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...
(The entire section is 1404 words.)