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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHomeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 6
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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 6 Post by :earnforever Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :2665

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Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase: A Tale Of The Sea - Chapter 6

Chapter VI

_Trin. Stephano,--
_Steph. Doth thy other mouth call me? Mercy! Mercy!

TEMPEST.


The life of a packet steward is one of incessant mixing and washing, of interrogations and compoundings, all in a space of about twelve feet square. These functionaries, usually clever mulattoes who have caught the civilisation of the kitchen, are busy from morning till night in their cabins, preparing dishes, issuing orders, regulating courses, starting corks, and answering questions. Apathy is the great requisite for the station; for wo betide the wretch who fancies any modicum of zeal, or good nature, can alone fit him for the occupation. From the moment the ship sails until that in which a range of the cable is overhauled, or the chain is rowsed up in readiness to anchor, no smile illumines his face, no tone issues from his voice while on duty, but that of dogged routine--of submission to those above, or of snarling authority to those beneath him. As the hour for the "drink gelt," or "buona mana," approaches, however, he becomes gracious and smiling. On his first appearance in the pantry of a morning, he has a regular series of questions to answer, and for which, like the dutiful Zeluco, who wrote all his letters to his mother on the same day, varying the dates to suit the progress of time, he not unfrequently has a regular set of answers out and dried, in his gastronomical mind. "How's the wind?" "How's the weather?" "How's her head?" all addressed to this standing almanack, are mere matters of course, for which he is quite prepared, though it is by no means unusual to hear him ordering a subordinate to go on deck, after the answer is given, with a view to ascertain the facts. It is only when the voice of the captain is heared from his state-room, that he conceives himself bound to be very particular, though such is the tact of all connected with ships, that they instinctively detect the "know nothings," who are uniformly treated with an indifference suited to their culpable ignorance. Even the "old salt" on the forecastle has an instinct for a brother tar, though a passenger, and a due respect is paid to Neptune in answering his inquiries, while half the time the maiden traveller meets with a grave equivoque, a marvel, or a downright mystification.

On the first morning out, the steward of the Montauk commenced the dispensation of his news; for no sooner was he heard rattling the glasses, and shuffling plates in the pantry, than the attack was begun by Mr. Dodge, in whom "a laudable thirst after knowledge," as exemplified in putting questions, was rather a besetting principle. This gentleman had come out in the ship, as has been mentioned, and unfortunately for the interest of his propensity, not only the steward, but all on board, had, as it is expressed in slang language, early taken the measure of his foot. The result of his present application was the following brief dialogue.

"Steward," called out Mr. Dodge, through the blinds of his state-room; "whereabouts are we?"

"In the British Channel, sir."

"I might have guessed that, myself."

"So I s'pose, sir; nobody is better at guessing and divining than Mr. Dodge."

"But in what part of the Channel are we, Saunders?"

"About the middle, sir."

"How far have we come to night?"

"From Portsmouth Roads to this place, sir."

Mr. Dodge was satisfied, and the steward, who would not have dared to be so explicit with any other cabin-passenger, continued coolly to mix an omelette. The next attack was made from the same room, by Sir George Templemore.

"Steward, my good fellow, do you happen to know whereabouts we are?"

"Certainly, sir; the land is still werry obwious."

"Are we getting on cleverly?"

"_Nicely_, sir;" with a mincing emphasis on the first word, that betrayed there was a little waggery about the grave-looking mulatto.

"And the sloop-of-war, steward?"

"Nicely too, sir."

There was a shuffling in the state-room, followed by a silence. The door of Mr. Sharp's room was now opened an inch or two, and the following questions issued through the crevice:

"Is the wind favourable, steward?"

"Just her character, sir."

"Do you mean that the wind is favourable?"

"For the Montauk, sir; she's a persuader in this breeze."

"But is she going in the direction we wish?"

"If the gentleman wishes to perambulate America, it is probable he will get there with a little patience."

Mr. Sharp pulled-to his door, and ten minutes passed without further questions; the steward beginning to hope the morning catechism was over, though he grumbled a wish that gentlemen would "turn out" and take a look for themselves. Now, up to this moment, Saunders knew no more, than those who had just been questioning him of the particular situation of the ship, in which he floated as indifferent to the whereabouts and the winds, as men sail in the earth along its orbit, without bethinking them of parallaxes, nodes, ecliptics, and solstices. Aware that it was about time for the captain to be heard, he sent a subordinate on deck, with a view to be ready to meet the usual questions from his commander. A couple of minutes were sufficient to put him _au courant of the real state of things. The next door that opened was that of Paul Blunt, however, who thrust his head into the cabin, with all his dark curls in the confusion of a night scene.

"Steward!"

"Sir.

"How's the wind?"

"Quite exhilarating, sir."

"From what quarter?"

"About south, sir"

"Is there much of it?"

"A prewailing breeze, sir."

"And the sloop?"

"She's to leeward, sir, operating along as fast as she can."

"Steward!"

"Sir," stepping hurriedly out of his pantry, in order to hear more distinctly.

"Under what sail are we?"

"Topgallant sails, sir."

"How's her head?"

"West-south-west, sir."

"Delicious! Any news of the rover?"

"Hull down to leeward, sir, and on our quarter.

"Staggering along, eh?"

"Quite like a disguised person, sir."

"Better still. Hurry along that breakfast of yours, sir; I am as hungry as a Troglodyte."

The honest captain had caught this word from a recent treatise against agrarianism, and having an acquired taste for orders in one sense, at least, he flattered himself with being what is called a Conservative, in other words, he had a strong relish for that maxim of the Scotch freebooter, which is rendered into English by the comely aphorism of "keep what you've got, and get what you can."

A cessation of the interrogatories took place, and soon after the passengers began to appear in the cabin, one by one. As the first step is almost invariably to go on deck, especially in good weather, in a few minutes nearly all of the last night's party were again assembled in the open air, a balm that none can appreciate but those who have experienced the pent atmosphere of a crowded vessel. The steward had rendered a faithful account of the state of the weather to the captain, who was now seen standing in the main-rigging, looking at the clouds to windward, and at the sloop-of-war to leeward, in the knowing manner of one who was making comparisons materially to the disadvantage of the latter.

The day was fine, and the Montauk, bearing her canvas nobly, was, to use the steward's language, also staggering along, under everything that would draw, from her topgallant-sails down, with the wind near two points forward of the beam, or on an easy bowline. As there was but little sea, her rate was quite nine knots, though varying with the force of the wind. The cruiser had certainly followed them thus far, though doubts began to be entertained whether she was in chase, or merely bound like themselves to the westward; a course common to all vessels that wish to clear the Channel, even when it is intended to go south, as the rocks and tides of the French coast are inconvenient neighbours in long nights.

"Who knows, after all, that the cutter which tried to board us," asked the captain aloud, "belongs to the ship to leeward?"

"I know the boat, sir," answered the second mate; "and the ship is the Foam."

"Let her foam away, then, if she wishes to speak us. Has any one tried her bearings since daylight?"

"We set her by the compass at six o'clock, sir, and she has not varied her bearing, as far as from one belaying pin to another, in three hours; but her hull rises fast: you can now make out her ports, and at daylight the bottom of her courses dipped."

"Ay, ay, she is a light-going Foam, then! If that is the case, she will be alongside of us by night."

"In which event, captain, you will be obliged to give him a broadside of Vattel," threw in John Effingham, in his cool manner.

"If that will answer his errand, he is welcome to as much as he can carry. I begin to doubt, gentlemen, whether this fellow be not in earnest: in which case you may nave an opportunity of witnessing how ships are handled, when seamen have their management. I have no objection, to setting the experience of a poor come-and-go sort of a fellow, like myself, in opposition to the geometry and Hamilton Moore of a young man-of-war's-man. I dare say, now, yonder chap is a lord, or a lord's progeny, while poor Jack Truck is just as you see him."

"Do you not think half-an-hour of compliance on our part might bring the matter to an amicable conclusion a once?" said Paul Blunt. "Were we to run down to him, the object of his pursuit could be determined in a few minutes."

"What! and abandon poor Davis to the rapacity of that rascally attorney?" generously exclaimed Sir George Templemore. "I would prefer paying the port-charges myself, run into the handiest French port, and let the honest fellow escape!"

"There is no probability that a cruiser would attempt to take a mere debtor from a foreign vessel on the open sea."

"If there were no tobacco in the world, Mr. Blunt, I might feel disposed to waive the categories, and show the gentleman that courtesy," returned the captain, who was preparing another cigar. "But while the cruiser might not feel authorised to take an absconding debtor from this vessel, he might feel otherwise on the subject of tobacco, provided there has been an information for smuggling."

Captain Truck then explained, that the subordinates of the packets frequently got their ships into trouble, by taking adventures of the forbidden weed clandestinely into European ports, and that his ship, in such circumstances, would lose her place in the line, and derange all the plans of the company to which she belonged. He did the English government the justice to say, that it had always manifested a liberal disposition not to punish the innocent for the guilty; but were any such complaints actually in the wind, he thought he could settle it with much less loss to himself on his return, than on the day of sailing. While this explanation was delivered, a group had clustered round the speaker, leaving Eve and her party on the opposite side of the deck.

"This last speech of Mr. Blunt's quite unsettles my opinion of his national character, as Vattel and our worthy captain would say," remarked Mr. Sharp. "Last night, I set him down as a right loyal American; but I think it would not be natural for a thorough-going countryman of yours, Miss Effingham, to propose this act of courtesy to a cruiser of King William."

"How far any countrymen of mine, thorough-going or not, have reason to manifest extreme courtesy to any of your cruisers," Eve laughingly replied, "I shall leave Captain Truck to say. But, with you, I have long been at a loss to determine whether Mr. Blunt is an Englishman or an American, or indeed, whether he be either."

"Long, Miss Effingham! He then has the honour of being well known to you?"

Eye answered steadily, though the colour mounted to her brow; but whether from the impetuous exclamation of her companion, or from any feeling connected with the subject of their conversation, the young man was at a loss to discover.

"Long, as girls of twenty count time--some four or five years; but you may judge how well, when I tell you I am ignorant of his country even."

"And may I venture to ask which do you, yourself, give him credit for being, an American or an Englishman?"

Eve's bright eyes laughed, as she answered, "You have put the question with so much finesse, and with a politeness so well managed, that I should indeed be churlish to refuse an answer:--Nay, do not interrupt me, and spoil all the good you have done by unnecessary protestations of sincerity."

"All I wish to say is, to ask an explanation of a finesse, of which I am quite as innocent as of any wish to draw down upon myself the visitations of your displeasure."

"Do you, then, really conceive it a _credit to be an American?"

"Nobody of less modesty than yourself, Miss Effingham, under all the circumstances, would dream of asking the question."

"I thank you for the civility, which must be taken as it is offered, I presume, quite as a thing _en regle_; but to leave our fine opinions of each other, as well as our prejudices, out of the question--"

"You will excuse me if I object to this, for I feel nay good sense implicated. _You can hardly attribute to me opinions so utterly unreasonable, so unworthy of a gentleman--so unfounded, in short! Am I not incurring all the risks and hardships of a long sea-voyage, expressly to visit your great country, and, I trust, to improve by its example and society?"

"Since you appear to wish it, Mr. Sharp--" Eve glanced her playful eye up at him as she pronounced the name--"I will be as credulous as a believer in animal magnetism: and that, I fancy, is pushing credulity to the verge of reason. It is now settled between us, that you do conceive it an honour to be an American, born, educated, and by extraction."

"All of which being the case with Miss Effingham."

"All but the second; indeed, they write me fearful things concerning this European education of mine; some even go so far as to assure me I shall be quite unfitted to live in the society to which I properly belong!"

"Europe will be rejoiced to receive you back again, in that case; and no European more so than myself."

The beautiful colour deepened a little on the cheek of Eve, but she made no immediate reply.

"To return to our subject," she at length said; "Were I required to say, I should not be able to decide on the country of Mr. Blunt; nor have I ever met with any one who appeared to know. I saw him first in Germany, where he circulated in the best company; though no one seemed acquainted with his history, even there. He made a good figure; was quite at his ease; speaks several languages almost as well as the natives of the different countries themselves; and, altogether, was a subject of curiosity with those who had leisure to think of any thing but their own dissipation and folly."

Mr. Sharp listened with obvious gravity to the fair speaker, and had not her own eyes been fastened on the deck, she might have detected the lively interest betrayed in his. Perhaps the feeling which was at the bottom of all this, to a slight degree, influenced his answer.

"Quite an Admirable Crichton!"

"I do not say that, though certainly expert in tongues. My own rambling life has made me acquainted with a few languages, and I do assure you, this gentleman speaks three or four with almost equal readiness, and with no perceptible accent. I remember, at Vienna, many even believed him to be a German."

"What! with the name of Blunt?"

Eve smiled, and her companion, who silently watched every expression of her varying countenance, as if to read her thoughts, noted it.

"Names signify little in these migratory times," returned the young lady. "You have but to imagine a _von before it, and it would pass at Dresden, or at Berlin. Von Blunt, _der Edelgeborne Graf Von Blunt, Hofrath_--or if you like it better, _Geheimer Rath mit Excellenz und eure Gnaden_"

"Or, _Baw-Berg-Veg-Inspector-Substitut!_" added Mr. Sharp, laughing. "No, no! this will hardly pass. Blunt is a good old English name; but it has not finesse enough for Italian, German, Spanish, or anything else but John Bull and his family."

"I see no necessity, for my part, for all this Bluntishness; the gentleman may think frankness a good travelling quality."

"Surely, he has not concealed his real name!"

"Mr. Sharp, Mr. Blunt; Mr. Blunt, Mr. Sharp;" rejoined Eve, laughing until her bright eyes danced with pleasure. "There would be something ridiculous, indeed, in seeing so much of the finesse of a master of ceremonies subjected to so profound a mystification! I have been told that passing introductions amount to little among you men, and this would be a case in point."

"I would I dared ask if it be really so."

"Were I to be guilty of indiscretion in another's case, you would not fail to distrust me in your own. I am, moreover, a protestant, and abjure auricular confessions."

"You will not frown if I inquire whether the rest of your party remember him?"

"My father, Mademoiselle Viefville, and the excellent Nanny Sidley, again; but, I think, none other of the servants, as he never visited us. Mr. John Effingham was travelling in Egypt at the time, and did not see him at all, and we only met in general society; Nanny's acquaintance merely that of seeing him check his horse in the Prater, to speak to us of a morning."

"Poor fellow, I pity him; he has, at least, never had the happiness of strolling on the shores of Como and the islands of Laggo Maggiore in your company, or of studying the wonders of the Pitti and the Vatican."

"If I must confess all, he journeyed with us on foot and in boats an entire month, among the wonders of the Oberland, and across the Wallenstadt. This was at a time when we had no one with us but the regular guides and the German courier, who was discharged in London."

"Were it not for the impropriety of tampering with a servant, I would cross the deck and question your good Nanny, this moment!" said Mr. Sharp with playful menace. "Of all torture, that of suspense is the hardest to be borne."

"I grant you full permission, and acquit you of all sins, whether of disrespect, meanness, impertinence, ungentle-manlike practices, or any other vice that may be thought to attend and characterize the act."

"This formidable array of qualities would check the curiosity of a village gossip!"

"It has an effect I did not intend, then; I wish you to put your threat in execution."

"Not seriously, surely?"

"Never more so. Take a favourable moment to speak to the good soul, as an old acquaintance; she remembers you well, and by a little of that interrogating management you possess, a favourable opportunity may occur to bring in the other subject. In the mean time, I will glance over the pages of this book."

As Eve began to read, Mr. Sharp perceived she was in earnest, and hesitating a moment, in doubt of the propriety of the act, he yielded to her expressed desire, and strolled carelessly towards the faithful old domestic. He addressed her indifferently at first, until believing he might go further, he smilingly observed that he believed he had seen her in Italy. To this Nanny quietly assented, and when he indirectly added that it was under another name, she smiled, but merely intimated her consciousness of the fact, by a quick glance of the eye.

"You know that travellers assume names for the sake of avoiding curiosity," he added, "and I hope you will not betray me."

"You need not fear me, sir; I meddle with little besides my own duty, and so long as Miss Eve appears to think there is no harm in it, I will venture to say it is no more than a gentleman's caprice."

"Why, that is the very word she applied to it herself! You have caught the term from Miss Effingham."

"Well, sir, and if I have, it is caught from one who deals little harm to any."

"I believe I am not the only one on board who travels under a false name, if the truth were known?"

Nanny looked first at the deck, then at her interrogator's face, next towards Mr. Blunt, withdrawing her eye again, as if guilty of an indiscretion, and finally at the sails. Perceiving her embarrassment, respecting her discretion, and ashamed of the task he had undertaken, Mr. Sharp said a few civil things suited to the condition of the woman, and sauntering about the deck for a short time, to avoid suspicion, soon found himself once more alongside of Eve. The latter inquired with her eyes, a little exultingly perhaps, concerning his success.

"I have failed," he said; "but something must be ascribed to my own awkward diffidence; for there is so much meanness in tampering with a servant, that I had not the heart to push my questions, even while I am devoured by curiosity."

"Your fastidiousness is not a disease with which all on board are afflicted, for there is at least one grand inquisitor among us, by what I can learn; so take heed to your sins, and above all, be very guarded of old letters, marks, and other tell-tales, that usually expose impostors."

"To all that, I believe, sufficient care has already been had, by that other Dromio, my own man."

"And in what way do you share the name between you? Is it Dromio of Syracuse, and Dromio of Ephesus? or does John call himself Fitz-Edward, or Mortimer, or De Courcy?"

"He has complaisance enough to make the passage with nothing but a Christian name, I believe. In truth, it was by a mere accident that I turned usurper in this way. He took the state-room for me, and being required to give a name, he gave his own, as usual. When I went to the docks to look at the ship, I was saluted as Mr. Sharp, and then the conceit took me of trying how it would wear for a month or six weeks. I would give the world to know if the _Geheimer Rath got his cognomen in the same honest manner."

"I think not, as his man goes by the pungent title of Pepper. Unless poor John should have occasion for two names during the passage, you are reasonably safe. And still, I think," continued Eve, biting her lips, like one who deliberated, "if it were any longer polite to bet, Mr. John Effingham would hazard all the French gloves in his trunks, against all the English finery in yours, that the inquisitor just hinted at gets at your secret before we arrive. Perhaps I ought rather to say, ascertains that you are not Mr. Sharp, and that Mr. Blunt is."

Her companion entreated her to point out the person to whom she had given the _sobriquet she mentioned.

"Accuse me of giving nicknames to no one. The man has this title from Mademoiselle Viefville, and his own great deeds. It is a certain Mr. Steadfast Dodge, who, it seems, knows something of us, from the circumstance of living in the same county, and who, from knowing a little in this comprehensive manner, is desirous of knowing a great deal more."

"The natural result of all useful knowledge."

"Mr. John Effingham, who is apt to fling sarcasms at all lands, his native country included, affirms that this gentleman is but a fair specimen of many more it will be our fortune to meet in America. If so, we shall not long be strangers; for according to Mademoiselle Viefville and my good Nanny, he has already communicated to them a thousand interesting particulars of himself, in exchange for which he asks no more than the reasonable compensation of having all his questions concerning us truly answered."

"This is certainly alarming intelligence, and I shall take heed accordingly."

"If he discover that John is without a surname, I am far from certain he will not prepare to have him arraigned for some high crime or misdemeanour; for Mr John Effingham maintains that the besetting propensity of all this class is to divine the worst the moment their imaginations cease to be fed with fact. All is false with them, and it is flattery or accusation."

The approach of Mr. Blunt caused a cessation of the discourse, Eve betraying a slight degree of sensitiveness about admitting him to share in these little asides, a circumstance that her companion observed, not without satisfaction. The discourse now became general, the person who joined them amusing the others with an account of several proposals already made by Mr. Dodge, which, as he expressed it, in making the relation, manifested the strong community-characteristics of an American. The first proposition was to take a vote to ascertain whether Mr. Van Buren or Mr. Harrison was the greatest favourite of the passengers; and, on this being defeated, owing to the total ignorance of so many on board of both the parties he had named, he had suggested the expediency of establishing a society to ascertain daily the precise position of the ship. Captain Truck had thrown cold water on the last proposal, however, by adding to it what, among legislators, is called a "rider;" he having drily suggested that one of the duties of the said society should be to ascertain also the practicability of wading across the Atlantic.

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