“You, Miss,” pronounces Higgins, “are a complete mess.”
I groan and stretch out over my lovely bed on my lovely schooner, the Nancy B. Alsop, neither of which I had ever expected to see again.
“Please calm down, Miss. I know you want to be with your young man, but Mr. Fletcher’s feet are a mere four feet above your head, tending to the business of getting you and your ship as far away from the coast of France as quickly as possible. Please let him do that and allow me to take care of you.”
You might have thought that Jaimy and I would have tumbled into the sack right then and there, as soon as we got back on the Nancy B., but no, such was not to be.While Jaimy assumed the con on the quarterdeck and gave orders to set sail and fly, Higgins hauled my sobbing and gasping self into my cabin, where he stripped me down to clean me up and, hopefully, make me presentable. That’s when he discovered that I was covered head to toe with scratches and bruises from when my dear Mathilde had dragged me across that battlefield in Germany, my foot being caught in my stirrup and she being blind with terror. I don’t blame her none—she was a good horse and already I miss her.
“Good Lord,” exclaims Higgins. “Amongst a veritable constellation of contusions, right there is a bruise the size of a cricket ball. A lovely shade of purple and yellow, as well, I might add.”
My mind is still reeling from the events of the past hour. “If you’ve never been dragged on your back across some very rough ground by a terrified horse, Higgins, then you have no room to chastise me.”
“I believe I will take a pass on that particular experience, Miss. Hold still now.”
I feel the healing salve being applied to my poor bare and much abused bum.
Ahhhhh . . . nobody has a touch like Higgins. “Turn over, please, Miss.”
I give out a low moan and turn over on my back.
“Ah.Your front is not quite so bad. Just a bit of salve on your shoulder and some about your knees, there. Good.”
I don’t mind being tended to by my dear Higgins. In fact, I’m loving it—that and the fact that I am still alive. I had spent the time in the lifeboat that brought me here curled up in Jaimy’s lap, trembling and weeping—after all, a mere hour ago I had been on my knees on the beach, waiting for a bullet from the pistol of spymaster Jardineaux to scatter my brains all over the sand—and I do need some time to calm down.
“But how came you to be here?” I ask, still in wonder at my rescue. “With our ship and Jaimy and all . . .”
Higgins takes my shako and places it on my writing table. “Yet another trophy,” he muses, putting his pinkie through the bullet hole in the front. “I shall tell you, Miss, but first will you tell me about this?” He holds up the medal I had worn about my neck.
“It is the Legion of Honor. I didn’t deserve it, but L’empereur gave it to me, anyway,” says I, once again stretching out and reveling in the smooth sheets on my bed, my own dear bed, which tonight will hold bothme and James Emerson Fletcher—right next to my own sweet self. Oh yes! “The Emperor?” asks Higgins, for once surprised and incredulous. “Napoleon Bonaparte himself ?”
“Right. He had given me a ride in his coach after the Battle of Jena. He wanted me to deliver a letter to Empress Josephine.Which I did.”
“You never fail to astound me,Miss.”
“It was not all that astonishing,Higgins,” I say, and then proceed to tell him of Jardineaux, the guillotine, Madame Pelletier, Les Petites Gamines, Jean-Paul,Marshal De Groot, my commission as a second lieutenant in the Grand Army, Bardot, the Clodhoppers, my job as messenger between the generals and Napoleon, my delivery of Napoleon’s message to Murat, which ordered him to charge the Prussian line, meeting Randall Trevelyne again, the great and terrible battle, and finally, that dark time down on my knees on that beach, crying, and expecting nothing but death.
“Remarkable,” says Higgins, looking off into the middle distance. “However, we might have a problem here.With that message you delivered. If Naval Intelligence gets wind of that, it might be trouble. And they certainly will not be pleased to hear of the death of Jardineaux, whom they considered very valuable.” He shakes his head and sighs. “I could have told them that when you,Miss, get thrown into any mix, unforeseen events occur, but I was not given that opportunity. Not till later, and then it was too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“You asked how I knew you would be on that beach. Well, after I learned, through certain sources, that you had been pressed into the Intelligence Service, I, myself, using my Hollingsworth connections, joined that same service so as to be able to find you. I met and gained the confidence of Mr. Peel, Sir Grenville, and the very delightful Dr. Sebastian. We passed many pleasant hours at dinners and in intellectual discussions. Dr. Sebastian declared himself to be especially fond of you—he greatly appreciated the fine illustrations you did for his naturalist endeavors and hopes he will be working with you again someday.”
“So I have confessed to treason in front of an agent of the Intelligence Branch?” I ask, with some dread. Higgins is my dearest friend, but male honor and all . . .
“Never fear, Miss,” he says. “I would never betray you, but there are other agents in France, some of whom might have learned of your actions and reported them to my colleagues in the Admiralty. We shall see. Now let us get you back into some clothing. Since we left England in a hurry, I did not have time to purchase any female garments for you. I do, however, have your midshipman uniform, the one you were wearing when you were captured.”
“I have a dress, there in my knapsack. It will serve as my wedding dress.”
Higgins reaches into my bag and pulls out my white gown, the one dress I had taken with me on my way to join Napoleon and the Grand Army of France.
“Hmmm . . . It could use a bit of ironing, but I know you will not wait for me to do that.”
“You are so right, Higgins.”
“And your underclothing is not even close to dry.”
“The dress itself will be enough. I don’t plan to have it on long,” I say, popping up and putting my arms in the air so that Higgins can slip the dress over them and then over me. He adjusts it, and then I regard myself in my mirror. Not too bad, considering . . . “May I ask, Miss, if the color of the dress is still appropriate for the wedding you seem to be planning?”
“Yes, it is, Higgins. I’ve done just about everything else, but not yet that particular thing,” I say, getting up from my bed and not taking offense at Higgins’s question as to the state of my rather shaky virtue. Higgins has always been my friend and protector, and has often given me gentle advice concerning my often impetuous conduct with the assorted males whom I have met on my travels, but he has never interfered when I finally set a course in that regard.
“Ah. Well. I ask only out of concern for your welfare and what you might recently have gone through.”
“I know that,Higgins,” I reply, continuing to look atmy reflection. “Should I wear my wig?”
“Ohhhh.” Higgins shudders. “That awful thing? No. Please. I think you will look fine without it, Miss. Let me give your hair a bit of a brush-up.”
I sit at my desk while Higgins applies the brush.
“How did Jaimy come to be here, standing on the deck above us?”
“Upon the arrival of the Nancy B. in London, I immediately sought out the Fletcher residence and found to my great joy that your Mr. Fletcher was there in the bosom of his family, recuperating from his wound. Upon his complete recovery, I, as the only senior representative of Faber ShippingWorldwide present, appointed him Captain of the Nancy B. Alsop in your absence, as I thought that would be your wish, had you been in my place.”
“So. I shall finally be married this day.” I sigh, beginning to fully come back to myself. “I still cannot believe I was so wondrously delivered again into this world.”
“I know you have experienced a shock, Miss, but please relax, and soon you shall be your old self. And as for marriage, may we discuss that?”
“All right, Higgins, let’s have it.” I know what that means—I’m about to be given a lecture on the proper deportment of a young lady.
“Have you considered getting legally married first, before you leap headlong into the conjugal bed? Many people do, you know. We are only a day or so away from London and you could be legitimately married, in a church.”
In a church? Hmmm . . . Little Mary Faber, former street urchin, married in grand style at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, wouldn’t that be something? “Nay, Higgins, I’m going to be married, all right, but it’s going to be today. A captain of a ship is authorized to perform marriages,” I say. “And, Higgins, if you think for one moment that I am not sleeping next to Jaimy Fletcher in this bed tonight, then you are sadly mistaken.” I look up at the ceiling, amazed to think that Jaimy is right up there on the deck, not five feet above me. Imagine that . . .
“I certainly know that a captain of a ship is authorized to perform marriages, but can he marry himself, or in this case, herself ?”
“Well, then, Higgins,” I retort, “as Chairwench of the Board of Faber Shipping Worldwide, I will appoint you, John Higgins, captain of the Nancy B. Alsop, current flagship of that company, for as long a time as necessary, and you are going to perform the service. See if you can find a Bible on this bark.” And, oh, that brush feels so good! “Yes, Miss,” saysHiggins.“It would probably be legal, but you must know that the very instant I pronounce you man and wife, you will never again issue an order as the head of Faber Shipping Worldwide, as your husband, Mr. Fletcher, would own all of your property, including this ship, all your shares in Faber Shipping, and even the clothing on your back. You would own nothing, not even your own self.”
What? “It is the law,Miss.”
“Well, even if it is, Jaimy would never be like that—to deny me my rights and all,” I say, fuming about the unfairness of it all. “I know he wouldn’t.”
“I agree that he probably would not. But I have noticed that he has a very protective nature when it comes to you, and it is possible that in order to protect his frail and delicate flower from harm, he might order her to that rose-covered cottage by the shore to safely keep house and await his return from the perilous sea. Hmmm?”
Damn! Higgins, why do you have to bring this up now, on the eve of my greatest happiness! “I will speak to Mr. Fletcher about that, and we will come to an agreement, I am sure,” I say. “Anything else you might want to burden me with, Higgins, my dearest friend, confidant, consultant, protector, and ever-present conscience?”
“Very colorfully put, Miss, as always,” he answers, laying down his brush, apparently satisfied with the condition of my mop. “But, yes, there is something and it is this. If you marry, you must expect to be with child within a year. Though it would be a joyous occasion, welcoming another such as you into the world, are you ready for that particular and dangerous trial? You are, after all, still quite young.”
“I am sixteen years old.” I sniff. “That’s old enough for a lot of things.”
“Indeed. I have noticed that, small as you are, you do have all the necessary female equipment, and judging from what I have observed of your amorous adventures in the past, it all seems to be in excellent working order.” “Higgins,” says I, with an edge of warning in my voice. “I am but suggesting that you might think about the change in your life that would occur by your having a child.”
“Don’t care, Higgins. Jaimy and I have waited long enough,” I firmly reply. Then I blush and say, “Plus, I know of some things . . . other things . . . other games that people who love each other play, which do not lead to babies.”
“You blush most becomingly, Miss. It is reassuring that your face is still able to don a maidenly flush of pink in the cheeks,” replies Higgins, without changing his usual calm expression. “But you do realize a marriage must be . . . consummated . . . to be legal?”
“Well, we will do it, then. Babies are born at sea, as well as on land. In fact, I helped deliver one on the Pequod. Little Elizabeth Ahab, it was, and a perfect little creature was she.”
But it turns out that Father Neptune, that unpredictable rascal, is the one who decides my future, and not me.
“Jacky?” I hear from the speaking tube right above my head.
“Yes, Jaimy, I’m here,” I reply. I still can’t believe I am alive and he is here with me and I am hearing his voice.
“Better get ready. Looks like we’re in for a storm.”
“I’ll be right up.”
I had noticed that the sea had been working up, because the Nancy B. was beginning to pitch and yaw a little more than normal. I get up and dart out of my cabin and onto the deck. There is a cheer from my own dear crew as I emerge into the light—there’s little Daniel Prescott,my young ship’s boy, So good to see you again, Missy!, and my two stout sailors Smasher McGee and John Thomas, and there’s Jim Tanner, and—Good Lord! Up at helm is John Tinker, himself, grinning for all he is worth as he spins the wheel . . . And there’s Jaimy, lovely Jaimy, looking oh-so-splendid standing there and gazing up at the set of the sails, his dark hair blowing about his face. Hard to believe, but three members of the original Brotherhood of the Dolphin are standing on the same rolling deck!
“First, Jaimy, a kiss,” I say, wrapping my arms around him and pressing my mouth on his. Ummmm . . .
I think he’s a bit startled, this not being regular Royal Navy quarterdeck routine, but he quickly gets into the spirit of the thing. His own arms go about me and he hugs me tightly.
When our lips come apart, I lower my eyes and say to him, “I know you for a proper young gentleman, Jaimy, but this is my ship, love, and when I am on it, I do what I want to do, and what I want to do right now is to have you kiss me again and hold me, Jaimy, hold me ever so close to you. Oh, Jaimy, we have been so long kept apart.” And the tears are coming again, and again our lips come together and stay there for a good—oh so very good—long time.
Then the dear boy takes my shoulders in his hands and looks me in my streaming eyes and says, “I want to hold you like this, Jacky, for the rest of my life, but right now I’ve got to deal with this. You should go below, for it will be rough.”
What . . . ? Go below? He glances over my head and I follow that look and notice that the storm has drawn closer. It looks like a bad one, a bank of storm clouds that stretches across the horizon with nothing but blackness beneath, blackness that is split every few moments by streaks of lightning, followed by the rolling thunder that rumbles across the sea, warning us to beware the fury that is surely to come. The wind has come up even more and my dress flies up about me.
“One more kiss, Jaimy, and I will go below,” I say all meek-like. We have that kiss and then I turn to go back down into my cabin.
Oh yes, Mr. Fletcher, I will go below, but it will not be to cower and hide—it will be to change into my midshipman’s uniform. I find Higgins setting the table for dinner.“Higgins, I’m going to need my uniform after all. We’re in for a bit of a blow and I can’t face it in this flimsy dress. And if I were you, I wouldn’t set out the dishes just yet.”
He nods and lays out my black middie jacket, white shirt, and white pants as I pull my dress over my head and fling it onto the bed. Higgins helps me into my midshipman gear and asks,
“The boots, Miss?”
“Nay, I don’t want them wet. I’ll just go barefoot. I will have better purchase that way, anyway, and things are going to get slippery. And no hat, either—it’d just get blown off.”
As I go to leave the cabin, he says, “Please exercise some caution, Miss. I sense that you have not fully recovered from your recent ordeal.”
It’s true, I am still a bit trembly, but fighting this gale should cure me of the shakes. I assure him that I will be careful, then go back out on deck, to find my ship’s boy, Daniel Prescott, standing next to Jaimy on the quarterdeck. Jaimy appears startled to seeme once again on the deck and clad not in my dress, but in jacket and trousers.
“Danny, go below and bring me my oilskins, if you would,” I say. All on deck already have on their rain gear. The storm is much closer now, and the black wall of cloud towers high overhead.We are going to be hammered.
“Aye, aye, Captain,” he pipes as he scampers off to get my gear. I am sure he did not answer my order in that manner to intentionally get Jaimy’s goat, but I can tell that Jaimy’s goat is certainly gotten. It is very easy to get used to being the captain of a ship, and I can tell from Jaimy’s expression that he is neither pleased with my reappearance dressed as I am nor with his demotion by a mere ship’s boy.
I go to him, place my hand on his arm, and peer into his eyes and smile.“Come, love, and together we will get through this storm, side by side, as we will get through other things in our lives, neither one of us in front of the other.” I put my left arm around him and give him a poke in the ribs with the stiff forefinger of my right hand and continue to look deep into his eyes. “All right, Jaimy?”
He looks off, takes a breath, lets it out, and then smiles down at me, running his hand through my hair.
“This is not the Royal Navy, then, is it, Jacky?”
“No, dear one, it is not. This is Faber Shipping Worldwide, such as it is.”
He laughs and says, “Well, let’s get on with it, then.”
I jump up and kiss his cheek, then climb into my ’skins as we all prepare to get mauled by the storm.
Ah yes, Jacky and Jaimy, together at last! Hooray! Yeah, right . . .