The Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper - Chapter 14

Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,

So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone,

Drew Priam’s Curtain in the dead of night,

And would have told him, half his Troy was burned.


All this time matters were elsewhere passing in their usual train. Jasper, like the weather and his vessel, seemed to be waiting for the land-breeze; while the soldiers, accustomed to early rising, had, to a man, sought their pallets in the main hold. None remained on deck but the people of the cutter, Mr. Muir, and the two females. The Quartermaster was endeavoring to render himself agreeable to Mabel, while our heroine herself, little affected by his assiduities, which she ascribed partly to the habitual gallantry of a soldier, and partly, perhaps, to her own pretty face, was enjoying the peculiarities of a scene and situation which, to her, were full of the charms of novelty.

The sails had been hoisted, but as yet not a breath of air was in motion; and so still and placid was the lake, that not the smallest motion was perceptible in the cutter. She had drifted in the river-current to a distance a little exceeding a quarter of a mile from the land, and there she lay, beautiful in her symmetry and form, but like a fixture. Young Jasper was on the quarter-deck, near enough to hear occasionally the conversation which passed; but too diffident of his own claim, and too intent on his duties, to attempt to mingle in it. The fine blue eyes of Mabel followed his motions in curious expectation, and more than once the Quartermaster had to repeat his compliments before she heard them, so intent was she on the little occurrences of the vessel, and, we might add, so indifferent to the eloquence of her companion. At length, even Mr. Muir became silent, and there was a deep stillness on the water. Presently an oar-blade fell in a boat beneath the fort, and the sound reached the cutter as distinctly as if it had been produced on her deck. Then came a murmur, like a sigh of the night, a fluttering of the canvas, the creaking of the boom, and the flap of the jib. These well-known sounds were followed by a slight heel in the cutter, and by the bellying of all the sails.

“Here’s the wind, Anderson,” called out Jasper to the oldest of his sailors; “take the helm.”

This brief order was obeyed; the helm was put up, the cutter’s bows fell off, and in a few minutes the water was heard murmuring under her head, as the Scud glanced through the lake at the rate of five miles in the hour. All this passed in profound silence, when Jasper again gave the order to “ease off the sheets a little and keep her along the land.”

It was at this instant that the party from the after-cabin reappeared on the quarter-deck.

“You’ve no inclination, Jasper lad, to trust yourself too near our neighbours the French,” observed Muir, who took that occasion to recommence the discourse. “Well, well, your prudence will never be questioned by me, for I like the Canadas as little as you can possibly like them yourself.”

“I hug this shore, Mr. Muir, on account of the wind. The land-breeze is always freshest close in, provided you are not so near as to make a lee of the trees. We have Mexico Bay to cross; and that, on the present course, will give us quite offing enough.”

“I’m right glad it’s not the Bay of Mexico,” put in Cap, “which is a part of the world I would rather not visit in one of your inland craft. Does your cutter bear a weather helm, master Eau-douce?”

“She is easy on her rudder, master Cap; but likes looking up at the breeze as well as another, when in lively motion.”

“I suppose you have such things as reefs, though you can hardly have occasion to use them?”

Mabel’s bright eye detected the smile that gleamed for an instant on Jasper’s handsome face; but no one else saw that momentary exhibition of surprise and contempt.

“We have reefs, and often have occasion to use them,” quietly returned the young man. “Before we get in, Master Cap, an opportunity may offer to show you the manner in which we do so; for there is easterly weather brewing, and the wind cannot chop, even on the ocean itself, more readily than it flies round on Lake Ontario.”

“So much for knowing no better! I have seen the wind in the Atlantic fly round like a coach-wheel, in a way to keep your sails shaking for an hour, and the ship would become perfectly motionless from not knowing which way to turn.”

“We have no such sudden changes here, certainly,” Jasper mildly answered; “though we think ourselves liable to unexpected shifts of wind. I hope, however, to carry this land-breeze as far as the first islands; after which there will be less danger of our being seen and followed by any of the look-out boats from Frontenac.”

“Do you think the French keep spies out on the broad lake, Jasper?” inquired the Pathfinder.

“We know they do; one was off Oswego during the night of Monday last. A bark canoe came close in with the eastern point, and landed an Indian and an officer. Had you been outlying that night, as usual, we should have secured one, if not both of them.”

It was too dark to betray the color that deepened on the weather-burnt features of the guide; for he felt the consciousness of having lingered in the fort that night, listening to the sweet tones of Mabel’s voice as she sang ballads to her father, and gazing at the countenance which, to him, was radiant with charms. Probity in thought and deed being the distinguishing quality of this extraordinary man’s mind, while he felt that a sort of disgrace ought to attach to his idleness on the occasion mentioned, the last thought that could occur would be to attempt to palliate or deny his negligence.

“I confess it, Jasper, I confess it,” said he humbly. “Had I been out that night — and I now recollect no sufficient reason why I was not — it might, indeed, have turned out as you say.”

“It was the evening you passed with us, Pathfinder,” Mabel innocently remarked; “surely one who lives so much of his time in the forest, in front of the enemy, may be excused for giving a few hours of his time to an old friend and his daughter.”

“Nay, nay, I’ve done little else but idle since we reached the garrison,” returned the other, sighing; “and it is well that the lad should tell me of it: the idler needs a rebuke — yes, he needs a rebuke.”

“Rebuke, Pathfinder! I never dreamt of saying anything disagreeable, and least of all would I think of rebuking you, because a solitary spy and an Indian or two have escaped us. Now I know where you were, I think your absence the most natural thing in the world.”

“I think nothing of what you said, Jasper, since it was deserved. We are all human, and all do wrong.”

“This is unkind, Pathfinder.”

“Give me your hand, lad, give me your hand. It wasn’t you that gave the lesson; it was conscience.”

“Well, well,” interrupted Cap; “now this latter matter is settled to the satisfaction of all parties, perhaps you will tell us how it happened to be known that there were spies near us so lately. This looks amazingly like a circumstance.”

As the mariner uttered the last sentence, he pressed a foot slily on that of the Sergeant, and nudged the guide with his elbow, winking at the same time, though this sign was lost in the obscurity.

“It is known, because their trail was found next day by the Serpent, and it was that of a military boot and a moccasin. One of our hunters, moreover, saw the canoe crossing towards Frontenac next morning.”

“Did the trail lead near the garrison, Jasper?” Pathfinder asked in a manner so meek and subdued that it resembled the tone of a rebuked schoolboy. “Did the trail lead near the garrison, lad?”

“We thought not; though, of course, it did not cross the river. It was followed down to the eastern point, at the river’s mouth, where what was doing in port, might be seen; but it did not cross, as we could discover.”

“And why didn’t you get under weigh, Master Jasper,” Cap demanded, “and give chase? On Tuesday morning it blew a good breeze; one in which this cutter might have run nine knots.”

“That may do on the ocean, Master Cap,” put in Pathfinder, “but it would not do here. Water leaves no trail, and a Mingo and a Frenchman are a match for the devil in a pursuit.”

“Who wants a trail when the chase can be seen from the deck, as Jasper here said was the case with this canoe? and it mattered nothing if there were twenty of your Mingos and Frenchmen, with a good British-built bottom in their wake. I’ll engage, Master Eau-douce, had you given me a call that said Tuesday morning, that we should have overhauled the blackguards.”

“I daresay, Master Cap, that the advice of as old a seaman as you might have done no harm to as young a sailor as myself, but it is a long and a hopeless chase that has a bark canoe in it.”

“You would have had only to press it hard, to drive it ashore.”

“Ashore, master Cap! You do not understand our lake navigation at all, if you suppose it an easy matter to force a bark canoe ashore. As soon as they find themselves pressed, these bubbles paddle right into the wind’s eye, and before you know it, you find yourself a mile or two dead under their lee.”

“You don’t wish me to believe, Master Jasper, that any one is so heedless of drowning as to put off into this lake in one of them eggshells when there is any wind?”

“I have often crossed Ontario in a bark canoe, even when there has been a good deal of sea on. Well managed, they are the driest boats of which we have any knowledge.”

Cap now led his brother-in-law and Pathfinder aside, when he assured him that the admission of Jasper concerning the spies was “a circumstance,” and “a strong circumstance,” and as such it deserved his deliberate investigation; while his account of the canoes was so improbable as to wear the appearance of brow-beating the listeners. Jasper spoke confidently of the character of the two individuals who had landed, and this Cap deemed pretty strong proof that he knew more about them than was to be gathered from a mere trail. As for moccasins, he said that they were worn in that part of the world by white men as well as by Indians; he had purchased a pair himself; and boots, it was notorious, did not particularly make a soldier. Although much of this logic was thrown away on the Sergeant, still it produced some effect. He thought it a little singular himself, that there should have been spies detected so near the fort and he know nothing of it; nor did he believe that this was a branch of knowledge that fell particularly within the sphere of Jasper. It was true that the Scud had, once or twice, been sent across the lake to land men of this character, or to bring them off; but then the part played by Jasper, to his own certain knowledge, was very secondary, the master of the cutter remaining as ignorant as any one else of the purport of the visits of those whom he had carried to and fro; nor did he see why he alone, of all present, should know anything of the late visit. Pathfinder viewed the matter differently. With his habitual diffidence, he reproached himself with a neglect of duty, and that knowledge, of which the want struck him as a fault in one whose business it was to possess it, appeared a merit in the young man. He saw nothing extraordinary in Jasper’s knowing the facts he had related; while he did feel it was unusual, not to say disgraceful, that he himself now heard of them for the first time.

“As for moccasins, Master Cap,” said he, when a short pause invited him to speak, “they may be worn by pale-faces as well as by red-skins, it is true, though they never leave the same trail on the foot of one as on the foot of the other. Any one who is used to the woods can tell the footstep of an Indian from the footstep of a white man, whether it be made by a boot or a moccasin. It will need better evidence than this to persuade me into the belief that Jasper is false.”

“You will allow, Pathfinder, that there are such things in the world as traitors?” put in Cap logically.

“I never knew an honest-minded Mingo — one that you could put faith in, if he had a temptation to deceive you. Cheating seems to be their gift, and I sometimes think they ought to be pitied for it, rather than persecuted.”

“Then why not believe that this Jasper may have the same weakness? A man is a man, and human nature is sometimes but a poor concern, as I know by experience.”

This was the opening of another long and desultory conversation, in which the probability of Jasper’s guilt or innocence was argued pro and con, until both the Sergeant and his brother-in-law had nearly reasoned themselves into settled convictions in favor of the first, while their companion grew sturdier and sturdier in his defence of the accused, and still more fixed in his opinion of his being unjustly charged with treachery. In this there was nothing out of the common course of things; for there is no more certain way of arriving at any particular notion, than by undertaking to defend it; and among the most obstinate of our opinions may be classed those which are derived from discussions in which we affect to search for truth, while in reality we are only fortifying prejudice.

By this time the Sergeant had reached a state of mind that disposed him to view every act of the young sailor with distrust, and he soon got to coincide with his relative in deeming the peculiar knowledge of Jasper, in reference to the spies, a branch of information that certainly did not come within the circle of his regular duties, as “a circumstance.”

While this matter was thus discussed near the taffrail, Mabel sat silently by the companion-way, Mr. Muir having gone below to look after his personal comforts, and Jasper standing a little aloof, with his arms crossed, and his eyes wandering from the sails to the clouds, from the clouds to the dusky outline of the shore, from the shore to the lake, and from the lake back again to the sails. Our heroine, too, began to commune with her own thoughts. The excitement of the late journey, the incidents which marked the day of her arrival at the fort, the meeting with a father who was virtually a stranger to her, the novelty of her late situation in the garrison, and her present voyage, formed a vista for the mind’s eye to look back through, which seemed lengthened into months. She could with difficulty believe that she had so recently left the town, with all the usages of civilized life; and she wondered in particular that the incidents which had occurred during the descent of the Oswego had made so little impression on her mind. Too inexperienced to know that events, when crowded, have the effect of time, or that the quick succession of novelties that pass before us in travelling elevates objects, in a measure, to the dignity of events, she drew upon her memory for days and dates, in order to make certain that she had known Jasper, and the Pathfinder, and her own father, but little more than a fortnight. Mabel was a girl of heart rather than of imagination, though by no means deficient in the last, and she could not easily account for the strength of her feelings in connection with those who were so lately strangers to her; for she was not sufficiently accustomed to analyze her sensations to understand the nature of the influences that have just been mentioned. As yet, however, her pure mind was free from the blight of distrust, and she had no suspicion of the views of either of her suitors; and one of the last thoughts that could have voluntarily disturbed her confidence would have been to suppose it possible either of her companions was a traitor to his king and country.

America, at the time of which we are writing, was remarkable for its attachment to the German family that then sat on the British throne; for, as is the fact with all provinces, the virtues and qualities that are proclaimed near the centre of power, as incense and policy, get to be a part of political faith with the credulous and ignorant at a distance. This truth is just as apparent to-day, in connection with the prodigies of the republic, as it then was in connection with those distant rulers, whose merits it was always safe to applaud, and whose demerits it was treason to reveal. It is a consequence of this mental dependence, that public opinion is so much placed at the mercy of the designing; and the world, in the midst of its idle boasts of knowledge and improvement, is left to receive its truths, on all such points as touch the interests of the powerful and managing, through such a medium, and such a medium only, as may serve the particular views of those who pull the wires. Pressed upon by the subjects of France, who were then encircling the British colonies with a belt of forts and settlements that completely secured the savages for allies, it would have been difficult to say whether the Americans loved the English more than they hated the French; and those who then lived probably would have considered the alliance which took place between the cis-Atlantic subjects and the ancient rivals of the British crown, some twenty years later, as an event entirely without the circle of probabilities. Disaffection was a rare offence; and, most of all, would treason, that should favor France or Frenchmen, have been odious in the eyes of the provincials. The last thing that Mabel would suspect of Jasper was the very crime with which he now stood secretly charged; and if others near her endured the pains of distrust, she, at least, was filled with the generous confidence of a woman. As yet no whisper had reached her ear to disturb the feeling of reliance with which she had early regarded the young sailor, and her own mind would have been the last to suggest such a thought of itself. The pictures of the past and of the present, therefore, that exhibited themselves so rapidly to her active imagination, were unclouded with a shade that might affect any in whom she felt an interest; and ere she had mused, in the manner related, a quarter of an hour, the whole scene around her was filled with unalloyed satisfaction.

The season and the night, to represent them truly, were of a nature to stimulate the sensations which youth, health, and happiness are wont to associate with novelty. The weather was warm, as is not always the case in that region even in summer, while the air that came off the land, in breathing currents, brought with it the coolness and fragrance of the forest. The wind was far from being fresh, though there was enough of it to drive the Scud merrily ahead, and, perhaps, to keep attention alive, in the uncertainty that more or less accompanies darkness. Jasper, however, appeared to regard it with complacency, as was apparent by what he said in a short dialogue that now occurred between him and Mabel.

“At this rate, Eau-douce,"— for so Mabel had already learned to style the young sailor — said our heroine, “we cannot be long in reaching our place of destination.”

“Has your father then told you what that is, Mabel?”

“He has told me nothing; my father is too much of a soldier, and too little used to have a family around him, to talk of such matters. Is it forbidden to say whither we are bound?”

“It cannot be far, while we steer in this direction, for sixty or seventy miles will take us into the St. Lawrence, which the French might make too hot for us; and no voyage on this lake can be very long.”

“So says my uncle Cap; but to me, Jasper, Ontario and the ocean appear very much the same.”

“You have then been on the ocean; while I, who pretend to be a sailor, have never yet seen salt water. You must have a great contempt for such a mariner as myself, in your heart, Mabel Dunham?”

“Then I have no such thing in my heart, Jasper Eau-douce. What right have I, a girl without experience or knowledge, to despise any, much less one like you, who are trusted by the Major, and who command a vessel like this? I have never been on the ocean, though I have seen it; and, I repeat, I see no difference between this lake and the Atlantic.”

“Nor in them that sail on both? I was afraid, Mabel, your uncle had said so much against us fresh-water sailors, that you had begun to look upon us as little better than pretenders?”

“Give yourself no uneasiness on that account, Jasper; for I know my uncle, and he says as many things against those who live ashore, when at York, as he now says against those who sail on fresh water. No, no, neither my father nor myself think anything of such opinions. My uncle Cap, if he spoke openly, would be found to have even a worse notion of a soldier than of a sailor who never saw the sea.”

“But your father, Mabel, has a better opinion of soldiers than of any one else? he wishes you to be the wife of a soldier?”

“Jasper Eau-douce! — I the wife of a soldier! My father wishes it! Why should he wish any such thing? What soldier is there in the garrison that I could marry — that he could wish me to marry?”

“One may love a calling so well as to fancy it will cover a thousand imperfections.”

“But one is not likely to love his own calling so well as to cause him to overlook everything else. You say my father wishes me to marry a soldier; and yet there is no soldier at Oswego that he would be likely to give me to. I am in an awkward position; for while I am not good enough to be the wife of one of the gentlemen of the garrison, I think even you will admit, Jasper, I am too good to be the wife of one of the common soldiers.”

As Mabel spoke thus frankly she blushed, she knew not why, though the obscurity concealed the fact from her companion; and she laughed faintly, like one who felt that the subject, however embarrassing it might be, deserved to be treated fairly. Jasper, it would seem, viewed her position differently from herself.

“It is true Mabel,” said he, “you are not what is called a lady, in the common meaning of the word.”

“Not in any meaning, Jasper,” the generous girl eagerly interrupted: “on that head, I have no vanities, I hope. Providence has made me the daughter of a sergeant, and I am content to remain in the station in which I was born.”

“But all do not remain in the stations in which they were born, Mabel; for some rise above them, and some fall below them. Many sergeants have become officers — even generals; and why may not sergeants’ daughters become officers’ ladies?”

“In the case of Sergeant Dunham’s daughter, I know no better reason than the fact that no officer is likely to wish to make her his wife,” returned Mabel, laughing.

“You may think so; but there are some in the 55th that know better. There is certainly one officer in that regiment, Mabel, who does wish to make you his wife.”

Quick as the flashing lightning, the rapid thoughts of Mabel Dunham glanced over the five or six subalterns of the corps, who, by age and inclinations, would be the most likely to form such a wish; and we should do injustice to her habits, perhaps, were we not to say that a lively sensation of pleasure rose momentarily in her bosom, at the thought of being raised above a station which, whatever might be her professions of contentment, she felt that she had been too well educated to fill with perfect satisfaction. But this emotion was as transient as it was sudden; for Mabel Dunham was a girl of too much pure and womanly feeling to view the marriage tie through anything so worldly as the mere advantages of station. The passing emotion was a thrill produced by factitious habits, while the more settled opinion which remained was the offspring of nature and principles.

“I know no officer in the 55th, or any other regiment, who would be likely to do so foolish a thing; nor do I think I myself would do so foolish a thing as to marry an officer.”

“Foolish, Mabel!”

“Yes, foolish, Jasper. You know, as well as I can know, what the world would think of such matters; and I should be sorry, very sorry, to find that my husband ever regretted that he had so far yielded to a fancy for a face or a figure as to have married the daughter of one so much his inferior as a sergeant.”

“Your husband, Mabel, will not be so likely to think of the father as to think of the daughter.”

The girl was talking with spirit, though feeling evidently entered into her part of the discourse; but she paused for nearly a minute after Jasper had made the last observation before she uttered another word. Then she continued, in a manner less playful, and one critically attentive might have fancied in a manner slightly melancholy —

“Parent and child ought so to live as not to have two hearts, or two modes of feeling and thinking. A common interest in all things I should think as necessary to happiness in man and wife, as between the other members of the same family. Most of all, ought neither the man nor the woman to have any unusual cause for unhappiness, the world furnishing so many of itself.”

“Am I to understand, then, Mabel, you would refuse to marry an officer, merely because he was an officer?”

“Have you a right to ask such a question, Jasper?” said Mabel smiling.

“No other right than what a strong desire to see you happy can give, which, after all, may be very little. My anxiety has been increased, from happening to know that it is your father’s intention to persuade you to marry Lieutenant Muir.”

“My dear, dear father can entertain no notion so ridiculous — no notion so cruel!”

“Would it, then, be cruel to wish you the wife of a quartermaster?”

“I have told you what I think on that subject, and cannot make my words stronger. Having answered you so frankly, Jasper, I have a right to ask how you know that my father thinks of any such thing?”

“That he has chosen a husband for you, I know from his own mouth; for he has told me this much during our frequent conversations while he has been superintending the shipment of the stores; and that Mr. Muir is to offer for you, I know from the officer himself, who has told me as much. By putting the two things together, I have come to the opinion mentioned.”

“May not my dear father, Jasper,"— Mabel’s face glowed like fire while she spoke, though her words escaped her slowly, and by a sort of involuntary impulse — “may not my dear father have been thinking of another? It does not follow, from what you say, that Mr. Muir was in his mind.”

“Is it not probable, Mabel, from all that has passed? What brings the Quartermaster here? He has never found it necessary before to accompany the parties that have gone below. He thinks of you for his wife; and your father has made up his own mind that you shall be so. You must see, Mabel, that Mr. Muir follows you?“

Mabel made no answer. Her feminine instinct had, indeed, told her that she was an object of admiration with the Quartermaster; though she had hardly supposed to the extent that Jasper believed; and she, too, had even gathered from the discourse of her father that he thought seriously of having her disposed of in marriage; but by no process of reasoning could she ever have arrived at the inference that Mr. Muir was to be the man. She did not believe it now, though she was far from suspecting the truth. Indeed, it was her own opinion that these casual remarks of her father, which had struck her, had proceeded from a general wish to have her settled, rather than from any desire to see her united to any particular individual. These thoughts, however, she kept secret; for self-respect and feminine reserve showed her the impropriety of making them the subject of discussion with her present companion. By way of changing the conversation, therefore, after the pause had lasted long enough to be embarrassing to both parties, she said, “Of one thing you may be certain, Jasper — and that is all I wish to say on the subject — Lieutenant Muir, though he were a colonel, will never be the husband of Mabel Dunham. And now, tell me of your voyage; — when will it end?”

“That is uncertain. Once afloat, we are at the mercy of the winds and waves. Pathfinder will tell you that he who begins to chase the deer in the morning cannot tell where he will sleep at night.”

“But we are not chasing a deer, nor is it morning: so Pathfinder’s moral is thrown away.”

“Although we are not chasing a deer, we are after that which may be as hard to catch. I can tell you no more than I have said already; for it is our duty to be close-mouthed, whether anything depends on it or not. I am afraid, however, I shall not keep you long enough in the Scud to show you what she can do at need.”

“I think a woman unwise who ever marries a sailor,” said Mabel abruptly, and almost involuntarily.

“This is a strange opinion; why do you hold it?”

“Because a sailor’s wife is certain to have a rival in his vessel. My uncle Cap, too, says that a sailor should never marry.”

“He means salt-water sailors,” returned Jasper, laughing. “If he thinks wives not good enough for those who sail on the ocean, he will fancy them just suited to those who sail on the lakes. I hope, Mabel, you do not take your opinions of us fresh-water mariners from all that Master Cap says.”

“Sail, ho!” exclaimed the very individual of whom they were conversing; “or boat, ho! would be nearer the truth.”

Jasper ran forward; and, sure enough, a small object was discernible about a hundred yards ahead of the cutter, and nearly on her lee bow. At the first glance, he saw it was a bark canoe; for, though the darkness prevented hues from being distinguished, the eye that had become accustomed to the night might discern forms at some little distance; and the eye which, like Jasper’s, had long been familiar with things aquatic, could not be at a loss in discovering the outlines necessary to come to the conclusion he did.

“This may be an enemy,” the young man remarked; “and it may be well to overhaul him.”

“He is paddling with all his might, lad,” observed the Pathfinder, “and means to cross your bows and get to windward, when you might as well chase a full-grown buck on snow-shoes!”

“Let her luff,” cried Jasper to the man at the helm. “Luff up, till she shakes. There, steady, and hold all that.”

The helmsman complied; and, as the Scud was now dashing the water aside merrily, a minute or two put the canoe so far to leeward as to render escape impracticable. Jasper now sprang to the helm himself and, by judicious and careful handling, he got so near his chase that it was secured by a boat-hook. On receiving an order, the two persons who were in the canoe left it, and no sooner had they reached the deck of the cutter than they were found to be Arrowhead and his wife.