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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 11
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 11 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :2217

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 11

Chapter XI

"--Truth will come to light;
Murder cannot be hid long, a man's son may;
But in the end, truth will out.--"

Launcelot.


The officer of the Queen had leaped into the pavilion, with the flushed features and all the hurry of an excited man. The exclamations and retreat of la belle Barberie, for a single moment, diverted his attention; and then he turned, suddenly, not to say fiercely, towards her companion. It is not necessary to repeat the description of the stranger's person, in order to render the change, which instantly occurred in the countenance of Ludlow, intelligible to the reader. His eye, at first, refused to believe there was no other present; and when it had, again and again, searched the whole apartment, it returned to the face and form of the dealer in contraband, with an expression of incredulity and wonder.

"Here is some mistake!" exclaimed the commander of the Coquette, after time had been given for a thorough examination of the room.

"Your gentle manner of entrance," returned the stranger, across whose face there had passed a glow, that might have come equally of anger or of surprise, "has driven the lady from the room. But as you wear the livery of the Queen, I presume you have authority for invading the dwelling of the subject?"

"I had believed--nay, there was reason to be certain, that one whom all of proper loyalty execrate, was to be found here;" stammered the still-confused Ludlow. "There can scarce be a deception, for I plainly heard the discourse of my captors,--and yet here is none!"

"I thank you for the high consideration you bestow on my presence."

The manner, rather than the words, of the speaker, induced Ludlow to rivet another look on his countenance. There was a mixed expression of doubt, admiration, and possibly of uneasiness, if not of actual jealousy, in the eye, which slowly read all his lineaments, though the former seemed the stronger sensation of the three.

"We have never met before!" cried Ludlow, when the organ began to grow dim, with the length and steadiness of its gaze.

"The ocean has many paths, and men may journey on them, long, without crossing each other."

"Thou hast served the Queen, though I see thee in this doubtful situation?"

"Never. I am not one to bind myself to the servitude of any woman that lives," returned the free trader, while a mild smile played about his lip "though she wore a thousand diadems! Anne never had an hour of my time, nor a single wish of my heart."

"This is bold language, Sir, for the ear of her officer. The arrival of an unknown brigantine, certain incidents which have occurred to myself this night, your presence here, that bale of articles forbidden by the law, create suspicions that must be satisfied. Who are you?"

"The flagrant wanderer of the ocean--the outcast of society--the condemned in the opinions of world--the lawless 'Skimmer of the Seas!'"

"This cannot be! The tongues of men speak of the personal deformity of that wanderer, no less than of his bold disregard of the law. You would deceive me."

"If then men err so much in that which is visible and unimportant," returned the other, proudly, "is there not reason to doubt their accuracy in matters of more weight. I am surely what I seem, if I am not what I say."

"I will not credit so improbable a tale;--give me some proof that what I hear is true."

"Look at that brigantine, whose delicate spars are almost confounded with the back-ground of trees," said the other, approaching the window, and directing the attention of his companion to the Cove: "'Tis the bark that has so often foiled the efforts of all thy cruisers, and which transports me and my wealth whither I will, without the fetters of arbitrary laws, and the meddling inquiries of venal hirelings. The scud, which floats above the sea, is not freer than that vessel, and scarcely more swift. Well is she named the Water-Witch! for her performances on the wide ocean have been such as seem to exceed all natural means. The froth of the sea does not dance more lightly above the waves, than yonder graceful fabric, when driven by the breeze. She is a thing to be loved, Ludlow; trust me, I never yet set affections on woman, with the warmth I feel for the faithful and beautiful machine!"

"This is little more than any mariner could say, in praise of a vessel that he admired."

"Will you say it, Sir, in favor of yon lumbering sloop of Queen Anne? Your Coquette is none of the fairest, and there was more of pretension than of truth, at her christening."

"By the title of my royal mistress, young beardless, but there is an insolence in this language, that might become him you wish to represent! My ship, heavy or light of foot, as she may be, is fated to bring yonder false trader to the judgment."

"By the craft and qualities of the Water-Witch! but this is language that might become one who was at liberty to act his pleasure," returned the stranger tauntingly imitating the tone, in which his angry companion had spoken. "You would have proof of my identity: listen. There is one who vaunts his power, that forgets he is a dupe of my agent, and that even while his words are so full of boldness, he is a captive!"

The brown cheek of Ludlow reddened, and he turned toward the lighter and far less vigorous frame of his companion, as if about to strike him to the earth, when a door opened, and Alida appeared in the saloon.

The meeting, between the commander of the Coquette and his mistress, was not without embarrassment. The anger of the former and the confusion of the latter, for a moment, kept both silent; but as la belle Barberie had not returned without an object, she was quick to speak.

"I know not whether to approve, or to condemn, the boldness that has prompted Captain Ludlow to enter my pavilion, at this unseasonable hour, and in so unceremonious a manner," she said, "for I am still ignorant of his motive. When he shall please to let me hear it, I may judge better of the merit of the excuse."

"True, we will hear his explanation before condemnation," added the stranger, offering a seat to Alida, which she coldly declined. "Beyond a doubt the gentleman has a motive."

If looks could have destroyed, the speaker would have been annihilated. But as the lady seemed indifferent to the last remark, Ludlow prepared to enter on his vindication.

"I shall not attempt to conceal that an artifice has been practised," he said, "which is accompanied by consequences that I find awkward. The air and manner of the seaman, whose bold conduct you witnessed in the boat, induced me to confide in him more than was prudent, and I have been rewarded by deception."

"In other words, Captain Ludlow is not as sagacious as he had reason to believe," said an ironical voice, at his elbow.

"In what manner am I to blame, or why is my privacy to be interrupted, because a wandering seaman has deceived the commander of the Coquette?" rejoined Alida. "Not only that audacious mariner, but this--this person," she added, adopting a word that use has appropriated to the multitude, "is a stranger to me. There is no other connexion between us, than that you see."

"It is not necessary to say why I landed," continued Ludlow; "but I was weak enough to allow that unknown mariner to quit my ship, in my company; and when I would return, he found means to disarm my men, and make me a prisoner."

"And yet, art thou, for a captive, tolerably free!" added the ironical voice.

"Of what service is this freedom, without the means of using it? The sea separates me from my ship, and my faithful boat's-crew are in fetters. I have been little watched, myself; but though forbidden to approach certain points, enough has been seen to leave no doubts of the character of those whom Alderman Van Beverout entertains."

"Thou wouldst also say, and his niece, Ludlow?"

"I would say nothing harsh to, or disrespectful of, Alida de Barberie. I will not deny that a harrowing idea possessed me,--but I see my error, and repent having been so hasty."

"We may then resume our commerce," said the trader, cooly seating himself before the open bale, while Ludlow and the maiden stood regarding each other in mute surprise. "It is pleasant to exhibit these forbidden treasures to an officer of the Queen. It may prove the means of gaining the royal patronage. We were last among the velvets, and on the lagunes, of Venice. Here is one of a color and quality to form a bridal dress for the Doge himself, in his nuptials with the sea! We men of the ocean look upon that ceremony as a pledge Hymen will not forget us, though we may wander from his altars. Do I justice to the faith of the craft, Captain Ludlow?--or are you a sworn devotee of Neptune, and content to breathe your sighs to Venus, when afloat? Well, if the damps and salt air of the ocean rust the golden chain, it is the fault of cruel nature!--Ah! here is--"

A shrill whistle sounded among the shrubbery, and the speaker became mute. Throwing his cloths carelessly on the bale, he arose again, and seemed to hesitate. Throughout the interview with Ludlow, the air of the free-trader had been mild, though, at times, it was playful; and not for an instant had he seemed to return the resentment which the other had so plainly manifested. It now became perplexed, and, by the workings of his features, it would seem that he vacillated in his opinions. The sounds of the whistle were heard, again.

"Ay, ay, Master Tom!" muttered the dealer in contraband. "Thy note is audible, but why this haste? Beautiful Alida, this shrill summons is to say, that the moment of parting is arrived!"

"We met with less of preparation," returned la belle Barberie, who preserved all the distant reserve of her sex, under the jealous eyes of her admirer.

"We met without a warning, but shall our separation be without a memorial? Am I to return with all these valuables to the brigantine, or, in their place, must I take the customary golden tribute?"

"I know not that I dare make a traffic which is not sanctioned by the law, in presence of a servitor of the Queen," returned Alida, smiling. "I will not deny that you have much to excite a woman's envy; but our royal mistress might forget her sex, and show little pity, were she to hear of my weakness."

"No fear of that, lady.--'Tis they who are most stern in creating these harsh regulations, that show most frailty in their breach. By the virtues of honest Leadenhall itself, but I should like to tempt the royal Anne, in her closet, with such a display of goodly laces and heavy brocades!"

"That might be more hazardous than wise!"

"I know not. Though seated on a throne, she is but woman. Disguise nature as thou wilt, she is a universal tyrant, and governs all alike. The head that wears a crown dreams of the conquests of the sex, rather than of the conquests of states; the hand that wields the sceptre is fitted to display its prettiness, with the pencil, or the needle; and though words and ideas may be taught and sounded forth with the pomp of royalty; the tone is still that of woman."

"Without bringing into question the merits of our present royal mistress," said Alida, who was a little apt to assert her sex's rights, "there is the example of the glorious Elizabeth, to refute his charge."

"Ay, we have had our Cleopatras in the sea-fight, and fear was found stronger than love! The sea has monsters, and so may have the land. He, that made the earth gave it laws that 'tis not good to break. We men are jealous of our qualities, and little like to see them usurped; and trust me, lady, she that forgets the means that nature bestows, may mourn in sorrow over the fatal error.--But, shall we deal in velvet, or is your taste more leaning to brocade?"

Alida and Ludlow listened in admiration to the capricious and fanciful language of the unaccountable trader, and both were equally at a loss to estimate his character. The equivocal air was in general well maintained, though the commander of the Coquette had detected an earnestness and feeling in his manner, when he more particularly addressed la belle Barberie, that excited an uneasiness he was ashamed to admit, even to himself. That the maiden herself observed this change, might also be inferred, from a richer glow which diffused itself over her features, though it is scarce probable that she was conscious of its effects. When questioned as to her determination concerning his goods, she again regarded Ludlow, doubtingly, ere she answered.

"That you have not studied woman in vain," she laughingly replied, "I must fain acknowledge. And yet, ere I make a decision, suffer me to consult those who, being more accustomed to deal with the laws, are better judges of the propriety of the purchases."

"If this request were not reasonable in itself, it were due to your beauty and station, lady, to grant it. I leave the bale in your care; and, before tomorrow's sun has set, one will await the answer Captain Ludlow, are we to part in friendship, or does your duty to the Queen proscribe the word."

"If what you seem," said Ludlow, "you are a being inexplicable! If this be some masquerade, as I half suspect, 'tis well maintained, at least, though not worthily assumed."

"You are not the first who has refused credit to his senses, in a manner wherein the Water-Witch and her commander have been concerned.--Peace, honest Tom--thy whistle will not hasten Father Time! Friend, or not, Captain Ludlow need not be told he is my prisoner."

"That I have fallen into the power of a miscreant--"

"Hist!--if thou hast love of bodily ease and whole bones. Master Thomas Tiller is a man of rude humor, and he as little likes contumely as another. Besides, the honest mariner did but obey my orders, and his character is protected by a superior responsibility."

"Thy orders!" repeated Ludlow, with an expression of eye and lip that might have offended one more disposed to take offence than him he addressed. "The fellow who so well succeeded in his artifice, is one much more likely to command than to obey. If any here be the 'Skimmer of the Seas,' it is he."

"We are no more than the driving spray, which goes whither the winds list. But in what hath the man offended, that he finds so little favor with the Queen's captain? He has not had the boldness to propose a secret traffic with so loyal a gentleman!"

"'Tis well, Sir; you choose a happy occasion for this pleasantry. I landed to manifest the respect that I feel for this lady, and I care not if the world knows the object of the visit. 'Twas no silly artifice that led me hither."

"Spoken with the frankness of a seaman!" said the inexplicable dealer in contraband, though his color lessened and his voice appeared to hesitate. "I admire this loyalty in man to woman; for, as custom has so strongly fettered them in the expression of their inclinations, it is due from us to leave as little doubt as possible of our intentions. It is difficult to think that la belle Barberie can do wiser than to reward so much manly admiration!"

The stranger cast a glance, which Alida fancied betrayed solicitude, as he spoke, at the maiden and he appeared to expect she would reply.

"When the time shall come for a decision," returned the half-pleased and yet half-offended subject of his allusion, "it may be necessary to call upon very different counsellors for advice. I hear the step of my uncle.--Captain Ludlow, I leave it to your discretion to meet him, or not."

The heavy footstep was approaching through the outer rooms of the pavilion. Ludlow hesitated; cast a reproachful look at his mistress; and then he instantly quitted the apartment, by the place through which he had entered. A noise in the shrubbery sufficiently proved that his return was expected, and that he was closely watched.

"Noah's Ark, and our grandmothers!" exclaimed Myndert, appearing at the door with a face red with his exertions. "You have brought us the cast-off finery of our ancestors, Master Seadrift. Here are stuffs of an age that is past, and they should be bartered for gold that hath been spent."

"What now! what now!" responded the free-trader, whose tone and manner seemed to change, at will, in order to suit the; humor of whomsoever he was brought to speak with. "What now, pertinacious burgher, that thou shouldst cry down wares that are but too good for these distant regions! Many is the English duchess who pines to possess but the tithe of these beautiful stuffs I offer thy niece, and, faith--rare is the English duchess that would become them half so well!"

"The girl is seemly, and thy velvets and brocades are passable, but the heavy articles are not fit to offer to a Mohawk Sachem. There must be a reduction of prices, or the invoice cannot pass."

"The greater the pity. But if sail we must, sail we will! The brigantine knows the channel over the Nantucket sands; and, my life on it! the Yankees will find others than the Mohawks for chapmen."

"Thou art as quick in thy motions, Master Seadrift, as the boat itself. Who said that a compromise might not be made, when discussion was prudently and fairly exhausted? Strike off the odd florins, leave the balance in round thousands, and thy trade is done for the season!"

"Not a stiver. Here, count me back the faces of the Braganza; throw enough of thin ducats into the scales to make up the sum, and let thy slaves push inland with the articles, before the morning light comes to tell the story. Here has been one among us, who may do mischief, if he will; though I know not how far he is master of the main secret."

Alderman Van Beverout stared a little wildly about him, adjusted his wig, like one fully conscious of the value of appearances in this world, and then cautiously drew the curtains before the windows.

"I know of none more than common, my niece excepted;" he said, when all these precautions had been observed. "'Tis true the Patroon of Kinderhook is in the house, but as the man sleeps, he is a witness in our favor. We have the testimony of his presence, while his tongue is silent."

"Well, be it so;" rejoined the free-trader, reading, in the imploring eyes of Alida, a petition that he would say no more. "I knew by instinct there was one unusual, and it was not for me to discover that he sleeps. There are dealers on the coast, who, for the sake of insurance, would charge his presence in their bills."

"Say no more, worthy Master Seadrift, and take the gold. To confess the truth, the goods are in the periagua and fairly out of the river. I knew we should come to conclusions in the matter, and time is precious, as there is a cruiser of the Queen so nigh. The rogues will pass the pennant, like innocent market-people, and I'll risk a Flemish gelding against a Virginia nag, that they inquire if the captain has no need of vegetables for his soup! Ah! ha-ha-ha! That Ludlow is a simpleton, niece of mine, and he is not yet fit to deal with men of mature years. You'll think better of his qualities, one day, and bid him be gone like an unwelcome dun."

"I hope these proceedings may be legally sanctioned, uncle?"

"Sanctioned! Luck sanctions all. It is in trade as in war: success gives character and booty, in both. Your rich dealer is sure to be your honest dealer. Plantations and Orders in Council! What are our rulers doing at home, that they need be so vociferous about a little contraband? The rogues will declaim, by the hour, concerning bribery and corruption, while more than half of them get their seats as clandestinely--ay, and as illegally, as you get these rare Mechlin laces. Should the Queen take offence at our dealings, Master Seadrift, bring me another season, or two, as profitable as the last, and I'll be your passenger to London, go on 'change, buy a seat in Parliament, and answer to the royal displeasure from my place, as they call it. By the responsibility of the States General! but I should expect, in such a case, to return Sir Myndert, and then the Manhattanese might hear of a Lady Van Beverout, in which case, pretty Alida, thy assets would be sadly diminished!--so go to thy bed, child, and dream of fine laces, and rich velvets, and duty to old uncles, and discretion, and all manner of agreeable things--kiss me, jade, and to thy pillow."

Alida obeyed, and was preparing to quit the room, when the free-trader presented himself before her with an air at once so gallant and respectful, that she could scarce take offence at the freedom.

"I should fail in gratitude," he said, "were I to part from so generous a customer, without thanks for her liberality. The hope of meeting again, will hasten my return."

"I know not that you are my debtor for these thanks," returned Alida, though she saw that the Alderman was carefully collecting the contents of the bale, and that he had already placed three or four of the most tempting of its articles on her dressing-table. "We cannot be said to have bargained."

"I have parted with more than is visible to vulgar eyes," returned the stranger, dropping his voice, and speaking with an earnestness that caused his auditor to start. "Whether there will be a return for the gift, or perhaps I had better call it loss,--time and my stars must show!"

He then took her hand, and raided it to his lips, by an action so graceful and so gentle, as not to alarm the maiden, until the freedom was done. La belle Barberie reddened to her forehead, seemed disposed to condemn the liberty, frowned, smiled, and curtsying in confusion, withdrew.

Several minutes passed in profound silence, after Alida had disappeared. The stranger was thoughtful, though his bright eye kindled, as if merry thoughts were uppermost; and he paced the room, entirely heedless of the existence of the Alderman. The latter, however, soon took occasion to remind his companion of his presence.

"No fear of the girl's prating," exclaimed the Alderman, when his task was ended. "She is an excellent and dutiful niece; and here, you see, is a balance on her side of the account, that would shut the mouth of the wife of the First Lord of the Treasury. I disliked the manner in which you would have the child introduced; for, look you, I do not think that either Monsieur Barberie, or my late sister, would altogether approve of her entering into traffic, so very young;--but what is done, is done; and the Norman himself could not deny that I have made a fair set-off, of very excellent commodities, for his daughter's benefit.--When dost mean to sail Master Seadrift?"

"With the morning tide. I little like the neighborhood of these meddling guarda-costas."

"Bravely answered! Prudence is a cardinal quality in a private trader; and it is a quality that I esteem in Master Skimmer, next to his punctuality Dates and obligations! I wish half of the firms, of three and four names, without counting the Co.'s, were as much to be depended on. Dost not think it safer to repass the inlet, under favor of the darkness?"

"'Tis impossible. The flood is entering it like water rushing through a race-way, and we have the wind at east. But, fear not; the brigantine carries no vulgar freight, and your commerce has given us a swept hold. The Queen and the Braganza, with Holland ducats, might show their faces even in the Royal Exchequer itself! We have no want of passes, and the Miller's-Maid is just as good a name to hail by, as the 'Water-witch.' We begin to tire of this constant running, and have half a mind to taste the pleasures of your Jersey sports, for a week. There should be shooting on the upper plains?"

"Heaven forbid! Heaven forbid! Master Seadrift.--I had all the deer taken for the skins, ten years ago;--and as to birds, they deserted us, to a pigeon, when the last tribe of the savages went west of the Delaware. Thou hast discharged thy brigantine to better effect, than thou couldst ever discharge thy fowling-pieces. I hope the hospitality of the Lust in Rust is no problem--but, blushes and curiosity! I could wish to keep a fair countenance, among my neighbors. Art sure the impertinent masts of the brigantine will not be seen above the trees, when the day comes? This Captain Ludlow is no laggard when he thinks his duty actually concerned."

"We shall endeavor to keep him quiet. The cover of the trees, and the berth of the boat, make all snug, as respects his people. I leave worthy Tiller to settle balances between us; and so, I take my leave. Master Alderman--a word at parting Does the Viscount Cornbury still tarry in the Provinces?"

"Like a fixture. There is not a mercantile house in the colony more firmly established."

"There are unsettled affairs between us.--A small premium would buy the obligations----"

"Heaven keep thee, Master Seadrift, and pleasant voyages, back and forth! As for the Viscount's responsibility--the Queen may trust him with another Province, but Myndert Van Beverout would not give him credit for the tail of a marten; and so, again, Heaven preserve thee!"

The dealer in contraband appeared to tear himself from the sight of all the little elegancies that adorned the apartment of la belle Barberie, with reluctance. His adieus to the Alderman were rather cavalier, for he still maintained a cold and abstracted air; but as the other scarcely observed the forms of decorum, in his evident desire to get rid of his guest, the latter was finally obliged to depart. He disappeared by the low balcony, where he had entered.

When Myndert Van Beverout was alone, he shut the windows of the pavilion of his niece, and retired to his own part of the dwelling. Here the thrifty burgher first busied himself in making sundry calculations, with a zeal that proved how much his mind was engrossed by the occupation. After this preliminary step, he gave a short but secret conference to the mariner of the India-shawl, during which there was much clinking of gold pieces. But when the latter retired, the master of the villa first looked to the trifling securities which were then, as now, observed in the fastenings of an American country house; when he walked forth upon the lawn, like one who felt the necessity of breathing the open air He cast more than one inquiring glance at the windows of the room which was occupied by Oloff Van Staats, where all was happily silent; at the equally immovable brigantine in the Cove; and at the more distant and still motionless hull of the cruiser of the crown. All around him was in the quiet of midnight Even the boats, which he knew to be plying between the land and the little vessel at anchor, were invisible; and he re-entered his habitation, with the security one would be apt to feel, under similar circumstances, in a region so little tenanted, and so little watched, as that in which he lived.

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