“Well, now, the Emperor Charles has given them Malta, and all the rent he asks is one insignificant bird per annum, just as a matter of form. What could be more natural than for these immeasurably wealthy Knights to look around for some way of expressing their gratitude? Well, sir, that’s exactly what they did, and they hit on the happy thought of sending Charles for the first year’s tribute, not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers. And — remember, sir — they had fine ones, the finest out of Asia.” Gutman stopped whispering. His sleek dark eyes examined Spade’s face, which was placid. The fat man asked: “Well, sir, what do you think of that?”
“I don’t know.”
The fat man smiled complacently. “These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’s history, but history nevertheless.”
— Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett’s famous detective novel was published in 1930, while Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture” first saw print in the pages of The Magic Carpet Magazine for January 1934. As Don Herron wrote of REH, “He came into the fiction magazine scene virtually on Hammett’s heels.” The glorious jewelled falcon that everybody in Hammett’s novel – and the legendary film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor – is chasing, was fashioned by slaves of the Order of Saint John in 1530.
Gottfried von Kalmbach, a former Knight of Saint John, and the hell-for-leather adventuress Red Sonya, were an active partnership in that year, following the 1529 siege of Vienna. They had not only survived, they had sent Sultan Suleyman their defiance and the head of his fiendish henchman, Mikhal Oglu, the Akinji leader known far and wide as the Vulture. Suleyman had failed to take Vienna and left thirty thousand of his soldiers dead outside its inadequate walls. Gottfried particularly enjoyed that knowledge. For him it partly compensated for the loss of Rhodes, and the bloody defeat at Mohacs in Hungary.
More importantly still, it meant that Suleyman would not conquer Austria and then move against Gottfried’s own homeland, Bavaria.
This was splendid, but Gottfried knew the Sultan would now reckon it a matter of pride to destroy him. As for Sonya, she held a similar conviction about her sister, now the Sultan’s favourite, Roxelana, Haseki Sultan, also known as Khurrem the Joyous, the Laughing One. To Sonya she was a slut. They had been girls together, when Roxelana was Alexandra Lisowska, daughter of a priest; Sonya knew her ruthlessness and malice. Besides, it would seem desirable to her to have her relationship to the red-haired warrior woman remain secret, and nothing holds secrets better than a grave.
They turned their faces west.
Their first halting place was the Holy Roman Empire – actually, as has been pointed out again and again, an empire of the German states, then ruled by Charles V. The Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand, was Charles’s younger brother – and Gottfried despised him. The big drunkard entertained hopes of making some sort of peace with his father, who considered him a disgrace to their ancient line. He travelled with Sonya to the von Kalmbach castle near Regensburg in Bavaria, hoping his conduct at the Battle of Mohacs and at Vienna would make a difference.
It did not. Gottfried’s father, Graf Rudolph von Kalmbach, would not see him and said that Gottfried might be fed in the castle kitchen if he so desired, since the Graf “had never refused beggars.” Sonya, for perhaps the only time in her wild life, kept her temper and humbled herself before the old man, pleading with him to relent and at least see his scapegrace youngest son. She assured him that whatever else Gottfried had done, he had borne himself in battle like one of his breed, at Vienna and elsewhere. Never, at any time, had he shown himself to be any sort of weakling, coward or traitor.
“I am somewhat pleased by that, at least,” Rudolph said. “He may not have wholly forgotten that he carries von Kalmbach blood, but he was guilty of murder while still a youth, and when I sent him to redeem himself as a Knight Hospitaller, he broke his sacred vows again and again before they degraded him and struck his name from the Order’s rolls. If he had fought at Armageddon and slain the Devil, I could not forgive him those faults.”
Sonya did not upbraid him. He had received her and spoken her fair. He said nothing about her morals, or even looked askance at her, much less called her a camp follower and worse, as some men had – not that they lived long afterwards. She saw past his harsh face to the grief Gottfried had caused him. She thought him obdurate and cruel, but clearly it was no good. She could not move him.
When she rejoined Gottfried, she found him completely, silently sober – in him a more disturbing sign than if he’d been wrecking a tavern, roaring drunk. His mother and brothers had not seen him either. His sister Verene was the only one who did, braving their father’s displeasure.
Gottfried and Sonya departed for Italy. They had both been there before – Sonya in Milan, where she had saved the Duke of Burgundy from Louise of Savoy’s assassins, and Gottfried at the sack of Rome, where Burgundy had died. This time they visited the Republic of Genoa, a first for both of them. Shortly after being thrown out of the Order of St. John, Gottfried had incurred the wrath of the great Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, but since then Doria had changed his allegiance from the French king to the Emperor Charles. In the light of his deeds at Vienna, Gottfried had hopes that Doria would let bygones be bygones.
That legendary fighting seaman had become the greatest power in his home republic since Gottfried last crossed his path. Then, in 1524, Andrea Doria had been serving the French king Francis I, as commander of his Mediterranean fleet. He had ordered Gottfried von Kalmbach to be summarily hanged if taken, the Bavarian having plundered a Genoese ship. Since then Doria had become disenchanted with the French monarch’s meanness, like the Duke of Bourbon, and when his contract with France expired, in 1528, he entered the service of Francis’s foe, the Emperor Charles.
He had once helped place his native city under French domination. Now, with the help of some leading citizens, he briskly kicked the French out, establishing Genoa as a republic once more, under the aegis of the Empire. By the time Gottfried and Sonya arrived, Andrea Doria had reformed the constitution and ended the factional strife which weakened the city – a major achievement – by creating a new ruling class from the city’s main aristocratic families, twenty-eight “Alberghi” or clans. He declined the rule of Genoa, but the council appointed him “perpetual censor”, in the ancient Roman meaning of the title and not the modern one; the officer responsible for the census, and to an extent for state finances. Genoa awarded him two palaces, and the title “Liberator and Father of His Country” in addition.
Gottfried and Sonya found the city buzzing with news of the Bavarian’s former Order, the Hospitallers or Knights of St. John. The Emperor Charles had offered them a new base on his possession, Malta. His only conditions were that they devote themselves to fighting the Turks, which was their raison d’etre anyway, and garrison Tripoli in North Africa. The rent for the Maltese Islands was to be purely nominal; a falcon each year.
The Knights decided to show their appreciation with, as Gutman tells Spade in The Maltese Falcon, a magnificent golden bird crusted with the finest jewels. Naturally they kept the nature of the first tribute to the Emperor Charles a close secret. So far as almost everybody knew, they were despatching an ordinary live peregrine falcon to Charles’s court. Such would all subsequent rent-falcons be, and delivered to the Emperor’s Viceroy in Sicily, but not the first, priceless, one. That was going to Genoa in the Knights’ own galleys. Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, the Grand Master, knew quite well that Sicilian Viceroys as a rule were incompetent, crooked, or both.
The payment was due on All Saint’s Day – November 1st – which was imminent. The frustrated Turks had quit the siege of Vienna on October 14th the year before. Gottfried and Sonya had taken a well-deserved holiday after Vienna and the miserable visit to Ratisbon, getting to know each other and build their relationship, in bed and out. They arrived in Genoa about a year after the siege of Vienna was lifted and the falcon was about to be delivered.
Andrea Doria was among those who knew about the jewelled bird. A great personage, a great fighting seaman, and a friend of the Emperor (now) he was asked to deliver it to Charles’s court after the Order’s galleys brought it to Genoa. He agreed. But upon hearing that Gottfried von Kalmbach was in the city, with his warrior mistress Red Sonya, Doria jumped to the conclusion that they knew about the jewelled falcon themselves – doubtless through indiscreet friends in the Order – and were planning an audacious theft. He had Gottfried hurled into prison.
Gottfried thought it was a matter of his attack on a Genoese merchant ship in 1524. He pleaded his recent brave services to the Emperor Charles’s brother at Vienna and asked for leniency. Not a spiteful fellow, and loving brave men even they were vagabonds and rogues, Andrea Doria felt inclined to issue a pardon on account of Vienna and Mohacs, but he still suspected Gottfried of designs on the falcon. He decided von Kalmbach would be safer in a dungeon until the bird was delivered, and that sweating it out a little would do his character no harm.
He was right to fear for the security of the falcon, but he had looked in the wrong direction. On Malta itself, in the workshops where the gemmed golden bird had been wrought, someone had betrayed the secret in hopes of reward. The corsairs of Algiers knew about it – specifically, the greatest of them all, Khair-ed-Din, whom the Christians called Barbarossa (Redbeard). “Khair-ed-Din” was an honorary title meaning “Goodness of the Faith”, but his personal name was Khizr. His older brother Aruj, who died in 1518, had been known as Barbarossa before him. They and their other sibling Ishak had wrested Algiers from the Spaniards in 1516, and founded the corsair state which would still be a menace in the 18th century. In 1519 Khair-ed-Din, the last surviving brother, defeated a Spanish-Italian army that came to retake Algiers, and he raided Sardinia, Italy and Spain throughout the 1520s.
He wanted the falcon for a pirate’s reasons, but he had become a statesman too. Based on Malta, the Knights could curtail his raids and even threaten Barbary. If Barbarossa seized the falcon, their first year’s rent to Charles, and it became a trophy in Moslem hands, the Order’s humiliation would be intense. The Emperor might even doubt they were worthy of his support, and change his mind about giving them Malta.
Sultan Suleyman, of course, would be delighted.
Aflame with predatory, violent energy even though he was past fifty now, Khair-ed-Din led a squadron of pirate galleys eastward, past Sardinia into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Knights of St. John had begun their voyage to Genoa with the falcon, in a squadron of their own galleys, rowing up the east coast of Sicily through the Straits of Messina. From there they followed the Italian coast to Naples and the port of Rome, Civitavecchia. (After the Sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII had been forced to cede Civitavecchia to the Empire.) Upon setting forth again, the Knights found themselves beset by Barbarossa in a no-quarter sea fight.
Red Sonya in the meantime had not been passive or idle. She spied, bribed, threatened, committed assault, and for all we know, seduced, to spring Gottfried from prison. She had friends at the Sforza court of Milan, less than eighty miles north of Genoa, from her eventful months there in 1525, and they may have assisted. Gottfried knew about the jewelled falcon by then. Andrea Doria had told him about it while questioning him, thinking it would do no harm since he fully meant to keep the German under lock and key until the falcon reached its proper destination.
There was a Venetian galley in port. Sonya had paid its captain to take them out of Genoa when he departed; he was bound for Crete and then home. Andrea Doria nearly burst when he heard that Gottfried had escaped, with the information he had, and set out in pursuit with a full squadron of galleys, in person.
The Venetian galley’s captain had a guilty conscience over many dealings with the Barbary corsairs. Seeing the ships following hard, and the standard of Andrea Doria at the forefront, he supposed they were after him. Had he known Gottfried and Sonya were the admiral’s quarry, he would have handed them over – or tried, despite the casualties it would have meant – but they didn’t enlighten him. Racing across the Tyrrhenian Sea, they ran straight into the desperate fight between the Knights of Malta (carrying the falcon) and Khizr Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa himself.
The knights were getting the worst of it. The Barbary galleys, with a single bank of oars each, also carried a cannon at the bow and a swivel gun on each side. At the stern was an enclosed roofed area to shelter the company of Janizaries (a hundred or more) that a corsair galley usually carried for a boarding action. The Knights too were expert sea-fighters, with a fleet of galleys, but in this instance they were somewhat outnumbered, and up against Barbarossa.
Gottfried had encountered the veteran corsair before. Before he was twenty, Gottfried had been in a sea-fight against a squadron of galleys Khair-ed-Din commanded, and now he faced the master of Algiers again. The Venetian captain, seeing the sort of battle that faced him, gave orders to turn and flee, but Gottfried countermanded the order with a sweep of his huge broadsword. The captain fell dead. The Venetian galley, under new command, went into the thick of the fight with Andrea Doria’s squadron close behind.
The result was a furious, no quarter combat, the Maltese and Genoese galleys against the Barbary corsairs, with Gottfried and Sonya in the middle. Not even in his years with the Order had the huge German known a sea-fight so savage, on which so much depended. Sonya had seldom trod the reddened deck of a galley, but she had still known fierce water-borne fighting, in her Cossack days. The Cossacks had already begun raiding across the Black Sea in their low, keelless longboats, called chaika (seagulls) which carried about seventy men each, moved very swiftly, and were hard to see before they came to grips with their prey. Sonya had participated in several such forays.
As on the walls of Vienna, she fought beside Gottfried, with Turkish arrows hissing in the air and Turkish matchlocks barking death. The Janizaries hurled their grappling irons, which thudded and bit into timber, and then they sprang to the attack, their scimitars and spears spilling red. Gottfried’s great two-handed sword dealt death, severing arms and splitting heads, while Sonya’s Cossack sabre opened limbs with wounds that emptied her foes of blood in moments, or cut throats to the spine with lethal drawing cuts. Even mail coifs and steel casques failed against her wicked expertise. She blinded men with a stroke across the face, or caved in wind-pipes through mail with the back of her sword. When Turks went down under her feet, she, like Gottfried, ruthlessly stamped out their lives. When she or he met difficulties, the other was always there to give aid.
In the end, wounded, gasping, they saw the Algiers galleys withdraw across a growing gap of reddened water. The Knights and Andrea Doria combined had been too much, for once, even for Barbarossa. The incomparable prize of the jewelled falcon remained with the Knights, and was duly delivered to Charles. It did vanish in the end, and many covetous people searched for it, a prize that had become a legend. Men were still killing for it in the twentieth century, as Dashiell Hammett records.
But in the sixteenth, Andrea Doria had to acknowledge he would never have arrived in time if he had not been pursuing Gottfried and Sonya so hotly. He paid his debt by letting them go. They probably troubled the waters between Spain and North Africa for a while, in the Venetian galley, with a crew of slaves freed from Barbary oar-benches. They may have perished together in another sea-fight, or made their restless way from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, or even crossed the Atlantic to Brazil and Mexico.
Wherever they went, this much is sure. They raised hell, and they lived before they died.