For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

Captured by Corsairs

We were going quite slowly, for the morning breeze in those seas is but mild, sometimes dying away altogether soon after the dawn of day, and, in accordance with orders trumpeted from the frigate by a lusty bo'sen, we came up in the wind and held our vessel steady.

"Send a boat aboard," shouted the big, bewhiskered pirate, speaking in French, which my uncle well understood.

"Aye, aye, sir," shouted back our master, also in French. But there was great delay in getting our boat over the side, not only from the manner in which it was secured to the davits, but also owing to the reluctance of our men, who were in sooth sullen and seemed like to mutiny. They were of an independent turn, at best, for some of them knew as well as my uncle how to handle a ship, and had only taken passage under him perforce of poverty, brought on belike by drink, which is the curse of seafarers the world over.

So, albeit they made a great to do about the launching of the boat, with a "yo heave ho," and a "hearty, now my hearties," and such like, they made such slow progress that the pirate captain became impatient. In sooth, he showed indubitable signs of his wrath by sending a cannon ball skipping but a few yards ahead of our good old "Nancy's" nose; and the puff of smoke, accompanied by the cataract of water that leaped aboard right merrily, showed what it well behooved our men to do. They needed no second warning, my faith! but with alacrity tumbled the boat into the water, and themselves eftsoon right after it; that is, enough of them to man the oars, the which they had no sooner taken up and shipped than our mate, at a word from the master, went also over the side and seated himself in the sheets to steer. He had a scowl on his face, as indeed had every man who sat there facing him and awaiting the word to shove off, which was not long delayed.

There were no orders, as between master and mate, for it was well understood that this was to be a clean breast and no favor. Our papers were straight enough, showing our port of departure and port of destination, also our intent, which was to trade with Britons in a British island. But when, the boat having arrived at the frigate's side, and said papers having been handed up for the pirate chief's inspection, that fierce man stamped and swore and flourished oft his arms about. Then, holding up said papers so that we on the ship could see the nefarious act, he tore them in twain, and threw them over-board.

My uncle saw it all, for he stood on the poop in plain sight. And sooth, he was a majestic figure of a man, with his six feet four of stature, and his gray beard flowing e'enmost to his waist. His face was set and stern, his eyes blazing, but he said no word aloud; though, being near him, I heard him mutter in his beard: "By the king, they shall rue this day and this transaction! That buccaneer shall hang for this!"

This might seem but mere bravado to one who knew not my uncle; and, though I was puzzled to account for his apparent cowardice in giving up our ship without e'en a show of fight, I felt in my soul that he would some time make good his oath, as muttered in his beard to himself; but at that moment there was that within me which made me almost loathe him for his pusillanimity, as it seemed to me; though later events showed well what were his motives in allowing our ship to be taken and the pirate chief to insult his majesty the King by thus casting contempt upon official papers with his seal. I fell to trembling with the rage and indignation within me, for it seemed to me far better to die fighting than to suffer indignities at the hands of the foreign pirates. I bethought, me of my ancestry, and of what Devon's sons had done to the like of this foreigner; yea, of what this very man, my mother's own brother in blood, and of yore a doughty fighter, had himself performed at sea. It may seem incredible to relate, but my uncle Brabazon had himself fought his ship when on fire to the water's edge, in Blake's glorious battle with the Spaniards off Teneriffe, in 1657, and brought about the great victory for which his admiral received glory and renown. He was with him, too, when he was borne dying home to Plymouth Port.

But now, to suffer us to be taken, like rats in a trap, and perchance to jeopardize our lives through lack of bravery! He had a hand on my shoulder; but as these thoughts surged through me I shook it off as it had been a serpent, and, swinging round in front of him, was about to speak my mind, had I died for it. But, ere I opened my mouth, he looked at me so sternly, yet with such a deep tenderness in his eyes, that I gazed in wonder—wonder at him for his behavior and at myself for my hesitation.

"I know what thou wouldst say, son Humphrey," thus he began. "But stay thy impetuous spirit, for thou art wrong, albeit this may seem to thee unaccountable. In the end thou wilt not blame thy uncle for this. More now I cannot say. But wait, have faith in me."

I had promised my dear mother to be guided by my uncle in all things and to yield him obedience, as I should to my father, were he yet alive; but it went hard against the grain to abide by my promise. We stood, as it were, measuring each the other's mettle, and the gaze of neither flinched. Then he spake again: "Son Humphrey, thou knowest I would not willingly allow harm to come to my sister's son, not to make mention of these others entrusted to my keeping. But Kist! here comes the pirates' boat to search the ship. Go thou below and transfer thy most precious belongings to the dunnage sack, for we may have to move!"

He spake lightly, with seeming unconcern; and, still having faith in him, I obeyed his orders. The few sailors left aboard had already improved their time likewise, and when the rattle of ropes and clatter of cutlasses proclaimed the arrival of visitors on deck every man was ready to depart.

I had lingered over the treasures in the chest that my mother had so lovingly packed for me, fondling the little mementoes that she had slipper in between my clothes, and at the sight of which tears would come, in spite of me. But the heavy tramp of many feet on deck and the shouts and cursings of the new arrivals hurried me along, and, brushing the tears from my cheeks, I tied the sack's mouth, cast it beneath my bunk, and hastened up the gangway.

I was somewhat prepared for the sight that met my eyes, but not wholly; though I had heard tales ofttimes of these "Brethren of the Sea" from my uncle and others. The dread reality far surpassed all I bah heard or imagined, and I can hardly express my horror and surprise at sight of the ruffian crew that greeted me as my head appeared above the hatch. They were about a dozen in number, all but one bare of foot and half naked, with shaggy, unkempt heads of shock hair, bushy beards tangled and scraggly, coarse features, and some of them bearing livid scars across cheek or brow. Their garbs were most fantastic, consisting, for the body, of a coarse shirt, open at the throat and belted around the waist, either with a broad leathern band or length of rope, into which was stuck a frightful array of knives, pistols and cutlasses. This waist belt kept up the trousers, which, of every kind of cut and fashion, on some were in tatters below the knee and on others mere apologies for raiment. Their hands were broad and brawny, their legs and chests, where exposed, were covered with coarse hair, and grimy from neglect of ablution.

There was one exception, in the person of the leader of this swashbuckler crew—for so I took him to be the moment I saw him—who was dressed with care. He was a man of forty years, or thereabouts—slender, of average height, clad in the uniform of a French captain of the line. Had it not been for a sardonic smile that ever played around his neatly chiselled lips, and the sinister flashing of his eyes, black as sloes and with the devil's light therein, he might eke have passed as handsome. He was girded about like the rest, with pistols thrust into a belt with silver clasps, and on each hip a curving cutlass like to a Moslem cimetar.

He checked the ribald speeches with which his men had greeted (and, I must confess, affrighted) me, and, bowing low, advanced with proffered hand. "And so this is your nephew, Captain Brabazon?" he said, half turning his head, but still advancing with his hand out-stretched. "I am glad to make his acquaintance. A fine young man; he—he will soon learn better manners, I venture to say!"

Mansvelt the pirate


This was said in French, which I understood very well; and I also understood, from the diabolic smile that flickered into his eyes and around his whiskered lips, that my bearing had offended him. For, carried away by the thought that this man was responsible for our capture—our captor, in very fact—and pursued his nefarious calling from choice, I could not bring myself to take his hand. Take the hand of a pirate, and, perchance, a murderer? Never! never! I would choose to die first! And die, in sooth, I thought I must, right then and there, for hoarse mutterings went up from the throats of his bodyguard, and several of them drew their cutlasses and made at me. But, though he still smiled, in that awful, devilish way, he waved, them back with a gesture of command that they obeyed instanter, then delivered himself of the remark with which, as stated, he finished his speech: "He will soon learn better manners, I venture to say!"

Then he turned to my uncle: "Captain Brabazon, that is a fine youth, but a bit brusque, don't you think? A little polishing might do him good. Suppose we say for instance, keelhauling After one has been keelhauled, as you know, he is a different man entirely. Then, if he survives that, we will put him through his paces by making him walk the plank. Not to make him walk very far, you know, only from the gunwale to the end of the plank, where a misstep sends him into the water, and then—well, then, I suppose, sharks! Wouldst prefer the sharks' company to mine, young man? Thou hast choice, now. Speak, quickly. Either thou wilt enlist under me on yonder frigate, or overboard thou goest!"

I do not know if I were brave or rash. To be brave is to sell one's life most dearly, daring all things, heeding conscience only and honor. Perhaps I was heeding only stubborn pride, making a punctilio of my detestation of such creatures as thee, dead to honor and sordid in sin. No! If that were rashness merely, then knew I not the germ of honesty! I looked at my uncle, but not in appeal. My heart sank when I thought upon his seeming baseness; but, in a dazed way, I felt curious to see what he would advise me to do. Not that I would follow his advice were it to kneel to the pirate and crave his pardon. I could well spurn one of my kin for that advice. But, no. He was apparently more distressed than was I. He plucked his beard and clenched his right hand as, with dry lips and husky voice, he said: "Come, Captain Mansvelt, do not jest with the youth. Consider, he is but scant fifteen, and this is his first experience at sea. He hath shown pride, I grant, and stubbornness; but pardon him."

Mansvelt! Then this was the most atrocious monster that ever sailed the sea: the Nero of the ocean. His infamies had made him conspicuous even among the men whose crimes had surpassed those of the Spanish conquerors of America. He saw me start, perhaps thought I shuddered, and mistook me for a craven.

"Ha, hast heard the name before, young man?. Thou kno west, then, from what I have done, what I can, and belike will, do? No, Captain Brabazon, I am not jesting with the youth. But I will pardon him if he will kneel and kiss my hand. Down, dog, and fawn upon thy master!"

I answered not the wretch, nor did I make a move to do as be commanded. My faith! I could not have done so had the king himself been in his place. Something within me kept me rigid, erect, my gaze fixedly set on his, which now became shifty and uneasy.

"So?" he snarled. "You defy me, Mansvelt, whom to know is either to serve or to detest. Ho, there! Trice this rascal to the rigging. First hamstring him, and try if his knees will bend! But, no, stay"—as several burly ruffians sprang forth to do his bidding—"I have a better plan. Hold him the while I work it out."