THE EIGHTEENTH CAPTAIN   A NOVEL OF JOHN PAUL JONES

CHAPTER I

"At 30, man suspects himself a fool;
Knows it at 40, and reforms his plan."
—Edward Young, Night Thoughts

Paul Jones conquers worlds at night, but would rather sleep.
     Writing useless letters, you have wasted your last candle. Now you are sentenced to a torment of closely-watched darkness.
     He has been contemplating his invasion of India for many weeks. He spends hours sitting on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, thinking about the project. Crossing the Rue de Vaugirard, it occurs to him that the best route to the subcontinent is the ancient one—the one through Egypt. Jones stops, smiling to himself, oblivious to the manure cart bearing down on him, missing him by inches. The driver turns to curse at him in French, so he does not understand.
     Fool! You have lost the capacity to navigate street traffic, much less the Blue.
     There would be war between England and Russia. Those powers, one pre-eminent at sea, the other on land, must try conclusions for the mastery of Europe. The man who contrives the plan to strip John Bull of her Asian possessions would earn the lifelong gratitude to the Empress Catherine. That monarch, if she be rational, must instantly restore his flag rank and furnish him with the fleet he needs. That slander about a rape in St. Petersburg would evaporate like a mist before the sunshine of his strategical genius.
     But where will you get the money to post the letter to St. Petersburg?
     Jones is dressed to go out by 8:30. At table, his porridge lies like wet plaster troweled upon his tongue—he has lost his capacity to taste his food. Instead, he sits there in his little apartment on the third floor, upstairs from an insurance clerk, next door to a composer of sentimental snuffbox inscriptions. He eyes himself in the mirror, wondering how the material of his stock came to be so dull, and how the lapels of his admiral's uniform coat happened to be of different widths— or are they? Jones stands up, steps closer to the mirror to see. Alas, an optical illusion. It is only 8:40! He sits again, his eyes still on the mirror, and turns his head first to the right, then the left. From a distance of eight or nine feet, he fancies the gray hairs multiplying at his temples are barely discernible. He coughs—hack hack hack, and swallows. Egypt. (This only takes a few seconds.)
     You think of everything but the Woman, don't you? But you see, you've thought of her just now! Her married hands lay in yours, years before, in some toilet at Passy with a coffered ceiling. How thin married hands are, how fragrant and trembling! To have that oh so aristocratic perfumey knuckle beneath his nostrils again, and her married lips on the other side of a short space traversed by his quickening breath—La Vendahl! The woman was nothing to you. You must write a letter to her and explain.
     With the tactical advantage of his plan, seven or eight ships of the line would be all he'd need, with an additional handful of frigates, of course, to bear his messages and convey his intelligence. Seven ships, less than 5,000 men, and he would pry the lid off an Empire!
     But I am so sick of the sea and ships!
     It is 9:00. Assuming he walks slowly, he could contrive his appearance at the American legation just as Gouverneur Morris arrives at ten. He leaves his apartment and descends the stairs, noting, with some annoyance, that the buckles on his shoes have lost their shine. On the street, he stops and checks his pockets for his handkerchief, but finds he has forgotten it. No matter—there is a large Revolutionary rosette of blue, white and red on the curb, left there no doubt by one of the political processions that occasionally rattle his windowpanes and disturb the course of his thoughts about the likely occupation of Pondicherry. He plucks the rosette off the ground and uses it to buff his shoe buckle to a reasonable luster, then drops it back in the gutter.
     He encounters Morris some distance from the legation. Jones smiles, grasps the man's hand. Two old friends. Two men of quality. But there is an expression on Morris's face, an inertial disposition of his body mass away, away...he still grasps Morris's hand, shaking it, smiling, smiling, and then coughing, choking, bending over in two with the pain of it. Morris steps forward, alarmed. But what pleasantly cool weather for July, yes! They must surely dine together again soon, yes! Morris, reassured that his visitor is not suffering an inconvenient death, is once again receding, gravitationally attracted to the mass of the legation house. But Mrs. Morris is fine, yes! And you will surely receive your back pay by the next vessel over, yes! Busy, busy, must read over the day's dispatches. Barbary situation worrisome, dangerous...but Jones has a plan for that, too! Just three or four sloops of war would do nicely, slipping into Tripoli escorting a handful of fire ships...but, what? No time to hear it all now. Well, now they have something to discuss over dinner, yes!
     "By the way, might you slip this in with the pouch to St. Petersburg?" Jones finally asks, holding forth his sealed invasion plans for Empress Catherine.
     A cloud passes over Morris's brow. They look at each other for a silent moment. The pretense hangs in the balance—two old friends, two men of quality—until Morris, with a heaviness suddenly afflicting his arm, takes the letter in hand.
     "I'm in your debt, old man."
     Morris responds only with his eyebrows, knitting them in a gesture that might be understood as either salutation, or puzzlement. Then he is turned away, waving faintly, and gone...
     But wait! They have forgotten to set the date and time for dinner!
     Jones resolves to drop by the legation again later.
     For the moment, he makes his way down the street, idly fingering the tasselled cord on his cane, picking his way around the rude barricades left there for no good reason but to commemorate the thuggery of the mob. He has the whole day ahead of him, and he has already stopped in once to see Morris! He really must organize his time more wisely. He really must...
     It is July the sixth. You barely remembered the date yourself!
     A pang of self-pity taps his soul and descends, weightless, to the pit of his empty stomach. No one else in Paris would know.
     So he sets himself the task of whiling away, alone, the burdensome hours of his forty-fifth birthday.

copyright©1999 Nicholas Nicastro


ISBN 1622680065

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