Excerpt for Courage by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.



Passion and Glory

Book 3

Courage





Samantha Kaye


















Copyright © The author as named on the book cover and Harry Samkange. The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work. All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book. This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.





The Marquis’ Choice

The sun had not yet reached the pinnacle of its arc in the early June sky and already the heat felt stifling. Pale high stalks of sugar cane bathed the land in an ocean of green, interrupted at intervals by wide atolls of exposed earth and tall groves of uncut mahogany. An iron rich road of red clay wound through the cane like a rope, and on it snaked a train of carriages and wagons heading toward the port at Cap Français.

The road, thick with moisture from the rains of the previous day, made the going arduous for the horses. The caravan of vehicles passed along the Cours le Brasseur, with the bay on the right-hand side. The Cours provided the best view of the picturesque blue ocean anchorage of the Cap. The entire bay lay in sight, protected by the royal artillery batteries cited at the end of the road near the Parc d’Artillerie and the arsenal. The vehicle train turned left at the artillery park, then right onto Rue de la Picolet, heading toward Rue de Gri-Gri, and the quay.

Five ships anchored just south of Rue de Gri-Gri, under the protection of the guns of Fort de Picolet. The ships formed part of a convoy bound for France. The small flotilla stood under the command of Vice-Amiral de Baudrie, Comte de Morlaix. His flagship, the Bon Majesté, would lead the frigates Fantassin and Pomerol in escort of two merchant vessels, the Belle Héloïse and its sister ship, the Belle Claire. A vice-admiral usually commanded more than so small a squadron, and rarely could more ships be found in escort than in convoy, but Amiral le Marquis de Vaudreuil, head of the French navy in the Americas, deemed it necessary. The admiral had important cargo to protect. The human kind. The ships would carry the Marquis de Blaise and his family, as well as the Salvagnacs and other noble guests. Vaudreuil had not forgotten the debt owed to the youngest Montferraud for saving his daughter’s life. He considered the robust escort a partial down payment for the blood that the young Nicolas de Montferraud had shed.

For days, the merchant ships had taken on freight, and now sat low in the calm waters of the bay. Crowds of stevedores and porters snaked continuously from the nearby wharves and outbuildings. Since early morning they had trekked back and forth between the ships and the wharf, loaded down with the personal provisions and baggage of the ship’s passengers. The heavy cargo had already been loaded by crane and ferried below decks on the bent, black backs of the enslaved porters. Below decks, the complaints of animals loaded for transport echoed in the cramped space. The lowing of cows, and the bleating and squeals of sheep and pigs brought aboard for slaughter on the voyage, intermingled with the whinnying of a very expensive pair of horses, given comparatively sumptuous lodgings below decks, complete with freshly cut hay for bedding. The horses belonged to Nicolas de Montferraud. The ship carrying them belonged to his father.

The Marquis de Blaise took a small fortune with him on his way to France, secured in the holds of his two ships. St. Domingue remained the richest jewel in the French crown colonies and the cargo holds reflected this, bursting with coffee, spices, tobacco, rum, and molasses, but refined white sugar made up more than three-quarters of the load, the sweet crystallized gold of French commerce. The cargo on the Héloïse shared space with six officers, thirty-four crewmembers, twenty-six passengers and hundreds of rodents, the true permanent inhabitants. The rats quartered wherever they willed, the humans according to a rigid hierarchy of status and role.

Custom gave preference to the captain when allotting quarters on any vessel. But, with so many passengers of high noble rank taking passage on the Belle Héloïse, Capitaine Closon ceded his large cabin to his employer, the Marquis de Blaise. The next largest cabin went to the Salvagnac household and their maids, leaving Closon to requisition the quarters of his junior officers, who were forced to double up to accommodate the Comte and Comtesse de Marbéville, and other passengers of rank. The remaining cabins on the upper decks were crammed with other passengers of status. Most paid double the normal rate to secure a place on the well-protected vessels. The seas belonged to the English, and passengers of means took care to avoid being taken prisoner and held for ransom. The lower decks housed more than a dozen common travelers. These included essential servants, maids, cooks, hairdressers and the like. Nonessential flunkeys, lackeys, and other domestics were billeted on the Belle Claire, along with nearly forty common passengers making the voyage to France.

The voyage to the port of Nantes would be several weeks long under the best of circumstances, and few luxuries existed on board. Cargo to precedence because of its value, and cargo required space. Capitaine Closon stood on deck, keeping a watchful eye on the choreographed motion of activity as the holds were sealed and the ship prepared to depart. The marquis and his family had not yet come on board. They remained on shore in a comfortable inn until all stood ready. Closon waited for the new man, Lacombe. As soon as he gave his report, Closon would send a runner to inform the Marquis de Blaise.

Lacombe made his way toward the center of the deck, where Closon stood. The captain turned an eye toward Lacombe as he approached, the junior officer’s angular face drawn with worry. Lacombe had been added to the crew in Marseilles along with a cargo of manufactured goods for transshipment to St. Domingue. Closon initially had doubts about Lacombe, but on the voyage across to the Colonies the newcomer had acquitted himself ably enough. But one crossing of the mercurial Atlantic hardly rated as a final verdict. The new man still had a lot to prove to Closon.

Closon turned to face Lacombe. “What is it Monsieur Lacombe? I can tell by that long face that something’s already gone amiss.”

Lacombe gave a sharp nod to the captain. “I’ve been going over the billeting arrangements, Capitaine. It seems we’re one berth short. Not sure how it happened, but it has.”

Closon heard a shout from above. He turned his gaze from Lacombe to the top of the main mast, where two sailors climbed the rigging. One of the sailors had lost his footing and nearly fallen, but his partner had quickly reached out to prevent disaster.

Closon turned his attention back to Lacombe. “You’re sure there’s no more space? Maybe we can squeeze one more in the cabins. Offer whoever it is an extra ration each day in exchange for bunking three to a bed.”

Lacombe slowly shook his head. “Unfortunately, Capitaine, I don’t think that will work in this case. The man without a berth is one of the nobles.”

Closon’s eyes zeroed in on Lacombe. “Oh? Which one?”

Lacombe withdrew a piece of paper he’d been using to keep track of things. He scrolled down the list, then stabbed the name with the tip of his index finger. “The Chevalier d’Argentolle.”

Closon sucked in his breath. “The chevalier is the youngest son of the marquis. It won’t do to have him without a place. Something has to be done, and quickly.”

“I’ve been over the manifest several times, Capitaine. There’s nothing to be had on board either merchant ship if we’re to be away today. We’ve already made several different attempts at sorting things out. Because of the escort we’re crammed full, with as many passengers as we can load, and most have paid double for their places. I even tried to see if we could find room with the marquis, but he has so many trunks and crates, there’s hardly enough room for one,” Lacombe lamented.

Closon felt in the pocket of his coat for his pipe. He placed the end of it in his mouth and bit down on it as he began pacing the deck. To redo the berths would cost them time they could ill afford to lose. And they might even lose their escorts if they delayed too long.

Closon looked up to gauge the wind. “It’s no good delaying again. The admiral warned us about that already, now didn’t he? The Comte de Morlaix has been quite clear he intends to set sail with the next good wind.”

Lacombe’s eyes lit up. “Perhaps he’ll take the young man aboard one of his warships? There has to be some room on that big Man O’ War, or the frigates.”

Closon raised an eyebrow, but did not dismiss the idea out of hand. Lacombe adjusted the black tricorn on his head.

“He’s almost fifteen, the lad in question?” Lacombe asked.

Closon nodded. The quartermaster’s teeth flashed in a half grin. “I should think he’d rather enjoy the prospect of undertaking the crossing on a bona fide warship. It’s the trip of a lifetime for a young man, don’t you think, Capitaine?”

Closon took off his hat and smoothed back the top of his wig with his left hand. “I suppose there’s no other way out of this mess in so short a time. All right, Monsieur Lacombe, it’s worth a try. See if you can arrange it with the other captains. I’ll explain things to the Marquis. If you can pull it off, there’s an extra purse in it for you.”

Lacombe gave his assurance with a nod and a tip of the hat to his captain. “It’s as good as done, Capitaine.”

Closon turned to see to his many other tasks. “We shall see, Monsieur, we shall see.”

*

The Marquis de Blaise stood outside the ornately carved door of the Montferraud Berline, listening to the heart rending lamentations of the marquise, who sat inside the coach, saying her goodbyes to Nicolas. The dreaded moment of departure had arrived, and the marquise proved inconsolable. The carriage sat along the Quay near the water’s edge, just across from the park which fronted Rue de Gri-Gri on the other side. A travelling inn called Angard-Varennes stood on the northwest corner of the park. Inside the inn’s comfortable main parlor, the Salvagnacs waited with other noble guests to be summoned aboard ship.

The marquis brushed a speck of imagined dust from the lapels of his elegant, maroon, satin suit. He reached into the pocket of his striped waistcoat to glance at the face of his pocket watch. Beside him stood his only hope of uplifting the flagging spirits of the marquise. A guest he’d just fetched back from the inn by the waterfront. The marquis rapped lightly on the glass window of the coach, then opened the door and peered inside.

“My dearest friend, I’ve brought someone to cheer you up. Would you please allow her to greet you?”

Madame de Blaise sat with her arms wrapped around Nicolas, her head nestled against his shoulder. As soon as she saw the Vicomtesse de La Bouhaire standing behind the marquis, the shadow of melancholy lightened from her countenance. The vicomtesse wore a polonaise style robe of embroidered, pale green satin. The marquise wiped her eyes with a kerchief then extended her hand to Sérolène, glancing with reproach toward her husband.

“Oh, Édouard! What have you done? How could you let my children see me in such a state?”

The clouds of melancholy sent forth a fresh deluge of tears. Blaise shook his head and helped Sérolène to enter the carriage. As soon as she got inside, the marquis closed the door and turned to watch the ships bobbing on the gentle swell of the bay. A footman approached with deference, pointing toward a runner hurrying along the Quay toward the coach.

“Monseigneur, a messenger from the Héloïse.”

The marquis turned to see the messenger, then looked out into the bay toward his ships. A launch made its way from the Héloïse, rowing toward the Quay. The marquis took out his pocket watch and glanced again at the time.

“I suspect that’s our launch, come to retrieve us. Send someone to let the others know.”

The man bowed, left to convey his master’s orders to a junior lackey, then returned to the marquis’ side as the runner reached the coach. The Black messenger took off his hat and bowed before the marquis.

“Monseigneur, I bring an important letter from Captain Closon.”

The runner gave the letter to the footman, who broke the seal on the envelope and handed the letter to the marquis. After perusing only a few lines, the marquis lifted his head to give his reply to the messenger.

“Wait here. I’ll give you my answer in a moment.”

The marquis walked back to the edge of the Quay and peered out into the bay. The letter carried a craftily worded request from Closon informing the marquis that Nicolas had been “invited” to undertake the voyage on the frigate Fantassin. Everything seemed phrased to make the supposed invitation seem like a privilege, but Closon’s ending comments about the lack of space on the merchant ships made Blaise suspect that perhaps the invitation concealed something else. Normally he’d have refused outright to be separated from his family, but his walk back from the inn in the company of the Vicomtesse de La Bouhaire caused him to reconsider. Nearly five months had passed since he’d last seen the object of his son’s most singular affections, and in that time, something remarkable had occurred. The awkward, gangly, girl he remembered had been transformed into a stunning and delightful beauty. Her body had filled out, but so had her spirit. Nature had done its part, and perhaps, so had the attentions of his son Nicolas. The two made a delightful pair. In many ways they seemed the archetypes of Venus and Vulcan, but therein lay the source of his dilemma.

The voyage would be six weeks or more at sea. To have a son as virile as Nicolas in close and tempting proximity to the nubile vicomtesse, courted disaster. The fact that they were betrothed in secret made the situation even more dangerous, because if something should occur between them, then custom would deem them married in the eyes of the law, despite the shame such a “forced” marriage would incur on them both. But would shame be enough to discourage them from acting in their own amorous interests?

His walk with the vicomtesse convinced him she remained wholly besotted with Nicolas. And he knew the strength of his son’s feelings equaled the lady’s in every manner. Perhaps it would be better to keep them separate until they all arrived in France, where proximity and conduct could be more closely regulated. The youngsters might deem it cruel to be separated, but putting Nicolas on the Fantassin would also have the added benefit of providing a degree of insurance against disaster. If he and his eldest son met with unexpected misfortune on the Héloïse, at least his line would survive with Nicolas.

The marquis walked back toward the waiting messenger. “Tell Captain Closon that my son would be honored to accept the offer of a berth on the Fantassin.”

The messenger bowed and returned his hat to his head. He ran back the way he had come, heading to meet the launch, which had almost reached the sea steps at the foot of the Quay.

The marquis made his way back to the coach and opened the door.

“Nicolas, might I speak to you a moment?”

Nicolas nodded toward Sérolène, pressing her hand to his lips in farewell. “Mademoiselle de La Bouhaire. It seems impossible that seeing you again should be even more pleasing than I’d imagined, but being here with you has undoubtedly proven it so. Regrettably, I take my leave of you. For now.”

Nicolas then turned toward his mother. “Do not worry so on my account, Maman. We shall see each other again soon. I promise you.”

Nicolas kissed his mother on each cheek and once on the lips. Madame de Blaise embraced him a final time then released him into his father’s custody. Nicolas got down from the coach and bowed once more to the ladies.

“Farewell Maman. Good day, Mademoiselle.”

The marquis shut the door to the coach himself, leaving the marquise and the vicomtesse alone together. He took Nicolas by the arm and began explaining to him what he had decided.

*

Inside the coach, Sérolène felt heartbroken to find the marquise in such a prolonged state of distress.

“Oh, Madame, I beg you have some cheer, for my heart shall break as well if you are truly as sad as you seem.”

The marquise daubed at the unceasing stream of tears which left her eyes swollen with weeping.

“Do not trouble yourself about me, my dear child. How radiant you look. It seems you’ve grown up so… and in such a short time.”

Sérolène reached out to take Madame de Blaise by the hand.

“It’s your guidance which has helped me so, Madame. I suppose in my own way, I am trying my best to be just like you.”

The marquise set both her hands in her lap. She wore a gown of deep, midnight blue, which appeared black in the interior of the coach. Only when the light struck the shimmering silk satin, did the fabric reveal its blueish tint.

“That’s sweet of you to say, but I’m afraid you quite outshine me now, dear child.”

Sérolène shifted places to occupy the seat next to the marquise which Nicolas had vacated. She placed her head on Madame de Blaise’s shoulder, enfolding her arms lovingly around the marquise’s waist.

“When Nicolas and I are married, you must promise to come and live with us. How I should like our children to grow up in the loving care of their grand-mère. I’m afraid, dear Maman, I must insist upon it,” Sérolène said softly.

The marquise broke down again and wept into her kerchief.

“You are so dear to me, my sweet child. Oh, how I shall miss you all when you are far from here. You must promise to continue to write to me, to give me at least some consolation in my loneliness.”

“I do promise, Maman.”

The marquise caressed Sérolène’s cheek.

“Then give me your kisses, daughter of my heart, and be off with you. I’ve shed enough tears today to last me a lifetime. I shall watch your departure from my coach. Look after my son, my belle-fille. I know at times he appears to be made of iron, but he needs you and your gentle goodness more than you know. Don’t forget that.”

Sérolène kissed the marquise on both cheeks. “I promise I shall take very good care of him, Maman.”

They embraced a final time, and then Sérolène stepped out into the bright sunshine. She expected Nicolas and the marquis to be waiting for her, but the marquis stood by the coach by himself. Nicolas was nowhere in sight.

*

The marquis saw the searching, eager look in Sérolène’s eyes. He knew what she sought. The plaintive enthusiasm of her gaze helped convince him that his decision on Nicolas’ revised travel arrangements had been a prudent one.

“I’m sorry Nicolas couldn’t wait for you. There have been some changes with the berthing arrangements and he needed to report to his ship at once. The Admiral has offered him the honor of taking the passage on the Fantassin.”

The marquis read the mixture of bewilderment and disappointment in the vicomtesse’s extraordinary grey-blue eyes, which seemed, of a sudden, to pick up the darker tone from the nearby sea. The romantic in him felt sympathetic to her plight. But the realist felt his prudence of his convictions reinforced.

Sérolène’s shoulders slumped. “The Fantassin? But that’s a warship, isn’t it, Monsieur? I don’t understand. Why can’t he be with us? All these months I’ve waited for the chance to…I mean…it’s just not fair!”

The marquis stood as erect and impassionate as stone. “No, my dear, it is not. I shall miss his company greatly as well, but if we are to embark today, and embark we must, then regretfully this is how it must be.”

Sérolène released a plaintive sigh, the wind gone out of her sails. No doubt, the long voyage seemed a welcome prospect with Nicolas onboard to keep her company. Now, he imagined it loomed before her like tree fallen upon a road, an obstacle unexpected, and not to be overcome without assistance.

The marquis tipped his hat in sympathy.

“Thank you for giving some comfort to my dearest friend. Now if you’ll indulge me a moment to say my own goodbyes, we’ll see what can be done about arranging a more suitable parting for you as well.”



Into the Unknown

The sailors on the Fantassin, lowered the side ladder down to the launch. Nicolas scurried up the length of planking and rope with the ease of someone long used to the practice, though he had never made such an unusual jaunt before. As he neared the top of the rope, two sailors reached down to help lift him up and over the railing. He stood on the main deck and gathered his legs beneath him. The ship rolled gently in the calm waters of the bay, but Nicolas understood from just a single glance at the regularity and order of everything he saw around him, that he stood on the deck of a working ship of war.

The senior officers stood on the bridge with the captain, all dressed in the standard naval uniform of red breeches, stockings and waistcoat, with blue jacket. The captain stood tall and thin, in his uniform, which looked nearly identical to his lieutenants’, save for the greater amount of gold braiding at the cuffs of the sleeves, along the trim of the waistcoat and seams, and on the pockets and trim of the jacket. The captain’s hat also had gold piping along the top to distinguish him, with a white cockade and white plumes, while the lieutenants’ black tricornes had no plumes at all, and no braid.

i

Aside from the sailors who had helped pull him aboard, Nicolas’ arrival on the Fantassin seemed generally ignored. The crew toiled at the carefully scripted ballet of preparing the ship to set sail. No one even turned his way. While his trunks were hauled on board from the launch, Nicolas had nothing to do but await further instructions. He went to stand near the center mast, where there seemed ample empty space for him to loiter without getting in anyone’s way.

While he waited for instructions, Nicolas’ thoughts drifted to his brief encounter with Sérolène in his mother’s carriage. The fond remembrances he’d happily dwelled on during the months spent training on Martinique, had all been outdone by seeing his beloved in person. She had blossomed while he had been away, and the great promise of her beauty, which he alone had seemed to divine, had now been realized for all to see. But they would be separated for the duration of the voyage. A situation which it seemed, he could do nothing about.

Nicolas watched the crew go about their duties within the exacting confines of the warship. He guessed there would be no plays, dances or light entertainment to break the tedium of the long Atlantic crossing. Drill, order and the severity of naval discipline seemed all that he could expect. With a shake of the head he looked down at his highly polished black boots, which reflected back the pale-yellow color of his suit. One of his trunks carried only books. He hoped they would provide diversion enough during the many empty days ahead, especially since he didn’t even have the small comfort of being able to talk to his horses to keep him occupied.

Monsieur le Chevalier d’Argentolle? Lieutenant Gabriel Antoine Fortier, at your service. I understand you are to be quartered with us during the voyage.”

Nicolas turned with a start. He had been so absorbed in his own thoughts, he hadn’t noticed the lieutenant’s approach. Fortier wore a ready smile to complement his blunt, honest features. Even with his black tricorn hat, he stood several inches shorter than Nicolas. He had a long torso with short muscular legs which seemed well-suited for the crowded, rolling deck. Like the captain, he wore red stockings, breeches and waistcoat, and a blue coat with red cuffs.

Nicolas bowed, and then shook the offered hand as he introduced himself. “I’m honored to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant. And yes, it would appear that I am indeed to be your guest, for the voyage to Nantes.”

Fortier smiled broadly at Nicolas. “Delighted to have you aboard, Monsieur. You’ve been assigned to share my quarters. They’re small, I admit, and not very comfortable compared to what you’re used to, but I’m sure you’ll get accustomed to them soon enough.”

Nicolas tipped his hat to excuse the inconvenience to the lieutenant. “My apologies for the trouble, Lieutenant. Please let your captain know that I shall do my best to stay out of the way.”

The lieutenant turned his attention to the command deck, where the captain and the other officers of the ship assembled. “I would introduce you now, Monsieur, but Capitaine d’Armillac is in rather a testy mood at the moment. It’s best to steer clear of him.”

Nicolas joined the lieutenant in scrutinizing the activity of the other officers. “I hope I have not contributed to the cause of the captain’s annoyance. He looks an rather an intimidating sort of fellow.”

Fortier shrugged. “It’s how it is with them, Monsieur. I suppose when your profession is to play God, it has an effect upon you. Remember, his orders can mean life or death…for all of us.”

Fortier gave Nicolas a pleasant smile, but Nicolas read it as confirming his suspicion that his presence on board indeed, irritated the captain.

“I do understand. It wasn’t my choice to be here, Lieutenant, but if you wouldn’t mind, I should like to accompany you on your rounds, once my things have been settled in. Perhaps I could also learn from you something about the workings of such a great ship; how she sails, how your gun crews operate.”

The thud of Nicolas’ trunks as they plopped down onto the deck from the ship’s crane, made both men turn. The lieutenant gave orders for the sailors to take the trunks below, then gestured for Nicolas to follow him into the belly of the warship.

“Mind your head, Monsieur. It gets rather cramped down here. We don’t have the same comforts as the merchant vessels. But of course, you understand the reason why.”

Nicolas nodded in silence. The corridors were narrow and low, and almost every inch of space seemed to be employed in some warlike or related purpose. The sailors halted near the stern of the ship and set Nicolas’ pair of trunks on the floor. The lieutenant moved by them and opened the door to the cabin he would share with the chevalier.

“Everything is where it is for a purpose, Monsieur. If something doesn’t help sail the ship, serve the guns, or aid in the well-being of the crew, it’s probably superfluous to our needs. Welcome to our little seaborne hotel.”

Nicolas stepped inside the narrow space, which seemed about the size of a comfortable horse stall. The room could barely fit Nicolas’ added baggage, which the sailors stacked and stowed at the far end of the cabin. With four men and the additional trunks all crowded inside, Nicolas began to long for the open deck.

“Come, Monsieur. I’ll show you where the mess and the privy are. They’re the two most important places on a ship after your bunk,” Fortier said.

As Fortier turned to exit the cabin, the sound of another visitor being piped on board drew the lieutenant’s attention. He shook his head in obvious irritation.

“It seems we have more guests arriving. I wonder who the devil could be coming aboard now. This’ll really get the captain going.”

The lieutenant abandoned his plan to show Nicolas to the mess and made his way back up to the main deck. Nicolas followed closely behind. To his astonishment, he saw his father standing near the central mast. Nicolas hurried to the marquis’ side.

“Father, has something happened? I had not thought to see you again before we reached France.”

The marquis gave his son a gentle pat on the shoulder.

“No, my boy, nothing’s wrong. I just thought I might like to see your accommodations up close before we set sail, and to say a proper bon voyage. Things were in such confusion back on the docks, I hadn’t the chance to do so. I’ve also brought a special parting gift for you.”

The marquis halted his conversation at the approach of Lieutenant Fortier, who stood patiently behind Nicolas, awaiting an introduction. Nicolas noticed the lieutenant as well and stepped to the side to make the introductions.

“Lieutenant Fortier, may I present to you my father, Monsieur le Marquis de Blaise.”

The two men exchanged greetings.

“I am honored to make your acquaintance, Monsieur le Marquis. I’d been told only that a young nobleman needed a berth on our ship. I had no idea my new cabin mate came from such an illustrious family. May I have the honor of escorting you to meet the captain? Only his duty, which requires his presence on the quarterdeck, prevents him from coming himself to greet you.”

The lieutenant led the marquis and Nicolas to meet the captain and the other officers. Though Nicolas had been virtually ignored when he had come on board, neither the captain nor his officers made any pretense of indifference when meeting his father, the marquis.

While the lieutenant made introductions, Nicolas took the opportunity to observe the captain up close. D’Armillac’s had a narrow, hawk-like face, with dark eyes set above a small, pinched, mouth. His eyes sat hooded and unsmiling in deep sockets, perched over a prominent, bent nose. Nicolas thought the captain had the appearance of a hungry bird of prey. He seemed the type to drive his crew hard, and accept no blemish of appearance or conduct.

Nicolas stood by his father’s side, as the marquis addressed Captain d’Armillac.

“Capitaine, you have a fine ship. I see I need not have worried over placing the safety of my son in the hands of so many experienced officers and gentlemen.”

To Nicolas, his father’s words seemed gallant, but they also carried a warning—keep my son safe, or else!

The captain tipped his hat in reply. “You honor us, Monsieur le Marquis, you have my personal assurance we’ll look after Monsieur d’Argentolle.”

As he gave his assurance, D’Armillac seemed to fire a broadside of irritation toward his second in command, just introduced as Senior Lieutenant Mangeot. Nicolas guessed the captain likely found it inexcusable not to have been made aware that his passenger was the son of the famous Marquis de Blaise.

The marquis touched two fingers to the corner of his hat to acknowledge the captain’s courtesy.

“I look forward to reporting as much to Amiral Vaudreuil, Capitaine. However, I’m afraid I must first ask an additional favor of you.”

“Both I and my ship are at your disposal, Monsieur le Marquis,” D’Armillac said without hesitation.

“I am grateful for the favor of your indulgence. My niece by marriage, the Vicomtesse de La Bouhaire, is rather fond of her cousin, and is much chagrined to be deprived of the chevalier’s company for the length of the voyage to France. It would greatly reassure her if she were able to see for herself what a capable ship and crew you have, and to bid Monsieur d’Argentolle a proper farewell. She is such a delightful young lady. I promised her I had friends in high places and could arrange it. Would you be so good, Capitaine, as to allow me to keep my word?”

D’Armillac looked up at the French ensign on the top mast. He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat to retrieve his timepiece.

“We’ve another twenty minutes at least until we set sail, Monsieur. There’s a brisk breeze from the southeast that I suspect the Admiral will aim to catch as it stiffens. When can we expect your visitor to arrive?”

The marquis extended an arm toward the center of the main deck.

“She is already here, along with her uncle, the Baron de Salvagnac. They await only your permission to come aboard. I took the liberty of having them accompany me in the launch which brought me, just in case.”

“Excellent, Monsieur le Marquis. Lieutenant Fortier, have them piped aboard and bring out the sling for the vicomtesse,” Capitaine d’Armillac commanded.

The orders were carried out with the promptness one would expect of a veteran warship and crew. In just a few minutes, the sling had been lowered and Nicholas watched as Sérolène rose in the air above the deck, holding on to the side ropes of the modified swing, used to bring female passengers aboard. A greeting party of officers and dignitaries stood below, preparing to receive the new arrivals. The sailors and common crew jockeyed at their posts to gain the best advantage for a proper look at the young lady coming aboard.

Nicolas stepped forward to claim the honor of assisting Sérolène from the swing, lending her his arm just as the baron’s face appeared above the line of the deck. The baron made his way up, the same way Nicolas had come, by climbing the side ladder, but with a good deal more effort and difficulty.

Sérolène stood to her full height on the deck. A collective gasp rose from many throats, as the crew beheld her great height. Introductions followed next, after which the new arrivals were given a personal tour of the ship, led by the captain. All the other officers save the genial Fortier, were released back to the performance of their duties. The Marquis and the Baron walked ahead with D’Armillac and Fortier, while Sérolène and Nicolas trailed at a discreet distance.

Sérolène gently squeezed Nicolas’ arm as they walked. “I’m surprised to find the captain and his officers so cordial. They seem exceedingly nice.”

“They were not so charming when I came on board alone, except for Lieutenant Fortier. I believe you’ve quite enchanted them all, as you have me. I had not at all imagined you could so much lovelier than I remembered you in my reflections.”

Sérolène’s ears and cheeks flushed with color. Nicolas flashed both dimples in approval. “I adore it when you color so pleasingly.”

Sérolène turned to look at Nicolas, a teasing glimmer in her gaze. “How odd, that so natural and frivolous a thing should give you so much pleasure, Monsieur.”

“It does please me very much, to see so fair a rose come into full bloom. And to admire so wonderful a sight, lends more to good sense and taste, than frivolity, I think.”

Nicolas paused to admire Sérolène once again. “And when you look at me that way, it always makes me want to kiss you.”

Sérolène’s neck and cheeks reddened. She looked away, then turned toward Nicolas with a mock frown.

“Oh, vous! Stop distracting me with all your sweet talk.”

Vous? Vous? Vous yourself!” Nicolas said, playfully annoyed that Sérolène would address him in the more formal style.

Sérolène stroked his arm with her fingertips. “Calme-toi, mon amour. Have you forgotten where we are? Though my words are discreet, my heart gives itself to you with abandon!”

“Take care, Mademoiselle, you know how your words set me aflame,” Nicolas replied with equal ardor, almost walking into the back of Capitaine d’Armillac, who had stopped to point out a detail on the horizon.

The captain caught only the last word Nicolas had spoken. He turned around to look at Nicolas.

“Flame, Monsieur? You need not worry. We have a very experienced crew, and fortunately we’re surrounded by a great deal of water.”

The rest of the party had a good laugh at Nicolas’ expense. He didn’t care. Nothing could disturb the tranquility of his mood with his beloved standing beside him. A thunderous report ripped through the humid air, interrupting the moment of levity. The echo cascaded along the walls of the port.

Nicolas pointed to the billowing puff of white smoke, rising above the vice-admiral’s warship.

“It’s from the flagship. I suspect it’s our signal to depart.”

The captain consulted his watch. Quite right, Monsieur le Chevalier. Messieurs, Mademoiselle, though we shall long regret your absence, you’d best head back to your vessel. We shall be making our way out of port first, as the lead escort.”

The party made the short walk back to the center of the deck. The marquis embraced Nicolas before taking his leave. He then descended by ladder into the waiting launch. The baron shook Nicolas’ hand with warmth and followed the marquis. As the sling was brought around for Sérolène, she briefly lost her balance, and fell into Nicolas’ arms. He held her close for a brief moment, as she pressed her head against his chest.

“I love you ever so dearly. Please take good care of yourself,” Sérolène whispered behind her fan.

Nicolas nodded, unable to utter his own response in the midst of the surrounding company, as he released Sérolène with reluctance. He suspected that his beloved’s loss of balance had only been a ruse, but he felt very glad for it.

Nicolas helped the vicomtesse into the sling, his eyes glued to Sérolène, as the crew lowered her over the side. Her eyes never left his, as she descended to join the others in the waiting launch. Once she took her seat, the oarsmen pushed off and began rowing back across the bay toward their own ship. Nicolas went to the railing, waving at the boat as it rowed back toward the merchant ships.

Lieutenant Fortier joined him at the railing. “She’s quite a beauty.”

“Yes, she is. How the sea and the light of day become her,” Nicolas agreed, before noting the direction of the lieutenant’s gaze. He realized belatedly, that the lieutenant’s remarks had been directed toward the Admiral’s flagship, the Bon Majesté. “And that warship isn’t too bad either.”

Fortier turned to look at Nicolas, and both of them laughed. Nicolas liked the lieutenant. Already, he felt a natural kinship toward the other man, though they’d only just met.

Fortier gave a long sigh. “With the wind willing, we’ll be in France in only four weeks, Monsieur, though I understand it will not seem fast enough for either of you.”

“Is it so obvious?” Nicolas asked.

“That you are devoted to each other? Well, if it wasn’t when the vicomtesse came on board, the pretense of her stumble at the end…” Fortier trailed off.

Nicolas looked around him at the other men of the crew. They all moved in a busy manner about their tasks, but each one who met his eye gave him a look that said they all agreed with the lieutenant. Nicolas wasn’t embarrassed. On the contrary, better that they should all see how much he adored his beloved, and manage their hopes and opinions accordingly.

Fortier reached into his vest pocket and removed a small portrait. “I know the feeling, Monsieur. This is my dear Aurélie. Her father is Comte de Galand-Laperche. She and I are to be married. As soon as I make captain.”

Nicolas nodded at the portrait. “She’s very handsome. You have my sincerest congratulations, Lieutenant.”

Fortier returned the miniature to his pocket. “If I may be so bold as to ask, Monsieur, are you and the vicomtesse promised to each other? Please excuse my prying, but I should like to set the expectations and behavior of the other officers. She makes quite an impression…as I’m sure you are well aware.”

Nicolas recalled his father’s admonition not to reveal what had been agreed to with the baron. “We are not yet formally betrothed, though there is an understanding of sorts between my father and the Baron de Salvagnac.”

Fortier gave a quick nod. “I see. I shall see to it that your prerogatives are made known and respected. I think on this ship, there isn’t a man on board who doesn’t envy you.”

Nicolas raised his hat to acknowledge the gallantry of the lieutenant’s remarks. As soon as the dark green tricorne returned to its perch above his brow, the captain’s orders boomed across the deck, relayed from throat to throat by the ship’s officers.

“Raise anchor and canvas. Prepare to set sail. Each man to post! Monsieur Fortier, prepare to take us out if you please!”

“Aye, Capitaine!” Fortier shouted back. The lieutenant tipped his hat to Nicolas then took his leave to join the other officers on the bridge.

Nicolas stood alone at the railing as the ship’s great timbers creaked and groaned. The vessel of war came to life on the wind, lurching forward imperceptibly at first, and then with increasing speed, until the blue-green water began to churn white and frothy along the swollen, cannon heavy flanks. The foresails fattened in the wind, and it felt to Nicolas as if they had taken wing.

Nicolas looked back toward the shore at the fading dot of his mother’s carriage, still guarding its place along the Quay. He waved into the distance and in the pit of his stomach, felt the echo of his mother’s sadness. A sinking dread settled over him. He could no more escape the feeling, than his mother could halt the fall of her tears when they had parted. Somehow, he knew, that he would never see his home, or the island, again.



A Roost of Crows

The Baron de Ginestas stood on deck with the other passengers, waiting for the Héloïse to depart. The city stood splashed against the green hillside, the red tile roofs of the buildings like wildflowers in a field, the color, noise and people all draining into the blue-green waters of the bay. Watching others labor while he toiled only with his own thoughts, almost pleased him as much as the fine scenery. He turned to his right, gazing at the new officer, who he had heard, had just joined the crew in Marseilles.

“Monsieur Lacombe, is it? Capitaine Closon tells me you’re new to the crew, joined up in Marseilles as I understand it,” Ginestas said.

Lacombe turned to look at him with what the baron considered to be an inordinate degree of wariness. Ginestas knew the look. He’d seen it often enough in the eyes of the corrupted, with whom he worked. Lacombe concealed something. And he, Ginestas, was just the man to ferret any dark secrets out.

“That’s right, Monsieur. And you are...?”

The baron gave his most gregarious smile. “Baron Ginestas. Happy to make your acquaintance. I’ve heard so many good things about you. What ship were you on before this one, may I ask?”

Lacombe’s smile appeared cordial, though he seemed unable to find a ready answer for so simple a question. The baron also found that curious. The seconds ticked slowly, and awkwardly away. The baron cloaked his thoughts, and waited.

“The Oliphant, a cargo ship out of Brest,” Lacombe said at last.

The baron raised his eyebrows. “The Oliphant? I know the ship and her captain. How is old Clermont these days?”

Lacombe wiped his face with his handkerchief, despite the steady breeze blowing to cool things off. Ginestas gave a slight nod of encouragement, his lips cracked open in the hint of a smile, a gesture he often made, to encourage slow-witted servants, or children.

“Very well when I left him, Monsieur, as capable and stern as ever,” Lacombe said with confidence.

The baron smiled broadly. “Splendid. Splendid indeed. Capitol fellow, old Clermont.”

Lacombe gave a slight bow and looked left and right, as though searching for any endeavor he might use as an excuse to flee the baron’s company.

“If you’ll excuse me, Monsieur, the passengers are returning now in the launch and I must go and help them to board. Very nice meeting you, Monsieur le Baron.”

Ginestas touched his thumb and the two following fingers to the brim of his midnight blue tricorne, in an attempt to mimic a gentleman’s salute. Ginestas returned the salutation.

“And you, Monsieur. And you.”

Lacombe’s retreating back soon gave way to the sight of a much more interesting subject. The launch from the Fantassin had at last arrived, bringing the passengers without whom the ship could not depart. The sling had already been lowered over the side, and as the arm rose above the deck, it seemed to have plucked from the sea, a creature worthy of the tall tales so many mariners loved to tell, of mermaids and other sirens of the deep. The baron recognized the face at once, from the brief encounter at the masquerade ball, as the statuesque Vicomtesse de La Bouhaire stood and took her first steps on deck.

Lacombe hurried to her side as soon as her feet touched down. The baron waited for the chevalier to appear to chaperone his prize, but to his surprise, the youngest Montferraud remained nowhere in sight.

*

“Welcome aboard the Belle Héloïse, Mademoiselle.”

The man offered his arm in addition to his greeting, but Sérolène refused it. She noted the angular face, remarkable for its prominent chin and hooked nose, a feature which might have ruined the visage of most others, but instead imparted an air of rakish danger to the officer. She looked for her cousine Julienne, and the other members of her family, when the officer suddenly handled her by the arm, locking his eyes upon hers.

The shock of having a stranger actually touch her against her will, astonished the vicomtesse into silence. She stared down at the man with indignation, and met the cold-blooded gaze of a hawk, sizing up its prey. She felt a chilling dread race up and down her spine. He frightened her so much, that even the ready words of protest hanging at the back of her throat, fell back into the pit of her stomach.

“Pierre Lacombe. Charmed to have the honor of such beautiful company, Mademoiselle…?”

Sérolène cast a nervous glance over her shoulder, expecting to see Nicolas rush to punish the offender who dared be zoo brazen with her, then remembered that Nicolas remained on the Fantassin. She looked about in embarrassed dismay. Neither her uncle, nor the marquis had yet come on board. She hoped others might take notice, and come to her assistance, but everyone else seemed preoccupied by the excitement and hubbub of the impending departure. She stood trapped in plain sight, in the clutches of the rakish officer. The kernel of panic began to spread. It seemed she would have to deal with the problem attaching itself to her arm, by herself.

“Mademoiselle de La Bouhaire, how nice it is to see you again. It seems we’re to be companions on this comfortable floating prison for the next several weeks. I hope you remember me. I had the pleasure of meeting you at the fête a few nights ago. Guillaume de Noirmince-Vauginon, Baron de Ginestas, at your service.”

Sérolène turned and stared down at a portly gentleman, copiously powdered, coiffed and dressed, as if ready for a stroll through the gardens of Versailles with His Majesty. The man stepped between Sérolène and her accoster, forcing Lacombe to release her.

Lacombe gave the baron a hard stare, but the baron stood his ground. Lacombe tipped his hat, then melted back into the press of activity on the deck. Sérolène, who towered over the much shorter baron, curtsied her thanks.

“I do remember you, Monsieur de Ginestas. You were dressed all in black. And you wore a satyr’s mask.”

Ginestas grinned. “I’m honored you should recall so brief and chance a meeting, Mademoiselle. And what an occasion. If I remember correctly, you were with the Chevalier d’Argentolle when we met.”

Sérolène’s nodded. “You have a very able memory, Monsieur le Baron.”

Some sailors came toward them carrying a heavy trunk. Ginestas shepherded the vicomtesse toward the ship’s railing to make way for them to pass.

“I have not seen Monsieur d’Argentolle aboard. Will he not be traveling with us?”

Sérolène let fall a heavy sigh. “No, Monsieur. The chevalier is to travel on the Fantassin. We have just come from his ship to bid him farewell.”

*

Ginestas gave the vicomtesse his most sympathetic gaze. “That is indeed a pity, Mademoiselle.”

Sérolène, noted the veneer of compassion in the baron’s eyes and voice. It seemed to her a false veneer, to conceal his barely withheld glee. Sérolène’s looked over Ginestas’ shoulder and felt her spirits rise. Ginestas turned to see what drew her attention. The Marquis de Blaise had come aboard.

The marquis walked right up to Sérolène’s side, ignoring the baron completely. “Mademoiselle de La Bouhaire, would you do me the honor of accompanying me on a sojourn of the ship?”

Sérolène curtsied. “I’d be delighted to, Monsieur de Blaise.”

Ginestas’ bowed as the marquis offered his arm to the vicomtesse, and led her away.

Ginestas bowed and tipped his hat. “Monsieur de Blaise.”

The marquis cast a steely gaze toward the baron. “Baron Ginestas.”

*

Ginestas remained by the railing. He could have been miffed, but he wasn’t. He’d learned two important things in the space of just a few minutes. The first was that Lacombe was not who he pretended to be. Ginestas had known and employed Captain Clermont on several occasions. A very useful man, up until his death several years ago off the coast of Tangier. So who was Lacombe and why was he pretending? Ginestas meant to find out. Perhaps the officer could be put to good use, or his secrets bartered for something useful.

The second, and most important thing however, was that the chevalier sailed on the Fantassin. Ginestas now had much more leeway to act than he had planned on, with Little Achilles out of the way.

Ginestas watched the marquis as he walked the deck with the vicomtesse. So haughty, so proud. He smiled, shielding the true menace of his thoughts from any casual observer. All the crows nested under one roost, and he, the fox, had been let in amongst them. He would make his enemies bleed handsomely for such a mistake; in both gold and blood.

*

Sérolène glanced across the bay toward the Fantassin. The long flat waves of the blue outer bay, intermingled with the silt filled runoff from the mountains, to turn the water murky near the inner fringes of the port. The discolored shade suited Sérolène’s mood as she walked the deck on the arm of the marquis. Nothing of importance could be decided in the convoy without the approval of the Marquis de Blaise. That meant that the decision to separate her from Nicolas had to be one he had approved of. It seemed a very unkind thing to do, and Sérolène wondered at the purpose of such a disappointing choice.

Still, the marquis would be her father-in-law one day soon. At least she hoped he would be. It wouldn’t do to sulk and perhaps cause him to sour in his opinion of her. Though the marquise stood wholly on her side, the marquis would be the ultimate arbiter of her fate. Obedience was the trait most desired in girls. She must hide her disappointment and show the marquis she had all the qualities required to please him and be the perfect wife for his son, despite her lack of fortune.

Sérolène turned and beamed her gratitude toward the marquis.

“Thank you, Monsieur le Marquis, for coming to fetch me away. Twice today you’ve done me a very special service.”

The marquis glanced in the direction of Lacombe. The officer stood near the forward mast, berating some of the crew.

“I observed that officer’s manner toward you when I came up on deck. What I saw of his behavior seemed impertinent to say the least. If you should like, Mademoiselle, I shall speak to Capitaine Closon about it at once.”

As Sérolène considered what to do, Madame Dupluie emerged from below decks in the company of a plump but sweet-faced girl about Sérolène’s own age. Madame Dupluie made eye contact only briefly, and then pretended to take an interest in a passing schooner to avoid the inconvenience of conversation. Sérolène and the marquis walked on in silence. After several steps, the marquis cleared his throat. Sérolène remembered she had not yet given the marquis an answer. She wavered, inclined to see the good in everyone. Madame Dupluie’s appearance reminded her of how hurtful another’s meddling could be. Perhaps she misread the officer’s intentions?

“I shouldn’t like to be the cause of trouble for someone,” Sérolène said at last.

The marquis’ look suggested that he expected the answer he received.

“I do not believe you could bring misfortune to anyone, Mademoiselle. Not unless they thoroughly deserved it. In my experience, I have found the weed of mischief has a habit of growing beyond all attempts to control it, if not quickly pulled up by the roots. Ginestas is a good example. You would do well to avoid his society. That officer also appears to be of like behavior and character. But perhaps I have misread him.”

Sérolène gave the marquis a look of absolute obedience.

“I know neither man, Monsieur, and could not possibly judge for myself. But at least Monsieur de Ginestas did me the favor of coming to my aid, when he saw that may lay a hand on my arm. As for the officer, I am certain his conduct won’t be repeated, because I shall be prepared for him now. But of course, Monsieur, you are far wiser than I, and I am always pleased to do whatever it is you wish of me.”

The marquis gave a quick nod of the head.

“You are a thoughtful and gracious child. Madame de Blaise chose well to make you her favorite. Very well, my dear, it shall be as you wish. We shall leave our pruning till circumstances should prove to us that it be absolutely necessary.”

Sérolène nodded. “As you wish, Monseigneur.”

The vicomtesse and the marquis continued their walk in silence, both absorbed in their own thoughts and the matchless view of the bay. The topsails came down and the wind began to pick up. The marquis glanced toward the shore, where the carriage of the marquis had been, but the great, gilded Berline had gone. As the wind began to pick up, he turned his gaze back toward Sérolène as if embarrassed that she might have caught him looking.

The hull of the Héloïse leapt high on the waves, carrying its passengers forward toward France, and a destiny none could have ever imagined.

Drowning in Boredom

After almost two weeks at sea, Nicolas felt as if he drowned in boredom. The tedium of unchanging drill and routine, though vital to a ship of war in ensuring the preparedness of officers, crew, and matériel, meant nothing to a young man accustomed to variety, exercise, and freedom. After the first few days of excitement and seasickness subsided, the close confines below deck, and the dearth of familiar company made it challenging to adapt to life on the Fantassin. The rigors of training on Martinique had been hard, but the chevalier grew accustomed to the almost constant activity, and the discipline of pushing body and mind to the limit. No such vigorous stimulation existed on the Fantassin.

The convoy entered the Southern Atlantic. Day after day passed in dull, unbearable, sameness. As the only man on the warship not serving under the colors, Nicolas had no specific tasks or duties to carry out. Only so much reading could be done to occupy idle time, especially with the constant pitching and swaying of the ship. Nicolas took exercise when he could by walking the decks, and also accompanied Fortier on his rounds, but save for the occasional game of cards with the other officers after the evening meal, he felt starved for any useful activity of his own.

It didn’t help that he missed Sérolène with an ache that persisted long after their parting outside the Cap. She seemed always in his thoughts, especially now that he had little else to occupy himself with. He often reflected on how pleasant his journey would have been with Sérolène to keep him company, but the only sight he now had of the vicomtesse came from an occasional glimpse through a spy glass when the ships passed close enough to afford a look. Sometimes the captain let him venture up to the crow’s nest with the lookouts and he got a better view, and even sometimes caught a wave, but those occasions proved rare. His growing friendship with Fortier often proved his only salvation. They seemed kindred spirits of a sort, and Nicolas felt as if he’d known the young officer much longer than the several days of their acquaintance. The sharing of their very cramped quarters helped forge close bonds, but so did Fortier’s genial personality.

At Fortier’s suggestion, Nicolas began a fencing group with the junior officers as a way to end his tedium. The chevalier threw himself into the new activity with relish, surprising many of the officers by his skill with a blade. In the practice matches staged as training, Nicolas inflicted a string of successive defeats on all comers; officers, marines, and crewmen alike. The crew took almost as much pleasure in watching Nicolas fight as they did in betting on the outcome of the contests. Even the captain threw in a livre or two, when the odds looked particularly promising. The real stakes lay on how long the bout would last and whether the opponent would gain any touches at all, since Nicholas had yet to suffer defeat in any bout.

Tired of throwing good money after bad, the officers conjured a plan to recoup their losses and the ship’s honor. But the scheme required Nicolas’ cooperation to succeed. The captain dispatched the easy-going Fortier to query Nicolas on a proposal.