Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 5 : The English Channel

The English Channel was choppy and gusty and they had to beat against a west wind. The ship crawled along and the landsmen received numerous lessons in tacking and wearing ship, often delivered with the sting of a starter. Thorton swore at them a great deal but had little to say otherwise. The inexperienced sailors fouled the lines and crimped the sails. At one point he even had the sensation of retrograde movement so thoroughly had they mismanaged the operation of the sails. The seasick landsmen did not take kindly to being corrected and three men were promptly sent to the gratings to be flogged. Bishop was a man who believed in immediate consequences. 

The hands were called to the pumps to wash the decks of vomit rather frequently. Bishop was a spit and polish sort of captain who wore his dress uniform on deck unless it rained. Fortunately, it rained often, which made cleaning easier, and excused the officers from formal dress. They were all grateful that Bishop had instituted three watches. It was an affordable luxury since England was not at war with anyone.

Thorton had more than the usual work. Perry was moderately seasick while Forsythe was so ill he could not come on deck for some of his watches. Perry and Thorton had to make up for him. Thorton was a little uneasy in his stomach but still able to eat while Perry grew peaked. Even Captain Bishop was ill, which made him surly. He railed against the helm for making too much leeway, and when it was pointed out to him that her shallow draft could not help it, snarled in response and threatened punishment. 

The only happy person was Midshipman Maynard. He was young enough to think pitching up and down the waves qualified as 'fun.' He spent a lot of time on the foredeck to enjoy it the more. He didn't have a jot of seasickness.

Perry and Thorton were both off watch on a particular afternoon. They had retreated to the questionable comfort of their cabin. The Ajax was heeled over enough that the starboard gun ports could not have been opened. A seam was working and letting in the sea so that a slowly growing puddle sloshed about the floor, but it was hardly the sort of thing to cause concern. They had put their backs into it and raised their sea chests up on billets finagled from the store of firewood. Perry was lying casually in his bunk with his feet propped on Thorton's seachest. He had stripped down to his smallclothes to save his uniform while they were laboring with the sea chests. Thorton had strung a hammock over his sea chest and was lying in it. There was no place to sit other than the sea chests and he couldn't bear to share such a tiny bunk with Perry. Perry, with the state of his stomach, couldn't bear anything.

"God, I hope Achmed is seasick. 'Twouldn't be fair if he wasn't," Perry opined.

"When was the navy ever fair?" Thorton replied philosophically.

"Well, we do have a position when most men of our seniority don't, so sometimes it works to our advantage," Perry pointed out.

"Yes, that's true. I was tired of half pay."

Perry laughed a little, then his stomach rolled. "God, you've been so tight since Bishop came aboard I was beginning to think you'd lost your sense of humor!"

Thorton sighed and the hammock swayed. "Bishop doesn't like me." 

"You ought to try to ingratiate yourself with him."

"How? You know I have no skill at that sort of thing."

"I could teach you. For one thing, smile when you meet him coming along the passageway. You come across very cold to someone who doesn't know you."

"I do?"

"Forsythe and Chambers think you're a dead fish. I stick up for you and say that Bishop has got you cowed, but they think you don't like them."

"Well, I don't. Forsythe is barely adequate and Chambers is the captain's pet."

"Damn it, Peter! You'll never get anywhere in life by letting people know you don't like them. Forsythe's all right as a person, even if he's not much of an officer. If I smile at him he does what I suggest. I can do his job and mine, too."

"He depends on you a lot."

"Promise me that you will smile at someone once a day." 

Thorton rolled his eyes. 

"Just once a day," Perry persisted.

Thorton knew he was not good at ingratiating himself with people. He preferred to keep to himself. "I don't think a smile will overcome my natural taciturn nature." 

"You talk to me so that proves you're capable. We'll take it step by step. Smile first. We'll go on from there."

"If you insist."

Perry held his stomach through another corkscrewing roll. He braced his feet against Thorton's sea chest. Water sloshed across the floor. Unbeknownst to either of them, Achmed was on the other side of the wall with his ear pressed to a glass and the glass to the wall. He was able to hear Perry and sometimes Thorton. Perry was less than a foot away from him with only the thinness of the bulkhead between them. Since Perry was busy controlling his stomach, Thorton spoke again.

"The captain thinks I'm shabby. I heard him say so to Chambers. He thinks you cut a fine figure, though. He said, 'Perry looks like a naval officer. We'll make something of him yet.'"

"Did he? I'm glad the old duffer is starting to cotton to me."

"I wish I had a new coat."

"Hey. I've got three, you know. I'll give you one of mine."

That piqued Thorton's interest. "I couldn't," he demurred.

"I've got a new dress coat and a decent frock coat. You can have my old dress coat." 

Thorton sat up. "Really? But you might need it." 

Being a poor lieutenant with no family and no line of credit, he'd gotten his ordinary uniform but had not been able to afford the dress coat, a coat he had not expected to need any time soon. Not when he was third from the bottom of seniority and had been furloughed on half pay shortly thereafter. Thank God he'd gotten promoted when he did; the war had ended almost immediately and after that there were no more promotions.

"Bah. I like my new coat very much. Bishop's never seen the old one; he'll never know."

So the sea chest was opened and the coat tried. It was a better coat than Thorton's, a little shorter than was stylish, but a decent fit. Perry was an inch shorter but with the same breadth in the chest. Thorton sat on the seat chest with his feet on the billet ends to keep his feet dry.

"There! You look much better. Very dashing. Who on earth made that old coat for you? It doesn't do you justice." 

Thorton considered himself in the glass and he had to admit that the cut flattered him. The white facings were very handsome. He smiled a little. "Thank you." 

On the other side of the wall Achmed withdrew the glass and pondered. So. The junior lieutenant was poor and condescended to because of it. He finally knew how to get to the man. He put away the glass and considered how to make use of his discovery.

The cabin was warm and stuffy with the two lieutenants in there. Spray rattled against the little window. Thorton put away and grabbed Perry's hand. "Roger, you're the best friend I ever had!" 

Perry grinned at him. He let Thorton hold his hand, then suddenly Thorton lifted it and kissed it. He wanted to do and say so much more—although a laconic man by nature, he was not completely silent, and the reduction in his speech enforced by the captain's judgment had been hard to bear. At the same time he thought he had done and said too much and he looked away. Perry was surprised but not offended by the hand-kissing. Men kissed each other's hands as a sign of respect and that was how he took it, and indeed, how Thorton meant it. It was only that he felt so much more than he intended to convey. Perry gave Thorton's hand a tug and patted the bunk for him to sit down. Thorton sat next to him.

"See? This is better. This is more like the Peter Thorton I used to know. You have to keep your lips locked around Bishop but not the wardroom. I'm sure Forsythe and Chambers will like you once you open up to them." 

Thorton swallowed hard. "I'm afraid that if I say anything, I'll say too much." 

Perry snorted. "Next time you see Forsythe, how about a simple, 'How are you feeling? I hope your seasickness is better.' The little human things endear a man—they think you don't care."

"Well, I don't! They'll get over it soon enough."

Perry rolled his eyes. He wrapped his arm around Thorton's shoulders and pulled him close. He put his lips conspiratorially close to Thorton's ear. "And that's why they don't like you. I don't especially care if they're sick or not, but I pretend to care and they like me for it. You should too." With his other hand he tapped his friend's chest right over the heart. "We call it 'being a gentleman.'" 

Thorton's heart hammered. Perry was being avuncular and nothing more; even though he was a couple of years younger than Thorton he acted like his older brother. Thorton licked dry lips.

Perry tapped his chest again. "Practice on me. Say, 'How are you feeling today, Roger?'"

Thorton whispered wordlessly, cleared his throat, and tried again, "How are you feeling today, Roger?"

Perry replied. "I'll be glad when I get my sea legs back. I was ashore seven months. What about you, Peter? How long did you have to wait for a commission?"

"Seven months."

Perry explained, "This is 'small talk.' That means you talk about small things. For example, you could have said, 'Seven months. I was on the old Dauntless.' Then they will know something about you. They might follow up by asking, 'Did you know old What's-His-Face, the cook? He's my mother's cousin's husband.' And now you have a conversation started."

"Oh." Thorton was intensely aware of the warmth of Perry's body next to him and the friendly arm around his shoulder. "I'd like to talk with you, if I could." He thought it came out well.

Perry gave him half a squeeze and lay down on the bunk and put his feet on Thorton's sea chest again. He propped his hands behind his head. "I'd like to talk to you, too. What shall we talk about?" He was smiling as he teased his friend.

Thorton turned to face him, but Perry's dishabille made him flush. The well turned calves bare to view, the strong thighs limned under the cotton drawers, the bulge of his groin concealed under a thin cloth, the thin white jersey hiked up to show a line of his belly . . . These things made the blood run more hotly through his body. He tried to find a way to approach his deeper feelings. "Do you like me, Roger?"

Perry laughed at that. "Yes, I like you." He grabbed the pillow and belted Thorton with it. "God's blood! After seven months of rooming together we're both still alive, so we must like each other." 

Thorton fended off the pillow. "Why do you like me? Other people don't like me, but you do. I wonder why. I'm not cadging for compliments; I just don't understand why some people take to me and some don't."

Perry considered the question. "You're a good officer. You work hard. You don't complain. You don't bother people more than necessary. You're dependable. You're intelligent. And once in a while, you even make me laugh!"

Thorton smiled to hear such a flattering assessment of himself. He leaned on his elbow next to his friend. He stared at the chest and shoulders that were so broad above the narrow waist. He wanted to reach out and touch that handsome body and feel its warm strength. "I'm very fond of you," he whispered. He didn't look at Perry's face as he said it.

"Well, I'm rather fond of you," Perry replied gruffly. "I thought you knew that."

Thorton's heart soared. He turned to look Perry full in the face. There was a genuine warmth in those brown eyes and they drew Thorton in. He slowly lowered his lips to brush against Perry's. As he did Perry's warm expression turned puzzled, then surprised. He stared in astonishment as Thorton gave him the lightest of kisses right on the lips. Thorton's eyes were closed and he lingered there a moment to savor the feeling. Perry said and did nothing. Thorton lifted up and opened his eyes and stared into Perry's. Suddenly Perry sat up and drew a deep breath.

"I'm not that fond of you," he said roughly.

Thorton's face turned scarlet. His heart plummeted and would have put a hole right through the bottom of the ship if it had weighed anything. He didn't speak. He sat up just as suddenly and sat trembling on the edge of the bed. He shouldn't have said anything. He shouldn't have done anything. He shouldn't have opened up. He shouldn't have listened to Perry. He should have kept himself clamped tight in iron self-control. It was better to be thought cold and left alone than to betray himself like this. Oh God, he was ruined! What if Perry told the others? He and Perry certainly couldn't be friends after this. He jumped up from the bed and moved as far away as the little room would permit. He didn't even notice the cold water soaking his shoes. 

Perry's eyes were wild and his jaw tense as he watched the other man. He grabbed his shirt and started pulling it on.

"I'm sorry," Thorton whispered. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt faint. The rolling of the ship pitched him backwards and his butt met the wall. He slid down to land in a heap on the floorboards. Water soaked his shins. He held his head in his hands. "I'm sorry, Roger. I'm sorry. I knew I shouldn't say anything. I knew I would say too much. Please don't tell anyone. I'll see if I can sleep with the midshipmen. I'll get out."

He reached blindly for his sea chest and started to drag it towards the door. Tears were welling up and he hated them, hated himself, hated the navy, hated England, hated the entire world. After what he had just done no one would want to associate with him. The men wouldn't respect him. He'd have to apply the tawse constantly to make them obey and Bishop would be breathing fire down his neck at every instant. They would never trust him and they'd tell coarse jokes at his expense. His career was over. There would never be a promotion or any consideration from his fellow officers. The future would be a hell not worth living.

Thorton's reaction gave Perry an even greater shock than his action. He put his hand on the sea chest to stop it moving. "Peter, I don't know what to say. I had no idea."

Thorton knuckled his eyes to blot out the tears that weren't falling. He swallowed again and took a deep breath. He mustn't cry. He hadn't cried in years. He mustn't prove himself a poltroon as well as a pervert. "I've tried to be a good officer, Roger. I've tried to do my work as well as possible without complaint. I've tried to be everything a naval officer should be. I've applied myself to my studies and striven to master every detail. All in the hope that some day, if some how, I gave myself away, maybe . . . it wouldn't matter. But it does matter. It will always matter. There is nothing I can do that will compensate for this."

Perry released the breath he didn't realize he was holding. "My God. 'Tis not just me, is it?"

Thorton shook his head. He dared to glance at his friend who was looking at him in horror. He hung his head in shame. He hated himself for giving himself away, but sooner or later it had to happen. He couldn't keep on this way. He was only human. There was nothing he could do to prove himself so that the British navy would overlook this once it came to light. He'd be whipped around the fleet and hanged. If he had been drunk and derelict on duty the punishment would not be so harsh. Even a drunken fool could enjoy a long and respectable career in the British navy. But for this there was no excuse and no forgiveness. He pushed his sea chest back against the wall. He wouldn't be needing it anymore.

"Good bye, Roger. I'm sorry." He rose to his feet and like a sleepwalker headed out the door.

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