1816 had already begun to be known as the Year Without a Summer.
A hard, cold rain fell nearly constantly. On the few days when it stopped for an hour or two, the gloomy and overcast skies lingered, and there was a chill in the air more suitable to mid-December than late July. Robert, who had anticipated sitting out in the rose garden during the summer months, remained confined indoors like everybody else. He sat in the drawing room of his sister's home, watching the rain run in rivulets down the windowpanes while Maria and her guests played whist.
"I received a letter from Captain Doyle some weeks ago." Maria's friend Mrs. Doyle arranged her cards in her hand. "He says there is ice on the rivers in Massachusetts. The Americans were skating on Midsummer's Day." There was a round of ladylike laughter. Out of the corner of his eye, Robert saw Maria pick up a card and add it to her hand.
"Robert had a letter from his friend Lieutenant Burgess of the Dauntless," Maria said. She glanced in Robert's direction, but he ignored her. "He is off the coast of Ireland, and he said it has poured rain daily since the first of May." That was the only part of John's letter Robert had shared with his sister, not that there had been much worth hiding. Robert had not expected reams of love and longing, but he had expected more than the terse note he had received. John had not even mentioned whether Robert's presence was missed aboard ship. "Isn't that right, Robert?"
Robert turned away from the window and looked at Maria. Her dress was dark blue, a shade that bordered on marine. That, coupled with the white frill at her collar, put Robert in mind of the naval uniform he'd worn for over a decade. The uniform John Burgess still wore aboard the Dauntless.
"The Irish crops are ruined," Robert replied, quoting from John's letter. "There are fears of a great famine. I hardly think that is a topic for drawing room conversation, but clearly you are of a different opinion, madam."
Maria's friends, fellow naval wives Mrs. Doyle and Mrs. Hamilton and Maria's sister-in-law, Mrs. Finch, exchanged uneasy glances. "You must miss being at sea, Mr. Pierce," Mrs. Doyle finally said. "I know my Alfred is forever restless when he's forced to be at home."
"Indeed, Mrs. Doyle." There was nothing more to be said. Robert rearranged the blanket on his lap and turned back to the rain-soaked window.
Maria Burke-Henry was the wife of a captain, the daughter of a late admiral, the sister of a former second lieutenant, and, most recently, the mother of a fourteen-year-old midshipman. She was well acquainted with the ways of navy men. She left Robert alone for the rest of the day, but that did not lull him into believing it would be a long-term respite.
Sure enough, after supper, as they sat huddled in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room, Maria looked up from her needlework and said, "Have you considered marriage, Robert?"
Robert drew his eyes away from the leaping flames, licking like red tongues at the splintering wood around them. A painted fire screen kept the sparks safely away from the hearth and the carpet. "If I am becoming a burden to you, madam, I am certain I could make a living begging on the streets of Portsmouth. The pity of fellow sailors alone should keep me in bread and beef." Perhaps. Sailors were nothing if not superstitious, and a "there but for the grace of God" mentality might benefit Robert if it came to that.
Maria shook her head, her curls bouncing. "Don't be ridiculous, Robert. You know I love to have you with me, particularly now that little Georgie is at sea." Maria sighed, but the thought of her midshipman son was evidently not enough to turn her mind from the subject at hand. "There is nothing to keep you from taking a wife now."
"Apart from the minor inconvenience of my infirmity." The same infirmity had ripped Robert away from the only adult life he'd ever known, away from the sea and the waves and his bosom friend John Burgess, now first lieutenant aboard His Majesty's frigate Dauntless.
"You have a little money from Father's will," Maria explained, as if he did not know it. She smiled. "And you are a handsome man. As much as it pains me to say it of my little brother, the site of your amputation was not high enough to eliminate every woman's interest." Robert blinked, shocked that such a saucy implication would come from his refined, well-mannered sister. He should not have been so surprised; a lifetime around sailors had contributed to Maria's education in more ways than one. "Mrs. Doyle has a younger half-sister," she went on. "Miss Walker. She's a pretty little thing, and she has been out for nearly a year. I would be pleased to introduce you at the upcoming masque."
"I thought the purpose of a masque was to hide one's identity." Not that it would be possible for Robert, even if he went to the blasted thing. Mrs. Doyle did not have the acquaintance of many one-legged men.
"Only if you fear rejection in your usual state. Mrs. Doyle and I both feel there is slim chance of that happening to you."
Robert shook his head. Maria had been good to him since his injury, better than a cantankerous bastard like him deserved, but this was a direction that would not end well for anybody. "I am not interested in marriage."
"Neither was I," Maria answered bluntly, pulling her needle through her embroidery hoop. "But Captain Burke-Henry and I have found happiness together. I only want the same for you." Maria's happiness, in this case, had been a lifetime of separation from her husband. For the majority of their marriage, Maria had been left in England to raise her children alone and wonder if she would ever see their father again. If that was true bliss, then Robert already possessed it, stuck as he was in his sister's rain-drenched house, miles away from the sea he craved and the man he loved.
"Leave it be, Maria," was all Robert could say. Maria pursed her lips, but she said nothing more. They sat in silence, the only sounds the popping of the fire and the rustling of the embroidery, until Maria's daughter Jane appeared. She was a comely sixteen-year-old with golden hair and a figure any of His Majesty's swabbies would have been overjoyed to see standing on the Portsmouth docks. At her mother's urging, Jane sat in front of the harpsichord. As she began to pluck out a sonata, Robert closed his eyes and let his mind drift to warmer times.
Like his father before him, Robert joined the Royal Navy as a boy midshipman, at the height of Bonaparte's reign of terror. Robert's early ships, the Clement and the Rose, saw as much action as any boy could want, but that did not make Robert happy. His father the admiral cast a long shadow. While Robert was spared the worst of the shipboard abuses for fear he might report the transgressors to the admiralty, he was also cut out of any camaraderie that took place below decks. He was a competent midshipman, but he was not liked by anyone. The captains and the lieutenants were afraid of Robert's father, as were the rest of the crew. The other middies spoke to him only when necessary. In the midshipman's mess, Robert sat alone. On shore leave, he always ended up drinking a few solitary pints in the corner of a tavern, watching his shipmates cavorting with local girls before slipping unnoticed back to the ship.
Robert suffered through six years of this strangely complete isolation at the heart of a crowded, heaving warship before Mr. Midshipman John Burgess arrived and changed his life forever.