An injured French officer struggles along a desolate stretch of West African coastline, desperate to hold on to a secret.
His tale soon ends—violently—but a young pirate recruit, Patrick Devlin, leaves that same beach unscathed, with a new pair of boots and a treasure map in his possession. Now, the adventures of the pirate Devlin, his shipmates, and those who wish them all dead move forward without restraint, through broadside barrages and subterfuge and brutal encounters on land and at sea, where nothing is as it seems.
In these pages, readers will meet Blackbeard and his cohorts, Portuguese colonial governors and French commandants, officials of the East India Company and Royal Naval officers, fresh-faced midshipmen and gnarly, scarred, and drunken pirate crewmen. But none is as impressive and memorable as the former servant and newly minted pirate Captain Devlin—unless it's the one man he once served on board a British man-of-war, a man now sworn to kill him.
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The Pirate Devlin
By Keating, Mark
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2010 Keating, Mark
All right reserved.
The West Coast of Africa, April 1717
The Frenchman’s boots were filling with blood as he cracked his way through the wet coarseness of the undergrowth. As daylight faded into bladed shadows, the jungle pulled him deeper into its crushing green.
His breaths rasped through the heavy heat, stretching the pain along his side. The pounding of his heart engulfed his body.
Bereft of sword or pistol, his only hope was to push himself ever on, spurred by the shouts of the pirates echoing from the beach.
Desperately he dodged across the uneven ground. Stumbling upwards in one step, falling the next, grasping for purchase, the wet jungle slapping his face with every cursing breath.
Without a glance behind, he arrowed away from the triumphant yell that signalled the first sighting of his bloody trail spotting amongst the waist-tall fronds; his pace slowed with the strange coldness of his own blood seeping down his leg.
Away from the sand and the mud now, he found himself wading through lush boot-high grass and shadowy palms.
Enough of the green flaying him weaker. Enough beating him back. He crouched to draw breath, to slow the beat of his heart pushing his life from the hole above his hip and staining wine-black the worsted blue of his Marine Royale doublet.
The sweating forest was reminiscent in his near delirium of a mansion house back home in Orly, a maze of corridors and echoes.
Now, passageways of mossy trunks, instead of green flocked halls, opened up into insect-humming, fern-filled rooms, each one sealed off from the other until he broke through its emerald door.
He crouched in one of these dark chambers, his insides cramping, his own will trying to pull him down into the soft, welcoming grass. Sleep awhile and hope his pursuers would pass him by, give up, return to the boat.
When the longboat had landed, and all had jumped into the surf to drag her in, he too had leaped clear and seized the moment of the struggle against the tide to back away and then bolt free, pounding up the beach, clumsy against the sand underfoot.
He had stumbled the short distance to the breach of the wild mass of twisted white branches protecting the jungle, when one of them had got off a lucky pistol shot that had slammed into his hip, and he found a powerful desire to keep running from the wicked laugh that followed it.
Now, as he sucked at the moist air, he heard no noise around him save for the chattering of black beetles, the endless chirrup of the cicadas. The mocking calls and whistles had faded, he was sure. He reached up to a friendly branch and heaved himself along as quietly as the jungle would allow in its pity.
Staggering through the swathes of enormous leaves fanning his brow, he came into another clearing, as polished as a bowling green, as peaceful as the hour after mass. In the centre of the dell, disturbed in his foraging by the interloper, a lone crow bobbed, glistening black against the vitality of the green. There was a moment of judgement as the bird cocked his head to the sweating Frenchman. He cawed once, softly, to question the intrusion.
The Frenchman hissed to his companion for silence, but the black bird merely chuckled at his impudence then, as punishment, sprang into the air, with his laughing war cry pealing around the trees like a plague bell. A dozen of his brothers followed with their admonishment, breaking through the roof of the trees to form a black cloud over his sanctuary.
The shouts of the pirates rose with the cries of the birds, and the jungle danced with the crash of their approach.
The Frenchman pitched forward, drunkenly pliant. The imminence of his own demise gave at least some promise of rest. He collapsed gratefully into the coolness of the damp grass as the seven brutes came through the green curtains into his world.
‘Well, well, Froggy,’ panted the quartermaster, Peter Sam, standing over him, sweat running off his shaven head, filtering through his red beard. ‘That’s quite a run you gave us there, boy.’ Throwing his cutlass aside, he joined Philippe Ducos, the unfortunate young man from the Marine Royale, and sat in the grass, his chest heaving.
The other half-dozen gathered round their prisoner, who stared straight up, gasping his last breaths to the blue sky breaking through the lacy canopy of trees.
Hugh Harris gave a swift kick that belied the daintiness of the red and white silk shoes he had taken from the French sloop only the week before, now soaked and salt-stained.
‘So, there’s no pig farm on this island, then? Eh, Froggy?’ Another kick to the black wound.
‘What’ll we do with him, Peter?’ William Magnes, the old man of their group at forty-five, put his hanger away, never willing to be the killer.
‘We’ll do for him sure enough.’ Peter reached for his cutlass, stood up and wiped his head with a dirty kerchief. ‘Makes no sense to take him back. But we’ll not go back empty.’ He snapped his fingers to a young pock-faced lad. ‘Davies, go with Hugh and Will. Back to the boat. Get the muskets. See if you can scout down some goat. The ground’s right for pigs at least.’
‘Aye, Peter.’ The lad and the old standers went off with slaps and swearing.
‘You two.’ He pointed to Patrick Devlin and Sam Fletcher, who were new hands, weeks new, a couple of navy ‘waisters’ still learning the sweet trade. ‘Go through the Frog’s pockets for yourselves, lads, then end him. I’m going to scour for fruit. I wants his jacket as a sack. Gets it off him, then come and gets me with it.’ He grabbed the arm of the remaining pirate, a young, black-haired, moon-faced lad. ‘Thomas, come with me.’
Devlin, Fletcher and the Frenchman were now alone in the gloom.
Philippe Ducos’s eyes were closed. He had been drifting away to Peter’s growling voice. Now he jumped awake as he felt the quick hands of the pirates running through the pockets of the blue tunic his wife had lined two years before.
‘Stop squirming, Frog!’ Fletcher cackled. ‘Aye, Pat? Don’t it make more sense to shoot him first then relieve him?’
‘Maybe,’ Devlin murmured, his face lowered to avoid the pleading eyes of Philippe Ducos.
Fletcher had been a deserter, had leaped into his pirate life with glee a month before Patrick Devlin had been dragged aboard.
To Devlin, who had spent years amongst the king’s ships, manservant to Captain John Coxon, the pirate ship was but a passing inconvenience. He had signed their articles without protest and kept his distance from the ones he had beaten back and striped with blade when they had chanced upon the Noble in the North African straits.
Of all the officers and sailors of the Noble, the pirates marvelled how it was the tall, black-haired servant who had carved a circle of defiance in front of the cabin as the others ran and the deck burned.
They had laughed as he stood before them in his shabby, ill-fitting suit and danced, against Peter Sam no less, who had strode forward and twisted the sword from Devlin’s hand as if plucking it from a child.
He would bide his time. Keep low. He did not mind the men themselves, for some of his old days amongst the fishermen of St Malo had fringed along the blade of the ‘écumeur des mers’, skimming off the surface of the sea rather than underneath it. But this was not his life. Merry enough, but too short for his liking.
From Ducos’s pockets they pulled out an empty tobacco tin, a small flint wrapped in a strip of white leather, a thimble, a handkerchief and just the bowl piece of a clay pipe.
The Frenchman resisted more as he realised that death was closing. He began to struggle. Garbling French at them. His little English useless now as panic crept over him.
More words, pleading words, came babbling from him. At some hushed sound Devlin stopped and listened hard as the soft accent repeated itself.
Devlin’s hands clamped against the Frenchman’s shoulders. Their eyes locked as he grabbed the Frenchman’s shirt, pulling him up, Sam Fletcher flung aside.
The Frenchman met his stare and almost smiled as he knew that this one at least understood his promise. Philippe Ducos nodded desperately to the serious, dark face and swore to God.
Fletcher watched, perplexed, at the two almost embracing in some confidence. His simple grasp of humanity had noted that an oath of some kind had passed between the two, and all Fletcher knew of oaths was that the very next words from the desk would be ‘… and that will be half a guinea.’
But the babbling Frog was still going on, and Peter had asked for the jacket, and Peter had asked for the death, and that bloody Frog was still going on and on and Patrick was listening to it, for Christ’s sake. Enough.
Fletcher stood back just far enough to pull his pistol clear and fire into the side of the Frenchman’s skull, all three of them reeling from the shock of fire and blood, but only the Frenchman falling.
The crows took to the air again, laughing over the wicked court of men, as the explosion ripped away Ducos’s final pleas.
Fletcher spat at the trembling corpse, the Frenchman still lisping some pointless utterance.
Devlin could taste the bitter blood of the man on his lips from the spatter. Fletcher laughed as the Irishman wiped the blood away with the dead man’s linen.
He started to pull off the jacket, still maniacally chuckling at Devlin’s bloodied face. Devlin cursed him as he knelt down and started to pull at the Frenchman’s brown leather boots. The boots were old, probably the man’s father’s before him, but they were good.
‘What you doing, Pat?’
‘This Frog might have feet as big as mine, for a change. My shoes have had it. These’ll do.’
‘Aye. Perhaps the stench will be better and all. What was all that Frog-talk he was jawing about? You get any of that, Pat?’ Fletcher had freed the coat from the limp body and then fingered through the scant effects, not listening for an answer and missing entirely the slow movement Devlin had made to lay his hand to his pistol butt. He touched it, brushed the lock with his palm, then went back to hauling off the boots.
‘No. Just thought I might try. Seemed like he had something to say.’
‘Aye, well, teaches him for being a Frog, don’t it? I’m having the tobacco tin. Peter said we could takes what we wants.’ Then he added, ‘But don’t tell him, mate. You know what he’s like. He’ll have it himself and leave me the thimble.’ Fletcher carried up the tunic and skipped away, burying the tin in his waistcoat.
Sitting down, Devlin had put one boot on, and indeed they were as if made for him, despite the dampness of the blood that his stocking was soaking up.
Pulling the other over his calf, he inched his eyes around the circle of trees. Fletcher had gone. He was alone with the dead.
He felt into the leather. Sure enough, there was a folded parchment inside, just as Philippe Ducos had said there would be. Devlin allowed one finger to brush the paper, then pulled the rest of the boot on. He made a throwing motion, as if tossing a small pebble he had found inside. The only one to watch the act was the dead Philippe Ducos.
Devlin stood and looked down at the Frenchman, who had sat huddled below deck with them for the past week. His shy separation from the crew had mirrored Devlin’s own first days aboard. He thought of old man Kennedy, long dead now, telling him when he had first escaped to London from a foaming-mouthed magistrate in Ireland, never to give away too much about yourself, not for pride’s sake: ‘But for lest someone finds a reason to hang you for it, Patrick.’
There had never been a reason to tell his new companions that he spoke French like a corsaire, after the murder of Kennedy had put him to his feet again and to the forts and coasts of Brittany to barely survive as a fisherman. Forced to learn from his coarse fellows, who laughed at his clumsy Irish vowels, then donning the Marine Royale tunic himself for a short time, before the protective wing of Captain Coxon had swept over him.
Devlin absently checked the flint in his pistol, screwing it tighter, as he turned to take the long walk back to the shore.
Philippe Ducos lay dead, his blood already matting hard on the grass and being inspected by tropical ants. Mosquitoes flew in and out of the crack in his head like escaping dreams.
The book that was his short military life had closed with the snap of a pistol from a man who could not write his own name.
The last of the crew of a French sloop that had delivered a fortune of the king’s own gold to a secret island in the Caribbean now grew cold in the afternoon heat. The location of the gold remained nestled roughly in the boots that were now calmly striding away. The only sound in the small glade was from the busily curious insects gathering on the fallen Frenchman.
Stepping from the damp closeness of the jungle to the blinding brightness of the beach took a moment of adjustment. Devlin shielded his eyes from the glare of the sand. He had been given no order other than to assure the death of the Frenchman, so he took the time to ponder the significance of the parchment hidden in the dead man’s boots.
He moved down to a rocky vantage along the edge of the jungle, every step reminding him of the folded secret rubbing against his calf.
He sat on the volcanic outcrop and squinted out to sea. They had landed on the east of the island, which had provided them the best sounding, and now, as Devlin stared out, he could just make out the coast of Africa herself, stretching like a line of black ink drawn across the horizon, an enormous blanket of thunderous dark clouds threatening to swallow her. The archipelago the Frenchman had led them to was more than thirty leagues distant, yet as far as Devlin’s gaze panned, his view was the dark shore of an enormous other world. He had never walked upon the land of nightmarish beasts and black backs that shouldered the wealth of the New World, but had seen the remnants of men who had found disease Africa’s only promise. Still, what point a sailor, if home were all he craved?
In the offing, the Lucy sat. A black-and-white two-mast brigantine. Square-rigged on the foremast, gaff-rigged on the main, with a full set of jibs and staysails for speed and agility. A young ship, fourteen years out of Chatham, although most of her spars and yards had been cannibalised from older souls. She had the extravagance of both capstan over windlass and wheel over tiller, and a quarterdeck that made every sloop of war look twice upon her.
Eighty feet long with only eight six-pounders, she was a baby compared to the French and English frigates that Devlin was used to, but she could move as swiftly as running your finger across a map.
Stern and bow, the pirates’ stanchion mounted three pairs of swivel guns along the rails. These half-pound falconets, loaded with grape, could devastate an opposing crew, peppering the shrouds and decks, pulling at flesh like fish hooks. Two further six-pounders, one placed as a chaser, the other aft, peeped out of the Lucy’s hull through crudely cut ports, but by far the pirates’ most deadly weapons were the men themselves.
Fully armed, weapons kept immaculately clean and dry through wax and tallow strip, each man was formidable with a musket; even Devlin, a poacher in his youth, an old matchlock his bedside companion, was denied a musket until he came up to their standard.
In a ‘surprisal’ at sea, groups of them stood in the rigging, firing off rounds, as casually as shelling nuts, down into the prize, and every shot killed or maimed. Two shots could splice a sheet. Four could bring down a yard. Six men aloft were worth more than one twelve-pounder, and each man could fire three to the gun’s pitiful one, his only pause to wipe the stinging powder from his red-rimmed eyes.
The Lucy. Overmanned fit to bursting. The sheer numbers of men sealed most of their victories, with a merchant often shy to defend his trade against a comparative army of drunken, cursing maniacs bearing down upon him.
To make room amongst the cramped decks, any spare bit of wood that was not necessary to float went overboard. Bulkheads were ripped out, cabins, doors and tables removed. Men slept on the open deck or close together below, often ‘matelot’ style, sharing hammocks and blankets and eating meals in the open air upon rugs and sailcloth. Such closeness mocked the fourteen inches allotted to a sailor upon a king’s ship, and it was for the good of all that you got on with the man you slept, ate and fought beside. Ever since the old Tortuga buccaneers, this notion of brotherhood had marked the pirates’ success. The ‘Brethren of the Coast’ both in name and most certainly in number.
Out of Devlin’s long waistcoat came a muslin bag of tobacco. He placed it on the rock, first checking for dampness. Taking his clay pipe from his pocket, he blew out any lint and filled it with the Virginian blend introduced to a drop of port some months before.
Lifting his head to check for eyes upon him, aware that his mates could appear at any moment, Devlin pulled out the possession most prized before Philippe Ducos’s gift.
A small, narrow tube. Hardly four inches long. Silver. A laughing devil engraved on the top. At the slip of a thumbnail, the devil could be prised up to reveal a dozen narrow pinewood sticks coated in an awful-smelling substance.
Inside the lid, a roughened glassy surface sparked the wood into life, and before Devlin had shaken out the flame and tossed the wood to the sea, the silver tube was back in his pocket. The tube was a gift from his former master from the Noble, John Coxon. At the time, Captain Coxon was dying of dysentery in Cape Coast Castle and was unaware of making the ‘gift’.
He sucked on his pipe, drawing it into life, avoiding the urge to study the paper that Ducos’s fate had given him. From the Frenchman’s final, desperate outburst he had only gathered the promise of a map to a king’s fortune, guarded and hidden. A fortune in gold, stored as a stronghold for the French forces in the Antilles.
Until he looked at the paper he would not know what hand it would deal him. But his worst fate would be to be found studying a map taken from a dead prisoner for some unknown personal gain. In his contemplation, his eyes had carried back out to sea. He noticed, reflective, amused, that his exhalations of smoke matched the crashing of the afternoon surf.
‘Did you not think that you should declare those boots to your quartermaster, then, Patrick?’ He turned with a start to see Peter Sam standing by his side. The others were following across the white sand, William Magnes carrying a lifeless goat across his shoulders.
Devlin cursed himself. He had not heard a distant shot to explain for the goat, and coming across the sand the party should have sounded like carts on cobblestones to his poacher’s ears.
Peter Sam, one eye closed against the glare of the sun, spied Devlin’s new footwear. ‘Pretty nice boots that Frenchman had, eh? Did you not want to share them?’
Devlin’s composure returned as five pairs of envious and greedy eyes, including Fletcher’s, were turned to his boots.
‘Now be fair, Peter: we’d look pretty foolish wearing a boot between us.’
All, apart from the fiery quartermaster, cackled in agreement, Fletcher, in his ignorance, the loudest.
‘Get that meat to the boat!’ Peter Sam growled with his Bristol drawl through his red beard, glaring at them all as they grumbled past him. He turned back to Devlin.
He had disliked Devlin from the moment they had relieved him from his duty aboard the Noble. Although clearly a servant, he had been unwilling to join his pirate rescuers who had so easily mauled the English sixth-rate. Now, Devlin sat before him, grinning behind his pipe, perched on a rock, blood speckled on his linen shirt, the boots in question similarly dappled.
‘Suppose I want those boots for myself, Patrick? And what else did you gets from that Frog?’
‘If you go back there’ – Devlin indicated to the jungle with his pipe – ‘you’ll find a thimble, a flint and a broken pipe.’ With a flourish he pulled out the handkerchief, also covered in blood. ‘But you’re welcome to this if you want, Peter.’
Peter Sam leaned towards Devlin’s face. ‘I wouldn’t mind trying those boots, Patrick.’
Devlin dropped off the rock, his face levelled to Peter Sam’s, and he passed a look up and down the brute. Unlike most of the crew, who wore the finest linen and waistcoats, albeit tallow- and pitch-stained, motley as harlequins, Peter Sam wore goat-leather breeches and a leather jerkin. Gracing his chest was a deadly bandoleer of cartouche boxes and generations of pistols holstered with leather straps. He was the image of an old-time ‘boucanier’.
‘I took these boots off a dead man. You’ll have to do the same.’ Devlin brushed past and walked to the boat, Peter Sam’s eyes at his back.
The row back to the Lucy was a quiet one. Thomas Deakins, the young lad whom Peter Sam had led away into the jungle, and never strayed far from, now wore Philippe Ducos’s blue tunic.
Devlin had become accustomed to the closeness of some of the pirate brethren to each other, and when Peter took the arm of Thomas on the island, no one had raised a head. In many ways the closeness was of benefit to a ship. Some of the men worked in pairs like twins, and worked gladly. Every man seemed to be a ‘bosun’ rather than just a mate, running the shrouds and ratlines as smoothly as painting a wall.
Despite the drunken nature of their days, there was no job neglected or position lacking. That which could not be spliced or repaired could soon be stolen or bartered, and every sheet hauled or rope reeved was done for the purpose of filling the coffers of all. Their songs were sung for the joy of the life and not just to bolster the rhythm of the work. They had an envious camaraderie that Devlin had not seen since his days out of the close-knit ports of St Malo. Peter Sam’s dark gaze from across the boat, however, suggested there were exceptions.
The boat was belayed to the Lucy, left to loll alongside as the lads all clambered up the tumblehome with a rampant thirst.
The lack of the cochon-marron, the marooned brown pig that the Frenchman had promised with his drawings and mime, was disappointing, but there were goats, most probably landed by some long-dead Portuguese adventurer as a larder for the world, and an oasis of fruit that might inspire the captain to stay and supply.
Not that food seemed to be a concern in the company that Devlin now kept. On his first day, the afternoon the Noble had been lost, Devlin and Alastair Lewis, the only prisoners from the English frigate, ate a pork and mango stew with cobbles of fresh bread and a shilling’s worth of butter, whilst being questioned by the charismatic captain, Seth Toombs, who sliced corners of cheese and wedges of apples straight into his mouth off the back of an ivory-hilted blade.
Now, Captain Toombs lay sprawled on the deck in front of his open cabin, all limbs outstretched across a red and gold Indian carpet that, back in London, would have graciously filled any gentleman’s hall, but perhaps not in its current frayed and rent condition.
It was hours past noon. No course to go for. Every soul on board had supped a draught or two whilst waiting for the longboat’s return. The captain’s burgundy tricorne lay across his eyes, and he lifted a corner of it to watch Peter Sam as he approached.
‘Ah, Peter,’ Toombs yawned, ‘I gather there be no pig farm on that there island? Seeing as we are now absent of our French lubber?’ Toombs’s dialect was as far westbound as Peter’s.
‘Aye, Cap’n. No pig farm. But there be plenty of goat if we want to stay. Fruit too. Mangoes, plantains.’
‘Not plantains, please, Peter. Say not plantains! Mate, my guts will turn blue for another!’ He lay back down with a belch.
‘Aye, Cap’n.’ Peter bent down, swooped up the captain’s leather mug and idled over to the half-hog of punch that was permanently on deck.
Devlin watched the party from the longboat dissipate amidships. The dead goat, his sorry head hanging, was carried below. The quartermaster had his back to him and was on his second draught. Toombs appeared to be asleep; then the glint of a catlike eye beneath the cock of his hat betrayed otherwise. A hand beckoned to Devlin.
Devlin came across the wet deck towards Seth Toombs, who was now raised on an elbow and smiling him closer, quite gentrified in his brown twill coat and scarlet brocade waistcoat. He was as young as Devlin maybe – not yet thirty; but rough drink and Newfoundland winds had weathered his face and made coarse his blond hair. Toombs, Peter Sam and old William Magnes were the original three who had stolen a sloop out of Newfoundland two years before.
They were codmen, pressed into freezing their youth away along the harsh North American coast. One winter had been enough, and the three Bristol men slipped away in the night, just after Peter had slipped away the life of the sloop’s master. The first man he had killed for Seth Toombs.
A dozen stories later, Toombs was the elected captain of a hundred men, but Devlin had summed him up as all swagger and stagger. A lucky, dirty soul.
‘Now, Patrick. Mister Devlin, sir.’ Still looking asleep, Toombs spoke on. ‘I have had a wonderful conversation with Mister Lewis this fine morning.’
‘Mister Lewis.’ He rolled himself up to sit. ‘Your former navigator on that burning frigate you frequented? Come closer, man!’
Devlin moved forward to within a step of the captain. All about them, men were laughing in cross-legged groups, sharing mugs of punch: their diet of rum, water and limes stirred with muscovado sugar.
‘Who has my mug?’ Toombs asked the air about him. ‘Never mind. Sit down, Patrick, and listen to me.’ He patted his carpet to motion Devlin to him. Devlin shifted his sword and crouched, one knee down, his left hand on the hilt.
‘You have performed well, Patrick. I be proud of your schooling.’ Toombs smiled. ‘On that French sloop you fought like a true pirate. I’m shining of you, sir, so I am!’ He slapped Devlin heartily. ‘But,’ he whispered, ‘did you not think that those few men fought rather hard for what little they had to offer? Would you not be of a mind to think that now?’
‘I don’t know, Captain.’
‘Shush, never mind, sir, never mind.’ He patted Devlin’s forearm patriarchally. ‘However, as I say, Mister Lewis and I have been a-talking.’
Alastair Lewis was the navigator on board the Noble. Like Devlin he had resisted capture. But whereas Devlin gave defence to the ship when the dead no longer could or the living had fled to the boats, Lewis and Acting Captain Thorn had locked themselves in the Great Cabin. The pirates had broken through the door just as the blaze got beyond Thorn’s control.
They had used Thorn for target, hanging by his arms across the main’s yardarm, after they discovered he had burned all the charts, the cause of the fire, and thrown Lewis’s tools to the sea. Then the fire had spread, assuring the pirate’s half-victory, and the loss of the ship.
When they drank to the tale the day after, the more ‘romantic’ of them told how they had heard the beams of the old girl scream.
‘Come and see what we were talking about.’ He had stood up and gently tugged Devlin into the cabin, or rather the shell of one.
The doors were missing and every chair. The customary accoutrements that Devlin was used to were absent. There were no bookshelves, no desk nor cot, no personal effects. Everything that could be ripped out was gone. Only the hanging lanterns, the lockers beneath the windows and the large table remained as furniture. The austerity of the rest of the room made the table seem cluttered and chaotic, piled as it was with navigational instruments and towers of papers.
The three small paned bottle-glass windows were open but, even from this distance, Africa crept in with a dark humidity and Devlin’s trailing hair clung to his neck, filtering a trickle of sweat down his back.
Toombs ambled forward, his hat brushing the overhead. He leaned on the far side of the table and waved Devlin closer; on its return his hand strayed over a bottle of Jerez wine and he took a swig.
Devlin stepped to the table. This was the first time he had been in the cabin, despite the truth that, unlike on a regulated ship, the pirate captain’s cabin was not sacrosanct, merely a sleeping berth for the captain – a small reverence to title but a room that belonged to the whole.
The captain ate or drank no better than any other soul on board, and God forgive him if he did.
He rarely even fought in boardings but took two shares in all that was taken in deference to the fact that he would most surely hang when the day came to remove his hat and bow his head.
He had one overpowering responsibility that his leadership was based on: ‘To where do we sail?’ His was the plan. The luck. The path.
For this a good navigator was essential. On a pirate vessel, common sailors made up the ship. What often surprised their victims was not the pirates’ interest in their gold and jewels but the ravenous search for medicines, tools and sea charts.
To many the navigator’s skills were nothing short of necromancy and his capture mandatory. To this end Alastair Lewis was their prize on seizing the Noble, but Thorn’s panic in burning everything he was able to had cost them dear.
‘I have a problem, Patrick.’ Toombs motioned a hand across the objects on the table. ‘I have sailors and gentlemen of fortune up to my ears, but no dedicated soul to navigate.’
Devlin looked down at the charts and tools. A wooden Portuguese astrolabe, a Mercator world map, an African coastal chart that took in Madagascar, a map of the Antilles and the Florida coast weighted down by conch and stone, and an enormous French backstaff stretching across the table.
On one side were piles of papers and oilskin wallets holding more charts. The Lucy’s original gimbal compass took pride of place in the centre with a couple of wooden dividers hovering near a crock inkwell.
Innocuous objects. The only keys one needed to unlock the heavens, but to the unfamiliar hand and eye they were as unreachable as the stars they divined.
The pirates’ world was a small one. The hardest route Toombs had ever sailed was the capricious twelve hundred miles from Newfoundland to Providence on board the Cricket, the small sloop that the three old standers originally stole.
Now, with a hundred able men and a larger ship, they cruised the same paths month in, month out.
In summer, they sailed the Newfoundland coast, endeavouring to catch the cod merchants and other traders sailing to the Mediterranean or back home to England.
In winter, they would head southeast, following the trade winds to Africa, hoping to hit the Sixteenth Parallel, close to the Verdes, to pick off the traders who waited to spy the islands before heading west to the Indies.
Eventually the winds would carry them four degrees down to Africa’s Guinea coast, where they could catch the fat galley slavers embarking on their second leg of the triangular trade that ruled the world, or the Dutch and English Indiamen on the trawl from the East, sailing low in the water, laden with spices and rich fabrics ripe for plunder.
If their sweet trade gathered too much attention, they would head west to spend the rest of the winter in the Caribbee islands, running as close as they could back up to the Sixteenth Parallel to catch the merchantmen heading back to Europe with their rum, sugar, tobacco, cotton and molasses purchased off the backs of slaves.
Then, as May appeared, they would sail back to Newfoundland or the inlets of the Carolinas, before the hurricanes, which wrecked unwary ships more than all the powder ever lit, came to visit the Caribbean.
So it went on. Months of pirating interspersed with times of careening on deserted spits of land and wild carousing in wicked forsaken holes, and all the while being hunted by all the navies of the world trying to protect the interests of obese investors and mentally affected kings and queens who had made theft, cruelty and exploitation their nations’ proudest achievements.
Toombs enlightened Devlin that a pirate ship freed the men from the torturous labour of the navy watch.
A pirate led an idle life. No longer was he expected to turn a sand glass and ring a bell on every half-hour for every four hours of the day and night; thus the calculation of time and one of the aids to accurate longitude was lost. The longitude itself depended on the varied maps acquired from ransacked cabins, for each of the voyaging nations of the old world held their own meridian.
At local noon, the sun at its zenith, they took a latitude and a speed.
‘From this I can plot where I’ll be by the same time on the morrow. If we travel at five knots I’ll gather two degrees of latitude by noon the next day, don’t you see?’
Devlin saw. Any weathered salt let out of the waist of a ship could plot a course by dead reckoning, providing he knew where he set off from, his bearing and speed, and tried to maintain a constant.
The mystery, the lost leagues, came with the clouded sky, the starless night. The man before the mast needed a Pole Star reading, where the altitude of the star against the horizon would give the latitude.
For greater accuracy a skilled navigator, an ‘artist’, could measure the altitude of over fifty other stars and compare that to the astrolabe, the almost magical disc that showed the stars and their latitudes throughout the year. The Portuguese, the magicians of the sea, were its masters.
Without the stars to guide, a navigator would rely on the ship’s ‘waggoner’, the eclectic collection of maps and charts, and his own dead reckoning. Lonely hours spent by tallow light hunched over a chart, a loupe sweeping over reef markers and soundings, making the jump of imagination to connect the scratches of ink, the veiled warnings of dead men, to the pitching and heaving beast outside the cabin door. That was the art. Toombs needed someone to turn the flat paper charts into a globe.
‘I can’t navigate like that, Patrick. It’s not in my soul! I can reckon with the best of ’em, but I needs someone with the mind for the whole manner of it!’ His eyes gleamed. ‘My thoughts are, Patrick, that if I can navigate well, the whole world could open up to us! The East, the South Seas! Cut away from these lanes! With good longitude, I could save weeks off a voyage and run rings round those navy boys!’ He slapped the table passionately and swigged at his wine.
‘To what end would this be my concern, Captain?’ Devlin squinted as the sun lowered into the window.
Toombs began the account that Lewis had told him. How Devlin was the manservant to Captain John Coxon. How Coxon was a skilled navigator, one who could tell where he was in the world just by fathoms and the samples the soundings brought up, even by the colour of the sea and the yaw of the ship. How, when Coxon went to take his morning readings, Devlin was there with his coffee, and for every reading throughout the day. That Devlin was present whenever Lewis and Coxon compared readings, when courses were plotted and noted.
‘I would begin to suspect, mate, that it would be not entirely unreasonable to assume that some of that knowledge might “soak” in, so to speak, you might say.’
Devlin could not disagree. The years with Coxon had been instructive. Coxon had shared his books with Devlin when he discovered with delight that his steward could read and read well. Devlin helped teach the young midshipmen the duty of the traverse board, the peg and wood diagram that kept the course and speed of the ship throughout the watch.
He could ‘box’ the compass in French, to Coxon’s amusement, and Coxon would beam with pride when he slapped the backstaff into Devlin’s hands and bade him read the correct latitude, if he would be so kind, after some lieutenant had fuddled his way through an incoherent attempt.
After too much Madeira and flank steak, Coxon would bemoan Devlin’s Irish birth and his brief dalliance under the pavillion-blanc flag of the Marine Royale that would deny him a fine second or third lieutenant.
‘But perhaps a sailing master you could be, Patrick? That could be done. It is only exams, after all, don’t you know?’ Then Devlin would clear the table, brush Coxon’s hat and coat before returning with the last black coffee of the night.
Just how much Lewis had spoken of him, how much of his past, would need careful teasing out of Toombs.
He looked Toombs square in the eye. ‘No more than anything else, Captain. But Lewis was Coxon’s navigator. His is the skill.’
Toombs turned away to the stern window, which was glowing in the afternoon sun. ‘Lewis disapproves of us… gentlemen.’
It was only then that Devlin had noticed Alastair Lewis’s absence. Ever since they were both pressed into service, Lewis was either on the quarterdeck with the captain or occupied in the sparse cabin. He looked at Toombs’s silhouetted back and watched his head lower.
Lewis was passionate about his loyalties, that had been obvious. He seemed to clash with Toombs every day, and Toombs, Devlin was sure, would ultimately distrust him to occupy such an important position on his quarterdeck.
Behind him, Devlin could hear the songs of the crew calling in the evening, songs of lubrication and bordellos, the friendly creaking of the boards beneath him and the slow lapping of the sea against the hull. He waited for Toombs to speak.
‘If you knew him, and had any kinship with him, you may go and see him.’ Toombs turned. ‘But I’m afraid, Pat, he’s been blinded by some of the mates.’
He elaborated that he had wanted Lewis to plot a course to St Nicholas, one of the Verde Islands. The course should be taken away from the coast to avoid patrols, and continue through the night for added safety, especially as it was only weeks since they had left a burning English frigate near the Straits of Gibraltar. Toombs’s own weakness with navigation had required Lewis’s skill. Lewis had refused and Toombs had taken him below, in the dark and heat, and forced him onto his knees. A thick, knotted oakum rope, coarse as broken glass, had been put round his head, across his eyes, and twisted over and over, tighter and tighter. Some sweet tongue had christened the act ‘the rosary of pain’; most just called it ‘wooldling’.
Usually the victim will have a change of heart as the ears start to rip, the blood starts to run down the neck and the eyes are forced back into the skull. Lewis just screamed on and on, until his eyelids tore and his eyes began to grind against the burning knots. The men had shocked themselves, their torturer’s giggles switching to heavy, almost carnal gasps. They let him collapse to the wet, dark deck. Cowering in his own blood. Retching in pain.
‘If you don’t want to see him, we’ll just shoot him and give him to the sharks. The lads could do with the sport.’ He placed his knuckles upon the table. ‘Then you can join him, or sail my ship with me.’ He looked Devlin up and down with a sway of the head. ‘Fine boots by the way there, mate.’
Below, Devlin was greeted by the stench of bodies and rotten food fuming in the African heat. He left the final step of the companion, instinctively lowering his head as he walked through the dark.
Sunlight slatted through from the hatches above, thick dust swimming in its rays. The songs of the men pitched just above the incessant moaning of the ship as Devlin weaved his way past swaying lanterns and piles of stores towards a dark lump sitting slumped against sacks of rice.
He knelt before Lewis, pushing his dragging sword behind. Lewis was trembling, sobbing. Across his eyes his own bloodstained linen blindfolded his pain. Devlin spoke Lewis’s name softly, and the man jerked.
‘Patrick? Is that you, man? Thank the Lord! Have you come to save me?’ In the months he had known Alastair Lewis this was the first time he had addressed Devlin as ‘man’. It was slightly more reverent than the ‘boy’ he was used to. He only recalled Lewis barking demands for port and coffees, clean shoes and linen, as Lewis took advantage of his position and knew what Irishmen were for. He pitied Lewis’s fate, but only as he might that of a rabid dog.
Since their capture he had never even glanced at Devlin. Lewis had replaced Coxon’s quarterdeck with Toombs’s and simply argued slightly more on this one. Devlin wanted to see him, to find out what had been said about him in Lewis’s torture.
He touched Lewis’s shoulder. ‘No, Mister Lewis, sir. You’re too ill to live.’
Lewis’s hand reached out for Devlin and grabbed his arm. ‘Surely not, Patrick! My wife! Tell them about my wife!’
Devlin knew nothing about Lewis’s wife. He only knew that Lewis was a navigator appointed by the South Sea Company to attend to their interests in the Noble’s escorting of one of their slavers. He removed Lewis’s hand.
‘I need to know what you told them about me, sir.’
‘About you?’ Lewis turned his head as if listening for other voices. ‘What would you have to do with anything, man! Just get me out of here! Help me!’
Devlin’s concern was that Lewis knew he could speak French. He had lived for two years in St Malo before rolling into the Marine Royale, and happy they were to enlist an Irishman to hamper the English. He was only a couple of months in service before Coxon had captured their sloop of war.
As a prisoner, Devlin stepped forward to negotiate between Coxon and the French officers, thinking only of his belly and dislike for chains. Coxon had found an Irishman in the French navy amusing, keeping him as his servant rather than imprisoning him with the rest.
That had been four long years ago, the end of the war, and Coxon had never tired of showing off his Irish Frenchman.
If this were known, if the thought had rattled around inside the most sodden brain that some word had passed between Devlin and the Frenchman, either aboard the Lucy or on the loneliness of the island, he was sure he would be standing in his own blood. No secrets on a ship. And dead men do not lie.
It clearly gnawed at Toombs that the ten French marines, without officers, had fought like tigers to protect nothing but a couple of hogsheads of stale water and rancid pork. They had met their deaths for that rat food, all but one, and he could only speak his own damned tongue.
They had gathered slowly from him, if not painfully, that the sloop was voyaging to the island for the marooned pig to gain stores, hence their empty hold. Toombs had decided to fulfil this plan, as fresh meat was always welcome. Now, with the promise of pork exposed as a lie, Toombs would be wondering again why the sloop sailed empty, with only ten common sailors on board.
Devlin’s shoulders appeared from below and he looked above at the spreading purple sky. He saw Toombs and Peter Sam at the taffrail with a pipe and a mug each, as idle as any gentleman on his country-house balcony.
Toombs saw Devlin approach and tipped his hat back. Peter Sam turned his head to follow Toombs’s gaze and immediately stepped towards Devlin to block him as he came up the length of the short stair.
‘Where do you think you’re stepping, man?’
Devlin pulled himself to the top of the rail, one foot on the deck, staring straight into Peter Sam’s black eyes.
‘He’s our new “artist”,’ Toombs yelled. ‘Ain’t you, Patrick?’
Devlin pushed past Peter without a glance and walked to the rail, standing next to Toombs and looking out to mighty Africa.
‘Aye, Captain. If you’ll have me.’
‘Why was I not told of this?’ Peter Sam’s broad form squared up to the two of them.
Toombs slammed his fist on the rail, almost smashing his pipe in his hand. ‘How dare you question me, sir! I needs an artist, and Patrick knows the art well enough to remove the burden from you or I!’
‘You don’t know that, Captain. He’s just some lickerish ponce’s waister!’ Peter spat. Devlin said nothing and began the routine of filling his own pipe.
‘Then he shall have the moment to prove it, Peter. You can summon the men for me, if it’s not too much of a trouble for you, mate.’
Peter ground his jaw and spun round to face the drunken brethren beneath. ‘Pay attention, you dogs!’ he bellowed.
The heads turned and stopped their singing and gaming. An air of wariness spread around in whispers. ‘The captain will address you, lads, so pipes down!’
Toombs snapped his coat, tugged the front cock of his hat down and winked at Devlin as he approached the audience looking up at him from the waist of the ship, his mug held high in his left hand.
‘Lads! I have good news!’ He spread his arms, looked kindly into the faces he liked. ‘I know I promised you that English frigate, but that young quim burned it beneath our feet!’ A rousing cheer, raised mugs and laughter.
‘And our gentleman artist from the lordly South Sea Company has been most “blinded” to our cause!’ The men choked on their drink at this one. ‘But our newly acquired Patrick Devlin, from the same frigate, the servant you recall painfully who fought you away from the captain’s cabin, has agreed to be our new artist!’ A satisfied murmur. ‘I have a plan, lads, to sail to old St Nick tomorrow.’ He closed his right hand into a fist.
‘I aims to capture the Portuguese governor there and hold him to ransom! The plan will be revealed to you on the morn, boys, and Patrick will take us there!’
He raised his empty mug. The men roared and took that as the signal to return to their drink. They cared little for their destiny tomorrow – or next year. They would fight and sail when the sun rose and set. The reason immaterial.
Toombs turned back to Devlin and Peter Sam. ‘There. Now, Patrick, make any preparations that you need to sail me to St Nicholas. What happened ’twixt you and Lewis, by and by, mate?’
As if in answer, a crack rang out below deck, and Toombs’s eyes shot down to the empty belt where Devlin’s left-locked pistol used to be.
‘I told him it was best not to be fed to the sharks alive.’ Devlin tapped his forehead and stepped down to retrieve his pistol.
Excerpted from The Pirate Devlin by Keating, Mark Copyright © 2010 by Keating, Mark. Excerpted by permission.
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