The Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper - Chapter 28

Thou barraine ground, whom winter’s wrath hath wasted,

Art made a mirror to behold my plight:

Whilome thy fresh spring flower’d: and after hasted

Thy summer prowde, with daffodillies dight;

And now is come thy winter’s stormy state,

Thy mantle mar’d wherein thou maskedst late.


Although the soldier may regard danger and even death with indifference in the tumult of battle, when the passage of the soul is delayed to moments of tranquillity and reflection the change commonly brings with it the usual train of solemn reflections; of regrets for the past, and of doubts and anticipations for the future. Many a man has died with a heroic expression on his lips, but with heaviness and distrust at his heart; for, whatever may be the varieties of our religious creeds, let us depend on the mediation of Christ, the dogmas of Mahomet, or the elaborated allegories of the East, there is a conviction, common to all men, that death is but the stepping-stone between this and a more elevated state of being. Sergeant Dunham was a brave man; but he was departing for a country in which resolution could avail him nothing; and as he felt himself gradually loosened from the grasp of the world, his thoughts and feelings took the natural direction; for if it be true that death is the great leveller, in nothing is it more true than that it reduces all to the same views of the vanity of life.

Pathfinder, though a man of peculiar habits and opinions, was always thoughtful, and disposed to view the things around him with a shade of philosophy, as well as with seriousness. In him, therefore, the scene in the blockhouse awakened no very novel feelings. But the case was different with Cap: rude, opinionated, dogmatical, and boisterous, the old sailor was little accustomed to view even death with any approach to the gravity which its importance demands; and notwithstanding all that had passed, and his real regard for his brother-in-law, he now entered the room of the dying man with much of that callous unconcern which was the fruit of long training in a school that, while it gives so many lessons in the sublimest truths, generally wastes its admonitions on scholars who are little disposed to profit by them.

The first proof that Cap gave of his not entering so fully as those around him into the solemnity of the moment, was by commencing a narration of the events which had just led to the deaths of Muir and Arrowhead. “Both tripped their anchors in a hurry, brother Dunham,” he concluded; “and you have the consolation of knowing that others have gone before you in the great journey, and they, too, men whom you’ve no particular reason to love; which to me, were I placed in your situation, would be a source of very great satisfaction. My mother always said, Master Pathfinder, that dying people’s spirits should not be damped, but that they ought to be encouraged by all proper and prudent means; and this news will give the poor fellow a great lift, if he feels towards them savages any way as I feel myself.”

June arose at this intelligence, and stole from the blockhouse with a noiseless step. Dunham listened with a vacant stare, for life had already lost so many of its ties that he had really forgotten Arrowhead, and cared nothing for Muir; but he inquired, in a feeble voice, for Eau-douce. The young man was immediately summoned, and soon made his appearance. The Sergeant gazed at him kindly, and the expression of his eyes was that of regret for the injury he had done him in thought. The party in the blockhouse now consisted of Pathfinder, Cap, Mabel, Jasper, and the dying man. With the exception of the daughter, all stood around the Sergeant’s pallet, in attendance in his last moments. Mabel kneeled at his side, now pressing a clammy hand to her head, now applying moisture to the parched lips of her father.

“Your case will shortly be ourn, Sergeant,” said Pathfinder, who could hardly be said to be awestruck by the scene, for he had witnessed the approach and victories of death too often for that; but who felt the full difference between his triumphs in the excitement of battle and in the quiet of the domestic circle; “and I make no question we shall meet ag’in hereafter. Arrowhead has gone his way, ’tis true; but it can never be the way of a just Indian. You’ve seen the last of him, for his path cannot be the path of the just. Reason is ag’in the thought in his case, as it is also, in my judgment, ag’in it too in the case of Lieutenant Muir. You have done your duty in life; and when a man does that, he may start on the longest journey with a light heart and an actyve foot.”

“I hope so, my friend: I’ve tried to do my duty.”

“Ay, ay,” put in Cap; “intention is half the battle; and though you would have done better had you hove-to in the offing and sent a craft in to feel how the land lay, things might have turned out differently: no one here doubts that you meant all for the best, and no one anywhere else, I should think, from what I’ve seen of this world and read of t’other.”

“I did; yes. I meant all for the best.”

“Father! Oh, my beloved father!”

“Magnet is taken aback by this blow, Master Pathfinder, and can say or do but little to carry her father over the shoals; so we must try all the harder to serve him a friendly turn ourselves.”

“Did you speak, Mabel?” Dunham asked, turning his eyes in the direction of his daughter, for he was already too feeble to turn his body.

“Yes, father; rely on nothing you have done yourself for mercy and salvation; trust altogether in the blessed mediation of the Son of God!”

“The chaplain has told us something like this, brother. The dear child may be right.”

“Ay, ay, that’s doctrine, out of question. He will be our Judge, and keeps the log-book of our acts, and will foot them all up at the last day, and then say who has done well and who has done ill. I do believe Mabel is right; but then you need not be concerned, as no doubt the account has been fairly kept.”

“Uncle! — Dearest father! this is a vain illusion! Oh, place all your trust in the mediation of our Holy Redeemer! Have you not often felt your own insufficiency to effect your own wishes in the commonest things? And how can you imagine yourself, by your own acts, equal to raise up a frail and sinful nature sufficiently to be received into the presence of perfect purity? There is no hope for any but in the mediation of Christ!”

“This is what the Moravians used to tell us,” said Pathfinder to Cap in a low voice; “rely on it, Mabel is right.”

“Right enough, friend Pathfinder, in the distances, but wrong in the course. I’m afraid the child will get the Sergeant adrift, at the very moment when we had him in the best of the water and in the plainest part of the channel.”

“Leave it to Mabel, leave it to Mabel; she knows better than any of us, and can do no harm.”

“I have heard this before,” Dunham at length replied. “Ah, Mabel! it is strange for the parent to lean on the child at a moment like this!”

“Put your trust in God, father; lean on His holy and compassionate Son. Pray, dearest, dearest father; pray for His omnipotent support.”

“I am not used to prayer. Brother, Pathfinder — Jasper, can you help me to words?”

Cap scarcely knew what prayer meant, and he had no answer to give. Pathfinder prayed often, daily, if not hourly; but it was mentally, in his own simple modes of thinking, and without the aid of words at all. In this strait, therefore, he was as useless as the mariner, and had no reply to make. As for Jasper Eau-douce, though he would gladly have endeavored to move a mountain to relieve Mabel, this was asking assistance it exceeded his power to give; and he shrank back with the shame that is only too apt to overcome the young and vigorous, when called on to perform an act that tacitly confesses their real weakness and dependence on a superior power.

“Father,” said Mabel, wiping her eyes, and endeavoring to compose features that were pallid, and actually quivering with emotion, “I will pray with you, for you, for myself; for us all. The petition of the feeblest and humblest is never unheeded.”

There was something sublime, as well as much that was supremely touching, in this act of filial piety. The quiet but earnest manner in which this young creature prepared herself to perform the duty; the self-abandonment with which she forgot her sex’s timidity and sex’s shame, in order to sustain her parent at that trying moment; the loftiness of purpose with which she directed all her powers to the immense object before her, with a woman’s devotion and a woman’s superiority to trifles, when her affections make the appeal; and the holy calm into which her grief was compressed, rendered her, for the moment, an object of something very like awe and veneration to her companions.

Mabel had been religiously educated; equally without exaggeration and without self-sufficiency. Her reliance on God was cheerful and full of hope, while it was of the humblest and most dependent nature. She had been accustomed from childhood to address herself to the Deity in prayer; taking example from the Divine mandate of Christ Himself, who commanded His followers to abstain from vain repetitions, and who has left behind Him a petition which is unequalled for sublimity, as if expressly to rebuke the disposition of man to set up his own loose and random thoughts as the most acceptable sacrifice. The sect in which she had been reared has furnished to its followers some of the most beautiful compositions in the language, as a suitable vehicle for its devotion and solicitations. Accustomed to this mode of public and even private prayer, the mind of our heroine had naturally fallen into its train of lofty thought; her task had become improved by its study, and her language elevated and enriched by its phrases. When she kneeled at the bedside of her father, the very reverence of her attitude and manner prepared the spectators for what was to come; and as her affectionate heart prompted her tongue, and memory came in aid of both, the petition and praises that she offered up were of a character which might have worthily led the spirits of angels. Although the words were not slavishly borrowed, the expressions partook of the simple dignity of the liturgy to which she had been accustomed, and was probably as worthy of the Being to whom they were addressed as they could well be made by human powers. They produced their full impression on the hearers; for it is worthy of remark, that, notwithstanding the pernicious effects of a false taste when long submitted to, real sublimity and beauty are so closely allied to nature that they generally find an echo in every heart.

But when our heroine came to touch upon the situation of the dying man, she became the most truly persuasive; for then she was the most truly zealous and natural. The beauty of the language was preserved, but it was sustained by the simple power of love; and her words were warmed by a holy zeal, that approached to the grandeur of true eloquence. We might record some of her expressions, but doubt the propriety of subjecting such sacred themes to a too familiar analysis, and refrain.

The effect of this singular but solemn scene was different on the different individuals present. Dunham himself was soon lost in the subject of the prayer; and he felt some such relief as one who finds himself staggering on the edge of a precipice, under a burthen difficult to be borne, might be supposed to experience when he unexpectedly feels the weight removed, in order to be placed on the shoulders of another better able to sustain it. Cap was surprised, as well as awed; though the effects on his mind were not very deep or very lasting. He wondered a little at his own sensations, and had his doubts whether they were so manly and heroic as they ought to be; but he was far too sensible of the influence of truth, humility, religious submission, and human dependency, to think of interposing with any of his crude objections. Jasper knelt opposite to Mabel, covered his face, and followed her words, with an earnest wish to aid her prayers with his own; though it may be questioned if his thoughts did not dwell quite as much on the soft, gentle accents of the petitioner as on the subject of her petition.

The effect on Pathfinder was striking and visible: visible, because he stood erect, also opposite to Mabel; and the workings of his countenance, as usual, betrayed the workings of the spirit within. He leaned on his rifle, and at moments the sinewy fingers grasped the barrel with a force that seemed to compress the weapon; while, once or twice, as Mabel’s language rose in intimate association with her thoughts, he lifted his eyes to the floor above him, as if he expected to find some visible evidence of the presence of the dread Being to whom the words were addressed. Then again his feelings reverted to the fair creature who was thus pouring out her spirit, in fervent but calm petitions, in behalf of a dying parent; for Mabel’s cheek was no longer pallid, but was flushed with a holy enthusiasm, while her blue eyes were upturned in the light, in a way to resemble a picture by Guido. At these moments all the honest and manly attachment of Pathfinder glowed in his ingenuous features, and his gaze at our heroine was such as the fondest parent might fasten on the child of his love.

Sergeant Dunham laid his hand feebly on the head of Mabel as she ceased praying, and buried her face in his blanket.

“Bless you, my beloved child! bless you!” he rather whispered than uttered aloud; “this is truly consolation: would that I too could pray!”

“Father, you know the Lord’s Prayer; you taught it to me yourself while I was yet an infant.”

The Sergeant’s face gleamed with a smile, for he did remember to have discharged that portion at least of the paternal duty, and the consciousness of it gave him inconceivable gratification at that solemn moment. He was then silent for several minutes, and all present believed that he was communing with God.

“Mabel, my child!” he at length uttered, in a voice which seemed to be reviving — “Mabel, I’m quitting you.” The spirit at its great and final passage appears ever to consider the body as nothing. “I’m quitting you, my child; where is your hand?”

“Here, dearest father — here are both — oh, take both!”

“Pathfinder,” added the Sergeant, feeling on the opposite side of the bed, where Jasper still knelt, and getting one of the hands of the young man by mistake, “take it — I leave you as her father — as you and she may please — bless you — bless you both!”

At that awful instant, no one would rudely apprise the Sergeant of his mistake; and he died a minute or two later, holding Jasper’s and Mabel’s hands covered by both his own. Our heroine was ignorant of the fact until an exclamation of Cap’s announced the death of her father; when, raising her face, she saw the eyes of Jasper riveted on her own, and felt the warm pressure of his hand. But a single feeling was predominant at that instant, and Mabel withdrew to weep, scarcely conscious of what had occurred. The Pathfinder took the arm of Eau-douce, and he left the block.

The two friends walked in silence past the fire, along the glade, and nearly reached the opposite shore of the island in profound silence. Here they stopped, and Pathfinder spoke.

“’Tis all over, Jasper,” said he — "’tis all over. Ah’s me! Poor Sergeant Dunham has finished his march, and that, too, by the hand of a venomous Mingo. Well, we never know what is to happen, and his luck may be yourn or mine to-morrow or next day!”

“And Mabel? What is to become of Mabel, Pathfinder?”

“You heard the Sergeant’s dying words; he has left his child in my care, Jasper; and it is a most solemn trust, it is; yes — it is a most solemn trust.”

“It’s a trust, Pathfinder, of which any man would be glad to relieve you,” returned the youth, with a bitter smile.

“I’ve often thought it has fallen into wrong hands. I’m not consaited, Jasper; I’m not consaited, I do think I’m not; but if Mabel Dunham is willing to overlook all my imperfections and ignorances like, I should be wrong to gainsay it, on account of any sartainty I may have myself about my own want of merit.”

“No one will blame you, Pathfinder, for marrying Mabel Dunham, any more than they will blame you for wearing a precious jewel in your bosom that a friend had freely given you.”

“Do you think they’ll blame Mabel, lad? I’ve had my misgivings about that, too; for all persons may not be so disposed to look at me with the same eyes as you and the Sergeant’s daughter.”

Jasper Eau-douce started as a man flinches at sudden bodily pain; but he otherwise maintained his self-command. “And mankind is envious and ill-natured, more particularly in and about the garrisons. I sometimes wish, Jasper, that Mabel could have taken a fancy to you — I do; and that you had taken a fancy to her; for it often seems to me that one like you, after all, might make her happier than I ever can.”

“We will not talk about this, Pathfinder,” interrupted Jasper hoarsely and impatiently; “you will be Mabel’s husband, and it is not right to speak of any one else in that character. As for me, I shall take Master Cap’s advice, and try and make a man of myself by seeing what is to be done on the salt water.”

“You, Jasper Western! — you quit the lakes, the forests, and the lines; and this, too, for the towns and wasty ways of the settlements, and a little difference in the taste of the water. Haven’t we the salt-licks, if salt is necessary to you? and oughtn’t man to be satisfied with what contents the other creatur’s of God? I counted on you, Jasper, I counted on you, I did; and thought, now that Mabel and I intend to dwell in a cabin of our own, that some day you might be tempted to choose a companion too, and come and settle in our neighborhood. There is a beautiful spot, about fifty miles west of the garrison, that I had chosen in my mind for my own place of abode; and there is an excellent harbor about ten leagues this side of it where you could run in and out with the cutter at any leisure minute; and I’d even fancied you and your wife in possession of the one place, and Mabel and I in possession of t’other. We should be just a healthy hunt apart; and if the Lord ever intends any of His creaturs to be happy on ‘arth, none could be happier than we four.”

“You forget, my friend,” answered Jasper, taking the guide’s hand and forcing a friendly smile, “that I have no fourth person to love and cherish; and I much doubt if I ever shall love any other as I love you and Mabel.”

“Thank’e, boy; I thank you with all my heart; but what you call love for Mabel is only friendship like, and a very different thing from what I feel. Now, instead of sleeping as sound as natur’ at midnight, as I used to could, I dream nightly of Mabel Dunham. The young does sport before me; and when I raise Killdeer, in order to take a little venison, the animals look back, and it seems as if they all had Mabel’s sweet countenance, laughing in my face, and looking as if they said, ‘Shoot me if you dare!’ Then I hear her soft voice calling out among the birds as they sing; and no later than the last nap I took, I bethought me, in fancy, of going over the Niagara, holding Mabel in my arms, rather than part from her. The bitterest moments I’ve ever known were them in which the devil, or some Mingo conjuror, perhaps, has just put into my head to fancy in dreams that Mabel is lost to me by some unaccountable calamity — either by changefulness or by violence.”

“Oh, Pathfinder! If you think this so bitter in a dream, what must it be to one who feels its reality, and knows it all to be true, true, true? So true as to leave no hope; to leave nothing but despair!”

These words burst from Jasper as a fluid pours from the vessel that has been suddenly broken. They were uttered involuntarily, almost unconsciously, but with a truth and feeling that carried with them the instant conviction of their deep sincerity. Pathfinder started, gazed at his friend for full a minute like one bewildered, and then it was that, in despite of all his simplicity, the truth gleamed upon him. All know how corroborating proofs crowd upon the mind as soon as it catches a direct clue to any hitherto unsuspected fact; how rapidly the thoughts flow and premises tend to their just conclusions under such circumstances. Our hero was so confiding by nature, so just, and so much disposed to imagine that all his friends wished him the same happiness as he wished them, that, until this unfortunate moment, a suspicion of Jasper’s attachment for Mabel had never been awakened in his bosom. He was, however, now too experienced in the emotions which characterize the passion; and the burst of feeling in his companion was too violent and too natural to leave any further doubt on the subject. The feeling that first followed this change of opinion was one of deep humility and exquisite pain. He bethought him of Jasper’s youth, his higher claims to personal appearance, and all the general probabilities that such a suitor would be more agreeable to Mabel than he could possibly be himself. Then the noble rectitude of mind, for which the man was so distinguished, asserted its power; it was sustained by his rebuked manner of thinking of himself, and all that habitual deference for the rights and feelings of others which appeared to be inbred in his very nature. Taking the arm of Jasper, he led him to a log, where he compelled the young man to seat himself by a sort of irresistible exercise of his iron muscles, and where he placed himself at his side.

The instant his feelings had found vent, Eau-douce was both alarmed at, and ashamed of, their violence. He would have given all he possessed on earth could the last three minutes be recalled; but he was too frank by disposition and too much accustomed to deal ingenuously by his friend to think a moment of attempting further concealment, or of any evasion of the explanation that he knew was about to be demanded. Even while he trembled in anticipation of what was about to follow, he never contemplated equivocation.

“Jasper,” Pathfinder commenced, in a tone so solemn as to thrill on every nerve in his listener’s body, “this has surprised me! You have kinder feelings towards Mabel than I had thought; and, unless my own mistaken vanity and consait have cruelly deceived me, I pity you, boy, from my soul I do! Yes, I think I know how to pity any one who has set his heart on a creature like Mabel, unless he sees a prospect of her regarding him as he regards her. This matter must be cleared up, Eau-douce, as the Delawares say, until there shall not be a cloud ‘atween us.”

“What clearing up can it want, Pathfinder? I love Mabel Dunham, and Mabel Dunham does not love me; she prefers you for a husband; and the wisest thing I can do is to go off at once to the salt water, and try to forget you both.”

“Forget me, Jasper! That would be a punishment I don’t desarve. But how do you know that Mabel prefars me? How do you know it, lad? To me it seems impossible like!”

“Is she not to marry you, and would Mabel marry a man she does not love?”

“She has been hard urged by the Sergeant, she has; and a dutiful child may have found it difficult to withstand the wishes of a dying parent. Have you ever told Mabel that you prefarred her, Jasper — that you bore her these feelings?”

“Never, Pathfinder. I would not do you that wrong.”

“I believe you, lad, I do believe you; and I think you would now go off to the salt water, and let the scent die with you. But this must not be. Mabel shall hear all, and she shall have her own way, if my heart breaks in the trial, she shall. No words have ever passed ‘atween you, then, Jasper?”

“Nothing of account, nothing direct. Still, I will own all my foolishness, Pathfinder; for I ought to own it to a generous friend like you, and there will be an end of it. You know how young people understand each other, or think they understand each other, without always speaking out in plain speech, and get to know each other’s thoughts, or to think they know them, by means of a hundred little ways.”

“Not I, Jasper, not I,” truly answered the guide; for, sooth to say, his advances had never been met with any of that sweet and precious encouragement which silently marks the course of sympathy united to passion. “Not I, Jasper; I know nothing of all this. Mabel has always treated me fairly, and said what she has had to say in speech as plain as tongue could tell it.”

“You have had the pleasure of hearing her say that she loved you, Pathfinder?”

“Why, no, Jasper, not just that in words. She has told me that we never could, never ought to be married; that she was not good enough for me, though she did say that she honored me and respected me. But then the Sergeant said it was always so with the youthful and timid; that her mother did so and said so afore her; and that I ought to be satisfied if she would consent on any terms to marry me, and therefore I have concluded that all was right, I have.”

In spite of all his friendship for the successful wooer, in spite of all his honest, sincere wished for his happiness, we should be unfaithful chroniclers did we not own that Jasper felt his heart bound with an uncontrollable feeling of delight at this admission. It was not that he saw or felt any hope connected with the circumstance; but it was grateful to the jealous covetousness of unlimited love thus to learn that no other ears had heard the sweet confessions that were denied its own.

“Tell me more of this manner of talking without the use of the tongue,” continued Pathfinder, whose countenance was becoming grave, and who now questioned his companion like one who seemed to anticipate evil in the reply. “I can and have conversed with Chingachgook, and with his son Uncas too, in that mode, afore the latter fell; but I didn’t know that young girls practysed this art, and, least of all, Mabel Dunham.”

“’Tis nothing, Pathfinder. I mean only a look, or a smile, or a glance of the eye, or the trembling of an arm or a hand when the young woman has had occasion to touch me; and because I have been weak enough to tremble even at Mabel’s breath, or her brushing me with her clothes, my vain thoughts have misled me. I never spoke plainly to Mabel myself, and now there is no use for it, since there is clearly no hope.”

“Jasper,” returned Pathfinder simply, but with a dignity that precluded further remarks at the moment, “we will talk of the Sergeant’s funeral and of our own departure from this island. After these things are disposed of, it will be time enough to say more of the Sergeant’s daughter. This matter must be looked into, for the father left me the care of his child.”

Jasper was glad enough to change the subject, and the friends separated, each charged with the duty most peculiar to his own station and habits.

That afternoon all the dead were interred, the grave of Sergeant Dunham being dug in the centre of the glade, beneath the shade of a huge elm. Mabel wept bitterly at the ceremony, and she found relief in thus disburthening her sorrow. The night passed tranquilly, as did the whole of the following day, Jasper declaring that the gale was too severe to venture on the lake. This circumstance detained Captain Sanglier also, who did not quit the island until the morning of the third day after the death of Dunham, when the weather had moderated, and the wind had become fair. Then, indeed, he departed, after taking leave of the Pathfinder, in the manner of one who believed he was in company of a distinguished character for the last time. The two separated like those who respect one another, while each felt that the other was all enigma to himself.