Warning: Contains Norrington/OFC, and sexual shenanigans between older teenagers.
Disclaimer: Norrington is owned by the Walt Disney Company, not me.
Notes: Written for POTC Fest . Prompt: "Norrington, pre-COTBP -- why did he join the Navy, his ambitions etc." Thanks to Galadhir, whose Norrington in a recent story greatly influenced mine, to Concerti Grossi for setting me straight on the historical stuff, to Blackletter for vetting the Latin, and to Schemingreader for the beta skillz. Translations for the Latin are at the end.
CAKES AND ALE IN FEAR
by Rex Luscus
"They'll not let us do more than hold the horses," said Finchley, breathing hard, needing two for every one of Norrington's long strides.
"A man makes his own opportunities," Norrington replied smugly, not looking back. Finchley thought it was rich for a fifteen-year-old boy to be calling himself a man, but then again, Finchley was only thirteen, so for all he knew, manhood really did set in at fifteen. Norrington certainly looked older, turned the heads of people who obviously thought he was older, and so in a way that meant he was older, at least in the eyes of the world. But apparently Finchley was going to have to get there the old-fashioned way.
"He's making it up," said Arden from the other side, struggling just as hard to keep pace. "Norrington's pulling your leg with this horse rubbish."
"What will we say to them?" Finchley asked Norrington, worried.
"The usual pleasantries. 'A good evening to you, sir,' 'Your servant, madam,' and all that. But don't forget: you're a gallant gentleman offering the captain's guests your help. A host, not a servant. Be a bit proud, even as you're helping them down from their carriage. Make it clear you're choosing to do it, not obliged to."
"You've done this before?"
"Of course. The captain's had me up lots of times."
"They'll know you, then. The people."
"I expect they will."
"The real question," said Arden, "is will there be girls?"
Norrington smiled. "Of course."
The younger boys were all nerves, which was what you'd expect. James was rather looking forward to it. The captain's wife had found him charming when he'd met her last time, and her brother was Admiral Beddoes, commander-in-chief of the fleet at Spithead. Not that he needed the patronage of an admiral just to be made lieutenant, but it was important to look ahead. If he wanted his first command to be in the Channel or the Med and not overseas, he'd need connections, grandfather or no. The Med could wait until he'd made post, of course, but the Channel fleet was where the action would be and he'd need to play his cards carefully. His grandfather's name would get him noticed, his face would get him remembered, and what he said and did would get him advanced.
"If they give us a horse to hold, how long d'you suppose we'll have to hold it for?" asked little Finchley.
James wasn't planning on holding any horses, or doing much else for that matter. The captain would let him mingle this time, so he could see and be seen, as they said. But he sympathized with the youngsters, who would be stuck moving chairs around and running back and forth to the cellar. "You'll only have to hold 'em until the grooms come," he informed Finchley. "Did you bring your mittens?"
"Oh, no," Finchley cried.
"Here." James passed his over. "I shan't need mine, I wouldn't think."
Finchley put them on and scrunched his fingers to keep them on his too-small hands. "If they've got grooms, what do they need us for?"
"The captain wants his guests attended by Navy men in uniforms, not grooms in dirty trousers and felt hats."
"It's all hogwash!" Arden declared.
"But make it look like you expect the groom to come along at any moment," James went on, suppressing a smile. "As I said, don't let them forget you're a gentleman."
Arden was furtively scratching the back of his head. "Forget to wash your neck?" Finchley crowed, happy to be on top for a moment.
"And I've got tar under my fingernails. Guess they'll have to make me hold the horses." Arden sent James a glare.
James sighed paternally. "Hopeless, the both of you."
The captain lived well because he had married well, and his house, while not overlarge or on the most fashionable street, was elegant. At least it was to James's eyes, who'd spent most of his boyhood in the country. They did things differently in town, and he was pretty sure that meant better. Nobody had arrived yet when James and his supernumeraries appeared on the doorstep, and they were instantly put to work by the lady of the house, who fussed over the new young faces before sending them off to carry a table. Mrs. Druett wasn't the most ladylike lady James had ever met; she was more like a politician, one you'd expect to find in a club somewhere smoking cigars and arguing about trade tariffs. He imagined she was a shorter, slimmer version of her brother, and she and Captain Druett, the scarred and weathered seaman, made a perfect matching pair. It was odd indeed that their child should have come out the way she did.
Miss Druett, Emily she was called, was eighteen next month. She was almost as tall as he was and had big, bright teeth that all showed together when she laughed. Her low, dark eyebrows made her look permanently cross. Or hunting for prey. Either way, it was intimidating. But all of this was eclipsed by a figure that haunted every midshipman berth from Plymouth to Dover. He thanked God he'd finally got his height so he no longer had to imagine what was down that bodice. When he'd first seen her at the captain's, she'd given him one of those frightening smiles even before they'd been introduced, and the last time he'd been up, she'd shot him looks all night. It filled him with hope--for what, he wasn't sure, since the captain would certainly kill him at the first sign of anything untoward. But surely there was a way. He was a resourceful fellow.
She was at the top of the stairs now, dressed in green silk with her black hair not yet pinned, calling for her mother in a loud, irate whisper. Catching sight of him staring, she waved. His stomach did a little flip and he smiled, doffing his hat and bowing low. Her giggle cut off when her mother appeared.
"James, dear," she said with a note of scolding, "go and see if they've laid away enough port. We'll need another half on top of what we've got for all these Navy men. Emily, shoo!"
Both of them shooed, James with a red face and a tickle in his chest.
Finchley learned he'd been had after all when nobody made him mess about with horses, but he drew the equally dull duty of herding the servants about, which devolved into begging them to hurry up. Arden went on a frantic quest to scrub his hands. Once people began to arrive, Mrs. Druett instructed James to entertain ladies who had no gentlemen to talk to, which saved him from further trials at the hands of the wine steward, who had found him a convenient scapegoat.
He wasn't at all fond of dancing, but the shy girls he cornered seemed even less eager to leap up for a turn on the floor than he was. They were inevitably younger daughters and wards, all without prospects. He felt sorry for them. It was harder for girls than for boys, who could at least make something of themselves out in the world if they didn't draw the highest card in the deck. He quickly ran out of things to say since they weren't even slightly interested in the approaching war or anything else he cared about. What did girls care about? What happened when you got married and all the company you had was each other?
His attention strayed as he watched the ladies and gentlemen milling about and wondered who they might be. Were they important, people he'd have heard of? Every third man was Navy. He hadn't seen Mrs. Druett's brother yet, which disappointed him since he'd secretly been hoping she'd introduce him. If not, there were other intriguing people to meet; he just had to figure out a way in.
His boredom must have showed, because his charges began deserting him for the company of their lady friends, leaving him feeling only mildly guilty that he wasn't discharging Mrs. Druett's orders to the letter. As he dawdled about watching an elderly admiral help himself to two glasses of claret, he heard the captain's voice nearby, and turned to see who he was talking to.
The captain's sun-creased eyes seized hold of him. "Why, look. Here, Mr. Norrington! Get over here, will you?" Druett maneuvered him into place in front of two older gentlemen. One wore the uniform of an Army colonel. The other wore brown brocade over a deep red waistcoat that made James think of the inside of a bloody roast. "This is Sir Edward's grandson, can you believe it?"
He bowed low. The men looked him over, and apparently he passed muster, for the colonel said, "Well! Ed finally got a boy in the Navy after all! Your father, he must have been sorry to lose you to the service."
James lifted his chin. "No, sir. He had my brother to follow him into the law, and with the state of my studies, I think he was glad he wouldn't have to make excuses for me."
That wouldn't do. He was supposed to be impressing these people, not telling them what a truant he was. But the gentlemen chuckled. "Not much use for Horace and Virgil in your line of work, is there?" said the fellow in the blood-colored vest. "Though a bit of it never went amiss, just to civilize a lad. I say, nowhere can you find youngsters more ignorant than aboard a Navy ship, what with your unemployed parsons for schoolmasters who could outdrink the crew on a Sunday. It's a miracle most of you can sign your own names."
His mind had started turning at the mention of Horace. Poetry had gone in one ear and out the other when he was a boy, but on the last cruise, their schoolmaster had forced them all through several volumes of Horace and Pindar, and it was still fresh in his mind. "I may not have a fine liberal education," he said haughtily, "but a man need only read dulce et decorum est pro patria mori to make him long to serve in His Majesty's Navy."
All three of them looked startled. Had he gone too far? Did they think him a show-off? But the civilian smiled, a shrewd quirk of the lips. "A sweet and seemly death indeed. Though I do hope you recall that the same man wrote vis consili expers mole ruit sua."
Oh, no. Now he'd stepped in it. His mind went blank. He memorized literature by rote; he was no good at putting it to use. Vis…force…consili expers…without wisdom…right, then. He felt around frantically and laid his hands on a reply just vague enough to sound good. "I must beware of that," he said, "but I must also not forget that sedit qui timuit ne non succederet."
The civilian's smile warmed. "Quite right, young man," he said, "though I daresay you are in danger neither of sitting still nor of fearing you will not succeed. So--" he rubbed his hands together, "nunc est bibendum, eh, gentlemen?"
"Yes, yes, capital idea." The captain slapped James on the back. "Off you go, then. Have a word with the steward about the sherry, would you? There's a good boy."
James bowed again to the gentlemen and turned away, smartly so as to seem like he'd quite put them out of his mind already. Dreading another skirmish with the steward, he walked by the kitchen and ran into Gruberman, a big, slow-moving midshipman who was nearly twenty-six. James had always been suspicious of him; if you weren't a lieutenant by twenty-six, there had to be something wrong with you.
"Norrington," Gruberman called, kicking his shoe as he went by. "What was all that about, then?"
"What? Those gentlemen?"
"Well, yeh, those gentlemen. What'd they want with you?"
"The captain introduced me. They know my grandfather. Why, what's it to you?"
"You know who they are?"
"I--" James frowned. "They didn't tell me their names, actually. It's not like I could have asked."
"The uniform is some Army chap. But the other--Christ, Norrington, that's the Second Lord."
James nearly swallowed his tongue. He'd been cheekily exchanging Latin aphorisms with a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty. He felt like he'd just made a tricky jump and only then looked down to see the gaping chasm below. Being oblivious to the disaster he'd averted was somehow worse than having known the whole time. Nevertheless, there had been no disaster. There had, in fact, been a remarkable success.
He smiled. "Gruberman, be a good lad and see about the sherry, would you?"
By the staircase he spotted Emily, who was fanning herself with her dance card. "You're lucky you're too young to have to put up with this," she said as he approached.
He stiffened. "I'm not--if I wanted to, I--your father needs my help," he finished with a scowl.
"No, really, I mean it, you're lucky. Mother keeps introducing me to the sons of her friends and they're all so dull you can't imagine."
Well, all right then. "Dull? How so?"
"One was studying the law and insisted on talking about Inns of Court and the King's Bench and all sorts of other blather; and one wouldn't stop talking about land taxes."
James thought of his own fervent desire to talk about ships, and shoved it as far into the back of his mind as possible. Rule number one: ladies wanted to know you were successful, but they didn't want the details. "That's perfectly beastly," he said with a sober shake of his head.
"My parents are in a frightful hurry to get rid of me," she went on. "But I don't have the slightest intention of getting married any time soon." As she said this, she rested her brown-eyed gaze on his face until he blushed.
"So there's not a single man here you'd have," he ventured, feeling perilously bold as he addressed a spot somewhere over her shoulder.
"Not to marry," she said with a smile.
"Mother's calling me again." As she moved past him, she trailed her fingers down his arm until they grazed the back of his hand, then disappeared into the crowd.
He took a moment to pull himself together. He'd been hopeful, but he'd also expected to be the one making the effort. He hadn't expected to feel like a rabbit in an open field. Of course, this was certainly flattering. Why should he do all the work? What man turned down something that fell into his lap just on account of his pride?
He made his way back into the press, scanning the faces for somebody he knew, someone who might speak to him so he could speak back. Over by the entrance to the ballroom he spotted the Second Lord's ornate brown coat. Was it too much to hope for?
He passed close by, and sure enough, the man's hand shot out and drew him in by the arm. "Mr. Norrington!" He gave James's shoulder a pat, straightening the fabric he'd rumpled. "My dear, may I present to you Sir Edward's grandson. James, isn't it? Lad, this is my wife, Lady Wesley."
Lord Wesley, of course. If he'd only had that piece of information before…but maybe it was better this way. He thanked God again that he'd pulled that sedit qui timuit line out of nowhere, and bowed low. "Your servant, my lady."
Lady Wesley was a couple of decades younger than her husband, still strikingly beautiful in her forties, with white blonde hair going stealthily gray. Instead of replying, she gazed at him with a knowing little smile. "My, you're nothing like your father, are you?"
He wasn't sure if he was meant to answer that question. "Well, I--"
"Your grandfather so wanted your father to follow him into the Navy, you know. Your father even tried it for a while…"
James had heard this story many times. His poor bookish father had gone to sea for two years, after which he and the service had agreed to a mutual parting of ways.
"You even look like Sir Edward." She was shaking her head. "Not a trace of your father in you at all."
He was starting to wonder about this fascination with his prodigal father. Was it so deeply unusual for a son to pursue a career other than his father's? Up in Westminster Hall, they were probably saying the same things about him. "Jonathon Norrington, why, you're Sir Howard's son, aren't you? I hear you've done well for yourself--but it's a shame about your brother, isn't it? They can't even read Latin in the Navy! I suppose not every son can be a credit to his father…" It seemed unfair that he had to trade being well spoken of in Westminster Hall for being well spoken of in the Navy. He'd much rather have been well spoken of everywhere.
"Mary, my dear!" Lady Wesley was drawing over an olive-skinned woman in a yellow satin dress. "Look here at Sir Edward's grandson."
"My, my." Mary, whoever she was, though undoubtedly she was someone important, peered at him like he was an oil painting. "Upon my word, those same green eyes and everything."
"Tell me, young man," said Lady Wesley, "do you intend to become a famous admiral like your grandfather?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied with as much deference as he could. "I plan to see to it this week."
The ladies giggled behind their gloves. Well, that had just slipped out. He had the same feeling of delayed vertigo, and saw out of the corner of his eye that Lord Wesley's brows were up to his wig.
"Of course, a man cannot achieve greatness all alone," said Mary, still studying him like she was calculating his worth. He realized with a thrill that her admiration was not entirely chaste. Exactly what was the nature of the regard these ladies held for his grandfather, anyway? "He requires the right friends and circumstances, wouldn't you say?"
"I agree that those are of inestimable value," James replied, still trying to keep his tone neutral and polite, "but greatness cannot be concealed. A great man makes circumstance serve him." He found it odd that he was imparting the same wisdom to a fine lady as he had to Finchley.
"Do you know, my dear," said Lord Wesley suddenly, "that this young man is a student of Horace?"
"Ah!" Lady Wesley smiled brightly. "So he'll be familiar with the turn of phrase dulcis inexpertis cultura potentis amici, expertus metuit."
Three sets of eyes turned to him. Christ, Wesley's wife too? Were all the wives of important men whose help he needed going to be like this? Even his mother couldn't read Latin and she knew far more than was proper. The chasm opened up under him again. He wasn't, in fact, familiar with that line, and he translated breathlessly. Sweet to the inexperienced…cultivation of a powerful friend… Oh.
He wondered if they could see him blushing. What kind of response were they expecting, boldness or deference? He took his own advice, and jumped. "That may be true, but if I may borrow a sentiment from Virgil, I have always believed that audentes fortuna juvat."
"Have you, now?" she said, eyes alight. "And has fortune favored you so far?"
"Fortune and, as you said, the gracious help of friends," he replied, increasingly giddy as he stepped further out on the branch.
"You've a clever tongue in your head," said Lord Wesley, with skeptical admiration. James couldn't tell if his boldness was impressing or irritating the man. It was certainly entertaining the ladies, for better or worse. "I suspect you shall go far, when the time comes; however, I am always careful with such judgments, as I attend to Horace's sound advice: qualem commendes etiam atque etiam aspice, ne mox incutiant aliena tibi peccata pudorem."
Another one James didn't know. He that you recommend, beware…misdeeds…shame. They were baiting him again. Head spinning with unfamiliar exercise, he had no Horace left in him, and could only say, "That's very wise of you, sir."
"Of course it is." Wesley smiled, this time with no trace of malice. "Now, if you'll excuse me, ladies. Mr. Norrington, give my regards to your grandfather, if you please." Then he was gone.
The ladies turned warm gazes back on him, and he swelled. Women had always said he was a pretty boy--pretty, like a girl--so maybe getting his height over the summer had done him a few favors beyond forcing him to replace all his breeches. A man oughtn't need a pretty face, but he was sure it didn't hurt.
"My dear, we must show you around," said Lady Wesley, and seized him by the wrist.
He lost track of her quickly. One moment some Navy fellows had hold of him who were, like everyone it seemed, old acquaintances of his grandfather, and then he was being shuffled off to the next cluster. He'd never loved his grandfather so much as now. He tried to make his conversation coherent in spite of the way his attention was jerked from one person to the next. He was always relieved when the war came up because he had genuine opinions on that, and he was happy to remind people that he'd be in it. It was like running the gauntlet, which meant that eventually he came out the other end, feeling a bit wrung out, and unsure what to do next.
He turned about in a daze, and by a prodigious stroke of luck, Lady Wesley and her friend were a few feet away, speaking with the captain.
"Mr. Norrington!" Lady Wesley called, stopping him. "Captain Druett, is this one of your youngsters?"
James hated being called that. He was an integral part of the crew of a working man-of-war, and the only thing standing between him and lieutenancy was a trivial number. The captain, however, said, "Why, yes he is."
"Does he behave himself?"
"By and large." James fancied there was a slight warning in the captain's glance at him.
"And is he very valiant in battle?"
"He fights as well as any man on my ship."
"Oh, now, that's very good, but not exactly a ringing endorsement, wouldn't you say, Mary?"
"Norrington here's a crack fellow." Druett patted him hard on the back, which made him lurch a bit toward the ladies. "He knows his business, fights like a lion and keeps his men in hand."
"That's a curious custom, I've always thought," said Mary. "Grown men ordered about by young boys. However does it work?"
"If you please, madam," James interjected, "it is not age but quality that matters. The midshipmen aboard His Majesty's ships are gentlemen, and thus bear their authority by right."
"True, true," said Druett. "Though we try to make them bear it by skill and knowledge too, when we can."
"And do you, Mr. Norrington?" Lady Wesley asked him directly.
It was like being tossed a hot shell. What in heaven's name was the right answer to that question? After a moment and a blush, he said, "I do my best to absorb the lessons of my betters, my lady."
Damn. Too obsequious. But the captain came to his rescue. "Come, Norrington, no false modesty here. He runs circles around the other boys. One or two of the lieutenants, too, though I'd be pleased if you didn't repeat that."
The pit of James's stomach warmed. The captain, praising him over a lieutenant? Druett had had too much to drink, that was obvious, because what could be more inappropriate to say in front of a junior officer? Still, it was sweet.
"Captain, Mary and I were wondering if we might see your garden; we were so disappointed you didn't open it up."
"Well, I suppose it would do no harm, but it's not exactly fit for company these days, what with half the beds pulled up. The lady of the house wanted it all changed, I'm afraid."
After the captain had excused himself, James offered to escort them to the garden. He was starting to worry about overstaying his welcome with Lady Wesley, since in these situations, a gracious and timely exit was as important as the conversation itself, but the ladies smiled conspiratorially at his suggestion. After running and fetching their wraps, he led them out the back into the summer evening air, dewy and unusually chilly as the night deepened.
There wasn't much to see. Bare beds staked off for new landscaping; a few rose bushes past their bloom; a lovely little Japanese maple. Partially enclosed apart from the rest was the kitchen garden, the only place where growth was abundant. He let the ladies roam about on their own, still nervous that his presence was wearing thin, but they seemed happy to ignore him or not as they chose, which was both galling and a relief.
Either way, he'd done well, he thought. Who needed Admiral Beddoes? Lord and Lady Wesley, any number of their friends--they'd all been impressed with him. And why shouldn't they? The captain liked him, quite a lot if he'd meant what he'd said. Did the captain consider him son-in-law material? James had no particular desire to marry Emily, or to marry at all until he'd been a captain for a while and had something to offer. God forbid he be sent to any of the really distant overseas stations. If he were, he'd simply make sure it didn't last. Did they even have Englishwomen there?
"James!" said a loud whisper from the kitchen garden. He spun to see Emily with her head around the side of the wicker enclosure. "Come over here!"
He jerked his head toward the ladies, who were now bent over some daylilies. "I'm supposed to be escorting them!"
"Fine. Come back behind here when you've got rid of them!"
He flushed from his scalp to his toes. Was--did she mean what he thought she--oh, God.
He hurried away from her only to stop short of the ladies and hover, suspended between two dangers. His heart was pounding, and to his horror he was hard--what if they could tell when he led them inside? He looked down, but the way his clothes buckled made it impossible to tell what it looked like when he was standing up straight.
A rush of profound gratitude swept over him when Gruberman poked his head out the door. "Lady Wesley? Lord Wesley requests your presence; he wishes to be going."
The ladies came back to him and he bent over each of their hands, face burning like a hot iron. "Good luck, Mr. Norrington," Lady Wesley said. "Although I sense you won't need it."
Once they'd gone, he hurried as fast as he could without running to the kitchen garden--both to keep from looking eager and because it jolly well hurt. She was standing with her hands behind her back when he got there, quite like her father on the quarterdeck.
"You've been quite admired all night, haven't you?" she said. "Talking to all sorts of important people."
"Your father has been kind enough to introduce me around," he said, unsure where this was going.
"Lord and Lady Wesley?" She arched one of those dark brows. "None of the other boys got introduced to them."
"They're friends of my grandfather's, that's all."
"I keep hearing about this grandfather of yours. He must be a great man."
Why the hell were they talking about his grandfather? Did she really want to hear that his grandfather was just an old man who told the same story over and over? "Well, I suppose he is. Great, that is."
"Ah." She paused and stepped toward him, putting out her hand so that her nails brushed his wrist. "Father talks about you."
"Um, he does?"
"He says that you're going places. That you're a clever young man."
"Am I what?"
"I--" Why did women do this? Was it something they were taught? "I hope so."
"Good." Her long fingernail continued to scratch gently back and forth over his wrist. He couldn't move. It wasn't as though he was a virgin; but with the women he'd had before, you didn't need to worry about what they thought of you or what would happen afterward. They didn't come with all this extra--stuff. He tried to think like he was in battle. A choice had to be made, and once made, committed to. He cleared his throat, and flipped his wrist so that her palm now rested over his. He remembered too late that it was damp, but she didn't seem bothered. She was drawing little designs on it with her nails now, in fact. Every tiny shift of his breeches was sweet agony, and every time she breathed, her breasts pushed a little closer together, then pulled apart as she exhaled. He was mesmerized. Then he heard her laughing at him.
He was about to come up with an explanation and an apology when she grabbed his hand, and pulled it to her bodice so that his fingertips lighted on the top of her breast. He swallowed, hard. His eyes still refused to go anywhere else, but that was probably to be expected at this point. Of their own accord, his fingers felt around that soft curve, following it as it plunged, then back up again to the other one.
"It's better here--" She manipulated his hand so that he was stroking the fabric her nipple was behind. "Oh, bother." She began to unpin her bodice.
He panicked. This wasn't some Catalan whore, this was Captain Druett's daughter and he could get caught and he was going to see the breasts that he and his mates had been pulling off to since last Christmas and oh Christ what if they got caught forget about his career his very life was at--
"Well? Don't you know what to do?"
"Ummm--" His hands hovered as he stared, transfixed. Her nipples were large, soft, startlingly dark. What he wanted to ask was, what can't I do but he wasn't sure how that would go over.
"Use your mouth," she said.
He had to crush his toe with his other foot to keep from ending it all right there.
How funny; English girls were supposed to be the pure and proper ones you had to treat carefully, not the ones who taught you a lesson. Had he been lied to? He didn't care. He pressed his mouth against a nipple and sucked, and squeezed the other breast too because by God it was there, and she produced a little noise that made him so astoundingly hard his eyes crossed. Everything below his waist was pulsing in time with his heartbeat. He wondered if he was allowed to ask her to help him with that.
"Here." She was laughing again, those teeth flashing in the low light, and shortly she'd backed him up against the wall of the house. Her naked breasts were smushed against his chest and something--her thigh--was rubbing against him. And then her hand was down there.
"Oh, Jesus--" His eyes rolled up.
When he could see again and take a breath without gasping, she kissed him. After a confused moment, he kissed back. He used to worry about being good at this, but it seemed pretty late in the game for that, and besides, he was incapable of worrying when he felt that good. He moved his lips against hers and touched something he thought was her tongue and felt the heat of her breasts through his clothes and damned if he wasn't the luckiest bastard in bonny old England right now and God bless His Majesty's Navy for making it all possible.
Just as he was thinking that they probably both wanted his hand up her skirts right about then, there was noise in the kitchen, and a voice calling her name. She stiffened and pulled away, taking her mouth and breasts with her. His blood had frozen and he was staring at the bodice dangling from her fingers with utter heartbreak. How fast could she pin the thing on? Oh God, oh God, his kingdom for a bodice.
"Go!" she hissed, fingers struggling with the pins.
"But--where--I--into the house?"
"No, my father will be back that way! There!" She pointed at the high wall.
Ah, so this was the story he was in. Fleeing over the garden wall. But he'd never seen a garden wall this high before; what on earth were they trying to keep out, anyway? He forgot his manners and said, "How the bloody hell am I supposed to get over that?"
"Think of something, sailor!" she snarled, still fighting the bodice.
"Can--I--" He reached out tentatively to help.
"I'll deal with this, you deal with that!"
Instantly he applied himself. There was a tomato trellis that was the obvious choice. It didn't look strong, but if he scrambled quickly, it might last long enough. He'd spent enough time in the tops; this was trivial by comparison.
He cast one last look back at her, was both relieved and disappointed to see that those heavenly breasts had disappeared once more behind the bodice, and made for the trellis. The bottom rung snapped instantly. He tried the next one. It waited until he was three feet off the ground to snap.
"You're destroying it!" she hissed from behind him. "They'll notice!"
He ignored her. She'd given him a task with very few options for success, so she could damn well call the shots when she was the one doing the climbing. He found an unbroken rung and it held. A tomato squished under his knee. Another two or three met their deaths under his chest as he pulled himself up to the next rung. When he'd got within reach of the top, the last rung snapped and he caught hold just before he fell, crushing several more tomatoes down the front of his breeches. Lord, it was getting to be a right mess down there. He heard her gasp below him.
"I'm fine, I'm fine!" He swung his leg over the wall. "No problem!" He looked down at the fifteen-foot drop.
Looking back, he saw he'd been abandoned. That was for the best; with any luck, she wouldn't have been missed. He took a deep breath and pushed himself off the wall into the dark.
Without the benefit of the first lieutenant's dogcart back to the waterfront, he had to make the trip on foot, pulling his coat around him as he shivered in his sodden clothes despite the time of year. His head was still spinning from excitement and fear. He wasn't sure he'd be able to keep from telling his mates about his adventure. On the one hand, if even a single man on the ship knew, it would certainly get around, and if it got back to the captain, he was done for. On the other hand, it was just too damned unfair to have something like that happen to him and not be able to tell a soul. He'd have to explain the tomato stains. Yes, that was what he'd do; he'd tell them it was some other lass with a tomato trellis, because the bit with the wall was also too good not to tell. The younger ones would worship him for this. More than they already did, even.
Some ways into the mid watch, he scrambled down the ladder, wove between the canvas partitions back to the corner, and instantly began stripping off. Finchley and Arden, who had been playing jacks, looked up at his white uniform covered from collar to hose with livid red stains. "What happened to you, then?" muttered Arden.
"Can't explain now," James panted, now naked and digging in his sea chest. As he struggled into a new pair of breeches, he glanced at the guilty pile of linen. "Will tomato juice come out, or do you just have to burn 'em?"
"No clue," said Finchley, also staring at the clothes as though he could sense the towering drama they bore witness to.
"Be right back." James seized the pile and hurried back on deck.
He returned calm and smug. He'd tied the clothes up with a twelve-pound shot and sunk them--his sins and glories consigned to the deep.
"What was that all about?" asked Arden as James strung up his hammock and flopped into it.
"Funny you should ask," James smiled. "There was this girl…"
He explained how he'd got lost on his way back to the ship and asked directions at a house where a young lady had brazenly asked him inside. The rest of the story more or less went the way it had really happened. Once he'd finished his tale, Arden pulled a sour face. "So that's where you got off to."
"We were stuck with all the cleaning up, we were," said Finchley.
"Sorry," James winced. He was not even slightly sorry. Wasn't there a general understanding between men that these things always took precedence? Of course, the lads were getting to the age where they'd be jealous, not awed. Their time would come, and he wasn't about to let them spoil his.
"And we covered for you," said Arden. "Told Mrs. Druett you'd had too much and got lightheaded."
"Oh, wonderful." So much for dazzling everyone in the room. But better to be called out for a drunk than for a defiler of the captain's daughter.
"Probably true anyway, since you were busy hobnobbing while we had to run about with the servants," Arden went on. "So you bloody owe us one. Both for the cleaning up and the story."
"All right, all right." He hunkered down in his hammock. "I'll take your watches some time."
The boys didn't look appeased. James rolled away from them, irritated. They were being awfully unsporting about this. What was a bit of cleaning up? He'd make it up to them. When they were his age, they'd understand.
In the morning, James woke with what felt like a hangover. The night had been a kind of dream, and now he was in the colorless waking world again, with duties and dullards all around. He washed and dressed and went topside to stand his watch.
At six bells, the captain came aboard, and everybody instantly sensed the ominous cloud of fury that followed him. Five minutes later, he summoned all hands. His face was hard and gray, and more inhuman with fury than James had ever seen it.
"Gentlemen," he said, his voice ringing out from one end of the ship to the other, "I have reason to believe that there is a thief amongst you. A thief who crept into my garden and stole far more than just a few tomatoes."
James went white.
"He undoubtedly knows who he is. If the thief turns himself in now, the consequences will be harsh but bearable. If he is discovered or turned in by another, the consequences will be brutal. Have I made myself clear?"
A smattering of affirmatives crossed the deck.
James's mind immediately began to turn. She couldn't have named him yet, or he'd already be dead--or was the captain just toying with him to see if he'd turn himself in on his own? The only other people who knew were Arden and Finchley, assuming they hadn't told anybody else. They certainly weren't likely to be off celebrating his erotic legend since they'd been so sore at him the night before. Of course--they wouldn't--he looked at them across the deck and saw them looking back. Would they?
Gruberman had just put two and two together as well and was staring at him. Oh, God, he was dead. Maybe he could bribe them? They'd just be insulted. Throw himself on their mercy? He wasn't sure he could bring himself to stoop so low. But sometimes a man had to do what was necessary. Surely he could sacrifice a fleeting bit of personal honor for the chance to distinguish himself in the eyes of history?
After the hands on deck had broken up, Finchley, Arden and Gruberman gave him a nod and turned to go below. He followed them. They descended ladder by ladder until they reached the orlop deck, where there was a little corner of it reserved for stowing secrets, such as sweets from shore and their dog-eared copy of Fanny Hill . Once they were ensconced in the hovel, the three turned to James silently, arms folded.
Pride out the window, he blurted the first thing in his mind. "What do I have to do?"
"Well," said Arden thoughtfully, "seeing as how you left us the cleaning up, I'd say…wash our shirts for a month."
"And give up all your grog rations," said Gruberman, an enthusiastic drinker.
"And slaughter the geese!" said Finchley, who hated that part.
James scowled. "That's considerably more than I left you with at the captain's."
"Do you or do you not wish to keep your head on your shoulders?" asked Arden coldly.
For the next two weeks, James felt like a scullery maid. His duties kept multiplying, and every time he gave even the slightest impression of leisure, he was sent running off on another errand. It occurred to him that they could keep this up indefinitely, could indeed blackmail him for the rest of his career if they chose, and as much as he wanted to believe he'd win in a contest of his word against theirs, he couldn't bet his life on it. It appeared he was stuck as a slave to one dim laggard and two thirteen-year-olds. Perhaps he ought to just fall on his sword and get it over with.
Week number three dawned, and as he was hanging damp shirts on a line stretched across the berth, Arden turned to Finchley and said, "What do you think? Enough?" Finchley nodded. "All right, then, Norrington, belay. You're off the hook."
James stopped with clothes peg poised. "R-really?"
"You've paid your debt, we reckon."
He dropped his arms to his sides and heaved an enormous sigh. "I was prepared for you louts to hold it over me until we all dropped dead, you know," he said with reproach, falling back into his hammock.
"Oh, come on, you ninny," said Gruberman. "We were never gonna tell. What sort of fellows do you take us for?"
"I thought--well--you were awfully cross with me--"
"Not enough to ruin your career," said Arden.
"Or worse!" added Finchley
James rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you for that." Suddenly he had a chilling thought. "Druett could still put it together--what with my disappearing early that night--"
"Are you joking?" Gruberman popped something contraband into his mouth and chewed loudly. "You're the last of us he'd ever suspect. The captain wouldn't believe it of you until he saw it with his own eyes."
"This does it," James muttered. "I'm finished with Navy women altogether. Too damned dangerous."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," said Arden. "Now that we're settled--well, aren't you going to bloody tell us about it? I mean, in detail?"
James stood up, laughing. "Of course. But first--" he ripped the wet linens off the line and tossed them into the boys' laps, "--you can do your own damn laundry."
Patronizing Latin translations from someone who doesn't even know Latin herself:
1. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country.
2. Vis consili expers mole ruit sua - Force without wisdom falls by its own weight.
3. Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet - He who feared he would not succeed sat still.
4. Nunc est bibendum - Now we must drink.
5. Dulcis inexpertis cultura potentis amici; expertus metuit - The cultivation of a powerful friend is sweet to the inexperienced; he who has experienced it fears it.
6. Audentes fortuna juvat - Fortune favors the bold.
7. Qualem commendes etiam atque etiam aspice, ne mox incutiant aliena tibi peccata pudorem - Beware whom you recommend, lest his misdeeds bring you shame.
Title from "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" by Aesop: " Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear."