his head in a way that seemed to mean both yes and no simultaneously
and then pointed into the dark and shrugged, emitting fragments of
"_Em frente Sahib. Diretamente em frente._"
Then he gestured toward the waist of the ship and seemed to
be asking the depth reading.
As though in answer, the bosun's voice came again, trembling.
"Five fathom, Cap'n, and still dropping."
"Cinco." Elkington translated, but his concerned tone was
a question. What does it mean?
The pilot shouted an alarm in Gujarati and threw his fragile weight
against the whipstaff. The _Resolve_ pitched and shuddered, groaning
like some mourning animal at tether, but it no longer seemed to respond
to the rudder.
Kerridge glared at the pilot in dismay.
"Tell the blathering heathen steady as she goes. She'll take - "
The deck tipped crazily sideways, and a low grind seemed to pass up
through its timbers. Then the whipstaff kicked to port, strained
against its rope, and with a snap from somewhere below, drifted free.
The _Resolve _careened dangerously into the wind, while a wave caught
the waist of the ship and swept the bosun and his sounding line into
"Whorin' Mary, Mother of God, we've lost the rudder." Mackintosh lunged
down the companionway toward the main deck, drawing a heavy knife from
his belt. As the frightened seamen clung to the tilting deck and braced
themselves against the shrouds, he began slashing the lines securing
the main sail.
Another wave seemed to catch the _Resolve_ somewhere beneath her stern
quarter gallery and lifted her again. She poised in midair for a long
moment, then groaned farther into the sand. As the frigate tipped,
Mackintosh felt a rumble from the deck below and at that instant he
knew with perfect certainty the _Resolve _was doomed to go down. A
cannon had snapped its securing lines and jumped its blocks. He grabbed
a shroud and braced himself.
Then it came, the muffled sound of splintering as the cannon bore
directly through the hull, well below the waterline of the heeling
"Takin' water in the hold." A frightened shout trailed out through the
The seamen on decks still clung to the shrouds, wedging themselves
against the gunwales.
"Man the pumps in the well, you fatherless pimps." Mackintosh shouted
at the paralyzed seamen, knowing it was already too late, and then he
began to sever the moorings of the longboat lashed to the mainmast.
Elkington was clinging to the lateen mast, winding a safety line about
his waist and bellowing unintelligible instructions into the dark for
hoisting the chests of silver bullion from the hold.
No one on the quarterdeck had noticed when its railing splintered,
sending Captain Kerridge and the Indian pilot into the dark sea.
"The strumpet luck seems to have switched her men tonight, Captain
Hawksworth, like a _nautch_ girl when her _karwa_'s rupees are spent."
Mirza Nuruddin signaled for his hookah to be relighted. He had just
thrown another row of three sixes, and was now near to taking the
seventh game, giving him six to Hawksworth's one. All betting on
Hawksworth had stopped after the fourth game. "But the infinite will of
God is always mysterious, mercifully granting us what we need more
often than what we want."
Hawksworth had studied the last throw carefully, through the haze of
brandy, and he suddenly realized Mirza Nuruddin had been cheating.
By Jesus, the dice are weighted. He sets them up somehow in the cup,
then slides them quickly across the carpet. Damn me if he's not a
thief. But why bother to cheat me? I only laid five sovereigns on the
He pushed aside the confusion and reflected again on the astounding
genius who sat before him now, cheating at dice.
His plan was masterful. Host a gathering for the captains at the bar
the night we will unload. Even the Portuguese. No one in command of a
ship will be at the river mouth, no one who could possibly interfere.
All our wool's already been unladed and brought overland to Surat. Then
we transferred the ironwork and lead on the _Discovery _to the
_Resolve_. So all the lead and ironwork in cargo will be unladed by
moonlight tonight and on its way upriver by morning, before the
Portugals here even sleep off their liquor.
And the _Resolve _will be underway again by dawn, back to Swalley with
no one to challenge her. Not even the Portuguese trading frigatta, with
their laughable eight-pound stern chasers. The _Discovery _is almost
laded with cotton. Another couple of days should finish her. And then
the _Resolve_. Another two week at most, and they'll be underway.
The East India Company, the Worshipful damned East India Company, will
earn a fortune on this voyage. And a certain captain named Brian
Hawksworth will be toasted the length of Cheapside as the man who did
what Lancaster couldn't. The man who sent the East India Company's
frigates home with a cargo of the cheapest pepper in history. The
Butterbox Hollanders will be buying pepper from the East India Company
next year and cursing Captain Brian Hawksworth.
Or will it be Sir Brian Hawksworth?
He tried the name on his tongue as he swirled the dice for one last
throw. This time he tried to duplicate the Shahbandar's technique.
Easy swirls and then just let them slide onto the carpet as you make
some distracting remark.
"Perhaps it's Allah's will that a man make his own luck. Is that
written somewhere?" The dice slid onto the carpet and Hawksworth
reached for his brandy.
Mirza Nuruddin studied the three ivories indifferently as he drew on
his hookah. But traces of a smile showed at the corner of his lips and
his foggy eyes sparkled for an instant.
"You see, Captain Hawksworth, you never know the hand of fortune till
you play to the end." He motioned to a servant. "Refresh the English
captain's glass. I think he's starting to learn our game."
The longboat scraped crazily across the deck and into the surf. Then
another wave washed over the deck, chilling the half-naked seamen who
struggled to secure the longboat's line. Two chests of silver bullion,
newly hoisted from the hold, were now wedged against the mainmast.
Elkington clung to their handles, shouting between waves for the seamen
to lower them into the longboat.
Mackintosh ignored him.
"Hoist the line to the poop. We'll board her from the stern gallery.
Take the longboat under and drop a ladder. You and you, Garway and
Davies, bring the line about, to the gallery rail."
The current tugged at the longboat, but its line held secure and the
seamen passed the end up the companionway and toward the stern gallery,
where the rope ladder was being played out.
"The longboat'll not take all the men and the silver. Blessed Jesus,
there's ten thousand pound sterling in these chests." Elkington gasped
as another wave washed over him, sending his hat into the surf. He
seized a running seaman by the neck and yanked him toward the chests.
"Take one end, you whoreson bastard, and help hoist it through the
companionway to the poop."
But the man twisted free and disappeared toward the stem. With an oath,
Elkington began dragging the chest across the deck and down the
companionway. By the time he reached the gallery, the ladder had
already been dropped into the longboat.
And five seamen were waiting with half-pikes.
"I'll send you to hell if you try loadin' that chest." Bosun's mate
John Garway held his pike in Elkington's face. "We'll all not make it
Then Thomas Davies, acting on the thought in every man's mind, thrust
his pike through the lock hinge on the chest and wrenched it off with a
single powerful twist. "Who needs the money more, say I, the bleedin'
Worshipful Company, or a man who knows how to spend it?"
In moments a dozen hands had ripped away the lid of the chest, and
seamen began shoveling coins into their pockets. Elkington was pushed
sprawling into the companionway. Other seamen ran to begin rifling the
second chest. Silver spilled from their pockets as the men poured down
the swaying ladder into the longboat. As Elkington fought his way back
toward the stem, he took a long last look at the half-empty chests,
then began stuffing the pockets of his own doublet.
Mackintosh emerged from the Great Cabin holding the ship's log. As he
waited for the last seaman to board the longboat, he too lightened the
_Resolve _of a pocketful of silver.
With all men on board the longboat's gunwales rode a scant three inches
above waterline. Bailing began after the first wave washed over her.
Then they hoisted sail and began to row for the dark shore.
"Tonight you may have been luckier than you suppose, Captain
Hawksworth." The Shahbandar's fingers deftly counted the five
sovereigns through the leather pouch Hawksworth had handed him. Around
them the final side bets were being placed against the Portuguese
captain who would play Mirza Nuruddin next.
"It's hard to see how."
"For the price of a mere five sovereigns, Captain, you've learned a
truth some men fail to master in a lifetime." Mirza Nuruddin motioned
away the Portuguese captain, his doublet stained with wine, who waited
to take his place at the board. "I really must call the dancers now,
lest some of my old friends lose regard for our hospitality. I hope
you'll find them entertaining, Captain Hawksworth. If you've never seen
the _nautch_, you've yet to call yourself a man."
Hawksworth pulled himself up and thought about the river and slowly
worked his way through the crowd to the edge of the marble court. The
damp, chill air purged the torch smoke from his lungs and began to
sweep away the haze of brandy from his brain. He stared into the dark
and asked the winds if they knew of the _Resolve_.
Could it all have been a trap? What if he'd told the Portugals, and
they had warships waiting?
Without warning, the slow, almost reverent strains of a sarangi, the
Indian violin, stirred from the corner of the courtyard, and the crowd
shifted expectantly. Hawksworth turned to notice that a carpeted
platform had been erected directly in the center of the court, and as
he watched, a group of women, perhaps twenty, slowly began to mount
steps along its side. The torches had grown dim, but he could still see
enough to tell they all wore the veil of purdah and long skirts over
their trousers. As they moved chastely toward the center of the
platform he thought they looked remarkably like village women going to
a well, save they wore rows of tiny bells around their ankles and heavy
bangles on their wrists.
The air was rent by a burst of drumming, and the courtyard suddenly
flared as servants threw oil on the smoldering torches around the
balcony. At that instant, in a gesture of high drama, the women ripped
away their turquoise veils and flung them skyward. The crowd erupted in
Hawksworth stared at the women in astonishment.
Their skirts, the skintight trousers beneath, and their short halters -
were all gossamer, completely transparent.
The dance was underway. Hips jerked spasmodically, in perfect time with
the drummer's accelerating, hypnotic rhythms - arching now to the side,
now suggestively forward. Hawksworth found himself exploring the
dancers' mask-like faces, all heavily painted and expressionless. Then
he watched their hands, which moved in sculptural arcs through a kind
of sign language certain Indians in the crowd seemed to know. Other
hand messages were understood by all, as the women stroked themselves
intimately, in what seemed almost a parody of sensuality. As the rhythm
continued to intensify, they begap to rip away their garments one by
one, beginning with their parted waist wraps. Next their halters were
thrown to the crowd, though their breasts had long since found release
from whatever minimal containment they might have known at the
beginning of the dance. Their earth-brown skin now glistened bare in
the perfumed torchlight.
The dance seemed to Hawksworth to go on and on, incredibly building to
ever more frantic levels of intensity. The drunken crowd swayed with
the women, its excitement and expectation swelling. Then at last the
women's trousers also were ripped away, leaving them adorned with only
bangles and reflecting jewels. Yet the dance continued still, as they
writhed onto their knees at the edge of the platform. Then slowly, as
though by some unseen hand, the platform lowered to the level of the
courtyard and they glided into the drunken crowd, thrusting breasts,
thighs, against the ecstatic onlookers. The cheers had grown deafening.
Hawksworth finally turned away and walked slowly down the embankment to
the river. There, in the first hint of dawn, bathers had begun to
assemble for Hindu prayers and a ritual morning bath. Among them were
young village girls, swathed head to foot in bright-colored wraps, who
descended one by one into the chilled water and began to modestly
change garments while they bathed, chastely coiling a fresh cloth
around themselves even as the other was removed.
They had never seemed more beautiful.
Hawksworth was standing on the steps of the maidan when the sail of the
English longboat showed at the turn of the river. News of the shipwreck
had reached Surat by village runner an hour after sunup, and barks had
already been sent to try to recover the remaining silver before the
ship broke apart. The frigate was reportedly no more than a thousand
yards off the coast, and all the men, even Kerridge, the bosun, and the
pilot, had been safely carried ashore by the current.
Hawksworth watched the longboat's sail being lowered in preparation for
landing and tried to think over his next step, how to minimize the
delay and loss.
We can't risk staying on past another day or two, not with only one
vessel. If we're caught at anchor in the cove, there's nothing one ship
can do. The Portugals can send in fireships and there'll be no way to
sink them with crossfire. The _Discovery _has to sail immediately.
We've enough cotton laded now to fill the hold with pepper in Java.
Damn Kerridge. Why was he steering so close to shore? Didn't he realize
there'd be a current?
Or was it the pilot?
Were we steered into this disaster on the orders of our new friend
Mirza Nuruddin? Has he been playing false with us all along, only
claiming to help us stay clear of the Portugals? By the looks of the
traders on the _maidan_ this morning I can tell they all think we were
played for fools.
He tried to remember all the Shahbandar had said the night before,
particularly the remarks he had not understood, but now the evening
seemed swallowed in a fog of brandy.
But the game, he finally realized, had been more than a game.
"The voyage will be lucky to break even now." George Elkington slid
from the back of the sweating porter and collapsed heavily on the stone
steps. "The _Resolve _was old, but 'twill take forty thousand pound to
"What do you plan to do?" Hawksworth eyed Kerridge as he mounted the
steps, his doublet unrecognizable under the smeared mud, and decided to
"Not a damn'd thing we can do now, save lade the last of the cotton and
some indigo on the _Discovery_ and weigh anchor. And day after
tomorrow's not too soon, by my thinkin'." Elkington examined Hawksworth
and silently cursed him. He still had not swallowed his disbelief when
Hawksworth had announced, only three days before, that he planned to
leave the ships and travel to Agra with a letter from King James.
"The Shahbandar has asked to meet with you." Hawksworth motioned to
Elkington as the last seaman climbed over the side of the longboat and
onto the back of a waiting porter. "We may as well go in."
A crowd of the curious swarmed about them as they made their way across
the _maidan_ and through the customs house. Mirza Nuruddin was waiting
on his bolster.
"Captain, my sincere condolences to you and to Mr. Elkington. Please be
sure that worthless pilot will never work out of this port again. I
cannot believe he was at fault, but he'll be dealt with nonetheless."
Which is partially true, Mirza Nuruddin told himself, since my cousin
Muhammad Haidar, _nakuda _of the Rahimi, will take him on the pilgrim
ship for the next Aden run, and allow him to work there until his
reputation is repaired. "You were fortunate, at least, that the largest
part of her cargo had already been unladed."
Elkington listened to Hawksworth's translation, his face growing ever
more florid. "'Twas the damned pilot's knavery. Tell him I'd see him
hanged if this was England."
Mirza Nuruddin listened, then sighed. "Perhaps the pilot was at fault,
perhaps not. I don't quite know whose story to believe. But you should
know that in India only the Moghul can impose the death penalty. This
matter of the pilot is past saving, however. It's best we move on. So
tell me, what do you propose to do now?"
"Settle our accounts, weigh anchor, and be gone." Elkington bristled.
"But you've not heard the last o' the East India Company, I'll warrant
you. We'll be back with a fleet soon enough, and next time we'll do our
own hirin' of a pilot."
"As you wish. I'll have our accountants total your invoices." Mirza
Nuruddin face did not change as he heard the translation, but his
It worked! They'll be well at sea within the week, days before the
Portuguese warships arrive. Not even that genius of intrigue Mukarrab
Khan will know I planned it all. And by saving these greedy English
from certain disaster, I've lured to our seas the only Europeans with
the spirit to drive out the Portuguese forever, after a century of
India's historic tradition of free trade, the Shahbandar had often
thought, had also brought her undoing. Open-handed to all who came to
buy and sell, India had thrived since the beginning of time. Until the
In those forgotten days huge single-masted arks, vast as eight hundred
tons, freely plied the length of the Arabian Sea. From Mecca's Jidda
they came, groaning with the gold, silver, copper, wool, and brocades
of Italy, Greece, Damascus, or with the pearls, horses, silks of Persia
and Afghanistan. They put in at India's northern port of Cambay, where
they laded India's prized cotton, or sailed farther south, to India's
port of Calicut, where they bargained for the hard black pepper of
India's Malabar Coast, for ginger and cinnamon from Ceylon. India's own
merchants sailed eastward, to the Moluccas, where they bought silks and
porcelains from Chinese traders, or cloves, nutmeg, and mace from the
islanders. India's ports linked China on the east with Europe on the
west, and touched all that moved between. The Arabian Sea was free as
the air, and the richest traders who sailed it prayed to Allah, the One
Then, a hundred years ago, the Portuguese came. They seized strategic
ocean outlooks from the mouth of the Persian Gulf to the coast of
China. On these they built strongholds, forts to control not the lands
of Asia, but its seas. And if no man could remember the centuries of
freedom, today all knew well the simple device that held the Arabian
Sea in bondage. It was a small slip of paper, on which was the
signature of a Portuguese governor or the captain of a Portuguese fort.
Today no vessel, not even the smallest bark, dared venture the Arabian
Sea without a Portuguese _cartaz_. This hated license must name the
captain of a vessel and verify its tonnage, its cargo, its crew, its
destination, and its armament. Vessels could trade only at ports
controlled or approved by the Portuguese, where they must pay a duty of
8 percent on all cargo in and out. Indian and Arab vessels no longer
could carry spices, pepper, copper, or iron - the richest cargo and now
the monopoly of Portuguese shippers.
An Indian vessel caught at sea without a _cartaz_, or steering south
when its stated destination was north, was confiscated; its captain and
crew were executed immediately, if they were lucky, or sent to the
galleys if they were not. Fleets of armed galleons cruised the
coastlines in patrol. If a vessel gave cause for suspicion, Portuguese
soldiers boarded her in full battle dress, with naked swords and battle
cries of "Santiago." And while their commander inspected the ship's
_cartaz_, Portuguese soldiers relieved passengers of any jewelry
salable in the streets of Goa. _Cartaz_ enforcement was strict, and -
since a percentage of all seized cargo went to captains and crews of
patrol galleons - enthusiastic. The seas off India were theirs by right,
the Portuguese liked to explain, because they were the first ever to
have the ingenuity to make claim to them.
The revenues the _cartaz _brought Portugal were immense - not because it
was expensive to obtain, it cost only a few rupees, but because it
funneled every ounce of commodity traded in the Arabian Sea through a
Portuguese tax port.
And it is the Portuguese taxes, Mirza Nuruddin told himself, not just
their galleons, that the English will one day drive from our ports. And
on that day, our merchant ships will again lade the best cargo, sail
the richest routes, return with the boldest profits.
"There seems nothing further then, Mr. Elkington, I can do for you."
The Shahbandar smiled and bowed his small, ceremonial salaam. "Save
wish you a fair wind and Allah's blessing."
So it's over, Hawksworth thought as they turned to leave, the last time
I'll ever see you, and thank you very much, you unscrupulous deceiving
son of a whore.
"Captain Hawksworth, perhaps you and I can share a further word. You
are not, as I understand, planning to depart India. At least not
immediately. I'd like you always to know my modest offices remain at
Elkington paused, as did Hawksworth, but one of the Shahbandar's
officials took the merchant's arm and urged him firmly toward the door
of the chamber. Too firmly, Hawksworth thought.
"I think you've done about all for us you can." Hawksworth made no
attempt to strain the irony from his voice.
"Be that as it may, I've heard rumors that your trip to Agra may be
approved. Should that happen, you must know you cannot travel alone,
Captain. No man in India is that foolhardy. The roads here are no more
safe than those, so I hear, in Europe. All travelers inland need a
guide, and an armed escort."
"Are you proposing to help me secure a guide? Equal in competence, may
I presume, to the pilot you hired for the _Resolve_?"
"Captain Hawksworth, please. God's will is mysterious." He sighed. "No
man can thwart mischance if it is his destiny. Hear me out. I have just
learned there's currently a man in Surat who knows the road to
Burhanpur like his own sword handle. In fact, he only just arrived from
the east, and I understand he expects to return when his affairs here,
apparently brief, are _Resolve_d. By a fortuitous coincidence he
happens to have an armed escort of guards with him. I suggest it might
be wise to attempt to engage him while you still have a chance."
"And who is this man?"
"A Rajput captain with the army. A soldier of no small reputation, I
can assure you. His name is Vasant Rao."
Mukarrab Khan reread the order carefully, scrutinized the black ink
seal at the top of the page to assure himself it was indeed the
Moghul's, and then placed it aside. So at last it had come. The
prospect of English presents was too great a temptation for the
acquisitive Arangbar, ever anxious for new baubles. The Englishman
would be going to Agra. No one at court could have prevented it.
But that road - east through bandit-infested Chopda to now-threatened
Burhanpur, then north, the long road through Mandu, Ujjain, and Gwalior
to Agra - was a journey of two hard months. The Moghul's seal meant less
than nothing to highwaymen, or to servants and drivers whose loyalties
were always for sale. It's a long road, Englishman, and mishaps on that
road are common as summer mildew.
He smiled to himself and took up the other silver-trimmed bamboo tube.
It had arrived by the same runner. The date on the outside was one week
It always amazed Mukarrab Khan that India's runners, the Mewras, were
actually swifter than post horses. This message had traveled the three
hundred _kos _south from Agra to Burhanpur and then the remaining
hundred and fifty _kos _west to Surat - a combined distance of almost
seven hundred English miles - in only seven days.
Runners were stationed at posts spaced five _kos _apart along the great
road that Akman had built to link Agra to the seaport of Surat. They