Read an Excerpt
’Tis Forty Shillings on the Drum
For those who Volunteer to come
To enlist and fight the Foe today,
Over the Hills and Far Away.
Over the hills and over the Main
To Flanders, Portugal, and Spain.
King George commands and we must obey,
Over the Hills and Far Away . . .
“It’s time to cut it off, Higgins,” I announce firmly, “If you would be so good. I do not think it would serve me well here in Portugal.”
“I believe you are right, Miss,” agrees my good Higgins. He takes comb and scissors from his kit and surveys my head appraisingly. The Faber head now sports a long pigtail in back, with a short, peach-colored fuzz over the rest of it. I had stopped having my skull shaved several weeks ago, so the hair that resides thereon is presently about three-quarters of an inch long.
My head, hair, and all the rest of me is now contained in a small cabin on the troop ship HMS Tortoise, which lies at a wharf in Lisbon. Its men, supplies, and horses are being offloaded, as are the other ships of our recent convoy that had accompanied us across the channel and down the coast to the Iberian Peninsula—a total of six thousand men and all of their gear.
So goodbye to London and to all of her lovely charms—and hello to a gritty, dangerous, and dirty life on the path to war. Oh, well, I have been there before and am certainly no stranger to dirt, nor to war, for that matter. Because of what my poor self has been through in the way of abandonment, street fights, naval battles, storms, shipwrecks, maroonings, fires, kidnappings, tar-and-featherings, near-hangings and near-beheadings, imprisonments, enslavement, and other personal disasters, I have long since given up the notion that I am mistress of my own fate. I am but a thistle blown about by the breeze. Lord, in your wisdom, send me where you wouldst have me go, and to that place I will go. Amen.
Higgins gently lifts the doomed pigtail and I feel the cool of his scissors against the back of my neck. There is the snick, snick of hair being cut and presently the shorn pigtail dangles before my eyes.
“What shall we do with it, Miss?” asks Higgins, making it wiggle as if it were a snake. I know that Higgins has never been particularly fond of my chinese hairstyle, but he was even less fond of the collection of rather garish wigs that I had acquired over the past few years to cover up several instances of severe and sudden hair loss that I have experienced in my somewhat turbulent life. consequently, before we left London, he purchased for me a nice sandy-blond wig that closely approximates the color of my own locks and is, I believe, quite presentable.
“Oh, just put it in my seabag, Higgins. It might come in handy sometime,” I reply. “Perhaps someday I shall have to fashion a false mustache or beard out of it.”
“Considering your past history, Miss, I do not consider that statement to be at all outlandish,” he murmurs, laying the braid aside for later storage. “Now, let me even this up.”
He once again applies the scissors to the back of my neck. Snip, snip . . .
“There. That should blend quite nicely with the rest as it grows back,” he says, plainly satisfied with the result. “However, it does lay quite bare that mythological beast you wear on your nape.”
He is, of course, referring to the fire-breathing golden dragon tattoo that cheng Shih had emblazoned on the back of my neck when I was on her ship last year, and she had me under her rather fierce . . . ahem . . . love and protection. It was she who had my head and hair fashioned into its current state, as it pleased her to see me that way—and woe be to anyone who displeases the pirate queen cheng Shih, admiral of seven hundred ships and twenty thousand men. Since I cannot see the mark without twisting around in front of several mirrors held just so, I do not think about it much. Not that I dislike it, for it has come in handy at times in the past when I needed to go all exotic. But that was then, and this is now. So back to being a proper English maiden with you, girl. Yes, well, sort of proper . . . and, yes, well, sort of a maiden.
“The new hairpiece should sufficiently hide that lovely little piece of oriental art from prying eyes.” Higgins sniffs. “Into the tub with you now.”
I rise, let the light robe I have been wearing slide from my shoulders, and I slip into the hot and lovely tub my good Higgins has procured for me. Ahhhhh . . . I know it took some doing, but Higgins does have his ways, as I have mine. ’course we couldn’t have this when underway, because of the rolling and pitching and yawing, but here, with the well-named Tortoise tied securely to the dock, all the sloshing of the water in the tub is due solely to my writhing about in it in absolutely sinful, sensual pleasure. Ahhhhhh . . .
Higgins turns to lay out my clothes, and when out of his sight, I take the opportunity to trim my toenails with my teeth, soap up and wash various Parts, and then lie back to let the steaming water soak out some of the care and worry of the recent past . . .
Ah, Jaimy, where are you now? Oh, I know your dear body is on its way to Rangoon in the care of some very good Oriental friends of mine, but where are you in the way of your mind, your poor tortured soul? Have you cast out your demons and returned to some semblance of sanity? Have Charlie Chen’s doctors, with their mysterious potions and herbs, and Sidrah’s gentle words and touch brought you back from the edge of complete madness? Oh, how I wish I knew! Heavy sigh . . . But, I realize I shall not know, nor can I come to join you till this mission is over. “King George calls and we must obey,” as the song goes. Right . . . Obey, or else . . .
“Your lieutenant’s jacket, Miss?” asks Higgins.
“Yes, and the matching blue skirt, if you would, John, and my boots,” I add. I sink down a bit, such that my lips are below the surface, and blow bubbles in the now soapy water. Soon I’ve created a fine froth in front of my face. Now, if I were bathing in my lovely little copper-bound tub back on the Nancy B. Alsop—my beloved little sixty-five-foot Gloucester schooner—I’d be thinking of tossing one Joannie Nichols into this tub after I’d gotten out of it, but, alas, both she and the Nancy B. have been sent back to Boston.
But, Jacky, I don’t wanna go back to school!
You must, Joannie. It is for your own good that you become educated and refined.
Joannie Nichols was a fellow street urchin back in the days when I ran with the rooster charlie Gang in the cheapside section of London, before I went off to sea. There’s still a lot of the street in both of us.
Refined, my Cockney ass! I wanna go with you!
You can’t, Joannie. I’m being sent on a tour of duty, and only Mr. Higgins can go with me. And furthermore, I don’t see that it’s gonna be all that much fun, anyway. So come on, don’t you want to see your gallant young Daniel Prescott again—the same lad whose face you covered with kisses before you ran off from the Lawson Peabody to stow away on the Nancy B.?
I suppose. But Mistress is gonna beat the hell out of me for taking off without permission.
Even though Mistress Pimm, headmistress of the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls, no longer uses the rod that had been so often applied to my own poor backside when I attended that institution, her hairbrush does remain a formidable weapon.
Now, now, you shall suffer a bit, yes, but think of the joy you will have in regaling your sisters with tales of your recent adventures. Hmmm . . . ?
Yeah, I guess . . .
Good. Now give me a last hug and go below and change into your seagoing gear. They are about to throw off the lines. Study hard and be a good girl, and I will come back and we will go a-rovin’ again. I promise.
Yes, the Nancy B. Alsop did cast off, and with tears in my eyes, I watched her disappear over the horizon, taking with her some of my dearest and most faithful friends.
Goodbye, Tink, give my love and regards to everyone. Davy, my best to our dear Annie and I pray that all goes well with her. Fare thee well, Brother. And John Thomas and Finn McGee, my bold and strong sailor lads, be as good as you can be and stay out of trouble and teach the young ones what you know about the seafarin’ life . . .
Then, standing before me, my own sea dad, Liam Delaney, he who had crossed the world to save my poor wayward self. Goodbye, Father, may God go with you. My love to Mairead, and do not be too hard on Ian McConnaughey, for my sake, please. Here, let me wrap my arms about you and lay my head upon your broad chest one last time and . . . Oh, Liam, do be careful!
I pushed a bundle of letters into his hands, planted a kiss upon his cheek, and turned to . . .
Ravi. Goodbye, my beautiful little brown-eyed boy.
I had crouched down and put my hands on his shoulders.
When you get to Boston, Davy will take you to Mr. Pickering, and he will see that you will be set up in a good school and given warm lodging. Here is a letter for you to give to my good friend Ezra.
He took the letter and put it inside his jacket. We had bought for him several suits of European-style clothes, which should serve him well in his new home. ravi was wearing one of those suits with a certain amount of pride, but those big brown eyes still welled up with tears.
This poor boy does not want to go away from Missy Memsahib.
I know, Ravi, I know, and I don’t want you to go away.
But where I’m going, you can’t follow. Do you understand?
Great blinking of eyes . . . both his . . . and mine. Then he nodded and put his thin arms about my neck.