Summer is here! Time for days at the beach with lots of sun, sand, and romance. Grab your sunblock and join your favorite Austen characters in their adventures at the sea.
For this edition of the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles, Jack Caldwell offers a seafaring preview from his upcoming novel, THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.
Ahoy, maties—Jack Caldwell here. THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, a mash-up of NORTHANGER ABBEY and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL is part of my Jane Austen’s Fighting Men Series. It takes place during the Hundred Days Crisis, and is a companion novel to my P&P/S&S sequel, THE THREE COLONELS. In the future, I will add a PERSUASION sequel, PERSUADED TO SAIL, and the long-awaited follow-up to THE THREE COLONELS, ROSINGS PARK.
To set the scene, Captain Frederick Tilney (of NA) is friends with George Blakeney, the son of Sir Percy, the retired Scarlet Pimpernel. He also is in love with the Pimpernel’s daughter, Violet. Thanks to Frederick’s rakish reputation and immature mistakes, Sir Percy has forbidden any courtship. During a trip to Paris, Violet is caught up in the Hundred Days Crisis and is held prisoner. Sir Percy, crippled by age, is prohibited by the British government to act. That does not stop George and Frederick, though.
From Chapter 20:
The old, battered Mary-Anne slowly made its way through the moonless night towards the French coast. The schooner resembled a fishing vessel, which pleased its owner and master, who had spent no little time making it appear so. In fact, when business was slow, the ship’s hold actually contained the riches of the sea.
That was the exception to the rule. In point of fact, the Mary-Anne was designed for the secret transport of the riches of men. It was a smuggler, and its captain proudly owned a heart as greedy and cold as any pirate who sailed the fabled Spanish Main. Gold was his true love, and if the price was right, Captain Hughes would sell his own mother. But he would never part with his dear Mary-Anne, his mistress and instrument. It was too valuable. With this tiny, leaking tub, he aimed to earn his fortune and retire to a comfortable country house.
A tall hatless man, his queue of yellow hair flapping in the breeze, leaned over the gunwale of the creaking sloop, staring out into the murk. Another man, shorter in stature, stood next to him, both mindless of the crew dressed in rags milling about the deck, attending to their task of sailing the ship. The fine black cloth of their coats instantly identified the passengers as gentlemen. The only similarity between these two and the crew was their dark clothing.
The tall man’s companion quietly spoke. “Do you see anything, Frederick?”
“No, nothing, George,” answered Captain Tilney.
“Ya won’t see much, good masters,” came a thick brogue from behind, “but we’re close ta shore, to be sure. I know these waters like the back of me hand.” Captain Hughes was a middle-aged man, gray hair sticking out every way under his stained tricorn hat. He grinned in a reassuring manner, clearly showing the gaps in his yellowed teeth. The money George Blakeney had paid him for this trip had earned the gentlemen the captain’s friendliness. “I ain’t run aground yet in this here life, and I don’t means to do so tonight.”
He ordered one of the crew forward to the bow. The scrawny man scrambled like a monkey between the bowsprit and cathead. He wrapped one arm through the shrouds and began tossing a weighted line overboard.
“Eighteen fathoms, by the deep,” the leadsman called out softly.
The captain moved back to the helmsman at the wheel. “Steady as she goes.”
Frederick and George stood impatiently for the next half-hour, watching the leadsman methodically toss the heavy lead out before the slowly moving ship, the line running through his hands. The only sounds breaking the silence were the creaking of the ship, the soft splash of the weight, and the gentle call of the depth.
“Seventeen fathoms, mark … Fifteen, by the deep … Twelve, by the mark …”
A fortnight ago, Frederick met with George in the private room of a local inn, and his friend raised an extraordinary proposal. George’s intention was to “reconstitute an intelligence network” in the Channel coastal region of France. They would gather the information necessary to attempt a recovery of Violet and her relations.
As he explained his plans, Frederick realized he was talking about something that had existed in the past. Recalling his conversations at Buford’s wedding in January, Frederick had blurted out, “George, I must ask you where this knowledge of networks comes from. I have heard some things.”
“I suppose you have. This is something used before—twenty years before, in fact. I mean to bring it back.”
“Twenty years? Are you speaking of—”
“Yes. The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Frederick was stunned to learn the League was real. George refused to go into greater detail, except stating that no one would confirm the true identity of the Pimpernel, or even if he was one man. Instead, he described how the League used scores of French informers to learn the movements and intentions of the opposition. It was due to this intelligence that the League was successful in rescuing people from the Terror.
His friend admitted that the political climate in France had changed since the Revolution. Frenchmen who had been all too happy to help the enemies of the Committee of Public Safety would never betray France after Robespierre’s fall. However, the coast was filled with pockets of royal loyalists, and he hoped they would be angry at Bonaparte for usurping Louis’ throne.
“If we can find a few fellows, perhaps relations of those who had helped the League before, we can gather the information we need to rescue of Violet. Are you with me?”
So there Frederick was, an officer in the king’s army on ten days’ official leave graciously given by his new commander, standing on the deck of what some would call a pirate ship off the coast of an enemy nation in the dead of night, planning to go ashore on a secret mission with a friend still a student at Oxford to rendezvous with suspected traitors, with only his pistol, his sword, and his wits to protect him.
He was either mad or in love, he thought, and contemplated whether they were not indeed one and the same.
The lookout cried in a loud whisper, “Land ho!” At the same time the leadsmen called out, “By the mark—seven fathoms. Hard bottom.”
“Heave to!” ordered Captain Hughes. “Drop anchor—easy, mind ye, or you’ll be beached when we get home.”
Once the Mary-Anne was anchored, the captain climbed into a long boat with Frederick and George. “This should not take long,” he said to the first mate. “Keep ye a weather eye on us and prepare to raise anchor once ye spy us returning.” The captain made himself comfortable as the boat was lowered to the water. With practiced movements, he freed the little craft from the hooks and seized the tiller.
“Avast there,” he said to his companions with a chuckle. “There be no gentlemen aboard this here craft. Slap a hand on them oars and give a pull. Smooth now—like ye were crewing on the Isis.”
Long minutes later, Frederick heard the scraping of sand along the bottom of the launch. Captain Hughes proved to be more nimble than his rotund figure would indicate, and he sprang smoothly from the long boat with a line and fastened it to a rocky outcropping. Frederick and George dragged the boat higher aground at the captain’s direction.
“Stay here with the boat, an’ make not a sound, mind,” Captain Hughes growled in a low voice. “I’ll be back in a trice. Listen for the whistle.” Without waiting for a response, the man was gone in the gloom.
Frederick and George sat by the rocks, taking care to keep their heads out of sight. George was nervous, and Frederick was about to admonish his friend for fiddling with his pistol when they heard a low whistle. Taking no chances, both men drew their guns, only replacing them when they saw the captain with another man who carried a dark-lantern.
“Well, sirs,” said the captain, “here be a man who might be a help to ye.”
The newcomer spoke French. “Bonsoir, messieurs. My friend says you bring gold—not for wine but for information.” He was dressed as much in rags as any member of the Mary-Anne’s crew.
“Oui,” said George in a strong English accent. “We will pay you well if you answer our questions.”
The man looked at the captain. “It will not bring trouble, will it?” He returned his gaze to the gentlemen. “Money has been hard to get since the Peace. We do not see much profit. The fishing barely fills our bellies. Le percepteurs des impôts are crawling all over. We must take care.”
George withdrew a piece of paper with a design on it. “Does this mean anything to you?” Frederick could make out a five-pointed flower on it as George handed to the man.
The man shook his head. “Non, monsieur. What is it?”
Before George could respond, there was a commotion from inland.
“Arrêtez! Halte! In the name of the emperor, I order you to surrender!”
“Merde!” the Frenchman cried in fear, dousing the dark-lantern. “Le percepteur! We must flee!”
Both Captain Hughes and George withdrew their pistols, but Frederick quickly assessed the odds from the sound of numerous feet on the sand. “No! Put those away! There are too many!”
The French smuggler seemed to agree, and he took to his heels, scrambling over the rocks. The Englishmen scampered to the long boat while the captain made for the boat line tied to the outcropping. All the time, the shouting tax collectors were drawing closer.
“Arrêtez ou nous tirons!”
“Drag the boat out to the surf!” the captain cried as he worked the knot. “Smartly, lads—”
Suddenly the air was torn with the flashes and crashes of gunfire. The captain fell to the rocky sand like a limp doll. Frederick dashed to the fallen sailor. A moment’s glance showed that Captain Hughes had taken a ball to the head. Frederick had seen death before, and it was never pretty. He freed the line and ran back to the boat.
George’s eyes were wide. “What happened?”
“He is dead! Come on, George—push! Put your back into it, or they will get us, too!”
Bullets were now splashing all about the two as they desperately dragged the boat into the surf. As George scrambled over the side into the boat, he screamed, “Ahh! I have been shot!”
Sick with fear and anger, Frederick pulled himself into the long boat. “George! Can you row?”
Receiving only a moan for an answer, Frederick took both oars and pulled with all his might away from the beach of death. He faced backwards and saw numerous figures among the rocks reloading their muskets. He prayed that distance and darkness would shield them from a lucky shot. The French tax collectors starting firing again, and Frederick redoubled his efforts. Soon the long boat was out of range.
Now Frederick had a new worry. He had to make it back to the Mary-Anne by himself in the dark.
“A…a little more to the right. No…my right, Frederick.”
Frederick was overjoyed at the sound of his friend’s voice. George was neither dead nor incapacitated.
“Courage, George! Keep me straight to the ship.” Frederick pulled on the oars as hard as he could. “Just like crewing on the Isis, remember?”
“Damn this leg! It hurts, Frederick.”
“I am sure it does. Where is the ship, George?”
“You…you are doing well. Is the captain dead?”
Frederick kept rowing. “I am afraid so. Keep your eye on the ship.”
“I will. Am…am I going to die, too, Frederick?”
Frederick gritted his teeth. “No, by God, not if I have anything to say about it! Keep your head, George, and guide me!” He strained at the oars, trusting that George’s direction was true.
Suddenly, he heard a shout from shore that chilled him. The French tax collectors were launching their own boat.
I’m glad our IRS isn’t as intent on collecting taxes as these guys! But what of George and Frederick? Do they make it out alive? Will Violet ever be freed? Will Sir Percy still have the best-tied cravat in England?
Maybe, maybe not…
You’ll have to wait until THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL is released by White Soup Press on August 1!
It takes a real man to write historical romance, so let me tell you a story…
Vintage image for banner courtesy of The Graphics Fairy