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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

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‘Mr Ransome, stay here,’ said Mr Brett in the square, silent except for the distant noise of the townsmen’s flight. ‘Keep this Spaniard. Secure the Governor if he is to be found—the guide will know him. Mr Andrews, we will proceed to the fort.’

A single shot came from the roof of the Governor’s house. There was a loud and musical ping, and Peter saw Keppel sitting on the ground, holding his head.

‘Clear that roof,’ cried Ransome in a voice of thunder through the furious roar of the Centurions; and as Peter’s file marched off he saw Keppel stagger to his feet.

‘That is the main gate, sir,’ said the wretched guide, fast to the coxswain by a line round his middle. They were crouched under the shelter of a tumble-down wall, and over their heads the gun-embrasures stood ominous and clear, with a drift of smoke still wafting from them. The moment they left the wall they would be in point-blank range.

‘Mr Andrews, I am going to attempt the gun-ports to larboard. You will open fire and howl and create a diversion to starboard: if you can gain a footing, well and good. If not, keep up a fire at the slits and embrasures until you hear my whistle. Rogers, come here. You see that hole? You run for it when I give the word, and—who’s the next strongest?—Walton, you unship that Spaniard. Here, make him fast to this ring, and attend to what I say. Rogers will make you a back: you will clap on to the edge of that hole, that gun-port. We
will come up over your shoulders. Understood? Mr Palafox, you and your party will do the same the next hole down. Now understand this: Centurions are silent, Tryals howl like the devil. Centurions to port, Tryals to starboard. Wait for my signal. One, two, three, go.’

With a roaring and bellowing behind him and the flash and crackle of musket-fire, Peter raced across the open ground, with Sean slowing to let him keep up. He had time to think, ‘If they don’t fire this minute they won’t be able to fire at all,’ and then he was swarming up Thomson’s back while Sean’s war-shriek rang from the battlement above him. He could not reach, his nails scraped on the stone. Sean’s hand grasped his, heaved him up. Sean was fleeting over the gun-platform in the light of a single lantern: he was hurtling straight for an advancing body of men with his cutlass up and with the rest of Peter’s party behind him. Sean sprang on his man with a terrible cry, missed his head, gripped his throat, dashed the hilt of his cutlass into his face, bore him down and hissed into his ear would he have his throat cut now or surrender?

The man, black in the face and unable to speak, kicked Sean in the stomach and Sean shortened his cutlass to put him to rest.

‘Stop teasing the man,’ said Peter peevishly, pulling Sean by the arm. ‘Let him alone, can’t you?’ Another kick from the infuriated bo’sun’s mate dislodged Sean: but this was the only angry blow struck in the action, for the fort was deserted and its defenders were still just to be seen hurrying urgently away.

Mr Brett blew his whistle. ‘Strike their colours,’ he said, passing the coxswain the Union flag to be hoisted.

‘No offence, joy?’ asked Sean, tenderly dusting the bo’sun’s mate’s collar.

‘Not the least in the world, cock,’ said the bo’sun’s mate, spitting blood.

‘Mr Palafox,’ said the lieutenant, ‘you know where you are?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Peter, taking his bearings from the main gate of the fort.

‘Then go at once to the Customs House. Kill anyone there at the least resistance. If the treasure is still there fire this rocket. If not, this one. Cox’n, give Mr Palafox the rockets. Take four men. I shall follow when the fort is secured. Understood?’

‘Aye-aye, sir. Sean, Davis, Brown, Thomson.’

He raced from the fort, across the side of the square, down the long, empty street, turned right towards the place they had landed, and there along the wall of the broad building that he knew was the Customs House he saw a small group of men staggering with a chest. ‘Ahoo,’ he roared, banging his pistol in the air.

‘Ahoo,’ roared Sean, and, ‘Ahoo,’ bellowed the remaining three. The men dropped their burden and fled madly.

‘This is it,’ cried Peter. ‘Kick in that door.’

The men hurled themselves against it. It was open, however, and they shot furiously into the Customs House. The solitary Negro in it turned grey, dropped his lantern and plunged out of a window.

Peter stared round in the light of the guttering candle. Row upon row of chests lined the walls, stood piled on the floor.

‘Here,’ he said, grabbing Sean’s cutlass and prising open a lid. ‘It’s all right,’ he cried, as the glint of the steel flashed back from the silver and gold. ‘Now come on,’ he said, ‘get that other chest in from the road. Brown, drop that,’ he snapped. ‘Jump to it. Heave. Heave-ho.’ he cried, straining at the handle of the chest in the street. ‘Dear Lord, but it’s heavy.’

‘’Tis heavy, Peter a cuishle,’ said Sean, picking it up, ‘but sure it’ll go hard if I don’t have Tim Colman’s field and a bull. You have not forgot the rocket, sir, dear, I am sure?’

‘I have not,’ said Peter. ‘Where’s the flint and the steel? Oh your soul to the devil,’ he cried as the flint refused its office again. ‘Now,’ he said, priming his empty pistol with powder. There was an instant flash, a glow, and a second later the rocket soared up to burst, in a red star that illuminated the five upturned faces, eager and tense, and told the fort and the squadron that the treasure of Paita was taken.

Chapter Eleven

equator, far south of the great bay of Panama: seven hundred miles and three weeks of sailing to the south. The inhabitants of that arid and slatey town were building up their smoke-blackened walls of mud, dredging inefficiently for the sunk merchant-ships and galleys, rejecting, with ill-concealed contempt, the Governor’s explanation of the powerful reasons that had led him to stand outside the town with a numerous body of cavalry while the British sailors, fantastically dressed up in looted periwigs, laced coats and mantillas, joyously toiled day after day, carrying the heavy chests of silver to the boats that plied incessantly from ship to shore.

The said tars, now no more than a vivid and evil memory (and yet not such an evil memory either, for there had been no shadow of personal outrage or brutality; and the released prisoners from the prizes spread far and wide their account of the Commodore’s humanity—one ecclesiastic, a Jesuit who had messed with Mr Walter, even going so far as to state that the salvation of heretics was not wholly inconceivable)—no more than a memory in Paita, were now variously disposed about the island of Quibo. It had been a trying passage, with contrary winds, tremendous, suffocating heat and appalling downpours of equatorial rain that had rushed through the
’s sun-dried decks to render every single thing within her wet, warm and, within twelve hours or so, resolutely mouldy. A tedious, long and uncomfortable voyage, and even at the end, when they had at last found Quibo—madly out of
position on the charts—a foul wind had kept them standing off and on, and had forced the G
, always an unfortunate ship, away to the leeward and over the horizon. But the men’s leaping high spirits had never flagged: there was not a man aboard who did not know to within a hundredweight or so the amount of the treasure that lay behind new bulkheads far below the waterline; there was not one of them who had not become an ardent calculator, a finished arithmetician; and even the lowest rating knew himself to be worth fifty pounds or more—an exhilarating sum for a sailorman.

The exceedingly important business of filling the ship’s watercasks was nearly finished—a doubly urgent task, for Paita had yielded barely a hogshead, there being never a spring in the town—and it had been done easily with a sweet stream running directly at hand. Now there was some time for liberty ashore, and the end of the island resounded with the sailors’ holiday. Sean, unmindful of his future as turtle-herd in chief, was passionately hurrying up and down in the blinding glare of the sun, turning the creatures as they hauled up on the sand. In another part of the island the assembled carpenter’s mates stood on tiptoe around an enormous alligator while Mr de Courcy Bourke, a Negro from Paita who, by a very remarkable coincidence, had known Mr Saumarez on the Jamaica station, and who had escaped with several other slaves from the Spaniards during the attack, skipped to and fro in front of the alligator’s nose. With a sudden terrifying rapidity the alligator charged for the twentieth time, snapping with a force that would have severed a topsail yard: Mr de Courcy Bourke leapt over the alligator’s upper jaw and stood poised on its scaly back. The carpenter’s mates scattered, shrieking with laughter: one fell, touched by the alligator’s lashing tail, and he would have ended his days at Quibo if Mr de Courcy Bourke, knowing in the ways of alligators, had not slid forward, with his gleaming black arms in a muzzle that prevented the huge jaws from opening.

Off shore a large and pertinacious group of seamen groped perpetually among the oyster-beds for the pearls they never
managed to find, possibly because they opened the wrong sort of shell. Solitary, on a black rock in a gloomy shadow, Hairy Amos slowly extracted a sea-urchin’s spines from his horny foot. Amos, alone among the liberty men, did not sing: behind his beard he did not even smile. Hairy Amos was sad. He was the one Centurion who had got drunk ashore—blind drunk, drunk to such an extent that only the heat of the burning town had aroused him. This had been publicly, and unfavourably, mentioned by the Commodore himself during an address to the men, designed at once to commend the good conduct of the landing-party and to allay the frightful outbreak of wrangling between the men ordered ashore and the unfortunate who, left behind, had been deprived of their chance of making a booty. The Commodore had appeased the really dangerous tumult by insisting on fair shares all round: he had thrown in his own on the heap on the deck as a token. But he had also publicly rebuked hairy Amos, and this weighed on Amos’s soul. Even Dog-faced Joe, that walking sponge, had refrained; but not Amos, the squadron’s hairy shame.

A manta the size of a billiard-table planed out of the sea and fell with a slap like a mainsail taken aback. ‘Overgrown flatfish,’ said Amos, ‘I hope you stove in your stomach.’

A dazzling flight of brilliant macaws passed over his head to join the parrots and parakeets in the
’s rigging. ‘Nasty dirty birds,’ observed Amos. ‘Always fouling the deck for poor sailormen. Yelling and bawling like—bo’suns.’

‘Well, if you insist,’ said Mr Walter, accepting a cake, ‘perhaps I could manage another.’ Peter had sacked a pastry-cook’s shop in Paita for the chaplain, but already the mound was very much less—almost gone.

‘This is the kind I like best,’ said Mr Walter, holding up a spherical blob of marzipan about the size of an egg, with nine kernels stuck all over it and a piece of crystallised melon concealed within. ‘It has just a
more unction than the square sort, I believe. But, as I was saying, the Acapulco
galleon is not to be considered as a merchant vessel. It belongs to the King of Spain and wears the royal colours at the main: its officers are King’s officers, and the merchants are only permitted to ship their bales by grace. It is a privilege that the merchants prize very highly, for this is the only way they can trade with the Orient—no other ships but the annual galleon are allowed, and they keep the secret of their navigation so close that there are no interlopers.’

‘So in this one ship they carry all their commerce, sir?’ said Peter, thoughtfully.

‘Just so. Gold and silver from Mexico to the Orient: then from Manilla in the Spanish Philippines, where the Oriental merchants gather, all the spices and silk that the silver has bought, come back to Acapulco. And I have heard it said, by trustworthy men’—sinking his voice—‘that the Acapulco ship carried a million pieces of eight.’

‘A million, sir?’ cried Peter.

‘A million,’ repeated Mr Walter.

‘A million, Sean,’ said Peter.

‘What is a million, your honour, dear?’

‘A thousand thousands, so it is. And you may reckon four shillings and ninepence for a piece of eight—or you may say a crown to be easy in your reckoning.’

‘May I so, Peter gradh? Sure, a crown’s a lovely thing,’ said Sean, whistling vacantly.

‘Come now, Sean, don’t be stupid, I beg. Think of a thousand crowns, and then all that heap a thousand times repeated.’

‘Why, indeed your honour, that is a thought beyond my power, like counting the waves between this land and home.’

‘Dunderhead,’ cried Peter warmly, moved by Sean’s indifference. ‘I will bring it down to your brutish incomprehension. It is two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Your share would be a clear five hundred golden guineas.’

‘Five hundred pounds for me,’ whispered Sean, turning pale. ‘And did you say for me, your honour, dear? Why, there
has never been five hundred whole pounds in Ballynasaggart in the history of the world. It would buy the parish, joy. And do these false thieves of Spaniards be keeping my five hundred pounds in their old ship?’

‘Quietly now. Do not bellow, Sean.’

‘Where is this ship, Peter, tell me true?’ cried Sean, pinning Peter’s arm.

‘She is somewhere between this and the East,’ replied Peter, pleased at having so powerfully attentive an audience.

‘So we must rush over that old mountainy New World,’ said Sean, gazing eastwards to Panama. ‘The Dear knows it will be the weary road with all that silver on our backs, but what is a mountain, and what is the load at all—’

‘Wisha, it is not that way, Sean, my dear,’ said Peter. ‘The East is in the west here, because the world is a ball, and we the other side of it.’

‘For shame, now, your honour,’ said Sean reproachfully, still staring across the sea. ‘To make game of a poor ignorant fellow (though he may be as rich as Squire David, with fifty bright pounds of his own) is no sport at all for your father’s son.’

‘But the world
round,’ said Peter.

‘It is not,’ said Sean. ‘How can you say such a wicked thing? Fie.’

‘But it is,’ cried Peter, ‘and if we go on, we shall come back to where we began.’

‘Of course we shall,’ replied Sean, ‘but that is because it is shaped like a cheese. You may go
, as Loegaire did: but you may not go up or down for ever, or you will fall off the ends, as Maire nic Phiarais did and we ourselves almost when we went too far south of the Horn. The whole world knows that. But for all love let us not be gossiping like a pair of old cats in the sun—where is she for sure, this beautiful ship?’

‘By now,’ said Peter, considering, ‘she may be somewhere between 150 and 140 degrees of longitude west.’

‘Then why do you sit there, man alive?’ cried Sean. ‘Why do we squander the minutes? Why?’ he cried springing to his
feet, ‘do we let those false yellow dogs gloat over my five hundred pounds—and your honour’s share, too, which is far greater, as justice demands, for are you not the learned man of the ocean sea? Why do we sit admiring the turtles? Come, we will tell the Commodore how it is the way we must sail on the instant.’

‘Time enough, time enough: be easy. If himself’—nodding towards the quarter-deck, where the Commodore stood deep in thought—‘does not know, who does, will you tell me at all? Sure, it has been in his mind since Juan Fernandez.’

‘And is there time, so, your honour? asked Sean anxiously. ‘They will not give us the slip, the thieves, in some odd hole of the sea?’

‘Time enough, Sean. Listen, while I tell you. They have this ship, have they not? This one ship every year, that must go from Acapulco to Manilla, and from there back again with the wealth of the East.’

‘The East in the west.’

‘Will you hold your tongue, now?’

‘I will not, Peter a gradh, for I am burning with joy.’

‘And from Manilla she sails in the month of July to come to Acapulco by January or February as may be, for the way is long, Sean, nigh on ten thousand miles, and the Spaniards will lie-to at night: then in March she turns back again for Manilla, and on that course she has more favouring winds.’

‘In January or February she comes?’

‘She does. So you understand that we have time enough to make our northing at leisure, the way it is December now, and the tenth day of December, no more, and no distance at all lies between us and the harbour of Acapulco where she must pass—barely a fortnight of sailing, for we shall find the trade wind to carry us up a few days from here. There is time in galore—time enough and to spare.’

‘Will you not touch on wood when you say such a thing, Peter dear? No, that is not wood, but the bone of a sea-lion. Touch wood, will you not? Five hundred pounds is a great solemn thing.’

‘What are you doing with the sea-lion’s tush? And why is it brown?’

‘I am making a line of teeth for Mr Keppel, and I have browned it the way I can see how I must work. But I wish you had touched to wood the first time, so I do.’

‘Well, I am touching wood now, an’t I. And yet there is less need, for she cannot know a word of our being here: which is quite as well, for she is a galleon the size of a first-rate, and she mounts a wonderful number of guns, as well as a thousand men clear to fight them, and we with no more than three hundred and thirty, counting the

‘I spit on their men,’ cried Sean. ‘I spit on their thousand men for a mock; and I spit in the Golden Ocean to bring us good luck.’

‘Who has spat on the deck?’ inquired a thunderous voice below them (for they were in the maintop). ‘Where is that man who has presumed to spit on the deck? Where is the ship’s corporal? Bring me the name of that renegade swab.’

Time and to spare. A million pieces of eight. Time and enough. The words ran to and fro in the ship, and never a group of men could be found talking without the word Acapulco in the mouth of each one. There was not one head in the ship that did not carry the muster complete—the roll of the ship’s company with each man’s rating set down. But here arose an infinity of argument, strong, heated words, dissension, and even oaths, alas; for upon each man’s rating depended his share of the prize; and in the squadron, with its terrible list of mortality, there was scarcely a hand who was not filling another man’s place. It was so from top to bottom: the original first lieutenant was now captain of the
Tryal’s Prize
; his replacement, Mr Saumarez, commanded the
: and at the other end, one of the original butchers, a man of some education and a fearless hand with a knife, was now an acting, unpaid surgeon’s mate; while Prout, entered as an ordinary trumpeter, had performed the duties of yeoman of the powder-room a twelve-month since, which put him, in his
opinion, in the much smaller class of those who, like the midshipmen, shared one eighth of the whole, instead of the quarter share that had to be split among the whole mass of the generality—seamen, able and ordinary, the quarter-gunners, the carpenter’s crew, the stewards, the swabbers and the rest.

They argued and wrangled by day and by night, and the Commodore’s clerk, an anxious, harried, conscientious recorder, received garrulous and circumstantial deputations from every category in the ship until he found his papers were increasing upon him until there was no more room for himself to turn in the miserable hole where he lived: whereupon he shut up his door with a double lock and gave himself up to silent despair.

BOOK: The Golden Ocean
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