The Captain and the Coquette
A Short Story Prequel to
Beauty and the Beast of Thornleigh.
From material which inspired my second novel.
I hope you enjoy the read.
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The humid, quiet morning seemed to Brandt only to intensify the cloying stench of the gutters and the absence of a breeze made him eager to get started. He had taken a hired hackney to call for young Hailsham, and when the three extra trunks had been loaded quickly into the rear in the morning darkness, the young lieutenant joined Captain Brandt and his brother Osmand inside. It took but seven or eight minutes in the comparatively empty streets to reach the posting inn where they were to meet the public stage, and when they entered that vehicle to start their long journey to Portsmouth, they found that they had already attained two travelling companions – a woman who was hidden from view inside a dirty, hooded cloak and who seemed to be dozing, and a corpulent, red-faced gentleman clutching a large portmanteau and a nonplussed rooster in a cage, both of which took up ever more seat space than his ticket had paid for. Every so often the unhappy creature in the cage would give off a few startled murmurs of objection to being carried off in such a way, but settled finally into offended silence. The three officers crammed themselves into the remaining seats, and almost immediately the footman gave whistle, the post-boy whipped up the poor horses, and they had started off.
At first, the occupants of the carriage, offering no remark amongst themselves, and being underwhelmed with the prospect from the window and overwhelmed by sleepiness, drowsed on and off, until a few hours brought them, under full daylight, into the open roads. A quick stop at a turn pike allowed their red-faced guest to disembark, taking his unwieldy and morose luggage with him.
Within minutes the carriage was on the move again, and the naval men, now wide awake, stirred and began to converse in lowered tones of the difficulties ahead, and the likelihood of success in protecting British trade concerns in East India. The hooded woman was silent, keeping her face to the window, and seemed to pay no heed to the three men.
‘I only hope,’ Charles Hailsham ventured, ‘that Collingwood knows what he is about. I pray that he has not been beforehand in this, for the devil knows the French navy has deployed enough ships to populate the whole Pacific! I wager they’ll give us the devil’s nuisance out there.’
‘Aye. They’ve done an excellent job so far to disrupt trade routes already; several merchant ships have been lost. We are bound immediately for Isle de France.’ Brandt sighed. ‘We are in for a ferocious engagement, I collect, but God is on our side; and we have the “Victorious”; she has never let me down yet!’
‘Hear, hear!’ cried Charles in a low voice. Osmand had said little, but was lost in thought. Brandt determined that once they were at sea, he would put his brother to such vigorous employment that he would have no time for melancholy reminiscence.
Charles addressed his captain again. ‘Well, Sir, I collect you have left behind you a sad gaggle of young ladies in London. I hope you know you are responsible for the lost appetites of at least a dozen hopefuls!’ He laughed. ‘I rather think my sister had her eye upon a dashing naval captain, too. ‘Tis too bad, you would have made a fine pair, I fancy!’
Brandt gave a short laugh. ‘Your sister is an amiable, pleasant girl,’ he replied diplomatically, ‘certainly charming enough.’
‘But?’ Charles smiled, nudging Osmand into a laugh.
‘My brother thinks all women are scatterbrained, inconstant creatures, ready to talk but never to listen, always fluttering like butterflies, and lacking the real substance required for him to give them credence!’
Brandt laughed and held up his hands. ‘You have painted me a dark fellow indeed, brother, but it is true enough; I have not yet discovered a woman who can satisfy my desire for a solid meal, rather than little sweetmeats, as it were.’ He paused. ‘In women, I admire above all things intellect, and I like to see a spark of something more than just outward girlishness. The woman to satisfy me will be as solid as I am, intellectually. She will feed my mind and my soul. Nay,’ he added with a grave smile to Charles, ‘your sister, while a fine, good girl, will do better to focus her attention of one of those young London blades that sit around uselessly and have nothing better to say for themselves than do the ladies that simper at them.’
‘Why, that’s a tad singular, and most unfair to poor Catherine, Sir. She’s a good girl, you know!’ Charles had enough brotherly affection to defend his sister, where she was prevented from doing so herself by her absence.
But Osmand shot his brother a look of astonishment. ‘Good God, Ash! I never took you for a romantic! That was from the soul of a poet, not a weather-beaten sea Captain! Then, you might well understand what it means to lose such a one, when you have just found them!’
Brandt was opening his mouth to answer this remark, when the carriage rolled to a jolting stop and the sounds of shouting came from without. The men all leaned forward to look from the window to see what had occurred, but were prevented from doing so for long, on account of the sound of two gun shots that suddenly rang through the morning air. The woman in the corner screamed.
Brandt leaped up, reaching into his boot. ‘Calm yourself, Madam!’
All at once, the door of the carriage had swung open and two men, masked, stood at the opening, with a gun.