Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 1: Bay of Bengal, July 1684

The Sultan was a dolphin skimming over pristine seas towards the Eldorado of my dreams, myself clinging to its back. But in reality I was sprawled out on my bunk below decks, in a foul, claustrophobic cabin, my mind a leviathan thrashing in the ocean of imagination, constantly zapped by the stifling heat, my drowsy eyes gazing through a delirious fog at my rapier dangling from a rafter, pointed directly at my heart. Betsy Eden, lovely as a wild rose, prickly and perfidious as thorns, making me drunk with the sour wine of jealousy, why have you done this to me?

Loud booms jolted me out of my reverie and I sat bolt upright in my bunk, almost scalped by the low ceiling. “God’s blood! What was that?” It had sounded like thunder, but through the tiny porthole the skies were as blue as cornflowers. I just had time to swivel my legs over the side of the bunk and pull on my boots when I heard another drum roll of thunder. The ship shuddered, as cannonballs apparently found their mark, leaving me in no doubt as to the cause of the booms. Who the blazes is trying to blow us out of the water? I hastily buckled on my rapier, lurched out of the tiny cabin, and was immediately caught up in a stream of panicky, half-naked lascars rudely awakened from their siesta, hell-bent like I was to get on top. I swept past the jabbering blacks, pushing them roughly out of my way, and heaved myself up the companionway.

The deck looked as if a whirlwind had passed through. Several cannon shots had crashed onto the deck, breaking off the mizzen mast and damaging the rigging. Tangled ropes and torn sails lay all about; sacks and barrels had broken loose. Some lascars had been killed, their bodies lying in pools of blood, the wounded moaning in agony. Glancing over the side, I saw that the attacking ship was about two cable lengths away, careening down on us like a goshawk on its prey. Captain Leslie was on the opposite side of the deck and I rushed over to him.

“Are we being attacked by pirates, Captain?” He turned to look at me, squinting to adjust his eyes to the glare, and opened them again. They were a pale blue in his sunburned face, the color of rain-washed sky. I saw them flick from me to the attacking ship, then settle on me. The captain nodded, a slight movement of his head.

“Mr. Roger Davenport, you shouldn’t be on deck just now.” His face was grim, and he made no attempt at cordiality. “Careful with the powder,” he bellowed to the men loading the deck cannons. “Feed them as if you were feeding your dogs. Not too much to make them think there's plenty more where that came from, but enough to give them bite. Tom, go break out the cutlasses and matchlocks, quickly now.”

“Aye sir,” Tom, the bo'sun, replied. “I want six men to come with me.”

“We’re being attacked by a privateer, Mr. Davenport,” the captain said, returning his gaze to me. “You’d best go down below. I don’t need your help, you'll just be in the way.”

“I’d rather be helping you and your men,” I said, “than sweating it out down below.” I wasn’t going to sit twiddling my thumbs while our ship was being bombarded and gutted to the waterline.

“As you please, Mr. Davenport,” he said, with some irritation in his voice. The bo'sun and his men soon returned with muskets, pikes and cutlasses. The beautiful three-master in full sail, reminding me of a grand lady wearing a billowing hoopskirt, was rapidly closing the gap between our two ships, dense clouds of gunpowder billowing over its bow gun ports.

“Is she a Dutchman?” I asked, grabbing one of the swords and shooting a glance at the privateer veering straight for us.

 “No, a Siamese frigate,” Captain Leslie said, handing me his telescope. “See the red flag? No doubt it’s one of Samuel White’s. Take a look and see if you can make out its name.”

“Who is Samuel White?” I asked, steadying myself against a railing. The captain ordered the Sultan to turn several points to port to present the ship’s broadside to the attacker. “It’s the Prosperous,” I said, just making out its name on the bow with the aid of the eyeglass. What do you think they’re planning to do, Captain?” I asked, returning the telescope to him.

“They’ll try to board us,” he said, “and take us as prize to Mergen. Or sink us in the process.”

“Can’t we fight them off, Captain?” I was livid with anger at the injustice of it.

“With what, may I ask? Perhaps I can negotiate with them.” I had never been in a life and death situation like this, and I wasn’t about to give in. The captain had other ideas though. “We’re a merchant vessel, lightly armed with only a few brass culverins. No match for the Siamese frigate with twenty-four heavy guns.”

“So what do you plan to do, Captain?” I asked. “Call it what you will, they’re pirates.”

“Aye, they are,” the captain agreed, “but this ship belongs to the King of Golconda, and the Siamese King has declared war on Golconda. Or Samuel White has.”

Samuel White’s name had come up again. Who was he? In Madras I'd heard that some English privateers had joined the service of the king of Siam. Was White one of them?

“Now, excuse me, Mr. Davenport. I have a privateer to fight and my vessel to fend.” He spun round and scrambled up the ladder onto the quarterdeck.

“Can’t we try to make a run for it, Captain?” I said, nipping at his heels like a puppy.

“Our mizzen mast is down. Even if it wasn’t, we could never outrun the frigate.”

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