Ten Years Later: A Sudden Change of Plans
The thick fog that blanketed the river, out of which a few masts poked, hid more than Captain Penfield liked as their ship came into the dock, but they'd been making only slow headway. They had lowered two longboats and were being towed upriver by them and into the dock, taking what advantage they could, of the little incoming tide that was still with them. Another ten minutes and they would have had to drop anchor in the river.
An occasional cross-river ferry, loaded with passengers, became briefly visible as it crossed eerily through the mist in front of them. Other boats could be heard, though not seen, plying their trade. There was the creaking of the oars of the wherries, beating across the current, propelled by muscular oarsmen. All of that, and the familiar shouts and noises as insults and greetings were hurled from one boat to another with the familiar London twang. There was the squealing of a pig being slaughtered somewhere nearby, along with the ever-present yapping of dogs. All of those smells and noises alone would have identified this particular city to him if its familiar skyline and other landmarks had not. Nothing much had changed in the years of his absence; not even his feeling of guilt every time he had come close to the city. At those times his thoughts were always some hours to the north of that; the Penfield estate where he had been born and had grown up.
And where he had fallen in love with a woman he should never have met.
The news in the Gazette of the previous week had corrected their report of some four months earlier, that Captain Penfield had been given up for dead after wreckage of his ship had been found. He had been presumed lost at sea with all crew after large fragments of his ship had been recovered from a floating field of wreckage; masts, spars, planking, canvas, ropes, casks, and bodies. It had been just one more battle never documented in official records. There were a lot of them. News of his death would have been received with mixed feelings by various members of society. His family—some of them—and many of his fellow officers might grieve his passing, but London society and more distant members of his family, would not.
Now he would await new orders and set out once more in pursuit of the French, though they were becoming hard to surprise at sea, skulking in their ports and avoiding battle. The only recourse was to go in after them, which he had brazenly done on two occasions, and had commandeered two of their ships each time. They had not known who to shoot at, and daren’t shoot anyway for fear of destroying half the town in that narrow harbor between headlands. They had got wise to that soon after and had blockaded and guarded their harbors better.
He would have to find some other way to die.
As they tied up at the dock, the state of their ship must have been obvious to everyone who took note of her, with her broken masts and a slight list to port. She would not be departing again in the usual way. There were none of the usual floozies coming aboard. The ship had the smell of death about her. As the exhausted and war-weary crew left her, various dispatches and messages were delivered aboard. Others were sent ashore to go off to news-starved and anxious relatives and family, regretting the loss of their loved one.
There had always been too many killed in each battle, but he would never forget them. Their names were engraved on the planking of the wardroom table from which the officers dined. That table would go with him to his next ship, reminding him to be less reckless with men’s lives, yet no more reckless than with his own. He always led the charge to be the first to board any enemy vessel; French, allies of the French, or some despised privateer. Despite all of his efforts, which had earned him the name of ‘Butcher Penfield’, he had continued to survive, and to attract men to serve under him, lured by the prize money that seemed to gravitate to him. All of his limbs were still intact, though his wounds were beginning to slow him down.
The young man who had brought their new orders aboard the ship after requesting permission to come aboard, had been amazed that such a floating hulk had been allowed to dock where she might sink. However, he knew better than to say anything. He had saluted her captain before he'd passed over those papers, seeing a man not that much older than himself. He watched as the captain broke the seal, tore open the envelope, and read its contents.
Penfield’s written orders from the Admiralty were simplicity itself. ‘Report to Stephenson.’ Nothing else. He scanned the remaining papers. Nothing of importance. He looked at the young man, seeing himself ten years earlier.
“Thank you. No response needed.” He watched as the man returned to the dock.
Penfield and his surgeon, Mr. Rogers, or just, Rogers, as he was usually known, had watched the least wounded of his remaining crew straggle off the ship under their supervision. Most of them had turned to the captain and Rogers and saluted them as they left. Some didn’t. Their families would soon learn of their arrival and would rescue their loved ones before they might get up to mischief to celebrate their safe home-coming. Too many of their comrades had not made it. The more seriously wounded from their last battle had been left behind in Gibraltar rather than die on a voyage there was no urgency for them to make. They could make that final leg of their year’s long absence from home when they were up to it. Others, less severely wounded, had been taken off just an hour earlier when they had come abreast of the Naval hospital at Greenwich, and had uttered prayers of thanks to have been able to get that far. There had been a fear that the ship might take on more water than they could handle and might not even make it into the estuary.
The dead and the living from his last few ventures against the French, were all wealthy men now. Those still living, could thank their captain for that, while wondering how they had managed to survive.
He had not been home for ten years, and he did not plan on going there and stirring up feelings he still could not submerge whenever he stepped ashore. It would likely be another ten before he might set foot back on that estate he had left in a memorable way. Though not memorable for the right reasons.
His twin brother, Charles, had learned none of what had happened between Robert and Selena. That, had been a relief, but far more than Robert deserved. He had never forgiven himself for taking advantage of her ignorance in not knowing who he really was. He had tried, though not very hard to tell her, but by then it had already gone too far for him to confess who he was. He could try to persuade himself that he'd had no choice in what had happened, but he had made that choice. And yet he hadn’t. At least she hadn't discovered that he'd not been Charles, saving them all from so much trouble and mischief. It was a guilty secret he'd learned to live with.
The spring following the marriage, there had been a letter from Charles, excited at the birth of his son—a son—barely nine months later, on March 15th of the year after Robert had first left home. He had sat down with a calendar and worked it out with the help of a book on midwifery that had been in the surgeon’s collection. It didn’t help his mood. Whose son? His, or Charles’s? Who might know, and what difference did it make, anyway? None. Thank god neither Selena nor Charles was aware of what he thought. To make it worse, Charles had indeed called the boy, Robert, in memory of his absent brother. He was not sure whether he should laugh cynically, or cry, out of frustration. It only added fuel to the guilt that he felt.
And then there had been another letter announcing something even worse. The lad had lived only three months. Did Charles feel any worse over that than his brother did? Robert might have had a guilty secret to feel jubilant about as the boy had developed and grown. Now, even that had been taken from him. He felt infinitely further removed from his former home by that occurrence.
He had commiserated by return letter, of course, feeling it almost as cruelly as Charles must have done, but in a way it was a relief, despite the dreadful tragedy of it all. There had been only daughters born after that. Nothing, however, would ever make up for the loss of that boy.
Penfield closed off those thoughts, leaned upon the railing and studied the city—what little he could see of it—clambering up out of the yellowish haze that constantly seemed to hang about it when there was no wind. He had forgotten the familiar and offensive stench of the river, and of the city, with its morning orange blush of acrid and choking coal smoke hanging low over the densely packed houses and trying to keep the sun at bay. At that early hour of the morning after a chilly night, unusual for that time of year, many of their chimneys were belching smoke into that miasma and adding to the stink that seemed to burn and irritate the throat.
A special shore crew at dockside stated their business on his ship, and were granted permission to board, and to begin their work of inspection. He knew what their verdict to the Admiralty would be, but they would need to arrive at it for themselves. At least they knew enough to start taking down the sails and rigging, and to get the makeshift masts out of the way.
The departing crew took off various trunks, canvas sacks, rolled up hammocks, and other personal belongings; some of which were very personal! One of those burdens, accompanied by protesting laughter from within the loosely rolled bundle carried across a seaman’s shoulders, suggested a body; a living, and a lively one from the laughter, the struggling, and the faint protests in a woman's tone, that he was provoking when he playfully slapped her. A young female. Spanish, or Portuguese. No doubt she had been smuggled aboard in Gibraltar along with a few others; eight, that Penfield knew about, to liven up their voyage home. Those women had been well rewarded for their complicity that had brought satisfaction to many, and had shown the sailors that they were indeed still very much alive after being given up for dead.
His crew had not expected to survive their numerous battles, being driven off course and stranded on some far off beach for months while repairs were being made. And then there had been that last battle. An American privateer; The Charleston, had followed them across the Atlantic and had caught up with them just two days out of Gibraltar, recognizing their vulnerable condition, making their ship an easy target, or so the marauders had thought.
Darkness had been Penfield’s friend on that occasion and, close to being sunk, they had managed to temporarily disable their enemy by bringing a mast down onto the deck and across their wheel. In the confusion that followed, Penfield and his crew had made their escape in the darkness. They had lost too many more of their already fragmented crew in that brief but bloody engagement. However, they had left their enemy with a bewildered respect for the hardened crew and captain who had brought such a wreck across the Atlantic and had very nearly turned the tables on them.
Penfield smiled at the distracting, high-pitched, though muffled laughter of the hidden wench, as she responded to what the seaman was playfully doing. He recognized one of the Holt brothers, both of whom had survived the odds and were now returning as prosperous men. The young woman he was carrying was not really objecting. She, and other of her willing companions, would find a ready home in London, where they might continue their gratifying avocation with a succession of eager sailors anxious for their intimate company. Though that one he was carrying off with him might not be available. Her future had already been decided. At least one, if not both of the Holts, planned to take her and another of her companions, home with them, marry them and settle down. They could afford it now. After a few days, some of the other women might make their way back to Gibraltar aboard another of his majesty’s ships, with the silent acceptance of the officers and captain, if not with their full approval.
Robert turned to the man beside him; Rogers, a man with no other name that was ever openly used. Rogers would need to return to Greenwich within the hour, and render what assistance he could there, and wait for the wounded from Gibraltar to arrive after that. There were always too many wounded tended by too few doctors, and he would get little rest. He took advantage of the hour or so he might have with his captain, his friend.
“Home, at last, Robert. I was not sure we would make it after what we've been through.”
There was little formality between them. They had served together for years and had learned to trust each other’s judgment. Each had taken off to sea for his own particular reasons. With Captain Penfield it had been because of his father sending him away, with rumors that it was also because of a love that could not be returned. But he had never spoken of that to any man. Rogers, never disclosed his reasons for being where he was, either, or why he returned to the sea no matter how many chances to escape it there might be. After all the years of excitement, while men around them had died, anything that life might have to offer them ashore would seem unexciting. But the sea had taken its toll on them both. They were overdue for shore leave. Might they both have the courage to go home this time after their years of absence?
“Yes, home.” He had no home. “We are all long overdue for some shore leave. I already seem to have my orders, if they still apply after all this time. They reached me with that last mail delivery on the packet boat, but that was last May, and this is into July. I was to be given a new ship that was even then being outfitted for a scientific expedition into the Pacific. She’ll have been long gone by now. I doubt they held it for me if they truly believed me dead, as it seems they did. I’d better check in with the Admiralty as they instructed and see what else they might have planned for me now that they know I am certainly alive. I was hoping to spend at least a few weeks in London, but I am not master of my own fate it seems, but either the French, or the Admiralty are.”
Robert watched some of those who had come aboard, as they wandered the deck and then disappeared below to inspect further. They were wasting their time. They should get off what they could, dismantle her and salvage the rest, or burn it. She was no longer seaworthy. If they were not careful she might even sink at dockside, but he had already told them that. The rats had left at Gibraltar, and everyone knew what that meant.
“They waste no time, do they.” It was not a question. There was the scream of a winch hoisting deck cannons ashore. A small crew of men were removing hatches and getting ready to hoist cannon from the lower decks too. They had soon recognized a problem. He could have saved them the effort and sent the cannons over the side once the English coast came in sight, but the men were tired, and he was not about to give up on her. He had offloaded all but twenty of their guns in Gibraltar; but had kept those on the lowest gun deck, apart from the lighter deck cannons, and had deferred the likelihood of her capsizing, though she was more likely to founder under the weight of ballast she carried. There had been men at the pumps around the clock for the last three days, and the problem had become worse as they'd got closer to the Thames, and home.
Another crew of men was soon organized to man the pumps once they realized the seriousness of the problem. As they learned more about the ship, they recognized the miracle that her captain had wrought, getting her home.
“Thank god for those women we picked up in Gibraltar. The Mermaid, will be a busy place tonight. Money has a universal way of making friends. We finished up with only thirty of our original crew. I’ve lost track of the deaths of men I knew and relied upon, and burials, and amputations and such, and the rest out there somewhere in the deeps, god rest them, but the survivors are all wealthy men now, thanks to you, and can live to spend it. But what a cost!”
Robert agreed. “Aye, what a cost!” There were times when he could see many of those same dead men in the rigging, furling and tying sails; could hear them shouting to each other as they worked aloft, and could even see them swabbing down the deck to get rid of the blood; some of it their own. He could swear that he had even seen some of them wandering along the dock as they had come in and had helped tie her up. He could remember all of their names as they paraded through his restive sleep. Had they not been on board his ship, they might have lived a lot longer. They had not sought death as he had, and had not understood what had driven him so single-mindedly but had followed him anyway. He had been responsible for their deaths. He had killed them just as surely as if he had put a pistol to their heads.
Penfield watched as the last man looked up at him from the deck, saluted him and then headed off for a bath, and his first night of rest in a good bed without being thrown out of it by the sea, or summoned to man the pumps, or to take off some canvas. He’d be drunk when he hit the pillow, and probably with a woman to buttress him on either side to stop him from rolling out of his bed now that it was well anchored. He would wake up in a panic at the absence of sensations he had lived with; the constant movement; the noise of the waves on the hull; the slapping of sails; or the snores of his exhausted comrades. One of his female companions would take compassion upon him about then, roll onto him and encourage him to get himself well-anchored into her, and to take his mind off the rest of it.
Fortunately, The Mermaid had a ship’s bell, sounding the various watch intervals to help them settle better.
Penfield tugged at his sleeve and sniffed at it. “I’d better have a bath and a change of clothes in The Mermaid if I can find a uniform that will fit me. Some of the officers leave one there for when they come back, except some of them didn’t come back. I would never approach their Lordships, or anyone, without a bath and a change of clothing except I doubt they’ll have a uniform that will fit me. I am sure we are none of us fit company for anyone other than ourselves after what we have come through.”
He would need to visit the King’s Harbormaster first, to see if there were any more recent orders for him, and to get what news he might have. He was glad to learn that Philip Stephenson still held that office. It would be better to avoid a visit to the Admiralty in his present state of dress and would have a chance to do something about his appearance. The Admiralty kept you waiting far too long and were sticklers for formality and a proper turnout. He would never be admitted the way he looked and smelled. He was not dressed for any of that, though he had no doubt that there would be a proper uniform waiting for him at his tailor. Any corrections that might be needed would be done there-and-then.
Robert looked around the dock and realized that he was not sure what day it was. It was busy, but not as busy as it could have been. He had a sudden suspicion.
“What day is it? Saturday? No. I am wrong. Sunday, I think. Yes, Sunday. I should know, I just filled it in, in the log. That was also what one of the men who came aboard was complaining about: missing his Sunday dinner.”
The Admiralty would not expect to see anyone on a Sunday, and nor would his tailor, but Stephenson would. Their Lordships had waited for him for months, they could wait longer, and so could Stephenson. He needed to see to a bath and some clothes first, and he should be better shod than he was.