“ — I have great comfort from this fellow:
methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him;
his complexion is perfect gallows.”
It has been said that the periagua was in motion, before our two adventurers 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 as 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 departure.
“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 clamour. “A thousand windy trumpeters would be silence itself, compared to such a pair of lungs! How now, 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 harbour!”
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 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 deepened 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 Barbarie 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 Barbarie, 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 embarassment of her situation, 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 favour, who was most likely to succeed. Had other cause been wanting, this sight alone would have been sufficient to restore his good humour, and making a place for himself, by quietly dispossessing François, the domestic of his niece, the persevering burgher endeavoured 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 analyse the cause, or the consequences, in the instance of the Patroon and la belle Barbarie, 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 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 movements.
“Hilloa, the periagua!” it cried. “Haul over your head-sheet, and jam the tiller down into the lap of that comfortably 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-a-way with you.”
This summons produced a pause in the movements of the crew. After regarding each other, in surprise and admiration, the water+men 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 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 colour was a rich, deep and uniform red, such as much exposure is apt to give to men whose complexions are, by nature, light and florid.
The dress of the stranger was quite as remarkable as his person. He wore a short pee-jacket, cut tight and tastefully; a little, low and rakish cap, and full bell-mouthed trousers, 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, canvass 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 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 lose its fast, he skulled 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 analyse 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 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 François, 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 superiority.
“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,” coldy returned Van Staats of Kinderhook, to whom this question had been hardily put.
“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 Barberie, 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 sea. How now, Schipper; what lies are floating about the docks this morning; when did the last Albany man 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 yon 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 Capt. Ludlow and the Coquette, before many days!”
“Ah! having eaten all his meat and bread, the 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 rumour, 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 solidity 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 inlets 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 colour of the sea, at night, and are forever steering in the wind’s eye, in search of adventures. I wonder, more of them are not kept at making almanachs! 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 neighbour’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 manoeuvres so unnatural, that I could hardly give a good account of his hull, or rig.”
“This is matter that dont 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.”
“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.