by Jean Roberta
The following is an excerpt from "Chapter Two: A Spinster and a Web" in my pirate novella-in-progress, The Flight of the Black Swan.
Setting: London, 1861. The Queen has just lost her husband Albert, and the United States has begun a Civil War.
Emily, the narrator, is nursing a broken heart after her schoolgirl crush, Lucy, gave in to parental pressure and cut Emily out of her life.
Feeling trapped at home with her family, Emily goes to Hyde Park Corner to take part in a stimulating discussion. There she meets a most unlikely hero, Sir Roger Tingley-Jones, who makes an outrageous proposal of marriage. Having no better options, Emily accepts him. In Chapter Three, she sneaks off in the night to join Roger on a refurbished sailing ship, The Black Swan, and meet the Green Men, all refugees from Her Majesty's Navy. There Emily and Roger are joined in marriage.
Think of Sir Roger as a more openly queer version of Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. (Forget Errol Flynn from earlier Hollywood pirate movies. Swaggering Alpha males are rarely heroes in my fictional world.)
After several adventures, Roger and Emily will end up living happily ever after with their Significant Others. Now there is a good marriage, built on a basis of friendship and understanding. :)
On a Sunday, after church and before tea, I was allowed to spend an afternoon at Speakers' Corner. This outing became the pinnacle of my week.
Joining the crowd in Hyde Park, I was forced to push past other ladies with skirts as sweeping as mine. Due to the dictates of fashion, women in public places made up in volume what we lacked in influence.
A young man with the unkempt appearance and burning eyes of a fanatic addressed the crowd. "Are we Christians?" he asked in a ringing voice. "Have we no sympathy for the wretched creatures who are still sold like cattle in America? We have banished that evil from our Empire. Will we prostitute ourselves by offering friendship to a new nation that fills its coffers from the trade in human flesh?"
Slavery, I thought. The Americans were at war over it since the owners of the great plantations had formed their own Confederacy. By the latest accounts, their army was winning.
I remembered the old plantation houses of Jamaica and the great vats where sugar was turned into rum before Emancipation. Most such signs of imperial grandeur had been overrun by the plant life of the island before I was born. Once I had gone exploring alone and walked into a ramshackle village entirely inhabited by Negroes, where the youngest had never seen anyone like me. A dark child no bigger than I had offered me a bouquet of flowers.
At the time, I wondered whether the gracious young miss had been taught to read and do sums like me. I could not imagine that she and all her friends and relations could ever have been owned like farm animals. When I came to understand the miserable status of slaves, it made me feel ill.
Efforts were made to enlighten me. When a pompous young man, brother of one of my classmates, explained to me in an insinuating tone that the control of primitive types by their betters was in their best interests, I could no more accept it than I could swallow vinegar.
In the present, a swaggering dandy brushed against me. “Pardon me, Miss,” he said in a falsely conciliatory tone. A wide-brimmed hat shaded his face, making his expression hard to interpret. “Freedom for the oppressed is such a stirring concept, don’t you think?”
As I tried to move away, I felt his hand on my purse, which he was trying to steal. “Stop, thief!” I shouted. In the ensuing commotion, he released my property and tried to find an opening in the throng. Looking back at me, he seemed startled.
“I meant no harm, miss!" he protested. “Please forgive me! Are you not --?”
“You’re mistaken, man,” I told him, and turned to leave.
He blocked my way, and I saw how tall and well-formed he was. He wore a tight waistcoat and a lace jabot under a sack coat, all slightly dirty and threadbare. The dark eyes under his hat glowed like coals. “I don’t think so,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t forget such a handsome face, even though you were a child when – well, we won’t speak of that. I would be greatly honored if you would accompany me to a place where we may converse privately.”
“I’m not the sort of woman you take me for,” I spat at him. You can't imagine what sort I am, I thought. I tried to take my leave, but the crush of bodies prevented me from striding away.
“And I’m not the sort of man you take me for,” he responded sotto voce. “Trust me, Emily, if I may address you so. We have more in common than you can imagine on such an unfortunate first impression. Please let me take you to luncheon, and I will explain it all. I am John Greenleaf, and my friend here is James Featherlight.” A plump, blond, pink-cheeked youth bowed shyly. He too wore a hat with a brim that shaded his face.
Our little group was attracting attention. “You may call us John and James,” my new acquaintance continued. “Madam, we are most excellent friends, the bosomest of companions.” He spoke rapidly, leaning as close to me as he dared. “I would sooner be hanged than to offer you any insult, if you take my meaning.”
“Miss,” said a large, red-faced fellow, “is this man annoying you?”
“Not at all,” I replied on impulse. “He is my brother's friend, and we are just going to luncheon.”
My two companions hired a carriage to take us to a poorer part of London, where the houses smelt of boiled cabbage and human waste, and urchins in rags stared at us openly. John led us to a humble shop which served tea and other items which I declined to smell, let alone to taste.
"Please excuse the surroundings, Emily," John beseeched me. "We can't afford to be seen. I'm so sorry not to have met you earlier, especially now that we have planned our departure. Your case has always moved me. Please forgive my presumption, but I feel as if we are kindred spirits. Ought I to know your brother if we cross paths?"
It was my turn to apologize. "Never fear," I assured him. "My brother John went to his reward many years ago. I claimed you as his friend because you share his name."
The man leaned across the table, and spoke almost inaudibly. "I’m sorry for your loss, Emily, but my name isn't really John."
"And mine isn't James," added the other man.
"Softly," warned the man called John. "You must know that we are hunted men, dear. We served in Her Majesty’s Navy, but a moment’s indiscretion could have cost us our lives. We are fugitives, and we set sail for the Bahamas in three days."
“Did your indiscretion involve taking what didn't belong to you?" I asked.
"It does belong --" retorted "John" until he looked at his companion.
The one who called himself James reddened like a quickly ripening tomato. "Please forgive us," he begged. "We didn't mean to rob you. Well, we did, but only because we are in need. We could be hanged for unnatural vices."
"I see." I had never really been in doubt about their nature, but I hadn’t considered the danger it placed them in.
The tea arrived. It tasted safe enough to drink.
"My sister Lucy hasn't forgotten you," said “John.”
I had tried to forget her, with the same lack of success. I was instantly on the brink of tears. To control my feelings, I pressed a fist to my heart. "How is she?" I asked.
"Resigned to her fate," he answered. "Emily, I must speak frankly for your own sake. We would be proud to be your friends, and you haven't many."
"So I've noticed," I told him. "Was Lucy ordered to cut me dead?"
"I’m afraid so,” said “James.” "We're so sorry, Emily. Hottentots could learn savagery from those in Society." Silence reigned for a moment. "You have no reason to trust us," he continued gently, "except that you have no better choice."
There had never been a possibility of my being presented to the Queen, and her grief had nothing to do with me. I could see that now.
“We sail in less than a week. We have a ship, a crew and a mission,” said “John,” as though thinking aloud. “Emily, can you sew?”
“Every woman can sew,” I retorted. “I’m also a fair shot with a bow and arrow, and I can handle a foil, or, um, a sword. What are you really asking me?”
There were other customers in the shop, and “John” was aware of the cost of indiscretion. He came so close to me that for a moment, I expected him to kiss me. “You could be useful on our ship, the Black Swan, and we would see that you come to no harm. You probably wouldn’t even need our protection, dear, because we all belong to the Green Men’s Society. We come from every ship in the Navy, and we all share a certain persuasion. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly.” My heart felt full as I realized what I was being offered: a second chance at life with fellow-outcasts.
Then I remembered my mother and father. “But my parents wouldn’t! And if I sneak out of their house without a word, they’ll think I’ve been kidnapped and murdered again. This time, it would kill them.”
“James” looked down at the stained tablecloth as “John” gazed into space. “Would they accept your departure on your honeymoon?” he asked at last. “What if you were married to the son of a baronet?”
I stared, hardly able to believe what he was suggesting.
“It would have to be arranged quickly,” “John” went on, “but I know a vicar who would do the deed as a favor to me as long as he can be kept out of the public eye. Green Men are everywhere. Emily, if you can play the role of a wife as required, you could help me to make peace with my father and gain my inheritance, if all else fails. The arrangement would benefit us both.”
“I hardly know what to say,” I stammered. “’James,’ could you bear it?”
“Thank you for asking, Emily,” he responded quietly. “If you and ‘John’ can bear it, so can I.”
I reached across the table to offer “John” my hand in every sense. "You are a generous man. Shall I be known as Lady Tingley-Jones?"
"Shh!” replied my suitor. “Our names must be a sacred mystery until we are both safely on deck."
"What curious terms,” I said. “I accept them, Sir, if your offer still stands.”
Curious terms indeed. Had I not been desperate enough to run away to sea alone in a rowboat just to escape from confinement in my parents' home, I would have questioned my suitor more closely. Would he expect me to be his wife in every sense? At the very least, I would probably have to share a bedchamber with him and allow him to see me en deshabille. And "James" might be watching from the wardrobe!
"John" looked genuinely happy. "Then our business here is concluded," he answered. He glanced at the local residents who were staring at us without shame. He paid the proprietor and led the way out of the shop as "James" brought up the rear. I was sure that such a position came naturally to him.
Outdoors, I asked "John" not to escort me home. "But I must be sure of your safe return," he protested.
"Then take me to the street where I live," I pleaded, "and watch until I'm safely indoors, 'John.'” Please understand that I can't introduce you to my parents or my siblings. I shall have to tell them everything in a letter to be read after I'm gone." In the carriage that brought us back to a modestly respectable neighborhood, we made our plans.