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Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789-1851 [1831], The water-witch, volume 1 (Carey & Lea, Philadelphia) [word count] [eaf061v1].
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“—I have great comfort from this fellow: methinks he hath no drowning
mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows.”


[figure description] Page 033.[end figure description]

It has been said that the periagua was in motion,
before our two adventures succeeded in stepping on
board. The arrival of the Patroon 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 `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 so important and constant as
the Alderman, 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 movements, 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 glittering eyes expressing
the delight he found in drawing sounds from
the shell, he continued to give forth the signal for

“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 clamor.
“A thousand windy trumpeters would be silence itself,
compared to such a pair of lungs! How now,

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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 bubbles 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 encourage
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 depended 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 personal qualities.

“Der wind-gall and Aldermen!” 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 harbor!”

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

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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 deepended 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
showed she was a personal attendant of the heiress.

A second glance at Alida de Barbérie 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 Barbérie, 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 fullness 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 travelling habit, a little beaver that
was shaded by a cluster of drooping feathers, and a
mien that, under the embarrassment of her situation,

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[figure description] Page 036.[end figure description]

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 courteous discourse with
the young man, who was generally considered as the
one, among the numerous pretenders to her favor,
who was most likely to succeed. Had other cause
been wanting, this sight alone would have been
sufficient to restore his good-humor; and, making a
place for himself, by quietly dispossessing François,
the domestic of his niece, the persevering burgher
endeavored to encourage an intercourse, that he had
reason to think must terminate in the result he both
meditated and desired.

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 analyze the cause, or the consequences, in the instance
of the Patroon and la belle Barbérie, 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 gradually 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

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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 tide's-way, and she might
be said to put forth on her voyage. But while the
black crew were trimming 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 comfortable-looking old gentleman. 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 movements
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 passenger was preparing to come off
in a yawl, those who awaited his movements had
leisure to examine his appearance, and to form their
different 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

-- 038 --

[figure description] Page 038.[end figure description]

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 handsome; 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 conceal. The color was a rich, deep, and
uniform red, such as much exposure is apt to give to
men whose complexions are, by nature, light and

The dress of the stranger was quite as remarkable
as his person. He wore a short pea-jacket, cut tight
and tastefully; a little, low, and rakish cap, and full
bell-mouthed trowsers, 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 manufacture 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, canvas slippers,
with foul-anchors worked in worsted upon their insteps,
covered his feet, we shall say all that is necessary
of his attire.

The appearance of one, of the air and dress we
have just described, excited a strong sensation among
the blacks who scrubbed the stoops and pavements.
He was closely attended to the place where he hailed

-- 039 --

[figure description] Page 039.[end figure description]

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 loose its fast, he sculled 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 steadiness, 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
analyze the half-maritime character of the crew
and passengers, at a glance, and to feel that sort of
superiority over his companions, 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

-- 040 --

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rig and modest sails of the periagua, while his upper
lip curled with the knowing expression of a critic.
Then kicking the fore-sheet clear of its cleet, 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 Alida.

“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 understand
the allusion, maintaining an air of dignified but silent

“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, concerning the freebooters among
the islands?”

“I have not the honor to bear Her Majesty's commission,”
coldly returned Van Staats of Kinderhook,
to whom this question had been hardily put.

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[figure description] Page 041.[end figure description]

“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 himself 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 desirable,
is this bay of York!”

“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 navigation; 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 priest, 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 Barbérie,
though his timidity caused him, in truth, to look the
other way. “One is never nearer danger, 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, may help
a man into port, when he is past keeping the open

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sea. How now, schipper! what lies are floating about
the docks this morning? when did the last Albanyman
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 Alderman;
“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, disregarding the complaint
of the burgher. “The times are getting heavy
for men of metal, as may be seen by the manner in
which you 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, suffering it to rest, a moment,
with a secret significance, 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!”

“Ah! having eaten all his meat and bread, the

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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 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 rumor, 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 gentleman, 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 discourse.

“I beg a thousand pardons!” returned the strange
seaman, with a grave inclination of his body. “The
stolidity of your worship's countenance deceived me.
It may be, indeed, unreasonable to expect any Alderman
to know the position of the Atlantic Ocean!
And yet, gentlemen, on the honor 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 inlet says, the `Skimmer
of the Seas' was lately seen standing along the coast,”
returned the ferry-man, 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 color of the sea at night, and are

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for ever steering in the wind's eye in search of adventures.
I wonder, more of them are not kept at making
almanacs! 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
neighbor'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 manœuvres
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! Whereaway, 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!”

“A certain proof of either her, or your, activity!
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. I have never gone upon the banks to fish,
since that day, in thick weather.”

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“You have done well,” observed the stranger. “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 coaster.”

“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 narrative.

But the countenance of the stranger suddenly
grew serious. He shook his head, like one who had
sufficient reasons for his silence; and, relinquishing
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
less than five minutes, all within hearing had audible
evidence that this extraordinary son of the ocean
was in a sound sleep.

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Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789-1851 [1831], The water-witch, volume 1 (Carey & Lea, Philadelphia) [word count] [eaf061v1].
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