The pirate’s management meeting aboard the Black Leopard was not a jolly affair.
‘We have been in this godforsaken backwater for the best part of thirty hours,’ said Jasper bitterly. ‘But what have we achieved towards meeting our main objective? Only two of the smallest bells down and none of the gold melted off. I just do not understand. It’s a small, simple church, with a plain wooden floor in the plain, simple belfry, and with the bells simply set amongst the plain beams up above. I mean, for heavens sake – how can it be so difficult? We’ve broken into bank vaults, we’ve mined under and blown up citadels, we’ve thrown bridges over gorges, we even dismantled and carried off a whole jewelled temple from Trincomalee. So what is the problem? All I want are five festering bells. It’s not too much to ask is it?’
‘Well Captain,’ oiled the Quartermaster, ‘Last night was only really a reconnaissance to establish what was needed for the task. And we did manage to take down the smaller bell.’
‘With farcical ineptitude as I recall. But I’m not talking about last night am I? Let us, for want of lighter entertainment, consider the progress achieved today shall we? Not a very cheering dawn was it? I woke to be informed that every one of the few prisoners captured had actually escaped during the night. Dear, oh dear, how very unfortunate. I was a little peeved if you recall…? I that see you do.’
Speke was wringing his hands and the First Mate was nodding vigorously.
‘Perhaps you would be kind enough, Mr Speke, to run the sequence of events past me one more time, just for the minutes you understand.’
‘Well, er, it was quite simple really Captain. Blackheart’s explanation is that he was obliged to answer a call of nature during the night. When he returned the cellar door was open and it was empty. The only conclusion that I can reach is that one of the prisoners must have had another key. Probably one of the leaders of the resistance, perhaps a councillor or something similar…’
‘What a pity no one thought to search them. An elementary custodial precaution one would have thought. And how did they get out of the Town Hall? Hide in the shadows waiting until Hawkins also had occasion to relieve himself? And then they shuffled and strolled out of the town at their leisure no doubt, joking about weak bladders and laughing at our manifold incompetence. They got clean away. It beggars belief.’
‘We searched out beyond the town but they must have gone into the forest.’
‘Like all the other inhabitants. There’s a novelty. Well, eventually I regained my composure and we then set off, but hardly bright eyed and bushy tailed, to lower the other four bells and bring them back on appropriate carriages to the blacksmith’s forge, where we were going to carefully and professionally melt off the gold, cast it into ingots, and convey it into our hold to act as most welcome ballast. What actually happened? Let me remind you. It took three and a quarter hours to obtain the second smallish bell. In the process the ladder to the belfry beam area was smashed, as were the railings of the belfry platform, a sizeable run of the banisters on the stairs below, the left index finger of Able Seaman Trunnion, and the sides of the cart in which the confounded thing was eventually taken away, when the horse bolted on hearing the ringing as the bell rolled about unsecured… So far, so gruesome. But were our fortunes now to change? Were they hell as like. The rest of the day has fled futilely by with no further bells being lowered, and to add to the pleasures of the pastime some incompetent nitwit has managed to set the forge on fire.’
‘I can’t be everywhere Captain.’ protested Speke. ‘I was back on board almost stripping the Leopard of anything remotely useful for the bell job. She may be seaworthy but she can’t go to sea now without the tackle being used at the church.’
‘We’re not going anywhere, however you look at it at the moment.’ said the First Mate.
‘It’s been fun, fun, fun, all the way today, hasn’t it?’ sighed Jasper. ‘Rathbone, that damned bell rolled on your foot, when you were getting it out from under the cart in the ditch. Are you alright?’
‘Just a few bruises Cap’n.’
‘ ‘Thank you ma’am, the agony is much abated.’ ‘ squawked Tantamount.
‘Mind you, my knee’s still giving me gyp in this cold climate…’
‘Don’t start that again. Now, as to the situation. May I have your assessment Mr Speke?’
‘I am really doing my very best Captain. The problems cannot be laid at my door. We have two main difficulties in the belfry – clearing the way and then getting the bells down. We have to remove the floor before they can be lowered. The floor boards around the access from the stairs were only nailed down and so we were able to prise them up last night for the removal of the smallest bell. This morning we found that the rest of the flooring is bolted to the joists, indeed double bolted, and in most cases the bolts are rusted solid and we are having to saw through the wood. There is limited space available and so only two men can work at a time. The floor boards are made of oak, probably several hundred years old, and so nearly as solid as the bolts. I am sure that you must understand that this all takes time.’
‘Well, yes, of course, I appreciate that. But now there is a space wide enough for the third bell. What is the current problem?’
‘I am experiencing a multitude of setbacks in the lowering of the bell. I do assure you that I have mustered all the resources available. I have the ship’s derrick, a crane from the harbour, and a set of sheer-legs. We have several types of tackle, but many blocks have broken with the bushes shearing in the sheaves and the pins snapping in the shells. I’ve used five types of purchases on the pulleys – a double whip, a gun tackle, a double luff, a luff tackle, and a Spanish burton. ’
‘Yes, quite.’ said Jasper.
‘And we’ve got problems with the ropes.’ said Rathbone. ‘They unwind or split or just come apart. We’re using hausers and warps and shrouds and stays and sheets and the tupping loft and even the bell ropes themselves..’
‘Oh dear.’ sighed Jasper, who felt that his eyes were beginning to glaze over.
‘And it’s not just the ropes.’ said Rathbone, warming to the theme. ‘The bloody knots are playing up. We’ve tried clove hitches, reef knots, sheet bends, rolling hitches, bowlines, figures of eight, overhand knots, and round turns with two half hitches… and still the buggers slip.’
‘Well, I have to concede that you two are doing your best.’
‘And I have managed to get the damage in the forge repaired.’ said Speke. ‘It was of a minor nature.’
‘Minor?’ exclaimed Jasper. ‘The ruddy roof has gone up in flames. The confounded building is open to the elements.’
Speke wrung his hands. ‘I was referring to the contents. It’s not my fault that the roof was thatched with straw. Reckless negligence, I call it, on a blacksmith’s forge.’
‘Perhaps the builder had not envisaged some idiot lighting a fire on the floor instead of in the furnace.’
‘It wasn’t quite like that Cap’n.’ said Rathbone. ‘They set up a rig holding the bell but as soon as the flame touched it sparks shot all over the place – caught them by surprise it did. Fireworks everywhere.’
‘This bell business is obviously going to take rather longer than I had anticipated. But the gold must be our priority.’ Jasper spread out a map upon his cabin table. ‘There is no doubt that even if these people sent south for help before we set guards on the pass, we would still have the time we need before there would be the remotest chance of such help arriving. The guards reported that no one attempted the pass during the night and they have now been withdrawn as any attempt to send for help made now will be far too late. As to the countryside and settlements beyond the town, there is no danger to us from that quarter. The ex-prisoners will have warned the others how strong we are. The expedition up into the valley must wait until the bells have been dealt with.’
‘The crew will be disappointed.’ said Rathbone. ‘They were looking forward to a good day out tomorrow…’
‘ ‘To tread the rustic byways and to view the twisted englantine…’ ‘ said Tantamount.
Ah, the trials and frustrations of piracy… Next week we shall join Captain Mac again at the Comfort Corner Care home to meet some very eccentric residents…