A Gentleman of Means
by Shelley Adina
Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
Continued from previous post…
But it was already too late. The middy stood in the open door, staring at the empty valises that had contained the breathing apparatus worn by each of her friends.
“They’re not here, Miss,” he said. “I’ll have to call a search—can’t have civilians wandering about this vessel unescorted.”
“They are both engineers,” she said sharply. “I am quite certain they won’t pull at the levers just for amusement. Come along. I am missing the view.”
“Begging your pardon, miss, but I must do my duty.”
He slipped past her navy linen skirts like an eel and before she could remedy the damage, a search party had been organized and sent out.
The inevitable result, of course, was that her fibs and falsehoods were exposed for exactly what they were. But this did not signify, because in the ten minutes the search had taken, they had traveled even farther out to sea. Gloria took the cool cloth from the basin, applied it to her own forehead, and sank onto the bunk, her knees incapable of holding her up any longer.
She had sent her friends to their deaths.
At the moment of their greatest happiness, when they were looking forward to a rewarding life together—when they had achieved that which Gloria herself wanted most in the world—she had failed at the single task they had set her.
Failed abysmally. Fatally.
Sick, with cold chills of horror running through her veins, Gloria lay on the bottom bunk and wished for the first time in her life that she could die, too. Perhaps she would. Perhaps the shame and the grief would eat at her until she wasted away like a consumptive.
She would deserve nothing less.
A knock sounded at the door. “Miss Meriwether-Astor, are you quite well?”
It was Captain Hayes. With a sigh, she curled up, her face to the iron wall.
“Miss Meriwether-Astor, I am coming in. I am quite taken aback.”
Bother the propriety of it. He was captain of this vessel and if he only knew, shared some small part of the murder that lay so heavily on her conscience. She couldn’t care less whether he came in or not.
“My dear girl, are you quite all right? What is the meaning of this merry chase you have been leading us?”
There was nothing for it. She was going to have to tell him. But she must do it like a lady of spirit.
She must do it as Claire might.
She rolled over and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bunk and going to the porthole just in time to see a kraken’s curly tentacle caress the glass and slip off.
“Oh,” she choked, and turned to face him, tears springing afresh at the reminder that there could be more than one fate for an underwater swimmer in this most dangerous of cities.
“Do not be afraid,” he said, clearly misunderstanding her behavior. “The kraken are curious creatures. Once they realize we are not edible, they tend to leave us alone. But please. You must tell me what is going on, for I am quite at a loss as to how to account for my missing passengers.”
She took a deep breath. And then she told him.
Not all of it. Not about the part her father had played—his deal to import convict labor from the transport ships to increase the population of convicts who scrubbed and cleaned the gearworks as the sentence for their crimes. That was too shameful for a word of it ever to cross her lips. But about Jake’s and Captain Hollys’s wrongful imprisonment … and the rescue that Claire and Andrew had attempted … and their certain deaths? Oh yes. While she felt a thimbleful of compunction that she was forced to cast him in such a dreadful role, he had brought it on himself. If he had only listened and done as she asked, both of them would not now have the deaths of two—four!—innocent people on their hands.
Captain Hayes groped behind him for a chair and, finding none, folded himself onto the bunk next to her as his knees gave out. “I cannot believe it.”
“It is quite true. And now also quite impossible to rectify. They are almost certainly dead.”
“And if they are not, they will be long before we can turn the ship about and retrace our course. We are ten leagues at least from Venice now.” He lifted his head, his eyes wide with shock, his face pale. “Why did you not tell me the truth?”
“Would you have believed it any more readily than the lie?”
Her honesty seemed to shock him, and it took a moment before he could reply. “Possibly not. I am frankly still not quite ready to credit you, my employer’s daughter, gently reared and educated, with breaking condemned men out of a Venetian gaol.”
“I was not, in fact, to break them out. I was merely to provide the conveyance. And now I must live with the knowledge that my friends’ last thought before dying was undoubtedly that I had betrayed them and left them to drown.”
He winced, and she instantly regretted the childish urge to lessen her own pain by increasing his.
“I am sorry, Captain. That was unfair when you had no reason to imagine what we were concealing from you.”
“Is there anything else?”
“That I am concealing? No,” she said bitterly. “Only my own shame and horror, which I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”
He was silent a moment. “Then let us have perfect clarity between us,” he said at last. “I must tell you that we are not joining the fleet out in the Adriatic.”
“We are not?” Gloria’s heart bumped against her ribs with a sudden rush of hope. “Then may we return to Venice? At least we might recover the bodies of my friends and have something more to tell their families than—than—”
“We cannot return.” He got up slowly, as though testing his legs’ ability to hold him up. “I am very much afraid that we will be taking you to Gibraltar, where an airship is waiting to take us to England.”
She stared at him. “England? ‘Us’? Are you mad? I have no desire to go to England with you or anyone. Father and I are to return to the Fifteen Colonies once his business here is concluded.”
At last the captain’s gaze met hers, and in it she saw that he had left horror and shock behind with an effort of will, and had allowed resolve to flow in. “I am afraid not.” He reached into the jacket of his uniform and for a frozen moment she thought he would withdraw a gun.
But it was merely a handkerchief, with which he wiped his brow.
“Please make yourself comfortable for the journey,” he said. “You will not be locked in, for we have secured the torpedo tubes, and there is no other means of escape.”
“But why?” she managed. “What is the meaning of this—this abduction?”
“I am not at liberty to say,” he told her. “But rest assured that you have committed no crime and will not be harmed in any way.” And with this mystifying pronouncement, he bowed to her and returned to the bridge.
At an utter loss, Gloria sank onto the bunk and wished, not for the first time, that she had never been born.