Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1404
Toward the close of a bleak wintry day during the American Revolution, a small schooner and a frigate sail through shoal waters off the northeastern coast of England and anchor in a small bay beneath some towering cliffs. As darkness settles, a whaleboat is put ashore from the schooner Ariel. The boat is in the charge of the Ariel’s commander, Lieutenant Richard Barnstable, who has been ordered to make a landing near the cliffs and retrieve a pilot known only as Mr. Gray.
With the aid of a weather-beaten old Nantucket whaler, Long Tom Coffin, Barnstable climbs the cliff and there meets his mysterious passenger, a man of middle height and sparing speech. Before he completes his mission, however, he also encounters Katherine Plowden, his fiancé, who gives him a letter and a signal book. The woman is staying temporarily at the St. Ruth’s Abbey manor house, the home of her uncle, Colonel Howard, a wealthy South Carolina Tory who had fled from America at the outbreak of the war. From her, Barnstable learns that another niece, Cecilia Howard, and her friend, Alice Dunscombe, also guests at the abbey as well. Cecilia Howard is in love with Lieutenant Edward Griffith, first officer aboard the frigate. Alice Dunscombe is reported to be in love with the mysterious pilot, but she refuses to marry him because she is completely Loyalist in her sympathies.
Darkness had fallen by the time the pilot was brought to the deck of the frigate, and a storm is now rising. Only Captain Munson of the frigate knows the pilot’s identity, a secret concealed from everyone else aboard the ship and its escort, the Ariel. Captain Munson, seeing the pilot by the light of the battle lanterns on deck, thinks him greatly changed in appearance since their last meeting.
As the storm rises, the pilot guides the frigate safely through dangerous, wind-lashed shoal waters and out to open sea. At sunrise, the frigate signals the Ariel and orders Barnstable to go aboard the larger ship for a council of war. There, plans are made to harass the English by sending landing parties ashore to raid the mansions and estates of the gentry in the neighborhood.
Barnstable wants these expeditions to serve another purpose, for he hopes to rescue Katherine Plowden and Cecilia Howard from the abbey, where they live unhappily with Colonel Howard, their uncle and guardian.
Meanwhile, at the abbey, Colonel Howard is holding a conference with Christopher Dillon, a kinsman, and Captain Borroughcliffe, a British officer in charge of a small detachment of troops stationed at the abbey. Dillon, an impoverished gentleman, hopes to marry, with the colonel’s approval, one of his wealthy cousins. The three men discuss the progress of the American Revolution, other political questions, and the piracies of John Paul Jones. They agree that extra precautions should be taken, for there are rumors that Jones himself has been seen in the neighborhood.
That night, Griffith and the pilot, accompanied by a marine corps officer, Captain Manual, go ashore on a scouting expedition. As a result of Griffith’s imprudent conduct, they are seen and seized. When a sentry reports the arrest of strange seamen lurking in the neighborhood, Captain Borroughcliffe orders them brought to the abbey for examination.
On their arrival at the abbey, the prisoners say only that they are seamen out of employment, a suspicious circumstance in itself. When the seamen offer no further information of any consequence, they are imprisoned to await Borroughcliffe’s pleasure. Katherine and Cecilia bribe the sentry on duty and obtain permission to visit the prisoners. They recognize Griffith in disguise. Alice Dunscombe also visits the pilot, whom she recognizes. After drinking too much wine at dinner, Borroughcliffe begins to interview the men and, in his intoxicated condition, unwittingly helps them escape.
Believing that the men had come from a ship lying offshore, Dillon mounts a horse and rides to a neighboring bay, where the war cutter Alacrity lays at anchor. Alarmed at the possible presence of an American ship in the area, the cutter puts out to sea, with Dillon among its volunteer crew. Barnstable and Long Tom Coffin, waiting in the Ariel’s whaleboat, engage the cutter in a furious battle that ends when Coffin pins the captain of the cutter to the mast with his whaler’s harpoon. Dillon is among the prisoners taken. Frightened, he offers to return to the abbey and, in return for his own freedom, secure the release of the Americans held there.
After their escape, the pilot leaves Griffith and Manual, who rejoin a party of marines who had remained in hiding while their captain was with Griffith and the pilot, reconnoitering the abbey. Attacked by Borroughcliffe and his troops, the marines are surrounded. Griffith is recaptured, and Manual is forced to surrender.
Trusting Dillon’s word of honor, Barnstable sends Long Tom Coffin with Dillon to the abbey to arrange for the transfer of prisoners. Dillon, however, dishonoring his parole, has Coffin held prisoner while he and Borroughcliffe plan to trap Barnstable and his men. When Borroughcliffe boasts of his intentions, Coffin makes a surprise attack upon him and seizes and binds the British officer. He then follows Dillon to the apartments of Katherine and Cecilia and there take Dillon prisoner. He succeeds in getting Dillon aboard the Ariel, as a British battery on the shore opens fire on the schooner. A lucky shot wrecks the mainmast as the schooner puts out to sea, where a heavy storm completes the Ariel’s destruction.
Barnstable, a true captain, decides to go down with his ship, and he orders Mr. Merry, a midshipman, to take charge of the crew and lower the boats. Coffin throws Barnstable overboard, saving his commander’s life. The ship goes down with Coffin and Dillon aboard. When Dillon’s body is later washed up by the sea, Barnstable orders his burial. Shortly afterward, Mr. Merry appears at the abbey in the disguise of a peddler. Barnstable signals by means of flags to Katherine, using signals from the code book which she had given him. Later, they meet secretly and lay plans for surprising the abbey and the soldiers who guard it. Borroughcliffe hears of the plot, however, and Barnstable walks into Borroughcliffe’s ambush. At this juncture, however, the pilot arrives with a party of marines from the frigate and makes prisoners of the Tories and the British.
Later, Griffith releases Borroughcliffe and his soldiers because Borroughcliffe had behaved in an honorable manner toward his prisoners. There is a final interview between Alice Dunscombe and the pilot. During their talk, she addresses him as John and says that if she should speak his real name, the whole countryside would ring with it. The pilot insists that he will continue his activities for the cause of patriotism, regardless of the unsavory reputation it might gain for him in England. Colonel Howard and his two nieces are taken aboard the frigate for the return voyage to America.
The American ship is not yet out of danger. The next morning, a man-of-war breaks through the morning mists, its decks cleared for action. There is tremendous activity aboard the frigate in preparation for the battle, and the women are taken below for safety as the English ship of the line blazes a three-tiered broadside at the American vessel. One shot strikes Captain Munson and cuts him down. Griffith, who now knows the pilot’s identity, begs for permission to reveal it to the crew, to encourage them in the fight, but the pilot refuses. Meanwhile, the British ship has been reinforced by two others, but the Americans are lucky enough to disable the smallest of their attackers. Then, as the other ships close in upon the battered American ship, the pilot takes the wheel and daringly guides the vessel through the shoal waters that only he knows well. Outmaneuvered, the pursuing British ships drop behind.
Colonel Howard, wounded during the engagement, lives long enough to see his nieces married by the ship’s chaplain to their lovers. He dies insisting that he is too old to change his politics, and he blesses the king.
The frigate sails to Holland, where the pilot is put ashore. To all but Griffith, among those who watch his small boat dwindling to a speck against the horizon, his identity remains a mystery.