Fair Winds and Homeward Sail: Sophy Croft's Story by Sherwood Smith


  Sophy Croft’s Story

  Sherwood Smith


  Book View Café Edition

  October 6, 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-555-7

  Copyright © 2015 Sherwood Smith


  Miss Sophia Wentworth shivered, her back pressed against the empty fireplace in what had once been her family’s little sitting room. It was nearly empty of furniture, forcing the mourners to stand.

  A fresh gust of wind caused the steady rain to tap at the fogging windows, but it was not the emptiness, the damp, or the bitter November air that had so thoroughly banished all the cheer from the once-cozy chamber. That was entirely due to those gathered inside.

  Sophia could not forebear noticing that her formidable aunts, Henrietta and Charlotte, stood as far from Great-Uncle Bainbridge as they could. Had her brothers been present, she might have pointed it out, and shared a brief respite from the bleak atmosphere. But they followed the cart bearing their mother’s casket to the graveyard next to St. Mary’s, which no respectable lady could be seen doing. Or a respectable daughter, though Sophia had begged and pleaded.

  Scolded by both aunts, she had been banished to the fireplace to “recollect herself,” and “cease her unseemly noise, did she wish to bring shame upon the entire family?” No sooner had she mastered the shudders and gulps of grief than she was promptly forgotten, as Sophia’s aunts eyed the old gentleman in the bath chair as if he were the devil himself. And the elderly, frail admiral of the white glowered back at them from under iron-gray brows.

  “My sisters,” Mama had said once, when Sophia had paused in her dusting to gaze up at their framed silhouettes in the stairwell, “increase family-feeling with distance. Which is why they hang here, where we seldom see them, rather than with Papa in our sitting room.”

  “Fondness increases at distance?” Sophia had repeated, for she had been only ten at the time.

  Mama had tucked her hair back up under her widow’s cap as she laughed, then cocked her head. “’Pon my word, sweeting, the nearer they come to East Ilsley, the less fond I am, but oh, when they stay well away in Bath, I can talk of my dear sisters with prodigious charity. Lud! We ought to put Frederick to finding out a mathematical formula for it,” she’d added, and they’d laughed as they continued to sweep and to dust the narrow stair.

  Mama had been like that, always joking—the first with a smile, and the first to offer help in the small parish outside of East Isley, where they had lived since Sophia’s father had died, not long after Edward was born. Alas, Mama had been the first to offer to nurse when Farmer Hugh’s family all were taken by a virulent fever, and the first to die when even the new medical man’s most energetic bleedings, purgings, and French medicines could not save the two smallest Hughs—or Mama.

  In one week their once-noisy, cheerful home was nearly empty, and the three of them left orphans. The reminder caused a fresh welling of hot tears, but Sophia knew better by now than to draw attention to herself. She mopped her eyes with her sodden handkerchief as her great-uncle gestured to the servant waiting discreetly in the hallway.

  He was taken out, the room so silent that one wheel squeak-squeaked on the gleaming floorboards that Sophia had scrubbed herself while Mama lay feverish upstairs, and as the door closed behind him, one of her aunts (she could not tell the difference between them) said to the other, “And so it comes to this.”

  “Yes, Sister,” came the sanctimonious response. “Well, as I always said, Caroline was ever a monstrous wild piece.”

  “True, very true, Sister.”

  “I told her to her face, she ought to consider us. But she didn’t give us a thought, did she, and now look what comes of it. She had only herself to blame.”

  “Just so, Sister.”

  “I told her, we both told her, no good can come of a woman nearly forty marrying so suddenly. She might have considered what was due to the memory of our sainted mother. Making us a laughingstock!”

  “She was ever heedless,” was the immediate rejoinder.

  “Three children. Three! The boys can be disposed of, but what do we do with a portionless girl, as plain as a pudding? There will be no hope of a husband for her.”

  The second aunt was moved to exclaim, “Through no fault of our own, and with scarce means to hold up our heads as gentlewomen, there will be an endless charge upon our purse . . .”

  Sophia’s fingers tightened on the handkerchief. She might even have spoken—though she had gained enough acquaintance with her aunts by now to know she would regret it—had not the wheel squeaked again, and the aunts fell silent.

  Great-Uncle Bainbridge reappeared, pushed by the servant. He brought with him a waft of cold air that smelled strongly of spirituous liquor. “I’ve been taking a caulk,” he announced, his withered cheeks flushed. “And in doing so, I observed the funeral party exiting the gate at the top of the hill.”

  The aunts murmured something indistinguishable as they looked at one another, mittened hands pulling reticules in tightly, as if Great-Uncle Bainbridge were about to leap from his bath chair and demand the contents.

  “We must,” he said, “decide between us what is to be done before the boys are among us once again.”

  The aunts exchanged another look, and one of them—Charlotte, perhaps?—spoke in a firm voice, as if they stood at either end of a cricket pitch, and not in a very small room, “Our sister, I apprehend, left nothing but her portion.”

  “Small, I grant you,” Great-Uncle Bainbridge began. “But scarcely a—”

  “My sister is correct,” Henrietta stated. “It being a mere pittance, we are hard put to think what is to be done. There is no room for two great boys in our home in Bath, and who is to support them?”

  “That is the question we must—” Great-Uncle Bainbridge attempted again to speak.

  Charlotte said, “We have put our heads together, and believe it is best to prentice them out to anyone who will take them. A respectable calling, of course. That much is due to our name.”

  “Ladies, if—”

  “The girl, needless to say, must bide with us,” Henrietta stated. “Let it not be said that we are deficient in charity, in particular toward those with whom we share blood. And as it transpires, our maid-of-work recently gave notice, so there is even an empty bed in the attic—”

  Great-Uncle Bainbridge began coughing. The coughs thundered forth as loud as any summer storm, and rumbled away slowly.

  The aunts were silenced.

  He did not stop until the door opened, whirling in a blast of rainy air that caused the aunts to twitter in dismay. Sophia’s heart harrowed when she saw the grief in Frederick’s tightly compressed mouth, and the puffy redness of Edward’s eyes. The boys held each other’s hands tightly.

  They made their bows, then Great-Uncle Bainbridge said, “Master Frederick. Master Edward. Speaking as executor of your mother’s will, brief as it is, I believe it falls to me to confer with you. Have you another room where we might be comfortable?”

  The aunts united in expostulations.

  “We must hear anything touching on our own sister’s—”

  “We will not be spoken for, without consultation—”

  This time it was they who must be interrupted. “As executor,” Admiral Bainbridge thundered once more, “I believe it falls to me to designate witnesses to this hearing. And as neither of you ladies is so much as mentioned in Mrs. Wentworth’s will, I trust you will honor me by awaiting us here, if you please.” He extended a hand, and the servant stepped up to turn the bath ch
air. “Young gentlemen?”

  “Not without Sophia,” Frederick said fiercely, tugging at his tight coat, which had been ill-dyed, the fabric stiff. “Mama said, Sophia was to take her place, sir.”

  “Miss Sophia may accompany you,” their great-uncle said, causing twin gasps from the two by the window. “This matter concerns her as well.”

  Sophia hated to enter the tiny chamber off the kitchen where she and her mother had sat sewing during wintry days, warmed by the oven on the other side of the back wall. Though it was entirely bare, she could feel her mother’s presence—could almost see her looking through the clouded glass into the kitchen garden.

  Great-Uncle Bainbridge dismissed the servant, and stared at the three faces before him, all strongly resembling one another. The eldest boy, who looked no more than eleven or twelve, was handsomely made, dark of hair. He had inherited the Wentworth looks, that one, and possibly the younger boy as well, though he was still round-faced as an urchin and a trifle squint-eyed, so only time would tell. But those same lineaments were far less flattering on the girl. Much as he despised those two dried-up old maids, he had to concur with what he’d overheard: they’d never be able to marry Sophia off without a sizable dowry, and there was nothing.

  He had no notion what to do; he had never wed. It was his youngest sister who had married a handsome but luckless naval captain, producing the father of these children, himself gone into the navy and lost somewhere in the North Sea.

  The admiral, on hearing of the death of his niece-by-marriage, had assumed that the children’s mother had people to take them in, until he received a grubby missive sent on by the local curate. The admiral had discovered to his profound dismay that he had been designated executor, which duty he took seriously; half an hour with those sour old spinsters made it plain that their notion of ‘charity’ extended no farther than turning the boys off to the first rascal who would take them, and making an unpaid servant of the girl. Devil fly away with them and their gabble about being gentlewomen!

  “There’s little enough business to conclude,” he said slowly to those waiting faces, the younger and the elder tear-stained, Frederick pale, his chin lifted. The admiral knew boys from his days walking the deck of the king’s ships, and sensed how very tenuous was that semblance of control. “I do not rightly know how to talk to children, but I would want things made plain. There is nothing left but your mother’s portion, which will bring scarcely ten pounds a year. You must see that this is not nearly enough to maintain the three of you in a fashion due your birth.”

  He turned to Frederick. “These aunts of yours would put you to clerk for some respectable merchant—”

  “I beg your pardon,” the boy responded, striving to keep his voice even. “But I should run away if they did.”

  Admiral Bainbridge gave a crack of laughter. “Proud as Lucifer, eh? And where would you run to, Master Cocksure?”

  “I would run to sea,” Frederick stated, his voice trembling slightly on the last word. “My father was a post captain, and I would as lief go aboard as an officer, but I would sign on as anything they will take.”

  “So you’ve planned it, have you?” The admiral continued to chuckle. “Proud as Lucifer indeed. Well, if you can carry that fire aboard a Frenchman’s deck, damme, the navy is the very place for you. But can you be got ready?”

  “Mama knew what a midshipman wants in his trunk, and she and Sophia have set about making my things.”

  “I see! Very industrious indeed, and that suffices for you. But Master Edward there is far too young—”

  Edward looked up at this, and blinked near-sightedly. “I should not wish to go to sea, sir,” he said in a soft treble. “The curate, Mr. Gregory, said I might come to his brother, who is a crammer, if Sophia would also come, and run the house, his wife being ill.”

  Sophia felt it was time to speak up. “Mr. Gregory spoke for us, and we were all agreed upon it, if we would be let, until Edward can be got ready for school.”

  Great-Uncle Bainbridge turned his bushy brows toward her. “You appear monstrous young for such responsibility. What is your age?”

  He did not know their ages! “Near sixteen,” she said, and it was not quite a lie—she had not said what ‘near’ meant. Fourteen was, after all, nearer than twelve or ten.

  He considered the life she was likely to lead under the constant command of that pair of pinch-faced parrots in the sitting room. Hard work lay ahead of young Miss Sophia no matter what was settled on, but if this curate turned out to be a decent man, perhaps she would fare better in the crammer’s household.

  He clapped his gnarled hands flat on the arms of his chair. “I am deuced glad to hear what you say. It appears you’ve talked it out amongst yourselves, which indicates at least one level head. I like that, damme if I don’t. Master Frederick, let us look into your mathematics, and if I like what I hear, well, as it happens I will help you to your mess indent . . .”

  The three exchanged a quick, furtive look. For the first time since Mama fell ill, they began to feel a modicum of hope.


  On board the Olympus:

  Dear Sophia and Edward:

  Here you shall find this my first letter. At last I have got time to write it, though I might not be able to in one go. I hope to receive one from you by and by, saying how you get on. Does Edward well in his new situation? Is Mrs. Gregory kind, Sophia? I trust you will write and tell me all your doings.

  As for mine, I shall begin as promised from when we parted. There I was, with a pound note the Admiral gave me at the last moment, and my trunk on the cart. After I lost sight of you, I was sent down to embark in a cutter en route to join the Olympus, which was lying in the Channel to watch the French coast.

  From the first moment on board I saw that the other boys regarded me as an “unlicked cub” and I knew I was for it. But a Midshipman is never left alone long, I was to discover. I was introduced to my fellow Mess Mates and brought into the midshipmen’s berth.

  The first thing I was told was it that ’twas the custom of the Captain to invite the new midshipman to dinner, and my mess mates took care to warn me that the last midshipman had been Flogged and turn’d out of the fleet for bad manners at the captain’s table.

  They then proceeded, under the notion of helping me, to Upend everything you had so carefully packed into my trunk. They display’d all these Contents after passing critical Remarks upon each one, and then handed me what they deemed necessary to prepare for this Dinner.

  I was given to Understand that the cloathes you made were not Good enough for said dinner, and I was expected to wear Satin knee breeches, which I possessed not, you having made mine out of kerseymere. This Article was produced—though an uglier, dirtier, more scabrous piece of Satin could surely nowhere be Found in Nature—and handed me, which nearly eclipsed me. The upper part of the Abominable thing fit close under my arms, and the knee buckles dangled about my ankles.

  My appearance afforded my new companions unqualified Mirth. Once they had provided me with a different waistcoat as well—which had not been brushed these ten ages, from the Smell—they proclaimed that I was perfect, once I had armed myself with my Dirk. At least I possessed that!

  I marched out, hoping that the waistcoat would keep the Breeches in place, but not trusting it, I kept my arms tight against my sides as I presented myself to Gough, the second lieutenant. He looked at me and then exclaimed in a loud voice, “Why, what the d— have we here? He seems to have been swallowed and thrown up again!”

  The other officers scarce had time to laugh, and then he roared, “What is this? A weapon worn to the captain’s table? Are you going to challenge him to a duel, then?”

  I wished straight away to take my dirk off my belt, though knowing that those Monstrous breeches would never stay up, when the bell rang and it was time to pass inside. Gough let out a “Hah!” and seemed to forget my Dirk, and though my heart pounded as the captain took Notice of me, he merely
bowed and Greeted me as if Nothing were Amiss.

  As I took my seat I thought the worst had passed, but I was wrong. I was surrounded by the premier and Gough (Lt. Pascal, the third, being on watch), the Sergeant of Marines, and the Chaplain. They, especially Gough, had sharp elbows, and between dodging which and my futile attempts to keep my Dishes from sliding, I was scarcely able to gain much more than a bite. When the covers were removed, Gough turned to me during the general Noise, and said, “A glass of wine with you, sir.”

  Recollecting my promises to Mama, I said with all the politeness I could muster, “No thank you, sir.”

  Whereupon he shouted, “D—l take it, do you mean to insult me?”

  In haste I grabbed up the wine and coughed down the contents. It tasted vile, and made my head swim.

  He then roared out, “Now then, sir, do you ever drink grog?”

  “No, sir, never.”

  “Why, then, I shall give orders that you are to drink some every day. You look as if you need it. Ah ha ha!” He bawled a great laugh, setting the others to laughing at my Expense.

  When the torment was at last over, the Captain seemed to notice me once again. “You, Sir, must have a fathom cut off those infernal tails of yours before I see you next. Why is it the midshipmen never come to my Table fit to be seen?”

  This Ordeal over, I repaired once more to the midshipman’s berth to find them all cock-a-hoop at my Expense. I was rising angry, but I soon learnt that every new Man has been put through the same experience, and so I forced myself to pretend it was all a joke. But I made a Resolve that if I am ever to attain any Rank, I will look out for boys like me. I do not at all see the Benefit in making someone suffer because, “Well, we all have been put through it.”

  I know this letter is Prodigious long, for my fingers feel it, and I have mended this pen half a dozen times already. Suffice it to say, that one of my mess mates was kindhearted and gentlemanly, and soon made me understand what was expected of me.

  He was as good as another was a vile rascal. This tyrannical fellow bullied the rest, and was feared by all the midshipmen. He considered himself cock of the walk.

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