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Fun Friday–An Unused Ransome Prologue

Friday, November 21, 2008


rhpBack a couple of years ago when I realized that the story that was then entitled Ransome’s Quest was too long to be just one book, I toyed around with starting the trilogy off when the characters were children. But then I decided that even I wasn’t interested in spending that much time with them during that stage of their lives. So here’s the original “prologue” of the story, simply because I like it so much and if I don’t post it here, it’ll probably never be seen.


HMS Indomitable
April 1795

“Sail, oh! Ship to larboard!”

Midshipman William Ransome glanced at his best friend Collin Yates. As one, they jumped to their feet, tossed the ropes they’d been tying toward a storage bin, and raced up the companion stairs to the quarterdeck.

Unable to make out anything with his small spyglass, William made for the mainmast, stopping when a small figure ran headlong into him.

“Sorry, sir.” Plain britches, an oversize tunic, and a knit cap pulled to the eyebrows couldn’t disguise the identity of Julia Witherington, the captain’s ten-year-old daughter. “I just wanted to see the other ship. Is it French, do you think?”

William reached to doff his hat and realized he’d left it below-deck. “It might be, miss. But we’re only two days out from England. It could very likely be one of our own.”

Her green eyes sparkled with excitement and she turned and started climbing the shroud toward the fore-topmast head.

William stood rooted to the deck, watching the girl’s ascent, until Collin caught up and punched him in the arm.

“C’mon, Will. Let’s follow the lad’s example.”

Will turned. Lad? Was he the only one on the ship who could tell young Miss Julia apart from her twin brother?

Collin scrambled up the shroud on the other side of the mast, quickly bypassing her. She slowed, pausing every so often. If she were to lose her grip and fall while William stood below—

He climbed the ropes close to the girl. Her arms trembled as she struggled to pull herself up higher. He remembered the feel of burning muscles all too well from three years ago when he’d first entered the Royal Navy.

“It . . . looks . . . so . . . easy.” Miss Julia panted, a few long locks of her coppery hair escaping the knit cap.

“Not much further now, miss. That’s it. Push up with your legs. Don’t pull with your arms.”

Her progress slowed to a crawl, and finally she stopped about three quarters of the way up. If she’d been a boy and a member of the crew, he would have teased and tortured to inspire the will to continue. But she wasn’t. She was Captain Witherington’s daughter.

“That’s it, miss. Just take a breather. You’ll get your second wind soon.”

Her arms, exposed where the too-wide sleeves had slid down to her shoulders, trembled with the effort of just holding on.

“Miss, why don’t you let me carry you up the rest of the way—”

“No!” Pain etching her face, green eyes blazing, Miss Julia started climbing again, now muttering under her breath that she would never let a boy carry her anywhere, and if Michael could do this, so could she.

To William’s surprise, she made it to the top and hauled herself onto the platform. She sat panting on the boards a few moments.

William grinned at Collin’s astonished expression.

“That’s not—”


Collin shook his head. “If her father finds out . . .”

“What was I to do? Let her fall?” William shrugged and held his hand out to the girl.

Julia recovered and stood, ignoring William’s proffered hand, withdrawing a midshipman’s spyglass—perhaps the one her brother had been searching the ship for an hour ago—to scan the horizon.

“Ooh, there it is. It’s French, and at least a third rate, probably a seventy-four.”

Collin guffawed and lifted his own glass. William didn’t know whether to believe the girl knew that much about ships or if she was just repeating something she’d heard her father say over dinner. He raised his scope and sighted the ship. Still too far away to make a definitive determination.

“Midshipman Ransome, what do you see?” The second lieutenant’s voice rang out from below through the noise and bustle of the crew of Indomitable.

“It’s too far away to be certain, sir.” William leaned over the edge of the platform to respond to his division leader.

“It’s a French seventy-four.” Julia Witherington’s low voice came out as a hiss at his elbow.

Collin laughed again.

“Stay aloft until you can make a determination, Ransome. Is that you, Yates? Good. One skipped duty shift for whichever correctly identifies the ship first.”

William and Collin jostled each other for better position.

Julia squeezed between them. “I don’t know why you won’t listen to me.”

Tempted to push her back, but worried she might lose her balance and plunge to her death, William settled for ignoring her. He squinted, switched the spyglass from left eye to right and back, wished and willed the ship to come into view faster.

William could distinguish two gun decks on the distant ship. He glanced down at Julia Witherington. Had she somehow been able to see how large the ship was further away than he and Collin could? He raised the glass again, just as the flag flying aft snapped in the sun, revealing blocks of red, white, and blue.

“Sir, it’s French! A third-rater!” William leaned over to yell down to Lieutenant Mason.

Collin groaned, and Julia turned to face him, arms crossed. “I told you.”

“Are they cleared for action?” the lieutenant yelled.

Collin snapped his glass back up to his eye; William turned to do the same. The ship appeared much closer than just moments before.

“Not yet,” Collin called. “But they’ve changed course to intercept us.”

The lieutenant shouted orders to the boatswain’s mate, and the sailor’s whistle sounded over everything else. The “All Hands” signal brought the lively crew to a frenzy of action preparing the ship to meet an enemy.

William collapsed his spyglass and tucked it into his pocket before turning to rush down the shroud and take his station with his gun crew. Halfway down, he remembered the captain’s daughter. She made good time down the ropes, but he slowed his progress to ensure she would reach the bottom unscathed. Once on the deck, someone else could take responsibility for her. In fact, over the racket of the crew preparing for possible battle, he heard Lady Witherington’s bird-like voice calling the girl’s name.

Once on deck, William lost sight of Miss Julia in the swarm of sailors and officers. Running down the stairs to his gun crew, he hoped the girl had gotten safely off the quarterdeck without being trampled.

William had his men ready, his cannon run out before Collin, even though Collin had arrived sooner. They didn’t have a chance to fire the thirty-two-pounders, though. Apparently the sight of the larger British ship cleared for action intimidated the French vessel which hove off and made sail toward France.

William had just dismissed his gun crew when the fourth lieutenant came down the stairs. “Midshipman Ransome to report to the captain.”

His heart leapt, then dropped. Had someone seen him help Miss Julia up to the foremast top? Swallowing hard, he ran upstairs, pausing only to grab his hat and button his coat. He stopped outside the door to the big cabin, and steeled himself for whatever punishment he faced. He admired Captain Witherington, but was still a bit frightened of his stern visage and decisive discipline.

The marine guard knocked on the door to announce William’s arrival.

“Enter.” Captain Witherington’s voice boomed.

Heart thundering, William stepped inside.

In his shirtsleeves and seated at a long, dark wood table, Captain Witherington didn’t look up from the pile of papers in front of him.

“Midshipman Ransome reporting as ordered, sir.” Heat rushed up the back of his neck when his voice cracked on the sir.

Captain Witherington pinned his sea-green eyes on William. “Ah, Ransome. Lieutenant Mason informed me you were aloft earlier and correctly identified the French ship.”

The knots in William’s gut eased. He wasn’t about to be flogged for endangering the life of the captain’s daughter. “Aye, sir.”

The captain’s weathered face softened into the closest William had seen him come to a smile. “I understand Mr. Mason promised a skipped watch. You are part of his division, are you not?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Good. Then I’ll let you work that out with the lieutenant.” Captain Witherington returned his attention to the paperwork on the table. “That is all, Mr. Ransome. You may return to your duties.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

William turned and reached for the doorknob, a sense of disappointment filling him but he didn’t know why.

“Oh, and Mr. Ransome,” the captain called.

William turned. “Aye, sir?”

“Well done.”

“Th—thank you, sir.”

Captain Witherington nodded in dismissal. William fairly skipped back to the midshipmen’s berth. He couldn’t imagine that being promoted—or even receiving a knighthood—would feel any better than receiving his commander’s commendation.

* * *

Julia cracked open the canvas door of her sleeping cubicle and peered out to make sure her mother was still asleep in the hanging wooden-box bed in the main cabin. Sunday afternoon meant only half the number of sailors on duty—the best time to be on deck without getting caught by being in someone’s way. She wished she could have gone to lessons with Michael and the other young boys aboard ship who wanted to become midshipmen. Papa had been ready to say yes until Mama found out.

If being a lady meant having to take a nap instead of learning arithmetic and astronomy and how to use a sextant to determine when the sun stood at its highest point in the sky, Julia didn’t want to be a lady.

Just as she had the day before, she slipped out of the cabin and onto the quarterdeck. The marine standing guard at the door flicked his eyes toward her, but said nothing. If no one paid much attention to her, she could practice climbing to the mast top. Next time, she wanted to be the first one up the shrouds to the lookout on the foremast.

She looked around to make sure that boy who’d offered to help her yesterday wasn’t on deck. She didn’t know how he’d recognized her when everyone else thought she was Michael. She checked to make sure her long braids were still tucked up under the knit cap.

Many young boys who worked as powder monkeys as well as most of the teenaged midshipmen were out on deck and skylarking up on the yardarms, allowing Julia to blend in and draw no notice to herself. As soon as she was certain no one recognized her, she headed for the ladder-like rope shrouds.

Half-way up, her arms and legs had turned to pudding. She looked at the platform and yardarm above. Boys’ legs dangled and swung back and forth, and most of the boys were singing in rhythm with their swaying feet.

She hugged her arms through the ropes and rested a moment. Up or down. The weight of Michael’s spy-glass tugged on the britches she’d borrowed from his sea chest. The mast top provided the best vantage point for scanning the horizon to find anything of interest instead of the endless gray-blue of the ocean surrounding them.

She matched her breathing to the rhythm of her climbing and recited the sail names to keep her mind off the searing pain in her arms and legs. Left foot up. Breathe in. Right foot up. Breathe out. Mizzenmast. Mainmast. Foremast. Breathe in. Topsail. Topgallant sail. Royal. Spanker. Breathe out. Gaff. Driver Boom. Spritsail yard . . .

The voices of the skylarking boys were nearer now. Deeper voices indicated the presence of some older midshipmen amongst them. She hoped that boy wasn’t one of them or she’d be recognized for sure.

Her legs didn’t burn quite so much now, nor her arms tremble so violently as just minutes ago. With a burst of energy, she pulled herself through the hole in the floor of the platform by the mast. Two tall boys stood on either side of the top, spyglasses to their eyes. Julia let out a small moan of disappointment when the taller, dark-haired boy turned to look at her.

Under different circumstances, she might think him well-looking, even almost handsome with his wavy brown hair and sky-blue eyes. But not now, looking at her with an expression of reproach on his face.

The blond boy noticed her, too. “Ah, Master Michael. Found your spyglass, I see. Nothing interesting to view through it today, I’m afraid.”

Julia stared at the dark-haired boy, praying he wouldn’t say anything to expose her true identity. After a few moments, he angled away and raised the telescope to his eye once more. Relieved, she took up a position as far from him as she could—which put her between the two midshipmen with little room to spare, as she daren’t venture closer to the edge; the low rail provided little protection from falling should the ship take a sudden pitch. She set her feet wide for better balance and looked through Michael’s spyglass at the eternal expanse of ocean.

Time progressed in silence. As the blond boy warned, she didn’t see anything of interest, just waves out to the hazy line where water met sky. He left shortly after Julia’s arrival. A few minutes later, she was ready to give up and start the long climb back down to the deck, but a touch on her shoulder stayed her.

“Look.” The dark-haired boy leaned closer and pointed to the starboard side of the bow.

She followed the line of his finger and saw a disturbance in the water not caused by the ship. She lifted the spyglass and trained it on the spot. Something sleek and silvery-white leapt out of the water in a sparkling arch and returned just as quickly.

“Oh,” she gasped. “What is it?”

“Dolphins. Sometimes they come play alongside ships, and most sailors believe they’re a symbol of good luck.”

“Do you believe that?” Julia looked up at the boy. She liked the way his brown hair fell down nearly into his pale-blue eyes.

He shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s true or not. My father says that men believe in superstitions because they don’t believe in God.”

Julia’s heart gave a little tickle. “My father told me that too.”

The dolphins played in the waves beside Indomitable for a few minutes more. Afterward, the view once again became boring nothingness.

The boy cleared his throat. “How did you know yesterday about the ship before it was close enough to be seen?”

“But I could see it. I mean, I could see the gun ports, so I knew that it was a third-rate ship since it had two gun decks but not more. And it had a French flag flying from the back.”

“You know ship ratings?” He crossed his arms.

“Don’t you?”

His chest puffed out. “I’m a midshipman, of course I know them. Go on then, tell me the ratings.”

“First-class: more than one-hundred guns, three decks—but those are usually admirals’ flag ships.” She clasped her hands behind her back and rocked from heel to toe as she did when reciting lessons to her governess. “Second-rate: ninety to ninety-eight guns, three decks. Might be a rear-admiral’s flag ship. Or a captain like my father who has fought in many battles. Indomitable is a second-rate.” She bit her bottom lip to keep from smiling, because the expression on the boy’s face meant he hadn’t expected her to know all this. “Third-rate ships, like the French ship yesterday, can have between sixty-four and eighty guns, but most have seventy-four. My father had a seventy-four, Challenger, before he got Indomitable.”

The boy held up his hands to make her stop. “All right, I believe you know ship ratings.”

“I learned them by heart when I helped Michael study. He doesn’t remember as well as I do.” She tucked her brother’s spyglass into the waistband of her trousers and extended her right hand. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

He stared at her hand as if unsure what to do with it, then shook it. “I’m William Ransome.”

The reappearance of the blond boy through the hole in the platform interrupted them. “Miss Julia, Captain Witherington has sent me to escort you to the big cabin.” He didn’t look happy with the assignment.

Julia’s stomach did a jig. If Papa found her dressed in these clothes out amongst the common sailors . . . She glanced at William Ransome, whose face had gone pale. “I have to go.”

“I’ll go down with you.”

She nodded, scooting over the edge of the platform near the mast. Climbing down the shrouds proved quicker than up, although she had no desire to reach the bottom. Yesterday, she’d managed to sneak past her mother in the chaos of all hands preparing their battle stations and change clothes before her mother spotted her. With the blond midshipman escorting her, she had no hope of getting herself out of this scrape.

The marine opened the door, and she forced her bare feet to cross the threshold into the dining cabin, which was empty. She turned when the door shut behind her and found herself utterly alone. She swallowed hard, her skin burning with fear.

She trudged around the long table and forced herself to open the door into the day cabin.

Her father stood with his back to her, staring out the aft windows, hands fisted together behind him. On a chaise in the darkest corner of the room, her mother reclined with a piece of black velvet covering her eyes.

Guilt pecked at her like hungry chickens. If Mama had one of her sick headaches, Julia should have been here to fetch water and cool cloths.

“Close the door, Julia.” Her father’s gruff voice, though soft, hit her like a cannonball.

She turned and pushed it closed, flinching when the latch clicked.

Mama sat up, removing the light-blocking cloth from her eyes. “Edward, do not be too hard on her.”

“Eleanor, please let me handle this.” He turned to face Julia, his lined face hard. “Before we left England, what did I tell you about being on this ship?”

The fact that she barely knew the man standing in front of her, that he had the power to have grown men flogged—even put to death—made Julia’s skin flame and her throat swell nearly closed. “I just wanted to see . . .” She swallowed, trying to abate the tears threatening to spill over onto her burning cheeks. “You said it’s not safe for a girl to go about on deck, so I dressed like a boy.”

“Do you understand what your disobedience could do to this ship?”

Julia bit the inside of her lip. “I’m not sure, sir.”

He closed his eyes a moment, as if steeling himself for something unpleasant. “With as intelligent as you are Julia, I expected you to behave better than this.” He began to pace. “A ship in His Majesty’s Royal Navy depends upon the crew’s complete obedience to their superiors’ orders. They must not question my command, but obey it to the letter. If it were to become known that my own daughter dares to disobey me, that she receives no punishment as a consequence, I will never be able to control the eight hundred sailors on this ship. Now do you understand?”

She stared at a peg in the plank floor. “Yes, Papa.” Her breath caught in her throat. “I am ready for my flogging, sir.”

He cleared his throat and did not speak for a moment. When she looked up, she nearly took a step back, as he now stood directly before her. He came down on one knee, eye-level with her, his expression much softer than before. “I am not a monster who would have a young girl flogged.” He settled his hands on her shoulders. “But I must demand your absolute obedience. You will not leave the cabin for the rest of the journey unless you are with your mother or me. And you will wear appropriate attire. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” Julia kept her burning face pointed toward the deck, tears finally winning the battle raging inside. “I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

He patted her cheek. “Sorry enough you will endeavor to never disappoint me again?”

She nodded and swiped at her tears. “I promise. On my honor, I promise I will never disappoint you again.”

Copyright © 2008 by Kaye Dacus

  1. Friday, November 21, 2008 8:55 am

    Loving it! 🙂 Hmmm…this puts me in the mood to watch something seafaring featuring a certain actor by the name of Paul McGann…wonder why? j/k!! 🙂


  2. Friday, November 21, 2008 4:36 pm

    That was really great! Loved it!


  3. Wednesday, June 10, 2009 8:04 pm

    I like this. It seems like it would work well, or at least part of it, as a flashback.


    • Wednesday, June 10, 2009 8:17 pm

      I probably won’t use this, but there’s a piece that comes shortly after this that might make an appearance as the prologue of the third book in the series.


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