Mistress of the Seas
MacLeod thought Lady Julia still believed herself to be the duchess she had once been. She was eyeing him with an air of arrogance and condescension that had been completely absent from the current duchess' demeanour. He was not as afraid of this as she might like; in the past there had been much more frightening people who had had proper authority over him. This was merely a grandmother and she could not have him chained or flogged.
"Did you not take advantage of the situation?" she inquired.
"I did not." He wondered how many more times that question was going to be put to him and in how many variations. No one had been very specific so far, so all he could do was deny everything in the assumption that they were referring to one in particular. There were probably hundreds of ways in which one could take advantage of hundreds of situations.
"Yet it would have been so easy. Many a young man would have been grateful for the opportunity and the fairly nonexistent choice," she said, sounding surprisingly sympathetic and understanding.
"I am sorry to disappoint you," he said coolly. He would not be tricked. "But I expect I am not well-bred enough to engage in such behaviour." To his surprise it looked as if he had made a direct hit.
Lady Julia pressed her lips together. "Although there have been males in our family whose behaviour was less than commendable, my nephew was not one of them and as such he does not tolerate it."
The impact of Julia's actions must be all the harder to deal with then. He would almost feel sorry for the duke, but then he realised he ought to feel sorry for himself. The duke did not tolerate such behaviour in his family. He had no influence over other families. "I am not part of your family."
"But you are speaking of misbehaving males," he said with some frustration.
"You would like for us all to acknowledge that your conduct was blameless throughout," Lady Julia said with a nod. "But that is impossible."
"I want no such thing," he contradicted. "But I am now being taken to task by every senior family member in turn." He knew there would have been other options available to other people. That was always the case. Other men would have managed to sail home pretending Julia was their little sister. But did this woman not know that little sisters did not address their brothers as Captain? And little sisters listened, whereas Julia negotiated. Before he had known how Julia could behave, there had been no other option.
"If this censure is not deserved at the moment, it will certainly put you off attempting any mischief in the future," Lady Julia declared, implying it was all for the best.
"I suppose I should thank you for going so far as to voice the possibility that it might not be deserved," MacLeod said with a roll of his eyes.
"Captain, I notice once again that you are a trifle impertinent and disrespectful."
"Unjustly accused?" he retorted. "We shall not reach any compromise about my character, Lady Julia. Our opinions seem to differ." Perhaps it was a waste of time to continue.
She handed him the invitation to the ball.
"Thank you, but I may not go." He felt little enthusiasm for an occasion on which all older relatives of Julia's would be present to interrogate and scold him. They would undoubtedly be there.
"Well, then we will know for certain that you are a cad with no honourable intentions, no longer interested in a girl after you have had your fun."
He winced. "Stuck again." He wondered how these women could so easily manipulate him into being guilty. "And you know it is not true."
"The honourable thing would be to attend."
"And propose," MacLeod said bitterly.
"Which you do not intend to do," she concluded.
He looked away. "Fortunately she is not yet of a marriageable age." That meant he would not even have to think of the matter.
"I am sorry for your past misfortunes," he said. "You judge with your own experiences in mind and so do I."
"You are singularly impertinent and stubborn."
"I have been called stubborn," the captain agreed, remembering Julia. Being cornered by all her relatives was making him touchy and ill-mannered, he feared, and he ought to leave to prevent things from becoming worse. "I would not deny it. Do you need me any longer? I have to continue with my purchases and preparations because I have only two weeks left."
"I know enough," Lady Julia answered.
"What was your verdict, Duchess?" asked the admiral as soon as he had assembled his family in the carriage. He had found her alone and he was curious. Had she scared the captain away?
"We should not discuss it in front of the children."
"Oh, Papa already told me everything," Frederick said matter-of-factly.
Lady Julia looked reproachfully at her husband. "Did you?" She did not like hearing that. Quite a few parts of the story were not fit to be shared with the children, perhaps even all of the story.
"I only said that Julia set her cap at the captain. And then they wanted to know what that meant." The admiral looked appreciative of the fact that they had not known before.
"And what does it mean, Francesca?" Lady Julia asked to test her daughter.
"Julia wants to marry that man," Francesca replied eagerly. "But I do not believe that. I do not want her to. She is my friend." The seven years that separated them made Julia a perfect model.
"And I am completely indifferent," said her brother. "You may as well discuss it, for I do not care."
"Oh, may we, Frederick?" asked his mother. "Is it a son's place to tell his parents what they may talk about?"
"No, Mama," he had to admit.
"Then you will kindly hold your tongue."
A discussion of the topic was postponed until they had returned home and the children had been sent to the school room for an hour of study.
"Duchess, verdict," the admiral ordered, stretching his legs out in front of him lazily.
"Must I still inform you that such a tone does not work with me?" she said as she paced the room.
"Oh, it does." He waited for her to tell him about her impressions.
"Will you not look so smug?"
"Expectant," he corrected.
"Captain MacLeod is very stubborn."
"Persists in denying everything," the admiral nodded.
"Says she is not yet of a marriageable age."
"Then at least he is constant in his opinions -- and Francesca agrees with him there." His daughter had been appalled. She only remembered Julia as an exciting older friend, but definitely not old enough to start being one of the adults.
"I do not agree," Lady Julia remarked. "And neither does Clementine, or she would not throw a ball." The sole purpose of giving a ball was to get the girl married and one would not do so if the girl was deemed too young.
"Hmm," said her husband, considering that issue. "Lenton's opinion seemed rather unstable, as if he could not make sense of the girl." The duke had been torn between Julia's altered appearance and her youthful foolishness, and quite clearly he did not know how to treat her now.
"He is easily shocked. I wonder if the captain will go to the ball. He said he might not, but I said he would prove himself a cad if he did not. Is he worthy of Julia? Where is he from?"
"In this situation we cannot be too particular, Julia," said the admiral. "A captain of the Navy should be good enough and by the sounds of it, his family live too far away to be of consequence anyhow. But they are very likely not sheep farmers."
She was not so certain. "His manners leave a lot to be desired."
If she spoke of his lack of respect, she would have a point. The young man was not easily impressed and he did not ingratiate himself to them. "To be honest, Duchess, we came after him like a pack of dogs. His manners may be different on other occasions."
"When he is not being chased, but chasing?" she asked shrewdly.
MacLeod was sufficiently indecisive to seek somebody's opinion. A fellow officer he had served with on another ship a few years ago had joined him in the club for naval officers. Captain Carter now had his own ship as well and for a while they shared experiences while enjoying a few drinks.
Keeping a cool head in the presence of the enemy had made Captain MacLeod rather eager for some small talk that did not require any effort. "Remember the assembly?" he said when he felt ready to tackle another tough subject.
"Certainly!" Carter had flirted excessively with some very pretty girls there and no other occasion had come up since then.
"Do you know the Duke of Muncester?" The duke had been at that assembly, although he had probably not stayed to amuse himself, but come solely to interrogate MacLeod. Carter would not have seen him. There would not be any point in asking if he had seen Admiral Henson either.
"Who? Does he have a daughter?"
"He does. I am invited to a ball at the duke's estate."
"How did you manage that?" Carter cried.
"The daughter has taken a liking to me," MacLeod said gravely. Somehow he felt that bringing this up was pointless. Carter's advice was going to be predictable.
"Capture that vessel, Mac. Will be loaded."
Perhaps he ought to look at it like that. He heaved a sigh and looked away.
"We are very likely at a good age to look for a wife," Carter philosophised. He had made enough money to support one and he expected to make even more.
"Well, I put that in to justify my looking. I may look because it is time, or I may think it is time because I am looking. You are my age. If I had a duke's daughter setting her cap at me and her father even invited me..."
"Would you look at seventeen-year olds?" Besides, duke's daughter was such a misleading term for Julia, who had never once behaved like one. Mentioning her father came closest and that was only a literal thing.
"I do not see why not if they are pretty. Is she?"
MacLeod shrugged. "I have no idea." He could not let go of the image of the deck-scrubbing boy, even though he knew he should be remembering the fake Mrs. MacLeod. "A bit useless, that, is it not?"
His friend stared at him. "Mac, were you under water for very long when you shipwrecked?"
She would cut her hair and wear trousers on board. "What is the use of a pretty wife ashore?"
"She would not be of use to you, but undoubtedly to someone else," Carter agreed. "If you are afraid of that you have only one option and that is to take her with you."
"Carter, we had not even settled my going to that ball yet." If he preferred to retain any sort of control over his own life, he should consider not going.
"I could go in your stead. A duke's daughter. If she is ugly, she stays ashore. If she is pretty, she comes with me."
"Can I not get any serious advice from you?" MacLeod wondered.
"Clemmie, you minx!"
MacLeod was glad he was hidden by a huge plant, for he was certain the duke would not enjoy others hearing him address the duchess as such, although the duke could never be expecting eavesdroppers outside the open windows of what looked to be a cloakroom.
"You manipulated the guest list!" the duke fumed in audible disgust. "There is not one man in here whom I should like to see standing up with my daughter."
Clemmie's voice sounded amused. "But they are such high-born paragons, Julian."
"They are inbred weaklings," her husband replied. "And ugly to boot. Clem, where did you find such useless specimens? And why?" He was convinced she had some purpose in mind.
"I have my connections," she grinned.
"Why do your connections not provide you with handsome and wholesome fellows?"
She gave him a shrewd look. "I thought the Navy was not good enough for Julia."
It was really Navy men who meddled with Julia who would not be good enough for her. That was something completely different, but he did not see any point in pointing it out to her, as he was sure she was aware of it. "Did Julia put you up to this?"
"Oh, no. Julia has no clue where to find inbred weaklings."
"Why are you doing this to her -- or to me?" Neither of them would be very pleased with the choice of dance partners, he would think.
"Just to see when you would catch on, my darling, but you are exceedingly clever as always."
MacLeod, listening in intrigued embarrassment, thought she sounded very much like Julia. He wished he could disappear quietly and leave them to their kissing, in which they were undoubtedly indulging to an improper extent. He had stopped watching.
This served him right for not presenting himself at the door instantly, but to walk around the manor first to quell his nerves and to peek into the house if he could -- he was forced to witness uncomfortable scenes.
Julia studied herself in a mirror when her parents retired for a private conversation. The three of them had just received a queue of guests who had progressed into the reception areas. She had not known any of them, but she had noticed that all of the groups had brought young men. Some of them had looked quite impressed upon meeting her, so she wondered if she was in exceptionally good looks today. Her mother had said so, but any mother would.
The last time anyone had said anything to her about it had been before she left, on her last break from school. Although she could not recall how she had looked then, she knew she looked older now. Mama had been very pleased with her efforts to dress her up, she had said, and looking into the mirror Julia would agree.
It was a pity that the Mamas of the young gentlemen who had already arrived could not be thinking the same of their sons.
That reminded her of her own parents. Julia placed herself so that she could look straight into the cloakroom. They would not notice her yet, occupied as they were. She derived some comfort from the thought that they could not possibly want her to be married to somebody she could not love in the same manner. It remained to be seen why she was allowed to have this ball then, with all those unpromising young men.
MacLeod looked at the lovely vision in azure blue. It was difficult to believe that this was Julia. She had a parent on either side of her, which perhaps accounted for her demure smile. It held him back too. He would have felt differently if they were not keeping a close eye on them.
It was a point in his favour that he was no inbred weakling, but if he had understood the duchess correctly, the duke did not think the Navy good enough for Julia. Fathers rarely considered anyone good enough and dukes were probably the worst. He ventured a quick look at the man, but even a prolonged kiss from his wife did not appear to have improved his mood.
"Captain!" Julia said with a wild cry and jumped straight into his arms when she perceived him.
He was taken aback and stumbled. "Good grief," he uttered. "And here I was just starting to think you were different!" She was not so very different from her mother, he supposed. They both showed their affection willingly and without embarrassment. It was always a good thing to perceive a resemblance, for her mother might turn out to be an ally.
"Julia," said her father sternly.
Julia released the captain. "I am sorry, Papa. But even captains need hugs. He always says he does not, so one must jump him!"
"He says he does not, does he?" asked the duke. Perhaps this reconciled him a little to the man. He studied Julia's sudden liveliness. Apparently she too had not been impressed with the other male guests.
"My needs are not as important as what other people would think of them," said MacLeod. He clasped his hands behind his back as if to deny any willingness to be grabbed as well. "But fortunately no one saw it." He assumed he would have been dragged towards the nearest church if anyone else had witnessed this scene.
The duchess looked self-satisfied, proud of her shrewd planning. She kept her eye on the entrance. After the batch of inbred weaklings, a batch of more wholesome and handsome fellows ought to arrive shortly. She had scheduled the captain precisely in between. People were deliciously punctual this evening.
"Can you dance, Captain? I never saw you do it when we sailed back. That fat lady was angling after you most scandalously," Julia said without a trace of irony, "but you never stood up with her."
"Of course not."
"Did you not dance with the captain, Julia?" asked her father, who believed his daughter might have angled after the man even more scandalously.
"I could not; I was playing. He said he did not enjoy dancing," she said with narrowed eyes. "But he perhaps he simply did not enjoy the fat lady's attentions."
MacLeod gave her a quirky smile. "Perhaps. Mrs. Graves was the wife of the captain of the freighter. There is hardly any getting out of dancing with such a woman." He left it to the others to decide whether he had lied.
"Well, there is no getting out of dancing with me either," Julia announced. "I must open the ball with Papa and then I am expected to dance with every male guest under twenty-five at least once."
"I am glad to hear it," said MacLeod.
Julia stared at him. "Why are you glad?"
He chuckled. "If one is over twenty-five one does get out of dancing with you, apparently."
"And are you glad about that?" she cried.
"I have never seen you dance; I do not know yet." He glanced over his shoulder when he heard some sounds at the entrance. "I shall leave you to greet your other guests." With a polite greeting he moved on into the ballroom and its adjoining rooms.
"Oh," Julia sighed theatrically. "Is he not adorable?"
"Does he treat you in the same manner if you are alone with him?" the duke inquired. He was rather suspicious of hugging. Perhaps it was even worse if they were alone. He was a bad father; he ought to have sent Julia up to her room instantly for hugging men like that, but then Clementine would insist that she would not learn anything being locked up and she would be let out again, only to display her affectionate nature once again in some scandalous manner. Just what did Clementine think Julia would learn from all of this?
"How lovely to see you, Lady Mary!" the duchess interjected quickly, for Lady Mary and her sons were approaching, and Julian's thoughts could be read on his face very easily.
Julia betrayed no real interest in Lady Mary's offspring, although they were fine and healthy fellows. She was still wondering if she could squeeze in a dance with the captain.
The duke disliked dancing, but in this case he had no choice. He had practised well enough to be able to survive the first dance with Julia and then he would leave the floor to the youngsters, who would undoubtedly find more enjoyment in the activity.
Julia did indeed, although her partners did not inspire any admirable feelings in her on the whole.
When he was not studying Julia, the duke studied the captain across the room, but every time he unobtrusively tried to approach the man, he found the captain moved away from him as if he was aware of it. During one of these manoeuvres he found his sleeve being grabbed.
"Julian, what are you doing?" asked his wife. "You are stalking about the room most uninvitingly. You are cutting people."
He was not aware of that. "I wanted to speak to that captain, but I cannot catch him."
"Perhaps you should not go after him with your weapons drawn. He might stand still then." She took pity on her husband. "Should I corner him? What is it you want to say to him?"
He had to admit he did not know. "I shall think of that when I have him."
She chuckled softly. "Do you want to jump him like Julia?"
"You are enjoying this, Clementine, when that man might most grievously and disgustingly have taken advantage of Julia!" he whispered. He did not want to acquit him and then find himself completely taken in.
"Julia would not allow that to happen, but very well, I shall chase the man and hear him out another time. Why do you not see if you could find better sons-in-law?"
He watched her walk away and resumed his observation of Julia. The fellow she was dancing with now would certainly not be welcome into the family.
Clementine was all smiles and nods as she slowly threaded her way through the mass of guests. The captain's uniform made him an easy target. Without appearing to be in a hurry, she finally reached him near the refreshments. "Are you amusing yourself without dancing, Captain?" she asked.
"Very well, Your Grace," he replied, looking over her shoulder, catching the eye of the duke. "Did His Grace want to be assured of that?"
She had to smile at his perceptiveness. "Not of that."
"I thought that my being invited meant that Lady Julia had somehow changed her story," he said cautiously. They could not still be suspecting him of all manner of vicious actions.
"To the truth, Captain?"
"I do not know what she said."
"That she posed as your wife."
He looked relieved. "Then she did not lie. I did not understand why she would suddenly lie. But that is true: I did not see how else I could respectably take her across the ocean."
"But I somehow think her jumping into your arms was not the first time she did such a thing."
"That is precisely what I mean," he explained patiently. "She would insist on doing it and which other woman could have a right?" His expression changed to doubt as he spoke the last words. Which other woman indeed? Did this mean he should marry her because he did not allow anyone else to do the same?
"I am sure you are man enough to reject unwanted advances, Captain," Clementine said a little sharply. "What else did you allow?"
MacLeod looked a little confused. "Are you now blaming Julia?"
"Me," he repeated. "I ... see. I ... allowed it because..." He stared at the floor once more, urging himself to be in control of himself, but the duchess' switch to the enemy side had taken him by surprise. "...because she was a child and a child would be hurt by a rejection of her friendliness."
"How is her being completely ruined to be preferred over some temporary disappointment?" Julia was not stupid. She would have seen reason before long.
"She did not know what she was doing. It was only a hug to her."
"You could have explained it."
MacLeod raised his eyes from the floor. "And give her ideas? Good Lord, no."
"Did you think she would have abused such knowledge?" Julia's mother asked. It was not unlikely that Julia might have started to imagine things after being told about the possibilities. That she would put such knowledge into practice was a rather shocking thought, but she could not blame the captain for wanting to avoid that altogether, even if he ought to be blamed for supposing it possible.
"She said she adored me. Should I have detailed all the possible ways in which she could express her adoration?" he asked bitterly. "So she could take her pick? She might have liked some of those ways better than hugs!"
"Captain," the duchess admonished, because she had to. A lady could not even admit there was a possibility that ladies liked hugs, let alone something worse.
"For what it is worth, I did ask her what she was doing; I did ascertain her motives; I did warn her to be less affectionate. But she always has an answer." He knew he was not making a good impression here. He was supposed to be a figure of authority.
"That, I am afraid, will not satisfy her father."
"Will he have to know?"
"Of course. I keep no secrets from him."
"And then? Will he throw me out or should I be wise?" MacLeod would leave of his own volition.
"Be wise," she smiled. "I do think you could have been stricter with Julia, but -- oh, I had this same talk with the duke's aunt fifteen years ago!" she realised. She had been afraid of being thrown out of the house as well. It was interesting to find how history repeated itself.
MacLeod frowned. "Fifteen? Was that when she married the admiral? Did they misbehave? I beg your pardon -- I should not be asking."
She looked startled and then laughed. "Two widowed people may misbehave all they like, you know. No, Aunt Julia had the talk with us."
"Oh." He digested that. The duchess was certainly fond of the duke. "Were you like Julia?"
There were similarities, but she could not elaborate on them. "It was a different situation, yet the elderly always think they must rescue the young from scrapes, do they not?"
"I have no other experience with it."
"That is singular. This is your first scrape?" Clementine was amused to see the captain blush.
"Others were but trifles compared to this one," he answered stiffly. "And I could extricate myself very well."
She raised her eyebrows, inviting him to explain. There were some things she would not like to hear.
"They did not involve girls, but only normal scrapes."
"I see." Normal scrapes did not involve girls! She wondered why Julian could not relate to this young man. "I must leave you now. Mingle and dance, Captain," she ordered, but he did not look eager to do so.
Julian had been accosted by a few gentlemen, so it would be difficult to speak to him about the confidential matter of what the captain had said. The young man should not yet be identified as a potential son-in-law. Such a thing would already happen if they mentioned his name.
Clementine wandered around, speaking to guests here and there until Julian was free. Julia continued to behave like a lady on the dance floor. She had not once approached the captain, but someone else had, for he was now conversing with a young lady. When Clementine next looked, there were already two young ladies. That was interesting. She wondered if and when Julia became jealous.
Apparently MacLeod knew better than to dance, for he merely continued speaking to the four young ladies that had now assembled around him. Clementine was glad for it; Julia would certainly have created a scene on the dance floor if he had taken any of the girls there. The least worrisome she would have done was stop and stare, with all the upsetting of the dance this would entail.
Clementine was not out of any danger herself, for the mothers of other young dancers could not begin to fathom where Julia had been all that time. Those who had known her before certainly perceived a change and they should like to know which finishing school or exotic location had been responsible for it. Schools on the continent could easily be checked. Besides, Julia could never pretend to have gone, because too many people knew things about the continent that she did not. And one did not travel to the West Indies to spend but a few weeks there.
Clementine derived comfort from the fact that Julian and she had succeeded once before. The most valuable handbook of high society now listed their marriage as having taken place abroad well before Julia's date of birth, which had been rather dishonest of them, if for a good cause.
While sending the invitations for the ball it had occurred to her that the most malicious of minds might well think that some indiscretion had caused them to hide Julia away with a distant relative for a while, as happened sometimes.
Fortunately those who had visited during the past months had always found Julia to be away at her grandparents' residence. Her grandparents enjoyed boating and were not always at home, and that explanation could easily be used again. The Hensons had at least two houses and two boats. It would have been a huge coincidence for the already small number of mutual friends to run into Julia anywhere.
Julia, Clementine realised again with a deep sigh, had had no idea that anybody would need to lie and fantasise on her behalf. She had only wanted some excitement.
There was not much opportunity to speak to Julian now that some ladies had begun to speak to her, so she gave him an apologetic, but reassuring smile. There was no need to hurt the captain physically just yet. Much could happen still, notably after the majority of the guests had left.
The captain's audience was taken away from him when several parents collected their daughters to go home. Nobody knew which guests had been chosen to stay in the house, but everybody knew it had to be someone else. The musicians had been hired until one o'clock -- about which several young people had complained beforehand -- and by then most guests had already left, especially the ones who had not been invited to stay in the house.
MacLeod stifled a yawn -- not his first -- and looked around the ballroom. Julia was speaking to a tall young man of perhaps twenty who seemed shy around her, although she was obviously not shy around him. She said something to the boy about him, for both looked at him. Perhaps he should leave too. Only neighbourhood friends seemed to remain and he would stand out. He wondered why he had come if all he had exchanged with Julia was a few sentences at the entrance. Surely he was not going to be allowed to start a conversation now!
The boy with Julia was beckoned by a man who stood talking to the duke and he was sent off into the hall with a woman who was obviously his mother. The man headed straight for the captain. "Captain. I hope you will forgive me for reading your letter, but you did send it to me."
This had to be the steward then and it explained Julia's familiarity with the boy. "Thank you for getting it into the proper hands, Mr. Newman."
"You are very welcome. I hope your trials are now at an end." The steward smiled a little, as if he could not imagine a trip with Julia was anything less than a trial.
"I hope to sail next Tuesday -- if His Grace does not prevent it." He had been extremely fortunate that he had not been charged with neglect.
"Why would he?" Mr. Newman seemed genuinely surprised.
"Er..." MacLeod said with a meaningful look at Julia, who was just coming their way. The duke might insist that he marry Julia first, perhaps, especially if he threatened to set a foot wrong.
"Where are you staying, Captain?" she asked, not caring about Mr. Newman's presence.
"And where will you sleep?"
"At home, when I get there." Or in the carriage if he succeeded. He had planned to try.
"You could stay with us, I am sure. I noticed that Mama is as fond of guests as ever and that she did not invite anybody to spend the night." Julia did not understand her mother's reasons, but the result of her mother's hospitality was an empty house.
"I do not wonder why she did not invite any curious guests," Mr. Newman said innocently. He would be able to tell Julia why if she insisted. It had everything to do with her lengthy absence and accidental comments that might refer to it. There were children in the house, after all.
"The captain cannot be too curious about himself," Julia declared. "And perhaps he thinks I never learnt any geography, but I happen to know he will need to travel for a few hours until he can fall upon a comfortable bed. I also happen to know that the two nearest inns are both full."
"I may not have a comfortable bed at home and I may be just as happy in the carriage," he answered. "You do not know where I am staying."
"I can come up with a two-mile circle. I know all the ports and how far they are and I know the one where my father and grandfather saw you recently. One does not have to be a genius to conclude that is where you are staying."
He stared at her, wondering if she was going to reveal that she had had plans to travel there if he had not come here.
"And if I were to go there I should find you soon enough." Her father and grandfather had managed too. It could never be too difficult.
"I rather think your parents would also have that concern if I stayed here," he said politely.
"I am certain they would prefer me to stay here. My Mama is not so confident that I will," said Julia, recalling her mother's question. Her parents had been entertaining strange notions lately.
"Is that another threat?" MacLeod asked with a wary look. Would he now be made to stay here because her parents would be angry if she followed him home?
"Threat?" Julia was all innocence. "Shall I ask Mama to invite you?"
That would be futile. "Your Papa would never agree."
Julia did not perceive any problem. "He is good at locking people up. He could simply lock you in and unlock your door in the morning."
"If he does not think of that himself, you will tell him," MacLeod nodded. Assuming foolishly that the duke would agree to such a plan, he did not know whether he would himself. Being locked up!
"His Grace will think of worse schemes," Mr. Newman chuckled. "But I must take my family home now. Good night, Captain, Julia."
"I notice you are not at all shocked," the captain observed. This puzzled him.
"If you knew all of us everything would make perfect sense. Good night."
Julia was left with MacLeod. "You never asked anybody to dance," she observed with tentative pleasure. "But now the music has stopped."
"I am not good at it," he answered. He was glad the music had stopped and glad that everything made perfect sense to at least one person.
"Even my father can dance," Julia remarked. "He and I practised all week!"
"With admirable results, I saw." He had not had the time to refresh his memory like the duke. "Apart from your father there was nobody over twenty-five on the floor, so I would have stood out twice over, but after him you had enough proficient partners to amuse you."
"I would much rather have seen you try." Her face brightened again. "But at least you did not try with those girls. I suppose that counts for something."
He had known better than to ask any of those girls. "There were four of them, so I would have committed myself to five dances if I had started. Four and you."
She smiled. "That is true. You know me well. I would have insisted."
"Even after so many proficient partners?"
She gave him an encouraging look. "Yes, I would still have insisted. Now I shall ask Mama if you may stay -- discreetly."
The mention of discretion amused him, all things considered. "Was no discretion needed with Mr. Newman?" She had spoken in such a frank manner in front of him, as if he were family.
"Oh no, he has known us all forever and he only talks to his wife and she talks to nobody because she is the epitome of discretion -- or shyness."
She walked away and he waited. The duchess was not going to give her consent and he would sleep in the carriage as planned. It would not bother him. He yawned again.
"Mama, the captain is going to sleep in his carriage," Julia said, taking her mother aside in a determined manner. "We cannot let him."
There was no doubt as to what Julia wished to ask and arrange. Clementine was not as optimistic about her wishes. "Do not even try. Papa --"
"Papa can lock him up, but then at least he will sleep well." It seemed of the utmost importance to her that the captain got a good night's sleep.
"I do not think we should force him to stay by using such measures if he does not want to stay." Clementine thought that if the captain wanted to return home, he should. The idea of Julian locking the captain into a room was preposterous. If he had not thought he could sleep in a carriage, he would have got himself a room at an inn. Obviously he had counted on going home.
"Oh Mama! I am sure he would prefer to stay. The locking of the door would be to keep me out. You and Papa would think such a measure necessary." Her father and mother had after all reacted quite idiotically to her having shared a cabin with him.
Clementine looked at her daughter's face, so earnest and so devoid of any wickedness. It looked almost indignant. "And you do not?" She glanced across the room, but the captain was yawning so violently that he could not possibly be up to any mischief. Not tonight.
"How hypocritical would it be, Mama?" Julia asked in a low voice. "After we shared a cabin the size of ... of ... nothing!" If no harm had come to her there, no harm would come to her here.
"Dearest, is there no keeping you out of trouble?"
"I do not see what sort of trouble it would be." Julia wrinkled her nose in a stubborn manner. If she were pressed hard enough, she might be able to think of something, but she did not care to.
Surprisingly that answer made her mother smile fondly. She laid her hands on Julia's shoulders. "It can be very difficult to see. You may not see it until it is too late. Do you want to spend the rest of your life being cautious about your past, lying about it?"
"I do not."
"Then employ a little more caution right now. Some things cannot be undone." She remembered the captain's words. He had not wanted to give Julia any ideas. Perhaps she should not either and she should first ask what he thought of all this. "Why do you not talk to Papa? I shall talk to the captain. And why do you keep calling him Captain if you adore him so?"
"Because ... I do not know. It makes me feel like his superior." Julia laughed and skipped away to her father.
Clementine shook her head in horror. She joined the young man on the other side of the room, after having received thanks and good wishes from some departing guests. "Captain, please sit down. I am trying to impress on my daughter's mind that she is not behaving as she ought, but she does not see this. While I understand, it would not do. It is my duty as a mother to keep her out of trouble, but I already feel as though I am to blame for her character because I am not being as severe on her as I ought. I considered telling her what might happen to a girl, but then I remembered that you did not because you feared she would abuse the information at your expense. Thus, apart from locking her up, there is no way to keep her away from you."
"But you understand her," he said with a little frown. She was indeed not severe on Julia.
"Of course. She is my flesh and blood. Yet if I could prevent my daughter from acquiring any secrets, I should." She inhaled deeply. "At the rate she is proceeding she will have more to hide than she could."
He waited for her to continue.
"If you were a little more..." She hesitated, not really knowing whether she wanted him to be less or more interesting to Julia.
"Willing?" he asked. "Willing to marry a child?"
"She is growing up quickly."
"Indeed, Your Grace, but you cannot fault me for -- first it was a boy, then a young girl and then --" He shook his head. It was impossible to describe.
"You poor man," she said and she meant it. "I wish it were simple too. What her father and I say is not going to have any effect. You must do something -- get her to marry you or get her to despise you."
She might as well have sentenced him to death.
"Do we have a room for him?" Clementine asked Julian in a discreet whisper. They had plenty of rooms, but not without his approval.
"Him. Him. Him. Which man comes unprepared?" Julian had not been unprepared for the question. Julia had asked the same of him a few minutes ago, but he had sent her away without answering. He had not been able to come up with anything without thinking first.
"He is going to sleep in his carriage, but Julia will not have it."
"Julia. Of course. I suppose that if I say no, she will be a stowaway in his carriage?"
"She has not told me that. She suggested you could lock the captain up in his room so he would be inaccessible to her, because undoubtedly you and I would assume...and so forth." Clementine was fatigued. She wanted nothing more than to go to bed and sleep. These problems were too complicated to solve for a mere parent.
Julian had had enough as well. "I am so tired of this, Clementine. Give him a room, let her have her wicked way with that man and let him carry her off to sea afterwards. I am going to bed." He hoped he would soon be overtaken by a blissful oblivion, as weak-hearted as that was.
She smiled at him gratefully for voicing the sentiments she had not dared to voice. "Thank you, my dear. We are in complete agreement."
With a heavy heart Clementine approached Julia. She might be sending her straight into ruin with this communication, but there was no avoiding it anymore. The situation was too much for her poor parents. "Given the fact that you think you are no longer a child, we shall treat you as a grown woman. Your father and I are going to bed. Be the lady of the house. Get the captain a room or show him out if he so desires. Handle the servants. Have the ballroom cleared. I expect everything to be in good order when we wake up."
Julia's eyes widened and she stood a little more erect. This was an unexpected honour and she was determined to be worthy of this confidence. "Yes, Mama. Sleep well."
She watched as her parents left the ballroom. Then she gave her orders to the butler -- the finer tasks of sweeping and polishing were to be left until the morning's better light -- and finally she returned to Captain MacLeod, who was assisting a sleepy-looking maid in picking up a broken glass. "Captain!"
"Yes, Lady Julia?" Before he had been able to make up his mind with regard to leaving, the duchess had said something to Julia and then she and the duke had left at the same time as the last of the other guests. He had thought they would be back, but they had stayed away and Julia had spoken to the servants. It was all very odd. Now Julia approached him with excitement in her voice, not only excitement but also something commanding. In front of the servants he thought it best to address her properly. He was practically all alone with Julia and that would of course be suspicious.
"My father and mother have left me in charge and so I must oversee the clearing of the room," she announced proudly.
"Which includes me." He must be removed from the room. In fact, he should have removed himself from there ages ago. Strangely enough he had been unable.
"Yes -- you may go to bed," she said to the grateful maid. "Only the footmen will work on. But the room must be swept before the family go down to breakfast." She turned back to the captain. "Could I have a room prepared for you?"
"Did they approve?" He did not want to cause any trouble. The duke and duchess might have retired, but that did not mean Julia could decide everything on their behalf.
"Could I have a room prepared for you?" she repeated, her chin high and her hands clasped behind her back. She was in charge. He should not be asking about her parents.
He observed that Julia took her duties very seriously indeed, remaining a hospitable hostess even in the face of insulting questions. He nearly smiled. "That would be most generous of you, Lady Julia."
"And most sensible of you, Captain." She beckoned a footman and instructed him to have the first room in the guest wing prepared for the captain. "And show him there, thank you. I believe he may be tired and anyway, he must have nothing to do with the cleaning."
MacLeod still looked a little taken aback at her commanding attitude, but he bowed and wished her a good night. He was tired and a proper bed sounded far more inviting than sleeping in a carriage.
The duke found it difficult to fall asleep. He kept fearing that the wickedest things were taking place under his roof, even though he had told himself to close his eyes. "Why are you not affected?" he asked his wife, who had just given a loud sigh of annoyance when he rolled over once more.
"What could possibly happen?" She had thought of this too, but Julia was very likely not going to object to any of the possibilities. It would be very undesirable if she were unmarried, but that was another consideration.
"A lot, since she knows nothing."
"My dear, if he were more yielding, he would not be half as interesting to her. If he continues to be interesting, he cannot have given in, neither to her nor to any desires. It is simple."
"What could induce a man to allow himself to be toyed with in such a manner?"
"You have taught her not to toy, my dear. Two women toying with you is far too much," she said with a laugh. Julia did not take advantage of people. Julian had managed to be strict with her on occasion, which might have played a role.
Julia went to bed only when she had ascertained that the ballroom was ready to be swept. She was not certain what her parents would have done; she had always retired long before such matters were arranged. She supposed, though, that dust and dirt were far more visible in daylight. Before she drifted off to sleep she could not help but feel quite proud of herself. She was no longer a child.
And she was delighted that he had come. She had not known he was invited; Mama had kept silent about that. Who should she be happiest with now, Mama or the captain? This must mean Mama was not so decided against him as she had feared and neither was Papa. If Papa had let himself be persuaded, his objections could never be very strong. Indeed, who could have very strong objections to Captain MacLeod?
She reviewed his behaviour. He had come -- that was the most important thing -- and he had not been too upset at the hug, perhaps only a little guarded because she was doing it right under Papa's nose. But truly, he had not been more guarded than usual.
He would not dance. Well, he was still stubborn -- of course he would not dance. At least nobody else had got him to do so. She would have disliked that.
Mama had spoken to him, but neither had told her what it had been about. She should have asked. Apparently Mama had not yet given her approval, for the captain had asked about that later. Perhaps Mama had been satisfied with him anyhow and that was why she had gone to bed?
His door was not locked. Julia did not think such a measure was necessary, not after Mama had lent her approval to his staying. Locking up had only been an argument to persuade them, after all.
MacLeod awoke in an unfamiliar room. For a while he simply lay still, enjoying the comfort. Although he had been yawning heavily before going to bed, he did not need many hours of sleep to be rested and after a servant had brought some hot water, he started to dress himself. He only had these clothes to wear, but he expected the family would excuse him for this too formal attire at breakfast.
His dressing was interrupted. It was most kind of His Grace to send his valet with some less formal clothes. How could he have known? Presumably the delivery of the clothes was merely an excuse to make sure he had behaved himself during the night. Nobody had locked him in, as far as he knew, and in theory he could have been up to all kinds of mischief. The captain thanked the valet nevertheless.
As soon as he arrived downstairs, he encountered the duke, who looked much less rested than himself, and six young boys. MacLeod counted this fine family in awe. If he was not mistaken there were even three children missing: Julia and the two youngest. Captain Lenton had evidently found another way of keeping busy after leaving the Navy.
"Captain, good morning," said the duke, echoed by the six boys. "I hope you slept well. I see you chose to stay."
"Chose, er..." MacLeod responded. He wondered if he had had any choice. "Yes, I did."
The duke gestured at his offspring. "As you see I have more children to look after than merely my eldest. She believes she is old enough to look after herself."
MacLeod supposed that Julia could indeed look after herself. After all, she had managed to turn herself into a boy and enlist on a ship. He could even understand her parents -- there were so many more children who needed attention -- yet he did not know what was required of him now. They could hardly want him to take advantage.
"So I shall let her. Let her deal with the problems she causes. I am too tired," the duke said with another gesture.
MacLeod could see that. He could also see that the eldest boy looked very interested upon hearing there were problems somewhere. He wondered if the boy was old enough to connect a sister with problems to a strange man at breakfast. Fortunately that did not yet seem to be the case, for the boy showed no special interest in him. "Thank you for the clothes, Your Grace," he said when he felt he must say something.
His Grace looked sour. "I do not begrudge you any clothes, Captain, but I cannot accept your thanks. I found a note ordering me to send some. Apparently your hostess wrote it."
"She took her duties very seriously indeed."
"Duties?" the duke asked sharply.
Julia's father had not truly become disinterested, MacLeod noted. "I beg your pardon. Her mother's orders."
The youngest boy had been observing him with some fascination. He now left his seat to inform his father in a loud whisper that the strange man spoke strangely. Some of the other boys looked a little embarrassed.
"Well observed," said the duke with a smile and sent the little one back to his chair. The strange man had an accent.
"You speak strangely," the boy ventured, strengthened by this support.
"I do?" MacLeod feigned surprise. "You do! Say strangely again. It sounds strangely."
"Nooooo!" the little boy giggled. "I speak like my Papa."
"I speak like my Papa too. I could not speak like your Papa, now could I?" He did not suppose any other explanation would be understood. The boy could only barely talk.
"No," the boy mused. This seemed to satisfy him. "Because he is mine."
"Have you got another posting already, Captain?" asked the duke. "If not, another schoolmaster would not be unwelcome here, one who enforces some discipline and manners." He smiled nevertheless.
"I am sorry; I sail next Tuesday." He observed that the elder boys turned their heads towards him in interest. Perhaps they also wanted to go to sea at some point. He hoped they would take the normal route. They seemed well-behaved, despite their father's comment.
"That is quick. There is nothing going on and you have just lost a ship. One would have expected some --" The duke shrugged, stopping just short of saying he would have expected some form of punishment.
"I was immediately available -- or perhaps people wanted to be rid of me," MacLeod said. He would agree with the duke. He had been remarkably lucky.
"Are you suggesting our family had a hand in it?"
"If so, I thank you."
"We did not," said the duke, but he did not say whether the family had wanted to be rid of the captain.
Clementine had found the ballroom neat and tidy when she had checked. She had then returned upstairs to tend to her two youngest. Surprisingly, Julia joined her.
"The ballroom was in a good condition," said Clementine.
Julia looked proud. "That was what you wanted, Mama."
"I am surprised to see you here."
"Did I not help you every day since I came home?"
"You did," her mother admitted. But there had not been any gentlemen in the house then. She knew he had stayed. Julia's note to her father about the clothes had amused her. It was something she had not thought of.
"Why should today be any different?" Julia asked, but she could guess. They thought she would forget everything now that Captain MacLeod was in the house.
Clementine could only think of bringing up subjects she was determined not to bring up, so they got Andrew and the baby ready in silence. The scene appeared so peaceful. Nothing indicated that Julia might soon run off to sea once more. If she did so again, Clementine was tempted to think that the captain would neither return her home another time, nor throw her overboard. There was only so much a young man could resist, after all.
"I hope you had a good night, Captain," Julia spoke quite formally. Her father was not there, but the presence of six brothers precluded a more familiar greeting. She was immensely pleased to see he had not yet left. She could have run downstairs immediately upon waking up, but she had wanted to be grown up and sedate, not eager and silly.
"Why are you so strange?" one of her younger brothers cried instantly. He was impressed that she dared to speak to the stranger. Their father had stepped out for a minute and the boys had been interested, but shy. Now that Julia had come, they dared a little more, but not a direct conversation with him. Only the little boy had dared to babble to the guest.
"That is how you speak to guests, you simpleton," she replied with a disturbed look at the offender.
"But you are pretending to be Mama."
She did not deign to answer the silly boy and turned back to MacLeod. "Did you have a good night?" She was not imitating Mama; she was simply behaving as she was taught.
He smiled a little. "I did. Thank you. It was very comfortable." Certainly breakfasting here was also very comfortable with all those interested boys, though none so forward as their sister, except perhaps the youngest.
"When are you leaving?" Julia could not stop herself from asking.
He did not know whether she meant leaving the house or leaving the country. He could only give an answer with regard to the latter, since he could never invite himself. "I sail on Tuesday. One Captain Mercer broke his hip."
"How perfectly accommodating of him. But that is rather soon, Tuesday," she said with a wrinkle in her forehead.
"It is," MacLeod agreed. He wondered what she was planning.
"I do not know --" she broke off when her father entered. "Good morning, Papa."
"Good morning, Julia." He sat down and pretended not to observe them, cursing his foolishness in leaving the room for a minute. Had there been a warm embrace?
"Have you still got much to arrange?" Julia asked the captain.
"Not so much with regard to the ship, as Captain Mercer did his job well before he fell. I have my personal affairs to arrange, mostly. People kept wanting to speak to me, which was very distracting. But I am nearly finished."
"I suppose it helped that you had no possessions left."
"Actually, it did not. I had to buy them."
"With no one to advise you!" she exclaimed, remembering Antigua.
"A man should be able to buy his own affairs without advice," he answered in a calm manner that hid his amusement.
Julia looked a little vexed by this answer. "No hugs, no advice! Really, I do wonder about you."
At least three of her brothers turned a surprised face towards them. "Oh Papa," said the eldest, who was fourteen. He looked very much in awe of something. "You might be required to say something."
"Do I have another child who feels grown up?" the duke wondered, appraising his coffee cup. "I am not listening to any of you ordering me about. I do not want to feel old."
"Papa!" Julia imitated perfectly how one jumped up and overturned a chair. She flew towards him and gave him a fond hug. "But you can stay the same age while we grow older. Is this what was bothering you, Papa?" she whispered. "I did miss you so while I was away! I had to hug somebody."
"Julia," he whispered back, baffled by this new spin on the case. "You should not hug other men instead of me. It leads to ... all sorts of trouble."
"Only with men who are susceptible," Julia said wisely. "I do not think he had ever been hugged. This was trouble enough, I daresay. But Papa, can I make it up to you by saying you are still very young?" Her whisper and her artless smile were very persuasive.
"I am too young to be a grandfather. Do not make me one." He looked at her anxiously. The silly girl might not even understand him. He hoped she would not.
"I have had no wish to so far." This was the first time the notion was put to her.
"Julia!" He groaned at her candour. "So far! And what about him?"
"He will likely think more of his own father in that regard, not of you."
He marvelled at how she could always come up with something to say. "But Julia, if you missed me, you should have come home and you should not have hugged the captain. He wanted to send you home and you talked him out of it!" He noticed himself absolve the captain of any guilt there. It was remarkable.
"But I liked him."
The duke placed a kiss on her forehead and released her. He remembered that he had considered himself too tired to care. There was absolutely nothing he could do in this case except to feel frustrated and powerless. Julia went back to her place and resumed eating. Her father was still a little befuddled by it all, muttering something about the river and leaving the room.
The eldest boy waited to speak until his father was definitely gone. "Did you get a scolding, Julia?"
"I would not tell you if that were so," she said haughtily.
"But Papa spoke to you."
"No business for children," Julia replied. "Come," she said to MacLeod. "We shall take a walk through the park." She needed to speak to him and this was not the place.
"I am coming!" cried the youngest, who was four. It did not occur to him that he might not be wanted.
"Then we are all coming," the twelve-year old added with a wicked smile that indicated he knew Julia was not going to like it.
"You are not!" Julia retorted.
"We are!" All boys left their seats and lined up beside them. Some were even jumping. The eldest looked excited, if a little afraid of the stranger. Still, they were determined to be part of the excursion.
MacLeod ate on stoically. Save for some glances at the excited faces he did nothing. The boys would come; it seemed inevitable if they were Julia's brothers. He wondered if he should waste his time on a group outing, although he reflected that he might still have been sleeping if he had been at home and that really he was not going to lose much time at all.
"Allow the captain to finish his breakfast in peace," Julia ordered. They were all crowding around his chair. It could not be agreeable.
"But," said the fourteen-year old, who had perceived a contradiction. "You have just ordered him to come with you. How peaceful is that?"
Not peaceful at all, MacLeod would agree, but again he said nothing. How long would he be able to stick to saying nothing? Soon he would have finished his breakfast and he doubted that he would then be any closer to making up his mind. It was like the night before -- he postponed a decision until Julia made it, not something he ought to be proud of. He smiled at the little one who was almost pushed onto his lap by an elder brother.
"There is a difference between pushing him out of his chair and suggesting a walk," Julia explained to her brother. "And I did not suggest a walk to any of you, in case you had misheard me."
"Well, you will not be able to order me about, for I was the eldest while you were away," said her brother, making himself as tall as he could be. "I think it very scandalous that you intend to take the captain out for a private walk and I am sure Papa and Mama would think so too. You had best take me to supervise you. I shall make sure you come to no harm. As you know, I am Lord --"
MacLeod stared at his pompousness, but before he could do anything Julia had already boxed the boy's ears. The smallest boy wanted to crawl past the captain's legs under the table to hide, but MacLeod held him back. "She will not hit you," he whispered.
"There," Julia said in satisfaction. "That will teach you not to take on any airs, foolish boy. Come," she said to the captain. "We shall go for a walk -- alone."
Her brothers were still stunned and did not dare to move.
"Julia..." said MacLeod when they stepped outside. Perhaps he was a little stunned as well, wondering if this was at her action or at his getting up instantly when she ordered. "I..."
"You do not approve," she deduced.
"I have never seen anything like it before," he admitted truthfully, but he did not say whether he disapproved.
"And you will not have to see it again." It was not something a lady did, she supposed.
"What are your plans with regard to me?" he asked, feeling foolish for asking.
Julia did not even appear to think that a strange question. She gave her answer very seriously. "My immediate plan was to tell you what my father said to me. He is too young to be a grandfather, he said. I assured him I had had no plans to make him one so far and then he asked about you, but I told him you would think of your own father in that regard, not of mine."
MacLeod nearly went cross-eyed. "Why did I have to be told?"
"Now you know my father's primary fear is growing old," she said brightly. "I came back all grown up and now he is confused."
"I..." He inhaled slowly. "...may disagree with that, Julia. You are going to continue to get yourself into trouble if you fail to see what truly bothers him. For instance, it is rather dangerous to walk out with a man."
"He might..." MacLeod glanced around himself and suddenly pulled her behind a bush. "...do this."
Julia was unimpressed. "It is a bit unmannered to do so unannounced, but I cannot say I am greatly bothered by it."
It was to be expected that she was not greatly bothered by something that would bother everyone else greatly. Perhaps he was not the right person to explain it to her. She had not looked frightened at any point. "Because I did it, you mean? What if it was someone you despised?"
"Why would I be walking with him?"
He thought for a second. Rather than trying for reasons, he should try another angle. "What if he was waiting here in secret and grabbed you while you passed?"
"To hurt you."
"Why would someone do that?" She could not imagine why someone would hide himself with that purpose.
"It would give him pleasure."
She stared at him with wide intrigued eyes. "But I am actually safer with a man than without, since my acquaintance with him would have enlightened me about such an aspect of his character. If there were any such beast lurking in a bush this man would protect me too."
He looked grave. "I believe it is commonly assumed that all men are beasts."
"They implied such a thing at school as well," she remembered pensively. "Although they never mentioned being pulled into the shrubbery specifically. I have found most men to be quite well-mannered and ordinary, actually." And she could know, because she had been on a ship with them and before then, she had been surrounded by boys.
"You are, Captain." She wrapped her arms around him. He was a darling for always explaining complicated things to her so kindly. "I love you so much."
He froze. He had no idea what she was going to do now.
Julia smiled when she felt him panic. "I am only telling you. I am not asking you to do anything."
MacLeod recovered himself slightly. "I am surprised. You will not even ask to sail with me?"
"Yours is the question, mine is the answer," she said with dignity. "Where are you off to?"
"The freezing north, where nobody wants to go." He suspected she would be one of the few who would not mind.
"Is that a punishment for losing your ship?" she asked, her sympathy evident in her expression.
"I suppose so, but it could have been worse. I could have been found guilty of something or other, but they did not believe the storm was my fault. Cold and empty seas for a while, but if I do well there I shall be given more profitable postings afterwards," he hoped.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.