Following the end of the morning half-watch William Blakeney should have been returning to his bunk instead of creeping past the cookhouse. He should have headed left, down to the officers' berth, rather than right into the mess. And he certainly should not be following the voices he could hear above him.
However the start of the conversation he had picked up ten minutes ago had bothered him, so much so that he had crawled into the space at the back of the storage shelves, a secret passed on to him by the instigator of the exchange himself. Will squeezed between the top of the storage planks and the floor above, thanking fortune that he was still small enough to fit into he space.
"…if she indeed leaves with you, Tom, I cannot pretend to be sorry for it. I believe it a highly sensible course of action for Miss Hollum to take…" Blakeney had only just caught part of the Captain's dialogue and shuffled round to gain a more advantageous position.
"Sir," he heard Pullings reply. "I have already broached Cicely on the subject and she had agreed. In her capacity as Robert Young she will mizzen the Acheron until we reach Portsmouth."
"And then what?" Above Blakeney, he heard the doctor move. "She has not informed me of such situation."
"I do beg your pardon sir," Pullings replied, "Of course: your wife has expressed the wish to mizzen under my order aboard the commandeered "Acheron" and – "
"She does not need my consent…she does not need my consent, Jack: have I not already explained myself to that effect!" There was silence, and indistinct voices before Maturin continued, "Excuse me, Captain Pullings. I need to speak to Captain Aubrey alone…"
Blakeney shuffled back, rubbing the back of his neck that was becoming twisted between the floor and ceiling. Cicely was to leave? A pang of worry washed over him before he shuffled forward to listen again.
"If she leaves, what will become of her?" Stephen paced back and forth along the floor above Blakeney. "She will not survive long alone. With her brother gone, how will she live?"
"It is surely her decision, Stephen, as you have made clear," replied Jack Aubrey, turning to look at his friend who was so obviously uneasy with the situation. "She will have considered it, surely?"
"She will have considered it," said Stephen, annoyed. "And as her husband, I will offer her board, and she will refuse it. Then she will insist that the marriage is annulled in order that I do not to insult her again. And when she falls on hard times, and cannot live she will bear it, and will probably decide that Robert Young needs to enlist in the Navy again…"
"You have spoken to her on the matter, then?" Stephen shot his friend a look.
"You mock me, sir," he replied bitterly. "She has passed nothing of intimacy to me since before the battle, as well you know."
"Then how – "
"Because that is how it is!" Maturin banged his fist angrily on the oak panelling by the door. "Is it only I that can see that?" Jack looked at the emotion in his face; he had seen such passion before in his friend, but it had been confined to the care of his men and to the natural world. At length, he continued.
"You have feelings of affection for the woman?"
"Certainly not! I care for her, if that's what you mean. And if she were to remain I have work for her to do, plenty to aid the running of the ship. She is making good progress tending the wounded, and she herself has healed remarkably well." Stephen walked over to Aubrey's desk and looked at objects upon it: a Mercator map of the west coast of Ecuador; a sextant, various naval journals and logs.
"And when my crew are mended? When your work is complete? In the eyes of the law she is your property and as such, now I have allowed her to fight in Hollum's name I will not tolerate her as Robert Young. Will she not do as a wife? Is she not coercible?" Aubrey looked in all seriousness at the doctor.
"I would not be so audacious!" declared Stephen, folding his arms, annoyed. "I have considered her a free woman since the moment you wed us! Despite my better judgment I overlook her nightly disappearances to the crew decks because – " Aubrey raised his eyebrows in astonishment.
"Oh don't look like that; you trust your crew. She is clearly more comfortable there with Fillings and the others than with me." He paced round to the other side of the table and sat back down in his Queen Anne chair. Jack exhaled slowly; something didn't quite add up.
"I don't understand your logic, Stephen. You can command her as you wish, and yet you allow her free will. And when she chooses to exercise it in a clear and sensible manner you wish her to stay because you fear she will perish alone. Do you not agree that by her very presence that she is clearly capable of her own care?" Jack sighed, and placed both hands on the desk. "Where is she, anyway?"
"I sent her to collect bandages and medication from my cabin," sighed Stephen, holding his head in his hands. He looked up.
"My friend; I will allow her to stay, should you so wish." Maturin shot him a look of hope as Jack look out onto the main.
"She may," he continued, "however her work for me will cease and she must be declared openly to be your wife. Whatever you command of her is in your judgment and I will respect that." Maturin got to his feet.
"Then you will permit me leave to find my wife and wish her good fortune under Captain Pullings," Stephen placed an unsteady hand on the handle and went to turn it.
"Stephen?" Jack followed his reach to the handle and looked at his friend's face, sorrow edging onto it. "I beg of you to explain. Surely this compromise suits both our needs." Maturin took his hand off the handle.
"She insisted Higgins treat my wounds, Jack. She barely looks at me: I believe she has regretted her decision of marriage and cannot bear to be in my presence." He looked to the floor, before glancing at his friend.
"And despite this, you still wish her to remain? You wish, I think, for a situation which does not yet exist. Do you still insist you do not have feelings for Cicely?"
"If you'll excuse me," Maturin repeated, opening the door with a creak.
Blakeney wriggled out of the gap and down onto the cookhouse floor. Above, he heard the door of the Captain's cabin creak closed and the doctor pace out onto the deck above. He saw Maturin run his hand over his hair and stepping in the direction of the sick berth.
Blakeney ducked underneath the staircase as he saw Stephen pass, before watching as he mis-stepped and turning, pacing in the other direction, towards his own cabin.
Keeping six feet behind the doctor, Blakeney followed him across the first deck, dipping into the shadows as the doctor paused sporadically, as if inside fighting an urge to turn back.
Eventually Maturin reached his cabin, and placed a hand on the already open door as if to push it further open. Blakeney took another step as if to follow him, but pulled it back as the doctor retreated, looking over his shoulder.
And then, a scene justifying Blakeney's actions that were to come that afternoon, came to pass: the doctor peered round the door, watching Cicely within. From his position near the wall, Will could see Cicely. She was sitting at Maturin's desk, with the bandages she was bade to fetch before her.
Gently, she was looking at his large notebook in which he sketched and hand-illustrated the wonderful animals he had discovered on Albemarle and Chatham, outlining them lightly with her finger. Then she got to her feet and picked up the dress in which she had wed, holding it against her.
Go in, sir, he willed. Tell her.
Maturin took a few steps towards Cicely, making her jump. He took the dress from her carefully. She looked in his direction, and from what Will could see, she was talking to him about the crew, gesturing in the vicinity of the sick berth.
The doctor had taken the bandages from her, and the dress he hung as it appeared she was requesting behind the door.
He saw a few more words of conversation pass. Will knew she was informing him of her wish to leave and he was wishing her well. This was further confirmed to the boy when he saw the doctor go to kiss Cicely on the lips, but she turned so he caught only her cheek.
Why won't you tell her? he yelled silently to the couple, as Maturin stepped back through the door. And why won't you tell him?
Shrinking back against the wall, Blakeney waited until the doctor had passed and could hear him climbing the steps to the upper deck before he looked back in her direction. Cicely had seated herself back the desk and was continuing to look at the books.
"Will!" she exclaimed, looking up in surprise when she noticed him standing there. "How are – are you all right?" she said, when she saw his expression.
"I've come to say –" he began, before walking over to the doctor's bed and sitting down on it, holding his head in his hands. "I've…" he stopped, looking beseechingly at Cicely. She crossed the cabin and knelt before Blakeney, who was shaking.
"I've come to say that there's going to be a feast," he said, "a celebration before Captain Pullings sails the Acheron."
"That's good news," said Cicely, comfortingly, then rubbed his arm as tears began to flow. "And I expect Peter would have enjoyed it," she ventured soothingly. He looked at her sharply.
"Yes," he said. "And Tom," he added, before wiping away another tear. "Cicely, is it right what Tom told Captain Aubrey? That you're going to mizzen on the Acheron?" She nodded, and rubbed his shoulder. So that was it: Cicely knew he had a soft spot for her, but didn't quite realise how much he cared for her.
And now, come to think of it, how much she would miss his bright, happy-go-lucky face, keen and eager to become an officer; proudly and valiantly commanding the ship to victory in the battle.
"Captain Aubrey has let me battle for Edward," she said softly. "He will not allow me to stay aboard now; and here is my ideal opportunity to continue in his Service while I decide what to do next." Will looked at her, confused.
"Why can you not stay? You work well as a mizzen; and Captain Aubrey has no reason to complain of your work!" Cicely laughed.
"I'm afraid he does: what about my tendency to fight with other men when I disagree with them? And my insubordination? No, even if I were Robert Young – a boy…" she added, when he looked at her in doubtfully, "and as I'm not, he is far too decent to allow me to be Cicely Hollum."
"But – don't you care for the doctor any more?" Blakeney got to his feet, standing over Cicely. "Don't you remember telling me how you adored him? How you loved him…?" Cicely looked back in shock, getting to her feet and moving over to the window of the doctor's cabin, by his hammock…by his spare set of spectacles marking the pages of Erasmus Darwin's "Zoonomia".
"You do," he continued reproachfully, "I know you do. You loved him when he was ill – dying; you loved him when you married him, and you love him still!"
"Stop it!" Cicely said sharply, turning from the window and making Blakeney jump.
"Yes," she confessed quietly, approaching him gently. "I do. I do love him, and always will. Which is why I can dishonour him no longer and must leave the ship." Stepping towards Will she pulled the dress from the back of the cabin door and folded it over her arm and walked past him.
"But I love you," he called after her, beginning to sob. Cicely stopped dead, dropping the dress onto the floor and hurried back to him. Hugging him tightly, she rubbed his back comfortingly.
"And I you, Will. I'll never forget you. But your destiny lies on another path to mine." Cicely pulled him back and looked him in the eye. "When I read about Admiral Blakeney in the Times," she continued, wiping a tear from his cheek with his thumb, "and his glorious victory over the French; I'll remember you, Will."
"But I heard the doctor and the Captain talking," replied Will, "just now," he added, swallowing. "The doctor wants you to stay; he saw how well you treated Tom..." Cicely shook her head and smiled. He wants me to stay?
"Mr. Blakeney," she turned, but Will stood in front of her. "Please excuse me; I'm to see the Captain and return this." She gestured to the beautiful dress lying crumpled on the floor.
"You can't leave!" he cried, looking at her angrily. "I'll never see you again!"
"Will," she said calmly, trying to contain her emotions. "What use would I be aboard a working battle ship? Yes, I could nurse, and I could educate. When you're older, Will, you'll understand."
"But – "
"My failing," she quavered, her heart stinging as she spoke to the boy, "is that I am a woman, Will. Despite myself, I love him. With every fibre of my soul. And if I remain, I will be tormented because I know he could never love me back. That, rather than a gunshot, or a cannon, or sickness…" she held his shoulders, "will hurt me, will kill me," she put her hand to her chest, "here. I'm leaving Will because I will not be able to bear that."
"But he heard you!" he exclaimed. "When you were ill! He heard you tell him you loved him! And you told me about how you were lost in his green eyes!" Cicely smiled, gently. He didn't understand. How could he? He was only thirteen and besides her and his mother, he had never been in the company of females.
"I'll never forget your keeping of my promise, " she said, kissing him on the cheek before getting to her feet. "I'll miss you." Cicely turned and, picking up the dress, walked hastily towards the steps. The hardest thing will be telling James, she thought, as she began to climb the steps, he'd been through a lot. But from what she'd heard he was ripe for promotion now he was stronger.
"Cicely!" she heard Blakeney call after her. When she got to the deck she stopped and waited for him to catch her up.
"Good luck, Will," she said, smoothing down his hair.
"I'll miss you, Cicely," he replied, smiling. "We won't ever have a mizzenlad as good as you."
Cicely turned and began to walk without turning to look at Will she rapped on the door of the Captain's cabin.
"I understand that you have accepted the offer from Mr. Pullings to return to Portsmouth, mizzening the Acheron?" Cicely nodded as the Captain spoke. "If I may say, a wise decision. Your husband has agreed, of course.
"Before I leave, please accept this." Cicely held out the dress in which she had been wed. Aubrey frowned and shook is head.
"No," he said. "Sophie has too many dresses. You may keep it. And besides, it was your wedding dress." Cicely stopped, and looked back at the Captain, still holding it aloft.
"I don't think I'll be needing it for mizzening," she said slowly. Jack watched as she draped it over the back of the Queen Anne chair.
"No doubt you'll make a good job of it I'm sure. I must thank you for your work tending my sick men: Dr. Maturin informs me that even he could not have made as good a job with Captain Pullings as you did yourself." He looked up from his desk and looked at Cicely in her tunic that she had found time to repair herself, lengthening hair and boys' britches, before turning and surveying the ocean.
"I do have another offer for you to consider: a promotion from mizzenlad to nurse. Now I do not make this offer lightly, but it is not every day that a mizzenlad uncovers the identity of an enemy spy and saves her Captain's life." Cicely smiled with pride, despite herself.
"I think it is wise for me to leave, sir," she said slowly. "You've done more than enough for me. I wish to alleviate you both of your responsibilities." Jack turned, and looked at her carefully.
"What will you do, when you return to England?"
"Find work," said Cicely. "My father believes me to be dead. I cannot contemplate what he will do if he finds I am alive. A trade, I expect; Robert Young could become apprenticed, at least."
"And you wouldn't consider staying to assist your husband?" Jack sat down in his chair, and noticed her flinch. "I could not tolerate your residence a-nights with the men of course, and you must declare your status as the doctor's wife, however this may be preferable than chancing your luck back in England…"
"It was an honourable thing he did in marrying me, sir," Cicely replied, shaking her head. "If I were to remain, I don't believe I could bring him anything but shame." Aubrey looked at her for qualification. "I do not love him," she confirmed. There. She had declared it. She did not love Stephen Maturin. Aubrey got to his feet.
"Then it's agreed, Miss Hollum," he said, smiling as he extended a hand. "I release you from my service and wish you well." Cicely returned the smile and shook his hand. "Captain Pullings leaves at mid-afternoon. A celebratory feast is prepared; collect your belongings together and report to the mess."
"Yes, sir," she said, then saluted, before opening the door. Stepping out, Cicely turned to the right, and headed down to the berths.
Jack sat back down to his desk and picked up his quill. He looked at the orders he had nearly finished writing for Tom, adding "Robert Young" to the list of crew departing the Surprise. Just then, there was a knock on the door.
"Ah, Mr. Blakeney. What may I do for you?" Aubrey put down his quill and looked at the boy, who appeared agitated.
"There's something important you need to know, Captain – "
Following the feast, where the men and officers had dined together, Cicely descended to the berth and said her goodbyes to the crew. The first person she told had been her pair. James had patted her on the back a few times, and had taken it better than she had expected, or at least better than she would have done, Cicely had thought, if she had been losing him.
Before she turned to farewell the others, he had pressed into her hand a pocket watch, explaining that it had been his grandfather's When Cicely had tried to refuse, the look James had given her was one of such hurt that she had taken it and fastened the chain to the buttonhole on her tunic, so the face glimmered in the candlelight.
"Ar," said Nagel, clapping her on the back. "'s good to see yer go," he said, grinning at her.
"Good?" said James, looking horrified.
"Ar," he confirmed, clapping James on the back. "Leaves more Frenchies for the rest of us next time!" Cicely turned to Nagel who put something in her hands.
"For Mrs Warley. Just wanted 'er to know 'bout Will. That he died honourably fer us," he said. Cicely nodded, recalling the stormy cold night that the main mast was lost and Warley lost with it.
Cicely then looked across at the other men; Wade; Finch and Hoole, plus others beside, all clutching parchment; letters for their loved ones, no doubt.
Once she had stowed them into her hessian roll, Cicely made her way up to the deck, and stood with the other men who were to depart with the Acheron under Captain Pullings.
They saluted Captain Aubrey, who was overseeing their departure from the Surprise, and Killick began to pipe their departure.
Cicely glanced along the faces at the officers on the quarterdeck: Captain Aubrey, newly-promoted 1st Lieutenant Mowett and Midshipmen Heald and Donnay. Behind them, she could see the figure of Stephen Maturin, in the same dress coat he wore when they had been married.
Don't look, she told herself as she saluted and turned with the others, facing the back of Fitzherbert. Just as Killick piped the last note, she stepped forward, and onto the kick-plank.
"Cicely!" She turned to see Will before her. "Didn't you speak to the Captain?" Cicely glanced up at Aubrey, whose face had turned stormier at Blakeney's breaking with protocol.
"Yes, Will," she whispered, holding out a hand. "You know my decision. Goodbye," she added. Will shook her hand, looking over his shoulder and glancing at the Captain. Cicely turned to go again, but Will held her onto her hand.
"Will!" she interjected, aware that the men were watching her intently.
"Mr. Blakeney, do not delay that man in his duty!" Aubrey commanded from the quarterdeck, before stepping down to the foredeck.
"But sir –" Will shouted, then stopped, turning to Cicely.
"You must stay," he insisted, looking at her earnestly.
"But you love him!" Cicely felt a murmur ripple through the assembled men as Blakeney broke her trust loudly.
"Will," she said, ignoring his last comment, "I cannot nurse here; I'm a far better mizzen. And you are quite wrong," she glanced up at Aubrey who had appeared behind Blakeney. "There is nothing between the doctor and myself." She shook her hand free.
"And he loves you!" Blakeney shouted. Cicely looked around before crouching to his level, a tear welling in her eye. She lowered her voice to a whisper.
"You are wrong, Mr. Blakeney, sir. He cannot love me for I am a mizzenlad under Captain Pullings of the Acheron. Had circumstances been different, I would gladly nurse under Captain Aubrey, of the Surprise." And you would do well to remember it, she scolded herself.
"Er, Robert Young." Cicely got to her feet again, and looked at Aubrey. But it was clear it wasn't the Captain who had spoken.
And from behind him, Doctor Stephen Maturin stepped forward, and stood before her.
"I accept the appointment of Mrs Cicely Maturin to nurse aboard the Surprise under my direction, and wish to tell her…" he paused, but did not break his gaze "…that she is wrong in her assumption of my affection."
Maturin stepped towards her, and held out a hand for her to step down back onto the deck of the Surprise. The world spinning about her, Cicely took it.
"How could I not love you Cicely Hollum?" He asked quietly, pulling her into his arms. "You are brave, selfless…beautiful…" Cicely looked down, but Stephen picked up her chin and she shivered as he looked into her eyes, his own dazzling bright.
"It is also quite alarming your ability to handle a blade, I shall be in fear of my position as surgeon aboard this ship." Stephen stroked his hand across her back.
"Cicely!" said Will, quickly, but Jack Aubrey hushed him into silence.
Looking once more into her eyes, Stephen Maturin caught her in his arms, and pressed his mouth to hers. The world around Cicely melted away to leave just them both, together.
"Three cheers for the doctor. Three cheers for Robert Young…huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!"
One of these days I should pen the music to an air, thought Cicely, as she heard the ship's doctor and captain tune their strings. Maybe an aria; a change from Mozart and Handel at least.
Cicely looked at James, newly promoted to able seaman, being shown the ropes by Nagel, and Will Blakeney at the prow teaching the middies the sextant. She waved as Blakeney saw her, before guiding Daniel Richards' eye to the level of the mid-morning sun.
On second thoughts, it was their time; their friendship had endured despite Jack Aubrey's reservations. Their difference united harmoniously when they spent time together; Stephen came back from their evenings spent together enlivened and invigorated with a different eye for his work.
Cicely sighed and looked across the foredeck as a couple of the new mizzenlads step out onto the deck, bucket in hand. It should be her teaching them; she was as able as Frobisher.
However following the drama of recapturing the Acheron almost two months ago and her own domestic insurgency, Cicely had noticed the Captain was becoming more liberal with respect to her status amongst his crew and at a turn, Stephen more conservative, even chiding her for allowing the crew to speak informally to her.
Cicely had pointed out that, as a free woman, she was at liberty to put herself forward for mizzenlad again to which Jack, much to Stephen's annoyance, had stated that, as the best mizzenlad on the high seas Robert Young would be more than welcome as part of the Surprise's crew.
"Shall I go onto the next page, Sissy?" asked Pizzy, looking at her earnestly. Her self-extension to teaching the men to read had brought acclaim from both men, for which Cicely had been happy; she didn't think she could tolerate only the role of nurse to the men.
Bringing enlightenment through literacy was enough to keep her amply busy, she had overheard her husband comment to Aubrey, however Cicely was aware that Stephen Maturin knew her far better than she cared to admit, and as such, she there were some unspoken lines over which she hadn't crossed, including visiting her old shipmates below.
Cicely turned over the ship's Bible to the story of Jacob, pointing to the verse from where Pizzy should begin.
Now the Surprise was travelling back from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands where she and Stephen would disembark until Aubrey's business in Singapore was concluded. The doctor had work to do, to uncover the secrets hidden in plain view upon these islands.
But there were other secrets too, ones bigger than these islands and the natural pursuits involved in discovering them held; bigger still than her gender.
Cicely stroked her stomach lightly through the blue Chinese silk of the unwieldy dress as the tall mountains of Rodondo rock loomed on the horizon.
If it's a boy, Edward she thought, before turning and watching Maturin return to his work that he had left laid out on the other side of the deck, lost in thought.
"That was clearly read," said Cicely, bending her knees to Pizzy's level, watching him go as the lad grinned happily at the praise.
She turned the pages of the Bible to the book of Judges, chapter three, verse one, then sat Cicely-like, cross-legged on the deck. Pizzy sat next to her and she began to point out the words as he read aloud…thinking about her life…and Edward…and the future…
…every cloud has a silver lining.