The Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper - Chapter 12

Lo! dusky masses steal in dubious sight,

Along the leaguer’d wall, and bristling bank,

Of the arm’d river; while with straggling light,

The stars peep through the vapor, dim and dank.


A few hours later Mabel Dunham was on the bastion that overlooked the river and the lake, seemingly in deep thought. The evening was calm and soft, and the question had arisen whether the party for the Thousand Islands would be able to get out that night or not, on account of the total absence of wind. The stores, arms, and ammunition were already shipped, and even Mabel’s effects were on board; but the small draft of men that was to go was still ashore, there being no apparent prospect of the cutter’s getting under way. Jasper had warped the Scud out of the cove, and so far up the stream as to enable him to pass through the outlet of the river whenever he chose; but there he still lay, riding at single anchor. The drafted men were lounging about the shore of the cove, undecided whether or not to pull off.

The sports of the morning had left a quiet in the garrison which was in harmony with the whole of the beautiful scene, and Mabel felt its influence on her feelings, though probably too little accustomed to speculate on such sensations to be aware of the cause. Everything near appeared lovely and soothing, while the solemn grandeur of the silent forest and placid expanse of the lake lent a sublimity that other scenes might have wanted. For the first time, Mabel felt the hold that the towns and civilization had gained on her habits sensibly weakened; and the warm-hearted girl began to think that a life passed amid objects such as those around her might be happy. How far the experience of the last days came in aid of the calm and holy eventide, and contributed towards producing that young conviction, may be suspected, rather than affirmed, in this early portion of our legend.

“A charming sunset, Mabel!” said the hearty voice of her uncle, so close to the ear of our heroine as to cause her to start — “a charming sunset, girl, for a fresh-water concern, though we should think but little of it at sea.”

“And is not nature the same on shore or at sea — on a lake like this or on the ocean? Does not the sun shine on all alike, dear uncle; and can we not feel gratitude for the blessings of Providence as strongly on this remote frontier as in our own Manhattan?”

“The girl has fallen in with some of her mother’s books. Is not nature the same, indeed! Now, Mabel, do you imagine that the nature of a soldier is the same as that of a seafaring man? You’ve relations in both callings, and ought to be able to answer.”

“But uncle, I mean human nature.”

“So do I, girl; the human nature of a seaman, and the human nature of one of these fellows of the 55th, not even excepting your own father. Here have they had a shooting-match — target-firing I should call it — this day, and what a different thing has it been from a target-firing afloat! There we should have sprung our broadside, sported with round shot, at an object half a mile off, at the very nearest; and the potatoes, if there happened to be any on board, as very likely would not have been the case, would have been left in the cook’s coppers. It may be an honorable calling, that of a soldier, Mabel; but an experienced hand sees many follies and weaknesses in one of these forts. As for that bit of a lake, you know my opinion of it already, and I wish to disparage nothing. No real seafarer disparages anything; but, d —-me, if I regard this here Ontario, as they call it, as more than so much water in a ship’s scuttle-butt. Now, look you here, Mabel, if you wish to understand the difference between the ocean and a lake, I can make you comprehend it with a single look: this is what one may call a calm, seeing that there is no wind; though, to own the truth, I do not think the calms are as calm as them we get outside —”

“Uncle, there is not a breath of air. I do not think it possible for the leaves to be more immovably still than those of the entire forest are at this very moment.”

“Leaves! what are leaves, child? there are no leaves at sea. If you wish to know whether it is a dead calm or not, try a mould candle — your dips flaring too much — and then you may be certain whether there is or is not any wind. If you were in a latitude where the air was so still that you found a difficulty in stirring it to draw it in in breathing, you might fancy it a calm. People are often on a short allowance of air in the calm latitudes. Here, again, look at that water! It is like milk in a pan, with no more motion now than there is in a full hogshead before the bung is started. On the ocean the water is never still, let the air be as quiet as it may.”

“The water of the ocean never still, Uncle Cap? not even in a calm?”

“Bless your heart, no, child! The ocean breathes like a living being, and its bosom is always heaving, as the poetizers call it, though there be no more air than is to be found in a siphon. No man ever saw the ocean still like this lake; but it heaves and sets as if it had lungs.”

“And this lake is not absolutely still, for you perceive there is a little ripple on the shore, and you may even hear the surf plunging at moments against the rocks.”

“All d —— d poetry! Lake Ontario is no more the Atlantic than a Powles Hook periagila is a first-rate. That Jasper, notwithstanding, is a fine lad, and wants instruction only to make a man of him.”

“Do you think him ignorant, uncle?” answered Mabel, prettily adjusting her hair, in order to do which she was obliged, or fancied she was obliged, to turn away her face. “To me Jasper Eau-douce appears to know more than most of the young men of his class. He has read but little, for books are not plenty in this part of the world; but he has thought much, as least so it seems to me, for one so young.”

“He is ignorant, as all must be who navigate an inland water like this. No, no, Mabel; we both owe something to Jasper and the Pathfinder, and I have been thinking how I can best serve them, for I hold ingratitude to be the vice of a hog; for treat the animal to your own dinner, and he would eat you for the dessert.”

“Very true, dear uncle; we ought indeed to do all we can to express our proper sense of the services of both these brave men.”

“Spoken like your mother’s daughter, girl, and in a way to do credit to the Cap family. Now, I’ve hit upon a traverse that will just suit all parties; and, as soon as we get back from this little expedition down the lake among them there Thousand Islands, and I am ready to return, it is my intention to propose it.”

“Dearest uncle! this is so considerate in you, and will be so just! May I ask what your intentions are?”

“I see no reason for keeping them a secret from you, Mabel, though nothing need be said to your father about them; for the Sergeant has his prejudices, and might throw difficulties in the way. Neither Jasper nor his friend Pathfinder can ever make anything hereabouts, and I propose to take both with me down to the coast, and get them fairly afloat. Jasper would find his sea-legs in a fortnight, and a twelvemonth’s v’y’ge would make him a man. Although Pathfinder might take more time, or never get to be rated able, yet one could make something of him too, particularly as a look-out, for he has unusually good eyes.”

“Uncle, do you think either would consent to this?” said Mabel smiling.

“Do I suppose them simpletons? What rational being would neglect his own advancement? Let Jasper alone to push his way, and the lad may yet die the master of some square-rigged craft.”

“And would he be any the happier for it, dear uncle? How much better is it to be the master of a square-rigged craft than to be master of a round-rigged craft?”

“Pooh, pooh, Magnet! You are just fit to read lectures about ships before some hysterical society; you don’t know what you are talking about; leave these things to me, and they’ll be properly managed. Ah! Here is the Pathfinder himself, and I may just as well drop him a hint of my benevolent intentions as regards himself. Hope is a great encourager of our exertions.”

Cap nodded his head, and then ceased to speak, while the hunter approached, not with his usual frank and easy manner, but in a way to show that he was slightly embarrassed, if not distrustful of his reception.

“Uncle and niece make a family party,” said Pathfinder, when near the two, “and a stranger may not prove a welcome companion?”

“You are no stranger, Master Pathfinder,” returned Cap, “and no one can be more welcome than yourself. We were talking of you but a moment ago, and when friends speak of an absent man, he can guess what they have said.”

“I ask no secrets. Every man has his enemies, and I have mine, though I count neither you, Master Cap, nor pretty Mabel here among the number. As for the Mingos, I will say nothing, though they have no just cause to hate me.”

“That I’ll answer for, Pathfinder! for you strike my fancy as being well-disposed and upright. There is a method, however, of getting away from the enmity of even these Mingos; and if you choose to take it, no one will more willingly point it out than myself, without a charge for my advice either.”

“I wish no enemies, Saltwater,” for so the Pathfinder had begun to call Cap, having, insensibly to himself, adopted the term, by translating the name given him by the Indians in and about the fort — “I wish no enemies. I’m as ready to bury the hatchet with the Mingos as with the French, though you know that it depends on One greater than either of us so to turn the heart as to leave a man without enemies.”

“By lifting your anchor, and accompanying me down to the coast, friend Pathfinder, when we get back from this short cruise on which we are bound, you will find yourself beyond the sound of the war-whoop, and safe enough from any Indian bullet.”

“And what should I do on the salt water? Hunt in your towns? Follow the trails of people going and coming from market, and ambush dogs and poultry? You are no friend to my happiness, Master Cap, if you would lead me out of the shades of the woods to put me in the sun of the clearings.”

“I did not propose to leave you in the settlements, Pathfinder, but to carry you out to sea, where a man can only be said to breathe freely. Mabel will tell you that such was my intention, before a word was said on the subject.”

“And what does Mabel think would come of such a change? She knows that a man has his gifts, and that it is as useless to pretend to others as to withstand them that come from Providence. I am a hunter, and a scout, or a guide, Saltwater, and it is not in me to fly so much in the face of Heaven as to try to become anything else. Am I right, Mabel, or are you so much a woman as to wish to see a natur’ altered?”

“I would wish to see no change in you, Pathfinder,” Mabel answered, with a cordial sincerity and frankness that went directly to the hunter’s heart; “and much as my uncle admires the sea, and great as is all the good that he thinks may come of it, I could not wish to see the best and noblest hunter of the woods transformed into an admiral. Remain what you are, my brave friend, and you need fear nothing short of the anger of God.”

“Do you hear this, Saltwater? do you hear what the Sergeant’s daughter is saying, and she is much too upright, and fair-minded, and pretty, not to think what she says. So long as she is satisfied with me as I am, I shall not fly in the face of the gifts of Providence, by striving to become anything else. I may seem useless here in a garrison; but when we get down among the Thousand Islands, there may be an opportunity to prove that a sure rifle is sometimes a Godsend.”

“You are then to be of our party?” said Mabel, smiling so frankly and so sweetly on the guide that he would have followed her to the end of the earth. “I shall be the only female, with the exception of one soldier’s wife, and shall feel none the less secure, Pathfinder, because you will be among our protectors.”

“The Sergeant would do that, Mabel, though you were not of his kin. No one will overlook you. I should think your uncle here would like an expedition of this sort, where we shall go with sails, and have a look at an inland sea?”

“Your inland sea is no great matter, Master Pathfinder, and I expect nothing from it. I confess, however, I should like to know the object of the cruise; for one does not wish to be idle, and my brother-in-law, the Sergeant, is as close-mouthed as a freemason. Do you know, Mabel, what all this means?”

“Not in the least, uncle. I dare not ask my father any questions about his duty, for he thinks it is not a woman’s business; and all I can say is, that we are to sail as soon as the wind will permit, and that we are to be absent a month.”

“Perhaps Master Pathfinder can give me a useful hint; for a v’y’ge without an object is never pleasant to an old sailor.”

“There is no great secret, Saltwater, concerning our port and object, though it is forbidden to talk much about either in the garrison. I am no soldier, however, and can use my tongue as I please, though as little given as another to idle conversation, I hope; still, as we sail so soon, and you are both to be of the party, you may as well be told where you are to be carried. You know that there are such things as the Thousand Islands, I suppose, Master Cap?”

“Ay, what are so called hereaway, though I take it for granted that they are not real islands, such as we fall in with on the ocean; and that the thousand means some such matter as two or three.”

“My eyes are good, and yet have I often been foiled in trying to count them very islands.”

“Ay, ay, I’ve known people who couldn’t count beyond a certain number. Your real land-birds never know their own roosts, even in a landfall at sea. How many times have I seen the beach, and houses, and churches, when the passengers have not been able to see anything but water! I have no idea that a man can get fairly out of sight of land on fresh water. The thing appears to me to be irrational and impossible.”

“You don’t know the lakes, Master Cap, or you would not say that. Before we get to the Thousand Islands, you will have other notions of what natur’ has done in this wilderness.”

“I have my doubts whether you have such a thing as a real island in all this region.”

“We’ll show you hundreds of them; not exactly a thousand, perhaps, but so many that eye cannot see them all, nor tongue count them.”

“I’ll engage, when the truth comes to be known, they’ll turn out to be nothing but peninsulas, or promontories; or continents; though these are matters, I daresay, of which you know little or nothing. But, islands or no islands, what is the object of the cruise, Master Pathfinder?”

“There can be no harm in giving you some idea of what we are going to do. Being so old a sailor, Master Cap, you’ve heard, no doubt, of such a port as Frontenac?”

“Who hasn’t? I will not say I’ve ever been inside the harbor, but I’ve frequently been off the place.”

“Then you are about to go upon ground with which you are acquainted. These great lakes, you must know, make a chain, the water passing out of one into the other, until it reaches Erie, which is a sheet off here to the westward, as large as Ontario itself. Well, out of Erie the water comes, until it reaches a low mountain like, over the edge of which it passes.”

“I should like to know how the devil it can do that?”

“Why, easy enough, Master Cap,” returned Pathfinder, laughing, “seeing that it has only to fall down hill. Had I said the water went up the mountain, there would have been natur’ ag’in it; but we hold it no great matter for water to run down hill — that is, fresh water.”

“Ay, ay, but you speak of the water of a lake’s coming down the side of a mountain; it’s in the teeth of reason, if reason has any teeth.”

“Well, well, we will not dispute the point; but what I’ve seen I’ve seen. After getting into Ontario, all the water of all the lakes passes down into the sea by a river; and in the narrow part of the sheet, where it is neither river nor lake, lie the islands spoken of. Now Frontenac is a post of the Frenchers above these same islands; and, as they hold the garrison below, their stores and ammunition are sent up the river to Frontenac, to be forwarded along the shores of this and the other lakes, in order to enable the enemy to play his devilries among the savages, and to take Christian scalps.”

“And will our presence prevent these horrible acts?” demanded Mabel, with interest.

“It may or it may not, as Providence wills. Lundie, as they call him, he who commands this garrison, sent a party down to take a station among the islands, to cut off some of the French boats; and this expedition of ours will be the second relief. As yet they’ve not done much, though two bateaux loaded with Indian goods have been taken; but a runner came in last week, and brought such tidings that the Major is about to make a last effort to circumvent the knaves. Jasper knows the way, and we shall be in good hands, for the Sergeant is prudent, and of the first quality at an ambushment; yes, he is both prudent and alert.”

“Is this all?” said Cap contemptuously; “by the preparations and equipments, I had thought there was a forced trade in the wind, and that an honest penny might be turned by taking an adventure. I suppose there are no shares in your fresh-water prize-money?”


“I take it for granted the king gets all in these soldiering parties, and ambushments, as you call them.”

“I know nothing about that, Master Cap. I take my share of the lead and powder if any falls into our hands, and say nothing to the king about it. If any one fares better, it is not I; though it is time I did begin to think of a house and furniture and a home.”

Although the Pathfinder did not dare to look at Mabel while he made this direct allusion to his change of life, he would have given the world to know whether she was listening, and what was the expression of her countenance. Mabel little suspected the nature of the allusion, however; and her countenance was perfectly unembarrassed as she turned her eyes towards the river, where the appearance of some movement on board the Scud began to be visible.

“Jasper is bringing the cutter out,” observed the guide, whose look was drawn in the same direction by the fall of some heavy article on the deck. “The lad sees the signs of wind, no doubt, and wishes to be ready for it.”

“Ay, now we shall have an opportunity of learning seamanship,” returned Cap, with a sneer. “There is a nicety in getting a craft under her canvas that shows the thoroughbred mariner as much as anything else. It’s like a soldier buttoning his coat, and one can see whether he begins at the top or the bottom.”

“I will not say that Jasper is equal to your seafarers below,” observed Pathfinder, across whose upright mind an unworthy feeling of envy or of jealousy never passed; “but he is a bold boy, and manages his cutter as skillfully as any man can desire, on this lake at least. You didn’t find him backwards at the Oswego Falls, Master Cap, where fresh water contrives to tumble down hill with little difficulty.”

Cap made no other answer than a dissatisfied ejaculation, and then a general silence followed, all on the bastion studying the movements of the cutter with the interest that was natural to their own future connection with the vessel. It was still a dead calm, the surface of the lake literally glittering with the last rays of the sun. The Scud had been warped up to a kedge that lay a hundred yards above the points of the outlet, where she had room to manoeuvre in the river which then formed the harbor of Oswego. But the total want of air prevented any such attempt, and it was soon evident that the light vessel was to be taken through the passage under her sweeps. Not a sail was loosened; but as soon as the kedge was tripped, the heavy fall of the sweeps was heard, when the cutter, with her head up stream, began to sheer towards the centre of the current; on reaching which, the efforts of the men ceased, and she drifted towards the outlet. In the narrow pass itself her movement was rapid, and in less than five minutes the Scud was floating outside of the two low gravelly points which intercepted the waves of the lake. No anchor was let go, but the vessel continued to set off from the land, until her dark hull was seen resting on the glossy surface of the lake, full a quarter of a mile beyond the low bluff which formed the eastern extremity of what might be called the outer harbor or roadstead. Here the influence of the river current ceased, and she became, virtually, stationary.

“She seems very beautiful to me, uncle,” said Mabel, whose gaze had not been averted from the cutter for a single moment while it had thus been changing its position; “I daresay you can find faults in her appearance, and in the way she is managed; but to my ignorance both are perfect.”

“Ay, ay; she drops down with a current well enough, girl, and so would a chip. But when you come to niceties, all old tar like myself has no need of spectacles to find fault.”

“Well, Master Cap,” put in the guide, who seldom heard anything to Jasper’s prejudice without manifesting a disposition to interfere, “I’ve heard old and experienced saltwater mariners confess that the Scud is as pretty a craft as floats. I know nothing of such matters myself; but one may have his own notions about a ship, even though they be wrong notions; and it would take more than one witness to persuade me Jasper does not keep his boat in good order.”

“I do not say that the cutter is downright lubberly, Master Pathfinder; but she has faults, and great faults.”

“And what are they, uncle? If he knew them, Jasper would be glad to mend them.”

“What are they? Why, fifty; ay, for that matter a hundred. Very material and manifest faults.”

“Do name them, sir, and Pathfinder will mention them to his friend.”

“Name them! it is no easy matter to call off the stars, for the simple reason that they are so numerous. Name them, indeed! Why, my pretty niece, Miss Magnet, what do you think of that main-boom now? To my ignorant eyes, it is topped at least a foot too high; and then the pennant is foul; and — and — ay, d —-me, if there isn’t a topsail gasket adrift; and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there should be a round turn in that hawser, if the kedge were to be let go this instant. Faults indeed! No seaman could look at her a moment without seeing that she is as full of faults as a servant who has asked for his discharge.”

“This may be very true, uncle, though I much question if Jasper knows of them. I do not think he would suffer these things, Pathfinder, if they were once pointed out to him.”

“Let Jasper manage his own cutter, Mabel. His gift lies that-a-way, and I’ll answer for it, no one can teach him how to keep the Scud out of the hands of the Frontenackers or their devilish Mingo friends. Who cares for round turns in kedges, and for hawsers that are topped too high, Master Cap, so long as the craft sails well, and keeps clear of the Frenchers? I will trust Jasper against all the seafarers of the coast, up here on the lakes; but I do not say he has any gift for the ocean, for there he has never been tried.”

Cap smiled condescendingly, but he did not think it necessary to push his criticisms any further just as that moment. By this time the cutter had begun to drift at the mercy of the currents of the lake, her head turning in all directions, though slowly, and not in a way to attract particular attention. Just at this moment the jib was loosened and hoisted, and presently the canvas swelled towards the land, though no evidences of air were yet to be seen on the surface of the water. Slight, however, as was the impulsion, the light hull yielded; and in another minute the Scud was seen standing across the current of the river with a movement so easy and moderate as to be scarcely perceptible. When out of the stream, she struck an eddy and shot up towards the land, under the eminence where the fort stood, when Jasper dropped his kedge.

“Not lubberly done,” muttered Cap in a sort of soliloquy — “not over lubberly, though he should have put his helm a-starboard instead of a-port; for a vessel ought always to come-to with her head off shore, whether she is a league from the land or only a cable’s length, since it has a careful look, and looks are something in this world.”

“Jasper is a handy lad,” suddenly observed Sergeant Dunham at his brother-in-law’s elbow; “and we place great reliance on his skill in our expeditions. But come, one and all, we have but half an hour more of daylight to embark in, and the boats will be ready for us by the time we are ready for them.”

On this intimation the whole party separated, each to find those trifles which had not been shipped already. A few taps of the drum gave the necessary signal to the soldiers, and in a minute all were in motion.