Chapter IX. [XXXIII]

“ — Please you, read.”


“It is past!” said the Skimmer of the Seas, raising himself from the attitude of great muscular exertion, which he had assumed in order to support the mess-chest, and walking out along the single mast, towards the spot whence the four seamen of Ludlow had just been swept. “It is past! and those who are called to the last account, have met their fates, in such a scene as none but a seaman may witness, while those who are spared, have need of all a seaman’s skill and resolution for that which remains! Capt. Ludlow, I do not despair, for, see, the lady of the brigantine has still a smile for her servitors!”

Ludlow, who had followed the steady and daring free-trader to the place where the spar had fallen, turned and cast a look in the direction that the other stretched his arm. Within a hundred feet of him, he saw the image of the sea-green lady, rocking in the agitated water, and turned towards the raft, with its usual expression of wild and malicious intelligence. This emblem of their fancied mistress had been borne in front of the smugglers, when they mounted the poop of the Coquette, and the steeled staff on which the lantern was perched, had been struck into a horse- bucket by the standard-bearer of the moment, ere he entered the mélée of the combat. During the conflagration, this object had more than once met the eye of Ludlow, and now it appeared floating quietly by him, in a manner almost to shake even his contempt for the ordinary superstitions of seamen. While he hesitated in what manner he should reply to his companion’s remark, the latter plunged into the sea, and swam towards the light. He was soon by the side of the raft, again, bearing aloft the symbol of his brigantine. There are none so firm in the dominion of reason, as to be entirely superior to the secret impulses, which teach us all to believe in the hidden agency of a good or an evil fortune. The voice of the free-trader was more cheerful, and his step more sure and elastic, as he crossed the stage and struck the armed end of the staff into that part of the top-rim of the Coquette, which floated uppermost.

“Courage!” he gaily cried. “While this light burns, my star is not set! Courage, lady of the land, for here is one of the deep waters, who still looks kindly, on her followers! We are at sea, on a frail craft it is certain, but a dull sailer may make a sure passage. — Speak, gallant Master Seadrift; thy gaiety and spirit should revive, under so goodly an omen!”

But the agent of so many pleasant masquerades, and the instrument of so much of his artifice, had not a fortitude equal to the buoyant temper of the smuggler. The counterfeit bowed his head, by the side of the silent Alida, without reply. The Skimmer of the Seas regarded the groupe, a moment, with manly interest, and then touching the arm of Ludlow, he walked, with a balancing step, along the spars, until they had reached a spot, where they might confer, without causing unnecessary alarm to their companions.

Although so imminent and so pressing a danger, as that of the explosion, had passed, the situation of those who had escaped was scarcely better than that of those who had been lost. The heavens showed a few glimmering stars, in the openings of the clouds, and now, that the first contrast of the change had lessened, there was just enough light to render all the features of their actual state gloomily imposing.

It has been said, that the foremast of the Coquette went, by the board, with most of its hamper aloft. The sails, with such portion of the rigging as might help to sustain it, had been hastily cut away as related, and after its fall, until the moment of the explosion, the common men had been engaged, either in securing the staging, or in clearing the wreck of those heavy ropes which, useless as fastenings, only added to the weight of the mass. The whole wreck lay upon the sea, with the yards crossed and in their places, much as the spars had stood. The large booms had been unshipped, and laid in such a manner around the top, with the ends resting on the lower and top-sail yards, as to form the foundation of the staging. The smaller booms, with the mess-chest and shot-boxes, were all that lay between the groupe in the centre, and the depths of the ocean. The upper part of the top-rim rose a few feet above the water, and formed an important protection against the night+breeze and the constant washing of the waves. In this manner, were the females seated, cautioned not to trust their feet on the frail security of the booms, and supported by the unremitting care of the Alderman. François had submitted to be lashed to the top, by one of the brigantine’s seamen, while the latter, all of the common herd who remained, encouraged by the presence of their standard-light, began to occupy themselves in looking to the fastenings and other securities of the raft.

“We are in no condition for a long, or an active cruise, Capt. Ludlow,” said the Skimmer, when he and his companion were out of hearing. “I have been at sea in all weathers, and in every description of craft; but this is the boldest of my experiments on the water. — I hope it may not be the last!”

“We cannot conceal from ourselves the frightful hazards we run,” returned Ludlow, “however much we may wish them to be a secret to some among us.”

“This is truly a deserted sea, to be abroad in, on a raft! Were we in the narrow passages between the British islands and the Main, or even in the Biscay waters, there would be hope that some trader, or roving cruiser might cross our track; but our chance here lies much between the Frenchman and the brigantine.”

“The enemy has doubtless seen and heard the explosion, and as the land is so near, they will infer that the people are saved in the boats. Our chance of seeing more of them is much diminished, by the accident of the fire, since there will no longer be a motive for remaining on the coast.”

“And will your young officers abandon their captain, without a search?”

“Hope of aid from that quarter is faint. The ship ran miles, while in flames, and before the light returns, these spars will have drifted leagues, with the ebbing tide, to sea-ward.”

“Truly I have sailed with better auguries!” observed the Skimmer — “What are the bearings and distance of the land?”

“It still lies to the north, but we are fast setting east and southerly. Ere morning, we shall be a-beam of Montauk, or even beyond it; we must already be some leagues in the offing.”

“That is worse than I had imagined! — but there is hope on the flood?”

“The flood will bear us northward, again — but — what think you of the heavens!”

“Unfavourable, though not desperate. The sea-breeze will return with the sun.”

“And with it will return the swell! How long will these ill secured spars hold together, when agitated by the heave of the water? Or, how long will those with us, bear up against the wash of the sea, unsupported by nourishment?”

“You paint in gloomy colours, Capt. Ludlow,” said the free-trader, drawing a heavy breath, in spite of all his resolution. “My experience tells me you are right, though my wishes would fain contradict you. Still, I think we have the promise of a tranquil night.”

“Tranquil for a ship, or even for a boat; but hazardous to a raft like this. You see that this top-mast already works in the cap, at each heave of the water, and as the wood loosens, our security lessens.”

“Thy council it not flattering! — Capt. Ludlow, you are a seaman, and a man, and I shall not attempt to trifle with your knowledge. With you, I think the danger imminent, and almost our only hope dependant on the good fortune of my brigantine.”

“Wilt those in her, think it their duty, to quit their anchorage, to come in quest of a raft, whose existence is unknown to them?”

“There is hope in the vigilance of her of the sea-green mantle! You may deem this fanciful, or even worse, at such a moment; but I, who have run so many gauntlets under her favour, have faith in her fortunes. Surely, you are not a seaman, Capt. Ludlow, without a secret dependance, on some unseen and potent agency!”

“My dependance is placed in the agency of him, who is all potent, but ever visible. If he forget us, we may indeed despair!”

“This is well, but it is not the fortune I would express. Believe me, spite of an education which teaches all you have said, and of a reason that is often too clear for folly, there is a secret reliance on hidden chances, that has been created by a life of activity and hazard, and which if it should do nothing better, does not abandon me to despair. The omen of the light and the smile of my mistress would cheer me, spite of a thousand philosophers!”

“You are fortunate in purchasing consolation so cheaply;” returned the commander of Queen Anne, who felt a latent hope in his companion’s confidence, he would have hesitated to acknowledge. “I see but little that we can do to aid our chances, except it be to clear away all unnecessary weight, and to secure the raft as much as possible, by additional lashings.”

The Skimmer of the Seas assented to the proposal. Consulting a moment longer, on the details of their expedients, they rejoined the groupe near the top, in order to see them executed. As the seamen, on the raft, were reduced to the two people of the brigantine, Ludlow and his companion were obliged to assist in the performance of the duty.

Much uselesss rigging, that added to the pressure without aiding the buoyancy of the raft, was cut away, and all the boom- irons were knocked off the yards, and suffered to descend to the bottom of the ocean. By these means, a great weight was taken from the raft, which in consequence floated with so much additional power to sustain those who depended on it for life. The Skimmer, accompanied by his two silent but obedient seamen, ventured along the attenuated and submerged spars to the extremity of the tapering masts, and after toiling, with the dexterity of men accustomed to deal with the complicated machinery of a ship in the darkest nights, they succeeded in releasing the two smaller masts with their respective yards, and in floating them down to the body of the wreck, or the part around the top. Here the sticks were crossed in a manner to give great additional strength, and footing to the stage.

There was an air of hope, and a feeling of increased security in this employment. Even the Alderman and François aided in the task, to the extent of their knowledge and force. But when these alterations were made, and additional lashings had been applied to keep the top-mast and the larger yards in their places, Ludlow, by joining those who were around the mast-head, tacitly admitted that little more could be done, to avert the chances of the elements.

During the few hours occupied in this important duty, Alida and her companion addressed themselves to God, in long and fervent petitions. With woman’s faith, in that Divine being who alone could avail them, and with woman’s high mental fortitude, in moments of protracted trial, they had both known how to control the exhibition of their terrors, and had sought their support in the same appeal, to a power superior to all of earth. Ludlow was therefore more than rewarded by the sound of Alida’s voice, speaking to him cheerfully, as she thanked him for what he had done, when he admitted that he could now do no more.

“The rest is with Providence!” added Alida. “All that bold and skilful seamen can do have ye done; and all that woman, in such a situation, can do, have we done in your behalf!”

Thou hast thought of me in thy prayers, Alida! It is an intercession that the stoutest needs, and which none but the fool derides.”

“And thou, Eudora; thou hast remembered him who quiets the waters!” said a deep voice, near the bending form of the counterfeit Sea+drift.

“I have.”

“’Tis well. — There are points to which manhood and experience may pass, and there are those where all is left to one mightier than the elements!”

Words like these, coming from the lips of one of the known character of the Skimmer of the Seas, were not given to the winds. Even Ludlow cast an uneasy look at the heavens, when they came upon his ear, as if they conveyed a secret notice of the whole extremity of the danger by which they were environed. None answered; and a long silence succeeded, during which some of the more fatigued slumbered uneasily, spite of their fearful situation.

In this manner did the night pass in weariness and anxiety. Little was said, and for hours, scarce a limb was moved, in the groupe that clustered around the mess-chest. As the signs of day appeared, however, every faculty was keenly awake, to catch the first signs of what they had to hope, or the first certainty of what they had to fear.

The surface of the ocean was still smooth, though the long swells, in which the element was heaving and setting, sufficiently indicated that the raft had floated far from the land. This fact was rendered sure, when the light, which soon appeared along the eastern margin of the narrow view, was shed gradually over the whole horizon. Nothing was at first visible, but one gloomy and vacant waste of water. But a cry of joy from Seadrift, whose senses had long been practised in ocean sights, soon drew all eyes in the direction opposite to that of the rising sun, and it was not long, before all on the low raft, had a view of the snowy surfaces of a ship’s sails, as the glow of morning touched the canvass.

“It is the Frenchman!” said the free-trader. “He is charitably looking for the wreck of his late enemy!”

“It may be so, for our fate can be no secret to him;” was the answer of Ludlow. “Unhappily, we had run some distance from the anchorage, before the flames broke out. Truly those with whom we so lately struggled for life, are bent on a duty of humanity.”

“Ah, yonder is his crippled consort! — to leeward many a league. The gay bird has been too sadly stripped of its plumage to fly so near the wind! This is man’s fortune! He uses his power, at one moment, to destroy the very means that become necessary to his safety, the next.

“And what think you of our hopes?” asked Alida, searching in the countenance of Ludlow a clue to their fate. “Does the stranger move in a direction favourable to our wishes?”

Neither Ludlow nor the Skimmer replied. Both regarded the frigate intently, and then, as objects became more distinct, both answered, by a common impulse, that the ship was steering directly towards them. The declaration excited general hope, and even the negress was no longer restrained by her situation, from expressing her joy in vociferous exclamations of delight.

A few minutes of active and ready exertion succeeded. A light boom was unlashed from the raft, and raised on its end, supporting a little signal, made of the handkerchiefs of the party, which fluttered in the light breeze, at the elevation of some twenty feet above the surface of the water. After this precaution was observed, they were obliged to await the result in such patience as they could assume. Minute passed after minute, and, at each moment, the form and proportions of the ship became more distinct, until all the mariners of the party declared they could distinguish men on her yards. A cannon would have readily sent its shot from the ship to the raft, and yet no sign betrayed the consciousness of those in the former of the proximity of the latter.

“I do not like his manner of steering!” observed the Skimmer to the silent and attentive Ludlow. “He yaws broadly as if disposed to give up the search. God grant him the heart to continue on his course ten minutes longer!”

“Have we no means of making ourselves heard?” demanded the Alderman. “Methinks the voice of a strong man might be sent thus far, across the water, when life is the stake.”

The more experienced shook their heads, but not discouraged, the burgher raised his voice, with a power that was sustained by the imminency of the peril. He was joined by the seamen, and even Ludlow lent his aid, until all were hoarse with the fruitless efforts. Men were evidently aloft, and in some numbers, searching the ocean with their eyes, but still no answering signal came from the vessel.

The ship continued to approach, and the raft was less than half a mile from her bows, when the vast fabric suddenly receded from the breeze, showed the whole of its glittering broadside, and swinging its yards betrayed, by its new position, that the search in that direction was abandoned. The instant Ludlow saw the falling-off of the frigate’s bows he cried —

“Now raise your voices together; — this is the final chance!”

They united in a common shout, with the exception of the Skimmer of the Seas. The latter leaned against the top, with folded arms, listening to their impotent efforts, with a melancholy smile.

“It is well attempted,” said the calm and extraordinary seaman when the clamour had ceased, advancing along the raft and motioning for all to be silent; “but it has failed. The swinging of the yards, and the orders given in waring ship would prevent a stronger sound from being audible, to men so actively employed. I flatter none with hope, but this is truly the moment for a final effort.”

He placed his hands to his mouth, and disregarding words, he raised a cry so clear, so powerful, and yet so full, that it seemed impossible those in the vessel should not hear. Thrice did he repeat the experiment, though it was evident that each successive exertion was feebler than the last.

“They hear!” cried Alida. “There is a movement in the sails!”

“Tis, the breeze freshening;” answered Ludlow, in sadness, at her side. “Each moment takes them away!”

The melancholy truth was too apparent for denial, and, for half an hour, the retiring ship was watched, in the bitterness of disappointment. At the end of that time, she fired a gun, spread additional canvass on her wide booms, and stood away before the wind, to join her consort, whose upper sails were already dipping to the surface of the sea, in the southern board. With this change in her movements, vanished all expectation of succour from the cruiser of the enemy.

Perhaps, in every situation of life, it is necessary that hope should be first lessened by disappointment, before the buoyancy of the human mind will permit it to descend to the level of an evil fortune. Until a frustrated effort teaches him the difficulty of the attempt, he who has fallen may hope to rise again, and it is only when an exertion has been made with lessened means, that we learn the value of advantages, which have perhaps been long enjoyed, with a very undue estimate of their importance. Until the stern of the French frigate was seen retiring from the raft, those who were on it had not been fully sensible of the extreme danger of their situation. Hope had been strongly excited by the return of dawn, for while the shadows of night lay on the ocean, their situation resembled that of one who strove to pierce the obscurity of the future, in order to obtain a presage of better fortunes. With the light had come the distant sail. As the day advanced, the ship had approached, relinquished her search, and disappeared, without a prospect of her return.

The stoutest heart, among the groupe on the raft, began to sink at the gloomy fate which now seemed inevitable.

“Here is an evil omen!” whispered Ludlow, directing his companion’s eyes to the dark and pointed fins of three or four sharks, that were gliding above the surface of the water, and in so fearful a proximity to their persons, as to render their situation on the low spars, over which the water was washing and retiring at each rise and fall of the waves, doubly dangerous. — “The creature’s instinct speaks ill for our hopes!”

“There is a belief among seamen, that these animals feel a secret impulse, which directs them to their prey;” returned the Skimmer. “But fortune may yet balk them. — Rogerson!” calling to one of his followers. “Thy pockets are rarely wanting in a fisherman’s tackle. Hast thou, haply, line and hook, for these hungry miscreants? The question is getting narrowed to one, in which the simplest philosophy is the wisest. When eat, or to be eaten, is the mooted point, most men will decide for the former.”

A hook of sufficient size was soon produced, and a line was quickly provided, from some of the small cordage, that still remained about the masts. A piece of leather, torn from a spar, answered for the bait, and the lure was thrown. Extreme hunger seemed to engross the voracious animals, who darted at the imaginary prey, with the rapidity of lightning. The shock was so sudden, and violent, that the hapless mariner was drawn from his slippery and precarious footing, into the sea. The whole passed with a frightful and alarming rapidity. A common cry of horror was heard, and the last despairing glance of the fallen man was witnessed. The mutilated body floated, for an instant, in its blood, with the look of agony and terror still imprinted on the conscious countenance. At the next moment, it had become food for the monsters of the sea.

All had passed away, but the deep dye on the surface of the ocean. The gorged fish disappeared, but the dark spot remained near the immovable raft, as if placed there to warn the survivors of their fate.

“This is horrible!” said Ludlow.

“A sail!” shouted the Skimmer, whose voice and tone, breaking in on that moment of intense horror and apprehension, sounded like a cry from the heavens. “My gallant brigantine!”

“God grant she come with better fortune, than those who have so lately left us!”

“God grant it truly! If this hope fail, there is none left. Few pass here, and we have had sufficient proof, that our top- gallants are not so lofty as to catch every eye.”

All attention was now bestowed on the white speck, which was visible on the margin of the ocean, and which the Skimmer of the Seas confidently pronouced to be the Water Witch. None but a seaman could have felt this certainty, for, seen from the low raft, there was little else to be distinguished, but the heads of the upper sails. The direction too was unfavourable, as it was to-leeward; but both Ludlow and the free-trader assured their companions, that the vessel was endeavouring to beat in with the land.

The two hours that succeeded lingered like days of misery. So much depended on a variety of events, that every circumstance was noted by the seamen of the party, with an interest bordering on agony. A failure of the wind might compel the vessel to remain stationary, and then both brigantine and raft would be at the mercy of the uncertain currents of the ocean; a change of wind might cause a change of course, and render a meeting impossible; an increase of the breeze might cause destruction, even before the succour could come. In addition to these obvious hazards, there were all the chances which were dependant on the fact that the people of the brigantine had every reason to believe the fate of the party was already sealed.

Still fortune seemed propitious, for the breeze though steady was light, the intention of the vessel evidently to pass somewhere near them, and the hope that their object was search, so strong and plausible, as to exhiliarate every bosom.

At the expiration of the time named, the brigantine passed the raft to leeward, and so near as to render the smaller objects, in her rigging, distinctly visible.

“The faithful fellows are looking for us!” exclaimed the free-trader, with strong emotion in his voice. “They are men to scour the coast, ere they abandon us!”

“They pass us — wave the signal — it may catch their eyes!”

The little flag was unheeded, and, after so long and so intense expectation, the party on the raft, had the pain to see the swift-moving vessel glide past them, and drawing so far ahead, as to leave little hope of her return. The heart of even the Skimmer of the Seas appeared to sink within him, at the disappointment.

“For myself I care not;” said the stout mariner mournfully. “Of what consequence is it, in what sea, or on what voyage, a seaman goes into his watery tomb! — but for thee, my hapless and playful Eudora, I could wish another fate — ha! — she tacks! — the sea+green lady has an instinct for her children, after all!”

The brigantine was in stays. — In ten or fifteen minutes more, the vessel was again abeam of the raft, and to windward.

“If she pass us now, our chance is gone, without a shadow of hope;” said the Skimmer, motioning solemnly for silence. Then, applying his hands to his mouth, he shouted, as if despair lent a giant’s volume to his lungs.

“Ho! The Water Witch! — ahoy!”

The last word issued from his lips, with the clear, audible, cry, that the peculiar sound is intended to produce. It appeared as if the conscious little bark knew its commander’s voice, for its course changed, slightly, as if the fabric were possessed of the consciousness and faculties of life.

“Ho! The Water Witch! — ahoy!” shouted the Skimmer, with a still mightier effort.

“ — Hilloa!” came down faintly on the breeze, and the direction of the brigantine again altered.

“The Water Witch! — the Water Witch! — ahoy!” broke out of the lips of the mariner of the shawl, with a supernatural force, the last cry being drawn out, till he who uttered it sunk back, exhausted with the effort.

The words were still ringing in the ears of the breathless party, on the raft, when a heavy shout swept across the water. At the next moment, the boom of the brigantine swung off, and her narrow bows were seen pointing towards the little beacon of white, that played above the sea. It was but a moment, but it was a moment pregnant with a thousand hopes and fears, before the beautiful craft was gliding within fifty feet of the top. In less than five minutes the spars of the Coquette were floating on the wide ocean, unpeopled and abandoned.

The first sensation of the Skimmer of the Seas, when his foot touched the deck of his brigantine, might have been one of deep and intense gratitude. He was silent, and seemingly oppressed at the throat. Stepping along the planks, he cast an eye aloft, and struck his hand powerfully on the capstan, in a manner that was divided between convulsion and affection. Then he smiled grimly on his attentive and obedient crew, speaking with all his wonted cheerfulness and authority.

“Fill away the top-sail — brace up and haul aft! Trim every thing flat as boards, boys; — jam the hussey in with the coast!”