Thursday, February 21, 2008


Bell Hollee has slept aboard his ship. He had walked back to the port feeling oddly ill at ease, and had decided to sleep alone rather than face the jocularity of the Anchor and Crown. He had stripped of John’s coat and his own cream waistcoat, folded them neatly and put them over the back of a chair, then taken off his silk stockings. As he lay down the last thought that rose up out of the tumult of his mind was—“I shall never get to sleep tonight”—and as so many before him who have laid down with that thought, he was out almost immediately.

When the sun woke him the next morning, he was lying in practically the same position in the narrow bunk, lying on his back, his arms loose beside him. He got up and dressed in his “uniform” then went quickly on deck. No one was about except for the lad who had been stationed on the dock by Mr. Lamb to ensure that no one boarded the Windsong. He tugged his forelock at Hollee as the captain passed, in an admirable imitation of a seasoned sailor. Hollee nodded at the boy. He had drunk just enough wine last night to make the sun unpleasant, bouncing off the water and into his eyes.

When he finally entered the Crown, the first person he laid eyes on, thankfully, was John. His first mate was tucking into a plateful of bread smothered in molasses and fruit with relish, a huge pot of coffee by his elbow. Hollee removed his hat and went over quickly to sit beside him.

“Well now, here’s a sight! I thought you’d stay here last night, but we didn’t see you come in. Queenie had a song circle going last night, you missed out on some good tunes.”

“Did I,” Hollee said absently. As if summoned by the sound of her name. Queenie appeared. She was even larger than Hollee remembered—but then again, perhaps his perception was somewhat altered by the fact she was engulfing him in her giant bosom.

“My dar’ boy! How are you! Oh, it be so good to see you—I told Johnnie here we’s better see you this time, or I’m going to have to come down to t’ Windsong myself!” Queen backed away, her hands on her hips. She scrutinized his face. “Oh no. Oh no—this will never do, you are too thin by half. Will you take some breakfast like Mr. Waggs here, or do you want a proper feed?”

“Bacon would be lovely—or beef if you have it,” Hollee said, sharing Queenie’s despairing looks at John’s odd breakfast. “And eggs. And—coffee!” he shouted, for Queenie had already begun to make her way back to the kitchen. She cut a swath through her patrons, her backside shining like a stern beacon through the drab colors of the men’s suits.

“Coffee?” John said, pushing his mug over to Hollee. He raised it to his lips, then scowled.

“You’ve put sugar in it.”

“Tis still coffee.”

Hollee considered the truth in this statement and took another swig.

John continued plugging away at his breakfast. “So,” he said, with a mouthful of food. “Did y’ meet the new man?”

The events of the night had been sloshing around in Hollee’s brain, and now they started to form a coherent pattern. “I did. I think we have a problem, John. The man is named Nelson—and he is the king’s man through and through. He swore to me that he was duty-bound to uphold the king’s laws. I don’t mean that he is an honest man, only that he has a very clear sense of what is right and what is wrong. His king is right, and so, therefore, we must be wrong.” He sighed. “It is very discouraging.”

John considered. “The way I see it, y’ have two choices. Y’ can either take on a cargo and run your chances, or, y’ can stay away for awhile, and see how other captains fare.

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