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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The French Prize

A Novel

James L. Nelson

Thomas Dunne Books

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1



Before Jack Biddlecomb came fully awake, before he had even opened his eyes or moved at all, he knew two things. One was that he had taken a severe beating. The other was that he had reason to be enormously pleased. He could not recall in either case exactly why that was.

As to the beating, he recognized the signs right off. His body felt stiff and cramped, and he knew, even without experimentation, that certain movements would cause considerable pain. He could feel areas of bruised flesh in the usual places: gut, jaw, the side of his head. He could taste a faint trace of coppery blood in his mouth.

Tavern brawl ... he thought, to the extent that he was able to formulate any coherent thought. His condition had the earmarks of a shoreside rough-and-tumble, one that he had lost, apparently, and lost decisively. If that was not the case, if he had won, he hated to think of the condition in which his opponent must find himself that morning.

He tried to recall, but was not yet awake enough, or, indeed, sober enough, to bring up the details of the night's adventures. He wondered if the sheriff would be coming for him. He wondered if he was, at that moment, in a jail cell. That possibility made him even less eager to open his eyes.

Jack was only nineteen, but he had spent years enough in the rugged world of a merchant ship's forecastle to know well the results of a beating in a tavern. He had given and taken beatings in New York, Philadelphia, and Savannah, in Nassau and Kingston and Barbados, and once even in London. It was a self-imposed exile from the civilized world ashore in which he had spent his younger years, an exile from the officer's quarters aft that many considered his birthright. It left him with skills, knowledge, and sundry scars that were foreign to the coach-and-four set from which he had sprung.

And then he recalled the source of his pleasure, and with that he realized where he was, or at least where he should be. He gave an experimental kick with his right leg. The action caused considerable pain in his knee, but his shoe (he was still dressed to his shoes, he realized) connected with a wooden leeboard, which told him he was in the berth of the master's cabin of the 220-ton, full-rigged merchant vessel Abigail, which was his command. His first command. At nineteen years of age.

He tried to open his eyes, but that effort met with less success than the exploration with his foot. He left eye was sealed shut. Why, he did not know. Dried blood or excessive swelling was usually the culprit, but he had seen others. Happily, his right eye opened and seemed to function tolerably well. Just as fortunate, lying on his left side as he was, that eye was at a higher elevation and thus allowed him to see over the leeboard.

He guessed it to be late morning, judging by the light coming in though the stern windows, but what really caught his attention were the stockings. Reddish brown, homespun, pulled over a set of beefy calves. The cuffs of brown breeches were buckled around the upper edge of those stockings. Jack did not recognize either stocking or cuffs, or the man who occupied the clothing, though he was seated in a chair not far beyond where Jack lay. He could, he understood, turn his head a bit and see who it was, but the effort seemed too much to contemplate.

Jack Biddlecomb had difficulty controlling his impulses. It was not as if he did not understand the relationship between cause and effect, as if he could not anticipate that action A, becoming drunk and loud in a shorefront tavern, say, might lead to reaction B, a sound thrashing, and that A + B might well equal C, which was waking in his present state.

He had known men enough, foremast jacks in the main, who could not seem to grasp this. Men who could, at a glance, comprehend the enormously complex interaction of wind and sail, the tension applied to rigging, the stress on spars, how minor alterations in any one of those might affect the whole, and yet could not seem to grasp that telling some drunken packet rat he met in a tavern that his mother was a sodding whore might lead to a certain and predictable response from the packet rat and his shipmates.

Jack was not like that. He understood those things. He was educated. But he just could not seem to control himself.

He closed his eye against the light and the unfathomable mystery of who was seated by his berth. He had confirmed that he was indeed in the Abigail's master's cabin, and that was enough for now. But then the voice came, just as he was happily slipping back down into sleep, and pulled him grudgingly to the surface again.

"Ah, Captain Biddlecomb," the voice said. "You are awake."

The title "Captain" was delivered without the least hint of irony, which was a good thing, as it would have gone badly for the gentleman in the homespun socks if he had said it otherwise. Or at least it would have gone badly if Jack had been able to move with any kind of force or speed. Which he could not.

He opened his eye again and this time managed to swivel his head enough that he could see the rest of the man with the stockings. Square-jawed, rather ugly, arms that stretched the fabric of his well-worn coat. Sailor, Jack thought. Or was ... boatswain or carpenter, perhaps ...

With more than a little effort, Jack tenderly sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the berth. His ribs and his knee were the worst of it. He reached up and touched the eye that would not open and was relieved to find that it was just dried blood, not some horrible swelling, that had sealed it shut. He rubbed the lashes, felt the dried blood flake away, and blinked the eye open.

The man in the stockings made no move to help. That was just as well, too. It would not have been well received.

"Did I win?" Jack asked at length.

"Pardon?"

"The fight. Tavern fight, correct? Wait, don't tell me ... I recall it now. The Blue Goose, am I right?"

"You are right, Captain."

"Did I win?"

"Not you. 'We.' By 'we' I mean you and your companions. Not me. And yes, unlikely as it might seem, you won. Or were winning. Afore I dragged you out of there. Three steps ahead of the sheriff."

"Bolingbroke? Was Bolingbroke there?" Over the years, when fate had tossed Jack and Jonah Bolingbroke together in the same forecastle, or the same tavern, a brawl was often enough the end result.

"Bolingbroke?" the man said. "Don't know. Don't believe I know the gentleman."

"'Gentleman'? No, I reckon you don't know him."

Jack Biddlecomb took a moment to look around the cabin. The deckhead and the ceiling planking were fresh painted and brilliant white in the morning sun. The light reflecting off the water of the Delaware River below the counter made bright, dancing patterns on the overhead. He could see ships through the aft windows, ships at anchor, ships tied to the quays. He could see the river's far shore. It was mid-April and the snow was gone but the grass and leaves had not yet appeared, giving the place an unkempt look despite the sunshine.

The brilliant light seemed to accentuate the emptiness of the cabin. Jack had been master for all of two days, and in that time the vessel had remained tied to the wooden dock jutting out from the Philadelphia waterfront. Before coming alongside the dock they had been anchored in the river, swinging back and forth at the whim of the current. The day before that, they had worked their way up the river at the head of the flood tide, two weeks out of Saint Lucia with a holdful of molasses.

When at last the worm-riddled snow that had occupied their present berth finished off-loading its cargo and warped into the stream, they had hauled anchor and hove the Abigail from warping post to warping post until she was safe alongside. Captain Peter Asquith, now the ship's former master, had stood silent and slightly bored on the quarterdeck as Jack Biddlecomb, former first mate, directed the evolution with a firm and competent hand.

They had not been alongside two hours before William Dailey came aboard. Dailey, whom Biddlecomb had always reckoned looked more like a weasel than any man he had ever seen, was agent to Robert Oxnard, merchant of Philadelphia and owner of the Abigail, among other vessels. Many other vessels. Dailey and Asquith had disappeared into the cool of the master's cabin while Jack, sweltering in the abnormally warm spring day, continued to oversee the swaying up of cargo.

Jack, it was true, was not exerting himself like the sailors and longshoremen knocking the wedges free from the battens, heaving the grating off the hatches, attaching the barrel slings in the dust-choked hold, or swaying away at the stay tackle and heaving the barrels up into the sun. But neither was he stripped to the waist, barefooted, bareheaded, or with a rag bound around his sweating brow as they were. He wore breeches and stockings and shoes. Hat on his head, coat on his back. He had spent time enough as one of them, one of the foremast hands, and he did not miss it, generally. Now he was a mate, the mate, and he knew his place.

Twenty minutes later, Asquith appeared on the quarterdeck. He took a moment to run a critical eye over the men's efforts, the smooth transition of molasses barrels up from the hold at the end of the stay tackle, a momentary pause as they hung over the gaping hatch, then out and over the dock as the tackles at the yardarms were swayed away. Neat, seamanlike, utterly routine. He seemed satisfied. He made no comment.

"Mr. Biddlecomb, would you come below, please?" Asquith said at last. Biddlecomb turned the supervision of the work over to the second mate and followed Asquith below and into the master's day cabin. It was a generous space, as far as small merchant ships' cabins went, and nicely fitted out. A raised doghouse on the deck above gave more than adequate headroom, and a skylight on top of that provided an abundance of light. A scuttle in the doghouse allowed for a private ladder to the quarterdeck.

There were curtains, lovingly sewn by Mrs. Asquith, hanging along the stern windows. Most of the deck space was taken up by a richly varnished mahogany table that Jack had helped wrestle aboard in Nassau. On the larboard side was an oak sideboard crafted by one of the better Philadelphia furniture makers and discreetly lashed to ringbolts in the ceiling planking. Sitting on its polished surface was a crystal decanter and glasses, once again in place now that Abigail, tied to the wharf, was a reliably stable platform.

Asquith gestured toward a chair and Biddlecomb sat and was grateful to do so. He reckoned this meant he was not in any trouble, and in truth he genuinely could not imagine why he would be. That in itself was unusual. Generally there was something.

But no, he had not had the chance to go ashore yet, and that was where the trouble usually started. They had been at sea for weeks, and it was rare that any fault could be found with his behavior at sea, unless it was his penchant for driving the ship harder than most masters wished it to be driven.

"Jack, you recall that Mr. Oxnard has a new ship? We saw her tied up at Southwark as we came up river."

"Yes, with the lowers just in and the pretty sheer. Three hundred and fifty ton, I would reckon."

"Three hundred and seventy-five, actually," Asquith said. "And Mr. Dailey here informs me I am to have command of her."

Jack smiled a smile of genuine delight. Asquith could be fussy and oldwomanish on occasion, but Jack genuinely liked and respected the man, and in the year and a half he had served as Asquith's chief mate he felt that he had learned a considerable amount.

"Congratulations, sir!" Jack said and extended a hand, which Asquith took. "It could go to no more deserving a man!"

"Well thank you, Jack," Asquith said, with a sincere gratitude and a touch of embarrassment. "But there's more news. You, my boy, are to have command of this ship."

Jack did not smile at that, did not respond at all. He was as stunned as if he had been hit with a handspike upside his head. He had always hoped for a command, indeed had expected it if he managed to live even a few more years, which was sometimes in doubt, but he did not expect such a thing yet. Not at nineteen. And suddenly the swaggering confidence for which he was so often and so justly criticized utterly deserted him.

"Oh, sir..." was all he managed.

"I wish I could take all the credit for this step, and to be sure I've put in a good word when I could, but Mr. Dailey here tells me that Mr. Oxnard has had his eye on you for some time. I should think that business west of Montserrat sealed the deal for Oxnard."

That business west of Montserrat ... That allusion should have pleased Jack, but in fact it only annoyed him.

"Oxnard doesn't want to risk losing you to some other merchant, you see," Asquith was saying.

Jack nodded as if he did see, which he did not.

"Now look here, Jack," Asquith went on in his avuncular way, "you can be a hothead and you can be impetuous, we know that. You'll have to grow up a bit. You're not before the mast anymore, and you're not a mate. You are in command now, and that will require you to act as a master should act."

"Yes, sir," Jack said.

Dailey spoke next, for the first time since Jack had stepped into the master's cabin. "You know your way around the docks and the counting houses, we have no concerns there. Captain Asquith has attested to your thoroughness with the manifests, bills of lading, that sort of thing."

"Yes, sir," Jack said.

He had, in fairness, always been meticulous about paperwork, keeping records in order, accounting for every penny. He hated it more than a fogbound lee shore or an Italian opera, but he understood that care in that department would play a bigger role in his eventual rise to command than seamanship or navigation ever would. Because the men who owned the ships cared more about the paperwork and the pennies than they did about anything else.

"I've never said this before, Jack," Asquith was speaking again, "but you have a way about you when it comes to ships and the sea. I was just telling Mr. Dailey how you talked me into making more northing from Saint Lucia and how we found that westerly flow. It's like you can smell wind, and can find a knot of speed in a ship that no one else would have guessed was there."

"Thank you, sir." It had been a guess, taking that northerly route, based on the rise of the glass and the set of the clouds on the horizon, but he had guessed right. It had shaved days off their passage and given him a nice patina of brilliance.

"You just grow up a little, take your responsibilities seriously," Asquith said with a conclusive tone. Jack braced for what he knew would come next. He literally clenched his fists and clamped his jaw shut, as if expecting a punch in the gut. Asquith continued. "Then one day you will be as fine a mariner and an officer as your father."

Jack grinned a weak grin and nodded his head. He resolved that he would indeed take his responsibilities seriously. Not so he could live up to his father's reputation. That did not seem possible or even desirable. Captain Isaac Biddlecomb, wealthy merchant captain, leading light of that much-lauded generation that had won the War for American Independence a decade and a half before. Captain Biddlecomb, who had known President John Adams when he was Continental Congressman John Adams, and George Washington back when there was still a real possibility the man might be hanged by the British for treason. Captain Biddlecomb, who the year before, in the election of 1796, had garnered the new title of Representative Biddlecomb, congressman from the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

No, he would not be living up to his father's reputation anytime soon.

He had resolved, rather, to become a sober and responsible adult because he was no longer a boy and no longer a foremast hand, he was now the master of a vessel, a full-rigged blue-water merchantman of 220 tons burthen. That resolution had lasted just as long as it took for word of his new command to spread along the waterfront, for his numerous friends among the Philadelphia carrying trade to descend on the Abigail and insist that they celebrate his new status with a flowing bowl.

Which led him to where he was that morning, sitting on the edge of the master's berth in the Abigail's great cabin, head pounding, body aching, regarding a big man in reddish-brown stockings whom he did not know.

The big man looked around the cabin, as if trying to see what Jack was seeing. "Not much in the way of furniture, is there?" he observed.

"Captain Asquith took his belongings. I have not had a moment to outfit it," Jack explained, and then, the absurdity of the situation dawning on him, said, "By the way, who in all hell are you?"

"A friend. Friend of a friend, really. He asked me to keep a weather eye on you."

'Weather eye,' Biddlecomb thought. Sailor. But he did not need the jargon to tell him that. This fellow had the inimitable look that marked the true deepwater man.

"My father?" Jack said. "My father sent you?" Even as he said it he knew it was a bad guess. His father was not the sort to think of sending a man to drag Jack out of a tavern brawl.

The man in the stockings shook his head.

"Uncle Ezra," Jack said with certainty, and at that the man nodded. Ezra Rumstick, his father's closest friend, former chief mate, former first officer, former captain of several of the ships in the Stanton and Biddlecomb fleet. Not really Jack's uncle in a family sense, but in terms of their relationship, every bit the part. Rumstick was, strictly speaking, Jack's godfather, but Rumstick's religious leanings were like that of most mariners, that is, he did not lean too far toward the religious side of things, at least not until the wind reached a steady fifty knots or better with sens cresting at twenty feet, and the godfather designation was generally used only when one or the other of them found it convenient.

Rumstick had come up the hard way, a berth in a forecastle and two fists to defend his place, and he was most certainly the sort to make sure Jack would be pulled out of any trouble.

The man in the reddish-brown stockings leaned back in his chair, causing it to creak in an alarming way. "I weren't there when the fight begun, so I don't know what started it," he said. "You and your mates made a goodly show, I can tell you, and you was outnumbered."

"A tread on me coat and all hands in?" Jack said.

"Very like," the man said. "And Captain Rumstick, he says to remind you you was to dine with your parents today and he would take it as a personal favor if you was to not look like an absolute pile of shit when you arrived."

Jack nodded. "Very well, I'll take that under advisement."

"Good," the man said and stood. "You're alive and not in jail and you've been reminded, so I reckon I've done my duty. Good day, Captain." He gave a tip of his hat and was gone, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts, his pounding head, and his empty cabin.



Copyright © 2015 by James L. Nelson