The climax of my career at sea was a stunning sea battle and a victory in the face of overwhelming odds. As I lie on my bed I can hear the roar of the cannon, the hiss of bullets and the cries of many men some exultant and others despairing. And not for a minute but for many hours and at times when we looked to have failed. It took the fierceness and resolution of a motley assembly of men, my men, to achieve the impossible.
Was that it? Is a life lived with a roar to end with a whimper in a draughty, rickety little cottage in Bideford a tin pot town. As I lie here on my bed, shifting to avoid the lumps and straw ends pentrating the sack, I am waiting for a meal. It is a routine. First the meal, then a stroll in the darkness, and then, if I am lucky a little humpty-dumpty with the good woman who owns this cottage and sees to my needs. I can hear her now taking the stew-pot from the fire, and arranging the plates and pewter’s. Count to ten. She calls. ‘Henry, my love, we are ready.’ Her voice was soft and yielding in a pleasing Devon burr. But she was not his love. Circumstances had thrown them together. They were united by distant relatives, silver coins- and human necessities. I call her my old Biddy but she was not ancient. The Biddy was in her early thirties, widowed from a seaman lost in a storm. What was she to do but find another man? For the moment he was that man. ‘Coming my love’, he replied, in a gruff old voice that she never minded. Soon there would be conversation: title tattle and gossip about happenings in the town and what was available in the market; and detailed questions about strangers seen there and ship movements at sea. It was a routine. If he were pressed to admit it she was comely, slight but rounded, and pliable, pleasant and engaging. The Biddy knew what she wanted and how to achieve it. After the meal there was a brisk walk in the darkness. He would say, ‘I’m walking now love. Not long’. And she would reply, ‘Don’t be. I’ll be waiting.’ In the end he always did return – what else could he do?
After the evening meal there was always the routine of the walk. I walked briskly, head down, and made my way to the bridge. It was a fine wooden bridge much admired and valued in the town. From it I could gaze down at the sea heaving beneath me. Observers say that I swayed from side to side, as I would on a ship to keep my balance. I could not avoid being spotted on there by passer-byes and ships passing in the gloom. No one thought anything of it. I was just another seaman seeking a ship, an average sort of man of modest build and demeanour. But locals seeing me there, and commenting on me to their neighbours, spoke of me as the Bridge man, the man on the Bridge, and even greeted me in this way. I needed a name so having nothing better in mind I adopted the name of Mr Bridgeman.
I asked myself how long I could survive in such a place when so many people, hungering after a reward, sought me out. I needed the loyalty of the Biddy who knew a great deal. What did she know? Well the Biddy was the cousin of my wife Enid, who was a wig-maker in Convent Garden. A Friend of mine who was ‘big in wigs’ knew her. Enid had arranged a refuge for me in Bideford and had warned people that I was a rogue.
Naturally some sort of explanation had to be give. After a while, when we had got to know each other, and when seated over our evening meal in the not unromantic setting of candle light, warmth of a long fire and some ale, I gave my Biddy an account of the past and why I was on the run. I gave her an account, as I am going to give you, of my exploits. I was frank – but not entirely so. I concluded:
‘And that, my dear, is how it all happened. You might think me a villain for all this. All I can say to you is that one thing leads to another. I didn’t set out to make myself a villain. I drifted into it. What happened was accidental The East India Company had obtained these riches for the Moghul by the exploitation of the Indian masses. The rewards were to be enjoyed by their gross and greedy shareholders, already fattened by past investments. All I did was to spread these around a bit.’
This was my honest view. The Biddy was taken-aback by the frankness of my account a little distraught. She held my hands across the table. Her eyes had been opened to my world and tears glistened in the candlelight. She was trembling. I told her that I would look after her and that she would never lack money or my support. In that moment I had gambled with my life.
I excused myself for the usual evening walk and took more time than usual. I was very tired after several years of seeking refuge and from moving willy-nilly from one place to another. I had to stop. My great riches, or rather that part accessible to me, had been reduced to the contents of three large sacks securely fastened in the naval way and padlocked. With the help of the crew that brought me to Bideford these sacks were hoisted into a long boat and carried to the shore. There a fellow I paid sallied into the town and hired the services of a horse and wagon. The three of us, the owner of the wagon, the sailor and me, made our way through several narrow lanes to the small cottage with a cobbled yard where I was to lodge. There was a backroom that was to serve me for sleep with a large heavy-wooded wardrobe, a table and a primitive bed. It was to be my home on and off for the next three years.
You will want to know what had become to my vast fortune now reduced to three large sacks. Some of the diamonds had been left with the crew who took refuge in Boston. Eighteen sought refuge in Ireland with a share of the spoils. By far the largest share of the treasure we distributed was left with the 80 members of the crew who took refuge in Madagascar. A fat lot of good it did them for any attempt by them to use these riches would have led to arrest by the Dutch East India Company who controlled Madagascar and kept a close watch of all movement to and from it. Even then, you might demure, that cannot account for all these vast riches. You would be right. For when my ship berthed at the Bahamas, and at the dead of night – or to be precise four nights – I and a member of the crew took eight sacks ashore on a remote beach. He was a strong man specially chosen by me for the task of dragging these bags up the beach and into the dense undergrowth. I disliked him. There we dug a vast hole to take these bags and carefully filled it in and concealed it. He turned to me, ‘There’ he said, ‘that should do it.’ He had started to get up when the bullet entered his forehead, jerking him backwoods and so bestriding the trench. He was too stupid to be trusted. There he lies to this day and no one but me knows anything of him.
However, I was tired now, some six years later, of living a life on the run. I had to trust someone and I chose the Biddy. As I walked back that evening, the moon, fleetingly visible through passing cloud, seemed to guide me home. Foolish, of course, but that is how I felt. The Biddy was at the door. She had taken care to look her very best. As she took my coat, she placed her arms about me and looked up, all happiness and charm. Biddy said, ‘I love you Henry, my dear.’ She came to me twice that night with gentleness and guile.. It was very sweet and agreeable. It pleased me very much. But to tell you the truth as I entered her I thought of another, an unknown, pliable be-jewelled Indian Princess who in fear of a sudden death surrendered herself to me in the commotion of a great victory, all duskiness and scent and the finesse of a life lived to please men. There lies the fickleness of men.
I told my Biddy that she would never lack for money. I gave her a large sum and told her to put it in a secret place and never to tell anyone of it. She vowed that she would be caution and discretion itself. We sealed the pact with a kiss. I knew that this agreement held but for the moment but that for this moment Biddy would be faithful to it and to me. And this is the account I rendered to her…
 As used by Avery the word ‘biddy’ is a derogatory, if affectionate, term for a woman. Editor