THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Crane returned to the Seaview as soon as he had reported to the Admiral on the outcome of the visit to Dr. Barton's house. Louise spent most of the next day with the Admiral. After what had happened with Arroth, he seemed reluctant to let her out of his sight, and she was more than content to stay close to him for a while, talking over what they had learned and starting to put together a coherent account of all they knew. On the Monday morning, she went to work as usual. Her colleagues gave her some curious looks, but she gently evaded their questions as she tried to pick up the threads of her life. She took her trolley of books to the hospital as she had done nearly every Monday morning for the last fifteen years, and spent a couple of hours doing the rounds of the wards before she went to the Admiral's room.
He was out of bed for the first time since she had known him, sitting in a chair by the window with a blanket tucked around his knees. He had been gazing out to sea, and even when he turned to greet Louise there was a far-away look in his eyes that took a few moments to fade.
"This is wonderful!" she exclaimed, coming quickly to join him.
"It makes a change." He smiled up at her, but at close quarters he looked tired, and rather more fragile than usual, as if the effort of sitting in the chair was taking most of his strength. He caught her hand, pulling her down into another chair that stood ready at his side. "I trust the library hadn't ground completely to a halt in your absence?"
"I don't think they even missed me," she said lightly. "At least, only when some schoolboy came in looking for a map of Troy. Apparently one of my colleagues spent half an hour looking through the entire maps section: I could have told him there's a very good one under Greek mythology."
The Admiral laughed a little at that, but after a moment his face grew sombre again: he turned his eyes back to the distant, unattainable sea.
"What's bothering you?" Louise asked, realizing that he was troubled as well as weary.
He started, almost as if he had forgotten she was there. "I wrote to Washington," he said, still watching the ocean. "I had the reply this morning -- very understanding, very kind." Briefly, his voice was edged with something like bitterness. "It's quite obvious they don't believe me -- probably they think I've gone a little crazy in my old age. There was even a pretty strong hint that I should be thinking about retirement."
"That's ridiculous!" Louise said.
"Of course it is. I've no intention of retiring for a good few years yet. Even the most pessimistic specialist reckons I should be fit for active service in another two or three months."
"Really? That's great news."
"It's still too long: there's so much that needs doing, and I don't suppose Arroth will wait."
"We'll manage. After all, you didn't really expect anyone to believe you."
"No." Nelson sighed. "I had to try, but I wasn't depending too much on help from the authorities." He shook his head, suddenly impatient with himself. "I'm sorry: I don't know what's wrong with me this morning."
"I think I do." Louise tightened her fingers around his hand. "You want to be up and doing, but just sitting in a chair is more tiring than you expected."
"I'm afraid you're right," he said ruefully. "It is tiring, much worse than sitting up in bed. I wanted to make a start on that chart today, but I really don't feel up to it."
"Don't worry. It's bound to take a little time, but you really are getting stronger: just don't try to push yourself too hard. Sit back and enjoy the view for a while."
He nodded slowly. "There's nothing out there half as beautiful as you," he said after a moment.
"Careful," Louise warned. "If you keep saying things like that I might start to believe it, and I'm not sure that would be a good thing."
That made him laugh in earnest: he relaxed and settled down to enjoy her company. She stayed less than half an hour, but by the time she left he was much more cheerful. She was concerned enough, nevertheless, to seek out Dr. Belling before she went back to work.
"There's nothing to worry about," he reassured her. "As a matter of fact, the Admiral's making a remarkable recovery: in the last few days he's made more progress than I would have expected in a couple of weeks. I'm not quite so happy with his mental state, but a mild obsession isn't all that surprising: it should wear off once he's strong enough to get about a little."
Louise worked late at the Library that evening, trying to catch up on some of the things that had gone undone while she was away. Night had fallen before she returned to her apartment, and by the time she had eaten and cleared away the dishes it was past ten o'clock. Tired, but not quite ready to go to bed, she switched on the television, picking a channel at random, and found herself watching a gossipy current affairs programme. She let it run for a few minutes: she had just decided that she was not quite tired enough to sit through such rubbish, and was reaching for the switch, when a familiar face flashed on the screen.
"Coming up after the break, tonight's celebrity profile is of Admiral Harriman Nelson," the announcer said jauntily, as the Admiral's face dissolved into a commercial for instant coffee. Louise put her own coffee cup down very carefully, and reached over to slip a cassette in the video recorder. She waited for the commercials to end with an oddly nervous feeling: the programme was not noted for being gentle with the reputations of public figures.
The item, which lasted about ten minutes, left her very uneasy. Although there was nothing new in it, no startling or damaging revelation, the whole tone of the piece somehow implied that the Admiral was long past his prime and should be quietly retired before he made some disastrous error of judgement. Louise was tempted to join the on-air phone-in that followed the profile, but a moment's reflection convinced her that she would do more harm than good by flying publicly to the Admiral's defence. He seemed to have a fair number of supporters without such scruples, as far as she could judge from the calls that were put on air: there were, however, almost as many hostile calls as friendly ones.
"So there you have it, folks," the presenter said at last. "I have a feeling this one isn't going to go away: keep tuning in. See you next week!"
"Not if I can possibly avoid it." Louise switched off the television set with an angry flourish.
The next morning, Louise took a few moments to look through the daily newspapers in the Periodicals Room at the library. There were two references to the Admiral -- one curt official bulletin and one short biographical piece that read rather like a premature obituary. She took them both for photocopying: she was beginning to see what was happening.
"It isn't worth worrying about," Nelson said cheerfully. His own staff had provided him with copies of the press article she had found and two more in a similar vein, as well as a typed transcript of the television programme. "If Arroth is behind this, he's going to have to do a lot more than this to stop us: if he isn't, it doesn't matter anyway. Now, about this chart . . ."
Delighted to find him in such buoyant spirits, Louise cleared a space on the table and spread out a large-scale map of the archipelago around the Lost City. Under the Admiral's direction, she marked in the position of the underwater entrance he had used in his disastrous expedition, and the passage under the sea-bed, and measured out the angles of the other passages around the hub of the city.
"Now," he said, leaning forward to study her handiwork, "the other passages. How much can you remember about them?"
Louise frowned over the chart for a moment: the markings meant little to her. She reached for a notepad and began to make a rough sketch of her own. "Two passages under water," she said as she worked, "and three on land -- one where my ancestor came in, and one where he left, and one that Arroth himself blocked to cut off the only easy escape route. One long passage that ended on an inhabited island, and one short one that ended on a tiny atoll." She scribbled symbols on the points of the star she had drawn, blinked at them, and hastily added English translations. "The distances I know are in the units they used, so I can only make a rough guess -- but my ancestor took three days on foot along the longest passage."
"Say fifty miles," Nelson suggested. "That's quite a distance for a passage cut through solid rock."
"That was the longest, and it ran northwards." Louise picked up a ruler and measured off the distance north from the city. "Would forty-five miles do? There's an island here -- a big one, right on the line."
"Very good," said Nelson, seeing where her pencil rested. "I don't think we really want a forty-five-mile walk, though. How about the others?"
Louise smiled faintly, knowing that at present he could hardly walk forty-five inches unaided, let alone forty-five miles. "The atoll must have been along this line, about five miles out -- here, probably." She indicated the spot with her pencil.
"Ah." Nelson frowned at the chart. "That's not going to help us much. There was a tiny island there, but it was destroyed by a new volcano about the turn of the century."
"The other blocked passage must have been here," Louise said thoughtfully. "So this is the other sea entrance." She marked out the ten-mile length of the submerged passage, and circled its end.
"Right in the middle of a lot of reefs," Nelson commented. "Well, there's not much hope of getting Seaview close, but that doesn't matter: if it's anything like the other one, we can take the Flying Sub right in."
"They were the same. An entrance among the rocks on the seabed, and a tunnel full of water, and a docking area just outside the main cavern."
"Perfect." Nelson regarded the chart with satisfaction. "Now all we have to do is get back there before Arroth, and figure out a way to stop him doing whatever it is he has in mind. Have you any ideas about that?"
"Nothing specific, I'm afraid. The trouble is, all I know about those last few years is from Luisha's point of view -- and she wasn't much more than a child, even if she was a princess. And . . ." Louise hesitated, and her hand clenched around the pencil.
"What's wrong?" Nelson reached out and put his hand over hers.
"She saw some bad things, I know. I think . . . some things were so bad she buried the memories very deep . . . so deep I can't reach all of them even now. I didn't realize at first, but when I tried to put the whole story together I found there were bits missing, and bits that were just flashes without context, like . . . the King lying on the stairs, with the handle of a knife sticking out of his chest. He looked . . . rather like my own father, but younger." Louise started to tremble, bringing her free hand up to cover her eyes.
"I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't thinking," Nelson said.
Louise could not speak: for reasons she did not entirely understand, she found herself very near to tears. Only the Admiral's hand clasping hers, warm and steady, kept her from breaking down completely. Then another, unfamiliar touch, clumsy and tentative, startled her into looking at him again. She knew he had a little movement in the injured arm now, but she had not realized he could use the fingers of his left hand. Awkwardly, frowning as if he had to concentrate on each muscle contraction, he cradled her hand in both of his.
"Louise," he said gently, "please don't upset yourself. It was all a long time ago . . . a very long time ago."
"Four thousand years ago," Louise said, choking on an old grief that was not all her own. "But it isn't over, is it?" She swallowed painfully, and managed a watery smile. "I'll do my best to sort it out. I can tell you one thing: whatever he was then, he isn't quite sane any more."
"I gathered that: people who want to take over the world very rarely are. Unfortunately, it doesn't usually make them any less dangerous."
The next day, there were three more fairly harmless press articles.
The day after that, a serious scientific weekly carried a letter from Dr. Barton which amounted to a vicious attack on the Admiral's reputation as a scientist, suggesting that his own work lacked any real merit and that his involvement in any project not of his own inception had a high probability of ending in disaster. Two enterprising newspaper editors, with or without Arroth's prompting, decided that this was a suitable basis on which to commence a "campaign" against the Admiral. For the rest of that week, the papers concerned waged a furious battle for extra sales, with stylized sketches of Admiral Nelson appearing over ever more lurid headlines. Several other papers joined in, and a small encampment of reporters and cameramen grew up outside the hospital gates. The Santa Barbara Herald achieved a considerable coup by publishing an interview with the widow of a marine biologist who had been killed under unexplained circumstances while working aboard Seaview. The following day the Pacific Daily responded with an interview with a former Nelson Institute employee who claimed to have left because he could no longer endure what he described as "the Admiral's domineering mismanagement". The Herald was able to prove conclusively, the day after that, that the man had in fact been dismissed for incompetence, and had subsequently been dismissed from two other research posts for similar reasons: this allowed the Herald's editor to claim the moral high ground with a leading article dissociating the paper from its rival's methods.
"Whatever Admiral Nelson's shortcomings -- and there is a growing weight of evidence that these are serious -- it is utterly wrong to fabricate such stories as those which appeared in a rival publication yesterday. The facts will speak for themselves: the Herald has no need to pad them out with falsehoods."
The Admiral himself remained largely unperturbed by all this. His own staff monitored the situation closely, issuing occasional corrections of factual errors in the media coverage: he read their reports, cocked a quizzical eyebrow at the more outrageous allegations, and got on with his work. Louise was worried, in the first few days of the controversy, that the relentless attacks and innuendoes would affect his health, but she soon decided that living at the centre of a storm agreed with him. He was gaining strength rapidly: by the end of the week he was sitting in a chair for most of the day -- usually in his room but occasionally on the terrace outside the window -- and even taking a few short, shaky and carefully supervised walks around the suite.
The Seaview, her stint of Pacific patrols finished, returned to Santa Barbara for three days to replenish supplies, and several members of the crew took the opportunity to visit the Admiral.
"Admiral, what's going on?" demanded Lee Crane. "I practically had to fight my way past the camera crews to get in here." Then he looked around the room, taking in the desk, with its piles of papers and array of communications equipment. "What's all this? I thought you were supposed to be resting, not running the whole Institute from here."
Nelson laughed. "Take it easy, Lee. I'm just trying to keep in touch a little. As for the gentlemen of the press, for the moment they seem to find it amusing to hang around out there. They'll get bored soon enough. You didn't talk to them?"
"Of course not. They might have gotten a few pictures, though." Crane paced around the room for a little while, working off his annoyance.
"You didn't have any trouble getting a contract for Seaview?" Nelson asked presently.
Crane shrugged and shook his head. "No-one's taking all this nonsense too seriously, at least officially. We got the contract all right, even if it isn't quite what we're used to. There's nothing much to it -- just some routine patrols off the Atlantic coast, then back by the North-West Passage, to supply the Arctic research stations. It ought to be well within Seaview's capabilities, even with the trouble we've been having lately, but it should keep us busy for six weeks or so."
"Trouble?" Nelson queried.
"It's nothing too serious, Admiral -- just rather more equipment breakdowns than usual. Everything from the pumping gear to the stoves in the galley keeps blowing fuses or burning out. It started just before you called me back here that time -- and the crew's getting jumpy."
"Have you any idea what might be causing it?"
"It's probably just coincidence -- random wiring failures." Crane grinned, remembering a joke he had been meaning to share. "Sharkey says Seaview must be missing you, sir."
Nelson snorted, not much amused. "I'm sure Sharkey can handle the problem."
"He's handling it so far." Crane sighed, dropping into a chair. "Anyway, I've got him checking every circuit while we're in port. There shouldn't be any more trouble, and a little shore-leave will settle everyone's nerves."
"Take this Admiral Nelson," Louise's mother said one night over dinner, apropos of a discussion of the duplicity of political and other public figures. "I can't understand how he's fooled everyone for so long. The whole world took him for some kind of hero, and now it turns out he's hardly more than a confidence trickster."
"Mother!" Louise exclaimed. "You shouldn't believe everything you read, really you shouldn't."
"There's no need to take that tone," Agnes said huffily. "Anyone would think the wretched man was a friend of yours."
"I think we'd better change the subject." Louise did not quite trust herself to keep her temper if she had to listen to any more slighting references to the Admiral. She had to put up with more than enough of that at work, between the casual remarks of the general public and Richard Jennings' well-meant hints that she would do better to stop visiting the hospital for a while.
Agnes gave a little squeak of incredulity. "Don't tell me you do know him!"
"Agnes," Mr. Delamere said in a warning tone.
Louise took a deep breath, laying down her fork. "As it happens, I do know Admiral Nelson," she said as evenly as she could. This was not the way she had hoped to bring up the subject, but she had accepted her mother's invitation with the full intention of telling her parents about the Admiral. "I've been seeing a good deal of him these last few weeks . . . and I . . . like him very much."
"Louise! Are you trying to tell us you've finally started dating -- with a man like that -- a man in the middle of the biggest scandal Santa Barbara has had in the last five years?"
"I think that's an exaggeration, Mother, and we're hardly 'dating'. Anyway, it's all nonsense. He's the bravest, kindest, most intelligent . . . oh, it's no good trying to explain, you wouldn't understand." Louise glared at her mother, feeling like a defiant teenager.
"He can't be as black as he's painted, if you feel that way about him," her father said mildly, "but you'd better be careful. Whether or not it's intentional, he does seem to have a way of getting people killed."
"Anybody who tries to stop him doing what needs to be done has only himself to blame," Louise said hotly. "When you think about all the times he's helped to prevent disasters that might have wiped out the whole world, all this fuss over a few accidents seems a little out of place."
"Is that what he told you?" her mother asked.
"No, mother. I figured it out for myself. I wouldn't expect him to defend his past actions to me: we have much more important things to talk about."
"What?" Nelson mumbled, startled out of his first sleep. "Oh, it's you again. What do you want this time?" He reached out for the light-switch, and bony fingers clamped around his wrist.
"I do not fall for the same trick twice, Admiral," Arroth hissed. "But if you require light to talk . . . well, there is no harm in that." Releasing his hold on Nelson, he moved away. The main switch clicked, and the strip-lights buzzed and flickered into life.
"Thanks." Fighting to keep his eyes open against the sudden glare, Nelson swung out of the bed.
Arroth, still standing by the door, watched as Nelson padded over to the chair by the window. "You are to be congratulated," he commented, "on several counts. Your recovery is one: your good sense in not making a futile attempt to raise an alarm is another. But I cannot congratulate you on your taste in women, Admiral."
"What?" Nelson dropped into the chair rather more suddenly than he had intended. "I think you'd better clarify that remark, Arroth."
"By all means." Arroth strolled across the room and perched himself on the bed, flicking aside the rumpled covers and spreading his cloak over the pillow like an extra shadow. "That woman who has been here every day for the past six weeks -- the one who calls herself sometimes Jane Grant, but more often Louise Delamere. I know all about her, you see, despite your little subterfuges. These television-camera devices have their uses. She is not for you, Admiral."
"Isn't that for the lady to decide?"
"That may be the custom of your people. But the woman is not of your people, Admiral. She is of my people, my kin: you cannot use her against us."
"You know nothing about Miss Delamere," Nelson protested.
"Oh, but I do." Arroth picked up a book from the bedside locker, and ran a finger idly down its spine. The stone in his signet-ring caught the light and glowed like a sullen coal. "I know her better than she knows herself -- certainly better than you can ever hope to do. I tell you, she is not for your use. The blood of my people runs true in her, however many barbarian generations there have been between."
"I'm glad to hear that you aren't a typical specimen of your race," Nelson said dryly.
"You may mock, Admiral, but I tell you that woman is ours. If you will agree to work with us, perhaps she can be helped to recover her lost inheritance. But be certain of this: if you try to use her for your purposes, you will gain nothing except pain for both of you." Arroth had let the book fall open: now, with deadly deliberation, he grasped one cover in either hand and pulled until the spine ripped and the book disintegrated in a cascade of disconnected pages. "Think about it, Admiral," he added, letting the empty covers fall. "Are you with us, or not?"
"Your people say that never is a long time, Admiral. They also say, do they not, that a week is a long time in politics? We shall see."
"If you take me for a politician," Nelson said indignantly, "you're making a big mistake."
"But you stand or fall by the word of the politicians of your world, do you not? And these politicians read newspapers, I believe. It is only a matter of time, Admiral, and we have time to spare, still. I will leave you to think on that: I trust I have not spoiled your night's rest."
Nelson was watching very closely as Arroth stood up to go, but he never saw him leave: one moment he was there, standing by the bed, pulling his grey cloak around him, and the next -- as far as Nelson could tell -- he was gone, and there was a young nurse standing in the doorway.
"Admiral! What are you doing out of bed at this time of night? Is anything wrong?"
Nelson blinked at her, sure he had not seen the door open. "I've been in this place too long," he muttered.
"Are you all right? Is there anything you need?"
"You could get me a set of release forms."
"You want to discharge yourself? Right now?" The girl came farther into the room to take a better look at him. "Don't you think you'd better get back to bed?"
"I guess it can wait for morning," he admitted, hauling himself out of the chair before she came close enough to try to help. "No, I can manage, Nurse. Just . . . turn the light out when you go, would you?
About mid-morning, Louise looked up from her work and saw the Admiral standing on the other side of the desk. "Harry!" she exclaimed: she had not expected the hospital to release him so soon. She was also rather disconcerted, just at first, by the quantity of gold braid and medal ribbons adorning his uniform. "Here, sit down."
"Thanks." He accepted the chair she offered. His left arm was in a sling under his jacket: he looked rather fragile still, but extremely pleased with himself.
"It's wonderful to see you, but what are you doing here?"
"I thought it would be nice to surprise you for once."
"You're full of surprises lately, but this is the best yet. Are you sure it's a good idea?"
"There's no need to worry about Arroth finding out about us, if that's what you mean," he said cheerfully. "I had another little visit from him last night. It seems he spotted you on some television pictures, going into the hospital, and put two and two together. It's a pity -- but at least it means I can take you out to lunch, and that's exactly what I intend to do. We have a lot to talk about."
"Isn't it a little early for lunch?"
"It won't be, by the time I've finished my other business here. I have a proposition to put to your Mr. Jennings -- that is, if you don't object."
"What sort of proposition?"
"All these half-hour meetings are getting us nowhere. I'd like to borrow you officially -- say two days a week, at least to start with. What do you think?"
"I think it's a great idea," Louise said warmly. "I'm not sure what Richard Jennings will make of it, but between us we can probably persuade him."
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