The Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper - Chapter 16

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form

Glasses itself in tempests; in all time,

Calm or convulsed — in breeze, or gale, or storm,

Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime

Dark-heaving; — boundless, endless, and sublime —

The image of eternity; the throne

Of the Invisible; even from out thy slime

The monsters of the deep are made; each zone

Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.


As the day advanced, that portion of the inmates of the vessel which had the liberty of doing so appeared on deck. As yet the sea was not very high, from which it was inferred that the cutter was still under the lee of the islands; but it was apparent to all who understood the lake that they were about to experience one of the heavy autumnal gales of that region. Land was nowhere visible; and the horizon on every side exhibited that gloomy void, which lends to all views on vast bodies of water the sublimity of mystery. The swells, or, as landsmen term them, the waves, were short and curling, breaking of necessity sooner than the longer seas of the ocean; while the element itself, instead of presenting that beautiful hue which rivals the deep tint of the southern sky, looked green and angry, though wanting in the lustre that is derived from the rays of the sun.

The soldiers were soon satisfied with the prospect, and one by one they disappeared, until none were left on deck but the crew, the Sergeant, Cap, Pathfinder, the Quartermaster, and Mabel. There was a shade on the brow of the last, who had been made acquainted with the real state of things, and who had fruitlessly ventured an appeal in favor of Jasper’s restoration to the command. A night’s rest and a night’s reflection appeared also to have confirmed the Pathfinder in his opinion of the young man’s innocence; and he, too, had made a warm appeal on behalf of his friend, though with the same want of success.

Several hours passed away, the wind gradually getting heavier and the sea rising, until the motion of the cutter compelled Mabel and the Quartermaster to retreat also. Cap wore several times; and it was now evident that the Scud was drifting into the broader and deeper parts of the lake, the seas raging down upon her in a way that none but a vessel of superior mould and build could have long ridden and withstood. All this, however, gave Cap no uneasiness; but, like the hunter that pricks his ears at the sound of the horn, or the war-horse that paws and snorts with pleasure at the roll of the drum, the whole scene awakened all that was man within him; and instead of the captious, supercilious, and dogmatic critic, quarrelling with trifles and exaggerating immaterial things, he began to exhibit the qualities of the hardy and experienced seaman which he truly was. The hands soon imbibed a respect for his skill; and, though they wondered at the disappearance of their old commander and the pilot, for which no reason had been publicly given, they soon yielded an implicit and cheerful obedience to the new one.

“This bit of fresh water, after all, brother Dunham, has some spirit, I find,” cried Cap about noon, rubbing his hands in pure satisfaction at finding himself once more wrestling with the elements. “The wind seems to be an honest old-fashioned gale, and the seas have a fanciful resemblance to those of the Gulf Stream. I like this, Sergeant, I like this, and shall get to respect your lake, if it hold out twenty-four hours longer in the fashion in which it has begun.”

“Land, ho!” shouted the man who was stationed on the forecastle.

Cap hurried forward; and there, sure enough, the land was visible through the drizzle, at the distance of about half a mile, the cutter heading directly towards it. The first impulse of the old seaman was to give an order to “stand by, to ware off shore;” but the cool-headed soldier restrained him.

“By going a little nearer,” said the Sergeant, “some of us may recognize the place. Most of us know the American shore in this part of the lake; and it will be something gained to learn our position.”

“Very true, very true; if, indeed, there is any chance of that we will hold on. What is this off here, a little on our weather-bow? It looks like a low headland.”

“The garrison, by Jove!” exclaimed the other, whose trained eye sooner recognized the military outlines than the less instructed senses of his connection.

The Sergeant was not mistaken. There was the fort, sure enough, though it looked dim and indistinct through the fine rain, as if it were seen in the dusk of evening or the haze of morning. The low, sodded, and verdant ramparts, the sombre palisades, now darker than ever with water, the roof of a house or two, the tall, solitary flagstaff, with its halyards blown steadily out into a curve that appeared traced in immovable lines in the air, were all soon to be seen though no sign of animated life could be discovered. Even the sentinel was housed; and at first it was believed that no eye would detect the presence of their own vessel. But the unceasing vigilance of a border garrison did not slumber: one of the look-outs probably made the interesting discovery; a man or two were seen on some elevated stands, and then the entire ramparts next the lake were dotted with human beings.

The whole scene was one in which sublimity was singularly relieved by the picturesque. The raging of the tempest had a character of duration that rendered it easy to imagine it might be a permanent feature of the spot. The roar of the wind was without intermission, and the raging water answered to its dull but grand strains with hissing spray, a menacing wash, and sullen surges. The drizzle made a medium for the eye which closely resembled that of a thin mist, softening and rendering mysterious the images it revealed, while the genial feeling that is apt to accompany a gale of wind on water contributed to aid the milder influences of the moment. The dark interminable forest hove up out of the obscurity, grand, sombre, and impressive, while the solitary, peculiar, and picturesque glimpses of life that were caught in and about the fort, formed a refuge for the eye to retreat to when oppressed with the more imposing objects of nature.

“They see us,” said the Sergeant, “and think we have returned on account of the gale, and have fallen to leeward of the port. Yes, there is Major Duncan himself on the north-eastern bastion; I know him by his height, and by the officers around him.”

“Sergeant, it would be worth standing a little jeering, if we could fetch into the river, and come safely to an anchor. In that case, too, we might land this Master Eau-douce, and purify the boat.”

“It would indeed; but, as poor a sailor as I am, I well know it cannot be done. Nothing that sails the lake can turn to windward against this gale; and there is no anchorage outside in weather like this.”

“I know it, I see it, Sergeant; and pleasant as is that sight to you landsmen, we must leave it. For myself, I am never so happy in heavy weather as when I am certain that the land is behind me.”

The Scud had now forged so near in, that it became indispensable to lay her head off shore again, and the necessary orders were given. The storm-staysail was set forward, the gaff lowered, the helm put up, and the light craft, that seemed to sport with the elements like a duck, fell off a little, drew ahead swiftly, obeyed her rudder, and was soon flying away on the top of the surges, dead before the gale. While making this rapid flight, though the land still remained in view on her larboard beam, the fort and the groups of anxious spectators on its rampart were swallowed up in the mist. Then followed the evolutions necessary to bring the head of the cutter up to the wind, when she again began to wallow her weary way towards the north shore.

Hours now passed before any further change was made, the wind increasing in force, until even the dogmatical Cap fairly admitted it was blowing a thorough gale of wind. About sunset the Scud wore again to keep her off the north shore during the hours of darkness; and at midnight her temporary master, who, by questioning the crew in an indirect manner, had obtained some general knowledge of the size and shape of the lake, believed himself to be about midway between the two shores. The height and length of the seas aided this impression; and it must be added that Cap by this time began to feel a respect for fresh water which twenty-four hours earlier he would have derided as impossible. Just as the night turned, the fury of the wind became so great that he found it impossible to bear up against it, the water falling on the deck of the little craft in such masses as to cause it to shake to the centre, and, though a vessel of singularly lively qualities, to threaten to bury it beneath its weight. The people of the Scud averred that never before had they been out in such a tempest, which was true; for, possessing a perfect knowledge of all the rivers and headlands and havens, Jasper would have carried the cutter in shore long ere this, and placed her in safety in some secure anchorage. But Cap still disdained to consult the young master, who continued below, determining to act like a mariner of the broad ocean.

It was one in the morning when the storm-staysail was again got on the Scud, the head of the mainsail lowered, and the cutter put before the wind. Although the canvas now exposed was merely a rag in surface, the little craft nobly justified the use of the name she bore. For eight hours did she scud in truth; and it was almost with the velocity of the gulls that wheeled wildly over her in the tempest, apparently afraid to alight in the boiling caldron of the lake. The dawn of day brought little change; for no other horizon became visible than the little circle of drizzling sky and water already described, in which it seemed as if the elements were rioting in a sort of chaotic confusion. During this time the crew and passengers of the cutter were of necessity passive. Jasper and the pilot remained below; but, the motion of the vessel having become easier, nearly all the rest were on deck. The morning meal had been taken in silence, and eye met eye, as if their owners asked each other, in dumb show, what was to be the end of this strife in the elements. Cap, however, was perfectly composed, and his face brightened, his step grew firmer, and his whole air more assured, as the storm increased, making larger demands on his professional skill and personal spirit. He stood on the forecastle, his arms crossed, balancing his body with a seaman’s instinct, while his eyes watched the caps of the seas, as they broke and glanced past the reeling cutter, itself in such swift motion, as if they were the scud flying athwart the sky. At this sublime instant one of the hands gave the unexpected cry of “A sail!”

There was so much of the wild and solitary character of the wilderness about Ontario, that one scarcely expected to meet with a vessel on its waters. The Scud herself, to those who were in her, resembled a man threading the forest alone, and the meeting was like that of two solitary hunters beneath the broad canopy of leaves that then covered so many millions of acres on the continent of America. The peculiar state of the weather served to increase the romantic, almost supernatural appearance of the passage. Cap alone regarded it with practised eyes, and even he felt his iron nerves thrill under the sensations that were awakened by the wild features of the scene.

The strange vessel was about two cables’ length ahead of the Scud, standing by the wind athwart her bows, and steering a course to render it probable that the latter would pass within a few yards of her. She was a full-rigged ship; and, seen through the misty medium of the tempest, the most experienced eye could detect no imperfection in her gear or construction. The only canvas she had set was a close-reefed main-topsail, and two small storm-staysails, one forward and the other aft. Still the power of the wind pressed so hard upon her as to bear her down nearly to her beam-ends, whenever the hull was not righted by the buoyancy of some wave under her lee. Her spars were all in their places, and by her motion through the water, which might have equalled four knots in the hour, it was apparent that she steered a little free.

“The fellow must know his position well,” said Cap, as the cutter flew down towards the ship with a velocity almost equalling that of the gale, “for he is standing boldly to the southward, where he expects to find anchorage or a haven. No man in his senses would run off free in that fashion, that was not driven to scudding, like ourselves, who did not perfectly understand where he was going.”

“We have made an awful run, captain,” returned the man to whom this remark had been addressed. “That is the French king’s ship, Lee-my-calm (Le Montcalm), and she is standing in for the Niagara, where her owner has a garrison and a port. We’ve made an awful run of it!”

“Ay, bad luck to him! Frenchman-like, he skulks into port the moment he sees an English bottom.”

“It might be well for us if we could follow him,” returned the man, shaking his head despondingly, “for we are getting into the end of a bay up here at the head of the lake, and it is uncertain whether we ever get out of it again!”

“Pooh, man, pooh! We have plenty of sea room, and a good English hull beneath us. We are no Johnny Crapauds to hide ourselves behind a point or a fort on account of a puff of wind. Mind your helm, sir!”

The order was given on account of the menacing appearance of the approaching passage. The Scud was now heading directly for the fore-foot of the Frenchman; and, the distance between the two vessels having diminished to a hundred yards, it was momentarily questionable if there was room to pass.

“Port, sir, port,” shouted Cap. “Port your helm and pass astern!”

The crew of the Frenchman were seen assembling to windward, and a few muskets were pointed, as if to order the people of the Scud to keep off. Gesticulations were observed, but the sea was too wild and menacing to admit of the ordinary expedients of war. The water was dripping from the muzzles of two or three light guns on board the ship, but no one thought of loosening them for service in such a tempest. Her black sides, as they emerged from a wave, glistened and seemed to frown; but the wind howled through her rigging, whistling the thousand notes of a ship; and the hails and cries that escape a Frenchman with so much readiness were inaudible.

“Let him halloo himself hoarse!” growled Cap. “This is no weather to whisper secrets in. Port, sir, port!”

The man at the helm obeyed, and the next send of the sea drove the Scud down upon the quarter of the ship, so near her that the old mariner himself recoiled a step, in a vague expectation that, at the next surge ahead, she would drive bows foremost directly into the planks of the other vessel. But this was not to be: rising from the crouching posture she had taken, like a panther about to leap, the cutter dashed onward, and at the next instant she was glancing past the stern of her enemy, just clearing the end of her spanker-boom with her own lower yard.

The young Frenchman who commanded the Montcalm leaped on the taffrail; and, with that high-toned courtesy which relieves even the worst acts of his countrymen, he raised his cap and smiled a salutation as the Scud shot past. There were bonhomie and good taste in this act of courtesy, when circumstances allowed of no other communications; but they were lost on Cap, who, with an instinct quite as true to his race, shook his fist menacingly, and muttered to himself —

“Ay, ay, it’s d —— d lucky for you I’ve no armament on board here, or I’d send you in to get new cabin-windows fitted. Sergeant, he’s a humbug.”

“’Twas civil, brother Cap,” returned the other, lowering his hand from the military salute which his pride as a soldier had induced him to return — "’twas civil, and that’s as much as you can expect from a Frenchman. What he really meant by it no one can say.”

“He is not heading up to this sea without an object, neither. Well, let him run in, if he can get there, we will keep the lake, like hearty English mariners.”

This sounded gloriously, but Cap eyed with envy the glittering black mass of the Montcalm’s hull, her waving topsail, and the misty tracery of her spars, as she grew less and less distinct, and finally disappeared in the drizzle, in a form as shadowy as that of some unreal image. Gladly would he have followed in her wake had he dared; for, to own the truth, the prospect of another stormy night in the midst of the wild waters that were raging around him brought little consolation. Still he had too much professional pride to betray his uneasiness, and those under his care relied on his knowledge and resources, with the implicit and blind confidence that the ignorant are apt to feel.

A few hours succeeded, and darkness came again to increase the perils of the Scud. A lull in the gale, however, had induced Cap to come by the wind once more, and throughout the night the cutter was lying-to as before, head-reaching as a matter of course, and occasionally wearing to keep off the land. It is unnecessary to dwell on the incidents of this night, which resembled those of any other gale of wind. There were the pitching of the vessel, the hissing of the waters, the dashing of spray, the shocks that menaced annihilation to the little craft as she plunged into the seas, the undying howl of the wind, and the fearful drift. The last was the most serious danger; for, though exceedingly weatherly under her canvas, and totally without top-hamper, the Scud was so light, that the combing of the swells would seem at times to wash her down to leeward with a velocity as great as that of the surges themselves.

During this night Cap slept soundly, and for several hours. The day was just dawning when he felt himself shaken by the shoulder; and arousing himself, he found the Pathfinder standing at his side. During the gale the guide had appeared little on deck, for his natural modesty told him that seamen alone should interfere with the management of the vessel; and he was willing to show the same reliance on those who had charge of the Scud, as he expected those who followed through the forest to manifest in his own skill; but he now thought himself justified in interfering, which he did in his own unsophisticated and peculiar manner.

“Sleep is sweet, Master Cap,” said he, as soon as the eyes of the latter were fairly open, and his consciousness had sufficiently returned — “sleep is sweet, as I know from experience, but life is sweeter still. Look about you, and say if this is exactly the moment for a commander to be off his feet.”

“How now? how now, Master Pathfinder?” growled Cap, in the first moments of his awakened faculties. “Are you, too, getting on the side of the grumblers? When ashore I admired your sagacity in running through the worst shoals without a compass; and since we have been afloat, your meekness and submission have been as pleasant as your confidence on your own ground. I little expected such a summons from you.”

“As for myself, Master Cap, I feel I have my gifts, and I believe they’ll interfere with those of no other man; but the case may be different with Mabel Dunham. She has her gifts, too, it is true; but they are not rude like ours, but gentle and womanish, as they ought to be. It’s on her account that I speak, and not on my own.”

“Ay, ay, I begin to understand. The girl is a good girl, my worthy friend; but she is a soldier’s daughter and a sailor’s niece, and ought not to be too tame or too tender in a gale. Does she show any fear?”

“Not she! not she! Mabel is a woman, but she is reasonable and silent. Not a word have I heard from her concerning our doings; though I do think, Master Cap, she would like it better if Jasper Eau-douce were put into his proper place, and things were restored to their old situation, like. This is human natur’.”

“I’ll warrant it — girl-like, and Dunham-like, too. Anything is better than an old uncle, and everybody knows more than an old seaman. This is human natur’, Master Pathfinder, and d —-me if I’m the man to sheer a fathom, starboard or port, for all the human natur’ that can be found in a minx of twenty — ay, or” (lowering his voice a little) “for all that can be paraded in his Majesty’s 55th regiment of foot. I’ve not been at sea forty years, to come up on this bit of fresh water to be taught human natur’. How this gale holds out! It blows as hard at this moment as if Boreas had just clapped his hand upon the bellows. And what is all this to leeward?” (rubbing his eyes)—“land! as sure as my name is Cap — and high land, too.”

The Pathfinder made no immediate answer; but, shaking his head, he watched the expression of his companion’s face, with a look of strong anxiety in his own.

“Land, as certain as this is the Scud!“ repeated Cap; “a lee shore, and that, too, within a league of us, with as pretty a line of breakers as one could find on the beach of all Long Island!”

“And is that encouraging? or is it disheartening?” inquired the Pathfinder.

“Ha! encouraging — disheartening! — why, neither. No, no, there is nothing encouraging about it; and as for disheartening, nothing ought to dishearten a seaman. You never get disheartened or afraid in the woods, my friend?”

“I’ll not say that, I’ll not say that. When the danger is great, it is my gift to see it, and know it, and to try to avoid it; else would my scalp long since have been drying in a Mingo wigwam. On this lake, however, I can see no trail, and I feel it my duty to submit; though I think we ought to remember there is such a person as Mabel Dunham on board. But here comes her father, and he will naturally feel for his own child.”

“We are seriously situated, I believe, brother Cap,” said the Sergeant, when he had reached the spot, “by what I can gather from the two hands on the forecastle? They tell me the cutter cannot carry any more sail, and her drift is so great we shall go ashore in an hour or two. I hope their fears have deceived them?”

Cap made no reply; but he gazed at the land with a rueful face, and then looked to windward with an expression of ferocity, as if he would gladly have quarrelled with the weather.

“It may be well, brother,” the Sergeant continued, “to send for Jasper and consult him as to what is to be done. There are no French here to dread; and, under all circumstances, the boy will save us from drowning if possible.”

“Ay, ay, ’tis these cursed circumstances that have done all the mischief. But let the fellow come; let him come; a few well-managed questions will bring the truth out of him, I’ll warrant you.”

This acquiescence on the part of the dogmatical Cap was no sooner obtained, than Jasper was sent for. The young man instantly made his appearance, his whole air, countenance, and mien expressive of mortification, humility, and, as his observers fancied, rebuked deception. When he first stepped on deck, Jasper cast one hurried, anxious glance around, as if curious to know the situation of the cutter; and that glance sufficed, it would seem, to let him into the secret of all her perils. At first he looked to windward, as is usual with every seaman; then he turned round the horizon, until his eye caught a view of the high lands to leeward, when the whole truth burst upon him at once.

“I’ve sent for you, Master Jasper,” said Cap, folding his arms, and balancing his body with the dignity of the forecastle, “in order to learn something about the haven to leeward. We take it for granted you do not bear malice so hard as to wish to drown us all, especially the women; and I suppose you will be man enough to help us run the cutter into some safe berth until this bit of a gale has done blowing!”

“I would die myself rather than harm should come to Mabel Dunham,” the young man earnestly answered.

“I knew it! I knew it!” cried the Pathfinder, clapping his hand kindly on Jasper’s shoulder. “The lad is as true as the best compass that ever ran a boundary, or brought a man off from a blind trail. It is a mortal sin to believe otherwise.”

“Humph!” ejaculated Cap; “especially the women! As if they were in any particular danger. Never mind, young man; we shall understand each other by talking like two plain seamen. Do you know of any port under our lee?”

“None. There is a large bay at this end of the lake; but it is unknown to us all, and not easy of entrance.”

“And this coast to leeward — it has nothing particular to recommend it, I suppose?”

“It is a wilderness until you reach the mouth of the Niagara in one direction, and Frontenac in the other. North and west, they tell me, there is nothing but forest and prairies for a thousand miles.”

“Thank God! then, there can be no French. Are there many savages, hereaway, on the land?”

“The Indians are to be found in all directions; though they are nowhere very numerous. By accident, we might find a party at any point on the shore; or we might pass months there without seeing one.”

“We must take our chance, then, as to the blackguards; but, to be frank with you, Master Western, if this little unpleasant matter about the French had not come to pass, what would you now do with the cutter?”

“I am a much younger sailor than yourself, Master Cap,” said Jasper modestly, “and am hardly fitted to advise you.”

“Ay, ay, we all know that. In a common case, perhaps not. But this is an uncommon case, and a circumstance; and on this bit of fresh water it has what may be called its peculiarities; and so, everything considered, you may be fitted to advise even your own father. At all events, you can speak, and I can judge of your opinions, agreeably to my own experience.”

“I think, sir, before two hours are over, the cutter will have to anchor.”

“Anchor! — not out here in the lake?”

“No, sir; but in yonder, near the land.”

“You do not mean to say, Master Eau-douce, you would anchor on a lee shore in a gale of wind?”

“If I would save my vessel, that is exactly what I would do, Master Cap.”

“Whe-e-e-w! — this is fresh water, with a vengeance! Hark’e, young man, I’ve been a seafaring animal, boy and man, forty-one years, and I never yet heard of such a thing. I’d throw my ground-tackle overboard before I would be guilty of so lubberly an act!”

“That is what we do on this lake,” modestly replied Jasper, “when we are hard pressed. I daresay we might do better, had we been better taught.”

“That you might, indeed! No; no man induces me to commit such a sin against my own bringing up. I should never dare show my face inside of Sandy Hook again, had I committed so know-nothing an exploit. Why, Pathfinder, here, has more seamanship in him than that comes to. You can go below again, Master Eau-douce.”

Jasper quietly bowed and withdrew; still, as he passed down the ladder, the spectators observed that he cast a lingering anxious look at the horizon to windward and the land to leeward, and then disappeared with concern strongly expressed in every lineament of his face.