Authors: Alex Beecroft
Tags: #Gay, #Fiction
A droplet, like an errant diamond, slid across the bunched muscles of his jaw and pooled in the hollow of his throat, making John want to lean in and lick the little ‘v’ clean of its salty taste. His mouth watered at the thought, and that discovery alarmed him. Perhaps this was not the time to attempt an explanation of his self-questioning after all. Something more basic was required.
Pulling his hands away, Alfie turned them over, examining his palms as if for incriminating stains. “I don’t know,” he said at last, his voice muffled and thick. “I don’t know if I can.”
He raised his head, his tawny golden eyes cold and grim as a hunting lion’s. “I have no idea what to make of you any more, Cavendish. And until I’ve decided, I’d be obliged if you didn’t assume I’m yours for the asking.”
A surge of water clear as air rushed in as Alfie wrenched himself aside. Beneath the waves the bay’s little coral fish whisked away, startled, into cover. Alfie covered his eyes with one hand, thumb and fingers digging into his temples.
“Maybe I’ve learned the lesson you chose to teach me, Mr. Cavendish,
,” Alfie went on quietly. “Maybe I’m going to ‘amend my life’, so that I can look down on you. Now if you don’t mind, I want to be alone.”
RUNNING PRESS Philadelphia • London © 2009 by Alex Beecroft
All rights reserved under the Pan-American and International Copyright Conventions
Printed in the United States
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or hereafter invented, without written permission from the publisher.
Cover design by Bill Jones
Cover illustrations by Larry Rostant Interior design by Jan Greenberg Typography: New Caledonia and Amigo
Running Press Book Publishers 2300 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-4371
imposing side, the newly captured
wallowed like a discarded boot. John Cavendish, however, standing by Admiral Saunders’ shoulder, gazed on it with as much satisfaction as a returning husband might gaze on his young wife. Around him, the fume of smoke blew away in dirty yellow tendrils across the Bay of Biscay, revealing the squadron; a thicket of masts, a white foliage of sail as the ships filled and backed, holding station around the flagship.
After Admiral Hawke had so gloriously trounced the last invasion fleet at the battle of Quiberon Bay, Saunders’ squadron had been sent to cruise the French coast and discourage the formation of another. The little French convoy of merchant ships with their escort of two-decker and gun-boat which they intercepted this morning had put up a brave, despairing fight, but it had been all over by lunchtime. Various lieutenants, more senior than John, had been dispatched already to take the more valuable prizes back to England. But the
was to be his.
“Your temporary papers.” Admiral Saunders took the hastily written page from his flag captain and handed it to John. “Well done, Mr. Cavendish.”
“Thank you, sir.” John’s breast filled with happiness. It was all he could do to keep a reasonably straight face—the smile would keep trying to escape. As he folded the paper and tucked it into his waistcoat, his joy got the better of him and he could not help repeating, “Oh, thank you.”
Saunders, a florid man with piercing blue eyes, paled and gave John an uncomfortable look. He pushed back his wig and rubbed at the line indented across his forehead. “Walk with me a moment.”
At this hint, the captain and the midshipman of the watch strolled away, leaving John and Saunders in virtual privacy on the windward side of the quarterdeck. Silence fell, as Saunders looked out on the fleet, watching replacement yards being rigged on the
Snatches of fife music skirled shrill across the water as the distant
’s men stamped and turned the capstan to raise a new foremast. On the flagship itself the carpenters were hard at work plugging shot holes. But down on the
the sparse crew stood about, idle, waiting for someone to tell them to bend on a new suit of sails; to get the gore and body parts of the previous occupants off the deck, and clean her up. John itched to be there, getting on with it, as soon as was decently possible.
“Well,” Saunders sighed. “No need for thanks. You weren’t my first choice, after all.”
“I understand, sir. A shame about Mr. McIntyre.” Rightly reproved, John sent up a quick prayer for the second lieutenant whose right it would have been to have this prize, this chance. Cut in half by a French cannon ball and heaved over the side during battle, McIntyre currently lay in two pieces on the ocean bed.
“Fortunes of war.” The Admiral waved that aside with a chubby hand, a long, long history of sudden death at sea summed up in his slight shrug. “It don’t do to pretend otherwise. Good man, ’tis a shame he’s gone, but we won’t bring him back by moping, eh?”
On the flagship’s jolly boat, rowing towards the
with midshipman Smythe in its bow, one of the oarsmen caught a crab. The oar tangled with his neighbor’s, knocking both men from their seats into the bilge. They picked themselves up with a roar of oaths, then launched themselves at one another. Smythe shouldered into the midst of it, yelling obscenities in his clear, boy’s voice, indiscriminately slashing both men with his cane until they separated and settled grudgingly back to their benches.
Watching this, Saunders shook his head. His gaze skittered across John’s face and a thread of anxiety began to wind its way through John’s elation. “Your crew may be a little…less than ideal, Mr. Cavendish.”
“I understand, sir,” John replied promptly. “If I were a captain, asked to make up the complement of a prize, I’d use the opportunity to get rid of my troublemakers too.”
a captain,” Saunders pointed out, with a flash of ferocity from beneath his tufts of pepper-grey eyebrows. “At least for the duration of this voyage. Afterwards too, maybe, if you can pull this off.”
Glee returned, intensifying beneath John’s ribs until he was sure his chest should be glowing.
His face probably was, for Saunders gave a reluctant smile. “Well, don’t thank me again, until you hear what ‘this’ is. I’m about to give you something to do with this new ship of yours, Commander Cavendish. And it won’t be easy. D’ you understand me? I’m not offering you any kiss-my-hand sinecure here. I’m setting you a challenge.”
“I am quite ready for a challenge, sir.”
But Saunders’ smile faltered again and, as he fidgeted with his watch fob, that pinprick of anxiety drove further in through John’s joy, puncturing it. John’s feet, once floating, seemed to settle back to the deck and his weight to bear down on him as he slowly deflated.
Saunders glanced sideways, eyes dulled with distaste. He lowered his voice. “You’re a religious man, aren’t you?”
John straightened up, defensively proud. “Yes, sir. Very much so.”
“Well, that may help.” The Admiral reached out and patted the
’s railing, as if he comforted her. Above, the sun came out, lighting up the naval equivalent of carrion crows—a towering spiral of seagulls. They soared above the fleet, silver and raucous, fighting over scraps of dead men in the water.
From a splintered gun port below seeped the heathery, bitter smell of tobacco as the master carpenter leaned out to assess the damage to the hull, pipe between his teeth.
Saunders looked up. “I’m unleashing you on the heathen, lad. While we’ve been patrolling here, trying to keep Louis’ hands off London, the Barbary Corsairs have had a free run at the coasts. Devon and Cornwall devastated; thousands of English men and women stolen away to become slaves; uproar in Parliament; papers proclaiming the end of the world. The King himself asking pointed questions of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Something has to be done.”
“Yes, sir.” The glory of captaincy faded in the light of its responsibility, and John looked at the
with a new eye. She might be his—and marvelous because of it—but she was totally inadequate to the task being set. “Do I comprehend you correctly, sir? I am to take on the armed might of the Ottoman Empire
in a bomb ketch?
From ill at ease, Saunders turned instantly harsh. “Are you questioning your orders, Mr. Cavendish?”
, sir. Forgive me.”
“What is there to make clear? Stop them, Cavendish. Talk to them. Blow them up—that’s what you have a damn mortar for! I don’t give a fig how you do it, but
Afterwards you may rendezvous with the rest of the fleet at Gibraltar. If you pull this off, you’ll be a hero from Cornwall to the Orkneys, with mothers of Christian babies kissing your feet wherever you go. I’d like to see the Admiralty turn you down for a ship after that.”
John studied the
, examining her eight guns and the two stubby mortars which weighed down her bows. The racing currents of the Channel met the deep waters of the Atlantic here and choppy waves broke over her rail, washing some of the filth from her decks. ‘
Purge her with hyssop and let her be clean,’
he thought, surprising himself, ‘
wash her and let her be whiter than snow.’
He could only imagine she was being sent as a sacrifice, and all her new crew with her. No wonder she was being fitted out with the rejects of half a dozen ships—the men no one minded losing.
“I understand, sir,” he said, sober at last.
Saunders bent a little at the waist and peered at John’s face. Then he smiled. “I see you do. Well…” Straightening his wig once more, he placed his hat carefully atop it. “I can at least give you a lieutenant to serve under you. He’ll be some use to keep your untried crew in order. A volunteer, no less.”
“I had rather not, sir.” It was the closest John could decently come to acknowledging the reality aloud, but he’d be damned if he took a fellow lieutenant with him on what must surely be a doomed mission. One victim was enough.
“You were not asked for your opinion, Mr. Cavendish. If I deign to give you a lieutenant, you will take a lieutenant and be grateful for him, God rot you.”
In the face of such a command what could he do?
A volunteer? Who would be idiot enough to give up the prospects of advancement that came from a ship of the line in order to volunteer for a position on a bomb ketch, under a man with little more seniority than himself?
Perhaps such a prodigy had been sent for the purpose by God himself.
Perhaps the Navy was better off without so great a fool?
Whatever the case, he could not turn down a direct order. Better to die in the execution of his duty than to be hanged for mutiny. He bowed his head. “Aye, aye, sir.”
Eighty pairs of eyes watched John as he came up the side and strode stiffly to the
’s small quarterdeck. Taking off his hat, he turned to face his crew, noting the slack, bruised faces of men with scurvy, the nose-less, crusted features of those whom pox was slowly consuming from within. The Master was barely being held up by his mate, his linen drabbed with wine stains. The single midshipman picked his nose as he slouched by his division, then spat over the side. Only the new lieutenant stood straight and alert, in newly laundered dress uniform, his wig powdered, his buttons gleaming and his pale brows arched a little in amusement as he watched John struggle with hat and paper in the increasing wind.