Cup of Gold - Plot Synopsis


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Summaries by Chapter

Chapter 1

Cup of Gold 1944 cover

In the opening chapter, Steinbeck introduces the Morgan dynasty, whose strong family name and reputation have withstood the test of time.  Readers meet Old Robert and his mother, Gwenliana, an aged seer, and Old Robert's son, Henry.  Dafyyd, a long-departed family friend, returns after years of adventure as a buccaneer to tell the family a foreboding tale of his worldly travels.  While Dafyyd recounts his tales abroad, Henry imagines his own daring life as a buccaneer, dreaming of conquering lands and gathering plundered treasure.  After Dafyyd's departure, he announces his intentions to go exploring to his father.  Although Old Robert feels empathy for his son's desires, his wife, Mother Morgan, sternly objects as she fears for Henry's safety. 

Old Robert sends Henry to seek the advice of the elderly sage, Merlin.  During their meeting, Merlin recognizes the numerous gifts Henry possesses and foretells of a future filled with "greatness," though he prophecies Henry will be "alone in [his] greatness and no friend anywhere; only those who hold [him] in respect or fear or awe" (19).  Merlin bids Henry not to pursue this dangerous life, but Henry refuses to listen.

On his way back home, having made up his mind to depart, Henry decides to visit young Elizabeth, his true love, but fearful of her female charms and powers, he changes his mind and runs away into the darkness saddened and perplexed.  His fear of Elizabeth's womanly power presages his ultimate inability to have any meaningful relationships throughout the rest of his life. 

After Henry returns home, Old Robert cannot persuade his son to give up his dream either, so he addresses a letter to his brother, Sir Edward, Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, in hopes he will receive and watch over young Henry.  Before he leaves, Gwenliana also prophesies Henry's future.  She foresees he is destined to become a great leader for the Divine, but in the meantime, there will be great killing, adventure, plundering and bloodshed and he will meet and marry "a white-souled maiden of mighty rank—a girl of good family and wealth" (27).  No one suspects that the Gwenliana's hopeful prophecy may really come to pass.   Henry abandons his home in the middle of the night rather than face his hurt and sulking mother the next morning.

 Chapter 2

On his way to Cardiff, the downhearted Henry begins to realize his new freedom, feeling "[…] he had come home again to a known, loved place" (35).  When he arrives in the city, he finds many Frenchman, Spaniards and Italians from Venice and Genoa who have brought goods for trade from all over the world.  Henry meets the ironically named Honest Tim of Cork, who befriends him and promises him passage on the merchant ship, Bristol Girl, headed for the West Indies.  

Tim arranges a meeting with the ship's captain and Henry is "hired" to work in the ship's galley to pay his passage to Barbados, not realizing he has been hoodwinked.  While at sea, the cook befriends Henry and he and the other sailors tell him tales of sea monsters and souls lost at sea, filling Henry's head with excitement and intrigue.  Against the cook's admonishments against piracy, Henry begins to question, "Could not a man who thought and planned carefully, take a Spanish town?" (48). The ship continues sailing all summer, passing vast lands and islands on its way to the West Indies.   

When the ship finally lands in Barbados, Honest Tim regretfully admits to the astonished Henry that he has been sold into indentured servant to an island planter, James Flower, for five years.  Rather than sending him to the fields, Flower befriends Henry and makes him his evening companion, discussing books and ideas with the boy.  During his first two years of service, Henry learns to manage the plantation and becomes a great advisor and trusted ally to James Flower.  He also reads Flower's collection of books on ancient warfare.

Henry eventually becomes the new overseer and runs the plantation with authority, never revealing his secret motives to anyone.  Everyone on the island fears Henry's law as he becomes a strong leader and the plantation becomes more successful than ever before.  Henry skims off of Flower's profits as "compensation" for his success and saves his gold coins for a future time when he can finally go "[…] a-buccaneering and take a Spanish town" (68).

Henry convinces Flower to buy a ship to transport their goods to Jamaica and names his new vessel, Elizabeth. Henry begins sailing the prescribed route taking great pleasure and passion as master of his ship.  In order to quench his growing desires and ambitions, Henry buys a beautiful slave girl named Paulette, who dreams of taming Henry's spirit and becoming his wife instead of his slave. One night she gets Henry drunk and tries to deceive him into marrying her; instead he erupts violently and speaks of Elizabeth, his one true love he abandoned in his youth.  

After four years of servitude, James tears up Henry's contract and offers him half of the plantation and full ownership of all his wealth after death.  Henry is plagued by a moment of guilt for the thousand pounds he has skimmed off of Flower's profits.  He admits to himself that "he felt a curious, shame-faced love for James Flower" (61). Against Flower's pleading, however, Henry rejects the offer and sets sail to Jamaica in order to meet his uncle, Sir Edward, and finally begin his life as a buccaneer.  Before he goes, he pleads with Flower to protect Paulette and see that she is not sent to the fields.   

When Henry arrives in Jamaica, he meets Sir Edward and tries to persuade him to buy a sailing ship and split the rewards of buccaneering.  Edward shrewdly dismisses Henry and since Spain and England are at peace, Sir Edward warns Henry not to pursue his dream of buccaneering or gaining control of a Spanish town.  If this happens, Edward says he would hate to kill his own nephew.  Edward also delivers the news of Mother Morgan's death and that Old Robert has become senile and lost most of his sensibilities.

Henry briefly encounters his cousin, Elizabeth, who is fourteen and not much help in persuading Sir Edward to change his mind. Henry leaves disappointed, but not deterred.  His fate quickly changes when he meets Grippo, a true buccaneer. Henry persuades Grippo to sell him the captaincy of his ship and they agree to equally split all profits of buccaneering.  In the event of Henry's failure as captain, Grippo will keep the down payment and the men will part ways peacefully.

 Cup of Gold 1970 coverChapter 3

Henry sets sail with Grippo toward Cartagena.  While at sea, they encounter a Spanish ship and Henry plans a secret ambush.  Morgan hides all his men and slowly drifts up beside the Spanish vessel. Since Morgan's ship appears deserted, the Spanish fear a plague of witchcraft or disease.  While the Spaniards remain hesitant, Morgan uses the element of surprise to attack and gain control of the ship. 

By the time Henry arrives in the port of Tortuga, he has captured four ships and lost no men.  He finally becomes Captain Morgan and joins fellow pirate Edward Mansveldt as Vice-Admiral, forming a republic of buccaneers.  Henry Morgan is revered everywhere he goes, becoming the most "luck-followed freebooter the world had known" (85).  Henry is proud of his conquests, but he remains personally isolated from his comrades because he fears their admiration is insincere.  

After all of his endeavors, he is still alone, without friends or close comrades, just as Merlin had predicted.  During this time, Henry intently focuses on his dream of conquering Panama, known as the "Cup of Gold," and its famed resident, La Santa Roja, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world.  He becomes obsessed with finding the woman so shrewd, so beautiful that "all men fell before her as heathen kneel before the sun" (86).  Henry invites Coeur de Gris, a buccaneer of great reputation, to be his friend and coconspirator on his raid of Panama.    

Chapter 3 ends with the death of Sir Edward and the orphaning of Henry's cousin Elizabeth.  Sir Edward promises Henry will protect his young cousin.  In the meantime, back in Cambria, Old Robert visits Merlin to express his dying regrets over his own failure in life to accomplish his goals and desires.

 Chapter 4

Captain Morgan gathers 37 ships and every available pirate for a secret ambush of Panama.  Morgan tricks his comrades into signing the ship's articles before revealing their final destination.  By keeping the target of Panama secret from the men, Henry feels certain of their loyalty.  Nonetheless, rumors of the imminent attack travel to Don Juan Perez de Guzman, the Panamanian governor.  Don Juan meets with his advisors and arranges to gather all of the wild bulls in the countryside to start a stampede against the soldiers.  Everyone in Panama is commanded to hide their valuables and leave nothing for the pirates. 

Morgan's crew presses on through the jungles of Panama against famine and dehydration for days before finally meeting the Spanish forces, splitting their ranks and dissolving their front line.  When the Spaniards turn the bulls loose on the oncoming enemy, Morgan's soldiers fire directly at the cattle, causing mass hysteria.  The bulls scatter across the fields, wildly turning around and trampling the Spaniards.  Don Juan retreats to the castle and later surrenders to Henry, who gains control of the city with ease. Henry finally wins the Cup of Gold.

When Henry arrives at the palace, he orders his men to find La Santa Roja.  Henry fears the absent Coeur de Gris has discovered her first. When finally confronted by the beautiful woman named Ysobel, Henry is surprised by how unlike she actually is compared to his vision.  She reminds him of his lost love, Elizabeth.  Henry thinks he can win Ysobel's heart, yet she holds some type of power over him. He has traveled the world to meet the famous La Santa Roja and yet she spurns him.  When she mocks him for his cowardly attempts to woo her with empty romantic phrases instead of overtaking her with brute strength, Henry is humiliated and rebuffed.  He becomes brutally angry and "[…] winced at his impotence, and shuddered that other people should know it" (138). Eventually he indulges his anger and shame by going out and shooting the poor epileptic, Cockney Jones.  Remorseful, he returns to his heap of treasure to brood. 

During the surrender, Henry finally realizes his desire to conquer the Red Saint is more of an end to the quest of his life than of the woman herself. La Santa Roja is contemptuous of Henry.  She does not desire or respect him and she is far stronger in intelligence than Henry thought she would be.  Henry eventually tries to force himself up her, but La Santa Roja defiantly stands against him, pricking him over and over with a pin as she speaks.  Ysobel pleads for her death so she can be exonerated and driven straight to heaven, but Henry refuses to give in and kill a woman who rather die than be his lover.  When the drunken Coeur de Gris comes to see Morgan, Henry is overtaken by shame and jealousy and kills his only friend whom he incorrectly assumes has already been with La Santa Roja.  Later, a messenger comes to Henry and delivers a note of ransom from Ysobel's husband, asking for his wife's safe return.  Henry gives the messenger three days to return with the money before he sells La Santa Roja as a slave.

Up to this moment in his life, Henry felt his journey held purpose and greatness.  Suddenly he sees his own insecurity and feels unworthy of all the things he sought in his adventures.  Henry realizes he is infected "[…] with a disease called mediocrity" (152).  After La Santa Roja leaves to go back to her husband, Henry gathers all the plundered riches of Panama and marches back through the jungle to the beach.  When his troops finally reach the beach, Morgan allows the buccaneers an evening to celebrate their victory.  During the middle of the night, Morgan abandons his drunken troops and silently sails away, leaving his soldiers penniless on the shore.  The next morning the men awake angered and vengeful, but eventually they scatter to their death.

Chapter 5

Henry quietly sails his ship back to Port Royal with all the riches of Panama. When he reaches the shore, he is summoned to return to England to meet with King Charles II.  Henry is knighted for his efforts against Panama.  Henry is then reacquainted with his young cousin Elizabeth.  He finds her captivating and is attracted to the security and stability a life with her seems to offer.  She tricks him into proposing and he is soon married and Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.  King Charles II orders Henry to hunt down all the buccaneers he sailed with and bring them to justice.  Henry objects and says he has pity for his comrades, but he agrees nonetheless.

Henry eventually tries the case of his old sailing partners, the Burgundians, and is forced to sentence them to death.  Despite their sentence, the pair still holds Henry in high esteem as a strong captain and leader. Having lost sense of everything that is important, Henry sentences the men to death merely to keep up appearances.  He realizes his wife, Elizabeth, is the reason he is a knight, a judge and an honorable statesmen.  He is not left with much in which he can take pride.

On his deathbed, Henry finally realizes his wife truly loves him and he is once again reminded of the fearful power of women. Elizabeth asks Henry to recount his sins in order to gain the afterlife, but Henry states he "can't remember them very well" (183).  When the final blood letting begins, Henry drifts in a field of unconsciousness confronted by the faceless memories of his life.  His true love Elizabeth appears and he tells her about how he came to see her the night he left.  He tries to explain his haste in leaving her without a proper goodbye, but neither can remember the past as well as they wish to, both suspended in a dream-like state.  In his final moments, Elizabeth informs Henry about the death of his father, Old Robert, and speaks about how Merlin now ushers all the dreams in Avalon as his own light slowly dims into a monotonous tone.

Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts