Freebooter, page 1
The sharp, flat crack of a single cannon shot brought Hector Lynch to a halt. Turning, he looked back along the path through the forest. He had been walking uphill for half an hour and a gap in the trees gave him a clear view down into St Mary’s shallow harbour, where half a dozen small vessels lay at anchor. Experience told him that the sound came from a ‘murderer’, a giant musket classed by artillerymen as a falconet. The gun was light enough to have been carried ashore from one of the ships, then mounted on wheels. His eyes searched for the telltale puff of smoke but it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where the sound had come from. It was less than an hour after sunrise on another swelteringly hot day, and a thin haze of smoke from the morning cooking fires still lingered over the palm-thatch roofs of the settlement. He presumed the falconet had been fired from the open space normally used as a marketplace. He could see that a small crowd was already assembling there.
‘How many more, would you guess?’ Hector asked his companion.
Before he answered, Jacques Bourdon pulled the grubby handkerchief off his close-cropped head and used the cloth to dab the sweat from his face. The letters GAL branded into his right cheek were barely noticeable beneath the beard stubble. They marked him as someone who had served as a convict oarsman on King Louis’s galleys, a legacy from his days as a Parisian pickpocket and housebreaker. After more than ten years of seafaring alongside Jacques, Hector no longer noticed the faint scars, nor his friend’s crooked nose, broken long before the two men had met in a Marseilles holding cell.
‘Why don’t we make a bet on it?’ suggested the Frenchman.
‘I’ve learned not to wager with you,’ replied Hector.
‘Then I’ll make it easy. Anything less than thirty and you win.’
Another cannon shot echoed around the low green hills overlooking the settlement.
‘He’d never have lasted beyond thirty, not the way he lived,’ Jacques coaxed.
About my own age when he died, thought Hector. What was the motto that such people lived by? That was it: ‘A short life and a merry one’. The firing of the falconet was to salute the passing of one of St Mary’s wilder characters. A boisterous man and a heavy drinker, he had been unruly to the point of being a danger to himself, and generous with his money, of which he had acquired a fair sum by dubious means. Already well liked, he had added to his popularity by announcing as he lay dying of the bloody flux that one tenth of his fortune was to be spent on free drink for the townsfolk. The remainder of his worldly goods was to be shared equally among his former shipmates on condition that they buried him with his pistols and cutlass. After they had tamped down the earth over his coffin, they were to fire a minute gun over his grave, one shot for every year of his life.
‘Not what we had been led to expect,’ observed Jacques, re-knotting his head cloth back in place. Like Hector, he was wearing only a loose cotton shirt and breeches suited to the sultry and oppressive climate, and on his feet were the lightest pair of boots that he had been able to find. He would have preferred to go barefoot but the soft mud of the path concealed an occasional sharp twig that could cause nasty cuts that were likely to fester. Worse, he had seen for himself the revolting worms that could enter through the sole of the bare foot and burrow upward: thin and pale as a candle wick, their heads later erupted out through a man’s skin, usually at his foot or leg below the knee. The creatures had to be extracted slowly and painfully, inch by inch, by being wound around a thin stick. The longest such parasite he had watched as it was teased out had measured more than a yard.
Hector was too distracted to reply. He was staring out at the disappointment that was St Mary’s: an untidy straggle of shacks and large sheds newly erected around a notch in the rocky coast. To the west, across the narrow channel, loomed the bulk of Madagascar, shadowed that morning under a lowering cloud-bank. From there the warring native tribes paddled their dugout canoes to bring their prisoners for sale to the slave traders in St Mary’s. All around him the vegetation was smothering the land with a suffocating green carpet. Trees, shrubs and climbing vines thrived in the warm, moist conditions that made Jacques and him pour with sweat. The palms, bamboos and mangroves down by the shoreline were familiar. He had seen them in other countries during his voyages, but some grotesques were new to him, with broad fleshy leaves or clusters of exposed roots like bundles of huge parsnips. Thankfully the forest did not seem to harbour snakes or other dangers, though the gnats and mosquitoes and other flying insects were a trial. It was the emptiness, the sense of untamed, rampant wilderness, that he found so overwhelming and depressing. As Jacques had said, this was not what he had expected eighteen months ago.
Libertalia was the name he had heard back then: a new, distant country on the farthest rim of Africa, founded by free-minded people who rejected the notions of class and privilege. They held that all men were born equal and elected their own council to make their laws. They had no interest in amassing wealth, abhorred slavery and had devised their own language: in Libertalia the citizens spoke a mixture of the tongues of all those who chose to live there, and no longer considered themselves to be English or Scots or Irish, or French or Dutch or African. They simply called themselves Liberi. The fertile soil and pleasant climate allowed a man to support his family by his own labour with crops grown on smallholdings. Everything was held in common, so hedges and fences were unknown.
The thought of moving to live in Libertalia had cast a spell on Hector. He was yearning to set up a secure, permanent home with Maria, the woman with whom he intended to share the rest of his life, and to raise a family. In the four years he had known her, he doubted they had been together for more than a third of that time. Their days as a couple had been a struggle, constantly on the move, frequently disrupted. In the beginning it was because she was of Spanish descent and he was half-Irish, half-Galician and a subject of the King of England, and their respective sovereigns were at war. More recently, the governments of both countries had been pursuing him, laying charges of piracy against him. A great earthquake in Jamaica had saved him from the hangman, when the shaking ground and tidal waves had collapsed the prison where he was being held, wrecked the courthouse and other government buildings and swept away all semblance of order. In the chaos, he and Maria, together with Jacques, had slipped away to Bermuda, where the corrupt governor was known to turn a blind eye to men on the run. There he had talked with a merchant captain of a ship chartered to deliver a cargo halfway around the world, to St Mary’s. According to what he had heard, St Mary’s was either Libertalia itself or very close to where it was to be found. So he had spent the last of his money to buy passages there for himself and Maria; and Jacques, attracted to the idea of a country where his criminal past would be ignored, had accompanied them.
Now, as Hector looked out over the dispiriting sight of the settlement, he feared that he had made a disastrous error. He had yet to meet anyone in St Mary’s who believed in the sharing of worldly goods or in the equality of man. Quite the opposite. People came there with the sole intention of making themselves rich as quickly as possible, by fair means or foul, and the slave trade flourished.
Hector knew that
His gloomy thoughts were interrupted by an ill-tempered shout, ordering him and Jacques to stand aside. A short, stocky man of middle age richly dressed in a fine lace shirt, pale grey silk breeches and stockings and expensive black leather pumps on his feet was coming down the track towards them, striding confidently towards the settlement. To make his meaning clear, he made a couple of sideways swings with a polished ebony cane as if sweeping aside weeds. A respectful few steps behind him followed two heavily muscled black men dressed in cast-off European clothes. One carried an umbrella and the other a portable stool. Hector had no difficulty in recognizing them as household slaves. Bringing up the rear of the little group was a handsome young woman of about sixteen years old. She too was dressed in European clothes, a loose gown of some gauzy material tightly belted to show off her generous figure, yellow satin slippers now splashed with mud and a matching broad-brimmed bonnet that set off her natural colouring. Her perfect skin was a dark coffee brown and marked her out as locally born.
Hector and Jacques both stepped off the path and into the undergrowth and waited to let them pass. As the man with the cane drew level, he gave them a sharp glance and came to an abrupt stop.
‘Do I know you? You seem familiar,’ he demanded rudely, staring into Hector’s face.
‘I don’t think so. We only landed a week ago,’ Hector replied.
The man turned toward Jacques, and must have noticed the faint galérien’s brand, for he pointed at it with his cane and announced in a sour rasping voice with a faint trace of a Scots accent, ‘Don’t think you can bring your misbegotten ideas here, Frenchie.’
The tip of the cane was quivering within inches of Jacques’s face and the Frenchman reached out a hand to push it aside. Instantly the nearest black slave dropped the umbrella, lunged forward and grabbed his arm, clamping it tight.
‘Here, let me see that hand,’ growled the stocky man.
The slave twisted Jacques’s wrist, forcing him to splay his fingers. The skin between thumb and forefinger was tattooed with the letter V for voleur.
‘So a thief as well as fugitive,’ observed the stocky man. ‘I could have you locked up until the next French ship calls by, and then hand you over. But I’ll be generous. You’ve got ten days to get out of St Mary’s, and when you meet your false prophet, tell him that if he ever sets foot here I’ll stuff that white flag up his backside.’
He nodded at his slave to release Jacques’s arm and strode onward, stabbing angrily at the mud with his cane. Hector heard him mutter, ‘I’ll give them “God and Liberty”.’
Jacques waited until the little group had disappeared around a bend in the path.
‘What was all that about?’ he asked, opening and closing his hand to flex his fingers. ‘If I find him without those two brutes, I’ll punch him in the mouth.’
‘Not a good idea,’ Hector told him. ‘That must have been Adam Baldridge.’
‘Stuck-up bastard.’ Jacques spat into the bushes.
Hector did not need to explain who Baldridge was. His admirers were only half-joking when they called him ‘the King of St Mary’s’ and many were in awe of him, as well as envious. Baldridge had founded St Mary’s, setting up an isolated trading station at great personal risk. He had dealt with the chiefs of the local tribes, supplying them with liquor and weapons. He bought slaves from them for shipment to the Americas, and taken a chieftain’s daughter as a wife. Within a couple of years his success was attracting others to his settlement. He now owned a major share in most of its businesses, especially the lucrative drinking shops. The largest building in the settlement was his warehouse, stocked with goods that supply ships regularly brought from Europe and the American colonies. Recently he had built himself a mansion on the hill overlooking the harbour, and lived there with a retinue of servants and a small harem of native women. But he had made enemies as well. Those whom he had bullied or cheated would not hesitate to stick a knife between his ribs. For that reason Baldridge, whenever he ventured into town, took along his bodyguards.
‘At least he knew about the white flag. So he’s heard of Libertalia. Maybe it’s somewhere else farther along the coast,’ said Hector, trying to sound more optimistic than he felt. A white flag with ‘God and Liberty’ written on it was said to be the flag of Libertalia.
‘It would help if we could find someone who sailed on the Victoire,’ said Jacques. From what he had heard, Libertalia had been founded by one of his countrymen, a certain Misson, captain of the French privateer Victoire, just as Baldridge had established St Mary’s.
‘There’s tavern talk that Misson went farther north. Maybe that’s where we should search,’ Hector suggested. He looked up at the sky as he felt a single fat drop of rain land on his shoulder. Away to the east a line of clouds was moving in from the sea, their underbellies dark and swollen. A moment later the first warning roll of thunder reached them, punctuated by another sharp report from the minute gun.
‘We’d better turn back,’ he said to Jacques. The two of them began to retrace their steps and were still well short of St Mary’s when the deluge hit them. The rain cascaded down, spattering up little sprays of the mud as it hit the ground, turning the path into a braid of rivulets. Jacques and Hector took shelter under a tree and listened to the drumming of the torrential rain on its broad leaves. Very soon the drips were finding their way onto them and they were as wet as if they had stayed in the open.
‘Should have made that bet with me,’ said Jacques. The sounds of the funeral salute from the falconet had stopped. ‘They never got beyond ten. Wouldn’t risk getting their powder soaked.’
‘Maybe they’ll start up again once the sun comes out,’ Hector answered him. The island’s heavy showers rarely lasted for more than ten or fifteen minutes.
‘I doubt it. The gunners will have gone off to the tavern to help their shipmates drink up the dead man’s legacy. They’ll soon be too fuddled to remember what they were meant to be doing, or to keep count.’
A sudden quick movement on a nearby branch caught Hector’s eye. A tiny frog, scarcely larger than a grape, had jumped across from the main trunk and was clinging on, watching him suspiciously. It was at head level and not more than a yard away, close enough for him to see the large black pupils in the bulging eyes. The body was extraordinarily beautiful, a glistening emerald green as a background to bold black stripes edged with white. He wanted to reach out and coax the creature to jump to his hand but knew that the moment he moved it would leap away.
‘I wonder where she’s from?’ Jacques’s question interrupted his thoughts. The Frenchman had spotted a vessel just coming into view from behind the islet in the mouth to St Mary’s anchorage. She was a slender, black-hulled sloop with an unusually long, slanting bowsprit that gave her a rakish air, quite unlike the square-built, sturdy ships from New England bringing Baldridge the rum, gunpowder and other stores that he sold on at three times their cost. The sloop was neatly handled. Hector watched as her two headsails came down, and then the mainsail swung over as she tacked and lined up for the final approach. In less than five minutes, she would be gliding past the land battery of four cannon that Baldridge had installed to protect his investment. Hector’s spirits rose. Perhaps the sloop’s captain was only making a brief stopover in St Mary’s to take on water and supplies, then continuing farther north. He and Jacques should go in that direction if they hoped to find Libertalia.
‘Let’s get down to the harbour,’ he said, ‘before anyone else asks the captain if he’s taking on extra crew.’
The two of them hurried down the track, avoiding treacherous patches of slippery wet leaf mould and stepping across the little gulleys carved by the run-off. By the time they passed the first of St Mary’s outlying houses, the rain had ceased, leaving the humid air heavy with the smells of woodsmoke, cooking, mould and wet thatch. They skirted around the small marketplace where a scavenging
Hector and Jacques reached the dockside to see that the newly arrived sloop had dropped anchor some distance away and already lowered a small boat. The rain clouds had moved on out to sea and towards the Madagascar highlands and Hector had to squint into the sun’s glare reflected off the pale blue water of the harbour. A sailor was climbing down a rope ladder. Once in the boat, he set his oars in place and waited for a second man to take his seat in the stern before he began to row towards the shore. The oarsman was a giant. Even with his back towards him, the broad shoulders and the way he moved, pulling a long, powerful stroke, was familiar.
Jacques let out a grunt of surprise. ‘Surely that’s Jezreel. I thought he’d gone home to London. I wonder what made him change his mind.’
‘Maybe that murder charge is still held against him,’ said Hector. Both men knew that Jezreel Hall, their former shipmate, had once made his living as a prize-fighter. He had specialized in the vicious contests where he and his opponent stood toe-to-toe and cut and parried, using blunt backswords. The accidental death of one of his opponents in the London ring had obliged Jezreel to flee the city, and he had set up as a logwood cutter on the Caribbean’s wild Campeche coast where Hector had first met him.
The two men made their way cautiously out along the loose planks laid on top of the bamboo scaffolding that served as the jetty. As they stood watching the skiff come closer, Hector had an uncomfortable feeling that the past was catching up on him. He, Jacques and Jezreel had been on several voyages together, and he was aware that the others had come to look to him as their natural leader. He did not relish the role. There had been times when the responsibility had weighed very heavily on him. When Jezreel had announced after the Jamaican earthquake that he was returning to England it had seemed that at least some of the burden was lifting. Now Hector was ashamed to find himself hoping that it was a coincidence that Jezreel should be here in St Mary’s. In his bones, however, he knew that was unlikely.
by Tim Severin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes