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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 19
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 19 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1761

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 19

Chapter XIX

"I, John Turner,
Am master and owner
Of a high-deck'd schooner.
That's bound to Carolina--"
etc. etc. etc. etc.

Coasting Song.


It is not necessary to say, with how much interest Alderman Van Beverout, and his friend the Patroon, had witnessed all the proceedings on hoard the Coquette. Something very like an exclamation of pleasure escaped the former, when it was known that the ship had missed the brigantine, and that there was now little probability of overtaking her that night.

"Of what use is it to chase your fire-flies, about the ocean, Patroon?" muttered the Alderman, in the ear of Oloff Van Staats. "I have no further knowledge of this 'Skimmer of the Seas,' than is decent in the principal of a commercial house,--but reputation is like a sky-rocket, that may be seen from afar! Her Majesty has no ship that can overtake the free-trader, and why fatigue the innocent vessel for no thing?"

"Captain Ludlow has other desires than the mere capture of the brigantine;" returned the laconic and sententious Patroon. "The opinion that Alida de Barberie is in her, has great influence with that gentleman."

"This is strange apathy, Mr. Van Staats, in one who is as good as engaged to my niece, if he be not actually married, Alida Barberie has great influence with that gentleman! And pray, with whom, that knows her, has she not influence?"

"The sentiment in favor of the young lady, in general, is favorable."

"Sentiment and favors! Am I to understand, Sir by this coolness, that our bargain is broken?--that the two fortunes are not to be brought together, and that the lady is not to be your wife?"

"Harkee, Mr. Van Beverout; one who is saving of his income and sparing of his words, can have no pressing necessity for the money of others; and, on occasion, he may afford to speak plainly. Your niece has shown so decided a preference for another, that it has materially lessened the liveliness of my regard."

"It were a pity that so much animation should fail of its object! It would be a sort of stoppage in the affairs of Cupid! Men should deal candidly, in all business transactions, Mr. Van Staats; and you will permit me to ask, as for a final settlement, if your mind is changed in regard to the daughter of old Etienne de Barberie, or not?"

"Not changed, but quite decided;" returned the young Patroon. "I cannot say that I wish the successor of my mother to have seen so much of the world. We are a family that is content with our situation, and new customs would derange my household."

"I am no wizard, Sir; but for the benefit of a son of my old friend Stephanus Van Staats, I will venture, for once, on a prophecy. You will marry, Mr. Van Staats--yes, marry--and you will wive, Sir, with--prudence prevents me from saying with whom you will wive; but you may account yourself a lucky man, if it be not with one who will cause you to forget house and home, lands and friends, manors and rents, and in short all the solid comforts of life. It would not surprise me to hear that the prediction of the Poughkeepsie fortune-teller should be fulfilled!"

"And what is your real opinion, Alderman Van Beverout, of the different mysterious events we have witnessed?" demanded the Patroon, in a manner to prove that the interest he took in the subject, completely smothered any displeasure he might otherwise have felt at so harsh a prophecy. "This sea-green lady is no common woman!"

"Sea-green and sky-blue!" interrupted the impatient burgher. "The hussy is but too common, Sir; and there is the calamity. Had she been satisfied with transacting her concerns in a snug and reasonable manner, and to have gone upon the high seas again, we should have had none of this foolery, to disturb accounts which ought to have been considered settled. Mr. Van Staats, will you allow me to ask a few direct questions, if you can find leisure for their answer?"

The Patroon nodded his head, in the affirmative.

"What do you suppose, Sir, to have become of my niece?"

"Eloped."

"And with whom?"

Van Staats of Kinderhook stretched an arm towards the open ocean, and again nodded. The Alderman mused a moment; and then he chuckled, as if some amusing idea had at once gotten the better of his ill-humor.

"Come, come, Patroon," he said, in his wonted amicable tone, when addressing the lord of a hundred thousand acres, "this business is like a complicated account, a little difficult till one gets acquainted with the books, and then all becomes plain as your hand. There were referees in the settlement of the estate of Kobus Van Klinck, whom I will not name; but what between the handwriting of the old grocer, and some inaccuracy in the figures, they had but a blind time of it until they discovered which way the balance ought to come; and then by working backward and forward, which is the true spirit of your just referee, they got all straight in the end. Kobus was not very lucid in his statements, and he was a little apt to be careless of ink. His leger might be called a book of the black art; for it was little else than fly-tracks and blots, though the last were found of great assistance in rendering the statements satisfactory. By calling three of the biggest of them sugar-hogsheads, a very fair balance was struck between him and a peddling Yankee who was breeding trouble for the estate; and I challenge, even at this distant day, when all near interests in the results may be said to sleep, any responsible man to say that they did not look as much like those articles as any thing else. Something they must have been, and as Kobus dealt largely in sugar, there was also a strong moral probability that they were the said hogsheads. Come, come, Patroon; we shall have the jade back again, in proper time. Thy ardor gets the better of reason; but this is the way with true love, which is none the worse for a little delay Alida is not one to balk thy merriment; these Norman wenches are not heavy of foot at a dance, or apt to go to sleep when the fiddles are stirring!"

With this consolation, Alderman Van Beverout saw fit to close the dialogue, for the moment. How far he succeeded in bringing back the mind of the Patroon to its allegiance, the result must show; though we shall take this occasion to observe again, that the young proprietor found a satisfaction in the excitement of the present scene, that, in the course of a short and little diversified life, he had never before experienced.

While others slept, Ludlow passed most of the night on deck. He laid himself down in the hammock-cloths, for an hour or two, towards morning though the wind did not sigh through the rigging louder than common, without arousing him from his slumbers. At each low call of the officer of the watch to the crew, his head was raised to glance around the narrow horizon; and the ship never rolled heavily without causing him to awake. He believed that the brigantine was near, and, for the first watch, he was not without expectation that the two vessels might unexpectedly meet in the obscurity. When this hope failed, the young seaman had recourse to artifice, in his turn, in order to entrap one who appeared so practised and so expert in the devices of the sea.

About midnight, when the watches were changed, and the whole crew, with the exception of the idlers, were on deck, orders were given to hoist out the boats. This operation, one of exceeding toil and difficulty in lightly-manned ships, was soon performed on board the Queen's cruiser, by the aid of yard and stay-tackles, to which the force of a hundred seamen was applied. When four of these little attendants on the ship were in the water, they were entered by their crews, prepared for serious service. Officers, on whom Ludlow could rely, were put in command of the three smallest, while he took charge of the fourth in person. When all were ready, and each inferior had received his especial instructions, they quitted the side of the vessel, pulling off, in diverging lines, into the gloom of the ocean. The boat of Ludlow had not gone fifty fathoms, before he was perfectly conscious of the inutility of a chase; for the obscurity of the night was so great, as to render the spars of his own ship nearly indistinct, even at that short distance. After pulling by compass some ten or fifteen minutes, in a direction that carried him to windward of the Coquette, the young man commanded the crew to cease rowing, and prepared himself to await, patiently, for the result of his undertaking.

There was nothing to vary the monotony of such a scene, for an hour, but the regular rolling of a sea that was but little agitated, a few occasional strokes of the oars, that were given in order to keep the barge in its place, or the heavy breathing of some smaller fish of the cetaceous kind, as it rose to the surface to inhale the atmosphere. In no quarter of the heavens was any thing visible; not even a star was peeping out, to cheer the solitude and silence of that solitary place. The men were nodding on the thwarts and our young sailor was about to relinquish his design as fruitless, when suddenly a noise was heard, at no great distance from the spot where they lay. It was one of those sounds which would have been inexplicable to any but a seaman, but which conveyed a meaning to the ears of Ludlow, as plain as that which could be imparted by speech to a landsman. A moaning creak was followed by the low rumbling of a rope, as it rubbed on some hard or distended substance; and then succeeded the heavy flap of canvas, that, yielding first to a powerful impulse, was suddenly checked.

"Hear ye that?" exclaimed Ludlow, a little above a whisper. "'Tis the brigantine, gybing his main-boom! Give way, men--see all ready to lay him aboard!"

The crew started from their slumbers; the splash of oars was heard, and, in the succeeding moment, the sails of a vessel, gliding through the obscurity, nearly across their course, were visible.

"Now spring to your oars, men!" continued Ludlow, with the eagerness of one engaged in chase. "We have him to advantage, and he is ours!--a long pull and a strong pull--steadily, boys, and together!"

The practised crew did their duty. It seemed but a moment, before they were close upon the chase.

"Another stroke of the oars, and she is ours!" cried Ludlow.--"Grapple!--to your arms!--away, boarders, away!"

These orders came on the ears of the men with the effect of martial blasts. The crew shouted, the clashing of arms was heard, and the tramp of feet on the deck of the vessel announced the success of the enterprise. A minute of extreme activity and of noisy confusion followed. The cheers of the boarders had been heard, at a distance; and rockets shot into the air, from the other boats, whose crews answered the shouts with manful lungs. The whole ocean appeared in a momentary glow, and the roar of a gun from the Coquette added to the fracas. The ship set several lanterns, in order to indicate her position; while blue-lights, and other marine signals were constantly burning in the approaching boats, as if those who guided them were anxious to intimidate the assailed by a show of numbers.

In the midst of this scene of sudden awakening from the most profound quiet, Ludlow began to look about him, in order to secure the principal objects of the capture. He had repeated his orders about entering the cabins, and concerning the person of the 'Skimmer of the Seas,' among the other instructions given to the crews of the different boats; and the instant they found themselves in quiet possession of the prize, the young man dashed into the private recesses of the vessel, with a heart that throbbed even more violently than during the ardor of boarding. To cast open the door of a cabin, beneath the high quarter-deck, and to descend to the level of its floor, were the acts of a moment. But disappointment and mortification succeeded to triumph. A second glance was not necessary to show that the coarse work and foul smells he saw and encountered, did not belong to the commodious and even elegant accommodations of the brigantine.

"Here is no Water-Witch!" he exclaimed aloud under the impulse of sudden surprise.

"God be praised!" returned a voice, which was succeeded by a frightened face from out a state-room. "We were told the rover was in the offing, and thought the yells could come from nothing human!"

The blood, which had been rushing through the arteries and veins of Ludlow so tumultuously now crept into his cheeks, and was felt tingling at his fingers'-ends. He gave a hurried order to his men to re-enter their boat, leaving every thing as they found it. A short conference between the commander of Her Majesty's ship Coquette, and the seaman of the state-room, succeeded; and then the former hastened on deck, whence his passage into the barge occupied but a moment. The boat pulled away from the fancied prize, amid a silence that was uninterrupted by any other sound than that of a song, which, to all appearance, came from one who by this time had placed himself at the vessel's helm. All that can be said of the music is, that it was suited to the words, and all that could be heard of the latter, was a portion of a verse, if verse it might be called, which had exercised the talents of some thoroughly nautical mind. As we depend, for the accuracy of the quotation, altogether on the fidelity of the journal of the midshipman already named, it is possible that some injustice may be done the writer; but, according to that document, he sang a strain of the coasting song, which we have prefixed to this chapter as its motto.

The papers of the coaster did not give a more detailed description of her character and pursuits, than that which is contained in this verse. It is certain that the log-book of the Coquette was far less explicit. The latter merely said, that 'a coaster called the Stately Pine, John Turner, master, bound from New-York to the Province of North Carolina, was boarded at one o'clock, in the morning, all well.' But this description was not of a nature to satisfy the sea men of the cruiser. Those who had been actually engaged in the expedition were much too excited to see things in their true colors; and, coupled with the two previous escapes of the Water-Witch, the event just related had no small share in confirming their former opinions concerning her character. The sailing-master was not now alone, in believing that all pursuit of the brigantine was perfectly useless.

But these were conclusions that the people of the Coquette made at their leisure, rather than those which suggested themselves on the instant. The boats, led by the flashes of light, had joined each other, and were rowing fast towards the ship, before the pulses of the actors beat with sufficient calmness to allow of serious reflection; nor was it until the adventurers were below, and in their hammocks, that they found suitable occasion to relate what had occurred to a wondering auditory. Robert Yarn, the fore-top-man who had felt the locks of the sea-green lady blowing in his face during the squall, took advantage of the circumstance to dilate on his experiences; and, after having advanced certain positions that particularly favored his own theories, he produced one of the crew of the barge, who stood ready to affirm, in any court in Christendom, that he actually saw the process of changing the beautiful and graceful lines that distinguished the hull of the smuggler, into the coarser and more clumsy model of the coaster.

"There are know-nothings," continued Robert, after he had fortified his position by the testimony in question, "who would deny that the water of the ocean is blue, because the stream that turns the parish-mill happens to be muddy. But your real mariner, who has lived much in foreign parts, is a man who understands the philosophy of life, and knows when to believe a truth and when to scorn a lie. As for a vessel changing her character when hard pushed in a chase, there are many instances; though having one so near us, there is less necessity to be roving over distant seas, in search of a case to prove it. My own opinion concerning this here brigantine, is much as follows;--that is to say, I do suppose there was once a real living hermaphrodite of her build and rig, and that she might be employed in some such trade as this craft is thought to be in; and that, in some unlucky hour, she and her people met with a mishap, that has condemned her ever since to appear on this coast at stated times. She has, however, a natural dislike to a royal cruiser; and no doubt the thing is now sailed by those who have little need of compass or observation! All this being true, it is not wonderful that when the boat's-crew got on her decks, they found her different from what they had expected. This much is certain, that when I lay within a boat-hook's length of her sprit-sail-yard-arm, she was a half-rig, with a woman figure-head, and as pretty a show of gear aloft, as eye ever looked upon; while every thing below was as snug as a tobacco-box with the lid down:--and here you all say that she is a high-decked schooner, with nothing ship-shape about her! What more is wanting to prove the truth of what has been stated?--If any man can gainsay it, let him speak."

As no man did gainsay it, it is presumed that the reasoning of the top-man gained many proselytes. It is scarcely necessary to add, how much of mystery and fearful interest was thrown around the redoubtable 'Skimmer of the Seas,' by the whole transaction.

There was a different feeling on the quarter-deck. The two lieutenants put their heads together, and looked grave; while one or two of the midshipmen, who had been in the boats, were observed to whisper with their messmates, and to indulge in smothered laughter. As the captain, however, maintained his ordinary dignified and authoritative mien, the merriment went no further, and was soon entirely repressed.

While on this subject, it may be proper to add that, in course of time, the Stately Pine reached the capes of North Carolina, in safety; and that, having effected her passage over Edenton bar, without striking, she ascended the river to the point of her destination. Here the crew soon began to throw out hints, relative to an encounter of their schooner with a French cruiser. As the British empire, even in its most remote corners, was at all times alive to its nautical glory, the event soon became the discourse in more distant parts of the colony; and in less than six months, the London journals contained a very glowing account of an engagement, in which the names of the Stately Pine, and of John Turner, made some respectable advances towards immortality.

If Captain Ludlow ever gave any further account of the transaction than what was stated in the log-book of his ship, the bienseance, observed by the Lords of the Admiralty, prevented it from becoming public.

Returning from this digression, which has no other connexion with the immediate thread of the narrative, than that which arises from a reflected interest, we shall revert to the further proceedings on board the cruiser.

When the Coquette had hoisted in her boats, that portion of the crew which did not belong to the watch was dismissed to their hammocks, the lights were lowered, and tranquillity once more reigned in the ship. Ludlow sought his rest, and although there is reason to think that his slumbers were a little disturbed by dreams, he remained tolerably quiet in the hammock-cloths, the place in which it has already been said he saw fit to take his repose, until the morning watch had been called.

Although the utmost vigilance was observed among the officers and look-outs, during the rest of the night, there occurred nothing to arouse the crew from their usual recumbent attitudes between the guns. The wind continued light but steady, the sea smooth, and the heavens clouded, as during the first hours of darkness.

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