The Naval Officer/Chapter XVIII
The dreadful fish that hath deserved the name
As the brig moved out of the harbour of Nassau, I moved out of bed; and as she set her royals and made sail, I put on my hat and walked out. The officers of the regiment quartered there, kindly invited me to join their mess; and the colonel enhanced the value of the offer by assigning for me good apartments in the barracks. I was instantly removed to cleanly and comfortable lodgings. I soon regained my strength, and was able to sit at the table, where I found thirty-five young officers, living for the day, careless of the morrow; and, beyond that never bestowing a thought. It is a singular fact, that where life is most precarious, men are most indifferent about its preservation; and, where death is constantly before our eyes, as in this country, eternity is seldom in our thoughts: but so it is; and the rule extends still further in despotic countries. Where the union between the head and shoulders may be dissolved in a moment by the sword of a tyrant, life is not so valued, and death loses its terrors; hence the apathy and indifference with which men view their executioners in that state of society. It seems as if existence, like estates, was valuable in proportion to the validity of the title-deeds by which they are held.
To digress no more. Although I was far from being even commonly virtuous, which is about tantamount to absolute wickedness, I was no longer the thoughtless mortal I had ever been since I left school. The society of Emily, and her image graven on my heart; the close confinement to the brig, and the narrow escape from death in the second attempt to save the poor sailor's life, had altogether contributed their share to a kind of temporary reformation, if not to a disgust to the coarser descriptions of vice. The lecture I had received from Emily on deceit, and the detestable conduct of my last captain, had, as I thought, almost completed my reformation. Hitherto I felt I had acted wrong, without having the power to act right. I forgot that I had never made the experiment. The declaration of Captain G.'s atheism was so far from converting me, that from that moment I thought more seriously than ever of religion. So great was my contempt for his character, that I knew whatever he said must be wrong, and, like the Spartan drunken slave, he gave me the greatest horror of vice.
Such was my reasoning, and such my sentiments, previous to any relapse into sin or folly. I knew its heinousness. I transgressed and repented; habit was all-powerful in me; and the only firm support I could have looked to for assistance was, unfortunately, very superficially attended to. Religion, for any good purposes, was scarcely in my thoughts. My system was a sort of Socratic heathen philosophy—a moral code, calculated to take a man tolerably safe through a quiet world, but not to extricate him from a labyrinth of long-practised iniquity.
The thoughtless and vicious conduct of my companions became to me a source of serious reflection. Far from following their example, I felt myself some degrees better than they were; and in the pride of my heart thanked God that I was not like these publicans. My pharisaical arrogance concealed from me the mortifying fact that I was much worse, and with very slight hopes of amendment. Humility had not yet entered my mind; but it was the only basis on which any religious improvement could be created—the only chance of being saved. I rather became refined in vice, without quitting it. Gross and sensual gratification, so easily obtained in the West Indies, was disgusting to me; yet I scrupled not to attempt the seduction of innocence, rather more gratified in the pursuit than in the enjoyment, which soon palled, and drove me after other objects.
I had, however, little occasion to exert my tact in this art in the Bahama Islands, where, as in all the other islands of the West Indies, there is a class of women, born of white fathers and mustee or mulatto women, nearly approaching in complexion to the European; many of them are brunettes, with long black hair, very pretty, good eyes, and often elegant figures. These ladies are too proud of the European blood in their veins to form an alliance with any male who has a suspicion of black in his genealogical table; consequently they seldom are married unless from interested motives, when, having acquired large property by will, they are sought in wedlock by the white settlers.
So circumstanced, these girls prefer an intercourse with the object of their choice to a legal marriage with a person of inferior birth; and, having once made their selection, an act of infidelity is of rare occurrence among them. Their affection and constancy will stand the test of time and of long separation; generous to prodigality, but jealous, and irritable in their jealousy, even to the use of the dagger and poison.
One of these young ladies found sufficient allurement in my personal charms to surrender at discretion, and we lived in that sort of familiar intercourse which, in the West Indies, is looked upon as a matter of necessity between the parties, and of indifference by every one else. I lived on in this Epicurean style for some months; until, most unfortunately, my chère amie found a rival in the daughter of an officer, high in rank, on the island. Smitten with my person, this fair one had not the prudence to conceal her partiality: my vanity was too much flattered not to take advantage of her sentiments in my favour; and, as usual, flirtation and philandering occupied most of my mornings, and sometimes my evenings, in the company of this fair American.
Scandal is a goddess who reigns paramount, not only in Great Britain, but also in all his Majesty's plantations; and her votaries very soon selected me as the target of their archery. My pretty Carlotta became jealous; she taxed me with inconstancy. I denied the charge; and as a proof of my innocence, she obtained from me a promise that I should go no more to the house of her rival; but this promise I took very good care to evade, and to break. For a whole fortnight, my domestic peace was interrupted either by tears, or by the most voluble and outrageous solos, for I never replied after the first day.
A little female slave, one morning, made me a signal to follow her to a retired part of the garden. I had shewn this poor little creature some acts of kindness, for which she amply repaid me. Sometimes I had obtained for her a holiday—sometimes saved her a whipping, and at others had given her a trifle of money; she therefore became exceedingly attached to me, and as she saw her mistress's anger daily increase, she knew what it would probably end in, and watched my safety like a little guardian sylph.
"No drinkee coffee, Massa," said she, "Missy putty obeah stuff in."
As soon as she had said this, she disappeared, and I went into the house, where I found Carlotta preparing the breakfast; she had an old woman with her, who seemed to be doing something which she was not very willing I should see. I sat down carelessly, humming a tune, with my face to a mirror, and my back to Carlotta, so that I was able to watch her motions without her perceiving it. She was standing near the fireplace, the coffee was by her, on the table, and the old woman crouched in the chimney corner, with her bleared eyes fixed on the embers. Carlotta seemed in doubt; she pressed her hands forcibly on her forehead; took up the coffee-pot to pour me out a cup, then sat it down again; the old woman muttered something in their language; Carlotta stamped with her little foot, and poured out the coffee. She brought it to me—trembled as she placed it before me—seemed unwilling to let go her hold, and her hand still grasped the cup, as if she would take it away again. The old woman growled and muttered something, in which I could only hear the name of her rival mentioned. This was enough: the eyes of Carlotta lighted up like a flame; she quitted her hold of the salver, retreated to the fireplace, sat herself down, covered her face, and left me, as she supposed, to make my last earthly repast.
"Carlotta," said I, with a sudden and vehement exclamation. She started up, and the blood rushed to her face and neck, in a profusion of blushes, which are perfectly visible through the skins of these mulattos. "Carlotta," I repeated, "I had a dream last night, and who do you think came to me? It was Obeah!" (She started at the name.) "He told me not to drink coffee this morning, but to make the old woman drink it." At these words the beldam sprang up. "Come here, you old hag," said I. She approached trembling, for she saw that escape from me was impossible, and that her guilt was detected. I seized a sharp knife, and taking her by her few remaining grey and woolly hairs, said, "Obeah's work must be done: I do not order it, but he commands it; drink that coffee instantly."
So powerful was the name of Obeah on the ear of the hag, that she dreaded it more than my brandished knife. She never thought of imploring mercy, for she supposed it was useless after the discovery, and that her hour was come; she therefore lifted the cup to her withered lip, and was just going to fulfil her destiny and to drink, when I dashed it out of her hand, and broke it in a thousand pieces on the floor, darting, at the same time, a fierce look at Carlotta, who threw herself at my feet, which she fervently kissed in an agony of conflicting passions.
"Kill me! kill me!" ejaculated she; "it was I that did it! Obeah is great—he has saved you. Kill me, and I shall die happy, now you are safe—do kill me!"
I listened to these frantic exclamations with perfect calmness. When she was a little more composed, I desired her to rise. She obeyed, and looked the image of despair, for she thought I should immediately quit her for the arms of her more fortunate rival, and she considered my innocence as fully established by the appearance of the deity.
"Carlotta," said I, "what would you have done if you had succeeded in killing me?"
"I will shew you," said she; when, going to a closet, the took out another basin of coffee; and before I could dash it from her lips, as I had the former one from the black woman, the infatuated girl had swallowed a small portion of it.
"What else can I do?" said she; "my happiness is gone for ever."
"No, Carlotta," said I; "I do not wish for your death, though you have plotted mine. I have been faithful to you, and loved you, until you made this attempt."
"Will you forgive me before I die?" said she; "for die I must, now that I know you will quit me!" Uttering these words, she threw herself on the floor with violence, and her head coming in contact with the broken fragments of the basin, she cut herself, and bled so copiously that she fainted. The old woman had fled, and I was left alone with her, for poor little Sophy was frightened, and had hidden herself.
I lifted Carlotta from the floor, and, placing her in a chair, I washed her face with cold water; and having staunched the blood, I laid her on her bed, when she began to breathe and to sob convulsively. I sat myself by her side; and as I contemplated her pale face and witnessed her grief, I fell into a train of melancholy retrospection on my numerous acts of vice and folly.
"How many warnings," said I, "how many lessons am I to receive before I shall reform? How narrowly have I escaped being sent to my account 'unanealed' and unprepared! What must have been my situation if I had at this moment been called into the presence of my offended Creator? This poor girl is pure and innocent, compared with me, taking into consideration the advantages of education on my side, and the want of it on hers. What has produced all this misery and the dreadful consequences which might have ensued, but my folly in trifling with the feelings of an innocent girl, and winning her affections merely to gratify my own vanity; at the same time that I have formed a connection with this unhappy creature, the breaking of which will never cause me one hour's regret, while it will leave her in misery, and will, in all probability, embitter all her future existence? What shall I do? Forgive, as I hope to be forgiven: the fault was more mine than hers."
I then knelt down and most fervently repeated the Lord's Prayer, adding some words of thanksgiving, for my undeserved escape from death. I rose up and kissed her cold, damp forehead; she was sensible of my kindness, and her poor head found relief in a flood of tears. Her eyes again gazed on me, sparkling with gratitude and love, after all she had gone through. I endeavoured to compose her; the loss of blood had produced the best effects; and, having succeeded in calming her conflicting passions, she fell into a sound sleep.
The reader who knows the West Indies, or knows human nature, will not be surprised that I should have continued this connection as long as I remained on the island. From the artless manner in which Carlotta had conducted her plot; from her gestures and her agitation, I was quite sure that she was a novice in this sort of crime, and that should she ever relapse into her paroxysm of jealousy, I should be able to detect any farther attempt on my life. Of this, however, I had no fears, having by degrees discontinued my visits to the young lady who had been the cause of our fracas; and I never afterwards, while on the island, gave Carlotta the slightest reason to suspect my constancy. I was much censured for my conduct to the young lady, as the attentions I had shewn her, and her marked preference for me, had driven away suitors who really were in earnest, and they never returned to her again.
In these islands, the naturalist would find a vast store to reward investigation; they abound with a variety of plants, birds, fish, shells, and minerals. It was here that Columbus made his first landing, but in which of the islands I am not exactly certain; though I am very sure he did not find them quite so agreeable as I did, for he very soon quitted them, and steered away for St Domingo.
It is not, perhaps, generally known, that New Providence was the island selected for his residence by Blackbeard, the famous pirate; the citadel that stands on the hill above the town of Nassau, is built on the site of the fortress which contained the treasure of that famous freebooter. A curious circumstance occurred during my stay on this island, and which, beyond all doubt, was connected with the adventures of those extraordinary people, known by the appellation of Buccaneers. Some workmen were digging near the foot of the hill under the fort, when they discovered some quicksilver, and on inspection, a very considerable quantity was found; it had evidently been a part of the plunder of the pirates, buried in casks or skins, and these having decayed, the liquid ore naturally escaped down the hill.
Though not indifferent to the pleasures of the table, I was far from resigning myself to the Circean life led by the generality of young military men in the Bahamas.
The education which I had received, and which placed me far above the common run of society in the colonies, induced me to seek for a companion whose mind had received equal cultivation; and such a one I found in Charles ——, a young lieutenant in the —— regiment, quartered at Nassau. Our intimacy became the closer, in proportion as we discovered the sottish habits and ignorance of those around us. We usually spent our mornings in reading the classic authors with which we were both familiar; we spouted our Latin verses; we fenced; and we amused ourselves, occasionally, with a game of billiards, but never ventured our friendship on a stake for money. When the heat of the day had passed off, we strolled out, paid a few visits, or rambled over the island; keeping as much aloof from the barracks as possible, where the manner of living was so very uncongenial to our notions. The officers began their day about noon, when they sat down to breakfast; after that, they separated to their different quarters, to read the novels, with which the presses of England and France inundated these islands, to the great deterioration of morals. These books, which they read lounging on their backs, or laid beside them and fell asleep over, occupied the hottest part of the day; the remainder, till the hour of dinner arrived, was consumed in visiting and gossiping, or in riding to procure an appetite for dinner. Till four in the morning, their time was wholly devoted to smoking and drinking; their beds received them in a state of intoxication more or less; parade, at nine o'clock, forced them out with a burning brain and parched tongue; they rushed into the sea, and found some refreshment in the cool water, which enabled them to stand upright in front of their men; the formal duty over, they retired again to their beds, where they lay till noon, and then to breakfast.
Such were their days; can it be wondered at that our islands are fatal to the constitution of Europeans, when this is their manner of life in a climate always disposed to take advantage of any excess? The men too readily followed the example of their officers, and died off in the same rapid manner; one of the most regular employments of the morning was to dig graves for the victims of the night. Four or five of these receptacles was thought a moderate number. Such was the fatal apathy in which these officers existed, that the approach, nay; even the certainty of death, gave them no apparent concern, caused no preparation, excited no serious reflection. They followed the corpse of a brother-officer to the grave in military procession. These ceremonies were always conducted in the evening, and often have I seen these thoughtless young men throwing stones at the lanthorns which were carried before them to light them to the burying-ground.
I was always an early riser, and believe I owe much of my good health to this custom. I used to delight in a lovely tropical morning, when, with a cigar in my mouth, I walked into the market. What would Sir William Curtis, or Sir Charles Flower have said, could they have seen, as I did, the numbers of luxurious turtle lying on their backs, and displaying their rich calapee to the epicurean purchaser? Well, indeed might the shade of Apicius[A] lament that America and turtle were not discovered in his days. There were the guanas, too, in abundance, with their mouths sewed up to prevent their biting; these are excellent food, although bearing so near a resemblance to the alligator, and its diminutive European representative, the harmless lizard. Muscovy ducks, parrots, monkeys, pigeons, and fish. Pine apples abounded, oranges, pomegranates, limes, Bavarias, plantains, love apples, Abbogada pears (better known by the name of subaltern's butter), and many other fruits, all piled in heaps, were to be had at a low price. Such was the stock of a New Providence market.
[Footnote A: Lyttleton's "Dialogues of the Dead."]
Of the human species, buyers and vendors, there were black, brown and fair; from the fairest skin, with light blue eyes, and flaxen hair, to the jet-black "Day and Martin" of Ethiopia; from the loveliest form of Nature's mould, to the disgusting squaw, whose flaccid mammae hung like inverted bottles to her girdle, or are extended over her shoulder to give nourishment to the little imp perched on her back; and here the urchin sits the live long day, while the mother performs all the drudgery of the field, the house, or the market.
The confusion of Babel did not surpass the present gabble of a West India market. The loud and everlasting chatter of the black women, old and young (for black ladies can talk as well as white ones); the screams of children, parrots, and monkeys; black boys and girls, clad à la Venus, white teeth, red lips, black skins, and elephant legs, formed altogether a scene well worth looking at; and now, since the steamers have acquired so much velocity, I should think would not be an unpleasant lounge for the fastidious ennuyé of France or England. The beauty and coolness of the morning, the lovely sky, and the cheerfulness of the slaves, whom our morbid philanthropists wish to render happy, by making discontented, would altogether amply repay the trouble and expense of a voyage, to those who have leisure or money enough to enable them to visit the tropical islands.
The delightful, and, indeed, indispensable amusement of bathing, is particularly dangerous in these countries. In the shallows you are liable to be struck by the stingray, a species of skate, with a sharp barb about the middle of its tail; and the effect of the wound is so serious, that I have known a person to be in a state of frenzy from it for nearly forty-eight hours. In deeper water, the sharks are not only numerous but ravenous; and I sometimes gratified their appetites, and my own love of excitement, by purchasing the carcass of a dead cow, or horse. This I towed off, and anchored with a thick rope and a large stone; then, from my boat, with a harpoon, I amused myself in striking these devils as they crowded round for their meal. My readers will, I fear, think I am much too fond of relating adventures among these marine undertakers; but the following incident will not be found without interest.
In company with Charles, one beautiful afternoon, rambling over the rocky cliffs at the back of the island, we came to a spot where the stillness, and the clear transparency of the water invited us to bathe. It was not deep. As we stood above, on the promontory, we could see the bottom in every part. Under the little headland, which formed the opposite side of the cove, there was a cavern, to which, as the shore was steep, there was no access but by swimming, and we resolved to explore it. We soon reached its mouth, and were enchanted with its romantic grandeur and wild beauty. It extended, we found, a long way back, and had several natural baths, into all of which we successively threw ourselves, each, as they receded farther from the mouth of the cavern, being colder than the last. The tide, it was evident, had free ingress, and renewed the water every twelve hours. Here we thoughtlessly amused ourselves for some time, quoting Acis and Galatea, Diana, and her nymphs, and every classic story applicable to the scene.
At length, the declining sun warned us that it was time to take our departure from the cave, when, at no great distance from us, we saw the back, or dorsal fin of a monstrous shark above the surface of the water, and his whole length visible beneath it. We looked at him and at each other with dismay, hoping that he would soon take his departure, and go in search of other prey; but the rogue swam to and fro, just like a frigate blockading an enemy's port, and we felt, I suppose, very much as we used to make the French and Dutch feel last war, at Brest and the Texel.
The sentinel paraded before us, about ten or fifteen yards in front of the cave, tack and tack, waiting only to serve one, if not both of us, as we should have served a shrimp or an oyster. We had no intention, however, in this, as in other instances, of "throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court." In vain did we look for relief from other quarters; the promontory above us was inaccessible; the tide was rising, and the sun touching the clear blue edge of the horizon.
I, being the leader, pretended to a little knowledge in ichthyology, and told my companion that fish could hear as well as see, and that therefore the less we said the better; and the sooner we retreated out of his sight, the sooner he would take himself off. This was our only chance, and that a poor one; for the flow of the water would soon have enabled him to enter the cave and help himself, as he seemed perfectly acquainted with the locale, and knew that we had no mode of retreat but by the way we came. We drew back, out of sight; and I don't know when I ever passed a more unpleasant quarter of an hour. A suit in Chancery, or even a spring lounge in Newgate, would have been almost luxury to what I felt when the shades of night began to darken the mouth of our cave, and this infernal monster continued to parade, like a water-bailiff, before its door. At last, not seeing the shark's fin above water, I made a sign to Charles that, coûte qui coûte, we must swim for it; for we had notice to quit, by the tide; and if we did not depart, should soon have an execution in the house. We had been careful not to utter a word; and, silently pressing each other by the hand, we slipped into the water; when, recommending ourselves to Providence, which, for my part, I seldom forgot when I was in imminent danger, we struck out manfully. I must own I never felt more assured of destruction, not even when I swam through the blood of the poor sailor; for then the sharks had something to occupy them, but here they had nothing else to do but to look after us. We had the benefit of their undivided attention.
My sensations were indescribably horrible. I may occasionally write or talk of the circumstance with levity, but whenever I recall it to mind, I tremble at the bare recollection of the dreadful fate that seemed inevitable. My companion was not so expert a swimmer as I was, so that I distanced him many feet, when I heard him utter a faint cry. I turned round, convinced that the shark had seized him, but it was not so; my having left him so far behind had increased his terror, and induced him to draw my attention. I returned to him, held him up, and encouraged him. Without this, he would certainly have sunk; he revived with my help, and we reached the sandy beach in safety, having eluded our enemy; who, when he neither saw or heard us, had, as I concluded he would, quitted the spot.
Once more on terra firma, we lay gasping for some minutes before we spoke. What my companion's thoughts were, I do not know; mine were replete with gratitude to God, and renewed vows of amendment; and I have every reason to think, that although Charles had not so much room for reform as myself, his feelings were perfectly in unison with my own. We never afterwards repeated this amusement, though we frequently talked of our escape, and laughed at our terrors; yet on these occasions our conversation always took a serious turn: and, upon the whole, I am convinced that this adventure did us both a vast deal of good.
I had now been six months in these islands, had perfectly recovered my health, and became anxious for active employment. The brilliant successes of our rear-admiral at Washington made me wish for a share of the honour and glory which my brethren in arms were acquiring on the coast of North America; but my wayward fate sent me in a very opposite direction.