Read Chapter XXI. of The Red Rover, free online book, by James Fenimore Cooper, on ReadCentral.com.

  Thief. “’Tis in the malice of mankind, that he thus advises us not to
  have us thrive in our mystery.” ­Timon of Athens.

Throughout the whole of that day, no change occurred in the weather.  The sleeping ocean lay like a waving and glittering mirror, smooth and polished on its surface, though, as usual, the long rising and falling of a heavy ground-swell announced the commotion that was in action within some distant horizon.  From the time that he left the deck, until the sun laved its burnished orb in the sea, the individual, who so well knew how to keep alive his authority among the untamed tempers that he governed, was seen no more.  Satisfied with his victory, he no longer seemed to apprehend that it was possible any should be bold enough to dare to plot the overthrow of his power.  This apparent confidence in himself did not fail to impress his people favourably.  As no neglect of duty was overlooked, nor any offence left to go unpunished, an eye, that was not seen, was believed by the crew to be ever on them, and an invisible hand was thought to be at all times uplifted, ready to strike or to reward.  It was by a similar system of energy in moments of need, and of forbearance when authority was irksome, that this extraordinary man had so long succeeded, as well in keeping down domestic treason, as in eluding the utmost address and industry of his open enemies.

When the watch was set for the night, however, and the ship lay in the customary silence of the hour, the form of the Rover was again seen walking swiftly to and fro across the poop, of which he was now the solitary occupant.  The vessel had drifted in the stream of the Gulf so far to the northward, that the little mound of blue had long sunk below the edge of the ocean; and she was again surrounded, so far as human eye might see, by an interminable world of water.  As not a breath of air was stirring, the sails had been handed, the tall and naked spars rearing themselves, in the gloom of the evening, like those of a ship which rested at her anchors.  In short, it was one of those hours of entire repose that the elements occasionally grant to such adventurers as trust their fortunes to the capricious government of the treacherous and unstable winds.

Even the men, whose duty it was to be on the alert, were emboldened, by the general tranquillity, to become careless on their watch, and to cast their persons between the guns, or on different portions of the vessel, seeking that rest which the forms of discipline and good order prohibited them from enjoying in their hammocks.  Here and there, indeed, the head of a drowsy officer was seen nodding with the lazy heaving of the ship, as he leaned against the bulwarks, or rested his person on the carriage of some gun that was placed beyond the sacred limits of the quarter-deck One form alone stood erect, vigilant, and evidently maintaining a watchful eye over the whole This was Wilder, whose turn to keep the deck had again arrived, in the regular division of the service of the officers.

For two hours, not the slightest communication occurred between the Rover and his lieutenant.  Both rather avoided than sought the intercourse; for each had his own secret sources of serious meditation At the end of that period of silence, the former stopped short in his walk, and looked long and steadily at the still motionless figure on the deck beneath him.

“Mr Wilder,” he at length said, “the air is fresher on this poop, and more free from the impurities of the vessel:  Will you ascend?”

The other complied; and, for several minutes they walked silently, and with even steps, together, as seamen are wont to move in the hours of deep night.

“We had a troublesome morning, Wilder,” the Rover resumed, unconsciously betraying the subject of his thoughts, and speaking always in a voice so guarded, that no ears, but his to whom he addressed himself, might embrace the sound:  “Were you ever so near that pretty precipice, a mutiny, before?”

“The man who is hit is nigher to danger than he who feels the wind of the ball.”

“Ah! you have then been bearded in your ship!  Give yourself no uneasiness on account of the personal animosity which a few of the fellows saw fit to manifest against yourself.  I am acquainted with their most secret thoughts, as you shall shortly know.”

“I confess, that, in your place, I should sleep on a thorny pillow, with such evidences of the temper of my men before my mind.  A few hours of disorder might deliver the vessel, on any day, into the hands of the Government, and your own life to” ­

“The executioner!  And why not yours?” demandeded the Rover, so quickly, as to give, in a slight degree, an air of distrust to his manner.  “But the eye that has often seen battles seldom winks.  Mine has too often, and too steadily, looked danger in the face to be alarmed at the sight of a King’s pennant.  Besides it is not usual for us to be much on this ticklish coast; the islands, and the Spanish Main, are less dangerous cruising grounds.”

“And yet have yon ventured here at a time when success against the enemy has given the Admiral leisure to employ a powerful force in your pursuit.”

“I had a reason for it.  It is not always easy to separate the Commander from the man.  If I have temporarily forgotten the obligations of the former in the wishes of the latter, so far, at least, harm has not come of it.  I may have tired of chasing your indolent Don, and of driving guarda costas into port.  This life of ours is full of excitement which I love to me, there is interest even in a mutiny!”

“I like not treason.  In this particular, I confess myself like the boor who loses his resolution in the dark.  While the enemy is in view, I hope you will find me true as other men; but sleeping over a mine is not an amusement to my taste.”

“So much for want of practice!  Hazard is hazard come in what shape it may; and the human mind can as readily be taught to be indifferent to secret machinations as to open risk.  Hush!  Struck the bell six, or seven?”

“Seven.  You see the men slumber, as before.  Instinct would wake them, were their hour at hand.”

“’Tis well.  I feared the time had passed.  Yes, Wilder, I love suspense; it keeps the faculties from dying, and throws a man upon the better principles of his nature.  Perhaps I owe it to a wayward spirit, but, to me, there is enjoyment in an adverse wind.’”

“And, in a calm?”

“Calms may have their charms for your quiet spirits; but in them there is nothing to be overcome.  One cannot stir the elements, though one may counteract their workings.”

“You have not entered on this trade of yours “ ­

“Yours!”

“I might, now, have said ‘of ours,’ since I too have become a Rover.”

“You are still in your noviciate,” resumed the other, whose quick mind had already passed the point at which the conversation had arrived; “and high enjoyment had I in being the one who shrived you in your wishes.  You manifested a skill in playing round your subject, without touching it, which gives me hopes of an apt scholar.”

“But no penitent, I trust.”

“That as it may be; we are all liable to our moments of weakness, when we look on life as book men paint it, and think of being probationers where we are put to enjoy.  Yes, I angled for you as the fisherman plays with the trout.  Nor did I overlook the danger of deception.  You were faithful on the whole; though I protest against your ever again acting so much against my interests as to intrigue to keep the game from coming to my net.”

“When, and how, have I done this?  You have yourself admitted” ­

“That the ‘Royal Caroline’ was prettily handled, and wrecked by the will of Heaven.  I speak of nobler quarries, now, than such as any hawk may fly at.  Are you a woman-hater, that you would fain have frightened the noble-minded woman, and the sweet girl, who are beneath our feet at this minute, from enjoying the high privilege of your company?”

“Was it treacherous, to wish to save a woman from a fate like that, for instance, which hung over them both this very day?  For, while your authority exists in this ship, I do not think there can be danger, even to her who is so lovely.”

“By heavens, Wilder, you do me no more than justice.  Before harm should come to that fair innocent with this hand would I put the match into the magazine, and send her, all spotless as she is, to the place from which she seems to have fallen.”

Our adventurer listened greedily to these words, though he little liked the strong language of admiration with which the Rover was pleased to clothe his generous sentiment.

“How knew you of my wish to serve them?” he demanded, after a pause, which neither seemed in any hurry to break.

“Could I mistake your language?  I thought it enough when spoken.”

“Spoken!” exclaimed Wilder, in surprise.  “Perhaps part of my confession was then made when I least believed it.”

The Rover did not answer; but his companion saw, by the meaning smile which played about his lip, that he had been the dupe of an audacious and completely successful masquerade.  Startled, perhaps at discovering how intricate were the toils into which he had rushed, and possibly vexed at being so thoroughly over-reached, he made several turns across the deck before he again spoke.

“I confess myself deceived,” he at length said, “and henceforth I shall submit to you as a master from whom one may learn, but who can never be surpassed.  The landlord of the ‘Foul Anchor,’ at least, acted in his proper person, whoever might have been the aged seaman?”

“Honest Joe Joram!  An useful man to a distressed mariner, you must allow.  How liked you the Newport pilot?”

“Was he an agent too?”

“For the job merely.  I trust such knaves no further than their own eyes can see.  But, hist!  Heard you nothing?”

“I thought a rope had fallen in the water.”

“Ay, it is so.  Now you shall find how thoroughly I overlook these turbulent gentlemen.”

The Rover then cut short the dialogue, which was growing deeply interesting to his companion, and moved, with a light step, to the stern, over which he hung, for a few moments, by himself, like a man who found a pleasure in gazing at the dark surface of the sea.  But a slight noise, like that produced by agitated ropes, caught the ear of his companion, who instantly placed himself at the side of his Commander, where he did not wait long without gaining another proof of the manner in which he, as well as all the rest of the crew, were circumvented by the devices of their leader.

A man was guardedly, and, from his situation, with some difficulty, moving round the quarter of the ship by the aid of the ropes and mouldings, which afforded him sufficient means to effect his object.  He, however, soon reached a stern ladder, where he stood suspended, and evidently endeavouring to discern which of the two forms, that were overlooking his proceedings, was that of the individual he sought.

“Are you there, Davis?” said the Rover, in a voice but little above a whisper, first laying his hand lightly on Wilder, as though he would tell him to attend.  “I fear you have been seen or heard.”

“No fear of that, your Honour.  I got out at the port by the cabin bulkhead; and the after-guard are all as sound asleep as if they had the watch below.”

“It is well.  What news bring you from the people?”

“Lord! your Honour may tell them to go to church, and the stoutest sea-dog of them all wouldn’t dare to say he had forgotten his prayers.”

“You think them in a better temper than they were?”

“I know it, sir:  Not but what the will to work mischief is to be found in two or three of the men, but they dare not trust each other.  Your Honour has such winning ways with you, that one never knows when he is on safe grounds in setting up to be master.”

“Ay, this is ever the way with your disorganizers,” muttered the Rover, just loud enough to be heard by Wilder.  “A little more honesty, than they possess, is just wanted, in order that each may enjoy the faith of his neighbour.  And how did the fellows receive the lenity?  Did I well? or must the morning bring its punishment?”

“It is better as it stands, sir.  The people know whose memory is good, and they talk already of the danger of adding another reckoning to this they feel certain you have not forgotten.  There is the captain of the forecastle, who is a little bitter, as usual, and the more so just now, on account of the knock-down he got from the list of the black.”

“Ay, he is ever troublesome; a settling day must come at last with the rogue.”

“It will be a small matter to expend him in boat-service sir; and the ship’s company will be all the better for his absence.”

“Well, well; no more of him,” interrupted the Rover, a little impatiently, as if he liked not that his companion should look too deeply into the policy of his government, so early in his initiation.  “I will see to him.  If I mistake not, fellow, you over-acted your own part to-day, and were a little too forward in leading on the trouble.”

“I hope your Honour will remember that the crew had been piped to mischief; besides, there could be no great harm in washing the powder off a few marines.”

“Ay, but you pressed the point after your officer had seen fit to interfere.  Be wary in future, lest you make the acting too true to nature, and you get applauded in a manner quite as well performed.”

The fellow promised caution and amendment; and then he was dismissed, with his reward in gold, and with an injunction to be secret in his return.  So soon as the interview was ended, the Rover and Wilder resumed their walk; the former having made sure that no evesdropper had been at hand to steal into his mysterious connexion with the spy.  The silence was again long, thoughtful, and deep.

“Good ears” (recommenced the Rover) “are nearly as important, in a ship like this, as a stout heart.  The rogues forward must not be permitted to eat of the fruit of knowledge, lest we, who are in the cabins, die.”

“This is a perilous service in which we are embarked,” observed his companion, by a sort of involuntary exposure of his secret thoughts.

The Rover remained silent, making many turns across the deck, before he again opened his lips.  When he spoke, it was in a voice so bland and gentle, that his words sounded more like the admonitory tones of a considerate friend, than like the language of a man who had long been associated with a set of beings so rude and unprincipled as those with whom he was now seen.

“You are still on the threshold of your life, Mr Wilder,” he said, “and it is all before you to choose the path on which you will go.  As yet, you have been present at no violation of what the world calls its laws; nor is it too late to say you never will be.  I may have been selfish in my wish to gain you; but try me; and you will find that self, though often active, cannot, nor does not, long hold its dominion over my mind.  Say but the word, and you are free; it is easy to destroy the little evidence which exists of your having made one of my crew.  The land is not far beyond that streak of fading light; before to-morrow’s sun shall set, your foot may tread it.”

“Then, why not both?  If this irregular life be evil for me, it is the same for you.  Could I hope” ­

“What would you say?” calmly demanded the Rover, after waiting sufficiently long to be sure his companion hesitated to continue.  “Speak freely; your words are for the ears of a friend.”

“Then, as a friend will I unbosom myself.  You say, the land is here in the west.  It would be easy for you and I, men nurtured on the sea, to lower this boat into the water; and, profiting by the darkness, long ere our absence could be known, we should be lost to the eye of any who might seek us.”

“Whither would you steer?”

“To the shores of America, where shelter and peace might be found in a thousand secret places.”

“Would you have a man, who has so long lived a prince among his followers, become a beggar in a land of strangers?”

“But you have gold.  Are we not masters here?  Who is there that might dare even to watch our movements, until we were pleased ourselves to throw off the authority with which we are clothed?  Ere the middle watch was set, all might be done.”

“Alone!  Would you go alone?”

“No ­not entirely ­that is ­it would scarcely become us, as men, to desert the females to the brutal power of those we should leave behind.”

“And would it become us, as men, to desert those who put faith in our fidelity?  Mr Wilder, your proposal would make me a villain!  Lawless, in the opinion of the world, have I long been; but a traitor to my faith and plighted word, never!  The hour may come when the beings whose world is in this ship shall part; but the separation must be open, voluntary, and manly.  You never knew what drew me into the haunts of man, when we first met in the town of Boston?”

“Never,” returned Wilder, in a tone of deep disappointment

“Listen, and you shall hear.  A sturdy follower had fallen into the hands of the minions of the law.  It was necessary to save him.  He was a man I little loved, but he was one who had ever been honest, after his opinions.  I could not desert the victim; nor could any but I effect his escape.  Gold and artifice succeeded; and the fellow is now here, to sing the praises of his Commander to the crew.  Could I forfeit a good name, obtained at so much hazard?”

“You would forfeit the good opinions of knaves, to gain a reputation among those whose commendations are an honour.”

“I know not.  You little understand the nature of man, if you are now to learn that he has pride in maintaining a reputation for even vice, when he has once purchased notoriety by its exhibition.  Besides, I am not fitted for the world, as it is found among your dependant colonists.”

“You claim your birth, perhaps, in the mother country?”

“I am no better than a poor provincial, sir; an humble satellite of the mighty sun.  You have seen my flags, Mr Wilder: ­but there was one wanting among them all; ay, and one which, had it existed, it would have been my pride, my glory, to have upheld with my heart’s best blood!”

“I know not what you mean.”

“I need not tell a seaman, like you, how many noble rivers pour their waters into the sea along this coast of which we have been speaking ­how many wide and commodious havens abound there ­or how many sails whiten the ocean, that are manned by men who first drew breath on that spacious and peaceful soil.”

“Surely I know the advantages of the country you mean.”

“I fear not!” quickly returned the Rover.  “Were they known, as they should be, by you and others like you, the flag I mentioned would soon be found in every sea; nor would the natives of our country have to succumb to the hirelings of a foreign prince.

“I will not affect to misunderstand your meaning for I have known others as visionary as yourself in fancying that such an event may arrive.”

“May! ­As certain as that star will settle in the ocean, or that day is to succeed to night, it must. Had that flag been abroad, Mr Wilder, no man would have ever heard the name of the Red Rover.”

“The King has a service of his own, and it is open to all his subjects alike.”

“I could be a subject of a King; but to be the subject of a subject, Wilder, exceeds the bounds of my poor patience.  I was educated, I might almost have said born, in one of his vessels; and how often have I been made to feel, in bitterness, that an ocean separated my birth-place from the footstool of his throne!  Would you think it, sir? one of his Commanders dared to couple the name of my country with an epithet I will not wound your ear by repeating!”

“I hope you taught the scoundrel manners.”

The Rover faced his companion, and there was a ghastly smile on his speaking features, as he answered ­

“He never repeated the offence!  ’Twas his blood or mine; and dearly did he pay the forfeit of his brutality!”

“You fought like men, and fortune favoured the injured party?”

“We fought, sir. ­But I had dared to raise my hand against a native of the holy isle! ­It is enough, Mr Wilder; the King rendered a faithful subject desperate, and he has had reason to repent it.  Enough for the present; another time I may say more. ­Good night.”

Wilder saw the figure of his companion descend the ladder to the quarter-deck; and then was he left to pursue the current of his thoughts, alone, during the remainder of a watch which to his impatience seemed without an end.