Mayhap it matters not where I was born, for now it concerns me most where I shall die; but still, since my tale must have a beginning, let me state that my eyes first opened to the light in an English manor-house, on the right bank of the river Dart, in Devonshire. The fair farm itself had come down through many generations to my father, who, dying when I was an infant, left it to my elder brother, as by right indeed he should have done.
But the estate being poor of soil, though beauteous of aspect withal, fell short of affording support to us all, e'en though there were but few, to wit—my mother, my elder brother, his wife and babe, and myself. Perhaps it were better to say that the chief difficulty lay in providing meet employment for myself as I grew old enough to work, with my hands, for my mother, though poor, was yet ambitious that I should do something better than labor on a farm. So it fell out that when, on or near my fifteenth birthday, my mother's brother, a mariner engaged in trade with the Indies, proposed to take me out with him as a cabin-boy, he found not so much opposition as he had expected. For my dear mother, more thoughtful for my future than I, looked forward to the time when I should return perchance with a fortune, and thus be able to spend the remainder of our days each in the other's company. Careless was I of the future, yet my uncle's offer seemed to me like a golden opportunity, and I grasped at it eagerly.
Aside from the promise in it of great adventure, and perchance of profit in the end, there was that in the opportunity which appealed to my romantic nature, for in my veins coursed the blood of the sea-kings of Devon. The sea air had always been my breath and the sea-salt was in the wood we burned on our hearth. And besides, were not all the traditions of Devonshire smacking of the sea, of the great oceans which had been found and crossed by our mariners? Was not the greatest of sea-kings, Sir Francis Drake, a son of old Devon, and Sir John Hawkins (though I admired not his life so much as that of Drake, the sea-scourge of the Spaniards), and that knight of purest faith, Sir Humphrey Gilbert—yes, and Walter Raleigh and Blake? And had not my mother once taken me to see the Plymouth Hoe, where Drake, and Howard, and those other commanders who drove the Spanish armada to destruction, whiled away their time of waiting playing at bowls?
And my grandsire, who died but a few years before this time of which I tell, had himself seen, with his own eyes, despairing Raleigh return from his last American voyage in the "Destiny," enter the harbor of Plymouth, and thence depart for London and for the Tower, where he was beheaded. Despairing he was, my grandsire said, yet high-hearted and even gay of demeanor, when he landed at the mole; as when, later, reproved for his seeming levity, he saith: "It is my last mirth in this world; begrudge it not to me!"
When I spake of these worthies to my dear mother, and said it seemed more fit to live like them, even to die like Sir Walter, than to burrow in the earth like a mole, she did not say me nay. She smiled, e'en though through her tears, and saith to me: "Yea, my son, and, perchance, you may remember that my father, your grandsire, also saw that band of noble men and women depart from Devon Port for America in the 'Mayflower,' and saw them not only, but kissed their hands at the parting. For he himself was always prone to go to that land, America, to which, in the year 1620, sailed those seekers for religious freedom, leaving behind them their most dear homes and friends."
Sweet voice my sainted mother had, but she was chary of words; and her beauty was of that sort that made men turn and look at her when she passed. To me it was the beauty of angels; to me her voice seemed no less than heavenly music; and have I not heard it many, many times in the years that have passed, warning, beseeching when I was sore beset by peril and temptation? Ah, me, yes; but in imagination only, and in dreams; for since I sailed forth from the Dart's Mouth, in the year 1668—my mother having yielded her love to her judgment, as she then had light—I have never heard her voice, in sooth, nor looked upon her face. She clung to me, weeping, and strained me to her breast full oft in those last few days we had together; but, at the end, when my uncle came for me and his men took my sailor's chest to the pinnace at the shore, she sent me forth most bravely. "Forget not, love," she said, "to always hold thy God and thy mother in remembrance. I believe, with Devon's sainted son, that we are as near to heaven by sea as by land." And thus, with her kiss warm upon my lips, and with the last words of my great namesake, likewise the last I ever heard her speak, I, Humphrey Gilbert, fared forth to seek my fortune in the Indies.
The slopes and terraces of the Port faded from view late in the afternoon, and by nightfall we were far off from shore, making out for the open sea. Nothing occurred to interrupt the steady sailing of our vessel on her course—nothing but occasional squalls and head winds; for the "Nancy" was a good ship and staunch, built expressly for the long voyages to and fro between Plymouth and Barbadoes, in the West Indies, to which latter port we were destined. But, while man proposeth, the God of all disposed, the proverb sayeth, the truth of which we were perforce to prove. For, while we thought we were destined for the Barbadoes, my uncle having already sailed several voyages thither, the fates had in store for us something quite otherwise, as soon will appear.
In the hold of the "Nancy" was great store of mixed goods for traffic with the natives of the Leeward Isles; perchance, we should meet up with them, and in her treasure tank, just off the cabin, where my uncle, the master, the mate and myself had our quarters when below, was the sum of fifty thousand pounds in silver and gold, for the purpose of buying sugar and molasses from the planters of the Barbadoes. It was not generally known to the crew that this treasure was aboard, though all may have surmised it from the very fact of the voyage being made. If, however, any knew of it, they kept close with the information, not bruiting it about.
The crew was composed of Devon men and boys, some going out, like myself, in the hope of mending their fortune, and others being mere sailors who made their bread by seafaring toil. All told, they were about sixteen in number, including four apprentices, or, in plain truth, slaves, who were being transported to the islands under lifelong indentures for sonic petty crimes they had committed. They may have been under false accusation, or may have done all that was imputed to them; I troubled not myself about them; in which I often thought afterwards I was wrong, for I should have given them of my sympathy, if nothing more. This reflection arose from the fact that not long after I was myself in their condition—a slave, though not owing to any crime I had committed—and then I felt the need and craving for human sympathy, but when too late.
My uncle was kind; the work I had assigned me was light, and the days passed pleasantly, except that constantly I was thinking of my mother, which thoughts were gladsome in themselves, but also saddening. Nothing occurred to vary the monotony of the voyage for weeks, not even a sail rose against the horizon, until I felt that anything were welcome, even a hurricane, for the sake of a change. This shows the foolishness contained in the heart of a youth of fifteen, for, while my uncle, the master, was content that nothing untoward happened, I was craving some excitement.
"Nay, nay," he was wont to say, with a shake of his gray head, "let well enough alone. I want nothing but fair winds—which we have in the main, and fair fortune, which may the good God grant us—to escape the pirates of the Main."
We were then down near the latitude of the northern West Indies, and in waters which the king of Spain had long claimed as exclusively his own. Near one hundred and eighty years before Don Christopher Columbus had discovered this portion of the world, sailing in vessels furnished by the Spanish crown, and ever since the Spaniards had held that almost all the Western hemisphere belonged to them. The king of France, and after him the king of England, had in effect asked the king of Spain to show them the title-deeds he had received to all these seas, lands and peoples from our common father, Adam. He could not, of course; so now it was a question of which could seize and hold the most of sea and shore.
As the king of Spain was most strongly intrenched in the places conquered in former times by the Spanish soldiers, and held ever since, there was little to do, my uncle said, but prey upon his commerce. This our brave privateers, like Hawkins, Davis, Drake and Raleigh, had done in the last century; but we all know the end of Sir Walter, who lost his head because King James would not answer to the Spanish crown for his deeds. It was easier to take off Raleigh's head than to pay for his privateering, my uncle said, and he was very well informed in state affairs.
After which, finding that the king of Spain grew more exacting as his commerce increased, and that all the heads of all the noblemen in England would not satisfy his thirst for blood, our British merchant mariners took matters into their own hands and worried his Spanish majesty until he fell sick with fear. Not alone English, but Dutch and French seafarers took out letters of marque and privateering against the hated flag of Spain.
"That was all very well," said my uncle, "so long as the privateers confined their attentions to the Jack Spaniards; but of late some of them have in effect run up the black flag, and are doing nothing more nor less than piracy. Even the 'blood and bones' of old Britain will not save us, peradventure one of those rascally Frenchmen or Dutchmen gets a squint at us before we make port and swap our gold and silver for freight that is not so easily handled. Methinks it would have been better if I had taken my gold to the Guinea coast, there exchanged it for a cargo of lusty blackamoors, and then have come to the Barbadoes for my sweets. Then there would have been no gold to tempt the pirates, and I fancy we might escape their clutches."
"Might escape!" I exclaimed. "Why, is there any doubt—any danger?" This conversation, occurred one day when we were within four or five days' sail of the Barbadoes, which we might even then have reached had we not borne a more northerly course for the Leeward Islands.
"Yes, there is not only doubt of our being able to escape the pirates, but there is danger," rejoined the bluff old sailor. "You see, Humphrey, we haven't a gun aboard, not even a demi culverin, and, though I have a Briton's distaste for surrender, and would rather fight than run, there is no alternative."
"But why do either?" I asked, in amazement.
For answer my uncle handed me his telescopic glass, which, treasuring as the apple of his eye, he rarely allowed anyone but himself to use. "Sweep her down near the horizon in the no'theast," he whispered, so that none of the crew could overhear him. "See that fellow hull down in the distance: a frigate, near as I can make out. He has been following us for the last three days, and to-morrow I expect him to catch up. He might have done it two days ago; but so long as we are going his way, like a hare towards the fox's den, he won't overhaul us. If he will give me only two days more, we can make Saint Kitts, and then I'll snap my fingers in his face. But he won't. No"—in answer to my questioning look—"he's a French privateer, a fast one, and can make better time than our 'Nancy.'"
And the next day, surely as dawn broke, the frigate was within hail, with a Long Tom trained to rake us at a shift of the helm, and fifty or more villainous cutthroats crowded against the lee rail ready to board, should it come to close quarters.
I entertained hard thoughts of my uncle for allowing that French corsair to take us without a fight, as he did; but time showed that it was not from lack of spirit, but in furtherance of a deep-laid scheme. The mate was ready to take him by the throat, and the crew growled themselves hoarse; but of what use? A few muskets and arquebuses formed our total armament, together with some pistols and cutlasses; and what were these against that corsair's grinning row of portholes and grim cannon, let alone his decks swarming with bloodthirsty pirates armed to the teeth?