bagJacob Jordaens (Flemish artist, 1593-1678) Self-Portrait with Bagpipes

intransitive verb

  1. n. a shrill sound especially that of a bagpipe; i.v. to emit the high shrill tone of the chanter; also to give forth music as that of a bagpipe

[origin: ca 1665; Middle English (Scots) skrillen, skirlen to scream, shriek, of Scandinavian origin; akin to Norwegian dialect skræla to cry aloud; akin to Old English scrallettan to resound loudly]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Hinged in the brooding west a black sun hung,
And Titan shadows barred the dying world.
The blind black oceans groped—their tendrils curled,
And writhed and fell in feathered spray and clung,
Climbing the granite ladders, rung by rung,
Which held them from the tribes whose death-cries skirled.
Above unholy fires red wings unfurled—
Grey ashes floated down from where they swung.

A demon crouched, chin propped on brutish fist,
Gripping a crystal ball between his knees;
His skull-mouth gaped and icy shone his eye.
Down crashed the crystal globe—a fire-shot mist
Masked the dark lands which sank below the seas—
A painted sun hung in the starless sky.

[from “The Last Day”; this complete poem also appears in The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 171 and Echoes From an Iron Harp, p. 50]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

heledeb6186e9af1274e26bf0b3bcb99-e1461448994134

“I am probably the finest pistol shot in the world,” said the girl modestly, “but the blade is my darling.”

She drew her rapier and slashed and thrust the empty air.

“You sailors seldom appreciate the true value of the straight steel,” said she. “Look at you with that clumsy cutlass. I could run you through while you were heaving it up for a slash. So!”

Her point suddenly leaped out and a lock of my hair floated to the earth.

– Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Roger O’Farrel’s foster daughter had just completed her first real voyage on the Caribbean, disguised aboard one of the two vessels O’Farrel took in pursuit of the savage l’Ollonais. It had lasted a year, and Helen was now sixteen. She had learned a certain amount of seamanship, many pirate tricks, the trade of a powder monkey, and seen some action, as when O’Farrel’s two ships went inshore against the anchored fleet of l’Ollonais and crippled the masts and rigging. In the end O’Farrel had brought l’Ollonais to his end at the hands of savage Indians on the Honduras coast – though not a whit more savage than l’Ollonais himself.

helEthalionThetisAs they returned to Havana in Cuba, they encountered an English ship of the Jamaica squadron, mounting forty guns – more than O’Farrel’s two Cuban fragatas, the San Patricio and Pilar, had between them. But they were two vessels, each more maneuverable than the English ship, and they danced around her, blasting shot into her stern and quarters, until she had to abandon the fight and make for Kingston – with a new tale to tell Jamaica’s governor of the damned O’Farrel. Helen was again an enthusiastic participant in the action, as a powder monkey carrying charges and shot to the gun crews of the Pilar.

On returning to Havana, Helen faced fresh danger from someone she had quite forgotten – and for that matter did not think worth remembering. The degenerate weasel who waylaid her and her friend Renata in a plaza, when Helen had been disguised as a boy, and had his face slashed by Helen’s rapier, carried a grudge. Now he heard, as most of the city did, about Helen’s voyage aboard the Pilar in pursuit of l’Ollonais – again, disguised as a boy. He had enough intelligence to make the connection. While her foster-father O’Farrel was a valued servant of the city’s captain-general, this young aristocratic debauchee would not have dared knowingly touch her. But the situation changed at the end of their successful voyage to destroy l’Ollonais. The captain-general, Francisco de Avila, reneged on the promised payment to O’Farrel for that immensely dangerous task, trying to fob him off with one-fifth the sum, which O’Farrel rejected in anger. The result was a blistering quarrel and complete break between the two men.

Helen was now safe game in the weasel’s eyes.

He had never been more mistaken – and never would be again.

He caught her alone on Havana’s streets, and brought two friends with him to share the sport of brutalizing her. Helen Tavrel had a pistol at the time, which she did not trouble to draw. She used her blade. This time she did not compromise by piercing anybody’s shoulder. She ran the ringleader and one of his companions straight through the body – fatally in both cases. The last one ran. They were the first men she had killed. She had not long turned sixteen.

WINMP0466For that reason, and because of his quarrel with de Avila, O’Farrel left Havana swiftly, taking Helen with him. His servants Ramon and Eulalia and their daughter Renata, Helen’s girlhood friend, went with them, lest the families of the youths Helen had killed take revenge on them. They travelled to Santiago, on the southern shore of Cuba. That city too had its captain general, a bitter (and no less crooked) rival of Francisco de Avila.

O’Farrel arrived in Santiago in the San Patricio and with no other ship. De Avila had impounded the Pilar and the galleon Santa Barbara, which O’Farrel used occasionally. (He had expropriated the San Patricio, too, but that had not halted O’Farrel. He simply took the fragata and left. He had lifted ships from guarded harbors before.)

His foster daughter had reached a restless age, even if she had not been wild and ready for any adventure as a child – which she had. She yearned for the sort of roving, fighting life O’Farrel had lived, and in Santiago she made it plain to him, blending the artful persuasiveness of an adored daughter with the fierce determination of a born pirate. O’Farrel was saddened by this development. Still, he knew himself, and the sort of example he had set her, and the blood of the Tavrels that she carried. If he did not let her go, she would go regardless. She already had, on the chase after l’Ollonais.

hel368bed8013c54a906031b8d51ff48e74Finlo Hilton, the Manxman called Bloody Hilton, had been one of l’Ollonais’s captains on the savage pirate’s ill-fated last voyage, and one of those who survived because he deserted the main fleet before the end. Helen cared nothing for any grudge Hilton might hold against her foster-father; she sought him out with a request that was more of a demand, to sail with the crew of his eleven-gun sloop (eight small cannon and three swivel guns) the Wyvern.  Hilton was vain, and preferred to captain a larger ship with more weight of guns, not only for the intimidating effect on potential victims but for the prestige of it, even though a lighter vessel which drew less water was superior for fast, close inshore work, and having a smaller crew meant fewer men to divide the plunder. Helen, with a different attitude, felt better pleased to be sailing in a sloop.

Hilton laughed at her and called her a slip of a girl, but beneath his derision, different motives and considerations warred in him. He refused to admit even to himself that he feared O’Farrel and the consequences if Helen should come to harm aboard Hilton’s ship. Still, it would be a great revenge if exactly that befell. Within his black heart he reached a compromise; let the girl board the Wyvern and take her chances. She was unlikely to last one voyage in this kind of company. And Hilton could make sure he had a more formidable ship under him by the time Roger O’Farrel sailed in pursuit of the Manxman.

“I’m captain, no other,” he growled, “and you tread my deck at your own risk, malapert.”

“That is fine,” she retorted, “and I accept it. So long as it’s plain that any man of yours offers me insult or outrage at his risk.”

Bloody Hilton laughed again. He had earned his by-name. A long-armed swarthy man with a pox-pitted face, protuberant eyes and a bulging forehead, his ugliness was not helped by a loose-lipped fleshy mouth. But he led every boarding party and could split a man from crown to breast-bone with a cutlass, which counted for more than being pretty in his trade. He was even a fair seaman, and had been from his boyhood on the Isle of Man, though his sailing master Shannet was his superior there, besides being more clever and inventive.

helhistory%20mapHilton’s cruise to the Mosquito Coast and Honduras with l’Ollonais had gone badly indeed, so he had resolved to avoid those parts this time, though still faring west. His objectives were Campeche and Veracruz in New Spain. With a single sloop there was no chance of sacking either city as O’Farrel’s enemy Myngs had done in 1663 – that had taken a buccaneer fleet – but ships set forth from Campeche in the winter, and often they were smugglers with illegal cargoes, dodging the draconian Spanish trade regulations, headed for Trinidad.

Hilton lurked in hope of ambushing such vessels.  This time he enjoyed an immediate stroke of luck. A Dutch fluyt came out of the harbor and crossed his path. These exclusively merchant ships had been designed with cargo space and handling by small crews in mind. Because they often traded in the Baltic, they had a rather pear-shaped cross section, as Baltic dues and tariffs were based on a ship’s decking area. Thus a narrow deck but a bulbous hold saved money. Their shallow draught allowed them, like a pirate sloop, to negotiate shallow harbors and enter river anchorages. Their disadvantage was that they rarely carried large enough crews, or guns, to repulse pirates. Hilton was delighted.

The merchantman showed her heels, and cleared her deck for fighting if she failed to outrun Hilton’s Wyvern. The sloop soon ran her down, the fluyt being “in poor trim” – her cargo unbalanced in the hold. Helen felt as eager as any of Hilton’s ruthless sea-dogs, waiting by the rail with rapier in hand and a brace of pistols slung across her chest.

heljansen_fig09bBloody Hilton laid his sloop athwart the Dutchman’s stern, to clear her deck with cannon fire. The four cannon along one side of the Wyvern fired, raking the merchantman from stern to bow, leaving blood and mangled men on the deck. Then they boarded. This was awkward with the Wyvern athwart the Dutchman’s stern, though good for a cannonade, but Helen was among the first over the side, bounding and thrusting among the surviving sailors on the fluyt’s deck. One man fell, gurgling, pierced through the neck, and drawing her pistol she shot a second. A third sailor, armed with a boarding axe, she distracted with a feint of her rapier, then rammed her empty pistol into his eye, and used her rapier in earnest to run him through the guts. The other pirates overran the decks and killed every man aboard, after Hilton’s custom.

The cargo proved to be a worthwhile one – salt, wax, cotton, and Mexican logwood which yielded a valuable dye. Hilton proposed they now cruise around Yucatan and south towards Porto Bello and Cartagena. If they encountered no worthwhile prey in those waters, they might sail along the Main towards Trinidad, where smugglers and merchants of all nations constantly traded, even though the island was under Spanish rule. The governor, handicapped by weak harbor fortifications and a garrison so small that the average buccaneer crew – much less a fleet – would bellow with laughter at being opposed by it – could do nothing but take bribes and look the other way. Hilton’s crew applauded the idea, Helen Tavrel among them.

Her foster-father being who he was, Helen knew a number of buccaneer tricks. She suggested the common one of using a captured ship as a lure; hoisting the Dutch tricolor over the fluyt and sailing it along in a peaceful fashion, in the hope that some other merchantman would come close seeking safety in numbers, or merely news. Hilton agreed, and put thirty of his seventy pirates aboard the fluyt, one of them, a Dutchman named Venneker, posing as its captain.

The ploy had no results during the next part of the cruise, and no likely prey was sighted between Porto Bello and Cartagena. As for Maracaibo, Hilton did not even consider a raid there. The entrance was too narrow, the harbor too well defended, and he had not the strength for a successful land attack. Seasoned buccaneers that they were – and men of spirit, at least, if also bloody scoundrels – Hilton’s crew accepted this as a frequent circumstance and did not complain. Green pups in the trade, expecting glorious success and wealth three days into a voyage, might have done.

hel48766-fearsome-female-piratesBetween Maracaibo and Curacao, boredom set in with the crew, if not complaint, and the inevitable man tried his lecherous luck with Helen Tavrel. Her fierce fighting when they took their first prize had been observed by some, and they accepted her, but this pirate had not seen, and he doubted it. He also doubted she could possibly be a virgin if she willingly sailed on a ship like the Wyvern. She rebuffed his anthropoid advances, and tried to knee him in the crotch, but he was a seasoned brawler and blocked that move as naturally as he drank rum. Then he began choking her into submission. Helen remembered a waterfront girl’s advice and pretended to submit, then to respond, after which she slashed her stiffened fingers across his eyes. That succeeded, long enough for her to pull away and draw her rapier. Calling the crew, she accused the buccaneer and challenged him to a duel. It was done the usual way; the two combatants went ashore on a sandbar with a pistol each, and one returned. Helen’s would-be rapist stayed behind with a fatal ball in his lung. She had learned to kill in Havana; now she was learning to kill readily.

The dead man had no matelot who wanted to avenge him. The Wyvern went on to Curacao, but Hilton did not harbor there, after some cogitation. His captured fluyt had a Dutchman who could pass for its captain, but every other man aboard was English, Scots, or black, and most were too plainly brothers of the buccaneer trade. He bypassed the island and lurked offshore. Curacao was a noted port and market for the slave trade. Slavers from West Africa arrived with their cargoes all the time, sold their human goods and – often enough – loaded again with molasses which they took to New England.

Before long, a Dutch blackbirder did appear. The innocent-looking fluyt, under the lowlands flag, hove in sight of the slaver, who naturally asked how the market was in Curacao, hungry or glutted. Most slavers were fluyts like Hilton’s captured craft; their big holds made them suitable for stowing large numbers of slaves, and Netherlanders had mastered the craft of building them cheaply en masse. This one, though, was something of an exception, with sharper, more rakish lines and a number of guns. Seeing her, Bloody Hilton was ready to bet at a first glance that she practiced piracy as well as slaving. He also coveted her at first glance. She was bigger and swifter than the Wyvern.

Her very swiftness gave a better chance of escape if Venneker showed his true colors too soon, but the proximity to Curacao’s shore made the slaving skipper feel safe. He allowed the fluyt a near approach. Venneker laid alongside, boarded her amidships, and his thirty devils killed recklessly until Hilton in the sloop arrived to aid them; barely in time. Helen Tavrel, cursing and laughing alternately, emptied her pistols and then moved through the smoke and blood of the thickest fighting until the slaver was theirs.

Hilton and his council decided they would take it to Barbados, where slaves were always needed for the sugar plantations, and sell the human cargo. This disturbed Helen more than the blood and slaughter, for Roger O’Farrel was her foster father and he hated slaving; Cromwell had sent thousands of Irish to slavery or the indentured servitude that was little better, here in the Indies. Barbados had been the destination of many, Virginia, of others.

Wild and fearless in a fight, wholly a woman in years by the standards of the time, Helen was still a teenaged girl who could feel abashed and shy at the prospect of looking foolish. If she spoke for freeing the slaves she would only get a vast guffaw, as she knew. She summoned all her nerve and pointed out that the ship itself was a fine prize, while a living African cargo held danger of revolt and they could not put a full crew aboard to prevent it. The best course might be to let them go.

hel710piratesHilton sneered at the notion. “If I decide the bumboes are a danger, I’ll put them in the sea, not cosset them to some comfortable shore,” he said. The buccaneers voted on the matter, while Helen sweated at understanding that her words might have condemned all the Africans to death. In the end the decision to sell them in Barbados was the one that prevailed, and Helen fastened her lip in relief.

Hilton sold the Dutch fluyt and its contents as well, so the cruise proved a good one. He attempted to cheat Helen of her share by saying that since she had been against selling the Africans, she need not expect the profit. She gave that an abrupt dismissal. A buccaneer captain could expect only trouble if he broke the article that concerned sharing plunder, and Helen had fought well. She knew the rest of the company would back her on this matter, and they did.

Hilton finished the voyage in Jamaica, for a Port Royal carouse. For the Manxman it was safe, but for Roger O’Farrel’s daughter it was otherwise, and someone had tried to sell her to the English ten years before. She mistrusted Hilton. Slipping out of Port Royal with her gains tied in a cotton sash, she rubbed soot into her blonde hair, stole dirty clothes and a small boat, and made her own way back to southern Cuba. She had practiced that ploy by now, and knew it backwards.

Helen Tavrel had begun to make her name among the buccaneers.

Read Part One

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

naval-vikign-ship-battle-norway

noun

1a. an upright bar, post, or support (on a ship’s deck)

[origin: 15th century; Middle English stanchon, from Anglo-French *stanchun, stançun, alteration of Old French estançon, diminutive of estance stay, prop]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Over the hilt and pommel the red life blood did run,
And the star of Eric of Norway went down with the setting sun.
Hasting stood by a stanchion with Ragnar at his feet,
And deep in his heart he had believed that Eric could ne’er be beat.

Years a score and seven had Hasting roamed the sea,
But long as he lives he’ll ne’er forget the sight he then did see.
The great ships locked together, shattered at rail and side,
Drifting, aimlessly drifting, drifting upon the tide.
Harald’s ship deserted, battered, almost a wreck,
And a band of blood-stained warriors standing on Eric’s deck.

[from “Eric of Norway”; to read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 536 and A Rhyme of Salem Town, p. 76]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

Conan_the_Barbarian

Weapons, especially edged weapons, axes, swords, and spears, hold my attention as nothing else can. Long ago I started collecting them, but found it a taste far too expensive for my means. I still have the things I did manage to get hold of — a few sabers, swords, bayonets and the like.

— Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 6 March 1933, CL3.31

By the time Bob Howard reached puberty, the sword was almost defunct as a weapon of war. Aside from ceremonial weapons, the only combat swords in the United States military were issued to the cavalry, though the day of the cavalry charge itself was finished, and the navy, which retained a few cutlasses. The sword had its day, and the weapons were surplused, or taken home by old soldiers to be kept, passed down, or sold to the likes of Robert E. Howard.

Yet for centuries the sword was one of the principal weapons of war, its form evolving to changing technologies, needs, and styles of combat, and it features heavily in the fiction and poetry of Robert E. Howard. It is of interest then to examine swords and swordsmanship in the writings and life of Robert E. Howard from a technical viewpoint, to see both what he wrote about swords and using them, and what that tells us about him.

Part of this article will retread familiar ground—readers may recall that several years ago, Barbara Barrett wrote two excellent articles, Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector and His Poetry and Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector’s Sword Collection, which illustrated the several types of swords in Howard’s collection, and which were mentioned in his poetry—but are repeated here for the sake of completeness in addressing this subject.

The Swords of Robert E. Howard

We know very little about Howard’s collection, including when or where he bought them, however, from the few details given in his letters and the memoirs of others we can make some educated guesses—and, as fortune has it, a few photographs of Bob Howard and his blades survive, which allows us to at least tentatively identify a few of them.

I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights. (CL2.292)

Howard’s first “sword” was probably that self-same Mexican machete from his private games; the “racing mare” might have been the same that he had named Gypsy. (CL3.55n39) This was probably the same machete that Howard was wielding in a staged photograph with Truett Vinson.

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (right)

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (right)

In 1922 at the age of sixteen, Robert E. Howard transferred to Brownwood High School, as the Cross Plains School District only went up to the tenth grade. There, he first made the acquaintance of Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith, who became fast friends. Howard by that point had either already begun acquiring his collection of swords, or would soon thereafter and they came into play during their leisure:

I used to wish that I could learn to fence, but the opportunity never presented itself, fencing masters not being very commonly met with in West Texas. A friend and I, several years ago, decided to try to learn the art by practice, and being unable to obtain foils, we used a pair of army swords. It was my misfortune, however, to run him through the right hand in the very first bout, and thereafter he could never be persuaded to fence again. I doubt, though, if fencing could ever have interested me like boxing, since it is, apparently, founded on finesse, and gives little opportunity for the exercise of ruggedness and sheer physical power. (CL3.242)

And sometimes less playfully, as Clyde Smith would write:

A mutual friend, talking of the futility of existence, said life meant nothing. “Just the same, you’d jump like hell if I made a pass at you with this knife,” said Bob. He was at the moment trimming his nails with one of his sabres; as the friend went ahead with his discourse, Bob slashed out at him with the cold steel. For some reason or other he missed, no doubt because the friend, in the midst of his eloquent desires for death, leaped out of the way, and howled in a pale voice: “My God, you’d kill a feller!” (RWM 10)

Of course, from Bob’s own accounts, he and his friends were well-used to a bit of rough-and-tumble play:

Two of them had me down once, one big gazabo was on top of me with a quarter-Nelson on me and another guy had me by the feet and was alternately kicking me on the shins and jabbing me in the ribs with a bayonet sheath. I drove my elbow into the neck of the guy that was holding my hands, got one hand free, got hold of a bayonet — and they let go. I used the bayonet, not the sheath, and the point at that. (CL1.11-12)

A few photographs from this period survive, and showcase elements of Howard’s collection from this period. One such depicts Robert E. Howard his neighbor’s children, brother and sister Leroy and Faustine Butler:

reh-big

Leroy Butler (left), Faustine Butler (center), Robert E. Howard (right)

While shadowed and partially concealed, these swords—evidently from Bob’s collection—provide enough details that they many can be reasonably identified. The basis for this identification are the key characteristics of the weapon: the length and shape of the blade, the shape of the hilt, which includes the guard (any device to protect the hand), handle, and pommel (the fitting at the end of the handle), the present of quillons (a projection on the guard of a sword), langets (flaps of metal extending from the guard), and any ornamentation. Manufacturer and issue marks on the blades are indistinguishable in the photograph.

The blade in Leroy Butler’s right hand is a long, slightly curved, single-edged blade with a distinct fuller (a groove in the blade to save weight and add stiffness) running most of the length of the blade, stopping several inches before the tip of the blade; the hilt is of the type called a “three-bar hilt” with an oval guard with no quillons or langets; the handle appears to be ribbed, with a ribbed pommel. The three-bar hilt is characteristic of French model cavalry swords of the 18th and 19th century, which were frequently the basis of American cavalry swords, and this appears to be a US Model 1860 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, or an equivalent weapon.

On his left hip, we can just see the handle of a short sword or dagger—if it was a longer blade, it would likely be evident in Butler’s shadow, and the handle seems to be bare of decoration, with a small rectangular metal guard. Unfortunately, too little of this weapon is showing to identify it.

Faustine Butler carries a straight-bladed sword; the hilt features a knuckle guard with one quillon, with a handle that narrows as it approached the egg-shaped pommel. Blade is shorter than saber on the left. Such blades were based on the military smallsword of the 18th century, designed primarily for thrusting with a single or double-edged blade, and appears to be a US Model 1840 Infantry Non-Commissioned Officer’s Sword.

Robert E. Howard is holding a curved single-edged blade—more curved than Leroy Butler’s saber—with a fuller that stops several inches before the tip of the blade; the blade is apparently not sharpened, or Howard would not be gripping the cutting edge. The hilt is distinguished by small guard with a quillon and langets on either side of the blade, and possibly a knuckleguard, though this and the handle are mostly obscured by the angle of Howard’s hand. The strong curve suggests a saber, and the arrangement of quillon and langets suggests a US Model 1812 Dragoon Saber, or similar blade. The term “Dragoon” originally referred to a French cavalry trooper armed with a firearm called a dragon, but developed into a term for mounted infantry.

Two fixed-blade knives or daggers are stuck through Bob Howard’s belt-sash. On the left is a double-edged dagger with no scabbard, a short cross-guard, and a round handle that is flattened at the end; a very generic design that resists identification, the best that can be said about it is that it does not appear to be a bayonet, being both short and lacking an attachment point.

The blade on Bob’s left hip is a larger knife or short-sword, in a scabbard that suggests it is curved with a single edge; on the handle you can see two places where bolts extend through the handle and the tang (the portion of the blade that extends into the handle), and ends with a rounded, forward-projecting knob. Given the evidence, it appears to be a US Model 1909 Bolo Machete.

Some of these guesses can be at least partially verified when another photograph from the same period is considered:

REH_Three_Swords

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (center), Tevis Clyde Smith (right)

Here, these appear to be the same three swords that were in the prior photograph; this time it is notable that all three young men are carrying the the scabbards for their sword.

Clyde Smith (right) appears to be wielding the same curved blade that Howard was grasping in the previous photograph: you can see the curve of the blade, the fuller, the quillon and one of the langets, and in addition it has the distended knuckleguard (sometimes called a “stirrup hilt”) typical of many cavalry sabers of the 19th century, including the US M1812 Dragoon Saber and the Prussian M1811 cavalry saber. The scabbard slipped into his belt appears to be metal (as opposed to wood and leather), and you can see a single band with the ring mount used to adjust the hang of the sword, which would normally be carried in a leather harness or “frog.”

Truett Vinson holds the three-bar hilted saber, where you can fairly see all three bars; swords of this type were typically made primarily for right-handed users, and you can see the bars cover the outside of the right hand when carried in that manner. Bob Howard is carrying the straight-bladed NCO Infantry sword, with few other details discernable.

After Robert E. Howard’s death, his father gave his collection of blades to Bob’s friend Earl Baker, who described them as including:

Robert E. Howard’s collection of edged weapons consisted of eight or nine pieces altogether. There were two swords, both sabers of Civil War vintage – one a battle saber, heavy and sharp; the other a handsome dress saber without an edge. There was a double-curved French bayonet of the late 19th century modeled after the Turkish yataghan. There was a World War I trench knife, with a triangular blade and an iron knuckle-guard. There was a boomerang, and there were three or four heavy knives of various kinds. (Barrett)

The de Camps, who interviewed Baker for their biography Dark Valley Destiny, add:

The collection eventually included a pair of foils, a cavalry saber of Civil War vintage, a Latin American machete, a boomerang, and several knives and daggers, one of which was a World War I trench knife with a triangular blade and a scalloped knuckle guard. He even obtained a long French double-curved bayonet of a type copied from the Turkish yataghan. (DVD 215)

A few things stand out in these descriptions; keeping in mind that that the de Camps’ account is based largely on Baker’s interview, as well as other sources. The two sabers that Baker describes could well be the US M1860 cavalry saber and the US M1812 dragoon saber pictured in the photograph of Howard and the Butlers. The M1860 (or even the early M1840) would be Civil War era, though it is important to remember that the model number refers to when the sword pattern was adopted and pattern swords could be produced for decades, and the M1812, as noted above, may not have had an edge.

The “double-curved French bayonet of the late 19th century modeled after the Turkish yataghan” could be any number of a family of yataghan-style bayonets that were popular in the 19th century, including the sword bayonet for the M1861 Navy rifle; Barrett also suggests the M1841 Mississippi Rifle bayonet which is of the same basic design. These bayonets typically featured cast-brass grips, with a quillon on one end of the cross guard and a muzzle ring to attach to the rifle on the other. The yataghan that this style of bayonet derives its name from is a short Ottoman sabre with a forward curve—that is, the part of the blade farthest from the handle is curved to be ahead of the hilt, to provide more striking power.

The “World War I trench knife, with a triangular blade and an iron knuckle-guard” is almost certainly a US M1917 knucklebow knife. The stiletto-like blade has a triangular cross-section and a steel knucklebow studded with small pyramidal projections. The US M1918 knuckle knife, also known as the Mark One Trench Knife, had a cast brass hilt with a studded knuckleduster grip.

The De Camps’ list contains “a Latin American machete”—probably the Mexican machete Howard described in his letter (CL2.292)—and, curiously, a pair of fencing foils. They go on to say of the foils:

Robert and Lindsey took a pair of empty brass cartridge cases, taped them over the ends of the foils, and tried to fence without the fencer’s usual mask, jacket, and gloves. Luckily no eyes were injured. Robert also fenced a little with Earl Baker. (DVD 215)

This is very curious given that in Howard’s 1933 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, he claims “being unable to obtain foils, we used a pair of army swords.” (CL3.242) While it is possible that Howard obtained the foils at a later date, given Howard’s own statement and the lack of mention of foils by Baker, it seems likely that this is an error on the part of the De Camps, or a misrecollection. More likely, Howard and his erstwhile partners used two of the three swords in the above photographs.

As for where Bob kept his collection:

As opportunity and finances permitted, Robert began to collect weapons, some of which decorated the bathroom wall itself, while others were stashed with his guns in the long closet built into the west wall of the room. (DVD 215)

  1. E. Hoffmann Price, in a letter to L. Sprague de Camp (who had apparently specifically asked about it), wrote that “I was in his work room, but, saw nothing. Can’t imagine where he kept the stuff.” But admitted “Or, I may have seen them and without really noting them at all.” (CLIMH 313)

1-bernini_model-for-the-lion-on-the-four-rivers-fountain_side-view-1_rome

noun

1a. the hip or haunch

[origin: archaic; diminutive of Middle English huck hip, haunch; perhaps related to Old Norse hūka to squat]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

—And a dozen death-blots blotched him
On jowl and shank and huckle,
And he knocked on his skull with his knuckle
And laughed—if you’d call it laughter—
At the billion facets of dying
In his outstart eye-balls shining.—

[from “The Skull of Silence”; to read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 201]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

schultz medium pool of the black one robert e howard

Robert E, Howard’s “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933) features a magical pool that kills humans by transforming them into miniature statues.  There is firm evidence that the concept was borrowed from the works of Sax Rohmer and Robert W. Chambers, two authors whom Howard frequently listed among his favorite writers.

“Robert E. Howard’s Library” in Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984) lists Sax Rohmer’s Tales of Chinatown (1922) among the books owned by Howard. One of the stories in this collection, “Tchériapin,” is a mixture of science fiction and supernatural horror. The title character was a Eurasian violinist who wrote a controversial composition with Satanic themes, “The Black Mass.”  The musician seduced a young model loved by an artist, Colquhoun. Deserted by Tchériapin, the woman eventually committed suicide. To avenge her death, Colquhoun strangled the violinist. One of the artist’s friends, Dr. Kreener, was a brilliant chemist who developed a scientific process that could transform a subject into a tiny statute. Kreener sought to cover up the murder by shrinking the corpse. In the conclusion, the tiny petrified cadaver returned to life in order to haunt Colquhoun by playing “The Black Mass” on a violin Although the resurrection wasn’t explicitly explained, the tale hinted that Tchériapin’s reanimation was due to a cloaked figure who may have been Satan in disguise.

sax-rohmerRohmer’s “Tchériapin” was possibly influenced by two stories in The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, “The Mask” and “In The Court of the Dragon.” Both stories are connected to an artificial mythology revolving around the King in Yellow, a Satanic hooded figure dwelling among the black stars of outer space. “The Mask” featured Boris Yvrain, a sculptor who invented a liquid pool that could petrify human being into statutes. “In the Court of the Dragon” had an artist pursued by the spectre of a musician whom he killed in unrecorded circumstances. Playing organ music, the ghost transported his quarry to the cosmic realm of the King in Yellow.

Rohmer borrowed from Chambers the petrifying process, the artist and musician characters, and the shrouded Satanic entity. The surname Kreener may have been derived from Mr. Keene, the protagonist of Chambers’s The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906).  “Tchériapin” never detailed the exact nature of the petrifying process invented by Kreener. The chemist merely took the corpse into his laboratory and returned with a small statue.  The concept of a liquid pool only exists in “The Mask.” That fact raises the question of whether Robert E. Howard read “The Mask.”

In his letters, Robert E. Howard described Robert W. Chambers as one of his favorite writers. “Robert E. Howard’s Library” lists five books by Chambers: The Maid-at-Arms (1902), Little Red Foot (1921). America or the Sacrifice (1924), The Drums of Aulone (1927), and The Slayer of Souls (1920)/ The first four novels are historical adventures involving either colonial or Revolutionary War America. The depiction of the Native Americans in those books influenced the portrayal of the Picts of the Hyborian Age in “Beyond the Black River,” “The Black Stranger” and the fragmentary “Wolves Beyond the Border.” The Slayer of Souls is a supernatural thriller which pitted the American Secret Service against the cult of Erlik, the Mongolian god of the underworld. Chambers altered Erlik, an actual figure from Asian mythology, into a variation on the King in Yellow. While the King in Yellow vaguely paralleled Satan, Erlik was explicitly identified with Satan. Rather than lurking in Hell, Erlik resided on a dark stat called Yrimid.  The Slayer of Souls was a sequel to Chambers’s The Dark Star (1917) in which Erlik’s extraterrestrial abode sent forth telepathic emanations to Earth that resulted in World War I.  While there is no evidence in either Howard’s library or letters that he read The Dark Star, a recently discovered poem indicates that he did. “Whence Cometh Erlik” from The Robert E. Howard Foundation Newsletter (Volume 6, #3, Fall 2012) contained these lines:

Erlik the Dark Star,
Forerunner of war

Howard would use the cult of Erlik in several stories such as “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Black Hound of Death” and “The Purple Heart of Erlik.” Howard’s “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937) mentioned the “Eight Brazen Towers” from The Slayer of Souls.   The story featured the Peacock King, a version of the Devil utilized by Howard’s friend and correspondent, E. Hoffmann Price, in stories like “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (Weird Tales, July 1925) and “The Word of Santiago” (February, 1926).

Howard gave the Peacock King an Asian appearance (like an idol of Erlik from The Dark Star) and dressed him in a yellow robe. This choice of wardrobe for the Peacock King was probably a subtle tribute to Chambers. Price’s avatar of the Devil was now a Peacock King in Yellow.

Even if Howard had never read Chambers’s The King in Yellow in its entirety, he could still have read “The Mask.” That short story was reprinted in the February 1930 issue of Ghost Stories. Howard was familiar with the magazine. It had published his story, “The Apparition in the Prize Ring,” in the April 1929 issue.

Howard probably read “The Mask” and recognized it as the inspiration for “Tchériapin.” Combining the petrifying pool from “The Mask” and the shrinking process from “Tchériapin,” Howard fashioned “The Pool of the Black One.” This wasn’t the only story by Howard that grew out of a conflation of elements from Rohmer and Chambers,

CasonPublished decades after Howard’s death, “Casonetto’s Last Song” (Etchings and Odysseys #1, 1973) featured Stephen Gordon and his friend, Costigan. The names are similar to John Gordon and Stephen Costigan from Howard’s “Skull-Face.”  One wonders if Howard simply confused the first name of the earlier John Gordon with his associate.

Giovanni Casonetto was an operatic singer who led a cult of Satanists. Witnessing Casonetto performing a human sacrifice in an underground chamber, Gordon eluded the pursuit of the singer’s underlings. Contacted by Gordon, the police arrested Casonetto. Gordon’s testimony at the trial resulted in the singer being sentenced to the gallows. After Casonetto’s execution, Gordon received a record in the mail. This was a recording of Casonetto singing the invocation of the Black Mass.  Foolishly playing the record, Gordon found himself in a trance in which he imagined himself as a sacrificial victim on Casonetto’s underground altar to Satan. Before the knife descended to dispatch Gordon in this nightmarish realm, Costigan rescued his friend by breaking the record with a sledgehammer.

Casonetto is Howard’s version of the violinist Tchériapin. Sax Rohmer based his musician on Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), a great violinist rumored to be both a Satanist and a womanizer. Seeing the historical connection, Howard made his diabolical singer an Italian like Paganini.

While “Casonetto’s Last Song” was primarily inspired by Rohmer’s “Tchériapin,” clear echoes of Robert W. Chambers’s fiction can be found in Howard’s story. Casonetto talks of “the red-stained altar where many a virgin soul has gone winging up to the dark stars.” The passage suggests that the devil made his abode among the dark stars like Erlik and the King of Yellow. There are also elements that suggest Howard was familiar with other stories collected in The King in Yellow besides “The Mask.” Stephen Gordon described his emotional state upon hearing the invocation of the Black Mass in the following manner: “In the darksome caverns of by soul, some blind and monstrous thing moved and stirred like a dragon waking from slumber.” Is the reference to a “dragon’ paying homage to “In the Court of the Dragon?” The title of Howard’s story, “Casonetto’s Last Song,” is also reminiscent of “Cassilda’s Song,” the poem that Chambers included as a preface to “The Repairer of Reputations,” the first story in The King in Yellow.

ky2At the very least, Howard was aware of the existence of The King in Yellow by 1930.  In that year, H. P.  Lovecraft mailed a copy of his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” to Howard. The essay prominently mentioned The King in Yellow, but only summarized “The Yellow Sign” from that collection. The surviving Lovecraft-Howard correspondence was collected in A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2009) edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz and Rusty Burke. In a letter to Lovecraft written around August 10, 1931, Howard made this remark: “Your splendid article — which I have re-read repeatedly — whets my appetite for the bizarre. Someday I must read ‘Melmoth” and the tales you mentioned by Blackwood, Chambers, Machen etc.”  Howard’s Melmoth reference is to Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and need not concern us. The significance or the letter is that Howard hasn’t read at least one Chambers’s story discussed by Lovecraft prior to August 1931. Most likely this is “The Yellow Sign,” although Lovecraft’s essay briefly noted two other collections by Chambers, The Maker of Moons and In Search of the Unknown. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Howard read The King in Yellow collection prior to August 1931. However, he still could have read “The Mask” in Ghost Stories during 1930, and possibly read The King in Yellow after August 1931.

Rick Lai is accomplished essayist and author in the field of pulp studies. You can find his books on Amazon.com.

“The Pool of the Black One” painting by Mark Schultz
“Casonetto’s Last Song” illustration by Marcus Boas

Drinking Jack 1

noun

1a. a drinking vessel, often of leather; 1b. a drinking measure holding half a pint; also, one holding  a quarter of a pint

[origin: archaic; from Old French jaque, of uncertain origin]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

The white gulls wheeled above the cliffs, the air was slashed with foam,

The long tides moaned along the strand when Solomon Kane came home.
He walked in silence strange and dazed through the little Devon town,
His gaze, like a ghost’s come back to life, roamed up the streets and down.

The people followed wonderingly to mark his spectral stare,
And in the tavern silently they thronged about him there.
He heard as a man hears in a dream the worn old rafters creak,
And Solomon lifted his drinking-jack and spoke as a ghost might speak:

“There sat Sir Richard Grenville once; in smoke and flame he passed,
“And we were one to fifty-three, but we gave them blast for blast.
“From crimson dawn to crimson dawn, we held the Dons at bay.
“The dead lay littered on our decks, our masts were shot away.

[from “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming (1)”; to read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 15; Always Comes Evening, p. 84 and Night Images, p. 68]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

nickelpublications-StrangeDetectiveStoriesV5N3_Feb1934

In February of 1934, Strange Detective Stories included “Fangs of Gold,” the first Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. It also included “Teeth of Doom,” the second Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. Except it didn’t. Not wanting two tales from the same author, writing about the same character, Harrison became Brock Rollins, Howard became Patrick Ervin and “Teeth of Doom” became “The Tomb’s Secret.” Did you get all that?

Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Breckenridge Elkins: all are characters created by Howard who cast shadows far larger than Steve Harrison’s. Only four stories featuring the tough-as-nails private eye saw print before Howard took his own life in 1936 at the young age of 30. That tally properly would be five, but the should-have-been third, “Lord of the Dead,” went into limbo when Strange Detective Stories folded.

The non-crime pulp, Man Adventures, ran from October 1930 to July of 1931 (monthly, except for a pair of two-month issues). In November of 1931, it resurfaced as Popular Fiction, running until September 1932 (missing two months along the way). It then came out as Nickel Detective in January of 1933 (I can imagine the blurb: “Twice as much two-fisted crime as Dime Detective at half the price!”), publishing six issues in eight months. That title disappeared after the August issue and the magazine made one last, dying gasp in November of 1933 as Strange Detective Stories. Four months later, in February, it would print the two Robert E. Howard stories and fold up for good: it had no more lives remaining.

It’s a pretty good example of the high mortality rate of pulp magazines during the era. Howard was third-billed in that final issue, directly below William E. Barrett, who wrote Lilies of the Field, which was made into one of Sidney Potier’s finest films. Another novel, The Left Hand of God, became one of Humphrey Bogart’s final films.

dalyThe hard boiled school of detective fiction was well out of its explosive ‘birth’ era when Howard briefly enrolled. Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raoul Whitfield and Frederic Nebel were either completely or almost totally finished writing for Black Mask, the seminal magazine that created the hard boiled genre. The unbelievably prolific Erle Stanley Gardner had appeared in Black Mask 81 times from 1923 through 1933. There would be only 24 of his stories in Black Mask in the next eleven years.

In fact, only two years after “Fangs of Gold,” Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, the editor at the heart of Black Mask’s prominence, would be relieved of duties. And after an amazing decade of production, Dashiell Hammett would barely write any more fiction until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler’s (rather elitist) literary approach to the genre had just begun when “Fangs of Gold” appeared.

Howard wasn’t some romantic writing for the sake of art. He wrote to make a living and fought to get his payments. So, he wrote in a wide range of genres, working hard to get stories published in as many markets as he could. The mystery field was one he entered relatively late and also one that he spent very little time in.

Hugh_B_Cave_nodateHoward’s first mystery, “Black Talons,” had appeared in the December issue of Strange Detective Stories. You know, with three stories by Howard and one from Hugh B. Cave in its four-issue lifespan, it’s too bad that pulp couldn’t hang around a bit longer! “Talons” is really a weird tale with a detective thrown in and a bit of mystery. The protagonist is Joel Brill, a scientist-adventurer, and Detective Buckley is a rather unimpressive supporting character. It may (or may not) be a mystery, but not a detective/PI story.

In a letter to August Derleth, Howard wrote, “You’re right in saying that I don’t have the feel for detectives that I do for weirds. However, I’ve been writing weirds for nine years and “Black Talons” was the first detective story that I ever wrote in my life.”

Derleth, best known to Howard fans as that Cthulhu guy, would write over seventy tales featuring Solar Pons, who was, as Vincent Starrett said, “the best substitute for Sherlock Holmes known.” He certainly knew something about mysteries.

But it is in “Fangs of Gold” that we meet Howard’s hard boiled private eye, Steve Harrison. The story takes place in swampland somewhere in the Southern United States. The detective is after Woon Shen, who killed a fellow Chinaman and stole 10,000 dollars back in River City (Harrison’s usual hometown). The swamp is inhabited by Haitian refugees who practice voodoo.

I don’t really consider this to be a hard boiled story. Harrison is a tough guy who marches confidently into the dark, but the setting and the voodoo cult completely transform the feeling. However, change the swamp to River City; voodoo to a jewelry smuggling ring and put the power grab in that context and I think you would have a typical hard boiled tale.

dick_5L5bHr1o“Teeth of Doom” takes place in River City and fits the mold a bit better: though still not too well. Ostensibly, Harrison is trying to prevent the murder of a rich philanthropist: shades of maybe Ross MacDonald. But in fact, there’s a sinister plot afoot, with a Mongolian secret society, the Sons of Erlik, after the secrets to a formula for poison gas. The whole case has Far East ties and a world domination plot at its core. Harrison functions as more of the typical private eye in this one, though he’s actually a police officer and pretty much gives orders to everybody, including his boss. It feels more Dick Tracy than Sam Spade.

Back on January 1, Dierk Guenther wrote a post here at Two Gun Raconteur about Howard’s detective and crime stories. He made an interesting point about Howard having spent very little time in cities, which could well have impacted his ability to write hard boiled detective stories. That may well be valid. In a post I made last year over at Black Gate about Carroll John Daly and the birth of the hard boiled school, I wrote:

Regarding (Three Gun Terry) Mack and (Race) Williams, what Daly did was turn the classic pulp western into an urban story. Hammett would bring a realism to the new genre and Chandler would paint word pictures of the “errant knight.”

But Daly was taking the shoot ‘em up action of the wild-west and transplanting it to the city streets. And this was in direct contrast to the locked room and country cozy stories coming out England as part of The Golden Age. It reflected a Prohibition Era America.”

Daly, who lived like a hermit in White Plains, was nonetheless familiar with New York City and the urban life, even if he eschewed it. He could imagine the Wild West and put it in the big city. Howard, who even set his boxing tales in exotic locales, may have had trouble capturing that gritty, urban feel that was a key part to much (but not all) of the hard boiled school.

Harrisonf2f99215It is the two stories featuring the villain Erlik Khan, “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book,” that exemplify where Howard might have carved out a hard boiled-ish niche. Khan is a Mongol, descendent of that Genghis fellow, who plans on uniting all of the Oriental secret societies to basically take over the world. Both tales take place in River City and are urban adventures.

In “Lord of the Dead,” Harrison wields a battle axe in the climactic battle. In “Black Book,” it’s a spiked mace. Howard can’t resist leaning towards those elements that he did so well. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the “Black Book” rewritten as a Conan tale. And Harrison definitely has shadings of El Borak.

Sax Rohmer revived the nefarious Fu Manchu in the thirties (though we were still a few decades away from Christopher Lee’s portrayal).  They are far ranging adventure yarns, involving a sinister villain bent on world domination. Had Howard wished to continue on with Harrison, Rohmer-like adventures offered him the best chance to succeed.

Harrison himself is a hard boiled character. Howard found himself trying to shoehorn Harrison into the conventional mystery format. And he wasn’t up to it. He ended up with sort of mystery/hardboiled/detective adventure/weird tale stories.

The Harrison stories aren’t quite bad. But an honest assessment has to place them below much of Howard’s other series works. And they aren’t characteristic of the hard boiled genre, so they don’t compare well with quality authors in that field. They don’t fit in for the author or the genre. They are like debutantes at the wrong ball.

But Howard wasn’t interested in trying to work himself into a spot in the mystery field:

I’ve about decided to quit trying to write detective yarns. I sold a few of them – the first one I ever wrote, in fact – but I can’t seem to get the hang of the art. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to write them. I’d rather write adventure stuff.

And he simply packed it in: “I’ve given up trying to write detective yarns – a job I despise anyway – and am concentrating on adventure stuff.”

Perhaps if he had continued writing ‘adventure detective yarns’ – private eye stories with an El Borak feel – Steve Harrison might have found a place and Howard would have had another bankable series character. And books like Private Eyes: 101 Knights – A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984 might have had an entry on Harrison.

Dick Tracy illustration by Chester Gould

Bob Byrne is a recognized aficionado on both Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, featured on his website. Bob posts at least weekly on the Black Gate blog. Additionally, he is the mover and shaker behind the Discovering Robert E. Howard series of posts by various authors posted on the BG blog.

hasp_n

noun

  1. A metal fastener with a hinged slotted part that fits over a staple and is secured by a pin, bolt, or padlock.

[origin: Middle English, from Old English hæsp, hæpse]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Rise to the peak of the ladder
Where the ghosts of the planets feast—
Out of the reach of the adder—
Never beyond the Beast.
He is there, in the abyss brooding,
Where the nameless black fires fall;
He is there, in the stars intruding,
Where the sun is a silver ball.

Beyond all weeping or revel,
He lurks in the cloud and the sod;
He grips the doors of the Devil
And the hasp on the gates of God.
Build and endeavor and fashion—
Never can you escape
The blind black brutish passion—
The lust of the primal Ape.

[from “Never Beyond the Beast”; to read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 383]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

pirate-ship-sinking

“As for Roger O’Farrel … He took me off a sinking ship when I was a baby and raised me like his own daughter. And if I took to the life of a rover, it is not his fault, who would have established me like a fine lady ashore had I wished. ”

– Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Helen Tavrel had piracy and wild roving in her blood. Her kindred were the Taverels of Cornwall, who (among others) had operated out of Fowey port as pirates in the 14th and 15th centuries.  They were licensed to take French vessels while the Hundred Years’ War raged, but they continued without royal sanction after peace was made, and Edward IV had to take steps to suppress them – which included hanging a number.

Taverels were among the Elizabethan sea-dogs of Drake’s time (and Solomon Kane’s). They fought the Armada and plundered Spanish ports and shipping. Some of the Fowey Taverels made for the Munster coasts in Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, when James I sought to suppress piracy as Edward IV had done before him. They became part of the Munster Brotherhood, a strong organisation of sea-thieves eventually crushed by the Dutch, who had wearied of their predations. Those Taverels who survived to come back from Munster (with an ‘e’ dropped from their name) settled in Cornwall again.

char53b97326f3f09130f6a4afdd82f83300Like greater Cornish families such as the Killigrews, they held by the Royalist cause during the English Civil War, even after Charles I was beheaded. They smuggled arms to English Royalists and information to the exiled Charles II, but eventually they were betrayed.  They attempted to flee to the continent themselves, and were intercepted by a Parliamentary naval ship, in 1654. Helen Tavrel, then two years old, was one of those aboard.

The Cromwellian ship was driven off by the privateer O’Farrel, in the service of Confederate Ireland. He rescued Helen from her burning vessel and carried her aboard his own, the frigate Tisiphone. Golden-haired and grey-eyed, she reminded him searingly of his own infant daughter, Finola, who with her mother had been murdered by Roundhead soldiers in Wexford. The details, and much else concerning O’Farrel’s career, can be found in the series of posts “The Superb Roger O’Farrel.”

Roundheads fighting Cavaliers at WorcesterO’Farrel had been fighting the Roundheads on the seas, as a privateer, for nine years, and had battled the English before that, from 1641 to ’43, at the side of his father, until the elder O’Farrel was killed. Now he sailed to Brussels with the little girl he made his foster-daughter.  Helen never remembered anything about Brussels, though her terror aboard the blazing ship, and O’Farrel lifting her in his arms with a laugh and words of comfort, remained stamped on her mind and heart all her life.  In any case they were not in Brussels long. The southern Low Countries were a centre of the Counter-Reformation under the Hapsburgs, and O’Farrel, a Catholic with an impressive record of fighting heretics, found a welcome there. The Spanish mistrusted Oliver Cromwell’s intentions in the West Indies, and offered O’Farrel a commission in Cuba.  O’Farrel accepted.

The result was that Helen grew up in Havana, then the richest, most opulent port in the Caribbean. The Spanish treasure fleet gathered there each year. When she and O’Farrel arrived, the Captain General (acting) was Don Ambrosio de Sotolongo. De Sotolongo and his lady were charmed by Helen, and soon learned to value O’Farrel.  The Irishman found a Spanish-Indian couple, Ramon and Eulalia, to look after his house and foster daughter. They had a daughter of their own, Renata, of Helen’s age, that O’Farrel thought would make an agreeable playmate for his motherless girl.

Pirates-1He took care to attend mass regularly and in other ways stay on the right side of the Church; the Holy Office was a power in Spanish territories, and while O’Farrel, though Catholic, was scarcely an over-pious man, he met enough danger on the sea from buccaneers and the English to have no need of any from other directions.  Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design” had brought about the conquest of Jamaica, and the new English authorities there were recruiting buccaneers – English ones for preference – to prevent a Spanish reconquest. Before long O’Farrel was engaged in a dangerous feud with Captain Myngs of the Jamaica Squadron. Helen knew nothing about this; playing with Renata and learning to handle boats were her chief pleasures, when she was not being instructed in the skills reckoned suitable for a girl in colonial Cuba. These she hated; needlework and prayer did not appeal to someone with Tavrel blood. Nor had her experience on the burning ship as an infant left any lasting terror. Helen loved ships and the sea as she loved her foster father.

Aged seven, she was threatened again. Havana society was dissolute despite its splendid cathedral and many churches. An aristocratic waster with gambling debts and expensive mistresses saw in Helen a way out of his difficulties. He offered to abduct her and deliver her to Christopher Myngs. With Helen in English hands in Jamaica, O’Farrel would be easy to coerce. At the least he would then cease his depredations against the English colonies. At the most he might attempt Helen’s rescue and be captured.

Besides being wicked, the scheme was badly conceived and worse put into effect. The man’s wife detested him. She informed O’Farrel, in which she only confirmed what he had learned already from other sources.  O’Farrel sought the man, insulted him in public, and killed him in a duel with swords and daggers. Although he did not intend that Helen should know, she too missed little that went on around her, and spied on the fight from the shadows. She saw the man die.  Knowing the cause, she worshipped her foster-father even more thereafter.

Charles IIBetween 1658 and 1660, O’Farrel remained in Havana with Helen.  Upon the Restoration in England, he visited London, taking her with him.  His record of fighting the Roundheads made him congenial to Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Prince Rupert, but not to Parliament.  Helen did not like England; she found it cold and rainy after the Caribbean, and was glad to return.  She had missed her playmate Renata.  Between the ages of eight and ten, though, she found plenty of undisciplined mischief to get into with the mestiza girl, some of it dangerous.  The pirate blood of the Tavrels combined with her adoration of her foster father inspired her to run wild, and at ten she sought to emulate his skill with a rapier also.  She pleaded with him to instruct her, and he did, thinking she would probably lose interest, as she had with a few other enthusiasms; she was a child, after all.

Helen did not lose interest.  She had talent for the blade and soon developed a real love for it; so much so that O’Farrel prevailed upon a fencing master to teach her daily when he was away at sea.  Christopher Myngs returned to the Caribbean at that time – 1662 – and sacked Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southern coast.  O’Farrel was able to retaliate in the following year, when Myngs led twenty vessels in a looting expedition against Campeche.  O’Farrel, with a mere five ships, still recovered some of the plunder and sank three of the buccaneers.

When Helen was thirteen, she began to strut the sun-drenched streets of Havana dressed as a boy, her golden hair covered by a black wig, her small rapier at her side.  Renata often accompanied her, sometimes in trousers and shirt like her friend, sometimes in a skirt.  The inevitable happened; they were waylaid by a group of young hell-raisers with lewd intentions towards the mestiza.  Helen resisted, drew her rapier, ran one youth through the shoulder and slashed the face of a second.  Afterwards, the pair escaped through the narrow, twisting alleys and over the roofs.  The group swore obscene revenge, but they did not know against whom. Then.

Helen began training with pistols at thirteen, also.  Her hands had been too small for them at ten, but now she practiced with firearms under a professional master, and soon learned to hit her target.  She enjoyed shooting, but loved the rapier with a passion.

sea-queen-of-connaughtRoger O’Farrel was her idol, and it was chiefly because of him that she yearned after the pirate life.  She doubtless heard stories of the pirate queen of Connacht, Grace O’Malley, from her foster father.  She also developed an admiring fascination for the flame-haired female pirate Jacquotte Delahaye, originally from Saint-Domingue.  Jacquotte was said to have become a pirate after her father was murdered, and led a crew of cut-throats for years, until the Caribbean waters became too hot for her.  She escaped pursuit by faking her own death, but returned after a time, and received the nickname “Back From the Dead Red”.  Before long her followers numbered hundreds, and in 1656 they had taken over a small island, with the intent of turning it into a freebooter republic.  Jacquotte died defending it in a gory action when Helen Tavrel was about nine, so they never met, but Helen loved the stories and ballads about her.

Another female pirate who roved the West Indies during Helen’s young girlhood was Charlotte de Berry.  Charlotte was born circa 1636, and in her teens fell in love with a sailor, whom she married against her parents’ wishes.  In the best romantic tradition, she disguised herself as a man, sailed as his shipmate, and fought in naval actions beside him.  An officer discovered their secret but did not divulge it, moved by lust for Charlotte.  He gave Charlotte’s husband the most dangerous tasks in an effort to get him killed, and when that did not succeed fast enough, he accused the young man of plotting mutiny, for which he was flogged to death.  Charlotte put off the officer’s further advances until they reached port, whereupon she knifed him – fatally — and jumped ship.

Dressing in women’s clothes again, Charlotte soon found that had been a mistake, for a brutal merchant captain kidnapped her and subjected her to a forced marriage.  His amorous methods, apparently, would have been considered coarse by a razorback hog, and Charlotte freed herself by doing in fact what her former husband had been accused of doing – fomenting a mutiny.  During a voyage to Africa she inspired the crew to rise against captain and officers, decapitated the former, and became captain by acclaim, as the best leader there.  She remained captain for years, until a disastrous shipwreck reduced the starving survivors to cannibalism before they were rescued, by a Dutch ship.  When other pirates waylaid the Dutch, Charlotte and her fellows stood by their saviours and fought the attackers until they were driven off.  What happened to her after that is uncertain.

Roger O’Farrel had lived a fairly quiet life – for him – in Havana between 1665 and 1667, when Helen turned fifteen.  Then he was offered a large reward by the Captain General of the city, Francisco de Avila Orejón y Gastón, if he would seek and destroy the pirate l’Ollonais, a bestial madman with a hatred for all Spaniards.  He had sworn no quarter to any, an oath he barbarously kept.  O’Farrel accepted, and embarked on the mission.  (See “The Superb Roger O’Farrel – Part Four”.)

pirate1Helen, then fifteen, was tired of life ashore and delighted by her foster father’s deeds.  She wanted to share in them.  Knowing he would never allow her to sail in pursuit of the fiendish l’Ollonais, she disguised herself as a black-haired boy again and went aboard one of O’Farrel’s ships as a powder monkey, demonstrating that she knew the skills of the job and was nimble.  She did not crew in O’Farrel’s own ship, the San Patricio, where he would have recognized her, but in the second one, the Pilar.  Both were fragatas, a type of three-masted New World ship, precursors of the 18th century naval frigates, of about 150 tons each.  They carried cannon at the bows, with others in a broadside row along the single gun deck.  They maneuvered better in contrary winds than the larger, higher galleons.  O’Farrel did have the use of a galleon at the time, the 400 ton Santa Barbara, but he left her behind.  Her draught was too great for his purposes this voyage.

Helen took no weapon aboard but a practical dirk.  Her beloved rapier would have betrayed her identity at once.  The Pilar’s commander, Seamus Browne, a former slave freed by O’Farrel, knew the comely blonde girl Helen Tavrel, but made no connection between Helen and the scruffy black-haired boy before the mast – and Helen kept out of his way.

L’Ollonais sailed from Tortuga with a fleet of six vessels, manned by seven hundred rogues.  Three hundred manned the largest, his flagship, a Spanish craft he had captured at Maracaibo on his last foray, marked by his usual mass murders and torture.  His captains included Moses van Vin, the Gower brothers John and Tobias, the Manxman Finlo Hilton (“Bloody” Hilton) and Pierre le Picard, the youngest.

(Moses van Vin and another Moses, Moses Vanclein, along with le Picard, are those of l’Ollonais’ captains on his last cruise that are known to history.  Bloody Hilton and the Gower brothers are fiction, the creations of Robert E. Howard.  At least, Bloody Hilton is mentioned in connection with Helen Tavrel in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom,” in which John Gower meets his end, while a different “Captain Gower” is described as dying aboard his ship in the poem “A Song of the Anchor Chain.”  I’ve assumed this was Tobias Gower, John’s brother. )

Pirate-pishaWith the odds weighted against him, O’Farrel had to be circumspect, and he followed the vile l’Ollonais’ sea trail until he was well clear of Cuba, hoping to catch him at a disadvantage.  At one point the Frenchman’s fleet and O’Farrel’s two fragatas were both becalmed for a while.  When a fresh wind rose, O’Farrel resumed the pursuit, but paused to intercept a Dutch merchantman and relieve it of water and food supplies, leaving its crew just enough to make land.  That hardly satisfied Helen’s lust for action.  Events at Pedro Cortes, in the north-western corner of modern Honduras, pleased her better.  L’Ollonais left his fleet on the coast and marched inland against the town of San Pedro Sula.  O’Farrel took his ships into the harbor and devastated the pirate ships’ masts and rigging with chain-shot.  He also used incendiaries, doing a good deal of damage.  As a powder monkey, Helen was kept gleefully busy during this action. Then O’Farrel retreated.

While a waiting game did not suit Helen’s temperament, or her youth, she saw it could be effective.  O’Farrel knew that l’Ollonais was careening his main vessel before he continued his voyage. O’Farrel sent back to Cuba for a decoy ship, a decrepit old galleon, and l’Ollonais took the bait.  He captured the ship, but again he was frustrated; the cargo was worth little and the timber was riddled with shipworms.  However, it mounted forty-two cannon, which l’Ollonais stubbornly kept, though their weight made them a liability more than an asset.  Some of his captains, including the Gower brothers and Picard, deserted him, weary of the unsuccessful cruise.  O’Farrel finally outplayed l’Ollonais and stranded him on a savage coast where he was murdered by Indians.

Not until nearly back at Havana did O’Farrel discover his foster-daughter had been in the Pilar all the time.  He was thunderstruck.  If his project had gone awry, Helen could have fallen into the hands of the vilest monster in the Caribbean.  Helen was unrepentant; her only regret that there had not been more direct action.  O’Farrel gave the girl one of the very little whaling she had ever received from him.  She took it without tears or resentment, but O’Farrel saw she was the true offspring of her Cornish pirate ancestors and there was no settling her ashore as a fine respectable lady.  Helen was what she was – and it was partly due to his example, no doubt.

Read Part Two

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.