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Fun Friday–A Scene Cut from Ransome’s Honor

Friday, January 16, 2009


Back before the holidays, I started a Fun Friday series in which I would post pieces of my writing from the past, as otherwise it’ll never be seen. The week I found out the Ransome Trilogy sold, I posted this unused prologue.

Today, in celebration of having signed the contracts, I’m posting the original first scene of Ransome’s Honor, the scene that stood as the opening of the novel for two years; the scene which I’ve mentioned many times on this blog as my favorite opening scene I’ve ever written; the scene which, when Kim Moore told me she felt it made the opening of the novel too slow, got the old heave-ho in favor of a new prologue and quicker start.


HMS Alexandra
Great Yarmouth, England
July 18, 1814

Captain William Ransome held his stance as the freshly scrubbed deck rolled with the gentle rhythm of the harbor under his feet. Oh, to have the motion of the sea beneath him once again. Nothing like the chop of the open ocean as the seventy-four gun Man-o’-War took a fair wind.

Pray God the new orders he was bound for Portsmouth to receive would send them out on a mission again. His crew deserved better than ferrying troops from place to place about England and Ireland.

The midshipman of the watch reached for the bell. Two chimes, a pause, followed by two additional chimes. Four bells in the forenoon watch. Ten o’clock, and Alexandra still rested at anchor. When a commodore sent word he needed transport to Portsmouth, William had responded with a request the superior officer arrive no later than five thirty this morning. Now, four and a half hours later, William wished he could leave a message with the dock master for the commodore to find another means of transportation.

He stepped to the fore of the poop deck. “Mr. Cochrane.”

At the quarterdeck waist entry port, the first lieutenant turned and touched his hat. “Aye, Captain?”

“Any sign of the commodore yet?”

“Aye, sir. Jolly boat just cleared the dock.”

At last. “Ready the ship for sail. As soon as he is aboard, we’ll get underway for Portsmouth.”

“Sir . . .” Cochrane cleared his throat and shifted from foot to foot.

Not like his second in command to act nervous. “What is it, man?”

“Sir, there appears to be two women with the commodore.”

William’s stomach clenched. He reached to his right. “My glass.”

A midshipman pressed a cool, smooth cylinder into his hand. Through the spyglass, the small transport came into focus—as did a stout woman wearing a straw bonnet over a mound of dark hair. Trouble. Beside her he could make out the slim figure of another woman, reddish curls cascading under a frill of a hat. Double trouble.

Grinding his teeth to keep his thoughts from spilling out, he passed the glass back to the midshipman and returned his attention to amidships. “Have the men rig the bosun’s chair. We’ll have to swing the women aboard.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Cochrane conveyed the order to the crew.

In his nine years as post-captain, he’d never allowed a woman to set foot aboard his ship, not even his mother and sister when Alexandra last made berth at Liverpool. Ships were no place for women.

On another ship, a few years before receiving his first command, his captain’s wife had lived aboard. A quarrelsome and selfish woman, the crew blamed everything ill that befell them on her. Though William did not believe in superstitions, the sailors under his command lived by them, as did most of the Royal Navy. A belief that women brought bad luck would create conditions conducive to unfortunate circumstances.

At least the women coming aboard with the commodore would be off his ship in less than forty-eight hours, if God granted them good wind and fair weather.

The crew scurried about, swinging the bosun’s chair, a board attached to rope much like a garden swing, over the side. William removed his high-domed hat and mopped his brow. His dark hair clung in clumps to his forehead and sweat trickled down his neck beneath the collar that touched his jaw.

“Haul away there!” Lieutenant Cochrane called.

A shriek like a mythic banshee rent the air. William sighed and set his hat on his head, the points running fore-and-aft, providing only partial protection from the blinding midmorning sunlight. The men scowled as they heaved at the tackle lines. The short, thick-waisted older woman—a maid, by the plain brown dress she wore—appeared above the gunwale railing. The boatswain stepped in to assist her, but she slapped the old sailor’s hands away. The seat swung wildly, threatening to dump her into the choppy harbor, and she screamed again.

Women. William bit the inside of his bottom lip and looked away, annoyance prickling his skin. Cochrane required the assistance of the third lieutenant and two midshipmen to untangle the woman from the rigging and set her aright.

Moments later, the seat returned with quieter cargo. Slight of build with hair the color of rust, the second woman possessed all the physical attributes of a fine lady. Officers and seamen alike rushed forward to offer assistance.

The stout woman pushed into the fray, growling like a bulldog. “Get your filthy ’ands off Mrs. Commodore! Ragged mess, the lot o’ ya.”

William’s throat tightened, shutting off the words he wished he could say to the maid. Women spelled disaster for the order and discipline of even the most seasoned crew. He gripped his hands behind his back and resisted the urge to pace the deck as his crew hauled the guests’ personal effects onto the quarterdeck.

“Be careful with that.” The maid squawked cautions at the sailors straining to lift an ironbound trunk, then turned to observe others. “You’re crushing those boxes! Those hats are costly. I’ll ’ave it out of your pay if you ruin aught.”

William eyed the commodore as the man gained the deck from the accommodation ladder, waiting to see if he would silence the woman, but the cadaverously thin officer seemed to find nothing amiss with her behavior.

After nearly an hour, when everyone and everything was aboard, William gave his superior a slight bow. “Commodore, with your permission, sir?”

“Yes, yes. Take her out, Captain Ransome. Your quarters for my wife and me?”

“Of course.” William turned to his steward and pointed to the mountain of luggage littering his deck. “Escort them below, and see their dunnage is stowed.”

The sailor nodded crisply and jumped-to.

“And my wife’s maid—your steward’s quarters?”

Bending over to pick up a trunk, the steward froze, then looked at William over his shoulder.

“Naturally. Mr. Dawling, please see that your quarters are made ready.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” The burly sailor didn’t dare show his displeasure, but petulance dripped from his voice. At least William was not alone in being evicted from his sleeping chamber.

He turned to his first officer. “Mr. Cochrane, take us out.” William squinted into the late-morning glare of sun on the water. A few inconveniences were a small price to pay to remain in active service. God had blessed them when the admiralty kept Alexandra on duty after Bonaparte’s abdication in April. With the peace, too many men of the Royal Navy had been turned out on land, trying to survive on half-pay and praying for another war.

Once clear of the harbor, he started to relax. Please, Lord, give us a mission worthy of this excellent crew and our ship. Bless us with a safe journey—

“Cap’n Ransome, sir?”

Although interrupting his prayer, he smiled at the boatswain. “Yes, Matthews?”

The seasoned seaman swept his knit cap off his silver curls and touched the knuckle of his first finger to his bare forehead. “Sir, about the guests . . .”

William raised his eyebrows. Matthews respected William’s rank, but never before had he hesitated in speaking up. “What is it?”

“Well, sir, it’s their dunnage. It don’t all fit in your cabin, sir. And it took four of the boys three trips to get it all below, and now they’ve no place to put it.”

Women and their baggage! “Have the purser make room for it in the hold. We’re low on supplies, so there should be plenty of space.”

Matthews saluted again. “Aye, aye, Cap’n.” He retreated a few steps, then paused.

William had worked with the sailor long enough to know when he had more to say. “Is there anything else, Matthews?”

“Sir, the guests . . . what I mean is, how long will they be our guests?”

William suppressed his smile. “Only until we reach Portsmouth. And you may tell the men to be prepared to unload our guests and their cargo immediately upon arrival.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’n.” The slip of a man grinned broadly, knuckled his forehead, and scurried away.

The wind picked up, filling the sails. Smooth as an eel, Alexandra slipped through the water southeast toward Dover Strait. Eight bells announced noon and beginning of the afternoon watch. He took a deep breath as salt air embraced him. Lord God, thank you for bestowing upon us the blessing of good wind and fine weather. Speed our journey and if it be your will, let the admiralty—

A crash below deck brought him out of his prayer. William leapt down the poop deck steps and raced down the companionway. For a moment, he couldn’t see in the dark interior of the main deck, but when his eyes adjusted, he barely suppressed angry words. Covered in food, Cook sprawled on his back like a harpooned whale. His large silver serving tray lay several feet away, dented . . . but not beyond repair.

The commodore’s wife flitted about Cook, fanning him with a lace handkerchief, while Midshipman Kennedy scooped food off Cook and into a bucket.

“What happened, Mr. Kennedy?”

The boy jumped to his feet and saluted. “Cap’n, sir. Cook fell, sir.”

William swallowed his annoyance with the young man, hardly past his fifteenth birthday. “Yes. I can see that. How did Cook fall?”

The commodore’s wife whirled. “It’s my fault, Captain. I was just looking for something. I didn’t realize it was time for luncheon already.”

Matthews arrived, lantern in hand. Around Cook and covered with the victuals now scattered across the floor, William could make out the shapes of half a dozen somewhat crushed bandboxes. He turned a questioning gaze on Matthews.

“Beggin’ pardon, sir, but the lads an’ me was working on getting it moved.”

“See to it, then. Mr. Kennedy, get some of the boys who aren’t already helping Matthews up here to clean this up and then return to your station.” He turned on his heel and ascended to the upper deck. A bracing wind and dark clouds on the horizon behind them warned of a storm chasing them to Portsmouth. If they encountered rough waters with women aboard . . . the smell of sickness would stay in his cabin for ages. They had to be making ten to twelve knots. God, please don’t let this storm delay us.

“Excuse me, Captain?”

He prayed for graciousness as he turned to look at the commodore’s wife. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I wondered if I might stay up here and enjoy the scenery until luncheon is ready . . . again.”

So she could damage something else? He opened his mouth to say no when her husband appeared and took her by the arm. “Ah, my dear, here you are. Walk with me for’ards.”

William touched his hat. “Sir, ma’am.” He returned to his former posture, doing his best to ignore them. But the crew—his well-trained, efficient crew—stopped their work and gawked as the pretty woman went by.

“Mr. Cochrane?”

His first lieutenant did not respond.

William glanced at the man to his right. As he had suspected, the younger man’s eyes were firmly affixed to the most unwelcome guest. “Lieutenant Cochrane.”

Ned jumped at William’s lowered voice and clipped syllables. “Aye, Captain?”

“The men . . .” With raised brows, William brushed his gaze over the deck.

“Aye, aye, Captain.” The second in command stepped forward, planted his feet wide, and clasped his hands behind his back. “Look lively there! Midshipman Kennedy, see the men get back to their work.”

The midshipman complied and belted out a few commands in the crackling tenor of youth, and the crew hastened to obey. The lad wouldn’t be eligible to sit for his lieutenancy examination for four more years. Until then, he, along with the other fifteen midshipmen, still had much to learn from the officers aboard—as the officers still had much to learn from William.

“Carry on, Mr. Cochrane. I shall be—” Where? He couldn’t go to his quarters as they’d been invaded. “I shall be in the wardroom should I be needed.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Near the larboard bow, the commodore’s wife tripped on a block and tackle. Fast action by the sailor stowing the line kept her from taking a spill over the side.

William shook his head. A ship was no place for a woman.

  1. Lori permalink
    Friday, January 16, 2009 2:35 pm

    As always a pleasure to read. I am glad you finally got contracts signed!


  2. Friday, January 16, 2009 4:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I just got Stand-In Groom in the mail today, and I’m so excited to read it. Love the cover.


  3. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 8:24 pm

    I love all the extra “behind the scenes” entries for the Ransome Trilogy … it’s kind of neat how you can see elements of this excerpt that made it into “Ransome’s Crossing.” =)


    • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Sunday, April 3, 2011 8:25 pm

      Well, not excerpt … more like “deleted scene.”


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