Chapter 1: I Want To Join Zee Crew
"Stay below deck, girl! May God have mercy on our souls.”
Captain LaFrenuie’s face was pale and covered in sweat. His powdered wig was askew atop his head. With a shaking hand he reached out and shut the door to the cargo hold with Simonne on the other side. He could not have her getting in the way during a pirate raid. Her insistence to stay on the deck fell upon deaf ears. The captain would hear nothing of it. It was bad enough she had the nerve to stow away on his ship back in France. After her refusal to follow orders, he hauled her down below decks by her arm, leaving small oval bruises on her skin from where his fingertips dug in.
When the Captain first discovered her hiding below deck in the early days of the voyage he was enraged. Had she been a man he would have thrown her overboard, but the angry Frenchman could not find it in his heart to cast the girl off the ship like a broken barrel. No one suspected that she was actually a fugitive from Paris. Her story about seeking long lost family on Martinique was more than believable. How could she possibly afford the passage fare so soon after the deaths of her parents? Simonne used her large, dark eyes against him, disingenuously filling them with tears as she told her lie. Captain LaFrenuie banished her to the galley to assist the cook, a foul and snooty man who forced her to sleep in a tiny hammock made from an old flour sack.
The ship moaned as if it were a great wale in agony, rocking back and forth as balls of iron ripped through the upper level. She could hear the men on the deck above shouting to one another over the thunder of cannon fire. They cried out to God, but Simonne rolled her eyes, knowing that there was no god to save them on the high seas. No one could save them now.
La Mouette, or “The Seagull” was carrying coffee, silk, Persian tapestries and fine Bordeaux, all bound for the French settlement of Port-au-Prince on Martinique. In the very back of the hold she found a few parcels set aside from the rest. Inside were all sorts of treasures intended for the Governor’s new wife, from boxes of jewelry and clothing to a collection of porcelain dolls and a wicker basket of needlepoint supplies.
Unable to resist, she cracked open a beautifully crafted trunk with gold gilded hinges. A red glimmer caught her eye. She reached inside and pulled out an elegant scarlet corset trimmed with horizontal lines of black lace. Beneath it was a long black skirt and a long, fitted black coat trimmed in red lace. Her own drab garments were tattered and soiled, and she still sported her uniform slacks from the Academié. Slipping into her new ensemble as the commotion continued above, she opted to keep her comfortable and worn-in, knee-high black boots instead of taking the dainty, high heeled affairs in the chest. Inside a large jewelry box she found a handful of coins and slipped them into her pockets before sliding some golden, bejeweled rings onto her hand. Behind a stack of oil paintings draped in linen she found her cutlass, right where she left it. Lastly, she used the sword cut the skirt to shin-length, to prevent herself from tripping all over it. She never liked the long, floor length skirts worn by ladies anyway.
Closer to her goal than ever before, she felt an odd yet intense mixture of excitement and terror churning and swirling around each other in her stomach like a cyclone. All she wanted to do from the time she was a young girl was become a pirate. Simonne heard the stories about the buccaneers that patrolled the Caribbean Sea for plunder, living a life of their own design and answering to no monarch. She wanted such a life for herself. Now, pirates were attacking the ship, and she was preparing to meet them face-to-face. She would either convince them to let her join up, or die trying.
Stories of a secret pirate den on the northern shore of Martinique were whispered on the streets of France from Paris to the port city of Nantes. Some said each of the islands in the Caribbean Sea harbored pirate activity, and that some islands were dedicated solely to black market trading. Intrigued, Simonne set a course for Martinique. La Mouette was perfect. She was small and sat low in the water, implying a heavy load. She required a small crew and had few guns. An easy, tempting target for any pirate.
The cannon fire ceased, followed by the frantic shouting of the men on deck.
“Préparer pour embarqué! Embarqué!”
Moments later a new chorus of shouting joined the familiar voices as the pirates boarded the ship. Pistol fire boomed and the sound of metal clanking against metal filled the air, interrupted by tormented wails as the crew of the Seagull fell, one by one. The fight did not last long, for the men were clearly outnumbered. As the noise died down, she secured her scabbard to her belt, covered it with her new coat, and crept out of the hold.
No one had come below deck yet. She could hear the faint sound of voices coming from the deck above. Tiptoeing to the slatted stairs, she listed from behind them where she would not be noticed. Unable to see anything from her position, she could hear clearly what was happening just a few feet over her head.
They had Captain LaFrenuie. He was pleading for his life in French, but the pirates, unable to understand him, were growing impatient.
“What the fuck are you saying?”
She heard a loud crash and the impact of a body hitting the deck. LaFrenuie whimpered. He could not help the fact that he only spoke French.
“Ne me tue pas. Mon Dieu. Si-vous-plait, me pas tue.”
A crack like lightning made Simonne jump, followed by a dull thud. She did not want to be found hiding below deck. They would mistake her for a coward, and that was the last thing she wanted them to think. Certain the pirates would be coming down the stairs at any moment, she took a deep breath and mustered all of her resolve before she went up to face them.
LaFrenuie was face down in a pool of his own blood. A large bloody exit wound took up most of the back of his skull. All around the deck were the bodies of dead Frenchmen. The pirates had begun throwing them overboard when she appeared. They outnumbered La Mouette’s crew five to one, and only two of them had been slain.
The sudden appearance of the young woman was quite a surprise to the pirates standing near the stairs. In an instant three of them surrounded her, guns drawn. She held up her hands but stood strong, refusing to cower before them. Her long, black hair caught in the sea breeze, swirling around her shoulders. Though shorter than the men encircling her, she spoke loud enough to catch the attention of everyone on the crew.
“I wish to speak with zee captain,” she said with her heavy French accent. The men holding her at gunpoint turned their heads to their leader. Hearing her words, he stepped forward, the heels of his boots clicking on the wooden planks until he stood before her.
“What do you want, girl?”
He was a weathered old man, with straggly silver mutton chops and an unkempt grey goatee. His tricorne hat appeared older than he was, and perhaps dirtier, though the contest was close.
“I would like to join zee crew.”
The pirates erupted in laughter. The captain crossed his arms and shook his head.
“It’s bad luck to have a woman aboard. Won’t be no women on the Intrepid so long as I’m captain.”
“I can fight.” She pulled back her long coat, revealing the cutlass at her hip. In an instant she heard the clicks of pistols being loaded beside her skull. The captain waved his hands, signaling his men to stand down.
“Captain Naft…” one of the men began to protest, but was silenced with another shake of Naft’s hands.
“Let’s see what she can do.”
He drew his sword, and Simonne drew hers. She did not wait, and went straight at him with a metallic swoosh. He blocked her attack, but that was what she expected. She continued to strike at him with obvious blows, herding him backwards. He blocked her advances with ease but did little to hold his ground, and soon found himself nearing the edge of the ship.
Simonne hesitated for a moment, knowing that Naft would use that time to take the offence. As he wound his arm back to swing, she dropped down to her knees, tucking her head just as the blade whirred past, unbalancing the man. He staggered. In his moment of confusion she turned her blade long ways and stuck him in the ankle. He tumbled to one side, bouncing off the ledge of the ship before falling to the floor. That dirty hat was knocked clean off his head. Simonne leapt to her feet with the agility of a cat, placing the tip of her cutlass under Naft’s chin just as he rolled over to stand.
Most of the men stood in silent awe, but a few could be heard snickering at their fallen captain. Simonne withdrew her sword and held out her hand to help him stand, but he waved it away and pushed himself back up on his own. Then he brushed off his trousers and picked up his hat.
“Well, what do you say, Monsieur Naft?”
“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “I won’t have it. But I will take ya back to Nassau with us. You can join up with a crew there, if one will have ya.”
“Fine. Zen I will find a crew with a captain who can hold his own in a fight.”
The men oohed at this remark, laughing at Naft as he began barking orders to them. The plan was to sail the Seagull back to Nassau, in order to save them the trouble of unloading her contents twice, and to be repainted and sold. Naft’s first mate was assigned to the task of captaining the Seagull until they landed, and was given five men to help with the task. Simonne was forbidden from boarding the Intrepid, for Naft was steadfast in his superstition about women onboard his ship.
They set sail, the little Seagull trailing behind the larger Intrepid. Simonne made her way to the foredeck and sat on the ledge, her ankles straddling the aft mast that stuck out from the front of the ship like a unicorn’s horn. The fresh air filled her lungs and she could taste the salty sea spray on her lips. For a moment she felt peaceful, hearing nothing but the wind whirring past her ears. Then a man walked up behind her and clapped his hand down on her shoulder.
“You sure embarrassed Naft back there, but keep in mind he’s just an old man. You fought well, but that does not mean you can fight in a vanguard, or be of any use on a crew.”
She turned around and shot the man a look of disgust. It was Naft’s first mate. He had very short hair and small, round, silver glasses framing his small blue eyes. Before she could reply he took her hand and kissed the back of it.
“Mademoiselle, I am Jean Luc DuFrense, but you can call me Captain DuFresne until we reach Nassau.” He had no hint of a French accent despite his name, which he even pronounced like an Englishman: John Luke Du-Frane.
Simonne swung her leg around and hopped off the ledge.
“I am hoping to see little enough of you to call you nothing. If you will not have me on zee crew, zen I will not… how you say… waste my time with you.”
“I am afraid that will not be the case. I must insist that you stay in the captain’s cabin with me for the remainder of the journey. Wouldn’t want the men getting too friendly with you in the middle of the night, now would we?”
“I would like to see zem try. You will be in charge of a group of castrati.”
“This is for your own good, Selene.”
“Simonne,” she corrected. “Simonne Augustine DuBois.”
“Simonne. I apologize. Please, just do as you are told.”
She crossed her arms with a small pout before looking back up at him with a sharp glare.
“I will stay in zee captain’s cabin with you, Jean Luc, but if you touch me, I will feed you your own cock. If you look at me in zee wrong way, I will break your glasses!”
She stormed off to retrieve her things from the galley and move them into her new quarters. As she walked past him, she threw her hand up at his face, knocking his spectacles lopsided across his nose.
◊ ◊ ◊
Simonne took her supper in the captain’s quarters, and did not come out for the rest of the evening. The men drank the Bordeaux they found in the cargo hold and played a concertina under the stars as the ship cruised along through the darkness of the night. She lay in a real hammock, listening to them sing and clap along with the music. No more curling up into a little ball for her. She stretched out, enjoying a newfound elevation in her level of comfort.
Hours later, when they were all spent, Jean Luc came into the cabin with a brightly burning lamp. He stumbled over his boots as he tried to remove them, making a racket of scuffling and whisper-swearing. Though Simonne was only pretending to be asleep when she heard the door open, she sat up and scowled at him.
“I’m s-sorry… Did I wake you?” His voice sounded dopey as he slurred his words.
“Its fine,” she replied, trying to sound sleepy and blocking the light with her hand.
Jean Luc shuffled over to the other side of the room and set the lamp down on the captain’s desk between them. He sat on the side of his hammock, lost his balance and fell onto his back, his bare feet dangling above his head as he lay in the thing sideways. With a “whoa” and a chuckle, he thrust his legs forward and righted himself on his second attempt.
Simonne watched, not amused. Her hair was a tussle atop her head in a messy bun. She lay back, trying to ignore him, but he was not ready to sleep just yet.
“I’ve been wonderin’,” he said after his feet were firmly planted back on the ground. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“I was trained at zee Acadamié Militaire Royale Pour Garçons in Pariee.”
“But you’re not a Garçon, how did you get into a boy’s school?”
“I ran away when I was eight. I cut off all my hair, and nobody noticed until it became more… obvious that I was not a boy. Before zen, I excelled in my classes, learned English and picked up a few tricks from the other boys.”
“I’ve never been to France. My brother and I were born in Sainfrasis… Sain Fras-isis… Saint Francis, on Guad-ala-loupe. My little brother… His name is Pierre,” Jean Luc’s voice dropped down to a whisper as he continued, “but he hates that. He just goes by DuFresne.”
“I see,” she said, completely uninterested. The hammocks swayed back and forth and the lamp threw long, bouncing shadows around the room. Through the large window behind the captain’s desk the only thing she could see were tiny specks of starlight, for the water and sky echoed each other’s hues perfectly, like ink spilled on black satin.
“He’s a milk drinker! Pierre… I mean DuFresne… he’s nothing but a bookkeeper. Counts coins all day long. He can’t fight.”
“Is he on zee Intrepid with Naft zen?”
“Nah, he works for Captain Flint on the Walrus-ss. Keeps sayin’ that if Naft hired an accountant he would be more profa… prof… He’d make more money. But Naft won’t spare the expense, says he can keep the books hisself.”
“I am sure he can. When will we reach Nassau?”
“Three days if the wind is right. I suggest you dis-ss-sappear as soon as we land, lest you plan on helping Naft unload. We won’t pay ya, either! No, he’ll say you owe him for not killin’ ya, or somethin’.”
Jean Luc lay down in his hammock and extinguished the lamp.
“I will, merci. Bon Nuit.”
“Just because I’m French does-s-n’t mean I know French.”
“You knew Garçon.”
“I know a few words…”
“Good night, Monsieur DuFrense.”
At first he did not answer, but in moments he was snoring. Simonne folded the thin pillow around her head and drifted off to sleep, rocking gently with the ocean waves.