The Perilious Helen Tavrel – part four
by Keith Taylor
“After all I have done to keep clean,” she sobbed, “this is too much! I know I am a monster in the sight of men; there is blood on my hands. I’ve looted and cursed and killed and diced and drunk, till my very heart is calloused. My only consolation, the one thing to keep me from feeling utterly damned, is the fact that I have remained as virtuous as any girl. And now men believe me otherwise. I wish I … I … were dead!”
Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”
Helen Tavrel returned from her eventful, and bloody, cruise to the Low Countries and shared in its profits. Her captain, Troels Hansen, sold the two shiploads of armaments originally meant for Russia, to various rogues of the buccaneer trade in Tortuga and Port Royal. Helen received her share according to the articles of the voyage. Her foster father, Roger O’Farrel, no longer a young man, was living more quietly now.
He made his living – for he had medical training – selling well-equipped medical chests to the surgeons of pirate ships.
He had taken a modest amount of land on Tortuga, and a house in the town. He was friendly with the French Governor, Bertrand d’Ogeron. (A Governor d’Ogeron appears in some of Sabatini’s Captain Blood yarns, but anachronistically; the real d’Ogeron died in 1676, in Paris.) His Cuban servants Ramon and Eulalia, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, had moved to Tortuga with him. So had their daughter Renata, Helen’s closest friend. Renata was about to marry a young French pirate who was leaving the red trade and taking land under d’Ogeron’s scheme. Helen went to their wedding, as did her foster father, and they gave the couple generous presents to start their married life. Helen had a wistful moment or two as she drank to their future. But she was convinced no man existed who could compare to Roger O’Farrel, and her view of her fellow pirates in general was not rosy. Hansen and le Ban were probably the best of a scurvy lot. No, a decent life with a decent husband seemed to be absent from the cards for Helen Tavrel. Even Renata’s man might get restless and desert her someday …
Helen stayed in Tortuga with O’Farrel for a short time. She even considered settling down, but the thought was like a thought of death, too tedious for bearing. She was not twenty yet. She loved the sea and her wild, adventurous life. Her greatest model, her only one, was O’Farrel. Her credo might have been the one Robert E. Howard set down in his poem, “The Day That I Die.”
“And ye that name me in after years,
This shall ye say of me:
“That I followed the road of the restless gull
As free as a vagrant breeze,
That I bared my breast to the winds’ unrest
And the wrath of the driving seas.
“That I loved the song of the thrumming spars
And the lift of the plunging prow,
But I could not bide in the seaport towns
And I could not follow the plow.
“For ever the wind came out of the east
To beckon me on and on,
The sunset’s lure was my paramour
And I loved each rose-pale dawn.”
Nevertheless, the slaughter of the arms ships’ crews made her dreams uneasy sometimes. Helen decided to try her luck as captain of her own craft – a sloop, fast and light, such as those in the trade often found convenient for inshore work. And she decided to raid Havana, where she had once lived, and where O’Farrel had been cheated by the Captain General. Francisco Oregon y Gascon had ceased to hold the office only that year. The new Captain General, another Francisco (Rodriguez de Ledesma) did not know her or O’Farrel. He was about to.
Helen did not sail directly for Havana. Her pirate sloop was too obviously just that for entry into the city’s harbor, unnoticed and unchallenged, to be possible. Instead she sailed east, to Puerto Rico, where – as in Cuba – there was a huge contraband trade due to the Spanish crown’s taxes on legal commerce. Off the mountainous island, she successfully waylaid a Spanish nao, called the Nuestra Senora de Encarnacion.
(The naos were armed merchant ships, square-rigged, with rounded hulls, developed from warships. They had greater cargo space and fewer guns, but they could still be modified and equipped for battle. In a commercial function, they carried fewer cannon to save weight and the smallest crews possible to save wages – the normal practice. Thus Helen’s buccaneer crew was able to board and take the Encarnacion.)
Helen set the crew in longboats, to return to Puerto Rico, with adequate supplies. The Encarnacion had been bound for Havana in any case, carrying logwood, ginger and annatto, and Helen kept to the same destination. Among her crew was one Luca Loreto, a Spanish renegade and former priest, who now posed as the Encarnacion’s captain as the ship approached Cuba. Helen assumed the boy’s disguise that had served her so well before.
From the captured nao’s deck she surveyed the harbor she knew so well, and the rich, bustling city where she had been so happy as a little girl. Now she was a pirate surveying the docks for prey, and not with profit alone in mind, but a way to humiliate the Spanish crown. A pity Oregon y Gascon was no longer Captain General here, but with luck she would give the impression he had connived with her for Judas money. That would teach him to swindle Roger O’Farrel!
To her delight, she saw the 400-ton galleon Santa Barbara in the harbor, a ship that had once belonged to O’Farrel and which the Havana authorities had confiscated two years before. She decided to steal it and take it back to Tortuga. She needed more crewmen to man it, however, and began stealthily to recruit Spanish and Indian rogues who had known her foster father when he was a major figure in gorgeous, opulent Havana.
This time fortune was not on Helen’s side. Young and reckless, she had optimistically assumed that the Encarnacion’s crew, whom she had set adrift in longboats, would never expect her to go to Havana. But the Puerto Rican authorities sent word of the hijacking to Cuba, nevertheless. She was captured and hurled into prison, with a swift trial and garroting facing her. Luckily, the crew of her sloop and O’Farrel’s former associates planned a jailbreak for her, using a combination of bribery and adroit force. Helen, Loreto and the others escaped, though they had to leave the galleon Santa Barbara behind, untouched, and the Encarnacion too.
(The latter seems to have been an unlucky ship. Built originally in Veracruz in Mexico, she saw merchant service for years after Helen Tavrel had briefly hijacked her, and then was attached to the Tierra Firme treasure fleet which carried silver and gold from New Spain to Cadiz. Sailing with that flotilla late in 1681, the Nuestra Senora de Encarnacion sank in a storm, dashed upon rocks near the mouth of the Chagres River. Her wreck, remarkably intact, was discovered by marine archaeologists from the Texas State University in 2011.)
Helen then embarked on some fifteen months of piracy with her sloop, which she named the Grace after Grace O’Malley, and its crew. A fifteen-tonner, she carried six light cannon and a swivel gun, and about seventy buccaneers. Running before the wind with topsail hoisted, she could exceed eleven knots. Helen Tavrel swiftly made an art of discovering, and taking, merchant ships from Europe with manufactured goods, almost more precious than gold in the Caribbean. She disposed of them in the illicit trader’s heaven of Puerto Rico, which became one of her favorite haunts. Her misdeed in taking the Encarnacion was soon forgotten by the crooked officials of the island, and she spoke fluent Spanish, having grown up in Havana.
After her failure and near-disaster in Havana, Helen’s closest call came when she was pursued by a 150-ton brigantine of the Jamaica Squadron. The English vessel sighted and recognized her. As it carried ten cannon, all heavier than Helen’s guns, and a crew of about a hundred, the buccaneers wisely fled. Helen felt certain that if they could close and board, her pirates would take the brigantine, but trying involved too great a risk of being blown out of the water. The English ship pursued the Grace for over three hours, close-hauled, and overtaking her at last, near astern, was sure of a quick capture, or of sinking the sloop. Helen took the risk of coming swiftly about and firing her three cannon on that side, crammed with chain shot. It blasted away the top of the foremast and lacerated the rigging. Her buccaneers, good marksmen, also delivered musket volleys, which killed a number of men on the brigantine’s decks. The pirate sloop got clean away.
During that fifteen months, too, Helen became widely known for preferring men’s clothing in a fashionable, even foppish, style – breeches, brocade waistcoats or vests, and fine leather boots. She even affected a cocked hat now and then, rare among pirates except if he were a captain, and a flaunting, gaudy captain like le Ban at that. Helen wore ordinary seaman’s garb only when disguised as a boy. She seldom did so now, as her figure had become too clearly female for that to deceive as it had when she was younger.
She had declared it her crew’s law, and enforced it with rapier and pistol at need, that her virtue, and her modesty too, were to be respected. They came to accept it. One necessary condition for that acceptance was a string of successes. Helen achieved it. Before long her crew boasted about her, treated being captained by Helen Tavrel as a cachet, and were ready to fight any scurvy sea-dog who slandered her, as a matter of pride. It was said around the Spanish Main, as Stephen Harmer heard and would repeat, that “though you follow a vile and bloody trade, no man can say truthfully that he ever so much as kissed your lips.”
Then, in Tortuga, Helen heard a piece of tavern scuttlebutt that aroused her strong interest. A tall bearded scoundrel by the name of Dick Comrel was bragging while drunk. He declared that he had sailed with a French buccaneer named de Romber, and that they had found an outpost of the legendary Mogar Empire, an island whereon stood a stone temple such as no native tribe of the Caribbean could build in their day, or indeed for hundreds of years, and which held a vast treasure in gems. They had been forced to run from a Spanish naval galleon before they could loot the temple, and escaped the galleon but ran afoul of an English frigate which sank them. Only Dick Comrel survived.
Helen would have shrugged it off as sailor’s blather, but she had heard the story of Mogar before, from English, French and Spanish seamen, some of them responsible commanders. She followed Comrel’s movements, and soon learned that on the strength of his story, he had joined the crew of Captain John Gower. She knew John and his brother Tobias for two horrible brutish swine, and no friends of her foster father’s, either. They had both accompanied the fiendish pirate l’Ollonais on his last voyage. Roger O’Farrel had hunted l’Ollonais from that voyage’s start to its ill-fated finish, and done much to bring his disasters about. The Gower brothers had deserted l’Ollonais before the end, which was why they were still alive – lamentably, in Helen’s view and O’Farrel’s. But that was by the way. If Comrel was setting John Gower on the track of the Mogar treasure, Helen, young, impulsive and enterprising, wanted very much to be there.
She approached Gower directly and boldly, as was her way, with a request to sail with him on his next voyage. She explained that Roger O’Farrel had no ship at present, and other previous captains of hers like le Ban were not available. The ape-faced Gower knew that was true.
“O’Farrel is no friend of mine,” he growled. “That ye know.”
“He does not have to be,” Helen answered coolly. “I’m as useful a ship’s hand in the rigging as you will find, as you know, Gower. And as good in a fight as any man.”
Gower ungraciously accepted her. Helen left her own crew and her sloop the Grace, and boarded Gower’s Black Raider. This was a “long low craft” as Stephen Harmer was to describe her, with “an unkempt look, a slouchy, devil-may-care rigging which speaks not of an honest crew or a careful master.” Helen had expected no better; neither she nor O’Farrel thought highly of the Gowers as seamen. The Black Raider had at least been properly careened within a reasonable length of time.
Gower was also professional enough to know that optimistic treasure hunts usually fell through, and to gather information about more realistic prizes in case the tale of the Mogar temple came to nothing. He had solid news of a Spanish merchantman making for Cuba, and other ships he might waylay. Thus provided, he set sail.
Dick Comrel led him straight to the island of which he had boasted. Gower would surely have murdered him slowly had he failed. Greedy for the fabled treasure and less than willing to share the knowledge of it, Gower came ashore in a longboat with Helen and several men. The Black Raider he sent away under the command of his mate, Frank Marker, to intercept the Spanish trader and return in due course.
As it happened, there was someone on the island already – Stephen Harmer, cast away there from the Virginia vessel Blue Countess. The Countess had caught fire and burned to the waterline. Stephen had survived by clinging to a drifting hatch. His path and Helen’s were about to cross.
What followed was told by REH in his story, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom.” The position of the island is not given, but it must have been a few miles long and wide at least, because the narrator speaks of “tall trees sweeping away on either hand,” and again of birds “high in the interwoven branches of the thick trees”. He also talks of going “inland a considerable distance.” There are at least two streams, a waterfall, rocky cliffs and ravines on the island’s higher ground, and a swamp lower down for variety.
There had evidently been friction between Helen and Gower before they landed on the island in the ship’s longboat. There were “seven great rough fellows” besides the girl – Captain Gower himself, his guide Dick Comrel, da Costa, a lank dark Frenchman, with, oddly, a Spanish name, Tom Bellefonte, Will Harbor, Mike Donler, and one who died without his name being mentioned. The longboat barely beached before Helen had to draw her blade in self-defense, parry a sword-stroke and run for the jungle. The pirates separated to search for her and the temple supposed to hold the treasure, and it would appear that the first one to find Helen Tavrel swiftly died.
Stephen found the corpse by chance. He robbed it of pistols and cutlass. While he was about the unpleasant task, Helen appeared and mocked him for a corpse-robber, to which he replied that someone else had to answer for killing it. They made an odd couple and did not get along at first; Harmer viewed Helen’s red trade with aversion, while she soon perceived he was a Puritan, and had always shared O’Farrel’s detestation of those. But Harmer was red-blooded enough to like her shape and think her lips the most kissable he’d ever seen.
His exact origins are not given. He might have been born in the Massachusetts colony, and had plainly been a sailor since boyhood, since he said that he “had passed most of my life in ship’s rigging”. His position aboard the Blue Countess had been mate. While Helen addressed him mockingly as “Self-Righteous” and “Broadbrim” (a reference to Puritans’ hats) at first, it didn’t take her long to see that her new unchosen companion was courageous, loyal and honest, and not even a half bad figure of a man …
A quarrel was not long in coming, despite their shared danger. Steve wearied of hearing Helen sing the unstinted praises of Roger O’Farrel, whom he considered a rogue, and when the subject came up, he said sharply that he did not see how any woman could be a pirate and murderess, but still chaste. Helen said in a white-lipped whisper that she had killed men for less; Steve said stubbornly that if she killed him it would scarcely change his opinion. Then, to his astonishment, she all but broke down, crying that her sexual virtue was the only thing she had to be proud of in her bloody life, and he apologized, remembering the tales he had heard of her mercy to crewmen and passengers of ships she had looted. They made peace, more or less, and in any case they still had common enemies to face …