No. 14.—Falsebeard the Pirate, Part 1.
THE SUCCESSFUL CONCLUSION of the Spanish war gave Her Majesty’s navy the leisure to address the vexing problem of piracy. With no Spanish warships to distract us, we put our backs into the work, and in quick succession captured Blackbeard, Redbeard, Brownbeard, Bluebeard, Blondbeard, Strawberryblondbeard, Auburnbeard, Flamingmagentabeard, Herman, and Greybeard, packing them all off to our Antipodean colonies, where I understand they have all reformed and become successful investment bankers. Only one of the pirates remained at large: Falsebeard, the wiliest and most devious buccaneer who ever sailed the seven seas.
My ship, a jolly brig named the Mary Livingstone, was assigned to the difficult job of capturing Falsebeard and bringing him to justice. It was an unenviable task: every captain who had attempted it so far had ended up with egg on his face—quite literally, since eggs were Falsebeard’s weapon of choice when he was cornered.
I knew little of this Falsebeard, though I was better informed on the subject than most of our officers. This Falsebeard was a crafty fellow who employed a remarkable array of clever disguises. It was said that no one living had seen his real face, and the dead men who had seen it were curiously reticent. No accurate description of the man was to be had. In the Admiralty’s files, to which I was given privileged access before our departure, he was described as a man, or possibly a woman, of a height in the range of three feet six inches to eight feet four inches; missing one or more limbs, or endowed with a number of superfluous limbs; and with flourishing long hair in black, or brown, or gold, or green, or a bald pate that shone like the moon; speaking with a pronounced Lancastrian, or High Dutch, or Milanese, or Punjabi accent. This description, therefore, I gave to my men, so that they would know what to look out for. We then set off for the tiny and lawless Caribbean port of Palmes Jaunes.
Our journey across the Atlantic was uneventful; indeed, I believe the Mary Livingstone still holds the record in the fleet for uneventfulness of an Atlantic crossing, although it is, I regret to say, an unofficial record, since we had no official naval historian aboard to attest to it. When at last we arrived at Palmes Jaunes, I gave my men shore leave, though with a strict admonition to stay far away from bubble gum and other vices to which sailors are notoriously addicted.
We arrived at Palmes Jaunes in the hot and lazy middle of July, when the town was mostly inert; although a good bit of the inertia (I say with pride) might be attributed to the exemplary activity of Her Majesty’s navy, piracy having been formerly the mainstay of the town’s trade. The inhabitants of the town were beginning to feel the pinch, as the boys in the rigging say, and many of them were desperate to find some substitute for the income they had until recently derived from the now-transported pirates. Since the rumor of an expedition to capture Falsebeard had preceded us, the more entrepreneurial citizens had quickly deduced that information on the location of Falsebeard, who was a known frequenter of the port, was their most valuable commodity. As I marched down the dusty main street, I passed numerous scruffy-looking men carrying hand-lettered signs advertising “KNOWN LOCATION OF FALSEBEARD, 3s” or “FALSEBEARD’S LATEST WHEREABOUTS, 2/6.” At last I came to a disreputable-looking tavern or public house, whose owner had hung out a bedsheet painted with the words “YOUR FALSEBEARD INFORMATION SUPERSTORE.” This, I decided, would be my first stop.
I entered the place to find it silent, hot, and still. A few of my sailors were sitting at tables, and from the corner of my eye I could see a few of them discreetly spitting out bubble gum; but I decided not to be severe upon them. Instead I walked straight to the bar, where the master of the house had placed a number of banners reading “BIG FALSEBEARD INFO SALE” and “ONE STEP AHEAD OF FALSEBEARD.”
“I understand you may have information about the whereabouts of Falsebeard the pirate,” I said to the man, who was as scruffy as the rest of the townspeople I’d passed.
“Aye, and better than that,” he affirmed. “I can tell you which ship is next on his list of victims. You’ll be one step ahead of the man, just like the sign says. That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?”
“And what will it cost me to find out?”
“Well, let me see. Regular price is five shillings, but of course you get your threepenny discount for officers in uniform, and then there’s the information excise tax and the entertainment tax—it would make Her Majesty very sad if we forgot the taxes, wouldn’t it?—so altogether, in toto, it comes to thirty-eight pounds three shillings tuppence halfpenny.”
I immediately handed over the money in gold specie, which he accepted with alacrity and a bit of Worcestershire sauce.
“And now,” I said, “you may tell me which ship is next to be attacked by Falsebeard.”
“Certainly, cap’n. Got it right here.” He produced a little wad of paper from his grubby pocket and unfolded it into quite a broad sheet. “The next ship on Falsebeard’s list—let me see now—yes, here it is—the next ship to be attacked by Falsebeard is a brig, I believe, called the Mary Livingstone.”