company lay napping on the shore in parti-colored heaps of taffeta,
muslin and silk. Around them, the carcasses of Muscovy ducks and larded
turkeys were similarly heaped on silver picnic services. The bones,
like the mouths of the smeared, sleeping picnickers, were still dressed
with remnants of braised onion and spinach and croutons. Neither heap
moved much under the early August sun. Only the odd protuberant belly
rose and fell in a slow, indolent rhythm.
Meanwhile, out on the water, two vessels
closed on one another. The first was commanded by the ninth Comte le
la Rochejaquelein, future lord of the Loire estate of the eighth Comte,
Minister of Royal Fishponds and Warden of Lepidoptery. The boy was most
resplendent in his gilded and piped Admiral's uniform, waving a tasseled
sword above his head, shouting insults at his opponent in whatever English
words came to him:
"You cellar of salt! Feckless puppy!
Son of a mountainous continent! Come now to taste my metal!"
His opponent was the American Captain
John Paul Jones, late of the storied action against HMS Drake
near Belfast, now plowing a deep furrow in the water as he calmly directed
his vessel athwart the Comte's. Already he had gained the positional
advantage, coming about the other's bow as its crew struggled helplessly
to turn their broadside toward the enemy. Jones, sensing a rout, did
his opponent the courtesy of offering quarter:
"You have fought most well, Mister
Count, and have done your King's navy much credit. But may I prevail
upon you now to forego the needless suffering of yourself and your crew?"
The boy spat in the water and fixed a
contemptuous eye on Jones.
"Mon cher le Capitaine, my
disadvantage is but temporal. Do yourself upon me and suffer thereafter!"
At which, Jones swung his bow around into
the wind and presented his broadside to Monsieur le Comte's bow. The
latter stood with most evident courage on his deck, one leg cocked forward,
as if prepared personally to receive the Captain's fire. Jones obliged:
digging his oar deep under the surface of the pond, he flicked it deftly
upward to produce a sharp swell that set the other rowboat to violent
rocking. This maneuver cost the future Comte his footing, pitching him
into the outstretched arms of his sisters. Jones then brought his blade
down in a series of abrupt chopping motions, striking off arcing sheets
of water, deluging the enemy and spoiling the ostrich plume on Monsieur
le Comte's hat. The girls squealed and kicked; the deeply moistened
Comte took a spray of pond water full in the face, and was momentarily
speechless. Jones rowed away, and was far out of range when the children
finally managed to get their hands in the water to answer his barrage
with a random burst of meager splashes.
"A baptism by fire!" Jones taunted
them, sitting back as his boat glided. "Be but thankful I did not
board you outright!"
"AFTER HIM!" the young Comte
screamed. His sisters leaned dutifully on their oars. Indeed, Jones
was impressed with the latter's fighting spiritthey compared favorably
to the lowborn male clodhoppers and pressed pub-crawlers that blighted
most of France's warships.
Jones did not bother to row. Instead,
he let his adversary close in behind him. And when he began to take
watery "fire" from the cupped hands of the Comte, he suddenly
slapped the pond with both oars, again sending a devastating salvo directly
behind him. (If only he could effect something similar in actual battle!).
And while the others were momentarily disarrayed by this counterpunch,
Jones' oars bit the water in opposing directions and spun his boat around
as if on a pivot (suggesting something of the unique joy of commanding
a Roman galley, he mused). Then he surged forward again, passing the
enemy on his port side. Another wave of water broke over the Comte's
gunwales. This time, however, Monsieur le Comte's larboard oarsman,
his cousin Delphine, managed a slice at the water herself. Jones's white
linen blouse was wet to his skin.
"A creditable shot!" he praised
her. "Perhaps it is you who should be in command, instead of Mister
"She knows her place subalterne.
As will you!" the boy sneered, attempting several more ineffectual
swipes with his sword.
Jones commenced another turn.
"Captain Jones! If you please!"
Someone, a periwigged servant, was calling
to him from the shore.
"Yes?" he answered, squinting
through the raking sunlight at the figure on the grass.
"Monsieur, is it your coach to L'Orient.
They wait in the courtyard."
They were early. Jones put his head down,
all humor gone.
"Yes. I will be there," he said.
He pulled for the shore with long, easy
strokes. His many weeks of waiting, of pining and pleading for an opportunity
to repeat his success with the Ranger, albeit on a grander scale,
were finally at an end. The many days of staring at himself in mirrors,
wondering if his valor was spent, his career prematurely nipped, his
character destined never to be well and publicly established, were over.
Except for a slight paunch borne of too many well-sauced French meals,
he believed himself the same man who departed Portsmouth eighteen months
beforeindeed the same man who captained his first ship more than
ten years before. The same man, except for the creases drawn by a few
more setbacks, smilingly administered by his French allies, lining his
But a new anxiety dogged him now: the
worry not that his success had been a matter of accident (of course
it wasn't), but that it was a matter of inspirationof the
kind of grace that comes to boy post-captains and heartsick poets who
amuse Fate with their pretensions. For this next cruise would be the
fruit of long and tedious labor and, more precisely, of politicking,
which to him was the very opposite of poesy. Would he fail now, without
the excuse of inexperience?
The Comte's boat was now close behind
"You flee in fear!" the boy
was saying. "Strike your flag, I say!"
"If I had a flag, I would strike.
I am defeated!"
"Patronizer. You break off to take
"Alas, the Bonhomme Richard
is waiting for me. Pray excuse my surrender."
"But I have not yet begun to fight!"
the boy wailed. He tossed himself in the well of the rowboat, initiating
a tantrum: "No! No! No! No! No! Cowards! Cheaters! I claim my destiny!
Fight with me!"
His plumed hat had come off in the course
of this performance. While he was thus engaged, Delphine seized it and,
fluffing the damp comb, set the hat on her own head.
"The Admiralty salutes you, le
Capitaine Paul Jones!" she shouted to him. "Now go forth
and tame the Lion!"
This amused Jones. On shore, he bowed
deeply to her, and then to the rest of the picnickers. The latter were
red-eyed and uncomprehending, freshly awoken by the messenger's arrival.
When he had mounted the stairs up to the
Hotel Valentinois, one of the guests, a minor Chevalier whose only battles
were with tough cuts of meat at the dinner table, turned to his wife.
"Remind me, who is that man?"
"The American Captain, Paul Jones.
You met him this morning at quoits."
"Oh yes, the short, earnest one.
I remember. His French is terrible." And he fell back to resume