The bonfire immediately grew from sparks in the kindling to dancing flames in the parched fuel. Soon it overtook the waning sunset as the source of light on the beach. The crew of the Siren Song, 75 in all, brought crates, camp stools, and small casks to set up as seating around the bonfire. One large barrel was rolled up into the midst of the gathering. At a nod from grace, one of the lads cracked the barrel head with a resounding thud, and opened the last of the Madeira captured more than two months prior. A cheer went up as the men dipped all manner of tankards and cups into the wine.
“To the Captain!” Hawkins shouted as he raised a dripping cup.
All around the fire, drinking vessels were raised, and the men cheered, “to the Captain!”
Bartolo, ever present, passed Grace her tankard now brimming with wine instead of the watered rum. She took a swig and then raised it high. “To the crew!” She cheered in return.
“To the crew!” They all drank again and began to settle into their places.
Grace placed a pair of fingers into her mouth and gave a piercing short whistle. She looked back into the trees expecting to see Corvus flying in response, but he was nowhere to be seein the the deeping dark.
“Mangy bird,” she muttered and stepped aside for Hawkins to report.
In his role as duly-elected quartermaster of this miscreant crew, Hawkins was responsible for keeping track of the operational state of the ship, the supplies, and distribution of treasure according to the ship’s articles. He had served as a member of Captain O’Malley’s crew since he was 12 years old. Now at the ripe old age of 28, he had earned the respect and trust of men twice his age. Cornflower blue eyes sparkled in a suntanned face as he stepped atop the crate he had been sitting on. He stood facing the bonfire with his back to the surf, the Siren Song floating at anchor out in the darkness of the bay.
“The long voyage around the Horn has taken a toll on the Song,” Hawkins began in his strong clear tenor. “The top sail of the main mast is worn and thread bare in places. A replacement will have to be rigged. Several pulleys need to be either replaced or repaired. And, nearly a third of the ropes need to be re-rigged before they start snapping. Although the interior inspection of the hull seems mostly sound, there are some leaks in the aft hold. I recommend that we careen the Song for a proper cleaning and fresh coat of pitch.”
“Are there any further concerns about the state of the ship,” Graced asked the crew.
No one spoke up.
“All in favor of careening?”
“Aye!” the company shouted.
“Done!” Mr. Hawkins, prepare the Song for careening at day break and set the duty rotation,” she ordered.
“Aye, Captain,” he replied.
“While we are gathered, I’d like to put an objective to a vote,” stated Grace as she stepped on top of her seat.
“There have been several ideas, some more fanciful than others,” she looked directly at Dr. Sloane, “but most are worth considering. Several are so good that I’d like to use them all. What say you all to capturing a few local vessels and their crews, giving us extra men and knowledge, with the aim of making ourselves formidable enough to capture the Manila Galleon?”
A ripple of whispers rolled across the gathering. Several men delivered a slap on the back or a friendly elbow to the ribs of a mate sitting nearby. As the chatter died down, Gibbs gave Poole a shove, making him take to his feet.
“The treasure galleon would be a grand prize and a mighty loss to those dirty Spaniards, Captain. We.. erm… I say, aye,” he stammered and looked to Gibbs for support.
Several sitting near him quietly voiced themselves in favor.
“Are there any objections to the plan,” Graces asked.
No one stood and many shook their heads, no.
“All in favor of capturing the Manila Galleon?’
“Aye!” they all cheered.
Hawkins jumped to his feet again and said, “now that our serious business has been concluded, let the serious drinking begin!”
During that brief time the light completely faded. The faces of the men gathered around the wine barrel were lit only by the flickering light of the blazing bonfire. Bartolo reached down into the crate he had been sitting on and brought forth his mandolin. He began to strum a happy little air and a few of the men began to sway in time to his tune. Dr. Sloane tossed more wood onto the fire before refilling his cup with more of the rich tawny Madeira.
Just as Grace began to relax and enjoy the revels, Corvus burst through the bush and landed on her shoulder, causing her to bobble her cup and nearly spill her wine.
“RRWWAAAAKKKK” the crow seemed to bellow at the gathering.
In the same moment a large dark form parted the ferns nearest the bonfire. A huge black man stepped into the ring of light cast by the fire. He was clothed in nothing but a pair of ragged trousers that seemed to have hairy patches. His feet and lower legs were as bare as his upper torso. His dark skin was tight and shining across his muscular upper body. His hair and beard, although long and in need of trimming, was not unruly and seemed to have been groomed recently. As he stepped closer to the fire, the company could see that he was carrying two goats and a handmade palm leaf basket with greens tumbling out over the top. He stopped just close enough that those around him could see that he intended no threat and remained perfectly still, waiting.
Many of the men gasped at the sight of him, and Bartolo abruptly stopped playing.
“I … am … Henry,” he whispered more than spoke. His voice was dry and rough, as though he had not used it in a very long time.
“Have been here, on island four years.” His voice was a little stronger and louder, but the words still came haltingly. “Apologies. English is difficult to remember.”
He set the goats and the basket down in front of him as if he were presenting a gift to the company. Nearer to the bonfire, it was clear that the goats had been slaughtered and dressed, ready to roast.
“I bring food for sick men.” Henry continued, he words becoming more fluent, although colored by a hint of a Dutch accent.
Grace stepped up to the towering black man, Hawkins and Sloane at each elbow. Although she was considered tall among women, she stood no higher than his chest. Up close she thought she could see a soft, thoughtfulness around his eyes.
She waved Hawkings and Sloane to take a step back. “Thank you, Henry, for such thoughtfulness. Would you like to join us for a drink?”
“I have had nothing but water from the stream to drink since I was marooned here 4 years ago. I thank you, but I will not drink your wine. I do not think I would tolerate it well.” The rough edges of his voice were quickly smoothing into a honeyed baritone, still soft but growing pleasant.
“Would you like to sit and tell us how you came to be marooned here?” Grace asked and gestured to one of the seats between her and Bartolo.
Bartolo sat as still as a statue, as is he had been petrified with the mandolin still in his lap. His mouth stood slightly agape and his eyes widely followed Henry as he moved with the muscled grace of a panther.
Henry nodded his thanks and sat down next to the dumbstruck Bartolo.
All around the bonfire, the rest of the crew settled like a flock of birds for the night, eager to hear the tale of the dark and mysterious stranger in their midst.
“My name is Henry Quintor. I apologize for the roughness of my speech. I have not spoken to another soul since I was left behind here more than four summers ago. Also, English does not come as naturally to me as the Dutch my father spoke. I have to think slowly about the words I wish to say to you in English.
“My father was a Dutch sailor that spent much of his life along the coasts of Africa. He said that my mother was one of the most beautiful women on the continent. She died giving birth to me, so I only know of her through my father’s stories. I have lived on ships all my life and when I was old enough, I apprenticed as a sailor in my father’s crew.
“The ways of the winds and the currents have always fascinated me, and I loved pouring over navigational charts as a small boy. It was very natural to work my way up to navigational officer on the merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company.”
Although he spoke with confidence and growing fluency, Henry Quintor did not seem totally at ease with the sound of his voice. Grace wondered if he had ever spoken so much even in the days before his isolation on Juan Fernandez Island. The wrapped attention of the men around the fire kept his narrative going.
“About six years ago I accepted the post of first navigation officer aboard the trading ship, Dolphijn, commanded by Captain Maarten Tromp. We were to sail a circumnavigational route from Africa, to the West Indies, around South America across the Pacific eventually to Madagascar and India. Tromp pushed the crew and the ship to the limits. He saw our voyage as a chance for glory.
“By the time we put in here at Windy Bay for fresh water, several of the crew had died of exhaustion, exposure and illness. The Dolphijn was leaking badly, but Tromp refused to take any more time here than to resupply and make the Pacific crossing as quickly as possible.
“When it was clear that we were only making a brief visit, I volunteered to go ashore and help refill the water casks. I slipped my mathematical instruments, navigational books, a Bible and Torah, kettle, knife and hatchet aboard the boat with every intention to refuse to ever return to the Dolphijn.
“The mood among officers and crew alike was so low by this point in the voyage, that no one questioned me when we put ashore in the boat and I began to unload my possessions. One of the officers even wished me luck and envied my courge. He said he wished his heart did not faint at the idea of watching the Dolphijn sail away without him, for he would love to feel the security of land beneath his feet for a while.
“I had secured a fate that would not include drowning, but life alone here was just as hard as life aboard the ship. Even more so when there was no relief from the isolation and no one with whom I could share the burden of work.
“At first exploration of the island and making a camp for myself distracted me and kept my mind busy. But within a week or so I grew despondent. There was no one to give advice or share a helpful idea. There would be no one to share the pride of an accomplishment. And the worst of it was that even though I wished for company, I knew to fear the appearance of ships in the bay.
“Several ships have stopped for food and water here, but they have all been Spanish. I was in constant fear that I would be captured and forced into slavery. They would no care that I was born a free man and had an education and a vocation. All they would see is a solitary negro, not even a man in their eyes.
“Only once in all the time here have I truly feared for my life. My first camp was near the beach, before I had found the goats and the turnips and cabbage trees deeper into the interior. I had been catching crayfish in the tidal pools when I spotted a ship coming into the bay. Unfortunately, they had seen me and came looking for me when they came ashore. They shot at me and chased me deep into the woods. But I already knew the island and was able to get far enough ahead of them to get up into the trees. My heart nearly stopped when some of the Spaniards chose to take a piss on the trunk of the very tree I had climbed. They searched and searched the undergrowth, but never looked up into the trees. Eventually, they gave up on hunting me, slaughtered a few goats, and went back to their ship.
“Since that time, I rarely went down to the beach. I found a better place further up the stream and built a couple of rough huts for those times when I needed shelter. The goats and the land provided everything I needed. My books and devotion to God kept me from the deepest despair. But the loneliness was ever present. I would watch the horizon in hopes of spotting another Dutch ship or maybe an English ship.
“I watched that ship drop its anchor in the bay and listened carefully to the speech of the men that came ashore. My heart was glad again for the first time at hearing English words and not Spanish.” Henry paused and looked at Corvus sitting on Grace’s shoulder.
“Your bird spotted me and chased me. It was if he was trying to convince me to come with him and speak to you, my lady. He was very persuasive, so I have come and now told you my tale.”
Grace chuckled and stroked Corvus’ feathered chest. “Indeed, he will have his way. If he cannot charm you, he will annoy you until he gets what he wants.”
“I must make this clear to you,” she continued. “We are not a merchant crew. If you join us you will have to go on the account the same as everyone else in this company. You would have to add English, French, and Dutch to the Spanish as people who will not love you. But, you will be an equal among this crew. You will have a fair share of any and all prizes taken. You will have the same opportunities for bonuses like every other soul here. You will be counted as a brother, free and equal. Consider that carefully before you decide. Since we have already voted to careen the ship, you will have some time to get to know us before you must sign the ship’s articles.” She turned to those still awake and listening. “What say you all? Shall we give Mr. Quintor a taste of life among the crew of the Siren Song?”
Bartolo shouted “Aye!” at the top of his lungs.
Several more “ayes” rippled with less fervency throughout the group.
“Mr. Quintor, we thank you for your hospitality and will welcome your assistance in the coming days,” said Captain O’Malley and smiled at the new recruit.
Dr. Sloane could not wait a moment longer to find out more about Henry Quintor’s thoughts on mathematics. Hawkins was hot on Sloane’s heels to learn more about Quintor’s navigational knowledge. Soon Henry was squirming under the sudden attention of several members of the crew.
Grace leaned back on her crate to see Bartolo on the other side of the cluster. He still had not moved.
She looked up at the crow perched on her shoulder. “Corvus, it’s time to repay a favor,” she said as she rose from her seat.
With her tankard in hand, she walked over to Bartolo and nudged him. “Come Bartolo, I need more Madeira.”
He blinked a couple of times but did not move.
“Bartolo. Wine.” She smiled widely when he finally looked up at her.
“Wine. Oh! Yes, my lady.” He got up and followed her, his mandolin still in his hand.
Grace dipped her tankard in to the barrel. She had to reach deep before she was able to refill it. As she stood back up again, she leaned into Bartolo and whispered, “Breathtaking isn’t he?”
“Gods still walk among us, mistress, bare-footed and in goatskin pants. I think I could be content to hang like a rich jewel from that Ethiope’s ear.” He sighed.
“Shakespeare, Bartolo? Take care, Romeo, love can be a devil.” She laughed. “I am mixing my quotes, but I dearly hope your labors of love will not be lost on your object of desire.”
“Desire… Oh, mistress, do you think anyone else noticed?”
“Between the wine, the firelight, and the presence of someone new? No. I do not think that anyone else would attribute your attention as anything more than the interest to hear what he had to say. We were all a bit stunned by his appearance.” She leaned into him again and smiled one of her rare stunning smiles. “I wonder if he will be just as gorgeous in the light of day?”
Bartolo’s enraptured face fell. “Captain, might you fancy him as well?”
Grace chuckled and hugged him. “In all the years I’ve known you, dear one, you have never shown such interest in anyone before. I would not dare to get in your way.” Her smile continued to beam. “Besides, if you are successful, I know that he will always be nearby to improve the scenery.”