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The Voyage Home

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The trouble with the situation, Rose decided nearly immediately upon being deposited in a tiny cabin well away from the bunks of the enlisted men, was that her entire unconventional courtship had been conducted under pressures not commonly found in civilized life. Not, she conceded, that shipboard life with a naval crew constituted civilized life; however, she found that there were more shared features between the two than might be expected.

Either way, she was separated from Charlie and kept alone, and where a month ago she might have thought solitude should be acceptable, it was, somewhat surprisingly, not. It seemed several weeks of adventure had cured her of any belief that quiet prayer and introspection were any kind of life (she apologized silently to Samuel when she realized this, but just the once; apologizing for her nature seemed particularly useless, and it was hardly her fault that she and Samuel had been cut from different cloths), and a short week into their voyage she’d concluded that every topic of contemplation was either worn out, fruitless, or unproductive without a companion for discussion.

And talking to the men who silently saw to her meals was even less satisfactory than simply speaking to the walls of her cabin; the walls, she could not expect to answer and so could not be disappointed.

There were no other women on the ship, the explanation for which was that this would bring bad luck; privately Rose suspected that this was merely a cover for the truth, which was that unless the women present were sufficient to keep all of the men satisfied, there would be fights. Men lacked discipline. Even Charlie would have given up before the rapids, without Rose’s will to drive him, and he was, in comparison to the men with whom Rose had limited contact here on the ship, positively a beacon of self-direction and focus.

Rose felt this boded ill for England, but she was in no position to improve the King’s navy, and so she kept her thoughts to herself.

Well, herself, the meal-boys, and her walls. In effect, this was similar. At least she was not among those made queasy by the rocking motion of a ship at sea, so she wasn't sick, just bored.

It occurred to her, in the third week of what she was calling her captivity, that perhaps there was a means of escape. They had been meant to meet another ship and transfer her at some point, but she’d concluded something had come up to put off this plan; certainly no one had explained to her what had changed, so the range of possibility stretched from catastrophic (shipwreck, capsizing, or capture of the other ship) to mundane (forgetfulness of her presence), and she had no real means to eliminate anything. The only thing she knew for sure was that as they had not met up with anyone since they'd been brought aboard, Charlie was also still here somewhere, and while he might possibly have been considering how to spring her, she remained well aware that direction was not his forte.

So, she reasoned, perhaps it would be best for her to assess the situation and develop her own plan moving forward. Forward, she felt, was the only way to move. Moving forward had got them down the Ulanga, and this stagnation now, with no task and no puzzle, was slow death and certainly torture. And so, escape it would be. There was her puzzle and her task, and when the boy brought her lunch, she ignored him, noticing instead the bulkhead behind him, the position of the sun, the things she should perhaps have been watching all along in order to understand her options.

Later, she gnawed at the bread and considered how she might get about the boat to gain a better grasp of her surroundings. It wasn't for another day that she realized her advantage; the boys who brought her food were young—so very young, perhaps sixteen sometimes—and so they were both of an age where, based on her long-ago memories of the neighbor boys at home in England, the concept of adventure appealed, and run ragged jumping to do whatever tasks their superiors set them. They didn't tell her this; however, it was evident in the way they hurried in and out, how they rushed with her chamber-pot off of the side of the ship, how they twitched with nervous energy even as they sagged with exhaustion.

And so, after three days' consideration and a few casual questions that, for a wonder, one of them answered—because Rose was ready for more adventure, but that didn't mean she was a fool to leap without looking—she made the youngest of the boys an offer of trade.

He was about her size, or at least, close enough, gangly but dressed in a uniform that would have fit a fellow half again his girth; this meant that Rose, who was thin but did have a shape that exceeded that of the young man, would surely fit into his things one way or another, and certainly closely enough to pass the uncritical inspection of a lieutenant directing one of the interchangeable boys to a task. The offer was simple: she would borrow his uniform and go for a stroll—and take up whatever tasks were sent her way—while he spent a few hours asleep in her bunk. The boredom that plagued her would be a relief for him, and the activity would improve her day immeasurably, she explained when he protested.

The fact that he yawned at the mere suggestion of a nap, however, cut his protestation short, and five minutes later she had a naked boy and a pile of clothes, and as he sprawled on her rumpled cot, she quickly stripped down and replaced her clothes with his. She supposed this was indecent, but then, the trip down the river had been near-entirely comprised of circumstances and states she'd have called indecent right up until they'd happened, and as damnation did not appear immediately forthcoming (and also, out of all that, she'd found herself a husband and companion, and at her age!), she decided to hope for continued good health and an opportunity to repent somewhat later.

Samuel would have been horrified, but Samuel was not here, and so Rose was, again and still, left to her own best judgment. In her opinion and to her surprise, it had turned out several times now to be the case that her own best judgment suited her better than Samuel's ever had. And so, with apologies to his immortal soul for the disrespect, she scooped up the naval uniform, such as it was, and decided not to further consider what Samuel might have approved or allowed.

It occurred to her, belatedly, that there was quite a good chance the boy's clothes were both filthy and home to many kinds of bugs, but she pulled them on anyway; if nothing else, the bugs would not be leeches, and as long as she didn't think about them, she wouldn't suffer as Charlie had. And no matter, she'd watch around her while she worked, and soon enough she'd have an escape to plan. She'd get cleaned up then.

After a short struggle with the cap and getting her hair, wild now after so long away from anything resembling a mirror or grooming supplies, tucked up into it firmly, she looked to the boy for his opinion, but he was already fast asleep, so opened the cabin door and stepped out. The seaman at the hatch glanced her way but, as she'd rather suspected might happen, didn't seem to notice she was an entirely different person than the one who had entered minutes earlier, and five seconds later scurried off in response to a shouted order Rose couldn't rightly hear.

Ridiculous. Now her room was entirely unguarded, and honestly, had she known that this was among the circumstances she faced, she'd have simply walked out in her own clothes earlier. What might they do to her, really, if she were caught? Certainly there were the horrors with which she'd been frightened into caution as a younger woman, but her experience with the officers, slight though it might be, had suggested most of them would not countenance their crew harming her, and certainly none of them would tolerate anything that might engender dissent or mutiny,so she thought most likely she'd have simply been returned to her cabin, possibly under heavier guard.

She loitered for a moment near her cabin, then took in a great breath through her nose, checked her cap for loose locks, and made her way up and out of the passage onto the deck. Within ten seconds she'd been directed to clean a valve of some sort, but as she'd been handed the materials with which to do it and pointed in its direction, she had little trouble determining what to do, and in any case, based on the lackluster appearance of the adjacent valve, she was most likely performing the work better than her new crewman peers were likely to anyhow. She slowed herself slightly and opted against bringing the metal to any kind of real shine in order to avoid notice, but thought that perhaps her earlier suspicion that she could single-handedly improve the efficiency and motivation level of the ship's company had been not far afield. It did seem that she and others like her were working somewhat unnecessarily hard; she could see other men doing a great deal less and suspected this was a privilege of rank.

Three chores later, although her hands were becoming chapped and her knees were rather sore from crouching and kneeling in unaccustomed positions made possible by trousers, she'd found her way to the stern of the ship and stood, winding rope and looking out into the water. It sparkled, with no land plainly in sight and the sun high overhead and hot as anything, but it didn't seem particularly threatening. Rose knew, looking off to the west, that the smudge on the horizon must be the coast of Africa, and it seemed they were traveling north, perhaps for Egypt? And so it seemed there must be nothing to be afraid about, even if being afraid were in some manner useful.

She reminded herself that she had been quite unfamiliar with the possible threats of running water just several short weeks prior, and took the rope to its hook before starting to work her way back along the side opposite that of which she'd come forward. She thought that in another hour she ought really to return to her cabin and send the boy back to his day, but as long as she was out, she thought maybe she'd just see about Charlie if she could.

Or—and this idea came to her exactly as she found herself staring at cache of various materials and supplies, perhaps she'd try something else.

The knife wasn't large, but it was sharp, and she slid its holster into the interior of her loose trousers. She thought it wouldn't be spotted,although she couldn't be sure whether it might be missed. After that, she rolled up a spare uniform whose previous owner, from the look of the patching, had probably died of his wounds, and stuffed that into the belly of her shirt. It made her look rather portlier than she was, but if her previous encounters with the leadership of the crew were anything by which to steer her actions, and she thought they were, no one would notice a thing.

She made it back to her cabin with a supper tray unremarked, some five hours after she'd left, and changed back into her own ragged clothes, hiding away her booty before she shook the boy awake. He yawned and groaned, but took back his clothes readily enough, pulling the trousers up over his bare skin as he stood.

Rose wondered, rather abstractly, whether it much mattered to the experience of physical love how differently men's bodies were shaped one from another, but mostly avoided watching him dress. She offered him the lump of flavorless bread on her tray, pointing out that she'd perhaps had an opportunity to eat with the others, and shooed him out quickly; she had treasures to inspect.

It wasn't much—the uniform and knife, some twine, some bandages, an extra rough blanket wrapped around boots she was sure had belonged to a deceased seaman, and a loop of strong rope—but she thought probably she could make good use of each thing.

First, she braided her hair and then cut the braid through, close to her nape, with the knife. She still had no mirror, so she had no choice but to work by feel, but before long she'd cut away loose ends enough that she thought probably her hair would no longer give her away.

After that, she cut the bandage-lengths to something more manageable and wound them round her breasts, flattening and broadening her chest so she could try the pilfered uniform on. It did fit, although the press of the bandages felt foreign and uncomfortable. Still, if she wore them all the time, she would most likely grow accustomed; if Africa had taught her anything it was that a person could become accustomed to nearly anything, given time and motivation.

And she was sure any ship could use additional crew; no one was going to question her presence among the youngest of them, and if anything, more hands would prove useful. She shoved her feet into the too-wide boots and wiggled them around, debating whether she ought to wrap her feet in more bandages to fill them out a bit, or whether the bandages would only get wet when she inevitably had mopping to do or a storm to weather. They might, she decided, but she could always remove the bandages, so she took the few minutes to wrap up, then tucked the knife in its holster back in close against her thigh, and nodded to herself. She was ready.

It only took a moment to check the passageway for any observer and then cross such that it wasn't clear where she'd come from, and then she was up on deck again and making her way bow-ward. Before, she'd had to keep her head down just a little, but now with her hair shorn and her breasts bound, Rose felt more confident and allowed herself to look around a bit more. It wasn't that she was gawking, of course, although all over the ship were men, some of them stripped to the waist in the heat, some of them lounging against rails, some of them hauling crates from one end of the ship to another or banging industriously on metal pipes. The rationale for this last was unclear to her, but she imagined there must be purpose, and watching around her seemed the only likely way she might learn more about the operation of the boat. Knowing how to keep a launch off the rocks and understanding the workings of a naval ship were only related in that both vessels were intended to cross bodies of water.

It was two hours later that she found Charlie, not by seeing him, but by hearing his cadence and tone through a cabin wall. She stopped still, startled by the ache she felt at the sound of him. It wasn't that she hadn't imagined herself in love with him, or a least, entangled with him in a way that made him important to her day by day, but still, it came as a surprise to her how physical was the manifestation of simply missing his presence.

She leaned against the wall and imitated a stance she'd seen the other men making, one knee lifted, foot propped against the surface behind her. It didn't strike her as particularly comfortable, but she thought she probably looked right, so that was something, and a moment later she was lost again in listening to Charlie speak.

He was, she gathered, based on that conversation which she could hear, playing cards, and she closed her eyes and cast back in her memory to her father's house, to being banished out of the sitting room while he gambled with his friends. She'd watched of course, through the banister—until her mother caught her and put her back to bed—but she'd had no opportunity to learn the games then or later, and so clearly she could not simply go in and join the game.

It was unfortunate; that would have been an easy way to place herself next to Charlie for a while and determine how he could help her proceed with her escape plan.

But, there was no help for it; now that she knew where he was, she thought it would be best to put herself where he'd see her and hope her disguise wasn't so good he didn't notice.

She walked further back along the uneven planks to the next path across and came around the cabin and forward again, then slowed as she would pass by the door. It was standing open, as many of them were in the muggy air the men around her complained of—although, Rose felt the air was almost pleasant in comparison to the marshy and mosquito-ridden areas of the Ulanga; she didn't feel cool or fresh, but knew it could be a great deal worse.

Luck was with her; Charlie was facing the door in the group of eight around a scarred dark table, and he looked up just as she was centered in the doorway. He looked at her, then blinked and looked again, and Rose hoped his silent nature precluded him blurting out anything to give her away. She raised her eyebrows and jerked her head to one side. Charlie's eyes slid round to his companions and he pursed his lips and nodded slightly, then went back to pushing two cards across the table.

Rose walked on, as slowly as made sense, and then, when he didn't follow immediately, made another trip round: across to the outside of the ship, back, in, and forward. This time when she walked by, he was standing, and he followed her out and into the passageway toward her room a few minutes later.

“How're ya still here?” he asked, hissing low, once caught up. “I thort you was on th' transport.”

“What transport? I thought we were to meet another ship, but nothing was said, and I didn't feel us go still.” They were nearly to her room, and Rose held up a hand to stop Charlie, then looked round the corner to make sure the way was clear. It was, again, and wasn't that annoying? If they had in mind to protect her, they were doing a poor job of it. She crossed to her door, then waved him over and in.

“We din' stop nuffin,” he said. “Only sen' a paddleboat cross, nigh fortnight now. Cud'n stan' to watch her.”

“Ah.” Rose shook her head. The explained why he hadn't been looking for her, at any rate. “I assumed we didn't meet. No matter, though. I'm here now.”

“That you are, old girl. Sigh' for sore eyes, Rosie.” Charlie looked her up and down. “You was here all along?”

“I was. And now, I want to get out and away from all of this. Except you.”

“Coo.” Charlie gave her the awed look he often had on the launch, then stepped in close and touched his rough face to her cheek. “You ain't got a plan now, do ya?”

“Of course I—oh. You're teasing me.” Rose scowled. “Well, maybe I don't need you anyway.”

“Now now. Don' do that. I's s'prised, is all.”

“Pleasantly?”

“Oh pleasan'ly.” He grinned at her. “Is the plan has to be t'nigh?”

Rose shook her head. “I haven't had time to work out how the ship operates well enough. Not the machines, the people.”

“Ogh, they barely op'rates a-tall” Charlie shook his head. “Ev' one of em'd a drowned for bein' scurred with us, 'fore, loike.”

“Well, then none of them are you or I, are they?”

“'Ope not. Just one a you, Rosie.”

She chuckled and pulled him toward her, then glanced at the door. “They'll bring me breakfast in the morning, but they've never bothered me after supper, before. We have all night to plan.”

He pursed his lips again. “Mebbe we won' need all night?” He brought up a hard and dirty finger to run past her ear and along her jaw. “I did miss ya, Rosie.”

Rose wondered if he'd missed her, individually, or just their physical closeness, but then, wasn't she just as interested in that? And she'd certainly turned out to miss him, individually. “Perhaps there will be a few moments to spare.” She pulled him close again. “But we'll have to be quiet.”

“I kin be loike a mouse, Rosie. But tell me yer plan.”

She sat on the edge of her cot and patted the space beside her, then explained: if they met up with a ship—well, another ship, apparently—they'd sent her back to England and it turned out, that sounded oppressive and awful. And so, she'd thought perhaps it would be possible to get to the African coast? If the ship had smaller boats to send out—and it must, mustn't it? Just because she hadn't yet found where, that meant nothing.

He agreed, there were smaller boats, but objected, “Ain't no gov'ment here, Rosie. Only natives, and ain't no way to know if they's good 'uns.”

“I trust they will be,” she said. “And if they're not, well, you and I have got out of scrapes before. We can again.”

Charlie considered that. “You wan' us to steal a boat from th' Navy, row t' shore, fin' us some frien's, and go back t' how we was before.”

“Not entirely. I want us to stay together, Charlie, and that's not how we were before.”

“Aw, well awright then.” He looked at her again. “But... we cud stay on a boat. Not dis one, nao, but you was good at it, and 's all I know what to do.”

“No one lets women on boats, Charlie.”

“You ain't look like a woman now,” he offered.

“I needed the clothes to get about the ship.”

“Yah, but you cud keep on. We'd be partners, you'n me.”

Rose thought about that for a minute. “You wouldn't mind?”

Min'? T' be wi' you? Never cud min' that, Rosie. Never cud min' that. 'Ow'd you get 'em, the clothes?”

“I made a trade. My bed for clothes—what?”

“Your bed?”

Rose blinked. “Oh, no. My bed. To sleep. Are you... It was a fair trade, Charlie, and even if it had been the other thing, well, it wasn't. If we're to be partners, we'll just have to trust, won't we?”

Charlie considered her for a moment, then nodded slowly. “I trust ya, Rosie.” He slid his hand up under her shirt, finding the bandages and tugging at them. “Ya migh' need 'em later,” he said, “but now, can ya take 'em off?”

She smiled. “No, but you can.” She pulled her shirt up to show him, then sighed as he undid the wrapping. “And once we're set up somewhere, we can figure a better way, maybe.”

He stood and glanced again at the closed door, then shrugged and dropped his trousers to the floor before crawling around behind her and pulling her next to him. “But we got all nigh' t' plan.”