The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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1813: A Fateful Meeting

“Only girls draw, Henrietta.” The demeaning comment was accompanied by the youth gripping the younger boy by the back of the neck, hoping to elicit a shout of pain after he had crept up behind him on the deck of the Bellerophon to see what he was doing. “You’re not supposed to be on board any of these ships.”

Henry Stavely quickly closed his book on the drawing he was working on and dropped it at his feet. He had been drawing the sailing ship lying to starboard of them in the harbor and capturing it in every detail. He escaped the pressure by first throwing his head back into his cousin’s face and then bending forward quickly to grab his cousin’s ankles, while, at the same time, pushing back with his own lower body to drive his cousin off balance, forcing him to let go as he staggered back. The older boy, William—more a man now in terms of age, if not intellectual maturity with three years between them—still had a grip on his cousin’s arm, until the youth, just turned fifteen and almost as big as his older cousin, struck his arm away. He turned quickly, almost throwing the older boy off his feet as his elbow purposefully caught him hard in the midriff, eliciting a gasp of pain.

There had been frequent rough altercations in the past between them, which the older youth recognized would soon go against him as his cousin grew, but perhaps not just yet. Nonetheless, he was cautious—especially of his opponent’s feet and elbows. Henry had learned something new and had caught him off guard by his response. His cousin’s head, thrown back against his own in that exchange, had left a tingling feeling in his cheek where it had grazed.

“Does my father know you’re here, Henrietta? You could get injured, fall overboard and drown, or get hit on the head if a load were to let go, and no one would be the wiser.” There was no risk of that now, as the ship had been moved away from dockside after being provisioned, while still being supervised by attentive seagulls waiting for scraps of food to be thrown overboard from the galley. The youth’s words sounded more like a threat than a kindly caution. “He doesn’t like boys underfoot, especially not you poking around. Neither do I.”

William had seen him with his book open on the deck of the ship and had approached as noiselessly as he could to see what his cousin was doing. He had no use for the finer things in life, neither artistic nor musical, unlike his more accomplished and versatile cousin. He was jealous of him and was proud of being able to admit that he had never read a book and intended never to change that fact. His younger cousin, Henry, annoyed him for many reasons. Henry could not easily be provoked into irrational violence, as others could, and always spoke carefully and politely as though nothing might arouse his temper—not even being called Henrietta. When he responded, however, it had been with surprising agility and strength. William found it irksome to the highest degree that his younger cousin could so easily ignore his goading and had managed to smile at him to annoy him even more. There was no love lost between the two. The older boy had bullied Henry, ever since Henry could remember, until he and his parents had moved out of the family home and relocated to London with his ailing grandparents. Henry’s father had rescued them as well as his own family from what had become an intolerable situation, living with his elder brother and heir to all of the Stavely property.

A much older man climbed up to the deck from the aft cabin and took in the two of them there, with a fast glance. William’s father, Matthew Stavely, had heard the exchange between the two cousins. He was clearly angry to see his nephew there for some reason. “How’d you get over here? What are you doing? Why are you poking around here? I told you to stay off my ships.” He was angry, as well as concerned. His eyes moved around the deck to make sure that no one else might have accompanied the lad and to see that certain things on deck had not been disturbed. He didn’t approve of the lad being where he was at this particular time, nor of drawing his ships either, which he had probably been doing. Satisfied with what he saw, he moderated his tone, aware that they could be overheard from the nearby dock. “What are you doing here, nevvy? Does your father know you’re here?” He clipped him about the side of the head as he scowled at him, waiting for an answer. “Well?”

The boy looked at him, almost defiantly. “I am drawing, Uncle. My father knows I am here and gave me his permission.” His uncle pinched his ear, as he wondered if the lad was telling the truth and as he entertained various other thoughts about why his nephew might be here.

“But you do not have mine, and these are my ships, not your father’s, even though they have the Stavely name on them.” He did not like his nephew or even his own younger brother taking an interest in what he did. “I told you not to come aboard any of the ships without my permission. It’s too dangerous for the likes of you. You could fall down a hatch, get injured if a sling let go, or drown in the harbor, and then what would your father say? So how’d you get over here?”

Henry pointed wordlessly to the small rowboat, tied off to the railing and out of sight of anyone on the dock. “Well then, you’d better get back in it and get yourself ashore, else you’ll find yourself heading out to sea with us.” That was only one of the possibilities he had entertained, except Henry had said that his father had known where he was. “See him off the ship, William, and make sure he doesn’t come back aboard. I still have some things to do on the Perry—he referred to a ship further out in the river channel—“before the tide changes, and we don’t need any more distractions. We are cutting it close as it is.” Henry did not miss the telling look they exchanged, nor the movement of the older man’s head to the side, and recognized that he would not get ashore without incident, but then father and son were alike in that way. They were both bullies, and they were both nervous about something.

Henry felt his arm grasped with some pressure, and he was forced to the railing with his arm twisted up behind him, though offering as much resistance as he could. He was obliged to leave his book where he had dropped it and was given no choice in the matter. The intention was clearly that he was not to go ashore in the boat at all, but in a more ignominious fashion, but he was not making it easy as he trampled and kicked behind at his aggressor, as his cousin maneuvered to throw him overboard. If he resisted too hard, his uncle would no doubt help. His book would probably follow him shortly after.

Henry was pushed over the rail and dropped into the water as his cousin laughed at him and at his struggling. It had all been overseen by his approving and smiling father as he climbed down into another small boat and rowed steadily across to the farther ship, the Perry, to give final orders to her captain. As William watched Henry struggling in the cold water, he noticed what Henry had done to his clothing and his shoes. He cursed Henry for messing up his stockings and shoes as they had struggled and for disordering his coat and neck cloth. His attention was distracted as he took out his handkerchief and began to polish off his silver buckles in the shape of an S, the first letter of their family name—Stavely. He was proud of his shoes. His father had a matching pair with similar buckles.

While William was distracted, polishing the scuff marks off his shoes and expecting his cousin to wisely strike out around the ship to dockside, he did not notice that Henry had climbed back aboard the ship rather than take himself off, as a wise lad would have done. Within a few seconds of Henry reaching the deck, unobserved, William was unexpectedly sent overboard in a similar ignominious fashion with a hard push, amid a good deal of surprise and spluttering, but all unseen by his father who was climbing aboard the distant ship and would have heard nothing over the constant cry of seagulls. They knew that the tide was about to turn and would stir up interesting tidbits for them once the flow increased. After that, various sluices that were bursting with other morsels from slaughterhouses and the usual refuse from humanity would soon release their contents onto the falling tide to join the other various bits of flotsam and jetsam to be swept off downriver—out of sight, out of mind, until the returning tide brought some of it back in again.

Henry, smiling to himself at what he had done, had thought to escape after turning the tables like that by climbing down into the rowboat and making for dockside while his cousin was getting himself aboard, but discovered that William had climbed first into the small boat—blocking his intention—and was even then climbing aboard the larger ship with murder in his eyes. He watched Henry, as he slowly peeled off his sodden coat and laid it on a hatch cover as he began to retrieve a pistol from a satchel lying in the same place and began to level it at his younger cousin, obviously intending to shoot him in his anger. The animosity between them, more hatred now, had never been so obvious before, as it was on William’s face.

“Where’d you learn to swim?” Henry made no answer. “I never did like you or your father, with your niffy naffy ways and behaving as though you were better than us. You’ll not be missed here. You might never be found. I’ll let your father know that you fell overboard and drowned and were carried out to sea on the tide before we knew you’d gone.”

Before he could raise his gun and pull the trigger, he found that Henry’s knife point had driven into his elbow, causing him to cry out in pain and to drop the pistol, unfired, as he clutched his arm to his chest. He did not know where the knife—more like a short sword—had come from, though Henry must have drawn it as his own attention was diverted to retrieve the pistol. He could see a different look—one of determination on his cousin’s face. He had not liked to have been threatened with a pistol pointing at him. Why would Henry have a sword like that one? He did not usually carry any weapon, not even a knife, and always avoided confrontation, but that had changed in the last year, along with other things. Henry followed up his advantage as he drove the sturdy metal handle of his weapon into his cousin’s face with all of the force that he could. He had gone beyond being scared, to angry. His anger at having received a ducking in that cesspool of a river and having his life threatened in that way by his one constant tormentor in his life, lent power to his blow.

He saw William fall back, strike his head upon the rail, and then drop to the deck, unconscious, with blood streaming from his face. He didn’t particularly care. His cousin really would have killed him for turning the tables on him as he had. He looked about. No one had seen what had happened. As far as he could determine, the ship was unmanned at that moment with no one else stirring to see what the scuffling, splashing and laughter, and the other noises had been about, and there was only himself and his unconscious cousin aboard. At least there had been no shot fired to have attracted anyone else’s attention, though a shot from any ship was not unusual, targeting rats in the water or seagulls. He had better be gone before William regained consciousness.

He noticed then that his uncle had begun to return from the farther ship and his all-too-brief visit there. He re-sheathed his short sword, scooped up the pistol and his book, and was about to descend over the side to the small rowboat and slip away while his uncle’s back was toward him, but hesitated. There was movement under a canvas not five feet away.

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