George MacDonald Fraser THE PYRATES
Praise for George MacDonald Fraser
‘It’s all there, right down to a Dead Man’s Chest, cleavages that are everything they should be and characters in sea-boots who say nothing but “Arr!” and “Me Hearty!” in a plot that is wonderfully absurd’ Financial Times
‘It’s great fun and rings true: a Highland Fling of a book’
Eric Linklater, author of The Wind on the Moon
‘Twenty-five years have not dimmed Mr Fraser’s recollections of those hectic days of soldiering. One takes leave of his characters with real and grateful regret’
Sir Bernard Fergusson, Sunday Times
‘A self-confident performance by an old hand. Mr Fraser clearly enjoys being master of such a wide and wild plot, and makes sure to leave room in it for his most famous creation, the eponymous hero of his Flashman adventure series’
‘Fabulous … you’ll want to stay up all night reading this one’
‘MacDonald Fraser falls into what these days is an exclusive group: the storyteller who can write’
D J Taylor, Sunday Times
‘Mr Fraser is a great historical novelist and in Black Ajax he is at the very top of his form. Damme if he ain’t’
Christopher Matthew, Daily Mail
‘This is not a flashy novel, wearing its learning noisily. It’s rigorous, intelligent, meticulously horrifying. Wonderfully well done’
Nicci Gerrard, Observer
‘The sense of front-line danger is palpable and the smell of action is remarkable. His descriptions of the sudden violent actions are breathtaking. This is battle as it is done’
Melvyn Bragg, Evening Standard
‘This is a book as good as anything Fraser has written … A moving and penetrating contribution to the literature of the Burma campaign’
Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph
‘It’s George MacDonald Fraser in top form on the Borders, juggling lairds and outlaws in bitter battling over disputed territory.’
Mail on Sunday, Books of the Year
‘The sense of front-line danger is palpable and the smell of action is remarkable. His descriptions of the sudden violent actions are breathtaking. This is battle as it is done’
Melvyn Bragg, Evening Standard
‘Twenty-five years have not dimmed Mr Fraser’s recollections of those hectic days of soldiering. One takes leave of his characters with real and grateful regret’
Sir Bernard Fergusson, Sunday Times
IN MEMORY OF
The Most Reverend and Right Honourable LANCELOT BLACKBURNE
Archbishop of York and buccaneer
It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shining on the silent snow, and Claud Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets, teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husbands’ guineas; an England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers’ fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton’s heart good; where threadbare pedlars with sharp eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of ‘Hudibras’ and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves, and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o’er everywhere …
An England, in short, where justices were stout and gouty, peasants bluff and sturdy and content (but ready to turn out for Monmouth at a moment’s notice), merchant-fathers close and anxious, daughters sweet and winsome, good wives rosy and capable with bunches of keys and receipts for plum cordials, Puritans smug and sour and sanctimonious, fine ladies beautiful and husky-voiced and slightly wanton, foreigners suave and devious and given to using musky perfume, serving wenches red-haired and roguish-eyed with forty-inch busts, gentleman-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone, and younger sons all eager and clean-limbed and longing for those far horizons beyond which lay fame and fortune and love and high adventure.
That was England, then; long before interfering social historians and such carles had spoiled it by discovering that its sanitation was primitive and its social services non-existent, that London’s atmosphere was so poisonous as to be unbreathable by all but the strongest lungs, that King Charles’s courtiers probably didn’t change their underwear above once a fortnight, that the cities stank fit to wake the dead and the countryside was largely either wilderness or rural slum, that religious bigotry, dental decay, political corruption, fleas, cruelty, poverty, disease, injustice, public hangings, malnutrition, and bear-baiting were rife, and there was hardly an economist or environmentalist or town planner or sociologist or anything progressive worth a damn. (There wasn’t even a London School of Economics, which is remarkable when you consider that Locke and Hobbes were loose about the place).
Happily, the stout justices and wenches and gallants and peasants and fine ladies – and even elegant Charles himself, who was nobody’s fool – never realised how backward and insanitary and generally awful they might look to the cold and all-too-selective eye of modern research, and if they had, it is doubtful if they would have felt any pang of guilt or shame, happy conscienceless rabble that they were. Indeed, his majesty would most likely have raised a politely sceptical eyebrow, the justices scowled resentfully, and the wenches, gallants, and peasants, being vulgar, gone into hoots of derisive mirth.
So, out of deference and gratitude to them all, and because history is very much what you want it to be, anyway, this story begins in that other, happier England of fancy rooted in truth, where dates and places and the chronology of events and people may shift a little here and there in the mirror of imagination, and yet not be thought false on that account. For it’s just a tale, and as Mark Twain pointed out, whether it happened or did not happen, it could have happened. And as all story-tellers know, whether they work with spoken words in crofts, or quills in Abbotsford, or cameras in Hollywood, it should have happened.
It was on a day when, for example, King Charles was pleasantly tired after a ten-mile walk and was guiltily wondering whether he ought to preside at a meeting of his Royal Society, or take Frances Stuart to a very funny, dirty play whose jokes she would be too pure-minded to understand;
when Barbara Castlemaine was surveying her magnificence in the mirror, regretting (slightly) the havoc wrought by last night’s indulgence, and scheming how to foil her gorgeous rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth;
when, in far Jamaica, fat and yellow-faced old Henry Morgan was blowing impatiently into the whistle on the handle of his empty tankard for a refill, and wistfully reminiscing with the boys about flashing-eyed Spanish dames and treasure-stuffed churches of Panama and Portobello;
when Mr Evelyn was noting in his diary that the Duke of York’s dog always hid in the safest corner of the ship during sea-battles, and Mr Pepys was recording in his diary that on the previous night he had urinated in the fireplace because he couldn’t be bothered going out to the usual offices (and anyone checking these entries will find they are years apart, which gives some idea of the kind of story this is);
when Kirk’s mercenaries were tramping sweatily across the hot sands of the High Barbaree, licking parched lips at the thought of sparkling springs, or dusky Arab beauties in the suk of Tangier, or the day when their discharges would come through;
when a dear old tinker was dying of the cold, poor and humble and unnoticed by the great world, with the sound of choiring angels in his ears and no notion that one day he would be remembered as the greatest writer of plain English that ever was;
when the sound of the Dutchmen’s guns was still a fearsome memory along Thames-side, and Louis XIV was dreaming grandiose dreams and summoning his barber for his twice-weekly shave …
All these things were happening on the day when the story begins, but they don’t really matter, and have been set down for period flavour. The real principals in our melodrama were waiting in the wings, entirely unaware of each other or of the parts they were to play. They don’t actually come on just yet, but since they are the stars we should take a preliminary look at them.
Captain Benjamin Avery, of the King’s Navy, fresh from distinguished service against the Sallee Rovers, in his decent lodging at Greenwich, making a careful toilet, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, adjusting his plain but spotless neckcloth, shooting his cuffs just so, and bidding a polite but aloof good morning to the adoring serving-maid as she brings in his breakfast of cereal, two boiled eggs, toast and coffee, and scurries out with a breathless, fluttering curtsey. Captain Avery straightens his coat and decides as he contemplates his splendid reflection that preferment and promotion must soon be the lot of such a brilliant and deserving young officer.
If you’d been there you would have seen his point, and the adoring maid’s. Captain Avery was everything that a hero of historical romance should be; he was all of Mr Sabatini’s supermen rolled into one, and he knew it. The sight of him was enough to make ordinary men feel that they were wearing odd socks, and women to go weak at the knees. Not that his dress was magnificent; it was sober, neat, and even plain, but as worn by Captain Avery it put mere finery to shame. Nor did he carry himself with ostentation, but with that natural dignity, nay austerity, coupled with discretion and modesty, which come of innate breeding. His finely-chiselled features bespoke both the man of action and the philosopher, their youthful lines tempered by a maturity beyond his years; there was beneath his composed exterior a hint of steely power, etc., etc. You get the picture.
For the record, this wonder boy was six feet two, with shoulders like a navvy and the waist of a ballerina; his legs were long and shapely, his hips narrow, and he moved like a classy welterweight coming out at the first bell. His face was straight off the B.O.P. cover, with its broad unclouded brow, long fair hair framing his smooth-shaven cheeks; his nose was classic, his mouth firm but not hard, his eyes clear dark grey and wide-set, his jaw strong and slightly cleft, and his teeth would have sent Kirk Douglas scuttling shamefaced to his dentist. His expression was at once noble, alert and intelligent, deferential yet commanding … sorry, we’re off again.
In short, Captain Avery was the young Errol Flynn, only more so, with a dash of Power and Redford thrown in; the answer to a maiden’s prayer, and between ourselves, rather a pain in the neck. For besides being gorgeous, he had a starred First from Oxford, could do the hundred in evens, played the guitar to admiration, helped old women across the street, kept his finger-nails clean, said his prayers, read Virgil and Aristophanes for fun, and generally made the Admirable Crichton look like an illiterate slob. However, he is vital if you are to get the customers in; more of him anon.
Secondly, and a sad come-down it is if you’re a purist, meet Colonel Tom Blood, cashiered, bought out, and all too obviously our Anti-Hero, in his lodgings, a seedy attic in Blackfriars, with a leaky ceiling and the paper peeling off the walls in damp strips. He has five pence in his pocket, his linen is foul, his boots are cracked, he hasn’t shaved, there’s nothing for breakfast but the stale heel of a loaf and pump water, and his railing harridan of a landlady has just shrieked abusively up the stairs to remind him that he is six weeks behind with the rent. But Colonel Blood is Irish and an optimist, and lies on his unmade bed with his hands behind his head, whistling and planning how to elope with a rich cit’s wife once he has brought the silly bag to the boil and she has assembled her valuables. He’d need a razor from somewhere, to be sure, and a clean shirt, but these – like poverty, hunger, and a shocking reputation – were trifles to a resourceful lad who had once come within an ace of stealing the Crown Jewels.
One should not be put off by the bad press given to Blood by that prejudiced old prude, Mr Evelyn, who once had dinner with him at Mr Treasurer’s, and kept a tight grip on his wallet during the meal, by the sound of it. “That impudent bold fellow”, he wrote of the gallant Colonel, “had not only a daring, but villainous unmerciful look, a false countenance, but very well spoken and dangerously insinuating”. Not quite fair to a dashing rascal who, if not classically handsome, was decidedly attractive in a Clark Gable-ish way, with his sleepy dark eyes, ready smile, and easy Irish charm. Tall, strong and well-made, perhaps not as slim as he would have liked, but trim and fast on his feet for all that; an affable, deceptively easygoing gentleman and quite a favourite with the less discriminating ladies who were beguiled by his trim moustache and lively conversation. A tricky, dangerous villain, though, when he had to be, which was deplorably often, for of all the Colonel’s many and curious talents, finding trouble was the first.
So there they were, the two of them, miles and poles apart, and hardly a thing in common except youth and vigour and blissful ignorance of the fate that was being determined for them four thousand sea-miles away …
For now the scene shifts abruptly, to grim Fort St Bartlemy, lonely outpost of England in the far Caribbean, where at the watergate of the great rockbound castle, bronzed and bare-backed seamen sweated in the humid tropic night as they carried massive iron-studded chests up from the boats at the sea-steps, and along the arched, stone-flagged tunnel to the strong room deep in the heart of that impregnable place. Guttering torches lit the scene as the sailors grunted and heaved and chewed quids of plug tobacco and spat and swore rich sea-oaths as they laboured, for every tarry-handed mother’s son of them had learned his trade in the Jeffrey Farnol School of Historical Dialect, and could growl “Belike” and “Look’ee” and “Ha – cheerly messmates all!” in that authentic Mummerset growl which would one day keep Robert Newton in gainful employment. So with hearty heave-ho-ing and avasting they worked, under the stern blue eye of their grizzled commander, a weather-beaten salt of suitably bluff appearance with a blue coat and brass-mounted telescope, who may well have been called Hawkins or Bransome, but not conceivably Vavasour d’Umfraville.
“Aaargh!” cried the burly captain, twice for emphasis. “Aaargh! Easy, handsomely, I say, wi’ they chests, rot ’ee! ’Tis ten thousand pound you’m carryin’, ye lubbers!” This was his normal habit of speech, since anything else would have been incomprehensible to his crew. “A pesky parlous cargo it be, an’ all, an’ glad am I to be rid on’t, burn me for a backstay else.”
“Not as glad as my garrison will be to see it,” replied the fort commandant, a stout and sunburned soldier who was equally perfect casting in his buff coat, large belly, and plumed hat. “Three years without pay is a long time in such lonely fortalice as this.” He hesitated, and ventured to add: “Damme for a lizard else.”
“For a what?” inquired the captain, rolling an eye.
“A lizard,” said the commandant defensively. “You know.”
“Aaargh!” said the captain thoughtfully. “A lizard, eh? Humph! Us seamen don’t use to swear by no crawlin’ land-lubberly varmints, us don’t. Handspikes an’ marlin-spikes an’ sich sailorly things be good enough fer we, by the powers, choke me wi’ a rammer else. Howbeit,” he went on, “I be mortal glad to see the last o’ these damned dollars; a thousand leagues from old England be a long way wi’ such a lading, through pirate waters an’ all, d’ye see, rot me for a Portingale pimp if it bain’t.” And he dashed the sweat from his brow with a horny hand. “Aye, split an’ sink me, a risky v’yage, look’ee, a passage right perilous, an’ happy I am ’tis done wi’, an’ they doubloons snug i’ the cellar at last, scuttle me for a—”
“How about some supper?” said the commandant quickly.
“Vittles, sez you!” cried the captain, rolling both eyes. “Why, then vittles it is, sez I, wi’ all my heart, aye, an’ a flagon o’ ale, devil a doubt, or Spanish vino, sa-ha! to wet our whistles, an’ damn all, wi’ a curse. Scupper me wi’ a handspike,” he added triumphantly, “else.”
The commandant having conceded game set and match, they rolled off to supper, while the toiling seamen heaved and beliked and spat as they trundled the last of the precious chests into the strongroom, and the great door clanged to and was locked with a ponderous key. Thereafter they repaired to mess with the garrison, while in the commandant’s chambers the officers supped off pepper-pot and flying-fish broiled, with many a tankard, and the sea captain amazed his hosts with the richness of his discourse. Sentries stood outside the strongroom, but the long stone tunnel to the watergate lay deserted, and from the sea-steps outside the fitful light of the torches shone on empty water to the little harbour entrance. Above on the battlements other sentries lolled – those dispensable sentries of fiction who doze at their posts in their ill-fitting uniforms, mere cannon-fodder to be knocked on the head or smothered by agile assailants, or at best wake up too late to fire a warning shot and yell “Turn out the … ugh!” If the commandant had lined the walls of that lonely fortress with his entire force, instead of boozing and stuffing and throwing his wig aside in the carouse, all might have been well, but of course he didn’t. They never do.
So within Fort St Bartlemy was all cheery complacency and unbuttoning, and without the tropic moon shone on that familiar scene … the grim silhouette of the castle, the torch-lit peace of the watergate, the wind sighing gently through the palm trees, the soft surf lapping the silver sand. All was tranquil, the moon’s wake throwing its golden shaft across the rum-dark sea, the scent of bougainvillea and pimento on the breeze, and one might have imagined the soft strains of “Spanish Ladies” on the lulling air, fading gradually away …
… to be replaced by another music, the almost imperceptible beat of something far out on the dark water, the chuckle of foam under a bow, the faint creak of cordage and timber, the soft whisper of a command, and the rising ghostly cadence of a wild sea-march as a great dark shadow came gliding, gliding out of the night. For an instant the moonlight touched the pale loom of canvas furled, then it was gone, and the dozing sentries never heard the soft plunge of oars, or caught the phosphorescent glitter of ruffled water, or the grating of long-boat bows on shingle, the splash of bare feet and sea-boots in the surf, the glint of steel, the clatter of gear instantly hushed, or the shadowy passage of silent figures slipping through the palm-groves. No, the sentries were dreaming of distant Devon or half-caste wenches or beer or whatever sleepy sentries dream about, and by the time one of them glanced seaward it was too late, as usual, because the Menace was there, unseen, crouched in disciplined quiet beneath the very castle wall on the narrow path that skirted round to the open, inviting, torch-lit watergate and its deserted steps, where only a few convenient boats rocked unguarded at their moorings.
Wolfish bearded faces in the shadows, earrings, head scarves, hairy drawers, dirty shirts open to the waist, bad breath, great buckled belts, cutlasses, knives and pistols gripped in gnarled and sweaty hands, and at their head, all in snowy white from breeches to head-kerchief, big as a house-side and nimble as a cat, Calico Jack Rackham, none other, cautiously edging his brutally handsome, square-chinned face round a corner of the watergate, grinning at the sight of the torch-lit empty tunnel, turning to his followers, motioning them to be ready for the assault, whispering his final orders. First among equals was Calico Jack, by reason of being literate and smart and able to navigate and do all things shipshape and Bristol fashion, look’ee, as his admiring associates often agreed. Also he was strong enough to break a penny between his fingers, which helps, and having served a turn in the Navy, he was reckoned dependable. In our day he would have been a paratroop sergeant, or a shop steward, or a moderate Labour M.P. He was a pirate because it offered a profitable field for his talents, and he was saving for his old age.
First behind him came Firebeard, six feet both ways, barrel-chested, with hands like earth-moving equipment, and so covered in the fuzz that gave him his nickname that he looked like a burst mattress with piggy eyes glinting out of it. He was enormous and roaring and ranting and wild and so thick he had forgotten his real name; he had been dropped on his head at an early age and never looked back. Nowadays he might have been an all-in wrestler or a Hollywood stuntman or an eccentric peer – or, indeed, all three. His idea of living was to hit people with anything handy, grab any valuables in sight, and blue the lot on wenches and drink. He was a pirate for these reasons, and also because he enjoyed bellowing those hearty songs which John Masefield would write in course of time. His eventual claim to fame would be as the model and inspiration of Edward Teach, who would copyright the habit in which Firebeard was at that very minute indulging, of tying lighted fire-crackers in his beard to terrify the enemy. He always did this before action, fumbling and cursing as the matches burned his huge clumsy fingers, while his comrades coughed and fanned the air.
“He’s at it again!” they, muttered severally. “Gor, what a kick-up!” “Thou lubberly guts, wilt set thy hair afire – fo!” “Turn it up, for God’s sake!” “They reek offends, thou smouldering ape – ’tis nauseous to rob i’ thy company!”
This last contribution came from Bilbo; tall, lean, rakish Bilbo, pretending to elegance in his tawdry finery of embroidered coat, plumed castor, soiled lace ruffles, and fine Cordovan boots with red-lacquered heels. (Actually, they pinched him excruciatingly, having been taken from the corpse of a small grandee whom Bilbo had skewered at Campeche, but Bilbo knew they were the height of fashion, and hobbled grimly in them through skirmishes and boarding-parties innumerable.) He was a sad case, Bilbo, really, although he looked anything but. A Wapping guttersnipe, he yearned for gentility, having observed something of it as a bare-foot stable lad in a great household, and later as a page-boy – after his lithe young figure and raffish good looks had caught the jaded eye of his master’s wife. His amorous energies had led to similar posts in the houses of susceptible ladies of fashion, and some of the airs of the beau monde had stuck to him, along with the jewellery pilfered from the dressing-tables of his exhausted paramours. Among sea-scum he passed as a gentleman, having picked up a few tricks of speech from Congreve and Vanbrugh to supplement his gaudy wardrobe. He sneered and minced in sinister fashion, and made play with a rather grubby Mechlin kerchief, and wore a cut-price gem in his steenkirk. But don’t underrate Bilbo – he might be a social pretender whose feet were killing him, but he had won his captaincy in the Coast Brotherhood by cunning, courage, and fighting ability. He wasn’t called Bilbo for nothing – the long black rapier on his hip was reckoned the deadliest from St Kitts to Coromandel, with stoccata and imbroccata and punta rinversa, sa-ha! and he had a nice showy trick of spinning up finger-rings and impaling them on his flourished blade, like the Duke of Monmouth. Not easy. Nowadays Bilbo would have been a lion-tamer or an advertising executive. He hoped to make enough from piracy to buy an estate and title; for the moment he sneered at Firebeard’s efforts to get his crackers going, and took a pinch of snuff from the box proffered by Goliath, his faithful dwarf.
“A barbarous affectation,” he lisped. “Thou vulgar big birk.”
“At least I don’t have a bloody goblin in tow,” growled Firebeard, and Goliath, who was all of two feet tall and had a wooden leg, hopped and gibbered in rage. Suddenly the fire-crackers took light, and Firebeard chortled while the air turned blue.
“All ready?” whispered Calico Jack, and a fierce chorus of “Aye, aye, cap’n, we’m ready for sart’n” answered him, with the odd “Belike” and “Look’ee” as an afterthought from the more eager spirits. And as they crouched for the assault, up from the rear came the fourth leader of that desperate enterprise, cat-footed and stately, and those hairy ruffians fell back, eyeing her askance with lustful respect as she stalked by, hips swaying, with a trace of Pierre Cardin lingering on the sultry air as she passed.
Six gorgeous feet she was, from the heels of her tight-fitting Italian thigh boots (from Gucci, undoubtedly) to the curling plume of her picture hat, breeched and shirted in crimson silk that clung to her like a skin, lithe and sleek and dangerous as a panther – Sheba, the black pirate queen, looking like something out of Marvel Comic with her lovely vicious face and voluptuous shape, her dark eyes flashing against her ebony skin, smouldering silently as she unsheathed her dainty rapier with its Cartier hilt, and posed with the contemptuous grace of a burlesque star, indifferent to the ecstatic sighs and groans of her besotted followers. She had that sort of effect on men – it was notorious that when, in boarding a galleon, her shirt had been ripped off by an enemy pike, her entire crew had had to go on bromide for a fortnight. She never walked, she prowled, exuding menace and sex-appeal at every step, but none was so hardy as to presume on her femininity, for Sheba was as cruel and deadly as she was beautiful, and her scorn for men was proverbial. (True, in the focsle they breathed rumours of sizzling orgies in her secret fortress on Octopus Rock, with prisoners who were afterwards done diabolically to death, but that’s focsle gossip all over.) Born a Barbados slave, she had clawed her way to power in the Coast fraternity by a piratical genius and ruthless ferocity that had made her the toast of women’s liberationists all along the Main. Her fellow sea-wolves respected her, had astonishing fantasies about her, and went in terror of her, and she despised them all with a curl of her shapely lip and a lift of her perfect Egyptian nose and a low-lidded glare from her smoky slanting eyes, fingering her one long silver earring the while. Only to Rackham did she show the respect due an equal, and the big man treated her as a brother. Three centuries later Sheba would have been on the cover of Vogue, or leading a soul group; she was a pirate because she hated the world for enslaving her, and took a sadistic pleasure in killing – men, for choice, but women given half a chance, and quite small animals.
All round, they were a happy little gang of eccentric cut-throats who crouched in the shadows under Fort St Bartlemy’s massy walls that balmy tropic night, waiting for the word from Rackham – and then they were storming up the passage, yelling bloody murder, while sleepy sentries above fired futile warning shots and ran about with their muskets at the high port. By then the pirates were slicing up the guards at the strong room, forcing the door, bursting open the first chest in a cascade of gold coin, into which Firebeard, exploding all over the place, threw himself bawling:
“It’s the dollars! A bloody fortune! Har-har! Calico! Sheba! Bilbo! We’m rich!” He always shouted this on taking a prize, whatever its value, while his fire-crackers set his hair ablaze and those nearest choked and spluttered. A tiny Welsh pirate crouched by the open chest, eagerly counting the coins: “One, two, three …” until someone yanked him aside.
Up in the commandant’s room they were exclaiming and belching and grabbing up their wigs and over-turning chairs, and shouting useful things like: “Pirates!” and “The paychests!” and “Sound the alarm!” and “Goose me wi’ a handspike, we’m beset!” and by the time they tumbled downstairs all hell was breaking loose. The pirates were bearing out the treasure-chests under Rackham’s directions, while Bilbo, firing his pistols with an elegant air and tossing them to his dwarf for reloading, was commanding the covering party who were at grips with the belated redcoats. It was desperate work, what with shots banging in the enclosed space, and powder-smoke everywhere, and pirates cursing as they were wounded, and redcoats falling down obligingly when they were shot, and Bilbo fleering and shooting, and Black Sheba leaping like a leopard, skewering with deadly daintiness, and Firebeard bashing and bawling. The commandant rallied his men with cries of “Blister me!” and blundered bravely ahead, crossing swords with Sheba over a couple of fallen bodies. He thrust clumsily at her chest … and paused, shaken, as he realised that his target, instead of being a conventional masculine torso, was more like something painted by an enthusiastic Rubens, and bouncing most distractingly to boot.
“Sink me, it’s a woman!” he concluded loudly. “Strike me speechless!” he added, which was prophetic, for:
“With pleasure!” hissed Sheba, and glided in like a dancer, perfect teeth bared in an unholy smile, and the commandant tripped and fell flat on his back. A high heel pinned him as she flicked aside his hat with her rapier point, whispering “Doff, dog – doff to a lady!” and the last thing the commandant knew was that black face mocking down at him and a tearing pain in his throat.
The soldiers fell back, appalled, and as the last of the chests was borne down the passage Rackham roared his followers back and away. They retreated, firing, down the great stone tunnel, while Sheba, the blood-lust on her, slashed and stabbed and laughed, with Firebeard beside her swinging his cutlass roaring “Take that, ye lousy lobster! Kill ’em! Tear ’em! Kill the honest men!” and Bilbo carefully shot an officer in the shoulder, and turned to supervise the stowage of the chests in the waiting longboats. Shepherding his men, Rackham looked back along the shambles of the tunnel, to see Sheba alone, fronting the disheartened soldiery, flourishing her rapier and screaming:
“Come on, you King’s men! Fight! Is one woman too many for you, you mangy cowards? Fight – that’s what they pay you your shilling a day for!”
And it’s not enough, either, was the universal thought among the military as they faced that black and crimson fighting fury; but the wounded officer tugged at a lever in the wall, and above Sheba’s head, through a slit in the stone, a great portcullis gate came swishing down. Too late Rackham cried a warning, too late she saw and sprang back; the great steel frame fell to divide the corridor from wall to wall, and although Sheba snaked beneath it to the seaward side, it pinned her ankle cruelly to the floor, and she lay trapped and helpless, her face contorted in agony, her rapier clanging on the flags. The pirates, with appropriate oaths, ran back to help; Firebeard strained his mighty thews in a vain effort to raise the portcullis, roaring “Heave, ye maggots!” and getting back the usual excuses, like “’Tain’t no manner o’ use we heavin’, cap’n, look’ee, she’m caught, like, an’ us can’t shift the bugger no-how!”
Meanwhile the soldiers, encouraged by the fact that there was now a stout steel gate between them and the pirates, surged foward, shooting; one even rushed up and tried to bayonet the fallen Sheba through the bars. But Bilbo snapped an order, the dwarf Goliath sprang to the bars like a monkey, through them went his wooden leg, and out of it shot a steel blade to drink the soldier’s heart’s blood. (Full of tricks, those pirates were.) But Sheba, writhing on the flags, was fast as ever, and as the others banged away overhead, Rackham knelt beside her.
“It’s no use, camarado! We can’t shift it! D’ye want to go quick, girl?” For garrison reinforcements were crowding down the tunnel, and Rackham looked to the priming of his pistol.
“Leave me!” gasped Sheba. “Each takes his chance … law of the Brotherhood!”
Firebeard, of course, was having none of that; he was a proper pirate, after all.
“We’ll fight it out, by the powers!” he bellowed. “I don’t leave no mess-mate in the lurch, by cock, burn damn and blast me if I do!” And he beat his fists on his chest.
“Balls!” cried Bilbo, forgetting his affectations in the heat of the moment. “She’s right! If we linger, we are undone! Anyway, we’ve got the loot! Shove off!” No nonsense about Bilbo; he strode to the sea-steps, and the long-boats surged into the night, heavy with the booty. Several pirates dragged Firebeard into the last boat, heedless of his bawling: “We can’t leave her! Let’s cut off her leg!,” and for a brief moment, with the last pirates on the steps keeping the soldiers at a distance with their pistol fire, Rackham was left alone by the pinned and helpless woman.
“Go, Calico! Quickly!” she gasped, and the big man stared down at her with tears in his eyes, and stooped to kiss her brow.
“I’ll be back for you, camarado! Wherever they take you – we’ll get you out!”
And then he was gone, springing down the steps to the last boat, and it shoved off into the darkness, with the pirates singing “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest,” which is not actually a very good song to row to; consequently they caught crabs all over the place, and wallowed in a welter of gold coins and bilge-water and rum, with the boats bucketing about. The redcoats on the battlements should have picked them off easily, but as everyone knows, in such circumstances redcoats never hit anything, but pop off their blanks in a most desultory fashion.
But while the pirates eventually regained their ship, the soldiers in the tunnel were bearing down triumphantly on the slim crimson figure pinned beneath the portcullis; Sheba cast one agonised glance after her departing comrades, choked on tears of pain, gnashed out a truly disgusting oath at her enemies, and then lapsed gracefully into a swoon. The wounded officer, clutching his shoulder, ordered the portcullis raised, and kicked the insensible figure cruelly in its shapely ribs, snarling: “We’ve got this heathen slut, at any rate! Gad, but we’ll make her pay for this …”
Which is a suitably dramatic moment to bring this first chapter to a close, with the powder-smoke a-reek in our nostrils, our principals introduced, and Delectable Dusky Villainy in the clutches of the law. What will the brutal beastly soldiery do to Black Sheba? Will they …? What of Rackham’s promise to save her? Does Bilbo even care? And what has all this got to do with the handsome Captain Avery and the rascally Colonel Blood? We shall e’en see in Chapter the Second.
In fact, while Sheba was languishing decoratively in her chains in the grim dungeon of Fort St Bartlemy, having beaten off the advances of her leering jailers till her arms ached, and her pirate shipmates were falling about in drunken celebration singing “Mouths were made for tankards and for sucking at the bung,” while their ship headed erratically towards Tortuga with the loot, Captain Avery was bowing gracefully – not too little, not too much, but just right – on the threshold of Mr Pepys’s office at the Admiralty. And Mr Pepys, hurriedly adjusting the wig he had laid by, and guiltily shoving his Diary under some papers, could have done without him. For one thing, Pepys had been looking forward to neglecting the victualling estimates in favour of sneaking in a few fresh entries – he was itching to record the details about his fine new broadcloth coat, and the red-head who he was sure had winked in his direction at Drury Lane, and the curds and small beer he had had for breakfast, and his wife’s all-night card parties. But there it was in his appointment book: “Capn Everie, at 10 of the clock,” so he sighed and composed himself to receive his visitor.
Another reason for the Secretary’s discontent was that he was meeting Captain Avery for the first time, and suffering the common reaction to such masculine perfection. Nobody, decided Mr Pepys resentfully, had any business to go around looking like that; it made you feel positively sub-human. But there he was, like some naval tailor’s fashion model, announcing himself the Secretary’s humble obedient in a smooth, well-modulated tone that proclaimed him anything but; to Mr Pepys’s paranoid imagination he conveyed the impression that he had many more important things on hand – probably conferring with Dr Newton or Lord Clarendon – but that he was graciously prepared to give the Admiralty ten minutes provided they got on with it. Right, thought the normally amiable Pepys grimly, we’ll cut this one down to size. To which end he looked at his visitor severely over his spectacles and inquired:
“Captain Avery, are you an honest man?”
It didn’t work, of course. Far from being taken aback, Avery raised one brow a millimetre and replied, in a tone of gently amused tolerance:
“I am a gentleman, sir.”
Mr Pepys almost said “So’s the King, and look at him,” but fortunately refrained. Covering his chagrin by fiddling with the rigging of a ship’s model – his cosy little office was full of them, and globes and charts and waggoners and maps – he went on as amiably as he could:
“I ask, sir, because when I requested their lordships to find me a young officer for a desperate and confidential business, they told me that of all men, Captain Avery was the most capable, expert, brave, discreet, and intelligent gentleman in his majesty’s service.”
He paused, and gave up fiddling with the model’s mainsail, which was in a hopeless tangle. Avery said nothing, but took a deferential pace forward, twitched a thread, and the mainsail rose smoothly into place.
“Indeed, sir?” said he politely, and Mr Pepys ground his teeth.
“But they omitted to tell me whether you picked pockets,” he blurted out.
Captain Avery regarded him with maddening composure. “Is that the service you require, sir?” he wondered, and Mr Pepys took a grip on himself.
“No,” he said tartly. “It isn’t. I merely impress on you, captain, that I have a pocket that must not … be picked. See here.”
He touched a spring in the panelling, which slid back to reveal a cavity from which Mr Pepys took a box of polished oak, perhaps a foot square. Lifting the lid, he brought out an object covered in black velvet cloth, and set it on the desk. Then abruptly he pulled the cloth aside – and if that doesn’t rattle the cocky little bastard, he thought, nothing will. For what he exposed was an object so dazzling that Mr Pepys, who had seen it before, still found himself catching his breath in wonder.
It was a crown. Its dull radiance bespoke pure gold, but the circlet itself was so encrusted with tiny jewels that the metal beneath was all but hidden. Yet these stones, priceless though they were, seemed dim by comparison with the six great gems which shone in the six gold crosses fixed at equal intervals round the circlet. Each as large as a pigeon’s egg, they glowed in their golden settings – the rich crimson of a ruby, the eery green of an emerald, the brilliant blue of a sapphire, the milky white of an opal, the frosty brilliance of a diamond, and the ebony sheen of a black pearl. Blinking in awed silence at them, Mr Pepys felt his ill-temper vanish like summer dew, and he was gratified to see that the Captain’s eyes had opened a trifle and that his breathing checked for a brief instant.
“A pretty bauble, is it not?” said Pepys. “A million – if ye can imagine such a sum – would not buy it.”
“I hope,” said Captain Avery reverently, “that you have stout locks to your doors.”
“Stout enough to serve,” said Pepys lightly, and stole another glance at his visitor. “Could I trust you, captain, with this treasure?”
Captain Avery looked from the crown to the Secretary, regarding him gravely for a moment. “Yes, sir,” he said, “but I had rather you did not.”
So the paragon was human after all. Mollified, Mr Pepys smiled, covered the crown, and waved his visitor to a chair. “Do you know,” he wondered, “of an island called Madagascar?”
“The great isle of Africa,” said the Captain confidently, “lying betwixt the twelfth and twenty-fifth south latitudes, six hundred leagues bearing east-nor’-east from the cape. Of unknown extent, peopled by savage aborigines practising abominable rites, yet are its birds, fishes, animals and vegetation even stranger than its human inhabitants, being like to none other on the globe of Earth. Fable doth impute to it,” he went on, “such strange creatures as the roc, the great bird of the Eastern story-tellers, and Sir John Mandeville peopled it with his marvellous imaginings. I have not,” concluded Captain Avery modestly, “been there myself.”
“But ye’re sure ye’ve heard of it?” said Pepys sarcastically. “Well, God be thanked for that. Know then, sir, that this crown is for the king of that strange land, a mad, barbarous fellow who, in his vanity, hath sent the choicest gems o’ price in his treasury to our London goldsmiths, that they might therefrom fashion a diadem befitting his savage majesty his proud estate. These sambos,” reflected Mr Pepys, “do love to deck themselves more than do civil princes. Howbeit, there it is – now it must be returned to him. Safely. That, captain, is why y’are here.”
He sat back in impressive silence – it would have been more impressive but his belly chose that moment to rumble from a deep growl to a high bubbling treble. Mr Pepys writhed and damned curds and beer, but Captain Avery seemed not to have noticed. He wouldn’t, the good-mannered sod, thought Mr Pepys savagely. Ten seconds passed, and Avery nodded and stood up.
“I understand, sir,” he said briskly. “You may leave all to me. One stout naval brig under my command – I shall choose officers and crew myself – should answer the purpose … with a sufficient escort, of course. Two sloops should serve, so they are well found and manned. I think,” he added, “I had best attend to that. But let me see … six weeks to the Cape … two months … at Christmas, with God’s help,” he announced, “I shall be here to inform you that the business has been happily concluded.”
I can’t believe you’ll need God’s help, and if you do, he’d better not shirk, eh, thought Mr Pepys. He wondered had he ever seen the like of this coxcomb’s assurance; it seemed a pity to deflate it, almost.
“My dear captain,” he shook his head, “things are not ordered in such broadside fashion. Consider: the existence of this bauble is known. Goldsmiths have tongues, and if a King’s ship were to prepare for Indian waters, at a time when ships are ill to spare, and no good reason could be given – why, all the world would guess, and you and your cargo would be a target for every sea-thief between here and Malabar.” He popped the crown back into its box, locked it, and extracted the key. “No, here must be stealth and secrecy; only you and I and Admiral Lord Rooke, who goes shortly to command the East Indies Squadron, must know of the crown’s passage forth of England. So you shall bear it alone, and guard it with your life, for its safe delivery imports o’er all. You have not visited Madagascar, but out of your vasty fund of knowledge –” Mr Pepys beamed over his spectacles as he put the boot gently in “– you know how vital is the friendship of its ruler to our Indian trade. With his good will, we may set up stations in Madagascar, to shield our sea-lanes and harry the Utopian pirates who swarm on its northern capes. And his good will depends on …” he tapped the box with the key “… this.”
If Captain Avery was disappointed, he did not show it. He inclined his handsome head, and if a voice can shrug, his did as he said: “As you please, sir. Shall I take the box now?”
“Hold on a minute,” snapped Mr Pepys, who had been getting ready to enjoy overruling a protest. Could nothing shake this boy’s outrageous composure? (Of course not; this boy’s the Hero.) “There’s a receipt to sign,” he muttered lamely. “In triplicate.”
But there wasn’t, not right away, because Mr Pepys had mislaid it, and his temper was not improved at having to scrabble through his mess of papers while Avery stood by with an impassive patience which the Secretary, his wig slipping askew and his glasses misting up, found positively crucifying. He stood, breathing heavily, as Avery finally signed the three documents, in a flawless copper-plate, and took the box. Never mind, thought Pepys, we’ll see you taken down a peg in a minute, or I’ll eat this ruddy wig.
“Come with me,” he said, and led the way from his office down a long passage where sentries clicked to attention and clerks hurried busily between the departments. Captain Avery paced leisurely along, while Mr Pepys’s fat little legs went nineteen to the angry dozen, until they came out through a door into a sunlit garden, where ladies and gentlemen took their ease in the pleasant August morning, walking and flirting and playing pell-mell and generally looking like a pastoral scene by Canaletto, and Mr Pepys peered about short-sightedly until his glance lighted on two tall gentlemen strolling arm in arm along one of the walks. He gave a grunt of satisfaction, shot Captain Avery a look, and bustled in their direction.
The King and the Duke of York were taking their ease together, and the court was keeping its distance because it realised that his grace had just returned from Scotland and was undoubtedly filling in his majesty on matters of great pitch and policy. And indeed the younger royal brother was talking with animation, while the famous swarthy man two yards high, his spaniels round his feet, his beribboned cane in his hand, plumed hat and curled wig on head, and all magnificent in dark blue velvet, was listening with what appeared to be interested attention.
“’Twas at the short fourteenth,” the Duke was saying. “Need I tell thee what ’tis like? A hint of slice and you’re dead. I laid my pitch pin-high, and damme if Paterson didn’t miss the putt!”
“Codso!” exclaimed King Charles.
“By great good fortune, we halved the next two,” went on the Duke, “for I tell thee, brother, had I not held firm, all had not served. Paterson shanked and hooked, and I was sore put to it.”
“D’ye tell me?” marvelled his majesty, stifling a yawn.
“At the seventeenth,” resumed the Duke remorselessly, “all was to do, for Rockingham drove like Jehu, and Paterson’s second was sorrily astray. I marked it not, but took my brassie – ye mind, Charles, the brassie that Grandfather James had of the steward at Blackheath? – and struck me such a shot over the sheds as would ha’ done thy heart good to see. Ten score yards,” he murmured beatifically, “into the wind, and ran me down ’twixt the pits to the edge o’ the green. Rockingham cried, ‘The bugger!’ and my good Paterson ‘Amen!’”
“Gad’s wounds!” murmured the King absently, his eyes straying to where a Junoesque redhead was swaying provocatively along on the arm of an elderly nobleman.
“Then Paterson,” said the Duke darkly, “put his chip into a bunker. What think ye, brother, did I do?”
“Ten stone if she’s an ounce,” mused the King, “and forty-five to boot, so they tell me. Forgive me, James – you were saying?”
“I holed out from the sand,” said the Duke triumphantly, and following his brother’s glance he added curtly: “Danby’s new pullet, a great quilt of a woman. He likes ’em big and bouncy.”
“Don’t we all?” sighed the King.
“At the eighteenth …” the Duke was beginning, but realised he had lost even the King’s pretence of listening. “I see,” he said coolly, “that I weary your majesty. I crave your majesty’s pardon. It is very well. I shall remove, and take me –”
“Jamie, Jamie,” said the King tolerantly. “Ye beat the gentlemen of England two up, and had Paterson not hindered, t’would ha’ been eight and seven. I know,” he added mildly, “because ye told us last night at supper, till poor Nell dozed in her chair, and again at breakfast.” He laughed and clapped his glowering brother on the back. “Dear lad, ye play golf for Scotland indifferent well, but ye could bore for her in every court of Europe.”
“Right!” snapped the Duke, furiously pale, and breathing through his haughty nostrils. “’Tis very well! That did it! I bore for Scotland! When I consider,” he went on bitterly, “how often I’ve been dragged up that bloody oak tree after Worcester –” But he was prevented from further lésé majesté by the arrival of Mr Pepys, with Captain Avery in tow. The King hailed the Secretary pleasantly, and took stock of our hero while Pepys made the introductions.
“Captain Avery,” said his majesty genially, and held out his hand, over which the young captain bowed with becoming grace. “I’m glad to see ye, sir.” As always, he plainly meant it, and Mr Pepys looked to see Captain Avery fall under the spell of the famous Stuart charm; after all, everyone did. But Captain Avery merely stood up straight, respectful and composed, and it occurred to the Secretary that if a stranger from Muscovy had been shown the three – the two tall and undeniably handsome royal brothers, and the King’s captain – he might have been puzzled to know who had the most commanding personality and aristocratic air. This kid’s gunpowder, Pepys decided.
“Captain Avery,” he went on, “is the officer to be employed on the Indian business your majesty doth wot of.”
“Ah, yes,” said the Merry Monarch with polite interest, wondering what that business might be; wasn’t old Rooke going out to deal with the pirates … something like that? He played for time by reproving the tiny spaniels playing round his ankles. “Mind, Bucephalus, where you put your great feet. Their lordships, captain,” he went on, lying courteously, “have given me golden reports of you. Now tell me how old are you, and what service ye have seen.”
“Your majesty,” said Captain Avery respectfully, “is gracious. I am twenty-two years old, and have had the honour to serve your majesty these five years. Lately I commanded one of your majesty’s warships, and have fought ’gainst the Dutch, the French, the Spaniards, and the corsairs of Barbary, having the good fortune to take ten prizes and two fortresses, as well,” he added dismissively, “as three wounds. I am a bachelor of arts of Oxford, where I made some study of Mathematicks, Physicks, and the other Natural Sciences, tho’ less than I could have wished. If my service permits, I hope to repair that and take my Master’s Degree in time. Other than that,” he concluded, “there is little to tell.”
Mr Pepys was watching the royal pair to see how they received this catalogue, and was gratified to see the Duke blink; his majesty, more experienced, made a nice recovery.
“Physicks, eh?” he said. “Have you perchance, captain, studied Master Newton’s De Analysi, of which there is much learned talk?”
Try that on for size, thought Mr Pepys triumphantly; trust old Charley to return serve. He looked to see Captain Avery confess ignorance at last, and indeed the captain was frowning, his handsome face turned to the King’s.
“The method of fluxions,” he said gravely. “Indeed, sire, I have considered it briefly, but with indifferent profit on such short acquaintance. What is your majesty’s opinion of the calculus?”
Bloody hell, thought Pepys, and his majesty may have been similarly moved, since he had listened to Newton’s explanation in a fog, and had just been name-dropping. “Ah, well,” he said, improvising gamely, “there is much to be said for it; aye, indeed, and will be. But tell me, captain, what shall you make of these Indies pirates?”
Captain Avery looked surprised. “If such should come in my way,” he said, “I shall hope to do your majesty’s service upon them.”
“To be sure, to be sure,” said the King hurriedly. He was beginning to find such simple self-assurance daunting, especially from one who was two inches taller than he was. He wasn’t used to either phenomenon, and like Mr Pepys, was beginning to suspect that Captain Avery was too much of a good thing. But he mustn’t be hard on the lad; maybe it was just another case of meeting-royalty nerves.
“Well, well, captain,” he said heartily, “we wish you a prosperous voyage. Is there aught ye need?” he added almost hopefully.
“You majesty is kind,” said Avery, “but I have my sword and your majesty’s trust. I need no more.” And he bowed with deferential calm, leaving the King as disconcerted as it was possible for that sophisticated gentleman to be.
“No,” said the King, rather wistfully, “I don’t suppose you do. Aye, well.” He looked about helplessly, and became aware that his spaniels were busily chewing the rosettes on his shoes. “Stop it, you little bastards,” he said irritably.
“If your majesty pleases,” said Avery, and glancing at the dogs he gently snapped his fingers. As one spaniel they stopped chewing, and hid behind the King’s legs. The captain transferred his gaze from them to the astonished monarch, and bowed for the last time. “Your majesty, your grace, Mr Pepys,” he said, and backing gracefully away, turned and strode off across the lawn. They watched him go in a stunned silence, until his majesty murmured, almost in awe: “Well, God help the Indies pirates!” and sighed. And then their wonder changed to interest, for as Captain Avery reached the gravel walk, there swayed into his path the opulent red-haired beauty whom his majesty had remarked earlier on the arm of Lord Danby. She had, in fact, been eyeing the captain hungrily for the past five minutes, and thinking, wow! there’s a boy who needs an experience, and I’m going to be it. Subtle in all the amorous arts, she now undulated towards him, shooting him a smouldering glance from shadowed eyes, pouting seductively, and drawing a flimsy lace kerchief from her heaving bosom. She dropped it artlessly in the captain’s path, and he stopped, glanced at it, and at the heavily-breathing lady.
The King, the Duke of York, and Mr Pepys waited entranced; the lady sighed and fluttered her eye-lids; Captain Avery, his face impassive, glanced round, observed a serving-man, snapped his fingers, and indicated the fallen kerchief. The servant shot forward to retrieve it, Captain Avery indicated the lady, gave her the briefest of bows, and strode majestically on, leaving Beauty fuming in frustration and Royalty looking at each other in astonishment.
“That fellow,” said the King in wonder, “is just a walking mass of virtue and genius. Rot me,” he added, “if he isn’t. Well, thank God he’s going to the Indies, for if he stayed here he’d make us feel mightily inferior.”
“What’s a fluxion?” asked the Duke of York, but if the King answered, Mr Pepys did not hear it; he had become suddenly conscious that he was chewing the end of his wig.
As it chanced, Captain Avery’s departure was less speedy than his majesty had supposed. He was to travel out with Admiral Lord Rooke, the new commander of the East Indies Squadron, but his lordship had the misfortune to trip over a chamberpot at a wayside in while travelling up to Town, and broke his ankle. So while the veteran salt convalesced, roaring at the doctors and being reproved by his domineering daughter (who suspected, quite rightly, that he had been tight), Captain Avery kicked his perfectly-shod heels in London for over a month. This entailed returning his precious cargo to the Admiralty for the moment, and since Pepys had lost the receipts, there was wrath and bad language, not lessened by Captain Avery’s maddening forbearance. At last, however, all was ready; word came that Lord Rooke was on his way, Avery collected the Madagascar crown again, and on that very day, two interesting events occurred in the great city …
Deep in a noisome hold in Newgate Prison, Black Sheba was pacing the slimy floor like a great cat, her fetters jangling as she strode. She was in a passion, and no wonder. We left her resisting the advances of horrid jailers at Fort St Bartlemy, remember; it might have gone ill with her womanhood there, for the garrison had remarked her beauty, and hung around outside her cell muttering and slavering: “Ar, a choice black pullet it be, a plumptious piece for lovesome sport an’ ravishment, mates, har-har!”, but fortunately the senior surviving officer at the fort was a fairy, and wasn’t having any of that sort of thing. Scenting publicity for himself in the capture of the notorious pirate virago, he had sent her home by fast frigate, and she had lain like a great black beast in the foul lazarette, eyes gleaming in the dark, fed on slops, her fine silk attire reduced to rags – she was in a sorry state of unkemptitude by the time they brought her ashore in the Pool, and thence she was haled to Newgate, where they made a show of her, with fashionable society flocking to see the savage sea queen caged at last. Fine ladies smirked and gloated, and their gentlemen stared and thought “Cor!” while Sheba watched them from behind her bars with red sparks glowing in her amber eyes, and dreamed of them suffering torments indescribable.
They looked for a grand spectacle at her trial, and she gave it them, fighting like a spitfire all the way to the dock, raking her warders’ faces with her nails, so that they had to chain her to the bar. She spat at the spectators, snarled threats at the jurors, and even screamed filthy abuse at Jeffreys himself. And he, like Lord Foppington, remarked in an aside to his fellow-judges that he would not have missed such a trial for the salvation of mankind. But when he came to pass sentence on her, for piracy, murthers, robberies, slaughters, arson, putting in fear, and operating without a Board of Trade certificate, there was amaze, for he put aside the black cap and said, in that famous dry whisper:
“Richly though ye ha’ merited death a thousand times over, yet for that ye are a woman – as indeed is plain for all to see, heh-heh! (laughter and whistles) – and for that his majesty’s plantations are in need of labour, it is the merciful sentence of this court that ye be transported to the East Indies, and there sold in bondage for the rest of your natural life …” (sensation in court, cries of “Fix!” “Boo!” “It’s a cut-up!” “We want to see her swing!” and “Good old Jeff!”.)
It was rumoured that the King himself had intervened, having seen her in Newgate and done a quick double-take before observing that they couldn’t hang a female who looked like that, it would be criminal, etc., etc. But as she heard the sentence Black Sheba screamed with rage, and clashed her fetters at the bar.
“Damn your mercy!” she snarled. “I’ve been a slave! I’d rather die, you foul shrivelled bastard, you!”
At which Jeffreys, with commendable restraint, had hurled himself frothing about the bench, bawling at her:
“Why, so ye shall, ye vile black bitch – so ye shall, in God’s good time! And I trust they’ll have lashed every inch of hide off your foul carcase first, thou wanton, smelly, perverse slut, thou! Take her down, take her out, take her anywheres so she be away!” And he had thrown his wig at her in his passion, calling her beldame, whore, slattern, harlot and jigaboo, but since Sheba had given him back cuckold, honky, pimp, snake, and faggot, the spectators decided it was a draw, and ought to be replayed. Sheba was dragged back to her cell, and there she was, pacing and snarling, waiting to be haled off to East Indian bondage, while …
Colonel Blood reluctantly tore his eyes away from the cleavage of the buxom serving-wench who was hanging admiringly over the back of his chair, considered his cards, and glanced, sighing, at the fat, ugly, gloating, richly-dressed gull who sat across the table in the taproom of The Prospect of Whitby. Blood was looking slightly better than when we last saw him, having shaved, found a clean shirt, and apparently spent his last five pence on a shampoo and set. He had also acquired a lace jabot, an embroidered red coat with a sword worn modishly through the pocket, and a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. (Spectacles? What have we here?)
“Come on, come on, sir!” cried the fat man. “Ya’ play, damme!”
Blood sighed again and played the king of spades; the fat man played the queen and gleefully nudged his crony, another podgy vulgarian. They eyed the pile of guineas on the table; money for jam, they were thinking.
“Ya’ last card, sir! Hey?” cried Fatso. “What, sir? Come, sir! Eh, sir?”
“Just the seven o’ clubs,” said Blood innocently, and faced what is usually the duddest card you can hold at picquet. The fat man and his friend gaped, and swore, and the fat man dashed down his useless king of diamonds. Blood raked in the cash almost apologetically, removed his spectacles and tucked them in his sleeve, rose, kissing the serving-wench lightly on the cheek, and flipped a guinea down her ample frontage.
“Blast me vitals!” cried the fat chap. “How – how, sir, did ye guess I’d sloughed the ace o’ clubs? What? Hey?”
“Irish instinct, me old joy,” said Blood, winking at the wench. “My mother was frightened by a knave of hearts.”
“The fiend’s own luck!” groaned the fat man.
“Devil a bit,” said Blood. “All my luck’s reserved for love, eh, sweetheart?” And he squeezed the wench again, bade his opponents an affable good day, and sauntered upstairs whistling “Come lasses and lads”, jingling his winnings. There he turned into a bedroom, where a dark and languid lady, slightly past her prime, extended a plump hand to him from the froth of lace which surrounded her as she reclined among the pillows, purring amorously.
“Dah-ling!” she breathed, and Blood gallantly slipped on to the bed, kissing ardently up her arm to her buxom shoulders and bosom, at which she reproved him coyly, and then began to eat his ear, murmuring hungrily: “I vow ye’ve been away from me so long, I thought ye had forgot your dear little pigeon,” and she tried to drag him under the sheets.
“A mere half-hour, ye fascinating houri,” said Blood, and poured his winnings into a purse before her eyes. “A trifle of pin money I’ve been earning, me heart’s darling – forty guineas against our travelling expenses to Gretna.”
At this the lady cried out fondly: “Why, thou foolish dear fellow, where was the need? Have I not ample funds … and there is all my jewellery.” And she fingered her necklace and stroked his cheek, all of which the Colonel bore with equanimity.
“Only a vandal,” he murmured, nuzzling the necklace and the soft skin beneath it, “could bear to see it removed from its rightful place – tho’ faith, it’s dim by comparison with such a lovely setting.”
He would have been less poetically carefree if he could have seen the serving-wench at that moment, discovering the spectacles which had slipped from his sleeve during his last departing fondle, to hook themselves in her apron-string. She squeaked with surprise, exclaimed: “Ow, look, the gennelman’s left ’is glasses!”, giggled, and clapped them on her pert nose for the entertainment of the customers. “Caw, look at me!” she exclaimed, peering affectedly, and then her eyes fell on the cards scattered on the table, and she gasped in genuine dismay.
“Ow!” she cried. “Caw, bleedin’ ’ell! Ow, me! Lookathat! Ow, the rotten cheat!”
For through the spectacles she could see that on the backs of the cards their identities were clearly marked, and even she, dumb trull that she was, knew that this was irregular. The defeated gamesters gaped, and seized the glasses from her, and peered through them, and observed their cunningly-tinted glass, and with one accord cried: “Burn my bowels! Bubbled, by God! Where is the knave, the sharp, the cut-purse!” and were on the point of making for the stairs, to wreak vengeance, when a stentorian voice thundered at the tap-room door:
“Landlord! Hither to me! Have you a rakehell black Irishman in your house, hey? A rascal that calls himself Colonel Blood?”
“Colonel Blood, sir?” spluttered the fat man. “My word, sir, the villain has just made off with my forty guineas!”
“Damn your guineas, sir!” roared the newcomer, who was huge and masterful and magnificently dressed. “The villain has just made off with my wife!”
Since no one kept their voices down in Restoration England, it followed that every word of this exchange was audible upstairs. The languid lady, suddenly distraught, shot bolt upright with a violence which pitched Blood on to the floor, clutched her bosom, and cried “My husband!”, followed by a shriek of dismay as she realised that her erstwhile lover, hoisting his breeches with one hand and grabbing his purse with the other, already had one leg over the sill. She stretched out an arm in dramatic entreaty and shrilled: “False heart, will you desert me now? Oh, stay!”
“Just slipping out for a breath of air, my sweet,” said Blood reassuringly, and vanished, blowing a kiss, for he liked to observe the polite niceties.
“What shall I do?” cried the lady, wringing her hands like anything, and Blood, who would deny no one advice if it might be helpful, poked his head back in to suggest: “Tell him ye walked in your sleep,” before dropping to the street.
Now, in any romance of fiction, he would have slipped nimbly up a side-street and hid, grinning rakishly, in a doorway, while the pursuit rushed futilely by. But since this is a highly realistic, moral tale, it has to be recorded that he fell slap on to a pile of empty beer-crates, and was thrashing about cursing when the outraged husband and his burly minions (all outraged husbands in those days engaged burly minions, from some Restoration equivalent of Central Casting) emerged to seize him wrist and ankle. And they tore off his fine coat (which was the husband’s anyway, having been provided for Blood by his doting leman) and beat the living daylights out of him with stout canes, to the great satisfaction of the cheated gamesters, and the vicarious excitement of the deserted lady, who watched, biting her lips, from her bedroom window. Indeed, she became so emotional that when her lord, after a final cut at the hapless Colonel, strode into the inn, up the stairs, and confronted her with a lowering scowl and a “So-ho, madam!” she flung herself sobbing at his feet, begging forgiveness and pleading, in piteous tones, her youthful folly – she was forty-seven, to be exact, but her contrition was such a change from her customary wilfulness, and she looked so fetching in her dishevelled negligee, that he forgave her on the spot, and taking a leaf out of Marlborough’s book, pleasured her (once) in his boots, and they lived happy ever after, or so we may assume.
A comfortable and loving note on which to end our second chapter. But sterner matters await us. Avery, his hair brushed and his heart pure, is about to set off on his perilous mission to Madagascar – will his path cross that of Black Sheba when they ship her to the Indies? And what o’ Blood, caught in the acts of abduction, seduction, marking his cards, and causing malicious damage to beer crates? He is right in it …
In the taproom, whither they had dragged him battered and bruised as he was, Colonel Blood fetched his breath while the gamesters reviled him, the wench giggled, one burly minion brushed the stolen coat, and another snarled: “Bide you there, ye muckrake, whiles Oi fetch a constable. ’Tis the Roundhouse for ’ee, aye, an’ the gallows therearter, damn ’ee!”
This seemed a reasonable forecast to Blood, who promptly swooned lower on his bench, gasping “Water! Water!”, at which they reviled him harder than ever, but relaxed their guard, with the result that one minion was suddenly rolling on the floor, clutching his groin and making statements, the other had the fine coat wrenched from his grasp (the Colonel, a realist, knew that you can’t get far in your shirt-sleeves) and an iron fist smashed against his jaw, and before the wench could even squeal or the gamesters swear, foxy Tom was off and running.
Naturally, they pursued, minions, gamesters, landlord, bystanders, and other interested parties – including, eventually, the outraged husband, once he had recovered from his unexpectedly joyous reunion and hurried downstairs. And nip and double as Blood might, his beaten limbs (not improved, of course, by late nights, booze, women, and too much smoking the day before the match) would inevitably have let him down had his headlong flight not carried him suddenly out on to a long cobbled wharf thronged with porters, hawkers, fishwives, seamen, loiterers, and all the motley of the waterfront. In an instant the Colonel was lost in the shifting human tide, which bore him along while he got his breath back, straightened his coat, and regretted that he had no hat to complete the appearance of a genteel saunterer slumming.
A great ship was making ready for sea, and Blood paused by her gangplank to look round for signs of pursuit. All clear behind, and he was about to stroll on when he saw, dead ahead, the breathless figures of the fat gamester and one of the burly minions moving questingly through the crowds in his general direction. The Colonel wheeled smartly about – only to see emerging, from the alley down which he had run, a constable, the other minion, and in the rear the cuckolded husband, buttoning his weskit askew and inquiring thunderously about a black-avised rascal in a red coat. As heads turned and the two sets of pursuers continued to converge at random, Colonel Blood looked desperately for a bolt-hole. The gangway was before him, and as two seamen staggered on to it under the weight of a furled tarpaulin, he hesitated no longer, but used them as a shield to slip swiftly on to the ship’s crowded deck. One quick look back showed him the outraged husband and the fat gamester hailing each other over the heads of the mob; Blood pushed hurriedly past a couple of bare-footed seamen, rounded a pile of casks, and came face to face with a bawling red face in a brass-buttoned coat and cocked hat.
“Sink an’ be damned!” it roared. “An’ how in thunder do I know where the swab o’ a surgeon should sling his hammock? ’A can sleep i’ the scuppers; ’a’ll be drunk enough not to notice! How now, sir?” it demanded of Blood. “What make ye here? We’re putting to sea, or damme! No, we’re not – not while them tarts an’ trollops are fouling my ship!” And he rolled furiously past Blood, a bosun at his heels, bawling the odds at the waterfront slatterns who were keeping his men from their work forward; at his instructions the bosun passed among them with a rope’s end, belabouring them towards the gangplank, while all around the seamen hurriedly pulled ropes and battened hatches and shouted through cupped hands and spat resoundingly – doing all those things needful, d’ye see, to get a ship under weigh.
“Avast there! Get in the forrard plank!” yelled the red-faced man. “Yarely, an’ be damned, wi’ a pox on’t!” Plainly he was another Farnol graduate, one of that barnacle-crusted band whose natural ancestor is the bosun in “The Tempest” – the one who is responsible for the greatest stage-direction Shakespeare ever wrote: “Enter mariners, wet.” He rolled about the place, roaring and belaying, and then his eye fell on Blood again, and he bellowed – but with a certain respect for one well-dressed: “Now then, you, sir, blast me bollocks an’ by y’r leave! What, sir? What make ye, master? It’s go ashore or go to Calicut, or hoist me for a lubber, what?” And his gesture invited the Colonel to the gangplank – at the foot of which the fat gamester was plainly visible, craning his neck as he surveyed the crowded wharf. Colonel Blood had his choice, and took it.
“But, captain,” said he, with desperate nonchalance, keeping under cover of the casks, “Calicut is where I wish to go. News came this morning … my rich uncle’s dead o’ the flux or the gout or the fever or somewhat. Shocking sudden, and the plantation going to the devil. I had your direction … and where the devil my man Jenkin is with the dunnage, God knows. Ye can give me passage, I dare swear?”
“What, sir? Carry ye to Calicut, rot me? Why, sir, now, sir!” The captain rubbed grizzled chin wi’ horny paw and considered the appellant – rich lace, good coat, rakehelly genteel, dressed in a hurry … but then, he’d admitted as much. “Why, y’r worship, it might be,” he conceded. “A four-month passage, let’s see – I could make room at a pinch, for … forty guineas, now?”
Above the ship’s noise a distant voice could be heard complaining: “… and the dam’ gallows-bait had my guineas, too!” Colonel Blood did not hesitate, but pulled the purse from his pocket and tossed it over negligently to the captain. “A bagatelle,” said he, and the roaring skipper promptly knuckled his hat, and beamed, crying “Thank’ee, y’r honour, I’ll see ye have a comf’table berth, y’r honour, crisp me liver if I don’t! Yardley’s the name, sir; Cap’n Yardley. Steward! Hell’s bells an’ hailstones, will ye lay aft, steward, damn ’ee?”
The Colonel was too old a hand to regret his lost cash; it had been necessary. The question now was whether to kiss it good-bye and steal ashore later, or to avail himself of this unexpected magic carpet away from London – a place which might be uncomfortably hot for him. India? He had never been there, and had no great desire to go … on the other hand, he was one who had always lived where he’d hung his castor – why not? He’d have four months’ board and lodging in the meantime. As he considered, he lurked, and presently saw his baffled pursuers take themselves off; the resolve was forming in his mind … he’d quite enjoy a sea-trip, and the Indies, by all accounts, offered a fruitful field to men of his talents. He allowed himself to be shown his berth, shed his too-conspicuous coat, and sallied forth on deck again to view the orderly bustle of the ship as the final preliminaries to sailing went ahead right handily, with cheery yo-ho and bronzed backs bending to haul, pipes twittering, captain bawling, men hasting aloft, capstan turning, and that sort of thing, with salty baritones roaring:
Where is the trader o’ Stepney Town? Clap it on, slap it on, How the hell should I know?
And up the gangplank, striding tall, came a superbly handsome young man in a naval coat and hat, his buttons glinting keenly at his surroundings; he bore a polished oak box under one arm, and his sea-chest was wheeled behind by an awestruck urchin whom he rewarded with a groat, a kindly word, and a pat on the head. The urchin went off swearing foully at the size of his tip, but the skipper was all over the newcomer, crying welcome aboard, Cap’n Avery, look’ee, here’s j’y, or rattle me else! The young man nodded amiably, but looked down his classic nose when the beaming skipper presented him to his fellow-passenger.
“Blood?” he said, bowing perfunctorily. “I seem to have heard the name,” and his tone didn’t imply that it had been in connection with the last Honours List; plainly he was not enchanted with the Colonel (trust Avery to spot a wrong ’un every time). “You are a soldier, sir?”
“Oh, here and there,” said Blood easily. “You’re a sailor?”
“I am a naval officer,” said Avery coldly.
“Ah,” said Blood wisely, and wondered: “Don’t they sail?”, at which Avery’s cuffs stiffened sharply as he favoured the Colonel with that steely glance employed by Heroes on mutinous troops, rioting peasants, and impudent rakehelly villains, who respectively quail, cower, or gnash their teeth when exposed to it. Colonel Blood met it with an amiable smile, and the two of them detested each other from that instant.
A coach came rumbling along the cobbles, and Captain Yardley swore picturesquely, excused himself to Avery, and stumped off bawling: “Admiral’s a-comin’, damme! Ho, bosun, blister me bum, lay up here, d’ye see? Hands on deck!” And as the coach stopped by the gangplank, a massive-limbed figure with an order on his silk coat and a ruffled castor on his head, stepped ponderously down from it – Admiral Lord Rooke, with a face like a ham, brilliant grey eyes, grizzled head, weatherbeaten feet, tarred elbows, and all that befits a sea-dog of seniority and sound bottom. He was just what an admiral ought to be: tough, kindly, experienced, and worshipped by the salts of the Navy, who referred to him endearingly as Old Pissquick, in memory of the time he extinguished a lighted fuse accidentally at the intaking of Portobello, or the outflanking of Mariegalante, no matter which. He bellowed a command in a voice which had blown look-outs from their crows’-nests e’er now, and a lackey leaped from the box and quivered in his livery.
“You’re not English, are ye, fellow?” growled the Admiral.
“No, sair, pliz, je suis un Frog,” smarmed the lackey.
“Just the thing!” cried the Admiral. “On thy knees, rat!” And as the lackey knelt on all fours in the mud, providing a step, a dainty foot emerged from the coach, shod with a trim spiked heel, and cased in white silk, and planted itself in the small of his back. A second dainty foot followed it, with a flurry of lace petticoat which revealed a modish velvet garter buckled with brilliants below a shapely knee, and there stood the Admiral’s daughter, Lady Vanity, her tiny gloved hand holding a parasol, waiting to be helped down.
“Lower away!” bawled the Admiral, kicking the lackey’s behind, and the lackey subsided obsequiously into the mud, allowing Lady Vanity to step down to the cobbles, over which forehead-knuckling salts had laid a red carpet. Examine Lady Vanity for a moment.
She was, of course, a blonde whose hair shone in sunkissed golden ringlets on either side of a roses-and-cream complexion which she knew to be dazzling. Her eyes were sparkling blue, her nose haughtily tip-tilted, her little chin imperious, her lips a cupid’s bow whose perfection was no way impaired by its provoking pout; practically everything about Lady Vanity pouted, including her shapely figure, which would have done credit to the Queen of the Runway. She was not tall, but her carriage was that of a fashion model who has been to a Swiss finishing school and knows she has the equipment to stop a battalion of Rugby League players in their tracks with the flick of a false eyelash. She was dressed by Yves St Laurent, in pleated white silk, and her jewellery alone had cost her doting father all his last cruise’s prize money. Lady Vanity was a living doll; even the plump little negress who was her maid was pretty enough to be Miss Leeward Islands.
Captain Avery and Colonel Blood stood together by the rail, drinking her in – one in respectful worship, the other with thoughts of black silk bedclothes and overhead mirrors.
“Will ye look at that, now?” invited the Colonel in an enchanted whisper. “Maybe there’s compensations to a life at sea, after all. I hope to God the old feller isn’t her husband … not that it matters.”
Avery’s eyes blazed frostily at this lewd effrontery. This fellow’s foul tongue, he decided, must be curbed, and speedily.
Lady Vanity was surveying the ship. “Are we expected to sail to India in that?” she cried petulantly.
“Seen worse,” growled the Admiral, and kicked the lackey again for luck.
“No doubt you have, father,” said Lady Vanity chillingly. “But I did not run away to sea as a cabin-boy at the age of twelve.”
“Ye’re still that cabin-boy’s daughter, m’dear,” chuckled the Admiral, bluff as anything, “even if they call me ‘me lord’ nowadays.”
He handed her aboard, and there were big introductions at the gangway, with Captain Yardley blistering and damning and apologising with great geniality, milording and miladying and bowing as far as his guts would let him as he indicated Avery, whom the Admiral hailed with delight.
“Why, young Ben! Good to see ye, lad!” He waved a great paw. “M’dear, this is Captain Avery, that fought wi’ me against the dam’ Dutchmen – m’daughter, Lady Vanity …”
Their eyes met, the brilliant maidenly blue and the clear heroic grey, and although the lady’s glance remained serene, and the young captain’s steady, atomic explosions took place in the interior of each. Captain Avery felt a qualm for the first time in his life; his knees may not have trembled, but they thought about it, and a great gust of holy passion surged up from his pelvis and thundered against his clavicle. Lady Vanity, normally careless of masculine adoration which she took for granted, suddenly felt as though her silken stays were contracting and forcing a flight of doves up through her breast to her perfect throat, where they elbowed each other in fluttering confusion. As he took her hand and bent over it, murmuring “Servant, ma’am,” his mind was saying, “Nay, not servant, worshipping slave – and master and protector, all these and more!’ And Vanity, whispering “Sir,” was thinking “Oh, dreamboat!” and feeling thoroughly ashamed of all the fan letters she had written in the fifth form to Prince Rupert (who had just sent a cyclostyled autographed picture, anyway). So they met, and as he raised his eyes to hers, and she for once shielded those haughty orbs ’neath fluttering lashes, their unspoken love was sealed like Bostik; beside them, Dante and Beatrice were nothing but a ted and a scrubber at a palais hop.
She never even noticed Blood, who was giving her his pursed, wistful leer. Her attention was all for Avery as she murmured softly: “We shall be companions on the voyage, sir. You shall tell me all about the ropes and anchors and keel-haulings and things,” and he replied “I shall be even more enchanted than I am now,” with such a look of fervent adoration that she dropped her reticule. Blood picked it up, and she never even looked at him as she said, “Thank you my man,” and passed on while Rooke drew Avery aside.
“Ye have it safe?” he asked, rolling an eye at the box containing the Madagascar crown, and Avery assured him that he had, and would bestow it secretly in his cabin. “Aye!” rasped the Admiral, in what he imagined was a conspiratorial whisper. “In y’r cabin! Secretly, that’s the word! But mum!” Possibly they heard him as far away as Chelsea, for he had a carrying voice; at any rate, Blood did, and made a note that the box which Captain Avery carried so carefully might be fraught with interest.
But his speculations were now rudely interrupted, by Captain Yardley thundering: “Make haste, then, bring her aboard, d’ye see, wi’ a curse!” and the passengers of the Twelve Apostles turned to see who this might be. A barred cart had drawn up on the quay, and from it two sentries with muskets were manhandling Black Sheba, her wrists and ankles loosely secured by lengths of chain. Blood stared with interest, for the fetters made up most of her attire, her fine red breeches surviving only as a pair of frayed shorts, and her shirt little better than a rag. Her silver earring had gone into the pocket of her first jailer, and her hair was bound tightly behind her head, giving her face the appearance of a polished ebony mask from some Egyptian tomb. That, and her height, and the fact that she was struggling like fury with the sentries, made her a sufficiently striking spectacle to turn every head on quay and ship.
The officer in charge grabbed her wrist-chain and hauled her forward so violently that she stumbled and fell, whereon he shouted “Get up, you slut!” and kicked her brutally, in approved romantic redcoat style. Which was a mistake, for she got up faster than he bargained for, blazing with rage and fetters whirling; the chain caught the officer across the face before the sentries hauled her back, writhing, and the officer dabbed blood from his cheek and swore most foully.
“Thou black vermin!” he shouted. “Ha! Wouldst thou, eh? Shalt learn the price of raising hand to thy betters, thou snarling slattern, thou! Sergeant, hoist me her up and we’ll ha’ the cat to her!”
The redcoats having come provided for such contingencies, as they always did in those days, in a trice Sheba was spreadeagled against the cart, her wrists lashed to it with cords, and the sergeant, a burly, grinning brute with bad teeth who hadn’t shaved (or washed either, probably), strode forward and tore away her shirt before flourishing the long cat-o’-nine-tails in a hand whose finger-nails would not have borne inspection. The spectators stared, and dainty Lady Vanity clutched at the Admiral’s arm in maidenly distress.
“Nay, father – stop them! They mustn’t!” Her sweet soprano was tremulous wi’ entreaty. “Not in public! Can’t they lambast her behind a building or somewhere?”
The sergeant spat a brutal stream of tobacco juice on Sheba’s bare back, saw her flinch, roared wi’ sadistic glee, and struck with all his might. Sheba choked a scream into a gasp as the tails tore at her skin, the officer gloated “Nice one, fellow!”, and the sergeant was winding up for another stroke – when the cat was plucked from his grasp and he spun round to face a reproachful Colonel Blood, who had vaulted nimbly from rail to wharf, and was shaking his head as he tossed the cat into the dock.
“Wait till ye’re married afore ye do that sort o’ thing, son,” he reproved the sergeant. “Ye’re too young altogether.”
The officer surged forward, raging. “Who the devil art thou to mar our discipline and condign punishment?”
“Me?” said the Colonel innocently. “I’m a Tyburn hooligan, the kind that breaks up executions and gets spectator sports a bad name.” He beamed on the officer. “But I can see you’re a man of taste, and ye wouldn’t want to spoil anything as pretty as this, now, would ye?” And he ran an appreciative hand over Sheba’s shuddering bare shoulder.
“Avoid, upstart!” hooted the officer, and Blood frowned.
“Och, don’t be so hasty – sure it’s a teeny scrape she gave ye, an’ her just a slip of a girl! Use a little Christian charity,” coaxed the Colonel, “ye bloodthirsty bastard. Abate thy spite, an’ think on gentle things – apple pie, an’ Christmas, an’ little lambs a-gambol, an your own dear old hag of a mother –”
“Damn thee, thou damned thing, thou!” shrieked the officer, fairly demented. “You’ll answer for this –”
“Then so shall I!” rang out a crisp, clear, well-modulated, upper-class, R.A.D.A.-trained baritone, and down the gangplank strode Avery, all clean-limbed virtue. Sheba twisted her head to look, and forgot the smart of her back in a surge of relief (if ever you’re tied to a cart and they’re going to give you the business, an approaching Avery is just what you need).
“You’re a disgrace to your commission,” he chilled the officer, “creating a scene like this with ladies present. Stand aside, sir!” And the officer stood. Avery strode to the cart, and where you or I would have stopped foolishly, wishing we’d brought a knife, he simply reached up and snapped Sheba’s bonds with two quick twists of his powerful fingers. Sheba regarded him with wonder, and as she turned from the cart he gulped and blushed, hastily averted his eyes, whipped a convenient cloak from the cart, and dropped it over her shoulders.
“Off you go now!” he told her sharply. “Mustn’t catch cold. Aboard with you, and slip into something comfortable.”
Sheba, stricken into an awe quite foreign to her, was suffering precisely the shock which Lady Vanity had sustained a few moments earlier – it was the sort of thing impressionable teen-agers used to feel when they saw Valentino or Paul Newman for the first time: that brave new world reaction of Miranda’s. She fumbled the cloak round her like one in a dream, and moved unsteadily towards the plank, staring back at the Apollo-like figure of her rescuer, who was withering the sullen officer with a final glance. As Sheba reached the plank, there was Blood, all casual charm, waiting to pat her wrist.
“Don’t thank me, darlin’ – it was nothin’.” He smiled beguilingly at her, and she came out of her Avery-induced trance just long enough to spit in his eye, before refocusing on the splendid captain as he followed her aboard. So intent was she that she tripped on her ankle-chain and hit the deck with a blistering oath which caused the nearest seamen to press their knuckles to their teeth and stop their ears.
Lady Vanity, looking down in disdain from the poopladder, was heard to remark: “Fie! what a disgusting creature!” and Sheba, sprawled on the deck like Cat Woman, glared up at her with diabolic venom.
“You should pray, my lady,” said she in a sand-papered hiss, “that you never find out how disgusting I can be!”
“How now, baggage o’ midnight – wilt bandy, ha?” Captain Yardley dragged her to her feet. “An’ wi’ lady o’ rank, look’ee, aye, an’ prime quality, as far above ’ee as truck be above keelson!” He frowned, considering – yes, the truck was above the keelson, he was pretty sure. He thrust her roughly towards the hatchway. “Stint thy hoydenish clack or we’ll ha’ thee in the branks – you there, down wi’ her an’ clap her in bilboes, wi’ a wannion!”
He turned apologetically to usher his quality passengers to the poop, where they thrilled to the spectacle of the Twelve Apostles being warped from her moorings. Men threw ropes about, and dropped tardy wenches over the side, sails were unfurled and bumboatmen fell in the water, articles of all descriptions were clewed up, the crowd on the dock sang the seventeenth-century version of “Auld Lang Syne”, the stench of bilge mingled evocatively with the rotting refuse of the river, the jolly sailormen swung their pigtails and strained at the capstan bars wi’ heave and ho, Captain Yardley was quietly seasick in a corner, and only Blood spared a last glance (a leer, actually) for Black Sheba as she was hustled below. But even he missed her sudden start as a huge brute of a seaman yanked cruelly at her fetters with a coarse guffaw of: “Har-har, me fine lady – allow me to show ye yer quarters – a right dainty chamber, sink me!” He was a great bearded ruffian, all shaggy with red hair from crown to breast, and he quickly bundled Sheba out of sight. Blood sighed, and wondered where they would put her; maybe in some quiet corner where she’d be glad of a little company … provided she wasn’t guarded by daunting thugs like that red-haired gorilla. Big, tough rascal he looked. Come to that, these sailors were a pretty muscular lot; Blood’s eye dwelt for a moment on another seaman lingering by the hatchway, a clean-shaven heavyweight in spotless white calico who looked as though he could comfortably have taken three straight falls from Oddjob. Of course, the Colonel mused, sailors probably had to be large and fit in order to cope with squalls and doldrums and other nautical hazards; it stood to reason.
He dismissed them from his mind, and set to studying how to cut in on Avery, who was explaining to a fascinated Vanity that the sharp end of the ship was at the front, and if you consulted the compass you could point the vessel the way you wanted to go; she was astonished at his expertise. Admiral Rooke observed them fondly, and Captain Yardley, having dosed himself liberally with Kwells and Alka-seltzer, stumped his deck and berated the topmen who were clinging to the futtock-shrouds in lubberly fashion.
Thus, wi’ her strange human cargo, did the stout ship Twelve Apostles set out on her fateful journey to the far-off Indies, gliding down the Thames through a forest of lesser shipping which gave way, d’ye see, before her stately passage. Tall and proud she stood down for the open sea, dipping her peak to their Lordships’ flag at Greenwich, dropping the pilot off the Medway, bumping into the pier at Southend, and running down a shrimp-boat off Clacton. Old salts viewed her admiringly as she passed, and wished her a prosperous voyage with ale-mugs raised in half-stoned salutation, none guessing what strange destiny awaited her ’neath tropic stars beyond the ocean rim …
Night found her in the Downs, pursuing her steady course beneath all plain (and decorated) sail, her crew and passengers a-slumber as she bore southwards. Did I say all? Nay, there were those that waked – the man at the wheel, more or less, and the look-out aloft, although he was surreptitiously reading a dirty book, possibly Moll Flanders, by shielded candle-light in the crow’s-nest. And others there were who as yet were sleepless – what thoughts, think you, reader, crowded their minds as they pondered the unknown future? How the hell should we know, says you. Then I’ll tell ’ee, says I, and ye may lay to that.
There is Captain Avery, strong chin in firm hand, his keen grey eyes veiled for once in thought as he dreams of … flag rank? Naval glory? The Madagascar crown and his perilous mission? Or is he envisioning a perfect roses-and-cream complexion framed by gold ringlets, dreamy blue eyes, a small soft hand brushing against his own, a sweet musical voice inquiring: “What are scuppers?” Of course he is, the susceptible big jerk. Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity, as far as he’s concerned.
And Vanity, her petal-like cheek resting on her lace pillow, is drowsing fondly over the memory of that marvellous profile, that vibrant baritone, that strong arm that supported her up the poop ladder. Mm-mm, if only he has ten thousand a year …
Blood, too, has his thoughts as he lies in his berth. That big spade bint is a bit of all right, he reflects; of course, so is Blondie, if a little upstage. Still, four months is a long time … suppose he was shipwrecked with both of them? A happy dilemma, and the cad falls asleep with a blissful smile on his raffish countenance.
And they weren’t the only ones astir on the Twelve Apostles as she cruised gently south in the velvet night.
Far below the waterline, in the nethermost bowels of the ship, in the foul reeking orlop where rats scurried beady-eyed in the dark, and the bilges slopped around wi’ foetid plash – there, in a far corner, a light guttered palely, casting the shadows of three figures. Black Sheba, fettered by slim ankles to a bulkhead, reclined her shapeliness on matted straw, eyes agleam like eager anthracite, and with her the red-bearded gorilla and the tall fellow in white – you know who they are, but how did they get here? Listen …
“… all the way to England, camarado, dogging the King’s ship that brought you, till we sighted Portland, when we dropped ashore, while Bilbo lay off, d’ye see? When we had word o’ where ye was bound, we shipped aboard as focsle-jacks, and –” here he winked a shrewd Calico Jack wink “– with a score or so stout lads as we can count on, look’ee. Bilbo’s been tipped the word, and lays course south for a rendezvous agreed wi’ Akbar the Damned an’ Happy Dan Pew …”
“– an’ when the time comes, a right merry meeting we’ll ha’ on’t, rack, rat, an’ rend me for a sea-slug else!” chortled Firebeard. “Har-har! These misbegotten King’s pimps don’t dream what a flock o’ lovin’ lambs they’s got aboard – an’ when Bilbo and the lads lays alongside – why, good day an’ good-bye to ’em, honest men! Then, little Sheba darlin’,” gibbered the hairy scoundrel, “ye can pay ’em for this sal-oobrious accommodation, an’ this jewellery they’ve give ye!” And he jingled her fetters gleefully.
“Oh, friends!” Sheba, the proud, fearless sea-queen who gutted Spaniards before breakfast, and had been known to roast cathedralfuls of nuns just for laughs, choked back a sob of pure feminine emotion. A tear welled on her dusky cheek, and Firebeard wiped it tenderly away with the tail of his shirt, blushing coyly to the eyelids, the only part of him visible through his tangle of hair. “Dear comrades,” continued Sheba, “I know not what to say … shall we barbecue ’em first and keelhaul them after? Or flog and carbonado them, and then disembowel and flay them by inches? Could we, perchance, do all six, and woold and dismember them later on? Oh, I know these are mere womanly fancies,” she went on, with a catch in her voice, “but it’s been so long! And if it’s the last thing I do –” she clenched her fists till her chains rattled, and ground her pearly teeth “– I’m going to fix that stuck-up little blonde bitch in the St Laurent outfit with the puffed sleeves and those pleated seams going round above the hips and gathered in under the little bows along the back so that it fits snug at the waist and looks as though it’s creaseless material and probably costs a bloody fortune to have altered supposing you can get a woman to do it. She won’t,” Sheba added venomously, “have much use for it by the time I’m through with her –”
“There, there,” said Firebeard soothingly, patting her manacled ankle with his great paw, “she han’t got near such nice legs as you, I’ll lay, an’ I bet she sunburns somethin’ rotten – ha, Calico?”
“Patience, camarado,” said Rackham. “There’s long sea-miles to go afore we call our reckonin’ – so mum, an’ leave all to us.”
As they were going, Sheba suddenly checked them. “Calico, wait. When they were going to flog me today …” she looked askance, and her voice was over-casual “… who was yon that loosed me?”
“Which one?” asked Firebeard. “The cocky black Irisher or the mealy swab wi’ the long legs?”
“The Englishman,” said Sheba coldly, “thou untutored bladder.”
“Name o’ Avery,” said Rackham. “Captain in Charlie boy’s navy. Why?”
“Oh … nothing,” said Black Sheba, and stretched herself like some great black cat on her straw, her eyes stoking up ’neath lazily-lowered lids, a strange enigmatic quiver agitating her sensuously-parted toes …
A Canberra cruise this isn’t, but who can tell what lies ahead as the Twelve Apostles skids round the corner of the Kentish coast, her passengers all unaware of the mischief brewing below decks? What dark purpose does Sheba harbour Avery-wise? What will come of his infatuation with the lovely Lady Vanity? Is her dress of creaseless material, and could it conceivably be altered to fit a corsair virago six inches taller? What dark schemes revolve in the fertile mind of Colonel Blood? How would you like to be chained up in an orlop? Read on …
The Twelve Apostles followed the course charted by movie art directors since time immemorial, in which the image of a tiny galleon is seen gliding gently across an Olde Worlde map with whales spouting bottom right – down from the Channel, across Biscay (where everyone would be ghastly sick and heaving, but you don’t see that bit), round the top left-hand bump of Africa, and down into tropic waters, at which point the map dissolves into a long shot of the actual galleon cruising briskly across a sunlit sea. Then we get a quick shot of life on board – first the captain with a telescope on the quarter-deck, just to let you know that everything’s under control, possibly a long shot of filling sails in case you’ve forgotten how the ship is actually propelled, and lastly to the matter in hand, whatever it may be. Right.
In this case we see Captain Yardley and Admiral Rooke looking down indulgently on a specially-holystoned part of the main deck, where Lady Vanity, clad in biscuit-coloured muslin, is playing shuffleboard with Captain Avery, trilling merrily when she wins, and pouting prettily when she loses. She doesn’t often pout, because Avery is the shuffleboard champion of the Royal Navy, and his keen eye and sinewy wrist enable him to leave his rings just that bit short every time, or nudge Vanity’s shots into the centre of the target. (After all, he’s besotted with the girl, and knows that his wooing won’t prosper if he whitewashes her 12–0 every time.)
And as they play, the jovial Firebeard galumphs about retrieving the rings and crying “Rare shot, milady!” and “Bravely thrown, cap’n!” and “Bloody hard lines, ma’am!” and bobbing and grinning and knuckling his forehead and generally grovelling like anything. For he and Rackham have shipped aboard under the names of Knatchbull-Carshalton and Wentworth respectively (Bilbo’s suggestions, naturally), and have been at pains to impress their superiors with their trustworthy, seamanlike, forelock-tugging qualities. With the result that Captain Yardley has remarked to Admiral Rooke on the rare good fort’n, by cock, of getting two such prime hands, and Rackham has won such golden opinions by his resolution and intelligence that he has been appointed quartermaster, with responsibility for steering in the night watches. (Significant, eh?) Firebeard isn’t much good at navigation (let’s face it, when he watches the sunrise he has to spin a coin to decide whether he’s looking east or not), but he is something of a mascot because he organises dice-horse-racing and deck quoits and sweeps on the ship’s mileage for Vanity’s amusement, and is the caller for Bingo in the evenings, crying “Eyes down, look in, clickety-click, legs eleven, Kelly’s plonk, blind sixty” and the like, to the hilarity of all. Vanity thinks he is a perfect pet, and calls him (wait for it) Master Nittywhiskers, and generally treats him like a tame retriever, and no one ever notices the occasional mad piggy glint in the eyes of the grinning, fawning sycophant.
Not even Blood, with his villain’s nose for villainy. For he had other things to think about. To start with, he found himself sent to Coventry in the first week, after Avery suddenly remembered where he’d heard the Colonel’s name before, and the Admiral, Yardley, and Vanity were thunderstruck to discover that their fellow-passenger was the notorious ruffian who had recently scandalised London by his attempt to glom the Crown Jewels, for which daring exploit he had unaccountably been pardoned by King Charles and set at liberty. (Fact, and no one has solved the mystery to this day.) However, after that it was the cold shoulder all round for our Tom, the gentlemen turning sharply on their heels and Lady Vanity elevating her exquisite little retroussé nose and daintily fanning the air if he came within ten feet of her. The Colonel endured philosophically his exclusion from after-dinner whist and “I spy”, and having to eat in his cabin alone, and not having anyone tell him the right time. His isolation enabled him to ponder two matters which were intriguing him – one being the mysterious oak box which Avery kept hidden in his cabin (the Colonel having watched its bestowal from a convenient skylight on the first day of the voyage), and the other being how to arrange an undisturbed visit to the orlop to teach Sheba postman’s knock. Being a patient man, he set himself to wait, ignoring the slights of Cabin Society, and fingering his clarkie moustache with a slow smile as he leaned nonchalantly against the rail.
His double opportunity came on a balmy tropic night as they sailed smoothly down towards the Cape over a limpid azure sea beneath a moon so golden that it almost dripped in the purple sky. Stars twinkled, scented breezes blew, in the great cabin the Admiral and Yardley, stuffed to surfeit and drowsy with port, hiccoughed and reminisced, and in the seclusion of the stern gallery Captain Avery and Lady Vanity clung in an ecstatic embrace, munching each other’s lips and only occasionally coming up for air.
(Avery? Necking? Has our idol got feet of smouldering clay? By no means. Left to himself, he would have worshipped his blonde divinity from afar, or rather from close quarters, but never laying a glove on her; he didn’t have all his Scout badges for nothing. His love was chaste and holy, and he had never so much as held hands at the church social. But Vanity soon took care of that. Delicately nurtured at a finishing school where panty-raids by ardent young males were commonplace, and where she and her schoolmates had been wont to classify Society bucks as N.S.A.V., N.S.I.S.C., and N.S.A.* respectively, she had quickly realised that this dream-man was such a spiritual Galahad that he would need tuition in how to get physical. Her course of instruction took about eleven seconds, consisting of a glance at the moon, a gentle sigh, a hand on his arm, her eyes wide and uplifted to his, a parting of her moist lips, and before the hypnotised Avery knew what he was doing he was glued to her like the Magdeburg hemispheres, finally parting after three solid minutes of osculation with the sound of a drain unblocking. After that first memorable kiss, which he quickly convinced himself was not only a perfectly seemly, but courteous thing to do – for this adorable girl deserved every treat she could get – it was plain sailing; Vanity could relax contentedly and let him make the running – all good clean fun, mind you, for she was a proper and toward young lady who permitted no undue familiarities, which she guessed Avery wouldn’t know how to make, anyway.)
So they smooched away blissfully and decorously, as lovers will, until Vanity decided that she had now got this superman softened up sufficiently to start moulding him to her imperious will – a necessary preliminary to the marriage which she had determined would follow eventually, when she felt like it. From this point the lovers were observed by Colonel Blood, out for a twilight prowl, and cheerfully eavesdropping from the stern rail above their heads, the swine. This is what he heard:
VANITY (panting): Easy, boy, easy! Golly, you don’t know your own strength! Is my hair a mess?
AVERY: Nay, sweet goddess, ’tis immaculate as thy perfect self. (With an indulgent male chauvinist smile.) I fear me y’are well named Lady Vanity.
VANITY (checking make-up in mirror): Too right. I’m gorgeous, proud, and insufferably spoiled. Very properly. Now, what’s all this rot about getting off at Madagascar, and leaving me to be bored witless all the way to Calicut?
AVERY (sighing): Alas, dearest, I have my duty.
VANITY: Indeed? I can see we shall have to get your priorities straight. One, duty is what other people do. Two, if ever you find yourself faced with a choice between duty and me, I shall whistle – once. Three, if you’re to be Sir Benjamin before your twenty-fifth birthday, and we’re to be Earl and Countess before you’re thirty – for I won’t settle for less, and flag rank for you into the bargain –
AVERY: Angel, I shall win these trifles and lay them at your feet!
VANITY: Trifles, quotha! You win whatever you like, Tyrone, and I’ll manage the essentials. For know that I am an Admiral’s daughter, a Very Important Lady with immense influence – the King has spoken politely to me –
AVERY (frowning): Has he, though?
VANITY: – and before I’m through you’re going to have a seat in the Cabinet. Don’t fret, I can keep Charlie at a distance, and arrange your preferment, advancement, and finances perfectly satisfactorily. Ah, ’twill be very bliss, you and I together, our future golden –
AVERY (friendly but firm): I still have to get off at Madagascar.
VANITY: Forget it – I shall speak to Father –
AVERY: Dear heart, even he is powerless. ’Tis royal command.
VANITY: Straight up? Oh, blast! Then let us make the most of what little time is left to us for the moment. Hold me, my darling … renew our fleeting rapture …
AVERY (ardently): Yum-yum!
VANITY (slightly muffled): Mind my beauty patch …
By this time Blood had given up in disgust, not untinged with envy, and judging that Avery would be occupied for some time, descended stealthily to the young captain’s cabin and began operations on the oak box with great patience and a bent nail. (No end to the fellow’s criminal versatility.) Presently he had the lid up and was squatting reverently muttering “Bejazus!” as he contemplated the gleaming glory of the crown. So this was the precious secret – and it was going to Madagascar! Fat chance. For about five seconds he gloated greedily, and then, being a highly practical scoundrel, relocked the box and went on deck, where he lurked chin in hand – and he wasn’t considering his next contribution to Dr Barnardo’s, either. How to acquire this wondrous bauble – it must be thought upon. In the meantime, with the crew all asleep and the Quality either swilling port or snogging, it occurred to the Colonel that he knew an excellent way of celebrating his splendid discovery. Watching all that boy-and-girl stuff on the stern gallery had reawakened the beast in him, rakehell that he was …
Captain Avery, having bidden the delectable Vanity good-night with a last fond grapple at her cabin door, had thereafter repaired rather unsteadily to his quarters for a cold bath. He had been hopelessly in love for several weeks now, but actually petting with beautiful blondes was something else – so that was what Ovid and Count Orsino and the poet Herrick got all worked up about, he reflected breathlessly. Well, he could see what they meant. Wow! And she loved him, and melted in his arms, and her kisses were like perfumed darts from Cupid’s bow … but enough was enough – well, no, it wasn’t, but in the meantime he was Captain Benjamin Avery, after all, with responsibilities and duties and things, and it was time to climb off Cloud Nine for the moment. He would take a brisk walk round the deck before retiring, and this slightly dizzy feeling would go away.
So he dressed rapidly, and going quietly on deck, was just in time to see a stealthy figure descending the main hatchway. It looked like that awful scoundrel Blood … in a moment the lover was transformed into the cool, alert man of action as the captain, narrow-eyed and treading softly, followed to see what mischief the fellow might be up to when all decent folk were in their pits for the night.
It did not occur to the Captain that there was anything demeaning about snooping after his fellow-passenger in this fashion. After all, Blood was widely known to be as bent as a boat-hook and, as head prefect at Uppingham Avery had been accustomed to trailing nocturnal bounds-breakers and confiscating their illicit cherry brandy and copies of Playeboye. So now, his magnificent shapely ears pricked, he crept down the companion after the softly sneaking Colonel; past the focsle where the crew snored and the atmosphere was thick enough to sell as coal briquettes, past the main cargo deck, into the hold, and then through dark narrow ways among the piled-up gear, where rats squeaked and scuttled, and only the occasional horn lantern guttered i’ the gloom. Once the Captain paused, when his foot got jammed in a bucket, and then he was hurrying ahead towards a distant gleam of light, whence came the sound of voices, one tense with fury, the other soft and sinisterly mocking …
“Get away from me!” Black Sheba, crouched against the orlop bulkhead, clutched her rag of shirt across her breasts with one hand and swung the slack of her fetters with the other. “Another step and I’ll lay your face open!”
“Now, stab me if I understand you,” Blood was saying, and Avery could picture the sinister smile on his lips. “What’s the matter with me? I’m good-looking, young, charming, clean, amiable, and I shaved this morning. Bigod, ye don’t know what a lucky girl ye are; all I want is to help you pass the time pleasant-like –”
“Some day I’ll pass the time with you,” snarled Sheba, her bazoom heaving like anything, “and you’ll beg to be let die!”
“Ah, come off it,” said Blood, eyeing the fetters warily. “It’s going to happen to you in Calicut anyway. You’ll be sold off, every delectable pound of ye, to some greasy old hog of a planter, and he won’t take no for an answer. Whereas with me, it’ll not only be a rewarding experience, I’ll even engage to buy you myself – if I can raise the money …”
The artful stinker had been edging closer, and as Sheba let fly with her chains he ducked nimbly underneath, and with a caddish chuckle tackled her low and pinned her on the straw, smiling mockingly into her blazing eyes. She struggled vainly while he got himself comfy.
“Now, then,” he said, “what I propose is one little kiss, and if ye don’t like it, then on my honour I’ll leave you be. Tom Blood doesn’t stay where he’s not wanted. But I can’t believe a fine strapping lass like you won’t think better of it …”
And the bounder’s lips were descending on hers when steely fingers closed on his shoulder, and he was dragged up to meet Avery’s eyes glittering wrathfully, and Avery’s voice ringing in icy scorn:
“Muckrake! Stinker! Jerk!”
And he hit the Colonel a big one, splat! which sent the startled amorist hurtling headlong across the orlop, and serve him right. Avery, fists clenched, towered over him in manly indignation, while Black Sheba crouched on her straw, wide-eyed. The Colonel presently sat up and nursed his jaw reflectively.
“Some days are like this,” he sighed. “Ye just can’t please anybody. A man goes about trying to promote a little happiness, but …” He shrugged and came to his feet, smiling to conceal his anxiety about his bridgework. “That’s a fair wallop ye have in that hand, Captain. Is it as ready when it’s holding steel?”
“Get out,” snapped the Captain, in refrigerated contempt.
“So soon?” wondered the Colonel amiably. “We could have a three-handed game of brag … no?” He winked regretfully at Sheba. “Sorry, sweetheart, ye’ll just have to contain your passion for another time. If you’re staying, captain, and she starts fiddling with those chains – duck.”
And with insolent aplomb the hardened scoundrel tipped them a salute and went off, whistling. Avery waited till his footsteps died away, and then glanced at the swarthy Juno crouched at his feet.
“Did he hurt you?”
Sheba shook her head, and slithered up sinuously to lean against the bulkhead while Avery looked about her cramped prison. What a filthy hole, he was thinking, even for a wild female blackamoor; why, his gundogs, Buster and Doodles, had better kennels at home. And Sheba, her smoky eyes devouring him, was thinking: what a profile, what class, what style! Even the way he tramped accidentally on her waterdish, and wrinkled his Grecian nostrils in distaste, sent gusts of passion surging up from her ankles. And now those wonderful grey eyes were turned on her as he asked, in his best orderly officer manner: “Any complaints?”
Any complaints! The words seemed to turn her shapely knees to buttermilk, but all she could do was shake her head again dumbly, at which he nodded in a way which clutched at her heart. As he turned away she found speech, huskily: “Captain Avery?” He paused inquiringly, and the gentle lift of his moulded eyebrows hit her like a battering-ram.
“I have not been able to thank you,” she breathed, “for saving me from the whip, the day we sailed. Why did you?”
He frowned. “Didn’t like it. Not British. Cruel.”
Sheba considered him. “Cruelty can have its uses,” she husked, gnawing her lip and smouldering a bit, but Avery didn’t notice.
“Anyway,” he said, fair-mindedly, “that blighter Blood was the first to help you. Just shows, he can’t be all cad.”
Sheba’s lovely lips writhed in a sneer. “He had his reason, as you saw just now. Were I old and withered, instead of …” Here she let actions speak louder than words by doing a gentle bump and grind, “… they could ha’ flogged me to mincemeat and he’d not have lifted a finger, he.” And she called Blood a horrid name.
Avery pursed a doubtful lip – after all, Blood did hold the King’s commission, and that sort of talk from a person of her class struck him as subversive. But before he could chill her with a mild reproof, Sheba had glided forward as far as her ankle-chain would allow, and repeated in that hot sandalwood voice:
“I have still not been able to … thank you, captain.” And she made a little helpless gesture with her fetters which would have won her a contract at Minsky’s. “These chains …”
“What about ’em?” said Avery innocently, and stepped closer to look. The great sap couldn’t see what was coming; he was all off balance as two slim dusky hands were raised to caress his cheeks, two amber-flecked eyes gazed into his, and two crimson lips were pressed fiercely against his mouth – you wondered for a split second if she was going to strangle him, didn’t you? Not Sheba. She was giving that sudden embrace all she had, which was plenty, since she had had lots of practice. Whereas Avery, apart from his brief session with Vanity earlier on, was a total novice. Consequently, the effect on him was electric. For a moment he was petrified, and then jungle drums began to throb in his ears, ritual fires blazed up, fogs of musky incense swirled through his senses, erotic cymbals clashed, and he found himself inexplicably thinking of silk cushions and Turkish Delight, of all things. He drew back in some confusion, disengaged her hands, and automatically adjusted his neckcloth.
“That,” he said, slightly hoarse, “was not necessary.”
“That,” panted Sheba, her eyes like open furnace doors, “is what you think.”
What an odd woman, thought Avery. Barbarian, of course, just expressing thanks in her primitive fashion. Rather touching, and indeed not unpleasant, in a peculiarly disturbing way – just for a moment, there, he’d felt a sort of dizzy, hypnotic attraction … in fact, he still did, even at a range of four feet. Extraordinary … yet how curious that he who had never been kissed before this evening, should be embraced by two women within an hour. Vanity would be vastly amused when he told her … or then again, perhaps she wouldn’t. The dear child might not understand that the touch of her sweet lips was utterly different – pure, exquisite, holy bliss, quite unlike this savage creature’s crude display of gratitude … yes … very different …
Now that he looked at her, this black female was quite striking, if not altogether seemly in appearance. Very tall girl – and how oddly she was regarding him, with that intense stare while she licked her lips and growled deep in her throat. Captain Avery swallowed; he was feeling that dizziness again. Very close down here; he needed a breath of air. Abruptly he turned about and left the orlop.
Black Sheba stared after him hungrily, her eyes heaving and her chest smouldering (just by way of a change). Then she relaxed, a feral, enigmatic smile playing about her chiselled lips as she reclined on her bed of straw. Playing hard to get, eh, she thought … but not for much longer, you gorgeous Greek god, you. Any minute now, buster, any minute.
Meanwhile the object of her unholy passion was leaning against a bulkhead some way from the orlop, muttering “Phew!” and shaking his head to clear it, when he became aware that Colonel Blood was sitting with folded arms on a nearby cask, head cocked and a dirty look in his eye.
“Now what,” wondered the Colonel, nodding towards the orlop entrance, “have you got that I haven’t?”
Avery straightened. “Decency, perhaps?” he replied frostily, and his gesture invited the Colonel to precede him up the companion. Blood rose lazily.
“Faith, is that what ye call it?” he reflected as they went up. “Well, ye didn’t take much advantage of it. Ye’ll regret it, in your old age, see if you don’t.”
“My only regret,” said Avery, “is that necessity compels me to consort aboard this ship with such lewd scoundrels as you.”
“You can mend that as soon as you like,” said Blood. “Or does your courage stop short at hitting from behind?”
Avery was before him in a flash, all icy contempt. “When we touch dry land at the Cape, sir, I shall accommodate you face to face, with what weapons you choose.”
Blood looked him up and down (and until you’ve seen Blood’s eye travelling north and south you don’t know what provocative insolence is.) “The number of times,” he drawled, “that some coxcomb has said to me that he’ll meet me next week, or next month, or the first Shrove Tuesday in leap year – and when the time comes, damme if I haven’t had the ground all to meself. I see that ye’re another lad … of promise.” And he turned on his heel at his cabin door.
Crimson mantled the flawless cheekbones of our Hero, and his jaw set like frozen yogurt. He spun the Colonel round with steely fingers. “That taunt becomes you, coward,” he grated. “Well you know ’tis impossible we should meet aboard ship. Affairs of honour are not settled so –”
“Why not?” grinned Blood. “There’s a stern gallery yonder where none should hear us – faith, it’s familiar ground to you and your paramour – the blonde one, not the darkie –”
Schooled in imperturbability though he was, it took Avery all his time to suppress a yowl of fury. His eye flamed, and the colour drained from his face to his ankles. “With you on the instant!” he snapped, and strode into his cabin for his rapier.
Now what, you ask, is crafty Thomas up to? It cannot be that he is intent on repaying the merited buffet bestowed on him by Avery for getting fresh with Captive Africa. No way; Blood is used to chaps taking swings at him. Nay, he is needling Avery in furtherance of some dark design, to wit – if they cross swords on the stern gallery secretly, and Blood can give Avery the mortal stuck-in and heave his corpse into the main, he can then snaffle the Madagascar crown. And next morning, when investigation takes place, who is to point a finger at T.B.? Poor Avery, he must have fallen overboard in the night; too bad – that will be the official version, and if Tom can’t keep the crown safely secreted until they reach the Cape, he isn’t the man he thinks he is. Thus did the cunning rascal reason as he repaired to the stern gallery with his own rapier, to find his stalwart antagonist awaiting him wi’ unbated tuck.
They faced each other on the narrow gallery in the moonlight, the ship’s bright wake creaming beneath them. “When you fall,” said Avery sternly, “I may be hard put to it to explain why we met thus irregularly, but it sorts not with mine honour to let you live who have sullied a fair lady’s good name with –”
“Save it, son,” said Blood coolly. “Any explaining will be in good hands – mine. You can kiss it goodbye.” He was grinning and snaking his blade in and out á la Rathbone, and Avery drew himself up, very academic as you might expect, and slid a foot forward into the attack, his eyes like chips of solid helium.
Well, you’ve seen it before – glittering blades rasping, feet slithering, close-ups of Blood’s grinning teeth and rumpled curls, and Avery’s icy composure as he breathes brilliantly through his nostrils. Gosh, he was good – so was Blood, of course, but bouncing about with cits’ plump wives and drinking mulled canary at 4 a.m. had sapped his vigour and slowed him down just that little bit. Avery, by contrast, was trained to a hair and pure of heart, so it was inevitable that after one of those engagements in which the blades whirl too quickly for the eye to follow, Blood should spring back with a curse, a livid cut across his left forearm, and gore dripping on the planks.
“Lucky bastard!” was all he said, and sprang again to the attack, but with his fertile brain ticking over at speed. This boy was hell on wheels, all right, he was thinking, but he was Olympic gold medal material, no more – wide open to such unorthodox stunts as a good kick in the crotch, for example. Yet how should that profit Blood now? Even if he killed Avery, he had taken a wound and there was blood on the deck – even dimwits like Rooke and Yardley would be bound to connect these facts with the young Captain’s disappearance. So … the crown in Avery’s cabin must wait for another day. In the meantime, how to emerge from the present hoo-ha with his life – and, if possible, lull Avery’s enmity for the nonce, perhaps even win something of his regard? A tall order, but meat and drink to our Irish mountebank.
So he bore in with all the considerable science at his command, recklessly expending his energy while Avery broke ground with close-playing wrist (whatever that is) and perfect control, husbanding his strength, as prudent heroes always do, until his opponent’s fury should have spent itself, which it inevitably does. Blood, lashing away like a carpet-beater gone berserk, bore him back by main force until they were in that well-known close shot, chest to chest, both heaving away like crazy, the baddy fleering and sneering sweatily, the goody keen-eyed and straining manfully, at which psychological moment Blood asked casually:
“Tell me captain – when I’ve fed ye to the fish, what becomes o’ that precious bauble in your cabin?”
Since he was almost on his knees with exhaustion, the words came out in a sort of ruined wheeze, but they earned full marks for effect. For a split second Avery’s icy composure faltered; to be honest, he gave a passable imitation of a gaffed salmon, and in a trice the crafty Irishman had stamped on his toe, disarmed him by seizure, and whipped his point against Avery’s Adam’s apple. And there they stood, Avery aghast and biting his lip with vexation, Blood panting asthmatically and trying to hold his sword steady. At last, having regained his wind, he lowered his point and stepped back, looking for somewhere to lean on.
“Ye know,” he remarked, “you’re a mighty pretty swordsman, but ye’re not fit to be let out alone, so you’re not. An old dodge like that – letting your opponent talk ye into a tangle. Faith, it’s as well I’m not the rogue ye think me, or it’s dead meat ye’d be by this. And where would your bonny jewelled crown be going then, eh? Not to Madagascar, sonny.”
Avery, hero though he was, looked (and probably felt) as though he’d been jumped on by the Wigan front row. “The Madagascar crown?” he gasped. “What know ye on’t?”
“Everything,” fibbed Blood smoothly. “What d’ye think I’m here for?”
“You mean – y’are an agent of Master Pepyseses?” stammered the Captain, his eyes like bewildered gimlets. “But … but he told me none knew of the mission save he and I, his majesty, and my Lord Rooke!”
“That’s the civil service mentality for you,” sighed Blood sympathetically. “Never tell you a damned thing.” He improvised boldly. “I’ve been privy from the first. They thought the job was too important for just one man.”
Just one man! The words were a karate chop across the windpipe of Avery’s self-esteem. “I could have done it standing on my head!” he snapped.
“So we’ve noticed,” said Blood drily, but the Captain wasn’t listening. His nostrils flared delicately with mistrust.
“And you’d have me believe they sent you to guard me?” he cried. “Nay, ’tis thing impossible! Y’are a notorious foul villain of rank repute and noisome infamy, steeped i’ knavery and treason, a seasoned rascally cutpurse profligate who tried to nick the Crown Jewels, a foresworn skunk, crud, creep, and renegade –”
“All right, all right!” Blood interrupted warmly. “Can you think of a better cover?” he asked knowingly.
“You mean,” whispered Avery incredulously, “that you’re not really a notorious foul villain of ill repute –”
“– rank repute and noisome infamy, steeped i’ –”
“If I was, you wouldn’t be standing here running off at the mouth, remember?” snapped Blood. “Some of us,” he went on virtuously, “don’t mind being given a bad name if it enables us to serve his majesty the better. We don’t insist on going poncing about like Sir Walter Raleigh. We are content to wear,” he added bitterly, “dishonour’s mask in honour’s cause.” Here, that’s not bad, he thought; a nifty to remember.
“But if you’re not a seasoned rascally cutpurse profligate,” demanded Avery, “what were you climbing all over that poor defenceless black female for?”
“Your benefit,” said Blood, and got all austere. “I have observed you, sir, and methinks you spend overmuch time in dalliance wi’ my Lady Vanity, to the neglect of your duty. Nay, belt up till I ha’ done. Marking this, I provoked you – the black trull means no more to me than a squashed grape; such carnal employs engage not my senses, I thank God – to test me your metal, to recall you to your duty, and to inform you –” and here he laid a hand on Avery’s astonished shoulder, “– that in whate’er perils may lie ahead, y’are not alone.” Rugged nobility was just oozing out of him.
“Stone me!” was not an expression that Captain Avery ever used, but it was a near thing. For what Blood had told him was flawlessly logical when weighed in an ice-cool brain – he must be a Pepys muscleman, or he’d have used his momentary advantage – a cad’s trick, incidentally, stamping on a chap’s toes – to kill Avery and trouser the crown. And it was just like those old sneaks at the Admiralty to stick a second man on the job, without telling a fellow. Blinking cheek, thought Avery, and quite unnecessary – and then a flush of shame mantled his fair young brow as he remembered how he’d been canoodling with Lady Vanity and never thinking twice about his precious charge. He let out an anguished woof.
“And I was found wanting!” His face was pale as a mortified parrot’s. “You are right, sir – a fine guardian, I, spooning and duelling to indulge my base appetites!” He ground his flawless molars in remorse, while Blood patted his arm reassuringly.
“We all make mistakes, lad,” he crooned. “Bedad, on me own first mission, charged wi’ letters o’ rare import to the Grand Sophy – ye won’t believe this – didn’t I get so engrossed in ‘Paradise Lost’ that I missed the last caravan to Aleppo … or was it to Damascus … no, t’was there I slew the four Spanish agents, was’t not? No matter. Anyway, I nearly blew the whole deal.” He made a deprecating gesture, and blood from his wounded arm splashed on Avery’s snowy shirt. The Captain yipped with contrition.
“And I wounded you!”
“Pish!” said Blood. “A flea-bite.” For which you’ll pay, my smart-assed friend, he thought grimly, while yet smiling so winningly that Avery gulped with emotion. How could he ever have mistrusted this honest, sturdy gentleman?
“Colonel Blood,” said he, frank and manly, “I ha’ done you great wrong. You’re all right. One of the lads. My eyes are opened.” He proved this by giving Blood his steady First XI glance, and clasping his hand. “What more’s to be said, save that I –” he shrugged modestly, “– yes, even I, shall sleep sounder o’ nights knowing that in you I have a loyal and steadfast … ah … assistant.”
You do that, son, thought Blood, and arm in arm they repaired to the slumbering passenger quarters ’neath the poop, where all was still save for the sweet murmurous breathing from Admiral Rooke’s berth, and the thunderous snorting from Lady Vanity’s. (Eh?) There they bade each other a comradely good-night, and sought their respective cabins, Avery thinking, what a worthy fellow, and Blood thinking, what an amazing birk.
Hand it to Blood, he’s slicker than wet paint. What next impudent villainy does he intend? And Avery, that honest lad – are his dreams refreshed by pure, blissful visions of Lady Vanity, or do strange phantasms of our Ebony Hebe disturb his repose? Does Vanity really snore? Who’s minding the ship? Let’s lay aloft, says you, and we’ll ascertain.
*Not safe at Vauxhall, Not safe in sedan chairs, Not safe anywhere.
Silence … as the Twelve Apostles glides on over the dark green sea bounded by distant banks of thin sea-mist. The moon is down, the sky a dark arch overhead, eastward there is still no shimmer of dawn. Upstairs the ship is deserted, save for the yawning lubber propped against the wheel, and the look-out in the crow’s-nest who has finished Moll Flanders and is frowning over the crossword in the South Sea Waggoner. One across, “What ships usually sail on”, three letters. Rum? Bog? He peeps down to see what the Twelve Apostles is floating on at the moment. Water? Too many letters. He sighs; another bloody anagram, probably … what kind of nut thinks these things up?
Below, the crew packed tight in their focsle hammocks have really got their heads down; even the rats and weevils are flat out. Aft, in the First Class, everyone is lapping it up except Captain Yardley, who pores over a chart in his great cabin, scratching grizzled pate and muttering “Belike an’ bedamned” as he plots his u-turn round the bottom of Africa. Vanity, beautifully made up even in slumber, sighs gently as the distant tinkle of eight bells is faintly heard. Of course she doesn’t snore! It was Rooke all the time, sprawled in his cot across the passage, his stentorian rumblings bulging the ship’s timbers and causing his dentures to rattle in their glass. Avery, in his cabin, is kipping away like an advertisement for Dunlopillo, eyes gently closed, hair neatly arranged, mouth perfectly shut and breathing through his nose. A smile plays about his mobile lips: he is dreaming of Vanity darning his socks in a rose-bowered summer-house, you’ll be glad to know. Over the way Blood grunts and mutters in his sleep, one hand on the hilt of a dagger ’neath ’s pillow – if you’ve a conscience like his you keep your hardware handy. And deep in the foetid orlop Sheba writhes restlessly on her straw, her fetters clanking dismally.
Everybody bedded down, right? All serene? You know better.
As the last bell sounded, ending the middle watch, a stalwart figure in neatly-pressed white calico took over the wheel, and a massive untidy heap crouched by the side-rail clawing his red hair out of his eyes the better to scan the distant sea. Seeing nothing, he started striking matches, instinctively setting his beard on fire and having to put his head in a bucket of water to douse the blaze. But the brief conflagration had served its purpose; far off in the sea-mist a pale light blinked, and as he coughed and spluttered and threw away clumps of burned hair, Firebeard was able to cackle triumphantly:
“’Ere they be, Calico! Good dogs! Brave boys! They’m dead on time, wi’ a curse, say I, an’ that! Unless,” he added doubtfully, “it’s some bloody fool as we don’t know on, playin’ about wi’ lights unauthorised an’ wanton! Eh?” Rage suffused his unwashed features. “I’ll tear him, I’ll kill him, I’ll cast anchor in him!” he was starting to rave, until a curt word from Rackham sent him lumbering below, where he blundered about among the hammocks whispering: “We have lift-off! Rise an’ shine! Rogues on deck, honest men stay where ye are! Get your cold feet on the warm floor! Up and at ’em!”
In a trice his accomplices among the crew had piled out, pulling on their socks, hunting for their combs and toothbrushes, adjusting their eye-patches, and scampering silently up the companion, while the honest sailors turned over drowsily muttering: “Shut that bloody door! Is that you up again, Agnes?” and the like, before resuming their unsuspecting slumbers. Up on deck the little knot of rascals received Rackham’s urgent whispered orders, and scuttled away to seize the arms chest and guard the hatchways, the tardier spirits among them goofing off and tying knots in the rigging to make it look as though they were working. Firebeard blundered up last, to report “All villains roused an’ ready, by the powers, d’ye see, Calico camarado, aarrgh like!” and Rackham despatched him to the mast-head to deal with the look-out. Firebeard panted busily upwards, taking several wrong turnings along yardarms and getting his leg stuck through futtock-shrouds, lubbers’-holes, and possibly even clew-lines, before he arrived at the crow’s-nest to hear from within fevered mutters of “Pot? Tea? Gin? It’s another flaming misprint, that’s what is is!” Firebeard sandbagged the look-out smartly, snarling “Take that, ye bleedin’ intellectual!” and hastened down again to join Calico Jack who, grimly smiling, was at the rail watching Black Bilbo keep their rendezvous.
Out of the mist they came just as the first glimmer of sun topped the eastern horizon – three fell shapes o’ doom and dread, surging in on the hapless merchantman. First, the rakish corsair galley of Akbar the Damned, its great steel beak aglitter, the green banner of Islam aloft, its oars thrashing the water as the drivers flogged the naked slave-rowers and rounded up those who had nipped aft for a quiet smoke. Its deck crammed with swarthy, bearded rovers of Algiers and Tripoli, flashing their teeth, brandishing their scimitars and getting their spiked helmets caught in the rigging, the galley was a fearsome sight to Christian eyes, and hardly less disturbing to Buddhists or even atheists. And naught more fearsome than the dark, hawk-faced, hairy-chested figure of Akbar himself, lounging on his stern-castle in gold lamé pyjama trousers, his forked beard a-quiver as he munched rahat lakoum proffered by nubile dancing-girls, his fierce eyes glinting wildly as he practised cutting their gauzy veils in two with his razor-edged Damascus blade.
Secondly came that gaily-decked galleon of evil repute, the Grenouille Frénétique, or Frantic Frog, flagship of Happy Dan Pew, French filibuster, gallant, bon vivant and gourmet, who was given to dancing rigadoons and other foreign capers as his vessel sailed into action. Clouds of aftershave wafted about his ship, whose velvet sails were fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste, its crew of Continental sea-scum lining the rails crying “Remember Dien Bien Phu!” and “Vive le weekend!” as their graceful craft seemed to can-can over the billows with élan and espièglerie.
[In fact, Happy Dan Pew wasn’t French at all. His real name was Trevor O’Grady from St Helens, but he had been hit on the head by a board-duster while reading a pirate story during a French lesson, and his mind had become unhinged. From that moment he suffered from the delusion that he was a Breton buccaneer, but since he spoke no French beyond Collins’ Primer, his crew had a confusing time of it.]
Third and last came Black Bilbo’s ghastly sable barque, the Laughing Sandbag – he was last on account o’ he bein’ barnacled, d’ye see? Or, in the rather coarse expression of the time, his bottom was foul. Consequently Bilbo was in a rare passion, stalking the poop, inhaling snuff and pistolling mutineers with murderous abandon. He couldn’t bear being second to Happy Dan, who had pipped him for Best-dressed Cut-throat o’ the Year.
As his fellow-rascals brought their ships in against the ill-fated Twelve Apostles, Calico Jack snapped to his small band of villains, “Down and take ’em, bullies!” and with glad cries of “Geronimo!” “Carnival!” and “After you!” they raced below to overpower anyone who happened to be around – crewmen who were still in the focsle ringing for their coffee, or had gone to the bathroom, or were doing their early morning press-ups. Having disposed of these, the pirates stormed howling to the stern of the ship, recklessly disregarding the “First Class Passengers Only” notices, and bursting into the cabins without knocking. Thus:
Captain Yardley stared at his chart, in which a thrown knife was quivering beside his pencil point; ere he could so much as cry out a despairing “Belike!” pirates were jumping all over him, binding and gagging him, untying his shoe-laces, giving him a hot-foot, and playing with his set-square and compasses. His discomfiture was complete.
Admiral Rooke awoke to find an apple being stuck in his open mouth, and Firebeard’s shaggy countenance leering down at him yelling: “Breakfast in bed, milord, har-har? Nay, then ’ee’ll make a rare boar’s head, wi’ a curse! Haul him aloft, give him the message, do him the dirty, wi’ a wannion, by the powers, har-har!” And as the unfortunate Admiral was secured, gasping and choking, Firebeard began to break up the furniture.
What of our two bright boys? Blood, seasoned in alarms, was rolling out of bed, sword in hand, even as the first pirates came ramping in yelling: “Surprise, surprise!” He blinded one with hair-powder, kicked a second in the stomach, crossed swords with a third, and then, having weighed up the odds, dropped his weapon and raised his hands, automatically reciting: “I’ll-come-quietly-officer-but-devil-a-cheep-ye’ll-get-out-o’-me-till-I’ve-talked-to-a-lawyer.” Thus tamely did the rascal chuck up the sponge.
Not so across the passage, where a flashing-eyed Avery was holding crowds of desperadoes at bay with his whirling blade, jumping on tables, swinging from chandeliers, throwing chairs at their shins, knocking over candlesticks, and swathing his attackers in torn-down curtains. It couldn’t last, of course; it never does. They bore him down, cursing foully (them, not him, he never cursed), and he struggled vainly in their brutal grasp, his hair becomingly rumpled, his shirt slightly torn, and the teeniest trickle of blood on his determined chin. But his eyes gleamed undaunted; by Jove, they’d better watch him.
Down i’ the foetid orlop an exultant Sheba was being unchained by the little Welsh pirate, who had also brought her a fresh wardrobe so that she can be properly attired for the big confrontation scene on deck, which comes in a minute. She hurled aside her loathed fetters, gnashing with delight, and the little Welshman modestly looked away as she donned her scarlet silk breeches and shirt, buckled her diamanté rapier at her hip, drew on her long Gucci boots, exclaimed at the state of her coiffure, clapped on her plumed picture hat, dabbed a touch of Arpège behind her ear, and then spent ten minutes selecting one long earring and applying her lipstick. Finally, with a curt “Tidy up!” to the little Taffy, she strode lithely up the companion, pausing briefly at the full-length mirror in the gun-crews’ recreation room, to adjust her hat fractionally and turn her voluptuous shape this way and that, wondering if she had lost weight during her captivity. A pound? Pound and a half? Mmh, maybe not … still …
She was brooding about this when she stepped into the cabin passage, to meet a bawling Firebeard, who had bagged Rooke’s coat and wig, thrown on any old how, and was kicking in doors just for laughs. He swung her up in his hairy arms, yelling:
“She’s all ours! Ho-Ho! We’m masters o’ the ship, look’ee, and Bilbo an’ t’ others be layin’ alongside, shiver me timbers! Har-har! Tear ’em up, bully boys! Sick ’em, pups!”
“Put me down, you walking tank of pigswill,” hissed Sheba, “and if you’ve got spots on my new outfit I’ll carbonado you! And get that drunken rabble on deck!” She pointed imperiously at Firebeard’s mob who were looting and rampaging and writing graffiti on the walls and knocking the tops off bottles. They cowered before her flashing eyes, knuckling their foreheads and belching guiltily, and Sheba scorched them with a look before pirouetting neatly to the last unopened cabin door. She flung it wide, and –
Lady Vanity sat bolt upright in bed in a froth of lace, gold ringlets, and confusion, blue eyes wide, ruby lips parted, eye-lashes fluttering like net curtains in a high wind. She was distraught, astonished, and envious all in one at the brilliant spectacle of Sheba swaggering in, a hateful smile on her proud lips, one fist poised on a shapely hip as she gloatingly pondered the petrified English rose. What an absolutely stunning colour combination, thought Vanity – lipstick not quite the right shade, though, but what else could one expect? … and then she saw the monstrous Firebeard rolling and goggling in the doorway, and squealed with indignation.
“How dare you come in here without permission? Leave at once, you inferior persons! Underlings! Peasants! Savages!”
“Savage! That’s me!” howled Firebeard gleefully, drumming his chest with his fists. “I’ll show ye savage, me little honey-flower! Har-har!” And he rushed lustfully towards Vanity, great mottled hands outstretched, but Sheba, whose hips were not just for decoration, body-checked him elegantly as he galloped past, and he went flying in a tangle of shattered furniture and lay there roaring. Sheba stalked past him to a table where fruit and sweetmeats o’ Peru were temptingly piled, and crammed handfuls into her mouth, for prison rations had left her with that between-meals feeling, and she wanted to restore that pound-and-a-half without delay. Vanity shrieked with outrage.
“Put that down this instant! Oh! How dare you, you insolent black wench! Those are my personal goodies! Put them –”
And she scrambled out of bed indignantly, only to be met by a well-aimed squashy fruit, and staggered back, tripping and falling into the embrace of Firebeard, who crowed with unholy joy, pinning her arms and pawing and nuzzling lasciviously. “Wriggle away, me plump little dove!” he chortled. “Split me, but ye’ll coo soft enough presently!” And it might easily have been X-certificate stuff then and there (always assuming that Firebeard, not overbright at best and in a confused state after his fall, had been able to remember what to do next), had not Black Sheba, gulping a final avocado and wiping the juice on Vanity’s costly coverlet, kicked him sharply in the groin.
“Drop it, thou whoreson randy old badger! She’s not for thee – yet. Take her on deck!” And she turned her attention to Vanity’s dressing-table knick-knacks while Firebeard, muttering “Coo-o-o!” and holding himself painfully, hauled his struggling captive to her feet as she beat dainty fists on his matted chest.
“Let me go! Ah, unhand me thy vile clutches, reeking knave! Oh, the indignity! That this should happen to me, Deb of the Year and daughter of an Admiral! Eek! My jewels – put them down, thief!”
This last was addressed to Sheba, who was proddling with her rapier in Vanity’s jewel-box, sneering at the merchandise but privately thinking that these Society bitches did all right on Daddy’s allowance. With one vicious sweep of her blade she sent box and all in a glittering cascade across the room, and stalking menacingly over to Vanity, thrust her dusky face to within an inch of that pale peach-blossom complexion.
“Your jewels, sister? Pah!” Sheba’s voice was like oiled gravel. “You have no jewels, tender little lady – no perfumes o’ price, no fine garments, no dainty kickshaws and furbelows – none!” Her sword swept Vanity’s scent-flasks away in splinters, and slashed great rents in those hanging dresses which Sheba had decided were too short in the sleeve anyway. “And soon,” the sepia nemesis chuckled evilly, “shalt have no body, neither … and no soul! I see you use Helena Rubinstein’s pasteurised special,” she added, “but I’ll find a home for that, since you won’t be needing it. Take her away!”
For the first time Vanity’s intrepid spirit quailed. “Not the Helena Rubinstein!” she quavered. “You can’t get it these days … ah, of your pity, dark and sinister woman, not that! The line’s been discontinued …”
“Don’t I know it?” growled Sheba, scooping up the precious pots. “Haven’t I scoured every boutique in Tortuga? Away with her, Firebeard!”
As Vanity, wailing piteously, was dragged out, and Sheba was sizing up a suede number by Balmain which might just do if it was let down a smidgin, the other passengers were likewise being rudely hustled aloft. Blood, an old hand at being apprehended and frogmarched, was murmuring: “Right, all right, fellows, I know the way,” as they thrust him up the companion; Avery, tight-lipped and pinioned, came face to face with Rooke, who was still in his night-shirt, leering pirates grasping his elbows. The Admiral was in fine voice, though, damning them for pirate scum and promising to see them quartered and sun-dried; he cheesed it momentarily to inquire of Avery in a hoarse whisper: “Is it safe?”, and Avery, inwardly cursing this indiscretion, nodded imperceptibly. Not imperceptibly enough, however, for a silky voice cut menacingly in:
“Is what safe?”
And there, on the ladder just above them, was the fearsome figure of Black Bilbo, who had come aboard and made straight for the quality’s cabins in the hope of finding some Sea Island steenkirks or spray-on talc. He lounged wolfishly, hand on hilt, taking snuff delicately from the case proffered by Goliath the dwarf.
“Now, gentles,” quo’ he softly, his dark eyes gliding from one to t’other, “what precious item, what thing o’ price, is this – that is ‘safe’, ha?” They remaining silent, Bilbo nodded, making play with a soiled lace kerchief from which, to his annoyance, he realised he had forgotten to remove the laundry tag. “So, so,” he hissed, clipping Goliath over the ear for luck, “we shall discover anon. Keep me this bellowing bullock below –” he kicked Rooke savagely “– and hale the fighting cock on deck.”
The scene which met Avery’s eyes may be old stuff to you if you saw “The Black Swan”, but it was new to him – a helpless merchantman in the talons of the hawks of the sea. Chaps in hairy drawers and coloured hankies staggering about, draped in loot, letting off pistols, getting beastly drunk, singing “Blow the man down”, throwing bottles around, and manhandling hapless prisoners. Firebeard had thrust Vanity sprawling on the deck in her scanty night-rail, to the accompaniment of wolf-whistles and cries of “Hubbahubba!”; she scrambled up, trying to look haughty, which isn’t easy when there’s nothing between you and the goggle-eyed rabble except a wisp of brushed nylon and a few ribbons. “Shake it, blondie!” they chorused, and Avery clenched his teeth in fury.
Looking down from the quarter-deck was the stalwart figure of Calico Jack, the barbaric splendour of Akbar, and the slender finery of Happy Dan, who viewed the scene through his quizzing-glasses and exclaimed Froggishly.
“What is what is this what? I am aboard. I look about myself. Zut alors donc! What a doll, that! What talent! Ah, ma chérie, mon coeur est toujours à toi! How about it, hein?” He minced and bowed and fluttered his fingers at Vanity, while Akbar’s eyes glowed with strange fires, and Rackham threw up a hand to silence the motley mob swarming beneath – bearded white faces, coal-black Nubians, slant-eyed Chinese devils, swarthy Asiatics, squat and evil Malays – the usual lot on pirate ships in those days. Now among them glided Black Sheba, her glance dwelling darkly on the bound figure of Avery ere she took her place, lounging on a convenient capstan.
“Camarados, brothers!” cried Rackham. “We ha’ ta’en this fine ship, and released our dear comrade and fellow-skipper Sheba from durance shameful and doom o’ hellish slavery! (Cries of ‘Hear, hear!’, applause, breaking of bottles, and an attempt by the little Welsh pirate to lead a chorus of ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the valleys’.) And we ha’ ta’en also captives o’ rank and quality – a Lord Admiral, no less –” Yells of hatred and blowing of raspberries, with Firebeard bawling: “Hang him up! Rip his guts out! He’s an honest man – I hate him!” He rolled on the deck in a frenzy of rage, and the pirates cheered amain. Bilbo sauntered forward, sporting his shabby finery, his tight boots squeaking painfully.
“All in good time, lambkin,” quotha. “But, by y’r leave, Brother Rackham, I ha’ matter to impart to the company. (Cries of ‘Order, order!’ ‘Chair, chair!’.) I learn that there is some precious ‘thing’ aboard this vessel, and that this –” he flicked a tiny poniard from his sleeve so that it quivered in the mast by Avery’s ear; a shocking show-off, Bilbo was “– fortunate fellow is privy to its whereabouts. Shall we inquire, ha?”
“Aye, aye!” roared the pirates. “Go on, ask him; it can’t do any harm.”
“Well, bully?” said Bilbo silkily. “What is’t, and where, eh? Discourse, friend, and discover. Don’t be shy.”
This was the chance that Avery had been waiting for. Jumping on tables, pinking adversaries, was all right in its way, but this is the kind of moment he is in the book for, really. His handsome head came up, his contemptuous glance swept from sinister Bilbo to frowning Rackham to swarthy Akbar to epicene Happy Dan, to the ring of hideous snarling ruffians, dwelt softly for an instant on Vanity, beauteously pale, got contemptuous again, and finally settled back on Bilbo with unfaltering disdain. Avery’s lip curled, and his perfectly-modulated voice might have been addressing a careless servant as he spoke with the calm good-breeding of his kind.
“Up yours,” he said crisply. He had no idea what it meant, but he had heard it hurled at the Moors by an officer refusing to surrender one of the Tangier bastions, and had rather liked the sound of it. Brief, punchy, and definite.
The pirates went bananas at his defiance. They howled round him, hurling vile threats and making lurid suggestions for his interrogation. A heated debate broke out, the nub being to decide which torture would best satisfy the twin requirements of getting the information and providing an interesting spectacle. Happy Dan Pew’s proposal was finally carried, and a bucket of offal was hurled over the side to attract sharks, while Avery was lowered by one leg from the ship’s rail until his head was just above the water racing past the ship’s side.
This is a rotten position to be in, and it taxed even Avery’s powers to keep up a dignified appearance. He preserved a poker-faced nonchalance, of course, but this was wasted since no one could see it. The spray lashed through his hair, the salt water stung his eyes, and the rope round his ankle burned like fire; up on deck Vanity was swooning on the planks, and the callous villains holding the rope were saying grace. A yell of delight greeted the sight of two hideous dorsal fins cutting the water towards the ship’s side, at which point they lowered Avery so that his head and shoulders were immersed.
Our hero was now perturbed. Not on his own account – this, he told himself, as his keen eyes pierced the green murk and detected the great dark shapes homing in on him, was what he was paid three shillings a day for – nay, his concern was all for the fair and graceful figure which he had seen collapsing becomingly when they gave him the old heave-ho. What should become of her, when the sharks had retired burping gently to look for the sweet trolley, and all that remained of him was a sock and a buckled shoe? He must get out of this somehow, for her sake … and Captain Avery’s eyes narrowed underwater, his lips parted in that grim fighting smile as he observed the horrible monsters rolling neatly to get under him and come zooming up, their enormous jaws parting to reveal serried rows of glittering fangs. That gave him an idea – he would bite the brutes; it was the last thing they would expect …
But even as he prepared to meet them, tooth to tooth, he felt himself suddenly whirled upwards, into the fresh air, just as the first shark leaped and snapped its great jaws close enough to clip his hair. He banged painfully against the ship’s side, and then he was hauled brutally over the rail and dropped on the deck, opening his eyes to find a pair of Gucci boots bestriding him, and hear Black Sheba’s voice scorching the pirates who yet clamoured for his blood.
“Unthinking dolts! He’ll never talk! I know his kind!” And she flashed him a glance in which he seemed to read yearning admiration behind the feral glare of the amber eyes. “But he’ll sing like a canary if you threaten his friends!” she added spitefully, and Avery groaned inwardly as the ruffians roared approval and seized on the swooning Vanity with cries of “Now you’m talking! Heave the doxy over! Har-har, here be plumptious titbit for the sharks, wi’ a curse, an’ that!”
“Belay that!” snapped Sheba, and drawled cruelly: “We’ll find a better use for her mealy milksopishness, damn her! No … that one!” And she flung out a hand towards Colonel Blood.
You may have wondered what the Colonel was doing during all this excitement. Looking inconspicuous, that’s what, and wondering how he could pass himself off as one of the pirate gang. Even now he tried to look puzzled, glancing over his shoulder to see whom Sheba meant, but it was no go. They whipped the rope round his ankle, bundled him protesting on to the rail, and were about to launch him when he found his breath and wits together.
“What’s the hurry, now?” he wondered. “Let’s talk it over, boys … don’t do something ye’ll regret.”
Firebeard, gripping the Colonel’s shoulders, hesitated, growling and rolling his eyes. “What was it you were asking, now?” inquired the Colonel, and Avery, in sudden alarm, cried from the deck: “No! Blood, you cannot! You must not!”
“Och, be reasonable,” said the Colonel, slightly exasperated. “D’ye expect me to be a fish’s dinner for the sake of your bloody crown?”
Since the answer to that was “Yes”, but it isn’t the sort of thing that any self-respecting hero can say, Avery was silent, but the glare he shot at Blood would have curdled minestrone. His first instinct had been right – why, the blighter was a blighter, after all; when any decent chap would have been spitting in their eyes with a dauntless smile, he was actually perspiring shiftily and demanding:
“If I tell ye, will ye spare our lives?”
The pirates growled, disappointed of their sport. There were cries of “Yes!” “No!” and “Toss for it, best out of three!”, and then Rackham came shouldering through the press to confront the desperate Colonel.
“Speak,” said he bluntly, “and the sharks can go hungry.”
It wasn’t total reassurance, exactly, but when you’re perched on a ship’s rail with Firebeard giving you the benefit of his halitosis and the jumbo-sized piranhas waiting underneath, it’s worth stretching a point. “Under the bunk in his cabin,” gasped Blood, nodding at Avery, and as the Captain’s furious gaze took on a disgust so icy that it almost froze the sea-water in his hair, Blood added philosophically: “Ye see, Captain, where I come from there are no heroes’ graves – just holes in the ground for fools.”
You may imagine the indignant rage that boiled through Avery’s manly thorax at this caddish cynicism, but it was nothing to the shame and anguish he felt when the Madagascar crown was exposed in all its brilliant effulgence on the deck, and the pirates, after a moment’s stunned silence, stood around exclaiming “Hot tamales!” and “Jackpot!” and “You won’t pick up one o’ those at Woolies!” while their leaders regarded the unbelievable glittering prize with racing thoughts. For each realised that this was the Big Time, with a vengeance – to Akbar, grinding his molars and tugging his forked beard, it was the bankroll that should buy him his way to supremacy in Barbary, perhaps even to the throne of the Sublime Porte itself; to Bilbo, as he clenched his soiled kerchief in nervous fingers, it was that estate in Bucks, a seat in the Lords, and – oh, rapture! – membership of the Army and Navy Club; to Rackham, slightly pale under his tan, it was a fortune invested in Building Societies with enough over to start a modest pub; to Happy Dan Pew it was a villa at Antibes, his own permanent private suite at the Negresco, and a custom-built coach with tortoiseshell panels rolling him along the Croisette while starlets from the Comédie Française vied for his attention; to Black Sheba it was her own private desert island plantation where all the enemies and oppressors of her past should labour in misery and torment while she lived it up in Balenciaga creations (this was her fondest dream, and with a start she realised that it now included Captain Avery, in powdered wig and buckled shoes, taking her in to dinner and exchanging glances of adoration with her from the other end of their sumptuous table). To Firebeard, the sixth of those desperate commanders, it conjured up visions of unlimited booze, wrecked taverns, senseless constables, and shattered fruit machines – and the wherewithal to impress that snooty barmaid at the Bucket of Blood in Tortuga, the blonde one with the big knockers.
And then the fight started. With one accord the pirates flung themselves on the marvellous trophy, clawing and biting to be at it, and if Rackham had not kept his head and hurled them back with boot and fist, aided by Bilbo’s flashing rapier and Firebeard’s enormous strength, things might have degenerated into anarchy. Back the captains drove them, a snarling, loot-crazed mob, and Rackham set the great gleaming crown on the capstan and demanded of the captives what it might be.
Avery, of course, preserved a glacial silence, but Blood, at one growl from Firebeard, sang like a bird.
“’Tis the crown for the new king of Madagascar. He was to deliver it –” this with a nod to Avery “– and if ye’ve any sense you’ll offer it for a ransom to the British Government rather than try to flog it on the open market. I’d be willing to act as go-between myself, for a consideration,” he went on smoothly. “After all, I’ve got contacts and that sort o’ thing –”
But the pirate mob would have none of this. “Shares! Shares!” they roared. “Fair does among mates! Divvy out, we’re all on the coupon!” and Rackham raised his hands to still the clamour.
“Brothers, hear me! We share, according to articles, but ’tis plain we cannot divide this great treasure among all at once. Now, there are six captains here, and six great crosses on this crown – so let each captain take one and be responsible for selling it and sharing among his followers. Agreed?”
The pirates whooped approval, and Avery watched in horror, writhing helpless in his bonds, as his precious charge was laid on the deck and a huge Chinese, wielding a massive axe, chopped it with six mighty strokes into as many glittering pieces, while the gleeful buccaneers chanted:
“One! Two! Three! …” at each blow. Then, as Firebeard turned his back, the Chinese held up each cross in turn, and according to age-old custom Rackham cried out: “Who shall have this?” and Firebeard named the captains in any order that occurred to him, beginning with Sheba and ending with himself. So each captain received a cross, and their crews crowded round, wolf-eyed, to handle the pretty baubles and gloat on the prospect of their own shares.
Avery watched the scene appalled; it occurred to him that the recapture and eventual safe delivery of the crown – which had never been far from his active mind – was now going to be rather complicated. However, he would come to that; in the meantime, could he gnaw through his bonds, or cut them on a bit of the broken bottles which the pirates were strewing carelessly all over the place, seize the half-fainting Vanity in one arm and a sword in the other, fight his way aft, release the captured loyal seamen, and turn the tables on the villains? It seemed the obvious course – yes, and then they could hang the treacherous Blood, and no doubt a dab of Airfix would put the crown to rights, and Admiral Rooke would probably recommend him for a decoration, and Vanity would be wide-eyed and weak-kneed with gratitude, and the whole affair wouldn’t do his promotion chances any damage, either. Yes, he was thinking along the right lines – but before he could put his plan into operation the pirates, having gloated their fill and finished off all the drink, forestalled him by remembering that there were prisoners to play with. With cries of “Let’s sort out the helpless captives!” “Aye, aye, let’s fall to merry torturin’ an’ that!” and “Who’s for a gang-bang wi’ the Admiral’s daughter?” they advanced on the hapless trio.
Naturally, they concentrated on Vanity, who shrank back in terror from the bearded leering faces and lecherous paws while Avery struggled like a madman in his bonds, but before their sweaty hands could tear away her shortie nightdress and confront the censor with all sorts of problems, Black Sheba had slipped lissomely between, one hand outflung to restrain them, the other on her rapier hilt.
“Hold!” cried she, and before the command in those fiery amber eyes, the hardened ruffians paused. As Goliath the dwarf, with a chortle of “Bags I first!”, made a grab at Vanity’s thigh, Sheba kicked his wooden leg from under him and sent him sprawling on the deck. “Calico, I claim disposal o’ this woman!”
At this there was hubbub and amaze, in which you may well be sharing. What is this? Has womanly pity touched the agate heart of the ruthless corsair queen? Is she moved by finer feelings to shield Vanity from shame and ravishment? Perchance has some memory from her own dark past – as when she was the star attraction of “Strip, Strip, Hooray!” at the Port-o’-Spain Rotary stag night, and the patrons rushed the stage at the torrid climax of her bubble dance before she could escape to the wings – stirred her compassion for the defenceless English maid? Don’t you believe it. Baser motives far were at work in Sheba’s evil heart. She had remarked the distraught looks of anguish and concern that Avery had been shooting in Vanity’s direction, and had thought: aha, so he’s got the hots for Miss Cheltenham of 1670, has he? Right, we’ll fix her wagon. And reasoning that the satisfaction of seeing her rival ravished by the crews of three pirate ships would be better foregone in the interests of getting the insipid pullet out of the way permanently, thus leaving Sheba a clear field with Avery, the sepia Medusa had hatched a diabolic plan.
She fronted the frustrated pirates imperiously, while the tremulous Vanity clutched her flimsy nylon about her and wished she’d gone in for sensible long flannelette.
“Back, blind besotted curs!” snarled Sheba. “You can’t all have her – why, ’tis pampered, puling ninny would die o’ the vapours wi’ the first of you! But –” and her eyes narrowed in a cruel smile “– all can share in the price if we sell her!” She jerked Vanity brutally to her feet and held her in a steely grasp while she stroked a dark finger across the girl’s soft cheek. “Think what the rich rajahs and fat degenerates will pay for such a plump white pigeon in the slave-marts of Basra or Goa! You know how they go for Bluebell Girls – she’ll fetch enough to buy each of you a real wench, not some flabby reserve for the Upper Fifth tennis team. Let Akbar take her and sell her on behalf of us all!”
Prolonged applause greeted this monstrous proposal, and Sheba turned with a triumphant sneer to run mocking fingers through the ringlets of the horror-stricken prisoner.
“Try that on your clavichord, duchess!” she hissed spitefully. “Golden Vanity – pah! We’ll see how you enjoy your slavery!”
If aught had been required to cement Avery’s adoration for the Admiral’s beauteous daughter (and frankly, not much was), it would have been her response to Sheba’s gloating taunt. Her face pale but proud, her bosom heaving with hauteur in a manner which caused some of the pirates to wonder whether selling her was such a bright idea after all, Lady Vanity countered with a swift one-two. “Among slaves I shall still be a lady,” she cried proudly. “Among ladies you will always be a slave!” Even the callous ruffians could not forbear to chant their approval of her dauntless spirit. “One in a row, boo-boom!” they cried, while Sheba sprang clawing to avenge the insult. But Akbar, with a hellish laugh, had already swung Vanity’s struggling form up on his shoulder, and bore her swiftly to his galley while Avery went ape, alternately cursing his captors and demanding that they sell him in Vanity’s place. They pointed out, reasonably enough, that he was down-market stuff by comparison.
“An’ anyways, we got a better use for you, cully, an’ ye may lay to that!” bawled Firebeard. “What say we keelhaul him, mates? It’s ages since we had a good keelhaulin’ –”
But again Sheba barred the way. “Avast there, blubber-guts!” She paced slowly to Avery, thoughtfully plucking her nether lip ’twixt shapely fingers. “This King’s captain is too good a man to lose – ’tis lad o’ rare mettle has earned the right to join us as a free companion, if he so chooses. That – or slow death,” she added, with a look of smouldering ardour at Avery that would have melted treacle. At which the pirates nudged each other and stifled discreet coughs, glancing innocently at the mast-heads and whistling airily. Happy Dan Pew sniggered and grimaced froggishly.
“Great round basins behind the house of Monsieur and Madame Desgranges!” exclaimed he, all roguish-like. “One addresses to oneself the question: what companionship does La Belle Noire have in mind for our prisoner so stalwart and gallant, hein? Is it to make the promenade au bicyclette in search of cabbages, jewels, small pebbles, and stained-glass windows? Not on votre vie, if you ask me!” And he minced and chuckled lewdly, while Rackham frowned ’neath knitted brows and glanced from Sheba to Avery.
“Well, bully, what say ye? Wilt join us on th’account, ha?”
Avery was on the point of replying coldly that he would rather be shot from a cannon, but it occurred to him that there was no point in putting ideas into people’s heads, so he maintained a contemptuous silence. Not so Blood, who clamoured to join, inquiring eagerly about pension rights, sickness benefits, and overtime. They shushed him impatiently, crowding round Avery with menace in their looks, while Sheba gnawed her lip in anxiety and tensed herself to spit the first man who laid a finger on him. It was one of those explosive moments when eyeball rolls at eyeball and wills clash in ponderous confrontation and no one has much idea what the hell is going to happen next because they’ve forgotten what the question was in the first place. Rackham, that canny leader of men, read the situation in one shrewd glance, and moved to defuse it.
“Right,” quo’ he, “break it up. We’ll give him a few hours to think it over. Not fair to rush the chap. Put ’em both in irons – and then let’s get sail on this rust-bucket afore she grows barnacles! About it, ye dogs! Firebeard, man the larboard scuppers! Bilbo, have thy villains lay aft the focsle! Sheba, your mascara’s running! Happy Dan, write out the verb être six times before lunch, and the rest of you for heaven’s sake join in the chorus!”
These sailorly words acted on the fractious pirates like magic. In a trice they had hustled Avery and Blood below decks, swept up the broken glass, clewed up everything in sight, and repaired to the Merino Lounge for before-lunch cocktails while they discussed the exciting events of the day so far. Only Black Sheba brooded sombrely on her high stool at the bar, and many there were who remarked how she was moodily squeezing that pink pimento stuff out of her martini olives, and wondered what this might portend.
Well, it’s all happening, and no mistake. Our principals are right in it. Will Avery join the pirates? (Don’t be daft, of course he won’t.) But what then? Will Sheba’s unholy passion for him provide the twenty-four hour all-round body protection that every young executive needs? Will the insurance company pay up on the Madagascar crown? Will Lady Vanity’s purchaser be able to get her a work permit? It’s all very worrying.
It was really rotten down i’ the foetid, stinking, dim-lit orlop, where timbers creaked and rats scuttled, etc. Blood and Avery had been fettered wrist and ankle to facing bulkheads, which was uncomfortable enough, but to make matters worse the cleaners hadn’t been in, the straw hadn’t been made up, or the scuppers hoovered, or the bilges refilled, and there wasn’t any Kleenex left. To cap it all, the pirates had taken over the ship’s intercom, and instead of the normal hymns and rousing sea shanties, the muzak now consisted entirely of dirty drinking songs illegally taped from Radio Tortuga. Avery bore it all in stoic silence, the chaotic mess of his tortured thoughts concealed ’neath a cold, imperturbable mask, but Blood griped incessantly; it was just like these swindling foreign tour operators, he said, to grab your money and then forget you existed; he should have read the small print when he came aboard, and so on, and so on, until even Avery’s icy control snapped in one bitter denunciation of his fellow-captive.
“Hear ye, fellow,” said he, and each acidic word was like a blade rasping from its sheath, “wouldst be better employed making peace with thy beastly soul, for mark me, when this hand o’ mine is free again, its first task will be to wring the putrid life out of thy mangy carcase –”
“What the hell are you going on about?” demanded Blood. “Is it my fault we’re stuck down here?”
Avery’s eyes flamed like 1000-watt icebergs. “Base renegade, fink, and traitor –”
“Traitor?” exclaimed Blood. “Me? Oh, for God’s sake, ye haven’t got your galligaskins in a twist over the measly crown, have ye? As if that mattered – they’d ha’ found it sooner or later, and if you’d had your way we’d have been nothing but a couple of shark’s belches by now. Which,” he added unhappily, “is what we’re liable to be anyway, unless you can sweetheart that big spade wench into a happier frame of mind.”
“D’you think I care a jot for that – or even for the crown?” Avery’s voiced quivered like a trampoline with noble indignation. “Aye, though shame, ruin, and disgrace may be my merited portion, forasmuch as I have goofed up my mission and let the side down – what can I think on but my dear Lady Vanity?”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, go ahead,” said Blood. “Although what I always say is, there’s a time to fantasize about blondes and a time to think about getting the hell out of the mess we’re in, and I’d advise the latter –”
“I didn’t mean think on her in that way, ye carnal muckrake,” snapped Avery, his teeth clenched. “Have you no conception of what her fate will be, in the clutches of yon Moorish hellspite? Of what –” and his voice grew all roopy with apprehension “– it may already have been? You know what such heathen do with Christian women captives. You’ve read the colour supplements?”
“Oh, aye,” said Blood carelessly, “‘Au pair milkmaids trapped in harem hell’, and ‘I was a sex-crazed sultan’s plaything’.” He shrugged callously. “When all’s said, it’s just what happens to any married woman on her honeymoon. I daresay she’ll be well looked after … three square meals a day, and that …”
At this point they were interrupted by the little Welsh pirate who, in his capacity as shop steward of the local branch of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Piratical Operatives and Filibusters and Allied Trades, was eager to see Avery enrolled in that powerful offshoot of the Coast Brethen. His overtures our intrepid captain received with a befitting silent scorn which the suspicious Taffy immediately misinterpreted.
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