It is canon in the world of POB that Barret Bondon was born beneath the great guns of the Indy. I hope he will forgive being placed somewhere less splendid, for the sake of fiction.
This is set in the first week of Horatio’s Naval endeavors.
Over the last week Horatio had stood in the wrong place, failed to be in the right place, climbed the wrong mast, tripped over his own feet, and puked more or less constantly. He had been beaten by Simpson, excelled at his trigonometry, and twice been caught with his hands in his pockets. He had been mast-headed three times already, for hours in the rain. His face had, though wan, been open, ardent, so terribly hopeful. So hopeful that Archie had felt his own heart tumble in his chest whenever he saw it. Archie could not stop watching him, could not stop listening and noticing everything.
Horatio’s face was all wrong, and Archie could not stop looking at it.
This had been a week of bitter stinging rain. Today was Friday and Archie ached head to foot. Justinian was at anchor of course, but Eccleston had worked them anyway. Yesterday he had sent them aloft, over and over, holding his watch, shaking his head.
When they had come panting down to the deck again Eccleston had mustered the whole crew. Archie had dressed his division, formal on the line. He watched Horatio copy him poorly. Horatio’s division slumped into place. Would there be an inspection? No. Eccleston wanted to talk. War was coming, he said. He said they were all lazy and ill prepared. He said that he was ashamed of the whole crew. Then he said that it was his own fault. He said they must all work harder together. Still beneath the streaming rain Eccleston’s face was as closed as Archie knew his own to be.
Horatio stood at muster, beside Archie. His eyes glowed. His mouth was slightly open as he listened. He would have to school that face, it showed too much. He would learn. It was a good thing. There was no reason for Archie to grieve it.
Today was the most inclement yet. It was actually sleeting. Archie, was coming off quarterdeck watch. His hands were proper, behind his back. Every five minutes he switched off which one was folded on the outside. That way one of them was warm, and it gave him something to do. He wished he could put them into his pockets, but that was a Naval Crime. He knew that of course, he wished he didn’t know. He pictured Horatio below by the stove, warm as a setting hen with his school-books.
And here was the bell for dog watch. They had had cannon dumb-show all week at this time. It would be warmer below at least, Archie did not mind the crowding, the motion, the smell of men. Not much, he did not mind it much. He was able to go away in his head somehow lately when – when he needed to. He went small and high up, watched from there. He watched himself, and he watched Horatio.
But something was happening now. A word passing up from below. A little powder monkey, barefoot on the deck, was saying something to one of the men of Cleveland’s division. Archie watched from the side of his eye. He knew the seaman by sight. He was an ill looking fellow with a missing finger on his left hand. He was rated able, adequate so. The little boy repeated himself, his message was urgent. Finally the man nodded. The sailor approached Cleveland. He knuckled his brow, perfunctory, and spoke at some length.
Cleveland was closer. Archie could hear a little. Most of the words were dulled by rain, blown away by rain. Archie listened behind his blank face,.
“--Be moved?” Cleveland said.
“No Sir.” The man was as adamant as rank allowed.
“Thank you Smith. I will tell Mr Eccleston.”
Thus sanitized, word from below passed up to Eccleston. Archie heard some of that too.
“Oh for God’s sake-- the gundeck? Pass the word Mr Cleveland. No gun drill today. Nobody to go near there. They are to be left alone to-- turn to it. So, an afternoon of rest-- for most of us. And, Mr Cleveland send a working party down with swabs when she has-- finished.”
“How will I know when that is Sir?”
The wind shifted then and Archie did not hear Eccleston’s reply. It was not lengthy.
And now the watch was over. He and Cleveland turned over their watches properly and headed below.
There was coffee below, and that was fine. Archie had his own books to study. His hands prickled as they warmed.
“What was that all about, with Eccles?” he asked.
Cleveland looked up from his own cup.
He was going to say more, presumably but the sound came. Archie had thought he knew screaming now. He knew the sound of beatings, of floggings, both administrative and extracurricular. He knew the sounds men made as they fought, as they struggled and took injury, as they stood to their guns. Archie knew the sounds of men in extremity, always higher pitched than one might expect.
This was higher still. A heaving, grunting, working sound, such as men made raising anchor. But it rose, on the same breath to a shriek of pain. It was new, it was horrible. It was a woman.
Horatio looked up from his book. Alone among them he was breathing.
“Someone is having a baby,” Horatio said.
“Aye,” Cleveland said. “Ellie Bondon. On the gundeck, under number six for some reason. The other women are with her.”
The sound came again. Archie felt his own breath stop again, his hands clench white until it ended
It was a very long afternoon.
Eventually the screaming stopped. Archie heard women’s voices, faint but pleased sounding, so he supposed it had gone all right.
Night came, and his hammock was sweet under his aching bones. He could look at Horatio, slung beside him in the dark, could talk quietly as friends do, and no need to watch his face. It was dark, Horatio would not notice if he looked too long.
“How did you know she was having a baby Horatio?” Archie asked. “If I had had to guess I would have said she was being murdered.”
“My father is a doctor.”
“Oh.” Archie hugged that new knowledge close for further thought later.
“I did not expect women here,” Horatio said.
“Hmm--” Archie spoke around a yawn. “Well there are some, ‘fore the mast. Not all of them are whores, exactly either. Some bring in market goods, or row the shore boats. It was women that brought you here, right? Captain Keane says they ‘provide an atmosphere of normalcy.’”
‘Hmm.” Horatio yawned, turned to face Archie in the dark. His face was a blur of white, dark mouth, dark eyes, dark hair. It was all right to look, so Archie did.
“Is Ellie Bondon a--” Horatio’s voice trailed off inaudible. But Archie knew what he meant to ask.
“No. Her father is a gunner. The gunner is allowed to keep a wife aboard. But Bondon’s wife died last year. Ellie stayed on. She watches over the littlest boys. I know you’ve seen Ellie. She has a scar on her face, here--” Archie touched his own cheek to demonstrate. “She is quite at home on the gun deck. I expect she was born there herself.”
“Is she the big girl? Really wide?” Horatio gestured. “Checked apron?”
“That is her.”
“I did not know she was expecting. I thought she was just… lumpy.”
The ship rocked, the hammocks rocked, and Archie was warm. The room was close, it murmured with sleep.
He was almost out when Horatio’s voice came again from the dark.
“--Supposed to kiss--”
“What?” Archie’s heart jumped. “What?”
“When Mr Chadd sent me up in the sails yesterday, when I had my hands in my pockets, remember? He said if I did it again I would have to kiss the gunner’s daughter. I would rather not. And she does not look as if she would like it at all. Is it a Naval-- Naval thing? There was nothing about it in Norries.”
Horatio, so open, so eager to learn. Archie smiled in the darkness.
“I will tell you all about it in the morning.” That would be soon enough.
“Have you ever kissed the gunner’s daughter?”
“Go to sleep, Horatio.”