A/N Sorry this plot bunny has been bugging me for a while and for some reason listening to Jimmy Buffet's Sailors' Christmas brought it out. I don't know why… Anyway, this is my first Master and Commander story. I'm really only familiar with the movie, but someday, I do hope to read the books. As always I hope you enjoy it. If nothing else writing does quite the ramblings of my lively mind.
A small sigh escaped his lips as his Lieutenant told him they just cast off the bow lines. He was now going back home, to England. It took him a moment to remember the last time he was home; it had been a little over two years. He smiled and thanked his Lieutenant and turned back towards the charts and his Sailing Master. About four more weeks, providing the weather held, but they would be following the currents and trade winds all the way back. He frowned briefly, realizing he probably would be home until after Easter, placing his arrival sometime in late April, or more than likely, early May. Home, the word seemed almost foreign on his tongue. The journey had been long and more than satisfactory, in fact, it really was outstanding, but he was ready to hold his wife and son again. His boy must be what, four years now maybe closer to five? He had missed over half his life already. But this was, truly, the life of a naval officer, and he wouldn't have it any other way. His wife was a fine woman, she had to be to put up with him, but the sea was a demanding mistress. One he would bend hell or high water to please. For Thomas Pullings, he wouldn't have it any other way. His life was meant to be free on the ocean.
"Captain Pullings, Sir," his Lieutenant interrupted as he was looking over the log. "We're being hailed by the Luna. I think she wants to see us through the blockade. She's the one in command of these waters."
"Very good Mr. Yardley," Tom replied, "prepare for boarding then." Yardley tugged and his forelock and left quickly. Tom chuckled to himself. He knew his old shipmate was not used to calling him Captain. He had served with Arthur Yardley during some runs with the East India Company. In fact, he felt almost a type kinship to the slightly older gentleman. Both men had risen through the ranks of naval service not through money or connections, but rather through their own merit. And the fact that someone of influence had taken a liking to them. Arthur, like Tom so many times over, volunteered to serve with his old friend on half pay.
Tom thought it almost lucky to meet with Yardley. He'd met him again several weeks ago, when his prize ship limped its way into the Caribbean port of Barbados. He had been so elated when he was appointed Acting Captain of the prize ship Acheron; he had almost forgotten the sorry state the Surprise had left her in. After the battle had subsided, Mr. Lamb had repaired the mast and holes to the best of his ability, but she was still not fit for fighting quite yet. Then when the French Captain, disguised as the surgeon, tried to free the prisoners and sink the ship. He would have rather had her at the bottom of the ocean then in the hands of the English. Tom honestly couldn't blame him, he probably would have done the same in the man's position. The Frenchman didn't try anything right away, they waited until Tom had gotten settled and quieted. Then, during mid watch, around four bells, the "doctor" snuck down to the brig and released his men. Then after sneaking up and killing the Officer on watch they tried to turn their swords Tom's man and the cannons on sinking the ship. Thankfully, his men were able to stop the attack before it got to out of hand, but he did lose another midshipman, and the fight with the French captain left him with a badly dislocated shoulder. Jack and the Surprise showed up not a half a day later to escort him to Valparaiso. Tom was immensely thankful for Jack's company and even more so for Doctor Maturin. Higgins had not properly set his shoulder, leaving Tom in quite a lot of pain, but the good doctor made sure everything made its way back to its rightful place.
When the Acheron and Surprise arrived in Valparaiso, the Spanish were not pleased to see the now two English Man o War ships. They agreed to parole the French sailors, but wouldn't let them make port. The French Sailors had to be ferried from the Acheron into the harbor. During this time, Mr. Lamb did his best to patch up the further damage sustained during the French escape, she really did need to dry dock to refit. There was simply not enough time to complete the full repairs. Once the transaction was completed, cannon fire forced the two ships and crew off shore. Jack thought it best to follow Tom around the Horn, just to make sure she held up in one piece. God be with them, at least this time they were sailing with the wind, and during summer. He left Jack and the Surprise in the Falklands right before the turn of the year. They spent the Christmastide on the islands allowing some rest for the crew. Tom himself sat with the younger lads and told them the whole Christmas story about the birth of Jesus. When it came time to cast off, Jack decided to stay for an extra week. He finally allowed the good doctor to look at the birds. The Doctor seemed quite enthralled with the squat, braying, flightless sea birds that were nesting all over the islands. Tom couldn't understand the doctor's fascination with those birds, the ammonia smell around their nests made his eyes water. Then there were the funny tall ones who kept their egg on their feet passing between each other like a funny game of ball, strange, really, quite strange.
The rest of the trip wasn't quite as exciting until Tom's grand ship finally made its way across the equator. It rather soon after that that a large Spanish privateer, seeing the still rough shape the Acheron was in, took a chance to fire upon them. They fled quickly after the Acheron returned fire, but they weren't without further damages. The privateer managed to knock out the top of the mizzen mast, and damaged some of their provisions in the hull, including fresh water. This drove Tom to seek port in the Caribbean.
"Captain," Lieutenant Yardley called shaking Tom out of him recollections. "Tom, are you well?"
"Yes, Mr. Yardley," Tom replied back with a half smile. Then he rubbed his still aching shoulder absent mindedly and nodded. "Yes, yes quite well. I beg your pardon, what were you saying?"
"I was saying Captain Wexler from the Luna had boarded. His wishes an audience."
"I'll be out in a moment."
Tom stood up and stretched his legs for a moment and exited his cabin into the Quarterdeck. He was met with a well built gentleman with jet black hair and equally dark eyes. The man stood solemnly over him.
"Thomas Pullings," the man's deep voice grumbled. He tried to maintain a serious expression, but the laughter finally broke thought.
"Captain Wexler," Tom laughed as the two men greeted and patted each other on the back. John James Wexler was in his mid fifties and solid as ox. He'd been Captain of the Luna for as far back as Tom could remember. They'd first met back the on Nile when he was just a boy. She was a fine ship of the line with fifty four guns. J.J., as he was known to his men, lost three fingers and part of his left ear in the same battle Tom got his scar. Turkish smiters were quite sharp indeed.
"My God lad, look at you. The last time I saw you, you were no more than a lowly Third Lieutenant. Now here you stand before me, an acting Captain with a fine prize."
"It was a hard fought battle Sir." He was still a higher rank; the epaulettes on his shoulders spoke of that. Tom hoped that this prize would win him an epaulette of his own. I was sailing with Captain Jack Aubrey on the Surprise. We spent almost a year chasing them nearly around the world. It was a fierce battle but our smaller frigate took this ship by, well, Surprise. I would love to tell you the story in its entirety, but I'm afraid we have to make haste back to England. Our homecoming is long over due. What is it you wish to tell me?"
"Part of my boarding was to see if the rumors were true, Captain Thomas Pullings. Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn't it. You're a fine sailor son; I knew this day would come eventually. I just hope the Admiralty sees the worth in promoting you." The two men laughed again.
"Thank you Sir." He could feel his face grow red with bashfulness.
"Well Tom, or are you still preferring Captain Pullings, I wanted to sent word to watch for the Privateers and smugglers. We sunk one smuggler just last night. Though most of the fighting with old Bonesy is back on The Continent now, we've got our work cut out for us here. Between the slave uprising and blockade, we've been losing quite a few men. Like Lieutenant Yardley. His former ship the Tremor, sunk last month losing most of its hands and Captain who picking him personally. The Admiralty didn't have a new post for him, so the left him on half pay. It's lucky for him that you're offering him a ride back."
"I could use the extra men. As it is I'm already hurting for midshipman and officers. I'm still pulling watch shifts to fill the gaps. I also don't have a true carpenter, or doctor for that matter. We lost quite a few good men in the initial battle to win this ship. Jack could only give me what he could truly spare. But I've known Yardley for years, not as long as you, but he's a friend none the less and a much needed Lieutenant. Hopefully, it will be an uneventful trip back."
"Well, at least the Yanks are neutral in all this, for now at least. I would invite you to dinner, but if you must be on your way then so be it. I also wanted to ask, if you would be so kind as to take our mail back to England."
"Of course, good seeing you again J.J."
"God Speed Tom." He held out his hand and shook it.
"To you as well." With that Captain Wexler bid his men to load the dozen or so bags of mail and they finally cast off once more. Onward, home!
Tom was on the Poop deck over seeing the coxswain at the helm when they passed the still smoldering remains of the smuggler's ship Wexler told him about. It looked like a small sloop, probably very fast and maneuverable but with little firing power compared to a ship of the line. It was about four bells later, when he was getting read for dinner, that he heard the call for "Man over board." He and Yardley, whom was sitting down with, ran out. He grabbed the led from the midshipman on watch and looked out at the remains of a small lifeboat and two bodies inside.
"Let me pass," Tom called as the men crowded around the ropes where the two were being hulled up. Yardley made his way next to Tom.
"My God," Yardley gasped. "Is that… is that a child." Tom flinched inwardly and nodded.
"It appears so Mr. Yardley. Damn." Not just any child but a girl child at that. She looked like a half drown little thing, with a face bright red from sunburn. As soon as the two were on deck the man they pulled up, started shouting in rapid fire French. Tom knelt down the two as they were laid out before him. "Steady now, steady." He tried calming the grizzled old man they just pulled up. He was dressed in plain clothing, no embalms or signals assigning him any sort of rank. He appeared to be an average sailor, in fact he kind of reminded Tom of old Joe back on the Surprise. The girl, well, should didn't look to be more than five or six. A sandy haired little thing, she was dressed in what looked to be fine dress at one point. Now it was stained and torn. "Do you speak English?" The man looked him over and shrugged at him. Tom looked around to see if any of his men could translate, Jack had been teaching him French, but he wasn't nearly proficient with it. He then thought back in his mind for a second. "Akers and Sadler, get the child below to Higgins. Parlez-vous Anglais?"
"I 'eard you the first time," the man answered.
"So you do speak English?"
"Oui, I just prefer not to use it." He could tell the man was reluctant to talk to him.
"You speak it very well." Tom noticed. The man's English was very easy to understand with only a slight trace of a strange accent.
"Yes, I'm fluent. I used to trade quite a bit with the Americans; they taught me everything I know. I work a part of the fur trade on the lakes, before the war.
"Who are you, and please, tell me how you and a child ended out in the middle of the ocean." Tom was speaking quickly, he wanted answers.
"Please, speak slowly," the man replied in an annoyed tone. Tom took a deep breath and nodded. "I am Renault Theillaud, seaman from the Marianne."
"What happened? How did you and a child end up out here?"
"Our ship was sunk by English men just like you."
"The smugglers ship?"
"The child?" Tom's brow furrowed, he couldn't comprehend having a child that young on a ship, let alone a female.
"Her Father was a merchant in Guadalupe selling sugar. Your English, blocking off all his ports of trade was costing him dearly. He wanted to get back to France. So he paid my Captain to take him and his daughter back."
"Where's her father now… and the Captain?"
"Dead, he was shot in the chest trying to hide his daughter in the life boat when our ship started burning. Captain burned with the ship."
"It was only her and her father." Tom wiped a bead of sweat off his brow and tucked an escaped strand of hair behind it ear. "Monsieur? She has no one. That little girl is now and orphan. Your countrymen made sure of that." Tom inwardly flinched, but then again, how many of Napoleon's men made innocent English children orphans. It was the nature of the beast. Tom knew there was always the possibility he would never come back, at least his wife was still alive. So many of the men he sailed with lost their wives in childbirth.
"What's her name?"
"Je ne sais pas… sorry I..." Tom shook his head almost dumbfounded.
"No, no I understood you. How could you not know?"
"She was kept below; none of the crew knew she was even there. Not until her father brought her upon deck when we started burning. I tumbled off the boat when our powder finally exploded. It was only luck this boat blew off too. I clung on to it for dear life not knowing the child was inside until I came to my sense." A sigh of exhaustion escaped the man, Renault's lips. He looked as if he was about to pass out at any moment. Tom called for a couple other crewmen to help the man down below to Higgins as well.
"Make sure they both have adequate food and water. I wish to be notified the moment the girl wakes up."
It wasn't too long after, maybe a couple hours when a loud shriek was heard echoing throughout the ship. His men didn't have to get him. Tom knew the girl had woken up and was probably frightened. He made his way down to the infirmary and saw the little girl speaking incomprehensible French between sobs. Higgins looked almost too scared to move. Tom had to suppress an eye roll at the look of abject terror on Higgins' face. "For goodness sake," Tom scolded, "she's a child, not a monster."
"Easy, Easy little darling," Tom tried to sooth the young girl. She gave him a confused looked and started sniffling even harder. Finally, Tom sat down and took the small, crying child into his arms. She needed someone to protect her. "Please, er… S'il vous plait, stop crying… ah…" he had to think for a moment, "arrêtez de crier." His French was very broken but he racked his brain trying to remember what Jack had been teaching him. "Mon nom est Capitaine Pullings, ce qui est à vous?" He wasn't sure if it was the proper way of asking her name, but it must have sounded funny enough to calm the little girl down.
"Mon nom… Nannette Balshone," she squeaked out barely above a whisper. Her throat was raw from her crying. "Monsieur Capitanine I'm a effrayé, Que se produit?" Though he knew what she was asking him, he hadn't the slightest idea how to answer her. The she looked up at him with her two big blue, blood shot eyes. "Monsieur, I... understand… very little… tres peu… Anglaise, but no speak Anglaise," she squeaked again. Then she scrunched up her face and buried it in his shoulder. "Je veux rentrer à la maison," she started sobbing again. "Je manque mon père!"
"Shhh, little darling. You're on my ship, its fine ship dear, safe and comfortable. Just, clam your self for a moment." Her face was still buried in his shoulder but she did look up briefly at him. He wrapped his arms tighter around her and tired to rock her. "Does anyone know any lullabies? Something? Anything!"
"Hush a bye Baby," One of his men started singing. Tom and the others started to join in. "In the tree tops. When the wind blows the cradle will rock, when the bow breaks the cradle will fall, and down tumbles baby, cradle and all." No effect the young girl was still sobbing and babbling in French for her Papa. Tom paused again to remember a song his mother used to sing to him when he was a babe.
"BALOW, my babe, lie still and sleep!
It grieves me sore to see thee weep.
Wouldst thou be quiet I'se be glad,
Thy mourning makes my sorrow sad:
Balow my babe, thy mother's joy,
Thy father breeds me great annoy-
He could hear young Nannette's breathing grow more even as her eyes started to close. Tom continued on.
"Lie still, my darling, sleep awhile,
And when thou wak'st thoo'le sweetly smile:
But smile not as thy father did,
To cozen maids: nay, God forbid!
But yet I fear thou wilt go near
Thy father's heart and face to bear-
She finally grew limp in his arms and he settled her back into the cot. He looked around at the crowd that had gather around to see their Captain singing to a young child. No one said a word as they all quietly backed out of the infirmary to let the girl sleep. But truth be told, it was probably one of the more affectionate moments they'd seen from their normally reserved Captain. Tom wasn't one for over expression, he kept most of his thought hidden from view. Different from Jack, who was far more open with his thoughts. Once back on the Quarterdeck, safely away from the rest of the men, Yardley spoke up. "Sir, what are we going to do with a girl child on the ship?"
"What else can we do Arthur? I'm not going to dump her back into the ocean. She'll sail back to England with us, and once there I'll try to find if she has any living family left, or send her to a school for orphans."