A/N: I appreciate all of your comments. I thank all of my reviewers for taking the time to read and review this story of mine. However, it is never, ever my intent as an aspiring writer to think myself an equivalent of the immortally brilliant Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Their work is leagues greater than mine. No way in heck do I believe that my little story is up to par with their literary masterpieces. It is also never my intent to flaunt my vocabulary skills. I do not write to show off. I write because I enjoy it, and I want to share my characters and their imagined worlds with readers who take pleasure in their lives, even if the story is poorly written. As for the issue of names, this story takes place right around when the Napoleonic wars begin, around the late 1790s or so. If I have to be specific, I'd say late 1798, shortly after the Battle of the Nile. I've read books that center on such an era, and Biblical names are still highly prominent.
But enough of the ramblings. I give you chapter three. Again, your comments are always appreciated.
When the faint, aureate fingers of the sun poked from beneath the black horizon, the Benson household began to awaken with accustomed regularity, the waking process initially galvanized by the activity of the cook and several maids whose duty was to ensure a comfortable breakfast and arrival for the brand new day.
Not surprisingly enough, Hartley and his two fellow comrades were among the first to welcome the day, having come to know the demanding bell schedule traditional of warships and thus feeling inclined to rise at early hours. Hartley even had the unfortunate experience of waking in the middle of the night, around when the Middle Watch began and the First ended. Upon waking at the ungodly hour of midnight, he cursed and stuck his pinky in his ear as he tried to suppress what he honestly thought were ship's bells ringing in his skull.
Soon after he realized that he was lying on a bed and not swaying back and forth in a hammock, he reclined back onto his pillows and calmed his mind to prepare himself once again for slumber. His repose slowly came to him as he reminisced the evening, his dinner with the Bensons in particular. He confessed to himself that it was not his intent to humiliate young, thorny Charlotte, but he did not regret what he had done either. The look of her face was enough to keep him laughing for hours, and in fact, as he recalled her expression, a few snickers escaped his mouth.
However, a few thorough looks around his room reminded him that it was indeed late into the night and that normal folk would be sleeping rather than laughing over the day's events. With a low sigh, he forced himself out of his merriment and waited patiently for fatigue to find him again and close his eyes.
The second time he woke, it was at an appropriate hour, and he rose mechanically, sitting on the edge of his mattress for a less than a second before he sought to make himself presentable for whatever the hell he wanted to do that day. Without even knowing it, he had dressed into his other naval uniform and donned his hat, placing it over his trimly tied black hair which lied just a little above his shoulders.
Scratching his chin while simultaneously checking for any stubble of beard he had missed in his morning shave, he exited his room, not alarmed to see Gabriel's figure about to walk down the stairs.
He hailed his comrade with a tad too much gusto and was instantly reprimanded for sending a greeting so raucously. "My God, Nicholas," Gabriel hissed. "You speak that loud again and you'll wake Charlotte."
"My apologies. I've had some difficulty reminding myself that I'm not at sea anymore," said Nicholas, his detachment condemning his confession. He was absolutely not in any way sorry for raising his voice, in terms of waking Charlotte of course. Now, if Miss Benson had not lived in the house or was not part of the family, then Nicholas would have voiced his apology in heartfelt earnestness. Fortunately for him, such sincerity was not required and he paraded down the stairs with Gabriel, eager to let the morning commence.
Prescott joined them shortly after, complaining of a sore back and noting, with little delight on his square face, how he too had mistook his position to be seafaring and thus woke some minutes after midnight; and in that mentioning, Hartley welcomed himself to add that he could have sworn that bells were ringing in his ears when his own similar experience happened.
The men enjoyed a good, subtle laugh at that and inadvertently began to talk of their most recent voyage at sea, calling to mind with much exaggeration, Gabriel's promotion to commander. The majority of such a memory was heaving with their accounts on getting drunk and sottish from the rum (–or was it brandy?), along with further mindless carousing among the unprincipled and wanton ways of the ladies they had so carelessly allowed to board their ship while in port.
Soon after they recalled their shameless actions that night, the trio fell into an awkward silence, all of them knowing full well that no principled woman would admire such an anecdote from them. Gabriel knew that if his mother ever found out, she'd beat him with a stick until he was a limping mass of purple, and Prescott was already getting red in the face from thinking of what could happen to him if the woman he did end up marrying ever managed to discover such a tale.
Nicholas, although feeling just as much remorse as his fellow shipmates did, slowly rid the regret from his soul and cheered up with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. After replaying that night of merrymaking, he decided not to fool anyone and to express clearly that he, well, enjoyed every moment of it and that he would not, under any circumstances, feel sorry for what he did with the few ladies he intimately fraternized with. He made up his mind not to tell his future wife all of his damned secrets anyway.
"You really will get your beating one day, Nicholas," Gabriel remarked, neither pleased nor angry at his associate's glee.
"Oh, so I'll get cobbed a few times," he retorted, shrugging. "None of that will erase that memory from my mind now will it? Why worry?"
The other two gentlemen had nothing to say to that, and their brief trip down memory lane ended. But now that they had touched on the topic of women, Nicholas collected his mettle and looked at Gabriel severely, straightforwardly saying, "You have a very handsome sister, Gabe."
With a solid assumption that he was speaking of Gillian, Gabriel permitted himself to agree. "Yes, Gillian is quite handsome. Our closest neighbor has already voiced his intentions to her."
Nicholas laughed cheaply, looking down with a delicate shake of his head. "No," he stated, looking up again and feeling another chortle travel up his throat. "I meant Charlotte."
Gabriel was stupefied and he balked, utter horror spreading on his face.
"Have you lost your bearings, Nicholas?" he bellowed, realizing only after he had yelled out the words that his family was still at rest.
His comrade simply waved him off with his hand, turning to Prescott instead. "Certainly you, James, agree with me. Miss Charlotte is handsome, is she not?" Prescott felt uneasy on his feet at the question. He wasn't quite sure what Nicholas meant. Did he mean that she was physically handsome or both physically and mentally?
"I, well, I suppose she is… her face at least," Prescott returned meekly.
"Indeed," said Nicholas, disinterest overtaking his original laughter. His companions simply could not comprehend his opinion.
"How can you say that?" Gabriel questioned irritably. "You freely humiliated her last night!"
"Did I ever say that I found her company enjoyable? Certainly not. I merely stated that she was handsome. I do not see any reason for the both of you to question my mentality. The woman, simply put, is pretty. No more, no less." None of them were willing to interject another comment, never having interest in the topic of Miss Charlotte Benson anyway, but they had answered Nicholas' previous questions for the sake of making a satisfactory reply.
The rest of the morning progressed rather slowly, with the three young men having to occupy themselves with paltry, weak conversation as they were not inventive enough to find some other method of entertainment while they waited for their generous hosts to rise and greet the fading morning.
Not to any of their surprise, Charlotte was the first of the land-loving Bensons to stroll down the stairs. Her chosen apparel was as colorless and drab as it had been the night before, being but a plain, frighteningly unadorned gown of gray, and she honored none of the men with a greeting as she walked into the parlor and sat at her grand pianoforte.
"You are going to play for us, Sister?" asked Gabriel, glancing in her direction and smiling with the intention of unnerving her.
She did not raise her head nor did she make any other motion that indicated that she recognized her brother's presence in the room. Striking one key with unanticipated force, she replied, "I play for my own enjoyment, not yours." Her response was flatly put, and her voice was leveled. Clearly, she was displeased, but her voice lacked the natural rasp of bitterness that had ruled her vocals from the night before.
"Well then," said Nicholas, parrying her comeback before Gabriel was granted the chance. "Play. We aren't stopping you."
"Did I ever address you, Sir?" Charlotte countered, her taut, white fingers now rigidly curled over the pianoforte.
"No, I don't believe so, Miss," Nicholas replied coolly, his lips slipping into a broad grin. "I just thought I'd take upon the task of letting you know that we are not sitting here with the sole purpose of hindering you from your musical exercise. By all means, play."
Her face remained hidden as she stared at the keys with a wandering mind, struggling to snap back a witty reply that would put his worthless, dispensable blather to an end, but she did not know the man well enough to shut him up for all eternity. Even if she did reply smartly, as she always did, she would not be certain if the effect of such a rejoinder would be sufficiently potent to clog up his throat and prevent any further prattle from leaving his foul mouth. She was not one to take upon improbable missions, for to undertake a charge that had no likelihood of ever being successfully completed seemed a waste of mind-power and time.
"You have some nerve to position yourself in discussion that does not concern you," she said at last, not at all finding the response adequate. In her frustration, she struck forcefully upon the ivory keys and began to play jarringly, expressing not a drop of regret for having woken the rest of her family by her boisterous and poorly played sonata.
When Mr. and Mrs. Benson entered the parlor, looking disheveled and haggard despite their affluent dress, they narrowed their eyes straight in Charlotte's direction. And with a bright, fearsome glower, they managed to get the message through to her and to any other onlookers that she would never dare to play so hideously in the young hours of the day again.
Charlotte absorbed the glare reluctantly, her body stiffening at the scold. At nineteen, she was still being treated as if she were Gillian, who was naïve, inappropriately playful and careless, and her pride had been given another stabbing at being chastised so easily. She didn't even think she had recovered from her humiliation from dinner, and she had already planned to get her revenge on Lieutenant Hartley that day. However, now that her spirits had been punched again, she knew that she'd need a little more time before she felt confident enough to engage her enemy in another duel.
Nicholas observed her tight, smooth visage with impregnable bliss. When Mr. and Mrs. Benson left the parlor to monitor the chores being conducted around the house, he found it safe to irk her for the umpteenth time. He clapped with false admiration, reciting, "Bravo! Bravo, ma chérie!" with exceeded zest. He sputtered a laugh after he uttered the French endearment, apparently finding it hilarious that he had mocked her poor instrumental skills in French, which was likely chosen to inflict more insult without being long-winded.
Gabriel, regardless of the disagreement between Charlotte and him, felt compelled to intervene should Charlotte make her mark upon his close comrade in the form of a very repulsive scar. He had even poised himself in his seat, bent forward, hand on the chair arm, ready to leap out if necessary to catch Charlotte before she shredded Nicholas into pieces.
Despite his preparation however, Charlotte remained seated at her silent and bulky instrument, her index finger lightly tapping the key of middle C with calm, consistent pressure and her strict, inflexible face relieving into a rather girlish and beaming expression.
"My, Lieutenant," she began, lifting her head away from her piano and to his face, which, if one may add, had hurriedly ceased spitting out laughter and stared at her, open-mouthed again. "I have never met such a man as you." She stood and approached him, her arms relaxed at her sides, and to Nicholas, it appeared as if she'd offer her hand to him as a sign of peace and perhaps a bit more.
"More like 'I have never met such a dog as you,' " Gabriel muttered under his breath as he turned away, refusing to witness whatever trick Charlotte had up her bland sleeve for the bemused Hartley.
"To speak such endearing words in such a romantic language," Charlotte continued, hearing her brother's comment but ignoring it for the time being. "Do you always speak to women in such a way?"
"No," Nicholas replied, sounding somewhat unsure. "No, no," he added, more stiffly, afraid that the woman he had made sport of for his own entertainment would interpret his jests as an odd approach to wooing her. His face tingled lightly with pink. "No. Not at all. Never." As soon as he heard his last word come out of his mouth, he realized how stupid he must have sounded. All he did was deny a fact, and the mistake would be picked out and mutilated in front of him until he had little pride to hold onto anymore.
"Never?" repeated Charlotte, faking a look of surprise on her face as her eyebrows arched and her lips pursed slightly. "Then what would you call what you just said to me, Lieutenant?"
"A joke, Sister!" Gabriel intruded merrily, swinging his bent arm back and forth in front of him as if he were doing the upper movements of an impromptu jig. Charlotte turned around, her jaw cricking a bit as her brother saved his comrade from unavoidable derision, but she managed to keep her faux façade intact, a forced, wavering smile plastered on her lips.
"Nicholas, well, he loves to poke fun at everyone," Gabriel resumed, his own confidence weakening as her glare of disbelief penetrated through his sorry act.
Her eyelid twitched and she whirled back around towards Nicholas, whose hands were nearly in prayer motion as he saw Gabriel help him get out of his mess. "You are a lucky one, sir," she said brusquely. "You should thank my brother for saving your backside by getting him drunk tonight."
"I surely will not," said Hartley defiantly. "Drinking is for the hopeless. I do not climb into the bottle for solace or celebration nowadays, Miss, and I will not offer it to any other man either."
"Liar," she murmured, crossing her arms with a huff and exiting the parlor.
Nicholas leaned out of his chair to watch her leave, making sure she had made a turn down the hallway towards the dining hall before he glanced back at his amused companions.
"Well," he began, bringing his hands together and slouching back into the chair, "I think we should celebrate another well performed and victorious plan of action tonight, gentlemen." He pretended to raise an invisible glass in the air in means of an imaginary toast. Gabriel and Prescott chuckled heartedly.
After a pause, he looked at Gabriel, the same severe expression of seriousness shadowing his face. "Does she always get away talking like that to acquaintances?"
"For most of her life she has," answered Gabriel. "But what have you to complain about it? You are just as rude. My God, if your face was even a little less decent than it is right now, then no woman would have ever climbed into bed with you. Your morals are blatantly unacceptable."
"Then I thank God that I have a face like this to override my lecherous soul," Hartley grinned, sinking into the comfort of his chair and rubbing his chin. "Otherwise, well…" He sighed falsely. "Otherwise, I'd be like you and Prescott, Gabe."