The Sea Lions
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
No one of Cooper's tales of adventure has been more popular with young and older readers than this romance of hidden treasure and the perils of the ocean.
DEACON PRATT was one of the most prominent residents of the township of Oyster Pond, or Pund, as the people pronounced it. This scattered fishing and farming settlement was on the shore of the southernmost of the two lobsterlike prongs which extend seaward at the eastern end of Long Island, and form the entrance to Peconic Bay and the famous whaling port of Sag Harbor. In the early part of the last century the bay was redolent of the fragrance of fish-oil, and tho people were busy at once with farming and whaling.
The deacon was prominent, not so much for his piety, which was, perhaps, not quite up to par as deacons go, as for his possessions, chiefly in farmsteads, which were ample, as things went in those days in that part of the country. He was not exactly immoral or dishonest, but he was very close, not only in keeping a tight mantle as to his affairs, but in holding fast to what he had and in thinking far more of laying up treasure on earth than in heaven. In one and only one way he showed a certain evidence that he was not utterly without bowels of mercy or kindness. He had adopted the daughter of his late brother. Mary Pratt lived with him and received as much paternal and unvarying kindness as he was capable of bestowing. She was a sweet girl, with all the resolute qualities of her uncle, and all the noble traits in which he was lacking. His wife was dead.
There was a third individual of that neighborhood who was willing and anxious to become a member of this family of two.
This was young Skipper Roswell Gardiner, pronounced Gar'ner in those parts. He was newly appointed captain of the schooner Sea Lion, owned by Deacon Pratt and about to sail on an important expedition. Mary had shown no aversion to the gallant and handsome sailor, and it was therefore quite natural that he should entertain this ambition. The deacon also was willing. Though everything seemed to prosper these wishes and hopes, their fruition was delayed by two serious obstacles. The first was that the deacon was now much too busy to give attention to affairs matrimonial. The other was more serious, since Mary's religious convictions were, like those of her New England ancestry, so firm that arguments and pleadings had no more effect on them than the foam of the ocean surge upon a granite shore. She loved him; that was under-stood. But she was an orthodox Presbyterian, a firm believer in the divinity of Christ. Roswell, on the other hand, while combining more principle and attractiveness than commonly distinguishes a seafaring man, was tainted with the heresy of Unitarianism. Hence, such was her ideal standard of marriage, she could not conscientiously unite with him in the holy bonds of matrimony. And thus he had to go on this perilous voyage still a bachelor.
What were the facts that led Deacon Pratt to begin an enter-prise of a nature so entirely new to one accustomed to deal more with farms than with ships? The reply to this question is as follows: A ship bound to New York from a long voyage put in at Oyster Pond and landed a middle-aged sailor in the last stages of consumption. He was taken to the house of Widow White, where he was frugally cared for, according to his scant means, until his death. The deacon soon heard of this stranger and naturally visited him. With true Yankee curiosity he soon picked up enough information to lead him to want more, especially as it was his native cupidity that was most attracted.
The name of the stranger was Daggett. He came originally from Martha's Vineyard, where natives of that name abound. But he had been away from his island home for nearly fifty years, and there seemed to be no disposition to send word to his family, if any remained, across a stretch of water one hundred miles wide. Daggett's mind was burdened with two secrets which so dwelt in his thoughts that it required but little coaxing on the deacon's part to draw them out. The deacon's curiosity was kindled to the last degree, and he passed a good part of his time at the bedside of the dying man with a hope of gaining every point of information on the secrets, closing the door of the sick man's room to prevent listeners. Mrs. White, made only more curious on this account, passed her time, also, in listening at a crack in the partition. But what she heard was only disjointed fragments of the conversation.
The deacon learned of a group of small islands in very high southern latitudes, not down on the charts then and entirely unknown to all but Daggett and perhaps one or two survivors of the ship which had taken him there. One of those bleak, ice-bound isles abounded with seals so tame that they could be readily approached; and hence in a few days a ship could fill up with their valuable skins, winning immense gain. Another revelation wrung from Daggett was about a great treasure hidden by pirates on a key in the West Indies. But having learned this much, the deacon found it impossible to get Daggett to divulge the exact latitude and longitude where lay these two sources of wealth. So sure, however, did he feel that Daggett would not die without divulging that secret that he rather imprudently purchased a schooner called the Sea Lion, just launched and nearly completed. Roswell Gardiner was engaged as skipper, with injunctions of secrecy.
Contrary to expectation, Daggett died without revealing the secret. There was one hope left. Daggett made no disposition of his sea-chest; and on the ground that no one had a better right to it than he, Deacon Pratt took it and examined the con-tents. It contained nothing of value except two well-worn charts. But those were enough. Written in pencil on each one was the important information that the deacon desired. But, aware that heirs might turn up to claim these effects, he wrote these very important data on a separate piece of paper, which he placed in a pocketbook worn next to his person. He then proceeded to efface the figures on the charts and slightly stained the white spots left by the effacer. The charts were then replaced in the chest,
The work of completing the Sea Lion and procuring a competent crew went on apace. But before all was ready a Captain Daggett, of Martha's Vineyard, claiming to be a brother of the deceased mariner, appeared on the scene and gave the deacon an unpleasant quarter of an hour. He was invited to dine, and after that opened the chest. He seemed especially anxious to see whatever charts his brother might have left, remarking that the notes about their observations left by navigators on their charts, which belonged to them exclusively, were often of great value. But on examining his brother's charts the Captain was greatly disappointed. He detected the marks of the deacon's tampering and showed suspicion, particularly as he had learned of the purchase of the Sea Lion. But as there were no witnesses he could do nothing more than get into his sailboat with the chest and charts and return to the Vineyard. Evidently further information had been gained, perhaps from the crew of the vessel that had brought the deceased man to Oyster Pond; for news came that Captain Daggett and his neighbors were exerting every nerve to complete a schooner of dimensions similar to those of the Sea Lion, and actually giving her the same name and a similar figurehead.
Spies were also detected passing to and fro and conveying information about the Oyster Pond schooner and her mysterious voyage. It was also learned that she was detained by the efforts of the Vineyard men to prevent her from obtaining men at New London and alongshore. It was evident that Captain Daggett must have picked up considerable information; but still lacking the all-essential data that Deacon Pratt had stolen, was determined to force his schooner on the company of the deacon's boat, thus either preventing the success of her cruise or compelling equal sharing with the alternative of a fight.
Undeterred, however, by the evidence that he had a deter-mined enemy and rival to contend with, the deacon completed his preparations, leaving it to Captain Gardiner to escape Daggett in such way as he might find feasible. The day before sailing Roswell was taken into the deacon's private room and forced to take a solemn oath not to divulge to a living soul the information as to his course, which the deacon then proceeded to disclose to him.
The parting of Roswell and Mary was appropriately solemn. She knew or suspected enough to be aware that he was about to undertake a voyage of great and unusual peril. But even at the most tender moments, when she yielded to the most earnest expressions of affection, she emphasized the fact that their ultimate union was conditioned on his acceptance of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. It cannot be said that the outlook for the success of Roswell's hopes was by any means satisfactory.
Everything being ready at last, the Sea Lion of Oyster Pond put to sea around Montauk Point and between that and Martha's Vineyard. Everything seemed clear all around the offing, and Roswell hoped the fear of meeting or being followed by the rival schooner was groundless. But when the sun was well up a sail was made out quite away from the track of craft bound south from the Vineyard, and yet evidently the Vineyard Sea Lion. She slightly outsailed the other Sea Lion; and there-fore it was useless to try to avoid her at that time.
Captain Daggett was in command, and when hailing his competitor made it distinctly apparent that he purposed the two ships should sail together. Thus at the very outset of his voyage Roswell Gardiner saw that his difficulties had already begun; for it was evident that Daggett was resolved that, if there were any secret in the movements of the Oyster Pond boat, he would share in or neutralize its advantages either by finesse or by force. Although a fine, daring, experienced, resolute seaman, Roswell was no match in other respects for Daggett, being too credulous, simple and undesigning to compete with such a man. A heavy gale sprang up when the two schooners had been out two or three days, which pressed them in toward the Carolina coast. Roswell was for getting on the other tack and thus working clear of that dangerous coast. But as long as Daggett kept to that course, his pride restrained him from an appearance of over caution. This was an evidence of weakness which a thoroughly strong character would have resisted. The result was that both vessels barely escaped disaster from a sudden shift of the wind. But Roswell's boat lost a mast and both vessels went into Beaufort, the one to repair, and the other, apparently generous, to aid its consort. It was in vain that Gardiner urged Daggett not to wait for him, but to keep right on with his voyage.
After they set sail again they met a school of whales. The weather being favorable, both schooners sent out their boats. That of the Vineyard Lion struck a small whale; Roswell's boat took a similar one, and then struck a very large one of one hundred and twenty barrels. Roswell being more active and experienced, got in his harpoon a few seconds before Daggett, who, however, claimed to have been ahead and therefore en-titled to carry off the whale or share in it. Both Captains sprang on the dead whale and were on the point of coming to blows, while the crews, inspired by keen rivalry, looked on with the greatest excitement. Before the crisis was reached, Daggett recollected that if he should kill Roswell he would lose the very object of his voyage, and grumblingly relinquished his claim.
The schooners then put into Rio de Janeiro to ship their oil: Roswell was able to send home a supply which netted above all expenses fully four thousand dollars—very well for one afternoon's sport. Great was the joy in the deacon's household when this spoil and letters for Mary and her uncle arrived there.
From Rio the course was for the mysterious seal islands, the bearing of which Roswell knew but which Daggett could not find without him. Now or never was the time for him to shake loose from the pertinacious company of his determined rival. But Daggett clung closer than a brother.
At last the opportunity came, and at the greatest hazard Roswell seized the chance. It was blowing very fresh as the schooners drew neat the Horn, after passing the Straits of Magellan, and the seas were very heavy. But on board the Sea Lion of Oyster Pond was an old seaman of great experience and fidelity, and of sound Christian faith, named Stimson, who had been several times through the terrible straits. The weather came up very thick as well as stormy. During one of the intervals of fog Daggett's schooner lost sight of Roswell's boat, and kept on through the main channel and so westward beyond the course Roswell had in mind. Confiding in Stimson's guidance, he immediately turned into a nearer but more dangerous channel, and carrying sail hard, succeeded by the utmost resolution and skill in reaching the open sea and headed due south toward the islands, while Daggett was heading west, if not already lost amid the squalls and rugged headlands of those fearful waters. Although midwinter north of the Equator, it was midsummer in that Antarctic region; hence Roswell was able to reach the islands without encountering much ice. The island sought was easily distinguished by the description the deceased Daggett had given to Deacon Pratt. A safe, splendid harbor was found, and the number and tameness of the seals was exactly as described.
No time was lost. A small frame house used in building the schooner had been brought and was now put up and used to store the skins of the seals, which were killed in great numbers. Everything was going well, when one afternoon a schooner hove in sight, which proved to be the Vineyard Lion. Missing his rival, Daggett had cruised in every quarter in desperation until he found her. It was useless to quarrel over the matter. But Daggett broke his leg, and his unruly crew showed so little common sense in approaching the seals as al-most to ruin the catch for both vessels, for that season at least. But Roswell by this time was almost ready to leave with a full cargo. Daggett urged him not to forsake them until his boat was full. Roswell weakly waited several weeks, although risking the property rights of his owner. On one plea and another Daggett urged him to remain a few days longer; and when the vessels finally started the short far-southern summer was over, and the winter ice had begun to form. They might still have escaped if Daggett had not managed to get under an iceberg, part of which fell on his schooner in such a way as to form a sort of archway over it. There she was doomed to re-main; and it was too late for Roswell to get away that year. They were poorly prepared for the long, fearful winter before them. Of provisions there was a fair supply, but the store of wood was far too scanty to keep them alive for so many months; Roswell therefore caused sealskins to be nailed double to the walls of the hut, thus forming a welcome lining. The galley-stove was put in and wide eaves were added. But after a time the fuel gave out; and as Daggett, devoured with jealousy and mulishness, insisted in remaining in his schooner under the canopy of ice, instead of breaking her up for fuel, Roswell had to use some of the upper works of his own schooner. The cold was so awful that all but three of Daggett's crew of seventeen men froze to death; and in trying to get to the hut, he himself froze his lower limbs, and came by the mortification that en-sued to a miserable end.
The spring finally came back, but so slowly that if it had lingered a fortnight longer not a soul would have survived. The hull of Roswell's vessel was repaired, and she finally got away with a two-thirds cargo, which eventually netted twenty thousand dollars. When they at last reached the West Indies, Roswell found the pirate's island and treasure, and there secured several thousand dollars more, although less than was expected. He finally arrived home after being given up for lost, happily in time to see Deacon Pratt before he passed away after a lingering illness.
When the deacon's will was read it was found, to the mortification of most of his relatives, that he had left everything, with the exception of a few unimportant articles, to Roswell and Mary, with an earnest exhortation not to delay their marriage. This advice they hastened to follow when Mary learned that the perils and hardships through which her lover had passed had caused the scales to fall from his eyes and changed his religious belief to accord with her own.