James Fenimore Cooper.

The Water-Witch or, the Skimmer of the Seas online

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jealousy, if you will, - would to Heaven my suspicions were untrue! - but if
she be not there, where is she?"

The opinion of the Alderman seemed staggered. If la belle Barbérie had not
yielded to the fascinations of that wayward, but seductive, eye and smile,
to that singular beauty of face, and to the secret and often irresistible
charm that encircles eminent personal attractions, when aided by mystery,
to what had she yielded, and whither had she fled?

These were reflections that now began to pass through the thoughts of the
Alderman, as they had already planted stings in the bosom of Ludlow. With
reflection, conviction began slowly to assert its power. But the truth did
not gleam upon the mind of the calculating and wary merchant, with the
same instinctive readiness that it had flashed upon the jealous faculties
of the lover. He pondered on each circumstance of the interview between
the dealer in contraband and his niece; recalled the manner and discourse
of the former; drew certain general and vague conjectures concerning the
power which novelty, when coupled with circumstances of romance, might
exercise over a female fancy; and dwelt long and secretly on some
important facts that were alone known to himself, - before his judgment
finally settled down into the same opinion, as that which his companion
had formed, with all the sensitiveness of jealous alarm.

"Women and vagaries!" muttered the burgher, after his study was ended.
"Their conceits are as uncertain as the profits of a whaling voyage, or
the luck of a sportsman. Captain Ludlow, your assistance will be needed in
this affair; and, as it may not be too late, since there are few priests
in the brigantine - always supposing her character to be what you
affirm - my niece may yet see her error, and be disposed to reward so much
assiduity and attachment."

"My services shall always be ready, so long as they can be useful to Alida
Barbérie," returned the young officer with haste, and yet a little coldly.
"It will be time enough to speak of the reward, when we shall have
succeeded."

"The less noise that is made about a little domestic inconvenience like
this, the better; and I would therefore suggest the propriety of keeping
our suspicions of the character of the vessel a secret, until we shall be
better informed."

The captain bowed his assent to the proposal.

"And now that we are of the same mind in the preliminaries, we will seek
the Patroon of Kinderhook, who has a claim to participate in our
confidence."

Myndert then led the way from the empty and melancholy Cour des Fées, with
a step that had regained its busy and firm tread, and a countenance that
expressed far more of vexation and weariness, than of real sorrow.




Chapter XIV.



" - I 'll give thee a wind.
" - Thou art kind.
" - And I another
" - I myself have all the other."

Macbeth.


The cloud above the mouth of the Raritan had not risen. On the contrary,
the breeze still came from off the sea; and the brigantine in the Cove,
with the cruiser of the Queen, still lay at their anchors, like two
floating habitations that were not intended to be removed. The hour was
that at which the character of the day becomes fixed; and there was no
longer any expectation that a landwind would enable the vessel of the
free-trader to repass the inlet, before the turn of the tide, which was
again running swiftly on the flood.

The windows of the Lust in Rust were open, as when its owner was present;
and the menials were employed, in and about the villa, in their customary
occupations; though it was evident, by the manner in which they stopped to
converse, and by the frequent conferences which had place in secret
corners, that they wondered none the less at the unaccountable
disappearance of their young mistress. In all other respects, the villa
and its grounds were, as usual, quiet and seemingly deserted.

But there was a group collected beneath the shade of an oak on the margin
of the Cove, and at a point where it was rare for man to be seen. This
little party appeared to be in waiting for some expected communication
from the brigantine; since they had taken post on the side of the inlet,
next the cape, and in a situation so retired, as to be entirely hid from
any passing observation of those who might enter or leave the mouth of
the Shrewsbury. In short, they were on the long, low, and narrow barrier
of sand, that now forms the projection of the Hook, and which, by the
temporary breach that the Cove had made between its own waters and that of
the ocean, was then an island.

"Snug should be the motto of a merchant," observed one of these
individuals, whose opinions will sufficiently announce his name to the
reader. "He should be snug in his dealings, and snug in his manner of
conducting them; snug in his credits, and, above all, snug in his
speculations. There is as little need gentlemen, in calling in the aid of
a posse-comitatus for a sensible man to keep his household in order, as
that a discreet trader should go whistling through the public markets,
with the history of his operations. I gladly court two so worthy
assistants, as Captain Cornelius Ludlow and Mr. Oloff Van Staats; for I
know there will be no useless gossip concerning the trifling derangement
that hath occurred. Ah! the black hath had communications with the
free-trader - always supposing the opinion of Mr. Ludlow concerning the
character of the vessel to be just - and he is quitting the brigantine."

Neither of the companions of the Alderman made any reply. Each watched the
movement of the skiff that contained their messenger, and each seemed to
feel an equal interest in the result of his errand. Instead, however, of
approaching the spot where his master and his two friends expected him,
the negro, though he knew that his boat was necessary to enable the party
to recross the inlet, pulled directly for the mouth of the river, - a
course that was exactly contrary to the one he was expected to take.

"Rank disobedience!" grumbled the incensed master. "The irreverent dog is
deserting us, on this neck of barren sand, where we are cut off from all
communication with the interior, and are as completely without
intelligence of the state of the market, and other necessaries, as men in
a desert!"

"Here comes one that seems disposed to bring us to a parley," observed
Ludlow, whose practised eye had first detected a boat quitting the side of
the brigantine, as well as the direction it was about to steer.

The young commander was not deceived; for a light cutter, that played like
a bubble on its element; was soon approaching the shore, where the three
expectants were seated. When it was near enough to render sight perfectly
distinct, and speech audible without an effort, the crew ceased rowing,
and permitted the boat to lie in a state of rest. The mariner of the
India-shawl then arose in the stern-sheets, and examined the thicket
behind the party, with a curious and suspicious eye. After a sufficient
search, he signed to his crew to force the cutter still nigher to the
land, and spoke:

"Who has affairs with any of the brigantine?" he coolly demanded, wearing
the air of one who had no reason to anticipate the object of their visit.
"She has little left that can turn to profit, unless she parts with her
beauty."

"Truly, good stranger," returned the Alderman, laying a sufficient
emphasis on the latter word, "here are none disposed to a traffic, which
might not be pleasing to the authorities of the country, were its nature
known. We come with a desire to be admitted to a conference with the
commander of the vessel, on a matter of especial but private concern."

"Why send a public officer on the duty? I see one, there, in the livery of
Queen Anne. We are no lovers of Her Majesty's servants, and would not
willingly form disagreeable acquaintances."

Ludlow nearly bit-through his lip, in endeavoring to repress his anger, at
the cool confidence of one who had already treated him with so little
ceremony; and then momentarily forgetting his object, in professional
pride, and perhaps we might add in the habits of his rank, he interrupted
the dialogue -

"If you see the livery of the royal authority," he said, haughtily, "you
must be sensible it is worn by one who is commissioned to cause its rights
to be respected. I demand the name and character of yon brigantine?"

"As for character, she is, like any other beauty, something vituperated;
nay, some carry their envy so far as to call it cracked! But we are jolly
mariners that sail her, and little heed crazy reports at the expense of
our mistress. As for a name, we answer any hail that is fairly spoken, and
well meant. Call us 'Honesty,' if you will, for want of the register."

"There is much reason to suspect your vessel of illegal practices; and, in
the name of the Queen, I demand access to her papers, and the liberty of a
free search into her cargo and crew. Else will there be necessity to bring
her under the guns of the cruiser, which lies at no great distance,
waiting only for orders."

"It takes no scholar to read our documents, Captain Ludlow; for they are
written by a light keel on the rolling waters, and he who follows in our
wake may guess at their authority. If you wish to overhaul our cargo, you
must look sharply into the cuffs and aprons, the negligees and stomachers
of the Governor's lady, at the next ball at the fort; or pry into the sail
that is set above the farthingales of the wife and daughters of your
Admiralty Judge! We are no cheesemongers, to break the shins of a boarding
officer among boxes and butter-tubs."

"Your brigantine has a name, sirrah; and, in Her Majesty's authority, I
demand to know it."

"Heaven forbid that any here should dispute the Queen's right! You are a
seaman, Captain Ludlow, and have an eye for comeliness in a craft, as well
as in a woman. Look at those harpings! There is no fall of a shoulder
can equal that curve, in grace or richness; this shear surpasses the
justness and delicacy of any waist: and there you see the transoms,
swelling and rounded like the outlines of a Venus. Ah! she is a bewitching
creature; and no wonder that, floating as she does, on the seas, they
should have called her - - "

"Water-Witch!" said Ludlow, finding that the other paused.

"You deserve to be one of the sisterhood yourself, Captain Ludlow, for
this readiness in divination!"

"Amazement and surprise, Patroon!" exclaimed Myndert, with a tremendous
hem "Here is a discovery to give a respectable merchant more uneasiness
than the undutiful conduct of fifty nieces! This vessel is then the famous
brigantine of the notorious 'Skimmer of the Seas!' a man whose misdeeds in
commerce are as universally noted, as the stoppage of a general dealer!
Pray, Master Mariner, do not distrust our purposes. We do not come, sent
by any authority of the country, to pry into your past transactions, of
which it is quite unnecessary for you to speak; and far less to indulge in
any unlawful thirst of gain, by urging a traffic that is forbidden by the
law. We wish solely to confer with the celebrated free-trader and rover,
who must, if your account be true, command the vessel, for a few minutes,
on an affair of common interest to the three. This officer of the Queen is
obliged, by his duty, to make certain demands of you, with which you will
comply, or not, at your own good discretion; and since Her Majesty's
cruiser is so far beyond reach of bullet, it cannot be expected you will
do otherwise; but further than that, he has no present intention to
proceed. Parleys and civilities! Captain Ludlow, we must speak the man
fair, or he will leave us to get over the inlet and back to the Lust in
Rust, as we may; and that, too, as empty-handed as we came. Remember our
stipulations, without observing which I shall withdraw from the adventure,
altogether."

Ludlow bit his lip, and continued silent. The seaman of the shawl, or
Master Tiller, as he has been more than once called, again narrowly
examined the back-ground, and caused his boat to approach so near the
land, that it was possible to step into it, by the stern.

"Enter," he said to the Captain of the Coquette, who needed no second
invitation; "enter, for a valuable hostage is a safe-pledge, in a truce.
The Skimmer is no enemy to good company; and I have done justice to the
Queen's servitor, by introducing him already, by name and character."

"Fellow, the success of your deception may cause you to triumph for a
time; but remember that the Coquette - - "

"Is a wholesome boat, whose abilities I have taken, to the admeasurement
of her moment-glass;" observed Tiller, very coolly taking the words out of
the other's mouth. "But as there is business to be done with the Skimmer,
we will speak more of this anon."

The mariner of the shawl, who had maintained his former audacious
demeanor, now became grave; and he spoke to his crew with authority,
bidding them pull the boat to the side of the brigantine.

The exploits, the mysterious character, and the daring of the Water-Witch,
and of him who sailed her, were, in that day, the frequent subjects of
anger, admiration, and surprise. Those who found pleasure in the
marvellous, listened to the wonders that were recounted of her speed and
boldness, with pleasure; they who had been so often foiled in their
attempts to arrest the hardy dealers in contraband, reddened at her name;
and all wondered at the success and intelligence with which her movements
were controlled. It will, therefore, create no astonishment when we say,
that Ludlow and the Patroon drew near to the light and graceful fabric
with an interest that deepened at each stroke of the oars. So much of a
profession which, in that age, was particularly marked and apart from the
rest of mankind in habits and opinions, had been interwoven into the
character of the former, that he could not see the just proportions, the
graceful outlines of the hull, or the exquisite symmetry and neatness of
the spars and rigging, without experiencing a feeling somewhat allied to
that which undeniable superiority ecites in the heart of even a rival.
There was also a taste in the style of the merely ornamental parts of the
delicate machine, which caused as much surprise as her model and rig.

Seamen, in all ages, and in every state of their art, have been ambitious
of bestowing on their floating habitations, a style of decoration which,
while appropriate to their element, should be thought somewhat analogous
to the architectural ornaments of the land. Piety, superstition, and
national usages, affect these characteristic ornaments, which are still
seen, in different quarters of the world, to occasion broad distinctions
between the appearances of vessels. In one, the rudder-head is carved with
the resemblance of some hideous monster; another shows goggling eyes and
lolling tongues from its cat-heads; this has the patron saint, or the
ever-kind Marie, embossed upon its mouldings or bows; while that is
covered with the allegorical emblems of country and duty. Few of these
efforts of nautical art are successful, though a better taste appears to
be gradually redeeming even this branch of human industry from the rubbish
of barbarism, and to be elevating it to a state which shall do no violence
to the more fastidious opinions of the age. But the vessel of which we
write, though constructed at so remote a period, would have done credit
to the improvements of our own time.

It has been said that the hull of this celebrated smuggler was low, dark,
moulded with exquisite art, and so justly balanced as to ride upon its
element like a sea-fowl. For a little distance above the water, it showed
a blue that vied with the color of the deep ocean, the use of copper being
then unknown; while the more superior parts were of a jet black,
delicately relieved by two lines, of a straw-color, that were drawn, with
mathematical accuracy, parallel to the plane of her upper works, and
consequently converging slightly towards the sea, beneath her counter.
Glossy hammock-cloths concealed the persons of those who were on the deck,
while the close bulwarks gave the brigantine the air of a vessel equipped
for war. Still the eye of Ludlow ran curiously along the whole extent of
the two straw-colored lines, seeking in vain some evidence of the weight
and force of her armament. If she had ports at all, they were so
ingeniously concealed as to escape the keenest of his glances. The nature
of the rig has been already described. Partaking of the double character
of brig and schooner, the sails and spars of the forward-mast being of the
former, while those of the after-mast were of the latter construction,
seamen have given to this class of shipping the familiar name of
Hermaphrodites. But, though there might be fancied, by this term, some
want of the proportions that constitute seemliness, it will be remembered
that the departure was only from some former rule of art, and that no
violence had been done to those universal and permanent laws which
constitute the charm of nature. The models of glass, which are seen
representing the machinery of a ship, are not more exact or just in their
lines than were the cordage and spars of this brigantine. Not a rope
varied from its true direction; not a sail, but it resembled the neat
folds of some prudent house wife; not a mast or a yard was there, but it
rose into the air, or stretched its arms, with the most fastidious
attention to symmetry. All was airy, fanciful, and full of grace, seeming
to lend to the fabric a character of unreal lightness and speed. As the
boat drew near her side, a change of the air caused the buoyant bark to
turn, like a vane, in its current; and as the long and pointed proportions
of her head-gear came into view, Ludlow saw beneath the bowsprit an image
that might be supposed to make, by means of allegory, some obvious
allusions to the character of the vessel. A female form, fashioned with
the carver's best skill, stood on the projection of the cut-water. The
figure rested lightly on the ball of one foot, while the other was
suspended in an easy attitude, resembling the airy posture of the famous
Mercury of the Bolognese. The drapery was fluttering, scanty, and of a
light sea-green tint, as if it had imbibed a hue from the element beneath.
The face was of that dark bronzed color which human ingenuity has, from
time immemorial, adopted as the best medium to portray a superhuman
expression. The locks were dishevelled, wild, and rich; the eye, full of
such a meaning as might be fancied to glitter in the organs of a
sorceress; while a smile so strangely meaning and malign played about the
mouth, that the young sailor started, when it first met his view as if a
living thing had returned his look.

"Witchcraft and necromancy!" grumbled the Alderman, as this extraordinary
image came suddenly on his vision also. "Here is a brazen-looking hussy
and one who might rob the Queen's treasury, itself, without remorse! Your
eyes are young, Patroon; what is that the minx holds so impudently above
her head?"

"It seems an open book, with letters of red, writ ten on its pages. One
need not be a conjurer, to divine it is no extract from the Bible."

"Nor from the statute-books of Queen Anne. I warrant me, 'tis a leger of
profit gained in her many wanderings. Goggling and leers! the bold air of
the confident creature is enough to put an honest man out of countenance!"

"Will read the motto of the witch?" demanded he of the India-shawl, whose
eye had been studying the detail of the brigantine's equipment, rather
than attending to the object which so much attracted the looks of his
companions. "The night air has taut'ned the cordage of that
flying-jib-boom, fellows, until it begins to lift its nose like a
squeamish cockney, when he holds it over salt-water! See to it, and bring
the spar in line; else shall we have a reproof from the sorceress, who
little likes to have any of her limbs deranged. Here, gentlemen, the
opinions of the lady may be read, as clearly as woman's mind can ever be
fathomed."

While speaking to his crew, Tiller had changed the direction of the boat;
and it was soon lying, in obedience to a motion of his hand, directly
beneath the wild and significant-looking image, just described. The
letters in red were now distinctly visible; and when Alderman Van Beverout
had adjusted his spectacles, each of the party read the following
sentence: -

"Albeit, I neither lend nor borrow,
By taking, nor by giving of excess,
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I'll break a custom."

Merchant of Venice.

"The brazen!" exclaimed Myndert, when he had got through this quotation
from the immortal bard. "Ripe or green, one could not wish to be the
friend of so impudent a thing; and then to impute such sentiments to any
respectable commercial man whether of Venice or of Amsterdam! Let us
board the brigantine, friend mariner, and end the connexion ere foul
mouths begin to traduce our motives for the visit."

"The over-driven ship plows the seas too deep for speed; we shall get into
port, in better season without this haste. Wilt take another look into the
dark lady's pages? A woman's mind is never known at the first answer!"

The speaker raised the rattan he still carried, and caused a page of
painted metal to turn on hinges that were so artfully concealed as not to
be visible. A new surface, with another extract, was seen.

"What is it, what is it, Patroon?" demanded the burgher, who appeared
greatly to distrust the discretion of the sorceress. "Follies and rhymes!
but this is the way of the whole sex; when nature has denied them tongues,
they invent other means of speech."

"Porters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
Thrice to thine, and thrice to thine,
And thrice again to make up nine."

"Rank nonsense!" continued the burgher! "It is well for those who can, to
add thrice and thrice to their stores; but look you, Patroon - it is a
thriving trade that can double the value of the adventure, and that with
reasonable risks, and months of patient watching."

"We have other pages," resumed Tiller, "but our affairs drag for want of
attending to them. One may read much good matter in the book of the
sorceress, when there is leisure and opportunity. I often take occasion,
in the calms, to look into her volume; and it is rare to find the same
moral twice told, as these brave seamen can swear."

The mariners at the oars confirmed this assertion, by their grave and
believing faces; while their superior caused the boat to quit the place,
and the image of the Water-Witch was left floating in solitude above her
proper element.

The arrival of the cutter produced no sensation among those who were found
on the deck of the brigantine. The mariner of the shawl welcomed his
companions, frankly and heartily; and then he left them for a minute to
make their observations, while he discharged some duty in the interior of
the vessel. The moments were not lost, as powerful curiosity induced all
the visiters to gaze about them, in the manner in which men study the
appearance of any celebrated object, that has long been known only by
reputation. It was quite apparent that even Alderman Van Beverout had
penetrated farther into the mysteries of the beautiful brigantine, than he
had ever before been. But it was Ludlow who gathered most from this brief
opportunity, and whose understanding glances so rapidly and eagerly ran
over all that a seaman could wish to examine.

An admirable neatness reigned in every part. The planks of the deck
resembled the work of the cabinetmaker, rather than the coarser labor
which is generally seen in such a place; and the same excellence of
material, and exactness in the finish, were visible in the ceilings of the
light bulwarks, the railings, and all the other objects which necessarily
came conspicuously into view, in the construction of such a fabric. Brass
was tastefully rather than lavishly used, on many of those parts where
metal was necessary; and the paint of the interior was everywhere a light
and delicate straw-color. Armament there was none, or at least none
visible; nor did the fifteen or twenty grave-looking seamen, who were
silently lounging, with folded arms, about the vessel, appear to be those
who would find pleasure in scenes of violence. They were, without an
exception, men who had reached the middle age, of weather-worn and
thoughtful countenances, many of them even showing heads that had begun to



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Water-Witch or, the Skimmer of the Seas → online text (page 13 of 37)