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The billowing sails cracked overhead. Miranda breathed in the tang of the salt air. The wind ruffled the edges of her bonnet and tugged playfully at her long skirts. She looked out over the sea in great contentment. It was the first time that she had ever sailed the ocean, but it held no fears for her. She had discovered in herself a love of the endless expanse of moving, rolling water, the crash of the waves against the bow of the ship, the sting and taste of the spray on her face. Since the day the Larabelle left the safety of Portsmouth, Miranda had experienced a sense of freedom she had never felt before. In setting foot on the Larabelle's deck, she had left her cares behind her.
A shadow fell across her and she turned her head to find her brother, Jeremy Wainwright, standing beside her at the rail. "I should have you get your parasol, you know," he remarked with a grin.
"Pooh! What do I care if I become as brown as you are? I shan't have Mrs. Calvin and her ilk whispering behind my back in England," said Miranda with a toss of her head.
Jeremy's smile faded. "I'm sorry you are still bothered by that, Miranda. I had hoped being on the sea would allow you to forget."
Miranda tucked her gloved hand into his arm. "And so it has, brother. I mentioned the old cats only because I was just thinking how free I am at this moment. The ocean is so vast and beautiful that one is quickly aware how small one's problems really are."
Jeremy looked out to sea. There was a sense of wonder and love in his expression. "Aye, you are right there. I would not trade my life at sea for any other."
"How fortunate, then, that you have become a shipowner. Our unclecould have been a prominent farmer instead of a sailing captain and had no understanding of your inclinations," said Miranda teasingly.
Jeremy grimaced at the thought. "I am indeed fortunate. When Uncle Ebenezer offered to back me in the Larabelle, I knew that at last my dreams were to come true." He looked down at his sister. "I hope that you will also find your place someday, Miranda. I do not need to tell you that I have been concerned on your account."
Miranda laughed. Her blue eyes were warm with affection for him. "You need not be, Jeremy. I shall come about, never fear. Indeed, I think that the moment I broke my engagement I started on the mend. When I look back on it, it was the mistake of my life ever to agree to marry Harrison Gregory. We would never have suited and how I could have thought otherwise, I do not know. He wished me to become someone I could not be. As for the resulting scandal, why, I never garnered so much attention in my life!"
"It is not the sort of attention that I could wish for my beloved sister," said Jeremy a shade grimly.
Miranda squeezed his arm. "It is done with, Jeremy. And by the time I do return to the States there will have occurred something far more interesting than my transgressions for the ladies to talk about. So do, pray, put it all out of your mind. I assure you that I have!"
"You have always had the trick of turning to the sunshine, Miranda," said Jeremy. His sister laughed and directed his attention to a school of fish leaping beside the ship. The subject of Miranda's recent unpleasant experience as the center of malicious gossip was dropped and by silent agreement not referred to again.
A day outside England the American merchant ship Larabelle was hailed by a cutter flying the British colors. With little ceremony the British ship signaled intention to board the Larabelle. Mindful of the cutter's guns, the Americans acquiesced. As an oarsboat ploughed the waves toward the Larabelle, the passengers on deck shifted uneasily, murmuring. Since the Congressional renewal of the Non-Intercourse Act against England, the British had become more vigorous in harassing American vessels.
Miranda Wainwright watched apprehensively as the oarsboat tied onto the Larabelle. Jeremy, what do they want?" she asked.
Jeremy Wainwright's expression was grim. "Nothing good; you may count on that, dear sister."
The Americans watched silently as the British came aboard. Six British marines formed a guard for two officers. As the British seamen marched smartly up to the small knot of passengers, Miranda slipped her hand into her brother's arm. His fingers covered hers with a reassuring squeeze.
The slighter of the British officers stopped with a hand resting casually on his hip. The marines flanked him with guns to the ready. The officer looked over the Larabelle's passengers with an unpleasant smile. "Good afternoon. A beautiful day, is it not?"
"Damned puppy!" Miranda dared not turn her head to locate that low growl. The passengers about her stirred, relaxing slightly. Someone coughed, hiding laughter.
The officer's lips tightened when he heard the soft chuckles. His chilly eyes searched for the source of the voice.
"What can we do for you?" asked Jeremy, his voice hard. Miranda knew that tone of her brother's and she glanced up at his deeply tanned face. It seemed carved from the hardest oak, giving nothing away.
The officer's mouth relaxed into a patent sneer. He locked his hands behind him and rocked on his heels. "I regret to say this vessel is found to be in violation of the Orders in Council, which forbid trade with France. The vessel is therefore placed under seizure and is to sail to a British port for impoundment," he said.
Stunned silence greeted the officer's pronouncement. Miranda winced as Jeremy's fingers tightened painfully on hers. Then a babble of protest arose.
"France! We've not been to France. This is preposterous!" "You can't seize an American ship. This is outrageous!" "Jeremy, can they do this?"
A high quaver rose clear of the loud confusion. "We are on our way to England, young man, not France!" snapped Mrs. Winthrop. Beneath her wide shading bonnet, her eyes sparkled with indignation. She had to tilt up her head to meet the British officer's eyes.
The officer looked down his long nose at the tiny woman. He drawled condescendingly, "So you are, madame."
A broad elderly man shouldered his way to the front. "This ship is a neutral, sir! Parliament's laws mean nothing to us."
The man's deep voice held a growl that the officer recognized as the one that had called him a "damned puppy." The officer's voice was cold. "This ship will go quietly or suffer the consequences." He nodded out to sea, drawing attention to the ugly snub noses of British cannon. The sight sobered the knot of passengers. Miranda saw the helpless anger in the grim faces around her and in some, fear. As for Jeremy, his stony expression had not changed. Only his eyes betrayed his rage.
The British officer smiled again. Contempt narrowed his eyes as he swept a glance over the passengers. He addressed his subordinate officer over his shoulder. "Mr. Craige, how many hands are we lacking?"
"Ah, that was it." The officer's eyes roved over the American sailors, who were bunched loosely against the rail. His voice took on an exaggerated note of surprise. "Mr. Craige, I believe I have discovered deserters from His Royal Majesty's navy! Two, in fact."
"Aye, sir!" Mr. Craige made an abrupt hand movement. The British marines advanced on the American sailors, who had stiffened but continued to stand immobile in front of the threatening British rifles. Two sailors were herded away from the others toward the side where the British had boarded. One of the sailors chanced to meet Miranda's gaze and she was appalled at the fear shining in his eyes. She recognized the seaman, who was really just a boy. Young Ned Simmons had entertained all on board with his merry accordion. A marine nudged him roughly with a musket butt and the sailor stumbled past her.
"No! You cannot do this!" Miranda exclaimed. She hardly felt the warning pressure of Jeremy's hand on hers as she stared straight into the British officer's surprised face. "You have no right to impress our sailors. These men are American citizens!"
There was a murmuring of support among the Larabelle's passengers and a restive movement toward the men holding the American sailors. The British officer flicked his hand in command. Miranda's breath caught as muskets were trained on the passengers. The moment was suspended. Tense fear curdled the air.
The British officer's gaze passed indifferently over Miranda's shocked face to settle on Jeremy, who stood close beside her with her hand still imprisoned in his own. The officer's voice was clipped, meaningful in tone. "Your wife is admirably softhearted, but her pity is wasted on these deserters. It is futile to interfere in the King's business." He started to turn but stopped at the sound of Jeremy's voice.
"Captain William Daggett, at your service, sir," said the officer with exaggerated courtesy.
Jeremy clenched his teeth. "Captain Daggett, to what port will you escort us?"
"To Falmouth, sir. You will not be inconvenienced long, I trust. There is adequate lodging to be had, as well as transport," said Captain Daggett smoothly. He bowed, then turned on his heel and, followed by his subordinate, strode to the side of the ship. After the officers had disembarked, the American seamen were prodded over the side into the waiting oarsboat. Within moments the Larabelle's passengers had the deck once more to themselves. They crowded to the rail to watch the oarsboat pull away. Jeremy and Miranda stood together, as one in their anger and frustration. Miranda's slim fingers were tight on the wooden rail as she watched the forlorn American sailors in the oarsboat grow smaller with the increasing distance. The event had been awful enough, but she was shaking with the realization of what might have happened. She briefly closed her eyes and saw again the ready British rifles.
"Well, lad, a bad ending for your first voyage," said a gruff voice. Miranda turned her head. The elderly man who had openly protested against the British officer's pronouncement stood beside them. His eyes were on the American sailors, who could be seen climbing reluctantly aboard the British vessel. He sighed regretfully. "Aye, a bad ending for those men especially. Nothing to be done, poor devils."
Jeremy, too, stared out over the sea at the swaying British ship. He grasped the rail so tightly that the tendons stood out white on the backs of his hands. "There is nothing to be done now, I grant you. But once in port, we shall see."
The gentleman chuckled at the strong purpose in the younger man's voice. Shrewdly, he measured Jeremy's hard expression. "It will likely be a hopeless cause, lad. But you've a look of determination that I like. Therefore I am with you."
Jeremy turned to eye the gentleman. He knew from the passenger list and the infrequent conversations that he had held with the gentleman that he was an Englishman by name of Edward Billingsley, long retired from trade and now returning to the land of his birth. At his searching look the elderly gentleman chuckled again. "Aye, lad, I know. What can an old man like myself do? But I've influence of a sort. It is yours when we touch land."
Jeremy's face lightened with a dazzling grin. He held out his hand and the two gentlemen shook hands. "I thank you, sir. Any aid that you may give me will indeed be welcome."
Miranda added her own expression of gratitude. "You are most kind, sir. My brother and I truly thank you."
Mr. Billingsley's eyes twinkled at her. "You are a young lady of backbone, Miss Wainwright. I admire that quality in man or woman."
"My sister's sense of independence has always been a source of pride to me, but I have never been prouder than when she spoke up in behalf of our sailors," said Jeremy. He put his arm around his sister.
"Aye, it was bravely done," said Mr. Billingsley with a nod.
"Perhaps, but my bravery seemed close to bringing disaster upon us all," said Miranda with a shudder.
"Aye; the insolent puppy had the audacity to offer us harm. I shall not let that go unquestioned, I promise you," said Mr. Billingsley, his gaze frosty as he turned his eyes once more toward the sea. Miranda glanced back at the British cutter. It followed the Larabelle like a great winged shadow, its prow dashing spray.
Posted December 23, 2010
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