Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Privateer
By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)
From ‘The Water-Witch’

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 marvelous 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 excites 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.  1
  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 moldings 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.  2
  It has been said that the hull of this celebrated smuggler was low, dark, molded 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, paralleled to the plane of her upper works, and consequently converging slightly toward 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 housewife; 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 all 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 cutwater. 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 disheveled, 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.  3
  “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?”  4
  “It seems an open book, with letters of red written on its pages. One need not be a conjurer to divine it is no extract from the Bible.”  5
  “Nor from the statute books of Queen Anne. I warrant me ’tis a ledger 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!”  6
  “Wilt 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 tautened 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 we shall 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 a woman’s mind can ever be fathomed.”  7
  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 never 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 gone 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 Amsterdam! Let us board the brigantine, friend mariner, and end the connection ere foul mouths begin to traduce our motives for the visit.”  9
  “The overdriven 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 lady’s pages? A woman’s mind is never known at the first answer.”  10
  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.  11
  “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.”  13
  “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.”…  14
  If the exterior of the brigantine was so graceful in form and so singular in arrangement, the interior was still more worthy of observation. There were two small cabins beneath the main deck, one on each side of, and immediately adjoining, the limited space that was destined to receive her light but valuable cargoes. It was into one of these that Tiller had descended like a man who freely entered into his own apartment; but partly above and nearer to the stern was a suite of little rooms that were fitted and finished in a style altogether different. The equipments were those of a yacht, rather than those which might be supposed suited to the pleasures of even the most successful dealer in contraband.  15
  The principal deck had been sunk several feet, commencing at the aftermost bulkhead of the cabins of the subordinate officers, in a manner to give the necessary height, without interfering with the line of the brigantine’s shear. The arrangement was consequently not to be seen by an observer who was not admitted into the vessel itself. A descent of a step or two, however, brought the visitors to the level of the cabin floor, and into an ante-room that was evidently fitted for the convenience of the domestic. A small silver hand-bell lay on a table, and Tiller rang it lightly, like one whose ordinary manner was restrained by respect. It was answered by the appearance of a boy, whose years could not exceed ten, and whose attire was so whimsical as to merit description.  16
  The material of the dress of this young servitor of Neptune was a light rose-colored silk, cut in a fashion to resemble the habits formerly worn by pages of the great. His body was belted by a band of gold, a collar of fine thread lace floated on his neck and shoulders, and even his feet were clad in a sort of buskins, that were ornamented with fringes of real lace and tassels of bullion. The form and features of the child were delicate, and his air as unlike as possible to the coarse and brusque manner of a vulgar ship-boy.  17
  “Waste and prodigality!” muttered the alderman, when this extraordinary little usher presented himself in answer to the summons of Tiller. “This is the very wantonness of cheap goods and an unfettered commerce! There is enough of Mechlin, patroon, on the shoulders of that urchin, to deck the stomacher of the Queen. ’Fore George, goods were cheap in the market when the young scoundrel had his livery!”  18
  The surprise was not confined, however, to the observant and frugal burgher. Ludlow and Van Staats of Kinderhook manifested equal amazement, though their wonder was exhibited in a less characteristic manner. The former turned short to demand the meaning of this masquerade, when he perceived that the hero of the India shawl had disappeared. They were then alone with the fantastic page, and it became necessary to trust to his intelligence for directions how to proceed.  19
  “Who art thou, child?—and who has sent thee hither?” demanded Ludlow. The boy raised a cap of the same rose-colored silk, and pointed to an image of a female, with a swarthy face and a malign smile, painted with exceeding art on its front.  20
  “I serve the sea-green lady, with the others of the brigantine.”  21
  “And who is this lady of the color of shallow water, and whence come you in particular?”  22
  “This is her likeness: if you would speak with her, she stands on the cutwater, and rarely refuses an answer.”  23
  “’Tis odd that a form of wood should have the gift of speech!”  24
  “Dost think her, then, of wood?” returned the child, looking timidly and yet curiously up into the face of Ludlow. “Others have said the same; but those who know best, deny it. She does not answer with a tongue, but the book has always something to say.”  25
  “Here is a grievous deception practiced on the superstition of this boy: I have read the book, and can make but little of its meaning.”  26
  “Then read again. ’Tis by many reaches that the leeward vessel gains upon the wind. My master has bid me bring you in—”  27
  “Hold—thou hast both master and mistress? You have told us the latter, but we would know something of the former. Who is thy master?”  28
  The boy smiled and looked aside, as if he hesitated to answer.  29
  “Nay, refuse not to reply. I come with the authority of the Queen.”  30
  “He tells us that the sea-green lady is our queen, and that we have no other.”  31
  “Rashness and rebellion!” muttered Myndert; “but this foolhardiness will one day bring as pretty a brigantine as ever sailed in the narrow seas to condemnation; and then will there be rumors abroad, and characters cracked, till every lover of gossip in the Americas shall be tired of defamation.”  32
  “It is a bold subject that dares say this!” rejoined Ludlow, who heeded not the by-play of the alderman: “your master has a name?”  33
  “We never hear it. When Neptune boards us, under the tropics, he always hails the Skimmer of the Seas, and then they answer. The old god knows us well, for we pass his latitude oftener than other ships, they say.”  34
  “You are then a cruiser of some service in the brigantine? no doubt you have trod many distant shores, belonging to so swift a craft?”  35
  “I!—I never was on the land!” returned the boy, thoughtfully. “It must be droll to be there: they say one can hardly walk, it is so steady! I put a question to the sea-green lady before we came to the narrow inlet, to know when I was to go ashore.”  36
  “And she answered?”  37
  “It was some time first. Two watches were passed before a word was to be seen; at last I got the lines. I believe she mocked me, though I have never dared show it to my master, that he might say.”  38
  “Hast the words here?—perhaps we might assist thee, as there are some among us who know most of the sea paths.”  39
  The boy looked timidly and suspiciously round; then thrusting a hand hurriedly into a pocket, he drew forth two bits of paper, each of which contained a scrawl, and both of which had evidently been much thumbed and studied.  40
  “Here,” he said, in a voice that was suppressed nearly to a whisper. “This was on the first page. I was so frightened lest the lady should be angry, that I did not look again till the next watch; and then,” turning the leaf, “I found this.”  41
  Ludlow took the bit of paper first offered, and read, written in a child’s hand, the following extract:—
                      “I pray thee
Remember, I have done thee worthy service;
Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, served
Without or grudge or grumblings.”
  “I thought that ’twas in mockery,” continued the boy, when he saw by the eye of the young captain that he had read the quotation; “for ’twas very like, though more prettily worded than that which I had said myself!”  43
  “And what was the second answer?”  44
  “This was found in the first morning watch,” the child returned, reading the second extract himself:—
                  “‘Thou think’st
It much to tread the ooze of the salt deep,
And run upon the sharp wind of the north!’
  “I never dared to ask again. But what matters that? They say the ground is rough and difficult to walk on; that earthquakes shake it, and make holes to swallow cities; that men slay each other on the highways for money, and that the houses I see on the hills must always remain in the same spot. It must be very melancholy to live always in the same spot; but then it must be odd never to feel a motion!”  46
  “Except the occasional rocking of an earthquake. Thou art better afloat, child—but thy master, the Skimmer of the Seas—”  47
  “Hist!” whispered the boy, raising a finger for silence. “He has come up into the great cabin. In a moment we shall have his signal to enter.”  48
  A few light touches on the strings of a guitar followed, and then a symphony was rapidly and beautifully executed by one in the adjoining apartment.  49
  “Alida herself is not more nimble-fingered,” whispered the alderman; “and I never heard the girl touch the Dutch lute that cost a hundred Holland guilders, with a livelier movement!”  50
  Ludlow signed for silence. A fine manly voice, of great richness and depth, was soon heard, singing to an accompaniment on the same instrument. The air was grave, and altogether unusual for the social character of one who dwelt upon the ocean, being chiefly in recitation. The words, as near as might be distinguished, ran as follows:—

            “My brigantine!
Just in thy mold and beauteous in thy form,
  Gentle in roll and buoyant on the surge,
Light as the sea-fowl rocking in the storm,
  In breeze and gale thy onward course we urge—
          My water-queen!
          “Lady of mine!
More light and swift than thou none thread the sea,
  With surer keel, or steadier on its path;
We brave each waste of ocean mystery,
  And laugh to hear the howling tempest’s wrath!—
          For we are thine!
          “My brigantine!
Trust to the mystic power that points thy way,
  Trust to the eye that pierces from afar,
Trust the red meteors that around thee play,
  And fearless trust the sea-green lady’s star—
          Thou bark divine!”
  “He often sings thus,” whispered the boy, when the song was ended: “they say the sea-green lady loves music that tells of the ocean and of her power.—Hark! he has bid me enter.”  52
  “He did but touch the strings of the guitar again, boy.”  53
  “’Tis his signal when the weather is fair. When we have the whistlings of the wind and the roar of the water, then he has a louder call.”  54
  Ludlow would have gladly listened longer; but the boy opened a door, and pointing the way to those he conducted, he silently vanished himself behind a curtain.  55
  The visitors, more particularly the young commander of the Coquette, found new subjects of admiration and wonder on entering the main cabin of the brigantine. The apartment, considering the size of the vessel, was spacious and high. It received light from a couple of windows in the stern, and it was evident that two smaller rooms, one on each of the quarters, shared with it in this advantage. The space between these state-rooms, as they are called in nautical language, necessarily formed a deep alcove, which might be separated from the outer portion of the cabin by a curtain of crimson damask that now hung in festoons from a beam fashioned into a gilded cornice. A luxurious-looking pile of cushions, covered with red morocco, lay along the transom, in the manner of an Eastern divan; and against the bulkhead of each state-room stood an agrippina of mahogany, that was lined with the same material. Neat and tasteful cases for books were suspended here and there, and the guitar which had so lately been used lay on a small table of some precious wood, that occupied the centre of the alcove. There were also other implements, like those which occupy the leisure of a cultivated but perhaps an effeminate rather than a vigorous mind, scattered around; some evidently long neglected, and others appearing to have been more recently in favor.  56
  The outer portion of the cabin was furnished in a similar style, though it contained many more of the articles that ordinarily belong to domestic economy. It had its agrippina, its piles of cushions, its chairs of beautiful wood, its cases for books, and its neglected instruments, intermixed with fixtures of more solid and permanent appearance, which were arranged to meet the violent motion that was often unavoidable in so small a bark. There was a slight hanging of crimson damask around the whole apartment; and here and there a small mirror was let into the bulkheads and ceilings. All the other parts were of a rich mahogany, relieved by panels of rosewood, that gave an appearance of exquisite finish to the cabin. The floor was covered with a mat of the finest texture, and of a fragrance that announced both its freshness and the fact that the grass had been the growth of a warm and luxuriant climate. The place, as was indeed the whole vessel, so far as the keen eye of Ludlow could detect, was entirely destitute of arms; not even a pistol or a sword being suspended in those places where weapons of that description are usually seen, in all vessels employed either in war or in a trade that might oblige those who sail them to deal in violence.  57
  In the centre of the alcove stood the youthful-looking and extraordinary person who, in so unceremonious a manner, had visited La Cour des Fées the preceding night. His dress was much the same, in fashion and material, as when last seen: still it had been changed; for on the breast of the silken frock was painted an image of the sea-green lady, done with exquisite skill, and in a manner to preserve the whole of the wild and unearthly character of the expression. The wearer of this singular ornament leaned lightly against the little table, and as he bowed with entire self-possession to his guests, his face was lighted with a smile that seemed to betray melancholy no less than courtesy. At the same time he raised his cap, and stood in the rich jet-black locks with which nature had so exuberantly shaded his forehead.  58
  The manner of the visitors was less easy. The deep anxiety with which both Ludlow and the patroon had undertaken to board the notorious smuggler had given place to an amazement and a curiosity that caused them nearly to forget their errand; while Alderman Van Beverout appeared shy and suspicious, manifestly thinking less of his niece than of the consequences of so remarkable an interview. They all returned the salutation of their host, though each waited for him to speak.  59

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