Friday, July 17, 2009
Chapter 22 : Aperitif
Thorton shaved, brushed his good coat, selected his best linen shirt and wool stockings (he didn't own any silk), polished his shoes, got his good hat out of the storage tin, wore his best trousers (that were not very good at all), and studied himself in the mirror. He made a presentable figure. Perry remained with the ship. Thorton was secretly relieved that he would not have to sit through dinner with him. Forsythe got the honor of accompanying Bishop and Thorton. MacDonald, being a mere boatswain, had not been invited.
They took the captain's gig and rowed ashore. That is to say, a dozen sailors and a cockswain rowed them ashore. From there they walked half a mile to the inn that had been hired for the event. A pair of marines accompanied them to guard against footpads. The British arrived at the inn at the stroke of seven—they were naval officers, they were punctual. Captain Tangle was also a naval officer with an equally well developed sense of punctuality. He limped up with Foster and a pair of Sallee marines as escorts. Midshipman Kaashifa carried the lantern. Sadly, the Frenchmen who made up the majority of the guests manifested the usual dilatory nature of the French naval service. Not one of them arrived on time. Accordingly, the Englishmen and the Sallee rovers stood in the yard staring at each other for a while.
Bishop was very well dressed in his best wig and dress uniform (he had more than one). His hat was fresh and adorned with gold lace and a bit of ostrich feather around the brim. His white gloves were neat. He looked quite distinguished. Tangle was tall and lean in his Turkish coat of French blue and white turban. His boots came up to his knees and he didn't have any gloves. The white collar of his shirt was buttoned up in a simple standing collar without any stock or ornament. He stood with his weight on the right leg to spare the wounded one. He looked like a peacock in his blue and gold.
Tangle spoke first. "Peace be upon you. Captain Bishop, yes?" His English was accented, but understandable.
"Captain Horace Bishop of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax, if you please," Bishop replied. He did not bow.
Tangle tilted his head in acknowledgment and by that small gesture claimed the superior status. "Isam Rais Tangueli, Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara. I know already Mr. Thorton, but I do not know the other lieutenant."
"This is Mr. Albert Forsythe, second lieutenant," Bishop replied unwillingly.
Forsythe didn't know whether to salute, bow, or stand to attention. He chose the latter. "Your servant, sir," he replied.
Tangle continued, "And this is Lt. Gerald Foster, of the Santa Teresa."
Bishop's eyes drilled into the redheaded man. "An Englishman!"
Foster touched his turban in salute. "Formerly. A Sallee rover now."
"Renegade." Bishop spat out the word.
Foster sulked at him, but Tangle said, "Let us go to dinner and insult each other over the foie gras like civilized men." He swept through the door first and his party followed him. Bishop fumed and came in second.
Inside the Sallee consul came to greet Tangle. He was a man of average height with a soft middle but a still powerful build. The short hair below his turban was grey. His full-skirted coat was brown and worn open over an embroidered waistcoat in pink and buff, thereby combining Turkish and European fashions. His turban was white. Achmed was with him and resplendent in a silver and midnight blue coat with a jeweled broach in the front of his turban. The three Salletines smiled and kissed each other on the cheek like Frenchmen. They spoke warmly in Turkish.
The consul switched to French so they could all understand him. "I am Fudaid bin Rabah, the Sallee consul for the Atlantic coast of France, and I am delighted to meet you all. Isam Rais, your men can refresh themselves in the common room. It is through that door over there. Let me show you the way to the salon." He lead Tangle and Foster to the right. Bishop fumed more as he was left behind again.
Fudaid returned and greeted them. He gave Bishop a polite enough welcome but didn't kiss him. He turned his attention to Thorton. He gave the English lieutenant a single peck on the cheek. "Isam Rais has spoken very highly of you, Lt. Thorton. The British navy is lucky to have such a fine officer." He spoke better French than Thorton.
It was bad enough coming in second to a Turkish corsair, but Bishop did not care to be upstaged by his most junior lieutenant. He broke in, "Mr. Thorton is the least of my lieutenants."
The consul kept a politically necessary smile on his face. "Then your lieutenants must be paragons. How very fortunate for you. May I show you to the salon?"
So Bishop had to go. Thorton trailed after. He reflected sadly that he had not said a word but was already in trouble.
A few French officers were resident in the inn and so were on time to the festivities, if only because it gave them first chance at the wine and appetizers. They pounced on Tangle to give their compliments and ply him with questions. They ignored Bishop. Thorton and Forsythe remained silently by Bishop's side.
"Wine, sir?" A waiter brought a tray over to Bishop. Bishop took a glass of red.
"Where are the rest of the guests?" Bishop asked.
"You are early, sir," the waiter replied.
Bishop pulled out a gold watch. "Early! 'Tis fourteen minutes after the hour already!"
The waiter shrugged and offered the tray to Thorton, but the lieutenant shook his head. He looked around the room in search of distraction. "Oh say, that's a fine portrait." It featured a beautiful woman in a low cut pale rose gown. Bishop turned to look and the waiter explained who it was. Thorton slipped away.
A carriage pulled up outside and a middle-aged woman in a pale blue gown and diamonds was handed down. She wore a high white wig and fur wrap. She too entered the salon. She was introduced to Tangle and gave him her compliments in French, but Tangle, with a glass of wine in his hand, smiled and bowed politely. The officers around him were polite enough, but she was wise to them.
"I see I am interrupting you gentlemen. You are no doubt discussing arcane matters like double jammed jibs or some such thing."
She moved away and the consul brought her over to meet Captain Bishop. She was Lady Somebody-or-Other, but Thorton's French was not good enough to catch it all. Bishop and the Lady both wanted somebody to talk to, so wound up talking to each other. Bishop had an excellent command of French and was soon engaged in a voluble conversation. More guests arrived. Forsythe abandoned his countrymen to get wine and canapés. Thorton slipped away. He did not like fine affairs of this sort, and not just because he had rarely been invited to them. It was one thing to talk to his fellow officers, but what could he say to the upper crust?
The inn was built in a U-shape around a courtyard. It was not much of a courtyard, but it had a stone well and a pear tree that was losing the last of its blossoms. Their sweet mild scent hung in the evening air. It was dark and pleasant under the tree and he found a pair of wooden benches there. He settled on one and watched the lights of the inn. More carriages arrived and the volume of conversation grew louder inside. Nobody missed him. It was developing into a very full house and it became obvious why the consul had hired the inn to accommodate his dinner party. There must be more than fifty people there. The common room was equally full with their attendants. He could see French naval uniforms, gowns, and once in a while, a turban go past the windows. It was like a puppet show without any words.
Tangle had a rosy view of the world after drinking a couple of glasses of good red wine, but it was very warm inside and he was getting tired of answering the same questions each time somebody new arrived. He slipped out to the courtyard. It was so dark under the pear tree that he didn't know anyone was there until he had ducked under a low branch.
Thorton could see him quite clearly as he approached. He rose and said, "Good evening, rais."
Tangle startled and peered. "Peter?"
Tangle settled on the bench next to him. He patted it for Thorton to sit down. He addressed him in Spanish. "So this is where you've run off to. You should be inside letting the French lionize you. They are hungry for heroes since they don't have any of their own. I've been offered a commission in the French navy. Admiral Renaud seems a decent old man."
Thorton gave him a startled look. "Are you going to take it?"
Tangle shook his head. "Of course not." Casually he wrapped his arm around Thorton's waist.
Thorton froze and his eyes went wide. He said nothing.
Tangle smiled and said, "But I am going to kiss you, Peter. I've wanted to for a very long time."
He proceeded to do so. Right on the mouth. Thorton sat paralyzed with disbelief. He trembled. What if somebody looked out the window and saw them? He wanted to say something but his throat was dry and words were impossible. He found himself responding to the kiss with more ardor than was seemly. Tangle's arm pulled him closer and he squeezed his eyes shut. This could not be happening. Did he want it to happen? He wanted something to happen for sure. He was tired of being alone and lonely. Other men had sweethearts or harlots to occupy them, but Thorton had no one.
He had the navy, his captain, his reputation, and his life. It should be enough. He turned his face away. Tangle continued kissing his neck. Flushed with triumph and wine, the corsair felt entitled to receive whatever delights Fate might bestow upon him. Finally, after two years of privation and misery he would have his reward. It took him a few moments to realize that Thorton was no longer cooperating. Puzzled him, he looked up to see if somebody had come out to interrupt them, but nobody had.
"Is something wrong?"
Thorton sat very stiffly. "I cannot kiss you, sir."
Thorton shot him a look of disbelief. So many reasons! All of them obvious. He started with a simple one. "You are married, sir."
Tangle shrugged. "I'm a Muslim. I'm allowed more than one as long as I treat them all fairly."
Thorton gaped, then replied. "I am not a Muslim. Besides, 'tis a sin, sir."
"A sin? No. A temptation, perhaps, but not a sin."
"It is a felony punished by death, sir."
It was Tangle's turn to gape. "Kissing is a felony? What a benighted and backwards country you come from, Peter." His wine-soaked brain could not comprehend the enormity of such barbarism.
"Not kissing. Buggery!" Thorton was exasperated by the captain's amorous advances and drunken stupidity.
"No worse a sin than fornication or drunkenness. I do believe the average English seaman regards those as entitlements, not reasons for censure."
"'Tis not a crime where you come from?"
Tangle shook his head and gave him a disbelieving look. "Only a minor one. Unless you force yourself on someone, or practice it with an animal or child. Besides, even then it takes four witnesses to prove it, which is nearly impossible."
Thorton stared in astonishment. A country where he could live without fear of being hanged? "But . . . is there not public censure?"
"I suppose there is. I've never worried about it. You shouldn't either." He waggled a finger at Thorton.
Thorton resorted to his initial objection. "But you're married."
"My wife is a marvelous woman. She tolerates it. She knows my love affairs with men never last." He sighed at that. And because he'd had been drinking and because he liked and trusted Thorton, he said, "I've been lonely for someone, you know. In spite of my reputation as a very great sodomite, I haven't had very many lovers. Finding a man that shares my proclivities is hard. But you do, don't you, Peter?" His arm squeezed Thorton's waist.
Thorton's mind was topsy turvy. These were matters he had never discussed with anyone. The subject was closed with Perry. He yearned to speak and to be heard with understanding instead of condemnation or embarrassed silence. He looked away to conceal his expression. "I do, sir. But I am an English officer. The Articles of War punish it with death. We must never speak of it."
Tangle hugged his waist again. "I want to speak of it, Peter. I have wanted you ever since I first laid eyes on you. You're handsome." He took Thorton's hat off and set it aside on the bench in preparation for kissing him again.
Thorton leaned away in alarm.
"Don't you like me? I think you do. I've seen your eyes following me. And I've seen how your face softens when we are alone. I like you, Peter. I want to be your lover."
Thorton couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're drunk, sir. You won't remember any of this tomorrow."
"I'm not drunk, although I admit my tongue has gotten a little loose and my lips are numb. And I will remember because I've been thinking about you for days. I've been waiting for you to admit that you feel the same, but you're too proud to do it. So I have decided to set my course and make chase. You won't get away this time, Peter."
Thorton shook his head. "No thank you, captain."
Tangle was not used to being refused. Although durance vile in the galleys had humbled him compared to his previous state, he had retained a good opinion of himself. He searched himself to discover some fault that might explain the Englishman's resistance.
"Have I lost my looks? I was accounted a handsome man before I went into the galleys."
Thorton shook his head.
"You find me handsome then?"
"You're rather dark and thin," Thorton replied.
Tangle began to shrivel. He had come to the party very full of himself, but Thorton's coldness was reducing his swelled head to something less than its usual dimensions. Not handsome? Too dark and thin? If a seaman, who was accustomed to some very homely faces, found him disagreeable to look at, what would his wife think when she saw him?
He had always counted on certain things being constant: his looks, the attraction others felt for him, the passion of his wife. He swallowed hard. He let go of Peter and looked at the back of his hands, but they were so dark he could barely discern them in the night shadows. What if she didn't want him anymore? What if they'd given him up for dead and his wife had remarried? It was wine that let him plunge from such heights to such a low. Usually such thoughts would never cross his mind. He stared bitterly at the lights of the inn where he should be celebrating his freedom and victories.
Finally he asked, "Do you even like me, Peter?"
"Yes, sir. I do. You are a fine captain. You are very brave and skilled. It has been a pleasure to serve under you."
Tangle felt a little better. "Is that all you feel? A professional esteem, nothing more?"
Thorton hesitated, then added, "I like you as a person. You're very easy company."
Tangle cheered up a bit. "We are friends, then?"
"I think we might be," Thorton replied cautiously.
Tangle smiled. "I could use a friend, Peter. I don't have many of them."
Thorton found himself smiling too. "I don't either."
"Then you should not be so stiff and standoffish with me!" Once again Tangle leaned in. He caught Thorton's chin in his hand so that he could not turn away. "All I want is a kiss. Surely that is no sin? I promise I won't take any liberties you don't want me to take." His face was very close to Thorton's.
Thorton tried to shake his head. "No, sir. I have a weak will and I'm afraid I'd do what I'd regret."
Tangle was losing patience. He did not like the self-doubt he had experienced, and he did not like Thorton being coy with him. "I could force you, " he threatened.
Thorton replied bitterly, "You wouldn't be the first."
The words hung between them like a poison veil. They shocked Tangle out of his peevishness. "Peter, I'm sorry. I am sorry, Peter. I shouldn't have said that. It was wrong of me. I'm sorry!"
Thorton's jaw set and he pulled away from the corsair's grasp. He replied flatly, "It was a long time ago. So you see, I understand perfectly well why such an unnatural vice is forbidden to men of the British navy. I am in perfect agreement with the Articles of War."
Tangle shook his head. "It doesn't have to be that way, Peter. It shouldn't be that way. When two men want to do it, it is quite pleasurable. I would never hurt you. You have my word on it."
Thorton shrugged. "I can see why a man who perpetrates such a deed might enjoy it, but his victim never can. It is too painful, too humiliating, too harmful to his health. It shames him forever and he must collude with his abuser to keep the secret or be ruined. That makes him vulnerable to blackmail and worse."
"No, Peter. You're talking about rape. That's completely different."
Thorton was getting stubborn. He folded his arms across his chest. "I won't do it. Not for you or anyone."
Tangle tried to pry one of his hands loose, but Thorton clamped his arms tight against his chest. Tangle wheedled, "You don't have to. There are other ways to make love. I can show you."
Thorton looked at him in sullen surprise. "What? Oh, you mean the French vice. That's disgusting."
Tangle said in exasperation. "Kissing, Peter. That's all I have proposed to you. I do recall mentioning it."
Thorton blushed. "Oh, well, that's true. You did."
"Will you kiss me?"
"Kissing leads to other things."
"Upon my honor, I swear it won't."
Thorton knew Tangle well enough to know that he was a man who kept his word, and more importantly, that he was a man strong enough to keep his word when tempted otherwise. "Ye-esss . . ."
The corsair kissed him and this time Thorton let it happen even though he trembled in fear. He eyes closed and his lips pressed back. He lingered in the kiss; he wanted to savor every moment and make it last as long as he could. His arms went around the rover. Tangle's shoulders were broad and strong and the corsair smelled clean and male. How good it felt to kiss and be kissed! All these years he had been forced to keep himself under control with his deepest desires hidden and his natural urges locked in darkness never to be released.
Tangle gave a little groan. He desperately wanted to do much more than just kiss. But he'd given a promise. He felt the way Thorton's body inclined to his and knew that if he broke his word, Thorton would let him do what he pleased. His hands tightened on the Englishman's body. Oh, the temptation! But he had given his word. Thorton would never forgive him if he didn't keep it. He broke the kiss at last.
Thorton was flushed and flustered and entirely at a loss for words. He rubbed his hand over his face and pulled at his collar. His body ached for more, but he was afraid. He had better go before he caved in entirely. Yes, he had better get up. Right now . . . just as soon as he could make his legs move. He was about as miserable as a man could be, almost as miserable as the time he had blurted out his secret to Perry. It was acutely uncomfortable to be flushed with concupiscence and racked with guilt at the same time. He was lonely and wanted someone, anyone, to make him feel better. And there was Tangle, willing to do it. He pushed him away.