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.”
“I could also abide by the law, don’t forget.”
“Tha’s true,” John said unhelpfully. He slurped his coffee. “There’s plenty a’ colonies left, after all. No sense in running up to America if it’ll only bring you grief. Why not think more on what Mr. Maccaby was saying? You could sell the Windy, buy a new ship, start running in and out a’ England. Or Africa, if you like.”
Hollee blanched. “I would never consider becoming a slaver!” he said vehemently.
“Did I say slaves. I did not. There’s other things come out a’ Africa besides slaves, I’m bound.”
“I was thinking about buying a house, actually.”
John looked at him, surprised. “Were you now? What brought that on?”
Hollee realized the turbulence in his mind had less to do with that man Nelson (Nelson he could handle when the time came), than it did with the image of Fanny looking at him, so disappointed and so beautiful in the moonlight. He leaned toward his first mate, intending to convey the conversation of the night before when his field of vision was once more cut off by Queenie’s calico-covered bosom. She heaved a plate of sausages and beef onto the table, followed by a bowl of hard-boiled eggs, then a small wooden trencher of salt and finally, another mug of coffee. Hollee pulled the coffee towards him and sipped it delicately. It burned his throat, but the fresh, strong taste was worth the pain.
Queenie sat down on the other side of him. She was wearing a red calico dress with a flamboyant yellow apron pinned over the top of it. Her grizzled grey hair was tied up under a piece of the same material. It was rumored that her mother had been the most famous beauty in the whole islands, and her father had been a Navy admiral, but the only hint of her parentage left was her flawless, coffee-with-milk coloured skin and her startling hazel eyes. The only wrinkles on her face appeared when she smiled, pointing directly to those eyes. She patted Hollee on his arm and gave his hand a squeeze.
“Now then, Master Bell, it is good to see ye,” she said approvingly. “I can’t remember t’ last time you been in here. I been looking out for you ever seen Captain Reeve came looking for you last week—“ Hollee groaned inwardly—was the whole island to know he knew that dreadful man?—“and then, last night, Mr. John here comes in for supper and I says ‘Now where is your captain, John?’ and bless me if he doesn’t tell me you’ve been invited up to Mr. Herbert’s big house. Well! You could ha’ knocked me over wit’ a feather, that’s the truth. Aren’t we moving in some mighty fine circles now, aren’t we?”
“Mr. Hollee was just about to tell me about tha’ party, Queenie,” John put in, his eyes glowing mischeviously.
“I thought I had,” Hollee replied peevishly.
“Only that you did not care for the king’s new man, on account a’ he’s determined to uphold the king’s law—which is no reason to dislike a man, Bell.”
“Is that what everyone’s so hot under t’ collar about?” Queenie said. “No one tells me anything. Yesterday, it’s all my mens can talk about—this captain, that captain—I can’t keep all a’ ye straight!”
“Captain Mannington is going back to England—“
“Oh, I never liked him, he never come in here.”
“—and he is being replaced by a new man, who, I suspect, you’ll not see in here either,” Hollee finished succinctly.
“Oh, then I don’t like him either.”
“Just so.” Hollee took another sip of his coffee and when he found it had cooled somewhat took a larger gulp. “See John? No sugar, no milk—just the way God intended.”
“If God had not wanted me to have sugar, he would not have made it taste so wonderful,” John said reasonably. “But come now—surely you did not spend all night disliking the new fellow. What’s the news up at the Herbert House? Did you see Miss Fanny?”
“Do you mean Mrs. Nisbet?”
John grinned impishly. “The very one.” Fanny had actually had the grizzled old sailor to tea one afternoon, an event which John never quite got over—the beautiful young woman serving him tea in fine bone china, his callused fingers so thick he could barely hold the delicate teacups. “I hope you passed along my compliments.”
“I did not, unfortunately, because you forgot to send them.”
Queenie smacked him affectionately on the back of the head. “You be no gentleman, Bell Hollee!” she crowed.
Hollee inclined his head, shrugging. “You can’t say fairer than that.”
John looked at Hollee’s face. Hollee’s expression had gone from its normal peevish haughtiness to something a little sadder and more unguarded. “Hollee—you did speak to t’ woman last night, did y’ not?”
“Of course I did, John, she was the only person there I knew!”
“And she’s all right-she’s not sick or anything, is she?”
“Not to the best of my knowledge.”
Queenie had picked up on the subtle clues that were passing between John and Bell with a woman’s intuition. She leaned back slightly and put one weighty forearm on the table. “Bell Hollee, you be in love wi’ that woman!” she said, aghast. Bell Hollee had never, to the best of her understandings, been in love with anyone.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Queenie!”
But Hollee might as well have jumped up on the table and reciting poetry, for his swift outburst only confirmed what Queenie could see written across his face, plain as day. Her eyes quickly retreated back into their crow’s nest of wrinkles as she smiled broadly. “Well, that is the beatenest thing, I do declare! Bell Hollee—in love. And she? What does she think of that?”
Hollee refused to answer, instead cutting up his sausages and delivering them to his mouth with a speed which quite defied imagination. Queenie refused to be put off. She leaned forward to speak around Hollee to John, with the effect that Hollee was even more squashed between the two. “Did you know anything about this?”
“No, I never did, by my soul. All I thought they was was friends. What do you think about it?”
“I think Miss Fanny could do worse. Oh—she could do better too, that’s the truth.”
“D’ you know, Mr. Hollee just told me, just now, tha’ is, that he was thinking about buying a house. I was wondering who was going to look after the place while he was at sea, well, now I know, I guess.”
“You are jumping to wild speculations. You have nothing to back up your claims, which are most spurious at any point, and false, and I should call you out for infamy, John, if you weren’t so ancient and you, Queenie, if you didn’t suffer from a most ill-timed malaise, by that I mean the curse of your sex, by that I mean—oh—“ for Hollee had gotten quite lost in his sentence by this point, “Oh, cease this at once. You are being foolish. And there is nothing further to discuss.”
Queenie had been chuckling softly, but she stopped when she saw that Hollee was really—truly—angry. Her face grew serious and her voice came more softly. She patted his arm. “Bell,” she said, “You know how I care for ye, and I worry about ye, and not just when you’re gone for weeks at a time, no. You a man who needs looking after. You a man who could benefit a great deal from a wife, just remember that.” She patted his arm again and rose. “I get you some more coffee.”
As she moved away from them, John leaned in. Hollee turned, ready fend off his jokes again, but the sailor’s face had grown as grave as Queenie’s. “I jest, Bell, but is it true? D’y’ love her?”
Hollee did not look directly at him. “It hardly matters where my feelings come into this, it appears,” he said dryly. “Fanny told me a most disturbing piece of news last night—a secret I cannot share with you, John, I’m sure you understand—“ John nodded “—but if it’s true, she will need a new place to call home by the end of August.” Hollee paused. “I cannot think so ill of Herbert, but I have no doubt that what she told me of his conduct is true. And I cannot bear to think of Fanny out on the charity of her poor cousins, or worse, working for herself. So perhaps, I could buy her a house. A small house, to be sure, but a place of her own. There—living on her own, or perhaps with another lady, she would be quite protected from harm or the winds of change.” Hollee put his hands flat on the table, staring down at his half-eaten breakfast. “She would like to marry me, John. I believe she loves me, and I even…I could even go so far as to say I have feelings for her.” Hollee raised his eyes to his friend’s. “But I cannot marry her.”