Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1838)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 68-74.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

[This is the first of the two Effingham novels.]

[1] Passengers board the American packet Montauk, first at London and then at Portsmouth, as she is being prepared for a scheduled October 1 sailing to New York. Introduced first are three of the best educated and most affluent passengers: John Effingham, a bachelor of fifty; his cousin, Edward Effingham, the same age to the very day; and the latter’s daughter, Eve. Now twenty, Eve is returning home to America after a twelve-year residence in Europe, where she had taken her education. The Effinghams are accompanied by Eve’s nurse, Ann (Nanny) Sidley, and by her French governess, Mademoiselle Viefville. [2] As the other passengers arrive, the Effingham party amuses itself by guessing their occupations and backgrounds. This is all done in good nature except for the harsh and ungenerous comments of John Effingham, who is often cynical about his contemporaries.

[3] As the Montauk is embarking from Portsmouth, Mr. Grab, a British bailiff, and Mr. Seal, a British attorney, come aboard with a warrant for the arrest of one Robert Davis. Davis and his wife, steerage passengers, have been married against the wish of her guardian uncle, who has filed suit against Davis to recover debts allegedly incurred by Mrs. Davis during her childhood. Captain Truck, master of the Montauk, does not try to prevent the agents of British law from searching the vessel but refuses to delay the departure of the ship for their convenience. Although Truck and several of the passengers know the identity of Davis, all refuse to betray him. [4] Grab and Seal are still aboard as the ship moves out of the harbor into the English Channel, and their position is soon reinforced by the appearance of a British cutter whose crew prepares to board the packet. As the cutter is overtaking the Montauk, Captain Truck dismisses his harbor pilot, unfurls more sail, and determines to take the vessel to sea himself rather than submit to force.

Although Truck cites articles of international maritime law for his decision, his action is questioned by a passenger named Steadfast Dodge, a Yankee newspaper editor and ultra-democrat. Dodge has polled all of the passengers and demands that a committee be appointed to decide whether or not to surrender to the cutter. Truck humors Dodge and passengers of his persuasion by appointing a committee, knowing well that it will be ineffectual. As her sails fill, the Montauk leaves the cutter far behind; and Grab and Seal, realizing that they will soon be taken to sea, depart hastily in their small boat.

[5-9] While congratulating themselves on having escaped the clutches of English law, the crew sights a more formidable pursuer, a cruiser named Foam. The cruiser’s mission is a mystery to the people aboard the packet, for it seems most unlikely that a man-of-war would be dispatched to apprehend a debtor like Davis. Again opinion aboard the Montauk is divided about the proper action to be taken: flight or surrender. There is never any doubt in the mind of the only real authority aboard, Captain Truck, who adds more sail, hoping to elude the Foam during the night as they pass out of the Channel and into the Atlantic Ocean. He underestimates his adversaries, however, for the dawn shows them still dogging his wake. The cruiser, a sharper-hulled vessel than the Montauk, has the advantage while sailing against the wind; conversely, the kettle-bottomed packet can outdistance the Foam when scudding before the wind, and this is the tactic that Truck immediately employs. Unfortunately, the wind remains, day after day, in the northwest, driving the Montauk off course, down the coast of France, past the Bay of Biscay, Lisbon, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.

The unusual southerly course and the pursuit by a foreign naval vessel draw the cabin passengers of the Montauk more closely together than they might otherwise be. Of the three Effinghams, Eve (not surprisingly) is the most sought after socially. When the occasion permits, she is engaged in conversation by Mr. Sharp, an Englishman, and his cabin partner, the supposedly American Paul Blunt. The latter seems to be preferred by Eve, partly because he had rescued both her and her father from a boating accident on the Continent; it is clear that Eve knows but discreetly protects the real identity of the man who goes by the name Paul Blunt. Sharing another cabin are the newspaper editor Steadfast Dodge, whose name suggests his equivocal character, and, quite his opposite, the bluff British baronet, Sir George Templemore, traveling to America to hunt bison on the Great Plains. Pictured in even sharper contrast with Dodge, however, is Captain Truck, though both men are Connecticut Yankees. Dodge constantly moves about the ship sampling passenger opinion, canvasses support for his every move, and insists on the infallibility of a majority. Truck seldom counsels with others during a crisis, always acts with courageous independence, and cares little for his public image. Despite certain grotesque features — his mania for introducing both strangers and acquaintances, his incessant quoting of Emerich de Vattel (an authority on international law), his excessive fondness for cigars — Truck is clearly a sympathetic character, while Dodge is made despicable at almost every turn. (The author’s antipathy toward excessive leveling tendencies of Jacksonian Democracy is voiced in this second novel he published after his own fall from popular favor in the early 1830s.)

[10-13] A gale that arises off the coast of Africa proves to be a mixed blessing: it separates the Foam from its quarry, but it also carries away the Montauk’s masts and leaves it a crippled hulk. [14] When the storm abates somewhat, two jury masts are rigged, making the ship maneuverable if not seaworthy. A sail is now sighted, and the vessel which approaches the packet proves to be a supply ship for the American naval squadron stationed in the Mediterranean. Returning empty to New York, she had met the gale off Madeira and had also been borne southward by its force. Unlike the Montauk, however, she has sustained no damage, and her captain readily takes aboard as many of the packet passengers as wish to sail home in his ship. On the following morning all the steerage passengers and most of the cabin-class passengers are transferred to the freighter, which sails westward on the now tranquil sea and soon drops below the horizon.

[15] When the Montauk approaches the shore of Africa, where Truck halfheartedly hopes to find timber for new masts, [16-17] a grounded Danish vessel is discovered without a soul aboard but with ample evidence of having been plundered recently. On the beach they find the body of a Dane dead no more than a day, killed by natives who, apparently, have led off the rest of the ship’s complement to captivity. [18] Truck decides at once to equip the damaged Montauk with the masts and spars of the abandoned wreck; for this purpose he takes ashore thirty men, along with tools and all available arms, leaving the women on the packet guarded by the two Effingham men, Paul Blunt, and Sharp.

[19] During the night, Captain Truck and his first mate, Mr. Leach, detect two Arabs scouting the beach. One they catch, but the other escapes on a camel; since this second man will spread the alarm among his people, they release his companion too. Next day, as the workmen are removing the last poles from the wreck, a band of more than two hundred armed Arabs appears mounted on horses and camels. Stalling for time, Truck sends to them a dubious delegation composed of the alcoholic Monday, who takes along a case of liquor for bargaining purposes, and Dodge, persistent advocate of citizens’ committees. [20] Predictably, Monday becomes tipsy and the cowardly Dodge runs back to the wreck in fear. By this time, the salvaged masts are lashed together to form a rude raft, and the men, in their own small boats and the Dane’s launch, begin towing it to sea. Much to the surprise of Captain Truck, the Arabs have not lifted a hand or fired a shot to prevent their departure. The seamen work against a stiff onshore breeze as they move their cumbersome load seaward, and they can progress only by means of warping: anchoring a boat firmly and then hauling the raft abreast of it while another boat is anchored farther out to repeat the process. Working thus slowly and laboriously, hampered too by a rising sea, they anchor at nightfall only a league from shore.

[21] Aboard the Montauk, in the meantime, all remains tranquil throughout the day, and the ship rides easily in a cove protected by reefs. During the night, however, an attempt is made by a small group of Arabs to enter the packet by crawling up the anchor chain. Blunt frustrates their efforts by releasing more chain, thus submerging its whole length. The situation of those aboard the ship is now recognized to be most perilous, for at low tide one of the reefs forms a virtual land bridge to shore. The anchorage is more vulnerable than Captain Truck had realized. The Arabs, given to plundering helpless ships borne ashore by tropical storms, have been watching and waiting for the most opportune time to capture the Montauk and its valuable cargo of supplies and personnel. This explains the question that had puzzled Truck: why they had not bothered to attack the crew salvaging masts from the Dane. Possessed of a pair of field glasses (booty from some earlier shipwreck), the tribesmen are aware that the packet is shorthanded, having aboard but five men including the steward and the two elder Effinghams. What they do not know is that the ship is without rifles or even pistols, all available small arms, powder, and shot having been taken by the salvage crew, who had expected hostilities ashore. The light cannon mounted on the forecastle deck is charged with powder but not shotted, since it was intended as a signal gun. Blunt and Sharp fire the blank charge hoping that its report will reach the ears of Captain Truck and alert him to the fact that they are endangered. As they discover later, the noise did not carry far enough to serve their purpose.

[22] Under the pressure of imminent danger, the identities of Paul Blunt and Sharp are revealed. Stunned by the news that they are beset by semicivilized Arabs, Eve calls both men by their real names. Paul Blunt is actually Paul Powis, and Sharp is Sir George Templemore, who has, for the voyage, permitted a stranger to usurp his name in what the baronet supposes is a mere caprice.

[23] Wishing to take the ship before low tide (or before Truck and his men might return), the Arabs build a large pontoon to serve as a floating bridge over those parts of the reef still inundated. It seems certain to those aboard that it will be but a short time before the Arabs reach the Montauk by means of this device. Paul Blunt [Powis], who turns out to be an experienced seaman, takes command now and directs a last-minute effort to swing the heavy launch over the side of the Montauk and into the sea. [24] This they finally manage to do; and when food, water, sails, and the swivel are placed aboard the launch, the group sails away in a hairbreadth escape. After supper on a small islet, where Saunders, the steward, manages to build a fire and prepare tea, the refugees try to find the passage through the reefs that leads to the open sea. Fearing that Truck and all his men have been killed or captured, they hope to leave the area and reach the Cape Verde Islands. [25] Throughout the night they are hampered by Arabs, shifting winds, and hidden shoals until, near morning, they come upon Truck and the crew of the Montauk in their small boats.

[26] After hasty explanations on both sides, the entire company of the Montauk moves back toward their ship. Leaving Mr. Effingham and the women in a boat out of sight from the Arabs’ positions, the remainder of the party attack their foes, first those on the reef and then those aboard the now grounded packet. The single small cannon taken from the Montauk provides the balance of firepower; after a bloody struggle, a truce is declared, and the Arabs withdraw, taking with them their dead and wounded. They have suffered heavy losses, mainly from the grapeshot of the swivel fired with deadly accuracy by Paul Blunt [Powis]. Only two of the boarding party become casualties, a young seaman, Brooks, killed instantly by a rifle ball, and Monday, shot through the shoulder and then fatally wounded in the chest by an Arab spear.

[27] Knowing that the Arabs will return, probably in even greater numbers, the crew works feverishly to replace the Montauk’s masts with those from the Danish ship. Then as the tide rises, they man the capstan to warp the packet off the sand bar where it is lodged. [28] By the time she is freed, the shore and reef are covered with Arabs who scream, gesticulate wildly, and maintain a steady rain of musket fire at the vessel. One seaman is killed while carrying rigging to the top of a mast, and the helmsman dies clinging to the wheel after being struck in the back by an Arab rifle ball. [29] At long last, however, the Montauk is once more at sea bound west for New York.

[30] Monday lingers for another day before he dies, attended during his last hours by John Effingham. Both the kind acts and the religious counsel of the latter mitigate for the reader the impression this man often gives of aloofness and insensitivity to the sufferings of others. Monday leaves in his care a parcel of papers to be probated when the packet arrives in New York.

[31] Now out of danger, Dodge reverts to his old activist and self-promotional tactics. Though he had hidden in fear during the battle, he now tries to persuade the stewards it was he who had mounted the cannon and driven off the Arabs. He now solicits support for his contention that it was the passengers who repossessed the Montauk and that they therefore have a just claim for compensation from the ship’s owners. During the toasting and conviviality enjoyed on Saturday night — it was a common custom on sailing vessels — Dodge is invited to divert the company by reading from the journal he has kept of his European travels, a journal to be published in the pages of his Active Inquirer. He accedes to this request with great alacrity, though the audience response that is forthcoming has a motivation quite different from what Dodge supposes. Most of the passengers are amused at the confident ignorance and provincialism of this Yankee editor, but Dodge is quite oblivious to the thrust of their ironic comments.

[32] As the Montauk comes within American waters, it meets the cruiser Foam bound for London. Captain Charles Ducie’s request for a meeting with Captain Truck is granted, and the British commander comes aboard the Montauk. He has two petitions, one stated at once to Captain Truck, and the other reserved for someone else. His first is for permission to remove from the Montauk the embezzler Henry Sandon, who has been masquerading under the title and name of Sir George Templemore. [33] Sandon has absconded with £40,000 of government funds. Although Truck orders from his vessel the bad-mannered Green, the civilian agent accompanying Captain Ducie, he surrenders the culprit to the British authorities. He makes the point, however, that he is responding to a request and not acquiescing to a demand. The desperate young Sandon attempts unsuccessfully to commit suicide; a second attempt, made a month later while he is in an English prison, succeeds.

[34] The real Sir George Templemore, who has been traveling under the name Sharp, is an old friend of Ducie, and the two are glad to see each other again. Ducie is far less pleased to see Paul Blunt [Powis], to whom his second request is apparently addressed. After Ducie and Paul talk apart, quietly but with animation, the latter has his luggage transferred to the Foam’s boat and bids farewell to everyone on the Montauk. Remembering his gallant action against the Arabs, all are sorry and puzzled at his unexplained departure — not least Eve Effingham. On the day after the Montauk docks in New York, the mysterious behavior of Powis is partially clarified. A newspaper article reporting the arrival of the packet notes the removal of two passengers shortly before the ship had landed, one an embezzler and the other “a deserter from the king’s service, though a scion of a noble family” (p. 531). An account of how Eve Effingham felt and acted when she received this information is promised in the story’s sequel [Home as Found].

Paul Blunt [Powis], Brooks, Mrs. Davis, Robert Davis, Steadfast Dodge, Captain Charles Ducie, Edward Effingham, Eve Effingham, John Effingham, Grab, Green, Handlead, Leach, Monday, Henry Sandon, Saunders, Seal, Sharp [Templemore], Ann Sidley, Tom Smith, Sir George Templemore [Sandon], Toast, Captain John Truck, Mlle. Viefville.