Chapter 1: Tunis
Oh, dear God, what have I done?
Standing at the rail of the packet schooner Alcion, Lady Caroline Sarratt gripped the smooth wood with a trembling hand.
Why am I spurned by the man who only yesterday made me his wife?
One afternoon ago, Lady Caroline had stood in this same spot gazing out at the same sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Shading her from the scorching North African sun were the same basket-willow poke bonnet and fashionably fringed parasol. Dwindling to dots were her parents and her father-in-law, waving good-by from the dock at Tunis.
And standing by her side was her husband of six hours: Jerome Sarratt, Comte de Gilordeau.
What incredible good fortune, to have been chosen by the handsomest, most charming man she had ever met!
After their whirlwind courtship, she looked forward with nervous anticipation to the discoveries ahead. There was so much she and Jerome did not know about each other! Would their first night together be awkward? Alarming? Delightful?
The one thing Lady Caroline had not expected her wedding night to be was solitary.
She braced herself against the rail to stop her parasol from fluttering. Alcion’s smooth deck was slippery under her blue kid boots, but her matching gloves gave her a firm grip. They were a perfect complement to her pale pink cambric walking-dress, which Jerome particularly admired.
My English rose, he called her. In Tunis, surrounded by dark-skinned and dark-haired men, Caroline’s blonde complexion made her conspicuous.
Their marriage ceremony had been short, their departure wrenching. Jerome arranged everything. If he was sorry to leave his aged father, and this dusty port which had been their home these ten years, his excitement for a bright future in London outweighed his regret for the past.
Parting from her mother and father had filled Lady Caroline’s eyes with tears. Tales of pirates, tempests, and shipwrecks sent chills up her spine. But only one thing did she fear: becoming seasick and spoiling the start of their intimate life together.
When he had kissed her at the altar, his lips had barely brushed hers. Jerome loathed public displays of emotion. Tonight at last they could embark upon the great adventure of getting to know each other in private.
Both the sea and Caroline’s stomach remained calm. When night fell, however, and their party at the captain’s table broke up, Jerome directed her to the stateroom next to his.
“Why?” she blurted in astonishment.
“It will be better so.” He did not meet her eyes. “See how small and hard are these berths? Add to that the motion of the sea, and we should not enjoy each other’s company.”
“Dear husband, I’m sure I shall always enjoy your company.”
“I think not.”
With a brief kiss—dry lips grazing her cheek—he ended the discussion.
Caroline obediently went to bed alone. She lay awake all night, heartsick and puzzled.
from Chapter 5: Jerome
Barbarossa listened in expressionless silence. When Jerome finished, the corsair gave a one-sentence reply. Jerome seemed surprised. Barbarossa repeated his statement. Jerome turned to Caroline.
“He wants me to translate for you what I have said.”
Caroline too was surprised, and uneasy.
“I told the captain that I am travelling to Britain on a diplomatic mission, accompanied by my wife. I reminded him that His Majesty’s government is accustomed to pay the Maghreb chieftains for the safety of British ships and subjects. I said that whether or not he regards himself as bound by that arrangement, he surely must agree that it is in his best interest to accord us the respect due to His Majesty’s representatives.”
Oh, dear God, thought Caroline.
She looked down the table. Barbarossa, leaning back in his grand chair, gave Jerome his answer.
His tone too was measured. But Caroline saw shock and growing distress on her husband’s face.
When he had finished, Barbarossa watched Jerome expectantly. Then, frowning, he barked a short command.
Yet still Jerome sat mute.
Yolande set down the pitcher she carried and spoke across the table to Caroline.
“The captain Barbarossa wishes me to translate what he has said.” She folded her hands. “The captain informs the slave Sarratt that he and his companions are prizes taken with the schooner Alcion. They are the captain’s property, to dispose of as he sees fit. The captain Barbarossa reminds the slave Sarratt that he is a traitor to the government of His Majesty King George the Third, and also to Madame Sarratt. Therefore no respect is due to him. His invitation to this table he owes entirely to the captain’s generosity, for which he has returned discourtesy instead of thanks. It pleases the captain Barbarossa to remedy these injustices. He also means to remedy the slave Sarratt’s unaccountable neglect of his marital duty. I do not know the English word for droit du seigneur.”
Barbarossa nodded his approval.
Yolande, not meeting Caroline’s eyes, picked up her water pitcher and resumed filling glasses.
Jerome had turned as white as the untouched potato on his plate.
A traitor? To His Majesty’s government, and to his wife?
Caroline blinked hard, desperate to wake from the nightmare which had enveloped her like a poisonous fog.
. . . She opened her eyes onto her half-empty dinner plate. There was Jerome beside her, still seemingly unable to move or speak. There were their fellow prisoners from the Alcion.
And there was Barbarossa, who had just informed her in front of her husband and three other men that, rather than sell her virginity to the highest bidder, he intended to take it himself.
. . . She was angry at Barbarossa, of course. But she was angrier at Jerome.
What kind of gentleman would allow a Barbary corsair to take his wife as a concubine?
What kind of Englishman would sit silent while a pompous foreigner called him a traitor?
What kind of British representative would squander his chance to secure their freedom by bullying their captor?
Was that what Barbarossa had meant by “traitor”?—that Jerome’s arrogance had doomed his wife and his companions?
A movement near the bow caught her eye. People? Were the other corsairs enjoying their own evening promenade?
She turned her head to whisper to Mr. Brunel: “Who are they?”
“Our crew,” he whispered back. “Captured. Not killed.”
He sounded almost joyful. As indeed he must be, to see his men alive whom he must have thought slaughtered or drowned.
“What will become of them?”
“Impressed? Sold? I don’t know! Oh, if only— I heard at Algiers of a whole ship’s crew being ransomed. Please God the Alcion’s owners can save these men!”
He spoke so fervently that Caroline glanced at their guard in concern. That young corsair, however, had moved back to chuckle over something with his fellow at the rear.
Emboldened, she nudged Jerome and told him what Mr. Brunel had said.
“That is good news,” he replied softly. “Caro-leen, I am very sorry for all of this.”
“I know.” But it warmed her heart to hear him say it.
“We must have courage.”
“Perhaps, with God’s help . . .” His voice broke.
“We shall laugh about it someday, when we are back at home in England,” she completed.
Jerome nodded. From the trembling of his shoulders, she realised that he was weeping.
Chapter 6: Barbarossa
The image of her husband’s anguish burned in Caroline’s memory when Yolande led her back into Barbarossa’s chamber.
Gone were the platters of beef and fish, the wine, the glasses, the table and chairs. Once again she entered her first prison aboard the Amina.
That carved teak chair Jerome had fetched for her, when she could not stand. On that oriental carpet his coat and pantaloons had been ripped away. Onto that bed he had been pushed by rough hands which proceeded to search every inch of him.
How, after all that, could she expect him to mount a successful defense against Barbarossa?
Despite her throbbing ankle, Caroline would gladly have walked around the deck for another hour. The reunion with sky, stars, and sea was exhilarating—a too-brief taste of the sweet familiar world in which life might be pleasant or difficult, but was rarely terrifying.
The terror came back when the corsairs separated her and Jerome. They herded the three gentlemen forward into a second deck-house. Caroline they forced back down the ladder to the officers’ cabin.
Yolande awaited her at the bottom.
“Where have they taken my husband?”
“Crew forward, officers aft, prisoners below in the brig. Your husband, I do not know.”
“Enough,” Yolande cut her off. “That is finished. You must let it go.”
She ignored Caroline’s questions and pleas. If she suspected how urgently this English girl in her smudged pink dress craved conversation, company—anything but to be left alone in Barbarossa’s bedchamber like a sacrificial lamb—well, what could she do?
“Can you not at least give me your advice? How am I to speak with him, with no language in common?”
To her surprise, Yolande laughed. “Oh, you and Barbarossa have a language! You need not concern yourself about that.”
Caroline’s stricken expression brought another laugh. “Don’t worry! You know, I am quite jealous of you.”
“Jealous? Of me?”
“Certainly! Most of us have a rougher initiation. These men— Well, you are lucky. You may not believe it now, but you will see.”
Footsteps outside. Yolande patted Caroline’s cheek.
With the click of the key in the latch, Caroline’s insides convulsed. Her cheeks went hot, her hands went cold. The little she had eaten was churning in her stomach.
Yolande opened the door. Her cheerful greeting to her master seemed to come from miles away.
If I am sick, surely he would not . . .?
In spite of her nausea, Caroline rose. With her foot disabled, she could neither flee nor fight; but she could not bear to sit helplessly waiting.
Yolande stood back for Barbarossa to enter. Then she slipped out and locked the door.
The tall turbaned corsair put his hands on his hips and cocked his head, looking over his prize with a faint smile.
Not even when the Alcion was seized had Caroline felt so frightened. Then, too many things had happened too fast for fear to grip her. Now, like a mouse being stalked by a cat, she had time to watch her fate approaching.
He had changed his shirt. When? Had he worn a clean one at dinner? Perhaps afterwards, during the prisoners’ walk on deck. Perhaps he had bathed? Did pirate ships carry enough clean water for anyone to bathe? The blood of combat they could rinse off with seawater—
He was moving toward her.
If she stepped back, her knees would catch on the chair and she would crumple.
His arm snaked around her waist. His hand slid up her back. His beard brushed her chin as his mouth fastened onto hers.
There was a roaring in her ears. Her knees sagged, but his strong arms held her up.