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

AT such moments of intense anxiety, the human mind is wont to seek support in the opinions of others. Notwithstanding the increasing velocity and the critical condition of his own vessel, Ludlow cast a glance in order to ascertain the determination of the “Skimmer of the Seas.” Blackwell’s was already behind them, and as the two currents were again united, the brigantine had luffed up into the entrance of the dangerous passage, and now followed within two hundred feet of the Coquette, directly in her wake. The bold and manly-looking mariner who controlled her stood between the knight-heads, just above the image of his pretended mistress, where he examined the foaming reefs, the whirling eddies, and the varying currents, with folded arms and a riveted eye. A glance was exchanged between the two officers, and the free-trader raised his sea-cap. Ludlow was too courteous not to return the salutation; then all his senses were engrossed by the care of his ship. A rock lay before them, over which the water broke in a loud and unceasing roar. For an instant it seemed that the vessel could not avoid the danger; then it was already past.  1
  “Brace up!” said Ludlow, in the calm tones that denote a forced tranquillity.  2
  “Luff!” called out the Skimmer, so quickly as to show that he took the movements of the cruiser for his guide. The ship came closer to the wind, but the sudden bend in the stream no longer permitted her to steer in a direct line with its course. Though drifting to windward with vast rapidity, her way through the water, which was greatly increased by the contrary actions of the wind and tide, caused the cruiser to shoot across the current; while a reef, over which the water madly tumbled, lay immediately in her course. The danger seemed too imminent for the observances of nautical etiquette, and Trysail called aloud that the ship must be thrown aback, or she was lost.  3
  “Hard-a-lee!” shouted Ludlow, in the strong voice of authority. “Up with everything—tacks and sheets!—main-topsail haul!”  4
  The ship seemed as conscious of her danger as any on her decks. The bows whirled away from the foaming reef, and as the sails caught the breeze on their opposite surfaces, they aided in bringing her head in the contrary direction. A minute had scarcely passed ere she was aback, and in the next she was about and full again. The intensity of the brief exertion kept Trysail fully employed; but no sooner had he leisure to look ahead than he again called aloud:—  5
  “Here is another roarer under her bows. Luff, sir, luff, or we are upon it!”  6
  “Hard down your helm!” once again came in deep tones from Ludlow. “Let fly your sheets—throw all aback, forward and aft—away with the yards, with a will, men!”  7
  There was need for all of these precautions. Though the ship had so happily escaped the dangers of the first reef, a turbulent and roaring caldron in the water which as representing the element in ebullition is called “the Pot,” lay so directly before her as to render the danger apparently inevitable. But the power of the canvas was not lost on this trying occasion. The forward motion of the ship diminished, and as the current still swept her swiftly to windward, her bows did not enter the rolling waters until the hidden rocks which caused the commotion had been passed. The yielding vessel rose and fell in the agitated water, as if in homage to the whirlpool; but the deep keel was unharmed.  8
  “If the ship shoot ahead twice her length more, her bows will touch the eddy,” exclaimed the vigilant master.  9
  Ludlow looked around him for a single moment in indecision. The waters were whirling and roaring on every side, and the sails began to lose their power as the ship drew near the bluff which forms the second angle in this critical pass. He saw by objects on the land that he still approached the shore, and he had recourse to the seaman’s last expedient.  10
  “Let go both anchors!” was the final order.  11
  The fall of the massive iron into the water was succeeded by the rumbling of the cable. The first effort to check the progress of the vessel appeared to threaten dissolution to the whole fabric, which trembled under the shock from its mastheads to the keel. But the enormous rope again yielded, and smoke was seen rising round the wood which held it. The ship whirled with the sudden check, and sheered wildly in toward the shore. Met by the helm, and again checked by the efforts of the crew, she threatened to defy restraint. There was an instant when all on board expected to hear the cable snap; but the upper sails filled, and as the wind was now brought over the taffrail, the force of the current was in a great degree met by that of the breeze.  12
  The ship answered her helm and became stationary, while the water foamed against her cutwater as if she were driven ahead with the power of a brisk breeze.  13
  The time from the moment when the Coquette entered the Gate to that when she anchored below “the Pot,” though the distance was nearly a mile, seemed but a minute. Certain however that his ship was now checked, the thoughts of Ludlow returned to their other duties with the quickness of lightning.  14
  “Clear away the grapnels,” he eagerly cried; “stand by to heave, and haul in!—heave!”  15
  But that the reader may better comprehend the motive of this sudden order, he must consent to return to the entrance of the dangerous passage, and accompany the Water-Witch also in her hazardous experiment to get through without a pilot.  16
  The abortive attempt of the brigantine to stem the tide at the western end of Blackwell’s will be remembered. It had no other effect than to place her pursuer more in advance, and to convince her own commander that he had now no other resource than to continue his course; for had he anchored, boats would have insured his capture. When the two vessels appeared off the eastern end of the island, the Coquette was ahead—a fact that the experienced free-trader did not at all regret. He profited by the circumstance to follow her movements, and to make a favorable entrance into the uncertain currents. To him, Hell-Gate was known only by its fearful reputation among mariners; and unless he might avail himself of the presence of the cruiser, he had no other guide than his own general knowledge of the power of the element.  17
  When the Coquette had tacked, the calm and observant Skimmer was satisfied with throwing his head-sails flat to the mast. From that instant the brigantine lay floating in the current, neither advancing nor receding a foot, and always keeping her position at a safe distance from the ship, that was so adroitly made to answer the purposes of a beacon. The sails were watched with the closest care; and so nicely was the delicate machine tended, that it would have been at any moment in her people’s power to have lessened her way by turning to the stream. The Coquette was followed till she anchored, and the call on board the cruiser to heave the grapnels had been given, because the brigantine was apparently floating directly down on her broadside.  18
  When the grapnels were hove from the royal cruiser, the free-trader stood on the low poop of his little vessel, within fifty feet of him who had issued the order. There was a smile of indifference on his firm mouth, while he silently waved a hand to his own crew. The signal was obeyed by bracing round their yards, and suffering all the canvas to fill. The brigantine shot quickly ahead, and the useless irons fell heavily into the water.  19
  “Many thanks for your pilotage, Captain Ludlow!” cried the daring and successful mariner of the shawl, as his vessel, borne on by wind and current, receded rapidly from the cruiser. “You will find me off Montauk; for affairs still keep us on the coast. Our lady has however put on the blue mantle, and ere many settings of the sun we shall look for deep water. Take good care of her Majesty’s ship, I pray thee, for she has neither a more beautiful nor a faster.”  20
  One thought succeeded another with the tumult of a torrent in the mind of Ludlow. As the brigantine lay directly under his broadside, the first impulse was to use his guns; at the next moment he was conscious that before they could be cleared, distance would render them useless. His lips had nearly parted with intent to order the cables cut, but he remembered the speed of the brigantine, and hesitated. A sudden freshening of the breeze decided his course. Finding that the ship was enabled to keep her station, he ordered the crew to thrust the whole of the enormous ropes through the hawse-holes; and freed from the restraint, he abandoned the anchors until an opportunity to reclaim them should offer.  21
  The operation of slipping the cables consumed several minutes; and when the Coquette, with everything set, was again steering in pursuit, the Water-Witch was already beyond the reach of her guns. Both vessels however held on their way, keeping as near as possible to the centre of the stream, and trusting more to fortune than to any knowledge of the channel for safety.  22
  When passing the two small islands that lie at no great distance from the Gate, a boat was seen moving toward the royal cruiser. A man in it pointed to the signal, which was still flying, and offered his services.  23
  “Tell me,” demanded Ludlow eagerly, “has yonder brigantine taken a pilot?”  24
  “By her movements, I judge not. She brushed the sunken rock off the mouth of Flushing Bay; and as she passed, I heard the song of the lead. I should have gone on board myself, but the fellow rather flies than sails; and as for signals, he seems to mind none but his own!”  25
  “Bring us up with him, and fifty guineas is thy reward!”  26
  The slow-moving pilot, who in truth had just awakened from a refreshing sleep, opened his eyes, and seemed to gather a new impulse from the promise. When his questions were asked and answered, he began deliberately to count on his fingers all the chances that still existed of a vessel, whose crew was ignorant of the navigation, falling into their hands.  27
  “Admitting that by keeping mid-channel she goes clear of White Stone and Frogs,” he said, giving to Throgmorton’s its vulgar name, “he must be a wizard to know that the Stepping-Stones lie directly across his course, and that a vessel must steer away northerly or bring up on rocks that will as surely hold him as if he were built there. Then he runs his chance for the Executioners, which are as prettily placed as needs be to make our trade flourish; besides the Middle Ground farther east, though I count but little on that, having often tried to find it myself, without success. Courage, noble captain! if the fellow be the man you say, we shall get a nearer look at him before the sun sets; for certainly he who has run the Gate without a pilot in safety, has had as much good luck as can fall to his share in one day.”  28
  The opinion of the East River Branch proved erroneous. Notwithstanding the hidden perils by which she was environed, the Water-Witch continued her course, with a speed that increased as the wind rose with the sun, and with an impunity from harm that amazed all who were in the secret of her situation. Off Throgmorton’s there was, in truth, a danger that might even have baffled the sagacity of the followers of the mysterious lady, had they not been aided by accident. This is the point where the straitened arm of the sea expands into the basin of the sound. A broad and inviting passage lies directly before the navigator, while, like the flattering prospects of life, numberless hidden obstacles are in wait to arrest the unheeding and ignorant.  29
  The “Skimmer of the Seas” was deeply practiced in all the intricacies and dangers of shoals and rocks. Most of his life had been passed in threading the one or in avoiding the other. So keen and quick had his eye become in detecting the presence of any of those signs which forewarn the mariner of danger, that a ripple on the surface, or a deeper shade in the color of the water, rarely escaped his vigilance. Seated on the topsail-yard of his brigantine, he had overlooked the passage from the moment they were through the Gate, and issued his mandates to those below with a precision and promptitude that were not surpassed by the trained conductor of the Coquette himself. But when his sight embraced the wide reach of water that lay in front, as his little vessel swept round the headland of Throgmorton, he believed there no longer existed a reason for so much care. Still there was a motive for hesitation. A heavily molded and dull-sailing coaster was going eastward not a league ahead of the brigantine, while one of the light sloops of those waters was coming westward still farther in the distance. Notwithstanding the wind was favorable to each alike, both vessels had deviated from the direct line and were steering toward a common centre, near an island that was placed more than a mile to the northward of the straight course. A mariner like him of the India shawl could not overlook so obvious an intimation of a change in the channel. The Water-Witch was kept away, and her lighter sails were lowered, in order to allow the royal cruiser, whose lofty canvas was plainly visible above the land, to draw near. When the Coquette was seen also to diverge, there no longer remained a doubt of the direction necessary to be taken; and everything was quickly set upon the brigantine, even to her studding-sails. Long ere she reached the island the two coasters had met, and each again changed its course, reversing that on which the other had just been sailing. There was in these movements as plain an explanation as a seaman could desire, that the pursued were right. On reaching the island, therefore, they again luffed into the wake of the schooner; and having nearly crossed the sheet of water, they passed the coaster, receiving an assurance in words that all was now plain sailing before them.  30
  Such was the famous passage of the “Skimmer of the Seas” through the multiplied and hidden dangers of the eastern channel. To those who have thus accompanied him, step by step, through its intricacies and alarms, there may seem nothing extraordinary in the event; but coupled as it was with the character previously earned by that bold mariner, and occurring as it did in the age when men were more disposed than at present to put faith in the marvelous, the reader will not be surprised to learn that it greatly increased his reputation for daring, and had no small influence on an opinion which was by no means uncommon, that the dealers in contraband were singularly favored by a power which greatly exceeded that of Queen Anne and all her servants.  31
 
 
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