They began fishing the wreck as soon as the sun’s rays penetrated to the sea floor. The weather was perfect for diving: a cloudless sky and no hint of breeze to disturb the flat calm. The water was so clear that Hector Lynch, leaning out over the pinnace’s rail, could make out the shape of his comrade and close friend Dan as a flickering shadow against the seabed five fathoms below. He was exploring the broken timbers of the sunken galleon. A slack tide meant there was almost no current and Dan was hauling himself from handhold to handhold, poking and prying in crevices. In another minute he would have to come back to the surface to fill his lungs with air.
Hector straightened up and took a quick glance around the horizon. The cargo of a lost galleon was still the property of the Spanish crown, and they were trespassing in an area the Spanish considered off-limits to foreign vessels. If the Spaniards got their hands on them, they would be treated as thieves and the penalty was a long prison sentence at hard labour. But there was nothing to be seen in any direction except for two insignificant islets half a mile to the east. He had already marked them on the chart he was compiling. It had taken many days to find the wreck, cautiously probing the vast underwater maze of coral, sand and rock. Now his notes on the distance and bearing to the two islets would help him return to the wreck if the pinnace was driven off her station by bad weather or the unwelcome appearance of a Spanish patrol ship. The islets themselves were unremarkable. Low humps of sand and rock, they were bald except for a few stunted bushes bleached whitish grey by the salt spray. They were all that could be seen of the dangerous zone of reefs that the Spaniards had nicknamed ‘the Vipers’ because their sharp fangs had ripped the bottoms out of dozens of ships. Most victims had been humble merchantmen. But a few, like the shattered galleon Dan was now searching, were the carcasses of rich vessels that had come to grief as they made their way to the annual rendezvous of the Spanish treasure fleet in Havana. In their strongrooms they had carried bags of silver coin from the mints in Peru, crates tightly packed with silver and gold ingots, sealed chests containing uncut gemstones, religious icons studded with brilliants, church plate and personal jewellery of every description. This was the glittering bait that had drawn him and his companions to take their chance in such dangerous waters.
Hector took another slow look right round the horizon. Still nothing. They were doubly lucky with the quiet weather. This was the tail end of the hurricane season. Few ships would normally dare venture out from port for another couple of weeks. That was the reason why he and Dan and the others aboard the Morvaut were fishing the wreck in early October. The field was clear for those willing to take the risk of a late tempest while they tried their luck, picking over what other salvors may have left behind.
There was a sudden stir in the water below him and a gasping intake of breath as Dan’s head broke the surface. He was stark naked except for a net hanging around his neck into which he stuffed any small objects he found. His long, straight, jet-black hair lay plastered down to his shoulders, and the water running off his face made his dark skin glisten like oiled mahogany. A Miskito Indian from the coast, Dan was an accomplished diver and could stay down for three minutes at a time. Hector wondered if there was truth in the widespread belief that the native Americans were gifted with unnaturally large lungs. The men from the island of Margarita successfully worked pearl beds at depths no one else could attain. They were particularly in demand when it came to going underwater to patch the hulls of ships or – as now – conduct salvage operations. Thinking about them Hector briefly pictured Dan coming to the surface holding up a string of Margarita pearls originally destined to grace the neck of some beauty in Havana or Madrid. It was a wild daydream, but that would solve all his money problems.
‘How does it look?’ he called down to Dan.
‘The Spaniards have used explosives. The deck of the galleon is blown apart. All the big cannon have been taken up.’
That was no surprise. The Spaniards kept professional salvage teams on standby at ports all around the Caribbean. Most wrecks occurred in shallow water, and whenever a valuable cargo was lost the salvage crews quickly arrived to recover what they could before the currents smothered the wrecks with sand and gravel. They concentrated on the heavier items. Cannon were valuable and accessible. The gold or silver shipments were more difficult to get at. They were stowed low down, usually beneath the commander’s quarters towards the stern in a galleon. To reach them, it was necessary to blow the ship apart. The explosions often scattered smaller items that then became half buried in silt or disguised by a coating of the pale green grassy weed that grew rapidly in these warm waters.
‘Any sign of the strongroom?’ Hector asked.
Dan shook his head. ‘They’ve left an anchor and chain in position so they’ll be coming back.’
‘Which means there’s still something left worth salvaging,’ interrupted a sour voice.
Hector swung round to confront a stocky, stubble-haired man who had walked up silently on bare feet. Yannick Kergonan stood with the easy balance of a man accustomed to small boats. As his name indicated, he was a Breton, and a surly expression on his weather-beaten face reinforced the suspicious look in his deep-set eyes. Hector neither liked nor trusted Yannick, and would never have sailed with him except that he was part-owner of the Morvaut, together with his brothers Roparzh and Yacut and their sister Anne-Marie.
‘Your man needs to get a move on. There’s less than an hour of slack water left,’ Yannick observed. His English was heavily accented but fluent.
‘Dan is not “my man”,’ Hector snapped. ‘He’ll go down again just as soon as he’s ready.’
Yannick smirked. ‘I thought he was your matelot. Isn’t that what you buccaneers prefer?’
Hector knew the Breton was taunting him. It was true that he and Dan had buccaneered together. Twice they had gone on raids into the Pacific with bands of pirates who had looted the Spanish coastal towns. Theirs was a powerful friendship based on mutual trust and respect that dated back to the days when they had met as prisoners of the Barbary corsairs and later found themselves chained side by side on the oar bench of a French war galley. But they were not the bosom companions that Yannick was implying. Among many buccaneers it was a custom for a man to pick a companion – their matelot – with whom they shared everything, almost like a marriage.
‘Dan’s already been down to the wreck a dozen times today. Perhaps you should take a turn yourself,’ Hector countered sharply. He knew that Yannick, like most sailors, could only flounder clumsily in the water.
The Breton sneered at him, then turned on his heel and stalked off.
‘I’m surprised no one’s stuck a knife into that crab,’ observed Jacques Bourdon, who had sauntered up in time to overhear the exchange. A convicted Paris pickpocket and petty thief, the letters GAL branded on his cheek and still faintly visible were a legacy of the days Jacques had sat beside Hector on the galley benches. He had shared many of Hector’s adventures and his skills as a cook made him welcome aboard any ship. Also he had a Parisian’s disdain for provincials.
‘Typical Breton numbskull. All that salt cod and cider addles their brains. You’d have thought he and his brothers would know something about provisioning an expedition. We ’re already running low on fresh water.’
It was true, thought Hector. He could not help wondering if Yannick and his brothers had deliberately set out to sabotage the expedition. They were only taking part in the venture because their sister had insisted they do so. Hector was increasingly aware that Anne-Marie Kergonan was a very forceful character and few people were able to stand up to her.
He shied away from that thought. Anne-Marie was another of his problems.
Something landed on the deck with a soggy clunk, spraying a few droplets of water across his bare feet. While he had been talking to Jacques, Dan had tossed an object up on to the pinnace’s deck. Jacques reached down and picked up what looked like a queerly shaped, greyish green lump of coral. At first sight Hector thought it was a fragment broken from a reef where the coral sprouted prongs like stags’ horns. Then, as the Frenchman turned it over in his hand, Hector recognized a three-branch candelabrum. It was discoloured with exposure to the salt water and covered with a light coating of weed. Jacques reached for the knife in his belt and scraped at the coating of the base. Underneath was the dull glint of silver.
‘At last!’ he exclaimed and stepped across to the edge of the ship and looked down at Dan, who was treading water. ‘Where did you find it?’ he called excitedly.
‘Over there, about thirty yards away,’ said Dan pointing to one side. ‘The gunpowder explosion split open the aft section of the galleon. The current has been scouring out the contents.’
‘Should we shift the pinnace over there?’ asked Hector.
Dan nodded. ‘Pass me a line and a piece of wood as a float. I’ll mark the spot.’
Jacques disappeared to find the materials for a makeshift buoy just as Hector became aware of a figure emerging from the tiny cabin in the stern of the Morvaut.
Anne-Marie Kergonan made a striking impression. In her late twenties, she had the same sturdy build as her three brothers. But what made them burly gave Anne-Marie an air of luscious sensuality. She was dressed in men’s seagoing clothes – a loose linen shirt, sash and wide canvas breeches that reached just below her knees. But there was no doubting that she was very much a woman. A few unruly curls of rich dark brown hair escaped from the bright red bandana tied around her head, and her full breasts pushed generously against the shirt where it was held in by the sash that accentuated the curve of her hips. Her broad face, with its soft contours and wide-set hazel eyes, was pretty rather than beautiful and as deeply tanned as her bare arms and feet. She looked earthy, confident and luscious, and since the start of the expedition Hector had become uncomfortably aware that he and his friends had only been able to charter the Morvaut against the wishes of her three brothers because Anne-Marie Kergonan had taken a fancy to him.
Now she advanced across the deck towards Hector with the same easy-going barefoot tread of her sailor brothers.
‘What’s all the excitement about?’she asked. Her English was spoken with a husky, attractive accent. Jacques held up the candelabrum, and she took one glance at it before taking her place beside Hector at the rail, leaning forward and looking down at Dan in the water.
Hector was conscious that Anne-Marie had allowed the front of her shirt to fall open enough for him to appreciate the view.
‘Dan thinks there should be more salvage in that direction,’ he said.
‘Then we should lose no more time. We’ve waited long enough for something to happen,’ said Anne-Marie. She turned towards Hector and treated him to a lingering glance that left little doubt of its message.
‘Give a hand here, Lynch!’ her brother Yannick interrupted sharply. He would have to be blind not to notice his sister’s behaviour, and clearly he did not approve. ‘And get that big lubber on his feet! We’ll have to put out the kedge anchor and haul across.’
The Breton was already heaving in on the painter attached to the bow of the Morvaut’s tender at the stern of the pinnace.
‘Jezreel!’ called Hector. ‘We ’re moving. Time to get up.’ What looked like a heap of old sails on the foredeck stirred.
A large hand emerged and threw aside the makeshift bedding, and a man sat up and scratched his head. The span of arms as he stretched and yawned gave an idea of what a goliath he was. Jezreel was huge. A nose broken several times and patterns of scars on his scalp were clues to his former occupation as a prizefighter using his fists or a backsword. Years ago he had accidentally killed a man in the ring and been forced to flee, taking his chances as a logwood cutter on the Campeche coast where Hector had first met him.
‘What needs doing?’ he mumbled. He had been on anchor watch the previous night and, to catch up on his sleep, had been napping on the open deck on one of the few places where there was enough space for him to lie down.
‘We have to move the Morvaut. Dan’s found some salvage,’ Hector explained. ‘There’s not enough wind to put up sail, so we’ll kedge across on the anchor.’
Jezreel got slowly to his feet and went to join the second of Anne-Marie’s brothers, Roparzh. He was struggling to hoist the pinnace’s spare anchor from its stowage in the shallow hold.
‘Here, let me take that,’ rumbled Jezreel. He took the anchor with one hand and carried it effortlessly to where Yannick had brought the tender alongside.
‘Watch what you’re doing!’ snapped the Breton. ‘If you drop that, it’ll smash straight through the bottom.’
Jezreel treated him to a scornful glance. He leaned out over the rail and laid the anchor gently in the bow of the tender. ‘Get me a pair of oars,’ he said, ‘Hector and I can do the rest.’
Grateful to escape from Anne-Marie, Hector made his way aft. Morvaut’s tender was unusually large for her mother ship. Too big to be carried on deck, the skiff was always towed astern on a harness. Hector suspected that the Kergonans normally used the skiff to ferry goods ashore on smuggling trips.
He stepped down into the tender, and Yannick passed him a coil of anchor line. Away to his left, Dan had already set the float that marked the spot where he had found the silver candelabrum. Jezreel settled himself on the central thwart, gave a couple of powerful strokes with the oars, and the tender began to move. From the stern Hector paid out the anchor line while, on the pinnace, Yannick secured the loose end of the heavy rope.
‘The Tigress, that’s what they call her,’ commented Jezreel cryptically as soon as they were out of earshot of Yannick and his brother. ‘She’s said to be a man-eater.’ Hector made no comment. ‘Takes after her mother, if the tales are true,’ Jezreel continued.
Hector was aware of the Kergonan family’s notorious history. Their mother was among the group of fifty harlots the French government had shipped out to Tortuga a generation ago. The theory was that their offspring would establish a more permanent population in the fledgling French colony. Naturally the arrival of a shipload of loose women had caused a sensation. They had been dumped on the beach, and the settlers – a lawless gang of half-wild hunters and part-time pirates – had been encouraged to take their pick.
‘I can take care of myself,’ said Hector.
Jezreel gave another grunt as he tugged again on the oars and sent the tender surging.
Hector knew what his friend was implying. ‘I talked it over with Maria. There was no other choice,’ he said and tried to keep himself from sounding apologetic. ‘You saw for yourself. It takes money, lots of money to survive in Tortuga. They grow nothing there. Everything must be imported.’
‘No place to leave a woman,’ muttered Jezreel darkly.
‘I promised Maria that I would never return to piracy. Fishing wrecks was the only alternative.’
‘Much the same result if you are caught at it,’ commented Jezreel pointedly.
Hector’s thoughts went back to happier times when he and his friends had sailed the Pacific so that he could reach Maria, the woman he loved, and ask her to share his life. To his delight she had agreed, even though he was at risk of being taken up for piracy. For Maria, who was Spanish-born, it had meant deserting her employer, an important colonial official who was likely to be vindictive. Together they had chosen to come to remote Tortuga, hoping to find a safe haven beyond the reach of normal laws, a place where they could live together quietly. But Tortuga had been a cruel disappointment. The fort which had once defied foreign navies and given the place its semi-independence was in ruins. Most of the population had moved away, preferring the French colonies at Petit Goâve and Saint-Domingue. Those who stayed were the dregs. They passed their time in sordid drinking dens, spending the last of their booty. The settlement was reduced to little more than a cluster of squalid huts and muddy lanes where wild forest pigs roamed freely.
Hector turned in his seat and looked back at the Morvaut. Little about the vessel gave him confidence. She was a small boat of thirty tons with a single mast, shabby, and with only one tiny cannon. That meant she was virtually unarmed. A hostile ship of force would overwhelm her in minutes.
Yet Maria had insisted that he use the last of the money they had brought back from the Pacific to charter the Morvaut to go fishing the wreck of a Spanish galleon that was rumoured to be lying on the Vipers.
‘We must try something,’she had said. They had been standing at the door of the two-room shack that was all they had been able to afford to rent. ‘Otherwise we’ll be trapped in this wretched place, living miserably. Dan and the others will agree to go fishing the Vipers. They are getting bored.’
‘But you and I will be apart, maybe for months.’
‘I waited three years for you to come and find me. I can endure a few more weeks’ absence.’
‘What if we can’t find the wreck, or a gale catches us on the reef while we are searching? We ourselves could be cast away.’
She had laid a hand on his arm, looked into his eyes and said firmly, ‘Hector, I’ve seen your skill with charts. You can bring a vessel safely through those reefs. That’s what you excel at, just as Dan can dive, or Jacques can cook, and Jezreel can wield a backsword.’
He had still been doubtful. ‘The Kergonans own the only vessel available. And they are demanding advance payment of the charter, plus a half share in anything we recover. They’re a bunch of grasping crooks.’
She had leaned up and kissed him. ‘Yesterday I happened to meet Anne-Marie Kergonan on the foreshore. She told me that you had been discussing the charter with her. She was very friendly. She told me that morvaut is the Breton word for a cormorant. Hector, take it as an omen – it’s a greedy bird but one that gorges on its catch.’
Hector was wakened from his reverie by a slight lurch. The skiff had reached Dan’s marker buoy and Jezreel was unshipping his oars. The big man picked up the kedge anchor lying on the bottom boards. ‘Ready?’ he asked. Hector checked that the coil of anchor line was free and nodded.
Jezreel dropped the anchor overboard, and the last few fathoms of cable ran out with a thrumming sound. As soon as the anchor had settled on the seabed, the big man waved to the pinnace. The Kergonan brothers, helped by Jacques, began taking in the slack. The Morvaut was too small to carry a windlass so they were hauling by hand. The pinnace slowly began to take up position over the spoil ground.
Within an hour they knew they had struck lucky. Dan came across a pile of more than a hundred pieces of eight on the sea floor where a canvas bag had rotted and burst. In the next three dives he brought up a rich haul of tableware – jugs, spoons, bowls, forks and goblets, all in massive silver.
‘I wonder if any of the galleon’s crew survived the wreck?’ Hector asked Roparzh Kergonan. He was on the pinnace’s deck, trying to divide the spoil into two equal piles, one for the Bretons, and one for himself and his friends. Roparzh was hovering over him, making sure that Hector was not cheating. Hector could smell the rum on the man’s breath.
‘Someone usually lives,’ grunted Roparzh. ‘Clings to flotsam and is washed ashore or gets clear in a ship’s boat.’
Hector turned his attention to a large silver dish. Dan had found it wedged in a crevice in the coral. The dish was engraved with an ornate coat of arms, and Hector guessed that it had been the property of an officer on the galleon, someone from a noble family.
‘How do we divide this item fairly?’ he asked the Breton. ‘Hack it up with an axe and weigh out the scraps,’ came the blunt reply.
Hector winced inwardly at the thought. ‘It is a match with the other pieces. They’ll be worth more as a set.’
‘And the first person we try to fence it to will recognize the mark and guess how we got our hands on it. Might even know the family.’
‘Only if that person is familiar with the crests and emblems of Spanish families.’
Roparzh was looking at him as if he was simple-minded. ‘You mean the Spaniards buy goods stolen out of their own wrecks?’ Hector said.
‘There’s more goes on than either Madrid or London knows about.’
The Breton decided that he had said enough. He shovelled up his share of the coins and put them in a pouch. Without asking, he took the silver dish out of Hector’s hand and slouched away with it. Hector decided that it was not worth making an issue of the matter and went to help Dan as he climbed out of the water.
The Miskito was exhausted. He flopped down on the deck and leaned back against the bulwarks to rest. His eyes were closed, and the water ran off his body, making dark patterns across the deck. He looked utterly spent. After a minute or two, he opened his eyes. They were red-rimmed from the time spent underwater.
‘We have to watch our backs now,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Hector asked.
Dan’s eyes flicked to the stern where the Kergonan brothers were huddled together. They were double-checking their haul of coins and silverware. ‘One dark night when we are asleep, they may take the chance to be rid of us.’
He lifted one hand and made a cutting motion across his throat.
The discovery of the silver candelabrum was the start of their reward. In the next five days of diving on the wreck Dan brought up nearly two hundred more coins. They were mostly cobs, misshaped slugs of metal that scarcely looked like money. Yet each one bore an assayer’s monogram that proved it was genuine silver. He also retrieved twenty-three gold doubloons and an assortment of tableware and jewellery – pendants, bracelets and necklaces. Under the mistrustful gaze of the Kergonans everything was sorted and divided. As the value of the haul increased, so too did the tension on board. It boiled over on the afternoon Dan brought up a leather purse from the sea floor. Jacques slit open the soggy purse and tipped a dozen emeralds out on to the deck. A drunken Roparzh Kergonan gave a great whoop of triumph and reached forward to grab the spoil. But Jacques beat him to it. The Frenchman quietly picked up one of the jewels and held it up to the sunlight. He had worked with a Paris fence and knew how to spot a fake. Without hesitation he declared that the ‘emeralds’ were nothing more than chunks of coloured glass. It was as if he had blatantly swindled the Breton. Roparzh leaped on him and seized him by the throat and would have strangled him if Jezreel had not intervened.
That night was Hector’s turn to be on anchor watch. Seated on the foredeck in the pre-dawn darkness, he knew that the salvage operation had to end very soon. Even if the Kergonans could be kept under control, less than half a barrel of drinking water remained. With no fresh water on the two nearby islands, they would soon be forced to leave the wreck site and head for home. As he was idly speculating how much his share of the salvage would be worth, he became aware of someone creeping stealthily towards him. He was about to call out a challenge when a low voice said, ‘I thought I’d join you.’ A moment later Anne-Marie Kergonan sat down beside him. ‘It’s too hot to sleep,’she said, looking along the length of the silent ship.
In the faint starlight Hector could make out that she was wearing a loose nightgown of some pale material and that it had slipped to one side, so the shoulder nearest to him was bare. There was a waft of some sort of musky scent from the perfume she was wearing.
‘What are you going to do with your share of the findings?’ she asked after a long pause.
Hector kept his voice as neutral as possible. ‘I’ve no idea. Depends on how much there is.’
She turned her face towards him, and he was conscious of the shape of the soft mouth, the lips parted. Her hand reached up and caught back a strand of hair that hung loose. The movement was smooth, seductive. ‘No idea at all?’
He didn’t know how to answer, and she went on. ‘I met that new wife of yours in Tortuga. She’s very attractive. I’m sure you miss her.’
‘Maria is a remarkable woman.’ His reply was cautious.
Anne-Marie gave a throaty chuckle. ‘And an understanding one, I would guess. Most women are when they want to keep their man.’
She shifted position, a slight movement that brought her thigh a fraction closer to him. Perhaps it was his imagination but he felt soft warmth radiating from her. ‘How old are you, Hector?’she asked.
‘And how many women have you known?’
He was flustered, stumbling in his reply. ‘A few.’
‘Well before I was your age,’she said, ‘I had learned to seize the opportunities that came my way. It had become clear to me that life passes by those who hesitate, and I resolved to conduct my life as I wanted, follow my instincts, and not behave as others would tell me or expect of me.’
‘Is that why on Tortuga they call you “the Tigress”?’ he said boldly.
A soft laugh. ‘Some people find me to be fierce. Others say that I am wilful. I see it as pride in what I am and what I can do.’ The light was strengthening. The sea around them was changing from inky black to a very faint sheen of dark blue. He noticed that she was watching him closely, her eyes in shadow.
She gave a slow, deliberate smile. He read both triumph and invitation. ‘Unless you take the chances that life offers, you do not taste what it is to live fully.’
She leaned towards him and stroked him gently on the bare forearm. He gave an involuntary shiver.
‘Not now, and not here,’she said, glancing meaningfully towards the stern. Hector could make out the shape of her oldest brother, asleep on deck beside the binnacle.
She stood up, smoothing down the loose gown and hitching it up over the naked shoulder. Despite himself, he felt a surge of desire. He wanted to rise to his feet and put his arms around her, and press her ripe body close to him. But she bent down and laid a finger on his lips. ‘Perhaps when it is more convenient,’she said quietly. A moment later she was gone, gliding along the deck in her bare feet, and ducking in through the low door of the aft cabin.
Hector sat very still. He was uncomfortably aware that from now on he would find it difficult to expunge Anne-Marie Kergonan from his mind.
It was at that moment, with his mind in confusion, that he looked up and saw, very faintly, a tiny speck of white on the distant horizon.
Juan Garcia Fonseca moved about the deck of his urca, San Gil, with a dragging limp. Each time he stepped out with his right foot, he had then to swivel his lower body, heave, and lift his left foot forward. He had been sailing the triangle between Cartagena, Porto Bello and Havana nearly all his life, and in that time he had been shipwrecked four times and fought off countless attacks from English and Dutch pirates. Once he had nearly lost his ship to a gang of African slaves who had got free of their chains below deck. Firing a swivel gun down the hatchway had restored order, at the cost of one member of his own crew whom they had taken hostage. With such an eventful career behind him, it was natural that most observers imagined his pronounced limp was the result of an injury during one of his many near-escapes from disaster. Only those who had known Juan Garcia since his early childhood in Cartagena knew that his infirmity was in fact an accident of birth. He had been born with a twisted hip. When he reached his teens, he had come to the conclusion that strong arms and a good grip aboard ship would make up for awkward legs on land, and had persuaded his father, a bookish civil servant, to let him go to sea. He had prospered, saved up enough money to buy his own vessel, and shown the shipwrights where to fit plenty of handholds within his easy reach. Now, forty years later, he accepted that his urca was outdated in design, notoriously slow through the water and handled like a pig against the wind. But her broad, oldfashioned hull still provided plenty of cargo space and made her very stable. He had named her after the patron saint of cripples, and he had no intention of replacing the San Gil.
Juan Garcia was standing with his son Felipe, watching the swells heap up on the edge of the reef as the urca skirted southward along the Vipers. ‘If you read the signs, you have plenty of warning,’ Juan Garcia was saying. He never lost a chance to pass on his knowledge. One day, perhaps in a couple of years, Felipe would be taking over as captain.
‘There.’ Juan Garcia pointed to where a sudden smear of white foam showed the presence of a coral head. ‘If the swell comes from a direction different from the wind and is much bigger than usual, that tells you a hurricane is lurking out to the east.’
He paused and watched the humped back of a swimming turtle appear briefly above the waves. The creature raised its head and gazed briefly at the ship, the bright eyes and hooked beak like a predatory bird. Then its flippers moved gently and it sank from view.
‘And if the air becomes hot and heavy and the shirt sticks to your back even though the weather is fine and clear, be on your guard.’
Felipe Fonseca had heard his father’s hurricane lecture many times. To provoke him he murmured, ‘Are you not worried that the stars were twinkling so brightly last night?’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ his father demanded, falling into the trap.
‘A sailor in Havana told me that the Philippines people believe that when the stars twinkle very brightly, it means a storm is coming.’
‘Why should they think that?’
‘They claim that there’s a great wind far, far up in the sky. When it blows really strongly, it makes the stars flicker. Then, because it can’t extinguish the stars, the wind loses its temper. It swoops down on the earth as a gale.’
‘Pure superstition,’ grunted his father. He was feeling guilty that he had lied to his son. He had told him that he would risk the Vipers so early in the season because it was Felipe’s duty to be back in Cartagena when his son’s young wife gave birth. But the true reason for haste was that Juan Garcia himself was anxious. A clumsy midwife had caused his own affliction, and he dreaded that his first grandchild would suffer the same mishap. He wanted to be at home to make sure that the midwife was the best that he could hire.
Putting the thought out of his mind, he returned to Felipe’s seafaring education. ‘If you are caught in a hurricane, never run directly before the wind. If you do, you’ll be swamped or capsize. Instead, watch the way the wind shifts. If it backs, make sail on the starboard tack and run on a broad reach until the wind heads you. Then heave to.’
He was about to go on to say that if the wind veered, the mariner should sail as fast as possible on the same starboard tack but close-hauled. This would offer the best chance of avoiding the eye of the approaching storm. But he was interrupted.
‘Father, there’s a small boat on the Vipers, fine on the starboard bow.’
Juan Garcia stared where his son pointed. His eyes were not as sharp as they used to be. It was a sign of advancing age. Perhaps he should think about turning the San Gil over to Felipe sooner.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Looks like a small pinnace. Right on the reef.’
Juan Garcia shrugged. ‘Could be anyone. We’ll pass on by.’
Twenty minutes later they heard very faintly the sound of a cannon shot.
‘They’ve fired a windward gun,’ said Felipe.
‘Bring her up two points, no more!’ his father told the helmsman, who was looking at him enquiringly. A windward gun was the recognized signal that a boat wished to communicate. The unknown pinnace was too small to be a threat, but experience told him to be very wary.
‘I can’t see any sort of flag,’ Felipe said after a while. The pinnace was close enough to make out some figures on deck. There was something untidy about her rig, the mast slightly at a slant, as if she had run aground on the coral.
More time passed, and then Felipe announced, ‘There’s a boat putting off. They’re rowing out to try to intercept us.’
‘We maintain course,’ his father growled.
Felipe let out a low whistle of surprise. ‘There’s a woman in the skiff. She’s standing in the bows and waving.’
Juan Garcia caught the look of astonishment on the face of his helmsman. The man was bending his knees as he tried to peep under the mainsail and get a good look forward at the approaching boat.
‘All right then, bring her up to wind,’ he ordered reluctantly. He had a crew of six, without counting himself and Felipe. They were more than enough to beat off any attack from a skiff. ‘Bring a couple of blunderbusses up from my cabin and make sure the primings are dry.’
Aboard the Morvaut there had been angry words. Scarcely had Hector warned there was a ship on the horizon than the Kergovan brothers were on their feet. Roparzh and Yacut ran to the anchor cable and began to haul in the slack. Yannick hastily cleared the halyards, ready to hoist sail and flee. But a few minutes later their sister emerged from the cabin, took one look at the distant sail and yelled angrily at them. She was shouting in Breton so Hector could only guess that she was cursing them. She looked formidable. Her skin was flushed with anger, and for a moment Hector thought she was about to walk over to Yannick and slap him across the face.
Jacques and Jezreel were also poised, ready to help retrieve the anchor. She switched to English, ordering them to stop. ‘We wait until we know who they are. They could be French or English.’
‘They’re Spanish, that’s for sure. No one else in these waters,’ retorted Jacques.
Anne-Marie rounded on him. ‘Use your head. If that boat is indeed a Spanish cruiser, I doubt we can outrun her.’ She turned to face Hector.
‘Hector,’she snapped. ‘You’ve been exploring the reef. Can you find a channel and pilot Morvaut through the Vipers?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Hector dubiously. He was astonished to see the change from the flirtatious woman who had sat beside him less than two hours earlier.
‘Good. But that’s only if things go wrong.’ she rounded on her brothers and reverted to Breton, loosing a stream of orders.
Roparzh and Yacut stopped hauling on the anchor line. Yannick, looking surly, went to slack off the shrouds so that the mast leaned out badly off true.
‘What’s all that about?’ asked Jacques, cocking an eye at the drunken angle of the spar.
‘To make it look as though the Morvaut has run aground,’ Hector suggested.
‘That won’t deceive anyone,’ Jacques muttered under his breath.
Hector could see that Anne-Marie was trying to draw the foreign ship closer, but he did not understand why.
‘Wouldn’t it be better to let them sail on past?’ he asked her. ‘And miss the chance to continue fishing the wreck!’she replied sharply. Eyes narrowed, she was watching the urca. ‘She’s altering course to come a little more towards us. Definitely a Spaniard, a merchantman. Roparzh, get the skiff ready. You and Yannick come with me. I’m going to talk with that vessel.’
She turned to Hector. ‘How good’s your Spanish?’
‘My mother came from Galicia.’
‘I want you to interpret. We ’re going to get ourselves some water and food.’
Hector hesitated. There was something about Anne-Marie’s belligerent confidence that made him uneasy.
‘The Morvaut is chartered to fish for wrecks, not for piracy,’ he warned.
She tossed her head dismissively. ‘We’ll pay the Spaniards for what we need. But they’ll only deal with us if they think we have permission from their authorities to be here.’
She snapped an order at Roparzh, who shambled off and returned with a handful of silver coins that she tucked into a pocket of her loose breeches.
‘Hector, I want you to tell the captain of that boat that we have been sent here from Porto Bello to make a proper chart of the Vipers.’
Hector looked at her in surprise. ‘Why would he believe such a tale?’
‘Show him those sketches of the reef you’ve been making. Flatter him. Ask him if he can add to our information. I speak reasonable Spanish, but not enough to be convincing.’
Hector glanced across at Jacques, who shrugged. ‘Go ahead, Hector. If it works, we can stay here for a few more days of fishing.’ Roparzh and Yannick had already brought the skiff alongside and were seated at the oars. Satchel in hand, Hector swung over the rail and joined them. Anne-Marie Kergonan stepped into her cabin and reappeared wearing a broad sash of red silk. Then she jumped into the bows of the tender and the skiff pushed off.
As they approached the urca, they could see her crew lining the rail. All of them, including the two men who were pointing blunderbusses in their direction, were staring in fascination at Anne-Marie. She turned and waved, taking care to reveal her generous figure. ‘Necesitamos el agua!’she called. To Hector she hissed, ‘Tell them that we are surveying the reefs and are willing to pay for food and water.’
Hector translated, and a stocky figure with a thick greying beard called out that the skiff could come alongside but only one person at a time was to climb aboard.
In response, it was Anne-Marie who promptly clambered on to the urca. Clearly this surprised the bearded man, whom Hector took to be the captain. ‘You’d better come up as well,’ he called down to Hector. ‘But the others stay where they are.’
Hector hoisted himself up on to the urca, his satchel of maps slung across his shoulder. The bearded man looked his two visitors up and down with suspicion. ‘You want water?’
‘Yes, and some stores if you can spare them,’ Hector answered. A young man stood next to the captain. Judging by their resemblance, they were father and son. The rest of the crew– several older mariners and a cabin boy – were unremarkable.
‘It’s too hot to stand here in the sun,’said the captain. He turned and limped heavily towards a door at the break of the aft deck. He stood aside to let Anne-Marie precede him, and Hector had to duck to follow them into the captain’s accommodation. A curtained bunk was built into one bulkhead. There was a small table, a couple of chairs, and a cushioned bench running the width of the little cabin. ‘Please be seated,’ said the captain. He lowered himself on to one of the chairs and used both hands to move his useless leg into a more comfortable position. Anne-Marie took her place on the bench, and Hector, preferring to keep his distance, sat on one of the chairs.
‘Felipe!’ called the captain through the open door. ‘Come in and join us and bring some wine.’ A few moments later the young man appeared holding an onion-shaped flask of wine and four small leather tankards that he placed on the table before his father. Anne-Marie moved farther along the bench so the captain’s son could sit beside her.
‘Welcome aboard the San Gil,’said the captain. He leaned forward and splashed a generous portion of red wine into each tankard. ‘I am Juan Garcia Fonseca, and my ship is bound for our home port, Cartagena.’
He looked enquiringly at Hector.
‘Enrique Benavides of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers, at your service,’ Hector said, ‘and this is Anne-Marie Bretana, owner of the pinnace Morvaut.’
Fonseca gave a small bow towards Anne-Marie before addressing his next question to Hector. ‘May I ask what you are doing in these waters?’
Hector hesitated. He had been given little time to practise his deception. ‘I am on my way back to Madrid after a posting to Valdivia as Deputy Inspector of Fortifications.’ Valdivia was three thousand miles away at the far end of Peru. It was a reasonable guess that Captain Juan Fonseca had never been there or knew any of the citizens. ‘In Panama I received instructions to interrupt my journey and make more accurate charts of reefs in this region.’
‘Not the best time of year to do so,’ commented the Spaniard drily.
‘Due to the recent heavy loss of shipping on this route, the matter was considered to be of the utmost importance.’ Hector opened his satchel and began to set out his sketch maps. ‘I’m hoping that you might be able to add some extra details, from your own experience of these waters.’
Juan Fonseca leafed through one sheet after another, and nodded approvingly. ‘It will be a real service to mariners if we can get decent charts of this region. I am able to add some information about the currents.’
Hector heard a voice calling outside. He guessed it was a Spanish crew member trying to start a conversation with the two Kergonan brothers waiting in the skiff.
The captain picked up his tankard and raised it as a toast.
‘I think it appropriate to raise a glass to the memory of Carlos Serrano,’ he said.
‘To Carlos Serrano,’ echoed Hector cautiously. He had not the least idea who Carlos Serrano was. But Captain Fonseca obviously thought he was someone whose memory was worthy of respect.
The captain took a sip of wine and put down his tankard. ‘Now,’ he said casually, ‘tell me the truth. Tell me who you really are and what you are doing here.’
Hector blustered. ‘As I said, I am surveying the Vipers—’
Fonseca cut him short. ‘. . . The Vipers are marked on official maps as the Serrano Bank. They are named after the castaway Pedro Serrano who was shipwrecked there. He survived on his own for eight years, eating turtles and catching rainwater in their upturned shells. He was covered in a thick pelt of hair like a beast when they found him, so it is said. There’s not a sailor in Panama who would not have told you the tale, and you would have known his name was Pedro, not Carlos.’
The captain smiled grimly. ‘Señor Benavides, if that is your real name, which I doubt, I suggest that you tell me the truth about yourself and this charming lady here.’
‘Here is the truth,’ interrupted Anne-Marie. She reached inside her scarlet sash and produced a short-barrelled pistol. There was a click as she cocked the weapon and placed it against the head of Felipe Fonseca. ‘We only want some fresh water and a little food. Nothing that you can’t spare. Then you can proceed on your way.’
Captain Fonseca sat very still. Then he spoke slowly and carefully. ‘It is a novelty to be waylaid aboard my own ship by a woman.’ He looked completely unperturbed. ‘Felipe,’ he said to his son, ‘do exactly as you are told. I suspect the lady means what she says.’
He levered himself to his feet and limped out of the cabin, followed by Felipe with Anne-Marie still holding the gun to his head.
The moment Anne-Marie emerged on deck, she let out a piercing whistle. In response her two brothers in the skiff rowed across and clambered aboard. It was all done with so little fuss that Hector had the feeling that this routine was something the Bretons had done before. Wordlessly Yannick and Roparzh removed the two blunderbusses from the crew of the urca and herded the sailors into a group.
As they shuffled meekly together, the Spanish cabin boy took it into his head to make a dash at Anne-Marie, trying to seize her pistol. Hector was so surprised that, without a second thought, he reached out and grabbed the lad by the collar. The boy swung round, flailing in the air with his fists, until a sharp command from Captain Fonseca made him stop.
Felipe had gone pale, but Anne-Marie’s hand was as steady as her voice. ‘Hector, select two men from the crew and supervise them while they fetch water jars and place them in our boat. Roparzh, see what sails there are.’
‘At least leave me a jib,’said the Spanish captain calmly. He seemed to know exactly what the Bretons were doing.
Her brother prodded one of the Spanish sailors with the muzzle of his blunderbuss. ‘Gouel!’ he ordered in Breton, and when the man looked blank, pointed up at the San Gil’s mainsail. ‘Voiles! Vela!’ and followed the sailor below.
Hector picked out two of the older Spaniards, and they began to lug the heavy water jars from their stowage by the galley. As they lowered the jars into the Morvaut’s tender, Roparzh reappeared with the Spanish sailor. Between them they were dragging a length of canvas which they dumped near the mast. Next Yannick eased off the main halyard until the mainsail lay in an untidy heap on deck.
With her free hand Anne-Marie beckoned to the cabin boy, who stood glowering at her. ‘You help the cook, don’t you?’ she said in slow, careful Spanish.
The lad nodded.
‘Fetch me his oil,’ she said.
‘Do as she says,’ ordered Fonseca quietly. He appeared to accept whatever was to happen next. The boy meekly went off on his errand. More sails were heaped on deck. The cabin boy came back with a greasy pan of cooking oil and was told to dump it on the cloth. As Hector brought the last water jar from the galley, he met Roparzh with a rum bottle in his hand. The Breton took a swig. ‘Pity about the waste. But I’ve found a small keg which I’ll put in the skiff,’ he said. He sprinkled the remaining contents of the bottle on the heap of canvas. Hector saw growing distress on the faces of the crew.
Finally Roparzh fetched a lump of glowing charcoal from the galley and tossed it on the sails.
In the hot sunshine everyone stood and watched in silence as the fire gradually took hold. A tendril of grey smoke oozed upwards. There was a slight explosive puff as a puddle of rum caught alight. A line of flame ran up a fold of dry canvas, and suddenly all of San Gil’s sails were ablaze except for a single headsail which had been left hanging from its stay.
Anne-Marie pressed the pistol more firmly to Felipe’s head. ‘Can you swim?’she asked. The young man nodded cautiously.
She addressed his father. ‘Captain Fonseca, if anyone shoots at us, you will be pulling your son’s corpse from the sea.’
‘I understand,’ said Juan Garcia wearily.
Anne-Marie began to hustle Felipe into the skiff. ‘Come on, Hector,’ she said. ‘It’s time to go.’ Hector climbed down into the boat. Roparzh handed down a small keg of rum to his brother, and the two Breton men took their places and began to row. As the gap widened between the skiff and the urca, Anne-Marie reached into a pocket, withdrew a handful of silver cobs, and flung them. The scatter of money arced through the air and clattered on to the deck of the urca. The crew paid no attention. They were busy with buckets, dipping up seawater to douse the fire.
Anne-Marie tapped her prisoner on the shoulder. ‘Over you go,’ she said cheerfully. Felipe, white-faced, slid over the side and began to swim back to the urca.
Hector glared at her. ‘We agreed no piracy,’ he said accusingly. She showed white teeth in a mischievous smile. ‘I only said that I would pay for what we needed. How long do you think it would be before they sent the guarda costa after us? With only a single foresail it’ll take Captain Fonseca at least a week to get to Cartagena, enough time for us to finish exploring the wreck. Then we head for Tortuga.’
She glanced back at the urca. The plume of smoke was gone.
The fire must have been under control.
‘Captain Fonseca has suffered only a scorched deck, and perhaps an injury to his pride,’ she said.
When they reached the Morvaut Anne-Marie climbed aboard first and, turning, held out her hand for Hector to pass up his satchel of maps. He stood up and held out the satchel at arm’s length. At that moment Yannick deliberately caused the tender to tip. It was a sudden, violent lurch, intended to throw Hector into the water. Caught off-guard, Hector lost his balance and seized the proffered hand. With one smooth movement Anne-Marie hoisted him safely up to the deck. For a long moment she stood, holding his hand in hers. Then she gave a brief and unmistakable squeeze of invitation.
Excerpted from Privateer: Pirate 4 by Tim Severin. Copyright © 2014 by Tim Severin.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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