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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 29246

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"A trusty villain, sir; that very oft,

When I am dull with care and melancholy,

Lightens my humors with his many jests."

-Dromio of Syracuse.

* * *

It will be seen that, while I got a degree, and what is called an education, the latter was obtained by studies of a very desultory character. There is no question that learning of all sorts fell off sadly among us during the revolution and the twenty years that succeeded it. While colonies, we possessed many excellent instructors who came from Europe; but the supply ceased, in a great measure, as soon as the troubles commenced; nor was it immediately renewed at the peace. I think it will be admitted that the gentlemen of the country began to be less well educated about the time I was sent to college, than had been the case for the previous half-century, and that the defect has not yet been repaired. What the country may do in the first half of the nineteenth century remains to be seen.[2]

My connection with the army aided materially in weaning me from home, though few youths had as many temptations to return to the paternal roof as myself. There were my beloved mother and my grandmother, in the first place, both of whom doted on me as on an only son. Then aunt Mary almost equally shared in my affections. But I had two sisters, one of whom was older, and the other younger than myself. The eldest, who was called Anneke, after our dear mother, was even six years my senior, and was married early in the war to a gentleman of the name of Kettletas. Mr. Kettletas was a person of very good estate, and made my sister perfectly happy. They had several children, and resided in Dutchess, which was an additional reason for my mother's choosing that county for her temporary residence. I regarded Anneke, or Mrs. Kettletas, much as all youths regard an elder sister, who is affectionate, feminine and respectable; but little Katrinke, or Kate, was my pet. She again, was four years younger than myself; and as I was just two-and-twenty when the army was disbanded, she of course was only eighteen. This dear sister was a little, jumping, laughing, never-quiet, merry thing, when I had taken my leave of her, in 1781, to join the regiment as an ensign, as handsome and sweet as a rose-bud, and quite as full of promise. I remember that old Andries and I used to pass much of our time in camp in conversing about our several pets; he of his niece, and I of my younger sister. Of course, I never intended to marry, but Kate and I were to live together; she as my housekeeper and companion, and I as her elder brother and protector. The one great good of life with us all was peace, with independence; which obtained, no one, in our regiment at least, was so little of a patriot as to doubt of the future. It was laughable to see with how much gusto and simplicity the old Chainbearer entered into all these boyish schemes. His niece was an orphan, it would seem, the only child of an only but a half-sister, and was absolutely dependent on him for the bread she put into her mouth. It is true that this niece fared somewhat better than such a support would seem to promise, having been much cared for by a female friend of her mother's, who, being reduced herself, kept a school, and had thus bestowed on her ward a far better education than she could ever have got under her uncle's supervision, had the last possessed the riches of the Van Rensselaers, or of the Van Cortlandts. As has been substantially stated, old Andries's forte did not lie in education, and they who do not enjoy the blessings of such a character, seldom duly appreciate their advantages. It is with the acquisitions of the mind, as with those of mere deportment and tastes; we are apt to undervalue them all, until made familiarly acquainted with their power to elevate and to enlarge. But the niece of Andries had been particularly fortunate in falling into the hands she had; Mrs. Stratton having the means and the inclination to do all for her, in the way of instruction, that was then done for any young woman in New York, as long as she lived. The death of this kind friend occurring, however, in 1783, Andries was obliged to resume the care of his niece, who was now thrown entirely on himself for support. It is true, the girl wished to do something for herself, but this neither the pride nor the affection of the old chainbearer would listen to.

"What can the gal do?" Andries said to me significantly, one day that he was recounting all these particulars. "She can't carry chain, though I do believe, Morty, the chilt has head enough, and figures enough to survey! It would do your heart good to read the account of her l'arnin' t'at t'e olt woman used to send me; though she wrote so excellent a hant herself, t'at it commonly took me a week to read one of her letters; that is, from 'Respected Friend' to 'Humble Sarvent,' as you know them 'ere t'ings go."

"Excellent hand! Why, I should think, Andries, the better the hand, the easier one could read a letter."

"All a mistake. When a man writes a scrawl himself, it's nat'ral he shoult read scrawls easiest, in his own case. Now, Mrs. Stratton was home-taught, and would be likely to get into ways t'at a plain man might find difficult to get along wit'."

"Do you think, then, of making a surveyor of your niece?" I asked, a little pointedly.

"Why, she is hartly strong enough to travel t'rough the woots, and, the callin' is not suitaple to her sex, t'ough I woult risk her against t'e oldest calculator in t'e province."

"We call New York a State, now, Captain Andries, you will recollect."

"Ay, t'at's true, and I peg the State's pardon. Well, t'ere'll be scrambling enough for t'e land, as soon as the war is fairly over, and chainbearing will be a sarviceable callin' once more. Do you know, Morty, they talk of gifin' all of our line a quantity of land, privates and officers, which will make me a landholter again, the very character in which I started in life. You will inherit acres enough, and may not care so much apout owning a few huntret, more or less, but I own the idee is agreeaple enough to me."

"Do you propose to commence anew as a husbandman?"

"Not I; the pusiness never agreet wit' me, nor I wit' it. Put a man may survey his own lot, I suppose, and no offence to greater scholars. If I get t'e grant t'ey speak of, I shall set to work and run it out on my own account, and t'en we shall see who understants figures, and who don't! If other people won't trust me, it is no reason I shoult not trust myself."

I knew that his having broken down in the more intellectual part of his calling was a sore point with old Andries, and I avoided dwelling on this part of the subject. In order to divert his mind to other objects, indeed, I began to question him a little more closely than I had ever done before, on the subject of his niece, in consequence of which expedient I now learned many things that were new to me.

The name of the chainbearer's niece was Duss Malbone, or so he always pronounced it. In the end I discovered that Duss was a sort of Dutch diminutive for Ursula. Ursula Malbone had none of the Coejemans blood in her, notwithstanding she was Andries's sister's daughter. It seemed that old Mrs. Coejemans was twice married, her second husband being the father of Duss's mother. Bob Malbone, as the chainbearer always called the girl's father, was an eastern man of very good family, but was a reckless spendthrift, who married Duss the senior, as well as I could learn, for her property; all of which, as well as that he had inherited himself, was cleverly gotten rid of within the first ten years of their union, and a year or two after the girl was born. Both father and mother died within a few months of each other, and in a very happy moment as regards worldly means, leaving poor little Duss with no one to care for her but her half-uncle, who was then living in the forest in his regular pursuits, and the Mrs. Stratton I have mentioned. There was a half-brother, Bob Malbone having married twice, but he was in the army, and had some near female relation to support out of his pay. Between the chainbearer and Mrs. Stratton, with an occasional offering from the brother, the means of clothing, nourishing and educating the young woman had been found until she reached her eighteenth year, when the death of her female protector threw her nearly altogether on the care of her uncle. The brother now did his share, Andries admitted; but it was not much that he could do. A captain himself, his scanty pay barely sufficed to meet his own wants.

I could easily see that old Andries loved Duss better than anything else or any other person. When he was a little mellow, and that was usually the extent of his debaucheries, he would prate about her to me until the tears came into his eyes, and once he actually proposed that I should marry her.

"You woult just suit each other," the old man added, in a very quaint, but earnest manner, on that memorable occasion; "and as for property, I know you care little for money, and will have enough for half-a-tozen. I swear to you, Captain Littlepage"-for this dialogue took place only a few months before we were disbanded, and after I had obtained a company-"I swear to you, Captain Littlepage, t'e girl is laughing from morning till night, and would make one of the merriest companions for an olt soldier that ever promiset to 'honor and obey.' Try her once, lad, and see if I teceive you."

"That may do well enough, friend Andries, for an old soldier, whereas you will remember I am but a boy in years--"

"Ay, in years; but olt as a soldier, Morty-olt as White Plains, or '76; as I know from hafin seen you unter fire."

"Well, be it so; but it is the man, and not the soldier, who is to do the marrying, and I am still a very young man."

"You might do worse, take my word for it, Mortaunt, my dear poy; for Duss is fun itself, and I have often spoken of you to her in a way t'at will make the courtship as easy as carrying a chain on t'e Jarmen Flats."

I assured my friend Andries that I did not think of a wife yet, and that my taste ran for a sentimental and melancholy young woman, rather than for a laughing girl. The old chainbearer took this repulse good-humoredly, though he renewed the attack at least a dozen times before the regiment was disbanded, and we finally separated. I say finally separated, though it was in reference to our companionship as soldiers, rather than as to our future lives; for I had determined to give Andries employment myself, should nothing better offer in his behalf.

Nor was I altogether without the means of thus serving a friend, when the inclination existed. My grandfather, Herman Mordaunt, had left me, to come into possession at the age of twenty-one, a considerable estate in what is now Washington County, a portion of our territory that lies northeast from Albany, and at no great distance from the Hampshire Grants. This property, of many thousands of acres in extent, had been partially settled under leases by himself, previously to my birth, and those leases having mostly expired, the tenants were remaining at will, waiting for more quiet times to renew their engagements. As yet Ravensnest, for so the estate was called, had given the family little besides expense and trouble; but the land being good, and the improvements considerable, it was time to look for some return for all our outlays. This estate was now mine in fee, my father having formally relinquished its possession in my favor the day I attained my majority. Adjacent to this estate lay that of Mooseridge, which was the joint property of my father and of his friend Major-or as he was styled in virtue of the brevet rank granted at the peace-Colonel Follock. Mooseridge had been originally patented by my grandfather, the first General Littlepage, and old Colonel Follock, he who had been slain and scalped early in the war; but on the descent of his moiety of the tenantry in common to Dirck Follock, my grandfather conveyed his interest to his own son, who ere long must become its owner, agreeably to the laws of nature. This property had once been surveyed into large lots, but owing to some adverse circumstances, and the approach of the troubles, it had never been settled or surveyed into farms. All that its owners ever got for it, therefore, was the privilege of paying the crown its quit-rents; taxes, or reserved payments, of no great amount, it is true, though far more than the estate had ever yet returned.

While on the subject of lands and tenements, I may as well finish my opening explanations. My paternal grandfather was by no means as rich as my father, though the senior, and of so much higher military rank. His property, or neck, of Satanstoe, nevertheless, was quite valuable; more for the quality of the land and its position than for its extent. In addition to this, he had a few thousand pounds at interest; stocks, banks, and moneyed corporations of all kinds being then nearly unknown among us. His means were sufficient for his wants, however, and it was a joyful day when he found himself enabled to take possession of his own house again, in consequence of Sir Guy Carleton's calling in all of his detachments from Westchester. The Morrises, distinguished whigs as they were, did not get back to Morrisania until after the evacuation, which took place November 25, 1783; nor did my father return to Lilacsbush until after that important event. The very year my grandfather saw Satanstoe, he took the small-pox in camp and died.

To own the truth, the peace found us all very poor, as was the case with almost everybody in the country but a few contractors. It was not the contractors for the American army that were rich; they fared worse than most people; but the few who furnished supplies to the French did get silver in return for their advances. As for the army, it was disbanded without any reward but promises, and payment in a currency that depreciated so rapidly that men were glad to spend recklessly their hard-earned stock, lest it should become perfectly valueless in their hands. I have heard much in later years of the celebrated Newburgh letters, and of the want of patriotism that could lead to their having been written. It may not have been wise, considering the absolute want of the country, to have contemplated the alternative toward which those letters certainly cast an oblique glance, but there was nothing in either their execution or their drift which was not perfectly natural fo

r the circumstances. It was quite right for Washington to act as he did in that crisis, though it is highly probable that even Washington would have felt and acted differently had he nothing but the keen sense of his neglected services, poverty, and forgetfulness before him in the perspective. As for the young officer who actually wrote the letters, it is probable that justice will never be done to any part of his conduct, but that which is connected with the elegance of his diction. It is very well for those who do not suffer to prate about patriotism; but a country is bound to be just, before it can lay a high moral claim to this exclusive devotedness to the interests of the majority. Fine words cost but little, and I acknowledge no great respect for those who manifest their integrity principally in phrases. This is said not in the way of personal apology, for our regiment did not happen to be at Newburgh at the disbandment; if it had, I think my father's influence would have kept us from joining the malcontents; but at the same time, I fancy his and my own patriotism would have been much strengthened by the knowledge that there were such places as Satanstoe, Lilacsbush, Mooseridge, and Ravensnest. To return to the account of our property.

My grandfather Mordaunt, notwithstanding his handsome bequests to me, left the bulk of his estate to my mother. This would have made the rest of the family rich, had it not been for the dilapidations produced by the war. But the houses and stores in town were without tenants who paid, having been mainly occupied by the enemy; and interest on bonds was hard to collect from those who lived within the British lines.

In a word, it is not easy to impress on the mind of one who witnesses the present state of the country, its actual condition in that day. As an incident that occurred to myself, after I had regularly joined the army for duty, will afford a lively picture of the state of things, I will relate it, and this the more willingly, as it will be the means of introducing to the reader an old friend of the family, and one who was intimately associated with divers events of my own life. I have spoken of Jaaf, a slave of my father's, and one of about his own time of life. At the time to which I allude, Jaaf was a middle-aged, gray-headed negro, with most of the faults, and with all the peculiar virtues of the beings of his condition and race. So much reliance had my mother, in particular, on his fidelity, that she insisted on his accompanying her husband to the wars, an order that the black most willingly obeyed; not only because he loved adventure, but because he especially hated an Indian, and my father's earliest service was against that portion of our foes. Although Jaaf acted as a body-servant, he carried a musket, and even drilled with the men. Luckily, the Littlepage livery was blue turned up with red, and of a very modest character; a circumstance that almost put Jaaf in uniform, the fellow obstinately refusing to wear the colors of any power but that of the family to which he regularly belonged. In this manner, Jaaf had got to be a queer mixture of the servant and the soldier, sometimes acting in the one capacity, and sometimes in the other, having at the same time not a little of the husbandman about him; for our slaves did all sorts of work.

My mother had made it a point that Jaaf should accompany me on all occasions when I was sent to any distance from my father. She naturally enough supposed I had the most need of the care of a faithful attendant, and the black had consequently got to be about half transferred to me. He evidently liked this change, both because it was always accompanied by change of scene and the chances for new adventures, and because it gave him an opportunity of relating many of the events of his youth; events that had got to be worn threadbare, as narratives, with his "ole masser," but which were still fresh with his "young."

On the occasion to which there is allusion, Jaaf and I were returning to camp, from an excursion of some length, on which I had been sent by the general of division. This was about the time the continental money made its final fall to nothing, or next to nothing, it having long stood at about a hundred dollars for one. I had provided myself with a little silver, and very precious it was, and some thirty or forty thousand dollars of "continental," to defray my travelling expenses; but my silver was expended, and the paper reduced to two or three thousand dollars, when it would require the whole stock of the latter to pay for Jaaf's and my own dinner; nor were the inn-keepers very willing to give their time and food for it at any price. This vacuum in my purse took place when I had still two long days' ride before me, and in a part of the country where I had no acquaintances whatever. Supper and rest were needed for ourselves, and provender and stabling for our horses. Everything of the sort was cheap enough, to be sure, but absolute want of means rendered the smallest charge impracticable to persons in our situation. As for appealing to the patriotism of those who lived by the wayside, it was too late in the war; patriotism being a very evanescent quality of the human heart, and particularly addicted to sneaking, like compassion, behind some convenient cover, when it is to be maintained at any pecuniary cost. It will do for a capital, in a revolution, or a war for the first six months, perhaps; but gets to be as worthless as continental money itself, by the end of that period. One militia draft has exhausted the patriotism of thousands of as disinterested heroes as ever shouldered muskets.

"Jaap," I asked of my companion, as we drew near to the hamlet where I intended to pass the night, and the comforts of a warm supper on a sharp frosty evening, began to haunt my imagination-"Jaap, how much money may you have about you?"[3]

"I, Masser Mordaunt!-Golly! but dat a berry droll question, sah!"

"I ask, because my own stock is reduced to just one York shilling, which goes by the name of only a ninepence in this part of the world."

"Dat berry little, to tell 'e truit', sah, for two gentleum, and two large, hungry hosses. Berry little, indeed, sah! I wish he war' more."

"Yet, I have not a copper more. I gave one thousand two hundred dollars for the dinner and baiting and oats, at noon."

"Yes, sah-but dat conternental, sah, I supposes-no great t'ing, a'ter all."

"It's a great thing in sound, Jaap, but not much when it comes to the teeth, as you perceive. Nevertheless, we must eat and drink, and our nags must eat, too-I suppose they may drink, without paying."

"Yes, sah-dat true 'nough, yah-yah-yah"-how easily that negro laughed!-"But 'e cider wonnerful good in dis part of 'e country, young masser; just needer sweet nor sour-den he strong as 'e jackass."

"Well, Jaap, how are we to get any of this good cider, of which you speak?"

"You t'ink, sah, dis part of 'e country been talk too much lately 'bout Patty Rism and 'e country, sah?"

"I am afraid Patty has been overdone here, as well as in most other counties."

I may observe here, that Jaap always imagined the beautiful creature he had heard so much extolled and commended for her comeliness and virtue, was a certain young woman of this name, with whom all Congress was unaccountably in love at the same time.

"Well, den, sah, dere no hope but our wits. Let me be masser to-night, and you mind ole Jaap, if he want good supper. Jest ride ahead, Masser Mordaunt, and give he order like General Littlepage son, and leave it all to old Jaap."

As there was not much to choose, I did ride on, and soon ceased to hear the hoofs of the negro's horse at my heels. I reached the inn an hour ere Jaap appeared, and was actually seated at a capital supper before he rode up, as one belonging only to himself. Jaap had taken off the Littlepage emblems, and had altogether a most independent air. His horse was stabled alongside of mine, and I soon found that he himself was at work on the remnants of my supper, as they retreated toward the kitchen.

A traveller of my appearance was accommodated with the best parlor, as a matter of course; and having appeased my appetite, I sat down to read some documents that were connected with the duty I was on. No one could have imagined that I had only a York shilling, which is a Pennsylvania "levy," or a Connecticut "ninepence," in my purse; for my air was that of one who could pay for all he wanted, the certainty that, in the long run, my host could not be a loser, giving me a proper degree of confidence. I had just got through with the documents, and was thinking how I should employ the hour or two that remained until it would be time to go to bed, when I heard Jaap tuning his fiddle in the bar-room. Like most negroes, the fellow had an ear for music, and had been indulged in his taste, until he played as well as half the country fiddlers that were to be met.

The sound of a fiddle in a small hamlet, of a cool October evening, was certain of its result. In half an hour the smiling landlady came to invite me to join the company, with the grateful information I should not want for a partner, the prettiest girl in the place having come in late, and being still unprovided for. On entering the bar-room, I was received with plenty of awkward bows and courtesies, but with much simple and well-meaning hospitality. Jaap's own salutations were very elaborate, and altogether of a character to prevent the suspicion of our ever having met before.

The dancing continued for more than two hours, with spirit, when the time admonished the village maidens of the necessity of retiring. Seeing an indication of the approaching separation, Jaap held out his hat to me, in a respectful manner, when I magnificently dropped my shilling into it, in a way to attract attention, and passed it around among the males of the party. One other gave a shilling, two clubbed and actually produced a quarter, several threw in sixpences, or fourpence-half-pennies, and coppers made up the balance. By way of climax, the landlady, who was good-looking and loved dancing, publicly announced that the fiddler and his horse should go scot-free, until he left the place. By these ingenious means of Jaap's, I found in my purse next morning seven-and-sixpence in silver, in addition to my own shilling, besides coppers enough to keep a negro in cider for a week.

I have often laughed over Jaap's management, though I would not permit him to repeat it. Passing the house of a man of better condition than common, I presented myself to its owner, though an entire stranger to him, and told him my story. Without asking any other confirmation than my word, this gentleman lent me five silver dollars, which answered all my present purposes, and which, I trust, it is scarcely necessary to say, were duly repaid.

It was a happy hour to me when I found myself a titular major, but virtually a freeman, and at liberty to go where I pleased. The war had offered so little of variety or adventure, since the capture of Cornwallis and the pendency of the negotiations for peace, that I began to tire of the army; and now that the country had triumphed, was ready enough to quit it. The family, that is to say, my grandmother, mother, aunt Mary and my youngest sister, took possession of Satanstoe in time to enjoy some of its delicious fruits in the autumn of 1782; and early in the following season, after the treaty was signed, but while the British still remained in town, my mother was enabled to return to Lilacsbush. As consequences of these early movements, my father and myself, when we joined the two families, found things in a better state than might otherwise have been the case. The Neck was planted, and had enjoyed the advantage of a spring's husbandry, while the grounds of Lilacsbush had been renovated and brought in good condition by the matured and practised taste of my admirable mother. And she was admirable, in all the relations of life! A lady in feeling and habits, whatever she touched or controlled imbibed a portion of her delicacy and sentiment. Even the inanimate things around her betrayed this feature of their connection with one of her sex's best qualities. I remember that Colonel Dirk Follock remarked to me one day that we had been examining the offices together, something that was very applicable to this trait in my mother's character, while it was perfectly just.

"No one can see Mrs. Littlepage's kitchen, even," he said, "alt'ough she never seems to enter it, without perceiving"-or "perceifing," as he pronounced the word-"that it is governed by a lady. There are plenty of kitchens that are as clean, and as large, and as well furnished, but it is not common to see a kitchen that gives the same ideas of good taste in the table and about the household."

If this was true as to the more homely parts of the habitation, how much truer was it when the distinction was carried into the superior apartments! There, one saw my mother in person, and surrounded by those appliances which denote refinement, without, however, any of that elaborate luxury of which we read in older countries. In America we had much fine china, and a good deal of massive plate, regular dinner-services excepted, previously to the revolution, and my mother had inherited more than was usual of both; but the country knew little of that degree of domestic indulgence which is fast creeping in among us, by means of its enormously increased commerce.

Although the fortunes of the country had undergone so much waste during seven years of internal warfare, the elasticity of a young and vigorous nation soon began to repair the evil. It is true that trade did not fully revive, nor its connecting interests receive their great impulse, until after the adoption of the Constitution, which brought the States under a set of common custom-house regulations; nevertheless, one year brought about a manifest and most beneficent change. There was now some security in making shipments, and the country immediately felt the consequences. The year 1784 was a sort of breathing-time for the nation, though long ere it was past, the bone and sinew of the republic began to make themselves apparent and felt. Then it was that, as a people, this community first learned the immense advantage it had obtained by controlling its own interests, and by treating them as secondary to those of no other part of the world. This was the great gain of all our labors.

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