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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 25
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 25 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :3411

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 25

Chapter XXV

"--Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me;
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought."

Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Ludlow quitting the Lust in Rust with a wavering purpose. Throughout the whole of the preceding interview, he had jealously watched the eye and features of la belle Barberie; and he had not failed to draw his conclusions from a mien that too plainly expressed a deep interest in the free-trader. For a time, only, had he been induced, by the calmness and self-possession with which she received her uncle and himself, to believe that she had not visited the Water-Witch at all; but when the gay and reckless being who governed the movements of that extraordinary vessel, appeared, he could no longer flatter himself with this hope. He now believed that her choice for life had been made; and while he deplored the infatuation which could induce so gifted a woman to forget her station and character, he was himself too frank not to see that the individual who had in so short a time gained this ascendency over the feelings of Alida, was, in many respects, fitted to exercise a powerful influence over the imagination of a youthful and secluded female.

There was a struggle in the mind of the young commander, between his duty and his feelings. Remembering the artifice by which he had formerly fallen into the power of the smugglers, he had taken his precautions so well in the present visit to the villa, that he firmly believed he had the person of his lawless rival at his mercy. To avail himself of this advantage, or to retire and leave him in possession of his mistress and his liberty, was the point mooted in his thoughts. Though direct and simple in his habits, like most of the seamen of that age, Ludlow had all the loftier sentiments that become a gentleman. He felt keenly for Alida, and he shrunk, with sensitive pride, from incurring the imputation of having acted under the impulses of disappointment. To these motives of forbearance, was also to be added the inherent reluctance which, as an officer of rank, he felt to the degradation of being employed in a duty that more properly belongs to men of less elevated ambition. He looked on himself as a defender of the rights and glory of his sovereign, and not as a mercenary instrument of those who collected her customs; and though he would not have hesitated to incur any rational hazard, in capturing the vessel of the smuggler, or in making captives of all or any of her crew on their proper element, he disliked the appearance of seeking a solitary individual on the land. In addition to this feeling, there was his own pledge that he met the proscribed dealer in contraband on neutral ground. Still the officer of the Queen had his orders, and he could not shut his eyes to the general obligations of duty. The brigantine was known to inflict so much loss on the revenue of the crown, more particularly in the other hemisphere, that an especial order had been issued by the Admiral of the station, for her capture. Here then was an opportunity of depriving the vessel of that master-spirit which, notwithstanding the excellence of its construction, had alone so long enabled it to run the gauntlet of a hundred cruisers with impunity. Agitated by these contending feelings and reflections, the young sailor left the door of the villa, and came upon its little lawn, in order to reflect with less interruption, and, indeed, to breathe more freely.

The night had advanced into the first watch of the seaman. The shadow of the mountain, however, still covered the grounds of the villa, the river, and the shores of the Atlantic, with a darkness that was deeper than the obscurity which dimmed the surface of the rolling ocean beyond. Objects were so indistinct as to require close and steady looks to ascertain their character, while the setting of the scene might be faintly traced by its hazy and indistinct outlines. The curtains of la Cour des Fees had been drawn, and, though the lights were still shining within, the eye could not penetrate the pavilion. Ludlow gazed about him, and then held his way reluctantly towards the water.

In endeavoring to conceal the interior of her apartment from the eyes of those without, Alida had suffered a corner of the drapery to remain open. When Ludlow reached the gate that led to the landing, he turned to take a last look at the villa; and, favored by his new position, he caught a glimpse, through the opening, of the person of her who was still uppermost in his thoughts.

La belle Barberie was seated at the little table, by whose side she had been found, earlier in the evening. An elbow rested on the precious wood, and one fair hand supported a brow that was thoughtful far beyond the usual character of its expression, if not melancholy. The commander of the Coquette felt the blood rushing to his heart, for he fancied that the beautiful and pensive countenance was that of a penitent. It is probable that the idea quickened his drooping hopes; for Ludlow believed it might not yet be too late to rescue the woman, he so sincerely loved, from the precipice over which she was suspended. The seemingly irretrievable step, already taken, was forgotten; and the generous young sailor was about to rush back to la Cour des Fees, to implore its mistress to be just to herself, when the hand fell from her polished brow, and Alida raised her face, with a look which denoted that she was no longer alone. The captain drew back, to watch the issue.

When Alida lifted her eyes, it was in kindness, and with that frank ingenuousness with which an unperverted female greets the countenance of those who have her confidence. She smiled, though still in sadness rather than in pleasure; and she spoke, but the distance prevented her words from being audible. At the next instant, Seadrift moved into the space visible through the half-drawn drapery, and took her hand. Alida made no effort to withdraw the member; but, on the contrary, she looked up into his face with still less equivocal interest, and appeared to listen to his voice with an absorbed attention. The gate was swung violently open, and Ludlow had reached the margin of the river before he again paused.

The barge of the Coquette was found where her commander had ordered his people to lie concealed, and he was about to enter it, when the noise of the little gate, again shutting with the wind, induced him to cast a look behind. A human form was distinctly to be seen, against the light walls of the villa, descending towards the river. The men were commanded to keep close, and, withdrawing within the shadow of a fence, the captain waited the approach of the new-comer.

As the unknown person passed, Ludlow recognized the agile form of the free-trader. The latter advanced to the margin of the river, and gazed warily about him for several minutes. A low but distinct note, on a common ship's-call, was then heard. The summons was soon succeeded by the appearance of a small skiff, which glided out of the grass on the opposite side of the stream, and approached the spot where Seadrift awaited its arrival. The free-trader sprang lightly into the little boat, which immediately began to glide out of the river. As the skiff passed the spot where he stood, Ludlow saw that it was pulled by a single seaman; and, as his own boat was manned by six lusty rowers, he felt that the person of the man whom he so much envied was at length fairly and honorably in his power. We shall not attempt to analyze the emotion that was ascendant in the mind of the young officer. It is enough for our purpose to add, that he was soon in his boat and in full pursuit.

As the course to be taken by the barge was diagonal rather than direct, a few powerful strokes of the oars brought it so near the skiff, that Ludlow, by placing his hand on the gunwale of the latter, could arrest its progress.

"Though so lightly equipped, fortune favors you less in boats than in larger craft, Master Seadrift;" said Ludlow, when, by virtue of a strong arm, he had drawn his prize so near, as to find himself seated within a few feet of his prisoner. "We meet on our proper element, where there can be no neutrality between one of the contraband and a servant of the Queen."

The start, the half-repressed exclamation, and the momentary silence, showed that the captive had been taken completely by surprise.

"I admit your superior dexterity," he at length said, speaking low and not without agitation. "I am your prisoner, Captain Ludlow; and I would now wish to know your intentions in disposing of my person."

"That is soon answered. You must be content to take the homely accommodations of the Coquette, for the night, instead of the more luxurious cabin of your Water-Witch. What the authorities of the Province may decide, to-morrow, it exceeds the knowledge of a poor commander in the navy to say."

"The lord Cornbury has retired to----?"

"A gaol," said Ludlow, observing that the other spoke more like one who mused than like one who asked a question. "The kinsman of our gracious Queen speculates on the chances of human fortune, within the walls of a prison. His successor, the brigadier Hunter, is thought to have less sympathy for the moral infirmities of human nature!"

"We deal lightly with dignities!" exclaimed the captive, with all his former gaiety of tone and manner. "You have your revenge for some personal liberties that were certainly taken, not a fortnight since, with this boat and her crew; still, I have much mistaken your character, if unnecessary severity forms one of its features. May I communicate with the brigantine?"

"Freely--when she is once in the care of a Queen's officer."

"Oh, Sir, you disparage the qualities of my mistress, in supposing there exists a parallel with your own! The Water-Witch will go at large, till a far different personage shall become your captive.--May I communicate with the shore?"

"To that there exists no objection--if you will point out the means."

"I have one, here, who will prove a faithful messenger."

"Too faithful to the delusion which governs all your followers! Your man must be your companion in the Coquette, Master Seadrift, though;" and Ludlow spoke in melancholy, "if there be any on the land, who take so near an interest in your welfare as to find more sorrow in uncertainty than in the truth, one of my own crew, in any of whom confidence may be placed, shall do your errand."

"Let it be so;" returned the free-trader, as if satisfied that he could, in reason, expect no more. "Take this ring to the lady of yonder dwelling," he continued, when Ludlow had selected the messenger, "and say that he who sends it is about to visit the cruiser of Queen Anne in company with her commander. Should there be question of the motive, you can speak to the manner of my arrest."

"And, mark me, fellow--" added his captain; "that duty done, look to the idlers on the shore, and see that no boat quits the river, to apprize the smugglers of their loss."

The man, who was armed in the fashion of a seaman on boat duty, received these orders with the customary deference; and the barge having drawn to the shore for that purpose, he landed.

"And now, Master Seadrift, having thus far complied with your wishes, I may expect you will not be deaf to mine. Here is a seat at your service in my barge, and I confess it will please me to see it occupied."

As the captain spoke, he reached forth an arm, partly in natural complaisance, and partly with a carelessness that denoted some consciousness of the difference in their rank, both to aid the other to comply with his request, and, at need, to enforce it. But the free-trader seemed to repel the familiarity; for he drew back, at first, like one who shrunk sensitively from the contact, and then, without touching the arm that was extended with a purpose so equivocal, he passed lightly from the skiff into the barge, declining assistance. The movement was scarcely made, before Ludlow quitted the latter, and occupied the place which Seadrift had just vacated. He commanded one of his men to exchange with the seaman of the brigantine; and, having made these preparations, he again addressed his prisoner.

"I commit you to the care of my cockswain and these worthy tars, Master Seadrift. We shall steer different ways. You will take possession of my cabin, where all will be at your disposal; ere the middle watch is called I shall be there to prevent the pennant from coming down, and your sea-green flag turning the people's heads from their allegiance."

Ludlow then whispered his orders to his cockswain, and they separated. The barge proceeded to the mouth of the river, with the long and stately sweep of the oars, that marks the progress of a man-of-war's boat; while the skiff followed, noiselessly and, aided by its color and dimensions, nearly invisible.

When the two boats entered the waters of the bay, the barge held on its course towards the distant ship; while the skiff inclined to the right, and steered directly for the bottom of the Cove. The precaution of the dealer in contraband had provided his little boat with muffled sculls; and Ludlow, when he was enabled to discover the fine tracery of the lofty and light spars of the Water-Witch, as they rose above the tops of the dwarf trees that lined the shore, had no reason to think his approach was known. Once assured of the presence and position of the brigantine, he was enabled to make his advances with all the caution that might be necessary.

Some ten or fifteen minutes were required to bring the skiff beneath the bowsprit of the beautiful craft, without giving the alarm to those who doubtless were watching on her decks. The success of our adventurer, however, appeared to be complete; for he was soon holding by the cable, and not the smallest sound, of any kind, had been heard in the brigantine. Ludlow now regretted he had not entered the Cove with his barge; for, so profound and unsuspecting was the quiet of the vessel, that he doubted not of his ability to have carried her by a coup-de-main. Vexed by his oversight, and incited by the prospects of success, he began to devise those expedients which would naturally suggest themselves to a seaman in his situation.

The wind was southerly, and, though not strong it was charged with the dampness and heaviness of the night air. As the brigantine lay protected from the influence of the tides, she obeyed the currents of the other element; and, while her bows looked outward, her stern pointed towards the bottom of the basin. The distance from the land was not fifty fathoms, and Ludlow did not fail to perceive that the vessel rode by a kedge, and that her anchors, of which there was a good provision, were all snugly stowed. These facts induced the hope that he might separate the hawser that alone held the brigantine, which, in the event of his succeeding, he had every reason to believe would drift ashore, before the alarm could be given to her crew, sail set, or an anchor let go. Although neither he nor his companion possessed any other implement to effect this object, than the large seaman's knife of the latter, the temptation was too great not to make the trial. The project was flattering; for, though the vessel in that situation would receive no serious injury, the unavoidable delay of heaving her off the sands would enable his boats, and perhaps the ship herself, to reach the place in time to secure their prize. The bargeman was asked for his knife, and Ludlow himself made the first cut upon the solid and difficult mass. The steel had no sooner touched the compact yarns, than a dazzling glare of light shot into the face of him who held it. Recovering from the shock, and rubbing his eyes, our startled adventurer gazed upwards, with that consciousness of wrong which assails us when detected in any covert act, however laudable may be its motive;--a sort of homage that nature, under every circumstance, pays to loyal dealings.

Though Ludlow felt, at the instant of this interruption, that he stood in jeopardy of his life, the concern it awakened was momentarily lost in the spectacle before him. The bronzed and unearthly features of the image were brightly illuminated; and, while her eyes looked on him steadily, as if watching his smallest movement, her malign and speaking smile appeared to turn his futile effort into scorn! There was no need to bid the seaman at the oars to do his duty. No sooner did he catch the expression of that mysterious face, than the skiff whirled away from the spot, like a sea-fowl taking wing under alarm. Though Ludlow, at each moment, expected a shot, even the imminence of the danger did not prevent him from gazing, in absorbed attention, at the image. The light by which it was illumined, though condensed, powerful, and steadily cast, wavered a little, and exhibited her attire. Then the captain saw the truth of what Seadrift had asserted; for, by some process of the machine into which he had not leisure to inquire, the sea-green mantle had been changed for a slighter robe of the azure of the deep waters. As if satisfied with having betrayed the intention of the sorceress to depart, the light immediately vanished.

"This mummery is well maintained!" muttered Ludlow, when the skiff had reached a distance that assured him of safety. "Here is a symptom that the rover means soon to quit the coast. The change of dress is some signal to his superstitious and deluded crew. It is my task to disappoint his mistress, as he terms her, though it must be confessed that she does not sleep at her post."

During the ten succeeding minutes, our foiled adventurer had leisure, no less than motive, to feel how necessary is success to any project whose means admit of dispute. Had the hawser been cut and the brigantine stranded, it is probable that the undertaking of the captain would have been accounted among those happy expedients which, in all pursuits, are thought to distinguish the mental efforts of men particularly gifted by Nature; while, under the actual circumstances, he who would have reaped all the credit of so felicitous an idea, was mentally chafing with the apprehension that his unlucky design might become known. His companion was no other than Robert Yarn, the fore-top-man, who, on a former occasion, had been heard to affirm, that he had already enjoyed so singular a view of the lady of the brigantine, while assisting to furl the fore-top-sail of the Coquette.

"This has been a false board, Master Yarn," observed the captain, when the skiff was past the entrance of the Cove, and some distance down the bay; "for the credit of our cruise, we will not enter the occurrence in the log. You understand me, Sir: I trust a word is sufficient for so shrewd a wit?"

"I hope I know my duty, your Honor, which is to obey orders, though it may break owners," returned the top-man. "Cutting a hawser with a knife is but slow work in the best of times; but though one who has little right to speak in the presence of a gentleman so well taught, it is my opinion that the steel is not yet sharpened which is to part any rope aboard yon rover, without the consent of the black-looking woman under her bowsprit."

"And what is the opinion of the berth-deck concerning this strange brigantine, that we have so long been following without success?"

"That we shall follow her till the last biscuit is eaten, and the scuttle-butt shall be dry, with no better fortune. It is not my business to teach your Honor; but there is not a man in the ship, who ever expects to be a farthing the better for her capture. Men are of many minds concerning the 'Skimmer of the Seas;' but all are agreed that, unless aided by some uncommon luck, which may amount to the same thing as being helped by him who seldom lends a hand to any honest undertaking, that he is altogether such a seaman as another like him does not sail the ocean!"

"I am sorry that my people should have reason to think so meanly of our own skill. The ship has not yet had a fair chance. Give her an open sea, and a cap-full of wind, and she'll defy all the black women that the brigantine can stow. As to your 'Skimmer of the Seas,' man or devil, he is our prisoner."

"And does your Honor believe that the trim-built and light-sailing gentleman we overhauled in this skiff, is in truth that renowned rover?" asked Yarn, resting on his sculls, in the interest of the moment. "There are some on board the ship, who maintain that the man in question is taller than the big tide-waiter at Plymouth, with a pair of shoulders----"

"I have reason to know they are mistaken. If we are more enlightened than our shipmates, Master Yarn, let us be close-mouthed, that others do not steal our knowledge--hold, here is a crown with the face of King Louis; he is our bitterest enemy, and you may swallow him whole, if you please, or take him in morsels, as shall best suit your humor. But remember that our cruise in the skiff is under secret orders, and the less we say about the anchor-watch of the brigantine, the better."

Honest Bob took the piece of silver, with a gusto that no opinions of the marvellous could diminish; and, touching his hat, he did not fail to make the usual protestations of discretion. That night the messmates of the fore-top-man endeavored, in vain, to extract from him the particulars of his excursion with the captain; though the direct answers to their home questions were only evaded by allusions so dark and ambiguous, as to give to that superstitious feeling of the crew, which Ludlow had wished to lull, twice its original force.

Not long after this short dialogue, the skiff reached the side of the Coquette. Her commander found his prisoner in possession of his own cabin, and, though grave if not sad in demeanor, perfectly self-possessed. His arrival had produced a deep effect on the officers and men, though, like Yarn, most of both classes refused to believe that the handsome and gayly-attired youth they had been summoned to receive, was the notorious dealer in contraband.

Light observers of the forms under which human qualities are exhibited, too often mistake their outward signs. Though it is quite in reason to believe, that he who mingles much in rude and violent scenes should imbibe some of their rough and repelling aspects, still it would seem that, as the stillest waters commonly conceal the deepest currents, so the powers to awaken extraordinary events are not unfrequently cloaked under a chastened, and sometimes under a cold, exterior. It has often happened, that the most desperate and self-willed men are those whose mien and manners would give reason to expect the mildest and most tractable dispositions; while he who has seemed a lion sometimes proves, in his real nature, to be little better than a lamb.

Ludlow had reason to see that the incredulity of his top-man had extended to most on board; and, as he could not conquer his tenderness on the subject of Alida and all that concerned her, while on the other hand there existed no motive for immediately declaring the truth, he rather favored the general impression by his silence. First giving some orders of the last importance at that moment, he passed into the cabin, and sought a private interview with his captive.

"That vacant state-room is at your service, Master Seadrift," he observed, pointing to the little apartment opposite to the one he occupied himself.

"We are likely to be shipmates several days, unless you choose to shorten the time, by entering into a capitulation for the Water-Witch; in which case----"

"You had a proposition to make."

Ludlow hesitated, cast an eye behind him, to be certain they were alone, and drew nearer to his captive.

"Sir, I will deal with you as becomes a seaman. La belle Barberie is dearer to me than ever woman was before;--dearer, I fear, than ever woman will be again. You need not learn that circumstances nave occurred,--Do you love the lady?"

"I do."

"And she--fear not to trust the secret to one who will not abuse the trust--returns she your affection?"

The mariner of the brigantine drew back with dignity; and then, instantly recovering his ease, as if fearful he might forget himself, he said with warmth.

"This trifling with woman's weakness is the besetting sin of man! None may speak of her inclinations, Captain Ludlow, but herself. It never shall be said, that any of the sex had aught but fitting reverence for their dependent state, their constant and confiding love, their faithfulness in all the world's trials, and their singleness of heart, from me."

"These sentiments do you honor; and I could wish, for your own sake, as well as that of others, there was less of contrariety in your character. One cannot but grieve----"

"You had a proposition, for the brigantine?"

"I would have said, that were the vessel yielded without further pursuit, means might be found to soften the blow to those who will otherwise be most wounded by her capture."

The face of the dealer in contraband had lost some of its usual brightness and animation; the color of the cheek was not as rich, and the eye was less at ease, than in his former interviews with Ludlow. But a smile of security crossed his fine features, when the other spoke of the fate of the brigantine.

"The keel of the ship that is to capture the Water-Witch is not yet laid," he said, firmly; "nor is the canvas that is to drive her through the water, wove! Our mistress is not so heedless as to sleep, when there is most occasion for her services."

"This mummery of a supernatural aid may be of use in holding the minds of the ignorant beings who follow your fortunes, in subjection, but it is lost when addressed to me. I have ascertained the position of the brigantine--nay, I have been under her very bowsprit, and so near her cut-water, as to have examined her moorings. Measures are now taking to improve my knowledge, and to secure the prize."

The free-trader heard him without exhibiting alarm, though he listened with an attention that rendered his breathing audible.

"You found my people vigilant?" he rather carelessly observed, than asked.

"So much so, that I have said the skiff was pulled beneath her martingale, without a hail! Had there been means, it would not have required many moments to cut the hawser by which she rides, and to have laid your beauteous vessel ashore!"

The gleam of Seadrift's eye was like the glance of an eagle. It seemed to inquire, and to resent, in the same instant. Ludlow shrunk from the piercing look, and reddened to the brow,--whether with his recollections, or not, it is unnecessary to explain.

"The worthy device was thought of!--nay, it was attempted!" exclaimed the other, gathering confirmation in the consciousness of his companion.--"You did not--you could not succeed!"

"Our success will be proved in the result."

"The lady of the brigantine forgot not her charge! You saw her bright eye--her dark and meaning face! Light shone on that mysterious countenance--my words are true, Ludlow, thy tongue is silent, but that honest countenance confesses all!"

The gay dealer in contraband turned away, and laughed in his merriest manner.

"I knew it would be so," he continued, "what is the absence of one humble actor from her train. Trust me, you will find her coy as ever, and ill-disposed to hold converse with a cruiser who speaks so rudely through his cannon. Ha!--here are auditors!"

An officer, to announce the near approach of a boat, entered. Both Ludlow and his prisoner started at this intelligence, and it was not difficult to fancy both believed that a message from the Water-Witch might be expected. The former hastened on deck; while the latter, notwithstanding a self-possession that was so much practised, could not remain entirely at his ease. He passed into the state-room, and it is more than probable that he availed himself of the window of its quarter-gallery, to reconnoitre those who were so unexpectedly coming to the ship.

But after the usual hail and reply, Ludlow no longer anticipated any proposal from the brigantine. The answer had been what a seaman would call lubberly; or it wanted that attic purity that men of the profession rarely fail to use on all occasions, and by the means of which they can tell a pretender to their mysteries, with a quickness that is almost instinctive. When the short, quick "boat-ahoy!" of the sentinel on the gangway, was answered by the "what do you want?" of a startled respondent in the boat, it was received among the crew of the Coquette with such a sneer as the tyro, who has taken two steps in any particular branch of knowledge, is apt to bestow on the blunders of him who has taken but one.

A deep silence reigned, while a party consisting of two men and as many females mounted the side of the ship, leaving a sufficient number of forms behind them in the boat to man its oars. Notwithstanding more than one light was held in such a manner as would have discovered the faces of the strangers had they not all been closely muffled, the party passed into the cabin without recognition.

"Master Cornelius Ludlow, one might as well put on the Queen's livery at once, as to be steering in this uncertain manner, between the Coquette and the land, like a protested note sent from endorser to endorser, to be paid," commenced Alderman Van Beverout, uncasing himself in the great cabin with the coolest deliberation, while his niece sunk into a chair unbidden, her two attendants standing near in submissive silence. "Here is Alida, who has insisted on paying so unseasonable a visit, and, what is worse still, on dragging me in her train, though I am past the day of following a woman about, merely because she happens to have a pretty face. The hour is unseasonable, and as to the motive--why, if Master Seadrift has got a little out of his course, no great harm can come of it, while the affair is in the hands of so discreet and amiable an officer as yourself."

The Alderman became suddenly mute; for the door of the state-room opened, and the individual he had named entered in person.

Ludlow needed no other explanation than a knowledge of the persons of his guests, to understand the motive of their visit. Turning to Alderman Van Beverout, he said, with a bitterness he could not repress--

"My presence may be intrusive. Use the cabin as freely as your own house, and rest assured that while it is thus honored, it shall be sacred to its present uses. My duty calls me to the deck."

The young man bowed gravely, and hurried from the place. As he passed Alida, he caught a gleam of her dark and eloquent eye, and he construed the glance into an expression of gratitude.

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