Pirate Latitudes, p.1Michael Crichton
A N O V E L
Part I: Port Royal
Part II: The Black Ship
Part III: Matanceros
Part IV: Monkey Bay
Part V: The Mouth of the Dragon
Part VI: Port Royal
About the Author
Other Books by Michael Crichton
About the Publisher
SIR JAMES ALMONT, appointed by His Majesty Charles II Governor of Jamaica, was habitually an early riser. This was in part the tendency of an aging widower, in part a consequence of restless sleep from pains of the gout, and in part an accommodation to the climate of the Jamaica Colony, which turned hot and humid soon after sunrise.
On the morning of September 7, 1665, he followed his usual routine, arising in his chambers on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion and going directly to the window to survey the weather and the coming day. The Governor’s Mansion was an impressive brick structure with a red-tile roof. It was also the only three-story building in Port Royal, and his view of the town was excellent. In the streets below he could see the lamplighters making their rounds, extinguishing streetlights from the night before. On Ridge Street, the morning patrol of garrison soldiers was collecting drunks and dead bodies, which had fallen in the mud. Directly beneath his window, the first of the flat, horse-drawn carts of water carriers rumbled by, bringing casks of fresh water from Rio Cobra some miles away. Otherwise, Port Royal was quiet, enjoying the brief moment between the time the last of the evening’s drunken revelers collapsed in a stupor, and the start of the morning’s commercial bustle around the docks.
Looking away from the cramped, narrow streets of the town to the harbor, he saw the rocking thicket of masts, the hundreds of ships of all sizes moored in the harbor and drawn up to the docks. In the sea beyond, he saw an English merchant brig anchored past the cay, near Rackham’s reef offshore. Undoubtedly, the ship had arrived during the night, and the captain had prudently chosen to await daylight to make the harbor of Port Royal. Even as he watched, the topsails of the merchant ship were unreefed in the growing light of dawn, and two longboats put out from the shore near Fort Charles to help tow the merchantman in.
Governor Almont, known locally as “James the Tenth,” because of his insistence on diverting a tenth share of privateering expeditions to his own personal coffers, turned away from the window and hobbled on his painful left leg across the room to make his toilet. Immediately, the merchant vessel was forgotten, for on this particular morning Sir James had the disagreeable duty of attending a hanging.
The previous week, soldiers had captured a French rascal named LeClerc, convicted of making a piratical raid on the settlement of Ocho Rios, on the north coast of the island.
On the testimony of a few townspeople who had survived the attack, LeClerc had been sentenced to be hanged in the public gallows on High Street. Governor Almont had no particular interest in either the Frenchman or his disposition, but he was required to attend the execution in his official capacity. That implied a tedious, formal morning.
Richards, the governor’s manservant, entered the room. “Good morning, Your Excellency. Here is your claret.” He handed the glass to the governor, who immediately drank it down in a gulp. Richards set out the articles of toilet: a fresh basin of rosewater, another of crushed myrtle berries, and a third small bowl of tooth powder with the tooth-cloth alongside. Governor Almont began his ministrations to the accompanying hiss of the perfumed bellows Richards used to air the room each morning.
“Warm day for a hanging,” Richards commented, and Sir James grunted his agreement. He doused his thinning hair with the myrtle berry paste. Governor Almont was fifty-one years old, and he had been growing bald for a decade. He was not an especially vain man — and, in any case, he normally wore hats — so that baldness was not so fearsome as it might be. Nonetheless, he used preparations to cure his loss of hair. For several years now he had favored myrtle berries, a traditional remedy prescribed by Pliny. He also employed a paste of olive oil, ashes, and ground earthworms to prevent his hair from turning white. But this mixture stank so badly that he used it less frequently than he knew he should.
Governor Almont rinsed his hair in the rosewater, dried it with a towel, and examined his countenance in the mirror.
One of the privileges of his position as the highest official of the Jamaica Colony was that he possessed the best mirror on the island. It was nearly a foot square and of excellent quality, without ripples or flaws. It had arrived from London the year before, consigned to a merchant in the town, and Almont had confiscated it on some pretext or other. He was not above such things, and indeed felt that this high-handed behavior actually increased his respect in the community. As the former governor, Sir William Lytton, had warned him in London, Jamaica was “not a region burdened by moral excesses.” Sir James had often recalled the phrase in later years — the understatement was so felicitously put. Sir James himself lacked graceful speech; he was blunt to a fault and distinctly choleric in temperament, a fact he ascribed to his gout.
Staring at himself in the mirror now, he noted that he must see Enders, the barber, to trim his beard. Sir James was not a handsome man, and he wore a full beard to compensate for his “weasel-beaked” face.
He grunted at his reflection, and turned his attention to his teeth, dipping a wetted finger into the paste of powdered rabbit’s head, pomegranate peel, and peach blossom. He rubbed his teeth briskly with his finger, humming a little to himself.
At the window, Richards looked out at the arriving ship. “They say the merchantman’s the Godspeed, sir.”
“Oh yes?” Sir James rinsed his mouth with a bit of rosewater, spat it out, and dried his teeth with a tooth-cloth. It was an elegant tooth-cloth from Holland, red silk with an edging of lace. He had four such cloths, another minor delicacy of his position within the Colony. But one had already been ruined by a mindless servant girl who cleaned it in the native manner by pounding with rocks, destroying the delicate fabric. Servants were difficult here. Sir William had mentioned that as well.
Richards was an exception. Richards was a manservant to treasure, a Scotsman but a clean one, faithful an
“The Godspeed, you say?”
“Aye, sir,” Richards said, laying out Sir James’s wardrobe for the day on the bed.
“Is my new secretary on board?” According to the previous month’s dispatches, the Godspeed was to carry his new secretary, one Robert Hacklett. Sir James had never heard of the man, and looked forward to meeting him. He had been without a secretary for eight months, since Lewis died of dysentery.
“I believe he is, sir,” Richards said.
Sir James applied his makeup. First he daubed on cerise — white lead and vinegar — to produce a fashionable pallor on the face and neck. Then, on his cheeks and lips, he applied fucus, a red dye of seaweed and ochre.
“Will you be wishing to postpone the hanging?” Richards asked, bringing the governor his medicinal oil.
“No, I think not,” Almont said, wincing as he downed a spoonful. This was oil of a red-haired dog, concocted by a Milaner in London and known to be efficacious for the gout. Sir James took it faithfully each morning.
He then dressed for the day. Richards had correctly set out the governor’s best formal garments. First, Sir James put on a fine white silk tunic, then pale blue hose. Next, his green velvet doublet, stiffly quilted and miserably hot, but necessary for a day of official duties. His best feathered hat completed the attire.
All this had taken the better part of an hour. Through the open windows, Sir James could hear the early-morning bustle and shouts from the awakening town below.
He stepped back a pace to allow Richards to survey him. Richards adjusted the ruffle at the neck, and nodded his satisfaction. “Commander Scott is waiting with your carriage, Your Excellency,” Richards said.
“Very good,” Sir James said, and then, moving slowly, feeling the twinge of pain in his left toe with each step, and already beginning to perspire in his heavy ornate doublet, the cosmetics running down the side of his face and ears, the Governor of Jamaica descended the stairs of the mansion to his coach.
FOR A MAN with the gout, even a brief journey by coach over cobbled streets is agonizing. For this reason, if no other, Sir James loathed the ritual of attending each hanging. Another reason he disliked these forays was that they required him to enter the heart of his dominion, and he much preferred the lofty view from his window.
Port Royal, in 1665, was a boomtown. In the decade since Cromwell’s expedition had captured the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, Port Royal had grown from a miserable, deserted, disease-ridden spit of sand into a miserable, overcrowded, cutthroat-infested town of eight thousand.
Undeniably, Port Royal was a wealthy town — some said it was the richest in the world — but that did not make it pleasant. Only a few roads had been paved in cobblestones, brought from England as ships’ ballast. Most streets were narrow mud ruts, reeking of garbage and horse dung, buzzing with flies and mosquitoes. The closely packed buildings were wood or brick, rude in construction and crude in purpose: an endless succession of taverns, grog shops, gaming places, and bawdy houses. These establishments served the thousand seamen and other visitors who might be ashore at any time. There were also a handful of legitimate merchants’ shops, and a church at the north end of town, which was, as Sir William Lytton had so nicely phrased it, “seldom frequented.”
Of course, Sir James and his household attended services each Sunday, along with the few pious members of the community. But as often as not, the sermon was interrupted by the arrival of a drunken seaman, who disrupted proceedings with blasphemous shouts and oaths and on one occasion with gunshots. Sir James had caused the man to be clapped in jail for a fortnight after that incident, but he had to be cautious about dispensing punishment. The authority of the Governor of Jamaica was — again in the words of Sir William — “as thin as a parchment fragment, and as fragile.”
Sir James had spent an evening with Sir William, after the king had given him his appointment. Sir William had explained the workings of the Colony to the new governor. Sir James had listened and had thought he understood, but one never really understood life in the New World until confronted with the actual rude experience.
Now, riding in his coach through the stinking streets of Port Royal, nodding from his window as the commoners bowed, Sir James marveled at how much he had come to accept as wholly natural and ordinary. He accepted the heat and the flies and the malevolent odors; he accepted the thieving and the corrupt commerce; he accepted the drunken gross manners of the privateers. He had made a thousand minor adjustments, including the ability to sleep through the raucous shouting and gunshots, which continued uninterrupted through every night in the port.
But there were still irritants to plague him, and one of the most grating was seated across from him in the coach. Commander Scott, head of the garrison of Fort Charles and self-appointed guardian of courtly good manners, brushed an invisible speck of dust from his uniform and said, “I trust Your Excellency enjoyed an excellent evening, and is even now in good spirits for the morning’s exercises.”
“I slept well enough,” Sir James said abruptly. For the hundredth time, he thought to himself how much more hazardous life was in Jamaica when the commander of the garrison was a dandy and a fool, instead of a serious military man.
“I am given to understand,” Commander Scott said, touching a perfumed lace handkerchief to his nose and inhaling lightly, “that the prisoner LeClerc is in complete readiness and that all has been prepared for the execution.”
“Very good,” Sir James said, frowning at Commander Scott.
“It has also come to my attention that the merchantman Godspeed is arriving at anchor even as we speak, and that among her passengers is Mr. Hacklett, here to serve as your new secretary.”
“Let us pray he is not a fool like the last one,” Sir James said.
“Indeed. Quite so,” Commander Scott said, and then mercifully lapsed into silence. The coach pulled into the High Street Square where a large crowd had gathered to witness the hanging. As Sir James and Commander Scott alighted from the coach, there were scattered cheers.
Sir James nodded briefly; the commander gave a low bow.
“I perceive an excellent gathering,” the commander said. “I am always heartened by the presence of so many children and young boys. This will make a proper lesson for them, do you not agree?”
“Umm,” Sir James said. He made his way to the front of the crowd, and stood in the shadow of the gallows. The High Street gallows were permanent, they were so frequently needed: a low braced crossbeam with a stout noose that hung seven feet above the ground.
“Where is the prisoner?” Sir James said irritably.
The prisoner was nowhere to be seen. The governor waited with visible impatience, clasping and unclasping his hands behind his back. Then they heard the low roll of drums that presaged the arrival of the cart. Moments later, there were shouts and laughter from the crowd, which parted as the cart came into view.
The prisoner LeClerc was standing erect, his hands bound behind his back. He wore a gray cloth tunic, spattered with garbage thrown by the jeering crowd. Yet he continued to hold his chin high.
Commander Scott leaned over. “He does make a good impression, Your Excellency.”
Sir James grunted.
“I do so think well of a man who dies with finesse.”
Sir James said nothing. The cart rolled up to the gallows, and turned so that the prisoner faced the crowd. The executioner, Henry Edmonds, walked over to the governor and bowed deeply. “A good morning to Your Excellency, and to you, Commander Scott. I have the honor to present the prisoner, the Frenchman LeClerc, lately condemned by the Audencia—”
“Get on with it, Henry,” Sir James said.
Finally, the executioner spun on his heel and barked, “Teddy, damn you, look sharp!”
Immediately, a young boy — the executioner’s son — began to beat out a rapid drum roll. The executioner turned back to face the crowd. He raised his switch high in the air, then struck the mule a single blow; the cart rattled away, and the prisoner was left kicking and swinging in the air.
Sir James watched the man struggle. He listened to the hissing rasp of LeClerc’s choking, and saw his face turn purple. The Frenchman began to kick rather violently, swinging back and forth just a foot or two from the muddy ground. His eyes seemed to bulge from his head. His tongue protruded. His body began to shiver, twisting in convulsions on the end of the rope.
“All right,” Sir James said finally, and nodded to the crowd. Immediately, one or two stout fellows rushed forward, friends of the condemned man. They grabbed at his kicking feet and hauled on them, trying to break his neck with merciful quickness. But they were clumsy at their work, and the pirate was strong, dragging the other men through the mud with his vigorous kicking. The death throes continued for some seconds and then finally, abruptly, the body went limp.
The men stepped away. Urine trickled down LeClerc’s pants’ legs onto the mud. The body twisted slackly back and forth on the end of the rope.
“Well executed, indeed,” Commander Scott said, with a broad grin. He tossed a gold coin to the executioner.
Sir James turned and climbed back into the coach, thinking to himself that he was exceedingly hungry. To sharpen his appetite further, as well as to drive out the foul smells of the town, he permitted himself a pinch of snuff.
. . .
IT WAS COMMANDER SCOTT’S suggestion that they stop by the port, to see if the new secretary had yet disembarked. The coach pulled up to the docks, as near to the wharf as possible; the driver knew that the governor preferred to walk no more than necessary. The coachman opened the door and Sir James stepped out, wincing, into the fetid morning air.
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton / Actions & Adventure have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes