It was another sailor who was able to help them locate Nikolai. The tar was a sunburned fellow with strongly muscled forearms on which danced inked images of mermaids, dolphins, and sailing ships. He was using a metal tool to chip paint from a bulkhead, a task he readily put aside when approached by Charlotte. “The Russian gent? With a patch over his eye?”
“He’s below with the lads. Come along, I’ll take ye.”
He led them across the deck to a hatchway and down a set of stairs. He waited patiently for the pair to catch up with him. “You’re the two that Mike was telling us about,” he said easily. He eye lingered upon them with thoughtful regard. “The boyos’d be disappointed if they can’t see your fine beastie.”
This Charlotte repeated to Zlata as they took each step carefully. Zlata, winded from the effort, nodded her head enthusiastically.
“Just a bit further now, Miss,” the tattooed sailor told them. “Your friend, he’s in the crew’s mess. The seaman and the deckhands, we eat down here.”
The trio moved down the narrow passageway, which was warm and fairly bright. Charlotte found herself watching the sailor. Her recent past in the warm embrace of the Worker’s Revolution had made her wary of strangers. Weak though Charlotte was, she was certain she could get to the Nagant if this man was gulling them.
“What is that smell?” Zlata said to her, whispering out of the urge to be polite, even though she spoke in Russian.
“Coffee,” Charlotte answered. “And frying meat.” The nurse’s hand went to her abdomen. Scents familiar from her time in England were suddenly making her ravenous. She’d last eaten hours and hours ago, a tiny meal, just before she had bullied their way onto the vessel.
Ahead, the tattooed sailor opened a door and the odors of the cooking food raced out. “Here he is, Miss.” He stood by the door and with a light touch steadied each of them by the elbow as they stepped over the lip of the hatchway.
The mess was a small compartment, containing three tables with benches bolted to the floor on either side. There was an opening in one wall beyond. It was from this aperture that the glorious fragrances wafted. Nikolai was toward the back of the room, seated on a bench, his good eye turned toward a short Negro sailor’s bare foot. Beside them was Mike Rogers, who looked up at their entrance.
“Oi, Gavin,” he said, greeting the tattooed sailor.
“Mike, I found your ladies and brought them like you asked.”
“Good man. Have you seen the skipper?”
“He was in the wheelhouse, last I seen.”
“Grand,” Mike replied. “Send him along when you clap eyes on him.”
“Aye,” replied Gavin. Turning to go, he noticed Zlata staring at his arms. He bent over, flexed his forearm in a curious manner, and the dolphins on his skin appeared to swim. Suddenly shy, Zlata ducked behind Charlotte. Gavin gave a snort of laughter, said “Miss” to the nurse, and departed, pulling the hatch shut behind him.
Mike was at their side. “Come, sit down,” he suggested, leading them to the table where their friend sat.
Nikolai looked up at them with relief. “I can’t understand a thing this fellow is saying,” he told them. “He won’t stop feeding me, either.”
Indeed, Mike was already returning to the table with two bowls filled with something hot and savory. “Eat, my hearties,” he said, setting the bowls before them and taking two broad metal spoons from a pocket. It was a simple stew, but the caress of the steam against her face and the sight of the dark broth, the potatoes, the carrots, the onions, and most welcome of all, the fatty chunks of meat, almost brought tears to Charlotte’s eyes.
Zlata wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar fare, but Charlotte could hardly restrain herself from lunging at the food. “Thank you,” she said with a trace of a quiver in her voice. She had felt weak before, now she thought she might fall over.
“I’ll see if we can find some milk for the lass, eh? And for you, Miss?”
“Coffee.” Now Charlotte did pick up her spoon with a trembling hand, and she began to eat.
Nikolai held up an admonishing finger to the Negro sailor, who nodded his head. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you: the food is strange but plentiful,” the Russian doctor said, turning his body so that he might see them both with his remaining eye. “But these poor devils haven’t seen a proper doctor in months. Gospodin Braninov, you must make these fellows understand me.”
Her bowl was empty. Mike placed a mug beside it and removed the bowl. “Nick offered to look at the lads. At least, that’s what I think he wanted to do.”
Charlotte wrapped her hands around the mug and let its warmth seep into her for a time; then she stood. She swayed, almost dizzy, before dropping into the seat to Nikolai’s right. Mike returned with a plate of biscuits, another English treat she had not seen for many long months, along with a fresh bowl of stew. Zlata moved over to sit opposite the nurse and Doctor. Hunger overcame hesitancy as the girl, too, began to eat, although it was a diligent act of excavation, as she lifted each individual component from the stew and examined it carefully before popping it in her mouth.
“Now, this fellow,” Nikolai was saying as Charlotte took up the bowl and began to eat more slowly. “He has a fungus of the foot. He must change his socks and wash his feet with soap and water every day, and he must dry his feet completely before putting on his shoes.”
Lowering her spoon, Charlotte explained this treatment to the Negro sailor, who bobbed his head and replied in musical tones, “Yes, missus.” His voice reminded her of one of the wounded boys she had tended during her last days in France, and she could not help but smile. The sailor went on, “I’ll send de next boy in,” before bobbing his head at them again.
Thus did she once more take up the mantle of nursing, at least for a time.
Zlata grew bored and restless waiting for Charlotte. Mike, who was standing by the entrance to the mess, glancing out the hatchway from time to time, noticed this, and approached her with a small covered dish and a napkin-wrapped bundle. “There’s another lady with your party, hey?” he said as the girl looked on, uncomprehendingly. Mike held his hand at about shoulder level, indicating height. “A lady, yes?” He pointed at Charlotte, and held up two fingers. “Another lady with you?”
Zlata understood and said, “Indrina.”
Mike nodded and put the bowl in her hand. “For her.” He once more pointed to the imaginary person he had measured. “You take.”
With a glance back to acquire Charlotte’s approval, Zlata climbed to her feet. “Should I wait with Mistress?” she asked.
The nurse considered it. “Yes, we should be along shortly.”
“Yes, Miss.” Zlata took the bowl and the bundle and strode for the passageway. At the hatch, she turned sideways to admit a large man in a severe blue suit.
“Rogers, you running a bleeding orphanage now?” the man barked—and then his eyes fell on first Nikolai, and then Charlotte. He was silent a moment before saying, “Your pardon, ma’am.”
The Russian doctor dismissed the man, and turned back to their current patient, who was displaying the whites of his eyes. Charlotte glanced back as the uniformed man said in a tone that brooked no disobedience: “Boswain, a word.”
“Yes, sir,” Rogers replied smartly, and crossed to stand before him.
The men spoke in lowered voices and Charlotte could feel their regard. Then she heard them behind her.
“Miss Braninov,” Mike said (he mispronounced it), “This is our captain. Captain Hagenbeck, Nurse Braninov.”
The captain towered over her even when he bent to take her hand, which he stared at a long time, holding her gently with fingers thick as tree branches. “Miss Braninov,” he said, not dropping her hand, but lowering it to the tabletop before withdrawing his own. “This gentleman,” he said, indicating Nikolai, who spared him a glance out of his good eye before returning to a muttering inspection of the sailor before him. “He is a doctor?”
“Would you say he is skilled?”
“Very, Captain. We…worked together in a Russian hospital. During the war.”
Again, she felt the weight of his inspection as he took in the hollows beneath her cheeks, under her neck, the outline of the bones in her thin hand. “You are very kind to see to my crew. We have been shuttling back and forth for some months now and have been hard-pressed. You have my thanks. Do see me if you or your companions need anything. Anything at all.” He straightened and adjusted his uniform over his sizable girth. “Boswain, you have your orders. Carry on.”
Mike gave a crisp salute. “Aye, aye, sir.” He stood firmly upright until the sound of the captain’s footsteps faded, and then he relaxed. “That could’ve gone sideways,” he said to her.
“What just happened?” Nikolai asked.
Charlotte repeated this inquiry to Mike. “The Captain …he is particularly grateful to Nick for checking on the lads. He said you and your people are to come to the mess anytime. Anytime. Thought you lot could do with a bit of fattening up.”
“What does he want?” She did not notice the tone with which she spoke. It was flat and terse.
“Want?” Mike repeated. “He don’t want nothing, Miss, ’cept to see you and your people…” His voice trailed off.
Charlotte’s eyes locked onto his. Acts of kindness and charity from strangers had been so long absent from her experience, she had almost forgotten they existed.
“God’s hairy bollocks,” Nikolai muttered, “I believe this poor fellow has the jaundice.”
To the boswain, Charlotte said quietly, “Thank you,” and then she turned to assist the doctor.
Continuing the epic story of the “By Hands of Men” series, a man and a woman, torn apart by fate, forge their own destinies in the world after the Great War. Escaping her enslavement in Russia, Charlotte Braninov fights to build a new life in London while the shadow of modern fanaticism looms over Europe. Robert Fitzgerald faithfully serves the Crown in Africa until honor compels him to risk everything to overcome an ancient evil, only to discover that the greatest war rages within himself. (324 pages, 120,000 words. Published May 16, 2016)