Clouds chased the moon and the lanterns on the poop threw an eerie light over the sloping deck and the ragged stump of the mainmast.
Konick was trying to salvage the biscuit barrels from below decks. Christiaan watched him. He remembered Konick had been with them when they had a piece of that stuck-up Noorstrandt witch, had sworn he wouldn’t speak of it to anyone, but with a man like him, how could you be sure? He had cheated him at cards once, and there was that girl in Amsterdam, stole her away from him right from under his nose. Never did settle with him for that.
A couple of paces across the sloping deck and the knife slipped between his ribs easy as testing the flesh of a suckling pig, a little nudge and he was over the side, just like that, good insurance. He rinsed the blade in the scuppers, and went back to the Great Cabin to drink a few more quarts of the commandeur‘s good brandy.
“You think he will come back for us?” Joost said.
There were anxious faces around the table. The effects of the wine were beginning to wear off, and with it their bravado. They were starting to think about survival. Hope was a dangerous beast and guilt and brandy wine made the worst kind of hangover. Only the van der Beeck brothers didn’t seem to care, bullying the commandeur‘s butler to fetch more of the Company’s best cognac. The cabin boy, Strootman, staggered along the sloping deck with plates of cold salted pork and beef.
Christiaan had dressed for dinner, had one of the commandeur‘s gold medallions around his neck. “He’ll be back for us,” he said.
“The seas are rising,” Ryckert said. “I don’t like it.”
“They said he was the best skipper in the whole Fleet,” Joost said. “And look, he has run us aground.”
Through the oaken doors, they heard the drunken roaring of the others still in the hold. Christiaan wondered what would happen if the good commander did return. Men might find it easier to slit his throat, in such circumstances, than face up to what they had done. Through the windows they could hear the terrible drumming of the surf on the reef. In such dire predicaments, the Devil finds his own.
The Houtman Rocks
The provost made his way across the shingle beach, muttering to himself, his sea boots crunching on the coral, his cloak flapping in the wind. His imperious bulk intimidated on a ship the size of the Utrecht; here on this God-forsaken island of clinkered limestone and scrub he just looked clumsy and slow.
Michiel Van Texel and his men had at least restored some semblance of order. He had even made his soldiers set out their camp in orderly rows, as if they were on campaign, even though their shelters were made just from scraps of sailcloth and salvaged timber.
He jumped to his feet. “Yes, Heer Provost.”
“We have a problem.”
Michiel grinned. “I would say we have lots of them.”
The man had no sense of irony, he didn’t even smile. “I have made an inventory. We have supplies for just a few more days. Even with what we have, I will need your men to keep close guard in case there is another outbreak of lawlessness. There must be no more pilfering.”
“Don’t worry, my men know what to do.”
He pointed across the water, they could just make out the yawl, beached on the cay on the other side of the channel barely a cannon shot distant. In the fading light Michiel could make out the scraps of tents they had put together from spars and bits of canvas.
“He has to come back for us. He’s not going to leave us here.”
Michiel said nothing.
“His place is here with us,” Michiel said, carefully.
“I’ve counted two hundred and thirteen of us. With the water we have left, I’ve worked out a water ration.”
“My men will make sure there is no more trouble.”
The provost nodded. He looked back towards the cay and their errant commandeur. “He’ll be here in the morning, you’ll see.”
The lonely cry of mutton birds and gulls accompanied the gathering of the dark. The relentless wind moaned and gusted.
The soldiers lit a fire with the aid of Michiel’s tinderbox: inside the box was a flint stone, a small bar of steel and some linen impregnated with saltpeter. They built a little pile of twigs over some of the dried fibers and used the flint stone and the steel to make a spark. They fanned the tiny flame with their breath until they had built a small fire, and they all huddled around it, but the brushwood they had collected burned through quickly and turned to ash.
What a place.
The island was not much larger than the kerke in his village, just an outcrop of coral with a few gnarled salt bushes, home to a few sea birds and little else. The shoreline was a flat reef that hung over the water in jagged ledges. Already some wit had named it Utrecht Kerkhof – Utrecht’s Graveyard.
There were other larger islands around about, on the other side of a fast running channel. To the north was the smaller island where the skipper and the commandeur had gone. There were two others, on the other side of the lagoon, much larger than this one, but so far away they might as well be the fort at Batavia.
There were certain times of day when the islands took on a strange mushroom-like appearance, as if some invisible hand was holding a mirror to the land, making them appear upside down and twice the size. Little Bean said the place was bewitched.
Despairing of their fire, Michiel huddled into his cloak and fell into a black, numbing sleep. He woke in the middle of the night with the gritty sand stinging his face, and the cold so fierce that his whole body shook. Unable to get back to sleep he built up the fire again and huddled next to it, listening to the hollow boom of the breakers on the reef.
There were no more blankets. The few that had been rescued from the wreck had been requisitioned by the pastor for his family. He had even taken ownership of some canvas washed up on the beach and used it as crude shelter. So much for sacrifice in the name of the Lord, all of that forgotten now, Michiel thought.
Somewhere in the dark two men were fighting with their fists, squabbling over ownership of a biscuit.
He lit an oil lamp and went to check on the sentries he had posted by the water barrels. Then he walked along the beach to try and keep warm, found vrouwe Noorstrandt curled up in a little depression among the bushes and hard shale, shivering with cold. He almost stumbled over her.
“Who is that? Who are you?”
She sounded panicked. He took several steps backward in the darkness. “I am sorry, vrouwe. I did not see you.”
“Stay away from me! I shall scream!’
“It is Sergeant Michiel Van Texel! I am on patrol. You are in no danger.”
She whimpered and scrambled away from him.
“Are you all right, vrouwe? It’s Sergeant Van Texel. I am sorry, I did not see you there.”
She was panting like she had run a mile through the sand.
“I’ll leave you to your sleep,” he said.
“No, please! Don’t go. Stand here a while. I am frightened.”
So he stood there, huddled into his cloak. After a while he got down on his haunches, so he was not as exposed to the wind.
“What is happening over there?” she whispered.
“On the other island? They have water and biscuit. They cope well enough.”
“Does the commandeur have plans for our survival?”
He supposed he should tell her yes, that everything would be fine. But that would insult the lady’s intelligence. “I don’t know, vrouwe. I would say he has largely lost control of things.”
“Why has he not come to our island himself?”
“Well, the seas are rough but I don’t think that’s the reason. If you ask me, those boys over there, their thoughts run only to their own salvation.”
“That is impossible. Not Sinjeur Secor!’
“It’s the skipper I don’t trust. He has this look on his face, makes my skin crawl.”
“The commandeur won’t let us down. He’s still in charge here, you’ll see.”
“If he’s still in charge, then why isn’t he here with us?”
Cornelia wrapped her arms across her middle and doubled over.
“Are you all right, vrouwe?”
“How could this happen to us?”
“Bad luck happens to a lot of people. I don’t suppose it chose us in particular.”
“Do you not believe in God, Sergeant Van Texel?”
“If I did, I’d be hard pressed to think very much of him after what has happened to us today!’
“Not believe in God? How can you say such a thing?”
“Look, as I see it, if a man has good luck he says it’s God, if he has bad luck he says it’s the Devil. But it’s all the same thing, really. I’m a simple man, vrouwe, I’ll pray to God if that’s what someone wants me to do, but really I don’t mind either way.”
“Is it? To me it’s just the hard truth, as I’ve learned it. God, fate, the Devil…they’re all the same. There’s good luck and bad luck and who has one and who has the other, well I’ve never seen any design to it.”
“You don’t think God is punishing us?”
“For the things that happened on our voyage?”
“Well I’ve been a soldier for many years now and I’ve seen men do unspeakable things in wars and some of them were punished and some of them are still walking around today, like it was nothing.”
“So, who do you pray to, on nights like tonight, sergeant?”
“I don’t, vrouwe, I just try and keep warm, and make sure my sword is sharp. I’ve always been a very practical man.”
“You shouldn’t let the pastor hear you talk like this.”
“Well, I don’t, you see. That’s practical too.”
He heard the sounds of another fight, further down the beach. He picked up his oil lamp and stood up. “I’d better help sort that out. I’ll be along to check on you in a while.” He picked his way carefully along the beach. The darkness gathered, and the wind picked up, wilder now, and very cold.