Authors: Mark Keating
The Pirate Devlin
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Mark Keating 2010
The right of Mark Keating to be identified as the Author
of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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All characters in this publication are fictitious or are historical figures
whose words and actions are fictitious. Any other resemblance to real persons,
living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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For John Roberts and James Montgomerie,
who always wanted to read on.
Pride, envy and avarice
Are the three sparks
That have set on fire
The hearts of man.
The Divine Comedy,
'Inferno': VI, 74-5
Table of Contents
The West Coast of Africa, April 1717
The Frenchman's boots were filling with blood as he cracked his way through the wet coarseness of the undergrowth. As daylight faded into bladed shadows, the jungle pulled him deeper into its crushing green.
His breaths rasped through the heavy heat, stretching the pain along his side. The pounding of his heart engulfed his body.
Bereft of sword or pistol, his only hope was to push himself ever on, spurred by the shouts of the pirates echoing from the beach.
Desperately he dodged across the uneven ground. Stumbling upwards in one step, falling the next, grasping for purchase, the wet jungle slapping his face with every cursing breath.
Without a glance behind, he arrowed away from the triumphant yell that signalled the first sighting of his bloody trail spotting amongst the waist-tall fronds; his pace slowed with the strange coldness of his own blood seeping down his leg.
Away from the sand and the mud now, he found himself wading through lush boot-high grass and shadowy palms.
Enough of the green flaying him weaker. Enough beating him back. He crouched to draw breath, to slow the beat of his heart pushing his life from the hole above his hip and staining wine-black the worsted blue of his Marine Royale doublet.
The sweating forest was reminiscent in his near delirium of a mansion house back home in Orly, a maze of corridors and echoes.
Now, passageways of mossy trunks, instead of green flocked halls, opened up into insect-humming, fern-filled rooms, each one sealed off from the other until he broke through its emerald door.
He crouched in one of these dark chambers, his insides cramping, his own will trying to pull him down into the soft, welcoming grass. Sleep awhile and hope his pursuers would pass him by, give up, return to the boat.
When the longboat had landed, and all had jumped into the surf to drag her in, he too had leaped clear and seized the moment of the struggle against the tide to back away and then bolt free, pounding up the beach, clumsy against the sand underfoot.
He had stumbled the short distance to the breach of the wild mass of twisted white branches protecting the jungle, when one of them had got off a lucky pistol shot that had slammed into his hip, and he found a powerful desire to keep running from the wicked laugh that followed it.
Now, as he sucked at the moist air, he heard no noise around him save for the chattering of black beetles, the endless chirrup of the cicadas. The mocking calls and whistles had faded, he was sure. He reached up to a friendly branch and heaved himself along as quietly as the jungle would allow in its pity.
Staggering through the swathes of enormous leaves fanning his brow, he came into another clearing, as polished as a bowling green, as peaceful as the hour after mass. In the centre of the dell, disturbed in his foraging by the interloper, a lone crow bobbed, glistening black against the vitality of the green. There was a moment of judgement as the bird cocked his head to the sweating Frenchman. He cawed once, softy, to question the intrusion.
The Frenchman hissed to his companion for silence, but the black bird merely chuckled at his impudence then, as punishment, sprang into the air, with his laughing war cry pealing around the trees like a plague bell. A dozen of his brothers followed with their admonishment, breaking through the roof of the trees to form a black cloud over his sanctuary.
The shouts of the pirates rose with the cries of the birds, and the jungle danced with the crash of their approach.
The Frenchman pitched forward, drunkenly pliant. The imminence of his own demise gave at least some promise of rest. He collapsed gratefully into the coolness of the damp grass as the seven brutes came through the green curtains into his world.
'Well, well, Froggy,' panted the quartermaster, Peter Sam, standing over him, sweat running off his shaven head, filtering through his red beard. 'That's quite a run you gave us there, boy.' Throwing his cutlass aside, he joined Philippe Ducos, the unfortunate young man from the Marine Royale, and sat in the grass, his chest heaving.
The other half-dozen gathered round their prisoner, who stared straight up, gasping his last breaths to the blue sky breaking through the lacy canopy of trees.
Hugh Harris gave a swift kick that belied the daintiness of the red and white silk shoes he had taken from the French sloop only the week before, now soaked and salt-stained.
'So, there's no pig farm on this island, then? Eh, Froggy?' Another kick to the black wound.
'What'll we do with him, Peter?' William Magnes, the old man of their group at forty-five, put his hanger away, never willing to be the killer.
'We'll do for him sure enough.' Peter reached for his cutlass, stood up and wiped his head with a dirty kerchief. 'Makes no sense to take him back. But we'll not go back empty.' He snapped his fingers to a young pock-faced lad. 'Davies, go with Hugh and Will. Back to the boat. Get the muskets. See if you can scout down some goat. The ground's right for pigs at leasts.'
'Aye, Peter.' The lad and the old standers went off with slaps and swearing.
'You two.' He pointed to Patrick Devlin and Sam Fletcher, who were new hands, weeks new, a couple of navy 'waisters' still learning the sweet trade. 'Go through the Frog's pockets for yourselves, lads, then end him. I'm going to scour for fruit. I wants his jacket as a sack. Gets it off him, then come and gets me with it.' He grabbed the arm of the remaining pirate, a young, black-haired, moon-faced lad. 'Thomas, come with me.'
Devlin, Fletcher and the Frenchman were now alone in the gloom.
Philippe Ducos's eyes were closed. He had been drifting away to Peter's growling voice. Now he jumped awake as he felt the quick hands of the pirates running through the pockets of the blue tunic his wife had lined two years before.
'Stop squirming, Frog!' Fletcher cackled. 'Aye, Pat? Don't it make more sense to shoot him first then relieve him?'
'Maybe,' Devlin murmured, his face lowered to avoid the pleading eyes of Philippe Ducos.
Fletcher had been a deserter, had leaped into his pirate life with glee a month before Patrick Devlin had been dragged aboard.
To Devlin, who had spent years amongst the king's ships, manservant to Captain John Coxon, the pirate ship was but a passing inconvenience. He had signed their articles without protest and kept his distance from the ones he had beaten back and striped with blade when they had chanced upon the
in the North African straits.
Of all the officers and sailors of the
the pirates marvelled how it was the tall, black-haired servant who had carved a circle of defiance in front of the cabin as the others ran and the deck burned.
They had laughed as he stood before them in his shabby, ill-fitting suit and danced, against Peter Sam no less, who had strode forward and twisted the sword from Devlin's hand as if plucking it from a child.
He would bide his time. Keep low. He did not mind the men themselves, for some of his old days amongst the fishermen of St Malo had fringed along the blade of the '
ecumeur des mers,
skimming off the surface of the sea rather than underneath it. But this was not his life. Merry enough, but too short for his liking.
From Ducos's pockets they pulled out an empty tobacco tin, a small flint wrapped in a strip of white leather, a thimble, a handkerchief and just the bowl piece of a clay pipe.
The Frenchman resisted more as he realised that death was closing. He began to struggle. Garbling French at them. His little English useless now as panic crept over him.