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The Phantom Barque

We sailed one time a port to seek
In the sunny isle of Martinique;
And, sailing fast and sailing free,
We left Long Island on our lee,
And when the stars shone overhead,
Full fifty leagues our course had sped.

Then, suddenly looming through the dark
On our quarter came a stranger barque,
High of poop and of ancient build,
Her decks with a crowd of seamen filled,
Her rigging loose, and torn each sail,
As though she had fought with storm and gale.

Our skipper loud the stranger hailed---
"What ship is that?" but away she sailed.
No answer came from the stranger barque,
Which quickly vanished in the dark;
But we heard in the distance wailing low,
An eldritch laugh, and a shriek of woe.

"That fellow's a fool!" the skipper said;
But spin-yarn Ben, he shook his head---
Ben was an able-bodied tar,
And full of his yarns, as such folks are---
"He never replies to him who hails,
And evermore on he sails and sails."

When the captain to his cabin had gone,
A circle round old Ben was drawn;
And we asked him then to tell the tale,
Who it was that must sail and sail;
What was the name of the ship, and why
To friendly hail it would never reply.

"Messmates," said Ben, and cleared his throat,
And buttoned his jacket in lieu of coat,
And hitched his trousers, and looked quite wise,
And then, with a preface about his eyes,
He told us the story, doubtless true,
In the very language I give to you.

    "In sixteen hundred and ninety-four
    A brigantine left the English shore,
    From Hull or London---I don't know where---
    Bound for Boston. She never got there;
    For she hugged the Florida coast each day,
    Sighting each key in her course that lay.

    "Her skipper had sailed on many a sea,
    As wicked a pirate as there might be;
    But in sacking a church on the Spanish Main,
    The whole of his crew but five were slain,
    And these were dead, so that none but he
    The secret knew of the Phantom Key.

    "To seek for the Key he sailed all day,
    And to, at night, off the coast he lay,
    Till the hard-worked sailors grew tired of the game,
    And grumbled, and called it a burning shame,
    That North and South they should go for his sport,
    And never make sail for the proper port.

    "Then he called the crew on the deck and said:
    'You don't know what's in your skipper's head.
    I'm cruising around in hopes to see
    A desolate spot called the Phantom Key,
    The spot where we buried our treasures, which
    When I find it again will make us rich.

    "'The spoils of a galleon won in fight,
    The plunder of towns that we sacked by night,
    The golden vessels from ravished shrines,
    The bars of silver from Southern mines;
    With diamonds bright and pearls so fair---
    A countless treasure is buried there.

    "'A week we've searched, and I have not found
    The landmarks showing our treasure-ground;
    But be I living, or be I dead,
    I shall sail forever,' the captain said,
    'Till the Judgment Day, but I'll find that key!'
    Then shouted the sailors: 'So shall we!'

    "'I'll speak no vessel, whate'er her stress,
    Till we land at our golden wilderness;
    No port I make, nor in calm or gale
    Shall I take in even an inch of sail;
    But cruise till I find the Phantom Key!'
    Loud shouted the sailors: 'So shall we!'

    "They sailed along; on that very day
    They came where a vessel dismasted lay---
    'We're sinking! Help! or our lives are gone!'
    They paid no heed, but they sailed right on;
    And the hapless vessel sank in the sea,
    But still they sailed for the Phantom Key.

    "Upon that voyage they're going yet,
    With every sail to their royals set:
    And, as I have heard many sailors say,
    They will sail and sail till the Judgment Day,
    Till the dead shall rise from the earth and sea
    They will search in vain for the Phantom Key."
You may smile at the story if you please:
But are we not seeking for Phantom Keys?
For keys, where the treasure is wealth or fame
Or love---the purpose is much the same,
And we never shall reach the wished-for shore,
But be sailing, sailing for evermore.

Thomas Dunn English, The Select Poems (1894)

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