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The Pilot

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Falconer's poem entitled The Shipwreck (1760) is the first literary attempt to describe life at sea and to paint, as it were, the career of a ship as an entity almost endowed with the attributes of a living creature. Smollett's so-called sea-stories appeared a few years earlier, and Scott's The Pirate was published early in the following century; but the ship, as such, plays only a subordinate part in those tales. It was not until 1823 that Cooper published the immortal sea-romance called The Pilot, which is the first genuine sea-story ever written, excepting, of course, Falconer's poem. Cooper served six years in the United States Navy, and his very soul was animated with a love for ships and a knowledge of sea life, especially on ships of war. It is a little singular that Cooper began his career by writing land-stories, and the idea of composing a sea-novel came to him in the form of a challenge to surpass Scott's Pirate, which he maintained was merely touched by a flavor of the sea, a story written by a landsman no more a sailor than those for whom he wrote The Pilot, which met with immediate and lasting success. The pilot whose part in the action of the story gives it the title is generally understood as representing John Paul Jones, who made marauding descents on the coast of England.

TOWARD the close of a sullen day in December several laborers going home along the brow of the beetling cliffs of the northeastern coast of England were surprised to see a small schooner and a frigate wending landward among the dangerous shoals of those waters. While they were speculating on the motives that would lead the strangers to take such risk, the frigate hoisted the well-known colors of the British navy. At once the wary husbandmen hastened away from that neighbor-hood, to avoid being pressed into the service.

The vessels having thrown out light anchors, each despatched a boat to land with all possible haste; for as night drew on the offing looked more threatening, and a storm was evidently brewing that would attack these vessels on a lee shore. The larger boat of the frigate anchored just outside the line of breakers to await the return of the light, buoyant whale-boat of the Ariel schooner, which carried her commander, Lieutenant Barnstable, who was to make a landing at the foot of the cliff and bring off the Pilot.

By the aid of Tom Coffin, a huge, raw-boned, patriotic old whaler, Barnstable gained the top of the cliff, where he met a stern stranger of small speech and slightly below middle height. Satisfactory prearranged passwords having been exchanged, the stranger proved to be the Pilot whom Barnstable sought, and they now returned to the whale-boat. But first Barnstable met—perhaps by chance—Miss Plowden, his fiancee, who was temporarily staying at the St. Ruth's Abbey manor-house, the residence of Colonel Howard, a wealthy Tory of South Carolina, who had fled his native land with his daughter, two wards, his nieces, one of whom was the would-be fiancee of Lieutenant Griffith, first officer of the frigate, once in British service and mortally hated by Colonel Howard. The other was equally interested in Barnstable. By a singular combination of events, Alice Dunscombe was also at the Abbey at this time, said Alice being in love with and loved by the Pilot, although not likely to marry him, as she was an uncompromising loyalist and spurned the hand of the Pilot because of the transfer of his allegiance to the rebellious colonies of America. These ladies, whose roman-tic affections were thus interwoven with the destiny of the two mysterious vessels, tended somewhat to complicate the situation, and to distract the thoughts of Barnstable, Griffith, and the Pilot, but otherwise had little to do with the ultimate result of the expedition of the frigate and her graceful consort, the lovely schooner Ariel.

By this time darkness had settled over land and sea; a very ominous sky was brooding over the ocean, and the heavy ground swell was rising fast, beating on the reefs with a hollow roar that filled the brave crew and captain with dread of the fate that impended when they should try to find their way out from the ill-chosen berth where the ships were pulling at their cables. At last the barge arrived under charge of Griffith, who had brought the Pilot, after commanding Barnstable to take out the Ariel at once by a passage impracticable to the frigate, employing sweeps, or long oars sometimes used by small ships until the wind should fill the sails.

The decks of the frigate were lighted with battle-lanterns, which showed the men standing in groups waiting for orders and watching with anxious curiosity the mysterious and to them unknown stranger on whose good faith, knowledge, and skill depended that night the life of every man on board. Good old Captain Munson knew the identity of the Pilot, but it was concealed from everyone else on board, and it was not singular that, until his power and skill to command had been tested, there was some distrust both as to his skill and his ability.

Long after dark the frigate lay riding to her anchor, tossing on the rising surge: the officers and crew waited at their posts impatient to get away, while Captain Munson and the Pilot paced the quarter-deck in conference, as if no dread task demanded their entire attention. The flood tide had not yet turned, but there was still a remnant of the land wind aloft, and Griffith at last ventured to suggest that they might try to work through the passage with even that scant wind. But the Pilot, with calm deliberation, bade them await his orders.

At last, when the impatience of all became manifest and any trifling incident might hasten an end to the suspense, the chaplain, who was chatting with the captain of the marines, made a remark too absurd and landlubberly to pass even with a marine. An explosion of laughter followed, strangely jarring on the solemnity of the scene.

This checked the conference between the Captain and the Pilot, and the former, coming forward, said to the first lieu-tenant:

" Get the anchor, Mr. Griffith, and make sail on the ship; the hour has arrived when we must be moving."

The lieutenant obeyed the order with alacrity, and in a moment hundreds of men were laboring at the anchor or springing all over the rigging, and soon the anchor was a-trip, that is, ready to be lifted from the bottom, and the spars were spread with canvas. The light western breeze held for about a quarter of a mile, and then completely died away. The frigate began to drift astern and sidewise out of control and toward the shoals, which were white in the gloom with the foam of the breakers rolling in from the German ocean. A candle was lighted, and the little flame burned steadily in a line with the masts. Not a breath of air was stirring. Griffith, who held it, was about to put it out when he felt a coolness on the back of his hand. Then the flame began to turn toward the land, flickered, and expired.

Gripping the rail of the poop, the Pilot's voice rang out : "Lose not a moment, Mr. Griffith, clew and furl everything but your three topsails, and let them be doubled-reefed. Now is the time, if ever, for action."

The officer sprang to obey the order as if life or death depended on the speed of the crew and himself—and so it did.

A fierce gray mist like smoke appeared rushing over the sea, and the distinct roar of the wind was heard tearing with fury toward the ship. With such expedition did the nimble crew clew up and furl the canvas that the ship was prepared for the first burst of the tempest. And yet when it struck her she lay over on her side until the yard-arms almost touched the water, and masses of sheeted foam swept over the bow as she tore over the sea like a frightened steed.

And now came, in earnest, the battle that was to decide the fate of the frigate and her gallant crew. The Pilot had to trust to his memory and calculation as to speed and soundings to take the ship through narrow, winding channels of deep water, beset on either hand by reefs over which the surges rolled and blended their thunder with the roar of the wind. He had to depend alone on this narrow line of dark water winding through the foam, and the soundings constantly taken by the man in the main-chains and read by the Captain himself as the lead came up, together with ceaseless calculation of what the ship was capable of in this emergency. A single error meant irretrievable destruction, quick and total.

At last came a point where a single distant light must be kept clear of a hill lying north of it. If the ship could be maneuvered to do this, her safety was assured; but if not, that was the end. The Pilot said that ability to accomplish this depended on setting more canvas. The Captain and officers hesitated, for she was already under press of sail to the limit of safety.

"It is that or death," replied the Pilot in his calm but firm manner. "She is already dropping yon light behind the hill."

Therefore the order rang through the ship to set the huge mainsail and jib. She responded to this increased power, even though the jib was soon blown away like the fragment of a cloud, and the light was again visible, but how long could the spars and ever the ship resist the violence of the tempest? The Pilot himself now went to the helm, directing the quarter-master and even taking the spokes with his own hand. But suddenly, and to the surprised relief of all, the course of the frigate was changed. She was turned before the wind, resumed her upright position, and ran with comparative stability before the waves, while the voice of the Pilot rang out cheerfully the order:

"Square the yards! In the mainyard!"

The fact was that by dint of the tremendous skill, coolness, and effort displayed the gallant ship had at last cleared the terrible shoals and was now running in deep water on the open expanse of the ocean. Nothing remained to do until morning but to divide the watches, sending one below to tumble exhausted and yet relieved into their hammocks. It was a triumph so marvelous, so nobly won by the Pilot, that Griffith, who had doubted and almost resisted his orders, came up to him, shook his hand warmly, and said :

"You have this night proved yourself a faithful pilot, and such a seaman as the world cannot equal."

After sunrise the Arid was descried proceeding under easy sail on the same course with the frigate, and Barnstable, her commander, was signaled to come on board the frigate to attend a council of war. Although the sea still ran high, he was able to do this in his buoyant whale-boat steered by the quaint old coxswain Long Tom Coffin. The Pilot took no active part in the discussion held in the cabin, but he was present and was sometimes consulted, being the man on whose guidance, owing to his knowledge of the region and people, much depended in this expedition of the two vessels now cruising on the English coast. The veteran Captain Munson explained to the officers gathered on this occasion that the ships were sent out by the Continental commissioners stationed in Paris, the purpose being partly for political effect, and partly to capture men of prominence whose duress might lead the British Government to modify its treatment of American prisoners. To arrange specific plans to reach this end this council had been called, at which all present would be at liberty to contribute suggestions and advice. After an amicable salty discussion, it was decided to land parties at points where the mansions of the nobility and gentry were particularly exposed to attack by the enemy, and that the first attack would be at St. Ruth's Abbey manor-house, occupied by Colonel Howard already mentioned, and his frequent distinguished guests. As it was reported that, owing to the proximity of French and American cruisers, such descents were probable, these estates were sometimes protected by small detachments of troops, it was decided to add twenty marines and Manuel their captain to the naval contingent; Lieutenant Griffith was to have charge of the expedition, which would be taken to the landing by the schooner under Barnstable.

The results of this expedition would have been reached with much less of anxiety and loss of liberty and life but for the reckless and imprudent leadership of Griffith, who was urgent to combine two objects, the capture of prominent Britishers and the gaining of an interview, and perhaps achieving the rescue of Katherine Plowden, his fair mistress, from the guardian-ship or, as it seemed to him, the bondage of her uncle.

After landing, Griffith, Manuel, and the Pilot set out on a scouting expedition, disguised as plain seafaring folk. In his impetuousness Griffith influenced his companions to neglect the most ordinary prudence. Hence they were seen, seized, and confined at St. Ruth's Abbey until they could be more carefully examined by Captain Burroughcliffe, commander of the troops protecting the Abbey, and either impressed, shot, or hanged, as might best serve the interests of his Majesty.

They were seen and recognized by Katherine Plowden and Dillon, a cowardly, dishonorable lawyer, cousin of Katherine, in love with her and her fortune, and mortally Sealous of Griffith. The easy-going, good-natured Burroughcliffe, when in the secondary stage of after-dinner potations, took it into his head to visit his prisoners, pooh-poohed the caution of Dillon, and carelessly allowed Manuel and the Pilot to escape. Surmising that they would naturally make directly for the schooner's boat, Dillon mounted horse and made desperate haste to put the war-cutter Alacrity, then lying in a neighboring bay, on their line of escape. Calling for volunteers from the seafaring people in the neighborhood, including the furious Dillon him-self, her captain put to sea with a large force, sighted the boat with the runaways and Barnstable, and having a smart breeze was overhauling them fast when the Ariel's people, hearing the firing of guns, hoisted anchor and sails, and appeared around the point, picked up the whale-boat, and stood toward the cutter with all her guns shotted and manned. A severe battle ensued, each trying to board the other, until Long Tom Coffin managed to pin the poor captain of the cutter to the mast with his whaler's harpoon. Aghast at this frightful tragedy, the cutter's crew surrendered.

The Pilot did not go on board after his escape, but, putting on an effectual disguise, busied himself with preparing new plans for seizing the people he now knew from his own observations to be occupying St. Ruth's Abbey. The squad of marines had been discovered in their hiding-place by Burroughcliffe during these operations, and were all either slain or captured.

With a confidence more creditable to his heart than to his head, Barnstable, believing in Dillon's word of honor as a gentleman, despatched him by boat to St. Ruth's Abbey in keeping of Long Tom Coffin, the coxswain, on condition that if Griffith were not exchanged for him, then he (Dillon) would return to the schooner. But as soon as Dillon reached the Abbey he disregarded his promises, and, being ashamed to do it himself, directed Burroughcliffe to inform the coxswain that he was under arrest with the probable alternative of hanging or serving in the British navy. Being of an ingenuous nature, Burroughcliffe made this announcement regretfully and in his own private room without any assistance within call. Great was his amazement, therefore, when Long Tom suddenly seized him by the shoulder with his grip of iron and bound him fast, hand and foot, to the bedpost with a lot of cordage he drew out of his capacious seaman's pockets. He then put a gag in Burroughcliffe's mouth. Turning the key of the door and secreting it in his pocket, the coxswain then passed along the winding hall until, the door being ajar, he found Dillon and Colonel Howard taking a night-cap in the dining-room, for it was now late. When Howard retired through the door opposite the open one where Coffin was watching, the coxswain entered, closed the door and seized Dillon, bound his arms tight behind his back, swung him, blanched with terror, over his huge shoulders as he would a baby, and carried him off to the boat with no pretense of pity or gentleness. The reception which Barnstable gave to Dillon when the wretch appeared again on the Ariel was very far from satisfactory to that gentle-man.

The Ariel put to sea at once, as a heavy gale was coming on and it was a question, indeed, whether she had not already lingered too long to weather the coast and reach deep water, even under press of sail. The storm increased rapidly, and at its height the mainsail on which they depended especially to claw off a lee shore was blown to ribbons and flew away like smoke. The anchors were got overboard without delay, but the powerful cables of hemp were soon chafed by the rocky bottom and parted. Borne on the crest of the tremendous breakers and reft of her spars, the little Ariel drove madly toward the rocks. Nothing was left to do but to put up the helm and try to beach her, bow on. But ere she could reach the shore she struck a ledge amidships that broke her back. The next rollers swept everything off her decks and wrenched the graceful hull to fragments. Long Tom Coffin, Dillon, and most of the prisoners and crew were lost. Barnstable with a few of his men alone escaped. In due course they managed to get back to the cutter Alacrity, which, with a prize crew, was in temporary command of Mr. Boltrope.

Very soon after these events, such was the secret efficiency of the Pilot that a large force of sailors and marines was quietly landed two miles from St. Ruth's Abbey, carried the place late at night, and captured every person they found, including the guard of soldiers; all the prisoners, with Colonel Howard and the two ladies, were transferred to the Alacrity. The following day the frigate hove in sight and Colonel Howard and his lovely wards were awarded staterooms in that ship.

The next morning the weather was fine, but the water was hidden by a heavy fog which rose in magnificent sunlit masses as the sun climbed higher. Everything promised well, when the muffled sound of firing was heard in continuous peals, evidently to give warning to friends. Everyone assumed that it came from the Alacrity, and this conclusion was confirmed when, above the fog, appeared the upper sails of a very large ship of war coming down before a fresh breeze. A further clearing of the fog revealed a huge line-of-battle ship. All hands were beat to quarters on the frigate, and every preparation was made both to fly from so unequal an antagonist, and to fight, if necessary. Some very pretty maneuvering followed, in which the pursuer succeeded in planting a broadside against the frigate before she got out of range. Gray-haired Captain Munson was fairly blown overboard by this terrible hail of iron just as he was in the act of giving an order. But although able to distance the clumsier line-of-battle ship, the frigate was surrounded by three other frigates converging on her so that it seemed impossible that she could escape. Griffith, who was now in command, with the Pilot at his side, decided to await the nearest and by far the smallest of the three, and by skilful management was able to dismast and disable her. But there remained the two other pursuers now rapidly approaching, and the doom of the American frigate seemed close at hand, when the channel opened before her through which the Pilot had taken her at night, as described in the beginning of this tale. Immediately he turned her into the passage he knew so well, and by doing so gained fifteen miles on his pursuers, as no one but he among them all could pilot a ship among that network of shoals.

As soon as the frigate was out of danger her chaplain was summoned to the cabin. Colonel Howard, who in the midst of the fighting indulged in unseemly delight at the approaching defeat of the American ship, had been struck down by a cannon shot and lay dying. As his end drew near he seemed to gain new light on the plans of Providence. He said perhaps Heaven purposed the success of the colonies, if one might judge by the ships they build and the heroism and skill they show in sailing and battling with them. In any case, in this his last hour he did not purpose to defy Providence or stand in the way of the happiness of his wards, who now had his willing consent to their marriage, and the chaplain was requested to perform the wedding ceremony of Katherine Plowden and Cecilia Howard to Griffith and Barnstable. The following day the remains of the unfortunate Colonel were consigned to the deep. The Pilot, having accomplished all that was possible on this cruise, since the enemies were now aware of the presence of the American ships in British waters, took farewell of the frigate, which trimmed her canvas for home.



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