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Captain Pye

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

It is hard to conceive of mystery in a man who is named Pye. But I have known a man whose soul was always midnight and the full of the moon, who had such a legacy from his ancestors.

There was little to suggest the mysterious in his open face; he had as twinkling a pair of eyes in his head and as open and above-board sort of moustache as you will meet in a day’s journey. But that face was a curtain hung before deep secrets. Those who knew him well had given him his title of captain for the reason that he did business in remote and gloomy waters, along vanishing paths of moonlight, among folks the day never shines upon.

Captain Pye was a man who had been bitten more deeply by the bug of buried treasure than other men of his kind who take life easy, on the rocky Maine littoral and wear hair and moustaches burnt yellow by the everlasting sun. He had made a bypath of superstition into a highroad of life. In his pirates he lived and moved and had his being. For him the earth was nothing more than a place to hide wealth in. Nor were his pirates limited to the handful of men in bandanas and earrings who walked with the conventional swagger of Kidd. He believed that all men have the pirate in them at the proper quarter of the moon; he believed that all men are secretive and make it their chief business in life to bury precious things away. . . . If one could lay hold upon it, I think there is a philosophy hidden somewhere in his credo. . . . No cellar too green or too pastoral with nibbling sheep to be above hoarding a pot of coins in its mounds. No house too poor or too mean in its decay to be innocent of secreted plunder. Any house, so be it tenantless and sliding into ruin, had an aureole around it the color of the lustre of hidden gold. When man moved out, then mystery moved in to be the tenant of the place. As all abandoned houses become haunted houses for children and for the older and simpler folk of New England, so all houses for Captain Pye became Aladdin’s caves. It was as if the beauty and the shining things of life did not appear until a man had left them for good and all. As if the rainbow’s end stood always upon a grave. . . . But I must not try to put wings on a belief that was mortar and brick for Captain Pye.

This Captain had the courage to use pick and shovel on his conviction. Of course he did it shyly and only by the light of the full or the waning moon; but dig he did, and every last cellar around sooner or later gaped with the pits of his making. In his little house, by the side of the pine-woods that could make up long stories for a boy’s ears on a windy day, Captain Pye had a treasure-trove of shards of old pitchers and bowls which had ministered to children now long asleep as graybeards in the acres of oblivion. Perhaps some of these fragments daubed with hand-painted flowers had made a part of dishes which the Indians had shattered; for some of the cellars around Pye’s home were buried under two centuries of earth, and Pye’s house itself stood on a “forty-rod road”—a road cleared of wilderness that space on both sides in order that the arrows of the Redskins might not have deadly effect upon the palefaced traveller who journeyed with civilization. At any rate, Pye fingered and loved his pieces of pottery and fitted them into his life. He had not come empty away from his digging. Something precious he had. Of course he claimed he cherished them only, because they were clues to possible piles of coins, because they may have been the very receptacles of the money. But the truth was not so simple as that. These things had made a part of the happiness of people long ago; perhaps now, in some dim way a boy or Captain Pye could understand but would never explain, they were making a new portion of weal. Other fingers had handled these things; and they, had felt felicity. . . . When you come right down to it, there is a sort of poetry, in cannibalism. Here is man’s strength—does it not become a part of me when I have made the man one with my flesh?

Captain Pye was after money; and he found poetry. He would have been the last to admit it, but the search was the treasure; and the precious things he could not find he heaped up in his soul until it was full to overflowing. And so he could never leave off being a boy. I think that is the secret of his face that hung smiling before the mystery of his life by moonlight. Boy’s treasures are their brightest under the moon. Take them into the sunlight, and they turn into tinsel and fairy, gold. All boys hide their precious things away; boys have the perpetual pirate in them; the secret thing is the thing beautiful evermore.

Anyway, my Captain was quick to fasten himself upon that rare man who had enough of the boy in him to make a friend. And all the boys of the neighborhood he loved and brought up. He held them open of mouth with his stories of digging for treasure. To be sure, when it came to partnering him with a spade under the waning moon—that was another thing. I remember how Captain Pye rose suddenly from the bushes by the roadside to ask me to go over to the Orr-place cellar with him late one night when I was bicycling home ahead of a rising thunderstorm. I used the thunder lifting its white head in the west as my excuse to be gone. Yet listening to treasure hunting was all that a boy could ask of bliss.

I am mighty glad I never did get courage up to go with the man to lay bare the bones of old houses. I should have spoiled his sport by being at his elbow, and the task that would have flowered later into the shining lies of his narration would have been a blight and a mockery. For Captain pye was the most artistic and thorough liar that ever lived. He was a poet; that was the long and the short of the matter. An hour of turning over old potsherds became a visit with the “Arabian Nights” when he described it. And since Pye was wellnigh an illiterate man, I take my hat off to his fertile mind; the “hants” and the jinns of his stories did not come from any “Arabian Nights” at all; he made them all up out of whole cloth.—Don’t try to tell me that we have hated titles in this land of the Free since the days of the Third George. We New Englanders are the first to recognize princely qualities when we meet them and to call them princely names. How else does it come that we give any outstanding man, good at the tiller or good at telling tales, the title of captain? Captain Pye came honestly by his.

A prince of liars he was, and I never dare to hope I shall meet his like again. He was Paul Bunyan in the flesh. The things that man hadn’t done and seen! It takes an illiterate man, a man who is boy enough to be above books and learning, to make an epic. I am glad I had a chance to five part of my boyhood in the “Odyssey”! And this “Odyssey” was all the more pleasing because it was out of the sun, because it was laid in the land of the shadows and the moon.

For all his catholicity in “hants” and “cusses,” the Captain was at his vivid best when he was trafficking in pirates pure and simple.—”Godfrey Diamonds!”—that was his favorite oath, and it set off most of his sentences—”If you want to see a sight to make your eyeballs water, just you sail out under the lee of Lumbo Ledges when the wind is north-northwest! You can look down there through forty fathoms of the smartest, clearest, crystallest water and see the white skulls of pirates a-grinning up at you. Their eyes are sharper’n gimlets and the Old Boy in them bigger’n a woodchuck. All bare bones but their eyes. They looked so hard with them eyes that they turned into tourmaloons and emeralds and diamonds. Cross my heart and hope to die!-—You go out there and look for yourself. North-northwest wind, mind you!” You could always tell what islands the pirates had been on in that wilderness of islands in Casco Bay. Sooner or later the men who made a profession of going about and collecting Spanish silver-pieces and golden crucifixes and hiding them in all intriguing places found it necessary to cache also the unhallowed remains of the ladies they had acquired as incidentals in their business. Wherever those poor creatures lie buried no grass will grow forevermore. You can tell to the inch which of them were the tall and queenly ladies, for the blighted soil turns black above them. You can trace something of their beauty—and the pirates had an eye for beauty—in their contours that blacken the earth. And when you come upon such places, where no birds ever sing, you may call off your treasure hunt for the day. No proper pirate ever mixed his amours with his gold. The two lie apart.

Time and time again Captain Pye had been within a step of the hoard of hoards of all the pirates. He had never quite gotten his hand upon it; hence life was still a glory and a catch in the breath. There was always at the last moment something to hold Captain Pye back, some rapture or some terror. After all, we must not lay hold upon the things we love and worship in this world, or we shall have ashes in our hands.

That treasure greater than all the other smaller caches of coins and chalices, which the Captain had often seen here and there and had scorned to seize as too easy game, lay in a lonely place at the center of Whaleboat Island. The Captain’s best story was the story of the memorable night when he almost had it:

The tide was up, and the moon was full. I rowed close in under the hemlocks and moored my skiff. The earth seemed to quake-like when I stepped out on it. But I was reckoning on seeing what I had come to see. First I went over grass, and my shadow crotched where I crotched and did what I did. Then it was junipers and ledges to bark your shins. Then it was a quag-bog and black lilies like you never saw by broad daylight a-quivering there. Then it was woods, high woods and dark as a pocket. Hoot-owls, maybe, but not another sound. It got cold as Charity. Then—Godfrey Diamonds!—the hairs fetched up stiff on my back! Somebody opened up and begun to sing. Sing till your blood run cold. Pretty, but awful high up and lonesome. The way the wind howls around the house in the winter—’no pork, no ‘lasses’. I crept up on the singing. All of a sudden I see a light. Like rotten wood you see glowing in the woods at night, or a codfish maybe lying in a dark cupboard. Dim. I edged up. Mother of Moses!—there was a handsome little tyke a-setting on his bottom and warbling fit to die, but his head wan’t where his head ought to be. He had it in his lap a-holding it in his little hands like it was one of them punkin jacky-lanterns! Just a stump where his hefcd ought to grow. But he could sing— that laddie. His lips like a bell and his eyes shut tight. After a bit, I see he was a-setting on a keg. Then I guessed what he was up to. He was set there to keep an eye on the treasure chist after the pirates had sliced off his head even with his ears. Sure as preaching, there was the chist I had been looking for all my born days. A big wooden chist with the spike heads a-shining and the big brass bands all around. Right in plain sight at the lad’s feet. But down in a hole, sort of. Then I looked and I see there was three steps leading down to it, just right to step down on comfortable, and a nice handy iron ring in the top of the chist to heave it up by. I watched the boy for a minute and see he wan’t going to stand in my way. He just kept on letting the song out. So I stepped down two of the steps. But you can bet your sweet big-toes Captain Pye wan’t a-going no further. I know what them third steps is! They sink down the minute you step on them, and down you go into the bowels of the earth, and there won’t never be no grave dug for you! And I had too much sense to put any fingers of mine on that ring in the chist. Them rings stick to your fingers till Kingdom Come. So I just stood still and reached round and fetched up a rock as big as your cranium, and I let her fly smack onto that there box. Ker-bang! Up flew the cover, and out went my eyes. Godfrey! What a sight I see! A million rubies and onyxes, jacinths and hyacinths, lapis Lazaruses, emeralds and turkusses! And the dollars!— they was big as cartwheels and yaller as the moon. And right in the middle of all them jools was a skull as big as an ox’s! Joshua Jugful! I wanted them shiny, things! I picked up a limb and poked it through a gold ring you could slip over your wrist with a diamond blazing bigger’n a goose egg on it.

I had just rigged that thing on the branch when that headless boy raised a screech to wake the dead, and I dented the earth with the butt of my breech. For I heard them coming. I never had seen them yet. I never see them then. I hope I never do see them. But I heard them coming. Golly mighty, wan’t they coming! And wan’t they hopping mad! Trees two hundred feet high was a-crashing down like splinters. The old bull spruces was a-touching their tops to the ground. The moon came out where the trees went down. And yelling!—Godfrey Diamonds, hell was all loose and coming. Well! I guess I picked up my feet and put them down in new places! Frequent! I didn’t bother about no ring. I was out of them spruces before you could say scat and over the quag-bogs and over the med-ders. I tore my. painter loose and started to shove off the skiff. And then, you might not believe it, but that tide that stood at tip-top high water mark ran off over the skyline like steam out of a kittle! Thunder and lightning!—the water was all gone out of the bay! But I heard them coming, and I strained my breeches fit to split, and I started a-shoving. I shoved that boat faster’n chain lightning off’n a greased pig’s back, and I never let up till I was safe in thirty fathoms. Even then I could hear them things asnorting and a-churning up the water till my blood run cold. But I got away. . . . Boy, you can look upon the man as has seen Captain Kidd’s own chist and is here to tell the tale. But I’ve got white hairs on my head!

I always made the Captain come with me a piece on my way home from his cabin after dark.

I guess the Captain is still in his full vigor and growing more epic with the years. I saw him recently, and, though he has left the pinewoods cabin and is working at the tame trade of carpentering in an unsightly section of a growing town, he still draws the boys around him. What need has he for books or travel or wife and children, when he has his imagination to take around with him in his head? His hairs are all white now, but he must be even more of a boy. Some men there are whom the gods love.


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