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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 30
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 30 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :3350

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 30

Chapter XXX

"Sir, it is
A charge too heavy for my strength; but yet
We'll strive to bear it for your worthy sake,
To the extreme edge of hazard."

All's Well That End's Well.


The vessel, which appeared so inopportunely for the safety of the ill-manned British cruiser, was, in truth, a ship that had roved from among the islands of the Caribean sea, in quest of some such adventure as that which now presented itself. She was called la belle Fontange, and her commander, a youth of two-and-twenty, was already well known in the salons of the Marais, and behind the walls of the Rue Basse des Remparts, as one of the most gay and amiable of those who frequented the former, and one of the most spirited and skilful among the adventurers who sometimes trusted to their address in the latter. Rank, and influence at Versailles, had procured for the young Chevalier Dumont de la Rocheforte a command to which he could lay no claim either by his experience or his services. His mother, a near relative of one of the beauties of the court, had been commanded to use sea-bathing, as a preventive against the consequences of the bite of a rabid lap-dog. By way of a suitable episode to the long descriptions she was in the daily habit of writing to those whose knowledge of her new element was limited to the constant view of a few ponds and ditches teeming with carp, or an occasional glimpse of some of the turbid reaches of the Seine, she had vowed to devote her youngest child to Neptune! In due time, that is to say, while the poetic sentiment was at the access, the young chevalier was duly enrolled and, in a time that greatly anticipated all regular and judicious preferment, he was placed in command of the corvette in question, and sent to the Indies to gain glory for himself and his country.

The Chevalier Dumont de la Rocheforte was brave, but his courage was not the calm and silent self-possession of a seaman. Like himself, it was lively, buoyant, thoughtless, bustling, and full of animal feeling. He had all the pride of a gentleman, and, unfortunately for the duty which he had now for the first time to perform, one of its dictates caught him to despise that species of mechanical knowledge which it was, just at this moment, so important to the commander of la Fontange to possess. He could dance to admiration, did the honors of his cabin with faultless elegance, and had caused the death of an excellent mariner, who had accidentally fallen overboard, by jumping into the sea to aid him, without knowing how to swim a stroke himself,--a rashness that had diverted those exertions which might have saved the unfortunate sailor, from the assistance of the subordinate to the safety of his superior. He wrote sonnets prettily, and had some ideas of the new philosophy which was just beginning to dawn upon the world; but the cordage of his ship, and the lines of a mathematical problem, equally presented labyrinths he had never threaded.

It was perhaps fortunate for the safety of all in her, that la belle Fontange possessed an inferior officer, in the person of a native of Boulogne-sur-Mer, who was quite competent to see that she kept the proper course, and that she displayed none of the top-gallants of her pride, at unpropitious moments. The ship itself was sufficiently and finely moulded of a light and airy rig, and of established reputation or speed. If it was defective in any thing, it had the fault, in common with its commander, of a want of sufficient solidity to resist the vicissitudes and dangers of the turbulent element on which it was destined to act.

The vessels were now within a mile of each other. The breeze was steady, and sufficiently fresh for all the ordinary evolutions of a naval combat; while the water was just quiet enough to permit the ships to be handled with confidence and accuracy. La Fontange was running with her head to the eastward, and, as she had the advantage of the wind, her tall tracery of spars leaned gently in the direction of her adversary. The Coquette was standing on the other tack, and necessarily inclined from her enemy. Both vessels were stripped to their top-sails, spankers, and jibs, though the lofty sails of the Frenchman were fluttering in the breeze, like the graceful folds of some fanciful drapery. No human being was distinctly visible in either fabric, though dark clusters around each mast-head showed that the ready top-men were prepared to discharge their duties, even in the confusion and dangers of the impending contest. Once or twice, la Fontange inclined her head more in the direction of her adversary; and then, sweeping up again to the wind, she stood on in stately beauty The moment was near when the ships were about to cross each other, at a point where a musket would readily send its messenger across the waiter that lay between them. Ludlow, who closely watched each change of position, and every rise and fall of the breeze, went on the poop, and swept the horizon with his glass, for the last time before his ship should be enveloped in smoke. To his surprise, he discovered a pyramid of canvas rising above the sea, in the direction of the wind. The sail was clearly visible to the naked eye, and had only escaped earlier observation in the duties of so urgent a moment. Calling the master to his side, he inquired his opinion concerning the character of the second stranger. But Trysail confessed it exceeded even his long-tried powers of observation to say more than that it was a ship running before the wind, with a cloud of sail spread. After a second and a longer look, however, the experienced master ventured to add that the stranger had the squareness and symmetry of a cruiser, but of what size he would not yet presume to declare.

"It may be a light ship, under her top-gallant and studding-sails, or it may be, that we see only the lofty duck of some heavier vessel, Captain Ludlow;--ha! he has caught the eye of the Frenchman, for the corvette has signals abroad!"

"To your glass!--If the stranger answer, we have no choice but our speed."

There was another keen and anxious examination of the upper spars of the distant ship, but the direction of the wind prevented any signs of her communicating with the corvette from being visible. La Fontange appeared equally uncertain of the character of the stranger, and for a moment there was some evidence of an intention to change her course. But the moment for indecision had past. The ships were already sweeping up abreast of each other, under the constant pressure of the breeze.

"Be ready, men!" said Ludlow, in a low but firm voice, retaining his elevated post on the poop, while he motioned to his companion to return to the main-deck. "Fire at his flash!"

Intense expectation succeeded. The two graceful fabrics sailed steadily on, and came within hail. So profound was the stillness in the Coquette, that the rushing sound of the water she heaped under her bows was distinctly audible to all on board, and might be likened to the deep breathing of some vast animal, that was collecting its physical energies for some unusual exertion. On the other hand, tongues were loud and clamorous among the cordage of la Fontange. Just as the ships were fairly abeam, the voice of young Dumont was heard, shouting through a trumpet, for his men to fire. Ludlow smiled, in a seaman's scorn. Raising his own trumpet, with a quiet gesture to his attentive and ready crew, the whole discharge of their artillery broke out of the dark side of the ship, as if it had been by the volition of the fabric. The answering broadside was received almost as soon as their own had been given, and the two vessels passed swiftly without the line of shot.

The wind had sent back their own smoke upon the English, and for a time it floated on their decks, wreathed itself in the eddies of the sails, and passed away to leeward, with the breeze that succeeded to the counter-current of the explosions. The whistling of shot, and the crash of wood, had been heard amid the din of the combat. Giving a glance at his enemy, who still stood on, Ludlow leaned from the poop, and, with all a sailor's anxiety, he endeavored to scan the gear aloft.

"What is gone, Sir?" he asked of Trysail, whose earnest face just then became visible through the drifting smoke. "What sail is so heavily flapping?"

"Little harm done, Sir--little harm--bear a hand with the tackle on that fore-yard-arm, you lubbers! you move like snails in a minuet! The fellow has shot away the lee fore-top-sail-sheet, Sir; but we shall soon get our wings spread again. Lash it down, boys, as if it were butt-bolted;--so; steady out your bowline, forward.--Meet her, you can; meet her you may--meet her!"

The smoke had disappeared, and the eye of the captain rapidly scanned the whole of his ship. Three or four top-men had already caught the flapping canvas, and were seated on the extremity of the fore-yard, busied in securing their prize. A hole or two was visible in the other sails, and here and there an unimportant rope was dangling in a manner to show that it had been cut by shot. Further than this, the damage aloft was not of a nature to attract his attention.

There was a different scene on deck. The feeble crew were earnestly occupied in loading the guns, and rammers and spunges were handled, with all the intenseness which men would manifest in a moment so exciting. The Alderman was never more absorbed in his leger than he now appeared in his duty of a cannoneer; and the youths, to whom the command of the batteries had necessarily been confided, diligently aided him with their greater authority and experience. Trysail stood near the capstan, coolly giving the orders which have been related, and gazing upward with an interest so absorbed as to render him unconscious of all that passed around his person. Ludlow saw, with pain, that blood discolored the deck at his feet, and that a seaman lay dead within reach of his arm. The rent plank and shattered ceiling showed the spot where the destructive missile had entered.

Compressing his lips like a man resolved, the commander of the Coquette bent further forward, and glanced at the wheel. The quarter-master, who held the spokes, was erect, steady, and kept his eye on the leech of the head-sail, as unerringly as the needle points to the pole.

These were the observations of a single minute. The different circumstances related had been ascertained with so many rapid glances of the eye, and they had even been noted without losing for a moment the knowledge of the precise situation of la Fontange. The latter was already in stays. It be came necessary to meet the evolution by another as prompt.

The order was no sooner given, than the Coquette, as if conscious of the hazard she ran of being raked, whirled away from the wind, and, by the time her adversary was ready to deliver her other broadside she was in a position to receive and to return it. Again the ships approached each other, and once more they exchanged their streams of fire when abeam.

Ludlow now saw, through the smoke, the ponderous yard of la Fontange swinging heavily against the breeze, and the main-top-sail come flapping against her mast. Swinging off from the poop by a backstay that had been shot away a moment before, he alighted on the quarter-deck by the side of the master.

"Touch all the braces!" he said, hastily, but still speaking low and clearly; "give a drag upon the bowlines--luff, Sir, luff; jam the ship up hard against the wind!"

The clear, steady answer of the quarter-master, and the manner in which the Coquette, still vomiting her sheets of flame, inclined towards the breeze, announced the promptitude of the subordinates. In another minute, the vast volumes of smoke which enveloped the two ships joined, and formed one white and troubled cloud, which was rolling swiftly before the explosions, over the surface of the sea, but which, as it rose higher in the air, sailed gracefully to leeward.

Our young commander passed swiftly through the batteries, spoke encouragingly to his people, and resumed his post on the poop. The stationary position of la Fontange, and his own efforts to get to windward, were already proving advantageous to Queen Anne's cruiser. There was some indecision on the part of the other ship, which instantly caught the eye of one whose readiness in his profession so much resembled instinct.

The Chevalier Dumont had amused his leisure by running his eyes over the records of the naval history of his country, where he had found this and that commander applauded for throwing their top-sails to the mast, abreast of their enemies. Ignorant of the difference between a ship in line and one engaged singly, he had determined to prove himself equal to a similar display of spirit. At the moment when Ludlow was standing alone on the poop, watching with vigilant eyes the progress of his own vessel, and the position of his enemy, indicating merely by a look or a gesture to the attentive Trysail beneath, what he wished done, there was actually a wordy discussion on the quarter-deck of the latter, between the mariner of Boulogne-sur-Mer, and the gay favorite of the salons. They debated on the expediency of the step which the latter had taken, to prove the existence of a quality that no one doubted The time lost in this difference of opinion was of the last importance to the British cruiser. Standing gallantly on, she was soon out of the range of her adversary's fire; and, before the Boulognois had succeeded in convincing his superior of his error, their antagonist was on the other tack, and luffing across the wake of la Fontange. The top-sail was then tardily filled, but before the latter ship had recovered her motion, the sails of her enemy overshadowed her deck. There was now every prospect of the Coquette passing to windward. At that critical moment, the fair-setting top-sail of the British cruiser was nearly rent in two by a shot. The ship fell off, the yards interlocked, and the vessels were foul.

The Coquette had all the advantage of position. Perceiving the important fact at a glance, Ludlow made sure of its continuance by throwing his grapnels. When the two ships were thus firmly lashed together, the young Dumont found himself relieved from a mountain of embarrassment. Sufficiently justified by the fact that not a single gun of his own would bear, while a murderous discharge of grape had just swept along his decks, he issued the order to board. But Ludlow, with his weakened crew, had not decided on so hazardous an evolution as that which brought him in absolute contact with his enemy, without foreseeing the means of avoiding all the consequences. The vessels touched each other only at one point, and this spot was protected by a row of muskets. No sooner, therefore, did the impetuous young Frenchman appear on the taffrail of his own ship, supported by a band of followers, than a close and deadly fire swept them away to a man. Young Dumont alone remained. For a single moment, his eye glared wildly; but the active frame, still obedient to the governing impulse of so impetuous a spirit, leaped onward. He fell, without life, on the deck of his enemy.

Ludlow watched every movement, with a calmness that neither personal responsibility, nor the uproar and rapid incidents of the terrible scene, could discompose.

"Now is our time to bring the matter hand to hand!" he cried, making a gesture to Trysail to descend from the ladder, in order that he might pass.

His arm was arrested, and the grave old master pointed to windward.

"There is no mistaking the cut of those sails, or the lofty rise of those spars! The stranger is another Frenchman!"

One glance told Ludlow that his subordinate was right; another sufficed to show what was now necessary.

"Cast loose the forward grapnel--cut it--away with it, clear!" was shouted, through his trumpet, in a voice that rose commanding and clear amid the roar of the combat.

Released forward, the stern of the Coquette yielded to the pressure of her enemy, whose sails were all drawing, and she was soon in a position to enable her head-yards to be braced sharp aback, in a direction opposite to the one in which she had so lately lain. The whole broadside was then delivered into the stern of la Fontange, the last grapnel was released and the ships separated.

The single spirit which presided over the evolutions and exertions of the Coquette, still governed her movements. The sails were trimmed, the ship was got in command, and, before the vessels had been asunder five minutes, the duty of the vessel was in its ordinary active but noiseless train.

Nimble top-men were on the yards, and broad folds of fresh canvas were flapping in the breeze, as the new sails were bent and set. Ropes were spliced, or supplied by new rigging, the spars examined, and in fine all that watchfulness and sedulous care were observed, which are so necessary to the efficiency and safety of a ship. Every spar was secured, the pumps were sounded, and the vessel held on her way, as steadily as if she had never fired nor received a shot.

On the other hand, la Fontange betrayed the indecision and confusion of a worsted ship. Her torn canvas was blowing about in disorder, many important ropes beat against her masts unheeded, and the vessel itself drove before the breeze in the helplessness of a wreck. For several minutes, there seemed no controlling mind in the fabric; and when, after so much distance was lost as to give her enemy all the advantage of the wind, a tardy attempt was made to bring the ship up again, the tallest and most important of her masts was seen tottering, until it finally fell, with all its hamper, into the sea.

Notwithstanding the absence of so many of his people, success would now have been certain, had not the presence of the stranger compelled Ludlow to abandon his advantage. But the consequences to his own vessel were too sure, to allow of more than a natural and manly regret that so favorable an occasion should escape him. The character of the stranger could no longer be mistaken. The eve of every seaman in the Coquette as well understood the country of the high and narrow-headed sails, the tall taper masts and short yards of the frigate whose hull was now distinctly visible, as a landsman recognizes an individual by the distinguishing marks of his features or attire. Had there been any lingering doubts on the subject, they would have all given place to certainty, when the stranger was seen exchanging signals with the crippled corvette.

It was now time for Ludlow to come to a speedy determination on his future course. The breeze still held to the southward, but it was beginning to lessen, with every appearance that it would fail before nightfall. The land lay a few leagues to the northward, and the whole horizon of the ocean, with the exception of the two French cruisers, was clear. Descending to the quarter-deck, he approached the master, who was seated in a chair, while the surgeon dressed a severe hurt in one of his legs. Shaking the sturdy veteran cordially by the hand, he expressed his acknowledgments for his support in a moment so trying.

"God bless you! God bless you! Captain Ludlow;" returned the old sailor, dashing his hand equivocally across his weatherbeaten brow. "Battle is certainly the place to try both ship and friends, and Heaven be praised! Queen Anne has not failed of either this day. No man has forgotten his duty, so far as my eyes have witnessed; and this is saying no trifle, with half a crew and an equal enemy. As for the ship, she never behaved better! I had my misgivings, when I saw the new main-top-sail go, which it did, as all here know, like a bit of rent muslin between the fingers of a seamstress. Run forward, Mr. Hopper, and tell the men in the fore rigging to take another drag on that swifter, and to be careful and bring the strain equal on all the shrouds.--A lively youth, Captain Ludlow, and one who only wants a little reflection, with some more experience, and a small dash of modesty, together with the seamanship he will naturally get in time, to make a very tolerable officer."

"The boy promises well; but I have come to ask thy advice, my old friend, concerning our next movements. There is no doubt that the fellow who is coming down upon us is both a Frenchman and a frigate."

"A man might as well doubt the nature of a fish-hawk, which is to pick up all the small fry, and to let the big ones go. We might show him our canvas and try the open sea, but I fear that fore-mast is too weak, with three such holes in it, to bear the sail we should need!"

"What think you of the wind?" said Ludlow, affecting an indecision he did not feel, in order to soothe the feelings of his wounded companion. "Should it hold, we might double Montauk, and return for the rest of our people; but should it fail, is there no danger that the frigate should tow within shot!--We have no boats to escape her."

"The soundings on this coast are as regular as the roof of an out-house," said the master, after a moment of thought, "and it is my advice, if it is your pleasure to ask it, Captain Ludlow, that we shoal our water as much as possible, while the wind lasts. Then, I think, we shall be safe from a very near visit from the big one:--as for the corvette, I am of opinion, that, like a man who has eaten his dinner, she has no stomach for another slice."

Ludlow applauded the advice of his subordinate, for it was precisely what he had determined on doing; and after again complimenting him on his coolness and skill, he issued the necessary orders. The helm of the Coquette was now placed hard a-weather, the yards were squared, and the ship was put be fore the wind. After running, in this direction for a few hours, the wind gradually lessening, the lead announced that the keel was quite as near the bottom as the time of the tide, and the dull heaving and setting of the element, rendered at all prudent. The breeze soon after fell, and then our young commander ordered an anchor to be dropped into the sea.

His example, in the latter respect, was imitated by the hostile cruisers. They had soon joined, and boats were seen passing from one to the other, so long as there was light. When the sun fell behind the western margin of the ocean, their dusky outlines, distant about a league, gradually grew less and less distinct, until the darkness of night enveloped sea and land in its gloom.

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