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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 21
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 21 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1908

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 21

Chapter XXI

"--I am gone, Sir
And, anon, Sir,
I'll be with you again."

Clown in Twelfth Night.


Although it is contrary to the apparent evidence of our senses, there is no truth more certain than that the course of most gales of wind comes from the leeward. The effects of a tempest shall be felt, for hours, at a point that is seemingly near its termination, before they are witnessed at another, that appears to be nearer its source. Experience has also shown that a storm is more destructive, at or near its place of actual commencement, than at that whence it may seem to come. The easterly gales that so often visit the coasts of the republic, commit their ravages in the bays of Pennsylvania and Virginia, or along the sounds of the Carolinas, hours before their existence is known in the states further east; and the same wind, which is a tempest at Hatteras, becomes softened to a breeze, near the Penobscot. There is, however, little mystery in this apparent phenomenon. The vacuum which has been created in the air, and which is the origin of all winds, must be filled first from the nearest stores of the atmosphere; and as each region contributes to produce the equilibrium, it must, in return, receive other supplies from those which lie beyond. Were a given quantity of water to be suddenly abstracted from the sea, the empty space would be replenished by a torrent from the nearest surrounding fluid, whose level would be restored, in succession, by supplies that were less and less violently contributed. Were the abstraction made on a shoal, or near the land, the flow would be greatest from that quarter where the fluid had the greatest force, and with it would consequently come the current.

But while there is so close an affinity between the two fluids, the workings of the viewless winds are, in their nature, much less subject to the powers of human comprehension than those of the sister element. The latter are frequently subject to the direct and manifest influence of the former, while the effects produced by the ocean on the air are hid from our knowledge by the subtle character of the agency. Vague and erratic currents, it is true, are met in the waters of the ocean; but their origin is easily referred to the action of the winds, while we often remain in uncertainty as to the immediate causes which give birth to the breezes themselves. Thus the mariner, even while the victim of the irresistible waves, studies the heavens as the known source from whence the danger comes; and while he struggles fearfully, amid the strife of the elements, to preserve the balance of the delicate and fearful machine he governs, he well knows that the one which presents the most visible, and to a landsman much the most formidable object of apprehension, is but the instrument of the unseen and powerful agent that heaps the water on his path.

It is in consequence of this difference in power, and of the mystery that envelops the workings of the atmosphere, that, in all ages, seamen have been the subjects of superstition, in respect to the winds. There is always more or less of the dependency of ignorance, in the manner with which they have regarded the changes of that fickle element. Even the mariners of our own times are not exempt from this weakness. The thoughtless ship-boy is reproved if his whistle be heard in the howling of the gale, and the officer sometimes betrays a feeling of uneasiness, if at such a moment he should witness any violation of the received opinions of his profession. He finds himself in the situation of one whose ears have drunk in legends of supernatural appearances, which a better instruction has taught him to condemn, and who when placed in situations to awaken their recollection, finds the necessity of drawing upon his reason to quiet emotions that he might hesitate to acknowledge.

When Trysail directed the attention of his young commander to the heavens, however, it was more with the intelligence of an experienced mariner, than with any of the sensations to which allusion has just been made. A cloud had suddenly appeared on the water, and long ragged portions of the vapor were pointing from it, in a manner to give it what seamen term a windy appearance.

"We shall have more than we want, with this canvas!" said the master, after both he and his commander had studied the appearance of the mist, for a sufficient time. "That fellow is a mortal enemy of lofty sails; he likes to see nothing but naked sticks, up in his neighbourhood!"

"I should think his appearance will force the brigantine to shorten sail;" returned the Captain. "We will hold-on to the last, while he must begin to take in soon, or the squall will come upon him too fast for a light-handed vessel."

"'Tis a cruiser's advantage! And yet the rogue shows no signs of lowering a single cloth!"

"We will look to our own spars;" said Ludlow, turning to the lieutenant of the watch. "Call the people up, Sir, and see all ready, for yonder cloud."

The order was succeeded by the customary hoarse summons of the boatswain, who prefaced the effort of his lungs by a long, shrill winding of his call, above the hatchways of the ship. The cry of "all hands shorten sail, ahoy!" soon brought the crew from the depths of the vessel to her upper deck. Each trained seaman silently took his station; and after the ropes were cleared, and the few necessary preparations made, all stood in attentive silence, awaiting the sounds that might next proceed from the trumpet, which the first-lieutenant had now assumed in person.

The superiority of sailing, which a ship fitted for war possesses over one employed in commerce, proceeds from a variety of causes. The first is in the construction of the hull, which in the one is as justly fitted, as the art of naval architecture will allow, to the double purposes of speed and buoyancy; while in the other, the desire of gain induces great sacrifices of these important objects, in order that the vessel may be burthensome. Next comes the difference in the rig, which is not only more square, but more lofty, in a ship of war than in a trader; because the greater force of the crew of the former enables them to manage both spars and sails that are far heavier than any ever used in the latter. Then comes the greater ability of the cruiser to make and shorten sail, since a ship manned by one or two hundred men may safely profit by the breeze to the last moment, while one manned by a dozen often loses hours of a favorable wind, from the weakness of her crew. This explanation will enable the otherwise uninitiated reader to understand the reason why Ludlow had hoped the coming squall would aid his designs on the chase.

To express ourselves in nautical language, 'the Coquette held on to the last.' Ragged streaks of vapor were whirling about in the air, within a fearful proximity to the lofty and light sails, and the foam on the water had got so near the ship, as already to efface her wake; when Ludlow, who had watched the progress of the cloud with singular coolness, made a sign to his subordinate that the proper instant had arrived.

"In, of all!" shouted through the trumpet, was the only command necessary; for officers and crew were well instructed in their duty.

The words had no sooner quitted the lips of the lieutenant, than the steady roar of the sea was drowned in the flapping of canvas. Tacks, sheets, and halyards, went together; and, in less than a minute, the cruiser showed naked spars and whistling ropes, where so lately had been seen a cloud of snow-white cloth. All her steering-sails came in together, and the lofty canvas was furled to her top-sails. The latter still stood, and the vessel received the weight of the little tempest on their broad surfaces. The gallant ship stood the shock nobly; but, as the wind came over the taffrail, its force had far less influence on the hull, than on the other occasion already described. The danger, now, was only for her spars; and these were saved by the watchful, though bold, vigilance of her captain.

Ludlow was no sooner certain that the cruiser felt the force of the wind, and to gain this assurance needed but a few moments, than he turned his eager look on the brigantine. To the surprise of all who witnessed her temerity, the Water-Witch still showed all her light sails. Swiftly as the ship was now driven through the water, its velocity was greatly outstripped by that of the wind. The signs of the passing squall were already visible on the sea, for half the distance between the two vessels; and still the chase showed no consciousness of its approach. Her commander had evidently studied its effects on the Coquette; and he awaited the shock, with the coolness of one accustomed to depend on his own resources, and able to estimate the force with which he had to contend.

"If he hold-on a minute longer, he will get more than he can bear, and away will go all his kites, like smoke from the muzzle of a gun!" muttered Trysail. "Ah! there come down his studding-sails--ha! settle away the mainsail--in royal, and top-gallant sail, with top-sail on the cap!--The rascals are nimble as pickpockets in a crowd!"

The honest master has sufficiently described the precautions taken on board of the brigantine. Nothing was furled; but as every thing was hauled up, or lowered, the squall had little to waste its fury on. The diminished surfaces of the sails protected the spars, while the canvas was saved by the aid of cordage. After a few moments of pause, half-a-dozen men were seen busied in more effectually securing the few upper and lighter sails.

But though the boldness with which the 'Skimmer of the Seas' carried sail to the last, was justified by the result, still the effects of the increased wind and rising waves on the progress of the two vessels, grew more sensible. While the little and low brigantine began to labor and roll, the Coquette rode the element with buoyancy, and consequently with less resistance from the water. Twenty minutes, during which the force of the wind was but little lessened, brought the cruiser so near the chase, as to enable her crew to distinguish most of the smaller objects that were visible above her ridge-ropes.

"Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!" said Ludlow, in an under tone, the excitement of the chase growing with the hopes of success. "I ask but one half-hour, and then shift at your pleasure!"

"Blow, good devil, and you shall have the cook!" muttered Trysail, quoting a very different author. "Another glass will bring us within hail."

"The squall is leaving us!" interrupted the captain. "Pack on the ship, again, Mr. Luff, from her trucks to her ridge-ropes!"

The whistle of the boatswain was again heard at the hatchways, and the hoarse summons of 'all hands make sail, ahoy!' once more called the people to their stations. The sails were set, with a rapidity which nearly equalled the speed with which they had been taken in; and the violence of the breeze was scarcely off the ship, before its complicated volumes of canvas were spread, to catch what remained. On the other hand, the chase, even more hardy than the cruiser, did not wait for the end of the squall; but, profiting by the notice given by the latter, the 'Skimmer of the Seas' began to sway his yards aloft, while the sea was still white with foam.

"The quick-sighted rogue knows we are done with it," said Trysail; "and he is getting ready for his own turn. We gain but little of him, notwithstanding our muster of hands."

The fact was too true to be denied, for the brigand tine was again under all her canvas, before the ship had sensibly profited by her superior physical force. It was at this moment, when, perhaps, in consequence of the swell on the water, the Coquette might have possessed some small advantage, that the wind suddenly failed. The squall had been its expiring effort; and, within an hour after the two vessels had again made sail, the canvas was flapping against the masts, in a manner to throw back, in eddies, a force as great as that it received. The sea fell fast, and ere the end of the last or forenoon watch, the surface of the ocean was agitated only by those long undulating swells, that seldom leave it entirely without motion. For some little time, there were fickle currents of air playing in various directions about the ship, but always in sufficient force to urge her slowly through the water; and then, when the equilibrium of the element seemed established, there was a total calm. During the half-hour of the baffling winds, the brigantine had been a gainer, though not enough to carry her entirely beyond the reach of the cruiser's guns.

"Haul up the courses!" said Ludlow, when the fast breath of wind had been felt on the ship, and quitting the gun where he had long stood, watching the movements of the chase. "Get the boats into the water, Mr. Luff, and arm their crews."

The young commander issued this order, which needed no interpreter to explain its object, firmly, but in sadness. His face was thoughtful, and his whole air was that of a man who yielded to an imperative but an unpleasant duty. When he had spoken, he signed to the attentive Alderman and his friend to follow, and entered his cabin.

"There is no alternative," continued Ludlow, as he laid the glass, which so often that morning had been at his eye, on the table, and threw himself into a chair. "This rover must be seized at every hazard, and here is a favorable occasion to carry him by boarding. Twenty minutes will bring us to his side, and five more will put us in possession; but--"

"You think the Skimmer is not a man to receive such visiters with an old woman's welcome;" pithily observed Myndert.

"I much mistake the man, if he yield so beautiful a vessel, peacefully. Duty is imperative on a seaman, Alderman Van Beverout; and, much as I lament the circumstance, it must be obeyed."

"I understand you, Sir. Captain Ludlow has two mistresses, Queen Anne and the daughter of old Etienne de Barberie. He fears both. When the debts exceed the means of payment, it would seem wise to offer to compound; and, in this case, Her Majesty and my niece may be said to stand in the case of creditors."

"You mistake my meaning, Sir;" said Ludlow proudly. "There can be no composition between a faithful officer and his duty, nor do I acknowledge more than one mistress in my ship--but seamen are little to be trusted in the moment of success, and with their passions awakened by resistance.--Alderman Van Beverout, will you accompany the party and serve as mediator?"

"Pikes and hand-grenades! Am I a fit subject for mounting the sides of a smuggler, with a broadsword between my teeth! If you will put me into the smallest and most peaceable of your boats, with a crew of two boys, that I can control with the authority of a magistrate, and covenant to remain here with your three top-sails aback, having always a flag of truce at each mast, I will bear the olive-branch to the brigantine, but not a word of menace. If report speaks true, your 'Skimmer of the Seas' is no lover of threats, and Heaven forbid that I should do violence to any man's habits! I will go forth as your turtle-dove, Captain Ludlow; but not one foot will I proceed as your Goliath."

"And you equally refuse endeavoring to avert hostilities?" continued Ludlow, turning his look on the Patroon of Kinderhook.

"I am the Queen's subject, and ready to aid in supporting the laws;" quietly returned Oloff Van Staats.

"Patroon!" exclaimed his watchful friend; "you know not what you say! If there were question of an inroad of Mohawks, or an invasion from the Canadas, the case would differ; but this is only a trifling difference, concerning a small balance in the revenue duties, which had better be left to your tide-waiter, and the other wild-cats of the law. If Parliament will put temptation before our eyes, let the sin light on their own heads. Human nature is weak, and the vanities of our system are so many inducements to overlook unreasonable regulations. I say, therefore, it is better to remain in peace, on board this ship, where our characters will be as safe as our bones, and trust to Providence for what will happen."

"I am the Queen's subject, and ready to uphold her dignity;" repeated Oloff, firmly.

"I will trust you, Sir;" said Ludlow, taking his rival by the arm, and leading him into his own state-room.

The conference was soon ended, and a midshipman shortly after reported that the boats were ready for service. The master was next summoned to the cabin and admitted to the private apartment of his commander. Ludlow then proceeded to the deck, where he made the final dispositions for the attack. The ship was left in charge of Mr. Luff, with an injunction to profit by any breeze that might offer, to draw as near as possible to the chase. Trysail was placed in the launch, at the head of a strong party of boarders. Van Staats of Kinderhook was provided with the yawl, manned only by its customary crew; while Ludlow entered his own barge, which contained its usual complement, though the arms that lay in the stern-sheets sufficiently showed that they were prepared for service.

The launch, being the soonest ready, and of much the heaviest movement, was the first to quit the side of the Coquette. The master steered directly for the becalmed and motionless brigantine. Ludlow took a more circuitous course, apparently with an intention of causing such a diversion as might distract the attention of the crew of the smuggler, and with the view of reaching the point of attack at the same moment with the boat that contained his principal force. The yawl also inclined from the straight line steering as much on one side as the barge diverged on the other. In this manner the men pulled in silence for some twenty minutes,--the motion of the larger boat, which was heavily charged, being slow and difficult. At the end of this period, a signal was made from the barge, when all the men ceased rowing and prepared themselves for the struggle. The launch was within pistol-shot of the brigantine, and directly on her beam; the yawl had gained her head where Van Staats of Kinderhook was studying the malign expression of the image, with an interest that seemed to increase as his sluggish nature became excited; and Ludlow, on the quarter opposite to the launch, was examining the condition of the chase by the aid of a glass. Trysail profited by the pause, to address his followers:

"This is an expedition in boats," commenced the accurate and circumstantial master, "made in smooth water, with little, or one may say no wind, in the month of June, and on the coast of North America. You are not such a set of know-nothings, men, as to suppose the launch has been hoisted out, and two of the oldest, not to say best seamen, on the quarter-deck of Her Majesty's ship, have gone in boats, without the intention of doing something more than to ask the name and character of the brig in sight. The smallest of the young gentlemen might have done that duty, as well as the captain, or myself. It is the belief of those who are best informed, that the stranger, who has the impudence to lie quietly within long range of a royal cruiser, without showing his colors, is neither more nor less than the famous 'Skimmer of the Seas;' a man against whose seamanship I will say nothing, but who has none of the best reputation for honesty, as relates to the Queen's revenue. No doubt you have heard many extraordinary accounts of the exploits of this rover, some of which seem to insinuate, that the fellow has a private understanding with those who manage their transactions in a less religious manner than it may be supposed is done by the bench of bishops. But what of that? You are hearty Englishmen, who know what belongs to church and state; and, d----e, you are not the boys to be frightened by a little witchcraft. (a cheer) Ay, that is intelligible and reasonable language, and such as satisfies me you understand the subject. I shall say no more, than just to add, that Captain Ludlow desires there may be no indecent language, nor, for that matter, any rough treatment of the people of the brigantine, over and above the knocking on the head, and cutting of throats, that may be necessary to take her. In this particular, you will take example by me, who, being older, have more experience than most of you, and who, in all reason, should better know when and where to show his manhood. Lay about you like men, so long as the free-traders stand to their quarters--but remember mercy, in the hour of victory! You will on no account enter the cabins; on this head my orders are explicit, and I shall make no more of throwing the man into the sea, who dares to transgress them, than if he were a dead Frenchman; and, as we now clearly understand each other, and know our duty so well, there remains no more than to do it. I have said nothing of the prize-money, (a cheer) seeing you are men that love the Queen and her honor, more than lucre, (a cheer); but this much I can safely promise, that there will be the usual division, (a cheer) and as there is little doubt but the rogues have driven a profitable trade, why the sum-total is likely to be no trifle." (Three hearty cheers.)

The report of a pistol from the barge, which was immediately followed by a gun from the cruiser, whose shot came whistling between the masts of the Water-Witch, was the signal to resort to the ordinary means of victory. The master cheered, in his turn; and in a full, steady, and deep voice, he gave the order to 'pull away!' At the same instant, the barge and yawl were seen advancing towards the object of their common attack, with a velocity that promised to bring the event to a speedy issue.

Throughout the whole of the preparations in and about the Coquette, since the moment when the breeze failed, nothing had been seen of the crew of the brigantine. The beautiful fabric lay rolling on the heaving and setting waters; but no human form appeared to control her movements, or to make the arrangements that seemed so necessary for her defence. The sails continued hanging as they had been left by the breeze, and the hull was floating at the will of the waves. This deep quiet was undisturbed by the approach of the boats; and if the desperate individual, who was known to command the free-trader, had any intentions of resistance, they had been entirely hid from the long and anxious gaze of Ludlow. Even the shouts, and the dashing of the oars on the water, when the boats commenced their final advance, produced no change on the decks of the chase; though the commander of the Coquette saw her head-yards slowly and steadily changing their direction. Uncertain of the object of this movement, he rose on the seat of his boat, and, waving his hat, cheered the men to greater exertion. The barge had got within a hundred feet of the broadside of the brigantine, when the whole of her wide folds of canvas were seen swelling outwards. The exquisitely-ordered machinery of spars, sails, and rigging, bowed towards the barge, as in the act of a graceful leave-taking, and then the light hull glided ahead, leaving the boat to plow through the empty space which it had just occupied. There needed no second look to assure Ludlow of the inefficacy of further pursuit, since the sea was already ruffled by the breeze which had so opportunely come to aid the smuggler. He signed to Trysail to desist; and both stood looking, with disappointed eyes, at the white and bubbling streak which was left by the wake of the fugitive.

But while the Water-Witch left the boats, commanded by the captain and master of the Queen's cruiser, behind her, she steered directly on the course that was necessary to bring her soonest in contact with the yawl. For a few moments, the crew of the latter believed it was their own advance that brought them so rapidly near their object; and when the midshipman who steered the boat discovered his error, it was only in season to prevent the swift brigantine from passing over his little bark. He gave the yawl a wide sheer, and called to his men to pull for their lives. Oloff Van Staats had placed himself at the head of the boat, armed with a banger, and with every faculty too intent on the expected attack, to heed a danger that was scarcely intelligible to one of his habits. As the brigantine glided past, he saw her low channels bending towards the water, and, with a powerful effort, he leaped into them, shouting a sort of war-cry, in Dutch. At the next instant, he threw his large frame over the bulwarks, and disappeared on the deck of the smuggler.

When Ludlow had caused his boats to assemble on the spot which the chase had so lately occupied, he saw that the fruitless expedition had been attended by no other casualty than the involuntary abduction of the Patroon of Kinderhook.

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