Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 6 : Reprieve

Perry sat stunned on his bed, trying to absorb the immensity of the secret his best friend had kept from him for more than two years and seven months of living together while sharing the same bed, only to break his silence now. He felt supremely guilty as if it were somehow his fault—that as long as the secret had not been shared, it didn't exist. He had never dealt with something like this before. He'd heard about it. Lewd jokes, whispers about this officer or that, the randy rampages of men cooped up below decks for months at a time without female relief . . . . Never could he picture Thorton involved in anything like that. He had respected him.

Meanwhile Achmed heard the cabin door open and put his plan into action. He had not listened after the discussion after the coat since he was busy with his own schemes and was therefore ignorant of that which would have mortified Thorton had he known. He stepped into the wardroom casually, spotted Thorton walking toward the ladder with heavy steps, and said, "Good afternoon, lieutenant. You're looking well today." 

Thorton stopped and stared at him. Could the man not see it written in his face that he planned to go on deck and quietly drop himself over the gunwale so that there would be no cry of 'man overboard' and no rescue attempt? He thought about the Ajax sailing away while he foundered in the sea. He would swim—he knew how. He couldn't bring himself to simply sink and drown. He'd swim until he was exhausted, then drown. Thus did the urge to live war against the urge to die.

Achmed was smiling at him, waiting for his answer. "Good afternoon, sir," he forced himself to reply. Rote courtesy. He meant none of it. Please God, let Achmed not detain him. He couldn't simply walk away, Achmed would follow him. He couldn't commit suicide in peace with Achmed yammering at him. He forced himself to smile. Perry had made him promise to smile once a day, so he smiled at Achmed. His head was reeling.

Achmed smiled back. "I see you've been saving your good coat until we were under way. You look very dashing today." 

Not even a suicidal man is immune to flattery. Thorton blinked blankly at Achmed, then looked down at himself. The gold buttons marched evenly down his chest and the gold lace was in good condition, even if it was Perry's second best coat. Perry liked fine clothes and had spent the necessary money. Or one of his mistresses had. He would have to give it back before he killed himself. It would be ungrateful to take the man's coat with him when he would have no need of it where he was going. 

"Do you think so?" he asked, surprised out of both his taciturnity and his depression.

"You look every inch the naval officer," Achmed assured him. Thorton was listening. Achmed was pleased that he'd found the key to the man at last. As much as he smiled and blandished others, he hated to lose the secret games he played with them. Thorton was a challenge he was determined to overcome for the sake of his own pride as well as for any information that might be gotten out of him.

Thorton straightened up and squared his shoulders. His hair brushed the deckhead. "I have forgotten my hat," he said. His voice seemed distant and tinny to his ears.

"I wouldn't wear your good hat today, Mr. Thorton. It has been spitting rain and it would be a shame to spoil it. You'll want your greatcoat, too."

"I haven't got a good hat, sir," Thorton replied as honest as ever. It was a fault in his character that he had never learned to dissemble. His life would have been easier if he had.

Achmed feigned surprise. "You haven't! You must have reported immediately to your ship without taking time to shop for yourself. You're a very efficient officer, Mr. Thorton. But really, it is no sin for a man to think about himself a little. Come in, come in." He opened the door to opulence.

Had Thorton been in a normal state of mind he might have thought Achmed was laying it on a little thick. But he wasn't in his usual state of mind and Achmed had touched a nerve. He did not realize that his plan to drown himself in misery had been temporarily put on hold. He was curious about the man, his cabin, and whatever he would do or say next. For some unfathomable reason the wily Turk appeared to like him.

"Come in and shut the door. The weather's damp," Achmed called to him. So Thorton stepped onto the thick carpet and shut the door behind him. "Have a seat. I hope you don't mind sitting on a cushion. It is our custom." Achmed was lucky enough to have a dry cabin; Thorton experienced a moment of envy. Had there been no Achmed he would have the dry cabin himself and not been forced into intimacy with Perry. 

Thorton selected a gold cushion and sat down cross-legged like a Turk. He flipped his tails back and they stuck out at angles across the rug. The blue breeches pulled a little tight in that position; English clothes were not made for Turkish habits. Achmed dug through his luggage and moved parcels and tins. 

"When I first came to England people stared at me so much I thought I should buy some of your local fashions to blend in, but I'm afraid didn't work. I am a Sallee Turk and there's no hiding it. But as it happens, I have a hat and cloak and some other things I don't need." He produced the hat. It was a very good black hat with a trim of gold braid around the brim and a naval cockade on it. In truth, Achmed had used it as a disguise to nose about English dockyards. Unlike Thorton he was a very good dissembler. 

Artlessly he said, "I was taking it home as a souvenir, but I understand I've put you out of your cabin, so please accept it as a small compensation for the inconvenience I've caused you." 

Thorton was stunned and gratified. "'Tis a very fine hat, sir." He did not question why Achmed had a tricorn with a naval cockade. More than one landlubber had adopted a nautical air to flatter himself he shared something of the dashing look of a naval officer. Thorton was gratified that the man knew he'd troubled the lieutenant by taking over his cabin. Still Thorton made his demurrers. 

"'Tis damned civil of you, sir, but really, I can't accept."

Achmed put the hat in his hands and smiled warmly at him. "I insist."

Thorton clutched the hat to his breast while Achmed sat cross-legged on a cushion of his own right in front of him. He opened up the cabinet and said, "You are off-duty, yes? Now you can enjoy some Madeira. I admire your sobriety. It was very prudent of you to refrain from drinking when you knew you had to press men the night before we left."

Thorton was pleased to be called 'prudent' and ducked his gaze. "Just doing my duty, sir." He accepted the golden of cup of Madeira and sipped cautiously. Achmed poured a cup for himself, then secured the bottle and shut the doors again. The ship rolled along. "How long have you been in service, Mr. Thorton?"

He realized that this was what Perry called 'small talk' and that Achmed was good at it. Mindful of the lesson he had received, he replied, "I ran away to sea when I was sixteen. Three years of that, then I was pressed into the English navy. I was on the Marigold, so four years in the Spanish navy. All told I've been to sea thirteen years."

"You were in the Spanish navy?"

Thorton realized a foreigner most likely had not heard about that incident. "Oh, that. The Spanish stopped the Marigold in the West Indies, claimed we were supplying the Dutch, condemned our cargo, and pressed the lot of us. It was a scandal, I'm told, but we were at war with France, so aside from the usual protests, nothing much happened. The officers were released, but the rest of us were stuck."

"But you got away."

"I jumped overboard at Sint Maarten and swam to the French side of the harbor. A sugar schooner hauled me aboard and wouldn't give me back. I got to France that way, and from there, an English wine sloop took me back home."

"What an adventure! You must speak fluent Spanish then." 

Thorton drank more of the very good wine and nodded. "And a little French too."

Achmed was very curious now. He Thorton talking. "So you would be twenty-nine now. My son is almost that old. He's married and has children. Are you married, Mr. Thorton?"

"I'm married to the service," Thorton replied. He did not correct the man regarding his age since his birthday was coming up soon anyhow.

Achmed wasn't sure if the strait-laced young officer was joking or serious. He smiled. "Yes, I've heard it said that a British naval officer should never marry. It is a hard duty. In Sallee things are much better. Our officers and corsairs see their wives and children quite often. I miss mine. I have been away a long time. But I will be home in a month, God willing."

"Where do you live, sir?"

"Zokhara, the most beautiful city on the Middle Sea. Your health, lieutenant." He tipped his cup high but drank little.

Thorton drank deeply. "And yours," he replied politely.

"Pity you won't be coming all the way with me. We could stop at Madeira. Wine is as cheap as beer on the island." 

"You've been to Madeira?"

"Oh yes, many times. Have you?"

"Not to go ashore. The Spanish take on water and supplies there, sir."

Achmed smiled and kept silent. The conversation stalled. Thorton slowly realized that he was expected to say something. He cast about in his mind for something to add. "Have you been to France before?"

"Many times. I went over often when I was young. I used to be a Sallee rover myself. When I was much younger. After that, a fat merchant." He patted his belly and laughed good-naturedly.

That got Thorton's attention. "You were a corsair, sir?"

Achmed grinned self-depreciatingly. "I wasn't always fat. Or married. Or old." His good humor was infectious.

"I don't think you're old, sir."

"But you do think I'm fat and married!" Achmed teased him.

Thorton was horrified. "Oh, no, sir! I didn't mean that at all! I would never mean to imply such a thing, sir!"

Achmed couldn't resist teasing him a little further. He feigned surprised. "You think no one would marry a fat old man like me?"

"Sir!" Thorton was aghast. He was offending their guest and Bishop would have him caned for it.

Achmed patted Thorton's knee. "Forgive me. I have been amusing myself at your expense." 

Thorton blinked. Slowly it registered that he had been made an object of mirth and he grew hot. "Sir, if you think I—"

The Turk raised a hand and cut him off. "Peace be upon you, lieutenant. Peace," he said more softly. "It is you who must forgive me. Enforced idleness on a ship has bored me, and I disported myself at your expense. It was unkind of me. I beg your forgiveness." He bowed low to the lieutenant. He watched through his lashes to see how Thorton took having a great dignitary humble himself to him.

Thorton was baffled. "You've no need to apologize to me, sir. I'm only a lieutenant."

Achmed rose and raised his glass. "You won't be a lieutenant for long. Cheers." He clinked cups with the Englishman.

"Cheers," Thorton replied. Having that damnable streak of honesty about him, he added, "I am the third most junior lieutenant in the navy, so it will be a long time before I get a promotion. I don't have any patrons or influence." 

Achmed, being a retired corsair, was a good judge of seamen. He knew that Perry and Thorton were worth their salt and was quite surprised to find that Thorton was such a junior lieutenant. "Did you have trouble with the examinations? I understand the mathematics are damnably difficult."

"No, the mathematics were easy. I passed the examination a long time ago. But I had been an enlisted hand, so I was stuck at midshipman for a long time."

"You were promoted to midshipman based on merit?" Achmed made a note that this man thought the fiendishly obdurate mathematics of navigation were 'easy.' 

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton wasn't sure where this conversation was going or why he was saying so much about himself. Still, he was a person of no consequence, so talking about himself seemed much safer than say, talking about how many frigates were anchored at Plymouth, which was one of many details that the wily Achmed had extracted from the other officers.

He looked into his cup and cursed himself for a fool. He was being pumped for information. He had been sunk so far in his own personal misery that he had not realized it. He was holding a gold cup of very good wine in one hand and a very good hat in the other hand, a hat which he had already accepted and so couldn't give back even though he didn't want any more. He set the cup on the carpet. "Please pardon me, I have something to attend to."

Achmed rose with him and smiled. "Of course. Thank you for spending a little time with me. I was bored but you have lightened my day." 

Thorton said, "Sir," and fled.

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