The Torn Sail
Posted on Saturday, 19 November 2005
Captain Frederick Wentworth was not particularly surprised to find that he could not sleep. He knew what was to blame, too. It was certainly not that he was sufficiently rested – it had been a very long day’s work on deck and below, and his muscles felt heavy on his bones. His eyelids drifted closed almost of their own volition. But his mind would not settle.
Bizarrely enough it was the sails that were to blame. One of the sails had torn, and had to be taken down to be repaired. Strange how one small incident with no apparent connection to anything at all could fire a tiny trigger in one’s head and begin a cascade of memories that responded to all attempts at suppression with ever greater power to disquiet.
Disquiet. That was a good way to put it.
Well, he knew there was very little point continuing to toss and turn in his bunk – sleep was an elusive commodity when this particular malady afflicted him. He had learned that some time since. He’d feel better, he suspected, if he simply went for a walk and breathed some fresh air.
Climbing out onto the deck, he felt the chill of the sea air on his face and immediately felt a little improved. The steady sound of water washing gently past the hull was broken only by occasional creaks from the sails overhead. The sailor on watch saw him and straightened to salute. The Captain waved him down and murmured as he passed, ‘Not in uniform tonight, Brown - at ease.’
‘Yes Sah,’ Brown nodded and relaxed.
The Captain did not stop to converse with him. He had not come in search of conversation. Instead he crossed to the far side of the ship, as far from human company as he could get, and crossed his arms on the balustrade to stare out to sea.
It was amazing how much light there was on a clear night on the ocean. The dark waters reflected a pale golden moonlight, and the stars shone silver. It was beautiful. It was something he had always loved about his profession. These days however, his joy in the vision was tempered by a sense of loss, a sense that it had come at a cost.
He recognized the feeling, and remonstrated with himself for it. He had never actually been offered a choice, after all. She had never given him an ultimatum, had never said “me or your captaincy”. She had simply assessed him as he was, and found him wanting. Ridiculous to feel now that the ocean he loved was somehow a price he had had to pay. To make a sacrifice, you surely have to make a choice.
He thought again about the torn sail. A long oblique and ragged rip in white cloth. Coarse, frayed sailcloth, of course - not fine-spun muslin. But it had been enough. As a group of sailors swarmed the ropes to take the damaged sheet down, an image had flashed through his brain of a summer’s morning, lifting his hand to a coach to help a young lady down, the sudden rip of tearing cloth.
She had tripped a little as her skirts caught, and instead of simply leaning on him through the link of their joined hands she had fallen against him, and he had stumbled backwards a step or two to stay balanced. Thanks to him, they both managed to stay standing, though she finished steadied by the circle of his embrace, her face tilted up to him, inches from his own.
Startled by the position he found himself in, he had immediately enquired if she was unhurt, at the very same moment she had begun to apologise for her clumsiness.
Both shy, they had each broken off, neither having completed their sentences. She had disentangled herself and lowered her gaze - and seen the damage done to her new morning dress, the long tear in the white muslin.
She had laughed then, he remembered. Somewhat ruefully, admittedly, but he had liked her for it. Her large, black-fringed brown eyes had met his concerned gaze with warmth and humour, and he recalled how staggered he had been by the intensity of feeling the young woman had suddenly elicited in him. Desire. Admiration. Affection. Protectiveness.
They had both been so young, he reflected. What a capacity they had held for joy. And how very uncomplicated it had seemed in those early days - how perfect! When he had lost sleep at nights it had been attributable to his dreams of martial bliss – a loving wife, a comfortable home, the children they would one day raise. And often – more often than was likely proper – he dreamed of soft bare skin and innocent brown eyes wide with the surprise of discovery, then less-innocent eyes sultry with desire…
Leaning against the ships rail in the cool night air, the Captain shifted a little uncomfortably. Truth be told such dreams still held the power to steal his sleep. And he did not like to examine why it was that every woman he had been attracted to since those days had first caught his attention by her large brown eyes.
The ships sails creaked above him, and he glanced up. The torn sail had been neatly repaired and reinstated. All had been set to rights on board his ship, cleanly and efficiently.
Why couldn’t his life have been the same? Hers apparently had been, he thought, with no little bitterness creeping into his heart. He had been good enough for her, he knew. She could not have pretended the warmth in her eyes when they had snatched precious moments alone together. Yes, good enough for her, but not good enough for her station, her family, her standing. And she had stood back. She had let herself be convinced that those things were more important that his dreams, her happiness. She had cut him out of her life and her heart, and as far as he knew the tear had been stitched as neatly and cleanly as that sail.
And for the most part he had managed the same. His career had flourished, his days were full. He had put her rejection behind him, recovered his pride, and looked each day for what the next might hold. Most days she may as well have never existed for all the thought he spared her. When her ghost did return it was always unexpected, unsettling. And unshakeable.
I need a distraction, he thought suddenly. No – an exorcism. How can I forget if I never attempt to fill the space that she left? What I need…. is a wife.
He was surprised by how little this epiphany moved him. Perhaps the idea had been hovering in his sub-conscious for some time. But now, standing alone against the ship’s rail in the middle of the night, it seemed a very natural thing to decide upon.
He would begin looking when he was next on shore leave in England. Perhaps Sophy would know some likely candidates. He spent a few minutes sifting through his own memory for acquaintances that might be of assistance to him, and girls he had been introduced to.
A wife. A wife would do very well indeed. Comfort, company, stability, hope. A wife and home of his own. He would then need never think of Anne again. Soothed by his own resolve, he soon felt ready to retire once more, and pushed away from the rail to return to his bed.
Back in his cabin, he blew out his lamp, suddenly very sleepy. Lying back on his pillow, exhaustion overcame him almost immediately. His last thoughts as he wavered on the edge of consciousness were fortunately forgotten by dawn, but they had been of his new wife’s eyes.
He hoped they would be brown.