Speke’s escape frustrated
‘Have you got all our gear aboard?’ hissed Luther Speke, looking over the side of the Black Leopard.
‘Yes, Mr Speke. And we’re ready to hoist sail.’ whispered Mad Max, from the longboat.
‘Good. Just one more thing to attend to, and then we’ll be away…’
Speke crossed the deck to check the situation. Yes, a few of the townsfolk were now coming on to the quay. He had best be quick. The current was in his favour and the rising tide would help as would the freshening southerly wind. MacCroon might have trouble walking, and Murgatroyd limped badly, but they could both row with the other two until the wind caught the longboat’s sail. If they could just get up the coast out of sight by nightfall they could strike out to sea during the dark and be well away, headed for safety, and out of reach by dawn. Then he planned to throw MacCroon and Murgatroyd overboard
‘Right, you two.’ he said to Steelclaw and Blackheart. ‘Time to liberate – er, save – the Captain’s treasure chest. He wouldn’t want it falling into the hands of the enemy, would he? So I’ll look after it for him until he can claim it.’
‘How will he know where it is?’
‘Well, you’ve got a point there, granted, but it can’t be helped. If we don’t meet up with him again it will be very sad, but at least we’ll have the consolation of knowing that we’ll be more than well set up for the rest of our lives. I take it you’re in agreement with this course of action?’
‘Oh, yes, Mr Speke.’
‘Good. Now as little noise as possible – nice and gently up to his cabin. And if anyone gets in the way kill them as quietly as you can.’
‘How are you going to get in?’
‘I’ve got this special key – it’s called a muffled crowbar…’
Rathbone had left the Town Hall with instructions to return not only with Jasper’s chest, but also to bring back the Quartermaster and the cook and sufficient food to feed the crew on shore, since it was proposed that they should spend the night in the Council Chamber whilst arrangements were made for the work to be done the next day.
He and his companions had barely left the square when they came running back bringing with them Spud Tadmartin, who was soaking wet, out of breath, and sweating profusely.
‘What has happened?’ demanded Jasper.
‘Quartermaster sent us all down below.’ said Spud. ‘But from my cabin I couldn’t see what was going on. I started to come back on deck – saw Speke and Steelclaw and Blackheart and Carnage and Mad Max lowering their sea chests and gear over the port side, that being out of view from the town. They’re going to use the longboat to get away – rowing until they catch the wind and then sailing northwards… Once away from the harbour they’ll be completely out of sight… I slithered over the side and swam for the quay.’
‘Damnation!’ snarled Jasper.
‘And that’s not all – Speke was about to break into your cabin Cap’n, and take your treasure chest.’
‘Was he indeed? Professor Paragon, if I am to honour my obligations sir, I shall need your help.’
‘And you shall have it, Sir Jasper, oh yes, you certainly shall.’ The Professor drew a large gold watch from the folds of his cloak. ‘Ah, the Six Bob is about to be rung – most opportune. They want to catch the wind do they? Well, so be it. I shall raise such a wind as they will never forget…’
‘Well, don’t go wrecking the ship or you’ll have to dredge the harbour for the belongings.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘And you’d better keep that longboat intact as well, or the Captain’s treasure could be washed to kingdom come.’
‘Well, yes, yes, of course I am aware of that. Perhaps, dear Aunt Hetty, with your perceptions so acute, you could ride with the wind and steer its force specifically at our target, driving them somewhere safely on to the shore? And of course overseeing the capture and return of the miscreants.’
‘There’s a nice handy sand spit the other side of the mouth of the Rowan River.’ said Mr Bagley. ‘On horseback it can be reached quite quickly.’
‘Ideal.’ said the Professor. ‘We’ll use Barney’s cavalry.’ He turned to Jasper. ‘We have a number of strong horses just behind the Town Hall. In the circumstances I expect you would like to be part of our force? I thought so. Would you take Snowy once again? Perhaps Mr Rathbone could also join us? And these other two gentlemen – Mr Clarence and Mr Archibald I believe? Do you ride?’
‘I’ll give it a go guv.’ said Clarence. ‘I always said that bastard Speke took pride in being a gobshite.’
‘I belonged to the Tunbridge Wells Pony Club when I was a lad.’ said Archibald proudly. ‘Admittedly only because they paid me to do the mucking out. But I never got kicked.’
‘Good, good.’ said the Professor impatiently. ‘And Mr Boswell, perhaps yourself, and Barney, with Will Nudd leading as he knows the area, and the Bashem brothers at the back to add a dash of menace? I think that would do very well, if you agree? Best get mounted and on your way then. I shall be very busy here, but you can be sure that my aunt will direct matters on the ground with enthusiasm and relish. Perhaps Umbrage would hitch a cart to Berengaria please – we will need to bring their cargo back. Ah, all the bells have started to peal… Excellent!’
The Goldcaster Six Bob Change was quite straightforward, but very impressive. Firstly came the bass boom of Magnus, then up the scale for Abelard and higher still for Godolphin, to descend to Ignatius and down to Calabar. Then Magnus pealed again, as though to hammer home the message. This night the bell ringers, led by Mr Trundle, were really celebrating and intended to ring until nightfall, if their muscles managed to survive, and their arms were up to it.
There was satisfying symmetry to the simple refrain, a fullness and formality, but with an air of assurance and celebration, as though all would be safe and secure in Summerdale now the Bells of Goldcaster could ring out their benefits once again.
For those in the square the Six Bob Change this day was like a magic light show. The green glow of the great bell would lie upon the stones and walls as the bright blue of Abelard and the golden glow of Godolphin washed over the rooftops, and as the rose red of Ignatius and the orange of Calabar flowed through the streets and lanes, to be succeeded by the green again. It was as though as the peals rang out a rippling rainbow was being laid time after time upon the town, with the dominant colours changing all the while.
Elisabeth brought Snowy up to the Town Hall steps and Jasper swung himself into the saddle.
‘Good luck!’ she said.
‘Thank you, my dear, but for the first time for a long while I feel I am on the righteous side at last…’ He patted Snowy’s shoulder. ‘Here we are again, old fellow.’ he said, and then rode over to join the other horses now entering the square and being mounted by the eager riders.
‘Mr Boswell, gentlemen… Mr Nudd, we meet again. I recall your brave performance the night we arrived. Well now we are at your service, sir.’
‘Right. Follow me then…’ grunted Will.
‘Tally yoicks!’ said Clarence to his steed. ‘Hark for’ard! Hut, hut, hut!’
‘Don’t show us up!’ hissed Jasper. ‘It’s not a confounded camel!’
‘Well, I dunno, do I?’ grumbled Clarence. ‘Mush, mush, mush, then…’
‘We’ll need something to bring back what they’ve stolen. There’s an undamaged cart by the bridge.’ Rathbone called out to Umbrage. ‘We didn’t use it for the barricade.’
‘Thank you pirate.’ said Umbrage. ‘And Mr Tadmartin, would you care to join us for a traction engine ride? You could help us hitch that cart.’
‘Yes, come on Spud,’ said Elisabeth. ‘You’ll enjoy it.’
‘Hello Spud.’ said Tom. ‘Tantamount and I will come as well. You will be on parole to us this time. You can help me stoke the boiler – you’ll soon dry out.’
The cavalry galloped off, their hooves striking sparks from the cobbles as they crammed through the narrow lane leading out of the square, some of them rather bruising their elbows against the stone walls either side. Then they thundered down the quay, leapt clear of the remains of the barricade, and surged over the bridge and up the shore road down which Jasper and his men had returned earlier.
As they left Professor Paragon appeared behind the parapet on the roof of Town Hall with Mr Bagley and Doctor Johnson behind him. Standing back. Well back.
The Professor took from his robes a primitive bone whistle, once white but now scarred, chipped, weathered, and worn, the strange markings on it now unclear. He blew a phrase upon it, an eerie, sinister trill, a sound that made Mr Bagley and Doctor Johnson shiver.
‘Come Thunor… Come Cardea…’ he whispered softly. ‘Come close and serve my needs…’
He blew the whistle phrase twice more, and then extended his arms and looked upwards through the colours of the chiming bells. It had been really a rather nice autumn afternoon, but now great clouds started to form and the sky began to darken to a gunmetal grey.
‘Come Thor – red and raging –and blow out the bristles of your beard – Blow!, blow!!’ he cried. ‘Come Bel in thunder and show your fire!’’
Now the Professor blew the whistle three times once again, more loudly now, and the shrill notes echoed harshly around the square, as the first rumble of a storm came out of the now lowering sky. He raised his arms again, but this time with his fists clenched, and then he punched the air above…
‘COME YOU ALL, AND GIVE FOR US – TEMPESTAS POENA!’’
‘What does that mean? whispered Mr Bagley, apprehensively.
‘The storm of retribution.’ replied Doctor Johnson, looking decidedly worried. ‘I hope these Gods of his can be a bit selective.’
The rapid strengthening of the wind could be not only felt but seen, because the colours of the bells were caught up in the gusts swirling all around the Market Square. Mini rainbow whirlwinds started to form in all the corners and nooks between the buildings, only to be succeeded by a great rushing noise as the gale took hold. Every shred and scrap of debris was lashed by the colours, then sucked up and vanished high in the air as the wind burst up and out and over the town.
The scudding rain was being blown with such force that it passed horizontally overhead with only a few drops falling on the frightened crowd below. The rain was so dense that as it struck the Church hill to the south, sudden torrents poured down and into the town with streams and rivulets running through the lanes and alleys and forming a lake washing around the ankles of those in the square, before escaping out on to the quay and flowing in waterfalls into the harbour.
But there was a tiny problem. If the longboat was to be blown ashore on to the sand spit up the coast, a north wind coming from that direction was hardly helpful.
Aunt Hetty, being an experienced aeronaut, normally took off on her broomstick with the wind behind her, but now found herself blown over before becoming airborne.
‘Oh, heavens forfend!’ muttered Professor Paragon as she looked up at him from the square, shaking her fist, and screeching something unintelligible but certainly threatening and probably rather rude, as Esme Trundle struggled in the gale to help her get upright.
‘No, no! From the South, Cardea, From the South! ‘ implored the Professor. ‘Boreas, Boreas!’’
The gale rapidly eased off, then stopped completely.. A flurry of raindrops whirled down and then up into the air and then all was still for a breathless moment. The lake trickled away, the crowd came out of doorways and from under overhanging eaves, shook themselves, and breathed a united sigh of relief. And Aunt Hetty revved and puttered, drops of water and steam spat from her bristles, and then she got properly airborne at last. But now the storm hit again, only this time from the right direction.
Soaring high above Goldcaster, Aunt Hetty could see to the south of the harbour the waves of the rising tide begin to batter the shore. Flashes and stabs of lightning illuminated Summerdale, and northwards along the course of the Rowan trees were bending and branches snapping off.
A whirlwind came up the coast towards her and she suddenly found herself flying through a shower of shrimps. Feeling safer in the air rather than on the rooftops, the seagulls had taken off and flown before the storm. Seeing her as he passed, Fastnet tried to turn and join her, but was being blown backwards before she was able to grab him and place him safely in the folds of her tightly secured cloak.
‘Stick with me kiddo.’ she said. ‘You’ll be safe enough with the old Black Hag – I hope…’
On Berengaria Umbrage was finding it very hard to see where to steer through the driving rain, and his height didn’t help. Spud and Elisabeth were leaning out either side, trying to be as helpful as possible – ‘Right a bit, left a bit – left, left left!’, ‘Starboard a bit, port a bit – port, port, port!’
‘ “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude – blow, rage – blow your cataracts and hurricanos!” ‘shrieked Tantamount helpfully, as they crossed the bridge, scraping the wall on one side and sending stones splashing into the river, with the smoke from the traction engine chimney billowing away before them.
The cavalry’s progress, already at a gallop, became more like a stampede as they fled before the gale. There were flaring nostrils and streaming flanks everywhere. And the horses were much the same.
Rathbone was well forward on his mount, his arms clutched tight around her neck with his head buried in her mane. All she could hear was ‘Good girl oh christ! good girl oh christ!’ over and over again, interspersed with the occasional obscenity.
Archibald’s horse, buffeted like the others, slipped on the wet road and he slid over her head and into a ditch. His Percheron, being a caring sort of mare, paused in her flight, took hold of his collar, and pulled him out, covered in mud. She knelt down, licked his face, and he scrambled back up.
Clarence had managed to stay on his Suffolk stallion but had assumed an unusual posture, hanging as he was upside down from the horse’s neck with his feet locked over the pommel of the saddle. He was praying devoutly that his grip would hold otherwise his head would smash on the ground and he would be trampled by the thundering hooves. If it hadn’t been for the din of the storm his companions might have heard his screams, but at least in that position he had some protection from the rain and the sudden flurries of hail stones.
The only members of the troop almost at ease were the Bashem brothers, who rode their horses bareback without stirrups, and whose feet consequently paddled on the ground nearly as often as the hooves struck down.
‘Bloody hell!’ screeched Jasper, struggling to calm Snowy before his headlong career became an undignified bolt.
‘That’s not like you Sir J.’ panted Rathbone.
‘Well, does it have to be so drastic? – for heavens sake! Can’t these Paragons show some sense of proportion?’
‘I heard that… And I’m doing my best!’ shrieked Aunt Hetty from above.
‘Doesn’t your nephew use a check list or a recipe or something?’ shouted Jasper.
‘Well, he’s not so much your cordon bleu, he’s more your inundation expert.’
‘That much is apparent Madam. Well, we look to you to save us from disaster.’
‘You’ll be alright – perhaps. Just hold on tight while we get things under control…’
Aunt Hetty was much concerned about the effects of so strong a storm on the poor old Black Leopard. It was swaying to and fro and starting to heel over and drag its anchors. Then a waterspout came shrieking from the south and whirled into the harbour, momentarily sucking it dry. The ship grounded and began to tip, before the sea rushed back in a great wave, lifting up the Leopard and saving her, but breaking with terrific force against the quay, splashing up over the buildings, and drenching the nearest people in the square, including especially those pirates who had been imprisoned in the cage near the quay lane and so received the full effect. Of the small Goldcaster fishing boats which had been tied to the ship, two had been torn away and smashed to splinters against the harbour wall.
Aunt Hetty swooped back and down to the Town Hall roof. ‘Ease it off a bit you stupid bugger!’ she shrieked. ‘We could lose everything!’
‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…’ muttered Professor Paragon, desperately waggling his fingers and tugging at his beard.
‘Wouldn’t a moderate gale be sufficient?’ pleaded Mr Bagley, now crouched down in the lee of one of the Town Hall chimney stacks, and holding tightly on to Doctor Johnson.
‘With perhaps just the occasional strategic gust?’ suggested Doctor Johnson, holding tightly on to Mr Bagley. ‘I had hoped not to meet my maker quite so soon.’
‘Yes, YES! Just let me concentrate… Er – Deminuere… Yes, that’s a bit better… and perhaps Coartare? – Yes, yes…’
The wind began to lessen and became narrower in its effect, but was still tempestuous and wilful, blowing the tiles off the roof tops of the town one minute and then rampaging up the river valley the next.
‘Nearly right,’ said Professor Paragon, ‘Here we go – ‘Donare ad Saga!’ – Give it to the Witch!’
The storm now narrowed and rose up towards Aunt Hetty. She swooped towards it, ushering it out of the town with her hands, steering her broomstick with her clenched knees, and then flying over and under the wind, and along each side, stabbing at it with her bony fingers, as though she was harnessing it by stitching an invisible but controlling net about its strength.
Now in the forefront of this still roaring force whose multiple colours were somewhat fainter the further it blew from the church, she drew it northwards once again until the mouth of the Rowan came in sight, with the cavalry pounding along the coast road, and the longboat, its sail billowing well, heeled half over as it cut its way north through the waves.
As Aunt Hetty came abreast of the boat she gestured the wind downwards and blew lightly towards it. The longboat sail promptly ripped and shredded itself.
‘Avast below you lily livered lubbers!’ she cried. ‘Belay your bilges, batten your bollards already… Trying to row your way out of trouble? Oh, shame – there go the oars. Rake your ratlines you gombeen marauders, careen your cleats… Now let’s have a little gustipoo here… and perhaps there… Lovely, lovely. Are we being driven ashore? How annoying for you. Still, it’s only a sandbank – you’ll survive to be hung. Just another little puff methinks. Oh dear, man overboard. Can’t he swim? Well he’ll just have to wade won’t he? I dunno – pirates who can’t swim. No wonder you’re in such deep sh… Ah, here comes the cavalry… Didn’t they get here quickly? Whoops a daisy – another one in the oggin. At least he’s swimming. Nice to see one of you has got a sense of porpoise…’
By the time they had crawled or been swept ashore there was no fight left in the crew of the longboat. Battered by the wind, soaking wet, and feeling lucky just to be alive, they merely lay exhausted sadly on the sand as the cavalry surrounded them. Even the Quartermaster staggered with fatigue as he tumbled out of the bow of the beached boat, his long black coat snagging on the rowlocks, and looking forlornly behind him at the sea chests so carefully stowed between the thwarts, and especially gazing wistfully at one particular item.
‘Betrayal, Luther Speke?’ said Jasper coldly. ‘Off to the flesh pots of the Solway Firth, were we?’
‘I do not ride with my enemies Sir Jasper.’
‘We have been totally defeated by powers far beyond our previous experience. I have pledged my treasure as a token of good faith, in return for which the crew remain at least alive and on parole. You, however have put that agreement in peril by making off and stealing my only bargaining advantage.’
‘There has been a total misunderstanding Captain. From what I was told I was lead to believe that you had been captured. It’s my job to look after our resources. My only course, by way of serving you, was to save your chest and take it somewhere safe where we could hide, whilst I established how best you could be rescued. That was the way of it, wasn’t it lads?’
‘What? Yeah. My leg don’t half hurt…’
‘If you say so – whatever… ’
‘Eh? Oh… Aye…’
‘I nearly bloody drowned that time…’
‘You see?’ said Speke.
‘What about the rest of the crew? You just abandoned them.’ accused Rathbone.
‘I had to.’ lied Speke. ‘There was a dangerous atmosphere on board. Whenever I drew near they ceased their chatter and shifted away. I feared a mutiny brewing, and of course I and these loyal men would have been outnumbered. I had no choice but to slip away secretly, in your best interests.’
‘ “The devil damn thee black, thou cream faced loon…” ’squawked Tantamount, shaking his feathers free from rain.
The wind had now died away and Aunt Hetty flew gently down, her broomstick skidding a little on the wet sand as she landed.
‘Who is this slimy creature?’ she asked.
‘May I present Mr Speke, our Quartermaster.’ said Jasper. ‘He tells us that he was only seeking to save the treasure until such time as he could establish what the exact situation was.’
‘Oh, yeah? Sounds like a river of drivel to me. Well there will be more than one eye kept on him, I can assure you. What did you say his name was? I have trouble remembering names – I’ll just call him Arsehole. And who are these two with the faces like over-ripe tubs of condemned offal? They appear to rather fear the Bashem boys.’
‘Don’t let ‘em hit us again Missis – keep ‘em off for gawds sake…’
‘Steelclaw Hawkins and Blackheart Luke. They are Mr Speke’s assistants. They surge round him like glue.’
‘Well, they’ll regret it if they try and surge around me. Ah, I know this one. You’re the Murgatroyd boy aren’t you? I gave you a special lunch and this is how you repay us.’
‘Special was right miss. Hello – it was you, wasn’t it, Mr Boswell. You stabbed me in the thigh, you bugger. Still, no hard feelings eh?’
‘And who is this, groaning and massaging his feet?’
‘Ah, this is Ordinary Seaman MacCroon. They call him ‘Carnage’. He’s rather a loose cannon short of the full bombardment if you take my meaning. I’m afraid you would find normal conversation with him rather difficult. His broad Glaswegian accent is embellished with an inarticulate vocabulary of only about fifty words, most of them beginning with ‘F’.’
‘What have you to say for yourself, oh bandaged one?’ asked Aunt Hetty.
‘Effing sorry. Ah dinna ken wa was goin’ doon.’
‘You Hibernian git.’ spat Rathbone.
‘Dinna patronise me.’ moaned Carnage.’ Wha’s to effing treat ma wee footies by the way?’
Berengaria now crunched to a halt on the edge of the beach, and Luther Speke and his longboat crew were pushed and heaved on to the cart together with all their cargo, and set off back to Goldcaster, guarded by Will Nudd and Barney, with an armed escort riding alongside.
‘Thank you, er, Hepzibah.’ said Jasper. ‘May I address you thus? For a while there I thought all would be lost to the elements, but you have saved the day.’
Just call me Hetty, Jasper.’ she smiled. ‘I’ve been scrying forwards, and we’re allies now.’
And so they all left the sandbank, Berengaria complacently puffing back along the coast road to Goldcaster with her cargo of miscreants, the great horses of the cavalry trotting gently alongside, still steaming but now also snorting with satisfaction, their riders patting them and praising them, and even Clarence, now upright once again, grinning with triumph and relief.
On the shore the longboat had now been hauled above the high tide mark to await collection, and once again redshanks pattered past the drying seaweed, etching their spider prints in the wet grey sand.
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.