A large natural harbor fronting the town of Kingston was sheltered by an eight-mile long spit of sand, or tombolo, known as the Palisadoes. At the extreme western end of this peculiar landform lay the much smaller settlement of Port Royal. It was a community which had grown up around the original fort situated in the area after the English wrested control of Jamaica away from the Spanish in 1655. Known far and wide as a haven for pirates in its early years, the town eventually threw off this rather dubious distinction as a greater British military presence was established and assumed its protection. It became the capital of Jamaica for a time, and it was here that the Royal Navy Dockyard and naval harbor were located.
Since the 1690’s, the town went into a steady period of decline. It had been partially destroyed more than once due to the effects of hurricanes, fires, flooding and a particularly strong earthquake which liquefied the already unstable wet sand upon which the settlement was situated. As a result, some buildings literally sank or slid into the sea. And yet, despite these catastrophic events - plus the removal of most commercial activity across the harbor to Kingston itself - the Royal Navy headquarters remained in place.
Lime Cay was a tiny, sandy islet that lay a bit more than a mile off the Palisadoes which connected Port Royal to the mainland. It was the largest of a collection of islets scattered amongst the shoals located just east of the harbor entrance. Deserted, it was just large enough to support wooded areas made up of palms and other broadleaf trees over half its surface with the remainder being made up of sand and coral.
On this particular night, a longboat rowed by six men with a seventh standing in her bows quietly left the Palisadoes bound for the island. The man standing all the way forward balanced himself with one foot propped up upon the bow. He was wrapped in a dark cloak and was hatless. In his hands he held a small surveyor’s compass, recently acquired for the purpose of maintaining the correct bearing to bring the craft toward Lime Cay’s southeastern edge. He studied the bezel in the glow of a small lantern, the only source of light to aid the craft on its short journey. Cooler air had blown in that evening and thick clouds of fog hung in low lazily floating patches over the surface of the sea. This was as much a benefit as it was a potential hazard. The boat had intentionally shoved off from a point roughly two miles from the nearest fort surrounding Port Royal – just far enough that she would not be seen or heard by anyone as she made her short journey. The thick banks of fog hovering low over the surrounding waters would serve to aid that intent.
The man up front turned to admonish the others rowing behind him, though he was careful to keep his voice low.
“Starboard! I said starboard, do you hear?”
He then went back to studying the compass as the oarsmen pulling on the larboard side accordingly took several sweeps which went unmatched by their comrades sitting opposite. The others resumed rowing in tandem when a curt hand signal from the compass-wielder indicated that the needed adjustment had been achieved.
The man navigating in the bow knew from the start that this short journey in the darkness would be a hazardous one notwithstanding its short distance and duration. The necessary bearing from the Palisadoes, once lost, would no longer be true. Therefore an almost constant watch of the compass heading, as well as the ability to make rapid mental adjustments were essential to its success. Fortunately, the low-lying fog did not entirely obscure the skies, which remained respectably clear, and the man had familiarized himself quite thoroughly with the brightest celestial bodies that would help guide him to his destination.
The force generated by the combined effort of six oarsmen allowed the longboat to cover a considerable distance rather quickly, and before long the navigator thought he spied a sandy shore ahead of them. Raising the lantern to peer through a break in the fog, he confirmed his sighting and signaled silently to the oarsmen to slacken their approach. Within half a minute, the longboat’s bow slid to a stop upon wet sands. The man up front retained the lantern and deftly leaped into the shallows. In the dim glow, he barely noticed the look of concern flashed at him by the boatman seated furthest forward on the port side.
“Ah yes,” the cloaked gentleman said in a loud whisper, apparently remembering something.
He then reached beneath his cloak and produced six gold Spanish escudos. He handed them to the man who had glanced at him.
“Your first payment, as agreed,” he said to the man, evidently the leader of the crew.
As a greedy murmur went up from the group of oarsmen who were quick to make certain of receiving their individual due, the man in the cloak held the lantern out in front of him and swept it around in a half circle. Studying the surrounding area, he reckoned he had arrived several hundred feet almost due north of his ultimate destination, as evidenced by the trees and undergrowth which grew nearly to the water’s edge. He smiled, realizing that he had managed to put ashore at the precise spot he intended. The intervening wooded area shielded his arrival from the clearing at the extreme southeastern tip. It also served as a partial deterrent against any acts of undue curiosity on the part of the hirelings who had brought him here. He now turned back to the boat full of avaricious conscripts before heading off.
“Remain here, I shan’t be long,” he told them. “Remember, you’ll get the rest of the amount promised once the return journey is complete. That should more than adequately recompense you for your services... and pay for your silence.” The last statement was delivered with a look of stern intensity, and the man raised the lantern next to his face with the intent of allowing his temporary levy to see it.
“Aye sah,” the leader replied. “As ye say, as ye say.”
The cloaked man then turned and splashed up onto the thin beach of white sand before ducking beneath a low hanging branch and into the woods, carrying the lantern before him.
As he wended his way through the trees and thick underbrush his heart was positively pounding within his chest, so forcefully in fact that he swore it was louder than his own footsteps. Knowing full well both the potential importance and the inherent dangers of coming here, he could barely restrain the excitement that knowledge produced. It drove him forward with an energy that was familiar in many respects yet tinged with a hint of unease that only the possibility of mortal danger could lend. Still, it was almost as if he couldn’t get where he was going quite fast enough. He found himself silently cursing each branch, bramble or bushy palm that conspired to slacken his pace by threatening to trip him up or snagging and tearing at his cloak. He felt a thin bead of sweat running down his brow onto the bridge of his nose and petulantly reached up to wipe it away.
What am I walking into? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t considered that very question over and over again before he made this clandestine journey; but now that he was actually here, he realized that he was fully committed. For better or worse, there was no turning back, and he managed to quiet his perturbed thoughts with the simple admission that there was little he could do to affect the outcome. The choice had been made and every fiber of his being had told him that this course of action, despite the minacity others would have seen in it, was the right one. That said, he did his best to focus on the task ahead and be sure he was ready for anything. He was armed, of course, but he knew that his wits and vigilance would likely prove to be more effective weapons in this instance than any pistol or saber could ever be.
After a short time he emerged from the shadow of the trees onto a stretch of bare white sand interspersed here and there with larger, more gravelly patches of pulverized coral that cracked and crunched underfoot. Out ahead of him, the mist-shrouded southeastern shore of Lime Cay quickly tapered, forming a long point which gradually fell away into the sea. Holding the lantern high, he looked all about him as he continued to walk slowly forward toward the narrowing beach. As far as he could tell he was completely alone.
He deliberately turned about, holding the lantern up to peer intently at both the empty stretch of sand and the darkened tree line, wondering why he found no one here to meet him. This unexpected solitude quickly reawakened the reservations which had beset him moments before, serving to create newly heightened feelings of restless concern. Had he been deceived after all? Had he been led into a devious trap with false words and empty promises? Were the sights of some unseen musket or pistol now firmly leveled at him from the shadows? He felt a tingling chill as the realization of his vulnerability became apparent but he fought to maintain his composure. Taking a few steps closer to the narrow point of white, he continued to calmly look around him in expectation of some acknowledgement pursuant to the summons he had received. The only sounds were that of the soft breezes, the rustling of palms and the gentle splash of waves lapping against the sandy strand, and so it would remain for several uneasy minutes thereafter. As the time passed, he set his lantern down upon the ground and interlaced his fingers, cracking his knuckles while a sudden gusting of the winds billowed his cloak and produced a noticeable gap in the ambient fog.
It was almost as if the word had been borne upon the quickening breeze, so suddenly did it come upon him from behind. Instinctively, the cloaked man wheeled about and grasped the hilt of his sword.
A featureless shadow which held a lantern of its own was the only thing to meet his gaze. Held low at its side, the orientation of the light was such that it actually obscured the countenance of its bearer. The newcomer held up a dimly silhouetted hand.
“There is no need for that, I can assure you,” an accented voice said in reply to the man’s reaction. “That is unless you are not the man I came expecting to meet.”
The voice’s accent was unquestionably French, yet it seemed to speak the English tongue with a noticeable fluence.
“Lieutenant Michael Shore, Capitaine of the Philadelphia, I presume?” it asked.
In response, the man to whom the query was directed drew an officer’s tricorne from beneath his cloak and placed it upon his head. Picking up the lantern so as to render himself fully visible, he pulled the edge of his cloak back behind his hip, revealing his blue coat and uniform. He had also taken care to ensure the sword and pistols at his belt were clearly displayed.
“At your service, sir,” Shore replied.
At once, the shadowed figure held up its own light and stepped closer, revealing a tall man with a prominent black moustache clad in the blue and red uniform of a French naval officer. He too wore a cloak about his shoulders and the gold lace at the edges of his coat indicated that he held the rank of a full captaincy.
“Gaston Rene LaTour,” the man said, introducing himself. “Tres heureux!”
He then doffed his hat and effected an elaborate, sweeping bow such as French officers were wont to do, nearly touching the sand with the edge of his tricorne. Shore reciprocated with a gentlemanly but far less ostentatious version of his own.
“Clearly you are a man of honor and courage for deciding to meet me here and to do so alone,” LaTour told him, “though that does not surprise me. Even so, it could not have been an easy decision to make in the face of such great uncertainty and so few assurances. However I would venture that your motivation springs from more than one source, Capitaine. You are reputed to be possessed of great moral courage as well.”
“Am I?” Shore asked in a deadpan tone that suggested he found LaTour’s words to be patronizing rather than born of genuine respect.
The Frenchman was undeterred. “Absolument!” he confirmed. LaTour then gestured toward the weapons at Shore’s belt with an upward nod. “And while I firmly believe that you are no slave to fear, it is quite evident that you wisely take heed of its warnings.”
“I do,” Shore said, “though even when engaged in activities that are plainly unorthodox, prudence and standardized procedure can still be of great use.” He paused and took a step forward toward his counterpart with narrowed eyes and an inquisitive look. “Just so, one might wonder whether or not you yourself are one to take heed of fear’s admonitions.”
LaTour’s face clearly bore a subtle grin as Shore was saying this, yet his eyes widened slightly as though to imply he had no idea what he meant. For such a master of deception, Shore decided the captain of the Rapace did a rather poor job of feigning ignorance.
Shore went on. “You not only meet alone with an enemy, but you set the meeting so close to a hostile port that you are all but within reach of its forts’ guns. That of course is to say nothing of all the British warships located little more than a mile from where we now stand. Never mind the uncertainties facing me, your own position would appear to be even more precarious.”
LaTour’s grin did not waver in the slightest and somehow Shore was not at all surprised by his opposite’s almost defiant display of coolness.
“Have you not realized by now, Capitaine,” the Frenchman asked, “that I have taken wonder, uncertainty and virtually every other aspect of the unknown and made them into my own most trustworthy allies? When properly marshaled, they can be employed to greater effect than the most powerful fleets of warships. I should think our encounter near Antigua served to prove that fact, at least in part, for you acquitted yourself quite brilliantly.”
The privateer’s mention of that occurrence made Shore forget all about the particulars of LaTour’s coming to the environs of Kingston and Port Royal. Remembrance of the skirmish with the Rapace and its immediate aftermath instantly moved him to feelings of acute indignation. Here before him stood the man who was responsible for the deaths of two of his crew and the serious wounding of several others.
“Two of my men died that day,” Shore said in a severe yet evenly composed tone. “What I realize, sir, is that whatever truce may exist here and now, whatever code of honor or tenets of behavior you profess to uphold, it remains that you are my enemy. Moreover, certain acts for which you have been responsible in the recent past make it very difficult for me to place any considerable trust in you or your words.”
“Yet here you are,” LaTour retorted, “alone, as I asked you to be. Something drew you to this meeting, nonetheless. Perhaps you speak merely out of pride and passion. That is only to be expected of a commander who values the lives of his men.”
Shore did not immediately reply but merely stood and stared at him with a grimace. His unoccupied hand hanging down at his side had involuntarily clenched itself into a tight fist, so keen had his emotions become. Still, he said nothing. Seeing that his counterpart remained silent, the privateer took the initiative to continue.
“You are still my enemy, make no mistake Monsieur Shore,” he said. “But, as my message imparted, even enemies can be civil to one another if civility is warranted. Why else are men like you and I entrusted with the power of command and the weight of responsibility that comes with being an officer in the service of our respective sovereigns?”
LaTour paused momentarily, and though the only things to be heard were the winds and waves, it seemed to Shore as if the air itself was heavy with the weight of the Frenchman’s words. He felt like he was beginning to form an understanding of his counterpart’s intent, however he was still wary of allowing the man’s abundant charisma to lull him into a sense of complacency and any deadfall that might follow.
“The common fighting man is brave,” the French captain said, “but he requires leadership and direction, the guidance that we provide and the restraint that we must at times impose. Mon Dieu! Think on the horrific chaos that would ensue were things not so! Minds must rise above the omnipresent upheaval and blinding rage of war or everything worth fighting for will be indiscriminately swept away before it all. Common enmity, even that sanctioned by kings or by the governments of great nations should never stand in the way of what is true and right, and that is why I am here. The people behind the plot you seek to uncover are counting upon those very things to blind others to their purpose until it is too late.”
These were words and ideas to which Shore could easily relate, so attuned were they to his own sense of virtue. On top of that, to hear LaTour openly mention the very conspiracy he sought to expose had piqued his interest. Yet there remained a part of him that seemed determined to rebuff the Frenchman’s overtures, no matter how legitimate they appeared. Though this resistance was fast receding, it prompted him to put forth one last stubborn feint.
“Is that why you conscience attacking other vessels under false colors?” he asked brusquely. “Does your sense of right and wrong allow you to condone the destruction of derelict ships while their helpless crews are blown to dust along with them?!”
For the first time, Shore saw an immediate change in the French captain’s previously unassailable facade. LaTour’s brows lowered and his face slowly contorted into a glowering frown. This was obviously something that touched upon his pride, and quite deeply at that.
“You strike at the very heart of the matter, Capitaine,” the privateer told him, still frowning. “I did not do these things.”
“Then who did?” Shore asked abruptly.
“Men of far lesser constancy and fewer scruples than myself, and that does not serve to describe the half of their faults,” LaTour said, clearly incensed. “They are men with whom I no longer share any bonds of affinity whatsoever. They have respect for nothing save their own ill-conceived ambitions. Their principles have become corrupted, defiled and putrescent like festering flesh blighted by a lingering disease.”
To lend weight to this obloquy, LaTour turned his head and spat upon the sandy ground in disgust.
“No matter how beneficial their plan could be for France and her colonies, I cannot condone the ignominious acts these people employ. Merde! I would never think of murdering defeated men, nor would I ever hide behind another nation’s colors to gain an unfair advantage. Deception as a military stratagem has its place, as our mutual encounter illustrated, but deliberate perfidy is nothing short of abominable! The fleurs-de-lis always fly proudly from the stern of my vessel, and that will never change!”
Shore thought for a moment before he spoke. “This seems all very well,” he told him, “but I’m afraid it is of little value to me without any specific information, regardless of how sincere your feelings are on the matter.”
“Indeed,” the Frenchman said. “I am constrained in what I can rightly tell you, as my message imparted, but do grant me your forbearance for the present and you shall have what I came to give you by and by.”
Shore patiently nodded his assent. “Go on, monsieur,” he told his counterpart.
Before he continued, LaTour turned slightly to one side and with a thoughtful look, gazed southward, out over the darkened expanse of the sea.
“Your Royal Navy has slowly but relentlessly gained the upper hand in this war, though I’m sure you are well aware of that fact,” he went on. “I myself could already see it happening long before most of my superiors were able to grasp just how dominant your naval strength would eventually become. So I’m sure you can understand my feelings of frustration when I was forced to watch British influence in the New World grow to reach the heights it now has.”
He now once again turned to face Shore.
“And so I asked to take command of the Rapace and her privateer crew. She may be a vessel which has no place in the line of battle amongst ships of the line, but she can far more easily serve in that capacity which I believe best suits the interests of my people here and now. It is their spirit and their will to go on fighting which must be fed and strengthened. That is why I have become known for the things I do, not for myself, but for the sake of a great many others.”
All appearances of haughtiness and conceit were gone from the Frenchman’s face, replaced by a look that bespoke only forthright sincerity.
“In trying times, Monsieur Shore,” he said, “men have a great need for heroes to both adulate and emulate.”
A short silence ensued which once again allowed the breezes blowing in off the sea to be heard hissing through the trees.
LaTour continued. “Even so, while individual acts of bravado may help to bolster morale, I am but one man, and I can only accomplish so much acting alone. When I was first approached to become part of this scheme which you now so fervently seek to understand, it appeared to me as a godsend. Here at last was something that might very well help my countrymen regain the upper hand and make everything I had accomplished so far well worth the pains and perils. But its masterminds would eventually go too far, and I will not have my reputation blackened by the wickedness of others.”
The privateer paused and gave Shore an almost appraising look with knitted brows and narrowed eyes.
“Do you know what your own single broadside achieved during our skirmish out there?” he asked inclining his head toward the East. Of course he was referring back to the fog-shrouded exchange of cannon fire off Antigua.
Shore silently responded with a look of curiosity.
“I have said it before and I will say it again, I have never seen someone at so great a disadvantage respond that decisively and with such deadly effectiveness. Oh no, you were not the only one who emerged from that particular exchange with dead men and a damaged ship, Capitaine!”
Shore could do little more at that point than simply look surprised.
“Oui, en effet! You are not a man to be trifled with, Monsieur, that is plain, and neither am I. We will have our war, you and I, but with the grace of God it shall be conducted without the knavish influence of dastards and villains!”
Here, LaTour drew a folded document from beneath his cloak and held it out for Shore to take. He once again reiterated his intentions as his counterpart accepted what was proffered.
“As I said, the plot in question touches upon the fate of my country, and by way of association some of my fellow countrymen. Therefore there is little more I can impart to you. I am a gentleman and a man of honor, just as I believe you to be, but I am no traitor.”
LaTour then paused and looked Shore in the eye.
“That, however, is more than I could say for some of your own countrymen. I trust that statement does not produce any great feeling of shock or surprise?”
“Mmmm... oh. No, no it does not,” Shore answered truthfully, but he was distracted at that moment. He was engrossed in studying the document he had just been given, holding it up to the lamplight as he looked it over. An open-mouthed grin came over his face as the meaning of what he saw came together with other aspects of the theory he had been slowly building upon for weeks, interlocking almost like the teeth of two gear wheels.
“Is that document useful to you?” the Frenchman asked, having seen Shore’s reaction.
Shore looked up from his reading. “Yes, yes I believe it is... quite, in fact!” He looked at his counterpart and held the document up in his hand. “To have come all the way here, and to have given me this was... was...”
“No more than honor and righteousness demanded. N’est-ce pas?”
“Indeed sir,” Shore agreed.
The French captain smiled. “We are not so different, you and I,” he offered. “Much like you, I was not born to any wealth or status.”
“What?” Shore asked, suddenly shocked by what he was hearing.
“We are both men who had to advance purely through our own merits,” LaTour went on. “Though we were probably fortunate to encounter men of influence who were good enough to recognize our qualities and act as patrons on our behalf. Still, I believe there is no better, more reputable means of promotion than through one’s own labors. I will say, that fact more than anything else was what prompted me to want to meet with you face to face. For while the aristocracy and families of means have their wealth and their name, men like us who came from humble beginnings must rely on our sagacity and the weight of the great deeds it allows us to perform; and those achievements, when enacted honorably, are worth more than gold itself.”
Shore was nearly rendered speechless. He could have very easily envisoned himself speaking those same words to someone else.
“You... do me a great honor, sir,” Shore responded, honest but bewildered, “but I must ask... how do you know all of this?”
The proud grin suddenly returned to the French captain’s face.
“Remember my friend, wonder and uncertainty,” he told him. “You would not have me give up all of my secrets, now would you?”
“Ah,” Shore replied, now with a smirk of his own. “No, I suppose not.”
Shore looked up at the night sky just as the silvery light of the moon began to slowly emerge from behind a thick cloud. The low-lying fog still hovered in scattered patches but was beginning to slowly dissipate. He felt the winds begin to pick up.
“Well, the hour advances, Captain,” Shore began to say. “I must thank you for your...”
It was just then, as he brought his gaze back down to eye level, that he realized he was once again completely alone. Where LaTour had stood only moments before there was now nothing but a thin mist wafting through the night air. It was almost as if the privateer had simply faded away along with much of the fog that even now continued to thin out and disappear.
“Captain?” Shore called out, though after all the precautions he had previously taken to prevent discovery, he immediately thought better of raising his voice and desisted. After a few moments of standing rather dumbly in the quickening breeze, he suddenly found himself barely able to stifle a laugh.
Wonder and uncertainty indeed, he thought to himself.
“Adieu, Capitaine,” he said quietly.
He then took a minute for one last look at the document he had received, thinking about just how much it had aided his cause. Truly, it was a piece of the puzzle he himself might never have been able to uncover. Carefully folding the precious piece of paper back up, he placed it in his coat pocket. As the winds off the sea continued to freshen, driving away more and more of the remaining mist, Shore once again removed his tricorne and adjusted his cloak to conceal his uniform beneath. Picking up the lantern, he started to trudge back toward the trees and the beach beyond where the longboat awaited his return.
Suddenly he heard a voice call out, echoing over what sounded like a very long distance. It resonated through the night air, seeming to come from somewhere far out to seaward.
“Bonne chance, mon ami!”
Shore turned and looked in that general direction. Though he was unable to see anyone or anything across the dark waters, he nonetheless made a deep bow of respect, assuming that somewhere out there it was possible for the speaker to see his response. Then, with a smile of contentment, he once again turned about and walked off toward the waiting longboat.
As he trod the coral sands toward the palm-fronded verge, his mind was already going to work on his next planned move. Though it might be unseemly or even viewed by some as downright ghoulish, he was sure this was the only way to prove his theories about this plot which was festering in the dark corners and shadowy recesses of the British colonies. He was only too aware of the stark contrast that existed between his somewhat ignoble idea and the conversation he just had with his enemy about honor and gentlemanly virtue. He was willing to risk it though, for the facts it might reveal and confirm were immeasurably important. He only hoped that this information would not come too late.
Strangely, even in the face of this somber realization, Shore’s smile did not wane in the slightest. Perhaps there are times when only the ‘unorthodox and irregular’ can dispel ‘wonder and uncertainty’, he thought with self-satisfaction.