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Telling Tales

by The Stowaway

 

Fandom: PoTC    Rating: PG    Pairing: Sparronw/Norrington    Full Header

 


James threw down his remaining cards with an expression of disgust. "Damn it, Jack. That's five games in a row. You cheated."

Sparrow gathered up the scattered deck and began to shuffle it lazily. He grinned and said nothing.

James got up to fetch the rum from its rack on the sideboard and refilled their glasses. He left the bottle on the table as he resumed his seat; with the Pearl all but becalmed as she was, it stood in no danger of falling.

Jack dealt the cards once more. Scowling, James picked them up with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"Shall we wager on this hand?" Jack asked, with the suggestion of a smirk. "Just to liven things up, you know," he added, with a sly sidelong glance at his companion.

Expression shifting from annoyance to skeptical amusement, James laid his cards face down and leaned back in his chair. "What manner of wager did you have in mind?" he asked, voice dry.

"How about a forfeit?" Jack suggested, with what James felt to be an unnecessary and entirely spurious air of innocence.

James snorted. "You are disingenuous, rogue," he growled. "Why would I wager with you? You will cheat…"

Jack's eyes widened in soulful reproach and his hand flew to his breast.

"You will cheat," James repeated inexorably, "and I shall lose." He sighed and picked up his glass. "No more of this farce, I pray you. What do you want?"

"Tell me a story," Jack replied without hesitation. James choked on a mouthful of rum.

"What did you say?" he gasped, coughing.

"Tell me a story," Jack repeated. "To beguile the tedium, so to speak. What else have we to do until the trades begin to blow?" He put his feet upon the table, tilted his chair back on two legs and waited, grinning.

"You want me to tell you a story?" James exclaimed. "Surely you are not in earnest!"

"Of course I am," Jack nodded happily.

"But, what sort of story?"

Jack pretended to consider. "Well," he said at last, "you could tell me how Mister Gibbs came to part company with your precious Navy. Josh's version of events is not what you'd call trustworthy, if you see what I mean. But," he fixed his eyes on James and grinned wider than ever, "I'd rather hear about you."

"Me?" James replied, wary and not a little astonished. "What about me?"

"Why you chose the Navy and not the Church, for one thing," Jack grinned. "Surely you didn't think I'd forgotten?"

"Ah," James said, "that." The crew had asked him 'why the Navy?', his second night aboard the Pearl, and he had told them he'd been given the choice - which was not, perhaps, strictly true, but close enough to serve, under the circumstances.

"Yes, that," Jack replied. "You'd've made a redoubtable parson, James," he added, chuckling as Norrington glared at him, "the terror of every small boy in the Sunday school, I am certain. So, why the Navy?"

James thought a moment. It was an absurd request; he would feel ridiculous talking so about himself, but he knew Jack; the subject would never be closed until he gave in. Still, he would do what he might to turn this situation to his advantage. He looked up.

"I will tell you," he said, "on one condition."

Jack smirked. "And that is?"

"That you return the favour," James replied. "You gave me your word, if you recall, before Pig Island."

Jack's face tightened with what might have been anger, or, James thought, chagrin.

"Curse your good memory," he grumbled, drinking deep.

James snorted again. "I might say the same, Jack." He waited a moment. "Well?"

"Oh, very well," Jack muttered, scowling into his rum. "Get on with it. And mind," he added, as James opened his mouth, "start at the beginning. I want the full tale, if you please."

~~~~~~~~~~~

James sat for a few moments, collecting his thoughts, and then began to speak. "My family are from Derbyshire and it was there that I grew up, near Ashbourne. In my fifteenth year, I joined… What is it?" This to Jack, who was shaking his head.

"A full tale, James," Jack repeated. "Who are your parents? Your sisters and brothers? Indulge me with the details. Who taught young Jamie his letters?"

"I was never," James snapped, his brow thunderous "called Jamie, I thank you. A repellent nickname."

Jack grinned at him, unrepentant. "Your parents?" he prompted, sipping his rum.

"Sir Thomas Norrington was my father," James replied, with exaggerated patience. "My mother is a Finchley."

"The Somersetshire family?" Jack interjected. James stared at him; how did Jack know that?

"Yes," he nodded. "Daughter of the tenth Earl of…"

"Wenham," Jack finished for him. "Good blood there. But I see where you get your stubbornness. Your grandfather was…"

James smacked the table with the flat of his hand, so hard that the stopper jingled in the rum decanter and Jack jumped. "Enough," he said. "If you know all this already - although Heaven knows how you found it out - then there is no point in continuing my story, is there?"

Jack shook his head and laughed. "Upon my word, James," he replied, "I knew naught until this moment." James raised an eyebrow and Jack lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "It was a lucky guess; that is all. Finchley is an uncommon name; from there the rest was simple." He sat up and reached for the rum. "Wenham was a fierce old bird," he added. "Gave me no end of trouble when I robbed his coach outside Oxford that time."

"You robbed…" James opened and closed his mouth several times, dumbfounded. "Tell."

"All in good time," Jack replied blandly. "I interrupted you. Please, continue."

After a short, charged silence, James continued. "Very well. I am the fourth of five children. Charles inherited when our father died, fever took Mary the year before I was born, David entered the diplomatic service and my younger sister Anne married a county gentleman and lives in Alton. There. Will that suffice?"

"If that's the best you can do," Jack sighed, "then I suppose it must. Have you no charming reminiscences of nursery spats or youthful truancies? No?" This in response to a sound of protest from James. "It is clear to me that you have not practiced the raconteur's art, my friend. Ah, well. You must, at least, tell me of your tutor, the one who warned you against such as me."

"Advice I did not heed, to my cost," James replied, with a wry grimace. "Mister Cawston was engaged to prepare my brother David for University. At that time Charles, having no turn for scholarship, was already deeply involved in the management of the estate and I was still attending the village school run by the curate. Mister Cawston was a learned man, with an incisive mind, a passion for history and a dry wit. He acted, when not instructing David, as my father's librarian. We got along famously.

"Once David went up to Cambridge, my father retained Cawston on my behalf, with the intention that I should follow David to Cambridge in due course. David's entry into the foreign service - under the aegis of my mother's family - was decided upon. My father made no secret of the fact that he wished me to enter the Church; a family living was to be held for me."

"And how did you feel about the prospect of such a career?" Jack asked.

James thought a moment. "I cannot remember," he replied at last. "I knew it to be my duty and I do not recall being in any way loath to comply with my father's wishes." He shrugged. "One must do something after all."

"So, what happened to change your mind?"

"When I turned twelve, I spent the summer with my cousins, near Avonmouth. Uncle Thomas, my mother’s brother, was a yachtsman."

"Ah," Jack smiled.

James grinned back at him. "Indeed. He kept a gaff-rigged yawl and two smaller sloops and rare was the day when he did not take one or another of them out." James paused, gaze unfocused and a small smile lingering on his lips as he looked back in time. "From the moment I set foot on the deck, I was lost," he murmured. "It seemed to me that there was nothing so perfect in all the world as flying down the channel, heeled over, with the spray in my face. When Uncle let me take the tiller, I felt my heart would burst."

Silence fell. Jack watched James, his own eyes warm and for once free of mockery.

Then James shook himself, cleared his throat and looked away. "Yes. Well," he said, a faint blush staining his cheek, "I spent the summer learning to sail. My uncle, glad of so enthusiastic a pupil, was pleased to encourage me. It was he who first mentioned the Navy. I returned home at Michaelmas, full of determination." He stopped.

"And?" Jack asked.

"My father refused his consent. He believed my wish for a Naval career to be boyish nonsense - a passing fancy - and assured me that I would soon change my mind." James cleared his throat once more. "Undeterred, I began to study navigation on my own and applied myself to mathematics and maritime history, persuading Mister Cawston to weight his curriculum with subjects of particular use to a future officer."

Jack chuckled. "Rebellious sprat," he muttered.

James ignored the taunt. "My father was at first unaware of my course of study, but Mother knew, for it was to her that I applied for an advance upon my allowance with which to purchase a treatise on celestial navigation. It is my belief that she interceded with my father."

Jack nodded. "She talked him 'round, did she?" he asked.

"Not exactly," James shook his head. "But, six months after his first refusal, we spoke of the matter again. He gave me to understand that, while his wish was still that I take orders, if I could demonstrate steadiness of purpose by continuing to make progress in my studies for another year - that is, until I turned fourteen - he would consent to my going into the Navy.

"My father was true to his word. In the Spring of my fifteenth year, thanks to a cousin of his in the Admiralty, I traveled down to Plymouth and was posted to my first ship."

James rose and walked to the stern windows, gazing out at the glittering ocean. After a few moments - when it was clear that James had done - Jack poured more rum and joined him in the blaze of sunlight pouring into the cabin.

"And the rest," he said, handing James a glass, "is history." Jack clinked their glasses together. "A toast," he said, softly. "To Mister Midshipman Norrington; proud and eager - and green as grass."

James laughed and drank. "There you have it - such as it is - the history of my choice of the quarterdeck over the pulpit," he said. "Not very exciting, I fear."

"Do you ever regret it," Jack asked. "Going against your father's wishes, I mean."

James shook his head. "Not for a moment."

Jack said nothing, his eyes narrowed against the glare. James nudged him.

"Your turn," he said.

Just then there was a knock upon the door and Cook entered with their dinner.

"Later," Jack replied, turning back toward the table. "After we dine."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Well, Jack?"

The sun had set as they ate, and the dusk had closed in, isolating the two men in a pool of golden lamplight.

"Well, what?" Jack replied without looking up. He was sifting through a bowl of nuts to find the pecans.

James hid a smile. "You know very well what," he said. "Let us have it, if you please."

"Hmm? Oh, that!" He pushed a plate across the table. "Have some cheese. In this heat it will go off soon enough - best to eat it up." Still avoiding James's eye, he filled their glasses with port and began cracking nuts, but James could see the corners of his mouth twitching.

"Surely you don't mean to renege," James drawled, "do you, Jack?"

Jack pulled his face straight. "James mate, you wound me," he said, placing a hand over his heart. "How could you even suggest such a thing?"

"Years of experience?" James suggested, sipping his wine.

"Touché," Jack laughed. He cracked another nut. James nibbled a bit of cheese and waited.

"Who I am," Jack said at last. "Are you certain you wish to know?"

James gave him a level look and Jack laughed again.

"Oh very well," he said. "As you wish. Here it is, then." He sat up, assuming what James privately referred to as his storyteller's mien, and began to declaim.

"I was born just outside London, in May of the year 1680. It was at a small country house owned by a friend of my mother's - the playwright George Etherege - that I first saw the light of day. My mother had retired thence from London when my arrival grew imminent. Etherege, so I am told, offered her the use of the house under the not unreasonable assumption that I was of his getting. It had been thought that my father's illness had long rendered him impotent, but this was not the case - or it had not been in August of 1679, at any rate.

"My mother managed my birth with very little fuss and I was a healthy child; neither of us was in any danger of dying, as so many did. She had, however, no milk, and so a wet nurse was procured for me, and our little household settled down in cozy domesticity while my mother regained her strength and figure.

"How long this bucolic idyll might have lasted…

"Hush, James." (This when James stirred and opened his mouth to speak.) "All will be made clear presently, if you but have patience. Now then, where was I? Ah, yes.

"How long this bucolic idyll might have lasted, there is no saying, but the story goes that Etherege arrived for a visit on the very day my mother first rose from her childbed. He was just in time to attend my somewhat irregular christening and, upon hearing me named John (after my father) and given the surname Clarke (to match that of my sister), a scene ensued that would had done justice to any of his plays, the immediate result of which was the breakup of our family circle. My mother returned to town to begin rehearsals, ironically enough, for Otway's 'The Orphan', and the nurse and I were dispatched forthwith into Oxfordshire.

"Arriving at Adderbury House, we were received (with what chagrin I can only imagine) by the Dowager Countess, my grandmother. I doubt that my father - a bare two months from death and firmly in the clutches of Burnet - or his wife ever knew I was in the house. I was bundled off to Spelsbury that very night, to live with my sister Elizabeth. And there I stayed for most of the next twelve years."

Jack ceased speaking, eyes bright and amused, and looked over at James. "Well?" he said. "Does that answer your question?"

"You know perfectly well that it does not," James replied, intrigued and irritated in equal measure. "All this took place, may I remind you, considerably before my time! Don't be so provoking, Jack. Which Earl and which actress, if you please?"

Smiling, Jack sipped his wine. "Ever attend the theatre in London?" he asked.

James nodded.

"When? And where?"

"The year I was made Lieutenant; '08. At Betterton's. Jack…"

"What did you see? The revival of 'Love for Love'?"

"I think so, yes. For Heaven's sake, Jack…"

"She was past her prime by then, of course," Jack cut him off. "But still remarkable." Half-turning, he reached up and took down a book from the shelves behind him. He opened it to the flyleaf and handed it to James.

There, in a feminine hand, was written: Ex Libris Elizabeth Barry.

"Your mother," James said, looking up. Jack nodded. Something guarded in his expression made James lower his eyes to the book once more. "I remember her," he said. "It was an astonishing performance. I was glad to have seen her before she retired."

He looked up again. "Not just any actress, then," he went on, smiling. "Your mother was the greatest of her day. Your father?"

Jack indicated the book in James's hand. James turned the page. The frontispiece bore a portrait of a man dressed in the fashion of fifty years before, with a dark periwig and an eerily familiar face. The title page read:

A Debt to Pleasure
Songs & Verses from
the Right Honorable
John Wilmot,
Earl of Rochester



James looked again at the picture, then at Jack. The likeness was uncanny.

Jack struck a pose and gestured toward his own face. "My bona fides," he said, grinning. "What do you think of my pedigree?"

The most notorious rake in a generation of rakes, James thought to himself, and a very queen of the stage - it was too perfectly plausible to be true. And yet…

"Certainly no one who sees this could doubt the connection," he replied aloud.

"À propos, wouldn't you say?" Jack asked, as if he could read James's mind.

James smiled but did not take the bait. After a moment, he said, "It was said that Mrs. Barry had a daughter by Rochester, but I never heard mention of a son."

"No. News of me was kept very quiet, to be sure," Jack replied. "My birth was so inconveniently timed, you see. My mother's career was poised on the brink of wild success and she had no wish for more scandal. And my father was dying - worn out with his legendary excesses." Jack frowned. "You have, no doubt, read of the death-bed conversion that the Dowager and her friend Gilbert Burnet bruited about? Only imagine what damage would have been done to their claim by the untimely appearance of another bastard, conceived at the very time Burnet was, supposedly, convincing my father to renounce his apostasy."

James nodded. It made sense, in a cold-hearted and pragmatic way. "And yet, your father's family raised you," he said, after another pause.

"They did," Jack nodded. "It was, so I was told, my father's wish. As his wife died within a year of him, it was the Dowager who took charge of my sister and me.

"She was a fearsome old besom, to be sure, but she did her duty by us, however distasteful she found it.

"At the tender age of six I was given a tutor - one Doctor Samuels, an impecunious divine - and promised a chance to go to Oxford, if I behaved myself. Samuels, for all that he was a crony of Burnet's, wasn't a bad sort. As a bribe, to check my tendency to go truant, he gave me the run of the library.

"With the golden lure of Oxford (and freedom) before me, I managed to acquire the beginnings of a gentleman's education - and a taste for reading."

James, looking past Jack at the well-stocked bookcase, chuckled. "I never would have guessed."

Jack laughed with him. "I know, it must be a shock, eh?"

"What of your sister?" James asked.

"She died." Jack's face clouded. "When I was nine."

"I'm sorry."

Jack shrugged and poured more wine. It was not a topic open for discussion, James saw. He waited.

"Finally," Jack said, after a pause, "when I was twelve, I was sent up to Wadham College. After the confined life I'd led in Spelsbury, Oxford seemed a metropolis. I quickly made friends amongst my contemporaries and set about exploring it. In this I was, although I didn't know it at the time, following closely in my father's footsteps. I attended lectures - at least at first - but the delights of the town soon outweighed the attractions of study.

"Samuels had come up with me as chaperon or bear-leader but, as we were lodged separately, it was a simple matter to give him the slip. He expostulated with me - when he could catch me, that is - but I paid him scant attention. I had no fear that he would report my doings to the Dowager. She was his sole source of income; if he admitted to her that he was failing of his duty, he could whistle for his place. And so, he kept quiet.

"It was during this period that I became acquainted with Sir Charles Sedley - late a boon companion of my father's - who had come to Oxford on a matter concerning endowments for his old college. We spent a memorable evening together drinking whilst he regaled me with reminiscences of the exploits of the Merry Gang, as my father's friends were known. He declared himself much taken with me and issued an invitation to visit him in London, if ever I found myself at leisure to do so, and we parted on the friendliest of terms."

"And did you visit him?" James asked. He wondered exactly how friendly Jack and Sedley had been.

"I did," Jack replied. "And sooner than I had anticipated, thanks to your grandfather."

"Ah," James nodded. "I wondered when we would get to that. Well?"

Jack grinned. "I'd been at Wadham about eighteen months - and my life had become one long round of dissipation - when one of my particular friends was taken up on a charge of highway robbery. He'd done it on a lark, out of boredom. He was unlucky enough to have his horse shot from under him and so he was captured. Being heir to a dukedom, he was quickly released, of course, but the incident fired our imaginations. It became the fashion in our set to emulate our friend.

"We committed several holdups, but, when we stopped the coach-and-six containing the Earl of Wenham, things went altogether wrong. For one thing, we were very drunk - the hour being somewhat advanced - and we were not, therefore, entirely alert. Success had made us careless. And then, old Wenham refused to cooperate; he categorically refused to hand over his strong box. Swore he'd see me in Hell first. Next my damned horse grew restive and bumped my shoulder; causing my pistol to discharge and blowing a hole through the roof of the coach. Seizing the moment, the old man began belaboring me about the head with his cane - shouting furious oaths the while - and his coachman and footmen attacked my friends. Aye, James, well you may laugh! We must have been a ridiculous sight.

"At this juncture, another coach happened along carrying, as ill-luck would have it, the Chancellor of the University. My friends and I, outnumbered, fled incontinent, but not before we were recognized.

"The resulting scandal made Oxford too hot for me and so I somewhat hastily decamped for London. Thus ended my University career; I was just fourteen."

James shook his head but could not help laughing. The picture of his formidable grandfather defying a gang of highwaymen and thrashing a drunken Jack was too comical to resist.

"You were lucky not to have been killed, you know," he said at last. "What madness possessed you?"

Jack smirked and flicked his fingers. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?" he said, laughing. "And I wasn't killed, so, you see, all was well.

"I arrived in London two days later and immediately sought out Sir Charles, who bade me treat his house as my home. Under his patronage, I was introduced to such of my father's friends who were still alive and in town. At first for my father's sake, and later, I like to think, for my own, they made me welcome. Through them, I gained entrée to a number of exclusive establishments where a certain portion society congregated to gamble and disport themselves.

"Being penniless - the Dowager having cut off my allowance when I left Oxford - I was in need of a source of income, for I knew that I could not hang upon Sedley's sleeve forever. It is fortunate, then, that I discovered that I had an… aptitude for cards."

James snorted and Jack bowed mockingly.

"This ability enabled me to live quite comfortably, even after Sir Charles and I parted company over a slight contretemps regarding, ah, sleeping arrangements. I fancied his current mistress and he, it turned out, fancied me."

At this, delivered in the most offhand tone, James choked on a sip of wine. "Jack!"

"Well, it's the truth," Jack shrugged. "Taught me a trick or two, though, before we parted ways." He winked. "Still, I was not sorry to see the last of him. Randy old goat.

"Now, I had become acquainted with my mother, of course, and stayed with her for a short while, but she was deep in rehearsals for Southerne's 'The Fatal Marriage' and I could tell that I was de trop.

"Henry Jermyn, another of my father's friends, tried to interest me in a military career. He was full of tales of the glory to be gained in battle, but I wanted none of that. The shipping on the Thames had caught my interest, with its promise of a wider world. London of a sudden began to seem tawdry and confining.

"One day, on a whim, I signed on as assistant purser aboard a merchantman-privateer bound for the West Indies. And so farewell to Old England."

Jack raised his glass in toast and drained it, then glanced out the stern windows. "Come on," he said, rising. He led James out of the cabin and up to the quarterdeck.

The Pearl and all her crew save the watch were asleep - rocked on the bosom of the glassy ocean. No breath of wind stirred the slack sails. The sky was cloudless, blue-black and strewn with stars.

Shoulder to shoulder they stood unmoving as a pearly radiance began to grow on the eastern horizon, brighter and brighter by the moment. At last, the Moon appeared, lifting herself free of the sea's embrace and laying a molten path across the gentle swells.

"There's our road," Jack murmured. James nodded.

When the Moon had risen a hand's-breadth above the horizon, James stirred, his sleeve brushing Jack's.

"How about you?" he asked. "Any regrets?"

"Not a one," Jack replied.

James smiled. "Renegade." He felt, rather than heard, Jack's chuckle.

"That makes two of us, mate."

"And so it does."

 

 

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