Red Sky at Morning, part 2
In which someone has the advantage of Mr. Kennedy...
The Peddler's Pig was a medium-sized tavern located at the end of one of Portsmouth's many cobblestone streets. It was a dirty white building, with no pretensions to be anything other than it was: a fine place for sailors and the like to get good and drunk. For a couple of pence, there were beds to be had. For certain respected persons who could afford to pay for the privilege, there was a private courtyard in the back of the tavern, located down a narrow flight of outside stairs and through an iron gate. The courtyard did have a back door into the tavern, which would be kept open on warm nights to let the cool salt air in. On this night, the door was open.
The inside of the Peddlers pig was one big rowdy festival, barmaids scurrying among men in various stages of inebriation. The candles and lamps made an oil painting out of the scene, all lights and darks and glistening sheens of sweat on overly-passionate faces. Here and there a snatch of song rang out, then the raised voices of a heated argument, then raucous laughter, all blending together and creating the perfect evening for lonely sailors home from the sea.
Except for those whose loneliness could not be touched.
"He didn't come along, eh?" Mr. Bracegirdle said as he carved into the roast chicken that the tavern girl had just brought him. He gave Archie, who was sitting opposite him, a shake of his head and sighed. "Shame. He needs the relaxation, if what I've heard about Muzillac is true."
Archie cocked his head in agreement, didn't say anything. They were sitting with the other officers of the Indefatigable, at a long wooden table in the back of the tavern - one of the few spots left, by the time they'd gotten there. Styles, Oldroyd, and Matthews were sitting some yards away with the other seamen, engaged in losing their pay in a heated game of dice. From the sound of their combined laughter, if they were losing it didn't bother them at all.
The open door to the courtyard was at Archie's back, and as he lifted his chicken-laden fork to his mouth Bracegirdle glanced around him at the loud sounds coming from that place. "Hm, well. Shouldn't be surprised to see them here."
Archie turned around, looked through the open door to see a group of officers lounging in the torchlit courtyard, some with girls on their knees, some playing cards, others just drinking and talking. Turning back to Bracegirdle he asked, "Who are they?"
"Oh - " Bracegirdle finished chewing his chicken and swallowed. "Some of the men off the Courageous. A frigate like ours, but a lot luckier when it comes to running down and capturing ships." He peered out into the torchlit courtyard and grinned. "Looks like they've done very well for themselves again, I imagine. Captain probably handed out the prize money and told them to have a good time."
Archie nodded again, his eyes on the tankard of ale in front of him. Seeing the youth's downcast expression, Bracegirdle set his fork down and asked, "Pardon me, Mr. Kennedy, but is something troubling you? You aren't your usual congenial self."
Archie blinked in surprise, glanced quickly around to the other officers at the table, and saw that he had the conversation with Bracegirdle all to himself. Then he shrugged and said, "My apologies, Mr. Bracegirdle. I suppose I'm still somewhat at Muzillac myself."
"Ah, yes?" Bracegirdle leaned back with a small smile. "I heard about that too. You dragged our Mr. Hornblower across a bridge loaded with explosives, very courageous indeed."
Archie pursed his lips, shook his head. "Anyone else would have done the same."
Bracegirdle gave a small laugh and cut into his chicken again. "Don't sell yourself short, young man. Not the way to become a commissioned lieutenant."
"I suppose." Archie replied in an offhand way, his eyes scanning the smoky tavern. An tall, sharp-featured officer was working his way through the milling throng, drink in one hand and a cigar in his teeth. Archie gave him a perfunctory glance and put one hand on the handle of his tankard, noticed out of the corner of his eye the officer was on his way out into the courtyard.
"Well," Bracegirdle sighed as he continued working on the chicken, "At least while we're in port you and Mr. Hornblower can recover from our holiday in France. We'll be here a week, at least."
Archie took a drink, set his tankard down. "Why do you say that?"
"Hmph," Bracegirdle said around his mouthful of chicken, "That's right, you didn't see the sunrise today. Reddest sky I ever saw."
"Oh." Archie said with a knowing smile. "That old saying,then."
Bracegirdle smiled and raised his finger in admonition, "Trust me, we'll have storms in a fortnight. That'll keep the Indie in harbor till the weather clears."
Archie was about to agree, just to be polite, when suddenly a voice behind him boomed, "Why, as I live and breathe, I do believe it's Mr. Kennedy!"
Shocked, Archie sat bolt upright and turned in his seat. It was the sharp-faced officer, standing in the doorway to the courtyard still holding his ale and smiling broadly.
Archie frowned, squinted at the man. He was unknown to him.
"I am right, aren't I?" The stranger asked jovially, advancing a few paces to the table, "You are midshipman Archie Kennedy?"
"Ah - " Archie paused.
"It's acting lieutenant now, sir," Bracegirdle said proudly.
"Is it!" The officer smiled even more broadly and sticking the cigar in his mouth, extended one hand toward Archie. "Congratulations."
Archie took the hand and shook it. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, sir."
"Oh," The officer laughed as he removed the cigar from his mouth, "I'm sure I do. Lieutenant Trevor Creps, of the Courageous."
Again he offered his hand, and Archie took it. As they shook hands Bracegirdle chuckled, "Well, there you are, Mr. Kennedy, you mustn't ever doubt yourself. Five minutes on dry land and you're as sought after as the king himself."
"Indeed," Trevor said congenially, gesturing toward the courtyard. "Mr. Kennedy, would you do us the honor of joining us in the courtyard? Much cooler and more pleasant than among this rabble, no disrespect to the officers."
"None taken," Bracegirdle replied as he forked a potato.
Archie blinked in surprise, looked at the courtyard full of unfamiliar faces, then back at his senior officer.
"Oh, don't mind me, Mr. Kennedy," Bracegirdle said with a wave of his hand. "Go on, you've been summoned to the court of Solomon."
Archie nodded, stood up with his tankard in hand. Leaning a little toward Bracegirdle he said, "Sir, would you tell Horatio where I am, when he arrives?"
"Of course," Bracegirdle assented as Trevor stepped back to allow Archie out from the table. After hesitating a moment, Archie walked outside into the courtyard, Trevor right behind him.
Bracegirdle watched them go, shaking his head at the randomness of fortune. He cut off another piece of chicken and was about to put it into his mouth when he noticed someone standing next to him. He looked over and saw Matthews peering at him inquisitively. Clearing his throat he said, "Yes?"
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," the elder seaman said, "But who was that with Mr. Kennedy, just now?"
"Mr. Creps, of the Courageous." Bracegirdle replied.
Matthews nodded, as if the answer was the confirmation of a suspicion, and glanced out into the courtyard, scratching his scant beard with a worried expression on his face.
"Matthews?" Bracegirdle said softly.
"Sir." Matthews looked at him.
Bracegirdle searched his face. "Is there something else?"
Matthews stared into the courtyard again, then looked at the floor. "No, Sir. Sorry to trouble you." And hesitatingly walked away from the door, and back to his table.
Styles looked up from the dice as Matthews sat down. "What was that all about?" he asked.
Matthews shook his head, his small eyes dark as they glared into the distant courtyard. "Best keep your eyes sharp, lads. There's more than a storm brewin' tonight."
Oldroyd, never the most astute of the group, looked up, clearly puzzled. "What? Wit' them officers?"
Styles followed Matthews' gaze out into the courtyard, then shrugged. "Your turn."
Matthews looked down at the table, but he was still shaking his head, and his grizzled face was tight with worry. "There'll be trouble tonight, with that crew about. You mark my words."
The courtyard was cooler than the inside of the tavern, and cleaner of air besides. Archie breathed the salt air deeply, then glanced again at his host. He couldn't place the man for the life of him. "Even though we've been introduced, I'm afraid you still have an advantage over me, sir. Have we met before?"
"No," Trevor said, stopping at an unoccupied table some short distance away from where the other officers were engaged in a game of cards. As he motioned for Archie to sit down, Trevor continued, "Let us say we have a mutual friend, who spoke very highly of you. From his description I was able to make a fair guess. And I smote it, I dare say."
Archie sat down, his face a mask of puzzlement. "He must have spoken highly of me indeed to induce you to invite me into your revels. I suspect I owe him my thanks." Archie scanned the faces of the officers again, but none of them looked even the slightest bit familiar. "What's his name?"
Trevor didn't hesitate. "Jack Simpson."
Archie froze, felt the courtyard floor drop away beneath him as he stared ahead in shock. Simpson.
"Yes," Trevor sighed, running one hand down his pants leg as if he hadn't noticed that Archie had turned completely white. "He was much an admirer of yours, Mr. Kennedy, he was heartbroken when you were transferred to the Indefatigable. And now, any hope of a happy reunion is...well, shall we say, indefinitely postponed."
Archie blinked, and sat very still.
"All the same," Trevor leaned forward on the table and stared at Archie keenly. "I'm sure you miss Old Jack, I know the lot of us do. So we band together, you see, to ease ourselves through our period of mourning. We'd be honored if you'd join us."
Archie swallowed, found that his mouth had gone completely dry. Shaking his head a little he said, "I'm afraid I must - decline that generous offer. My time and my offices are bound to the Indefatigable."
"Yes, I'm sure they are," Trevor leaned back with a slight scowl of disappointment. He looked Archie up and down.
Archie began to feel as if he couldn't breathe, stood up with great haste. "My apologies, Mr. Creps, but I must get back to my shipmates. My thanks for your - "
Trevor's dark eyes were sharp as razors as they locked onto Archie's. "Who's this Horatio?"
Archie felt his blood go cold, took a half-step backward and said nothing.
Trevor tilted his head inquiringly. "Friend of yours? *New* friend of yours? Does he prefer the same sort of...company...that Jack did?"
Calm, Archie begged himself, stay calm. In as steady a voice as he could manage he said, "Good night, lieutenant. Thank you for the hospitality."
"My pleasure." Trevor said, his voice indicating otherwise as he studied Archie closely. "Perhaps I will meet your friend too, sometime. Perhaps he will mourn old Jack's passing with us."
"I rather doubt it." Archie couldn't help but mutter as he turned away.
"Oh, well," Trevor said lazily as he rose to his feet. "It needn't be willingly."
Archie felt as if a knife had stabbed him. He spun around to face Trevor, knew what the man was implying with his velvet-covered words. Calm - calm - but he could not be calm. In a soft voice barely hissed through clenched teeth Archie said, "You attempt such a thing and I promise you will answer for it."
Trevor's eyebrows raised slightly. "A threat, from you? The fit-ridden weakling of the Justinian?"
Archie didn't move, wanted desperately to tear Trevor Creps apart right then and there. If it would help - if it would stop the clamoring in his brain -
But no. It was not the time, or the place. He simply stared into Trevor's eyes and poured every ounce of hatred he had into his own gaze, so the man would see it. See it and know.
Trevor saw it, Archie was sure he did, but he didn't react. Instead, he just let out a small snort of contempt and sat back down with his tankard.
The courtyard suddenly held the stink of rot and decay in its warm night air. Feeling a desperate need to remove himself, Archie turned around and walked quickly out of it, and back into the rectangle of light that held the tavern within it.
Bracegirdle had just finished his chicken and was starting in on the bread pudding when he looked up to see Archie Kennedy striding back into the tavern, looking rather upset.
"Back so soon?" Bracegirdle asked in surprise. "I thought you'd - "
Archie's eyes shot around the crowded room, once, then again. His voice was breathless. "Horatio's not here?"
Bracegirdle looked behind him, then back at Archie. "No, not yet. Most likely he's decided not to come, if he's this late."
"Good." Archie whispered.
The word was said with such relief that Bracegirdle was curious. Putting his spoon down he said, "Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie glanced at him, blinked as if he'd just noticed him. Then he shook his head and sat down at the table. "Good - he needs his rest." He glanced behind him, back into the courtyard, nodding to himself. "I'll stay here then."
Bracegirdle eyed Archie curiously. "Is everything all right, Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie hesitated, just for a moment. Then he smiled and said, "Yes, Mr. Bracegirdle, it will be. It will be, just fine."
Bracegirdle took Archie's word for it, but could not help wondering as he dug into his bread pudding why the young lieutenant suddenly looked so awfully pale.
Trevor sat there in the courtyard for a moment, his lips pursed, thinking as he studied the flickering flames that surrounded the courtyard.
One of the officers looked up from the prostitute in his lap and laughed, "What's the matter, Trevor? Did you insult your guest?"
Trevor's eyes darted downward, then sideways, then back to the tavern door. The torchlight flickered off his face, turned it into a labyrinth of light and shadow. Taking a deep breath, he turned to the officer and asked in a low voice, "Phillip, do you know any seamen about with the first name of Horatio?"