There were trunks being whipped aboard now, as well as boxes, bags and chests which no doubt contained Orpheus' mail, delayed some three months due to Jeffcott's insistence on remaining at sea cruising for prizes until their supplies were almost exhausted. Sarah continued to lead Elizabeth, pointing out obstacles like rope coiled on the deck. Near the great cabin's door, Catchpole caught Sarah's eye. "Does madam require hot water?" he asked, simpering at Elizabeth with his seven teeth on prominent display.
Elizabeth seemed taken aback by the man's appearance. He was, Sarah had to admit, a rather vile looking specimen, the abscesses on his neck plain testimony to his affliction with the King's Evil, but Elizabeth rallied and bestowed a faint smile upon Catchpole that made him squirm like a schoolboy. "Most kind, sir, most kind," she said, allowing Sarah to steer her around the steward and into the cabin without further delay.
With Elizabeth inside, looking about her with unconcealed interest, Sarah saw the great cabin through new eyes-the ceiling buttressed with wooden beams and the oak-and-rosewood wainscoting that rose to meet it; the stern transom windows and the green-striped linen covered seat that followed the curve; the captain's desk and a chest of drawers lashed to the deck; a chart table littered with papers which she never touched, and another smaller table where she had her meals; the green-and-white painted canvas drugget that Jeffcott had purchased to cover the decking. A curtain of the best Indian toile imprimé, the cotton printed with a pretty floral design, concealed the sleeping-cabin where a pile of thin, horse-hair stuffed mattresses served as a bed in lieu of a hammock. Another smaller curtain hid the captain's quarter-gallery where the ladies might avail themselves of the privy in private, rather than share the warrant officer's seat-of-ease aft by the bread room, or the aptly named 'head' near the bow where the common sailors squatted in all weather.
"Why, it's quite charming," Elizabeth said. Sarah could detect no trace of sarcasm or insincerity in the woman's voice. "I have seen many a London and Strasbourg drawing room, madam, that was not half so nicely furnished."
"Will you take a glass of wine?" Sarah offered.
Elizabeth indicated her approval. Sarah called to Catchpole to bring some madeira for their guest; as she suspected, the man had been loitering within earshot. When she turned back around, Elizabeth had flopped down inelegantly on the stern seat. "Good Lord, I'm fagged!" the woman said, pushing sweaty strands of hair away from her face. "Pardon me, Mrs. Jeffcott; I am unused to the heat, and find it most disagreeable."
"I understand perfectly," Sarah replied, although to one born and bred in the Caribbean, the heat did not seem overly oppressive. She had heard that England was a land of mists and rains, where in winter the very air froze and shivered into flakes called snow. The notion was incomprehensible. The chill brought by the wait-abouts was bad enough. That the temperature could fall even lower was a horror Sarah could not bring herself to voice.
Catchpole arrived with the madeira. Sarah took it before he could begin to fuss, dismissed him and served Elizabeth a glass. The woman drank it down without any pretense of polite sipping. "Captain Martin-captain of the packet Hippocampus, do you see-is a capital fellow," she said, "but he is also dead against drink, having lost a beloved brother to gaming hells and the Blue Ruin. Not a dram of wine to be had aboard, nor sherry, nor even a shrub or punch such as a child might take no harm in. Fair parched I am, you may be sure, with naught but water and lime-juice to slake my thirst these many days."
Sarah poured Elizabeth another glass of wine, and took one herself. After a few moments, she ventured, "I understand you seek passage to England?"
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Jeffcott." Elizabeth sat directly beneath an open window, the sea breeze stirring her sodden blue-black curls. "I've business there, and urgent business at that." She paused and went on, "Do you have family in England?"
Sarah shook her head and sat down in the Windsor chair that stood in front of the desk. "My mother and father live in Jamaica. Neither of them has any relations worth mentioning."
"I suppose your father is in sugar?"
"Yes. Our plantation is near Kingston." Sarah took a sip of madeira; the rich flavor burst in her mouth, wine laced with roasted almonds and smoke. She swallowed and said, "I was born in Jamaica. I've never been to England. May I ask, Mrs. Gilliard, what you have been doing in the West Indies? Do you have interests in the islands?"
"My late husband's sister is married to an island cotton merchant," Elizabeth answered airily. "There was a family concern that had to be addressed, and nothing would do but I must sail to Nassau. Now I return to England with haste, and am glad of it."
Their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Captain Jeffcott. There was a sour tilt to his mouth that Sarah had never seen before. "Madam," he said to Elizabeth, his manner stiff and formal, "I have received orders from Whitehall . . . " His glance took in Sarah, and he stiffened further. "We will set course for England as soon as practical."
Elizabeth sat up instantly from her sprawl, her spine crackling. "Far be it from me to tell you how to go about your ship's business, sir," she answered him, "but I must be in England as soon as possible. The journey may not wait upon your discretion."
Sarah caught her breath, suddenly aware of the clashing of two adamantine wills. Tension mounted as Jeffcott and Elizabeth stared at one another, neither yielding nor willing to yield. Sarah stood rooted to the spot. She may have only just met Elizabeth, but the woman's strength was undeniable. The contest was broken by Jeffcott. His brows drew together in a frown but when he spoke, his tone was mild rather than gruff.
"Very well, madam," he said, giving Elizabeth a slight bow. "If the winds and currents are favorable . . . if we encounter no storms or other delays . . . we ought to make Falmouth in two months' time. You may add to that another fortnight and more should we encounter an enemy vessel, as I'll not allow Orpheus to be fired upon with impunity, nor can I fail in my duty to engage our country's enemies."
Having won the initial battle, Elizabeth was graciousness itself. "You must act as you feel best suits the situation," she said. "In fairness, I can ask no more."
"Very well. Good day, madam." Jeffcott made another small bow, nodded at Sarah, and left the great cabin, still frowning. Sarah heard him issuing orders as he stepped out, but they were too indistinct and muffled by the closing door to make any sense.
Elizabeth clasped her hands together and looked at Sarah, her brown eyes bright. Twin spots of color burned on her high cheekbones. "Forgive me, Mrs. Jeffcott, for the unfortunate display. The nature of my business in England is pressing, you see, and cannot be delayed. And, too, I must confess to more than a touch of Balaam's ass in my nature."
Sarah smiled at the Biblical description of stubbornness, but her thoughts were racing. Elizabeth Gilliard was intriguing, not in the least because her 'business' in England would appear to have government support at a level sufficient to cause Jeffcott to acquiesce to her will, or as far as the captain was willing to bend when it came to his ship and his crew. She hoped the confrontation would not cause resentment; it would make interactions awkward at best, and shipboard society was too small and confined to suffer hostility among its members.
"I hope you will not think me impossibly forward if I presume upon your good will," Elizabeth said, coming to stand very near Sarah. They were almost the same height, though the widow was a thumb's breadth taller. She exuded a musky animal scent that was not at all unpleasant. Elizabeth leaned her head until her curls brushed Sarah's cheek, as if she was about to impart a confidence. "I hope-indeed, I make so bold as to insist- that you will call me by my Christian name," she whispered, "which I realize goes against proper ceremony and the forms of general civility. I feel such an instant connection with you that I cannot help but fancy you must feel the same. If you consider it an impertinence . . . "
"No, no, not at all," Sarah hastened to interrupt. The other woman's scent, the living female warmth of her, her complete lack of airs, brought such heat to Sarah's cheeks until she was certain she was blushing scarlet. Such easy affection was not only agreeable, it was impossible to resist. A pleasure-starved Sarah did not even try. "I agree that such formalities are more suited to the drawing room than between traveling companions on shipboard. In the spirit of our new acquaintance, I beg you will call me Sarah in return."
Elizabeth smiled, her teeth flashing white in her sun-gilded face. Her full breasts pressed against Sarah's arm, round and soft; the woman's nipples were hard peaks that could be felt through the thin damp fabric of her dress. Sarah shivered involuntarily.
"I am sure we will be friends," Elizabeth said. "Yes, I am sure of it, I say! Do you not find it makes a long journey less tedious if one has good conversation and good company to share it?" She took a few steps away, returning to her seat in the stern gallery. The wind freshened, blowing her curls even further forward to obscure her eyes. Elizabeth's generous mouth curved in another smile, this one small and secret. Sunlight picked out the blue highlights gleaming like lapis lazuli in the strands of her dark hair. Sarah became fascinated by the play of light on the woman's skin and hair, the faint wrinkles, the freckles on her nose. She jerked out of her reverie when Elizabeth spoke again.
"Perhaps another glass of wine, my dearest Sarah," Elizabeth said in an affectionate tone, "and we may wish each other joy." Her eyes crinkled as she laughed. It was clear that widowhood-however long ago the unhappy event had occurred-had not affected her spirits. Sarah could not imagine that expressive face sunk in dolor and grief.
"I should be delighted," Sarah replied, enacting the role of hostess as she had been taught. Before she plied the Madeira bottle, however, she rummaged in the smallest of her trunks for the last of the ratafia biscuits. As she rose with the package of biscuits in her hand, out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw a shadowy figure, a dark-skinned woman with a colorful Madras cloth wrapped around her head.
Sarah turned and the shadow was lanced by sunlight, melting away into nothingness while dust motes danced in the bright beam. She shook her head and joined Elizabeth on the upholstered seat, sitting hip-to-hip with the other woman while they finished the wine and ratafia biscuits, which were horribly stale but still sweet. They chatted for a while, speaking of this and that, mainly polite inconsequentials. Sarah watched Elizabeth lick her fingers, her tongue darting like a cat's as she chased crumbs. Something stirred inside Sarah, a longing she thought had been left in an unmarked grave on Jamaica. She gulped the last of the smoky wine, confused by this unlooked-for attraction.
For a moment, Sarah thought Elizabeth's smile turned predatory, a sharp slice of coral-polished teeth and focused intent. Her heart thumped painfully in her chest. She looked away, yet she could not help but shudder, her flesh recalling bold touches in the dark, the satin glide of skin on skin eased by sweat, wet slickness and the taste of another woman's mouth. Unbidden, her body yearned towards Elizabeth, pliant and willing. The realization of desire was startling. She had only known this hunger with Lilias, always Lilias . . .
Sarah twitched herself upright, then stood and called for Catchpole to take away the empty wine glasses.
Orpheus was to sail the long leg from Caribbean waters to the Portuguese Azores for victualling in São Miguel before attempting the Atlantic crossing. The ship encountered light airs dead aft and fine weather which had the captain ordering sails spread in profusion including the royal studding sails that flew out high above the deck, and above them the skysails that seemed fit to scrape the very firmament of heaven. Each sheet in the pyramid of canvas was perfectly taut, distended without a ripple, and looked as though it might have been carved from the best puro bianco marble. Orpheus continued as near northeastward as possible, gaining favorable winds that drove the ship forward at a steady eight to ten knots for a time. The tropical winds proved fickle, however, for after making such good headway and skirting the edge of the dread Sargasso Sea with its choking weed, Orpheus spent nearly a sen'night caught in a dead calm, the heavy sails transformed overnight from full-bellied tautness to an inert unstarched mass drooping on the frigate's masts. The infinity of the surrounding sea was nearly as flat as a mirror, reflecting the blue bowl of the sky, the silver heat haze of the sun, and the horizon's pure white line.
The captain was reluctant to lower a boat and tow the frigate unless it became necessary, since he was certain a storm would come along sooner rather than later to break the back of the doldrums. The crew was in a good mood despite the calm; it was time they spent to good use by washing clothes, touching up Orpheus' paintwork, polishing the brass a-blaze, mending and a dozen other small chores. To sweeten the men further, on the sixth day Jeffcott ordered a spare sail lowered over the larboard side to form a makeshift pool where non-swimmers (comprising the majority of the crew) could paddle about in safety. A smaller sail was rigged on the starboard side for Sarah and Elizabeth to bathe in privacy, although one of Palmerston's Marine sentries stood by on the upper deck with his back turned, the rifle in his hands a defense against sharks should it be required.
"Delightful, but it's nothing like taking the waters at Bath," Elizabeth said, and then had to explain to Sarah about the city in Somerset and its healing mineral springs-the famed aqua pumpaginis-that were good for the gout and phthisis, and the Assembly rooms, the balls and plays, the society. "Of course, Bath is somewhat démodé these days, as Brighton and sea-bathing have become much more the crack amongst the younger fashionable set."
The two women were reclining in the sailcloth in clear water up to their necks, wearing only shifts as neither had proper bathing costumes. Sarah was all too aware that the dainty cambric became diaphanous when soaked. Try as she might, she could not keep her eyes averted from the spectacle of Elizabeth's flesh under the clinging translucent fabric-the rose smudges of her nipples; the dark mysterious shadow of her navel; the even darker shadow below, nestled in the triangle of her thighs. A veritable constellation of freckles peppered her shoulders, following the delicate bones that shifted under her skin.
The sail was flexible as a hammock, which meant she and Elizabeth kept sliding into very close quarters in the center. Sarah ached with every touch; every brush of fingertips, toes, hips and knees sent a jolt rocketing through her. The other woman's body gave off such sultry heat, Sarah was surprised the water was not boiling. She ducked her head beneath the surface to cool her face. The mottled canvas surface looked different glimpsed underwater; the color of the mildew stains was leached to a lighter hue and they seemed to be part of a complex pattern, a message whose meaning could not be read. Beside her was the length of Elizabeth's thigh, ivory touched with blue. Sarah came up for air, sleeking her hair back with her palms. Her heart fluttered like a caged thing.
Elizabeth sat up. The swell of her breasts strained against her wet lace-trimmed shift. Shading her eyes with a hand, she asked, "Are those clouds, Sarah?"
Sarah obediently followed the line of Elizabeth's gaze. There were clouds in the west, all right, a feathery trace visible against the glazed porcelain sky. She wriggled to a sitting position, realizing that the prickly heat of discomfort she had been feeling for the last hour was not entirely due to Elizabeth. There was a storm brewing. Sarah could sense it on the edge of her perception. The sullen presence was increasing, as was the atmospheric pressure-not unendurable yet, just a tightness in her temples and a bitterness in her mouth that had nothing to do with salt. The faint tingle singing along her nerves spoke of distant lightning.
On the deck above them, the Marine called over his shoulder, "The weather glass is rising, madams! 'Tis rising, they say!" He sounded relieved at this evidence that their becalmed state would, in all likelihood, soon be over. Dr. Vallance appeared, leaning over the rail to address the ladies directly. It was a touch indelicate, but being a doctor, his presence did not assault feminine modesty. He was not wearing a wig; the stubble on his shaved head was no longer than the stubble that dotted his jowls and the slabs of his cheeks.
"I hope you have both taken due precaution against an excess of sun," the doctor said. There was a livid blood stain on his coat, already marred with the blemishes of past meals and littered with snuff particles. "There is nothing more dangerous than the sun which foments siriasis," he continued, "and such sanguine tendencies, such calor and rubor as can only be relieved by a blood-letting to balance the fluxion of humors. Shall I put you on the sick list, Mrs. Jeffcott? Or you, Mrs. Gilliard? Do you fancy a taste of my lancet?"
Elizabeth smiled up at him. "I think, good sir, that I much prefer my blood in my veins to filling a cupping bowl. Or being a leech's supper, for that matter."
Vallance inclined his head. "That is regrettable, as I took delivery of an excellent stock of Hirudinea medicinalis in Barbados. Very well, madam, as you will have it. Perhaps this refusal of treatment will afford me some advantage at the card table this evening. If the sun befuddles your wits, I may at last win at whist. Ha, ha, ha!"
Sarah asked, "How is Mr. Stanhope? He is well, I trust?" She wondered if the seaman who had suffered the leg amputation had survived, and was a bit ashamed of herself for not having inquired earlier about his condition.
"Oh, laudable pus, madam," Vallance answered, "pus bonum et laudabile. All goes according to the Corpus Hippocraticum and I expect Mr. Stanhope to make a full recovery."
Holroyd came to the rail, his face turned away from the two women in their makeshift pool. Nevertheless, Sarah had the impression that he was watching her surreptitiously. His tongue came out to moisten his greedy mouth. "Doctor," he greeted Vallance. "You are needed in the sick berth, sir. Mr. M'Mullins has suffered an injury."
"What sort of injury?" Vallance asked.
"Mr. Nott was aloft, skylarking with the other midshipmen in the mizzen cross-trees, when he jostled a topman who dropped his marlinspike, the clumsy beggar. M'Mullins did not heed the call to 'stand from under' and the sharp end of the spike near took him in the head as he came out of the companionway. A miss from seventy-five feet but as 'twas, M'Mullins has a four-inch gouge out of his arm, and I've a two-inch gouge out of my deck."
"Mr. Evans is capable of tending to the man, but I'd best be on hand to deliver a dose of laudanum tincture to M'Mullins afterwards," Vallance muttered, leaving the rail.
Holroyd lingered. Sarah sank into the water, an instinctive reaction which she knew was not concealing in the least. A surge of acid surged up from her stomach, scorching her throat. He had made no move to force any unwanted attentions on her since the night Vallance had warned him off in the gunroom, and Sarah was never alone these days now that she had Elizabeth for company. Nevertheless, she often caught Holroyd gazing at her with a violent hunger, eating her up with his little piggy eyes in unguarded moments. She felt Elizabeth stiffen. The other woman's fingers fastened around her arm.
"What is it?" Elizabeth whispered. "What is the matter?"
Sarah did not reply. Over the edge of the sailcloth, she glimpsed movement, a cat's paw eddy that disturbed the sea's glassy surface in thin ripples. Her attention was drawn down, beyond the veneer of calm; down below where the water changed from green to blue, and beyond that bluer still, she saw the spirits of the dead.
Standing on one another's shoulders, stacked together without so much as a finger-length between them-old and young, beardless youths and grown men, woman and children, the wicked and the innocent jumbled together heedlessly in a disorder that was also orderly in its neat arrangement. The serried ranks rose tier upon tier, from the unimaginable indigo depths to the sunlit shallows. Sarah's ribcage flexed as she inhaled salt air. Everywhere she looked, she saw spirits whose illusion of flesh was tainted algae green or peacock-blue; she also saw them looking back at her. Thousands of eyes were fastened on Sarah. A frisson meandered along her backbone. Those eyes were black and soulless, void of every emotion save appetite. They were so very cold that she felt the collective gaze as a palpable thing. The sensation was abhorrent, akin to being coated in some repellent substance that clung to her, sticky and vile.
From the deep came Lilias, beautiful Lilias with her coal-dark skin and woolly hair hidden under a Madras cloth. Sarah stared at the dead woman, unable to understand why she was there, rising like a star in the water when she had been buried on land, in a grave dug under a poisonous manchineel tree. Onward the slave's ghost came, floating through the midst of the other spirits. Her white dress flared around her legs as she rose higher and finally stopped, pivoting gracefully in place. Fascinated by equal amounts of horror and morbid curiosity, Sarah could not tear her gaze away when Lilias began to dance.
The woman swayed her hips and shrugged her shoulders in time to the pitch and rhythm of an unheard drum. Her body was ripe, her curves lush, her attitude an invitation to passion. Lilias' head was thrown back, her mouth slack with pleasure. The line of her back undulated like a wave. Watching helplessly, Sarah's pulse throbbed in her head, a dull brazen beat that conjured pain, aversion and desire. How she had wanted this woman, and how she had been repelled by her . . . ! She had struggled with the contradiction for years. Lilias' movements became more languid and sensual. The smell of burning sugar was overwhelming. All else forgotten, Sarah suddenly longed to join Lilias, to plunge into the blood-warm water and let herself fall down, down, down among the dead.
A stinging pain across her cheek brought her back to the living.
"Sarah! For God's sake, what is the matter? Are you well?" It was Elizabeth, pale and pinched with concern. Freckles stood out on the bridge of her nose like drops of ink.
Sarah blinked slowly, feeling drugged and slow. Elizabeth had slapped her. In the water, Lilias had stopped dancing. She was staring up at Sarah, and her gaze was no less black, no less hungry, than the rest of the wait-abouts who were already beginning to fade from view. Fear lodged in Sarah's throat like a stone. She had to look away lest a compulsion to drown seized her again. When she glanced back Lilias was gone, snuffed out as quickly and with as little ceremony as a blown candle flame. The outline of her figure lingered in Sarah's memory. It took a little while longer for the smell of sugar to dissipate. In the meantime, the sky was bleeding from blue to grey, and black thunderheads were piling up on the horizon. A kettledrum of thunder muttered gutturally.
Elizabeth let go of Sarah and called sharply, "Lt. Holroyd, I believe we have had our fill of bathing. If you will be so kind as to withdraw? Officer," she continued, addressing the Marine, "I pray you will inform the bosun, Mr. Parker, that we are prepared to emerge." Her expression gave nothing away, but her eyes promised Sarah an interrogation as soon as they were alone together.
The bosun's silver whistle piped, a series of shrill notes that had crewmen scampering down from the cross-trees and yards so they would not overlook the women. With Elizabeth's help, Sarah ascended the slippery accommodation ladder. She felt clumsy, as if her extremities did not belong to her, and once out of the sea she was dripping wet and cold to the core. In the ship's waist, a small area had been cordoned off with lines and blankets hung to create a private changing room for the ladies. Elizabeth helped her out of the soaked shift and into a dry gown. As the gown was pulled over her head, Sarah heard Holroyd reprimanding some hands for whistling and scratching the backstays, an old sailor's superstition to invoke a stronger breeze. The volume of his voice made her wince. Unlike other officers, he needed no speaking trumpet to be heard from quarterdeck to forecastle.
When they were both dressed, Elizabeth led Sarah aft to the great cabin and made her sit in the Windsor chair. She moved briskly, almost angrily, her bare feet muffled on the canvas drugget that covered the deck. Returning, she thrust a small glass of brandy into Sarah's hand and said, "Drink it."
Sarah obeyed, almost choking on the first liquid fire sip that burned her gullet. Brandy slopped over the rim of the glass and wet her fingers.
Elizabeth stood next to the chair. Worry lines had settled on her face. Sarah dreaded the questions the other woman was sure to ask. After another sip of brandy, she relaxed a trifle. Elizabeth knew nothing about Lilias, knew nothing of Sarah's life on Jamaica apart from the generalities they had both exchanged. Also-and Sarah felt a bit of a fool for not realizing it sooner-Elizabeth was not able to see the wait-abouts. Like most people, the woman dwelled in ignorance of the spiritual world that overlay her own.
"What is wrong, Sarah?" Elizabeth asked. "Back there, in the pool . . . it was like you went away; though your body remained, you were cold and still as death. I called you and called you but you did not answer."
"Lt. Holroyd is a good officer," Sarah said. Her ability to see spirits and put them to rest was a secret faithfully kept; her old nurse had warned her that other people would think she was mad if they knew. "He sometimes admires me overmuch, and I find his attentions to be an embarrassment." She let her voice trail off. Her concern was unfeigned when she glanced at Elizabeth and continued, "I hope by ignoring him he will leave me in peace. Please say nothing to my husband. Lt. Holroyd is young and impetuous, and I do not wish to be the cause of trouble on the ship unless it is warranted."
Elizabeth's countenance hardened. "I thought we were friends," she said at last. "Why are you lying to me? What are you hiding?"
Sarah jerked in startlement. Was she so easy to read? And who was this agate-eyed stranger inhabiting Elizabeth's skin? As if able to discern her very thoughts, Elizabeth went on, "I have an excellent sense for falsehoods, madam. I know when I am being deceived. Did you think to gull me easily?" She shook her head, damp dark curls slithering on her shoulders. "No, what happened in the pool was not Lt. Holroyd's fault. Mind, I've seen the way he looks at you-his dishonorable intentions are under very little guise-and if I were your husband, I would certainly put in at some shore and feed him an ounce of two of lead for the affront. You do nothing to encourage the lieutenant; I've noticed that, too. There is no mistaking the fact that you avoid his company. Nevertheless, I'm certain Holroyd has not abused you outright, for there are . . . certain signs, shall I say, by which a victim of such villainy can be discerned."
Elizabeth paused, studying Sarah. When she spoke again, her tone was softer, appealing rather than commanding. "Lt. Holroyd is not what you fear, not truly. He is not the reason you cry out in the grip of nightmares nearly every evening. Please let me help you," she said. Her fingertips brushed Sarah's cheek, a whisper of a caress that nevertheless made the gooseflesh rise on her skin. Elizabeth leaned closer, so close Sarah could count the thread-like red veins in the whites of her eyes, and said, "I saw something in the water."
Galvanized by shock, Sarah leaped up from the chair, bowling Elizabeth over. The woman fell backwards in a tangle of skirts. The brandy glass dropped from Sarah's hand and miraculously did not shatter but rolled under the desk. It rolled back out again when Orpheus, her upper courses catching the wind that had arrived in advance of the approaching squall, rolled a little on her keel and turned two points to starboard, gaining steerage-way. The glass fetched up against Elizabeth's hand where it was braced against the deck. A trail of spilled brandy glistened in the fading light from the stern gallery windows.
The storm was nearing. Sarah could feel a potential gale crackling in the air around her. Fear hammered at her and stole her breath.
"I saw something, madam, a thing in the sea," Elizabeth said, her face colorless. Resolution could be read in the tension around her mouth and the tightness of her brows. "It was not natural. And I have heard you speak of spirits in your sleep."
"You are mistaken, madam. You saw nothing," Sarah said, forcing the words through stiff lips. Denial was her only chance. "Because there was nothing to see in the water." Sarah had never thought to betray herself involuntarily in her sleep. What did she say during the nightmares she never remembered? Sarah almost asked, then recalled that Elizabeth was angry with her. She tried to steady the apprehension curdled in her belly. "There was nothing to see," she repeated. "And whatever I may say in my sleep . . . that is naught but dreams."
"Liar." Elizabeth said the word flatly, without inflection. Her expression was unreadable, her cheeks mottled white and crimson by some strong emotion. She lay on the deck, on her back with her skirts rucked up to her thighs, staring fixedly at Sarah. One of her bare legs rubbed restlessly against the other.
Caught out, Sarah did not know what to say. Telling the truth was impossible; further lies would only widen the breach between them. Time crawled by, moment by agonizing moment. Liar. That scathing condemnation hurt. Day after day, Elizabeth kept her company, told her stories, read to her while Sarah knitted or sewed. She played cards, sang songs, and related news about the war and the world. They shared confidences as women do, huddled with their heads together at the taffrail, comparing married lives. She considered Elizabeth a friend, although she really wanted something more . . . something forbidden.
Night after night as the Orpheus made sail, Sarah lay on the heap of mattresses in the sleeping-cabin with Elizabeth a warm lump beside her under the blanket, and burned for the other woman. Sarah could not speak of love. She understood desire, the blistering heat of longing, but love was unknown to her. She and Lilias had not been lovers . . . no, never lovers, she thought. Not the way the poets would have it. Now Sarah fantasized about Elizabeth, thrilled to every little touch, cherished the secret attraction. That she might lose Elizabeth's friendship was a devastating thought which gave her pause.
Elizabeth scrambled to her feet. "You may keep your secrets," she said, "and I will keep mine, save one." Her shoulders were rigid.
Sarah opened her mouth to protest, to stutter out another lie, to perhaps make a fool of herself, but Elizabeth marched over, took Sarah by both arms, and silenced her with a kiss. She crushed their mouths together in an act of possession that made Sarah gasp in instant arousal that was painful in its intensity.
It was not a gentle embrace; the kiss struck Sarah like a blow. Elizabeth's grasp was cruel and biting, leaving bruises that ached to the bone. Their teeth clashed painfully. Elizabeth's mouth was brutal, demanding that Sarah respond with a hunger equal to her own. Of their own accord, Sarah's hands slid around the other woman's waist, fingers scrabbling bluntly to find flesh beneath the layers of muslin and cambric. Finally, she took hold of Elizabeth's hair, fisting the coarse curls in a harsh grip, holding the other woman in place. Elizabeth responded by delving into Sarah's mouth with her tongue, the wet caress creating a hollow ache between Sarah's legs, awakening an appetite that had lain dormant since Jamaica. Her inner muscles clenched. Comparisons were odious, but Sarah could not help thinking Lilias had never kissed her like that, like she was chattel being claimed by a jealous mistress. Her body yearned towards Elizabeth, willing and wanting and oh, so wanton.
Sarah groaned and released Elizabeth's hair. Her neck was beginning to ache from the awkward angle. She broke the kiss and pulled back a little, the better to unfasten the cloth-covered buttons that marched down the back of Elizabeth's jaconet gown. A feverish need to touch the other woman's skin made her gestures clumsy. Obviously taking the pulling away for rejection, Elizabeth pushed Sarah back hard. Her eyes glittered. Her mouth was swollen and dark. Saliva and a trace of blood gleamed on her lower lip.
"Do not toy with me, Sarah," Elizabeth said, her voice hoarse. She drew herself up to her full height. "I've seen you watching me as Holroyd watches you." As if to herself, Elizabeth muttered, "By God, I'm not made of stone, and I'm not sorry. You kissed me back." She raised her voice. "You kissed me back." Snatching a shawl from the back of the chair, she stormed out of the cabin, slamming the door behind her.
Left alone, Sarah touched her sore mouth and stood in place like a lack-wit, stunned by the violence of Elizabeth's ardor and by her own response to it. Her body was starved for touch. Elizabeth was like a feast after a famine, filling the awful emptiness that yawned inside her. She was still staring at the bulkhead when the storm announced its arrival with a clap of thunder so loud, she let out a small scream and nearly jumped out of her skin.
Battered by a gale that rendered the world to wet and grey, driven by a single storm sail on her naked spars, Orpheus climbed the slope of a steep wave, the bowsprit stabbing through vapor whipped up by the gusts. At the top of the swell the ship paused and shuddered, lashed by a torrent of warm rain, then came the long downward plunge to the trough where Orpheus heeled, her hawseholes spouting jets of water, her decks smothered knee-deep and her scuppers awash as the leaden sea surged over the bow and swept aft. Wind tore off streamers of foam and sent them rolling through the ship's tops. Lightning's lambent gleam disturbed the thunderclouds and flickered in forks around the mastheads.
Sarah knew what was happening outside; this was not the first storm she had encountered since leaving Jamaica. It required no stretch of imagination on her part to envision the scene, which was a good thing. There were far too many ghosts stuffed into the great cabin for her to worry overmuch about anything happening on the deck above.
Wait-abouts had come in numbers greater than Sarah had ever encountered before. They were crowded into the cabin, all blue and white, bringing freezing cold with them. Sarah desperately sawed at a lump of wood with the clasp-knife, her task made more difficult by the slope of the deck and the numbness of her hands. She had wedged herself into a corner as Orpheus heaved up and down, and had been making a little progress in laying the spirits to rest by her ritual, but her fingers had since lost feeling on account of the low temperature. Sarah fumbled with the knife, scraping the blade clumsily to shape the wooden doll she needed. She winced when the edge slipped and cut into the meat of her palm. Bright blood welled at once, although she felt no pain apart from a sparkling pins-and-needles sensation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a baby clinging to a female ghost's bared breast, suckling fretfully. Its tiny hands were curled into fists that kneaded its mother's pallid phantom-flesh. Sarah felt pity for the infant, born into the world only to die before it had properly lived. There were more children among the wait-abouts. These innocents clung to skirts and peered at her behind trouser legs; they perched upon the furnishings like insubstantial paper cherubs. At least the children were patient, unlike the adults that shuffled closer and crushed around her, exhaling their noxious ætheric vapors, demanding her attention. Sarah paid no heed to the blood that smeared her hand and stained her skirts in dabs and streaks. She carved as quickly as her numb fingers allowed, hunching her shoulders as a belligerent male spirit swooped towards her, his cobalt lips parted to show the black wriggling worm of his tongue. A female termagant slashed at Sarah's face with her fingernails, dagger-points of incorporeal ice. A drowned sailor ogled her lewdly, his eyes gleaming like mother-of-pearl. The loathsome scent of death filled her lungs, thick as treacle.
The knife slipped again, making a bloody furrow on her wrist. Sarah hissed, dismayed. It was a deeper cut than the other, and more painful, too. She pressed her thumb hard against the wound. Orpheus lay over more steeply, staggering against the fierce gale. Sarah tried to brace herself to keep from sliding across the cabin. Her head ached.
The motion of the ship was sluggish as if it fought contradictory winds. Sarah gulped in air, suppressing burgeoning panic. The ghosts were watching her with their hungry eyes, each one greedy for release. Their voices were a constant if indistinct susurration that she could make out above the shriek of the storm and the high-pitched creaking groan of Orpheus' keel as waves beat upon it like giant fists. Sarah trembled. The urgency she felt was at a fever pitch, tension sawing at her. Even her teeth seemed to be humming with the strain of so much expectation, such impatient regard. She worked quickly but in her agitation, she miscalculated and the tip of the blade snapped off. Sarah's nerve broke, too.
"Leave me alone!" she screamed at the wait-abouts, her arms flailing in a useless attempt to shove them away. It was like trying to grasp smoke. "Leave me alone!"
The door wrenched open with a loud bang; simultaneously, Orpheus slewed around nearly three full points, bucking and lurching to larboard. A sheet of water cascaded through the doorway. Sarah lost her grip and slid over the soaked canvas drugget, fetching up with a crash against the bulkhead that left her dazed, a paralyzing twang in her arm running from banged elbow to fingertip. Wind howled inside, ruffling the charts from the table and sending them flying. Sarah lay on her back, drenched to the skin, looking at the flapping charts that darted amid the deckhead beams like pallid bats.
She turned her head to see that Elizabeth had come into the cabin and was splashing through the shallow film of water, her jaconet skirts hauled up nearly to her waist. Elizabeth looked frightened, which bemused Sarah until her head cleared and she realized with dawning horror that the other woman could see . . . perhaps not the ghosts, not in their multitudes, but she was definitely sensing a presencethat caused her to blanch. Their eyes met. Sarah put out a hand to stop her, but Elizabeth misinterpreted the gesture.
"Stay there! I will come to you." she called. Elizabeth continued sloshing across the cabin, her progress hampered by Orpheus' next wild storm-toss. She caught herself against the desk and went on undisturbed by the azure-and-pearl spirits who ignored her as loftily as she ignored them. When Elizabeth reached Sarah, she bent and took her injured hand, turning it over to examine the wounds. "Oh, dear girl, what have you done?" she murmured.
Sarah struggled to a sitting position. "It was an accident," she said, following Elizabeth's gaze to the gash on her wrist that was oozing dark beads of blood. The cut on her palm was shallower and had already stopped bleeding; washed clean by seawater, the slash resembled a lipless mouth parted slightly as if for speech. She let Elizabeth help her rise to her feet. Sarah glanced around and noticed with disquiet that the ghosts were gone. Some coldness lingered, reinforced by the gale that continued to smash against the ship, but at least her breath was no longer a white misty curl. She had the notion that the sea was angered; it had risen in its fury to destroy Orpheus, to bash the ship open and pluck Sarah forth to devour her, bones and all, as punishment for her failure to lay the dead to rest.
Elizabeth helped Sarah rise from the floor. Sarah's sopping skirts clung to her legs; the clamminess made her feel even colder. She stepped over the coffin doll and the clasp-knife that lay abandoned near the bulkhead. In the sleeping cabin, water had soaked only the bottom of the mattress pile. Elizabeth guided Sarah to stand near the tightly covered scuttle while she crouched to rummage in her clothes' chest. She returned bearing a handful of clean rags such as women use during their moon-time. Elizabeth soon had a makeshift bandage tied around Sarah's wrist, thickly padded to absorb the blood.
"There," Elizabeth said, tying a final knot and tucking the ends under neatly. "That ought to preserve you till Dr. Vallance is able to see to your wound properly. After the storm, I will accompany you to the sick-bay." She looked at Sarah and her gaze softened. "I apologize for my earlier behavior. I should not have . . . "
Sarah hastily stifled whatever Elizabeth was about to say by pressing her fingertips against the other woman's mouth. "Please do not apologize for kissing me," she said. "I don't think I could bear it."
Elizabeth moved her head slightly. She seemed about to speak further but paused, and finally said in a tone that brooked no debate, "You're soaked through. Put on a dry gown."
The motions of the ship calmed as the storm began to abate. Sarah removed her wet dress and her undergarments, shivering as the air struck her. She did not try to cover herself from Elizabeth's gaze. It was difficult not to cross her arms over her chest or lower her hands to cup the fluff between her legs. The other woman's gaze was as palpable as silk gliding over her naked skin and made her feel very self-conscious. Sarah knew she was too thin for fashion, her curves too meager, her hips too boyish. She forced herself to go to her own trunk. Her feet felt frozen, nerves deadened by the water that lapped at her toes.
Choosing a cotton gown printed with dainty red stars and a petticoat to wear beneath, Sarah got dressed, aware that Elizabeth was still watching her. When she finished, she knotted up the tail of her dress like a washerwoman to keep it from trailing on the flooded floor. This left her legs exposed to mid-thigh. Sarah found her shawl with the pinecone border and wrapped it around her shoulders before turning to face Elizabeth.
"You're an apparitionist," Elizabeth said.
It was not a question, but Sarah answered anyway, suppressing a twinge of guilt at revealing her long-kept secret. "Yes," she said, smoothing a bit of the shawl's fringe with the flat of her hand. "I see spirits. Ghosts. Not . . . not other spirits, not demons or angels. Only souls who have died at sea come to me."
"I would say you do considerably more than see dead souls, madam." Elizabeth's tone was dry. She went on, "I saw a woman once . . . a French woman living in London. A fortune-teller, among other things. She trapped spirits in a skull-shaped box. For a shilling, one could hear their voices-men's, women's, children's, even babes crying. The wailing of souls in Purgatory, she used to say."
Sarah shrugged, unimpressed. "The dead come to me for peace."
"And you give them your blood."
"No." Realizing this bald-faced denial sounded very much like a lie given the cuts on her wrist and palm, Sarah explained further, "The knife truly slipped. I would not harm myself on purpose." It was odd, confiding to a virtual stranger. She could not look at Elizabeth while she spoke. "I make dolls. Coffin dolls, my nurse used to call them. She taught me what to do when the wait-abouts come. There's a ritual I must perform. It's nothing un-Christian; I call upon no uncanny powers save the talent God gave me."
Elizabeth took a step forward. She curled her hand around Sarah's injured wrist, fingers laying lightly where blood was blooming through the layers of white bandages. "Even so, I believe it hurts you."
"Nothing I cannot withstand." Sarah did not want to be pitied. "What did you see in the water? When we were bathing in the sea?"
"I misspoke earlier, for in truth I saw nothing. I sensed animosity, hostile eyes watching me from the water. That is a talent of mine, to know when another has ill intentions towards me, no matter the mask they wear to the contrary. This sensitivity works as well with apparitions as with living persons." Elizabeth paused. "What would happen if you refused to perform your ritual for these spirits of yours?"
Sarah's eyes flew open wide. "I cannot refuse," she said. At the sharpening of Elizabeth's expression, Sarah added a hasty explanation, "Terrible things happen when wait-abouts are kept waiting." She winced, having no idea what was going to happen aboard Orpheus since the ghosts had disappeared from the cabin without achieving satisfaction. Would they return? Would they be angry? At least Lilias had not been among them.
"Terrible things? Tell me."
Her heart clenched in her chest. "They can become malicious," Sarah said slowly. She had never spoken on the subject, and the words did not come easily to her. "Being dead, they have very little mercy for the living."
"I thought there was something with you in the cabin when I came in," Elizabeth confessed. "A lurking appetite . . . something hungry and unclean."
"The wait-abouts are trapped here. I set them free and give them peace."
"And you give them that with your dolls?"
Elizabeth looked at Sarah from beneath her lowered brows. Silence stretched between them. At last, Elizabeth asked, "Shall I give you one of my secrets in exchange?" Without waiting for an answer, she went on, "You mustn't reveal it to anyone, Sarah. Not to your husband, not to your relations, your friends or any of your connections. This is a confidence that requires keeping or there could be deadly consequences."
The woman sounded utterly serious. Sarah studied Elizabeth's face, the fine lines that had deepened on her brow. It was touching to be the recipient of so much trust. She nodded, wondering what secret Elizabeth might be hiding. An affaire de coeur, perhaps? A child born after her husband's demise? Some other scandal? But she could not imagine how any of those circumstances might cause the sort of trouble that Elizabeth was insinuating.
"I am a spy," Elizabeth leaned in and whispered. Something of Sarah's confusion must have shown on her face, for the woman continued, "There is a Royalist faction in France that wish to make an end to Napoleon Bonaparte and his Consulate by any means. Our government-that is, the English government-are sympathetic to the Royalist cause and Monsieur Pretender. I was in Strasbourg on the instructions of Mr. Windham, His Majesty's Secretary of War. A few months ago, Georges Cadoudal, a Royalist leader, returned to France with twenty thousand pounds sterling; he has promised to deliver a coup essential against the Corsican on Christmas Eve at the Opéra, during the premiere of Haydn's Die Schöpfung. The intelligence regarding la machine infernalemust reach Britain as soon as can be managed."
Sarah's tendency was to scoff-the story sounded too fantastic to be believed-but Elizabeth seemed sincere. Indeed, there was nothing in her expression or manner to suggest that she was telling anything other than the ungilded truth. She had not known the woman to be a liar. Was the notion of Elizabeth acting as a spy so much more implausible than her own experiences as an apparitionist? Sarah noticed that Elizabeth was watching for her reaction.
"If you were in Strasbourg and had to return to England, why did you travel to Nassau first?" she asked.
Elizabeth let out a breath, obviously relieved to be believed. A tiny smile curled up the corners of her mouth, and her shoulders relaxed. "Strasbourg is a hot-bed of intrigue which grew too hot for me when I learned the agent I contacted had been put under surveillance on the order of M. Fouché, Napoleon's spy-master. I was passing as a Frenchwoman but I had to leave at once or risk being captured and my disguise exposed. The first ship whose captain would allow me to book passage was bound for Guadeloupe. I suppose most captains would be suspicious of a woman traveling alone, but my maid died of a putrid fever in Amiens and I'd had no time to replace her. I paid him in gold to sail on the morning tide." She chuckled. "Truth to be told, I was half convinced the man might cut my throat and toss me overboard as soon as we were in open waters, but he kept his word.
"From Guadeloupe, I hired a fishing boat to take me to Jamaica; I knew the Royal Mail packet called there before its return trip to London. Through luck, I managed to pick up the packet in New Providence, and caught Orpheus outbound from the islands. I have a letter from the Admiralty, signed by the Lord High Admiral Sir George Spencer himself, requiring any British captain to render me aid as required. I used it to persuade your husband to call off his hunt for prizes and transport me to England. The rest you know."
Sarah had a dozen more questions to ask Elizabeth-she had not even known there were such things as female intelligence agents-however, their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Captain Jeffcott, who strode into the cabin without ceremony. His uniform was covered by a tarpaulin jacket. He shook his head at the floor, awash in seawater and littered with damaged charts. "I hope you are both well," he said.
Sarah nodded, uncomfortably aware that despite any desire she had for Elizabeth, she was still a married woman. "We are well, sir," she answered.
"I will send for Catchpole to swab out the cabin. The cook has been ordered to re-light the galley fires, so there will be a hot meal soon. Any of your garments that have been wetted may be hung out to dry on deck." His gaze went to Elizabeth, then returned to Sarah. Was she imagining a glint of speculation in his steady regard? Did he suspect there was a closeness between herself and Elizabeth that went beyond friendship? "If the winds holds," he said, "I expect to reach Ponta Delgada for re-provisioning within the next two days."
"And from thence to England?" Elizabeth asked.
"Of a certainty, madam," Jeffcott said. His waterproof jacket was shiny with rain; his graying hair saturated and slick. He raised his eyebrows at Sarah's bandaged wrist. "You are injured, Mrs. Jeffcott. I trust the wound is not serious?"
"It is nothing. An accident brought about by carelessness," Sarah said.
"Shall I summon Dr. Vallance? He is in the sick-bay treating a hernia, however . . . "
"That is unnecessary, sir. I will seek the doctor out at a more convenient time. As you see, Mrs. Gilliard has treated the injury."
"So long as your health is not adversely affected, I will not insist. I shall inform Dr. Vallance to expect you in the sick-berth anon." Jeffcott took Sarah's hand and bowed over it, acting the perfect gentleman as he had done since her father proposed their marriage to him. He exited the cabin, his back straight-a fine figure of a man for his age, kind and generous, deserving of a woman's devotion . . . except Sarah did not want him. She had never suffered the least little thrill of desire for Jeffcott. Thank God he had not insisted on his marital rights, assuring Sarah that he would never touch her without her permission. Had he behaved brutishly, she thought she would have gone mad.
Elizabeth touched the hand that Jeffcott had bowed over. "You will say nothing to your husband?"
"I've promised to keep your confidence, and I will." Sarah stepped away, picked up the knife and the half-finished doll, and put them into the desk drawer.
"And I will keep yours." Elizabeth's smile was like sunshine. As if in emulation, the clouds outside parted to allow a burst of light to gleam through the stern windows, turning Elizabeth's freckled skin to gold.
Jeffcott was well known in Ponta Delgada; upon reaching the port, he was able to get provisions aboard without too much delay, including fresh water barrels and two more hens so the ladies might have an egg each to break their fasts. There was not a great deal needed since Orpheus had re-victualled in Barbados not that long ago. The crewmen did not receive liberty and there was some grumbling, but Holroyd kept the men in line by reminding them that besides earthquakes and bull baiting, São Miguel was well-known for the inhabitant's eagerness to cheat strangers to their island, especially foreign sailors.
Sarah and Elizabeth remained aboard as well, although the captain permitted them to enjoy fresh air on the poop deck beneath an awning rigged to protect them from the weather. Much to her disappointment, Elizabeth did not seem inclined to repeat the kiss that had left Sarah shaken and aching with need. The bruises on her arms were violet edging to green, proof that Elizabeth had touched her even if she acted as if nothing had happened between them. Sarah was afraid to press the issue. During the day it was easier to pretend Elizabeth was only a friend as they chatted or took turns around the deck arm in arm. At night, though, in the darkest middle watches, Sarah huddled under the blanket with Elizabeth's tormenting presence just a hand's breadth away, the whole bed smelling of Queen of Hungary's water and feminine musk. The ghastly dilemma made it difficult to sleep, except when exhaustion claimed her; she was in an agony of hope that Elizabeth would turn and embrace her, and an agony of despair that the woman would do no such thing.
Lacking any cue, Sarah decided that perhaps Elizabeth believed the kiss was a mistake. The conclusion created a tenderly painful place inside her. Sarah could only try not to let her frustrated desire and hurt feelings show. She did not make reproachful glances, or sulk, or pine too obviously. She had some little pride left, after all.
Orpheus was three days out of São Miguel when Joe Dandyfunk went missing.