The Water Witch
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE WATER WITCH (1830)
This romance was written mostly in Rome, was first published in Dresden, and the same year was republished in New York. It is the most romantic of the author's sea-tales. The scene of the story is entirely in the neighborhood of New York; and the chief character of the drama is no human being, but a charming and resistless brigantine named the Water Witch, whose owner and commander is known as the "Skimmer of the Seas."
IT was about thirty years after the capture of New Amsterdam by the English and the change of its name to New York, that Alderman Beverout, a wealthy burgher of that city, Dutch by descent, but very loyal to his new masters, set out one pleasant morning for a trip across the bay to a snug retreat he owned by the Shrewsbury River. The name of this retired spot was "Lust en Rust." The burgher was accompanied by his fair niece, Alinda de Barberie, an orphan, whose father was a French Huguenot. They were accompanied by a faithful old French family servitor named Francois. But though carefully watched she availed herself of the not uncommon privilege or practise of her sex of finding friends and bestowing admiration in quarters unsuspected by her tutors and guardians. Another of the party was Olaf van Staats, a large, rather slow, heavily built young aristocrat, sole heir to one hundred thousand acres, the third largest estate in the province, whence his title of Patroon of Kinderhook. This youth had been selected by Van Beverout for his niece, la belle Barberie. But the courtship, if it may be so called, had thus far not proceeded beyond a certain sluggish, qualified assent on the part of the swain, and neither assent nor dissent on the part of the lady.
Several countryfolk and some articles of freight seemed to complete the cargo of the periagua, when at the last moment another passenger leaped aboard, who, evidently a seaman, shoved the skipper aside, took the helm and assumed charge of the boat without ceremony. Every eye was at once focused on this presuming stranger; he was of large frame—audacity and self-confidence in his eye—and his apparel was to the last degree jaunty and picturesque. Nor was he bashful in his conversation, although a total stranger to all on board.
The periagua headed for Staten Island. But as the boat was to pass near an English sloop of war, or corvette, named the Coquette and stationed at that port to look out for smugglers and freebooters, the stranger turned the periagua close to the man-of-war, and at once opened parley with Captain Ludlow, the young commander, who was pacing the quarter-deck of his trim vessel. But such was the audacity, not to say insolence, of the picturesque stranger in his conversation with the Captain of a British ship of war, that the latter at once took fire, and on general principles, without any certain knowledge as to the stranger, at once ordered two boats to follow and seize him.
But the stranger, taking advantage of the rising breeze, and by a display of seamanship that declared him to be, beyond doubt, a consummate sailor, eluded the pursuing boats, and bringing up close to the rocks, leaped on shore, and was soon lost in the dense thickets and winding footpaths that are to this day a feature of Staten Island scenery. The periagua then landed a number of her passengers; Burgher van Beverout and his party soon after continued their trip across what is known as the Lower Bay; on landing, they were met by several of the negro slaves of " Lust en Rust," and escorted by them to the rural mansion, which stood in a clearing of the forest on a steep hill overlooking a vast land- or sea-scape extending from Raritan Bay to Sandy Hook, a barrier that partly shut out the vast expanse of ocean beyond.
The main building was occupied by Van Beverout and his guests. The quarters of the slaves were grouped by themselves, while Alinda Barberie, preferring a poetic retirement in the presence of nature, had a charming little cottage somewhat advanced from the other buildings, where at will she could enjoy her gentle musings undisturbed. Although that region, like most of the country, was still very thinly inhabited, the people were generally of so quiet and peaceable a nature that little was feared from marauders. But visitors occasionally appeared unannounced, as proved on this occasion to be the case. For this reason the old Francois slept close at hand, ready to be summoned at any moment. As the name implies, " Lust en Rust " was given out by the burgher as a resort for quiet rest from the cares of business. It was well known that he was one of the busiest and most thrifty citizens of New York, interested at once in commercial and civil affairs. There was nothing unreasonable, then, in so opulent and highly reputable a citizen sometimes seeking absolute repose in this charming retreat, where he might breathe the invigorating air of the sea.
Night had set in; and Alinda, standing by the open window, looked out at the stars in the clear sky and the dark, mysterious form of the English cruiser, the Coquette, which during the day had dropped down the bay and anchored near Sandy Hook. She could hear the distant roll of the surf and the rustle of the leaves in the slight gusts that broke the solemn stillness. Then she perceived in the darkness the vague form of the spars of a distant vessel moving silently outside of the breakers, turning into the inlet between Sandy Hook and the mainland, and drop-ping anchor in the Shrewsbury River, which was available to vessels of moderate size and draft. She had come in under bare poles by the use of sweeps, and was screened by the trees from the observation of the Coquette, although the latter ship had come to this neighborhood precisely to find this newcomer, on the sup-position that she was the notorious Water Witch reported to be again on that coast. There was something very mysterious to Alinda in this silent approach of a ship in the gloom of night without any apparent means of propulsion.
And yet she was not alarmed, but continued to watch as if she were waiting for some one to arrive. And some one did appear under her window soon after this incident. It proved to be young Seadrift, addressed as captain notwithstanding his slight build and youthful appearance. He was accompanied by men who brought a bale of goods which was taken into her front apartment. When the bale was opened it revealed a store of very valuable stuffs such as ladies prize and the wealthy buy; such, too, as bring heavy customs duties, and hence encourage smuggling, and result in fierce adventures and the shedding of blood. The lady Alinda knew little of all these incidents attendant on smuggling. Still ignorant of much that goes on in this world, she saw in the smuggled goods only valuable articles that she must have and that were paid for by her uncle, no questions being asked.
On this occasion several other visitors happened on the scene without the slightest concert of action, and yet all deeply interested in what they saw and heard. First Captain Ludlow of the British cruiser appeared under the window. As he had a long previous acquaintance with la belle Barberie, being indeed an evident suitor for her hand, and might form unfavorable opinions in regard to her, she at once summoned Francois, with the quick presence of mind of her sex, and ordered him to bring refreshments. Soon after the sailor of the sash, as they spoke of him, who had so daringly addressed Captain Ludlow and aroused his resentment, looked in for a moment, and passed on without molestation, having exchanged some amicable words with Ludlow at a later interview. Then Van Beverout and Van Staats the Patroon dropped in; and the former took evident interest in the goods displayed. The latter and Captain Ludlow, both suitors, showed no hilarity, perhaps for that reason.
The next morning, to the amazement of everyone, Alinda de Barberie was nowhere to be found; and the Water Witch, as she was supposed to be, had put to sea. The whole affair was a profound mystery. The lovers mentally accused each other; and all had their surmises as to the cause of this elopement or disappearance. Inviting Burgher Van Beverout and the Patroon to accompany him, Captain Ludlow passed the Hook in search of the supposed smuggler. Each lover feared the worst, but Ludlow showed most willingness to give the lady the full benefit of the doubt, while Van Staats gave out plain hints that excited the wrath of her uncle, who really showed more anxiety on her account than for the pecuniary losses he might have incurred.
The cruiser had not proceeded far out to sea before the brigantine Water Witch was discovered jogging along under easy sail, as if her skipper sought rather than avoided a trial of speed and perhaps of guns. Then she made sail and a long and about equal chase ensued. Squalls and calms and steady breezes tested the speed of the ships and the skill of their captains. Finally the Water Witch succeeded in getting out of sight and the Coquette gave up and headed for New York, while the Water Witch again glided stealthily to her old berth in the Shrewsbury cove.
It was not long, however, before Ludlow learned of her whereabouts and hastened to renew his efforts to capture this will-o'-the-wisp of a ship. His credit in the service demanded it, and his ease of heart, as a lover. This time he anchored his powerful cruiser at the mouth of the river and placed his boats with large crews of boarders at such points as to thwart the smuggler in any attempts to elude him by the usual channels. These dispositions were made at night and were expected to be crowned with success. But the night proved to be dark. The waters of New York bay were not lighted as they are now. The Skimmer of the Seas slipped out of the net by his superior knowledge of those waters, proceeding to the westward and eastward under the southern shore of Staten Island and so through the Narrows.
But before accomplishing the East River passage to proceed to sea by Long Island Sound, the smuggler was nearly over-taken by the cruiser, rushing before a fresh breeze as if deter-mined to settle the question this time for good and all. Ludlow pursued the chase with a certain degree of reluctance, how-ever, for he admired the great, magnificent sailor and his lovely little ship, and also feared that inevitable harm would befall the fair girl he loved, if she were indeed on board the brigantine. Bit his duty and his destiny demanded that he should end the long pursuit, now that this crowning chance was given him, and hope for the best for all concerned.
The stalwart Skimmer of the Seas had no pilot; the passage either by Hell-gate or the other side of Blackwell's Island was in those days sufficiently appalling. The cruiser gained on him perceptibly. He was evidently in a desperate case; the Water Witch had one advantage, however, in her simpler rig as a brigantine, which enabled her to turn more quickly in case of need. In the last extremity the consummate seaman who managed the Water Witch took an all but hopeless turn which threatened instant destruction. By his coolness and quickness of perception he barely escaped the peril; and by this means he actually got so far in advance of the pursuing cruiser as to place himself out of danger, and was able to keep on, following the directions of a coaster he met; he was almost out of sight of the pursuing ship, when a new and very important actor appeared on the scene. This was a French corvette fully equal to the Coquette.
This unexpected incident completely changed the situation. The Water Witch, become at once a secondary factor, was permitted to go where she pleased, while her pursuer turned his whole attention to the French ship now fast approaching. The two vessels, quite evenly matched as to size, were soon engaged in a deadly conflict. It is unnecessary to enter into a detailed description of the furious fighting that ensued. The French, attempting to carry the Coquette by boarding, were re-pulsed with the loss of their gallant captain.
But just as the English were on the point of attempting a similar charge, all eyes were called to the near approach of a large French frigate bearing down to the rescue of her consort. For Ludlow to think of continuing the battle against such odds was impossible. He drew off his ship and anchored in water too shoal for the draft of the frigate, and the corvette was too crippled to follow. The night was serene; and Ludlow was reflecting on his quarter-deck on the events of the day and the possibilities of the morrow, when he was startled by seeing the Skimmer of the Seas standing at his elbow. He was startled and angered likewise at the boldness of the smuggler and the careless watch of his men who had allowed a boat to come alongside unseen and unchallenged. The former appeased Ludlow by alleging the fatigue of the crew and stating that he had come in a light skiff and climbed by a line over the taffrail.
The Skimmer of the Seas now earnestly warned Ludlow to be on his guard and rouse his crew, to prepare them to save the ship from being taken by an overwhelming number of boarders who were preparing to carry the royal cruiser about midnight. Ludlow was rather inclined to doubt the report, but was assured that the smuggler had just come from reconnoitering, and was certain that the attack was undoubtedly beyond question. Ludlow thanked him cordially and proceeded at once to put his ship and crew in an immediate state of defense. As he had been told, so everything came to pass.
The charge was bravely met, but the enemy were too numerous to be successfully resisted. Ludlow and his men were beaten back to the waist and thence to the quarter-deck. At that desperate moment, the powerful form of the Skimmer of the Seas appeared over the side, leading his crew to the rescue.
This turned the scale. The enemy were driven over-board, and a deep sense of triumph seemed to pervade the hearts of the victors when the hand grenades thrown by the enemy exploded and set the cruiser on fire. The flames seized the spars and approached the powder magazine. The boats were launched and filled with people. But in the panic they made off, leaving a good number to save themselves as they could on a rude raft composed of floating spars. The ship blew up with an awful explosion, killing some who were at one end of the raft. On the following morning, when daylight appeared, the Water Witch stole out of the cove where she had lain hidden and rescued the few survivors on the raft.
Ludlow now told the Skimmer of the Seas that his conduct in repelling the French boarders was an act that aroused the deepest gratitude; and that, so far as he was concerned, the Water Witch should never suffer more from the pursuit of the naval vessels of his government. The Skimmer of the Seas replied that it was not in his nature at such a time to stand idly by when the enemy were attacking his countrymen. In such a crisis all personal grievances must yield to the instinct of patriotism.
Good will being established, the gallant smuggler sailed away with his companions to seek his profits in other seas with his lovely ship the Water Witch, while Ludlow led to the altar the charming Alinda Barberie.