Chapter XVII: The Dupes
It was a crestfallen Captain Blood who presided over that hastily summoned council held on the poop-deck of the Arabella in the brilliant morning sunshine. It was, he declared afterwards, one of the bitterest moments in his career. He was compelled to digest the fact that having conducted the engagement with a skill of which he might justly be proud, having destroyed a force so superior in ships and guns and men that Don Miguel de Espinosa had justifiably deemed it overwhelming, his victory was rendered barren by three lucky shots from an unsuspected battery by which they had been surprised. And barren must their victory remain until they could reduce the fort that still remained to defend the passage.
At first Captain Blood was for putting his ships in order and making the attempt there and then. But the others dissuaded him from betraying an impetuosity usually foreign to him, and born entirely of chagrin and mortification, emotions which will render unreasonable the most reasonable of men. With returning calm, he surveyed the situation. The Arabella was no longer in case to put to sea; the Infanta was merely kept afloat by artifice, and the San Felipe was almost as sorely damaged by the fire she had sustained from the buccaneers before surrendering.
Clearly, then, he was compelled to admit in the end that nothing remained but to return to Maracaybo, there to refit the ships before attempting to force the passage.
And so, back to Maracaybo came those defeated victors of that short, terrible fight. And if anything had been wanting further to exasperate their leader, he had it in the pessimism of which Cahusac did not economize expressions. Transported at first to heights of dizzy satisfaction by the swift and easy victory of their inferior force that morning, the Frenchman was now plunged back and more deeply than ever into the abyss of hopelessness. And his mood infected at least the main body of his own followers.
“It is the end,” he told Captain Blood. “This time we are checkmated.”
“I’ll take the liberty of reminding you that you said the same before,” Captain Blood answered him as patiently as he could. “Yet you’ve seen what you’ve seen, and you’ll not deny that in ships and guns we are returning stronger than we went. Look at our present fleet, man.”
“I am looking at it,” said Cahusac.
“Pish! Ye’re a white-livered cur when all is said.”
“You call me a coward?”
“I’ll take that liberty.”
The Breton glared at him, breathing hard. But he had no mind to ask satisfaction for the insult. He knew too well the kind of satisfaction that Captain Blood was likely to afford him. He remembered the fate of Levasseur. So he confined himself to words.
“It is too much! You go too far!” he complained bitterly.
“Look you, Cahusac: it’s sick and tired I am of your perpetual whining and complaining when things are not as smooth as a convent dining-table. If ye wanted things smooth and easy, ye shouldn’t have taken to the sea, and ye should never ha’ sailed with me, for with me things are never smooth and easy. And that, I think, is all I have to say to you this morning.”
Cahusac flung away cursing, and went to take the feeling of his men.
Captain Blood went off to give his surgeon’s skill to the wounded, among whom he remained engaged until late afternoon. Then, at last, he went ashore, his mind made up, and returned to the house of the Governor, to indite a truculent but very scholarly letter in purest Castilian to Don Miguel.
“I have shown your excellency this morning of what I am capable,” he wrote. “Although outnumbered by more than two to one in men, in ships, and in guns, I have sunk or captured the vessels of the great fleet with which you were to come to Maracaybo to destroy us. So that you are no longer in case to carry out your boast, even when your reenforcements on the Santo Nino, reach you from La Guayra. From what has occurred, you may judge of what must occur. I should not trouble your excellency with this letter but that I am a humane man, abhorring bloodshed. Therefore before proceeding to deal with your fort, which you may deem invincible, as I have dealt already with your fleet, which you deemed invincible, I make you, purely out of humanitarian considerations, this last offer of terms. I will spare this city of Maracaybo and forthwith evacuate it, leaving behind me the forty prisoners I have taken, in consideration of your paying me the sum of fifty thousand pieces of eight and one hundred head of cattle as a ransom, thereafter granting me unmolested passage of the bar. My prisoners, most of whom are persons of consideration, I will retain as hostages until after my departure, sending them back in the canoes which we shall take with us for that purpose. If your excellency should be so ill-advised as to refuse these terms, and thereby impose upon me the necessity of reducing your fort at the cost of some lives, I warn you that you may expect no quarter from us, and that I shall begin by leaving a heap of ashes where this pleasant city of Maracaybo now stands.”
The letter written, he bade them bring him from among the prisoners the Deputy-Governor of Maracaybo, who had been taken at Gibraltar. Disclosing its contents to him, he despatched him with it to Don Miguel.
His choice of a messenger was shrewd. The Deputy-Governor was of all men the most anxious for the deliverance of his city, the one man who on his own account would plead most fervently for its preservation at all costs from the fate with which Captain Blood was threatening it. And as he reckoned so it befell. The Deputy-Governor added his own passionate pleading to the proposals of the letter.
But Don Miguel was of stouter heart. True, his fleet had been partly destroyed and partly captured. But then, he argued, he had been taken utterly by surprise. That should not happen again. There should be no surprising the fort. Let Captain Blood do his worst at Maracaybo, there should be a bitter reckoning for him when eventually he decided--as, sooner or later, decide he must--to come forth. The Deputy-Governor was flung into panic. He lost his temper, and said some hard things to the Admiral. But they were not as hard as the thing the Admiral said to him in answer.
“Had you been as loyal to your King in hindering the entrance of these cursed pirates as I shall be in hindering their going forth again, we should not now find ourselves in our present straits. So weary me no more with your coward counsels. I make no terms with Captain Blood. I know my duty to my King, and I intend to perform it. I also know my duty to myself. I have a private score with this rascal, and I intend to settle it. Take you that message back.”
So back to Maracaybo, back to his own handsome house in which Captain Blood had established his quarters, came the Deputy-Governor with the Admiral’s answer. And because he had been shamed into a show of spirit by the Admiral’s own stout courage in adversity, he delivered it as truculently as the Admiral could have desired. “And is it like that?” said Captain Blood with a quiet smile, though the heart of him sank at this failure of his bluster. “Well, well, it’s a pity now that the Admiral’s so headstrong. It was that way he lost his fleet, which was his own to lose. This pleasant city of Maracaybo isn’t. So no doubt he’ll lose it with fewer misgivings. I am sorry. Waste, like bloodshed, is a thing abhorrent to me. But there ye are! I’ll have the faggots to the place in the morning, and maybe when he sees the blaze to-morrow night he’ll begin to believe that Peter Blood is a man of his word. Ye may go, Don Francisco.”
The Deputy-Governor went out with dragging feet, followed by guards, his momentary truculence utterly spent.
But no sooner had he departed than up leapt Cahusac, who had been of the council assembled to receive the Admiral’s answer. His face was white and his hands shook as he held them out in protest.
“Death of my life, what have you to say now?” he cried, his voice husky. And without waiting to hear what it might be, he raved on: “I knew you not frighten the Admiral so easy. He hold us entrap’, and he knows it; yet you dream that he will yield himself to your impudent message. Your fool letter it have seal’ the doom of us all.”
“Have ye done?” quoth Blood quietly, as the Frenchman paused for breath.
“No, I have not.”
“Then spare me the rest. It’ll be of the same quality, devil a doubt, and it doesn’t help us to solve the riddle that’s before us.”
“But what are you going to do? Is it that you will tell me?” It was not a question, it was a demand.
“How the devil do I know? I was hoping you’d have some ideas yourself. But since Ye’re so desperately concerned to save your skin, you and those that think like you are welcome to leave us. I’ve no doubt at all the Spanish Admiral will welcome the abatement of our numbers even at this late date. Ye shall have the sloop as a parting gift from us, and ye can join Don Miguel in the fort for all I care, or for all the good ye’re likely to be to us in this present pass.”
“It is to my men to decide,” Cahusac retorted, swallowing his fury, and on that stalked out to talk to them, leaving the others to deliberate in peace.
Next morning early he sought Captain Blood again. He found him alone in the patio, pacing to and fro, his head sunk on his breast. Cahusac mistook consideration for dejection. Each of us carries in himself a standard by which to measure his neighbour.
“We have take’ you at your word, Captain,” he announced, between sullenness and defiance. Captain Blood paused, shoulders hunched, hands behind his back, and mildly regarded the buccaneer in silence. Cahusac explained himself. “Last night I send one of my men to the Spanish Admiral with a letter. I make him offer to capitulate if he will accord us passage with the honours of war. This morning I receive his answer. He accord us this on the understanding that we carry nothing away with us. My men they are embarking them on the sloop. We sail at once.”
“Bon voyage,” said Captain Blood, and with a nod he turned on his heel again to resume his interrupted mediation.
“Is that all that you have to say to me?” cried Cahusac.
“There are other things,” said Blood over his shoulder. “But I know ye wouldn’t like them.”
“Ha! Then it’s adieu, my Captain.” Venomously he added: “It is my belief that we shall not meet again.”
“Your belief is my hope,” said Captain Blood.
Cahusac flung away, obscenely vituperative. Before noon he was under way with his followers, some sixty dejected men who had allowed themselves to be persuaded by him into that empty-handed departure--in spite even of all that Yberville could do to prevent it. The Admiral kept faith with him, and allowed him free passage out to sea, which, from his knowledge of Spaniards, was more than Captain Blood had expected.
Meanwhile, no sooner had the deserters weighed anchor than Captain Blood received word that the Deputy-Governor begged to be allowed to see him again. Admitted, Don Francisco at once displayed the fact that a night’s reflection had quickened his apprehensions for the city of Maracaybo and his condemnation of the Admiral’s intransigence.
Captain Blood received him pleasantly.
“Good-morning to you, Don Francisco. I have postponed the bonfire until nightfall. It will make a better show in the dark.”
Don Francisco, a slight, nervous, elderly man of high lineage and low vitality, came straight to business.
“I am here to tell you, Don Pedro, that if you will hold your hand for three days, I will undertake to raise the ransom you demand, which Don Miguel de Espinosa refuses.”
Captain Blood confronted him, a frown contracting the dark brows above his light eyes:
“And where will you be raising it?” quoth he, faintly betraying his surprise.
Don Francisco shook his head. “That must remain my affair,” he answered. “I know where it is to be found, and my compatriots must contribute. Give me leave for three days on parole, and I will see you fully satisfied. Meanwhile my son remains in your hands as a hostage for my return.” And upon that he fell to pleading. But in this he was crisply interrupted.
“By the Saints! Ye’re a bold man, Don Francisco, to come to me with such a tale--to tell me that ye know where the ransom’s to be raised, and yet to refuse to say. D’ye think now that with a match between your fingers ye’d grow more communicative?”
If Don Francisco grew a shade paler, yet again he shook his head.
“That was the way of Morgan and L’Ollonais and other pirates. But it is not the way of Captain Blood. If I had doubted that I should not have disclosed so much.”
The Captain laughed. “You old rogue,” said he. “Ye play upon my vanity, do you?”
“Upon your honour, Captain.”
“The honour of a pirate? Ye’re surely crazed!”
“The honour of Captain Blood,” Don Francisco insisted. “You have the repute of making war like a gentleman.”
Captain Blood laughed again, on a bitter, sneering note that made Don Francisco fear the worst. He was not to guess that it was himself the Captain mocked.
“That’s merely because it’s more remunerative in the end. And that is why you are accorded the three days you ask for. So about it, Don Francisco. You shall have what mules you need. I’ll see to it.”
Away went Don Francisco on his errand, leaving Captain Blood to reflect, between bitterness and satisfaction, that a reputation for as much chivalry as is consistent with piracy is not without its uses.
Punctually on the third day the Deputy-Governor was back in Maracaybo with his mules laden with plate and money to the value demanded and a herd of a hundred head of cattle driven in by negro slaves.
These bullocks were handed over to those of the company who ordinarily were boucan-hunters, and therefore skilled in the curing of meats, and for best part of a week thereafter they were busy at the waterside with the quartering and salting of carcases.
While this was doing on the one hand and the ships were being refitted for sea on the other, Captain Blood was pondering the riddle on the solution of which his own fate depended. Indian spies whom he employed brought him word that the Spaniards, working at low tide, had salved the thirty guns of the Salvador, and thus had added yet another battery to their already overwhelming strength. In the end, and hoping for inspiration on the spot, Captain Blood made a reconnaissance in person. At the risk of his life, accompanied by two friendly Indians, he crossed to the island in a canoe under cover of dark. They concealed themselves and the canoe in the short thick scrub with which that side of the island was densely covered, and lay there until daybreak. Then Blood went forward alone, and with infinite precaution, to make his survey. He went to verify a suspicion that he had formed, and approached the fort as nearly as he dared and a deal nearer than was safe.
On all fours he crawled to the summit of an eminence a mile or so away, whence he found himself commanding a view of the interior dispositions of the stronghold. By the aid of a telescope with which he had equipped himself he was able to verify that, as he had suspected and hoped, the fort’s artillery was all mounted on the seaward side.
Satisfied, he returned to Maracaybo, and laid before the six who composed his council--Pitt, Hagthorpe, Yberville, Wolverstone, Dyke, and Ogle--a proposal to storm the fort from the landward side. Crossing to the island under cover of night, they would take the Spaniards by surprise and attempt to overpower them before they could shift their guns to meet the onslaught.
With the exception of Wolverstone, who was by temperament the kind of man who favours desperate chances, those officers received the proposal coldly. Hagthorpe incontinently opposed it.
“It’s a harebrained scheme, Peter,” he said gravely, shaking his handsome head. “Consider now that we cannot depend upon approaching unperceived to a distance whence we might storm the fort before the cannon could be moved. But even if we could, we can take no cannon ourselves; we must depend entirely upon our small arms, and how shall we, a bare three hundred” (for this was the number to which Cahusac’s defection had reduced them), “cross the open to attack more than twice that number under cover?”
The others--Dyke, Ogle, Yberville, and even Pitt, whom loyalty to Blood may have made reluctant--loudly approved him. When they had done, “I have considered all,” said Captain Blood. “I have weighed the risks and studied how to lessen them. In these desperate straits...”
He broke off abruptly. A moment he frowned, deep in thought; then his face was suddenly alight with inspiration. Slowly he drooped his head, and sat there considering, weighing, chin on breast. Then he nodded, muttering, “Yes,” and again, “Yes.” He looked up, to face them. “Listen,” he cried. “You may be right. The risks may be too heavy. Whether or not, I have thought of a better way. That which should have been the real attack shall be no more than a feint. Here, then, is the plan I now propose.”
He talked swiftly and clearly, and as he talked one by one his officers’ faces became alight with eagerness. When he had done, they cried as with one voice that he had saved them.