When the great wars of the Spanish Succession had been brought to an end by the Treaty of Utrecht, the vast number of privateers which had been fitted out by the contending parties found their occupation gone. Some took to the more peaceful but less lucrative ways of ordinary commerce, others were absorbed into the fishing-fleets, and a few of the more reckless hoisted the Jolly Rodger at the mizzen and the bloody flag at the main, declaring a private war upon their own account against the whole human race.
With mixed crews, recruited from every nation they scoured the seas, disappearing occasionally to careen in some lonely inlet, or putting in for a debauch at some outlaying port, where they dazzled the inhabitants by their lavishness and horrified them by their brutalities.
On the Coromandel Coast, at Madagascar, in the African waters, and above all in the West Indian and American seas, the pirates were a constant menace. With an insolent luxury they would regulate their depredations by the comfort of the seasons, harrying New England in the summer and dropping south again to the tropical islands in the winter.
They were the more to be dreaded because they had none of that discipline and restraint which made their predecessors, the Buccaneers, both formidable and respectable. These Ishmaels of the sea rendered an account to no man, and treated their prisoners according to the drunken whim of the moment. Flashes of grotesque generosity alternated with longer stretches of inconceivable ferocity, and the skipper who fell into their hands might find himself dismissed with his cargo, after serving as boon companion in some hideous debauch, or might sit at his cabin table with his own nose and his lips served up with pepper and salt in front of him. It took a stout seaman in those days to ply his calling in the Caribbean Gulf.
Such a man was Captain John Scarrow, of the ship Morning Star, and yet he breathed a long sigh of relief when he heard the splash of the falling anchor and swung at his moorings within a hundred yards of the guns of the citadel of Basseterre. St. Kitt’s was his final port of call, and early next morning his bowsprit would be pointed for Old England. He had had enough of those robber-haunted seas. Ever since he had left Maracaibo upon the Main, with his full lading of sugar and red pepper, he had winced at every topsail which glimmered over the violet edge of the tropical sea. He had coasted up the Windward Islands, touching here and there, and assailed continually by stories of villainy and outrage.
Captain Sharkey, of the 20-gun pirate barque, Happy Delivery, had passed down the coast, and had littered it with gutted vessels and with murdered men. Dreadful anecdotes were current of his grim pleasantries and of his inflexible ferocity. From the Bahamas to the Main his coal-black barque, with the ambiguous name, had been freighted with death and many things which are worse than death. So nervous was Captain Scarrow, with his new full-rigged ship and her full and valuable lading, that he struck out to the west as far as Bird’s Island to be out of the usual track of commerce. And yet even in those solitary waters he had been unable to shake off sinister traces of Captain Sharkey.
One morning they had raised a single skiff adrift upon the face of the ocean. Its only occupant was a delirious seaman, who yelled hoarsely as they hoisted him aboard, and showed a dried-up tongue like a black and wrinkled fungus at the back of his mouth. Water and nursing soon transformed him into the strongest and smartest sailor on the ship. He was from Marblehead, in New England, it seemed, and was the sole survivor of a schooner which had been scuttled by the dreadful Sharkey.
For a week Hiram Evanson, for that was his name, had been adrift beneath a tropical sun. Sharkey had ordered the mangled remains of his late captain to be thrown into the boat, “as provisions for the voyage,” but the seaman had at once committed them to the deep, lest the temptation should be more than he could bear. He had lived upon his own huge frame, until, at the last moment, the Morning Star had found him in that madness which is the precursor of such a death. It was no bad find for Captain Scarrow, for, with a short-handed crew, such a seaman as this big New Englander was a prize worth having. He vowed that he was the only man whom Captain Sharkey had ever placed under an obligation.
Now that they lay under the guns of Basseterre, all danger from the pirate was at an end, and yet the thought of him lay heavily upon the seaman’s mind as he watched the agent’s boat shooting out from the custom-house quay.
“I’ll lay you a wager, Morgan,” said he to the first mate, “that the agent will speak of Sharkey in the first hundred words that pass his lips.”
“Well, captain, I’ll have you a silver dollar, and chance it,” said the rough old Bristol man beside him.
The negro rowers shot the boat alongside, and the linen-clad steersman sprang up the ladder.
“Welcome, Captain Scarrow!” he cried. “Have you heard about Sharkey?”
The captain grinned at the mate.
“What devilry has he been up to now?” he asked.
“Devilry! You’ve not heard, then! Why, we’ve got him safe under lock and key here at Basseterre. He was tried last Wednesday, and he is to be hanged to-morrow morning.”
Captain and mate gave a shout of joy, which an instant later was taken up by the crew. Discipline was forgotten as they scrambled up through the break of the poop to hear the news. The New Englander was in the front of them with a radiant face turned up to heaven, for he came of the Puritan stock.
“Sharkey to be hanged!” he cried. “You don’t know, Master Agent, if they lack a hangman, do you?”
“Stand back!” cried the mate, whose outraged sense of discipline was even stronger than his interest at the news. “I’ll pay that dollar, Captain Scarrow, with the lightest heart that ever I paid a wager yet. How came the villain to be taken?”
“Why, as to that, he became more than his own comrades could abide, and they took such a horror of him that they would not have him on the ship. So they marooned him upon the Little Mangles to the south of the Mysteriosa Bank, and there he was found by a Portobello trader, who brought him in. There was talk of sending him to Jamaica to be tried, but our good little governor, Sir Charles Ewan, would not hear of it. ‘He’s my meat,’ said he, ‘and I claim the cooking of it.’ If you can stay till to-morrow morning at ten, you’ll see the joint swinging.”
“I wish I could,” said the captain, wistfully, “but I am sadly behind time now. I should start with the evening tide.”
“That you can’t do,” said the agent with decision. “The Governor is going back with you.”
“Yes. He’s had a dispatch from Government to return without delay. The fly-boat that brought it has gone on to Virginia. So Sir Charles has been waiting for you, as I told him you were due before the rains.”
“Well, well!” cried the captain, in some perplexity, “I’m a plain seaman, and I don’t know much of governors and baronets and their ways. I don’t remember that I ever so much as spoke to one. But if it’s in King George’s service, and he asks a cast in the Morning Star as far as London, I’ll do what I can for him. There’s my own cabin he can have and welcome. As to the cooking, it’s lobscouse and salmagundy six days in the week; but he can bring his own cook aboard with him if he thinks our galley too rough for his taste.”
“You need not trouble your mind, Captain Scarrow,” said the agent. “Sir Charles is in weak health just now, only clear of a quartan ague, and it is likely he will keep his cabin most of the voyage. Dr. Larousse said that he would have sunk had the hanging of Sharkey not put fresh life into him. He has a great spirit in him, though, and you must not blame him if he is somewhat short in his speech.”
“He may say what he likes and do what he likes so long as he does not come athwart my hawse when I am working the ship,” said the captain. “He is Governor of St. Kitt’s, but I am Governor of the Morning Star. And, by his leave, I must weigh with the first tide, for I owe a duty to my employer, just as he does to King George.”
“He can scarce be ready to-night, for he has many things to set in order before he leaves.”
“The early morning tide, then.”
“Very good. I shall send his things aboard to-night, and he will follow them to-morrow early if I can prevail upon him to leave St. Kitt’s without seeing Sharkey do the rogue’s hornpipe. His own orders were instant, so it may be that he will come at once. It is likely that Dr. Larousse may attend him upon the journey.”
Left to themselves, the captain and mate made the best preparations which they could for their illustrious passenger. The largest cabin was turned out and adorned in his honour, and orders were given by which barrels of fruit and some cases of wine should be brought off to vary the plain food of an ocean-going trader. In the evening the Governor’s baggage began to arrive—great ironbound ant-proof trunks, and official tin packing-cases, with other strange-shaped packages, which suggested the cocked hat or the sword within. And then there came a note, with a heraldic device upon the big red seal, to say that Sir Charles Ewan made his compliments to Captain Scarrow, and that he hoped to be with him in the morning as early as his duties and his infirmities would permit.