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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 7
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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 7 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :1946

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The Water-witch; Or The Skimmer Of The Seas - Chapter 7

Chapter VII

"--I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the furthest sea,
I would adventure for such merchandise."

Romeo And Juliet.


A happy mixture of land and water, seen by a bright moon, and beneath the sky of the fortieth degree of latitude, cannot fail to make a pleasing picture. Such was the landscape which the reader must now endeavor to present to his mind.

The wide estuary of Raritan is shut in from the winds and billows of the open sea, by a long, low, and narrow cape, or point, which, by a medley of the Dutch and English languages, that is by no means rare in the names of places that lie within the former territories of the United Provinces of Holland, is known by the name of Sandy-Hook. This tongue of land appears to have been made by the unremitting and opposing actions of the waves, on one side, and of the currents of the different rivers, that empty their waters into the bay, on the other. It is commonly connected with the low coast of New-Jersey, to the south; but there are periods, of many years in succession, during which there exists an inlet from the sea, between what may be termed the inner end of the cape, and the main-land. During these periods, Sandy-Hook, of course, becomes an island. Such was the fact at the time of which it is our business to write.

The outer, or ocean side of this low and narrow bank of sand, is a smooth and regular beach, like that seen on most of the Jersey coast, while the inner is indented, in a manner to form several convenient anchoring-grounds, for ships that seek a shelter from easterly gales. One of the latter is a circular and pretty cove, in which vessels of a light draught are completely embayed, and where they may, in safety, ride secure from any winds that blow. The harbor, or, as it is always called, the Cove, lies at the point where the cape joins the main, and the inlet just named communicates directly with its waters, whenever the passage is open. The Shrewsbury, a river of the fourth or fifth class, or in other words a stream of a few hundred feet in width, and of no great length, comes from the south, running nearly parallel with the coast, and becomes a tributary of the Bay, also, at a point near the Cove. Between the Shrewsbury and the sea, the land resembles that on the cape, being low and sandy, though not entirely without fertility. It is covered with a modest growth of pines and oaks, where it is not either subject to the labors of the husbandman, or in natural meadow. But the western bank of the river is an abrupt and high acclivity, which rises to the elevation of a mountain. It was near the base of the latter that Alderman Van Beverout, for reasons that may be more fully developed as we proceed in our tale, had seen fit to erect his villa, which, agreeably to a usage of Holland, he had called the Lust in Rust; an appellation that the merchant, who had read a few of the classics in his boyhood, was wont to say meant nothing more nor less than 'Otium cum dignitate.'

If a love of retirement and a pure air had its influence in determining the selection of the burgher of Manhattan, he could not have made a better choice. The adjoining lands had been occupied early in the previous century, by a respectable family of the name of Hartshorne, which continues seated at the place, to the present hour. The extent of their possessions served, at that day, to keep others at a distance. If to this fact be added the formation and quality of the ground, which was, at so early a period, of trifling value for agricultural purposes, it will be seen there was as little motive, as there was opportunity, for strangers to intrude. As to the air it was refreshed by the breezes of the ocean, which was scarcely a mile distant; while it had nothing to render it unhealthy, or impure. With this sketch of the general features of the scene where so many of our incidents occurred, we shall proceed to describe the habitation of the Alderman, a little more in detail.

The villa of the Lust in Rust was a low, irregular edifice, in bricks, whitewashed to the color of the driven snow, and in a taste that was altogether Dutch. There were many gables and weather-cocks, a dozen small and twisted chimneys, with numberless facilities that were intended for the nests of storks. These airy sites were, however, untenanted, to the great admiration of the honest architect, who, like many others that bring with them into this hemisphere habits and opinions that are better suited to the other, never ceased expressing his surprise on the subject, though all the negroes of the neighborhood united in affirming there was no such bird in America. In front of the house, there was a narrow but an exceedingly neat lawn, encircled by shrubbery; while two old elms, that seemed coeval with the mountain, grew in the rich soil of which the base of the latter was composed. Nor was there a want of shade on any part of the natural terrace, that was occupied by the buildings. It was thickly sprinkled with fruit-trees, and here and there was a pine, or an oak, of the native growth. A declivity that was rather rapid fell away in front, to the level of the mouth of the river. In short, it was an ample but an unpretending country-house, in which no domestic convenience had been forgotten; while it had little to boast of in the way of architecture, except its rusty vanes and twisted chimneys. A few out-houses, for the accommodation of the negroes, were nigh; and nearer to the river, there were barns and stables, of dimensions and materials altogether superior to those that the appearance of the arable land, or the condition of the small farm, would seem to render necessary. The periagua, in which the proprietor had made his passage across the outer bay, lay at a small wooden wharf immediately below.

For the earlier hours of the evening, the flashing of candles, and a general and noisy movement among the blacks, had denoted the presence of the master of the villa. But the activity had gradually subsided: and before the clock struck nine, the manner in which the lights were distributed, and the general silence, showed that the party, most probably fatigued with their journey, had already separated for the night. The clamor of the negroes had ceased, and the quiet of deep sleep was already prevailing among their humble dwellings.

At the northern extremity of the villa, which, it will be remembered, leaned against the mountain, and facing the east, or fronting the river and the sea, there stood a little wing, even more deeply embowered in shrubbery and low trees, than the other parts of the edifice, and which was constructed altogether in a different style. This was a pavilion erected for the particular accommodation, and at the cost, of la belle Barberie. Here the heiress of the two fortunes was accustomed to keep her own little menage, during the weeks passed in the country; and here she amused herself, in those pretty and feminine employments that suited her years and tastes. In compliment to the beauty and origin of its inhabitant, the gallant Francois had christened this particular portion of the villa, la Cour des Fees a name that had gotten into general use, though somewhat corrupted in sound.

On the present occasion, the blinds of the principal apartment of the pavilion were open, and its mistress was still to be seen at one of the windows. Alida was at an age when the sex is most sensible of lively impressions, and she looked abroad on the loveliness of the landscape, and on the soft stillness of the night, with the pleasure that such a mind is wont to receive from objects of natural beauty.

There was a young moon, and a firmament glowing with a myriad of stars. The light was shed softly on the water, though, here and there, the ocean glittered with its rays. A nearly imperceptible, but what seamen call a heavy air came off the sea, bringing with it the refreshing coolness of the hour. The surface of the immense waste was perfectly unruffled, both within and without the barrier of sand that forms the cape; but the body of the element was heaving and setting heavily, in a manner to resemble the sleeping respiration of some being of huge physical frame. The roar of the surf, which rolled up in long and white curls upon the sands, was the only audible sound; but that was heavy and incessant, sometimes swelling on the air, hollow and threatening, and at others dying, in dull and distant murmurs, on the ear. There was a charm in these varieties of sound, and in the solemn stillness of such a night, that drew Alida into her little balcony; and she leaned forward, beyond its shadow of sweet-brier, to gaze at a part of the bay that was not visible, in the front view, from her windows.

La belle Barberie smiled, when she saw the dim masts and dark hull of a ship, which was anchored near the end of the cape, and within its protection. There was the look of womanly pride in her dark eye, and haply some consciousness of womanly power in the swell of her rich lip, while a taper finger beat the bar of the balcony, rapidly, and without consciousness of its employment.

"The loyal Captain Ludlow has quickly ended his cruise!" said the maiden aloud, for she spoke under the influence of a triumph that was too natural to be suppressed. "I shall become a convert to my uncle's opinions, and think the Queen badly served."

"He who serves one mistress, faithfully, has no light task," returned a voice from among the shrubbery that grew beneath and nearly veiled the window; "but he, who is devoted to two, may well despair of success with both!"

Alida recoiled, and, at the next instant, she saw her place occupied by the commander of the Coquette. Before venturing to cross the low barrier that still separated him from the little parlor, the young man endeavored to read the eye of its occupant; and then, either mistaking its expression, or bold in his years and hopes, he entered the room.

Though certainly unused to have her apartment scaled with so little ceremony, there was neither apprehension, nor wonder, in the countenance of the fair descendant of the Huguenot. The blood mantled more richly on her cheek; and the brightness of an eye, that was never dull, increased, while her fine form became firm and commanding.

"I have heard that Captain Ludlow gained much of his renown by gallantry in boarding," she said, in a voice whose meaning admitted of no misconception; "but I had hoped his ambition was satisfied with laurels so fairly won from the enemies of his country!"

"A thousand pardons, fairest Alida," interrupted the youth; "you know the obstacles that the jealous watchfulness of your uncle opposes to my desire to speak with you."

"They are then opposed in vain, for Alderman Van Beverout has weakly believed the sex and condition of his ward would protect her from these coups-de-main."

"Nay, Alida; this is being more capricious than the winds! You know, too well, how far my suit is unpleasant to your gardian, to torture a slight departure from cold observances into cause of serious complaint. I had hoped--perhaps, I should say, I have presumed on the contents of your letter, for which I return a thousand thanks; but do not thus cruelly destroy expectations that have so lately been raised beyond the point, perhaps, which reason may justify."

The glow, which had begun to subside on the face of la belle Barberie, again deepened, and for a moment it appeared as if her high self-dependence was a little weakened. After an instant of reflection, however, she answered steadily, though not entirely without emotion.

"Reason, Captain Ludlow, has limited female propriety within narrow limits," she said. "In answering your letter, I have consulted good-nature more than prudence; and I find that you are not slow in causing me to repent the error."

"If I ever cause you to repent confidence in me, sweet Alida, may disgrace in my profession, and the distrust of the whole sex, be my punishment! But, have I not reason to complain of this inconstancy, on your part? Ought I to expect so severe a reprimand--severe, because cold and ironical--for an offence, venial as the wish to proclaim my gratitude?"

"Gratitude!" repeated Alida, and this time her wonder was not feigned. "The word is strong, Sir; and it expresses more than an act of courtesy, so simple as that which may attend the lending a volume of popular poetry, can have any right to claim."

"I have strangely misconceived the meaning of the letter, or this has been a day of folly!" said Ludlow, endeavoring to swallow his discontent. "But, no; I have your own words to refute that averted eye and cold look; and, by the faith of a sailor! Alida, I will believe your deliberate and well-reflected thoughts, before these capricious fancies, which are unworthy of your nature. Here are the very words; I shall not easily part with the flattering hopes they convey!"

La belle Barberie now regarded the young man in open amazement. Her color changed; for of the indiscretion of writing, she knew she was not guiltless,--but of having written in terms to justify the confidence of the other, she felt no consciousness. The customs of the age, the profession of her suitor, and the hour, induced her to look steadily in to his face, to see whether the man stood before her in all the decency of his reason. But Ludlow had the reputation of being exempt from a vice that was then but too common among seamen, and there was nothing in his ingenuous and really handsome features, to cause her to distrust his present discretion. She touched a bell, and signed to her companion to be seated.

"Francois," said his mistress, when the old valet but half awake, entered the apartment, "fais moi le plaisir de m'apporter de cette eau de la fontaine du bosquet, et du vin--le Capitaine Ludlow a soif; et rapelle-toi, bon Francois, il ne faut pas deranger mon oncle a cette heure; il doit etre bien fatigue de son voyage."

When her respectful and respectable servitor had received his commission and departed, Alida took a seat herself, in the confidence of having deprived the visit of Ludlow of its clandestine character, and at the same time having employed the valet on an errand that would leave her sufficient leisure, to investigate the inexplicable meaning of her companion.

"You have my word, Captain Ludlow, that this unseasonable appearance in the pavilion, is indiscreet, not to call it cruel," she said, so soon as they were again alone; "but that you have it, in any manner, to justify your imprudence, I must continue to doubt until confronted by proof."

"I had thought to have made a very different use of this," returned Ludlow, drawing a letter,--we admit it with some reluctance in one so simple and so manly,--from his bosom: "and even now, I take shame in producing it, though at your own orders.

"Some magic has wrought a marvel, or the scrawl has no such importance," observed Alida, taking a billet that she now began to repent having ever written. "The language of politeness and female reserve must admit of strange perversions, or all who read are not the best interpreters."

La belle Barberie ceased speaking, for the instant her eye fell on the paper, an absorbing and intense curiosity got the better of her resentment. We shall give the contents of the letter, precisely in the words which caused so much amazement, and possibly some little uneasiness, to the fair creature who was perusing it.

"The life of a seaman," said the paper, in a delicate and beautiful female hand, "is one of danger and exposure. It inspires confidence in woman, by the frankness to which it gives birth, and it merits indulgence by its privations. She who writes this, is not insensible to the merit of men of this bold calling. Admiration for the sea, and for those who live on it has been her weakness through life; and her visions of the future, like her recollections of the past, are not entirely exempt from a contemplation of its pleasures. The usages of different nations--glory in arms--change of scene--with constancy in the affections, all sweetened by affluence, are temptations too strong for a female imagination, and they should not be without their influence on the judgment of man. Adieu."

This note was read, re-perused, and for the third time conned, ere Alida ventured to raise her eyes to the face of the expectant young man.

"And this indelicate and unfeminine rhapsody, Captain Ludlow has seen proper to ascribe to me!" she said, while her voice trembled between pride and mortification.

"To whom else can I impute it? No other, lovely Alida, could utter language so charming, in words so properly chosen."

The long lashes of the maiden played quickly above their dark organs, and then, conquering feelings that were strangely in contradiction to each other, she said with dignity, turning to a little ebony escritoire which lay beside her dressing-box--

"My correspondence is neither very important nor very extensive; but such as it is, happily for the reputation of the writer's taste, if not for her sanity, I believe it is in my power to show the trifle I thought it decorous to write, in reply to your own letter. Here is a copy," she added, opening what in fact was a draught, and reading aloud.

"I thank Capt. Ludlow for his attention in affording me an opportunity of reading a narrative of the cruel deeds of the buccaneers. In addition to the ordinary feelings of humanity, one cannot but regret, that men so heartless are to be found in a profession that is commonly thought to be generous and tender of the weak. We will, however, hope, that the very wicked and cowardly, among seamen, exist only as foils to render the qualities of the very bold and manly more conspicuous. No one can be more sensible of this truth than the friends of Captain Ludlow," the voice of Alida fell a little, as she came to this sentence, 'who has not now to earn a reputation for mercy. In return, I send the copy of the Cid, which honest Francois affirms to be superior to all other poems, not even excepting Homer--a book, which I believe he is innocent of calumniating, from ignorance of its contents. Again thanking Capt. Ludlow for this instance of his repeated attentions I beg he will keep the volume, until he shall return from his intended cruise."

"This note is but a copy of the one you have, or ought to have," said the niece of the Alderman, as she raised her glowing face from leaning over the paper, "though it is not signed, like that, with the name of Alida de Barberie."

When this explanation was over, both parties sat looking at each other, in silent amazement. Still Alida saw, or thought she saw, that, notwithstanding the previous professions of her admirer, the young man rejoiced he had been deceived. Respect for delicacy and reserve in the other sex is so general and so natural among men, that they who succeed the most in destroying its barriers, rarely fail to regret their triumph; and he who truly loves can never long exult in any violation of propriety, in the object of his affections, even though the concession be made in his own favor. Under the influence of this commendable and healthful feeling, Ludlow, while he was in some respects mortified at the turn affairs had taken, felt sensibly relieved from a load of doubt, to which the extraordinary language of the letter, he believed his mistress to have written, had given birth. His companion read the state of his mind, in a countenance that was frank as face of sailor could be; and though secretly pleased to gain her former place in his respect, she was also vexed and wounded that he had ever presumed to distrust her reserve. She still held the inexplicable billet and her eyes naturally sought the lines. A sudden thought seemed to strike her mind, and returning the paper, she said coldly--

"Captain Ludlow should know his correspondent better; I much mistake if this be the first of her communications."

The young man colored to the temples, and hid his face, for a moment, in the hollow of his hands.

"You admit the truth of my suspicions," continued la belle Barberie, "and cannot be insensible of my justice, when I add, that henceforth------"

"Listen to me, Alida," cried the youth, half breathless in his haste to interrupt a decision that he dreaded; "hear me, and as Heaven is my judge, you shall hear only truth. I confess this is not the first of the letters, written in the same hand--perhaps I should say in the same spirit--but, on the honor of a loyal officer, I affirm, that until circumstances led me to think myself so happy--so--very happy,--"

"I understand you, Sir: the work was anonymous, until you saw fit to inscribe my name as its author. Ludlow! Ludlow! how meanly have you thought of the woman you profess to love!"

"That were impossible! I mingle little with those who study the finesse of life; and loving, as I do, my noble profession, Alida, was it so unnatural to believe that another might view it with the same eyes? But since you disavow the letter--nay, your disavowal is unnecessary--I see my vanity has even deceived me in the writing--but since the delusion is over, I confess that I rejoice it is not so."

La belle Barberie smiled, and her countenance grew brighter. She enjoyed the triumph of knowing that she merited the respect of her suitor, and it was a triumph heightened by recent mortification. Then succeeded a pause of more than a minute. The embarrassment of the silence was happily interrupted by the return of Francois.

"Mam'selle Alide, voici de l'eau de la fontaine," said the valet; "mais Monsieur votre oncle s'esi couche, et il a mis la clef de la cave an vin dessous son oreiller. Ma foi, ce n'est pas facile d'avoir du bon vin du tout, en Amerique, mais apres que Monsieur le maire s'est couche, c'est toujours impossible; voila!"

"N'importe, mon cher; le capitaine va partir, et il n'a plus soif."

"Dere is assez de jin," continued the valet, who felt for the captain's disappointment, "mais, Monsieur Loodle, have du gout, an' he n'aime pas so strong liqueur."

"He has swallowed already more than was necessary for one occasion," said Alida, smiling on her admirer, in a manner that left him doubtful whether he ought most to repine, or to rejoice. "Thank you, good Francois; your duty for the night shall end with lighting the captain to the door."

Then saluting the young commander, in a manner that would not admit of denial, la belle Barberie dismissed her lover and the valet, together.

"You have a pleasant office, Monsieur Francois," said the former, as he was lighted to the outer door of the pavilion; "it is one that many a gallant gentleman would envy."

"Oui, Sair. It be grand plaisir to serve Mam'selle Alide. Je porte de fan, de book, mais quant an vin, Monsieur le Capitaine, parole d'honneur, c'est toujours impossible apres que l'Aldermain s'est couche."

"Ay--the book--I think you had the agreeable duty, to-day, of carrying the book of la Belle?"

"Vraiment, oui! 'Twas ouvrage de Monsieur Pierre Corneille. On pretend, que Monsieur Shak-a-spear en a emprunte d'assez beaux sentiments!"

"And the paper between the leaves?--you were charged also with that note, good Francois?"

The valet paused, shrugged his shoulders, and aid one of his long yellow fingers on the plane of an enormous aquiline nose, while he seemed to muse. Then shaking his head perpendicularly, he preceded the captain, as before, muttering, as usual, half in French and half in English,--

"For le papier, I know, rien du tout; c'est bien possible, parceque, voyez vous, Monsieur le Capitaine, Mam'selle Alide did say, prenez-y garde; but I no see him, depuis. Je suppose 'twas beaux compliments ecrits on de vers of M. Pierre Corneille. Quel genie que celui de cet homme la!--n'est ce pas, Monsieur?"

"It is of no consequence, good Francois," said Ludlow, slipping a guinea into the hands of the valet. "If you should ever discover what became of that paper, however, you will oblige me by letting me know. Good night; mes devoirs a la Belle!"

"Bon soir, Monsieur le Capitaine; c'est un brave Monsieur que celui-la, et de tres bonne famille! Il n'a pas de si grandes terres, que Monsieur le Patteroon, pourtant, on dit, qu'il doit avoir de jolies maisons et assez de rentes publiques! J'aime a servir un si genereux et loyal maitre, mais, malheureusement, il est marin! M. de Barberie n'avait pas trop d'amitie pour les gens de cette profession la."

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