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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 29286

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"The fault will be in the music, cousin, if you be not woo'd in good time; if the prince be too important, tell him there is measure for every thing, and so dance out the answer."-Beatrice.

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"Dus!" I repeated to myself-"This, then, is Dus, and no Indian girl; the Chainbearer's 'Dus;' Priscilla Bayard's 'Dus;' and Sureflint's 'wren'!"

Andries must have overheard me, in part; for he stopped just within the court on which the gate opened, and said-

"Yes, t'at is Dus, my niece. The girl is like a mocking-pird, and catches the songs of all languages and people. She is goot at Dutch, and quite melts my heart, Mortaunt, when she opens her throat to sing one of our melancholy Dutch songs; and she gives the English too, as if she knowet no ot'er tongue."

"But that song was Indian-the words, at least, were Mohawk or Oneida."

"Onondago-t'ere is little or no tifference. Yes, you're right enough; the worts are Indian, and they tell me t'e music is Scotch. Come from where it will, it goes straight to the heart, poy."

"How came Dus-how came Miss Ursula-that is, your niece, to understand an Indian dialect?"

"Didn't I tell you she is a perfect mocking-bird, and that she imitates all she hears? Yes, Dus would make as goot a surveyor as her brot'er, after a week's trial. You've heart me say how much I livet among the tripes before t'e war, and Dus was t'en wit' me. In that manner she has caught the language; and what she has once l'arnet she nefer forget. Dus is half wilt from living so much in the woots, and you must make allowances for her; put she is a capital gal, and t'e very prite of my heart!"

"Tell me one thing before we enter the house-does any one else sing Indian about here?-has Sureflint any women with him?"

"Not he!-t'e creatur' hast not'ing to do wit' squaws. As for any one else's singing Intian, I can only tell you I never heart of such a person."

"But, you told me you were down the road to meet me this morning-were you alone!"

"Not at all-we all went; Sureflint, Frank, Dus, and I. I t'ought it due to a lantlort, Mortaunt, to gif him a hearty welcome; t'ough Dus did mutiny a little, and sait t'at, lantlort or no lantlort, it was not proper for a young gal to go forth to meet a young man. I might have t'ought so too, if it hadn't peen yourself, my poy; but, with you, I couldn't play stranger, as one woult wit' a straggling Yankee. I wishet to welcome you wit' the whole family; put I'll not conceal Dus's unwillingness to be of t'e party."

"But Dus was of your party! It is very odd we did not meet!"

"Now, you speak of it, I do pelief it wast all owin' to a scheme of t'at cunnin' gal! You must know, Mortaunt, a'ter we had got a pit down t'e roat, she persuatet us to enter a t'icket of pines, in order to eat a mout'ful; and I do pelief the cunnin' hussy just did it t'at you might slip past, and she safe her female dignity!"

"And from those pines Sureflint came, just after Dus, as you call her, but Miss Ursula Malbone, as I ought to style her, had been singing this very song?"

"Wast you near enough to know all t'is, poy, and we miss you! The gal dit sing t'at ferry song; yes, I rememper it; and a sweet, goot song it is. Call her Miss Ursula Malbone? Why shouldn't you call her Dus, as well as Frank and I?"

"For the simple reason that you are uncle, and Frank her brother, while I am a total stranger."

"Poh-poh-Morty; t'is is peing partic'lar. I am only a half-uncle, in the first place; and Frank is only a half-brot'er; and I dares to say you wilt pe her whole frient. T'en, you are not a stranger to any of t'e family, I can tell you, lat; for I have talket enough apout you to make bot' t'e poy and t'e gal lofe you almost as much as I do myself."

Poor, simple-hearted, upright old Andries! What an unpleasant feeling did he give me, by letting me into the secret that I was about to meet persons who had been listening to his partial accounts for the last twelve months. It is so difficult to equal expectations thus awakened; and I will own that I had begun to be a little sensitive on the subject of this Dus. The song had been ringing in my ears from the moment I first heard it; and now that it became associated with Priscilla Bayard's Ursula Malbone, the latter had really become a very formidable person to my imagination. There was no retreating, however, had I wished it; and a sign induced the Chainbearer to proceed. Face the young woman I must, and the sooner it was done the better.

The 'Nest-house, as my homely residence was termed, had been a sort of fortress, or "garrison," in its day, having been built around three sides of a parallelogram, with all its windows and doors opening on the court. On the fourth side were the remains of pickets, or palisades, but they were mostly rotted away, being useless as a fence, from the circumstance that the buildings stood on the verge of a low cliff that, of itself, formed a complete barrier against the invasions of cattle, and no insignificant defence against those of man.

The interior of the 'Nest-house was far more inviting than its exterior. The windows gave the court an appearance of life and gayety, at once converting that which was otherwise a pile of logs, thrown together in the form of a building, into a habitable and inhabited dwelling. One side of this court, however, was much neater, and had much more the air of comfort than the other; and toward the first Andries led the way. I was aware that my grandfather Mordaunt had caused a few rooms in this building to be furnished for his own particular purposes, and that no orders had ever been given to remove or to dispose of the articles thus provided. I was not surprised, therefore, on entering the house, to find myself in apartments which, while they could not be called in any manner gayly or richly furnished, were nevertheless quite respectably supplied with most of the articles that are thought necessary to a certain manner of living.

"We shall fint Dus in here, I dare say," observed the Chainbearer, throwing open a door, and signing for me to precede him. "Go in, and shake t'e gal's hand, Mortaunt; she knows you well enough, name and natur', as a poty may say."

I did go in, and found myself within a few feet of the fair, golden-haired girl of the raising; she who had saved the frame from falling on us all, by a decision of mind and readiness of exertion that partook equally of courage and dexterity. She was in the same dress as when first seen by me, though the difference in attitude and employment certainly gave her air and expression a very different character. Ursula Malbone was now quietly occupied in hemming one of those coarse checked handkerchiefs that the poverty of her uncle compelled him, or at least induced him to use, and of which I had seen one in his hands only a minute before. On my entrance she rose, gravely but not discourteously answering my bow with a profound courtesy. Neither spoke, though the salutes were exchanged as between persons who felt no necessity for an introduction in order to know each other.

"Well, now," put in Andries, in his strongest Dutch accent, "t'is wilt never do, ast petween two such olt frients. Come hit'er, Dus, gal, and gif your hant to Mortaunt Littlepage, who ist a sort of son of my own."

Dus obeyed, and I had the pleasure of holding her soft velvet-like hand in mine for one moment. I felt a gratification I cannot describe in finding the hand was so soft, since the fact gave me the assurance that necessity had not yet reduced her to any of the toil that is unsuited to a gentlewoman. I knew that Andries had slaves, his only possession, indeed, besides his compass, chains and sword, unless a few arms and some rude articles of the household were excepted; and these slaves, old and worn out as they must be by this time, were probably the means of saving the niece from the performance of offices that were menial.

Although I got the hand of Ursula Malbone, I could not catch her eye. She did not avert her face, neither did she affect coldness; but she was not at her ease. I could readily perceive that she would have been better pleased had her uncle permitted the salutations to be limited to the bows and courtesies. As I had never seen this girl before, and could not have done anything to offend her, I ascribed the whole to mauvaise honte, and the embarrassment that was natural enough to one who found herself placed in a situation so different from that in which she had so lately been. I bowed on the hand, possibly gave it a gentle pressure in order to reassure its owner, and we separated.

"Well, now, Dus, haf you a cup of tea for the lantlort-to welcome him to his own house wit'?" demanded Andries, perfectly satisfied with the seemingly amicable relations he had established between us. "T'e major hast hat a long march, for peaceable times, and woult be glat to git a little refreshment."

"You call me major, Chainbearer, while you refuse to accept the same title for yourself."

"Ay, t'ere ist reason enough for t'at. You may lif to be a general; wilt probably be one before you're t'irty; but I am an olt man, now, and shall never wear any ot'er uniform than this I have on again. I pegan t'e worlt in this corps, Morty, and shall end it in the rank in which I began."

"I thought you had been a surveyor originally, and that you fell back on the chain because you had no taste for figures. I think I have heard as much from yourself."

"Yes, t'at is t'e fact. Figures and I didn't agree; nor do I like 'em any petter at seventy t'an I liket 'em at seventeen. Frank Malbone, now, Dus's brother, t'ere, ist a lat that takes to 'em nat'rally, and he works t'rough a sum ast your fat'er would carry a battalion t'rough a ravine. Carrying chain I like; it gives sufficient occupation to t'e mind; put honesty is the great quality for the chainbearer. They say figures can't lie, Mortaunt; but 'tis not true wit' chains; sometimes they do lie, desperately."

"Where is Mr. Francis Malbone? I should be pleased to make his acquaintance."

"Frank remainet pehint to help 'em up with their timber. He is a stout chap, like yourself, and can lent a hant; while, poor fellow! he has no lantlort tignity to maintain."

I heard a gentle sigh from Dus, and involuntarily turned my head; for she was occupied directly behind my chair. As if ashamed of the weakness, the spirited girl colored, and for the first time in my life I heard her voice, the two instances of the Indian songs excepted. I say heard her voice; for it was an event to record. A pleasant voice, in either sex, is a most pleasant gift from nature. But the sweet tones of Ursula Malbone were all that the most fastidious ear could have desired; being full, rich, melodious, yet on the precise key that best satisfies the taste, bringing with it assurances of a feminine disposition and regulated habits. I detest a shrill, high-keyed female voice, more than that of a bawling man, while one feels a contempt for those who mumble their words in order to appear to possess a refinement that the very act itself contradicts. Plain, direct, but regulated utterance, is indispensable to a man or woman of the world; anything else rendering him or her mean or affected.

"I was in hopes," said Dus, "that evil-disposed frame was up and secured, and that I should see Frank in a minute or two. I was surprised to see you working so stoutly for the Presbyterians, uncle Chainbearer!"

"I might return t'e compliment, and say I wast surpriset to see you doing the same t'ing, Miss Dus! Pesides, the tenomination is Congregational and not Prespyterian; and one is apout as much to your taste as t'e ot'er."

"The little I did was for you, and Frank, and-Mr. Littlepage, with all the rest who stood under the frame."

"I am sure, Miss Ursula," I now put in, "we all ought, and I trust we all do feel truly grateful for your timely aid. Had that timber come down, many of us must have been killed, and more maimed."

"It was not a very feminine exploit," answered the girl, smiling, as I thought, a little bitterly. "But one gets accustomed to being useful in the woods."

"Do you dislike living in the forest, then?" I ventured to ask.

"Certainly not. I like living anywhere that keeps me near uncle Chainbearer, and Frank. They are all to me, now my excellent protectress and adviser is no more; and their home is my home, their pleasure my pleasure, their happiness mine."

This might have been said in a way to render it suspicious and sentimental; but it was not. On the contrary, it was impulsive, and came from the heart. I saw by the gratified look of Andries that he understood his niece, and was fully aware how much he might rely on the truthful character of the speaker. As for the girl herself, the moment she had given utterance to what she felt, she shrunk back, like one abashed at having laid bare feelings that ought to have been kept in the privacy of her own bosom. Unwilling to distress her, I turned the conversation in a way to leave her to herself.

"Mr. Newcome seems a skilful manager of the multitude," I remarked. "He contrived very dexterously to give to the twenty-six Congregationalists he had with him, the air of being a majority of the whole assembly; while in truth, they were barely a third of those present."

"Let Jason Newcome alone for t'at?" exclaimed Andries. "He understants mankint, he says, and sartainly he hast a way of marching and countermarching just where he pleases wit' t'ese people, makin' 'em t'ink t'e whole time t'ey are doing just what t'ey want to do. It ist an art, major-it ist an art!"

"I should think it must be, and one worth possessing, if, indeed, it can be exercised with credit."

"Ay, t'ere's the rub! Exerciset it is; but as for t'e credit, t'at I will not answer for. It sometimes makes me angry, and sometimes it makes me laugh, when I look on, and see t'e manner in which Jason makes t'e people rule t'emselves, and how he wheels 'em apout, and faces 'em, and t'rows them into line, and out of line, at t'eir own wort of commant! His Excellency coult hartly do more wit' us, a'fer t'e Baron[8] had given us his drill."

"There must be some talent necessary, in order to possess so much influence over one's fellow-creatures."

"It is a talent you woult be ashamed to exercise, Mortaunt Littlepage, t'ough you hat it in cart loats. No man can use such talent wit'out peginning wit' lying and deceifing; and you must be greatly changet, major, if you are the he't of your class, in such a school."

"I

am sorry to see, Chainbearer, that you have no better opinion of my agent; I must look into the matter a little, when this is the case."

"You wilt fint him law-honest enough; for he swears py t'e law, and lifs py t'e law. No fear for your tollars, poy; t'ey pe all safe, unless, inteet, t'ey haf all vanishet in t'e law."

As Andries was getting more and more Dutch, I knew he was growing more and more warm, and I thought it might be well to defer the necessary inquiries to a cooler moment. This peculiarity I have often observed in most of those who speak English imperfectly, or with the accent of some other tongue. They fall back, as respects language, to that nearest to nature, at those moments when natural feeling is asserting its power over them the least equivocally.

I now began to question the Chainbearer concerning the condition in which he found the 'Nest-house and farm, over which I had given him full authority, when he came to the place, by a special letter to the agent. The people in possession were of very humble pretensions, and had been content to occupy the kitchen and servants' rooms ever since my grandfather's death, as indeed, they had done long before that event. It was owing to this moderation, as well as to their perfect honesty, that I found nothing embezzled, and most of the articles in good condition. As for the farm, it had flourished, on the "let alone" principle. The orchards had grown, as a matter of course; and if the fields had not been improved by judicious culture, neither had they been exhausted by covetous croppings. In these particulars, there was nothing of which to complain. Things might have been better, Andries thought; but he also thought it was exceedingly fortunate they were no worse. While we were conversing on this theme, Dus moved about the room silently, but with collected activity, having arranged the tea-table with her own hands. When invited to take our seats at it-everybody drew near to a tea-table in that day, unless when there was too large a party to be accommodated-I was surprised to find everything so perfectly neat, and some things rich. The plates, knives, etc., were of good quality, but the tray was actually garnished with a set of old-fashioned silver, such as was made when tea was first used, of small size, but very highly chased. The handle of the spoons represented the stem of the tea-plant, and there was a crest on each of them; while a full coat of arms was engraved on the different vessels of the service, which were four in all. I looked at the crest, in a vague, but surprised expectation of finding my own. It was entirely new to me. Taking the cream-jug in my hand, I could recall no arms resembling those that were engraved on it.

"I was surprised to find this plate here," I observed; "for, though my grandfather possessed a great deal of it, for one of his means, I did not think he had enough to be as prodigal of it as leaving it here would infer. This is family plate, too, but those arms are neither Mordaunt nor Littlepage. May I ask to whom they do belong?"

"The Malpones," answered the Chainbearer. "T'e t'ings are t'e property of Dus."

"And you may add, uncle Chainbearer, that they are all her property"-added the girl, quickly.

"I feel much honored in being permitted to use them, Miss Ursula," I remarked; "for a very pretty set they make."

"Necessity, and not vanity, has brought them out to-day. I broke the only teapot of yours there was in the house this morning, and was in hopes Frank would have brought up one from the store to supply its place, before it would be wanted; but he does not come. As for spoons, I can find none belonging to the house, and we use these constantly. As the teapot was indispensable, I thought I might as well display all my wealth at once. But this is the first time the things have been used in many, many years!"

There was a plaintive melody in Dus's voice, spite of her desire and effort to speak with unconcern, that I found exceedingly touching. While few of us enter into the exultation of successful vulgarity, as it rejoices in its too often random prosperity, it is in nature to sympathize with a downward progress, and with the sentiments it leaves, when it is connected with the fates of the innocent, the virtuous, and the educated. That set of silver was all that remained to Ursula Malbone of a physical character, and which marked the former condition of her family; and doubtless she cherished it with no low feeling of morbid pride, but as a melancholy monument of a condition to which all her opinions, tastes, and early habits constantly reminded her she properly belonged. In this last point of view, the sentiment was as respectable, and as much entitled to reverence, as in the other case it would have been unworthy, and meriting contempt.

There is a great deal of low misconception, as well as a good deal of cant, beginning to prevail among us, on the subject of the qualities that mark a gentleman, or a lady. The day has gone by, and I trust forever, when the mere accidents of birth are to govern such a claim; though the accidents of birth are very apt to supply the qualities that may really form the caste. For my own part, I believe in the exaggerations of neither of the two extremes that so stubbornly maintain their theories on this subject; or, that a gentleman may not be formed exclusively by birth on the one hand, and that the severe morality of the Bible on the other is by no means indispensable to the character. A man may be a very perfect gentleman, though by no means a perfect man, or a Christian; and he may be a very good Christian, and very little of a gentleman. It is true, there is a connection in manners, as a result, between the Christian and the gentleman; but it is in the result, and not in the motive. That Christianity has little necessary connection with the character of a gentleman may be seen in the fact that the dogmas of the first teach us to turn another cheek to him who smites; while the promptings of the gentleman are-not to wipe out the indignity in the blood of the offender, but-to show that rather than submit to it he is ready to risk his own life.[9]

But, I repeat, there is no necessary connection between the Christian and the gentleman, though the last who is the first attains the highest condition of humanity. Christians, under the influence of their educations and habits, often do things that the code of the gentleman rejects; while it is certain that gentlemen constantly commit unequivocal sins. The morality of the gentleman repudiates meannesses and low vices, rather than it rigidly respects the laws of God; while the morality of the Christian is unavoidably raised or depressed by the influence of the received opinions of his social caste. I am not maintaining that "the ten commandments were not given for the obedience of people of quality," for their obligations are universal; but, simply, that the qualities of a gentleman are the best qualities of man unaided by God, while the graces of the Christian come directly from his mercy.

Nevertheless, there is that in the true character of a gentleman that is very much to be respected. In addition to the great indispensables of tastes, manners, and opinions, based on intelligence and cultivation, and all those liberal qualities that mark his caste, he cannot and does not stoop to meannesses of any sort. He is truthful out of self-respect, and not in obedience to the will of God; free with his money, because liberality is an essential feature of his habits, and not in imitation of the self-sacrifice of Christ; superior to scandal and the vices of the busybody, inasmuch as they are low and impair his pride of character, rather than because he has been commanded not to bear false witness against his neighbor. It is a great mistake to confound these two characters, one of which is a mere human embellishment of the ways of a wicked world, while the other draws near to the great end of human existence. The last is a character I revere; while I am willing to confess that I never meet with the first without feeling how vacant and repulsive society would become without it; unless, indeed, the vacuum could be filled by the great substance, of which, after all, the gentleman is but the shadow.

Ursula Malbone lost nothing in my respect by betraying the emotion she did, while thus speaking of this relic of old family plate. I was glad to find, however, that she could retain it; for, though dressed in no degree in a style unbecoming her homely position as her uncle's housekeeper, there were a neatness and taste in her attire that are not often seen in remote parts of the country. On this subject, the reader will indulge my weaknesses a little, if I pause to say a word. Ursula had neither preserved in her dress the style of one of her sex and condition in the world, nor yet entirely adopted that common to girls of the class to which she now seemingly belonged. It struck me that some of those former garments that were the simplest in fashion, and the most appropriate in material, had been especially arranged for present use; and sweetly becoming were they, to one of her style of countenance and perfection of form. In that day, as every one knows, the different classes of society-and, kingdom or republic, classes do and ever will exist in this country, as an incident of civilization; a truth every one can see as respects those below, though his vision may be less perfect as respects those above him-but every one knows that great distinctions in dress existed, as between classes, all over the Christian world, at the close of the American war, that are fast disappearing, or have altogether disappeared. Now Ursula had preserved just enough of the peculiar attire of her own class, to let one understand that she, in truth, belonged to it without rendering the distinction obtrusive. Indeed, the very character of that which she did preserve, sufficiently told the story of her origin, since it was a subdued, rather than an exaggerated imitation of that to which she had been accustomed, as would have been the case with a mere copyist. I can only add, that the effect was to render her sufficiently charming.

"Taste t'ese cakes," said old Andries, who, without the slightest design, did love to exhibit the various merits of his niece-"Dus mate t'em, and I'll engage Matam Washington herself couldn't make pleasanter!"

"If Mrs. Washington was ever thus employed," I answered, "she might turn pale with envy here. Better cakes of the sort I never ate."

"'Of the sort' is well added, Mr. Littlepage," the girl quietly observed; "my protectress and friend made me rather skilful in this way, but the ingredients are not to be had here as they were in her family."

"Which, being a boarding-school for young ladies, was doubtless better supplied than common with the materials and knowledge necessary for good cakes."

Dus laughed, and it startled me, so full of a wild but subdued melody did that laugh seem to be.

"Young ladies have many foibles imputed to them, of which they are altogether innocent," was her answer. "Cakes were almost forbidden fruit in the school, and we were taught to make them in pity to the palates of the men."

"Your future huspants, gal," cried the Chainbearer, rising to quit the room.

"Our fathers, brothers, and uncles," returned his niece, laying an emphasis on the last word.

"I believe, Miss Ursula," I resumed, as soon as Andries had left us alone, "that I have been let behind the curtain as respects your late school, having an acquaintance of a somewhat particular nature with one of your old school-fellows."

My companion did not answer, but she fastened those fascinating blue eyes of hers on me, in a way that asked a hundred questions in a moment. I could not but see that they were suffused with tears; allusions to her school often producing that effect.

"I mean Miss Priscilla Bayard, who would seem to be, or to have been, a very good friend of yours," I added, observing that my companion was not disposed to say anything.

"Pris Bayard!" Ursula now suffered to escape her, in her surprise-"and she an acquaintance of a somewhat particular nature!"

"My language has been incautious; not to say that of a coxcomb. Certainly, I am not authorized to say more than that our families are very intimate, and that there are some particular reasons for that intimacy. I beg you to read only as I have corrected the error."

"I do not see that the correction changes things much; and you will let me say I am grieved, sadly grieved, to learn so much."

This was odd! That Dus really meant what she said was plain enough by a face that had actually lost nearly all of its color, and which expressed an emotion that was most extraordinary. Shall I own what a miserably conceited coxcomb I was for a single moment? The truth must be said, and I will confess it. The thought that crossed my mind was this: Ursula Malbone was pained at the idea that the only man whom she had seen for a year, and who could, by possibility, make any impression on one of her education and tastes, was betrothed to another! Under ordinary circumstances, this precocious preference might have caused me to revolt at its exhibition; but there was far too much of nature in all of Dus's emotions, acts, and language, to produce any other impression on me than that of intense interest. I have always dated the powerful hold that this girl so soon obtained on my heart, to the tumult of feeling awakened in me at that singular moment. Love at first sight may be ridiculous, but it is sometimes true. That a passion may be aroused by a glance, or a smile, or any other of those secret means of conveying sympathy with which nature has supplied us, I fully believe; though its duration must depend on qualities of a higher and more permanent influence. It is the imagination that is first excited; the heart coming in for its share by later and less perceptible degrees.

My delusion, however, did not last long. Whether Ursula Malbone was conscious of the misconstruction to which she was liable, I cannot say; but I rather think not, as she was much too innocent to dread evil; or whether she saw some other necessity for explaining herself, remains a secret with me to this hour; but explain she did. How judiciously this was done, and with how much of that female tact that taught her to conceal the secrets of her friend, will appear to those who are sufficiently interested in the subject to pursue it.

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