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Authors: Eileen Charbonneau

The Randolph Legacy

BOOK: The Randolph Legacy
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For Abigail and Marya, Virginians along with everything else,
thanks for your sweet and gracious company over
our second Southern sojourn.
The Randolph Legacy
had a catalytic beginning when my daughter and I were entranced by the collection of miniature sailing ships at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. I hope this book honors the memory of August Crabtree (1905–1994), whose artistry in his own wonderful collection of models was my inspiration for Ethan’s efforts.
I am grateful to Betsy Tunis, whose wonderful writing helped me figure out how to begin; readers like poet Patricia Annie Rogers, whose voice I will always hear when I read this book; editors; readers; and dear friends who said, “Get your writing done, Eileen, I’ll take the kids for a few hours.” Bless you all: Natalia Aponte, Diane Michele Crawford, Charlie Rineheimer, Juilene Osborne McKnight, Dolores Oiler, Margie Rhoadhouse, Susie Shackleford, Laurie Alice Eakes, Donna Cawthron, Jim Green, Majorie Gemmill, Lisa Winters, Donna Blum, Nancy Meissner, Laurie Maxwell Tenney, Florence Kay, Jean Gold, Barbara Ward Lazarsky, Lisa and Alex deBritain, Shelia Chapelle, Robin O’Brien, Janet Bixby, Mitze Flyte, Anne Kelleher Bush, Ann Adelman, Kathleen Ernst, Patricia P. Knoll, Susan King, Kathy Caskie, Christine Whittemore, Deborah Barnhart, Cindy Haak, Meredith Bean McMath, Nicholas W. Quick, Jan Robison, Scott and Alison Meyer, Bruce Wilder, and Carolyn Krebs.
October 1805
Off Cape Trafalgar, Spain
 
The bosun’s whistle shrieked.
“All hands stand by to witness punishment!”
Grim-faced marine guards brought the prisoner to the uppermost deck, the execution yard. Though limping from the gash in his knee, he was ruddy-cheeked, and looked well fed. They said sailors on the American merchant ships ate salt pork and beef washed down with tankards of beer. Perhaps he had even enjoyed plum duff before he’d been impressed into His Majesty’s Royal Navy. If the number of lashes was reduced because of his youth, he might survive, Maupin thought.
Why did he care? He had his own problems. Chief among them was to stay alive on this stinking English man-of-war until his release could be negotiated. They had lost the battle, but Maupin had seen the great Nelson fall, downed by a sniper. He had that story for his next port’s whore, if he could only stay alive.
The shrill whistle sounded again. All but the prisoner snapped to attention. His eyes darted everywhere. A salt sea wind blew across the deck, sending his dark hair out of its neat queue and into his powder-burned face.
The soles of his bare feet were bleeding, as if they’d never been toughened by deckwork or climbing rigging. And his legs were pale below his breeches. Maupin turned the puzzle of those pale legs over in his mind. When the boy’s short blue jacket was pulled off, another puzzle joined it.
The shirt beneath it was beautiful. Even the sound of it ripping down from his shoulders was beautiful. Its generous yardage billowed in the breeze, adding a touch of grace to the grim occasion. They all noticed it—the captain of the
Standard,
its officers, squad of marines, common seamen, and Maupin’s fellow prisoners-of-war alike. They were over four hundred in number, he estimated. They all watched the dance
of the beautiful shirt with the awed reverence of the faithful at church. Even from his distance Maupin could see that the material was rare cotton muslin, lovingly washed soft by a mother, a sister.
The boy deserved better—a quick fall into the unforgiving Atlantic, a clean bayonet-point through his heart, even the full blast of the cannon whose fire had singed his face. Not this. He was so young and had only made the mistake of choosing his country, whose navy was David to the Goliath that was George the Third’s might on the sea.
The infant United States was not even the enemy that day, Maupin’s France was. Maupin had watched, struck dumb in the middle of combat by the curious spectacle of the two arguing. “I will fight for no flag not my own!” The American had shouted his defiance. The captain, furious, had shifted his aim from Maupin to the boy himself. The young seaman would have had his quick end if the cannon hadn’t exploded. Maupin owed his life to their argument.
Now the French were defeated and Captain Willis had his opportunity back.
“Master-at-arms!” the captain shouted, though the officer was standing just beside him. “You will read number fourteen of the Articles of War.”
The reedy voice carried over the deck. “‘No private in the navy shall disobey the lawful orders of his superior officer, on pain of death.’”
The captain nodded toward the prisoner. “Admit your cowardice. Bend to your sovereign, and I will show you mercy.”
“Unlawful orders,” the boy said hoarsely, grasping at the words of the proclamation in his own defense. “Not my war, not my country. I am American.”
“His Majesty’s lash will be applied until you are convinced otherwise.”
The prisoner cast his dazed eyes over the deck. “Lash?” he whispered, as if the miserable assemblage would tell him,
No, it’s all a jest, young friend.
Instead, the captain stepped forward.
“The lash. Until you beg for your English birthright.”
Willis was worse than most, Maupin could see that now. There was something beyond hardness in his ferret eyes as they passed over the prisoner’s form. Even if he lived, this boy would never be safe.
Did he see the same? “Free trade and sailors’ rights!” He proclaimed his country’s latest slogan in the voice of a child, not even a squawking adolescent. Was he yet twelve? Maupin wondered, swallowing down bile.
What does it matter?
he scolded himself.
There is nothing I can do.
But other slogans that stole foolish children’s lives linked themselves together in a strange whip-ended dance through Maupin’s brain. Join or Die. Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death in this glorious Age of Reason, liberty, equality, fraternity.
The drum started.
The quartermaster stretched the prisoner’s arms over his head and secured them to the square frame of woodwork. At the captain’s nod, the boatswain’s mate swept the cat-o’-nine-tails around his thick neck, then brought it with the whole force of his body upon its mark. The lashes tore skin. Welting it first, then streaking it red.
The boy made no sound, only lifted himself on the toes of his wounded leg in a strange, graceful dance as the lashes struck. After the first seven, his head leaned on the webbed grating. His hair no longer blew in the breeze laced with the scents of tar, sawdust, vinegar, fresh blood. Its glistening brown locks were plastered to his face.
After a dozen strokes, the whipping seaman paused, drew his thickly muscled forearm across his lip, and looked to the captain. “What are you stopping for, boatswain’s mate? Lay on,” he was told.
Later, a small cry came though the sickening stillness between strokes. Was the prisoner calling him? How could that be? He had given none his name. Again. No, not his name, Maupin realized, but
“Mama”
in that drawling American accent.
Despite what Maupin had seen in his years in service to the Revolution, then Napoleon, he desperately wanted to turn his eyes away. But the lieutenant’s crop had already brought two of his fellow prisoners back to full attention.
After stroke thirty-nine, the boy’s body twitched violently, before it collapsed. One hand slipped through the leather thong, made for a thicker wrist. All of his weight landed on his right leg, which twisted, then snapped, dangling at an impossible angle from the wounded knee. The prisoner weaved there, a broken marionette. The drumbeat stopped, as did the sweat-soaked man who held the cat. Silence. Except for the echo, inside Maupin’s head. His name, called by a child.
“Water. Bring him back,” Captain Willis said.
No one moved. Officers and seamen alike seemed afraid to approach.
Maupin felt a shove at his shoulder. The dough-faced ship’s surgeon, his uniform stained brown and smelling metallic, set a water bucket in his hands. They approached together.
The prisoner was smaller, somehow. Smaller than he looked at a distance. Maupin swept the matted hair back and found a face that was serenity itself. His eyebrows were burned off, but audaciously thick
lashes still framed closed lids. The face reminded Maupin of that of a stone angel he’d lopped off the south portal of the cathedral at Chartres in an excess of revolutionary zeal. His fingers found this angel’s throat. He turned to the captain of the HMF
Standard.
“Dead,” he said.
“That’s not possible. Surgeon, water. Revive him. His heart—”
“It’s stopped, sir,” the medical officer confirmed, his watery eyes hesitant.
“Failed!” the captain shouted.
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“It failed. The prisoner’s heart failed. That’s how your report will read. He would not bend. He broke. A failure. A failure of the heart. Do you understand?”
“Aye, Captain.”
The Englishmen’s fear shone from their faces like the glittering medals on Admiral Nelson’s coat. Maupin felt as the French sniper must have felt—the one who caught sight of those medals and brought Nelson down. It was his turn to be the sniper, to capture a moment of glory, Maupin decided. He would salvage something from the defeat off Trafalgar. And somehow, the foolish American boy became a countryman.
The executioner untied the remaining leather thong at the boy’s wrist with the gentle manner usually reserved for the living. “Let me have him,” Maupin demanded, although as a prisoner himself, he had no right to demand anything.
The executioner stepped aside and let the body fall over Maupin’s shoulders.
He took note of the boy’s proportions as he descended the steep stairs, the surgeon behind him. Four and a half feet, weighing about seven stone, perhaps one hundredweight, he judged. He would need the sense of the American when he wrapped a substitute body-form in the boy’s blankets, sewed his hammock closed over it. They would commit that, not him, to the sea. It was a trick every sailor knew.
Maupin stopped outside the sick bay on the berth deck, where the wounded marines of both sides groaned.
The surgeon’s mouth twisted before he spoke. “I must be mad as an inmate of Bedlam,” he said. “Take him down to the hold.”
 
 
F
our bells into Midwatch. It was the time of Captain Willis’s most sound sleep. Maupin wrapped the boy’s shivering form in the blue blanket
and headed for the quarterdeck. He was lighter than the substitute mass of rags and ballast they’d cast into the waves a month before.
Maupin found his way blocked by the boatswain’s mate who had rendered the lashes. He pushed Maupin against the stairwell, lifted the blanket.
“God’s blood,” he breathed. Maupin felt his mouth go dry, his mind freeze.
“I did not sign up to kill children, Frenchman,” he growled, and stepped aside.
When he climbed onto the quarterdeck, Maupin found a secluded area in the shadow of a launch. He sat and laid his burden at his side. Though he’d tried to ease their journey out of the hold by spooning rum-and-lime-juice grog into the boy’s mouth, the face was now contorted with suffering.
“Look at the stars, my young friend. Tell me if they are not worth a little trouble?”
The eyes searched the sky, settling on a point.
“Ah,
très bien
!” Maupin exclaimed. “Every man should know how to find the North Star.”
The eyes scanned again—deliberately, Maupin thought, systematically. Was he charting their position? Did he know astronomical navigation? “Who are you?” Maupin asked softly.
The boy’s dark, pained eyes clouded with confusion. He bit down hard on his lip. A guttural sound escaped as a seizure started. It wasn’t as severe as the fits of the first days. The Frenchman could even hold him without fear that he would bite an earlobe off or a finger to the bone.
“C’est bien, bien, mon petit cousin,”
he crooned, rocking, waiting for the seizure to loosen its grip. “
Bien, bien,
so that we are never any trouble to those who tolerate us. And we must never wake the giant from his slumber, yes?”
Was he a fool for saving the American, as the surgeon said? Would the child be a simpleminded cripple, if he survived his injuries? Maupin fought the notion. The eyes were not those of a simpleton. They read the stars.
The fit ended, leaving the boy exhausted. “Never mind, then, with names, and the past,” Maupin told him. “Perhaps you and I, we need to be rechristened as we expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe. We are in an alliance, no? Like the old one between our countries. I am Lafayette to your Washington,
petit général,
so
en garde
for free trade and sailors’ rights! I will serve you as faithfully, nobly forgetting your country’s abandonment during our own revolution!”
The corners of the boy’s mouth went almost imperceptibly up.
“Ah, this you like, young Washington? Be warned—I will be a hard taskmaster on your journey to manhood. But when your resourceful President Jefferson comes to your rescue, you will speak French like a native of La Rochelle, the finest seaport in all of France!”
Smiling. Yes—Maupin was sure of it.
“You will know how to choose a wine, cook oysters, fight a man, and give and take a compliment. A few card tricks, much poetry, and the names of a dozen flowers. With this knowledge you will charm the ladies. Though you must remember that the only one whose love is free is that of your
maman
… .”
A tic started beside the boy’s right eye. He’d been calling his mother, then, as he bore the lash? “
Eh bien,
now,” Maupin scolded, “the past has no more dominion over us, remember? We are newborn.”
The spasm stopped. Slowly, the boy reached trembling fingers to his own face. He looked surprised to find it.
More,
his eyes beckoned.
Maupin continued the game, giving them a future together, though his charge was more a shade of the underworld than a being of flesh and blood and possibility. The new Lafayette babbled on about finding a good tailor and being a conscientious guest, stopping razor cuts properly and taking a woman’s meaning to heart when she says no.
Suddenly, a silver spray of starlight streaked across the cold sky of the North Atlantic. “
Regardez!
Opportunity, Washington. Wish,” he urged. “Wish for what you desire more than anything.”
BOOK: The Randolph Legacy
11.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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