Chapter 6 – Nantes

Peter stirred the next morning in that soft, delicious interval between dreaming and wakefulness, and saw Lavinia standing by the stern cabin windows. She was wearing a pair of Peter’s nankeen trousers, cinched around her waist with one of his scarves, and one of his dress shirts, draped unbuttoned over her shoulders. It pleased him to see her wearing his clothing. As she stood in the bright light streaming from the windows, the light linen pants and shirt were almost invisible and he marveled again at the extraordinary body he had made love to all night long.

Hearing him move, she turned to him with an utterly happy, almost innocent smile. “Good morning,” she greeted him. She walked over to the bed and sat down next to him, running her fingers through his tousled hair. Peter felt himself begin to stir with desire. To his surprise, Lavinia sprang out of bed, clapped her hands like a little girl, and proclaimed, “Wouldn’t a hot cup of coffee be just the perfect thing right now!”

Peter clambered out of bed, drew on the pants he had thrown to the floor the previous night, strangely embarrassed by his growing erection, and threw last night’s shirt over his head. “In a moment,” he replied as he went to his cabin door, opened it, then recoiled in horror. Jenkins, one of the Marines, was standing by the door. As Peter appeared, he brought up his rifle in a sharp salute, His face was unreadable. Jesus, Peter thought. I forgot that with all the gold and specie in my cabin, I had ordered a Marine to stand guard when we were in port. He must have heard everything! And I must smell like a rutting goat. His embarrassment turned to misery when he mounted the gangway to the deck. There, at the top of the stairs, was the slate Peter used to keep score of the target practice contests, pitting the starboard against the larboard batteries, that had been his routine since his days as a navy captain. That week’s score had been erased. The slate now read: “Captain,” and opposite his title were five hatch marks and a large five-pointed star, embellished with arabesques. Oh shit, thought Peter. They all know. Well, better to confront a threat than run from it.

He mounted on deck and looked around. Both watches were on deck. All hands except the idlers were busy with final touches to the ship’s fitting out. “Hear this!” he cried, in his strongest voice of command. “There will be no gibes, no sly winks, and no murmurings! I will flog any man who disobeys until the skin peels from his wretched body! And if our guest appears on desk, you will respect her or your miserable lives will be forfeit!” A few crew members looked back at him, clearly struggling to maintain their composure. Most just turned away to hide their grins and silent laughter. Well, Peter thought, I’ve certainly buggered that up.

He crossed the open deck and went below to the galley. Joshua and the sailor Fox had selected to repair Lavinia’s clothing had done wonders. Her cloak was so finely cleaned and brushed it might have been hanging in a shop, not a ship’s gallery. Her dress was equally cleaned and pressed, and some magician with a needle had managed to reconstruct the filmy silk of the bodice. “Joshua,” Peter exclaimed. “You are a marvel!”

“So, as I hear,” Joshua replied with one of his enormous smiles, “are you, sir.” Before Peter could protest, Joshua laughed, “Men need a captain they can look up to, sir.” Then he stepped aside in the narrow passageway to let Peter gather Lavinia’s clothes. Peter thought of responding, thought better of the impulse, and left, carrying the clothes without looking back.

When Peter re-entered his cabin, his steward Boggins was there, having arranged coffee, biscuits, and even some fresh orange juice on his table, served on Peter’s finest silver. As if by magic, there was a rose bud in a glass vase next to the two place settings. Boggins had finished his work, but was still standing in the cabin, mouth agape, transfixed by Lavinia.

“What!” Peter exclaimed. “Boggins, you miserable, grass-combing wretch, are your feet nailed to the floor? You have done your duty. Nicely, I must say. Now leave us.” Boggins scurried out the door, closing it behind him. In Peter’s absence, Lavinia had made up their bed. He spread her clothing out on the coverlet. “Oh La!” she cried, with the same girlish enthusiasm, picking up first the cloak, then her dress to admire them, “these are simply perfect! Now let’s eat,” she announced, and flounced herself down in one of the chairs set by the table, her shirt spreading open to reveal her delicious nakedness. Peter had never known a woman so absolutely comfortable with and unashamed of her body. He somehow managed conversation as they shared coffee, or rather he tried to listen, as she happily described her childhood in America as the daughter of a French officer who had come over with Rochambeau’s army. It was as if their fierce loving making the night before was now a secret both would treasure, but neither would speak of, which suited Peter perfectly, because he had no idea how to talk about it.

Breakfast over, Peter stood up. “I regret…” he began, and paused, struggling over calling her “my darling” as he had somehow restrained from impulsively blurting “I love you,” before they both sank into exhausted sleep the previous night. “I must, sadly, leave you now, I fear,” he continued. “A damnable business with the thieves that run the ship’s chandlery here in Nantes.”

She smiled. “Don’t give me a moment’s thought. I will want to see how my brother does, and then I, too, have business ashore with the captain we have hired.” She watched him clean himself and dress with clear admiration, as pleased he thought, with his body as he was with hers. When he was finished, she rose, stepped close to him, undid his cravat, and re-tied it, making several attempts until she was convinced it was perfect. Peter loved how she unconsciously bit her tongue in concentration as her fingers adjusted the folds of his cravat.

“There,” she said, stepping back and admiring her work. “I would not have the man I have made love to going out in the street looking like some tradesman. Now, I must put myself together. Please don’t think me suddenly overly-modest, but a woman needs time by herself for these things.”

“I most go anyway,” said Peter. “I will return at noon. I pray your brother is recovered and in fine mettle.”

Shortly after mid-day, Peter returned to the ship, hurrying in his eagerness to get back to Lavinia. He was met at the top of the gangway by Doctor Evans, the one person in the crew he least wished to encounter. Nathaniel Evans was a fine doctor and a superb surgeon, but he was also a stiff-backed Boston Calvinist. The rest of the crew might have laughed with pleasure, admiration, and probably a good deal of envy at the noisy sexual explosion coming from Peter’s cabin. The pinched, puckered look on Evans’s face declared he thought otherwise.

“If I may, sir,” Evans said, motioning Peter towards Dihya’s bow. An injury you must advise me on, sir,” and he led Peter forward. When they were as far away from Peter’s cabin as the length of the ship would permit, standing next to the forechains, he began speaking in a near whisper.

“I must tell you, sir, that…” he searched for the right word, “…that lady you brought aboard yesterday may not be what she seems.”

“Oh devil take it, Evans,” Peter snapped, “but I am not in the mood for a sermon on my wantonness at this, or any other time,” and he started to push past the doctor to make his way to his cabin.

“I’m not talking about lechery, sir,” Evans rapidly countered, “but treachery. Most vile and dangerous treachery.”

“What do you mean?”

“After you left, your…” and again he paused “…your guest, now thank the Lord, decently clothed, went below to look in on the man she calls her brother. I wasn’t there, but Beauvoir, the Frenchman with the broken forearm, was in a hammock nearby, apparently sleeping. They spoke in rapid French, which he, of course, comprehended perfectly. The two of them are assassins, hired by someone with the name Chameau.” Peter started at the well-familiar name of Henry’s deadly enemy.

“Their intent is to lure you into an ambush when you take the woman back to her hotel this evening and capture you as a hostage, for what purpose, however, they did not mention. It seems,” he added with a slight cough, “you invited Eve into your garden, but found the serpent instead.” Peter ignored his gibe, still helplessly struggling to comprehend this astounding revelation.

“Her feigned ‘brother’ is quite healthy; the blow to his head was a sham,” Evans continued. Beauvoir is sworn to silence and I haven’t breathed a word of this to anyone else. May I ask what you will do? Clap them in irons, as their perfidy deserves?”

“No,” said Peter, his voice now icy cold. “I have a better thought. Where did you say the ambush was to take place?”

“On the Ile de Fedeau, in the alley across from the Pont de la Belle Croix, I believe she said.”

“Perfect. We will spring their trap. Chameau would kill my brother mercilessly on sight. Doubtless he plans to use me to get at Henry. Well, we will put a stop to that caper, and I will see to Chameau myself.”

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