The Captain and His Innocent

By: Lucy Ashford

Chapter One

 Kent, England—1815

 In the grey light of a January afternoon, two dark-clad men stood on a lonely shingle beach gazing out to sea. ‘Soon we won’t be able to see a thing out there, Captain Luke,’ muttered the older one restlessly. ‘This wretched mist that’s rolling in is as thick as the porridge they used to give us in the army.’

 ‘Be grateful for that mist, Tom.’ Luke Danbury’s eyes never shifted from the forbidding grey sweep of the sea. ‘It means the Customs men won’t spot Monsieur Jacques’s ship out there.’

 ‘I know, Captain. But—’

 ‘And I wish,’ Luke went on, ‘that you’d stop calling me Captain. It’s over a year since you and I left the British army. Remember?’

 Tom Bartlett, who had a weatherbeaten face and spiky black hair, glanced up warily at the taller, younger man and clamped his lips together for all of a minute. Then he blurted out, ‘Anyway. I still think you should have sent me as well as the Watterson brothers to bring in Monsieur Jacques. It would be just like the pair of them to lose their way out there.’

 ‘Would it?’ Luke’s face held the glimmer of a smile. ‘While you and I were soldiering in the Peninsula, Josh and Pete Watterson were in the navy for years—remember? Those two don’t lose their way at sea, whatever the weather. They’ll be here soon enough.’

 Tom looked about to say something else; but already Luke was walking away from him to the water’s very edge, a low sea breeze tugging at his long, patched overcoat and his mane of dark hair.

 ‘Well,’ Tom was muttering to himself as he watched him, ‘I hope you’re right, Captain. I hope those Watterson brothers will row the French monsieur to shore a bit faster than their wits work.’ He glanced up at the cliffs behind them, as if already picturing hostile faces spying on them, hostile guns pointed at them. ‘Because if the Customs men from Folkestone spot us, we’ll be clapped in irons fast as we can blink, you and me. And that’s a fact.’

 The other man stood with his hands thrust in his pockets, studying the mist that rolled ever thicker across the sea. As if his gaze could penetrate it. As if he could actually see the coast of France; could even perhaps picture the far-off place where last year his brother had vanished without trace.

 Bitterness filled Luke Danbury’s heart anew. He clenched and unclenched his gloved right hand, thinking... News. He had to have news, one way or another. He was tired of waiting. He needed to know—for better or worse.

 Behind him Tom Bartlett, once his loyal sergeant-at-arms, had started grumbling again softly, but broke off as Luke shot out his hand for silence.

 Because Luke’s sharp ears had registered something. And, yes—a moment later, he could see it, a rowing boat slowly emerging from the mist, with two men pulling at the four oars, while another man in a black coat and hat leaned forward eagerly from the bow. Tom was already wading into the shallows, ready to reach out a hand to the black-clad passenger and help him ashore as the boat’s keel grated on shingle. ‘There we are now, monsieur!’ Tom was calling in welcome. ‘You’ll enjoy being back on dry land again, eh?’

 ‘Dry land, yes.’ Jacques laughed. ‘And with friends.’

 Tom preened a little at that praise, then turned to the Watterson brothers, who were making the oars secure; brothers who looked so like each other, with their mops of curling brown hair, that they might have been twins. ‘Well, you rogues,’ declared Tom. ‘I always said the navy’s better off without you. You took that much time, I thought you’d lost your way and rowed to France and back.’

 The brothers grinned. ‘The army’s certainly better off without that gloomy face of yours, Tom Bartlett. Though you’ll cheer up a little when you see what’s weighing down our boat.’

 ‘A gift from Monsieur Jacques?’ Tom was nodding towards their passenger, who was already deep in conversation with Luke Danbury a few yards away.

 ‘A gift from Monsieur Jacques.’ The brothers, after dragging the boat even further up on to the beach, were reaching into it to push aside some old fishing nets and haul out a heavy wooden crate. ‘Brandy,’ they pronounced in unison. ‘Monsieur Jacques rewards his friends well. Come on, you landlubber, and give us a hand.’

 * * *

 ‘My men have dropped anchor out there for the night,’ Monsieur Jacques was saying to Luke. ‘A good thing you caught sight of us before that mist came down, my friend. A good thing that your Customs men didn’t. How long is it since I was here?’

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