/ Language: English / Genre:adventure / Series: John Silver

Skull and Bones

John Drake


John Drake

Skull and Bones

Chapter 1

Three bells of the first dog watch 20th July 1735 (Old Style) Aboard Isabelle Bligh The Atlantic

The six-pound shot came aboard with a scream and a hiss, smashing one of the mainmast deadeyes, punching holes through the longboat secured over the waist, taking off the arm and shoulder of a seaman, as neat as a surgeon's knife… and throwing the limb shivering at his feet, as if still alive. The man screamed, and sat down flat with his back to the windward bulwark.

In the horror of the moment, Olivia Rose, sixteen years old and at sea for the first time in her life, turned from her father and clung to the heavy bulk of the lad who'd been doing his best to stand between her and the flying shot.

"Get below!" cried Josiah Burstein, her father. "And get away from him!" He snatched her away, blinking nervously at the boy, for Burstein was a small man while the boy, also only sixteen, was broad and heavy with thick limbs, big fists and a dark, ugly face. But the boy stood back, nodding.

"Get below, Livvy," he said. "Your pa's right."

Seizing the moment, Burstein hustled his daughter down a hatchway, out of the way of shot. He cursed the day he'd set out from Philadelphia to make his fortune in London with his skills as a mathematical instrument maker, for nothing good had come thus far: only Livvy Rose keeping company with that lumpish oaf of a ship's boy.

Boom! A distant gun fired, and on deck, the crew ducked as another shot came howling down and smashed into the hull. The boy looked astern as his captain yelled from the quarterdeck.

"There, sir!" cried Captain Nehemia Higgs, seizing hold of the man beside him, the ship's owner Mr Samuel Banbury, and shaking him angrily. "Now where's your peaceful way?"

Banbury said nothing, but pulled free and, wrenching off his coat and shirt, ran forward to jam the crumpled linen deep into the fallen seaman's hideous injury in an effort to stem the flow of blood.

"Aaaaaaaah!" screeched the wounded man.

"And may I now – in God's name – turn to my guns?" yelled Captain Higgs.

"Aye!" roared the crew, nearly two dozen of them, angrily waiting for the order. Their captain might be a Quaker, but at least he was one of the right sort – unlike Mr Banbury, who was clearly one of the wrong sort. The crew, on the other hand, weren't no sort of Quakers at all – not them, by God and the Devil! And they weren't about to give up their wages at the mere sight of a black flag!

Ignoring them, Banbury tugged off his belt and managed to strap it round the wounded seaman's chest to hold the dripping red bundle in place. Looking around him for help, he spotted the boy.

"You!" cried Banbury. "Give me your shirt!"

So two shirts were clapped on the wound, with the boy close enough to be sprayed by the victim's spittle and drenched in his blood. But he could see it weren't no use. Soon the screaming stopped and the man's eyes closed. Tommy

Trimstone was his name; from Ilfracombe in Devon, and now dead.

The boy stood up from the corpse, wiping his hands on his breeches. He'd never seen death and didn't know what to make of it. He looked to his captain again, cussing and blinding as no Quaker should, and then finally raising a telescope to check on their pursuers, before calling to the boy.

"Come here, you young sod!" he cried. "Take this bastard glass and get into the bastard top, and keep watch on that bugger -" he pointed to the oncoming ship – "and be quick about it, or I'll skin the bleeding arse off you!" With all hands on deck, standing by to man his guns, Higgs needed a lookout.

The boy went up the shrouds at the run, and got himself nice and tight into the maintop. He levelled the glass…

"What d'you see?" yelled Captain Higgs.

The boy saw a sharp-keeled, rake-masted brig of some two hundred tons: deeply sparred, and with ports for twenty guns. The wind was weak so she was under all sail, and coming on only slowly, but her decks were black with armed men, which was not surprising for a vessel that flew the skull and bones.

Boom! Up went another cloud of white from the enemy's bow, followed swiftly by the deadly howl of shot heading their way. It shrieked high over the masts as the boy called down to the quarterdeck telling what he'd seen.

"You heard that," said Higgs to Banbury. "We must defend ourselves!"

"Can we not outrun them?" said Banbury. "You have three masts to their two!"

Higgs sneered from the depth of his seaman's soul at this ludicrous dollop of landlubber's shite. Isabelle Bligh was a Bristol-built West Indiaman: well found, and fit in all respects for sea. But she was designed for cargo, not swiftness. In her favour, however, was the fact that she bore sixteen guns and was heavily timbered, so if it came to cannonading, she might well drive off a lighter vessel that was built purely for speed. Higgs yelled this thought at Banbury, but dared not act without his word.

Up in the top, the boy looked down, puzzled. Banbury and Higgs were Quakers that weren't supposed to fight. But the ship had guns, like other Quaker ships, so why not use them? The boy shook his head. He didn't know. He only knew that Banbury was a very special Quaker, come out from England to staunch the slave trade among the Pennsylvania Quakers, and now going home. Clearly Cap'n Higgs was afraid of Banbury. Perhaps it was like the Catholics with their pope?

Boom! Another shot from the pirate's bow-chaser. They were close enough now that the boy could see the men working the gun. Again the shot went wide, and he watched them haul in, sponge out and re-load. And then he had a nasty thought. For the first time it occurred to him – in his youth and innocence – that the pirates… might actually capture the ship! He groaned in fear of what they would do to Olivia Rose.

Plump and luscious with shining skin and titian hair, Livvy was the only female aboard. He blushed for the things the hands said about her, behind her back. What chance would she stand if such men as them – but worse – got hold of her?

Then another flag went up on the pirate brig: a plain, red flag. The boy didn't know what it meant, but his mates did, down below.

"Bugger me," said one, "it's the Jolly Roger!"

"Gawd 'elp us," said another.

"Higgs," demanded Banbury, "what's that red flag?"

"The Jolie Rouge," said Higgs. "The 'Pretty Red One' of the French Buccaneers."

"What does it mean?"

"It means no quarter to those that fight," he said. "It's death to all aboard."

"But only if we fight?"

"Aye." Higgs scowled, for he knew this gave the game to Banbury.

Banbury heaved a sigh of relief as if a tremendous burden had just fallen away, relieving him of the agonising balancing act between principle and expediency. For he was a merchant as well as a Quaker, and wasn't quite so firm against fighting as he'd said. The truth was that he had his reputation to consider, having risen high within the Society of Friends, for he was clerk to The Meeting for Sufferings of the London Quakers, which was as near to a governing body as their prayerful egalitarianism permitted, and thus his actions would be closely examined upon his return by rivals ever-eager to take his place.

"Strike your colours, Captain," he said, "and pray for deliverance!"

The boy saw everything. Isabelle Bligh lowered her ensign and backed her topsail in surrender. The pirates cheered and came alongside in a squealing of blocks and a rumble of canvas, taking in sail and heaving grapnels over the side to hind the ships together. Then they were swarming aboard, fifty strong and heavily armed, as the two vessels rolled under the rumble of boots on timber.

The boy didn't understand their speech, which seemed to be French. But they yelled merrily and a man with a feathered hat and a bandolier of many pistols embraced Captain Higgs and kissed him on both cheeks for a good fellow, while his men herded the crew for'ard. Then the boy gulped as Sam Collis, biggest man aboard, took exception and started shouting… and they shot him dead! It was ruthless, merciless and hideous. Bang! Bang! Two puffs of smoke, and a decent seaman went down and was kicked aside like a piece of rubbish.

Isabelle Bligh's people groaned in horror, but they were pushed to the fo'c'sle with the pirate captain – he of the feathered hat – yelling at them in English: "Your lives are yours, messieurs! Be good and make no fight, and you shall have your ship when we are done with her!"

"Aye!" cried Mr 'Meeting for Sufferings' Banbury. "It is loot they seek, not blood!" And he joined in, shoving Captain Higgs and the rest for'ard as if he were one of the pirate's own band, and agreeing with every word the villain spoke. The boy frowned heavily.

"Bleedin' traitor!" he muttered.

And then the pirates got down to the serious business of smashing open everything that was locked, and breaking into the cargo, and up-ending every bottle in the ship with the most tremendous noise, but all in good temper. Most of them vanished below for this vital work, leaving a dozen men, well armed with firelocks, to guard the crew.

And none of them took the trouble to look up into the maintop where the boy was hiding. And since nobody saw him, he watched as the smashing and cheering went on and on, and men staggered about the decks in the captain's best clothes and Mr Banbury's hat, gorging on pork and pickles and wine and brandy.

Later still, the boy shuddered in horror as a girl's shriek came from below, and men emerged through the quarterdeck hatchway, grinning and leering, with Olivia Rose and her father dragged behind them. The father was bloodied and staggering, and was kicked into a semi-conscious heap by the mizzenmast. But there was a roar from the pirates on sight of the girl, and greedy hands reached out to paw and grab and grope. Her long hair was loose, her gown was ripped, pale flesh gleamed and she screamed and screamed.

But the pirate leader – he of the feathered hat – kicked his way through the press, seized Olivia Rose by the arm, and merrily fired a pistol in the air for attention.

"Aprиs moi, mes enfants!" he cried, grinning at his men.

"Je serai le premier!" And they cheered and laughed, and fired off a thundering fusillade in salute.

Up in the maintop the boy shook with rage.

Rage doesn't just conquer fear. Rage annihilates it. Rage brings boiling fury such that no grain of self-preservation remains, nor any consideration of danger, nor threat of weapons. Hence the Viking berserker transported into blood- spattering frenzy… and the ship's boy that leapt bare-chested into open air from the maintop to slide down one of the backstays and launch himself – twenty feet from the deck – as a human projectile, landing feet first on the feathered head of the pirate captain – who went down with his neck snapped on a jutting boot, and his face burst open like rotten fruit as the impetus of the boy's fall drove him smashing into the pine of the quarterdeck planking.

Then… uproar and confusion. The pirates bellowed and roared, surprised for an instant, shocked and disbelieving, then snapping pistols at the boy, forgetting they were empty. Taking their example, he snatched the pistols from the dead pirate's bandolier – there were seven of them, ready loaded – and let fly, left and right. Men shrieked and fell as the bullets struck, and the rest hung back while the pistols lasted, then charged, and the boy was blocking slashing blades with the heavy barrel of a hot, smoking pistol, which soon got lost. Bodies heaved and bundled and swayed, and more men piled in, and the fight rolled and staggered, with the boy in the middle, armed only with his own two fists and his unhinged, manic fury. And then he got hold of a cutlass, which he couldn't swing in the dense press, so he used it two- handed as a spear, shoving it into an open mouth and out the back of a head, then wrenching it free and punching out another man's teeth with the iron hand-guard, and on and on…

But with nearly twenty pirates on the quarterdeck and more coming up from below, there could be only one end to the fight… except that the pirates were remarkably clumsy and got in each other's way, and they'd fired off their pistols and muskets… and on the fo'c'sle, seeing their guards with backs turned, gaping at the fight on the quarterdeck, Captain Higgs had his own moment of rage.

"Sod you, you bugger!" he said to the hand-wringing Banbury. "Come on, lads!" he cried, pulling a belaying pin from the pinrail, swinging it down with a crunch on to the blue-kerchiefed head of a mulatto pirate and snatching up the carbine that he dropped. The guards hadn't fired off their arms, so Higgs blasted lead and flame at three-feet range into the chest of another pirate even as he turned back to face the sudden danger.

After that, it was hellfire and damnation aboard the good ship Isabelle Bligh and Quakerism went over the side with the dead. For Isabelle Bligh's crew were seething that they'd not manned their guns in the first place, and were out for vengeance for their murdered shipmate. So even though they were outnumbered more than two-to-one, they recaptured their ship, fighting at first with belaying pins and sailor's knives, and then taking up the weapons of their foes… and with the considerable advantage that many of the pirates were blind staggering drunk.

When Captain Higgs finally called an end to the slaughter, less than a quarter of those who'd come aboard as bold dogs and roaring boys were left alive to be clapped like slaves under hatches, and the pirate ship was sailing under a prize crew, behind the triumphant Isabelle Bligh, such that even Samuel Banbury's conscience was eased by the money he'd make in selling her.

As for the boy who'd saved the day: he was ship's hero! Without his plunge from the maintop there would have been no fight, and no triumph. So there were glorious weeks of a merry voyage when even Olivia Rose's father did not try to keep her and the boy apart, and the two fell as deeply in love as ever it is possible for a pair of sixteen-year-olds to do: he loving her for her beauty and sweet kindness, and she loving him for those things that she saw that others did not, especially his limitless capacity to love. She saw that he would never be happy without a cause to follow and a loved one to serve. In her eyes this transformed Caliban the ugly into Ariel the shining one.

It was a wonderful, golden, glorious romance that approached… reached… and transcended Heaven on Earth, for the two young lovers.

"You are my beau chevalier sans peur et sans reproche," she said to him once.

"What's that?" he said.

"It means… my fair knight, fearless and pure."

He blushed.

And so they sat together, and talked together, she telling him stories and playing that ancient game with seashells – at which she was adept – whereby swift movement of the shells deceives the onlooker who cannot tell which hides the pea. He loved the game, and the curious West Indian shells she played it with, and of which she had a collection. And he loved the country love songs that she sang to him of an evening, with the crew sitting quietly and joining in the chorus.

But voyages end. This one ended in London, and there the two were parted by duty: hers to her father, and his to his trade. There were bitter tears and mighty promises of faithfulness when finally, in the Thames below London Bridge, she was about to go into the boat that would take her and her father ashore to their new life. In that tragic moment, he gave her the traditional seaman's love-token of a staybusk that he'd carved from whalebone with his own hand. In return, she gave him a lock of her hair, and half a dozen of the West Indian shells that he loved.

"I'll be back for you, Livvy Rose," he said, "when I've made me pile!"

"Be a good boy," she said. "And remember me."

And indeed he did. He remembered her to the dying second of his dying day, and he really did try to come back to claim her. But he never quite made his pile, and day by day other duties intervened, until finally it was too late, because – in the meanwhile – he had become something very other than a good boy.

For he was led astray. He was led bad astray was Billy Bones.

Chapter 2

Dinner time, 12th March 1753 Aboard HMS Oraclaesus Anchored in the southern anchorage Flint's Island

Chk-chk-chk! Groggy the monkey chattered and reached his little hands for the horn mug. At first, when they saw his love for strong drink, the crew had called him "Old Grog". But they turned this into a pet name when the monkey became ship's favourite and ran from mess to mess at dinner time, and they fed him drink till he staggered and lost his nimble footing and couldn't even lie on the deck without hanging on, and they laughed and laughed at his merry antics.

But they didn't laugh today. Not with most of them too sick for their dinners and busting with headache besides. That made for a quiet dinner time in the close wooden cave of the lower deck, even with twenty mess-tables and near two hundred men trying – and mostly failing – to shovel down their dinners. They managed the drink though, except what they gave to Groggy.

"Here y'are, matey," said one of the tars, holding out his mug for Groggy to take a sip and marvelling at the near- human way the monkey took it. The tar stroked the furry head and smiled, for Groggy was a handsome creature: big for a monkey, almost an ape, with thick brown fur, a creamy- white face and chest, bright, intelligent eyes and a long tail that served as an extra hand when he went aloft and leapt through the rigging as if in his jungle home.

He was the pet of all the squadron, for his reputation had spread and he'd been aboard the sloops Bounder and Jumper to be shown off, and all hands had crowded round to see him. But it was the flagship that owned him, for rank has its privileges as all the world knows.

"Take a drop o' mine," said another tar, offering his mug, but:

"No!" cried a voice from the quarterdeck, and Groggy flinched and looked up, as they all did.

Captain Baggot, commander of the squadron, was -bellowing loud enough to be heard from keelson to main- truck. "No!" he cried. "I will not be deterred!" Then the voice sank to an incoherent rumbling, and the men at the mess-tables looked at one another in silence. As in most ships, there were no secrets aboard Oraclaesus, whatever delusions her officers might have in the matter, and the entire crew knew what was under discussion by their masters. They knew it, and it made them uneasy.

Above, Baggot stood with his hands clasped behind his back in the brilliant tropical sunshine and stamped his foot in rage, for he was confronted on his own quarterdeck by the only man in the entire squadron whom he could not dismiss, disrate or discipline: Dr Robert Stanley, the ship's chaplain.

Fizzing with anger, Baggot turned his back on Stanley, and tried to ignore the fact that he was under the gaze of numerous spectators: lieutenants, master's mates and midshipmen, together with all those of the ship's lesser people who were on duty and not at their victuals down below. Baggot avoided their eyes and stared fixedly ahead, past mainmast, foremast, bowsprit and rigging, over the deep blue waters of the anchorage, to stare at Flint's blasted island with its blasted jungles and its blasted sandy beaches and its blasted hills, not ten minutes by ship's boat from where he was standing… and which island – God knows blasted where but somewhere hid a most colossal fortune in gold, silver and stones: a treasure estimated at the incredible amount of eight hundred thousand blasted pounds, which he – Captain John Baggot was determined to find, dig up, bring aboard, and take home in triumph to England where a fat slice of the treasure would be his, as prize money, and with it a promotion and, in all probability, a seat in the House of Lords!

But… staring into the back of his head, even this blasted instant, and wearing his blasted clerical wig, was Dr Robert Stanley, who in the first place was appointed by the Chaplain General and not by the Royal Navy, and who in the second place had a brain like a whetted razor, and in the third place which place out-ranked all other places – had tremendous and powerful patrons.

"Captain," said Dr Stanley, "a moment's reflection will show you that I speak for the good of the squadron and all those embarked aboard." He spoke quietly and politely, but Baggot only shook his head.

"Be damned if I'll be told by you, sir!" he said. "Be damned if I will!" And he stamped his foot like a petulant child sent on an errand who refuses to go but knows he must obey in the end.

"Ah!" said Dr Stanley, for he saw that he was winning, then he nodded briefly at two young officers standing on the downwind side of the quarterdeck with the rest. These were Lieutenant Hastings and Mr Midshipman Povey: old enemies of the pirate Flint. They'd suffered in the blood-drenched mutiny he'd engineered on this very island, and had then been set adrift by him with the few loyal hands, saving the lives of all by their seamanship. And now they were most important young gentlemen – especially Lieutenant Hastings, since his mother was the society beauty Lady Constance Hastings, sister-in-law to Mr Pelham the Prime Minister. Lady Constance – outraged at Flint's mutinous ill-treatment of her son – had badgered Pelham into equipping and sending out the crack squadron – comprised of Oraclaesus and her consorts – that had caught Flint… and now had him in irons down below!

Thus the Prime Minister himself stood behind the expedition and he had taken an active interest in many of the posts within it… including that of Dr Stanley, who now turned to another of the spectators, Mr Lemming the ship's surgeon. Lemming had been summoned to the deck by Stanley in readiness for this moment, and was now wrenching his hat into rags in trepidation at the role he must play.

"Captain," said Dr Stanley, "Mr Lemming will vouch for the truth of what I say…" He turned to Lemming.

"Um… er…" said Lemming, in terror of his captain's wrath.

"Come, sir!" said Stanley to Lemming. "A good three- quarters of this ship's people and those of Bounder and Jumper are struck down with fever and headache, are they not?"

"Yes, sir," said Lemming, for it was unchallengeable fact.

"And it is the invariable characteristic of West India fevers," said Stanley, "that they strike worst upon ships anchored close inshore, and especially those in enclosed anchorages such as this -" He waved a hand at the great crescent sweep of the shore, over three miles from end to end, that curved in foetid embrace around the anchorage, with festering swamps and steaming, livid-green jungles crowding down upon the white sands of the beach. It was a bad enough fever- trap by itself, made worse by the small island that lay close off it, preventing the sea breeze from sweeping away the miasma.

"Yes," said Lemming, finding courage in truth. "Damn place stinks of fever. I said so as we came in." Which latter statement was only partly true, for he'd said it to himself and hadn't had the courage to voice it aloud, not when all hands were wild eager for a treasure hunt.

"There, sir!" said Stanley, to Captain Baggot's back. "There you have it from our surgeon. If we stay anchored here – for whatever reason – we shall see this fever grow among the crew, perhaps taking the lives of all aboard."

"Aye, Cap'n," said Lemming, at last. "The yellow jack and the ague can kill seven in ten of those that ain't seasoned. And we don't even know what this fever is, for I've never seen the like before."

But Captain Baggot wasn't quite ready to give in. Not yet. Not even when he was unwell himself, having brought up his last meal like a seasick landman, with the pain throbbing behind his eyes and getting worse with each passing hour.

"Flint!" he spat. "It's all down to blasted Flint. He knows this blasted island and all its blasted tricks. Damn me if I'll not go below and question him again." He turned to face Stanley. "And you, Mr Chaplain, shall come with me!"

"Gentlemen," said Flint, smooth face glowing in the lantern light, "I really do not know how I can be of service to you." Graceful and elegant, he was an intensely handsome and charismatic man, with Mediterranean, olive skin, fine teeth, and a steady gaze that made lesser men nervous – most men being lesser in that respect.

"But I must protest again," said Flint, "against the monstrous injustice that has been done to Mr Bones, here, who is a loyal heart and true."

"Aye!" said Billy Bones. "And ready to do my duty now, us ever I was before!"

Bones was the perfect opposite of Flint: a huge, broken- nosed, lumpish clod with massive fists, broad shoulders and n strong whiff of the lower deck about him – for all that he'd been a master's mate in the king's service, accustomed to walk the quarterdeck and take his noon observation.

Flint and Billy Bones had spent the last week secured down below, deep in the damp, evil-smelling, hold where it was always dark and the rats cavorted and played. Both men wore irons on their legs and a chain passed between them, secured to a massive ringbolt driven into the thickness of the hull.

"You're a bloody rogue and a pirate, Flint," said Baggot. "The only reason I don't hang you now is that I'm ordered to take you home for the Court of Admiralty to string up at Wapping!"

Stanley sighed. The interview was going the way of several others that had preceded it. Baggot could not control his lust for gold and his hatred of a mutineer, and the sight of the urbane Flint, smiling and smiling and talking of innocence, provoked him beyond endurance. But where others were concerned, Flint was devilish persuasive. Stanley looked at the two marines who'd accompanied them, bearing muskets and ball cartridge as a precaution. They were hanging on every word Flint uttered, and Stanley knew that rumours were circulating on the lower deck that Flint wasn't a pirate and mutineer at all, just a victim of circumstance, while Mr Bones was innocent of all charges whatsoever. That was Flint's work, day by day talking to the hands sent down to deliver food and water and take away the slops.

"Mr Flint," said Stanley, "cannot we set these matters aside? We are faced with an unknown fever, and we seek your advice. So I beseech you to behave…" Stanley paused for effect "… to behave as a man should… who must soon face divine judgement." The chaplain peered closely at Flint, trying to gauge the impact of his words. "So, what is this pestilence, sir? Speak if you know, for your mortal soul is at risk."

Flint contemplated Dr Stanley.

Clever, he thought. Very clever. Then he turned to Baggot, a man for whom he had nothing but contempt. If he, Joe Flint, had been granted power over a man with hidden treasure, that man would have been put to merciless torture until he revealed its whereabouts. So he sneered at Baggot; for any man who denied himself these obvious means deserved to stay poor! Stanley, however, was clearly a different proposition; subtle means would be required with him.

"Dr Stanley," said Flint, and lowered his eyes, "it is true that I myself am beyond hope…" He raised a weary hand, as if against life's iniquitous burdens. "Evidence is contrived against me and, corrupt and mendacious as it is, nevertheless it proves too strong for truth to prevail!"

"Oh, shut up, you posturing hypocrite!" said Baggot. "Lying toad that you are!"

"Sir!" protested Stanley. "I beg that you allow me to conduct this interview."

"Damned if I will!" said Baggot and turned to go.

"Gentlemen!" cried Flint. "I beg that you listen. I am a lost man, so take these words as dying declaration, and accord them the special credence that is their due…"

There was silence. Such was the power of Flint's address that no man moved or spoke, not even Captain Baggot, while the two marines were goggling and even Dr Stanley was impressed.

"I offer truth for truth!" said Flint. "I shall tell you the source of this island fever. I shall give it to you freely. But in exchange I ask that you accept this blameless man -" he looked at Billy Bones – "as the innocent that he is."

Stanley looked at Baggot. Baggot looked at Stanley. The two marines looked on. Baggot frowned.

"What about the treasure?" he said.

"Sir," said Flint, "I swear on my soul, and in the name of that Almighty Being before whose throne I must soon present myself… that I know nothing of any treasure." "Oh bugger," said Baggot, but quietly. "And the pestilence?" said Stanley. "It is caused by the island's monkeys, sir," said Flint. " WHAT'?" Baggot, Stanley and the marines spoke as one.

"The monkeys. Because of them, you dare not land on the island."

"But we've got one aboard!" said Baggot. "Little Groggy."

"Then kill him!" cried Flint. "And get to sea. You are in peril of your lives!"

"Oh Christ!" said Baggot.

"Sir!" protested Stanley.

"Sorry, Mr Chaplain… but, oh Christ!"

There was a pounding of feet as four men raced for the ladders and companionways that led to the light. Then there was a great shouting, and drums beating, and calling up of all hands, and the rattling, clattering, rumbling, squeaking of a great ship getting ready for sea, with capstans clanking, blocks humming, yards hauling aloft and the anchor cables coming aboard, dripping wet and shaking off their weed, to the stamping and chanting of the crew.

Down below, forgotten for the moment, Joe Flint and Billy Bones sat with one dim lantern between them, listening to the sounds that had defined their lives as long as they could remember.

"Why did you tell 'em about the monkey?" said Billy Bones. "You brought him aboard on purpose, for to spread the fever!"

Flint smiled. "Indeed, Mr Bones. But now his work is done. He's been aboard all three ships."

"How d'you know that?"

Flint sighed. "Don't you ever listen, Billy, to the men who come to feed us?"

"Oh." Bones frowned. "But you didn't tell 'em it was smallpox the monkeys bring. And a special smallpox besides, that's fearful worse than usual."

"No. They'll find that out soon enough… when it kills nine out of ten of them."

"But some'll be unharmed?"

"Yes. Those who've had it before and survived." "And you and me, Cap'n."

"Yes. For you've had it, and I'm protected."

"And will I be freed, now, for what you told that Parson?"

"I think so. The learned doctor believed me."

"And then what'll I do?"

Flint told him: in detail. Billy Bones pondered, asked a few more questions to be sure, and then the two sat quiet as the massive wooden hull began to move.

"Cap'n," said Billy Bones, finally. "What?"

"The goods, Cap'n. The gold…"

"Well?"

"They took all your papers and such, didn't they?"

Flint smiled. "Did they?"

"So how'll we… how'll you… find the goods again, without charts and notes?"

"Billy, my Billy! Billy-my-little-chicken! You really must leave all such matters to me. Do you understand?"

Billy Bones gulped. The tone of Flint's voice had barely changed but Billy Bones knew that this subject must not be raised again. He was immune to smallpox, but not to fear of Flint.

"You just do as you've been bid, Mr Bones. When the time comes."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n," said Billy Bones, for Livvy Rose had measured him with the precision of her father's mathematical instruments, recognising that the faithful Billy was born to follow. And now he would follow Flint – even stripped of rank and bound in chains – and keep on following him to the ends of the earth. For Flint was Billy Bones's chosen master.

Chapter 3

Dinner time, 12th March 1753 Aboard Walrus The Atlantic

All aboard who weren't on watch gobbled down their dinners with knives, fingers and spoons, lounging among the guns on the maindeck in the sunshine, while Walrus bowled along under all plain sail. They cheered and raised their mugs, spluttering grog and food in all directions as they bawled out their song, to the tune of a fiddler and a piper.

Here's to Bonnie Prince Charlie, That does our king remain,

And save him from his exile,

To bring him home again!

Two men looked on in silence. They were not gobbling their dinners because they were on watch, and they weren't singing because they weren't Jacobites. They were Long John Silver, elected captain of the ship, and his master gunner, Israel Hands. Both wore the long coats and tricorne hats that proclaimed their rank, and they stood by the helmsman at the ten-foot tiller on the quarterdeck, braced against the ship's canted deck with practised ease, even Long John with his timber limb.

Israel Hands smiled to see Long John recovering at last, after wounds that had struck him down in the fight with the navy over Flint's Island, which Walrus barely escaped, leaving Flint in the navy's hands, and his Treasure still hidden ashore.

Now Tom Allardyce the bosun was on his feet and giving the second verse. He was a tall, yellow-haired Scot who'd fought at Culloden seven years earlier, when the English army's modern musketry butchered a medieval mob of Highland swordsmen: the Protestant House of Hanover defeating the Catholic House of Stuart.

Here's to the devil to take fat George,

And fetch him down to Hell,

To trim his Hanoverian ears,

And roast his arse full well!

Allardyce was a Jacobite to the soul and hated King George with a passion. As he sang, he went among the crew slapping shoulders while they cheered him on. Some cheered because they supported his cause, while others had no loyalty to a king who was chasing them with a noose.

"Merry buggers, ain't they?" said Israel Hands, looking at the crew. Then he glanced anxiously up at Long John's big, square face.

"Will they do, John? And have you chosen your course?"

Silver reached up to pet the big green parrot that sat with its claws clamped into the material of his coat.

"What do you think, Cap'n Flint?" he said, tickling the bird's chest. She squawked and shifted her feet and nuzzled his ear.

"Merry Buggers!" she said, for she had a perfect gift of mimicry, and used words to purpose, and with meaning.

Long John sighed, for he had much on his mind.

"Well, the ship won't do," he said, looking Walrus over. She was a New England schooner: two hundred tons burden, a hundred feet from bow to stern, sharp-hulled and with a broad spread of canvas on two raked masts. She mounted fourteen six-pounder guns and had once been a swift, handy ship, but she'd suffered a battering in recent actions, and hadn't been careened for months, which meant – in these tropical waters – that the underwater hull must be a seething tangle of weeds and growth.

"A Thames barge would out-sail her as she is!" said Silver.

"Does that mean we'll be chasing one?" said Israel Hands.

"We've just thirty-two hands," said Silver, ignoring the remark.

"Gentlemen o' fortune every one!" said Israel Hands.

"Mostly… but them two ain't! Useless bloody lubbers!"

Silver nodded at a pair of men who were sitting miserably apart from the crew. They wore long coats and were the ship's navigating officers – such as they were – for neither Silver nor anyone else aboard had that skill. The pair of them had been taken out of the merchant service under Silver's promise to be freed at Upper Barbados – Walrus's destination – for they were honest men. Honest, but found wanting. They might be able to feel their way up a coastline, but they were at a loss on the deep waters, and growing more nervous each day.

"Them swabs has only got this far by dead reckoning and fair weather!" said Silver. "One good blow, and we'll be off their charts. Then God help us all!"

"Never mind them," said Israel Hands. "We'll hire afresh and take on others, too." He looked sideways at Long John and decided to broach the great question: "What worries me, John, is that thirty-three hands is plenty for a merchantman, but not for such business as ours."

Silver, however, wouldn't be drawn. He shook his head and fell deep into his own thoughts. He'd never wanted to be a pirate – a "gentleman o' fortune" – but had become one because it was that or certain death. And thus by easy stages to robbery and murder, and putting a pistol ball into a child – which, of all the things he'd done, came back most often to flog him with guilt, though he'd done it of necessity, to stop the spread of island smallpox. Even now he could feel the jump of his pistol firing and see the open-mouthed disbelief on the face of Ratty Richards, ship's boy, as he dropped down dead; slaughtered by the captain he worshipped.

And now he had a wife whom he loved fiercely, and who'd made clear that she'd not live with him unless he became an honest man. Or so she said… But did she mean it? She loved him; he knew that much. Or so he thought.

So… there was what the crew wanted, which was prizes, gold, tarts and rum. There was what she wanted, which was an honest life for Mr and Mrs Silver. And then there was what he wanted… which he didn't know, and couldn't decide because he couldn't live without her and maybe couldn't live with her. The bitter internal conflict was turning him sour and angry.

"John," said Israel Hands and nudged him, "it's her…"

Silver turned. She'd come up from below decks without him even seeing. Now she stood with her hands on her hips facing him. She was a small, slim, black girl, not yet eighteen years old, extremely lovely in face and figure, with a dainty elegance of movement, and of speech and manners too. She stood in a cotton gown and a straw hat, looking up at Silver and defying him.

"Well?" she said, but he avoided her eyes and said nothing. "Huh!" she said, investing the simple sound with eloquence.

All hands were watching. They shifted and muttered and a few got up for a better look. These arguments had gone on for days, and now Silver roused himself and tried to speak gentle. He tried to explain. So did she, for a while, but soon they were shouting and screeching, with fists clenched and words spat viciously, as tempers burst and fury rose in the passionate rage of a man and woman for whom no one else in the whole wide world mattered quite so much as the other.

As for the spectators, they shrugged their shoulders and scratched their armpits and turned away, no longer entertained by a piece of theatre that had been played out flat. They thought Silver should put the rod across her plump little arse till she saw reason. But that was his business and they'd chosen him as their leader, so there weren't no more to be said in the matter. Selena was his wife and that was that.

But later, the ship's surgeon, Mr Cowdray, was forced to join the quarrel. The only gentleman in the ship, he'd practised in London till learned rivals drove him out for his ludicrous insistence on boiling his instruments before surgery, which he said prevented sepsis, and which they couldn't abide because it did. Selena liked Cowdray and valued his opinion, and thus she'd asked him to meet her on the forecastle after dark.

"What do you want, girl? Bringing me here?" he looked back down the dark length of the ship, past masts and bulging sails, and hung on to the rail against the ship's motion, flinching as spray came over the plunging bow.

"It's wide open here," she said, "so nobody can say you're meeting me in secret."

"And why should I do that?" he said.

She shrugged. She'd seen how he looked at her. He might be a surgeon, but he was a man, even if he was middle-aged.

"You can always say you were going to use the heads," she said.

"Huh!" said Cowdray, looking at the "seats of ease" on either side of the bowsprit: a pair of squat boxes with holes cut in them for seamen to relieve themselves. "So what is it?" he said.

"Why won't he give up being a pirate?"

"He's not a pirate, he's a gentleman of fortune."

"It's the same thing."

"No! We sign the Book of Articles and every man votes. It is the democracy of the Greeks."

"Articles! He talks about them all the time, and he -"

"Selena, listen to me."

"But he does."

"Please, please, listen. I can't be him. I can't speak for him."

"So who do you speak for?"

"For the crew! It's a good life for them. Equal shares and light work. Merchant owners save money with small crews that must rupture themselves to work the ship, while we have many hands to ease the load. And we sail in soft waters: the Caribbean, the Gold Coast, the Indian Ocean… You should try the whale fisheries, my girl, up beyond Newfoundland! The ice hangs from the rigging and the lookouts are found frozen dead when the watch changes. And with us, there's no flogging the last man up the mast nor the last to trice his hammock as the navy does, and there's music and drink when you want it, and the chance to get rich -"

"By thieving and killing!"

"In which regard we're no worse than the king's ships, that kill men and take prizes!"

"But that's war."

"Dulce bellum inexpertis: war is sweet to those who don't know it!"

"Bah!" she said, striding off and leaving him in the dark. Him and his annoying habit of spouting Latin.

So the matter was not resolved, and Silver and Selena lived apart in the ship and couldn't meet without a quarrel. And Silver became bad tempered, and not the man he had been. And that was bad… but worse was to come.

Chapter 4

Half an hour before sunset 12th March 1753 Aboard Oraclaesus's longboat The southern anchorage Flint's Island

Boom! A signal gun blew white powder smoke from Oraclaesus's quarterdeck, and echoed across the still waters. It was the signal for boats to give up for the day and return to their ships.

"Thank God!" said Mr Midshipman Povey to himself, and "Hold water!" he bellowed at the boat's crew. At least he tried to bellow, but his throat was sore and his head ached, and he hadn't the strength.

Twenty sweat-soaked men collapsed over their oars, shafts stabbing raggedly in all directions, crossing and clattering in a disgraceful fashion that should have earned a blistering rebuke from the coxswain. But he was preoccupied with scratching the blotches on his face and barely hanging on to the tiller, he was so dizzy.

"Bloody shambles," mumbled Povey. He looked across the anchorage in the dimming light, taking in the idly swirling boats and ships, and the voices everywhere raised in bickering argument. There was no wind in the anchorage, so the squadron was kedging out: each ship launching its best boat, a light anchor slung beneath, waiting until the smaller vessel had pulled ahead and dropped anchor before manning the capstan to haul on the anchor cable, thereby laboriously drawing the ship forward. Then up anchor and do it again! Then again and again till the sails should feel the wind of the open sea.

The drill was simple. It was heavy work needing no unusual talent. The squadron should have been out of the anchorage and under way in a few hours. But they weren't. Everything had gone wrong: cables fouled, oar stroke lost, tempers gone and men falling exhausted at their duties who couldn't be roused, not even with a rope's end.

It was the island fever. The enemy that they were trying to escape was already among them! Povey grinned stupidly, thick-headedly. It was just like those dreams where you were desperate to run but couldn't because your legs were made of lead. The fever was doing its utmost to keep them on the island.

"Cast off hawser!" said Povey, and the hands made clumsy shift to loose the heavy rope by which the anchor was suspended beneath the boat. The boat wallowed heavily as the great load was shed, and the anchor went down to the bottom; they'd find it easily enough tomorrow by following the cable. "Back larboard, pull starboard!" said Povey, and the longboat turned in the water. "Give way!" he commanded, and they began pulling for their food and their grog, and a few hours' sleep. That should have cheered them up, but it didn't. Povey looked down the banks of oarsmen, most of whom were sweating heavily even though it was cool evening. Some – like the coxswain – were coming out in a rash.

Bounder and Jumper were likewise recovering their boats and dropping their main anchors to moor for the night, as was the flagship. Povey sighed at the thought of all the heavy labour of weighing that would have to be performed again in the morning. But by this time they were bumping against the high oaken side of Oraclaesus and he was ordering "Toss Oars!" – the hands making a dog's breakfast of this simple command – and himself about to go first out of the boat and up the ship's side… when the officer of the watch leaned over the rail and called down to him.

"Mr Povey!"

"Aye-aye, sir?"

"I'd be obliged if you'd take the longboat and bring aboard the person who is calling from the shore."

"Sir? What person, sir?"

The officer of the watch frowned. He was feeling unwell and in no mood for explanations. "Obey your bloody orders and be damned, Mr Povey – and don't answer back!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

Povey sank down into the longboat, almost in tears. He'd not realised how tired he was and how much he wanted to be out of the boat and into his bed. The crew obviously felt the same. They were moaning and snivelling.

"Oh, bloody-well-bugger the lot of you," said Povey. "And pull for the bloody shore."

Once they came round the ship, which happened to be between the longboat and the beach, Povey could make out the dark little dot of a figure outlined against the white sands of the beach, and he could hear a wailing cry coming over the still water. He'd not noticed it before, not with so many others shouting and the sick nausea rising in his belly again.

"Uuurgh!" Povey retched over the side, bringing up nothing and wrenching the muscles of his stomach. He dipped a hand in the water and splashed it over his face. The crew stared as they swayed to their oars. Some of them felt as bad as Povey.

"What are you bloody sods looking at?" he snarled. "Bend your bloody backs!"

The forlorn figure on the beach grew and took shape in the twilight. It was a man kneeling right on the water's edge, with hands raised over his head. He moaned and wept and offered up prayers as, finally, the big boat ground ashore and Povey jumped out – and was astonished to be recognised.

"Mr Povey, sir! God bless and save you, sir, for it is Mr Povey, ain't it now?"

"Damn my blasted eyes," said Povey. "It's Ben Gunn!"

Memories flooded in. Bad memories of HMS Elizabeth – the vessel which had first brought Povey to this poisonous island – and Flint's mutiny, which had resulted in the death of her captain and loyal officers.

"Ben Gunn," said Povey in amazement, peering at the bedraggled figure with its straw-like hair, deep-lined, deep- tanned face, barefoot raggedness – and the wide, staring eyes of a madman. A madman who grovelled and pleaded before Povey, crouching to kiss his feet, and grasping for his hands to kiss them too. Povey pulled away, embarrassed.

"Back oars, you swab!" he said, and frowned heavily. "You were one of the mutineers, you blasted lubber! One of those that followed Flint! You were aboard the ship Betsy that Flint made on the island. You were aboard her, with Flint, when I was cast adrift!"

"No! No!" groaned Benn Gunn, shaking his matted head in an agony of self-pity, betraying himself comprehensively by protesting too much. "Not poor Ben Gunn," he moaned, "what-never-was-a-mutineer-nor-followed-Flint-on-the-island-nor-later-aboard-Betsy-nor-later-yet-aboard-Walrus-and-always-was-a-loyal-heart-and-true-God-bless-King-George-and-God-bless-England-and-bless-the-navy-too…"

It rattled out non-stop, ending only when Ben Gunn ran out of breath.

"Says you, Ben Gunn!" said Povey. "But you must come aboard and go before Captain Baggot to be examined."

"Yes! Yes!" said Ben Gunn. "Aboard ship and not marooned. Not left lonely with only the goats for company.

For there's only them now… what with the others being gone."

"What others?" said Povey.

But a cunning look came over Ben Gunn, and he fell silent, as if realising he'd said too much.

Within a sand-glass fifteen minutes, Ben Gunn found himself standing in the bright lights of Captain Baggot's cabin with the blue coats and gold lace of officers seated in front of him, and red marines behind him, and Ben Gunn goggling at the astonishing fact that among the officers, though not in the king's uniform, was Mr Billy Bones – Flint's most loyal follower. Ben Gunn pondered over that, and perhaps he wasn't so looney as he seemed, for he spotted two other things. First, most of those around the table looked like seasick landmen on their first cruise: pale and sweating heavily. And second, Ben Gunn could see that Mr Povey was as astonished as himself to find Billy Bones among the company. Alongside Bones was a clerical-looking gentleman who proved to be Dr Stanley, the chaplain, and he was treating Mr Bones with favour, almost apologetically.

Povey caught Lieutenant Hastings's eye where he sat with the other officers, and looked questioningly at Billy Bones. Hastings nodded at Dr Stanley. He risked mouthing the words:

"It's his doing!"

For his part, Billy Bones stared fixedly at Ben Gunn, who had not featured in the instructions he'd received from Flint. Thus Billy Bones was forced to extemporise, which he did to such creditable effect as would have amazed the master down below, who believed him incapable of initiative. Though perhaps Billy Bones shone more lustrously by comparison with Captain Baggot, who was not himself, being now quite ill.

Baggot did little more than extract a repetition of Ben Gunn's whining innocence, attempting only half-heartedly to examine such interesting matters as just what the Hell had been happening on the island while Flint was there? Especially to the north where John Silver had escaped aboard Walrus? All such matters Ben Gunn refused to discuss, fearing self- incrimination. Finally, bleary-eyed, swaying in his chair, and with red blotches now livid on his face, Baggot turned to Billy Bones.

"Will you have a word with him, Mr Bones? Were you not shipmates once?"

"Aye, Cap'n. Aboard Elizabeth, at the beginning of all these troubles."

"What troubles, Mr Bones?"

"Cap'n Flint's troubles, sir… and the wicked conspiracy against him."

"Rubbish!" said Povey, who knew exactly what had gone on aboard Elizabeth.

"Poppycock!" said Lieutenant Hastings who'd served alongside him.

"Be silent, there!" cried Baggot irritably. "Do not interrupt your betters!"

"Indeed not!" said Dr Stanley, and the other officers nodded.

Hastings and Povey gaped. They couldn't believe that they weren't believed, for all England knew they'd been Flint's shipmates. Had they been fit and well, they'd have fought for truth. But, like most others present, they were not fit and well. They were sick with headache and a nausea that was getting steadily worse as the day ended and the night came on. They hadn't the strength for so fearful a task as opposing their superiors.

Billy Bones, however, being immune to the peril that was bearing down on his shipmates, pressed on clear-headed and determined.

"Now then, Mr Gunn!" he said, sending Ben Gunn quivering in fright.

"I don't know nothing," came the response.

"Yes, you do. For you was helmsman aboard of Elizabeth, wasn't you?"

"Aye, but it weren't my fault she run aground."

"So whose fault was it?"

"Cap'n Springer's!"

"That's Springer as was cap'n of Elizabeth," said Billy Bones for the benefit of his audience, before turning back to Ben Gunn. "So it were Springer as done it, not Flint?"

"Not him!" said Ben Gunn. "It were that swab Springer, damn him!"

"And who flogged you for it, Mr Gunn – you that was helmsman?"

"Springer! He flogged me, though I was steering to his own orders."

"That he did, Mr Gunn. You that was innocent, as all hands knew!"

"Aye!"

"And when we was run aground, who was it as couldn't get us off?"

"Springer!"

"And who was it got drunk day after day?"

"Springer!"

"But who was it built the Betsy out of Elizabeth's timbers, to escape the island?"

"Flint!"

"So I akses you, Mr Gunn… who was the true seaman – Springer or Flint?"

"Cap'n Flint, God-bless-him-and-keep-him!"

And there Billy Bones stopped, being enormously wise to do so, for it was all truth thus far. It was plain truth, every word of it, and cast a most radiant light upon Joseph Flint, lately a lieutenant in His Majesty's sea service, and now accused of mutiny and piracy. Billy Bones was doing wonderfully well.

"The rest is lies and spite," he said, inspired with the genius of simplicity.

"Well?" said Baggot to Ben Gunn.

"Couldn't say, Cap'n. For I weren't there, and took no part."

"Mr Hastings? Mr Povey?" said Baggot, turning at last to these vital witnesses.

But by this time Mr Povey's bowels were squirting hot fluid down the leg of his breeches, and he was staggering, grey- faced, out of the cabin, trying not to foul the neat-patterned oilcloth floor, while Mr Hastings was slumped glassy-eyed in his chair, under the impression that the ship was rolling in a hurricane. Neither was in a position to contribute much to the discussion of Flint's guilt or innocence.

Billy Bones smiled. He'd been lucky. He'd won a flying start to his campaign. One more heave and the irons would be struck off Flint's legs as surely as they'd been struck off his own. It only awaited the next developments, as forecast by Flint.

And looking round the cabin, Billy Bones could see those developments already going forward very nicely.

Chapter 5

Four bells of the afternoon watch 18th March 1753 Aboard Walrus Off Upper Barbados

With Walrus's keel sprouting too much weed for swift sailing, she was brought alongside of Venture's Fortune only by cunning: Walrus having hoisted British colours upside- down – a sign of distress – and left her sails hanging in a slovenly manner as if some disaster had befallen her people.

"Steady, boys," said John Silver to the armed men hiding behind the bulwarks, and anywhere else where they couldn't be seen from the approaching ship.

"Steady boys," croaked the parrot on his shoulder and the hands laughed.

"Stow that!" hissed Silver, and clapped a hand on the bird's beak.

It would be a tragic waste to spoil things now. The sun was high in the blue heavens, the sea was calm with a fresh wind, and there were even gulls above, ventured out from the land just under the horizon, while a fine, fat three-masted ship came offering itself up, all bright and spanking new, with fresh white sails and bright-coloured flags that hadn't seen a drop of weathering, and jolly tars aboard who couldn't imagine what a mistake they were making in coming to give aid.

"John," said Selena, standing next to him by the tiller, "I give you one last chance not to do this. It's shameful deceit. How can you do this to others who use the sea?"

"Belay that!" he said. "We can't take a prize no other way we're too slow. It's this or nothing! D'you think I'd not rather bear down with colours flying?" He cursed and beat the deck with his crutch, and he looked at her and sneered: "An' if you're so moral and mighty, what're you doing on deck in your gown so they sees a woman and ain't afraid?"

"Huh!" she said. "You know why! If they're taken by surprise there'll be less fighting, that's why!" But she blinked and looked away, for that wasn't entirely the truth. She wasn't so sure of anything now, having considered what Dr Cowdray had said… and… and… a soft word now, from John Silver, a friendly smiling word, might have closed the gulf between them. But Silver was too angry. Too many harsh words had been spoken.

"Well, there you are then!" he said with extreme bad grace. "So stand fast, and clap a hitch on your jawing tackle – or go below with them two swabs of navigators as I've locked in my cabin to save their precious innocence!" And there followed even more temper and more shouting, which ended in her being ordered below – at which she screamed defiance and then being dragged below… causing consternation aboard Venture's Fortune, the big West Indiaman, coming on under close-reefed topsails, for her quarterdeck people were studying the wallowing, helpless Walrus through telescopes.

"There, sir!" cried Mr Philip Norton, a big, young, muscular man, well dressed and handsome, with the confidence that comes with power. "Did I not say it was madness to approach her? Look at the number of gun-ports! And now there's fighting aboard her."

"Bollocks!" cried Captain Fitch, a veteran seaman and a master of his craft, but cursed with the short stature which turns a man to bloody-mindedness when the tall look down on him and tell him what to do. And that went double when the tall one represented something that all decent men despise: the government. He glared defiance at Norton. "I shall render assistance to a mariner in distress, according to the ancient traditions of the sea," he said. "And as for the risk that terrifies you, Mr Norton, you well know that I have a Protection in case of that!" And clapping his eye to his glass again, Fitch told himself there was nothing to worry about in the sight of two men manhandling a shrieking woman down a hatchway while a one-legged man with a green bird on his shoulder looked on, shouting and pointing, and apart from which there wasn't another soul visible on deck other than the helmsman…

"Jesus wept!" said Norton. "D'you think a piece of paper will save you from pirates? Do you not understand what I have under hatches?" And then, as Fitch steadily ignored him, Norton suddenly displayed a remarkable degree of seamanship: "Mr Mate," he cried to the first officer, "shake out the topsails! Put up the helm and bring this ship about!" He pointed at Walrus: "And steer me clear o' that 'un!"

His voice rang with command. It was the dominant bark of a man used to being obeyed, and the mate instinctively touched his hat in salute and started to bellow at the hands. But Fitch spat fire.

"Avast!" he cried, and stamped a foot at Norton and glared up into his eyes. "Slam your trap, you bloody bugger! I don't care what you was before, but don't you by-God-and-all-his- bloody-angels give commands aboard my ship, for I'm cap'n here, and there ain't none other!"

Thus Fitch and Norton were still arguing when Walrus came within spitting distance and her crew leapt up at Long John's command, gave a cheer, and commenced hurling grapnels to bind the two ships together. Led by Long John himself, they came roaring over the side, taking command of Venture's Fortune in a matter of seconds.

It was incredibly easy. Not a blow was struck or a grain of powder burned other than that which went into the air to terrify the West Indiaman's crew, of which there were only twenty foremast hands, who'd not been stood to arms and were thus empty-handed in the face of John Silver's thirty- two, who between them bore enough pistols, cutlasses, muskets and pikes to equip a small army, and who moved with practised speed: some to guard the prisoners while others – led by Allardyce and Israel Hands – went below to search the ship.

It was a sweet, clean capture, and the only injury to any man on either side – to the hilarity of Silver's men – was a broken leg suffered by one Dusty Miller, a notoriously clumsy seaman who'd fallen badly as he swung aboard the prize on a line from the mainyard.

"Who's cap'n?" cried Silver, stumping across the quarterdeck to where his men had herded the ship's officers. He reached up to his shoulder to pet the big parrot that had fluttered back with wide-beating wings, after flying aloft as she always did when there was fighting. Silver was grinning in triumph, which turned to instant amazement as a small, thick- bodied man among the prisoners started yelling and waving his hands in fury.

"I, sir!" he cried, trying to push aside the firelocks aimed at him by Silver's men.

"Huh!" said Silver. "Let the bugger through" and Captain Fitch stamped forward to stand looking up at Long John Silver, who towered over most men let alone one only five feet tall. The sight was greeted with laughter from the crew, which was deeply unfair to Fitch, who despite being unarmed, and facing death for all he knew, was fearlessly brave, and told Silver off something ferocious.

"I'm Fitch," he cried. "Cap'n of Venture's Fortune with cargo and supercargo bound for London. And I may not be touched, God damn-your-eyes, sir! You may not lay a finger on me! For I sail with protection, sir! Protection from Sir Wyndham Godfrey, Governor of Upper Barbados, and which Protection…"

"Clap a hitch, you bloody dwarf!" cried Long John, but Fitch persisted, stabbing a finger up at him and shouting until finally Silver drew a pistol, cocked it, and shoved it into Fitch's belly.

"See here, mister," he said, "either you pipe down or I give fire. I don't mind which, so please your soddin' self!"

"Bah!" said Fitch, but he shut up.

"Good," said Silver. "Now what's this about blasted protection? What're you talking about?"

"A Certificate of Protection of Free Passage from Sir Wyndham Godfrey!" said Fitch. Then he lowered his voice: "Protection from gentlemen such as yourself, sir!"

"What gentlemen?" said Silver.

"Gentlemen o' fortune, sir."

"Oh?" Silver's eyebrows raised.

Fitch nodded knowingly. "Aye, sir! For isn't Upper Barbados the only port where you may safely call?"

Silver frowned. The old days were gone when there were a dozen safe havens for pirates on the Spanish Main. There was still Savannah, of course, and maybe one or two others, but none that boasted a dockyard like those of Williamstown, Upper Barbados, where gold talked all languages and the law looked the other way. Fitch read Silver's face.

"So," he said, "spurn Sir Wyndham's Protection, and he'll turn the guns of his fort on you."

"Where is it? This 'Protection'?"

"Below, in my cabin. I'll show you…"

"Back your topsail," said Long John. "Time for that later." And he looked around.

For the moment, all was well. The weather was fine, the prize taken, the prisoners under guard. And that included five passengers – now trembling in each other's arms on the main- deck, wealth written all over them – who had cabins for the passage to England. These were Fitch's "supercargo". Two were women: one middle-aged but handsome, and clearly a lady of fashion, wearing a Leghorn straw hat to save her complexion from the sun and a fine linen gown, cut practical for the ocean journey but underpinned with a full rig of hooped panniers. The other was her elderly maid. No blushing virgin, either of 'em, but they'd need watching for fear the hands – bless their hearts – forgot what they'd signed under articles, concerning the punishment for rape.

But greater matters presented themselves…

"Long John! Long John!" cried Allardyce, coming up from the maindeck hatchway and leading a tall man with chains dangling from his wrists and ankles. "Look!" said Allardyce, with reverence. "It's Himself! It's the McLonarch! Him that led the charge of Clan McLonarch, between Clan Chester and Clan Atholl, and me behind him – my mother being a McLonarch – right to the British bayonets where he killed five with his own hand!"

"What's this, Tom Allardyce?" said Silver, stepping forward. He looked at the creature Allardyce was referring to and detected the authentic look of a holy lunatic. The man was as tall as Silver, round-eyed, gaunt and woolly-haired, with a straggling beard, a great beak of a nose and high, slender cheekbones. His clothes were unkempt but clean, for though he was in chains, he'd not been ill-treated and there was no stink of the dungeon about him. He had decent shoes and stockings besides, and silver buckles, so he'd not been pillaged neither.

"Who are you, my lad?" said Silver.

"My lord!" corrected Allardyce. "He is the McLonarch of McLonarch!"

"Very likely," said Silver. "But I'll hear it from him, not you!"

The tall man stirred, fastened his eyes on Silver, drew himself upright and spoke with the soft, Irish-sounding accent of the Scottish Highlands.

"I am Andrew Charles Louis Laurent McLonarch-Flaubert – ninth Earl of McLonarch, and First Minister of His Most Catholic Majesty King Charles III, who is known to men as Bonnie Prince Charlie." He was bedraggled and in chains, and spouting utter nonsense. But nobody laughed. Nobody laughed at the McLonarch.

"Are you now?" said Silver. "And what does King George say to that?"

"George of Hanover is a pretender and a heretic," said McLonarch calmly. "He faces the block in this world and damnation in the next."

"I see," said Silver. "So what're you doing in chains? What with you being prime minister, an' all?"

McLonarch looked around until he spotted the group huddled against the lee rail, menaced by pistols. He pointed at Norton.

"Ask him," said McLonarch, and nodded grimly. "He is one whom I have marked for future attention, for he is deep in the service of the Hanoverians."

Everyone looked at Norton, who shrugged his shoulders.

"I serve my king!" he said, afraid to say more.

"And what might that mean?" said Long John.

Norton thought before he spoke. He was a brave man but he was nervous, and with good reason. He couldn't guess whose side these pirates might take, and he knew McLonarch's power with words.

"McLonarch is a leader of Jacobites," he said. "He would raise rebellion – civil war – to soak England in blood. He is under arrest by the Lord Chancellor's warrant, and I am charged with escorting him home for trial." Norton looked round to see how this was received.

"Bah!" sneered McLonarch. "The man is a catchpole, a thief-taker, an agent sent to return me to England for judicial murder. He used bribery and deceit to capture me, and to steal the treasure lawfully gathered by my master the king."

"Treasure?" said Silver, just when the politics was getting dull.

"Treasure?" said a dozen voices.

"A war chest of three thousand pounds in Spanish gold, which -"

"THREE THOUSAND POUNDS?" they cried.

"Which I was delivering to my master's loyal followers in London."

"Where is it?" said Silver.

"WHERE IS IT?" roared his crew.

"In the hold, in strong boxes," said McLonarch, and pointed again at Norton: "He has the keys. He stole them from me."

There followed half an hour of the most delightful and congenial work. Having been told exactly what would happen to him if he didn't co-operate, Norton swiftly produced a heavy ring of keys from his cabin. Meanwhile the main hatchway was broken open, a heavy block rigged to the mainstay, with lifting tackles, and the crew of Venture's Fortune set to the heavy labour of burrowing through the cargo – rum, sugar and molasses – to get to the heavy strongboxes which were on the ground tier down below.

Then the captured crew were made to haul up the boxes, one at a time, for opening on the quarterdeck at Silver's feet, to thundering cheers, the fiddler playing, hornpipes being danced, and joy unbounded as rivers of Spanish coin poured out all over the decks, such that it was a tribute to Long John's leadership that all hands did not get roaring drunk and lose the ship.

The only thing that puzzled Silver in that merry moment was why McLonarch had given up his treasure so easily. Silver pondered on that. Of course, the gelt was lost to McLonarch as soon as his ship was taken… but why speak up quite so helpful: saying how much there was, and who'd got the keys, an' all? It wasn't right. No man behaved like that. So what was going on?

He got his answer later, when Tom Allardyce brought McLonarch down to the stern cabin, where Silver was sitting at Captain Fitch's desk, going through the ship's papers for anything that might be useful.

"Cap'n!" said Allardyce. Silver looked up. Allardyce stood with his hat in his hands, bent double in respect for the man beside him, and whom he kept glancing at, in awestruck respect. McLonarch, free of chains and even more imposing than he'd been before, stood beside Allardyce with his nose in the air, and gazing down upon Silver as if he were a lackey with a chamber pot. Silver frowned.

"Who took his irons off, Mr Bosun?"

"Er… me, Cap'n."

"On whose orders?"

"Seemed the right thing, Cap'n," said Allardyce, torn between two loyalties.

"'The right thing, you say? Now see here, my lad, I'll not -"

"Captain Silver!" said McLonarch. "That is your name, is it not?"

Silver stared at McLonarch, whom he did not like – not one little bit – having taken against him on sight, for McLonarch was a man who expected doors to open in front of him and close behind him, and who sat down without looking… such was his confidence that a minion would be ready with a chair! Silver forgave him that, for it was the way of all aristocrats. What made him uneasy was McLonarch's belief that he was the right hand of Almighty God, and his uncanny gift of convincing others of it: which gift now bore down upon John Silver.

"Aye, milord! Silver's my name," said Long John. "Cap'n Silver, at your service."

Silver couldn't believe he'd just said that. He disowned the words on the instant. But he'd said them all right, and worse still, he felt an overpowering urge to stand up and take off his hat! A lesser man would have been up like a shot, and even Silver was half out of his seat before he realised what was happening and slumped back, scowling fiercely. But McLonarch nodded in satisfaction, and waved a gracious hand.

"Captain," he said, "I welcome you into my service. There is much work for you to do, and you will begin by locking His Majesty's monies into their strongboxes once again and replacing the boxes in the hold."

Chapter 6

One bell of the afternoon watch 18th March 1753 Aboard Oraclaesus The Atlantic

Flint's leg-irons were secured by the curled-over end of an iron bar. Billy Bones got the bar nicely on to the small anvil he'd brought below for purposes of liberation, took up the four-pound hammer, frowned mightily for precision… and struck a great blow.

Clang! said the irons.

"Another," said Flint.

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!"

Clang!

"Ahhh!" said Flint, and pulled the straightened bar through the holes in the loops that had encircled his ankles before hurling the irons with passionate hatred into the dark depths of the hold, where they rattled and clattered and terrified the ship's rats as they went about their honest business.

"Dear me," said Flint, not unkindly, "I do apologise, Lieutenant!" For the hurtling iron had knocked off the hat, and nearly smashed in the brow, of the goggle-eyed young officer of marines – he looked to be about seventeen – who knelt holding a lantern beside Billy Bones.

"You do give your parole?" said the lieutenant. "Your parole not to escape?"

"Of course," said Flint, ignoring the nonsensical implication that there might be some place to escape to, aboard a ship at sea. He sighed, and stood, and stretched his limbs, then turned to the lad as if puzzled: "But has not Mr Bones already made clear," he said, "that Captain Baggot was about to order my release?"

"Was he?" said the lieutenant, weighed down by responsibility and peering at Billy Bones as they got to their feet. Billy, for his part, was bathed in the warm smile of a man entirely free of responsibility, since all future decisions were now in the hands of his master.

In fact, Billy Bones was so happy that he was quite taken by surprise: "About to release Cap'n Flint?" he said doubtfully. But a glimpse of Flint frowning nastily was sufficient to restore his memory. "Ah!" said Billy Bones. "'Course he was, Mr Lennox!" And recalling his manners, he jabbed a thumb at the red-coated officer. "This here's Mr Lennox, Cap'n, sir… the senior officer surviving."

"Senior officer… surviving?" said Flint, relishing the concept, before correcting Billy Bones. "You will address Mr Lennox as 'sir', for he bears His Majesty's commission."

"Oh!" said Bones, peering at the skinny youngster. Flint was right: he was out-ranked! Billy had never risen higher than master's mate, a rank far below a marine lieutenant. This lapse of protocol embarrassed him, for contrary forces were now at work within Billy Bones. He was still Flint's man, but – being aboard a king's ship once more – he was starting to think in the old ways: the navy ways he'd followed before Flint.

"Beg pardon, sir, I do declare," he said, saluting Lieutenant Lennox.

"Granted, Mr Bones," said Lennox.

"Aye-aye, sir," said Billy Bones, and attempting reparation in words, added: "At least you're one o' them what's immune!"

"Am I?" said Lennox, and looked at Flint, sweating in anxiety.

"Oh, yes," said Flint, placing a comforting hand on Lennox's shoulder. "If you have not yet succumbed, then you are safe." He nodded gravely. "For reasons known only to God, some ten men in every hundred are safe."

Lennox closed his eyes and trembled in relief. "What about the rest?" he asked. "Will they die?"

"Yes," said Flint, "most of them. I am very sorry."

Lennox bowed his head and shed tears for his comrades. But so wonderful was the prospect of escaping the hangman that Flint had to pinch himself to affect solemnity and crush the urge to laugh! Merriment would not do: not now. It would undoubtedly upset Mr Lennox, who must be kept sweet until such time as Flint's freedom was assured – and that time was some way off as yet.

"Come, Mr Lennox," said Flint, with every appearance of kindness, "let us go on deck. I must know the worst, if I am to be of any help."

Soon, Flint did know the worst, and it was a very dreadful worst. It was so bad that even he was shaken.

The ship stank worse than a slaver, and it echoed with a dreadful, communal moan, like a long discord of bass violins, which was the constant, unceasing groan of the dying: one voice starting up as another paused to draw breath, and dozens more in the background, over and over in a hideous choir of grief and pain.

The lower deck was a fetid dormitory of helpless men, swinging side by side, in massed, packed hammocks slung fore-and-aft from the deckhead beams, some with just eighteen inches of width per man. Such closeness was normally prevented at sea by the traditional watch system, which had half the hands on deck while the others slept, giving a comfortable thirty-six inches per man. But now, with most of the crew too sick to move or even to go to the heads, the lower deck was crammed – stinking, roiling, foul – with slimy hammocks that dripped a vile liquid mixture of urine, vomit and excrement.

That was bad enough, but the mutilating horror of the disease itself, on the faces and arms of the victims shivering in their blankets – cold in the steaming heat of the lower deck – was atrocious to behold. Some were in the full-flowering pustular rash of the disease, others were shedding skin in sheets, leaving raw, bleeding wounds. Still others were already – and very obviously – dead, with the tropical climate working upon them and rendering their bodies swollen and black.

Flint, Lennox and Bones, having come up from the hold, stood by the main hatchway plumb in the middle of the swaying hammocks and festering bodies. They crouched under the low deckhead and flinched from contact with the horrors around them and their stomachs heaved, for the stench was hideous beyond belief.

"God save us!" said Flint. "Can nothing be done with the stink?"

"No, sir," said Lennox. "The fit hands won't go below to clean and swab."

"Won't they, though?" said Flint. "We'll see about that!" He affected grim resolve, but bells of joy rang inside his mind. Lennox – senior officer surviving – had just called him sir! Unlike Billy Bones, Flint had been a sea-service lieutenant, outranking the marine equivalent. Perhaps Lennox knew that? More likely he was desperate for someone to take over. It didn't matter. Not so long as he said sir.

"Come!" said Flint. "We must go on deck."

The three climbed the ladder up to the maindeck, with its lines of broadside guns, which was open to the skies at the waist, apart from the ship's boats lashed to the skidbeams that spanned the gap. So the air was fresher, but conditions were as bad as the lower deck, with a dozen or more dying men wallowing in their own filth. One was sitting with his back against the mainmast, moaning and cursing in the ghastly act of peeling the skin from his hands so that it came off whole, like a pair of gloves.

Flint heaved at the sight: sudden, violent and helpless. He threw up over his shoes and shirt and coat-front, and staggered to one of the guns and sat on the fat barrel and glared at Billy Bones.

"Water!" he said. "Get water!" Lennox stood dithering while Billy Bones dashed off, and Flint stared up and down the ship. All the precision and cleanliness of a man-o'-war was gone. The deck was in vile disorder, with tackles and gear left muddled and un-secured. And the awful stench of the lower deck rolled up from below. Flint blinked. He who was so fastidious was be-smeared with his own vomit. He was ashamed. Ashamed he'd disgraced himself and… possibly… just possibly… he was ashamed of what he'd done in bringing the smallpox aboard.

But then Billy Bones was back, labouring with a full bucket of fresh water, and Flint was kneeling over it and ducking his head in it, and scrubbing himself clean.

"Ohhhh!" said Flint and shuddered, and shivered and shook. But then he mastered himself. He buttoned up his coat. He made himself as tidy as he could. He put on his hat. "Quarterdeck!" he said. "Come on!" And briskly he led the way up a ladder to the larboard gangway, and then aft past the barricade, to the quarterdeck, the capstan, the binnacle and the ship's wheel, where a group of men were huddled with gaunt, frightened faces. They were mostly lower-deck hands, barefoot and pigtailed.

By sheer, ingrained habit of discipline, the appearance of Lennox in his officer's coat and gorget had the hands saluting and standing to attention, each making an effort to hold up his head. They looked mainly to Lennox, but glanced at Flint and ignored Billy Bones completely.

Careful now, thought Flint, for he needed these men. "Who's officer of the watch?" he said to Lennox.

"Me, sir!" said an elderly man with a long coat and a tricorne hat.

"Who's he?" said Flint to Lennox.

"Baxter, sir. Ship's carpenter, sir," said Lennox.

"The carpenter? Are there no navigating officers?"

"All sick, sir. He's the best we've got."

"What of the captain and the lieutenants?"

"Bad sick, sir."

"Sick but alive}"

"Yes, sir, thank God, sir."

"Hmm… then how many fit men do we have aboard?"

"Don't know, sir," said Lennox, but Baxter stepped forward and saluted politely.

"Us here, sir. Us, an' them there," he said, and pointed.

Flint looked and saw a man in the foretop, and five hands standing by to trim the rigging if need be, although the ship was snugged right down under minimum possible sail: just close-reefed fore and main topsails.

"What course are you steering?" said Flint, and so it went on. The more questions Flint asked, the more Lennox deferred to him, and the more the hands took note, and spoke direct to Flint, and he to them, and Lennox gratefully stood back. Thus – cautiously at first – Flint took over. He straightened his back, he clasped his hands behind him… and… after a break of some four years devoted to other pursuits… he resumed his career as a British naval officer: pretended to, at any rate.

"So!" he said. "I have seen the disgraceful condition of this ship and am resolved to put it right in the name of King George, God-bless-him!"

"God bless him," murmured the hands miserably.

"God bless him!" roared Flint. "And damn him as don't!"

"God bless him!" they cried, for Flint had them in his eye now, and so did Billy Bones, who instinctively stood beside Flint, with scowling brow and fists clenched in the old way that had never failed him… and Mr Lennox looked on, like a three-legged horse at a steeplechase.

"I'm Flint," said Flint. "You don't know me yet, but soon you shall, and I'll start by sending a team below with mops and buckets to clean away the filth. For I tell you two things: first, that you're all safe from the pestilence, and second, that no man ever born shall suffer as any of you shall suffer who disobeys my orders!"

Lennox gaped, for there wasn't even a token resistance from the men. But he looked at Flint and Bones again and understood. They were the very incarnation of the officer caste that the lower deck was bred up to obey. Meanwhile, Flint was still speaking…

"Mr Lennox himself shall lead you to your duties!" he said.

"Aye-aye, sir!" they said.

"Oh?" said Lennox, and "Aye-aye, sir!"

Soon, the bucket brigade was below, while the carpenter and two hands kept the ship on course, enabling Flint to have a private word with Billy Bones, aft at the taffrail.

"Where's Ben Gunn, Mr Bones? You said he came aboard! He survived the smallpox as a child, so he should be among the living."

"Oh, him!" said Bones contemptuously.

"What of him?"

"Went over the side, Cap'n, when we was putting to sea."

"Did he now?"

"Aye, Cap'n: the minute he heard you was aboard."

Flint laughed. "The old rogue! Did he drown?"

"No, Cap'n! Last seen swimming for shore. Going strong."

"Pity. His was a mouth to be closed. Still -" Flint shrugged and turned to other matters "we have begun well, Mr Bones," he said, "but the problem is hands!"

"Hands to work her, sir?"

"Aye, Mr Bones." Flint looked at the ship with her towering masts and broad yards. She was the biggest vessel he'd been aboard for years, and a seaman's delight. Over eight hundred tons burden, and mounting twenty-eight twelve-pounders, she was a superb modern frigate: lavishly equipped and even boasting copper plating on her hull – a recent innovation which gave greater speed than a normal hull and complete freedom from the ship-worm, that menace of tropical seas that burrowed into timber hulls and ruined them.

"Oraclaesus," said Flint, savouring the name. "She came to the island with two hundred and fifty-one men aboard, including a commodore, a captain, three sea-service lieutenants, a sailing master, a lieutenant of marines – our Mr Lennox – and six midshipmen…" He smiled. "After misfortunes ashore, she came away with one hundred and eighty- five men, having lost her commodore, a lieutenant, three mids and a miscellany of foremast hands and marines."

Billy Bones shook his head in wonderment.

"How d'you know all that, Cap'n?"

Flint sighed. "Have I not told you, Mr Bones, that I listened to those who came to feed us during our captivity?"

"Oh!" said Billy Bones. "I see."

"Good. And do you also see that, once the smallpox has done its good work…" But here Flint swallowed and faltered, having seen the awful reality of the death he'd inflicted upon this splendid ship.

He looked away.

He hadn't always been a villain.

There had been a time when he was proud to serve his king.

He felt the pull of being a king's officer once more.

Even though it was supposed to be a pretence and a sham.

For he'd served aboard ships like this one, had Joe Flint. And aboard this particular ship the crew were England's finest: mostly lads in their teens and twenties. They were hand-picked volunteers, to a man.

And Joe Flint trembled on the brink of remorse.

He trembled a long, hard moment… then:

"Urrrrgh!" he growled like an animal. Ordinary men wrestled with conscience, but Flint – who was neither ordinary, nor normal, nor even entirely sane – turned upon his in selfish fury. Why should he feel sorry? He who'd been robbed of a vast treasure? He who'd been brutally rejected by the only woman he'd ever loved? No! He spat upon conscience, he spurned it and reviled it, he seized it by the throat… and strangled it.

"Huh!" he said, and grinned, and pulled Billy Bones's nose.

"Ow!" said Bones.

"So," said Flint, "our situation is this: the smallpox should have killed nine out of ten, but we were lucky – I counted nineteen men on deck, plus the lieutenant. But that is still dangerously few for so great a ship as this."

"Aye!" said Billy Bones. "I'd want fifty at least, just to sail her, and a hundred or more to man the guns."

"Indeed, Mr Bones." Flint looked out to sea. "Ah!" he said. "See those ships?"

"Aye, sir. Thems are Bounder and Jumper, the sloops in company with us."

"Each having some fit men still aboard."

"The which we can employ, Cap'n?"

"Yes. But we must avoid gentlemen with long coats."

"Officers, Cap'n?"

"Indeed, for they might think it their duty to remind the hands of what I am."

"What about them below? Cap'n Baggot and the rest?"

Flint smiled. "Those unfortunate officers who are 'bad sick but still alive'?"

"Aye, Cap'n."

"Why, Mr Bones, you and I shall visit them… to ease their suffering."

Billy Bones bit his lip and looked at his boots.

"Especially," said Flint, "we must visit Lieutenant Hastings and Mr Midshipman Povey, those old shipmates of ours who were witnesses to our past actions, and thereby have the power to put a rope around my neck." He nodded: "And yours, too, Mr Bones. We must see to Hastings and Povey first of all, for our lives depend upon it!" He smiled. "What a blessing it is that we have them safe aboard this ship, laid in their hammocks and awaiting our visit!" He even laughed.

"Oh!" said Billy Bones, suddenly remembering something.

"What?" Flint frowned. Billy Bones radiated guilt.

"Well, Cap'n… I meant to say…"

"Say what?"

"Well, Cap'n, it were a great struggle, a-gettin' of the squadron to sea…"

"Yes?"

"What with so many sick aboard all three ships…"

"So?"

"So Bounder, there -" Billy Bones looked at the distant sloop "- well, she had no navigating office^ and what with Mr Povey being so clever a young gentleman, and all others laid on their backs…"

"So?"

"So Mr Povey was given command of Bounder and is aboard her now."

Chapter 7

Afternoon (there being no watches kept nor bells struck) 18th March 1753 Aboard Venture's Fortune In the latitude of Upper Barbados

Silver glared at McLonarch and reached up to pet his squawking bird.

"See here, mister," he said, "I'm in my own bloody service. Mine and these hands aboard, and no other man's, be he lord, king or pretender!"

"But, Cap'n," said Allardyce, "all's changed. There's a new way! All we have to do -"

"Stow it, you lubber!" said Silver. "Did you not hear what he said?" He jabbed a finger at McLonarch: '"Put the dollars back in the hold' – Huh!" he sneered, "Shave mine arse with a rusty razor!"

"Captain Silver," said McLonarch, "may I sit?" And with that he placed himself in one of Captain Fitch's cabin chairs, and drew it up to face Silver.

Fast losing his temper, Silver slammed a broad hand on the desk in front of him and yelled at Allardyce: "Get up on deck and send down some good lads to drag this bugger -" he pointed at McLonarch – "out of my sight. And stick the irons back on him, too, for I've had enough of his long, ugly face!"

But Allardyce turned nasty. "No!" he cried, scowling at his captain. "Not a step will I take, till you hear what he's offering!"

"Hear what? He ain't got bloody nothing that I want, and that's gospel!"

"Not even a pardon," said McLonarch, "and the chance to be an honest man?"

Silver stopped dead. He looked at McLonarch, who sat calmly in his chair in the well-furnished stern cabin that even had carpets, pictures in frames, and candlesticks. It had books too, and musical instruments: all fixed to the bulkheads in shelves with wire-mesh doors so the ship's motion shouldn't unseat them, for Captain Fitch lived in style. So it was a fine, heavy chair with carved arms that McLonarch had chosen, and which he occupied like a throne, while gazing down his nose at John Silver.

"Pah!" said Silver.

But McLonarch, the consummate politician, having pumped Allardyce beforehand for knowledge of Silver, smiled at him.

"Captain," he said, "I hear that you were a decent man before you were forced into piracy."

"Maybe," said Silver, frowning.

"And even now," continued McLonarch, "you are renowned as a man of honour, and a beloved leader whom men trust. And one who permits no cruelty to prisoners…" He paused and had the satisfaction of seeing Silver blush. Nodding in emphasis, he continued: "Thus you are still – even now – a decent man."

"Huh!" said Silver, but such was the power of McLonarch's personality, and the aura of aristocracy that hung about him, that Silver had the feeling that he'd just heard the definitive, official pronouncement upon himself, as if a judge in court had spoken.

"Captain Silver," said McLonarch, "what I offer you is my master's royal pardon, together with such pension as shall enable you to become again the honest mariner that you once were, washed clean of all past offences, of whatsoever kind or description."

There was silence. The words were magical, mystical. They were a dream. Silver thought of Selena. He thought of the normal life she wanted, and he was drawn into McLonarch's web, and dared to believe. But then he frowned.

"What about my lads?" he said. "Them what chose me, under articles."

McLonarch beamed.

"God bless you, John Silver!" he said. "Had I entertained the least doubt, it would now be gone. Only such a man as I believed you to be would think first of the men he leads, and it is my pleasure to assure you that the same free pardon shall extend to them."

"See, Cap'n?" said Allardyce. "Didn't I tell you?"

"There could even be more…" said McLonarch.

"Oh?" said Silver.

"Are you a Catholic?"

Silver shrugged. "I was raised that way, my father being a Portugee."

McLonarch nodded.

"Then know that I am empowered by the Holy Father to reward those who assist my sacred mission." He paused as one does who makes a mighty offer. "I am empowered to grant the rank and dignity of the Order of the Golden Spur!"

"A papal knighthood?" said Silver, and twisted under deep emotions. But he looked McLonarch in the eye. "See here," he said, "Bonnie Prince Charlie's shut up in Italy. He had his chance at Culloden, and got beat!" He shook his head. "Give up, milord. Your cause is lost!"

"Lost?" said McLonarch. "Give up? Did Charles II give up when exiled to Holland with the world saying Cromwell had won? No! He kept faith for eleven years in exile… yet returned in triumph, with the cathedral bells pealing, the great guns sounding, and the people rejoicing in the streets!"

It was true. Silver was impressed. But he was cautious too, because maybe this wasn't the only bargain in the market?

"Pretty words, milord," he said. "But just for the moment I'm sending you back among the others. I'll spare you the irons, but I'm done talking."

"Well enough, Captain," said McLonarch, satisfied for the moment.

The prisoner went off with Allardyce bowing and scraping behind him, leaving Silver alone with his thoughts, but it wasn't long before Allardyce came clumping back with men behind him. They burst in without knocking. They were looking for trouble.

"What's this?" said Silver. Allardyce looked behind him for support.

"Go on!" they growled.

"Cap'n!" said Allardyce. "We must take Himself safe aboard Walrus!"

"Oh? And is it yourself giving orders now, Mr Allardyce?"

"Tell him!" said the rest.

"We must save him," cried Allardyce, "for he's the McLonarch!"

"Oh, stow it!" said Silver. "D'you think I'm not taking him anyway?"

"Oh…" they said.

"Aye!" said Silver. "Now get about your blasted duties!"

"Oh," they said, and, "Aye-aye, Capn'." And with that they trooped out, looking sheepish.

Alone once more, Silver sighed. What he hadn't told them was that McLonarch was too big a prize to let go. Maybe King George would make an offer for him? Even if he did, Silver knew that he was pressed into a corner and he'd need to be very careful of the Jacobites among his own crew from hereon. Wearily he went up on deck, and found Israel Hands by the mizzenmast, gleefully making notes of the prize's cargo.

"Where's that swab that had hold of McLonarch?" said Silver.

"Norton?" said Hands. "He's forrard, with the rest."

"Bring him here!"

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!"

Norton came at the double, with two men behind him bearing cutlasses. Silver watched his approach, noting the way he darted nimbly across the crowded deck, leaping up the ladder from the waist to the quarterdeck, as if it were second nature to him. And when he was brought up before Silver, who stood looming over him, parrot on shoulder, Norton never flinched. He was a hard case, all right.

"You sent for me, Cap'n," he said, and touched his hat like a seaman.

Cheeky bugger, thought Silver, looking him over. He wore a smart suit of clothes in biscuit-coloured calico and a straw tricorne. By the sound of his voice, he was almost a gentleman, but not quite.

"Just what are you, mister?" said Silver, and saw him blink and think before making a very bold admission.

"I'm a Bow Street man," he said, "a runner. Sent out to arrest Lord McLonarch on a royal warrant."

Silver whistled. "A thief taker? A gallows-feeder?"

"Some call me that."

"And there's gentlemen o' fortune as would hang you for it!"

Norton blinked again, this time in fright.

"Oh, stow it," said Silver, waving away the threat. "Just look at him there!" He pointed down the length of the ship to where McLonarch stood head and shoulders above all the prisoners. "Tell me what that man is, and why you was sent to get him."

"He's the '45 all over again."

"How's that?"

"What d'you know about Jacobites?"

"Plenty!" said Silver.

"And there's plenty of 'em left. Even in the colonies."

"Is there?"

"Yes. They raised the dollars."

"Why'd he want the money? For himself?"

"No! He already had the men, but not the funds."

"And now he's got the money he needs…?"

"He's well on the way to getting it. And have you spoken to him? Listened to him?"

"Aye! Never heard the like!"

Norton nodded. "And he knows all the old families, and the colonels of all the regiments."

"Are you saying he could do it? Raise rebellion?"

"We don't know. But we fear that he might."

"Who's we}"

"The Lord Chancellor, the cabinet, and me."

"Bugger me!" said Silver. "Precious high company you keep." Then a thought struck him: "Hold hard, my jolly boy…" He frowned. "If McLonarch is so bleedin' dangerous, why was just yourself sent out to nab him?"

"A naval expedition couldn't be sent for fear of someone warning McLonarch."

"Jacobites in the navy?"

"Perhaps. So I was sent quietly, with five good men."

"Only five?"

"Them… and papers for me to command local forces."

"So where are they? Your men?"

Norton sighed. "Dead or wounded, as are several dozen colonial militiamen."

"And what about the Jacobites? How many of them are dead?"

"I lost count."

Silver laughed. He liked Norton. But there was more. Silver put his head on one side and looked at the tough, self-assured man who stood so sure on a rolling deck.

"Are you a seaman, Mr Norton?" he said.

Norton shrugged. "I can hand, reef and steer."

"Aye! But I'll warrant you ain't no foremast hand."

"Not I!" said Norton with pride. "I was first mate aboard a Bristol slaver."

"Ah!" said Silver. "The blackbird trade? That breeds good seamen!"

"Them as it don't kill!" said Norton and saw the respect in Silver's eyes. But then he wished he'd kept his trap shut.

"Right then, my cocker," said Silver, grinning. "Whatever else I take out of this ship…" he looked the prize up and down "… I'm having you!"

"What?"

"Aye! 'Cos I've two cock-fumbling bodgers for navigators what can't find their own arseholes with a quadrant, and I want at least one bugger aboard what can!"

On Walrus's quarterdeck, Selena smiled at Mr Joe, the young black who'd once been a plantation slave and was now gunner's mate. He was a slim, handsome man, with a rakish patch covering a lost eye, and was further distinguished by the heavy Jamaican cane-cutlass that he wore in his belt instead of the customary sea-service weapon.

"Thank you, Mr Joe," she said.

"That ain't no matter, ma'am," said Joe. "I'll have your box brought up, an' if you wants to leave the ship, ma'am, why so you shall!" And Mr Joe stepped forward to send a man for the box -

"Stand clear there!" cried Dr Cowdray, ship's surgeon. "Stand clear!" Cowdray was hurrying aft from the waist, followed by four men bearing the broken-legged Dusty Miller on an improvised stretcher.

Miller was whining pitifully and shedding tears. "Ow! Ow!" he cried. "Rum, for the love o' fucking Jesus!"

"Later, sir!" cried Cowdray. "You shall have rum to ease the reduction of your limb. Indeed: fiat haustusl Let the draught be prepared!"

"Ugh!" said Selena, catching sight of Miller's injury.

"Oh mother!" said Mr Joe, for the leg was crooked into a right-angle between ankle and knee, and a bloodied end of bone stuck out through the flesh of the shin.

"Here!" cried Miller, seeing their reactions, and grabbing at Cowdray's arm. "You ain't gonna cut orf my fucking leg, now… are you?"

"Stultum est timere quod vitare non potes!" said Cowdray. "Do not fear that which you cannot prevent!"

"Ahhhhh!" screamed Miller. "You bastard! You ain't cutting orf my sodding leg, you mother-fucking sawbones!"

"No, sir," cried Cowdray, "you misunderstand. We shall save it!"

The surgeon was frowning as if in utmost concern, but inwardly he was rejoicing. As ever when Walrus went into action he was ready for the wounded in a fresh-boiled linen apron, sleeves rolled up, spectacles on his nose. And now, here was a wonderful case of compound fracture to test his skills, since – unlike most surgeons – he believed amputation to be unnecessary. With cleanliness and care, the limb could be saved – and he was itching to prove it.

"Let 'em through," said Mr Joe, and he stood back as Cowdray, still spouting Latin, manoeuvred his patient down a hatchway, addressing the filthy-tongued Miller with the same courteous politeness he'd used towards honest patients years ago.

When they'd gone, Selena looked to Venture's Fortune, heaving up and down on the ocean swell alongside of Walrus, the lines that bound them together creaking and stretching under the strain. "She's home-bound to England, isn't she, Joe?"

"Aye, ma'am. Bound for Polmouth with rum and sugar under hatches."

"And will Long John let her go?"

"Once we've plucked her. That's Long John's way."

"Good. Then I'll go aboard… and leave with her."

"But -"

"Don't.'" she said. "I won't live this life. I've told Long John."

Mr Joe tried, nonetheless. He told her that she'd never even seen England, and had no friends there, and that – should she be recognised – the crimes she'd committed in the colonies would hang her just as dead in the mother country. And he reminded her of Silver: fine man that he was, and how the hands would follow him "down the cannon's mouth" when it came to action: a bad choice of words in the circumstances, but the best Mr Joe could think of.

Wasted words, all of them. When he'd done, Selena – in her print gown and straw hat – attempted to clamber over two ships' scraping, bumping rails that weren't even hard alongside but divided by a gap of a yard or more that opened and closed like a crocodile's jaws, with the white water frothing far below. Finally Mr Joe lifted her up and heaved her over bodily, into the arms of the men aboard Isabelle Bligh, who surged forward on sight of her, gaping and wondering, stretching their arms to catch her, and nervously glancing back at Long John, for every man aboard knew about their quarrels.

Then her sea chest came after her with a bump and a thump, with her few goods and the money she'd saved, and the men stood back, touched their brows and doubled to their duties again with Israel Hands and Tom Allardyce yelling at them.

Selena's heart was beating, she had no idea what to do, she hadn't even thought about how she might be received aboard this ship. Long John (who had his back to her) was deep in conversation with a hard-faced man in a calico suit. He didn't see her, or hear, so she was left to look at the ship, which was well found, spanking new, and bursting with activity as Walrus's men hoisted up a series of heavy chests from the waist and swung them back aboard their own ship.

She looked forrard and saw the men, and some women, crammed into the fo'c'sle under guard. Instinctively she made her way down the ship towards them, Walrus's men stepping aside to let her past, all of them giving the same uneasy glance towards Long John, who was still engrossed with the hard- faced man.

"What's this, ma'am? What're you a-doing of?" said Israel Hands, looking up from the notebook where he'd been making a record of the cargo. He frowned and, as the others had done, glanced in Long John's direction, then seemed about to speak, but up above a chest slid out of its lashings, and fell, and men jumped aside as it smashed open and showered silver dollars on the deck.

"You slovenly buggers!" cried Hands. "You idle swabs! You…"

Selena walked on, squeezing past the toiling seamen, stumbling now and again at the ship's sickening, rolling motion, and made her way to the fo'c'sle and past the guards and blinked at the prisoners. There was a crowd of seamen, a few officers, and some landmen – presumably passengers – and two women. They stared at Selena, not knowing what to make of her, though the men looked her over as all men did at first sight.

"Ah-hem!" said a little man: squat, short, and heavy, in a big hat and a long shiny-buttoned coat. He touched his hat and smiled, and was about to speak, when one of the two women pushed past him and threw out her arms to Selena.

"My dear!" she cried. "My poor creature! I see that, like ourselves, you were made prisoner by these wicked pirates!"

"Oh!" said the short man. "Ahhh!"

"Ahhhh!" said the rest, nodding wisely to one another.

"Yes!" said Selena, seizing upon this excellent explanation, which was so obvious that it was amazing she'd not thought of it herself.

The woman advancing upon Selena was in her mid-fifties with twinkling eyes, a tiny nose and delicate bones in a neat- little, sweet-little, dear-little face. She was expensively dressed, and had the speech and manners of a noblewoman, with artfully contrived gestures. She smiled radiantly at the world, and she simpered and flirted at men. She did it so well that it had never failed to control them, not once in forty years. Nonetheless, she was utter contrast to Selena, for while the lady – despite her years – was quite glitteringly pretty, she was not beautiful. She did not have that spiritual quality that Selena had, which takes the breath away and makes mortals stare, and stare, and worship. She was merely pretty, like a china fairy.

"My dear!" said the lady, "I am Mrs Katherine Cooper: Mrs Cooper of Drury Lane." She laughed, a sound like a tinkling bell, and added: "I have some reputation as a thespian."

"Aye!" said the rest, nodding among themselves, for Mrs Cooper's reputation had been spread assiduously by Mrs Cooper, and they were very well aware of it.

"Thespian?" said Selena, for this was not a word in everyday use aboard ship.

"Actress, my dear," said Mrs Cooper, embracing Selena. "But you must call me Katty, for it is my pet name among my friends."

"Ahhhh!" sighed the audience as Selena closed her eyes and rested her head on Katty Cooper's shoulder, inexpressibly relieved to be amongst perfumed femininity and not rum- soaked, sweat-soaked, sailormen.

But her moment of contentment was brief. Behind her she heard the distinctive thump, thump, thump… of John Silver's timber leg advancing up the deck.

Chapter 8

Two bells of the middle watch 27th March 1753 Aboard Oraclaesus The Atlantic

The storm was not a great one, but it nearly did for Oraclaesus. It came roaring out of the night, with streaks of black cloud chasing the moon and the white spray steaming off the wave-tops.

Soaked from stem to stern, the big frigate heeled far over under the steady blow, the splendid curves of her hull enabling her to ride the glossy rollers, but she dipped at every downward plunge, and heaved up again with green water pouring from her head rails and figurehead.

Oraclaesus was doing her utmost best, and was a credit to the men of Woolwich naval dockyard who built her. Nonetheless, she was riding out the storm only because of the seamanship and foresight of her new commander, Joe Flint. For Captain Baggot had long since been heaved over the side, sewn up in a hammock with a roundshot at his feet: him and all his sea-service officers, together with Mr Lemming, the surgeon, who never did recognise the disease that killed him. These great ones were gone, together with over a hundred of the ship's lesser people, who received ever-more perfunctory funeral rites as Flint grew tired of reading the service and the surviving hands, exhausted and over-worked, despaired of the whole dreadful process.

So the ship was surviving – and only just – because, with too few men to work her in a blow, and foul weather only to be expected in these latitudes at this time of year, Flint had long since sent down t'gallant masts and yards, taken in the fore and main courses, and set only close-reefed topsails and storm staysails: a task the hands could manage in easy weather. This left the ship with bare steerage way, but saved her when the storm struck, for otherwise she'd have lost her masts, rolled on her beam ends, and drowned every soul aboard of her.

Now Flint and Billy Bones stood braced on the soaking, sloping planks, hanging on by the aid of the storm-lines rigged across the deck, and draped in the tarred blouses and breeches they'd taken from dead men's stores. They huddled together to yell into each other's ears against the howling wind and the dense salt spray that came up over the bow at every plunge of the ship, drenching as far back as the quarterdeck. But however hard they shouted, the wind blew away the sound such that no other could hear: not even ten feet away at the ship's wheel where the helmsmen were fighting to hold the ship on course.

"It's no good," said Flint.

"It ain't neither, Cap'n!" said Billy Bones.

"We must have more men. We'll not survive another like this!"

"And we ain't steering no course. Just running afore the wind."

"When this blows over, I shall signal Bounder and Jumper to come alongside."

"What about Mr Povey? He's aboard Bounder and he'll blab to all hands!"

"Yes, but -"

Flint was about to argue that, without more men, they'd die anyway. But the storm spoke more persuasively, with a roar and a crackling from above, like the volley of a thousand muskets, as the wind got its claws fairly into the fore topsail and ripped it from its reefs and flogged it and shredded it and blew it out into streaming rags that stretched ahead of the ship and threw off bits of themselves to vanish instantly into the howling night.

"Bugger me!" said Billy Bones.

"Helmsman!" cried Flint, stepping close to the wheel.

"Aye-aye, sir!" said the senior man.

"Can you hold her?"

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!"

Flint came back to Billy Bones, hauling himself hand over hand by a storm-line, and leaning his head close to Bones's.

"She'll run like a stallion in this. She'd run under bare poles -" he looked at the men at the wheel "- so long as they don't tire."

"Shall I send up fresh hands?"

"No! Can't risk it. They'd take time to get the feel of the helm, and we could be broached-to and rolled over while they do."

Billy Bones nodded. The wheel was a double, with spokes radiating out from either end of the drum round which the steering tackles were rove. That meant two big wheels, one ahead of the other, such that four men – one to each side of each wheel – could steer as a team in heavy weather. It was a task best left to those who'd got the knack of it, working with these particular shipmates, under these particular conditions.

"Aye-aye, Cap'n," said Billy Bones.

"So," said Flint, "there's something else we can do in the meanwhile, for we're no help to these excellent men at the helm."

Billy Bones couldn't actually see the leer on Flint's face. It was too dark for that, but he knew it would be there, and he trembled in a fright that had nothing to do with the storm.

For a storm was nothing to Billy Bones. Standing on a wet wooden slope with the wind shrieking in his ears was nothing to him. Likewise, the cold seawater that got under his collar and ran down his neck. And neither did he fear the tremendous power of the elements that could take a ship, and break it and sink it and drown him. All that was meat and drink to Billy Bones. He'd faced it all his life, and if ever he pondered on so philosophical a matter as his own death – why, Billy Bones would naturally expect it to come at sea, in a storm, and a fitting seaman's death it would be an' all! So he wasn't afraid of the weather… only Joe Flint, the infinitely charismatic Flint, whom he feared and worshipped all at once, as if by evil enchantment.

Meanwhile Flint was speaking:

"Stand to your duty!" he yelled to the helmsmen.

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"Mr Bones and I am going below."

"Aye-aye!"

"We shall soon return."

"Aye-aye!"

Beckoning Billy Bones to follow, Flint made his way through the dark night and the screeching wind, with the rain and spray lashing his face so hard he could barely breathe, and the ship heaving up and down, twenty feet at a time, beneath his feet. Sight was nearly useless and he went by feel, storm- lines, and seaman's instinct.

There was no hatchway on the quarterdeck, so he descended the larboard gangway ladder to the maindeck, and groped his way aft beneath the quarterdeck, where there was shelter at least from the wind and wet. Around them the great guns strained and heaved in their lashings, ever seeking the opportunity to snap a rotten tackle and break loose for a playful plunge about the deck, grinding and smashing and killing…

Except that there was nobody to kill, only Flint and Billy Bones; the few others aboard were either up above or down below. The main deck, the gun deck which was the raison d'etre of a man o' war was unnaturally empty of men.

In the darkness, Flint went just aft of the capstan and forrard of the bulkhead that divided off the captain's quarters and slipped carefully down the ladderway to the lower deck. And there he paused, with his back against a cabin door, until Billy Bones came rumbling after him.

There was no weather at all down here, and the mighty voice of the wind was shut out by solid oak that admitted only a dull, demonic wailing. But all the wooden music of ship's noises was playing: the creaks, squeaks and grumblings of eight hundred tons of carpentry, fighting to stay together while the wind and the sea tried to pull it apart.

Flint tingled with sudden excitement. He blinked in the black darkness, relieved only by a few feeble lanterns. Pulling off his tarred frock, he dumped it under one of the lanterns so it could easily be found; tarred clothes rustled and made a noise, and were awkward. Billy Bones did likewise. Flint sniffed. It still smelled vile down here, but better than it had done. There were only a few sufferers still alive in their hammocks, and the hands had got ahead with their swabbing. Flint peered in the darkness and made out the shape of a few hammocks up forrard. He grinned. They were of no concern. His interests lay aft.

Just astern was the bulkhead, and the door that led to the gun-room: province of the ship's gentlemen, where Lieutenant Hastings and the Reverend Doctor Stanley were laid in their cots, deciding whether to live or to die of the smallpox.

Flint sniggered. This hadn't been possible before. Even with only twenty men in the ship, there had always been someone to see and to notice, some servile clown bringing food or drink for the poor gentlemen. Flint laughed. Billy Bones jumped. Flint pulled his nose.

"Nobody here but you and me, Mr Bones," he said. "It will be so easy!" And he crept aft, opened the door to the gun-room and passed inside… soundless, purposeful and malevolent as a vampire. Clump! Clump! Billy Bones followed, and Flint frowned at the spoiling of the moment.

"Shhh!" he said.

"Sorry, Cap'n."

Flint looked round. There was one lantern only. The gunroom had no natural light. It was mainly occupied by a great table running fore and aft, with a little passageway on either beam and rows of doors leading into the tiny cabins that lined up against the ship's sides. The place was crowded with the traps and tackles of the ship's officers: quadrants, swords, books, old newspapers, gun-cases and silver mugs hanging on hooks. It smelled of snuff and claret – not surprising, considering the quantities of these stimulants that had been consumed in this small space.

"Cap'n," said Billy Bones, "I wants to say summat."

"Shhh!" said Flint.

"But, Cap'n -"

"Shut up!" Flint was listening… for breathing… coughing… anything.

"I wants to say -"

"Ah!" Flint darted forward and pulled open a door. It was canvas stretched on a wooden frame. The cabins themselves were made only of thin pine boards. "Fetch the lantern, Billy-my-chicken," said Flint, entering the dark space. Just seven feet long by six feet wide, it was barely enough to hold a few sticks of furniture and a bed where a man lay stretched out, his mouth open, the sweat glistening on his face. He was unconscious but alive, and sleeping soundly.

"Cap'n, you're a fine seaman, as all hands agree, and -"

"Oh, shut up, Billy! D'you know – I do believe this one would survive!"

"- and you know as how I'd follow you wherever you lead -"

"Bring the lantern. See! The skin's not peeling off any more."

Billy Bones brought the light and he and Flint looked down on Dr Stanley. The chaplain didn't look the same without his clerical wig, but it was him all right, and he was definitely not dying.

"Cap'n!" said Billy Bones. "I akses you… not to."

Flint frowned. "Not to what, Mr Bones?"

"Not to do it, Cap'n."

"Shut up, Billy! Just you hold his arms."

"Don't, Cap'n. Please."

Flint turned to look at Billy Bones as he stood with the lantern raised and his dark, ugly face gleaming in the amber light. Bones was shaking with fear, but he looked his master in the eye and begged:

"Don't do it, Cap'n. Let's be better men than that!"

"What's wrong with you?" said Flint. "Brace up!"

Billy Bones shook his head. "No, Cap'n. I ain't gonna do it."

And there, alone in the heaving, groaning dark of the lower deck, Billy Bones faced the Devil coming out of Hell as Flint turned the full force of his personality upon him: the maniac personality, hidden by a handsome face, which was Flint's fearful strength. It was his strength even above the fact that he moved so swift and deadly in a fight that he was terrifying in a merely physical sense. But it wasn't that which frightened men who looked into Flint's eyes. It was something else, something uncanny and deep, and which now burst forth in its fury: scourging and burning… and shrivelling Billy Bones's honest little attempt at humanity into futile, smoking ashes.

Billy Bones could never recall what it was that Flint said to him – for it was all done with words, and never a finger raised – but those few minutes in Dr Stanley's cabin became the evil dread of nightmares that woke Billy Bones, sweat- soaked and howling, from his sleep for the rest of his life.

After that – having been disciplined – he was made to hold Stanley's arms while Flint smothered the good doctor with his own pillow for the crime of being too clever by half. Next, Flint found the cabin where Lieutenant Hastings lay: just eighteen years old and already dying. Billy Bones was made to hold his arms too. Billy wept as he did it, but could not resist.

"And now only Mr Povey is left…" said Flint, and smiled.

Chapter 9

Early morning, 23rd March 1753 Upper Barbados The Caribbean

The four forts that guarded Williamstown bay mounted between them nigh-on fifty twenty-four-pounder guns, and they were excellently placed, high above the sea, with a clear field of fire into the channel whereby ships entered the bay.

They were capable of resisting anything less than a major battlefleet, and even one of those couldn't be sure of forcing an entry: not with one pair of forts at the mouth of the bay, where it narrowed to less than a quarter of a mile's width, and the second pair placed to sweep the approaches just north of Williamstown's harbour. Thus, the last time the attempt had been made – British intruders vs Spanish defenders – the fleet was driven off trailing blood and wreckage, and the town was taken only by landing five thousand redcoats at Porta Colomba, ten miles to the south east, and marching them overland with a siege train.

"Huh!" said Israel Hands, as Walrus came through the jaws of the bay, right under the guns of the outermost forts. "Wouldn't believe this was safe haven for the likes of us!"

Long John frowned, irritably.

"And why not?" he said. "Ain't we flying British colours like them?" He pointed up at the forts. "And haven't we just saluted King George with all our guns?"

"Aye," said Israel Hands. And forcing a grin, he waved a hand at the smoke still hanging about the ship. "But you know what I mean, Cap'n. It's all down to Sir Wyndham, God bless him!"

Sir Wyndham Godfrey, governor of Upper Barbados, was a figure of fun among sailormen. He'd been a scourge of piracy until the bribes grew too great to refuse, and now he closed his eyes and opened his hand, such that men chuckled at the thought of him, and Israel Hands was hoping to cheer up Long John by the mention of his name. But Silver merely sniffed and turned away, stroking the parrot and staring at nothing.

Hands sighed. He'd been like that, had Long John, ever since Selena went off aboard Venture's Fortune to make her fortune in London. It weren't right for a seaman to take it so hard when he lost his doxy. There was always more of them. You soon forgot. Especially when you dropped anchor in a new port.

"Bah!" he said, and stopped fretting over John Silver, and looked instead at all the busy activity aboard Walrus: anchors were off the bows and hung by ring-stoppers at the catheads, bent to the cables flaked out on deck ready for letting go. The ship was scrubbed clean from bow to stern and under easy sail as she came up the dredged channel.

All hands, with the exception of Long John, were delighted at the prospect of going ashore. This was especially true of the two redundant navigators, who stood grinning at approaching freedom. But the shore party would not include the McLonarch, who was locked up below, or Mr Norton, who had been allowed above decks to check the course to Upper Barbados, only to be locked up again as soon as it was sighted. He was now the most miserable creature aboard.

Putting his glass to his eye, Israel Hands focused on the town, less than a mile away, with its whitewashed buildings tiers and layers of them, rising up the flanks of the bayside mountain still known by its Spanish name of Sangre de Cristo blood of Christ – for the rosy colour it took in the sunset, as did the white houses themselves. He shifted the glass to the excellent dockyards, which included dry docks capable of receiving anything up to a ship of the line.

And he looked at the offshore anchorage, which was full of every imaginable kind of vessel, with countless masts and yards, and busy boats pulling to and fro. There was one ship ahead of Walrus in the channel, coming into the wind to anchor, while yet another was astern of her, coming through the jaws of the bay.

It was a wonderful sight. After so many weeks at sea, alone on the empty ocean, it made any man cheerful to see such life. Overhead the gulls wheeled and called, the sun shone bright and hot, the sky was blue, the wind was fresh… and Long John was eating his heart out in despair.

Bugger! thought Israel Hands.

Later, with Walrus moored, Israel Hands took his place in the launch with six oarsmen done out in their best rig, and Long John, Allardyce and Dr Cowdray in the stern. These chosen ones would make first contact with the shore authorities – just to be sure, just to be careful – for there was much to be done and arranged before any of the rest of the crew would be allowed to partake of the whoring and boozing and fighting that was any seaman's honest amusement, fresh ashore… especially gentlemen o' fortune.

"Give way!" cried Allardyce, and the boat began pulling for the harbour. All aboard looked back at the strange sight of the ship which had been their home, now seen in its entirety, bobbing at anchor among the innocent merchantmen… not that all of them were quite that innocent. Walrus wasn't the only ship with a black flag in her locker. Not in Williamstown Bay.

"Look!" said Allardyce. "She's down by the head. You'll have to haul some guns astern, Israel."

"Not I!" said Hands merrily. "Shift the sodding cargo aft!"

Allardyce grinned.

"What cargo?" he said. "Only cargo we've got is dollars!"

"Clap a hitch!" cried Silver nastily. "Who knows what bugger's listening!"

They looked round the harbour. There wasn't a human being within earshot. They made faces behind Silver's back and fell silent.

Ashore, Silver, Allardyce and Israel Hands went to the harbour master's office, while the six hands – chosen for their ability to stay sober – were let off the leash, bar one unfortunate who was left to guard the boat.

Dr Cowdray set off into town by himself in search of medical stores, and replacements for some of his worn-out instruments. Having found what he wanted, he then spent a pleasant couple of hours in the cool, shady streets, shaking off hawkers and beggars, enjoying the sight of women and children after so long in the company of men, and looking into the shops, especially bookshops. Then he searched for a tavern – a respectable one – for a drink and a meal, for the rendezvous was hours away yet.

He knew he had found just the place when he clapped eyes on the Copper Kettle. Situated on the shady side of King William Square, it looked bright and clean, with a long awning and tables in the fresh air. The clientele was entirely respectable, with waiters in long white aprons attending, while the vulgar populace was kept back by a fence of neat white posts with chains slung between. Cowdray stepped forward with purpose, but:

"Oh!" he said, and stopped with his bundle of books and his brown paper parcel of medical gear. He dithered and stuck his load under one arm so he could wipe the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief. In amongst the respectable patrons of the Copper Kettle, seated at a table, his parrot on his shoulder, was Long John Silver. In his current foul mood, the captain made the worst imaginable company.

Cowdray stood in the hot, scented air of a tropical spice- island. It would soon be noon, and the sun was fierce. The streets were emptying as people headed indoors… and Cowdray was thirsty… then… Ah! Debate was irrelevant. Silver had seen him.

"Captain!" said Cowdray, advancing across the square, through the gate in the fence, to take the seat beside Silver. The latter nodded miserably. Cowdray unloaded his goods, and took off his hat in the welcome shade.

"Pffffff!" he said, and fanned himself with his hat.

"Salve, Medicus!" said the parrot, greeting Cowdray in Latin as she always did. At least the bird was pleased to see him.

"Salve, avis sapiens!" said Cowdray. "Hallo, clever bird!"

"Ain't she, though?" said Silver, stroking the green feathers. "And you love Long John, don't you?"

"Love Long John!" she said, and bobbed and nodded and rubbed her head against his with every sign of affection. Silver smiled, a real smile, and he turned to Cowdray to make apology.

"Sorry, Doctor," he said, "I ain't no use at present, not to man nor beast."

"Not you, Captain!" said Cowdray stoutly. Another sigh was Silver's only response.

Then a waiter came, and they ordered food and drink, and sat silent for a bit, and the victuals were served, and Silver went heavy on the drink, and at last the two fell into conversation. Perhaps it was the rum. Perhaps it was because Cowdray wasn't properly a gentleman o' fortune, and he certainly wasn't a seaman, and he was a surgeon – the one who'd saved Long John's life by taking off his shattered leg – but Long John's misery and trouble began to tumble out bit by bit.

"What am I to do, Doctor?"

"In what respect?"

"Taking prizes? Winning dollars? Choosing allies?" Silver shook his head. "All of it, Doctor. Living my bleedin' life! What soddin' life? What am I? Who am I?"

"Oh!" said Cowdray. He was a surgeon, but like any medical man he knew that men can be wounded in the mind as badly as in the body, and that such wounds could be severe. He glanced at Silver. To Cowdray, Silver was still young: thirty- two? Thirty-three? Cowdray could almost have been his father; moreover he liked Silver and wanted to help. He thought of something to say, to get Silver talking… to explore the wound.

"You let the prize go," he said, "Venture's Fortune. Why did you do that?"

"Had to," said Silver morosely, "or we'd not be refitting in that dockyard yonder."

"Is that arranged?"

Silver nodded. "It was just a matter of money," he said. "And plenty of it."

"Why didn't you keep the prize?"

Silver shrugged. "We'd get away with that once or twice, but he'd find out in the end."

"Sir Wyndham Godfrey?"

"Aye. He issues these Protections. I saw one in Cap'n Higgs's desk." Silver shook his head irritably. "You see," he said, "if we… I… am to follow this life, we need a port."

"Like this one?"

"This is the only bloody one, damn near! So we can't upset him what owns it."

"King George, you mean?"

Silver laughed and the parrot squawked loudly.

"And that's another thing," said Silver. "I've got to choose between them two under hatches aboard ship: Lord fancy- drawers-McBollock, and Mr Bow Street Norton, both of 'em reckoning they've a king behind 'em. So which do we favour?"

"You took Norton as a navigator…"

"Aye, but he might be useful as a go-between with the law."

"I see," said Cowdray. "And in the meantime you stole Bonnie Prince Charlie's dollars…"

"And how long would I've been cap'n if I hadn't?"

"Hmm," said Cowdray. "Of course, Allardyce is for McLonarch."

"Him and others! They worship the paper he wipes his arse on."

"What do you think?" said Cowdray.

Silver sighed heavily. "See here, Doctor, there could be pardons in this for all hands. McLonarch has offered one, but only if Prince Charlie comes home… while maybe we could get one out of King George for handing McLonarch over – if Allardyce would let us." Silver shook his head, and took another hefty pull from his tankard. "And there's civil war brewing if McLonarch gets home, and no way of knowing which side might win… or even if we should try to stop it, for the bloodshed it would mean for all England."

"I see," said Cowdray. "But why need there be a decision now? We could take both men to England, ask questions when we get there, and decide then what to do with them." He bowed his head in thought. "The great prize would be a pardon. That would be precious beyond riches." He looked up, the evidence weighed, a decision reached: "We should go to England! Then, at worst, if the matter proves too complex, we could set Norton and McLonarch ashore in two different places – thus keeping Allardyce happy and ourselves still holding the dollars."

"Bugger me blind!" said Silver, tipping back his hat and gazing at Cowdray in admiration. "Where have you been all these months, Doctor? You never speak at our councils and yet here you are, the sharpest man aboard!"

"I never thought the hands would listen to a sawbones," said Cowdray.

"Well, I'm damned," said Silver. "You almost persuaded me."

"Oh? Will you not go to England?"

"I don't know. The risk is so great. We might be found out. We might be taken…" He looked around King William Square. "This place might be up for bribes, but the Port of London won't be. And the seas'd be thick with navy."

"Well," said Cowdray, looking sideways at Silver, "England is where your wife has gone…"

Silver groaned and rubbed his face with his hands, for that was the heart of his troubles, not the choice between McLonarch and Norton. It was the unspoken pain that not even Cowdray had dared mention until now.

"Did you hear what she said to me?" said Silver. "Aboard the prize?"

"No. I was down below, reducing Mr Miller's fracture of the tibio-fibula."

"Oh. How's he doing?"

"Nicely, Captain. I am pleased to say that he will walk again on two legs!"

"Huh!" said Silver.

"Oh!" said Cowdray, mortified. "I do apologise. How thoughtless. I am so sorry."

Silver sighed again.

"I tried to stop her," he said. "Told her what I thought. Then she told me what she thought, which was 'no more gentleman o' fortune'… and so we fell to hammer and tongs again, and then that pretty-faced cow stepped up and took her part, and said she'd carry my girl off to England and make a great actress out of her. And she believed it, and so she went."

"What pretty-faced cow?"

"The actress. She's supposed to be famous in England."

"Who told you that?"

"Cap'n Fitch and the rest, aboard Venture's Fortune."

"What was her name?"

"Cooper. Mrs Katherine Cooper of Drury Lane. Said my Selena was so beautiful – which she is – that she must succeed upon the stage." He smiled sadly. "I hope she does."

Cowdray shot bolt upright in his chair.

"Captain," he said, "was this a small, very pretty woman in her fifties?"

"Aye. That'd be her."

"And her name was Katherine Cooper?"

"Aye."

"Katty Cooper?"

"I did hear that was her name… among friends."

"Friends?" said Cowdray. "Friends be damned! Katty's her professional name. She's no actress! She's Cat-House Cooper, the procuress! She ran the biggest brothel in the Caribbean, and made a speciality of importing fresh young black girls from the plantations. God help us… we've sent Selena to London to be made a whore!"

Chapter 10

An hour after dawn (there being no watches kept nor bells struck) 2nd April 1753 Aboard Oraclaesus The Atlantic

Billy Bones ran from end to end of the lower deck. He'd already checked the hold.

"Ahoy!" he roared. "Shake out and show a leg!" And he beat a drum roll on the ship's timbers with a belaying pin, brought down for the purpose. Finally he stopped to listen: there was silence except for the ship's own creaking and sighing, almost as if she knew what was coming. "With me!" he said, and ran up to the main deck with two men in his wake, and roared out the same challenge.

He bellowed and yelled from end to end of the ship, past the silent guns, staggering under the sickening motion of the rolling, hove-to vessel that clattered its blocks and rattled its rigging and complained and moaned.

"Ahoy there! Show out, you lubbers!" cried Billy Bones. But nobody answered. The ship was empty except for him and his two men. Finally they checked the quarterdeck, the fo'c'sle and the tops… all of which they already knew to be empty. But Billy Bones checked them anyway. Only then did he give the order, and one of his men opened the lantern kept secured on the quarterdeck and took a light from the candle within, and lit the three torches: long timber treenails with greasy rags bound about their tips. Taking the torches, Billy and his accomplices doubled to the three carefully prepared fire points in the hold.

In each place a pile of inflammables had been assembled: crumpled paper, leading to scraps of small timber, leading to casks of paint, and linseed oil ready broached, and finally to stacked heaps of canvas and small spars: a vile mixture aboard a wooden ship, and one which made Billy Bones's flesh crawl, for the time he'd done the same aboard Long John's ship, Lion, for which action he was deeply ashamed. Old Nick would surely claim him for that deed when the time came.

But this was different. They were burning a plague ship under Captain Flint's orders, to save poor mariners from certain death should any come upon her afloat and the miasma of the sickness still aboard – which, from the stink of her, it certainly was. Bones and his men had already set Jumper aflame for the same reason, and now it was the frigate's turn.

Billy's face glowed in the firelight as he waited a minute to see that the fire was really under way. Then, with the crackling flames eating hot upon his cheeks, he cried: "All hands to the boat!" And he leapt to his feet and got himself smartly up on deck. Not running, for that might unsettle the hands, but moving at a brisk pace to get away from the flames now roaring down below. And he was right not to run, for the two men were waiting on deck with round eyes and mouths open in superstitious dread of what they'd done.

Billy Bones took one last look – fore, aft, aloft – at the great and beauteous work of man that they were destroying: the soaring masts, the wide yards, the sweet-curving coppered hull and the mighty guns; the cables, anchors, boats and spars; the stores of beef, beer and biscuit, of oil, pitch and tar, of candles, tallow, rope and twine. God knows what she'd cost the king and the nation!

More than that, a ship was a community afloat, bearing the cooper's adze, the tailor's shears and the chaplain's bible, together with all the small and beloved goods of her people: their books, letters and locks of true-love's hair.

By Flint's orders, all possible goods and stores had been taken off, including the squadron's war chest of two thousand pounds in gold. All else had been left behind – including the personal wealth of her officers: their purses, pistols, jewels, watches and wines – for even when it came to such precious items as these, there was a limit to what could be crammed into a sloop one quarter the size of the big frigate. And in any case, so far as Billy Bones was concerned – now increasingly believing that he served the king once more – it was grave-robbing and an unclean deed to pillage the sea-chests of brother officers.

So all these wonders were put to the flames, including the contents of the ship's two magazines: which – even leaving aside the ready-made, flannel cartridges – contained two hundred ninety-pound, copper-bound kegs holding a total of eight tons of powder.

"Go on!" said Billy, and the two hands were over the side at the main chains and scrambling down into the boat that was bumping and rolling alongside. It was a launch, chosen for speed, and six nervous men were waiting at the oars. Billy Bones's two men made eight: enough to make the launch fly. He sighed, and followed at the dignified pace of the senior man. "Give way!" he cried at last, and the oarsmen threw their weight – heart, soul, mind and strength – upon the oars in their eagerness to escape the doomed ship and her brim- full magazines.

It was woven into Billy Bones's nature to tell any crew of oarsmen to put their backs into it; to spur them on, just as a matter of principle… but even he could see that it wasn't needed on this occasion. The hands were terrified and pulling like lunatics. For one thing, they could see what was happening astern. They could see the red flames pouring out of Leaper's hatches, and the smoke curling up from Oraclaesus. But Billy Bones thought it beneath his dignity to look back, and he steered for the distant Bounder where Flint awaited with the new crew, and the new future.

They were nearly alongside of her when the first explosion came, and the oarsmen lost stroke as they gaped at the ghastly sight. Now even Billy Bones couldn't resist looking, and he turned in time to see Oraclaesus break her back: stern and bow drooping, and midships blown clear out of the water by the enormous violence of an explosion that threw flame and smoke and fragments of smashed gear tumbling high into the air, including – hideous to see – the entire, massive, one- hundred-and-eighty-foot mainmast – topmast, t'gallant and all – hurled its own length and more, straight up, with the great yards snapping like cannon-fire and trailing a tangle of rigging and sailcloth… only to hang… and curve… and fall smashing and rumbling down into the blazing wreckage of the ship, throwing up sparks and flame and ash.

Billy Bones sobbed. He was a seaman born and bred, an embodiment of the sea life, and he couldn't bear to see a ship – especially so fine a ship – come to such an end. As for the oarsmen, they'd served aboard Oraclaesus and she'd been their home and their pride: they threw their faces into their hands and wept… and the launch lost way and rolled horribly, with her oars to all points of the compass.

Soon after, Jumper exploded, the flames for some unfathomable reason taking that bit longer to find her powder. But there were no more tears, only dull misery, for Billy Bones had his men pulling again, and running alongside Bounder, where he went up the side and was received by tars saluting. Having lifted his hat to the quarterdeck, he made his way aft to report.

Flint – who didn't share Mr Bones's views on grave-robbing – was immaculate in a cocked hat and the gold-laced uniform coat of a lieutenant, with a fine sword at his side. He was standing at the windward side of the quarterdeck with his officers clustered in his lee as tradition demanded. These were Lieutenant Comstock, a lad of twenty, lately in command of Leaper and now rated first lieutenant; the red-coated Lieutenant Lennox, who was even younger; and finally Mr Baxter, ship's carpenter, but rated a watch-keeping officer by Flint. There was also the equivocal Mr Braddock, who was no seaman at all. He'd been Captain Baggot's band-master aboard Oraclaesus, and being in the captain's personal service was excused fighting and flogging, and considered himself a gentleman.

Billy Bones looked at Braddock and sniffed. The lubber was full of himself and needed taking down. Then Billy glanced at the hands in the waist, and nodded in approval. Having combined the surviving crews of three ships, Flint now had a total of thirty-three men aboard Bounder, including twenty-five able seamen, one sergeant of marines, and two marine privates: a full and satisfactory number to work a two-hundred-ton, two-masted sloop and sail her anywhere in the wide world, especially as she was now provisioned to bursting point. Nonetheless, thirty-three was only a small complement should ever it be necessary to man her twelve six-pounders.

"I'm come aboard, Cap'n!" said Billy Bones formally, giving a smart salute.

"Well done, Mr Bones!" said Flint. "It is a sad task, that with which you were charged, but a needful one, and you have acquitted yourself well."

Billy Bones bathed in the warmth of his master's approval, and also in pride at his master's splendour and all that he had recently achieved. Flint had saved all aboard Oraclaesus, and made the hard decision to abandon the frigate and concentrate all hands aboard Bounder, and to fire the other ships. He'd persuaded the men to follow him, and had acted in so fine and officer-like a manner as to prove that he was indeed the matchless leader that Billy Bones knew him to be… enabling Billy Bones – despite hideous and recent experience – to hope that his beloved master had changed for the better and become – once again – the man who'd won his undying allegiance all those years ago.

The dog-like expression on Billy Bones's face was bad enough, but when Flint turned to his officers he nearly ruined his entire performance… for the two young lieutenants and the elderly carpenter stood to attention and touched their hats the instant his eye fell upon them. And as for the hands in the waist, standing with their hats in their hands, awaiting his orders: Flint didn't dare look at them.

What dupes they all were! What credulous morons! He'd won them round in a few days, with a bit of seamanship, an absolute denial of guilt, and a firm protestation that all the tales against him were spite and lies – which phrase he'd lifted bodily from Billy Bones without bothering to say thank you: not for that nor for the superb job Billy Bones had done in extracting innocent praise for Captain Flint out of Ben Gunn, thus commencing Flint's redemption.

So Flint fought hard not to give way, he really did, for here he was, in front of them all, posing as a loyal sea-service officer with two lieutenants calling him sir, and Billy Bones in raptures of joy, and the lower deck ready to eat out of his hand if he filled it with nuts. And so, and so… Flint frowned magnificently, and dug the nails of his right hand into the palm of his left, where they were clasped behind him, so that the pain should kill his sole and only admitted fault: the unfortunate reaction that his inferiors drew from him on moments like this: a desire to laugh hysterically in their faces.

But… hmmm, thought Flint, that fine gentleman Mr Braddock – that blower of horns, that performer upon the sackbut and dulcimer, and in all probability the Jew's harp as well – he had a frown upon his face. Flint recalled that Mr Braddock had been the most reluctant of all to set aside Captain Flint's past activities. Indeed, he'd been most decidedly insolent, and had made reference to a store of "wanted" posters – now thankfully incinerated aboard Oraclaesus – that the squadron had brought out to the Colonies to be pasted on every wall between New York and Savannah, denouncing former lieutenant Flint as a pirate and mutineer!

Yes, Flint nodded to himself, it would soon become necessary for Mr Braddock to suffer a tragic-and-ever-to-be- regretted accident such as – sadly – was all too common in the dangerous confines of a small ship upon the mighty ocean.

Meanwhile:

"Gentlemen!" said Flint.

"Aye-aye, sir!" they cried, and Flint suffered agonies in choking the mirth.

"Our course is to England, and Portsmouth!"

"Aye-aye, sir!"

"Mr Comstock!"

"Sir!"

"You are officer of the watch."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!"

That nearly did it. So nearly that Flint had to pretend to cough and to splutter before recovering himself. The fool had actually called him Captain.

"A-hem!" said Flint. "You have the watch, Mr Comstock, to be relieved by Mr Baxter and he by others according to the standing orders I have drawn up."

"Aye-aye, sir!"

Then Flint drew upon his memories of another captain whom even Flint recognised to be a true leader of men: a man who had once been his dear friend and whom – in the dark depths of his mind – he still admired. Flint asked himself how John Silver would have behaved at that moment, and the answer came back bright and clear.

"Now then, my boys!" he cried, stepping towards the lower-deck hands. "We've come through bad times. We've come through fire and pestilence and we've seen good comrades die…" He paused to let the dreadful memories drag them down, then judged his moment and lifted them up: "But now," he cried, "we've forged a new crew. We've a good ship beneath us, and home lies ahead! So here's to new times and new luck aboard the good ship Bounder. For the ship, lads: for her and all aboard of her: hip-hip- hip -"

"Huzzah!" they roared, three times over.

"And three cheers for Cap'n Flint!" cried Billy Bones. "Hip- hip-hip -"

And they cheered, for there was indeed a damn fine officer inside of Joe Flint, along with all the rest, and Flint realised that as long as he had mastery of Bounder he must behave – of sheer necessity – as the very paragon of a naval officer, with no torment and exotic punishments, such as had been his way before. No! These pleasures must be set aside, and such true leadership displayed as John Silver would have done in his place, for Flint's own precious life might depend on the account of himself given by Bounder's crew should ever, and if ever, his case come to court.

Later, with the ship plunging gallantly along, sails trimmed and lines coiled down, and all hands content, if not actually merry, Flint had a quiet word with Billy Bones, down in Bounder's tiny, box-like stern cabin.

"I am optimistic, Mr Bones," said Flint.

"Are you, Cap'n? But we're sailing for England and a court martial."

"As we must! The ship's people would accept no other action. It is a vital part of our protestation of innocence. Any other course would betray us as seeking merely to escape."

Billy Bones licked his lips in fear. "Shall we go before a court then, then? One as could hang us?"

"Not if I can avoid it, Mr Bones! Much can happen on a long voyage…" And here Flint's talents turned to poetry:

Storm and adventure, heat and cold, Schooners, islands and maroons, Buccaneers and buried gold!

Flint laughed: "Thus some men can be lost overboard, and the loyalties of others changed…" He turned and looked thoughtfully at Billy Bones. He looked him up and down, and this way and that… and smiled. "And we must get you a new coat! I have just the thing, saved from Oraclaesus."

"A new coat, Cap'n?" Billy Bones fingered the cuff of his old ragged coat. It was the same one he'd worn on the island. It never had fitted very well, and was now weather-stained and dirty.

"Indeed, Mr Bones," said Flint. "For it is in my mind to rate you as acting second lieutenant!"

Billy Bones gasped in the joy of this wonderful promotion.

"God bless you, Cap'n. But… can you do that?"

Flint smiled.

"Of course! Such promotions are common enough in emergencies."

"Aye," said Billy Bones, nodding wisely, for it was true.

"Of course," said Flint, "their lordships of the Admiralty, would need to confirm the promotion with a commission."

"Of course," said Billy Bones, squinting furiously and working his jaw as if chewing, the better to measure his chances with their lordships. Flint smiled again, for he saw that Billy Bones was now entirely converted into the ludicrous condition of mind that accepted the present voyage as being in the king's service and Flint as captain under the Articles of War. But Billy Bones should not be blamed for that, since there were only two men in the ship who thought differently…

"Lieutenant Bones," said Flint.

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!" said Billy Bones, sitting bolt upright.

"There are two problems aboard of this ship."

"Problems, Cap'n?"

"Yes. A small one and a large one."

"Cap'n?"

"There is Mr Braddock, who has no status, no evidence, and no likelihood of influencing a court martial."

"Oh…" said Billy Bones, brought horribly back to the present.

"Mr Braddock," said Flint, "is the small problem."

"Is he?"

"Oh yes, Mr Bones." Flint smiled. "But it is my feeling that, were he to… disappear -" Billy Bones gulped, for he knew what that meant, and who was likely to be responsible for the disappearance "- few tears would be shed." Flint waved a hand. "Braddock is a landman, with ideas above his station; he is not loved by the lower deck."

"Is he not, Cap'n?" said Billy Bones, in awe of his master's insight.

"He is not, Lieutenant Bones." "Oh."

"But now we turn to the real problem…" Flint sighed.

"What's that, Cap'n?"

"Mr Midshipman Povey. He is one of those who was not immune to the smallpox, and who caught it, and yet survived!" Flint shook his head. "What a remarkable young gentleman he is! Despite all his cramps and pains, he kept on his feet, commanding Bounder, and never gave in until I arrived to take up his burden." Flint smiled. "He is now confined to his cot, in his cabin, where he is still weak but recovering."

"Aye, Cap'n," mumbled Billy Bones in despair, for he knew what was coming.

"Unlike Mr Braddock, Mr Povey is in the sea service. His word is evidence. And, most important of all, he will have the backing of the powerful Hastings family, whose son – now so tragically dead – was his close comrade." Flint looked straight into Billy Bones's eyes. "All this, upon his full recovery, gives Mr Povey as much power aboard Bounder as it would in a court martial, and this is a small ship, filled with sentimental tars who will watch over their brave young gentleman while he lays a-bed." Flint smiled. "So we shall have to move very carefully."

Then he laughed and looked at Billy Bones, who, so amusingly and so late, was developing a set of moral principles. They were little green shoots, tender and sweet… and awaiting the grinding heel.

"So there is much to do, Lieutenant…" Flint paused. "Assuming, of course, that you wish to keep your new rank? And your neck… unstretched? And your share of eight hundred thousand pounds?"

Billy Bones thought this over and hung his head in shame, for he found that he wanted to keep all these things.

"Good!" said Flint. "Now pay attention to me…"

Chapter 11

One minute before two bells of the forenoon watch 2nd April 1753 Aboard Venture's Fortune on course for Polmouth The Atlantic

Dinner time aboard Venture's Fortune was an hour after noon, to allow Captain Fitch to take his observation, make his calculations and be ready at the head of the table to receive his passengers, which now included Miss Selena Henderson, the ship's darling, the delight and despair of every man aboard. It was her presence that demanded Fitch spend much more time in his cabin, before dinner, powdering his wig, washing his face, and peering into the mirror at his grimacing teeth to convince himself that they weren't too bad, and that he himself – while not the tallest of men – was a fine enough fellow for his age, and a master mariner besides.

Clang-Clang! said the ship's bell, and Fitch gave a tug at his wig, straightened his neck-cloth, took a final glance at the mirror, left his quarters and stepped the short distance to the great cabin. Aboard a big ship like Venture's Fortune, the cabin was spacious and elegant, and presently set for dinner with a service of fine china and real silver on the table, and a white cloth spread, and servants – foremast tars with white cotton gloves over their ever-black nails – standing by each chair, to hold everything secure against the ship's motion, which was now heavy, for they were getting the back end of a storm.

"Oof!" said Fitch, as the ship took a deep plunge. "And up she rises!" he said as the deck heaved up beneath him, and he grabbed one of the brass hand-rails that lined the cabin. They were intended for the succour of no-seaman supercargoes, but were damned useful even to himself on days like this.

"Gentlemen!" he said as Mr O'Riley and his son entered, looking green. They were father and son, the elder being a rich planter, a man in his fifties, who'd sold up and was on his way to England to become a country gentleman. They staggered and gripped the hand-rails, gazing fearfully at the big wet waves that rolled up and down on the other side of the windows that spanned the entire stern of the cabin.

"Urgh!" said the elder O'Riley as he caught the scent of food – fish soup – in the big tureen balanced in the hands of the cook's mate. Then "Urrrgb!" he said, and turned on his heel, and fought his way out of the cabin, past his son and past Mr Roslind, a middle-aged planter like himself and likewise on his way to the country life, but blessedly immune to the ship's motion. Roslind grinned as O'Riley went past, and nodded to Fitch.

"Captain!" he said.

"Captain!" said the younger O'Riley.

"Be seated, gentlemen," said Fitch. "We await the ladies."

So servants bowed, chairs scraped and the gentlemen – powdered and dressed in their best – waited and made conversation for the ten minutes that Mrs Cooper always allowed to be certain of arriving last. Or at least Fitch and Roslind spoke. Young Patrick O'Riley was devoting all his strength to not being nauseous, so that he should appear a man in the eyes of the glorious Miss Henderson. Soon after, Fitch's first mate joined them: a thin, mournful man named Gladstone with an old-fashioned pigtail and no powder on his hair. He was pure tarpaulin and didn't care who knew it.

Then female laugher was heard outside, and a servant was opening the hatchway.

"Ah!" said Fitch.

"Ah!" said Roslind.

"Ohhh…" said O'Riley.

Chairs scraped again as the gentlemen stood and Mrs Katherine Cooper entered with her protйgйe close astern. The gentlemen gaped at Miss Henderson, barely noticing the elder woman. But Katty Cooper smiled. She didn't mind that. Not at all.

Then the whole ship shuddered as she buried her bow and shipped it green over the fo'c'sle.

"Whoa!" cried Fitch.

"Huh!" cried Gladstone.

"Ohhh," said O'Riley.

"Oh dear!" cried Mrs Cooper and raised a dainty hand to her brow, for although her stomach was granite, she affected the mal de mer for femininity's sake.

"Poor Katty!" said Miss Henderson, and put an arm protectively round her patroness, for Miss Henderson moved easily aboard a ship underway. Indeed – as everyone had remarked – she was wonderfully expert in all matters appertaining to seafaring.

Then the company sat down, and they laughed, except for Mr O'Riley, and made a good dinner, except for Mr O'Riley. They laughed as the crockery slid up and down the heaving table. They laughed as the cook's mate spilled much of the fish soup, through mis-timing his lurch to set it down. They laughed as a bottle leapt off the table and bounced merrily across the deck, slopping wine, and they laughed as the cook's mate – attempting to retrieve it – skidded over and sat down in a pool of claret.

And all the while, every man in the cabin continued to gaze adoringly at Miss Henderson. By now, they'd profoundly forgotten their first reaction to her: which was that, however lovely she might be, she was undoubtedly black, and therefore ranked somewhere between the raggedy-arsed ship's boys and the livestock carried aboard for fresh meat. But that was before Mrs Katty Cooper had taken the girl in hand and dressed her in some of the many gowns she had in her numerous sea-chests, and before even Katty Cooper herself realised that Selena had no need of training in drawing-room etiquette, for she knew it already.

"Ahhhh!" Katty Cooper had said, when Selena revealed that she had been raised as a slave, but a slave who had been the childhood favourite of her master's daughter, living in the Big House, and receiving – side by side with the white girl – the same privileged education, which even included mastering fluent French. It was no surprise therefore that Selena held a table knife or a teacup with the same daintiness as her every movement, for even setting aside her training, the girl had the most magical, graceful elegance. And she was quite young… only seventeen…

Katty Cooper saw a great future for her. Oh yes indeed she did.

"So shall you make an actress of our Miss Henderson?" said Fitch, turning the conversation to the London theatre, which he loved and which he visited every time he was in port. To him it was a surreal world of wonders, with its miraculous stage machinery and its special effects that caused dragons to appear, water to cascade, and girls to dance upon pillars that rose up out of the stage.

Katty Cooper smiled and patted Selena's hand.

"What do you think, my dear?" she said.

Selena shrugged.

"Perhaps," she said.

"We could make an Ophelia of you, or a Portia?"

"Bah!" said Fitch. "None o' that Shakespeare claptrap, ma'am! That's for mincing macaronis. What Miss Henderson wants is a thundering melodrama. She must be the heroine chased by a villain with big hairy hands, trying to strangle her! That's what brings in the public!"

"Aye!" said the gentlemen, nodding furiously – even Mr O'Riley – for they were not men of exquisite taste, and they licked their lips at the thought of stranglers' hands, slender necks, and luscious flesh bouncing as it was chased across the stage.

"Buckets of blood and gore!" said Fitch. "Murder and pirates!" He laughed… then plunged into guilt as Miss Henderson looked away in tears. "Oh! Oh!" he said. "I do apologise, my dear miss. I should never… I'm so sorry. I do declare such matters must be beyond your experience… That is, no… I mean…"

"Captain, I do wish you would be a little more solicitous of a lady's feelings," said Mrs Cooper primly, and the rest of the meal passed in silence, for the gentlemen saw a long voyage ahead and wanted the pleasure of Miss Henderson's smile, and couldn't bear to upset her, while Miss Henderson herself didn't know what she wanted, or where she should go, or what she should do.

Chapter 12

Early morning, 7th April 1753 Dry Dock 1, Williamstown Harbour Upper Barbados

It would be pointless to describe Walrus as being in a bugger's muddle, since – in her present state – that was a condition to which she could only aspire.

Her foremast was out, much of her rigging was gone, her crew was ashore and her decks were spattered with pitch and wood chips, timber and tools, and stank of bilge water and tar, sawdust and beer, and steak-and-onions frying over charcoal braziers. Caulkers sat on their boxes battering merrily, while women hawkers yelled their wares of bread, fish and fruit. Bosuns' pipes shrieked as teams of men hove powder and shot aboard, small boys dashed everywhere on errands, and the crowded voices of a dozen trades bellowed and yelled and squabbled.

Long John stamped through this pandemonium with Israel Hands in tow, haggard exhaustion etched on his face. He'd not slept for two days, nor slept soundly since Dr Cowdray had told him where Selena was gone.

"Ah!" said Silver. "There he is!" And he shoved through the press, clambering over an empty gun-carriage, a spar, two pitch buckets and a caulker's mallet, to get at a grey-wigged gentleman in a long coat who was standing by the quarterdeck rail with a couple of shirt-sleeved, waistcoated minions in attendance.

"Mr Pollock!" cried Silver, coming alongside of this gentleman and forcing himself to touch his hat.

"Ah, Captain Silver!" said Pollock, touching his own hat. "I suppose it is the usual question?" He smirked and his followers sniggered.

Silver ground his teeth.

"It is, Mr Pollock," he said. "So, when might my ship be floated out?" Silver resented the careful politeness required to get these blood-sucking bastards of dockyard clerks to do their duty. Even normal, decent bribes weren't much good: not when there was an endless queue of ships waiting, and a huge sum already gone into Sir Wyndham's pocket just to get Walrus into the dockyard at all.

"When, sir? When?" Pollock pursed his lips. "Oooooo," he smiled, winking at his sycophants. "Why, sir, she will be floated out, sir… the instant she is ready, sir!" And he laughed, and his men laughed, and none of them knew how close they came to butchering bloody slaughter on the spot.

"John!" said Hands, seizing Silver's arm. "Come away! Leave 'em to it!"

Silver was white with anger, but he let himself be led off for he knew that one more spark of wit from Mr Pollock would see his hands around that gentleman's neck like a Spanish garrotte.

So Israel Hands and Silver went aft.

"See here, Cap'n," said Israel Hands, looking over the ship, "we ain't done so bad as all that. We could've been here months! She was heavily hit and she was thick with weed." He took in the busy activity on board. "She looks a mess, but I'd say the job's nearly done and she'll be afloat in a couple of days."

"D'you think so?"

"I do."

"But they may be in England now… her and that cow."

"John, there ain't nothing more we can do."

"Ain't there, by thunder? 'Cos by Jesus and Mary I'll find a way if there is one! Any damned way. I'll piss on God and kiss the Devil's arse, if that's what it takes to save that girl!"

Silver's face contorted as horrible images burst into his mind: images of men slobbering over the woman he loved, while she smiled and opened her legs and let them do it.

"Hellfire!" he said. "Bloody hellfire!"

"I know, John."

Fortunately Israel Hands was right. Walrus floated out of the dry dock two days later, and with some furious work by a sheer hulk's crew to re-step the foremast, and all hands to set up rigging, she was under way and outbound from Upper Barbados on the morning tide of 17th April, in all respects fit for sea, and a dozen extra hands aboard: each one carefully chosen.

In addition, the two reluctant navigating officers were gone, and in their place stood Mr Warrington, rated as first mate: a vital necessity in case Mr Norton might not be willing to take up duties again. Warrington was a stout, greying man, who came with his own charts, instruments and tables. But unlike the foremast hands, he'd not been carefully chosen.

"Dirty bugger, ain't he?" said Israel Hands to Long John, as Mr Warrington came up on deck for his noon observation, doffing his hat towards his captain. His coat was soiled, his fingernails were filthy and a broken feather drooped from his hat.

"Aye," said Silver, as Warrington went to the rail with his quadrant for a view of the sun. "But he's all we could get! There's a shortage of first mates in Upper Barbados… or at least there is for our trade!"

"He stinks, too," said Israel Hands. "Let's hope Mr Joe ain't made the wrong choice." Silver grinned and looked at

Mr Joe. He'd started out as gunner's mate under Israel Hands, who'd taught the lad his letters and his numbers, only to find that he liked them so much that he wanted to be a navigator and not a gunner! This left Israel Hands jealous but Silver delighted that so intelligent a member of his crew was showing interest in one skill that he himself could never master.

Now Mr Joe was standing beside Warrington, receiving instruction in the use of the quadrant – and an odd pair they made: the slim, serious young black with his handsome face and his eye-patch, and the sweating, greasy Warrington with his loud voice and his coarse, leering jokes.

Later, it grew worse. Warrington got roaring drunk at dinner time, and bellowed verses at the top of his voice until a bucket of water was thrown over him. Then he staggered on deck, still grinning and sniggering, and played the dirty- minded trick of creeping up behind another man and grabbing his arse with a middle finger upraised between the cheeks: not the wisest of tricks to play upon a gentleman o' fortune. Warrington got badly beaten, suffering broken ribs, a dislocated thumb, severe bruising about the face, and a split forehead for Dr Cowdray to sew up.

"How is he?" said Silver, peering in through the door of the first mate's cabin as Warrington was heaved into his cot by Cowdray and his mate, Jobo. Seeing the bandages and Warrington's closed eyes, Silver knew the answer before Cowdray spoke.

"Unfit for duty, Captain. He's half-conscious and he can't see."

"Bugger!" said Silver.

"Uhhh…" said Warrington, and stirred. "Now is the winter of our discontent…"

"What?" said Silver, as Warrington mumbled on.

"Made glorious summer by this son of York…"

"What's he blathering about?"

"And all the clouds that lowered on our house…"

"It's Shakespeare," said Cowdray. "Richard III."

"Then shut his bloody trap! Give him some rum."

"He's had quite enough of that!" said Cowdray.

"No! No!" growled Warrington, in his slurred voice. "Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

Silver cursed and damned and got himself up on deck, and sent for Norton, who was duly escorted up into the light, blinking and sniffing the fresh air. After a brief time on the quarterdeck, making sure Walrus found Upper Barbados, he'd spent the last few weeks below decks, as had McLonarch, and he was not best pleased. That displeasure was evident now, as he stood in the waist, facing Silver and his officers at the quarterdeck rail while the hands looked on.

"Now then, mister," said Silver, "how'd you like to be first mate again? Or shall you go back to the hold as live lumber?"

"Depends," said Norton truculently. "What's your course? What's your trade? And what else will I have to do?"

"You'll have to swim back to Williamstown if you ain't careful, my cocker!"

"Aye!" said the crew.

"Cap'n!" said Allardyce, glaring angrily at Norton, the principal enemy of his beloved McLonarch. "We got to hold council according to articles." He looked to the crew: "These good lads have sailed on trust, ain't you, lads?"

"Aye!" they cried.

"We've slung our hook, and we've come out on the tide… trusting Long John to take us on a cruise…" He paused. "But no bugger's said where we's going, nor why."

"Aye!" they said.

"We held no council ashore," said Allardyce. "But now's the time." Emboldened by the sight of the crew nodding agreement, he concluded: "So… Long John… I akses you to bring up the McLonarch, God save him! Bring him up that his voice might be heard alongside of this sod of a Bow Street Runner!"

"Aye!" cried Long John. "Let there be a full council! I'd have said it myself if nobody else had." Then he added: "And bring up Mister McLonarch an' all."

There was cheering and furious activity as men vanished below to put on their best clothes and collect their arms, and to bring up a chair and table, and to spread the table with the black flag, and to lay open the Book of Articles upon the flag, with pen and ink, and a sand-caster. Soon, only the lookouts and the helmsmen were at their duties, and all hands paraded in silks and plumes, jewellery and buckles, and bearing whatever combination of firelock, sword, knife and hatchet that each man desired in this ultimate, armed democracy where every man was every other's equal. Even Sammy Hayden, ship's boy, had a pair of sea-service pistols stuck in his belt, primed and loaded with ball.

Among the crowd, McLonarch stood out by his height and by the total confidence of his bearing. Norton was constantly glancing his way, wondering and calculating, while McLonarch looked at his enemy just once… and smiled… and looked away as if from some small matter of no importance.

McLonarch watched quietly as these barbarians went through their ceremony, seating Captain Silver at the single chair, raised up on a platform like a throne, and then all hats were doffed but his. McLonarch sneered in contempt… which turned to incredulity at the equality of the proceedings, such that each man was given the chance to speak and be listened to, or to be howled down in derision, if that's what the company desired. And some who were strange and ugly, like Blind Pew the sailmaker, were listened to with rapt attention for their skill as speakers.

The debate concerned the vital matter of where the ship should be heading and to what purpose. McLonarch was amazed that there were no secrets among these people. His offer of a pardon was common knowledge, and the ship's surgeon was asked by Silver to explain his plan – shared by Silver, for his own reasons – to sail to London and there decide what to do with himself and Norton. At this, Norton pushed forward, bellicose and muscular.

"The law must have him!" he cried, pointing at McLonarch. "He's bloody murder! He's anarchy and civil war!" He appealed to their patriotism: "You may be outlaws, but you're still Englishmen! Surely you care for your own land? Surely you don't want -"

But they howled him down. They hated him for what he was, and besides they weren't all Englishmen, and he had no gift of speech.

McLonarch saw that his time was come. He caught Tom Allardyce's eye and nodded. Allardyce nodded back, and began to yell and shout that McLonarch should be heard. Allardyce was consumed with passion for the cause that pulsed in his blood, and his fervent, near-religious conviction was the drum roll and fanfare for what was to come. Thus McLonarch stepped forward, tall and ascetic. Though he faced the mass of heavily armed men alone and unarmed, he remained serene in his dignity and charisma.

His eyes swept over them in such a way that every man present felt that he personally was being addressed. He raised his hands above his shoulders, and a silence fell that was so complete every creak of the ship could be heard, and every chuckle of water under her bow. He stood tall, he took a breath…

He hadn't spoken a word and already they were gaping.

His voice, when it came, was majestic.

It rang with beauty and resonance.

It was poetic and solemn.

It was magnificent.

If he'd read them a cockle boat's bill of lading they'd have been entranced. But he offered infinitely more than that. He spoke of riches in this life, and salvation in the next. He made them laugh, he made them cry, he led them dancing down the flowery path towards…

THE TRUTH OF THE HOLY STUART CAUSE.

Even the Protestants were welcome. Even they might be saved, if only they followed him. By the time he'd finished they were hoisting a noose to the yard-arm for Norton, screaming defiance in Long John's face… and threatening to hang him too.

Chapter 13

Three bells of the middle watch 6th April 1753 Aboard Bounder The Atlantic

In the dark, heaving night, Mr Braddock the musician – he who knew Flint for what he was – found it hard to see who was waiting for him on the fo'c'sle. Bounder was well named, for while she was extremely fast, no man would have called her comfortable. So Braddock hung on to the pinrails when he could, and staggered from one handhold to another when he couldn't, and tried not to notice the enormous gleaming waves that rose and sank on either side of the rushing ship.

"Ah!" he thought, seeing a wet, glistening figure crouched by the foremast. He glanced behind and around himself. There must be lookouts in the tops, and men at the helm, but he couldn't see any of them: only the sodden decks and whatever tackles and gear he'd got his hands on at any given moment.

"Wheeeeeep!" A soft whistle came from the dark figure. Braddock waved his arm. The figure waved back. He got closer… and closer… with the ship working under his feet, and himself trembling all the while, for he'd never become much of a seaman, and tonight he was afraid of perils worse than the sea.

"Mr Braddock!" said the figure.

"Welles?" said the musician.

"Aye, sir!"

Reassured, he got himself right next to Welles, who was one of the marines, a straight and decent fellow who detested Flint as much as Braddock did, and who had promised to share information that would bring the villain to justice: information to be imparted at this secret meeting. Braddock looked at Welles's face. The marine appeared nervous and kept glancing about, which was hardly surprising.

"Did anyone see you come forrard?" asked Welles.

"No," said Braddock, and the marine looked over his shoulder and groaned. Braddock had a sudden moment of fright. Why wouldn't Welles look him in the eye? What if… "Uuuuch!" said Braddock. "Uch! Uch! Uch!" And his eyes popped and his face darkened and his tongue stuck out, and he kicked and fought with the superhuman strength that nature gives to a man who is being strangled.

But it did him no good. The silent figure that had risen behind him had thrown a two-foot length of log-line over Braddock's head, hands crossed to form a loop of it, and a neat wooden toggle made fast to each end of the line. With the toggles gripped firmly in two strong hands, Braddock's efforts to free himself served only to throttle him all the quicker, the thin line crushing his larynx and trachea, and biting deep into flesh to nip the great pumping vessels that fed the brain.

"Ah!" said Flint softly, as Braddock suddenly went limp and hung heavily in the embrace of the cord. It looked as if a sorely troubled heart had given up the struggle and stopped beating. But Flint hung on, just to be sure, just to be safe and only let Braddock fall when his arms could take the strain no more.

Flint looked up. He saw Welles's face and almost laughed. Mr Welles had proved susceptible to an offer of gold, but now he'd seen actual murder, he was clearly regretting it.

"Quick!" said Flint. "Over the side with him!"

"Over the side?"

"Yes! Or perhaps we should take him home to his mother? What do you think?"

Welles groaned again, but set to, and with Flint's help heaved Braddock over the side. The dark body went in without a splash.

"Now, follow me," commanded Flint. "You must be paid!"

"Aye-aye, sir," said Welles, cheering up at the prospect, and the two men groped forward to the bowsprit that stood out over the white water as it gushed and foamed and threw up a constant heavy wetting. In the dim starlight, their slick-wet, tar- coated garments gleamed like sea-lions, and they hung on hard, for the ship's motion was especially severe right up at the bow.

"Come closer," said Flint. "I don't want to shout!"

"Aye-aye, sir."

"No – closer!"

Welles came right next to Flint so that their heads were almost touching. Then: "Back off a little," said Flint. "Give us room."

"Us, Cap'n?"

"Us!" said Flint as Billy Bones's cord flickered over Welles's head, and that straight and decent fellow began his choking. He sprayed spittle in all directions and – being a man with horny fingernails – he clawed blood all round the line that bit into his flesh as he shook with mighty convulsions. But like Mr Braddock he soon fell silent, and Billy Bones dropped him over the bow to be pounded, scraped and over-ridden by the speeding ship.

After their exertions, Flint and Bones crouched silent by the bowsprit for a while. Then Flint threw his strangling-line into the sea and motioned for Bones to do the same.

"Come!" said Flint, when he'd got his breath back, for even he didn't strangle a man entirely without disturbance to his inner peace. As for Billy Bones, he was drowning in a whirlpool of horror and guilt, and his hands shook like a drunkard's.

The two men groped their way back to the small quarterdeck, where the watch was on duty, having seen nothing and heard nothing, for the night was dark and the sea was loud. The watch saluted Flint, and he acknowledged them. Then Captain Flint and Lieutenant Bones straightened their backs – as British officers should – and went to stand beside the weather rail.

"Well, Lieutenant," said Flint, "that removes the lesser threat. And I have taken measures to ensure that the greater one stays nicely asleep."

"How's that, Cap'n?"

"I'm dosing Mr Povey with laudanum… to ease his pain." "Ah!"

"But I think we must now face the truth."

"Truth, Cap'n?"

"We are bound for England, Billy-boy; I can enter two men as 'lost over the side' in the ship's books, but not many more. We must keep up the pretence of being in the king's service, or we'll find ourselves back in irons again." He shook his head regretfully. "Alas, not all aboard are completely stupid!"

"So we're bound for England, Cap'n?"

"Bound for England – and God knows what we shall find there!" Two bells of the second dog watch 6th April 1753 Aboard Venture's Fortune The Atlantic

Given the blessing of easy seas and good weather, Miss Cooper and Miss Henderson stood wrapped in their cloaks on the quarterdeck in the soft evening. It was nearly dark, and the light gleamed from the binnacle into the faces of the men at the wheel, with more light shining up from the skylights of the cabins below. The ladies were talking about the usual subject, for Miss Cooper was endlessly persistent.

"Cannot you see how advantageous it would be, my dear?" she said.

"To become an actress?" said Miss Henderson.

"Yes! You were born for it, believe me."

"But I've never seen a play, or been to a theatre."

"Then trust me – I know every theatre in London and all the managers."

"But how can I remember all those words?"

"Bah! The audience will want to look at you, not listen! Half the actresses in London fake their lines." Katty laughed. "Well, the beauties do, anyway!"

Selena sighed. The truth was that she didn't know what she wanted, nor whether she'd done the right thing in leaving John Silver. She knew only that she thought about him every day, and every night. As for the theatre: the idea of standing up in front of thousands of people and pretending… acting… It sounded terrifying, and she shuddered and shook her head.

"Oh dear," said Katty Cooper, with trembling lower lip. "I do hope you shall not disappoint me. For I am quite alone in the world…"

Selena looked at her. Katty, utterly feminine as always, had adopted her pleading look: a tragic expression of innocence wounded. On those rare occasions when people refused to do her bidding, she invariably resorted not to anger but tears, and her helpless, pretty, tear-stained little face became an iron lever that she pulled without mercy, to crush the will of others and force them to her bidding. For Katty was a woman who saw her own point of view with such blinding clarity that she was unaware, even, that others had feelings.

"Hmm," thought Selena, for she was beginning to understand Katty Cooper. But… on the other hand… Katty had been extremely helpful in enabling Selena to be accepted aboard this ship. It was thanks to Katty that nobody now paid any mind to the fact that Selena had come aboard with no story to explain what she'd been doing among pirates. Katty had taken Selena's vague mumblings in response to questions about her past and enlarged upon them with remarkable skill, such that Selena now had a surname and a family – not her real family, who had been left behind on the Delacroix plantation – but a pretend family invented by Katty Cooper, and a sad tale of how she lost them when pirates stormed a merchant ship, slaying all aboard but herself. Even Captain Fitch had shed a tear when Katty told that one.

Selena sighed. What did she want? Even being an actress couldn't be as bad as some of the things that had happened to her aboard Flint's ship… and Long John's…

"Ah!" thought Katty Cooper, reading the signs. She turned off the mask of tragedy and took Selena's face in her hands.

"Listen to me, my beautiful creature," she said, looking Selena in the eye. "If you follow me I will promise you wealth beyond your dreams. You shall never want! You shall never be afraid! The world shall court you and adore you. You shall make towers of guineas and roll… you shall roll… in strings of diamonds."

Katty Cooper managed – just – not to say "roll naked in strings of diamonds", something which gentlemen never failed to appreciate.

"Shall I?" said Selena.

"Oh yes!"

Selena shrugged. In the absence of a better offer, that didn't seem too bad. And there were no better offers available. In fact, there were no other offers. Not one. So she smiled. Perhaps she might be an actress after all.

And Katty Cooper smiled, too, pleased that the theatre was such useful bait, and a subject of which she knew so much, since she had indeed been an actress herself… until superior opportunities presented. Her tales of the London stage would do to keep Selena happy for now, and in time she would learn as Katty Cooper had learned.

"So let us be happy, my dear," she said. "We are bound for England!"

Yes, thought Selena. Bound for England and the stage. And who knows where that might lead? Nightfall (there being no watches kept nor bells struck owing to the mutiny in progress) 12th April 1753 Aboard Walrus The Atlantic

So determined were the hands to hang Norton that, when Silver spoke up for him, Tom Allardyce – white-faced in rage – drew steel and rushed at Silver from behind and swung a blow aimed at splitting his head to the chin.

Which gave Norton his chance. As the two men holding his arms flinched at Allardyce's charge, Norton wrenched himself free, struck left and right with his elbows, smashed a fist into the nose of one who still hung on, then sprang forward to grapple Allardyce from the side in full run, throwing him skidding over, with Norton biting flesh to the bone of the wrist that held the cutlass, and punching with a hard right hand into the soft meat between Allardyce's thighs.

"Aaaaargh!" shrieked Allardyce, then "Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!" as Norton spat out his wrist, took his head by the ears, and slammed it three times into the deck, before leaping up, kicking away the cutlass, and slamming a boot repeatedly and with mighty force into Allardyce's kidneys until he was dragged off by his victim's mates.

"Bastard!" they screamed.

"Gut him!"

"Chop him!"

There was a rush for the quarterdeck companionways, but:

Bang! Bang! Silver let off a pair of pistols into the air, while Israel Hands, Mr Joe and Black Dog instantly lined up alongside him and drew weapons and levelled them at the mob.

"'Ware the buggers!" cried the crew, and two or three dozen firelocks were made ready and aimed. Anger was rampant: it scorched the decks, it addled their brains until mass, mutual slaughter was a second away.

"Hold hard there!" cried Long John, yelling above all others. "And blind the bastard with red-hot irons who fires on his own shipmates!"

"Arrrrrrrgh!" they growled, but they stopped.

"Captain!" cried McLonarch, stepping forward. "May I say…"

"NO, YOU MAY NOT!" roared Silver in uttermost rage. "By God and all his bleedin' angels you've had your whack, my son, and now it's my turn!" He appealed to the hands: "Ain't that fair, brothers?"

"Aye!" roared Israel Hands, Mr Joe and Black Dog.

"Aye," said others, but with bad grace.

"So!" cried Silver, pointing to Norton. "You're set to hang him, are you?"

"Aye!" they screamed and shook their fists in the air.

"Shiver my timbers," said Silver, "if that don't beat all for piss-brain-pleased-with-shit-head-stupid!"

"What?" they said.

"D'you not see?" he cried. "Norton's the only bugger aboard what's fit to plot a course! We're all fo'c'sle hands as can steer a course, but who's to set one? Who's to labour with quadrant and dividers?"

"Oh!" they said, even McLonarch, who'd not thought of that.

"Ah!" cried Silver, seeing the change. "Or maybe I'm wrong? Maybe you swabs is happy with miscalculations and endin' up lost in the ocean on a spoonful of water a day?"

They were not. The anger ran out and the guilt ran in.

"So," said Silver, "make safe them barkers! Stick 'em where they'll do the most good… and then listen to me!"

There followed a shame-faced clicking of guns being set to half-cock. Then all hands – and the McLonarch – looked up at Silver.

"Here's my word in the matter," he said. "It's Dr Cowdray's plan for me! So him there -" he pointed at Norton "- is rated first mate. And him there -" he pointed at McLonarch "- is rated ship's guest, and neither to bear arms nor strike the other, nor any man to take their part… until we reach England, and there a full council of brothers will decide what we shall do with 'em!"

There was silence. Silver looked at Israel Hands.

"All show for Brother Silver!" cried Israel Hands, and he, Mr Joe, Black Dog, Dr Cowdray, Blind Pew and others instantly voted for Silver. Then, slowly… first one hand went up… then another… and another… until a good majority showed.

"All against?" said Israel Hands.

No hand was raised.

And that was it. The ship returned to normal and arms were put away. Silver wiped the sweat from his brow, Israel Hands and Mr Joe clapped him on the back and smiled, and Cap'n Flint the parrot rubbed her head lovingly against his cheek. She was a great comfort at such times.

"You're the boy, John!" said Israel Hands admiringly. "Ain't none like you!"

"Aye!" said all who heard.

But later, Silver spoke privately both with Norton, whom he liked, and the McLonarch, whom he detested. He told each that he would take his part when they reached England. For Silver was desperate to save his lady and didn't know who he might need on his side, so he played both ends against the middle. And that wasn't the old John Silver. That wasn't him any more. That was something new.

In his cabin, alone with a bottle of rum and Cap'n Flint, he sighed and tickled the parrot's beautiful green plumes.

"We're bound for England, my girl," he said. "And God knows what we'll find there!"

Chapter 14

Dusk, 10th June 1753 Shooter's Hill In the ancient borough of Greenwich Southeast London

The Berlin was a magnificent example of the coach builder's art. It was light and strong, with big dished wheels, and the body hung on leather braces. It thundered onward at cracking speed, sending dust and clods flying in all directions, driven from the box by a liveried, plume-hatted coachman who thrashed mightily on the backs of the four horses, them being mere post-cattle, put on at the last change five miles back, and himself resolved to go up this famous hill in style and not like a fat-arsed yokel on a farm wagon.

"Go on! Go on!" he yelled.

Crack! Crack! Crack! went the whip and the wretched beasts leapt onward.

Under its layer of road dust, the coach body gleamed splendidly: the result of many dozen coats of olive green paint, and the arms of the Second Earl of Maidstone applied to its doors. But it swayed and rocked, since, for all its sophistication of design, it was rumbling over the rutted, potholed, cart-track that these modern times called "a highroad" and which a Roman engineer would have laughed at.

In the velvet comfort of the coach, with its luminous glass windows and rich upholstery, two gentlemen sat side by side, hanging on to hand-straps against the motion. They were Lieutenant Flint and Lieutenant Lennox, now dressed in fashionable civilian attire, complete with wigs. Flint beamed for the hundredth time upon young Lennox, who'd turned out to be most wonderfully well connected: his uncle being Admiral Sir Toby Lennox, in command of the Channel Fleet at Portsmouth, and his father Lord Anthony Lennox, Second Earl of Maidstone from whose great house the Berlin had started on its journey to London that morning.

Flint chuckled.

"What is it, Joseph?" said Lennox, smiling, for he idol- worshipped Flint and was delighted to see his hero happy.

"Nothing, dear fellow," said Flint and smiled back. He was reflecting on the happy accident that the house of Hastings which stood for Mr Midshipman Povey and against Joe Flint – was Whig, while the house of Lennox… was Tory. Thus they'd gobbled up every word of young Lennox's outburst of admiration for Flint on arrival aboard his uncle's flagship at Spithead: telling how Flint had fought the pestilence, put hope into the crew, excelled in leadership, shone in seamanship, overcome perils at sea, etc, etc, etc… and brought all hands safe home!

Likewise they'd swallowed Lennox's vehement protestation modestly supported by Flint – that Flint was not only innocent of all charges against him, but was a hero, a true-born Briton, and undoubtedly the victim of some foul and deep- laid plot!

Meanwhile, the representatives of Clan Hastings had carried away poor Mr Povey, still swimming deep between life and death, and unable to bring his vital evidence to bear on the case… which was not surprising, considering the amount of laudanum that had been poured down him over the preceding weeks. Indeed, it was his exasperating refusal to die under the treatment which had caused amazement in some quarters.

Since Clan Lennox's power was rooted in the navy, and it was the navy that had hold of Flint, great levers were pulled in the Admiralty such that Flint emerged a free man… pending Mr Povey's recovery, and a search for any others whose evidence Clan Lennox considered relevant. Meanwhile Flint was taken to Maidstone House in Kent to meet Lord Maidstone, and was entertained, and shown off to rural society, until – desperate in every way to escape – he suggested a journey to the culture and sophistication of London, which he claimed never to have seen.

Such was the Berlin's capacity for speed, and so frequent the changes of horses, a mere five hours on the road had brought them some fifty miles to Shooter's Hill, where Lennox insisted that Flint must not miss the inspirational first sight of London from this famous vantage point, and neither should the faithful Mr Billy Bones, for whom there was not room in the two-seater coach body, leaving him perched in the servants' seat behind, which at least had its own little hood in case the weather turned nasty.

"Whooooooa!" cried the coachman as they reached the top of the hill. He hauled on his reins, stopped the coach, set the brake, then clambered down, rigged the passengers' step, and threw open the door, doffing his hat and bowing low, with his whip held respectfully across his chest.

"Shooter's Hill, Mr Lennox!" he said, and backed away, still bowing, as the gentlemen got out, stretching their cramped limbs, and Mr Bones's heavy body swayed down from the rear seat, making the carriage rock and tremble and causing the horses to whinny.

"Thank God!" said Lennox, and grinned. "I have to… er…" And he darted off to some trees that stood dark and shadowy in the gloom.

Billy Bones took station beside Flint and they gazed at the view, which was indeed spectacular. They were on open ground, with a copse of thick woodland behind them, the new building of the Bull Inn to the west, near the summit of the hill, and a vast expanse of England stretched out on the plain before them, with the road winding ahead and down.

Northward, the flat, shining curves of the River Thames could be seen, from Woolwich in the east to the pool of London in the west and beyond, where lay the vast and glooming mass of the world's biggest city, with its twinkling lights, its forest of spires, its pealing bells and the smoke of hearth fires so numerous as to be beyond counting. It was a noble and splendid sight.

It was a sight that profoundly impressed Billy Bones, for London was so vast, so complex, and so different to anything in his life thus far, that it stirred tremendous emotions within him. He thought of Livvy Rose, for this was where he'd left her, and where she might still be living. Thus aroused, all the old passions burned as if new. And being full of love for Livvy Rose, there was – for the moment – no room in his heart for any other love. So Billy Bones glanced at Flint, then glanced again at London… and his mind trembled, and shivered, and grasped at the possibility of a life without Flint…

But then Billy Bones sniffed the air.

"Hoss-shite and chimbley-smoke!" he said.

"Your sense of smell is exquisite," said Flint. "Likewise, your gift for poetry."

They gazed a while at the view, each in his own thoughts.

"Cap'n," said Billy Bones, "what we doin' here? In London?"

"Trying to disappear, Mr Bones."

"What? In a city full o' people?"

"Oh, Billy," said Flint, "where better?" He pointed at the gleaming river. "It is also a great seaport, offering the chance of clean and entire escape."

"But we have escaped."

Flint sighed, despairing.

"Imagine, Billy, a man hanged off a great tower. He falls with a long rope round his neck. While he falls, he lives… and enjoys false hope. But when he reaches the end of the rope, he dies. Yes?"

"Yes, Cap'n."

"I am that man. And so are you." "Oh."

"Ah," said Lennox, coming back still buttoning the falls of his breeches, "that's better! Fine view, is it not?"

Later, when the horses had rested and the moon was shining and night fallen, they were just about to get into the carriage again when the thudding of hoofbeats sounded and four horsemen emerged from the wood behind them, faces masked and black.

"Oh, buggery and 'ellfire!" said the coachman. "Get aboard, gents!"

"Damnation!" said Lennox. "Highwaymen!"

"Pistols, Billy!" said Flint, leaping for the coach.

But it was too late, the horsemen came in at a thundering gallop, two getting between their victims and the coach with ready firelocks, and two swinging round into the lead horses of the coach, which whinnied in fright only to drop in their tracks as -

Bang! Bang! gunshots sounded, bright flashes seared the shining horseflesh, and the two leaders were dead in their harness, the remaining pair shrieking and kicking and the coach going nowhere.

"Stand and deliver!" roared one of the horsemen, and his horse reared in the night as his three mates got themselves around Flint, Billy Bones, Lennox and the coachman, as smoothly and efficiently as drilled dragoons. Between them they had several brace of pistols, a double coaching carbine, and a blunderbuss.

"On your knees, you sods! Get down, or I'll have the eyes and bollocks off you!"

"Down!" said Flint, and dropped, and Billy Bones followed him.

"Down, I said!" And another pistol boomed. Lennox and the coachman promptly knelt. "That's better! Now, behave your bleedin' selves and I'll leave you alive, but one cough and you're croaked! For I'm Captain Lightning, knight of the road, and I'll have your watches, your rings, your gelt, and anything else that might stop me pulling a trigger!"

A throaty snort came from Flint, whose shoulders shook and shook, and he bent his head forward that his face might not be seen. Then he took hold. He looked up and lifted his arms in supplication.

"Oh, sir," he begged, "take pity on a poor man afflicted with the stone such that he can barely breathe, and who suffers more than can be borne, being crouched as I am!"

Lennox and Billy Bones gaped in astonishment at this cowardly snivelling, for they knew Flint. The coachman was merely surprised.

"Fuck you! Fuck your fucking stone!" said Captain Lightning. "Stay on your fucking knees!" But Flint risked all and got unsteadily to his feet.

"Oh, sir! Oh, sir!" said Flint, staggering towards the highwayman, pulling coins from his pockets and holding them out. "Take! Take all! But do not condemn me to my knees and the tortures of the damned, I beg you." The moonlight showed the tears that streamed down his face and on to his trembling lips.

"Nyaaaah!" said Captain Lightning in contempt as Flint fell against him, clutching his knee, weeping and moaning, and wouldn't be shaken off. Clutching the reins in his left hand, Lightning swung his carbine with the right, and clouted Flint with the butt. But Flint just moaned and hung on, whining and slobbering. "Solly!" cried Lightning. "Come here and get rid o' this cove. I ain't got a free hand. Stick him if you have to, but get him off!"

One of his men holstered his pistol, drew a long knife and rode forward. He got between Flint and the rest so they couldn't see… and then there was a scuffle and a jump, and a yell from Captain Lightning, and both horses were rearing and plunging and three men were struggling on the ground under the hooves… then the horses bolted, and Flint leapt up with a carbine – which was a double – and fired twice.

"Uh!" said one of the surviving horsemen, and fell from the saddle, with an ounce ball gone in at his right eye and out through the back of his head.

His companion did better, for Flint's shot whistled past his ear and he managed to let rip with his blunderbuss, drilling many holes in empty air, before going over the head of his horse, which was bucking and kicking in a frenzy. He landed heavily, face down, with Flint darting forward to sit squarely on his shoulders, where he settled himself, leaned forward, took his man by the chin, pulled upwards to expose the dirty grey throat, and slit it nice and deep with the dagger-point, razor-edge knife that lived in his left sleeve, and which had already seen off Captain Lightning and his friend Solly.

Later that night the Berlin pulled up, behind two horses at the home of Sir Frederick Lennox.

"God-damn-me, God-damn-me!" he cried, as servants dashed to and fro, and passers-by looked on, and luggage was whisked from the Berlin's trunk and into the house. "All four of 'em? And Captain Lightning too?"

"Yes! Yes!" cried little brother. "By himself alone!"

Thus Flint's reputation in London was assured. Flint smiled, Billy Bones put aside all earlier thoughts of desertion and swelled with pride, and Sir Frederick slapped his thigh and damned himself deeper as he shook Flint's hand. A red-faced man in his forties, running to fat and dressed in the extreme height of fashion, with magnificently embroidered clothes, a coat with elaborate skirts and multiple pleating. Sir Frederick was by far the elder brother, the son of a previous marriage and heir to the family fortune. He took to Flint something wonderful.

"D'you know what the reward is for Captain Lightning?" he said.

"Reward?" said Flint.

"Yes, from the Meteoric Diligence Company – five hundred in gold!"

"So much?"

"Aye, m'boy. And all yours!"

Hmm, thought Flint, for there would be a need for ready money.

"I'll take you round the town tomorrow," said Sir Frederick, "bold dog that you are! By God, the ladies'll love you!"

Slapping Flint on the back, he led them all into the brilliant, candle-lit interior of a house stuffed to the ceilings with objets d'art, and paintings, porcelain and gilt.

"This way!" he cried. "To the library!"

It was a long night and vast quantities of port were consumed as Sir Frederick explained that his house – which was on the corner of Russell Street and the Covent Garden Piazza – though not in the most fashionable part of London, was well placed to take in all the life of the city, with its theatres, print-shops, taverns and restaurants…

"And the finest whores in town!" he cried.

It was late in the small hours by this time; many confidences had been shared, and Frederick's secret store of erotic prints had been brought out to be ogled… at least by Sir Frederick, for little brother and Billy Bones were merely embarrassed, while Flint had special needs in this matter, though he smiled and pretended enthusiasm.

"Look, sir!" cried Sir Frederick, and staggered up under a load of drink to wave from a window. Even at that hour two well-dressed ladies in the piazza below waved back at him.

"Look! Look!" he cried. "A fine pair: all plump and bouncy!" Then he laughed and laughed, and sat down again and reached for the decanter. "I've got a bloody wife somewhere in the country, but she don't trouble me here." He winked at Flint. "So if you're in need of a good, hard poke – which you must be, being a sailor…" He laughed some more, spluttering port. "… then I'll take you to the best house in London, where it ain't cheap, mind, but you can take your pick: fourteen to forty, black, white or piebald, and never a fear o' the clap!"

"Black?" said Flint quietly.

"Oh yes!" said Sir Frederick, and a thought struck him: "Better still… tell you what I'll do… Tomorrow… I'll take you to meet Flash Jack the Fly Cove and he'll fit you out with anything you please: any colour, any shape, front or back entry, all fresh and juicy!"

"And who might this gentleman be?" said Flint.

"'Gentleman' be damned: he's the biggest rogue un-hung! Pays off the law, may'n't be touched, and can get any man, any thing he pleases."

"Anything?" said Flint.

"Anything from an elephant to a line-o'-battle ship! And tarts, of course."

"A ship?" said Flint, and looked at Billy Bones, who was half asleep, but stirred under his master's gaze.

"Oh, by God yes!" said Sir Frederick, waving his hand dismissively, and taking another deep glass. "Get you one o' them with no trouble."

"Then I should like to meet this gentleman," said Flint. "Tomorrow."

Chapter 15

10th June 1753 Abbey's Amphitheatre King Street, Polmouth

A pair of white horses charged at dizzy speed around the sandy-floored circular enclosure, with a dancing girl leaping from one to another, turning cartwheels in the air, while a bizarre clown in red-and-white stripes and conical white cap chased after them on an ostrich, blowing a trumpet to the accompaniment of a full, costumed chorus singing on the stage behind. All this against a dazzling backdrop of brilliantly painted scenery panels which shifted in a rainbow of colour, while a band of two dozen musicians blared furiously in the orchestra pit between.

Selena stared in wonderment. She'd never seen any kind of theatrical performance, let alone a spectacle like this. It assaulted the senses in colour, music, voices and skills. She clapped her hands and cheered, as did Katty Cooper, for it had been a long time since even she had seen the like.

But theirs was the only applause. They were the entire audience on this Sunday rehearsal, for no plays nor entertainments might be performed on the Lord's day.

And then the scene was over, and the performers – even the horses and the ostrich – were bowing to an empty house, and the clown clapping his hands, and giving all present his review of their performance, praising some, cursing others, before sending them off to their dressing rooms and stables.

Soon, nothing was left but the hoofmarks and footsteps in the sand, and a strong smell of horseflesh and greasepaint.

"Mrs Cooper!" said the clown, stepping forward to where his audience of two were seated. "My dear, my very dear!" And he waddled forward, less than five feet tall in his blouse and pantaloons, and his white stockings and his flat-white makeup with red lips and painted black eyebrows.

He bowed and took Katty Cooper's hand, then, with astonishing grace for so grotesque a creature, he knelt to plant a gentle kiss in the centre of her pink palm.

"Oh, my dear Mr Abbey!" she said, and for once a genuine smile shone from her pretty little face, for even Katty Cooper had been a girl once, and had memories of innocence. He bowed again, this time towards Selena.

"And is this the sable nymph? La belle fille noire?"

"May I present Miss Henderson, my protegee," said Katty.

"Ah!" said Abbey. "Let us say Mrs Henderson, for this is not London."

Abbey stepped back, and gave yet another bow, this time of such extravagant and comical elaboration that it was a work of art, and Selena couldn't help but laugh. The clown clapped his hands and smiled.

"And may I present… the amphitheatre, of which I am owner and manager!" he said. "Empty today, but all the better for you to see it. Come forward! See!"

Selena stared. It was wonderful. The sandy circle in which they were standing was enclosed by a bright-painted barrier some four feet high. To one side was a pit for musicians, then a great proscenium arch and stage, and on the other side were three tiers of seats running in a semi-circle, with many more seats packed in at ground level around the circle.

"A full house holds nearly seven hundred persons," said Abbey. "It is admirably adapted for spectacles – especially equestrian – and the scenery, machinery and decorations are executed by the finest artists in the country." He pointed upwards: "Illuminated by one of the biggest glass chandeliers in England, supporting over two hundred fine wax candles!"

"One of the finest auditoriums… in the provinces," said Katty Cooper.

Abbey winced.

"You seek to wound!" he cried, raising his arms in self- protection. "We are mere peasants to the daughter of Drury Lane!" They both laughed.

"So!" said Abbey to Katty Cooper, and looked at Selena. "What can she do?"

Katty Cooper had been thinking about that all the way to England, and now they were safe arrived in Polmouth, and lodged in its best hotel, and favours had been asked of her old friend…

"Let us first see her in costume!" Katty smiled. "As requested in my letter."

"As in your letter!" said Abbey. "Will you follow me, ladies?"

He took them to a private dressing room, laid out a costume, bowed and left them to it.

Ten minutes later, Katty Cooper led Selena back, taking her to the middle of the stage and propelling her forward for Abbey to see.

"Ah!" said Abbey. One syllable, short and sharp, for the "costume" could have been stored in a thimble, being engineered from one silk handkerchief and a handful of glittering stars. "Thank you, Mrs Henderson," said Abbey. "Would you be so kind as to excuse Mrs Cooper and me while we hold a brief, professional discussion?"

They left the stage, walked to the far side of the circular enclosure and stood, looking back at Selena, left standing in mid-stage with her arms folded, tapping one foot and staring suspiciously towards them. Abbey smiled and waved. Katty smiled and waved.

"Where did you find her?" whispered Abbey. "She is quite, quite, spectacularly beautiful. I have never seen the like. She is very lovely indeed, and I am lost for words!" He looked at Katty Cooper. "Is she in your trade, dear heart?"

"Not yet. She's got to be shown off."

"On the stage?"

"Yes. Enough public performances to make her name…"

"Followed by some select private performances?"

"Then we'll be open to offers," said Katty.

Abbey sighed. "And I suppose these performances must be in London?"

"Of course!"

"And the provinces are but stepping stones?"

"Yes. An unknown girl doesn't walk straight into Drury Lane."

"Huh!" said Abbey. "So, I ask again, what can she do?"

"No," said Katty, stooping to kiss his white cheek. "You tell me…"

Back on the stage, Abbey produced a small violin, which he played with tremendous skill. The sound was so merry that it was a wonder the seats didn't get up to dance.

"Follow me, Mrs Henderson," said Abbey. "Do as I do." And he danced around the stage with Selena following and attempting to mimic his moves, which started simple and grew complex, till she strained and ached. At last Abbey put down the fiddle and clapped time, rather than playing, and danced step after step after step.

"And this! And this! And this!" he cried, and seemed never to tire.

Then he gave her a brief rest and a glass of water before taking up the violin again, this time for a simple country song.

"Follow the tune, my dear," he said. "La-la-la if you don't know the words."

Which progressed to more difficult works and finally to Selena singing a song of her own choosing. And then:

"I shall speak some lines from a play. I want you to repeat them to me, as clearly as you can, and with as much passion as you can…"

An hour later, Selena was sent back to the dressing room, where a jug, bowl and towels had been set out for her to wash the sweat off herself before she put on her own clothes again.

"Well?" said Katty Cooper.

"She'll never make an actress. She sings passing well. She dances with moderate grace… and every man in England will fall in love with her! She enchants the eye, she ravishes the senses."

"So?"

"She'll do! Songs and dances can be arranged to suit her limitations, and she should appear in melodramas and spectacles… wearing as few clothes as decency will allow!"

"Good," said Katty. "Then you'll book her?"

"Of course." He shrugged. "And I suppose you'll tour the provinces?"

"Getting letters of recommendation from such as yourself."

"And will descend upon London in triumph…"

"Yes," said Katty. "It will take some months, but I'll do it."

Abbey looked miserable. "And you'll show her off on stage," he said, "then sell her to the highest bidder?"

Katty Cooper smiled with exquisite prettiness, and sighed in peaceful contentment. She nodded.

"Oh yes," she said, "as many times as I may."

Chapter 16

Three bells of the afternoon watch 11th June 1753 Aboard Walrus The Thames, England

Captain Warrington stood proud at the helm as Walrus came up the two-mile stretch of water from Rotherhithe towards London Bridge, where the slow, brown river – swept by two tides a day – ran to mud-flats on either hand with ancient embankments shored up by massive timber piles that had been driven home when Queen Bess was a girl. To Walrus's people, the docks and the city they served seemed enormous beyond belief; veteran seamen though they were, they'd spent their lives out of England, and had never seen the like of London town. So all hands lined the rail and gaped as they passed row upon row of quays, wharves, warehouses and cranes, and ships whose number was beyond counting, and whose masts and spars arose like virgin forest.

Thus all aboard were merry except McLonarch and Norton, who were down below in irons: Norton bitterly resentful at his fall from first mate's rank, while McLonarch pretended calm understanding. And all the while, "Captain" Warrington strutted the quarterdeck, and the crew jumped to his orders and raised their hats… for Warrington had redeemed himself halfway across the Atlantic.

He did it during a heavy blow, when Norton was standing alongside Long John in the cramped master's cabin under Walrus's quarterdeck, testing Mr Joe's growing competence at navigation.

Norton had just nudged Silver and nodded at the back of Mr Joe's curly-haired head, as the lad leaned over the table, stepping his dividers across the chart and making neat pencil notes on a piece of paper, calculating his latitude and the previous day's run.

"See?" whispered Norton. "I told you!" Silver shook his head in wonderment. "He's natural born for it," breathed Norton. "Coming on at the gallop."

"Buggered if I could do it!" said Silver, and Mr Joe never even heard, so intense was his concentration.

"A-hem," said another voice, from the hatchway. Silver and Norton turned. It was Warrington, up from his sickbed at last, and washed into some semblance of cleanliness – even his fingernails were dark grey rather than black – though he bore a livid scar across his brow as a souvenir of the fracas that had landed him in trouble.

"Shhh!" said Norton, frowning and pointing at Mr Joe.

"Oh!" said Warrington, then mouthing the word "Captain?" he stabbed a grubby finger hopefully upwards a couple of times, towards the quarterdeck.

"Pah!" said Silver. He patted Norton on the shoulder and clumped out as quietly as he could. Since there was too much wet and wind above for talking, he led the way back to the stern cabin. "Well?" said Silver, getting himself into a chair and pointing at one for Warrington, who licked his lips, blushed a bit, and sat facing Silver.

"Captain," he said, "I have made a complete arse of myself."

"Aye," said Silver, "nicely put, Mr Mate, for indeed you have."

"Yes," said Warrington, "and I wish to apologise."

Silver shrugged. Warrington had the look of a man who would be apologising as long as he lived.

"Please yourself!" said Silver. "I got two men now as can do your work."

"Aye," said Warrington, and sniffed, "but I have something to say."

"Do you now?"

"Yes. That fellow who nursed me when I was… a-hem… ill."

"Jobo? Dr Cowdray's loblolly boy?"

"Yes. He said we are bound for London and told me of your plans."

"Did he!"

"He did, Captain." Warrington shook his head severely. "And it won't do!"

Silver frowned mightily and Warrington wriggled under his gaze and nervously picked his nose, and wiped his finger on a cuff that was already shiny with the fruits of previous pickings.

"And why not?" said Silver.

Warrington took a breath. "In the first place, sir, you must assume that Venture's Fortune has preceded us to England and spread word of a pirate ship led by yourself…" He paused and pointed at Cap'n Flint, perched on Silver's shoulder. "And you, sir, are a man easy to describe and to recognise!"

"Maybe," said Silver. "What if I am?"

"Then you must establish a new identity, sir, for yourself and this ship. A history, a purpose – and all of it backed with papers. You cannot sail into the greatest port in the world like bollocky-Bill the pirate and expect to be received with open arms."

"No?"

"No, sir you cannot! There must be letters, receipts, and a contract from your owner establishing your authority."

"What bloody owner?"

"There, sir! D'you not see?"

"See what?"

"See that you will have to deal with officials and persons of all kinds: Customs, Trinity House, port authorities, tradesmen, guildsmen, perhaps even officers of the law. You cannot behave as you might in Upper Barbados or Savannah."

"Can I not?" said Silver, already realising that he couldn't. He frowned and looked Warrington in the eye. "And who are you, then, what knows so much about bloody London?"

"I was born there, sir! Born and raised, and… a-hem… after other endeavours, I eventually went to sea out of the Port of London, where I am… to a degree… known and trusted."

"To a degree?" Silver laughed.

"Bah!" said Warrington. "I am no saint, sir, and I acknowledge the bottle as my invincible foe. But I know which palms to grease in London's port, and how much grease to apply… and I'll bet my soul that you don't!"

Silver fell silent. He was listening to wise counsel, and he knew it. He reached for the parrot and tickled its warm feathers. She squawked.

"Bet my soul!" she said.

Silver sighed. He took a breath and let out a great shout.

"Sammy Hayden!" he roared. "Pass the word for Sammy Hayden!"

Soon, Sammy Hayden, ship's boy, came running into the cabin, touching his brow and stamping his foot in salute.

"Sammy-my-lad," said Silver, "my compliments to Mr Hands, Mr Joe, Dr Cowdray and Black Dog, and beg them to repair aft to this cabin at their earliest convenience! At the double, now… Oh, and Blind Pew besides, for he's got a head on his shoulders."

The meeting that followed had shaped a new life for Walrus and all aboard, including John Silver.

"A cook!" he cried, aghast. "A sodding COOK?"

The rest howled with laughter.

"Aye!" said Blind Pew, whose idea this was. As he explained in his Welsh lilt: "It's na-tural in the king's service, see? The cook is always such as has lost a pre-cious limb."

"We ain't in the king's bleedin' service!"

"But it'll look right, see? For you can't be cap'n when others is aboard: pilots, revenue and such. And you'll only need to pre-tend to be a cook."

"Good! 'Cos I soddin'-well ain't soddin' cooking!"

"Not you, Cap'n!" they said. "Not 'less we needs poisoning!" And they laughed.

"But you'll be our Cap'n, as ever," said Pew, "when none's aboard than us."

Warrington proved even more useful when it came to documents. He had a fine literary style, was a fluent draughtsman, and made best possible shift with such papers as were in the ship: the original bill of sale for Walrus from her builders in Sag Harbour, the Colony of New York, joined Sir Wyndham Godfrey's letter of introduction and his Protection for Venture's Fortune – now duly altered to show Walrus's name, for Warrington was an accomplished forger. Drawing upon his imagination and knowledge of London, he made sure that all papers as might prove necessary were at their disposal.

Finally, seeing how fluently he conducted these arcane matters, it was decided by council of all hands that he should be captain for all purposes of negotiation with shore authorities. The meeting ended with Warrington chaired shoulder- high and blind drunk round the ship to celebrate his captaincy.

Thus Walrus sailed into the Pool of London, which enormous port only Warrington knew well – him and the Trinity House man piloting them up-river, and Captain Warrington stood tall in the clean coat, decent linen and proper hat he'd been given, and declaimed in a booming voice, pointing out the sights while the pilot conned the ship.

The hands sniggered at this, and Israel Hands, Dr Cowdray and Mr Joe smiled. But they all listened, because what he said was interesting. He spoke about trade and money and riches.

"Greatest port in all the world," he said, sweeping an arm towards the packed warehouses, "receiving some thirteen thousand ships per year, carrying a trade worth over one hundred million pounds. The revenue on the West India ships alone runs to over a million pounds, and that of the East India Fleet is…" . Long John alone was not listening. He was looking upriver, past the barrier of London Bridge through which no ship could pass for its line of close-packed piers, and the taverns, shops and businesses above: a village in itself. Beyond lay the smoke and spires of the metropolis, where lived – according to Warrington – over three-quarters of a million people, and growing day by day. He sighed in despair. Choosing between Norton and McBollock would be nothing compared with finding Selena in this monster! Where would he start? How would he start? Which question was all the worse for the ghastly answer that in all probability he should look for his beloved darling… in the brothels.

So that night, with the pilot gone, and the ship moored in mid-river, Long John took Warrington aside to test his knowledge of London, especially its tart shops. They stood by the taffrail, aft, the ship and the river silent, the night dark and only an anchor watch on deck.

"Oh," said Warrington, when clumsily, awkwardly and with great reluctance, Silver explained the nature of his quest. Despite his own failings, Warrington had suffered a rush of blood to the brain on being allowed to pose as captain, and was about to be censorious in the matter of whoring, when – "Listen!" he said, seizing Silver's arm. There was a soft rumble from the bow, then the sound of a muffled blow, and a man falling. Standing where they were, in the dark, the mainmast and foremast hid Silver and Warrington from the bow… and it from them.

"Shh!" said Silver, moving quietly to the mainmast with Warrington in his wake. Peering round it, he could make out the anchor watch – two men, one of them Tom Allardyce, captain of the watch – lying unconscious on the deck, while six dark figures moved about running bars into the head of the capstan and muffling the pauls of its ratchet with rags. More men were appearing over the side from the fore chains, and – all in deathly silence – they began to lean on the bars and to bring the cable in.

"The sods!" said Silver. "What the buggery-an'-damnation are they doing?"

"They're mudlarks, Captain," said Warrington, softly.

"What the bastard Hell are they?"

"River pirates – and they're stealing your cable and anchor."

"What? With all hands aboard, in the bloody Thames, in bloody England?"

"Oh yes! They bribe the authorities and -"

"Shh!" said Silver. He beckoned Warrington and the pair slipped below to rouse all hands, silently and stealthily.

The men rolling out of their hammocks grinned and shook their heads at the thought of what was going on above.

"Cheeky bastards!" said Israel Hands.

"Aye!" said the rest, but in a whisper.

Above, on Walrus's quiet maindeck, an exceptionally skilful team of men continued about their work under a thin moon, a few stars, with masts and furled sails above, and the deck gently rolling beneath their feet. Walrus was moored to two anchors by two cables, one of which had been slipped that the other might be hauled in and brought aboard… except that it wasn't coming aboard, but being passed over the side from the capstan and into a big boat made fast alongside the ship.

All was well. All was peaceful. All was the contentment of a good job being well done… when:

"AAAAAARGH!" roared the men who poured out through the aft hatchways.

"AAAAAARGH!" roared the men who poured out forrard.

And there followed five or six lively minutes of another good job being well done, as half Walrus's crew leapt on the busy gang at the capstan, and the other half leapt into the boat receiving the cable, and both lots set about delivering the most comprehensive battering the mudlarks would ever receive.

By Silver's command, it was all done with pistol-butts. But it was thoroughly done and lovingly done by men enjoying the finest sport they'd had since leaving the Caribbean.

Afterwards, those of the intruders who could stand were lined up in the waist, with Walrus's men grinning and laughing all around them, for it was indeed comical. There were ten of them, well caught and well battered.

"Who are you then, you swabs?" said Silver, stamping up and down the line.

The mudlarks stayed silent: snivelling, spitting teeth and dripping blood.

"Right!" said Silver, and grabbed one by the collar and dragged him to the side, yelling to his crew over one shoulder, "Fetch me a rope, and a dozen of roundshot in a sack!"

"Wassat for?" cried the mudlark.

"For you, my cocker. You're going for a swim!"

"You can't do that. We're King Jimmy's men! He'll have you, you -"

Smack! Silver let fly with a heavy fist.

"Ow!"

"Shut up! And who's King Jimmy?"

"King o' the fuckin' river, that's who, and he'll be asking after us, you wait!"

"A-hem, Captain…?" Warrington stepped forward.

"What?"

"These people have a certain influence…"

"See?" said the mudlark.

"Shut up!" Silver cuffed him backhanded and looked at Warrington. "Well?"

'"King of the river' is a sort of honorific for the biggest rogue among these people." He gestured at the men huddled on the shadowy maindeck.

"Is it now?" said Silver.

"They make so much money as to be able to bribe any officers of police as are sent after them, thus the forces of law pay no heed to their depredations in the night. Not even to the clash of arms! Not even to gunfire!"

"See? 'S'what I told yer!" said the mudlark.

"Aye!" said his mates.

"So you bleedin' let us go or it'll be the worse for you!"

"Aye!" said his mates, and Silver shook his head in amazement. Far from acting guilty or ashamed – or even fearful – the mudlarks were angry and resentful, as if some foul trick had been played upon them, and rules broken that decent men respected. Now they growled and muttered and glared at their captors.

"Shiver my timbers!" said Silver. "Well, I never did have hopes of putting the law on you, but here's two of my men beat unconscious, and you swabs trying to steal our cable. So I'll have a word with these good brothers, here -" he pointed to his crew "- to decide what's to be done with you."

After a swift debate, a motion proposed by Brother Pew was adopted, and soon after the mudlarks were sitting miserably in their boat: stark naked, shaven bald, with ship's tar coating their marriage tackle, while all aboard Walrus who could muster the necessary stood on the bulwarks pissing on their shiny white heads, and laughing fit to bust. All being finished, and shaken free of last drops, the mudlarks were allowed to cast off and pull away into the night.

It was a huge joke, enjoyed by all hands. But a few hours later, it didn't seem so funny.

Chapter 17

Early afternoon, 11th June 1753 Jackson's Coffee House Off the Covent Garden Piazza London

Mr Peter Jackson dazzled the eye and assaulted the senses. He was not merely dressed in the height of fashion: he defined it – or so he thought. His long, collarless coat was gold-laced blue silk, pierced with three dozen buttonholes; the yellow waistcoat beneath came down to the knees and was unbuttoned at the top to reveal the exquisite lace of his shirt-front, below the white stock around his neck.

An exotic waft of perfume complemented the ensemble, together with a white-powdered wig worked into elaborate side-curls and caught in a blue silk bow at the back. Combined with an elegance of speech and manners, the result was something so close to a gentleman that many onlookers couldn't tell the difference.

But it was there, if a man looked hard enough. It was written on Mr Jackson's face – fair and pleasing though it was, with long-lashed eyes, smooth chin, and easy smile – because any real man had only to look into Mr Jackson's eyes to see him for the sly, cunning, treacherous viper that he really was. It was for this reason he had become known far and wide as Flash Jack the Fly Cove: Flash Jack for short, or simply Jack to his friends, of whom there seemed to be a great number, given that he was proprietor of the renowned Jackson's Coffee House – renowned less for its coffee than the various other goods and services on offer. So when Flash Jack walked down the aisle between the tables at Jackson's, smiling to all sides, he could expect to be cheerfully acknowledged.

Jackson's occupied the finest site in London: hemmed in by the main theatres and the bustling Covent Garden Piazza, it catered to a clientele of actors, musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and all those gentlemen who wished to be thought civilised. It opened early, closed late and was always busy.

Being on a corner, Jackson's had the advantage of two rows of windows, and the big main room was immaculately clean, its two long lines of tables equipped with high-backed benches that formed dozens of private booths for convivial talk, while still affording a good view of the life and fashion of the house and the city outside. Like most coffee houses, it was as much a club as anything else, and the wrong sort of persons were told – to their faces, by the waiters – that there was "No room! No room!" when plainly there was. And while ladies were charmingly received into a side room, the girls of Covent Garden were absolutely prohibited: even those who charged a guinea.

Today, Flash Jack was in excellent spirits. There were no less than four noblemen in the house, and the sun was shining brightly through his sparkling clean windows. All the world looked good; the table talk was of sport and racing, and not sombre fears of the great war that all the newspapers said was imminent. But as he was chatting deferentially to a clod- faced baronet and his party – fresh up from Devon with dung on their boots – lightning struck.

"Jack!" cried a voice. Flash Jack bowed to the baronet, making careful note of the dullard's name so that he should be greeted by it ever after, and looked down the aisle towards the door. He looked… and he looked… and his jaw went towards his boots.

Sir Frederick Lennox was advancing with a friend at his side. Sir Frederick was familiar, having a house not five minutes away. But his friend was something marvellously, wonderfully new. With the sun shining into the dark interior, the new gentleman was bathed in golden light; indeed, he appeared golden in every way. He was the most beautiful creature that Flash Jack had ever seen. A perfect Mediterranean man, such as the sculptors of the Greeks had recorded in marble: handsome, athletic, graceful… and dangerous.

Flash Jack shuddered in delight, for his taste was very, very much for dangerous young men, and he carried the scars beneath his clothes to prove it. But now he saw that all previous incarnations had been mere bruisers. The man walking towards him was seriously, deadly dangerous. Flash Jack blinked, and gulped and gasped.

"Jack!" said Sir Frederick, coming alongside. "I should like you to meet Lieutenant Flint."

"Flint?" said Flash Jack, who kept abreast of all the news. "Flint the mutineer?"

The choice of word was unfortunate. Flint turned his gaze upon Flash Jack, and poor Jacky nearly died with pleasure at the cobra's stare that pierced normal men with fright.

"Mutineer be damned!" Sir Frederick frowned. "All that is lies put out by the Hastings clique."

"Indeed, sir," said Flint, taking Flash Jack's hand, "there has been a foul conspiracy."

Flash Jack never entirely remembered the next few minutes, except in a rapture of wonder, but eventually his sharply focused mind took hold of itself and he came to seated at one of his tables together with Lieutenant Flint, who sat opposite, talking to him, with Sir Frederick got rid of, seated at a table with other friends at the far end of the room.

"… or so I am told," said Flint with a smile.

"Beg pardon, my dear sir?" said Flash Jack.

"I am told that you can supply anything. Absolutely anything."

"Ah!" Jack smiled, for he was on sure ground. "That would depend upon price."

Flint paused. A distant expression came into his eyes and Flash Jack could see that he was thinking furiously. Then Flint fixed him with his hypnotic gaze.

"How much money can you imagine? How much can you desire?"

"What do you mean?" Flash Jack frowned slightly. He was no fool.

"Have you heard of Captain Lightning, the highwayman?"

"Who hasn't?"

"I killed him last night. Him and his crew."

"Killed him?" Flash Jack shuddered in ecstasy.

"Yes. And I'm due five hundred as reward."

"Five hundred?"

"And that's only the beginning."

There was a pause like that of swordsmen who have clashed blades, exchanged strokes, and leapt back to recover.

"So what is it you want?" said Flash Jack.

"I want a ship, with a crew and provisions for the West Indies."

"Then go down to the Pool of London and hire one."

"Ahhhh… there are circumstances."

"What circumstances?"

"I am freed by the navy under restrictions. I may not leave England."

"No?"

"Nor would it be advisable for me to seek a ship."

"Yet you come to me?"

Flint smiled and leaned close, and every hair on Flash Jack's body tingled in delight.

"I do so because I trust you," said Flint.

"Flint! Flint!" cried Sir Frederick, stumping up the aisle waving a booklet.

"Later," said Flint to Flash Jack.

"Look -" said Sir Frederick "- I've got a copy of this rogue's book!"

Lennox leered at Flash Jack, and Flint tapped his foot under the table.

"What book?" he said.

"The one I told you about: Jackson's List. His guide to the whores of London!"

"Oh," said Flint, who was tired of Sir Frederick constantly turning every conversation to the subject of whores. Flint was a singular man in this regard. It wasn't that he was incapable with women: those shameful days were gone. But he could play the man's role only in highly restrictive circumstances, and it galled him that a creature like Sir Frederick could so easily manage what he could scarce achieve.

"Look!" said Sir Frederick, laughing, and he squeezed himself in beside Flint and opened the book he'd just bought. He pointed a pudgy finger at Flash Jack: "He writes this, you know. Jackson's his real name!" Flash Jack smiled modestly. "It's the most capital book: a guide to all the tarts of the town – their looks, prices, services offered. And damned funny, too, because he knows who's poking whom, and he puts it all in – in code – and you have to work it out! Fellows go through it pissing themselves laughing when a new edition comes out at Christmas, which it does every year. Now let me see…" He looked down and flicked through the book, searching for something.

"Ah! Here it is! Here you are, Flint," said Sir Frederick merrily, nudging Flint. "I saw your face last night when

I mentioned black girls. Here's just the little beauty for you…" Early afternoon, 11th June 1753 Covent Garden Piazza London

Billy Bones stood and looked at London's great arena of pleasures, amazed that so vast an open space could exist within the dense mass of churches, domes and chimneys that was the capital.

He'd been sent away on his own by Flint, who was off to a coffee house with Sir Frederick for a private talk. Billy Bones didn't mind that, because if he'd had to spend a moment longer in Sir Frederick's company it would have ended in trouble. The pompous ass had made a big show, in front of everyone, giving Billy a handful of coins to spend, as if he was rewarding some bloody servant! He'd been all set to teach the bugger a lesson when a glance from Flint warned him off, so instead he mumbled, "Aye-aye, Sir Frederick!" and pocketed the money with a touch of his hat in salute.

He'd left the house fuming about it, but the moment he entered Covent Garden Piazza all thoughts of Sir Frederick vanished as he stood and marvelled at the great canyons of brick. He was surrounded on all sides by rows of buildings running to four and five stories high, with windows ranked like guardsmen on parade, and some with stone colonnades and shops within, and some with carriages pulling up outside, and the grey mass of St Paul's church to one side, with its four columns and its pediment above, and the golden-capped Sundial Column rearing up over all, and what seemed like thousands upon thousands of people, rich and poor, young and old, tradesmen and beggars, soldiers and cripples milling about the place.

He started by walking along the line of fruit and vegetable stalls running the length of one side of the square, and he treated himself to some splendid oranges – for Billy Bones loved oranges – and one by one he peeled them with his clasp knife and ate them, then sat down on the steps of St Paul's to lick the juice from his fingers. Afterwards he wandered into the square, past the heavy white-timbered fence that marked out the inner heart of the Piazza. There was such noise and bustle as could hardly be believed, with street musicians, tumblers, hawkers, jugglers, fire-breathers and men on stilts. Billy Bones looked on, amazed, and some of the misery of his recent life lifted off his shoulders.

More than that, there were tides flowing within Billy Bones's mind. He knew he'd done bad things. He'd done very bad things… atrocious things. And he knew who'd led him to it! He sighed. He groaned. And yet, aboard Bounder – for a precious while – he'd been a king's officer again. He'd worn uniform. He'd wallowed gloriously in all the practices and traditions of the sea service: the service that he'd joined as a lad and grown to love. He looked around the seething, heaving Piazza and again felt the urge that, in this different place, he could be a different man, and a better one. But first he had to find…

"'Ere!" said a lively girl in a bright-coloured costume: all lozenges and stars and a big red hat. She nudged Billy Bones with an elbow, breaking his thoughts. "Yore a likely wunan- mall, aintchernow?" She poked him in the ribs, and laughed, causing her tits to wobble in her low-cut dress. Billy Bones grinned. He could hardly understand these Londoners with their nasal, ugly speech, but he liked the look of the girl. He was just wondering what she was at when a drum rolled and a trumpet blew… and two more girls appeared, dressed identically: one a drummer, one a trumpeter. When he turned back to the first girl, she was gone – off to find more men, from the look of it.

Then a large, fat man in good clothes mounted wooden steps to a platform that raised him up above the mob.

"Gentlemen of England," he roared, "and all those beef- and-beer-men who relish the noble art of fisticuffs!" He paused to draw breath and the drum and trumpet sounded again. "Stand forward now to show the ladies the strength of your arm -" he raised a hand and spoke to one side of it, as if in confidence "- if you has the pluck!"

Hmmm, thought Billy Bones as the fat man blathered on. So, the fellow was a prizefighter's barker. Beside the little platform on which he stood, Billy now saw a ring marked out with rope and stakes, and a tent behind, and a number of big, broken-nosed men, stripped to the waist, pumps on their feet, all waiting in a row with their arms folded over their chests, and the public gathering thick around them, already taking bets.

"Thass Pat Cobbler, that is!" said a Londoner beside Billy Bones.

"I'll avva dollar onnim!" said another, as Billy Bones strained to understand.

"Yeah! Eezevvywate chaampyun, ee is. Anniss ten-pun to the cove wot noksim dahn."

Ahhh! thought Billy, and he pushed his way through the growing crowd.

He stood and watched the first couple of fights, which – astonishingly – were carried out strictly according to rules, with no biting of ears or gouging of eyes, and rounds timed by the sand-glass, and bully boys standing by to beat intruders out of the ring with cudgels. They even matched the fighters by weight, which was a great novelty to Billy Bones, as was the amazing fact that when one man was thrown down by a cross-buttock, and his opponent – to Billy Bones's loud approval – began to kick him about the head, the beaters dashed in and drove off the standing man… until the other got up!

Billy Bones shook his head at this namby-pamby business and wondered what England was coming to. But when the fight was over, and Pat Cobbler the heavyweight was standing in the ring with no takers stepping forward and all eyes searching for one, the same girl Billy Bones had seen earlier appeared at his side and linked her arm in his.

"'Ere-za-bulldog-boy!" she cried, winking at Billy. "'Ere-za-cockerthewalk!" And she pulled him towards the ring. "Cummon tiger!" she cried, and a great cheer went up from the crowd as they caught sight of Billy Bones and measured him up against the champion.

Well, thought Billy Bones, why not? He hoisted the girl clear off her feet, planted a smacking kiss on her lips, put her down, and threw his hat into the ring.

And when they took off his shirt, and the crowd saw the breadth of Billy Bones's chest and arms, and the way he took up his stance and milled the air with heavy fists – why, the cheers shook the windows of the Piazza, and a great rush from all sides swelled the crowd… to the delight of the fat barker, for it was sixpence each into his bully boys' collecting boxes from those who wanted to stand and watch, and sixpences were falling like rain!

It was a hard fight for Billy Bones, for they insisted on stopping him from doing perfectly reasonable things: stamping Cobbler's feet, hacking his shins and slamming him round the ear with the side of the head. Moreover, Pat Cobbler hadn't come by his reputation for nothing. He was a fighting Irishman and a crafty boxer who used his fists with skill and economy of effort. And this told against Billy Bones, whose method of fighting was neither artful nor clever nor skilful.

But Pat Cobbler hadn't lived Billy Bones's life. He'd never fought to kill. He'd always fought by rules, and was used to fighting clumsy, drunken yokels, or other professionals like himself, who likewise fought by rules, and only for money. Certainly he used dirty tricks, as they all did, but he'd never seen decks slopping in blood, and men's limbs torn off, or heard the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying.

And he didn't fight like Billy Bones: head down, shoulders forward, never retreating, and hammer hammer hammer with both fists, up to and beyond exhaustion, and ignoring the pain, and never, ever, admitting defeat. This ferocious, simple- minded discipline, born of a ferocious, simple-minded life, and matched with the powerful body God had given Billy Bones, put Pat Cobbler over on his back after five long, punishing rounds, such that not even repeated buckets of cold water could get him up.

So Billy Bones got his ten pounds, and was chaired by the mob, shoulder high round the Piazza. Then he picked one of the tarts who'd ogled him, took a private room at an inn and rogered her till she squealed, and was so heartened by his victory that courage rose within him: courage to do the thing that he had been dreaming of since first he came to London, and that otherwise he'd not have dared to do.

Chapter 18

Three bells of the morning watch 12th June 1753 Aboard Walrus The Pool of London

The night was alive with flaming torches. Walrus was enclosed within boatloads of angry men, and the shining, black river reflected the flames rising over the little fleet. There were twenty boats in all, with more than three hundred men aboard… and drawn steel and firelocks gleaming in the torchlight.

One boat pulled forward, and a man stood up in the stern. He was thick-bodied, stubble-chinned, and grim-faced. He wore cross-belts loaded with arms, and a hat stuck with three huge white ostrich plumes. Cupping his hands round his mouth, he let forth a shout:

"Ahoy, you bastards! I'm Jimmy Ogilvy, king o' the river, and I'm come for what I'm owed!"

"AYE!" roared his men, and there was a great waving of torches and shaking of arms.

"Stand forward, him who's in command, say I!" cried King Jimmy. "Stand forth or be boarded, plundered, and burned!"

"AYYYYYE!"

"What the buggery is this?" said Long John to Warrington, as all hands stood to action stations, looking out on a force that outnumbered them nearly five to one, and had crept up so quiet, and with torches unlit, that they were all around the ship before the watch had even seen them.

"It's King Jimmy," said Warrington, legs trembling in fear.

"I can see that, you swab!" said Long John. "But what's he want?"

"Revenge, Captain. For the shaming of his men!"

"God damn it, this is bloody London. What bloody law runs here?"

"His!" said Warrington, looking at King Jimmy. "So long as it's dark, and there's nobody to come to our aid."

"STAND FORTH!" cried King Jimmy. "LAST WARNING!"

"Oh, Mary and bleedin' Jesus!" said Silver.

"What we going to do, John?" said Israel Hands.

Silver sighed. He tipped his hat back, stroked the parrot, and thought. Too late to run out the guns and sweep the buggers with grape. They'd be aboard as soon as they heard the gun-trucks squeak. Too late to rig boarding nettings, even if Walrus had any – which she didn't – and it couldn't come to a hand-to-hand fight, not against so many. So what to do?

"Can they be paid off?" said Silver to Warrington, who trembled and shook.

"I don't know. They may want blood for blood!"

Silver cursed horribly.

"Then we'll just have to find out!" he said, and called his people together. "This is what we'll do… And you, Mr Mate -" Silver poked Warrington in the chest "- you pay close heed to me…"

"WITH ME, BOYS!" cried King Jimmy. "GIVE WAYYYY!"

A great roar went up from the boats, followed by a clunking of oars, as the mudlarks pulled to grapple and board.

"Wait! Wait!" Warrington, having clambered up on the bulwark by the main shrouds, was hanging on with one arm, a sheer drop into the Thames looming in front of him. He was plainly terrified, puffing and wheezing and glancing nervously back at the man behind him holding his legs so he shouldn't fall off. "We've ten thousand Spanish dollars aboard," he cried, "and willing to pay reasonable reparation!"

"What?" cried King Jimmy, and turned to his men. "Hold hard, my lovely boys!"

"What?" they said, and laid on their oars.

"Who are you, you fat sod?" cried King Jimmy to Warrington.

"Master of this ship!"

"What's this about dollars?"

"We are willing to pay reparation, for the insult done to your people."

"A-ha!" cried King Jimmy, and stood up and twirled his ostrich plumes and looked round at his men. "See, boys?" he cried. "Ain't I king o' the river and no mistake? See what I can get you?"

"AYE!" cried some, but not those with shaven heads and the tar still clinging to their balls. They wanted the red meat of revenge, not the gruel of money.

"I want his teeth for a blasted necklace!" cried one of the shaven, pointing at Warrington. "And twelve dozen of the cat for all hands, and… and…"

"Yes, yes!" said King Jimmy, "time for that later – let's get the dollars first!" "AYE!"

"Then please to come alongside," said Warrington, and he reached down to those behind him and was handed something, which he hurled towards King Jimmy's boat… and there was a twinkling and glittering and chinking of metal as the little missiles landed aboard.

"Dollars!" cried King Jimmy's oarsmen. "Dollars, lads!"

"Huzzah!"

"We are not the valiant who taste of death but once!" said Warrington.

"Bollocks!" cried a voice from the boats.

"Friends, Englishmen, countrymen, lend me your ears! We seek mercy!"

"Pig-shite!"

"For the quality of mercy is not strained!"

"Fuck off!"

"It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven."

As he spoke, Warrington threw more dollars and the boats crowded in beneath him, King Jimmy's in the lead, and all aboard sneering and laughing at the miserable figure spouting above, who was giving in so easily and without a fight… And thus the mudlarks came alongside of Walrus, slow and easy, and threw no grappling hooks and made no attempt to board but sat looking upward in expectation, until…

CRRRRASH! A tremendous, rolling volley of small-arms fire roared out from Walrus and night turned to day in livid daggers of muzzle-flash as Silver's men fired every pistol, musket, blunderbuss and carbine in the ship into the writhing mass of men in the boats alongside, only spitting distance away. Over a hundred rounds of well-aimed lead came sizzling down into flesh, timber, blood, bone and some of it into Father Thames. Ears were deafened by the roar, and eyes temporarily blinded by the flash.

A horrible moan arose from the mudlark boats even as a picked team of men, all good swimmers and led by Mr Joe, dropped over the side from Walrus – splash-splash-splash – while a reserve of five of the ship's best marksmen, armed with muskets, kept up a steady fire into King Jimmy's boat so that none aboard should hinder Mr Joe's team as they hauled themselves into the launch. Some went down, nonetheless, under cutlass strokes and pistol fire, but most clambered aboard and set about seizing the oars. And all the while Walrus's people were loading and ramming with fresh cartridges and ready for another united volley… which they gave with a flash and a roar, at Long John's word, as the other mudlark boats saw what was happening to King Jimmy and tried to go to his aid, only to find themselves on the receiving end of another withering storm of lead that smashed and pierced and tore, until one boat began to fill and to settle as holes were knocked squarely through its bottom.

"Ahhhhh! Ahhhh! Ahhhh!" cried the mudlarks.

"Fire at will, boys!" cried Long John as the smoke swirled over Walrus's decks, "but bring Mr Joe safe aboard: him and all his lads – and that swab of a King Jimmy – and then run out the guns and load with grape!"

"Huzzah!" roared the crew, and soon the dazed, bedraggled king o' the river was dragged over Walrus's rail with three of his men, while the long black snouts of her main battery rumbled clear of the ship's sides, proclaiming death and disembowelment to any fool who chose to approach unasked aboard of a boat, which none did, for they saw they were beat and hung back.

The butcher's bill for Silver's men was three dead or drowned, and Tom Allardyce still so deep unconscious that Dr Cowdray feared for his life. But the mudlarks suffered worse, with bodies face down in the water and cries and moans, and one boat sunk, and blood in the bilge water, and oars smashed and their captain taken… who nonetheless would not give up.

"You'll pay for this, you…" he shrieked into Silver's face, and let loose such a string of filth as left even Walrus's men impressed. "You can't touch me!" he cried. "I got a lord mayor's badge! I got magistrates! I can buy every damn glut- man, lumper and revenue-man on the river. I can -"

Thump! Silver clouted him with a heavy fist, and King Jimmy staggered and suddenly fell over as his left leg twisted… came apart below the knee, and a wooden peg-leg rattled and bumped and rolled across the deck. King Jimmy fought to get up: growling, cursing and helpless… and a great pity fell upon Silver, and guilt for what he'd done to a man like himself: a poor ruined cripple. For deep inside of John Silver, the pain had never gone away: the awful grieving over the cruelty of his own mutilation, and the loss of his manly swagger. It hadn't gone, nor ever would it, and in the present moment it swelled into agony.

"Ugh!" cried Silver, and wiped away the self-pitying tears with the back of his cuff. "Here, shipmate!" he said, reaching down to haul King Jimmy up… where he stood hopping and balancing, and hanging on to Silver's hand for support.

"You long streak o' fuckin' piss," said King Jimmy. "Why don't you gimme a loan o' your'n?" And he pointed at Silver's crutch.

Silver laughed uneasily, staring at King Jimmy. "Huh!" he said finally. "Fetch him his timber limb, lads!" And a couple of hands found it and helped King Jimmy strap it in place, so he could stand up like a man again, even if a far smaller one than Long John, who towered over him.

"What am I going to do with you?" said Silver.

"Hang him! Gut him! Skin him!" cried the crew.

"Belay all that, you swabs," said Silver, "for I'm taking this bugger below, for questioning."

And so John Silver found a new friend in a strange place, for as he sat in his cabin with a couple of men outside, in case King Jimmy turned nasty, he was amazed how much he had in common with his prisoner.

"Cart horse, it were," said King Jimmy. "Us kids was playing knock-belly, running in line under horses and slapping them, and I was last, and I got kicked, and it festered." He looked down at his wooden leg. "Local carpenter took it off with his saw. We hadn't no gelt for a surgeon. Did a rough job, and it still bleeds sometimes, for it ain't never healed quite right."

Silver shook his head in sympathy.

"Him as ampytated me was a master surgeon," he said. "Latin by the bucket! He's aboard this ship now. D'you want him to look at your leg?"

King Jimmy shuddered.

"Not for a pension!" he said. "I still remember the saw grinding the bones."

"Aye!" said Silver, and he got out the rum, and they raised glasses.

"Here's to that old actor you put up there!" said Jimmy. "Fooled me!"

"What actor?"

"Charles Warrington. Cap'n, indeed! I only recognised him when I came aboard."

"Warrington? Was he an actor?"

Jimmy nodded. "I saw him in that play where a moll gets done in by a blackamoor, and me and the lads went with cobbles to pelt the bleeder…" He grinned. "Warrington was playing the blackie, but he came on three sheets to the wind and fell into the orchestra pit."

Silver laughed, and as they talked he found King Jimmy – though completely illiterate – to be quick and clever, and facing the same problems as himself in leading men and keeping them sweet. Thus they talked, for all captains are lonely, and there are things said easier to a stranger than a friend. So they told their stories, and even found common cause.

"How did I become a gentleman o' fortune?" said Silver. "Why, my own ship was took, and I did for a few of them as took it, and they made me make up the loss."

"Oh?" said King Jimmy. "Chopped a few, did you? How many?"

"A few," said Silver.

King Jimmy winked.

"Garn! You can tell me. How many?"

Silver shrugged. "Six," he said.

"Gor blimey!" King Jimmy raised a glass in salute.

"Well," said Silver, as if in explanation, "I had ten toes in them days." "Huh!" said King Jimmy. "And now I'm a few men short, because of you!"

"Serves you bleedin-well right!"

They laughed, and the talk turned to the future and what Silver was going to do with the two prisoners he'd brought to London.

"Start with Norton," said Jimmy. "I know him – pick o' the Bow Street men. He needs to be in the river with his throat cut."

"No, no, no," said Silver, "I can't do that!"

King Jimmy shook his head.

"You're a funny bugger for a pirate, John."

"Gentlemen o' fortune! Not a pirate."

"No? Ain't you never done nothing bad?"

Silver closed his eyes… and saw Ratty Richards's face. He sighed.

"There you are then," said Jimmy. "But never mind, for others is worse: like members of parliament! You can't do their job without telling lies and getting men killed! And them bastards wants another war! How many thousands will that kill, beside the few that you and I pop off, John Silver"

Telling lies, thought Silver, for that stood out from all the rest, and it sank his heart like lead.

"John, John," said Jimmy, and leaned forward and put a thick, gnarled hand on Silver's arm. His face was battered and ugly, he was grey and stubble-chinned. He was twenty years older than Silver, and he wanted to help. "What is it, lad?"

"I don't know what to do," said Silver. "I've come here to save my wife, if she's to be saved. But I've told all hands another tale, and they've trusted me."

"Well then," said King Jimmy, "we must help one another, you and I. So set me free -"

"I'd do that anyway!"

"Set me free… with a sack of dollars, so I can go back with me head high and me feathers in me hat, and I'll be your eyes and ears in London. I knows every receiver in town, all the watchmen, the night coves, pickpockets and burglars, and the Jew-boy money-lenders too: and their fingers go up every hole and crack!" King Jimmy nodded. "Oh yes! I'll find out about your Jacobites… and… I'll send out word for a new black girl in the knocking shops."

Silver groaned and put his head in his hands.

King Jimmy patted his shoulder. "You got to face it, lad. If she's in that trade, then that's where you'll find her."

Then a thought struck him.

"Wait a bit," he said, "your girl's something special, ain't she? A real bang-up prancer: a great beauty? And young?"

"Aye," said Silver miserably.

"So, listen here, John Silver," said King Jimmy, "and I'll tell you what to do with your crew and your ship and your wife…" Then he paused and frowned. "The kiddie you want, for top-of-the-trade such as your Selena would be, is one as wouldn't let me through his door. But he might talk to you, if you was dressed up proper."

"And who's that?"

"Flash Jack the Fly Cove!"

Chapter 19

Mid-morning, 19th June 1753 Miss Jenkins's rooms 1st floor, 17 Pitt Street London

Miss Jenkins tottered across the room towards Flint wearing white stockings tied over the knee with red ribbons, and small red shoes with neat little heels. She wore that and nothing else, for that's what Flint liked and what he needed.

Flint gazed at her shining black skin and all the wonders between waist and chin that bounced and swayed and quivered. Miss Jenkins offered him the tea-cup that she'd just re-filled on the neat and pretty little table by the window, where a neat and pretty little tea service was moored, and none of it as neat and pretty as Miss Jenkins's posture as she'd worked the tea-pot: straight back, straight legs, knees together, and delectable round bottom aimed at the client as she bent over the table to pour.

Flint sighed and wondered if he could manage another bout? But he'd fired three rounds already that morning. He smiled and his eyes wandered to the tousled bed, on the other side of the lavishly furnished room, for Miss Jenkins did not work cheap, and her gentlemen demanded the best.

She smiled at Flint, curtsied delightfully, and handed him the teacup, saying:

"Ee-yah Capting!" Flint took the cup, set it aside, and kissed her neatly on the point of each breast. "Ooo!" she said, "Wannabit more do ya?" And she folded her arms round his neck, and wriggled her behind.

Flint smiled. The voice was wonderfully coarse. It so thoroughly completed the necessary mixture, for Flint's capabilities were limited to those who followed Miss Jenkins's profession, while to all other females he was null and void: true to the ferocious prohibition driven into him by his long- departed religious maniac of a father, who doubtless sizzled in Hell this very instant, nodding in grim satisfaction over his son's impediment.

Why else – the Reverend Flint would ask – should the Almighty permit the existence of fallen ones, except for the detestable expression of vile and contemptible lust? It was a question impossible for a child to understand, let alone answer, but it had been screamed at little Joseph Flint so many times, and with such venom, that the sense of it had penetrated, if not the entire meaning. Thus Flint could perform only with whores.

He was also limited to black girls. But the reason for that was painful beyond contemplation.

Meanwhile, Flint kissed a few more choice parts of Miss Jenkins, got himself up, got fully dressed, paid a generous tip, was rewarded with a smile, and was shown out. The only thing that had marred a delightful encounter, he mused as he made his way down the stairs to the street, was the inevitable, unavoidable, un-crushable thought that Miss Jenkins – pretty as she was – could not compare with… with…

Flint's face twisted. It contorted. He stopped in his tracks in the busy street, closed his eyes and clenched his fists, gritted his teeth and groaned, for there were a thousand ways in which Joe Flint was not as other men were.

And then the spasm was gone. Flint opened his eyes, stared down those passers-by who were looking at him strangely, and walked briskly to Sir Frederick's house, to keep an appointment to see one of the great ones of the town, someone of whom Sir Frederick stood in awe and was delighted to have obtained an invitation to meet.

Flint was intrigued that Sir Frederick was showing signs of interests outside his usual range, and was happy to be taken to a splendid house in Bramhall Square, where that renowned leader of fashion, Lady Faith Carlisle, kept a salon.

Carriages lined the pavement outside the house, coachmen and footmen stood politely awaiting their masters, and a small crowd of the common herd was hanging about by the entrance, gawping at the famous and the splendid as they made their way up the flight of five broad steps to the main door.

Flint and Sir Frederick were admitted with deep bows, and led upstairs to the salon: a splendid room on the first-floor front, complete with Chinese wallpaper, pier glasses, huge windows, and opulent soft furnishings. They were announced by a butler, received by Lady Faith, and led down the centre of the room towards a knot of gentlemen centred on an enormous man in grey, scholarly wig. He was untidy and of bizarre appearance, being afflicted with twitches and odd gestures. But nonetheless he was holding forth, to the delight, respect and admiration of all present: and these were the cream of London society.

"Look," said Sir Frederick proudly, "it's Johnson!"

"Who?" said Flint, and Lady Faith winced.

"Johnson!" said Sir Frederick.

"Who's he?" said Flint, and Lady Faith all but fainted.

"Johnson! Dictionary Johnson. The lexicographer!"

"Sir Frederick," said Flint, perceiving that he was the only man in the room who didn't know the name, "I've lived a strange life, mostly out of England, beyond Christian civilisation -" he smiled with gleaming teeth "- you must instruct me.

Sir Frederick had that uneasy feeling again. The feeling that came when Flint looked him in the eyes. He didn't want to admit that the feeling was fear – stabbing, unholy fear – but it was.

"Ah… er…" said Smith, and found words: "Johnson is the foremost man of letters in England," he said. "He has published a magnificent dictionary, which he has written alone in a matter of years. A tremendous achievement! In France, the entire Academy Franзaise laboured for a generation to produce a lesser work."

Sir Frederick turned to gaze at Johnson, in the midst of his admirers, bellowing loudly and slapping a huge hand on the table to emphasise his point.

"He is a genius," gushed Lennox, "and the entire fashionable world is educated by his pronouncements."

Flint and Sir Frederick found seats close to Johnson, and were served tea – making Flint smirk, recalling the last cup he'd drunk. But when he settled down to listen, even Flint was fascinated by the power of Johnson's conversation, his cunning wit, his vast learning, and his tremendous vigour, along with a gift for superbly crafted phrases that delighted the ear, tickled the mind, and took root in the memory.

Thus all was smiles and respect – until a sudden disaster occurred. Coming to the end of a story, Johnson rocked on his seat, in his odd fashion, loudly cried "Huh!"… and passed a rolling thunder of wind: loud, strong and tremendous, as only a big man can who has a large dinner digesting inside of him.

At once there was a united attempt to pretend that nothing had happened. All around, ladies and gentlemen studied the floor, the ceiling and the pictures hanging on the walls, and there was a great clearing of throats and coughing, as if these innocent sounds would embrace Johnson's as one of their own.

But none could avoid sniffing… and knowing… and blushing.

"Urrrrgh!" growled Johnson, and his heavy face twitched, and reddened, and the mighty brows darkened. A profound silence descended on the room. Not even the mice beneath the floorboards dared breathe. But the Devil spurred Flint to speak:

"My poor sir!" he said, leaning forward in impertinent familiarity and daring to place a hand on one of Johnson's. "I do sympathise."

"Uhhhhhhhhhh!" gasped the company: trembling, horrified, and fearing an explosion.

"Sympathise?" cried the giant. "What d'ye mean, sir? Explain yourself!"

"Sir," said Flint with eyes of utmost innocence, "I sympathise with you in your struggle to contain these formidable pressures!" "WHAT?"

"Indeed, sir, I know from experience the burden of your struggle."

Johnson was now on a hair trigger, and risen half out of his seat. He was a vastly big man with hands like oak roots and limbs like Corinthian columns. His face was purple, his lips were working and it was the spin of a coin whether he would anathematise Flint with soul-shrivelling castigation – to damn him as the butt of all the town – or attack him physically with the aid of the heavy walking stick that he'd seized in his right hand. The company reacted as one, forming a sea of gaping mouths, staring eyes and paralysed horror.

"WHAT?" roared Johnson.

Flint, adopting an air of utmost innocence, spread his hands in explanation: "My own father, sir," he said, "was a being of such exquisite sensibilities that disdaining all vulgarity in himself, he employed others to break wind on his behalf: a common fellow on weekdays and a superior person – a gentleman – to fart for him in church on Sundays."

"Ohhhhhhh!" groaned the company. But Flint sat so solemn, and stared at Johnson with such an air of seeking to be of assistance… that Johnson perceived… and snorted… and broke into booming, convulsive laughter. He laughed over and over, for the best part of five minutes, till the tears flowed, his body shook, the rafters trembled, and the room was merriment from end to end as the courtiers followed the king's example. Folk even looked up in the street to see what the laughter was all about.

"You rogue, sir!" cried Johnson, when he regained control. "You jolly dog! You saucy fellow!" And he beamed at Flint. "Who are you, sir? What are you?"

Flint told his story with customary skill, so nearly telling the truth that it was wonderful how innocent of all blame he turned out to be. Thus Johnson and the company nodded wisely and smiled.

"A sailor and an adventurer!" said Johnson, as if lost in admiration. "Every man thinks the less of himself for not having been a soldier, and not having gone to sea," he said. "And I see, Mr Flint, that you are, in both senses, a paragon!"

"Ah!" said the company.

"You are a Ulysses, sir," said Johnson. "Such a man as makes England triumphant at sea, and the terror and despair of her enemies!"

All present cooed their agreement, especially the Brownlough brothers, two large and lumpish sons of a London banker, who sat together in a corner. Had Flint been able to read the future, he would have fallen at their knees. But he couldn't and he didn't. Nevertheless he returned to Sir Frederick's house in the highest of good humour.

Sir Frederick having business in his study, Flint adjourned to the library, generously allowed to himself and Billy Bones as a day room. He entered just as Billy Bones was going out. Flint was full of himself, laughing and chuckling, casually flinging hat, coat and wig aside for the servant to deal with, before he threw himself into an armchair.

"Billy-my-chicken!" he cried.

"What?"

"What, sir. Will you never learn?"

Billy Bones scowled.

"Them ways is shipboard ways," he said.

"Indeed?" said Flint. "Are they indeed?" And he laughed. He was too merry to take offence. "In that case, Mr Bones, would you do me the honour to bring me a bottle and a glass from the sideboard?"

"Huh!" said Billy Bones, and did as he was bid.

"So where are you going, Mr Bones? I see you have your hat and coat on, and your walking stick at your side. Are you off on another voyage of exploration?"

Billy Bones blushed. He actually blushed, unwilling to reveal the nature of his mission.

Oh? thought Flint, instantly spotting Mr Bones's mood. What's this?

So Billy Bones was put to the question: which, with Flint probing, soon drew out the truth. It came out like a nail prised up by a crow-bar: squealing and protesting, but drawn inexorably by the leverage of Flint's intellect.

"It's a woman, Cap'n. That's to say, she is."

"Is she indeed?"

"Aye. One as I knew long ago… and which was… special to me."

"God save our precious souls! Mr Bones, are you saying you have a wife?"

"No, Cap'n. None such as that."

"A-hah! A mistress, then? A sweetheart?"

Billy Bones blushed scarlet, and blushed deeper still when – stumbling and halting – the tale of Olivia Rose was dragged out into the open for Flint to mock and taunt.

"So," said Flint, when the game was done, "you don't know where she lives, you don't know if she's dead or alive, and you don't even know if her father stayed in London! Is that the course you're steering?"

"Aye, Cap'n. For I went to sea again soon after, and never came home for years."

"And now you would tramp the streets of London, hoping to meet her by chance?"

"Aye, Cap'n. That's about the length of it."

"Billy, my Billy!" Flint shook his head. "Has it not occurred to you that her father is in trade, and that the name Burstein is uncommon, and that there are directories published in this city listing alphabetically, by name, all the tradesmen of the town and the addresses of their premises? You have only to go to the nearest bookshop – and there is one on the corner of the Piazza over there -" he pointed through the window "- where you may purchase such a directory. With God's grace and a fair wind, you will have the father's address within ten minutes, and the father will likely lead you to the daughter."

Flint laughed, for an eloquence of amazement was displayed in the dumbstruck face of Billy Bones.

"Bugger me!" he said, "Fuck, pluck and draw me!" And he was off through the door and thundering down the stairs with mighty boots, and Flint's laughter behind him.

The directory cost half-a-crown, a sum that made the eyes water, but Billy Bones had most of his fisticuffs money left, and he paid up and elbowed his way through the wigs, brocades and feathered hats and out into the noisy street with its grinding, iron-tyred traffic and clumping hooves and bellowing hawkers. He opened the book, thumbed through the pages… missed his way a few times… and then… heart thumping, fingers shaking, legs trembling… THERE IT WAS! Under Mathematical Instrument Makers… Burstein, Josiah: 14 Cripple Lane, St Paul's Churchyard.

Billy Bones stood gaping and gasping. Not only had he found the address but he'd be guided to it by the biggest landmark in the entire city! He set off at once, and as with the book, he got lost a few times, but asked the way and was soon gazing up at the soot-blacked pillars, the mighty dome, the arches, pediments and cornices of Christopher Wren's masterwork. Finding Cripple Lane was easy after that… but then… he who'd never flinched in all his life… he who'd stood shot and shell and plunged into the fight slashing left and right… he – Billy Bones, the terror of the lower deck – stood backing and filling, unable to go ahead nor astern, nor larboard nor starboard, nor yet to drop anchor and do nothing.

Over twenty years had passed since he'd seen her, and then she'd been a child. So what would he do if he did find her? What would he say? What could he offer?

And while he stood dithering, alone in a crowd of busy Londoners, Mr Josiah Burstein himself walked past and into Cripple Lane, and entered a large, double-fronted shop with huge glass windows and a glazed door.

Billy drew closer. The window display featured a gleaming range of instruments for sale: brass and glass, steel and boxwood, ivory and ebony. There were quadrants, octants, dividers and compasses, and mysterious others that Billy Bones had neither seen nor heard of.

But that was nothing compared with proof that this was indeed Josiah Burstein – Olivia Rose's father! His hair was grey, his face was lined and he walked with a limp from a damaged knee… but he was beyond a doubt the man Billy remembered from the Isabelle Bligh. Clearly he had grown tremendously prosperous during the intervening years: he was excellently dressed, and he went about with his nose in the air, for all that he dragged one foot.

And thus doubt struck again. Billy Bones didn't dare enter the shop. He hadn't the courage. He didn't know what they'd do or what they'd say. So finally he went away. He went back to Sir Frederick's house. He bowed his head and bore the mockery and cynicism of Flint… And returned next day to Cripple Lane, and paced up and down around St Paul's, orbiting the cathedral and returning to Cripple Lane every few minutes.

He did that all day, for four consecutive days.

And on the fifth day he saw her! It was a hammer-blow. She was coming out of the shop. Her father was kissing her cheek. She was so lovely. So very, very lovely. The beautiful child was now a voluptuous woman… And all the tender feelings of Billy Bones's youth rose up from the deep of his soul as if no time had passed and he was a lad once more.

But he dared not go near her, so he ran away and hid. And then he followed at a distance. He followed her the brief, five-minute walk to a smart, respectable street where he saw her go into her smart, respectable house.

It wasn't far, and all the way he struggled to find something to say to her – but couldn't; or something to do – but couldn't. As before, in the end he gave up and returned to Sir Frederick's. This time, not even the utmost persuasion from Flint could draw the truth from Billy Bones, who growled at his master like a mad old dog that will stand the whip no more.

He went back the next day, and watched her house. He saw a man emerge, whom she embraced, and who must be her husband. He looked a decent fellow. And he saw the children that stood beside her and held up their hands to Daddy.

Billy Bones found that he wasn't jealous, and wondered why. He was much puzzled until, finally, it dawned on him that there was nothing here for him: only ghosts and dreams. And so he very nearly escaped unscathed.

But he waited too long, for he was still watching the house as she came out into the street a few minutes later with two of her youngest children. Billy Bones tried to step into a doorway, but it was no good. At a range of twenty yards she saw him… their eyes met… and Billy's heart stopped to see how she would receive him: the love of his childhood and hers… a faith kept and a promise cherished for over twenty years…

A brief second followed… then she shuddered in disgust, gathered her little ones in her arms, and walked past Billy Bones on the other side of the street.

She didn't know him. He was just a huge, rough man with a seaman's walk, a tarred pigtail and a mahogany face. If he wasn't exactly a monster, he was something precious close.

It pierced him to the heart and extinguished all hope of escape from Flint.

So he wept many tears.

He found a tavern and got drunk.

He thought of hanging himself.

And the only thing that stopped him was the sure and certain fear of Hell.

But others too faced agonies…

Chapter 20

1a.m., 24th June 1753 Lavery's Wharf, Bermondsey London

Even this late it wasn't quite dark. Not in late June. There was a glow in the sky, and Walrus's launch was clearly visible as she came quietly to rest among the rows of dark boats moored alongside the wooden pier. But nobody noticed her, and even if they had, they'd have not seen the two men carried as prisoners, blindfolded and bound and under orders to keep quiet else they'd be heaved over the side.

With Allardyce recovering but still unable to stand or speak, for the moment, the Jacobite interest aboard ship had lost its leader, and much of its passion. Spotting this change in the wind, like the good seaman he was, Silver had called a council of all hands, and persuaded them that it would be best to take McLonarch and Norton ashore to set them free – so he told them – and he made sure that he chose the right men for the job: men loyal to himself.

Thus the launch's crew shipped oars, and made all neat and tidy, and one man stayed aboard, while the rest got their awkward cargo up the stairs to the planking twenty feet above. The only sound was the steady, bump, bump, bump that a one-legged man must make as he climbs a set of wooden stairs with the aid of a wooden crutch.

"Long John!" said a figure looming out of the half-light from the little watchman's hut at the end of the pier.

"King Jimmy?" said Silver.

"Aye!" Jimmy looked at the bound, blind figures. "You brung 'em then."

"I did," said Silver.

"Good. Follow me."

King Jimmy led the way along the pier, past bollards, cranes and old casks, above the slopping, greasy water below, and the stinking squalor of old bottles, rotting food, dead cats, bog-paper and worse that lapped into quiet corners of the river. For the Thames was not only London's highway and water supply but its sewer and rubbish tip.

"In here," said King Jimmy, and light showed as a big warehouse door swung open and lanterns burned within.

"At the double!" said Silver, and eight men dashed forward, four to each prisoner, and brought them inside. The door swung shut, the newcomers blinked in the light, and Silver saw that he and his men were once again outnumbered by King Jimmy's. There were at least thirty mudlarks in the high- packed warehouse, and they were standing in groups, giving Silver the hard eye and looking to King Jimmy. They were all armed, though not so heavily as gentlemen o' fortune: cudgels and cutlasses aplenty, but few firelocks.

"Huh!" said Silver, wondering who'd win if it came down to it.

"Hmmm," said his men, and felt for their pistols.

"John! John!" said King Jimmy. "We're all pals together, here."

"Aye," said Silver.

"Come along o' me," said King Jimmy. Then, turning to his men: "See these kiddies?" He pointed to Silver's crew. "Give 'em a drop o' drink and some shrimps, and see if you can manage not to murder one another 'til I get back – and Gawd help the bugger what starts anything!"

"Yeah," said his men.

"Same goes for you!" said Silver, to his men.

"Aye-aye!" they said.

"Come on, John," said King Jimmy, and he took a lantern and led the way into a big office that ran down the side of the warehouse. "Here we are, old chum!" he said, lighting some candles and dragging two chairs to a table. Then he fished out some mugs and a couple of pots of shrimps. "Here you are, John," he said, and smiled.

But Silver was busy heaving a heavy load out from under his coat, where it had been slung on a strap across his shoulder. It was a canvas bag that clinked and clunked as it landed on the table.

"That's another lot on account – as agreed," he said, and King Jimmy's eyes gleamed. "And five times that, if you find her," said Silver.

King Jimmy laughed and felt the bag, and filled the mugs from the tap of a barrel. Then he shook his head.

"Which ain't yet," he said. "Sorry, John."

Silver sighed. He waved a hand as if he could brush pain away. He paused, gathered strength, and moved on.

"What about McLonarch?" he said.

"Ah!" said King Jimmy, taking a swig. "McLonarch, you say!" He whistled softly and shook his head. "That's the kiddy! That's the bouncing boy!" He nodded and looked at Silver. "He might do it, John. He really might. There's mad buggers like him all over England, keeping quiet since the Scotch got thrashed at Culloden, but who'd follow him given the chance."

"Would they?" said Silver.

"Aye! And especially in the old families, the Catholic families. I could take you to a dozen coves that make no secret of it. And that's not the worst of it!"

"No?"

"No. Here – have a drop."

"Not I," said Silver. "What is it?" He raised his mug, sniffing suspiciously.

"Beer."

"Ain't you got no rum?"

"No."

"Never mind, go on…"

"Well. McLonarch's been talking to the army."

"What?"

"Aye. He knows lots of colonels and such."

"And?"

"They're listening…"

Silver rocked back in his chair and reached for the parrot that wasn't there, because she was fastened to her perch in his cabin. She didn't like boats, and tonight's work was dangerous. He sniffed.

"So," he said, "he could start a war. But could he win it?"

"Dunno about that…"

"And what's he worth to King George?"

"If you hand him over?"

"Aye."

King Jimmy thought long and hard. He helped himself to a handful of shrimps and peeled them and chewed them and swallowed. Finally he shook his head.

"Dunno, my son, but I'll tell you this: King George'll want everything done quiet. Deep and quiet, so's no cove hears a word, and none gets upset, especially in the army. They won't chop him – McLonarch – 'cos he don't do murder, don't King George, but they daren't put him on trial, so they'll shut him up nice and tight…" Then he pointed at Silver: "- and you with him! You and all your men. You might come out smelling of roses in the end, my son, but they'll take their time deciding."

Silver sighed. He knew most of this already, for he wasn't relying just on King Jimmy. Not for something so important. Israel Hands, Dr Cowdray and even Warrington had been ashore and asked their questions, and all had come back with the same answer: McLonarch and the Jacobites were the twin horrors of which King George and his government stood in dread. Last time the Jacobites were up in arms – only eight years ago in 1745 – their army came down from Scotland as far south as Derby, and all the London militias were raised in panic to defend the capital. And so… and so John Silver bowed his head. Then he looked up.

"What about Norton?" he said. "Have you done what I asked?"

"Easier my way," said King Jimmy, and grinned. "And cheaper!"

"But have you done it?"

"Aye."

"Then let's get up on our wooden spars and go and see him."

They had four of Silver's men bring the two prisoners to a quiet corner of the warehouse where nobody else could see. Vast bales of cotton were piled high, and deadened all sound. The rest of Silver's men, now boozing merrily with King Jimmy's, couldn't even be heard.

"Back to your shipmates now," said Silver, to his four men.

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!" they said and vanished. Silver looked round.

"Where are they?" King Jimmy raised a lantern.

"Wait!" he said, and found a small side door, and opened it and waved the lantern.

Cool air blew in… then came a patter of feet and two seafaring men in dark clothes slipped in through the door. They greeted King Jimmy, spoke in whispers, and looked at Long John and the two blindfolded men.

"This here's the one," said King Jimmy, pointing to the smaller man.

"He'll need to see where he's goin'," said one of the seamen. "I ain't leadin' the sod!"

"Aye!" said his mate. "And where's the rhino?"

Silver produced another heavy bag from under his coat.

"Ah!" they said, and took it.

"Let's see the light of your eyes, then," said Silver, untying Norton's blindfold.

Norton looked around him, white-faced and wide-eyed, certain that he was about to die.

"You bastard!" he said to Silver. "And I took you for a decent cove!"

"Stand easy!" said Silver. "You ain't goin' in the river. You're goin' with these matelots here -" he jabbed a thumb at the two seamen – "back into your old trade. I shouldn't wonder if you won't get your old rating afore long!"

"What?" said Norton.

"You're out-bound for the slave coast, and then to Cuba, where these gennelmen'll let you off… some time next year, when you get there."

"Oh…" said Norton.

"Oh?" said Silver. "Is that all?"

"What d'you want: thanks?" said Norton. "You bloody pirate!"

"Ah, get rid of him!" said Silver, and turned his back.

"And what about McLonarch?" said Norton, but he was dragged off into the dark, with two or three others waiting outside with cudgels in case he tried to fight.

King Jimmy closed the door. Silver's heart was beating heavily.

"Now then," said Silver, and took the wrappings off McLonarch's eyes. Gaunt, staring and with his hair all askew, McLonarch looked more than ever like an Old Testament prophet.

Silver's heart thumped and bounded. The thick blood beat in his brow. He drew a pistol from his belt and cocked it.

"Why don't you go for some shrimps and beer, Jimmy?" he said.

"What?" said King Jimmy.

"Go on, like a messmate and a pal."

"Why?"

"Just sod off, Jimmy… sod off!"

King Jimmy walked away. The McLonarch of McLonarch looked at Silver. His mind ran differently to other men's but he was masterly clever at knowing their thoughts and he knew John Silver's at once.

"Shall you stoop to murder, Captain?" said McLonarch in his deep, beautiful voice. Long John cringed in shame, the pistol hung limp in his hand, and the blood thundered in his head. He was sick and dizzy and his head ached. McLonarch was a bloody mad maniac that couldn't be let free. He'd be the death of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. So…

He could be sent to sea like Norton. But he'd talk to the crew till they kissed his arse.

He could be kept in irons aboard Walrus. But Allardyce wouldn't stay silent forever.

He could be given to King George to lock up. But King George'd lock up Long John too.

And then what of Selena? If she was fallen into whoring she must be got out of it quick! Silver shuddered at the thought of men using her, for the longer she was at it, the more ruined she'd be. Then he raised the pistol and thrust it into the centre of McLonarch's breast.

"You're a Christian, ain't you?" said Silver.

"Yes, I am."

"Then make your peace with God."

McLonarch smiled.

"Captain," he said, with infinite calmness, "you are too good a man for this."

"Am I?" said Silver, nearly blind with pain and nausea.

He thought of Selena… and groaned and wiped tears from his eyes, knowing that before all else – even at cost of his soul – he could not fail her… not her! Not his little darling! He could not see her corrupted, desecrated and soiled. So he shot McLonarch through the heart.

Chapter 21

Early morning, 24th June 1753 Abbey's Amphitheatre King Street, Polmouth

Mr Abbey stood on tiptoes to put the blindfold round Selena's eyes. Then he led her to the table. She was wearing her new costume: the one with the riding boots – her own suggestion, having been used to wearing boots aboard ship and feeling comfortable in them – but the gleam of skin above the boots was the genius of Mr Abbey's costumiers. He looked at her and sighed. What was it that made her quite so lovely? Sometimes he thought it was the tiny waist over curving hips, sometimes it was the lovely eyes, sometimes the slender, round limbs. He shook his head.

Whatsoever, he thought. Who cares, so long as she's playing to packed houses! Aloud, he said, "There, madame, all is prepared. Let us see you do it!"

He stepped back and went to stand with Katty Cooper and his entire company, together again for Sunday rehearsal. They whispered and whistled at Selena's latest outfit, even those of the men who stepped lightly; perhaps them especially, for they truly appreciated costume, and marvelled that so much could be contrived out of so little.

"Go on, Selena!" they cried.

"Selena!"

"Go on, girl!"

And there was a cheer as Selena stamped her foot, slapped her thigh and stood forth bold and heroic: legs apart, hands on hips, tossing her head.

"Aha!" she cried. "Now, sir, take your guard!"

Another cheer and applause, for Abbey had discovered that the way to get the best out of Selena was to send her strutting boldly round the stage on her long legs, since that was guaranteed to raise a stand within every pair of britches in the house.

As he'd said to Katty Cooper: "When she comes on, dear heart, don't worry if there is profound silence from the men… for that is not a bad sign." And indeed it wasn't. And now, not just audiences, but the entire city of Polmouth – the biggest town in the West Country – were falling in love with Selena. Yet there was still further development to come, from a chance remark Selena had made.

"Now then," cried Mr Abbey, clapping his hands. "Let's see you do it!"

Selena stretched out her hands, and found the pistol and paper cartridge on the table in front of her. She felt for the flint, to make sure it was in place, set the lock to half-cock, bit off the end of the cartridge, primed the lock with powder, snapped down the steel, poured the rest of the charge down the up-ended barrel, and rammed ball and paper down the barrel with the ramrod, which she neatly replaced before cocking the lock, levelling and giving fire with a flash and a bang… and a loud CLANG from the great sheet of iron plate hung on a ropes ten paces to her front.

Cheers filled the amphitheatre as Selena pulled off her blindfold, threw it away, put down the smoking pistol, and stamped forward again, smiling and bowing with easy grace to left and right, and blowing kisses to all the house… as she'd been taught.

Mr Abbey, Katty Cooper and the company surged forward, ears ringing from the shot and the clang, and laughed and surrounded Selena.

"Where did you learn that?" said Mr Abbey. "Do you hunt?"

"No," said Selena.

"Then what do you shoot?" said Abbey, for he affected gentlemanly pursuits, including shooting, and went out after game of all kinds, and it was his own conversation on this favourite topic which had led to Selena's boast that she could load a gun blindfolded. "So what have you shot?" he repeated. "Do tell us!"

"Nothing…" she said, in a small voice "… only men."

Everyone thought this a wonderful joke. They laughed enormously, even Katty Cooper, who knew less about Selena than she thought. And as they laughed, inspiration crept up on Mr Abbey. He noticed that some of the dancing girls were clustered around Selena in their gowns and pumps, which made them seem smaller than Selena with her boots and her pistol…

"Stap me!" he said, growing excited. "Do you know, dear heart, I think I might cast Mrs Henderson as the principal boy player in one of my pantomimes!"

Katty Cooper frowned.

"But she's a woman."

"That's the whole point!"

"What is?"

"Well, if we present her – with legs and tits – stamping around the stage pretending to be a man, firing off pistols, and taking the heroine in her arms…"

"Ahhhh!" said Katty Cooper, beginning to understand, for many gentlemen of her professional acquaintance were exceedingly partial to such displays between women.

"We'll have something the men will adore," said Abbey, "while the ladies and children will think it mere innocent nonsense…"

"Which will offend nobody."

"Not at all, not even clergymen," said Abbey, and laughed… and gasped and all but staggered, as he received the second wave of inspiration. He spun Katty Cooper around by the arms, and looked up into her pretty little face. "D'you know what I'm going to do?"

"No?"

"I'm coming with you!"

"You are?" Katty frowned.

"Yes! In fact, I'm taking you. We shall tour together: York, Edinburgh, Exeter, Chester – all of them, at my expense!" Katty's frown darkened, but Abbey failed to notice. "I shall form a travelling company. I shall write a piece!" He waved a hand. "Songs, dances, scenery – everything. We shall tour!" His eyes gleamed. "And then we shall descend upon Drury Lane in triumph!" Katty Cooper growled. "And the lynch-pin and keystone shall be Mrs Henderson," he said. "And I shall make her fortune, mine – and yours, dear heart!"

"Mine?" said Katty Cooper with a twinkling smile, for until that instant she'd seen herself written out.

"Yes!" said Abbey. "And you must not even think of entering her into your profession -" He blinked. "I mean… I mean… your old profession, dear heart."

"Must I not?" she said nastily, for the dear little face could display tremendous spite when it chose to do so.

"God stap me, no! You'll make ten times the money this way!"

"Ahhhhh!" Katty smiled again. That was different.

"Then you agree?"

"Oh yes," said Katty Cooper, and delivered yet another pretty smile.

She smiled and smiled… but Katty Cooper hated Mr Abbey from that moment on, because although she could never say no to money, she was so corrosively – so viciously – selfish that she could abide no plan than her own, nor any hand than hers upon the tiller.

Worse still, Katty Cooper now hated Selena, too, for being better than her mentor and not needing her.

And so, Katty Cooper began to think of ways to punish Selena.

Chapter 22

Mid-morning, 25th June 1753 Jackson's Coffee House Off the Covent Garden Piazza London

"No room, sir!" said the head waiter, shaking his head.

"No room at all!" And he planted himself defiantly in front of John Silver and Dr Cowdray as they came through Mr Jackson's neatly glazed door.

The waiter had been appalled the moment he spotted them through the glass. They were clearly the wrong sort – seafarers, no less! None such were admitted, save officers in His Majesty's sea service, or nabob captains of East Indiamen, and then only if properly dressed. The two men in front of him wore plain old clothes and not a wig between them. And if that weren't bad enough, the tall man was ruined by the loss of a leg and leaned grotesquely upon a crutch, which Mr Jackson would never allow, for he permitted no disfigurement within the house.

"No room?" said Silver, his big, square-chinned face looming down over the waiter as he fixed him with his eye. The waiter swallowed and trembled but stood fast, for his job was at risk. "So what's them empty benches, my lad?" said Silver, pointing into the room.

"Reserved, sir! Reserved for a large party."

"Ah!" said Silver, and nodded, and smiled kindly down on the wretched waiter in his long white apron. "Now see here," he said, "you're a bright lad: smart as paint! I see'd it the instant I clapped eyes on you." The waiter blinked. Silver patted him on the shoulder, and brought out a clunking fistful of big silver coins. "D'you know what these are?" he said.

"Spanish dollars," said the waiter.

"That they are, my lad! And could you tell a poor sailorman, fresh arrived in port, what they might be worth, in King George-God-bless-him's own money?"

"Four to the pound, sir."

"And how many pounds might a lad like you earn in a year? Ten? A dozen?" The waiter nodded. "Well, lad," said Silver, "there's four dollars here what's telling me there's room for me and my matey, over in the corner yonder."

"Ah… hmm" said the waiter. "Perhaps you may be correct, sir. If you'd just follow me…"

"Aye, lad," said Silver. "And I've another four that says, so soon as Mr Jackson's in the house, why, he'd like to lay alongside o' me, for to parlay."

The waiter went chalk white. He knew Flash Jack very well, and all his likes and dislikes. Silver saw his expression, and smiled a wide smile and winked, and prodded the waiter in the ribs and leaned very close.

"Could be more than four dollars," he whispered. "Very much more. Heaps and piles of 'em. Ready cash money. You just tell Mr Jackson that, and send him to me!"

And so they were duly seated, and served, and they drank their coffee and ate their cakes, and ignored the sneers of the other occupants of the room.

"You've grown cunning, John," said Cowdray, smiling. "The man I knew three years ago would have knocked down that waiter as soon as look at him!"

"Well, I ain't that man," said Silver with a scowl. "Not no more."

"Hmm," said Cowdray, and shrugged. "If you're offering money about, how much is left of McLonarch's three thousand?"

"Some," said Silver.

"But how much?" said Cowdray.

"Pah!" said Silver. "Let me worry about that."

"What about Allardyce? He was strong for McLonarch -"

"Who's dead!" said Silver, interrupting.

Cowdray looked him in the eye. "How did Norton do it? How did he really do it?"

Silver scowled.

"I told you. He broke free, got a knife from his boot… and did him!"

"And King Billy's men shot Norton?"

"Aye!" said Silver. "Nice drink, this coffee, ain't it? Right tasty."

Cowdray shut up and looked away. He kept quiet after that, and took refuge in the London newspapers that were lying about the table. Silver ignored him and glowered out of the window, and looked at the bustling heart of London, and ignored that too, and thought his own thoughts.

Then Cowdray sat bolt upright.

"Good God Almighty!" he said. "Flint's in London!"

"What?" said Silver. "How d'you know?"

"Look!" said Cowdray, showing him a copy of the General Advertiser.

"Where?" said Silver.

"Here… under 'Reported Explosion of the Lexicographer'."

"What?" said Silver. "Is that a ship blown up?"

"No! It's Flint, being clever, at a salon in Bramhall Square, last week."

"Are you sure it's him?"

"Read it!"

Silver peered at the article and read aloud from it: '"Such subtlety of expression as won the approval of Johnson himself, for Lieutenant Joseph Flint, whom we had previously been led to believe was a mutineer and a rogue'… It's him all right!" said Silver. "Him as knows where the goods lies. Well, bugger me!"

"If you insist, sir!" said a laughing voice, and a waft of perfume rolled across the table. Cowdray and Silver looked up at the eye-blinding sight of a creature as different from themselves as it was possible to be and yet still remain a human being. Silver recognised him instantly from King Billy's description.

"Mr Jackson?" he said. "Flash Jack the Fly Cove?"

"The very same, sir! At your service, sir," said Flash Jack, and smiled beautifully and delivered the quintessence of a bow.

Hub! thought Silver. At least he flies his colours from the mainmast. No mistaking what he is.

"And would you be the seafaring gentlemen who wished to speak with me?"

"Aye," said Silver. "I'm Cap'n… Hands… and this is Dr Cowdray."

"Gentlemen!" said Flash Jack, and sat down.

They spoke for an hour, but achieved little. Flash Jack knew of no such girl as Silver wanted, and he knew every new arrival in town. The best he could do – for the promise of a hundred in dollars – was to alert Captain Hands aboard the good ship Walrus anchored off Wapping Stairs at such time as his young lady should appear.

The one-legged captain and his friend, who had remained silent for the most part, were getting up to leave when the latter spoke:

"Mr Jackson?"

"Yes, Dr Cowdray?"

"What do you know of Flint – Lieutenant Joseph Flint? I believe he is in town…"

"Flint?" said Flash Jack, and his shutters closed with a slam. "Who would that be? Flint the bookseller? Flint the juggler? I know several gentlemen of that name."

"He is a seaman," said Cowdray. "An old shipmate."

"Back your topsail, matey," said Silver, and laid a hand on Cowdray's arm. "We shan't go bothering Mr Jackson with old tales o' the sea." He smiled. Flash Jack smiled. Cowdray shrugged his shoulders… Then Silver tipped his hat to Flash Jack and led the way up the aisle, hopping his leg and bumping his crutch, and out through the front door with Cowdray astern of him.

Well, gentlemen, thought Flash Jack, and looked at the long-case clock that stood by the serving counter, and which showed that it was nearly noon, if only you'd stayed a little longer! And a short time after, Flash Jack's heart fluttered as the door opened and Lieutenant Flint himself came in, and smiled his wonderful smile and came to sit with Flash Jack, whose every nerve tingled and whose eyes shone like stars.

"Jackie, my boy!" said Flint. "Have you found me a ship?"

Flash Jack smiled.

"For you… it can be done," he said. Flint looked into Flash Jack's eyes, and Flash Jack nearly swooned. He was so transported with delight that he missed Flint's next few words, and only recovered when Flint shook his arm.

"… how much?" Flint was saying. "What's it going to cost?"

"Ah!" said Flash Jack, and named an enormous sum. He might be in love, but business was business. Flint laughed and Flash Jack nearly swooned again. Then Flint thought fast and made a series of promises about great monies hidden in strange places.

"Hmm," said Flash Jack, when this discussion of finance ran quite entirely aground. "Someone was asking after you this morning. A sailor with one leg."

"WHAT?" said Flint, and Flash Jack was astonished at the strength of his reaction, and was forcibly pumped dry of all memory of his conversation with a man who Flint assured him was called John Silver. The inquisition was utterly thrilling to Flash Jack, and he loved every moment of it, for it felt as if Flint was physically laying hands on him. When Flint was finally done with him he was so exhausted that he had to lie down with his dreams.

Flint frowned all the way back to Sir Frederick's house. His mind was galloping. Freedom would be his only if he could find ready money: the fatuous, ludicrous, ridiculous Flash Jack wouldn't move without it! Meanwhile, what did Silver want? Damn, damn, damn Silver! Thus Flint was so occupied that he failed to notice there were people waiting for him at Sir Frederick's. Perhaps it was because the Piazza was especially crammed that day. So he failed to observe the four blue-jacketed, canvas-trousered tars who were following him with pistols and cutlasses in their belts. And more of the same were waiting round the corner, just out of sight – his sight but not theirs – by Sir Frederick's house. And a good many more persons were waiting inside.

Flint, blissfully unaware of this, leapt up the stairs, hammered on the knocker, and only knew anything was wrong when the door swung open to reveal Mr Midshipman Povey with a pair of sea-service barkers in his hand, and the barkers levelled at Flint, and a couple of gold-laced grim-faced lieutenants behind him, and a lobby-ful of marines and Bow Street men behind them, and a scraping and ringing of steel behind Flint, and a dozen tars at the foot of the stairs with blades leaping out of scabbards and points twinkling in his face.

Flint could fight any man who ever lived, and the wise chose not to face him. He was unnaturally quick and uncannily accurate in every blow he struck. But even he had his limits. He couldn't fight thirty armed men with nothing in his hands.

Someone had taken careful measure of Flint, and come with sufficient force and more.

Povey stepped forward. He looked like death. His face was spotted with little scars. His eyes were sunken. He was thin and ill, and his hands were like birds' claws. But he gripped his pistols hard and glared at Flint with sizzling hatred.

"Flint!" he said. "Got you, you bastard!"

Chapter 23

The evening performance Saturday, 17th November 1753 Croxley's Odeon Theatre Drury Lane London

The applause hit Selena like the blast of a siege gun. It bellowed and echoed from the pit and the four tiers of galleries of the biggest theatre in London, which supposedly held an audience of six thousand, but on a night like this, when the bodies were crammed, jammed and rammed into the groaning boxes and on to the endless rows of benches, there were far more – dangerously more – bodies in the house.

They clapped and roared and cried encore, and the smiling company pushed Selena forward in her boots and spurs, and she strutted and slapped her thigh and stamped her feet, and the cheering rose to yet more deafening heights. Then she took up position, front and centre stage, and raised a hand for silence… which came… and she nodded to the orchestra and the conductor waved his baton… and the jolly, jaunty music started up again…

And so, for the fourth time, she sang "The Pollywhacket Song" the clever little ditty that Mr Abbey had composed for her, and which she'd taken from one end of England to the other, with its nonsensical chorus:

Pollywhacket! Pollywhacket!

Pollywhacket! Pollywhacket!

Pollywhacket diddle-diddle eye-dee-oh!

Which didn't sound half so nonsensical when thundered out by an enraptured audience of eight thousand, ranging from London's finest, in jewels and powder in their boxes, to London's lowest, in rags and lice, up near the ceiling, close to God.

Being tired, she sang just one verse and the chorus, and was grateful when the audience let her off with only two more encores. Then at last the curtain came down, and the company could sigh, and smile and hug one another at a wonderful house and a darling audience, and Mr Croxley himself – a vastly fat man whose belly protruded like the ram of an Athenian galley – came bustling forward with Mr Abbey, Katty Cooper and a tail of privileged favourites. Croxley clapped shoulders, pinched cheeks, and beamed in the sublime relief of an impresario who has backed the right horse and sees money coming in on the tide.

"Mrs Henderson!" cried Croxley, advancing through the press of gaudy, half-clad artistes, who bowed and made way and smiled, as he spread wide his arms and smiled in joy. "Mrs Henderson, my own darling girl! Come and give me a kiss!" and…

"Ahhhhhh!" they all cooed as she stepped forward, dainty and lovely, and kissed the fat cheek, and accepted the bear- hug, and the slopping return kiss, and was swept off her feet and swung around and around, and planted down again, and introduced to such a choice selection of the Town's finest gentlemen as transported Mr Croxley into further raptures at the joy of having them within his walls. Meanwhile a pair of maids pressed forward with Mrs Henderson's dressing gown, which they struggled to wrap round her, while the gentlemen bowed and ogled her luscious limbs and fine breasts, seen almost in a state of nature, and for the first time at close range.

Croxley boomed and laughed and chattered, left lesser beings in his wake, and led his little star to a private room, where a meal had been prepared for his special guests, and where later – after much drink and food had gone down, and Mr Croxley was leading the singing of the Pollywhacket song… one of the gentlemen – a lumbering, ugly fifty-year-old by the name of Blackstone – managed to take Selena aside.

He was excellently dressed. He was excellent company. He was excellently attentive, and he made no excuses for his plain, rough self. For he was Sir Matthew Blackstone the brewer: member of parliament, fellow of the Royal Society, and celebrated patron of the arts. He was highly amusing, with choice tales of the other gentlemen now sinking rum punch alongside Mr Croxley, and getting drunk.

He made Mrs Henderson laugh. He put her at ease. He was kind and patient, and only when Selena was entirely charmed did he make his gentle, civilised approach.

"I've got a stallion worth a fortune which I bought for his beauty," he said.

"Have you?" she said.

"And I've got a house in Berkshire, which is the most beautiful in the county." "Oh?"

"And paintings, and statues, and porcelain… all beautiful." "Oh?"

"All that… and an ugly wife."

Silence.

"She had land, you see. And family. And my pa insisted."

Silence.

"I love beauty, Mrs Henderson, and you are – without doubt – the most beautiful creature, the most perfect piece of loveliness, the most glorious work of God, that I have ever seen in all my life." 11 p.m., 17th November 1753 Wapping Stairs London

Warrington gasped and groaned. He'd run all the way from Drury Lane, which was a very long way indeed and he was near dead with exhaustion and sweating under his greatcoat even on this freezing night.

"Come on! Come on!" cried Sammy Hayden, well in the lead and yelling for Warrington to keep up. "Boat! Boat!" he cried, and waved a hand in the air, shoving his way down towards the river where boatmen waited for fares. But it was a busy night and plenty of others were after a ride.

"Ger-cher! You little bugger!" cried a dark figure as Sammy bumped him. "Who you bleedin' shoving?"

"Sorry-sir-indeed-I-beg-pardon!" gasped Warrington, coming along behind, biting his lip and taking care to be polite, for London was dangerous at night. A man could get knifed in a lamp-lit theatre queue, let alone in the shadowy stairs that led down to the Thames.

"Fuck off!" said the wounded party, and Warrington stepped back and was patient, and ground his teeth and Sammy Hayden danced on the spot, until at last they were clambering into the stern sheets of a boat.

"Where to, Cap'n?" said the boatman.

"There! The schooner Walrus!"

"Right y'are, Cap'n!" said the boatman and shoved off. "What name, sir?"

"Warrington, first mate."

"Aye-aye, sir!"

Five minutes later they were under Walrus's quarter, where a ladder was rigged and the boatman calling out

Warrington's name, and Warrington giving him a coin and going aboard.

"Where's the cap'n?" he said to Mr Joe, who was officer of the watch.

"Below. In his cabin… what is it?"

But Warrington and Sammy Hayden were tumbling and rumbling down companionways and dashing to the stern cabin and hammering on the door, and bursting in, and there was Silver's parrot squawking and cursing, and Long John getting up from the long padded bench under the stern lights that he used as a bed.

"Shiver me timbers!" said Silver. "What is it, you swabs, waking me up at…"

"Tell him! Tell him!" cried Warrington to Sammy.

"It's her, Cap'n! We found her! It's her!"

Silver gaped, Silver gasped, he launched himself one-legged and hopping, leaning on the cabin table, and leaping at Sammy Hayden, and hanging on to him, and looking down into the boy's delighted face.

"Where is she?" cried Silver. "How is she? Is she… is she… is she in one o' them… in a…" But words dried up in fear and shame.

"No, no, no!" said Warrington, seizing Long John's arms. "She's well, John! She's wonderful! She's on the bloody stage! She's Mrs Henderson, the famous Mrs Henderson that's appearing at Croxley's Odeon! I was there tonight. I took the lad. He wanted to see a theatre. And just as well, for I'd not have known who it was, never having set eyes on her. BUT HE DID!" He smiled joyfully. "It's her! It's her! She's not… she's not fallen, John… she's full, plump and happy. She must be making a bloody fortune!"

Long John blinked and felt dizzy. The relief rolled over him and his head swam and emotion soared, and the cabin swirled and whirled and turned.

Ten minutes later, he was laid out on the bench with Israel

Hands, Mr Joe, Black Dog and Warrington leaning over him.

"Take a pull, Cap'n," said Israel Hands, holding out a glass of rum. Silver struggled up, got his back against the cushions, his one leg on the floor and the parrot on his shoulder.

"Long John," she said, and stroked his cheek with her head.

He took the glass and gulped it down.

"All this time," he said, shaking his head, "looking in the wrong place."

Israel Hands grinned. "Never mind, Cap'n," he said, "at least she's safe!"

"Aye!" they all said.

He looked at their cheerful faces and sighed. And he had another drink for good fellowship, then sent them all away – all but Israel Hands, for he needed to think, and talk a bit in quiet.

"Why so glum, John?" said Hands.

Silver shook his head. There were things he couldn't say. Not even to Israel Hands. He closed his eyes, and there stood McLonarch, beside Ratty Richards, now and forever. It was bad enough doing a dreadful thing for a rightful reason… but what if there weren't no rightful reason? So Silver spoke of something else: something equally tormenting.

"All the tart shops we been in an' out of these past months!" he said, shaking his head. "We been wasting our time."

"And Mr Joe, wearing himself out!" said Israel Hands.

"And you too, Israel," said Silver, and he sighed. "The thing is, I'd always imagined seizing her away: at pistol point if need be! Coming to the rescue, like."

"Aye," said Hands.

"And herself grateful, and the two of us happy together."

"Aye."

"But now… if she's rich and famous, what'd she want with a cripple like me?"

"Cripple? Not you, John! You're Long John Silver, gentleman o' fortune!"

"Aye! That's the trouble, Mr Hands."

Israel Hands shook his head.

"She's your wife, John. She knows that."

"Does she? D'you think she even thinks about me?"

"'Course she does!"

But Silver simply groaned and looked away. Searching for something to cheer up his friend, Israel Hands grinned merrily:

"Well, at least we can look forward to seeing Flint do the hornpipe! He gets his dish of hearty-choke and caper sauce one week next Monday."

"Bah!" said Silver. "Where's the fun in that? If the bastard dies, then the greatest treasure in all the world is lost. For none can find it but him!" 11 a.m., Sunday, 18th November 1753 The Chapel Newgate Gaol London

Flint, Flash Jack and Billy Bones sat among the public in the viewing gallery that looked down upon one of the most famous sights of London: a fenced-off enclosure some fifteen feet by twenty, containing a table and a pair of benches, where a dozen wretches – in the extreme of religious devotion – wrung their hands, beat their brows, sang hymns mightily along with the congregation, and screwed up their eyes in passionate invocation. For these were the chosen ones… who would be hanged tomorrow. And in case they'd forgotten it, a nice big coffin was laid open on the table before them as a handy reminder.

And all around, the curious, the morbid and the seekers- after-sensation who'd paid to come in for the fun, goggled and gaped, laughed and chattered, and comprehensively ignored the sermon preached by the bewigged and white-robed

Ordinary – the prison chaplain – as he discharged his impossible task of redeeming the unredeemable, while comforting himself with the thought that he was well paid and a good Sunday dinner awaited him.

Flint leaned close to Flash Jack, and pointed out the celebrities among those lost in prayer.

"From the corner, clockwise, we have: Uriah Kemp, utterer of base coin; Mrs Tetty Hammond, the Dover Square abortionist; Mrs Alice Whitebread, poisoner of three husbands; Will Stuart, the butcher who divided his wife with a cleaver; Mrs Sal Porter, who drowned unwanted infants, farmed out by the Parish of Bednal Green…" he smiled "and sundry others who are merely common thieves."

Flash Jack blinked, awestruck by the close proximity of Flint, whose shoulder was actually rubbing against his own.

"You seem…" he searched for words "… comfortable, here, Joe."

"Oh yes," said Flint, "I have a pleasant room, good food, good clothes. And as you can see," he said, smiling at the worshippers below, "the company is splendid!" Then he shrugged and looked down. "Of course, there are these -" he clanked the manacles that joined his wrists and were fastened by chain to the irons about his feet "- and them," he said, casting a glance at the pair of gaolers waiting by the door: heavy men in black hats, with keys and cudgels hanging from their belts. He nodded at them, and they touched their hats respectfully.

"Cap'n!" said their lips.

"Money," said Flint, "buys everything here… almost."

"And you have money… from Sir Frederick?"

Flint nodded. "He advanced me five hundred against my reward money."

"Is the Lennox family still behind you?"

"Only Sir Frederick. The rest were thrashed in court and went away bleeding."

Flash Jack shuddered at the recollection of Flint's trial. It had been poor, nasty, brutish and short: deeply disappointing as a spectacle. The Hastings clan had easily found others beside Mr Povey who'd seen Flint's mutiny: common seamen of no consequence, but whose sincerity was obvious, and whose testimony – beside the stellar performance of the midshipman himself – had assured Flint's doom. The only point of interest was a legal squabble over rights and place of execution, what with Flint being – all in one man – a mutineer, a pirate and a felon, falling under three jurisdictions: the sea service, the Lord High Admiral, and the civil judiciary.

The result – in the opinion of Flash Jack – was a true British Compromise, whereby the civil authorities would hang him at Tyburn, but preceded by the Silver Oar of the Lord High Admiral, and with a bosun's mate actually putting the halter round Flint's neck and making all secure: in which matter the sea service's special proficiency with knots was acknowledged by all parties – except the public executioner, who thereby lost his fee. But this was immaterial since he had no great or powerful friends, and his misery was lost in the joyful expectation of a massive turnout for one of the most notable hangings of modern times.

"Joe," said Flash Jack, "what are we going to do?" He looked at the condemned down below. "Shall you be among them… next Sunday?"

Flint laughed in contempt, and Flash Jack was overwhelmed at his masculinity and his wonderful beauty. "Never!" cried Flint. "I'll face the devil alone when my time comes!" He saw how Flash Jack looked at him. "Listen," he said in a low voice, and Flash Jack tingled, "what about my ship"

Flash Jack dithered as the worship of money fought a mighty alliance of true love allied with lust.

"Perhaps…" he said.

"I haven't the sum you need," said Flint. "Not here in England."

"I know."

"What else will you take… instead of money?"

Flash Jack fluttered his long eyelashes, bit his lip, took a firm grip of his courage, and with madly beating heart, leaned close to Flint and whispered in his ear. Flint listened. He said nothing. Finally he nodded and squeezed Flash Jack's hand, who once again nearly died of pleasure, and trembled to the roots of his toenails. "But first I must remain un-hanged," said Flint.

"I can't get you out of here," said Flash Jack, falling from Heaven to Earth in one bump. "Money won't do that."

"I know," said Flint. "So this is what you must do." He pointed at Billy Bones, gawping miserably at the condemned. "You and him – if there's enough of him left for the task! Now listen closely: you must seek out John Silver, whom I believe you already know…" 11 a.m., Sunday, 18th November 1753 12 Bramhall Square London

"The first Whig was the Devil!" cried Johnson, massively filling a flamboyant chair by Foliot of Paris, which supported his weight only by the triumph of French genius over British beef, while the company applauded, being Tories through and through. "And it is Devil's work that has been performed upon Lieutenant Flint!" he added with a roar.

"Bravo!" they cried: the three dozen privileged favourites attending Lady Faith's salon this day, and Lady Faith and her sisters clapping white hands in a fury of agreement.

"I tell you all," said Johnson, "that this entire business is much rooted in the political hatred of the Whiggish House of Hastings for the Tory House of Lennox!" He smiled graciously at Lady Faith, who was a Lennox by marriage.

"Bravo!" they cried… except for the Brownlough brothers, Reginald and Horace, who leaned forward in their chairs, nodded grimly at one another, and waited for whatever Johnson should say next.

"But there is more!" said Johnson. "Those who know the Caribbean say that so great is the fear in which the Spanish and French hold Captain Flint that his mere presence at sea is enough to offset the rivalry to England's trade which otherwise they would inflict upon us!"

"But is he not a pirate?" protested a small voice at the back.

"Who said that?" cried Johnson, looking round.

"He did!" said the Brownlough brothers, pointing out the villain.

"Who are you, sir?" said Johnson, rising up from his chair like a python discovering a piglet. A mumble came in reply, as the speaker withered and wished himself safe at home in bed, and thought it wise to keep quiet about Flint's attacks on English shipping. "PAH.'" cried Johnson, sitting down. "And was not Drake a pirate? And Hawkins and Frobisher and Raleigh?"

"No!" they cried, and "Yes!" depending upon their perception of the subtleties of double negative.

"My point is this," said Johnson: "far away, across the Atlantic, lies a vast continent which I believe to be the future of all mankind! It holds fabulous wealth in its far horizons, its lofty mountains and its limitless resources of every kind: animal, vegetable and mineral!"

There was utter silence as all present contemplated the thirteen British colonies in America, which were so dreadfully threatened by the American colonies of France and Spain. Johnson nodded.

"As all the old world knows," he said, "this new world shall soon be the cause of a world-wide war, whereby the great powers will compete for control of America." He thumped his knee with a huge fist and stabbed a finger at the company. "And I tell you – I tell you all – that Flint and those like him are at worst merely premature, and at best exemplars of the manner in which a mighty empire shall be won for England! We should not be hanging the man. No! We should be sending him forth in command of a ship of war!"

The company cheered. Johnson nodded wisely, and sought another cup of tea, which Lady Faith poured, in happy satisfaction that all this would be reported in the press tomorrow – writers being present among the company for that very purpose – thereby exulting the prestige of her salon over those of her rivals.

Meanwhile the Brownlough brothers put their heads together and made plans: fierce plans, for they worshipped Johnson, they took his word as law, and they were bold, young, patriotic… and stupid.

Chapter 24

Dawn, Monday, 26th November 1753 The Press Yard Newgate Gaol London

The winter sun rose in splendour over the elegant squares, coppered domes, soaring spires, two great bridges, and the filthy, stinking tenements of London. The day was crisp, and all was merry brightness, showing that the Almighty smiled upon the vast crowd – the greatest in living memory – that was assembling for the hanging of Joseph Flint.

So thought Flint as he stepped out into the Press Yard surrounded by lesser beings, for Flint shimmered in the gold- laced, black velvet suit of clothes which had been purchased at vast expense for the occasion. Likewise the shining, soft- leathered boots, the black-feathered hat, and the diamond- hilted sword that hung from a golden baldric across his shoulder. They'd snapped off the sword blade, of course, but the weapon looked just as good in its scabbard and perfectly suited the dignity of the principal performer in the tremendous act of theatre that would soon take place.

Flint looked around and smiled. His had never been a normal mind, and to him it was hilarious that the Press Yard was so called because it was here that felons who refused to plead guilty or not guilty – thereby saving their loot for their families – were spread-eagled upon the ground to be pressed under weights until either they entered a plea or died. Flint laughed, for the same law that called him a villain, permitted this cruel torture.

Clang! Clang! Clang! The prison blacksmith struck off Flint's irons upon his anvil, and there was a brief, unseemly scuffle as the prison's yeoman of the halter attempted to tie Flint's hands in front of him and drape him with a noose, for this was his prerogative. But a sea-service bosun, immaculate in shore-going dress, elbowed him aside.

"Urrumph!" said the sheriff.

"A-hum!" said the prison chaplain.

"Huh!" said a sea-service captain.

And the yeoman blinked, and stood back, remembering what had been agreed for this special occasion.

"Oh," he said, "beg pardon, I'm sure."

"Cap'n!" said the bosun to Flint, producing a cord and halter of his own, all neatly worked in Turk's heads and seizings.

"Ah!" said Flint. "I can see that you have served before the mast!"

"Aye-aye, sir!" said the bosun, and sought to tie Flint's wrists.

"A moment!" said Flint, raising a hand in admonition.

"Cap'n?"

"I have a duty to perform," said Flint, and snapped his fingers towards the fellow who'd been his servant these past weeks – one Edwards, a failed writer who'd battered a publisher in despair at rejection. This sorry creature crept forward with a tray bearing a number of doe-skin purses.

"Ahhh!" said all present.

"Gentlemen," said Flint, and presented a purse to each of the big gaolers who'd followed his every step.

"Gor bless you, Cap'n!" they said, and sniffed and snivelled.

"Weren't no wish of our'n, Cap'n!" said one.

"No finer gennelman ever lived!" said the other.

"Reverend, sir," said Flint, turning to the chaplain, "for those in want…"

"Oh, sir!" said the chaplain, deeply affected, taking the purse.

"Mr Bosun!" said Flint, handing out the last purse.

"Aye-aye, sir!" said the bosun, and saluted as if to an admiral.

"Proceed, Mr Bosun!" said Flint, and he offered his hands.

So Flint was tied and the noose draped round his neck and the slack bound round his body, and he was led through doors, gates and passages, and outside the prison… where an enormous cry went up from the mob already assembled. Even so early as this, they were ready and waiting: tinkers, tailors, chair-men, lumpers, washerwomen, gentlewomen, gentlemen, and dogs, hogs, chickens and beggars. Them and all the cocky young apprentices of the town, who – by kindly tradition – had been given the day off for the hanging.

Seeing this, Flint doffed his hat, and bowed left and right, to cheers and applause, and climbed up into the big, black- bodied mourning coach – hired by himself at still further expense – with a coachman on the box, and footmen on their steps at the rear, all liveried in sombre black, and stood to utmost attention, and four splendid horses in harness, with black plumes nodding from their heads.

Even more splendid were the uniformed, mounted javelin- men, two troops of them, formed up to front and rear of the coach. They were there to keep back the mob and guard the prisoner, but with their big, ceremonial lances, tasselled below the steel points, they resembled a royal escort.

"Ahhhhhh!" gasped the crowd, pressing forward as Flint caused the folding roof to be lowered such that he could see – and be seen – all the better.

The only thing that let down the magnificent display was the clumsy, two-wheeled farm wagon rumbling along behind the rearmost javelin-men, drawn by two plodding nags. This was the vehicle upon which the common condemned rode to the gallows, sitting on the coffin in which they would later ride away from it. Today there were no common condemned for it to carry, but no amount of money could dispense with the coffin.

"Three cheers for the cap'n!" cried a voice, and the mob huzzahed to shake the windows and rattle the tiles, as the sheriff, the chaplain, and the sea-service captain crammed in beside Flint and the astonished bosun, who'd never been so close to so much rank in all his life.

"Forward!" cried the sheriff, and the procession moved off to the mournful beat of four drummers, dressed in black, who marched behind the Lord High Admiral's Silver Oar bearer, and were yet another expense down to Joe Flint. But what did that matter? He wasn't going to spend his reward money on anything else: not now.

And so, the long, slow two miles to Tyburn, which a galloping horse would cover in minutes, but which took over three hours when the Town was turned out, lining the streets in swaying, heaving, grinning multitudes that came armed with the traditional missiles: rotten fruit, turds in paper, and the ever-popular dead cats – some not entirely dead – which, when swung by the tail and thrown, were the supreme expression of the mob's displeasure.

But none of these were thrown at Joe Flint: not him! For he stood gallantly in the carriage, and blew kisses to the ladies, saluted the gentlemen, and struck the boldest figure that London had ever seen… and so he was received with roaring acclamation… the same acclamation as proceeded from the sheriff, the chaplain, the sea-service captain and – most especially – the bosun, who grinned in red-faced merriment, for Flint had provisioned the carriage with spirits, and the bottles were soon uncorked and going down.

Custom prescribed two stops along the way, at favoured public houses, which paid vast bribes for the privilege of being chosen, since this meant being drunk dry of drink, and eaten bare of food, by the colossal and merry increase in business on a hanging day.

Thus, first to the Stump and Magpie, St Giles's, where roaring trade was capped by Joe Flint's singing of a song – new to London – which became the choice of the mob, long after.

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest…

He sang beautifully, stood up on a table with the rope round his neck and his bound hands, and soon the cram- packed sweating company learned to roar out the response, and all those in the streets outside bellowed along with them.

Yo, ho, ho – and a bottle of rum!

"Listen," said Billy Bones, "that's his song!"

"Aye, Mr Mate," said Black Dog.

Billy Bones scowled.

"Lieutenant!" he said.

"If you says so… Lieutenant," said Black Dog, grinning.

"What song?" said Mr Joe.

"Before your time, my son," said Black Dog.

"Ah!" said Billy Bones, listening to the song and cheering up for the first time in months. "That's my Cap'n!" he said, swelling with pride. "That's my boy! Hark to the manner of him. And him on his way to be hanged!"

"Aye!" they all said, all of them: twenty of Long John's men, and another twenty of King Jimmy's who were following the coach on foot, glad of the long coats they wore for the cold, and which hid what they'd got underneath.

It was the same at the Green Man in Oxford Street, except that knowledge of the song had swept ahead of the lumbering coach, and when the big vehicle pulled to a stop and the javelin-men used the butt ends of their spears to force a way into the inn yard, the mob surged in behind, roaring the song out to Heaven, even as Flint, the sheriff, the chaplain, and the bosun were stood in line, relieving themselves in the privy. But not the sea-service captain. He was snoring peacefully in the coach.

However, all good things come to an end and eventually, seated in his splendid carriage beside his foolishly grinning companions and surrounded with a Roman Triumph of screeching faces, Flint caught his first sight of the Tyburn tree where it reared up, right in the middle of a great crossroads to the west of London, in open ground where Oxford Street became Tyburn Road, before branching into the Uxbridge Road and the ancient Roman Watling Street.

It stood like a squat timber cathedral, high over all else. Its three massive legs supported a great triangle from which as many as twenty-four sufferers could be turned off at one time with the utmost convenience. But now it was occupied only by a hangman's mate, who lazed on its topmost height with the smoke of his pipe drifting up into the cold air.

Even Joe Flint gulped at that, and even he staggered under the enormous noise of the crowd assembled at this most favourite spot, for London's most favourite day out: an entertainment offering not only tremendous spectacle, but moral instruction besides, and therefore suitable for the entire family, from doting grandmas to precious children. Flint shook his head. He thought he'd seen a multitude in the streets… but it was nothing compared to this! The number was beyond counting.

There were timber grandstands, built by entrepreneurs to give a fine view of the gallows at two shillings a head. There were coaches of the gentry, whipping inward for better places, their splendid occupants leaning out and yelling and quarrelling. There were men stuck in muddy potholes, struggling clear. There were pick-pockets, whores, and pox doctors.

There were fights with cudgels, fists and clawing fingernails, while cripple-beggars worked the crowd with rattling tins, infants got dropped and trampled, little boys piddled in corners, and pie-men, gin vendors, hawkers and broadsheet sellers bellowed their trade – especially the latter:

"Last true confession of Flint the pirate!" they cried, promising Flint's own words, giving all his crimes in blood-curdling detail.

The Brownlough brothers stood in the middle of their own private mob, turned out for the price of a guinea a man and a bottle of gin, and wearing white bands in their hats so they shouldn't smash one another's brains in by mistake. They stood to one side of the main mob that bawled and roared around the three-legged mare.

"So! Shall we see him hang?" cried Reginald Brownlough, the elder.

"Noooooo!" they roared, their voices lost in the general din.

"So who's with me, for the honour of old England?"

"Me!" they cried, even the Scots and Irish among them.

"Then will you follow me?"

"Aye!"

He'd been preaching the same sermon for days, had Reginald Brownlough, to stevedores, chair-men, and butcher's boys, down in the gin shops and ale houses of East London. He was intoxicated with it now: even more than they were on his gin. But… by virtue of much money and a certain gift for words, he'd got them worked up for a fight.

After all, these kiddies didn't need much excuse for that; and there were nearly three hundred of them.

The javelin-men forced a way through the mob, which genially bellowed and shrieked, and gave way, and pressed, laughing and gawping, against the coach as their stink rolled over Flint, and dirty hands pawed, and children were held up to see him, and the gallows came close, and the enormous mob roared out his own precious song, in a bad-breath, gin-sodden, mountain of sound…

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest,

Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

And here Flint changed. As he looked around to all sides, even the tight-shut compartments of his singular mind – which had kept him jolly thus far – could not keep out the plain threat of destruction of the self. As far as he could see, all had failed and death was certain. And so, the devil-may-care actor who'd put on such a show for the crowd… became simply the devil.

His face darkened. Expression vanished. His muscles tensed… and he began to blink furiously…

Silver shouted in King Jimmy's ear. The mob's roar was like a storm at sea. It was deafening. King Jimmy and Flash Jack leaned closer to hear, the three of them standing up in the chaise which swayed beneath them, for it was built for speed, with two huge, light wheels and a pair of blood horses harnessed in tandem, stamping their hooves in fright, with Israel Hands holding their heads and trying to calm them, while two dozen men in long coats forced their way through the crowd, elbowing all others aside and forming up in a body around the vehicle.

One of them looked miserably at Long John, and couldn't meet his eye, for they parted bad on Flint's island.

"Huh!" said Silver. "Here's Billy Bones and our lads. So where's the others?"

"They're here already," said King Jimmy. "Look!" and he pointed.

"Ah!" said Silver. "The buggers with white in their hats?"

"Aye!" said King Jimmy. "The Brownlough boys. We all know them down Wapping way! Them shit-heads ain't even made a secret of it."

"Can we trust them?" said Flash Jack, who trusted nobody, and was unrecognisable as his exquisite self, being dressed in plain dull clothes, and no wig but a big hat pulled low over the bald head which he shaved for cleanliness. Nobody would have known him who'd seen him shimmering down the aisle at Jackson's.

"Can we trust you?" said King Jimmy. "It's only you as says Flint knows how to find the treasure!"

Flash Jack sneered.

"Who else can find Flint's treasure, but Flint?" he said.

"Aye," said Silver, and looked at Flint, waving to the mob in his carriage. "By thunder!" he said. "I know the bugger, burn and beach me if I don't." He nodded grimly. "He'll know where it lies, cunning bastard that he is, by God, for there ain't none like him! And trust me, Jimmy, no bugger could get it off him. Not if they stripped him bare-arsed. But he'll know and he'll have it secret somewhere… and there ain't no finding of it without him!"

"An' it's eight hundred thousand?" said King Jimmy, relishing the colossal sum.

"Aye," said Silver, "why else d'you think we're here?"

Flint went mad as they got him out of the mourning coach and up on to the tail of the farm cart with its open coffin, where the bosun threw the slack of his noose up to the hangman's mate so it could be made fast to an overhead beam, and the chaplain produced his prayer book and began to rant.

The javelin-men were well clear now, to give the public a good view, but there were plenty of men around Flint, nonetheless: the bosun, the public hangman – present even if he wasn't being paid – the sea-service captain, the sheriff, a couple of muscular assistant hangmen, and of course the chaplain, for all the good he could do.

And then came an incredible, unique and totally unprecedented sight which prompted a truly stupendous roar from the mob: the condemned man was making a last fight beneath the gallows!

Flint, having bitten through the bonds around his wrists in manic, shrieking fury, drew his sword – that still had a three-inch stump of sharp steel and a knuckle guard and a pommel – and used it to kill the bosun and the sea-service captain, quick as thought, stabbing into their throats. He killed the terrified sheriff, smashing in the back of his head with the pommel as he turned to run. He went for the chaplain, who screamed like a girl and saved his life by taking the sword stump into the thickness of his prayer book. Frustrated, Flint kicked the chaplain's legs out from under him and was stamping a heel into his face when the hangman and his two assistants dived in with fists and boots, white- faced, wide-eyed and spitting fury.

"Now, boys!" cried the Brownlough brothers, and a united howl arose from their three hundred.

"Flint! Flint! Flint!" they roared and surged forward, cudgels raised, trampling all before them as they charged the gallows.

"Forward, lads!" cried Silver. "But let them Brownloughs take the first fire!"

"Giddyup!" cried King Jimmy, whipping the horses.

"Aye!" cried Silver's men.

"Aye!" cried King Billy's.

And they threw off their coats to reveal pistols and cutlasses, and drew steel with a scrape and a ring, and the chaise drove through the crowd hedged in blades, bowling along behind the wave of the Brownlough mob, with Silver's and King Jimmy's men alongside, all cheering madly, even as the javelin- men wheeled about to face the Brownloughs.

Beneath the gallows, Flint bit and stabbed and kicked and butted. He pummelled and spat and shrieked, he fought beyond strength, beyond reason, beyond endurance… and could even now have prevailed, even with three men hanging on to him, of which two at least were marked for life and losing strength, had not the captain of the javelin-men sent four reinforcements to help the hangman, even as he was wheeling his troop into line to face the mob. "Chaaaaaaarge!" cried the captain.

"Arrrrrrgh!" cried his men, dipping their spears and spurring their horses.

"Flint! Flint!" cried the Brownloughs, hurling cobbles, bricks and bottles.

"Steady, lads," cried Silver, holding back his men. "Let the buggers fight!"

"Grab his bastard hands!" cried the hangman, as fresh men dashed in.

"Ahhhhhhhhhh!" shrieked Flint. He tore an ear with his teeth, gouged an eye with his thumb, sliced a scrotum with his sword… but:

"Gotcher!" cried the hangman, and he pulled the noose tight under Flint's chin, and steadied himself on the blood- soaked planks of the farm cart, and then – with the satisfaction of a craftsman showing soddin' amateurs how a job should be done… he pushed Flint off the back of the cart, with three men still hanging on to him…

… men who flailed and swung their arms, and two dropped swiftly to the ground, and one had to beat Flint to make him let go, and he dropped too, and the vast mob shrieked tremendously again, and all those in the grandstands leapt to their feet and roared as Flint swung… and choked… and throttled… and his hands clawed the crushing rope… and his eyes bulged… and the blood thundered in his ears… and his legs danced… and his body dangled… five feet clear of the ground.

Chapter 25

Noon, Monday, 26th November 1753 The Rotunda Ranelagh Gardens London

Sir Matthew Blackstone was in love with Selena. She could see it in his adoring expression. And he might be over fifty and ugly, but he was one of the richest men in England.

She knew what was coming. She'd guessed. Her entire life was hers to change with a single word. That's why she'd been brought here. But for the moment, she gasped, for the Rotunda was exotic beyond belief, even to her, though she was no longer an innocent in such matters, having grown as familiar with the gilded luxury of salons as with the spectacular cunning of theatrical effects.

The huge dome was the pride of Ranelagh, the most civilised of the London pleasure gardens. It was all fresh painted in pale cream, with an oriental profusion of elegant pillars and relief-work in red, and two great tiers of private boxes running round the walls, where patrons could take tea while looking out on the crowd sauntering around the vastly complex and gloriously decorated central column, which was itself a feat of architecture and which supported the ceiling. Several dozen huge chandeliers hung by scarlet cords, while one of the finest orchestras in London played in a huge canopied box to one side, and the admission price was set high enough to ensure that only the most proper and fashionable persons might gain entry.

"Well," he said, "do you like it?"

"It's beautiful," she said. "I'm glad we came."

"Good," he said, "'cos it ain't normally open this time o'year." He shrugged. "But a little word in the right ear…"

"Oh!" she said. "Did you cause it to be open: for me?" She fluttered her eyelashes and laid a hand on his arm, and gazed at him with pouting lips and round eyes… and laughed. And he laughed too and shivered at the beauty of her in the yellow silk which was her favourite colour, and was thrilled at the pleasure of simply being with her, and her acting a silly part as she did on the stage, and doing it just for him!

"Well, did you?" she said.

"Yes. I did."

"Then thank you!" But she frowned, puzzled. "Then who are all these people?" She looked at the ladies and gentlemen strolling around, greeting friends, nodding to acquaintances.

"Well," he said, "if it was going to be open, I wanted it looking alive and not dead, so I put the word around… and of course that lot -" he pointed to Katty Cooper, standing twenty paces off with Mr Abbey and others of his company – "they're our chaperones, my lass, for the benefit of them as knows me and knows Lady Blackstone, too: the old trout back home in Berkshire."

"Oh!" she said.

"Oh, indeed!" Sir Matthew sniffed and looked round. "Most of 'em know me, here." And he caught the eye of the conductor of the orchestra, and raised his hat and gave a nod, whereupon the conductor bowed in acknowledgement… tap-tapped his baton… stopped the orchestra in full flood…

"One, two!" he said, and the orchestra broke into "The Pollywhacket Song", to general delight and applause towards Selena, while she – now very much the artiste – made her curtsey to all points of the compass. Having sung the wretched song hundreds of times, she now detested it, but the public didn't, and Sir Matthew didn't, and he was seeking to please, for he was kind and thoughtful and generous.

"Well," said Sir Matthew, when she turned to him with a smile that sent shivers down his backbone, "it's better than Captain Flint's hanging, which is where most of London is gone this day, and where I'd have gone myself if not for you…" But he saw her reaction and knew he'd said something wrong.

"God love you, my little dear," he said, and put an arm around her. "What is it?" But she groaned for painful memories, and he groaned to see it. "Tell me, my lovely. Tell old Matty," he soothed, for he was a decent man and couldn't bear to see her unhappy.

"Could we sit down?" said Selena.

"Of course," he said, and led her to one of the private boxes and sat her down at a table, and took a seat beside her and ordered tea and hot drop-scones from one of the waiters, while – keeping their distance – Katty Cooper, Mr Abbey and the rest, looked on… Katty Cooper grinding her teeth in jealousy.

"So what's the matter, my sweetheart?" Sir Matthew's rough, lumpish face was transported into concern, and he clasped his bear-paws round her small hands.

"I know Flint," she said. "Or rather, I knew him…"

"What? How could that be? He's a pirate!"

"But I know him." Selena looked at Sir Matthew, whom she liked and trusted, and she started to explain. She spoke of things that had been confined to the back of her mind for many months. And the more she spoke, the easier it got, until it all tumbled out: head over heels, disordered, stumbling and repetitive… but all of it. Right from the start: from the Delacroix Plantation to Charley Neal's grog shop to the Walrus, Flint's Island, his treasure, Danny Bentham and beyond. She told him every last thing. Even about the two men she'd shot dead in Charlestown. Even about Joe Flint, who was mad and who'd said he loved her, and even about John Silver, who certainly did.

And Sir Matthew listened, and said nothing, and held her hand, and the tea and drop-scones arrived and grew cold, and still she spoke and he listened.

Finally she sighed and stopped and looked at him, and he was pierced to the soul at the beauty of her lovely, vulnerable face appealing to him for judgement. In that instant he'd have stood between her and the world. He'd have jumped off a cliff for her, if it would have helped! And he'd have gone down joyful and content. But there was one point to discuss: a point such as couldn't be missed by so practical a man as Matt Blackstone.

"You're married, then? You're Mrs Silver?" he said.

"Yes," she said.

"But you left him?"

"Yes."

He stayed silent a long time. He gathered courage. He looked at her again.

"And would you go back to him now, if you could?"

There was an even longer silence.

"Wait!" he said, and shook his head. "Don't answer that, 'cos here's the way of it my girl: first of all, I don't care what you've done. After all, what choice did you have? And what care I if you did? Second, here's myself married, and yourself married, and church and state between us." He spread his hands and smiled sadly. "If I'd met you as a lad, I'd have said no to my pa and never married the old trout, and asked you instead!" He laughed. "But that were twenty year before you was born!"

She laughed too, and his heart leaped with joy to see it.

"Matt," she said, "you're a good man…"

"Aye, but an ugly, old one."

"No!"

"Yes! But here's what I'm offering: there can't be no marriage, and I ain't such a fool as to think you'd have me for love…"

"Matt!" she said, leaning forward to touch his rough cheek. He sighed and kissed her hand with utmost gentleness, but he shook his head.

"No. None o' that," he said, "for I'm a philosophical man. So! You're making good money on the stage right now, ain't you?" She nodded. "Then beware, my princess, for of all trades, that's the least certain and the least secure!"

"Is it?" she said, for she was in full flush of triumphant success.

"Oh yes!" he said. "You'll learn! The stage can turn you out tomorrow, whereas I offer this… I offer to settle regular monthly payments upon you, and a cash sum on my death, as'll make you a rich woman, secure in your own right with house and carriage and servants an' all." He wagged a finger. "And all signed and sealed by the lawyers. But -" he said, and looked her in the eye with the sharpness that had made him so formidable a man of business "- here's the bargain: there shall be no other man than me… and that too shall be written into the settlement." He nodded slowly. "For I may be old, and I do love you my little darling… but I'll not be made a fool of… and if I am… the money stops!"

"Matt," she said, "I'd never deceive so kind a man as you."

He laughed.

"Not you, my sweetness, not right now. But three years on, when you're bored and some pretty young fellow winks his eye at you…"

"No!" she said.

Sir Matthew smiled.

"Aye," he said, "whatever you say. But I'm serious in what I've said. Every word of it… Now! I'm off into Berkshire tomorrow, the which'll give you a few days to think. But when I come back, I'll want an answer." She leaned across the table and kissed him. And Katty Cooper sizzled in hatred.

Chapter 26

Noon, Monday, 26th November 1753 Tyburn To the west of London

The javelin-men hit the Brownlough boys in a beating of iron hooves, a kicking of sharp-spurred boots, a snorting of yellow horse-teeth, and the massive impact of twenty-nine horses and men – twelve-hundred pounds weight per mount and rider – moving at thirty miles per hour and arriving knee- to-knee in a wall of muscle and bone.

And all the while Joe Flint kicked and twisted in his death agony.

It didn't matter that they weren't trained cavalry. It didn't matter that their spears were for show and not sharpened. It didn't matter that they had no military swords, only short- bladed hangers. They hit the mob as a sledgehammer hits a melon. The Brownlough boys didn't even have time to turn and run – though the sharpest of them tried, and were duly hit from behind.

Flint struggled and trembled. He throttled and fought for breath.

Men were thrown down with skulls smashed under horseshoes and limbs broken and spines shattered and faces smashed into the ground and the dead and the dying piling up, and men smothering underneath, and others screaming, groaning and bleeding as the charge punched deep into the heaving, struggling, three-hundred-strong, gin-fired mass, with its cudgels and cobbles and knives… until the force of the charge was soaked up by sheer bulk of human flesh, and the horses began to trample and buck and kick, and the javelin- men bellowed and roared and stabbed with their blunt spears, and slashed with their short swords.

And Flint began to weaken.

Then one of the javelin-men got pulled from his saddle and was beaten with pitiless fury as the tide of the battle turned, for now not only the Brownlough boys fought back, but the mob itself was roused and it growled in the depth of its rage, instinctively taking the part of its fellows against the forces of law, and falling upon the javelin-men in thousands and tens of thousands, with clawing hands, swinging cudgels, a tremendous volley of stones, and limitless strength which pulled over not only the riders, but their shrieking mounts as well.

Flint's hands fell to his sides.

"Wait! Wait!" cried Silver. "No bugger goes without the word!"

"Arrrrrrgh!" they cried.

"Come on, John!" said King Jimmy, shaking with fighting fury.

"No! No! No!" said Flash Jack, and hopelessly sought a way out.

"NOW!" cried Silver, for he'd spotted a way through to the gallows. "Pistols now, boys! Mark your targets!"

"Go-on! Go-on!" cried King Jimmy, and thrashed the two horses; they leapt forward, taking the chaise and its bodyguard of armed men darting into the gap Silver had spotted in the vast wall of flesh and blood that stood between them and the gallows.

Flint hung unmoving. He turned slowly on the rope.

There was a roaring, rolling volley of gunfire as the chaise met the mob, with Silver's and King Jimmy's men hanging on and shooting down any creature – man or beast – that stood in the way as the chaise drove through the hideous revenge being inflicted upon the wretched javelin- men.

Crack! Crack! Crack! went King Jimmy's whip and the chaise shot ahead at such a pace as to leave its bodyguard falling and dragging behind, and then they were up to the foot of the gallows and alongside of Flint's body with the executioner and his mates wide-eyed in terror, and in anger, too. And as King Jimmy pulled open a clasp knife, grabbed the hanging-rope from the height of the chaise, and commenced hacking and slashing… the hangman leapt up into the cart and struck an enormous blow with the lead- loaded club that he kept for moments like this, and caught King Jimmy on the brow with a crunch that stove in the bone and mashed the brains beneath.

"Bastard!" cried John Silver, and pulled out a pistol, jamming it into shirt and ribs, then a yellow flash and a roar of powder blew half a pound of catsmeat out of the hangman's body, and Flash Jack seized his beloved Flint by the waist, and strained to lift him to take the pressure off the rope, and Silver dropped the pistol, and drew a cutlass and sawed the rope…

And London trembled from east to west and north to south as such a cheer arose from Tyburn as had never been heard in all its five hundred years as a place of execution…

… as Flint dropped free of the gallows and fell into the chaise!

Silver heaved mightily to get the rope from his throat, and rubbed his chest and chafed his limbs and prayed for the life of the man he detested above all others, while Flash Jack kicked the dead from the chaise and whipped up the horses and drove speeding through the mob, which opened like the

Red Sea before Moses, except that Moses wasn't cheered, idolised, adored and urged onward as he passed.

Thus the chaise rocked and galloped away down Oxford Street, heading for London at dizzy speed, while Silver's and King Jimmy's men merged into the wildly milling crowd, and the newspaper writers ruptured themselves in the speed of their pencilling and loosing pigeons, and the few remaining javelin-men were beaten senseless, and the lightly wounded lay groaning, the heavily wounded lay dying, and the already dead lay stiffening, with the pickpockets feeling for their goods.

But the mob wasn't done. Not it! Not yet! It was more worked up than it had been for years. It had smelled blood. It had killed and had men killed. It boiled and seethed, and – fired up with wicked glee – it sought further entertainment.

First it robbed the pie-men and gin-sellers, then it wrecked and burned down the grandstands where the wealthy – now wisely departed – had sat. Next it conducted a diligent search of itself for Catholics, Jews, dissenters, foreigners and others whom it did not like, and sent them on their way with bloody noses and a boot up the arse. Then, swaggering, roaring and vastly steaming in the cold November air, it rolled down Oxford Street in the very tracks of the chaise that had rescued its hero, where it got to down to some serious work by overturning carriages, smashing windows, looting shops and setting fire to any houses thought to be owned by persons hostile to the bold Captain Flint.

Meanwhile Flash Jack shook in horror in the galloping chaise, for the things he'd seen and the things he'd done, which were such as he'd never experienced in all his comfortable life. Then a voice yelled in his ear:

"Avast!" said Silver. "Back your topsail. Heave-to you swab!"

"Oh…" said Flash Jack, and hauled on the reins and brought the horses to a trembling walk, and they gasped and panted, as he did himself.

"Where are we?" said Silver, looking round the empty streets.

"Near Tottenham Court Road," said Flash Jack, born and bred in London.

"Poor bloody Jimmy!" said Silver. "Was he dead?"

"Yes… I think so."

"But you heaved him over anyway, poor bugger!" Silver shook his head. He pointed to the roadside. "Drop anchor over there."

With the chaise stopped, Silver knelt beside Flint, who was laid under the seat, unmoving. He put his head to Flint's chest. He took a silver dollar from his pocket, rubbed it on his sleeve and held it to Flint's lips.

"Pah!" he said in disgust.

"God, let him live!" said Flash Jack.

"Devil, more like!" said Silver… as Flint opened his eyes and looked at Silver, for he was indeed alive. He was alive but sunk in dread. He'd known what it was to die. He had died as far as he knew, and even the most tremendous of minds doesn't come clean away from that: not clean nor quick nor unharmed, and Flint shuddered and shook, as once again – in burning memory – he suffered the agonies of death by strangulation.

"John…" he said to the familiar face, and groaned and raised a hand to clutch for light and life, and escape from torment.

"Joe," said Silver, "you stay there. We can talk later." Then he threw a blanket over Flint so he'd not be seen, and sat up on the seat beside Flash Jack. "You're the fly cove! You're the bounding boy! So where are we going? We planned for Jimmy's warehouse, but all my dealings was with him. I can't trust his people without him."

"I've got a house," said Flash Jack, "off Cable Street."

"I knows of none better," said Silver. "Whip 'em up. But slow an' easy." He looked at the near-deserted streets. "There's no bugger, hardly, here to see us, what with 'em all gone to the hanging. But make it slow and easy."

Later, the chaise drove into Well Close Square, by the Danish church, and into a yard behind the house, where there was a small stable for the horses, and they got Flint to his feet and led him staggering inside, leaning on the two of them.

"Nice!" said Silver, when the door was shut and locked and Flint had been settled in a big Windsor chair in the parlour.

Nice was hardly the word. The room was exquisite: burnished, cleaned, polished, and neat beyond all reason. The whole house was the same, and fitted out with the most beautiful of furniture, ornaments and pictures: all in harmony, all elegant, all beautifully chosen.

Flash Jack smiled.

"It is my little quiet place," he said. "Where I bring friends."

"Do you now?" said Silver.

"Yes," said Flash Jack, for it was true, though the friends were always paid.

"Drink," said Flint, swaying and hanging on to the arms of the chair. "Drink, for the love of God." He was pawing at his throat, where a red weal had been burned into his skin by the rope. He was shuddering and shivering.

Flash Jack took over. He was an excellent host, an excellent cook, and kept a fine cellar. Soon he emerged from his kitchen with a couple of bottles of claret and a dish of buttered bread slices, cut into triangles, with sliced beef and pickles between.

"Very tasty," said Silver, munching one of the triangles.

"Johnny Montagu's own recipe," said Flash Jack, an incurable name-dropper. "He tells me they're to be named after himself: sandwiches – for he's the Earl of Sandwich, as you know."

But they weren't listening. Silver was looking at Flint, and Flint was looking at Silver. For them there was nobody else in the room. Far too much had passed between them for that.

Flint drained a glass, breathed deep, and spoke. His voice croaked and he was weak. He wasn't himself. Not nearly. Not by a hundred thousand miles.

"You got my offer, John?"

"The treasure for your life?"

"Yes."

"Aye. I got it, from him -" Silver nodded at Flash Jack. "Why else would I cut you down?"

Flint nodded. He shuddered, and in the extremity of his horror at meeting death, his mind was so altered that he was honest.

"The treasure?" he said, and drew a neat little silver cylinder from his pocket. About the size of a man's finger, it was a porte-crayon, designed to hold a pen or pencil… but this one didn't. Flint unscrewed a cap at one end, and shook out a tight roll of papers, covered in tiny handwriting… Flint's handwriting.

"The map," he said, "merely finds the island, where you can search for ever and not find the goods."

"I know!" said Silver.

"But these notes," said Flint, "give precision."

Flash Jack looked at the papers.

"Why so much detail?" he asked.

"To begin with," said Flint, "there are several burial sites, not one. They are in jungle clearings which even I couldn't find again without the bearings and measurements I took from such points as nature provided: great rocks and giant trees." Flint shook his head. "If once you go wrong, you'll never find the next bearing point. So it's all or nothing. Even half the papers would be useless."

Flint sank back, his voice weak from so much speech, and Flash Jack reached out to touch the cylinder.

"No!" gasped Flint. "Don't touch it, Mr Jackson. You can guess where I hide it, when searched." "Ugh!" said Flash Jack, and recoiled as if from a spider, for he was intensely fastidious in all matters of hygiene.

"So," said Silver. "How's things, my cocker?"

Flint sighed.

"I never did admire that appellation, John. For it is crassly vulgar."

"Huh! So you ain't quite dead!"

"No," said Flint, straining to speak and fingering his neck. "But I'm not quite alive, neither, for the belly and bowels of me think that I'm dead!" And he shook violently as emotions heaved in the depths of his soul.

"Joe!" said Silver, half out of his chair, for the friendship had once been great, and Flint was suffering.

"No!" said Flint. "Be still." And he forced out words with great difficulty. "Here's a thing, John…"

"What?"

"When I was on the rope…"

"Leave it, Joe," he said. "Maybe later, when you're fit?"

"No. It must be said. When I was on the rope… and dying…"

"Don't, Joe!"

"I expected to see my father at the gates of Hell."

"What, to save you?"

"No! As my punishment." Flint looked at Silver. "Did you have a father?"

"Aye!"

"Was he a good man?"

"A rough bugger," said Silver. "Laid on hard with the belt."

"There are worse things," said Flint, and bowed his head and sat quiet a while. Then he looked up. "My father was not there," he said.

"No?" said Silver.

"But you were, John. I saw you."

Now Silver shuddered.

"What was I doing?"

"I don't know. But you were reaching out."

"Was I trying to save you?"

"I don't know."

"Why not?"

"Because she was beside you, and I was looking only at her."

Silence. Profound silence.

"And what was she doing?" said Silver, finally.

"Nothing. She wouldn't look at me."

Flint groaned, for the rejection was worse than death. It was damnation. He closed his eyes, ground his teeth, clenched his fists, and managed – just – to fight himself up out of the deep of despair… only to find a tempest of passions awaiting on the surface: unbearable relief, gratitude for life, guilt, remorse, and more. And under these tormenting forces, acting on irresistible impulse, he did a most tremendous thing…

He took up the papers which led to the treasure.

He folded them diagonally in half.

He pinched the fold tight with his fingernails.

And tore the papers in two.

"Here!" he said, handing half to Silver and keeping half himself: "Let us begin again."

Chapter 27

Mid-morning, Tuesday, 27th November 1753 The gates of Newgate Gaol London

The ram surged ahead, heaved by several dozen of the mob's finest. It thundered against iron-bound oak, and the locks and bars groaned, while all within the prison walls gulped and trembled. A few brave souls snatched up arms and fired on the mob through the windows… and received such a hail of brick-ends and cobble stones as sent them reeling back in their own smoke, battered and bloodied, and covered in the splintered remains of frames, putty, paint and glass.

"ANOTHER!" roared the seething mass at the gates, and the ram-bearers took a firmer grip, and staggered back, bowling over and trampling down all those who failed to get clear of their ponderous recoil… then…

"FORWARD!" they cried and the ram went in again.

Half an hour earlier it had been a respectable beech tree, growing peacefully in Warwick Square, doing no harm to any man. But then it had been hacked down, lopped off, and borne away in the mighty arms of chair-men, coal-heavers, butcher boys and all such others as were ready to raise a decent sweat in a good cause.

BOOOM! went the prison gates.

"ANOTHER!" roared the mob, now in its second day of fun, and dangerously swollen with all the trollops of the town, egging the men on and pouring drink down them, and charging sixpence for a stand-up against the wall.

The mob was tens of thousands strong. It was a pandemonium of wicked glee. It was an elemental force that carried all before it, invincible, unconquerable and unstoppable – except by the army. But the army was still in barracks, while the mob was fired up and bent on vengeance against the hated Newgate Gaol, where the hero Joe Flint had been incarcerated.

CRRRRRRRRUNCH! said the gates to the gaol, and a mighty cheer arose as the timberwork gave up the fight and splintered and sundered and fell open, and the ram was dropped, bouncing, booming and recoiling and smashing feet and breaking limbs… and the mob was jamming, cramming and forcing itself into the narrow doorway and into the gaol, waving axes, hammers, knives, cudgels, and flaming torches.

At the back of the commotion Flash Jack watched and grinned. There were others like him who hung back from the action: sharp, slippery persons who trailed after the mob, grinning and winking, ever seeking safe opportunities for gain, but keeping well clear of the dangerous work of smashing gates and cracking heads.

Flash Jack smiled and looked around, and told himself how clever he was to go forth in the shabby clothes that he affected when he chose to. For he'd been a poor man once, and had had no choice, but when he did get money and put on fine raiment and became Flash Jack… why, he'd found that no man knew him if he took them off again, and put on his rags. They were, of course, very clean rags, but so long as he went discreetly and met no eyes… it was as if he were invisible.

This fascinating discovery had, for years, enabled Flash Jack to pass unknown through the streets of London, and was the reason why he'd gone with Silver and King Jimmy to rescue Joe Flint without the least fear of being recognised.

"And so!" he said to himself, and he let the mob and its followers leave him behind, and stood alone for a while before walking off through the deserted streets towards Covent Garden and Jackson's Coffee House. He had to walk, because it wasn't safe to be out with a carriage – not with the mob on the streets – and he entered Jackson's by a private back door with a private key, and so to his own room and hot water and soap, and his beautiful clothes and his splendid wigs and all else that made him Flash Jack once more: to be bowed to and grovelled to by his staff. So, straightening his back and fixing a smile, he opened the door to the big main room and went into the light and bright, and was pleased to see that, even today – with the mob not come to Covent Garden – there was good business and a body of patrons who saluted him, and nodded and smiled.

He smiled back. They'd let him out, had Flint and Silver, only because they wouldn't go themselves: or rather Flint couldn't go out: not yet, and Silver wouldn't be parted from him. Not now each had half the papers.

So Flash Jack was sent out to tell Silver's men their captain's location. But he was taking his time. He had things to consider: things like his present attitude towards Joe Flint, who was so obviously going to sail away in John Silver's ship and never look back! And there was plenty of time to think. Flash Jack shrugged. They wouldn't starve in his little quiet place. It was well stocked with food and drink. Pausing to bow to favoured clients, he beamed in their approval of himself, and passed on down the room, cane in hand, placing one elegant foot before the other.

He was so pleased to be his elegant self again that some of the pain of Flint's personal rejection was fading, for rejection it was. Flint had barely looked at him. Flash Jack sighed. It was ever thus! He was clever enough to recognise what a fool he was in matters of the loins, yet still foolish enough to make a fool of himself the next time… and the next… and the next. It was the same with the rough young men he entertained in his quiet place. None of them really cared for him either.

So Flash Jack's slippery mind turned to other matters. He needed to calculate where the balance of power lay between himself and these two fearfully dangerous men with their island and their papers and their eight hundred thousand pounds – of which he still hoped against hope for a share…

And then he stopped, surprised.

"Katty Cooper!" he said. "As I live and breathe!"

Three persons of consequence had just entered. They were theatricals like many of his best clients: theatricals at the very top of their profession: Mr Alan Croxley, manager of Croxley's Odeon Theatre, together with a small man Flash Jack didn't know, but who was intimate with Croxley. And – wonder of wonders, after all these years – there was dear little Katty Cooper: somewhat older, but pretty as ever, whom Flash Jack had known as an actress and later as a member of that profession celebrated by Jackson's List.

"Jack!" said Katty Cooper, and smiled wonderfully. She was une chienne du premier ordre, and he was a slimy sycophant, but they'd been friends once, or as close to that as was possible between such as them.

"Katty!"

"Jack!"

They stepped forward to embrace, and to kiss hands, and to stand back admiring one another at arm's length while the entire room looked on, and Mr Croxley and Mr Abbey smiled.

So great was the pleasure of this re-union that, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, all costs were waived to Mr Croxley's party, and Mr Croxley and Mr Abbey were left to order whatsoever they wished, while Mr Jackson led Mrs Cooper to a private corner where a congenial exchange was made of memories, histories and hopes, such that every topic imaginable was explored, until at last, the pretty smiles vanished as the beautiful Joe Flint and the beautiful Selena Henderson came under discussion by Jack and Katty, such that…

They perceived how much they'd been deceived.

They discovered artful plots against their precious selves.

They turned to spiteful revenge: sly, cunning and vicious. Sunset, 1st December 1753 23 King Street Off St James's Square London

Selena laid her pistols on the dressing table, and sat in her chair looking at them. They were a pair by Ketland of Birmingham, box-locks for compact convenience with blued barrels and silver mounts. They weren't much longer than her own hands, but took balls weighing thirty to the pound, which were over half an inch in diameter… and knocked men down stone dead. She knew. She'd seen it. She'd done it.

She sighed as she looked at these constant companions which had come with her from Walrus and into Venture's Fortune and so to Polmouth, then to other cities, and now to London. Before that they'd been in Charlestown, South Carolina, where they'd done their killing.

She stared at them as they lay on the beautiful table, with its mirrors and furnishings, and the brushes and pots, and the cosmetics carefully chosen to suit her colour, so thorough were the arrangements of this expensive, beautiful house. She reached out and pushed the pistols away, and the maid standing behind her goggled and wondered. She'd never known a mistress who drew pistols from her pocket hoops.

"Are they yours, ma'am?" she said. She couldn't help it.

"Yes," said Selena, and smiled at the face in the mirror looking over her shoulder. It was a new thing, having servants. She'd had dressers for her performances, but they weren't servants: they were artistes like herself. Servants were different. They were astonishingly, unbelievably different for a black girl raised as a slave.

"A man gave them to me," said Selena finally.

"Oh," said the maid. "Shall I do your hair, ma'am?"

The maid knew the rules, even if the mistress didn't, for the maid had been as well chosen as everything else. The rules said, Don't be nosy. Not straight away. Mistresses didn't like that.

So there was no more conversation. Not proper conversation. Just the technical exchanges that enabled a maid to get her mistress out of her stays, hoops, petticoats and shift, and into nakedness in a silk dressing gown, and her hair undone and brushed out and laid over her shoulders.

"Will that be all, ma'am?" said the maid when the job was done.

"Yes, thank you," said Selena, and the maid curtseyed and made off with Selena's elaborate gown and its complex underpinnings, and took them to wherever it was that they'd be stored. Selena didn't know where that was. Not yet. She was new to this wonderful house, and its staff… all of which would soon be hers.

The maid went out. Selena got up. She looked at herself in the big, full-length mirror that stood beside the dressing table. She nodded, businesslike and assured. She knew that she was very lovely. She looked around the dressing room, taking in its elaborate fittings and elegant decoration, then shrugged and opened the door that led into the bedroom.

This was much bigger. It had long windows, now closed with shutters. It had hand-painted wallpaper of brilliant colours, displaying exotic tropical birds. It had upholstered furniture, a sideboard with wine and food of all kinds, it had a roaring fire in a red-and-green-veined marble fireplace… and it had a most elegant and enormous bed.

She looked at all this and thought of the Master's "special house" on the Delacroix Plantation, South Carolina. That, too, had been elaborately fitted out, though now she realised that it had been vulgar. It had been the coarse attempt of a provincial lecher to imitate his betters: his clumsy reaching for the elegant house she was now standing in… which nonetheless served precisely the same purpose.

Selena thought over the violent, ferocious events of her short life and the violent ferocious men she'd lived with. She thought of Flint. She thought of Silver… especially him, who she'd never see again in this life. She was sure of that now. He could never come to England. He was better as a pirate on the edges of the world, beyond law, beyond right, beyond civilisation. He could never change and she could never be with him… whatever she thought of him in her heart.

She sighed again. She was beyond all that. That life was gone, so the pistols could stay on the table, or in a box, or buried in the garden, or anywhere! She wouldn't need them again: ever.

And then, just as had occurred two and a half years ago when she'd been sent to the Master's special house where he ravished his slave girls, Selena found herself tired at the end of a long day and laid down on the bed to doze… and fell asleep. And just as had occurred two and a half years ago, she was awoken by a man, but this time not a drunken lout bent on rape but a gentle gentleman, who stroked her hand, and kissed her cheek and who looked down upon her with such an expression of limitless adoration as made his ugly face look homely and benign.

"Hallo, my little sweetheart," he said.

"Matthew," she said, and smiled.

"Selena," he said, and shook his head in utmost sincerity, "Devil take me to Hell if ever I make you unhappy. I may not be young, but -"

"No!" she said, and laid a hand on his lips. "You've said all that!" And she sat up and took his hand and led him to a sofa, and helped him off with his coat and boots and waistcoat, and sat him down and served him a glass of wine, which he drained, and he gazed and gazed at her in the inexpressible thrill of being alone with her and having her as his own, while Selena, for the first time in years, was at peace. Sir Matthew's offer would raise her high – soaring high – above anything she'd ever dreamed of. She would keep a salon; she would live in luxury; she would ride in a carriage… and she would be safe.

So she smiled at Matty Blackstone, and stood in front of him, and untied the neck of her gown and let the silk slide over her shoulders and fall hissing to the floor. He gasped and his eyes shone and he shook his head.

"God in Heaven," he said – he that loved beauty – for he was looking at luscious, sensual, glorious beauty: beauty such as sculptors forever attempt; as Blackstone well knew, being a patron of the renowned Gianlorenzo Bernini. But nothing achieved by that genius – nor even Michelangelo before him – could compare with Selena! For how can cold stone compare with satin skin, and the hot blood that races beneath it? Especially when the satin skin offers itself two feet in front of a man's nose, as he sits on a sofa at the end of a hard week's work, with a large glass of wine warming the inside of him!

"Ah!" said Blackstone, and he reached out and put his thick hands gently on her hips, and she smiled and raised her arms gracefully over her head – for she had the skills of a performer now, and sought to please this kind and loving man. Matty sighed and rubbed his face into the smooth belly and the gorgeous breasts, and slid his hands around her, and took hold and stood up, easily lifting her in his arms, and she laughed and caressed him, and kissed the top of his head, and the two together looked towards the bed: he with joy and she with full contentment…

… and a knocking sounded at the front door: bang-bang- bang!

"What the devil?" said Sir Matthew and frowned. He put Selena down, and growled in anger as scuffling and cries came from below, then rumbling feet charging up the stairs. He seized a heavy iron poker from the fireplace, pushed Selena towards the dressing room, and stood between her and danger. "Get in there, lass!" he cried. "Lock the door and…"

But the bedroom door burst open and two men charged in: Joe Flint and Billy Bones. Selena screamed. Sir Matthew swung at Flint's head with the poker, and was struck down by a cudgel-stroke he never even saw.

"Selena!" cried Flint. "Come! Quickly!" He was wide-eyed and staring, gaping at her nakedness while Billy Bones was dashing forward to seize her, but she was quicker and was into the dressing room for her pistols, and turning and cocking and aiming and firing… and Billy Bones flinching as the ball went through his hat, and herself aiming the second shot at Flint, and something flickering in the light, and an agonising pain exploding as Flint – facing death – instinctively hurled his cudgel end-over-end like a throwing knife to crack into Selena's brow, knocking her unconscious to the Turkish-carpeted floor.

"Oh no!" said Flint, cursing himself even as the blow struck.

"Bugger!" said John Silver, hopping and scrambling to catch up, and with Israel Hands behind him. "What have you done?"

"She had a pistol!" cried Flint.

"Aye!" said Billy Bones, and three men knelt by the small, fallen body, while Silver loomed over them on his crutch.

"It's all right!" said Israel Hands. "She's stunned, that's all!"

"Thank God!" they cried.

"Damn!" said Flint. "What could I do?"

"Dunno, Joe," said Silver, and reached out and pulled Flint to his feet.

"Billy," said Flint, "pick her up! Bring her!"

Billy Bones swept Selena up in his arms, Flint threw her dressing gown over her, and Silver stroked her face, groaning at the blood in her hair.

"What about him?" said Israel Hands, looking at Sir Matthew, who was stirring.

"Kill him!" said Flint, and pulled a knife from his sleeve.

"No!" said Silver. "He owns half Berkshire! It'd raise old Nick if we slit him!"

"So?" said Flint. "They can only…" He was going to say hang us once, but he couldn't. He couldn't get the words out. They revolted him to the very core of his self. He shuddered heavily, and felt his neck, and looked to Silver for guidance, but Silver was frowning and looking round the beautiful room.

"Wait a bit," said Silver. "Why's this been so easy? Where's the bully boys?"

"Aye!" said Israel Hands. "This is supposed to be a knocking shop."

"And no man's fought back, than him!" said Silver, pointing to Sir Matthew.

"It don't look like no knocking shop," said Israel Hands.

The four men fell silent. They could hear Sir Matthew's heavy gasping and the muttering of their fellows guarding the servants downstairs.

"Hark to that!" said Silver. "There's no bugger here but them -" He looked at Sir Matthew and Selena. "Them an' some maids and a cook." He shook his head. "This ain't right, shipmates!"

"Flash Jack said she was dragged here," said Israel Hands.

"Dammit," said Flint. "Are we nincompoops?"

"Best be gone, Cap'n," said Billy Bones, "whatever we be!"

So it was downstairs, and the servants locked in the cellar and the door closed nice and quiet, and Selena carried gently into a closed carriage with Flint and Silver inside, and Billy Bones and Israel Hands on the box, and the rest of Silver's men quietly making off on foot. A few faces appeared at windows, and curtains twitched in the houses alongside, but nothing else. They'd made little noise. That part – at least – of their plan had worked.

Within the hour, all hands were aboard Walrus and "Captain" Warrington was pacing his quarterdeck while "his" crew got up the anchors and made sail. Some of the remaining store of McLonarch's coin eased the suspicion of the Trinity House pilot, and that of other shore authorities, that Walrus was setting sail so abruptly. It was given out that she was bound for Newcastle to take on a load of coals for London, which would bring a good price with winter coming on. So, with a strong westerly, and the tide in their favour, Walrus cleared the pool of London and was off Canvey Island at the mouth of the Thames within twelve hours.

Meanwhile, Selena was made comfortable in a hammock slung in the great cabin, and Dr Cowdray bound up her head and said that her life was in the balance, and she must have utter quiet. Even Flint and Silver kept away from her after that, and it wasn't for many hours that Cowdray brought them in to see her, semi-conscious and murmuring to herself.

They stood looking at her and each other, awaiting Cowdray's words, in the gently rolling, lamp-lit cabin.

"She'll live," he said. "No bones are broken, and the scarring will be hidden by her hair… but what in God's name did you think you were at?" he demanded. "Both of you!"

"You heard Flash Jack," said Silver guiltily.

"He said she was sold by Katty Cooper," said Flint.

"Aye!" said Silver. "And you know her, Doctor!"

"And you said this was how she worked!" said Flint.

Now Cowdray blushed.

"Well," he said, looking at Selena, "that's how whores are made. A procuress like Miss Cooper sells the first use of them, which is taken by deceit or by force, and then – being debauched – the poor creature is held to the life by shame."

"And that's what Flash Jack said Katty Cooper was a- doing!" said Silver. "With that bugger of a brewer paying for it!"

"No," said Flint. He paused and looked at Selena, and forced himself to speak a truth that he didn't want to believe. "I think she was there by choice. Of her own free will."

Silver groaned and Flint unthinkingly put his hand on Silver's shoulder in sympathy. Cowdray gaped in wonderment, but the two men stood united by the very flaw that was Flash Jack's own. They'd believed him because they'd wanted to, not because it made sense. Each had wanted to come to the rescue. Each wanted Selena more than life, or reason, or sense.

"A-hem!" said Warrington, standing hat in hand in the cabin doorway. "Gentlemen, we've dropped the pilot and the ship's ours. So I was wondering what course to set? And begging-your-pardons, but it's coming on to blow."

Which it was. But the tempest was nothing compared with Selena's fury when she awoke.

Chapter 28

Three bells of the forenoon watch 3rd January 1754 Aboard Walrus The Atlantic

"Ware the bugger!" cried a voice, lost in the violence of the storm, and a pair of strong arms hauled John Silver clear of certain death as his crutch slipped on the seething, heaving deck that was knee-deep in foaming water.

"Ah!" cried Long John as Billy Bones pulled him from the onrushing path of a loose gun: eight feet of barrel on a squat, rumbling carriage that trailed tackles, still fast-bound to the clunking, futile bolts that should have secured it to the ship's side: two tons of slick-wet, murderous oak and iron that groaned and scraped and slid from beam to beam as the ship heaved.

It was freezing winter. The blocks were jammed with ice. The sails were sheet iron. No man could feel fingers or toes, and it was devil's work to go aloft. An hour ago the gale had split the topsails, and without the steadying pressure of lofty sails, Walrus rolled horribly, causing one of the biggest guns – hanging by its tackles – to draw its bolts where hidden rot had spoiled their grip of the ship's timbers.

CRRRUNCH! The gun ground into the lee bulwark.

Already there was one man with a smashed leg, and the gun – having tasted blood – was clearly out for more. All hands were on deck with rolled hammocks, trying to get them under the gun's trucks to catch it and stop it. And all the while the gale was howling, the ship plunging, and themselves wrapped in hampering winter gear: fur hats, mittens and greatcoats with tarred waterproofs on top.

Flint was leading the hunt for the maddened gun. The crew looked to him for leadership in the matter, for he had two legs.

"Get below, Cap'n!" cried Billy Bones to Long John. "Ain't no place for a man what's lost a pin!" He wasn't mocking. He was concerned.

Silver marvelled at the change in Billy Bones, even as another thunderclap roared and lightning flashed, and hailstones came down like grapeshot that battered and bounced and made the decks yet more dangerous than already they were. Wedging his crutch under his arm, Silver clung on to a lifeline and looked at Billy Bones: alive and alert in this deadly danger; and roused from the solemn sadness that had been his when first he came aboard behind his master.

Meanwhile Walrus plunged her sharp prow deep into a wave, driven by the colossal pressure on her remaining sails, and green water rolled from bow to stern, just as Flint hurled himself in the path of the gun and got a sodden mass of hammock under the fat oaken wheels, and stopped the gun… only for the wave to sluice and lift and heave… and free the gun once more, and Flint staggered back, clear, by inches, as the gun charged forward like a bull.

He fell into the arms of Israel Hands and Mr Joe, who were hanging to lifelines, and he laughed and caught Silver's eye, for if Billy Bones was changed, Flint was changed marvellously. He laughed in the icy wet. It was fresh and clean. It was ruthless and simple. And there was a man's job to be done.

Flint leapt again, snatching a hammock from Israel Hands. Any other man would have gone to his death under the grinding wheels of the gun as the ship's motion set it off again. But not Flint. He was too quick. He caught it just as it boomed against the mainmast, smashing the stand of pikes that surrounded it, and he jammed the hammock under its wheels, and all hands fell on with lines to lash and secure the gun to the mast, and Flint stood back, gasping and panting… and happy.

"John! John!" he cried, clapping Silver on the shoulder, beaming a radiant smile.

And Silver cherished the warm belief that this was indeed a new dawn of old times. As for Billy Bones, he grinned from ear to ear, and was profoundly happy even on a bounding deck, soaking wet, and frozen to the marrow.

"Well done, Joe!" said Silver, with a full heart: not that any of this speech was heard, not with the heavens in fury and the wind roaring at the wild sea.

"Huh!" said Flint, in the comradeship of the moment, and saw so much that was good around him, and so little that was bad… Just two problems, of which the lesser was ignorance on their present position; Flint didn't know where he was within a hundred miles.

Later, in the master's cabin, Flint explained this to the ship's navigating officers: Warrington, Billy Bones and Mr Joe. Likewise Silver, who was no navigator nor ever would be but was captain… at least for the moment. The five men stood close together in the small cabin, peering down at a chart, under the light of swinging lanterns. The ship groaned and creaked around them, and the elements beat in anger on the planks above their heads, but at least they could hear one another's voices.

"So where are we, Joe?" said Silver. Flint frowned.

"Our course should have been south to the latitude of the Canaries or Cape Verde Islands, then westward to seek the trade winds to carry us across the Atlantic."

"Aye!" they said. They all knew that, even Silver. It was every mariner's route to the Americas.

"But…" said Flint "… first we were blown northwest for days, and now southeast – which is no bad thing in itself – but we're running before the wind, going two hundred miles a day or more – and even that's a guess, for the last time we hove the log, we lost it!"

They nodded. There'd been no measurement of the ship's speed for days, nor sight of the sun or stars.

"So," said Flint, pointing down at the chart, "we could be off Portugal, or Spain, or even North Africa!"

"But what's your guess, Joe?" said Silver, and reached up to pet the big green parrot that sat on his shoulder again, now that he was out of the storm. Flint looked at the bird that had once been his, such that he could stroke her without fear of losing fingers to the savage beak. But not any more. They'd parted badly. Which reminded him of the second problem: the greater one, the problem that bore equally on Flint and on Silver.

"I'm done with you both!" she'd said once she was awake: not angry or shouting, for she was more disgusted than anything else; disgusted that she'd been snatched away like a piece of property… like a slave. It hurt all the more for her steady, measured voice: "Matthew Blackstone was a kind man," she'd said. "Better than either of you, and I was making my own way, by my own choice! I was paid a fortune in Drury Lane to make people happy! What do I want with you bloody-handed animals!'" The last word hurled with shrivelling contempt, right in their faces: an ugly thing for men to hear from the woman they've been dreaming about for month upon lonely month, she being the one above all others who stabs the heart with longing…

And when they'd explained there was no turning back – not with hangings awaiting in England, and the wind driving them on – then she really did lose her temper and every man aboard heard what she said.

It had been bad, very bad, for both men. And yet it united them.

"Joe?" said Silver. "Where are we?"

Flint said nothing, but Warrington and Billy Bones scratched their heads and screwed up their faces in concentration.

"I think we're in the latitude of the Canaries," said Warrington.

"Maybe nearer the Cape Verde Islands," said Billy Bones.

"I think the Cape Verde Islands," said Flint, and the matter was settled.

"So what do we do?" said Silver.

"Lie to!" said Flint. "It doesn't matter what's to loo'ard: whether it be Portugal, Spain or Africa. If we hold this course, we'll be driven ashore and drowned upon it just the same! So… we'll come about, as close to the wind as she'll bear, so she's making little or no headway, and so ride out the storm."

"Begging your pardon, Mr Flint," said Warrington, "not too close to the wind. I was in a ship once that made sternway laying to, and so lost her rudder!"

Flint smiled and smiled. He smiled right into Warrington's face at this statement of the blindingly obvious.

"Oh!" said Warrington, and gulped. "Not that you'd do that, Mr Flint. Not you."

"Not I," said Flint and they all laughed.

So Walrus came about, and met the wind fine on her bow, yards braced back as far as they'd go, and heeled over mightily, which eased her motion and stopped the hideous rolling, and enabled the topmen to strike the ruins of the topsails and bend fresh sails to the yards. It even allowed the cook to light his fire again for hot food – a great comfort to the topmen when they came off watch.

Moreover it allowed John Silver to call the council of all hands that he'd been wanting ever since the ship left England, and hadn't had the chance to do. So once Walrus was steady into the wind, and all made secure as could be, he brought the men together on the lower deck, leaving only the helmsmen and lookouts on deck, under Mr Joe as officer of the watch, and all those not present having appointed trusted messmates to vote for them.

Except that Mr Joe didn't stay on deck. Once he was sure that the ship was safe – for the while – he went below by the aftermost hatchway.

"Shipmates, brothers and gentleman o' fortune," said Silver, as nearly standing as a man of his height could do under the low deckhead. The men looked back at him, crammed tight together and taking it all in: the black flag draped over a barrelhead in front of Silver, and the Book of Articles placed upon it, with pen and ink standing by. The ship's officers sat on stools and chairs on either side of Silver; and the green bird perched on his shoulder.

"We're a mixed company aboard this ship," said Silver, looking round.

"Aye!" they said.

"There's some what's sailed with me."

"Aye!"

"There's some what's sailed with Joe Flint."

"Aye!"

"Some what came aboard in Upper Barbados, and some in London."

"Aye!"

"There's those among us who've fought one another as enemies!"

"Aye!

"And even some as received sentence of death from their brothers."

Few but Billy Bones knew what this meant, and he groaned at the thought of it.

It was the old Silver. All truth. Nothing hidden. He wasn't the man he'd once been. Not any more, for he was changed. But there was much good left, including his instinctive oratory. It was measured, it was poetic, it was religious. Silver was binding them together, because they weren't the old band of Walruses: not any more. Men had come and gone. There were twenty aboard that joined in London alone, having heard tales of buried treasure. They were all prime seamen. They were already a crew. But they weren't brothers. Not yet. That was a thing of the spirit.

Mr Joe crept down a companionway towards the stern cabin. The rumble and growl of voices from the council, sounding behind him, even over the creaking grumble of the ship's timbers working in the storm. It was hard to keep his footing. The deck was heavily sloped.

He reached the door. He rapped with his knuckles. "Who is it?" she said.

"Me, ma'am… Mr Joe…" A brief pause, then the door opened, and Mr Joe gulped at the sight of her, for she was very lovely. Lovely but frowning. "What do you want?" "I want to ask you something." She looked at him and saw that he meant no harm. "Come in…" she said.

Silver reached the climax. He raised the book and read the articles aloud. The good old articles, re-drafted on fresh pages, with clean white paper beneath for signatures. He put down the book.

"So who will become a brother?" he said. "Who will be first to step forward and make his mark?" There was the briefest of silences, then Flint rose. "I will!" he said and signed.

"I will!" said Israel Hands. "And I sign for Mr Joe besides!" "And me!" said Billy Bones.

And so they signed, mostly with crosses or such little emblems – fish, daggers, serpents – as they chose, with Silver adding the man's name in these cases. Even Blind Pew signed, with Silver guiding the pen.

"So," said Silver when the signing was done, and all hands stood transformed by the mystic drama of the occasion, "we are brothers and jolly companions, and must now elect a captain. And for this matter, I stands aside, being compromised!" They laughed at that, and nudged and winked. "So I turns to Brother Hands," said Silver, "to make the proposals."

Israel Hands stood up. He stood forward and faced the men.

"Let it be Long John!" he said. "There ain't no bigger nor better man among us. Long John, say I! Long John for ever!"

Mr Joe sat down on the big bench under the stern windows. She'd lashed the chairs to the table – which was screwed to the deck – to stop them sliding in the crazily canted cabin. He looked around the cabin, then out the window at the evil grey sea heaving and wallowing just feet away. There was little light and much noise, for the sky was dark except when it was split with lightning.

"What do you want?" she said.

"I been reading, ma'am," he said.

"So?" She shrugged. "Why should that concern me?"

"You were a slave like me. You're black."

"And…?" said Selena, not pleased to be reminded of her origins, for she'd come a long way from the plantation. She'd played to thousands on the stage, and been courted by the richest man in England. Mr Joe guessed some of this, and tried again.

"Mr Hands, he's a good man. He taught me to read."

"Yes. I know."

"Did you know he got me a bible in London?"

"No."

"Well… I read about Adam and Eve."

"Yes?"

"They were the first, weren't they?"

Selena frowned. She was losing interest.

"What is your point?"

"Well, if they were the first, and we're all their children… we're all the same!"

"What do you mean?"

"Us blacks and the white folks. We're all the same!"

Flint saw Billy Bones was looking at him, as was Tom Allardyce, with his bandaged head, and some others who'd once followed Flint. But Flint looked at Long John and saw the old qualities of leadership that Silver had in such degree and he did not…

"I vote for Captain Silver!" he said in a firm voice, and all hands roared their approval.

Silver smiled, and the parrot squawked and flapped her wings.

"Cap'n Silver! Cap'n Silver! Cap'n Silver!" she cried.

"Well, Joe," said Silver, "I hope you'll be my quartermaster?"

"That I will," said Flint, and the rum was brought out.

"Here's to ourselves and hold your luff…" cried Silver.

"Plenty of prizes and plenty of duff!" cried all those who knew his favourite toast.

So Flint and Silver raised their mugs and toasted each other, and Billy Bones wept with joy.

"I got to go," said Mr Joe. He and Selena had been talking too long, and too intensely… about great things.

"What do you want?" said Selena. "In life?"

"Don't know," said Mr Joe. "I'd like to be first mate…"

"And a pirate?"

"Don't know. But I'll not be a slave again!"

"No."

"And what do you want?" he said, and Selena frowned.

"I want what I can't have."

"That Mr Blackstone and the big house?"

"Yes… no… I don't know. But if I could go there now…I would!"

"But you can't."

"No. Perhaps there will be another ship. I don't know."

"What about them two?" He looked astern. "Cap'n Silver and Mr Flint? They know where the treasure is. They'll be rich men when we lift it! They want you real bad. And Cap'n Silver… you're his wife. Don't you want him?"

She said nothing. Not yes, nor no, nor even I don't know.

"I got to go," he said. He went out.

Selena watched him go… and wondered.

Chapter 29

Seven bells of the morning watch 5th March 1754 Aboard Walrus The Atlantic

The storm blew for seventy days of constant noise, constant wet, crushing misery and grinding labour. The ship was tired, the crew were tired and all aboard were driven to the limit of endurance, so it was no surprise when seventy- one days out of London, in the vast and empty ocean, a dreadful enemy crept aboard.

"It's scurvy, Captain!" said Cowdray, braced on the quarterdeck in his storm clothes. "There's two men in their hammocks with their gums swollen, and loose teeth, and bruises all over their bodies."

"Oh no!" said Silver, wiping the salt spray from his face. The storm raged unabated, the ship plunged under bare poles, and Flint and Billy Bones stood with Silver by the helmsmen. "But what can we expect?" he said. "We've been that long at sea!"

"Are you sure it's scurvy?" said Flint. "Not just idle lubbers that need the toe of Mr Bones's boot to help them turn out?" Billy Bones nodded.

"No," said Cowdray, "one has an old wound that's breaking open afresh." He looked at Flint. "Believe me," he said, "I know scurvy when I see it!"

"Damnation!" said Flint. "I was with Anson on his circumnavigation. We lost half our people to scurvy!"

Silver sighed. "The men are weak enough already," he said. "If they gets the scurvy, we'll not be able to work the ship!"

"Aye," said Billy Bones, "them what it don't kill, gets drownded 'cos they can't stand to their duties… and the ship founders under 'em!"

"What can we do?" said Silver. "What can you give 'em, Doctor?"

"There is something…" said Cowdray. "But they'll not take it."

"Why not?" said Silver. "What is it?"

"Lemons," said Cowdray. "But the juice is sour and hurts their gums."

"Lemons?" said Silver. "What use is them?"

"I read a book, new published, when we were in London," said Cowdray, "by a Scots physician called Lind. He has cured men with lemon juice. Men with the scurvy."

"Bah!" said Silver. "Not that old tale! That's been tried before."

"Wait!" said Flint. "I was never affected when I was with Anson."

"No?" they said.

"No. I had my own supply of preventives against the scurvy: malt, sauerkraut, oil of vitriol… and lemons. I had a barrel of lemons."

"There!" said Cowdray. "It was the lemons that saved you. Dr Lind has proved it! And I have some barrels of lemons that I brought aboard… but the men won't take the juice."

"Huh!" said Silver. "Put it in their grog with a drop o' sugar. Then they'll take it!"

Two weeks later, and miraculously to the seamen, there was no scurvy in the ship, and the crew proclaimed united blessings upon Cap'n Silver… with unfortunate consequences…

"Why should be get the credit?" said Flint, privately, to Billy Bones. "It was Cowdray brought the lemons aboard."

Billy Bones felt his guts twist. He did so very much want to believe that his master was re-born but this could be the first turning from the light.

"Never mind that, Cap'n" he said, which honorific he applied to Flint, whatever his rating aboard ship. "It's yourself that all hands looks to, to bring us safe to port. There ain't none to match you at that!"

"Yes," said Flint, allowing himself to be flattered, while Billy Bones sighed with relief, and hoped he'd made all things right.

And it seemed that he had, when, a few days later, the storm eased and the ship's navigators took their first noon observation for weeks, and made their calculations, and met in the master's cabin.

"Youngest first, Mr Flint last," said Silver.

"Aye!" they said, for that way none would be tempted to copy Flint.

"Here," said Mr Joe, pencilling a cross on the chart.

"Here," said Billy Bones.

"Here," said Warrington.

"Huh!" said Silver. "What a precious art it is, this quadrant-walloping!"

For the crosses were vastly far apart. But even Silver knew this was nothing unusual after so long a period with only dead reckoning for guidance. Now everyone looked to Flint, who shook his head in surprise.

"Well done, Mr Joe," he said, and placed a cross almost exactly beside that of the nineteen-year-old, once an illiterate slave, and now – through talent and hard work – the best navigator in the ship… apart from himself of course! Flint smiled, "Like you, Mr Joe, I think we are almost exactly in thirty-seven degrees of latitude, and some hundreds of miles to the east of America, off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and the Colony of Virginia." He opened a pair of dividers, set them to scale, and stepped them across several charts, to measure distance. "We should count ourselves lucky to be alive," he said. "But we are so far off course, and the ship and her people so enfeebled, that we must put into port soon, and I would suggest Alexandria, on the Potomac River. There are other possibilities, but it is a major port. More important, it is a place where we shall not be known."

"Aye!" they said, and the word went round the ship, and all aboard rejoiced at the coming end to their perils, with a run ashore, and fresh food and warm bread. The whole ship was merry and the weather stayed calm… with further unfortunate consequences.

Selena was deadly, utterly bored with being cooped up below by the storm. Moreover, she'd now put Flint and Silver in their place, and there was no creature aboard that did not know her view on being snatched away from London. That being done… it wasn't natural for a girl of her youth to sulk forever, especially a girl so ready to make best use of such opportunities as life presented. After all, it wasn't that much worse being an object of reverence aboard ship than being mistress to an ugly old man, however charming, and at least she didn't have to share his bed!

So: when the weather eased she dressed herself smart and went on deck, and all hands smiled to see her; and touched their brows, and she smiled in return, delighting in the fresh air, and talking to Dr Cowdray and Israel Hands. And as for Joe Flint and John Silver, she'd heard of their friendship, and the great change in Flint, and she saw their careful smiles at herself… and so… by stages… she began to smile back, as they tried to please her.

Thus Silver told silly stories…

"The Chinese, ma'am?" he said. "They eat everything from dog's pizzle to octopus-bollock soup, beggin' your pardon!"

And Flint courted her in French…

"Bonjour, et comment vas tu, ma petite princessef"

And Billy Bones watched, and felt the first dreadful fear of the old rivalry, which, like the coast of America, was just under the horizon.

Two days later, Walrus came in sight of land and all aboard looked to see the black shoreline creep slowly upon them. The rain was drizzling under dull clouds, but the sea was kind, the wind fair for landfall, and the crew stood in their winter clothes, and smiled as best they could, and smelled the land: that indescribable scent that all seafarers know, after a long voyage.

Messmates stood together, Flint with Billy Bones, Long John with Israel Hands.

And Selena stood next to Silver, while Flint scowled, and Billy Bones looked on in agony.

As the hands pointed out the shore, and the masts of other ships hove up over the horizon, there was chattering and naming of prominent points, especially as Walrus came eastward into the mouth of the mighty Chesapeake bay.

Silver put his glass to north, and then to south, then offered it to Selena.

"Here, lass," he said, "take a look, for this is the beginnings of America! We're between the Virginia capes, which is Cape Charles to the north and Cape Henry to the south – named for the sons of King James a hundred and fifty year ago." He pointed to the distant shores. "The Capes is as far apart as England and France. And within… why, Chesapeake Bay is over two hundred and fifty miles long, and thirty miles wide at the widest!" He shook his head. "It's vast beyond belief, my girl, like all the Americas!"

Selena took the telescope, which was too big for her, and Silver drew it, and helped her take a sight through it, necessarily standing close, and brushing against her.

"That 'un there," he said, "that's Cape Henry, where the men of the Virginia Company landed in 1607, after a voyage of one hundred and forty-four days, aboard three ships, of which one was called Godspeed." He smiled. "Don't know the names o' the others. But there was a hundred souls aboard what founded Jamestown, the first English town of the Americas."

"A hundred and forty-four days," she said, looking at the green shore. "That's worse than ourselves, isn't it?"

"Aye. We been eighty-nine days at sea, by my reckoning," he said.

And she nodded, and handed back the glass, and smiled. Then she glanced at Flint, who bowed elaborately, sweeping off his hat and smiling.

"Bonjour, madame," he said.

"Bonjour, monsieur," she said, and laughed, and looked to Silver for the fun of playing them off, one against the other… a game that she knew was wildly dangerous, but it was exciting, and she was still punishing them.

Long John frowned and fretted and looked at his rival. He was a fine bugger, was Flint: fine face, fine figure, fine manners. He was everything that women liked. Even with two legs, Silver couldn't have matched him for looks, and never as a cripple!

So it wasn't only Flint who was turning from the light, but Silver too. In the storm, under urgent need for teamwork to save the ship, they'd stood together. Now, it was their tragedy that, left in peace with no overwhelming threat, they were pulled apart by rivalry for a woman: that ancient and corrosive acid, which was easily capable of dissolving their new friendship. For that had always had been shallow, depending as it did upon denial of acknowledged history.

Thus, day by day, the two men dug into their memories for the bad rather than the good, and once again they began to hate, until they were held together only by the two halves of the divided papers.

And all hands saw it, and muttered among themselves and worried: all except Billy Bones, who despaired.

Four days later, on 4th April, Walrus dropped anchor off Alexandria, on the western bank of the Potomac. It was new, raw and unfinished, with as many empty lots on its grid- pattern streets as there were finished houses. But it was a flourishing port, with tobacco going out and manufactured goods from England coming in, and many ships anchored, and wharves and warehouses besides. And of those houses that were completed, many were in brick and stone, built to best London standards, especially those of the major merchants, lined up along Fairfax Street, looking down upon the river.

Once again, and for discretion, Mr Warrington was made sober, made clean, and made captain… and charged with undertaking all dealings with shore authorities, while Walrus became Sea Serpent. There were days of busy traffic, of boats bringing fresh food, and other supplies, and storm damage made good, and the men allowed ashore, by watches, with their arms secured aboard ship, and under oath to behave.

Meanwhile, Selena was left wanting to go ashore yet afraid to do so. She spoke to Dr Cowdray.

"I'm wanted for murder in Charlestown," she said.

"That's another world," he said.

"But someone might know me."

"Selena," said Cowdray, "Charlestown is five hundred miles away. That's as far as England is from Spain! D'you think Flint would go ashore if he thought he'd be recognised? And he's wanted for murder everywhere!"

So Selena went ashore, where the first two taverns refused outright to receive her. They refused even though she was accompanied by two "servants" – Tom Allardyce, now fully fit, and Mr Joe – who carried her baggage and called her ma'am. The trouble was, that while entirely respectable, she was plainly of the negro race and therefore unacceptable as a guest within the house.

"I told you, ma'am," said Allardyce, "I said they wouldn't have you."

"Bah!" said Selena and stamped her foot. "What do they think I am: a field nigger?" Then, "Oh…" she said, looking at Mr Joe, "I mean… I mean… in London and Charlestown I was welcomed everywhere."

"That was there, ma'am," said Allardyce. "This is here.n

In the end, it took the persuasion of Flint and Silver together, and a fat purse, to get Selena into Duvall's tavern – one of the best in the town, with private rooms for hire upstairs. But she had to take her meals in her room and come and go by the back stairs, which humiliation she accepted because anything was better than another day aboard ship! Even so simple a pleasure as a clean, dry bed, was close to Heaven, as was the ability to be alone to consider her future.

Meanwhile, being in Duvall's tavern, Flint and Silver found a seat by the fire, in a quiet room, with a few tables and some gentlemen smoking pipes. They sat down and stared, unsmiling at each other. They said nothing, for any conversation led to argument. So they had a silent dinner, and were steadfastly ignoring each other over a glass of rum punch when a loud argument broke out in the room next door.

"No! No! No!" cried a loud voice. "Be damned if I will!" And a chair crashed over, a door boomed like a cannon, heavy footsteps sounded, and a red-faced Virginian gentleman stamped into the room and sat himself down at the table next to Flint and Silver.

"Bah!" he said, and beat the table with his fist. "Bah!"

He was a very big man, well over six feet tall, with red hair and grey-blue eyes. His face was massive, he had huge hands and feet, and though he was quite young – only in his early twenties – he was a dominant, aggressive creature, full of confidence, used to having his own way, and capable of great rages when he didn't get it.

"Bah!" he said again, and glared round the room. But for once there were others present who were as dominant as he, and equally unused to giving way.

"Trouble, matey?" said Silver, staring steadily back.

"I do hope," said Flint, "that I, personally, have given no offence?"

"What?" said the big man, for he'd been paying attention to nobody but himself.

"Oh!" he said. "Your pardon, sirs." He frowned and sought to explain: "There is a fellow in that room -" he stabbed a huge finger "- who holds the king's commission, and tells me that the French and Indians must be met in the forest by platoon firing, with drums rolling and troops dressed in line!" He slammed the table with the flat of his hand. "Huh!" he cried. "D'you see the nonsensical ignorance of it?"

"Ahhh," said Flint and Silver, for they'd seen forest warfare. They'd seen how the slippery Indian outclassed the plodding musketeer. So they nodded, and made a friend.

"My dear sirs," he said, "I have exceeded the bounds of politeness. Would you do me the honour to share a bottle of wine, in apology for my behaviour?"

"With pleasure, sir," said Flint.

"Come aboard, shipmate," said Silver, indicating a chair at their table.

Which they soon regretted because he delivered a monologue on the war that was coming against France and Spain: an unremarkable prospect to Flint and Silver, who'd grown up among such wars, but the angry gentleman was fearfully anxious for the thirteen English American colonies:

"Consider," he said, "French Canada lies to our north – a despotic, military state – while the vast Spanish empire lies to our south!" He went on at length, especially about forest warfare and the Indian allies of the French. It was all very tedious, but then Flint picked up a certain drift in his conversation.

"Tell me, sir," said Flint, "do these Indians use the musket or the bow? I mean the bow as in 'bow and arrow'." He repeated two of these words, slurring them together as if they were one: "bow-as…"

The big man said nothing, but his lips shaped the word: Boaz…

"I think you have square-ly hit the mark, sir," he said.

"I shake your hand on it, sir," said Flint, and held out his hand.

Silver frowned. Something was going on. Something secret. He watched as Flint and the other made a pantomime of holding their grip, and smiling little smiles. Then Silver saw the big man look at him, then raise his eyebrows at Flint, and Flint shake his head.

No, he was saying. Whatever it was the silly sods thought they were, he – John Silver – wasn't one! Secret bloody signs! Silver was fuming. It was just one more piece of shit from Flint!

"So," said the big man, "I welcome you to Alexandria, for I should inevitably have met you before, had you not been newly arrived."

Flint gave another little smile.

"I am Joseph Garland of the schooner Sea Serpent," said Flint, "And this is my friend, Mr… ah… Bristol. We are merchants and seafarers."

"Mr Bristol!" said the big man, shaking Silver's hand.

"And who are you, then?" said Silver, rudely.

"I am Washington. Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment."

Chapter 30

Afternoon, 6th April 1754 Alexandria Virginia

So what the buggeration is sodding masonry?" said Silver, as he and Flint walked along the wharf to where their boat was moored.

"It's a piece of nonsense that some take seriously," Flint sneered. "The pope takes it so seriously as to forbid it."

"And what might that mean?" said Silver. "And what was you a-doin' of, with that Washington, with funny words and handshakes?"

"I'll show you," said Flint, and looked around. "Come over here -" He found a quiet spot among some bales and casks. The two men stopped and looked at one another.

"Huh!" said Silver, for they didn't do a lot of gazing into one another's eyes: not them, not John Silver and Joe Flint!

"Pah!" said Flint, as he looked up at Silver's big, plain face. "Give me your hand," he said, "Go on!"

Silver clasped his hand, and felt Flint's thumb pressing the first knuckle-joint of his first finger.

"That's Boaz," said Flint. "The grip of the Entered Apprentice."

"Hoss shite!" said Silver.

"Wait!" said Flint, and pressed his thumb into the space between Silver's first and second knuckles. "And that's Shibboleth, which is…"

"Which is bollocks!" said Silver, and pulled his hand away, and Flint's face darkened and the two fell to shouting at one another, and drew back, gasping and panting… well knowing why they must stick together.

"So what is it?" said Silver, fighting to be civil.

"It's a secret society," said Flint, "with exalted moral aims. And they recognise one another by special words and signs."

"And what do you know about it? Are you one of 'em?"

"Not I! But you know I was with Anson on his circumnavigation?"

"Aye. For you never cease to boast of it!"

"Huh! Well, I was master and commander aboard of Spider."

"So?"

Flint smiled. It was a nasty smile, and Silver's spine prickled, for he was looking at the old, mad Flint returned – plain as day – in all his wicked spitefulness.

"My first lieutenant was a man called Sam Higgins," said Flint. "He was a mason, like Anson and all his blasted clique, but he was the only one aboard Spider…" Flint's eyes half- closed as he remembered those times. He shook his head. "Poor Sammy! He never was fit for the sea life… So we played with him a little."

"Did you now!"

"Yes. Myself and the other officers. He was different, you see… delicate."

"Huh!"

"I suppose we made his life something of a misery."

"By thunder, I'll bet you did an' all!"

Flint laughed.

"Yes. We pressed him in various ways, for the secrets of…The Craft."

"Masonry?"

"Yes. And we got it all out of him in the end. All the rituals. All the secrets."

"But what is it? A religion?"

Flint frowned. He puzzled.

"I don't know. I could never make up my mind."

"So what do they do? Where did they come from?"

"Well," said Flint, "they meet in lodges. They hold ceremonies…" He shrugged. "The thing is about forty, years old, and started in London."

"And has it come out to the colonies?"

"Oh yes! Look at Colonel Washington."

"Ah!" said Silver. "He's cock o' the walk, that one, and no mistake!"

"He is indeed," said Flint. "It falls out of his conversation at every word. He is a senior officer of the Virginia Regiment, and is intimately connected in colonial society… and… therefore, through my knowledge of free-masonry I think that I… we" said Flint, seeing the look on Silver's face, "we… may become equally well connected."

"Meaning what?"

"I don't know," said Flint. "But we're here for a while, to rest and re-fit…"

"Aye," said Silver, "the crew's buggered. We're here for weeks."

"So… let's see what fortune brings. Fortune and Mr Washington."

"Aye," said Silver, and they set off again towards their boat. But just as they were settling in the stern, a thought came to Silver. "What happened to your Mr Higgins? Did he come safe home with Anson, or did the scurvy get him?"

Flint shook his head.

"No. Not little Sammy." He tried to stifle a laugh.

"Well?" said Silver.

"One night… he put on all his masonic regalia… and jumped over the side."

"You mean you pushed him," said Silver.

"No," said Flint, "there wasn't the least need for that."

In the next few days they met Colonel Washington again, several times. Him and others who were important men in the colony: planters, councillors, soldiers and others, of whom a surprising number were, like Washington, in the Craft. Silver soon left Flint to talk to these initiates, disgusted by the nods and winks and little signs that they kept flashing at one another, just as if it weren't clear for any man to see: any man who wasn't Blind Pew!

But even Silver saw that business ashore was thereby eased, and prices fell, and smiles were given and hats raised when Mr Garland and Mr Bristol walked through the town. In return, Colonel Washington and a few friends, some of the leading men of Alexandria, were welcomed aboard Walrus – which is to say Sea Serpent – and the ship and her people turned out for inspection, and the side piped and three cheers were given by all hands, as best they could in their current spent condition.

"Splendid!" said Washington, as he was introduced to the ship's officers. "If it weren't for an anxious mother," he said, "I'd have been a seaman myself and in His Majesty's navy!"

"Oh?" they said politely, as if the Royal Navy were their model and ideal.

"Indeed! For my brother had secured me a berth as a midshipman with a ship a-waiting to receive me." He smiled. "But my poor mother shed tears, and I was but a lad, and so I remain a landman still!"

Later, in the stern cabin, over a few glasses, Washington and his friends comprehensively bored Flint and Silver with an account of the colony's plans to expand inland, via the Ohio valley and the great rivers that flowed in the vast interior.

"But war is coming!" said Washington. "And the French!"

"Aye," said his friends miserably.

"What about the French?" said Silver.

Washington shook his head in sorrow.

"They will use the great rivers to come down from Canada to encircle us."

"So chase them off!" said Silver.

Washington sighed and shook his head. "They are masters of forest warfare."

"Indeed they are," said his friends. "Which we are not!"

"And the rivers of the Ohio are their highways!" said Washington.

"Then the solution is plain," said Flint, smiling.

"Is it?" they said.

"Build a fleet," said Flint. "A fleet of the Ohio, to drive out the French!"

Everyone laughed at the joke, and soon after Washington left with his followers, which was all very jolly. But a few days later, he was back… this time in his full uniform as Colonel of the Virginia Militia: red coat, gorget, scarlet sash and cocked hat.

He came at first light, in a boat pulled by men of his regiment. He wasn't smiling, and Walrus's crew could see that he hadn't come to take wine in the stern cabin, for they looked ashore and saw a company of redcoats – who must have arrived in the night – standing by the quayside with their flag and drums, and a battery of field guns trained on Walrus.

An angry murmur ran through the ship, and all hands were mustered beside their officers as Washington came over the side.

"What's this, Colonel?" said Flint, and the big man stood alone, stood straight, and looked around at the surly mass of seamen without the least hint of fear.

"Perhaps we should talk privately?" said Washington.

"Bugger that!" said Silver. "We're one crew aboard this ship!"

"Aye!" cried Walrus's people.

"Shall we run out the guns, Long John?" said Israel Hands.

"Any such move will draw instant fire from the shore!" said Washington.

There was a roar of anger and a rushing forward, and Washington was shoved against the rail, with only Silver, Flint, Israel Hands and Mr Joe standing between him and the crew's rage.

"Heave him over the side!"

"Hang him by the balls!"

"Kick his bastard head in!"

"Avast!" cried Silver, turning on them. "None o' that, for we ain't in no state, not to fight nor to run!"

Which was true, for Walrus was still unfit for sea. Some of her guns were dismounted, none were loaded, her yards were struck, and she was anchored in easy range of a battery with gunners ready and matches burning. Worse still, the hands weren't fit: not for a desperate fight against odds. So they grumbled and moaned, but fell back.

"Now then, Mr precious George Washington," said Silver, "what the buggery do you want aboard my ship?"

"Ah!" said Washington. "So it's your ship is it… Captain Silver!" The hands gasped. "And your companion is Joe Flint the mutineer!" said Washington. "A man whom England wishes to hang!"

"Colonel," said Flint, swiftly producing a pair of pistols, "please believe me that – should I be taken off this ship, for that purpose – then I faithfully, truly and most profoundly promise… that you will be already dead!"

"Aye!" cried some of the crew, but others gulped and looked at the battery ashore.

"Wait!" said Silver, and glared at Washington. "How'd you know who we are? And I asks you again: what do you want?"

Washington nodded calmly.

"I know Flint," he said, "by a letter just received from my friend Governor Glen of Charlestown, Carolina, which city Mr Flint visited two years ago. Mr Glen describes Flint's escape from hanging in London, which is news fresh landed and the cause of his letter. He also describes Flint's companion in Charlestown: a beautiful black girl named Selena…" Washington looked at Flint. "You are obviously him." He turned to Silver: "And with Flint goes Silver!"

"Maybe," said Silver. "But what, by thunder, do you want of me… and him?" He jabbed a thumb at Flint. Washington hesitated. He looked at the hands clustered all round, for there were sensitive matters to discuss.

"Never mind them," said Silver. "We're all jolly companions here, and gentlemen o' fortune besides!"

"Aye!" said the crew.

"So be it," said Washington. "In the first place, England may wish to hang Flint, but I am not England. Indeed, I am not even English but Virginian. So, listen well…" Washington pointed to the redcoats and the battery at the quayside. "I could sink this ship," he said, and there was a moan from the crew. "But… I have no intention of wasting assets so precious as a ship, and you two gentlemen." He looked at Flint and Silver. "Indeed not, for I have a task for each of you."

"Huh!" cried Flint. "I do no man's bidding than my own."

"Nor I!" cried Silver, but the crew stayed silent.

"Gentlemen," said Washington, sensing that he'd won, "you have my word that no harm will befall you… if you do as I bid." He smiled. "So what shall it be?"

Half an hour later, with the ship swarming with redcoats, Flint and Silver met by chance below decks. Billy Bones and Black Dog the carpenter were with Flint, bearing spare clothes, supplies, and arms and ammunition for all three. Flint and Silver snarled, and the others fell back in the shadows of the 'tween decks, keeping clear of the foul rage of their betters.

"You treacherous swab," said Flint. "Free with a ship and a crew!"

"And you with your shite-fire mouth and your fleet of the bloody Ohio!"

The break now was open and utter. They detested each other with poisonous hatred. They'd stayed together only because of the vast fortune on the island, and the two halves of the papers that led to it. Naturally, each had dreamed of killing the other to take his half. But that was no easy matter. It couldn't be done by stealth with the crew watching and ready to give justice under articles. And it couldn't be face- to-face… though neither knew quite why. Perhaps each feared the other? Perhaps even now they believed that they achieved more together than apart? The reasons – whatever they were – were deep and powerful.

So now, being forced apart by Washington, all that mattered was where and how the two men should meet again.

"Pah!" Flint crushed his anger. "Shall it be Savannah?"

"Aye," said Silver. "That's still open to the likes of us."

"Savannah,then!"

"If you can get free of bloody Washington!"

Flint laughed.

"Don't ever doubt it. Nor what I shall do to him first!"

"And shall the rendezvous be Charley Neal's place?"

"Ah…" said Flint. Charley Neal had been their agent, buying their plunder.

"What's wrong?" said Silver, spotting the look on Flint's face.

"Charley has… er… gone home to Dublin."

"You bloody bastard!" said Silver, guessing a nastier truth.

Flint shrugged. "His business is sold to a Mr Jimmy Chester."

"How d'you know that?"

"Charley told me just before… before he took ship."

"Then Chester's house it is!" Silver sneered. "And Charley's gone to Dublin, you say?"

"Yes," said Flint.

"You fucking liar!"

"Oh?" said Flint. "And do you always tell the truth, John Silver, as you used to?"

They glared at each other, and each promised himself that – this time – there would be a reckoning in Savannah, with a whole set of papers for just one man.

Chapter 31

Afternoon, 10th June 1754 Savannah The Royal Colony of Georgia

Savannah had changed in the two years since Walrus was last there. It had grown considerably. But it was still a grid-pattern of greasy log houses, with a palisaded fort to one side, and it still knew how to greet gentlemen o' fortune.

Guns boomed from the fort in answer to Walrus's salutes, the townsfolk turned out all along the Savannah River's high banks – tall as a ship's topmasts – and gazed down at the fine schooner coming upriver under the Union Jack, wrapped in the smoke of her guns, her people in best shore-going clothes, and a prize following astern: Inez de Cordoba, a neat little brig of a hundred tons, flying British colours over Spanish, even though – just at the moment – there was peace between these powers.

Savannah was the youngest port of the youngest colony in British America: hacked out of virgin forest, and in constant fear of the Cherokee, the Cree and the Chickasaw. It was also the most southerly colony, just a hop and a spit from Spanish Florida, and in fear of that too: mortal fear, because the Spanish – if they came – would come not with mere hatchets and scalping knives, but with cannon and the Inquisition. So Savannah was rough; King George's law ran only on Sundays, and today was a Thursday and there was business to be done.

The anchors went down with a rumble. Sail was taken in, topmasts struck, all made snug and proper, and Walrus was jolly from stem to stern. For one thing it was warm, and all hands remembered the freezing, murderous passage across the Atlantic, and staggering ashore like cripples, not fit to be called seamen. But now they were fattened up on Virginian beef, soothed by the tropics, and they had a lively cruise behind them, the tarts of Savannah in front of them, and a prize astern to prove their manhood.

"Three cheers for Long John!" cried Israel Hands. "Three cheers for our cap'n!"

And they bellowed and roared, and waved their hats, and the people up on the banks cheered too. It was a merry time… even for Selena, standing on the quarterdeck in her seagoing rig of breeches, boots and shirt, with pistols in her belt as natural as if they'd grown there.

"Well, ma'am," said Silver, and hopped forward with his parrot on his shoulder.

"Well, ma'am!" said the bird, and Selena and reached out and stroked it.

"Ah," said Silver, "there's few as can do that and count five fingers!"

"I know," she said, and smiled. She smiled straight into his eyes, and the sun shone bright for John Silver, and he sighed with pure happiness, and all the merrier since the past weeks hadn't been easy.

Washington had sent forth Walrus as a licensed privateer, to spy out what the Spaniards were doing at sea, with a war coming. In return, the Colony of Virginia would quietly ignore King George's law, and provide safe haven for Walrus and her people, and a legal share in any prizes taken: which delighted the crew. The crew, but not Silver. Left to himself, he might – just possibly – have taken the ship and Selena, and sailed over the horizon… Which he couldn't, not with a crew that wanted it all ways: any prizes they could take, plus the treasure, for they knew all about the divided papers and the rendezvous with Flint.

So, even on a ship at sea, Silver was trapped, and had no choice but to do what Washington wanted… at least in the matter of taking Spanish prizes: which – and for the moment – wasn't such a bad thing. Not at all. Not with her smiling at him.

"This is better, ain't it?" he said and dared, just as she had dared, by touching her cheek.

"If it really is legal," she said.

"I've told you. I've shown you the papers. Letters of marque from Washington!"

"Yes," she said. "If you say so." And she laughed again.

"And ain't I all sweet and kindness to them as we takes?"

"Yes," she said. For it was true. Inez de Cordoba had tried to run, been easily caught by the sharp-hulled Walrus and had surrendered at the first salvo, which had been fired to frighten not kill. Then Silver steered for the coast of Florida, and put the prisoners – who included two women – into the Spaniard's longboat, within easy pulling distance of land. And none were touched nor their possessions despoiled. All this she had seen, and she knew that it was done for her.

Only the Spanish captain – Ibanez – was still aboard. He'd tried to fight, and had been cut down by Mr Joe and sewn up by Dr Cowdray, but had been too weak to go into the longboat with his mates.

And so she smiled and went to the rail to wave at some children capering and dancing on the bank up above.

"That Washington," said Israel Hands softly, looking at Selena.

"Aye?" said Silver, likewise staring at the small, beloved figure.

"Are you really sure that Washington can write letters of marque?"

"It wasn't him. He got 'em from the governor of Virginia."

"Aye… but can he?"

"Clap a hitch, Mr Gunner," he said, and raised his voice, looking at the brig: "Pork and biscuit, wine and salt, fish and rice." He smiled. "And the ship herself, with all her tackles and gear!" Selena heard him and came back.

"Of which a good share goes to the governor," she said.

"Of course. That's what makes us legal!"

She laughed in his face at that, and Silver shrugged. What did he care? She was here with him and not off with Flint. That was enough. She'd come aboard when the ship left Alexandria, fed up with the back stairs and folk treating her as less than them. But to Silver it had been like those days when he was first courting her, aboard this very ship, and before she turned against him. She was still slinging a hammock alone, though, and wouldn't be his wife.

"Cap'n!" said a voice, and Silver jumped. "Cap'n!" It was Israel Hands again.

"Mr Gunner," said Silver.

"Boat's alongside for to go ashore, Cap'n!"

"Thank you, Mr Hands," said Silver, formally.

"And we've swayed the Dago aboard. Dr Cowdray says he's well enough."

"Well and good," said Silver, and moved over to the rail. He looked over the side, and saw the heavily bandaged Captain Ibanez, laid in the stern, made fast to a plank. He turned to Selena, "Will you not come?" he said.

"Like this?" she said, looking at her clothes. Silver shrugged.

"Put women's clothes on!"

"No," she said. "Not here. I was a slave here."

So it was Silver and Israel Hands who met the authorities of the port of Savannah, taking with them Mr Warrington, who, when sober, was convincing as ever in his role of honest mariner. But aside from passing some dollars to officials who needed help to look away, and getting the Spanish captain a berth in the fort – where the militia had what passed for a hospital – there was little for Warrington to do.

And so to Jimmy Chester's grog shop that had once been Charley Neal's, and before all else inquiring after Joe Flint, who'd not yet arrived in Savannah. Then, leaving Mr Warrington in a happy corner with a bottle and a mulatto girl, the real business was done with Jimmy Chester, who proved to be very like Charley Neal, except he was thin where Charley had been plump. But he had the same skills with money. He could digest a ship and cargo, and make guineas appear in bank accounts far away. So Inez de Cordova was swiftly dealt with, right down to setting aside a share for the governor of Virginia. And beyond that, Chester was deep into politics.

"We used to be a Trustee Colony, and now we are a Royal Colony," he said.

"Oh?" said Silver, bored, sitting in Chester's private room with Israel Hands and a jug and some glasses.

"But we await our first governor from England, and so in the meantime govern ourselves," he said. "And we have an assembly, of which I am a member…" He smiled "… and its president."

"How cosy," said Silver, and Israel Hands yawned.

"So I correspond with other colonial officials… including George Washington."

"Oh?" said Silver, sitting up.

"And I know why he sent you to sea." "Oh?"

"Oh yes! He's acting for all the colonies. We need to know what the Spanish are doing at sea. He's desperate to know. We all are, and so we use who we can to find out!"

"What about the navy?" said Silver. "Washington never mentioned them. Ain't they spyin' out the Dagoes?"

Chester shifted in his chair, understanding Washington's reluctance to mention so delicate a subject as the need for the colonies – occasionally, and of course in the Greater British interest – to act independently… even contrarywise… to the policies of the beloved mother country…

"Hmmm," said Chester, "you, see, Captain Silver, the king's navy acts on orders from London… which does not precisely share our interests." Chester dismissed this awkward matter with a shrug. "So," he said briskly, "what've you found out about the Spanish?"

Silver and Israel Hands looked at one another. They said nothing, and stared steadily back at Chester.

"As little as that?" said Chester, and laughed. "And you don't care, do you?"

Silver smiled a sly smile.

"You're smart, you are, Mr Chester, smart as paint. I knew it the first instant I saw you. But how does a poor matelot know who he can trust in these dangerous times?"

"Trust?" said Chester. "And you a pirate?"

"I'm a privateer!" said Silver. "With Letters of Marque."

"Is that what you think?"

"Bah!" said Silver.

"See here," said Chester, and leaned forward and lowered his voice.

"Well?"

"The cargo aboard Inez de Cordoba: pork, biscuit and the rest…"

"What about it?"

"Didn't you wonder what it was for?"

"Why should I?"

"Because it's victuals! Inez de Cordoba was on her way to provision a fleet."

"How would you know that?" said Silver.

"Because there's a Spanish squadron in these waters."

"So?"

"So didn't you ask that Spanish captain where he was going?" Silver shook his head. "Didn't you ask him anything?"

Silver shrugged. "He wouldn't talk. He said I was a damned pirate and he wouldn't talk."

"And you didn't find means to persuade him?"

"No," said Silver, thinking of her. "For aboard my ship, it's all sweet kindness."

"Rubbish," said Chester. "You're being stupid."

"Watch your lip, mister! Don't be a clever bugger with me!"

Chester blinked, swallowed, and tried another approach.

"If you knew where he was going, you could lie in wait… for others like him!"

"Ahhhh!" said Silver. That was much better! That was prizes and plum duff!

"And maybe find out what that Spanish squadron's doing…?" said Chester.

"Wouldn't that be jolly, an' all?" said Silver with a sour smile.

"Yes," said Chester, knowing he'd got most of what he wanted. So he smiled, and they drank up, and they parted as friends… almost. For just as Silver was leaving, Chester had a final, little word.

"Captain Silver," he said.

"Aye?"

"I knew Charley Neal very well."

"Did you?"

"Yes. And he mentioned that there was an island…" Silver frowned "… where your friend Flint… left some goods…"

Thump! Thump! The crutch bumped over the floorboards and Silver stood dark and tall over Jimmy Chester. He stood so close that Chester could hear the hiss of his breath as Silver whispered in his face with quiet, deadly menace:

"Cock an ear, mister," said Silver, and Chester's knees quivered and his hands shook. "Now there ain't no blasted island, nor there ain't no blasted goods. D'you hear me?"

"Yes."

"And we'll be jolly companions, you and I, if you never mention this again."

"Yes."

"Well and good!" said Silver. "And how do I get to see that Spanish captain?"

An hour later Silver and Israel Hands were at the town-side gates of Fort Savannah, a hundred-yard square of puncheon logs with a ditch all round and bastions at the four corners, mounting heavy guns. They clunked across the drawbridge and were challenged by redcoat sentries with muskets. There were great works in hand with pick, spade and wheelbarrow: deepening the ditch round the fort, and throwing up the spoil to strengthen the bastions, and a battery being emplaced to command the river. And all this for fear of the Spanish, and the work so urgent that not only slaves were sweating in the sun, but white men too, including most of the fort's militia, which numbered many hundreds of men.

Silver tipped his hat to the sentries, showed a paper signed by Mr President Chester, and was saluted and let in. The same paper, presented to a sergeant, then to a captain, got Silver and Israel Hands into the inner quadrangle of the fort, with a militiaman to lead them past its barrack block, bakehouse, officers' quarters and well, to a squat gaol, which doubled as a lazarette for persons with dangerous infections.

"Very tight," said Silver, looking at the massive log walls. "Very nice. And is the Spanish gentleman in there?" He pointed at the heavy door.

"Yessir," said the militiaman. "T'ain't locked, sir. But him being a Dago, we didn't know where else to put him. We done the best we can, sir, an' the 'pothecary'll be round later, to let him some blood."

"What a blessing that'll be," said Silver. "Should do him a power of good! And is there a grog shop in the fort?"

"Canteen, sir. Over there, sir."

"Then here's a dollar for you and my shipmate here, to take a drop on me."

"Thank you, sir. Proper gennelman, sir!" said the militiaman.

"You sure, John?" said Israel Hands, frowning. "Don't you want me to…"

"No," said Silver, "you take a drink, my old messmate."

Silver watched them walk off. He tried the door. It opened. He went into the cool, dark interior which reeked of piss and vomit. There were a few narrow wooden beds. The Spaniard lay on one. He was awake and alert, but too weak to get up.

Silver hopped across and stood beside the bed, with his long crutch and swirling coat-tails, looming huge and menacing over the helpless man, who looked up in great fear. And the parrot which had sat happily on his shoulder thus far, squawked and flew off and fluttered to the door. Silver watched her for a moment, scratching at the planks with her great talons, and cursing fluently in five different languages. Then he let her out, and closed the door behind her, and went back to the bedside.

"Buenas tardes, Capitбn Ibanez," he said.

"Buenas tardes," said the hoarse, quiet voice.

"Tengo unas preguntas," said Silver. "I've got some questions…"

Chapter 32

Evening, 23rd May 1754 The confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers West of the Colony of Pennsylvania In disputed land

The Indians roared with laughter in the flickering light of the campfires as Long-Hair jumped up and hopped from foot to foot with blood dripping from his cut hand. They yelled and stamped and whooped.

"Are you done?" said Flint. "So soon? Am I among men or boys!"

And the Indians howled and shrieked and playfully shoved Long-Hair from one to another, as he clutched his bloodied hand, but grinned and yelled with the best of them, to show that he saw the joke, and was indeed a man.

Flint smiled. He sat cross-legged before a flat rock and placed the knife down again, with the blade facing himself and the handle towards the Indians. It was his knife, a fine knife with an antler hilt and a razor-edged blade. It was a knife any man would covet.

"Sun Face! Sun Face!" cried the Indians, and whooped all the louder, for they loved Flint. They loved him for his lightning speed and the grim darkness of his humour, which tickled their savage souls.

"Why do they call him Sun Face?" said Washington, thirty feet off by the white men's campfire that was likewise surrounded by grinning faces.

"It's what them others called him, sir," said Billy Bones. "Them Indians on the island, sir. Someone must've told 'em," and his jaw dropped and he looked away. "Oh!" he said, knowing he'd done wrong.

"Ah!" said Washington. "This Island that Mr Flint does not discuss."

"Dunno, sir," said Billy Bones. "But them Indians, they called him Sun Face."

"Aye, sir!" said Black Dog. "That they did, an' all."

"Did they admire him as much as our Indians do?" said Washington.

"Yessir," said Billy Bones. "But then, we all did… we all do, sir."

"Aye, sir!" said Black Dog. "There ain't none like him, sir!"

"Aye," said Billy Bones. "Not as a seaman, a leader, nor a man!"

Meanwhile the Indians had settled down, nudging and leering.

"So," said Flint, "I will remind you good fellows of the game… Flint's game… I shall put my hands in my pockets… like this… and I shall await any man to sit opposite me… and pick up the knife by the handle, and take it as his own."

The Indians screeched and yelled and found a volunteer: one who'd managed to get some trade gin inside him, for all that Washington forbade it on the trail. This was Broken- Foot, a man in his forties, who should have known better.

He sat down, grinning stupidly. He looked at the knife. The entire camp fell silent. It would be so easy… Sun Face would have to pull out his hands, and reach over the blade to get the handle, while he – Broken Foot – had only to pick it up!

He paused.

He tensed.

He pounced…

… and howled with pain as his hand closed on sharp steel, and Flint snatched it free by the handle, and jauntily tapped the blade against his own nose, leaving a tiny smudge of blood.

Flint grinned, Flint smiled… which the Indians and Washington saw. But they didn't see what went on inside of Flint's unique and remarkable mind. They didn't see him howl with laughter and hug himself with glee, and roll over with his legs kicking the air… at least in spirit… because Flint could see that all things were becoming right again, having been dreadfully wrong for weeks.

He chuckled and cleared his throat… A-hem. Then he looked at them all: especially Washington. Flint touched his hat as if respectfully, and saw the big man nod. He'd had Flint close-guarded, so he couldn't run, then taken along on this expedition into the primeval forest: this voyage up the bum-hole of nowhere – leaving Selena behind with Silver! Flint bowed his head. He was so tormented with jealousy that he could bear it only by slamming the truth behind locked doors, in the cellars of his mind, and never, ever going there… except by chance, like now…

He groaned. He shook his head. Better to think of other things: even other pains, such as the fact that – once in the forest – they'd not even had to guard him, for it was trackless wilderness, which only the Indians knew and only they could find the way back to the coast. So Flint was as much trapped as if he'd been in prison, especially as those same Indians had the uncanny ability to track any fugitive attempting to run.

Flint smiled, because all this made the Indians so wonderfully important, and so very much worth recruiting to the true cause… the cause of Joe Flint.

And so… Broken Foot was jumping round dripping blood from his cut hand, and the Indians howling with laughter. But Washington frowned.

"Enough!" he said, and looked at Flint. "I want fit men, not cripples."

"Aye-aye, sir," said Flint. "I did but seek to make the men merry, sir."

Washington got up casually and stretched.

"A word, Mr Flint," he said, and walked off.

"Sir?" said Flint, following him into darkness.

"Mr Flint," said Washington quietly, "I would wish to think well of you."

"Oh?" said Flint, looking at the big face.

"Your subordinates stand in awe of you," said Washington, "the Indians worship you. Your conception of a fleet was inspired!" Washington paused. "And…" he said. "And… there is that… other matter… of such vital importance when war comes. Not only to Virginia, but indeed to the British interest generally!"

Looking up at him, Flint suffered pure torture as the old demon wriggled within him: the one demon he could never entirely control. For the earnest and honest Colonel Washington had dropped into a pit of his own digging, and Flint was bursting to laugh in his face.

Flint knew, now, that the tale of the island treasure followed him everywhere, and was the real reason he'd been brought on this expedition, since the earnest and honest Colonel Washington believed the universal myth that Flint alone knew the whereabouts of the treasure. And Washington wanted it! He wanted it as a war chest for his precious Virginia, even though it was the ill-got, bloodstained loot of murderous pirates. Hence the fun. For Washington couldn't bring himself to mention the subject except slantwise and tangentially, enabling Flint to pretend he didn't know what Washington was talking about.

"Thus I am confident, in the end, of your patriotism, Mr Flint," said Washington.

"Ya-rrrrrumph!" said Flint, striving heroically to hide a snigger behind a cough.

"Hmmm?" said Washington, frowning and wondering. For he was no fool.

"Your pardon, sir," said Flint in a strangled voice.

"Quite," said Washington. "But this game with the knife…"

"Oh?" said Flint. He scented chastisement. It killed his laughter stone dead.

"You must play it no more, Joseph."

Flint frowned.

"It is but a contest of skill, sir."

"No! It is contemptible cruelty, for none can match your speed."

Flint said nothing. "And so," said Washington, "I charge you by that high Craft which we both revere, that there shall be no more of this! Not it, nor anything like it, for it shames you and makes you less of a man."

Slowly Flint bowed his head and trembled. Washington kindly laid a hand on his shoulder.

"We shall speak of this no more," he said. "I am moved by your contrition." And he walked back to the firelight, more wrong than ever he'd been in his life, for Flint was blinded with anger, boiling with outrage, and his hands were trembling for the antler-hilt knife, which stayed in its sheath only because he knew that he couldn't run and find the coast. Not with Washington's Indians on his trail.

Thus the life of the camp proceeded smoothly and, before dawn, the Indians were sent scouting: looking especially for Hurons, their counterparts on the French side, while the white men stood on the edge of the forest, looking down on two great rivers which merged and flowed towards the Ohio: the route into the unknown interior, but also into French territory, now only a day's march to the north.

The weather was mild, and a camp table was set up with surveying instruments and a supply of paper. Flint and Washington stood at the table with Billy Bones and Black Dog, and behind them stood Washington's men. All but Washington, who was in uniform, wore faded, practical trail clothes, with fringed shirts, slouch hats, and strong boots, with a musket, powder horn and bullet-bag slung across their shoulder.

"Now, Mr Flint," said Washington, "it is time for you to display your skills!"

"With pleasure, Colonel," said Flint, and smiled as best he could, for his bitterly regretted joke about a fleet controlling the great rivers had been taken seriously. Hence this expedition, and the supposed reason for his being with it: to give expert guidance on building the fleet of the Ohio.

"There is the Monongahela," said Washington, pointing to the gleaming waters. "It is navigable all the way to the Ohio, and the Ohio is navigable for hundreds of miles beyond. So, Mr Flint – can a fleet be built from these timbers?" He looked into the mighty forest. "A fleet to keep out the French."

Flint thought, and found grudging interest in the matter.

"Yes," he said, "the Monongahela could float a squadron of the line…"

"Ah!" said Washington, eagerly. "That was my belief. But I am no expert!"

"I said could," cautioned Flint. "There are problems."

"Name them, sir," said Washington. "That is why you are here."

Flint nodded.

"There is a need for stores and provisions of every kind," he said.

"We shall build a road to supply them!" said Washington.

"And a fortification must be built, to protect the shipyard," said Flint, looking at Washington's excellent chart of the rivers. "Here, where there is flat ground and deep water." Washington nodded. Flint turned to Black Dog. "What is your opinion, Mr Carpenter?"

"Well, Cap'n," said Black Dog, "we could fell trees, and cut timber to suit. But properly, we should wait a year or two for the timber to season."

"No!" said Washington. "There is need for haste."

"Then, sirs," said Black Dog, "that means buildin' out of green wood, which hasn't good strength, and will warp and twist besides." He saluted, and puffed out his cheeks in relief at being done. "I take my Bible oath on it, sirs," he said.

"But will such vessels last a season or two?" said Washington.

Black Dog pondered mightily.

"Aye-aye, sir," he said. "But no more."

"Good!" said Washington. "And can you, Mr Flint, contrive vessels for the purpose?"

Flint nodded. "Some sort of flat-bottomed sloop or cutter would be needed. Not too big, so they can be worked with sweeps, should the wind fail or be contrary. Vessels of perhaps fifty tons, with a few big guns and a line of swivels." He smiled, pleased with his solution to this interesting problem… and instantly wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Well said, Mr Flint!" cried Washington. "The Ohio valley will need your skills for years to come!"

Years? thought Flint. YEARS?

But he had no time to boil and seethe, for in that moment the camp's Indians – gone not an hour ago – came running back through the woods, led by Black-Ear, their chief. A line of black-eyed, eagle-nosed, tattooed men ran with him, swift as birds and silent as smoke.

"What is it?" said Washington.

"Hurons!" said Black-Ear.

"Dammit!" said Washington. "What numbers?"

"Many dozens."

"Strike the camp!" said Washington, "We shall retire at once."

His followers were expert woodsmen, who broke camp, triced up their gear and moved off in loose single-files without another word, with the Indians scouting ahead and covering the rear. The whole formation moved through the woods like the veterans they were, using bird calls to signal to one another, while Billy Bones and Black Dog lumped along like trolls in the middle, to the obvious disapproval of the rest.

As he walked along, trying to be as silent as the Indians, Flint noted this disciplined, skilful behaviour, but noted something else, too. When the Indians came back into the camp, and when Washington wasn't looking, Black-Ear had looked at Flint, and bowed his head, and placed a hand to his heart.

Flint smiled. It seemed that his diligent cultivation of the Indian interest had finally reached the tipping point, such that it was time to bid farewell to Washington's expedition… but not before dealing with the colonel himself…

Chapter 33

Dawn, 13th July 1754 Aboard Walrus St Helena Sound The Royal Colony of South Carolina

The sea was calm, the wind fair, and the warm sun rose out of the east from the depths of the sea, eating the darkness and lighting the limitless, rolling depths of the American continent, and the limitless, glittering expanse of the Atlantic, now in beauteous and peaceful mood. All the world was fresh and clean and it smiled to itself as it awoke. And with the beautiful sights came gentle sounds: ripples and breeze and birds; the quiet, morning voices of men, and the soft clunk and chatter of ship's gear.

It was such a moment as makes a seaman's heart tingle and his soul to soar unto Heaven; such a moment as can only be understood by those who have felt the pitiless cruelty of the same ocean when its wrath breaks lofty masts and mighty timbers as if they were twigs that an infant snaps with his tiny hands.

All aboard shared the moment, and stood quietly to their duties, proud of themselves and of their ship, and of their trade, and eager to swell their wealth with another such prize as Inez de Cordoba. Better still, they grinned with the happy knowledge that their captain now knew exactly where to find another prize, since he knew exactly what the Spanish were up to!

"Look!" said Warrington, standing over a chart on a barrelhead by the tiller, with Mr Joe, John Silver and Israel Hands beside him. "The whole coastline here is ragged with rivers and creeks, and with islands close offshore. This one is St Helena Island."

Mr Joe leaned over the chart.

"Is this the best we've got?" he asked. "This chart's old and it's French!"

"Perhaps," said Warrington, "but it is drawn fair and clear, and it has soundings and sandbanks, and all such perils as mariners must fear." He was defensive, for the chart was his own.

"Well enough," said Silver, and laid a hand on Warrington's shoulder. "And the Frogs is fine seamen, an' all. So! Where's them other islands what Ibanez told us about?"

Warrington drew his telescope and swept the seas ahead.

"There!" he said pointing. "And there! We are in mid- channel, having passed into the mouth of the sound, clearing the sands off St Helena, and having two miles of water on either beam. The islands we seek are about three miles ahead."

"Which one is El Tercero?" said Silver.

Warrington blinked. "The French gave them no names…" he said.

"Aye, but the Dons did," said Silver. "See! Working in from the coast… down the north side of the sound… El Primero, El Segundo, El Tercero and El Quarto: First, Second, Third and Fourth." He raised his own glass and looked ahead. "And them supply ships, they anchors between Tercero and Quarto, and waits for the squadron. That's their orders."

"And there's three ships in the squadron?" said Israel Hands.

"Aye," said Silver. "Two ships of thirty guns and one of sixty."

"We don't want to be meetin' them!" said Mr Joe.

"No danger of that!" said Silver. "They ain't due for a week, and Captain Ibanez said they're usually late. Meanwhile, they's out charting this here coast of the Carolinas – this arky-pel-argo of islands – and seeing where big ships can anchor… for to land troops and guns."

"So there is going to be a war?" said Israel Hands. "With Spain?"

"Every bugger says so!" said Silver, and he straightened up, and raised his voice: "Allllll hands!" he roared.

"Aye-aye!" they cried.

"Can you hear me in the tops?"

"Aye-aye!"

"Can you hear me forrard an' aft an' all?"

"Aye-aye!"

"Then listen well!" he said. "Lookouts keep sharp! Guns run out and matches burning! Stand by, boarders! And a double share for him as first sights a prize!" They cheered. Silver grinned. "Quiet, I said!"

"Aye-aye!"

Slowly, carefully, Walrus ran up the sound, picking out El Primero, then El Segundo, and then things got difficult. The shoreline on the starboard bow was idyllically beautiful: first dunes and salt marshes alive with water-fowl, then sandy beaches with dark green forest behind them. That, and so many river mouths that it was hard to tell which was an island and which was not, and the old French map didn't quite show what was really there.

But no man complained. Not when a prize might be waiting just around the next corner. Walrus was king of all the world. There wasn't another ship in this glorious expanse of shimmering water, and no sight nor sound of any other man. This was pure, primeval wilderness, holding no power greater than Walrus's guns and Walrus's men.

"Ahoy, foretop!" cried Silver.

"Aye-aye!" cried the lookout.

"Don't look for topmasts! They'll be…"

He was about to warn that the supply ships would strike all above the lower masts, and hide themselves with leafy branches cut from the shore. That's what Captain Ibanez had said. But the lookout wasn't listening. Not now.

"Fair on the starboard bow!" he cried. "That's my double share!"

"Huzzah!" cried all hands, and they ran to the starboard rail in a thunder of boots and a roll of the ship. Even Selena was among them, and even she was smiling.

"Ah!" said Silver, and raised his telescope. It was just as Ibanez had said. Yards and topmasts struck, and the vessel green with boughs.

"Well done, John!" cried Israel Hands. "This is all your doing!" he beamed.

"Aye!" said Silver. "Ain't it just?"

Israel Hands came close. He spoke soft.

"How'd you do it?"

"What?"

"Get that Dago to talk. He wouldn't say nothing before."

But Silver merely peered down his nose at Israel Hands, and tickled the parrot's green feathers… and looked away.

"Ahoy, Selena!" he cried, and pointed at the carefully hidden ship. "There, my lass! All ours! All legal!" And so she smiled.

She smiled because she was young and the young don't stay miserable for ever. And the weather was glorious and the scenery magical. So – accepting she was where she was, and not where she might have wanted to be – she made use of her natural talent for making the best of things.

"Ah-ha!" she cried, and stamped her booted foot, slapped her thigh, and struck a heroic pose: legs apart, hands on hips, head back… just as she'd been taught by little Mr Abbey for pantomimes on the London stage, and the crew whooped and cheered every bit as loud as the audiences in Drury Lane. Like any artist, Selena responded to applause, and so she acted a little more. She mimed the act of drawing a telescope. She studied the bough-covered ship and turned to Silver with a mock-serious expression.

"How shall we take her, Cap'n?" she said, affecting a manly voice. "For it's a narrow creek! We'll not get the ship alongside of her!"

The crew roared with delight. Silver laughed, Israel Hands laughed, Mr Warrington cried, "Brava! Brava!" and clapped his hands.

"Quite the master mariner, madame!" said Silver. "But you're right. We'd not get the old ship up there without warping." He took a breath and lifted his voice and bellowed: "Boats away! Boarders away! Look lively!"

And so, the warm sun of the Carolinas shone, the little waters chuckled, the sky was blue and the gulls sang alongside the fowl of the salt marshes, and all was rum and plum duff… until suddenly it wasn't. Suddenly one lookout remembered his duty, and took a glance astern, which he'd not done for a while, being entirely concerned with looking for prizes. So he turned… and gaped… and gasped.

"Sail astern, Cap'n!" he cried. "Three of 'em!"

All hands looked astern. They let go the lines they were hauling to launch the boats. They left off checking the priming of pistols and the edges of blades. All who had telescopes raised them and looked at what was coming behind them.

Silver studied the three ships in the round eye of his telescope, which revealed their secrets for all that they were three miles away. They were in line abeam, and he didn't need the scarlet and gold of their banners to know their nationality, for they bore crosses on their topsails in the old way, proclaiming Christ, Salvation and Spain.

Two were frigates, and big ones, heavily built in the Spanish style. They'd have eighteen-pounders at least in their main batteries. They'd be spacious, comfortable ships, with room for men to live who might be at sea for years. They'd be strong ships to withstand the battering of an enemy's guns, and the violence of the seas. Oh yes! The Dons knew how to build, for their empire stretched not only across the Atlantic, but the vast Pacific too, and circumnavigation was nothing to them, nor rounding the Horn in a gale.

Silver focused on the middle ship, and sighed again, for it was old and massive, with a high stern, a spritsail under the bow, and a steep tumble-home that told of a powerful battery on the gun deck. It was almost a ship of the line, and might have been considered one in its day, with a complete row of guns below and more in the high stern and in the bow. It rolled slow and ponderous, proclaiming its weight and its power… Twenty-four-pounders on the maindeck, thought Silver.

In open water, he'd have snapped his fingers at the three of them, for no ship can serve all purposes and these weren't built for speed, which Walrus was. He'd have sailed them hull under in an hour. But these weren't open waters…

He slammed shut his glass, and saw every man aboard gazing at him and the boarders frozen in the act of hoisting out the boats.

"Huh!" he said. "You can belay that, my jolly boys, for we won't be taking no prizes today!" He turned to Warrington and his French map. "Is there any way out than that way?" He pointed at the oncoming ships. Warrington swallowed and gulped and peered pitifully over the chart, trying to find that which didn't exist.

"No, Captain," he said finally. "Only rivers that would take us inland."

"Well then," said Hands, "looks like that Spanish squadron found us after all. Looks like they've come early."

"Aye!" said Silver. "Either that, or that Dago captain sold me a pup!"

"What we going to do, Cap'n?" said Hands. Silver said nothing. He didn't know.

Chapter 34

Night, 27th May 1754 A forest, west of the Colony of Pennsylvania On the borders of British territory

Flint shook Billy Bones awake, clasping a hand over his mouth so he should make no sound. Billy Bones nodded: he'd been well briefed. Black Dog was likewise woken, and the three men, with their packs and guns, silently got up and made their way out of the camp. They hadn't far to go. They'd laid themselves down close to the edge of the camp.

It was dark and the only sentries were Black-Ear and five others: Mingos like himself. They followed Flint. Thus three white men and six Indians vanished into the dense trees. Then there was a pause, while Black-Ear's men silently brought in the remaining Indians: four more Mingos, and four Iroquois, who were close followers of Colonel Washington. They came merrily and willingly, assured that Sun-Face had a new and secret game to play, in the darkness away from the other white men.

And indeed Sun-Face greeted them warmly: Mingos and Iroquois together, and he motioned for them to come close and to stand in his presence, which they did, while Sun-Face smiled and raised a finger to his lips for silence, and drew the antler-hilt knife, along his finger.

"Ah!" he said sharply, and waved his finger as if cut.

"Wuh!" they said and shuffled forward still further, with the Mingos quietly giving the Iroquois pride of place, closest to Sun-Face, and in front of themselves. Flint watched, and saw that all was good, and smiled… and cut the throat of the nearest Iroquois in a single slash, while the Mingos fell on the remaining Iroquois with the skill of a lifetime of ambush: grappling, stabbing and slicing, with tight hands to crush their victim's mouths, and each Iroquois seized by at least two men, so he should make no noise as he fell, nor Flint's victim either, for Flint imitated the Mingos and threw his arms round his blood-gargling victim and hung on hard while he kicked and choked and slumped into death.

Not even a bird awoke as the Mingos laid out the dead, and Flint watched in uttermost fascination as they slid their scalping knives busily round the hairlines, put a knee into each man's chest, and wrenched off the blood-dripping scalps with single, sharp pulls.

RRRRRIP! said the flesh as it tore away from the bone. It was the loudest sound of the entire operation, and even that didn't disturb the forest… But Billy Bones did. He retched and heaved at the sight.

"Shut up, you fool!" hissed Flint.

"Sorry, Cap'n… I can't help it…"

"Just shut up!"

"Aye-aye, Cap'n."

Billy Bones fell silent, but he groaned within.

"Sun-Face," said Black-Ear, "will you fetch Washington now?"

The Mingos were clustered around him, grinning, while those who held the scalps showed them off to the rest, for the night was going well… but they'd been promised a far greater treat. They'd been promised the removal of one leader by another.

"Oh yes!" said Flint. "I'll fetch him. Just you good fellows wait here."

Minutes later, Flint moved through the white men's silent camp. He didn't creep, for that might have caused suspicion. Instead he went confidently but quietly, as a man might who'd gone to empty his bladder in the night, and didn't want to wake his mates. So nobody stirred: not even when Flint knelt down to shake Washington's shoulder, and whisper in his ear. For why should they be suspicious? Weren't the Indians alert for danger?

"Colonel?" said Flint.

"What is it?" said Washington.

"Sir, I have been thinking." "Oh?"

"Your appeal to my patriotism, sir…" "Ahhhh!"

"Could we talk, Colonel?"

"Of course…"

And so, in his wish to fund a war chest for his homeland, George Washington found himself alone and unarmed in a dark forest clearing, away from his men, following Joseph Flint, who turned to face him with a nasty, sly expression on his face that Washington didn't like. As yet, Washington was merely angry. He was not afraid, being a big man who cherished the belief that he could deal with Flint if he had to.

But then Black-Ear and his men silently appeared out of the trees, and stood behind Flint, as did Flint's own followers, though with considerably more noise.

"Flint! Black-Ear!" said Washington. "What is this?"

"Colonel," said Flint, "I have explained to these excellent fellows -" he waved a hand at the Mingos "- that your luck is broken and that they should follow myself instead of yourself!" And he laughed.

"What!" cried Washington.

"Shut up!" said Flint, and drew a sea-service pistol from his belt, and levelled it at Washington.

"You contemptible traitor!" said Washington.

Flint laughed again. "Whatever you say, Colonel. But don't cry out…or you're dead."

Click! said the pistol, as Flint cocked it.

"You pompous, uncultured, colonial oaf," said Flint. "You pretentious, ignorant, tin-soldier! By George, I'm going to enjoy this!"

"Pah!" said Washington, and pointed at the Mingos, "D'you think these men will follow you for shooting an unarmed man? Is that how you'd win their respect?"

"Oh no!" said Flint. "Not at all!" And he uncocked the pistol and threw it aside, and did the same with the other that he wore. Then he drew the antler-hilt knife and threw it to stick in the ground, between himself and Washington. "There!" he said. "Will you move first, or shall I?"

"Wuh!" cried the Mingos and rushed forward for a better look. What a fine night this was, and no mistake! They clustered round Flint and Washington, and stared like the front row at the Roman games.

"You bastard!" said Washington, and trembled, for he'd seen Flint's speed.

"Afraid?" said Flint merrily, and stepped back a pace. "There," he said. "Now I've given you every chance." And he grinned and waited in such confidence… that he nearly lost everything, for Washington leapt not at the knife – which Flint was expecting – but straight at Flint himself, with hands outstretched to strangle and mangle and crush.

"WUH!" cried the Mingos.

"Cap'n!" cried Billy Bones and Black Dog.

Only Flint's speed saved him. He was moving as Washington struck, diving to one side such that the huge, broad hands caught his coat-tails not his throat, but even that pulled him over, kicking and struggling, with Washington hammering a fist into his back and the two rolling on the ground, and the Mingos yelling and Black Dog trying to find a clear shot for his own pistols, and Billy Bones pulling him off for fear of hitting Flint, and Flint jamming a heel into Washington's shoulder and Washington punching Flint in the belly and the two gasping and cursing and Flint knowing himself the weaker man, and Washington roaring and hauling himself hand over hand towards Flint's throat and Flint flailing out a hand and chancing on one of the pistols! And Washington thumping an elbow into Flint's chest and Flint aiming the pistol… which split the dark, with a bang and a flash, and the ball went nowhere, and Washington got a grip on Flint's neck and squeezed and squeezed… and:

Thump! Flint swung the heavy pistol by the muzzle and caught Washington on top of the head, the thick butt landing with the force of a hammer.

"Ugh…" said Washington.

Thump! said the pistol, again. Thump! once more.

And Flint was getting up, and swaying on his feet, and Washington lying still.

"Give me a knife!" screamed Flint, eyes white round the pupils, and froth on his lips. "Give me a knife!" he shrieked, and the Mingos sped forward, entranced with the entertainment, each seeking the honour of lending his knife to Sun Face, and Flint snatched a knife, and dropped to his knees and felt for Washington's hairline and put the sharp point to the warm flesh…

"No!" cried Billy Bones, and threw himself down and grabbed Flint's hand, such that the knife wavered and trembled and Billy Bones heaved to pull it clear of Washington's face, wrestling nose-to-nose with his wildly angry master.

"Don't do it!" gasped Billy Bones, in anguish. "Not that! We're seamen, not bloody savages. Ain't it good enough you beat the bugger fair an' square?"

"You blockhead! You deadeye! You swab!" cried Flint, and wrenched free, and leapt up with the knife in his hand and death in his eyes. He would have fallen on Billy Bones, but Black-Ear pushed between them with wide eyes and arms raised.

"No, Sun-Face!" he cried. "The white men come! From the camp! We must be gone. Listen!"

And the Mingos, as one man, raised their long guns, and aimed at the shouting that even Flint could hear now. The white men's camp was roused, and looking for its leader, but Flint was still shaking with rage. He pushed past Black-Ear to get at Billy Bones… and stopped in his tracks, confounded, astounded and doubting the sight of his own eyes, for Billy Bones wasn't cringing as ever he'd done before in the face of his master's wrath. He was stood firm with a drawn pistol in his hand. It wasn't raised, but it was ready, and there was a surly determination on Mr Bones's face that Flint had never, ever seen before.

"Billy, Billy," said Flint, in a mad voice. "Don't ever tell me what to do." And in the unhinged fury of the moment he took a step forward and raised the knife, and positively gaped as – incredibly – Billy Bones cocked and levelled, aiming straight at Flint's heart! They stared at one another. Only God Almighty knew which was the more amazed by what was happening, and neither moved. But the Mingos did. They ran.

"Sun-Face!" cried Black-Ear, and "Sun-Face!" again, because Flint was ignoring him. "Come now! We must be gone!"

And there came the crashing of bodies charging through undergrowth, alongside the shouting of Washington's men.

"What?" said Flint, thick-headed with anger.

"Cap'n," said Billy Bones, "we got to go." He lowered the pistol.

"Go?" said Flint.

"Now!" said Black-Ear. "The whites are bad trackers, but even they can follow when the light comes. We must go… now!" And finally Flint moved, for it was his own deepest, most profound wish to get out of this detestable wilderness and make his way to the coast, and life, and everything that was important.

"Huh!" he said, and threw the knife away, and stared at Billy Bones until the other dropped his eyes. "Lead on!" he said to Black-Ear.

"Come!" said Black-Ear and set off, and left George Washington groaning on the ground where his men soon found him, allowing him to enjoy other adventures: some, of no little consequence, and all thanks to Billy Bones who was soon suffering agonies of self-doubt for defying the man he'd followed like a dog, and still admired beyond all reason.

But even that wasn't as bad as the pain of the pace Black- Ear set through the woods, for it wasn't only the men of Washington's expedition that might be after them. Black-Hair feared far more the Hurons, whose territory this was and who would pursue with skills far greater than mere white men, and would punish those they caught with infinite cruelty.

The first days were the worst. Flint and Billy Bones strained to keep up while Black Dog was near death, for he was older than them and a stranger to exercise of any kind.

"Mr Black," said Flint as the wretched man begged for rest when first they camped for the night, in a cold circle without a fire, for that might have betrayed them. "I appreciate your predicament," said Flint, "and I have a solution."

"God bless you, Cap'n," said Black Dog, clutching Flint's arm and shedding tears of relief. But Billy Bones saw the look on Flint's face and shuddered. "See here," said Flint, pulling out one of his small pocket-pistols. "It's primed and loaded."

"Loaded, Cap'n?" said Black Dog, with round eyes.

"Yes, my dear fellow," said Flint. "If you place it 50…" Flint opened his mouth, and inserted the pistol barrel, and paused for the manoeuvre to be appreciated. Then he removed the weapon and offered it to Black Dog with a smile. "If you aim upwards at the brain," said Flint, "why, a single shot will see you off without the least trouble."

Black Dog groaned. "But why?" he said with fresh tears, this time unhappy ones. "Why should I do that?"

"Because, Mr Black," said Flint, "if you cannot keep up, you shall be left behind, and if you are left behind you shall be discovered by the Hurons, in which case you will be grateful for so swift and painless a deliverance from their attentions."

Black Dog kept up after that. He staggered and scrambled and wept, but he kept up and was fortunate that he had to run no more when Black-Ear found what he'd been looking for: a hidden place where a small clan had a settlement, with lodges and canoes by a tributary of the Potomac. The clan was equally fortunate, for the men were away hunting, while the women and children fled into the woods at the barking of their dogs, and were saved.

So Black-Ear's men stole all the food in the settlement, and took two canoes, built of birch bark and willow, and caulked with pine-gum. They were neat little vessels: delightful for their lightness and buoyancy and the ease with which even one man alone could drive them forward with a paddle. So all hands went aboard, and they proceeded downstream – with a grateful Black Dog semi-conscious on his back – moving this time, not at a miserable dozen miles per day, but at five or six times that speed on the rushing, living highway that led to the Chesapeake and the Atlantic Ocean. And even when they faced rapids and waterfalls, so light were the canoes that they were easily carried overland to the lower waters, where the swift, easy journey continued.

Moving night and day, they soon came down into the white man's lands, and either avoided settlements or passed through them at night, until the river broadened mightily, and the little canoes had to hug the shallows of the shoreline, and finally – at night – the lights of a small fishing village were visible on the bank ahead. Black-Ear turned and ceased paddling and spoke to Flint.

"Sun Face! This is Morgansville. The place of which I spoke."

"Good! Will there be ships?"

"Yes. Sea-ships. For fishing and trade. But not many."

"No fort? No soldiers?"

"No. It is a small place."

"Then here we must part," said Flint.

Billy Bones watched as Flint's intuition drove him to ceremony. Even Billy Bones knew how formal Indians could be, but Flint had them all go ashore, and drag the canoes from the water, and make a fire and sit around it. There, Flint thanked Black-Ear and his men for their help, and gave each a gold piece.

Then Black-Ear spoke in praise of Flint, and drew a knife, and the two men stood, and Black-Ear slashed his palm, and Flint offered his own hand to be cut and clasped by Black- Ear to mix their blood, and the Mingos sighed and Billy Bones and Black Dog winced.

"My brother!" said Black-Ear.

"My brother!" said Flint.

And Billy Bones saw the unnatural perversity that a man who'd been a king's officer, at ease in the salons of London, and a matchless navigator, mathematician and seaman… was happiest among wicked savages.

But later Flint played the role of civilised man as he led Black Dog and Billy Bones into Morganstown, all three on their best behaviour, affecting mild harmlessness and good nature, and bowing and smiling and paying in gold, and there – by Flint's charm – they were so well received, and spent so handsomely in the one small tavern that next day Flint had a word with a Mr Davison – a shipmaster – such that Flint and his men went aboard Davison's ship, The Merry Jane: an ugly little blunt-bowed lugger, more used to the crab fisheries than the deep seas, which made a slow and lumbering passage out of Chesapeake Bay, and south down the coast of America, much delayed by foul weather.

Nonetheless, in early July she came up the Savannah River and dropped anchor by the town, with Flint mightily relieved to see that Walrus wasn't among the ships moored there, which gave him the chance to put certain proposals to Jimmy Chester… without John Silver being around to interfere.

Chapter 35

Morning, 13th July 1754 Aboard His Catholic Majesty's ship San Pedro de Arbuйs St Helena Sound The Carolinas A week's sail north of Havana

The flagship doubled to the task of launching the longboat. This complex task first required the removal of the ship's other boats, which nestled one-inside-the-other, in the longboat. Thus a great triple block was bent to the mainstay; then a hundred men – chanting and hauling to the music of a pipe – whisked each boat aloft, such that it could be swung aside, by lines bent to the main yard, and set down out of the way, enabling the great longboat itself to be drawn aloft.

Standing behind the gilded balustrade at the break of the quarterdeck, in the blue coat, red waistcoat, and gold-laced hat of his king's sea service, and with his officers respectfully in his lee, Capitбn de Navio Adolfo Peсa-Castillo watched in satisfaction as his men went about their duties. Many were not even Spaniards, for the ship had been thirty years on Caribbean duties, and there were as many Indians as white men on the lower deck. But all his officers were Spanish, and all hands were proud of their Havana-built ship, for she was so stoutly made, of such massive Cuban mahogany, that she was believed to be invulnerable, and in all her service no enemy shot had ever pierced her sides.

Peсa-Castillo glanced at the two big frigates that made up his squadron: Andrйs de Fez and Lepanto: splendid names both! The former celebrated an Andalusian admiral, and the latter the battle whereby the navies of Spain and her allies had smashed the Turk and saved Christendom. These fine ships were hove to with backed topsails at the mouth of St Helena Sound, for there was plenty enough depth to float the flagship, and Peсa-Castillo was pleased personally to confront the English schooner that was trying so hard to avoid him, and which had sailed past the supply ship, concealed between Tercero and Quarto islands, and darted into another inlet further up the sound, like a rat into a rabbit hole.

In all this, there was a pleasing satisfaction to Peсa-Castillo, who was a logical, intellectual man – talents profoundly unusual in a sea officer – since he was merely sufficient in seamanship, but came of excellent family, was ruthlessly hardworking, and was gifted with a powerful mind nourished by extensive reading. Behind his back, his men called him el cerebro gordo… the big fat brain.

And now San Pedro de Arbuйs, with all way taken off, was slowly rolling as the heavy longboat finally heaved aloft and went down into the water with a coxswain and a dozen men aboard, oars raised like standing soldiers, in as neat a piece of drill as a seaman's heart could desire.

"Seсor Capitбn," said a teniente, stepping forward and touching his hat.

"Ah," said Peсa-Castillo, "Burillo!"

"Permission to disembark, Seсor Capitбn?"

"Permission granted!" said Peсa-Castillo. "And remember my orders!"

"I shall search as you bid, Seсor Capitбn!"

Teniente Burillo was an aggressive, heavy young man, ever ready to urge the men to their duties with a kick, but he was diligent and active, and in every way ideal for his allotted duty. He saluted again, and ran off beckoning to a dozen of marines standing ready with their muskets, and an equal number of seamen with pistols and cutlasses. These swarmed over the side and into the big boat, and took their places. Burillo nodded. It was well done. Finally – raising his hat to the image of San Pedro in its shrine under the quarterdeck – he went over the side himself, and took his place in the stern, with the sides of the great ship looming over him, and her masts, yards and sails shadowing out the sun.

"Give way!" he said, and the longboat pulled towards the English ship, which was less than a hundred yards off, anchored in the midstream of one of the sound's many rivers, where she affected to be harmless and at peace with all the world. Burillo smiled. She'd better be peaceful! He had nearly forty men in the longboat, and San Pedro was broadside on, with her main battery run out and bearing directly on the schooner… which of course placed the longboat in the line of fire… but Burillo shrugged. This was a risk that went with the sea life!

Clank-clunk! Clank-clunk! Clank-clunk! The longboat surged forward, the schooner drew close, and Burillo nodded in appreciation of her fine lines, broad spars and sharp prow. Everything about her said "speed". She was neat and shipshape, well found and in all respects fit for action, being pierced for fourteen guns: a heavy battery for a ship of her size. Fortunately, in this present moment, the gun-ports were secured, no black muzzles were in sight, and no hostile move threatened. But…

"Oh yes," muttered Burillo, "she's a privateer, all right. A blind man could see it… a privateer or a pirate."

Meanwhile, there were men peering out from the schooner, and grinning and waving in the most friendly manner. And there was a tall man with a green bird on his shoulder. He was waving from the quarterdeck.

Bump! Boom! The longboat came alongside the schooner, and Burillo leapt for the main chains and hauled himself aboard, with his nimble seamen instantly following, and the marines with their encumbering muskets coming over the side seconds later. Burillo glanced around him. The schooner was in excellent order: neat and polished and lines coiled down. More than that, the men now standing looking at him had been busy with holystones, mops and buckets, scrubbing the decks… decks which were already white and gleaming.

There were only a dozen men on deck, and it seemed to Antonio Burillo that he was master of the schooner… but you never knew with the English. He saw the careful looks on his men's faces as they looked round with firelocks raised.

Good! he thought. But, bump… bump… bump! Here came the tall man.

"Good day to you, Seсor Teniente!" he said in ready Spanish.

Burillo looked at him and saw that he was a cripple. His left leg was entirely gone, and he leaned on a long crutch that thumped the deck as he moved. He was a strange figure, for a huge green parrot sat on his shoulder, and he was indeed tall, towering over Burillo and smiling politely out of a pale, English face with yellow hair showing under the handkerchief that was bound round his head… his hat being already doffed and held respectfully in a big hand.

"Good day," said Burillo. "Who is captain here?"

The tall man bowed.

"I am," he said. "John Silver, at your service! John Silver of the good ship Walrus."

Burillo frowned. He was puzzled. The Englishman spoke good Spanish, but with a strong Portuguese accent.

"Silva?" said Burillo, mistaking the word. "Da Silva? Are you Portuguese?"

"English, senor, but born of a Portuguese father. Da Silva was his name."

"So," said Burillo, "what is your business here, Capitбn Da Silva?"

The tall man smiled. He shrugged his shoulders. He reached up to the parrot, which gently nipped his fingers with a beak that looked capable of snapping a marlin spike.

"I am a dealer in skins, Seсor Teniente. I am here to trade with the Indians."

"Ah," said Burillo. "And have you any aboard?"

"Indians, Seсor Teniente?"

"No… Skins."

The tall man smiled regretfully. "I fear not, senor, for business has been bad."

"How unfortunate."

"Indeed, senor. And might I ask your business… here in British waters?"

Now Burillo shrugged. He shrugged and smiled.

"The ships of our squadron were damaged by foul weather. We seek shelter to make repairs and to rest our men."

"Ah," said Silver, looking at the immaculate perfection of the Spanish ships.

"There is also the matter of piracy, Capitбn Da Silva," said Burillo.

"Piracy?" The tall man recoiled in horror.

"Indeed. Spanish ships have been lost off the Carolinas," said Burillo, "and my squadron serves the duty of all civilised mankind in seeking to extinguish piracy by capturing the pirates… and hanging them."

Silver forced another smile.

"Might I offer you a glass of wine in my cabin, Seсor Teniente?" he said. "And perhaps I might present my officers?"

"Perhaps," said Burillo. "First, might I look at your beautiful ship? And in any case, it is my pleasure to offer you the hospitality of my commander, Capitбn Peсa-Castillo, aboard our flagship." He gestured towards the huge bulk of San Pedro which so utterly dominated the sound.

"Look at my ship? A pleasure, senor!" said Silver, and led the way, pointing out features of interest while Burillo stared at everything comprehensively, especially the decks and the gunports, and eventually made his way aft and found the lockers where the ship's flags were kept. There were rows of them, carpentered into the taffrail, neat as bookshelves, each deep, narrow recess closed by a square wooden flap that hinged upwards.

"Looking for anything, senor?" said Silver, his smile fading.

"Yes…" said Burillo, and glanced up to make sure that his men were close by.

Clap! Clap! went the wooden covers as Burillo's busy fingers raised and dropped them. Then…

"Ah!" said Burillo. "What's this?" and he hauled out a large black flag. Turning to Silver, he held it up. "Isn't this the skull and bones?" he said. "The flag of piracy?"

"Mother of God!" said Silver, and piously crossed himself. "How did that get there?"

Soon Capitбn Da Silva was making his way up the ponderous sides of San Pedro, a feat he managed with surprising ease: his crutch swung from his shoulder by a lanyard, and the big green bird left aboard his own ship. Having clambered over the massive rail, he wedged his crutch under his arm, and looked up and down the decks of one of the most powerful ships in the Americas, for the broadside guns were indeed twenty-four-pounders, which were indeed run out and shotted, and matches burning beside them in tubs. Meanwhile the decks were thick with men – hundreds of them: far too many even for so big a ship as this, for as well as seamen and marines, there were Spanish infantrymen, in their French- looking white coats with coloured turnbacks, and all of them peering in patronising curiosity at the creature Teniente Burillo had brought aboard.

"Follow me," said Burillo, and led the way under the break of the quarterdeck, into the depths of the ship, and towards the stern. Nudged by the muskets of the Spanish marines, Silver hopped after him, pausing only to cross himself as he passed the shrine of San Pedro. Burillo stopped at the ornate, carved door that led to the great cabin. Two more marines were on duty. They saluted.

"Wait here," said Burillo, and knocked and went in.

Silver waited for a good, long wait, until Burillo emerged, and beckoned. Ducking his head, Long John went inside with his hat in his hand. The cabin was magnificent: carved, painted and gilded in the style of a generation earlier. The furnishings were rich with scarlet upholstery, religious paintings hung in rows, and behind the stern windows there was a massive balustraded balcony, for the captain's private use.

Thus Capitбn Adolfo Peсa-Castillo sat in the bosom of his power with a broad table before him and his stern gallery behind him, and he faced this Englishman, whose father was Portuguese. Peсa-Castillo waved at Burillo, indicating that he should take a chair, and glanced to either side of himself where sat his first officer and his personal secretary and other officers. He turned again to the Englishman, whom he left standing… or rather leaning on his crutch.

"Capitбn Da Silva," he said, "Teniente Burillo has explained that it is my duty to hang pirates?" The Englishman said nothing. He merely nodded and licked his lips. Peсa-Castillo nodded in turn, and smiled cynically, "But," he said, "Teniente Burillo tells me that your ship cannot be a pirate because she mounts just eight guns… four on each beam."

"That she does, Seсor Capitбn," said the Englishman.

"Yet she is pierced for fourteen."