Softly, She Treads Ch. 01byXyJonah©
I trust that my letter finds you in good grace and spirits; indeed, I hope that it finds you at all. I have been instructed to send it to Master George Hathaway, from whence it may be delivered to your last known location. As I do not reckon well on the chances of many such correspondences successfully completing their journey, I shall write infrequently; I know how the trivialities of daily life here bore you while you are at sea.
The Hove-Meyers attended dinner last night; Sir Latham H-M has fallen in good favour of the King; his mathematical theories (or theorem, as he continually persisted - rather boorishly - to correct me last night), while a mystery to us mere mortals, have been well-received by the Academy. Hence he has been invited to attend a position in London. Mary, naturally, could not resist making mention of this throughout the meal; I was quite exhausted by the time they left. Richard, even they recognise that a man of your status need not spend quite so much time away from home; can you not make voyages of a shorter duration?
I, myself, have received correspondence from Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, who has requested that I attend her at the Christmas Ball; I can see no reason to refuse. Especially as Elizabeth prepares for her presentation to the King; a Royal connection - no mater how tenuous - will serve her chances of finding a favourable suitor most positively.
The house is looking splendid; I have taken into our employ a new gardener, Mister Stevens, who came with recommendations from Lord and Lady Asquith. However, I do despise this new fashion of square gardens and planting that is said to be "architectural" in its nature; I have directed Stevens to follow the scheme of older, more traditional houses, and damn what is said to be popular in London. This shall remain my stance until the merits of the alternative are proved beyond doubt. These new Mediterranean plants, with their brutish odours cannot be good for the sensibilities; and I shall refuse to allow them into my kitchen as well as the grounds.
The preparations for the ball are going well, though Elizabeth's status has understandably suffered as a result of having a father who is absent for so many months of the year. I know you say your work demands it, but what of your family? You have a duty to us. Also; how is Elizabeth ever to marry suitably if an appropriate interview with her father is forever impossible to arrange?
Anyway. The girls flourish, though young Aimee is said to be struggling with her dancing lessons. I believe she will never make a proper Lady; always gallivanting about upon that mare you bought for her (whatever were you thinking?), and writing tales of nonsense and fancy. The Hove-Meyers had the audacity to suggest that her wayward behaviour came as a result of her sea-faring father; I was quick to remedy their misconceptions by explaining that, even had you been in attendance, the education of your daughters would still not have been of interest to you. This seemed to satisfy their querulousness for the evening; they remained perfectly civilised henceforth.
Finally, some bad news. I fear that I may soon have to dismiss Mrs Courtner, the Housekeeper that you hired when we married. She does insist upon addressing me directly in front of her staff. I cannot abide such insubordination, no matter how well she keeps the house. I have spoken to her of this, and reminded her that our weekly meetings to discuss issues concerning the house should be more than adequate for communication.
I trust the sea riles not too much beneath your ship, Darling, and that you will be returned to us safe and sound. Know that we miss you terribly, but are coping admirably, considering the enormous social pressures that we must face daily.
Your loving Wife,
The ship rolled heavily, causing the empty shallow bowl, charts and half-full mug of rum to clatter to the floor. Above, sounds of creaking wood, lashing waves and shouting seamen trampling back and forth could plainly be heard.
Richard Hester, ship's doctor aboard "La Bella", fumbled at his notebook, saving it from the inkwell that threatened to tip and spill its contents over the pages. He gave a heavy sigh and shuffled in his chair; forbidden to leave his quarters lest he suffer injury at the hands of the storm, his duties as the ship's doctor required him to wait for the men to be dragged down to him for attention.
It was going to be a long night.
Like many other ship-board physicians, Hester took the opportunity of a long (and normally peaceful) voyage to study and consider other disciplines. He had met several of his contemporaries, one of whom had dared to brave the voyage to Australia, who studied botany, alchemy or invention during their long hours of confinement. Hester preferred to study plants and the properties thereof, collecting seeds and samples each time the ship made land, and writing copious notes in his journal which, he hoped, would eventually offer new routes of study to his medical colleagues in Oxford.
The Mediterranean had long since become a passion of his, and he had accepted every opportunity that had crossed his path to visit there. In an average year, he would make perhaps two or three voyages, leaving from Plymouth and sailing over the summer months. Only once had he had to return to England over land, when his ship, ironically named The Stalwart, had run aground during a summer squall off the rocky coast of Corsica.
The ship heaved again, and a loud crash could be heard, followed by a chorus of shouts. At a guess, Hester reckoned on the mainmast having blown loose or, worse, the rigging snapping in the wind, sending the great beam crashing to the deck. He prayed that no-one had been injured; the ship was sailing with a light crew as it was, but Hester cleared his table in preparation just in case.
A moment later, a loud, hurried thumping sounded at his door.
"Enter," he commanded, expecting a group of men bearing an injured colleague. Instead, when the door opened, the second-mate appeared and spoke rapidly, without any due attention for rank or status.
"We're abandoning ship, sir. The mast came down heavy, cracked the deck. Cap'n says she's tilting port-ways and won't make the storm. Gather what you need; dingys're launching as we speak."
Hester frowned and nodded at the news, hastily assessing what he needed from his modest accommodation. The second-mate vanished from the doorway, and suddenly Hester was alone with his fears. Sinking. Storm. Night. It was exactly what he feared the most. No time for prayers; he'd make those in the life-boat. He hastily snatched up his satchel, opened it and stuffed what he could lay hands on inside it. His precious notebook, wrapped in a strip of leather, a stoppered jar of ink and a handful of quills were the last in before he made for the door.
Above deck, chaos reigned. The darkness splintered with lightning, his ears instantly deafened by the thunder of the storm and roar of the sea. There was an epic battle between air and water raging before his eyes, and this tiny wooden vessel was caught in the middle. A cold grip fastened about his heart and rooted him to the spot as men careered about him, fighting the gale, hanging on while great crests of water flooded over the edge of the ship, cursing the rigging that had failed and damaged the ship. As Hester watched, helpless, a young lad who hung bravely on to the tiller fell prey to a wave that caught him unaware. It loomed behind him, like a crouching cat ready to pounce, sinister and dark. It struck, swallowing the lad whole, and then vanished with him its jaws. The tiller, now out of control, heaved the ship yet harder from side to side, and Hester lost his footing.
"She's comin' apart!" came a cry, "Abandon ship!" A bell was tolling in dull, endless peals as Hester fought to stay afloat, one hand reaching blindly for anything to grip onto, while the other fought to keep hold of his case; unconscious medical imperative demanding that he remain the ship's doctor and not merely another victim of this raging storm.
The Captain, a fine man who Hester had briefly become friends with, proved his mettle and captaincy as he fought the wind, leaned into the piercing, stabbing rain and plunged through the endless torrent of waves. Slowly, he made his way to the tiller, taking hold of it firmly and securing it with a coil of rope that had fallen wetly at the side. His hands were numb, bleeding, yet they did not fail him. Knots learned in boyhood and practised ever since secured the tiller and bought the ship precious moments.
Hester's last sight of that noble man as the doctor washed over the side of the foundering ship was one of a man who was watching his world end; there was no doubt in Hester's mind that the captain would perish that night, defying the wind and rain and thunder until his very last breath aboard his ship. The captain watched, the rain and the seawater failing to hide the tears streaming over his cheeks as his men fought the elements and died in failure.
The sea, impossibly, was yet colder. Hester drew a breath of shock before he found himself dragged under. Great bubbles of air rose all around him as the ship slowly began her descent to the bottom. No longer able to feel his legs, Hester somehow kicked and kicked again until he found himself once more at the boiling surface of the traitorous sea. He heaved a breath, fighting to swim toward some floating debris to buoy himself up with. A wave lifted him high and, for a moment, he looked down upon the ship that was rapidly sinking - her captain still clinging to the tiller, sobbing for his men. And then Hester was falling; the wave that had taken his up high now released him with stomach-churning cruelty. Hester felt a scream rip from his throat, but did not hear it. He was halfway through his desperate prayer when darkness took him. Oblivion welcomed him with relish.
A line split the horizon; a slash of gold between two heavy sides of black-blue. Sunrise? Sunset? Glimmering sparkles danced upon the water; to stare at them was to be blinded. He closed his eyes; tiny flecks of light marked the darkness behind his eyelids; the light haunted him. Which way is East? He opened his eyes again, looking for a guide star or, perhaps, Mercury or Venus. Save the narrow band of light, the sky and the sea were equally opaque; time would show him soon enough.
Cold, slippery stone grazed his cheek when he tried to lift his head; a shock of pain shot down his spine. Suddenly nervous, he gently shifted one leg then the other, listening intently for the sound of his shoes scraping over the rock. Satisfied that, at least, his legs were still in reasonable working order, he repeated the exercise with his arms.
Left... fingers... wrist... elbow... Another bolt of pain shuddered through his shoulder; his physician's guess was that it was dislocated. His right arm he could barely feel at all; his fingers felt tingly and warm, and he could not explain the sensation.
It was time to move; the bolt of light across the horizon was narrowing; sunset. At the least, he had been lying here at least a full day, for the ship had sunk at night, and night approached once more. He shifted his hips beneath him, biting back an unseemly roar of pain, and dared a glance at his right hand, expecting the worst.
A large black dog licked amicably at his fingers. It spied him looking at it and paused in its ministrations. After a single blink and a relaxed yawn, the dog returned to its duty. He twitched his fingers, making the dog jump. At least he had sensation, no matter the void of revulsion he would normally feel..
He shifted again, trying to get his left arm over his side, intending to push himself to sitting with his right hand. The pain of this apparently simple motion made him retch. Gritting his teeth, he eventually found himself lying upon his right side. A push with his right arm had him sitting. A shift to his right brought his legs, bent at the knees, beneath him and then, awkwardly, he climbed to his feet.
The dog barked again, excited, threatened, surprised - Hester ignored it, choosing instead to glance up at the skies. Pregnant and heavy with rain; the clouds loomed like executioners awaiting the nod to begin. Tension in the air heralded thunder. A rocky beach was no place for an injured man to sit out another storm. Yet where was he to go? In the darkness, a man could easily break a leg on such treacherous rocks, and he lacked the guidance of the stars or familiarity of the terrain to guide him.
He glanced at the dog, tentatively reaching out to offer his hand in polite greeting. The dog sniffed at his fingers, gave them a courteous lick and barked a single time. An agreement had been struck; Hester petted the dog and took a step closer; the failing light already making deceitful shadows upon the ground. The dog bounded away a few yards, then turned to watch its charge. It barked again, waited for Hester to stand abreast of it, and bounded off once more. Hester winced in pain but found the challenge of keeping up with dog while not falling prey of the rocks was quickly enough to distract him from his injuries.
They made slow progress, the man and the dog, slipping like thieves along the rocks until the dog found a familiar passageway and waited, tail wagging, eyes pinpricks of dull light in the gloom. Hester, sweating heavily at the effort, dizzy from pain and hunger, leaned against the rocks. They were at the foot of a low cliff; overhead, a shelf of rock loomed against the swelling storm clouds. The dog barked again - and this time was answered. Hester fought his panic, forced his eyes to find the black dog once more and followed it into its den.
Within, the darkness was total. Hester used his hands to feel blindly in front of him; after catching his head on a low bar of rock, he took to his knees and shuffled uncertainly forward. The pain in his shoulder had numbed to a pulsing, constant ache, and Hester longed for reprieve; if only he still had his satchel - and morphine kit. The hound barked twice in staccato ahead of him, and the scent of dog grew heavily in the back of Hester's nostrils, filling his throat and making him sneeze, sending another shudder of agony through his battered body. A moment later, his shuffling was interrupted by a cold nose thrusting into his face and a whine. Hester sat down and leaned against the wall, his dislocated arm hanging limply at his side, his breath coming in ragged, hard pants. The dog settled on his left side and was quickly joined by another - its mate? Too exhausted to even lift his hand, Hester let this new dog sniff as it pleased while he caught his breath.
His head felt heavy with the need for food and sleep, yet he realised that he could not yet rest while his shoulder was still out of its socket; the swelling would soon prove to be too much to return the joint. Remembering his brief forays into anatomy, he shifted forward and turned his damaged arm behind his back, struggling to remember the exact angle the joint was set at. After two attempts of slamming himself back and downwards against the wall, a sickening click rang in his ears, and a feeling of warm and immediate comfort ran down his arm. He moaned with relief, and was answered by a shift of the dog at his side, which lifted its head into Hester's lap. There was no more to be done; Hester let go of consciousness and fell heavily asleep.
When he awoke, the cave was empty. He knew this even before he opened his eyes, for the immediate stench of dog had lessened. His instinct was confirmed when he dared a glance around his surroundings. Dim light had found its way into the small cave and revealed it vacant, save for himself. It was surprisingly clean; no piles of bones or faeces, and was largely dome-shaped, perhaps twelve feet in diameter. Save for the entrance that ran like a fissure, for some six feet or so, the cave was circular and sealed. Content that he was safe for the time being, and feeling somewhat stronger in himself, Hester stretched out upon the cave floor and slept again.
The next time he woke, the light was stronger, and one of the dogs had returned. This dog was smaller, shaped like a terrier and was a light brindle colour. Hester gave a cough of amusement; Amelia would adore the dog; its ilk were currently popular among the fashionable in London. At the thought of his wife, he felt a stab of guilt; she had asked him not to attend this voyage - something to do with Elizabeth's coming out. He had shuddered at the thought of all these mindless interviews and presentations, claiming that he had never seen this part of the Mediterranean in Autumn. His poor wife, always craving the status he could never offer her...
He was snatched back to reality at the sound of footsteps. At first he thought he was imagining them; so soft and halting were they. But soon a shadow could be seen growing into the cave from the entrance. His first instinct was to hide; to press himself against the wall of the cave and pray the entrance would be passed by. He reflected rapidly upon this, unable to explain his urge for solitude; he was injured, hungry, thirsty and shipwrecked.
"Hello?" he called in a cracked voice that startled him for not sounding like his own. the shadow paused, the brindle terrier in the cave with him barked. Hester gathered himself to call again.
"Who's in there?" A woman's voice returned. Hester took a moment to absorb this shock of femininity.
"My name is Richard Hester," he managed, his voice dry and painful, rasping out of his throat and drawing a bout of coughing with it.
"Richard Hester... How came you to be living in a cave with dogs?" She sounded wryly amused.
"I was shipwrecked," he replied, a wave of emotion washing over him. "Two nights since. At least, I think it was two nights."
The shadows in the cave mouth grew; the figure of a woman was drawn in an explicit silhouette; Hester could not say whether she was naked or not. A bundle of hair seemed to flow over one shoulder to her waist. One arm was extended toward him and seemed to be carrying a blade.
"Three. A ship was lost three nights ago. You didn't answer my question. How cames't you here?"
"The ship foundered; I was washed overboard... I awoke on the rocks. Another storm... the dog brought me here." The brief speech exhausted his voice; his larynx froze and he feel into another fit of coughing.
"All right," said the women, stepping into the cave. The brindle terrier sniffed and lay down with its back to the woman. "Three nights on a beach... here." She replaced her blade into its sheathe; Hester could see that she wore tight black leggings and tunic, both inexpertly made and held in place by a leather belt. Her hair was dark and long, and hung to her waist in lazy partial curls. Her expression was sardonic, yet bemused as she leant closer to peer uncertainly at him. After a moment, she gave a nod. From somewhere behind her, she produced a leather skin. He accepted it, removed the stopper from the mouth and tested the liquid. Water; sweet, cool water. He drank deeply, uncaring for his shaking, clumsy hand that sent trickles of water out the sides of his mouth and down his shirt. The woman laughed and crouched next to him, accepting the water skin when he had finished with it. She secured it at her back to her belt and leant over him. She smelled heavily of strange herbs and salt.
"Let's have a look at you, Richard Hester." Though he doubted she had any formal training, her hands were certain and steady as they moved over him; bones were checked, bruises were tested, the swelling in his shoulder drew a slight intake of breath. Finally she gave her verdict. "You'll recover. Especially if you leave this cave. Come on." With that she straightened, stroked the dog and turned to leave the cave.