My worn boots clomped to a halt as I stood still on the dock in awe. I tilted my head back to look at her. She was elegant, tall, and beautiful, causing me to fall in love with her in spite of my promise to never love her kind again. Her crisp, bright white sails were gathered neatly under the yardarms, as carefully as any maid would hang up laundry to dry. The rigging and ropes of the bumblebee-colored brig trailed like the hairs of a brunette damsel. Twelve guns stared taciturnly from her side, and under the bowsprit perched the figurehead of an owl, leading the way with wisdom.
Half a dozen seamen appeared on her deck and began descending the plank to the dock. Bringing up their rear was none other than Captain Joseph William Deney himself. As his men began loading their backs with crates and sacks from the docks, he advanced towards me and offered his hand.
“Good morning, Mr. Clarke,” he said jovially.
Feeling less jovial, I smiled weakly in return. Noticing the clean, undamaged clothing of the sailors, I had become self-conscious of my own soiled and tattered garments. In addition, while I had seen the men loading beautiful wooden chests, which I knew held their personal belongings, I had become ashamed of the patched cloth sack over my shoulder that held mine. But thankfully, I saw no judgment in the captain’s eyes.
“Before you come on board,” he was saying, “I should have you know that some of the men do not go by their true names.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Most of my men,” the captain said, “have been harmed by pirates at some time in the past and have dedicated their lives to purging them from the sea. If their true identities were known, it could put them or the loved ones that remain to them in danger of their lives. You may take on a name as well, if you wish. We can call you ‘Compass’ if you like.”
“No,” I said, “I shall go by ‘Marine.’”
Deney nodded. “‘Marine’ it is, then. Come along.”
I followed my new employer up the plank. As I looked at the murky, lapping water below me, I dreaded every step. I did not want to once again be at the mercy of the liquid that covered most of the earth in its wet grasp. What a paradox water is! Men cannot live without it, but it can kill us as mercilessly as any sworn enemy. It will not heed the cry of the drowning man nor offer a drink to the shipwrecked sailor clinging to the wreckage of his vessel as he floats in the sea.
Finally, my feet touched the deck. “Fine brig,” I said, trying to distract myself. “What’s her name?”
“The Adventurer.” The captain said proudly. “Come to my cabin. I must give you a copy of your contract.” He had taken the document with him after I had signed it the night before.
The captain’s cabin occupied about half of the space under the poop deck. A large desk greeted us to our left as we entered. It was strewn with maps, parchments, two lanterns, and a few other odds and ends, like a knife and a box of matches. A red upholstered chair was situated behind the desk, and on the wall beyond the chair hung a portrait of a woman who struck me as quite beautiful. The other furniture in the room included a bed, a dresser with a cabinet, another cabinet, a small table, and two stools. Some weapons, among them muskets, swords, and some primitive arms that I couldn’t identify, hung from the walls.
A bare-chested African man was sitting in the red chair. Apparently, he had been writing, for when I entered, he was returning a pen to an inkwell on the desk. When he rose, I was amazed at his height. He was easily the tallest man I had ever seen and probably also the most muscular. Surprised, I noticed that he carried a knife and a pistol thrust in his belt.
“Marine, this is Dabu, my first mate,” Deney said, rummaging around in the desk drawers as the huge man moved aside.
Dabu nodded at me. “How do you do.”
I nodded back, unable to speak. Instead, I focused my interest on the captain’s search for my contract. He finally found it and came towards me.
As he handed me the copy, he asked, “Have you broken your fast?”
“No,” I said.
Angling his head past me, Deney shouted out the doorway, “Cook!”
After a minute or two, a fat man emerged from below decks. A large, soiled apron covered the front of his body, and a purple bandana enveloped his hair. “Oui, Capitaine!”
“Supply our mate Marine here with breakfast. He’ll be our new navigator, and he hasn’t eaten since yesterday.”
The Frenchman’s eyes widened in horror, and his hand flew to his considerable paunch. “À vos ordres, Capitaine!”
As I followed Cook through the doorway, Captain Deney sidled up close to me. “On my ship,” he said, “we judge a man by his character and work, not by his nationality or the tone of his skin. You would do yourself a favor to do likewise.”
I nodded but said nothing. I had lost my reputation as the best knife thrower in Whitby and had been forced to return to a life I utterly detested. And now I also had to take orders from a first mate I deemed inferior to myself. I paused on the deck, looking longingly at my hometown. But I knew I could not go back. In my prideful arrogance, I had gambled away control of my own life. Reluctantly, I followed Cook below decks to gorge myself in the galley.
Deney’s crew was over eighty men strong. I became acquainted with all of them over the next few weeks, but for convenience’s sake I will now introduce those who read this account to the men who became my closest friends and most frequent companions.
“Monkey” was the name of a tall, skinny man who spent most of his time in the rigging. After Dabu, he was the tallest man on board. It was sometimes mesmerizing to watch his lanky form swinging and dangling from the masts. It often looked like he would fall, but he never did. I once asked him if he ever had, and he replied, “Once, but never again!” He usually greeted me with a cheerful “Ahoy, mate!” from somewhere up above whenever he saw me.
If Monkey was second-tallest, then “Bucko,” as we called this unruly, red-haired Scotsman, was the second strongest. Like Cook, he was a great lover of food, but he kept himself slim through wrestling. Monkey was quick to inform me that Bucko could beat any man on board, except for Dabu, the captain, and Monkey himself, who always escaped to the rigging before Bucko could tackle him. Bucko could be a bit coarse at times, but he knew how to obey orders and was a good man to have on your side in a fight.
One of the most popular men on board was “Fiddler,” a mustached Austrian with amazing skills on the violin. Occasionally, he would bring out his fiddle and saw away a merry tune, getting the men to sing and dance. He would also play hymns for church services, which the captain held on deck as often as he could. Fiddler was a merry fellow, always ready for a laugh. But he was also eager to be sincere and have deep conversations, and I grew to appreciate this aspect of his character.
“Blast” was our old gunner. He had an enormous collection of firearms, and I, along with many others, often bought weapons, powder, and shot from him. Noticing I was unarmed except for my knife, he gave me a pistol on my first day on board. He dearly loved explosions, and he transformed into a real fighting dog whenever it came to pitched battle.
The man I spent the most time with was Wilhelm, the helmsman. Thankfully, we worked well together, and he made navigation much easier for me. “Willie,” as we called him, was a friendly German from Prussia. He came from a proud military family, and he had been trained as a soldier in the army of Frederick the Great (whom Willie always called “Old Fritz”). He had left the army when his sister and brother-in-law, a merchant, had been killed by pirates in the Mediterranean. Brokenhearted at his younger sister’s death, he had decided to break off his military career and fight pirates. A mutual friend had connected him with Deney, who then trained him as a helmsman. Thankfully, Wilhelm proved to be a natural, which was immensely helpful to me.
Little Tom, Deney’s cabin boy, joined us frequently, since I often had him fetch instruments and charts for me. He seldom spoke, but I appreciated his eagerness to learn. Often, I would smile as the skinny lad’s brown, curly head peered over my charts to see exactly where we were and where we were going.
Now, back to my first day on board the Adventurer.
I was on deck eating my generously provided breakfast of bread, cheese, and salted pork. I was taking a drink from a tin cup of ale when Monkey, whom I hadn’t met yet, came striding out of Whitby and onto the docks. His gangly legs lolloped up the plank, across the deck, and to the captain’s cabin. A few seconds later, Monkey, Dabu, and Captain Deney burst out of the cabin excitedly, the captain waving a letter.
“It’s Vaydor, men!” Deney shouted. “We have a lead!”
The sailors cheered and picked up the pace of their work. Cook started handing out small cups filled with ale in celebration. But my blood ran cold.
James Vaydor was one of the most feared pirates in all the world. Legends about his taciturn cruelty abounded in every seaport I had ever been to. Vaydor had been on board the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship of Blackbeard himself. Some said Vaydor was Blackbeard’s son, but if he was, his style of piracy was much different. He was a cool, tactful pirate, stealthy and sly as a serpent. In my days with the Navy, I had seen the results of Vaydor’s work on three different occasions. I had seen an entire village of natives butchered in the Caribbean and a wreck off the coast of Africa. Vaydor took a deep pleasure in the torture of others, but it was said he never smiled. The only time he would smile, I had heard, would be when he died.
“Marine!” Captain Deney called. “Let’s put you to work. I need you to chart a course to A Coruña, Spain.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Vaydor is in Spain?”
“No,” the captain said, “but our new guide is. Now let me hear a hearty ‘aye, cap’n!’ and I’ll show you to your instruments.”
I pasted a confident smile over my loathing of the sea. “Aye, cap’n!”
To be continued…