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SCENES AT SE A.
THE PIRATE-THE SHARK.
ON a beautiful Sunday evening, after prayers had been said on board the Hector, a merchant-vessel bound for Jamaica, the crew and passengers continued to lounge upon deck, in order apparently to enjoy the tranquillity, if not the beauty of the scene, which harmonised remarkably well with the character of the day. We were now amongst the Lesser Antilles; and both for this reason, and the fact that slavers and pirates were then very numerous in the Caribbean Sea, we were obliged always to keep a sharp look-out, more especially at sundown. To take a minute survey of the horizon, was the regular practice of the captain before the expiry of the short twilight; but on this occasion, not a speck of any description whatever was visible. With the daylight the wind also died completely away; but, in case of sudden squalls during the night, our studding, and a great part of the other sails, were clewed up, and all made snug aloft,' to use the technical phrase. It might be about two hours after sunset, but the greater portion of the passengers were still on
deck, amused by the efforts of some of the crew to catch a number of those heavy, sluggish birds appropriately termed boobies, which had settled on different parts of the rigging, and were there snoozing without the slightest apprehension of danger. One of the men had for this purpose crawled forward, almost to the extremity of the yard-arm, and was in the very act of putting his hand upon a slumbering captive, when we saw him suddenly look up, shade his eyes with his hand for a moment, then heard him exclaim in a loud voice: A sail on the starboard-quarter !'
'Impossible!' responded the mate, whose watch it was. 'It's true, howsomever, sir,' said the man, after another long and steady look; though I cannot guess what she is, unless the Flying Dutchman!' and he began to descend the rigging with evident symptoms of trepidation, leaving the booby in undisturbed enjoyment of his nap.
All now crowded to the side of the vessel; and true it was, that in a few minutes we could perceive, between us and the sky, the tall spar of a vessel, which, by the nightglass, was made out to be a schooner. She was at about half a mile's distance from us, and by the way in which her royals were set, appeared to be standing right across our fore-foot. The circumstance seemed absolutely incredible. Scarcely one puff of wind had lifted our sails since long before sunset, and by the log it was seen that we could not have been advancing above half a knot an hour: yet there lay the strange vessel, come whence or how she may. Not a whisper was heard amongst us. Our captain, standing in the waist, in order to bring the strange vessel more clearly betwixt him and the sky, remained silent, gazing anxiously through his night-glass. At last he observed: 'She is getting on another course, and must only have now made us out. But it is as well to be prepared-she looks suspicious. Let the guns be shotted, Mr Clarke, and call up all hands to quarters. Bring her head up to the wind' (to the helmsman): 'we'll soon see whether they really want to speak us or not.'
These orders, which were not a little appalling to most
of us passengers, seemed to diffuse the most unqualified satisfaction amongst the crew. A cheerful and lively bustle prevailed fore and aft; for it must be remembered, that merchantmen in those days were necessitated to be as well prepared for the battle as for the breeze. The ports were thrown open, and the carronades (then recently introduced) run out; and the men stood in expectation, or at least in evident hopes, of an approaching conflict. The suspicious-looking vessel, however, seemed to have no hostile purpose in view; she disappeared in the gloom of the night as mysteriously as she had approached us, and the respective fears and hopes of those on board the Hector were alike disappointed. But the captain appeared far from satisfied; he paced along the deck, silent and thoughtful; and although the men were ordered down to their hammocks, he himself remained on deck, and with five or six of the most vigilant of the crew, kept a continual look-out towards all points of the compass.
And the result proved the prudence of this watchfulness. In less than an hour, the cry was heard: 'A sail on the larboard bow!' and all eyes were immediately directed to that quarter. It was at once made out that the vessel was a schooner, and from some peculiarity in her rigging, the captain pronounced her to be the same we had before seen. Strange to tell, she appeared to be bearing right down upon our quarter, although no alteration in the weather had occurred with us! Her royals, as before, seemed filled, and her course was altogether too direct and steady to allow us to suppose that she was worked by means of sweeps. But her hostile purpose could no longer be mistaken, and there was an immediate piping-up amongst the crew. Several of the passengers also magnanimously prepared to assist in defence of the vessel, and a suitable supply of muskets, cutlasses, and ammunition, was handed up from the hold. While this last operation was going on, the schooner had approached within a few cable-lengths of us, when she suddenly bore up. As she was within hailing distance, our captain bawled out through his trumpet, demanding to know her name, and where she was from.
A confused and unintelligible jabbering, but which from the sound seemed to be in a barbarous Portuguese idiom, was the only response. A second and a third time she was hailed with the same result. While this colloquy was going on, by the dexterous management of her sails, she (to use the nautical phrase) walked round our stern, although no increase of wind was perceptible by our own canvas. As she again came round upon our starboard-quarter, our captain ordered one of the stern-guns to be fired across her bows; but no notice was taken of the salute, and our mysterious visitant at length bore away from us, and was speedily lost sight of. There was no doubt as to her being one of the noted piratical vessels which carried on this nefarious traffic between the Spanish main and those islands, chiefly Cuba and St Domingo, where they had their haunts. They were built expressly for the purpose, with low hulls and immensely long spars, fitted to catch whatever current of wind might be prevailing in the upper regions of the atmosphere, and which the less elevated sails of other vessels might fail to reach. Some of their hulls, I was also told, were so constructed that, by turning certain screws, the sea could be allowed to rush into their false keels or bottoms, by which their speed was accelerated in an amazing degree. All this to me appeared extraordinary at the time, but I afterwards had practical reasons for knowing the truth of the information.
As may be imagined, we continued on the alert during the night, but heard no more of the strange schooner. Dawn was fast approaching, when our attention was once more aroused by the flash, followed by the report, of a gun right ahead of us. From the loudness of the explosion, as well as the rapidity with which it followed the flash, it was easy to perceive that the vessel could be at no great distance, as well as that she must be a large man-of-war. After a few minutes' interval, another shot boomed along the deep, rapidly succeeded by several others of the same formidable loudness. At length these were replied to by other guns evidently of a less calibre, and proceeding from a different quarter.