by The Stowaway
Fandom: Captain Blood Rating: PG-13 Pairing: Peter/Jeremy/Arabella Full Header
“My dear, I cry your pardon,” Blood kissed first her hand, then her cheek, before taking his place at the head of the table. “I happened to encounter Mr. Williamson.”
She made a moue of distaste. His answering smile was sardonic.
“Indeed,” he went on, “and he was infinitely full of this business of the smugglers. Nothing would do, but that he relate the whole tale of the latest depredations. He would have haled me off, willy-nilly, to inspect the scene, had I not pled a previous engagement. As it was, I could only escape by promising to speak to the Commandant about having troops to guard future shipments.”
She shook her head. “And this before breakfast. I would not be surprised to find that he had ridden out so early on purpose to waylay you, Peter.”
“Nor I,” he replied dryly, “for he was loitering in the most obvious way. And you may imagine what a figure he cuts on a horse.” They laughed at that; and Peter applied himself to his breakfast with a good appetite.
Arabella nibbled thoughtfully on her toast for a moment. “He seems most determined to leave no stone unturned to protect his investments. Odious man; he has enough effrontery for anything.” She laughed a little. “Indeed, I wonder that he hasn’t demanded you use your ‘influence’ with the Brethren to his advantage.” She stopped as if she had bitten her tongue.
“He has,” Peter put his fork down and his face grew grave. “But I soon disabused him of any such notion.”
“Peter…” she began, not knowing what she was going to say but needing to say something. Blood was no longer listening and she stopped on a sigh. He was staring out the window, frowning; his black brows drawn down and his normally bright blue eyes clouded with an old pain.
She cursed her thoughtlessness. It had not always been so, but increasingly of late, any mention of the past was troubling to him. All too often, a passing remark would set him to brooding, sometimes for days. When the black mood was upon him it was as if her charming husband became a stranger; impeccably polite and distant, who gazed at her with somber eyes and deflected all attempts at conversation. She had learnt, painfully, that no amount of coaxing could induce him to speak to her on this topic. Tears left him unmoved and, indeed, faintly scornful. The more importunate she became, the sooner he withdrew from her presence. Silence and patience earned her the reward of his company – in body, if not in spirit – and, eventually, he would shake off his abstraction and become once again the witty and amusing man she adored.
Arabella sighed again and sipped her chocolate. The faint clink of her cup in its saucer roused Peter from his reverie. He smiled with a palpable effort, but it did not reach his eyes. “I am sorry, my dear,” he said. “What were you saying?”
She smiled back. “Nothing of consequence.”
They ate in silence for a few moments.
“Oh, Peter,” Arabella said at last, “The Debenham-Smythes are giving a ball next week, in honour of the victory over the French. The invitation arrived this morning. We must go, I suppose.”
“I don’t see how we can avoid it, i’faith. It would give a very odd appearance for the Governor and his Lady to absent themselves from a victory celebration. And a ball can hardly be as dull as Lady Lydia’s dinner parties. With the fleet in port, there will be a sufficiency of dancing partners for you and all the other ladies, at least.”
“And will you not dance?” she asked, with a little wistful smile.
He shook his head. “An old man such as myself… it would be to make a fool of you, Arabella. Content yourself with dancing with all the young officers.”
“You are barely forty,” she scoffed, “hardly an ancient. Not a gray hair on your head and you are a more elegant dancer than any ten callow, stammering young men.”
“We will see,” was all his answer. He stood, a little abruptly. “Duty calls; I must leave you. There is a deal of work awaiting my attention.” He kissed her hand. “Until dinner, then.” And strode out of the room, unaware of how her eyes, filled with worry, followed him.
She finished her breakfast and rang the bell, instructing the servant to have her horse brought round in twenty minutes’ time and requesting that her maid set out her riding-dress.
Arabella rode at a sedate pace down through the town and past the bustling harbor side. Beyond the harbor lay a miles-long stretch of beach, curving around toward the mainland and all but deserted. The tide was out, and as she rode onto the firm sand at the water’s edge, her heart rose. She gave her horse his head and bent low over his neck as they galloped the length of the strand, with the groom thundering gamely after them. She laughed into the wind, the exhilaration of the headlong pace serving, as she had hoped, to dispel her melancholy. Pulling up, she turned and rode back at a walk. Meeting the groom’s reproachful look with a toss of her head as he caught her up at last, she said, “You see, Tanner, here I am, safe and sound, so no long faces, if you please.”
“Oh, aye, ma’am, you’re safe a’right. But fearless as you are, you been gettin’ a mite reckless these days, beggin’ your pardon, I’m sure. And if you was to go a-breakin’ of your neck, the Governor would have my head, and no excuses accepted.”
She looked away. “Would he, I wonder,” she murmured to herself, as Tanner fell back to follow her at the proper distance. “Would he, indeed.” She felt her sadness return, mixed with the longing and bewilderment that seemed to hover about her whenever she thought of her husband.
This, she thought wryly, was not what she had imagined her life would be like when she had married the handsome and dashing Captain Blood – doctor of medicine, sometime soldier of fortune, erstwhile buccaneer, and now Deputy-Governor of Jamaica – three years ago.
There had never been anyone for her but Peter Blood. From the first time she had met him, when he was a rebel-convict slave on her uncle’s Barbados plantation, she had been drawn to him. His air and manner, his learning and experience, and, she was forced to admit, his striking good looks, had combined to effect a swift conquest of her heart. When he had been, beyond hope, restored to honour and appointed Deputy-Governor, one of his first acts had been to ask for her hand. She had given it with joy.
She rode slowly along the beach, waves shushing gently into the sand on her right. Gulls cried above, playing on the breeze. Ahead, the fort, the town and the harbor shone in the sunlight. Arabella saw none of it, but rode on unaware, a little frown between her brows – her thoughts far away, remembering.
They had been so happy together, those first months. Everything about marriage suited her. The constant companionship of a man her intellectual equal, nay, her superior, was in itself a delight, after so many years under her brutish uncle’s roof. And the nights… she blushed. They had been a revelation. She had never dreamt such pleasures existed. Peter, for all his jesting about his advanced age – he was eight years her senior – was an ardent lover who rejoiced in her frank enjoyment of their union.
When it had started to go wrong, she could not be sure. Gradually, over months, she came to realize that Peter’s love for her, while still strong, was not the equal of hers for him. As the black moods became more frequent, he began to avoid her bed. His manner was often distant; it was as if he had placed a wall between them that she was helpless to breach. She frequently worried that she had done something to displease him. She soon discovered that questioning him did more harm than good, driving him further away.
Arabella was not of a jealous temperament, but she wondered on occasion if there was another woman – someone he had left behind in Tortuga perhaps, or even in England. In the end, she had rejected the idea. Her husband, whatever his failings, was an honourable man. He would never have married her, had he been pledged to another.
So what was it, she asked herself for the thousandth time, that so haunted him? Surely he didn’t miss the lawless life of piracy! No, for he had been glad enough to exchange it for respectability as soon as the chance offered. His comrades, then? No, for the best of them had followed him into the service of the King and so were not lost to him. Indeed, his closest friend from those days, Jeremiah Pitt, had used his share of the prize money to set himself up once again as master of his own ship, a trading vessel, and Peter had become his silent partner.
At the thought of Pitt she paused. Of all Peter’s friends he was the closest to her in age – three years younger than she – and she liked him well. Respectful and well-spoken, he was a little shy of her at first, watching her with an enigmatic expression on his usually open countenance. But they quickly became comfortable with one another, and Peter had seemed pleased by that. Perhaps Jeremy – as he preferred to be called – would know what was troubling her husband. She would ask him, she thought, at the earliest opportunity, and her spirits lifted a trifle.
He was due back in Port Royal soon, being more than eight months gone, on a trading venture to England. She imagined their meeting. He would be bronzed from the voyage, his hair bleached to pale gold, and his grey eyes startling in the nest of fine lines that marked even the youngest of sailors. His was a handsome face – earnest but not grim – and given to little glints of drollery that quite charmed her. In truth, when he smiled, white teeth flashing and lips very red in his golden beard…. she wondered what it must be like, kissing a bearded man….
With a gasp, she caught back her unruly thoughts. She felt herself flushing and thanked heaven she was alone. The groom rode too far back to notice, she was sure. What had come over her? How could she think of kissing another man, and he her husband’s best friend? A tiny, rebellious voice inside her asked “And why should you not imagine? It does no harm, and if Peter will neglect you so…” but she hastily suppressed it, and shook herself.
“This is what comes of brooding, I suppose,” she thought. “If I do not have a care, I shall become one of those vapourish females I have so despised, full of megrims and brainsick fancies. Enough. When Jerem... Captain Pitt returns, I shall ask for his help. About my husband.” And she lifted her horse to a trot, eager to leave such disturbing thoughts behind.
Meanwhile, Governor Blood was staring past the heap of papers on his desk and out the window. His eyes were on the sea, visible beyond the gardens that ran down from the house in series of terraces, and his thoughts were leagues – and years – away. He was running over in his mind the whole of his brief career as a pirate, from the day the Cinco Llagas sailed into Carlisle Bay to assault Bridgetown, providing him and his fellow-sufferers with the means of escaping their deadly and degrading captivity, to his last sea battle right here in Port Royal. A battle he had won at such terrible cost: more than two hundred of his men killed and his lovely ship – that same Cinco Llagas, rechristened Arabella – sunk and lost. He had only to rise and walk to the edge of the terrace to see the spot where she lay.
Hard on the heels of that victory had come Lord Willoughby’s astonishing offer of the post of Deputy-Governor of Jamaica. Or perhaps he should call it an order, for that irascible peer would accept no excuse. “Tchah! There’s no ‘but’ to it,” Lord Willoughby had snapped, “If you want your past forgotten and your future assured, this is your chance.” And then, “Your duty lies here, at least for as long as the war lasts. When the war’s over, you may get back to Somerset and cider or your native Ireland and its potheen.”
And now the war was over, or nearly so. Soon, he would be free to resign his post and do… what? That was the vexing question. Three years ago, he would have answered with no hesitation. He would have chosen to return to Somerset, to Bridgwater, and resume his sedate life as a doctor in that small seaport. Whether that would have contented him was a point now moot, for so much had changed in the intervening years. There was his marriage and there was the Sea.
The Sea. After service under de Ruyter in his wild youth and his more recent adventures here in the West Indies, it was to be expected that his inclination to the sea would wane, now that he was well and truly entered upon his middle years, but such, he had discovered with some dismay, was not the case. The longing to go a-roving became stronger, not weaker, with time, until there were days when all he could hear was the Siren song of the waves; until it blotted out all other sounds and he went about in a daze – unable or unwilling to break the trance.
Arabella, he knew, was troubled by his silences. It hurt her to be shut out, but he had no words of comfort to offer that were not false coin. And, if he could not speak the truth – that half of his heart longed to escape – at least he would not lie. His honour was pledged and he would keep his vow and cleave to his wife. He owed her that much, and in truth he loved her dearly. Nor would she ever know what it cost him, for he had made the bitter discovery that gaining one’s heart’s desire is not always enough.
But oh, if he could be once more upon the sea, once more with… No. Enough. He shut the door upon imagining, lest he be led to dream of what was gone and could never be again.
Resolutely, he turned his eyes from the view and bent his attention to the work awaiting him. For an hour there was silence in the room, save for the scratch of the quill and the rustle of paper. At the end of this time a servant entered. Blood looked up. “Yes, what is it?”
“Captain Pitt to see you, Excellency.”
“Show him in.”
Blood rose as his visitor approached, eagerly scanning the deeply tanned face. “Jeremy!” He came round the desk and they clasped hands. “When did you get in? I’ve had no word of your arrival.”
Pitt returned his friend’s smile. “No blame to the harbormaster, Peter. I told him I would announce myself. We came in about an hour ago, with the tide.”
“Sit down, man, sit down,” Blood waved him to a chair before resuming his own place behind the desk. “You are looking well.”
“And you look tired.”
“Och. It’s naught but this plaguey business of the treaty. Upon my word, Jeremy, I do believe it is more work to govern in peacetime than in war. But never mind that – tell me your news. How went the voyage? Did you prosper?”
“You mean, did we prosper, Peter,” said Jeremy with a grin.
And Blood smiled. “Of course, of course. Now, tell me – the voyage?”
“Well,” said Jeremy, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other; making himself comfortable, with the air of one about to spin a tale, “Outbound, there is little to report. We made good time. Oh, a French patrol spotted us off Hispaniola, but we showed them a clean pair of heels. They never came within range. She’s a sweet goer, the Bristol Maid.”
Blood nodded. “Aye, in faith, that she is. Ye’ve an eye for good ship, Jeremy.”
“As I said,” Jeremy continued, “we made good time. On the other side, a day’s sail off shore, we ran across a Navy patrol, out hunting French privateers who were preying on the shipping. They gave us escort to the Bristol Channel. I did some trade with the captain. Two puncheons of rum and a hogshead of sugar – and at a good price.” He grinned. “Needless to say, he was pleased to hear any news I could tell him of the progress of the war out here. Seemed to think himself ill-used in being ordered to patrol off Cornwall, when so much action was occurring elsewhere.”
“He sounds young and green,” Peter laughed. “or else a very fire-eater. Precious few seasoned campaigners long to see more fighting, methinks.”
“Oh, aye. Young and eager with it,” chuckled Jeremy. “But he served us well, for we did indeed sight what may have been a privateer, although he declined to engage us, outgunned as he was.”
“So, in Bristol, then,” Peter prompted.
“Ah, yes. Bidding for the cargo was enthusiastic. They were starved for sugar – several shipments having gone ‘missing’ lately. And rum, of course, always sells well. I left Dyke in charge of some necessary repairs and took the opportunity to run down to Bridgwater to see my aunts. You may imagine their joy when I appeared upon their doorstep after all these years. They had long given me up for lost – none of my letters having reached them.” Jeremy’s face lit with mischief. “And, Peter, they desired me most pressingly to inform you that, in light of subsequent events and the signal service you rendered them in saving my life, they have forgiven you entirely for not partaking of the late Duke’s rebellion.”
Peter gave a crack of laughter. “Now I may rest easy. ‘Struth, their disapproval that evening was a weighty thing. I wonder that I bore up under it as well as I did.” Pitt laughed with him.
“Back in Bristol, I set about taking on cargo. Calicos and silks, of course. And a fair quantity of Spanish wines. Bricks as ballast – they ought to sell well, with all the building I see going on in town. Oh, and you will be pleased to hear – I was able to obtain a number of cases of French wine – the first to be released after the truce was declared.”
“You,” said Peter, amused, “will be the most popular man in Port Royal, when news of that French wine gets out, my friend. Ye may command your own price. Spanish wines, no matter how the lower orders favor them, are considered a poor substitute among the gentry.”
“How well I remember. Well, I wish them joy of the peace, then. Now, what else is there to tell? Ah yes, a few of the crew jumped ship in Bristol – no more than usual and no one of consequence – and we made up our numbers with volunteers entirely. I will not take pressed men.”
Blood nodded. “Leave that to the Navy. You and I need have naught to do with what’s little better than slavery.”
“The passage home,” Pitt went on, “was not quite so uneventful. Fever broke out about halfway across. I lost ten good sailors.”
“What of the doctor?”
“A good man in his way, I suppose, although less than eager to risk infection in treating ‘mere’ crewmen. I’ll not have him sail with me again – let him find another berth, or take up a practice on land, where he can pick and choose his clients to suit his prejudices.” Pitt leaned forward. “You are a better physician than he. Had you been with us, Peter, I doubt not you would have kept them all alive.”
Blood disclaimed but Pitt persisted.
“Peter, are you certain you will not reconsider? Come with us. You know you have only to say the word and I would give over command of the Maid and sail as your lieutenant. There is no other man – living or dead – to whom I would make that offer.”
Blood met the earnest gaze with what he hoped was firmness. “No, Jeremy, you know that is not possible. I am sorry.”
“And so am I.”
There was silence for a moment as grey eyes searched blue and it was Blood who looked away.
“Well then,” he said, clearing his throat, “to business. Have you begun off-loading?”
Jeremy accepted the change of subject. “Not yet. I gave orders that naught was to be done until they heard from me.”
“Where have they put you?”
“Damnation,” Peter scowled, “that will never do.” Jeremy raised his brows in question. “Williamson is a sharp dealer. Reformed buccaneers are fair game in his eyes. And he is displeased with me for other reasons – he might take that out upon you, as my friend.” Jeremy nodded with a silent ‘Ah.’ Peter continued. “Well, a note to the harbormaster will set all to rights.” He reached for a sheet of paper. “There is room for you at Milridge’s, I believe.”
He glanced up with a smile and froze, quill in mid-air, at the unguarded yearning in the younger man’s eyes. “Jeremy…” Blood’s hand shook, scattering droplets of ink across the blank page.
He looked down, cursing himself for the slip, and reached for a fresh sheet of paper. When Jeremy’s hand covered his, he tried to pull away but Pitt’s grip was firm.
“Peter,” he said, “look at me.”
The fingers of Blood’s free hand tightened on the quill for a moment, then he set it down and sighed. He raised his head, expression stony and eyes bleak. “Have a care, Captain Pitt,” he said, as coldly as he could manage.
Jeremy shook his head. “That won’t work on me, Peter.” Blood’s hand stirred beneath his. “We cannot leave it like this.”
“We can do nothing else,” Peter replied, even as his hand twisted to return the clasp with despairing strength.
“I do not accept that.”
“You must. We agreed to put it behind us and never to speak of it.”
“No, Peter. You declared your intent to do so, but I never agreed.”
Blood tore himself away and stood, glaring, before turning to pace up and down behind the desk. “What would you have me do? This serves no purpose. It is but to open old wounds. Nothing but pain can come of it.”
“Not true. Come. Sail with me. You cannot deny you wish
it.” Blood groaned and shook his head. Pitt went on, “What is there to stop
you, once you have laid down your office?”
“You know very well what stops me, Jeremy,” Blood snarled, goaded. “What of my wife, whom I love well? What of my vow to her?”
Jeremy shook his head and rose. “You were mine before ever you were hers, Peter.”
Blood watched warily as the younger man moved round the desk to stand before him. “We spoke no vows.”
“Nor needed them.”
“It’s in the past. Over and done.” There was a note of desperation in Blood’s voice.
Pitt smiled. “Past, present and future,” he replied, softly, “but never over, never done.”
“Jeremy…” Blood began, stopping short on a gasp when the other man touched him. He flinched as Pitt’s broad hand came to rest over his pounding heart, pressing him gently backward against the bookcase.
“Now,” Jeremy whispered, “tell me you feel nothing. Tell me, if you dare, that it is over.”
“It’s…” Peter’s voice shook. He drew a steadying breath and tried again. “It’s over. I feel nothing.”
“That is a lie. Perhaps the first you have ever told me.” Their faces were mere inches apart. “But I forgive you.” Pitt smelled of sun and salt and tar.
Blood closed his eyes. “Jeremy,” he whispered.
“I’m here, Peter.”
As Jeremy’s mouth met his, Blood groaned in despair, for the touch reignited in him all that he had fought to deny for so long. Hunger he could not dissemble swept through him, led him to crush Pitt’s well-knit form to his own with rib-cracking force.
When at last they drew apart, breathing hard, Peter met Jeremy’s carefully bland glance with something of both anger and grief in his own. “What do you want, Jeremy? Would ye drive me mad?”
“I want us to sail together again. I want – and you do as well, for you cannot deny it now – for it to be like it was before.”
“Are ye daft entirely? Or merely deaf? How many times must I tell you it is impossible before ye’ll believe me?”
“But it is not impossible!” Pitt burst out, with sudden passion, “nothing about it is impossible. And don’t,” he cried, as Blood tried to speak, “mention your wife. Listen to me, Peter. Women – wives – have waited ashore for their men to come home from the sea since time began. Look at Penelope – how many years did Odysseus wander the world before returning to Ithaca? And was he faithful to her during that time? Of course not. And yet, she welcomed him home with open arms. Nothing that passes between us aboard ship need have the slightest effect upon your wife.”
Peter sighed and shook his head.
“Arabella is a sensible woman,” Jeremy went on, “she understands the need to make your fortune. What more likely way than to continue our business partnership?”
“Arabella, is it?”
“She made me free of her name when last I was in port. It was you who would have us friends, Peter. If you recall, I had my doubts at the time. Mayhap that friendship will serve us well, for she will likely be more willing for you to sail with someone known to her.”
“And what if I don’t sail at all?”
“Very well, what if you don’t? Have you thought what you will do with yourself when you resign this post?”
“Go home to England.”
“Of course. And then?”
“I had some thought of resuming my practice in Bridgwater.”
Jeremy chuckled, without humor. “And how, do you think, would Arabella like that? Is she the sort to be content as the wife of a simple country medicus? The society is somewhat confined. Can you imagine her having tea with, for example, my aunts, year in and year out?”
He noted with satisfaction the arrested expression in Peter’s eyes and pressed his advantage.
“How much happier would she be living in Bristol or London, the wife of a prosperous ship owner, surrounded by others in her situation and of her class?”
Peter freed himself from Jeremy’s arms, but gently, and crossed to the French doors that gave onto the terrace. He stood for some minutes, hands folded behind him, staring down through the gardens to the bay. A step sounded behind him and Pitt was there at his shoulder.
“The very spot where we lost her, is it not?” Jeremy said, softly. Blood nodded. “Your bonny lass. She fought so well and saved us at the end.” He slipped his arms around Peter’s waist and rested his chin on the older man’s shoulder. “Come, Peter. Give in. The Sea knows your name, man. She won’t let you go. Take command of the Bristol Maid and come home to the sea. You’ll have no rest until you do.”
Peter turned in his arms and smiled, although his eyes were shadowed. “Almost you convince me.”
“Then let this speak for me and complete my argument,” Pitt murmured, and kissed him, and, this time, Peter did not object.
Arabella stood in the center of her bedchamber, whither she had fled, too stunned to cry.
When she returned from her ride, the servant had informed her that Captain Pitt was closeted with her husband. Delighted at the news, taking it as a good sign that Jeremy should appear so pat upon her thinking of him, she had hurried along the passage that led to the privy door into Peter’s study. The door was ajar. As put her hand upon it, she heard Jeremy’s voice, disastrously clear: “You were mine before ever you were hers, Peter,” and she stopped in her tracks, appalled. Peter spoke, too softly for her to make out the words; Jeremy answered. Then, “It’s in the past. Over and done.” What was over and done? Her mind reeled under the sudden suspicion of what, exactly, she was hearing. Peter again, “I feel nothing.” And Jeremy’s reply, “That is a lie.” Shock held her frozen there, an unwilling eavesdropper, for a few moments longer. She heard Peter groan and the telling silence afterward, that stretched her nerves to the breaking point. When Jeremy said, “I want us to sail together again. I want – and you do as well, for you cannot deny it now – for it to be like it was before,” she could bear no more and, turning blindly, she had made her way to the privacy of her chamber.
Arabella, growing up motherless under the care of her uncle, had been less sheltered than many women and she was no fool. Intelligent and observant, she had known of the love betwixt man and man that existed in despite of society’s prohibition. Indeed, the example of Achilles and Patroclus told her that it had not always been forbidden. But this was Peter… her husband.
Jeremy’s words replayed themselves, “You were mine before ever you were hers.” Over and over and over. She thought she had never heard anything more terrible – unless it was the groan Peter gave when they… when they… No! No! She clapped her hands over her ears, panting. She could not bear it, she would go mad.
A single sob broke from her and she sank to her knees.
Peter and Jeremy. Her husband was in love with Jeremy Pitt. She crouched, sick and shivering, in a pool of sunlight and her tears began to fall.
He would leave her; of this she was certain. Leave her behind and sail away with Jeremy. With his first love. His only love, perhaps? Numbly, she thought back over the past months. So much that had puzzled her was now but too clear. What would become of her?
“Peter,” she whispered, “oh, Peter.” For a space she wept, lost in distress.
The paroxysm was violent and therefore brief. Spent, she lay quiescent, face pressed to the Turkey carpet, her breath catching on little sighs. Gradually, now that the first shock was over, her will reasserted itself. She rose and washed her face, removing the traces of her tears. Crossing the room, she sank into a chair to consider her situation.
Peter and Jeremy. For a moment she feared she might begin to weep again, but her spirit rebelled. Tears were a weakness she could ill afford to indulge. What was she to do? What could she do?
The voice of her governess came back to her, explaining – as well as a maiden lady of timid and pious disposition could do so – that gentlemen, even the best of them, sometimes indulged in improper behaviour outside the bounds of marriage, but that a lady would never take notice of these lapses. Good breeding, she had said, forbade mention of such indelicate subjects. A proper lady, secure in her own carefully guarded virtue, would ignore the foibles of her husband with unshaken calm and accept with resignation that this was the way of the world. But Arabella was certain that Miss Archer, in mentioning ‘improper behaviour’, had not meant anything like this.
Well-bred acceptance and calm resignation? No. No, absolutely. She leapt to her feet and began to pace, shaken suddenly by sheer rage. How dare they do this to her? How dare they? She beat her hands together and swore unprintably; an oath she had heard her uncle use. She weighed the idea of going back downstairs to confront them and have it out in the open, but stopped herself. She realized she was too angry to think clearly – and afraid of what she might find.
But, by God, she would not submit tamely to this outrage. Good breeding be damned to Hell; she would fight for her marriage, her husband and her happiness. Miss Archer’s voice was bleating faintly in her head at such intemperate language, but Arabella bade it fiercely to shut up and it fell silent at once.
She would fight. But how? She knew that Peter would brook no interference from her; she could not broach the subject with him with any hope of success. But Jeremy. She pondered. Perhaps, if Jeremy knew that she had discovered their secret, he could be induced to break it off and leave them alone. Perhaps if she could make him believe she was willing to create a scandal…
She strove to calm herself, pausing by the window and drawing deep breaths. Clear thought was impossible when she was in such a passion.
Yes. Yes, she would confront Jeremy. She looked forward grimly to seeing the horror in his eyes as she revealed her knowledge to him.
She sat at her writing-desk and drew out a piece of note-paper. While preparing her pen, she paused to consider her words, and then wrote quickly. Sanding the page, she read it over.
Government House, 24 May
Dear Captain Pitt,
It was with great Pleasure that I learnt the news that the Bristol Maid is arrived in Port Royale after, I trust, a Prosperous Voyage.
Please do us the Honour of joining us for Dinner this day in Celebration of your Safe Return.
Yr humble obt svt,
post scriptum. Jeremy, please do me the favour of arriving somewhat Before the Hour as I wish to ask your advice on a Matter of Particular Importance. – A.B.
When the servant came in response to her ring, she gave him the note with instructions that it be delivered immediately to the Bristol Maid.
Now that her plan was afoot, Arabella found her momentary calm replaced with a febrile excitement. The coming battle, for so she considered it, might influence the whole course of her life, and she was determined to spare no effort. By fair means or foul, she must prevail. She began to consider what she would say, how she would approach the subject. She tried to imagine Jeremy’s replies, and how she could make him understand that in her he faced no trifling opponent.
She wondered if he hated her for standing in his way – if his seeming friendship had been merely pretense. The thought cost her a pang, quickly contained. Her chin rose. Let him hate her, then; and she would learn to hate him in her turn, for he was the enemy of her happiness.
And to think that it was only this morning that she had shocked herself by wondering what it was like to kiss Jeremy. She laughed bitterly. It seemed her taste and Peter’s were similar in this, as in so much else.
She rang for her maid, and began choosing a dress with all the care of a warrior arming for combat.
Jeremy had left him some time ago, gone to see to the moving of the Bristol Maid and the off-loading of his cargo, but Blood was pacing still, unable to settle to his work.
“Almost you convince me,” he had said to Jeremy. That, he admitted, had been mere temporizing. Jeremy’s words were as persuasive as his person, and he had used both to devastating effect. Peter’s resolve to forget the past had crumbled. He had, in the end, been forced to concede that there was, in sober truth, no other choice for him but the sea. The question was no longer one of what he would do, but rather of when and how he would achieve his ends.
He returned again to the problem of Arabella. He was distrustful of himself, fearing that his wishes were distorting his judgment. He wondered if she would in fact be content living in Bristol or London while he plied the ocean.
It had been some time since Peter had first considered the difference in their ages, but it had come to trouble him increasingly of late. He felt himself an old man beside her youth. Sometimes, on that account, he thought he had done her a disservice in marrying her. She seemed to love him well, but perhaps that was due to a dearth, here in the colonies, of desirable men of her own age – for he did not take much account of Lord Julian, who, for all his air of the great world, was somewhat too effete to appeal to someone of Arabella’s discernment. Blood was shaken by a humorless laugh. Mayhap, in London (for London, he deemed, would provide more society for her than Bristol) she would find a young lover to console her lonely hours during his voyages. All things considered, that might be the best outcome for them all.
He threw himself into his chair with a groan. To what depths had he sunk, that he not only could contemplate his own illicit connection so calmly, but imagine one for his wife with equal sang-froid? Dear God, but he was a monster. In truth, he thought, Arabella would be well rid of him.
He would speak to her tonight, he decided. Inform her of his plans at once. No point in delay. “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” He spoke the words to himself and then shuddered. What malign chance caused him to think of that play at this moment? Blind love and vaulting ambition combining to bring a great man to ruin. Suddenly superstitious as any untutored sailor, he made a warding gesture to avert the fate, and then shook himself and laughed. “Faith, now,” he jeered, “and I’ll be starting at shadows next, I daresay.” He laughed again, with the air of one whistling in the dark, but found himself insensibly cheered nonetheless. He turned again to his work with something like enthusiasm.
Arabella sat in the drawing room, with a book in her hand, waiting for Jeremy Pitt to arrive. If she was not reading, she wished at least to give that impression. Not for worlds would she have him see her true state of mind. She must, she reminded herself for the twentieth time, appear calm and collected if she hoped to prevail.
Nonetheless, she could not help giving a little start when he was announced. She rose as he approached her down the long room and forced herself to offer him a welcoming smile. He was, she thought, a sight which, under other circumstances, could not but please. His figure, sturdy and trim in his sober blue coat, moved with the suggestion of a rolling gait that a life spent on board ship imparted. It was with an indefinable pang that she noted he was, as she had imagined, bronzed and blonde from the voyage. As he drew near she held out her hand.
“Captain Pitt, how good of you to come.”
He took her hand and bowed over it. “Madam,” he replied, “it is an honour.”
“I trust your voyage was successful?”
“Yes, I believe it was. Until the cargo is sold, of course, it will be impossible to tell for certain, but it seems that the good people of Port Royal are eager for the goods I have brought them.”
“How fortunate, or perhaps I should say how clever of you to have guessed what was needed. And how was the weather? Did the winds cooperate?”
“They did. We had fair sailing both ways. I hope my luck holds, but the Bristol Maid must be careened and re-provisioned and some necessary repairs made before we sail again; that means a delay of several weeks at least before we set out. The stormy season will be upon us by then, I fear.”
“Ah, so you will be with us for some time, this visit.”
“But why are we standing here? Will you not join me for a stroll in the gardens? It is so stuffy in the house, and the hibiscus walk is lovely and shady at this time of day.”
She picked up her hat from a side table and put it on. Taking up her parasol, she led the way out the French doors onto the terrace and so down the steps into the gardens. As Jeremy followed her, he was struck once more by her slender, stripling grace. She had not aged since the first time he had seen her, almost seven years ago. He understood why Peter should love her so. A faint hint of perfume drifted back to him, fresh and very slightly spicy. He wondered again why she had asked to speak with him.
Arabella turned at the foot of the stairs and waited for him, resting the tips of her fingers upon the arm he offered. For a time they walked in silence. Finally Jeremy, becoming impatient, decided to grasp the nettle. He cleared his throat.
“Your note said wished to speak to me.”
She nodded gravely. “To ask your advice, yes.” She glanced up at him. “About Peter.”
Jeremy was suddenly wary. “About Peter?”
“Yes,” she replied, and then took a deep breath. “You have known him longer than I and were with him during his years as a fugitive.” He nodded. “Lately,” she went on, “any mention of that time distresses him and he falls into a melancholy, but he will not tell me what troubles him so. Do you know?”
Jeremy felt a little jolt of, it must be said, rather mean satisfaction at her words. Here was further proof, if any was needed, that Peter had no more left the memories behind than he had. But he was at a loss as to how to answer Arabella. He was sure he knew full well the cause of Peter’s discontent, but he could hardly say so. At last, knowing he must say something, he ventured, “Perhaps he is missing the sea.”
She took a another deep breath. “Perhaps he is, and perhaps,” she looked him in the face and her eye was hard, “he is missing you.”
Taken aback, Jeremy opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but shut it again without speaking. With a shock that felt like the slap of a cold wave breaking over the rail in a storm, he realized that she knew their secret. He looked away and felt himself flushing beneath his tan.
Silence for a few paces. He risked a glance at his companion. She was staring straight ahead, her face calm and set.
“I heard what passed between you and my husband this morning, Captain Pitt. Enough of it, at any rate, to reach the obvious conclusion.”
“Did you, indeed? Then why ask me what troubles him?”
She smiled coldly. “I wished to see if you would lie to me. This matter will admit of no resolution if we cannot speak truth.”
He found himself impressed by her composure. How many women, when confronted with such knowledge, would remain as rational as she? Precious few, he would take his oath upon it.
“What resolution do you anticipate?” he asked.
“That you will leave here. That you will henceforth leave my husband and me alone.”
Her stress on the word husband irritated him, and he answered hastily. “Why should I do so?”
“Because if you do not, I shall see to it that you are driven out, that society closes its doors to you.”
She was a fighter, this woman of Peter’s. “And how do you mean to accomplish this? If you mean to publish your woes to the world, might I remind you that you will be involving your husband in ruin as well?”
Again that cold smile. “Not if I say that you offered me insult; assaulted me. If I cry rape, you will be barred from society. Peter, if he does not feel honour bound to fight you, must at the very least cast you off. The scandal will be tremendous.”
Jeremy gaped at her for a moment, struck dumb by the ruthlessness of her threat. Suddenly, anger blazed up. “What happened to truth, Arabella? You would stoop to such deceit?” He laughed harshly. “Blood will tell, it seems. For now I see that you are Colonel Bishop’s niece indeed. This is a trick worthy of him.”
She turned to face him, shaking with rage. “I do what I must; what I am forced to do.”
He sneered, shook his head, and turned away. “This serves no purpose; I am unpersuaded. I will leave you now.”
Arabella snatched at his sleeve. “You will not take my husband!” she exclaimed.
He looked down at her. “You cannot stop me, madam.”
With a cry, she swung her arm with all her might, but the blow was blocked and thrown back by his upraised arm. Her fingers curled and she launched herself at him, clawing at his eyes with both hands. Leaning backward to protect his face he grappled with her as she struggled. He caught her wrists and forced her arms down and back, pinioning them behind her and in the process pressing their bodies together, using his superior height and size to hold her still.
“Let me go, let me go,” she panted, but he held her firmly.
“And have you scratching my eyes out the moment I do so? I think not.”
She wrenched at his grip but could not break it. On a gasp, the fight seemed to go out of her and she sagged in his grasp. Her face, deadly pale before, flamed. Hazel eyes, wide and startled, stared into his. “I shall scream,” she whispered.
“You will not,” he replied, and kissed her. A moment she surrendered and he tasted, along with the fiery sweetness, a tenderness for her – frail and indomitable creature that she was – that astonished him. When she stiffened in his arms, he released her at once. They fell back a pace, appalled.
She scrubbed at her mouth with the back of her hand and spat, “Is this how you kiss Peter?” He did not answer her.
Arabella bent to pick up her sunshade. She could feel her self-control wavering, and she desired to be alone as quickly as possible. As she turned to leave, Jeremy took two swift steps and blocked her way. “Let me pass,” she said coldly, proud that her voice did not shake and betray her.
He stood his ground, careful not to touch her. “Arabella,” he said, and there was a pleading note in his voice, “don’t go. We must talk.”
“Yes, we must,” she replied. She raised her chin and met his eye. “But not now. You mustn’t…,” her voice cracked, “I cannot….” And then, for the second time that day, Arabella, who never cried, was weeping. Humiliated, she turned her face way and struggled to control her sobs. When Jeremy’s hand touched her arm she struck out blindly. “I hate you!” she cried.
He paid no mind, but gathered her in.
“I hate you,” she sobbed, “I hate you.” She pressed her face into his shoulder as he held her close. “You have stolen my husband’s love from me.”
“Not true,” he murmured soothingly. “He loves you dearly.”
“But he loves you as well.” There was, of course, no answer to that and he attempted none.
Gradually, she grew calmer, but made no move to leave his embrace. She sighed and raised her face, regarding him sadly. “What a shocking tangle this is. What are we to do, Jeremy?”
Before he could answer her, a step sounded upon the gravel of the path and Peter came striding round the corner of the hedge nearest them, in search of his wife.
Jeremy and Arabella sprang apart and, for the space of several heartbeats, the three stood frozen. Peter – so far as he could think, for the astonishment that held him immobile – was struck by the irony of the scene before him. He had wished, half-seriously, that his wife would take a young lover, and it seemed she had done so on the very heels of his thought. But, in one of the crueler twists of Fate, she had taken his lover as her own.
The tableau was broken when Arabella started forward. Peter flung up a hand and she stopped. His smile was sardonic. “It is clear that I am de trop, and so I take my leave.” He bowed. “I wish you joy.”
He had not gone two steps when Arabella caught him up. “Peter, wait! Please. Don’t go.”
Without turning, he spoke over his shoulder. “There is no point in staying. The situation is tolerably clear.”
Arabella cast a supplicating glance at Jeremy. He, fighting down his own chagrin, came to her support. He said, as calmly as he could manage, “Indeed, you are wrong, Peter. You misapprehend.”
With that Blood turned. The blue of his eyes had grown a shade paler, the only sign he gave of the deadly anger that consumed him. Jeremy had seen those eyes in battle, but had never thought to face them himself.
“Very well,” Peter’s voice was as cold as his eyes. He looked at his wife. “Tell me what I saw. Explain it away, if you can.”
Arabella faced him. She gripped her hands tightly together to keep them from shaking. “This morning I overheard you talking to Jeremy. I heard… enough.” Her eyes were on her hands and so she did not see the look of consternation on Peter’s face. “I didn’t know what to do,” she went on, “and so I wrote to him and bade him wait upon me, so that I might tell him I had discovered your secret.” She looked up. “I had hoped that I could persuade him to go away and leave you… us… in peace.”
“And that persuasion included weeping on his shoulder, I suppose?” Peter sneered. “Come, come, my dear, you must think me a simpleton. Let us have the truth, if you please. You set out to seduce him. Did you think that Jeremy would succumb to your wiles?”
As he spoke a faint hope grew in Peter’s breast. If it was as he said, if Arabella had tried to seduce Jeremy, then, by that act, she had given him the excuse he sought to leave her and go back to sea. He would not repudiate her, but her hold over his conscience would end, and he could settle her in London and go to sea with no qualms.
Arabella, her eyes wide, was shaking her head. “No, no, Peter. It was nothing of the sort. I swear it.”
Blood’s laugh was unpleasant.
Jeremy spoke up. “Peter, you wrong her. Your wife made no improper advances, nor hinted at them. She speaks the truth.”
Blood rounded on him. “She lies. And you swear to it. Are her claws in you so deep, then?”
“Peter,” Jeremy’s voice dropped to a menacing rumble. “have a care. No man may say with impunity that I lie. Arabella is blameless. We quarreled, and I goaded her in my anger until she could stand no more, and struck me. Against her will, in the unguarded heat of that quarrel, I kissed her. And, when she would have left me, I prevented her. The kiss was my doing, Peter. I took advantage of her when she was overset, not the other way around. And if you are so wickedly unjust as to cast her off on that account, she need not look far for a protector.” Jeremy’s eye was defiant, and his tone belligerent.
Peter was shaken. He could not bring himself to doubt Jeremy’s word, however well that doubt would run with his own wishes. His hope, never strong, of freeing himself from his marriage without guilt, died. He looked from his wife to his friend and saw truth in both. He sighed. “Come into the house,” he said, and turned away.
“I do not wish to continue this discussion where we may be overheard. Come into the house, both of you.”
When they reached the drawing room, Arabella seated herself on the sofa, and Peter stood with his back to the empty fireplace. He waved Jeremy to a chair, but the younger man remained standing.
The silence lengthened as Peter tried to gather his thoughts. The others waited for him to speak, and yet he felt unequal to the task of salvaging what could be saved from this debacle. He was of a sudden very weary.
“If anyone,” he said at last, “is to blame, it is I. From the first, I have done wrong.” He looked at Jeremy. “I denied your claim on me for my own selfish ends.”
Jeremy shook his head. “You said it yourself, Peter. We spoke no vows.”
Blood nodded, “True. But my honour was pledged nonetheless.” He looked at his wife. “And you, my dear, I wronged by letting you think my whole heart was free to love you. In my own defense, I must say that I believed at the time that it was so; that I had freed myself from all other bonds. I was deluding myself and deceiving you, whom I love well.” Arabella smiled sadly.
“And, to cap all my follies,” he went on, “I have this day allowed myself to think that I could snatch happiness for myself and devil take the hindmost. The result has been to drive my wife into the arms of my friend.”
Arabella, after a short pause, asked, “Your plan Peter; was it to sail again with Jeremy?” He nodded. “And what, then, of me?”
“I thought to settle you in London and sail from there. While I was at sea you would have the benefit of good society and freedom to enjoy yourself. Indeed, you would be better off without my company.”
“That is nonsense, Peter. This is your melancholy speaking.”
“Be that as it may,” Blood replied, “we find ourselves in the very devil of a tangle through my folly. And I can see no answer to the riddle.”
There was another thoughtful silence. After a time, Arabella spoke again. “Peter, do you love me?”
He answered readily, “Yes, I love you.”
“And do you,” she went on, “love Jeremy?”
Peter groaned. “I do, God help me.”
“Then, I think I see a way out of this maze for us all,” Arabella said slowly. “Surely we can come to an accommodation.” She glanced from her husband to Pitt. Both men nodded for her to continue. She clasped her hands tightly together and took a deep breath.
“When you sail, let me come with you.”
The room was very quiet for a count of ten, as they stared at her in amazement. “What?” cried Peter, just as Jeremy asked, “Arabella, are you mad?”
“Explain yourself,” Peter demanded.
“I love you, Peter. I want to be with you. It is clear that you will never be happy on land… or away from Jeremy. And I will never be happy away from you. I shall, therefore, cut my coat according to my cloth. I would rather share you than lose you. Jeremy, I daresay, feels the same way.”
Jeremy looked startled, but, after a few moments, he nodded slowly. “That is so.” He smiled.
Peter was incredulous. “Is it mad you’ve gone, entirely, Arabella? Whoever heard of such a thing? Impossible.”
Jeremy said, “No, she’s right, Peter. It could be the answer to our dilemma.”
Peter shook his head. “Can you imagine what people would say?”
“Why impossible?” Arabella persisted. “Is your only objection that people will talk? Let them talk – we will be far away at sea. If I care not for the conventions, why should you?”
She stood and crossed to her husband, laying her hand lightly upon his sleeve. “Peter, do but consider. It is a chance for happiness. For all of us.”
“All of us?”
But still he hesitated.
Jeremy joined them before the fireplace, a glint in his eye. “Arabella, do you know why Peter was the most respected commander among the Brethren?”
Blood glanced at him, but said nothing.
“Because,” Pitt continued, “he was never afraid to flout convention, when the situation called for boldness and innovation. In battle, he was unbeatable – his opponents, constrained as they were by habit, never stood a chance.”
Arabella laughed. “Well, Peter? What have you to say to that?”
Blood regarded them solemnly, but his eyes had begun to twinkle. He lifted her hand and kissed it, and held out his other hand to Jeremy, who took it in a firm clasp. “Shakespeare, I think, must speak for me,” he said.
Jeremy grinned. “Perhaps: ’Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious Summer’…?”
Peter chuckled and shook his head. “Say rather: ’Lord, what fools these mortals be.’”
They laughed. Peter rang the bell. “Such a mad enterprise calls for a toast.”
When the wine was poured, Peter raised his glass. “To my good lady, in beauty and courage unmatched: Arabella.”
She blushed as they drank to her. As she looked from Peter to Jeremy and back, she thought her heart might burst for joy – here again was the man she had married. With shining eyes, she raised her glass.
“And here’s to Captain Blood.”
At the Debenham-Smythe’s victory ball the next week, everyone agreed that the Governor’s lady was looking uncommonly well. She had arrived attended not only by her husband, but by Captain Pitt of the Bristol Maid, and she danced the entire evening with one or the other of them, to the disappointment of a number of young naval officers.
supper, Governor Blood announced his impending resignation, the riddle was
solved. “Fortunate creature,” whispered one matron to another, “I am quite
wild with envy. Do but look at her smile. No doubt he has promised her a
house in London.” And they laughed, little suspecting that Arabella Blood,
who was dancing again with her husband and smiling at something he’d said,
was this night celebrating her escape from that very fate.
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