changed my mind. Take us to Locket Lane, number three." He called up and the carriage made an abrupt turn that sent the captain hard into my side.
I froze and barely heard his apology. We'd been pressed together from leg to shoulder and my skin tingled with awareness, as it never had before. The weight and strength of him had been mine for a brief moment and I savored the feeling with all my heart. I had slowly over the last few months come to the realization that certain feelings that were growing within me were all centered on my captain.
Below decks was as much a training ground as the rigging of the Indy. I had soon learned more than I wished to about how men deprived of women could deal with their fellow men. Archie Kennedy and I had protected each other from unwanted lessons in male fucking. I could call it nothing else since there seemed to be no emotions involved only the physical act itself. Archie had shown me how to pleasure myself and we'd even given each other a hand when we were a little drunk.
But I had no thought that I should be learning any lesson other than avoidance when I awoke one morning after a vivid dream of a deep voice and a warm hand that pleasured me right into release. Cleaning myself up, I wondered what it might mean. An hour later, I heard the Captain's voice and immediately got so hard that I had to go to the head to relieve myself.
It happened twice more and finally Archie asked me what was wrong. I made him promise to tell no one and he swore he would never say a word. Whispering in the dark, cuddled up next to him on his narrow bunk, I told him what I had dreamed. He was very quiet for a long time and then he sighed. He told me that the captain had been a married man and was definitely not someone who would ever love another male.
He patted my back gently and consoled me while I clenched my teeth against the pain of hearing what I had expected to hear. I moped a bit but came to my senses a few days later. I was young and no doubt this was but a crush on the first man who commanded my fate. He was the best captain of the Fleet and I was privileged to learn from him.
I just wouldn't be learning the lessons that I'd come to crave from him.
The cab stopped and broke into my melancholy memories. Captain Pellew bade me stay in the cab while he dismounted and just before he disappeared into the locksmith's shop, he gave me the letter and told me to read it. I took it gently into my hands, amazed that he would give it into my care. Unfolding it, I tilted it to the light and began to read.
My dear Edward,
When you read this, I will be dead. My health has deteriorated over the last year no matter how good the care lavished on me. We both know what will happen when I am no more. My idiot brother, Charles and that ambitious witch he married will take over the title and make my sweet Jane's life a living hell.
That is not to put too bold a face on the situation. In my will, I have left you a sum that will keep her, Dorcas and Wenton quite nicely in the country. My oldest friend, I beseech your help for Jane. A cottage on your estate, or rooms at the local vicarage, someplace that will be her refuge when I can no long take care of her the way that she has taken care of me for the last ten, more than happy years.
I'm also leaving you some of the books that you collected for me over the years from the exotic ports of call that so tantalized me in your letters. Jane must have read them to me a dozen times over the long years. You broadened my world immeasurably and I thank you for being such a good friend.
I am giving this letter to Dorcas to hold for you. Charles won't think of her and neither will that bitch, Catherine. Please let that great heart of yours grant me this one last favor.
I remain as ever, your friend,
I read it through twice while I noticed the tremor in the firm letters that spoke of ill health. And the first question I had was answered by the term 'my oldest friend'. He must have been a childhood acquaintance of Captain Pellew. Folding it, I gently pressed it against my leg to try and get the wrinkles out.
"Sir Edward always came to visit whenever he was in port. He'd bring books for the Master and something pretty for the Mistress. Master always brightened up so when Sir Edward told tales of his voyages. After dinner, they'd sit for hours in the study while they thrashed out the politics and such of London society."
"Your master ..." I wasn't sure how to phrase my question. "He didn't go out much?"
"Lord Stephen had friends that kept him informed of what was going on in the outer world but he was too frail to go out into society. My lady read him the entire paper every day and they discussed what they read. You'd have never known that he was blind to watch him move about the house. But he never felt very comfortable outside and my lady wouldn't leave him." Dorcas showed signs of crying again and I tried to think of something to say to head her off but Captain Pellew appeared at her side.
"Mr. Hornblower, we have come to a brief parting of the ways. Please join me for a moment." He beckoned me out and I nodded to the elderly woman who looked so anxiously at the captain.
On the pavement outside the locksmith's, he beckoned a villainous looking man over to us. "Ezekiel, this is Mr. Hornblower. After you open the gate, he will enter to spirit Lady Snow away. Your brother will convey all of you to the King's Arms at Greenwich. Questions?"
The dark haired man with the hideous scar slashed across his face contented himself with a nod. Captain Pellew turned back to me. "Mr. Hornblower, are you quite sure that you wish to join in this enterprise? I shall not hold it against you. We will be skirting the King's laws very narrowly in our search for justice for my friend's widow."
I handed him the letter back. "I am honored that you permit me to help. It seems that sometimes the law must take a back seat for justice to prevail."
His slow smile made my heart beat faster. Clapping me on the shoulder, he nodded once and told me of my part in this drama. Ezekiel would unlock the gate, identify Lady Snow and then I would go inside to bring her safely out. A closed carriage driven by his brother would take us all away from her old home.
"Call her Lady Jane and use my name to explain what is happening. But if needed, Mr. Hornblower, pick her up and carry her out of that prison. Ignore any protestations and reassure her that Dorcas and Wenton will be taken care of at once." His eyes flashed and I saw him set his jaw, the way he often did before a battle. "I will join you as soon as I am able. At the King's Arms take a private room and order tea for her. If they have scones and honey, order some of those, too. Here's a gold piece in case the innkeeper asks for payment in advance. Questions?"
"No, Sir. I won't let you down." I came to attention and watched his eyes soften again.
"You'll do very well, Mr. Hornblower. Hurry now and get into place. Follow Ezekiel and let him guide you. Someday, I'll tell you the story of how we met. Over a noggin of rum perhaps, Zeke?" He smiled at the dark man and I watched in fascination at the lopsided grin that crossed the ruined face. Captain Pellew drew out his watch and exclaimed. "On your way, men. We have a lady to rescue."
Getting into the cab, he drove off. I gulped and turned back to my fellow conspirator. He jerked his head to one side and took off at a brisk pace that taxed my young muscles to keep up with him. Three blocks over, a Mews appeared where several carriages sat waiting a call to business. A man, who looked enough like him to be a twin without the scars, listened closely before nodding and harnessing a chestnut mare to the closed carriage.
We boarded it and immediately began our journey. I debated what speech to hold with this man I'd just met but my curiosity loosened my tongue. "Sir, how is it that you know Lord and Lady Snow? If you don't mind my asking?"
He seemed to be thinking and his gaze assessed me rather like several of the officers of the Indy had weighed my abilities over the last few months. But whatever he saw in my face must have decided him in my favor. His voice was hoarse as if unused and I listened closely so I did not miss a word.
"Five year back, I had a ... different trade. I left the farm never to return and soon fell among men whose sole task was ... relieving other men of their valuables. I became pretty good at it but when I broke into Lord Snow's town house, I met my match." He grinned at my stunned look. "I was in the study looking for the safe that I thought must be there when Lord Snow surprised me. I wasn't armed and when I realized that he was blind, I thought I was home free."
I listened to him both intrigued and appalled at his tale. He chuckled and continued.
"But Lady Snow was right behind him and she was armed. Calling up the stairs, she asked Sir Edward down. He was there on one of his periodic visits and he soon had me trussed up on the floor. That's when they all sat down in their dressing gowns and discussed what to do with me. Lady Snow was all for calling the Night Watch. She's a fierce one when it comes to her Lord."
His voice faltered, remembering her bereavement. "Lord Snow was for mercy and he asked me how I came to become a thief. Sir Edward just poured each of them a brandy and sat down to listen. The short of it was three years of drought and the loss of the farm that my father had left me. I was the eldest so it was up to me to find the others trades. My younger brother Elijah is driving this carriage. My little sister Meg is ladies maid to Lady Trenton. I was the only one who failed."
The horse was slowing and my compatriot's brother called down the address. Ezekiel tensed and lowered the shade set over the door's window. A high brick wall stood before us and the wrought iron gate was almost two men wide with spikes reaching up to the cloudy sky. The fog seemed thicker here and it softened our footsteps while we descended from the carriage and moved quietly to the gate.
Ezekiel had a large ring of keys in one hand and I pondered how a thief might become a locksmith. Hopefully, I would some day learn the rest of his remarkable story but for now, I realized that my part in this drama was rapidly approaching. With a violent gesture, Ezekiel motioned me to the left of the gate while he plastered himself against the red bricks to the right.
"You there, why are you stopped here?" A harsh voice called out and I found myself almost holding my breath, praying that the fog would conceal us.
"Bessie started to limp. Probably just a stone. We'll be out of your way in a tick." Elijah had descended from his box and had the front leg of the mare up, probing the hoof with something.
"See that you are." The harsh voice seemed to retreat a ways and I strained to listen to footsteps that were all but inaudible. "Well, M'Lady, a fine afternoon for you. Mind you pick only the best for Lord and Lady Snow."
I bit my tongue at the mocking words and watched Ezekiel go rigid at the insult offered the woman we'd come to rescue. If she spoke, I couldn't hear her. Part of me wanted to open the gate and hit that man right in the nose. But the part that always obeyed the captain waited for Lady Snow to be alone so we could take her away from this horrible place.
Ezekiel moved slowly and cautiously to the gate. A dark bandanna muffled the clank of the keys but he only needed to try two before the click of the lock brought me to his side. Looking into the small garden, I saw a small woman kneeling with a large basket by her side. It must be Lady Snow but I hadn't realized that she would be so old. Her hair was completely white and pulled into a small knot at the back of her head. She moved as if each joint pained her and I felt an instant desire to save her for herself and not just because my captain wished it.
I didn't really need Ezekiel's nod to tell me that this was indeed Lady Snow. Swiftly, I entered through the gate and came to kneel beside her. She was so concentrated on the task before her that it took my speaking her name to bring the ravaged face to mine. The lines of suffering were etched deep on her fair skin.
"My Lady, my name is Horatio Hornblower and Captain Pellew sent me to take you from this place." There was no comprehension in her blue eyes so I rephrased my message. "Lady Snow, Sir Edward got your husband's letter and he sent me to come and get you."
"Edward? He's here?" The voice was so soft that I could barely hear it.
"Yes, Dorcas found him and delivered Lord Snow's letter to him. I have a carriage just through the gate and he asked me to come for you." I patiently spoke to her while I wondered how much time we had. "Please come with me."
The look of indecision on her face was heartbreaking. "Dorcas will be left."
"No, Ma'am, she won't. Sir Edward already knows that Dorcas and Wenton are coming with us." I urged her to her feet and she swayed a little when she stood up. Then I remembered what the captain had told me to call her. "Please come with me, Lady Jane. I promised the captain that I'd get you safely away."
She searched my face for what -- I don't know but whatever she saw must have reassured her for she finally nodded. Two steps told me that she wouldn't be able to walk fast enough for us to make our escape expeditiously. With a murmured apology, I swung her up in my arms and hurried through the gate. She must have weighed less than a hundred pounds for I held her easily.
"Ezekiel?" She'd seen the locksmith and a smile finally crossed her lips. "I should have known that you'd be involved."
"If I'd known, M'Lady, I'd of been here sooner. I'll just relock the gate while Mr. Hornblower helps you into the carriage. I told you that one of these days my brother would take you for a long drive." Ezekiel bobbed his head to her before closing the gate behind us and clicking the lock back into place.
It sounded rather like what I imagined a prison door would sound like but fortunately we were on the right side of that door. Elijah had the door already open and gave me a small boost when I lifted her into the cozy interior. I followed her in and Ezekiel was on my heels almost instantly. A slight clatter and we were off. I know that I sat there, listening intently for any outcry.
We'd gone almost a mile before I relaxed and turned my attention on Lady Snow. She slumped against the leather seat, one hand holding the strap on the wall. Looking from Ezekiel to me then back again, she looked as if a breath of wind would blow her away.
"Now, please tell me why I've been rescued so handily by a naval officer and a locksmith." Her tones almost matched Captain Pellew's and I sat up straighter to answer her. She listened carefully and nodded once or twice. Finally, I finished and was rewarded with of those sad smiles. "Dearest Edward has definitely gone far above the call of friendship and I am grateful that he did. I do not think I could have lasted much above another week. Where are we going again?"
So, I explained Greenwich and the King's Arms again and watched her nod once before closing her eyes and seeming to fall into an upright doze. Ezekiel watched her closely and I gently took her pulse at the slender wrist that lay supine on her lap. This close, I could see that her dress was old and worn, yet another example of the family's ill care of her.
A quiet question to Ezekiel brought me the knowledge that we'd be in Greenwich within the hour and I settled back in the comfortable seat to wonder how my captain was faring with the current Lord and Lady Snow. Sighing, I thought how much I wished I were with him instead of on my way out of London. But another look at Lady Jane's relaxed features convinced me that I had been in the right place at the right time.
Yet, I could hardly wait to see Sir Edward again and find out what was next in our adventurous shore leave. Grinning to myself, I sat back to wait for the next act in this stirring drama. If I was lucky, there was more in store for me than a simple stay in London.
End part one