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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 27
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 27 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1071

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 27

Chapter XXVII

"--Did I tell this,
Who would believe me?"

Measure for Measure.


The time of the interview related in the close of the preceding chapter, was in the early watches of the night. It now becomes our duty to transport the reader to another, that had place several hours later, and after day had dawned on the industrious burghers of Manhattan.

There stood, near one of the wooden wharves which lined the arm of the sea on which the city is so happily placed, a dwelling around which there was every sign that its owner was engaged in a retail commerce, that was active and thriving, for that age and country. Notwithstanding the earliness of the hour, the windows of this house were open; and an individual, of a busy-looking face, thrust his head so often from one of the casements, as to show that he already expected the appearance of a second party in the affair that had probably called him from his bed, even sooner than common. A tremendous rap at the door relieved his visible uneasiness; and, hastening to open it, he received his visiter, with much parade of ceremony, and many protestations of respect, in person.

"This is an honor, my lord, that does not often befall men of my humble condition," said the master of the house, in the flippant utterance of a vulgar cockney; "but I thought it would be more agreeable to your lordship, to receive the a--a--here, than in the place where your lordship, just at this moment, resides. Will your lordship please to rest yourself, after your lordship's walk?"

"I thank you, Carnaby," returned the other, taking the offered seat, with an air of easy superiority. "You judge with your usual discretion, as respects the place, though I doubt the prudence of seeing him at all. Has the man come?"

"Doubtless, my lord; he would hardly presume to keep your lordship waiting, and much less would I countenance him in so gross a disrespect. He will be most happy to wait on you, my lord, whenever your lordship shall please."

"Let him wait: there is no necessity for haste. He has probably communicated some of the objects of this extraordinary call on my time, Carnaby; and you can break them, in the intervening moments."

"I am sorry to say, my lord, that the fellow is as obstinate as a mule. I felt the impropriety of introducing him, personally, to your lordship; but as he insisted he had affairs that would deeply interest you, my lord, I could not take upon me to say, what would be agreeable to your lordship, or what not; and so I was bold enough to write the note."

"And a very properly expressed note it was, Master Carnaby. I have not received a better worded communication, since my arrival in this colony."

"I am sure the approbation of your lordship might justly make any man proud! It is the ambition of my life, my lord, to do the duties of my station in a proper manner, and to treat all above me with a suitable respect, my lord, and all below me as in reason bound. If I might presume to think in such a matter, my lord, I should say, that these colonists are no great judges of propriety, in their correspondence, or indeed in any thing else."

The noble visiter shrugged his shoulder, and threw an expression into his look, that encouraged the retailer to proceed.

"It is just what I think myself, my lord," he continued, simpering; "but then," he added, with a condoling and patronizing air, "how should they know any better? England is but an island, after all; and the whole world cannot be born and educated on the same bit of earth."

"'Twould be inconvenient, Carnaby, if it led to no other unpleasant consequence."

"Almost, word for word, what I said to Mrs. Carnaby myself, no later than yesterday, my lord, only vastly better expressed. 'Twould be inconvenient, said I, Mrs. Carnaby, to take in the other lodger, for every body cannot live in the same house; which covers, as it were, the ground taken in your lordship's sentiment. I ought to add, in behalf of the poor woman, that she expressed, on the same occasion, strong regrets that it is reported your lordship will be likely to quit us soon, on your return to old England."

"That is really a subject on which there is more cause to rejoice than to weep. This imprisoning, or placing within limits, so near a relative of the crown, is an affair that must have unpleasant consequences, and which offends sadly against all propriety."

"It is awful, my lord! If it be not sacrilege by the law, the greater the shame of the opposition in Parliament, who defeat so many other wholesome regulations, intended for the good of the subject."

"Faith, I am not sure I may not be driven to join them myself, bad as they are, Carnaby; for this neglect of ministers, not to call it by a worse name, might goad a man to even a more heinous measure.'

"I am sure nobody could blame your lordship, were your lordship to join any body, or any thing but the French! I have often told Mrs. Carnaby as much as that, in our frequent conversations concerning the unpleasant situation in which your lordship is just now placed."

"I had not thought the awkward transaction attracted so much notice," observed the other, evidently wincing under the allusion.

"It attracts it only in a proper and respectful way, my lord. Neither Mrs. Carnaby, nor myself, ever indulges in any of these remarks, but in the most proper and truly English manner."

"The reservation might palliate a greater error. That word proper is a prudent term, and expresses all one could wish. I had not thought you so intelligent and shrewd a man, Master Carnaby: clever in the way of business, I always knew you to be; but so apt in reason, and so matured in principle, is what I will confess I had not expected. Can you form no conjecture of the business of this man?"

"Not in the least, my lord. I pressed the impropriety of a personal interview; for, though he alluded to some business or other, I scarcely know what, with which he appeared to think your lordship had some connexion, I did not understand him, and we had like to have parted without an explanation."

"I will not see the fellow."

"Just as your lordship pleases--I am sure that, after so many little affairs have passed through my hands, I might be safely trusted with this; and I said as much,--but as he positively refused to make me an agent, and he insisted that it was so much to your lordship's interests--why, I thought, my lord, that perhaps--just now----"

"Show him in."

Carnaby bowed low and submissively, and after busying himself in placing the chairs aside, and adjusting the table more conveniently for the elbow of his guest, he left the room.

"Where is the man I bid you keep in the shop?" demanded the retailer, in a coarse, authoritative voice, when without; addressing a meek and humble-looking lad, who did the duty of clerk. "I warrant me, he is left in the kitchen, and you have been idling about on the walk! A more heedless and inattentive lad than yourself is not to be found in America, and the sun never rises but I repent having signed your indentures. You shall pay for this, you----"

The appearance of the person he sought, cut short the denunciations of the obsequious grocer and the domestic tyrant. He opened the door, and, having again closed it, left his two visiters together.

Though the degenerate descendant of the great Clarendon had not hesitated to lend his office to cloak the irregular and unlawful trade that was then so prevalent in the American seas, he had paid the sickly but customary deference to virtue, of refusing on all occasions, to treat personally with its agents. Sheltered behind his official and personal rank, he had soothed his feelings, by tacitly believing that cupidity is less venal when its avenues are hidden, and that in protecting his station from an immediate contact with its ministers, he had discharged an important, and, for one in his situation, an imperative, duty. Unequal to the exercise of virtue itself, he thought he had done enough in preserving some of its seemliness. Though far from paying even this slight homage to decency, in his more ordinary habits, his pride of rank had, on the subject of so coarse a failing, induced him to maintain an appearance which his pride of character would not have suggested. Carnaby was much the most degraded and the lowest of those with whom he ever condescended to communicate directly; and even with him there might have been some scruple, had not his necessities caused him to stoop so far as to accept pecuniary assistance from one he both despised and detested.

When the door opened, therefore, the lord Cornbury rose, and, determined to bring the interview to a speedy issue, he turned to face the individual who entered, with a mien, into which he threw all the distance and hauteur that he thought necessary for such an object. But he encountered, in the mariner of the India-shawl, a very different man from the flattering and obsequious grocer who had just quitted him. Eye met eye; his gaze of authority receiving a look as steady, if not as curious, as his own. It was evident, by the composure of the fine manly frame he saw, that its owner rested his claims on the aristocracy of nature. The noble forgot his acting under the influence of surprise, and his voice expressed as much of admiration as command when he said--

"This, then, is the Skimmer of the Seas!"

"Men call me thus: if a life passed on oceans gives a claim to the title, it has been fairly earned."

"Your character--I may say that some portions of your history, are not unknown to me. Poor Carnaby, who is a worthy and an industrious man, with a growing family dependent on his exertions, has entreated me to receive you, or there might be less apology for this step than I could wish. Men of a certain rank, Master Skimmer, owe so much to their station, that I rely on your discretion."

"I have stood in nobler presences, my lord, and found so little change by the honor, that I am not apt to boast of what I see. Some of princely rank have found their profit in my acquaintance."

"I do not deny your usefulness, Sir; it is only the necessity of prudence, I would urge. There has been, I believe, some sort of implied contract between us--at least, so Carnaby explains the transaction, for I rarely enter into these details, myself--by which you may perhaps feel some right to include me in the list of your customers. Men in high places must respect the laws, and yet it is not always convenient, or even useful, that they should deny themselves every indulgence, which policy would prohibit to the mass. One who has seen as much of life as yourself, needs no explanations on this head; and I cannot doubt, but our present interview will have a satisfactory termination."

The Skimmer scarce deemed it necessary to conceal the contempt that caused his lip to curl, while the other was endeavoring to mystify his cupidity; and when the speaker was done, he merely expressed an assent by a slight inclination of the head. The ex-governor saw that his attempt was fruitless, and, by relinquishing his masquerade, and yielding more to his natural propensities and tastes, he succeeded better.

"Carnaby has been a faithful agent," he continued, "and by his reports, it would seem that our confidence has not been misplaced. If fame speaks true, there is not a more dexterous navigator of the narrow seas than thyself, Master Skimmer. It is to be supposed that your correspondents on this coast, too, are as lucrative as I doubt not they are numerous."

"He who sells cheap can never want a purchaser. I think your lordship has no reason to complain of prices."

"As pointed as his compass! Well, Sir, as I am no longer master here, may I ask the object of this interview?"

"I have come to seek your interest in behalf of one who has fallen into the grasp of the Queen's officers."

"Hum--the amount of which is, that the cruiser in the bay has entrapped some careless smuggler. We are none of us immortal, and an arrest is but a legal death to men of your persuasion in commerce. Interest is a word of many meanings. It is the interest of one man to lend, and of another to borrow; of the creditor to receive, and of the debtor to avoid payment. Then there is interest at court, and interest in court--in short, you must deal more frankly, ere I can decide on the purport of your visit."

"I am not ignorant that the Queen has been pleased to name another governor over this colony, or that your creditors, my lord, have thought it prudent to take a pledge for their dues, in your person. Still, I must think, that one who stands so near the Queen in blood, and who sooner or later must enjoy both rank and fortune in the mother country, will not solicit so slight a boon as that I ask, without success. This is the reason I prefer to treat with you."

"As clear an explanation as the shrewdest casuist could desire! I admire your succinctness, Master Skimmer, and confess you for the pink of etiquette. When your fortune shall be made, I recommend the court circle as your place of retirement. Governors, creditors, Queen, and imprisonment, all as compactly placed, in the same sentence, as if it were the creed written on a thumb-nail! Well, Sir, we will suppose my interest what you wish it.--Who and what is the delinquent?"

"One named Seadrift,--a useful and a pleasant youth, who passes much between me and my customers; heedless and merry in his humors, but dear to all in my brigantine, because of tried fidelity and shrewd wit. We could sacrifice the profits of the voyage, that he were free. To me he is a necessary agent, for his skill in the judgment of rich tissues, and other luxuries that compose my traffic, is exceeding; and I am better fitted to guide the vessel to her haven, and to look to her safety amid shoals and in tempests, than to deal in these trifles of female vanity."

"So dexterous a go-between should not have mistaken a tide-waiter for a customer--how befell the accident?"

"He met the barge of the Coquette at an unlucky moment, and as we had so lately been chased off the coast by the cruiser, there was no choice but to arrest him."

The dilemma is not without embarrassment. When once his mind is settled, it is no trifle that will amuse this Mr. Ludlow. I do not know a more literal construer of his orders in the fleet;--a man, Sir, who thinks words have but a single set of meanings, and who knows as little as can be imagined on the difference between a sentiment and a practice."

"He is a seaman, my lord, and he reads his instructions with a seaman's simplicity. I think none the worse of him, that he cannot be tempted from his duty; for, let us understand the right as we will, our service once taken, it becomes us all to do it faithfully."

A small red spot came and went on the cheek of the profligate Cornbury. Ashamed of his weakness, he affected to laugh at what he had heard, and continued the discourse.

"Your forbearance and charity might adorn a churchman, Master Skimmer!" he answered. "Nothing can be more true, for this is an age of moral truths, as witness the Protestant succession. Men are now expected to perform, and not to profess. Is the fellow of such usefulness that he may not be abandoned to his fate?"

"Much as I dote on my brigantine, and few men set their affections on woman with a stronger love, I would see the beauteous craft degenerate to a cutter for the Queen's revenue, before I would entertain the thought! But I will not anticipate a long and painful imprisonment for the youth, since those who are not altogether powerless already take a deep and friendly concern in his safety."

"You have overcome the Brigadier!" cried the other, in a burst of exultation, that conquered the little reserve of manner he had thought it necessary to maintain; "that immaculate and reforming representative of my royal cousin has bitten of the golden bait, and proves a true colony governor after all!"

"Lord Viscount, no. What we have to hope or what we have to fear from your successor, is to me a secret."

"Ply him with promises, Master Skimmer--set golden hopes before his imagination; set gold itself before his eyes, and you will prosper. I will pledge my expected earldom that he yields! Sir, these distant situations are like so many half-authorized mints, in which money is to be coined; and the only counterfeit is your mimic representative of Majesty. Ply him with golden hopes; if mortal, he will yield!"

"And yet, my lord, I have met men who preferred poverty and their opinions, to gold and the wishes of others."

"The dolts were lusus naturae!" exclaimed the dissolute Cornbury, losing all his reserve in a manner that better suited his known and confirmed character. "You should have caged them, Skimmer, and profited by their dullness, to lay the curious under contribution. Don't mistake me, Sir, if I speak a little in confidence. I hope I know the difference between a gentleman and a leveller, as well as another; but trust me, this Mr. Hunter is human, and he will yield if proper appliances are used;--and you expect from me----?"

"The exercise of that influence which cannot fail of success; since there is a courtesy between men of a certain station, which causes them to overlook rivalry, in the spirit of their caste. The cousin of Queen Anne can yet obtain the liberty of one whose heaviest crime is a free trade, though he may not be able to keep his own seat in the chair of the government."

"Thus far, indeed, my poor influence may yet extend, provided the fellow be not named in any act of outlawry. I would gladly enough Mr. Skimmer end my deeds in this hemisphere, with some act of graceful mercy, if--indeed--I saw--the means----"

"They shall not be wanting. I know the law is like any other article of great price; some think that Justice holds the balance, in order to weigh her fees. Though the profits of this hazardous and sleepless trade of mine be much overrated, I would gladly line her scales with two hundred broad pieces, to have that youth again safe in the cabin of the brigantine."

As the 'Skimmer of the Seas' thus spoke, he drew, with the calmness of a man who saw no use in circumlocution, a heavy bag of gold from beneath his frock, and deposited it, without a second look at the treasure, on the table. When this offering was made, he turned aside, less by design than by a careless movement of the body, and, when he faced his companion again, the bag had vanished.

"Your affection for the lad is touching, Master Skimmer," returned the corrupt Cornbury; "it were a pity such friendship should be wasted. Will there be proof to insure his condemnation?"

"It may be doubted. His dealings have only been with the higher class of my customers, and with but few of them. The care I now take is more in tenderness to the youth, than with any great doubts of the result. I shall count you, my lord, among his protectors, in the event that the affair is noised?"

"I owe it to your frankness--but will Mr. Ludlow content himself with the possession of an inferior, when the principal is so near? and shall we not have a confiscation of the brigantine on our hands?"

"I charge myself with the care of all else. There was indeed a lucky escape, only the last night, as we lay at a light kedge, waiting for the return of him who has been arrested. Profiting by the possession of our skiff; the commander of the Coquette, himself, got within the sweep of my hawse--nay, he was in the act of cutting the very fastenings, when the dangerous design was discovered. 'Twould have been a fate unworthy of the Water-Witch, to be cast on shore like a drifting log, and to check her noble career by some such a seizure as that of a stranded waif!"

"You avoided the mischance?"

"My eyes are seldom shut, lord Viscount, when danger is nigh. The skiff was seen in time, and watched; for I knew that one in whom I trusted was abroad.--When the movement grew suspicious, we had our means of frightening this Mr. Ludlow from his enterprise, without recourse to violence."

"I had not thought him one to be scared from following up a business like this."

"You judged him rightly--I may say we judged him rightly. But when his boats sought us at our anchorage, the bird had flown."

"You got the brigantine to sea, in season?" observed Cornbury, not sorry to believe that the vessel was already off the coast.

"I had other business. My agent could not be thus deserted, and there were affairs to finish in the city. Our course lay up the bay."

"Ha! Master Skimmer, 'twas a bold step, and one that says little for your discretion!"

"Lord Viscount, there is safety in courage," calmly and perhaps ironically returned the other. "While the Queen's captain closed all the outlets, my little craft was floating quietly under the hills of Staten. Before the morning watch was set, she passed these wharves; and she now awaits her captain, in the broad basin that lies beyond the bend of yonder head-land."

"This is a hardiness to be condemned! A failure of wind, a change of tide, or any of the mishaps common to the sea, may throw you on the mercy of the law, and will greatly embarrass all who feel an interest in your safety."

"So far as this apprehension is connected with my welfare, I thank you much, my lord; but, trust me, many hazards have left me but little to learn in this particular. We shall run the Hell-Gate, and gain the open sea by the Connecticut Sound."

"Truly, Master Skimmer, one has need of nerves to be your confidant! Faith in a compact constitutes the beauty of social order; without it, there is no security for interests, nor any repose for character. But faith may be implied, as well as expressed; and when men in certain situations place their dependence on others who should have motives for being wary, the first are bound to respect, even to the details of a most scrupulous construction, the conditions of the covenant. Sir, I wash my hands of this transaction, if it be understood that testimony is to be accumulated against us, by thus putting your Water-Witch in danger of trial before the Admiralty."

"I am sorry that this is your decision," returned the Skimmer. "What is done, cannot be recalled, though I still hope it may be remedied. My brigantine now lies within a league of this, and 'twould be treachery to deny it. Since it is your opinion, my lord, that our contract is not valid, there is little use in its seal--the broad pieces may still be serviceable, in shielding that youth from harm."

"You are as literal in constructions, Master Skimmer, as a school-boy's version of his Virgil. There is an idiom in diplomacy, as well as in language, and one who treats so sensibly should not be ignorant of its phrases. Bless me, Sir; an hypothesis is not a conclusion, any more than a promise is a performance. That which is advanced by way of supposition, is but the ornament of reasoning, while your gold has the more solid character of demonstration. Our bargain is made."

The unsophisticated mariner regarded the noble casuist a moment, in doubt whether to acquiesce in this conclusion, or not; but ere he had decided on his course, the windows of the room were shaken violently, and then came the heavy roar of a piece of ordnance.

"The morning gun!" exclaimed Cornbury, who started at the explosion, with the sensitiveness of one unworthily employed.--"No! 'tis an hour past the rising of the sun!"

The Skimmer showed no yielding of the nerves though it was evident, by his attitude of thought and the momentary fixedness of his eye, that he foresaw danger was near. Moving to the window, he looked out on the water, and instantly drew back, like one who wanted no further evidence.

"Our bargain then is made," he said, hastily approaching the Viscount, whose hand he seized and wrung in spite of the other's obvious reluctance to allow the familiarity; "our bargain then is made. Deal fairly by the youth, and the deed will be remembered--deal treacherously, and it shall be revenged!"

For one instant longer, the Skimmer held the member of the effeminate Cornbury imprisoned; and then, raising his cap with a courtesy that appeared more in deference to himself than his companion, he turned on his heel, and with a firm but quick step he left the house.

Carnaby, who entered on the instant, found his guest in a state between resentment, surprise, and alarm. But habitual levity soon conquered other feelings, and, finding himself freed from the presence of a man who had treated him with so little ceremony, the ex-governor shook his head, like one accustomed to submit to evils he could not obviate, and assumed the ease and insolent superiority he was accustomed to maintain in the presence of the obsequious grocer.

"This may be a coral or a pearl, or any other lion--ha! do I not see the masts of a ship, moving above the roofs of yonder line of stores?"

"Well, your lordship has the quickest eye!--and the happiest way of seeing things, of any nobleman in England! Now I should have stared a quarter of an hour, before I thought of looking over the roofs of those stores, at all; and yet your lordship looks there at the very first glance."

"Is it a ship or a brig, Master Carnaby--you have the advantage of position, for I would not willingly be seen--speak quickly, dolt;--is it ship, or brig?"

"My lord--'tis a brig--or a ship--really I must ask your lordship, for I know so little of these things----"

"Nay, complaisant Master Carnaby--have an opinion of your own for one moment, if you please--there is smoke curling upward, behind those masts----"

Another rattling of windows, and a second report, removed all doubts on the subject of the firing. At the next instant, the bows of a vessel of war appeared at the opening of a ship-yard, and then came gun after gun in view, until the whole broadside and frowning battery of the Coquette were visible.

The Viscount sought no further solution of the reason why the Skimmer had left him so hurriedly. Fumbling a moment in a pocket, he drew forth a hand filled with broad pieces of gold. These he appeared about to lay upon the table; but, as it were by forgetfulness, he kept the member closed, and bidding the grocer adieu, he left the house, with as firm a resolution as was ever made by any man, conscious of having done both a weak and a wicked action, of never again putting himself in familial contact with so truckling a miscreant.

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