Chapter 15

Ever since Georgiana had come out into society, she had become accustomed to the hours of her class, of dining at six in the country and seven or eight in town, staying up as late as her evening entertainments required and sleeping late in the morning to accommodate for it. Even on board the Caroline, where the naval day began at noon but the ship's activity, which never really ceased, increased significantly with daylight, she still enjoyed the luxury of sleeping late.

On one morning, however, her sleep was violently interrupted with the pounding of a drum, shortly followed by Moll's rushing into the cabin and telling her she must rise immediately and dress, for the ship was beating to quarters. In groggy confusion, Georgiana came awkwardly over the side of her cot and found Moll felt sufficiently rushed to put her stays, petticoat, and dress on over Georgiana's nightgown, rather than allowing her to change into a shift.

The reason for this became apparent when Moll, feeling her mistress sufficiently dressed, stuck her head outside the cabin door and said it could be cleared now. Immediately, men carried the bulkheads that made up the very walls of the cabin away, and then began to work on the furniture and trunks stored within, taking them down to the hold.

"Moll, what is happening?" Georgiana asked, looking down the length of the ship, where the men were running their guns out and checking their sights and locks.

"From me understanding, we came across a slaver at dawn an' gave chase, though t'was little change of our catchin' her. But then we got in a lucky shot with one o' the bow chasers – the captain – I'm sorry, Commodore Stanton – himself aimed it, Bowden said – and it took out one o' her spars, 'an that slowed her down enough for us to have hope of catching her."

This was far from Georgiana's first experience in the ship's beating to quarters, although usually it was done much later in the day and prefaced the ship's practice on the great guns, something Matthew insisted on doing more days than he did not, even with Britain at peace. In the first few episodes of the great gun practice, Georgiana and the other women on the ship had been required to practice going to the forepeak, their place during a battle, if such an unlikely event was ever to occur. Once it had become clear they could make their way thither quickly, they had been allowed to observe the exercise, Georgiana standing beside Matthew while he explained to her what the gun crews were doing. This was followed by an impossibly loud chain of firing that inevitably led to the complete destruction of whatever target had been towed out: Matthew took the fighting capabilities of his ship very seriously, even in peacetime.

"Does Captain Stanton intend we should go to the forepeak immediately?" Georgiana asked.

Moll looked lost as to an answer, but was saved when Bowden came leaping down the companion-ladder, sighted his mistress, and said, "Milady, with the captain's compliments, 'tis safe enough still to go on deck for now so he may attend ye, if ye wish."

"Thank you, Bowden, and yes, I would wish to see Captain Stanton this morning, and would appreciate it if you attend me there," Georgiana said in the most formal tone she could muster, wishing to recall him to his duty, for she feared he had become too caught up in this ship they were chasing and – if left unchecked – might put himself in a more dangerous position where he could lose the sight of his good eye.

She took his arm to where Matthew was standing at the front of the ship, and he bowed to his master, as Matthew welcomed Georgiana. "Good morning, dearest. You are safe enough here for now, for our prey, whoever she is, has no stern chasers. I hope you were not roused too badly by our beating to quarters. I did not believe we would need to, until a lucky shot hit home."

"Most of my startling was by Moll, and she would not allow them to break down the cabin until I was ready," Georgiana said. "I am sure I was the cause of some consternation by your crew for slowing their progress. Indeed, all of your men seem particularly zealous today."

"Ah yes, they are undoubtedly pleased by this. All men have some degree of piratical nature," he said, "and this has roused the Carolines's like nothing else could. For the ship before us is most likely a slaver, and therefore one of the few lawful prizes left upon the oceans."

After he spoke, Georgiana turned her attention more thoroughly upon the slave ship he mentioned. It was strange enough after such blue water sailing to even see another ship, but to see one with the panicked motions of an attempted escape from the men upon its decks was still more strange.

How long she stood there beside Matthew, watching as they drew gradually closer to the other ship, Georgiana did not know. The first event that punctuated this time of waiting was when the Caroline was clearly drawing closer, and jets of water came to be seen on either side of the ship before them.

"My God, they are starting their water," Matthew said, in horrified accents. "I pray we catch them now, for if we do not, I know not how they expect their cargo to survive. They wish to escape capture themselves, and they will commit nothing short of murder, to do it."

Georgiana was only beginning to grasp what Matthew was speaking about, this ship's cargo. The slave trade had always been a distant and historic thing for her – her family had never had interests in the West Indies, and she knew her father and brother had fully supported Wilberforce, but that was the extent to which they had ever spoken of it. So she was slow in fully grasping what Matthew spoke of, this cargo that required the water that was currently being pumped out over the sides of the ship, water that should have kept men alive, men who were bound for the Americas as slaves. It had not rained since they had crossed the equator and did not seem likely to, and that was the only hope the slave ship now had of water, unless it returned to Africa.

"If they are afraid enough to start their water, they may be afraid enough to turn and fight," Matthew said. "I believe you should go below now – I will attend you there."

Matthew's attending of her there took some time, for there were a few gun crews near them that Matthew would give encouraging words to, and Georgiana noted that most of these men did seem to have a sudden piratical look to them, perhaps because many had already stripped to their waists and tied bandannas about their heads to prevent the sweat running in their eyes. When Georgiana and Matthew reached the forepeak, she found most of the men of the embassy standing near the entrance, aside from those few brazen men who had remained on deck, wishing to see a naval battle for themselves. Beyond all of them, at the entrance, stood Bowden with his arms crossed, looking a little sullen. This sullenness was somewhat alleviated by Matthew's thanking him for looking after Lady Stanton during the battle, and reminder that as Bowden had been entered as a captain's servant on the ship's books, he would still share in any prize money.

Matthew clasped her hand before Georgiana could crouch down and make her way into the forepeak, where the other ladies were already gathered. Although there were too many people around them to say anything intimate, Georgiana saw all she needed to in his eyes, and thought certain he did in hers, as well.

"There is danger in any engagement," he said, reassuringly, "but this ship is no Polonais."

"Still, please be safe," she murmured, and crawled in to take up a place between Moll and Mrs. Travis. She could not help but think of having dreamt of being in this situation once before, and what the outcome of it had been in her dreams – Matthew being carried down on the arms of his men: bleeding, badly injured, and hardly conscious. She shuddered, and felt some comfort when Mrs. Travis patted her hand.

They waited for what seemed a very long time, silent, seated on the cushions there and watching the lone lantern above their heads swinging to and fro with the swell. The Caroline's bow chasers could be heard firing continuously and were eventually punctuated by the sound of distant firing from the other ship, and crunching and crashing noises as some of the slaver's shots hit the Caroline. Then there came a perceptible change in the ship's motion, and one by one above their heads, the great guns went off. Following this, perhaps a minute of silence, and then cheering.

"I believe she'll have struck, now," said Mrs. Travis, patting Georgiana's hand again.

Mrs. Travis's conjecture was confirmed by Bowden, who stuck his head and one muscular arm in and said, "She's struck, and 'tis safe for the ladies to come out."

It seemed they were all waiting for Georgiana to go first, although she thought this an absurd time to observe precedence, but she did so, taking his arm to rise and thanking Bowden particularly as she did so for having stayed with them through the battle to see to their safety, which seemed to further mollify him.

The men from the embassy had already dispersed, excepting Mr. Akers, the surgeon, who was assisting Clerkwell on the operating table, for it seemed there had been some injuries even in so short an engagement. Georgiana made her way up one companion-ladder to the berth deck, very nearly empty at this time, and then another, to the gun-deck, where a faint haze of smoke and the scent of gunpowder lingered, even from just one broadside. The final companion-ladder, and she was out on the main deck, blinking in the bright sunlight, Lieutenant Egerton running over to her.

"Lady Stanton! Captain Stanton is over on the prize, but I think he would rather you remain below, rather than see – "

It was too late. Georgiana's gaze had already turned towards the Caroline's prize, and Egerton's words only served as a further lure. The slave ship was smaller than the frigate, its deck noticeably lower than where she stood. Upon this deck, a first few men had already been released, and more were following – thin, naked men, their skin gray and ashen except around their wrists and ankles, where it erupted into sores and blood. Georgiana almost wept to see it, and this was even before she sighted some of the Carolines carrying up the bodies and laying them neatly in a row at the stern of the ship.

Following the sight of this, Georgiana found herself stumbling toward the rail of the frigate and retching overboard. This was the first time she could ever remember doing so without cause of being pregnant – for that she most certainly was not – and merely over the horror of what she had seen. It seemed Lieutenant Egerton had sent someone for whatever drink was nearest at hand, for when she had finished and rose upright, he handed her a mug and she drank without asking what it was. It turned out to be bosun's grog, and for a moment she thought she would not keep it down, but once it had burned her belly well enough, she found she felt a little better.

"I think Captain Stanton would rather you had not seen that," Lieutenant Egerton repeated, weakly, taking the mug from her hand.

"Those men! Those poor men!" she exclaimed, stealing another glance at the slave ship to find that they had brought up more bodies, and there were now women also on deck, all those who could take it being offered water by one of the midshipmen.

"It is an atrocity," Egerton affirmed. "Yet we have stopped this one, at least, and those who have survived will not suffer the remainder of the passage, nor be sold into slavery. We shall send the prize to Freetown, and they will be released."

"Thank God for that," Georgiana said. "But what of the ships that get through?"

"I pray there will be fewer and fewer of them, for with the war over the navy can now turn more resources to stopping the trade."

"I pray there will be, too," she responded, weakly.

Egerton, seeing Bowden had followed his mistress to the deck, requested he see her back to her cabin to rest. It was not so much rest Georgiana needed, but time alone to process what she had seen was desirable, and she took up Bowden's arm without protest, certain Lieutenant Egerton had more to do about the ship than look after her. Once she had been seated there, Bowden brought her a glass of wine. She drank a little of it, but found herself overwhelmed with reflections of what she had seen, and had a good long cry over it. Only then could she approach it with a bit more sanguine nature, as Lieutenant Egerton had, and think that at least in the vast ocean, they had found this one ship, and freed those that had survived of this set of men and women.

Matthew burst in not long after she had reached this point, saying, "Georgiana? I was told you had taken ill."

"I am not ill," she reassured him. "I was sick, earlier, but it was only for sight of that ship."

"Oh, dearest, I am sorry – I should have warned you not to look at it."

"Please do not apologise, for I am glad that I did. It was horrible to see, but I would rather have seen it and better understood the horrors of the trade, than have been kept protected below decks. I am only a little embarrassed at having been so afflicted by the sight."

"Do not be, for you are far from the only person to be ill at the sight of what you have seen today. I very nearly lost my own stomach when we got below decks on that miserable ship," he said, and Georgiana realised he looked rather unwell himself.

Georgiana offered him her half-drank glass and watched as he smelled deeply of the wine before tossing the rest back in one gulp. "Thank you, dearest, I'll have Bowden bring you another," he said.

"Do not bother – I do not think I should drink anything more until I eat a little, and I am not yet sure my stomach is up to eating."

"Did you ever break your fast today?"

"I did not, but that hardly seems a deprivation now."

"Still, let me have Bowden bring you some tea and gruel – they are making it up in great quantities for those on the slave ship."

"A little tea does sound good, but none of the gruel, yet – not until those poor men and women have had a chance to eat their fill."

"Very well," he said. "And I will have Hawke pass the word that we shall postpone tonight's dinner until tomorrow. There is still too much to be done before we can get that ship under way again."

Georgiana was brought her gruel late in the evening – Matthew had been serious about her request – and ate it with little enthusiasm. Moll came to change her, replacing the nightgown she had worn all day with a fresh one, and leaving her with a solemn curtsy. Whether Moll had also seen the deck of the slave ship or whether this was simply a continuation of her subdued demeanour since her attack, Georgiana could not tell.

She became aware of some purposeful movement of the ship, the deck beneath her feet no longer wallowing in the swell, and instead drifting forward. Some time after this, Matthew came into their cabin.

"I did not think you would still be awake," he said, proceeding to unceremoniously divest himself of all but his shirt and breeches, tossing his uniform jacket over one of their trunks.

"I hoped to see you before I went to bed," Georgiana said. She knew not how to describe that after seeing the results of such inhumanity, she needed a human connection with that person in the world she was most intimate with.

"Well, I had not expected to see you awake, but I am glad of it all the same," he said, holding out his arms to her.

Georgiana rose from the chair in which she had been sitting, in contemplation, for many hours, and all but threw herself into his embrace. She had never felt so blessed as she did now.

"We shall do the funerals tomorrow," Matthew said. "I doubt that any of those who died were Christians, but they shall have a Christian burial at sea, all the same."

"When shall you hold the funerals?"

"At four bells in the forenoon watch, unless we are required for some reason or other to postpone," he said. "Georgiana, I know you will be required to remain below during the funerals, and I would beg you not to look out any of the gun ports, for I would hate for you to have a glimpse of what I fear will happen. Sharks follow slavers because they have become accustomed to having a certain number of dead thrown overboard regularly, and we have seen several still following the Lorraine, which means there may be many more below the surface."

Georgiana shuddered at the thought of this, and was glad that although their embrace had loosened, his hands still clung faintly to her hips.

"At least this does allow me to deal with Holmes in a more expedient manner than I had otherwise expected," Matthew said, perhaps to distract her, perhaps because he wished to discuss the topic.

"What do you mean?"

"He shall take the Lorraine in to Freetown. It is highly unusual for a first lieutenant to take a prize into port when it is unlikely he shall ever catch up with his ship, but it is at least less suspicious than his missing the Blue Peter at the Cape, particularly when our ship is unexpectedly bound for China. I presume he shall be able to conjure up some reason for not wishing to go farther abroad. And it shall give Grant a better chance at his step – a better chance than I ever would have thought when he joined the ship."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Once Holmes has left with the prize, I shall make Grant acting third lieutenant, in his stead. It is the best way a man with little interest can gain a promotion – indeed, it is how Captain Ramsey got his step – but I never would have thought things would line up in such a way that he could be made this early in the journey. With any luck, my acting order shall be confirmed by the admiral at the Cape, and Grant will thus be a lieutenant, which he should have been these many years."

"Oh, that would be such a good thing to see."

"There is a great deal of goodness that has happened today, including that."

"What do you mean?"

"I believe in God and in his power, but I do not share the belief of some others, that he actively intervenes in battles. How should God decide where to stand in man's wars, when there are both good and bad men on either side, who find themselves in a situation where they must seek to kill each other?" Matthew said. "But slave ships are much better caught near the coast. So in this instance, when we should wake on a day of blue-water sailing to find such a ship before us, when a lucky shot should slow her pace, well, I cannot help but think that God has found this battle, this cause, worthy of some intervention, and that we were meant to free those men and women."

"I think you are right," Georgiana said, for what he said most succinctly reflected her own ruminations, through the later course of the day. "Matthew, what will become of them, when they are brought to Freetown?"

"They shall be released, of course."

"But as they are now, without clothes, or even a few pennies for food?"

"Ah, that I must admit I do not know very much about. You are right to think of it, Georgiana."

"Could we send something with them, to re-establish them?

Matthew replied that they could and that it would be honourable to do so, but it became clear that he did not wish for any money to be sent in care of Lieutenant Holmes. It would be better, he said, to enclose a banknote in a letter to the governor, and send it in the care of one of the reliable hands that must, unfortunately, form part of the prize crew, for while Matthew could ill-spare them, he did not trust sending off Holmes with the dregs of his crew. Nor did he know who the governor was, currently, but he thought Lord Amherst might, and promised to ask him in the morning. With this settled, Georgiana felt the fatigue she had been ignoring for some time overwhelming her, and this must have been noticeable, for he asked if she wished to retire.

Georgiana responded that she did, and he assisted her up into her cot, then clambered into his own with none of the awkwardness Georgiana generally struggled with, in reaching her own place of sleeping. She missed those days when their cots had been joined together, and missed those things they had done, when their cots were joined together. But after her miscarriage, she and Matthew had agreed they should take a long break from marital relations, to allow her womb time to heal, and he had proposed this should lessen the temptation for both of them. Georgiana knew there certain things that could be done, without risking a child, however, and she was beginning to wish she had proposed they leave the cots together so that at least they might have those pleasures. This was not the night to raise such a topic, however, and so she said her good-night to him, and sought to make herself as comfortable as she could be, in her lonely cot.

Lord Amherst, upon Matthew's application, did know that the present governor of Sierra Leone was Charles Macarthy. The baron claimed no acquaintance with Macarthy, although, upon hearing of the purpose of Matthew's letter, he did handsomely insist on including a banknote of his own. Thus Matthew was required to write a letter blind of acquaintance, although he thought it appropriate enough, as correspondence from a Royal Navy captain to the governor of a present colony. The letter requested the governor's assistance in seeing the money from the banknotes put to food and clothing for the freed slaves, or distributed equally among them, depending on what the governor thought best. It was quite a lot to put in the hands of someone they had never met, but Georgiana and Matthew thought it the best thing possible, under the circumstances.

The letter was given over to the oldest, soberest, and most reliable of the men chosen from among the prize crew, with instructions that it was to be delivered without delay to the governor, and a few shillings for the seaman's trouble, to be put towards his entertainment once the task was done. That man was standing on the deck of the slaver alongside the rest of the prize crew and Lieutenant Holmes, who looked about him with an expression of mild disgust.

Now that there was a chaplain on board the ship with the embassy, Mr. Griffith, there was a degree more delicacy in determining if Matthew should continue to bear the responsibility for religious ceremonies. Mr. Griffith had taken on the Sunday services, and with Matthew's blessing, took charge of the funerals as well. When the time came for them, Georgiana sat in the great cabin, alone, solemnly listening to Mr. Griffith give the service she could not attend:

"We therefore commit their Bodies to the Deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body (when the sea shall give up her dead) and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile body, that it may be like his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself."

Georgiana did as she had promised and did not look out through the gunports, but she could not avert her ears, and so could not but avoid hearing the noise coming from beside the Caroline, a certain thrashing that indicated the burial was not at all peaceful.

The Caroline and the Lorraine eventually outsailed this unrest, the two ships diverging, the Lorraine on her easterly course, the Caroline heading towards the southeast, the Cape, and a rendezvous with the other ships of her convoy.