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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 10
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 10 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1552

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 10

Chapter X

"--Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed, to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood
I am not to his manners.--"

Merchant of Venice.


The moment the stranger was again alone, the entire expression of his countenance underwent a change. The reckless and bold expression deserted his eye, which once more became soft, if not pensive, as it wandered over the different elegant objects that served to amuse the leisure of la belle Barberie. He arose, and touched the strings of a lute, and then, like Fear, started back, as if recoiling at the sound he had made. All recollection of the object of his visit was evidently forgotten, in a new and livelier interest; and had there been one to watch his movements, the last motive imputed to his presence would probably have been the one that was true. There was so little of that vulgar and common character, which is usually seen in men of his pursuit, in the gentle aspect and subdued air of his fine features, that it might be fancied he was thus singularly endowed by nature, in order that deception might triumph, if there were moments when a disregard of opinion was seen in his demeanor, it rather appeared assumed than easy; and even when most disposed to display lawless indifference to the ordinary regulations of society, in his interview with the Alderman, it had been blended with a reserve of manner that was strangely in contrast with his humor.

On the other hand, it were idle to say that Alida de Barberie had no unpleasant suspicions concerning the character of her uncle's guest. That baneful influence, which necessarily exerts itself near an irresponsible power, coupled with the natural indifference with which the principal regards the dependant, had caused the English Ministry to fill too many of their posts of honor and profit, in the colonies, with needy and dissolute men of rank, or of high political connexions at home. The Province of New-York had, in this respect, been particularly unfortunate. The gift of it by Charles to his brother and successor, had left it without the protection of those charters and other privileges that had been granted to most of the governments of America. The connexion with the crown was direct, and, for a long period, the majority of the inhabitants were considered as of a different race, and of course as of one less to be considered, than that of their conquerors. Such was the laxity of the times on the subject of injustice to the people of this hemisphere, that the predatory expeditions of Drake and others against the wealthy occupants of the more southern countries, seem to have left no spots on their escutcheons; and the honors and favors of Queen Elizabeth had been liberally extended to men who would now be deemed freebooters. In short, that system of violence and specious morality, which commenced with the gifts of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the bulls of the Popes, was continued, with more or less of modification, until the descendants of those single-minded and virtuous men who peopled the Union, took the powers of government into their own hands, and proclaimed political ethics that were previously as little practised as understood.

Alida knew that both the Earl of Bellamont and the unprincipled nobleman who has been introduced in the earlier pages of this tale, had not escaped the imputation of conniving at acts on the sea, far more flagrant than any of an unlawful trade; and it will therefore create little surprise, that she saw reason to distrust the legality of some of her uncle's speculations, with less pain than might be felt by one of her sex and opinions at the present hour. Her suspicions, however, fell far short of the truth; for it were scarce possible to have presented a mariner, who bore about him fewer of those signs of his rude calling, than he whom she had so unexpectedly met.

Perhaps, too, the powerful charm, that existed in the voice and countenance of one so singularly gifted by nature, had its influence in persuading Alida to reappear. At all events, she was soon seen to enter the room, with an air, that manifested more of curiosity and wonder, than of displeasure.

"My niece has heard that thou comest from the old countries, Master Seadrift," said the wary Alderman, who preceded Alida, "and the woman is uppermost in her heart. Thou wilt never be forgiven, should the eye of any maiden in Manhattan get sight of thy finery before she has passed judgment on its merit."

"I cannot wish a more impartial or a fairer judge;" returned the other, doffing his cap in the gallant and careless manner of his trade. "Here are silks from the looms of Tuscany, and Lyonnois brocades, that any Lombard, or dame of France, might envy. Ribbons of every hue and dye, and laces that seem to copy the fret-work of the richest cathedral of your Fleming!"

"Thou hast journeyed much, in thy time, Master Seadrift, and speakest of countries and usages with understanding," said the Alderman. "But how stand the prices of these precious goods? Thou knowest the long war, and the moral certainty of its continuance; this German succession to the throne, and the late earthquakes in the country, too, have much unsettled prices, and cause us thoughtful burghers to be wary in our traffic.--Didst inquire the cost of geldings, when last in Holland?"

"The animals go a-begging!--As to the value of my goods, that you know is fixed; for I admit of no parley between friends."

"Thy obstinacy is unreasonable, Master Seadrift. A wise merchant will always look to the state of the market, and one so practised should know that a nimble sixpence multiplies faster than a slow-moving shilling. 'Tis the constant rolling of the ball that causes the snow to cleave! Goods that come light should not go heavy, and quick settlements follow sudden bargains. Thou knowest our York saying, that 'first offers are the best.'"

"He that likes may purchase, and he that prefers his gold to fine laces, rich silks, and stiff brocades, has only to sleep with his money-bags under his pillow. There are others who wait, with impatience, to see the articles; and I have not crossed the Atlantic, with a freight that scarcely ballasts the brigantine, to throw away the valuables on the lowest bidder."

"Nay, uncle," said Alida, in a little trepidation "we cannot judge of the quality of Master Seadrift's articles, by report. I dare to say, he has not landed without a sample of his wares?"

"Custom and friendships!" muttered Myndert; "of what use is an established correspondence, if it is to be broken on account of a little cheapening? But produce thy stores, Mr. Dogmatism; I warrant me the fashions are of some rejected use, or that the color of the goods be impaired by the usual negligence of thy careless mariners. We will, at least pay thee the compliment to look at the effects."

"'Tis as you please," returned the other. "The bales are in the usual place, at the wharf, under the inspection of honest Master Tiller--but if so inferior in quality, they will scarce repay the trouble of the walk."

"I'll go, I'll go," said the Alderman, adjusting his wig and removing his spectacles; "'twould not be treating an old correspondent well, to refuse to look at his samples,--thou wilt follow, Master Seadrift, and so I will pay thee the compliment to examine the effects--though the long war, the glut of furs, the over-abundance of the last year's harvests, and the perfect quiet in the mining districts, have thrown all commerce flat on its back. I'll go, however; lest thou shouldst say, thy interests were neglected. Thy Master Tiller is an indiscreet agent; he gave me a fright to-day that exceeds any alarm I have felt since the failure of Van Halt, Balance, and Diddle."

The voice of Myndert became inaudible, for, in his haste not to neglect the interests of his guest, the tenacious trader had already quitted the room, and half of his parting speech was uttered in the antechamber of the pavilion.

"'Twould scarce comport with the propriety of my sex, to mingle with the seamen, and the others who doubtless surround the bales," said Alida, in whose face there was a marked expression of hesitation and curiosity.

"It will not be necessary," returned her companion. "I have, at hand, specimens of all that you would see.--But, why this haste? We are yet in the early hours of the night, and the Alderman will be occupied long, ere he comes to the determination to pay the prices my people are sure to ask. I am lately from off the sea, beautiful Alida, and thou canst not know the pleasure I find in breathing even the atmosphere of a woman's presence."

La belle Barberie retired a step or two, she knew not why; and her hand was placed upon the cord of the bell, before she was aware of the manner in which she betrayed her alarm.

"To me it does not seem that I am a creature so terrific, that thou need'st dread my presence," continued the gay mariner, with a smile that expressed as much of secret irony, as of that pensive character which had again taken possession of his countenance; "but ring, and bring your attendants to relieve fears that are natural to thy sex, and therefore seducing to mine. Shall I pull the cord?--for this pretty hand trembles too much, to do its office."

"I know not that any would answer, for it is past the hour of attendance;--it is better that I go to the examination of the bales."

The strange and singularly-attired being, who occasioned so much uneasiness to Alida, regarded her a moment with a kind and melancholy solicitude.

"Thus they are all, till altered by too much intercourse with a cold and corrupt world!" he rather whispered, than uttered aloud. "Would that thus they might all continue! Thou art a singular compound of thy sex's weakness, and of manly resolution, belle Barberie; but trust me," and he laid his hand on his heart with an earnestness that spoke well for his sincerity; "ere word, or act, to harm or to offend thee, should proceed from any who obey will of mine, nature itself must undergo a change. Start not, for I call one to show the specimens you would see."

He then applied a little silver whistle to his lips, and drew a low signal from the instrument, motioning to Alida to await the result, without alarm. In half a minute, there was a rustling among the leaves of the shrubbery, a moment of attentive pause, and then a dark object entered the window, and rolled heavily to the centre of the floor.

"Here are our commodities, and trust me the price shall not be dwelt on, between us," resumed Master Seadrift, undoing the fastenings of the little bale, that had entered the saloon, seemingly without the aid of hands. "These goods are so many gages of neutrality, between us; so approach, and examine, without fear. You will find some among them to reward the hazard."

The bale was now open, and as its master appeared to be singularly expert in suiting a female fancy, it became impossible for Alida to resist any longer. She gradually lost her reserve, as the examination proceeded; and before the owner of the treasures had got into the third of his packages, the hands of the heiress were as actively employed as his own, in gaining access to their view.

"This is a stuff of the Lombard territories," said the vender of the goods, pleased with the confidence he had succeeded in establishing between his beautiful customer and himself. "Thou seest, it is rich, flowery, and variegated as the land it came from. One might fancy the vines and vegetation of that deep soil were shooting from this labor of the loom--nay, the piece is sufficient for any toilette, however ample; see, it is endless as the plains that reared the little animal who supplies the texture. I have parted of that fabric to many dames of England, who have not disdained to traffic with one that risks much in their behalf."

"I fear there are many who find a pleasure in these stuffs, chiefly because their use is forbidden."

"'Twould not be out of nature! Look; this box contains ornaments of the elephant's tooth, cut by a cunning artificer in the far Eastern lands; they do not disfigure a lady's dressing-table, and have a moral, for they remind her of countries where the sex is less happy than at home. Ah! here is a treasure of Mechlin, wrought in a fashion of my own design."

"'Tis beautifully fancied, and might do credit to one who professed the painter's art."

"My youth was much employed in these conceits," returned the trader, unfolding the rich and delicate lace in a manner to show that he had still pleasure in contemplating its texture and quality. "There was a compact between me and the maker, that enough should be furnished to reach from the high church-tower of his town, to the pavement beneath; and yet, you see how little remains! The London dames found it to their taste, and it was not easy to bring even this trifle into the colonies."

"You chose a remarkable measure for an article that was to visit so many different countries, without the formalities of law!"

"We thought to start in the favor of the church, which rarely frowns on those who respect its privileges. Under the sanction of such authority, I will lay aside all that remains, certain it will be needed for thy use."

"So rare a manufacture should be costly?"

La belle Barberie spoke hesitatingly, and as she raised her eyes, they met the dark organs of her companion, fixed on her face, in a manner that seemed to express a consciousness of the ascendency he was gaining. Startled, at she knew not what the maiden again added hastily--

"This may be fitter for a court lady, than a girl of the colonies."

"None who have vet worn of it, so well become it;--I lay it here, as a make-weight in my bargain with the Alderman.--This is satin of Tuscany; a country where nature exhibits its extremes, and one whose merchants were princes. Your Florentine was subtle in his fabrics, and happy in his conceits of forms and colors, for which he stood indebted to the riches of his own climate. Observe--the hue of this glossy surface is scarcely so delicate as I have seen the rosy light, at even, playing on the sides of his Apennines!"

"You have then visited the regions, in whose fabrics you deal?" said Alida, suffering the articles to fall from her hand, in the stronger interest she began to feel in their owner.

"'Tis my habit. Here have we a chain from the city of the Isles. The hand of a Venetian could alone form these delicate and nearly insensible links: I refused a string of spotless pearls for that same golden web."

"It was indiscreet, in one who trades at so much hazard."

"I kept the bauble for my pleasure!--Whim is sometimes stronger than the thirst of gain; and this chain does not quit me, till I bestow it on the lady of my love."

"One so actively employed can scarcely spare time to seek a fitting object for the gift."

"Is merit and loveliness in the sex, so rare? La belle Barberie speaks in the security of many conquests, or she would not deal thus lightly, in a matter that is so serious with most females."

"Among other countries your vessel hath visited a land of witchcraft, or you would not pretend to a knowledge of things, that, in their very nature, must be hidden from a stranger.--Of what value may be those beautiful feathers of the ostrich?"

"They came of swarthy Africa, though so spotless themselves. The bunch was had, by secret traffic, from a Moorish man, in exchange for a few skins of Lachrymyae Christi, that he swallowed with his eyes shut. I dealt with the fellow, only in pity for his thirst, and do not pride myself on the value of the commodity. It shall go, too, to quicken love between me and thy uncle."

Alida could not object to this liberality, though she was not without a secret opinion that the gifts were no more than delicate and well-concealed offerings to herself. The effect of this suspicion was two-fold; it caused the maiden to become more reserved in the expression of her tastes, though it in no degree lessened her confidence in, and admiration of, the wayward and remarkable trader.

"My uncle will have cause to commend thy generous spirit," said the heiress, bending her head a little coldly, at this repeated declaration of her companion's intentions, "though it would seem that, in trade, justice is as much to be desired as generosity;--this seemeth a curious design, wrought with the needle!"

"It is the labor of many a day, fashioned by the hand of a recluse. I bought it of a nun, in France, who passed years in toil, upon the conceit, which is of more value than the material. The meek daughter of solitude wept when she parted with the fabric, for, in her eyes, it had the tie of association and habit. A companion might be lost to one who lives in the confusion of the world, and it should not cause more real sorrow, than parting from the product of her needle, gave that mild resident of the cloisters!"

"And is it permitted for your sex to visit those places of religious retirement?" asked Alida. "I come of a race that pays little deference to monastic life, for we are refugees from the severity of Louis; but yet I never heard my father charge these females with being so regardless of their vows."

"The fact was so repeated to me; for, surely, my sex are not admitted to traffic, directly, with the modest sisters;" (a smile, that Alida was half-disposed to think bold, played about the handsome mouth of the speaker) "but it was so reported. What is your opinion of the merit of woman, in thus seeking refuge from the cares, and haply from the sins, of the world, in institutions of this order."

"Truly the question exceedeth my knowledge. This is not a country to immure females, and the custom causes us of America little thought."

"The usage hath its abuses," continued the dealer in contraband, speaking thoughtfully; "but it is not without its good. There are many of the weak and vain, that would be happier in the cloisters, than if left to the seductions and follies of life.--Ah! here is work of English hands. I scarcely know how the articles found their way into the company of the products of the foreign looms. My bales contain, in general, little that is vulgarly sanctioned by the law. Speak me, frankly, belle Alida, and say if you share in the prejudices against the character of us free-traders?"

"I pretend not to judge of regulations that exceed the knowledge and practices of my sex," returned the maiden, with commendable reserve. "There are some who think the abuse of power a justification of its resistance, while others deem a breach of law to be a breach of morals."

"The latter is the doctrine of your man of invested moneys and established fortune! He has entrenched his gains behind acknowledged barriers, and he preaches their sanctity, because they favor his selfishness. We skimmers of the sea--"

Alida started so suddenly, as to cause her companion to cease speaking.

"Are my words frightful, that you pale at their sound?"

"I hope they were used rather in accident, than with their dreaded meaning. I would not have it said--no! 'tis but a chance that springs from some resemblance in your callings. One, like you, can never be the man whose name has grown into a proverb!"

"One like me, beautiful Alida, is much as fortune wills. Of what man, or of what name wouldst speak?"

"'Tis nothing," returned la belle Barberie, gazing unconsciously at the polished and graceful features of the stranger, longer than was wont in maiden. "Proceed with your explanation;--these are rich velvets!"

"They come of Venice, too; but commerce is like the favor which attends the rich, and the Queen of the Adriatic is already far on the decline. That which causes the increase of the husbandman, occasions the downfall of a city. The lagunes are filling with fat soil, and the keel of the trader is less frequent there than of old. Ages hence, the plow may trace furrows where the Bucentaur has floated! The outer India passage has changed the current of prosperity, which ever rushes in the widest and newest track. Nations might learn a moral, by studying the sleepy canals and instructive magnificence of that fallen town; but pride fattens on its own lazy recollections, to the last!--As I was saying, we rovers deal little in musty maxims, that are made by the great and prosperous at home, and are trumpeted abroad, in order that the weak and unhappy should be the more closely riveted in their fetters."

"Methinks you push the principle further than is necessary, for one whose greatest offence against established usage is a little hazardous commerce. These are opinions, that might unsettle the world."

"Rather settle it, by referring all to the rule of right. When governments shall lay their foundations in natural justice, when their object shall be to remove the temptations to err, instead of creating them, and when bodies of men shall feel and acknowledge the responsibilities of individuals--why, then the Water-Witch, herself, might become a revenue-cutter, and her owner an officer of the customs!"

The velvet fell from the hands of la belle Barberie, and she arose from her seat with precipitation.

"Speak plainly," said Alida with all her natural firmness. "With whom am I about to traffic?"

"An outcast of society--a man condemned in the opinions of the world--the outlaw--the flagrant wanderer of the ocean--the lawless 'Skimmer of the Seas!'" cried a voice, at the open window.

In another minute, Ludlow was in the room Alida uttered a shriek, veiled her face in her robe, and rushed from the apartment.

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