There was only one other gentleman inside The Mermaid when Captain Penfield walked into its busy interior. A young man – about his own age - very well dressed and making anxious enquiries about another ship that would leave with the tide, once slack water gave way to an increasing outflow in an hour or so. He’d better look sharpish, or he’d miss her.
“Dockside you say? And she makes ready to sail within the hour? Where might I find her?” He spoke well and was obviously not only well-educated but was probably from a good family too.
He got instructions from the landlord, and from one or two of the sailors there as to where he could board her. “I had better see her captain and organize getting my things aboard. Thank you.” They were obviously discussing The Daedalus, another navy ship getting ready to depart, docked just down from Penfield’s ship.
The Mermaid was used to sailors dropping in to get the stink off themselves before they went any further, and they could usually provide almost anyone with a hot bath and a change of clothing, though nothing of any quality. Often a sailor might leave a change of good clothing there for himself for when he returned. It was thought to be good luck, and likely to ensure that he would come back, despite evidence to the contrary with the clothing left there of so many men who had not returned. Robert had never thought to leave any clothing there himself, not subscribing to such superstitions. In the intervening years it would have become even more ravaged by moths than the ones he had on, or would have been claimed by someone else in need.
After a hot bath, a shave, and finding clothing that had belonged to an officer who would not be returning to claim it, he felt more comfortable. He was not too shabbily dressed, and it would do until he got to his tailor. He turned toward the harbormaster’s office and strolled by The Daedalus, even then casting off.
There was a body laid out dockside, by that ship. It was the same well-dressed young man he had seen making enquiries not thirty minutes earlier. He had just been pulled from the water, having somehow fallen in and drowned. From what Robert overheard as he walked by, the man had slipped on the steep gangplank and had fallen between the dock and the ship, striking his head as he went down. The man was certainly dead. Robert had seen too many dead men over the last few years to be concerned about it, or to linger as others did. If he thought of it he would ask Stephenson who he was.
When he entered Stephenson’s quarters, which commanded a full view of the naval docks and moorings, he discovered that the log of his ship was already there. So the old ship—not so old—was destined to be broken up. Just as well. He’d better see about getting other bits and pieces off her.
“Good to see you back with us, Robert.” Stephenson greeted him warmly, rising from his chair to meet him and to pour him a glass of wine. “I have your log. The old ship is to be broken up. The final indignity. They said you were lucky to make it back with her after that engagement just out of Gibraltar. You will be happy to learn that Horner, Captain of The Illustrious, cornered that privateer that almost got you, and captured her not five days ago after a chase and a battle. You'd made it easy for him with the damage you did her. That ship you brought back, and against all odds from the look of her, The Selena, must be the longest-lived ship you ever commanded. Three years at least. Some captains manage to get ten years or more. What was so special about her?” Robert savored the wine and drank it off before he answered.
“Everything. She was the best ship I ever commanded, and she began to feel like home. She was filled with memories, both good and bad, but I was not about to lose that ship as I had lost too many others. She meant more to me than they did.” Stephenson looked at him, hoping for more of an explanation.
“Too hard to explain.”
Stephenson could understand that. It became personal after a while. When you fell in love with a ship after you had got to know her, she became different. It might be in the way she handled under sail; her maneuverability under fire, how close she might sail to the wind, the general feel of her, the trust you placed in her, the way the men seemed to respond to her and vice versa. Most captains had their favorites. If they lived long enough.
“You probably heard that The Hyperion left without you. That ship you should have had. She left last week. Bolingbroke got her eventually when you were given up for dead, but there’ll be others if you want them. The French have all but given up at this stage and stay close to port, so the urgency has gone out of it. They have no navy left worth speaking of, thanks to men like you, but they were outgunned at the outset. We had two ships for every one of theirs.” He opened up the large book in front of him.
“I was going over your log. It explains a lot of things concerning your enforced absence. Their Lordships will be glad to get it. It will answer some of their more pressing questions about what you were doing that kept you away so long, and why so much of your ship was discovered off the Canaries three months ago, and yet here you are with that same ship.” He glanced up at Penfield.
“So, what will you do with all of that prize money?”
“What I usually do with it. Half of it can be split among the families of those men, now deceased, who served with me, and the other half goes to my brother.”
Penfield cared nothing for the wealth he had accumulated over the years but had given it all away. A dead man needed no wealth. Stephenson looked at him with a measured look in his eyes as something else came to mind.
“Yes, your brother. I have some letters for you from him. After you were given up for dead I made sure all of your mail stayed with me, and came back here, but there was another one came just yesterday for you. Not from your brother, but from your estate.” He walked over to his desk and took some letters out from a cubby-hole at the back of it and passed them over to Captain Penfield. Robert looked up at him and asked the question he had meant to ask earlier.
“Who was the fellow laid out on the dock? He looked like a gentleman. He sounded like one too when I heard him asking about The Daedalus in The Mermaid.”
“Yes. An unfortunate accident. He was going up the gangplank to join that ship, slipped on it and did himself an injury that put paid to him, even if he hadn’t drowned. Bascombe. Gilbert Bascombe. Poor devil. On his way to the West Indies. How he persuaded their Lordships to let him onto a navy ship, I don’t know, but he did. He must have been well known to them. Or related. All last minute stuff. He was in such a rush he left his carriage and horses with me to see to. They were to go to Tattersall’s to the sales, and the proceeds to be forwarded to him when he got settled. His belongings are still sitting on the dock. I suppose I should do something about them, although some went off on The Daedalus without him. I might see them again when she comes back if the captain doesn’t offload them with the pilot before they leave the river, once he’s thought about it. He’ll be relieved not to have a passenger foisted on him by some big wig in Whitehall.
“Bascombe was in an all-fired rush to be out of London. Out of England, yet I heard he had no relatives after him to cause such haste. There might have been others after him though, if he skipped out on other obligations; gambling debts; a disappointed young woman he rejected, or worse; a father intent on revenge for a slighted daughter; a vengeful husband. Maybe even a nagging wife.
“No forwarding anything to him wherever he is now.” Stephenson looked out of his window to see what was happening along the dockside.
“Read your mail, Robert. You are welcome to read it here until I get back, and then we can continue our conversation over a glass of something better. I have to step out for five minutes and get those things of his off the dock.” Stephenson went off to see that young Mr. Bascombe’s belongings were recovered before they might disappear in other directions.
Robert watched him leave and began to break the seals on his letters. Many were from his brother, except the most recent one was from Evelyn Benson on his brother’s estate. He recognized the name, but he had never received any letters from Benson before.
He read the last letter, first. It was addressed to Captain Robert Penfield, His Majesty’s Royal Navy. Stephenson had said that it had been delivered just yesterday. The Benson he remembered clearly, had been the Brew-master. This one was probably his son. He felt a certain unease, seeing that it was not from his brother, and his apprehension grew as he read the address inside the letter, and the salutation.
To Captain Lord Robert Penfield,
His Majesty’s Royal Navy,
9th July 18…
Robert felt a sudden stab of concern, reading that title. The Benson he remembered would not have made that kind of mistake. He continued reading, with a sinking heart.
I am sorry to be the bearer of dreadful news.
Your brother Charles, was involved in an unfortunate accident on the fifth of July, when his carriage overturned.
He was killed instantly, and his wife, Lady Penfield, who was with him, was thrown from the carriage and received severe injuries.
The doctor opined that she is not expected to survive.
You are now Lord Penfield, as your brother and his wife did not produce a male heir who survived.
Your presence at home is required with some urgency.
I sent a similar letter to the Admiralty several days ago letting them know of this tragedy. I assume that they will be able to expedite this news getting to you as soon as possible, and that you will be able to return.
Sincerely, and with my deepest condolences,
Today was the tenth of July, and this letter had been written on the ninth. The accident had happened just five days ago on a Tuesday. It was fortunate that he was now in London to receive this letter, but a pity he had taken so long in Gibraltar with those repairs or he could, even now, be at Penfield. Stephenson had said that the letter had arrived only yesterday, so Lady Penfield had survived for at least four or five days.
It was a major shock, completely sidetracking him from his further plans and ambitions. He had intended, on several occasions to visit his brother, now that his mother could not take exception to him meeting Selena, but he always found an excuse not to. Now, he had no choice.
Two things stood out in his mind.
Charles was dead, and Selena was said to be near death. She might already be dead. He could not bear that thought. He should have returned home earlier, as his brother had often requested in his letters, but his guilty conscience had kept him away.