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own crew.



Chapter XV.



- - "I' the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?" - _Macbeth._


The division of employment that is found in Europe, and which brings, in
its train, a peculiar and corresponding limitation of ideas, has never yet
existed in our country. If our artisans have, in consequence been less
perfect in their several handicrafts, they have ever been remarkable for
intelligence of a more general character. Superstition is however, a
quality that seems indigenous to the ocean. Few common mariners are exempt
from its influence, in a greater or less degree; though it is found to
exist, among the seamen of different people, in forms that are tempered by
their respective national habits and peculiar opinions. The sailor of the
Baltic has his secret rites, and his manner of propitiating the gods of
the wind; the Mediterranean mariner tears his hair, and kneels before the
shrine of some impotent saint, when his own hand might better do the
service he implores; while the more skilful Englishman sees the spirits of
the dead in the storm, and hears the cries of a lost messmate in the gusts
that sweep the waste he navigates. Even the better instructed and still
more reasoning American has not been able to shake entirely off the secret
influence of a sentiment that seems the concomitant of his condition.

There is a majesty, in the might of the great deep that has a tendency to
keep open the avenues of that dependant credulity which more or less
besets the mind of every man, however he may have fortified his intellect
by thought. With the firmament above him, and wandering on an interminable
waste of water, the less gifted seaman is tempted, at every step of his
pilgrimage, to seek the relief of some propitious omen. The few which are
supported by scientific causes give support to the many that have their
origin only in his own excited and doubting temperament. The gambols of
the dolphin, the earnest and busy passage of the porpoise, the ponderous
sporting of the unwieldy whale, and the screams of the marine birds, have
all, like the signs of the ancient soothsayers, their attendant
consequences of good or evil. The confusion between things which are
explicable, and things which are not, gradually brings the mind of the
mariner to a state in which any exciting and unnatural sentiment is
welcome, if it be or no other reason than that, like the vast element on
which he passes his life, it bears the impression of what is thought a
supernatural, because it is an incomprehensible, power.

The crew of the "Royal Caroline" had not even the advantage of being
natives of a land where necessity and habit have united to bring every
man's faculties into exercise, to a certain extent at least. They were all
from that distant island that has been, and still continues to be, the
hive of nations, which are probably fated to carry her name to a time when
the sight of her fallen power shall be sought as a curiosity, like the
remains of a city in a desert.

The whole events of that day of which we are now writing had a tendency to
arouse the latent superstition of these men. It has already been said,
that the calamity which had befallen their former Commander, and the
manner in which a stranger had succeeded to his authority, had their
influence in increasing their disposition to doubt. The sail to leeward
appeared most inopportunely for the character of our adventurer, who had
not yet enjoyed a fitting opportunity to secure the confidence of his
inferiors, before such untoward circumstances occurred as threatened to
deprive him of it for ever.

There has existed but one occasion for introducing to the reader the mate
who filled the station in the ship next to that of Earing. He was called
Nighthead; a name that was, in some measure, indicative of a certain misty
obscurity that beset his superior member. The qualities of his mind may be
appreciated by the few reflections he saw fit to make on the escape of the
old mariner whom Wilder had intended to visit with a portion of his
indignation. This individual, as he was but one degree removed from the
common men in situation, so was he every way qualified to maintain that
association with the crew which was, in some measure, necessary between
them. His influence among them was commensurate to his opportunities of
intercourse, and his sentiments were very generally received with a
portion of that deference which is thought to be due to the opinions of an
oracle.

After the ship had been worn, and during the time that Wilder, with a view
to lose sight of his unwelcome neighbour, was endeavouring to urge her
through the seas in the manner already described, this stubborn and
mystified tar remained in the waist of the vessel, surrounded by a few of
the older and more experienced seamen, holding converse on the remarkable
appearance of the phantom to leeward, and of the extraordinary manner in
which their unknown officer saw fit to attest the enduring qualities of
their own vessel. We shall commence our relation of the dialogue at a
point where Nighthead saw fit to discontinue his distant inuendos, in
order to deal more directly with the subject he had under discussion.

"I have heard it said, by older sea-faring men than any in this ship," he
continued, "that the devil has been known to send one of his mates aboard
a lawful trader, to lead her astray among shoals and quicksands, in order
that he might make a wreck, and get his share of the salvage, among the
souls of the people. What man can say who gets into the cabin, when an
unknown name stands first in the shipping list of a vessel?"

"The stranger is shut in by a cloud!" exclaimed one of the mariners, who,
while he listened to the philosophy of his officer, still kept an eye
riveted on the mysterious object to leeward.

"Ay, ay; it would occasion no surprise to see that craft steering into the
moon! Luck is like a fly-block and its yard: when one goes up, the other
comes down. They say the red-coats ashore have had their turn of fortune,
and it is time we honest seamen look out for our squalls. I have doubled
the Horn, brothers, in a King's ship, and I have seen the bright cloud
that never sets, and have held a living corposant in my own hand: But
these are things which any man may look on, who will go upon a yard in a
gale, or ship aboard a Southseaman: Still, I pronounce it uncommon for a
vessel to see her shadow in the haze, as we have ours at this moment for
there it comes again! - hereaway, between the after-shroud and the
backstay - or for a trader to carry sail in a fashion that would make every
knee in a bomb-ketch work like a tooth-brush fiddling across a passenger's
mouth, after he had had a smart bout with the sea sickness."

"And yet the lad holds the ship in hand," said the oldest of all the
seamen, who kept his gaze fastened on the proceedings of Wilder; "he is
driving her through it in a mad manner, I will allow; but yet, so far, he
has not parted a yarn."

"Yarns!" repeated the mate, in a tone of strong contempt; "what signify
yarns, when the whole cable is to snap, and in such a fashion as to leave
no hope for the anchor, except in a buoy rope? Hark ye, old Bill; the
devil never finishes his jobs by halves: What is to happen will happen
bodily; and no easing-off, as if you were lowering the Captain's lady into
a boat, and he on deck to see fair play."

"Mr Nighthead knows how to keep a ship's reckoning in all weathers!" said
another, whose manner sufficiently announced the dependance he himself
placed on the capacity of the second mate.

"And no credit to me for the same. I have seen all services, and handled
every rig, from a lugger to a double-decker! Few men can say more in their
own favour than myself; for the little I know has been got by much
hardship, and small schooling. But what matters information, or even
seamanship against witchcraft, or the workings of one whom I don't choose
to name, seeing that there is no use in offending any gentleman
unnecessarily? I say, brothers that this ship is packed upon in a fashion
that no prudent seaman ought to, or would, allow."

A general murmur announced that most, if not all, of his hearers accorded
in his opinion.

"Let us examine calmly and reasonably, and in a manner becoming
enlightened Englishmen, into the whole state of the case," the mate
continued, casting an eye obliquely over his shoulder, perhaps to make
sure that the individual, of whose displeasure he stood in such salutary
awe, was not actually at his elbow. "We are all of us, to a man,
native-born islanders, without a drop of foreign blood among us; not so
much as a Scotchman or an Irishman in the ship. Let us therefore look into
the philosophy of this affair, with that sort of judgment which becomes
our breeding. In the first place, here is honest Nicholas Nichols slips
from this here water-cask, and breaks me a leg! Now, brothers, I've known
men to fall from tops and yards, and lighter damage done. But what matters
it, to a certain person, how far he throws his man, since he has only to
lift a finger to get us all hanged? Then, comes me aboard here a stranger,
with a look of the colonies about him, and none of your plain-dealing,
out-and-out, smooth English faces, such as a man can cover with the flat
of his hand." -

"The lad is well enough to the eye," interrupted the old mariner.

"Ay, therein lies the whole deviltry of this matter! He is good-looking, I
grant ye; but it is not such good-looking as an Englishman loves. There is
a meaning about him that I don't like; for I never likes too much meaning
in a man's countenance, seeing that it is not always easy to understand
what he would be doing. Then, this stranger gets to be Master of the ship,
or, what is the same thing, next to Master; while he who should be on
deck giving his orders, in a time like this, is lying in his birth unable
to tack himself, much less to put the vessel about; and yet no man can say
how the thing came to pass."

"He drove a bargain with the consignee for the station, and right glad did
the cunning merchant seem to get so tight a youth to take charge of the
'Caroline.'"

"Ah! a merchant is, like the rest of us, made of nothing better than clay;
and, what is worse, it is seldom that, in putting him together, he is
dampened with salt water. Many is the trader that has douzed his
spectacles, and shut his account-books, to step aside to over-reach his
neighbour, and then come back to find that he has over-reached himself. Mr
Bale, no doubt, thought he was doing the clever thing for the owners, when
he shipped this Mr Wilder; but then, perhaps, he did not know that the
vessel was sold to - - - It becomes a plain-going seaman to have a
respect for all he sails under; so I will not, unnecessarily, name the
person who, I believe, has got, whether he came by it in a fair purchase
or not, no small right in this vessel."

"I have never seen a ship got out of irons more handsomely than he handled
the 'Caroline' this very morning."

Nighthead now indulged in a low, but what to his listeners appeared to be
an exceedingly meaning, laugh.

"When a ship has a certain sort of Captain, one is not to be surprised at
any thing," he answered the instant his significant merriment had ceased.
"For my own part, I shipped to go from Bristol to the Carolinas and
Jamaica, touching at Newport out and home; and I will say, boldly, I have
no wish to go any where else. As to backing the 'Caroline' from her
awkward birth alongside the slaver, why it was well done; most too well
for so young a manner. Had I done the thing myself, it could not have been
much better. But what think you, brothers of the old man in the skiff?
There was a chase, and an escape, such as few old sea-dogs have the
fortune to behold! I have heard of a smuggler that was chased a hundred
times by his Majesty's cutters, in the chops of the Channel, and which
always had a fog handy to run into, but out of which no man could truly
say he ever saw her come again! This skiff may have plied between the land
and that Guernseyman, for any thing I know to the contrary; but it is not
a boat I wish to pull a scull in."

"That _was_ a remarkable flight!" exclaimed the elder seaman, whose faith
in the character of our adventurer began to give way gradually, before
such an accumulation of testimony.

"I call it so; though other men may possibly know better than I, who have
only followed the water five-and-thirty years. Then, here is the sea
getting up, in an unaccountable manner! and look at these rags of clouds,
which darken the heavens! and yet there is light enough, coming from the
ocean, for a good scholar to read by!"

"I've often seen the weather as it is now."

"Ay, who has not? It is seldom that any man, let him come from what part
he will, makes his first voyage as Captain. Let who will be out to-night
upon the water, I'll engage he has been there before. I have seen worse
looking skies, and even worse looking water, than this; but I never knew
any good come of either. The night I was wreck'd in the bay of" - -

"In the waist there!" cried the calm, authoritative tones of Wilder.

Had a warning voice arisen from the turbulent and rushing ocean itself, it
would not have sounded more alarming, in the startled ears of the
conscious seamen, than this sudden hail. Their young Commander found it
necessary to repeat it, before even Nighthead, the proper and official
spokesman, could muster resolution to answer.

"Get the fore-top-gallant-sail on the ship, sir," continued Wilder, when
the customary reply let him know that he had been heard.

The mate and his companions regarded each other, for a moment, in dull
admiration; and many a melancholy shake of the head was exchanged, before
one of the party threw himself into the weather-rigging, and proceeded
aloft, with a doubting mind, in order to loosen the sail in question.

There was certainly enough, in the desperate manner with which Wilder
pressed the canvas on the vessel, to excite distrust, either of his
intentions or judgment, in the opinions of men less influenced by
superstition than those it was now his lot to command. It had long been
apparent to Earing, and his more ignorant, and consequently more
obstinate, brother officer, that their young superior had the same desire
to escape from the spectral-looking ship, which so strangely followed
their movements, as they had themselves. They only differed in the mode;
but this difference was so very material, that the two mates consulted
together apart, and then Earing, something stimulated by the hardy
opinions of his coadjutor, approached his Commander, with the
determination of delivering the results of their united judgments, with
that sort of directness which he thought the occasion now demanded. But
there was that in the steady eye and imposing mien of Wilder, that caused
him to touch on the dangerous subject with a discretion and circumlocution
that were a little remarkable for the individual. He stood watching the
effect of the sail recently spread for several minutes, before he even
presumed to open his mouth. But a terrible encounter, between the vessel
and a wave that lifted its angry crest apparently some dozen feet above
the approaching bows, gave him courage to proceed, by admonishing him
afresh of the danger of continuing silent.

"I do not see that we drop the stranger, though the ship is wallowing
through the water so heavily," he commenced, determined to be as
circumspect as possible in his advances.

Wilder bent another of his frequent glances on the misty object in the
horizon, and then turned his frowning eye towards the point whence the
wind proceeded, as if he would defy its heaviest blasts; he, however, made
no answer.

"We have ever found the crew discontented at the pumps, sir," resumed the
other, after a pause sufficient for the reply he in vain expected; "I need
not tell an officer, who knows his duty so well, that seamen rarely love
their pumps."

"Whatever I may find necessary to order, Mr Earing, this ship's company
will find it necessary to execute."

There was a deep settled air of authority, in the manner with which this
tardy answer was given, that did not fail of its impression. Earing
recoiled a step, with a submissive manner, and affected to be lost in
consulting the driving masses of the clouds; then, summoning his
resolution, he attempted to renew the attack in a different quarter.

"Is it your deliberate opinion, Captain Wilder," he said, using the title
to which the claim of our adventurer might well be questioned, with a view
to propitiate him; "is it then your deliberate opinion that the 'Royal
Caroline' can, by any human means, be made to drop yonder vessel?"

"I fear not," returned the young man, drawing a breath so long, that all
his secret concern seemed struggling in his breast for utterance.

"And, sir, with proper submission to your better education and authority
in this ship, I _know_ not. I have often seen these matches tried in my
time; and well do I know that nothing is gained by straining a vessel,
with the hope of getting to windward of one of these flyers!"

"Take you the glass, Earing, and tell me under what canvas the stranger
holds his way, and what may be his distance," said Wilder, thoughtfully,
and without appearing to advert at all to what the other had just
observed.

The honest and well-meaning mate deposed his hat on the quarter-deck, and,
with an air of great respect, did as he was desired. Nor did he deem it
necessary to give a precipitate answer to either of the interrogatories.
When, however, his look had been long, grave, and deeply absorbed, he
closed the glass with the palm of his broad hand, and replied, with the
manner of one whose opinion was sufficiently matured.

"If yonder sail had been built and fitted like other mortal craft," he
said, "I should not be backward in pronouncing her a full-rigged ship,
under three single-reefed topsails, courses, spanker, and jib."

"Has she no more?"

"To that I would qualify, provided an opportunity were given me to make
sure that she is, in all respects, as other vessels are."

"And yet, Earing, with all this press of canvas, by the compass we have
not left her a foot."

"Lord, sir," returned the mate, shaking his head, like one who was well
convinced of the folly of such efforts, "if you should split every cloth
in the main-course, by carrying on the ship you will never alter the
bearings of that craft an inch, till the sun rises! Then, indeed, such as
have eyes, that are good enough, might perhaps see her sailing about
among the clouds; though it has never been my fortune be it bad or be it
good, to fall in with one of these cruisers after the day has fairly
dawned."

"And the distance?" said Wilder; "you have not yet spoken of her
distance."

"That is much as people choose to measure. She may be here, nigh enough to
toss a biscuit into our tops; or she may be there, where she seems to be,
hull down in the horizon."

"But, if where she seems to be?"

"Why, she _seems_ to be a vessel of about six hundred tons; and, judging
from appearances only, a man might be tempted to say she was a couple of
leagues, more or less, under our lee."

"I put her at the same! Six miles to windward is not a little advantage,
in a hard chase. By heavens, Earing, I'll drive the 'Caroline' out of
water but I'll leave him!"

"That might be done, if the ship had wings like a curlew, or a sea-gull;
but, as it is, I think we are more likely to drive her under."

"She bears her canvas well, so far. You know not what the boat can do,
when urged."

"I have seen her sailed in all weathers, Captain Wilder, but" - -

His mouth was suddenly closed. A vast black wave reared itself between the
ship and the eastern horizon, and came rolling onward, seeming to threaten
to ingulf all before it. Even Wilder watched the shock with breathless
anxiety, conscious, for the moment that he had exceeded the bounds of
sound discretion in urging his ship so powerfully against such a mass of
water. The sea broke a few fathoms from the bows of the "Caroline," and
sent its surge in a flood of foam upon her decks. For half a minute the
forward part of the vessel disappeared, as though, unable to mount the
swell, it were striving to go through it, and then she heavily emerged,
gemmed with a million of the scintillating insects of the ocean. The ship
had stopped, trembling in every joint, throughout her massive and powerful
frame, like some affrighted courser; and, when she resumed her course, it
was with a moderation that appeared to warn those who governed her
movements of their indiscretion.

Earing faced his Commander in silence, perfectly conscious that nothing he
could utter contained an argument like this. The seamen no longer
hesitated to mutter their disapprobation aloud, and many a prophetic
opinion was ventured concerning the consequences of such reckless risks.
To all this Wilder turned a deaf or an insensible ear. Firm in his own
secret purpose, he would have braved a greater hazard to accomplish his
object. But a distinct though smothered shriek, from the stern of the
vessel, reminded him of the fears of others. Turning quickly on his heel,
he approached the still trembling Gertrude and her governess, who had both
been, throughout the whole of those long and tedious hours, inobtrusive
but deeply interested, observers of his smallest movements.

"The vessel bore that shock so well, I have great reliance on her powers,"
he said in a soothing voice, but with words that were intended to lull her
into a blind security. "With a firm ship, a thorough seaman is never at a
loss!"

"Mr Wilder," returned the governess, "I have seen much of this terrible
element on which you live. It is therefore vain to think of deceiving me I
know that you are urging the ship beyond what is usual. Have you
sufficient motive for this hardihood?"

"Madam, - I have!"

"And is it, like so many of your motives, to continue locked for ever in
your own breast? or may we, who are equal participators in its
consequences, claim to share equally in the reason?"

"Since you know so much of the profession," returned the young man,
slightly laughing, but in tones that were rendered perhaps more alarming
by the sounds produced in the unnatural effort, "you need not be told,
that, in order to get a ship to windward, it is necessary to spread her
canvas."

"You can, at least, answer one of my questions more directly: Is this wind
sufficiently favourable to pass the dangerous shoals of the Hatteras?"

"I doubt it."

"Then, why not go to the place whence we came?"

"Will you consent to return?" demanded the youth, with the swiftness of
thought.

"I would go to my father," said Gertrude, with a rapidity so nearly
resembling his own, that the ardent girl appeared to want breath to utter
the little she said.

"And I am willing, Mr Wilder, to abandon the ship entirely," calmly
resumed the governess. "I require no explanation of all your mysterious
warnings; restore us to our friends in Newport, and no further questions
shall ever be asked."

"It might be done!" muttered our adventurer; "it might be done! - A few
busy hours would do it, with this wind. - Mr Earing!" -

The mate was instantly at his elbow. Wilder pointed to the dim object to
leeward; and, handing him the glass, desired that he would take another
view. Each looked, in his turn, long and closely.

"He shows no more sail!" said the Commander impatiently, when his own
prolonged gaze was ended.

"Not a cloth, sir. But what matters it, to such a craft, how much canvas
is spread, or how the wind blows?"

"Earing, I think there is too much southing in this breeze; and there is
more brewing in yonder streak of dusky clouds on our beam. Let the ship
fall off a couple of points, or more, and take the strain off the spars,
by a pull upon the weather braces."

The simple-minded mate heard the order with an astonishment he did not
care to conceal. There needed no explanation, to teach his experienced
faculties that the effect would be to go over the same track they had just
passed, and that it was, in substance abandoning the objects of the
voyage. He presumed to defer his compliance, in order to remonstrate.

"I hope there is no offence for an elderly seaman, like myself, Captain
Wilder, in venturing an opinion on the weather," he said. "When the pocket
of the owner is interested, my judgment approves of going about, for I
have no taste for land that the wind blows on, instead of off. But, by



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Red Rover → online text (page 18 of 39)