Brothers of the Coast

by J. C. Kofoed

Black Mask | Aug. 1920 | Vol. 1, No. 5

What magic did the Chinaman Hong Fat spin on Holyoak? Is he a sailor deserting his ship in 1921 Port Royal, or Holyoak the murderous pirate under Captain Morgan, attacking the fort of Panama, centuries ago …

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Enough Wrongs to Offend the Gods

I dropped over the side of the Mary Rose when she steamed out of Port Royal, and swam back to the wharf. It was a foolish thing to do, for the harbor was full of ground sharks, but the heat and rather too much rum-and-sugar had made me reckless. Probably, too, I had imbibed some of the devil-may-care spirit of this ancient nesting place of the buccaneers.

When I reached the dock I was dizzy and blown from my exertions. It was terribly hot. Something seemed dragging at the nape of my neck, and the winking lights in Port Royal harbor looked like the blazing eyes of mammoth animals. I sat down on a cask, and watched the red lantern on the Mary Rose’s stack disappear into the night. I couldn’t quite recall why I had come back to Port Royal. It was because of something someone had told me—damn that rum! My head was like an empty barrel. I could not remember a thing.

After a bit I lit my pipe, having tobacco and matches safe in a waterproof bag, as all sailormen should. Gradually the fog in my brain started to shred out. I began to remember.

First it was Mary Logan. She had promised to marry me back in New Bedford. She had laid her little hands in my great, horny ones, and pressed her lips against my cheeks, murmuring words of endearment, and promising to wed me in a fortnight. All the time she knew she was lying, for her plans had been laid to run away with Benjy Harrison that very night. Something snapped inside of me then; the world went black before my eyes. Later I shipped on the Mary Rose, bound for Port Royal.

But it wasn’t Mary’s treachery that had made me leave the old tramp. What was it? I pressed my fists against my aching temples, and tried to think.

Ah, I had it!

It was on account of what Hong Fat showed me—that and the sugared rum, I guess. The filthy, slit-eyed Chinaman was a magician in his own country, he said, and I’ll give it to him that he was clever. For two dollars he went through his whole bag of tricks, but it didn’t satisfy me. I’m a deep-water sailor, and I come from a long line of blue-nosed, psalm-singing Puritans, but there’s a streak of the mystic in me. I always wanted to look behind the veil, and Hong Fat said he could lift it for me.

So I gave him five dollars to do it. He brought out a little bronze bowl from under his robe, and made some passes over it with his clean, long-nailed fingers. A thick, oily smoke curled up from it and almost hid his emaciated yellow face and beady eyes.

Then he asked me in his crooked Shantung dialect if I could understand Chinese. I told him yes, rather sourly, for the smoke was making me drowsy.

“Sailor man,” he said in his singsong way. “You are a brave one—a brave man, but you have done enough wrong to offend the gods; wrongs that you must atone for.”

“Wrongs?” I said. “I’ve led a pretty rough life, but a square one, and I can’t call to mind anyone in particular that I’ve wronged. I’d like to kill Benjy Harrison, but I haven’t done it, so you can’t call that a wrong. As for Mary Logan—

“No, I can’t call any to mind,” I’ said.

What of the smoke there was a tightening around my throat, and my arms and legs had lost all feeling. “Hurry up—tell me—what was it—when—?”

“Not in this life,” droned Hong Fat. “Long, long ago—”

The smoke flattened out like a gray screen. There were pictures on it, but so jumbled and twisted at first that I could not make head or tail of them. I seemed to see Mary’s face peep out, but I couldn’t be sure. Then the pictures began to take shape. Familiar things flashed up. I seemed to be going back into the past—centuries ago—

Suddenly there sprang into view the old city of Panama, with its houses of aromatic rosewood and the tower of the great Cathedral of St. Anastasius. I could see the slave markets, where black men were being sold, while their buyers sat at tables, sipping Peruvian wine. Beyond the city rolled the green savannahs, and on one side an arm of the sea crept inland. It was the Panama of the old days, before Sir Henry Morgan sacked it.

I don’t know why I recognized it, for the ancient city was gone long before I was born. There is left only a tangle of weeds and sun-cracked limestone. The slave-market is a swamp; the haven a stretch of surf-beaten mud, inhabited by pelicans quarreling over the stinking remains of fish. But, in spite of that, I saw old Panama there in the smoke, and felt as a man does when he comes upon a forgotten nook. Except for this: At sight of all that beauty a crawling horror whelmed up in my throat, and I would have screamed and beat the air, but it was as though only my brain was present. I had no consciousness of a physical body.

Men came into the picture. They were muscular and bronzed, with the rolling gait of sailors. They wore hats, wide of brim and running into a peak, dirty linen shirts and knickerbockers. Around their waists were sashes, bristling with knives, and they carried guns of a make that would seem strange to modern eyes. They were Morgan’s buccaneers on their way to the sack of Panama—to pillage and burn and torture and rape. I recognized them: Dubose, with his swagger and black mustachios, squat Sawkins, one-eyed Peter Harris, Ringrose, and then—God pity me!—I saw myself, running with the rest, sweat stained, ragged, but with the lust of battle flushing my cheeks. At the head of the troop was a tall man, with a face framed by lank gray curls —as cruel and evil and ruthless a face as this old world has ever seen. His clothes, of silks and satin and lace, were as weatherworn as those of his men. No need to ask myself who it was. I knew him as I had known the others—Morgan, the damned!—the man I had followed in a forgotten century across the blood-smeared waters of the Caribbean!

I knew then why Hong Fat had said my wrong was a great one. None could fight under the black flag of this arch brother-of-the-coast without loading his soul with crime.

Sitting there in a dazed trance I watched the capture and sack of Panama—living over again the wild excitement of that day. The clash of swords on steel casques and breastplates; the priests and nuns whipped before the advance to place scaling ladders against the walls; hate-twisted Spanish faces in the desperate struggle on the ramparts; the final capitulation of the town.

The smoke cloud grew darker. The pictures that followed faded as though the scene of torture and outrage were too terrible for the black art of Hong Fat to compass. Through the haze I saw the Chinaman’s yellow face and beady eyes watching me with a sort of sardonic leer.

I tried to speak. I fought the air with my numbed arms, but the words would not come to my lips.

“That is not all,” croaked Hong Fat in his weird dialect. “There is more.”

The smoke screen flattened again, as though his claw-like hand had stroked it into a semblance of gray velvet. The figures grew life-like on the cursed chart.

This time it showed the guardroom of the fort at Panama—a room piled high with plunder torn from the ravished town. Through the open casements I could see the fires of the burning houses, and memory brought back the shouts of the pirates and the shrieks of tortured citizens.

There were two men in the room—Morgan, with his fierce, wrinkled face and—and I was there. You might think it a trick of the Chinaman’s, but as each scene flashed on I recalled it. Oh, yes, I had been there—as vile as any of those bloodstained brothers-of-the-coast. And my punishment was stretching through the ages.

I hung on each succeeding step, my breath whistling through my nostrils like a foundered horse.

Morgan waved his hand, and a woman was led in between two buccaneers. At sight of her the whole tale came back to me. Her face was the face of Mary Logan, dark and proud and beautiful. She wore the dress of a Spanish gentlewoman, and I remembered that back in those fading days of the seventeenth century she bore the name of Donna Isabella de Guayra—and that I loved her then as I loved her reincarnation named Mary Logan.

I had saved her life in Panama before I joined Morgan’s crew, and had killed her Spanish lover when he found me in her garden. They outlawed me, of course, and I became a pirate to come back to her—the only way that was open for me. She swore that she loved me, and would wait. When they led her in my-heart blazed. At last the hour of my triumph had come.

There on the smoke screen, Morgan leaned back in his chair, and over the ages I heard his voice ringing in my ears.

“This man says he loves you. S’death, you’re worth loving, madame, but why throw yourself away on him when there are better men around?”

I looked at her, my lips moving.

“It is not Harry Morgan’s way to stand back when there are women or gold to get,” the pirate said. “You can have him if your love is so strong that it will face death for him. So sure as you take him I’ll burn you both at the stake.”

My hand went to the knife at my hip, but I was helpless. The muskets of the two pirates were leveled at me.

“And—and if I do not choose him, señor?” the girl asked.

Morgan’s face wreathed itself in a terrible smile. “If you choose me I’ll cover you with diamonds. By my faith, not a ship on the Spanish Main but will contribute to your wealth. So there you have it. Holyoak and death or Sir Henry Morgan and wealth!”

The girl’s dark eyes flamed into little golden points.

“He killed the man who loved me,” she said. “He took a life for his own selfish pleasure, senor. Is it not possible that he will also take mine if I cleave unto you?”

The buccaneer’s pistol was in his hand.

“Stay with me, and Holyoak dies,” said he.

Donna Isabella—who, in this century, betrayed me again, looked me full in the eyes. Her own were hard.

“I will stay with you, Señor Morgan,” she whispered.

Then I saw in the smoke Morgan’s pistol flame. It was the end for me.

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Chapter 2

Blue Anchor Inn

I came to myself with a nervous jerk. The lights of Port Royal twinkled at my back. The Mary Rose had disappeared. How long I had been sitting there on the cask, pondering on the strange things Hong Fat had shown me I do not know. My head felt queer. The dragging sensation at the nape of my neck was stronger. I staggered a little as I walked off the wharf.

For how many æons would Mary’s treachery be repeated in reparation for my murder of the Spanish grandee? As the Donna Isabella she had betrayed me to Morgan. As Mary Logan she had cast me aside for Benjy Harrison. And as surely as we died and were born again she would repeat that treachery unless—unless—

I knew Port Royal as well as anyone, but tonight it seemed strange to my eyes—somehow smaller and older and more cramped. Why this should be I could not tell, unless Hong Fat’s cursed. smoke still twisted my senses.

I followed the crooked street until I came to the Blue Anchor Inn, a tavern huddled under the lee of the old Spanish fort—the very tavern, too, where Sir Henry Morgan had planned the sack of Panama. The night was warm, the doors wide flung, and I heard half a hundred rollicking voices roaring out that melody by the poet of London town, so popular among the buccaneers:

In frolic dispose your pounds, shillings and pence.

We’ll be damnably mouldy a hundred years hence.”

Why should they sing that seventeenth century ballad in the Port Royal of 1920? Controlling, by an effort, the nervous twitch of my muscles, I entered the Blue Anchor.

It was not the room itself, hazy with the fumes of tobacco smoke and smelling strongly of the native rum, that startled me. It was the men sitting around the tables, pounding the oaken tops with their mugs and flagons, and roaring that old carefree ditty. They were Morgan’s men—dingy clothed, scarlet sashed, heavily armed. God of battles! was I mad? There sat Peter Harris, with a black patch over his missing eye; here swaggered Dubose, mustachios bristling, and at the head of the table, Morgan, as savage and ruthless looking as when he had roamed the Main. That had been before the first King Charles lost his head—and this was 1920!

Perhaps I staggered a bit. At any rate, I stood blinking dazedly through the haze. They saw me, raised their flagons and shouted:

“Holyoak! Welcome, old scoundrel. We sail tomorrow for the sack of Panama.”

I had eyes for none of them but Morgan. He lay back in his chair, one fist gripping the pewter mug, his gaze riveted on me. I rested my knuckles on the table, and stared at him as I sought to control the quaver that I knew would sound in my voice. My brain hammered like a kettledrum.

“So ‘tis you, is it?” cried the buccaneer captain. “Old Holyoak, as I live!”

“Yes,” I said hoarsely.

“And what would you have of me, my bold rover?”

“Your life,” said I, “if I can take it. Are you real—real flesh and blood? If you are, ’fore God, I’ll have a knife between your ribs for what you did to me and the Donna Isabella.”

His voice was dreamy. “Donna Isabella? I call her not to mind. There were many women in my life—many, many of them. Harry Morgan’s way, you know.”

“At Panama,” I shouted. There was a red mist before my eyes. How I hated the man! If I had much to answer for, what punishment could fit his crimes?

“Ah, yes, at Panama. I tired of her quickly, and she went the way of the rest. But what would you do? I died peaceably in my bed, Holyoak, not on the rack as the Spaniards hoped I would. How can you avenge your black-eyed aristocrat? What can you do to a man who has been dead these two centuries and more?”

The pirates laughed, and pounded their flagons on the table.

Something snapped in my brain. The room grew black, save for that lean, sneering face, framed by its gray curls. Morgan had thrust back his chair, and risen, smiling.

I was unarmed, but I rushed at him—all my fear of the man swept away in the passionate urge for vengeance. He carried a long knife in the scarlet sash around his waist. I tore it away—knowing that the man was a ghost and that I could do him no harm. I swung the glittering blade aloft—and then the blackness of death enveloped me—I felt the salt foam on my lips. I—I—

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Chapter 3

A Most Unfortunate Occurrence

Excerpt from the Port Royal Jamaican:

A most unfortunate occurrence marred the brilliant “Buccaneer Fete,” given in honor of the Governor last night. An American sailor, named Holyoak, deserted from his ship, the Mary Rose, which sailed yesterday for Boston.

He went to the Blue Anchor tavern, which had been a favorite resort of Sir Henry Morgan’s crew, in the old days of the brothers-of-the-coast, apparently much the worse for drink. An old Chinaman named Hong Fat had persuaded Holyoak that he was a reincarnated member of the buccaneers who sacked Panama. Everyone present in the Blue Anchor had heard of the hoax. They deluded the drunken sailor into believing that they were all Morgan’s men, returned to life. Holyoak apparently became crazed with fear, snatched a machete from the girdle of Lieutenant Buckenham, who was impersonating Sir Henry Morgan, and stabbed himself …

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Chapter 4

Mary Logan

On the same day the New Bedford Herald told of the suicide of a woman named Mary Logan, who had stabbed herself with a sailor’s knife—a curio owned by Benjamin Harrison, and said to have been carried at the sack of Panama by Sir Henry Morgan!

~ The End ~

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