Prologue

 

 

Plymouth, England, June 1796

 

TWO MEN in midshipmen’s uniform—the elder burly and red-faced, the younger slim and deathly pale—stood back-to-back in a sunny glade not far from Plymouth harbor. Each held a pistol in his right hand. The warm breeze and sylvan loveliness around them were lost on both the combatants and the three onlookers.

One of those three raised his voice. “Mr. Correy, Mr. Marshall…. Gentlemen, you are certain you cannot be reconciled?”

“Oh, I could be, easily,” said the larger man. “Mr. Marshall knows well that I would be happy to make our acquaintance a closer one.”

“No,” said Marshall. He bit his lip and pushed a stray lock of black hair behind his ear. “Impossible.”

“Very well,” said the referee, who was also surgeon of the ship Titan, on which they all served. “Take ten paces.”

They did.

“On the count of three, turn and fire. One. Two. Three.”

Both turned quickly; the shots sounded as one. After a moment, the larger man toppled slowly to one side. By the time the surgeon reached him, he had breathed his last.

“Best clear out before someone comes,” said Correy’s second, who was purser of their ship. The others agreed, then carried the dead man to the carriage in which he had arrived. The surgeon and purser climbed aboard.

“What—what happens now?” Marshall asked. For all his earlier resolve, he was now clearly anxious about the possible consequences of his victory.

The surgeon shook his head. “Lad,” he said, rather kindly, “you’ve not been aboard Titan long, have you?”

“Only since last week.”

“Then my guess is Captain Cooper will be pleased to log that Mr. Correy died in a duel with an unknown landsman. And if Correy’s family is wise, they’ll let it go at that. Every man aboard knew his habits, but he was too clever to leave evidence.”

“You’ve done the ship a service,” the purser said. “Begone, now. And clean your pistol.” He took up the reins and clucked to the horse. In a moment the carriage disappeared from view.

“Mr. Archer,” Marshall said to the young man beside him. “Is he serious?”

“Yes, completely. Come, sir, he was right, we must be off.” They climbed into the light trap they’d hired in town, and Archer skillfully guided the horse back onto the roadway.

Marshall was silent for a long time. “I… have never killed in cold blood before,” he said at last. “Nor ever killed an Englishman.” He turned and met Archer’s eyes, looking for an instant like the eighteen-year-old boy he was rather than the correct officer and gentleman he had been while facing death. “Tell me, Mr. Archer—what else could I have done?”

“Nothing,” Archer said. He had liked Marshall from the moment the new midshipman came aboard the Titan, even though Marshall’s time in the service gave him seniority over Archer himself. That immediate affinity was part of the reason he had agreed to act as Marshall’s second in this affair; his new shipmate was all alone, but that hadn’t stopped him from standing up to a bully. “The man was a menace, Mr. Marshall. He made life hell for any boy above the age of consent. Younger than fourteen, a boy could charge rape, so he let the children alone. Older, the victim dared not speak—he could be hanged himself, for participating.”

“In the first place….” Marshall still seemed to be trying to convince someone, most likely himself, that he’d been in the right. “In the first place, the Articles of War specifically forbid sodomy between men, on penalty of death.”

“Indeed.”

“I’ve never—I have served three years in His Majesty’s Navy, Mr. Archer. On a sloop, to be sure, and under a strict Captain. I know all men have human weaknesses, but I have never seen such a blatant disregard for common decency!”

“I believe Captain Cooper has been in an awkward position,” Archer said. “He knew Correy was untrustworthy, but the man was clever and deceitful. He bribed the men under his command to act as his spies and lookouts, and Correy’s family has influence enough to lose Cooper his command if he had acted without ironclad evidence. The Captain did the best he could to keep Correy from power—he never made him Acting Lieutenant, nor recommended him for the Lieutenant’s examination.”

“His family must have been influential indeed, for him to flout the Articles,” Marshall replied. “How could he make such a proposition, bald-faced, and even threaten me? To claim he’d had a boy flogged for refusing him—!”

“He did, more or less,” Archer said. “Correy made his wishes known, the boy refused, so he brought the boy before the Captain and charged that the youngster had made the proposition. The boy was so flustered he must have appeared guilty of something. The Captain had him caned, not flogged, for ‘unclean behavior.’”

“What!”

“He had to do something. Correy swore on the Bible, and all the boy could do was deny he’d done anything. At least there’s no death penalty for it. And refusing didn’t even help the lad. Correy had his way with him eventually, poor little bastard.”

“My God.” Marshall let out a long breath. “Thank you for telling me that, Mr. Archer. I will not speak of this to anyone, but you have eased my conscience.”

Archer smiled. “You have made the Titan a safer place for our youngsters, sir. It is I who should thank you.”

They drove on again in silence. Marshall seemed at ease, but Archer’s spirit was now in turmoil. His gratitude was far deeper than that of a concerned officer. Marshall had freed him from a demon who had made his existence a living hell.

He had not told Marshall that the boy he spoke of had been himself.

And Archer had not, and never could, tell Marshall that he just had fallen in love with a brave and beautiful gentleman who would likely shoot him dead if he ever gave voice to his feelings.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Captain’s Log, HMS Calypso, in for repair, Portsmouth.

16 July, 1799

We have been forced to return to Portsmouth to repair major damage suffered during our recent encounter with a French convoy. Two small supply ships (see list) were sent ahead under the command of 2nd Lt. Watson and 3rd Lt. Barnes; 1st Lt. Drinkwater commands the captured corvette Etienne, while the two remaining merchantmen are under the command of 4th Lt. Marshall and Act. Lt. Archer. Due to the condition of the Calypso, we have traveled with these last three vessels in convoy.

 

HIS MAJESTY’S frigate Calypso limped gamely into port on a hot July morning, half her foremast gone, the mizzen missing altogether, and other damage becoming more apparent as she neared. Two holes gaped in her hull, luckily well above the waterline; part of the aft quarterdeck was rigged with a canvas cover whose shape suggested that the Captain’s own cabin was no longer habitable; and scorch marks beneath a splintered gunport hinted at worse damage below. But despite her wounds, the Calypso brought a captured French corvette in her wake, much less damaged and now crewed by English sailors.

And after Etienne came two of the smaller merchant ships she had been escorting, Brigitte and Fifine, with an oddly mixed cargo: fine silks and brandy in one ship, and small arms, from pistols to light field cannon, in the other. The unusual pairing had occasioned the expected jokes about the new French high society, but either cargo would fetch a handsome price in England. Adding to that the value of the three captured ships, as well as the two from that same convoy that had come into port earlier, it was clear Captain Smith had annexed another rich prize to his long record.

From his post at Brigitte’s helm, Lt. William Marshall had no time to consider what his share of the prize money might be, much less what to do with it. He had his hands full watching the wind, maintaining safe distance from the other ships, and seeing that his skeleton crew remained alert. When he finally received Smith’s signal to drop anchor, his order to let go was a tremendous shout of relief. Since earning his rank of Lieutenant, he had waited months for the chance to command a prize ship—to be in sole command of a vessel sailing under the flag of England. The prize money that would come his way was fine to contemplate, as well. He would be able to buy a new uniform jacket to replace the one that had been singed in battle not long ago.

His delight was slightly dimmed by the fact that he had been in sight of the Calypso for the entire trip, rather than on his own. If the Calypso had not been so badly damaged, he would have felt like a small boy escorted by an older brother, but Captain Smith had kept the larger vessels in the convoy together for safety—at one point he had been prepared to move the entire crew to the French ships if the Calypso had foundered on her way into port.

Marshall glanced over to where Fifine was dropping anchor under the command of his friend and shipmate, David Archer, who looked up and waved a greeting. The luck had gone their way in generous measure. It was David’s first command as Acting Lieutenant, and with just a bit more luck, he might be able to pass his Lieutenant’s examination during the weeks that Calypso would be in dock for repair. That would be a fine thing—something to celebrate and cash to fund a feast.

But, as always, pleasure had to wait upon duty. Arrangements for turning the prizes over to the crown used up all morning and most of the afternoon. By the time the two young men reported back to the Calypso, they had received a grueling education in port procedure.

And there was no rest for the wicked. As they climbed back aboard, Captain Smith met them at the rail. He towered over them, as he towered over nearly everyone—his gold-trimmed bicorn added half a head to his impressive six foot two. “Gentlemen,” he said, returning their hasty salutes. “Make yourselves presentable and meet me here in ten minutes. You will accompany me to the repair dock… and to dinner.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Presentable?” David Archer asked under his breath as they hurried belowdecks. “I thought we were!”

“Look in the glass before you say that,” Marshall warned. “Your hair wants combing.” He felt his chin. His beard, curly and black as a gypsy’s, grew annoyingly fast. “And I need a shave. I didn’t bother this morning, the wind brought us in so quickly.”

“Neither did I, but mine doesn’t show the way yours does. I’d better tend to it, though. It would take a braver man than I to show up unshaven to dinner with Captain Smith.”

They tidied up quickly, as was their habit, sharing a basin of water and a tiny shaving glass in Archer’s cabin and scrambling into full dress uniform. The Captain—or to give him his due, Captain Sir Paul Andrew Smith, Baronet—never let his officers forget they carried the full weight of England’s dignity upon their shoulders. Marshall was simply grateful that Captain Smith did not require his officers to wear an itchy, powdered wig or to coat their hair with the stuff. On deck or ashore, there was never a question of who commanded Calypso, but he was not the sort of officer to require his men to do anything he would not attempt himself, and he despised wigs. Marshall had always wondered if it was impatience with the time a wig required or the Captain’s pride in his own abundant mane, still glossy brown despite his having passed forty.

“Am I fit for polite company?” David inquired, doffing his hat and making a leg. As usual, he was by far the more distinguished of the pair, the sun-lightened gold of his hair an elegant contrast to the dark blue of his uniform.

“Yes, and the dockmaster’s company as well. And I?”

“You’ll do. Though much of the credit must go to your tailor.”

“Tailor! Davy, I must see—”

Archer laughed and propelled him out into the gangway. “You must see the Captain immediately. The tailor will wait, you know. We’re not leaving port for at least a week.”

They hurried back abovedeck with all the decorum they could manage and bade farewell to First Lieutenant Drinkwater, who was left in command of the Calypso while her Captain went ashore. The Captain’s launch conveyed them to the sally port, and from there they returned to the cobbled streets of Portsmouth.

Captain Smith surveyed the busy thoroughfare and consulted his watch. “Gentlemen, it has been hours since breakfast, and I expect that, like myself, in the hurry of departure, you neglected to eat.” No one would ever accuse Sir Paul of being a lenient captain, but he was not a harsh one, either.

“No, sir,” Marshall admitted.

“We shall dine first, then. Your first meal ashore as an officer, is it not?”

Again, Marshall had to agree.

“Then it’s high time you had the practice. The society of officers and gentlemen is a step up from the midshipmen’s mess.”

The inn to which Smith escorted them was also a step up from what a midshipman could afford. Marshall suspected the Captain was not so far from his own youth to not remember what a treat it was for young men who’d been eating beef, biscuit, and salt pork for the last four months to address themselves to fresh-cooked food in an establishment much finer than any they would have chosen for themselves.

Savory soup, meat pie, fresh-baked bread so hot the butter melted on it, game hens with sage and onion stuffing, soft cheese and ripe pippin apples…. Marshall was in an earthly level of heaven by the time they sat contemplating glasses of ruby-colored port, though he was sufficiently earthbound to pay attention to the Captain’s detailed exposition of what work had to be done on their poor, battered ship. He was intimately acquainted with the damage—the last French salvo had killed two men in his gun crew when it took out part of Calypso’s starboard rail.

“Now, then, gentlemen,” Smith said as they left the inn. “I believe we are sufficiently fortified to face the master of the repair dock. He holds the life of your ship in his hands. It is his duty to make repairs, but that can be a long, slow process if he takes a dislike to a captain. Far better to encourage him, let him know how important he is to His Majesty’s Navy, perhaps using some of your prize to commission nonregulation improvements; that can be a very sound investment. And the truth is, we are bringing in a very complicated piece of work. The poor girl’s internal structure has been—”

“Captain! Captain Smith, sir!”

The man who came running up behind them wore the uniform of a shore-service Lieutenant. He stopped, saluted smartly, and said, “Admiral Roberts’s compliments, sir. He would like to see you as soon as possible.”

“I had planned to attend directly after I’d seen to my ship,” Smith said, frowning. “Can this not wait?”

The Lieutenant’s ruddy face pinched in distress. “I was told immediately, sir, if you please. He’s sent a coach.”

“Oh, very well.” Smith glanced at Marshall and Archer. “Well, come along, gentlemen. I trust this won’t take long?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”

They followed him along to the waiting coach. It must be an important matter, indeed. The offices of the Port Authority were only twenty minutes’ walk away.

Marshall climbed in and settled himself beside Archer, enjoying the novelty. He had only been in a coach a handful of times. The first had been the long, weary journey that brought him from his little village in Worcester to Spithead, six long years ago. He was fifteen then, not even old enough to shave, and had just been accepted as a midshipman in His Britannic Majesty’s Navy.

And now he was Lieutenant William Marshall, officer and gentleman. Tomorrow, July 17, he would turn twenty-one. He had seen battle at sea, survived minor wounds, and had even seen a little of Italy. Even though he had been at sea since his teens, Marshall still felt as though his life was something from a book of adventure tales. The years at his father’s parsonage, peaceful and monotonous, seemed like a dim, half-forgotten dream.

Now, of course, he wondered what the Port Admiral had in mind. He couldn’t mean to send the crippled Calypso on a mission; she would go to the bottom in even a mild storm. More likely Admiral Roberts simply wanted to hear Captain Smith’s report and was not inclined to wait until ship’s business had been concluded.

“What the devil does he think he’s doing?” Smith said suddenly, jerking Marshall from his reverie. “He’s turning the wrong way. Driver!”

Marshall glanced out and saw that they had, indeed, turned off down an alleyway. And then wooden shutters flapped down over the windows, throwing them into near-total darkness as the coach picked up speed. Marshall pushed at the shutter beside him, but it held fast.

“He’ll have us over if he keeps on like this,” Archer said, rattling the shutter on his window. “It feels like they’ve slid a bolt across.”

“The hinges,” Smith snapped. A ringing rasp said he’d drawn his sword. Marshall followed suit, and they slid the blades through the narrow crack at the top of the shutter, levering at the edge. The hinges squeaked in protest as the screws came loose, but the shutter held firm.

“It’s fitted into the frame,” Archer reported. “These aren’t just for bad weather.”

The coach pitched into another abrupt turn, and they were all thrown to the right. Marshall’s sword caught on something. He felt carefully and found it had ripped a jagged hole in the leather seat cover.

“Put your swords on the floor, easy to hand,” the Captain said. “We’ll just see if we can kick the door out.”

That would have worked, if they’d had time. The door began to loosen under their blows, but before they could kick it free of its frame, the coach turned again, slowed, and passed into a building. As it rolled to a halt, the door sagged open and swung crookedly on one hinge. All that was visible beyond was a row of empty stalls.

“Come on out,” a voice called. “You’re surrounded. Quick, now, an’ no tricks.”

“If they’re on both sides of us, they can’t risk crossfire,” Smith said, low. “I’ll break right. Follow as you see fit.”

He leaped out, diving out of sight, with Marshall and Archer right behind him. A scruffy figure with a stick, his face swathed in a dirty mask, dove after him. Smith struck his arm and the stick dropped, the wounded man clutching a bloody wrist. But these bandits had played this game before, and as the Captain spun to meet a swinging club, another villain, also masked, leaned over the edge of the hayloft and clipped his skull with the back of a shovel.

Marshall, back-to-back with Archer in a circle of masked, club-wielding ruffians, saw Smith fall. He lunged, trying to break through the circle, but his sword was knocked aside. Archer was having no better luck.

“Give it up, boyos,” one of their enemies said. “We have orders to take you alive, but accidents happen all the time.” He drew a dirk, long and deadly in the lantern light, and laid it across Smith’s throat. “You wouldn’t want to lose your Captain by accident, would you?”

Marshall stopped, breathing hard. He traded a glance with Archer, who looked as frustrated as he felt. But there really was nothing else to do. If these men didn’t intend to kill them outright, they might have a chance to escape later.

“And where are we to be taken alive? France?”

He hardly expected the general hilarity that erupted at his question, but he didn’t have time to ask another. Davy dropped at his feet an instant before something struck him hard from behind.