Chapter IV: The Sergeant's Yarn
 

Jack Stilwell and a few of the other men availed themselves of the permission to escape for a time from the stifling atmosphere below, and made their way on deck. For a time the rush of the wind and the wild confusion of the sea almost bewildered them. Masses of water were rushing along the deck, and each time she rolled the waves seemed as if they would topple over the bulwarks. Several of the party turned and went below again at once, but Jack, with a few others, waited their opportunity and, making a rush across the deck, grasped the shrouds and there hung on. Jack soon recovered from his first confusion and was able to enjoy the grandeur of the scene.

Small as was the canvas she was showing, the vessel was traveling fast through the waves, sometimes completely burying her head under a sea; then as she rose again the water rushed aft knee deep, and Jack had as much as he could do to prevent himself being carried off his feet. Fortunately all loose articles had long since been swept overboard, otherwise the risk of a broken limb from their contact would have been serious.

In a quarter of an hour even Jack had had enough of it and went below, and, having changed his drenched clothes, slung his hammock and turned in. The next day the gale began to abate, and by evening the wind had nearly died away, although the vessel was rolling as heavily as before among the great masses of water which rolled in from the Atlantic.

The hatchways, however, were now removed, and all below ordered on deck, and after awhile a party was told off to sluice down their quarters below. The men were all weakened by their confinement, but their spirits soon rose, and there was ere long plenty of laughter at the misfortunes which befell those who tried to cross the deck, for the ship was rolling so heavily that it was impossible for a landsman to keep his feet without holding on.

The next morning, although a heavy swell was still rolling, the ship assumed her normal aspect. The sailors had removed all trace of disorder above, clothes were hung out to dry, and, as the ship was still far too unsteady to allow of walking exercise, the soldiers sat in groups on the deck, laughing and chatting and enjoying the warm sun whose rays streamed down upon them. Seeing Sergeant Edwards standing alone looking over the bulwark, Jack made his way up to him.

"It has been a sharp blow," the sergeant said, "and I am glad it's over; the last four days have been enough to sicken one of the sea for life. I suppose you think this is a good opportunity for my yarn."

"That is just what I was thinking, sergeant."

"Very well, then, my lad, here goes. I was born at Poole. My people were all in the seafaring line, and it was only natural that, as soon as I got old enough to stand kicking, I was put on board a coaster plying between Poole and London. It was pretty rough, but the skipper wasn't a bad kind of fellow when he was sober. I stuck to that for three years, and then the old craft was wrecked on Shoreham beach. Fortunately she was driven up so far that we were able to drop over the bowsprit pretty well beyond the reach of the waves, but there was no getting the Eliza off. It was no great loss, for she would have had to be broken up as firewood in another year or two. About six hours out of every twenty-four I was taking my turn at spells at the pump.

"Now the Eliza was cast away, I had to look out for another ship. I had had enough of coasters, so instead of going home I tramped it up to London. Having got a berth on board a foreign bound vessel I made two voyages out to Brazil and back. A fine country is the Brazils, but the Portuguese ain't the fellows to make much out of it. Little undersized chaps, they are all chatter and jabber, and when they used to come alongside to unload, it were jest for all the world like so many boatfuls of monkeys.

"Well, I starts for my third voyage, being by this time about sixteen or seventeen. We got out to Rio right enough; but we couldn't get a full cargo back, and the captain determined to cruise among the West Indy Islands and fill up his ship. We were pretty nigh full when one morning the lookout hailed that there were two vessels just coming out of an inlet in an island we were passing some three miles on the weather bow.

"The captain was soon on deck with his glass, and no sooner did he make them out than he gave orders to clap every sail on her. We hadn't a very smart crew, but there are not many British ships ever made sail faster than we did then. The men just flew about, for it needed no glass to show that the two vessels which came creeping out from among trees weren't customers as one wanted to talk to on the high seas. The one was a brig, the other a schooner. They carried lofty spars ever so much higher than an honest trader could want; and quick as we had got up our sails, they had got their canvas spread as soon as we had.

"The ship was a fast sailer, but it didn't need half an hour to show that they had the legs of us. So the skipper called the crew aft. 'Now, my lads,' he said, 'you see those two vessels astern. I don't think it needs any telling from me as to what they are. They might be Spaniards or they might be French, or they might be native traders, but we are pretty well sure they ain't anything of the kind. They are pirates--I guess the same two vessels I heard them talking about down at Rio. They have been doing no end of damage there. There were pretty nigh a dozen ships missing, and they put them all down to them. However, a couple of English frigates had come into Rio, and hearing what had happened had gone out to chase them. They hadn't caught them, and the Brazilians thought that they had shifted their quarters and gone for a cruise in other latitudes.

"'The description they gave of them answered to these two--a brig and a schooner, with low hulls and tall spars. One of them carries ten guns, the other two on each side, and a heavy piece mounted on a swivel amidship. It was said that before they went down to Brazil they had been carrying on their games among the West India Islands, and had made it so hot for themselves that they had been obliged to move off from there. It was like enough that, now the hue and cry after them had abated, they would return to their old quarters.

"'Well, my lads, I needn't tell you what we have to expect if they take us. Every man Jack will either get his throat cut or be forced to walk the plank. So we will fight her to the last; for if the worst comes to the worst, it's better to be killed fighting like men than to be murdered in cold blood. However, I hope it won't come to that. We carry twelve guns, and they are heavier metal than most merchantmen have on board. We are more than a match for either of them alone; and if we can manage to cripple one, we can beat the other off.

"'At any rate we will try our best. Thank God we have no women on board, and only ourselves to think of! Now, my lads, cast the guns loose and get the ammunition on deck; run two of the guns aft and train them over the stern. As soon as they come within range we will try and knock some spars out of them. Now, boys, give three cheers for the old flag, and we will swear together it shall never come down while there's one of us to fight the ship.'

"The men gave three cheers and then went off to their quarters at the guns. They were quiet and grave, and it was easy enough to see that they did not like the prospect. An Englishman always goes into action, as far as I have seen, with a light heart and a joke on his lips when he's fighting against Frenchmen or Spaniards or any other foe, but it's a different thing when it's a pirate he has to deal with. Every man knows then that it's a case of life or death, and that he's got to win or die. The enemy made no secret of what they were, for when they got within a mile of us two black flags ran up to their mastheads.

"The captain he trained one of the stern chasers hisself, and the first mate took the other. They fired at the same moment, both aiming at the schooner, which was getting the nearest to us. They were good shots both of them. The mate's ball struck the water some twenty yards in front of her forefoot, and smashed her bow planking some three feet above the waterline; while the captain's struck her bulwark, tore along her deck, and went out astern, doing some damage by the way, I reckon.

"We could see there was some confusion on board. They hadn't reckoned that we carried such heavy metal, and our luck in getting both shots on board must have surprised them. Then her bow paid off, there was a puff of smoke amidship, and a ball from the long swivel gun buzzed overhead, passing through our mainsail without touching mast or stay.

"So far we had the best of it, and the men looked more cheerful than they had done from the first moment when the pirates showed from among the trees. After that we kept up a fire from the stern guns as fast as we could load. I could not see myself what damage we were doing, for I was kept hard at work carrying ammunition. Presently the broadside guns began to fire too, and taking the chance for a look round I saw that the pirates had separated, and were coming up one on each side of us.

"So far they had not fired a shot after the first. I suppose they didn't want to lose ground by yawing, but as they came abreast of us they both opened fire. Our chaps fought their guns well, and I expect the pirates found they were not getting much the best of it; for one of them made a signal, and they both closed in to board. We hadn't had much luck after our first shot. We had hulled them over and over again and spotted their sails with shot. Many of their ropes were hanging loose, but we hadn't succeeded in crippling them, although almost every shot had been aimed at the masts; for every man knew that our only chance was to bring them down.

"As they came up close to us they poured in a volley of grape, and a minute later they grated alongside and a crowd of men swarmed on board over the bulwarks. Our fellows fought to the last, but the odds were five to one against them. The skipper had been killed by a grapeshot, but the mate he led the men; and if fighting could have saved us the ship would not have been captured. But it was no use. In two minutes every man had been cut down or disarmed. I had laid about me with a cutlass till I got a lick over my head with a boarding pike which knocked my senses out of me.

"When I opened my eyes I was hauled up to my feet and put alongside the mate and six others, all of whom was bleeding more or less. The rest had all been chucked overboard at once. In a minute or two the captain of one of the pirates, a little dapper Frenchman, came up to us. 'You have fought your ship well,' he said to the mate, 'and have killed several of my officers and men; but I bear you no malice, and if you are ready to ship with me I will spare your life.' 'I would rather die a hundred times!' the mate said. The pirate said nothing, but just nodded, and four of his men seized the mate and flung him over the bulwarks. The same question was asked of each of the men; but each in turn refused, and an end was made of them. I was the last.

"'Now, my boy,' the captain said, 'I hope you won't be stupid like those pig headed fellows. What do you say--good treatment and a free life on the sea, or the sharks?'

"Well, lad, if my turn hadn't been last I would have said 'no' like the others. I wouldn't have shown the white feather before any of my shipmates; but they had gone--there wasn't one to cast a reproachful look at me or to taunt me with cowardice. I just stood alone; there weren't no one to back me up in choosing to die rather than to serve, and so I says, 'I will join you, captain.' I don't say I was right, lad; I don't say I didn't act as a coward; but I think most young chaps with my bringing up, and placed as I was, would have done the same. There's many as would have said 'no' if they had had comrades and friends looking on, but I don't think there's many as would have said 'no' if they had stood all alone as I did.

"I can't say as I blame myself much about that business, though I have thought it over many a score of times; but anyhow, from the first I made up my mind that at the very first chance I would get away from them. I knew the chance wasn't likely to come for some time--still there it was; and during all the black scenes I took part in on board that ship I was always telling myself that I was there against my will.

"It was the brig as I was to go in. And as soon as that little matter of the crew was settled all hands set to work to shift the cargo from the ship aboard the pirates. Wonderful quick they did it too; and when I thought how long that cargo had taken to get on board, it was wonderful how soon they whipped it out of her. When they had stripped her of all they thought worth taking, they ran one of the cannon to the open hatch, loaded it and crammed it full of balls to the muzzle; then they pointed it down the hold and fired it, and were soon on board their own craft.

"The charge must have torn a great hole in the ship's bottom, for I could see she was settling down in the water before we had left her five minutes, and in a quarter of an hour she gave a sudden lurch and sank. As I was in for it now, I knew the best thing was to put a good face on it, so I lent a hand at shifting the cargo and did my best to seem contented. We sailed off in company, and in the morning when I came on deck I found the two craft riding side by side in a land locked harbor.

"A few minutes later the boats were lowered and the work of getting the cargo on shore began. It was clear enough that this was the pirates' headquarters; for there were lots of huts built on the sloping sides of the inlet, and a number of men and women stood gathered on the shore to receive us as we landed. The women were of all countries, English and French, Dutch, Spaniards, and Portuguese, with a good sprinkling of dark skinned natives. All the white women had been taken prisoners at some time or other from vessels which had fallen into the pirates' hands, and though most of them must have been miserable enough at heart, poor creatures, they all made a show of being glad to see the men back again. It was but a week, I learned, since the pirates had sailed, and it was considered a great stroke of luck that they should so soon have effected a capture.

"No one attended to me, but I worked hard all day with the others rowing backward and forward between the shore and the ship. When it became dusk they knocked off work, and the men went off to their huts, for it seemed that each of them had a wife, brown skinned or white. Seeing that nobody paid any attention to me, I went off to the little captain, who was making his way up to a hut of a better class than the others.

"'What is to become of me, captain?' I asked. 'Ah! I had not thought of you,' he said; 'well, you can go up with me and get some supper, and you can have a blanket and sleep on my veranda for tonight; we will see where you can be lodged in the morning.' I followed him into his house, and was astonished as I entered at the luxury of the apartment, which far exceeded anything I had ever seen before. The plank walls were concealed by hangings of light green silk, a rich carpet covered the floor, the furniture was most handsome and massive, and had no doubt been intended for the palace of the Spanish governor of some of the islands. A pair of candelabra of solid silver stood on the table, and the white candles in them, which had just been lighted, threw a soft glow of light over the room and lighted up the table, on which was a service, also of solid silver, with vases and, lovely flowers. A young woman rose from a couch as he entered: 'I have been expecting you for the last half hour, Eugene. You have worked longer than usual this evening; if the fish are spoiled you must not blame Zoe.'

"The speaker was a tall and very handsome woman, and I now understood how it was that my captor spoke such excellent English. There was a deep expression of melancholy on her face, but she smiled when speaking to the pirate, and her tone was one of affection.

"'I have brought home a countryman of yours, Ellen. I forgot to allot him quarters until it was too late, so please give him over to the care of Zoe and ask her to give him some supper and a blanket; he will sleep in the veranda.'

"The first look which the woman gave me as the captain spoke made me wish that instead of speaking to the captain I had lain down fasting under a tree, there was so much contempt and horror in it; then, as I suppose she saw I was but a boy, it changed, and it seemed to me that she pitied me from her heart; however, she clapped her hands and a negress entered. She said something to her in Spanish, and the old woman beckoned me to follow her, and I was soon sitting in front of a better meal than I had tasted for many a month, perhaps the best meal I had tasted in my life.

"As she couldn't speak English there was no talking with the old woman. She gave me a tumbler of stiff rum and water to drink with my supper, and after I had done she handed me a blanket, took me out into the veranda, pointed to the side where I should get the sea breeze, and left me. I smoked a pipe or two and then went to sleep. I was awakened in the morning by some one coming along the veranda, and, sitting up, saw the lady I had seen the night before. 'So you are English?' she said. 'Yes, ma'am,' says I, touching my hat sailor fashion. 'Are you lately from home?' she asked. 'Not very late, ma'am,' says I; 'we went to Rio first, and not filling up there were cruising about picking up a cargo when--' and I stopped, not knowing, you see, how I should put it. 'Are there any more of you?' she asked after awhile in a low sort of voice. 'No, ma'am,' says I; 'I am the only one.' 'I did not ask,' she said almost in a whisper, and I could see her face was 'most as white as a sheet, 'I never ask. And so you have joined them?' 'Yes,' says I, 'I couldn't help it, ma'am. I was the last, you see; if there had been any one else to have encouraged me I should have said no, but being alone--' 'Don't excuse yourself, poor boy,' she said; 'don't think I blame you. Who am I that I should blame any one? It is little I can do for you, but if you should want anything I will do my best to befriend you.' I heard the captain's voice calling. Suddenly she put her finger to her lips, as a hint to me to hold my tongue, and off she went.

"I don't know whether the captain's wife spoke to him about me or not, but at any rate he didn't tell me off to any of the huts, but kept me at the house. I used to go down in the day to work with the other men unloading the ship and stowing away the stores, but they only worked for a few hours morning and evening, lying in hammocks slung under the trees during the heat of the day. I made myself useful about the house, helped the old woman to chop wood, drew water for her, attended to the plants in the little garden round the house, trained the creepers up the veranda, and lent a hand at all sorts of odd jobs, just as a sailor will do.

"When, ten days after we arrived, the ships got ready for another cruise, I was afraid they would take me with them, and I lay awake at nights sweating as I thought over the fearful deeds I should have to take part in; but the captain gave me no orders, and to my delight the men embarked and the ships sailed away without me. I found there were some forty men left behind, whose duty it was to keep a sharp lookout and man the batteries they had got at the entrance to the cove in case any of our cruisers came in sight.

"The man who was in command was a Spaniard, a sulky, cruel looking scoundrel. However, he didn't have much to do with me; I took my turn at the lookout with the rest of them, and besides that there was nothing to do. The men on shore had all been in one or other of the ships when I was taken; for I found there were about a hundred and sixty of them, and a quarter stayed at home by turns, changing after each cruise, whether it was a long or short one.

"The captain's wife often spoke to me now; she would come out and sit in the veranda while I was at work. She asked me what part I came from, and where I had sailed, and what friends I had at home. But she never said a word to me about the capture of the ship. She always looked sad now, while she had been cheerful and bright while the captain was on shore. In time she got quite friendly with me, and one day she said, 'Peter, you will have to go to sea next time, what will you do?'

"'I must do as the others do, God forgive me,' says I; 'but don't think, ma'am, as ever I shall do it willing. It may be years before I gets a chance, but if ever I does I shall make a run for it, whatever the risk may be. I speaks free to you, ma'am, for I feel sure as you won't say a word to no man, for it would cost me my life if they thought that I wasn't with them willing.'

"'I will not tell any one, Peter, you may be sure,' she said; 'but I do not think you will ever have a chance of getting away--no one ever does who once comes here.'

"Well, in time, lad, she lets out bit by bit a little about herself. She had been on her way out to join her father, who was an officer of the East Indy Company, when the ship was taken by the pirates. The men was all killed, but she and some other women was taken on board the pirate and at last brought there. The French captain took a fancy to her from the first, and after she had been there a year brought a Spanish priest they captured on board a ship and he married them. The pirates seemed to think it was a joke, and lots of them followed the captain's example and got married to the women there. What they did with the priest afterward, whether they cut his throat or landed him in some place thousands of miles away, or entered him on board ship, is more nor I know.

"There's no doubt the captain's wife was fond of her husband; pirate as he was, he had not behaved so bad to her--but except when he was with her she was always sad.

"She had an awful horror of the life he led, and with this was a terror lest he should fall into the hands of a cruiser, for she knew that if he hadn't the good luck to be killed in the fight, he would be tried and hung at the nearest port. It was a kind of mixed feeling, you see; she would have given everything to be free from the life she was leading, and yet even had she had the chance she would not have left her husband. I believe he had promised her to give it up, but she must have knowed that he never would do it; besides, if he had slipped away from the ship at any place where they touched he could not have got her away, and her life would have paid for his desertion.

"But I don't think he would have gone if he could, for, quiet and nice as he was when at home, he was a demon at sea. Ruffians and scoundrels as were his crew, the boldest of them were afraid of him. It was not a word and a blow, but a word and a pistol shot with him; and if it hadn't been that he was a first rate seaman, that he fought his ships splendidly, and that there was no one who could have kept any show of order or discipline had he not been there, I don't believe they would have put up with him for a day.

"Well, lad, I sailed with them for three voyages. I won't tell you what I saw and heard, but it was years before I could sleep 'well at night, but would start up in a cold sweat with those scenes before my eyes and those screams ringing in my ears. I can say that I never took the life of a man or woman. Of course I had to help to load the cannon, and when the time for boarding came would wave my cutlass and fire my pistols with the best of them; but I took good care never to be in the front line, and the others were too busy with their bloody doings to notice what share I took in them.

"We had been out about a fortnight on my third voyage, and the schooner and brig were lying in a little bay when we saw what we took to be a large merchant ship coming along. She was all painted black, her rigging was badly set up, her sails were dirty and some of them patched, she was steering east, and seemed as if she was homeward bound after a long voyage. Off we went in pursuit, thinking we had got a prize. She clapped on more sail, but we came up to her hand over hand. She opened fire with two eight pounders over her stern. We didn't waste a shot in reply, but ranged up alongside, one on each beam. Then suddenly her sides seemed to open, fifteen ports on each side went up, and her deck swarmed with men.

"A yell of dismay went up from the schooner which I was on. In a moment a flash of fire ran along the frigate's broadside; there was a crash of timber, and the schooner shook as if she had struck on a rock. There was a cry, 'We are sinking!' Some made a wild rush for the boats, others in their despair jumped overboard, some cursed and swore like madmen and shook their fists at the frigate. It seemed no time when another broadside came.

"Down came the foremast, crushing half a dozen men as she fell. Her deck was nearly level with the water now. I climbed over the wreck of the foremast, and run out along the bowsprit. I looked round just as I leaped. The pirate captain was standing at the wheel. He had a pistol to his head, and I saw the flash, and he fell. Then I dived off and swam under water as hard as I could to get away from the sinking ship. When I came up I looked round. I just saw the flutter of a black flag above the water and she was gone. I was a good swimmer, and got rid of my shoes and jacket, and made up my mind for a long swim, for the frigate was too busy with the brig for any one to pay attention to us, but it did not take long to finish it.

"In five minutes it was over. The brig lay dismasted, and scarce a dozen men out of the forty she carried were alive to throw down their arms on deck and cry that they surrendered. Then the frigate's boats were lowered; two rowed in our direction, while two put off to the brig. There were only nine of us picked up, for from the first broadside till we sank a heavy musketry fire had been poured down upon the deck, and as we were not more than fifty yards away from the frigate, the men had been just mowed down. We were all ironed as soon as we were brought on board. After that we were brought up one by one and questioned.

"'You are young to be engaged in such work as this,' the captain said when my turn came.

"'I was forced into it against my will, sir,' I said.

"'Yes,' the captain said, 'I suppose so; that's the story each of the prisoners tells. How long have you been with them?'

"'Less than six months, sir.'

"'How old are you?'

"'I am not seventeen yet. I was boy on board the Jane and William. We were taken by the pirates on our way back from Rio, and all except me killed or thrown overboard.'

"'And you bought your life by agreeing to sail with them, I suppose?' the captain said contemptuously.

"'I did, sir,' I said; 'but I was the last they asked; all the others had gone, and there warn't no one to back me up.'

"'Well, boy, you know what your fate will be,' the captain said; 'there's no mercy for pirates.'

"The next day the captain sent for me again, and I took heart a little, for I thought if they had made up their minds to hang me they wouldn't have questioned me.

"'Look here, lad,' the captain said; 'you are the youngest of the prisoners, and less steeped in crime than any here, therefore I will at once make you an offer. If you will direct us to the lair of the pirates, I promise your life shall be spared.'

"'I don't know the latitude and longitudes sir,' I said, 'and I doubt if any besides the captain and one or two others do, but I know pretty well whereabout it is. We always set sail at night and came in at night, and none was allowed on deck except the helmsman and two or three old hands till morning; but when I was ashore and on duty at the lookout I noticed three trees growing together just at the edge of the cliff at the point where it was highest, two miles away from the entrance to the cove. They were a big un and two little uns, and I feel sure if I were to see them again I should know them.'

"'Very well,' the captain said, 'I shall make for port at once, and hand over the prisoners to the Spanish authorities, then I will start on a cruise with you, and see if we can find your trees.'

"From the description I could give him of the islands we passed after we had been at sea a few hours, and the time it took us to sail from them to some known points, the captain was able to form a sort of idea as to which group of islands it belonged to, and when he had reached port and got rid of his prisoners, all of whom were garroted--that's a sort of strangling, you know--by the Spaniards, a week afterward, we set out again on our search for the island."