Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 19)

Chapter 33 
The Adriatic. 
7th June 1638.

The sea was calm and Bitchnin’s galley could make good speed. It was a Reale with 30 rowing stations on each side set-up a scaloccio with six slaves chained to each oar. The slave oarsmen were positioned in such a way that four were pulling and two were pushing the enormous fiols. Ali Bitchnin gave a smile of satisfaction as he stood near the rudder post. He had always preferred the single, large, a scaloccio oar to the complicated alla zenzile set-up where there were three oars of different size at each station. Slave rowers adapted easier to the manoeuvres of the single oar although the effort required was still torturous. He could see that despite the previous winter’s heavy work hauling stone to repair the mole in Algiers all of the slaves were showing the immense strain involved on their faces. Like him they wished for a favourable wind to rise to ease their burden for the time being there was no sign of this. The sails on the lateen rigs of the galley’s two forward masts remained unfurled. Behind the Reale twelve other galleys of various sizes followed in their wake. All displayed the colours of the Algiers fleet.
Djivo stood on the fore-castle, leaning against the rigging of the forward mast. He was looking at the fast approaching harbour of Valona, directly ahead of them. He was in familiar waters again and he shivered as the realisation sunk in. 'So close to Ragusa and yet so far,' Djivo murmured as he turned to look back at the banks of straining oarsmen. He could still recognise some of the men who had been captured with him off Cape Falcon - seven years earlier - but had learnt to avoid their envious stares. On his return to Algiers from his work on the aqueduct in Constantine he had joined Bitchnin’s fleet which was departing to rendezvous with the annual assembly of the Kapudan Pasha’s fleet. This summer the rendezvous was to be at Coron in the southern Pelopenese with their eventual mission to transport soldiers and provisions to the Sultan's army which was besieging Crete. By departing early Bitchnin had decided to do some raiding of his own in Dalmatia, for profit first. 
After leaving Algiers the galleys had sailed for Bizerte in Tunisia and from there made the long dash to the coast of Puglia. Finally making landfall about ten miles south of Bari, Bitchnin and his company of marines from the ta’ifat al rusa had raided inland to the small cathedral town of Noicattaro where in the absence of much booty had made sport by raping the convent nuns. Bitchnin had rationalised these actions to Djivo by saying that the nuns had prostituted their lust and he had done them a favour. His mood was foul however as there had been little profit in the raid, and he had angrily ordered their departure to spend a week cruising the Puglian coast in search of merchant vessels with even less luck. By then the men were spent with the effort and turning east they had docked in Ulcinj in Albania where they had replenished their supplies. 
The respite had been brief. As the time for the assembly of the Sultan’s fleet drew ever closer Bitchnin drove his tired oarsmen for one more raiding cruise northwards along the Dalmatian coast before returning south to make for Valona where Bitchnin had planned a three day lay-over. After this he planned to sail the final leg to Coron. It was this raid northwards that had brought Djivo so close to Ragusa. He thought of Catherine constantly. The two or three letters of hers that had arrived from Constantinople in Constantine were invariably a season old and had to be first routed through Bitchnin’s bano in Algiers. They had devised a secret code for their exchanges as he did not want anyone to know of his whereabouts. He had not even risked trying to inform his family.
Djivo's thoughts were interrupted by barked commands and the galley banking sharply to round the island of Saseno and make directly for the port of Valona. The wind was beginning to rise and its direction from the east was whipping up the sea. Their speed dropped further as the galley battled into both wind and sea. At the same moment there were loud shouts from the look-outs aloft. From around the north-western cape of the outer bay there had suddenly appeared a great number of sails moving at speed. It was not long before Djivo could make out the huge ensigns of a Venetian war fleet. He could make out three frigates, four galleasses and seven galleys straining on wind and oar to close the gap between them. Being outnumbered by size and firepower Bitchnin ordered four of his galleys to stand station to slow down the Venetians while he and the others attempted to make the inner harbour.

Djivo recognised on the lead Venetian galley the personal colours of the Signora’s admiral Marin Capello. He knew him to be a battle hardened captain and the prompt dispatch of two frigates to flank the Bitchnin fleet was decisive. With the benefit of full sail they hugged the northern shore and quickly cut off the Algerians escape route. The situation was impossible and Bitchnin knew there was little they could do at sea to defend themselves. Ordering four more of his galleys to intercept the frigates - and the knowledge of their certain massacre - the Reale made directly for the sheltered shore of the mountainous Karaburun peninsula. Bitchnin ordered the beaching of the remaining galleys. ‘Far better,’ he told Djivo. ‘To barter your freedom than sink your future in futile effort’. As they beached Djivo saw Bitchnin transferring his command to one of the smaller galleys of 40 oars and ordered it to stand offshore. Manning the fiols of this galley were freemen and the decks were packed with the armed mariners. Bitchnin knew that if he was captured, even the prospect of the king’s ransom he could attract, would be unlikely to prevent him from being strung between the poles of Saint Mark’s square by his fellow Venetians. His head had a price. Dead or alive. 
It was nearly nightfall and in the confusion of the landing, Djivo realised he had an opportunity to escape. He quickly and quietly slipped away from the shoreline and making for higher ground he hid behind a small rocky outcrop where he could observe the commotion below. Most of the slaves remained chained to their oars. He could hear them screaming for help and it was only when he saw that members of the militia were preparing to fire the boats that he realised why. Djivo knew that the militia would also have placed gunpowder kegs to ensure their efforts were total. Slaves and boats  were all to be sacrificed.
Offshore the Venetian galleys - with their night braziers now lit - appeared like a glittering necklace surrounding the entrance of the small cove where the Algerians had beached. The noose drew tighter and tighter with the sound of each crashing wave. Suddenly on a pre-arranged signal from Bitchnin the militia lit the powder fuses and as the first keg exploded into the night sky its thunder was soon replaced by the agonised cries of dying and injured men. With this diversion Bitchnin’s galley made the dangerous exit between the island and the peninsula by hugging its rocky shoreline. The oarsmen had on occasions to lift their oars to make the passage and the pounding surf threatened, at any moment, to catch the galley broadsides and catapult it like a twig onto the waiting crags. The fleeing galley soon disappeared from Djivo’s view and the Venetian flares that arced into the night sky in pursuit found nothing.
Djivo stayed where he was. He knew he could not trust the Venetians to grant his freedom as he had not been chained as a slave. Any suspicion on their parts that he was a possible renegade Christian officer - voluntarily sailing with Bitchnin - would render his life worthless. He knew he would have to hide until daybreak and then find a way off the peninsula. ‘But where to go?’ He thought to himself. He then remembered that there was a small harbour at Hirmane on the coast just north of the island of Corfu and that was his best chance. With further explosions the screams of the dying men and the shards of burning wood raining down on him emphasised the peril. He could see that only two of the beached galleys were on fire and realised that somehow, the other powder fuses must have misfired. There was little he could do as the Venetian galleys were already landing. For the remaining captives at least, Djivo consoled himself, it meant the end - for some of them - of nearly ten years chained to the Barbary oar.

The night was long and Djivo spent most of it avoiding the groups of torch carrying soldiers now fanning out across the mountain trying to catch fleeing pirates. Progress was slow as he hugged the hillside that banked away from the small river that drained into the bay. Moving up the valley the sun’s first rays found him looking tiredly down on the small village of Dukat. In the distance there was the occasional discharge of a musket, but it seemed a long way off. Perhaps it was his fatigue but Djivo did not see a small group of soldiers cresting the hill behind him until too late. There was a sudden shout. “There is another one! Get him! The Admiral has offered two ducats for a pirate head!”
The soldiers needed no more encouragement and with musket balls singing about his ears and thumping into the ground behind him Djivo began to rush headlong towards a small group of houses on the outskirts of the village. He needed to get to cover fast. He had just entered a small ravine when he was suddenly flung with huge force to one side. At the same moment everything went dark and Djivo found himself lying face down on a dry reed- covered floor. He did not think that he had been shot as he could feel no pain. He struggled to get up but just as quickly there was a hand placed over his mouth and what felt like a knee placed behind his neck keeping him pinned to the floor. He could feel his assailants hot breath close to his ear.
The man whispered, “Dom Djivo. Do not struggle or the soldiers will find us. Not a word. Do you understand? ”
Djivo was suprised by the use of his name and by the calmness of his assailants voice. He nodded his head. The strangers grip loosened. Djivo sat up, gingerly, but in the pitch-like darkness could see nothing. Feeling out with his hands he realised he was inside some kind of a tunnel or cavern. Above him he could hear the voices of the soldiers initially bewildered and then angry at the sudden disappearance of their prey. The search went on for many hours -he could hear the soldiers retracing their steps many times- while he and his companion sat in absolute quietness, the silence broken only by the sound of muffled water from a stream somewhere behind them in the cavern. Eventually there was no more noise. 
Djivo turned towards the heat of his neighbour. “Shall we venture out? ”
The answer was curt. “No. We are likely to be here for some days. The Venetians will have left watch details to flush out any remaining fugitives.”
Djivo sunk back, the aches and pains of his cramped conditions searing home. He had to relieve himself and felt the searing hot liquid run down his leg and trickle across the floor beneath him. “What is this place? ”
“We are in an underground storage silo. I think it is attached to an old well. If you crawl back further you should be able to find some food and perhaps water. I will light a torch.”
“Is there not a danger they will see the fumes? ” Djivo was beginning to feel safe in their sanctuary.
“Perhaps. But these nights are moonless and the smoke should be invisible. In any event we need to eat.”
The whispering man took out a crude flint and finding a primed reed torch waiting in its stand on one wall managed to ignite its flame. The cavern was suddenly cast in flickering orange shadows and adjusting to the light Djivo took the torch and explored the silo. Returning after a few minutes with a bag of raisins and some cheese he had also brought an urn of water from the well that lay at its furthest recess. Both men ate ravenously and Djivo took the opportunity to study the features of his saviour before the torch was doused. “Who are you? How did you know my name? ” He could sense the other man stretching out to get some sleep.
“You do not recognise me then? ”
Djivo was perplexed. “No!” 
There was a silence for some moments before the man continued, “I am Issac ben Jacob. We have met before.” Djivo still could not make the connection. “Many years ago in Palermo. I was with my Rabbi.”
Djivo sat up, startled, bumping his head on the cavern roof. He could taste the blood as it soon trickled down his face to his mouth. “You! You were the boy with Jacob ben Moses. What are you doing here? ”
There was a pause again. “Consider me as your guardian angel. I have been with you since Ulcinj in the guise of a local pilot. Our destinies are intertwined. Now get some sleep.”

It was nearly six days later when Issac ben Jacob felt it safe enough for them to exit their stinking bolt-hole. In the early hours of a beautiful summer morning, with the rising sun casting its first brushstrokes on the eastern hills, they made their escape. It took two days of furtive and painful travelling on cramped and weakened limbs, to climb the pass that brought them through the mountains and back down towards the glimmering sea. It was just before sunset when they reached the outskirts of small harbour that served the needs of the more inland village of Hirmane. Scanning the boats at anchor Djivo recognised, with disbelief, his family’s crest flying on the flag of a small Ragusan merchant vessel. There was only one watchman apparent and sound asleep it seemed. His snoring was loud with the evening’s tavern wine having pickled his senses. 
Waiting until darkness both Djivo and Issac were glad to remove their clothes and make the short swim out to the ship. It helped to wash away the stench of their recent entombment. If they had stayed any longer in the silo, Djivo thought to himself as he drew closer to the ship with silent gentle strokes, they would surely have soon been detected by the smell. They swam to the side hidden from any eyes on the wharf and pulling themselves up and over the low gunwale they crept stealthily across the deck to enter the Captain’s cabin. His own snoring was also loud and it took sometime to rouse him from the slumber. Issac held his hand across the sailor’s mouth as the man’s eyes displayed his waking terror. After a few words of gentle reassurance whispered in his ear by Djivo, dawning recognition caused the Captain to shoot up out of his litter. With a speed belying his great bulk he wrapped Djivo in a smothering bearhug of effusive slobbering. “Your excellency. It’s a miracle! We had long given you up for dead. Your brother and family will be overjoyed.”
Djivo felt a cold chill race down his spine. “My brother? ” The words stuttered out. 
The ship’s captain realised his mistake. “I am sorry Dom Djivo. That was both ignorant and cruel of me. You were not to know that your father died in Constantinople three years ago. An unfortunate accident on a street, of all places. Trampled by a horse. He is buried in your family vault on Sipan. Your brother Dom Stefan is now the head of the house.”
Djivo’s heart tore at his chest. “Why was he in Constantinople? He was no longer required to undertake those embassies.”
The captain tried to ease the younger man’s pain by resting a hand on his shoulder. “It is no consolation Dom Djivo, but your father had petitioned the legislative Council to allow him lead the tribute payment Legation in order to try and get some information with regard to your whereabouts and well-being. You were always his great favourite.”
Djivo bowed his head, shaking it slightly, and then remained silent as the captain left his side to waken the crew. Waiting until just before daybreak they were then ordered to break out full sail. At the same time the captain cut the anchor rope to avoid making any noise or cause any delay in departing. The boat slipped silently from the harbour and pursued by a good south-westerly sirocco wind reached the outer Ragusan territories in the late afternoon. Even the proximity of his homeland after so long failed to lift Djivo’s spirits. When Issac ben Jacob joined him he wondered aloud as to what further price his quest would demand. 
The Djerban could only shrug. “Your destiny will bring with it many obstacles determined to obstruct your resolve. You must be strong enough to overcome them.” There was a slight pause before Issac continued, “Your lady. The surgeon is well.”
Djivo was startled. “Catherine. You have met her. How? Where? ”
Issac looked at the Ragusan who was almost puppy-like in his attention. “I have told you before. Our destinies are linked. The Lady Catherine is in Constantinople and is held in high regard. I will bring you to her.”
Djivo wanted to ask more but Issac turned away to fix his gaze on the approaching city. There would be time later for his questions. Djivo’s sombre mood had lifted with the news of Catherine and he pointed out the familiar landmarks to Issac. Ordering the Captain to bypass the harbour and to continue on to land in Sipan he had decided to first visit his father’s grave before completing the journey to the city. How he wished he had been able to contact him sooner. Now more than ever he felt the longing of his love for Catherine. This would be his lodestone from hereon out. 

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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