Word Count 1031
He had been at the bar all night.
He had taken his drink slow, spinning the hours down, making his money last. Hornblower and Kennedy had been with him for a while. Then they had taken a room. They had gone up to bed an hour ago.
Then he had been alone where he sat. And sometime after that he looked up to find the place actually empty except for an acid faced girl with a broom and a soapy rag. She had made it clear that he was in her way. So he had slapped down his last coins and gone out. Now he stood on the doorstep. The door creaked shut behind him, and he blinked a little, coughed. It was dawn. The air was cool against his face, and he smelled the wet leaves and the breath of earth, farms on the wind. He did not want that smell, it made him think and feel and remember, and that was the opposite of what he wanted. His feet were clumsy against the street, as he walked and he frowned at his own awkwardness. He would not be here long enough to recover any grace.
He was halfway to drunk, and he was Godawfully tired. The Indy would sail at sundown. He, William Bush, would sail with her. The skipper had arranged it so; Pellew wanted him for some reason. William could not think why. The Indy had a surfeit of lieutenants.
But then Pellew was kind. They all were. Nobody said 'This is William Bush, he failed to stop a mutiny that killed his whole command, he was thrown naked into the sea and all his shipmates died.' No, nobody said any such thing. Not with words, or even with looks. But that did not mean that they were his friends. Maybe someday, but not yet. He was just here. He was here, and the neck of the bottle was in his hand. And the bottle was still nearly full.
His stumbling land feet turned him toward the water again, and he did not fight it. Here was a wharf, dry and silver with age. Alone in all the dockside it was empty. It was old and half broken. It was obvious that nobody tied up here now. That was well. That was perfect in fact. He went out to the end, the creak of the oak good under his feet now. He sat down against one of the pilings. It smelled better here, of tar and algae. He could look down and watch the tiny fish below. The horizon paled with the coming day. The horizon didn't matter now though. He pulled the cork with his teeth.
The interruption came when the bottle was nearly gone. He had been holding it, sorrowing a little because there was only sticky residue at the bottom now. It was still heavy in his hand, and he was tired, his hand was tired. Another moment and he would drop it into the bay, and listen to the plock-glub as it sank. But now feet came, breaking into his slow circling thoughts, crunching, and rapping, over the silver wood of the wharf. They were loud feet, and he swung his head to see who they carried.
They were woman-feet. He could see the hem of a frock. It was almost at eye level he had slumped so low. Black shoes beneath it. White stockings. Presumably there were legs in them and a woman affixed in the usual way on above that. They were moving inexorably closer. He let go of the bottle and sat up more nearly straight. Even a dockside whore should not see him lie flat outdoors in his uniform.
So William sat up, and the eyes that went with the feet must have seen him. And the voice, that went with the eyes, and the feet said “Oh, please excuse me.”
And that is when William knew he had made a huge mistake.
The voice was light and refined. Not a whore-- well, probably not. He had little experience with them directly, after all. Only just that once. But this voice was accented respectable.The voice was young. Younger than him, perhaps she was 17, he thought, like his middle sister. He climbed unsteadily to his feet then, tried to pull his jacket straight. The sun had come up, it shone in her hair creating a nimbus that he blinked at painfully.
“I did not see you there, Sir,” she said.
And her eyes were blue and her lips curved up, but they trembled. He did not need to know her name to hear how her nose was blocked. William Bush had joined the Navy at 12. He knew the the look and sound of weeping.
“Please forgive--” William began. She shook her head at him.
“I come here sometimes, to sit and think,” the girl said. She gestured back toward the city, to the houses on the hill. To the big white Captain's houses, beyond the bars, and tar pots, the alehouses, the rope-walks, and all the place where William Bush belonged.
“I like to watch the day come.” She said, and she essayed another smile. Her mouth shook. He could see that she had her handkerchief balled tight in her fist. He watched her move it from one hand to the other, wring it, in her hands. Her hands were small and chewed looking, her lips the same.
“I can go,” William said. He did not say 'I must go,' or 'I was just leaving.'
It was not right to sit alone with this girl, not a respectable young lady such as she. Not when he did not know her name. This was the sort of girl that you met under an orange tree, in your dress uniform. You stood and sweated and smiled, and some old buffer said 'May I present Miss--' That was how it was supposed to be, not like this. Not a slim shivering pretty thing, alone at dawn, with her eyes so raw and her nose all blocked. Not when he was so nearly drunk. This was not right at all and William knew it.
But 'I can go' was all he said. He said it soft so as not to startle her.
“No-- please,” she said. “You need not. I don't mind, really.”
She walked to the end of the wharf and sat. He saw how her legs folded neatly beneath her, not hanging as his had been, but put more a species of kneeling, with her feet to the side. His sisters sat, so, when they sat on the ground. The soles of her shoes peeked from her skirt, and William could see the dust and tar on them, the gleam of the nails in the heels of them.
Now that she was sitting he could do the same. And after all, why not? He lowered himself again to the wood, and it was warm under him, and away under his dangling boots was the hurry of fish in the shadows.
From behind them, in the trees and coops of the city birds were waking now. Another hour would see the true day begin.
He looked out at the water, as he had been doing, but he could feel her nearby. He could see her, at the edge of vision, twisting the thin cloth in her hands. He heard her sigh.
“Is there something I can help with Miss?” William asked, finally. “Has someone been-- ill treating you?” It was not entirely what he meant, but he could not think how else to ask.
She lifted her chin and turned to gaze at him square. “What is your name?”
“Will Bush, Miss,” He said. She gave a flickering smile then, as if his ordinary name pleased her a little.
“I am Penelope Warren-- Penny,” She said. She gave him a better smile then and turned to face him more directly.
It was awkward to bow, sitting on a wharf, with his head still spinning with drink. He made his best try nonetheless. She did the same, and they laughed together.
“Nobody has been unkind to me,” she said. Her voice broke a little and he saw her swallow hard. “It is just-- just my family. We are leaving my home. Tomorrow actually. Our house is all packed. We sail tomorrow to St. Kitts. I have never lived anywhere but here. And I must leave my grandmother, my friends, my—my dog.”
Her tears had begun again,they caught the light as they dripped down either side of her small red nose. He could not touch her of course, and he did not. But he turned toward her and waited, listening.
“I am sure, that to a sailor it seems foolish to grieve so,” she said. “I know I am childish and foolish, but I have always lived here. I have never been anywhere else.”
“To a sailor--” William said, “To me it does not seem foolish. I know what it is to leave home.” He spoke softly. She leaned close, her hands on the wood by her knees. She had had a wrapper around her shoulders, but now it slipped back and he could see the pulse in her throat. He did not want to think about that. He wished he could see her, see any woman, without thinking of touching her. It was wicked, certainly to imagine the smooth skin of her shoulders.
“I have been to St. Kitts.” William said. “Shall I tell you a little of what it is like?”
And so the sun rose, and Miss Warren looked at him as Will spoke of the blue sea, and the white gleam of the houses, and the heat, and of sugar and pineapples. And away across the bay he heard the ships come awake. Behind them the city was yawning and stretching, and the fog would be burning off he knew, and the day would be blue and gold.