Chapter XXVII: Cartagena
Having crossed the Caribbean in the teeth of contrary winds, it was not until the early days of April that the French fleet hove in sight of Cartagena, and M. de Rivarol summoned a council aboard his flagship to determine the method of assault.
“It is of importance, messieurs,” he told them, “that we take the city by surprise, not only before it can put itself into a state of defence; but before it can remove its treasures inland. I propose to land a force sufficient to achieve this to the north of the city to-night after dark.” And he explained in detail the scheme upon which his wits had laboured.
He was heard respectfully and approvingly by his officers, scornfully by Captain Blood, and indifferently by the other buccaneer captains present. For it must be understood that Blood’s refusal to attend councils had related only to those concerned with determining the nature of the enterprise to be undertaken.
Captain Blood was the only one amongst them who knew exactly what lay ahead. Two years ago he had himself considered a raid upon the place, and he had actually made a survey of it in circumstances which he was presently to disclose.
The Baron’s proposal was one to be expected from a commander whose knowledge of Cartagena was only such as might be derived from maps.
Geographically and strategically considered, it is a curious place. It stands almost four-square, screened east and north by hills, and it may be said to face south upon the inner of two harbours by which it is normally approached. The entrance to the outer harbour, which is in reality a lagoon some three miles across, lies through a neck known as the Boca Chica--or Little Mouth--and defended by a fort. A long strip of densely wooded land to westward acts here as a natural breakwater, and as the inner harbour is approached, another strip of land thrusts across at right angles from the first, towards the mainland on the east. Just short of this it ceases, leaving a deep but very narrow channel, a veritable gateway, into the secure and sheltered inner harbour. Another fort defends this second passage. East and north of Cartagena lies the mainland, which may be left out of account. But to the west and northwest this city, so well guarded on every other side, lies directly open to the sea. It stands back beyond a half-mile of beach, and besides this and the stout Walls which fortify it, would appear to have no other defences. But those appearances are deceptive, and they had utterly deceived M. de Rivarol, when he devised his plan.
It remained for Captain Blood to explain the difficulties when M. de Rivarol informed him that the honour of opening the assault in the manner which he prescribed was to be accorded to the buccaneers.
Captain Blood smiled sardonic appreciation of the honour reserved for his men. It was precisely what he would have expected. For the buccaneers the dangers; for M. de Rivarol the honour, glory and profit of the enterprise.
“It is an honour which I must decline,” said he quite coldly.
Wolverstone grunted approval and Hagthorpe nodded. Yberville, who as much as any of them resented the superciliousness of his noble compatriot, never wavered in loyalty to Captain Blood. The French officers--there were six of them present--stared their haughty surprise at the buccaneer leader, whilst the Baron challengingly fired a question at him.
“How? You decline it, ‘sir? You decline to obey orders, do you say?”
“I understood, M. le Baron, that you summoned us to deliberate upon the means to be adopted.”
“Then you understood amiss, M. le Capitaine. You are here to receive my commands. I have already deliberated, and I have decided. I hope you understand.”
“Oh, I understand,” laughed Blood. “But, I ask myself, do you?” And without giving the Baron time to set the angry question that was bubbling to his lips, he swept on: “You have deliberated, you say, and you have decided. But unless your decision rests upon a wish to destroy my buccaneers, you will alter it when I tell you something of which I have knowledge. This city of Cartagena looks very vulnerable on the northern side, all open to the sea as it apparently stands. Ask yourself, M. le Baron, how came the Spaniards who built it where it is to have been at such trouble to fortify it to the south, if from the north it is so easily assailable.”
That gave M. de Rivarol pause.
“The Spaniards,” Blood pursued, “are not quite the fools you are supposing them. Let me tell you, messieurs, that two years ago I made a survey of Cartagena as a preliminary to raiding it. I came hither with some friendly trading Indians, myself disguised as an Indian, and in that guise I spent a week in the city and studied carefully all its approaches. On the side of the sea where it looks so temptingly open to assault, there is shoal water for over half a mile out--far enough out, I assure you, to ensure that no ship shall come within bombarding range of it. It is not safe to venture nearer land than three quarters of a mile.”
“But our landing will be effected in canoes and piraguas and open boats,” cried an officer impatiently.
“In the calmest season of the year, the surf will hinder any such operation. And you will also bear in mind that if landing were possible as you are suggesting, that landing could not be covered by the ships’ guns. In fact, it is the landing parties would be in danger from their own artillery.”
“If the attack is made by night, as I propose, covering will be unnecessary. You should be ashore in force before the Spaniards are aware of the intent.”
“You are assuming that Cartagena is a city of the blind, that at this very moment they are not conning our sails and asking themselves who we are and what we intend.”
“But if they feel themselves secure from the north, as you suggest,” cried the Baron impatiently, “that very security will lull them.”
“Perhaps. But, then, they are secure. Any attempt to land on this side is doomed to failure at the hands of Nature.”
“Nevertheless, we make the attempt,” said the obstinate Baron, whose haughtiness would not allow him to yield before his officers.
“If you still choose to do so after what I have said, you are, of course, the person to decide. But I do not lead my men into fruitless danger.”
“If I command you...” the Baron was beginning. But Blood unceremoniously interrupted him.
“M. le Baron, when M. de Cussy engaged us on your behalf, it was as much on account of our knowledge and experience of this class of warfare as on account of our strength. I have placed my own knowledge and experience in this particular matter at your disposal. I will add that I abandoned my own project of raiding Cartagena, not being in sufficient strength at the time to force the entrance of the harbour, which is the only way into the city. The strength which you now command is ample for that purpose.”
“But whilst we are doing that, the Spaniards will have time to remove great part of the wealth this city holds. We must take them by surprise.”
Captain Blood shrugged. “If this is a mere pirating raid, that, of course, is a prime consideration. It was with me. But if you are concerned to abate the pride of Spain and plant the Lilies of France on the forts of this settlement, the loss of some treasure should not really weigh for much.”
M. de Rivarol bit his lip in chagrin. His gloomy eye smouldered as it considered the self-contained buccaneer.
“But if I command you to go--to make the attempt?” he asked. “Answer me, monsieur, let us know once for all where we stand, and who commands this expedition.”
“Positively, I find you tiresome,” said Captain Blood, and he swung to M. de Cussy, who sat there gnawing his lip, intensely uncomfortable. “I appeal to you, monsieur, to justify me to the General.”
M. de Cussy started out of his gloomy abstraction. He cleared his throat. He was extremely nervous.
“In view of what Captain Blood has submitted...”
“Oh, to the devil with that!” snapped Rivarol. “It seems that I am followed by poltroons. Look you, M. le Capitaine, since you are afraid to undertake this thing, I will myself undertake it. The weather is calm, and I count upon making good my landing. If I do so, I shall have proved you wrong, and I shall have a word to say to you to-morrow which you may not like. I am being very generous with you, sir.” He waved his hand regally. “You have leave to go.”
It was sheer obstinacy and empty pride that drove him, and he received the lesson he deserved. The fleet stood in during the afternoon to within a mile of the coast, and under cover of darkness three hundred men, of whom two hundred were negroes--the whole of the negro contingent having been pressed into the undertaking--were pulled away for the shore in the canoes, piraguas, and ships’ boats. Rivarol’s pride compelled him, however much he may have disliked the venture, to lead them in person.
The first six boats were caught in the surf, and pounded into fragments before their occupants could extricate themselves. The thunder of the breakers and the cries of the shipwrecked warned those who followed, and thereby saved them from sharing the same fate. By the Baron’s urgent orders they pulled away again out of danger, and stood about to pick up such survivors as contrived to battle towards them. Close upon fifty lives were lost in the adventure, together with half-a-dozen boats stored with ammunition and light guns.
The Baron went back to his flagship an infuriated, but by no means a wiser man. Wisdom--not even the pungent wisdom experience thrusts upon us--is not for such as M. de Rivarol. His anger embraced all things, but focussed chiefly upon Captain Blood. In some warped process of reasoning he held the buccaneer chiefly responsible for this misadventure. He went to bed considering furiously what he should say to Captain Blood upon the morrow.
He was awakened at dawn by the rolling thunder of guns. Emerging upon the poop in nightcap and slippers, he beheld a sight that increased his unreasonable and unreasoning fury. The four buccaneer ships under canvas were going through extraordinary manoeuvre half a mile off the Boca Chica and little more than half a mile away from the remainder of the fleet, and from their flanks flame and smoke were belching each time they swung broadside to the great round fort that guarded that narrow entrance. The fort was returning the fire vigorously and viciously. But the buccaneers timed their broadsides with extraordinary judgment to catch the defending ordnance reloading; then as they drew the Spaniards’ fire, they swung away again not only taking care to be ever moving targets, but, further, to present no more than bow or stern to the fort, their masts in line, when the heaviest cannonades were to be expected.
Gibbering and cursing, M. de Rivarol stood there and watched this action, so presumptuously undertaken by Blood on his own responsibility. The officers of the Victorieuse crowded round him, but it was not until M. de Cussy came to join the group that he opened the sluices of his rage. And M. de Cussy himself invited the deluge that now caught him. He had come up rubbing his hands and taking a proper satisfaction in the energy of the men whom he had enlisted.