“I am Emily, sir.” She was not sure how she should address him.
He took her hand and gave her a gentle bow as he kissed it. “I am very pleased to meet you, young lady. Emily. I think I would have known you from the drawings your father sent me. I am sorry if I gave you a start earlier, and I do apologize for my dreadful appearance. You were right to complain.”
“Your uncle is a famous sea captain, my dears, though we thought we might have lost him a while ago.”
He smiled at her and corrected her.
“Hoped, more like, Nurse.”
She ignored him. “And this one is Hester, the middle girl.” She curtsied and took his hand, as her sister had. They had lost all fear of him, but were still in awe, not understanding what they saw. “The youngest, is Anne, sir.”
They all made their curtsies as he dutifully bowed to each and took their small hands in his relatively gigantic one for only a moment, kissing each one, as he had for their sister. He was bereft of words to express himself as he looked at all three of them in turn. The drawings of them had been lifeless, devoid of character, and did not convey what he saw before him. He seemed to be choked up for a moment, and then repeated their names.
“Emily, Hester, Anne.” He looked at each of them as he burned their names into his brain. “Oh, why did I not have such charming sisters, Nurse?” He sounded sincerely bowled over. She was surprised. This was not the man she had seen leave, who had given no thought to others. He had been too tied up in himself and had set all of society against himself when his brother had become engaged. She hoped that he had indeed changed in some of his character but could not be sure that he had. She sniffed back a tear.
“It was not under my control, sir, or you would have. All men should have sisters to straighten them out.” He beamed at the three curious girls.
“I shall regard you as my three younger sisters if you approve. How will that be? And you can straighten me out and tell me how I must go on. I am sure I have forgotten how to behave around the gentler sex and will need some pointers and corrections when I put a foot wrong.”
He may have forgotten certain things at his surprise in meeting them, but they would not allow that to continue. “You should get that arm seen to, sir, Uncle Robert, before you drip any more blood onto the carpet. Mrs. Gurney will be very annoyed with you if you do.”
“Yes. The old dragon will, won’t she.” They giggled at his description of his housekeeper.
“She won’t be pleased to see me at all, Nurse.”
“It is not the same woman you remembered sir, but her sister in law. A much younger sister to Mrs. Gurney’s late husband, but just as capable. A true Gurney, with that nose. She does not know anything of you, I think.”
“Well, that is a relief! Though I am sure you will warn her, just as you will warn everyone else that I am back. Perhaps I may recover a better reputation out of ignorance of my true nature, except I doubt any of the old guard will allow that. Will you?” She ignored that question. His curiosity was piqued. “Younger, eh? If she is passably good looking, you perhaps had better rush off and warn her about me and my ways. And warn the rest of the house while you are at it.”
The children stood by and listened to that exchange, understanding very little of it.
“I doubt she’d be regarded as a ‘looker’, sir. Very stern looking, and without humor. She would not interest you, any more than you would, her.”
“Oh, dear. Pity.” He felt someone tugging at his sleeve, to remind him of something else. He recalled what he had been thinking to do before his concern at hearing the name, Gurney.
“Yes, I suppose I should get it seen to.” He noticed that the three girls were showing some concern over him. He had never before found children quite so amusing, or captivating as he found his nieces to be. It was an unsettling—in a pleasant kind of way—and new experience for him. He had seen few children in his existence on board ship. And none like these.
The bell was answered when a young woman walked into the room to find out what was needed.
“Abby. Would you please bring us a bowl of very hot water, cloths, some bandages, basillicum, and a towel?” Nurse ran down the familiar list in her head. “We will need to treat this injury.”
The girl curtsied and left without saying anything, merely noting that the fierce looking young gentleman with his back to the door, obviously prone to violence, had a bare sword in his hand, and was about to drip blood onto the carpet if he were not careful.
Fancy taking him into that room, whoever he was. They should have left him outside. More mess to clean up. There was more than enough in the hall and on the front step, and blood was hard to remove from carpeting. It was to be hoped he had not done his worst to anyone in the house or to someone that she knew, but why the children were allowed there, or why they had even let him in for the children to see him like that, whoever he was, was beyond her.
Nurse moved a chair behind his legs.
“You’d best sit down, sir, or you might faint for loss of blood. There seems to be a lot of it.”
“Yes, there usually is around me.” He sat, as instructed.
“Come girls, you shall see what the problem is, and then help bind this wounded man up before he makes a mess on the carpet and gets the servants annoyed with us, and you can see how it is done. I expect he will make a lot of fuss while we are doing this, for men are such great soft cowards over a little pain.” She looked at him in a telling kind of way as she said that. Robert took his cue from that comment.
“Pain? Pain, you say? Oh no, Nurse, please. Not pain.” He displayed concern as they expected him to at the anticipation of the coming ordeal and guaranteed an attentive audience amidst their nudging and chuckling that he was such a ninny.
“See, he’s fussing already.” He stood, as she peeled off his coat to reveal an even more bloodstained shirt. He had lost a lot of blood. There was a momentary recoil in his audience over the extent of the blood soaking his shirt, before they came in closer again as he sat down. They were looking closely at his face to see any signs of concern over what must be a painful wound. There was a deep kind of furrow cut in his arm by the ball from the man’s gun, as Robert had felled him in turn. It was still oozing blood. There were sounds of distaste.
“It is little more than just a graze, sir, and it is still bleeding.”
“Only a graze, Nurse? Are you sure?” He complained over that characterization of his wound. “It feels as though there should be a hole large enough to jump a pony through. It feels like it. I could have sworn I had been shot by a cannon and was close to death’s door.” They were skeptical. He must be joking with them. He was smiling at them, apparently unconcerned by any of it. They did not back away from such a sight as he had expected, and did not seem to be at all fearful of the sight of blood. How unusual!
“That shirt should come off too, Nurse, or it will soil everything it touches, and it is likely to drip even more onto the carpet.” The eldest of the sisters was free with her advice, but it was kindly meant and just as politely accepted by Nurse.
“Yes, my dear, I agree, it should.”
They obviously had Nurse wrapped around their little fingers. Hester twitched the carpet back out of the way of him dripping blood onto it, any more than he already had. Fortunately, it was a dark pattern, so any blood might not be obvious. Someone should have thought to do that, earlier.
They watched as he undid his shirt at the neck, and Nurse pulled it over his head. She wiped as much of the wet blood off his arm as she could with it as the children watched and grimaced without realizing that they were doing so. Their revulsion at seeing such a mess was clear, to his amusement, but they were still able to help. He felt like laughing. He had never seen girls such as these, not repelled by the sight of blood, nor by his wound. Other children would have soon absented themselves.
Hester picked up his shirt, and gingerly folded the bloody sleeve in such a way that it would not leave a stain anywhere on the floor, before she placed it on the stonework of the fireplace. She showed no awkwardness at doing so but was careful not to get any of it on herself.
Nurse watched everything, seeing more than she cared to say. Until Master Robert had arrived, the entire house, including the children had been depressed, and fit company for no one; moped to death and down in the dumps. The change had been almost miraculous. He might not be their father, but he was the next best thing, and the closest one to their father in looks and mannerisms as possible. She took note of the change and hoped that it would continue. If he could distract them enough….
Emily retrieved a piece of wood from the side of the fireplace and put it by his chair so that he could rest his sword point on, and to stop it leaving any mark on the floor. “Most thoughtful of you, young lady.” He seemed to need to rest his hand on it, to hold his arm away from his body. Or might he be ready to pass out? He looked pale.
The girls could not hide their disgust at the mess of blood-matted hair on his arm, with a steady trickle of blood beginning to congeal, but did not turn away. They were fascinated by it all and watched attentively. They wanted to see how he would respond, once Nurse began on him.
It all gave rise to much whispered commentary and nudges, before Emily spoke up again.
“What are those other marks on your body, sir? There are a lot of them, and some of them are quite large.” She pointed to many pale areas and scars on his body and arms.
“Oh, those. They are where flying bits of wood, and metal fragments hit me, my dear. Though that one there,”—he pointed to a large white circular patch at his side— “is where Mulberry got me. A cow we once had. I was twelve years old. She didn’t like me for some reason and gored me. Now that, did hurt!” They could easily believe that, even if his emphatic way of saying it had not given exactly that impression.
“However, we all liked her well enough when she was served up after that to pay for her failed effort. Had she killed me, she would have been celebrated, and put out to pasture for the rest of her days.” He explained the reasons behind that incident to them. “I was a particularly difficult child, or so I was told. And so was your father. We were a pair of”—he paused, looking for the word—“hellions, our mother called us. But as Mulberry failed to take me out of this life, she paid the price for failure with her own life, and into the pot she went. She was a bit tough, if I recall, so she was revenged upon us all.”
There were sounds of disgust from the children, though they had not understood all that he had said.
Nurse listened. She had other views of what was being said and had different memories. She held her thoughts back. They would flood out later.
“Do they hurt? They are on your back too.”
“Yes, they are all over me. And no, they mostly do not hurt, though one or two of them still give me trouble from something left in there. They are all over me, though we did manage to get most of the bits out. Bullets, wood fragments, bits of iron and other shrapnel, as it is called; named after a General who invented a hollow cannon ball filled with bits of metal. Sometimes I rattle when I cough, and creak when I walk, and leave occasional spots of rust, here and there, after I have sat for a while when I come in out of the rain.”
They were not sure they should believe him. He seemed to say some of the strangest things.
“One or two of them worked their way to the surface, and I got rid of them that way. I have several that may never come out until after I am dead. Like this one.” He showed them a small, dark colored bump, the size of a large seed, under the skin on the outside of his thumb.
“I have a small collection of them in a box I brought with me. Others collect insects or butterflies. I collect those. I will show them to you sometime.” They could not help but laugh.
They collected buttons, and pins, and ribbons, and dried flowers and seeds from the garden. Emily even had the skeleton of a frog that their father had prepared for them, and that was under a glass cover. And their uncle collected bullets, shrapnel and bits of wood from his body. They would like to see that collection and would remind him of his promise. They had never encountered anyone like him before who could make light of such wounds or injuries and told them such strange things.
“They are especially obvious on your arms.” He felt a finger slowly trace out one of the longer scars. “Where did they come from?”
“The ones on my body were, as I said, mostly from flying splinters of wood from the ship that we were in, when the enemy’s cannon balls came through our sides. One or two of them are from snipers’ guns in the rigging of the enemy ships, here, and this other one here”—he pointed to small white circles— “and there are others on my legs. So many that I have lost count. The snipers were told that they were to shoot everyone they could get into their sights, but especially anyone in an officer’s uniform. Meaning me, most of the time, unfortunately. I had a devil of a time dodging bullets. The ones on my arms are mostly saber cuts, from sabers like this one, that others were using against me after we boarded them, or they were foolish enough to board us.”
It was such a strange and unknown world to them, which was the way it should be, and they were not sure how much of what he said, could be believed.
“And you have some scars – if that is what they are called – on your head too. I could not see them further away.”
“Yes, they are from sabers too, mostly. Except for one that Nurse gave me when she hit me with a skillet.” That, drew a swift denial from Nurse.
“Oh, sir, I never did. Not on purpose.” So she had done that. There were some things they would have to ask about later.
“And another one my brother, your father, gave me when we were fooling around with an old fowling piece and it went off. Though I also shot him once, too, but none of it was deliberate. The recent ones are not too obvious because I had a very good surgeon at the time to put me back together again, unlike Humpty Dumpty, whom they couldn’t put back together again.”
“Is that why there is a piece missing from the top of your ear too, sir?” He felt another gentle touch. They had lost their shyness.
“I expect so. Another sniper. That one almost got me. You are very observant. I am surprised that you noticed. Then there are my wooden legs.” They watched and listened as he tapped his knuckle against his lower leg, with the sound of wood being tapped. They were wide eyed, as he did the same for the other leg. “There were some bits I couldn’t find afterwards, but I still have all of my fingers… most of the time, and both of my eyes.” He put his fingers up to his eye and, as he moved his hand away, they could see that his eye was closed, and he held something in his fingers. He started to polish whatever he held, on his trousers leg, though they could not see what he held, and then popped it back into the eye-socket again and opened it, blinking a few times as though he had really removed his eyeball to clean it. “That’s much better.” They were silent and wide-eyed over that, as they held onto each other. It was all so strange and unusual, in their protected world, to encounter such absurdities. Nurse did not approve.
“Now, girls. He is a great prankster, for there is nothing the matter with his sight at all. Is there, sir? And you don’t have any wooden legs. You were tapping the chair with your heel.”
“No, Nurse. Nothing the matter at all with my sight. Or my legs. But, come to think of it, I still do have a detachable part of my finger.” He rested his elbow on his sword, and demonstrated for them with both hands, and saw their eyes begin to widen again as they clustered even closer around him as he seemed to remove the outer joint of his first finger, groaning in pain as he did that, and then replaced it again.
“How did you do that? It’s a trick of some kind, as with your eye and legs. Do it again!” They watched closely but could not exactly fathom it out.
“I’d better not do it too much or it will become loose and may fall off when I least want it to, and I hate to have to go searching through my soup for that, or my eye. It disrupts the dinner table so much, and especially the kitchen help – drives them into hysterics when they find it looking at them out of the bottom of a dish. I’d hate to think that I ate it by mistake.” They were listening with rapt attention.
They laughed as though they had never laughed before. They clearly had never encountered anyone so outrageous, and obviously did not believe him. Nurse said nothing, but the look on her face spoke volumes. She did not entirely approve of his levity but was nonetheless forced to admit that his stories were a welcome distraction from their previous, weighty concerns.