This is the third of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. After their marriage, Betsy and Jerome needed to sail to France to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their impulsive marriage, but they had to be careful. The British navy was eager to capture Napoleon’s youngest brother. Shortly after the Bonapartes board a French frigate in New York’s Inner Harbor, they are shown to their cabin. (Note that Elisa is Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.)
They followed the sailor down a narrow path between hammocks, past a partition, and into a corridor that ran between cabins. “Voilà,” the sailor said, pointing to a door. Then, after touching his cap in a gesture of respect to Jerome and swiftly running his gaze over Betsy’s figure, he hurried away.
As Jerome opened the door, he warned Betsy that it had a raised sill. She carefully stepped into a cramped closet of a room with a single bunk, small writing desk and chair, and washstand. A whale-oil lamp was mounted to a bracket on the wall. Although her father earned much of his fortune through shipping, Betsy had never been on a vessel before and was shocked by the tight spaces and the pervasive odors of pine tar, mildew, and worse.
Jerome ducked to enter the low door. Straightening again, he laughed when he saw Betsy’s expression. “Oh, my poor Elisa. You did not expect anything so Spartan, did you?”
He took her into his arms and kissed her. “A frigate was never meant to house such a fine lady as you.”
They ate supper in the wardroom that evening, and as they dined on beef, fresh bread, fruit, and cheese, the officers teased Betsy that she was lucky they had just victualed the ship. “If we had been at sea for many weeks, we would have had to serve you ship’s biscuit riddled with weevil worms.”
At the end of the meal, when the Bonapartes rose from the table, Captain Brouard told Jerome that he was sending a pilot boat out the next day to see if the coastal waters were clear.
“An excellent precaution.” Jerome answered.
“What did the captain mean?” Betsy asked Jerome once they were alone in their cabin.
He knelt on the bunk to open their porthole and get some fresh air. “My sojourn in the United States is no secret, Elisa. For weeks the New York newspapers have been publishing accounts of our plans to sail.”
“And the British would like nothing better than to capture Napoleon’s brother,” she said with a shudder.
Her frightened tone caused him to turn and peer at her. “Sois tranquille. You are in experienced hands. If we should be attacked during our journey, I will place you in the most protected part of the ship, and if the worst happens and we are forced to surrender, you will be sent to your family. Not even the British would use a woman as political hostage.”
Betsy went into his arms. “That would be little comfort to me if you were made prisoner. I would rather share your fate.”
“I would never allow that.” He stroked her hair. “But have no fear. The Didon is our navy’s fastest frigate.”
The next afternoon as they waited for news, Jerome gave Betsy a tour of the main deck of the ship, showing her the enormous ship’s wheel, the compass, the bell, the masts, and the rigging. As he explained the various sails and their uses, he noticed the pilot boat returning from its scouting mission. They waited impatiently as the boat’s skipper made his report. Finally, the captain summoned them to his stateroom.
“The scout brought grave news,” Brouard said. “Two British warships, a corvette and a frigate, are lying off Sandy Hook just south of the place where we must enter the lower bay.”
“A corvette is not much threat. How many guns has the frigate?” Jerome asked.
“Then taken together, the Cybèle and the Didon outgun them.”
“Yes, but our maneuverability will be limited. I take it you have not sailed the Narrows before. We will be in single file as we pass between Staten Island and Long Island, while they will have the advantage of being in open water. And our scout saw more ships on the horizon.”
The news terrified Betsy, and she bit her lip. Jerome had a glint in his eyes that made her think he relished the idea of fighting their way free, but seeing her fear, he said, “Perhaps they have nothing to do with us. Let us wait a day or two and see what action they take.”