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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wing-and-wing: Le Feu-follet - Chapter 26
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The Wing-and-wing: Le Feu-follet - Chapter 26 Post by :Hans_Klein Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :2096

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The Wing-and-wing: Le Feu-follet - Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI

"Oh! many a dream was in the ship
An hour before her death;
And sight of home, with sighs disturbed
The sleeper's long-drawn breath."

WILSON.


Raoul soon decided on his course. While he was consoling Clinch, orders had been sent to Pintard to look for the other gig; but a few minutes' search under the cliffs satisfied those on deck that she was not to be found; and the fact was so reported below. Nor could all Ithuel's ingenuity extract from the captured boat's crew any available information on the subject. There was an _esprit de corps among the Proserpines, as between their own ship and le Feu-Follet, which would have withstood, on an occasion like this, both threats and bribes; and he of the Granite State was compelled to give the matter up as hopeless; though, in so doing, he did not fail to ascribe the refusal to betray their shipmates, on the part of these men, to English obstinacy, rather than to any creditable feeling. The disposition to impute the worst to those he hated, however, was not peculiar to Ithuel or his country; it being pretty certain he would have fared no better on board the English frigate, under circumstances at all analogous.

Satisfied, at length, that the other boat had escaped him, and feeling the necessity of getting out of the Bay while it was still dark, Raoul reluctantly gave the order to bear up, and put the lugger dead before the wind, wing-and-wing. By the time this was done, the light craft had turned so far to windward as to be under the noble rocks that separate the piano of Sorrento from the shores of Vico; a bold promontory that buttresses the sea, with a wall of near or quite a thousand feet in perpendicular height. Here she felt the full force of the land-wind; and when her helm was put up, and her sheets eased off, a bird turning on the wing would not have come round more gracefully, and scarcely with greater velocity. The course now lay from point to point, in order to avoid being becalmed within the indentations of the coast. This carried the lugger athwart the cove of Sorrento, rather than into it, and, of course, left Yelverton, who had landed at the smaller marina, quite out of the line of her course.

So swift was the progress of the little craft that, within fifteen minutes after bearing up, Raoul and Ithuel, who again occupied their stations on the forecastle, saw the headland where they had so lately been concealed, and ordered the helm a-port in order to sheer out and give it a berth. Then rock was passed after rock, cove after cove, and village after village, until the entrance between Capri and Campanella was again reached. In sweeping down the shore in this manner, the intention was to pick up any boat that might happen to be in the lugger's track; for, while Raoul was disposed to let his prisoner go, he had a strong desire to seize any other officers of the frigate that might fall in his way. The search was ineffectual, however; and when the lugger came out into the open sea, all expectation of further success, of this nature, was reluctantly abandoned.

As le Feu-Follet was now in dangerous proximity to three cruisers of the enemy, the moment was one that called for decision. Fortunately, the positions of the English vessels were known to Raoul, a circumstance that lessened the danger, certainly; but it would not do to continue long within a league of their anchorage, with the risk of the land breezes failing. As yet the darkness, and the shadows of the land, concealed the privateer, and her commander determined, if not literally to make hay while the sun shone, at least to profit by its absence. With this view, then, he ordered the lugger hove-to, the boat of Clinch hauled to the lee gangway, and the prisoners to be all brought on deck; the common men in the waist, and the master's mate aft.

"Here I must lose the pleasure of your company, Monsieur Clinch," said Raoul, with a courtesy that may almost be termed national. "We are quite as near _votre belle Proserpine as is safe, and _I long for _notre belle France_, The wind is fair to take us off the coast, and two hours will carry us out of sight, even were it noonday. You will have the complaisance to make my duty to Monsieur Cuffe--_oui, pardie! and to _ces braves Italiens_, who are so much ze amis of Sir Smees! _Touchez-la_."

Raoul laughed, for his heart was light, and sundry droll conceits danced through his brain. As Clinch, the whole was Greek to him, with the exception that he understood it was the intention of the French to take their vessel off the coast, a circumstance that he was not sorry to learn, though he would have given so much, a few hours earlier, to have known where to find her. Raoul's generosity had worked a revolution in his feelings, however, and nothing was further from his wishes, now, than to be employed against the celebrated privateersman. Still, he had a duty to perform to the service of which he was a member, another to Jane, and a last to himself.

"Captain Yvard," said the master's-mate, taking the other's offered hand, "I shall never forget this kindness on your part; it comes at a most fortunate moment for me. My happiness in this world, and perhaps in the world to come"--an ejaculation of "bah!" involuntarily escaped the listener--"depended on my being at liberty. I hold it to be fair, however, to tell you the whole truth. I must do all I can to capture or destroy this very lugger, as well as any other of the king's enemies, as soon as I am my own master again."

"_Bon!_--I like your frankness, Monsieur Clinch, as much as I like your humanity. I always look for a brave enemy when _un Anglais comes against me; if you are ever in the number, I shall expect nothing worse."

"It will be my duty, Captain Yvard, to report to Captain Cuffe where I found the Folly, where I left her, and where I think she is steering. Even your armament, crew, and all such little particulars, I shall be questioned on; I must answer honestly."

"_Mon cher_, you are 'honest fellow,' as you Anglais say. I wish it was noonday, that you might better see our deck--le Feu-Follet is not ugly, that she should wish to wear a veil. Tell everything, Clinch, _mon brave_; if Monsieur Cuffe wish to send another party against our lugger, come in the first boat _en personne_. We shall always be happy to see Monsieur Clinch. As for where we steer, you see out head is toward _la belle France_; and there is plenty of room for a long chase. _Adieu, mon ami_--_au revoir_."

Clinch now shook hands heartily with all the officers; again expressed his sense of the liberality with which he was treated, and this, too, with emotion; then he followed his people into the boat, and pulled away from the lugger's side, holding his course toward the light which was still burning on board the Proserpine. At the same time le Feu-Follet filled, and soon disappeared from his eyes in the darkness, running off wing-and-wing, and steering west, as if really making the best of her way toward the Straits of Bonifacio, on her road to France.

But, in fact, Raoul had no such intention. His cruise was not up, and his present position, surrounded as he was with enemies, was full of attraction to one of his temperament. Only the day before he had appeared in the disguise of a lazzarone, he had captured, manned, and sent to Marseilles a valuable store-ship; and he knew that another was hourly expected in the bay. This was an excuse to his people for remaining where they were, But the excitement of constantly running the gauntlet, the pleasure of demonstrating the superior sailing of his lugger, the opportunities for distinction, and every other professional motive, were trifling, as compared with the tie which bound him to, the feeling that unceasingly attracted him toward Ghita. With his love, also, there began to mingle a sensation approaching to despair. While Ghita was so gentle, and even tender, with him, he had ever found her consistent and singularly firm in her principles. In their recent dialogues, some that we hare forborne to relate on account of their peculiar character, Ghita had expressed her reluctance to trust her fate with one whose God was not her God, with a distinctness and force that left no doubt of the seriousness of her views or of her ability to sustain them in acts. What rendered her resolution more impressive was the ingenuous manner with which she never hesitated to admit Raoul's power over her affections, leaving no pretext for the commonplace supposition that the girl was acting. The conversation of that night weighed heavily on the heart of the lover, and he could not summon sufficient resolution to part--perhaps for months--with such an apparent breach between him and his hopes.

As soon as it was known, therefore, that the lugger was far enough at sea to be out of sight from the boat of Clinch, she came by the wind on the larboard tack again, heading up toward the celebrated ruins of Paestum, on the eastern shore of the Bay of Salerno. To one accustomed to the sea, there would not have seemed sufficient wind to urge even that light craft along at the rate with which she glided through the water. But the land breeze was charged with the damps of midnight; the canvas was thickened from the same cause; and the propelling power had nearly double its apparent force. In an hour after hauling up, le Feu-Follet tacked, quite eight miles distant from the spot where she altered her direction, and far enough to windward to lay her course in directly for the cliffs beneath the village of St. Agata, or the present residence of Ghita. In proceeding thus, Raoul had a double intention before him. English ships were constantly passing between Sicily, Malta, and Naples; and, as those bound north would naturally draw in with the land at this point, his position might enable him to strike a sudden blow, with the return of day, should any suitable vessel be in the offing next morning. Then he hoped for a signal from Ghita at least--and such things were very dear to his heart; or, possibly, anxiety and affection might bring her down to the water-side, when another interview would be possible. This was the weakness of passion; and Raoul submitted to its power, like feebler-minded and less resolute men, the hero becoming little better than the vulgar herd under its influence.

The two or three last days and nights had been hours of extreme anxiety and care to the officers and crew of the lugger, as well as to their commander, and all on board began to feel the necessity of sleep. As for Ithuel, he had been in his hammock an hour; and Raoul now thought seriously of following his example. Giving his instructions to the young lieutenant who was in charge of the deck, our hero went below, and in a few minutes he was also lost to present hopes and fears.

Everything seemed propitious to the lugger and the intentions of her commander, The wind went down gradually, until there was little more than air enough to keep steerage-way on the vessel, while the ripple on the water disappeared, leaving nothing behind it but the long, heavy ground-swell that always stirs the bosom of the ocean, like the heaving respiration of some gigantic animal. The morning grew darker, but the surface of the gulf was glassy and tranquil, leaving no immediate motive for watchfulness or care.

These are the lethargic moments of a seaman's life. Days of toil bring nights of drowsiness; and the repose of nature presents a constant temptation to imitate her example. The reaction of excitement destroys the disposition to indulge in the song, the jest, or the tale; and the mind, like the body, is disposed to rest from its labors. Even the murmuring wash of the water, as it rises and falls against the vessel's sides, sounds like a lullaby, and sleep seems to be the one great blessing of existence. Under such circumstances, therefore, it is not surprising that the watch on the deck of the lugger indulged this necessary want. It is permitted to the common men to doze at such moments, while a few are on the alert; but even duty, in the absence of necessity, feels its task to be irksome, and difficult of performance. Lookout after lookout lowered his head; the young man who was seated on the arm-chest aft began to lose his consciousness of present things, in dreamy recollections of Provence, his home, and the girl of his youthful admiration. The seaman at the helm alone kept his eyes open, and all his faculties on the alert. This is a station in which vigilance is ever required; and it sometimes happens in vessels where the rigid discipline of a regular service does not exist, that others rely so much on the circumstance that they forget their own duties, in depending on the due discharge of his by the man at the wheel.

Such, to a certain degree, was now the fact on board le Feu-Follet. One of the best seamen in the lugger was at the helm, and each individual felt satisfied that no shift of wind could occur, no change of sails become necessary, that Antoine would not be there to admonish them of the circumstance. One day was so much like another, too, in that tranquil season of the year, and in that luxurious sea, that all on board knew the regular mutations that the hours produced. The southerly air in the morning, the zephyr in the afternoon, and the land wind at night, were as much matters of course as the rising and setting of the sun. No one felt apprehension, while all submitted to the influence of a want of rest and of the drowsiness of the climate.

Not so with Antoine. His hairs were gray. Sleep was no longer so necessary to him. He had much pride of calling, too; was long experienced, and possessed senses sharpened and rendered critical by practice and many dangers. Time and again did he turn his eyes toward Campanella, to ascertain if any signs of the enemy were in sight; the obscurity prevented anything from being visible but the dark outline of the high and rock-bound coast. Then he glanced his eyes over the deck, and felt how completely everything depended on his own vigilance and faithfulness. The look at the sails and to windward brought no cause for uneasiness, however; and, presuming on his isolation, he began to sing, in suppressed tones, an air of the Troubadours; one that he had learned in childhood, in his native _langue du midi_. Thus passed the minutes until Antoine saw the first glimmerings of morning peeping out of the darkness, that came above the mountain-tops that lay in the vicinity of Eboli. Antoine felt solitary; he was not sorry to greet these symptoms of a return to the animation and communion of a new day.

"Hist! _mon lieutenant!_" whispered the old mariner, unwilling to expose the drowsiness of his young superior to the gaze of the common men; "_mon lieutenant_--'tis I, Antoine."

"Eh!--_bah!--Oh, Antoine, est-ce-que toi? Bon_--what would you have, _mon ami_?"

"I hear the surf, I think, _mon lieutenant. Listen--is not that the water striking on the rocks of the shore?"

"_Jamais! You see the land is a mile from us; this coast has no shoals. The captain told us to stand close in, before we hove to or called him. _Pardie!_--Antoine, how the little witch has travelled in my watch! Here we are, within a musket's range from the heights, yet there has been no wind."

"_Pardon, mon lieutenant_--I do not like that sound of the surf; it is too near for the shore. Will you have the kindness to step on the forecastle and look ahead, monsieur?--the light is beginning to be of use."

The young man yawned, stretched his arms, and walked forward; the first to indulge himself, the first, also, to relieve the uneasiness of an old shipmate, whose experience he respected. Still his step was not as quick as common, and it was near a minute ere he reached the bows, or before he gained the knight-heads. But his form was no sooner visible there, than he waved his arms frantically, and shouted in a voice that reached the recesses of the vessel:

"Hard up--hard up with the helm, Antoine--ease off the sheets, _mes enfans!_"

Le Feu-Follet rose on a heavy ground-swell at that moment; in the next she settled down with a shock resembling that which we experience when we leap and alight sooner than was expected. There she lay cradled in a bed of rocks as immovable as one of the stones around her;--stones that had mocked the billows of the Mediterranean, within the known annals of man, more than three thousand years. In a word, the lugger had struck on one of those celebrated islets under the heights of St. Agata, known as the Islands of the Sirens, and which are believed to have been commemorated by the oldest of all the living profane writers, Homer himself. The blow was hardly given, before Raoul appeared on deck. The vessel gave up all that had life in her, and she was at once a scene of alarm, activity, and exertion.

It is at such a moment as this that the most useful qualities of a naval captain render themselves apparent. Of all around him, Raoul was the calmest, the most collected, and the best qualified to issue the orders that had become necessary. He made no exclamations--uttered not a word of reproach--cast not even a glance of disapprobation on any near him. The mischief was done; the one thing needful was to repair it, if possible, leaving to the future the cares of discipline and the distribution of rewards and punishments.

"She is as fast anchored as a cathedral, _mon lieutenant_," he quietly observed to the very officer through whose remissness the accident had occurred; "I see no use in these sails. Take them in at once; they may set her further on the rocks, should she happen to lift."

The young man obeyed, every nerve in his body agitated by the sense of delinquency. Then he walked aft, cast one look around him at the desperate condition of the lugger, and, with the impetuosity of character that belongs to his country, he plunged into the sea, from which his body never reappeared. The melancholy suicide was immediately reported to Raoul.

"_Bon "--was the answer. "Had he done it an hour earlier, le Feu-Follet would not have been set up on these rocks, like a vessel in a ship-yard--_mais, mes enfans, courage!_--We'll yet see if our beautiful lugger cannot be saved."

If there were stoicism and bitterness in this answer, there was not deliberate cruelty. Raoul loved his lugger, next to Ghita, before all things on earth; and, in his eyes, the fault of wrecking her in a calm was to be classed among the unpardonable sins. Still, it was by no means a rare occurrence. Ships, like men, are often cast away by an excess of confidence; and our own coast, one of the safest in the known world for the prudent mariner to approach, on account of the regularity of its soundings, has many a tale to tell of disasters similar to this, which have occurred simply because no signs of danger were apparent. Our hero would not have excused himself for such negligence, and that which self-love will not induce us to pardon will hardly be conceded to philanthropy.

The pumps were sounded, and it was ascertained that the lugger had come down so easily into her bed, and lay there with so little straining of her seams, that she continued tight as a bottle. This left all the hope which circumstances would allow, of still saving the vessel. Raoul neglected no useful precaution. By this time the light was strong enough to enable him to see a felucca coming slowly down from Salerno, before the wind, or all that was still left of the night air, and he despatched Ithuel with an armed boat to seize her, and bring her alongside of the rocks. He took this course with the double purpose of using the prize, if practicable, in getting his own vessel off, or, in the last resort, of making his own escape, and that of his people, in her to France. He did not condescend to explain his motives, however; nor did any one presume to inquire into them. Raoul was now strictly a commander, acting in a desperate emergency. He even succeeded in suppressing the constitutional volubility of his countrymen, and in substituting for it the deep, attentive silence of thorough discipline; one of the great causes of his own unusual success in maritime enterprises. To the want of this very silence and attention may be ascribed so many of those naval disasters which have undeniably befallen a people of singular enterprise and courage. Those who wish them well will be glad to learn that the evil has been, in a great measure, repaired.

As soon as the boat was sent to seize the felucca, the yawl was put into the water, and Raoul himself began to sound around the lugger. The rocks of the Sirens, as the islets are called to this day, are sufficiently elevated above the surface of the sea to be visible at some distance; though, lying in a line with the coast, it would not have been easy for the lookouts of le Feu-Follet to discern them at the hour when she struck, even had they been on the alert. The increasing light, however, enabled the French fully to ascertain their position, and to learn the extent of the evil. The lugger had been lifted into a crevice between two of the rocks, by a ground-swell heavier than common; and though there was deep water all around her, it would be impossible to get her afloat again without lightening. So long as the wind did not blow, and the sea did not rise, she was safe enough; but a swell that should force the hull to rise and fall would inevitably cause her to bilge. These facts were learned in five minutes after the yawl was in the water, and much did Raoul rejoice at having so promptly sent Ithuel in quest of the felucca. The rocks were next reconnoitred, in order to ascertain what facilities they offered to favor the discharging of the vessel's stores. Some of them were high enough to protect articles from the wash of the water, but it is at all times difficult to lie alongside of rocks that are exposed to the open sea; the heaving and setting of the element, even in calms, causing the elevation of its surface so much to vary. On the present occasion, however, the French found less swell than common, and that it was possible to get their stores ashore at two or three different points.

Raoul now directed the work to commence in earnest. The lugger carried four boats; viz.--a launch, a cutter, the yawl, and a jolly-boat. The second had been sent after the felucca, with a strong crew in her; but the three others were employed in discharging stores. Raoul perceived at once that the moment was not one for half-way measures, and that large sacrifices must be made, to save the hull of the vessel. This, and the safety of his crew, were the two great objects he kept before him. All his measures were directed to that end, The water was started in the lugger's hold by staving the casks, and the pumps were set in motion as soon as possible. Provisions of all sorts were cast into the sea, for le Feu-Follet had recently supplied herself from a prize, and was a little deeper than her best trim allowed. In short, everything that could be spared was thrown overboard, barely a sufficiency of food and water being retained to last the people until they could reach Corsica, whither it was their captain's intention to proceed, the moment he got his vessel afloat.

The Mediterranean has no regular tides, though the water rises and falls materially, at irregular intervals; either the effect of gales, or of the influence of the adjacent seas. This circumstance prevented the calamity of having gone ashore at high water, while it also prevented the mariners from profiting by any flood. It left them, as they had been placed by the accident itself, mainly dependent on their own exertions.

Under such circumstances, then, our hero set about the discharge of his responsible duties. An hour of active toil, well directed and perseveringly continued, wrought a material change, The vessel was small, while the number of hands was relatively large. At the end of the time mentioned, the officer charged with the duty reported that the hull moved under the power of the heaving sea, and that it might soon be expected to strike with a force to endanger its planks and ribs. This was the sign to cease discharging, and to complete the preparations that had been making for heaving the lugger off, it being unsafe to delay that process after the weight was sufficiently lessened to allow it. The launch had carried out an anchor, and was already returning toward the rocks, paying out cable as it came in. But the depth of the water rendered this an anxious service, since there was the danger of dragging the ground-tackle home, as it is termed, on account of the angle at which it lay.

At this moment, with the exception of difficulty last named, everything seemed propitious. The wind had gone done entirely, the southerly air having lasted but a short time, and no other succeeding it. The sea was certainly not more disturbed than it had been all the morning, which was at its minimum of motion, while the day promised to be calm and clear. Nothing was in sight but the felucca, and she was not only in Ithuel's possession, but she had drawn within half a mile of the rocks, and was sweeping still nearer at each instant. In ten minutes she must come alongside. Raoul had ascertained that there was water enough, were le Feu-Follet lay, to permit a vessel like his prize to touch her; and many things lay on deck, in readiness to be transferred to this tender, previously to beginning to heave. The rocks too, were well garnished with casks, cordage, shot, ballast, and such other articles and could be come at--the armament and ammunition excepted. These last our hero always treated with religious care, for in all he did there was a latent determination resolutely to defend himself. But there ware no signs of any such necessity's being likely to occur, and the officers began to flatter themselves with their ability to get their lugger afloat, and in sailing trim, before the usual afternoon's breeze should set in. In waiting, therefore, for the arrival of the felucca, and in order that the work might meet with no interruption when the men once began to heave, the people were ordered to get their breakfasts.

This pause in the proceedings gave Raoul an opportunity to look about him, and to reflect. Twenty times did he turn his eyes anxiously toward the heights of St. Agata, where there existed subjects equally of attraction and apprehension. It is scarcely necessary to say that the first was Ghita; while the last arose from the fear that some curious eye might recognize the lugger, and report her condition to the enemies known to be lying at Capri, only a league or two on the other side of the hills. But all was seemingly tranquil there, at that early hour; and the lugger making very little show when her canvas was not spread, there was reason to hope that the accident was as yet unseen. The approach of the felucca would probably betray it; though the precaution had been taken to order Ithuel to show no signs of national character.

Raoul Yvard was a very different man, at this moment of leisure and idleness, from what he had been a few hours earlier. Then he trod the deck of his little cruiser with some such feelings as the man who exults in his strength and rejoices in his youth. Now he felt as all are apt to feel who are rebuked by misfortunes and disease. Nevertheless, his character had lost none of its high chivalry; and even there, as he sat on the taffrail of the stranded Feu-Follet, he meditated carrying some stout Englishman by surprise and boarding, in the event of his not succeeding in getting off the lugger. The felucca would greatly aid such an enterprise; and his crew was strong enough, as well as sufficiently trained, to promise success.

On such an expedient, even, was he ruminating, as Ithuel, in obedience to an order given through the trumpet, brought his prize alongside, and secured her to the lugger. The men who had accompanied the American were now dismissed to their morning's meal, while Raoul invited their leader to share his frugal repast where he sat. As the two broke their fasts, questions were put and answered, concerning what had occurred during the hour or two the parties had been separated. Raoul's tale was soon told; and then he learned with concern that the crew of the felucca had taken to their boat, and escaped to the landing of the Scaricatojo, on finding that the capture of their vessel was inevitable. This proved that the character of the wreck was known, and left but little hope that their situation would not be reported to the English in the course of the morning.

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