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Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts by  Frank R. Stockton


 

 

THE PIRATE OF THE BURIED TREASURE

[291] AMONG all the pirates who have figured in history, legend, or song, there is one whose name stands preŽminent as the typical hero of the dreaded black flag. The name of this man will instantly rise in the mind of almost every reader, for when we speak of pirates we always think of Captain Kidd.

In fact, however, Captain Kidd was not a typical pirate, for in many ways he was different from the ordinary marine freebooter, especially when we consider him in relation to our own country. All other pirates who made themselves notorious on our coast were known as robbers, pillagers, and ruthless destroyers of life and property, but Captain Kidd's fame was of another kind. We do not think of him as a pirate who came to carry away the property of American citizens, for nearly all the stories about him relate to his arrival at different points on our shores for the sole purpose of burying and thus [292] concealing the rich treasures which he had collected in other parts of the world.

This novel reputation given a pirate who enriched our shore by his deposits and took away none of the possessions of our people could not fail to make Captain Kidd a most interesting personage, and the result has been that he has been lifted out of the sphere of ordinary history and description into the region of imagination and legendary romance. In a word, he has been made a hero of fiction and song. It may be well, then, to assume that there are two Captain Kidds,—one the Kidd of legend and story, and the other the Kidd of actual fact, and we will consider, one at a time, the two characters in which we know the man.

As has been said before, nearly all the stories of the legendary Captain Kidd relate to his visits along our northern coast, and even to inland points, for the purpose of concealing the treasures which had been amassed in other parts of the world.

Thus if we were to find ourselves in almost any village or rural settlement along the coast of New Jersey or Long Island, and were to fall in with any old resident who was fond of talking to strangers, he would probably point out to us the blackened and weather-beaten ribs of a great ship which had been wrecked on the sand bar off the coast during a terrible storm long ago; he would show us where the [293] bathing was pleasant and safe; he would tell us of the best place for fishing, and probably show us the high bluff a little back from the beach from which the Indian maiden leaped to escape the tomahawk of her enraged lover, and then he would be almost sure to tell us of the secluded spot where it was said Captain Kidd and his pirates once buried a lot of treasure.

If we should ask our garrulous guide why this treasure had not been dug up by the people of the place, he would probably shake his head and declare that personally he knew nothing about it, but that it was generally believed that it was there, and he had heard that there had been people who had tried to find it, but if they did find any they never said anything about it, and it was his opinion that if Captain Kidd ever put any gold or silver or precious stones under the ground on that part of the coast these treasures were all there yet.

Further questioning would probably develop the fact that there was a certain superstition which prevented a great many people from interfering with the possible deposits which Captain Kidd had made in their neighborhood, and although few persons would be able to define exactly the foundation of the superstition, it was generally supposed that most of the pirates' treasures were guarded by pirate ghosts. In that case, of course, timid individuals would be [294] deterred from going out by themselves at night, for that was the proper time to dig for buried treasure,—and as it would not have been easy to get together a number of men each brave enough to give the others courage, many of the spots reputed to be the repositories of buried treasure have never been disturbed.

In spite of the fear of ghosts, in spite of the want of accurate knowledge in regard to favored localities, in spite of hardships, previous disappointments, or expected ridicule, a great many extensive excavations have been made in the sands or the soil along the coasts of our northern states, and even in quiet woods lying miles from the sea, to which it would have been necessary for the pirates to carry their goods in wagons, people have dug and hoped and have gone away sadly to attend to more sensible business, and far up some of our rivers—where a pirate vessel never floated—people have dug with the same hopeful anxiety, and have stopped digging in the same condition of dejected disappointment.

Sometimes these enterprises were conducted on a scale which reminds us of the operations on the gold coast of California. Companies were organized, stock was issued and subscribed for, and the excavations were conducted under the direction of skilful treasure-seeking engineers.

It is said that not long ago a company was organ- [295] ized in Nova Scotia for the purpose of seeking for Captain Kidd's treasures in a place which it is highly probable Captain Kidd never saw. A great excavation having been made, the water from the sea came in and filled it up, but the work was stopped only long enough to procure steam pumps with which the big hole could be drained. At last accounts the treasures had not been reached, and this incident is mentioned only to show how this belief in buried treasures continues even to the present day.

There is a legend which differs somewhat from the ordinary run of these stories, and it is told about a little island on the coast of Cape Cod, which is called Hannah Screecher's Island, and this is the way its name came to it.

Captain Kidd while sailing along the coast, looking for a suitable place to bury some treasure, found this island adapted to his purpose, and landed there with his savage crew, and his bags and boxes, and his gold and precious stones. It was said to be the habit of these pirates, whenever they made a deposit on the coast, to make the hole big enough not only to hold the treasure they wished to deposit there, but the body of one of the crew,—who was buried with the valuables in order that his spirit might act as a day and night watchman to frighten away people who might happen to be digging in that particular spot.

[296] The story relates that somewhere on the coast Captain Kidd had captured a young lady named Hannah, and not knowing what to do with her, and desiring not to commit an unnecessary extravagance by disposing of a useful sailor, he determined to kill Hannah, and bury her with the treasure, in order that she might keep away intruders until he came for it.

It was very natural that when Hannah was brought on shore and found out what was going to be done with her, she should screech in a most dreadful manner, and although the pirates soon silenced her and covered her up, they did not succeed in silencing her spirit, and ever since that time,—according to the stories told by some of the older inhabitants of Cape Cod,—there may be heard in the early dusk of the evening the screeches of Hannah coming across the water from her little island to the mainland.

Mr. James Herbert Morse has written a ballad founded upon this peculiar incident, and with the permission of the author we give it here:—

THE LADY HANNAH

"Now take my hand," quoth Captain Kidd,

"The air is blithe, I scent the meads."

He led her up the starlit sands,

Out of the rustling reeds.


The great white owl then beat his breast,

Athwart the cedars whirred and flew;

"There's death in our handsome captain's eye,"

Murmured the pirate's crew.


And long they lay upon their oars

And cursed the silence and the chill;

They cursed the wail of the rising wind,

For no man dared be still.


Of ribald songs they sang a score

To stifle the midnight sobs and sighs,

They told wild tales of the Indian Main,

To drown the far-off cries.


But when they ceased, and Captain Kidd

Came down the sands of Dead Neck Isle,

"My lady wearies," he grimly said,

"And she would rest awhile.


"I've made her a bed—'tis here, 'tis there,

And she shall wake, be it soon or long,

Where grass is green and wild birds sing

And the wind makes undersong.


"Be quick, my men, and give a hand,

She loved soft furs and silken stuff,

Jewels of gold and silver bars,

And she shall have enough.


"With silver bars and golden ore,

So fine a lady she shall be,

A many suitor shall seek her long,

As they sought Penelope.


[298]

"And if a lover would win her hand,

No lips e'er kissed a hand so white,

And if a lover would hear her sing,

She sings at owlet light.


"But if a lover would win her gold,

And his hands be strong to lift the lid,

'Tis here, 'tis there, 'tis everywhere—

In the chest," quoth Captain Kidd.


They lifted long, they lifted well,

Ingots of gold, and silver bars,

And silken plunder from wild, wild wars,

But where they laid them, no man can tell,

Though known to a thousand stars.

But the ordinary Kidd stories are very much the same, and depend a good deal upon the character of the coast and upon the imagination of the people who live in that region. We will give one of them as a sample, and from this a number of very good pirate stories could be manufactured by ingenious persons.

It was a fine summer night late in the seventeenth century. A young man named Abner Stout, in company with his wife Mary, went out for a walk upon the beach. They lived in a little village near the coast of New Jersey. Abner was a good carpenter, but a poor man; but he and his wife were very happy with each other, and as they walked [299] toward the sea in the light of the full moon, no young lovers could have been more gay.

When they reached a little bluff covered with low shrubbery, which was the first spot from which they could have a full view of the ocean, Abner suddenly stopped, and pointed out to Mary an unusual sight. There, as plainly in view as if it had been broad daylight, was a vessel lying at the entrance of the little bay. The sails were furled, and it was apparently anchored.

For a minute Abner gazed in utter amazement at the sight of this vessel, for no ships, large or small, came to this little lonely bay. There was a harbor two or three miles farther up the coast to which all trading craft repaired. What could the strange ship want here?

This unusual visitor to the little bay was a very low and very long, black schooner, with tall masts which raked forward, and with something which looked very much like a black flag fluttering in its rigging. Now the truth struck into the soul of Abner. "Hide yourself, Mary," he whispered. "It is a pirate ship!" And almost at the same instant the young man and his wife laid themselves flat on the ground among the bushes, but they were very careful, each of them, to take a position which would allow them to peep out through the twigs and leaves upon the scene before them.

[300] There seemed to be a good deal of commotion on board the black schooner, and very soon a large boat pushed off from her side, and the men in it began rowing rapidly toward the shore, apparently making for a spot on the beach, not far from the bluff on which Abner and Mary were concealed. "Let us get up and run," whispered Mary, trembling from head to toe. "They are pirates, and they are coming here!"

"Lie still! Lie still!" said Abner. "If we get up and leave these bushes, we shall be seen, and then they will be after us! Lie still, and do not move a finger!"

The trembling Mary obeyed her husband, and they both lay quite still, scarcely breathing, with eyes wide open. The boat rapidly approached the shore. Abner counted ten men rowing and one man sitting in the stern. The boat seemed to be heavily loaded, and the oarsmen rowed hard.

Now the boat was run through the surf to the beach, and its eleven occupants jumped out. There was no mistaking their character. They were true pirates. They had great cutlasses and pistols, and one of them was very tall and broad shouldered, and wore an old-fashioned cocked hat.

"That's Captain Kidd," whispered Abner to his wife, and she pressed his hand to let him know that she thought he must be right.

[301] Now the men came up high upon the beach, and began looking about here and there as if they were searching for something. Mary was filled with horror for fear they should come to that bluff to search, but Abner knew there was no danger of that. They had probably come to those shores to bury treasure, as if they were great sea-turtles coming up upon the beach to lay their eggs, and they were now looking for some good spot where they might dig.

Presently the tall man gave some orders in a low voice, and then his men left him to himself, and went back to the boat. There was a great pine tree standing back a considerable distance from the water, battered and racked by storms, but still a tough old tree. Toward this the pirate captain stalked, and standing close to it, with his back against it, he looked up into the sky. It was plain that he was looking for a star. There were very few of these luminaries to be seen in the heavens, for the moon was so bright. But as Abner looked in the direction in which the pirate captain gazed, he saw a star still bright in spite of the moonlight.

With his eyes fixed upon this star, the pirate captain now stepped forward, making long strides. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Then he stopped, plunged his right heel in the soft ground, and turned squarely about to the left, so that his [302] broad back was now parallel with a line drawn from the pine tree to the star.

At right angles to this line the pirate now stepped forward, making as before seven long paces. Then he stopped, dug his heel into the ground, and beckoned to his men. Up they came running, carrying picks and spades, and with great alacrity they began to dig at the place where the captain had marked with his heel.

It was plain that these pirates were used to making excavations, for it was not long before the hole was so deep that those within it could not be seen. Then the captain gave an order to cease digging, and he and all the pirates went back to the boat.

For about half an hour,—though Mary thought it was a longer time than that, —those pirates worked very hard carrying great boxes and bags from the boat to the excavation. When everything had been brought up, two of the pirates went down into the hole, and the others handed to them the various packages. Skilfully and quickly they worked, doubtless storing their goods with great care, until nearly everything which had been brought from the boat had been placed in the deep hole. Some rolls of goods were left upon the ground which Mary thought were carpets, but which Abner believed to be rich Persian rugs, or something of that kind.

[303] Now the captain stepped aside, and picking up from the sand some little sticks and reeds, he selected ten of them, and with these in one hand, and with their ends protruding a short distance above his closed fingers, he rejoined his men. They gathered before him, and he held out toward them the hand which contained the little sticks.

"They're drawing lots!" gasped Abner, and Mary trembled more than she had done yet.

Now the lots were all drawn, and one man, apparently a young pirate, stepped out from among his fellows. His head was bowed, and his arms were folded across his manly chest. The captain spoke a few words, and the young pirate advanced alone to the side of the deep hole.


[Illustration]

TWO OF THE PIRATES WENT DOWN INTO THE HOLE.

Mary now shut her eyes tight, tight; but Abner's were wide open. There was a sudden gleam of cutlasses in the air; there was one short, plaintive groan, and the body of the young pirate fell into the hole. Instantly all the other goods, furs, rugs, or whatever they were, were tumbled in upon him. Then the men began to shovel in the earth and sand, and in an incredibly short time the hole was filled up even with the ground about it.

Of course all the earth and sand which had been taken out of the hole could not now be put back into it. But these experienced treasure-hiders knew exactly what to do with it. A spadeful at a time, [304] the soil which could not be replaced was carried to the sea, and thrown out into the water, and when the whole place had been carefully smoothed over, the pirates gathered sticks and stones, and little bushes, and great masses of wild cranberry vines, and scattered them about over the place so that it soon looked exactly like the rest of the beach about it.

Then the tall captain gave another low command, the pirates returned to their boat, it was pushed off, and rapidly rowed back to the schooner. Up came the anchor, up went the dark sails. The low, black schooner was put about, and very soon she was disappearing over the darkening waters, her black flag fluttering fiercely high above her.

"Now, let us run," whispered poor Mary, who, although she had not seen everything, imagined a great deal; for as the pirates were getting into their boat she had opened her eyes and had counted them, and there were only nine beside the tall captain.

Abner thought that her advice was very good, and starting up out of the brushwood they hastened home as fast as their legs would carry them.

The next day Abner seemed to be a changed man. He had work to do, but he neglected it. Never had such a thing happened before! For hours he sat in front of the house, looking up into the sky, counting one, two, three, four, five, six, [305] seven. Then he would twist himself around on the little bench, and count seven more.

This worthy couple lived in a small house which had a large cellar, and during the afternoon of that day Abner busied himself in clearing out this cellar, and taking out of it everything which it had contained. His wife asked no questions. In her soul she knew what Abner was thinking about.

Supper was over, and most of the people in the village were thinking of going to bed, when Abner said to Mary, "Let us each take a spade, and I will carry a pail, and we will go out upon the beach for a walk. If any one should see us, they would think that we were going to dig for clams."

"Oh, no, dear Abner!" cried Mary. "We must not dig there! Think of that young pirate. Almost the first thing we would come to would be him!"

"I have thought of that," said Abner; "but do you not believe that the most Christian act that you and I could do would be to take him out and place him in a proper grave near by?"

"Oh, no!" exclaimed Mary, "do not say such a thing as that! Think of his ghost! They killed him and put him there, that his ghost might guard their treasure. You know, Abner, as well as I do, that this is their dreadful fashion!"

"I know all about that," said Abner, "and that is the reason I wish to go to-night. I do not be- [306] lieve there has yet been time enough for his ghost to form. But let us take him out now, dear Mary, and lay him reverently away,—and then!" He looked at her with flashing eyes.

"But, Abner," said she, "do you think we have the right?"

"Of course we have," said he. "Those treasures do not belong to the pirates. If we take them they are treasure-trove, and legally ours. And think, dear Mary, how poor we are to-night, and how rich we may be to-morrow! Come, get the pail. We must be off."

Running nearly all the way,—for they were in such a hurry they could not walk,—Abner and Mary soon reached the bluff, and hastily scrambling down to the beach below, they stood upon the dreadful spot where Captain Kidd and his pirates had stood the night before. There was the old battered pine tree, reaching out two of its bare arms encouragingly toward them.

Without loss of time Abner walked up to the tree, put his back to it, and then looked up into the sky. Now he called Mary to him. "Which star do you think he looked at, good wife?" said he. "There is a bright one low down, and then there is another one a little higher up, and farther to the right, but it is fainter."

"It would be the bright one, I think," said [307] Mary. And then Abner, his eyes fixed upon the bright star, commenced to stride. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Turning squarely around to the left he again made seven paces. And now he beckoned vigorously to Mary to come and dig.

For about ten minutes they dug, and then they laid bare a great mass of rock. "This isn't the place," cried Abner. "I must begin again. I did not look at the right star. I will take the other one."

For the greater part of that night Abner and Mary remained upon the beach. Abner would put his back against the tree, fix his eyes upon another star, stride forward seven paces, and then seven to the left, and he would come upon a little scrubby pine tree. Of course that was not the place.

The moon soon began to set, and more stars came out, so that Abner had a greater choice. Again and again he made his measurements, and every time that he came to the end of his second seven paces, he found that it would have been impossible for the pirates to make their excavation there.

There was clearly something wrong. Abner thought that he had not selected the right star, and Mary thought that his legs were not long enough. "That pirate captain," quoth she, "had a long and manly stride. Seven of his paces would go a far greater distance than seven of yours, Abner."

[308] Abner made his paces a little longer; but although he and his wife kept up their work until they could see the early dawn, they found no spot where it would be worth while to dig, and so mournfully they returned to their home and their empty cellar.

As long as the moonlight lasted, Abner and Mary went to the little beach at the head of the bay, and made their measurements and their searches, but although they sometimes dug a little here and there, they always found that they had not struck the place where the pirate's treasure had been buried.

When at last they gave up their search, and concluded to put their household goods back into their cellar, they told the tale to some of the neighbors, and other people went out and dug, not only at the place which had been designated, but miles up and down the coast, and then story was told and retold, and so it has lasted until the present day.

What has been said about the legendary Captain Kidd will give a very good idea of the estimation in which this romantic being has been, and still is, held in various parts of the country, and, of all the legitimate legends about him, there is not one which recounts his piratical deeds upon our coast. The reason for this will be seen when we consider, in the next chapter, the life and character of the real Captain Kidd.


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