James Fenimore Cooper.

The water witch; or, The skimmer of the seas. A tale (Volume 1) online

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business, and one of my habits does not like to
be ahead nor behind his time."

In this manner the worthy burgher, who
would have been glad to regulate the movements
of others on all occasions a good deal by his
own, vented his complaints, while he and his
companion hurried on to overtake the slow-
moving boat in which they were to embark, A
brief description of the scene will not be with
out interest to a generation that may be termed
modern, in reference to the time of which we

A deep narrow creek penetrated the island at
this point for the distance of a quarter of a mile.
Each of its banks had a row of buildings, as
the houses line a canal in the cities of Holland.
As the natural course of the inlet was neces-


sarily respected, the street had taken a curva
ture not unlike that of a new moon. The houses
were ultra Dutch, being low, angular, fastidi
ously neat, and all erected with their gables to
the street. Each had its ugly and inconvenient
entrance termed a stoop ; its vane or weather
cock, its dormer windows, and its graduated
battlement walls. Near the apex of one of the
latter, a little iron crane projected into the
street. A small boat, of the same metal, swung
from its end, a sign that the building to which
it was appended was the ferry-house.

An inherent love of artificial and confined
navigation had probably induced the burghers
to select this spot as the place whence so
many craft departed from the town, since it
is certain that the two rivers could have fur
nished divers points more favourable for such an
object, inasmuch as they possess the advantage
of wide and unobstructed channels.

Fifty blacks were already in the street, dip
ping their brooms into the creek, and flourish-


ing water over the side walks, and on the fronts
of the low edifices. This light but daily duty
was relieved by clamorous collisions of wit, and
by shouts of merriment, in which the whole
street would join, as with one joyous and reck
less movement of the spirit.

The language of this light-hearted and noisy
race was Dutch, already corrupted by English
idioms, and occasionally by English words ; a
system of change that has probably given rise
to an opinion, among some of the descendants
of the earlier colonists, that the latter tongue is
merely a patois of the former. This opinion,
which so much resembles that certain well read
English scholars entertain of the plagiarisms of
the continental writers, when they first begin to
dip into their works, is not strictly true, since
the language of England has probably bestowed
as much on the dialect of which we speak, as it
has ever received from the purer sources of the
school of Holland. Here and there a grave
burgher, still in his night-cap, might be seen


with a head thrust out of an upper window,
listening to these barbarisms of speech, and tak
ing note of all the merry jibes that flew from
mouth to mouth with an indomitable gravity
that no levity of those beneath could under

As the movement of the ferry boat was ne
cessarily slow, the Alderman and his companion
were enabled to step into it, before the fasts
were thrown aboard. The periagua, as the
craft was called, partook of an European and
an American character. It possessed the length,
narrowness, and clean bow of the canoe, from
which its name was derived, with the flat bot
tom and lee-boards of a boat constructed for
the shallow waters of the Low Countries.
Twenty years ago, vessels of this description
abounded in our rivers, and even now their
two long and unsupported masts, and high
narrow- headed sails, are daily seen bending
like reeds to the breeze, and dancing lightly
over the billows of the bay. There is a

VOL. i. D


variety of the class, of a size and pretension
altogether superior to that just mentioned,
which deserves a place among the most pictur
esque and striking boats that float. He who
has had occasion to navigate the southern shore
of the Sound, must have often seen the vessel
to which we allude. It is distinguished by
its great length, and masts which, naked of
cordage, rise from the hull like two tall and
faultless trees. When the eye runs over the
daring height of canvas, the noble confidence
of the rig, and sees the comparatively vast
machine handled with ease and grace by the
dexterity of two fearless and expert mariners,
it excites some such admiration as that which
springs from the view of a severe temple of
antiquity. The nakedness and simplicity of
the construction, coupled with the boldness and
rapidity of ks movements, imparts to the craft
an air of grandeur that its ordinary uses
would not give reason to expect.

Though, in some respects, of singularly aqua-


tic habits, the original colonists of New York
were far less adventurous as mariners than their
present descendants. A passage across the bay
did not often occur in the tranquil lives of the
burghers ; and it is still within the memory of
man, that a voyage between the two principal
towns of the state was an event to excite the
solicitude of friends, and the anxiety of the
traveller. The perils of the Tappaan Zee, as
one of the wider reaches of the Hudson is still
termed, was often dealt with by the good
wives of the colony, in their relations of
marvels, and she who had oftenest encountered
them unharmed, was deemed a sort of marine

D 2



" I have great comfort from this fellow : methinks he hath no
drowning mark upon him ; his complexion is perfect gallows."


IT has been said that the periagua was in
motion before our two adventurers succeeded
in stepping on board. The arrival of the Pa-
troon of Kinderhook and of Alderman Van
Beverout was expected, and the schipper had
taken his departure at the precise moment of
the turn in the current, in order to show, with
a sort of pretending independence which has a
peculiar charm for men in his situation, that
1 time and tide wait for no man. Still there


were limits to his decision, for while he put
the boat in motion, especial care was taken
that the circumstance should not subject a
customer as important and constant as the Al
derman, to any serious inconvenience. When
he and his friend had embarked, the painters
were thrown aboard, and the crew of the ferry
boat began to set their vessel in earnest towards
the mouth of the creek. During these move
ments a young negro was seated in the bow
of the periagua, with his legs dangling, one
on each side of the cut-water, forming no bad
apology for a figure head. He held a conch
to his mouth, and with his two glossy cheeks
inflated like those of ^Eolus, and his dark glit
tering eyes expressing the delight he found in
drawing sounds from the shell, he continued to
give forth the signal for departure.

" Put up the conch, thou bawler !" cried the
Alderman, giving the younker a rap on his
naked poll in passing, with the end of his cane,
that might have disturbed the harmony of one


less bent on clamour. " A thousand windy
trumpeters would be silence itself, compared
to such a pair of lungs ! How now, Master
Schipper, is this your punctuality, to start
before your passengers are ready ?"

The undisturbed boatman, without removing
the pipe from his mouth, pointed to the bub
bles on the water, which were already floating
outward, a certain evidence that the tide was
on the ebb.

" I care nothing for your ins and outs, your
ebbs and floods," returned the Alderman in
heat. " There is no better time-piece than
the leg and eye of a punctual man. It is no
more pleasant to go before one is ready, than
to tarry when all business is done. Harkee,
Master Schipper, you are not the only navigator
in this bay, nor is your craft the swiftest that
was ever launched. Have a care ; though an
acquiescing man by nature, I know how to en
courage an opposition when the public good
seriously calls for my support."


To the attack on himself, the schipper was
stoically indifferent, but to impeach the qualities
of the periagua was to attack one who de
pended solely on his eloquence for vindication.
Removing his pipe, therefore, he rejoined on
the Alderman, with that sort of freedom that
the sturdy Hollanders never failed to use to
all offenders, regardless alike of rank, or per
sonal qualities.

" Der wind-gall and Alderman !" he growled
in the dialect of the country ; " I should be
glad to see the boat in York bay that can
show the Milk-Maid her stern ! The mayor
and council-men had better order the tide to
turn when they please, and then, as each man
will think of his own pleasure, a pretty set of
whirlpools they will give us in the harbour."

The schipper having delivered himself of
his sentiments to this effect, resumed his
pipe, like a man who felt he deserved the
meed of victory, whether he were to receive
it or not.


" It is useless to dispute with an obstinate
man/ muttered the Alderman, making his way
through vegetable baskets, butter-tubs and all
the garniture of a market boat, to the place
occupied by his niece, in the stern sheets.
" Good morrow to thee, Alida dear ; early rising
will make a flower garden of thy cheeks, and
the fresh air of the Lust in Rust will give
even thy roses a deeper bloom."

The mollified burgher then saluted the cheek,
whose bloom had been deepened by his remark,
with a warmth that showed he was not without
natural affection, touched his hat in return
for a low bow that he received from an aged
white man servant, in a clean but ancient livery,
and nodded to a young negress, whose second
hand finery sufficiently shewed she was a per
sonal attendant of the heiress.

A second glance at Alida de Barberie was
scarcely necessary to betray her mixed descent.
From her Norman father, a Huguenot of the
petite noblesse, she had inherited her raven


hair, the large brilliant coal-black eyes, in
which wildness was singularly relieved by
sweetness, a classical and faultless profile, and
a form which was both taller and more flexible
than commonly fell to the lot of the damsels
of Holland. From her mother, la Belle Bar-
berie, as the maiden was often playfully termed,
had received a skin, fair and spotless as the
flower of France, and a bloom which rivalled
the rich tints of an evening sky in her native
land. Some of the em bon point) for which
the sister of the Alderman had been a little
remarkable, had descended also to her fairer
daughter. In Alida, however, this peculiarity
did not exceed the fulness which became her
years, rounding her person and softening the
outlines of her form, rather than diminishing
its ease and grace. These personal advantages
were embellished by a neat but modest travel
ling habit, a little beaver, that was shaded by
a cluster of drooping feathers, and a mien
that, under the embarrassment of her situation,


preserved the happiest medium between modesty
and perfect self-possession.

When Alderman Van Beverout joined this
fair creature, in whose future happiness he was
fully justified in taking the deep interest which
he has betrayed in some of the opening scenes
of this volume, he found her engaged in a cour
teous discourse with the young man who was
generally considered as the one among the nu
merous pretenders to her favour who was most
likely to succeed. Had other cause been want
ing, this sight alone would have been sufficient
to restore his good humour, and making a place
for himself, by quietly dispossessing Frangois,
the domestic of his niece, the persevering
burgher endeavoured to encourage an inter
course, that he had reason to think must ter
minate in the result he both meditated and

In the present effort, however, the Alderman
failed. There is a feeling which universally
pervades landsmen and landswomen, when they


first embark on an element to which they are
strangers, that ordinarily shuts their mouths
and renders them meditative. In the older and
more observant travellers it is observation and
comparison, while with the younger and more
susceptible it is very apt to take the character
of sentiment. Without stopping to analyse the
cause, or the consequences, in the instance of
the Patroon and la Belle Barberie, it will be
sufficient to state, that in spite of all the efforts
of the worthy burgher, who had navigated the
sluggish creek too often to be the subject of any
new emotions, his youthful companions gradu
ally grew silent and thoughtful. Though a
celibite in his own person, Myndert had not
now to learn that the infant god as often does
his mischief through this quiet agency, as in
any other manner. He became, therefore, mute
in his turn, watching the slow movement of the
periagua with as much assiduity as if he saw his
own image on the water.

A quarter of an hour of this characteristic,


and it is to be inferred agreeable navigation,
brought the boat to the mouth of the inlet.
Here a powerful effort forced her into the tideV
way, and she might be said to put forth on her
voyage. But while the black crew were trim
ming the sails, and making the other necessary
preparations for departure, a voice was heard
hailing them from the shore, with an order,
rather than a request, that they would stay their

" Hilloa, the periagua!" it cried. "Haul
over your head-sheet, and jam the tiller down
into the lap of that comfortably-looking old gen
tleman. Come; bear a hand, my hummers ! or
your race-horse of a craft will get the bit into
its mouth, and run away with you.""

This summons produced a pause in the move
ments of the crew. After regarding each other
in surprise and admiration, the watermen drew
the head sheet over, put the helm a-lee, without
however invading the lap of the Alderman, and
the boat became stationary at the distance of a


few rods from the shore. While the new pas
senger was preparing to come off in a yawl,
those who awaited his movements had leisure to
examine his appearance, and to form their dif
ferent surmises concerning his character.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the
stranger was a son of the ocean. He was of a
firmly knit and active frame, standing exactly
six feet in his stockings. The shoulders,
though square, were compact, the chest full
and high, the limbs round, neat, and muscular,
the whole indicating a form in which strength
and activity were apportioned with the greatest
accuracy. A small bullet head was set firmly
on its broad foundation, and it was thickly
covered with a mass of brown hair that was
already a little grizzled. The face was that of
a man of thirty, and it was worthy of the frame,
being manly, bold, decided, and rather hand
some ; though it expressed little more than high
daring, perfect coolness, some obstinacy, and a
certain degree of contempt for others, that its


owner did not always take the trouble to con
ceal. The colour was a rich, deep and uniform
red, such as much exposure is apt to give to
men whose complexions are, by nature, light
and florid.

The dress of the stranger was quite as re
markable as his person. He wore a short pee-
jacket, cut tight and tastefully; a little low
and rakish cap, and full bell-mouthed trousers,
all in a spotlessly white duck ; a material well
adapted to the season and the climate. The
first was made without buttons, affording an
apology for the use of a rich Indian shawl, that
belted his body and kept the garment tight to
his frame. Faultlessly clean linen appeared
through the opening above, and a collar, of the
same material, fell over the gay bandanna,
which was thrown, with a single careless turn,
around his throat. The latter was a manufac
ture then little known in Europe, and its use
was almost entirely confined to seamen of the
long voyage. One of its ends was suffered to


blow about in the wind, but the other was
brought down with care over the chest, where
it was confined, by springing the blade of a
small knife with an ivory handle, in a manner to
confine the silk to the linen ; a sort of breast pin
that is even now much used by mariners. If
we add that light canvass slippers, with foul-
anchors worked in worsted upon their insteps,
covered his feet, we shall say all that is neces
sary of his attire.

The appearance of one of the air and dress
we have just described, excited a strong sensa
tion among the blacks who scrubbed the stoops
and pavements. He was closely attended to the
place where he hailed the periagua, by four or
five loungers, who studied his manner and
movements with the admiration that men of
their class seldom fail to bestow on those who
bear about them the evidence of having passed
lives of adventure, and perhaps of hardship and
daring. Beckoning to one of these idlers to
follow him, the hero of the India-shawl stepped


into an empty boat, and casting lose its fast, he
skulled the light yawl towards the craft which
was awaiting his arrival. There was, in truth,
something in the reckless air, the decision, and
the manly attitudes of so fine a specimen of a
seaman, that might have attracted notice from
those who were more practised in the world
than the little crowd of admirers he left behind
him. With an easy play of wrist and elbow,
he caused the yawl to glide ahead, like some
indolent marine animal swimming through its
element; and as he stood, firm as a planted
statue, with a foot on each gunwale, there was
much of that confidence created by his steadi
ness, that one acquires by viewing the repeated
and successful efforts of a skilful rope-dancer.
When the yawl reached the side of the periagua,
he dropped a small Spanish coin into the open
palm of the negro, and sprang on the side of the
latter, with an exertion of muscle that sent the
little boat he quitted half way back towards the
shore, leaving the frightened black to steady


himself in his rocking tenement in the best
manner he could.

The tread and posture of the stranger, when
he gained the half-deck of the periagua, was
finely nautical, and confident to audacity. He
seemed to analyse the half-maritime character
of the crew and passengers at a glance, and to
feel that sort of superiority over his compa
nions, which men of his profession were then
a little too wont to entertain towards those
whose ambition could be bounded by terra firma.
His eye turned upward, at the simple rig and
modest sails of the periagua, while his tipper lip
curled with the knowing expression of a critic.
Then kicking the fore sheet clear of its elect,
and suffering the sail to fill, he stepped from
one butter-tub to another, making a stepping-
stone of the lap of a countryman by the way,
and alighted in the stern-sheets in the midst of
the party of Alderman Van Beverout, with the
agility and fearlessness of a feathered Mercury.
With a coolness that did infinite credit to his


powers for commanding, his next act was to
dispossess the amazed schipper of the helm,
taking the tiller into his own hands, with as
much composure as if he were the every-day
occupant of the post. When he saw that the
boat was beginning to move through the water,
he found leisure to bestow some observation on
his fellow-voyagers. The first that met his bold
and reckless eye was Francois, the domestic of

" If it come to blow in squalls, Commodore,"
observed the intruder, with a gravity that half
deceived the attentive Frenchman, while he
pointed to the bag in which the latter wore
his hair, " you ll be troubled to carry your
broad pennant. But so experienced an officer
has not put to sea without having a storm cue
in readiness for foul weather."

The valet did not, or affected not to under
stand the allusion, maintaining an air of digni
fied but silent superiority.

" The gentleman is in a foreign service, and


does not understand an English mariner ! The
worst that can come after all, of too much top-
hamper, is to cut away, and let it drift with
the scud. May I make bold to ask. Judge, if
the courts have done any thing of late concern
ing the freebooters among the islands ?"

" I have not the honour to bear her Majesty s
commission," coldly returned Van Staats of
Kinderhook, to whom this question had been
hardily put.

" The best navigator is sometimes puzzled by
a hazy observation, and many an old seaman
has taken a fog-bank for solid ground. Since
you are not in the courts, Sir, I wish you joy ;
for it is running among shoals to be cruising
there, whether as judge or suitor. One is
never fairly snug and land-locked, while in
company of a lawyer, and yet the devil him
self cannot always give the sharks a good offing.
A pretty sheet of water, friends, and one as snug
as rotten cables and foul winds can render desir
able, is this bay of York P


" You are a mariner of the long voyage,"
returned the Patroon, unwilling that Alida
should not believe him equal to bandying wits
with the stranger.

" Long or short ; Calcutta, or Cape Cod ;
dead reckoning, eye-sight, or star-gazing, all s
one to your real dolphin. The shape of the
coast, between Fundy and Horn, is as familiar
to my eye as an admirer to this pretty young
lady ; and as to the other shore, I have run it
down oftener than the commodore here has
ever set his pennant, blow high or blow low.
A cruise like this is a Sunday in my naviga
tion, though I dare say you took leave of the
wife, blessed the children, overhauled the will,
and sent to ask a good word from the priests,
before you came aboard ?"

" Had these ceremonies been observed, the
danger would not have been increased," said
the young Patroon, anxious to steal a glance
at la Belle Barberie, though his timidity caused
him, in truth, to look the other way. " One


is never nearer clanger for being prepared to
meet it."

" True ; we must all die when the reckoning
is out. Hang or drown gibbet or bullet clears
the world of a great deal of rubbish, or the decks
would get to be so littered that the vessel could
not be worked. The last cruise is the longest
of all, and honest papers, with a clean bill of
health, rnay help a man into port, when he is
past keeping the open sea. How now, Schip-
per ! what lies are floating about the docks this
morning ? when did the last Albany man get
his tub down the river, or whose gelding has
been ridden to death in chase of a witch ?"

" The devil s babes !" muttered the Alder
man, " there is no want of roisterers to torment
such innocents !"

" Have the buccaneers taken to praying, or
does their trade thrive in this heel of the war ?"
continued the mariner of the India-shawl, dis
regarding the complaint of the burgher. * The
times are getting heavy for men of metal, as


may be seen by the manner in which yon cruiser
wears out her ground-tackle, instead of trying
the open sea. May I spring every spar I carry,
but I would have the boat out and give her an
airing, before to-morrow, if the Queen would
condescend to put your humble servant in charge
of the craft ! The man lies there, at his anchors,
as if he had a good freight of real Hollands in
his hold, and was waiting for a few bales of
beaver-skins to barter for his strong waters."

As the stranger coolly expressed this opinion
of her Majesty s ship Coquette, he rolled his
glance over the persons of his companions, suf
fering it to rest a moment, with a secret signifi
cance, on the steady eye of the burgher.

" Well," he continued, " the sloop answers
for a floating vane, to tell which way the tide is
running, if she does nothing better ; and that
must be a great assistance, Schipper, in the
navigation of one who keeps as bright a look-out
on the manner in which the world whirls round
as a gentleman of your sagacity !"


" If the news in the creek be true," rejoined
the unoffended owner of the periagua, " there
will be other business for Captain Ludlow and
the Coquette, before many days !"

* 6 Ah ! having eaten all his meat and bread,
the man will be obliged to victual his ship
anew ! Twere a pity so active a gentleman
should keep a fast, in a brisk tide s way. And
when his coppers are once more filled, and the

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