Fic: Crossing the Bar (30/?)
Characters: Norrington, the crew of the Dauntless , Jack Sparrow, and the crew of the Black Pearl
Pairing: Jack/Anamaria somewhat; Jack/Pearl definitely
Disclaimer: The characters of PotC! She's taken them! Get after her, you feckless pack of ingrates!
Summary: Norrington has a decision to make. In the process memories of the past are dredged up. I owe those memories to Alex Beecroft and her wonderful story "Mutiny on the Dauntless." The story no longer exists on the internet, so I have only my admittedly foggy recollection to go on; however, that back story has always remained part of my personal PotC canon. Many thanks to Alex for her permission to reference her work. Every once in awhile, I have to write some raving sailing. Norrington has finally got the Black Pearl trapped. Jack is bound to do something crazy, but will it be the last thing he does? Today's title is from Troilus and Cressidaby William Shakespeare.
Thank you very much Geekmama for the beta help.
30 Who Holds His Honour Higher Than His Ease
The sea was swathed in rich twilight when Commodore Norrington returned to his cabin. The lanterns were lit, giving a warm glow to the room, but he took no comfort in them. Choosing a volume from his library, Norrington settled at his desk and tried to immerse himself in a book, attempting to evade the raging pursuit of his own thoughts.
By the fourth bell of the first dog watch, he realized that he had no recollection of what he had been reading.
The soft knock on his door was a welcome interruption.
Upon his invitation, Theodore Groves entered and approached the commodore's desk.
"What is it, Lieutenant?" Norrington asked. "Should you not be off duty now?"
Groves did not answer his question, nor did he seat himself when Norrington offered him the other chair. There was an unaccustomed heaviness about his normally buoyant lieutenant.
Norrington braced himself as though expecting a blow, determined not to shy away from what promised to be a painful conversation.
"Did you inform Jip of the penalty for his actions?" Groves asked.
"I did," Norrington responded, his stomach twisting at the memory.
"How did he take it?"
"He argues that he actually preserved the lives of the Dauntless' crew by preventing that battle," Norrington said. "As for the sentence, he seems unconcerned. I left him praising the Almighty for delivering Jack Sparrow from the fell intentions of the Royal Navy."
For once he had surprised Groves.
"That . . . is rather unexpected." The lieutenant raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, apparently Sparrow did not entirely neglect the child's spiritual education, however unusual it might have been. He will be prepared to receive what comfort our chaplain can give before . . ." Norrington found his voice betraying him. "I do not think he comprehends. . . . Oh God, Theodore. How can I do this?"
"Must you do this?" Groves asked, sympathetic but also gently pressing. "Can you chart no other course?"
Norrington took a firm grip on his composure. "We have already been over this, Lieutenant. Jip is not an infant, under the age of seven, to be pardoned because he is considered incapable of understanding his actions. Granted, he is not over the age of fourteen, to be without question considered an adult. And yet the law is clear. Malitia supplet aetatem. Malice supplies the age. Of his intent to sabotage the Dauntless, there can be no doubt."
For a moment Groves' dark, troubled eyes met Norrington's. Then the lieutenant squared his shoulders as though adjusting his course to a new wind. "Might I offer a possible alternative to execution, one that will not only insure that Jip's crimes are punished, but also, and more importantly, that he does not commit their like again?" he asked.
"I should receive such an alternative with immense gratitude," Norrington said in all sincerity.
Groves walked over to the window and gazed thoughtfully into the gathering darkness. "Have you noticed," he said, "that while Jip's actions have been entirely hostile towards the Royal Navy, he is nevertheless not a selfish child? Every crime he has committed has been against his own best interests, even actively opposed to his comfort. He could very easily have allowed the good doctor to care for him like the returned prodigal. Yet what does he do? Only the very worst thing he can for his own self-preservation—put his life and his health at risk to stop this ship, even though anything he does to us he does equally to himself. If we sink, he sinks. If we are blasted to pieces while our spiked guns cannot fire, he shares that peril." He turned back to face the commodore. "And what motivates this vast destructiveness? His only concern is to assist the people he cares about. In my opinion, his behaviour does not entirely fit the actual, as opposed to the legal, definition of malitia, and therefore the punishment can with reason be mitigated."
Norrington frowned. "I am not entirely certain I agree with your logic; however, pray continue."
Groves again approached the desk where Norrington remained seated. "I concede, according to the law, Jip has committed a felony with full knowledge of what he was doing, and as such he merits judgment as an adult," he admitted. "However, I propose that instead of the sentence of death by firing squad, you offer him the commuted sentence of a flogging with the cat o' nine, the 36 lashes a prudent yet moderate captain might order a man for a serious crime."
"He will be just as dead after such a punishment as he would have been from the shot but with vastly more suffering!" Norrington exclaimed. "And if you are implying he might survive such torture, I am sure it would do nothing towards preventing him from sabotaging us again."
"A child would not survive it," Groves answered, a terrible stillness in his voice. "But a man would."
"What are you suggesting, Lieutenant?" Norrington asked sharply.
"Change the order, Commodore," Groves replied, bracing his hands on the desk and leaning forward in earnestness. "And I will take that flogging in Jip's stead. I suspect that if he knows his actions will directly harm someone of whom perhaps he is a little fond, he will conduct himself with more restraint in the future."
James Norrington sat in stunned and breathless silence. Lieutenant Theodore Groves stood waiting, resolute, offering the most appalling sacrifice—for the small soul whom the Fates had thrown in their midst so damaged, so indomitable, so alone; but also for his commanding officer, in order that Norrington might not wound his own soul so very deep in the service of the law and of his oaths.
"Do you understand what you are saying?" he asked incredulously. The commodore knew his second lieutenant had never felt the lash of the cat o' nine in his life. When, during a Caribbean downpour, the crew battened the washports until the water on deck rose past their ankles and sported like young sea lions, revelling in the chance to be clean, it was obvious who had been flogged and who had not. In fact, for an officer of a warship that regularly saw action, Theodore Groves was extraordinarily unmarked by battle scars let alone those fierce scars left by the nine knotted tails of the cat, as though his flesh, in image of his heart, could not be touched by the contagion of the world's slow stain.
"I have seen men flogged," Groves said, shrugging. "It would not be my first choice of a way to spend a morning, but I am confident that I am as capable as any other man of enduring it."
Of that, Norrington was certain as well. There was a fine courage in his second lieutenant that never flaunted itself, yet never shrank from any dangerous or disagreeable task. And yet a flogging changed a man, as he had cause to know from personal experience—both the physical trauma of it and the mental anguish and shame. He wondered whether the man who would emerge from such a punishment would be the same merry, eternally optimistic Theodore for whom all winds were fair and all seas following, or whether that man would die under the lash as surely as Jip would have and a stranger take his place.
Norrington shook his head, denying his imaginings: Theodore, bound to the grating like an incorrigible common tar; himself, having to give the order to the boatswain, "Do your duty, or take his place." The thought made him heartsick. "No, I cannot ask you to do such a thing."
"James, you have not asked," Groves said earnestly. "I am asking you. Please. Give me leave to do this. We have taken more from Jip than he has ever taken from us. He has suffered far more at our hands than we have at his. Allow it to be sufficient. The laws of England and of the Royal Navy are not the only laws by which we are bound, my friend. There is a law that transcends them all. Do not lay this great sin to our charge."
The two men faced each other, Groves entreating, Norrington torn as a man who must decide upon which sword to fall.
"Please, James," Groves repeated. "I beg you."
Norrington raised his hands in surrender. "How can I refuse such a request?"
"I very much pray you cannot."
"Very well," Norrington agreed, "I will change the order, and you may take Jip's punishment. You may, if you wish, tell him of his reprieve."
Groves' smile lit the gloom of the cabin. "Thank you, sir."
Norrington shook his head. What kind of a man so welcomed the knowledge that he was to be flogged? But Theodore Groves had always been an anomaly in a world where if a man did not arrive with a heart hardened and calloused over, he soon became so if he meant to survive.
As Groves turned to go, Norrington called after him, "Lieutenant, however did a man like you come to be a warrior and not a priest?"
Groves looked back with a wry quirk to his mouth. "Because if I had followed the cloth instead of the drum, there would be no one here to stay your hand and direct your attention to a more suitable ram."
Norrington considered the allusion. "That would make you either the angel or the sheep."
Laughing, Groves made horns of his index fingers and waggled them beside his head. "Baaaa!" he said and then let himself out the door.
Lieutenant Groves returned more swiftly than Commodore Norrington had expected. Dropping into a chair without waiting for an invitation, Groves sat there looking perplexed.
"Well?" Norrington prompted. "How did Jip receive your news?"
"One thing is assured," Groves said with conviction. "He will cause us no more grief after this."
"You are certain?"
"He cried, James." The lieutenant's voice was rough with emotion as he spoke. "He threw his arms around me, and he wept. And then he refused."
"He what?" Norrington asked incredulously.
"He refused to let me do it." Groves raised his hands in bewilderment. "I told him that it was my choice, not his. That you and I had agreed that this was the only way we could satisfy the requirements of the law without taking his life." He shook his head. "He still refused. Now he wants to talk to you."
Commodore Norrington was not accustomed to being summoned to the brig by his prisoners. In fact the only other miscreant who had been so bold had been Sparrow himself, so perhaps it was to be expected in this miniature version.
He found Jip hovering at the bars of his cell in agitation. As soon as the boy caught sight of the commodore, he called out, "You can't flog Mr. Groves, sir!"
Norrington finished his descent into the hold before responding. "The lieutenant insists the same thing about you, Jip. Are you saying you would rather face the penalty yourself?"
"Yes," Jip said emphatically, "if you'd please just shoot me instead."
"You cannot possibly mean that," Norrington responded.
"Then I'd see some of my friends again, the ones who died." Jip's voice was wistful. "We agreed, the Pearl's crew, whoever died first in that fight would just wait around the shore of Fiddler's Green until the rest of us showed up."
Jip sniffed and wiped his nose on his grimy sleeve.
Norrington felt his heart wrench. That this child should simply want to go home again in the only way he thought he could . . .
Seating himself on a convenient crate so that he could look the boy in the eyes, he asked, "Why will you not let Lieutenant Groves shield you from such a fate?"
Jip eyed Norrington as though puzzled he would ask such a question. "He told me he's never been flogged with the cat o' nine."
"That is correct." Norrington nodded.
"Then he doesn't know," Jip said.
"He does not," Norrington acknowledged, "but he is a good and brave man, and I believe he would do this even if he did know."
For a moment in the dim light of the Dauntless' hold, the commodore and the small pirate regarded each other consideringly.
Norrington had the uneasy impression those wide, unchildlike eyes were seeing far more than he wanted revealed.
Nevertheless, he was startled when Jip said, "But you know."
"I do," Norrington admitted, remembering the scars he had seen on Jip's back, like the much older scars on his own. Evidently the boy had sensed that kinship, somehow.
"Why were you flogged?" Jip asked.
James Norrington considered that long ago young man he had been. He had never told this story to anyone before. "It happened many years ago," he said, "before you were born, when I was first lieutenant on this ship, the Dauntless."
"Like Mr. Groves is now?"
"No, like Lieutenant Gillette. Lieutenant Groves is second lieutenant."
But oh, he had been like young Theodore then. Not as blithe and carefree, perhaps, but having that belief in the essential goodness of the universe, the conviction that a righteous man could make a difference all on his own. And with a conscience as clear.
"Her captain at the time was . . . ," he paused to choose his words carefully, "a severe man, a man who believed in maintaining discipline with the liberal application of the lash. The Dauntless was an efficient ship, but she was not a happy ship. The crew, for the most part, was obedient but resentful. However, when one of the men was caught sleeping on watch, the captain sentenced him to death."
"By shooting?" Jip asked.
"No, he was hung in a basket off the bowsprit and given a flagon of ale, a bit of bread, and a sharp knife. His death would be his choice—starvation or drowning. The man was a good sailor, well-liked by his peers, and there were extenuating circumstances."
"What's 'extenuating'?" Jip interrupted.
"He had a good excuse for falling asleep." Norrington answered, pausing his story.
"Then what happened?" his curious auditor urged.
Bracing himself, Norrington continued. "The crew, watching him dying out there, became more and more angry. I approached the captain and tried to reason with him. He was not a reasonable man. He accused me of insubordination and sentenced me to be flogged."
Norrington paused remembering that moment from which all the tides of his life ran. So much had become clear; so much had become clouded. He had always accepted that the cat was a necessary part of discipline on a ship, but he had not known the extent to which the punishment was only partly about the suffering and so very much about the humiliation, and he had not expected the intensity of his resentment.
Even this briefest of long ago memories had the power to leave him shaken, his hands clenched into fists.
With a long, deep breath, he focused again on the present. Through the bars, Jip observed him with eyes that in a boy his age should have been as clear and uncomprehending of this story as Theodore's. But no. This child understood his silence. Life had already coloured Jip's world in bitter shades.
And now James Norrington found himself commander of the same Dauntless where once again a young lieutenant was objecting to his commodore's—admit it—to his commodore's brutality. Oh, none of Norrington's crew was going to mutiny over the disposition of a captive pirate. Nor would Norrington have countenanced the kind of cruelty his former captain had relished. And Theodore had offered to take that flogging as freely as a gift. But the parallels remained blindingly obvious here in the darkness.
"What happened to the man in the basket?" Jip asked.
"He was shot by the captain. It was a mercy."
And what a world was it, where to shoot a human being counted as mercy? Was it the world he had joined the service to help protect, to help create? Norrington found himself grateful for Jip's interrupting questions. It was—ironic—that the memory of past horrors, blunted as they were by time, was a refuge from the present.
"What happened to the captain?" Jip persisted.
"The crew very nearly did mutiny," Norrington answered. "However, the mutiny was interrupted by a battle during which someone ran the captain through with a sword, leaving him unfit to command and giving me charge of the ship. In the absence of a focus for their hatred, and perhaps because that flogging had made me temporarily one of them, the men stood down."
"What happened to you?"
That—was a very good question. What had happened to Lieutenant Norrington? In the darkness of the Dauntless' hold, the commodore could see so plainly the path that stretched back to the young man he had been, could see the way that experience had influenced the course he had chosen. And he could see faintly the branching that lay ahead of him. What choice would he make before the morrow? Would he repeat the past and allow Theodore Groves to be flogged? Or would he repeat the past and consent to the execution of this child?
He could hear Theodore's question still: "Can you chart no other course?"
Any other course would have to be navigated without the compass by which he had always steered his life. He would have to sail beyond the safe confines of the law into a gray sea of moral ambiguity.
He did not know the answer to Theodore's question.
As for Jip's question what had happened to James Norrington?
"I do not know," he answered, feeling suddenly old and exhausted.
"But you do know it would be much, much better to shoot me than to flog Mr. Groves!" Jip insisted.
Norrington shook his head sadly. "Perhaps I do not want your blood on my hands."
"And p'raps I don't want his on mine," Jip retorted obstinately, as dauntless as the vessel on which he was imprisoned.
"We seem to have reached an impasse." Norrington got slowly to his feet. "I give you my word I will consider what you have said."
Making his way out of the hold, Norrington stopped, an idea having struck. Turning back to Jip he asked, "Suppose someone did to the Black Pearl what you have done to the Dauntless—compromised her hull, destroyed her spare sails, and sent her into battle without her guns. Do you know what Captain Jack Sparrow would do to such a one?"
"Oh," said Jip, "Of course. He'd maroon anyone who did that."
"Maroon." Norrington turned the word over thoughtfully.
"Yes, leave him on an island with water, a pistol, powder and shot."
"I was aware of that definition," Norrington said. "I imagine how serious a penalty that is depends on the island."
"Yes," said Jip. "If it's just a spit of sand you either die of thirst or shoot yourself, but Captain Sparrow wouldn't do that. He had it done to him, you see. And he didn't much like it, he says. So he would make sure it was an island where a person could survive."
"That is very interesting," Norrington said. "Goodnight, Jip."
"Goodnight, Commodore Norrington," Jip responded just as if he were a perfectly polite, civilized child. "And will you tell Lieutenant Groves thank you, but I will take my own punishment."
"I will tell him you said so, but the decision is not yours to make."
That night the rumour around the scuttlebutt ran rudderless in a gale wind. Around the officer's mess, from which both the Commodore and the Second Lieutenant chose to absent themselves, at least some of the truth was known, but the fact that one of their own had volunteered to face a flogging to save the life of a pirate added as much terrible relish to the conversation as the most lurid fabrications of the crew.
First Lieutenant Gillette did not participate in the debate except to quash a particularly impertinent midshipman or two with a withering glare that rendered them mute for the remainder of the meal. Nor did he seem much interested in the admittedly sub-standard fare that represented the best efforts of the cook with what remained in stores after so many months at sea. Finally, with an abstracted air, he snagged a bottle of wine, tucked it under his arm, ignored the anguished and indignant glances of those for whom the spirits had been intended, slung two tin mugs on one finger, nodded once to the stunned-silent company, and left the room. Such was the first lieutenant's reputation that, even when he was no longer present, not one voice dared raise an audible objection.
Emerging from his quarters, having added a pack of cards to his arsenal, Lieutenant Gillette tapped at the door of one of the officers' cabins, calling out, "Theo? Are you in there?"
Receiving an affirmative, he manoeuvred open the door, taking care not to drop any of his burdens. Ducking into the cramped space, Gillette pulled the door closed behind him with equal caution.
In the wavery light of the single lantern, he saw Theodore Groves seated on the painfully neat grey wool blanket of his cot that hung suspended on ropes from the deck above. The only other occupant of the room was a moderate sea chest that took up almost all the available deck. Groves had divested himself of his uniform coat, his shoes, and his wig, but he did not appear relaxed. His normally neat, dark hair looked as though he had absently run his hands through it and set it all acockbill, making him seem younger and smaller somehow. The volume he was holding, something of Locke's, Gillette observed, was unopened.
"Hello, Andrew," Groves greeted him with a welcoming smile.
However, Gillette noted the lines of strain about his friend's mouth. Really, this was a damnable business, no matter how you looked at it. "Care for a rubber of piquet?" he asked casually, waving the pack of cards, as though this were any other night on which he might be searching for entertainment.
"Gambling? Are you not concerned that we shall be reported?" Groves asked with a wry smile.
Gillette grinned unrepentantly and gestured with the pack of cards to the stripes on his uniform sleeve. "Who would dare?"
"Are you sure you can afford it?" Groves raised an eyebrow, playing along. He edged over on his mattress to give his friend room to enter further.
"I may not be a rich man," said Gillette seating himself on the sea chest across from Groves with only a minimal tussle about whose knees went where. "But I can afford to engage you!"
"Pure hubris." Groves shook his head, reaching out for the cards with a lean, brown hand.
Freed of that encumbrance, Gillette was able to produce the bottle.
"Andrew, you're a saint," Groves said fervently.
Gillette laughed. "Only m' mother would agree with you."
Balancing the bottle and the mugs on the chest, he rid himself of his own coat, digging a corkscrew out of one pocket as he did so. "Might as well be comfortable," he said. Seizing the bottle again, he popped the cork with a flourish.
When the mugs were suitably full and distributed, the two officers raised them in the traditional salute to the king. Then Gillette sipped his wine appreciatively while Groves threw back a gulp with the air of a man who sought merely to achieve numbness as swiftly as possible.
"Now," Groves said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, "shall we play?"
They argued amicably for several minutes about the stakes. Recklessly, Groves agreed to five shilling points with an extra five pounds a rubber. When Gillette raised an eyebrow at him, he challenged, "If that is too steep for you . . . ?"
Gillette assured his friend that he was well able to stand the bluff, and would Theo just take in the slack of his jaw and shuffle the damned cards.
Groves did so, and Gillette cut the deck.
From the first rubber, it was obvious that Groves' heart was not in the game. While by past experience Gillette knew the two of them to be evenly matched, tonight he was consistently in possession of the winning cards. Groves seemed unable to calculate any odds whatsoever about his opponent's hand, and he was making some very odd discards. Occasionally, he would even get his points wrong.
In the second rubber, Gillette had his thirty points long before they began the tricks.
"Piqued, repiqued and capotted!" Groves declared dolefully. "You are going to holystone the deck with me."
His words proved to be prophetic. Soon Gillette had a tidy collection of Groves' vowels stacked on the chest beside him. As the wine diminished in the bottle, so the play slowed and the men grew silent.
Finally, Gillette looked up at his friend, acknowledging what had stood in the room with them from the beginning, taking up most of the space and all of the air. "It's a hell of a thing you're doing, Theo," he said quietly.
Groves controlled the faintest of shivers almost before Gillette noticed. "It is the lesser of the evils," he replied, shuffling and reshuffling the cards meticulously. "I did not sign on to serve in the Royal Navy in order to execute misbehaving children."
And being the man he was, Gillette thought, Groves counted no cost in finding a solution to the problem.
"Well, I still think you're a candidate for Bedlam," Gillette said fondly, liberating the cards from his friend before the ink was shuffled off them. "But you're a good man, Theodore Groves. Better than the rest of us."
Groves shrugged dismissively. "Not at piquet," he said with a small smile, gesturing at the substantial accumulation of vowels. "My luck is out, I see."
Allowing Groves to turn the topic back to the game, Gillette cut the deck. "I think it's your attention that's out. But that's all to my advantage. You owe me twice your year's pay."
"Twice nothing is still nothing," Groves retorted.
"Fortunately for you," Gillette said, dealing the sets of twelve cards insouciantly. "I have a philosophical objection to fleecing a man whose wits are wandering, so your nothing is safe from me."
Groves tried to object to this, but Gillette won the tug of war over the vowels. The cards spilled on the deck. The wine nearly spilled there, but Groves managed a lightning dive for it and was hampered in the remainder of the struggle by his role as protector of the spirits. Gillette scrambled on top of the chest, balancing folded under the low ceiling, and narrowly escaped setting the cabin on fire as he fed the scraps of paper, one at a time, to the lantern while Groves struggled to wrest them back.
When the objects of contention were reduced to floating ash, the combatants settled back, slightly breathless, to their respective sides of the cabin. Groves glared at Gillette and received a merry grin for his pains.
"I ought to call you out for that, you unprincipled dog," Groves growled although there was a hint of a smile in his voice. "A man of honour always pays his gaming debts."
"You," Gillette advised, straightening his wig that had gone badly askew in the melee, "are not the only man of honour on this ship. A fine friend I'd be to take advantage of you when you're being a perfect mooncalf. Now hand over that bottle. I have worked up a thirst."
Groves surrendered the bottle under the condition that Gillette fill his mug as well.
However, the game was brought to until they could recover the scattered cards. At first the two of them attempted to hunt for the elusive creatures, but after several collisions resulting in near concussions, Groves returned to his berth and let Gillette finish ferreting out the last of the thirty-six strays.
Their next few games, Groves played much more at his usual level of skill, Gillette noted with satisfaction even as, out loud, he bemoaned the alteration in his luck.
Since it was obvious that Gillette would refuse to accept Groves' money, the two lieutenants altered the stakes from filthy lucre to irritating and tedious chores. Gillette was soon committed to darning Groves' stockings and brushing his coat for a month. Groves had acquired the responsibility for attending to several hours of the first lieutenant's paperwork. His next loss earned him the chore of laundering and pressing Gillette's neck cloths when next that task came due. "Because that boy of mine will forever and always be woolgathering, and then he mildews or burns or creases them!" Gillette complained bitterly. And the ultimate bad luck brought him the task of corresponding with Gillette's elderly, sanctimonious aunt. "You'll be far better at ingratiating me with the old harridan than I ever was," Gillette informed Groves with an evil smirk. "If she doesn't cut me out of her will, I may even buy you a drink."
It was Groves who brought the subject back to the events of the morrow. "Have you ever served on a ship where an officer was flogged?" he asked diffidently, concentrating on his cards so that all Gillette could see was the top of his head.
Of course. Flogging was for the scum of the service, for defiant men whose only purpose was to shirk their duty and overturn decency and order on board. When all moderate attempts at governance failed, the cat o' nine had its place in controlling the outcasts of the shore who were little removed from criminals, the sweepings of the jails and streets, the inevitable knot of abandoned and incorrigible vagabonds who herded with the vicious portion of the seamen forming turbulent and unruly gangs. In plain speaking, one flogged the men before the mast. One did not flog the cream of the service, the officers of the quarterdeck. And yet there were rare occasions . . .
"In fact, I have," Gillette was able to say. "When I was a midshipman on this very ship. And the officer was our own Commodore Norrington when he was first lieutenant."
Astonished, Groves asked, "How ever did that happen?"
Gillette was silent for a moment, looking inward, remembering. There was so much about that time in his life he would rather have forgotten. Finally, he began. "That story is going to require me to be retroactively insubordinate. Captain of the Dauntless back then was a bloody rat bastard. Something wrong with a ship of the line with more of her own crew's blood on her decks during peace than war. He'd flog for the slightest excuse, and the number of lashes far beyond reason or sense. I saw men die at the grating . . ." His voice fell away.
Groves remained motionless, listening for something Gillette did not know how to say.
"God, it was awful," Gillette continued, "And then poor James arrived on board, all starry-eyed about service to God and country, and ran into that like a thoroughbred into a brick wall. Well, you know James. He broke his heart trying to make the Dauntless so perfect that even her hellborn captain couldn't find an excuse to beat the men to a pulp. But it was a hopeless, thankless job for the crew hated that captain and would not pull for him no matter what James did."
Again Groves waited patiently for Gillette to drag out the terrible memories.
"Then the captain went too far," Gillette said, stone-faced, carving the story down to its thin bone. "He set a good man out to starve to death for sleeping on watch, and paid no mind to the increasingly mutinous rumblings in the belly of his ship. James, who was never insubordinate, eventually couldn't stand it and tried to remonstrate with the captain. For his pains, he was sentenced to a flogging. So now you know how I came to see an officer go under the cat."
"Did it affect his ability to lead the men?" Groves asked quietly. "Did it take him long to regain their respect?"
Gillette felt his heart creak. That gentle Theodore should be agonizing over such questions—it was abominable.
Fortunately, he could be reassuring and honest at the same time. "I think it actually made him a better leader," he said. "The crew stood down from mutiny at the sight of his bloody shirt. Seems they felt he was on their side. You know how it is. Whatever hardcases he starts with on this ship, by the time he's done with them the men would die for him."
He was happy to note that Theodore looked somewhat comforted.
"That explains two things I've wondered about." Groves interrupted the silence thoughtfully.
Gillette raised inquiring eyebrows.
"Why the commodore will exhaust every other alternative before ordering out the cat," Groves answered, "and why we never see him with his shirt off."
"Glad to have solved your puzzle." Gillette smiled. "Don't worry, Theo. You were born knowing what that flogging taught James. The men already do better on your watch than on anyone else's. They don't want to let you down. You won't gain anything tomorrow but more of their respect."
Since Groves seemed willing to talk, Gillette dared to ask the question that had been gnawing at the back of his mind. "Do you really think this mad start of yours will make a difference in the behaviour of that imp of Satan? Won't he just congratulate himself on having gotten away with attempted murder and go on to worse infamies the minute he has a chance?"
"Oh, it will make all the difference. Of that, at least, I am certain," said Groves. "He has already insisted that he would rather be shot. His damage to us up to this point has been largely theoretical, intended to help Jack Sparrow more than to harm the crew of the Dauntless."
Gillette opened his mouth to object, but Groves waved him silent.
"I know," he admitted, "if the Black Pearl or another vessel had fired on us, that theoretical harm would have become intensely real, but Jip insists that he knew Sparrow would not shoot first. We may deplore his naivety and inexperience, but I do not think we can question the integrity of his intentions."
"So," said Gillette. "He will be forced to watch the consequences of his actions actually causing harm, and you feel that will deter him?"
"He will stand by the doctor where he must perforce witness. Yes," said Groves. "And Samuels suggests he be required to assist in the application of the vinegar and salt . . ." his voice trailed off.
"Bloody hell, Theo!" Gillette exclaimed, appalled at the picture, reaching out to grip his friend's hand. "I know that's to prevent infection, but good God! . . . . If I were a quarter the man you are, I'd do this thing in your place myself!"
Gillette half rose, ready to light off to inform the commodore of this substitution immediately, but Groves' hand stayed him.
"No, Andrew. I thank you, but I believe I am the only one who can do this." His gesture insisted that Gillette be seated again. "Jip and I have an understanding of sorts, perhaps the beginnings of a friendship, and it is much easier to bear the hurts of a stranger than those of a friend."
"Infinitely easier," said Gillette grimly, not letting go of Groves' hand. "You selfish bastard, making all your friends suffer so." And he reflected that Groves was one of those rare beings who also found the hurts of strangers unbearable.
Groves returned the grip before withdrawing his hand and retiring into what Gillette always called his officerial shell. "In the end, it is only what a great many men have endured, and some much worse. Perhaps, after my first acquaintance with the cat, I shall become a hardened, devil-may-care sort of chap and court the lash without dismay."
"Don't you dare become anything other than what you are at this moment," Gillette admonished him. "The man with the softest heart and the softest head on this ship."
Groves eyed him quizzically. "I am trying to decide whether that is a compliment."
"Of course it is not a compliment," Gillette informed Groves with a mischievous quirk to the corner of his mouth. "Nevertheless, it is what we value about you, so you are not allowed to alter."
"Now," Gillette continued, dealing the cards, "I have a strong inclination to see you blacking my shoes, so name your stakes and make your discards!"
The game continued quietly, the luck running evenly for a while; however, by four bells of the first watch, Gillette was steadily gaining on Groves who had sacrificed caution to recklessly pursuing the highest prize.
"Nervous?" Gillette asked when Groves' miscalculation once again lost him what should have been a certain capotte.
"Is one permitted to admit such a thing?" Groves asked with a crooked grin.
"I should think so!" said Gillette emphatically. "Here, have another drink." He held out the bottle invitingly.
"I don't know if it counts as courage if you get it from a bottle," Groves mused, eyeing his mug with skepticism.
"It's never really courage," Gillette said, tilting the bottle and filling the mug. "It's just getting the job done, no matter how you feel."
Groves shook his head. "I don't know whether I would rather drive the hours before me four-in-hand just to have this business over with or rein them in so hard they tip time's winged chariot in the ditch in the hope that morning never dawns."
"Whichever it is, I am certainly at your disposal," Gillette said, waving the pack of cards invitingly.
"It's ungodly late, Andrew. Shouldn't you be turning in?" Groves asked.
"What about you? Do you plan on getting any sleep?" Gillette scrutinized him suspiciously.
"Perhaps." Groves shrugged, not meeting his friend's eyes.
"That's what I thought." Gillette settled back on the chest and began to deal the cards.
"Thank you," Groves said quietly.
Gillette shook his head, dismissing the gratitude. "You have nothing more to gamble, my friend. Next hand, you owe me your firstborn."