Sir Jasper’s plans
Watched by Tantamount Jasper was in his cabin adding some recent acquisitions to the contents of his treasure chest. He was carefully placing some of Rowley Buckram’s porcelain beneath the collection of wigs and clothes for all occasions, and musing on his future.
The day had hardly gone well, and so much could depend upon the success of this venture. If only he had been able to utilise the haul taken from that Frenchman things would be so very different…
Three years before the Black Leopard had been surprised by a fast French naval frigate in rough weather near the Scilly Isles. Fortunately both Jasper and his First Mate were familiar with those treacherous waters and so were able to avoid action and possible capture. The other vessel struck a reef at high tide close to a deserted island and went down with all hands. When the storm eased and the tide was low Jasper and his crew were able to plunder the wreck. The vessel had been carrying arms and bullion destined for the American Colonists, and the Captain’s share was substantial.
In the guise of a merchantman the Leopard put into the Devon harbour of Aldhaven to refit and celebrate for a few days. Jasper had hoped to bank his specie, but he was betrayed by local smugglers and had to hide and abandon that particular treasure when escaping. Perhaps some day he might find a way to retrieve it but it was still far too early to return, even in disguise.
The prospect of obtaining a ransom for Doctor Johnson and James Boswell was fraught with difficulty. From the outset he had proposed that course in order to justify the saving of their lives. The murder of such prominent citizens would have caused an international outrage so great that he and the crew would have been in peril wherever they went. Privately he was inclined, once this current operation was over, to put them safely ashore somewhere as a gesture of goodwill, with a view to possible favourable future witness if ever needed.
No, the gold from the bells was essential, not just to keep the crew content, but to complete the necessary funding to enable one to embark upon any mid life career move. And even if resources became sufficient there was so much more to consider before one could actively retire from piracy without being hung.
‘How pleasant a more settled life might be, would it not, Sir Tantamount? Music, the theatre, intelligent sociability, perhaps feminine company to share one’s maturing years.’
‘ “He perceives perhaps a hunger for something more than sin?” ‘
‘Yes, indeed. It would be nice to have a manor house… Herby gardens, bowers, arbours. Seats surrounded by sweet fragrances and bird song, sheep grazing beyond the ha-ha…’
‘ “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, and the murmuring hum of innumerable bees.” ‘
‘Just so – to have the life of a squire of the shires – but then, what shire? Or possibly to be occupied with some stress free enterprise and recreation suitable for a gentleman of the eighteenth century mode, as a man about town and an intellectual savant…’
‘ “He spends a while at chess, and a while with pleasant harping, and a further while a-wooing and a-winning lovely women…” ‘
‘If only. But then securely residing in what town, and safely frequenting what salon? Or should I try and settle somewhere outlandish where the climate and opportunities were not only congenial but one would be unlikely to be known or discovered? New Holland? Baja California? Chipping Sodbury?’
‘ “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made. Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, and live alone there shall I, live in the bee loud glade.” ‘
‘Well, perhaps not quite like that. I would rather prefer somewhere more like this. How ironic – Summerdale would have been ideal.’ Jasper sighed and pondered. But what about the crew, particularly those members for whom he had particular regard and affection? Ideally he would want to be assured that they especially were safe and secure. Some of the rest were feckless, without much thought for the future, and would take to whatever was on offer or sail with whoever replaced him, even if that was the Quartermaster. The two worst cut throats could go hang, and probably would do so eventually anyway, but if Speke was ever captured he would probably turn King’s Evidence to save his neck. Any plans for a quiet and comfortable life and its possible location must certainly be totally secret.
He had picked up and was thumbing through The Gentleman’s Magazine Travel Supplement Special, when there came a knock upon the cabin door.
‘Wait a moment.’ he called, and dropped the journal back into the chest, which he pushed temporarily under his desk and covered with a damask cloth, before opening the door.
It was the First Mate.
‘Er, about the second escape…’ said Rathbone bravely. ‘I know how you feel, but thought you might be able to discuss it more, er, calmly now?’
‘Don’t you believe it.’
‘Well, perhaps not. But I’ve had an idea about it…’
‘Have you now?’
‘Yes. And I’ve discussed it with Speke and he agrees with me.’
‘Oh, how gratifying – unity amongst the afflicted.’
‘No need to be like that Sir J.’
‘I apologise Rathbone. It’s been another difficult day. Pray continue.’
‘Well, if we go back to the first escape…’
‘I think so. We had thought that the bookseller, being a prominent citizen, might have a had a duplicate key. Well, on reflection, I think that unlikely. I mean, he might have had a key to the Town Hall, or perhaps to an office in it, or maybe to the Council Chamber, but he wouldn’t have keys to everywhere, would he? And certainly not to an empty cellar. And if he did have a great bunch of official keys he would hardly carry them with him all the time, certainly not when about to confront a bunch of pirates…
‘Ummm… You have a point.’
‘But there is someone who would have Town Hall keys, perhaps even a master key.’
‘The Mayor. And he got away.’
‘Of course! But he was rather fat and hardly spry…’
‘He could have given a master key to someone smaller and spryer. And the first escape was in the dark and most of the crew were drunk and useless after midnight.’
‘And what about today’s debacle?’
‘Same key? Same bloke? Shuffle out of the woods in disguise, lift the prisoners, hide ‘em away until nightfall, and then off out again through the back alleys? Otherwise they’d have to have become invisible!’ laughed Rathbone.
‘I’m not prepared to believe in magic yet, no, I do believe you’re right, Rathbone. But the rescuer would have to be a brave man. And how would he know where the prisoners were housed? Are we being watched, and if so from where and when? I’m getting decidedly twitchy.. But even though with the prisoners escaped any opposition in hiding is likely to withdraw further to safety, in future guards will have to be much more alert.’
‘I agree Captain. Er, mind if I make a suggestion?’
‘That high value chest – it’s not quite covered over.’
‘Ah. Thank you Rathbone.’
‘And pardon me for saying, it shouldn’t be out at all, not with the cabin door unlocked. Anyone might burst in, drunk and forgetting their manners, see all on display and than start shouting the odds between decks. We’ve all got our sea chests or our gear stowed away, but the sight of one that size, with all the padlocks and shackles, could give rose to all sorts of envious cogitation.’
‘Dear me, to add to the delights of the day I’m to be favoured with a lecture as well, am I?’
‘Only thinking of your interests Captain. And to a degree mine of course, what with you having my Maria Theresa dollars safely stowed as well. Only you and I know the real worth of what’s locked away in that handsome bit of luggage. That two hundred carat hat, for instance…’
‘The Spanish Queen’s tiara? Yes, indeed. And there are some quite nice pieces layered beneath the bullion.’
‘ “Quite nice pieces?” There’s enough jewels in that chest to fit out a Sultan’s harem. The Quartermaster would have a seizure if he knew how much you had put by before he joined us in ’79’
‘Point taken Mr Mate. Where would I be without you?’
Listening outside the cabin door Luther Speke ground his teeth and clenched his fists. Having had a lifelong experience of the practice of duplicity, he counted slowly to twenty then knocked on the door.
‘Ah, Mr Speke. Come in, come in… Rathbone and I were just discussing arrangements for tomorrow.’
‘My priority as well, Captain.’
‘I was about to seek you out, but with your usual reliability you are to hand when most appropriately needed…’
‘My constant endeavour is to serve as efficiently as possible.’
‘That is so true, Mr Speke. A most valued talent for our tasks.’
‘Well, with such leadership Captain, it behoves us all to give of our best.’
‘And your particular contribution is most highly valued.’
‘Can we get on?’ asked Rathbone. ‘My platitude tolerance budget is rapidly running out. I’d rather like to get some shut-eye tonight.’
‘Very well.’ said Jasper. ‘As you know, it became apparent this morning that despite our vast and collective experience we here lack the slightest competence required to remove a soft metal from a harder one. We are now therefore obliged to carry the complete bells off so that we can elsewhere utilise or construct better facilities for the task, probably involving a furnace as well as a forge.’
‘Or maybe to sell them intact?’ said Speke. ‘To some greedy potentate unaware of their peculiar problems?’
‘Very possibly. But we need a strong raft to get them across to the Leopard, and so the plan was to send the girl to get enough labour to fell sufficient trees and make the raft during this past afternoon, the safety of the boy being the incentive.’
‘A very good plan it was too, Captain.’ said Rathbone. ‘But what have we got? We’ve got no incentive, no labour, no logs, and no raft. And we’ve also got crew that are – how can I put it – not best pleased with the bell work, and itching to get up the valley and get their hands on some easier plunder.’
‘Exactly. And who can blame them. I’m itching in that direction myself. Now Mr Speke has pointed out that whilst no single small vessel available to us would be adequate to carry the bells, if we could lash together our longboat and the harbour tender we could cover them with planking and in effect have the strong and buoyant raft that we require.’
‘Sound idea.’ said Rathbone. ‘You could use floor boards for the planks. Shouldn’t be too difficult to get them up.’
‘While you and the Captain are stripping the valley I’ll get that under way.’ said Speke. I’ll only need the skeleton crew guarding the town for the job. We might be able to get the raft sorted and the bells aboard by the time you return. Soon rig the derricks on the Leopard. I’ve got most of the tackle we’ve been using back in place already. Sail off on Saturday with a bit of luck.’
‘I’m most gratified by your enthusiasm Mr Speke.’
‘I shall strive earnestly to implement this plan.’
‘I have every confidence in you.’
‘You can be sure of my best very best endeavours.’
‘Please…’ said Rathbone. ‘Are we done?’
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.