The Red Rover
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
There are few, if any, sea-stories of which the scene is so entirely acted on the water as is that of The Red Rover. Aside from the interest of the story, this work has permanent value as a record of certain phases of sea-life that are fast passing away under modern conditions, if, indeed, they are not already gone forever.
THE years immediately preceding the Revolutionary War were a time of effervescence and lawlessness in America. Her sailors still served on English men-of-war. Slavery was countenanced, and pirates still flaunted their blood-red flags on the high seas, especially in the West Indies, pursued, it is true, by government ships, but winked at if they stole into port under a trans-parent disguise and spent money freely. Not all were saints and Puritans in New England at that time any more than now. Each age has its fashions in wickedness as well as in virtue.
Among those good people of the noted and important little seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, who idled and gossiped near the wharves and frequented the groggery called " The Foul Anchor," great interest was shown in a long, low, black ship with a band of yellow on her sides, through which opened the port-holes for her guns. Never was a man-of-war which showed more plainly the salutary effect of stern authority and naval discipline. That she must have a large crew was evident; and yet rarely were any of the men seen above the boardingnettings which were ever stretched above the bulwarks, as if she were watching for, and were ever prepared to repel, an enemy.
It was generally given out that this beautiful vessel was a slaver. There was nothing extraordinary in this fact. But some shrewd observers, who knew a thing or two about matters marine, shook their heads and in low tones uttered the dread name Red Rover. Others ventured to whisper in plain English the word pirate. But one over-venturesome tailor, who fashioned clothes for old salts, happened unluckily to speak of the ship as a pirate to her captain himself, who was ashore posing as a lawyer gathering evidence against smugglers; and the rash tailor was swooped off at night, taken on board the mysterious ship, and never heard of again.
What added to the interest of the situation was the fact that in the inner harbor a trading-ship named the Royal Caroline was anchored and now nearly ready to put to sea for Charleston. There was something very suspicious about these two ships; some grave connivance was on foot, likewise, as the time for sailing approached, on the part of traders, consignees, and others concerned in the destiny of the Royal Caroline.
A day or two before she was to sail, the legal gentleman mentioned above met, as if casually, a sailor-like youth loafing about the harbor as if searching for a berth, with whom he struck up an acquaintance. One thing leading to another, the former said he was able to command the influence that would secure a fine post on the alleged slaver, her mate having "slipped his cable," to speak nautically of the event which lands all sailors and some others in a world that has no sea. Wilder, as this candidate for office called himself, apparently having no suspicions and no fear, went on board the slaver the same evening, and there learned that his new friend was not only the owner and commander of this fine ship, but also the famous and dreaded Rover himself. Wilder was shown with surprising frankness the rules of this new service. With equal lack of reluctance and reserve he signed his name to the rules which stipulated implicit obedience on penalty of death. The Rover explained his readiness to give so important a position to a total stranger on the ground that he could read human nature and he was convinced of the ability and fitness of Wilder for his service; and said that he was obliged to require sufficient guaranty of fidelity from his men.
Wilder stipulated that he should be permitted to pass the following day on shore, to which the Rover assented with reluctance. Having learned that several ladies were going as passengers in the Royal Caroline, he sought their residence, and with every possible reason short of the actual reason, which he could not give without forfeiting his life, he urged them not to go this voyage in the Royal Caroline. His advice was opposed by an old seafaring man who gave contradictory counsel. The evident fact that Wilder was evading the statement of his real motive aroused the curiosity of the elder lady, who, out of pique and doubtful as to the motives of one she had never seen before, finally decided to go in the ship, which was to put to sea that day. The ladies' luggage, presenting a miscellaneous assortment of commodities, was accordingly taken on board the trader. Everything seemed in a confused state of unreadiness common when a sailing-ship is about to put to sea on a long voyage. The decks of the Royal Caroline were also crowded by groups of idlers such as watch with unfailing interest every transaction preparatory to the final making sail and heaving of the anchor.
In the midst of this confusion the Captain, as was alleged, fell off a cask and broke his leg. This unfortunate accident threatened to cause the postponement of the voyage, when a lissome young page accosted Wilder, bringing a note from the Rover recommending him for eminent fitness to take the command, at least until the recovery of the Captain, which might not be for several weeks. Other letters from parties who took a great interest in the ship, her owners and consignees, or in Wilder, some of whom he had never set eyes on before that day, were handed to those whose interests were most important in the welfare of the Royal Caroline. There was evidently a gang of questionable characters of various social stripes working together at this port, such as one sees quite too often among politicians, who had a sudden vehement yearning to see Wilder in command of this ship. Wilder, from different motives, as we must judge from the sequel, was as eager to accept the vacant position which so many urged upon him, and which suddenly promoted him from first lieutenant to commander. If they did not guess what his motives were, he, on the other hand, lay under no delusions, and must have turned cynic when he saw what a gang of miscreants the occasion had revealed, as the sun draws out the serpents from their hiding-places after a spell of severe weather. Amid this miscellaneous throng it was interesting to note the questioning surprise of Mrs. Wyllis when she saw the young unknown, who had so earnestly warned them not to embark on board the Royal Caroline, now in command of that ship.
"And do you still think, Captain Wilder, that we ought not to go in this ship?" she asked him; and he replied evasively, "Time will soon show, madam, who was right."
And now the pilot was aboard, and all not going in the ship were ordered ashore.
The anchors were a-trip, all sail was made, and the stanch, stately trader, deep with a full cargo, began to move slowly out of the berth where she had been lying toward the channel by which she would proceed to sea. But the wind was light and the slaver was lying directly in the way; hence it was a question whether the trader would be able to weather the slaver. The situation was to the last degree critical. The small shore battery, as everyone knew, was falling to decay and useless; and, if so minded, the slaver could seize any merchant-vessel in that very harbor with slight danger. The slaver lay on the calm water as destitute of signs of life as the floating carcass of a dead whale. But Wilder knew that she was only waiting for the fit moment; and his anxiety was intense. One small figure was lying motionless on a yard-arm over the water. Wilder knew that that man was waiting to drop a grapnel when the tide should drift the trader under the slaver's spars.
The pilot himself soon showed by his absurd and contradictory orders that he was either incompetent or leagued with the dark conspiracy mentioned above. When he stoutly re-fused to take Wilder's commands, as being in command himself at the time, the young Captain ordered him to be thrown into his boat and sent ashore; in doing this Captain Wilder infringed the laws of nations. He then dropped an anchor. But a while later the breeze freshened again and he made an-other and this time successful attempt to leave the port.
As the Caroline boldly swept past the slaver, within hailing distance, not a sign of life was to be seen on that vessel. Wilder thought the passage would be made without the slightest notice. But he was mistaken. A light, active form, in the undress attire of a naval officer, sprang upon the taffrail and waved a sea-cap in salute. The instant the fair hair was seen blowing about the countenance of this individual, Wilder recognized the features of the Rover.
"Think you the wind will hold here, sir?" shouted the latter at the top of his voice.
. "It has come in fresh enough to be steady," was the answer. "A wise mariner would get his offing in time."
"You believe we shall have it more at south? "-
"I do; but a taut bowline will carry you clear." Wilder now made every effort to get to sea; every stitch of canvas that would draw was set; and the Caroline never showed her paces to better advantage. But not content with this, he constantly turned his head landward to discern whether there was any sign of movement in the slaver. But until night set in she remained a fading black object at anchor; and still the young Captain's anxiety continued.
The moon was full, but watery and floating in a thin haze. It was on the edge of winter, when the north Atlantic is sad and the wind wails mournfully in the rigging. But as he had been able to make so much distance without perceiving any sign of the slaver in pursuit, Wilder's depression grew less; he conversed in lighter tones with his passengers, and said buoyantly to himself, "Success!"
The breeze freshened. It was blowing up a gale. But al-though the sea was rising fast, Wilder carried sail hard. And when in a lighter spot near the horizon he saw a faint hazy form and the lookout called "Sail ho!" he packed on more sail even to the point of serious danger and against the remonstrances of the mate. It was like running a race with the inevitable. His hopes of escaping the Red Rover, which was clearly in pursuit now, had vanished; and it was simply a question of postponing the doom of going to the bottom or of capture by the most wily, skilled, and determined corsair that scoured the high seas. Even while Mr. Earing the mate was remonstrating, they struck a mountain wave that swept the decks and started new leaks in the straining vessel.
Then, by permission of the ladies, who as passengers had some rights in the matter, Wilder decided to double on his tracks, hoping, by easing the ship, to slip back to Newport or some near haven ahead of the Rover. But this course soon proved useless; and now a nearer catastrophe overtook the Caroline. A shift of the wind, always dangerous at that season in that region, and especially violent in this case, struck the vessel. Although perceived in time for most of the canvas to be stripped off her yards, the force of the storm struck her before she could be got before the wind; and she was thrown on her beam ends. But one resource was left to prevent foundering. The masts were cut away, but with the loss of the mate and several seamen. While the Caroline was thus running helpless before the storm in the blackness of night, the Red Rover appeared rushing by under bare poles within a hundred feet, and without the loss of a spar. By reason of her large and well disciplined crew and the consummate skill of her commander, she had escaped all harm in this furious tempest and was seemingly as safe as if built on a rock.
The next morning the weather was fine, although there was still a tumultuous sea. But the Caroline was a helpless wreck, wallowing in the billows and leaking at every seam; and the crew to a man refused to go to the pumps. It was useless they said, to waste effort; the only resource was to take to the pinnace or small boat, and make for the land. They would admit the ladies, but Wilder they had no room for; he was a young upstart, who had brought them ill luck. He, on the other hand, asserted that there was one chance still left; so the ladies decided to remain with him. As soon as the pinnace had left, he set to work at once with the longboat lying on the deck amidships. Without the crew and the aid of the spars he could not float it, but he could take the desperate chance of placing into it the masts and sails belonging to it and such pro-visions and clothing as they could collect in so short a time. When the ship went down the boat might float. These preparations completed, Wilder and the ladies, with their colored maid, got into the longboat and awaited the final catastrophe. They had not long to wait. Fortunately Wilder's hopes were justified. Barely resisting the downward rush of water as the ship went down, the longboat arose to the top, and Wilder at once set sail. In a few hours they saw the pinnace floating keel up. As nothing else was in sight they began to entertain hopes of reaching land safely, when a sail hove in sight. It was the Dolphin, known as the Red Rover! She soon discovered the boat, bore down, and picked up Wilder and the ladies. What-ever else he might have been in his wild career, her captain and owner was a gentleman born and bred, even though policy may have tempered some of his actions. He turned over to the ladies his own cabin, which was superbly decorated with some of the many trophies he had captured, and they were treated with great deference. A handsome, refined page was detailed to wait on them; but after keenly scrutinizing this youth with the piercing eye of feminine suspicion, Mrs. Wyllis decided to dispense with the services of the Red Rover's page. Whatever the Rover may have felt and thought as to the desperate attempt of his lieutenant to rescue the Caroline from his grasp, he betrayed no resentment; but the fierce, turbulent crew, who lived and fought for booty, made no secret of the fate they reserved for Wilder. Their curses were not only deep but sometimes out-spoken. But the Rover, with his tremendous, magnetic will-power enforced obedience to Wilder's orders as to a trusted officer, and threatened instant death to him who first raised hand against the late master of the Royal Caroline.
The fact that the Rover did not touch at any port as they went southward, to allow them to land, aroused the suspicion of the ladies; and a fearful riot among the crew when engaged in some of their revels, in which a distinct attempt was made to murder Wilder and perhaps to gain possession of the ship, not only convinced them of the justice of his reasons for urging them not to sail in the Caroline, but opened their eyes to the true character of the ship that was now speeding ever nearer to the West Indies, for ages the hunting-ground of buccaneers and pirates.
The ladies, however, had the sense and resolution to dissemble what they perceived and feared. And when the Rover visited them in their cabin, disposed to intelligent and refined conversation which was sometimes personal and confidential in its tone, Mrs. Wyllis endeavored with great tact to instil remorse into his heart and to lead him to abandon a career so far below the lot he was born and fitted for. As she spoke of duty he listened attentively, as if her advice struck home and was not entirely contrary to thoughts he must already have entertained in his secret musings. But whatever good intentions were aroused in the Rover's better nature, they were suddenly dissipated, at least for the time, by the appearance of an English ship of war, which was recognized by Wilder as the Dart, in which he had formerly sailed, and which mounted heavier batteries than the Dolphin. Although this circumstance aroused no apprehension in the Rover, for he was confident of the skill of himself and his crew, he seemed willing to throw the responsibility of the attack on the enemy, as if under the influence of Mrs. Wyllis's counsels, notwithstanding the urgent expectation of his crew, now yearning for blood and plunder. He hoisted the English colors, and when the Dart backed her maintopsail to the mast actually paid a visit in disguise to Captain Bignal of the Dart. All might have passed off well but that the Englishman unwittingly revealed the secret that one of his officers, Wilder by name, was acting as a spy on board the Red Rover with the intention of working to entrap her into English hands.
Exhibiting no surprise at this astounding intelligence, the Rover returned to his ship and confronted Wilder with the charge, which smote him as his death-warrant. But again the commander of the Red Rover preserved his astounding power over his passions. Instead of ordering Wilder to be forthwith strung up to the yard-arm, he put him in a boat with the ladies and his two servants Fid and Scipio, and sent them on board the English ship. He then caused the strip of yellow canvas which ran by the port-holes to be withdrawn, thus revealing a band under it of blood-red canvas. This it was which had given to that ship the sobriquet of Red Rover. The scarlet flag was then run up to the peak of the gaff, the crews were sent to quarters, and everything put into perfect trim for battle.
Captain Bignal could hardly believe his ears when Wilder, known to him as Lieutenant Ark, assured him that the commander he had just entertained in his cabin was nothing less than the famous Red Rover, to capture whom was equivalent to earning a high commission in the British navy.
"It can't be possible," exclaimed Captain Bignal; "why, the fellow actually invited me to dine with him, and everything about him showed the gentleman."
"Notwithstanding, sir, every word I am telling you is strictly true. If you will permit me, I will also advise you to take no chances with him. He doubtless is in many respects a gentle-man, but he has no superior as a seaman; his crew is trained to the last degree, and it will take no ordinary fighting, even with our British sailors, to get the better of him. You have no time to lose, sir."
Captain Bignal looked incredulous; but he decided to follow this advice at once.
In the meantime the Red Rover was stripping off her lighter sails and moving toward the enemy with masterly evolutions. Her guns were aimed especially at the masts and rigging of the Dart, and the result was soon apparent. The wind, already light, was still more deadened by the explosion of cannon, and the smoke, instead of blowing away, settled down on the ships which were thus almost concealed from each other in a short time. But the smoke also prevented notice of the swift approach of one of those sudden, violent squalls which come so often against the trade winds in those waters. The Rover seems to have perceived it first and was prepared. At any rate when the wind struck the Dart, her masts, excepting the three lower ones, were so crippled already by shot that they were swept away in an instant. This settled the fate of the battle. The storm passed by, and the Rover was able to select her own position for boarding. The fight was soon over. The Rover himself hauled down the English colors with exultation, and the pirates prepared to plunder and slaughter. But first they seized on Wilder, Fid, and Scipio, the latter already mortally wounded, put ropes around their necks and were about to trice them up to the yard-arms.
At this intense moment Mrs. Wyllis rushed to the rescue with all the yearning of a mother's heart. She had learned that very day that Wilder, or Ark, was originally named Wyllis, and was her son, lost in childhood. The details do not concern this story. Suffice it to say that her pleadings caused the ruffians to hesitate; and the Rover turned the scale by rushing on the scene with drawn sword, swearing that now the battle was over he would cut down anyone who indulged in massacre of the vanquished.
A calm night followed. The Rover magnanimously turned the English ship over to the charge of Wilder, or Ark, now her commander since Captain Bignal was killed. Those who escaped uninjured from the fight on both sides passed the night in repairing damages. The next day, after sailing together for a while, the English ship followed her course alone.
As for the Red Rover, her commander told his crew that the ship was his own; but whatever riches they found in the Dolphin they could have, and welcome. After they had ran-sacked the famous ship, he signaled a passing coaster to come alongside, and contracted with her skipper to land the crew of pirates at some bayou or other point along the shore.
After they had gone, smoke was seen issuing from the gallant and so long successful Dolphin, surnamed Red Rover. As the flames extended, her shotted guns were heard going off one by one. Then followed a terrific explosion that shook the distant British ship and every other vessel for miles around. Some there were who said they saw, when all was over, a mere speck of a boat making off in the distance.
Years passed. The war of the American Revolution was over, when one evening a dying officer with gray hair, borne in a litter and attended by a lady who still showed traces of beauty, applied for shelter at the house of a well-known family of New-port with which he claimed to be connected. All he asked was a place to die. He was received with welcome and kindness. Under an assumed name he had entered heartily into the war of freedom and fought the enemies of his native land, against whom, under various guises, his hand had been chiefly raised before actual war had been declared. As he felt the last moment approaching, he drew from under his head the flag of his country; and as the folds fell over his heart he sought to raise it with his hand, and smiling strangely, exclaimed, " We have triumphed!" Thus passed away the Red Rover.