barefoot_bard: (Johnson)
[personal profile] barefoot_bard
Title: No Glad Tidings
Rating: K+ (Suitable for ages 16 and above)
Disclaimers: Names given in this story are fictional and any relation to an actual person, living or dead, is purely incidental. No profit is being made from this story.
Summary: Show the Colours; A Marine receives only bad news when his ship calls at Gibraltar for stores and liberty runs. Gibraltar, August 1809.
Author's Note: Any factual or historical errors contained herein are my own and I duly apologise for them.

The tavern was a hive of noisy, drunken libertymen. Sailors, Marines, and the odd soldier mixed in. Nowhere was there a sober or solemn face. Except of course at the corner of the battle-scarred bar, where a Marine corporal sat hunched low over his half-empty tankard of ale. He was utterly oblivious to everything and everyone around him. A slightly yellowed piece of paper lay on the bartop before him, with three more papers folded up beneath one elbow. They were letters, which Cross Johnson had only recently come into possession of.

Today had held such promise as the liberty boats shoved off from Terpsichore. His brother Josias was stationed here, his regiment part of the Gibraltar garrison. The two had not seen each other since Cross had left home for the Marines. A letter from Josias had reached him at Portsmouth a couple of years later, boasting that he'd gone for a soldier and was now with the Sixth Foot, but that had been the only correspondence Johnson received from him. All other news of his brothers - Oliver being in the Twenty-eighth - had come from their parents.

That was until now, anyway. Johnson drank off the remnants of his ale and lifted his tankard wordlessly to summon the barman for a refill. He had gone up to the fort in search of Josias, only to find that the Sixth were in the Peninsula, having been sent there over a year ago. A mere seven men of the regiment remained at Gibraltar, including one officer. The officer had not received Johnson of course but a strangely-sympathetic sergeant saw to it that a small box came into Johnson's possession. These were Josias' effects, those small items he had somehow left behind, and Johnson understood the sergeant's pity. From him, he learned that Josias had died on a long retreat across Spain over the preceding winter.

Inside the box were a handful of assorted buttons, a dried-up tin of pipeclay, a dented crossbelt plate, a partially-completed shirt, a sun-faded forage cap, a deck of playing cards, and a small bundle of letters tied with string. Johnson had taken the buttons, crossbelt plate, forage cap, and letters. The rest, he'd told the sergeant, were the regiment's to dispose of. Quite why the little box had been kept so long defied his understanding, but it was a fortunate oversight, all things considered. That his brother was gone left Johnson feeling empty and numb, and to have even a few trinkets that had belonged to Josias was something to draw a little comfort from.

Only after he'd tramped back down to the bustling dockside and wandered into the nearest tavern did he begin to inspect the letters. He'd gotten no further than the first one. It bore a date of the 7th of December, 1808, and was written in a plain, cautious hand. It was only a short note but the benumbed feeling in Johnson's gut had worsened considerably as he read it, for the news was that Oliver too was dead, carried off by fever in a place called Copenhagen. The name was familiar but any detail about the location was beyond his immediate ability to dredge up. For several minutes, Johnson had sat there, struck mute and staring sightlessly at the words on the single page.

In his family, there had been five sons. Josias, Cross, Phineas, Mathias, and Oliver. Phineas had drowned at fourteen and Mathias was crippled at seventeen. Now Oliver and Josias were dead. That left only Cross, and that knowledge sat upon him with a crushing weight. How had it happened? Why had no one gotten word to him of this? What would happen to his family, who had been struggling enough even before Cross had left? What should he do now?

The barman thumped the refilled tankard down in front of Johnson and the Marine grabbed it up at once. He had already downed three pints of ale within half a bell's time, but the blurry warmth beginning to spread throughout him was not yet enough. The tankard was half-empty again when he set it back onto the bar, taking care to keep it clear of the precious letters. Best to stow them away, really. Johnson's trembling fingers folded the open letter, then all four were gently tucked into the pocket inside his jacket. They'd be safe there.

Oliver and Josias. Both gone. He had never been a popular son, he knew, but family was family and his brothers had always showed a rough acceptance of his natural irritable temper. Josias in particular had seemed most fond of him. Oliver had simply been Oliver, too lighthearted to take any real offence but seldom slow to box Cross's ears when the occasion called for it. From him, Johnson had learned how to tolerate a thumping and as he'd grown, how to give a thumping back. When Oliver had gone for a soldier, Johnson was envious, and it was his brother's enlisting which had prompted him to take the Shilling as well. Josias seemed content with the clothier's life and while Cross looked up to his eldest brother, Oliver's example was the nobler one in the fifteen year old's estimation.

He scowled into his ale, then shut his eyes against a sudden, stinging damp. What a bloody great noble thing it was to die of a Goddamn fever, or of the freezing cold! If only his brothers could have been gifted with the knowledge of their fates. Surely they would have remained home, stayed in that cramped little cottage on the Severn. Surely now they'd have families of their own and there'd be no regret for either one. Johnson swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and gulped down the last of his ale. Before he knew it, the tankard was filled again. He wished he could have seen them both again, after they'd left home. It had briefly been possible to see Oliver, before the Twenty-eighth had left England for Egypt, but he'd still been recovering from his wounds after the Nile. The missed opportunity was one Johnson now regretted, with particular bitterness.

That he was now the only fit son left was not lost on him. What he should do now, however, was not so easy to determine. Johnson drank deep from his tankard and tried to separate the yawning feelings of loss and guilt from his fuzzy-headed confusion. These were not emotions he was accustomed to. Especially not in such strength. Perhaps this was why he was such a poor hand at letter-writing. No glad tidings came with the mail. Would it have been better not to know? To have possibly never learned any of this? Part of him thought so. A very great part of him, in fact. Surely it was better to believe all was well than to find it was not, and then find one's self plunged into these depths.

"Another, damn it!" Johnson snapped at the barman, and resolved that he should leave any attempt to deal with any of this until tomorrow. Right now, he was on liberty and he would drink to the memories of his brothers, who he decided were vastly better men than he anyway. Didn't the good men invariably die and the bad ones remain, as he'd heard on more than one occasion? That had to be the truth. Here's to you boys, Johnson thought, then tipped the foaming tankard up to his lips and told himself that the dampness on his cheeks was simply from splatters of ale.

Date: 2015-05-07 08:56 pm (UTC)
sharpiefan: Age of Sail Marine ringing a ship's bell (Marine bell)
From: [personal profile] sharpiefan
N'awww. Poor Johnson.

*hugs him*


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