[For more info on Nevis, click here.]
The house made a kind of L-shape, presenting its long verandah to the road. Behind, facing the sea, a small courtyard was ringed with low bushes, and a green lawn spread away to the white sand beaches. Hollee cut up onto the road so that he approached the front door. The carriages which had passed him were just disappearing into the stable yard, led by a pair of capable Negroes, and Hollee could hear the voices from the party already started drifting up from the courtyard.
He went into the house, which had its shutters open in the evening. Candles gently wafted in the breeze, the white curtains fluttering in front of freshly whitewashed walls. He handed his hat to Nebuchanezzer who made a low bow and and murmured that the party was “just through there.” Hollee had been to the house several times. To his left was the family wing with its bedrooms. To the right was the kitchen and dining room, the detached “summer kitchen” a few yards further on. As he walked through the double French doors he passed the library and the sitting room, where he had taken tea on numerous occasions with Fanny. The parlor was filled with fresh flowers and unlit candles, waiting the moment later in the evening when the party would move inside. The harpsichord was open, signaling there would be music later. Outside, lanterns glowed in the darkness, and a string trio beckoned him onto the patio. Small tables and chairs had been scattered around, each with their own candle and bouquet. A buffet stood along one end of the patio, groaning under platters of food: sweetmeats, cold cuts, fruits, vegetables soaked in vinegar, small candies.
Fanny had not underestimated her uncle’s party, for twenty or more people stood outside already, gathered in small groups. Hollee’s first impression was of a multitude of gold braid catching the failing light. The men outnumbered the women, but each group boasted at least one member of the fairer sex, all the better for the naval commanders to boast of their exploits. The ladies were doing their best to lend excitement to the stories, gasping and waving fans as each turn was described. Mary was already hanging on the arm of a particularly tall captain. Fanny, however, was holding onto Josiah and speaking in turn to a captain and a lieutenant who had taken up stations on either side of her. They took it in turns to attack the buffet table with all the enthusiasm men who hadn’t seen unpreserved food in weeks could muster.
Behind the sparkling, chattering groups, silent servants passed, filling glasses with white wine or taking empty plates as required. Hollee found a glass of wine pressed into his hand and he moved forward into the assembly. Since Fanny was the only person he kenned at this point (save Mary, and she was clearly not missing him), he headed in her direction. As he moved through the gathering, he could not help shooting covert glances to the right and left of him. Who was the new captain of the Boreas? Hollee nervously sipped at his wine. He rather thought it might be the tall captain Mary was hanging on. IT was clear the man knew no one, and he looked extremely uncomfortable. Hollee looked at him again, took another gulp of wine and found himself standing in front of Fanny.
“There you are, Captain,” Fanny said, looking pleased. “I was beginning to think I might have to give you up.” At this moment Josiah gave a yell of pleasure and launched himself from his mother’s arms, evidently transported with ecstasy that Bell Hollee had joined their party. Hollee caught the boy as he wriggled through the air and suffered himself to be hugged. Fanny snatched him back as soon as she was able to disentangle her son’s limbs. “I am terribly sorry, Bell,” she said, “I told him he might stay up to say hello to the new captain, but only if he behaved, which so far he has been unable to do and if he keeps this up, I shall be forced to send him to bed directly.” Fanny placed grave emphasis on all the words which would stick in her son’s ear with a practiced mother’s tongue and Josiah kissed her by way of apology. Fanny gestured to the nurse who was hovering nearby and handed the small boy over. “My apologies, gentlemen.”
The two navy men on either side of her hastened to assure her that no apology was necessary, and the captain went rather further and described a time when he was forced to lash a powder boy aboard his ship. Hollee found he had finished his first glass of wine. One of the silent servants materialized to refill it.
“Fanny, will you have some wine?” Hollee asked, realizing Fanny had no glass. “Forgive me for asking the hostess, but you appear…” He could not finish the sentence “appear to need one” with two perfect strangers standing nearby.
“Yes, thank you, I will,” Fanny said. “And you must forgive me, gentlemen, I do not mean to be rude. A mother’s perogative, you might say.” She laughed and sipped at the wine which had been handed to her. “Captain Bell Hollee, allow me to introduce you. This is Captain Dylan, of his majesty’s ship Sang Froid and her first lieutenant, Roberts.”
“Gentlemen, a pleasure,” Hollee said, making a small bow which was echoed by the navy men.
“A captain sir? Pray tell—what is the name of your ship?” Dylan enquired politely.
“The Windsong, sir,” Hollee replied. “Nominally out of Port Royal, although we have not seen that city for nearly eightmonth. I prefer Nevis.”
“You spend your time largely in the West Indies, I take it?” the captain said interestedly. Hollee nearly replied that they cruised between the Indies and America, but remembered in time that this would be considered illegal in present company and managed to merely nod stiffly. Lieutenant Roberts was standing at his elbow, as ill at ease as Hollee was. Not only did he have the disadvantage of not knowing anyone, but he was surrounded by at least six of his superiors, and the temptation of food and drink loomed large. It would not do to act dishonorably in such company and he was miserably aware of the fact.
Luckily for him, Dylan seemed aware of the fact and clapped his hand on his lieutenant’s shoulder. “We must drink a toast to young Roberts here,” he said, “he passed his lieutenant’s test last month, and the Sang Froid is his first posting. He has performed admirably well, and I am very much pleased with his conduct—although I daresay you’re looking a bit nervous tonight, my lad! But come, one glass of wine won’t kill you. A toast I say!”
Hollee obligingly lifted his glass and drank. The lieutentant was looking very odd, smiling and frowning by turns, but it was clear he had relaxed somewhat. Hollee found that his glass was being refilled again and leaned into Fanny.
“I had to reprimand one of my men for drunkenness today,” he murmured in a low voice, “Imagine what he would say if he could see me now!”
Fanny’s tinkling laugh broke out over the assembly, ringing into one of those odd silences that sometimes happen to an assembled company. Her whole face lit up with a smile and Hollee returned it, happy to have made her grin.
“Ah! President Herbert!” Captain Dylan said, stepping back and widening their small group to admit Fanny’s uncle. “How very good to see you, sir!”
“Likewise!” Herbert said heartily, grasping Dylan’s hand. “I did not mean to neglect you, only it appears I have had a better turn out than I could have hoped for. Shame Mannington could not make it, eh?” Fanny froze in embarrassment, her uncle winking broadly. “Still—a very handsome turnout, wouldn’t you say? Did I hear that this young man is newly made lieutenant?”
“Yes sir, and a very good job of it he’s making as well,” Dylan said hurriedly, moving the conversation past the mention of the luckless Captain Mannington. “I daresay he’ll be in a ship of his own before long.” The lieutentant, already pink with an abundance of praise, quietly excused himself lest his face should glow crimson in the evening and began to graze in earnest at the buffet table. Dylan and Herbert, who were very well acquainted, having lost large sums of money to each other for the past five years at the gaming tables each Saturday, drew closer together and began to gossip in earnest. In response, Fanny and Hollee moved a step away and surveyed the beach.
“Your gown is very becoming,” Hollee said, feeling he should say something to acknowledge Fanny’s beauty.
“Oh, this old thing?” Fanny said dismissively, “It’s entirely out of fashion. But the blue matches your waistcoast exactly.” She pointed to the small flowers embroidered on Hollee’s garment.
“The blue suits your eyes,” Hollee said, which was not a lie, but he thought that she flushed a little oddly at the compliment. Fanning herself she turned her back to the sunset and looked over the crowd.
“What a lot of stuffed shirts,” she said, and Hollee found the awkward moment smoothed over. “Half of them are new today and eager to get in with Nevis’ ‘society,’ such as we are. The rest are old friends like Captain Dylan”—she gestured to the Captain, who was gesticulating wildly, Herbert nodding frantically in agreement—“who are simply here for the food.”
“Do you know which one he is?” Hollee said, nervously. “The new captain of the Boreas?”
“Your new nemesis, you mean?” Fanny smiled. “He’s standing over there, in that group with Mary.”
“I knew it, the moment I saw him—“
“No, not the tall nervous one, the shorter one standing next to him.”
Hollee stared. The man was of an average height, but slight and thin. He was perhaps Hollee’s age, but his face gave the impression of agelessness—he could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty. At the moment he was standing stiffly, the toe of one foot turned out formally away from the other, one hand on his hip. He wore an expression of intense concentration mixed with haughtiness, and Hollee had the distinct impression that he was putting on this little routine for the benefit of those around him, a carefully polished pose to convey serious thinking and great capability. How would this man ever be able to command a shipful of men? At a distance of ten yards he looked no bigger than Josiah, his formal posture almost funny in the calm, relaxed atmosphere. At the moment he was attending to a story that Mary was telling. The rest of the group were laughing as she exaggerated the movements of a milliner she had dealt with the day before. The new captain was listening somberly. When Mary gestured toward Fanny, clearly indicating her in the story, he turned, saw her, excused himself and headed their way.
“My dear Mrs. Nisbet,” he began, making a leg, “allow me to present myself. I have the good fortune of knowing your name from your dear cousin, but not, alas, the pleasure of your company.” He made a small bow. “Captain Horatio Nelson, at your service.”
Hollee could feel his jaw clench inadvertently as he prevented a smile from creeping across his face. Nelson’s formality was rarely seen in the company of the king, much less a small party on an island in the middle of nowhere. Fanny, bless her, managed to keep her face neutral as she extended her hand. Nelson bent over it, kissing it perfunctorily.
“I am very glad to make your acquaintance,” she said, her voice steady. “Allow me to present Captain Bell Hollee of the Windsong.”
“Your servant sir,” Nelson said, bowing again. Hollee returned the bow. There was something electrically vital about Nelson, something to do with those startling blue eyes that had taken the edge off his ridiculousness. Hollee found himself reevaluating his first impression.
“I understand you are to take the Boreas now that Captain Mannington will return to England, sir,” Hollee said. “My congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir, thank you. I am very fortunate—the Boreas will be my first command, and I enjoy a great deal of liberty under my orders. A sailor must go where he is ordered, of course, but I dearly hate convoy duty.” He smiled. “I’m sure you understand.” Then he paused thoughtfully. “The Windsong, now, I do not think that his one of his majesty’s ships, is it?”
“No sir, it is a merchant vessel, out of Port Royal. Although I enjoy a great deal of trade here on Nevis.”
“Ah, just so, I have heard of your ship, sir, but I was under the impression that she was captained by an Edmund Hollee?”
“You are thinking of Bell’s uncle,” Fanny said softly. “He passed away nine years ago, God rest him, and left Bell the Windsong. Although many people make the mistake, and so you will often hear them spoken of as ‘old Hollee’ and ‘young Hollee’ though. They are quite interchangeable.” She smiled.
“My apologies, of course, that would make sense. I fought in the American Revolution, you know,” Nelson said, mentioning his service a bit too quickly after apologizing. “And spent a great deal of time here in the West Indies, protecting his majesty’s interests. I am very glad to be able to do so again. It is beautiful here, is it not?”
Bell could not get a handle on his feelings toward the man. As soon as he had determined to dislike him, Nelson would come out with a comment and Hollee’s attitude would completely change. How could he dislike a man who found Nevis beautiful?
“But Bell now…” Nelson was thoughtful shifting his weight, “You’ll pardon my rudeness sir, but that seems to me to be a queer sort of name for a man.”
“My Christian name is Andrew sir,” Hollee said, his inner compass swinging around to dislike once more. “But I was christened ‘Bell’ when I was a boy by my father, and it has ever been my ensign.”
“Oh, do tell the story, Bell!” Mary said. Hollee had not been aware that she had been cruising toward them until she suddenly appeared at Hollee’s elbow, towing the tall taciturn captain. “I dearly love this story.”
“Captain Hollee, allow me to present Captain Hardy,” Nelson said, his body going through its strange gyrations again as he waved his hand toward the captain. Hardy was obliged to dislodge Mary so he could shake Hollee’s hand. Hollee, who was considered tall by many people, was forced to look upward into Hardy’s face, and he thought he could see the ghost of a indulgent smile there, almost as if Hardy too was aware of his friend’s affectations. He instantly warmed to the man.
“Tell the story, Bell!” Mary said. Somehow her other hand had found its way into the crook of Hollee’s elbow so he was obliged to shift his wine to his left hand.
“Well it’s…it’s not a very clever story,” Bell said lamely. “I was taken aboard the Mary Teck when I was—the Mary being the ship Captain Hollee owned before the Windsong—when I was three years old, as a special treat, you know, for a small child, to see the ship and perhaps climb about a bit. After awhile, my parents began to see they could trust me not to fall over the side and so they allowed me more liberty. Perhaps a bit too much liberty, for when they next turned around I had disappeared, and a frantic search ensued. My mother was convinced I had fallen over, and my father thought I was gone below and stuck in the bilge. And so they were in a high state of panic for about a minute until they heard the ship’s bell ringing.” Hollee was uncomfortably aware of Fanny watching him. He knew that she could see a small boy climbing gaily around a ship, unaware of the panic he was causing his parents, and the image amused her. “It was me, of course. I had merely gone around the capstan, and in their haste, my parents and all the ship’s crew missed me until I began to ring the bell. My mother was so relieved she caught me up and began to hug and scold me all at once, and my father tells me that all I could say was ‘bell, bell’ as if I had been denied the world’s biggest prize.”
The group looked at him for a second longer before realizing that the story was over and then laughed politely. Nelson was the last to smile, as though puzzling out some hidden meaning behind the tale.
“Captain Hollee still has the bell,” Fanny said, appreciatively. “It hangs on the Windsong now.”
“I lost Hardy once,” Nelson said, smiling. “We were off the coast of Florida and a gang of Spanish pirates came upon our squadron. The wind was in their favour, and before I knew what had happened, they had boarded Hardy’s ship and taken her as a prize. I fought off another pair of them, but I knew I would never be able to prize him out of their grasp.”
“What happened?” Mary gasped, her eyes opened wide in admiration.
“I was ransomed four months later,” Hardy said unaffectedly. “Not dashing in the least, although Nelson was determined to come after me and had to be quite talked out of it by the commodore.”
Mary drew a little closer to the two captains as naval jargon began to flow between them. Hollee thought her head was quite turned with the gold braid and tales of daring against the French, Spanish and Americans—but he was rather unimpressed. It was clear that the peace with America had depressed the opportunites for young, eager captains such as Nelson, and he was desperate to get ahead although no chance presented itself.
He turned to whisper something witty to Fanny, an inside joke that she could appreciate, but he found that she was watching Captain Nelson interestedly, paying close attention to what he was saying. He watched her watching him, her grey eyes mutedly following the conversation, his blue eyes snapping, occasionally flickering to her, marking that she was watching.
“Hollee, my God, I did not hope to see you here!” A voice rang out from behind Bell and he turned around. A tall, somewhat florid man was dashing towards him, hands outstretched to engulf his in a handshake. “How are you! How are you!”
Hollee excused himself from his small group and went to meet the man. Adam Reeve was a captain in the American Navy, and Hollee could not fathom how he had managed to get an invitation to President Herbert’s private fete, nor why he would want to be here, nor why he should be on Nevis at all. Reeve had wangled a lieutenant’s commission with months left in the American War for Independence and had, through the fact that the Americans were handing out captainships as quickly as they could build vessels, risen to commander of his own ship within six months. He was a peacock of a man, vain of his thick blonde hair, and fiercely proud of his new country. Occasionally he would appear in the Liberty in the West Indies “convoying” one ship or another into a port. Usually his attempts ended in the ship being seized—the Liberty’s presence a sure sign than an American ship was attempting to skirt the Navigation Acts. There were also unpleasant rumors that the Liberty and her captain engaged in acts of privateering, acts which, since few yet believed that the United States of America was an actual country, were considered piracy by most of the civilized world.
Reeve was also responsible for Hollee’s one dash into Baltimore at the height of the War. The Windsong had skirted a battle off the coast of Maryland, waiting until the English ships of war had taken their prizes, firing some, before continuing. When they had disappeared over the horizon, the Windsong had crept forward and Hollee had been astonished to see several boatloads of sailors left behind—sailors for whom there was no room in the holds of English ships. He had taken them aboard (including their Captain Reeve—he had been in the Common Sense one of the ships that had been burned) and deposited them in Baltimore at Reeve’s request. Ever since then Reeve had believed Hollee to be an ardent patriot and would not listen to protestations that Hollee was merely doing the Christian thing.
“Hollee, my God,” he said loudly as Hollee took his arm and forcibly led him away from the assembly. “I did not dare to hope to find you here. I only meant to leave a letter with Mrs. Nesbit, but Nebuchanezzer told me you were here! In the courtyard! Surrounded by the English!” Reeve glowered, then, in a lower voice, “God rot them all and their unholy ships—“
“Mr. Reeve,” hissed Hollee, “Do I have to point out to you that you are also surrounded by the English, English who are sworn, moreover, to capture smugglers, traitors and pirates and turn them over to the proper authorities? You might wear a captain’s uniform, but that carries no water with these men. As for Mrs. Nisbet—“ he hurried on, for Reeve showed every sign of protesting violently, “if you ever include her in one of your mad schemes, I will hunt you down personally and blow you out of the water. She is loyal to England and further more, she has no idea of what vile and traitorous things you get up to and I intend to keep it that way!”
“But Mr. Hollee! Fanny and I are friends! Haven’t we all had tea in the past? And she is terribly fond of you, I know she would not mind taking a letter for you.”
“What’s in this letter that it could not go by regular post?”
“Oh, as to that—well, it’s…it’s just that I never can find you, Bell, and I know you are always calling on her.”
“Well, you have me now, so tell me what is in this letter that’s so important and then take yourself off. You are making a spectacle of yourself.” And indeed, several of the captains were putting their heads together and whispering about Reeve’s appearance.
“Gentlemen, if you need to converse,” Mr. Herbert interjected, “May I suggest my library? Come, I will show you where it is.”
They had no choice but to follow. Herbert led the way across a suddenly strangely quiet garden, and Hollee could feel the burning eyes of disapproval upon him as they mounted the steps into the house.
“Mr. Reeve,” Herbert said as they crossed the threshold. His voice was low and dangerous. “I believe I made my position on your appearance in my house perfectly clear. As I am a gentleman, I will not have you thrown bodily out in front of my guests, but should you ever dare to show your face here again, I will not hesitate.” He turned and went back into the garden, giving Hollee a significant look, a look that both tarred him with the same brush as Reeve and pitied him. Hollee writhed a little inside. He would not have Herbert’s bad opinion for the world.
“In here,” he said brusquely, pushing Reeve ahead of him into Herbert’s library. The shutters were nearly closed, save for a crack, and no candles were lit. They left the door to the main hallway open, but the gloom was nearly absolute. Dry leather bindings stood sentinel on three sides of the room. “What is it?”
Reeve had pulled the letter out of his pocket and was proferring it to Hollee. “I’ve come with the same question, Bell,” he said quietly, earnestly. “We need you. The American government—we need every man, and I know you believe in our cause.” Bell rolled his eyes in exasperation. They had been over this before—arguing over the same ground countless times. Reeve pretended not to notice. “I have been authorized to offer you a commission in the United States Navy,” he continued, his boyish enthusiasm rising. “We need ships, we need cannon—both of which you have, and a crack crew as well—our government, the government of the people, Bell, we intend to challenge the Navigation Acts. It makes no sense that we are unable to trade with countries in our own hemisphere, and so we are finally ready to make an assault on the ships that convoy here in the West Indies. My God, Bell, this was tailor made for you! Who knows these waters better than you? And your ship—you handle her like she was your right hand. And when we win, there will be no more tariffs, no more sneaking about, no more illegal taxes, we will show everyone—Britain, France, Holland—we are a country to be reckoned with.”
In more exciteable men, Reeve’s speech would have ignited a fire of patriotic fervor, a shouting of huzzahs and a swearing of oaths. Hollee merely stood until he was sure that Reeve was finished, then shook his head. “No. No again, but not, I fear, for the last time. When will you learn, Reeve, that I am perfectly content the way I am? The tariffs are high, but what is the price of what you are suggesting? No. I would not risk it—nor would I ask my crew to risk it. They are good men, but they are not Naval men, and I could not run them like the Navy would ask me to.”
“On the contrary, we are quite lenient,” Reeve said brightly. Then, reflecting, “Perhaps too lenient. But you—“
“No, Adam. And now, you better leave. President Herbert will not complain if an intruder is taken off by the authorities. And my God, Reeve, you blundered into a pack of Navy men, hungry for prizes. What on earth is wrong with you? Do you never think anything through?”
“Ah, Bell. The British are hungry for prizes. But we”—he meant himself and the Americans—“we hunger for freedom.”
“Very well, Adam, but if you don’t flee, you’ll lose your freedom as well.”
Reeve pressed the letter into his hand. “Think about it, Bell.”
“There’s nothing to think about.”
“I know.” And when Reeve removed his hand, the parchment remained in Bell’s hand. To his relief, Reeve did not stay to press his point home, but tipped his hat perfunctorily and exited out of the room. Hollee stuffed the letter into his pocket like it was an obscene broadsheet.