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

  “She made good view of me; indeed so much,
  That sure, methought, her eyes had lost her tongue,
  For she did speak in starts, distractedly.”

  Twelfth Night.

Though most of the crew of the “Dolphin” slept, either in their hammocks or among the guns, there were bright and anxious eyes still open in a different part of the vessel.  The Rover had relinquished his cabin to Mrs Wyllys and Gertrude, from the moment they entered the ship; and we shall shift the scene to that apartment, (already sufficiently described to render the reader familiar with the objects it contained), resuming the action of the tale at an early part of the discourse just related in the preceding chapter.

It will not be necessary to dwell upon the feelings with which the female inmates of the vessel had witnessed the disturbances of that day; the conjectures and suspicions to which they gave rise may be apparent in what is about to follow.  A mild, soft light fell from the lamp of wrought and massive silver that was suspended from the upper deck, obliquely upon the painfully pensive countenance of the governess, while a few of its strongest rays lighted the youthful bloom, though less expressive because less meditative linéaments, of her companion.  The background was occupied, like a dark shadow in a picture, by the dusky form of the slumbering Cassandra.  At the moment when we see fit to lift the curtain on this quiet scene of our drama, the pupil was speaking, seeking, in the averted eyes of her instructress, that answer to her question which the tongue of the latter appeared reluctant to accord.

“I repeat, my dearest Madam,” said Gertrude, “that the fashion of these ornaments, no less than their materials, is extraordinary in a ship.”

“And what would you infer from the same?”

“I know not.  Still I would that we were safe in the house of my father.”

“God grant it!  It may be imprudent to be longer silent. ­Gertrude, frightful, horrible suspicions have been engendered in my mind by what we have this day witnessed.”

The cheek of the maiden blanched, and the pupil of her soft eye contracted, with alarm, while she seemed to demand an explanation with every disturbed lineament of her countenance.

“I have long been familiar with the usages of a vessel of war,” continued the governess, who had only paused in order to review the causes of her suspicions in her own mind; “but never have I seen such customs as, each hour, unfold themselves in this vessel.”

“Of what do you suspect her?”

The look of deep, engrossing, maternal anxiety, that the lovely interrogator received in reply to this question, might have startled one whose mind had been more accustomed to muse on the depravity of human nature than the spotless being who received it; but to Gertrude it conveyed no more than a general and vague sensation of alarm.

“Why do you thus regard me, my governess ­my mother?” she exclaimed, bending forward, and laying a hand imploringly on the arm of the other, as if she would arouse her from a trance.

“Yes, I will speak:  It is safer that you know the worst, than that your innocence should be liable to be abused.  I distrust the character of this ship, and of all that belong to her.”

“All!” repeated her pupil, gazing fearfully, and a little wildly, around.

“Yes; of all”

“There may be wicked and evil-intentioned men n his Majesty’s fleet; but we are surely safe from them, since fear of punishment, if not fear of disgrace will be our protector.”

“I dread lest we find that the lawless spirits, who harbour here, submit to no laws except those of their own enacting, nor acknowledge any authority but that which exists among themselves.”

“This would make them pirates!”

“And pirates, I fear, we shall find them.”

“Pirates?  What! all?”

“Even all.  Where one is guilty of such a crime, it is clear that the associates cannot be free from suspicion.”

“But, dear Madam, we know that one among them, at least, is innocent; since he came with ourselves and under circumstances that will not admit of deception.”

“I know not.  There are different degrees of turpitude, as there are different tempers to commit it!  I fear that all who may lay claim to be honest, in this vessel, are here assembled.”

The eyes of Gertrude sunk to the floor, and her lips quivered, partly in a tremour she could not control and perhaps in part through an emotion that she found inexplicable to herself.

“Since we know whence our late companion came,” she said, in an under tone, “I think you do him wrong, however right your suspicions may prove as to the rest.”

“I may be wrong as to him, but it is important that we know the worst.  Command yourself, my love; our attendant ascends; some knowledge of the truth may be gained from him.”

Mrs Wyllys gave her pupil an expressive sign to compose her features, while she herself resumed her usual, pensive air, with a calmness of mien that might have deceived one far more practised than the boy, who now came slowly into the cabin.  Gertrude buried her face in a part of her attire, while the former addressed the individual who had just entered in a tone equally divided between kindness and concern.

“Roderick, child,” she commenced, “your eyelids are getting heavy.  This service of a ship must be new to you?”

“It is so old as to keep me from sleeping on my watch,” coldly returned the boy.

“A careful mother would be better for one of your years, than the school of the boatswain.  What is your age, Roderick?”

“I have seen years enough to be both wiser and better,” he answered, not without a shade of thought settling on his brow.  “Another month will make me twenty.”

“Twenty! you trifle with my curiosity, urchin.”

“Did I say twenty, Madam!  Fifteen would be nearer to the truth.”

“I believe you well.  And how many of those years have you passed upon the water?”

“But two, in truth; though I often think them ten; and yet there are times when they seem but a day!”

“You are romantic early, boy.  And how like you the trade of war?”

“War!”

“Of war.  I speak plainly, do I not?  Those who serve in a vessel that is constructed expressly for battle, follow the trade of war.”

“Oh! yes; war is certainly our trade.”

“And have you yet seen any of its horrors?  Has this ship been in combat since your service?”

“This ship!”

“Surely this ship:  Have you ever sailed in any other?”

“Never.”

“Then, it is of this ship that one must question you.  Is prize-money plenty among your crew?”

“Abundant; they never want.”

“Then the vessel and Captain are both favourites.  The sailor loves the ship and Commander that give him an active life.”

“Ay, Madam; our lives are active here.  And some there are among us, too, who love both ship and Commander.”

“And have you mother, or friend, to profit by your earnings?”

“Have I” ­

Struck with the tone of stupor with which the boy responded to her queries, the governess turned her head, to read, in a rapid glance, the language of his countenance.  He stood in a sort of senseless amazement looking her full in the face, but with an eye far too vacant to prove that he was sensible of the image that filled it.

“Tell me, Roderick,” she continued, careful not to alarm his jealousy by any sudden allusion to his manner; “tell me of this life of yours.  You find it merry?”

“I find it sad.”

“’Tis strange.  The young ship-boys are ever among the merriest of mortals.  Perhaps your office! treats you with severity.”

No answer was given.

“I am then right:  Your Captain is a tyrant?”

“You are wrong:  Never has he said harsh or unkind word to me.”

“Ah! then he is gentle and kind.  You are very happy, Roderick.”

“I ­happy, Madam!”

“I speak plainly, and in English ­happy.”

“Oh! yes, we are all very happy here.”

“It is well.  A discontented ship is no paradise.  And you are often in port, Roderick, to taste the sweets of the land?”

“I care but little for the land, Madam, could I only have friends in the ship that love me.”

“And have you not?  Is not Mr Wilder your friend?”

“I know but little of him; I never saw him before” ­

“When, Roderick?”

“Before we met in Newport.”

“In Newport?”

“Surely you know we both came from Newport, last.”

“Ah!  I comprehend you.  Then, your acquaintance with Mr Wilder commenced at Newport?  It was while your ship was lying off the fort?”

“It was.  I carried him the order to take command of the Bristol trader.  He had only joined us the night before.”

“So lately!  It was a young acquaintance indeed.  But I suppose your Commander knew his merits?”

“It is so hoped among the people.  But” ­

“You were speaking, Roderick.”

“None here dare question the Captain for his reasons.  Even I am obliged to be mute.”

“Even you!” exclaimed Mrs Wyllys, in a surprise that for the moment overcame her self-restraint.  But the thought in which the boy was lost appeared to prevent his observing the sudden change in her manner.  Indeed, so little did he know what was passing, that the governess touched the hand of Gertrude, and silently pointed out the insensible figure of the lad, without the slightest apprehension that the movement would be observed.

“What think you, Roderick,” continued his interrogator “would he refuse to answer us also?”

The boy started; and, as consciousness shot into his glance, it fell upon the soft and speaking countenance of Gertrude.

“Though her beauty be so rare,” he answered with vehemence, “let her not prize it too highly.  Woman cannot tame his temper!”

“Is he then so hard of heart?  Think you that a question from this fair one would be denied?”

“Hear me, Lady,” he said, with an earnestness that was no less remarkable than the plaintive softness of the tones in which he spoke; “I have seen more, in the last two crowded years of my life, than many youths would witness between childhood and the age of man.  This is no place for innocence and beauty.  Oh! quit the ship, if you leave it as you came, without a deck to lay your head under!”

“It may be too late to follow such advice,” Mrs Wyllys gravely replied, glancing her eye at the silent Gertrude as she spoke.  “But tell me more of this extraordinary vessel.  Roderick, you were not born to fill the station in which I find you?”

The boy shook his head, but remained with downcast eyes, apparently not disposed to answer further on such a subject.

“How is it that I find the ‘Dolphin’ bearing different hues to-day from what she did yesterday? and why is it that neither then, nor now, does she resemble in her paint, the slaver of Newport harbour?”

“And why is it,” returned the boy, with a smile in which melancholy struggled powerfully with bitterness “that none can look into the secret heart of him who makes those changes at will?  If all remained the same, but the paint of the ship, one might still be happy in her!”

“Then, Roderick, you are not happy:  Shall I intercede with Captain Heidegger for your discharge?”

“I could never wish to serve another.”

“How!  Do you complain, and yet embrace your fetters?”

“I complain not.”

The governess eyed him closely; and, after a moment’s pause, she continued, ­

“Is it usual to see such riotous conduct among the crew as we have this day witnessed?”

“It is not.  You have little to fear from the people; he who brought them under knows how to keep them down.”

“They are enlisted by order of the King?”

“The King!  Yes, he is surely a King who has no equal.”

“But they dared to threaten the life of Mr Wilder.  Is a seaman, in a King’s ship, usually so bold?”

The boy glanced a look at Mrs Wyllys; as if he would say, he understood her affected ignorance of the character of the vessel, but again he chose to continue silent.

“Think you, Roderick,” continued the governess, who no longer deemed it necessary to pursue her covert inquiries on that particular subject; “think you, Roderick, that the Rov ­that is, that Captain Heidegger will suffer us to land at the first port which offers?”

“Many have been passed since you reached the ship.”

“Ay, many that are inconvenient; but, when one shall be gained where his pursuits will allow his ship to enter?”

“Such places are not common.”

“But, should it occur, do you not think he will permit us to land?  We have gold to pay him for his trouble.”

“He cares not for gold.  I never ask him for it; that he does not fill my hand.”

“You must be happy, then.  Plenty of gold will compensate for a cold look at times.”

“Never!” returned the boy, with quickness and energy.  “Had I the ship filled with the dross, I would give it all to bring a look of kindness into his eye.”

Mrs Wyllys started, no less at the fervid manner of the lad than at the language.  Rising from her seat, she approached nigher to him, and in a situation where the light of the lamp fell full upon his linéaments.  She saw the large drop that broke out from beneath a long and silken lash, to roll down a cheek which, though embrowned by the sun, was deepening with a flush that gradually stole into it, as her own gaze became more settled; and then her eyes fell slowly and keenly along the person of the lad, until they reached even the delicate feet, that seemed barely able to uphold him.  The usually pensive and mild countenance of the governess changed to a look of cold regard, and her whole form appeared to elevate itself, in chaste matronly dignity, as she sternly asked, ­

“Boy, have you a mother?”

“I know not,” was the answer that came from lips that scarcely severed to permit the smothered sounds to escape.

“It is enough; another time I will speak further to you.  Cassandra will in future do the service of this cabin; when I have need of you, the gong shall be touched.”

The head of Roderick fell nearly to his bosom He shrunk from before that cold and searching eye which followed his form, until it had disappeared through the hatch, and whose look was then bent rapidly, and not without a shade of alarm, on the face of the wondering but silent Gertrude.

A gentle tap at the door broke in upon the flood of reflection which was crowding on the mind of the governess.  She gave the customary answer; and, before time was allowed for any interchange of ideas between her and her pupil, the Rover entered.