The Perilous Helen Tavrel — Part Five Essay
I stood on the deck of a ship offshore
And harked to the awesome and deafening roar
Of the ocean waves when they struck the reefs,
High tossed on the tide like crested chiefs
Whose plumes toss high ‘bove the battling hordes
Where leap the lances and flash the swords,
And the mighty waves rose high and steep
To the hand of the waves that smote the deep
And my soul leaped wild and my soul leaped free,
To the leap and the swing of the rolling sea!
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The strangely matched couple of pirate Helen Tavrel and staid, honest trader Stephen Harmer had been thrown together by fate on a remote Caribbean island. They had mutual enemies, the group of pirates led by brutish, ape-faced John Gower, and already in a couple of clashes they had reduced their adversaries’ numbers. Upon seeing the five surviving rogues come together again, none with the longboat on the beach, Helen decided to return and rifle the boat of supplies. It was reckless, and they were caught in the act by Mike Donler and Will Harbor. Stephen shot Donler through the chest, then finished him with a cutlass, while Helen ran the other pirate through. Now the odds were only three against two.
Gower and his fellows, a dark, saturnine Frenchman with the Spanish name of La Costa, a thing he never explained, and a bearded, ill-natured giant called Bellefonte, might have left in the boat. But Gower, the captain, was obsessed with the idea that there was a fabulous treasure on the island. It was supposedly contained in a stone temple, a relic of a lost empire called “Mogar”, which Harmer doubted had ever been. He also thought that fabulous was the very word to describe the treasure. Helen considered it worth searching for, at least, and she was proved right.
They discovered the temple, on the other side of a noisome barrier of bamboo, vines and mud. Howard’s description of its architecture is not dissimilar to that of the “Temple of the Toad” found some fifteen decades later by Freidrich von Junzt, in Honduras. (REH, “The Thing on the Roof”) “… built of great stone blocks … windowless and doorless … huge, squat columns … formed the front of the edifice …” Perhaps they were products of the same culture. Steve asked himself, “What alien people had built that shrine so long ago? Surely some terrible and somber people who died ages before the brown-skinned Caribs came to rear up their transient empire.”
Gower and his companions caught them at a disadvantage there, and Steve was wounded by a pistol shot. Clubbed down by La Costa’s musket, he could not assist Helen, and she too was taken prisoner. Gower spared them for the present only because he was impatient to find the treasure he insisted was there. Bellefonte was just as eager, but La Costa had become skeptical. “As for the gems,” he averred, “a legend hath it that the ancient priests of these people flung them into the sea, and I, for one, believe that legend.” That aside, he felt superstitious about the temple itself. “This is a haunt of demons; nay, Satan himself hath spread his dark wings o’er this temple and it’s no resort for Christians!”
Whatever gave La Costa the idea that he and Bellefonte and Gower were Christians is beyond me. But that’s by the way. REH had a sense of irony. Before long, searching for secret doors or hiding places, La Costa was bitten by a deadly snake and shot himself to end his torment.
Captain Gower was scarcely moved, and continued his search. After a while he stated, “I believe yon altar is the key of this mystery. Bring the sledge and let us have a look at the thing.” They had a heavy hammer with them, and Bellefonte had the strength to crack almost anything, even what appeared to be a solid square of stone. But Stephen Harmer felt chilled as he watched them prepare. As he expressed it:
“They mounted the stair like two rogues going up the gallows steps, and their appearance in the dim light was as men already dead. A cold hand touched my soul and I seemed to hear the sweep of mighty bat-like wings. An icy terror seized me, I know not why, and drew my eyes to the great stone which hung broodingly above the altar. All the horror of this ancient place of forgotten mysteries descended on me like a mist, and I think Helen felt the same for I heard her breath come quick and hard.”
Gower and Bellefonte didn’t seem to share those feelings. They continued to batter the altar until it proved hollow and broke open. There was nothing in the cavity, though, except one great red gem at the bottom, which seemed to be set firmly in place. They pried it loose. Not having read REH’s “The Thing on the Roof,” or seen an Indiana Jones movie, they didn’t know enough to be very careful what they touched in a secret ancient temple.
With a crunching, grinding noise, the huge central stone dropped out of the ceiling, smashing the bits of the altar and the two pirates. Nothing more was seen of them except blood oozing from under the stone. There was no treasure, either; that had been a fable, or else La Costa had been right in his belief that the priests of Mogar had hurled the jewels into the sea at the time of the Spanish conquest. The bloodshed and death had been for nothing, but on the pirate round, it frequently was. And then death came close to Helen again, when a vessel passing the island proved to be a warship whose officers would hang her if they knew her identity. Steve promptly vowed to pass her off as his sister, and then made an avowal of love, proposing that they change the plan and tell the ship’s captain she was his betrothed. Helen did not refuse, but she asked for time to consider, and to gain Roger O’Farrel’s approval, he being the nearest thing to a father she had. Steve swore in frustration, but he claimed a kiss at least.
These events took place in 1672. Helen was twenty, Stephen Harmer twenty-seven, and Roger O’Farrel, who had settled ashore in Tortuga, fifty. He had studied medicine at the University of Padua in his youth, and at his age he found it more profitable to assemble and sell surgeons’ chests to pirate crews than to actively follow the trade – in which most men died paupers.
Roger was not overjoyed to find Helen considering a lad of the Puritan persuasion. He had fought Cromwell’s Puritans tooth and nail in his younger days. They had murdered his wife and child at the Wexford massacre. Stephen said in a low voice that he had “no answer to that, except to damn those that did it, and to assure you I am not that sort of Puritan.” O’Farrel owned from Helen’s account of their meeting that he seemed staunch and game, and saw them sail in Helen’s sloop the Grace with mixed feelings.
All things piratical still came to O’Farrel’s ear. Tortuga was certainly the place to hear news of sea rovers. Friends informed him that John Gower’s brother Tobias blamed Helen Tavrel for John’s death and plotted revenge upon her. John’s former mate, Frank Marker, was with him, and so was Moses van Vin, who had been second in command to l’Ollonais on that savage, evil man’s last voyage. Tobias and van Vin were both in command of large, well-armed ships at the time. Moses captained a three-masted square-rigger with twenty-four cannon and a crew of 215. Tobias Gower’s vessel was bigger yet, a captured East Indiaman of 700 tons which could overawe any merchant vessel not swift enough to outsail it. The vessel mounted over 30 guns – originally more, but Gower had reduced the armament to increase the cargo room. He also planted a spy in Helen’s crew, and learned of her intention to strike at a wealthy sugar planter’s mansion on Barbados. He and van Vin meant to be there too.
O’Farrel, however, pledged every penny he owned to the governor for the loan of a ship, and sped for Barbados himself, set upon Helen’s rescue as once he had rescued her from a burning ship when she was two. What subsequently happened is described in detail in “The Superb Roger O’Farrel: Part Five.” Briefly, when beset by Gower and van Vin’s greater force, Helen abandoned her sloop and led her men inland to Mount Hillaby, where they could make a stand on the high ground. Gower followed her, while van Vin remained on the coast with the ships and was there when O’Farrel arrived. In the battle that followed, van Vin and O’Farrel were both fatally wounded. Tobias Gower withdrew and escaped – for the time being.
Helen paid no attention to his escape. She was distraught at Roger O’Farrel’s death. First she blamed herself and wished she had died instead; then she turned her passion of grief and rage against Tobias Gower. She swore he would pay. Even though he did not like bloody vengefulness in a woman, and least of all in Helen, Steve Harmer thought it healthier than her first reaction, and both the Gower brothers were red villains the world would be better without. He had seen John crushed under falling stone on the Isle of Pirates’ Doom. But Tobias … where would he go?
“He’s a slaver as much as a pirate,” Helen said, her eyes still red with weeping. “Satan’s throne, but now he has slain my foster father he will want to be out of the Carribees for a while. Not just I but many of Roger’s friends will be looking for him! I’ll take oath that for profit and a place to hide, both, he will seek the Slave Coast. And here are we with a former slave ship to hunt him down. ‘Tis as though it was meant to be.”
The “former slave ship” was the one in which O’Farrel had come to Helen’s rescue. Governor d’Ogeron of Tortuga had sold it to him on credit for the purpose. The vessel had been converted from a Guinea Coast blackbirder, with a strongly reinforced deck and thirty gun-ports. Helen had never captained any ship so large before, only a fast sloop, but she had O’Farrel’s henchmen, her friends, Deaf Tom Colclough the gunner and Seamus Browne the sailing master, and she had Stephen Harmer. Stephen was a good sailor who had, as he said, “passed most of my life in ship’s rigging.” Nor was there any shortage of buccaneers ready to combine profit with vengeance for O’Farrel.
Steve wasn’t sure that Helen’s reasoning was impeccable. Nor was Bertrand d’Ogeron. He agreed that Gower would wish to be out of Tortuga and the Spanish Main for a while, but running to Africa seemed extreme. Then word came on the buccaneer grapevine that Gower’s scurvy ship had entered the harbor of Curacao, a Dutch possession and a noted slave market. But Gower currently had no slaves to sell. D’Ogeron and Helen both knew that. Then what was his business in Curacao?
Luca Loreto, the former priest of Havana and Helen’s master at arms, had the answer to that.
“It’s the asiento!” he said. “It must be!”
D’Ogeron understood at once, but Helen and Harmer needed him to explain a little. The asiento was a (highly profitable) permit from the Spanish Crown to other countries to market slaves in the Spanish colonies. It was currently held by Antonio Garcia, a Portuguese. Like his predecessors, Garcia had arranged to purchase his human goods from English and Dutch middlemen without asking too many questions – in his case, from the Dutch West India Company in Curacao. But a tidy additional profit could be made if Gower waylaid Portuguese slave ships coming from Africa to Rio de Janeiro, slaughtered their crews and took vessel, slaves and all without paying a penny. Garcia could disclaim all knowledge of Gower’s actions.
It was neat. There were other words for it as well, and Helen used them. Tobias Gower had brought about the death of the foster-father she all but worshipped. She wanted justice, and if many would call it revenge, Helen Tavrel cared nothing for their opinions.
Gower’s latest activities were as Loreto had surmised. From Dutch Curacao he sailed along the Main, around the eastern extremity of Brazil and down to the Tropic of Capricorn. There, he lurked in wait for the Portuguese slaving vessels which came regularly across the Atlantic from the ports of Angola. He did not have long to wait.
Gower had lost a fine ship, a former East Indiaman, in his fight with Helen and O’Farrel on Barbados. He had replaced it in the buccaneer way, crossing to the west coast with his men and lifting a brigantine, after which he used the brigantine to take a Spanish fragata, and having that, soon cut out a harmless looking merchantman (of the sugar fleet) on Brazil’s northern coast. Using that as a decoy, and flying the colors of Portugal for additional deceit, he waylaid a slaver from Africa as it approached Rio. “Barren of pity and ruth” as usual, he slaughtered crew and captain, first with musket fire, then with edged steel after boarding, until nothing lived aboard the slaver but his pirates and the shackled captives below. They were chiefly Bakongo people who had been shipped from the port of Luanda. Gower, chuckling in satisfaction, gave orders to sail south for Rio de la Plata in Spanish territory, where there was always a ready market for slaves and where he could sell the Bakongo. He now had three ships on his hands, the fragata, the sugar merchantman, and the laden slaver, but he also had hands enough to man them all if he spread them thinly.
Then a fly in his profitable ointment appeared, in the shape of Helen’s converted slaver with its strengthened deck and thirty guns. Gower recognized it at once, and if he had not, Helen flew the flag by which Roger O’Farrel had long been known, his family’s arms of a golden rampant lion on a green field. She wanted blood and she scorned false colors. She had seasoned gun-crews on her ship, under Deaf Tom Colclough. She commanded a full crew and more than a full crew, of buccaneers who had known Roger O’Farrel and were ready to avenge him. Her vessel, fast and weatherly, could sail circles around any of the three Gower had, and her guns were enough to give any pirate pause.
Gower fled before her. The Brazilian merchant ship, slowest of the three, fell behind, and Gower abandoned it with all his cullies who were aboard. With Harmer, Luca Loreto, Seamus Browne and the rest, Helen boarded the merchantman, cut down any who resisted and stowed the rest below in irons, then left a small prize crew to wait for her while she continued the pursuit. A stern chase, as usual, proved a long chase, but she slowly overhauled the fragata and the slave ship from Africa.
“Damn the bitch!” Gower cursed. “Well, we’ll try how hard her heart is. Toss twenty blacks over the stern. That’ll lighten ship a bit, too.”
Twenty Bakongo men and women, dragged up from the hold, promptly went into the water, still wearing their manacles. They struggled desperately. Helen let rip some sulfurous deep-sea words as she saw it, and so did Harmer, despite his Puritan origins. Pirate wench though she was, Helen, in an oddly contradictory way, detested slavery more than Steve did, having learned that attitude from Roger O’Farrel. Her foster father had fought Cromwell’s men tooth and nail for years, and Cromwell had shipped thousands of Catholic Irish out to the Indies as slaves. O’Farrel had known first-hand how it felt to see his people suffer that fate, and had hated slavers from then until his death.
Helen wavered, torn between mercy and vengeance. But there was no time to dither, and whatever her faults, indecision was not one. She said crisply, “Put about. Take them aboard, and swift, before they drown.”
Stephen was joyous to hear her say it.
Sixteen of the souls in the water had managed to stay afloat. Four had gone down. Taken aboard, naked and dripping, they heard the pirates talking in a tongue they did not understand, and wondered what their fate would be now. As for Helen, she saw that her impulse to rescue the slaves made further pursuit untenable. Once she began to overtake Gower again, he would simply hurl another twenty into the sea and she would face the same choice as before.
“Let him go,” she said, choking on her ire. “There’ll be another day. The slaves he hasn’t hurled overboard … will have to stand being sold in Buenos Aires. Maybe they’ll think it better than drowning. Maybe.”
She conceded that he had escaped her, for now. There was nothing but to seek prey and prizes; her pirate crew was avid for plunder as always. They were now in waters she did not know well, which seemed like a bad omen for the voyage, but she hauled down the O’Farrel lion and raised the colors of Portugal as Gower had done. And then luck turned her way.
The slave trade from Brazil to Rio de la Plata brought a steady supply of silver to Brazil. Just such a Brazilian vessel, guarded by a single man-o’-war, now put out from the estuary and headed north. Every pirate on Helen’s ship knew that it would not have an armed escort for nothing. Their own ship resembled a slaver – had once been one – and for now her gun-ports were covered and she flew Portugal’s flag. There was no reason why she should be taken for anything but a slave ship from Africa, riding low because packed with slaves, especially in these waters so close to Buenos Aires. The two vessels willingly came close to her, seeking the latest news from Angola. Helen’s gun-crews knocked the thin wooden covers from the ports, ran out the cannon, and sent a shattering broadside into the man-o’-war. They followed that surprise with a lusty boarding action that flooded the warship’s deck with blood and gave the buccaneers sudden victory, after which they called on the other vessel to lie to, and were obeyed.
She carried the familiar colonial products of hides, tallow, timber and wax – and three heavy chests crammed with silver. Helen’s lads whooped with delight. She set the crew of the captured ship afloat in longboats, her usual custom, as Gower’s was to murder everyone. Then they crammed on all sail for the long haul north and a return to Tortuga. The loot would be shared out according to O’Farrel’s articles, and the ship itself would pay the debt O’Farrel had died owing Governor d’Ogeron. Helen would have choked before she reneged on that.
Tidings came, later, that she need trouble no longer about Tobias Gower. He had sold his hijacked cargo of living black ivory, indeed, and then he had contracted severe fever and jaundice while he caroused in Rio de la Plata. Soon enough his wicked life was ebbing. Robert E. Howard described the circumstances in his “Song of the Anchor Chain.”
“Let down, let out the anchor chain,
The gulls are dipping low,
A faint wind rattles stays in vain –
Oh, let the anchor go.
A yellow mist is lying,
A broken wind is sighing
And Captain Gower’s dying —
Oh, let the anchor go!”
Long before Helen heard that news, she was hearing a declaration of love from Steve Harmer more eloquent than anything that ever passed his lips previously. He said fervently that he was proud to know her, that when she abandoned vengeance to pluck a score of unfortunates from the sea when she did not even know them, she performed a more Christian act than many who prayed loudly in church each Sunday could claim, and that he would make an honest woman of her if he must kidnap her. He told her he loved her more than the sun and was mad enough to hope she loved him.
“Oh, Lord, Steve,” she answered, half laughing, half crying, “I do.”
They returned to the Main around the vast coastline of Brazil. Once they reached a place where it could safely be done, they freed the rescued slaves. Far behind them, Tobias Gower perished with no memorial but whatever wives and children he had abandoned in his time, and the lugubrious song of his passing.
“He sought to dream of flying ships
And winds that waver and dart,
But the rattle of death was under his lips
And Hell was in his heart.
“And ever the vision rose and fled:
A craft on the outward tack.
And a ghostly skipper who swayed and said:
‘No man of our crew came back.’
“And ever a vision followed fast —
A ship with a tattered sail
Idly flapping a broken mast —
And a plank was over the rail.”
Written records from those days are inadequate. But Steve and Helen appear to have been married by a Huguenot minister in Tortuga, and sailed to Massachusetts once Helen lawfully bore the name of Harmer instead of the more notorious Tavrel. They prospered in the shipping business. Not infrequently they sailed together. Sometimes there was peril, but they were equal to it, and if pirates accosted them – there was not a knavish trick of pirates unknown to Helen.
“Let down, let out the anchor chain,
The wind is rising slow,
It’s far to Rio and the Main,
Oh, let the anchor go.
Oh, turn her bows for Gades,
To greet the wharf-side ladies,
And Gower’s gone to Hades,
Oh, let the anchor go.”
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four