The Captain and His Innocent(2)By: Lucy Ashford
‘It was late October.’ Luke’s voice was level.
‘As long ago as that...’ Jacques glanced at the men by the boat and gave Luke a look that meant, Later, my friend. When we are alone, we’ll talk properly. Then he went striding across the shingle to where Luke’s men had placed the crate of brandy, withdrew one bottle with a flourish and uncorked it with his penknife.
‘Here’s to the health of the valiant fishermen—Josh and Peter Watterson!’ He raised the bottle and drank. ‘To the health of Tom Bartlett! And most of all to your own very good health, Captain Danbury!’
Jacques passed the bottle across to Luke’s right hand—but Luke swiftly reached to take the bottle with his left, which, unlike the other, was ungloved. His eyes were expressionless.
‘Pardon.’ Jacques looked embarrassed for a moment. ‘Mon ami, I forgot.’
‘No matter.’ Luke’s voice was calm, though a shadow had passed across his face. ‘To the health of everyone here. To freedom’s true friends, in England and in France.’
‘To freedom’s true friends!’ echoed the others.
Luke drank and handed the bottle back to Jacques. ‘And may justice be some day served,’ he added, ‘on the British politicians in London, with their weaselly words and broken promises.’
‘Aye, justice, Captain.’ One by one, the little group on the shore by the cliffs passed round the brandy bottle, echoing his toast sombrely.
At last Luke turned to Tom. ‘I intend to take Jacques up to the house for the night, of course. But before we set off, I want you to check the road for me, Tom.’
‘The London road, sir?’
‘Exactly. I want you to make sure there are no spies around. No government men.’
Already Tom was on his way, hurrying along the beach to a path that climbed steeply up the cliff. The Wattersons still hovered. ‘Josh. Peter,’ Luke instructed, ‘I’d like you to take that brandy to the house and warn them there that our guest has arrived.’
‘Aye, Captain.’ They set off immediately.
And so, with the afternoon light fading, and the sea mist curling in and the cries of the gulls their only company, Luke and the Frenchman were alone. And I’m free, thought Luke, to ask him the only question that really matters. The question he’d asked of so many people, so many times, for the past year and a half.
‘Jacques, my friend.’ He was surprised that his voice sounded so calm. ‘Is there any news of my brother?’
The Frenchman looked unhappy. Uncomfortable. Luke’s heart sank.
‘Hélas, mon ami!’ Jacques said at last. ‘I have asked up and down the coast, as I sailed about my business. I have asked wherever I have friends, in every harbour from Calais in the north to Royan in the south. And—there is nothing.’ The Frenchman shrugged expressively. ‘Your brother disappeared with those other men at La Rochelle in the September of 1813. Sadly, many of them are known to have died. As for your brother—we can only hope that no news is good news, as you English say.’ His face was taut with sympathy. ‘But I do have something for you.’
Reaching into the inside pocket of his coat, he handed Luke a small packet wrapped in oilskin. Luke, cradling it in his gloved right hand, peeled it open with his left—until at last a gleam of colour flashed in his palm. Ribbons. The glitter of brass. War medals, engraved with the names of battles: Badajoz, Salamanca, Talavera. Luke felt fierce emotion wrench his guts.
He looked up at last. ‘Where did you get these?’
‘From an old French farmer’s widow. She found them lying half-buried in one of her maize fields—she has a small farm that adjoins the coast near La Rochelle. Realising they were British, she gave them to me, and asked me to get them home again. They could be your brother’s, couldn’t they?’
Luke nodded wordlessly. They could. But even if they were, he told himself, this doesn’t mean he’s dead. He might still be alive over there. A prisoner, perhaps. Needing my help...
He mentally rebuked himself, because he’d suddenly noticed the dark shadows beneath the Frenchman’s eyes and realised how weary he was despite his outward cheerfulness.
‘We’ll have time enough to talk later,’ Luke said. ‘I would be honoured, Jacques, if you would come to the house, to dine with us and stay for the night as usual.’
‘Gladly—though I must leave before dawn tomorrow. It’s not safe for my crew to keep the ship at anchor once daylight comes.’ Jacques gripped Luke’s shoulder almost fiercely. ‘You know that I’ll do anything I can to find your brother. I owe you this, mon ami, at the very least—’