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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 6
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 6 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :934

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 6

Chapter VI

"--What, has this thing appeared again, to-night?"

Hamlet.


"The face of man is the log-book of his thoughts, and Captain Ludlow's seems agreeable," observed a voice, that came from one, who was not far from the commander of the Coquette, while the latter was still enacting the pantomime described in the close of the preceding chapter.

"Who speaks of thoughts and log-books or who dares to pry into my movements?" demanded the young sailor, fiercely.

"One who has trifled with the first and scribbled in the last too often, not to know how to meet a squall, whether it be seen in the clouds or only on the face of man. As for looking into your movements, Captain Ludlow, I have watched too many big ships in my time, to turn aside at each light cruiser that happens to cross my course. I hope, Sir, you have an answer; every hail has its right to a civil reply."

Ludlow could scarce believe his senses, when, on turning to face the intruder, he saw himself confronted by the audacious eye and calm mien of the mariner who had, once before that morning, braved his resentment. Curbing his indignation, however, the young man endeavored to emulate the coolness which, notwithstanding his inferior condition, imparted to the air of the other something that was imposing, if it were not absolutely authoritative. Perhaps the singularity of the adventure aided in effecting an object, that was a little difficult of attainment in one accustomed to receive so much habitual deference from most of those who made the sea their home. Swallowing his resentment, the young commander answered--

"He that knows how to face his enemies with spirit, may be accounted sufficiently bold; but he who braves the anger of his friends, is fool-hardy."

"And he who does neither, is wiser than both," rejoined the reckless hero of the sash. "Captain Ludlow, we meet on equal terms, at present, and the parley may be managed with some freedom."

"Equality is a word that ill applies to men of stations so different."

"Of our stations and duties it is not necessary to speak. I hope that, when the proper time shall come, both may be found ready to be at the first, and equal to discharge the last. But Captain Ludlow, backed by the broadside of the Coquette and the cross-fire of his marines, is not Captain Ludlow alone, on a sea bluff, with a crutch no better than his own arm, and a stout heart. As the first, he is like a spar supported by backstays and forestays, braces and standing rigging; while, as the latter, he is the stick, which keeps its head aloft by the soundness and quality of its timber. You have the appearance of one who can go alone, even though it blew heavier than at present, if one may judge of the force of the breeze, by the manner it presses on the sails of yonder boat in the bay."

"Yonder boat begins to feel the wind, truly!" said Ludlow, suddenly losing all other interest in the appearance of the periagua which held Alida and her friends, and which, at that instant, shot out from beneath the cover of the hill into the broad opening of Raritan bay. "What think you of the time, my friend? a man of your years should speak with knowledge of the weather."

"Women and winds are only understood, when fairly in motion," returned he of the sash; "now, any mortal who consulted comfort and the skies, would have preferred a passage in Her Majesty's ship Coquette, to one in yonder dancing periagua; and yet the fluttering silk we see, in the boat, tells us there is one who has thought otherwise."

"You are a man of singular intelligence," cried Ludlow, again facing the intruder; "as well as one of singular------"

"Effrontery," rejoined the other, observing that the commander hesitated. Let the commissioned officer of the Queen speak boldly; I am no better than a top-man, or at most a quarter-master."

"I wish to say nothing disagreeable, but I find your knowledge of my offer to convey the lady and her friends to the residence of Alderman Van Beverout, a little surprising."

"And I see nothing to wonder at, in your offer to convey the lady anywhere, though the liberality to her friends is not an act of so clear explanation. When young men speak from the heart, their words are not uttered in whispers."

"Which would imply that you overheard our conversation. I believe it, for here is cover at hand to conceal you. It may be, Sir, that you have eyes, as well as ears."

"I confess to have seen your countenance, changing sides, like a member of parliament turning to a new leaf in his conscience, at the Minister's signal while you overhauled a bit of paper----"

"Whose contents you could not know!"

"Whose contents I took to be some private orders, given by a lady who is too much of a coquette herself, to accept your offer to sail in a vessel of the same name."

"By Heavens, the fellow has reason in his inexplicable impudence!" muttered Ludlow, pacing backward and forward beneath the shadow of the tree. "The language and the acts of the girl are in contradiction; and I am a fool to be trifled with, like a midshipman fresh broken loose from his mother's apron-string. Harkee, Master-a-a--You've a name I suppose, like any other straggler on the ocean."

"Yes. When the hail is loud enough to be heard, I answer to the call of Thomas Tiller."

"Well then, Master Tiller, so clever a seaman should be glad to serve the Queen."

"Were it not for duty to another, whose claim comes first, nothing could be more agreeable than to lend a lady in distress a helping hand."

"And who is he, who may prefer a claim to your services, in competition with the majesty of these realms?" demanded Ludlow, with a little of the pretension that, when speaking of its privileges, is apt to distinguish the manner of one who has been accustomed to regard royalty with reverence.

"Myself. When our affairs call us the same way no one can be readier than I, to keep Her Majesty's company; but----"

"This is presuming too far, on the trifling of a moment," interrupted Ludlow; "you know, sirrah, that I have the right to command your services, without entering into a parley for them; and which, notwithstanding your gay appearance, may, after all, be little worth the trouble."

"There is no need to push matters to extremity, between us, Captain Ludlow," resumed the stranger who had appeared to muse for a moment, "If I have baffled your pursuit once to-day, it was perhaps to make my merit in entering the ship freely, less undeniable. We are here alone, and your Honor will account it no boasting, if I say that a man, well limbed and active, who stands six feet between plank and earline, is not likely to be led against his will, like a yawl towing at the stern of a four-and-forty. I am a seaman, Sir; and though the ocean is my home, I never venture on it without sufficient footing. Look abroad from this hill, and say whether there is any craft in view, except the cruiser of the Queen, which would be likely to suit the taste of a mariner of the long voyage?"

"By which you would have me understand, you are here in quest of service?"

"Nothing less; and though the opinion of a fore-mast Jack may be of little value, you will not be displeased to hear, that I might look further without finding a prettier sea-boat, or a swifter, than the one which sails under your own orders. A seaman of your station, Captain Ludlow, is not now to learn, that a man speaks differently, while his name is his own, and after he has given it away to the crown; and therefore I hope my present freedom will not be long remembered."

"I have met men of your humor before, my friend, and I have not now to learn, that a thorough man-of-war's man is as impudent on shore, as he is obedient afloat.--Is that a sail, in the offing, or is it the wing of a sea-fowl, glittering in the sun?"

"It may be either," observed the audacious mariner, turning his eye leisurely towards the open ocean, "for we have a wide look-out from this windy bluff. Here are gulls sporting above the waves, that turn their feathers towards the light."

"Look more seaward. That spot of shining white should be the canvas of some craft, hovering in the offing!"

"Nothing more probable, in so light a breeze Your coasters are in and out, like water-rats on a wharf, at any hour of the twenty-four--and yet to me it seems the comb of a breaking sea."

"'Tis snow-white duck; such as your swift rover wears on his loftier spars!"

"A duck that is flown," returned the stranger drily, "for it is no longer to be seen. These fly-aways, Captain Ludlow, give us seamen many sleepless nights and idle chases. I was once running down the coast of Italy, between the island of Corsica and the main, when one of these delusions beset the crew, in a manner that hath taught me to put little faith in eyes, unless backed by a clear horizon and a cool head."

"I'll hear the circumstance," said Ludlow, withdrawing his gaze from the distant ocean, like one who was satisfied his senses had been deceived. "What of this marvel of the Italian seas?"

"A marvel truly, as your Honor will confess, when I read you the affair, much in the words I had it logged, for the knowledge of all concerned. It was the last hour of the second dog-watch, on Easter-Sunday, with the wind here at south-east, easterly. A light air filled the upper canvas, and just gave us command of the ship. The mountains of Corsica, with Monte Christo and Elba, had all been sunk some hours, and we were on the yards, keeping a look-out for a land-fall on the Roman coast. A low, thick bank of drifting fog lay along the sea, in-shore of us, which all believed to be the sweat of the land, and thought no more of; though none wished to enter it, for that is a coast where foul airs rise, and through which the gulls and land-birds refuse to fly. Well, here we lay, the mainsail in the brails, the top-sails beating the mast-heads, like a maiden fanning herself when she sees her lover, and nothing full but the upper duck, with the sun fairly below the water in the western board. I was then young, and quick of eye, as of foot, and therefore among the first to see the sight!"

"Which was----?" said Ludlow, interested in spite of his assumed air of indifference.

"Why, here just above the bank of foul air, that ever rests on that coast, there was seen an object, that looked like ribs of bright light, as if a thousand stars had quitted their usual berths in the heaven, to warn us off the land, by a supernatural beacon. The sight was in itself altogether out of nature and surprising. As the night thickened, it grew brighter and more glowing, as if 'twere meant in earnest to warn us from the coast. But when the word was passed to send the glasses aloft, there was seen a glittering cross on high, and far above the spars on which earthly ships carry their private signals."

"This was indeed extraordinary! and what did you, to come at the character of the heavenly symbol?"

"We wore off shore, and left it a clear berth for bolder mariners. Glad enough was I to see, with the morning sun, the snowy hills of Corsica, again!"

"And the appearance of that object was never explained?"

"Nor ever will be. I have since spoke with the mariners of that sea concerning the sight, but never found any who could pretend to have seen it. There was indeed one bold enough to say, there is a church, far inland, of height and magnitude sufficient to be seen some leagues at sea, and that, favored by our position and the mists that hung above the low grounds, we had seen its upper works, looming above the fogs, and lighted for some brilliant ceremony; but we were all too old in seaman's experience to credit so wild a tale. I know not but a church may loom, as well as a hill or a ship; but he, who pretends to say, that the hands of man can thus pile stones among the clouds, should be certain of believers, ere he pushes the tale too far."

"Your narrative is extraordinary, and the marvel should have been looked into closer. It may truly have been a church, for there stands an edifice at Rome, which towers to treble the height of a cruiser's masts."

"Having rarely troubled churches, I know not why a church should trouble me," said the mariner of the sash, while he turned his back on the ocean, as if indisposed to regard the waste of water longer. "It is now twelve years since that sight was seen, and though a seaman of many voyages, my eyes have not looked upon the Roman coast, from that hour to this. Will your Honor lead the way from the bluff, as becomes your rank?"

"Your tale of the burning cross and looming church, Master Tiller, had almost caused me to forget to watch the movements of yon periagua," returned Ludlow, who still continued to face the bay. "That obstinate old Dutchman----I say, Sir, that Mr. Alderman Van Beverout has greater confidence in this description of craft than I feel myself. I like not the looks of yonder cloud, which is rising from out the mouth of Raritan; and here, seaward, we have a gloomy horizon.--By Heaven! there is a sail playing in the offing or my eye hath lost its use and judgment."

"Your Honor sees the wing of the sporting gull, again; it had been nigh to deceive my sight, which would be to cheat the look-out of a man that has the advantage of some ten or fifteen years' more practice in marine appearances. I remember once, when beating in among the islands of the China seas, with the trades here at south-east----"

"Enough of your marvels, friend; the church is as much as I can swallow, in one morning--It may have been a gull! for I confess the object small; yet it had the steadiness and size of a distant sail! There is some reason to expect one on our coast, for whom a bright and seaman's watch must be had."

"This may then leave me a choice of ships," rejoined Tiller. "I thank your Honor for having spoken, before I had given myself away to the Queen; who is a lady that is much more apt to receive gifts of this nature, than to return them."

"If your respect aboard shall bear any proportion to your hardihood on shore, you may be accounted a model of civility! But a mariner of your pretension should have some regard to the character of the vessel in which he takes service."

"That of which your Honor spoke, is then a buccaneer?"

"If not a buccaneer, one but little better. A lawless trader, under the most favorable view; and there are those who think that he, who has gone so far, has not stopt short of the end. But the reputation of the 'Skimmer of the Seas' must be known to one who has navigated the ocean, long as you."

"You will overlook the curiosity of a seafaring man, in a matter of his profession," returned the mariner of the sash, with strong and evident interest in his manner. "I am lately from a distant ocean, and though many tales of the buccaneers of the islands have been narrated, I do not remember to have heard of that rover, before his name came into the discourse between me and the schipper of the boat, that plies between this landing and the city. I am not, altogether, what I seem, Captain Ludlow; and when further acquaintance and hard service shall have brought me more before the eyes of my commander, he may not repent having induced a thorough seaman to enter his ship, by a little condescension and good-nature shown while the man was still his own master. Your Honor will take no offence at my boldness, when I tell you, I should be glad to know more of this unlawful trader."

Ludlow riveted his eyes on the unmoved and manly countenance of his companion. There was a vague and undefined suspicion in the look; but it vanished, as the practised organs drank in the assurance, which so much physical promise afforded, of the aid of a bold and active mariner. Rather amused than offended by the freedom of the request, he turned upon his heel, and as they descended the bluff, on their way towards the place of landing, he continued the dialogue.

"You are truly from a distant ocean," said the young captain of the Coquette, smiling like a man who apologizes to himself for an act of what he thought undue condescension, "if the exploits of a brigantine known by the name of the 'Water-Witch,' and of him who commands her, under the fit appellation of the 'Skimmer of the Seas,' have not yet reached your ears. It is now five summers, since orders have been in the colonies for the cruisers to be on the alert to hunt the picaroon; and it is even said, the daring smuggler has often braved the pennants of the narrow seas. 'Twould be a bigger ship, not knighthood, to the lucky officer who should catch the knave!"

"He must drive a money-gaining trade, to run these risks, and to brave the efforts of so many skilful gentlemen! May I add to a presumption that your Honor already finds too bold, if one may judge by a displeased eye, by asking if report speaks to the face and other particulars of the person of this--free trader, one must call him, though freebooter should be a better word."

"What matters the personal condition of a rogue?" said Captain Ludlow, who perhaps remembered that the freedom of their intercourse had been carried as far as comported with prudence.

"What matter, truly! I asked because the description answers a little to that of a man I once knew, in the seas of farther India, and who has long since disappeared, though no one can say whither he has gone. But this 'Skimmer of the Seas' is some Spaniard of the Main, or perhaps a Dutchman come from the country that is awash, in order to taste of terra-firma?"

"Spaniard of the southern coast never carried so bold a sail in these seas, nor was there ever known a Dutchman with so light a heel. The fellow is said to laugh at the swiftest cruiser out of England! As to his figure, I have heard little good of it. 'Tis said, he is some soured officer of better days, who has quitted the intercourse of honest men, because roguery is so plainly written on his face, that he vainly tries to hide it."

"Mine was a proper man, and one that need not have been ashamed to show his countenance among his fellows," said he of the sash. "This cannot be the same, if indeed there be any on the coast.--Is't known, your Honor, that the man is truly here?"

"So goes a rumor; though so many idle tales have led me before to seek the smuggler where he was not, that I give but little faith to the report.--The periagua has the wind more at west, and the cloud in the mouth of the Raritan is breaking into scud. The Alderman will have a lucky run of it!"

"And the gulls have gone more seaward--a certain sign of pleasant weather;" returned the other, glancing a quick but keen look over the horizon in the offing. "I believe our rover, with his light duck, has taken flight among them!"

"We will then go in pursuit. My ship is bound to sea; and it is time, Master Tiller, that I know in what berth you are willing to serve the Queen."

"God bless her Majesty! Anne is a royal lady and she had a Lord High Admiral for her husband. As for a berth, Sir, one always wishes to be captain even though he may be compelled to eat his ration in the lee-scuppers. I suppose the first-lieutenancy is filled, to your Honor's liking?"

"Sirrah, this is trifling; one of your years and experience need not be told, that commissions are obtained by service."

"Under favor;--I confess the error. Captain Ludlow, you are a man of honor, and will not deceive a sailor who puts trust in your word."

"Sailor, or landsman, he is safe who has the gage."

"Then, Sir, I ask it. Suffer me to enter your ship; to look into my future messmates, and to judge of their characters; to see if the vessel suits my humor; and then to quit her, if I find it convenient."

"Fellow," said Ludlow, "this impudence almost surpasseth patience!"

"The request is reasonable, as can be shown;" gravely returned the unknown mariner. "Now, Captain Ludlow of the Coquette would gladly tie himself, for better for worse, to a fair lady who is lately gone on the water, and yet there are thousands who might be had with less difficulty."

"Still deeper and deeper in thy effrontery--and what if this be true?"

"Sir, a ship is a seaman's mistress--nay, when fairly under a pennant, with a war declared, he may be said to be wedded to her, lawfully or not. He becomes 'bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, until death doth them part.' To such a long compact, there should be liberty of choice. Has not your mariner a taste, as well as your lover? The harpings and counter of his ship are the waist and shoulders; the rigging, the ringlets; the cut and fit of the sails, the fashion of the millinery; the guns are always called the teeth, and her paint is the blush and bloom! Here is matter of choice, Sir; and, without leave to make it, I must wish your Honor a happy cruise, and the Queen a better servitor."

"Why, Master Tiller," cried Ludlow, laughing, "you trust too much to these stunted oaks, if you believe it exceeds my power to hunt you out of their cover, at pleasure. But I take you at your word. The Coquette shall receive you on these conditions, and with the confidence that a first-rate city belle would enter a country ball-room."

"I follow in your Honor's wake, without more words," returned he of the sash, for the first time respectfully raising his canvas cap to the young commander. "Though not actually married, consider me a man betrothed."

It is not necessary to pursue the discourse between the two seamen any further. It was maintained, and with sufficient freedom on the part of the inferior, until they reached the shore, and came in full view of the pennant of the Queen; when, with the tact of an old man-of-war's man, he threw into his manner all the respect that was usually required by the difference of rank.

Half an hour later, the Coquette was rolling at a single anchor, as the puffs of wind came off the hills on her three top-sails; and shortly after, she was seen standing through the Narrows, with a fresh southwesterly breeze. In all these movements, there was nothing to attract attention. Notwithstanding the sarcastic allusions of Alderman Van Beverout, the cruiser was far from being idle; and her passage outward was a circumstance of so common occurrence, that it excited no comment among the boatmen of the bay, and the coasters, who alone witnessed her departure.

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