We were all raised on the classical stories of pirates. They were fantastic tales that kept us spellbound with concepts of adventures on the high seas brisk with sword fights to find buried treasure. But must the stories end because we have matured into adulthood and our heads are now filled with serious facts and reason. Robert Hough doesn’t think so and he has given us adults the book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan to rationally spellbind us.
The judge was a drunk bastard, all right – swaying in his tall-backed chair, that gin-rosin smell wafting off him, his nose a mound of headcheese run through with purple thread. I wasn’t surprised. The world was filled with people who couldn’t bear to be in their own company, and it made no difference if you were rich or poor, loved or loathed. Sometimes, there was only one thing for it.
“I didn’t do it!” I pleaded. “It was an honest game, Your Honour, no foolery or nothing, just a friendly match between men! I’m an upstanding sort, see . . . ”
“I see nothing of the kind, Mr. Wand. As far as I can tell, you’re as slick as an oiled weasel. and you’ve a choice to make. A dozen years in Newgate or deportation to the Isle of Jamaica. The choice is yours. You’ve ten seconds before I decide for you.”
Ten seconds? I didn’t need three seconds. No one survived twelve years in Newgate, not unless you belonged to someone, and even that was no protection against typhoid or madness. On the other hand, Jamaica’s best-known town, a devil’s warren called Port Royal, had a reputation I’d heard about in seamy rat-run taverns, and from the sounds of it I’d fit right in. There was another sorry fact to consider: my pitted face was known by constabulary types all over England, which was making it harder and harder to ply my ignoble trade.
“Jamaica,” I said.
He slammed his gavel and was on to the next.
I was twenty years of age, and up for pretty much anything.
Hough has told the story of Henry Morgan through the eyes of Benny Wand. Wand is a thief and chess player whose actions in 1664 find him deported to Jamaica. There Wand joins up with the infamous Captain Henry Morgan to raid Spanish enclaves in the New World. Wand shows his ability in “hustling” chess games to earn a bit of extra coin. One day he is called upon to visit Morgan and they engage in a game.
“Good game,” I said. “That was a brilliant gambit, like.”
Yet instead of turning all red and grinny, as if he’d just bedded an earl’s daughter. Morgan studied the board. His chin was in his slender hand, the muscles in his face gone tight as wire. Those grey eyes, knifing through space – he couldn’t take them off the board. He was calculating, thinking, drawing his conclusions. In fact, he looked just the way he had at Villahermosa, staring out over pink bubbling waters. Inside, I felt all wrong.
He looked up. “You ever throw a game with me again Mr. Wand, I’ll have you in the stocks for a fortnight. Do I make myself clear?”
I said nothing. Couldn’t believe it. I’d never met a posh bugger who liked the game more than the idea of winning. It’s the reason none of them are any good at it – it’s just the win they want, their self-regard stoked.
But not Morgan. Not him.
“This time I’m white,” he said as he reset the pieces. A moment later he moved a pawn to queen’s fourth, again warning I’d better give him my best game. We played three more times. Like I said, he was a good player – better than good, even – though no match for someone born with an understanding that on every board there lies a glorious truth and it’s your job to reveal it. Fact was, I heard music when I played chess. When I was getting at that truth, it was like birdsong. When I was crapping it, it was rusty pots clanging together. It was a hammer striking metal. It was a hippo blowing farts from a sackbut.
In two of the games, Morgan stayed with me, through the last was a rout. He lost each game by growing restless and launching attacks that would’ve worked with the burghers he was used to playing but not with me.
“So,” he said when we were done. “You’re a professional.”
There is the right mixture of research and imagination here to make this both an enlightening and entertaining read. We get an understanding of history, planning, politics and even human nature through the thoughts of Wand to appeal to our intellect but we also get the a sense of adventure and emotion too to thrill us. In short the plot has the right amount of strategy and swashbuckling.
We marched back through dense jungle and found the dried creek bed we’d left a day earlier. Here we turned right and marched to the edge of the jungle and waited for orders.
Morgan sent a few men into the trees. They came down with branch scrapes on their faces, though they all agreed Panama was a few miles off and beyond that a blue bank of ocean. We trudged through light woods dotted with streams. Around noon the trail opened at the top of a plateau. Down below was a green plain about a mile wide and a mile deep and beyond that was the city.
Course, they were waiting for us, fifteen hundred or more Spaniards on horseback, all in rows. Morgan took this in, jaws gnashing. Beyond the enemy was the city, which looked like Portobello though bigger: it had the same square with a church and lanes leading away, the only difference being there was a square beyond that and another square beyond that as well. My eyes roamed, looking for weakness, and I knew Morgan was doing the same.
“Wand,” he said while pointing. “Do you see it?”
“The hill? Yeah, I do.”
Though the Spaniards had covered the right and centre of the plain, off to one side was a large rise where their horsemen were fewer. Separating this hill from the rest of the plain was a dip in the land; if we stormed that hill via that dip we might draw the enemy to engage us there. And once they were there. And once they were there, it wasn’t hard to imagine all those Spanish horses gumming up and being more hindrance than help. On foot, we’d more easier than them, and if enough of our number weren’t felled, we might even take the hill. From there we could storm the city, flintlocks blazing, murder in our souls, the best part being our plan just might work.
Robert Hough has certainly matured tales of the high seas in his book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan. It is both enlightening and entertaining read and one worthwhile to enjoy.