Mistress of the Seas
Captain Alexander MacLeod strolled slowly across his deck with an air of satisfaction. They had sailed in good time, made a good progress in three days and it promised to be a good journey. Everyone was still working hard, he had been told, and the weather was cooperating nicely.
The young boy scrubbing the deck overturned his bucket with a nervous movement when the captain came near. Immediately an older fellow reprimanded him severely by boxing his ears, asserting his own competence. "Watch out, clumsy fool!"
MacLeod progressed slowly, watching their interaction. He would not have been as severe as this on a young boy on his first voyage, but he did not know how the lad had passed the first three days. The punishment might be well-deserved, even though the boy was no more than fourteen or fifteen. They became younger with every voyage, he reflected wistfully, or perhaps he grew older.
The boy, one hand pressed to his ear, retrieved his bucket without looking at the captain. "I am sorry, Captain," came the murmur. "But it was your fault, sir."
No ordinary deck scrubber would ever dare to say such a thing to him, so MacLeod halted, intrigued by this unusual communication. He studied the boy more closely, shooing the older fellow away. He did not need any assistance here, nor proof of the man's competence. "I beg your pardon, boy?"
The boy raised a defiant face at him. "I was overcome with sudden nerves upon seeing you, Captain."
The lad spoke well, but his voice had not yet broken. Perhaps he could go far, apparently having received some decent education, although upon closer inspection he was not very well-built. It was almost a girl. Not only his build was slight, but his face was rather feminine. There was a fine blush on it.
MacLeod slapped himself mentally for not seeing immediately that it was a girl, but to be fair, who would expect a girl on a ship, especially a girl with short hair and dressed as a boy? This had never happened to him before. "How far did you think you could go, if you are found out after three days already?" He was astonished, but kept his face curious and calm. He did have some admiration for the cheek of the lass.
"You found me out, Captain?" The girl bit her lip.
Contrary to what MacLeod had expected, the girl's voice sounded full of admiration and not fear or disappointment. He stared. This was very singular indeed. "Come to my cabin," he decided. While it was going to be a great tale for the officers, a girl among his crew, it was now a practical problem. A woman, and a young one at that, on board could only lead to trouble.
In his cabin, he slowly paced around the girl, studying her. She stood proud and erect. "Name?" he asked.
He took out the crew list. Lenton, Julian, 16. Apart from the age, that sounded rather familiar. "So, Master Lenton, did you think it a good idea to pick the name of a former commander of this ship?" He approved of the fact that she appeared to have done some research before she had enlisted. She could read then and she had prepared herself well.
"That would be my father, sir," said the girl.
He closed his eyes in dismay. "Is he not a duke nowadays?" MacLeod did not like this one bit. It would have been easier to get rid of a street urchin than of the daughter of a former captain who was now a duke.
"Indeed, he is the Duke of Muncester."
"And that makes you..." Someone who was going to get him into a great deal of trouble, he added silently.
"His daughter," the girl said helpfully.
"Just Julia Lenton would be fine, Captain."
MacLeod sighed. Whatever her current attire and name, this girl's father would expect him to treat her with all the respect and consideration that were due to a girl of her station. Unfortunately a ship full of men was not the best place for her to be. What was he to do with her? Keeping her on as a sailor was out of the question. "Lady Julia..." He felt faintly ridiculous saying this to a scruffy-looking boy. "You will go ashore at Lisbon."
Julia's face fell. "No! I want to stay with you, Captain!"
He received the distinct impression that she wanted to stay on board for his sake. This was not a very comforting feeling.
"You would never have found me out if I had not spilt my bucket."
MacLeod raised his eyebrows. "Do you seriously believe you would have gone undetected otherwise? Sleeping among the crew as you do? Perhaps this is news to you, but girls look different from boys."
Julia looked angry. "Do not send me away at Lisbon! You look very dashing in your uniform. And it really was your fault that I noticed that. I would have managed to be a good member of the crew."
He was completely astonished now and could not speak. The worst thing was that he could see she was absolutely serious.
The girl saw an opportunity; she was undoubtedly clever. "My father and my grandfather, who is Admiral Henson --" She dropped this name with glee, knowing he would be impressed. "-- would keelhaul me if I came back after so short a time, meaning I was nothing but a rebellious girl and a failure. I have things to prove. My grandfather always says I would make a good pirate."
"No piracy on my ship, Lady Julia. And tell me why your father and grandfather would not keelhaul me if I kept you on board." The girl was too well-connected to send straight into trouble -- and she was only sixteen. He ought to protect a child.
"They know me," she said, confident that their knowledge of her character absolved him of any guilt.
He was not going to trust in that. "I cannot take you to the West Indies," he stressed.
"I should love to go." She smiled in a very persuasive manner.
"You will have had enough excitement if I send you home from Lisbon," MacLeod decided. They would both have a good story to tell their grandchildren some day. There was no need to be stupid and die before either of them could have any children.
"Really? With which untrustworthy crew will you send a duke's daughter?" she asked, despite not behaving like one at all. "I would run away and you will be held responsible."
"Do not threaten me." She was correct, however. He could not foresee what might happen to her if he sent her home with somebody else. She might even do as she threatened and run away.
The solution was clear to Julia. "Do not send me away."
"First things first," MacLeod said, halting his pacing. "You cannot go back to sharing quarters with the men. Get your chest and bring it here."
"Can I stay with you then, Captain?" Julia's voice sounded hopeful.
For a moment he had forgotten her admiration. "We have cabins for guests, Lady Julia." He could justify using one for a duke's daughter. That was a positive point at least.
"I enlisted. I am not a guest."
He shook his head at her incredulously. How could she prefer a hammock? "I release you. You are now a guest."
"But my father and grandfather will think I failed! I can work! I will work! Let me," she pleaded.
He liked her spirit. It was a pity she was not a boy. He still did not have a solution, however. "Get your things." That would give him some time to think and to confer with some of his fellow officers.
The captain had sat Julia down and forced her to write a letter that would be sent at the earliest opportunity. The other officers had laughed at the tale, but they had not found fault with his decision. It was fortunate, he thought, that Lady Julia with short hair and in a boy's clothes would not turn any heads -- as long as she did not wash and sleep among them. Being the clever girl that she was, she had not brought any dresses and he would have to find her some fabric so she could demonstrate her accomplishments with the needle. That would keep her occupied as well.
Dearest Papa and Mama,
I hope you received my letter
from school and that all is well. I am aboard one of Papa's old ships, indeed
his painting is hung on the wall here in the captain's cabin and he is looking
upon me most kindly (Papa, for the captain is another matter entirely). I
ADORE THE CAPTAIN! He looks very dashing in his uniform. He wanted to
send me off at Lisbon, but I talked him out of such a foolish plan. Please do
not give him a hard time when you see him. I ADORE HIM! If he
does not take me to the West Indies I shall be very cross with him. But I shall
have plenty to do as the ship's seamstress (which the captain considers to be a
suitably feminine occupation). I will write as often as I can, but there are
not many opportunities for sending letters here.
Your loving daughter,
Since I believe Lady Julia will not rest until she has completed a sea voyage, I have given her another role among my crew and another place to sleep. A girl of sixteen has no place on a ship and whenever we encounter the possibility of a safe and respectable passage home, I shall not hesitate to send her back.
I remain most respectfully,
Alexander MacLeod, Captain.
Julia always sat on deck, sewing and observing, and letting the wind play with her hair. The captain had bought her some fabrics in Lisbon and told her to show him how accomplished she was. She could watch him forever, she thought, and never tire of it, but despite her close eye on him he could still take her by surprise and appear behind her in a most cruelly stealthy fashion.
"Lady Julia!" he said rather crossly in her ear. "If you continue to sit here you will be knocked down by a beam before long!"
"And now I stuck my needle in my finger, Captain," she responded, sticking her finger into her mouth. "Must you frighten me so? I am sure the boys would warn me if there were going to be any beams coming my way."
"Get down from there," he ordered. He did not like her referring to the crew as boys. It was, however, not unexpected, for even the officers behaved like boys in her presence. It was unfortunate that she had to dine with them and that there was no escaping their turning into silly pranksters.
She gathered up her sewing and pouted.
"How are you progressing with the dress?" He narrowed his eyes when he looked at her work. It did not resemble a dress at all.
"Oh Captain! I cannot make a dress without an example! Would you want me to look unfashionable?"
"What do they teach girls at school nowadays?" MacLeod grumbled. A tanned face and untidy hair were not unfashionable?
"I can work with an example! But not without."
"So, what is this?" He held up her work. It was indeed what he had suspected it to be and he did not know what he should be thinking or even saying.
"Trousers, Captain. I do have an example for those."
She was correct; she could indeed work with an example. He noted her perfect seams and sighed very deeply. "They will be lilac trousers. Since when are those less unfashionable on a girl than some shapeless sack? How difficult could it be to sew a shapeless sack?" He was certain that even he could manage. Not anymore, of course, for she had cut the fabric up now.
"You would agree with me, I suppose, that trousers are less scandalous when I climb into the ropes."
"You are not to climb into the ropes."
"But Captain, sometimes someone needs to who does not weigh much." She had observed that and also that she was one of the lighter people on board.
MacLeod would really like to shake and rattle her at times. She always had an answer.
"I adore you, Captain," Julia said in a sudden impulse, wrapping her arms around him from behind.
He dropped his pen and froze, feeling a kiss being planted on his cheek, her arms being tightened for a moment and then he was released again. With wide eyes he watched her skip through his cabin, still in her sailor's uniform and with short unruly hair. She already seemed to have forgotten what she had just done. "Julia..."
She turned with a little skip. "Yes, Captain?"
He studied her expression closely, but he could only see candour and innocence. "What you did just now..."
Julia shook her head a little, uncomprehendingly. "Yes, Captain?"
"What was that?" He began to suspect she had no clue, that it was something she did without thinking about it.
She frowned. "I...oh, do you mean the hug?" Then she beamed at him. "It underlines the fact that I adore you because you took me with you, Captain."
He observed the large ink stain where his pen had fallen. Were their roles now reversed, he dropping his pen in shock, after she had overturned her bucket? There were not many more nerves left in the girl, he would say. "At home, were you encouraged to...hug people?"
"My Papa is always afraid I would hug too many people."
MacLeod was afraid of that too. "And do you adore people easily, Julia?"
"When they are adorable, I do!"
He hid his face in his hands. What if Julia started finding some of the seamen adorable, a different one each week? With some of them hugs would be more than welcome and they would demand more, and he was fairly certain Julia was not thinking beyond hugs.
She approached his writing desk, looking concerned. "But Captain, is there a problem? Did you not like being hugged? Did you find it improper? Should I not do it again? But how am I to tell you I approve of you?"
"There is really no pressing need to let me know you approve of me. I think you have already done enough." He tried not to sound stern or gruff.
"Captain, do not be so stuffy!" she complained. "Everybody likes to hear sweet things. Your men are not going to tell you anything sweet and so you will be deprived until you come home, where you may not hear anything either."
The chances of that happening were indeed very slim. He did not even have a home. "But men do not really need it."
She rolled her eyes. "Or so they think! I know better."
"Yes, I am sure you do."
"But what am I to do now? Am I to refrain?"
"Perhaps you should not hug stuffy people."
"It makes them less stuffy, though," she said in an earnest voice. She firmly believed in the power of hugs and friendliness.
"Perhaps they do not want to be less stuffy."
"Stuffy is not good, Captain. You can be less stuffy with me. I do not have to take orders from you."
"Oh, do you not?" he mocked.
She ignored that. "I have seen you glare at dinner, Captain, when I laughed with the officers. I am sure you would find it much more agreeable to laugh."
He did not know she had been paying any attention to his moods. He also did not know he had glared.
"I know why you cannot laugh too much if they are there. You must be the captain. But I shall not betray you to them. I shall not tell them you like hugs."
MacLeod opened his mouth and closed it. He was supposed to be in charge here. "I never said I did."
Julia clicked her tongue. "No, you would never, but I like you for it."
He groaned. "Is there no way I can escape that fate?" She insisted on adoring him, whatever he did. He was not the sort to revel in his adorable status, however.
"No," she said cheerfully. She did not want to promise too much. "But if you give me an order with regard to hugging, perhaps I may stick to it."
"Well, Julia..." he began, picking up his pen and looking at the damage the ink stain had done to his journal. Perhaps he could continue on this page without starting over. "I doubt that you would stick to a stuffy order, so I might as well not give you any."
She smiled happily at him.
"I advise you not to look happy," he said warningly. "What you did just now would be enough for your father to kill me. Perhaps if you do not want me killed, you should be a little less affectionate."
She threw her arms about him again to thank him.
MacLeod dropped his pen again. "Less affectionate, I said."
"I am not kissing you now, Captain."
As soon as they reached the West Indies, MacLeod could stop worrying about having to take Julia along for the entire two years, for they were caught in a horrible tropical storm and shipwrecked. Julia loved it. Being rocked from one sailor to another in a small boat was the height of excitement to her, since she had been denied everything else by being forced to sew clothes for herself.
Julia was seventeen and hungry when they were finally picked up by a fishing boat.
"But you still should not be here," remarked Captain MacLeod after having been informed that she was now seventeen. "It is the first mail boat back for you."
"And you. You lost your old lady. My sympathies for the loss of your...er...wife." It had taken him so long to abandon the ship that she had wondered about the depth of his feelings. She had finally managed to persuade him, however.
He gave her a little nod to thank her for the compassion in her eyes. While she was still only seventeen, she had grown up considerably at sea. Another year and she might not be a child anymore. Perhaps people would already be fooled. He could easily take a child around, but perhaps not a young lady of seventeen who kept hugging him when she felt like it.
"Julia, what do you know of men?" he asked, taking her to a quiet corner. "Do you realise your reputation is at stake?" She had nowhere to go and she would run away from any arrangement involving respectable older chaperones. There was not even any use in suggesting such an arrangement. By now he knew her well.
She smiled at him brightly. "Do you know how many brothers I have, Captain? My mother and I are very outnumbered at home. But their being younger than I am probably means they are not men?"
"Probably," he agreed. "If you are not a woman, they are not men. What do you know of men of, let us say, older than twenty?"
"I only know what I saw, what you told me and what you think, Captain, which was that I should not stay with the crew -- and some things they told us at school, but I do not believe those."
"You see," he said, gesturing at the other men. "You could not go with them, so you have two other options." Although, if he was honest, all men were equal when it came to being men and Julia ought to be accompanied by a woman.
"I could go with you, Captain." Obviously that idea appealed to her.
"Yes, that was one of the options, but it would not be very good for your reputation."
"I take it yours does not suffer in an equal measure?"
He was not entirely sure how dallying with young maidens was going to affect him, even if it did not occur -- or perhaps it did, but it was rather that the young maiden was dallying with him. "People would certainly frown -- and you do look rather strange," he said with a glance at her.
"You never told me I look strange," Julia pouted. "You only told me to sew a dress to show off my accomplishments."
She was correct there and he sighed. "Yes, but we shall soon be among strangers who are not used to seeing you like this. We must get a passage to England as soon as possible and you will have to wear a dress."
"I can, you know. I am not a savage. I went to school. They tried to make a girl of me there and they succeeded well enough."
He did not want to get caught up in a discussion of her refinement on a smelly fishing vessel, sitting wrapped in blankets on a pile of dirty nets. "We shall buy you a dress and a ticket and off you go. Your adventure has lasted long enough."
Even being shipwrecked and hungry had not affected her spirits. Julia was able to laugh mockingly. "One dress for the entire journey? What would people think!"
"It would be better than what they would think now!" MacLeod retorted. "In any case, you will not leave the cabin and it does not signify."
"If you are not coming, you could never check that -- or will you send a guard with me?"
"Oh, I am coming -- I am merely still in doubt as to my function." That was something he still needed to think about.
It was not long until the news of their rescue had spread through the small island community and servants had come down from the governor's mansion to invite all higher-ranked officers who might have been rescued.
"You and Mrs. MacLeod are most welcome at the governor's home, Captain," said one of them after having been told who he was. He assumed that the girl wrapped in a blanket was the captain's wife.
The captain wanted to protest that he would never marry a girl of sixteen -- now seventeen -- who preferred to be a boy, but he checked himself. He would perhaps keep Julia out of trouble this way. What else could she be if she was not his wife? Nothing respectable. "And some proper clothes for her," he whispered. "She was surprised by the storm." He unobtrusively kicked the lilac trousers out of sight.
"That will be arranged, Captain."
MacLeod imperatively laid his arm around Julia's shoulders. "Listen. I want you to keep your tongue for once, Mrs. MacLeod."
That sufficed. She looked up at him without speaking, thrilled by this address.
"Let him think you are my wife. Let us not alert the poor governor to your true character, Julia. It would be bad for you." He hoped he did not have to explain that, nor how the governor might have gossipy connections.
"I do not have a problem with either, Captain. Do you?"
"I have a problem with your father's retaliation, as you well know. Your family is too well-connected for me to take either of our reputations lightly. You will do as I say. And obviously when you arrive home, you are not to tell your father by which name the governor knew you."
"Such deceit! I do not like it at all. But can I tell my mother?"
"Do not play the fool. You are not to tell anybody."
"Oh dear, what scandalous things are we going to do, Captain?" Julia asked with a saucy smile.
He gurgled. "Do you think there is anything that could top what you already did?"
"Well," she said cleverly. "If I am not to tell, then there obviously is! And you will keep that knowledge from me. But you know, husbands and wives have no secrets from each other, or so my grandfather always says, and now you have a wife who can talk back rather than some wooden thing that merely rolls to and fro beneath you, I --"
MacLeod looked shocked and placed his hand over her mouth. He wondered how he could caution her without her wanting to hear why.
"Mmmm!" Julia protested, wriggling. "What did I do?" she cried when he removed his hand.
"I advise you not to make such comparisons between wives and ships in company," he said eventually. "And even to me, since I would have no real wife, but a mock wife -- although perhaps I should reconsider if you cannot keep your tongue."
"No, no, no!" she cried. "I will be perfect."
He realised he did not have a compelling reason to return a wife to England as soon as possible, compared to returning a runaway. Luckily he also had to go himself -- a new ship would hardly materialise here -- and he did not have to explain to anybody why he chose to leave this agreeable climate so quickly.
Before they secured a passage on a homebound ship, they could at least try to send a letter home to reassure the duke. Julia would not care for it, but he did.
He made a start when a maid was still tending to Julia and turning her into a girl, in part because he did not want to watch. His letter with navy business was quickly finished and given to a servant. The letter to Julia's relatives should be composed in less haste.
"Captain, you look much better without the beard," Julia commented, seeing him shaven at last. "I thought it quite unsettling to see your lovely features thus obscured."
That was further evidence of her youthfulness, he thought. He cringed at the maid hearing every word, but he kept his voice steady, as if he was used to hearing such comments from his lady. "What did you expect, what with my shaving kit having sunk to the bottom of the sea?"
"It was not so deep there, or we would not have struck a rock," she countered. "But I thought you had not shaven in order to vex me."
"I have other methods. Here, write home."
"Oh, but that is not vexing! I have so much news to tell."
Julia was a little out of practice, but her feminine manners quickly returned. The governor's wife was not more refined than she was; whatever Julia lacked in age she would make up for in education. She knew better than to be impertinent. The captain would put her on bread and water for days if she did such a thing.
It began to look less odd, such a young wife, MacLeod thought -- but there was always the uplifting prospect of the duke and the admiral coming after him, and he remained detached and circumspect.
Dearest Mama and Papa,
I am the happiest creature in the WEST INDIES! Yes, I am truly here! Our journey was so uneventful. We did not see any pirates along the way, but we only shipwrecked. I feel so sorry for the poor captain -- he had an odd notion of almost being married to his ship and then it broke into pieces and perhaps Papa will also be sad.
I hope this letter will reach you before I do, for the captain is determined to be rid of me. He would rather have a new ship. I have so much to tell but he will not let me and insists on taking the pen.
Julia will return to England as soon as possible, not by way of Iceland. She is very unfortunate because I have to go back as well and I shall make sure she goes.
The Duke and Duchess of Muncester had received their largest shock with the receipt of the first of Julia's letters, the one she had sent from school. She had been rash, but lucky, for when her family hurried to look for her, she had already set sail.
The duchess was beside herself with worries, but the duke, after an initial outburst, had decided there was no stopping the headstrong and reckless girl and that given her character, something else would have occurred before long.
He did not think a girl could long go undetected on a ship, but it remained to be seen what would happen then. He had made inquiries into the captain's character after finding out which ship she was on and found that people generally spoke well of him. But his age was troublesome: Captain MacLeod was only twenty-seven. Would Julia think him authoritative enough to listen?
Then the letter had come by way of Lisbon and his age had become even more troublesome. Julia's candid adoration of a young captain was a cause of concern, as was her apparent ability to wrap him around her little finger to make him do her bidding. The captain's cool note had reassured Julia's parents but a little. His words had been more sensible than hers and he seemed to have her well-being in mind, but there was no doubt in her parents' mind that while the captain commanded the ship, Julia commanded the captain.
The duke had almost considered arranging for a rescue mission, but it would have been impossible to carry out. He had to reconcile himself to the fact that the girl had eloped. As long as he did not know any particulars -- there was a faint hope that it was nothing -- he could not make too many inquiries for fear of making the scandal even worse. His tiny consolation was that Julia had at least fixed upon a Navy man for her ruin, but it was very tiny indeed. She, unlike her mother, had had some choice in this matter, he would think.
Clementine had not dared to voice many of her thoughts, afraid as she was that she would be blamed. That made it even more difficult. Not only had his daughter eloped, but his wife was now afraid that he held her responsible. He could not help but recognise the traits Julia had inherited from Clementine and Daniel, but he preferred not to think of them, afraid as he was that he might hurt his wife. But every time she cried he knew why.
For a long time there was no news of either Julia or the ship, then one day the duke's steward, Mr. Newman, came by with a puzzled expression on his face and a letter in his hand. "I do not know why this was addressed to me, for the letter is from you, from Antigua."
"Antigua?" The duke snatched the letter away anxiously. "She is alive!"
Mr. Newman had already read it, including the passage 'we only shipwrecked', and wisely kept his tongue while his employer read this for himself.
"What do you make of this, Newman? Julia and that captain? How could a captain of the Navy elope with a girl?"
"I have no idea, but he seems to look after her." Mr. Newman did not want to jump to any conclusions. Eloping was a pretty undeniable thing and this letter made no reference to it. To be honest, he could not believe Julia would be interested in such a thing. She was too much of a boy. He supposed that came of having only boys to play with, the eldest Newman boys and all those younger brothers of hers.
"But how, Newman, how? She practically threw herself at him. She adores him, but from his words I cannot deduce how he feels. He kept her on board -- for his own pleasure? -- but also at Julia's insistence, I am sure. He could have sent her away, but he says he wanted to make sure she was safe -- and promptly they shipwrecked!"
Mr. Newman saw his friend's problem, but he could not offer much comfort. "But she survived. I suppose he rescued her. If you ask me..."
"Yes?" the duke was always eager to hear positive opinions.
"I think she merely wanted to be a boy. I do not think you ought to take that captain business too seriously." The steward could not imagine it otherwise. This was Julia!
"She is exhibiting all the characteristics of a girl her age! Such a silly infatuation!"
"Now if she were a real flirt she would have been affected by my Thomas..."
"She may know him too well to find any excitement in that," Julia's father said dejectedly. "I do not mean to be disparaging about your son, but he could never measure up to a full-grown captain in a uniform."
Mr. Newman gave a snicker at the duke's old pride. "You do not insult me. He is only nineteen and I agree, probably not very exciting material yet. But I must point out that real flirts, such as the daughters of the Henrys, have already discovered him, despite being younger than Julia. Do you know the age of this captain fellow?"
"Twenty-seven," the duke said morosely, as if this was the last nail in his coffin.
"That is not as bad as fifty," his steward tried to cheer him up.
The duke needed not have worried, for nothing bad or distressing had happened to Julia at all. She had crossed the ocean under the name of Mrs. MacLeod, dining every night at the ship's captain's table and getting back into the habit of displaying her accomplishments. Whenever MacLeod indicated it, they would retire to their tiny cabin -- the last one that had been available to passengers at such short notice -- where she slept in the lower berth and he in the upper. Such Spartan conditions appealed to her sense of adventure and she loved it.
MacLeod managed to stay out of her way well enough to avoid any irritation on either side when they both needed to be in there. He also managed to keep the times that he was hugged to a minimum. Fortunately after a few days Julia was used to his figure enough not to comment on it so much and he was used to her comments enough not to mind them so much.
"It seems me that with all those brothers you ought to be less interested," he remarked nonetheless, having considered dressing himself outside the cabin. He had decided against it, because that would undoubtedly call for reactions from the other female passengers.
"I only help to dress them when they are very little," Julia explained, implying that he was an entirely different sight.
"I need no help either."
"But I am so used to helping, for there is always at least one who is helpless, that I --" The rest of her words were stifled because the captain threw a shirt at her head and his aim was perfect.
Unfortunately there were no storms to excite her on the way home and apart from some rainy spells, Julia could always sit on deck with a book, although MacLeod doubted that she read much, for very little action escaped her notice and she was always able to tell him precisely what was going on.
Captain MacLeod could not possibly do in England what he had done on board of a ship whose crew would forget him as soon as he stepped ashore, yet he held himself responsible for the last part of Julia's trip home as well. He felt he could not send her off in a carriage all by herself, even if he had had the money to hire one. Julia thought he could easily let her father pay upon arrival, but MacLeod would prefer to avoid a confrontation with the undoubtedly irate duke.
She managed to convince him anyhow and so he spent his last money on purchasing a decrepit carriage that he could drive on his own. That, he discovered, was a bad move, for Julia insisted on holding the reins instead of sitting quietly inside. He allowed her grudgingly and napped when he had ascertained she could drive safely. What other travellers thought of it was not his concern.
Arriving at the Muncester manor, MacLeod became a little more nervous. It was too huge for comfort and he looked at it in awe as Julia rattled away about familiar landmarks and memories. A duke's daughter was not so impressive if she did not behave like one and so the grandeur of her home was a shock. He hoped her parents were more like Julia than like the type one would expect to live here.
Only the duchess was home, they were told, but for all he knew she might be the worse of the two. The captain guffawed as Julia volunteered insightfully that her father had married her mother for her character and not her family, so that he needed not be afraid.
"Julia?" the duchess exclaimed with obvious incredulity when they were shown into the room where she had been sitting. Her eyes travelled over her daughter's figure and dress. "You are such a..." She shook her head in dismay or surprise.
The captain, who had expected squeals, tears and other emotional behaviour upon this reunion of mother and daughter, was a little surprised. Julia's mother was by no means a cold and elegant lady of fashion, but rather a motherly lady of fashion, he supposed, for she looked to be well-dressed and she had a small child on her arm.
"Are you not happy to see me, Mama?" Julia interrupted with all the selfishness of a child who had not cared that she would be missed when she went away, but expected to hear it all the same upon her return.
"I am very angry with you."
"You are never angry, Mama."
MacLeod could see that the duchess was a little angry nevertheless, although she seemed more relieved and happy than anything else. He waited quietly until he was noticed, which was not long after, for Her Grace probably thought it best not to waste too much time on her foolish daughter at the moment. Since this happened at about the same time as Julia noticed the infant on her mother's arm, the captain did not yet receive a question, but only an interested glance.
"Nothing changed; even Andrew did not grow at all while I was away," Julia commented in satisfaction, trying to lessen the gravity of her offence.
The duchess sighed. "This is Andrew's little sister. You were away for quite some time."
Julia gasped and MacLeod could not help but look amused. He could also not help thinking that if Andrew and his little sister were this young, Julia had not exaggerated about being outnumbered here, assuming that there were little boys at similar intervals between Julia and Andrew.
"Captain, I must thank you for returning Julia," said the duchess. "At least I assume you have come to return her." That was what he had announced in his letter, at any rate. She hoped he had not come to make another sort of announcement.
"It was my duty. I should have sent her home sooner, but one does not send a child home alone." He wondered if he sounded at all credible. It seemed to him that this was exactly what a guilty man would say to make himself look innocent.
"I am not a child!" Julia protested.
"Perhaps not as often as you used to be," he conceded.
"Captain! You are a hateful man!" Julia ran away, out of the room.
The duchess looked after her thoughtfully. "She is so altered. Older."
"Seventeen," he thought. "But not yet an adult." He felt he had to make it clear that he was aware of that. He had no idea what she was thinking of him. She looked to be a kind woman, sensible and not given to hysterics.
"When I was younger," she began, but she did not finish. "My husband will be concerned about Julia's reputation." And since she was concerned about her husband, she would have to be direct.
While he knew what she meant, he was not eager to speak. "It depends on whether people will talk."
"Let me phrase it differently. What could they talk about?"
He gave in -- a little. She was Julia's mother, after all. "Not much. The worst she did was pretending to be a boy."
The duchess considered this. "Is that all you will say, Captain?"
MacLeod thought it was enough. Perhaps he would worry her unnecessarily by saying more. He looked at the rug on the floor.
"Should I have a room prepared for you, Captain?" The duchess was a practical woman and knew it might take some time to get the captain to speak. He was not at ease now.
"You are a reasonable woman, Your Grace, but I do not know your husband. Julia threatened me with him and the admiral." He did not know how this implication reflected on him, but it was the truth.
"Which is why you kept her on board," she nodded.
He was glad for her insight. "Yes, Your Grace."
"I cannot predict what my husband will say. He has been angry, concerned, amused -- everything. But perhaps you are not old enough to inspire trust." She gave him a half smile. "Although he was around your age when he -- and he considered himself to be absolutely trustworthy then."
"His opinion of my age was my fear precisely, Your Grace. Perhaps I should prefer to borrow some money to travel back instead, before he returns. I have some business anyway."
"Julia?" asked her mother. She had left her youngest child in the nursery so she was free to interrogate her eldest. She had given MacLeod more money than he said he would need.
"Yes, Mama? Are you still angry?" Julia was observing her old room. It might have been someone else's room; all the objects were so foreign to her that she could not imagine that she must once have held them dear.
"Do you realise what you have done?"
"I do, Mama. The captain lectured me on it most horribly -- but by then there was nothing I could do about it."
At times she was as practical as her mother, notably after the reckless behaviour she had inherited from her father, the duchess reflected in resignation. "Lectured?"
"Yes, you think I had fun all the time, but it was worse than school!" Julia exclaimed. "All these lessons. He would not allow me to be idle."
"What else did he do to you, Julia?" It was a difficult question, but it had to be asked.
Julia looked surprised. "I do not know what you mean."
Her mother looked at her closely to see if that surprise was real. "Is there nothing about the captain that you would rather not tell me?"
"Is there nothing about the captain that I would rather not tell you," Julia repeated slowly, trying to discern her mother's meaning. "Oh no, he is adorable."
There was still reason for caution. "You called him a hateful man."
"But that is the same, is it not?"
"Not really," the duchess said dryly, but perhaps she agreed. She remembered hating the duke, although she had not called him adorable at the time. Still, the exact nature of those vexing emotions could easily be mistaken. She had been twenty-seven, but Julia was only seventeen. Mistakes were even more easily made then.
"Oh Mama, he shouted at me quite hatefully when we shipwrecked -- and I at him!" Her eyes shone.
The duchess shuddered as she imagined being on a sinking ship. "I should think one has better things to do than shouting at such a critical moment."
"It is really a long moment with enough time for shouting -- provided that someone is behaving like a stubborn pig."
"Why no, Captain MacLeod. Men and their heroic notions," Julia said rather fondly.
"Those heroic notions are what got you home safely." The duchess did not know whether he had risked his life to return Julia, but she was not sure he had been under any obligation to do so. She had not minded to give him some money, even though there was the unanswered question about Julia's reputation. "But why was he afraid of Papa?"
Julia gave a little smile, absentmindedly rearranging some objects on her dresser. She hardly remembered what they were. "I made him so."
"Are you afraid?"
"Captain MacLeod said I would not learn until I burnt my fingers, which I suppose means I have more to fear than I think." She wrapped her arms around her mother. "I needed some excitement and I wanted to see the world. I do not have to see it again, but I would have died if I had not."
Returning the hug, duchess noticed again that Julia's figure was no longer slender and boyish, but rather slender and womanly now. She would have been found out sooner or later. How could she ever have embarked on the venture? "I have to get used to your different appearance."
"How? My hair grew long again."
"You look like a woman now. It cannot have escaped your notice that you have grown."
"Well, that is funny. I went away as a boy and I came back as a woman! I say, Papa is not sitting on some quay waiting for me, is he?"
"Of course he is not. Your letter arrived a week ago, but how could we know where and when you would arrive? And why did you send it to Mr. Newman?"
"The captain did not want it to be known that he was escorting a duke's daughter. He thought the governor's servants were likelier to tattle about letters addressed to dukes."
"Your captain appears to be a clever man. But he simply left you here." She wondered if he had really wanted to, or if he had thought a hasty departure would make a more innocent impression.
Julia was not concerned about it. "Well, he would like a new ship and I am sure that loitering about will not get him one."
"You must not adore him all that much then," the duchess said in relief. Her daughter did not appear to have thought of the future.
"I would not adore him if he hung about being useless."
"A mere infatuation," her mother hoped. It could easily be cured by some time apart.
"Time will tell," Julia said mysteriously.
The duchess thought that reaction a little more worrisome. "I hope you will not want to shipwreck with him again."
Julia turned a serious face towards her. "I already did that. It was glorious, Mama, but stupid. I would not leave the ship without him and he would not abandon it if he was not absolutely the last, so there was much shouting and no moving. Next time I would knock him over the head and have him dragged off."
"Julia!" the Duke of Muncester shouted angrily when he was informed of her return. It had been a week since her letter had come and he had regretted having to go away on business for a few days, knowing she would return in his absence. It was always like that.
He waited for her to come running in response to his call, wondering if she looked or behaved differently now. He expected wickedness to have left its mark, somehow.
"Where have you been?" he demanded, as if she had not written about this in her letter. Sadly enough he could not come up with more pertinent questions, torn as he was between fury and relief. It was no help that his wife was so calm about everything, only telling him that the captain had brought Julia back. She had not said in which state, nor had she made any sort of remark that could justify his anger.
Julia stood before him, subdued and afraid. She had been home for almost two days now and Mama had not given her much trouble, which was to be expected given the large number of younger siblings that demanded attention. Her father was a different matter entirely, she could tell. He would not accept anything less than pure honesty. "I ran off to sea, Papa."
"Why?" he bellowed, feeling acutely that he had lost control over her life. This young lady standing before him was no longer a child. She had had the nerve to grow up while she was away, without allowing her father any say in it. He did not know how to treat her now. It was almost a different girl. There was none of that wickedness he had feared, however, and it confused him. It was merely Julia, but then older.
"Because ... I wanted to."
"You may have brought irreversible disgrace upon yourself. Did you never think of your reputation?" He knew the answer; she had not cared.
"Not before I went away, Papa." She trembled upon seeing his obvious distress. He was very angry. She had never seen anything like it. The captain had been wise to leave -- and to think she had thought that slightly cowardly!
"What did that captain do to you?"
She backed away when he advanced upon her. "Nothing."
He sat down when she appeared to be too afraid of him. "You eloped with him. What did he do to you? Did he take advantage of you?"
"No, Papa. He is good. I wrote to you that you should not think ill of him, did I not?"
If he had read any such advice at all, he had forgotten. He did not want to be told that he should not think ill of the captain. He could only think very, very ill of him. "Did he compromise you?"
Julia looked hesitant. "I do not know what qualifies as such, but we did share a cabin."
Upon hearing these words her father got up so aggressively that his chair fell backwards. It remained on the floor, because he stormed out of the room, not giving Julia another glance.
"Because that was all they had left," she whispered and began to cry. "But you do not care to hear that..."
She sat crying and sniffing until her mother came into the room. It felt like hours later. "Mama!" Julia could easily start weeping anew. She leant against her mother for comfort.
"I heard you shared a cabin with the captain," Clementine began cautiously. Her husband had informed her of that, whereupon he had ordered for the carriage to be driven around. Perhaps she did not want to know what he was going to do. He had not wanted to say, although he had gone as far as to assure her he was not going to kill anybody.
"Mama, they only had one cabin left on board and the governor had mistaken me for Mrs. MacLeod already so even there we shared." Julia did not see what else could have been done.
"But that is..." Clementine drew in a deep breath, hoping everything would still be denied and that knot of fear inside her would disappear. "That is something you should not have done."
"But nothing distressing happened to me. I never once cried until today." To her this was proof enough that her adventure had not been harmful.
"It will be distressing if he never marries you. It will actually be worse than that. I have not lectured you enough on these matters, Julia, and we now pay the price, but you never seemed to be interested in boys and so there was no need to alert you yet." She spoke with regret. It was all her fault.
"I do not understand."
"Did you not know it is wrong to -- did he use you?" It would be so easy to make use of her admiration.
"Yes, I had to sew on his buttons," Julia answered promptly.
Her mother blinked, wondering if Julia was really an ingénue. "Did he not touch you?"
"It is difficult to escape that in a tiny cabin," Julia said with an indignant look. "But if you wish to know if I am going to tell you anything that could place him in a dishonourable light, the answer is no."
"Your father has gone off to find him anyway." She sensed that her daughter was not going to react calmly to this disclosure. The girl was too eager to defend the captain.
Julia looked stricken. "Mama! And you let Papa go?"
"He said he would not kill anybody. I am sure your adorable captain could deal with a furious father. He might even charm him." She spoke bitterly, feeling close to tears. She did not want to think ill of anybody and she had been so relieved after speaking to Captain MacLeod, but now it looked as if she might have been fooled.
He had seemed trustworthy to her, but she could not overlook the fact that he had not mentioned that he had shared a tiny cabin with Julia for weeks or even months. Who could withstand Julia for weeks? Julia would not have protested -- sailors were fine men, Clementine thought -- but she would not have realised what the effects on her future would be. He should have realised that, however. He was twenty-seven.
"I want to go after Papa to stop him!" Julia cried.
"He instructed me to lock you up, dear child. You had best comply."
Alexander MacLeod walked through the assembly rooms in search of the friends who had invited him. He had just related his misfortunes to some other acquaintances, who had been sympathetic but who had seen people across the room and then he had been free to walk on.
Before he could see any of his friends, two gentlemen appeared alongside him, one in his forties and one in his fifties, he guessed. He did not have to ask their names. They looked rather intent on speaking with him and only the Duke of Muncester could have such a pressing need. "Your Grace, Admiral," he acknowledged them. Appraising them quickly, he deduced that the duke was a man of action rather than of fashion and that one had to tread carefully around him.
"Captain," the duke bowed in a cold manner. The man's nerve was unbelievable! To appear at an assembly so calmly after violating his daughter. He would really like to knock the man to the ground immediately, but he held himself back. There were questions that he would like to hear answered. "Might we have a word outside?"
MacLeod had no choice but to assent and they retired to the terrace. Perhaps, he thought, the duke was also a man of reason. He had not immediately been knocked out, after all.
"How do you propose that we settle this?" the duke inquired.
"We may disagree as to whether anything needs to be settled," MacLeod said politely. He had been fearing this moment, but now that it had come he felt less afraid than he had expected. He trusted that the duke was sensible enough to realise that if anything had happened to his daughter, it could not be undone, not even by giving the perpetrator a good thrashing.
"My daughter eloped with you."
If he stayed calm and sensible, he would be able to change the duke's mind. After all, he had returned the girl to her father's house. Would he, if he had planned to spend the rest of his life living in sin with the girl? "What would I do with a child?"
"Ah," His Grace answered in a dangerous tone. "I found she is no longer a child."
"She is not?" he tried.
"She looks rather grown up to me."
"That must be a development of the last few weeks." And it had been indeed, he told himself. He feared he was pushing his luck, speaking to a duke in this manner.
"Did you compromise her in any way?" the duke asked bluntly.
"Would I, knowing who her father was?" MacLeod countered. He did not know why the man thought he was either weak or stupid. "I knew you would think so anyway, but I have no interest in a young girl who would rather have been a boy."
"Captain MacLeod, I find that hard to believe."
He straightened his back. "I hope you will not insist that I marry her."
MacLeod could see that the duke appeared to find it strange that he was reluctant to marry a young lady with an undoubtedly sizeable dowry. "She is not cut out for marriage."
To MacLeod's surprise the admiral began to laugh. "Two captains on the same ship would require some sacrifices indeed," the admiral remarked.
The younger man was relieved for this reaction. It was close to support. "I see we know the same girl, Admiral."
"I do not happen to have laid eyes on the young lady since her return, but I recall that she was indeed a child when she left. I have only her father's word for the fact that she is altered in appearance," said the admiral.
"I am sure she is," the captain said impatiently. "But one does not mark gradual changes." He wished they would see that. First she had been a girl who posed as a boy, then a girl who posed as his wife, posed being the operative word.
"But you read that she adored you -- you wrote a message right beneath that," the duke spoke again.
"I read that indeed." He had done the best he could with his subsequent message.
"She threw herself at you."
"The adoration of a child is quite different from the adoration of ladies who would throw themselves at me and who would actually know what they were about while doing so," MacLeod said sharply. He turned to go back inside. It was no use speaking to them if they were not going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
When he was crossing the threshold he felt a hand on his shoulder. "You must excuse Lenton. He can be blunt," said the admiral.
"Why does he assume the worst?" the younger man asked in frustration. "Is this to repay me for the trouble I took to deliver the girl unscathed? If I had unscrupulously set her overboard he would have accused me of negligence and cruelty!"
"Yes, I am afraid the ways of the world are unfair," the admiral said in a sympathetic voice. "And I am afraid Lenton and I are in part to blame for young Julia's nautical aspirations. He would really like her younger brothers to join the Navy. Young Julia inherited the wrong sort of character traits to stand idly by. He dotes on Julia, but he knows her."
"Yes, she actually counted on that. She believed that would explain everything to you."
"Was she your mistress?"
While the admiral had been relatively sympathetic so far, MacLeod could see that if he gave an affirmative answer to this question, he would be in very deep trouble. Opinions might differ as to whether sharing a cabin amounted to having a mistress and he ought to keep that information to himself. "She was not."
"Why then does she imply that she was?"
The captain's mouth fell open. "She does?"
"She does," the admiral said gravely. "And do you persist in denying this?"
"I do! She is only seventeen!"
"My wife told me that she was but fifteen when she married and sixteen when she had her son. Julia's age would not be a convincing argument to my wife."
"Er..." MacLeod looked confused. "How could you not have known your wife's age?"
"I married her fifteen years ago, Captain, when she was already a widow. She was fifteen when she married the Duke of Muncester and as such it is not unthinkable to her that you were able to take advantage of the admiration of a very young girl."
The captain began to feel sick. His face took on a look of utter disgust, but he did not know what to reply. His breathing quickened in despair. If other people lived by different standards his arguments would indeed not convince them.
"Should we believe Julia or should we believe you?"
"I gave you my reasons for not touching her, Admiral. You must weigh them against the reasons she gave you for the opposite," MacLeod said with a hopeless shrug. They might also know Julia tended to be straightforward and honest. They might not believe it if she was not. He did not know why she had lied. Her admiration had always been guileless.
"And where is Julia?" Perhaps he would like to ask her what she was up to.
"Locked into her room at home, I expect," said the admiral, as if he was not at all affected or shocked by such a thing.
"Well, Lenton," said the admiral after he had left the young captain to find his acquaintances. "It looks as if Julia has been fantasising just a little about her romantic entanglements with the captain. Young, handsome, dashing, but more importantly, innocent." He was inclined to believe the young man. He had not acted upon his feelings if he had had any. No guilty man could have looked so disgusted.
"Why would she fantasise? He looks --" the duke broke off, closing his eyes. In a few years he might have picked such a man for her, was the bitter admission. "Now that we have seen him it has only become more plausible."
"There is not much wrong with Julia's tastes, I agree. But he was right; she is a child. She cannot be trusted to know her heart, nor to act sensibly at the moment. I suggest we do nothing."
"But --" the duke spluttered.
"He is not the dangerous party; she is. If this is an infatuation, it will pass. If it is more..." He shrugged.
"You would not be this cool if your daughter were in such a situation."
Admiral Henson contemplated his beautiful little Francesca, a surprising gift from his second wife, getting caught up in such a scandal in a few years. "Your Aunt Julia would personally see to it that the villain were relieved of some of his most valuable body parts, I am sure. In fact, she has offered to do the same to Captain MacLeod, but I could only barely persuade her to postpone this until we have definitive proof of his viciousness."
"Which we do now."
"Which we do not." He loved Julia dearly, but he could not be unjust.
"Why am I locked up?" Julia asked in dissatisfaction. She was not locked up in the literal sense, but she had been forbidden to leave the grounds. Why she was obeying was a mystery to her. It was probably due to the fact that she had nowhere else to go, as well as to her love for her mother and siblings. Her brothers did not know anything about her adventures. They were merely thrilled to have her back and that was extremely gratifying. Still, she would like to be trusted and a good indication of that would be to hear she was free to go where she liked, whether she would use that right or not.
"Because you would run off to the nearest port if we set you free," her mother explained calmly.
"Why would I do that?" Julia contemplated such an action as she was asking the question. It was not the nearest port that held an attraction for her. She did not care about ports in themselves. She might use a port to embark to feel the wind on her face and in her hair, but that would all be so much less pleasant on her own.
"To join your captain -- or perhaps another captain. Who knows what has happened to your preferences or your morals in the past year?" Clementine provoked her on purpose. She knew Julia was only interested in one captain, and while her mother understood that perfectly, the girl had to see that other people would not.
Julia glared, but tears formed in her eyes. "I adore the captain," she whispered with a constricted throat. She could not imagine ever adoring another. Even some time apart had not altered this. Perhaps Papa had hit him; he had not wanted to say.
"I am no longer wild, Mama. I still like excitement, but I would no longer seek it without having any regard for the feelings or reputations of other people." She would no longer go and leave her family in uncertainty; she would no longer go and force any captain to deal with her and then with her angry father.
The duchess had never liked excitement, so she was silent. She was happy to hear that Julia seemed to have done some thinking. Her insight was promising, if belated.
Julia felt strengthened by the silence. "I am sorry, Mama, but I was selfish. You must not think I am wanton as well. I would stay here. I would not sail unless it was at his invitation."
"I see any happiness would be too premature. Am I to understand you would sail without being married to him?" The captain might not issue an invitation that included a proposal.
"I am sure I could convince him to marry me if I went with him again."
"My dear, if he has no intention of marrying you, you could try all you like, but it will not happen. You may give him everything you can, but the decision is still his." Clementine hoped it would not come that far. Not all girls who got themselves caught up in such a situation would later meet a good man to save them. It had happened to her, but she had been extremely lucky.
"Julia is not going to learn anything if she remains locked up," the duchess said to her husband after having given the matter some thought. "Perhaps..." She was going to suggest a rather wild idea, but perhaps he was still less practical and more proper than she was, even after all these years of marriage, and he would rule against it. He had been reluctant to speak about the matter to her and that was usually not a good sign.
"Let us give a coming out ball in her honour then to thank her for the pains she gave us," he said sarcastically. "Do you really think that would not do more harm than good?" He had no trouble imagining all the lies and scandals that awaited them.
"Perhaps some exposure to other gentlemen will serve to make up her mind." Julia could not compare him to any others if she never saw any others. He would forever stand out, but did he deserve to?
"Her mind seems made up. Do you mean to reward her for her lack of propriety with even more gentlemen? Do you propose to invite her paramour as well?" He was still sarcastic, although he was considering her argument.
"He seems very agreeable." She had returned to that opinion after the admiral had assured her that he did not think anything had happened. She had wanted to believe him and so she had done so instantly. After all, all that Julia had wanted to disclose was that they had shared a cabin. It might very well be all there was to it. The minds of concerned parents would immediately jump to the worst, but had she not once talked to Julian in his rooms without thinking anything of it?
"Clementine! He meddled with Julia!" the duke scoffed. This automatically disqualified him from being agreeable, no matter what the admiral had said about his innocence.
"If he did, it was not unwelcome." Clementine was pragmatic. Even if it might have to be taken literally, Julia had been in good hands. She ought to concentrate on that, instead of fearing for Julia's character and reputation. She ought to remember that she had been agreeably ruined herself long ago. Thoughtless behaviour and youthful enthusiasm could lead to a great deal of trouble afterwards, but focusing on negative aspects was likely to bring on even more problems.
She looked at her husband, whom she feared might disagree with her on this issue. "You have not talked to Julia much, except to scold and interrogate her. She has lost her heart."
"But he has not. Her heart will break if she finds out he does not care. And who is he? Where is he from?"
"Remember whom you married, Your Grace," she said quietly. She wondered which young man would admit to caring while he was face with a furious father who would undoubtedly see such an admission as an admission of having committed acts worse than murder.
The duke relented. He knew whom he had married and he was glad for it. "But such a ball would not have any effect if other young gentlemen had to compete with him."
"It would tell us a lot if they could not. Please, Julian?"
"How could we step into such a scandal with our eyes wide open?" He could only imagine Julia misbehaving at such an event, dancing only with the captain and kissing him on the dance floor. He would have to tell her not to, perhaps, but he did not want to hear her dismiss the activity as something that was no longer shocking to her.
"Oh!" was all Lady Julia Henson could exclaim when her husband read out the duke's letter. She sounded absolutely disgusted, or perhaps taken very much by surprise. "This was her idea, was it not?"
"Why is she now a her?" Admiral Henson inquired. Her emphasis had been a little strange.
"She never was a him," Lady Julia said with a condescending sniff.
"Indeed, Duchess, but you must remember that some young ladies can make that switch. But I should really like to hear why you now speak so derogatorily about Clementine." He had always thought the ladies liked each other. In fact, he thought they still did.
"It is not derogatorily. All I am saying is that it must have been her idea."
"He does not write whose idea it was, but you could be correct." He could also not imagine the duke coming up with such a plan himself.
"You know I am always correct, Admiral."
He snickered. "Is that so? I do seem to remember a time when you believed yourself unequal to sea voyages, when you believed the salty air disagreed with you, when you believed you needed to feel the unmoving earth beneath your feet to be cured of your seasickness." It had been none of those things that had caused her illness, however. She had left the ship and her complaints turned out to be something else entirely.
"I was eventually cured," Lady Julia answered haughtily. "Ashore."
"You left me!" He could still enjoy saying that, even after fifteen years. "And then when I came home after a long and lonely voyage, you --" He paused for effect. He could remember that day vividly.
"Long?" she spluttered, making use of his pause. "It was but a few months. Less than nine, as you well know. Now let us get back to that letter, for I have no wish to hear again how incredibly ill-used you were at the time."
"I was very well-used afterwards," he said mildly.
"Admiral, remember who are at the table with us," she said with a cautious look at the children. "That ball, is it their intention to advertise Julia's preference?" She did not know that anything had been agreed upon with Captain MacLeod. Going by her husband's report, the captain had not at all been close to giving in.
"It is their intention, as your nephew writes, to allow Julia to develop a preference." It was an interesting idea, the admiral mused -- her existing preference might grow stronger, or it might go away entirely.
"I think that is the most scandalous thing I have ever heard," Lady Julia fumed.
"What do you mean, lately?"
"I am sure you heard more scandalous things in the past -- and you will too in the very near future." He folded the letter and laid it beside his plate. First he would eat, then he would speak more.
Before young Julia had ever developed any liking for sailors, it had been absolutely proper to take young Francesca to a port or any other place full of sailors. Now, however, upon hearing her husband announce that he would take Frederick and Francesca, the elder Julia made an incredible fuss about such a plan and insisted on accompanying the rest of her family to prevent anything from occurring. The admiral was much amused.
He also ascertained most thoroughly whether his spouse was not carrying a knife with which to harm the captain.
"Remember your age, Admiral," Lady Julia said with a blush.
"I am grateful for my age. I have so many more tricks at my disposal than a young fellow."
"That is indeed a trick, trying to make me more favourably disposed towards that young fellow we are supposed to track down," she complained. "By implying he has no tricks."
It did not cost the admiral much time, nor much money, to discover where Captain MacLeod was staying. The only thing that cost them time was the fact that the captain was not in at the moment.
"To be sure, he is out amusing himself," Lady Julia hissed into the admiral's ear.
"Then we must amuse ourselves as well until he returns." He knew that his lady's will was law and that leaving a note and invitation for the captain would not suffice. She would want to form an opinion of his character.
"Do they not know which places he frequents?"
"You would never allow me to go there to seek him, my dear." And, depending on what kind of places they would be, he might not allow her either.
"I am so hungry," Francesca declared with a whine. "What are you whispering about, Papa?"
"Why do you not go into that tea room? I shall leave a note next door to let him know where we are if he returns in the meantime."
He did as he said and then joined his family at a table, watching the appetite of his son with some consternation. He supposed a boy of fourteen would need some sustenance, but it was bordering on the unbelievable that they would have to order for six if there were only four of them. "Do you also eat such quantities at home, Frederick?"
"No, Papa, but this is good food."
"Yes, he does!" his sister piped up.
"I do not!"
"It was a wonderful idea of yours to take them," Lady Julia said to her husband as the children began to bicker -- which was no more than a sign of affection to her, but which did require some supervision in case they started to be uncivilised. "I suppose you will leave me with them when you speak to that man?"
"I am not sure I should be indifferent to your taking a handsome young naval officer aside," he spoke with some doubt.
"I do not like young men," she said with an almost imperceptible, but very persuasive pout.
"Perhaps I could stay with Froufrou then." He enjoyed referring to their offspring as such to aggravate her.
"Do not call -- but are you serious?" She should focus on what was important and obtain what she wanted. After that she might have some time to counter his mischief.
"In some sense," he said reflectively. "You could pass on the message as well as I could."
Frederick had not even finished all of his food when Captain MacLeod already appeared. He might not have come so quickly if the duke had left a note for him, but the admiral had been a reasonable man. That he was accompanied by his wife and two children was rather surprising. He was introduced to them and then oddly enough the admiral took the two children with him to look at ships.
MacLeod felt he was cruelly left to the mercy of the one relative of Julia's who possibly had an even worse opinion of him than her father.
"Captain," Lady Julia began. "We were requested to find you to give you an invitation to a ball."
"A ball?" he asked with audible skepticism. "I set sail in a fortnight."
"So soon? Are you in anyone's particular favour?" she exclaimed.
"Or disfavour," he muttered. Either he was very fortunate or some influential people wanted to be rid of him as soon as possible.
"The ball takes place before then," Lady Julia said, sounding doubtful. "But if you are to sail I do not know what --" She stopped.
"Where is the ball?"
"It is at my nephew's estate."
"The Duke of Muncester's estate?"
"He would invite me to a ball?" MacLeod could not believe it. "If the admiral had not been with him when they came to see me, he might have given me a few good blows."
"I believe it was the duchess who conceived of the idea."
"The women in your family are exceptionally capable of making a man do their bidding," he remarked. "But I may have to be grateful for that in this instance."
"And we may have to be grateful for your imminent posting. You will not be able to take Julia."
He almost laughed in incredulity at the thought that he was in charge of Julia's going anywhere or not. "Your namesake, Lady Julia -- well, if she wishes to be taken, I shall undoubtedly discover her in the hold after a day or two."
"Captain, I demand that you do a thorough search of the ship before you set sail," Lady Julia ordered with a worried expression. Julia hiding away was entirely too possible a turn of events, yet not one she had considered.
"And have the entire crew undress to see if they are not girls?" MacLeod said in a sarcastic voice. "Then she will be left ashore, but I will have seen her and the duke will come after me again. He and I will not win; the only one who will is Julia. A variation of this has already happened."
"Your impertinence is shocking, Captain."
"It was no more than an honest account of the facts, which you would realise if you took but a moment to consider it." He leant forward slightly. "She sought out the situation, yet I am being hunted down for having been there."
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