Stay with the Sea • Lily Duquaine

The first step off of the tattered wood of the boat’s plank left John with a feeling of loneliness, for his life had always been at sea, and now he was intact with the earth that he had escaped long ago. The rugged memories of a war-torn sailor washed away with every aggressive sip from the flask of rum produced from his jacket. America had won their independence, and it was an issue for him no longer, he reminded himself. It was time to return to France.

“Let us cheer for the great hero, John Paul Jones!” He had found himself escorted to the home of a wealthy merchant, where people dressed in finery gathered to partake in gossip and other socialites. John was welcomed by friends and strangers alike, pretty women clawing at his arm to be the center of the great Navy man’s attention. From afar, two dusty green eyes examined John as he spoke with his admirers, examining his behavior toward them. He stood sturdily, broad shoulders set back and hands moving without hesitation from woman to woman; a gentle caress of a waist, a holding of a hand, a stroke among a soft face and curled hair. John suddenly turned his head toward a circular table sitting near the door, and the green eyes averted themselves to a painting on the wall.

“Quite a beautiful image, don’t you agree, madame?” John Paul Jones spoke in a deep, smooth tone upon arriving at the table. He was met by the gaze of a woman, whom he had noticed studying him just before. Dark auburn hair fell in spiral tendrils around her sharply boned face. The rest wound intricately on top of her head, pinned into place with crystal-encrusted clips that glinted toward John’s eyes with the movement of her head toward him.

“Yes, monsieur, it is very impressive,” she gestured toward the mute colored canvas which portrayed the portrait of a soldier, his eyes empty and cheeks hollow upon his return from the seven year war. “Have you ever considered having yourself painted? I’m sure any artist would be honored to be commissioned by the great John Paul Jones.”

The sailor pulled out an empty chair next to the woman and lowered himself into it. “Well I am sure that one would rather have your face eternalized in their home rather than mine. My appearance lacks an art, madame, but yours does not. May I ask your name?” Her cheeks grew pink, as if someone had pinched the skin and forced blood to flow into them.

“Charlotte Marguerite de Lowendahl,” she answered, “However, monsieur, I am not one to model… I am an artist myself.” Her dark eyelashes batted such as the wings of the mossy green butterflies that were her irises. John was intrigued by Charlotte, who was not only beautiful, but also talented in the arts, as many desirable women were expected to be. He wondered how she was not swarmed by men asking for her hand, though his question was soon answered.

Just as John was about to inquire about the work of the young lady, her focus suddenly directed itself to the other side of the table, where a tall, fair man was nearing. “Are you not going to introduce me, my wife?” he chuckled, twinkling blue eyes glancing toward John while he went to sit at the table. John’s eyes widened, his fists clenching as he fought to keep his composure with the realization that Charlotte was wed.

Charlotte did not hesitate to force a bright smile, although her jaw was tense out of displeasure at the appearance of her husband. She strived to hold her own identity, though her husband interfered with her independence at any chance he had.  “Oh, dear, this is John Paul Jones, the great sailor from the Continental Navy,” she explained in a cheerful tone. “Monsieur Jones, this is my husband, Francois Xavier Joseph, Comte de Lowendahl. He is a colonel in the French army, you two may have much to talk about.”

John returned to his quaint home with only Charlotte on his mind, unable to overcome the grueling idea of being unable to have her as his own. They had spoken for the rest of the salon, them and her husband, about mundane topics and the war. Though she appeared interested with raised eyebrows and visible teeth, her eyes remained duller than they had been while speaking earlier, or appreciating the painting. Her husband did not make her feel alive, John decided, not like he could.

A week passed and John had become obsessive, he imagined Charlotte’s face at every moment he was able to leave reality and live in his mind. He was distant, wondering when he would see her next, and if her husband would be there to spoil it. John wondered if Charlotte did not care for him as he hoped, though his thoughts always ended with the conclusion that she was mad for him as well. Finally, one day, a woman in the drab, dirty clothing of a dedicated maid knocked at John’s door. She greeted him with a curtsy, and quickly thrusted a package out toward him with her arms outstretched.

“From my mistress, Comtesse de Lowendahl,” she announced.

John accepted the parcel from the woman’s dry, worked hands and shut the heavy oak door as she turned to leave. He moved toward the light of the chandelier hanging from the foyer ceiling before hungrily tearing open the cloth packaging. Attached with a dainty pale pink ribbon was a folded note, neat cursive sprawled upon it. He paused, and reached to open the small piece of parchment.

 

You said that your appearance lacks art. I apologize monsieur, but I disagree.

                                                                        With love, Comtesse de Lowendahl

 

John threw the note aside and it fluttered through the air until it hit the oak floor. He turned his attention back toward the package; a stupid lovestruck smile permeated on his face, and continued his attack on the wrapping. He soon held a brooch in the large palm of his hand, and on it he saw his own face. The painted version of him held an empty, pearly blue gaze toward the corner of the room, his white hair curled just over his ears. He wore his uniform, cleanly pressed and presentable, the sign of a respectable sailor to the Navy. John gazed down at the man who he recognized with uncertainty, for he had never seen such beauty in himself. His dwindling fingers bent to grasp the brooch tightly, and he lifted it to his heart with his eyes closed in thought. The Comtesse had dug her well-groomed claws into his soul, and he was infatuated greater than he had been with any other woman he had met during his Parisian excursion. With a passionate vigor, he took long strides to his study, where he placed the brooch on his desk and took a quill to paper.

You have made me in love with my own picture because you have condescended to draw it, he wrote, pondering each word as he imagined her nimble hands mixing colors to capture his image. Only love, John thought, could explain why she had put so much care into her creation. I am to leave Paris soon to further assist the American cause, however, I have created a cypher as to allow our future correspondence without risk. Take this lock of my hair to remember me and my affections for you, my dearest. If I could send you my heart itself or anything else that could afford you pleasure it would be my happiness to do it. Within the letter, John carefully enclosed a chunk of his whitening hair he had sheared off, as well as the hand-written copy of the cypher he had promised to the married woman.

Satisfied with the sealed contents, John cautiously handed the envelope to his trusted servant to deliver the next morning. “You must be certain that it is opened by the Comtesse de Lowendahl, and no one else,” he demanded in a stern, yet quiet voice, the order splitting through the air in a focused stream. After receiving a panicked nod of the young maid, John retired to his room, the brooch hanging from the chain poised around his neck, even as he slept that night.

Morning came, and John waited anxiously for a response from his dear Charlotte. He was scheduled to depart the next day, and he refused to sail back to America until hearing from her again. The response came late in the afternoon, when the same maid who had delivered the miniature portrait knocked on his door once more. The door had not even fully slammed closed before John tore open the envelope, and his eyes pushed themselves to devour every word as quickly as possible. I am touched by the feeling you have for me, and I would have liked to be able to answer them, but I could not do so without deceiving a gentleman with whom I live, and I am incapable of doing that. John’s heart dropped deep into his stomach, and he felt a pounding in his head. My Husband has received word of our correspondence, and I cannot go forth with this arrangement. With hope that it eases your disappointment, I will explain my intentions, though they may taint my name. Your position with the Continental Navy holds power that could offer my dear Husband his own position within the Continental Army. While I am fond of you, Monsieur Jones, I do not seek more than a friendship.

            The parchment fell out of John’s hand and glided to the floor as he stood numbly. He reached to caress the brooch hanging from his neck before grasping it tightly and swiftly tearing it away from his skin. The small piece of art landed heavily atop the letter, and John tilted his head downward to stare at the face that was not beautiful after all. The next day, he stepped onto the ship with a determination to leave the land behind once more. As the sails were raised and the port grew distant, he questioned why he ever left his life at sea.

 

 

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