For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

Storming the Castle and Convent

The first intimation the Spaniards of Porto Bello had of our coming was the scurrying back to harbor of divers fishing craft which were engaged off shore, and which, despite the endeavors of our admiral to intercept them, warned the governor of the city, so that he closed the city gates and shut himself up in his castle before we arrived under the walls. All endeavors to negotiate with him were fruitless, for well he knew the desperate men he had then to contend with, and opened a cannon fire upon us at once we were within range., But the Spaniards are and always were notoriously poor marksmen, and our admiral had for them such contempt that he paid no attention to their fire, but ordered out the small boats at once, and all the available men at arms rowed to the shore.

By a strange chance, one of the Spanish cannon balls did strike a galleon of the fleet 'twixt wind and water, and, stranger still, caused it to sink; but that mishap by no means dismayed us, nor greatly delayed the landing of our men. We had a few less, that was all, to assist at the reduction of the castle, and, as doubtless there would be still fewer after the battle was over, we should not need so many vessels to carry us back to Tortuga, withal.

By rowing up a narrow channel and around an angle of the sea-walls, we found a landing-place without the range of Spanish cannon, and there we formed in columns and marched forward to the assault. We had brought scaling ladders with us, which were carried in the van and quickly planted against the walls. They reached scarcely to the parapets, and even those that did were quickly thrown back upon our heads, together with pots of boiling pitch and caldrons of hot water, which the governor of the castle had prepared as soon as warned of our approach. Then ensued a pandemonium of oaths and cries from the wounded and the scalded pirates, a fusilade from muskets and arquebuses, and the throwing of hand-grenades; but all to no purpose.

By this our ships had brought their cannon into fire, and it was not long before a breach was made in the wall that surrounded the city, though the castle seemed impregnable. Quick to avail himself of this advantage, our leader ordered the breach to be stormed at once, and soon it was swarming with a motley throng of pirates, in the foremost front being Eli and myself. I had resolved, inasmuch as I should be regarded with suspicion peradventure I hung back and refused to fight, to throw myself into the very van of all, and by loud cries and flourishing of my cutlass to create the impression that I was fighting desperately. This was by Eli's advice, who saw how sore my conscience was regarding the company I was in.

So then, see us both storming the breach at the head of half a thousand men, more or less, shouting fit to split our lungs and piercing the air with sundry and divers stabs until such as saw us could not but admire us for our valor—as we had intended. What I should do if perchance I met a Spaniard I dreaded much to think; for it would have gone against the grain to have lopped his head off merely because he was engaged in defending his home. But fortunately for me no Spaniard gave me a chance to engage him at close quarters, for all who saw us ran as if, forsooth, the evil one himself were at his heels.

And who could blame them for acting the coward, with a host of fiends in view, come without warning to ravage their homes and deprive them of their lives?

I have never run from mortal man as yet, but, methinks, I would have at least waited till I got my back against a wall before making stand against such a horde of ruffians as ours.

We gained the city streets, but only to find them silent and deserted of all human beings. The massive stone houses on either side the chief streets were closed and apparently abandoned, for all the people who could do so had fled to the castle, where the governor had shut himself up and in fancied security bade us defiance, in sooth. The enraged pirates sacked the houses, recovering much treasures in silver and gold, and even spared not the church, robbing the altar of its massive golden ornaments, and then turned themselves to yet more reprehensible deeds.

At the seaward end of the city was the castle; at the landward end the great buildings of a convent, towards which, after our bands of cut-throats had slaked their thirst in Spanish wines, the which also inflamed their sinful lusts, they turned with loud shouts and brandishing of arms. Mansvelt—to his credit let it be recorded—refused to lead his men against the convent, filled, as he knew it to be, with women and children; but Morgan overruled him in this, and himself stepped forward and harangued the men to do this devilish deed.

I heard with horror the order to march forward and carry the walls of the convent, and I would have held back had not the eye of Morgan been upon me. And again Eli whispered to me: "Remember what the Don said: His daughter is here, perchance, and if we are foremost, who knows but that we can save her!"

Thus on we went, pell-mell, cutlasses in air and again in the van of that howling, scoundrelly horde. We made short work of the convent barricades, and eftsoon were pouring through the corridors and into the patios, or inner courts, of the immense structure, like wolves in a sheep cote seeking for lambs. And we found them, too, all huddled together in the chapel, more than fifty women and girls listening to the prayers that were being offered by their instructors in religion. They had evidently been told to prepare for the worst, and in the main were calm with the desperation born of despair; yet some few could not but shriek at the appearance of the ruffianly horde, shaggy and unkempt, some brandishing blood-stained weapons, others their faces smeared with blood and all leering like hyenas at their prospective prey.

The voice of prayer was drowned in the shouts and cursings of the pirates, who for a moment held aloof, some even of these depraved monsters feeling compunction at advancing upon this assemblage of defenceless females. At this juncture a nun with saintly face stepped forward, holding in her hands a casket containing gold and silver trinkets, jewels, pearls, gems—the despoiling of those maidens there assembled, which she offered our leader, telling him they represented their entire possessions and entreating him to take them and depart.

But no, Morgan the monster had other plans in view. He indeed took the offering, passing it to his lieutenant; but he then said, in his loud and uncouth voice: "Form yourselves into ranks and pass out into the street. Men, fall back and allow these ladies to pass. Go, now, and stand not here another moment. Go hence!

The trembling females did as he directed, and marched quietly out through the corridors, twelve stately women leading more than forty maidens quivering with fright and weeping silently. We parted ranks, and they passed out into the street, where they were ordered to march without halting directly for the drawbridge at the castle gate. Then we saw the full and horrible purport, of Morgan's intention: It was to compel the female captives to lead the way with scaling ladders, which they were ordered to place against the walls!

Behind this barricade of virtue and innocence the pirates were to advance and assault the castle, unless indeed the governor should shrink from killing his own friends some of them perchance his own relatives, and consent to parley. Never, perhaps, was any other man offered such a terrible alternative, and it must have torn the governors heartstrings sorely to decide: whether to fire upon those innocents, mingled as they were with the thronging pirates, or consent to surrender the castle and all it contained to the treacherous villains in whose word he could by no means place dependence. That alternative was offered him, and not hours, but minutes, given him to decide. The nun with saintly face called in clear bell-like voice to the governor not to betray his trust, for if her life and' the lives of her companions could save him and all the castle contained, she and they were ready for the sacrifice. At which, with a curse on his lips, that devil Morgan leaped upon and ran her through with his sword. She fell bleeding amid the throng of white-faced, shrieking girls and scowling men, and would have been trampled on had not Eli and myself, as with one impulse, leaped forward and taken her in our arms.

"Drop her! Drop that drab, and go back to the ranks!" shouted Morgan, fairly foaming at the mouth. "Men, sieze those scoundrels and off with their heads!"

I whispered to Eli, "Bear her back gently, while I hold them back. Perchance I fall, it cannot be worse." He nodded, and I released my hold of the woman, and, without giving my enemies time to oppose themselves against me, sprang like a tiger full at Morgan's throat. The impact of my spring bore him to the earth, and betime his myrmidons had reached me he was black in the face from the grip I gave him on the throat, for my fingers clenched themselves like steel upon his sinewy neck, and but another moment would have been his last! I knew my time was short, and strove not only to choke him but to break his neck if possible; and I think I should have succeeded had we not been torn apart so rudely. But for all the rescue he was unconscious, and for most of that day was surely out of the fight, despite the attempts of our chirurgeon to bring him round again.

His men fell upon me, many at a time, and it would have gone ill with me had it not been for Mansvelt, who commanded them not only to unloose me but to return my cutlass, which had dropped to the ground in the affray.

"Go, now," he said, and he pressed my hand in a way that had in it approval for my act. "Go, now, and assist thy chum in recovering the wounded nun. They have taken the direction of the convent."

I hesitated, for my blood was boiling, and I greatly desired to complete the work I had so well begun. But Mansvelt laughed, as if fully comprehending my desire, and' said: "Not now; thou hast done enough for a beginning. Doubtless he will let thee have it out with him another day!"

[Illustration] from For Prey and Spoils by Frederick Ober


My reason returning in a measure then, I did as he had commanded, and, wending my way between the disordered ranks, sought the convent, where in sooth I found, not only Eli and the captive nun, but another with them who, despite my disordered fancy, at the time, suggested to me some familiar face. In short, the girl attendant upon the nun, I felt sure at first glance, was none other than the younger daughter of the Don! She had the same black eyes and hair, round cheeks, ruby-red lips, with such delicious curves in them, as had her sister, and withal a shapely, lithesome figure. She was rather above the common height of girls of her age—which the Don had intimated was about fifteen—and had about her an air of maturity not derived from years.

All these details I noticed, as it were, unwittingly, and almost at a glance; for there was, sooth, no time for idle curiosity. I doubt if the girl then gave me a single thought, except to reason that here was but another pirate, one the more or less being all the same to her, since all were in league against her life. She merely glanced at me, then, being absorbed up in her charge, the saintly nun, who was reclining on a cot supported by the young girl with an arm under her head.

That the nun was wounded unto death I knew at first view of her, the pallor on her pure face was such; but I said nothing. The blood still flowed from the wound in her side, staining her white robe and the cot upon which she lay; her breath came in quick, short gasps, except for which there was no sign of life. Standing near the foot of the cot, in the little room scarcely more than a cell, with its bare, white walls, was my comrade, and with him old Jaques, but for whose assistance surely the nun could not have been borne out from that noisome throng to this quiet sanctuary. The veteran pressed my hand as I entered, and Eli linked an arm in mine, and we stood silent there, with bared heads, knowing in our souls that we were in the presence of death.

Whether it were better to go or stay we knew not, but, feeling our unfitness for such a place, were about to steal softly out when the dying woman opened her eyes, raised herself to a sitting posture, and, pointing with the extended finger, of one hand at poor Jaques, said in a clear, distinct voice: "The man of blood shall die!" Then she gasped once or twice, fell back and died.