The Water Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas (1830)

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. 227-234.

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] On a June morning in the early 1710s Myndert Van Beverout, a prosperous fur merchant and alderman of New York City, is intercepted on the street by Lord Cornbury, former governor of the colony of New York but now fallen in disgrace from that high position. Having lived beyond his means (both legal and illegal!), the viscount has incurred heavy debts, and his creditors have had him imprisoned. As a member of the aristocracy and a relative of Queen Anne, he is allowed special privileges, among them his freedom during the night and early morning. After flattering the alderman, a sturdy burgher of Dutch extraction, Cornbury asks him for a loan of £2,000. His request is quickly refused by the shrewd merchant. That Lord Cornbury is meant to represent those profligate and rejected English peers too often appointed to high posts in the colonies becomes apparent in the language applied to him. In the narration his name is regularly preceded by such adjectives as depraved, degenerate, and dissolute.

[2] Proceeding on his way, the alderman calls at the city residence of Oloff Van Staats, the young Patroon of Kinderhook. Strong and reliable, but phlegmatic in disposition, taciturn in manner, the patroon is the stereotyped Dutchman of the comic stage of nineteenth-century America. [3] Bound for Lust in Rust, Van Beverout’s villa on the Jersey coast, the two men board a ferry where they are, through prearrangement, joined by Alida de Barbérie, the merchant’s orphaned nineteen-year-old niece. The girl’s vivacity and capriciousness are derived, according to her uncle, from her Huguenot father. Van Beverout approves of Van Staats’s interest in Alida, but has advised him that he must press his claim more warmly than he has so far done in his halfhearted (almost static) suit for the girl’s hand. For her part, Alida is obviously more favorably inclined to the overtures of Cornelius Van Cuyler Ludlow, captain of Her Majesty’s cruiser Coquette.

While still in the harbor, the ferry is hailed, and another passenger comes aboard, a tall, athletic seaman whose clothes are distinguished by a colorful India shawl. Coolly taking the helm from the captain, the newcomer asks for recent maritime news in the area. The captain knows none except for repeated reports of the appearance in nearby waters of a mysterious ship known as the Water-Witch and commanded by a notorious rover identified only as “The Skimmer of the Seas.” [4-5] As the ferry comes abreast of the Coquette, it is saluted by Captain Ludlow, who extends personal greetings to Alderman Van Beverout and Alida. The aggressive seaman now asks Ludlow if there is a berth to be filled aboard the cruiser, but when he is told that there is indeed a place for him, he scornfully declines the offer. As the vessels part, the warship lowers three boats, two of which pursue the ferry to capture the audacious seaman with the India shawl. Skillfully maneuvering the ferry through some treacherous, shoal-filled waters, the stranger brings the boat safely to the landing on Staten Island and then disappears ashore. [6] He is not at all intimidated, however; and when Captain Ludlow himself lands, the bold fellow, now identified as Tom Tiller, seeks out the naval officer and, with only slight deference to the latter’s rank, again inquires about a berth on the Coquette. He might, he tells Ludlow, join the crew of the cruiser if he is permitted, without any obligation, to inspect the ship. Swallowing his pride, Ludlow decides to humor this presumptuous stranger and agrees to his unusual terms. In the meantime, Van Beverout and his group move on to Lust in Rust in the alderman’s own periagua [a flat-bottomed, two-masted boat with little or no decking].

[7] That evening Alida is unexpectedly visited in her apartment at Lust in Rust by Captain Ludlow. A letter, supposedly from Alida, had prompted this intrusion; written in a woman’s hand and bearing the forged signature of Alida, the letter had been substituted by Tiller for a missive by Alida herself. Alida had not invited the captain to her rooms, and as soon as Ludlow discovers the mistake, he leaves at once. [8] Myndert Van Beverout enters his niece’s quarters, extinguishes the large bright candles, and gives Alida a small lamp instead. As soon as he leaves, Alida lights the candles again and stands gazing out toward the water, expecting to see Ludlow’s launch returning to the Coquette anchored offshore at a distance. Instead, she sees a graceful, bare-masted brigantine float in noiselessly on the tide and anchor close to the villa. Only a few minutes elapse before someone vaults onto the balcony and enters her room. [9] It is one Master Seadrift, agent of a smuggler, who has landed with a load of contraband for Van Beverout. His cue for landing was the bright lights in Alida’s rooms, rooms unoccupied on those earlier occasions when Van Beverout had signaled him ashore. Seadrift is dressed somewhat like Tom Tiller, in bright India cloth, but his manner is more gentle, his speech more refined.

Alida leaves the room when the alderman enters to deal with the free-trader, but Seadrift insists that she return before showing samples of his wares. [10] When the girl reappears, her uncle decides to have her examine Seadrift’s samples while he himself goes to the wharf to inspect the bales of goods being unloaded from the brigantine. Although she is fascinated by the fine fabrics and exotic merchandise, Alida cannot help wondering if these goods are illicit. All her doubts are removed when Ludlow reenters, by way of the balcony, and warns her that they are contraband smuggled into the country by the Skimmer of the Seas. [11] Ludlow knows whereof he speaks, for both he and the crew of his launch are prisoners of the Skimmer, all captured by men from the brigantine Water-Witch under the direction of Tom Tiller.

[12] While Van Beverout and Van Staats are at breakfast the following morning, they are apprised of two pieces of bad news. François, the elderly French valet, announces that Alida is missing from her quarters, and Euclid, a slave, arrives from the city to report that one of the alderman’s prize Belgian geldings has died. As the merchant addresses the two bearers of bad tidings in alternate sentences, the reader cannot help wondering which of his losses he feels more keenly. Van Beverout and his guest assume that Alida has eloped with Ludlow until the Captain himself, now freed, arrives and is clearly shocked to learn of the girl’s disappearance. They can only conclude that she is aboard the Water-Witch, drawn there by the seductive manner of Seadrift. Seemingly, there are now three suitors for the hand of Alida, though the ardor of both the captain and the patroon is dampened by the moral implications of her latest caprice.

[13] Van Beverout, Van Staats, and Ludlow send word to the Water-Witch requesting a conference with Seadrift (whom Ludlow identifies with the legendary Skimmer of the Seas). [14] Tom Tiller comes ashore for the three men, takes them to the brig, and declaring that there is aboard neither armament nor contraband, invites Ludlow to inspect the hold of the ship. Although Tiller boasts of the speed of the trim, tall-masted ship, he attributes her safety to her namesake, the green-clad female figurehead with a malign smile. Suggestions of sorcery are associated with this figurehead, several images of which subsequently appear at critical moments. She holds an open book, on the metal pages of which are inscribed in enamel cryptic commentaries on life, some of them quotations from literature. A species of sortilege is practiced regularly by the crew and now by the guests, each supplicant for advice or prophecy opening the metal leaves at random with a long wooden wand and supposedly receiving his answer on the exposed page. Although Ludlow scoffs at this mummery, it is part of the mystique of this strange vessel which many people (including a majority of Ludlow’s own crew) suspect to be a “flyer,” a supernatural ship akin to the “Flying Dutchman.” [15] As they await their audience with the Skimmer, the visitors are impressed by the luxurious appointments of the brigantine’s cabin, especially its leather-upholstered furniture. They are pleasantly surprised by other unexpected effects: a guitar-accompanied song by the captain before his appearance, and a ten-year-old-cabin boy, Zephyr, with delicate features and expensive attire. [16] The conference itself is unproductive, and Alida’s whereabouts remain a mystery.

[17] What could not be achieved by words is now attempted by force as the Coquette prepares to capture the Water-Witch. Restraint is required, however, for the possibility that Alida is actually aboard the brig precludes use of the cruiser’s cannons. A boarding party in the cruiser’s launch approaches the unmoved brig, but a heavy squall forces it to return to the Coquette. In the few minutes required to secure the safety of the cruiser and its launch, the Water-Witch disappears. On the next evening the free-trader is sighted offshore, and a similar pursuit-and-escape episode occurs. Darkness intervenes as the cruiser bears down upon its prey, but the Skimmer obligingly mounts a lantern on the figurehead. Guided by this light, the Coquette quietly moves to the brig’s position, and the sailors cast their grappling irons to lash the two ships together, but the metal hooks strike only the surface of the sea. (Ludlow discovers on the following day a tub containing a lantern and a replica of the brig’s figurehead, the decoy that had misled the crew.) The sailors are all certain that the Water-Witch is truly what her name indicates. In the middle of the night Ludlow, hearing indistinct noises across the water, senses that the Water-Witch is nearby mocking him in the dark. He lowers four boats, each to search in a different direction. When his own boat comes upon what he thinks is the Water-Witch and his men board it successfully, he finds, to his great embarrassment, that it is not the elusive brigantine but the Stately Pine, a small coastal freighter. Back aboard the cruiser, the members of his boat crew conclude they had indeed bearded the Water-Witch but enchantment had altered her appearance so that they could not recognize her.

[18-21] On the succeeding day the chase continues, and twice the cruiser comes close to capturing its quarry only to lose it at the last moment. During the second of these abortive efforts, the doughty Patroon of Kinderhook actually throws himself over the brig’s gunwales, but the Water-Witch, gathering speed, pulls away from the boarding boats with Van Staats a captive.

[22-24] When Ludlow and Van Beverout return to Lust in Rust, they find Alida there. Before explanations can be made, Seadrift arrives with another packet of silks for Alida to examine. Even more engaging and exotic than his wares are the subjects of his conversation as he discusses romantic sites in Europe and the historical events which have enriched them with cultural significance. [25] Ludlow leaves to secure Seadrift’s skiff, a move which enables him later to capture the Skimmer and carry him to the Coquette as a prisoner. Under cover of darkness, Ludlow and Bob Yarn row to the Water-Witch to set her adrift in the light wind and ground her on the nearby beach. At the instant Ludlow’s knife touches the anchor cable, the hawser emits a flash, the green figurehead suddenly glows in the dark, and the people of the brig are alerted.

[26] As if to add insult to the injury of her naval suitor, Alida, accompanied by Van Beverout, comes aboard the Coquette to visit the captive Seadrift. Ludlow now stations armed boats for the night at all points of egress from the cove where the Water-Witch is anchored. With the land on one side of the brig, the cruiser on the other, and the latter’s boats sealing off all routes of escape, the Water-Witch seems trapped. Soon Tom Tiller comes alongside and requests a parley with Ludlow. To Ludlow’s surprise, Tiller’s concern is less about the plight of the brig than about the welfare and comfort of Seadrift. When he learns that Alida and Van Beverout have come aboard the Coquette, Tiller seems relieved and soon departs. It is apparent by now that there are more mysteries connected with the Water-Witch than the questionable nature of her trading operations and the uncanny way in which she eludes pursuers. Of all the central characters, only Ludlow is as unenlightened as the reader about these matters.

[27] The scene shifts to New York City and the place of business of one Carnaby, a grocer. Whether an agent of Tom Tiller or of Lord Cornbury, Carnaby is the intermediary who brings these two together for a meeting. The seaman pays Cornbury a sizable amount of gold to use his waning influence to secure a light sentence for Seadrift if he is brought to trial. When their conference ends, cannon fire is heard in the harbor as the Coquette closes in on the Water-Witch. Once Tiller is aboard, the brig makes another spectacular escape, coming within fifty feet of the cruiser on one tack in order to do so. It now becomes apparent that Tiller rather than Seadrift is the Skimmer of the Seas.

[28] Ludlow goes to sea in pursuit of the free-trader without stopping to pick up the seventy members of his crew stationed in boats. [29] He is thus caught dangerously shorthanded when he encounters not the unarmed trader but a French warship. Going to the cabin, Ludlow asks Van Beverout and Seadrift to command batteries of guns against their common enemy. The alderman agrees with alacrity and during the ensuing battle distinguishes himself. Seadrift declines, claiming inexperience at work of that nature. He actually seems quite effeminate as he chooses to stay below to comfort Alida during the naval engagement. [30] After the British guns cripple the French ship, Ludlow prepares to board and capture the enemy vessel, but when another French cruiser appears, he is forced to change his tactics and flee shoreward for protection.

[31] Quite unobserved by the Coquette’s lookouts, Tom Tiller comes aboard from a small skiff to warn Ludlow that the crews of the two French warships are planning some sort of attack on the British vessel. His prediction is verified when a swarm of French boats, with greatly superior manpower, attacks and boards the Coquette. Despite their dogged resistance, the British are about to be overwhelmed when two boatloads of reinforcements arrive from the Water-Witch and turn the tide of battle. [32] In a short while the French withdraw with heavy losses, but the British victory is illusory, for a serious fire has developed in the Coquette’s hold during the struggle. When the fire is clearly out of control, the Skimmer’s boats take off most of the crew. Many of the remainder, fearful of the inevitable explosion of the ship’s magazine, row off in the launch before the central characters can get aboard that boat. As the cruiser is being consumed by flames, Ludlow and Tiller shoot away her masts for the wood needed to build some sort of makeshift raft. This they accomplish just moments before the Coquette explodes in a fiery blast and sinks into the sea.

[33] The situation of the castaways is most precarious. The masts and spars which constitute their rafts are lashed together only with the rope and cordage of the rigging. The first heavy sea will wrench them apart. One sailor is lost to a school of sharks. The crews of the two French ships, having witnessed from a distance the destruction of the Coquette, now arrive and search for survivors, but the raft has too low a profile in the water to be seen by them. Several hours later the castaways are picked up by the Water-Witch.

[34] Back at Lust in Rust Tom Tiller and Van Beverout are closeted in a lengthy interview which clarifies for the reader much of the tangle of relationships. The alderman has been carrying on business with the Water-Witch for more than twenty years, beginning with Tiller’s predecessor and benefactor (not his father, as the merchant had supposed). That predecessor had had a daughter whom Van Beverout had fallen in love with and lived with briefly in a common-law marriage; although he had intended to marry her legally, he had been unable to do so right away without jeopardizing his own career. Whatever were his good intentions toward the girl, they went unrealized, for she had died abroad. Van Beverout had not known that before her death she had borne him a daughter, Eudora, who had been protected and cared f Tom Tiller as his own sister. Seadrift is that Eudora masquerading as a man. The alderman had known for several years that Seadrift was a woman, but he had mistakenly believed that she was, as Tiller claimed, the Skimmer’s sister. (Knowing Seadrift’s sex, Van Beverout had not been as disturbed as either Ludlow or Staats about his niece’s recent association with that person.) The revelation of Eudora’s identity is as great a surprise to her as it is to Van Beverout, for she had grown up thinking she was Tiller’s sister.

After a tearful recognition scene between father and daughter, Tiller informs them of a suitor for Eudora’s hand. The Patroon of Kinderhook, aware he would never win Alida, had become interested in Eudora while he was a prisoner on the Water-Witch. Persuaded that her virtue has been preserved unstained, despite her life aboard ship, Van Staats now wishes to marry Eudora. Emotionally agitated for the first time in the novel, Tiller tells Van Beverout that they would both be doing their duty on Eudora’s behalf by having her married so advantageously. The girl herself, confused by her new status and her recently revealed identity, demurs. She will live ashore, she says, only if Zephyr will remain with her. When the cabin boy chooses to return to the Water-Witch, Eudora throws herself into the arms of Tiller and passionately declares her love for the Skimmer. Before either Van Staats or Van Beverout can stop him, Tiller whisks Eudora and Zephyr into his skiff and rows to the waiting brigantine, which departs at once with the tide. Knowing that his name will be prominent in the news following the sea battle and the loss of the Coquette, Tiller recognizes the impossibility of remaining in the area any longer. Accordingly, the Water-Witch vanishes, never again to be seen in this part of the world.

The subsequent marriage of the two conventional romantic leads, Ludlow and Alida, is relegated to two short sentences; the focus then returns to the titular hero, the Skimmer of the Seas, and his young bride. Although Tom Tiller is a smuggler and hence an outlaw, he remains a memorable and sympathetic character partly because he is colorful, courageous, and generous, and partly because the laws he breaks are repressive regulations which hamper the development of free trade in America.

Alida de Barbérie, Bonnie, Brutus, Carnaby, Bob Cleet, Coil, Lord Cornbury, Cupid, Dinah, Diomede, Dumont, Erasmus, Euclid, François, Hopper, Captain Cornelius Van Cuyler Ludlow, Lieutenant Luff, Phyllis, Reef, Rogerson, Captain Thomas Tiller, Ben Trysail, Eudora Van Beverout, Myndert Van Beverout, Oloff Van Staats, Robert Yarn, Zephyr.