As we wondered how we should spend the afternoon, word came that The Master wished to see us beside The Nile. Mindful of the imprecation to remain presentable, we availed ourselves of the looking glass near the back door before making our way. (I had not examined myself in a glass between leaving Father’s Home 13 years before and my arrival at Merton. I could not quite like what I saw.)
We found Nelson, dressed in easy cloaths, seated alongside Lady Hamilton upon the bench we had found that morning. Upon his other side was the yellow-haired child, now less small, for whom he was intent upon drawing some thing upon a paper, talking soft to her the while. “Now forgive me a moment,” we heard him say as we drew near, “for we must speak with these fine sailors. Do you stand up.”
They rose and stept toward us. We came to a stand, unsure how to proceed. “Horatia,” he said, “allow me to present my shipmates.” As he named us each in turn, she dropped an elegant curtsey. It was the most delightful thing. Having the advantage of my time in France it was well that I was first, for I knew to respond with a courtly bow, which the others each copied in turn (though it is my fair claim that none outdid mine in courtliness!). When that was done, he continued, “Men, allow me to present my ward, Miss Horatia Thompson,” with an excessive emphasis upon ward.
“Horatia,” said Nelson, “should you like to go for a ride in the boat?”
“Well—,” she replied.
“What is’t, heart? Do not tell me you are frighted!”
“No, silly! But please may can I take William?” she said, looking at a small wooden horse on wheels whose string she clasped tight in one hand.
“Certainly you may!” replied Nelson, tousling her hair.
“Then yes please!” she exclaimed, giving a little jump.
Turning to us, Nelson said, “I should be very much obliged—.”
We sprang into action. Finding the sculls already in the boat, we went aboard in a seaman-like manner and settled. As the smallest, I took the tiller lines with Horatia next to me upon the aft thwart. As the strongest, Lars and Maduka each took a pair of sculls. As the least useful in the circumstance, Dick squeezed himself awkward into the slender bows.
Lady Hamilton handed down the end of yesterday’s bread – “for the ducks” – and we pushed off.
“Not above two hours, mind!” called out Nelson as we laid a course for the bridge.
As we passed under it, Lars startled us by letting out a high-pitched whoop that echoed charming from the stone above. This delighted Horatia who, after urging Lars to do it again, tried for herself and was even more pleased with the result. We lingered there for a while, each of us trying different pitches, until the novelty was exhausted.
It was a delight to be upon the water once more, for all that it was dead water. The puddles turned up by the sculls smelt in no little degree rank, and we resolved to press on to the Wandle which reason dictated must be a little sweeter for its not being stagnant.
And so it proved. In places, though, it was too narrow for the sculls to be of use and Dick was required to leap out and tow us through. From time to time we would pass a man fishing whose rod had needs be withdrawn to let us pass: the common men made no occasion of it, oft giving us a nod or grunt of acknowledgement as we thanked them, but one Gentleman chose to speak as though we had subjected him to a brutal assault. We hoped he would be gone when we returned.
At the end of a long straight stretch we came to a cluster of mills, several discharging unsavoury matter, and so turned about and made our way back upstream. After a while we drew in to a grassy bank. There we hopped out and shook the knots from our limbs.
It being a meadow of some size, Dick soon had us playing What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?, a game I had not before known and that charmed Maduka, Lars and me no less than it did Horatia. By the third or fourth game we had changed our chant to Vardair clocken, hair vay? in imitation of Lars, which reduced us to fits of unaccountable mirth.
We dared not stay too long, none of us having a time-piece, and, besides, Horatia was beginning to tire. Exercising my authority as Coxswain, I ordered the party back to the boat. Horatia forgot William, whom she had placed where he could watch our capers, and thanked me pretty when I handed him to her.
We were not long upon our return voyage when Maduka began to cry great silent tears. I did not presume to intrude upon whatever occasioned his grief, but it pleases me to speculate that Dick, and we all, had that day given him a pleasure such as he had been denied in his child-hood.
Horatia soon fell asleep. All the way downstream she had regaled me with fantastical tales of her friends and their adventures upon horses, of fairy castles, of being lost in the woods, of dragons, and of many other things besides. (Some particulars she had not felt at liberty to disclose to me until she had obtained permission from William.) I began to consider whether she perhaps spent too little time with others of her own age, though I know no thing of childer and was perhaps mistaken. I was not even able to judge her age. Which set me to thinking. Lady Hamilton had been said to be with child when we left for Copenhagen, yet there was no child with her now but Horatia. In course, there might have been a tragedy, in consequence of which she had offered to stand Guardian to the orphan of a Mrs. or Mr. Thompson. Or could this child asleep in the crook of my arm be her child? For that to be so, Horatia would have to be 4½ years of age. Was she? I had no notion, though it was plain that she was older than Mary King had been at Gib in ’98. If she were hers and Sir William’s, Horatia would go by the name Hamilton and there would be no mystery. So could she be hers and Nelson’s? Aye, that would account for any deception. Though naming her Horatia must under-mine the deception at once. Could I see some thing of Nelson in the child’s countenance? Would his devotion be so great as I had observed were she an other man’s child? She stirred in my arm, and I abandoned my thoughts. Horatia was well loved, and perhaps no thing else signified.
The passage up the Wandle against the stream took longer than I had allowed, and I urged the scullers on to a burst of speed as we entered The Nile, flew under the bridge and swooped alongside the bank. Nelson drew out his watch, examined it and fixed me with a stare, dipping his head in reproach as he did so, but said no thing.
Horatia remained asleep as I handed her up to the waiting Nurse or Nanny or howsoever the minder of a child is called. The Nurse, who had been anxious at the prospect of our taking her charge in the boat but too timid to say so, bore away the sleeping bundle. And William.
With Nelson was a Captain. (I did not know him, only the uniform.) Upon the table before them stood a bottle and glasses, pen, ink and paper. Lady Hamilton appeared to be at a loose end and approached us, saying, “Does any of you fine fellows know the game pallmall?”
“Aye, ma’am,” I replied, hesitant.
“Mister Roberts,” said Nelson, without looking up, “might appear unremarkable, but he keeps to himself many surprizes.” Had I been found out? Having kept my secrets for 13 years, had Nelson seen through me in just our glancing, shallow and intermittent acquaintance? He did not seem intent upon pursuing it, however, and by and by my heart’s beat subsided.
Lady Hamilton fixed me with an inquiring gaze for a while, gave a small nod to no purpose I could imagine, then said bright, “Come all! Four may play, and any number may watch.” To my relief, my shipmates required no second bidding to come to my side.
The game requires a long, level path along which each player strikes a wooden ball with a long-handled mallet. The object is to reach the end of the path then loft the ball through an iron ring, the winner being the one to take the fewest strikes. Lady Hamilton led us away to a place where a gravel path ran straight alongside The Nile. Waiting there were balls and mallets. Lady Hamilton chose Maduka for her side, which left me with the burden of excluding either Lars or Dick. I hope Lars understood that I chose to play with Dick for no deeper reason than gratitude for his having leapt out of the boat so oft. Lady Hamilton charged Lars with keeping the scores. Play commenced.
The game itself was little interesting, but the conduct of my shipmates absorbed much of my attention. Lady Hamilton was no longer in possession of the seductive figure I had first seen at Naples, having spread somewhat, but it was evident that she had lost none of her allure. Dick, in particular, ever caressed her with his words, oft skirting the edge of frank impertinence. Lars was less coarse and direct in his conduct, but it tended in the same direction. Maduka said not a word, but there was no mistaking the direction of his eyes. For her part, Lady Hamilton was beyond question aware of her effect upon them and delighted in it, she walking about with a captivating swagger and bending low over her mallet. More than once I caught her looking at me as if wondering why I remained un-enflamed by her presence.