James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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dinner is fairly eaten, what dost think will be
his next duty ?"

" There is a report, among the boatmen of
the South Bay, that something was seen yester
night off the outer side of Long Island!"

" I ll answer for the truth of that rumour,
for having come up with the evening flood, I
saw it myself."

" Der duyvel s luck ! and what dost take it
to be ?"

" The Atlantic Ocean ; if you doubt my
word, I appeal to this well ballasted old gentle-


man, who, being a schoolmaster, is able to give
you latitude and longitude for its truth."

" I am Alderman Van Beverout," muttered
the object of this new attack, between his
teeth, though apparently but half disposed to
notice one who set so little bounds to his dis

" I beg a thousand pardons !" returned the
strange seaman, with a grave inclination of his
body. " The solidity of your worship s coun
tenance deceived me. It may be indeed unrea
sonable to expect any alderman to know the
position of the Atlantic Ocean ! And yet, gentle
men, on the honour of a man who has seen much
salt water in his time, I do assure you the sea
I speak of is actually there. If there be any
thing on it, or in it, that should not in reason
be so, this worthy commander of the periagua
will let us know the rest."

" A wood boat from the inlets says, the
Skimmer of the Seas was lately seen standing
along the coast," returned the ferryman, in the


tone of one who is certain of delivering matter
of general interest.

" Your true sea-dog, who runs in and out of
inlets, is a man for marvels !" coolly observed
the stranger. " They know the colour of the
sea at night, and are for ever steering in the
wind s eye in search of adventures. I wonder
more of them are not kept at making alma
nacks ! There was a mistake concerning a
thunder-storm in the last I bought, and all
for the want of proper science. And pray,
friend, who is this Skimmer of the Seas that
is said to be running after his needle, like a
tailor who has found a hole in his neighbour s
coat ?"

" The witches may tell ! I only know that
such a rover there is, and that he is here to
day and there to-morrow. Some say, it is only
a craft of mist that skims the top of the seas,
like a sailing water-fowl, and others think it is
the sprite of a vessel that was rifled and burnt
by Kidd, in the Indian Ocean, looking for its



gold and the killed. I saw him once myself,
but the distance was so great, and his manoeu
vres so unnatural, that I could hardly give a
good account of his hull or rig."

" This is matter that don t get into the log
every watch ! Where away, or in what seas,
didst meet the thing ?"

" Twas off the Branch. We were fishing in
thick weather, and when the mist lifted a little,
there was a craft seen standing in-shore, running
like a race-horse ; but while we got our anchor,
she had made a league of offing on the other
tack r

" A certain proof of either her or your acti
vity. But what might have been the form and
shape of your fly-away ?"

" Nothing determined. To one she seemed
a full rigged and booming ship ; another took
her for a Bermudian scudder ; while to me she
had the look of twenty periaguas built into a
single craft. It is well known, however, that
a West Indiaman went to sea that night, and


though it is now three years, no tidings of her,
or her crew, have ever come to any in York.
J have never gone upon the banks to fish since
that day in thick weather."

" You have done well," observed the stranger.
6 I have seen many wonderful sights myself
on the rolling ocean, and he, whose business
it is to lay between wind and water, like you,
my friend, should never trust himself within
reach of one of those devil s flyers. I could
tell you a tale of an affair in the calm latitudes,
under the burning sun, that would be a lesson
to all of over-bold curiosity ! Commission and
character are not affairs for your in-shore

" We have time to hear it,"" observed the
Patroon, whose attention had been excited by
the discourse, and who read in the dark eye of
Alida that she felt an interest in the expected

But the countenance of the stranger suddenly
grew serious. He shook his head, like one who


had sufficient reasons for his silence, and relin
quishing the tiller, he quite coolly obliged a
gaping countryman, in the centre of the boat,
to yield his place, where he laid his own athletic
form, at full length, folded his arms on his
breast, and shut his eyes. In Jess than five
minutes, all within hearing had audible evidence
that this extraordinary son of the ocean was in
a sound sleep.



" Be patient, for the prize I ll bring thee to,
Shall hoodwink this mischance."


THE air, audacity, and language of the un
known manner had produced a marked sensa
tion among the passengers of the periagua. It
was plain, by the playfulness that lurked about
the coal-black eye of la Belle Barberie, that she
had been amused by his sarcasms, though the
boldness of his manner had caused her to main
tain the reserve which she believed necessary to
her sex and condition. The Patroon studied


the countenance of his mistress, and though half
oHcnded by the freedom of the intruder, he had
believed it wisest to tolerate the liberties, as the
natural excesses of a spirit that had been lately
released from the monotony of a sea life. The
repose which usually reigned in the countenance
of the Alderman had been a little troubled; but
he succeeded in concealing his discontent from
any impertinent observation. When the chief
actor in the foregoing scene, therefore, saw fit
to withdraw, the usual tranquillity was restored,
and his presence appeared to be forgotten.

An ebbing tide and a freshening bree/e
quickly carried the periagua past the smaller
islands of the bay, and brought the cruiser,
called the Coquette, more distinctly into view.
This vessel, a ship of twenty guns, lay abreast
of the hamlet, on the shores of Staten Island,
which was the destination of the ferry boat.
Here was the usual anchorage of outward bound
ships, which awaited a change of wind, and it
was here that vessels then, as in our times, were


subject to those examinations and delays which
are imposed for the safety of the inhabitants of
the city. The Coquette was alone, however ;
for the arrival of a trader from a distant port,
was an event of unfrequent occurrence at the
commencement of the eighteenth century.

The course of the periagua brought her within
fifty feet of the sloop of war. As the former
approached, a movement of curiosity and in
terest occurred among those she contained.

" Take more room for your Milk-Maid,"
grumbled the Alderman, observing that the
schipper was willing to gratify his passengers,
by running as near as possible to the dark sides
of the cruiser. " Seas and Oceans ! is not York
Bay wide enough, that you must brush the dust
out of the muzzles of the guns of yon lazy ship !
If the Queen knew how her money was eaten
and drunk by the idle knaves aboard her, she
would send them all to hunt for freebooters
among the islands. Look at the land, Alida,
child, and you ll think no more of the fright the


gaping dunce is giving thee; he only wishes to
show his skill in steering."

But the niece manifested none of the terror
that the uncle was willing to ascribe to her
fears. Instead of turning pale, the colour deep
ened on her cheeks, as the periagua came danc
ing along, under the lee of the cruiser ; and if
her respiration became quicker than usual, it
was scarcely produced by the agitation of alarm.
The near sight of the tall masts, and of the
maze of cordage that hung nearly above their
heads, however, prevented the change from
being noted. A hundred curious eyes were
already peeping at them through the ports, or
over the bulwarks of the ship, when suddenly
an officer, who wore the undress of a naval cap
tain of that day, sprang into the main rigging
of the cruiser, and saluted the party in the
periagua, by waving his hat hurriedly, like one
who was agreeably taken by surprise.

* c A fair sky and gentle breezes to each and
all !" he cried, with the hearty manner of a sea-


man. " 1 kiss my hand to the fair Alida ; and
the Alderman will take a sailor s good wishes ;
Mr. Van Staats, I salute you.*"

" Ay," muttered the burgher, u your idlers
have nothing better to do, than to make words
answer for deeds. A lazy war and a distant
enemy make you seamen the lords of the land.
Captain Ludlow."

Alida blushed still deeper, hesitated, and then,
by a movement that was half involuntary, she
waved her handkerchief. The young Patroon
arose, and answered the salutation by a courteous
bow. By this time the ferry-boat was nearly
past the ship, and the scowl was quitting the
face of the Alderman, when the mariner of the
India shawl sprang to his feet, and, in a moment,
he stood again in the centre of their party.

" A pretty seat-boat, and a neat show aloft !"
he said., as his understanding eye scanned the
rigging of the royal cruiser, taking the tiller
at the same time, with all his former indif
ference from the hands of the schipper. " Her
E 3


Majesty should have good service from such
a racer, and no doubt the youth in her rig
ging is a man to get the most out of his craft.
We ll take another observation. Draw away
your head sheet, boy."

The stranger had put the helm a-lee, while
speaking, and by the time the order he had
given was uttered, the quick- working boat
was about, and nearly filled on the other tack.
In another minute, she was again brushing
along the side of the sloop of war. A common
complaint against this hardy interference with
the regular duty of the boat, was about to break
out of the lips of the Alderman and the schipper,
when he of the India shawl lifted his cap, and
addressed the officer in the rigging, with all the
self-possession he had manifested in the inter
course with those nearer his person.

" Has her Majesty need of a man in her ser
vice, who has seen, in his time, more blue water
than hard ground ? or is there no empty berth


in so gallant a cruiser for one who must do a
seaman s duty, or starve ?"

The descendant of the king-hating Ludlows,
as the Lord Cornbury had styled the race of
the commander of the Coquette, was quite as
much surprised by the appearance of him who
put this question, as he was by the coolness with
which a mariner of ordinary condition presumed
to address an officer who bore so high a com
mission as his own. He had, however, suffi
cient time to recollect in whose presence he stood,
ere he replied, for the stranger had again placed
the helm a-lee, and caused the foresail to be
thrown aback ; a change that made the periagua

" The Queen will always receive a bold
mariner in her pay, if he come prepared to serve
with skill and fidelity," he said ; " as a proof
of which, let a rope be thrown the periagua ;
we shall treat more at our ease under her Ma
jesty s pennant. I shall be proud to entertain
Alderman Van Beverout, in the mean time,


and a cutter will always be at his command
when he shall have occasion to quit us."

" Your land-loving aldermen find their way
from a Queen s cruiser to the shore, more easily
than a seaman of twenty years 1 experience,
returned the other, without giving the burgher
time to express his thanks for the polite offer
of the other. " You have gone through the
Gibraltar passage, without doubt, noble captain,
being a gentleman that has got so fine a boat
under his orders ?"

u Duty has taken me into the Italian seas,
more than once," answered Ludlow, half dis
posed to resent this familiarity, though too
anxious to keep the periagua near, to quarrel
with him who so evidently had produced the
unexpected pleasure.

66 Then you know that, though a lady might
fan a ship through the straits eastward, it
needs a Levant breeze to bring her out again.
Her Majesty s pennants are long, and when they
get foul around the limbs of a thoroughly bred


sea-dog, it passes all his art to clear the jam.
It is most worthy of remark, that the better the
seaman the less his power to cast loose the knot !"

" If the pennant be so long, it may reach
farther than you wish ! But a bold volunteer
has no occasion to dread a press."

" I fear the berth I wish is filled," returned
the other, curling his lip. " Let draw the fore-
sheet, lad ; we will take our departure, leaving
the fly of the pennant well under our lee.
Adieu, brave Captain ; when you have need of
a thorough rover, and dream of stern chases
and wet sails, think of him who visited your
ship at her lazy moorings."

Ludlow bit his lip, and though his fine face
reddened to the temples, he met the arch
glance of Alida, and laughed. But he who
had so hardily braved the resentment of a man,
powerful as the commander of a royal cruiser in
a British colony, appeared to understand the
hazard of his situation. The periagua whirled
round on her heel, and at the next minute it was


bending to the breeze, and dashing through the
little waves towards the shore. Three boats left
the cruiser at the same moment. One, which
evidently contained her captain, advanced with
the usual dignified movement of a barge landing
an officer of rank, but the others were urged
ahead, with all the earnestness of a hot chase.

" Unless disposed to serve the Queen, you
have not done well, my friend, to brave one of
her commanders at the muzzles of his guns,"
observed the Patroon, soon as the state of the
case became too evident to doubt of the inten
tions of the man-of-war s men.

" That Captain Ludlow would gladly take
some of us out of this boat, by fair means or by
foul, is a fact clear as a bright star in a cloud
less night, and well knowing a seaman s duty to
his superiors, I shall leave him to his choice."

" In which case you will shortly eat her
Majesty s bread/ pithily returned the Alder

" The food is unpalateable and I reject it


and yet here is a boat whose crew seem deter
mined to make one swallow worse fare."

The unknown mariner ceased speaking, for
the situation of the periagua was truly getting
to be a little critical. At least so it seemed to
the less instructed landsmen who were witnesses
of this unexpected rencontre. As the ferry-boat
had drawn in with the island, the wind hauled
more through the pass which communicates
with the outer bay, and it became necessary to
heave about twice, in order to fetch to windward
of the usual landing place. The first of these
manoeuvres had been executed, and as it neces
sarily changed their course, the passengers saw
that the cutter to which the stranger alluded
was enabled to get within-shore of them ; or
nearer to the wharf, where they ought to land,
than they were themselves. Instead of suffering
himself to be led off by a pursuit that he knew
might easily be rendered useless, the officer who
commanded this boat cheered his men, and
pulled swiftly to the point of debarkation. On


the other hand, a second cutter, which had
already reached the line of the periagua s course,
lay on its oars, and awaited its approach. The
unknown mariner manifested no intention to
avoid the interview. He still held the tiller,
and as effectually commanded the little vessel,
as if his authority were of a more regular cha
racter. The audacity and decision of his air
and conduct, aided by the consummate manner
in which he worked the boat, might alone have
achieved this momentary usurpation, had not
the general feeling against impressment been so
much in his favour.

" The devil s fangs !" grumbled the schipper.
44 If you should keep the Milk-Maid away, we
shall lose a little in distance, though I think
the man-of-war s men will be puzzled to catch
her with a flowing sheet !

" The Queen has sent a message by the
gentleman," the mariner rejoined ; " it would
be unmannerly to refuse to hear it."

" Heave-to, the periagua !" shouted the


young officer in the cutter. " In her Majes
ty s name I command you, obey."

" God bless the royal lady !" returned he
of the foul anchors and gay shawl, while
the swift ferry-boat continued to dash a-head.
" We owe her duty, and are glad to see so
proper a gentleman employed in her behalf/

By this time the boats were fifty feet asun
der. No sooner was there room, than the
periagua once more flew round, and com
menced anew its course, dashing in again
towards the shore. It was necessary, how
ever, to venture within an oar s length of the
cutter, or to keep away, a loss of ground to
which he who controlled her movements shew
ed no disposition to submit. The officer arose,
and as the periagua drew near, it was evident
his hand held a pistol, though he seemed re
luctant to exhibit the weapon. The mariner
stepped aside, in a manner to offer a full
view of all in his groupe, as he sarcastically


" Choose your object, Sir ; in such a party
a man of sentiment may have a preference."

The young man coloured, as much with
shame at the degrading duty he had been
commissioned to perform, as with vexation at
his failure. Recovering his self composure,
however, he lifted his hat to la Belle Barberie,
and the periagua dashed on in triumph. Still
the leading cutter was near the shore, where
it soon arrived, the crew lying on their oars
at the end of the wharf, in evident expectation
of the arrival of the ferry-boat. At this sight
the schipper shook his head, and looked up
in the bold face of his passenger, in a manner
to betray how much his mind misgave the
result. But the tall mariner maintained his
coolness, and began to make merry allusions
to the service which he had braved with so
much temerity, and from which no one believed
he was yet likely to escape. By the former
manoeuvres the periagua had gained a position
well to windward of the wharf, and she was


now steered close upon the wind, directly for
the shore. Against the consequences of a
perseverance in this course, however, the
schipper saw fit to remonstrate.

" Shipwrecks and rocky bottoms !" exclaimed
the alarmed waterman. " A Holland galliot
would go to pieces, if you should run her in
among those stepping stones with this breeze !
No honest boatman loves to see a man stowed
in a cruiser s hold, like a thief caged in his
prison ; but when it comes to breaking the nose
of the Milk-Maid, it is asking too much of her
owner, to stand by and look on."

" There shall not be a dimple of her lovely
countenance deranged," answered his cool pas
senger. " Now, lower away your sails, and
we ll run along the shore, down to yon wharf.
Twould be an ungallant act to treat the dairy
girl with so little ceremony, gentlemen, after
the lively foot and quick evolutions she has
shown in our behalf. The best dancer in the
island could not have better played her part,


though jigging under the music of a three
fringed fiddle !"

By this time the sails were lowered, and
the periagua was gliding down towards the
place of landing, running always at the distance
of some fifty feet from the shore.

" Every craft has its allotted time, like a
mortal," continued the inexplicable mariner of
the India-shawl. " If she is to die a sudden
death,, there is your beam-end and stern-way,
which takes her into the grave without funeral
service, or parish prayers; your dropsy is
being water-logged ; gout and rheumatism
kill like a broken back and loose joints ; in
digestion is a shifting cargo, with guns adrift ;
the gallows is a bottomry bond, with lawyers
fees ; while fire, drowning, death by religious
melancholy, and suicide, are a careless gunner,
sunken rocks, false lights, and a lubberly

Ere any were apprised of his intention,
this singular being then sprang from the boat


on the cap of a little rock, over which the
waves were washing, whence he bounded
from stone to stone, by vigorous efforts, till
he fairly leaped to land. In another minute
he was lost to view, among the dwellings of the

The arrival of the periagua, which imme
diately after reached the wharf, the disappoint
ment of the cutter s crew, and the return of
both the boats to their ship, succeeded as mat
ters of course.



" Oliv Did he write this ?
C7o._ Ay, Madam."

What you will.

IF we say that Alida de Barberie did not
cast a glance behind her, as the party quitted
the wharf, in order to see whether the boat
that contained the commander of the cruiser
followed the example of the others, we shall
probably pourtray the maiden as one that was
less subject to the influence of coquetry than
the truth would justify. To the great discon
tent of the Alderman, whatever might have
been the feelings of his niece on the occasion,


the barge continued to approach the shore, in
a manner which showed that the young sea
man betrayed no visible interest in the result
of the chase.

The heights of Staten Island, a century ago,
were covered much as they are at present
with a growth of dwarf trees. Foot paths led
among this meagre vegetation, in divers direc
tions, and as the hamlet at the Quaratine
Ground was the point whence they all diverged,
it required a practised guide to thread their
mazes, without a loss of both time and distance.
It would seem, however, that the worthy
burgher was fully equal to the office, for,
moving with more than his usual agility, he
soon led his companions into the wood, and
by frequently altering his course, so completely
confounded their sense of the relative bearings
of places, that it is not probable one of them
all could very readily have extricated himself
from the labyrinth.

" Clouds, and shady bowers!" exclaimed


Myndert, when he had achieved to his own
satisfaction this evasion of the pursuit he wished
to avoid ; " little oaks and green pines are
pleasant on a June morning. You shall have
mountain-air and a sea-breeze, Patroon, to
quicken the appetite at the Lust in Rust. If
Alida will speak, the girl can say that a mouth
ful of the elixir is better for a rosy cheek, than
all the concoctions and washes that were ever
invented to give a man a heart-ache."

" If the place be as much changed as the
road that leads to it," returned la Belle Bar-
berie, glancing her dark eye in vain in the
direction of the bay they had quitted, " I should
scarcely venture an opinion on a subject of which
I am obliged to confess utter ignorance."

"Ah, woman is nought but vanities! To
see and to be seen is the delight of the sex.
Though we are a thousand times more comfort
able in this wood than we should be in walking
along the water-side, why, the sea-gulls and
snipes lose the benefit of our company ! The


salt water, and all who live on it, are to be
avoided by a wise man, Mr. Van Staats, except
as they both serve to cheapen freight and to
render trade brisk. You ll thank me for this
care, niece of mine, when you reach the bluff,
cool as a package of furs free from moth, and
fresh and beautiful as a Holland tulip with the
dew on it."

" To resemble the latter, one might consent to
walk blindfold, dearest uncle, and so we dismiss
the subject. Fran9ois, fais-moi le plaisir de
porter ce petit livre ; malgre la fraicheur de la
foret, j ai besoin de m evanter."

The valet took the book, with an empresse-
ment that defeated the more tardy politeness of
the Patroon, and when he saw, by the vexed
eye and flushed cheek of his young mistress,
that she was incommoded, rather by an internal,
than by the external heat> he whispered con

" Que ma chere, Mademoiselle Alide, ne se
fache pas ! Elle ne manquerait jamais d ad-



mirateurs, dans uri desert. Ah ! si Mam selle
allait voir la patrie de ses ancetres ! "

" "Merci bien ? mon cher ; garclez les feuilles
fortement fermees. II y a des papiers dedans."

" Monsieur Frar^ois," said the Alderman,
separating his niece, with little ceremony, from
her nearly parental attendant, by the interposi
tion of his own bulky person, and motioning

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