Note: This can be enjoyed on its own, but some of the characters will be better understood if you read She Had to Ask, submission date of July 14, 2020.
Captain William Anderson sat in the dim light of the dingy Oxtail Tavern nursing his noon-time ale with a scowl on his weathered face. The long sticky tavern table was empty save him and his Second Mate Frank Davies. He hoped this meeting would net them the additional crew they needed.
Captain Anderson was pissed that he had to adjust his trade route and annoyed that he had to hire to new crew. More than that he was gutted, absolutely gutted, that the reason he needed to hire new crew was the arrest of some of his men. It was a risk they all ran with their lives, but they had gone without incident for so many years that the men had let their guard down and had gone to enjoy a night out.
That damn Molly House is what did his men in. The men should have known better, what with all the raids recently; still he couldn’t blame them for wanting a night out on town. He knew how hard it was to live as normal men, pretend that they fit in with their wives, their families, their parishes, and their countrymen. The Molly Houses were the only places that some of his men felt comfortable enough to drop their guises and show their full love of other men.
The arrests had rippled through their underground network; the news had reached him shortly after. It was unlikely his men would be hung for sodomy, that was rare. Still they would face imprisonment, the pillory, and lives ruined under the lessor charge of assault with attempt to sodomize. It would be years before they’d be free again, their families would turn their backs in shame; all because some interfering zealots had their knickers in twist about things that were none of their business.
Captain Anderson promised himself that he would keep track of his men, find them when they were released from prison. He had to, for their families knew now, if they didn’t know before. The neighbours knew, the young hooligans that relished in the misery of others knew. If he didn’t take them in as soon as they were released from prison, the men would mostly likely not survive a year, either by their own hand or by another’s.
The men arrested were not the only worry he had. If the law applied a heavy handed pressure to them, they could be worn down enough to lead them back to him and his boat. The Dancing Lady was a safe haven for men who could not help but love other men. He needed to leave port before attention was drawn to him.
Not enough time to gather all the supplies needed to last the trip to India, and he worried that the authorities would be lying in wait for him as his route to India was known. Instead of India, he’d go to America, but that meant he needed different goods and supplies and still had to hire new crew.
Hiring was done through word of mouth from his crew, to ensure that everyone on board fit in and that their safety was ensured. Now he was short handed and in a stroke of timing that he didn’t quite trust, he heard of four potentials. He felt it was more likely that they were spies from some rubbish society dedicated to rooting out vice or promoting religious virtues.
“What makes you certain that these guys are for real”, the captain asked Davies.
“I’ve met Lee a few times. He’s a good bloke; a bit soft for a sailor, but I’ll be happy to whip him into shape.” Davies grin clearly showed his own interest in the lad. “He’s desperate to get away from his family. All four of them are looking to escape their lives. You remember what that was like.”
The captain stared into his mug, hoping it was a stroke of luck, and not a trap, that was bringing him four new potential hires.
“Adelana, I cannot go through with this. Look at me. My breasts are flattened, my waist is hidden and I don’t want my Fredrick to see me like this.”
Miss Adelana did look at her, admired her own handy work. Long hair was tucked neatly under a wool cap, not a stray fly away to betray her. The only problem that she could see was that Miss Mary-Anne made an exceptionally pretty man. “You and Fredrick both agreed to this, so he knows that you’re going to look like a man. It’s the only way you’re going to get to marry him.”
“Yeah sure, run away dressed as a man, work on ship, and that will get me married. I’ll be lucky if Fredrick doesn’t run back and beg his job back from my father before we’ve sailed away.”
“Have more faith in him.” Miss Adelana rubbed her hands in the dirt on the ground and then rubbed them on Mary-Anne’s face. “I christen you Marion.”
“Gross”, squeaked Mary-Anne, “why did you do that?” The newly named Marion attempted to rub off the dirt, but succeeded in a better job of smearing it across her face.
“Trust me. What man about town have you seen that’s so clean and pretty?”
The door to the abandoned barn creaked open. Marion and Adelana grabbed hold of each others’ hands, until Miss Edith slipped into the shadows. Adelana clasped her hands together in excitement. “Edith, love! Let’s get to work on you.”
With clothes, caps, bindings, and dirt they transformed themselves in the earliest hours of the morning.
Edith became Eddie and Adelana donned the guise of Lee, not for the first time. Each time she discarded Adelana to be Lee, she became the person she felt Lee was, confident, bright, care-free.
The three newly minted men fortified their courage with sips straight from one of Lee’s ever present bottles of whisky, while they giggled and twirled to show off their new selves. Fredrick came to collect them for the meeting, found them as such, arm in arm, laughing and pretending to talk like men.
With barely a glance at Lee or Eddie, his eyes drank in Marion. The young women nervously waited for his reaction, knowing that it mattered little what they thought of the outcome, they needed to know what a man saw in them.
“Fredrick," Lee prompted when he continued to stare without words, "I’d like you to meet Marion.”
“I can see you in there, my love, but also not. You’re about the prettiest man I ever saw.” Fredrick said this last bit with a grimace. “Still, no one could believe that you are the very proper Miss Edith Denton.” Fredrick dragged his hands slowly down his face. “Your father is going to kill me.” He stepped up to her, almost reached for her, but brought his hands back as if scared to touch her looking as she did. He spoke imploringly, “You’re giving up being a lady, I shouldn’t think that I’m worth that, my love. It’s not too late to give up all this nonsense, strip off those ridiculous clothes and go back home.”
Lee smiled, for he had inadvertently assured that Mary Anne wouldn’t back down. By stating that he wasn’t worth it, Lee knew that Mary Anne would dig her heels in to prove he was worth it to her, and that she would become Marion to do so.
“It won’t be for long, Fredrick.” Lee reassured Fredrick. “You’ll have your beloved Mary Anne back soon, she’s still under there. We only need to get away from our families, and then start a new life. The Dancing Lady is going to India, but we’ll find passage to America when we can, and we’ll all start over. New lives, for all of us! And we’ll have you with us, to guide us and protect us.”
Fredrick’s shoulders shrank. “I’ll go where you go, Mary-Anne.”
Lee, Fredrick, Marion and Eddie snuck out of the shed and fled through the forest to a part of the road well away from her family’s estate. They used the hours to get to town to practice walking like men. Fredrick rolled his eyes as they tried to copy his gait. Tipsy on whisky, drunk on adrenaline, three young men laughed long and loud, accompanied by a quieter lad carrying a great weight upon his shoulders.
Captain Anderson glanced at the opening tavern door, did a double take at the men that entered. Without a doubt these were the four lads he had come to meet.
The shortest of them walked with a swagger that only a young man could carry and had the audacity to look him over in a manner that only the most confident lads could pull off. Polar opposite in attitude was the freckled chap whose smile had withered upon entry and who seemed to curl in on himself as he looked around at the patrons of the tavern. The third was a man with a shadow of a beard; he did not quite fit with the angelic faces of the others. The tallest of those coming to meet him needed a bath, smeared as he was with dirt on his face. Still, even under all the filth, he was clearly an extraordinarily beautiful man.
Too pretty and too young, was his first thought.
Davies whistled low and Tappers whispered something under his breath. Davies stood up, “Lee, it’s good to see you.”
The bearded man raised an eyebrow at this greeting. The shortest one, Lee presumably, stepped forward and greeted Davies with a wide grin. “Davies!”
Lee waived the others in closer. “This is Fredrick”, he gestured to his side. “This is Eddie”, he gestured to the freckled lad that nodded silently. “And this is Marion”, he gestured to the pretty boy. Marion looked briefly up at Fredrick before smiling a greeting at them.
Davies introduced the Captain. Lee jovially ordered a round of ales for them all before claiming a seat.
Captain Anderson looked them over as they found seats around the tavern table. “I was not expecting mere boys.” He gave Davies a terse look. “Davies here has said you want to be hired. Why?”
The four of them shared looks with each other, but it was Lee that spoke. That was odd to the Captain’s way of thinking, since Fredrick appeared the eldest among them. Lee did know Davies though; the Captain allowed that he could be older than he looked.
“Our reasons are our own, but I will say we want to get away and start new lives. You’re going to India, and I’ve always wanted to work on a ship. We’ll work hard, you have my word.”
“The word of a boy does not inspire much confidence I’m afraid. You don’t look like you know what work is, except maybe for Fredrick over there.”
“Will all due respect, Captain, I don’t expect it to be easy. You can set us to scrubbing the deck, hauling cargo, whatever is needed. I’ll learn to climb the ropes and read the stars. I’ve been studying, I have.”
“We speak several languages”, Marion cut in. “That will be useful in ports. How many of your men speak French, German, Italian and Latin?”
“Hah!” the Captain guffawed. “Do you be believing that you’ll be needing Latin or German in the ports? Indian would be better, ‘cept we ain’t going to India now.”
“Indian isn’t a language”, Eddie corrected, then looked surprised that he had. He used the cover of receiving his tankard of ale to hide his embarrassment.
“No? Then what do they speak in India then, lad?” The Captain wanted to hear more from the quiet one, needed to know who he was.
“In the ports there will be those that speak English, as you know. Around India, many languages and dialects are spoken, but a common one is Hindustani, or you might know it as Urdu. I can’t speak it yet, but want to learn.”
The Captain stared stonily at them. “You speak of learning a language as if its nothing, and mayhaps it is with knowing so many tongues already. I expected common chaps, the sons of butchers and farmers most like. You though, you three at least”, he gestured to Lee, Eddie and Marion, "you are sons of noble families are you not? How much trouble do you bring me?”
Marion and Eddie sipped their ale, waiting for Lee to respond. Lee looked the captain square in the eye, greedily downed his tankard, and belched loudly. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, before pulling a tiny knife to pick at his fingernails. “You are not wrong, Good captain. Our families will be angry at our leaving. My family doesn’t like me much anyway, so it little matters whether I come or go. The trouble is for us, not for you."
Not so soft, that one, the Captain thought, remembering when he had been kicked out of his own family. How many of my men look soft but have steel underneath? Most of them, he acknowledged.
“You said you are not going to India? Where are you bound for?” Lee asked.
“America, first. We’ll still go to India after, but we need to head to America first.”
“That is even better for us.” Lee was excited. “Fredrick and Marion want very badly to see America.”
Fredrick spoke up for the first time since sitting down. “I don’t know the first thing about sailing, but like Lee, I’ll work hard, and I’ll learn. It’s been many years since I could be considered a boy and I know a days work. It may not matter to you, but you’d be changing my life by taking us on, giving us a chance at a different future than we got here.”
The Captain weighed Davies recommendation and his need for new crew, against what he saw and what he feared. He was short handed, he needed to leave quickly, and they wanted to work. They wouldn’t be the first noble sons fleeing the expectations of their families, or forced out of their families in shame, either or. Men like them did not have easy lives; any time they could be free to be themselves was precious. He could offer that to these lads. They’d have to work, probably harder than they’d ever thought possible, but they could be themselves without judgement on the sea, away from the prying eyes of the masses on land. He could give them that gift.
“Safety of my crew is everything, and by that I mean privacy. Whoever knows of your business cannot know of ours. I will not lose more men. If I hire you lads, can you abide by that?”
Lee nodded, not quite understanding how their privacy ensured safety, but he didn’t want to be found out so privacy worked for them. “We won’t talk about you with anyone, I swear it. Our futures also depends on privacy. If we could be hired, we’d appreciate if we bunk together in a room, the four of us. Or with the cargo, so long as its just the four of us. We need our privacy as well.”
“You can sleep with the Cargo if you prefer, but if one thing goes missing, I will toss you overboard, don’t doubt me on that.”
“Does that mean…” Lee’s eyes lit up.
“You’re hired.” The captain grumbled it begrudgingly. “Be on board by 05:00 o’clock tomorrow morning, or we leave with out you.
Davies ran his hand down Lee’s leg, squeezed his knee under the table and whispered, “I’m looking forward to having you on board.”
Lee choked a bit on his ale, covered it with a cough. Understanding dawned, as he looked at Davies and the Captain in a new light. Lee blushed, then reddened even more when this made Davies grin. The journey would be more interesting than anticipated.