The English Channel
"Aye, there's some that says he's the ghost o' Captain Kidd come back from the dead to revenge hisself on those who betrayed him."
Lucy Snow peeked over the top of her book, finding the lure of such torrid gossip more irresistible than the modestly titled, self-published memoirs of Lord Howell: Nautical Genius of the Century her father had provided for her journey. The creeping shadows of twilight had made reading nearly impossible anyway.
Unaware of her scrutiny, the sailor leaned against a barrel, his ancient bones creaking in harmony with the deck of the HMS Tiberius. His audience consisted of a handful of sailors and a starry-eyed cabin boy. "None's ever seen him and lived to tell of it. Some say only a glance from his evil eye'll skewer you to the deck like a bolt o' lightning. Aye, bold and ruthless is Captain Doom."
Lucy sniffed back a derisive snort. Captain Doom indeed. This mythical pirate was beginning to sound like a character in one of the dreadful Gothic novels Lord Howell's flighty daughter Sylvie insisted on reading.
One young sailor was of like mind. Lucy wrinkled her nose as he spat a wad of tobacco on the freshly scrubbed deck of the modest frigate. "Balderdash! I heard the stories, too, but I says it's nothin' but rum talkin'. There ain't been true pirates in these waters for o'er seventy-five years." He tilted his hat to a cocky angle, underscoring the brashness of his youth. "We ain't livin' in lawless times like Captain Kidd. This bloke'd be more likely to get his timbers shivered by the Channel Fleet than not."
Knowing her father would not have approved either her eavesdropping or interrupting what was meant to be a private conversation, Lucy bit back an agreement. The war with France had lapsed into tentative truce with the Peace of Amiens, but the quieter the winds blew from Napoleon's burgeoning empire, the more nervous the Royal Navy became. This Captain Doom would have to be either foolhardy or foolish to put himself in their eager cannon sights.
"Not if he truly is a ghost," the cabin boy whispered, startling Lucy with his precise reply to her musings. "Then he'd have nothin' to lose. Nothin' at all."
Lucy shivered in spite of herself and huddled deeper into her shawl. Now, Lucinda, the Admiral admonished from perfect memory, seafaring men are a superstitious lot, but you're not a girl given to fancy. For once, his chiding voice brought comfort instead of humiliation.
A sailor in a worn peacoat drew a whalebone pipe from his pocket. As he struck a match and touched it to the capped bowl, the flame cast wavering shadows over a face leathered by sun and salt spray. "I seen him," he announced curtly, earning all of their attentions, including Lucy's. "I was on lookout in the foretop on an eve much like this one. There weren't nothin' but sea and sky for miles, then suddenly the sea opened up and out she sailed like a demon ship cast from the bowels o' hell."
Lucy suspected her own eyes were now as round as the cabin boy's.
"I couldn't speak. I couldn't move. 'Twas as if the very sight o' her froze me blood. Before I could pry me mouth open to shout a warning, the sea swallowed her without so much as a billow. I never seen nothin' like it in all me born days." He shuddered. "Never hope to again."
A pall of silence enveloped the men, broken only by the eerie creaking of the spars and the lazy flapping of the sails against the wind. Full duck had fallen as they spoke. Tendrils of mist came creeping out of the darkening sea like the tentacles of some mythical beast. Lucy saw one of the sailors glance over his shoulder and sign an unobtrusive cross on his breast. As if to banish the spell of foreboding, the men all began chattering at once.
"I heard he carves his mark on his victims just like the devil he is."
"Won't tolerate babblin', they says. The lass wouldn't stop screamin', so he up and sewed her lips together with sail twine."
"Cleaved the poor bloke in two, he did, with one mighty stroke of his cutlass."
The young sailor who had earlier dared to express scorn for the spectral captain wiggled his eyebrows in a mocking leer. "I'll wager that ain't nothin' compared to the cleavin' he does on his lady captives. One o' my mates swears this Captain Doom ravished ten virgins in one night."
"Ha!" scoffed a grizzled tar. "I done as much after seven months at sea and nary a glimpse o' stocking."
The young sailor elbowed him in the ribs. "Aye, but them weren't hardly virgins, was they?"
The men roared with laughter. Lucy reluctantly decided she'd best make her presence known before she learned more than she ever wanted to know about the romantic foibles of sailors. She extracted herself from her seat of coiled ropes and stepped into full view. The men snapped to flustered attention as if Admiral Sir Lucien Snow himself had marched onto the deck of the ship.
Lucy was not impressed. She'd been receiving such welcomes since she'd been old enough to toddle up the gangplank of a ship. Her father's reputation as one of the most revered admirals in His Majesty's Royal Navy had preceded her every step.
She favored them with a benevolent smile. "Good evening, gentlemen. I do hope I haven't interrupted your charming discourse on the merits of piracy." She nodded toward the young sailor, whose tanned skin had flushed a becoming peach. "Do go on, sir. I believe you were about to treat us to more of your speculations on Captain Doom's romantic exploits."
One of his mates cleared his throat meaningfully and the sailor snatched off his hat, crumpling it into a ball. "M-M-Miss Snow," he stammered. "Didn't know you were about. 'Twas hardly fit talk for a lady's ears."
"Then I suppose we'll have to string you up from the yardarm, won't we?"
The lad's Adam's apple bobbed with obvious distress and Lucy sighed. For some reason, no one could ever tell when she was joking. She knew that most of her acquaintances suspected she'd been born with no sense of humor at all. She was, however, blessed with a finely honed sense of the absurd.
The weathered sailor in the peacoat shoved his way forward as if fearing she might actually weave a noose of her delicate shawl. "Allow me to escort you to your cabin, Miss Snow, 'Tisn't safe for a young lady of quality to be roamin' 'bout the deck after dark."
He gallantly offered her his arm, but the patronizing note in his voice struck the wrong chord with Lucy.
"No, thank you," she said coolly. "I believe I shall take my chances with Captain Doom."
Tilting her nose to a regal angle, she sailed past them, ignoring the discordant murmur that rose behind her. Some perverse seed of rebellion drove her away from the narrow companionway leading to her cabin and toward the deserted stern.
She studied Lord Howell's memoirs for a moment, then tossed them over the aft rail into the churning froth of the ship's wake. The leather-bound book sank without a trace.
"Sorry, Sylvie," she whispered to her absent friend. Since Lord Howell was an old friend of her father's, she suspected the Admiral had only recommended the book because of its flattering, if somewhat exaggerated, accounts of his own cunning exploits during the Americans' ill-mannered rebellion against England.
She wondered how her father was faring on his overland voyage. Since his untimely leg wound had forced him to retire from His Majesty's service six years ago, the Admiral had never missed a chance for a sea voyage, even one as tame as the journey form their summer home in Cornwall to their modest mansion in Chelsea on the bank of the Thames.
She drew her shawl close around her. True to its fickle nature, London society had spurned all things French except for their fashions. The brisk wind blowing off the North Atlantic Sea whipped up Lucy's skirt and bit through her thin petticoat. But she could bear that discomfort better than being trapped in the stifling confines of her cabin, her fate decided by the whims of others. If she stayed on deck long enough, perhaps the Captain's half-deaf mother would retire for the evening and Lucy would be spared bellowing at her over the galley dining table.
Lucy usually found a ship by night soothing to her senses, but the peace she sought drifted just out of her reach, her solitude tainted by restlessness. Even the low-pitched music of male voices working in perfect accord seemed muted and distant.
She frowned, licking away the sea salt that flecked her lips. In the rising mist, sound should carry with the clarity of a ringing bell, but the night was draped in silence as if the sea were holding its breath with her. She strained her eyes, seeing nothing but fog swirling up from the inky darkness and the rising moon flirting with tattered patches of clouds.
Chill ribbons of mist coaxed their way through the gauzy muslin of her gown, dampening her bare skin with their greedy touch. The sailors' tales of Captain Doom haunted her. On such a night it took little imagination to envision a phantom ship stalking the seas in search of prey. Lucy could almost hear the chant of its betrayed sailors vowing vengeance, the hollow bong of a bell that would seal their doom.
She shook off a delicious shiver. She could only imagine what the Admiral would say if he caught her indulging in such whimsy.
She was turning away from the rail to seek the more mundane comforts of her cabin when the veil of darkness parted and the ghost ship glided into view.
Lucy's heart slammed into her rib cage, then seemed to stop beating altogether. She clutched the rail, her shawl falling unheeded to the deck.
A glimmer of moonlight stole through the clouds as the sleek black bow of the phantom schooner crested the waves, its towering spars enshrouded by mist, its rigging glistening like the web of a deadly spider. Ebony sails billowed in the wind, whispering instead of flapping. The vessel sailed in eerie silence with no lanterns, no sign of life, no hint of mercy.
Lucy stood transfixed, mesmerized by a primitive thrill of fear. Although the wind whipped her hair across her face and fed the hungry sails of the phantom ship, she seemed to be standing in a vortex of airlessness. She couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't scream.
It was then that she saw the ship's Jolly Roger rippling from the highest spar–a man's hand, ivory against a sable background, squeezing scarlet drops of blood from a captive heart. Her fist flew to her breast as she battled the absurd notion that it was her heart, no longer beating of its own will, but thundering in accord with the dark command of the ghost ship's master. If she was the only one to see the ship, then surely its grim message was meant for her.
The phantom ship came about with lethal grace. Remembering the sailor's story, Lucy pressed her eyes shut, knowing the ship would be gone when she opened them. A poignant sense of loss tightened her throat. There was no place in neatly ordered life for such dark fantasy, yet the ship's unearthly beauty had touched some secret corner of her soul.
Cannonfire blazed against the night sky. Lucy's eyes flew open in shock as the ghost ship fired very earthly warning shot over their bow in the universal demand for surrender.
From the Paperback edition.