-- 36 --
Mordecai Huff was furious. Which was far more stimulating than grief, certainly. For nigh on a fortnight he'd ached with grief, mourning his nephew, whose life had ended on the deck of his company's own ship, and mourning the niece whose fate had been far worse, almost unthinkable. That sweet, timid girl he'd just begun to know, who had been through so much already in following her husband to a new world, a new life. Taken captive by a band of vile cutthroats. Enduring God knew what atrocities. It'd kept him awake at night.
He'd informed the military of the loss, and that his niece might still be alive, and the naval commander had been most sympathetic and cooperative about deploying ships in several likely directions. It had given Mordecai some hope, though he almost dreaded what they might find should they take the Black Pearl and recover Lettice. Barbarous cretins, defiling that pretty innocent. It made him shudder, thinking what she must be suffering.
And now all changed. Well, not Brian's death, or the loss of the Eliza Mae. But that… that bizarre young man, with his studied air of villainy, had surprised Mordecai most thoroughly and in several ways.
He'd appeared in the library as if by magic, when Mordecai had been taking his morning coffee and reading one of the latest newspapers he'd received from England. Mordecai had thought it one of the servants opening and closing the door so quietly, and had not even looked up until he'd heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked. He'd looked then, and had drawn breath to cry out at the sight of the startling intruder. But the young blackguard – Jack Sparrow – had aimed the pistol in a businesslike manner and put one long, slightly tar-stained finger to his lips.
Mordecai could have sworn there was a flash of mirth in the black eyes, and when the scoundrel spoke he was certain of it, his words laced with humor in spite of the menace of their content. Lettice was not only alive but quite unharmed, guarded with unflagging diligence by "yours truly", who'd sacrificed his very own cabin to her. There was even an apology of sorts, for the loss of Brian and the ship – not what we'd intended, I assure you. It ain't our way.
But then came the ultimatum: a reimbursement of expenses, a small contribution that Sparrow knew Mordecai would be glad to make, to ensure Lettice's continued safety and return to the familial fold. Mordecai had ground his teeth and asked how much; Sparrow had named the price and Mordecai had nearly fallen out of his chair. Sparrow had shrugged: they had gone well out of their way to return Lettice to her people, but his captain had other viable options, should Mr. Huff prove less attached to his niece than to his gold.
Obviously there had been no choice in the matter.
Having reached an accord, Sparrow had concluded negotiations, at gunpoint but in the politest way possible, by forcing Mordecai into a large cupboard and locking him in. A maid heard his banging and shouts a quarter of an hour later, but by that time the pirate had disappeared. Completely. The servants had seen nothing!
Bastard! Mordecai thought, driving his carriage slowly down the moonlit road to Frenchman's Cove. He would give a great deal to have that rogue Jack Sparrow at his mercy – or at least to truly blacken those laughing eyes, and wipe that arrogant smile away with a fist of rage. A great deal, yes. But he would not give his life – or Letty's.
Mordecai could see the dark ship far out on the water and shuddered. Evil men. How Lettice could have remained unmolested these two weeks was nearly impossible to comprehend.
Impossible, too, to get to shore without being seen from afar, or so he would have thought. Mordecai paced the shore of the cove, round the small strongbox full of gold, worrying and waiting. But almost exactly at midnight, a longboat appeared from where it had been secreted behind some offshore rocks, and his niece was in it, seated between Sparrow and another young man who was wielding a pistol and dressed in a hideous red shirt. Two more men rowed the longboat swiftly toward the shore. Mordecai watched their approach, noting Letty's pinched, white face; his hands fisted when Sparrow turned to whisper something in her ear, at which she wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief.
The boat nosed up onto the sand. Mordecai started forward, but the red-shirted pirate brandished his pistol and called, "Stay where you are," in a voice that brooked no defiance. He and Sparrow alighted, boots splashing in the shallow water. Red-shirt kept his pistol aimed straight at Mordecai and walked toward him, but Sparrow turned to Letty with a sharp command. She slid to the side of the boat and Sparrow scooped her up and carried her to shore, letting her down only when they'd reached dry sand.
The tenderness of that gesture was immediately negated by the pistol he withdrew from his pocket and set to her temple, his arm around her, holding her close against him.
Fists were too good for him. He should be flogged to within an inch of his life!
"Bill, get the box!" Sparrow growled, roughly.
The man in the red shirt waved his pistol at Mordecai. "Get back now, sir. Wouldn't want any accidents tonight."
Mordecai stifled the invective that leapt to his lips and complied.
The heavy box was lifted off the sand and taken to the longboat where it was placed on the plank, opened, and its contents examined. "'Pears to be all here, Jack."
A tenseness seemed to leave Sparrow. "Right!" he called, hoarsely, then softer, to Letty, "All's well, lass. You can go to him." And he took his arm from around her and gave her a gentle shove, his pistol still in evidence, however.
Letty stepped forward, slowly, then more quickly, and then in a tearful rush. Mordecai caught her to him and held her as she sobbed. "Hush, sweetheart, it's all over." But she hid her face in his coat, shaking, and would not turn to look at the blackguards, not until they were well away, out of pistol range and rowing fast and sure, back toward the Black Pearl.
They walked in silence over the sand and up the small rise to where Mordecai had left the carriage. Letty had calmed, though she was sniffing wetly. "I have another handkerchief," she croaked apologetically. She felt about for it, in an inner pocket of her cloak. "Oh!" she exclaimed, and pulled out not only a handkerchief but a small, plainly wrapped package. She daubed at her nose, handing the package to him.
"What's this?" he asked.
She blew her nose efficiently before replying. "It's… it's for us. A gift, he said. Mr. Sparrow, that is. For you and me both. He told me to give it to you to open. He said you'd know what to do with it."
Mordecai frowned, weighing it in his hand. Surprisingly heavy. It was securely wrapped, and he ended up taking out his pocket knife and cutting through the outer layers. Letty watched, curious herself, and when the contents were finally revealed she gasped, "Oh! Oh!" and put her hands to her cheeks.
It was a necklace.
A horridly gaudy thing. But Mordecai held it up, examining it in the moonlight, and could not help exclaiming himself. "Good God! It looks to be real!" Heavy gold, diamonds, rubies, and emerald flashed their brilliance.
Letty was staring at the thing, stunned. Mordecai said, contemptuously, "If it is real, the man's not only a blackguard, but a fool. This would be worth a fortune – at least twice what he asked as a ransom!" Letty's eyes met his, and Mordecai laughed grimly. "Aye, a fool. But you may be a rich woman, niece. What say you to that?"
But she had nothing to say, nothing coherent at least, for she covered her face and began to sob again.
-- 37 --
There was an incident between Jack and Barbossa a fortnight after Mrs. Granger had bid them all adieu. Words of a derogatory nature were uttered by the second in regard to the lady, and Jack could not help but take exception. The resulting injuries left Barbossa with a slightly more lively respect for the first, whom he'd previously considered something of a fribble for all his skill with ship, map and sword. It also silenced him, perforce, until his jaw healed enough to take solid sustenance. Sparrow received a reprimand at the hands of his captain, but the rest of the crew knew it was a token gesture, and Jack himself had no complaint.
He was denied shore leave on their next three stops in port, the last of which was Cartagena. It seemed to suit him, surprisingly enough. He kept to the Great Cabin in the heat of the day, working with the maps and charts that would guide them to the far corners of the world. He walked the deck under the stars in the evenings, joining in the drinking and singing, carousing with his mates, business as usual.
But he'd retire earlier than had been his wont, to the cabin, to the cot he'd once had the privilege to share. And if his thoughts strayed to linger on fair hair running soft between his fingers; on flawless skin, pale against the dark of his own; on eyes blue as the sea he loved; and if his hand strayed, too, lingering where hers had that one joyful night, why who was to say him nay, to deny him the comfort of memory?
It had rained every day since Mordecai Huff's arrival in Amsterdam, but on this, the second to the last of his stay, the thin sun of early spring shone, and his business was complete. Soon, his ship, the Eliza Rose, would sail for Bridgetown, Barbados and home -- how glad he would be to bask in warmth once more! But today Mordecai was at his leisure and would visit two people he hadn't seen in almost seven years: his nephew's widow and the man she had married, not a month after being returned to safety on that strange night so long ago.
Abram Falko, born of a Dutch father and an English mother, had cut his teeth on trade. He had inherited early, and had taken over his deceased father's business at the ripe age of twenty-one. By the time he'd met the widowed Lettice Granger, several years later, he was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest merchants in the West Indies. To some extent this was due to his single-minded focus on business. He had never married, in spite of numerous lures thrown his way, and had seemed to have little interest in settling to a domestic life.
All that had changed the night he'd met Letty.
It had been a week after her rescue from the pirates, and she was just beginning to leave her room in Mordecai's house. To his surprise, she had consented to join him in entertaining a few guests, Falko and two other businessmen and their wives. Predictably, the wives had been cool to the girl, for the circumstances of her survival had not been a secret. Mordecai had thought it most fortunate that, thanks to Sparrow's absurd but useful parting gift, Lettice now had money of her own and need not remarry. She was pretty enough, though still quiet and more prone to tears than ever, but the taint of captivity certainly precluded her desirability as a potential mate.
Or so Mordecai had assumed. Abram Falko had been of another opinion entirely.
It seemed as though Abram had taken one look at her and fallen head over ears in love. Letty had been startled at his attentions, and the wives at the dinner party that night had obviously disapproved. But Abram was a well set up fellow, both in person and estate, and his few rough edges were balanced with an engaging deference to which Letty ultimately succumbed. Within the month, Abram had asked her to be his wife, and Letty had consented.
They married in some haste, for Abram desired to return to Amsterdam. The heat of the Caribbean didn't suit him, and moreover he had reliable underlings to handle his business in the West Indies. He would return to the large, well-appointed house where he'd grown to manhood, install his new bride there and raise a family. Bridgetown had been all agog over the romance, and had twitted Falko on his complete change of heart. He had taken this in stride, however, and Letty herself had such a surprising glow about her that the couple's union was accepted by society with smiles and a fond shaking of heads. Ah, young love!
They had corresponded over the years, of course. Abram's business had continued to thrive, which was well: Letty had born several children, one of them not long after the couple was wed, and the youngest scarcely a year ago. Mordecai was not a marrying man himself, but he liked children, and enjoyed the companionship of the happy, lively families he knew among his colleagues. He was looking forward with much pleasurable anticipation to his visit with Abram, Letty, and the three small Falcos.
The house, by a tree-lined canal, was impressive, tall rather than wide, and set cheek by jowl with others of its kind. Use of the brass knocker on the neat green-painted door produced a maid, who, on ascertaining his identity, curtsied and bade Mordecai enter.
Letty was coming down the stairs, carrying an infant.
"Mr. Huff, is it indeed you?" she smiled.
She wasn't as slender as she'd been, but she looked healthier – and happier! A woman now, a wife, and a mother. The infant she carried against her hip was a tiny girl, with wide blue eyes and pale, fuzzy hair. She clung to her mother, thumb in mouth.
Mordecai replied, "It is I, certainly, my dear. Though I believe I'm offended that I've been reduced to Mr. Huff. Will you not call me Uncle Mordecai, as you were used to do?"
Letty colored prettily. "Of course, uncle. How wonderful to see you, and how good of you to take the time to visit us on your last days here."
Mordecai bowed over her hand. "I wouldn't have missed coming. Far more important than the business for which I came to your fair city."
"It is fair, is it not? I do love it here, for all it is so cold in winter."
"You have Abram and your children to warm you, no doubt. Who is this little one?"
"Sarah Louise. She was a year old last week."
Mordecai took the infant's tiny paw in his own fingers, bent close and gave it a kiss. "How do you do, ma'am?"
Miss Sarah roused from her fascination with Mordecai's bearded face and squealed exception to this familiarity, jerking her hand away to cling and hide against her mother's shoulder.
Mordecai and Letty could not help but laugh, though Letty scolded gently, "Oh, no, my darling, such execrable manners!"
But Mordecai said, "No! It was I who was too forward. She is very right to put me in my place."
Letty kissed the top of the baby's head, then gave her over to the maid. "Thank you, Greta. She should go down for her nap without difficulty." As Greta took the baby upstairs again, Letty turned to Mordecai. "Abram should be back soon. He took our older children on a walk through the park. Will you not come and be seated in our library? I'll send for refreshments."
It was done as Letty had ordered. The library – "My favorite room!" – was nearly as complete as Mordecai's own, and equipped with comfortable chairs and a sofa, as well as a huge cherry wood desk. There was a marble fireplace in which a cheerful blaze was burning. A large tray, laden with a tea service and a plate of sweet cakes, was brought in, but Letty was only pouring out the first cups when the sounds of new arrivals met their ears with a suddenness that caused a startled spill.
"Oh, dear!" She flushed.
"Your husband, I take it?" Mordecai smiled.
"Yes. And the children."
"Mama, mama, mama!" bellowed a youthful voice, and a small red-haired boy rushed into the room. "There was a goose, a big one, and it chased me! And papa says we shall have it for Christmas dinner!"
Letty laughed. "Oh, if it chased you, we must! But make your bow to Mr. Huff, Ephraim. He has come halfway across the world to meet you."
"On a ship?" Ephraim exclaimed, as he obeyed his mother. "I'm going on a ship!"
"Are you? And where will you go?" asked Mordecai, his eyes twinkling.
"Everywhere! Papa says I may, as soon as I'm bigger. Am I bigger yet, Mama?"
But his father and a third child had come into the room, and Abram said, "No, you're not, sprat – no bigger than when you last enquired, which was yesterday, if I recall. Well met, Mordecai! It's been too long."
"It has!" Mordecai stood to shake hands with the younger man. "How good it is to see you, and make the acquaintance of your delightful progeny. But who is this?" Mordecai's gaze was drawn to the girl who had entered with Abram and was now standing by his side.
"Our eldest daughter, indeed," Abram said.
"How do you do, sir?" The girl curtsied, with childish grace, then studied Mordecai, an engaging smile touching her lips.
Time seemed to stop.
She was slender, but well made, and her neatly braided hair was smooth, and long, and dark as night. Dark too were her eyes, wide-set and expressive, and her skin was a flawless pale gold. And there was something about her… her carriage… her expression…
This was not Abram's child, Abram with the auburn hair, who'd given his coloring to the boy.
Nor was she towheaded Brian's.
Mordecai turned to Letty. The young mother did not smile, but neither did she look away.
Mordecai remembered to breathe. And, once he had done so, spoke. "Pardon me. She is beautiful, Letty."
Letty blinked, and took a quick breath herself, her faded color returning. "Yes. Oh, yes!"
"She is the light of our lives, Mordecai," said Abram, and his glance strayed to meet his wife's as he said it.
Mordecai nodded. He held out his hand to the girl. "You must be Katherine, then, are you not?"
"Yes." She took his hand. "But 'Kate' for short."
"'Bonny Kate'!" her brother grinned.
And Abram sealed the matter. "Prettiest Kate in all Christendom."