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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 16
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 16 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :3337

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 16

Chapter XVI

"This will prove a brave kingdom to me;
Where I shall have my music, for nothing."

Tempest.


During the time past in the secret conference of the cabin, Ludlow and the Patroon were held in discourse on the quarter-deck, by the hero of the India-shawl. The dialogue was professional, as Van Staats maintained his ancient reputation for taciturnity. The appearance of Myndert, thoughtful, disappointed, and most evidently perplexed, caused the ideas of all to take a new direction. It is probable that the burgher believed he had not yet bid enough to tempt the free-trader to restore his niece; for, by his air, it was apparent his mind was far from being satisfied that she was not in the vessel. Still, when questioned by his companions concerning the result of his interview with the free-trader, for reasons best understood by himself, he was fain to answer evasively.

"Of one thing rest satisfied," he said; "the misconception in this affair will yet be explained, and Alida Barberie return unfettered, and with a character as free from blemish as the credit of the Van Stoppers of Holland. The fanciful-looking person in the cabin denies that my niece is here, and I am inclined to think the balance of truth is on his side I confess, if one could just look into the cabins, without the trouble of rummaging lockers and cargo, the statement would give more satisfaction; but--hem--gentlemen, we must take the assertion on credit, for want of more sufficient security."

Ludlow looked at the cloud above the mouth of the Raritan, and his lip curled in a haughty smile.

"Let the wind hold here, at east," he said, "and we shall act our pleasure, with both lockers and cabins."

"Hist! the worthy Master Tiller may overhear this threat--and, after all, I do not know whether prudence does not tell us, to let the brigantine depart."

"Mr. Alderman Van Beverout," rejoined the Captain, whose cheek had reddened to a glow, "my duty must not be gauged by your affection for your niece. Though content that Alida Barberie should quit the country, like an article of vulgar commerce, the commander of this vessel must get a passport of Her Majesty's cruiser, ere she again enter the high sea."

"Wilt say as much to the sea-green lady?" asked the mariner of the shawl, suddenly appearing at his elbow.

The question was so unexpected and so strange, that it caused an involuntary start; but, recovering his recollection on the instant, the young sailor haughtily replied--

"Or to any other monster thou canst conjure!"

"We will take you at the word. There is no more certain method of knowing the past or the future, the quarter of the heavens from which the winds are to come, or the season of the hurricanes, than by putting a question to our mistress. She who knows so much of hidden matters, may tell us what you wish to know. We will have her called, by the usual summons."

Thus saving, the mariner of the shawl gravely quitted his guests, and descended into the inferior cabins of the vessel. It was but a moment, before there arose sounds from some secret though not distant quarter of the brigantine, that caused, in some measure, both surprise and pleasure to Ludlow and the Patroon. Their companion had his motives for being insensible to either of these emotions.

After a short and rapid symphony, a wind-instrument took up a wild strain, while a human voice was again heard chanting to the music, words which were so much involved by the composition of the air, as to render it impossible to trace more than that their burthen was a sort of mysterious incantation of some ocean deity.

"Squeaking and flutes!" grumbled Myndert, ere the last sounds were fairly ended. "This is downright heathenish; and a plain-dealing man, who does business above-board, has good reason to wish himself honestly at church. What have we to do with land-witches, or water-witches, or any other witchcraft, that we stay in the brigantine, now it is known that my niece is not to be found aboard her; and, moreover, even admitting that we were disposed to traffic, the craft has nothing in her that a man of Manhattan should want. The deepest bog of thy manor, Patroon, is safer ground to tread on, than the deck of a vessel that has got a reputation like that of this craft."

The scenes of which he was a witness, had produced a powerful effect on Van Staats of Kinderhook. Of a slow imagination but of a powerful and vast frame, he was not easily excited, either to indulge in fanciful images, or to suffer personal apprehension. Only a few years had passed since men, who in other respects were enlightened, firmly believed in the existence of supernatural agencies in the control of the affairs of this life; and though the New-Netherlanders had escaped the infatuation which prevailed so generally in the religious provinces of New-England, a credulous superstition, of a less active quality, possessed the minds of the most intelligent of the Dutch colonists, and even of their descendants so lately as in our own times. The art of divination was particularly in favor; and it rarely happened, that any inexplicable event affected the fortunes or comforts of the good provincialists, without their having recourse to some one of the more renowned fortunetellers of the country, for an explanation. Men of slow faculties love strong excitement, because they are insensible to less powerful impulses, as men of hard heads find most enjoyment in strong liquors. The Patroon was altogether of the sluggish cast; and to him there was consequently a secret, but deep pleasure, in his present situation.

"What important results may flow from this adventure, we know not, Mr. Alderman Van Beverout," returned Oloff Van Staats; "and I confess a desire to see and hear more, before we land. This 'Skimmer of the Seas' is altogether a different man from what our rumors in the city have reported; and, by remaining, we may set public opinion nearer to the truth. I have heard my late venerable aunt----"

"Chimney-corners and traditions! The good lady was no bad customer of these gentry, Patroon; and it is lucky that they got no more of thy inheritance, in the way of fees. You see the Lust in Rust against the mountain there; well, all that is meant for the public is on the outside, and all that is intended for my own private gratification is kept within-doors. But here is Captain Ludlow, who has matters of the Queen on his hands, and the gentleman will find it disloyal to waste the moments in this juggling."

"I confess the same desire to witness the end," dryly returned the commander of the Coquette. "The state of the wind prevents any immediate change in the positions of the two vessels; and why not get a farther insight into the extraordinary character of those who belong to the brigantine?"

"Ay, there it is!" muttered the Alderman between his teeth. "Your insights and outsights lead to all the troubles of life. One is never snug with these fantastics, which trifle with a secret, like a fly fluttering round a candle, until his wings get burnt."

As his companions seemed resolved to stay, however, there remained no alternative for the burgher, but patience. Although apprehension of some indiscreet exposure was certainly the feeling uppermost in his mind, he was not entirely without some of the weakness which caused Oloff Van Staats to listen and to gaze with so much obvious interest and secret awe. Even Ludlow, himself, felt more affected than he would have willing owned, by the extraordinary situation in which he was placed. No man is entirely insensible to the influence of sympathy, let it exert its power in what manner it will. Of this the young sailor was the more conscious, through the effect that was produced on himself, by the grave exterior and attentive manner of all the mariners of the brigantine. He was a seaman of no mean accomplishments; and, among other attainments that properly distinguish men of his profession, he had learned to know the country of a sailor, by those general and distinctive marks which form the principal difference between men whose common pursuit has in so great a degree created a common character. Intelligence, at that day, was confined to narrow limits among those who dwelt on the ocean. Even the officer was but too apt to be one of rude and boisterous manners, of limited acquirements and of deep and obstinate prejudices. No wonder then, that the common man was, in general, ignorant of most of those opinions which gradually enlighten society. Ludlow had seen, on entering the vessel, that her crew was composed of men of different countries. Age and personal character seemed to have been more consulted, in their selection, than national distinctions. There was a Finlander, with a credulous and oval physiognomy, sturdy but short frame, and a light vacant eye; and a dark-skinned seaman of the Mediterranean, whose classical outline of feature was often disturbed by uneasy and sensitive glances at the horizon. These two men had come and placed themselves near the group on the quarter-deck, when the last music was heard; and Ludlow had ascribed the circumstance to a sensibility to melody, when the child Zephyr stole to their side, in a manner to show that more was meant by the movement than was apparent in the action itself. The appearance of Tiller, who invited the party to re-enter the cabin, explained its meaning, by showing that these men, like themselves, had business with the being, who, it was pretended, had so great an agency in controlling the fortunes of the brigantine.

The party, who now passed into the little ante-room, was governed by very different sensations. The curiosity of Ludlow was lively, fearless, and a little mingled with an interest that might be termed professional; while that of his two companions was not without some inward reverence for the mysterious power of the sorceress. The two seamen manifested dull dependence, while the boy exhibited, in his ingenuous and half-terrified countenance, most unequivocally the influence of childish awe. The mariner of the shawl was grave, silent, and, what was unusual in his deportment, respectful. After a moment's delay, the door of the inner apartment was opened by Seadrift himself, and he signed for the whole to enter.

A material change had been made in the arrangement of the principal cabin. The light was entirely excluded from the stern, and the crimson curtain had been lowered before the alcove. A small window whose effect was to throw a dim obscurity within, had been opened in the side. The objects on which its light fell strongest, received a soft coloring from the hues of the hangings.

The free-trader received his guests with a chastened air, bowing silently, and with less of levity in his mien than in the former interview. Still Ludlow thought there lingered a forced but sad smile about his handsome mouth; and the Patroon gazed at his fine features, with the admiration that one might feel for the most favored of those who were believed to administer at some supernatural shrine. The feelings of the Alderman were exhibited only by some half-suppressed murmurs of discontent, that from time to time escaped him, notwithstanding a certain degree of reverence, that was gradually prevailing over his ill-concealed dissatisfaction.

"They tell me, you would speak with our mistress," said the principal personage of the vessel, in a subdued voice. "There are others, too, it would seem, who wish to seek counsel from her wisdom. It is now many months since we have had direct converse with her, though the book is ever open to all applicants for knowledge. You have nerves for the meeting?"

"Her Majesty's enemies have never reproached me with their want," returned Ludlow, smiling incredulously. "Proceed with your incantations, that we may know."

"We are not necromancers, Sir, but faithful mariners, who do their mistress's pleasure. I know that you are sceptical; but bolder men have confessed their mistakes, with less testimony. Hist! we are not alone. I hear the opening and shutting of the brigantine's transoms."

The speaker then fell back nearly to the line in which the others had arranged themselves, and awaited the result in silence. The curtain rose to a low air on the same wind-instrument; and even Ludlow felt an emotion more powerful than interest, as he gazed on the object that was revealed to view.

A female form, attired, as near as might be, like the figure-head of the vessel, and standing in a similar attitude, occupied the centre of the alcove. As in the image, one hand held a book with its page turned towards the spectators, while a finger of the other pointed ahead, as if giving to the brigantine its course. The sea-green drapery was floating behind, as if it felt the influence of the air; and the face had the same dark and unearthly hue, with its malign and remarkable smile.

When the start and the first gaze of astonishment were over, the Alderman and his companions glanced their eyes at each other, in wonder. The smile on the look of the free-trader became less hidden, and it partook of triumph.

"If any here has aught to say to the lady of our bark, let him now declare it. She has come far, at our call, and will not tarry long."

"I would then know," said Ludlow, drawing a heavy breath, like one recovering from some sudden and powerful sensation, "if she I seek be within the brigantine?"

He who acted the part of mediator in this extraordinary ceremony, bowed and advanced to the book, which, with an air of deep reverence, he consulted, reading, or appearing to read, from its pages.

"You are asked here, in return for that you inquire, if she you seek is sought in sincerity?"

Ludlow reddened; the manliness of the profession to which he belonged, however, overcame the reluctance natural to self-esteem; and he answered, firmly--

"She is."

"But you are a mariner; men of the sea place their affections, often, on the fabric in which they dwell. Is the attachment for her you seek, stronger than love of wandering, of your ship your youthful expectations, and the glory that forms a young soldier's dreams?"

The commander of the Coquette hesitated. After a moment of pause, like that of self-examination, he said--

"As much so, as may become a man."

A cloud crossed the brow of his interrogator, who advanced and again consulted the pages of the book.

"You are required to say, if a recent event has not disturbed your confidence in her you seek?"

"Disturbed--but not destroyed."

The sea-green lady moved, and the pages of the mysterious volume trembled, as if eager to deliver their oracles.

"And could you repress curiosity, pride, and all the other sentiments of your sex, and seek her favor, without asking explanation, as before the occurrence of late events?"

"I would do much to gain a kind look from Alida de Barberie; but the degraded spirit, of which you speak, would render me unworthy of her esteem. If I found her as I lost her, my life should be devoted to her happiness; and if not, to mourning that one so fair should have fallen!"

"Have you ever felt jealousy?"

"First let me know if I have cause?" cried the young man, advancing a step towards the motionless form, with an evident intent to look closer into its character.

The hand of the mariner of the shawl arrested him, with the strength of a giant.

"None trespass on the respect due our mistress," coolly observed the vigorous seaman, while he motioned to the other to retreat.

A fierce glance shot from his eye; and then the recollection of his present helplessness came, in season, to restrain the resentment of the offended officer.

"Have you ever felt jealousy?" continued his undisturbed interrogator.

"Would any love, that have not?"

A gentle respiration was heard in the cabin, during the short pause that succeeded, though none could tell whence it came. The Alderman turned to regard the Patroon, as if he believed the sigh was his while the startled Ludlow looked curiously around him, at a loss to know who acknowledged, with so much sensibility, the truth of his reply.

"Your answers are well," resumed the free-trader, after a pause longer than usual. Then, turning to Oloff Van Staats, he said, "Whom, or what, do you seek?"

"We come on a common errand."

"And do you seek in all sincerity?"

"I could wish to find."

"You are rich in lands and houses; is she you seek, dear to you as this wealth?"

"I esteem them both, since one could not wish to tie a woman he admired to beggary."

The Alderman hemmed so loud as to fill the cabin, and then, startled at his own interruption, he involuntarily bowed an apology to the motionless form in the alcove, and regained his composure.

"There is more of prudence than of ardor in your answer. Have you ever felt jealousy?"

"That has he!" eagerly exclaimed Myndert "I've known the gentleman raving as a bear that has lost its cub, when my niece has smiled, in church, for instance, though it were only in answer to a nod from an old lady. Philosophy and composure, Patroon! Who the devil knows, but Alida may hear of this questioning?--and then her French blood will boil, to find that your love has always gone as regularly as a town-clock."

"Could you receive her, without inquiring into past events?"

"That would he--that would he!" returned the Alderman. "I answer for it, that Mr. Van Staats complies with all engagements, as punctually as the best house in Amsterdam, itself."

The book again trembled, but it was with a waving and dissatisfied motion.

"What is thy will with our mistress?" demanded the free-trader, of the fair-haired sailor.

"I have bargained with some of the dealers of my country, for a wind to carry the brigantine through the inlet."

"Go.--The Water-Witch will sail when there is need;--and you?"

"I wish to know whether a few skins I bought last night, for a private venture, will turn to good account?"

"Trust the sea-green lady for your profits. When did she ever let any fail, in a bargain. Child, what has brought thee hither?"

The boy trembled, and a little time elapsed before he found resolution to answer.

"They tell me it is so queer to be upon the land!"

"Sirrah! thou hast been answered. When others go, thou shalt go with them."

"They say 'tis pleasant to taste the fruits from off the very trees--"

"Thou art answered. Gentlemen, our mistress departs. She knows that one among you has threatened her favorite brigantine with the anger of an earthly Queen; but it is beneath her office to reply to threats so idle. Hark! her attendants are in waiting!"

The wind-instrument was once more heard, and the curtain slowly fell to its strains. A sudden and violent noise, resembling the opening and shutting of some massive door, succeeded--and then all was still. When the sorceress had disappeared, the free-trader resumed his former ease of manner, seeming to speak and act more naturally. Alderman Van Beverout drew a long breath, like one relieved; and even the mariner of the gay shawl stood in an easier and more reckless attitude than while in her presence. The two seamen and the child withdrew.

"Few who wear that livery have ever before seen the lady of our brigantine," continued the free-trader, addressing himself to Ludlow; "and it is proof that she has less aversion to your cruiser, than she in common feels to most of the long pennants that are abroad on the water."

"Thy mistress, thy vessel, and thyself, are alike amusing!" returned the young seaman, again smiling incredulously, and with some little official pride. "It will be well, if you maintain this pleasantry much longer, at the expense of Her Majesty's customs."

"We trust to the power of the Water-Witch. She has adopted our brigantine as her abode, given it her name, and guides it with her hand. 'Twould be weak to doubt, when thus protected."

"There may be occasion to try her virtues. Were she a spirit of the deep waters, her robe would be blue. Nothing of a light draught can escape the Coquette!"

"Dost not know that the color of the sea differs in different climes? We fear not, but you would have answers to your questions. Honest Tiller will carry you all to the land, and, in passing, the book may again be consulted. I doubt not she will leave us some further memorial of her visit."

The free-trader then bowed, and retired behind the curtain, with the air of a sovereign dismissing his visiters from an audience; though his eye glanced curiously behind him, as he disappeared, as if to trace the effect which had been produced by the interview. Alderman Van Beverout and his friends were in the boat again, before a syllable was exchanged between them. They had followed the mariner of the shawl, in obedience to his signal; and they quitted the side of the beautiful brigantine, like men who pondered on what they had just witnessed.

Enough has been betrayed, in the course of the narrative, perhaps, to show that Ludlow distrusted, though he could not avoid wondering at, what he had seen. He was not entirely free from the superstition that was then so common among seamen; but his education and native good sense enabled him, in a great measure, to extricate his imagination from that love of the marvellous, which is more or less common to all. He had fifty conjectures concerning the meaning of what had passed, and not one of them was true; though each, at the instant, seemed to appease his curiosity, while it quickened his resolution to pry further into the affair. As for the Patroon of Kinderhook, the present day was one of rare and unequalled pleasure. He had all the gratification which strong excitement can produce in slow natures; and he neither wished a solution of his doubts, nor contemplated any investigation that might destroy so agreeable an illusion. His fancy was full of the dark countenance of the sorceress; and when it did not dwell on a subject so unnatural, it saw the handsome features, ambiguous smile, and attractive air, of her scarcely less admirable minister.

As the boat got to a little distance from the vessel, Tiller stood erect, and ran his eye complacently over the perfection of her hull and rigging.

"Our mistress has equipped and sent upon the wide and unbeaten sea, many a bark," he said; "but never a lovelier than our own!--Captain Ludlow, there has been some double-dealing between us; but that which is to follow, shall depend on our skill, seamanship, and the merits of the two crafts. You serve Queen Anne, and I the sea-green lady. Let each be true to his mistress, and Heaven preserve the deserving!--Wilt see the book, before we make the trial?"

Ludlow intimated his assent, and the boat approached the figure-head. It was impossible to prevent the feeling, which each of our three adventurers, not excepting the Alderman, felt when they came in full view of the motionless image. The mysterious countenance appeared endowed with thought, and the malign smile seemed still more ironical than before.

"The first question was yours, and yours must be the first answer," said Tiller, motioning for Ludlow to consult the page which was open. "Our mistress deals chiefly in verses from the old writer, whose thoughts are almost as common to us all, as to human nature."

"What means this?" said Ludlow, hastily--


"She, Claudio, that you wrong'd, look, you restore.
--love her Angelo;
I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue."


"These are plain words; but I would rather that another priest should shrive her whom I love!"

"Hist!--Young blood is swift and quickly heated. Our lady of the bark will not relish hot speech, over her oracles.--Come, Master Patroon, turn the page with the rattan, and see what fortune will give."

Oloff Van Staats raised his powerful arm, with the hesitation, and yet with the curiosity, of a girl. It was easy to read in his eye, the pleasure his heavy nature felt in the excitement; and yet it was easy to detect the misgivings of an erroneous education, by the seriousness of all the other members of his countenance. He read aloud--


"I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto, if you'll a willing ear incline
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine:--
So bring us to our palace, where we'll show,
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know."

Measure For Measure.


"Fair-dealing, and fairer speech! 'What's yours is mine, and what is mine is yours,' is Measure for Measure, truly, Patroon!" cried the Alderman. "A more equitable bargain cannot be made, when the assets are of equal value. Here is encouragement, in good sooth; and now, Master Mariner, we will land and proceed to the Lust in Rust, which must be the place meant in the verses. 'What's yet behind,' must be Alida, the tormenting baggage! who has been playing hide-and-seek with us, for no other reason than to satisfy her womanish vanity, by showing how uncomfortable she could make three grave and responsible men. Let the boat go, Master Tiller, since that is thy name; and many thanks for thy civilities."

"Twould give grave offence to leave the lady, without knowing all she has to say. The answer now concerns you, worthy Alderman; and the rattan will do its turn, in your hand, as well as in that of another."

"I despise a pitiful curiosity, and content myself with knowing what chance and good luck teach," returned Myndert. "There are men in Manhattan ever prying into their neighbors' credit, like frogs lying with their noses out of water; but it is enough for me to know the state of my books, with some insight into that of the market."

"It will not do.--This may appease a quiet conscience, like your own, Sir; but we of the brigantine may not trifle with our mistress. One touch of the rattan will tell you, whether these visits to the Water Witch are likely to prove to your advantage."

Myndert wavered. It has been said, that, like most others of his origin in the colony, he had a secret leaning to the art of divination: and the words of the hero of the shawl contained a flattering allusion to the profits of his secret commerce. He took the offered stick, and, by the time the page was turned, his eyes were ready enough to consult its contents. There was but a line, which was also quoted as coming from the well-known comedy of 'Measure for Measure.'

"Proclaim it, Provost, round about the city."

In his eagerness Myndert read the oracle aloud, and then he sunk into his seat, affecting to laugh at the whole as a childish and vain conceit.

"Proclamation, me, no proclamations! Is it a time of hostilities, or of public danger, that one should go shouting with his tidings through the streets? Measure for Measure, truly! Harkee, Master Tiller, this sea-green trull of thine is no better than she should be; and unless she mends her manner of dealing, no honest man will be found willing to be seen in her company. I am no believer in necromancy--though the inlet has certainly opened this year, altogether in an unusual manner--and therefore I put little faith in her words; but as for saying aught of me or mine, in town or country, Holland or America, that can shake my credit, why I defy her! Still, I would not willingly have any idle stories to contradict; and I shall conclude by saying, you will do well to stop her mouth."

"Stop a hurricane, or a tornado! Truth will come in her book, and he that reads must expect to see it--Captain Ludlow, you are master of your movements, again; for the inlet is no longer between you and your cruiser. Behind yon hillock is the boat and crew you missed. The latter expect you. And now, gentlemen, we leave the rest to the green lady's guidance, our own good skill, and the winds! I salute you."

The moment his companions were on the shore, the hero of the shawl caused his boat to quit it; and in less than five minutes it was seen swinging, by its tackles, at the stern of the brigantine.

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