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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHomeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 10
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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 10 Post by :earnforever Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1032

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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 10

Chapter X

I come with mightier things;
Who calls mo silent? I have many tones--
The dark sky thrills with low mysterious moans,
Borne on my sweeping winds.

MRS. HEMANS.


The awaking of the winds on the ocean is frequently attended with signs and portents as sublime as any the fancy can conceive. On the present occasion, the breeze that had prevailed so steadily for a week was succeeded by light baffling puffs, as if, conscious of the mighty powers of the air that were assembling in their strength, these inferior blasts were hurrying to and fro for a refuge. The clouds, too, were whirling about in uncertain eddies, many of the heaviest and darkest descending so low along the horizon, that they had an appearance of settling on the waters in quest of repose. But the waters themselves were unnaturally agitated. The billows, no longer following each other in long regular waves, were careering upwards, like fiery coursers suddenly checked in their mad career. The usual order of the eternally unquiet ocean was lost in a species of chaotic tossings of the element, the seas heaving themselves upward, without order, and frequently without visible cause. This was the reaction of the currents, and of the influence of breezes still older than the last. Not the least fearful symptom of the hour was the terrific calmness of the air amid such a scene of menacing wildness. Even the ship came into the picture to aid the impression of intense expectation; for with her canvas reduced, she, too, seemed to have lost that instinct which had so lately guided her along the trackless waste, and was "wallowing," nearly helpless, among the confused waters. Still she was a beautiful and a grand object, perhaps more so at that moment than at any other; for her vast and naked spars, her well-supported masts, and all the ingenious and complicated hamper of the machine, gave her a resemblance to some sinewy and gigantic gladiator, pacing the arena, in waiting for the conflict that was at hand.

"This is an extraordinary scene," said Eve, who clung to her father's arm, as she gazed around her equally in admiration and in awe; "a dreadful exhibition of the sublimity of nature!"

"Although accustomed to the sea," returned Mr. Blunt, "I have witnessed these ominous changes but twice before, and I think this the grandest of them all."

"Were the others followed by tempests?" inquired the anxious parent.

"One brought a tremendous gale, while the other passed away like a misfortune of which we get a near view, but are permitted to escape the effects."

"I do not know that I wish such to be entirely our present fortune," rejoined Eve, "for there is so much sublimity in this view of the ocean unaroused, that I feel desirous of seeing it when aroused."

"We are not in the hurricane latitudes, or hurricane months," resumed the young man, "and it is not probable that there is anything more in reserve for us than a hearty gale of wind, which may, at least, help us to get rid of yonder troublesome follower."

"Even that I do not wish, provided he will let us continue the race on our proper route. A chase across the Atlantic would be something to enjoy at the moment, gentlemen, and something to talk of in after life."

"I wonder if such a thing be possible!" exclaimed Mr. Sharp; "it would indeed be an incident to recount to another generation!"

"There is little probability of our witnessing such an exploit," Mr. Blunt remarked, "for gales of wind on the ocean have the same separating influence on consorts of the sea, that domestic gales have on consorts of the land. Nothing is more difficult than to keep ships and fleets in sight of each other in very heavy weather, unless, indeed, those of the best qualities are disposed to humour those of the worst."

"I know not which may be called the best, or which the worst, in this instance, for our tormentor appears to be as much better than ourselves in some particulars, as we are better than he in others. If the humouring is to come from our honest captain, it will be some such humouring as the spoiled child gets from a capricious parent in moments o anger."

Mr. Truck passed the group at that instant, and heard his name coupled with the word honest, in the mouth of Eve, though he lost the rest of the sentence.

"Thank you for the compliment, my dear young lady," he said; "and I wish I could persuade Captain Somebody, of his Britannic Majesty's ship Foam, to be of the same way of thinking. It is all because he will not fancy me honest in the article of tobacco, that he has got the Montauk down here, on the Spanish coast, where the man who built her would not know her; so unnatural and unseemly is it to catch a London liner so far out of her track. I shall have to use double care to get the good craft home again."

"And why this particular difficulty, captain?" Eve, who was amused with Mr. Truck's modes of speech, pleasantly inquired. "Is it not equally easy to go from one part of the ocean, as from another?"

"Equally easy! Bless you, my dear young lady, you never made a more capital mistake in your life. Do you imagine it is as easy to go from London to New York, now, as to go from New York to London?"

"I am so ignorant as to have made this ridiculous mistake, if mistake it be; nor do I now see why it should be otherwise."

"Simply because it is up-hill, ma'am. As for our position here to the eastward of the Azores; the difficulty is soon explained. By dint of coaxing I had got the good old ship so as to know every inch of the road on the northern passage, and now I shall be obliged to wheedle her along on a new route, like a shy horse getting through a new stable-door. One might as well think of driving a pig from his sty, as to get a ship out of her track."

"We trust to you to do all this and much more at need. But to what will these grand omens lead? Shall we have a gale, or is so much magnificent menacing to be taken as an empty threat of Nature's?"

"That we shall know in the coarse of the day, Miss Effingham, though Nature is no bully, and seldom threatens in vain. There is nothing more curious to study, or which needs a nicer eye to detect, than your winds."

"Of the latter I am fully persuaded, captain, for they are called the 'viewless winds,' you will remember, and the greatest authority we possess, speaks of them as being quite beyond the knowledge of man: 'That we may hear the sound of the wind, but cannot tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth.'"

"I do not remember the writer you mean, my dear young lady," returned Mr. Truck, quite innocently; "but he was a sensible fellow, for I believe Vattel has never yet dared to grapple with the winds. There are people who fancy the weather is foretold in the almanack; but, according to my opinion, it is safer to trust a rheumatis' of two or three years' standing. A good, well-established, old-fashioned rheumatis'--I say nothing of your new-fangled diseases, like the cholera, and varioloid, and animal magnitudes--but a good old-fashioned rheumatis', such as people used to have when I was a boy, is as certain a barometer as that which is at this moment hanging up in the coach-house here, within two fathoms of the very spot where we are standing. I once had a rheumatis' that I set much store by, for it would let me know when to look out for easterly weather, quite as infallibly as any instrument I ever sailed with. I never told you the story of the old Connecticut horse-jockey, and the typhoon, I believe; and as we are doing nothing but waiting for the weather to make up its mind--"

"The weather to make up its mind!" exclaimed Eve, looking around her in awe at the sublime and terrific grandeur of the ocean, of the heavens, and of the pent and moody air; "is there an uncertainty in this?"

"Lord bless you! my dear young lady, the weather is often as uncertain, and as undecided, and as hard to please, too, as an old girl who gets sudden offers on the same day from a widower with ten children, an attorney with one leg, and the parson of the parish. Uncertain, indeed! Why I have known the weather in this grandiloquent condition for a whole day. Mr. Dodge, there, will tell you it is making up its mind which way it ought to blow, to be popular; so, as we have nothing better to do, Mr. Effingham, I will tell you the story about my neighbour, the horse-jockey. Hauling yards when there is no wind, is like playing on a Jew's-Harp, at a concert of trombones."

Mr. Effingham made a complaisant sign of assent, and pressed the arm of the excited Eve for patience.

"You must know, gentlemen," the captain commenced, looking round to collect as many listeners as possible,--for he excessively disliked lecturing to small audiences, when he had anything to say that he thought particularly clever,--"you must know that we had formerly many craft that went between the river and the islands--"

--"The river?" interrupted the amused Mr. Sharp.

"Certain; the Connecticut, I mean; we all call it the river down our way--between the river and the West Indies, with horses, cattle, and other knick-knacks of that description. Among others was old Joe Bunk, who had followed the trade in a high-decked brig for some twenty-three years, he and the brig having grown old in company, like man and wife. About forty years since, our river ladies began to be tired of their bohea, and as there was a good deal said in favour of souchong in those days, an excitement was got up on the subject, as Mr. Dodge calls it, and it was determined to make an experiment in the new quality, before they dipped fairly into the trade. Well, what do you suppose was done in the premises, as Vattel says, my dear young lady?"

Eve's eyes were still on the grand and portentous aspect of the heavens, but she civilly answered,

"No doubt they sent to a shop and purchased a sample."

"Not they; they knew too much for that, since any rogue of a grocer might cheat them. When the excitement had got a little headway on it, they formed a tea society, with the parson's wife for presidentess, and her oldest daughter for secretary. In this way they went to work, until the men got into the fever too, and a project was set a-foot to send a craft to China for a sample of what they wanted."

"China!" exclaimed Eve, this time looking the captain fairly in the face.

"China, certain; it lies off hereaway, you know, round on the other side of the earth. Well, whom should they choose to go on the errand but old Joe Bunk. The old man had been so often to the islands and back, without knowing anything of navigation, they thought he was just their man, as there was no such thing as losing him."

"One would think he was the very man to get lost," observed Mr. Effingham, while the captain fitted a fresh cigar; for smoke he would, and did, in any company, that was out of the cabin, although he always professed a readiness to cease, if any person disliked the fragrance of tobacco.

"Not he, sir; he was just as well off in the Indian Ocean as he would be here, for he knew nothing about, either. Well, Joe fitted up the brig; the Seven Dollies was her name; for you must, know we had seven ladies in the town, who were cally Dolly, and they each of them used to send a colt, or a steer, or some other delicate article to the islands by Joe, whenever he went; so he fitted up the Seven Dollies, hoisted in his dollars, and made sail. The last that was seen or heard of the old man for eight months, was off Montauk, where he was fallen in with, two days out, steering south-easterly, by compass."

"I should think," observed John Effingham, who began to arouse himself as the story proceeded, "that Mrs. Bunk must have been very uneasy all this time?"

"Not she; she stuck to the bohea in hopes the souchong would arrive before the restoration of the Jews. Arrive it did, sure enough, at the end of eight months, and a capital adventure it proved for all concerned. Old Joe got a great name in the river for the exploit, though how he got to China no one could say, or how he got back again; or, for a long time, how he got the huge heavy silver tea-pot, he brought home with him."

"A silver tea-pot?"

"Exactly that article. At last the truth came to be known; for it is not an easy matter to hide anything of that nature down our way; it is aristocratic, as Mr. Dodge says, to keep a secret. At first they tried Joe with all sorts of questions, but he gave them 'guess' for 'guess.' Then people began to talk, and finally it was fairly whispered that the old man had stolen the tea-pot. This brought him before the meeting.--Law was out of the question, you will understand, as there was no evidence; but the meeting don't stick much at particulars, provided people talk a good deal."

"And the result?" asked John Effingham, "I suppose the parish took the tea-pot and left Joe the grounds."

"You are as far out of the way as we are here, down on the coast of Spain! The truth is just this. The Seven Dollies was lying among the rest of them, at anchor, below Canton, with the weather as fine as young girls love to see it in May, when Joe began to get down his yards, to house his masts, and to send out all his spare anchors. He even went so far as to get two hawsers fastened to a junk that had grounded a little ahead of him. This made a talk among the captains of the vessels, and some came on board to ask the reason. Joe told them he was getting ready for the typhoon; but when they inquired his reasons for believing there was to be a typhoon at all, Joe looked solemn, shook his head, and said he had reasons enough, but they were his own. Had he been explicit, he would have been laughed at, but the sight of an old grey-headed man, who had been at sea forty years, getting ready in this serious manner, set the others at work too; for ships follow each other's movements, like sheep running through a breach in the fence. Well, that night the typhoon came in earnest, and it blew so hard, that Joe Bunk said he could see the houses in the moon, all the air having blown out of the atmosphere."

"But what has this to do with the tea-pot, Captain Truck?"

"It is the life and soul of it. The captains in port were so delighted with Joe's foreknowledge, that they clubbed, and presented him this pot as a testimony of their gratitude and esteem. He'd got to be popular among them, Mr. Dodge, and that was the way they proved it."

"But, pray, how did he know the storm was approaching?" asked Eve, whose curiosity had been awakened in spite of herself. "It could not have been that his 'foreknowledge' was supernatural."

"That no one can say, for Joe was presbyterian-built, as we say, kettle-bottomed, and stowed well. The truth was not discovered until ten years afterwards, when the old fellow got to be a regular cripple, what between rheumatis', old age, and steaming. One day he had an attack of the first complaint, and in one of its most severe paroxysms, when nature is apt to wince, he roared three times, 'a typhoon! a typhoon! a typhoon!' and the murder was out. Sure enough, the next day we had a regular north-easter; but old Joe got no sign of popularity that time. And now, when you get to America, gentlemen and ladies, you will be able to say you have heard the story of Joe Bunk and his tea-pot."

Thereupon Captain Truck took two or three hearty whiffs of the cigar, turned his face upwards, and permitted the smoke to issue forth in a continued stream until it was exhausted, but still keeping his head raised in the inconvenient position it had taken. The eye of the master, fastened in this manner on something aloft, was certain to draw other eyes in the same direction, and in a few seconds all around him were gazing in the same way, though none but himself could tell why.

"Turn up the watch below, Mr. Leach," Captain Truck at length called out, and Eve observed that he threw away the cigar, although a fresh one; a proof, as she fancied, that he was preparing for duty.

The people were soon at their places, and an effort was made to get the ship's head round to the southward. Although the frightful stillness of the atmosphere rendered the manoeuvre difficult, it succeeded in the end, by profiting by the passing and fitful currents, that resembled so many sighings of the air. The men were then sent on the yards, to furl all the canvas, with the exception of the three topsails and the fore-course, most of it having been merely hauled up to await the result. All those who had ever been at sea before, saw in these preparations proof that Captain Truck expected the change would be sudden and severe: still, as he betrayed no uneasiness, they hoped his measures were merely those of prudence. Mr. Effingham could not refrain from inquiring, however, if there existed any immediate motives for the preparations that were so actively, though not hurriedly, making.

"This is no affair for the rheumatis'," returned the facetious master, "for, look you here, my worthy sir, and you, my dear young lady,"--this was a sort of parental familiarity the honest Jack fancied he had a right to take with all his unmarried female passengers, in virtue of his office, and of his being a bachelor drawing hard upon sixty;--"look you here, my dear young lady, and you, too, ma'amselle, for you can understand the clouds, I take it, if they are not French clouds; do you not see the manner in which those black-looking rascals are putting their heads together? They are plotting something quite in their own way, I'll warrant you."

"The clouds are huddling, and rolling over each other, certainly," returned Eve, who had been struck with the wild beauty of their evolutions, "and a noble, though fearful picture they present; but I do not understand the particular meaning of it, if there be any hidden omen in their airy flights."

"No rheumatis' about you, young lady," said the captain, jocularly; "too young, and handsome, and too modern, too, I dare say, for that old-fashioned complaint. But on one category you may rely, and that is, that nothing in nature conspires without an object."

"But I do not think vapour whirling in a current of air is a conspiracy," answered Eve, laughing, "though it may be a category."

"Perhaps not,--who knows, however; for it is as easy to suppose that objects understand each other, as that horses and dogs understand each other. We know nothing about it, and, therefore, it behooves us to say nothing. If mankind conversed only of the things they understood, half the words might be struck out of the dictionaries. But, as I was remarking, those clouds, you can see, are getting together, and are making ready for a start, since here they will not be able to stay much longer."

"And what will compel them to disappear?"

"Do me the favour to turn your eyes here, to the nor'-west You see an opening there that looks like a crouching lion; is it not so?"

"There is certainly a bright clear streak of sky along the margin of the ocean, that has quite lately made its appearance; does it prove that the wind will blow from that quarter?"

"Quite as much, my dear young lady, as when you open your window it proves that you mean to put your head out of it."

"An act a well-bred young woman very seldom performs," observed Mademoiselle Viefville; "and never in a town."

"No? Well, in our town on the river, the women's heads are half the time out of the windows. But I do not pretend, ma'amselle, to be expert in proprieties of this sort, though I can venture to say that I am somewhat of a judge of what the winds would be about when they open _their shutters. This opening to the nor'-west, then, is a sure sign of something coming out of the window, well-bred or not."

"But," added Eve, "the clouds above us, and those farther south, appear to be hurrying towards your bright opening, captain, instead of from it."

"Quite in nature, gentlemen; quite in nature, ladies. When a man has fully made up his mind to retreat, he blusters the most; and one step forward often promises two backward. You often see the stormy petterel sailing at a ship as if he meant to come aboard, but he takes good care to put his helm down before he is fairly in the rigging. So it is with clouds, and all other things in nature. Vattel says you may make a show of fight when your necessities require it, but that a neutral cannot fire a gun, unless against pirates. Now, these clouds are putting the best face on the matter, but in a few minutes you will see them wheeling as St. Paul did before them."

"St. Paul, Captain Truck!"

"Yes, my dear young lady; to the right about."

Eve frowned, for she disliked some of these nautical images, though it was impossible not to smile in secret at the queer associations that so often led the well-meaning master's discursive discourse. His mind was a strange jumble of an early religious education,--religious as to externals and professions, at least,--with subsequent loose observation and much worldly experience, and he drew on his stock of information, according to his own account of the matter, "as Saunders, the steward, cut the butter from the firkins, or as it came first."

His prediction concerning the clouds proved to be true, for half an hour did not pass before they were seen "scampering out of the way of the nor'-wester," to use the captain's figure, "like sheep giving play to the dogs." The horizon brightened with a rapidity almost supernatural, and, in a surprisingly short space of time, the whole of that frowning vault that had been shadowed by murky and menacing vapour, sporting its gambols in ominous wildness, was cleared of everything like a cloud, with the exception of a few white, rich, fleecy piles, that were grouped in the north, like a battery discharging its artillery on some devoted field.

The ship betrayed the arrival of the wind by a cracking of the spars, as they settled into their places, and then the huge hull began to push aside the waters, and to come under control. The first shock was far from severe, though, as the captain determined to bring his vessel up as near his course as the direction of the breeze would permit, he soon found he had as much canvas spread as she could bear. Twenty minutes brought him to a single reef, and half an hour to a second.

By this time attention was drawn to the Foam. The old superiority of that cruiser was now apparent again, and calculations were made concerning the possibility of avoiding her, if they continued to stand on much longer on the present course. The captain had hoped the Montauk would have the advantage from her greater bulk, when the two vessels should be brought down to close-reefed topsails, as he foresaw would be the case; but he was soon compelled to abandon even that hope. Further to the southward he was resolved he would not go, as it would be leading him too far astray, and, at last, he came to the determination to stand towards the islands, which were as near as might be in his track, and to anchor in a neutral roadstead, if too hard pressed.

"He cannot get up with us before midnight. Leach," he concluded the conference held with the mate by saying; "and by that time the gale will be at its height, if we are to have a gale, and then the gentleman will not be desirous of lowering his boats. In the mean time, we shall be driving in towards the Azores, and it will be nothing out of the course of nature, should I find an occasion to play him a trick. As for offering up the Montauk a sacrifice on the altar of tobacco, as old Deacon Hourglass used to say in his prayers, it is a category to be averted by any catastrophe short of condemnation."

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