Fanny cocked her head. "Do you mean to tell me, Bell Hollee, that you have been here a whole week and have not come to see me?" She picked up her sewing, smiling. "Captain Nelson has been here twice already."
"Has he?" Hollee said, trying to keep his voice light. "I daresay he'll be busy once he decides to take possession of his ship. It's very good of him to entertain Josiah and let you have some leisure time."
Perhaps sensing she should not have mentioned the navy man, Fanny gracefully tacked the conversation. "And what about you? Where do you go next?"
"Charleston, but pray, do not mention that to Captain Nelson."
"Hollee, have I ever let you down?" she said, frowning playfully. "Why, when Captain Reeve was here the other night--did I ever for a moment let on that you and he were bosom companions?"
Hollee could not prevent himself from rolling his eyes. "It's a wonder that the Navy hasn't hauled you in for questioning, associating with a known American and a smuggler."
"I cannot believe the Navy doesn't have better things to do than to go chasing around after you. Why, there are rumors of a slave uprising to the North--never mind the fact that the Spanish are determined to increase their trade routes through here." Fanny had an instinctual understanding of the political web that overlaid the Caribbean islands, an understanding born of a woman's need to balance parties and conversations between feuding factions. "Honestly--just how much do they think you stand to make with your little ship?"
Hollee told her.
Fanny's eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "I beg your pardon, Bell, I had no idea it was so much."
"I'm afraid I am deceiving you somewhat, for the number is lower depending on many things. Whether the ship needs repairs, the amount of crew, if I must replenish my gunpowder, et cetera, whether or not I must pay bribes. But yes, I manage to do all right for myself." Hollee looked away. Talking about money in polite society, was normally taboo.He had not meant to impress Fanny with his business dealings, only to demonstrate--modestly--that there was quite a bit at stake. Fanny looked thoughtful as she pulled a tiny needle through a ruffled collar. Hollee continued, "That is to say, the number sounds much grander than it is."
"How wonderful to not have to constantly worry about money." This said softly and wonderingly.
"Yes. No worries--only the Navy, pirates, and, let's not forget, acts of God." Hollee smiled conspiratorially. Then he leaned forward. "Fanny. I must apologise for the way I acted last week. It was most improper and rude."
"Not at all--"
"Pray, let me finish. I wish I could give you all the things you ask for. But I cannot. You must believe me when I tell you that I cannot marry you, though I hold you in the highest esteem. I would like to," he said quietly. "But I cannot. I have had you in my thoughts all this week, however, and I believe that I have hit on an idea which I am hoping will be pleasing to you. Earlier I mentioned my riches only to demonstrate that I am quite capable of what I am offering. Which is to say--I would like very much to buy you and Josiah a house of your own, where you can live comfortably without worry about your uncle's temper."
Fanny naturally looked quite shocked and surprized at his statement, which was not at all what she had been expecting. Her sewing was sitting forgotten on her knees again as she looked at him, her eyebrows moving together and apart in confusion as she tried to piece together the logistics of what he was saying. Hollee let her work it out for a second before saying, "Please think about it. Take as long as you like. Don't feel you have to answer me now, but consider it, please."
"A house of my own?" Fanny said, coloring. "With no obligation on my part? A gift--a gift from one friend to another?"
"Yes--," Hollee said, confused, he thought he had made that perfectly clear.
"Oh Bell. What would people say?"
"They will say nothing. They will say, 'Look how well Fanny Nisbet is taken care of!' if they say anything. There is nothing untoward about buying a house for someone."
"Or they will say, 'What has Fanny Nisbet done to deserve such a beautiful house?' and the gossip will start. Thank you for the offer, but--"
"You haven't even considered it."
"There's nothing to consider, I'm afraid. It is a lovely gesture, but I cannot accept it."
"But your uncle--you made it sound quite serious."
"Oh, it is serious, you're quite right there."
"Even then I cannot accept your generous offer. I would not do that to my reputation--nor Josiah's--nor yours. Don't scoff, Captain, you will spend all your time away from Nevis, you won't have to hear a thing, but I would, and it would hurt me."
"And if your uncle makes good on his threat?"
"Then I shall--" Fanny threw up her hands in exasperation, "I don't know, I suppose I shall go back to England and live with my husband's family. Or become a governess."
Hollee shuddered. "You would leave Nevis--and me--just like that? For England?"
"It is one option."
"I hate England."
"Don't be petulant, Bell, you haven't been in England for sixteen years."
"I beg your pardon. Please consider what I am offering."
"You offer me a house. Nothing more. You will not marry me, but you will buy me a house. Do you honestly think I should be flattered that you are willing to invest your money in me, but not your life? Bell--dearest friend--why are you so adamant you won't have me?" Fanny shrank into her chair, uncertain. Her eyes were locked on his, suddenly frightened. "Are you already married?"
All Hollee could see was his dearest friend sitting across from him, looking petrified, awaiting his answer. Their pause was broken by a yell from outside, then a slow winding cry, as of a small boy who has had the wind knocked out of him, but has finally gotten it back just in time to alert the whole world he has been greatly wronged. Fanny, with a mother's sense tuned to any change, broke her gaze with Hollee and dashed outside. For his part, the captain stood to follow her, but paused. Out on the lawn, Nelson and Fanny were kneeling over the prone Josiah, who had evidently fallen out of a tree. Fanny was alternately hugging him and shaking him, and Nelson was expertly feeling for broken bones. Having decided there were none, the two adults put him back on his feet, where Josiah clung to Fanny's skirts and settled in for a good cry. She picked him up and they moved back towards the house.
"...you shall have a biscuit, my love, that will make you feel better. And a nice tall glass of lemonade." All over the house, servant ears were pricking up at her words and black hands were already hurrying towards tins and boxes, preparing a tray for Master Josiah. "Captain Nelson, thank you so much for looking out for him."
"Not at all, not at all. I only wish I could have sprouted wings and stopped him from falling altogether."
The little party re-entered the parlor. Nelson was surprized to see Hollee, and it took him a second to remember who the man was. He made a small bow and Hollee returned it, then sat down abruptly in his chair. Josiah was snuffling at his mother's neck and she was wiping his tears away with her handkerchief. Hollee tried not to be too repulsed by the sight of the tiny red tear-streaked boy, a far cry from the obedient little lad who turned pages for his mother in his best coat. Nelson, Hollee also noted meanly, had a grass-stain on one knee, and his queue was quite undone. Nelson seemed to become aware of this fact a second after Hollee noted it, for he quickly brushed his hair back off his face, dislodging some small twigs as he did so.
The Navy captain seemed to regain some of his former poise as he sank into a chair, however. He sat primly on the last eight inches, a small smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
"Thank you for taking Josiah outside," Fanny said. She continued to stroke her boy's hair as servants entered with a tray. They set it down noiselessly, replacing Fanny's cold teapot with a fresh one and disappeared. "I'm sure he appreciates it as well. Did you get to hold Captain Nelson's sword?" Fanny said to her son. Josiah nodded somberly, then more eagerly as he remembered the shiny gilt handle. "Was it heavy?"
"I could lift it!" he said and reached for a biscuit. Fanny intercepted his nose with her handkerchief and he blew noisily before finally getting his treat.
"He handled it very well," Nelson said gravely. "I am proud to say the English navy triumphed several times over the Americans this afternoon. Josiah will make a fine sailor some day."
Fanny smiled. "Why don't you go see if Susie needs some help in the kitchen?" she whispered to her son. He seemed loathe to leave this interesting world of adults, but after a few more prods and a couple more biscuits, he darted from the room, clattering down the hallway.
"They won't appreciate that I've sent him to them in the middle of the dinner preparations," Fanny said, smiling. "But perhaps he can be passed off to the barn. Come fall I must think about some schooling--I daresay he will be less than happy to sit quietly all day learning his lessons, but there it is." She decorously retrieved her sewing from where it had fallen in her flight and began to stitch once again.
Nelson was sipping tea, blowing on it to cool off the scalding liquid. Hollee marveled how quickly Fanny had moved through the moods of the afternoon. The emotional outburst between them had been replaced by the frantic worry and then soothing calm of a mother, and now she was once again the picture of the perfect hostess. His own heart was still hammering in his chest just from picturing her startled, drained face, looking at him with that uncertainty after she had turned down his offer. He felt as though he were sitting on a chair of nails--nothing could make him wish to stay, except that Nelson was sitting to his left. The stiff display he had demonstrated the week before was gone as if it had never existed, and he now looked perfectly at ease. Hollee felt an unfamiliar feeling race through him whenever he regarded the man.
Nelson continued to sip at his tea. Fanny seemed perfectly content to sew, and so the two men were forced to regard one another.
"Pray tell me, Captain Nelson, when do you take to your ship?" Hollee said, relieved to hear his voice in its normal register.
"Ah, three days from now. I have already been aboard to go over the ship's log and the papers with Captain Mannington, and to look over the crew, but we are still a few men short. As soon as my lieutenants have rounded up the requisite number, we shall set sail."
"Very good sir." Holle could not resist adding, "I hope you do not find any of my men, sir, we sail tomorrow. That is--if I have a full complement of seamen, naturally."
Nelson looked at him with interest. "Remind me again which ship is yours?" he said thoughtfully.
"The Windsong, Captain."
"Oh yes, of course. You must forgive me--I have met so many captains this past week, it is quite difficult to keep track of them all. Tell me, what is your destination once you shove off?"
Hollee felt the familiar mixed emotions moving within him. Really, for all his social posturing, the man had no idea how offensive he could be. Hollee felt like rising and leaving without saying a word. Instead he forced himself to reply. "Ch--Barbados, sir," he said. He could have bitten off his tongue. Instead of attending to the question he had let his dislike get the better of him and had practically admitted to the captain he was planning on breaking the law!
"Barbados, sir?" Nelson frowned. "Do you intend to take on a load of rum there?"
Hollee, who had blurted out the first island that came to mind south of Nevis, took a moment before he realised that Nelson was delicately asking if he participated in the slave trade. He straightened his back self-righteously. "Not at all, sir! I have a special commission to deliver some goods to Barbados."
"Ah, of course, forgive me."
"The Windsong has never been--nor will never be--a slaver," Hollee said vehemently. "I'd burn her to the waterline before I let her be used thus."
"Well said, sir. I couldn't agree more. It is a nasty, stinking business and no doubt about that." Nelson seemed pleased that they were in agreement on something, and Hollee could see the tally mark which made Hollee an ally in Nelson's fight against law-breakers. "And then off to England, I suppose?"
"You said you have private business in Barbados--then off to London, I suppose? A ship as tidy as the Windsong, you could sail her right up the Thames into the Pool."
Hollee was finding it harder to deceive Nelson than he thought.
"Bell never goes to England if he can help it," Fanny said softly. "He hates England." Her eyes never moved from her sewing, but Hollee knew he was being paid back for his earlier outburst.
"Hate England, Captain Hollee?" Nelson said, honestly aghast. "How can you hate our mother country? Our home? The country which gave us Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, not to say spawned the greatest Navy the world has ever seen?"
"I left England for good when I was sixteen," Hollee explained. "It is simply that I have seen other parts of the world I prefer more. And perhaps there are parts of the world I have not yet seen that I would prefer still more. So, to prefer England above all others when I have not yet seen all the world seems to be somewhat...hasty."
Nelson smiled broadly. "You sound like some of my midshipman--full of life and hope and anxious for adventure and their next horizon." Hollee and Nelson could not have been a year apart in age, and Hollee disliked this man talking down to him as though he were a boy. "You will realise though that the world is small, and we must always have a place to call home."
"And why can't I call Nevis home?" Hollee said softly. For the first time, Nelson seemed to pick up on the tension between Hollee and Fanny, and he looked quickly from one to the other. As soon as Hollee saw this, he rose. "I am afraid I have trespassed on your hospitality for too long, Mrs. Nisbet. Pray consider what I have said." He reached down and took Fanny's hand, kissing it gently. "I may be gone for quite some time, so please think of me often and write me a letter when you can." Fanny looked as though she were about to say something, but then thought better of it with Captain NElson in the room with them.
"Thank you for stopping by, Captain Hollee," she replied. "It is always good to see you."
Hollee and Nelson shook hands in a perfunctory manner, and then Hollee was walking down the hallway. He stopped in front of the sideboard where Nelson's hat and his were sitting side by side--his faded brown felt, Nelson's black and shiny with braid. They could not have been more different, just like the men who wore them. Fanny must have seen that. If Nelson had been visiting, she could not honestly still think they were alike in their ambitiousness. But which would she prefer? The familiar, brown hat, or the new, stiff black one with it's braid?
Jamming his hat on his head, Hollee stepped out into the blinding sunlight and started for the port and the Windsong. Ambitious. How could he be considered ambitious? He never wanted to be--he wanted to sail, to trade, to work and to be left alone. Look where ambition got you. He had offered to buy a house for Fanny and she had scorned his offer as though it were an offer to play cards. What would Nelson offer her, Hollee mused, that he could not? The answer came too quickly iand it hurt as though he had been thumped on the back of the head. Of course--marriage to a Naval captain, a man who would always have employment, room for promotion, room for ambitions. John Waggs no doubt would say that Bell was being foolish, that Fanny had only known Nelson a week and anyway, she loved him, but Hollee knew better: Nelson was about to ship out as well, he had to move quickly if he thought Fanny would be a good match. Then no doubt John Waggs would say to him, well, Bell, why do you care who she should marry, if y' will not? John's accent echoed in his head, as loud as a conscious. Yes, Bell thought, what should I care, if I do not marry her, about who does? She's only Fanny, after all.
But all the way back to the port, he was filled with unaccountable sadness. Only Fanny. Dear Fan.