The Orphan, The Baron
PrologueBordeaux, France, 1668
Dr. Louis Pecton eased into the comfortable armchair in front of the crackling fire. His wife had gone to bed; he would follow after chasing the tension from his weary bones. He raised the polished snifter and swirled it, amber liquid catching and reflecting the light of dancing flames. Heavy rain pattered against the tiled roof and window panes. He took a sip of cognac, warm as it rolled down his throat and settled pleasantly in his belly. Heavy eyelids began to slowly slide shut.
Furious pounding on the front door shocked the surgeon to wakefulness. What emergency presented itself now? Shaking away cobwebs of sleepiness he rose and crossed the room to the sound of constant hammering. He threw back the iron bolt and pulled open the heavy door. A tall figure in black shoved his way in, raised a gloved finger to the thin line of his dark mustache and closed the door.
“There's no time. The hounds are upon my heels.” Water puddled on the wooden floor at his feet, dripping from his cape and the long scabbard that hung at his side.
“Who are you?”
The stranger removed his plumed hat, shiny from the rain, and pushed a lock of black hair from his forehead to reveal a jagged scar. “Yes! You recognize your work and see a man already in your debt, but I must impose upon you further.”
“Never from those swine. They shall taste my steel and may have my hide yet, but not that of my motherless son!” The man reached into his cloak and withdrew a hefty pouch which he tossed onto a nearby table. It landed with a dull thud and several gold coins spilled out.
The stranger gestured toward the table. “A pittance. A thousand times as much would not reflect my gratitude. His wet-nurse will bring him round tonight. Take him in and educate him well. Teach him to love and trust in God, follow the Church of Rome, honor his king, and glorify France. Teach him your noble craft. He's been baptized Francis. Give him your own good name and if he never knows another it will be just as well for him. Now! I must be off and trust God to truly compensate you on my behalf. Tonight I meet my enemies!”
With that he was gone, the only proof of his existence the mute puddle and muddy prints from his boots, the pouch filled with coins, and a small gold cross on a ribbon of red.
IBordeaux, France, 1693
The front door banged open and a young man burst into the large house where cathedral ceilings echoed the sound of his shouting. “Father! I've just purchased a share in a new ship! L'Aigle sails on the morrow under Captain Croisic. Father! Where are you?” He bounded up the carpeted stairs two at a time, hollering all the while. “I'm to be her surgeon!” He halted abruptly at the entrance to his father's bedchamber.
Dr. Pecton lay under soaking wet sheets, breathing laboriously. He managed for a moment to raise a thin, crooked hand to acknowledge the boy. Francis knelt by his bedside and held the frail hand, strong voice now a whisper. “Father.”
Perspiration trickled down the dying man's temple when he shook his head. “I must tell you—” His raspy words interrupted by a coughing fit, several minutes elapsed before he could catch his breath. “My wife, God rest her soul, and I took you in as an infant.”
“What?” Confusion clouded brown eyes.
“I never told you. I feared the knowledge would consume you or a thirst for vengeance would destroy you. But now—” Another series of coughs wracked the sickly surgeon. “I have loved you as a son and been truly blessed by you. You are a good man, but I must tell you, noble blood runs in your veins. You should have been a baron, inherited your father's title and estate. Instead, that cross you wear is all you have of his.”
Francis fingered the gold cross that hung on a red ribbon around his neck. Small and simple, it boasted no engraving, indeed nothing to indicate it had once belonged to a nobleman. His dark eyes returned to those of the elderly man. “You are the only father I have ever known. And the only one I need.”
Dr. Pecton attempted to prop himself up on his elbows, but failed. He shook his head again. “No. Do not be angry with him. His lands were stolen from him. They robbed him of his title and even his life, but not you, he did not let them get you. And he did not abandon you in order to make good his escape, no. He faced his enemies fearlessly. When you sail tomorrow, go forth the same way and do so in his memory.”
“But I cannot go; not with you like this.”
“There is nothing you can do for me now, I am near my end. I want you to go. Go and practice your calling; serve all who have need—rich or poor, friend or foe—and do that in my memory. And always remember, titled or not, you are a baron.”
IIAboard L'Aigle, near Buzzard's Bay, New England, 1694
“Here! Bring him here!”
Two sweaty sailors dumped their companion on the wooden table, already slick with blood, and without another word, returned topside where the battle raged. Francis placed a compress over the wound. “Hold this right there. I've got to tie this off above the knee, the shin bone is shattered and you'll bleed to death if I don't.”
A tremendous crash; the ship rocked violently nearly tossing the bleeding man onto the deck. Francis grabbed the heavy table to keep his balance and footing, ears ringing from the concussion. Cold water rushed up over the top of his shoes. A muffled voice sounded above the hatchway. “We're hit bad.” A burly figure descended half-way down the stairwell and halted. “We're taking on water!” He retreated back up the stairs.
The surgeon worked feverishly. “That leg's got to come off.” He held a tin cup of rum to the patient's quivering lips. “Quickly, drink this.” The man gulped the liquid. “Now bite down on this.” The surgeon shoved a folded towel into the injured man's mouth and lashed him with leather straps to the wooden table. The wounded sailor's eyes popped at the sight of the hacksaw. He squeezed them shut and bit down on the dirty cloth while Francis began sawing the smashed leg. The patient writhed and clamped his jaws, teeth saved by the towel. Icy water stung the surgeon's ankles as he worked on the struggling man.
The thunder of battle continued above. Another shadow appeared at the hatchway. Someone shouted. “Beware the main mast! She's going by the board!” An ear-splitting crack was followed by crash as the spar, the size of a tree, slammed upon the decks above. A sailor hurried down and stopped at the landing. “Doctor LeBaron, abandon ship!”
“I'm not finished! I cannot leave this man!”
“Blast him! We've lost the main, we're afire and sinkin'. There! Ye can rightly see for your own self!” Steadily rising liquid lapped at the doctor's knees.
The patient opened eyes filled with tears of terror and pain. Francis called back, “Ha! The water will put out the fire, then! Meantime, I'll be working on this man.” He continued cutting away and the wounded sailor finally fainted.
“Blast you for a fool then! The Devil awaits on the bottom, and welcome to ya!” The man moved up the stairway quicker than he'd come down.
In water up to his waist, the surgeon finished removing the sailor's smashed leg and dressed the wound. No sooner had he completed this task than the table began floating. Francis positioned the makeshift raft so it would be lifted up through the hatchway and held on to keep it from tipping. In this manner the two were carried, the last to leave the dying ship. They broke the surface not far from shore. Up ahead, longboats from L'Aigle were just reaching the beach where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. They were shouting.
“They're bloody French!”
“Bloody pirates is what they are!”
“String the devils up!”
Frances quickly decided it would be safer to await nightfall floating among the wreckage than risk the wrath of the residents on shore. He scanned the darkening sky, thankful he wouldn't have to wait in the frigid water long. Atop the bobbing table, his wounded companion never stirred.
IIIPlymouth, Massachusetts, 1694
Eventually the tide took them in and Francis struggled ashore with the crippled sailor, who remained unconscious. The surgeon checked the patient's pulse. Nothing.
Francis turned to see a group of torch-wielders, one of whom was pointing at him. He cursed the moonlight and, with a prayer for his dead companion on his lips, proceeded to run. He managed to elude his pursuers long enough to reach a dwelling and cautiously pushed open the door. The young woman inside screamed at the sight of his ragged appearance. He stood with torn clothing soaking wet and clinging to him, black hair hanging straggly about his shoulders and wild eyes darting around the room. Perceiving the woman alone, he held up hands still covered with sand. “Please, Mademoiselle, I mean you no harm. I am Francis LeBaron of Bordeaux, surgeon aboard L'Aigle which sank in the harbor. I am hunted by those who would kill me for a pirate, though I am not one, I assure you. Indeed I am a doctor.”
Mary Wilder still trembled, but regained her composure. “There are hot-tempered men about who use not their heads. I know not whether you are a pirate, but do believe you've a right to fair trial. Therefore, I shall protect you from those who would harm you unjustly.”
“Merci; I thank you. And please believe me; I am no pirate.”
She ushered him inside and lifted a hatch in the floor. The opening led to a small root cellar. “Hide, for surely they will come around to look for you.” He climbed in and she closed the door over him. She removed her lawn cap and mussed up her long brown hair. She gathered up a pillow and blanket and lay down atop the hatch.
Presently the hunting party reached the house and entered to find the woman lying on the floor. “Mary, there's a killer about.”
She moaned, and then cried out hoarsely, “Pox! Stay away! The killer is pox!” She lapsed into a coughing fit at which several of the men covered their mouths and began to back away.
Major Bartlett, leader of the party, stood his ground. “Search the house.” Men scattered throughout the rooms. “Mary, how long have you lain there?” She answered only with a drawn-out moan. “Mary, why aren't you abed?” Another moan.
After searching the small house the men reassembled. One reported that the bed was made up.
Bartlett's eyes narrowed. “You're not sick, Mary Wilder. Up with you. Now, or we'll drag you to your feet by your hair.”
Mary glared, blue eyes afire. “You touch me and my brothers will eat your breakfast.”
In musky darkness Francis listened to the exchange and fingered the golden cross. He faced his enemies fearlessly. Upon hearing the threats made to the woman who would save him, he hammered on the hatch and spoke in a clear, loud voice. “It's all right, Mademoiselle Wilder. I am not a mouse to hide in a hole. I wish to come out.”
Mary gathered herself up and stepped away from the trap door, all the while looking daggers at Major Bartlett. Francis pushed the hatch open and climbed out.
One man gasped. “The villain!”
Francis forced himself to remain calm and eyed the assembly. Bartlett pointed an accusatory finger. “You were on that ship. You are one of those French pirates.”
The Frenchman nodded. “I was on it, yes. I was her surgeon. We were not pirates; we engaged only the ships of William and Mary. I may be a prisoner of war, but am no pirate.”
A small man pushed his way to the front of the crowd. “Excuse me; did you say you were a surgeon?”
“Yes. I am Doctor Francis LeBaron of Bordeaux.”
“Could you possibly tend to my sick wife? She and I run the inn. My name is Hunter. She's had pain in her stomach for two days now, she won't eat, she can't sleep, she's feverish, and I'm afeared for her life.”
A voice in the crowd sounded incredulous. “Are you daft? Would you trust him?”
Hunter's eyes dropped to his shoes. “I don't have a choice. There's no other doctor within miles. Will you help, Mister?”
Francis recalled the echo of an elderly voice. Serve all who have need—rich or poor, friend or foe—and do that in my memory. “Take me to her. I will do all I can.”
The crowd led Francis through the narrow streets to the inn where the woman lay delirious in one of the rooms. Francis knelt on one knee beside the bed. “Can you tell me where it hurts?” She made a circular motion over her abdomen. Frances placed a hand on her forehead. Burning. He lifted her gown slightly and pushed his fingers around different parts of her stomach. When he pressed near her pelvis she cried out and jerked in pain. Francis looked at her husband. “I'm going to need a knife. Also wet sheets and twine.”
Hunter rushed to the kitchen and returned with several knives of varying sizes along with the other requested items. Francis explained to the curious onlookers. “She's got an inflamed appendix. It's got to come out or she will surely die. I only hope we're in time.”
Hands awash in blood, the surgeon worked with all possible speed. He kept Hunter busy gathering the necessary articles, a depository bucket for the damaged organ, cotton and alcohol for cleaning the wound, needle and thread for sutures, and clean bandages to dress it. The operation was quick, but effective, the patient lived.
Major Bartlett stroked his considerable beard. “It would be a shame to send a skilled physician such as yourself prisoner to Boston, thereby depriving ourselves of that which we have need. Perhaps an arrangement could be made whereby, if you'd agree to take up residence and serve the town we'd forget all about that French ship.”
Bartlett rubbed his hands together. “Splendid! I'll meet with the selectmen and we'll draw up a petition to the Lieutenant Governor asking that you be allowed to stay. Everybody in town will sign it, believe me, once they've heard what you've done for Goodwife Hunter. Oh, I'll also see to it that you're paid out of the town funds for this, your first service to the people of Plymouth.”
“If I am allowed to remain, I should do so much more readily if I were to have an assistant, perhaps one who could help me train future generations.”
The major raised bushy eyebrows. “An assistant?”
“Yes, an assistant. More of a partner, really. Well, a wife, actually.”
“Yes, that is, if she will have me. Would you mind escorting me back to the home of Mademoiselle Wilder that I may ask her?”
Francis was paid the sum of five pounds for services rendered to Goodwife Hunter. He and Mary Wilder were married September 6, 1695. The following year she bore a son, James. She gave him two more boys before Francis died on August 8, 1704, aged only 36. By the time of Mary's death in 1737, the middle son, Lazarus, had followed in his father's footsteps and become a physician in town. Two of that doctor's sons, Lazarus and Bartlett, would likewise practice the noble craft there. Francis LeBaron, the orphan of Bordeaux, through his bloodline, did indeed supply the town of Plymouth with future generations of physicians.
ReferencesStockwell, Mary LeBaron. Descendants of Francis LeBaron of Plymouth - Massachusetts. T.R. Marvin & Sons, Boston, 1904.
Anglade, Gérard. website: http://www.lebaron.free.fr/htmus/index.html