Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Fiction: Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key (excerpt) by Kage Baker
On the 16th day of April, 1671, a man walked down Tower Street in old Port Royal and came to the Bluebell Inn. He stood in the street a while, looking up at the hanging sign. The daubed blue flowers were unmistakable, and in any case he could read the name perfectly well, having had some education. Still, he hesitated to step inside.
His name was John. To some people he was known as John James. He had been a London bricklayer’s apprentice who killed a man and was sent to the West Indies as a consequence. He had been several things since then: redleg bond slave, runaway, pirate, and most lately patriotic gentleman of fortune, for he had just returned from doing his bit sacking Panama with Captain Henry Morgan.
This very morning he had gone ashore, bidding farewell to his late commander. Morgan had returned his salute with a gloomy wave, and headed straight for the nearest tavern for a stiff drink before reporting to Governor Modyford. John would have joined him, but for his new and earnest resolve to give up the life of a buccaneer.
It wasn’t that the Panama expedition had been short on glory and adventure. It was that, when all had been honestly measured out afterward, John’s share of the loot amounted to a mere fifty pounds; and this had decided him to turn his hand to bricklaying once more.
Moreover John had seen madness and nightmares walking in the noonday sun, and left good comrades dead in the ashes of the old Spanish city. Still, there was a responsibility to discharge before he might begin his new life.
He squinted up at the sign again. He reached inside his coat, fingered a bit of paper hidden there, and sighed. At last he squared his broad shoulders and went into the Bluebell.
When his eyes had adjusted from the sea-glare to the dimness of the common room, he saw that the Bluebell was a clean place, as taverns in Port Royal went. No whores on the prowl, at this hour of the day, and no drunks asprawl at the tables. Only a sound and smell of onions frying in the kitchen, pungent, and a landlord who emerged from a back room and looked at him expectantly.
“What d’you lack, sir?” the landlord asked him. Taking a step nearer, he sized John up and grinned. “You’ve come back with our Admiral from Panama, ain’t you? Then welcome, sir! What you want is rum, my bully.”
“Thank’ee, no,” said John, narrowing his eyes. He was young, and big, and strong as an ox, with a broad simple face; but he wasn’t that green. “I carry news for a lady. Have you got a Mrs. Waverly staying here?”
The landlord’s expression changed, became unreadable. “We have. May I tell her your name, sir?”
“She won’t know it,” said John. “But it’s John James. You can tell her I’ve brought her a letter from Panama, and a private word if she’ll hear me.”
The landlord ducked his head in acknowledgement and walked into the back. John heard him climbing a staircase. John looked around again, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The floor of the common room was plaster laid down over planking, rapidly crumbling away to chalky punk in Port Royal’s climate. John made a note to come back, once he’d set himself up in business, and offer to put in good herringbone brick paving at a reasonable rate.
He looked up and saw that the landlord had reappeared silently, like a ghost. “Madam says please step upstairs, sir,” said the landlord. “First chamber on the left.”
John followed him as far as the stairs, and climbed alone. He came to the top of the stairs, meaning to knock, but the door to the first chamber on the left was wide open. A lady stood within, staring at him. Her face was deadly pale, so white John thought she might be going to faint. Her gray eyes were fixed on him; her red mouth was set and tight. She clenched a handkerchief in one hand.
“Ma’am,” John said, and bowed awkwardly.
“You must be from Tom,” she said. She had a sweet voice. Her accent was refined. She’d been Sir Thomas Blackstone’s mistress, so John supposed she’d been at court. He wondered uneasily if she was going to scream, or faint, when she heard his news. He cleared his throat and brought out the letter, with its daub of candle wax sealed by a thumbprint.
“I’m sorry to say, ma’am—” he said.
“Oh, he’s dead. He’s dead. Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”
“Yes, ma’am. He said to tell you, he died singing.”
She jerked as though he’d shot her, but her face twisted into a smile, a horrible thing to behold. “Did he?” she said. “Pray excuse me a moment.” She turned on her heel, smart as a soldier, and marched to a chair. There she sat and covered her face with her hands and wept, wracking sobs wrenched up dry from the roots of her heart.
John fidgeted, turning the letter in his big square hands. He saw again Tom Blackstone lying on the pallet in the makeshift hospital in Panama, red-faced and sweating. Before the fever had risen, Blackstone had called for pen and paper, and written out the letter in his fine hand. He’d sealed it and handed it to John.
“She won’t be expecting the print of my ring,” he’d told John. “She pawned it herself, long since. But do give her the letter, won’t you? Mrs. Clarissa Waverly, at the Bluebell. You can remember that, can’t you? And do tell her I died singing.”
John had been enough of a tender-hearted booby to shed a tear and cry, “Oh, courage! You won’t die!” Blackstone had given him a pitying look and called for wine. Two hours later he’d rattled out his last breath.
Too vividly John remembered the stink of Blackstone’s bandages in the close foul air of the room, and the way Blackstone’s voice had broken as he’d crowed out the old song:
The serving men doe sit and whine, and thinke it long ere dinner time:
The Butler’s still out of the way, or else my Lady keeps the key,
The poor old cook, in the larder doth look, where is no goodnesse to be found
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
Now his lady, having wept for him, sighed and wiped her face with her handkerchief. Some of her paint came off on it. She blew her nose, sat straight and looked up at John. John proffered Blackstone’s letter.
“From him, ma’am.”
Her mouth crumpled a bit at the edges, but she took the letter and broke the seal. She read swiftly, her gaze darting back and forth along the lines. At last she folded the letter closed, and tucked it into her sleeve. She regarded John thoughtfully.
“He said you were in his confidence, concerning his mission for Prince Rupert.”
“I was, ma’am.”
“Have you brought Prince Maurice from Panama, then?”
John reddened. “As to that, ma’am…we did find the lost prince. Got him without paying out any ransom money, neither. But he’d been a long time in a Spanish dungeon and he wasn’t, er—”
“Tom said he’d gone mad.”
“In a manner of speaking, ma’am, aye,” said John, remembering Prince Maurice’s gray moon face and blank dead eyes. He wondered whether Mistress Waverly had ever heard of zombies, and decided not to go into details.
“We reckoned Prince Rupert might be happier, not knowing what become of his brother after all, see. And then Tom went and died and I had errands to run for the Admiral, and I couldn’t watch the prince, and some fellows let him out and…well, he’s been lost again, ma’am. I’m sorry for it, but that’s how it is.”
“Then it was a fool’s errand,” said Mrs. Waverly. “And farewell my sweet Tom. However…” She was silent a moment in thought. At last she rose, giving John a brave smile. “Good man, I owe you a great deal. Pray step below and call for a bowl of punch, and we’ll drink to Tom. Then you may hear something to your advantage.”
John obeyed readily. He was fairly sure she wasn’t the sort to make him dead drunk and rob him after he’d passed out, like Hairy Mary who worked the waterfront over by the Turtle Crawl.
When he came back up Mrs. Waverly had smoothed her hair and refreshed her paint a little. She showed him to a chair and pulled another close, sitting nearly knee-to-knee with him. She encouraged him to speak of himself, of brave Admiral Morgan and the thrilling battles John had seen at Chagres Castle and Panama.
Her interest in these matters lasted until the landlord brought up the punchbowl, and took his leave after ladling out the first two cups for them. John thought the man gave him an ironical smile as he left. But the punch smelled all right, and John resolved not to take a second cup in any case.
“To Tom Blackstone,” he said, lifting his cup. “A rare brave comrade. And a clever fellow.”
“To Tom Blackstone,” said Mrs. Waverly, her voice catching on a little sob. “Oh, what a clever fellow he was.” She drank deep and set her cup aside. “Well. My dear Mr. James, you have been such a good friend to Tom, and so kind to me; I wonder whether I might further impose on your good nature?”
“Well, er, ma’am,” said John, “I’m sure I’d be happy to perform any service you might require.” It occurred to him that she might construe lewd meaning in what he’d just said, and he winced. Yet his baser instincts woke and sat bolt upright, in hopeful surmise.
“I knew you would say so,” said Mrs. Waverly, smiling into his eyes. “I will be frank with you, Mr. James. You know there was a ransom demanded for Prince Maurice’s safe return.”
“Four thousand pounds, aye,” said John.
“We collected it in London, when Prince Rupert engaged our services. We brought it with us to Barbados, to treat with a certain Spaniard there, who claimed to know where Prince Maurice was being held. He merely directed us to meet another Spaniard here. We began to suspect that we were being led in a fools’ dance. Therefore Tom took the money, gold in sealed bags, and hid it secure, lest we should fall amongst thieves in our search.
“As it fell out, we have no brother to send home to the prince,” and here Mrs. Waverly’s voice slowed, and she twisted a lock of her hair about her finger. “And I have lost a dear friend, and you have lost a valiant comrade-at-arms. Tom being dead, how shall Prince Rupert hear what became of the four thousand pounds? For all he may know, Tom paid the ransom in good faith and was treacherously slain by Spaniards. I think we are owed the money, you and I, for our pains.”
John blinked at her. He got the full import of what she was proposing, but her use of you and I set his heart pounding.
“Four thousand pounds,” he repeated, attempting to sound keen.
“Let us divide it, dear Mr. James,” said Mrs. Waverly. “Two thousand each.”
“Seems fair,” said John, trying not to dribble his punch. He wondered what unlikely thing might happen next. Heavenly angels flying in through the window, bearing plum duff and sausages? Closely followed, perhaps, by Father Christmas?
“I knew you would say so,” said Mrs. Waverly. “We have only to find the money.”
“Don’t you know where it is?” John sat straight, as the pink clouds dissipated somewhat.
“In a general way,” said Mrs. Waverly, with a graceful wave of her hand. “We bespoke our rooms here and then Tom left with the money. I thought he’d taken it to meet his contact. I didn’t see him again until a fortnight later, when he returned in a fine temper and told me he’d hid the money, but missed the man and would now be obliged to chase after him, perhaps as far as Chagres. We quarreled. I regret it now…Oh, to think I shall never see him again!”
She drooped, tears in her eyes. John was moved to take her hands in his.
“Aw, ma’am, it makes no odds. His last thought was of you, wasn’t it? And him being so particular about sending you the letter and all.”
Mrs. Waverly squeezed his hands. “But he was my rock, my brave steadfast hero, a very bulwark to a poor frail woman! Where shall I find another such? Shall I rely upon you?”
She leaned close and John had an excellent view down the cleft of her bosom. “Be sure you may, ma’am,” he said, breathless.
“What a dear soul, what a kind soul you are, Mr. James! Did you see the letter, before Tom sealed it?”
“Then know, Mr. James, that the letter confides where the money’s hid. We have but to go to a certain place and recover it. Alas, it is not on Jamaica. Do you know the Isle Leauchaud, sir?”
“Leauchaud? Ay,” said John. “Not hard to get to, at any rate.”
“Then I will leave it to you to make the travel arrangements, as I am sure you know a great deal more about these things than I do,” said Mrs. Waverly. “But I must beg you to pay for our passage, for in truth I have scarcely any money left.”
A tear trickled from her eye as she said it. John’s heart contracted. But his purse contracted too; he had calculated that his fifty pounds would just about set him up in business with a brickyard and proper tools of his own. He put the thought down as ungentlemanly, and considered too what he might do with two thousand pounds.
“I’ll see to it,” he said. “Never fear.”
John went down to one of the wharves and found a ship, the Fyrey Pentacost, bound for Barbados with a cargo of tortoiseshell and logwood. The captain was agreeable to taking on supercargo at a price, since Leauchaud was one of his ports of call, and since he had already agreed to take another traveler on board. Smiling, he quoted John a price for the passage. John winced but said “Done,” thinking of his share.
Early next morning he called for Mrs. Waverly at the Bluebell, and found her waiting with her packed trunk. All the same, they were like to have missed the boat; for it fell out that there were certain sums owed to the landlord that needed paying, and Mrs. Waverly’s purse was not equal to the debt. John paid.
“That was very kind of you,” said Mrs. Waverly, as they stepped into the street at last. “But you mustn’t pay for the hire of a porter to carry our trunks. I believe I can just scrape together sixpence—”
“No need,” said John, a trifle brusquely, and swung her trunk up on his shoulder. He tucked his own sea chest under his other arm. Mrs. Waverly looked at him, wide-eyed.
“Oh, sir! Indeed you are a Hercules for strength!”
John was a little mollified at that, but he merely said. “Strong enough, ma’am,” and strode off in the direction of the wharf. She followed him. They went crunching through drifts of broken shells, winding their way between the street vendors and avoiding all the unpleasant things folk had thrown into the street overnight.
Emerging onto the waterfront, they faced the brilliant glare of a hazy morning. The plaster walls of the houses reflected the dazzle back on the salt mist coming off the sea, or was it steam? John felt sweat prickling under his shirt, and squinted up at the sails being unfurled on the Fyrey Pentacost. They hung limp as curtains in a parlor.
The crew were getting ready to cast off. The first mate greeted John with a black scowl as he came aboard. He bit back whatever remark he had been about to make, though, when he beheld Mrs. Waverly gracefully lifting her skirts as she stepped up the gangplank. Men fell over themselves to offer her helping hands down into the waist.
“I thank you very kindly,” said she, smiling at them all. “Will some good gentleman show us to our cabins?”
“This way, ma’am,” said the first mate, bowing and gesturing aft. “And sir,” he added over his shoulder to John, in a peremptory sort of way.
Cargo had been pushed back hastily on the under-deck and bulkheads hammered into place to form three cabins, windowless and low. Mrs. Waverly regarded them in dismay, but made no complaint as John set her trunk down inside. She merely opened her trunk and set about making up a bed in the sort of box that had been provided. John set down his sea chest and peered at the tiny space allotted him. He grunted, dug out his hammock, and strung it up instead.
As he was tying it off, there came a double rap at the cabin door. John opened it, ducked down to see who had knocked, and found himself face to face with a sullen-looking black servant.
“Captain Sharp’s compliments, and requests the pleasure of your company at table this evening,” the servant recited, in a bored sort of way. He had an oddly flat, nasal accent.
“Oh. Right,” said John. The servant did not stay for further pleasantries, but stepped away sidelong.
John heard the same double rap, the same formula recited, and Mrs. Waverly’s clear reply: “Please convey my delighted acceptance to the captain and assure him I will be prompt. At what o’clock are we to dine?”
“Half past seven, ma’am.”
The same sidestep, knock and recitation, and then a new voice responding: “Oh! Why—well—that’s exceedingly decent of Captain Sharp! Yes, indeed. I’ll be there. Yes. Thank him, please.”
It was a male voice, an educated one. It sounded middle-aged.
They had to put out boats with sweeps to row the Fyrey Pentacost out of the harbor; they were obliged to keep the oars dipping until they were nearly to Port Morant. At last a breeze freshened and the sails flapped, then bellied as they caught the breeze in earnest.
John was leaning on the rail, feeling pleased that he wasn’t one of the poor devils rowing away in the boats, when Mrs. Waverly came up from below, parasol over her shoulder. She put her hand on his arm.
“Dear Mr. James, perhaps we might have a word,” she said in a low voice. “I am a little concerned for my good name.”
“Have some of these bastards been treating you improper?” asked John, and felt his face grow hot. “Hoping you’ll pardon my plain talk.”
“Oh, no, no indeed. But there have been inquiries made as to our relations, you see.”
John stared at her a moment, wondering why anyone would be asking after his old mother and ten brothers and sisters in Hackney, before he got the sense of what she’d said. His ego sat up and preened a bit. “Well, it’s nobody’s business—”
“Exactly, but now and again one does encounter a puritanical sort of ship’s master who assumes the worst about one,” said Mrs. Waverly, coloring a little. “So I have given out that I’m a new-made widow, and you are my late husband’s manservant.”
John’s ego fell, wounded. “Servant?”
“Oh, I know it cannot be to your liking, dear Mr. James; but it will help us avoid scandal, and in any case it’s only until we reach Leauchaud,” said Mrs. Waverly. “Tom and I had to devise such shifts many a time, as we traveled. Why, on one occasion I was obliged to disguise myself as a boy!”
It was a diverting image. John contemplated it a moment before swallowing hard and muttering, “Well, but things stood a certain way between you and Tom Blackstone.”
“That’s true. Yet I do count you as a friend, Mr. James; and who knows whether we mightn’t become very dear friends indeed?” Mrs. Waverly looked into his eyes. “Please, my dear, go along with the disguise this once, as a favor to me?”
“Well,” said John. He looked down at her, in her gown of yellow cotton sprigged with forget-me-nots. “Ain’t they going to wonder why you aren’t in black?”
Her lip trembled. “I hadn’t the money to buy a mourning gown,” she said. So then John felt like a cur dog, and said of course he’d go along with the game.
So John went before Mrs. Waverly to the great cabin that evening, and cleared his throat and announced her, as he supposed a servant ought to do. Four pairs of eyes watched his performance, and hers as she entered. Besides Captain Sharp and the first mate, Mr. Harris, there was the black servant who had conveyed the dinner invitation; also a little mild-looking man of about fifty, wearing thread-loop spectacles, who was introduced as Mr. Tudeley.
“Mr. Tudeley is on his way to Barbados,” explained Captain Sharp, as he held out his wineglass. The black servant filled it. “A new position, I take it, sir?”
“I hope so, indeed,” said Mr. Tudeley. “My sister and brother-in-law keep a pie-house there, you see, quite a profitable one. They have intimated they require a clerk, and were so good as to send for me after Squire Darrow’s plantation failed, I being then at loose ends.”
“Why, sir, I hope a pie-house is steadier work than a plantation!” said Captain Sharp, with a wink at the others.
“I, too. There wasn’t any fault in my accounts,” said Mr. Tudeley, looking miserable, for he had caught the wink. “No fault of mine at all. But Mr. Cox, that was the manager, Mr. Cox had taken to drink, and neglected the place shamefully. I said so at the time. The indentures were insolent and lazy, too. What could I have done?”
“I am sure you did your best,” said Captain Sharp. “And may I introduce the Widow Waverly? And Mr. James. Her man.”
Mr. Harris looked knowing at that, and the black servant stared in a fairly open way. John scowled, but Mrs. Waverly smiled.
“He was simply devoted to my poor husband, you know, and a better factotum I could not hope for,” she said, with a graceful wave.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said John.
“And we are taking you out to Leauchaud, as I understand?” said the Captain to Mrs. Waverly.
“You’ll be taking the waters for your health, I dare say?”
“No; I have certain matters to resolve, concerning my husband’s inheritance,” said Mrs. Waverly.
“Oh, well, you ought to try the waters, while you’re there,” said Captain Sharp. “I’ve been, and it did me a world of good. You would think you were in Bath! Mr. Shillitoe’s had handsome pools built for invalids, and a pump room beside.”
“How charming!’ said Mrs. Waverly. “Perhaps I shall call on Mr. Shillitoe.”
“Now, is it Mr. Shillitoe runs the place, or Mr. Leauchaud?” inquired Mr. Tudeley, leaning aside as the black servant ladled turtle soup into his plate. Everyone turned to stare at Mr. Tudeley, and he blushed furiously.
“Chah! The name comes from L’eau chaud, hot water,” explained the black servant, with a snort of amusement. Now it was Captain Sharp who turned crimson.
“How dare you address my guests! Hold your tongue, damn you!”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, in which the servant met Captain Sharp’s glare with a smoldering look of his own.
“So it is French, then!” said Mrs. Waverly, with a bright little laugh. “Of course. No doubt some Frenchman or other discovered it. Well, well. What a pleasant thought.”
“And I’ll have none of your insolent looks,” Captain Sharp continued to the servant, “or you’ll earn yourself a flogging. Now, fetch out the sherry.” The servant hooded his eyes and bowed stiffly. He withdrew from the cabin.
“I declare I took no offense, sir,” protested Mr. Tudeley. “I wouldn’t have the poor slave beaten on my account.”
“He isn’t a slave,” said Mr. Harris. “He’s a damned freedman who gives himself airs.”
“Freedman or no, he’ll find himself cutting cane in the sun one of these days,” said Captain Sharp, with an unpleasant smile. “Fetch a good price too, I don’t doubt. Well! Let it alone. May I offer you a slice of the smoked pork, ma’am?”
The conversation touched on the price of sugar next, followed by the weather and local gossip. John was largely excluded from the conversation. At first he was relieved, not having much of a knack for genteel chitchat, until it occurred to him that he was being spoken around because he had been introduced as a mere servant. Then he felt a bit resentful.
He was spooning up the last of his soup when he heard a liquid sound on the other side of the bulkhead. The sound suggested certain distinct images; he felt an answering twinge in his bladder. A moment later the servant returned with a decanter of amber liquid, and set it at Captain Sharp’s elbow, with a narrow-eyed smile.
“Your sherry, sir,” he said.
“Ah. A glass with you, gentlemen?” said Captain Sharp.
“I thank you, no,” said Mr. Tudeley. “Not after the claret. I have a poor head for strong drink.”
Captain Sharp regarded him in amused contempt. “As you like,” he said. “You, my man?” he inquired of John.
John peered at the servant, wary. The servant raised his eyebrows. He gave a barely perceptible shake of his head.
“Er,” said John. “Thank you. No.”
“Please,” said Harris, with his mouth full.
“Sherry for Mr. Harris and myself, Sejanus,” said Captain Sharp.
“Certainly, sir,” said the servant smoothly, and filled their glasses. “Shall I clear away the soup tureen, sir?”
They made little headway next day, for the wind swung around and the Fyrey Pentacost labored in the swell with a seesawing motion that sent Mr. Tudeley below, green as turtle soup. His groans drove Mrs. Waverly from her cabin, in turn, and she went abovedecks for a stroll. Strolling proved impossible, though a sort or lurching progress from handhold to handhold could be managed. Several helpful crewmen put themselves in her way to catch her lest she fall against them, which she did. After the second time her hat was blown into the rigging, though, she made her way across the rocking deck to John’s side, where he stood at the rail. She clasped his arm to steady herself.
“Shall we get there soon, do you think?”
“Two or three days, I reckon,” said John. “At this rate.”
“Dear God,” said Mrs. Waverly. John looked at her sidelong.
“I been thinking about that money, ma’am.”
“I, too, I assure you.”
“I been reckoning it up. Four thousand pounds in gold, in sealed bags—that’d be a great heavy sum to be carrying, wouldn’t it? In sovereigns, anyhow. Tom couldn’t have lifted four thousand sovereigns by himself, let alone carried it off on his own to hide it. I reckon the only way he could have done it was if it was in five-guinea pieces. That’d amount to eight hundred of ‘em.”
“I suppose it would, yes.” Mrs. Waverly gave him a slightly hostile glance. “You’re rather good at sums, I must say.”
“It’s only like reckoning up how many bricks go in a course, ma’am,” said John. “So. Allowing it was in five-guinea pieces, allowing it was eight hundred, and reckoning the weight at five stone and some—that’s still a powerful lot for one man to carry about. And I was just wondering, ma’am, how Tom lugged it off to Leauchaud without anyone noticing and robbing him. You’re sure he had it, are you?”
“Of course I am,” said Mrs. Waverly. “Don’t be silly. I must have searched the room a dozen times while he was gone. And it was in five-guinea pieces, thank you, in sealed bags in an ironbound chest, quite a small one, considering. I saw it. And in any case, I have his letter! He tells me plain where it’s hid.”
“Is there a map in the letter? Might I have a look at it?”
“Oh, Mr. James!” Mrs. Waverly put her hand on her heart. “How can you ask such a thing? Tom’s letter contains remarks of a most private and passionate nature, and I am sure he never meant any eyes but mine own to read it. Spare a lady’s blushes, do!”
“All right. Meant no offense, ma’am.” John hung his head and glared down at the white water hissing past the ship’s hull. Mrs. Waverly considered him a moment. When she spoke it was in a sweeter voice.
“I would that Tom had trusted me, as he seems to have trusted you,” she said, and sighed, and leaned against John. “I loved him to distraction, and yet he held a part of himself aloof from me, always. But you are not like that, are you? I sense you have a kind and honest heart. If he had told you anything that might give a poor woman advantage now, you would surely tell her.”
“Be sure I would, ma’am,” said John, powerfully conscious of the warmth of her against his side. “But he never told me anything about the money. Only that it was hid safe.”
The ship dropped into the trough of a wave, smacking them with salt spray, and its lurch sent Mrs. Waverly tottering backward. John put out his hand and grabbed her lest she fall. He pulled her close, wrapping an arm around her. She looked up into his eyes. Her lips parted, and she sort of melted against him. “Oh, thank you,” she said.
John inhaled her breath, which was sweet with caraway because she’d been chewing comfits against seasickness. He wondered if they might get down into the cable tiers, where there was a chance to do it in a certain amount of privacy; he wondered if she was the sort of woman to be put off by the sight of a few rats running about. All this in the hushed moment in which she half-lay on his arm, gazing up wide-eyed. Then there was a voice close by his ear.
“Excuse me, lady.” Sejanus stepped around them and leaned over to empty the captain’s chamber pot to leeward.
“Do you mind?” snapped Mrs. Waverly. She gripped the rail and stood straight.
“I was just keeping her from falling,” said John. “On account of the rough sea.”
“Oh, yes,” said Sejanus, in a neutral voice. “Very rough today, indeed.” He lowered a bucket on a rope to pull up some rinsing-water. As he straightened up he looked aft at the horizon, and frowned. “We’re being followed,” he said.
John turned to look. There was a ship coming along, well over the horizon, keeping in the Fyrey Pentacost‘s wake to starboard. She was a low thing, no bigger than a schooner, and the fact that her fore-and-aft sails were all patched and stained with many colors had made her harder to see. But John saw well enough the men crowded on her deck, and the glint of their weapons. As he watched, the craft sped nearer.
“Bugger,” he said. He knew well enough what they were, having cruised in just such a vessel himself. “Pirates astern!” he bawled.
“Oh God!” murmured Mrs. Waverly, and ran below. As John’s cry was echoed by the tardy lookout and men ran to the rail to see, Sejanus placidly rinsed out the captain’s chamber pot.
All was confusion for a few minutes, with Mr. Harris shouting orders until the captain ran up on deck. The helmsman swung the tiller, and the Fyrey Pentacost‘s square sails luffed as she changed course and turned to run before the wind, like an agitated hen. The pirates merely cut straight across her wake and made for her port side, close enough now for John to make out their grinning faces.
“Blow them to Hell!” screamed Captain Sharp. “Mr. Partridge, serve out the muskets! Load the gun!”
Two of the crew got busy with the ship’s little rail-mounted one-pounder, and soon got off a shot that fell short of the mark; the pirates hooted and came on, their craft skimming over the water fast and light. By the time the gun was reloaded and aimed again, the pirates were close enough to nail the gunner with a musket ball between his eyes. He fell with the slow match in his hand.
John, seeing the firefight commence in earnest, ducked down and went below. He wasn’t a coward, but he had a good head for odds and nothing much worth stealing, and he didn’t feel like dying that day. He made his way to his cabin in the dark, and there loaded the pistol he’d brought with him, largely by touch.
“Mr. James?” Mrs. Waverly’s voice came from the other side of the bulkhead. She sounded tense, but not as though she was crying. “What ought we to do, Mr. James?”
“Stay out of the way,” said John.
“Are we in danger, Mr. James?”
“Might be,” said John. “Depends on how angry the captain makes ‘em. I’ve got a pistol, and I won’t let ‘em hurt you.”
Mrs. Waverly said nothing for a moment, in which time they heard the musket fire die down and the sounds of scuffling overhead, followed by the ringing of blades. “You are very good, sir,” said Mrs. Waverly at last.
“What was that?” Mr. Tudeley’s weak voice floated from his cabin. “What’s toward? Is that fighting? Good God!”
“Pirates,” said John, stepping out of his cabin. He leaned against Mrs. Waverly’s door, watching the dark passageway steadily.
“Oh Jesus Christ!” groaned Mr. Tudeley, and there was a crash suggesting he had fallen to his knees. “Oh, dear Lord deliver us! Lord, Lord, what have I ever done to deserve Thy wrath?”
“Take heart,” said John. “The captain might beat ‘em away.”
It didn’t sound as though that was much of a possibility now, however. John heard a lot more thumping overhead, and Captain Sharp yelling furiously. “Cowards! You damned cowards! Shoot him! Sejanus! My pistols—”
Then there was a terrific crash and a last thump. The noise of the swords stopped. John heard Mr. Tudeley weeping, and men muttering, and quick footsteps to and fro overheard. He heard someone coming down the companionway. At the far end of the passage, shadows blocked the light as men milled around, poking into the bales and boxes there.
John took a deep breath, and a firm grip on his pistol. He had no idea what he’d do with his one shot. He wondered whether Mrs. Waverly was the sort of woman who’d rather die than be raped. If she turned out to prefer death, he could blow her brains out, he supposed; otherwise the pistol would be pretty useless.
Footsteps were coming along the passage. Someone was carrying a lamp. John watched the yellow flare approaching, and saw gradually the glint of light on peering eyes and teeth. A dirty bearded face. A man wearing only rawhide breeches, holding a cutlass low and his lamp high.
John let his breath out.
“Sam Anslow, ain’t it?”
“Who’s that?” The man halted, lifted his lamp higher.
“It’s me, shipmate!” John put all the cordiality he could muster into his voice, and stepped forward. “John James. I was at Panama with you. Sailed under Bradley.”
“God damn,” said Anslow, and grinned. “I remember you! You was on burial detail at Chagres Castle.”
John felt drunk with relief. “So I was. Just lately come home with the Admiral. You weren’t in the fleet?”
“Not I,” said Anslow. “I reckoned I’d take my chances in Tortuga. A man has to earn his bread.”
“That’s true,” said John.
“How much did you make out of it?”
“That was my share, too. Lousy business, weren’t it?”
“Fortunes of war, and all.”
“So,” said Anslow. There was an awkward pause. “Here you are.”
“Aye,” said John. He had what seemed a brilliant flash of inspiration. “I went home and straightaway married. The wife and I was on our honeymoon.”
“Oh! Congratulations,” said Anslow, hanging the lamp on a nail and offering his bloody hand to shake John’s. “So you weren’t working this cruise?”
“For a lubber like Captain Sharp? Not likely!” John chuckled, as convincingly as he could. “Now, I hope there ain’t going to be unpleasantness between us and your lads, shipmate, eh? What with me being a new bridegroom and all. I got my bride’s feelings to think of.”
“Oh, right,” said Anslow, and glanced uneasily over his shoulder. “That’s for Captain Reynald to say, of course. But it’ll be all right. I’ll vouch for you.” For the first time he seemed to notice the cabin behind John. “The missus in there?”
“Congratulations on your wedding, ma’am,” said Anslow in a raised voice.
“I thank you, sir,” said Mrs. Waverly, through the bulkhead.
“You’re kindly welcome,” said Anslow. He looked sheepish. “Well. Business is business.”
“So it is,” said John. “Shall I go help you shift cargo?”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“It ain’t my property,” said John, shrugging.
FOUR: The Harmony
When they went on deck at last, with Mrs. Waverly clinging tightly to John’s arm, the cleaning-up had begun; which was to say, dead men from both sides were being pitched overboard, and the blood was being swilled off the decks with buckets of seawater. The survivors of the crew of the Fyrey Pentacost were lined up along the rail, being jeered at by the survivors of Captain Reynald’s crew. Captain Sharp was slumped against the mast, clutching a lace-edged handkerchief to his eye. Captain Reynald, a lean Frenchman, was surveying his new quarterdeck and looking pleased with himself.
“Captain sir?” Anslow touched his forelock and led John and Mrs. Waverly forward. “This is my mate John, what I mentioned, and his bride.”
“Madame!” Captain Reynald gaze fixed on Mrs. Waverly. “Enchanted!” He took her hand and kissed it. “Please have no fears for your safety. We are a gallant band of adventurers, and respect the honor of a woman. Mr. Anslow informs me your husband is a comrade of his.”
“How very kind,” said Mrs. Waverly, with a bright artificial smile.
“And you are welcome to our crew, sir,” said Captain Reynald to John, looking him up and down. “We are short-handed.”
“Er,” said John. “Well—”
“Hear me!” Captain Reynald turned to the prisoners. “I offer each man among you the same choice! You may go over the side with your captain, or you may take the oath to join our company and live free. Will you join us, for liberty and treasure? What of you?” He pointed his cutlass at Mr. Tudeley, who had been hauled up from his cabin sobbing and now stood swaying and white-faced, from sickness and terror both.
“Oh, Jesus, sir! I wish to live!” cried Mr. Tudeley.
“Tres bien! Welcome, friend. And you?” Captain Reynald swung the tip of his cutlass to Sejanus, who was next in line.
“I cheerfully accept your offer,” said Sejanus. About this point it sank in on Mr. Tudeley that he had just joined a pirate crew, and his mouth opened for a cry of horror. Somehow, though, all that emerged was a sort of croak.
Captain Reynald moved briskly down the line, and one after another of the Fyrey Pentacost‘s crew joined up, except for the ship’s cook and Mr. Harris, who had been beaten unconscious and couldn’t voice a preference. He was dumped unceremoniously into the bottom of one of the boats, and lowered over the side; the ship’s cook was shoved down to join him and so, after a certain amount of furious invective and threats of the rope’s end, was Captain Sharp. They were set adrift, as the Fyrey Pentacost put on sail and tacked about.
All this while John had been revolving in his mind what he ought to do, and was just clearing his throat and preparing to approach Captain Reynald when Mrs. Waverly’s fingers pinched off the circulation in his arm.
“Husband, may I just speak a word in your ear?”
“To be sure, wife,” said John, walking with her into the waist, where nobody much was standing at the moment.
“I must commend you on your swift thought, and your care for mine honor,” said Mrs. Waverly. “Knowing full well that you will never be such a beast as to press your advantage against a helpless female. Now, my dear: on no account must we let slip, amongst such people, any least detail regarding our plans.”
“I wasn’t about to tell ‘em,” said John, indignant. “What kind of a mooncalf do you take me for?”
“I’m sure you’re quite clever,” said Mrs. Waverly. “Just as I am sure Mr. Anslow is a kind gentleman, and Captain Reynald too for all I know. But I think it best to be discreet amongst so many other persons of uncertain character, don’t you? We will go along for the present and bear with our misfortune, trusting that we will have the opportunity to escape at some point and make our way to Leauchaud.”
“Right,” said John. “It’s only that I was getting out of the business, as it were, and now I’m on the account again whether I will or no. Any court’s going to say this was an English ship, and hang me up alongside that frog captain.”
“Only if we are caught,” said Mrs. Waverly. “And in any case I shall plead for mercy, and swear that you only did it to protect me.”
“How likely is that to work?”
“It has never failed before,” said Mrs. Waverly, smiling graciously at Captain Reynald.
The ship was rechristened the Harmony, and that night they found themselves invited to another dinner with the captain; only this time it was at a long trestle table set up belowdecks, in the crew’s quarters.
“Welcome, friends,” said Captain Reynald, who had put on a clean shirt for the occasion. “Madame.” He bowed deeply and once more kissed Mrs. Waverly’s hand. “I trust you will find the viands to your liking. They have been prepared with these own hands of mine.”
“Really,” said Mrs. Waverly, as he led her to a place at the head of the table.
“Indeed, madame. We are a happy community of brothers here; I am the leader only in matters of war and philosophy.”
“Philosophy?” said John, taking his seat to Mrs. Waverly’s left, since Captain Reynald had taken the seat to her right. Sejanus took a seat next to him and sat looking around, in great enjoyment; Mr. Tudeley, still pale and miserable, found himself seated far down the table.
“Indeed, my friend. We are a utopian fraternity of corsairs, rebels against the entrenched corruption of kings and merchants. We have refused the chains of Civilization and live in perfect equality here, upon the wide sea, the mother of liberty. Is it not so?”
“Yes, Captain,” chorused the crew, in tones that suggested they’d heard his speech a multitude of times.
“For example: all delicacies shall be shared in common among us.” Captain Reynald drew the serving platter close, and carved one of a pair of Captain Sharp’s capons. “My brother corsairs share in whatever bounty we find. Will you have some of this chicken, madame?”
“I thank you, yes,” said Mrs. Waverly. He loaded her plate with generous slices, to the point where the men at table looked narrowly at what was left.
“Perhaps you are surprised by such men; perhaps you expected us to be little better than savages,” continued Captain Reynald.
“I confess I scarcely knew what to expect,” said Mrs. Waverly.
“Though of course it is a fact that among civilized men, you will generally find filth, moral turpitude, decadence and lies, whereas if you make the acquaintance of primitive Man in his natural element you will find him a noble and honest creature,” said Captain Reynald, with a gracious nod in the direction of Sejanus.
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” said Sejanus dryly. “I was born in Massachusetts.”
“Pardon me,” said John, a little irritated by Captain Reynald’s attentions to Mrs. Waverly. “This sounds all right and proper, and I’m grateful to know we’ve fallen in with such a high-minded lot; but, since we’re on the account, let’s talk business. Have we got a commission?”
“Why, of course,” said Captain Reynald. “Signed by the governor of Tortuga.”
“Allows us to go after anybody but the French,” said Anslow, grinning. “And even them, if the captain don’t feel they’re yew-topian enough.”
“How do you know?”
“I regard them through the spyglass,” said Captain Reynald. “If the captain is dressed in great finery and his men are ragged, clearly he is oppressing them and it is our duty to liberate the ship.”
“We got the Triomphe de Bourbon that way,” volunteered one of the crew. “There was a ship, by God!”
“Pity about that reef off Curacao,” said another man, looking mournful.
“It is no matter,” said Captain Reynald. “We have this fine ship now, and the Fraternity; we shall cruise together and increase our fleet. Others will come to join us, and who can say? Perhaps we will find a suitable island on which to set up our community, and govern ourselves democratically.”
There were responses from the crew of “Oui, c’est vrai,” and “Right you are,” and “We’re all looking forward to that day, I’m sure,” none of it in tones of great enthusiasm.
“But in the meantime,” Anslow said to John, “It’s the old rules. No Purchase No Pay, but no damned shares to the King nor the Duke of York nor no governors, neither!”
“Not even the governor of Tortuga?”
“He is a reasonable man, and is content with a modest bribe,” said Captain Reynald. “And even I, the captain, even my share is no greater than that of my fellow corsairs. We are equal in all things!”
“Really,” said Sejanus.
“Indeed,” said Captain Reynald, filling Mrs. Waverly’s glass with Captain Sharp’s best rhenish. “I propose a toast, my friends: to universal liberty and the brotherhood of all mankind!”
They drank, all of them; even Mr. Tudeley, who screwed up his face as though he was about to swallow poison. After the first taste, though, he sighed and had another.
The congeniality on board lasted about as long as the delicacies plundered from Captain Sharp’s private store held out. When they were back to jerked beef and rum, the mood reverted to one a bit more like what John expected on a pirate ship.
Equality or no, Captain Reynald reserved the right to order them about. The first task John and his mates were set was tearing down the poop and quarterdecks, so the Harmony became a flush-decked fighting platform.
“I have been meaning to ask you about something,” said Sejanus, as he levered out the windows of the great cabin.
“What?” said John, catching the panes before they shattered and setting the window down flat.
“When did you and your mistress marry?”
“How dare you ask such an impertinent question, sir?” said Mr. Tudeley, sweating as he struggled to pry loose the wall-paneling by the privy closet. He set down his crowbar and pulled off his spectacles to wipe them on his sleeve. “Though to speak truth, Mr. James, I had wondered myself.”
“We ain’t married,” said John. “It was a ruse, what d’you think? On account of I didn’t know what these fellows would be inclined to do with her.”
“Ah! Very gallant of you,” said Mr. Tudeley.
“Just so,” said Sejanus. “So…you are her servant, then.”
“Aye,” said John. He took up Mr. Tudeley’s crowbar and hooked it into the paneling that had defeated Mr. Tudeley. A wrench, a grunt, and the panel popped off and bounced across the room like a playing card.
“And yet, you were a pirate before,” mused Sejanus. “How does a man go from piracy to serving in a lady’s chamber?”
John turned slowly, with the crowbar in his hand. “Well, ain’t you too clever by half?” he said quietly. “I reckon if I was to crack your crown and pitch you out that window-hole, there ain’t anybody’d know it wasn’t an accident but me and Tudeley here.”
“Too clever,” said Sejanus, nodding, though he did not move. “Yes, that’s me. And you aren’t as stupid as you look, either. I’ll hold my tongue.”
“But…” Mr. Tudeley’s face contorted as he tried to think through the relationship. “But…good God, sir, d’you mean the woman is a strumpet? You brought her aboard for immoral purposes?”
Sejanus burst out laughing.
“You dunce, who in hell goes to sea for a fuck?” said John crossly. “We could have laid up in an alehouse if that was all we’d wanted. Look, mate, here’s the truth of it: me and her man was mates in Panama, and he died, and I come back to tell her.” Hastily he laid down a new level of untruth, like paint. “Her health ain’t the best, and she wanted to take the waters at Leauchaud. I was only squiring her out there on my old mate’s account, as a last favor like.”
“Mmm-hm.” Sejanus took up a crowbar and set about dismantling the window frame.
“You must excuse me,” said Mr. Tudeley. “I have moved so long amongst indecent people, I scarcely recognize an honest man when I see him anymore.”
“That’s all right,” said John, pulling the cabin’s wainscoting away.
“I have often thought it must be something in the air of this place,” said Mr. Tudeley, in a mournful voice. “I used to imagine the tropics would be like Paradise, when I was in London. Reading Raleigh’s book, you know, imagining green palms waving in the sunlight, and luscious fruits growing all year round, and quaint birds and monkeys. It seemed another Eden.
“I’d no idea I’d find such heat, such rogues and drunkards, such…sweat and stink and filth! Mr. Cox had been a reasonable and upright man in London; Squire Darrow had great reason to trust him with the plantation. Yet I watched him rot before mine eyes in this sweltering heat, doing no more but lying in his hammock all hours of the day and swilling rum. I spoke with him long and earnestly, pointing out his duty, and was told to go to perdition for my pains. Was that fair, sir, I ask you?”
“I don’t reckon life’s fair, mate,” said John.
“And yet, I know I was blamed,” said Mr. Tudeley. He put his spectacles back on and bent to pick up the wooden slats that John was scattering everywhere. “Mr. Cox drinking himself into an early grave, who was left to blame but me? Squire Darrow’s reproach was almost more than I could bear. Yet it is all of a piece with the course of my life.”
“Mm-hm,” said Sejanus.
“Do tell,” said John.
“Nothing but disappointments,” said Mr. Tudeley. “Disappointed at school, in my marriage, in my prospects, all hopes blighted. It’s enough to make a man rail at God.”
“Chah!” said Sejanus. “Why don’t you, then? If it makes you feel any better.”
Mr. Tudeley shuddered. “Bitter as the crust of my life has been, how much worse might it be was I to call down the wrath of the Almighty?”
“Now, see, you’re like my father,” said Sejanus.
“How dare you!”
“There he was, lying in chains in a pool of shite, rolling to and fro as the slave-ship rolled, and what did he say? ‘Oh, merciful Damballah, I don’t know what I did to make you angry with me, but I’m sorry!’ And then there he was, sold naked as a baby on the auction block, and dragged away to sweat on a tobacco plantation, and what did he say? ‘Oh, merciful Damballah, I know I must have earned your anger, but if you’ll show me what you want me to do, I’ll do it!’
“And then there he was, lamed when a wagon rolled over his leg, and sold away to old Reverend Walker of Boston, who made him fetch and carry anyway and married him to an ugly woman, and what did he say? ‘Oh, merciful Damballah, I just know you have a reason for all the sufferings you’ve inflicted on me, and maybe someday you’ll please to tell me what it is?’
“And you know what he always said to me? ‘Respect the loas, Bandele! They are great and powerful and they watch over us always!’”
“What’s a loa?” asked John.
“Well, what can you expect of your heathen gods?” said Mr. Tudeley with a sniff. “Our Lord God Almighty is the true divinity.”
“And so said Reverend Walker,” said Sejanus. “He gave me schooling, he said to me, ‘Little Sejanus, I cannot save thy father’s obdurate soul, but I shall save thine.’ He said, ‘The Lord Almighty in His infinite mercy has visited the burden of slavery upon thy sinful people, and thou must bear it patiently, for it is part of His divine plan.’. I said to myself, Oh, yes, that’ll make me love your Lord Almighty!
“But he preached at me every day, did the Reverend Walker, trying to save my black soul. He’d lean out the window and preach at me the whole time I’d be weeding in his garden. He preached at me every mile of the way I had to carry him to and from the church, after he got too old to sit a horse.
“I said to myself, these two old men are fools. Great and powerful Damballah couldn’t save his people. Great and loving-merciful God carrying on the spiteful way He does makes no sense either. So at last I resolved I wasn’t believing in any of them.
“And you know what happened then, just last year?”
“What?” inquired John, pausing to mop his sweating face.
“We had moved to Virginia,” said Sejanus, smiling at the memory. “They passed a law there. The news came the day after I became an atheist. ‘All slaves come into the country by ship will remain slaves. All slaves born into the country to be manumitted after thirty years’ service.’ And I was just thirty. ‘There it is,’ I said To Reverend Walker, ‘I was born here. I’m free!’
“He signed my manumission and he said, ‘Then God has blessed you, Sejanus. Kneel with me and pray!’ And my old father said “You see? The loas have set you free! Let’s make them an offering in thanks.’
“I said ‘Thank you, but I think I’ll just get my black arse out of here before the law changes.’ I took my manumission paper and I set off. Last I saw, those two old sad men stood there watching me walk away down the lane. All their holy-holies between them couldn’t set me free. Only a loophole in the law, and me having the wits to jump through it.”
“Oh, that’s just blasphemy,” said Mr. Tudeley.
“But I worked my way this far and here I am, free as a bird,” said Sejanus. “How free are you, God-fearing man?”
“How’d you like dumping Captain Sharp’s pisspot for him?” said John. Sejanus scowled at him.
“At least I got paid wages for it,” he said. “And I chose to be here. Nobody, man or god, will ever ride my back again.”
SIX: The Santa Ysabel
John was dead-tired when he went to bed that night. He retired to the cabin, for Captain Reynald had graciously allowed him to keep it, “in order that the fair lady might enjoy her privacy”. Sejanus had been granted a hammock where the rest of the crew slept, and got on famously with them, and everyone seemed to have forgotten that Mr. Tudeley had a cabin somewhere aft. Privacy for John there was none, of course; only Mrs. Waverly curled up in the narrow cot, frowning at him when he blundered in.
“Do put the candle out soon, won’t you?” she said, sharpish. “I had just fallen asleep.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” said John. He swung himself up into the hammock and groped for the candle, pinching the flame out. He lay there, swaying in the pitch darkness, wondering uneasily what he should do if he needed to break wind.
The question occupied him to the edge of consciousness. Just as he was slipping over the edge into sleep he was jerked back by a small sharp noise, very loud in that confined space. For a moment he lay petrified with embarrassment, thinking he had farted. As he recollected the sound, however, he realized it had been more of a metallic sound; not unlike a coin or small bauble striking the deck.
“What is it?” said Mrs. Waverly, out of the darkness. She sounded full wide awake.
“Somebody dropped something.”
“I don’t believe so,” she said. John heard her rustling about. “I believe you were dreaming, Mr. James. I heard nothing. Do go back to sleep.”
The deck was flush, all the pegs sanded down and all the nail-holes stuffed with oakum and tar. Now John saw why Reynald’s men put up with his silly-arse ideas about universal brotherhood; for the captain knew his craft. He had the Harmony rerigged, giving her fore-and-aft sails for speed.
Reynald stalked her aft deck in satisfaction, gazing up at the spars and lines, now and then ordering an adjustment. When she was in full trim they caught a wind and ran, and made twelve knots. She might be broad in the beam, but now the Harmony was fast as a hare, and answered the helm like a willing bride.
No sooner was she apt for work but she found employment.
“Allons!” Captain Reynald grinned and closed up his spyglass. “Flag of Spain! Anslow, signal the Fraternity. We pursue!”
John, who had been cleaning the one-pound gun, looked up in interest. He could just make out the tilting pyramid of sail on the northern horizon, and the unwieldy bulk under it that suggested a merchant galleon. He cheered up considerably. Cargoes of tortoiseshell and logwood were pleasant enough to have a share in; the same went for sugar and rum. But the prospect of Spanish emeralds, or gold, or silver from the mines of Potosi, was enough to make the mouth water.
“What’s happening?” said Mr. Tudeley, who had been helping him by holding the rags and bucket of grease.
“We’re going into action,” said John, grinning as he watched the Fraternity wheel about and take off after the Spaniard like a coursing greyhound. The Harmony came about too and cut after her, and men catcalled and ran up into the rigging for a better view as they sped along.
“Oh dear God,” said Mr. Tudeley. “And now I shall be party to murder and robbery.”
“No!” said John. “That’s a Spanish ship, see? Now, you and me being English, our consciences are clear. They’re the enemies of the nation, so for us it’s a proper act of war.”
“But there has been a treaty signed,” said Mr. Tudeley. “We are at peace now, or hadn’t you heard?”
John had heard something of the sort, but he shrugged. “Like as not they’ll declare war again, when they hear what we done at Panama. And, you know, they’re only Papists after all.” He looked around at Captain Reynald. “Shouldn’t care to be a Frenchman,” he added thoughtfully, “because they’re Papists too, and I don’t know how they square their consciences going after Spaniards.”
“I can’t bear this,” said Mr. Tudeley, gathering up his rags and bucket. “I’m going to my cabin.”
“Just fetch up the powder and shot first, will you?” John called after him, watching avidly as the distance closed between the Harmony and the Spaniard.
The Spaniard was the Santa Ysabel, and the Fraternity had already engaged her to port when the Harmony came storming up to starboard. Little puffs of smoke were showing, here and there as muskets were fired.
John, who had been waiting impatiently for Mr. Tudeley’s return, sprinted below and found him struggling upward with his arms full of shot, holding a powder horn between his teeth. “Oh, Bleeding Jesus,” cried John, and grabbed him up bodily and ran back on deck with him.
“Le gouvernail!” Captain Reynald was roaring, pointing at the Santa Ysabel’s rudder. They were within point blank range. “Shoot! Shoot her!”
“Aye sir!” John slammed down Mr. Tudeley and relieved him of a gunball. He grabbed the powder horn, loaded, turned for a bit of wadding—
“Where’s the damn wadding?”
John spotted a book peeping from Mr. Tudeley’s coat pocket. “Here.” He grabbed it, tore out a page and shoved it down the gun, over Mr. Tudeley’s cry of outrage. The ball was rammed down, and then—
“Where’s the slow match?”
“You didn’t ask for one!”
“Oh, you whoreson ninny—”
“Merde! C’est incroyable,” muttered one of the musketmen, and dropped to his knees beside John, who aimed for the Santa Ysabel‘s rudder. The one-pounder was tiny, no longer than John’s arm, but easy as a pistol to aim. They waited until the rise and the musketman dabbed his slow match to the touch hole. The gun fired; the little ball sped true and smashed pintle and gudgeon both, a beautiful shot if not much use. Hastily they reloaded, tearing another page from Mr. Tudeley’s book (“You bastards! That’s Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy!” raged Mr. Tudeley) and fired again, John praying for lightning to strike twice.
He heard the shot strike home but couldn’t see it; yet his luck must have held, for the Santa Ysabel wallowed and swung, drifting sidelong and turning her bow toward the Fraternity. Over the cracking of musket-fire John heard the Spanish tillerman cursing, as the Harmony cruised past and came around again.
Now the Harmony had the advantage, for her tops were full of buccaneers, crack marksmen. They picked off the one sharpshooter in the Santa Ysabel‘s main top, whose attention had been focused on the men in the Fraternity. His covering fire stopped as the crew of the Fraternity pulled close enough to grapple and board.
John leapt up and ran below, grabbing a cutlass and axe from the arms-rack. He felt the crash as they ground into the Santa Ysabel‘s side, but kept his feet and ran on deck once more, in time to see a Frenchman cut down right in front of him by a Spanish musketball. Mr. Tudeley was on his hands and knees, crawling crabwise. John kicked the dead man’s cutlass toward him.
“Come on!” he roared, as he spotted the Spanish marksman re-loading on the quarterdeck of the Santa Ysabel. He hurled the axe, which spun end over end and took the Spaniard full in the face. The man dropped with three inches of steel spike in his brains. John ran on and vaulted the shifting uneasy space at the rail, landing on his feet aboard the other vessel.
His enthusiasm evaporated, as it tended to do in the heat of battle, when his cold rational self woke to blood and mayhem. Panic drove him then, and so far had done well by him, enabling him to mow through his assailants.
He looked around now and promptly ducked, as one of the defenders swung a Toledo blade at him. The man had a better blade and was a better swordsman; John knew no style but a butcher’s, but he was bigger and had the reach on the other, and was scared besides. His opponent fell with a grunt, cleft at the shoulder, and didn’t move again. John saw men boiling up from belowdecks and yelled in terror. He put his blade up and beat away the first, and beheaded the second, and by slow degrees hacked through the crowd to the companionway and stood there gibbering, killing the Spaniards before they could come out, like a housewife smashing beetles.
Then there was blood all over the deck, all over the treads of the companionway, and John was looking down at dead men. He peered around, confused. Something was on fire, smoke tendrils were drifting up now from the hole at his feet. He saw Sejanus, grinning white through a mask of blood as he fought, and behind him another black man, one John did not recognize. The man was a near-giant, whaling away with a big squared blade; his strokes mirrored those of Sejanus, with eerie precision. It looked almost like a martial dance.
Then a grimacing enemy rose into John’s field of vision, pointing a pistol full into his face. John shouted and ducked, cutting the Spaniard’s legs out from under him. He rose and to his astonishment saw Mr. Tudeley, holding his cutlass out as though it was a poker, attempting to fend off an opponent. The other lunged forward and sliced away Mr. Tudeley’s left ear, and cut the string that held his spectacles on his face to boot. Yet he overreached.
His stroke carried him against the rail, in which time Mr. Tudeley had time to realize what had happened. He caught his spectacles and clapped a hand to the side of his head, disbelieving; then burst into tears. He ran full tilt at his enemy and impaled him on his blade. The man fell, yanking the hilt from Mr. Tudeley’s grasp as he dropped. Mr. Tudeley stood there weeping, streaming blood down his neck. He fumbled for his handkerchief and clapped it to where his ear had been, murmuring “You bastard, oh, you bastard. How shall I wear my spectacles now?”
“Victoire!” someone was shouting. John turned to stare and saw Captain Reynald swinging a bloody cutlass on high. All the Spaniards were down, dead or dying. The Santa Ysabel had been taken.
When they ventured below they saw they might have taken the Santa Ysabel, but they weren’t likely to keep her. A fire had been started somewhere down in the hold, and thick white smoke was billowing up. Some of the men went down with buckets of water to try to put it out, but they couldn’t find where it was before the smoke drove them out again, blinded with tears, choking.
So in the end it became a frantic game, running down with wet cloths bound over their mouths to grab what bales and boxes they could and drag them up on deck, to be swung over to the Harmony. John and Anslow hung off the stern on ropes and kicked in the windows of the great cabin. They got a lot of the Spanish captain’s candlesticks and plate that way, as well as some armor and navigation gear.
But all the while the smoke was getting thicker, and the fire could be heard now, crackling away somewhere deep. The Fraternity ungrappled and cast off, sailing free just as t