Our tale begins on a quiet night in late August. All day, London had sweltered under clear skies and blazing sun. The heat had made the city stink more than usual. The gentry had fled, moving up river to Kew or down river to Greenwich. Her Majesty, Elizabeth, the first of that name, had removed the court to Nonesuch Palace, in the county of Surrey. London was left to the poor - and the ubiquitous merchants.
There were precisely four customers in the Goat tavern, a particularly scrofulous establishment in a seedy unnamed alley at the back of Cheapside. The serving wench was an ancient harridan with a face that would curdle milk - while still in the udder. The Landlord was a whey-faced cockney; at least, he would have been whey-faced if anyone had been able to see beneath the layer of encrusted grime. Taken all together, the 'Goat' was not the sort of inn to which one would repair for fine ales, good food and congenial company.
One customer lay face down in a puddle of small beer. Another sat slumped in a corner. He had a marked twitch and would periodically mumble unintelligibly. There was a slightly manic look about him so he was ignored by everyone else. The taproom was silent, save only for the odd bellow of protest carrying from the streets outside as another hapless pedestrian received the contents of a resident's slop-bucket.
"Good fing it ain't morning," the Landlord remarked at one particularly voluble burst of outrage, "that's when they empties the chamber pots." No one bothered to reply.
The two remaining customers were as different as they could be. They sat at adjacent tables, nursing jugs of ale and gazing into space. One man, the older by many years, was obviously a seaman. His skin was like gnarled, ancient oak and a black patch covered one eye. He wore a canvas smock, much stained, and patched calico reach-me-downs tucked into sea-boots. The adjacent younger man had the look of a down-at-heel clerk. His doublet was worn and had been made for a much larger man. His hose were faded and neatly darned; that spoke of a woman's hand. He had thinning brown hair and large spaniel eyes. He looked thoroughly miserable.
"Down on your luck, matey?"
The younger man jumped as if he had been suddenly awakened.
"Are you addressing me, sirrah?"
The young man gave an exasperated sigh.
"I said, are you talking to me?"
"No you didn't you said, 'are you addressing me sirrah?' I know one of me glims is shot but there ain't nuffink wrong with me lugs, matey."
"Glims is eyes, see; and lugs, well, they're me ear 'oles of course. Don't you know nuffink?"
"I see, glims and lugs, hmm. Yes, well I suppose I did prevaricate a little. I just made it shorter in the second edition."
"I capitulate, cousin, what did you ask me?"
"I said, is you down on your luck, matey?"
"Perchance, 'tis so. I am an actor without a stage."
"Will you stop talking like some pox doctor's clerk and speak the Queen's fuckin' English? To hear you go on you'd think all the world's a fuckin stage. I'm a simple sailorman. I don't hold no truck with them jaw-cracking words o' yorn. Can't yell, 'perchance, would you be so good as to reinforce that cross timber, cousin, not when the wind's blowing fit to crack its cheeks. No. You must bellow 'brace the yard, ye knave!' so the swab knows what to do, like."
"No cause to ride your high horse, matey. It's just the way of things at sea. Now, I knew a cove once as was just like you. Spoke all educated, like. 'Cept of course when he was screaming orders at us swabs. Aha, then he could curse like a good'un, I can tell you."
"Yes, you toffee-nosed little beggar, really. You've heard tell of Frankie Drake, Hawkins and Walt Raleigh, I suppose?"
"Of course, who hasn't?"
"I'll lay you a guinea to a pinch of shit you ain't heard of Sir Jonathon Trelawney, have you now?"
"Can't say that I have."
"Jon Trelawney, the Tiger. I sailed with 'im for twenty years."
"And is this Trelawney a privateer such as Drake and Hawkins?"
"Not exactly. Not what you'd call a privateer, now. Well, he sort of anticipated 'er Majesty handing out letters of marque by a few years. Nah! The Tiger, he's more of your pirate."
"A pirate! God's wounds, man. Are you telling me you were a pirate too?"
"Well, supposing I was, young master, wouldn't the tale be worth a jug of ale, between friends?"
"Mayhap, if 'tis a good tale and nobly told."
"What's your name, Lad?"
"Right, Master Will. I be Rueben. Black Rueben they used to call me, in days gone by. Here's a little wager for ye. I tell my tale. If'n you like it, you pays for the jug and if'n you don't, I pays, what could be fairer than that?"
"Well, 'twill pass the time for the nonce."
The old sailor bellowed for another jug and settled back in his chair. The harridan shuffled over with ill grace and scowled at him. He waved her away once she had set the jug upon the stained tabletop.
"Later, woman. Now, young Master Will, it fell out this way..."
Sir Jonathon Trelawney wasn't always a pirate. He tried his hand as a courtier, a country squire and finally a merchant venturer. He had two weaknesses that always seemed to undo him: his savage temper and his eye for a pretty woman. If he believed a man had crossed him he could fly into a great rage. The choleric humours were strong in his blood, as they say. And as for the other, well, the sight of a snowy bosom or a sparkling eye could lead him off track like a dog after a bitch in heat. So, 'twas no great surprise that he failed at all he turned his hand to. He barely escaped with his head from King Henry's court for making eyes at Mistress Boleyn, killed a man in an argument over grazing rights and lost his money when the ship he fitted out for trading was lost. The slings and arrows of fortune, eh? It left him mad as a cornered rat, and no better company.
So there he was, at the age of four and twenty, without a brass farthing to scratch his arse with. In the heat of his anger, he decided to go to sea and leave the taint o' the land behind him. He swore a great oath that he would board the first ship leaving Plymouth town and would never set a foot back in England 'til he was rich as Croesus. As luck would have it, the only outbound vessel that day was the caravel 'Dainty Lass.' That were Mad Dog Wheeler's ship and most honest sailormen would give her a wide berth. It so turned out that Mad Dog was short of a mate. For reasons only he could tell, Mad Dog took a liking to Jon Trelawney; liked the cut of his jib, you might say. That of itself was a wonder, as men do say that Mad Dog was the biggest curmudgeon ever to sail the seven seas.
They prospered over the next few years. Not rich, you understand, but they enjoyed a sufficiency. Whenever the 'Dainty Lass' looked set to make a landfall in England, Trelawney, mindful of his oath, would have the skipper set him down at Calais or someplace and fetch him up again when they was outbound once more. So it happened that I was down on me luck and on the beach in Rotterdam when I run into Jon Trelawney. He offered me a berth as bosun's mate, I took it like a flash before the worthy burghers decided I was just another beggar-man and threw me in the gaol.
I'll say this for old Mad Dog; he knew his 'p's and q's.' Every 'i' had to be dotted and every 't' crossed before he was satisfied. A hard taskmaster and no mistake, he ran a tight ship. So there we all was, bound for the coast of Coromandel. I can tell you, we saw some wonders on that voyage! Giant turtles, Anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow below their shoulders, Master Will! And I ain't try to cozen you, just because you're a landlubber, neither. Our First Mate, Mr Jordan his name was, he grew too fond of the grog and kept hallucinating, seeing ships under the water and the like. Mad Dog put him ashore in Zanzibar and I heard tell he prospered after a fashion, running a sailors' tavern and drinking the profits. That put Trelawney up to First Mate, and in the nick o' time, you might say.
It so happened that Mad Dog fell in with this here Indian Princess and decided to swallow the anchor. He just packed up his dunnage and jumped ship; made a gift of the 'Dainty Lass' to Trelawney on the spot. He said his rather spend the rest of his days swiving than buggering about the seven seas. He's still there in the far Indies; if'n he hasn't swived himself to death, that is.
Well, I reckon that crafty bastard Trelawney had a plan all along. No sooner have we seen Mad Dog over the side when the order comes to sling our hook and we're off to the Middle Sea. It's Cap'n Trelawney, now, you see, so we jump to it with a will. He gave us this great speech about fat galleons and how they were there for the taking. So it was we turned pirate. And that's when things really got interesting! It was about that time that he started calling hisself 'the Tiger.' He dressed only in black and gold and he had the ship painted in the same colours. Looked more like a fuckin' wasp than a tiger, if you asked me, but nobody did.
Desdemona was the only child of Cesare D'Lorca, ambassador to his most Catholic Majesty Phillip o' Spain from the Republic of Venice. There's no denying that she was a handsome lass, hair like a raven's wing that hung down her back to her trim waist. Not much in the way of top-hamper, if you get my drift, matey, but eyes like pools a man could drown in. Not really to my taste, the skinny ones. I like a bit o' meat on the bones, I do. Let me have women about me that are fat, Master Will. Yon Desdemona had the lean and hungry look; such women are dangerous, take my word.
Well, o' course, we weren't the only pirates abroad in the Middle Sea. From the Pillars of Hercules to the Illyrian coast the waters were swarming with the vermin. Most were Blackamoors from the Barbary Coast. The Caliph o' Tangier gave 'em shelter. They was mostly after slaves, especially women for the harems. Our caravel was more'n a match for their galleys, but they could row to windward and had easy pickings among the fat merchantmen. They carried one cannon as a bow-chaser; too narrow-gutted for a broadside, see? The oars was pulled by slaves and a miserable time they had of it, I can tell you.
It just so happened that young Miss Desdemona had taken passage in a Frenchie Barque from Cadiz, I think it was. You know, where Frankie Drake singed the King o' Spain's beard. I tell you what, if'n it had been our Tiger, it would've been the Queen o' Spain's minge! But that's by the by. The lass was being sent back home to prepare for her marriage. Her intended was some high-up in the Venetian Republic, name o' Scipio or somesuch, any road, he was someone important. He wrote her these really long letters, two hundred thousand words a time! About six days' out of Cadiz, the Frenchie sights a parcel of Barbary galleys, coming up on him against the wind. Well, straight away they knew it was pirates and they knew they was well and truly buggered, seeing how they couldn't run away and there were too many of the heathens to fight.
You know how the Frenchies are, Master Will, always an eye out for themselves and devil take the rest. Their skipper decides he'll hand over his passengers in exchange for safe passage, just like that! Miss Desdemona let him have it hot and strong, I can tell you. She was up that quarterdeck like a rat up a hawse pipe; her and that old dragon of a duenna she had with her. I tell you, the old girl was absolutely crimson with outrage. She told the Frenchie exactly what she thought of his day's work and pulled no punches.
It so happened that we was bearing down on the same Frenchie, having seen his tops'ls. The Tiger says to me:
"To board or not to board, that's the question."
"I dunno, skipper."
"I didn't expect an answer you, bilge rat, I was musing aloud."
" Oh, Right you are, Cap'n. I'll let you muse away, then. Doesn't do to interrupt a man's muse."
It was then we saw the galleys and the Cap'n was shouting orders and screaming like a mad man. We crammed on all sail and ran out the guns. The decks rang with the pounding of horny feet. Well, we had been at sea for quite a while and it's only natural, ain't it? "We'll take the galleys first,' shouts our Tiger and then goes below to get dressed in his best doublet. We heard him cursing and yelling and calling on all the saints to be his witness and then he rushes back on deck.
"Reuben, can I borrow your best ruff? I haven't got one clean," he says.
"My old Granny always told me, 'neither a borrower or a lender be,' Cap'n. Something always ends up broken or you forgets to give it back. You've still got my buff jerkin."
"What the pox can I do with a buff jerkin? I need a ruff to look smooth!"
So I gave him my best ruff, him being the Cap'n and all and he calmed down a bit. We fell upon them galleys like a ravening wolf. The air turned blue from the curses or maybe it was the powder smoke. The cannon balls smashed into the Barbary ships and we made a great slaughter of them. Their scuppers ran red with blood, matey. The skipper, he was overjoyed, and capered like a lunatic.
"See 'em, six of the bastards, all sunk and two more running. Was there ever such a victory?"
"Um, Cap'n, the Frenchie's getting away. Ain't it time we got after him?"
"Quite right, Reuben, quite right, all hands to wear ship!"
We chased after the Frenchie who hove to when we put a shot across his bows. I asked the skipper if we was going to board or not, seeing as he'd been in at least two minds and out of his own.
"Certes," he says, "lower the thingummy and we'll be on board in a trice."
"Which thingummy would that be, Cap'n? The one goes in the water is a called a longboat and the one that shouldn't normally go in the water is a gangplank."
"Rueben, you can be a right pain in the whatnot, you know. What's in a name? Call a rose a turd and it would smell just as sweet. Now lower the fucking boat."
"Aye aye, Cap'n."
We pulled across to the Frenchie and the Tiger bounded aboard. He swept off his hat with a great flourish and made a knee to Miss Desdemona. She dimpled prettily and gave him a flashing smile. The dragon looked at me and sniffed pointedly. I have to admit she was more to my taste. Nice and well covered even if she did have a bit of a beard. Still, I can forgive a little touch of hairy in the night, all cats are grey in the dark, they say. I gave her my most dashing smile - the one where I don't show my tooth.
Course, they soon realised they'd swapped one set of pirates for another, but at least we wasn't heathens. Miss Desdemona made a great show of reluctance as the Cap'n threw her over his shoulder and took her to the longboat. He spanked her well-rounded bottom a couple of times and she seemed to brighten up a bit. I wasn't about to try the same with the dragon but I didn't need to. She made it clear she was going where Miss Desdemona went, come what may. We ransacked the Frenchie's hold and found a pretty cargo of spices, wine and brandy. He also had a strongbox in the great cabin crammed with doubloons. The wind died off to nothing but a gentle zephyr. We set fire to the Frenchie when we heard about his plan to sell his passengers to the Blackamoors, and then set sail for Naples, to sell our new 'cargo.'
I had the dogwatch that night and all I could hear was Miss Desdemona and the Tiger fightin' like two cats in a sack. There weren't no peace all the night, I can tell you. Did I mention he was a handsome devil, our Tiger? His main trouble was his impatience, though. He always wanted things to happen in a hurry and Miss Desdemona, well, she weren't that kind o' girl. She wanted a bit of wooing and smooth seduction, like, something to make her go all swoony. The old Tiger, now, he just wants to dip his wick. I tell you, Master Will, Hell hath no fury like the Tiger spurned. So none of us got no peace for hours.
The Cap'n was hopping mad. Ain't never seen nothing like it. It didn't ease matters much when she mocked his manhood. I reckon he was flashing his todger at her, 'coz I heard her say, "is this a dagger I see before me or a bodkin?" There was some other stuff too and it all got very heated. Eventually she made her exit, pursued by a bare Tiger, onto the quarterdeck. I finished me watch and went to find the dragon. I invited her, artful like, to come with me to the poop. What? No, Master Will, it's a deck at the back o' the ship. Where was I? Oh yes, the dragon. I told you she was a bit on the plump side. You couldn't have thrown a girdle round her girth in sixty minutes! We was cuddling up together, nice and cosy and I could tell that she was up for it. It jus' needed a few well-chosen words to get her in the mood. I said something like:
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's roll in the hay? You're really quite a hot old mare."
And she says, "Well I ain't usually, but you talked me into it."
And we was soon at it like a couple o' demented stoats. Meanwhile, The Tiger was still chasing Miss Desdemona round and round the mainmast. He was purple in the face and cursin' fit to bust and she was skipping about like a fairy, laughing at him. I got the feeling that she wasn't objecting too much. You see, what it was, well, she had this idea about a romantic rescuer and all she got was the Cap'n on heat. It ain't fair on a girl! The old Cap'n he's a-bellowing:
"Oh Mistress mine, why are you running?"
And she just keeps going, round and round on the same damned spot. It was making us giddy to watch it. That's the sort of thing that gives pirates a bad name. I mean, we're supposed to be bloodthirsty, rapacious cutthroats, ain't we? Well eventually, the Tiger got tired and took hisself to sulk in his cabin. Me and the dragon finished up what we was doing to the satisfaction o' both parties, so to speak, and went down to join Miss Desdemona on the main deck. She was flushed from all the runnin' about and her hair was wild. She looked a picture, Master Will, and I don't mind admitting it. She was the stuff that dreams are made on - you know, the sticky kind o' dream that you gets when... you know!
"Is he always like that?"
"I'm affeared so, Miss."
"What a temper! And his dress-sense, well! I swear if I told him to go cross-gartered, he would."
"In his present state o' randiness, Miss, he'd go cross-eyed if you asked him."
She laughed at that and I have to confess I was more than a little taken with her. She didn't have a spare pound o' flesh anywhere and even though that ain't usually to my taste, she did look a rare treat. Then she and the dragon had their heads together and they was giggling and whispering. I caught words like 'needle dick' and knew they wasn't talking about me, I'm hung like a small horse, even if I says so myself. I figured it must be the Cap'n they was discussing. He was hung like a seahorse.
Things didn't get much better over the next few days. Well, they weren't bad for me. I had an understanding with the dragon and she gave me rave reviews; though she did say I was sometimes a bit weak on the technical side, so to speak. The Tiger stayed in his cabin pretty much all the time. Miss Desdemona would sometimes stop and yell at him through the deadlight. She would tell him that he didn't know how to treat a lady and how she had always dreamed of having a romantic adventure and that he'd spoiled it for her. Pretty soon the old Tiger couldn't wait for the voyage to end. I could hear him muttering that he'd give a kingdom for a whore, so he must have been in a bad way.
As soon as we got to Naples he put Miss Desdemona and the dragon ashore -didn't even demand no ransom. We sold the cargo, victualed the ship and then it was off to the Spanish Main. He'd had enough of the Middle Sea, I can tell you. He were a changed man after that voyage. He grew morose and surly, more and more like a proper pirate should be. Fifteen years we raided and pillaged and raped our way around the Islands. I lost one of me glims in a sea fight and decided to retire. The Tiger was a rich man by then but it didn't give him no pleasure. I think he lost his heart in the Middle Sea and he ain't never come home, that I know of.
"So there's my tale, Master Will. Is that worth a jug of ale or no?"
"Aye, 'twill serve. But, prithee, what happened to Miss Desdemona?"
"They do say she took up with a blackamoor, Otto? Othello? Something of that sort. I then heard that she caught him an embarrassing liaison with a sheep and killed him in a fit of passion. Or it could have been the sheep she killed, I couldn't rightly say."
"'Tis passing strange, Master Rueben. And the Tiger? What of him. You say he's a pirate still?"
"Bless you, Master Will, did I not say? He swallowed the anchor a year or two gone and now pens tales of high adventure, lust and debauchery. Still, all's well that ends well, I always say. The hour grows late and I must take the flood. Once more unto the beach, my friend! I give you my adieus."
The old seadog stomped off and left young Will Shakespeare to pay for the ale. Still, thought Will, he did give me the germ of an idea, or two...
With apologies to all concerned, especially Wm Shakespeare, Esq.