Read Commanding Heart Online

Authors: Madeline Evering

Commanding Heart (8 page)

Chapter XI

For the next two days, Catherine
remained alone in her cabin. Lieutenant Matthews was in agony throughout,
cursing himself to all and sundry for not better caring for his niece. Word of
Matthews’ distress came to Catherine through Tom Foster, who had also taken it
upon himself to check on Catherine at regular intervals. Catherine felt deeply
ashamed for causing her uncle such distress. If she had only herself to worry
about, Catherine would have continued the remainder of the journey in this
self-imposed exile. But the sight of Matthews’ anxious, self-recriminating face
at each visit was too much for Catherine to bear. She would have to leave the relative
peace of her cabin and prepare to encounter the captain once more.

The next morning, Catherine arose knowing
there was no further excuse for staying below. Despite her extreme desire to
remain hidden, she knew the only way to conquer disturbing thoughts about
Captain Knight was to return to her former occupations. She would resume her
sketching, continue her sessions with the officers, and attend the captain’s
table for supper as before. The thought sent a chill throughout her body but she
knew there was no other course of action. Catherine could not avoid him for the
entire journey; the ship was large but not large enough to hide in
indefinitely. As she readied for the day, Catherine struggled to meet her own
gaze in the mirror, for the face reflected back seemed that of a stranger. Her
eyes were wide and wariness lay in their depths. Catherine knew the change was
partly due to Knight’s actions, but in larger part it was due to her own
reaction to his advances. Her abandonment had been so total it shocked her to
the very core – it was as though in his arms she was another person entirely,
someone she no longer recognized. Catherine burned once more at the
remembrance, her face flushed with guilt. She forced herself to look at the stranger
in the mirror as she made a personal vow: she would remain composed; she would carry
on as though nothing had happened; and she would avoid all private contact with
Captain Knight, no matter what the cost.

In keeping with her vow, Catherine
chose to dress simply in a plain cotton gown and a wide straw bonnet that would
attract as little attention as possible. She bravely set forth with her
sketchbook and pencils, leaving the security of her cabin to return to the main
deck. As soon as she reached the fresh air and sunshine of the morning,
Catherine felt better about her decision. She looked around cautiously,
however, to ensure the captain was not on deck, before choosing a spot far away
from his usual haunts on the quarterdeck. Catherine moved to the front of the
Triton
and settled in near the foremast to sketch once again. She had not been
long at her task when her uncle came up to her with great enthusiasm:
“Catherine!” he cried delightedly, “I just went to your cabin and found you
were out. How is the arm? Are you feeling yourself again?” Catherine gave him a
kind smile and said, “Indeed, uncle, I am quite well this morning” although she
still felt anything but herself. “Splendid!” Matthews cried, clapping his hands
with delight. “I was beginning to worry about you, as were we all. We talked of
little else at supper last night. The captain will be pleased to know you are
back on your feet.” Catherine started at his words: “The captain need not
trouble himself,” she replied stiffly; “all is well.” Lieutenant Matthews could
sense an undercurrent to her words, but in his joy at having her back on her
feet he let it pass. He gave Catherine a broad smile, and then excused himself
to return to his duty.

The remainder of the morning and
afternoon passed without incident for Catherine. Through careful effort she
managed to avoid the captain entirely during her time on deck. The hands had all
greeted her warmly; genuinely glad to see her return after a long absence.
Catherine thanked them each in turn for their kind wishes and assured all that
she was quite well. But her heart remained troubled and she looked forward to
the evening meal with great trepidation.

Alone in her cabin that evening, a
worried Catherine stood, awaiting the usual summons to supper. She had dressed for
dinner with great care, donning a simple white muslin dress which she then
layered over top with an Indian shawl of deep blue silk. Fashion dictated a
short-sleeved gown for evening, but the bruise that showed on Catherine’s arm
was too vivid a reminder of what had transpired in her cabin during the storm.
She removed the shawl from her trunk, wrapping it about her carefully to hide
the dark bruise from view. Secreted by the shimmering shawl, the mark and its unwonted
reminder were somewhat removed from her tempestuous thoughts.

That same sense of self-preservation
led Catherine to arrange her hair with great care: she tightly coiled her heavy
tresses in a bun at the base of her neck, with no stray wisp allowed to escape
the security of her pins. In every way Catherine strove to create an impression
of control and restraint in her person – an impression completely at odds with
the inner thoughts and feelings that tormented her.

After an agonizing wait, the expected
knock came and Catherine stepped to the door in response. Once again, Tom
Foster waited to escort her to table. His face lit with great delight as
Catherine came forward. “I am glad to see you about, miss” he chatted eagerly;
“I heard you were back on deck today, completely yourself again!” Catherine
gave a wry smile at the thought, then gave herself a small shake, determined to
keep self-pity in check. “Thank you, Tom” she said with gratitude. “It is due
to your kind care that I am on my feet again.” The boy smiled hugely at her
words and led her forth with pleasure.

When she reached the great cabin’s
dining room, Catherine took a quick, reassuring breath before walking forward
with pretended calm to be seated at the table. The officers all came to their
feet at her approach, each caught by the incredible sight of Catherine on this
evening. Although her careful efforts in dressing had been to create a
controlled, restrained appearance, the end result was very different.
Catherine’s tightly wrapped hair served only to further accentuate the planes
of her pale face, the smoothness of her brow, the beautiful lines of her
cheekbones touched with red. As for the covering shawl, its deep blue color
echoed the shade of Catherine’s eyes so completely that the brilliance of her
gaze shone like jewels from behind their thick frame of lashes. The effect was
completely striking; no man could help but notice, including Captain Knight.

Once Catherine was settled, the
others took their seats as well, each speaking their welcome at Catherine’s return.
Catherine thanked them simply, trying desperately with each address to avoid
looking in the captain’s direction. It was not to be. Catherine froze as the deep
timbre of Captain Knight’s voice came to her directly; “May I add my
compliments, Miss Gibson, at your return to our table? I am very pleased to have
you rejoin us, and to see you looking … so well” he finished solemnly.
Catherine grasped her hands tighter in her lap before looking at the captain.
She felt the rush of color in her face as their eyes met and knew she could not
speak in reply. Catherine worried at what she would read in his face, but there
was no trace of humor or derision as she had feared. Instead, Captain Knight
wore his habitual look of calm control. Catherine’s eyes fluttered in relief as
she gave a small nod of acknowledgement to the captain. The initial difficulty
was over and Catherine began to hope that she might make it through the evening,
and indeed the rest of the journey, unscathed.

The officers filled the evening with
talk of the storm, the damages that had occurred and the subsequent work
required to repair the sails and rigging. Catherine took small part in the
conversation but listened closely to the details in fascination. That
HMS
Triton
could weather such a blow was a testament to the strength of both
the ship and its captain. In all of the discussion of actions taken and crises
averted, Catherine saw the guiding hand of Captain Knight. She could not help
but be impressed by his skill as a leader and his careful management of this vast
crew of men. Catherine looked to where the captain sat talking with one of the
lieutenants and was struck once more by his physical presence and authority. Unbidden,
the image of Captain Knight in her cabin came to mind. Catherine struggled to
control her emotions but her face betrayed troubled thoughts. At this same
moment, Captain Knight’s attention turned to Catherine and he caught the conflict
in her face. She struggled under the intensity of his gaze, the powerful,
knowing look that seemed capable of reading her inmost thoughts. Desperately
she turned away to reengage in conversation with those immediately around her.
Too much had passed between them; Catherine knew that for her own safety, she must
keep her distance from Captain Knight.

As Catherine rejoined the discussion
of her tablemates, she found the talk had turned to the effort required to get
the ship back on schedule in order to reach their destination without further
delay. In the turmoil of the last few days, Catherine had forgotten her former
worries about their arrival in Jamaica; her thoughts had been occupied with the
more immediate situation with Captain Knight. Now, however, as each man voiced
his opinion on the length of their delay, Catherine grew in anxiety. Finally
finding her voice, Catherine spoke the question she least wanted answered; “May
I ask, gentlemen, how far we are from reaching Jamaica?”

All conversation around her ceased; every
man knew Catherine’s discomfort whenever their final destination was discussed.
Lieutenant Matthews gave an uncomfortable cough but could not respond. At
length, it was Captain Knight who addressed Catherine’s question in a low voice;
“We will complete the necessary repairs by mid-day tomorrow. With that
accomplished, Jamaica shall be reached in three days time, given good weather.”

Catherine felt the words hit her like
a physical blow.
Three days!
It was impossible that the journey was to
end so soon, that Jamaica – and her father – could be so near. Catherine
blinked, lowering her head in confusion as she struggled to maintain composure.
Three days without obligations. Three days to be herself. Three short days
of freedom were all that was left.
The anguish on her face was evident to all.
Catherine felt every eye turned upon her, knew she must speak, but it took a
great effort before she could finally raise her lowered head and address the
officers of the
Triton.
“You see my great dismay,” she said shakily;
“How loathe am I to part with your good company…..” she trailed off on a
whisper. Catherine looked around once more, avoiding the captain as she did so,
in a struggle to finish her words. “I shall regret our arrival in Jamaica very much” she said simply, after which she rose, quietly excused herself and left
the room.

In the sanctuary of her own cabin,
Catherine threw herself upon the bed and gave in at last to her strong emotions.
She wept tears of anger and frustration but relief would not come. As the final
tears fell to her pillow, Catherine sighed in sorrow at all that was lost
before succumbing at last to a deep, uncomfortable sleep.

Chapter XII

The next day passed quickly despite
Catherine’s fondest wish for it to slow. From the sun’s rising until its set,
she spent her day on the main deck memorizing the sights, sounds and smells of
the sea. Walking about the forecastle, Catherine closed her eyes and turned her
face to the sun, feeling its greater warmth as
HMS Triton
moved ever
closer to the West Indies. Despite the heat of the day, a small shiver passed
over Catherine. “It will all be over soon” she murmured aloud.

As she opened her eyes once more,
Catherine’s gaze was arrested by the sight of Captain Knight descending the
standing rigging of the foremast. With great agility he moved through the maze
of ropes, never taking a moment’s pause. Such a duty was not required of a
ship’s captain, but Catherine knew from her uncle’s tales that Captain Knight frequently
climbed aloft himself to survey the sea. In his blue jacket the captain made an
imposing figure darkly silhouetted against the brilliant white of the ship’s
sails. Catherine watched in fascination as he made several quick moves and
landed handily on deck. At once he spotted Catherine and moved forward in
greeting; “Good day, Miss Gibson” the captain said formally as he gave her a
quick bow. Catherine could not help starring at his dark face, flushed with color
after his efforts in the ropes. As he settled his bicorn hat, dark hair curled
from beneath and Catherine had to suppress a strong desire to reach out and touch
the jet black curls. Shocked at her own thoughts, she gave the captain a small
curtsey, bowing her head a moment to hide her blush; “Good day to you, Captain
Knight” she said. “I trust all is well in your survey of the ship?” A small
smile played at the corners of his mouth as he responded; “Indeed, I am well pleased
by what I see” he replied in a low tone. Catherine reddened at his words,
hopping he would think her heightened color a result of the midday heat.

“I am glad to have found you here,
Miss Gibson” the captain continued more seriously; “I was about to seek you out
to discuss something of importance.” Catherine stiffened in suspense at Captain
Knight’s speech, her mind a tumult as she tried to imagine what he might say.
She trembled in fear that he might address their late night encounter but her
fears were soon put to rest; “Signs suggest we may be in for a period of calm
tomorrow – not unusual after such weather as we experienced” the captain said
conversationally. Catherine colored at the reference but Captain Knight seemed
not to notice and continued in his controlled voice; “I thought to take advantage
of the opportunity to properly exercise the men. We shall drill on sails in the
morning and then spend the afternoon at the great guns. This will mean a delay
in our journey, however….” He watched Catherine’s expression carefully as he spoke;
saw the look of understanding come to her face. “Of course, Captain Knight,”
Catherine responded, barely suppressing the delight in her voice at this unexpected
news. She continued, a bright smile lighting her features: “I understand
completely. I should not wish my travel to interfere with the workings of your
ship.” At Catherine’s speech, Captain Knight’s face broke into that rare, dazzling
smile and he further surprised her with a low, deep laugh. “I am pleased we are
in agreement” he said with humor; “Now if you will excuse me, Miss Gibson” and
with a quick nod he strode away across the deck. Catherine moved to the side
rail, her heart light at the unexpected news. From her position near the bow,
Catherine watched the sparkling spray of water as
HMS
Triton
parted
the waves with ease. Each drop of spray was a miniature rainbow, glistening
with promise. The ship was moving ever closer to Jamaica, but tomorrow belonged
to Catherine.

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