Shipwrecked with a Suitor – Emily Murdoch

erde! Now his shoes were wet, and the storm seemed to show no signs of abating. Pierre d’Épiluçon glanced down at the bottom of the little boat that he had… requisitioned, and cursed again under his breath. This night had come down so fast, he could not even see the wooden slats that made up the bow of the boat. But he could feel. His thin leather shoes, never intended for such an adventure as this, were soaked through. Somewhere on this godforsaken boat, there was a leak. With heavy head and numb fingers, Pierre forced his way against the wind to the other side of the small boat, and tried to pull a rope towards him. It was caught in the fierce gale that had overwhelmed him, not – what, twenty minutes before? Twenty minutes that had felt like a lifetime. This was ridiculous, what had he thought he was doing? His desperation to reach the shores of England, in any way possible, had now forced him in the middle of the Channel with no one to guide him, no map to aid him, no compass to solace him, and now this storm had turned him around so often that he had no idea which way France nor England truly lay. Those summers boating on the lake were nothing on this. Pierre tasted bile in his mouth once more, and hurtled towards the edge of the boat, little as it was, to stick his head over. The knife wound in his thigh screamed out in pain. After being violently sick, he slumped back and felt the freezing water reach his knees. “Ce n’est pas ce que j’avais imaginé,” he murmured to himself. “This is not what I had thought would happen.

” But the words were lost to the wind, snatched out of his mouth by the storm that had robbed him of will, wind in his sails, and awareness of where he was. If he did not find a shore soon, and he was beginning to wonder whether France really would be the worst thing in the world right now, then…well, there was glory in drowning, was there not? Pierre closed his eyes, exhaustion overwhelming him for a moment. In his mind’s eye, he saw what he had left behind in France. His eyes snapped open. Anything but that. Reaching down his hands to the wound, he tried to feel whether it had torn any further. No, it was still a few inches across, still bleeding heavily. It was tempting to give in to the desire to vomit again, but he must be strong. Surely, he would find the welcoming shores of England soon, even if it meant becoming a servant in that land. Filled with renewed courage, but weakening with every moment as icy cold spray burst over the sides of the boat, Pierre rose and tried to concentrate, ignoring the pain in his thigh, the emptiness of his stomach, and the reeling of his head.

The stars … he could navigate from the stars. One throw of his head backwards told him that the gods were laughing at him that night. Of course he could not see the stars, there was a stupide storm! He shivered, and tried to keep his balance as the little boat rocked against a huge wave. What had he been thinking? Why had he come straight from the town to the harbour, without provisions, without even changing out of his court clothes! Here he was, like the imbécile that he was, all lace and gold brocade, when what he really wanted right now was a greatcoat! There! Was that a light? Pierre squinted, brushing saltwater out of his burning eyes, as he blinked desperately in the direction of what could be…could he have been dreaming? No! There in the distance, perhaps four or five miles away – miles that felt insurmountable at present – was a light. It was flickering, it was small, it could not possibly be anything as substantial as a lighthouse, but it was surely real. At least, it looked real. Whether it be shore or ship, it was people, and that was enough for freezing, injured Pierre. The sail was of no use: torn to tatters by the blasted storm, there was nothing for it but to row. Pierre pulled at the oars and almost staggered back, astonished at their weight. That was the trouble with nobility, he smiled ruefully.

They have not done a day’s labour in their life. Well, he was about to pay for all of that now. Ensuring that his back was to the light that seemed to glimmer and blind in the darkness, Pierre heaved, putting all his strength into the oars. But there was not much left of his strength. Though he pulled with all his might, there did not seem to be enough energy within him to survive. Tirer, you fool, pull, Pierre told himself. Or make yourself a nice home here in the deep, for his backside and occasionally knees were covered in water. More sinking than sailing, the boat moved slowly through the water. Every minute or so, Pierre had to pause the halting rhythm that he created, and check to see whether he was still going in the correct direction. His shoulders burned, and the place where he had been stabbed in the thigh seemed actually to be on fire, the salt scalding it with every moment.

Five minutes must have passed. Maybe ten. Now twenty? It was impossible for Pierre to tell, his golden pocket watch now full of seawater and for one moment, a scattering of seaweed. He cried out with the effort as he pulled the oars back another time, and yet he could not hear it. Shouting into that storm was akin to shouting into an abyss. A heavy judder stopped the boat, and tipped it slightly on its side. Pierre, unprepared for such a movement, found himself vomiting slightly as he dropped an oar inside the boat. “Now what?” He murmured, almost delirious with exhaustion. “Are we back in France again?” But the boat was not moving. He could feel that now, feel the slow steady flow of the water that had crept into the boat start to settle.

One exploratory hand wandered over the side of the boat, and the ocean felt sand, and rocks. Pierre’s brows furrowed. “The light.” He had recalled the reason for his desperate row. Turning around, he saw it: a flickering candle in the window of a house, a little worn down at the edges, just twenty yards from the beach where he had landed. Pierre blinked. The beach where he had landed. A shaking leg rose, and tipped him out of the boat. Pierre fell onto sand and rocks, and though they abraded his hands, they were more than welcome. “Land,” he muttered.

“Even a shipwrecked man can find land.” Everything hurt, but there was no relief in his lungs, just air. He had managed it: he had not drowned, he had not let the storm take him! Pierre almost laughed, but the sharp pain in his side prevented him, and the thought that he may be back in France sealed his mood. The rushing gale that had stormed his vessel on the open sea was still here, freezing his wet clothes to his skin. France, or England? How to tell? There was no one here, it was the dead of night. If this was truly France, he needed to hide himself, to disappear in the night, so that no one could find him. If this was England, why, he had to find Paendly. There was no time to lose. He had to move. Pierre stood up, and the stars that had been missing from the night sky when he had desperately needed them to navigate, suddenly appeared.

There was lightness in his head, and suddenly nothing hurt any more. “T He collapsed in a dead faint. A minute later, an hour, a day – who could tell? – Pierre groaned, and opened his eyes. It was still night – or it was night again. How long had he been unconscious? The storm around him seemed to suggest that he had been out only a few minutes. Pierre lay, sprawled on the beach, the very image of a shipwrecked fool. The pebbles beneath him were scattered with rocks and a little sand, but it was a relief to have anything beneath him that wasn’t swaying. “Mon Dieu, what is to become of me?” “What is your name?” cried the woman who suddenly appeared above him, glittering earrings almost blinding him as the light of her lamp shone through them. en minutes is all I need, and that is all I will take!” “But Father – ” The door slammed, and Helena was left talking to an empty room. She sighed, allowing all of the frustration in her lungs to leave her body.

Well, there was nothing for it now. He had gone, as she knew he would, and in a few days when he came back, she would still be here waiting. Helena rose with the two plates in her hand, and took them through to the back door, where they could be left to be rinsed by this terrible storm that had descended a few hours ago as the sun had gone down. It was impossible to prevent her father from visiting the Anchor Inn, and whenever he did – for those ‘ten minutes’ that he always promised her – he was always roped into some scheme or other with the other men of the village. Last month they had gone to London, to seek their fortunes in the dock yards. The time before that – just before Easter, it had been – they had disappeared for a week when they had walked to Marshurst to see if there was any fieldwork. Helena frowned as she looked at the mess he had left behind, and sighed, picking up a cloth and holding it outside a window for a few moments to get it nice and damp. Well, she and Teresa had made a choice: they would care for their father in the best ways that they knew. Teresa had gone to London to earn money, and Helena had stayed here to keep house for him. The sadness that threatened her at every turn started to well up again, but she forced it down.

She would see her sister again – sooner rather than later, she hoped. It had been too long: for too long had her poor sister been forced to – She stopped in the middle of her thought as the sound of her stomach growling broke through even the noise of the gale. She smiled. Of course: when was the last time she had eaten? That morning? Perhaps last night? Helena sighed, and looked around the house. It was a small one, smaller than even she had imagined when her father had told her that he had found the perfect place for them to live after their…reduction in circumstances. Four rooms, two downstairs and two upstairs. A kitchen of sorts, and a parlour, and two bedrooms upstairs. Nothing more, nothing less, and the fishing rights that had come with it – well, her father had dreamed. She did not need to step through the parlour, where she was now wiping down the small table in the centre of the room, and into the kitchen, to know that there was little food in the house. The end of a loaf, some butter graciously given by the local milkmaid.

There was nothing for it; she would have to go outside, and check the crab nets. Pulling on her father’s greatcoat, and his wax hat that kept his balding head dry, Helena threw a quick glance at herself in the five-inch looking glass square that she kept in the window, by their candle. She loved the way that it doubled the light, and on the rare occasion that she wished to see her reflection… Blonde straggling hair, unkept and unbrushed. Dark lashes circling startling blue eyes, eyes so light blue that they even caught her notice sometimes. A pair of rich pink lips, and a nose that she always said was too small for her face, but her father loved because it was her mother’s. Of course, at this moment she could barely see any of that, as her father’s wax hat hid most of her. All to the better: anything to keep the storm from chilling her bones. As soon as she stepped through the door, Helena started to regret her choice. Perhaps she should have checked, she thought as the gale howled against her, making every step feel almost impossible to make. There could have been an end of a loaf, perhaps some kippers from an earlier catch.

Her feet stumbled on the slippery rocks as she made her way doggedly to the crab traps. There were only six, and the first two were empty, her freezing fingers fumbling at the catchments. The third was full: four crabs, three of them small but one large. Helena smiled into the darkness of the night, and picked it up. It was easier to take the whole thing back with her. Turning back towards home, something caught her eye to her right. She could not have said what it was; the flutter of that ragged white sail, perhaps, or the outline of a small boat on its side. Whatever had first caught her attention, it was nothing to the figure on the ground that was moaning quietly. Helena jolted, and dropped the crab cage. It cracked, leaving a hole through which the three small crabs escaped.

She barely noticed. Her eyes were affixed on the collapsed man in what looked like – a golden jacket? This was not uncommon, of course. You did not live four years in a fishing village without seeing the bodies of the drowned. But this was no working man; this was not a man accustomed to fish in the dead of night for crabs, or from dawn to dusk to find enough sustenance to fill your belly and your market stall. Helena edged closer, her heart racing. He was wealthy, there was no doubt about that. His shoes were the flimsiest she had ever seen, and that meant money. Now that she was a little closer, she could see that the jacket was not made of gold, but embroidered so finely with gold thread that it seemed to shimmer and glitter with every movement that she made. His hands were outstretched, as though he had been reaching for something. Helena stared at him, and then the direction which he was facing.

Her candle. The candle in the window: ‘twas the only sign of civilisation for a mile in any direction. Her father had loved being far out from the town, and Helena had accepted it. Now it may have saved this man’s life. Helena took another step towards him, and she swallowed down the nerves that she felt in being so close to a stranger. Why, he could be a vagabond, or a criminal! He could be anything or anyone, and here she was, alone with him in the dark! The storm still pounded her with its gusts, and a drizzle of rain started to fall. She shivered, and took that final step to find herself beside the shipwrecked man. For there was no doubt about that: his boat was done for, almost destroyed. But how far had he come, and why did he not dress more suitably? “Merci, that will do nicely, Jean-Paul,” murmured the man suddenly. “But the chicken will do for tomorrow, tell chef for me…” Helena had jumped back, clutching her greatcoat around her against the battling wind, but the man did not seem to waken.

That had been French. He was a Frenchman! The nerves that had started to creep up her spine heightened at the knowledge. Why, were they not at war with France? Or Napoleon, at least; so out of the way as she was, she depended on Teresa’s news to keep her abreast of foreign policy. Well, if they were at war, then he was a prisoner of war, Helena reasoned with herself, teeth beginning to chatter. And a prisoner of war had no business being so wealthy. She hated herself for it, but necessity drew it from her. Kneeling down hastily, she started to pat him down, looking for a pocket, a ring, a watch, anything of value. A huge intake of breath and the opening of his eyes startled her as he rolled over onto his back, causing Helena to almost fall backwards onto the beach. As she rose and peered over him, he shouted, making her jump again: “Mon Dieu, what is to become of me?” Helena swallowed, and cried out against the gale: “What is your name?” “Mademoiselle!” His eyes grew wide, wider than she thought possible, and in them she saw fear and confusion. “Aidez-moi, s’il vous plaît, I am lost, I am trying to find – ” He broke off: Helena, staring wildly into his dark brown eyes, taking in the sand splattered face, the paleness of his cheeks, and now the way that his hands were clutching at what appeared to be a bloody wound in his thigh.

“You – you are injured, sir!” She shouted, feeling stupid for stating the obvious but unsure exactly what else to say. The man stopped moving, and stared at her in wonderment. “English?” He whispered. Helena nodded, eyes transfixed on her Frenchman. It was not crab that the sea had delivered to her then, but sailor. “English,” he repeated under his voice, and then stronger, “ Pardon mademoiselle, my English is not strong, but it should be enough. Please help me – take me inside, and warm me! I have friends, I have money, s’il vous plaît…” Helena stared at him, and bit her lip. With her father gone to the Anchor – and then to goodness knows where – she would be alone in the house. Well, alone with him. Even soaked to the skin, exhausted, and what looked like stabbed, this Frenchman was still devilishly handsome.

To be alone with him for a few hours would be…uncomfortable. And what if anyone found out? An unmarried woman alone in a house with a man – and a Frenchman! “S’il vous plaît,” he said faintly, and she saw the pallor on his face grow. “Mademoiselle belle, s’il vous plaît…” It was not really a decision, after all. How could she leave this poor man, for all he was a Frenchman, to freeze, or drown, or die of his injuries? “Try to stand up,” she said moving quickly, pulling under his arms and struggling with all her might to raise him up. “‘Tis not far.”

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