Christmas with a Pirate
By Helen Hollick – author of the Sea Witch Voyages
A not historically accurate story for Christmas
( first 'published' Christmas 2012)
A man of lesser fortitude would have worried about experiencing weird dreams. Jesamiah assumed they were the unpleasant after-taste of too much rum, although how a whole bottle constituted ‘too much’ was a little beyond his reckoning.
“Cap’n?” Finch poked at Jesamiah to see if he was awake, was rewarded with a muffled grunt from beneath the blankets. “Cap’n Acorne, yer breakfast’s on the table. Up t’you if’n you want it ‘ot or cold. But I ain’t warmin’ it up agin fer you.” Finch poked him again. “I got to get on with fings.”
Jesamiah grunted again and shoving the bedding aside crawled from the wooden cot that hung from the underside of the deck above him by four ropes. The sound of the sea swirling past the hull echoed through the small side chamber, and the daylight in the main cabin changed slightly as Sea Witch leant over. She was going at a fair rate of knots; even down here he could hear the singing of the wind in the rigging and the thunder of the canvas sails as they bent and strained.
He scratched his bare backside beneath his long shirt and yawning, sauntered towards the mahogany table where his steward, Finch, had laid breakfast. Most days meals consisted of bread that was more weevil than bread, stew more gristle than meat and coffee that had more bits of dust and rat’s droppings in it than coffee. Such was life aboard a ship in the early 1700’s. The one advantage of being a pirate ship – there was usually a plentiful supply of rum and fresh provisions whenever they took and boarded a Prize.
“What’s this?” Jesamiah asked, poking at an oblong package wrapped in a piece of canvas cloth and tied with thin twine.
“Nuffing much,” Finch answered as he poured hot coffee into a small china cup that only had one samll chip in its rim – for once it looked and smelt like coffee. “Just something fer Christmas.”
Jesamiah sniffed and wiped at the moustache trailing to either side of his mouth into his jaw-line beard that was as black as his shoulder-length hair. “I thought we agreed? No damn presents. Gets a bit much finding trinkets and such for every bloody jack in the crew.” Coffee cup in his hand, Jesamiah peered out of the stern windows that were salt-grimed on the outside. Sea Witch was leaving a long, straight, and frothing wake. He studied the horizon. No sign of another sail. Good. They’d lost that damned Royal Navy Frigate then.
He sipped the coffee, returned to the table, sat, investigated what was under the covered plate. Cooked ham, two eggs, black pudding and a kidney. He raised his eyebrows delighted and surprised.
“Must be Christmas,” he said, “you usually serve up burnt toast.”
Finch scowled and headed towards the cabin door, ducking beneath the low overhead beams. “I’ll fetch yer shaving stuff and some ‘ot water. I’ve set out yer best clothes too. You mind you put ‘em on.”
Jesamiah grinned, half saluted. “Aye Sir.”
Finch was a curmudgeonly old basket, but Jesamiah valued his unfailing loyalty.
Footsteps running on the deck above, shadows flickering through the overhead skylight. Rue’s voice, from where he stood at the helm, called out, “All ‘ands t’braces. Make ready to wear ship!”
The Frenchman, Rue, was a good second-in-command. Jesamiah trusted him implicitly.
“What’s this then?” he said to himself as he started to undo the package. “I thought I made it quite clear about presents this year. The year before last there wa such a squabble after the foremast jacks complained that the topmen had done better than they had.” He sighed. Finding suitable gifts for over one hundred men had proven to be a nightmare, so last year he had shoved a load of bits and bobs in a chest and told them to help themselves to one item each. That had not been one of his better ideas either. The ensuing fight had been somewhat spectacular.
Unpeeling the canvas he discovered a cedarwood box, exquisitely carved with a likeness of the Sea Witch. Inside, several lengths of blue ribbons. His trademark. He wore blue ribbons tied into his hair, a personal vanity with a practical purpose. He often gave one to the ladies ashore as a memento of a pleasurable night, but used them also for a more sinister reason. They made a useful weapon to quickly and quietly garrotte an enemy.
Finch brought in a laver and jug of hot water, set them to the small side table.
“You made this?” Jesamiah asked, indicating the box.
“That explains why m’dinner’s been late every evening this week then,” Jesamiah grinned.
Finch growled under his breath. “The crew wants you on deck, an' Rue says do you wish t' maintain this course or no?”
Jesamiah took his time shaving; with Sea Witch bowling along so merrily it was not easy keeping the razor merely to the whiskers. Twice he cut himself as she lurched over a particularly strong wave. He dabbed at the blood, dressed. Finch had lain out his best white breeches, linen shirt, lace cravat and the fancy waistcoat. It was Jesamiah’s favourite, the embroidery was exquisite – tiny green oak leaves with delicate little acorns decorated in gold thread. He slipped it on, added the leather baldric strap which went aslant from his right shoulder across his chest to his left hip, where his cutlass nestled comfortably. Settling the strap onto his shoulder he touched the gold acorn earring dangling from his right earlobe.
That dream? He’d had it several times. Each occasion it was exactly the same. A woman was walking along a beach deep in thought. Two dogs were running and barking at her feet – it was drizzling with rain and apart from those three, the beach was empty. She walked for quite a way, then sat on a rock gazing out at the flat, grey sea. It was not a coastline he recognized. Who was she? Why did he keep seeing her?
Putting on his buckram greatcoat that had once been blue but was now a sun-bleached light grey, he set his hat to his head and went out on deck.
The crew were gathered there in their Sunday best – that is, clean neckerchiefs, jackets over their grubby shirts and canvas or calico breeches. Most of them were barefoot. Easier to climb and keep your balance on the rigging without shoes, and here in the Caribbean, warm clothing and woollen stockings were not essential anyway.
Without altering his bland expression Jesamiah climbed up the companionway ladder to the quarterdeck, stood looking out along the deck stretching ahead of him towards the bow. Every bit of railing was entwined with greenery and coloured streamers. Bound to the mainmast, a six foot Christmas tree, decorated with strings of shells.
Not able to contain themselves any longer the crew cheered and shouted, “Happy Christmas Captain!”
Jansy started up a song, with old Toby Turner raking what was supposed to be a tune from his old fiddle.
“What entertainment ‘ave you got for the crew this year then, mon ami?” Rue asked from the helm, his French accent bound with suppressed laughter. “Mayhap not the fight we ‘ad last year, eh?”
Jesamiah nonchalantly strode towards him and took the wheel, his hands caressing the spokes as he silently acknowledged his beloved ship. He had not got anything for anyone.
Some of the lads were dancing a boisterous jig, their feet stamping on the hot wooden deck, others clapping the rhythm. He would have to offer them something, and pretty quick too. Pirates were not noted for their generous patience.
Ah. He had it.
“We’ll alter course,” he said, squinting up at the topgallant sails. “If I recall rightly, about an hour from here is that island we nicknamed La Belle Passion.”
“The one we discovered a few months back?”
“The one with the tavern right on the shore?”
“With those très bon kegs of French brandy?”
“That’s the one.”
“And those black haired, black eyed, senoritas?”
“The senoritas with the big…” Rue grinned and gestured with his hands near his chest, "...accoutrements."
Jesamiah grinned back, nodded. He put the wheel over slightly, watched as the resulting movement shivered along the edge of the maincourse sail. “Not suitable accoutrements for a Christmas day of course.” He said. “I doubt the men will appreciate the visit. I mean, they are probably looking forward to listening to me recite that old copy of King George’s Christmas speech we found a few months back and a couple of games of pin the tail on the pirate, and hunt the hook; that sort of thing.”
Rue rubbed at his chin, his expression thoughtful. “Oui, that they probably are. Traditional Christmas is very sacred, but maybe just this once we could put up with something a little different, non?”
Jesamiah laughed. “Aye, I reckon!”
He handed the helm back to Rue and stepped forward to the quarterdeck rail. “Men! I’m delighted to announce your Christmas present!”
The deck fell silent. The dancing and singing stopped, everyone turned to face their Captain, expectant.
“How do you fancy a few days holiday somewhere very pleasant?”
Later, much later, the stars filled the dark heavens like a scatter of jewels cast there and the gentle hush of the sea lapped the golden sands that were cooling after the heat of day. An almost empty bottle of rum in one hand, and a beautiful woman, almost asleep on his shoulder, in the other, Jesamiah lay on the beach, content.
He closed his eyes. Ah, this was the life.
Drowsing he thought of that dream again. That woman, the one in the place he didn’t recognize, had looked up and seen him. He’d been standing there for ages, his boots in the shallow surf, hat tilted back slightly, one hand on his hip. He nodded, gave her a half salute, his golden acorn earring glistening in the weak sun that was trying to push through the grey cloud.
She smiled. Said, “Hello Jesamiah Acorne.”
Good grief, he thought to himself, I’ve just realised who she is... He grinned, said aloud to his ship, "Well, fancy that."
And who was the woman in the dream?
to find out!
(unless you've already guessed!)
For photos of some of the Behind the Scenes places used in my novels click here