"Oh?" said John, "And how does the lady feel about this? She wants y' to marry her, doesn't she? What would she say if you told her you were thinking about a house instead?"
Hollee opened his mouth, but before he could reply, John held up his hand.
"I'm only sayin' mebbe y' should ask her first."
By the time the week of enforced leisure was up, Bell Hollee thoroughly wished that he had never set foot on Nevis. Mr. Maccaby had pronounced himself well pleased with the stores that Hollee had brought ashore and had then spent an entire evening trying to convince Hollee to take several cases of fans to Boston. He seemed put out when Hollee refused, although he managed to sneak aboard a bolt of his famous red silk when Hollee wasn't looking. "We aren't selling to the loose women!" Hollee had said when he finally spotted it. "What merchant in his right mind would carry such fabric? It's blasphemy just to look at it!" But he had not removed it from the ship. Mr. Lamb, on the other hand, had sustained a bite from a cat while out taking his evening constitutional and was convinced it was the Windsong's beast. In his irking, non-offensive way he had conveyed to Hollee that should he become rabid he would hold the Windsong's captain responsible, prompting Hollee to hold out his hand and encourage Mr. Lamb bite him. "That way, sir, if you are in fact rabid, we shall both of us be mad together."
The ship's crew, naturally, finding themselves at leisure for a whole week, did not know what to make of it, and before three days were out, Hollee looked up from his desk to find three of his sailors standing sheepishly before him, their hats in their hands, looking for more pay. Hollee had directed them to Mr. Lamb, who could always use a few extra day-labourers, and had admonished them to follow the example of Mr. Hartelby (the ship's Methodist) next time. Mr. Pritchard at least had the good sense to get arrested with bribe money on him, so that he did not need to send for his captain to spring him out of gaol.
During his free hours, Hollee tidied his cabin, throwing away his old maps and purchasing a new set (so new they were drawn with "The United States of America" in place of the old colonies), sat in front of Queenie's unused fireplace and listened to her rail on about her dead lovers, and walked Nevis' beaches. He stayed at the Anchor and Crown for a pair of nights, waking both mornings with the sensation he was falling from his bunk--a sensation that was caused no doubt by the fact he was on solid land. The solitary actions were extraordinary. He was at perfect liberty to walk where he chose, to say whatever he wished and to sit perfectly still for long hours, options he could not enjoy aboard the Windsong. Perhaps it was knowing this that made him itch for his cabin and the constant attention that the sea required.
Then again, perhaps it was the pair of conversations he had had the first day he was here. Fanny's face continued to move in and out of his thoughts. And John's two cents' worth of advice rattled around as well, so that he was thoroughly confused. John was correct, absolutely, Fanny was no kin to him and therefore no consideration. And yet, he felt secure enough in his reputation that setting her up in a home of her own would reflect in no black mark either on her character or his own. It seemed such an elegant solution. He had enquired generally of Maccaby what sort of house his savings could afford and had learned that a modest dwelling on the edge of town was the best he could hope for. Enough room for Fanny and Josiah and a brace of servants to keep them comfortable. Certainly not the dozen room spread that was the Herbert plantation. But a comfortable dwelling.
"Mebbe y' should ask her first." John's pragmatic advice. Would Fanny be content in a house so small? Or was the more pertinent question--would Fanny be content in a house which he, Hollee, had bought for her? Would that be acceptable to her? It was all very well to create a plan and make enquiries if she was only going to turn him down. And soon, the obvious problem began to make itself clear: Hollee was going to have to return to the house to speak with Fanny. Their last confusing, awkward conversation was going to have to be addressed, clarifications made, explainations offered. Fanny's intentions could not have been clearer--she must be burning with embarassment for she had not contacted him in the past week--but what were Bell's intentions? Marry her. No. A house then. Yes. But what seemed so simple to him quickly became unravled in a tangled mess once he started to imagine the excrutiating conversation which must take place, a conversation which in his mind led more than once to tears and (on one memorable occasion) to his face being slapped.
So it was little wonder that Hollee put off the inevitable until the day before the Windsong set sail. Hollee had anxiously overseen the setting off the newly purchased mainsails that morning. After a fortifying lunch of kidneys, he turned his feet once more toward Herbert plantation. The day was hot and flat, the sun lolling in the sky like a impudent seagull that refuses to move when approached by a pedestrian. Sweat streamed out from under Hollee's hat as he moved briskly down the exposed boardwalk. Even the waves to his left seemed sluggish, they could barely must the energy to slap the wet sand before giving up and rushing back into the ocean, exhausted. Hollee had sent no word he was coming, and now he wondered if he should have at least sent a boy on ahead to give Fanny warning. What if she were in the middle of some project? (Although what ladies might do in the middle of the afternoon on a day like today Hollee had no idea) But, the plantation was coming into sight, it was too late now.
Nebuchanezzer was at the door as soon as Hollee came up the stairs. He seemed nervous when he took Hollee's hat, although he smiled widely as ever. "Mrs. Nesbit be in t' parlor," he said, gesturing. And he disappeared, leaving Hollee to walk forward through the spacious rooms alone.
The French doors leading to the patio were open wide as they had been on the night of the party, although this time sheer curtains moved sluggishly in the lazy breeze. Hollee quickly patted his forehead with a handkerchief, then paused as he turne to enter the parlor. A boy's yell had come from the backyard, and a second later Josiah went tumbling past, wearing a tricorn covered with gold braid and carrying a bright sword. He circled around and leapt onto a chair, brandishing the sword for all he was worth.
"Ye dogs!" his voice was sqeaky with excitement, "Ye cowardly American dogs! Come out and fight like men!"
"Who calls us cowards?!"
"I do! I do! Captain Nisbet!"
"The Captain Nisbet who fought Blackbeard and Barbarossa and beat them off single-handedly in the middle of the night with only a pair of cannon and a rusty cutlass?"
"I hear he is a fearsome captain, but we shall have his ship for a prize and make it the flagship of the American Navy! For England! England!"
Small branches and twigs began to fly at Josiah, evidently "cannonballs" for they were accompanied by the sound of explosions, courtesy of the unseen player. Josiah called for his cannon to be rolled into position and began to return fire with a store of his own sticks. To Hollee's great surprize, the second speaker suddenly hove to into view--none other than Captain Nelson. His hair was askew, his arms were full of ammunition. The battle continued under Hollee's amazed eyes, until it became clear that Captain Nelson (or rather, the scurvy American dogs) were surely getting the worst of it. He sank to his knees--still "firing" valiantly--and Josiah boarded him by running up and dumping the rest of his ammunition directly onto Nelson's buff waistcoat and headbutting him for good measure. Nelson laughed, and his laugh was echoed in the room off to Hollee's right. He turned.
Fanny was sitting in the parlour, in front of the windows, her lap covered with forgotten sewing. Hollee suddenly realised he had been perfectly framed in the parlor door, and Fanny had been watching him as avidly as she had been watching her son play with the navy captain. She smiled at Hollee before turning and calling out the window: "Now Josiah, please, don't sink your prize or he won't come around to play with you. Captain Nelson--pray, if he gets too be a handful, do send him in to me!" She turned to Captain Hollee. "I daresay I am a bit more threatening than the American Navy. It's good to see you, Bell. Tea? Or something cooler?"
Hollee found himself quite wrong-footed. All his imagined conversations had started out with a startled, stammering Fanny needing to be reassured by his quiet, manly insistence that the conversation the week before had changed nothing between them. The smiling, perfectly at ease Fanny before him had been totally unanticipated.
"I..." he said, mentally cursing himself for such a brilliant beginning. "I wanted to speak to you to--to finish our conversation of the past week." That at least, had the effect of fading Fanny's smile somewhat. He hurried on. "However, as you have a guest, we can speak of it another time. Or perhaps I should call again."
"Oh, no, do sit down. We are hardly a party of three, as you can see," Fanny said, gesturing out the window where Nelson had been induced by his conquerer to hoist him into a palm-tree. "Do sit down and visit for awhile. We needn't speak of anything, if you like."
Watching Nelson handle Fanny's son so easily and familiarily made Hollee suddenly want to know how long the man had been there and if he had come before. He forced himself into the room, taking a chair that would not permit a clear view of the yard. A servant entered and left a glass of lemonade on the table beside him. It was cool and sweet when he lifted it to his lips, as much to avoid conversation as to cool his palate.
"I sail tomorrow," he said finally. "In the morning, if my crew remembers, that is. I thought I should be the world's rudest person if I did not call on you."
"I am very glad to see you," Fanny said, and for a second all was mended between them, it was as if no conversation had taken place and no interloper was present in the garden. Bell relaxed somewhat.