Ahoy, maties—Jack Caldwell is back. The theme for this month’s blogs at Jane Austen Variations is Fantastical Austen. The only problem is I haven’t written anything that truly fits the bill. Unless y’all have read We Have Mrs. Radcliffe to Thank, Story #9 in my VARIATIONS short story collection (available here.)
So I decided to give you another bit from my unpublished sequel to PERSUASION, PERSUADED TO SAIL, part of my Jane Austen’s Fighting Men Series. It takes place during the Hundred Days Crisis, and is a companion novel to THE THREE COLONELS and THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (both on sale now!). And it’s got pirates in it! Enjoy!
May, 1815 – the Atlantic Ocean
One morning Anne Wentworth came up on deck just after seven bells in the Morning Watch. Laconia was sailing northeast in a pea soup fog, the breeze off the larboard beam. Anne looked over at Frederick on the quarterdeck, but said nothing. He was straining to see through the mist. Finally he noticed her and touched his hat according to their private signal: I am at my leisure. Anne then approached him.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wentworth—you are rather before your time.”
“Yes, Captain.” She had learned to refer to his thusly when on deck, as to not diminish him before the crew. “It is very thick today.”
“Yes, but it shouldn’t last much longer.” Frederick pointed at the sails. “See, the wind freshens as we speak.”
“Was that thunder I heard earlier, sir?”
His dear face grew grim. “No—not thunder.” He looked out before the ship again.
As Anne turned to look forward, the fog vanished as if God had wiped His Hand across the sky. Every eye on the ship saw the same sight just as the lookout cried out. A little over a league away, dead starboard, two ships were drifting very close together.
Frederick and Mr. William Price, the first lieutenant, clasped their telescopes to their eyes at the same instant. “What see you, William?”
“Two ships. One a merchantman…yes—British, I should say. The other— Sir! She’s boarding her!”
Price’s exclamation confirmed Frederick’s observation: a British merchantman was under attack. “Come about, Mr. Stokes!”
As the ship turned before the wind, Frederick was scrutinizing his antagonist. French colors—ship-rigged sloop—no more than twenty guns. Privateer? Her rigging’s hanging—the merchantman gave a good account of herself. They haven’t seen us yet.
“Seven knots, Sir!”
“Very good Mr. Dawsey.” Frederick never took his eyes off the enemy. “Mr. Price, I think we shall beat to quarters and then serve the men breakfast.”
Anne beheld for her first time a warship truly preparing for battle. The motions were the same as for gunnery practice, but there was a different air. She saw a gleam in not a few eyes as men set themselves upon their usual tasks. Within minutes the crews stood by their guns as Laconia bore down upon her prey. Messmates were then dismissed by their officers to collect breakfast for their comrades.
As the men began eating by their guns she noticed Frederick coming up from below decks, belting on his sword, Nowak following with a tray of food and coffee. She had not noticed that he had left.
“All men at action stations and accounted for, Sir. It doesn’t seem the Frenchman has noticed us yet.”
“That will change. Take the deck, Mr. Price.” Frederick turned to Anne, his voice much more gentle. “Mrs. Wentworth, shall we?” The two sat at Anne’s bench in the stern, eating their breakfast. About halfway through their meal there was a change in the activity aboard the French ship.
“They’ve seen us for sure, Sir,” said Price.
“I agree. Send for Mr. Mumphrey.”
Moments later: “Yes, Sir?”
“Lt. Mumphrey, assemble a small boarding crew—no more than six men. We shall continue after the enemy. You shall go aboard the merchantman, take command of her and bring her into St. George.”
“See the sailing master—you’ll need an updated chart with our position. Take everything you will need to get home—trust that nothing will be aboard that ship. Take Mr. Dawsey with you.” Frederick shook the officer’s hand. “Good luck with your first command, sir.”
“Yes sir—thank you, Sir!” Mumphrey gave a huge grin to Price and scampered below decks.
“There she goes, Sir,” reported Price. The privateer cast off from her victim and started away downwind.
“Raise the colors, Mr. Price!” Frederick left Anne’s side and took his usual position on the quarterdeck. He watched the Frenchman intently. Sharp enough setting sail—oh, ho! Courses are shot up! That’s will slow you down, my friend! “Mr. Price—set courses!”
Moments later the great main sails were dropped. “Eight knots, sir!” cried a midshipman. The privateer set all the sails she had, but Frederick only shook his head. That ship, the rigging in that condition, in this wind—she’ll never do better than six knots, no matter what.
Mr. Mumphrey and his crew loaded weapons and other supplies into one of the boats. Minutes later it was swung over the side, ready to be lowered. The boat’s crew scampered aboard it, waiting. Wentworth then went forward to bid his lieutenant goodbye. “Take care of yourself, Mumphrey. Good luck.”
“Congratulations, Alex. See you in St. George!” cried Price.
Mumphrey, smiling, waved as he joined his men in the boat. It was lowered to just a few feet from the water. “Look sharp, there!” ordered Price. Long minutes passed until they drew very close to the merchantman. With a final wave at his friend, Price ordered the boat lowered into the moving water. Everyone aboard held their breath, watching the last moments of this dangerous maneuver. One mistake and the boat would capsize or be run over by the frigate.
Months of training by the Laconians paid off. As the boat settled in the moving sea, the boat crew expertly unfastened themselves and the bo’sun’s mate at the rudder steered them away from the massive hull. Meanwhile, Mr. Stokes turned Laconia a point the other way. As soon as the boat was clear of the wake, the crew unshipped the oars and began pulling smartly toward the merchantman, whose sides were now crowded with crewmen waving handkerchiefs and cheering lustily; cheers echoed from Laconia.
A clearly relived Frederick returned to his wife’s side. “Sir, should I remove myself to my ‘station’?” Anne asked.
“There is no hurry for that, madam. We shall not be fighting for an hour, at least.”
“You sound very certain, Captain.”
“Oh, yes. Nothing can stop it. We are both sailing before the wind. We are making eight knots while that fellow over there cannot do better than six. As long as we don’t lose a spar,” he touched wood, “it is only a matter of time.”
He lowered his voice. “That is up to him, Anne.”
“May I stay up here with you for a while, sir?”
A small smile graced his weather-beaten face. “I should like it of all things.”
Anne joined Frederick on the quarterdeck, standing almost close enough to touch him for the next three quarters of an hour. As Frederick predicted, Laconia grew ever closer to her quarry with each passing minute. Anne was struck by the quiet inevitability of the coming conflict: the men standing by their guns, balls and powder nearby, a slow-match burning in a tub. The Marines were assembled at the waist, splendid in their red coats. Every available eye was on the pursued. The sun broke through the partly cloudy skies for an instant, flashing sparkles in the waves.
“Frederick, what are they doing now?” In the tension of the moment Anne forgot herself.
“Ah…they’re putting their water over the side, hoping that by lightening the ship they may escape. It won’t work. There goes some of the stores—booty from other ships, I shouldn’t wonder. The lads will be unhappy about that.”
“Well, it decreases the value of the prize, don’t you see.”
“Are the men so sure of victory?”
“In battle anything can happen. But yes, they are confident.” His voice became hard. “Mr. Price! I want the starboard guns ready for a broadside, and the larboards loaded with shot.”
Price nodded. Wentworth’s planning to rake her.
There was a blaze in Frederick’s eye Anne had never before beheld. “Let’s see how ready they are for a fight. Mr. Stokes! Do you think you can get their attention with the bow-chasers?”
Stokes looked at the distance with a practiced eye. “Give me five minutes, Sir, and I can put one through his courses.”
“See to it, Mr. Stokes.” Another sailor took the wheel as Stokes went forward. Once again, Frederick became Anne’s loving husband. “My dear, I believe it is time for you to go below.”
Anne successfully fought the temptation to embrace him—her look alone was enough to tell Frederick of her feelings. As she approached the companionway, she gave in to a sudden impulse. “Laconians! Fight well, my boys, and give those Frenchies what for!”
The ship exploded with cheers from the crew. “HURRAH FOR THE QUEEN OF THE BARKY!” Anne turned to Frederick and saw an intense look of love and pride. With a small smile she continued to down the orlop, cheers following in her wake.
Her Champions at Gun 26, the renamed “Lady Anne”, were busting with pride. “Ah!” cried Radle. “She does us proud, she does! Why, Miz Wentworth’s a regular Boadicea!”
“Who?” asked Eades.
On the quarterdeck Frederick was now able to fully concentrate upon the task at hand. Slowly the two ships grew closer. On the forecastle, Stokes was aiming the starboard bow-chaser. Looking down the barrel, lanyard in hand, he waited for the roll of the ship. As Laconia reached the top of the crest, he pulled the lanyard, triggering the flintlock on the touchhole. With a crash the 12-pounder rolled underneath his curling body in recoil as the cannonball sped towards its target. Stokes waved his hand through the smoke to see a hole appear in the privateer’s topsail.
“A bit high, Mr. Stokes!” called out Frederick in good humor.
Stokes bowed to his commanding officer, moved over to the larboard gun and placed this shot through the mainsail not a foot from the mainmast. Cheers went up from the forecastle.
The celebration was short-lived; the Frenchman opened up with her stern-chasers. The four-pounders could not reach her target on the fly, but a ricocheting ball off the waves could still do damage or kill. Stokes began fighting the bow-chasers in earnest, but got no closer to the enemy’s masts. The sails, though, suffered terribly, slowing their adversary.
Frederick could only admire the Frenchman’s courage. He’s outgunned and out-manned, losing speed every second, yet he proposes to fight. Well, let us see if it is honor or insanity that drives him. “Mr. Price! I believe we are in range to give him a fair salute! Prepare to come about!”
At about eight hundred yards, Mr. Price gave the order to the helmsman, and Laconia began a turn to the left, bringing her starboard guns to bear. As soon as the target appeared to the gun captains, the crews fired their cannons in a ragged broadside, raking the privateer’s stern. Most of the shots stuck home, tearing great holes in the enemy’s hull. As soon as the last gun fired, the helmsman brought the ship back to the left. The entire maneuver took less than a minute and Laconia lost only a hundred yards.
Frederick looked closely at his opponent. There was no sign of anyone moving towards the French colors. Does he mean to carry this on? Very well.
Frederick waited until they were five hundred yards apart when he gave the order to yaw to the right. This time the larboard guns sounded, and they fired not cannonballs but canister—packages of balls about an inch in diameter. The effects were immediate—rigging and sails were torn to pieces, stays flew apart, and a spar from the mizzenmast was lost. It was too far to tell how many of the enemy crew was hit. Still privateer sailed on.
Suddenly she turned to the left and delivered a broadside of its own. A mistake—Frederick, sensing such a move, brought his ship back about so smartly that he took the fire on his starboard quarter. Two men were down at a 12-pounder on the forecastle. Now at musket range, Laconia returned a broadside that tore two gunports in the Frenchman into one. The privateer fell away, back before the wind, which gave Frederick the chance to rake her once again. The larboard guns did so with gusto.
The Frenchman was limping badly, its mizzen and main masts threatening to go over the side. Surrender, you fool! raged Frederick, when a musket ball slammed into the mizzen mast not two feet from his head. Before he could react, there was a gunshot close by, and he saw a French sharpshooter fall from the enemy’s foremast top.
“That’s for him!” cried Lt. Greengard, his rifle smoking. “Are you all right, Sir?” he asked as he handed the gun to a Marine aide in exchange for a loaded one.
“I’m fine! Prepare to board! Mr. Price, take your division and attack from the bow! I’ll take the afterguard and Marines and come from the stern!” Wentworth’s sword sang as it was pulled from its scabbard. “Helmsman! Bring me along on our larboard side!”
Just as the larboard guns were run out for a broadside, switching from canister back to ball, there was a movement at the stern. “Captain!” yelled Stokes. “Look! She strikes! She strikes!”
Frederick looked up to see the French flag come fluttering down.
“Sir!” cried Price. “Allow me to give you joy for the victory!”
A relieved Frederick smiled. “Thankee, William, thankee.”
PERSUADED TO SAIL will be awhile before it comes out. Meanwhile, please enjoy the other two books in the series, THE THREE COLONELS and THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.
Until next time, this has been the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles.
It takes a real man to write historical romance, so let me tell you a story…
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