The alarm bell startled the two women out of a deep, if not restful, sleep. Sitting up in their cots, they looked about the small cramped cabin in confusion.
“What could it be, miss?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, but there is only one way to find out.”
Isabelle grabbed her dressing gown from the end of the cot and swung it over her shoulders as she approached the cabin door. She felt a tug on her nightgown and looked to see her companion, Marina, holding tight.
“Don’t do it, miss. Let’s just stay here till the captain comes.”
Pulling the fabric free, Isabelle continued to the door. “Posh! If there is something truly going on, we cannot wait for that old blowhard to come and let us know!”
Isabelle, well to be correct, Esmerelda Leonor Isabelle Catalina de Recalde el Rojo, did not cower easily. Perhaps it was her father’s Spanish blood or even her mother’s English courage. One thing was certain, she did not possess the gentile temperament of the typical female or the patience, for that matter.
Releasing the latch, she threw open the door to a chaotic scene.
Seaman were scrambling about in various states of undress while the cabin boy, who had been bringing them their meals during the long voyage, vigorously rang the sleep depriving bell.
“All hands! All hands on deck! Captain’s orders!” he shouted over and over again.
“You there. Boy! Boy!” shouted Isabelle. “Yes, you!” she clarified when he gave her a confused look as if surprised to see a partially dressed woman addressing him. “What is going on?”
“Pirates! There are pirates! We’re about to be attacked! Best get back inside and bar the door,” said the boy impatiently as he went back to his duty.
Isabelle quickly shut the door, threw the latch and turned and braced her back against it for good measure.
“Oh lord! Oh lord! Oh lord!” wailed Marina. She had signed on as companion to the fancy lady for a bit of adventure and fun. True she was hoping to catch the eye of some strapping young seaman because what was adventure without a lusty man by your side, but she did not sign up for pirates!
“Stop that nonsense, Marina! I need to think,” groused Isabelle. Then feeling poorly for shouting at her frightened companion, she crossed the cabin and gave her a quick hug.
“We cannot panic. The captain may be a slovenly man, but he runs a good merchant ship. I’m sure they are prepared and have fought off, well, hundreds of pirate attacks with great success.” Isabelle said with a false sense of confidence.
“Do you really think so, miss?” asked Marina, her eyes filled with hope and fear.
No. “Why of course, I think so!” she said with authority. “Now help me out of my nightgown and into my corset and dress. If we are to be attacked, I don’t want them finding me in my skivy!”
Marina went to do as she was bid while Isabelle was left to ponder for a moment the real possibility of being taken captive by pirates. Her father was a wealthy Spanish noble. Ransom would not be an issue. She could provide the pirates with plenty of gold and jewels, but was that all they would ask of her? She shuddered at the thought.
How bitterly ironic, Isabelle thought. When she set out on this journey, her every thought was how very much she did not want to reach her destination. Fate was cruel. Isabelle had been forced by her parents to leave her beloved warm and sunny Azores islands to travel to cold and dank England to become the betrothed of some stodgy, old English lord. Even the painted miniature he had sent with his marriage proposal showed a thin hairline and at least two chins. One had to assume the painter was being judiciously kind, and in actuality her betrothed had even less hair and probably one or two additional chins!
She had begged, pleaded, stormed and stomped but to no avail. Her parents were stalwart. She would marry the English lord and secure an English title for the family. Her parents also felt Isabelle’s upbringing on the somewhat remote colony island was leading to “unladylike” behavior as her mother put it. They were sending her back to the continent not a moment too soon in their minds.
So it was Isabelle, who found herself alone with only a hired companion for company on a merchant vessel bound for England. In the hold were trunks of silks, jewels and gold. Her dowry. Her father had chosen the well-armed vessel to carry his precious cargo. The galleon had at least fifteen guns. But would it be a match for a pirate ship?
“Not that one, Marina,” said Isabelle when a satin walking dress was pulled out of their trunks. “The heavy worsted wool one.”
“The worsted wool one!” shouted Isabelle.
The noise and clamor all around them was getting louder. Above their heads they could hear the pounding of boots and the screeching scrape of wood on metal as the thirty-six pound long guns were rolled towards the gun ports. Indistinct shouts and curses filtered through the wooden beamed ceiling of their cabin. Even without hearing the words, both women could tell from the excited tenor of the shouts, the seamen were scared.
“Hurry, Marina! Hurry!” urged Isabelle.
When both women were dressed in their warmest gowns, they sat on the cot and waited and listened. All the harried activity had suddenly stopped. There was a strange, tense calm.
The women screamed and held their hands over their ears as the whole ship shook and rattled as each long gun was fired. Dust and debris were shaken loose from the ceiling and fell down on them like rain. Marina clutched desperately at the lapels of Isabelle’s dress. Isabelle held the frightened woman tightly to her side. Rubbing a soothing hand down her back, she said, “The sound of the guns is a good thing. I’ll bet they are sending those nasty pirates scattering away.”
Marina raised her head off Isabelle’s shoulder and gave her a look filled with doubt. Isabelle’s attempt to soothe and calm had fallen short. Unfortunately, even she didn’t believe her words anymore.
Her inherent lack of patience came to the fore. Isabelle jumped up and grabbed Marina’s hand. “Come. We cannot stay here like two geese for the slaughter!”
“But where are we to go? It must be safer in the cabin!” complained Marina.
“If they take the ship, they will search the cabins and the hold for treasure. We must find a place to hide where they will not think to look. Hopefully, none of the seamen will betray there are women on board. Now come on!” shouted Isabelle as she forcibly dragged a trembling Marina out the cabin door.
The passageway was strangely quiet compared to the chaos moments before. All the men were above deck fighting off the attack. Isabelle continued to drag Marina down the passageway where they came to a steep wooden ladder leading down to the hold. “This way. Mind your skirts,” ordered Isabelle as she awkwardly descended the ladder. Reaching the wooden floor beneath, she helped Marina on the last few rungs. Taking a look around the dimly lit interior, Isabelle saw the entire space stacked with crates, provisions for the voyage, and trunks. Somewhere in this mess was her dowry trunk, she thought queerly.
“This should be a good hiding place,” offered Marina as she took in all the dark nooks and crannies.
“Usually I would agree, but they will probably come straight to the hold to see what cargo the vessel is carrying. We would be found out. No,” said Isabelle, “we have to go further. Somewhere they won’t think to look.”
Isabelle tried to calm herself and think back to all those boring dinners in the officer’s quarters she had suffered through the past few weeks. They often talked about the ship.
“The bilge!” said Isabelle. “We need to head to the bilge.”
“The bilge? That sounds awful!” whined Marina.
“If what I remember from the officer’s comments, I’m afraid it is going to smell even worse.” groaned Isabelle.
They stumbled and groped their way through the hold, making their way to the back and the side of the ship.
“The bilge is the lowest part of the ship and quite nasty with water and such. There will be no reason for the pirates to go there,” explained Isabelle as she tried not to breathe through her nose the closer they got.
Leaning against the side of the ship, she gingerly stepped into the cold, foul smelling water and lowered herself into a crouch. Pulling Marina down by her side, once again they waited and listened. The sounds of battle were muffled from their low perch. They could better hear the lapping of the waves against the side of the ship. After what seemed liked hours, even the faint sounds of gunfire died out. As much as they were praying for the roaring sounds to cease, the silence was worse. Much worse.
The women were left to wonder what was happening far above them. Had they won? Isabelle cursed her current fate under her breath.
“You have lost, Captain, but have good cheer. By surrendering, you have saved the lives of, well, what’s left of your valiant crew,” said the pirate captain sardonically as he stood over the prostrate merchant ship’s captain.
“I’ll see you hanged for this!” ground out the man.
The pirate captain sighed. Turning to his first mate, he said, “Why do they always say that? After I was being so pleasant.”
“They don’t always say it. The last bloke said he would see you drawn and quartered,” answered the first mate helpfully.
“That is true. And that puff piece of a captain before that did say he wanted my head on a pike,” offered the pirate captain with amusement. “But on the whole, I’d say I get threatened with ol’ Jack Ketch the most.”
“Fairly put,” said the first mate.
The two men made a striking pair.
The pirate captain stood well over six feet with broad shoulders emphasized all the more by his narrow hips and wide-legged stance. His swarthy complexion from years spent at sea and shoulder-length jet-black hair gave him a sinister air. The malevolent appearance was helped by the leather brace that held no fewer than five loaded pistols. Attired in unrelenting black, with shiny black knee high boots and a long, black oilskin coat, it was no wonder hardy seamen trembled at his approach.
He was Captain Jacques Tavernier “Le Chanceux”, The Lucky. Named so for the countless attacks he had survived without so much as a scratch. He was legendary among his men and beyond. Called Captain by his men and Chance by his friends, of which there was only one, his first mate Drake.
Drake stood only an inch shorter than his captain. His almost white blond hair a stark contrast. Although it would be a deadly mistake to assume Drake was any less formidable. Standing by his captain’s side since they were two young bilge rats swabbing the deck of an English navy ship, he was fiercely loyal and just as fierce in battle.
Chance placed his cutlass under the chin of the merchant vessel’s captain, forcing him to meet his gaze. “Now, good sir, why don’t you tell me about the cargo you are about to gift to me for sparing your life.”
“Go to the devil,” spat out the merchant captain.
“Tsk, tsk. Such manners,” admonished Chance before leaning down on his haunches and whispering in a low and threatening voice, “Bravado such as that gets a man killed. So unless you want me to slit your ungrateful throat from ear to ear and add your blood to this deck, I suggest you speak with more respect, vous comprenez?”
The merchant captain nodded his head slightly, not wishing to cut himself on the razor sharp cutlass that was still wedged against his throat.
“Bien! So let’s try this again. What nice trinkets can we expect from your hold?” asked Chance.
“We stopped in the Americas before the islands. I carry tobacco, sugar and cotton. There is also a dowry chest full of gold and silks. It is yours if you leave my ship and crew unharmed,” stammered out the merchant captain.
“It already is mine,” laughed Chance before turning to his first mate. “Drake, be so good as to direct the crew to empty the hold of our bounty. Leave enough food provisions to get the merchant crew to the nearest port,” ordered Chance. While having a bloodthirsty reputation during an attack, Chance was known for his benevolence once a ship surrendered… as long as they cooperated.
“Yes, Captain,” responded Drake sharply before ordering some deck hands to help him below in the hold.
Turning back to the anxious merchant captain, Chance asked in a calm tone that belied the question, “Now, Captain, shall we discuss the woman you have hidden on board? The one who belongs to the dowry chest?” he helpfully provided when it looked like the merchant captain was about to deny it.
It was too late. The merchant captain realized his terrible error. Not being one to protect a woman over his own hide, he willingly told the pirate captain all he wanted to know about his beautiful passenger.