The woman showed no surprise at the midshipman’s entrance. She stared at him, a smile nudging at the corners of her lips.
Bligh stood with mouth hanging open; a small boy caught stealing apples from the orchard. He had seen this fine green dress once before; across Bantry Bay, on a captain’s wife with a kerchief pressed against her mouth because she could not bear the smell of the harbour. Gone was the timid, sickly looking woman who had rushed off in her carriage as soon as it was politic, replaced with this confident, sensual creature.
“I was looking for…” whispered Bligh. His voice sounded childlike and tiny amongst the oak beams.
“You were looking for Ugly Bertha,” prompted the woman, her voice low and melodious. Bligh could smell orange blossom from the woman, the scent replacing the dank rot of the hold.
The woman held out her arms to each side of her petite shoulders. “Here she is.”
Bligh blinked, the scent of this goddess seeming to cloud his mind. Surely, surely the likes of Spratt and Acheson, and most of the rest of the crew of the Cleopatra if rumour was to be believed, had not…could not have… This was a woman who belonged in ballrooms and at garden parties, not in the stinking hull of a man of war.
“I was told…”
“Were you? Or did you just leap to conclusions?”
Bligh shook his head mutely. Now that he thought on it, not one man had actually said that they had lain with Ugly Bertha.
“Why is the captain keeping you down here?” asked Bligh in amazement.
“Do you really think that my husband sanctions my being on board?”
Bligh’s thoughts went back to two days ago, when whores had been forced from the ship at bayonet-point on Cowan’s orders.
“But then why come aboard and risk him finding out?”
The young midshipman had been unconsciously edging forwards towards the light and the woman’s beauty. He checked himself. As if noticing the young midshipman’s fascination, the woman’s lips curled into a small smile again.
“Far above the social plane at which you operate, young master midshipman, ambition is seen as the purview of men alone. They are seen as responsible for chasing fortune, luxury and fame, whilst my responsibilities lie with constructing conversation and arranging lace doilies to please the eye.”
The smile dropped from her face and her previously warm voice took on a flat and harsh tone.
“You have seen my husband command. He is cruel and vain. Left to his own devices, the Cleopatra would be under mutiny by morning. My fortune and advancement rest upon his command and upon this ship successfully taking prizes in the West Indies.”
Bligh thought of his men, simple seamen who lived from one bottle and woman to the next.
“And so you promise them favours if they obey the captain,” he said grimly, gritting his teeth at the thought of Spratt blithely disregarding his back in ribbons. Slowly, the crew’s slide into acquiescence began to make sense.
“I promised them nothing,” she replied sharply.
Cowan’s wife softened once more, the small smile returning. “I simply let them imagine what might be to come if they obey my husband. After all, if my husband is not the captain of the Cleopatra, then I cannot be on board.”
“That is not fair,” replied Bligh, aware of how childlike he must sound. “You are letting them anticipate something that will never come to pass. I will not have them travel, some of them to their deaths, in your thrall.”
She laughed then, a tinkling sound that brought Bligh to a place of fine china and chandeliers, rather than the belly of a warship.
“Child,” she said condescendingly. “Do not think for a moment that you would not be under that same thrall should I choose it. Your friends are happy! See them holystone the decks with smiles upon their faces, climb the rigging with a spring in their gait and furl the sails with a song upon their lips once more! For what is happiness but believing that something worthwhile is around the next headland?”
“It is not right. You will not take these men to their deaths by trickery. I will tell the captain and then you will see the hull of this ship from the other side!”
“And risk the wrath of your shipmates?” asked the woman, raising her eyebrows. “One by one they have plodded down here with heavy feet and heavier hearts. They have left secure in the belief that they are making a mockery of their captain. Who are you to take their happiness away from them?”
She stood up, taller than she looked.
“What will you achieve by going to my husband?” she asked, suddenly imperious. “A shamed captain, a woman thrown off the ship, and angry shipmates. What right have you to decide so many fates? My husband is a pedant and cruel with it. Let me act as a counterweight to his tyranny.”
Bligh looked up at her, a child in front of a schoolmistress. He thought of spilling everything to the captain. Who would thank him? Certainly not Cowan, whose reputation and career would be in ruins. Even if he were successful, then what? The seamen would still be sent to the West Indies with a cuckolded captain, and they would be denied the one ray of light making its way through the deck planks.
He looked up to the ceiling and felt the weight of two thousand oak trees pressing down upon him. So dismal was the light, and so black the walls. The captain’s wife watched him, elegant and replete in her mastery, before taking her seat again.
It was full dark as Bligh climbed onto the deck of the Cleopatra once more. He walked in a daze towards the poop deck. A sea fog had risen, shrouding the Cleopatra in an unearthly miasma. The mist clung to him, swirling around and reaching into his blue coat, fogging and clouding his mind. Already the woman in the bowels of the ship seemed like an apparition, a ghost.
A wooden board creaked, and Bligh glanced towards the aft of the ship. Grey swirls of vapour encircled the mizzenmast, high and naked in the winter night, but there was no man in sight. Bligh strained his eyes. Nothing moved. He shivered. Had the Cleopatra indeed been bewitched? Every man working with unnatural vigour? Visions of angels in the depths of the ship?
Another creak, and the young midshipman turned towards what he was sure was the sound of breathing. There was again nothing.
There, in the darkness, a footstep. And another. Bligh felt his mouth go dry as he saw the beginnings of a shape come towards him. Not hurrying, but deliberately and purposefully it stalked, as though secure in the knowledge that its prey was too terrified to move. Through the gloom came a pair of knee-high boots, into which pantaloons were tightly tucked. Even in the biting Atlantic air the man wore nothing over his dark blue uniform. Despite himself, Bligh dropped his gaze to the deck at the sight of Captain Cowan. Supercilious and cold, the captain held his hands behind his back as he walked slowly towards his midshipman.
“Cap’n,” muttered Bligh.
Cowan merely nodded. The man loomed over Bligh, tall and imperious. The midshipman had seen men flogged half to death at the instruction of this captain. He had seen others fall to the deck in fear of his displeasure and still more cold, hungry, and doomed to months in a disease-ridden colony at his orders. Still Bligh could not meet his stare. Perhaps there really was something unnatural about the captain. Perhaps prowling the coves and bays hunting for smugglers in moonlight and silence had changed him. Perhaps that was why he chose now to stalk the decks in the creeping fog, appearing from his cabin only when all was quiet and when all was dark.
Cowan glanced quickly at the bandage tied around Bligh’s head.
“You were upset with the way I dealt with your man,” said Cowan in his nasal voice. Not waiting for a reply from Bligh, he continued. “I will not tolerate insubordination, or any appearance of insubordination, on my vessel.”
Bligh began to speak but was cut short.
“Cooperation is of the utmost importance when running an efficient seventy-four, Mr. Bligh. I most heartily believe that.”
“But one hundred and fifty lashes…” began Bligh before he could stop himself. He stopped short once he realised that the words had left his mouth. They seemed to hang in the air with the mist. Cowan said nothing for a moment.
“When I wish advice from a fellow seaman it will not be from a midshipman”, said the captain in a quiet and deadly voice, turning his icy eyes on Bligh. “Especially one who has heard talk of mutiny amongst his company and yet done nothing.”
Bligh felt his heart drop in his chest. Surely, surely the captain had not found out about the discussion by the galley stove. If Cowan had been told by Hooker of the talk of mutiny then his naval career was over. Thinking fast, he made a decision. If he told Cowan of his wife’s presence in the hold, then at least he would have something to bargain with.
Bligh began to speak, but was again forestalled.
“As I was saying…cooperation is of the utmost importance. The trust a crew has in its captain, the trust a man has in his wife.”
The midshipman’s breath caught in his throat. Now was the moment. Now was his opportunity to tell the captain about his wife. At least then the men would not go to the Caribbean under false promises. Cowan looked at his hands.
“Cooperation is the key to a well-run ship. A crew must run from a captain’s wrath and to the rewards that he offers them.”
Cowan held out his hands to either side of his immaculate uniform.
“On one hand, I will ruthlessly punish any transgression on board my vessel. I am the stick and have been on every ship I have ever commanded.”
The captain tapped his foot on the immaculate decking.
“As for the reward,” he said, smiling for the first time. “Well, as I remember saying to you, Mr. Bligh, the trust a man has in his wife…”
The captain turned and clasped his hands behind his back once more, starting the slow tread that took him back towards the wheel and into the mists that quickly closed in around him.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0.