James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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on which it was constructed to dwell. From the
distant, low, and nearly imperceptible shore of
the island of Nassau, to the coast of New Jersey,
there was one broad and untenanted waste. Even
the sea-fowl rested his tired wing, and slept tran
quilly on the water. The broad space appeared
like some great and unfrequented desert, or
rather like a denser and more material copy
of the firmament by which it was canopied.

It has been mentioned that a stunted growth
of oaks and pines covered much of the sandy


ridge that formed the cape. The same cover
ing furnished a dark setting to the waters of
the cove. Above this outline of wood, which
fringed the margin of the sea, Alida now
fancied she saw an object in motion. At first,
she believed some ragged and naked tree, of
which the coast had many, was so placed as
to deceive her vision, and had thrown its naked
lines upon the back-ground of water, in a
manner to assume the shape and tracery of a
light-rigged vessel. But when the dark and
symmetrical spars were distinctly seen, gliding
past objects that were known to be stationary,
it was impossible to doubt their character. The
maiden wondered, and her surprise was not
unmixed with apprehension. It seemed as if
the stranger, for such the vessel needs be, was
recklessly approaching a surf, that, in its most
tranquil moments, was dangerous to such a
fabric, and that he steered, unconscious of
hazard, directly upon the land. Even the
movement was mysterious and unusual. Sails
i 3


there were none ; and yet the light and lofty
spars were soon hid behind a thicket that
covered a knoll near the margin of the sea.
Alida expected each moment to hear the cry
of -mariners in distress, and then, as the mi
nutes passed and no such fearful sound inter
rupted the stillness of the night, she began to
bethink her of those lawless rovers who were
known to abound among the Carribean isles,
and who were said sometimes even to enter
and to refit, in the smaller and more secret inlets
of the American continent. The tales, coupled
with the deeds, character, and fate of the noto
rious Kidd, were then still recent, and although
magnified and coloured by vulgar exaggerations,
as all such tales are known to be, enough was
believed by the better instructed, to make his
life and death the subject of many curious and
mysterious rumours. At this moment she would
have gladly recalled the young commander of
the Coquette, to apprise him of the enemy that
was nigh, and then, ashamed of terrors that she


was fain to hope savoured more of woman s
weakness than of truth, she endeavoured to
believe the whole some ordinary movement of a
coaster, who, familiar with his situation, could
not possibly be either in want of aid, or an
object of alarm. Just as this natural and con
soling conclusion crossed her mind, she very
audibly heard a step in her pavilion. It seemed
near the door of the room she occupied. Breath
less, more with the excitement of her imagination,
than with any actual fear created by this new
cause of alarm, the maiden quitted the balcony,
and stood motionless to listen. The door, in
truth, was opened, with singular caution, and,
for an instant, Alida saw nothing but a confused
area in the centre of which appeared the figure
of a menacing and rapacious freebooter.

" Northern lights and moonshine P growled
Alderman Van Beverout, for it was no other
than the uncle of the heiress, whose untimely
and unexpected visit had caused her so much
alarm. " This sky-watching, and turning of


night into day will be the destruction of thy
beauty, niece, and then we shall see how
plenty Patroons are for husbands ! A bright
eye and a blooming cheek are thy stock in
trade, girl, and she is a spendthrift of both,
who is out of her bed when the clock hath
struck ten."

<e Your discipline would deprive many a beauty
of the means of using her power," returned la
demoiselle, smiling, as much at the folly of her
recent fears, as with affection for her reprover.
" They tell me that ten is the witching-time of
night, for the necromancy of the dames of

" Witch me no witches ! The name reminds
one of the cunning Yankees, a race that would
outwit Lucifer himself, if left to set the con
ditions to their bargain. Here is the Patroon,
wishing to let in a family of the knaves among
the honest Dutchmen of his manor, and we
have just settled a dispute between us on this
subject, by making the lawful trial."


" Which it may be proper to hope, dearest
uncle, was not the trial by battle ?"

" Peace and olive-branches, no ! The Pa-
troon of Kinderhook is the last man in the
Americas that is likely to suffer by the blows
of Myndert Van Beverout. I challenged the
boy to hold a fine eel, that the blacks have
brought out of the river to help in breaking
our morning fasts, that it might be seen if he
were fit to deal with the slippery rogues. By
the merit of the peaceable St. Nicholas ! but
the son of old Hendrick Van Staats had a busy
time of it ! The lad griped the fish, as the
ancient tradition has it that thy uncle clenched
the Holland florin, when thy father put it
between my fingers, within the month, in order
to see if the true saving grace was likely to
abide in the family for another generation.
My heart misgave me for a moment, for young
Oloff has the fist of a vice, and I thought the
goodly names of the Harmans, and Rips,
Corneliuses, and Dircks of the manor rent-roll,


were likely to be contaminated by the company
of an Increase or a Peleg ; but just as the Pa-
troon thought he had the watery viper by the
throat, the fish gave an unexpected twist, and
slid through his fingers by the tail. Flaws and
loop-holes ! but, that experiment has as much
wisdom as wit in it !"

" And to me, it seemeth better, now that
Providence has brought all the colonies under
one government, that these prejudices should
be forgotten. We are a people sprung from
many nations, and our effort should be to
preserve the liberality and intelligence, while
we forget the weaknesses of all."

66 Bravely said, for the child of a Huguenot !
But I defy the man who brings prejudice to
my door. I like a merry trade, and a quick
calculation. Let me see the man in all New
England that can tell the colour of a balance
sheet quicker than one that can be named,
and Til gladly hunt up the satchel and go to
school again. I love a man the better for


looking to his own interests, I ; and yet com
mon honesty teaches us, that there should be a
convention between men, beyond which none of
reputation and character ought to go."

" Which convention shall be understood, by
every man, to be the limits of his own faculties ;
by which means the dull may rival the quick
of thought. I fear me, uncle, there should be
an eel kept on every coast to which a trader
comes !"

" Prejudice and conceit child, acting on a
drowsy head ; tis time thou seekest thy pillow,
and in the morning we shall see if young Oloff
of the manor shall have better success with
thy favour, than with the prototype of the
Jonathans. Here, put out these flaring can
dles, and take a modest lamp to light thee to
thy bed. Glaring windows so near midnight,
give a house an extravagant name in the neigh

" Our reputation for sobriety may suffer in
the opinion of the eels," returned Alida, laugh-


ing, " but here are few others, I believe, to
call us dissipated."

" One never knows -one never knows "
muttered the Alderman, extinguishing the two
large candles of his niece, and substituting his
own little hand-lamp in their place. " This
broad light only invites to wakefulness, while
the dim taper I leave, is good as a sleeping
draught. Kiss me, wilful one, and draw thy
curtains close, for the negroes will soon rise
to load the periagua, that they may go up
with the tide to the city. The noise of
the chattering blackguards may disturb thy
slumbers !"

" Truly it would seem, there was little here
to invite such active navigation," returned Alida,
saluting the cheek of her uncle at his order.
" The love of trade must be strong, when it
finds the materials of commerce in a solitude
like this."

" Thou hast divined the reason child. Thy
father Monsieur de Barberie had his peculiar


opinions on the subject, and doubtless he did
not fail to transmit some of them to his off
spring. And yet, when the Huguenot was
driven from his chateau and his clayey Norman
lands, the man had no distaste himself for
an account current, provided the balance was
in his own favour. Nations and characters ! I
find but little difference after all in trade ;
whether it be driven with a Mohawk for his
pack of furs, or with a seigneur who has been
driven from his lands. Each strives to get the
profit on his own side of the account, and the
loss on that of his neighbour. So rest thee well,
girl ; and remember that matrimony is no more
than a capital bargain, on whose success de
pends the sum-total of a woman^s comfort
and so once more, good night."

La Belle Barbcrie attended her uncle duti
fully to the door of the pavilion, which she
bolted after him, and then finding her little
apartment gloomy by the light of the small
and feeble lamp he had left, she was pleased


to bring its flame in contact with the wicks of
the two candles he had just extinguished.
Placing the three near each other on a table
the maiden again drew nigh a window. The
unexpected interview with the Alderman had
consumed several minutes, and she was curious
to know more of the unaccountable movements
of the mysterious vessel.

The same deep silence reigned about the
villa, and the slumbering ocean was heaving
and setting as heavily as before. Alida again
looked for the boat of Ludlow, but her eye
ran over the whole distance of the bright and
broad streak between her and the cruiser
in vain. There was the slight ripple of the
water in the glittering of the moon s rays, but
no speck like that the barge would make was
visible. The lantern still shone at the cruiser s
peak. Once, indeed, she thought the sound of
oars was again to be heard, and much nearer than
before, and yet no effort of her quick and roving
sight could detect the position of the boat. But


to all these doubts succeeded an alarm which
sprang from a new and very different source.

The existence of the inlet, which united the
ocean with the waters of the cove, was but
little known, except to the few whose avoca
tions kept them near the spot. The pass
being much more than half the time closed,
its varying character, and the little use that
could be made of it under any circumstances,
prevented the place from being a subject of
general interest with the coasters. Even when
open, the depth of its water was uncertain,
since a week or two of calms, or of westerly
winds, would permit the tides to clean its
channel, while a single easterly gale was suf
ficient to choke the entire inlet with sand.
No wonder then, that Alida felt an amazement
which was not quite free from superstitious
alarm, when at that hour, and in such a scene,
she saw a vessel gliding, as it were, unaided by
sails or sweeps, out of the thicket that fringed
the ocean side of the cove, into its very centre.


The strange and mysterious craft was a
brigantine of that mixed construction which is
much used, even in the most ancient and clas
sical seas of the other hemisphere, and which
is supposed to unite the advantages of both a
square and of a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel, but
which is no where seen to display the same
beauty of form and symmetry of equipment
as on the coasts of this Union. The first
and smallest of its masts had all the complicated
machinery of a ship, with its superior and in
ferior spars, its wider reaching, though light
and manageable yards, and its various sails,
shaped and arranged to meet every vicissitude
and caprice of the winds; while the latter or
larger of the two, rose like the straight trunk
of a pine from the hull, simple in its cordage,
and spreading a single sheet of canvass, that,
in itself was sufficient to drive the fabric with
vast velocity through the water. The hull was
low, graceful in its outlines, dark as the
raven s wing, and so modelled as to float on


its element like a sea-gull riding the billows.
There were many delicate and attenuated lines
among its spars, which were intended to spread
broader folds of canvass to the light airs when
necessary ; but these additions to the tracery
of the machine, which added so much to its
beauty by day, were now, seen as it was by
the dimmer and more treacherous rays of the
moon, scarcely visible. In short, as the vessel
had entered the cove floating with the tide,
and was so singularly graceful and fairy-like
in form, Alida at first sight was fain to discredit
her senses, and to believe it no more than
some illusion of the fancy. Like most others
she was ignorant of the temporary inlet, and
under the circumstances, it was not difficult to
lend a momentary credence to so pleasing an idea.
But the delusion was only momentary. The
brigantine turned in its course, and gliding
into the part of the cove where the curvature
of the shores offered most protection from the
winds and waves, and perhaps from curious eyes,


its motion ceased. A heavy plunge in the water
was audible even at the villa, and Alida then
knew that an anchor had fallen into the bay.

Although the coast of North America offered
little to invite lawless depredation, and it was
in general believed to be so safe, yet the pos
sibility that cupidity might be invited by the
retired situation of her uncle s villa did not fail
to suggest itself to the mind of the young
heiress. Both she and her guardian were re
puted to be wealthy, and disappointment on
the open sea, might drive desperate men to
the commission of crimes, that in more pros
perous moments would not suggest themselves.
The freebooters were said to have formerly
visited the coast of the neighbouring island,
and men were just then commencing those ex
cavations for hidden treasures and secreted
booty, which have been, at distant intervals,
continued to our own time.

There are situations in which the mind
insensibly gives credit to impressions that the


reason in common disapproves. The present
was one in which Alida de Barberie, though
of a resolute and even a masculine understand
ing, felt disposed to believe there might be
truth in those tales, that she had hitherto
heard, only to deride. Still keeping her eye
on the motionless vessel, she drew back into
her window, and wrapped the curtain round
her form, undecided whether to alarm the
family or not, and acting under a vague im
pression that, though so distant, her person
might be seen. She was hardly thus secreted,
before the shrubbery was violently agitated,
a footstep was heard in the lawn, beneath her
window, and then one leaped so lightly into
the balcony, and from the balcony into the
centre of the room, that the passage of the
figure seemed like the flitting of some creature
of supernatural attributes.



" Why, look you, how you stare !

I would be friends with you, and have your love."


THE first impulse of Alida, at this second
invasion of her pavilion, was certainly to flee.
But timidity was not her weakness, and as
natural firmness gave her time to examine the
person of the individual who had so uncere
moniously entered, curiosity aided in inducing
her to remain. Perhaps a vague, but a very
natural expectation that she was again to
dismiss the commander of the Coquette, had its


influence on her first decision. In order that
the reader may judge how far this boldness
was excusable, we shall describe the person of
the intruder.

The stranger was one in the very bud of
young and active manhood. His years could
not have exceeded two and twenty, nor would
he probably have been thought so old, had
not his features been shaded by a rich brown
hue, that in some degree served as a foil to
a natural complexion, which though never fair,
was still clear and blooming. A pair of dark,
bushy, and jet-black silken whiskers, that
were in singular contrast to eye-lashes and
brows of almost feminine beauty and softness,
aided also in giving a decided expression to a
face, that might otherwise have been wanting
in some of that character which is thought
essential to comeliness in man. The forehead
was smooth and low. the nose, though promi
nent and bold in outline, of exceeding delicacy
in detail, the mouth and lips full, a little in-



clined to be arch, though the former appeared
as if it might at times be pensive ; the teeth
were even and unsullied, and the chin was
small, round, dimpled, and so carefully divested
of the distinguishing mark of the sex, that one
could fancy nature had contributed all its
growth to adorn the neighbouring cheeks and
temples. If to these features be added a pair
of full and brilliant coal-black eyes, that ap
peared to vary their expression at their master s
will, the reader will at once see, that the
privacy of Alida had been invaded by one
whose personal attractions might, under other
circumstances, have been dangerous to the
imagination of a female, whose taste was in
some degree influenced by a standard created
by her own loveliness.

The dress of the stranger was as unique as
his personal attractions were extraordinary.
The fashion of the garments resembled that
already described as worn by the man who
has announced himself as Master Tiller; but


the materials were altogether richer, and,
judging only from the exterior, more worthy
of the wearer.

The light frock was of a thick purple silk,
of an Indian manufacture, cut with exceeding
care to fit the fine outlines of a form that was
rather round than square; active, than athletic.
The loose trousers were of a fine white jean,
the cap of scarlet velvet, ornamented with
gold, and the body was belted with a large
cord of scarlet silk, twisted in the form of a
ship s cable. At the ends of the latter, little
anchors, wrought in bullion, were attached as
gay and fitting appendages.

In contrast to an attire so whimsical and
uncommon, however, a pair of small and richly
mounted pistols were at the stranger s girdle,
and the haft of a curiously carved Asiatic
dagger was seen projecting rather ostenta
tiously from between the folds of the upper

"What cheer! what cheer!" cried a voice,
K 2


that was more in harmony with the appearance
of the speaker, than with the rough, professional
salutation he uttered, so soon as he had fairly
landed in the centre of Alida s little saloon.
" Come forth, my dealer in the covering of
the beaver, for here is one who brings gold
to thy coffers. Ha ! now that this trio of lights
hath done its office, it may be extinguished,
lest it pilot others to the forbidden haven !"

" Your pardon, Sir," said the mistress of
the pavilion, advancing from behind the cur
tain, with an air of coolness that her beating
heart had nigh betrayed to be counterfeit:
6i having so unexpected a guest to entertain,
the additional candles are necessary."

The start, recoil, and evident alarm of the
intruder, lent Alida a little more assurance,
for courage is a quality that appears to gain
force, in a degree proportioned to the amount
in which it is abstracted from the dreaded
object. Still, when she saw a hand on a pistol,
the maiden was again about to flee, nor was


her resolution to remain confirmed, until she
met the mild and alluring eye of the intruder,
as quitting his hold of the weapon, he ad
vanced with an air so mild and graceful, as
to cause curiosity to take the place of fear.

" Though Alderman Van Beverout be not
punctual to his appointment," said the gay
young stranger, " he has more than atoned
for his absence by the substitute he sends.
I hope she comes authorized to arrange the
whole of our treaty ?"

" I claim no right to hear, or to dictate in
matters not my own. My utmost powers ex
tend to expressing a desire, that this pavilion
may be exempt from the discussion of affairs-,
as much beyond my knowledge as they are
separated from my interests."

u Then why this signal ?" demanded the
stranger, pointing, with a serious air, to the
lights that still burned near each other, in
face of an open window. " It is awkward to
mislead, in transactions that are so delicate !"


u Your allusion, Sir, is not understood.
These lights are no more than what are usually
seen in my apartment at this hour with, in
deed, the addition of a lamp, left by my uncle,
Alderman Van Beverout "

" Your uncle !" exclaimed the other, advanc
ing so near Alida, as to cause her to retire a
step, his countenance expressing a deep and
newly awakened interest " your uncle ! This,
then, is one far-famed and justly extolled la
Belle Barberie !" he added, gallantly lifting his
cap, as if he had just discovered the condi
tion and the unusual personal attractions of his

It was not in nature for Alida to be displeased.
All her fancied causes of terror were forgotten,
for, in addition to their improbable and uncer
tain nature, the stranger had sufficiently given
her to understand that he was expected by her
uncle. If we add, that the singular attraction
and softness of his face and voice aided in
quieting her fears, we shall probably do no


violence either to the truth, or to a very
natural feeling. Profoundly ignorant of the
details of commerce, and accustomed to hear
its mysteries extolled as exercising the keenest
and best faculties of man, she saw nothing
extraordinary in those who were actively en
gaged in the pursuit, having reasons for con
cealing their movements from the jealousy and
rivalry of competitors. Like most of her sex,
she had great dependence on the characters of
those she loved ; and though nature, education,
and habit had created a striking difference be
tween the guardian and his ward, their har
mony had never been interrupted by any breach
of affection.

" This, then, is la Belle Barberie !" repeated
the young sailor, for such his dress denoted
him to be, studying her features with an ex
pression of face, in which pleasure vied with
evident and touching melancholy. " Fame hath
done no injustice, for here is all that might
justify the folly or madness of man !"


" This is familiar dialogue for an utter stran
ger," returned Alida, blushing, though the
quick dark eye that seemed to fathom all her
thoughts saw it was not in anger. * I do not
deny that the partiality of friends, coupled with
my origin, have obtained the appellation, which
is given, however, more in playfulness than in
any serious opinion of its being merited and
now, as the hour is getting late, and this visit is
at least unusual, you will permit me to seek my

" Stay," interrupted the stranger " it is
long very long, since so soothing, so gentle
a pleasure has been mine ! This is a life of
mysteries, beautiful Alida, though its incidents
seem so vulgar and of every day occurrence.
There is mystery in its beginning and its end ;
in its impulses ; its sympathies and all its dis
cordant passions. No, do not quit me. I am
from off the sea, where none but coarse and
vulgar-minded men have long been my asso-


elates, and thy presence is a balm to a bruised
and wounded spirit."

Interested, if possible, more by the touching
and melancholy tones of the speaker, than by
his extraordinary language, Alida hesitated.
Her reason told her that propriety, and even
prudence, required she should apprize her uncle
of the stranger s presence ; but propriety and
prudence lose much of their influence, when
female curiosity is sustained by a secret and
powerful sympathy. Her own eloquent eye
met the open and imploring look of organs that
seemed endowed with the fabled power to
charm, and while her judgment told her there
was so much to alarm, her senses pleaded power
fully in behalf of the gentle mariner.

" An expected guest of my uncle will have

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe water witch; or, The skimmer of the seas. A tale (Volume 1) → online text (page 8 of 13)