Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation (6 page)

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
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“I guess I'll go along back to Pa,” I said. I felt petered out.

Matt Green said, “Hold on. How about the four dollars your pappy owes me?”

Jim grinned and fetched silver from his pockets. “I'm paying,” he said. “I'm sure happy to. I got silver money to spend.” And he paid Matt Green out the four dollars.

They went back, Jim with them, and I rode on. I got to the fallen log, and there were Pa and Rachel, just sitting and looking at each other. When Rachel saw me, she jumped up with a little cry of relief.

I slid off the horse and began to whimper.

Pa said, “Davey, stop that bawling!”

“Let him if he wants to,” Rachel said.

I looked at Pa, and he said, “Davey, do like your ma says.”


The Pirate and the General



you come down to it, we Americans had only one pirate, and yet he was enough, all that a pirate should be, and so peculiarly American that they say, down on the Delta, even today: “You understand, the good Jean, he is not criminal, but gambler, as you might say. He is always making deals. Like a faro gentleman.” And then they will tell you, word for word, explicitly, just what happened on that September 3, in 1814, on the lush green Louisiana coast.

They will tell you how His Majesty's brig
stood into the island and flew a yellow signal from the masthead. Also how the
was painted, again explicitly, black and red, white bands on the black masts, and one white stripe around her; you see, they remember those details so well down there, in spite of the fact that the rest of us have forgotten.

The sound of the
signal gun was like a clap of thunder, and the pink flamingoes darted up out of the marsh. A line of red-coated marines formed at attention upon the deck, the bo'sun's pipes twittered brightly, and a gig was lowered. Into the gig stepped two British officers in their beautiful full-dress uniform. A sight to see! They made for the shore, in the direction of a little brick fort that showed among the liveoaks, and out from the shore came a boat to meet them. Four men at the oars of this sleek boat from the shore, and perched in the bow, Dominique You.

A man, that Dominique! The boats came together, and he spat into the water. Held together with hooks, the boats rocked and swayed, and one of the officers, Captain Lockyer, demanded:

“You are Jean Laffite?”

A moment's hesitation, for the question was addressed in English, a tongue Dominique did not care for, although he spoke it well enough. Then he spat in the ocean again and answered, “No.”

“And where is he?”

Dominique shrugged. As a matter of fact, as any old hand on the Delta will tell you, Jean was with a woman. Come heaven, hell or the mid-year flood, you could depend on it, Jean would be with a woman. Tick them off, if you want to, Lizette, Claire, Lucille, Marchette, Marguerite, Josephine, Louise—you could go on, believe me.

The other officer, Captain McWilliams of the Royal Marines, said, “I don't like the looks of this.”

Dominique shrugged.

“Deal with pirates—”

“He don't like to be called a pirate,” Dominique said.

“Will he see us?”

“Maybe,” Dominique said.

So the boats went in to shore, to the beach in front of the fort, a beach lined with a motley crew of brigands. Barefooted, rings in their ears, red handkerchiefs on their heads, yellow sashes, pantaloons. The two officers came ashore, uneasily; they stood there waiting, and presently, down from the fort, came Jean Laffite.

At that time, Laffite was thirty-four years old, good looking, tall and sunburned, brown hair and brown eyes and a comfortable smile. If you had asked him, he would have told you he was in business, more successful than some, less so than others.

His business interests were many: there was, of course, first and foremost, that name with an ugly sound—piracy; he waylaid ships up and down the Caribbean and through the Gulf, English ships for the most part, some Spanish ships too. This practice he tended to legalize with the explanation that America and England were at war, and that Spain was a nominal ally of England. Some said that the only reason he didn't waylay American ships was that the British blockade kept them in port, but there are always rumors about certain men.

To house the steady stream of goods Laffite's employees brought in, warehouses were needed; and since the pirates could consume only a tiny fraction of the goods, Jean Laffite was projected into the business of buying and selling. Since New Orleans was at best a limited market, soon Laffite's flatboats began to ply the Mississippi, and presently his laces, wines and satins appeared in the New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston shops. On the side, having what amounted to a Yankee instinct for enterprise, Laffite had gone into the iron grillwork business and had also opened a school for fencing. Being one of a family of five brothers, Jean had involved his relatives in his growing enterprises: Marc was a New Orleans lawyer; Pierre checked the corsairs as they came and went.

Politics, they will explain to you down on the Delta, were not so different then from today, and it was no wonder that Jean became a power in New Orleans. He made deals … What else could you do with him; an army could not have penetrated the swamps below New Orleans and dug him out.

He nodded at the two British officers, annoyed that they had come at just this moment, anticipating what they would say to him, trying to prod at the things which drove him, and finding difficulty in putting these vague impulses into understandable terms of dollars and cents.

As the fishermen on the Delta remember, “He was a thief, this Laffite,” still the lilting French accent in their voice. “What else you call him, but dirty thief, same as Governor Claiborne in Orleans call him, same as President in Washington call him, dirty thief? Ah-yah! What make a thief, what make honest man?”

The English officers, after shaking hands with Laffite, the thief, were asked in to dinner. And at dinner, they came directly to the point.

“America,” they said, “is done, finished, a transition, something that never really mattered. You understand?”

Dominique You, also at the dinner, using the same phrase they use today,
!, smiled a little and nodded. “Finished, ah-yah.” He was a neat, precise little man who had once been a captain of artillery in Napoleon's army; he looked like a dressmaker or perfume salesman until you saw his eyes.

Jean Laffite said nothing.

In summing up, the visiting officer repeated things that everyone knew. In the course of a two-years' war, America had known nothing but defeat. Her armies ran away. The residence of her President had been burned down to the ground; her shipping was driven from the seas. Her commerce was ruined. Not even a faint straw of hope.

Dominique You munched chicken; Jean Laffite's brown eyes were completely noncommittal. The British officer showed that he was informed on more than general affairs, for he pointed out that even while he spoke, Jean Laffite's brother, Pierre, was in jail, put there and held there by Governor Claiborne of Louisiana.

“That is so,” Laffite agreed.

“And the governor,” Captain Lockyer went on, “being given a choice of enemies, ourselves or you, prefers you. He knows that we intend to attack New Orleans—”

Dominique You's eyebrows went up.

“And he prefers to attack you.”

“I know that too,” Jean Laffite nodded. “But how do you find out about such matters?”

“We have our sources.”

“And we have our traitors,” Laffite shrugged. “Each traitor has a price, no? What is your offer?”

“A thousand pounds?”

“The governor,” Laffite said, “he put five hundred dollar on my head. So I put thirty thousand dollar on his.”

“A captain's rating?”

“I'm more like a general right now,” Laffite grinned.

“A pardon for yourself and all your men.”

Dominique You slapped his knee and bubbled with laughter. While the two officers looked at him, Laffite explained:

“Suppose we go into circuit court, they sentence us to hang—how much water will your pardon hold? You get me a pardon from Washington, hey?”

“We burned Washington,” the captain mumbled.

“What else, then?”

The captain of the brig
and the captain of Royal Colonial Marines looked at each other; then they nodded and played their trump card—or, at least, so the people of the Delta swear, history having apparently overlooked this somewhat minor detail on a broad canvas. Captain Lockyer leaned forward and whispered to Jean Laffite, yet not so softly but that Dominique You heard it:

“Governor of Louisiana—”

“Ah-yah!” Dominique cried, slapping his knee, and Jean Laffite told him angrily:

“Damn you, shut up!”

Then there was silence, quite a period of it; for as they point out, those who remember the tale, there is much you can offer a pirate and a thief, legality, money, honor, even a colored ribbon or two to pin on his breast, and all that is nothing but colored icing on the cake compared to the things men dream of. And what do men dream of but power, and what sort of power may compare to governorship of a province so large that no man really knew where it began and where it ended?

That is the story they tell down there, word for word, explicitly, concerning the events of September 3, 1814, in the lair of the pirate, Jean Laffite. They will add to it other details, for instance, how Laffite wrestled with himself, with the glorious, juicy plum, how a girl, trying to persuade him, brought ghosts out of their graves, Benedict Arnold, Simon Girty, Wilkinson, Burr, Rogers, even a certain member of the exalted Adams clan, to prove that neither class nor family is exempt from the nice lure of betrayal.

Now Dominique You wondered, “But are we Americans? We are French, but in Paris they would jail us. In New Orleans they would jail us, in Washington, too, they jail us. With some people you can make a deal, but go try and make a deal with the crazy Yankees.”

“Maybe with freedom you don't make deals,” Laffite said quietly.

“Freedom! Go get your brother from jail first.”

And two hours later, they were still at no decision. And two days later, still at none. They will tell you, down there, and make you understand, how not only the fate of Louisiana, but the whole unfolding fate of America, rested upon the decision of this pirate; and we will get to that part of it ourselves later. But they point out:

“This Laffite, he is dirty thief, no? So how you figure it? Maybe he love country, no? Sure as hell, he don't love Washington!” You have to agree with that.

The British officers left with the promise that in two weeks the pirate chief would make his decision. In two weeks he made it, and he sent a letter off, not to the commander of His Majesty's brig
, but to Governor Claiborne at New Orleans. And here is the letter, word for word:


“I address Myself to you with confidence for an object on which can depend the Safety of the State. I offer to return to this State many Citizens Who perhaps have lost to your eyes that sacred title. I offer Their Efforts for the Defense of the country. This point of Louisiana that I occupy is of Great Importance in the present Situation. I offer Myself to defend it. I am The Lost Sheep who desires to Return to the Flock.

“In case, Monsieur le Gouverneur, that your Reply should Not be favorable to my ardent wishes I declare to you that I leave immediately so Not to be held to have Cooperated with an invasion. This can not Fail to take place, and puts me entirely at the Judgement of my conscience.

“I have the Honor to be, Monsieur le Gouverneur,


If we are to make a case of honor among thieves, we might as well go back, for the sake of our story, and investigate certain dishonor among so-called reputable men.

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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