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Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts by  Frank R. Stockton


 

 

THE STORY OF A HIGH-MINDED PIRATE

[171] AFTER having considered the extraordinary performances of so many of those execrable wretches, the buccaneers, it is refreshing and satisfactory to find that there were exceptions even to the rules which governed the conduct and general make-up of the ordinary pirate of the period, and we are therefore glad enough to tell the story of a man, who, although he was an out-and-out buccaneer, possessed some peculiar characteristics which give him a place of his own in the history of piracy.

In the early part of these sketches we have alluded to a gentleman of France, who, having become deeply involved in debt, could see no way of putting himself in a condition to pay his creditors but to go into business of some kind. He had no mercantile education, he had not learned any profession, and it was therefore necessary for him to do something for which a previous preparation was not absolutely essential.

After having carefully considered all the methods [172] of making money which were open to him under the circumstances, he finally concluded to take up piracy and literature. Even at the present day it is considered by many persons that one of these branches of industry is a field of action especially adapted to those who have not had the opportunity of giving the time and study necessary in any other method of making a living.

The French gentleman whose adventures we are about to relate was a very different man from John Esquemeling, who was a literary pirate and nothing more. Being of a clerkly disposition, the gentle John did not pretend to use the sabre or the pistol. His part in life was simply to watch his companions fight, burn, and steal, while his only weapon was his pen, with which he set down their exploits and thereby murdered their reputations.

But Monsieur Raveneau de Lussan was both buccaneer and author, and when he had finished his piratical career he wrote a book in which he gave a full account of it, thus showing that although he had not been brought up to a business life, he had very good ideas about money-making.

More than that, he had very good ideas about his own reputation, and instead of leaving his exploits and adventures to be written up by other people,—that is, if any one should think it worth while to do so,—he took that business into his own hands. [173] He was well educated, he had been brought up in good society, and as he desired to return to that society it was natural for him to wish to paint his own portrait as a buccaneer. Pictures of that kind as they were ordinarily executed were not at all agreeable to the eyes of the cultivated classes of France, and so M. de Lussan determined to give his personal attention not only to his business speculations, but to his reputation. He went out as a buccaneer in order to rob the Spaniards of treasure with which to pay his honest debts, and, in order to prevent his piratical career being described in the coarse and disagreeable fashion in which people generally wrote about pirates, he determined to write his own adventures.

If a man wishes to appear well before the world, it is often a very good thing for him to write his autobiography, especially if there is anything a little shady in his career, and it may be that de Lussan's reputation as a high-minded pirate depends somewhat on the book he wrote after he had put down the sword and taken up the pen; but if he gave a more pleasing color to his proceedings than they really deserved, we ought to be glad of it. For, even if de Lussan the buccaneer was in some degree a creature of the imagination of de Lussan the author, we have a story which is much more pleasing and, in some respects, more romantic than stories of [174] ordinary pirates could possibly be made unless the writer of such stories abandoned fact altogether and plunged blindly into fiction.

Among the good qualities of de Lussan was a pious disposition. He had always been a religious person, and, being a Catholic, he had a high regard and veneration for religious buildings, for priests, and for the services of the church, and when he had crossed the Atlantic in his ship, the crew of which was composed of desperadoes of various nations, and when he had landed upon the western continent, he wished still to conform to the religious manners and customs of the old world.

Having a strong force under his command and possessing, in common with most of the gentlemen of that period, a good military education, it was not long after he landed on the mainland before he captured a small town. The resistance which he met was soon overcome, and our high-minded pirate found himself in the position of a conqueror with a community at his mercy. As his piety now raised itself above all his other attributes, the first thing that he did was to repair to the principal church of the town, accompanied by all his men, and here, in accordance with his commands, a Te Deum was sung and services were conducted by the priests in charge. Then, after having properly performed his religious duties, de Lussan sent his men [175] through the town with orders to rob the inhabitants of everything valuable they possessed.

The ransacking and pillaging of the houses continued for some time, but when the last of his men had returned with the booty they had collected, the high-minded chief was dissatisfied. The town appeared to be a good deal poorer than he had expected, and as the collection seemed to be so very small, de Lussan concluded that in some way or other, he must pass around the hat again. While he was wondering how he should do this he happened to hear that on a sugar plantation not very far away from the town there were some ladies of rank who, having heard of the approach of the pirates, had taken refuge there, thinking that even if the town should be captured, their savage enemies would not wander into the country to look for spoils and victims.

But these ladies were greatly mistaken. When de Lussan heard where they were, he sent out a body of men to make them prisoners and bring them back to him. They might not have any money or jewels in their possession, but as they belonged to good families who were probably wealthy, a good deal of money could be made out of them by holding them and demanding a heavy ransom for their release. So the ladies were all brought to town and shut up securely until their [176] friends and relatives managed to raise enough money to pay their ransom and set them free, and then, I have no doubt, de Lussan advised them to go to church and offer up thanks for their happy deliverance.

As our high-minded pirate pursued his plundering way along the coast of South America, he met with a good many things which jarred upon his sensitive nature—things he had not expected when he started out on his new career. One of his disappointments was occasioned by the manners and customs of the English buccaneers under his command. These were very different from the Frenchmen of his company, for they made not the slightest pretence to piety.

When they had captured a town or a village, the Englishmen would go to the churches, tear down the paintings, chop the ornaments from the altars with their cutlasses, and steal the silver crucifixes, the candlesticks, and even the communion services. Such conduct gave great pain to de Lussan. To rob and destroy the property of churches was in his eyes a great sin, and he never suffered anything of the kind if he could prevent it. When he found in any place which he captured a wealthy religious community or a richly furnished church, he scrupulously refrained from taking anything or of doing damage to property, and contented himself with [177] demanding heavy indemnity, which the priests were obliged to pay as a return for the pious exemption which he granted them.

But it was very difficult to control the Englishmen. They would rob and destroy a church as willingly as if it were the home of a peaceful family, and although their conscientious commander did everything he could to prevent their excesses, he did not always succeed. If he had known what was likely to happen, his party would have consisted entirely of Frenchmen.

Another thing which disappointed and annoyed the gentlemanly de Lussan was the estimation in which the buccaneers were held by the ladies of the country through which he was passing. He soon found that the women in the Spanish settlements had the most horrible ideas regarding the members of the famous "Brotherhood of the Coast." To be sure, all the Spanish settlers, and a great part of the natives of the country, were filled with horror and dismay whenever they heard that a company of buccaneers was within a hundred miles of their homes, and it is not surprising that this was the case, for the stories of the atrocities and cruelties of these desperadoes had spread over the western world.

But the women of the settlements looked upon the buccaneers with greater fear and abhorrence than [178] the men could possibly feel, for the belief was almost universal among them that buccaneers were terrible monsters of cannibal habits who delighted in devouring human beings, especially if they happened to be young and tender. This ignorance of the true character of the invaders of the country was greatly deplored by de Lussan. He had a most profound pity for those simple-minded persons who had allowed themselves to be so deceived in regard to the real character of himself and his men, and whenever he had an opportunity, he endeavored to persuade the ladies who fell in his way that sooner than eat a woman he would entirely abstain from food.

On one occasion, when politely conducting a young lady to a place of confinement, where in company with other women of good family she was to be shut up until their relatives could pay handsome ransoms for their release, he was very much surprised when she suddenly turned to him with tears in her eyes, and besought him not to devour her. This astonishing speech so wounded the feelings of the gallant Frenchman that for a moment he could not reply, and when he asked her what had put such an unreasonable fear in her mind, she could only answer that she thought he looked hungry, and that perhaps he would not be willing to wait until—and there she stopped, for she could [179] not bring her mind to say—until she was properly prepared for the table.

"What!" exclaimed the high-minded pirate. "Do you suppose that I would eat you in the street?" And as the poor girl, who was now crying, would make him no answer, he fell into a sombre silence which continued until they had reached their destination.

The cruel aspersions which were cast upon his character by the women of the country were very galling to the chivalrous soul of this gentleman of France, and in every way possible he endeavored to show the Spanish ladies that their opinions of him were entirely incorrect, and even if his men were rather a hard lot of fellows, they were not cannibals.

The high-minded pirate had now two principal objects before him. One was to lay his hand upon all the treasure he could find, and the other was to show the people of the country, especially the ladies, that he was a gentleman of agreeable manners and a pious turn of mind.

It is highly probable that for some time the hero of this story did not succeed in his first object as well as he would have liked. A great deal of treasure was secured, but some of it consisted of property which could not be easily turned into cash or carried away, and he had with him a body of rapacious and conscienceless scoundrels who were [180] continually clamoring for as large a share of the available spoils—such as jewels, money, and small articles of value—as they could induce their commander to allow them, and, in consequence of this greediness of his own men, his share of the plunder was not always as large as it ought to be.

But in his other object he was very much more successful, and, in proof of this, we have only to relate an interesting and remarkable adventure which befell him. He laid siege to a large town, and, as the place was well defended by fortifications and armed men, a severe battle took place before it was captured. But at last the town was taken, and de Lussan and his men having gone to church to give thanks for their victory,—his Englishmen being obliged to attend the services no matter what they did afterward,—he went diligently to work to gather from the citizens their valuable and available possessions. In this way he was brought into personal contact with a great many of the people of the town, and among the acquaintances which he made was that of a young Spanish lady of great beauty.

The conditions and circumstances in the midst of which this lady found herself after the city had been taken, were very peculiar. She had been the wife of one of the principal citizens, the treasurer of the town, who was possessed of a large fortune, and who lived in one of the best houses in the place; but [181] during the battle with the buccaneers, her husband, who fought bravely in defence of the place, was killed, and she now found herself not only a widow, but a prisoner in the hands of those ruthless pirates whose very name had struck terror into the hearts of the Spanish settlers. Plunged into misery and despair, it was impossible for her to foresee what was going to happen to her.

As has been said, the religious services in the church were immediately followed by the pillage of the town; every house was visited, and the trembling inhabitants were obliged to deliver up their treasures to the savage fellows who tramped through their halls and rooms, swearing savagely when they did not find as much as they expected, and laughing with wild glee at any unusual discovery of jewels or coin.

The buccaneer officers as well as the men assisted in gathering in the spoils of the town, and it so happened that M. Raveneau de Lussan, with his good clothes and his jaunty hat with a feather in it, selected the house of the late treasurer of the city as a suitable place for him to make his investigations. He found there a great many valuable articles and also found the beautiful young widow.

The effect produced upon the mind of the lady when the captain of the buccaneers entered her house was a very surprising one. Instead of be- [182] holding a savage, brutal ruffian, with ragged clothes and gleaming teeth, she saw a handsome gentleman, as well dressed as circumstances would permit, very polite in his manners, and with as great a desire to transact his business without giving her any more inconvenience than was necessary, as if he had been a tax-collector or had come to examine the gas meter. If all the buccaneers were such agreeable men as this one, she and her friends had been laboring under a great mistake.

De Lussan did not complete his examination of the treasurer's house in one visit, and during the next two or three days the young widow not only became acquainted with the character of buccaneers in general, but she learned to know this particular buccaneer very well, and to find out what an entirely different man he was from the savage fellows who composed his company. She was grateful to him for his kind manner of appropriating her possessions, she was greatly interested in his society,—for he was a man of culture and information,—and in less than three days she found herself very much in love with him. There was not a man in the whole town who, in her opinion, could compare with this gallant commander of buccaneers.

It was not very long before de Lussan became conscious of the favor he had found in the eyes of this lady; for as a buccaneer could not be expected to [183] remain very long in one place, it was necessary, if this lady wished the captor of her money and treasure to know that he had also captured her heart, that she must not be slow in letting him know the state of her affections, and being a young person of a very practical mind she promptly informed de Lussan that she loved him and desired him to marry her.

The gallant Frenchman was very much amazed when this proposition was made to him, which was in the highest degree complimentary. It was very attractive to him—but he could not understand it. The lady's husband had been dead but a few days—he had assisted in having the unfortunate gentleman properly buried—and it seemed to him very unnatural that the young widow should be in such an extraordinary hurry to prepare a marriage feast before the funeral baked meats had been cleared from the table.

There was but one way in which he could explain to himself this remarkable transition from grief to a new affection. He believed that the people of this country were like their fruits and their flowers. The oranges might fall from the trees, but the blossoms would still be there. Husband and wives or lovers might die, but in the tropical hearts of these people it was not necessary that new affections should be formed, for they were already there, and needed only some one to receive them.

[184] As he did not undertake his present expedition for the purpose of marrying ladies, no matter how beautiful they might be, it is quite natural that de Lussan should not accept the proffered hand of the young widow. But when she came to detail her plans, he found that it would be well worth his while to carefully consider her project.

The lady was by no means a thoughtless young creature, carried away by a sudden attachment. Before making known to de Lussan her preference for him above all other men, she had given the subject her most careful and earnest consideration, and had made plans which in her opinion would enable the buccaneer captain and herself to settle the matter to the satisfaction of all parties.

When de Lussan heard the lady's scheme, he was as much surprised by her businesslike ability as he had been by the declaration of her affection for him. She knew very well that he could not marry her and take her with him. Moreover, she did not wish to go. She had no fancy for such wild expeditions and such savage companions. Her plans were for peace and comfort and a happy domestic life. In a word, she desired that the handsome de Lussan should remain with her.

Of course the gentleman opened his eyes very wide when he heard this, but she had a great deal to say upon the subject, and she had not omitted [185] any of the details which would be necessary for the success of her scheme.

The lady knew just as well as the buccaneer captain knew that the men under his command would not allow him to remain comfortably in that town with his share of the plunder, while they went on without a leader to undergo all sorts of hardships and dangers, perhaps defeat and death. If he announced his intention of withdrawing from the band, his enraged companions would probably kill him. Consequently a friendly separation between himself and his buccaneer followers was a thing not to be thought of, and she did not even propose it.

Her idea was a very different one. Just as soon as possible, that very night, de Lussan was to slip quietly out of the town, and make his way into the surrounding country. She would furnish him with a horse, and tell him the way he should take, and he was not to stop until he had reached a secluded spot, where she was quite sure the buccaneers would not be able to find him, no matter how diligently they might search. When they had entirely failed in every effort to discover their lost captain, who they would probably suppose had been killed by wandering Indians,—for it was impossible that he could have been murdered in the town without their knowledge,—they would give him up as lost and press on in search of further adventures.

[186] When the buccaneers were far away, and all danger from their return had entirely passed, then the brave and polite Frenchman, now no longer a buccaneer, could safely return to the town, where the young widow would be most happy to marry him, to lodge him in her handsome house, and to make over to him all the large fortune and estates which had been the property of her late husband.

This was a very attractive offer surely, a beautiful woman, and a handsome fortune. But she offered more than this. She knew that a gentleman who had once captured and despoiled the town might feel a little delicacy in regard to, marrying and settling there and becoming one of its citizens, and therefore she was prepared to remove any objections which might be occasioned by such considerate sentiments on his part.

She assured him that if he would agree to her plan, she would use her influence with the authorities, and would obtain for him the position of city treasurer, which her husband had formerly held. And when he declared that such an astounding performance must be utterly impossible, she started out immediately, and having interviewed the Governor of the town and other municipal officers, secured their signature to a paper in which they promised that if M. de Lussan would accept the proposals which the lady had made, he would be [187] received most kindly by the officers and citizens of the town; that the position of treasurer would be given to him, and that all the promises of the lady should be made good.

Now our high-minded pirate was thrown into a great quandary, and although at first he had had no notion whatever of accepting the pleasant proposition which had been made to him by the young widow, he began to see that there were many good reasons why the affection, the high position, and the unusual advantages which she had offered to him might perhaps be the very best fortune which he could expect in this world. In the first place, if he should marry this charming young creature and settle down as a respected citizen and an officer of the town, he would be entirely freed from the necessity of leading the life of a buccaneer, and this life was becoming more and more repugnant to him every day,—not only on account of the highly disagreeable nature of his associates and their reckless deeds, but because the country was becoming aroused, and the resistance to his advances was growing stronger and stronger. In the next attack he made upon a town or village he might receive a musket ball in his body, which would end his career and leave his debts in France unpaid.

More than that, he was disappointed, as has been said before, in regard to the financial successes he [188] had expected. At that time he saw no immediate prospect of being able to go home with money enough in his pocket to pay off his creditors, and if he did not return to his native land under those conditions, he did not wish to return there at all. Under these circumstances it seemed to be wise and prudent, that if he had no reason to expect to be able to settle down honorably and peaceably in France, to accept this opportunity to settle honorably, peaceably, and in every way satisfactorily in America.

It is easy to imagine the pitching and the tossing in the mind of our French buccaneer. The more he thought of the attractions of the fair widow and of the wealth and position which had been offered him, the more he hated all thoughts of his piratical dew, and of the dastardly and cruel character of the work in which they were engaged. If he could have trusted the officers and citizens of the town, there is not much doubt that he would have married the widow, but those officers and citizens were Spaniards, and he was a Frenchman. A week before the inhabitants of the place had been prosperous, contented, and happy. Now they had been robbed, insulted, and in many cases ruined, and he was commander of the body of desperadoes who had robbed and ruined them. Was it likely that they would forget the injuries which he had inflicted upon them [189] simply because he had married a wealthy lady of the town and had kindly consented to accept the office of city treasurer?

It was much more probable that when his men had really left that part of the country the citizens would forget all their promises to him and remember only his conduct toward them, and that even if he remained alive long enough to marry the lady and take the position offered him, it would not be long before she was again a widow and the office vacant.

So de Lussan shut his eyes to the tempting prospects which were spread out before him, and preferring rather to be a live buccaneer than a dead city treasurer, he told the beautiful widow that he could not marry her and that he must go forth again into the hard, unsympathetic world to fight, to burn, to steal, and to be polite. Then, fearing that if he remained he might find his resolution weakened, he gathered together his men and his pillage, and sadly went away, leaving behind him a joyful town and a weeping widow.

If the affection of the young Spanish lady for the buccaneer chief was sufficient to make her take an interest in his subsequent career, she would probably have been proud of him, for the ladies of those days had a high opinion of brave men and successful warriors. De Lussan soon proved that he was not [190] only a good fighter, but that he was also an able general, and his operations on the western coast of South America were more like military campaigns than ordinary expeditions of lawless buccaneers.

He attacked and captured the city of Panama, always an attractive prize to the buccaneer forces, and after that he marched down the western coast of South America, conquering and sacking many towns. As he now carried on his business in a somewhat wholesale way, it could not fail to bring him in a handsome profit, and in the course of time he felt that he was able to retire from the active practice of his profession and to return to France.

But as he was going back into the circles of respectability, he wished to do so as a respectable man. He discarded his hat and plume, he threw away his great cutlass and his heavy pistols, and attired in the costume of a gentleman in society he prepared himself to enter again upon his old life. He made the acquaintance of some of the French colonial officers in the West Indies, and obtaining from them letters of introduction to the Treasurer-General of France, he went home as a gentleman who had acquired a fortune by successful enterprises in the new world.

The pirate who not only possesses a sense of propriety and a sensitive mind, but is also gifted with [191] an ability to write a book in which he describes his own actions and adventures, is to be credited with unusual advantages, and as Raveneau de Lussan possessed these advantages, he has come down to posterity as a high-minded pirate.


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