Sunday, April 20, 2008

7.1

“My God, it’s a fine day, isn’t it?” Reeve said, inhaling lustily as they stepped back into the busy street. Hollee inhaled as well, a little more cautiously as he had just spotted a cart full of fish going past. “A good day to be alive and be American!”

Hollee stepped onto the pavement. In an instant, Reeve was beside him, and in order to prevent another trot like the one they’d just had, Hollee was forced to take a dancing step backward. In order to cover his awkwardness, he put on a grin and waved his hands. “Spoken like a man who hasn’t been on a ship in a few days. If you’d seen the doldrums we’d come through, you would not speak so well of this weather.”

“Ah, well, this is true,” Reeve said agreeably. Really, he wasn’t a bad man, he was just so terribly…enthusiastic.

“Captain Reeve, as delighted as I would be to accompany you to dinner, I feel I could not bear to disappoint you yet again. You must let me plead indifference and return to my ship.” There. That should be sufficient. But Reeve refused to accept this. He cocked his head sideways and smiled at Hollee.

“Am I really such an insufferable table-fellow?” he said. “My dear chap, I was rather under the impression we were friends and that—if I may flatter myself—I am quite the only soul you know in this city. I would be terribly disappointed if I could not at least take you to supper and catch you up on the gossip of this town. And I shall do my best not to convince you to emigrate here, if you like!”

Hollee was fairly certain that Reeve would forget that last statement as soon as they stepped into the tavern, but the man had a point. Who else did Hollee know in this town? What other plans for tonight had he? Hollee had very few male acquaintances who weren’t his own sailors. It would rude to turn Reeve down after he had spoken so honestly, but more than that, Hollee couldn’t stay locked away in his own cabin forever. Shrugging his shoulders gamely, he smiled.

“Capital!” Reeve said, managing to restrain himself to patting Hollee on the shoulder instead of thumping him on the back.

A half hour later, they were cozily seated in front of a banked fire at the Bunch o’ Grapes, a half-drunk bottle of very acceptable wine on the table. Around them, other small clusters of men were engaged in small talk, cards and dice moving among half-eaten plates of food. Smoke mingled with laughter mingled with low voices hushedly discussing business. Reeve had managed, to Hollee’s surprise, to keep to his promise of not attempting to recruit Hollee, but it was costing the Navy man dearly. He had nearly run aground on the forbidden topic many times, causing Hollee no small amount of private amusement. In order to avoid it, Reeve was chattering animatedly about the various ships which called in Philadelphia, mixed in heavily with his own experiences as captain.

“…and the Angel, you know, she runs out of Charleston as well, but she’s a slave-trader. We’ve no truck with her, which is a pity, as her captain, Captain Thomassen that is, he’s as quiet and as friendly a man as you could meet. You’d never know her business unless you saw her unloading and you’d never believe such a quiet man could traffic in human lives! Ah!” This last exclamation was over the appearance of their meal. Reeve made a space on the table for his food (he had ordered two dishes for himself) and tucked in happily. Hollee picked up his turkey leg and began to gnaw on it. It was, as advertised, extremely fresh. “Now there’s a meal worth putting in for,” Reeve sighed happily, attacking a pile of kidney with relish. “Care for a bite of mine, Captain?”

“I should like to try it, thank you,” Hollee said. He turned to find their serving-girl and gestured for a mug of ale. They continued to eat steadily for several minutes.

“I declare, Bell, I’ve never seen you eat with such an appetite,” Reeve said, oblivious to the carnage that was occurring on his own plate.”

“As you say, a meal worth putting in for,” Hollee replied. “Adam,” he said suddenly, his thoughts jumping ahead. “Have you ever heard of a man named Nelson? A British captain?”

“Nelson? Is he new?”

“I rather think he is. He’s captaining the Boreas down in Nevis, and I shouldn’t be very surprised if it’s his first command. He was at the party on Nevis, at President Herbert’s house. Not that you had a chance to introduce yourself.”

“Well now,” Reeve said, smiling roguishly. He set his fork down and scanned through the prodigious wealth of gossip stored in his head. “Now, let’s us see. If it’s the same Nelson I’ve heard of, then he was captain in the Vanguard, blockading Spanish Florida during the war. Not very much action, unfortunately—drives a young captain quite mad, from what I’ve heard—you spend your time patrolling and drilling your men and nary a prize in sight! What’s he doing on Nevis?”

“He’s been sent by the King to enforce the Navigation Acts,” Hollee said. Both men ignored the fact that as an agent of the United States of America government, Reeve should not be encouraging acts of piracy. “With Mannington I knew exactly where I stood, but with Nelson I’ve no idea. I suspect that he may enforce the Acts more stringently than his predecessor, but I’m not entirely certain. I haven’t returned to Nevis since his arrival, but I suppose I shall have to at some point.” He sighed. Reeve, aware that the conversation was steering close to a topic had a promised to avoid, stayed silent but smiled helpfully. “If it was just a matter of a larger bribe I could adjust accordingly, but I’ve no wish to spend time in an English gaol.”

“Nor me neither,” Reeve said. “There is talk—oh, rumors, really—that as Americans we should work to free the West Indies from the rule of King George and absorb them into the colonies. But I think that is just senior captains spoiling for a fight. We’ve no money, really, none at all.”

“Is this why you’re so eager to recruit me?” Hollee said. “The Navy gains and experienced captain without having to lay out money for a new ship?” Now he was teasing Reeve, but he knew that he had hit the mark.

“Ah, why do you think it’s taken so long for the Liberty to get repaired? No money. Can’t even get it on my own credit. I tell you, Hollee, it’s enough to make a man think of piracy! Begging your pardon.”

“No offence taken. Now I understand why you are so eager.”

“Oh, but it’s not only the Windsong, Bell,” Reeve said, leaning forward. Hollee moved back slightly, out of the range of the onions Reeve had consumed. “Not just the ship alone, but you yourself, Bell. I think you might do very well in the American Navy. The English are just a load of gentlemen who are more interested in prize money and climbing their ladder and their precious gold braid. But you’ve got principles, you’ve got ideals. You know that there are things out there worth fighting for!”

“Like what?” Hollee couldn’t stop himself, the words were out of his mouth before he knew he’d spoken.

“Like your right to sail anywhere you like. We know we ought to respect the governments and the monarchies and the claims of anyone who says so, to each island, each state. But we—“ Reeve made a complicated hand gesture that Hollee understood to include them both and any other captain who had made his home upon the seas “—we also understand that the ocean is open and free to any man who dares her. Who can stop us when we are about in our ships? Some landlubber, in an office in the Strand? I don’t think so. That’s what I’ve been trying to explain to you, Hollee—we believe in your freedom as well. A commission in the Navy wouldn’t pin you down, it would give you even more horizons, respect and the right to go anywhere you chose.”

Hollee thought for a moment. He had never heard Reeve speak so impassionedly. Enthusiastically yes, but behind this speech was a genuine glow of a fire that burned for his new country. His broad face was no less open than before, but it was softer, more honest. For one odd, fleeting moment, Hollee had the feeling that Reeve was about to lean forward and kiss him, but then the captain belched loudly and reached for the bottle again.

Picking up his knife and fork, Hollee refocused his attention on his plate. “I think you overestimate me, Adam. All I have ever wanted to do is sail. No more, no less. I appreciate that right, but I do not think I could fight for it.”

“But you have!”

“If you are referring to the incident where I rescued you and your sailors, I simply happened to be passing by at the time.”

“And you were good enough to drop us off in Baltimore instead of turning us over to the authorities!”

Hollee sighed. “I suppose I should have sailed all the way across the Atlantic with a hold full of prisoners?”

“Come, Bell, you cannot deny that you feel some stirring of patriotism when you think of our new country!”

“Your new country, I still sail under the Union Jack.”

“Nominally.”

“Even so. And if I were to carry your new flag, I would have less freedom than I have now. I could not, for example, return to Nevis.”

“Why not? I stop there all the time!”

“And leave hastily every time.”

“Harsh words!” But Reeve was smiling. Hollee, on the other hand, was growing more somber.

“You overestimate me, I tell you. If I am such a believer, as you say, then why have I chosen to come here to Philadelphia? Where I know no one—saving yourself, of course—and where I have no business? Am I merely enjoying my freedom, as you seem to think, or am I avoiding returning to the Indies?” And if I am avoiding returning, Hollee added silently, then why?

“Why, fate has merely conspired to keep you away from Nevis, that is all,” Reeve said compassionately. “You were engaged to bring Annie here, and you will take her back and you will return to Nevis. You’ve been away for long periods before this—why the sudden soul searching?”

“If I am searching, it is your fault,” Hollee said, smiling faintly. “I was ever so content to sail, but now I am expanding my horizons and enjoying my freedom. All I want is to sail!” he said plaintatively. “I do not wish to start revolutions.”

“I suspect that is what General Washington said as he set up camp on the Boston Neck,” Reeve said, rumatively. “But I know how you feel. All a sailor wishes to do is sail. But—even occasionally—we must put in, mustn’t we? We must touch terra firma no matter how much we wish to keep running before the wind.”

It was such an odd expression that Hollee was quite struck with the poetry of it. Their feasting had subsided into the slow, muddy thoughts that often accompany a heavy meal, and they sat back now, listening as a fiddler struck up a tune in the next room.

“I think,” Captain Reeve said a few moments later, fishing for his tobacco and his pipe, “that Bell Hollee must figure out what he is running from.” Aware that he had struck a chord, he lit his pipe and studied Hollee over the bowl. Hollee was not meeting his gaze, but Reeve could see that the tall man was thinking. His arms bent reflexively across his chest, his long narrow fingers folded over his maroon sleeves. “And why, dear friend, are you so afraid of whatever it is?”

Hollee had never let anyone into his most intimate confidences before, and he certainly wasn’t about to do so now, and especially not to Adam Reeve, captain and notorious gossip. But Reeve could see his questions taking hold in Hollee’s brain. Somewhere, in the back of Hollee’s brown eyes, ideas and memories that had been quite landlocked were breaking free and coming to the surface. Whatever nerve Reeve had touched, it was humming now throughout his brain, and slowly Hollee was admitting things to himself that he had never dared consider before. It wasn’t fair, he thought. Reeve believed so passionately in his causes and his country that he was unable to see the difficulties and the dangers. But Hollee was too sensible a man to let himself be distracted by high rhetoric—although for a fleeting moment he was jealous of Reeve’s boyish enthusiasm, his absolute belief the United States and in his place in the world. How simply things must appear to him. Hollee knew too much to believe the world divided into black and white, but perhaps…perhaps…

A wish sprang up in him so violently he had to put his hands on the table to steady himself.

Perhaps he was capable of believing in some things after all. Things which would conquer all difficulties, all dangers. But not a country, not a cause. Adam Reeve’s passion was too unwieldy and fanciful for someone as sensible as Hollee, but in some way he was right. Hollee needed to believe in something. For too long he had been running before the wind, with nothing solid to touch down on. But finally walls were crumbling in his memories, walls that held each of his emotions and beliefs in separate compartments. He pictured Fanny’s face in his mind, and a second later a rush of feeling moved through him—but for the first time, Hollee understood this feeling to be love, to be the passion and excitement that the poets spoke of, albeit expressed in his typical understated way. And what’s more, he finally believed that she loved him. He could hardly believe that it had taken him so long and so many miles before he accepted the fact that she loved him, and he loved her. That in fact, they should be together, for their emotions were equally matched. Hollee was in love. And, more miraculous still, he believed himself to be loved.

Reeve, who quite mistook Hollee’s epiphany, thumped him on the back, thinking him to be choking on a piece of turkey. Hollee waved him off.

“Stop, stop it, man.”

“Only you looked so pale all of a sudden.”

“I believe I begin to understand what you’re saying,” Hollee admitted carefully.

“Ah! Then you’ll join us!” Reeve leaned forward, his pipe dangling dangerously from his lips.

“Only you looked so pale all of a sudden.”

“I believe I begin to understand what you’re saying,” Hollee admitted carefully.

“Ah! Then you’ll join us!” Reeve leaned forward, his pipe dangling dangerously from his lips.

Hollee leaned forward, exasperated. He wanted to fly to Nevis that instant and tell Fanny everything—she was the only one who could possibly understand how he was feeling now. Instead, he was forced to consider Adam Reeve’s red face, grinning at him expectantly. Emotions rushed after each other—first exasperation, then anger, then a sweeping wave of indulgence, all within the span of a heartbeat. Hollee was spinning, he was in such turmoil. Quite uncharacteristically, he threw his head back and laughed, then drained his wineglass in one and held it out for a refill. Reeve was so amazed at his friend’s performance that he nearly poured wine onto the table instead of into the empty vessel.

“Adam, how long have we been friends?”

“Well now, ever since…I’d say five years? Good Lord, has it been five years?”

“Yes, all right, and in all that time, have you ever known me to change my mind? When it’s important?”

“Certainly, there was that one time you…oh, no, hang on…”

“Precisely. And now I’ll remind you of your promise not to speak of the Navy while we’re dining. I allowed you some leeway, but, really, Captain Reeve, you must try to restrain yourself.” All this said with a grin that Hollee could not quite contain plastered across his face. Reeve threw up his hands and reached for the bottle.

“Good Lord! You led me down that path, you old tempter—you know how my heart bleeds—bleeds—“ he took a swig of red wine for dramatic effect “—for America. Sometimes, literally. Say, Hollee, have I ever shown you my scar?” And he reached for his buckle, only to be stopped by Hollee’s laugh again. “What has gotten in to you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so merry!”

“Can’t a man be in a good mood?” Hollee said expansively.

“Not if he’s you. Bell Hollee has only two moods. Serious and disappointed.” This was accompanied by a long frown and a puckered forehead, a perfect imitation of Hollee’s normal way of appearing.

“This is extremely good wine,” was all that Hollee would allow, smiling.

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