The Last Trump sounded, summoning all the dead to rise again.
This inconveniently interrupted my stimulating nocturnal activities with both the Queen of Spain and my wife in the perfumed opulence of the Khan of Samarkand’s state bedroom. A state bedroom with walls of rough oak. Walls that vanished, one by one, as a scrofulous carpenter’s crew tore them down. Perfumed fragrances that gave way in an instant to the all-pervasive stench of tar, tobacco, piss and sweat. A provocatively naked Queen of Spain replaced in the blink of a waking eye by the ugly bald pate and eternally pained face of my clerk Phineas Musk. He held a breastplate in one hand and my sword in the other.
My thoughts and ears finally caught up with my eyes. On the deck above my head, men were running to our ship’s guns, our drummer was beating to quarters, and our trumpeters were sounding a chorus of defiance that their somnolent captain had mistaken for the harbingers of the Dies Irae. I was aware again of the heat, the ceaseless, unforgiving heat that had kept me awake until moments before my dream-time wife and the Queen of Spain began to …
‘Fog’s lifted,’ said Musk in his gruff Thamesman’s voice. ‘We’re right on top of a corsair galley. Another one in sight, too. Both crippled and sinking, by the looks of things, after fighting each other nigh to Hell and back. Probably fallen out with each other over some fat argosy. Mister Castle’s talking about it as the easiest prize we’ll see in all our days, if not two of ’em at once. Looks like the good Lord smiles on you once again, Captain Quinton.’
I buckled on the sword but declined the breastplate, ignored the unceremonious disregard with which my men were throwing my worldly belongings into the hold, and made my way up onto the quarterdeck, where the full force of the morning sun struck me at once. My shirt was open to the waist. My chest, the palest dove-white at the beginning of our voyage, was now as red-brown as that of the longest serving foremast-man.
The guns were already run out, and the ships’ boys were bringing up extra powder and shot. The trumpeter kept up his cacophony, and the drummer added a persistent rhythm to our preparation for war. Everywhere, men wore the grim smiles that anticipated bloodshed and prize money, with little heed of the possibility that they might be on the cusp of their own mortalities.
The Wessex was ready for battle, and only her captain remained ignorant of her enemy.
William Castle, my veteran lieutenant, raised his plumed hat in salute. He was even more jovial than was his wont, this round, red-faced man of forty or so whose left hand had been carried away by a Spanish shot when Myngs took Santiago da Cuba a few years before. He said, ‘A good day to you, Captain. A very good day indeed, by all the heavens. We come out of that dismal fog, and straight away there she lies, right in our path. If ever a man needed proof of God’s divine providence, there it is, sir.’
I turned and looked out no more than half a mile. There, off our starboard bow, was the galley. Not a large one – perhaps thirty oars on each side – but she was in a dire state. Her masts were all gone, and much of her larboard quarter with them. Perhaps half the oars on that side were shattered or missing altogether. Dark stains, some still discernibly red, marked her hull: the blood of the godly slaves who had manned her oars, and equally of the heathens who had whipped them into battle. Blood mixed once and for all in the indiscriminate ooze of death. A torn black flag still flew defiantly at her staff, and I could hear the howls of a few of her crew, still determined to give a feeble imitation of the terrifying noise that brought not a few of our merchants’ ships to surrender before they had even engaged. Plainly, these men had fought long and hard, and they might have won their passage back to Algier or Tunis, but for the leaks that would surely sink them long before they got there – that, and coming out of a fog to find themselves directly in the path of the Wessex, a good stout English frigate of forty-six guns commanded by Captain Matthew Quinton, who despite his tender twenty-three years was already in his third command, a veteran of battle, wounding and shipwreck, and an increasingly consummate seaman. Or so he liked to believe.
I took my telescope from Musk and levelled it on the second galley, perhaps a mile and a half or two miles away. This one, much larger, was almost as dreadfully shattered, but still had a jury mast for her lateen rig – terms I had learned barely a month earlier – and rode a little higher in the water. Her flag, too, still flew from her staff, but it was of a very different nature to the black banner of the corsair in our path. On a red field, riddled with musket holes, was emblazoned a white or silver cross, its ends pointed.
I lowered the telescope and said, ‘A galley of Malta, gentlemen. She flies the flag of the Order.’
There was a hum of disappointment about the deck (some of it emanating from Phineas Musk) as men realised that a Maltese galley would be no prize for a Christian ship of war; quite the reverse, in fact. The galleys and knights of the Order of Saint John of Malta were legend. A hundred years before, the tiny, barren island fortress of the Knights had beaten off the greatest siege the world had known, and with it the vast and previously invincible armies of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Order waged an unending war against the heathens who fought under the Crescent. So I knew the legend of the Knights of Malta, and I respected those who maintained its ideal; indeed, but a week earlier we had fulsomely saluted two of the Order’s galleys that we encountered off Sicily. But the Maltese galley was much further away than the Wessex from the enemy that she had evidently fought almost to destruction. Her own damage meant that it would be an hour or more before she could come up with the corsair, if she ever did – for the corsair could sink, or make good its repairs and escape, or blow itself up rather than fall into the hands of the infidel. I had heard of such things.
One thing for it, then.
The gazes of Lieutenant Castle, Phineas Musk, the half-dozen other men on the quarterdeck, and not a few of the men at the guns on the upper deck, were focused intently on me. There was Martin Lanherne, ship’s coxswain, and behind him his fellow Cornishmen, the likes of the simian John Treninnick, the mountainous George Polzeath and the minute but formidable John Tremar. Then there was the black Virginian Julian Carvell and the young Scot Macferran. All of their faces were lined with undisguised, brazen avarice. These men had served in my previous command, the frigate Jupiter, and had volunteered to sail with me again, even though that last commission had come perilously close to despatching us all to the seat of judgment. Only my young friend and mentor Kit Farrell was missing, for he was bound to the Barbados as master’s mate on a large London vessel with a sure cargo of tobacco waiting to be brought home, and was thus guaranteed rather more substantial pay than he could expect in the same rank aboard the Wessex.
At last, I smiled and said, ‘Our prize, I think, Mister Castle. A shot across her bows, if you please, followed by a summons to surrender.’
Rarely in the history of the navy can an order have been carried out with such rapidity and ill-concealed delight.