Wolves of the Sea by Randall Parrish
Chapter V. The Waters of the Chesapeake
The brig, with all sails set, and favored by a strong wind, drew rapidly in toward the point of landing. The great majority of the prisoners remained on deck, chained together and helpless, yet surrounded by armed guards, while the few who had already been purchased by passengers, humbly followed their new masters ashore the moment the gang-plank touched the soil of Virginia. There were five of us altogether thus favored, but I was the only one owing allegiance to Roger Fairfax. The rude landing wharf along which we lay was already densely crowded with men, their appearance and dress largely proclaiming them to be planters from the interior, either gathered to inspect the consignment of prisoners, or eager to purchase at low prices the stores hidden away in the vessel's hold. Some among the concourse, however, were undoubtedly present to welcome friends and relatives among the passengers. Altogether it was a bustling scene, full of change and color, the air noisy with shouting voices, the line of wharves filled with a number of vessels, either newly arrived, or preparing to depart. Servants both white and colored were busily at work, under the command of overseers, loading and unloading cargoes, while the high bank beyond was crowded with vehicles of various kinds. News of the arrival of the Romping Betsy had evidently spread widely, together with the rumor that she brought a number of prisoners to be auctioned off. It was a good-natured, restless crowd, especially anxious for any news from abroad, and eager to benefit from the sale. The majority of the men I judged to be landowners, hearty, wholesome looking fellows, whose lives were passed out-of-doors, dressed in their best in honor of the occasion. The prevailing fashion was a broad-leafed, felt hat with one side looped up to the crown by a brilliant metal button, a velvet coat with long, voluminous skirts, wide sleeves, metallic buttons as large as a Spanish dollar, short breeches, and long stockings with gold or silver knee and shoe buckles. Many wore swords, while those who did not bore about with them enormous gold or silver-headed canes. The smoking of pipes was common, and thoughtless profanity was to be heard on all sides as an ordinary part of speech. It was with no small difficulty we succeeded in forcing our way through this jostling throng until we attained to an open space ashore.
I followed closely behind the three composing our party, Roger Fairfax, and Sanchez, with the laughing girl between them for protection, pressing a passage forward. Even had I not been laden with packages my general appearance and dress would doubtless have proclaimed my position, and aroused passing interest. I heard voices calling attention to me, while curious eyes stared into my face. Fairfax was evidently well known to a number present, for he was being greeted on all sides with hearty hand-shakes, and words of welcome.
"Ah, back again, Roger; and what fortune in London?" "A fair price for the crop?"
"Is the lad trailing behind ye one o' Monmouth's men?"
"Any news, friend, in Parliament? What is the latest on the tax?"
"And pray who is this damsel, Roger; not Hugh Fairfax's girl? Ay, quite the woman now."
"Your men? They're over there, across the road. Of course I know; did I not come from the dock with them?"
There were two of them, both negroes, but one, addressed by Fairfax as Sam, was much the lighter in color, and far more intelligent of face. A few words of instruction dispatched these back to the Romping Betsy for the luggage yet remaining on board, while our own party continued to advance along the water front toward where Sam had designated the Fairfax boat would be found awaiting us, fully prepared to depart up the Chesapeake. When finally attained this vessel proved to be a goodly sized sloop, of a type familiar to those waters, containing a comfortable small cabin forward, a staunch, broad-beamed craft, but with lines indicating sailing qualities, while requiring only a small crew. Several similar vessels--doubtless owned and operated by planters residing along the shore of the Bay--were anchored in the basin, or fastened at the dock, but the Adele had been warped in against the bank, which at this point was high enough to enable us easily to step aboard over the low rail. A dingy looking white man, quite evidently from his appearance an indentured servant, was in charge, He greeted us rather surlily, staring at me with almost open hostility, yet responded swiftly enough to Fairfax's orders.
"Here, Carr, stow these packages away. Yes, you better help with them, Carlyle. The other bags will be along directly--Sam and John have gone after them. Put these forward, under cover. Has everything been seen to, so we can start at once?"
"Ay, ay, sorr," was the gruff response, in a strong Irish brogue. "Lord knows we've hid toime enough, fer we've bin waitin' here fer yer a wake, er more. It's a month since the lether came."
"We have had a slow voyage, Carr. So all I ordered is aboard?"
"She's full oop ter the hatches; bedad I hope thar ain't no more."
"Good; we ought to get as far as Travers' by dark then. Hurry along, and stow that stuff away; here come the others now."
The three found comfortable seats along the opposite rail, and sat there watching us hastily bring aboard the various articles which the two negroes, assisted by a boy and a cart, had transported from the brig. I worked along with the others, under the orders of Sam, who seemed to be in charge, already feeling somewhat deeply the humiliation of my position, but nevertheless realizing the necessity of prompt obedience. The knowledge that I was now a slave, on a level with these others, compelled to perform menial labor under the very eyes of Dorothy Fairfax and that sneering Spaniard, cut my pride to the quick. In my trips back and forth I kept my eyes averted, never once venturing to glance toward them, until this work had been accomplished. But when we stood idle, while Sam went aft for instructions, I had recovered sufficient nerve to turn my eyes in that direction, only to observe that the young woman sat with head turned away, gazing out over the rail at the shore, her chin cupped in her hands, her thoughts apparently far away. Strange as it may seem her obvious indifference hurt me oddly, my only comprehension being that she did not in the least care; that in fact she had already entirely dismissed me from her mind. This supposition, whether true or false, instantly hardened me to my fate, and I stared at Sanchez, meeting his eyes fairly, at once angered by the sneer on his lips and the open insult of his manner. He turned toward her, fingering a cheroot, and said something; but, though she answered, her head remained motionless, her eyes searching the shore indifferently. A figure or two appeared along the summit of the bank, voices calling to Fairfax, who stood up as he replied, ending the conversation with a wave of the hand to Sam, who had taken position at the wheel. The latter began shouting orders in a shrill voice. Carr cast off, and, with the negro and myself at the halliards, the mainsail rose to the caps, while we began gliding out from the shore into the deeper water. By the time we had hoisted the jib, and made all secure, we were out far enough to feel the full force of the stiff breeze, the Adele careening until her rail was awash, the white canvas soaring above us against the misty blue of the sky.
There was little to be done after the ropes had been coiled away, and we were fairly out into the broader reaches of the Bay. The wind held steady, requiring no shifting of canvas, so Sam, having dispatched the negro below to prepare lunch, and stationed Carr forward as lookout, called me aft to the wheel. He was a rather pleasant-faced fellow, yellow as saffron, with rings in his ears, and a wide mouth perpetually grinning.
"Massa Fairfax he say you real sailorman," he began, looking me over carefully, with a nod of his head toward the group at the rail. "Dat so?"
"Yes; I have been a number of years at sea."
"Dat what he say; dat he done bought yer fer dat reason mostly. Ah reckon den ye kin steer dis boat?"
"I certainly can."
"So? Den Ah's sure goin' fer ter let yer try right now. Yer take hol', while Ah stand by a bit."
I took his place, grasping the spokes firmly, and he stood aside, watching every movement closely, as I held the speeding sloop steadily up to the wind, the spray pouring in over the dipping rail forward. The grin on his lips broadened.
"What is the course?" I asked curiously.
"'Cross ter dat point yonder--see, whar de lone tree stan's; we done 'round dat 'bout tree hunder' yards out, an' then go straight 'way north."
"You use no chart?"
He burst into a guffaw, as though the question was a rare joke.
"No, sah; I nebber done saw one."
"But surely you must steer by compass?"
"Dar is a little one somewhar on board, and Ah done ain't seed it fer mor 'n a yare, Ah reckon. 'Tain't no use enyhow. Whut we steer by is landmarks. Ah sure does know de Chesapeake. Yer ever bin up de Bay?"
"Yes, twice, but out in the deep water. I suppose you hug along the west shore. How is the sloop--pretty heavily loaded?"
He nodded, still grinning cheerfully over the ease with which I manipulated the wheel.
"Chuck full ter de water line; we've done been shovin' things inter dat hold fer a week past, but she's sure a good sailor. Whut wus it Massa Roger say yer name wus?"
"So he did; don't ever recollect hearin' dat name afore. Ye's one of dem rebels ober in England?"
"I got mixed up in the affair."
"An' whut dey done give yer?"
"My sentence, you mean--twenty years."
"Lordy! dat's sure tough. Well, I reckon yer done know yer job all right, so I'll just leave yer here awhile, an' go forrard an' git a snack. Ain't eat nuthin' fer quite a spell. Ah'll be back afore yer 'round de point yonder."
I was alone at the wheel, the sloop in my control, and somehow as I stood there, grasping those spokes, the swift boat leaping forward through the water, leaning recklessly over before the force of the wind, the numbing sense of helpless servitude left me in a new return of manhood and responsibility. It was a scene of exhilaration, the sun, still partially obscured by misty clouds already well down in the western sky, with the tossing waves of the Bay foam-crested. The distant headlands appeared spectral and gray through the vapor, while the waters beyond took on the tint of purple shadows. The Adele responded to the helm gallantly, the spreading canvas above standing out like a board, a broad wake of white foam spreading far astern. Not another sail appeared across that troubled surface of waters, not even a fisherman's boat, the only other vessel visible along our course being a dim outline close in against that far-away headland toward which I had been instructed to steer. I stared at this indistinct object, at first believing it a wreck, but finally distinguishing the bare masts of a medium-sized bark, evidently riding at anchor only a few hundred yards off shore.
Satisfied as to this, my glance shifted to our own decks, feeling a seaman's admiration for the cleanliness of the little vessel, and the shipshape condition of everything aboard. The decks had more the appearance of a pleasure yacht, than that of a cargo carrier, although the broad beam, and commodious hatches bespoke ample storage room below. Apparently all this hold space had been reserved for the transportation of goods, the passenger quarters being forward, with the cook's galley at the foot of the mast. Where the crew slept I was unable to discern, but they were few in number, and as Sam had disappeared up a short ladder, and then across the roof of the cabin, it was highly probable there would be a compact forecastle nestled between the bows. The blacker negro was busily engaged in the galley, his figure occasionally visible at the open door, and a column of black smoke poured out through the tin funnel. The deck planks were scrubbed white, and the hand-rails had been polished until they shone.
The three passengers still remained seated together, the men conversing, and occasionally pointing forth at some object across the water, but, while I watched the little group, the girl made no movement, nor attempt at speech. None of them even so much as glanced toward me, and I felt that, already, I had been dismissed from their thought, had been relegated to my proper position, had sunken to my future place as a mere servant. Finally Mistress Dorothy arose to her feet, and, with a brief word of explanation to her uncle, started forward in the direction of the cabin. A sudden leap of the boat caused her to clutch the rail, and instantly Sanchez was at her side, proffering assistance. They crossed the dancing deck together, his hand upon her arm, and paused for a moment at the door to exchange a few sentences. When the Spaniard came back he pointed out to Fairfax the position of the still distant bark, which however was by this time plainly revealed off our port quarter. The planter stood up in order to see better, and then the two crossed the deck to a position only a few yards from where I stood at the wheel, and remained there, staring out across the intervening water.
"Surely a strange place in which to anchor, Lieutenant," said Fairfax at last, breaking the silence, his hand shading his eyes. "Bark rigged, and very heavily sparred. Seems to be all right. What do you make of the vessel?"
The Spaniard twisted his moustache, but exhibited little interest, although his gaze was upon the craft.
"Decidedly Dutch I should say," he answered slowly, "to judge from the shape of her lines, and the size of her spars. The beggars seem quite at home there, with all their washing out. Not a usual anchorage?"
"No, nor a particularly safe one. There are some very heavy seas off that point at times, and there is no plantation near by. Travers' place is beyond the bend. We'll put up with him tonight; he owns that land yonder, but his wharf is several miles up the coast. Damn me, Sanchez, I believe I 'll hail the fellow, and find out what he is doing in there."
Sanchez nodded, carelessly striking flint and steel in an effort to relight a cheroot, and Fairfax turned his head toward me.
"Oh, is that you, Carlyle? Where is Sam?"
"Gone forward, sir, half an hour ago. He decided I was safe."
The planter laughed, with a side glance toward Sanchez, who gave no sign that he overhead.
"No doubt he was right. Port your helm a little, and run down as close as seems safe to that fellow out yonder, until I hail him."
"Very well, sir."
We came about slowly, tossed a bit by the heavy swell, the ponderous boom swinging, and permitting the loosened canvas to flap against the ropes, until the sloop finally steadied onto the new tack. The distance to be covered was not great, and in less than ten minutes, we were drawing in toward the high stern of the anchored vessel. She was larger than I had thought, a lumping craft for those days, bark rigged, with lower spars the heaviest I had ever seen. No evidence of life appeared on board, although everything looked shipshape alow and aloft, and a rather extensive wash flapped in the wind forward, bespeaking a generous crew. There was no flag at the mizzen to signify nationality, yet there was a peculiar touch to the rig which confirmed in my mind the truth of Sanchez's guess that she was originally Dutch. A moment later this supposition was confirmed as my eyes made out the name painted across the stern--NAMUR OF ROTTERDAM.
Fairfax leaned far out across the rail, as we swept in closer, his eyes searching the stranger's side for some evidence of human presence aboard, but the Spaniard exhibited no particular interest in the proceedings, standing motionless, the smoke of the cheroot blown idly from his mouth, The fellow's face was turned from me, yet I could not help note the insolence of his attitude, in spite of my occupation at the wheel. A hundred feet distant, I held the dancing sloop to mere steerage-way, while Fairfax hailed in a voice which went roaring across the water like a gun.
"Ahoy, the bark!"
A red-faced man with a black beard thrust his head up above the after rail, and answered, using English, yet with a faint accent which was not Dutch. What he looked like below the shoulders could not be discerned.
"Veil, vat's vanted? Vos anyding wrong?"
"No, not aboard here," returned Fairfax, a bit puzzled at the reply, "We ran down to see if you were in any trouble. This is a strange place to anchor. What are you--Dutch?"
The fellow waved his hands in a gesture indicating disgust. "Dat's eet. Ve're out ov Rotterdam--you see ze name ov ze sheep. But ve not sail frum thar dis time--no. Ve cum here from ze Barbadoes," he explained brokenly "wiz cane-sugar, an' hides. Ve vait here for our agent."
"But why anchor in a place like this? Why not go on up to the wharfs?"
"Vye not? For ziz--I no trust my crew ashore. Zay Vest Indy niggers, an' vud run avay ven ze chance cum. I know vat zay do."
In spite of my efforts the two vessels were drifting rapidly apart, and this last explanation came to us over the water in a faint thread of sound barely discernible. I asked if I should tack back, but Fairfax shook his head, and in a moment more we were beyond reach of the voice. Dorothy appeared at the door of the cabin and stood there, gazing in surprise at the bark, while the moment he caught sight of her Sanchez went hastily forward, removing his hat with so peculiar a flourish as he approached as to cause me to notice the gesture. Fairfax remained beside the rail, staring out across the widening water, clearly dissatisfied, but finally waved his hand in a command to me to resume our course. Shortly after he crossed the deck to the wheel, and stood there beside me, still watchful of the dwindling vessel already far astern.
"What do you make of her, Carlyle?" he asked finally, turning slightly to glance at my face. "I believe that fellow lied."
"So do I, sir," I answered promptly. "Whatever else he may be, he's no peaceful Dutch trader. The bark is Dutch built all right, and no doubt once sailed out of Rotterdam; but that fellow got his accent from South Europe."
"Damn me, that's just what I thought."
"Nor is that all, sir. If he was loaded with cane-sugar and hides for market, he wouldn't be nearly so high out of water. That bark was in ballast, or I miss my guess. Besides, if he was a trader, where was his crew? There wasn't a single head popped over the rail while we were alongside; and that isn't natural. Even a West India nigger has curiosity. I tell you the men on board that hooker had orders to keep down."
Fairfax stroked his chin, his eyes shifting from the distant vessel to Dorothy and Sanchez who were now making their way slowly aft, the latter grasping the girl's arm, and smirking as he talked rapidly.
"By God! but I believe you are right," he admitted frankly, "although it had not occurred to me before. There is something wrong there. I'll tell Travers, and have him send a runner overland to give warning below."