In which it is proved that sailors have very correct ideas as to metempsychosis.
The day after my return to Deal I again embarked with Bramble and three others, to follow up our vocation. The second day we were abreast of the Ram Head, when the men in another pilot boat, which had come out of Plymouth and was close to us, waved their hats and kept away to speak to us. We hove-to for them.
"Have you heard the news?" cried one of the men.
"Lord Nelson has beat the French and Spanish fleet."
"Glad to hear it—huzza!"
"Lord Nelson's killed."
"Lord Nelson's killed!" The intelligence was repeated from mouth to mouth, and then every voice was hushed; the other boat hauled her wind without further communication, nor did we at the time think of asking for any more. The shock which was given to the whole country was equally felt by those who were seeking their bread in a small boat, and for some little while we steered our course in silence.
"What d'ye say, my lads?" said Bramble, who first broke silence; "shall we haul up for Cawsand, and get a paper? I shan't be content till I know the whole history."
This was consented to unanimously; no one thought of piloting vessels for the moment and earning food for their families. When the country awarded a public funeral to our naval hero, it did not pay him a more sincere tribute than was done in this instance by five pilots in a galley. At Cawsand we obtained the newspaper, and after a few pots of beer we again made sail for the mouth of the Channel. It hardly need be observed that the account of this winding-up, as it proved, of our naval triumphs, with the death of Nelson, was the subject of conversation for more than one day. On the third we were all separated, having fallen in with many windbound vessels who required our services. The one I took charge of was a West Indiaman, deeply laden with rum and sugar, one of a convoy which were beating about in the Chops of the Channel. As we were standing out from the English coast the captain and one of the passengers were at the taffrail close to me.
"What do you think of the weather, pilot?" said the captain.
"I think we shall have a change of wind, and dirty weather before twelve hours are over our heads," replied I.
"Well," said he, "that's my opinion. There is a cloud rising in the southwest; and, look, there are some Mother Carey's chickens dipping in the water astern."
"Where?" said the passenger, a curly-headed Creole, about twenty years old.
"Those small birds," replied the captain, walking forward.
The passenger went down below, and soon returned with his double-barreled fowling-piece.
"I have long wished to shoot one of those birds," said he; "and now they are so near, I think I may get a shot."
He raised his piece several times without firing, when the captain came aft, and, perceiving his intention, caught his arm as he was about to level again.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Higgins, but I really must request that you will not fire at those birds."
"Because I cannot permit it."
"But what's to hinder me?" replied the young man, coloring up; "they are not in your manifest, I presume."
"No, sir, they are not; but I tell you frankly that I would not kill one for a hundred pounds. Nay, I would as soon murder one of my fellow-creatures."
"Well, that may be your feeling, but it's not mine."
"Nevertheless, sir, as it is, to say the least of it, very unlucky, you will oblige me by yielding to my request."
"Nonsense!—just to humor your superstitious feeling."
"We are not in port yet, Mr. Higgins; and I must insist upon it you do not fire. You have taken my gunpowder, and I cannot allow it to be used in that way."
During this altercation I observed that many of the sailors had come aft, and, although they said nothing, were evidently of the same opinion as the captain. I was aware that there was a superstitious feeling among the seamen relative to these birds, but I had never seen it so strongly exemplified before.
The mate gave a wink to the captain, behind the passenger's back, and made a motion to him to go forward, which the captain did. The passenger again raised his gun, when it was seized by two of the seamen.
"You must not fire at these birds, sir!" said one of them.
"Why, you scoundrel?—I'll give you the contents of both barrels if you don't leave my gun alone."
"No, you won't—you're not among niggers now, master," replied the seaman; "and as you have threatened to shoot me, I must take the gun from you."
A scuffle ensued, during which both barrels were discharged in the air, and the gun taken from Mr. Higgins, who was boiling with rage. The gun was handed forward, and I saw it no more. Mr. Higgins, in a state of great excitement, went down into the cabin.
The captain then came aft to me, when I observed that I had no idea that seamen were so very particular on that point; and I thought that they had gone too far.
"You may think so, pilot," replied he, "but when I tell you that I fully believe that these birds are as good as ourselves, you will not be surprised—"
"How do you mean, as good as ourselves?"
"I believe that they were every one sailors like ourselves in former times. They are now the sailors' friends, come to warn us of the approaching storm, and I can tell you a circumstance which occurred in the West Indies, which fully proves to me that they are not wantonly killed without a judgment upon those who do so. I never believed it myself till then; but old Mason, who is now on board, was one of the seamen of the vessel in which the circumstance happened."
"Indeed!" replied I, "I should like to hear it."
"I can't tell you now," said he; "I must go down and satisfy that puppy Creole, whose sugars are on board. He will otherwise make such a row between me and the owners that I may lose the command of the vessel. And yet, would you imagine it? although he will not credit what I tell him about Mother Carey's chickens, the foolish young man firmly believes in the Obi."
I did not think one superstition more ridiculous than the other, but still as I always found that it was useless to argue such points, I said nothing, and the captain went down into the cabin to pacify Mr. Higgins.
It was late in the first watch, and when the passengers had retired to bed, that the captain came on deck. "Well," said he, "I told Mr. Higgins my story, and as there was a bit of Obi nonsense in it, he believed it, and he has not only made friends, but thanked me for not having allowed him to shoot the birds; and now I'll tell you the real story:
"A schooner was coming down from the Virgin Isles with sugar and passengers to Antigua, where I was lying with my ship. She had a fine young fellow of the name of Shedden on board; and, besides other passengers, there was an old black woman, who, where she resided, had always been considered as an Obi woman. I saw her afterward; and you never beheld such a complication of wrinkles as she was, from her forehead to her feet, and her woolly head was as white as snow. They were becalmed as soon as they were clear of the islands; and, as it happened, some Mother Carey's chickens were flying about the stern. Shedden must needs get at his gun to shoot them. The old black woman sat near the taffrail; she saw him with his gun, but she said nothing. At last he fired, and killed three of them.
"'There are three down!' cried out some of the other passengers.
"'How many?' said the old woman, raising her head; 'three! Then count the sharks which are coming up.'
"'Count the sharks, mother! why count them? There's plenty of them,' replied Shedden, laughing.
"'I tell you that there will be but three sent,' replied the old woman, who then sunk down her head and said no more.
"Well, the negroes who were passengers on board, most of them Mr. Shedden's slaves, looked very blank, for they knew that old Etau never spoke without reason. In about ten minutes afterward, three large sharks swam up to the vessel, with their fins above water.
"'There's the three sharks, sure enough!' said the passengers.
"'Are they come?' said Etau, raising her head.
"'Yes, moder, dere dey be—very large shark,' replied one of the negroes.
"'Then three are doomed,' said the old woman, 'and here we stay, and the waves shall not run, nor the wind blow, till the three sharks have their food. I say three are doomed!'
"The passengers were more or less alarmed with this prophecy of old Etau's, according as they put faith in her. However, they all went to bed quite well, and the next morning they got up the same. Still there was not a breath of wind, the whole sea was as smooth as glass, and the vessel laid where she was the night before, in about six fathoms of water, about a mile from the reef, and you could see the coral rocks beneath her bottom as plain as if they were high and dry; and what alarmed them the next morning was that the three large sharks were still slowly swimming round and round the schooner. All that day it remained a dead calm, and the heat was dreadful, although the awnings were spread. Night came on, and the people, becoming more frightened, questioned old Etau, but all the answer she gave was, 'Three are doomed!'
"The passengers and crew were now terrified out of their wits, and they all went to bed with very melancholy forebodings, for the elements appeared as if they were arrested till the penalty was paid. For, you observe, pilot, there is always a light breeze as regular as the sun rises and goes down; but now the breezes only appeared to skirt the land, and when they came from the offing invariably stopped two or three miles from the schooner. It was about midnight that there was a stir in the cabin, and it appeared that Mr. Shedden had the yellow fever, and shortly afterward another white man, a sailor belonging to the schooner, then one of Mr. Shedden's slaves. Well, there the fever stopped—no one else was taken ill—the usual remedies were applied, but before morning they were all three delirious. At sunrise it was still calm, and continued so till sunset; and all the day the passengers were annoyed by the back fins of the three sharks, which continued to swim about. Again they went to bed, and just before one o'clock in the morning Mr. Shedden, in his delirium, got out of his bed, and, rushing on the deck, jumped overboard before any one could prevent him; and old Etau, who never left where she sat, was heard to say, 'One!' and the bell was struck one by the seaman forward, who did not know what had happened. Morning came on again and there were but two sharks to be seen. About noon the other white man died and he was thrown overboard; and as one shark seized his body and swam away, old Etau cried out, 'Two!' An hour afterward the negro died, and was thrown overboard and carried away by the third shark, and old Etau cried out, 'Three! the price is paid!'
"Well, every one crowded around the old woman to hear what she would say, and they asked her if all was over, and whether they should have any wind? and her reply was, 'When the three birds come from the sea to replace those which were killed.' For you see, pilot, if one of these birds is killed, it is certain that some one of the crew must die and be thrown overboard to become a Mother Carey chicken, and replace the one that has been destroyed. Well, after a time, although we never saw them rise, three Mother Carey's chickens were seen dipping and flying about astern of the schooner; and they told old Etau, who said, 'You'll have wind and plenty—and plenty of waves to make up for the calm;' and so they had sure enough, for it came on almost a hurricane, and the schooner scudded before it under bare poles until she arrived at Antigua, with her bulwarks washed away, and a complete wreck. I was there at the time, and old Mason, who was on board, told me the story, and asked me to take him, as he would not remain on board of the schooner. And now I leave you to judge, after knowing this to be a fact, whether I was not right in preventing Mr. Higgins from shooting the Mother Carey chickens?"
"Why, yes," replied I, "with such a fact before my eyes, I should have done the same."
Mr. Higgins not venturing to kill any of these receptacles for the souls of departed seamen, we arrived safely at the Downs, where I gave up charge to a river pilot, for the other vessels which Bramble and our companions had taken charge of were all bound to the Downs, and arrived at nearly the same time that I did, and we had agreed to embark again in the galley, and run out in quest of the remainder of the convoy.
This we did on the following day, much to the vexation of Bessy, who declared we only came on shore to be off again.
I ought to observe that Bessy and I had become much more intimate since the explanation which had taken place; and although it never entered my head that I should ever feel toward her more than as a brother to a sister, I was pleased and soothed with the touching proofs of kindness and commiseration which she took every opportunity of showing toward me.