Copyright
Thomas Hoover.

The Moghul online

. (page 6 of 52)
Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 6 of 52)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


leave. But then he paused, his body suspended in uncertainty for a long
moment. Finally he revolved again to Hawksworth.

"Have to tell you, I've a feelin' we'll na be sailin' out o' this piss-
hole alive." He squinted across the semi-dark of the cabin. "It's my
nose tellin' me, sir, and she's always right."

"The Company's sailed to the Indies twice before, Mackintosh."

"Aye, but na to India. The bleedin' Company ne'er dropped anchor in
this nest o' Portugals. 'Twas down to Java before. With nothin' but a
few Dutchmen to trouble o'er. India's na the Indies, Cap'n. The Indies
is down in the Spice Islands, where seas are open. The ports o' India
belong to the Portugals, sure as England owns the Straits o' Dover. So
beggin' your pardon, Cap'n, this is na the Indies. This might well be
Lisbon harbor."

"We'll have a secure anchorage. And once we're inland the Portugals
can't touch us." Hawksworth tried to hold a tone of confidence in his
voice. "The pilot says he can take us upriver tonight. Under cover of
dark."

"No Christian can trust a bleedin' Moor, Cap'n. An' this one's got a
curious look. Somethin' in his eyes. Can't tell if he's lookin' at you
or na."

Hawksworth wanted to agree, but he stopped himself.

"Moors just have their own ways, Mackintosh. Their mind works
differently. But I can already tell this one's not like the Turks."
Hawksworth still had not decided what he thought about the pilot. It
scarcely matters now, he told himself, we've no choice but to trust
him. "Whatever he's thinking, he'll have no room to play us false."

"Maybe na, but he keeps lookin' toward the shore. Like

he's expectin' somethin'. The bastard's na tellin' us what he knows. I
smell it. The nose, Cap'n."

"We'll have muskets, Mackintosh. And the cover of dark. Now load the
pinnace and let's be on with it."

Mackintosh stared at the boards, shifting and tightening his belt. He
started to argue more, but Hawksworth's voice stopped him.

"And, Mackintosh, order the muskets primed with pistol shot."
Hawksworth recalled a trick his father had once told him about, many
long years past. "If anybody ventures to surprise us, we'll hand them a
surprise in turn. A musket ball's useless in the dark of night, clump
of pistol shot at close quarters is another story."

The prospect of a fight seemed to transform Mackintosh. With a grin he
snapped alert, whirled, and stalked down the companionway toward the
main deck.

Moments later the balding purser appeared, a lifelong seaman with an
unctuous smile and rapacious eyes who had dispensed stores on many a
prosperous merchantman, and grown rich on a career of bribes. He
mechanically logged Hawksworth's chest in his account book and then
signaled the bosun to stow the heavy wooden trunk into the pinnace.

Hawksworth watched the proceedings absently as he checked the edge on
his sword. Then he slipped the belt over his shoulder and secured its
large brass buckle. Finally he locked the stern windows and surveyed
the darkened cabin one last time.

The _Discovery_. May God defend her and see us all home safe. Every
man.

Then without looking back he firmly closed the heavy oak door, latched
it, and headed down the companionway toward the main deck.

Rolls of broadcloth lay stacked along the waist of the ship, and beside
them were muskets and a keg of powder. George Elkington was checking
off samples of cloth as they were loaded irto the pinnace, noting his
selection in a book of accounts.

Standing next to him, watching idly, was Humphrey Spencer, youngest son
of Sir Randolph Spencer. He had shipped the voyage as the assistant to
Elkington, but his real motivation was not commerce but adventure, and
a stock of tales to spin out in taverns when he returned. His face of
twenty had suffered little from the voyage, for a stream of bribes to
the knowing purser had reserved for him the choice provisions,
including virtually all the honey and raisins.

Humphrey Spencer had donned a tall, brimmed hat, a feather protruding
from its beaver band, and his fresh doublet of green taffeta fairly
glowed in the lantern's rays. His new thigh-length hose were an
immaculate tan and his ruff collar pure silk. A bouquet of perfume
hovered about him like an invisible cloud.

Spencer turned and began to pace the deck in distraught agitation,
oblivious to his interference as weary seamen worked around him to drag
rolls of broadcloth next to the gunwales, stacking them for others to
hoist and stow in the pinnace. Then he spotted Hawksworth, and his eyes
brightened.

"Captain, at last you're here. Your bosun is an arrant knave, my life
on't. He'll not have these rogues stow my chest."

"There's no room in the pinnace for your chest, Spencer."

"But how'm I to conduct affairs 'mongst the Moors without a gentleman's
fittings?" He reviewed Hawksworth's leather jerkin and seaboots with
disdain.

Before Hawksworth could reply, Elkington was pulling himself erect,
wincing at the gout as his eyes blazed. "Spencer, you've enough to do
just mindin' the accounts, which thus far you've shown scant aptness
for." He turned and spat into the scuppers. "Your father'd have me make
you a merchant, but methinks I'd sooner school an ape to sing. 'Tis
tradin' we're here for, not to preen like a damn'd coxcomb. Now look to
it."

"You'll accompany us, Spencer, as is your charge." Hawksworth walked
past the young clerk, headed for the fo'c'sle. "The only 'fittings'
you'll need are a sword and musket, which I dearly hope you know enough
to use. Now prepare to board."

As Hawksworth passed the mainmast, bosun's mate John

Garway dropped the bundle he was holding and stepped forward, beaming a
toothless smile.

"Beggin' your pardon, Cap'n. Might I be havin' a word?"

"What is it, Garway."

"Would you ask the heathen, sir, for the men? We've been wonderin' if
there's like to be an alehouse or such in this place we're goin'. An' a
few o' the kindly sex what might be friendly disposed, if you follow my
reckonin', sir."

Hawksworth looked up and saw Karim waiting by the fo'c'sle, his effects
rolled in a small woven tapestry under his arm. When the question was
translated, the pilot laid aside the bundle and stepped toward the
group of waiting seamen, who had all stopped work to listen. He studied
them for a moment - ragged and rank with sweat, their faces blotched with
scurvy and their hair matted with grease and lice - and smiled with
expressionless eyes.

"Your men will find they can purchase _arak_, a local liquor as potent
as any I have seen from Europe. And the public women of Surat are
masters of all refinements of the senses. They are exquisite, worthy
even of the Moghul himself. Accomplished women of pleasure have been
brought here from all civilized parts of the world, even Egypt and
Persia. I'm sure your seamen will find the accommodations of Surat
worthy of their expectations."

Hawksworth translated the reply and a cheer rose from the men.

"Hear that, mates?" Master's mate Thomas Davies turned to the crowd,
his face a haggard leer. "Let the rottin' Portugals swab cannon in
hell. I'll be aswim in grog an' snuffin' my wick with a willin' wench.
Heathen or no, 'tis all one, what say?"

A confirming hurrah lifted from the decks and the men resumed their
labor with spirits noticeably replenished.

Hawksworth turned and ascended the companionway ladder to the
quarterdeck, leaving behind the tense bravado. As he surveyed the deck
below from his new vantage, he suddenly sensed an eerie light
enveloping the chip, a curious glow that seemed almost to heighten the
pensive lament of the boards and the lulling melody of wind through the
rigging. Then he realized why.

The moon!

I'd forgotten. Or was I too tired to think? But now . . . it's almost
like daylight. God help us, we've lost the last of our luck.

"Ready to cast off." Mackintosh mounted the companionway to the
quarterdeck, his face now drawn deep with fatigue. "Shall I board the
men?"

Hawksworth turned with a nod, and followed him down to the main deck.

Oarsmen began scrambling down the side of the _Discovery_, a motley
host, shoeless and clad only in powder- smudged breeches. Though a rope
ladder dangled from the gunwales, the seamen preferred to grasp the
dead-eyes, easing themselves onto the raised gunport lids, and from
there dropping the last few feet into the pinnace. They were followed
by George Elkington, who lowered himself down the swaying ladder,
breathing oaths. Hawksworth lingered by the railing, searching the
moonlit horizon and the darkened coast. His senses quickened as he
probed for some clue that would trigger an advance alert. But the
moonlit water's edge lay barren, deserted save for an occasional
beached fishing skiff, its sisal nets exposed on poles to dry. Why the
emptiness? During the day there were people.

Then he sensed Karim standing beside him, also intent on the empty
shore. The pilot's back was to the lantern that swung from the mainmast
and his face was shrouded in shadow. Abruptly, he addressed Hawksworth
in Turki.

"The face of India glories in the moonlight, do you agree? It is
beautiful, and lies at peace."

"You're right about the beauty. It could almost be the coast of Wales."
Hawksworth thought he sensed a powerful presence about Karim now,
something he could not explain, only detect with a troubled intuition.
Then the pilot spoke again.

"Have you prepared yourself to meet the Shahbandar?"

"We're ready. We have samples of English goods. And I'm an ambassador
from King James. There's no reason to deny us entry."

"I told you he is a man of importance. And he already knows, as all who
matter will soon know, of your exceptional fortune today. Do you really
think today's battle will go unnoticed in India?"

"I think the Portugals noticed. And I know they'll be back. But with
luck we'll manage." Hawksworth felt the muscles in his throat tighten
involuntarily, knowing a fleet of warships from Goa would probably be
headed north within a fortnight.

"No, Captain, again you miss my meaning." Karim turned to draw closer
to Hawksworth, flashing a joyless smile. "I speak of India. Not the
Portuguese. They are nothing. Yes, they trouble our seas, but they are
nothing. They do not rule India. Do you understand?"

Hawksworth stiffened, unsure how to respond. "I know the Moghul rules
India. And that he'll have to wonder if the damned Portugals are still
master of his seas."

"Surely you realize, Captain, that the Portuguese's profits are
staggering. Are you also aware these profits are shared with certain
persons of importance in India?"

"You mean the Portugals have bribed officials?" That's nothing new,
Hawksworth thought. "Who? The Shahbandar?"

"Let us say they often give commissions." Karim waved his hand as
though administering a dispensation. "But there are others whom they
allow to invest directly in their trade. The profits give these persons
power they often do not use wisely."

"Are you telling me the Moghul himself invests with the damned
Portugals?" Hawksworth's hopes plummeted.

"On the contrary. His Majesty is an honorable man, and a simple man who
knows but little of what some do in his name. But do you understand
there must be one in his realm who will someday have his place?
Remember he is mortal. He rules like a god, but he is mortal."

"What does this have to do with the Shahbandar? Surely he'd not
challenge the Moghul. And I know the Moghul has sons . . ."

"Of course, he is not the one." Karim's smile was gentle. "But do not
forget the Shahbandar is powerful, more powerful than most realize. He
knows all that happens in India, for his many friends repay their
obligation to him with knowledge. As for you, if he judges your wisdom
worthy of your fortune today, he may choose to aid you. Your journey to
Agra will not be without peril. There are already those in India who
will not wish you there. Perhaps the Shahbandar can give you guidance.
It will be for him to decide."

Hawksworth studied Karim incredulously. How could he know? "Whatever I
may find necessary to do, it will not involve a port official like the
Shahbandar. And a trip to Agra surely would not require his approval."

"But you must find your way." Karim examined Hawksworth with a quick
sidelong glance, realizing he had guessed correctly. "My friend, your
defeat of the Portuguese today may have implications you do not
realize. But at times you talk as a fool, even more than the
Portuguese. You will need a guide on your journey. Believe me when I
tell you."

Karim paused for a moment to examine Hawksworth, as though wondering
how to couch his next words. "Perhaps you should let the stars guide
you. In the Holy Quran the Prophet has said of Allah, 'And he hath set
for you the stars' . . ."

"'That you may guide your course by them."' Hawksworth picked up the
verse, "'Amid the dark of land and sea.' Yes, I learned that verse in
Tunis. And I knew already a seaman steers by the stars. But I don't
understand what bearing that has on a journey to Agra."

"Just as I begin to think you have wisdom, again you cease to listen.
But I think now you will remember what I have said."

"Hawksworth!" Elkington's voice boomed from the pinnace below. "Have we
sail'd a blessed seven month to this nest o' heathens so's to idle
about and palaver?"

Hawksworth turned to see Humphrey Spencer gingerly lowering himself
down the ladder into the pinnace, the feather in his hatband whipping
in the night wind. The oarsmen were at their stations, ready.

"One thing more, Captain." Karim pressed a hand against Hawksworth's
arm, holding him back. "One thing more I will tell you. Many
_feringhi_, foreigners, who come to India are very unwise. Because our
women keep the veil, and dwell indoors, foreigners assume they have no
power, no influence. Do not act as other foolish _feringhi _and make
this mistake. In Surat . . ."

"What women do you mean? The wives of officials?"

"Please, listen. When you reach Surat, remember one last admonition
from the Quran. There it is written, 'As for women from whom you fear
rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart.' But sometimes
a woman too can be strong-willed. She can be the one who banishes her
husband, denying him his rights. If she is important, there is nothing
he can do. Remember. . ."

"Damn it to hell," Elkington's voice roared again, "I'm not likin'
these moonlight ventures. Tis full risk aplenty when you can see who's
holdin' a knife to your throat. But if we're goin', I say let's be done
with it and have off."

Hawksworth turned back to Karim, but he was gone, swinging himself
lightly over the side of the _Discovery _and into the pinnace.

Across the moonlight-drenched swells the _Resolve_ lay quiet, her stern
lantern reassuringly aglow, ready to hoist sail for the cove. And on
the _Discovery_ seamen were at station, poised to follow. Hawksworth
looked once more toward the abandoned shore, troubled, and then dropped
quickly down the side into the pinnace. There was no sound now, only
the cadence of the boards as the _Discovery's _anchor chain argued
against the tide. And then a dull thud as the mooring line dropped onto
the floor planking of the pinnace.

Hawksworth ordered Mackintosh to row with the tide until they reached
the shelter of the river mouth, and then to ship the oars and hoist
sail if the breeze held. He had picked the ablest men as oarsmen, those
not wounded and least touched by scurvy, and next to each lay a heavy
cutlass. He watched Mackintosh in admiration as the quartermaster
effortlessly maneuvered the tiller with one hand and directed the
oarsmen with the other. The moon was even more alive now, glinting off
the Scotsman's red hair.

As the hypnotic rhythm of the oars lulled Hawksworth's mind, he felt a
growing tiredness begin to beg at his senses. Against his will he
started to drift, to follow the moonlight's dancing, prismatic tinge on
the moving crest of waves. And to puzzle over what lay ahead.

Half-dozing, he found his thoughts drawn to the Shahbandar who waited
in Surat, almost like a gatekeeper who held the keys to India. He
mulled Karim's words again, the hints of what would unlock that
doorway, and slowly his waking mind drifted out of reach. He passed
unknowing into that dreamlike state where deepest truth so often lies
waiting, unknown to rationality. And there, somehow, the pilot's words
made perfect sense . . .

"Permission to hoist the sail." Mackintosh cut the pinnace into the
river mouth, holding to the center of the channel. Hawksworth startled
momentarily at the voice, then forced himself alert and scanned the
dark riverbanks. There was still nothing. He nodded to Mackintosh and
watched as the sail slipped quietly up the mast. Soon the wind and tide
were carrying them swiftly, silently. As he watched the run of the tide
against the hull, he suddenly noticed a group of round objects, deep
red, bobbing past.

"Karim." Hawksworth drew his sword and pointed toward one of the balls.
"What are those?"

"A fruit of our country, Captain. The _topiwallahs _call them
'coconuts.'" Karim's voice was scarcely above a whisper, and his eyes
left the shore for only a moment. "They are the last remains of the
August festival."

"What festival is that?"

"The celebration of the Hindu traders. Marking the end of the monsoon
and the opening of the Tapti River to trade. Hindus at Surat smear
coconuts with vermilion and cast them into the Tapti, believing this
will appease the angry life-force of the sea. They also cover barges
with flowers and span them across the harbor. If you were there, you
would hear them play their music and chant songs to their heathen
gods."

"And the coconuts eventually float out to sea?"

"A few, yes. But mostly they are stolen by wicked boys, who swim after
them. These few perhaps their gods saved for themselves."

Hawksworth examined the bobbing balls anew. The coconut was yet another
legend of the Indies. Stories passed that a man could live for days on
the liquor sealed within its straw-matted shell.

The moon chased random clouds, but still the riverbank was illuminated
like day. The damp air was still, amplifying the music of the night - the
buzz of gnats, the call of night birds, even the occasional trumpet of
a distant elephant, pierced the solid wood line on either side of the
narrowing river. Hawksworth tasted the dark, alert, troubled. Where are
the human sounds? Where are the barges I saw plying the river mouth
during the day? I sense an uneasiness in the pilot, an alarm he does
not wish me to see. Damn the moon. If only we had dark.

"Karim." Hawksworth spoke softly, his eyes never long from the dense
rampart of trees along the riverbank.

"What do you wish, Captain?"

"Have you ever traveled up the river before by moonlight?"

"Once, yes, many years ago. When I was young and burning for a woman
after our ship had dropped anchor in the bay. I was only a _karwa_
then, a common seaman, and I thought I would not be missed. I was
wrong. The _nakuda_ discovered me in Surat and reclaimed my wage for
the entire voyage. It was a very hungry time."

"Was the river quiet then, as it is now?"

"Yes, Captain, just the same." Though Karim looked at him directly, the
darkness still guarded his eyes.

"Mackintosh." Hawksworth's voice cut the silence. "Issue the muskets."
His eyes swept along the shore, and then to the narrow bend they were
fast approaching. Karim is lying, he told himself; at last the pilot
has begun to play false with us. Why? What does he fear?

"Aye aye, Cap'n." Mackintosh was instantly alert. "What do you see?"

The sudden voices startled Elkington awake, and his nodding head
snapped erect. "The damn'd Moors have settl'd in for the night. If
you'd hold your peace, I could join 'em. I'll need the full o' my wits
for hagglin' with that subtle lot o' thieves come the morrow. There's
no Portugals. E'en the night birds are quiet as mice."

"Precisely," Hawksworth shot back. "And I would thank you to take a
musket, and note its flintlock is full-cocked and the flashpan dry."
Then he continued, "Mackintosh, strike the sail. And, Karim, take the
tiller."

The pinnace was a sudden burst of activity, as seamen quickly hauled in
the sail and began to check the prime on their flintlocks. With the
sail lashed, their view was unobstructed in all directions. The tide
rushing through the narrows of the approaching bend carried the pinnace
ever more rapidly, and now only occasional help was needed from the
oarsmen to keep it aright.

A cloud drifted over the moon, and for an instant the river turned
black. Hawksworth searched the darkness ahead, silent, waiting. Then he
saw it.

_ "On the boards!"_

A blaze of musket fire spanned the river ahead, illuminating the
blockade of longboats. Balls sang into the water around them while
others splattered off the side of the pinnace or hissed past the mast.
Then the returning moon glinted off the silver helmets of the
Portuguese infantry.

As Karim instinctively cut the pinnace toward the shore, Portuguese
longboats maneuvered easily toward them, muskets spewing sporadic
flame. The English oarsmen positioned themselves to return the fire,
but Hawksworth stopped them.

Not yet, he told himself, we'll have no chance to reload. The first
round has to count. And damn my thoughtlessness, for not bringing
pikes. We could have . . .

The pinnace lurched crazily and careened sideways, hurtling around
broadside to the longboats.

A sandbar. We've struck a damned sandbar. But we've got to face them
with the prow. Otherwise . . .

As though sensing Hawksworth's thoughts, Karim seized

an oar and began to pole the pinnace's stern off the bar. Slowly it
eased around, coming about to face the approaching longboats. No sooner
had the pinnace righted itself than the first longboat glanced off the
side of the bow, and a grapple caught their gunwale.

Then the first Portuguese soldier leaped aboard - and doubled in a flame
of sparks as Mackintosh shoved a musket into his belly and pulled the
trigger. As the other English muskets spoke out in a spray of pistol
shot, several Portuguese in the longboat pitched forward, writhing.

Mackintosh began to bark commands for reloading.

"Half-cock your muskets. Wipe your pans. Handle your primers. Cast
about to charge . . ."

But time had run out. Two more longboats bracketed each side of the
bow. And now Portuguese were piling aboard.

"Damn the muskets," Hawksworth yelled. "Take your swords."

The night air came alive with the sound of steel against steel, while
each side taunted the other with unintelligible obscenities. The
English were outnumbered many to one, and slowly they found themselves
being driven to the stern of the pinnace. Still more Portuguese poured
aboard now, as the pinnace groaned against the sand.

Hawksworth kept to the front of his men, matching the poorly trained
Portuguese infantry easily. Thank God there's no more foot room, he
thought, we can almost stand them man for man . . .

At that moment two Portuguese pinned Hawksworth's sword against the
mast, allowing a third to gain footing and lunge. As Hawksworth swerved
to avoid the thrust, his foot crashed through the thin planking
covering the keel, bringing him down. Mackintosh yelled a warning and
leaped forward, slashing the first soldier through the waist and
sending him to the bottom of the pinnace, moaning. Then the
quartermaster seized the other man by the throat and, lunging like a
bull, whipped him against the mast, snapping his neck.

Hawksworth groped blindly for his sword and watched as the third
soldier poised for a mortal sweep. Where is it?

Good God, he'll cut me in half.

Suddenly he felt a cold metal object pressed against his hand, and
above the din he caught Humphrey Spencer's high-pitched voice, urging.
It was a pocket pistol.

Did he prime it? Does he know how?

As the Portuguese soldier began his swing, Hawksworth raised the pistol
and squeezed. There was a dull snap, a hiss, and then a blaze that
melted the soldier's face into red.

He flung the pistol aside and seized the dying Portuguese's sword. He
was armed again, but there was little advantage left. Slowly the
English were crowded into a huddle of the stern. Cornered, abaft the
mast, they no longer had room to parry. Hawksworth watched in horror as
a burly Portuguese, his silver helmet askew, braced himself against the
mast and drew back his sword to send a swath through the English.
Hawksworth tried to set a parry, but his arms were pinned.



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 6 of 52)