SPLENDOR TO THE DEAD
by Nene Adams ©2006 (email@example.com)
Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled;
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendor to the dead.
---Plato (translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
She imagined the scene above deck, the controlled chaos of a naval engagement under the Caribbean sun - the tongues of black smoke and flame spewing from the muzzles of the long-nine and six-pounder guns; the shot skipping across the water, sending up splashes like a child's stone at ducks and drakes until the missile plowed into the opposing French corvette's hull with a prodigious crack. On the foredeck, sunburned men would tend the bow chasers amid a hail of returned shot, while blood ran from the lee scuppers and stained the sea around the fifth-rate frigate HMS Orpheus as dark as wine.
When one of the gun carriages broke free on the recoil and careened across the deck, maiming three crewmen and killing a fourth, the great rolling crash and subsequent screaming could be heard above the pitch of battle even as far as the orlop deck, where the ship's doctor had his cock-pit - a makeshift operating theater used during engagements. Sarah Jeffcott, the captain's wife, looked around at the trestles with their burdens of wounded men, and said to herself there was no more time for imagined spectacle as reality was visceral enough.
"Come here, madam! I require your assistance at once," called Dr. Vallance. "Forgive my brusque manner, but there is scant time to indulge in polite chit-chat." Sweat ran in an unbroken stream down his fat, heat-mottled face and dripped from his stubbled jowls. He had removed his coat and loosened his neck-cloth; in his shirt sleeves with a filthy canvas apron strained over the bulge of his belly, Vallance resembled a butcher in the slaughter-yard.
Sarah went to him, her gorge rising. The copper stench of blood, the smell of vomit and loosened bowels had permeated the dark closed-in atmosphere of the cock-pit, which was further fouled by the fetid belowdecks mold that spread throughout the ship in tropical climes. The orlop deck was below the water-line - safe from the threat of penetration, but precious little ventilation spilled down into the depths from the air-sail rigged on the top deck. Apart from a lack of fresh air, there was a lack of light. Woefully inadequate illumination came from a number of horn lanterns hanging from nails pounded into the ship's beams that curved overhead, close enough to touch with the flat of her palm.
"Be sure the leather straps are buckled tight," said Vallance to the loblolly boy who acted as surgeon's assistant. The boy went about the business of strapping the injured sailor down to the table with brutal efficiency. Joe Dandyfunk was, by his own admission, around twelve years old, but his gaze was ancient and far too knowing for a child. His wizened monkey face and the way he leered at her made Sarah uncomfortable.
"How may I assist you, doctor?" she asked Vallance. The sailor's leg looked as if it had been dipped in crimson dye and was clearly crushed. Jagged whiteness poked through the blood-drenched skin below the knee. Realizing it was a piece of shattered shin bone, a horrified Sarah lost the battle with her roiling stomach. She bent over and vomited. When her belly finished heaving, she tried to catch her breath against the hell's-brew stink that continued to assault her nostrils. The oily rich taste of regurgitated sardines - the crew had caught the fish in improvised nets that morning to supplement the usual breakfast burgoo - made her squeeze her eyes closed, praying not to be sick again. Vertigo made her clutch the table's edge. When she straightened, she scraped back the strands of blonde hair sticking to her sweaty face, and met the doctor's mild sympathy.
"Pray excuse me, sir," Sarah said, forcing the words through her raw throat.
Vallance turned his attention back to his patient. The sailor's eyes were open so wide, a rim of white could be seen all around the iris. "Stand at Mr. Stanhope's head, if you please," Vallance said to Sarah. "He will need to bite down on this good stout leather, which you will hold for him . . . thank you, excellent work, madam. There's a good lad, Mr. Stanhope. Now speed is essential to a successful operation, Mrs. Jeffcott. Should you succumb to faintness, madam, I beg you will not fall upon our brave Mr. Stanhope, who will bear what he must with admirable stoicism, I am sure, and he shall have a tot of spirits of opium afterward, with a double ration of rum as the captain in his generosity has decreed."
Despite this assurance of largesse, for which many of his mates would be envious even considering the price he paid for it, Stanhope groaned loudly. Sarah thought it was less out of pain than dread of the surgeon's instruments, which gleamed dully in the lantern's light, a frightful collection of steel and rosewood. Vallance tightened the tourniquet screw until the blood flowing from Stanhope's wound was the thinnest trickle. He picked up a long double-edged catlin knife and took hold of the man's injured leg. With a swift well-practiced movement, he severed through the skin, muscle and ligaments below the knee. Stanhope let out a muffled scream, his body convulsing against the straps that held him down. Joe Dandyfunk sneered and handed Vallance the bone saw. Stanhope's ruined leg was quickly removed and discarded in the sand. Vallance used his tenaculum to hook the arteries and blood vessels, draw them out, and tie them off with ligatures. Stanhope was passed to the surgeon's mate, Mr. Evans, to have the stump sutured and treated with oil of turpentine. Vallance's part of the operation took just over two minutes from start to finish.
It was the first time since marrying Captain Jeffcott that the Orpheus had seen action. Like everyone she had known in Jamaica, Sarah had avidly followed the Naval Chronicle as the Royal Navy struggled against Bonaparte and his Consulate. The language in the Chronicle was dry and antiseptic, conveying only that Lt. So-and-So had had an arm or leg taken off, and was recovering (or had succumbed to fever and died). The reality was more gruesome than any official report could possibly convey, and made her sick at heart.
Vallance tilted his head to one side in a listening attitude. The guns were silent. Sarah found the sudden cessation of crashes and booms to be well-nigh deafening. "I believe the fighting has ceased at last," he said. "Mrs. Jeffcott, shall we tend to Mr. Beckett? Pray you, prepare the sutures and I should be most grateful."
"Yes, doctor," Sarah replied. Beckett had a nasty slice taken out of his shoulder; it was deep and bloody, but clean. More wounded men began to be brought down from the maindeck by their mates. It was fortunate for her frazzled nerves that none of whom required the same heroic measures as the doctor had meted out to poor Stanhope. Nevertheless, there was no time for contemplation or ladylike squeamishness. Vallance and Evans, along with Dandyfunk and another loblolly 'boy' - a dried-up old sea-dog of about fifty years - tended to the injured men with Sarah's assistance.
She had helped her mother physic the slaves that worked her family's plantation in Jamaica, usually accidents while cutting sugarcane, or crushed fingers from the mill or burns obtained in the boiler house. It was this experience that had led Jeffcott to ask her to aid Dr. Vallance in the cock-pit. She hoped she had not disgraced herself. It was one thing to witness a mangled finger removed, quite another to see an entire limb severed, or to witness the catalog of horrific injuries that presented themselves that day.
Thank God there was no need for further amputations, Sarah thought some time later when she was finally dismissed by the doctor, there being no further need for her to ply needle and gut. Her skirts were daubed in rusty crimson; her hands and arms crusted to the elbows with sticky dried blood. She staggered up the ladder and through the hatch, grateful to her soul for the fresh wind that struck her in the face, even though it was still faintly scented with the rotten-egg odor of spent gunpowder and smoke.
She picked her way amidships to the waist, moving around the streaks and smears of blood marring the deck until she reached the rail. Crewmen were already busy cleaning and repairing the damage. The sailmaker and his pigtailed mate sat cross-legged on coils of rope and sewed shrouds from mold-spotted canvas, their needles flickering like quicksilver.
The sun was a late afternoon blaze of molten gold, the sky banded in turquoise and azure. In the distance, Sarah could make out a pair of small boats pulling away and supposed they must be French survivors. She looked towards the quarterdeck, where her husband stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He seemed untouched by the recent violence, resplendent in his blue and gold uniform, his gray hair covered by a gold-laced hat worn athwartships, a Lloyd's presentation sword at his side, and the Davidson's Nile medal hanging from his buttonhole flashing silver at the end of its ribbon. The set of his mouth was grave. Jeffcott spared her a glance, then turned and spoke to his second-in-command, Lt. Holroyd.
Sarah did not like Lt. Holroyd. He was an efficient officer, according to her husband; disciplined and capable of disciplining the men without descending into outright cruelty. Orpheus' crew worked well for Holroyd but Sarah hated the way he stared at her out of the corners of his wet little piggy eyes when he thought she would not notice, and the way he softened his greedy mouth with his tongue. Holroyd often smelled of liquor, too, but never on duty. Sarah knew it was no use to tell Jeffcott that she did not find the lieutenant very congenial company. She had no proof of the man's intentions, ill or otherwise.
Holroyd was coming from the quarterdeck, headed purposefully in her direction. Sarah wished she could avoid him. The best she could do was to turn her body so that he was confronted by her profile while she gazed out to sea, trying to emulate the serenity of an Italian Madonna. She knew Holroyd had arrived when she could feel his breath panting moistly on the back of her neck. Sarah hunched her shoulder and did not acknowledge him.
"Mrs. Jeffcott, I am exceedingly glad to see you are well after our little bout with Boney's men," Holroyd said, removing his cocked hat and giving her a polite bow. Manners dictated that she ought to make a curtsey in return for his courtesy. She did not, preferring a pretense of oblivion. Holroyd went on with hardly a pause, "The captain has asked me to ascertain whether there is anything you might require for your present relief?"
Sarah was aware that she must have made a hideous spectacle, covered as she was in blood even if none of it was hers. "A jug of hot water would not go amiss," she said, turning and drawing her skirts away from his legs. She waited for him to get out of her way. Holroyd smirked. A chill touched her backbone. He had not done anything overt - certainly there was nothing objectionable in his speech or his manners - yet Sarah had the impression that there was a great deal Holroyd would like to do, if he thought he could get away with it.
"I shall inform the steward of your need at this moment," he replied, but made no move to leave. "The seawater's warm as fresh drawn milk," Holroyd added as though making drawing room conversation, "and there's no doubt a thumping curtain of weed clinging to our hull, copper-bottomed tho' she be. We were fortunate to get the weather-gauge of L'Araîgnée; the winds were in our favor, for I do not think we could have caught her had she run. A pity her powder magazine exploded; the captain was hoping to take the corvette as a prize of war. I suspect the French captain scuttled his vessel rather than surrender it intact. As I say, a pity." He paused. "You were not incommoded by the fighting, I trust?"
Holroyd eyed her with expectation. It was incumbent upon her to make some sort of reply. "I was with the surgeon in the cock-pit," she said.
"Does life aboard Orpheus agree with you?" he asked, sounding like solicitousness itself, as oily as the sardines she had cast up in the sand on the orlop deck. "We officers see you so rarely. I may say without fear of contradiction that when you do deign to join us, madam, you're quite the civilizing influence on the midshipmen."
"I am well, sir," she said, wishing he would leave her in peace. "As for the midshipman, I am teaching the young gentlemen to do their sums and to read their Bibles, just as Lt. Quillam instructs them daily in mathematics, navigation and seamanship."
"The young gentlemen are much the better for your lessons, I'm sure." He moved closer under the guise of helping steady her with a hand under her elbow. A sudden swell made the deck heave under her feet. Holroyd's knuckles brushed against the side of her breast. Sarah felt the unwelcome touch through the thin material of her dress; she might as well have been naked for all the protection afforded by once pristine muslin.
Repulsed, Sarah jerked herself away from him.
"Your servant, madam." Holroyd now sounded cool, no doubt on account of her rebuff. He resumed his hat and returned to the quarterdeck, his posture eloquent of affront.
The sails were belled out to full-bellied tautness with the wind that drove the ship onward, steady on its course. Four bells struck for the end of the first dog watch; the clear sounds lingered in the air. She gripped the rail and gazed outward, feeling the warmth of the day leeching away as the sun crept towards the horizon. The cold knot in her belly tightened. Unshed tears scorched her eyes and she fought them back, focusing on the water where white foam waves curled from the cutwater to either side of the bow and streamed alongside the ship like victory ribbons. The longer she stared at the sea, the more homesick she became. She missed Jamaica so much! Longing for her home seized her in a grip that left her gasping. It was a little while before the painful clench in her chest eased.
Having regained a modicum of control, Sarah went to the captain's great cabin. It was located aft, beneath the poop deck; as she walked through the waist, she avoided sailors and red-coated Marines alike. She had no use for their curiosity, their pity, or anything they might be moved to offer. In the cabin, the carpenter's mates were finishing putting the bulkheads back into place, having knocked them out to clear for action before the engagement with the French corvette. The sound of their mallets pulsed through aching her head, as if every blow struck upon the bulkheads was repeated on her own skull. She sat on a folding chair which the carpenter (nicknamed Chips as was the tradition) was thoughtful enough to provide, his leathery face flushing with pleasure when she smiled at him.
A few moments later, the captain's steward - a scrofulous fellow named Corby Catchpole - arrived with a jug half-full of tepid water. Sarah wished for hotter but not aloud; she had learned that complaints served no purpose except to aggravate the steward, who became deaf, blind and maddeningly stupid, unable to get the smallest task done properly until her husband bribed the man back to sensibility with a shilling. Accepting the jug, Sarah was dismayed to find particles of dead skin floating on the surface. Catchpole showed her a grin that had seven teeth in it but nothing of malice, so she nodded her gratitude. After he left, she used a handkerchief to skim the flakes out of the jug.
Water and a precious scrap of soap contrived to get the blood off her skin. Even clean, a phantom stickiness clung to her, insubstantial but unpleasant. Once the carpenter's men were finished with their task and exited the great cabin, she changed into a clean dress, shaking out the wrinkles and smoothing the worst out as best she could. Jeffcott had allowed the two large trunks of her possessions to be secured inside the cabin for her convenience, instead of being stowed away in the cargo hold.
The pressure in her head worsened, as if steel bands were constricting around her forehead - a sure sign that the weather glass was rising. The pain was familiar, as was the heaviness that weighted her limbs. The back of her neck prickled. Yes . . . something was coming. A storm for certain. Other things perhaps. She had to prepare. Sarah rummaged in the trunk, frowning, and finally found a clasp-knife.
The penknife moved steadily, shaving and scraping scraps of wood into the needed shapes. Sarah let herself fall into a trance, her hands moving without her conscious volition, just as her dusky-skinned nurse had taught her. In her mind's eye she saw the verdant hills of Jamaica clothed with rustling sugarcane to the summits. In the distance loomed the Blue Mountains, bluer than the clear summer sky, the foot of the range obscured by shimmering heat haze while the peaks were wreathed in mist. The smell of burning sugar was bitter and sweet combined, and the spectral flavor lay thick on her tongue, tasting of home. The sense memory reminded Sarah of the freshly crushed sugarcane juice spiced with wild ginger and lime that her mother would serve in wine glasses. She briefly wondered if her mother still drank sugarcane juice in the evenings, with a slave standing behind her chair to wave off the flies with a fan, while Father read aloud from Fordyce's Sermons. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the piping of tree frogs and the shrilling cicadas.
She ignored the pang in her breast and continued carving.
The sky outside the ship was a mass of sullen purple creeping to indigo, the horizon a line of scarlet fire before Sarah rose from the chair and lit a lantern. Instantly, deep shadows gathered in the corners, pooling from deck to ceiling. The bulkheads appeared to recede, the curve of stern windows vanished, leaving her in a single circle of light. Anticipation swelled in silence when she sat down again in the folding chair, her work laid out neatly on the captain's desk. Sarah held herself still. They might come tonight, she thought. They had come on an irregular basis since she turned from child to woman. The rising weather glass foretold more than a storm; there was darkness rising, too, a stirring deep within strange currents.
Without further warning, they came gliding from the shadows, their footsteps making no sound. There were four of them, men with blue-tinged faces rimed in frost. The temperature in the cabin plummeted. Goosebumps erupted on her skin, tingling and prickling until she had to curl her hands into fists to prevent their trembling. Sarah gritted her teeth, which hurt in the sudden cold. Her exhalations made long misty plumes in the air.
There was nothing to be read in the subdued glitter of their eyes. The dead had no messages for the living, no empathy, no consideration - only a gelid unconcern tempered by a hunger that no living person could hope to understand. Disheveled hair stiff with ice hung to their shoulders. Their slack mouths were slashes of cobalt, their eyelids touched with azure, their eye sockets smudged dark as bruised grapes. Otherwise, the ghosts had very little color to them. The four spirits were oddly flattened to Sarah's perception, flickering figures so thin, they might have been cut from paper. They had no depth to them whatsoever, and outside the weak circle of light, the ghosts cast no shadows.
Sarah unclenched her fists. Cold beat at her like frigid wings, stealing her breath. On the island of her birth, such spirits were deemed 'wait-abouts' and considered ill-luck. Trying not to shiver, she reached for the first of the little dolls she had carved from wood scraps scavenged from around the ship. It was a crude thing, roughly formed - a blank round knob for a head, a tapering limbless body, and a scrap of rag tied around its middle.
She waited, holding the coffin doll; splinters caught on her fingertips. The men wore uniforms unfamiliar to her; she thought they might be French, perhaps sailors from L'Araîgnée, but they might also be from an earlier era. The sea gave up its dead reluctantly, hoarding souls as a miser his purse. During the Last Days, it would be different. In the Bible, in the Revelation of St John the Divine, it was said: And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them . . .
Sarah inclined her head in mute invitation as a spirit sidled closer. Jean Claudel, came the name. The whisper was like a needle of ice thrust into her ear. Sarah nodded and held up the coffin doll to her mouth. "Jean Claudel," she said, giving the name the same soft intonation. As soon as the words were spoken, the bone-deep cold turned to a heat that drew a flush from her cheeks. She gasped, feeling the color burn in her face, her neck, her breasts. The doll twitched. Sarah gripped it more firmly, the surface becoming slippery from her sweat as the doll squirmed in her grasp like an over-eager child.
Claudel's ghost fleshed out at once, from a paper doll to a simulacrum of the living man, albeit still in shades of blue and white. In the lantern's pale light, his form wavered as though glimpsed under running water. The coffin doll's struggles grew more acute. Sarah had to use both hands to keep the little wooden figure under control. Another splinter dug painfully into the meat of her palm and the slipperiness increased. A few blood drops splattered the deck between her bare feet. A shadow formed near Claudel's indistinct heels.
The air she drew into her lungs was hot, as roasting hot as the soup bowl-shaped iron kettles in the plantation's boiler house. From her bedroom window, Sarah had been able to see the glowing scarlet eyes that dotted the darkness at night, evidence of fires tended by invisible slaves who kept the syrup cooking. Snapping back to the present, she swallowed the taste of sugar in her mouth and tried to breathe shallowly. Claudel's shadow stretched and elongated until it was approximately human-sized and shaped. Squinting in the heat, Sarah took aim and threw the wriggling coffin doll into the center of the darkest patch.
The wooden doll landed improbably upright on its pointed 'toe.' It began to spin, faster and faster, whirling in place. As the doll turned, the shadow ran backwards, like threads rewound on a spindle or a weaving returning to the loom. When the shadow had gone, Claudel's blue and white figure began unraveling from the feet upwards, vanishing from shins to hips to chest to head until there was nothing left but a little wooden coffin doll balanced on the deck, spinning gently. It finally stopped and fell over with a subdued clatter, rocking back and forth a few times before coming to rest.
Sarah bent and picked it up, shivering as the temperature in the cabin cooled. The doll was heavier than before, bloated as though it had fed on something unspeakable. The wood had softened and changed, leaving a vile residue on her fingers. Claudel's features were burned into the doll's surface. He looked serene, his expression peaceful. That was a relief. Sometimes their faces were caught in a silent scream, or distorted by rage or frozen in agony.
Her skin puckered in reaction to the renewed spate of cold. She put the coffin doll down on the desk and took up the second, while another ghost came forward to regard her with his glittering eyes, to whisper to her with his ice-limned cobalt mouth. The ritual was repeated until all of the wait-abouts had been dealt with, and Sarah was alone again in the cabin. Four spirit-fattened dolls rolled on the top of her husband's desk as the ship heeled over a trifle. Sarah caught them before they could plummet off the edge.
She said a prayer, opened a stern window, and returned the coffin dolls to the sea, letting them fall from her open palm one by one. Sarah could not hear the tiny splashes over the torn silk noise of the Orpheus' passage, the creak of timber and rope, the crisp snap and flutter of sail. It was a beautifully clear night; what appeared to be a million stars glistened in the cloudless sky. Together with the moon's shine, the starlight reflected on wave and spindrift and spume in the ship's wake, turning the ocean to silver and pearl. Tendrils of her hair blew forward through the open window, teased by the wind. Apart from weariness, she felt the languid satisfaction of a job well done. These souls would not return; they had been laid to rest with proper ceremony. She smiled, thinking of the times she had performed the ritual at home with her nurse and Lilias in attendance.
Her smile faltered. Sarah recalled the drums that muttered beyond the sugarcane fields, thumping like a dancer's heartbeat. Jamaica was not far enough away for her to easily dismiss the memories. She knew, beyond any possibility of doubt, that no matter how many miles of open water separated her from Jamaica, she would forever be haunted by two things: the wild rhythm of drums in the cane-clad hills, and the harsh rattling that had come from Lilias' open mouth when Father had strangled her, his hands locked around her throat.
Sarah did not want to remember anymore. The fierce bright agony in her heart flared to life and she tamped it down ruthlessly. Too many tears had been shed already. What was done was done; she had made her bargain and would honor it to the best of her ability. It was her duty to her family. She closed the window just as a loud rap sounded on the cabin door.
"Captain's compliments, mum," bawled one of the ship's boy, an urchin possessing the singularly lovely features of a cherub and the swaggering manner of a prize fighter. "He says will you please join the officers in the gunroom, as he has been invited there to dine."
"I will come directly," Sarah called back. She tucked her hair under a mobcap, her feet into a pair of embroidered slippers, and picked up her favorite cashmere shawl, which was edged with a pretty pinecone pattern. At the door, she hesitated. Despite having dealt with the wait-abouts, there was still a disturbance in the atmosphere, a tingling like lightning striking nearby that made the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck try to stand. Sarah felt unsettled. Perhaps it was the storm yet unbroken, she decided, shrugging her shawl into place.
In spite of her dislike of Holroyd, the Orpheus' other officers were personable gentlemen, and Sarah felt a sore need for the company of the living instead of the dead. She exited the cabin and made her way to the gunroom, making a conscious effort to shed the prickles of apprehension that continued to dog her.
It could only be the storm.
"We surged from leeward, cutting off all hope of escape," said second lieutenant Quillam, manipulating the mustard pot, some cutlery, and a dish of salt on the long gunroom table to illustrate a sea battle for the enthralled midshipmen. "La Resolution beat to windward, of course, but we overtook her and laid a shot athwart her forefoot that had her crew hauling the French colors down the gaff in a trice."
"Huzzah!" cried the third lieutenant Bayard, waving a glass of wine. Lantern light turned his red hair to a blaze of fire. "I was one of the prize-crew that piloted Resolution to port. Laden with cargo, she was, and gold besides, and when she was condemned, the least landsman had full eleven pounds in his pocket, which they mostly drank and whored away in Gibraltar, the damned goose-witted buggers."
Holroyd drove an elbow into Bayard's side, causing the man to spill wine on his breeches. Bayard opened his mouth to protest, caught Holroyd's nod towards Sarah, and blushed as bright as his hair. "Beggin' your pardon, madam," he said.
Sarah assured Bayard no offence had been taken.
"Tell us about the capture of L'Intrépide," cried Mr. Nott, the youngest midshipman, his boyish enthusiasm for violence making him quite forget his manners..
Quillam regarded the boys with a benevolent eye. Holroyd scowled but made no protest when Quillam began, "We were northwards of the Tropic of Capricorn, and had clewed up the mizzen tops'ls and ported our helm to bring Orpheus to wind . . . " He continued his tale until an overenthusiastic wave of his hand knocked the mustard pot off the table, where it was rescued by a foretopman pressed into service as a steward. At Jeffcott's disapproving glance, Quilliam subsided and the talk turned to Bonaparte and his victory at Marengo against the Austrians. General François Kellermann's brilliant cavalry charge was reckoned by the gentlemen to have decided the battle in favor of France. Voices were raised to be heard above the clatter of knives and forks as dinner was served. Thankfully, even the most interested parties like Bayard forbore from re-enacting the battle on the tablecloth.
The gunroom steward carved near translucent slices from a ham and laid them on Sarah's plate. Hardtack was already on the table. She took one of the ship's biscuits and knocked the weevils out into a dish that another steward provided. Orpheus' sole hen, from which the captain had his morning egg, was kept plump on a diet of the insects. Constant humidity and heat meant that even in the tin-lined bread room, hardtack became damp and infested rather quickly. Some shipboard victuals had shocked Sarah at first, but she had grown hardened to the necessity of soaking ship's biscuits (beaten into manageable pieces by Joe Dandyfunk with an iron belaying pin) in her morning coffee, then scooping out the layer of drowned bugs before sweetening the porridge-like mixture with molasses.
At least there was a supply of excellent claret and bordeaux provided by the captain; he had caused the wine to be brought on board with the rest of the fresh victuals when Orpheus had lately stopped to re-provision in Barbados. To round out a feast that had started with green turtle soup and continued to buttery flying fish, mutton chops, potted anchovies, pickled lupin seeds and the ham which the steward had finished slicing - "in a manner which would gratify the meanest Vauxhall Gardens carver, damn your eyes," complained Dr. Vallance, who viewed the paper thin slices with bitter disapprobation - the gunroom cook had contrived a suet pudding dotted with raisins. The 'duff was served on a wooden scuttle-cover to great acclaim from the assembled officers.
Sarah ate well, although the food was very bland to the palate of one reared on pimento and peppercorns. She refused more than a single bite of the glutinous 'duff, though, as it was akin to masticating glue and she found it disgusting. Dr. Vallance, seated on her right, urged her to drink more claret. When the meal ended, he gave her a glass of rum flavored with flowers of benjamin from his own supply.
"For thy stomach's sake, dear madam," Vallance said, tipping her a wink. His 'physical' wig looked as though it had been frizzed inexpertly by the galley fire. "If I may suggest, you ought to ask your husband to lay on a quantity of chocolate, which you should drink daily for medicinal purposes." He leaned an elbow on the table and put his mouth close to her ear, the better to impart confidences. The coarse hairs of his wig tickled her cheek. Sarah inclined her head away from him, as the man's breath smelled unpleasantly rank.
Vallance went on in a hoarse whisper, "Chocolate is a fine stimulant, madam. I am acquainted with an accoucheur who tended a married lady who was brought to childbed twice with twins; in both instances she credited her morning chocolate for successful conception and parturition. Touching upon the subject . . . should the captain have any trouble of the intromittent organ - he is not in the first flush of youth, and it can happen that while a gentleman's spirit is willing, his arbor vitae does not, heh heh, rise to the occasion, if you will pardon the pun - I can recommend a tincture of damiana leaves in rectified spirits of wine. You will forgive me, I'm sure, for raising such indelicate subjects, yet young ladies are often at a loss in these matters, and you have no experienced female relation to counsel you." He patted her hand in such an avuncular manner that Sarah could take no offense.
Holroyd spoke up. He had eaten very little of his supper but consumed two bottles of claret and a half bottle of bordeaux, and was consequently more than a trifle foxed. "Sir, I must insist on having my share of the conversation with the lady," he said to Vallance, ignoring Quillam's raised eyebrow of warning. "Do you hear me, you damnable quacksalver? If anyone is going to converse with the lady, it will be me, sir," Holroyd continued, his face ruddy with drink as well as ire when Vallance did not answer him at once.
"Pray you, sir, madam, forgive Lt. Holroyd," said Quillam hastily. "He is not well."
"I declare, not well a'tall," Bayard echoed in support of his superior officer.
Sarah decided it was best to ignore the situation and hope that the others were able to stop Holroyd before he made a fool of himself in front of the captain. Jeffcott was engrossed in his conversation with the captain of Marines, Palmerston, and had not yet noticed his lieutenant's disgraceful behavior. Pray that it remain so, she thought.
"You mean he is much the worse for liquor and liverish, besides," Vallance said in his bluff hearty manner. "Ah . . . see how his complexion takes on an envious hue? He is crop sick, to be sure, and will soon cast up his accounts. Take care, Quillam. Be ready to aid him to the quarter-gallery at need. Tomorrow, I shall give Lt. Holroyd a purgative course of rhubarb and fig that will rid him of this excessive choler, and he will be bled as well. The tropical sun can be dangerous, most especially to those who display vinolent tendencies."
Holroyd glowered, his expression sullen, yet the ship's doctor had full authority over medical matters. He could make no argument. Vallance drank off a glass of bordeaux, mopped his sweat-glistening jowls with a dirty handkerchief and continued, "I beg to remind you, lieutenant, that some conversations are criminal in nature, and ought not to be attempted by a prudent man. I am given to understand that Captain Jeffcott is an excellent shot." The glance he gave Holroyd was significant.
Quillam paled, as did Bayard and Sarah. Criminal conversation - the enticement of a married woman to adultery, and the charge which the wronged husband could bring to court against the seducer - led more often to duels than divorces. Holroyd sneered but subsided, signaling the steward behind his chair to pour him another glass of wine. Sarah felt humiliated. She had never encouraged Holroyd, not by word or deed; in fact, she avoided the man whenever possible. For Vallance to have taken notice to the point of warning the lieutenant about the possible consequences of his actions . . . ! It was a situation beyond embarrassment. Sarah wondered how many of the rest of the crew had also noticed, and whether she had become the subject of below-decks gossip.
"Your pardon, madam," Holroyd said sulkily. "I meant no harm."
The midshipmen as well as the stewards watched the tableau with open-mouthed interest. Quillam, ever the peace-maker, smiled and said, "There, see? It was merely a wind-baby, a roaratorio signifying nothing, brought on by a surfeit of claret."
"Speak not of borborygmus rumblings, sir, nor ars musica! There is a lady present, and no need for vulgar speech," Vallance scolded, trying for severity, but this was spoiled by a sneeze that cocked his wig askew.
"A jest, good doctor, 'twas but a jest." Quillam himself rose and fetched a decanter. His height meant that he had to bend at the waist to accommodate the low beamed ceiling. "May I offer you a drop of port, sir? And you, madam? They say 'tis good for the blood."
Having had enough of the ship's company for the nonce, Sarah refused Quillam's port (an imitation Duoro whose contents were hardly better than impure alcohol sweetened with Saturn's salt, and colored with cochineal and elderberry). She excused herself from the gunroom after the traditional toast to the King had been given, and went out to cool her burning cheeks. At the beginning of their journey, Jeffcott had given her permission to take a turn about the quarterdeck or poopdeck whenever she wished, provided Orpheus was not engaged or there was no punishment muster in progress. The wind had freshened in advance of the storm that she still sensed was coming; the crisp scent of ozone was not unalike the smell of laundry spread on bushes to dry. Sarah stood at the taffrail, staring out at the ship's wide wake that unspooled from the stern, white on black under the moon and stars.
On the forecastle, a group of seamen was playing the old 'Cuckolds All in a Row' on the hornpipe, fiddle, Jew's harp and a makeshift drum to hold the rhythm, while other crewmen danced to the tune. Orpheus was a ship given to conviviality when circumstances permitted. Even Catchpole was squatting on the lee cathead, nodding his grizzled head in time to the music and mending Jeffcott's second best uniform coat by the bow lantern instead of lurking in the captain's pantry smoking foul cigarillos out of the scuttle. There was reason for celebration: Jeffcott had ordered an extra ration of grog for all hands as a reward for their bravery during the engagement with L'Araîgnée, and also as a sop to the general disappointment at not having captured a rich prize to share.
Sarah listened to the gay music, tapping the carved rail with her fingertips in time. Above the deck, among the high swaying masts and cross-trees and spars, sailors were double-reefing the topsail. She could not see the night sky for the vast clouds of canvas spread aloft, just star-sprinkled slices of dark blue viewed between the sails, the whole paled by the aura of the aft top-light. As she listened, the drum's rhythm strengthened, becoming so loud that it drowned out the cheerful bellows of the dancing crewmen. Another percussive beat wound around and through the insistent thump - thump - thump of the drum - the pulse of a human heart. She felt cold. Her hackles rose. The heartbeat was an illusion, no matter how real it sounded to her ears. Shivering, Sarah took a step away from the taffrail, intending to return to the cabin, when she came face to face with a dead woman.
It was Lilias.
Sarah clapped a hand over her mouth. The shock turned her bowels to running ice. She tried to gulp in air but her lungs were empty and useless things; red-tinged darkness swam in the corners of her vision. The slave's ghost stared back at her. Ripples of blue light from the stern lanterns shone on skin the color of polished coal, and reflected in the pupils of Lilias' dark eyes like little flames. Unlike the spirits of the French sailors, Lilias was not frost-bitten. Instead, an intense heat poured off her, enveloping Sarah in a haze that smelled of boiling sugar, nauseatingly sweet. She was assailed by the scent of ripe mangoes, by the searing fragrance of spices on grilling meat, by the odor of sweat under a tropical sun as flat-bladed cane knives rose and fell at harvesting time. Perspiration stung her eyes and she blinked.
"Lilias?" Sarah whispered, half-afraid to speak. Oh, Lily . . . oh, what do you want . . .
Lilias did not speak. Her expression did not change. She raised two fingers, pressing them to her lips in a silencing gesture.
"Lights off the starboard bow!" cried the look-out at the masthead, shattering the spell.
When Sarah looked again, Lilias was gone.
The music ended as the watch reacted to the look-out's sighting of another ship's stern lanterns, but Corby Catchpole sang in a wavering tenor, his voice carrying from the foredeck:
"There's neither lord, nor gentleman, citizen or clown,
That liveth in the city, or the country town,
But may carry horns about them, tho' they them never blow,
For gallants are like other men, cuckolds all in a row."
Jeffcot stepped on the quarterdeck, followed by Lt. Holroyd. If the captain took any hint from Catchpole's verse, referring as it did of adultery, he did not react. Holroyd called out harshly, "Belay that noise, Mr. Catchpole."
Unnoticed and very near unnoticing of the world around her except as an unwelcome distraction from her thoughts, Sarah stood rooted to the spot near the break of the poop deck, sweat cooling on her skin. She had been thoroughly unnerved by the appearance of Lilias, dead these five months agone. Why her? Why now? What did she want? The woman had seemed so real, as if she was a being of mortal flesh instead of insubstantial and flat as paper like the usual wait-about. Lilias was hot instead of cold. Reflecting the blue lantern light instead of absorbing it. Had she not seen Lilias murdered with her own eyes, Sarah could have believed the slave had been truly there, standing on the Orpheus' deck.
Jeffcott paused when he spotted Sarah, and looked at her from beneath his bushy brows. "Madam, you should perhaps retire," he said with grave courtesy. "The hour is late."
"Thank you, sir, I will retire straightaway," Sarah replied, hurrying off the poop deck. She tripped coming down from the ladder and would have fallen head-long save for Lt. Bayard. Though startled, he caught her and set her down with a jarring thump. She scarcely paused to thank him, so great was her rush towards privacy.
In the cabin, she a candle, sat down in a chair and got up almost at once, flustered and unsure. Should she make a coffin doll? Should she wait for Lilias to tell her what to do? The woman always had, since Sarah was a young girl and Father bought Lilias in Saint-Domingue to be her companion. They had been the same age, slept in the same bed, sat at the same lessons together. Where Lilias led, Sarah had followed . . . except to the grave.
Her chest suddenly heaved. A huge racking sob tore its way out of the core of her being. Tears scalded her cheeks. She sank to her knees while grief and fear and homesickness shook her in an iron grasp, unavoidable and inexorable. Doubled over on the floor, she wept with her face pressed against her skirts. Sarah buried her wet mouth and her wet eyes into sodden cloth and shook uncontrollably, abandoning herself to the heartbreak that swept through her, an aqua fortis that dissolved her down to the soul.
She stayed on the floor until dawn, when she finally fell into an exhausted slumber.
Sarah was awakened by shouted excitement on the deck, and by the soft speckled sunlight filtering in through the grating above. She got up, aching in every limb, white sparks of pain in her head. A ship's boy beat a tattoo on the cabin door; he came in bearing her morning coffee, hardtack and burgoo from the captain's galley as well as news. The ship that the masthead look-out had seen in the night was an English mail packet. Apart from official dispatches and post, it also carried a passenger, an English lady - a wealthy and famous beauty, the boy told Sarah confidentially, though he had yet to clap his peepers on the woman - who was transferring to Orpheus, as she had been visiting the West Indies and required passage to England. And would Mrs. Jeffcott accept the captain's compliments, thank 'ee, and attend him on the quarterdeck as soon as she had breakfasted? This last was spat out in a rush over the boy's shoulder as he dashed outside, no doubt to join his mates in loitering nearby while the bosun rigged a chair for their passenger.
She eschewed eating any breakfast, since her stomach was still queasy from the emotional upheaval of the previous evening, and drank the coffee the boy had brought, first lightening it with tangy goat's milk. Sarah grimaced at the taste. She had no fondness for goat's milk at all, but she had been told (with some indulgent chuckling for a land-bred fool) that a ship could not carry a cow to sea. When she finished the coffee, she called for Catchpole to take the rest of her breakfast away. He answered her call grudgingly, sidling into the cabin and scurrying out again with his eyes trained beyond the open door, as if he feared he might miss something of import.
Sarah twisted her hair up into a knot at the crown of her head, pinning the blonde locks into place. Little snipped curls framed her face and softened the breadth of her brow. She donned stays and petticoat, and put on her best dress of blue-grey lustring silk, a fine lawn chemisette worn beneath to fill the square décolletage and ensure daytime modesty. Having made her appearance acceptable for receiving a lady, Sarah took her parasol to shield herself from the sun and went out of the great cabin.
As she had anticipated, many crewmen had gathered as close to the action as they could possibly manage without exciting the officers' wrath. On the quarterdeck, Jeffcott watched the proceedings and acknowledged Sarah's appearance with a nod. Holroyd was also on the quarterdeck, his expression inscrutable. Bayard stood in the waist assisting Quillam, who was supervising the bosun's chair being lowered over the side. It was naught but a plank and a cleverly knotted line; Sarah knew the chair well, having been raised and lowered by this device several times, and each time an exercise in dread. She would almost rather dare the perils of the larboard accommodation ladder that ran from gangway to waterline, though even in a moderate swell, the slippery steps were a positive danger. Besides, the 'chair' was only offered to females and important personages. Anyone else who wanted aboard had to take the accommodation ladder or a hastily rigged whip at the yardarm.
"Handsomely, handsomely there," boomed Bayard, whose pleasant face belied the sheer awesome power of his voice in full cry. "'Ware that backstay, Mr. Jones!"
At last, the bosun's chair rose to the level of the rail. Hands reached out to assist the passenger from her uncertain perch. Sarah observed with interest as the woman touched down on deck, shaking out her rumpled white-on-white embroidered skirts and offering smiles all round. She was not young but not quite in her middle years, either. Her hair was so dark it was true blue-black; she wore it in a bundle of coarse disheveled curls in the back, the shorter sides and top brushed forward à la victime to frame a face that seemed made for merriment. A keen brown gaze surveyed the sailors in their ordinary blue jackets and spotted handkerchiefs tied over their heads, then to the officers in their uniforms, then settled on Sarah. The woman's broad smile caused a fan of creases to appear in the outer corners of her eyes.
"I beg your pardon for the impertinence of introducing myself and forcing the acquaintance," she said, advancing on Sarah. "Mrs. Elizabeth Gilliard, widow of Captain Jack Gilliard, who was late of the East India Company."
"Mrs. Jeffcott," Sarah replied, bobbing a curtsey which the woman returned. By that time, Captain Jeffcott had come from the quarterdeck and was standing at Sarah's side. Sarah made the introductions between Elizabeth, the captain and the officers who presented themselves. Bayard, in particular, seemed taken by the woman's handsome features and generous figure, which was displayed to good advantage as her dress had been dampened by spray during the transfer from the jolly-boat to Orpheus. Bayard gaped like the veriest toad-eater, his face flaming. Quittam bared his teeth at the woman like a cringing lapdog, Holroyd showed polished manners, and Jeffcott welcomed her aboard with a sober countenance.
Without being told, Sarah knew she would have to share the great cabin with Elizabeth Gilliard. Jeffcott had already given the captain's cabin over entirely to her use, choosing to sleep in the first lieutenant's small berth; thus evicted, Holroyd had taken Quittam's berth, and Quittam had bumped Bayard to a hammock with the midshipmen forward of the officer's quarters. There could be further inconvenience, of course; should Elizabeth insist upon the use of a cabin, Quittam would have to bunk with the midshipmen as well. Sarah did not think matters would come to that pass. The woman had been traveling rough on a mail packet, and those ships had not been designed with comfort in mind.
"Shall I show you to our accommodations?" Sarah asked.
Elizabeth took her arm as if they were good friends rather than acquaintances of a mere two minutes' standing. "That would be exceedingly kind of you," she murmured.