BETWEEN TWO FIRES   A NOVEL OF JOHN PAUL JONES

CHAPTER I

The 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 spirit—they 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 Comte!"
     "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 before—indeed 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 parlor-pale face.
     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 inspiration—of 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 him.
     "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 a coach."
     "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 his nap.

copyright©2002 Nicholas Nicastro


ISBN 0451213661

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