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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 20
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 20 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1739

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 20

Chapter XX

"The mouse ne'er shunned the cat, as they did budge
From rascals worse than they."

Coriolanus.


Day dawned on the Atlantic, with its pearly light, succeeded by the usual flushing of the skies, and the stately rising of the sun from out the water. The instant the vigilant officer, who commanded the morning watch, caught the first glimpses of the returning brightness, Ludlow was awakened. A finger laid on his arm, was sufficient to arouse one who slept with the responsibility of his station ever present to his mind. A minute did not pass, before the young man was on the quarter-deck, closely examining the heavens and the horizon. His first question was to ask if nothing had been seen during the watch. The answer was in the negative.

"I like this opening in the north-west," observed the captain, after his eye had thoroughly scanned the whole of the still dusky and limited view. "Wind will come out of it. Give us a cap-full, and we shall try the speed of this boasted Water-Witch!--Do I not see a sail, on our weather-beam?--or is it the crest of a wave?"

"The sea is getting irregular, and I have often been thus deceived, since the light appeared."

"Get more sail on the ship. Here is wind, in-shore of us; we will be ready for it. See every thing clear, to show all our canvas."

The lieutenant received these orders with the customary deference and communicated them to his inferiors again, with the promptitude that distinguishes sea discipline. The Coquette, at the moment, was lying under her three top-sails, one of which was thrown against its mast, in a manner to hold the vessel as nearly stationary as her drift and the wash of the waves would allow. So soon, however, as the officer of the watch summoned the people to exertion, the massive yards were swung; several light sails, that served to balance the fabric as well as to urge it ahead, were hoisted or opened; and the ship immediately began to move through the water. While the men of the watch were thus employed, the flapping of the canvas announced the approach of a new breeze.

The coast of North America is liable to sudden and dangerous transitions, in the currents of the air. It is a circumstance of no unusual occurrence, for a gale to alter its direction with so little warning, as greatly to jeopard the safety of a ship, or even to overwhelm her. It has been often said, that the celebrated Ville de Paris was lost through one of these violent changes, her captain having inadvertently hove-to the vessel under too much after-sail, a mistake by which he lost the command of his ship during the pressing emergency that ensued. Whatever may have been the fact as regards that ill-fated prize, it is certain that Ludlow was perfectly aware of the hazards that sometimes accompany the first blasts of a north-west wind on his native coast, and that he never forgot to be prepared for the danger.

When the wind from the land struck the Coquette, the streak of light, which announced the appearance of the sun, had been visible several minutes. As the broad sheets of vapor, that had veiled the heavens during the prevalence of the south-easterly breeze, were rolled up into dense masses of clouds, like some immense curtain that is withdrawn from before its scene, the water, no less than the sky, became instantly visible, in every quarter. It is scarcely necessary to say, how eagerly the gaze of our young seaman ran over the horizon, in order to observe the objects which might come within its range. At first disappointment was plainly painted in his countenance, and then succeeded the animated eye and flushed cheek of success.

"I had thought her gone!" he said to his immediate subordinate in authority. "But here she is, to leeward, just within the edge of that driving mist, and as dead under our lee as a kind fortune could place her. Keep the ship away, Sir, and cover her with canvas, from her trucks down. Call the people from their hammocks, and show yon insolent what Her Majesty's sloop can do, at need!"

This command was the commencement of a general and hasty movement, in which every seaman in the ship exerted his powers to the utmost. All hands were no sooner called, than the depths of the vessel gave up their tenants, who, joining their force to that of the watch on deck, quickly covered the spars of the Coquette with a snow-white cloud. Not content to catch the breeze on such surfaces as the ordinary yards could distend, long booms were thrust out over the water, and sail was set beyond sail, until the bending masts would bear no more. The low hull, which supported this towering and complicated mass of ropes, spars, and sails, yielded to the powerful impulse, and the fabric, which, in addition to its crowd of human beings, sustained so heavy a load of artillery, with all its burthen of stores and ammunition, began to divide the waves, with the steady and imposing force of a vast momentum. The seas curled and broke against her sides, like water washing the rocks, the steady ship feeling, as yet, no impression from their feeble efforts. As the wind increased, however, and the vessel went further from the land, the surface of the ocean gradually grew more agitated, until the highlands, which lay over the villa of the Lust in Rust, finally sunk into the sea; when the top-gallant-royals of the ship were seen describing wide segments of circles against the heavens, and her dark sides occasionally rose, from a long and deep roll, glittering with the element that sustained her.

When Ludlow first descried the object which he believed to be the chase, it seemed a motionless speck on the margin of the sea. It had now grown into all the magnitude and symmetry of the well-known brigantine. Her slight and attenuated spars were plainly to be seen, rolling, easily but wide, with the constant movement of the hull, and with no sail spread, but that which was necessary to keep the vessel in command on the billows. But when the Coquette was just within the range of a cannon, the canvas began to unfold; and it was soon apparent that the "Skimmer of the Seas" was preparing for flight.

The first manoeuvre of the Water-witch was an attempt to gain the wind of her pursuer. A short experiment appeared to satisfy those who governed the brigantine that the effort was vain, while the wind was so fresh and the water so rough. She wore, and crowded sail on the opposite tack, in order to try her speed with the cruiser; nor was it until the result sufficiently showed the danger of permitting the other to get any nigher, that she finally put her helm aweather, and ran off, like a sea-fowl resting on its wing, with the wind over her taffrail.

The two vessels now presented the spectacle of a stern chase. The brigantine also opened the folds of all her sails, and there arose a pyramid of canvas, over the nearly imperceptible hull, that resembled a fantastic cloud driving above the sea, with a velocity that seemed to rival the passage of the vapor that floated in the upper air. As equal skill directed the movements of the two vessels, and the same breeze pressed upon their sails, it was long before there was any perceptible difference in their progress. Hour passed after hour, and were it not for the sheets of white foam that were dashed from the bows of the Coquette, and the manner in which she even out stripped the caps of the combing waves, her commander might have fancied his vessel ever in the same spot. While the ocean presented, on every side, the same monotonous and rolling picture, there lay the chase, seemingly neither a foot nearer, nor a foot farther, than when the trial of speed began. A dark line would rise on the crest of a wave, and then, sinking again, leave, nothing visible, but the yielding and waving cloud of canvas, that danced along the sea.

"I had hoped for better things of the ship, Master Trysail!" said Ludlow, who had long been seated on a night-head, attentively watching the progress of the chase. "We are buried to the bob-stays; and yet, there yon fellow lies, nothing plainer than when he first showed his studding-sails!"

"And there he will lie, Captain Ludlow, while the light lasts. I have chased the rover in the narrow seas, till the cliffs of England melted away like the cap of a wave; and we had raised the sand-banks of Holland high as the sprit-sail-yard, and yet what good came of it? The rogue played with us, as your portsman trifles with the entangled trout; and when we thought we had him, he would shoot without the range of our guns, with as little exertion as a ship slides into the water, after the spur shoars are knocked from under her bows."

"Ay, but the Druid had a little of the rust of antiquity about her. The Coquette has never got a chase under her lee, that she did not speak."

"I disparage no ship, Sir, for character is character, and none should speak lightly of their fellow-creatures, and, least of all, of any thing which follows the sea. I allow the Coquette to be a lively boat on a wind, and a real scudder going large; but one should know the wright that fashioned yonder brigantine, before he ventures to say that any vessel in Her Majesty's fleet can hold way with her, when she is driven hard."

"These opinions, Trysail, are fitter for the tales of a top, than for the mouth of one who walks the quarter-deck."

"I should have lived to little purpose, Captain Ludlow, not to know that what was philosophy in my young days, is not philosophy now. They say the world is round, which is my own opinion--first, because the glorious Sir Francis Drake, and divers other Englishmen, have gone in, as it were, at one end, and out at the other; no less than several seamen of other nations, to say nothing of one Magellan, who pretends to have been the first man to make the passage, which I take to be neither more nor less than a Portuguee lie, it being altogether unreasonable to suppose that a Portuguee should do what an Englishman had not yet thought of doing;--secondly, if the world were not round, or some such shape, why should we see the small sails of a ship before her courses, or why should her truck heave up into the horizon before the hull? They say, moreover, that the world turns round, which is no doubt true; and it is just as true that its opinions turn round with it, which brings me to the object of my remark--yon fellow shows more of his broadside, Sir, than common! He is edging in for the land, which must lie, hereaway, on our larboard beam, in order to get into smoother water. This tumbling about is not favorable to your light craft, let who will build them."

"I had hoped to drive him off the coast. Could we get him fairly into the Gulf Stream, he would be ours, for he is too low in the water to escape us in the short seas. We must force him into blue water, though our upper spars crack in the struggle! Go aft, Mr. Hopper, and tell the officer of the watch to bring the ship's head up, a point and a half, to the northward, and to give a slight pull on the braces."

"What a mainsail the rogue carries! It is as broad as the instructions of a roving commission, with a hoist like the promotion of an admiral's son! How every thing pulls aboard him! A thorough-bred sails that brigantine, let him come whence he may!"

"I think we near him! The rough water is helping us, and we are closing. Steer small, fellow; steer small! You see the color of his mouldings begins to show, when he lifts on the seas."

"The sun touches his side--and yet, Captain Ludlow, you may be right--for here is a man in his fore-top, plainly enough to be seen. A shot, or two, among his spars and sails, might now do service."

Ludlow affected not to hear; but the first-lieutenant having come on the forecastle, seconded this opinion, by remarking that their position would indeed enable them to use the chase-gun, without losing any distance. As Trysail sustained his former assertion by truths that were too obvious to be refuted, the commander of the cruiser reluctantly issued an order to clear away the forward gun, and to shift it into the bridle-port. The interested and attentive seamen were not long in performing this service; and a report was quickly made to the captain, that the piece was ready.

Ludlow then descended from his post on the night-head, and pointed the cannon himself.

"Knock away the quoin, entirely;" he said to the captain of the gun, when he had got the range; "now mind her when she lifts, forward; keep the ship steady, Sir--fire!"

Those gentleman 'who live at home at ease,' are often surprised to read of combats, in which so much powder, and hundreds and even thousands of shot, are expended, with so little loss of human life; while a struggle on the land, of less duration, and seemingly of less obstinacy, shall sweep away a multitude. The secret of the difference lies in the uncertainty of aim, on an element as restless as the sea. The largest ship is rarely quite motionless, when on the open ocean; and it is not necessary to tell the reader, that the smallest variation in the direction of a gun at its muzzle, becomes magnified to many yards at the distance of a few hundred feet. Marine gunnery has no little resemblance to the skill of the fowler; since a calculation for a change in the position of the object must commonly be made in both cases, with the additional embarrassment on the part of the seaman, of an allowance for a complicated movement in the piece itself.

How far the gun of the Coquette was subject to the influence of these causes, or how far the desire of her captain to protect those whom he believed to be on board the brigantine, had an effect on the direction taken by its shot, will probably never be known. It is certain, however, that when the stream of fire, followed by its curling cloud, had gushed out upon the water, fifty eyes sought in vain to trace the course of the iron messenger among the sails and rigging of the Water-Witch. The symmetry of her beautiful rig was undisturbed, and the unconscious fabric still glided over the waves, with its customary ease and velocity. Ludlow had a reputation, among his crew, for some skill in the direction of a gun. The failure, therefore, in no degree aided in changing the opinions of the common men concerning the character of the chase. Many shook their heads, and more than one veteran tar, as he paced his narrow limits with both hands thrust into the bosom of his jacket, was heard to utter his belief of the inefficacy of ordinary shot, in bringing-to that brigantine. It was necessary, however to repeat the experiment, for the sake of appearances. The gun was several times discharged, and always with the same want of success.

"There is little use in wasting our powder, at this distance, and with so heavy a sea," said Ludlow, quitting the cannon, after a fifth and fruitless essay. "I shall fire no more. Look at your sails, gentlemen, and see that every thing draws. We must conquer with our heels, and let the artillery rest.--Secure the gun."

"The piece is ready, Sir;" observed its captain, presuming on his known favor with the commander, though he qualified the boldness by taking off his hat, in a sufficiently respectful manner--"'Tis a pity to balk it!"

"Fire it, yourself, then, and return the piece to its port;" carelessly returned the captain, willing to show that others could be as unlucky as himself.

The men quartered at the gun, left alone, busied themselves in executing the order.

"Run in the quoin, and, blast the brig, give her a point-blanker!" said the gruff old seaman, who was intrusted with a local authority over that particular piece. "None of your geometry calculations, for me!"

The crew obeyed, and the match was instantly applied. A rising sea, however, aided the object of the directly-minded old tar, or our narration of the exploits of the piece would end with the discharge, since its shot would otherwise have inevitably plunged into a wave, within a few yards of its muzzle. The bows of the ship rose with the appearance of the smoke, the usual brief expectation followed, and then fragments of wood were seen flying above the top-mast-studding-sail-boom of the brigantine, which, at the same time, flew forward, carrying with it, and entirely deranging, the two important sails that depended on the spar for support.

"So much for plain sailing!" cried the delighted tar, slapping the breach of the gun, affectionately. "Witch or no witch, there go two of her jackets at once; and, by the captain's good-will, we shall shortly take off some more of her clothes! In spunge----"

"The order is to run the gun aft, and secure it;" said a merry midshipman, leaping on the heel of the bowsprit to gaze at the confusion on board the chase. "The rogue is nimble enough, in saving his canvas!"

There was, in truth, necessity for exertion, on the part of those who governed the movements of the brigantine. The two sails that were rendered temporarily useless, were of great importance, with the wind over the taffrail. The distance between the two vessels did not exceed a mile, and the danger of lessening it was now too obvious to admit of delay. The ordinary movements of seamen, in critical moments, are dictated by a quality that resembles instinct, more than thought. The constant hazards of a dangerous and delicate profession, in which delay may prove fatal, and in which life, character, and property are so often dependent on the self-possession and resources of him who commands, beget, in time, so keen a knowledge of the necessary expedients, as to cause it to approach a natural quality.

The studding-sails of the Water-Witch were no sooner fluttering in the air, than the brigantine slightly changed her course, like some bird whose wing has been touched by the fowler; and her head was seen inclining as much to the south, as the moment before it had pointed northward. The variation, trifling as it was, brought the wind on the opposite quarter, and caused the boom that distended her mainsail to gybe. At the same instant, the studding-sails, which had been flapping under the lee of this vast sheet of canvas, swelled to their utmost tension; and the vessel lost little, if any, of the power which urged her through the water. Even while this evolution was so rapidly performed, men were seen aloft, nimbly employed, as it has been already expressed by the observant little midshipman, in securing the crippled sails.

"A rogue has a quick wit," said Trysail, whose critical eye suffered no movement of the chase to escape him; "and he has need of it, sail from what haven he may! Yon brigantine is prettily handled! Little have we gained by our fire, but the gunner's account of ammunition expended; and little has the free-trader lost, but a studding-sail-boom, which will work up very well, yet, into top-gallant-yards, and other light spars, for such a cockle-shell."

"It is something gained, to force him off the land into rougher water;" Ludlow mildly answered. "I think we see his quarter-pieces more plainly, than before the gun was used."

"No doubt, Sir, no doubt. I got a glimpse of his lower dead-eyes, a minute ago; but I have been near enough to see the saucy look of the hussy under his bowsprit; yet there goes the brigantine, at large!"

"I am certain that we are closing;" thoughtfully returned Ludlow. "Hand me a glass, quarter master."

Trysail watched the countenance of his young commander, as he examined the chase with the aid of the instrument; and he thought he read strong discontent in his features, when the other laid it aside.

"Does he show no signs of coming back to his allegiance, Sir?--or does the rogue hold out in obstinacy?"

"The figure on his poop is the bold man who ventured on board the Coquette, and who now seems quite as much at his ease as when he exhibited his effrontery here!"

"There is a look of deep water about that rogue; and I thought Her Majesty had gained a prize, when he first put foot on our decks. You are right enough, Sir, in calling him a bold one! The fellow's impudence would unsettle the discipline of a whole ship's company, though every other man were an officer, and all the rest priests. He took up as much room in walking the quarter-deck, as a ninety in waring; and the truck is not driven on the head of that top-gallant-mast, half as hard as the hat is riveted to his head. The fellow has no reverence for a pennant! I managed, in shifting pennants at sunset, to make the fly of the one that came down flap in his impudent countenance, by way of hint; and he took it as a Dutchman minds a signal--that is, as a question to be answered in the next watch. A little polish got on the quarter-deck of a man-of-war, would make a philosopher of the rogue, and fit him for any company, short of heaven!"

"There goes a new boom, aloft!" cried Ludlow, interrupting the discursive discourse of the master. "He is bent on getting in with the shore."

"If these puffs come much heavier," returned the master, whose opinions of the chase vacillated with his professional feelings, "we shall have him at our own play, and try the qualities of his brigantine! The sea has a green spot to windward, and there are strong symptoms of a squall on the water. One can almost see into the upper world, with an air clear as this. Your northers sweep the mists off America, and leave both sea and land bright as a school-boy's face, before the tears have dimmed it, after the first flogging. You have sailed in the southern seas, Captain Ludlow, I know; for we were shipmates among the islands, years that are past: but I never heard whether you have run the Gibralter passage, and seen the blue water that lies among the Italy mountains?"

"I made a cruise against the Barbary states, when a lad; and we had business that took us to the northern shore."

"Ay! 'Tis your northern shore, I mean! There is not a foot of it all, from the rock at the entrance to the Fare of Messina, that eye of mine hath not seen. No want of look-outs and land-marks in that quarter! Here we are close aboard of America, which lies some eight or ten leagues there-away to the northward of us, and some forty astern; and yet, if it were not for our departure, with the color of the water, and a knowledge of the soundings, one might believe himself in the middle of the Atlantic. Many a good ship plumps upon America before she knows where she is going; while in yon sea, you may run for a mountain, with its side in full view, four-and-twenty hours on a stretch, before you see the town at its foot."

"Nature has compensated for the difference, in defending the approach to this coast, by the Gulf Stream, with its floating weeds and different temperature; while the lead may feel its way in the darkest night, for no roof of a house is more gradual than the ascent of this shore, from a hundred fathoms to a sandy beach."

"I said many a good ship, Captain Ludlow, and not good navigator.--No--no--your thorough-bred knows the difference between green water and blue, as well as between a hand-lead and the deep-sea. But I remember to have missed an observation, once, when running for Genoa, before a mistrail. There was a likelihood of making our land-fall in the night, and the greater the need of knowing the ship's position. I have often thought, Sir, that the ocean was like human life,--a blind track for all that is ahead, and none of the clearest as respects that which has been passed over. Many a man runs headlong to his own destruction, and many a ship steers for a reef under a press of canvas. To-morrow is a fog, into which none of us can see; and even the present time is little better than thick weather, into which we look without getting much information. Well, as I was observing, here lay our course, with the wind as near aft as need be, blowing much as at present; for your French mistrail has a family likeness to the American norther. We had the main-top-gallant-sail set, without studding-sails, for we began to think of the deep bight in which Genoa is stowed, and the sun had dipped more than an hour. As our good fortune would have it, clouds and mistrails do not agree long, and we got a clear horizon. Here lay a mountain of snow, northerly, a little west, and there lay another, southerly with easting. The best ship in Queen Anne's navy could not have fetched either in a day's run, and yet there we saw them, as plainly as if anchored under their lee! A look at the chart soon gave us an insight into our situation. The first were the Alps, as they call them, being as I suppose the French for apes, of which there are no doubt plenty in those regions; and the other were the highlands of Corsica, both being as white, in midsummer, as the hair of a man of fourscore. You see, Sir, we had only to set the two, by compass, to know, within a league or two, where we were. So we ran till midnight, and hove-to; and in the morning we took the light to feel for our haven----"

"The brigantine is gybing, again!" cried Ludlow. "He is determined to shoal his water!"

The master glanced an eye around the horizon and then pointed steadily towards the north. Ludlow observed the gesture, and, turning his head, he was at no loss to read its meaning.

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