The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail. To appease the red-haired captain, Wedgwood gets cracking with the meager supplies on board. His first triumph at sea is actual bread, made from a sourdough starter that he leavens in a tin under his shirt throughout a roaring battle, as men are cutlassed all around him. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider. But Mabbot—who exerts a curious draw on the chef—is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur hidden on her ship, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox.
ONE: DINNER GUESTS
In which I am kidnapped by pirates
Wednesday, August 18, 1819
This body is not brave. Bespeckled with blood, surrounded by enemies, and bound on a dark course whose ultimate destination I cannot fathom—I am not brave.
The nub of a candle casts quaking light on my damp chamber. I have been afforded a quill and a logbook only after insisting that measurement and notation are crucial to the task before me.
I have no intention of cooperating for long; indeed, I hope to have a plan of escape soon. Meanwhile, I am taking refuge in these blank pages, to make note of my captors’ physiognomy and to list their atrocities that they might be brought properly to justice, but most of all to clear my head, for it is by God’s mercy alone that I have not been driven mad by what I have seen and endured.
Sleep is impossible; the swells churn my stomach, and my heart scrambles to free itself from my throat. My anxiety provokes a terrible need to relieve myself, but my chamber pot threatens to spill with every lurch of this damned craft. I use a soiled towel for my ablutions, the very towel that was on my person when I was cruelly kidnapped just days ago.
To see my employer, as true and honest a gentleman as England ever sired, so brutally murdered, without the opportunity to defend himself, by the very criminals he had striven so ardently to rid the world of, was a shock I can hardly bear. Even now my hand, which can lift a cauldron with ease, trembles at the memory.
But I must record while my recollections are fresh, for I cannot be sure that any of the other witnesses were spared. My own survival is due not to mercy but to the twisted whimsy of the beast they call Captain Mabbot.
It transpired thus.
I had accompanied Lord Ramsey, God rest his soul, to Eastbourne, the quaint seaside summer home of his friend and colleague Mr. Percy. There we rendezvoused with Lord Maraday, Mr. Kindell, and their wives. It was not a trivial trip, as the four men represented the most influential interests in the Pendleton Trading Company.
I had been in his lordship’s employ for eight years, and it was his habit to bring me along on journeys, saying, as he did, “Why should I suffer the indignities of baser victuals in my autumn years when I have you?” Indeed, it had been my honor to meet and cook for gentlemen and ladies of the highest stature, and to have seen the finest estates of the countryside. My reputation grew in his service, and I have been toasted by generals and duchesses throughout England. Happily for me, his lordship rarely went overseas, and even on those occasions he left me in London, respecting my considerable aversion to the rolling of ships.
This particular trip had me at my most vigilant, not only due to the prominence of the guests but because the Percy seat was reportedly rustic, of unknown appointment, and sporting a historic oven without proper bellows or ventilation. Try as I did, I could not acquire reliable information as to the status of the pantry prior to arrival. For this reason I provisioned myself with a menagerie of ducks, quail, and a small but vociferous lamb, as well as boxed herbs and spices, columns of cheeses, and my best whisks and knives. Lord Ramsey teased that I had packed the entire kitchen. But I could see in his face satisfaction at my diligence. His faith in me was a poultice for my nerves. As usual, I had worried myself sleepless over the event. The modest size of the house prevented me from bringing my able assistants—a stroke of luck for them, as they are safe now in London. Rather, I relied wholly on the staff brought by the other guests.
Eastbourne was as lovely as I had heard, with foals cavorting in the pasture and the woods promising moss-cushioned idylls. The house itself commanded stunning views of the channel, an azure scarf embroidered with sails and triumphal clouds. As it happened, both pantry and scullery maids were more than adequate. While I always prefer my kitchen at his lordship’s seat in London—every inch of which I have organized, from the height of the pastry table to the library of spices catalogued both by frequency of use and alphabetically—I nevertheless took pleasure in anointing a new kitchen with aromas.
With great energy I oversaw the unpacking of my provisions and set a scullery maid to heating the oven in preparation for a four-course meal. Despite my anxiety, I was looking forward to this short week away from the noise and bustle of London and had planned to take an early-morning stroll the following day to savor the wildflowers and sylvan air.
What ignorance. Even as Ramsey lifted his glass for a toast, unwelcome guests were moving through the garden.
Basil-beef broth had been served, with its rainbow sheen of delicate oils trembling on the surface and a flavor that turned the tongue into the very sunlit hill where the bulls snorted and swung their heavy heads. The broth was met with appreciation (the kitchen was close enough to the dining room, just a door away, that I could hear every chuckle and whisper of praise). I had just arranged the duck. The brick oven had surpassed my expectations; the cherry glaze flowed like molten bronze over the fowl and pooled in crucibles of grilled pear. The servants were carrying the platter to the table when a frightful noise at the front vestibule brought all levity to a halt.
I opened the kitchen door just far enough to poke my head into the dining area. The other staff crowded around me to see. We made a comical sight, no doubt, so many heads peering through one door like the finale of a puppet show.
From there we could see what was left of the entrance. A petard had left a smoking hole where the lock had been. A second later the door was kicked in by a mountain of a man I would come to know as Mr. Apples.
My shock at the sight of this breach cannot be expressed, and so I will content myself with descriptions of a visual nature.
Mr. Apples might have been drawn by a particularly violent child. His torso is massive, but his head is tiny and covered by a woolen hat with earflaps. His shoulders are easily four feet in span. His arms are those of a great ape’s and end in hands large enough to hide a skillet.
He surveyed the room and, seeing no immediate resistance, stood aside to allow the others in. He was followed by not one but two short Chinamen in black silk, twins in face and dress; they entered with their hands clasped behind their backs, swords swinging from their hips. One of them wore his queue wrapped around his neck like a scarf. They took their positions flanking the hall.
The three made a curious group, the hulk of Mr. Apples and these two child-sized Orientals. If not for the mutilation of the door, I would have thought we were about to enjoy a mummer’s theater.
Then entered a pillar of menace, a woman in an olive long-coat. Her red hair hung loose over her shoulders. She sauntered to the middle of the room, her coat opening to reveal jade-handled pistols.
Using a chair as a stepping stool, she walked upon the dining table to Lord Ramsey’s plate and stood there looking down, as if she had just conquered Kilimanjaro. Her boots added inches to her already long frame. No one dared tell her, apparently, that tall women confuse the eye.
Even I, who know only what I read in the dailies, recognized her at once. There, not twenty feet from me, was the Shark of the Indian Ocean, Mad Hannah Mabbot, Back-from-the-Dead Red, who had been seen by a dozen credible witnesses to perish by gunshot and drowning, and yet had continued to haunt the Pendleton Trading Company routes, leaving the waters bloody in her wake.
Lord Ramsey leaped from his chair and fled toward the back steps (never had I seen him move with such urgency), but he was intercepted by one of the twins, who must have given him a blow, for he crumpled to the floor gasping. Mr. Percy, finally realizing his obligation to protect his guests, made a valiant attempt to retrieve an heirloom sword from the mantel, but the massive Mr. Apples brought down his fist and ruined Mr. Percy’s face as a child ruins a pie.
A terrible silence filled the house, interrupted only by the wet whimpering of Mr. Percy and the equine clopping of Mad Mabbot’s boots as she descended and approached Lord Ramsey’s supine figure. There, with pleasure plain on her face, Mabbot drew her pistols and leveled both barrels.
Posterity will reprimand me for not making an attempt to protect him, and well it should. Despite my girth, I am a sorry pugilist. As a child, I was bullied by children much smaller than myself. Mr. Percy, whose fate I had just witnessed, had fought against Napoleon’s cavalry. I had no hope of faring any better. I should like to have a better excuse, but I was simply frozen under my white toque.
Mabbot was only paces from me, and I could hear as she spoke to Lord Ramsey in the cheery tone a milkmaid may use to soothe a cow.
“No, don’t get up—we can’t stay long. Once I learned you were in the neighborhood, I simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to drop in and see you in person. Did you know your clever corsair is using red-hot cannonballs now? Those were a treat! You can imagine the excitement.”
Ramsey cleared his throat twice before speaking, and still his voice quavered as he said, “Mabbot … Hannah, let me propose that we—”
“But the world is glutted with your proposals,” Mabbot interrupted. “Mr. Apples, would you like to hear a proposal from Ramsey?”
“Rather eat my trousers,” the giant said from across the room.
“You haven’t aged well,” Mabbot said, lifting Ramsey’s chin with the tip of her boot. “Are you really so surprised? Did you think I’d be content to be hunted the rest of my days and not find a way to return the favor?” Leaning close, she murmured, “But between you and me, it’s going after the Brass Fox that really irks me. I can’t let you win that race, can I?
At this point Lord Ramsey said something more. I didn’t hear it. Most likely he was taking the opportunity to mumble a prayer.
Mabbot bit her lip, frowned, and said, “Tell the devil to keep my tea hot. I’m running late.” Then she fired point-blank, without mercy or provocation, into his defenseless body.
One of her guns did not go off, apparently, for as Ramsey writhed, she examined the trigger with irritation. She knocked the faulty flintlock with the butt of the other gun, aimed it again, and discharged it directly into his poor heart. He lay still at last.
Even as I write this, my body starts at the memory of that merciless retort, the smoke and spatter.
Satisfied, the red-haired rogue sat in Ramsey’s seat at the table and forked a glistening cherry into her mouth while her thugs threw the other guests to the floor.
The desire to live moved me, and, remembering the small door beside the pantry I had seen the servants use, I made for my escape. I tumbled down dark steps into a subterranean brick tunnel, through which I groped as quickly as I could, sure it would lead to the staffs’ quarters behind the house. When the tunnel branched, I veered left and came upon another set of steps and a door. I burst through, prepared to run, but I had misjudged the direction, for I found myself in the library with Mr. Apples’s hand on my shoulder. He tossed me like a sack of laundry back into the dining room, where I was obliged to sit on the floor with the others. I took my position next to his lordship’s body and held his still-warm hand while the fiends ransacked the house.
I confess that my mind was not prepared for these events. It failed under the pressure and became that of an idiot, lingering on the lace of the tablecloth and bringing to light the oldest and most obscure memories quite randomly: being taught to swim in the freezing lake behind the orphanage with the other boys by Father Keenly, who bade us fetch coins he threw into the water; kneading my first loaf of bread and wondering at the magic of its rising. Father Sonora’s voice, so long ago I was sure I had lost it, now came back, as vividly as if he were just behind me, saying, “Hush, child, God despises whimpering.”
Fear, for the moment, left me and was replaced with a readiness to meet my wife, Elizabeth, in heaven. I saw her then as I had last seen her, holding the newborn child curled upon her breast, both of them serene in the coffin. Then my sight fixed on Lord Ramsey’s torn chest, where grew, slowly, a scarlet bubble. I cannot say whether it was two minutes or two hours I stared at that gory dome before I came to my senses.
The staff had gathered before the mantel, and the rest of the party remained on the floor near the table in various states of distress. One maid wept where she sat and inched her way across the floor to avoid the puddle of blood spreading toward her. This was the young woman I had just yelled at an hour earlier for washing a copper-bottomed pot with strong vinegar. She had held her composure then, but now—who could blame her—the tears darkened her smock. When she discovered blood upon her apron and began to scream, I crawled to her, worried she might bring the pirates’ wrath upon us. I blotted the stain with my towel, saying, “There, see? It is only a splash of wine. They’ll be gone soon. Just hold on.” I put my arm around her and hushed her, but I was too late; Mr. Apples was headed our way.
As he reached down, I beat at him with the towel. “Don’t touch her,” I wheezed. “She’s done nothing to you!”
But the giant was after me, not the maid. He yanked me rudely to my feet and held me by the arms while Hannah Mabbot examined me.
“Is this spirited man the cook?” she shouted. “Are you responsible for this delightful feast? What a piece of luck!… What is it you say, Mr. Apples?”
“Like shittin’ with the pope.”
“No, the other thing, less vulgar.”
“Quite! A surprise and a delight like a whistling … How is it that these phrases make sense when you say them? Anyway, bring him along.”
ELI BROWN is the author of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. He lives on an experimental urban farm in Alameda, California. His writing has appeared in The Cortland Review and Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. His first novel, The Great Days, won the Fabri Literary Prize.