The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
"And yet, poor Edwin was no vulgar boy."--Beattie.
The close of Christmas Day, A.D. 1793, was tempestuous, but comparatively warm. When darkness had again hid the objects in the village from the gaze of Elizabeth, she turned from the window, where she had remained while the least vestige of light lingered over the tops of the dark pines, with a curiosity that was rather excited than appeased by the passing glimpses of woodland scenery that she had caught during the day.
With her arm locked in that of Miss Grant, the young mistress of the mansion walked slowly up and down the hall, musing on scenes that were rapidly recurring to her memory, and possibly dwelling, at times, in the sanctuary of her thoughts, on the strange occurrences that had led to the introduction to her father’s family of one whose Manners so singularly contradicted the inferences to be drawn from his situation. The expiring heat of the apartment--for its great size required a day to reduce its temperature--had given to her cheeks a bloom that exceeded their natural color, while the mild and melancholy features of Louisa were brightened with a faint tinge, that, like the hectic of disease, gave a painful interest to her beauty.
The eyes of the gentlemen, who were yet seated around the rich wines of Judge Temple, frequently wandered from the table, that was placed at one end of the hall, to the forms that were silently moving over its length. Much mirth, and that, at times, of a boisterous kind, proceeded from the mouth of Richard; but Major Hartmann was not yet excited to his pitch of merriment, and Marmaduke respected the presence of his clerical guest too much to indulge in even the innocent humor that formed no small ingredient in his character.
Such were, and such continued to be, the pursuits of the party, for half an hour after the shutters were closed, and candles were placed in various parts of the hall, as substitutes for departing daylight. The appearance of Benjamin, staggering under the burden of an armful of wood, was the first interruption to the scene.
"How now, Master Pump!" roared the newly appointed sheriff; "is there not warmth enough in ‘Duke’s best Madeira to keep up the animal heat through this thaw? Remember, old boy, that the Judge is particular with his beech and maple, beginning to dread already a scarcity of the precious articles. Ha! ha! ha! ‘Duke, you are a good, warm-hearted relation, I will own, as in duty bound, but you have some queer notions about you, after all. ‘Come, let us be jolly, and cast away folly."
The notes gradually sank into a hum, while the major-domo threw down his load, and, turning to his interrogator with an air of earnestness, replied:
"Why, look you, Squire Dickon, mayhap there’s a warm latitude round about the table there, thof it’s not the stuff to raise the heat in my body, neither; the raal Jamaiky being the only thing to do that, besides good wood, or some such matter as Newcastle coal. But, if I know anything of the weather, d’ye see, it’s time to be getting all snog, and for putting the ports in and stirring the fires a bit. Mayhap I’ve not followed the seas twenty-seven years, and lived another seven in these here woods, for nothing, gemmen."
"Why, does it bid fair for a change in the weather, Benjamin?" inquired the master of the house.
"There’s a shift of wind, your honor," returned the steward; "and when there’s a shift of wind, you may look for a change in this here climate. I was aboard of one of Rodney’s fleet, dye see, about the time we licked De Grasse, Mounsheer Lor Quaw’s countryman, there; and the wind was here at the south’ard and east'ard; and I was below, mixing a toothful of hot stuff for the captain of marines, who dined, dye see, in the cabin, that there very same day; and I suppose he wanted to put out the captain’s fire with a gun-room ingyne; and so, just as I got it to my own liking, after tasting pretty often, for the soldier was difficult to please, slap came the foresail agin’ the mast, whiz went the ship round on her heel, like a whirligig. And a lucky thing was it that our helm was down; for as she gathered starnway she paid off, which was more than every ship in the fleet did, or could do. But she strained herself in the trough of the sea, and she shipped a deal of water over her quarter. I never swallowed so much clear water at a time in my life as I did then, for I was looking up the after-hatch at the instant."
"I wonder, Benjamin, that you did not die with a dropsy!" said Marmaduke.
"I mought, Judge," said the old tar, with a broad grin; "but there was no need of the medicine chest for a cure; for, as I thought the brew was spoilt for the marine’s taste, and there was no telling when another sea might come and spoil it for mine. I finished the mug on the spot. So then all hands was called to the pumps, and there we began to ply the pumps--"
"Well, but the weather?" interrupted Marmaduke;
"what of the weather without doors?"
"Why here the wind has been all day at the south, and now there’s a lull, as if the last blast was out of the bellows; and there’s a streak along the mountains, to the northard, that, just now, wasn’t wider than the bigness of your hand; and then the clouds drive afore it as you’d brail a mainsail, and the stars are heaving in sight, like so many lights and beacons, put there to warn us to pile on the wood; and, if so be that I’m a judge of weather, it’s getting to be time to build on a fire, or you'll have half of them there porter bottles, and them dimmyjohns of wine, in the locker here, breaking with the frost, afore the morning watch is called."
"Thou art a prudent sentinel," said the Judge. "Act thy pleasure with the forests, for this night at feast."
Benjamin did as he was ordered; nor had two hours elapsed, before the prudence of his precautions became very visible. The south wind had, indeed, blown itself cut, and it was succeeded by the calmness that usually gave warning of a serious change in the weather. Long before the family retired to rest, the cold had become cuttingly severe; and when Monsieur Le Quoi sallied c forth under a bright moon, to seek his own abode, he was compelled to beg a blanket, in which he might envelop c his form, in addition to the numerous garments that his sagacity had provided for the occasion. The divine and s his daughter remained as inmates of the mansion-house during the night, and the excess of last night’s merriment c induced the gentlemen to make an early retreat to their several apartments, Long before midnight, the whole s family were invisible.
Elizabeth and her friend had not yet lost their senses in sleep, and the howlings of the northwest wind were heard around the buildings, and brought with them that exquisite sense of comfort that is ever excited under such circumstances, in an apartment where the fire has not yet ceased to glimmer, and curtains, and shutters, and feathers unite to preserve the desired temperature. Once, just as her eyes had opened, apparently in the last stage of drowsiness, the roaring winds brought with them a long and plaintive howl, that seemed too wild for a dog, and yet resembled the cries of that faithful animal, when night awakens his vigilance, and gives sweetness and solemnity to its charms. The form of Louis Grant instinctively pressed nearer to that of the young heiress, who, finding her companion was yet awake, said in a low tone, as if afraid to break a charm with her voice:
"Those distant cries are plaintive, and even beautiful. Can they be the hounds from the hut of Leather-Stocking?"
"They are wolves, who have ventured from the mountain, on the lake," whispered Louisa, "and who are only kept from the village by the lights. One night, since we have been here, hunger drove them to our very door. Oh, what a dreadful night it was! But the riches of Judge Temple have given him too many safeguards, to leave room for fear in this house."
"The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!" exclaimed Elizabeth, throwing off the covering, and partly rising in the bed. "How rapidly is civilization treading on the foot of Nature!" she continued, as her eye glanced over not only the comforts, hut the luxuries of her apartment, and her ear again listened to the distant. but often repeated howls from the lake. Finding, how-ever, that the timidity of her companion rendered the sounds painful to her, Elizabeth resumed her place, and soon forgot the changes in the country, with those in her own condition, in a deep sleep.
The following morning, the noise of the female servant, who entered the apartment to light the fire, awoke the females. They arose, and finished the slight preparations I of their toilets in a clear, cold atmosphere, that penetrated through all the defences of even Miss Temple’s warm room. When Elizabeth was attired, she approached a window and drew its curtain, and throwing open its shutters she endeavored to look abroad on the village and the lake. But a thick covering of frost on the glass, while it admitted the light, shut out the view. She raised the sash, and then, indeed, a glorious scene met her delighted eye.
The lake had exchanged its covering of unspotted snow for a face of dark ice, that reflected the rays of the rising sun like a polished mirror. The houses clothed in a dress of the same description, but which, owing to its position, shone like bright steel; while the enormous icicles that were pendent from every roof caught the brilliant light, apparently throwing it from one to the other, as each glittered, on the side next the luminary, with a golden lustre that melted away, on its opposite, into the dusky shades of a background. But it was the appearance of the boundless forests that covered the hills as they rose in the distance, one over the other, that most attracted the gaze of Miss Temple. The huge branches of the pines and hemlocks bent with the weight of the ice they supported, while their summits rose above the swelling tops of the oaks, beeches, and maples, like spires of burnished silver issuing from domes of the same material. The limits of the view, in the west, were marked by an undulating outline of bright light, as if, reversing the order of nature, numberless suns might momentarily he expected to heave above the horizon. In the foreground of the picture, along the shores of the lake, and near to the village, each tree seemed studded with diamonds. Even the sides of the mountains where the rays of the sun could not yet fall, were decorated with a glassy coat, that presented every gradation of brilliancy, from the first touch of the luminary to the dark foliage of the hemlock, glistening through its coat of crystal. In short, the whole view was one scene of quivering radiancy, as lake, mountains, village, and woods, each emitted a portion of light, tinged with its peculiar hue, and varied by its position and its magnitude.
"See!" cried Elizabeth; "see, Louisa; hasten to the window, and observe the miraculous change!"
Miss Grant complied; and, after bending for a moment in silence from the opening, she observed, in a low tone, as if afraid to trust the sound of her voice:
"The change is indeed wonderful! I am surprised that he should be able to effect it so soon."
Elizabeth turned in amazement, to hear so skeptical a sentiment from one educated like her companion; but was surprised to find that, instead of looking at the view, the mild blue eyes of Miss Grant were dwelling on the form of a well-dressed young man, who was standing – before the door of the building, in earnest conversation with her father. A second look was necessary before she was able to recognize the person of the young hunter in a plain, but assuredly the ordinary, garb of a gentleman.
"Everything in this magical country seems to border on the marvellous," said Elizabeth; "and, among all the changes, this is certainly not the least wonderful, The actors are as unique as the scenery."
Miss Grant colored and drew in her head.
"I am a simple country girl, Miss Temple, and I am afraid you will find me but a poor companion," she said. "I--I am not sure that I understand all you say. But I really thought that you wished me to notice the alteration in Mr. Edwards, Is it not more wonderful when we recollect his origin? They say he is part Indian."
"He is a genteel savage; but let us go down, and give the sachem his tea; for I suppose he is a descendant of King Philip, if not a grandson of Pocahontas."
The ladies were met in the hall by Judge Temple, who took his daughter aside to apprise her of that alteration in the appearance of their new inmate, with which she was already acquainted.
"He appears reluctant to converse on his former situation," continued Marmaduke "but I gathered from his discourse, as is apparent from his manner, that he has seen better days; and I am really inclining to the opinion of Richard, as to his origin; for it was no unusual thing for the Indian agents to rear their children in a laudable manner, and--"
"Very well, my dear sir," interrupted his daughter, laughing and averting her eyes; "it is all well enough, I dare say; but, as I do not understand a word of the Mohawk language he must be content to speak English; and as for his behavior, I trust to your discernment to control it."
"Ay! but, Bess," cried the judge, detaining her gently by the hand, "nothing must be said to him of his past life. This he has begged particularly of me, as a favor, He is, perhaps, a little soured, just now, with his wounded arm; the injury seems very light, and another time he may be more communicative,"
"Oh! I am not much troubled, sir, with that laudable thirst after knowledge that is called curiosity. I shall believe him to he the child of Corn-stalk, or Corn-planter, or some other renowned chieftain; possibly of the Big Snake himself; and shall treat him as such until he sees fit to shave his good-looking head, borrow some half-dozen pair of my best earrings, shoulder his rifle again, and disappear as suddenly as he made his entrance. So come, my dear sir, and let us not forget the rites of hospitality, for the short time he is to remain with us."
Judge Temple smiled at the playfulness of his child, and taking her arm they entered the breakfast parlor, where the young hunter was seated with an air that showed his determination to domesticate himself in the family with as little parade as possible.
Such were the incidents that led to this extraordinary increase in the family of Judge Temple, where, having once established the youth, the subject of our tale requires us to leave him for a time, to pursue with diligence and intelligence the employments that were assigned him by Marmaduke.
Major Hartmann made his customary visit, and took his leave of the party for the next three months. Mr. Grant was compelled to be absent most of his time, in remote parts of the country, and his daughter became almost a constant visitor at the mansion-house. Richard entered, with his constitutional eagerness, on the duties of his new office; and, as Marmaduke was much employed with the constant applications of adventures for farms, the winter passed swiftly away. The lake was the principal scene f or the amusements of the young people; where the ladies, in their one-horse cutter, driven by Richard, and attended, when the snow would admit of it, by young Ed wards on his skates, spent many hours taking the benefit of exercise in the clear air of the hills. The reserve of the youth gradually gave way to time and his situation, though it was still evident, to a close observer, that he had frequent moments of bitter and intense feeling.
Elizabeth saw many large openings appear in the sides of the mountains during the three succeeding months, where different settlers had, in the language of the country "made their pitch," while the numberless sleighs that passed through the village, loaded with wheat and barrels of potashes, afforded a clear demonstration that all these labors were not undertaken in vain. In short, the whole country was exhibiting the bustle of a thriving settlement, where the highways were thronged with sleighs, bearing piles of rough household furniture, studded, here and there, with the smiling faces of women and children, happy in the excitement of novelty; or with loads of produce, hastening to the common market at Albany, that served as so many snares to induce the emigrants to enter into those wild mountains in search of competence and happiness.
The village was alive with business, the artisans in creasing in wealth with the prosperity of the country, and each day witnessing some nearer approach to the manners and usages of an old-settled town. The man who carried the mail or "the post," as he was called, talked much of running a stage, and, once or twice during the winter, he was seen taking a single passenger, in his cutter, through the snow-banks, toward the Mohawk, along which a regular vehicle glided, semi-weekly, with the velocity of lightning, and under the direction of a knowing whip from the "down countries," Toward spring, divers families, who had been into the "old States" to see their relatives, returned in time to save the snow, frequently bringing with them whole neighborhoods, who were tempted by their representations to leave the farms of Connecticut and Massachusetts, to make a trial of fortune in the woods.
During all this time, Oliver Edwards, whose sudden elevation excited no surprise in that changeful country, was earnestly engaged in the service of Marmaduke, during the days; but his nights were often spent in the hut of Leather-Stocking. The intercourse between the three hunters was maintained with a certain air of mystery, it is true, but with much zeal and apparent interest to all the parties. Even Mohegan seldom came to the mansion-house, and Natty never; but Edwards sought every leisure moment to visit his former abode, from which he would often return in the gloomy hours of night. through the snow, or, if detained beyond the time at which the family retired to rest, with the morning sun. These visits certainly excited much speculation in those to whom they were known, but no comments were made, excepting occasionally in whispers from Richard, who would say:
"It is not at all remarkable; a half-breed can never be weaned from the savage ways--and, for one of his lineage, the boy is much nearer civilization than could, in reason, be expected."