The Red Rover: A Tale (1829)

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. 180-186.

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.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] In the opening chapter of exposition, devoted largely to colonial history (particularly that of Rhode Island), two minor characters serve as a comic chorus to set the stage for the subsequent action. The time is October, 1759, just after Quebec has fallen to the British, and the seaport of Newport, Rhode Island, has just finished celebrating the victory. Hector Homespun, a stereotype of the cowardly tailor, interprets for his rustic customer, Pardon Hopkins, the significance of the day’s events. He then regales Pardon with accounts of the awesome and often uncanny exploits of a notorious pirate thought to be in the area. Both the pirate captain and his ship (with Dolphin as its real name) are known as “The Red Rover.” Homespun also calls to the countryman’s attention the strange behavior of and the mysterious aura surrounding a reputed slave ship that has been anchored offshore for several days.

[2] Two groups of strangers have appeared in Providence: the crew of the supposed slave ship and a trio of seamen ostensibly seeking employment. The latter group is comprised of a young gentleman, known to his companions as Harry Wilder, and two middle-aged mariners, Dick Fid and a free black named Scipio Africanus. Still another stranger excites curiosity, a lone, green-clad man who claims to be a lawyer but who in fact is the Red Rover himself. To this stranger Homespun confides his suspicions that the reputed “slaver” in the outer harbor is the Red Rover. The suave Rover assures the gullible tailor of rewards, including knighthood, for his help in capturing the pirate, and then, after swearing Homespun to secrecy, agrees to meet him that night at 11 o’clock.

[3] Harry Wilder and the disguised Rover encounter each other several times, each trying to identify the other without revealing his own identity. [4] While the two are examining an old structure (apparently the ruins of a mill but thought by local residents to be an ancient military tower), they eavesdrop on the conversation of four women: young Gertrude Grayson; her governess, Mrs. Wyllys; her aunt, the widow of Admiral de Lacey; and Cassandra, a Negro servant. Mrs. de Lacey (née Grayson) is bidding farewell to her niece, who is preparing to rejoin her father, General Grayson, now a Carolina planter. Both men are amused by the widow’s nautical malapropisms, the product of the late Admiral’s twisted sense of humor: he had wittily mistaught his wife seamanship, with all its technical terminology, simply for his own entertainment.

[5] Late that night Wilder and his two companions row out to the “slaver” to inquire about berths for themselves aboard the vessel. While awaiting an interview with its captain, Wilder notices being swung aboard on a boom a parcel which he recognizes as a human body. He is told that it is a drunken seaman being returned to his duty, but (as Wilder and the reader later learn) it is actually the bound and gagged Homespun, kidnapped and imprisoned aboard the Red Rover lest he alert his fellow townspeople about his suspicions about the “slave ship.” [6] Wilder also observes that the ship is very heavily armed, and that the captain’s quarters, while displaying an exotic, oriental decor, are in some ways like an inner citadel. The captain turns out to be the green-clad “lawyer” Wilder had seen earlier that day, and it soon becomes apparent that he is also none other than the Red Rover himself. In their conversation Wilder and the Rover engage in subtle intellectual sparring and repartee, each trying to evaluate the character of the other. Each seems to be aware of the motivation of the other; Wilder is not surprised to find himself in the presence of the Rover, and the Rover, in turn, is not surprised that Wilder has come to him. Wilder agrees to become first mate aboard the vessel but insists that he return to the land for the rest of that night — if only to assure himself that he is trusted and that he is not a prisoner. Confident that he knows his man, the Rover believes Wilder’s promise not to reveal the ship’s true identity while ashore. [7] Less confident about the discretion of Dick Fid and Scipio Africanus, however, he has them made too drunk to leave — excellent hostages just in case he has mistaken Wilder’s intentions.

[8] Wilder’s real purpose for returning to shore is to warn Gertrude Grayson and Mrs. Wyllys not to take passage on the Royal Caroline. He cannot give his actual reason for this warning (that the ship will probably be followed and captured by the pirates), so he invents a number of defects in the ship and its rigging to suggest that it is an unsafe vessel. Twice he calls at the de Lacey mansion to warn the ladies of this peril, and twice he is gainsaid by one “Bob Bunt,” seemingly an aged seaman but in reality one of the many masquerades of the Red Rover. In the debate that follows, the decision goes to Bob after he claims that he served for years under Admiral de Lacey. [9] Later Wilder bribes Bob with a guinea to change his story about the Royal Caroline, and this Bob promises to do — a promise which he does not keep.

[10] Wilder later meets Bob Bunt in a private room at the “Foul Anchor,” an inn owned by a pious hypocrite named Honest Joe Joram. Intending to press Bob to carry out his agreement to dissuade the ladies from embarking on the Royal Caroline, Wilder becomes cautious when he senses that Bob and Joe Joram are collaborators in some sort of shady business. [11] Later, while watching the Royal Caroline being readied for departure, Wilder is handed a letter by Roderick, the cabin boy of the Red Rover. The Rover informs him that Nicholas Nichols, captain of the Royal Caroline, has just broken a leg, and he orders Wilder to apply at once for his job.

The Rover’s agents ashore will, says the letter, support his application. Boarding the ship, Wilder offers his services to its Newport agent, Mr. Bale, and, at length, secures the position but not before Honest Joe Joram has commended him with elaborate fictitious evidence of his nautical accomplishments. [12] As the Royal Caroline is leaving the inner harbor, it becomes hopelessly entangled by an incompetent pilot in the ground tackle of the Red Rover. At this point, Wilder literally takes command of the Royal Caroline. Contrary to maritime law, he orders the pilot thrown into his boat to return to port. The new captain then gives orders necessary to separate the two ships; but by the time these maneuvers have been completed, the tide and wind are unfavorable for setting out to sea. There is no choice but to anchor the Royal Caroline offshore, parallel to the Red Rover.

[13] A fishing skiff floats alongside the Royal Caroline, its sole occupant, Bob Bunt, only pretending to fish. He and Wilder quarrel quietly over Bob’s failure to carry out his promise to warn the ladies against boarding the Royal Caroline. When Bob’s deceit and villainy become too much for Wilder to tolerate, he orders one of his mates to capture the old man. A jolly boat pursues the skiff until it passes behind the Red Rover and then simply disappears. It has, obviously, been taken into the seemingly unmanned “slaver,” for Bunt seems to be one of the pirate’s men; but the superstitious crewmen of the jolly boat think he was spirited away by a different master, namely, the Devil.

[14] It is not long after reaching the open sea before other ominous signs become apparent. The Royal Caroline is soon followed by a strange ship which it cannot outrun. Wilder alone is aware that this pursuer is the Red Rover. The crew concludes that it is a spectre ship sent after them by the Devil. [15] In their terror they fuse into sinister association quite unrelated pieces of circumstantial evidence: the uncanny disappearance the day before of Bunt, the unexplained and inopportune accident that had disabled Captain Nichols, the uncommonly cool behavior of Wilder, whom none had seen or heard of before this voyage, the unaccountably heavy seas, and the eerie light on the water at night. [16] Unable to outdistance his pursuer, Wilder turns back toward Newport only to be struck by a hurricane so furious that he is forced to have the masts cut away in order to keep the ship from capsizing. In the midst of this tempest, the mystery ship, without a sail showing or a soul aboard visible, glides past the disabled Royal Caroline at a distance of only one hundred feet. The image of the legendary ghost ship is now complete as far as the crew is concerned. Because the gale drives the Red Rover before it at a rate four times as fast as it does the heavier merchantman, Wilder prays aloud that it continue to blow until dawn. This is decisive evidence for Knighthead, the second mate, that their new captain is an agent of Hell leading them to destruction. [17] He leads In mutiny a crew that needs little urging. Unable to take the ship’s large launch without masts from which to swing it over the side, the mutineers escape in open boats, leaving aboard the doomed ship Wilder, Gertrude, Mrs. Wyllys, and Cassandra. When the ship sinks, however, the launch floats free and provides a means of survival for Wilder and the three women. [18] Their need for this boat is of but short duration, however, for they are soon picked up by the Dolphin.

[19] To divert the two ladies aboard the Dolphin, its master, Captain Heidegger, gives the order “To mischief!” There follows some horseplay, including the arrival of King Neptune to initiate new travelers in his realm; he is generously tipped a guinea apiece by Gertrude and her governess. The good-natured revelry soon degenerates into a confrontation of foretopmen and marines. [20] When bloodshed seems imminent, Wilder steps between the two groups. The freebooters are too aroused, however, to obey the orders of a newcomer whose status is, to them, still in doubt; turning their fury now against him, they prepare to throw him overboard. The Rover, in the meantime, stands, Byron-like, lost in meditation and unaware of the violence until Mrs. Wyllys calls his attention to it. He immediately restores order to the ship and announces that Wilder is his second in command.

[21] That evening, with peace restored to the Dolphin, the captain and Wilder discuss the hazards of piracy. Heidegger reveals why he had become a pirate. An American colonial in the British navy, he had challenged to a duel an officer who had slandered his native land. Having killed his antagonist, he decided to wage a one-man war against Great Britain rather than submit to a court martial whose sense of justice he distrusted. His piracy is thus rationalized as a form of patriotism. Had there been an American flag to which he could have given his allegiance, he tells Wilder, the world would never have seen the crimson pennant of the Red Rover.

[22-23] Acquainted with ships, their rigging, and the composition of their crews, and aware that they are headed for the Caribbean, Mrs. Wyllys suspects the nature of the ship on which she and her young ward now find themselves. She interrogates closely Roderick, the cabin boy, but learns little from him about either the ship or its charismatic commander. She does discover, however, that Roderick is actually a woman, apparently the captain’s mistress. She never reveals her discovery — nor does the narrator ever openly acknowledge Roderick’s sex — but the reader infers the fact from Mrs. Wyllys’ discharging Roderick from further duties in the ladies’ cabin in order to protect the innocent Gertrude. [24] Captain Heidegger, for his part, is equally curious about the real identity of his lieutenant, Harry Wilder, so to secure information about the young man, he quizzes Dick Fid about this old seaman’s relationship to Wilder. Fid spins a lengthy yarn, marked by a rambling style and salty diction, about “Master Harry,” as he calls Wilder. Twenty-four years earlier he and Scipio Africanus had found the child and a dying woman, apparently his mother, on a deserted and sinking vessel. They had saved the child, obviously of upperclass background; but both they and their naval officers had failed to locate the boy’s family. Their only clue, providing no real evidence, was the name of the ship on which he was found, Ark, of Lynnhaven. Harry was therefore reared on shipboard, taught seamanship by Fid and Latin by the captain. Before Fid’s story describes Wilder’s adult years (of much more interest to Heidegger), it is interrupted by the cry “Sail, ho!”

[25] The approaching ship, Heidegger discerns, is one with which Wilder, Fid, and Scipio are all familiar. Wilder admits that the stranger is the British cruiser on which they had sailed before joining the Rover, and he advises the captain to try to pass this formidable warship unnoticed. The advice cannot be acted upon, however, for Dick Fid lets loose a topsail — it is a deliberate signal — which reveals the position of the Dolphin. [26] As they reconnoiter each other, both ships prepare for possible battle. [27] When the Rover becomes aware that Wilder and his men are reluctant to participate in armed conflict against their former shipmates, he generously exempts them from this duty. (This is one of the many reflections of admirable qualities in Heidegger’s character.) But there is no engagement at this time, for the Rover suddenly decides to fly British colors and pretend that his is a ship specially commissioned to hunt the Red Rover! So confident is Captain Heidegger of his own and his ship’s disguise that he coolly goes aboard the cruiser Dart to visit with its commander, Captain Bignall. While on the Dart, Captain Heidegger calls himself “Captain Howard.” In reading the names of the Dart’s officers, he discovers one Henry Ark listed as Bignall’s first lieutenant. When he is told that this young officer is on a mission so secret that it cannot be discussed, he realizes that his own second in command, Harry Wilder, is in fact this very Henry Ark.

[28] Back on his own ship, the Rover accuses Wilder of treachery. Wilder acknowledges his special commission to destroy the Red Rover but claims that his admiration of Heidegger’s personality has induced him to greater cooperation and less pursuit than he had intended. The admiration is mutual, and the Rover magnanimously frees Wilder to return to his position on the Dart. When Wilder insists that he cannot leave the two ladies behind on the Dolphin, Heidegger also agrees to free both of them as well as Dick Fid and Scipio Africanus.

[29] Captain Bignall is astounded to see his own first officer coming aboard the Dart from, the Dolphin’s boat, but Wilder’s explanation is delayed by an equally surprising discovery. The Dart’s chaplain, old Dr. Merton, recognizes in Mrs. Wyllys the woman he had wed more than twenty years earlier to Paul de Lacey, British naval officer and son of the famous Admiral de Lacey. Since the girl’s father had opposed the union, they had been wed secretly by Dr. Merton. Paul de Lacey then had died in battle before the couple could be reconciled with the bride’s parent and before news of the marriage could be made public; thus the de Laceys had not known that their son had had a wife.

Apprised of the Rover’s magnanimity toward Wilder and his chivalric behavior toward Gertrude Grayson and Mrs. Wyllys, Captain Bignall is persuaded to offer amnesty to the pirate in return for total surrender and the dismantling of his ship. Bignall also sends with Wilder, his emissary, an enumeration of the Dart’s armament to convince Heidegger that the Dolphin could not survive a battle with the cruiser. When the Rover scornfully rejects the ultimatum, Roderick, the cabin boy, pleads with Wilder to withdraw Bignall’s aggressive message and substitute for it an appeal to Heidegger’s many admirable qualities. (It is apparent here now that Roderick is no ordinary cabin attendant; he speaks with fearless familiarity to the pirate, calling him “Walter.”) After the failure of negotiations, the two ships soon engage in battle.

[30] Through a combination of good fortune and superior seamanship the Red Rover defeats and captures the more heavily armed cruiser. Among many killed are Captain Bignall and Scipio Africanus, the latter trying, barehanded at the end, to protect Wilder from the vengeful pirates. [31] The victors are determined to hang Wilder and Fid as traitors to their cause. Such are the terms of agreement under which the pirates have shipped aboard the Red Rover that its captain cannot deny them this vengeance. The execution is stayed momentarily as the dying Scipio is prayed f the Dart’s chaplain. Scipio calls the attention of the spectators to the dog collar worn on his arm, the collar of the dog found with the infant Wilder on the sinking Ark. An inscription on the collar reads “Neptune, the Property of Paul de Lacey.” It is now manifest that Wilder is the son of Paul de Lacey and his secretly married wife, who still goes under the name of “Mrs. Wyllys.” The latter now pleads so movingly for the life of her child that even the hardened freebooters are silenced momentarily; the Rover, moved again by his nobler qualities, takes this opportunity to declare all punitive proceedings postponed until the following morning.

[32] When morning arrives, it reveals a different Dart from the one on which the sun had set. Heidegger has supervised during night the replacement of its broken masts and spars and the repair of its sails so that it is once again seaworthy. Announcing to his crew on the Red Rover that he is terminating his agreement with them, he orders them ashore and has distributed among them all of his gold. Stunned and confused, the crew has no choice but to obey his orders, for he has had the nearby Dart’s guns trained on his own decks. The gold is all theirs, he tells them, but the ship and its prisoners are his.

Turning over the Dart and the ladies to the care of Wilder, the Rover bids the new captain farewell. Shortly after the Dart sets sail for an American port, an explosion destroys the Red Rover. Those who view with field glasses the previous location of the pirate ship think that they see a small object on the surface of the sea, possibly a boat containing survivors, but the distance is so great that they soon lose sight of the object.

The last scene is set more than twenty years later in the Newport home of Captain Henry de Lacey (alias Harry Wilder) of the American Navy. He and Gertrude Grayson have now been married for many years and have a seventeen-year-old son, Paul. With them live Henry’s mother and the aged Fid, the seaman now serving as the majordomo in the household. As the citizens of Newport are again celebrating a victory, this time the successful conclusion of the American Revolution, a mortally wounded American naval officer, accompanied by a grieving woman, is brought on a litter to the de Lacey home. The dying man is Heidegger, formerly the Red Rover, and his consort apparently the erstwhile “cabin boy,” Roderick. Heidegger is now, at long last, recognized by the elderly Mrs. Paul de Lacey as the brother from whom she had been parted in childhood; he is thus also Henry de Lacey’s uncle. In the battle of the colonies for independence Heidegger had finally found the cause he had always sought. With almost superhuman effort, he raises himself from the litter, unfurls an American flag which he has kept folded beneath his pillow, and with his last breath he shouts, “Wilder! We have triumphed!” (p. 522).

Scipio Africanus, Bale, Captain Bignall, Bob Brace, Cassandra, Admiral de Lacey, Henry de Lacey, Paul de Lacey, Dr. Dogma, Edward Earing, Richard Fid, General Grayson, Gertrude Grayson, Captain Waiter Heidegger, Desire Homespun, Hector Homespun, Pardon Hopkins, Joe Joram, Keziah Joram, Judy, Francis Knighthead, Rev. Dr. Merton, Nab, Captain Nicholas Nichols, Jack Nightingale, Roderick, Mrs. Wyllys.