Midshipman Harding's Honor

The Life and Times of Beatrix Blackthorne

"Mr. Harding! Mr. Harding! MR. HARDING!"

Upon my face I felt a splash of frigid seawater, a firm hand shaking my shoulder most insistently, and, to my surprise a name being called that was not my own.

"Sod off, Charlotte," I muttered under my breath.

"The man must really have hit his head, Depwell. Who in God's name is Charlotte?"

"Most likely a friend. Harding! Wake up!"

I immediately realized whoever it was, was not the inestimable Charlotte, that was for sure. As I gradually came to myself, my surroundings become clearer. I was stretched out, most uncomfortably, across what felt like two rough hewn benches, clearly bruised from the fall.

The fall!

Realizing this, I started up, eyes wide with puzzlement, severely rattling the small launch I was laying in.

"Easy, Harding. You don't want to capsize us the damn boat, now do you?"

The faintly familiar figure to my right prodded me disdainfully with his booted toe as he delivered the warning.

Sitting up, I rubbed my head.

"Shut up, Depwell, he's taken a bit of a fall."

This time, the speaker, my defender, was a faintly familiar figure to my right.

"His fault. He tripped down the side, didn't he?"

"What happened?" I managed to mutter.

"Well, at least he's conscious," shrugged the boy to my right,"Harding, you fell down the ship's side getting into the launch."

"Harding?" Who the devil, I wondered to myself, was Harding?

"Your name, sir," the figure to my right reminded.

Behind me I heard several snickers, but internally, I was still very, very confused. Harding? Who was Harding?

Gradually, I glanced down at the sticky blood on the seachest. Ezra Harding.

"Quite right, Holtfax," I answered tomy defender,dabbing atmy scalp with akerchief, "Nearly lost my life just before we finally set for the Arethusa. Fortunate, really."

The men at the oars began to strain, and we shot forward across the anchorage.

"What do you know about the Arethusa, Holtfax?"

I found myself asking this of my shipmate, just to avoid the silent glares Depwell was kindly directing toward me, no doubt to reprimand me for nearly capsizing the launch. For my part, I knew nothing of the Arethusa ... or maybe it was just the fall acting on my head.

"Not much," Holtfax respondedthoughtfully,"Her captain, Charlie Cross, has a black temper and a good reputation as a fighting man. The Arethusa? She's a frigate built a few years back, maybe 36 guns."

"Charlie Cross? I think I've heard of him before."

"Good Lord, Harding, you landed much harder on your head than you'd think. Not know Charlie Cross? Charlie Cross was escorting a convoy in the East Indies a few years back, in the Lachesis, 20, and in the course of the voyage, beat off a pirate squadron with nothing more than his ship, saved the convoy, and gained almost 10,000 pounds prize money from the beaten pirates."

"That's not the connection I recall, but I do seem remember the incident."

I rubbed my temples, looking for some relief from the throbbing headache, as Depwell turn to converse with Ratcliffe, leaving Holtfax and I to converse.

"He also has the worst luck in the Navy List. He's not been knighted or promoted, though many believe him to deserve it. After all, many have risen to higher heights undeserving of anything but a prison."

"You know a bit about him," I bristled, a bit nettled by Holtfax's obvious superiority of knowledge

"My brother, John, served under him at the end of the American Rebellion."

"Surely he is not so old a man as that?"

"Many consider him old for a frigate captain, and many his age have transferred to a more cushy command. Not Charlie Cross."

"Then we are assured this posting will not become as dull as the last?"

Holtfax, though several years my junior, hardly ever smiled; this was one of the rare instances of mirth to cross the virtually orphaned youth's pale face.

"I do believe so, Harding. I do believe so."

I looked up again only when we came into sight of the Arethusa, much like Holtfax had described her. Loaded down with supplies, she rode low in the water, salt lapping at the predominant black paint. A streak of yellow ran across her gun ports, the only color to be had, though gold leafing was prominent in the whimsical lettering on the stern. Arethusa. Her lines taut, her brass polished, her mast raked, her yards crossed. Were her people ready? Was her captain what Holtfax said he was? I wanted no more to do with the Medusa and her bumbling captain, so inept that at times it was even comical. Frustration and anger and grief. It was his fault, he never knew what to do, and none paid the price but the crew.

With a pang, I remembered that awful night in the Channel, the howling gale, and my drowned friend. God rest him, poor Fitzwilliam Black.

This is no time for sorrows, you ninny. Pick yourself up and look presentable. He's gone, there's nothing in heaven or earth that may change that now.

The longboat came alongside the Arethusa, and I followed the others up the steep, sloping sides. My head none to far recovered, my balance and coordination suffered severely, and any task was not an easy one with such a dizzied and confused view of the world. Clumsily I stepped on my boat cloak and nearly slipped into the cold water, which would have been a charming repeat performance, but made it up over the side all right. When we, the poor, tiny midshipmites, reached the deck we stood together in a group along with other midshipmen from other ships waiting to present ourselves to the officer of the watch.

(A/N - Thank you to my reviewers! TalesOfOld, I went back and tried to make it more clear who was speaking - it was very confusing. All ship names will be in italics, as well as any inner thoughts of the main character.

- A launch is typically the largest boat a man-o-war from this time, 1793, would carry.)