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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 29
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 29 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :2880

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 29

Chapter XXIX

"--Thou shalt see me at Philippi."

Shakspeare.


The commander of Her Britannic Majesty's ship Coquette slept that night in the hammock-cloths. Before the sun had set, the light and swift brigantine, by following the gradual bend of the land, had disappeared in the eastern board; and it was no longer a question of overtaking her by speed. Still, sail was crowded on the royal cruiser; and, long ere the period when Ludlow threw himself in his clothes between the ridge-ropes of the quarter-deck, the vessel had gained the broadest part of the Sound, and was already approaching the islands that form the 'Race.'

Throughout the whole of that long and anxious day, the young sailor had held no communication with the inmates of the cabin. The servants of the ship had passed to and fro; but, though the door seldom opened that he did not bend his eyes feverishly in its direction, neither the Alderman, his niece, the captive, nor even Francois or the negress, made their appearance on the deck. If any there felt an interest in the result of the chase, it was concealed in a profound and almost mysterious silence. Determined not to be outdone in indifference, and goaded by feelings which with all his pride he could not overcome, our young seaman took possession of the place of rest we have mentioned, without using any measures to resume the intercourse.

When the first watch of the night was come, sail, was shortened on the ship, and from that moment till the day dawned again, her captain seemed buried in sleep. With the appearance of the sun, however, he arose, and commanded the canvas to be spread, once more, and every exertion made to drive the vessel forward to her object.

The Coquette reached the Race early in the day, and, shooting through the passage on an ebb-tide, she was off Montauk at noon. No sooner had the ship drawn past the cape, and reached a point where she felt the breeze and the waves of the Atlantic, than men were sent aloft, and twenty eyes were curiously employed in examining the offing. Ludlow remembered the promise of the Skimmer to meet him at that spot, and, notwithstanding the motives which the latter might be supposed to have for avoiding the interview, so great was the influence of the free-trader's manner and character, that the young captain entertained secret expectations the promise would be kept.

"The offing is clear!" said the young captain, in a tone of disappointment, when he lowered his glass; "and yet that rover does not seem a man to hide his head in fear----"

"Fear--that is to say, fear of a Frenchman--and a decent respect for Her Majesty's cruisers, are very different sorts of things," returned the master. "I never got a bandanna, or a bottle of your Cogniac ashore, in my life, that I did not think every man that I passed in the street, could see the spots in the one, or scent the flavor of the other; but then I never supposed this shyness amounted to more than a certain suspicion in my own mind, that other people know when a man is running on an illegal course, I suppose that one of your rectors, who is snugly anchored for life in a good warm living, would call this conscience; but, for my own part, Captain Ludlow, though no great logician in matters of this sort, I have always believed that it was natural concern of mind lest the articles should be seized. If this 'Skimmer of the Seas' comes out to give us another chase in rough water, he is by no means as good a judge of the difference between a large and a small vessel as I had thought him--and I confess, Sir, I should have more hopes of taking him, were the woman under his bowsprit fairly burnt."

"The offing is clear!"

"That it is, with a show of the wind holding here at south-half-south. This bit of water that we have passed, between yon island and the main, is lined with bays; and while we are here looking out for them on the high seas, the cunning varlets may be trading in any one of the fifty good basins that lie between the cape and the place where we lost him. For aught we know, he may have run westward again in the night-watches, and be at this moment laughing in his sleeve at the manner in which he dodged a cruiser."

"There is too much truth in what you say, Trysail; for if the Skimmer be now disposed to avoid us, he has certainly the means in his power."

"Sail, ho!" cried the look-out on the main-top-gallant-yard.

"Where-a-way?"

"Broad on the weather-beam, Sir; here, in a range with the light cloud that is just lifting from the water."

"Can you make out the rig?"

"'Fore George, the fellow is right!" interrupted the master. "The cloud caused her to be unseen; but here she is, sure enough,--a full-rigged ship, under easy canvas, with her head to the westward!"

The look of Ludlow through the glass was long, attentive, and grave.

"We are weak-handed to deal with a stranger;" he said, when he returned the instrument to Trysail, "You see he has nothing but his top-sails set,--a show of canvas that would satisfy no trader, in a breeze like this!"

The master was silent, but his look was even longer and more critical than that of his captain. When it had ended, he cast a cautious glance towards the diminished crew, who were curiously regarding the vessel that had now become sufficiently distinct-by a change in the position of the cloud, and then answered, in an under tone:--

"'Tis a Frenchman, or I am a whale' One may see it, by his short yards, and the hoist of his sails; ay, and 'tis a cruiser, too, for no man who had a profit to make on his freight, would be lying there under short canvas, and his port within a day's run."

"Your opinion is my own; would to Heaven our people were all here! This is but a short complement to take into action with a ship whose force seems equal to our own. What number can we count?"

"We are short of seventy,--a small muster for four-and-twenty guns, with yards like these to handle."

"And yet the port may not be insulted! We are known to be on this coast--"

"We are seen!" interrupted the master--"The fellow has worn ship, and he is already setting his top-gallant-sails."

There no longer remained any choice between downright flight and preparations for combat. The former would have been easy, for an hour would have taken the ship within the cape; but the latter was far more in consonance with the spirit of the service to which the Coquette belonged. The order was therefore given for "all hands to clear ship for action!" It was in the reckless nature of sailors, to exalt in this summons; for success and audacity go hand in hand, and long familiarity with the first had, even at that early day, given a confidence that often approached temerity to the seamen of Great Britain and her dependencies. The mandate to prepare for battle was received by the feeble crew of the Coquette, as it had often been received before, when her decks were filled with the number necessary to give full efficiency to her armament; though a few of the older and more experienced of the mariners, men in whom confidence had been diminished by time, were seen to shake their heads, as if they doubted the prudence of the intended contest.

Whatever might have been the secret hesitation of Ludlow when the character and force of his enemy were clearly established, he betrayed no signs of irresolution from the moment when his decision appeared to be taken. The necessary orders were issued calmly, and with the clearness and readiness that perhaps constitute the greatest merit of a naval captain. The yards were slung in chains; the booms were sent down; the lofty sails were furled, and, in short, all the preparations that were then customary were made with the usual promptitude and skill. Then the drum beat to quarters, and when the people were at their stations, their young commander had a better opportunity of examining into the true efficiency of his ship. Calling to the master, he ascended the poop, in order that they might confer together with less risk of being overheard, and at the same time better observe the manoeuvres of the enemy.

The stranger had, as Trysail perceived, suddenly worn round on his heel, and laid his head to the northward. The change in the course brought him before the wind, and, as he immediately spread all the canvas that would draw, he was approaching fast. During the time occupied in preparation on board the Coquette, his hull had risen as it were from out of the water; and Ludlow and his companion had not studied his appearance long, from the poop, before the streak of white paint, dotted with ports which marks a vessel of war, became visible to the naked eye. As the cruiser of Queen Anne continued also to steer in the direction of the chase, half an hour more brought them sufficiently near to each other, to remove all doubts of their respective characters and force. The stranger then came to the wind, and made his preparations for combat.

"The fellow shows a stout heart, and a warm battery," observed the master, when the broadside of their enemy became visible, by this change in his position. "Six-and-twenty teeth, by my count! though the eye-teeth must be wanting, or he would never be so fool-hardy as to brave Queen Anne's Coquette in this impudent fashion! A prettily turned boat, Captain Ludlow, and one nimble enough in her movements. But look at his top-sails! Just like his character, Sir, all hoist; and with little or no head to them. I'll not deny but that the hull is well enough, for that is no more than carpenter's work; but when it comes to the rig, or trim, or cut of a sail, how should a l'Orient or a Brest man understand what is comely? There is no equalling, after all, a good, wholesome, honest English top-sail; which is neither too narrow in the head, nor too deep in the hoist; with a bolt-rope of exactly the true size, robands and earings and bowlines that look as if they grew there, and sheets that neither nature nor art could alter to advantage. Here are these Americans, now, making innovations in ship-building, and in the sparring of vessels, as if any thing could be gained by quitting the customs and opinions of their ancestors! Any man may see that all they have about them, that is good for any thing, is English; while all their nonsense, and new-fangled changes, come from their own vanity."

"They get along, Master Trysail, notwithstanding," returned the captain, who, though a sufficiently loyal subject, could not forget his birth-place; "and many is the time this ship, one of the finest models of Plymouth, has been bothered to overhaul the coasters of these seas. Here is the brigantine, that has laughed at us, on our best tack, and with our choice of wind."

"One cannot say where that brigantine was built, Captain Ludlow. It may be here, it may be there; for I look upon her as a nondescript, as old Admiral Top used to call the galliots of the north seas--but, concerning these new American fashions, of what use are they, I would ask, Captain Ludlow? In the first place, they are neither English nor French, which is as much as to confess they are altogether outlandish; in the second place, they disturb the harmony and established usages among wrights and sail-makers, and, though they may get along well enough now, sooner or later, take my word for it, they will come to harm. It is unreasonable to suppose that a new people can discover any thing in the construction of a ship, that has escaped the wisdom of seamen as old--the Frenchman is cluing up his top-gallant-sails, and means to let them hang; which is much the same as condemning them at once,--and, therefore, I am of opinion that all these new fashions will come to no good."

"Your reasoning is absolutely conclusive, Master Trysail." returned the captain, whose thoughts were differently employed. "I agree with you, it would be safer for the stranger to send down his yards."

"There is something manly and becoming in seeing a ship strip herself, as she comes into action, Sir! It is like a boxer taking off his jacket, with the intention of making a fair stand-up fight of it.--That fellow is filling away again, and means to manoeuvre before he comes up fairly to his work."

The eye of Ludlow had never quitted the stranger. He saw that the moment for serious action was not distant; and, bidding Trysail keep the vessel on her course, he descended to the quarter-deck. For a angle instant, the young commander paused with big hand on the door of the cabin, and then, overcoming his reluctance, he entered the apartment.

The Coquette was built after a fashion much in vogue a century since, and which, by a fickleness that influences marine architecture as well as less important things, is again coming into use, for vessels of her force. The accommodations of the commander were on the same deck with the batteries of the ship, and they were frequently made to contain two or even four guns of the armament. When Ludlow entered his cabin, therefore, he found a crew stationed around the gun which was placed on the side next the enemy, and all the customary arrangements made which precede a combat. The state-rooms abaft, however, as well as the little apartment which lay between them, were closed. Glancing his eye about him, and observing the carpenters in readiness, he made a signal for them to knock away the bulk-heads, and lay the whole of the fighting part of the ship in common. While this duty was going on, he entered the after-cabin.

Alderman Van Beverout and his companions were found together and evidently in expectation of the visit they now received. Passing coolly by the former, Ludlow approached his niece, and, taking her hand, he led her to the quarter-deck, making a sign for her female attendant to follow. Descending into the depths of the ship, the captain conducted his charge into a part of the berth-deck, that was below the water line, and as much removed from danger as she could well be, without encountering a foul air, or sights that might be painful to one of her sex and habits.

"Here is as much safety as a vessel of war affords in a moment like this," he said, when his companion was silently seated on a mess-chest. "On no account quit the spot, till I--or some other, advise you it may be done without hazard."

Alida had submitted to be led thither, without a question. Though her color went and came, she saw the little dispositions that were made for her comfort, and without which, even at that moment, the young sailor could not quit her, in the same silence. But when they were ended, and her conductor was about to retire, his name escaped her lips, by an exclamation that seemed hurried and involuntary.

"Can I do aught else to quiet your apprehensions?" the young man inquired, though he studiously avoided her eye, as he turned to put the question. "I know your strength of mind, and that you have a resolution which exceeds the courage of your sex; else I would not venture so freely to point out the danger which may beset one, even here, without a self-command and discretion that shall restrain all sudden impulses of fear."

"Notwithstanding your generous interpretation of my character, Ludlow, I am but woman after all."

"I did not mistake you for an amazon," returned the young man smiling, perceiving that she checked her words by a sudden effort. "All I expect from you is the triumph of reason over female terror. I shall not conceal that the odds--perhaps I may say that the chances, are against us; and yet the enemy must pay for my ship, ere he has her! She will be none the worse defended, Alida, from the consciousness that thy liberty and comfort depend in some measure on our exertions.--Would you say more?"

La belle Barberie struggled with herself, and she became calm, at least in exterior.

"There has been a singular misconception between us, and yet is this no moment for explanations! Ludlow, I would not have you part with me, at such a time as this, with that cold and reproachful eye!"

She paused When the young man ventured to raise his look, he saw the beautiful girl standing with a hand extended towards him, as if offering a pledge of amity; while the crimson on her cheek, and her yielding but half-averted eye, spoke with the eloquence of maiden modesty. Seizing the hand, he answered, hastily--

"Time was, when this action would have made me happy--"

The young man paused, for his gaze had unconsciously become riveted on the rings of the hand he held. Alida understood the look, and, drawing one of the jewels, she offered it with a smile that was as attractive as her beauty.

"One of these may be spared," she said. "Take it, Ludlow; and when thy present duty shall be performed, return it, as a gage that I have promised thee that no explanation which you may have a right to ask shall be withheld."

The young man took the ring, and forced it on the smallest of his fingers, in a mechanical manner, and with a bewildered look, that seemed to inquire if some one of those which remained was not the token of a plighted faith. It is probable that he might have continued the discourse, had not a gun been fired from the enemy. It recalled him to the more serious business of the hour. Already more than half disposed to believe all he could wish, he raised the fair hand, which had just bestowed the boon, to his lips, and rushed upon deck.

"The Monsieur is beginning to bluster;" said Trysail, who had witnessed the descent of his commander, at that moment and on such an errand, with great dissatisfaction. "Although his shot fell short, it is too much to let a Frenchman have the credit of first word."

"He has merely given the weather gun, the signal of defiance. Let him come down, and he will not find us in a hurry to leave him!"

"No, no: as for that, we are snug enough!" returned the master, chuckling as he surveyed the half-naked spars, and the light top-hamper, to which he had himself reduced the ship. "If running is to be our play, we have made a false move at the beginning of the game. These top-sails, spanker, and jib, make a show that says more for bottom than for speed. Well, come what will of this affair, it will leave me a master, though it is beyond the power of the best duke in England to rob me of my share of the honor!"

With this consolation for his perfectly hopeless condition as respects promotion, the old seaman walked forward, examining critically into the state of the vessel; while his young commander, having cast a look about him, motioned to his prisoner and the Alderman to follow to the poop.

"I do not pretend to inquire into the nature of the tie which unites you with some in this ship," Ludlow commenced, addressing his words to Seadrift, though he kept his gaze on the recent gift of Alida; "but, that it must be strong, is evident by the interest they have taken in your fate. One who is thus esteemed should set a value on himself. How far you have trifled with the laws, I do not wish to say; but here is an opportunity to redeem some of the public favor. You are a seaman, and need not be told that my ship is not as strongly manned as one could wish her at this moment, and that the services of every Englishman will be welcome. Take charge of these six guns, and depend on my honor that your devotion to the flag shall not go unrequited."

"You much mistake my vocation, noble captain;" returned the dealer in contraband, faintly laughing. "Though one of the seas, I am one more used to the calm latitudes than to these whirlwinds of war. You have visited the brigantine of our mistress, and must have seen that her temple resembles that of Janus more than that of Mars. The deck of the Water-Witch has none of this frowning garniture of artillery."

Ludlow listened in amazement. Surprise, incredulity, and scorn, were each, in turn, expressed in his frowning countenance.

"This is unbecoming language for one of your calling," he said, scarce deeming it necessary to conceal the contempt he felt. "Do you acknowledge fealty to this ensign--are you an Englishman?"

"I am such as Heaven was pleased to make me--fitter for the zephyr, than the gale--the jest, than the war-shout--the merry moment, than the angry mood."

"Is this the man whose name for daring has passed into a proverb?--the dauntless, reckless, skilful 'Skimmer of the Seas!'"

"North is not more removed from south, than I from him in the qualities you seek! It was not my duty to undeceive you as to the value of your captive, while he whose services are beyond price to our mistress was still on the coast. So far from being him you name, brave captain, I claim to be no more than one of his agents, who, having some experience in the caprices of woman, he trusts to recommend his wares to female fancies. Though so useless in inflicting injuries, I may make bold however to rate myself as excellent at consolation. Suffer that I appease the fears of la belle Barberie during the coming tumult, and you shall own that one more skilful in that merciful office is rare indeed!"

"Comfort whom, where, and what thou wilt, miserable effigy of manhood!--but hold, there is less of terror than of artifice in that lurking smile and treacherous eye!"

"Discredit both, generous captain! On the faith of one who can be sincere at need, a wholesome fear is uppermost, whatever else the disobedient members may betray. I could fain weep rather than be thought valiant, just now!"

Ludlow listened in wonder. He had raised an arm to arrest the retreat of the young mariner, and by a natural movement his hand slid along the limb it had grasped, until it held that of Seadrift. The instant he touched the soft and ungloved palm, an idea, as novel as it was sudden, crossed his brain. Retreating a step or two, he examined the light and agile form of the other, from head to feet. The frown of displeasure, which had clouded his brow, changed to a look of unfeigned surprise; and for the first time, the tones of the voice came over his recollection as being softer and more melodious than is wont in man.

"Truly, thou art not the 'Skimmer of the Seas!'" he exclaimed, when his short examination was ended.

"No truth more certain. I am one of little account in this rude encounter, though, were that gallant seaman here," and the color deepened on the cheeks of Seadrift as he spoke, "his arm and counsel might prove a host! Oh! I have seen him in scenes far more trying than this, when the elements have conspired with other dangers. The example of his steadiness and spirit has given courage even to the feeblest heart in the brigantine! Now, suffer me to offer consolation to the timid Alida."

"I should little merit her gratitude, were the request refused," returned Ludlow. "Go, gay and gallant Master Seadrift! if the enemy fears thy presence on the deck as little as I dread it with la belle Barberie, thy services here will be useless!"

Seadrift colored to the temples, crossed his arms meekly on his bosom, sunk in an attitude of leave-taking, that was so equivocal as to cause the attentive and critical young captain to smile, and then glided past him and disappeared through a hatchway.

The eye of Ludlow followed the active and graceful form, while it continued in sight; and when it was no longer visible, he faced the Alderman with a look which seemed to inquire how far he might be acquainted with the true character of the individual who had been the cause of so much pain to himself.

"Have I done well, Sir, in permitting a subject of Queen Anne to quit us at this emergency?" he demanded, observing that either the phlegm or the self-command of Myndert rendered him proof to scrutiny.

"The lad may be termed contraband of war," returned the Alderman, without moving a muscle; "an article that will command a better price in a quiet than in a turbulent market. In short, Captain Cornelius Ludlow, this Master Seadrift will not answer thy purpose at all in combat."

"And is this example of heroism to go any farther, or may I count on the assistance of Mr. Alderman Van Beverout?--He has the reputation of a loyal citizen."

"As for loyalty," returned the Alderman, "so far as saying God bless the Queen, at city feasts, will go, none are more so. A wish is not an expensive return for the protection of her fleets and armies, and I wish her and you success against the enemy, with all my heart. But I never admired the manner in which the States General were dispossessed of their territories on this continent, Master Ludlow, and therefore I pay the Stuarts little more than I owe them in law."

"Which is as much as to say, that you will join the gay smuggler, in administering consolation to one whose spirit places her above the need of such succor."

"Not so fast, young gentleman.--We mercantile men like to see offsets in our books, before they are balanced. Whatever may be my opinion of the reigning family, which I only utter to you in confidence, and not as coin that is to pass from one to another, my love for the Grand Monarque is still less. Louis is at loggerheads with the United Provinces, as well as with our gracious Queen; and I see no harm in opposing one of his cruisers, since they certainly annoy trade, and render returns for investments inconveniently uncertain. I have heard artillery in my time, having in my younger days led a band of city volunteers in many a march and countermarch around the Bowling-Green; and for the honor of the second ward of the good town of Manhattan, I am now ready to undertake to show, that all knowledge of the art has not entirely departed from me."

"That is a manly answer, and, provided it be sustained by a corresponding countenance, there shall be no impertinent inquiry into motives. 'Tis the officer that makes the ship victorious; for, when he sets a good example and understands his duty, there is little fear of the men. Choose your position among any of these guns, and we will make an effort to disappoint yon servants of Louis, whether we do it as Englishmen, or only as the allies of the Seven Provinces."

Myndert descended to the quarter-deck, and having deliberately deposited his coat on the capstan, replaced his wig by a handkerchief, and tightened the buckle that did the office of suspenders, he squinted along the guns, with a certain air that served to assure the spectators he had at least no dread of the recoil.

Alderman Van Beverout was a personage far too important, not to be known by most of those who frequented the goodly town of which he was a civic officer. His presence, therefore, among the men, not a few of whom were natives of the colony, had a salutary effect; some yielding to the sympathy which is natural to a hearty and encouraging example, while it is possible there were a few that argued less of the danger, in consequence of the indifference of a man who, being so rich, had so many motives to take good care of his person. Be this as it might, the burgher was received by a cheer which drew a short but pithy address from him, in which he exhorted his companions in arms to do their duty, in a manner which should teach the Frenchmen the wisdom of leaving that coast in future free from annoyance; while he wisely abstained from all the commonplace allusions to king and country,--a subject to which he felt his inability to do proper justice.

"Let every man remember that cause for courage, which may be most agreeable to his own habits and opinions," concluded this imitator of the Hannibals and Scipios of old; "for that is the surest and the briefest method of bringing his mind into an obstinate state. In my own case, there is no want of motive; and I dare say each one of you may find some sufficient reason for entering heart and hand into this battle. Protests and credit! what would become of the affairs of the best house in the colonies, were its principal to be led a captive to Brest or l'Orient? It might derange the business of the whole city. I'll not offend your patriotism with such a supposition, but at once believe that your minds are resolved, like my own, to resist to the last; for this is an interest which is general, as all questions of a commercial nature become, through their influence on the happiness and prosperity of society."

Having terminated his address in so apposite and public-spirited a manner, the worthy burgher hemmed loudly, and resumed his accustomed silence, perfectly assured of his own applause. If the matter of Myndert's discourse wears too much the air of an unvided attention to his own interests, the reader will not forget it is by this concentration of individuality that most of the mercantile prosperity of the world is achieved. The seamen listened with admiration, for they understood no part of the appeal; and, next to a statement which shall be so lucid as to induce every hearer to believe it is no more than a happy explanation of his own ideas, that which is unintelligible is apt to unite most suffrages in its favor.

"You see your enemy, and you know your work!" said the clear, deep, manly voice of Ludlow, who, as he passed among the people of the Coquette, spoke to them in that steady unwavering tone which, in moments of danger, goes to the heart. "I shall not pretend that we are as strong as I could wish; but the greater the necessity for a strong pull, the readier a true seaman will be to give it. There are no nails in that ensign. When I am dead, you may pull it down if you please; but, so long as I live, my men, there it shall fly! And now, one cheer to show your humor, and then let the rest of your noise come from the guns."

The crew complied, with a full-mouthed and hearty hurrah!--Trysail assured a young, laughing, careless midshipman, who even at that moment could enjoy an uproar, that he had seldom heard a prettier piece of sea-eloquence than that which had just fallen from the captain; it being both 'neat and gentleman-like.'

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