For Prey and Spoils - Frederick Ober

Feeding the Sharks at Tortuga

It may not be out of place to state that I hated this man, Morgan, from the first moment I saw, or rather felt, him standing over me in the moonlight, that night of unhappy memories. And it may be well, moreover, to further state that there was ever enmity between us, an inborn antagonism, that raged until it broke out into a bitter feud. I am anticipating events by several years; for this story of mine takes the better portion of my life; but no matter. That I live to narrate it is proof positive that I survived, as I have said already; but there were times, yea, oft and again, that I wished I were dead, all on account of this man.

How he came upon us so quietly I know not, except that the noise of strife on our vessel was so great that his ship crept in through the channel unawares and ran alongside. But there he was, a living, terrible presence, an apparition of evil, far more reckless and cruel than even Mansvelt—and that is saying much.

It may seen strange, perhaps, that Mansvelt had not made his appearance when the fight was raging; but it would not seem so to one who knew his reckless character. He always held that men's lives were cheap, saying boldly in our presence that it were far better to enlist new crews than to strive to save the old ones. So when his men engaged in fights amongst themselves, as they did full ,oft, he laid himself low and took no part therein.

That he had professed a certain liking, even admiration, for me did not argue that he loved me enow to risk his precious life in my defence, and so when he knew his men were setting out to kill us all on board the "Nancy "he preferred to stay In his hilt rather than to see that I was safe from harm. Young as I was then, I knew I had nothing to expect from Mansvelt, despite his protestations. He might praise and fondle me, perchance, and doubtless would commend me for resisting his own men and taking part in the killing of them. Such was his savage, inexplicable nature, more like that of a wolf than of a human being. But still, in my heart I felt more trust in him than Morgan; and wisely, as the sequel showed to me.

But do not believe that I reasoned all this out that night, with all my troubles thick upon me; my uncle sore wounded, perhaps unto death, and the lad my messmate also. After I had cared for them to the extent of my ability, and had finally stanched the flow of blood and received token of their relief from their easier breathing, I left them for a bit and looked about to make an estimate of the losses we had met with. To be brief—for though the other lives were as precious, doubtless, as our own, yet they are not of moment to this narrative—I found that nearly half our men had fallen in the fight. The mate was dead, so was the boatswain, and three others had also fallen in their tracks. My heart was like lead and seemed a bullet in my breast; but I was pervaded by a sullen indifference to what might befall, begotten of what had befallen already. And the few survivors were as regardless of what fate had in store for us as I was myself. They obeyed my orders mechanically, as it were, like men of wood pulled by a string; but still they obeyed, and ere morning dawned we had the decks cleared after a fashion, the dead laid out in rows under the rails and the wounded attended to. There was no surgeon there, so it was no surprise that full half the wounded died before the week was out, what with the heat of clay, the tropical insects that festered in their wounds, and lack of skillful care. Nurse them we did, to the extent that most of us dropped down from fatigue, ever and anon. And then the dead! Ere the first day succeeding that dread night was over it became evident to us survivors that we could not leave them on the vessel. So I sent word to Mansvelt that nineteen corpses lay on our decks awaiting burial, hoping he would see to it that they received interment ashore; for of a surety I could not bury them there without his permission.

But he replied that, as we had killed them, so we must bury them, and that in his opinion the best we could do was to throw them to the sharks, of which the harbor was full, ravenous and bloodthirsty. It grieves me to write this; but even so we were compelled to do, to toss the corpses overboard, when the tide was on the ebb, which was near evening of the day following that night of horror. Ah, it was cruel and pitiful to do this, and all in sight of our wounded, who lay now on mattresses stretched upon the deck, the air below being too close and stifling for them to stay there.

I had my mother's book of prayer with me, one of her precious gifts, and perforce I was the chaplain, even as I was also sexton and helped launch the dead into the deep. We bared our heads, and at the foot of each stark body, whether of a fallen mate or foe, I read the prayer for the dead, not omitting to ask God to forgive us all, living as well as dead, for the sins we had committed.

Then, having done this, we returned to the first one of the line, lifted him to the rail and dropped him overboard. We peered after that first man, 10th to let him go, alone and unattended, on his last journey; but we looked not again after there came a great inrush of the ravenous horde of sharks, gathered as if awaiting what they knew was coming.

"Oh, God!" I cried. "Was it for this thou hast made us? Father in Heaven, is there no escape, either for the dead or the living?" I looked around into the faces of my men, but they regarded me stonily. Only the moans of the wounded broke the silence—only the moans of the wounded—and the horrid sounds from the sea, where the sharks were fighting and lashing the water to foam. Wearily and heavily we took up the task again, and at last all was finished. We had done our duty by the dead so far as in us lay to do it; there now remained the living, wounded ones.

Better had it been, I have often thought, if my uncle had died ere he had witnessed that terrible spectacle; for he had seen it all, perforce, lying there under the rail, with wide staring eyes and parted lips. After it was over he beckoned to me, and I went and sat beside him, taking his hands in mine and trying to soothe him with loving words. My cup of sorrow was full, I had thought; but now it was to run over.

"Humphrey, my son," he whispered, "I cannot stay with thee much longer. Ere I go, however, I must tell thee a secret; then—then perhaps thou wilt think better of thy uncle." His breath came hard, and with effort only he spake; so I tried to soothe and check him, saying he must keep what he had to say till later. There was no secret he could tell me that would change my regard for him, for now I knew I loved him, and was sorry and ashamed that I had entertained any doubt at all. But he would go on, saying that his time was short, and he must speak.

And this is what he said, struggling mightily with his words, for the hand of death was then upon him: "Humphrey, dear, my only sister's son, thou hast had occasion to doubt my honor, for I have tried thee sore. Know, then, dear boy, that I gave our ship into the hands of the pirate for a reason. It was this: The lords of the British admiralty commissioned me to find where he had his rendezvous; and I could think of no other way than to let him capture our vessel and take us thither, then escape, if so be I might, and after reaching dear old England guide hither ships of war to take this stronghold and capture the pirates.

"But I did not realize the full measure of the peril I had brought upon thee and our mates, until—until it was too late—too late! I felt it first when thou wert in the encounter with that man who insulted thy mother, my sister, yet could not declare myself, since that would have been to divulge my plan. Thou knowest the rest, dear—how the scheme hath miscarried woefully. I know now that it is wrong to do evil that, perchance, good may come. I am properly punished for my fault. But thou, oh, Humphrey, my boy, what will become of thee?"

Of a truth, I was racked with remorse when I heard this confession, and knew then how I had misjudged my uncle. I should have known that no one of my mother's blood could do aught that was low or mean. And I misjudged him so! God pity me! forgive me! I cried out aloud in my anguish.

"Hush, my boy," whispered my uncle, softly. "Thou art forgiven. Young, impetuous, honest, what else couldst thou do but resent what thou thoughtst was wrong? I was the one in the wrong. I should have taken thee into my confidence. In that failure to do so my error lay."

He was silent for a short space, and then said, brokenly: "Darling boy, thou art as a son to me. Oh, if I could but live to fill thy dead father's place in thy affections! But, dear, I am going now. My sight fails me. I cannot see thee, Humphrey. Place thy arm around me and kiss me, dear, for thy mother's sake. God grant thou mayest see her again! And tell her not to think harshly of me for what I have done. I thought it was for the best.

"I go now to join my brave admiral, under whom I fought at Teneriffe. Would that I could be buried near the Dart, Humphrey But, oh, do not—do not throw me overboard to the—no, thou wilt not; but bury me ashore, beneath the palms. It is meet that I should be buried here. This is the stronghold I sought. I found it, only to be buried in it. Now, God receive my spirit! Dear Lord, bless thou this boy, and lead him hence from this den of demons into the haven where She liveth whose love we treasure. Be a lamp unto—his—feet; guide thou—guide thou—him. Forgive—forgive—me—"

The voice died away and all was still. I knew then that I was doubly orphaned, that the form in my arms was only lifeless clay; but I pressed the dear face to mine and called upon the dead to speak to me again. Vainly, vainly. The stout heart was stilled. I was alone!

What are these my sorrows to others that I should so dwell upon them now? They are naught, except as showing what hath happened to a human being, and what may happen to another. It is in the sympathy of sorrow, as well as of love, that the heart finds its fellow, and says not the good Book: "Better the house of mourning than of feasting?" But it is not of my desire that I conduct my reader thither—perchance there be one who shall find and peruse what I have written.

Bear with me yet awhile, and I shall show how—incredible as it may seem, as indeed it once seemed to me—I grew to find a joy in living and even (what is better) made others feel also that joy. In those dread days when we first found the pirates' isle I descended to almost fathomless deeps of sorrow; yet I rose again, slowly rose, until, as I have said, there came to me a veritable joy in merely living.

Didst ever think how surpassing good it is to be alive? And yet, at the time my uncle passed away (as narrated), I had rather have died than harbored such a thought. This shows what there is of endurance in man: that when it may seem sorrow or disaster of other sort bath crushed him down, the saving virtue of hope, love for another—as in my case for my mother—beareth him up and guideth him to some haven of rest. But think not that I obtained surcease of sorrow within brief space, for the hand of fate was heavy upon me for years. And bear in mind that this narrative is written in after life, even though it pertain exclusively to the doings of my youth.

Now let me revert to my special charges: my dear uncle, whose limbs had stiffened in death beneath my eyes, and the lad who still lived, and in his conscious intervals had been a witness to those dire happenings. Well it was that the lad had a hold on me, else I should not have survived the demise of my dear relative. I say it were well—and yet, upon reflection, of what I later passed through, the sins I was forced to connive at, the criminals I was compelled to consort with, and the terrible scenes to witness—who knows?

But, yes, God knows. He it was gave me life—bestowed upon the clay known to man as Humphrey Gilbert the animating spirit that permeated my being, that made me different from the beast of the field. It behooved me, then, to keep this spirit pure, unsullied, no matter what the body in which it was incarnate might be called on to endure, inasmuch that at last it should be rendered back to God untainted.

And did I this? Dear God, Father Almighty, thou knowest! How the spirit and the flesh have striven in me, how I have been cast down, dumb and despairing, carnally o'er-weighted, and again have striven upward until I almost gazed within thy pearly gates, Thou knowest!

Into the boiling caldron of sin I was plunged, and seethed therein until the flesh near parted from my bones; yet was not quite the spirit quenched. Seared was my conscience, mayhap; but a spark remained which I trust shall make for life eternal.