Setting an Example
"The Isle of Wight, sir," First Lieutenant Baxter said. Captain Rawlins nodded, not really listening. He did not need a Yorkshireman to identify his home for him, and had Baxter not been his friend, he would have told him so. For the Isle of Wight was home - or almost, he thought, recalling the frequent outings to the island with his father and brothers. While outwardly concentrating on the tasks at hand, his thoughts drifted off to his mother, whom he had not seen for nearly four years - ever since he had been promoted to the rank of captain and had taken command of HMS Mercury. There was anticipation in the air. Captain Rawlins knew that most of the men were eager to go ashore, either to meet their loved ones or ... more likely ... to find the sort of entertainment not to be had at sea. He decided to allow those with family in Portsmouth to go ashore first - it would be cruel to keep them from their families for any longer than was necessary. Those hoping for entertainment could wait.
A couple of hours later, Captain George Rawlins was ashore. He had been the last one of those who had family in Portsmouth to leave the Mercury, and now he was going to pay a visit to his parent. His mother lived in a large, handsome house on the outskirts of the town, and Captain Rawlins went to a posting inn to hire some kind of conveyance to take him there. There was some riot going on in the tap-room, which was not surprising. Probably some sailors were having a lark in there, Captain Rawlins thought, and hoped that none of his men was involved - a hope that turned out to be in vain. Jim Massey, a lively fourteen-year-old boy who served on the Mercury darted out of the front door and, perceiving his captain, ran to him.
"Captain, help, please sir," he panted, tugging at Captain Rawlins' sleeve. Seeing how upset the boy was, the captain let this behaviour pass for once.
"What is going on, Massey?" he wanted to know.
"It's Lewis, sir," the boy said. "Making trouble."
"Good God, will there never be an end to the troubles Lewis makes?" Captain Rawlins asked no one in particular. Seaman Lewis had been the bane of his existence ever since he had taken up his post. He had, with a sense of foreboding, allowed Lewis to go ashore, for the man had quite convincingly informed him about a sister living in Portsmouth, and Captain Rawlins, who prided himself on his fairness, had found no excuse to keep him on board. He had allowed those with family in Portsmouth to go ashore, and a sister was family. Lewis's sister was, in all probability, a keg of rum, and Lewis had by now celebrated the reunion with his beloved relative with some enthusiasm, Captain Rawlins thought bitterly.
"What is he up to this time?" the Captain asked, dreading the answer.
"Well, you know what he's like when he's drunk, sir," Jim Massey said.
Unfortunately, Captain Rawlins did know. Lewis had demonstrated it in several ports - he had been arrested for drunken disorderliness, and Captain Rawlins had been obliged to bail him out of gaol. In some cases, some woman or other had been involved - for when he was drunk, Lewis not only fancied himself in love with every personable female he saw but also grossly overestimated his attraction to the fairer sex, and became furious when his advances were rejected. Had it not been for Lewis's excellent work on board - provided one kept him sober - Captain Rawlins would have got rid of him long ago.
Since Captain Rawlins did not feel like facing an enquiry into one of his men's misbehaviour, he followed Massey into the tap-room, determined to make an end of Lewis's excesses. But, to his shock, Lewis was not there, though some men from the Mercury were. So much for family in Portsmouth, the Captain thought bitterly.
Giving them a scathing look, the captain demanded to know where Lewis had gone. It appeared that Lewis had gone outside to relieve himself, and Captain Rawlins hoped that he would get at the errant sailor before further harm could be done. It was not to be.
By the time he left the taproom, he heard Lewis upstairs, hammering at a door and shouting, "Come, open that door, my sweet! I'll get in anyway!"
Swearing under his breath, Captain Rawlins ran upstairs, with Massey and the landlady following at his heels. He hoped he would be able to intervene before Lewis had forced the door open, and for once, Fortune seemed to be smiling on him.
"Lewis!!" he yelled as he reached the upstairs passage. "You touch that door again and I'll have you put in irons, I swear!"
Even in his drunken state Lewis recognised his commanding officer's voice, and turned around to face him. That moment, the door opened, and a young lady smashed a vase on Lewis's head. Without realising what had happened to him, Lewis collapsed.
"That puts an untimely end to your shore leave, Lewis," Captain Rawlins said dryly.
"Oh my," the lady exclaimed, staring at the man on the floor in horror. "I did not want that! I just wanted him to stop! Did I ... did I kill him?" Had she looked like an avenging angel only moments before, she now seemed seriously worried about the man she had struck down. Captain Rawlins sent Jim Massey downstairs to fetch the others from the taproom and felt Lewis's pulse.
I don't think you hurt him very much," he said calmly, looking up at the lady. She was a pretty one, he thought, and one could not blame Lewis for having taken a fancy to her. But she was definitely out of bounds for the likes of Lewis. That girl had "Quality" written all over her. In other words, there'd be consequences, if he did not manage to pacify her.
"I have to apologise for this man's behaviour," he said. "This is his first day ashore, and it seems to have gone to his head."
"This does not seem to be the only thing that has gone to his head," the young lady said sharply.
"Apparently not," Captain Rawlins said with a smile. "I hope he has not given you cause for anxiety."
"Oh no," she said sarcastically. "It was a pleasure to have a man outside my room threatening to break the door open. I wish it would happen more often."
She seemed to have a sense of humour, Captain Rawlins thought, and was not prone to hysterics. He was quite impressed. One did not meet that kind of girl very often. Well, he didn't.
"I cannot tell you how much I regret this incident, ma'am," Captain Rawlins said earnestly, making another effort to show her that not every sailor was an ill-mannered brute.
"It was not your fault, sir," the lady replied. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment to keep."
"Will you allow me to escort you, ma'am?" Captain Rawlins asked. "Only to make sure there is no more ... disturbance?" He did not want her to go away. Not yet.
"Do you think this is necessary?" she asked. "And here I thought this inn was a respectable place!"
The landlady hurried to assure her that this was indeed so, and that those frequenting the tap-room were a good sort of lads, quite well-mannered too.
"But some of those sailors are a coarse lot, Miss," she said, giving Captain Rawlins a mean look. "One never knows what they're up to when they're drunk!"
"A coarse lot," the young lady echoed, and looked at Captain Rawlins with a doubting smile. "Surely not all of them?"
"No, not all of them," Captain Rawlins said with a bow. "Good bye, ma'am."
She gave him a polite nod and then she was gone, and Captain Rawlins felt a twinge of regret. It was not often that he met a woman who had an effect on him - and it was quite possible that he'd never see her again. Life was unfair.
Soon the incident at the posting-house was driven from Captain Rawlins's mind - he received his orders for their next voyage, a circumstance that made him summon First Lieutenant Baxter.
"Your esteemed uncle, Admiral Smythe, sends us to Antigua," Captain Rawlins announced when his friend came into his cabin to see him. He sounded none too pleased, Mr. Baxter noted. Considering that Captain Rawlins thought the West Indies were a fever-infested outpost of Hell, and never forgot to point out that he hated the climate, this was hardly surprising.
"Fine," Mr. Baxter said, hoping to soothe the captain. "We've been there before, haven't we? Shouldn't be much of a problem."
"Wait for the best bit, sir," Captain Rawlins said bitterly. "We are to take passengers with us. A Miss Grey and..." He looked at the message from the admiral again. "A Miss Foster. Apparently, the admiral owes Miss Grey's father a favour, and Mr. Grey wants a safe passage for his daughter and her cousin."
"Not another heiress," Mr. Baxter groaned. "I hate it when my uncle is doing that. I know he means well, but..." He looked at Captain Rawlins, who was glaring at him. "Was there anything you wished to say to me, sir?" he asked, recollecting himself. This was not the right moment for a heart-to-heart with his friend. Rawlins was operating in commanding-officer-mode.
"You are aware that the situation requires some changes on board? First of all, accommodation. I'll have to give up my cabin to the ladies, and their abigails need to be accommodated too. Tell Mr. Bridges he'll have to move his stuff to the midshipmen's berth. I am afraid I'll have to be your guest for this journey."
Mr. Baxter nodded.
"Secondly, though I hate to put a spoke in Admiral Smythe's wheel, there is not going to be any contact between passengers and crew, other than common civility requires," Captain Rawlins continued. "If we want to avoid trouble, the officers must set an example to the men. I won't have the lot of you making cakes of yourselves over a pair of females." Captain Rawlins sighed. "Call all hands on deck," he said. "I have a couple of things to say to them."
Too busy to contact his passengers, Captain Rawlins had sent the Lieutenants Baxter and Bridges to negotiate with the ladies. Both had been full of praise upon their return - apparently, Miss Grey was a ravishing Beauty, and Captain Rawlins had to remind Baxter of what had been said during their briefing to put his feet back on the ground.
"Remember, Mr. Baxter - no dallying with our passengers."
"Have I made myself clear?"
"Absolutely, sir." Baxter sighed.
"You will thank me one day," Captain Rawlins said with a grin. Mr. Baxter did not see why he should.
When the passengers came aboard, Captain Rawlins did not feel like grinning any more. The first lady who boarded the ship could only be described as a Vision, and judging by the stares directed at her, his crew would turn into a pack of jealous, snarling street dogs fighting for her approval within a matter of days.
"Do you understand now, Captain?" Baxter said sotto voce before introducing his commanding officer to Miss Grey. Captain Rawlins quite understood and hoped for the lady to have a nasty character, which would save them from disaster. No one could be besotted enough to endure a sea-voyage with a shrew.
But Captain Rawlins was in for another shock. The lady coming on board next was the girl he had met at the inn - the one who had broken the vase on Lewis's head. While Baxter made the introductions, Miss Foster gave the Captain a smile of recognition.
She had a sweet smile, he had to admit, and after a hurried welcome he was glad to send Jim Massey to show the ladies their quarters with the strictest orders to see to it that the ladies had everything they needed. This turn of events had quite unsettled him for a moment, and he needed some time to recover.
He told the boatswain to keep Lewis busy at all cost - preferably somewhere far away from the passengers. He did not care for a reprise of the events at the inn in Portsmouth, and though Lewis had probably been too drunk to remember anything, Captain Rawlins did not want to run any risks.
They set sail the moment the ladies were settled in their lodgings on board, and soon Captain Rawlins was too absorbed in his duties to care much for what had become of his passengers - until they came on deck again. At first, Captain Rawlins tried to ignore them, but soon he realised that the sight of Miss Grey had an undesirable effect on both officers and men. Even Baxter, usually a keen and efficient officer, suddenly had a dreamy expression about him that only changed when he realised that his captain's disapproving glare rested on him. His eyes seemed to be riveted to Miss Grey, and he was certainly not the only crew member who suffered from that affliction.
"Why did they have to come on my ship?" Captain Rawlins muttered and, when he noticed Baxter's gaze was resting on Miss Grey again, he decided to do something about it. Miss Grey's presence on deck was, he feared, a risk that had to be avoided.
He walked towards the ladies, stopping sometimes to say something to one of the men, mainly to avoid the impression that he had no other purpose in mind but talking to the passengers. He had to set an example to the men - no contact with the passengers unless it was necessary. There'd be no use giving such an order if he did not stick to it himself. But Miss Foster welcomed him with such a lovely smile that he began to feel inclined to relax his own rule - for a moment.
"I hope your quarters are satisfactory, ma'am," he said, not sure how to order the ladies back to their cabin without seeming rude.
"Indeed, they are," Miss Foster said. "But I was told this was your cabin. You needn't have given it up for us, sir."
Captain Rawlins had to smile at her naiveté. "Space is somewhat confined on board," he said. "I am afraid we have no spare rooms here, and I could not in good conscience put you into the same quarters as the men."
"Oh no, that would have been most improper," Miss Grey chimed in. "Though I daresay it would have been exciting." Becoming aware of Captain Rawlins shocked expression, she added, "I have never slept in a hammock before."
"Err...right," Captain Rawlins said, struggling for composure. "If ... if this is your wish, Miss Grey, I am sure that can be arranged. In my ... your cabin, however."
Miss Foster laughed. "You will soon get acquainted with my cousin's ways, sir," she said. "She speaks her mind, often without thinking - and apparently manages to put even sailors to the blush by doing so. Selina, I entreat you, watch what you say."
"I am very sorry," Miss Grey said quietly.
"You'd better be," Miss Foster said with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. "Look at poor Captain Rawlins - almost losing his poise. And he's supposed to take us to Antigua! Don't make his task any more difficult than it is!"
Captain Rawlins could not have wished for a better opportunity to introduce the topic that had been on his mind - Miss Foster had been the first one to mention it, so she could hardly take exception to his picking it up.
"This brings me back to the purpose I had on my mind when I came to talk to you," he said earnestly.
"This sounds serious," Miss Foster said, looking at him anxiously. "Have we done anything wrong? Already?"
"Already?" Captain Rawlins asked, taken aback. "What do you mean with 'already', Miss Foster?"
"Only that we feared that we might commit some faux-pas or other, since we are not acquainted with the customs on board a ship." Miss Grey said. "Though Mr. Baxter assured us that we wouldn't. He was so kind to us, wasn't he, Hetta?" This almost sounded as if he hadn't, Captain Rawlins thought.
Miss Foster agreed. "So, Captain, will you tell us what is wrong?"
"Well," Captain Rawlins began, becoming uncomfortably aware that it was rather difficult to tell the ladies why he did not want them on deck. "The thing is, Miss Foster - Miss Grey... you can see that the men are all busy and..."
"Not all of them," Miss Foster said matter-of-factly, looking at Lt. Baxter who, apparently, thought that keeping an eye on Miss Grey was one of his top priorities.
"I am afraid, ma'am, that this is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to avoid," Captain Rawlins said, with a quelling stare in Lt. Baxter's direction that managed to bring the young man back to his senses. "It seems your presence on deck has some ... undesirable consequences."
"We are taking the crew's thoughts away from their work, you mean?"
This was exactly what Captain Rawlins meant, but he did not wish to admit it quite so freely.
"So, what are we supposed to do?" Miss Grey asked.
"To say the truth, Miss Grey, without wishing to offend anyone - I'd be very grateful if you kept to your cabin - as much as possible," Captain Rawlins said. "I am not saying that your conduct has been at fault, mind you - not at all. But the crew of the Mercury is not used to this kind of situation - we do not usually have female passengers on board. This is a man-of-war, and..." He broke off, helplessly.
"I think the Captain means to tell us that we are a safety risk," Miss Foster said to her cousin. "He should have put us in crates and stored us in the hold - this is what one does with dangerous beasts, doesn't one?" She gave Captain Rawlins a darkling look.
"Miss Foster, this is unfair," Captain Rawlins protested. "I did not say... I did not mean to..."
"Come, Selina," Miss Foster interrupted him. "Let us go back to our cabin. I am sure I do not want to hinder the smooth running of this ship. Good day, Captain Rawlins." With a haughty nod, Miss Foster went off, and Miss Grey, after giving the captain an apologetic look, went after her.
"Damn," the Captain muttered. This had not worked the way he had wanted it to work. Instead of pointing out, politely, that the ladies would be safer in their cabin, he had insulted them by indicating that they were drawing the men's attention towards them and causing a disturbance on board. What a good start, he thought and wondered whether he'd manage to cross the Atlantic in record time.
"Better start praying for fair wind," he muttered to himself. "The sooner we're rid of them the better."
"Pardon, sir?" Mr. Baxter asked, giving him a bewildered look.
"Nothing," Captain Rawlins snapped. "Let's get back to work."
That evening, Miss Foster made no appearance at the captain's dinner table, in spite of the invitation she had received. Miss Grey apologised for her cousin's absence, saying that she had the headache and had chosen to lie down on her bed.
"I hope your cousin is not falling ill." Captain Rawlins said, realising his disappointment at not being able to see Miss Foster that evening.
"Oh no, I do not think there is anything wrong with her," Miss Grey replied cheerfully. "It was only an excuse, if you ask me. She is still angry...". She broke off, blushing furiously. "With me," she added weakly. "For saying something to her. She said she would not sit down at the same table with y... me before I'd apologised. She will have calmed herself by tomorrow morning, I daresay." She gave Lt. Baxter a grateful smile as he got a chair ready for her - quite conveniently, she was seated between the captain and his first officer.
Not much was required of Captain Rawlins in terms of conversation - Mr. Baxter was keeping Miss Grey well entertained, and though Captain Rawlins suspected he was taking civility too far, he did not intervene. His thoughts were occupied with Miss Foster. As he had suspected, she had taken offence at the things he had said to her. The sooner he cleared up the mess he had got himself into, the better it would be. He needed Miss Foster to cooperate with him. Besides, it would be awkward for them to be on bad terms when they were destined to see each other on a daily basis for weeks. There was nothing for it. He would have to talk this over with her. Soon.
After dinner, he excused himself and went to the door of his cabin. For a moment he hesitated, but then he knocked at the door. "Miss Foster? Are you awake?" he asked.
"Not really," was the answer.
"May I have a word with you?" Captain Rawlins asked.
"Can't that wait?" Miss Foster complained.
"I am afraid that I have offended you, ma'am, and I'd rather apologise sooner than later."
"I suppose I owe your visit to my cousin," she said with a sigh. "What did she say to you?"
"Miss Foster, I do not like talking to people through a closed door," Captain Rawlins said. "It is rather inconvenient, and above all rude."
"And that stops you?" Miss Foster asked. "I am amazed, sir." She opened her door, and her look forcibly reminded Captain Rawlins of her appearance in that posting-house in Portsmouth - so much that he cast a surreptitious glance at her hands to see if she carried anything she could use as a weapon. The Avenging Angel was back.
"Won't you come outside, Miss Foster?" Captain Rawlins asked.
"May I?" Miss Foster retorted. "I was told to stay in my cabin."
"I cannot really come in, can I?" Captain Rawlins said. "I have no wish to compromise you."
"I would not let you compromise me," Miss Foster pointed out.
"Oh, I'm pretty sure you would have means to douse my ardour if I tried," Captain Rawlins said with a smile. "But I give you my word as a gentleman that no drastic measures will be needed to hold me at bay."
Without another word, Miss Foster took a shawl from a hook next to the door, wrapped it around her shoulders and came outside.
"I think I need to clarify the meaning of what I said to you earlier," Captain Rawlins said. "Your cousin informed me - unwittingly, I have to add - that you were angry with me."
"Why should you care, Captain?" Miss Foster asked.
"Because this will not do," Captain Rawlins said. "I know not everyone on board is my friend, but I want people to trust me. You must know I had my reasons for saying the things I said. I did not mean to offend you - or your cousin. I sometimes have to make decisions that do not suit those people concerned."
"Without doubt you do," Miss Foster agreed.
"So I hope you will cease your hostility once I have given you an explanation for my decision. Please note that this is not my usual course of action. No one questions my orders here."
"Is it not boring to be always right?" Miss Foster asked. "It must be lonely up there with the infallible."
Captain Rawlins laughed. "I guess I deserved that," he said. "Miss Foster, as long as you and Miss Grey are on board my ship, your safety is my responsibility. I stand in the place of your father, if you will pardon the inappropriate metaphor. Does your father always offer explanations for the things he wants you to do?"
"My father is dead," Miss Foster said wistfully. "I am still trying to find an explanation for that."
The sadness in her eyes made Captain Rawlins feel like taking her in his arms to comfort her.
"I am sorry," he said quietly. "I did not know - I did not mean to bring back painful memories."
For a moment there was silence. Then Miss Foster said, with a laugh, "So, what does locking me into my cabin have to do with safety on board, Captain Rawlins? Are you afraid I might pounce on the first poor defenceless sailor who comes my way?"
"Certainly," Captain Rawlins said with a grin. "I have tried to keep vases out of your reach, but I am afraid there are plenty of weapons available on board. I'd rather be on the safe side."
Miss Foster sighed. "I hoped you had forgotten that day."
"How could I?" Captain Rawlins asked. "It was that incident, actually, that made me hope to make you consent to staying in your cabin. I do not want history to repeat itself. You know that ... the man who was responsible for the unpleasantness serves on this ship."
"And you hope to prevent a meeting between us by locking me up?"
"I do not think he'd dare attempt that thing again," Captain Rawlins said, trying to reassure her. "But I am trying to avoid unpleasant situations for you and your cousin. We are not accustomed to having ladies with us, Miss Foster. I am not saying anyone will assault you - I am confident that no man on board would be foolhardy enough to try to force his attentions on you while I am the captain of this ship. But you might find the men's behaviour offensive nevertheless. They may stare, which can be unpleasant, and not all of them might guard their tongues - their language is more than inappropriate for ladies to hear, believe me. I would not have your uncle say that his daughter and niece had to endure foul language during their passage."
Miss Foster laughed. "The way I know my uncle, he could not care less."
"But I do care, Miss Foster, and as I said I am responsible for you."
"How chivalrous of you," she laughed.
"This is not the only reason why I want you to stay in your cabin," Captain Rawlins admitted. "To say the truth, there is work being done - hard, dangerous work. I need you to keep out of harm's way, Miss Foster. Accidents happen frequently - even to those accustomed to life on board."
It took her some time to digest this.
"Had you bothered to explain this before, Captain, we might not have had any problems," she finally said. "I do not wish to get into anyone's way. But I must say you need not have treated us like children, ordering us into our cabin the way you did. By the way - don't you think keeping us out of sight might merely make us more interesting? If everyone can see us any time, the novelty of having ladies on board will soon wear off. You might even find your men will adapt their behaviour to the situation."
Captain Rawlins had to admit she had a point.
"Perhaps," he said. "Now, Miss Foster, shall we be friends?" He held out his hand, and after a moment of hesitation she took it.
"Friends," she said.
"If you should need anything, Miss Foster, I hope you will let me know," he said. She nodded, and withdrew her hand from his hold. He was reluctant to let go.
"Good night, Captain Rawlins," she said and hurried towards the cabin door.
"Miss Foster!" he said when she was about to enter. She turned around.
"Mind your head."
"Mind..." She turned back and looked at the door. It was not the height she was used to, and had he not warned her, she would have been made painfully aware of this.
"Oh. Thank you," she said and went inside, while Captain Rawlins returned to his duties, trying to ignore the warm feeling that had overcome him when he had held her hand.
The novelty of having passengers on board soon wore off. It was only a matter of days until the ladies did not cause any more disturbance on board than, for instance, Jim Massey. The men had become used to their presence and turned out to be the politest crew Captain Rawlins had ever sailed with. Albeit grudgingly, he had to admit that he had been wrong, while Miss Foster had been right.
Both ladies showed a great deal of interest in how shipboard life worked, and Captain Rawlins and Lieutenant Baxter spent much of their spare time answering their questions. Neither gentleman had any objection to this - it gave them the opportunity to be civil to the passengers, to set an example to the men. That the passengers were a pair of pretty ladies was just a pleasant side effect, Captain Rawlins pointed out. He'd be just as polite to any middle-aged gentleman, should he happen to be a passenger on his ship. Some members of the crew took leave to doubt that, though none of them dared say so aloud. Captain Rawlins had grown quite touchy of late, especially as far as his dealings with the passengers were concerned, and no one fancied any of Captain Rawlins' famous extra tasks.
After a week, the weather became worse, and Miss Grey spent most of her time "hugging a bucket", as Jim Massey chose to express himself. The surgeon went to see her and was able to allay Lt. Baxter's worst fears. Since Miss Grey had, so far, not suffered from any symptoms of sea-sickness, he was positive her condition would improve as soon as the weather got better.
Miss Foster did not share her cousin's affliction, but she, too, felt some of the evils of a sea voyage in inclement weather - the cold wind, the damp clothes that never seemed to dry, and the waves that threatened to wash everyone over board. She became aware of how important it was to follow the Captain's and officers' instructions, and Captain Rawlins could not help but realise - with a great deal of satisfaction - that Miss Foster seemed to have a natural aptitude for living on board a ship. She was beginning to mind him, too.
It was late one evening, and Captain Rawlins was on deck, having taken Lt. Bridges' watch on himself. Suddenly, he found Miss Foster next to him, holding a bowl.
"For you," she said. Captain Rawlins gave the bowl a suspicious look. The smell emanating from it was delicious, but he knew Willis, the cook. Nothing he had ever cooked could be delicious. Captain Rawlins was even reluctant to use the term "edible" to describe Willis' cuisine.
"What is this?" he wanted to know.
"Soup." Miss Foster smiled. "My mother's special recipe. I thought it might help - against the cold."
Captain Rawlins took the bowl and a spoon and tasted the soup. "It's excellent, Miss Foster. Thank you very much! Did you cook it?"
She laughed. "Can you imagine Mr. Willis allowing me anywhere near his galley? I had to give him the recipe, and he made the soup for Selina."
"Oh! Then I am eating your cousin's dinner?"
"No, it's all right," Miss Foster said. "She did not want any."
"Is she still unwell?"
"Slightly better," she said. "But not well enough to fancy her dinner. So, to spare poor Willis' feelings, I thought you might want some hot soup to make you feel warmer. I don't want you to fall ill, like Lieutenant Bridges. What would we do without you?"
Captain Rawlins laughed. "The ship's afloat, whether I'm on duty or not. And Mr. Baxter would like a chance to prove himself." He finished the soup and handed the bowl back to Miss Foster. "Thank you very much," he said. "It was very kind of you to think of me. Even though you only meant to spare poor Willis' feelings."
She smiled at him, while a gust of wind made her pull her shawl closer around her shoulders. Some strands of hair had escaped her tight bun and Captain Rawlins longed to touch them. Before he knew what he was doing, he gently touched her cheek.
"You had better go back inside," he said quietly. "I do not want you to catch a cold."
She looked up at him, searchingly, and for a moment it seemed as if she wanted to say something. Then she appeared to decide against it.
"Good night, Captain," she merely said, and went back into her cabin.
"That was close," Captain Rawlins murmured to himself. Had she stayed for just a moment longer, he would have given in to his impulse to kiss her. He had to take care. Kissing a passenger could not be explained with mere civility. And he was the Captain, after all. He had to obey his own orders - to set an example to the men.
Captain Rawlins' attempts to avoid Miss Foster failed. She was practically everywhere. Of course, space was limited, so occasional meetings were inevitable. But Captain Rawlins took care never to be alone with Miss Foster. He could not permit himself to be carried away by his feelings for her, which, he was shocked to discover, were of a most affectionate kind.
Everything went well until the Mercury reached the Azores. Both passengers expressed their wish to go ashore, and since it was unthinkable that a lady should go ashore unattended, Captain Rawlins and Lieutenant Baxter volunteered to show them around, while the purser obtained some necessary provisions.
The four of them wandered in the streets of the town, until Miss Grey saw a litter of puppies in a basket next to a stall in the market square and instantly fell in love with the animals. To take her away from them was impossible, a task even beyond her cousin‘s powers of persuasion, and so the gentlemen agreed that Captain Rawlins was to take Miss Foster up the hill to acquaint her with the spectacular view one had from there, while Lieutenant Baxter and Miss Grey would follow them as soon as Miss Grey could tear herself from her new friends.
"My cousin has a soft spot for animals," Miss Foster said as they walked on. "Especially young ones."
"So you do not think we shall see her again?" Captain Rawlins asked, with a smile. "We cannot take the dogs with us, you know."
"I am sure she knows that," Miss Foster said, laughing. "Selina does seem like a goose sometimes, but she is not quite as silly as people think."
"I have realised that," he said. "The young lady has a great deal of insight sometimes. I do wonder though ... why does her father want her to come to Antigua? To be honest, I would not want a daughter of mine to live there. "
"Indeed? Why not?"
"It is an unhealthy place," Captain Rawlins said. One of his closest friends had caught the yellow fever there - and had died soon afterwards. It had been a painful death, and the thought of it still hurt him. "People often fall ill there."
"Oh! I suppose that must have given you a dislike of the place," Miss Foster said.
"One might say so." He smiled, trying to distract her from gloomy thoughts. She would have to live with her uncle in Antigua - it would not do to make her afraid of the place. "You did not answer my question, Miss Foster. Why does your uncle want you to come to Antigua?"
"To be married," Miss Foster said. "He has found husbands for Selina and me." Her answer hit Captain Rawlins like a ton of bricks. He had not thought of that - that, at the end of her journey, there might be an intended husband waiting for her.
"I am sorry," he said. "That was a rather personal question, wasn‘t it? And it‘s none of my business really... so, you must be looking forward to ... I am talking a great deal of nonsense. I beg you will not heed me, Miss Foster. May I offer my felicitations?"
"I am not looking forward to my wedding," Miss Foster said gravely.
"I said I am not looking forward to my wedding," Miss Foster repeated. By now, they had reached the summit of the hill, and she turned around to take in the view. "How could I? I do not even know the man! Ten to one he is terrible - or why would none of the women in Antigua have him?"
"Perhaps he just wants a wife from England," Captain Rawlins said weakly, while he could feel his heart breaking. He had hoped to make her an offer of marriage once they had arrived at their destination, and instead he had to persuade her to marry someone else. This was not how things should work, he thought bitterly.
"Perhaps none of the ladies in Antigua was to his taste. He will consider himself very lucky to be married to you, Miss Foster." That, at least, was sincere, Captain Rawlins thought.
"Nothing you or anyone else can say can make me feel better about this," Miss Foster said with a fierceness that reminded him of the Avenging Angel again. "I thought I could get used to it, I had to marry someone, after all, but now ...." She looked up into his eyes, and he could see the tears in them. "Now things are different," she whispered. He did not need to ask what was different - he could see the love in her eyes as she looked at him, and before he could stop himself he had pulled her into his arms.
"You uncle cannot marry you off against your will, my love," he said, stroking her hair. "We‘ll find a way out of this. We will just have to stand up to him. I am sure we can do that." He laughed quietly. "I know you are quite handy with vases, if things come to the worst."
"I wish I had one now," she said, smiling with tears in her eyes.
"To make me let you go?" Captain Rawlins asked, taken aback. Had he misread her signals?
She laughed. "No," she said. "To make you stop talking about my uncle when all you should do is kiss me."
"I can‘t," he said earnestly. "You are betrothed to another man."
"I do not even know him," she pointed out. "And I do not want to marry him. So now forget about being honourable and kiss me."
Captain Rawlins laughed and pulled her closer. "I‘d love to," he said. "And I will - the moment you are free to marry me. But not before."
"I should have known you are not the kind of man who will stray from the course he has set for himself," she said. There was a great deal of disappointment in her voice. He lightly kissed her forehead.
"You would not like me as much if I was any different," he said consolingly. "If you marry me, you will have to accept me the way I am - including my sense of honour. You could do worse than marry an honourable man, dearest."
"I know," she said. "But this is not the kind of thing a girl wants to hear when she wants to be kissed."
She looked down the hill, where a young couple began their climb. "It seems my cousin and Mr. Baxter will soon be with us," she said. "What are we going to do?"
"Act as if nothing had happened," Captain Rawlins said. "It is a long way to Antigua yet, Miss Foster."
"My name is Henrietta," she said quietly. "Hetta, for my friends."
The rest of the journey was demanding - Captain Rawlins found it very hard to forget the Azores intermezzo, and Hetta did nothing to make things easier for him. She was always around, and took grave exception to his acting as if her presence did not affect him at all.
"Why should not everyone know what we are to each other?" she asked him one evening, when no one was close enough to overhear her.
"Because I do not want your uncle to think we did anything improper," he said earnestly. "Besides, I have given the crew strictest orders that there is to be no personal contact whatsoever between passengers and crew. I cannot act contrary to my own orders, Hetta."
His relief was great when they finally reached the island, even though he knew that this meant he‘d be separated from Hetta - for a while. Mr. Grey came aboard as soon as word of their arrival had got around, and his visit gave Captain Rawlins the opportunity to study his character. He did not seem like an affectionate father or uncle. He scarcely spoke to his daughter and niece, and after thanking the Captain for the troubles he had taken to bring them safely across the Atlantic, he took them off with him, barely giving them time to say goodbye.
After they had left, things were not the same as they had been before. Everyone on board felt the loss - though no one as badly as the Captain and the First Lieutenant. Upon seeing his first officer‘s gloomy face that evening, Captain Rawlins suggested they‘d call on the ladies the next morning, to see "how they had settled in" - a suggestion that brought a smile to the younger man‘s face.
They went to Mr. Grey‘s house the next day, and found Mr. Grey at home and in a nasty temper.
"I want to know what you did to my girls," he said angrily when they were ushered into his study. "Selina was as biddable as one could wish for, and now she starts acting like a mule. As for Henrietta, I knew she was a shrew - that‘s why I thought finding a husband for her would be easier here, where no one knows her. And now the stupid girl refuses to marry! She says you had made her an offer of marriage, Captain! Is that true?"
"I did, sir," Captain Rawlins said calmly.
"Even though she was engaged to another man?"
"Not before she had told me that she did not want to marry him," Captain Rawlins said. Mr. Baxter cleared his throat and said he would leave them to their business and call later.
Mr. Grey waited until the lieutenant had left his study, and then said, "When I introduced her to Higgins yesterday evening, she acted in such a way that the poor lad almost ran away. He told me - once the ladies had retired - that nothing could make him marry Henrietta, and I cannot blame him. So, if you want to take her off my hands, you are most welcome to. By now, her reputation as the worst shrew in the Caribbean will be well established, and if you do not take her, I‘ll be in the basket."
Captain Rawlins laughed. "I‘ll be most happy to," he said.
"Now for that Lieutenant Baxter," Mr. Grey said. "It seems my girl has lost her heart to him. What kind of fellow is he?"
"An excellent one," Captain Rawlins said. "A good, dependable officer. Very keen. I am sure he has a great career before him. He is Admiral Smythe‘s nephew, by the way. I understand the Admiral is a friend of yours?"
Mr. Grey nodded. "Tell the young man to come and speak to me," he said darkly. "I do not like to have my plans thwarted, but there‘s no use in forcing the girls into a marriage they don‘t want. If he‘s serious about my Selina, he can have her. Aren‘t those females a tiresome race?"
Captain Rawlins laughed. "You can hardly expect me to agree, now that I am going to be married," he said. "May I go and see Hetta?"
"I cannot stop you," Mr. Grey said, and told a servant to show him into the garden, where the young ladies were taking a walk.
Miss Grey only stayed with them as long as it took her to understand that Mr. Baxter would soon come to see her. Then she ran off to the house, and Captain Rawlins found himself alone with Hetta. Without saying another word, he took her into his arms and kissed her.
"Does that mean my uncle has consented to our marriage?" she asked, the moment she had regained her breath.
He laughed. "Oh yes, he did. After your scaring off the fellow he‘d intended for you, there was nothing else he could do. Confess! What did you do to him?"
"I have my ways and means," she said, smiling innocently. "Now will you kiss me again? We have some catching up to do!"
Never had it been so easy for Captain Rawlins to follow someone else‘s orders - or quite as pleasant. Forgetting his surroundings, he kissed his bride, only to be brought back to the Here and Now when Lieutenant Baxter, with a broad grin, demanded to know what was going on.
"Nothing," Hetta said innocently. "The Captain is just setting an example to the crew." And, with a significant nod in the direction of the house, she turned back to her husband-to-be, while the Lieutenant took the hint and went in search of Miss Grey.
©2005 Copyright held by the author.