Wednesday, April 20, 2005


A Pirate Tale 75

Feverish days of activity followed. The ships, anchored now in the cove below the still-smoking volcano, were repaired, watered and readied for their long journeys to their various destinations. A search party had been sent inland to track down Fanny, but found nothing more than a few holes scratched randomly in the soil.

A dispute arose between the captains of the two pirate ships on the one hand and Tharp over supplies. Juan’s Blood Oath was still fairly well off, as it had been operating with a short crew since reaching Africa months ago. This would come in handy, as Sir Nigel had agreed to use the ship to convey the remaining 40 girls, kidnapped from their boarding school in the Tortugas, back to their well-to-do homes in England. Mad Sally had agreed to accompany them as their guardian, to Chumbucket’s consternation.

The Festering Boil was a different story. It had stocked what provisions it could during its careening on the African coast, but had not been in a port in months and had taken only one prize during the long chase to Diego Garcia. The galley was short of everything. Had it not been for the 60 barrels of salted pork taken from the Dutch merchantmen in the Atlantic, things might have been pretty grim. Still, there’s only so much a chef, even one as talented as Black Butch, can do to disguise from the crew that it’s salt pork for dinner again.

But Tharp was adamant. “These are the property of the crown of England, and I am not going to go back to London and explain to the king why I gave his property to two shiploads of pirates …”

“Dutch fishermen,” Slappy inserted.

Tharp rolled his eyes.

“Very well, Dutch fishermen, or Polish philosophers or French ditch diggers. You’re not getting the king’s property.”

“We helped you stop a plot that would have had serious repercussions for the king,” Slappy pointed out. “We were instrumental in your victory. You said so.”

“Not in the report,” Tharp said. “And even if that is true, I will not, cannot provide you with supplies from HMS Susan’s Doily.”

“How do you propose we feed our sailors on the voyage to the Caribbean? You’re not suggestion we steal what we need, are you?” Slappy asked.

“There is an East Indies Company outpost five days sail from here. They’d be happy to sell you supplies,” Tharp said.

“They’d be happy to send us to the bottom if they had a few ships on hand,” Slappy retorted.

“Really? Two harmless shiploads of Dutch fishermen?” Tharp asked innocently. “Well then, all I can suggest is the obvious. You say you’re fishermen; Get out the nets.”

Slappy turned to go, then stopped, turned back. Checking to make sure no one was listening, he hissed at his brother, “Remember your pet hamster, the one that ‘ran away’ when you were 12?’ Mother told you that, remember?” Tharp jerked his head in one sharp nod. Slappy continued. “That was a lie. My cat Stinger ate him. Slowly.”

It was a more subdued Admiral Tharp who called for Slappy’s presence on the Doily two days later, when the repairs had almost been completed. Slappy knew it had something to do with the small, expensive but well-armed yacht flying the flag of Sweden. The ship had appeared that morning and quickly sailed into the cove and anchored near Tharp’s flagship. From his vantage aboard the Boil Slappy saw Tharp being rowed over to the new arrival, where he was met on the deck by a short, dowdy woman with a small dog tucked under her arm. The woman, looking stern, led Tharp below.

He re-emerged some two hours later with a bundle of papers under his arm, Slappy noted, keeping watch through his spyglass, and returned to his own ship. Half an hour after that Slappy saw signal flags going up the mast of the warship, flags he decided to ignore. The warship fired a single cannon to draw attention to the flags. Still Slappy waited. Finally a longboat was dispatched from the British ship. A Royal Marine approached Slappy on the poopdeck, where Slappy reclined carelessly in a hammock strung between the railing and mast

“Begging your pardon, mijn goede heer,” the officer said, offering a salute that Slappy let pass. “The admiral would like a word with you.”

“Sorry, but if I have the word I want to with your admiral, one or both of us might end up dead. I think I’ll stay here.”

“He said you might take that attitude. He said I was to say ‘please.’”

That brought Slappy’s head up. THAT was a new one. Lord Sir Admiral Percival Winthorpe Mandrake Tharp NEVER said please. He took things as if they were his due, like all members of his blasted class. Bastards thought because they were born rich they could treat the world like … Slappy restrained himself from going off on a political rant and addressed the Marine.

“Please, huh? Well, if the admiral is going to say ‘please,’ how can I resist? Who knows, maybe he’ll even say thank you!”

Slappy had often seen his brother upset. Indeed, he was often the cause of the admiral’s discomfiture. But he had never seen him as shaken as he appeared to be now, three days after the triumphant end of his mission.

“Sit down,” Tharp said tersely.

Slappy did so, accepting a glass of port from the orderly. In deference to the other man’s obvious distress, he even refrained from spilling it on the expensive carpet.

“That will be all, Fiffington. You may leave us alone please,” Tharp said. The orderly left, closing the door behind him.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this audience, your worshipfulness?” Slappy began.

“Not now, Mortimer. I have something to ask you, something important.”

“Well you’re starting off badly, if you’re going to start calling me that name again,” Slappy said, getting to his feet to better launch his port at the tapestry.

“Oh sit down and stop sloshing your drink. That’s 80-year-old port,” Tharp snapped reflexively. “Listen, please, just sit down.”

“Please again? What’s up Percy? I’ve never seen you like this.”

“I have to ask you something. It’s along the lines of a … it’s rather a …”

“Percival Winthorpe Mandrake, are you about to ask me for a favor?”

Tharp winced at the word “favor,” but plowed on.

“Just listen, alright. Just listen. It’s about my son.”

Slappy grinned malevolently. “You mean the young man born of an all-too conventional arrangement between a young ensign and an obliging parlourmaid, an ensign who has in the intervening 20 some odd years grown up to be a powerful, well-placed admiral?”

“What? Him? No, no. Good heavens, why would I be asking you about him? No, I’m talking about my son and heir, your nephew, Mandrake Bulwer Pondicherry Tharp.”

“That prat??!? What’s he done? Forgotten how to tie the perfect knot in his cravat? Or has he lost money at the tables again? Really Percy, you should teach him not to try to draw to an inside straight. What else are fathers for?”

“Would you shut up and listen!!” Tharp barked. “I know you dislike the lad, but he is the next heir to the estate. What is more, he is family. And he’s in trouble.”

Slappy sat down quietly. As fun as it was to taunt his brother, he had never seen the man so upset.

“That yacht that came into the cove today is the personal ship of Princess Matilda of Sweden. She came here under cover of attending a symposium on controlling piracy.” Slappy grinned at this, but Tharp ignored him and continued. “She bears my orders for my next mission. Without going into details, it requires me to immediately head to Stockholm. A matter of some missing crown jewels.”

At the word “jewels” Slappy’s ear perked up and he quickly scanned Tharp’s desk. That thick envelope one the edge of the desk. That had to be it. “What possible interest could jewels be to me?” he asked.

Tharp threw him a baleful look. “No, I can’t imagine you’d possibly be interested in a million pounds in jewels, innocent Dutch fisherman that you are. But listen. She also carried a personal dispatch. My son Mandrake purchased a position aboard a Royal Naval vessel and set out to hunt pirates in the Caribbean.”

Slappy didn’t mean to spit on the expensive antique desk, but this news caused him to snort up the port he had been sipping. It took a full minute of coughing before he could regain his breath.

“Hunting pirates in the Caribbean? Well, I’ll make sure to look him up,” he finally managed to croak out.

“Shut up, damn you. Listen. He was executive officer to Captain Theodore “Toasty” Gustafson. They were to spend two years cruising the Caribbean suppressing the pirate trade. They made it as far as Port Royal, where their ship, HMS Tigershark, docked and Gustafson sent a report to London.”

“Well, if they couldn’t find pirates in Port Royal, they weren’t looking very hard,” Slappy said, more to himself.

“He reported that he was heading for Hispaniola and then going southwest searching for pirates. They stood out to sea, and they haven’t been seen since. The governor of Anguilla reported debris from a shipwreck on that tiny island, and merchantman in the vicinity reported finding an empty dinghy from the Tigershark. But Anguilla is on the eastern edge ...”

“The eastern edge of the islands,” Slappy chimed in, suddenly curious, “exactly opposite of the direction he said he was sailing.”

“Right. The admiralty has written the ship off and won’t send a search mission. As far as they’re concerned, the ship is lost with all 200 souls, including my son,” Tharp said.

“Why don’t you search yourself?” Slappy said. “You’ve got this ship and all these men.”

“As I told you,” Tharp said, “I’ve been ordered to Stockholm. Duty calls.” Slappy had never heard such a bitter tone in Tharp’s voice.

“So that brings us to this. I have to ask a favor of you Mortimer.”

Slappy saw it coming. He didn’t help his brother out, but waited and made him voice it.

“Will you go to the Caribbean and search for my son?”

“Can you have any doubt?” Slappy said. “This is more than some silly matter of life or death, good or evil, pirate or navy, landed gentry or dispossessed bastard descendant of the ancient king of Ireland.”

“Once and for all, Mortimer, you are NOT the king of Ireland,” Tharp cried in frustration. Slappy looked shocked.

“I’m hurt to the quick that you would take a moment of this gravity to engage in personal slights,” Slappy said, hitting exactly the right tone of reproach. “This is about blood, and I had hoped we could put aside such …”

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. You’re right of course. That’s all that matters. So, will you do this for me?”

Slappy glowed inwardly. When was the last time he had the chance to put his elder brother in a position of asking a favor, of owing him one?

“Of course I will,” said Slappy, who was bound for the Caribbean anyway. “You have but to ask, and I will put aside my own plans to search for the lad. This is, after all, family.”

Tharp looked genuinely touched. He reached out and took Slappy’s hand.

“Is there anything I can do to help you in your search? Charts? The latest reports?”

“Those would both be helpful, of course,” Slappy said. “But there’s something of more immediate importance.”

“Name it.”

“We could use some provisions.”

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