For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

In Pirates' Paradise

Now, was this not a strange situation: to be hand in glove with one, and that one a pirate, whom I had not known four and twenty hours? He was a foreigner, too, and one of whom many sad stories had been told for many years as to his fiendishness. But what of that? He had signally displayed high qualities in his latest dealings with me, and in my soul I recognized these things.

I would have given much to be as sure of my uncle's faith as I was of Mansvelt's. This was another thing strange: that I shrank from my uncle with aversion, as holding him responsible for what had occurred. I could not, it seems, stand off from him, as I could from the pirate leader, and view him with a due perspective. He was my mother's brother, and I had reason to expect far more of him than of a stranger, but had received far less. Yea, he was my own dear mother's brother. That should have caused my heart to cleave to him; should it not? But though I felt that yearning toward him that our relationship would naturally cause, yet I the more loathed him for his apparent perfidy.

Apparent, say I, for his course was later made more clear to me, as will appear further on. He had made, they told me, as though he would have thrown himself between me and the sailor when I seemed in dire peril, but I had not noticed him, and thought he had stood aloof throughout it all. However, in my ignorance, I turned my back upon him when he would have embraced me, after I had fraternized with Mansvelt, and he, biting his lip and gnawing his beard, retreated.

"Captain Brabazon," said the pirate chieftain, "henceforth consider this vessel under the commands of this young man who has shown himself worthy of being one of us. For the sake of prudence, the treasure I have found I will take aboard my ship, but I will leave you your men, and you shall follow after us to my rendezvous."

I thought I detected a gleam of satisfaction, even triumph, in my uncle's eyes, but it was only momentary. He received his orders calmly, assured Mansvelt that he would obey instructions, and then asked if he was to command, or his nephew, meaning me.

Mansvelt chuckled and smiled maliciously, while his mustachios curled like a cat's, as he replied: "Oh, as to that, suit yourselves. But see to it that you follow close after me, and deviate not even a point from the course hence to Tortuga, off the north coast of Haiti. That is the rendezvous, as you may not have known."

"No, Captain Mansvelt, I knew it not, but I know the lay of the island, and can shape a course thither easily." And again there appeared that gleam of triumph, or of some secret satisfaction he fain would have concealed.

As I later learned, it was this information that he most of all desired, and I heard him mutter to himself, after the pirates were all clear of our vessel: "Od zounds, but this alone is worth the fifty thousand pounds though the risk is great!"

The wretches clattered over the side and pulled for their frigate, which by now was close enough—too close, in fact. Several of the common sailors shook their fists at me furtively, and drew their hands significantly across their throats, when Mansvelt's back was turned.

That did not concern me, however, for, if the master was my friend, who then was I to fear? This I casually thought, in my ignorance of what those fierce men were capable of, and not knowing the comradeship that existed between all classes amongst those Brethren of the Sea. I was yet to eat the humble pie and rue the day that I had lopped off the hand of one of them! But of all this anon. Under my uncle's direction the vessel wore about and thrust her nose in the frigate's wake, and, under easy sail, we all that day kept on, until the fair isle of Saint Kitts was left far astern, and finally faded out of sight.

Long before nightfall the men had washed the blood-stains from the deck and removed all traces of the fight. But they could not wash away all recollections. That morning, at dawn, I was carefree and young; that night, yea, long before, I had aged years, and was a man with memories. As my uncle took not the slightest notice of me, except in mock deference to ask what were my orders—and, of course, I had none—I sat down in a secluded place on the poop and gave myself up to dismal forebodings. Divers of the crew tried, in clumsy manner, to show their appreciation of my doings, and would have made friends with me, but I could have none of them then. I shrank within myself, and all that day and the night succeeding sat alone ruminating upon what had been done to me. I say what had been done to me, since I could not but feel that the deed was not of my own volition. I had been an instrument of fate, but for what purpose?

When the current of a lad's life is turned by untoward circumstances, so that from an innocent child he becomes, at once and without preparation, a sin-stained man, it is likely that the awfulness of life looms up before him. No real care had I ere this dire happening, no thought of aught but happy future, with my mother as the central figure in my plans; but now all was changed. Alone and dumbly I wrestled with my troubles, and in that awful night there was evolved only the resolve that never could I return to the one who had hitherto been all in all to me. I grew reckless, and henceforth was a changed being. What mattered it, after all, whether I cast my lot with honest men or with devils? All at once the world of happiness had been closed, the door of hope shut in my face.

Morning found me still where the night had left me, and only after the sun had risen red from the sea and burned brazen in the sky did I leave, my retreat and go below, where, after drinking a gulp of water and laving my face, I cast myself into my bunk and again abandoned myself to my grief. I heard my uncle's footsteps approach, and heard him mutter: "My poor boy! poor boy!" but I turned not toward him, even when his hand was laid upon my burning forehead. Had not all the world turned against me, and had he not played the traitor to me and to my mother?

Well, that day passed, and another, and near the end of the third day I heard shootings and the roar of waves upon rocks, so knew that we had come near land. I dragged myself upon deck again and saw—as I must confess despite my misery—the fairest sight that e'er my eyes beheld.

We were off a rugged island with cliffs rising high at a little distance, coral reefs whitened with the foam of waves anear, and between cliffs and water broad beaches of golden sands, banked by rows of palms. The frigate was threading her way through a narrow channel between the reefs, scarce wide enough for her to make short tacks and come about again, and we were entering the seaward gateway with foam-tipped prongs of coral within stone's throw on either side. We followed the frigate through the sinuous channel for an hour or so, and, after beating back and forth in her wake, finally reached an open pool big enough to float a score of ships. It was entirely land-locked, yet so deep as to be sufficient for the largest craft. This I ought to know, for afterward I saw many such come hither, led by the nose through the devious channel to this harbor of the buccaneers. For such it was, the famed rendezvous of which Mansvelt had spoken, behind the coral reefs that fend the waves from Tortuga's western shore.

The evening breeze was only just sufficient to bring the vessels' heads up to the wind so that moorings might be made off shore, and then the anchors were cast over and the cables payed out until their stern-posts almost rested on the sands. A boat soon put off from the frigate, and from her came a hail in Mansvelt's voice: "Aboard the 'Nancy,' ahoy. Captain Gilbert and his men will stay on board their ship to-night, and neither go ashore nor move the vessel at peril of their lives."

"Aye, aye, sir," cried our first mate, seeing that neither my uncle nor myself responded, but stood glowering by.

"See to it, then," came back in ominous tones. "Stay where you are!"

The sun had sunk by this time, and swift darkness fell upon the isle, enshrouding all. Then out from beneath the rows of palms above the beach gleamed many fires, reminding me of what once I had read in one of my father's books anent the voyages of the great Christopher Columbus, to wit: that one time approaching the southern coast of Cuba which island lay not so far distant from us then—he had been surprised by the twinkling of innumerable lights, and forthwith named the place where they appeared the Port of Hundred Fires.

Noises indescribable also filled the air: the mingled oaths and laughter of coarse men, once and again the wail of infants, shrill cries of women, and the barking of dogs. All the human beings ashore seemed to be provided with rude huts made of grass and palm leaves, beneath which were swung coarse hammocks, such as the Indian salvages of these parts were wont to use from most early times—as narrated by the Spanish voyagers and in the adventures of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins. We could see the burly figures of the men lolling in the hammocks, and being waited upon by women, as well as by Indian slaves. All sprang up, however, as Mansvelt's boat touched the sands, and gathered about him with loud cries of welcome. It seemed, in truth, as if every man vied with every other to produce the most vociferous welcome; but it was plain to be noted that there was no heart in their cries, only hollow sound, like the echoes that reverberated from the cliffs above. Some made as if they would fain have taken their leader upon their shoulders and have borne him to his hut; but he waved them aside impatiently, and sent two or three of the most forward sprawling on the sands.

He was a rough master, in sooth, this Mansvelt, and perhaps he needs have been so, with such crews of cutthroats to deal with as he was leader of. After he had entered his hut, which was the largest of the group on the beach beneath the palms, there was comparative silence for the space of an hour or so, then the noise began again, sounding at first like the gatherings of a storm: first low mutterings in the distance, then increasing to a roar, like the howling of winds through the tree-tops. It seemed that another party of pirates from the other side of the island had gotten wind of Mansvelt's arrival and hastened over to do him honor. There were some hundred or so of the wildest-appearing and most fantastic objects that I ever saw. In the moonlight at first, and then in the firelight, they seemed more like to demons than men. They capered about the beach, first circling around the fires that had been made for preparing the evening meals at or near every hut, and then marching in single file past the leader's house, from within which came out sounds of revelry. Finally it appeared as though neither party, the small and select one feasting inside with Mansvelt, nor the larger one outside gathered to welcome him, could endure the strained situation longer, and of a sudden the door burst open, and the leader himself stood in the doorway blackly outlined against the light from torches within.

There were yet more vociferous shouts at his appearance, and accompanied by the firing of fusees and arquehuses; then his right hand shot out in a commanding gesture, and silence swift ensued. I could not hear what he said, but at once he ceased speaking, the pandemonium broke loose again, and all made great haste to gather at a certain point, about a gunshot from where our vessel was at anchor. Then I saw, rolling from out a yawning cavern in the cliff behind the hut, a huge puncheon, the appearance of which all the fiends greeted with loud yells of joy. It contained, in fact, the fiery rum of the Indies, which the Spaniards call "aguardiente," or burning water. And in very truth it be well named, for it is not only ardent in itself, but the cause of hell fire entering into those who partake thereof.

The puncheon was rolled out beneath a huge palm tree, where it was ended up and the upper head knocked in. Meanwhile the pirates had provided themselves with coco shells and calabashes, dippers and cups—any sort of vessel soever with the which they might dip out the fiery liquid, and lost no time in their attack upon the common enemy. They fought and cursed around the puncheon, as if their very lives depended upon getting their fill of its hellish contents, and as if no time was to be lost in making themselves drunk withal, the which they proceeded to do without delay.

Alas and alack, that man, made in the image of the Creator, should so defile himself! It was not long before nearly all were reeling about under the influence of the accursed liquor or sunken in a drunken stupor. Well had it been if all had been stupefied by the fumes of the aguardiente—well for us aboard the "Nancy," I mean—for there were some who became enraged who sought our destruction.