“There were times at sea, when I ate some strange things; alligator, or octopus, and we even ate a dragon, once.”
They had to laugh at that too, but it was a nervous kind of disbelieving laugh. Hester had to correct him.
“Dragons exist only in fairy tales. They don’t exist in real life. Are you bamming us, sir?”
“Bamboozling you?” He smiled at his recollection of that word’s real meaning; to do with confusing the enemy with your flags. “No, I am not. Not when it comes to dragons, though I was bamming you about some of the other things. However, you are correct, fire-breathing dragons are to be found only in the fairy-tale books, but there are very large lizards, almost as big as a small horse, called Komodo dragons, that are not only very large, but are very fearsome. Their bite is poisonous, and they eventually kill everything they bite, even a horse. I will draw one for you sometime. They are especially fond of sailors.” He glanced at them with a glimmer in his eyes. “And little girls, of course. Sugar and spice and all things nice.” They took a step back, and then moved forward again. “I have seen many more strange things than you might believe possible.”
“No. Not mermaids, but I have seen fish that fly, and even birds that cannot fly, but can swim underwater. They are called penguins.” They knew about them. They watched as nurse wiped more of the blood off his arm. Nurse took their minds in another direction.
“At least, you have not developed any of those fears of anyone seeing you only partially dressed, or even undressed, more’s the pity, but then you never did. I stripped you off, often enough, after many of your various bloody escapades, you and your brother both, and stood you in the fountain. If I had known you would be leaving a trail of blood into here, I would have been tempted to meet you outside and done that again.”
“I believe you, Nurse. I remember when you stripped me, right in the middle of the courtyard, for all to see – servants and all. I was about ten years old at the time. And no matter who was visiting at the time either. My feelings sometimes took quite a bruising from that, to be displayed naked in front of everyone as punishment for my reckless behavior. I did soon learn not to be shy about such things, but defiant, and to challenge the world to take note of me. Perhaps that was why I was never shy about removing my clothing after that, having had it thrown at me as a punishment to shame me often enough. I decided that two could play that game.”
“Yes. I stopped doing it when you lost your bashfulness and outrageously challenged everyone who might see you. You speak of shame, but you had no shame, even then.” She blushed, remembering that time. “But it was not punishment, sir. If we didn’t get you stripped off, we missed half of what you both might have done to yourselves. You were sometimes too ashamed to tell us, or were too defiant, as you say. We once got half a dozen big bloodsuckers, leeches off you and Charles, after you had been into that muddy old stream over by Hayburne.”
The girls looked at each other in horror. Leeches? They shivered in revulsion.
“We were constantly horrified by what you might appear with next, or what injury either of you might have done to yourselves that you did not want us to find out about.”
“Defiant! Nurse. Always defiant. Never ashamed. But after you’ve been on a man-of-war at sea and in battle for any length of time, having others see the need to undress you and tend to your injuries, is not one of the things in life that one worries about any more.”
“Yes, I heard something about that from Mr. Thornton, sir. My husband now.” Robert looked at her sharply. She had not been married when he left. “He’s a gardener here. He was a navy man too. He lost his hearing from all the cannons going off and can’t hear the birds singing around him anymore. He misses that dreadfully. He can’t hear me most of the time either, though I think he believes that may be a blessing. Your father loved to get him to spout off, over a glass of porter about some of the things he experienced. He has some rare old tales to tell. Hard to tell what is true and what isn’t.”
“I remember him. Pinnock Thornton. Whatever he says to you is probably not true, Nurse. We navy men are all consummate liars, and we exaggerate unconscionably.” She knew that not to be true. They tended to play everything down, and lied easily, rather than shock any woman.
“That’s not what he tells me! And I believe him. I’m the one who listens to his dreams, and sees how he threshes about in his sleep, thinking the surgeon’s ready to go at him again. You must have seen a lot of action, sir, to have all of those scars, just like my husband has. And some of yours are not that old.”
“One action will often do enough damage if it is a busy exchange, and there were enough of those. I lost count some years ago of the battles I fought. The recent scars are only two weeks old, from my last engagement. We were lucky to survive that one.”
“You were lucky to survive any of them, I would say, from what my husband says of all the actions you saw and the number of ships you had blown out from under you. We all knew what you were doing. But you were never without a ship, he said, even if you had to take over a French ship, as you did, twice. You were in and out of the French port before they even knew you’d been there.”
“Oh, they knew we were there right enough, but they couldn’t do much about it by the time they found out what we were doing, and after we had set other ships on fire to distract from our escape and keep them occupied.
“Yes. Luck, was what it was about. I was lucky to survive any of them; so many, I lost count. Many do not survive even one engagement. Those about me got blown away too often while I was left standing and wondering where they had gone. I did not understand it. Never did find some of ’em. Couldn’t recognize others when we did, except for a piece of clothing or a mark on their bodies.” He had an attentive audience. He recognized he should not be too descriptive. It was also painful to recall.
Nurse desisted from speaking further, recognizing his too attentive audience should not hear too much, and remembering the hurtful memories that lurked there, as with her own husband, who often woke up screaming and in a sweat, and looking fearfully about him during the night, though not so often of late. He soon settled now.
Robert noticed that he had a rapt audience of three young ladies, listening to every word that was said. Their attention to such tales of gore was really quite unusual from what he had seen of children.
“Does it hurt, sir?”
“Dreadfully!” He could not be believed, considering the smile on his face, and the way he had said it.
“It doesn’t look as though it does. You are not screaming.”
“Not yet. At least, not outside. I am building up to it. But that little man inside of me is. If you listen carefully, you can hear him.”
They leaned-in, to hear. He opened his mouth and let out a moan, from inside of himself, and then closed it off again, as they stepped back in surprise.
They chuckled. They were not sure whether or not to believe him, as with the removable thumb and the rest of it.
“Yes, Abby, over here.” The maid brought in the bowl of hot water, and wondered at the audience of the girls, standing so close to a man with no clothes on his upper body, with blood all over his arm and on his shirt lying in the hearth. It was not seemly for such young girls to see such a sight and still want to be there.
“There, will do.” Nurse pointed. “And then I can patch up Master Robert—his Lordship.”
Abby’s eyes leapt to his face for the first time. This man was the late lordship’s brother, Robert? His name had been raised enough times over the last few days as they wondered if he were alive. And if he were alive, when, or if, he might arrive.
She almost tripped over the rolled-up carpet on her way to put it down and would have had hot water everywhere, including upon the gentleman.
His Lordship? He even looked like his brother.
Had she not seen his late Lordship lying as dead as might be in his coffin, she might almost have believed his lordship had not died, for there was a smudge of blood on this man’s face too, and just about where it had been on his dead brother. She had been given the task of washing the blood off his body and face and had then seen him buried. She shivered and began to pray, but only within herself. Seeing that bloody sword also made her nervous.
“Yes, Nurse.” She was momentarily flustered. “Will there be anything else?”
“Abby?” The gentleman spoke. He not only looked like his late Lordship, but he had her late master’s voice too. It quite took her breath away. Why had no one warned her?
She curtsied, aware that this gentleman who had addressed her, was not only the late master’s brother, but was now Lord Penfield, and this was now his home.
“You could ask Benson, or someone, to bring me another shirt and a coat if you don’t mind. These have seen better times, unfortunately. Mr. Bascombe will not thank me, wherever he is, for ruining his wardrobe.”
This gentleman was polite too, just like the other Lord Penfield had been. She heaved an inner sigh of relief. “I think Mr. Benson is already doing that, sir. He mentioned it as I was coming in here.” And who was Mr. Bascombe?
“Thank you. Then ask him to bring me some brandy, please.”
She curtsied again and left, her legs still a-trembling over it all. ‘Please, and thank you’? And a kindly smile too that would send the legs of a lesser woman out from under. If the tales were true of him, he had done a lot of that too. They were right who said it was the polite ones you had to watch. What a tale she would tell downstairs. Oh my! She had also better warn the other staff that he looked exactly like his late Lordship. It was almost enough to make a body believe in the after-life.
Nurse filled in the silence after she had left. “Your arrival will be all over the house in another minute or two when she gets back to the scullery, and relates how you are only half dressed, and with the girls close around you as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.
She moistened a cloth and began to wipe off his arm where the ball had grazed him. It was a deep little furrow and still oozed blood. In no time the water was a pink color as the blood was removed from his arm and fingers.
The children watched as Nurse made a small thick pad of clean linen and placed it over the wound, after she had sprinkled some of the powder over it. He said nothing, though they knew that the basillicum was enough to elicit a shriek from most people and could have them gyrating about the room and hissing in pain.
“Emily, you may hold that firmly in place please, and mind you do not get your dress messed up on that sword.” The elder girl took a place slightly behind him away from his arm and his sword, put her hand upon the pad, and held it firmly in place.
“Are all girls as brave as this, Nurse?”
“Girls are made of sterner stuff than boys, sir. I am surprised you did not know that. These girls are.” They were pleased to hear that.
“So I am discovering. Indeed, I had not known that.” He smiled at them. “I remember my brother, your father, fainting at the sight of my blood on more than one occasion, though he often spilled enough of his own. He got up to as much mischief as I did, and had broken bones enough to prove it, just like me.” Nurse was not about to contradict him, though she could have done.
“He got that fainting thing from your mother, sir. She used to faint quite away at the sight of blood and could never keep food down at just the thought of it. That was the only thing French about her, but who could blame her after seeing so many of her own family lose their heads to that monstrous contraption. That French lot were too bloodthirsty for their own good. I did hear that the man who invented that murderous device was brought to his end the same way. Fitting, I thought.” Nurse began to wrap the pad with a strip of cloth. She looked up as Benson walked into the room.
“I brought you another shirt from your room, sir, and a not-too-tight-coat to go over the bandages. One of your late brother’s, if you do not mind, for he was just a little heavier than you are across the shoulders. And the brandy too. I shall need to get you a glass.”
“No. It is not to drink, Benson. External application only. Emily is already busy, so you can give my shirt to Hester there, to hold ready for me, and Anne may hold that bottle for me.” Anne took it from Benson’s hand, happy to be something more than just an observer. “You can actually place it here on the floor by the chair leg on this side, Anne, and then I can get to it when I need it. You can put the coat on the table over there with that gun case. And, Benson, would you mind seeing that the gun case gets up to my room, please. No one else is to touch it. They are all still loaded.”
“Yes, sir. Benson carefully picked it up.
Nurse proceeded to tie off the bandage. The three young ladies had lost all shyness of him by then. He noticed that the youngest had even begun to lean up against him on his other side, with her arm on his knee, and was looking up at his face. She had been plucking up courage to reach out and touch his ear, and another scar over his eyebrow. He put his arm about her without saying a word and held her to him. She did not pull away as he might have expected.
The youngest girl beside him on one side; the eldest on the other, helping Nurse, and the middle girl holding his shirt and standing in front of him.
He wanted to enfold all of them into his arms and tell them how he felt for them; loved them as though they were his own—which he realized that he did. However, he knew that he must not rush things, or he might frighten them and turn them against him, and that was the last thing he wanted to have happen.
Robert had not expected to be greeted in this way. For the first time in ten years he was home. Truly home. However, there was an urgent difficulty that he needed to see addressed, and soon. Selena!
She had been the force that had brought him back to Penfield. He would need to be very careful in bringing that subject to the fore, or he might fail and turn everyone against him. He would deal with that when an opportunity presented itself. It would need to be soon.
Robert had not realized how much he missed such closeness of family, or that he would be so nostalgic about these familiar surroundings. In some ways it was almost as though the intervening ten years had not happened, except the three young girls close to him let him see that life had thrived here, while all that he had been surrounded by, had been death.
There was a noise at the door as a young woman entered, almost colliding with Benson on his way out. She stopped on the threshold.