Author's Note: Bet you thought I forgot about you, didn't you? Fear not! I present a superlong chapter for your reading pleasure! As always, thanks so much to my beloved readers (especially nightkate and MissT) for your splendid and constructive reviews. Keep 'em coming, they motivate me like nothing else!
P.S. A louis d'or is a French coin, a nice heavy gold one. They were worth quite a lot during the Napoleonic Wars, even more than their face value, because banknotes were a newfangled invention and inflation was a real concern. Also, many banks were unsound and collapsed, making their banknotes worthless. So nice heavy gold coins were totally the way to go.
Warning: This chapter contains minor spoilers for Post Captain and a potentially major spoiler for H.M.S. Surprise (though I've twisted the event to suit my own purpose).
An Entire Shower of French Louis d'Or
Tom stared down at the chessboard before him, at the beautifully carved alabaster and black marble pieces that represented opposing armies. He was both winning and losing as he was playing against himself, and the effort of planning an optimal strategy for both the black and white pieces was slowly but surely causing a dull throbbing to pulse just behind his eyes. It was his only option, however. Will had flatly refused to join him, since he hated chess and had never been very good at it. Instead, he had chosen to look out the window of the small parlor they had fled to by mutual consent after Captain Aubrey's appearance. Said appearance had been damnably untimely; he'd entered mere moments after Dr. Maturin had declared he'd marry Lady Bethany in the captain's stead, and he was clearly less than pleased by it. Unwilling to stand witness to any heated exchange of words by their superiors, the two lieutenants had excused themselves almost immediately.
That had been hours ago, Tom supposed, yet the discussion that had begun with their exit was still ongoing. He could hear the steady rise and fall of voices just beyond the door, though the tone was low enough that he could make out no words or phrases. Not that he was eavesdropping, of course. But there was no point in denying that he was curious to learn what decisions were being made. His own opinions on the subject were rather like his black and white pieces in his travesty of a chess game: completely opposed to one another, and giving him a headache.
"You ought not to look so confused, considering you're playing yourself," Will observed wryly from his position by the window. The light had apparently faded from the sky while Tom wasn't paying attention, and all he could see of his friend's face was his profile as the single candle in the parlor cast flickering shadows across it. But Tom had had years to learn Will's every expression, and could tell that the superficial amusement on his face overlay something much more serious.
"I'm not confused," he protested mildly, "not about chess, at least."
Will smiled, and again Tom could tell that it was a veneer, a conscious effort on his friend's part to cover the expression that would reveal his thoughts. "You never are; it's very vexing."
"Surely it's not my formidable skill at chess that's vexing you now?" Tom prompted gently.
"Who says I'm vexed at all? Also, is 'formidable' really the correct word? 'Serviceable' might be better…" Will teased with another superficial smile, clearly attempting to distract him from his question.
Tom was not easily distracted. "Perhaps," he acknowledged briefly (and falsely, as "formidable" was certainly the word) before continuing on. "But tell me, what is troubling you? And don't say 'nothing', if you please. I know better."
Sensing his friend's unwillingness to be put off, Will abandoned his attempts to do so. He crossed the room, abandoning his post for the first time since they'd entered the parlor, and sank into the chair facing Tom's. This put him in control of the white pieces on the board, though he paid no attention to that fact. "This business with the captain distresses me, of course," he admitted. "I know it distresses you too. But I do wish they'd cease their discussion on the subject; it is so utterly pointless."
"How so?" This was not the answer he had expected, or not completely the answer he had expected. "I suppose you mean it is pointless because the captain will never allow the doctor to sacrifice himself in such a way?"
Will shook his head. "No, not at all. It is pointless because the exchange is far too uneven. Lady Bethany would never agree… It would not be in her interest to do so. And it would be dishonorable because of that."
The headache that had been gestating during his frustrating chess game came to life as Tom tried to comprehend Will's meaning. "I suspect this must be one of those things I would understand were I of your background."
Will considered this before shrugging. "Perhaps. It seems very obvious to me… The difference in their stations, appearances, situations… Please do not mistake me," he hastened to add before Tom could protest. "I value Dr. Maturin as highly as any man who has ever been treated by him, and my respect for him is limitless. But in the eyes of Society, he is nothing compared to the captain. He is illegitimate, Catholic and engaged in a profession, which naturally the upper classes look down upon. Captain Aubrey, on the other hand, is quite respectably upper-class and a war hero."
"You and I both know that Dr. Maturin is no less of a hero," Tom reminded Will quietly. Both friends were momentarily absorbed in memories of a nighttime escape from Minorca several years ago, of the doctor broken and bleeding in Captain Aubrey's arms.
"Neither of us knows that officially," Will returned after a moment, his expression newly grave. "And Society even less so. And if they did, it wouldn't matter. His brand of heroism is considered ungentlemanly in their world."
Tom shook his head, face etched with lines of confusion. "I shall never understand Society, no matter how many times you attempt to explain its intricacies to me."
But that wasn't entirely true, of course. Tom had understood the concept perfectly well the night before, as related to himself and the situation with Lady Evelyn. Unused to Society as he was, he had known instinctively that he was no kind of match for a woman of her status. Somehow he had never thought to apply the same analysis to Dr. Maturin, however. All other considerations aside, Tom knew that the doctor was quite wealthy, perhaps as wealthy as Will, and in his mind that took precedence over everything else. Perhaps he ascribed more importance to money than he ought, an effect of having been a child in conditions of actual if not abject poverty, of growing into a man who had to literally bleed to earn his pay and then had to squeeze each shilling until it bled as well to support his family. He simply could not imagine any doors remaining closed in the face of a fortune such as Dr. Maturin's.
A sudden unpleasant thought struck him then, distracting him from his conversation with Will and his concerns about the captain and the doctor: if the doors of Society were barred even to men of means, what then was to be his fate? Would he forever be out of places amongst his fellow officers, purely because of his birth? Even between pay and prize money, it was unlikely he'd ever be wealthy, but he had thought it a distant possibility, and had thought it might help him to belong, or to feel as though he did. He had thought that with enough hard work and enough luck, he could perhaps make enough money to… What? Earn a place somewhere other than the dirt-floored cottage in which he'd been born and raised? A place somewhere other than the First Lieutenant's cabin on the gun deck, or (please God) the Captain's sacred spot on the quarterdeck? Where else was there?
Strangely, Lady Evelyn's face flashed inside his mind as though in answer, his memory surely painting a picture far kinder than reality. The details were all correct, he knew, but they couldn't be, because in his mind they added up to an image far more pleasing than they should. It was his unfathomable attraction to her coloring his remembrance, he supposed, but that was neither here nor there. For the brief second that the memory of her inhabited his thoughts, he felt an overwhelming anger at the knowledge that nothing on earth, including, apparently, an entire shower of French louis d'or, would ever make him worthy to aspire to her hand.
This thought, and the anger attached to it, shocked him so completely that it was forced out of his mind by a wave of sheer incredulity.
"Tom? Are you even listening?" Will demanded, his voice like a lifeline thrown to pull him out of the confusing maelstrom his thoughts had suddenly become. Tom seized upon it with the gratitude of a man who could not swim.
"I was not," he admitted, expression and voice both deeply apologetic. "Forgive me. What were you saying?"
"Just that I wish there were some way…" Will mused thoughtfully. If he had been angry with Tom's inattention, he had forgotten his pique quickly enough.
"Some way to what?" Tom asked, as much to keep his own thoughts at bay as to understand Will's.
"Do you remember the first time we saw Miss Williams?" His friend's change of subject was abrupt and seemingly unrelated.
Tom nodded, the memory rising easily to his mind, thankfully submerging all others. "Of course," he answered. "It was during the Peace, was it not? Captain Aubrey and the doctor had rented that lovely house, and we were invited to stay off and on." It had been one of the happiest intervals of his life, despite the uncertainty of his future. He had been only a midshipman then, a master's mate with no commission and no half-pay; the Peace had meant he had no real living and would have to find a new profession. But somehow that hadn't mattered at Melbury Lodge, not with half the old Sophies as servants keeping the house in fine naval fashion and his mentor and hero there to assure him that old Boney wouldn't give up so easily.
Will smiled, clearly enjoying the same memories. "Yes, and the captain arranged that ball… I forget what it was for, a celebration of something… There were streamers in the ballroom, I recall."
"Yes," Tom murmured. At the time, it had been the grandest affair he'd ever attended, and he'd been as nervous then as he had been approaching Admiral Fanshaw's residence earlier. Perhaps more so, as he'd been far younger and far less certain of himself.
"I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Will confided with a laugh. "So delicate and blonde, like an angel, and her skin so pale and smooth. She danced with me twice, and I thought myself the luckiest man in the room."
"I remember you preening like a fool, in point of fact," Tom teased.
"Well, wouldn't you?" Will countered, grinning, before the humor slowly faded from his face. "I've always felt a fondness for her, for being so kind to me then. And I hate to think of her disappointment over this mistake the captain has made."
Tom sighed. "I know that, and I feel the same. But there is nothing we can do. The captain at least is man enough to accept his mistakes, to take responsibility for them. That is honorable, Will."
"Perhaps," Will acknowledged. "But in the process he must end his engagement with Miss Williams, which a gentleman is absolutely forbidden to do."
"Is he?" Tom asked, surprised. "I had no idea."
Will affirmed his statement with a meaningful nod of his head. "He is. It will be much talked of, and Miss Williams will be something of a laughingstock. Not to mention the captain will be greatly shamed by it. Lord, Tom, it is such a mess!"
"Given that information I'm rather surprised Captain Aubrey has not accepted the doctor's plan," Tom offered pensively.
"Perhaps he realizes, as I do, that the match would never be countenanced." Will sighed, his face clearly showing his frustration. "How I wish there were something we could do."
"Well, if the doctor isn't good enough for Lady Bethany, God knows I would not be," Tom pointed out self-deprecatingly. He then wished rather fervently that he hadn't, as doing so only reminded him of his ineligibility for Lady Evelyn as well, not to mention the insanity of caring about such ineligibility.
His friend shot him a look of annoyance. "You're quite good enough for anyone, Tom, if only they knew it. But yes, in the eyes of Society, you would not be… You would not be…"
"Yes, I know I would not be, thank you for reminding me," Tom muttered, wishing his friend would stop forcing his mind back to that subject. Back to Lady Evelyn.
"You would not be," Will murmured again. "But Tom… I would. In the eyes of Society, I'm an improvement over Captain Aubrey in fact. I'll be a viscount someday, and my family is indecently wealthy."
"But…" Tom protested in confusion. "But you told me not three hours ago that you had no intention of marrying."
Will shrugged. "Of course I hadn't. Bachelors never do. But I daresay I'll have to marry eventually, and Lady Bethany is as good as any other titled woman of privilege. Better, perhaps; she is quite attractive, as I recall."
"Are you listening to yourself?" Tom could hardly believe the turn the conversation had taken. "You know nothing about this girl save that she was rash enough to engage in intimate acts with a man she barely knew."
"Yes, a fact that makes me inclined to like her," Will responded with amusement.
"Do be serious," Tom admonished. "What if she should be carrying Captain Aubrey's child? Surely that's a consideration for someone with a viscountcy to worry about."
Will looked thoughtful for a moment before dismissing his friend's argument. "It's not especially likely that she would be," he pointed out. "Besides, amongst the upper classes, such things are hardly unheard of. Affairs are the rule, not the exception."
"The captain will never allow it," Tom stated. "Dr. Maturin might have persuaded him, based purely on their long friendship. But he feels responsible for both of us, and he'll never allow you to do such a thing."
"Then we shan't tell him about it." He looked at his friend, face completely serious. "Tom, please. Captain Aubrey is my friend, my mentor, and I have the greatest respect for him. Furthermore, what I said before is true. I shall be forced to marry eventually, undoubtedly someone not of my own choosing. Knowing this, why should I not marry where it might do the most good for my friend? My family can certainly find no fault with her."
Tom looked at his friend in utter disbelief. He sounded so certain, so determined, and… Well, so persuasive, really. "Will, you're simply not thinking clearly. What you are contemplating… It makes no sense."
"I disagree," Will protested calmly. "It makes perfect sense. You are the one who refuses to see the logic of it. Lady Bethany will make a perfectly unexceptionable wife, I daresay… My family can certainly have no objections to her."
"But…" Tom paused, trying to organize his thoughts into a persuasive argument. "But Will, should you not wish to marry for love? What if you fall in love after marrying Lady Bethany? What if she makes you unhappy?"
Will gave Tom an almost pitying look. "Lord, Tom, I've never suspected I might marry for love. I've always known I wouldn't. It's not something you'd understand, I suppose. If she makes me unhappy, I'll simply go to sea and never come back. Lord knows I might always be knocked on the head and make her a widow."
"I wish you would take this seriously," Tom snapped.
"Again, I am only stating facts," Will responded with frustrating equanimity. "I take it all quite seriously, I assure you. And I do not understand why this should upset you so."
"I'm not upset," Tom denied. "I'm simply attempting to make you see reason. A decision such as this is far too important to make in this fashion, for this reason. You can't live your life for Captain Aubrey, no matter how much you respect him."
Will shook his head impatiently. "You cannot tell me that you would not do the same for him if you could."
"I owe him more than you do!" Tom cried. His commission, his life, his past, present and future… There was nothing he didn't owe to Captain Aubrey.
"I disagree," Will responded with great dignity. "And it doesn't matter, anyway. My mind is made up, Tom. You know me well enough to know I'll do this with or without your assistance. Rather like the first time Captain Aubrey came aboard the Sophie, and you refused to help me hide those two girls in the cable-tier."
"Because it could have been a disaster," he reminded his friend, "as could this be."
"And yet it wasn't," Will countered. "Nor shall this be. And even if it is, shouldn't you love to say 'I told you so'?"
Of course he would, Tom thought with resignation. But not nearly as much as he'd love to have no part in any of this. Unfortunately, it seemed he had little choice.
"Your soul to the devil, William Mowett," Tom muttered. He tried to sound angry, but he and Will both knew his tone was one of defeat.
To Be Continued. I'd just like to make one thing perfectly clear... Touching as all your pleas not to make Stephen marry Lady Bethany were, I didn't heed them. This has always been the plan. There may come a time when you wish I had planned something else for our heroic doctor... But on the plus side, he's going to get his own story once this one is done...
Review, please! Pretty please? I'm going to try to get the next chapter out much more quickly but a few good reviews would help me ever so much!
Up next, more Evie and Tom (finally, all this plot nonsense really gets in the way of the romance). Also, ponies.