Dunham 36: Chapter Thirty-Six

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April 28, 1780
Rathbone House
Mayfair, London

Celia did not know quite how she expected Woman to act after two months aboard a privateer vessel after having been lashed with a cat and set to cleaning up after one hundred twenty-four people’s bodily wastes, but whatever humility she had displayed on the Thunderstorm had vanished.

“Girl!” Woman snapped at a poor maid who’d brought tea to the morning room. “Do not turn your back on your betters!”

Considering she’d turned her back on Woman to heed a marchioness’s request—moreover, the marchioness who paid her wages—surely it was understandable. Celia’s mother and aunt exchanged unamused glances from across the room, which Woman missed. Celia sat quietly, her hands primly folded in her lap. She pinned her gaze on the rug.

Soon tea was left to Aunt Harriet to pour.

“Who are you?” Woman demanded in Celia’s general direction.

“This,” said Aunt Harriet smoothly, “is my niece, Miss Celia Bancroft. I thought I had performed the proper introductions, but in any case, there it is again. Celia, please greet Mr. and Mrs. Mocksling. Again.”

Celia kept her eyes averted and nodded once. “Pleasure,” she whispered.

“You look familiar. Have I met you?”

“Prudence—” Prudence? Celia almost laughed. “She is only six weeks out of France. You can’t possibly have done.”

“Oh. Well. What’s wrong with her?”

“She is . . . tender, Prudence. I would that you be mindful of her feelings.”

Woman harrumphed and said something under her breath about places one put lunatics, but that was the last of that.

“Have we met?” Man asked, directed toward Mary in the manner of a man besotted and searching for something—anything—to say.

“Not to my recollection,” she replied tremulously and sipped at her tea.

Betimes Celia thought Mary could seduce the stars from the skies just by standing on deck at night.

When at sea, Mary wore breeches and shirt as did the rest of the crew, her hair artfully braided and pinned, her face and arms tanned a beautiful gold. In the last weeks, her tan had faded, but at the moment, her hands and arms were covered in white lead powder. Additionally, her robe à la polonaise was an ugly green hue that made her appear even more sickly than she was said to be. One untidy curl escaping from her mob cap appeared to be chestnut streaked with gray, but in fact, her pure white hair was powdered with cocoa.

But Man was staring at her, entranced, and Celia was certain that at any moment he would recognize—

“Cuthbert!” Woman snapped, then helped herself to a biscuit. Celia wondered if she could sneak two or three more biscuits than she was allowed. “Do not stare. ’Tis rude.”

“Yes, dear.”

Certainly, Man’s spine had not stiffened any during his time aboard the Thunderstorm, which Celia found rather sad. And she still wanted another biscuit.

“Celia,” Aunt said. “Lady Haversham’s salón is this evening. Did you remember?”

“No, Aunt.”

“Ah, I thought not. I would not have burdened you with the task of attending since there will be no music, but Lord Covarrubias sent word today he looked forward to seeing you there.”

Celia sighed.

“I have it on good authority Lord Tavendish was invited, so you might have the opportunity to meet him. I hope you find him more to your liking than Lord Covarrubias, since,” Aunt cast a pointed glance at Woman, “he so recently lost his fiancée.”

Man sighed, but Woman stared straight ahead as if she had nothing to apologize for. “What time will we be leaving for the event, my lady?” she asked.

The marchioness’s right eyebrow rose all the way to her mobcap. “Why, Prudence,” she purred. “Did you happen upon your Season’s wardrobe in the quarter hour between Mélisande Gables and Rathbone House? My husband informed me you are without funds or credit.”

The woman finally had the grace to show some embarrassment. “The pirate,” she said tight-lipped, “took all we had, including our letters of credit.”

“And that is what pirates do, dear. Well, never mind. I shall collect all the necessary invitations for your entrés as soon as you attire yourselves properly.” Once again, Celia thought to confide in her aunt. “Fetch Birdie,” the marchioness said to the attending maid.

“She has flown, Sister,” Mary said.

“Flown? Flown where?”

“She was swept away into the arms of a veritable Lothario who made her great promises of romance and passion. We were shocked.”

Aunt snorted. “Romance. Passion. Girls these days! Well, never mind that. I shall attempt to find a maid willing to attend you—”

“Never mind, Sister,” Mary said. “Celia has only been able to tolerate Birdie, so I will tend her, though it pains me to pull her stays. The girl is irreplaceable.”

“Ah, but stays that are too large are. We shall go order more this afternoon. Celia, please go to your rooms and rest a bit, as I would like to see you at your brightest for Lord Tavendish.”

“Yes, Aunt.”

Celia’s mouth twitched when, after plodding through the drawing room, she heard Aunt mutter, “Not that it will matter.”

•  •  •

Long after the dreadfully boring salón (which Tavendish did not attend) (during which Celia sat between her aunt and Rafael) (suffering discreet strokes of his fingers in her palm), she lay beside her sleeping mother on the edge of the bed, her left arm caught under her body and her right hanging down. Her right foot also dangled off the bed, as she struggled to stay awake until three, when she would check for Rathbone’s presence in his library. Unbidden, the disasters that had befallen her since she stepped into this house eight weeks ago began to tumble into her mind.

Each situation was a seemingly insurmountable problem.

No such thing as ‘can’t be done,’ Lass. You just have to be prepared to take the consequences.

Each path of escape was blocked by something.

When you can’t go ’round, gun your way through. You just have to let God sort it out.

Each debt she had incurred conflicted in such a manner as to render the other impossible.

Some debts cannot be repaid. You just have to learn to live with the regret and hope for forgiveness.

Her most trusted ally had threatened to turn on her if he didn’t get what he wanted—her as his wife.

Alliances are tricky to manage, Missy. You just have to be happy sailing alone.

But the privateers had needed her and Maarten to clear their path. Maarten needed her help to take bigger ships and avenge himself on Britain. They had all needed Judas to cover their escape out of Chesapeake. And Judas had needed them to put down the mutiny he’d so feared and to transport his gold. Without alliance, they would all be dead.

There is no future in this life, Whelp. I want something better for you than the deck of a pirate ship, and to my mind, Khersis is it. You can keep your freedom, have the love of a man who adores you for who you are and not what he can make you into, and you’ve no need to worry about babes dragging your britches.

There had been no future there for her, either. Life was cheap—even the life of an honorable, righteous moneylender.

If she escaped this mire, she would pay her debt to Solomon and she fully expected to be gunned down by a sea full of Muslim pirates after doing it. But she would, because that debt was worth her life many times over.

Yet she must pay her debt to Maarten before she left, which she could not do with Rathbone and the Mockslings in the house, Rafael in her ear, and Bancroft now in possession of her very freedom in a more threatening way than anyone else had ever had. She could not rely on her wits or sword arm this time. Her only escape was to take Mary and run, never to return, leaving the debt forever unpaid.

In Celia’s mind, there was no cowardice or dishonor in running when it was prudent. What she did not want to do was inform Maarten that she could not do what he’d asked—and then immediately set sail for Algiers to find Solomon’s wife.

And . . . she wanted, so very much, to see—to love—Judas just once more before she died.

Smitty and Solomon were in Rotterdam.

Rafael’s touch brought her no solace.

Talaat was dead.

Judas was lost to her.

Tears began to slip down her cheeks when she realized whom she wanted—needed—most right now.

The wheeled trundle he’d built with his own hands, finding the softest mattress and pillows, dressing it in the finest cottons, and purchasing the best books to stack on the clever little shelf he’d built for her things—the shelf that hung on the bulkhead just above the sea chest he’d also crafted for her, then carefully filled with her own set of seaman’s tools.

The evenings spent being read to by swinging lantern light, falling asleep in his lap to the rough rhythm of his voice, waking up in the morning in her trundle that had been rolled to her space with her sea chest and shelf, bolted to the floor for the night, her fat calico cat draped around her head.

The merciless application of the most foul-smelling ointment on Earth to her face, arms, calves, and feet.

Don’t go without this or your hat, Missy. You’ll not last an hour in this sun with your skin like mine. And stop cutting off your sleeves and britches.

The days spent staring into the horizon with a sextant to her eye, his left hand on her back and his right hand pointing at exactly what he wanted her to see, his gruff patience as comforting as the rolling of the deck beneath her feet.

Papa, aren’t you going ashore with the others?

Nay, Whelp. Somebody has to stay here and make sure you learn your stars.

The mornings spent with quill and ink and foolscap, practicing her French and Arabic.

Playing hide-and-seek and tag with the ship’s boys, being taught all manner of card and dice games (and how to cheat at them) by the old tars who never lost their superstition of having a female aboard, but slowly and reluctantly succumbed to childish charm.

Learning how to swim in a dropped sail, safe even without him there, his hand underneath her, teaching her to trust the ocean not to let her drown.

’Tis time for your own cabin, now, Jack. You’ve outgrown your bed. And I need to take you into Casa Blanca, to see a woman.

Why?

Ah . . . well . . . that is to say— Oh, never you mind. She’ll let you know when we get there.

Awakening in Rafael’s bed to the pounding on their apartment doors.

Covarrubias!

Ah, Captain Dunham, I’ve been expecting you. Come in, come in, and feliz navidad. Since you roused us out of bed at dawn, Celia is, at this moment, scrambling to clothe herself.

I’ve half a mind to call you out.

And the other half knowing you’ll not win a duel with me. We’ll both end up dead and where’s the victory in that?

Oh, Papa! I missed you so much!

Aye, well, merry Christmas, Lass. Good to see ye, but I’m nae pleased by this, I’ll have ye know. Hie yerself off to the ship whilst yer professor an’ me have a chat.

Sí, and we shall begin our chat by discussing which half of your mind was not engaged when you left her here alone and at any stranger’s mercy.

Celia sniffled into the darkness and wiped her nose on the linen.

The sweetmeats and presents and decorations aboard the Iron Maiden—the crew welcoming her home, if only for Christmas before the next term began . . .

We’ll be after you in the summer again, Lass. I cannot do without you then, as the pickings be so great and I need all hands.

Naught but a great lie: the Iron Maiden functioned no better or worse for her presence or absence.

I ’spose it’s no use to tell you to stay away from him?

But Papa, I love him!

Aye, well, we’ll see how long that lasts. Don’t get yourself with a babe.

I won’t.

The nights spent on the deck of the Iron Maiden in sword and dagger play with him, being pushed and prodded and taunted until, at fourteen, she was almost as good as any man on ship—but not him. Then, at nineteen, after having survived five years of Rafael’s brutal tutelage, knocking him off his feet and putting the tip of her sword to his throat. The corner of his mouth had turned up, but the moonlight tricked her into thinking she saw approval in his eyes. He’d pushed her sword away and stood to brush himself off.

Not a bad showin’, Jack. Not bad a’tall.

“Celia,” her mother whispered, turning over and placing her hand on her back. “Are you crying?”

“Aye,” she choked.

“Judas?”

“Nay.”

She was a fool to hope Dunham would show up to extricate her from this tangle. He had not been in Coimbra to provide the protection she had needed. He hadn’t been in Casa Blanca to rescue her and Talaat from Skirrow. He hadn’t been in Virginia to cover her escape from Chesapeake Bay. He had been in Cairo after she had fully healed from her flogging—to set her down and force her fend for herself.

She was now in a tighter spot than she had ever found herself. Thus, she would have to live through it or die, the way she always had.

But this was law and courts and politics . . . and she knew nothing of any of it.

What would he know?

“Then what is it, my love?”

She sighed. Hiccuped. Speaking the words would not fetch him magically to London, but she whispered them anyway:

“I want my papa.”

• • •
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