“ONCE, when I was a pirate—!”
The speaker was an elderly gentleman in correct evening dress, the room a tasteful one, the company of infinite respectability, the locality at once fashionable and exclusive, the occasion an unexceptionable dinner. To this should be added that the speaker was also the host.
With these conditions self-evident, all that good breeding could do was to receive the statement with a vague smile that might pass for good-humored incredulity or courteous acceptation of a simple fact. Indeed, I think we all rather tried to convey the impression that our host, when he was a pirate,—if he ever really was one,—was all that a self-respecting pirate should be, and never violated the canons of good society. This idea was, to some extent, crystallized by the youngest Miss Jones in the exclamation, “Oh, how nice!”
“It was, of course, many years ago, when I was quite a lad.”
We all murmured “Certainly,” as if piracy were a natural expression of the exuberance of youth.
“I ought, perhaps, explain the circumstances that led me into this way of life.”
Here Legrande, a courteous attache of the Patagonian legation, interposed in French and an excess of politeness, “that it was not of a necessity,” a statement to which his English neighbor hurriedly responded, “Oui, oui.”
“There ess a boke,” he continued, in a well-bred, rapid whisper, “from Captain Canot,—a Frenchman,—most eenteresting—he was—oh, a fine man of education—and what you call a ‘slavair,’” but here he was quietly nudged into respectful silence.
“I ran away from home,” continued our host. He paused, and then added, appealingly, to the two distinguished foreigners present: “I do not know if I can make you understand that this is a peculiarly American predilection. The exodus of the younger males of an American family against the parents’ wishes does not, with us, necessarily carry any obloquy with it. To the average American the prospect of fortune and a better condition lies outside of his home; with you the home means the estate, the succession of honors or titles, the surety that the conditions of life shall all be kept intact. With us the children who do not expect, and generally succeed in improving the fortunes of the house, are marked exceptions. Do I make myself clear?”
The French-Patagonian attache thought it was “charming and progressif.” The Baron Von Pretzel thought he had noticed a movement of that kind in Germany, which was expressed in a single word of seventeen syllables. Viscount Piccadilly said to his neighbor: “That, you know now, the younger sons, don’t you see, go to Australia, you know in some beastly trade—stock-raising or sheep—you know; but, by Jove! them fellahs—”
“My father always treated me well,” continued our host. “I shared equally with my brothers the privileges and limitations of our New England home. Nevertheless, I ran away and went to sea—”
“To see—what?” asked Legrande.
“Aller sur mer,” said his neighbor, hastily.
“Go on with your piracy!” said Miss Jones.
The distinguished foreigners looked at each other and then at Miss Jones. Each made a mental note of the average cold-blooded ferocity of the young American female.
“I shipped on board of a Liverpool ‘liner,’” continued our host.
“What ess a ‘liner’?” interrupted Legrande, sotto voce, to his next neighbor, who pretended not to hear him.
“I need not say that these were the days when we had not lost our carrying trade, when American bottoms—”
“Que est cé, ‘bot toom’?” said Legrande, imploringly, to his other friend.
“When American bottoms still carried the bulk of freight, and the supremacy of our flag—”
Here Legrande recognized a patriotic sentiment and responded to it with wild republican enthusiasm, nodding his head violently. Piccadilly noticed it, too, and, seeing an opening for some general discussion on free trade, began half audibly to his neighbor: “Most extraordinary thing, you know, your American statesmen—”
“I deserted the ship at Liverpool—”
But here two perfunctory listeners suddenly turned toward the other end of the table, where another guest, our Nevada Bonanza lion, was evidently in the full flood of pioneer anecdote and narration. Calmly disregarding the defection, he went on:—
“I deserted the ship at Liverpool in consequence of my ill-treatment by the second mate,—a man selected for his position by reason of his superior physical strength and recognized brutality. I have been since told that he graduated from the state prison. On the second day out I saw him strike a man senseless with a belaying pin for some trifling breach of discipline. I saw him repeatedly beat and kick sick men—”
“Did you ever read Dana’s ‘Two Years before the Mast’?” asked Lightbody, our heavy literary man, turning to his neighbor, in a distinctly audible whisper. “Ah! there’s a book! Got all this sort of thing in it. Dev’lishly well written, too.”
The Patagonian (alive for information): “What ess this Dana, eh?”
His left hand neighbor (shortly): “Oh, that man!”
His right hand neighbor (curtly): “The fellah who wrote the Encyclopaedia and edits ‘The Sun’? that was put up in Boston for the English mission and didn’t get it.”
The Patagonian (making a mental diplomatic note of the fact that the severe discipline of the editor of “The Sun,” one of America’s profoundest scholars, while acting from patriotic motives, as the second mate of an American “bottom,” had unfitted him for diplomatic service abroad): “Ah, ciel!”
“I wandered on the quays for a day or two, until I was picked up by a Portuguese sailor, who, interesting himself in my story, offered to procure me a passage to Fayal and Lisbon, where, he assured me, I could find more comfortable and profitable means of returning to my own land. Let me say here that this man, although I knew him afterward as one of the most unscrupulous and heartless of pirates,—in fact the typical buccaneer of the books,—was to me always kind, considerate, and, at times, even tender. He was a capital seaman. I give this evidence in favor of a much ridiculed race, who have been able seamen for centuries.”
“Did you ever read that Portuguese Guide-book?” asked Lightbody of his neighbor; “it’s the most exquisitely ridiculous thing—”
“Will the great American pirate kindly go on, or resume his original functions,” said Miss Jones, over the table, with a significant look in the direction of Lightbody. But her anxiety was instantly misinterpreted by the polite and fair-play loving Englishman: “I say, now, don’t you know that the fact is these Portuguese fellahs are always ahead of us in the discovery business? Why, you know—”
“I shipped with him on a brig, ostensibly bound to St. Kitts and a market. We had scarcely left port before I discovered the true character of the vessel. I will not terrify you with useless details. Enough that all that tradition and romance has given you of the pirate’s life was ours. Happily, through the kindness of my Portuguese friend, I was kept from being an active participant in scenes of which I was an unwilling witness. But I must always bear my testimony to one fact. Our discipline, our esprit de corps, if I may so term it, was perfect. No benevolent society, no moral organization, was ever so personally self-sacrificing, so honestly loyal to one virtuous purpose, as we were to our one vice. The individual was always merged in the purpose. When our captain blew out the brains of our quartermaster, one day—”
“That reminds me—did you read of that Georgia murder?” began Lightbody; “it was in all the papers I think. Oh, I beg pardon—”
“For simply interrupting him in a conversation with our second officer,” continued our host, quietly. “The act, although harsh and perhaps unnecessarily final, was, I think, indorsed by the crew. James, pass the champagne to Mr. Lightbody.”
He paused a moment for the usual casual interruption, but even the active Legrande was silent.
Alas! from the other end of the table came the voice of the Bonanza man:—
“The rope was around her neck. Well, gentlemen, that Mexican woman standing there, with that crowd around her, eager for her blood, dern my skin! if she didn’t call out to the sheriff to hold on a minit. And what fer? Ye can’t guess! Why, one of them long braids she wore was under the noose, and kinder in the way. I remember her raising her hand to her neck and givin’ a spiteful sort of jerk to the braid that fetched it outside the slip-knot, and then saying to the sheriff: ‘There, d—n ye, go on.’ There was a sort o’ thoughtfulness in the act, a kind o’ keerless, easy way, that jist fetched the boys—even them thet hed the rope in their hands, and they—” (suddenly recognizing the silence): “Oh, beg pardon, old man; didn’t know I’d chipped into your yarn—heave ahead; don’t mind me.”
“What I am trying to tell you is this: One night, in the Caribbean Sea, we ran into one of the Leeward Islands, that had been in olden time a rendezvous for our ship. We were piloted to our anchorage outside by my Portuguese friend, who knew the locality thoroughly, and on whose dexterity and skill we placed the greatest reliance. If anything more had been necessary to fix this circumstance in my mind, it would have been the fact that two or three days before he had assured me that I should presently have the means of honorable discharge from the pirate’s crew, and a return to my native land. A launch was sent from the ship to communicate with our friends on the island, who supplied us with stores, provisions, and general information. The launch was manned by eight men, and officered by the first mate,—a grim, Puritanical, practical New Englander, if I may use such a term to describe a pirate, of great courage, experience, and physical strength. My Portuguese friend, acting as pilot, prevailed upon them to allow me to accompany the party as coxswain. I was naturally anxious, you can readily comprehend, to see—”
“Certainly,” “Of course,” “Why shouldn’t you?” went round the table.
“Two trustworthy men were sent ashore with instructions. We, meanwhile, lay off the low, palm-fringed beach, our crew lying on their oars, or giving way just enough to keep the boat’s head to the breakers. The mate and myself sat in the stern sheets, looking shoreward for the signal. The night was intensely black. Perhaps for this reason never before had I seen the phosphorescence of a tropical sea so strongly marked. From the great open beyond, luminous crests and plumes of pale fire lifted themselves, ghost-like, at our bows, sank, swept by us with long, shimmering, undulating trails, broke on the beach in silvery crescents, or shattered their brightness on the black rocks of the promontory. The whole vast sea shone and twinkled like another firmament, against which the figures of our men, sitting with their faces toward us, were outlined darkly. The grim, set features of our first mate, sitting beside me, were faintly illuminated. There was no sound but the whisper of passing waves against our lap-streak, and the low, murmuring conversation of the men. I had my face toward the shore. As I looked over the glimmering expanse, I suddenly heard the whispered name of our first mate. As suddenly, by the phosphorescent light that surrounded it, I saw the long trailing hair and gleaming shoulders of a woman floating beside us. Legrande, you are positively drinking nothing. Lightbody, you are shirking the Burgundy—you used to like it!”
He paused, but no one spoke.
“I—let me see! where was I? Oh, yes! Well, I saw the woman, and when I turned to call the attention of the first mate to this fact, I knew instantly, by some strange instinct, that he had seen and heard her, too. So, from that moment to the conclusion of our little drama, we were silent, but enforced spectators.
“She swam gracefully—silently! I remember noticing through that odd, half-weird, phosphorescent light which broke over her shoulders as she rose and fell with each quiet stroke of her splendidly rounded arms, that she was a mature, perfectly-formed woman. I remember, also, that when she reached the boat, and, supporting herself with one small hand on the gunwale, she softly called the mate in a whisper by his Christian name, I had a boyish idea that she was—the—er—er—female of his species—his—er—natural wife! I’m boring you—am I not?”
Two or three heads shook violently and negatively. The youngest, and, I regret to say, the oldest, Miss Jones uttered together sympathetically, “Go on—please; do!”
“The—woman told him in a few rapid words that he had been betrayed; that the two men sent ashore were now in the hands of the authorities; that a force was being organized to capture the vessel; that instant flight was necessary, and that the betrayer and traitor was—my friend, the Portuguese, Fernandez!
“The mate raised the dripping, little brown hand to his lips, and whispered some undistinguishable words in her ear. I remember seeing her turn a look of ineffable love and happiness upon his grim, set face, and then she was gone. She dove as a duck dives, and I saw her shapely head, after a moment’s suspense, reappear a cable’s length away toward the shore.
“I ventured to raise my eyes to the mate’s face; it was cold and impassive. I turned my face toward the crew; they were conversing in whispers with each other, with their faces toward us, yet apparently utterly oblivious of the scene that had just taken place in the stern. There was a moment of silence, and then the mate’s voice came out quite impassively, but distinctly:—
“‘Aye, aye, sir!’
“‘Come aft and—bring your oar with you.’
“He did so, stumbling over the men, who, engaged in their whispered yarns, didn’t seem to notice him.
“‘See if you can find soundings here.’
“Fernandez leaned over the stern and dropped his oar to its shaft in the phosphorescent water. But he touched no bottom; the current brought the oar at right angles presently to the surface.
“‘Send it down, man,’ said the mate, imperatively; ‘down, down. Reach over there. What are you afraid of? So; steady there; I’ll hold you.’
“Fernandez leaned over the stern and sent the oar and half of his bared brown arm into the water. In an instant the mate caught him with one tremendous potential grip at his elbows, and forced him and his oar head downward in the waters. The act was so sudden, yet so carefully premeditated, that no outcry escaped the doomed man. Even the launch scarcely dipped her stern to the act. In that awful moment I heard a light laugh from one of the men in response to a wanton yarn from his comrade,—James, bring the vichy to Mr. Lightbody! You’ll find that a dash of cognac will improve it wonderfully.
“Well—to go on—a few bubbles arose to the surface. Fernandez seemed unreasonably passive, until I saw that when the mate had gripped his elbows with his hands he had also firmly locked the traitor’s knees within his own. In a few moments—it seemed to me, then, a century—the mate’s grasp relaxed; the body of Fernandez, a mere limp, leaden mass, slipped noiselessly and heavily into the sea. There was no splash. The ocean took it calmly and quietly to its depths. The mate turned to the men, without deigning to cast a glance on me.
“‘Oars!’ The men raised their oars apeak.
“‘Let fall!’ There was a splash in the water, encircling the boat in concentric lines of molten silver.
“Well, of course, that’s all. We got away in time. I knew I bored you awfully! Eh? Oh, you want to know what became of the woman—really, I don’t know! And myself—oh, I got away at Havana! Eh? Certainly; James, you’ll find some smelling salts in my bureau. Gentlemen, I fear we have kept the ladies too long.”
But they had already risen, and were slowly filing out of the room. Only one lingered—the youngest Miss Jones.
“That was a capital story,” she said, pausing beside our host, with a special significance in her usual audacity. “Do you know you absolutely sent cold chills down my spine a moment ago. Really, now, you ought to write for the magazines!”
Our host looked up at the pretty, audacious face. Then he said, sotto voce,—