Copyright
Thomas Hoover.

The Moghul online

. (page 4 of 52)
Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 4 of 52)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


left. Full press, and hoist the spritsail. Keep the wind and pay her
room till we're in range."

With an exultant whoop Mackintosh jabbed the sweat-soaked telescope
toward Hawksworth, and began bellowing orders to the mates. Within
moments sails unfurled and snapped in the wind, sending the
_Discovery_'s bow biting into the chop and hurtling spray over the
bulwarks. Hawksworth kept to the quarterdeck, studying the nearest
warship with the glass. The galleon's forecastle towered above the
horizon now like some Gothic fortress, and with the glass he could make
out pennants blazoned from all her yardarms. Then he turned toward the
Indian pilot, whose gaze was riveted on the Portuguese warships.

"What's the name of the galleon on the left, the large one?" Hawksworth
pointed toward the vessel he had been observing with the glass. "I
can't read it from this distance."

"That one is the _Bon Ventura_. We know her to be heavily armed."

"I'd say she's over a thousand tons burden. I wonder how handy she'll
be with her best men out in the longboats?"

"She'll meet you soon enough, with her full bounty. It is said that
last year she caught and sank a twenty-gun Dutch frigate trading in the
Moluccas."

"She'll still have to come about into the wind." Hawksworth seemed not
to hear the pilot now, so absorbed was he in the looming battle.

As though in answer to his thoughts, the _Bon Ventura _started to heel
slowly about, like an angered bull. But the _Discovery_ now had the
windward position secure, and the Portuguese ship would have to tack
laboriously into the wind. Her canvas was close-hauled and she would be
slow. We've got the weather gage now, Hawksworth told himself, and
we'll hold it. Then he noticed that the second galleon in the row, the
_St. Sebastian_, had also begun wearing around, bringing her stern
across the wind as she too turned to meet the _Discovery_.

"They've deciphered our plan," Hawksworth said quietly to himself, "and
now it's two of the bastards we'll face. But with luck we'll engage the
_Bon Ventura_ before the _St. Sebastian _can beat to range. And the
_Bon Ventura_ is drawing away from the fleet. That bit of bravado will
cost her."

The _Discovery _was closing rapidly on the _Bon Ventura_. In minutes
they would be within range. Mackintosh was at the whipstaff now,
holding their course, his senses alert to every twist in the wind. He
involuntarily clenched and unclenched his teeth, while his knuckles
were bloodless white from his grip on the hardwood steering lever.
Hawksworth raised the glass again, knowing what he hoped to see.

"The Portugals have just made their third mistake, Mackintosh." He
tried to mask his excitement. "They've sealed the lower gunports to
shut out water while they're tacking. So after they get position
they'll still have to run out the lower guns."

"Aye. That's why two-deckers won't buy a whore's chastity on a day like
this. But they'll have the upper guns on us soon enough."

"Wait and see, Mackintosh. I'll warrant their upper guns are overheated
by now. They'll think twice about trying to prime them just yet.
They'll have to wait a bit. Perhaps just long enough for us to get
alongside. Then the upper guns'll touch nothing but our rigging."

The breeze freshened even more, driving the _Discovery _rapidly toward
her target. Mackintosh eyed the galleon nervously, knowing the frigate
was heavily outgunned. Finally he could bear the tension no longer.

"We've got range now. Permission to bring her about."

"Steady as she goes. They're slow on the helm." Hawksworth glanced at
the line of seamen along the port side, untying bundles of musket
arrows and lighting the linstock. "Bosun! Are the men at stations?"

"Aye, sir." A gravel voice sounded through the din. "Stocks were a bit
damp, but I warrant the hellish sun's dryin' 'em out. We'll give the
fornicators a fine English salute."

Hawksworth gauged the galleon's course, estimating her speed and her
ability to maneuver. Then he saw her start coming about in the water,
turning to position the starboard battery for a broadside. Gunports on
the lower deck flipped up and cannon began slowly to emerge, like hard
black fangs. Nervous sweat began to bead on Mackintosh's brow as the
_Discovery _held her course directly down the galleon's windward side.

The _Bon Ventura_'s broadside battery was not yet set, but a sudden
burst of black smoke from her starboard bow-chaser sent a ball smashing
through the _Discovery's _quarter gallery, removing much of its ornate
embellishment. Then came another flare of smoke and flame, hurtling a
second ball through the lateen sail above Mackintosh's head. The
quartermaster went pale, and looked imploringly at Hawksworth.

"Steady as she goes, Mackintosh, they still haven't fully set their
guns." The knot in Hawksworth's stomach was like a searing ball of
fire. God, for a brandy. But we've got to hold till we've got sure
range. To come about now would keep our distance, and mean a classic
battle. One we're sure to lose.

He pushed away the realization of the immense chance they were taking.
But now there was no turning back, even if he wanted. Finally he could
bear it no longer. God make it right.

"Now, Mackintosh! Bring her hard about!"

The quartermaster threw his weight against the whipstaff, shouting
orders to the two seamen on the deck below to haul the tackles on the
tiller, helping him flip the rudder. Then he turned and bellowed
commands to the mates.

"Hands to the braces. Bring her hard about."

The seamen poised incredulously in the maintop and foretop cheered as
they began to haul in the ropes securing the yards, and in moments the
sails swiveled off the wind. The _Discovery _careened in the chopping
seas, responding readily to the shift in rudder and canvas. By this
time Hawksworth was standing over the scuttle above the gun deck,
shouting to Malloyre.

"Coming about. Prepare to fire the starboard battery when your guns
bear."

The _Discovery_ had wheeled a sharp arc in the water, laying herself
broadside to the galleon, hardly fifty yards away. The English seamen
aloft stared mutely at the towering forecastle of the Portuguese
warship, most never before having seen a galleon at close range.
Although the guns on her upper deck were still silent, had they spoken
now they would have touched nothing but the frigate's tops'ls. But as
the galleon turned, the cannon on her lower deck were coming into final
position. In moments she would lay the _Discovery_ with a broadside.
Hawksworth watched her carefully, calculating, and then the knot in his
stomach dissolved like ice in the sun. The _Discovery _would be in
position seconds ahead.

Malloyre's command to fire cut the awe-stricken silence. The next
instant a low roar seemed to emanate from all the timbers of the
English frigate, while red-tipped flame tongued from her starboard
side. The ship heeled dangerously sideways, while black smoke, acrid
and searing, boiled up through the scuttles and hatch, as though
propelled on its way by the round of cheers from below decks, the
traditional salute of ship's gunners. Hawksworth later remembered
noting that the battery had fired in perfect unison, not losing the set
of a single gun by the ship's recoil.

A medley of screams came first, piercing the blackened air. Then the
smoke drifted downwind, over the side of the _Bon Ventura_, revealing a
savage incision where her lower gun deck had once been. Cannon were
thrown askew, and the mangled forms of Portuguese gunners, many with
limbs shattered or missing, could be seen through the splintered hull.
But Hawksworth did not pause to inspect the damage; he was already
yelling the next orders to Mackintosh, hoping to be heard above the
din. The advantage of surprise would be short-lived.

"Pay off the helm! Bring her hard about!"

Again the rudder swiveled in its locks, while seamen aloft

hauled the sheets and braces, but this time the _Discovery _came about
easily, using the wind to advantage. As he turned to check the
whipstaff, Hawksworth heard a high-pitched ricochet off the steering
house and sensed a sudden dry numbness in his thigh. Only then did he
look up to see the line of Portuguese musketmen on the decks of the
_Bon Ventura_, firing sporadically at the English seamen on decks and
aloft.

Damn. A lucky shot by some Lisbon recruit. He seized a handful of
coarse salt from a bucket by the binnacle and pressed it against the
blood. A flash of pain passed briefly through his consciousness and
then was forgotten. The _Discovery's _stern had crossed the wind. There
was no time to lose. He moved down the companionway to again shout
orders to Malloyre on the gun deck. "Set for the fo'c'sle and rigging.
Fire as your guns bear."

The _Bon Ventura_ still lay immobile, so unexpected had been the
broadside. But a boarding party of Portuguese infantry was poised on
the galleon's forecastle superstructure, armed with swords and pikes,
ready to fling grapples and swing aboard the frigate. The Portuguese
had watched in helpless amazement as the _Discovery_ completely came
about and again was broadside. Suddenly the captain of the infantry
realized what was in store and yelled frantically at his men to take
cover. But his last command was lost in the roar of the _Discovery's
_guns.

This time flames and smoke erupted from the _Discovery's _portside
battery, but now it spewed knife-edged chunks of metal and twisting
crossbars. Again the screams came first, as the musketmen and infantry
on the fo'c'sle were swept across the decks in the deadly rain.
Crossbars chewed through the galleon's mainsail, parting it into two
flapping remnants, while the rigging on the foremast was blown by the
boards, tangling and taking with it a party of musketmen stationed in
the foretop. Now the galleon bobbed helpless in the water, as the last
seamen remaining on the shrouds plunged for the decks and safety.

"When you're ready, Mackintosh."

The quartermaster signaled the bosun, and a line of

seamen along the port gunwales touched musket arrows to the lighted
linstock and took aim. Streaks of flame forked into the tattered
rigging of the _Bon Ventura_, and in moments her canvas billowed red.
Again the Portuguese were caught unaware, and only a few manned water
buckets to extinguish the burning shreds of canvas drifting to the
deck.

They were almost alongside now, but no Portuguese infantry would pour
down the side of the forecastle onto their decks. The galleon's decks
were a hemorrhage of the wounded and dying.

"By Jesus, 'tis a sight for English eyes." Edward Malloyre's blackened
face, streaked with sweat, bobbed up through the hatch over the gun
deck, and he surveyed the wreckage of the _Bon Ventura_. "Had to give
'er a look, Cap'n. See if my lads earn'd their biscuit." He beamed with
open pride.

"Malloyre, how does it stand below decks?" Hawksworth yelled from the
quarterdeck.

"Starboard side's swabbed out. How shall we load 'em, sir?" Malloyre
leaned backward to gain a better look at the galleon, which now towered
above them.

"Round shot, and run them out fast as you can."

"Aye, sir. An' no more close quarters if you please. Ne'er want to be
this close to one o' the bastards again." Malloyre started to retreat
through the hatch, but then he turned, paused for a second, and yelled
at Hawksworth. "Beggin' your pardon, Cap'n. I knew all along 'twas best
to pull alongside and lay 'em wi' crossbar. Just wanted to give the
lads a bit o' a scare. Keep 'em jumpin'."

Hawksworth waved his hand and watched as Malloyre's pudgy frame dropped
through the gun-deck hatch like a rabbit diving for its warren.

Mackintosh was standing on the main deck, his tangled red mane
blackened with smoke, watching as the _Discovery _drifted slowly toward
the side of the bobbing galleon. Then, when they were only feet away,
he signaled the bosun, and a line of English seamen lit the waiting
fuses and began to loft clay powder pots across the waist of the _Bon
Ventura_, now almost above their heads. When they had finished, he
passed orders and the _Discovery _began to pull away, before her sails
could ignite. Then one by one the powder pots started to explode,
spewing burning sulphur over the Portuguese vessel's decks.

Hawksworth watched the carnage, and asked himself if he had been right
to do what he'd done. They'd have sunk us. Cut down the men and taken
the officers and merchants to a Goa prison. And then what? We couldn't
have sunk them with cannon in a week. The only choice was fire.

Then he turned to see the _St. Sebastian _making toward them. Her
cannon were already run out, and at any moment she would start coming
about for a broadside. Again he felt the throb in his thigh, and it
triggered a wave of fear that swept upward from his stomach. The Indian
pilot stood next to him, also watching the approaching galleon.

"I have seen a miracle, Captain. Allah the Compassionate has watched
over you today." The pilot's face showed none of the strain of battle.
And his clothes were still spotless, oddly immune from the oily smoke
that blackened all the English seamen. "But I fear there cannot be two
miracles on the same morning. You are about to pay for your fortune.
Perhaps there is still time to strike your colors and save the lives of
your men."

"We surrender now and we'll rot in a Goa prison forever. Or be pulled
apart on the _strappado_." Hawksworth glared back. "And I seem to
recall the Quran says 'Do not falter when you've gained the upper
hand.'"

"You do not have the upper hand, my Captain, and the Holy Quran speaks
only of those who trust in Allah, the Merciful. . . ." His voice
trailed off as he turned to stare at Hawksworth. "It is not common for
a _feringhi_ to know the Holy Quran. How is it you - ?"

"I just spent two years in a Turkish prison, and I heard little else."
Hawksworth turned and was testing the wind, weighing his options. The
_St. Sebastian _was almost on them. Her cannon were already run out,
and at any moment she would start coming about for a broadside. He
could still hear the trucks of the cannon below decks, as the starboard
battery was being run out, and he knew the portside crews were only now
beginning to swab the last glowing shreds of metal from the cannon
barrels.

Good God, there's no time to set the ordnance. They'll blow us to hell.
He deliberated for a long moment, weighing his options. As he watched,
the _St. Sebastian _began to shorten sail, preparing to come about and
fire. Only minutes remained. Then he noticed that the wind on the
burning _Bon Ventura's _superstructure was drifting her in the
direction of the approaching _St. Sebastian_, and he hit on another
gamble. They've shortened sail in order to come about, which means
they're vulnerable. Now if I can make them try to take their bow across
the wind, with their sails shortened . . .

"Mackintosh, take her hard about! Set the courses for a port tack."

Once again the _Discovery_ heeled in the water, her stern deftly
crossing the wind, and then she was back under full sail, still to
windward of the burning galleon. The sudden tack had left the burning
_Bon Ventura _directly between the English frigate and the approaching
galleon. The _Discovery _pulled away, keeping the wind, forcing the
galleon to tack also if she would engage them. Hawksworth watched,
holding his breath as Portuguese seamen began to man the sheets,
bringing the _St. Sebastian's _bow into the wind.

It was fatal. The approaching galleon had shortened too much sail in
preparation to come about for the broadside, and now she lacked the
momentum to cross the wind. Instead the sluggish, top-heavy warship
hung in stays, her sails slack, her bulky bow fighting the wind,
refusing to pay off onto the opposite tack. All the while the _Bon
Ventura_ was drifting inexorably toward her, flaming. I was right,
Hawksworth thought. She didn't have the speed to bring her bow around.
With his glass he watched the galleon's captain order her back to the
original tack. But time had run out.

Blinding explosions suddenly illuminated the gunports of the burning
_Bon Ventura_, as powder barrels on the gun decks ignited, first the
upper and then the lower. In only moments the fire found the powder
room aft of the orlop deck, and as the English seamen looked on
spellbound the galleon seemed to erupt in a single cloud of fire,
rocketing burning timbers and spars across the sea's surface. The
mainmast, flaming like a giant taper, snapped and heaved slowly into
the fo'c'sle. Then the superstructure on the stern folded and dropped
through the main deck, throwing a plume of sparks high into the morning
air.

Although the _St. Sebastian _had righted herself, she still had not
regained speed, for now the sails had lost their luff and sagged to
leeward. Why isn't she underway, Hawksworth asked himself, surely
she'll circle and engage us? He looked again with the glass and the
reason became clear. The Portuguese crewmen on the _St. Sebastian_ had
begun throwing themselves into the sea, terrified at the sight of the
_Bon Ventura's _blazing hull drifting slowly across their bow. The wind
had freshened again and was pushing the burning galleon rapidly now.
The blaze had become an inferno, fueled by casks of coconut oil stored
below decks on the galleon, and Hawksworth involuntarily shielded his
eyes and face from the heat that, even at their distance, seared the
_Discovery_. As he watched, the drifting _Bon Ventura _suddenly lurched
crazily sideways, and then came the sound of a coarse, grinding impact,
as her burning timbers sprayed across the decks of the _St. Sebastian_.
In moments the second galleon was also an abandoned inferno, her crew
long since afloat in the safety of the sea, clinging to debris and
making for shore.

"Allah has been merciful twice to you in one morning, Captain. I had
never before known the extent of His bounty. You are a man most
fortunate." The pilot's words, spoken softly and with pronounced
gravity, were almost drowned in the cheers that engulfed the decks and
rigging of the _Discovery_.

"The battle's just begun. Boarding parties are at the _Resolve_, and
there are two more galleons." Hawksworth reached for the glass by the
binnacle.

"No, Captain, I doubt very much the Portuguese will trouble you
further. Your luck has been too exceptional. But they will return
another day." The pilot squinted toward the shore, as though confirming
something he knew should be there.

Hawksworth trained his glass on the two galleons that still held the
_Resolve_ pinned in the shallows. They were heeling about, preparing to
run southward on the wind under full press of sail. He also realized
their longboats had been abandoned. Some were following futilely after
the retreating galleons, while others were already rowing toward the
river mouth. The English frigate had been forgotten. Then he noted that
although pennants no longer flew from the yardarms of the galleons, the
large, unnamed vessel had run out a brilliant red ensign on her poop
staff. He studied it carefully, then turned to the pilot, extending the
glass.

"Take a look and tell me what the colors are on the large man-of-war.
I've never seen them before."

The pilot waved away the telescope with a smile. "I need no Christian
device to tell you that. We all know it. With all your fortune, you
have failed to understand the most important thing that happened
today."

"And what is that?"

"Those are the colors of the Viceroy of Goa, flown only when he is
aboard his flagship. You have humiliated him today. The colors speak
his defiance. His promise to you."

As the pilot spoke, Mackintosh came bounding up the companionway to the
quarterdeck, his soot-covered face beaming. "What a bleedin' day! _What
_a bleedin' day!" Then his eyes dimmed for an instant. "But a man'd be
called a liar who told the story."

"How many dead and wounded, Mackintosh?"

"Two maintopmen killed by musket fire. And a bosun's mate took a
splinter in the side, very bad, when the bastards laid us wi' the first
bowchasers. A few other lads took musket fire, but the surgeon'll sew
'em up fine."

"Then break out the last keg of brandy. And see that Malloyre's men get
the first tot. . . but don't forget to send a tankard to the
quarterdeck."

Mackintosh broke an appreciative grin and headed down the companionway
ladder. The sun was baking the decks now, and a swarm of locusts had
appeared from nowhere to buzz about the maintop. The wind was beginning
to slacken in the heat, and silence slowly settled over the
_Discovery_. Hawksworth turned his glass one last time to the large
galleon. He could still make out the ensign over the crests of surf,
blood red in the sun.




CHAPTER THREE


The bells sounded ending the afternoon watch and calling the first dog
watch. Only four hours since noon, but already the morning's carnage
seemed a memory from a distant lifetime. Sultry tropic air, motionless
and stifling, immersed the _Discovery_ as the gaunt-faced seamen
labored to finish securing the mast of the pinnace. Mackintosh had
ordered the pinnace's sail unrolled on deck, and as he inspected the
stitches for rot he alternately reviled the men, the heat, the Company.
Hawksworth had completed the log and stood in the companionway outside
the Great Cabin to watch the preparations, take the air, and exercise
his leg. All the previous night he had stood on the quarterdeck,
keeping the helm and translating for the pilot. And tonight again there
would be no sleep. There's time for a rest now, his weary mind urged,
till the first bell of this watch, half an hour. Then he cursed himself
for his weakness, his readiness to yield, and shoved open the door of
the Great Cabin.

The oil lamp swayed with each roll of the ship, punctuating the
rhythmic creak of the wood paneling and adding to the sweltering heat.
He locked the door, then strode aft to push ajar the two stern windows.
But the stolid air lay inert, refusing to lift. He would have to
prepare the chest in suffocating misery. So be it.

Brushing the hair back from his eyes, he unlocked a bronzed sea chest
and began to extract one by one the articles entrusted to the Company
by King James. First was the letter, in English with a formal copy in
diplomatic Spanish, both scribed on parchment and sealed in a leather
case secured with His Majesty's impression in red wax. The seal, set in
London over seven months before, was soft in the heat now, pliant to
his touch. He surveyed the room for a moment and then his eye hit on
the pair of formal thigh- length stockings the Company had insisted he
pack. Perfect. He bound his hose around the king's letter, knotted it
protectively over the seal, and tossed the bundle into the smaller
wooden chest he would take ashore.

Then he began to transfer the royal presents: a brace of gold-plated
pistols, a half dozen silver-handled swords, a small silver-trimmed
saddle, a set of delicate Norwich crystal, jeweled rings, a leather-
bound mirror, a silver whistle studded with emeralds, a large cocked
hat trimmed in silk, a miniature portrait of King James, and finally, a
dozen bottles of fine English sack. He checked each item for damage and
then packed them tightly into the small chest. Finally he inserted a
tightly fitting false bottom and covered it with a coarse woolen rug.

Then the second packing began. He started with more gifts, these for
port officials, mainly silver-trimmed knives and rings set with small
inexpensive pearls. He also enclosed several boxed sets of English gold
sovereigns, which the Company had requested be distributed as widely as
possible, in hopes they would begin to be accepted.

Finally he looked about the room for personal goods. First he folded in
a new leather jerkin, then next to it packed a new pair of leather
boots. He stared at the boots for a moment, and then removed them while
he carefully wrapped two primed pistols and slid one deep into each
hollow toe. Next to the boots he packed a case of Spanish brandy he had
been saving, for personal use aland. Lastly he took his glistening
English lute from its corner berth, held it for a moment, and tested
the strings. He adjusted the tuning on one string, then wrapped the
lute's melon-shaped body in a silk cloth, and nestled it next to the
brandy.

As he secured the lock on the chest and pocketed the large brass key,
he suddenly asked himself how he would get the chest into India without
its being searched. I'm not a genuine ambassador. I'm the captain of a



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 4 of 52)