The League of Austen’s Extraordinary Gentlemen: Part the First
The Gentlemen of the Royal Navy
In which the defense begins.
There was a cry from the lookout. “Deck ahoy! Enemy sighted two points off the larboard bow!”
The first lieutenant strode to the rail and raised his glass. After a moment he said to the midshipman of the watch, “Pray convey my respect to the captain, and tell him that we have a situation that requires his attention.”
The captain soon joined his first officer, who handed the captain his glass. The captain observed a moment, and then said to the lieutenant, “Our old friend.”
“Yes, sir. And that is the part of the coast where the Dashwood ladies have taken a cottage.”
“Our duty is clear, Mr. Price. He has escaped us before, but he shall not escape this time.” The captain gave his commands with rapid confidence. “Signal the fleet: enemy in sight, prepare to engage. Then beat to quarters.”
The deck jumped to life, the Marine drummer’s beat and the shrill call of the bosun’s whistle ringing over the excited voices of sailors and officers running to battle stations. Within a few minutes, excess furnishings were struck into the hold, the guns were loaded and run out, and the Marines were assembled along the rail with muskets ready to fire.
Two sloops of war came up, one on each side of the frigate; Grappler to larboard and Asp to starboard, following Laconia’s lead.
“Wentworth, Harville, and Benwick fighting together again,” Mr. Price said to the midshipman. “The enemy hasn’t got a chance.”
“Will we get prize money, do you think?” asked the midshipman, who was always thinking of prize money.
Mr. Price, who was as much in need of prize money as any man in the Royal Navy, gave him a withering look. “Some things are more important than money, Mr. Thorpe, and you would do well to remember it. Our first duty, always, is to defend Miss Jane Austen.”
Mr. Thorpe nodded, duly chastened.
Commands came thick and fast, signal flags flew up and down the mast, and the three ships turned as one to rake the enemy with a broadside.
From the sea rose a horror: lengthy tentacles writhing and twisting, its body inky-dark as the depths of the ocean, its eyes red-rimmed and glaring with the evil soul contained in its stinking carcass; then it reared back to display its mouth, a beaked horror, gaping and seemingly ready to devour them. Writhing tentacles reached inexorably for the English ships. It was a sight that would take the heart of many a brave man, but the well-disciplined Laconias stood fast.
“Fire as they bear!” roared Wentworth from the quarterdeck.
The three broadsides roared out almost as one, peppering the enemy with shot. The sea-creature cried out in agony; the water turned red as it thrashed, but the shot seemed only to anger the creature, not wound it. It gave a great, other-worldly cry, and its tentacles reached out once again to take, to crush, to destroy.
“Hot shot, I think, Mr. Price!” came the command from Captain Wentworth.
“Aye aye, Captain!” Mr. Price conveyed the command, which was passed below; a succession of sailors brought up buckets containing red-hot shot that had been fired in preparation. The guns were carefully loaded, the wadding well-wetted to keep the hot shot from exploding the bag of gunpowder behind it.
The ships turned; the Grappler led the way, drawing daringly close to the creature, driving it back with a broadside, bawling and waving its tentacles as her guns found their target. The Asp peppered it with even more shot, and then the Laconia drew within reach of the tentacles.
“FIRE!” the captain’s voice roared out, and the Laconia was lost in a haze of smoke as an inferno burst from her guns.
The creature gave a last shrieking, strangled cry; bits of torn flesh thudded onto the deck as officers and ratings alike scrambled to avoid being struck. After a moment, it was over, and the deck was covered with stinking, mangled pieces of sea-monster, and the sea was thick with it. The seagulls descended shrieking to feast, and shark fins popped up among the floating detritus.
Lieutenant Price wrinkled his nose at a steaming pile of flesh on the quarterdeck. “Smells like low tide.”
Some of the sailors began to collect the flesh in bowls and baskets.
“Do not even think about cooking that,” said the captain. “I will not have you stinking up my ship with it.”
The sailors, who had been looking forward to a little variety in their diet and were not over-particular of the source, reluctantly threw the bits of sea-creature overboard to the seagulls and the sharks.
Captain Wentworth invited his two fellow captains and several of his officers to dine with him aboard the Laconia that night to celebrate the victory. His steward brought port and cigars to finish, and they all indulged generously.
“A giant squid,” said Captain Benwick. “A GIANT SQUID! Some blockhead thought the Royal Navy could not dispatch a giant squid from Miss Austen’s novels!” He snorted into the glass that Captain Harville had just refilled.
“The enemy has grown complacent,” said Captain Wentworth, sending a thick plume of cigar smoke to the ceiling. “They magnify their own small successes beyond their worth, and forget that we, the defenders, are ever-vigilant.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Mr. Thorpe, loudly, raising his glass.
Harville giggled drunkenly. “Even the younker knows. There is no power on earth that can withstand the might of the British Navy!” There were cries of “Hear, hear!” as the officers raised their glasses and saluted that fine sentiment.
Captain Wentworth rose, and they grew quiet as they turned toward their leader. “Tonight, gentlemen, we celebrate our victory. Tomorrow, we return to our duty: protecting Miss Austen’s creation from those who would destroy it.” He raised his glass. “I give you Miss Austen.”
They all rose and cried as one, “To Miss Austen!”
Outside, all was quiet; but they all knew that the enemy had not yet been vanquished.
Next episode: The Gentlemen of His Majesty’s Armed Forces
Captain Frederick Wentworth
Captain James Benwick
Lieutenant William Price
M’man William Thorpe*
*From NA, Chapter 4: “Mrs. Thorpe, however, had one great advantage as a talker, over Mrs. Allen, in a family of children; and when she expatiated on the talents of her sons, and the beauty of her daughters, when she related their different situations and views — that John was at Oxford, Edward at Merchant Taylors’, and William at sea –” And y’all think I just make stuff up.