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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 29437

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth-

Joy, gentle friends! joy, and fresh days of love

Accompany your hearts!"

-Midsummer Night's Dream.

* * *

"I ought not to leave you in any doubts as to my meaning, Mr. Littlepage," resumed Ursula, after a short pause. "Priscilla Bayard is very dear to me, and is well worthy of all your love and admiration--"

"Admiration, if you please, and as much as you please, Miss Ursula; but there is no such feeling as love, as yet certainly, between Miss Bayard and myself."

The countenance of Dus brightened sensibly. Truth herself, she gave immediate credit to what I said; and I could not but see that she was greatly relieved from some unaccountable apprehension. Still, she smiled a little archly, and perhaps a little sadly, as she continued-

"'As yet, certainly,' is very equivocal on your side, when a young woman like Priscilla Bayard is concerned. It may at any moment be converted into 'now, certainly,' with that certainty the other way."

"I will not deny it. Miss Bayard is a charming creature-yet, I do not know how it is-there seems to be a fate in these things. The peculiar relation to which I alluded, and alluded so awkwardly, is nothing more than the engagement of my youngest sister to her brother. There is no secret in that engagement, so I shall not affect to conceal it."

"And it is just such an engagement as might lead to one between yourself and Priscilla!" exclaimed Dus, certainly not without alarm.

"It might, or it might not, as the parties happen to view such things. With certain temperaments it might prove an inducement; while with others it would not."

"My interest in the subject," continued Dus, "proceeds altogether from the knowledge I have that another has sought Miss Bayard; and I will own, with my hearty good wishes for his success. You struck me as a most formidable rival; nor do you seem any the less so, now I know that your families are to be connected."

"Have no fears on my account, for I am as heart-whole as the day I first saw the lady."

A flash of intelligence-a most meaning flash it was-gleamed on the handsome face of my companion; and it was followed by a mournful, though I still thought not an entirely dissatisfied smile.

"These are matters about which one had better not say much," Dus added, after a pause. "My sex has its 'peculiar rights,' and no woman should disregard them. You have been fortunate in finding all your tenants collected together, Mr. Littlepage, in a way to let you see them at a single glance."

"I was fortunate in one sense, and a most delightful introduction I had to the settlement-such an introduction as I would travel another hundred miles to have repeated."

"Are you, then, so fond of raisings? or do you really love excitement to such a degree as to wish to get under a trap, like one of the poor rabbits my uncle sometimes takes?"

"I am not thinking of the raising, or of the frame; although your courage and presence of mind might well indelibly impress both on my mind"-Dus looked down and the color mounted to her temple-"but, I was thinking of a certain song, an Indian song, sung to Scotch music, that I heard a few miles from the clearings, and which was my real introduction to the pleasant things one may both hear and see in this retired part of the world."

"Which is not so retired after all that flattery cannot penetrate it, I find. It is pleasant to hear one's songs extolled, even though they may be Indian; but, it is not half so pleasant as to hear tidings of Priscilla Bayard. If you wish truly to charm my ear, talk of her!"

"The attachment seems mutual, for I can assure you Miss Bayard manifested just the same interest in you."

"In me! Priscilla then remembers a poor creature like me, in her banishment from the world! Perhaps she remembers me so much the more, because I am banished. I hope she does not, cannot think I regret my condition-that I could hardly forgive her."

"I rather think she does not; I know she gives you credit for more than common excellencies."

"It is strange that Priscilla Bayard should speak of me to you! I have been a little unguarded myself, Mr. Littlepage, and have said so much, that I begin to feel the necessity of saying something more. There is some excuse for my not feeling in your presence as in that of a stranger, since uncle Chainbearer has your name in his mouth at least one hundred times each day. Twelve different times in one hour did he speak of you yesterday."

"Excellent old Andries! It is the pride of my life that so honest a man loves me; and now for the explanation I am entitled to receive as his friend by your own acknowledgment."

Dus smiled, a little saucily I thought-but saucily or not, that smile made her look extremely lovely. She reflected a moment, like one who thinks intensely, even bending her head under the painful mental effort; then she drew her form to its usual attitude, and spoke.

"It is always best to be frank," she said, "and it can do no harm, while it may do good to be explicit with you. You will not forget, Mr. Littlepage, that I believe myself to be conversing with my uncle's very best friend?"

"I am too proud of the distinction to forget it, under any circumstances; and least of all in your presence."

"Well, then, I will be frank. Priscilla Bayard was for eight years my associate and closest friend. Our affection for each other commenced when we were mere children, and increased with time and knowledge. About a year before the close of the war, my brother Frank, who is now here as my uncle's surveyor, found opportunities to quit his regiment, and to come to visit me quite frequently-indeed, his company was sent to Albany, where he could see me as often as he desired. To see me, was to see Priscilla, for we were inseparable; and to see Priscilla was, for poor Frank at least, to love her. He made me his confidant, and my alarm was nothing but natural concern lest he might have a rival as formidable as you."

A flood of light was let in upon me by this brief explanation, though I could not but wonder at the simplicity, or strength of character, that induced so strange a confidence. When I got to know Dus better, the whole became clear enough; but, at the moment, I was a little surprised.

"Be at ease on my account, Miss Malbone--"

"Why not call me Dus at once? You will do it in a week, like everyone else here; and it is better to begin our acquaintance as I am sure it will end. Uncle Chainbearer calls me Dus; Frank calls me Dus; most of your settlers call me Dus, to my very face; and even our blacks call me Miss Dus. You cannot wish to be singular."

"I will gladly venture so far as to call you Ursula; but Dus does not please me."

"No! I have become so accustomed to be called Dus by all my friends, that it sounds distant to be called by any other name. Do you not think Dus a pretty diminutive?"

"I did not, most certainly; though all these things depend on the associations. Dus Malbone sounded sweetly enough in Priscilla Bayard's mouth; but I fear it will not be so pleasant in mine."

"Do as you please-but do not call me Miss Ursula, or Miss Malbone. It would have displeased me once, not to have been so addressed by any man; but it has an air of mockery, now that I know myself to be only the companion and housekeeper of a poor chainbearer."

"And yet, the owner of that silver, the lady I see seated at this table, in this room, is not so very inappropriately addressed as Miss Ursula!"

"You know the history of the silver, and the table and room are your own. No-Mr. Littlepage, we are poor-very, very poor-uncle Chainbearer, Frank, and I-all alike, have nothing."

This was not said despairingly, but with a sincerity that I found exceedingly touching.

"Frank, at least, should have something," I answered. "You tell me he was in the army?"

"He was a captain at the last, but what did he receive for that? We do not complain of the country, any of us; neither my uncle, my brother, nor myself; for we know it is poor, like ourselves, and that its poverty even is like our own, that of persons reduced. I was long a charge on my friends, and there have been debts to pay. Could I have known it, such a thing should not have happened. Now I can only repay those who have discharged these obligations by coming into the wilderness with them. It is a terrible thing for a woman to be in debt."

"But you have remained in this house; you surely have not been in the hut, at Mooseridge?"

"I have gone wherever uncle Chainbearer has gone, and shall go with him, so long as we both live. Nothing shall ever separate us again. His years demand this, and gratitude is added to my love. Frank might possibly do better than work for the little he receives; but he will not quit us. The poor love each other intensely!"

"But I have desired your uncle to use this house, and for your sake I should think he would accept the offer."

"How could he, and carry chain twenty miles distant? We have been here, occasionally, a few days at a time; but the work was to be done and it must be done on the land itself."

"Of course, you merely gave your friends the pleasure of your company, and looked a little to their comforts, on their return from a hard day's work?"

Dus raised her eyes to mine; smiled; then she looked sad, her under-lip quivering slightly; after which a smile that was not altogether without humor succeeded. I watched these signs of varying feeling with an interest I cannot describe; for the play of virtuous and ingenuous emotion on a lovely female countenance is one of the rarest sights in nature.

"I can carry chain," said the girl, at the close of this exhibition of feeling.

"You can carry chain, Ursula-Dus, or whatever I am to call you--"

"Call me Dus-I love that name best."

"You can carry chain, I suppose, is true enough-but, you do not mean that you have?"

The face of Dus flushed; but she looked me full in the eye, as she nodded her head to express an affirmative; and she smiled as sweetly as ever woman smiled.

"For amusement-to say you have done it-in jest!"

"To help my uncle and brother, who had not the means to hire a second man."

"Good God! Miss Malbone-Ursula-Dus--"

"The last is the most proper name for a chainbearess," rejoined the girl, smiling; and actually taking my hand by an involuntary movement of her sympathy in the shock I so evidently felt. "But, why should you look upon that little toil as so shocking, when it is healthful and honest? You are thinking of a sister reduced to what strikes you as man's proper work."

Dus relinquished my hand almost as soon as she had touched it; and she did it with a slight start, as if shocked at her own temerity.

"What is man's work, and man's work, only."

"Yet woman can perform it; and, as uncle Chainbearer will tell you, perform it well. I had no other concern, the month I was at work, than the fear that my strength would not enable me to do as much as my uncle and brother, and thus lessen the service they could render you each day. They kept me on the dry land, so there were no wet feet, and your woods are as clear of underbrush as an orchard. There is no use in attempting to conceal the fact, for it is known to many, and would have reached your ears sooner or later. Then concealment is always painful to me, and never more so than when I hear you, and see you treating your hired servant as an equal."

"Miss Malbone! For God's sake, let me hear no more of this-old Andries judged rightly of me, in wishing to conceal this; for I should never have allowed it to go on for a moment."

"And in what manner could you have prevented it, Major Littlepage? My uncle has taken the business of you at so much the day, finding surveyor and laborers-poor, dear Frank! He, at least, does not rank with the laborers, and as for my uncle, he has long had an honest pride in being the best chainbearer in the country-why need his niece scruple about sharing in his well-earned reputation?"

"But you, Miss Malbone-dearest Dus-who have been so educated, who are born a lady, who are loved by Priscilla Bayard, the sister of Frank, are not in your proper sphere, while thus occupied."

"It is not so easy to say what is the proper sphere of a woman. I admit it ought to be, in general, in the domestic circle and under the domestic roof; but circumstances must control that. We hear of wives who follow their husbands to the camp, and we hear of nuns who come out of their convents to attend the sick and wounded in hospitals. It does not strike me, then, as so bad in a girl who offers to aid her parent as I have aided mine, when the alternative was to suffer by want."

"Gracious Providence! And Andries has kept me in ignorance of all this; he knew my purse would have been his, and how could you have been in want in the midst of the abundance that reigns in this settlement, which is only fifteen or twenty miles from your hut, as I know from the chainbearer's letters."

"Food is plenty, I allow, but we had no money; and when the question was between beggary or exertion, we merely chose the last. My uncle did try old Killian, the black, for a day; but you know how hard it is to make one of those people understand anything that is a little intricate; and then I offered my services. I am intelligent enough, I trust"-the girl smiled a little proudly as she said this-"and you can have no notion how active and strong I am for light work like this, and on my feet, until you put me to the proof. Remember, carrying chain is neither chopping wood nor piling logs; nor is it absolutely unfeminine."

"Nor raising churches"-I answered, smiling; for it was not easy to resist the contagion of the girl's spirit-"at which business I have been an eye-witness of your dexterity. However, there will now be an end of this. It is fortunately in my power to offer such a situation and such emoluments to Mr. Malbone, as will at once enable him to place his sister in this house as its mistress, and under a roof that is at least respectable."

"Bless you for that!" cried Dus, making a movement toward catching my hand again; but checking it in time to render the deep blush that instantly suffused her face, almost unnecessary. "Bless you for that! Frank is willing to do anything that is honest, and capable of doing anything that a gentleman should do. I am the great encumbrance on the poor fellow; for, could he leave me, many situations must be open to him in the towns. But I cannot quit my uncle, and Frank will not quit me. He does not understand uncle Chainbearer."

"Frank must be a noble fellow, and I honor him for his attachment to such a sister. This makes me only the more anxious to carry out my intentions."

"Which are such, I hope, that there is no impropriety in his sister's knowing them?"

This was said with such an expression of interest in the sweet, blue eyes, and with so little of the air of common curiosity, that it completely charmed me.

"Certainly there is none," I answered, promptly enough even for a young man who was acting under the influence of so much ingenuous and strong native feeling; "and I shall have great pleasure in telling you. We have long been dissatisfied with our agent on this estate, and I had determined to offer it to your uncle. The same difficulty would have to be overcome in this case, as there was in making him a safe surveyor-the want of skill in figures; now this difficulty will not exist in the instance of your brother; and the whole family, Chainbearer as well as the rest, will be benefited by giving the situation to Frank."

"You call him Frank!" cried Dus, laughing, and evidently delighted with what she heard. "That is a good omen; but if you raise me to the station of an agent's sister, I do not know but I shall insist on being called Ursula, at least, if not Miss Ursula."

I scarce knew what to make of this girl; there was so much of gayety, and even fun, blended with a mine of as deep feeling as I ever saw throwing up its signs to the human countenance. Her brother's prospects had made her even gay; though she still looked as if anxious to hear more.

"You may claim which you please, for Frank shall have his name put into the new power of attorney within the hour. Mr. Newcome has had a hint, by letter, of what is to come, and professes great happiness in getting rid of a vast deal of unrequited trouble."

"I am afraid there is little emolument, if he is glad to be rid of the office."

"I do not say he is glad; I only say he professes to be so. These are different things with certain persons. As for the emolument, it will not be much certainly; though it will be enough to prevent Frank's sister from carrying chain, and leave her to exercise her talents and industry in their proper sphere. In the first place, every lease on the estate is to be renewed; and there being a hundred, and the tenant bearing the expense, it will at once put a considerable sum at your brother's disposition. I cannot say that the annual commissions will amount to a very great deal, though they will exceed a hundred a year by the terms on which the lands will be relet. The use of this house and farm, however, I did intend to offer to your uncle; and, for the same reason, I shall offer them to Frank."

"With this house and farm we shall be rich!" exclaimed Dus, clasping her hands in delight. "I can gather a school of the better class of girls, and no one will be useless-no one idle. If I teach your tenants' daughters some of the ideas of their sex and station, Mr. Littlepage, you will reap the benefit in the end. That will be some slight return for all your kindness."

"I wish all of your sex, and of the proper age, who are connected with me, no better instructress. Teach them your own warmth of heart, your own devotedness of feeling, your own truth, and your own frankness, and I will come and dwell on my own estate, as the spot nearest to paradise."

Dus looked a little alarmed, I thought, as if she feared she might have uttered too much; or, perhaps, that I was uttering too much. She rose, thanked me hurriedly, but in a very lady-like manner, and set about removing the breakfast service, with as much diligence as if she had been a mere menial.

Such was my very first conversation with Ursula Malbone; her, with whom I have since held so many, and those that have been very different! When I rose to seek the Chainbearer, it was with a feeling of interest in my late companion that was as strong as it was sudden. I shall not deny that her beauty had its influence-it would be unnatural that it should not-but it was less her exceeding beauty, and Ursula Malbone would have passed for one of the fairest of her sex-but it was less her beauty that attracted me than her directness, truth, and ingenuousness, so closely blended as all were with the feelings and delicacy of her sex. She had certainly done things which, had I merely heard of them, would have struck me unpleasantly, as even bold and forward, and which may now so strike the reader; but this would be doing Dus injustice. No act, no word of hers, not even the taking of my hand, seemed to me, at the time, as in the least forward; the whole movement being so completely qualified by that intensity of feeling which caused her to think only of her brother. Nature and circumstances had combined to make her precisely the character she was; and I will confess I did not wish her to be, in a single particular, different from what I found her.

Talk of Pris Bayard in comparison with Ursula Malbone! Both had beauty, it is true, though the last was far the handsomest; both had delicacy, and sentiment, and virtue, and all that pertains to a well-educated young woman, if you will; but Dus had a character of her own, and principles, and an energy, and a decision, that made her the girl of ten thousand. I do not think I could be said to be actually in love when I left that room, for I do not wish to appear so very easy to receive impressions as all that would come to; but I will own no female had ever before interested me a tenth part as much, though I had known, and possibly admired her, a twelvemonth.

In the court I found Andries measuring his chains. This he did periodically; and it was as conscientiously as if he were weighing gold. The old man manifested no consciousness of the length of the tête-à-tête I had held with his niece; but on the contrary, the first words he uttered were to an effect that proved he fancied I had been alone.

"I peg your parton, lat," he said, holding his measuring rod in his mouth while he spoke. "I peg your parton, put this is very necessary work. I do not wish to haf any of your Yankee settlers crying out hereafter against the Chainpearer's surveys. Let 'em come a huntret or a t'ousant years hence, if t'ey will, and measure t'e lant; I want olt Andries' survey to stant."

"The variation of the compass will make some difference in the two surveys, my good friend, unless the surveyors are better than one commonly finds."

The old man dropped his rod and his chain, and looked despondingly at me.

"True," he said, with emphasis. "You haf hit t'e nail on t'e heat, Mortaunt-t'at fariation is t'e fery teffil to get along wit'! I haf triet it t'is-a-way, and I haf triet it t'at-away, and never coult I make heat or tail of it! I can see no goot of a fariation at all."

"What does your pretty assistant Dus think of it? Dus, the pretty chainbearer? You will lose your old, hard-earned appellation, which will be borne off by Miss Malbone."

"Ten Dus has peen telling you all apout it! A woman never can keep a secret. No, natur' hast mate 'em talkatif, and t'e parrot will chatter."

"A woman likes variation, notwithstanding-did you consult Dus on that difficulty?"

"No, no, poy; I sait not'ing to Dus, and I am sorry she has said anyt'ing to you apout t'is little matter of t'e chain. It was sorely against my will, Mortaunt, t'at t'e gal ever carriet it a rot; and was it to do over ag'in, she shoult not carry it a rot-yet it woult have tone your heart goot to see how prettily she did her work; and how quick she wast, and how true; and how accurate she put down the marker; and how sartain was her eye. Natur' made t'at fery gal for a chainpearer!"

"And a chainbearer she has been, and a chainbearer she ever will be, until she throws her chains on some poor fellow, and binds him down for life. Andries, you have an angel with you here, and not a woman."

Most men in the situation of the Chainbearer might have been alarmed at hearing such language coming from a young man, and under all the circumstances of the case. But Andries Coejemans never had any distrust of mortal who possessed his ordinary confidence; and I question if he ever entertained a doubt about myself on any point, the result of his own, rather than of my character. Instead of manifesting uneasiness or displeasure, he turned to me, his whole countenance illuminated with the affection he felt for his niece, and said-

"T'e gal ist an excellent girl, Mortaunt, a capital creature! It woult haf tone your heart goot, I tell you, to see her carry chain! Your pocket is none t'e worse for t'e mont' she worked, t'ough I would not haf you t'ink I charget for her ast a man-no-she is town at only half-price, woman's work peing only woman's work; and yet I do pelieve, on my conscience, t'at we went over more grount in t'at mont', t'an we could haf tone wit' any man t'at wast to pe hiret in t'is part of t'e worlt-I do, indeet!"

How strange all this sounded to me! Charged for work done by Ursula Malbone, and charged at half-price! We are the creatures of convention, and the slaves of opinions that come we know not whence. I had got the notions of my caste, obtained in the silent, insinuating manner in which all our characters are formed; and nothing short of absolute want could have induced me to accept pecuniary compensation from an individual for any personal service rendered. I had no profession, and it did not comport with our usages for a gentleman to receive money for personal service out of the line of a profession; an arbitrary rule, but one to which most of us submit with implicit obedience. The idea that Dus had been paid by myself for positive toil, therefore, was extremely repugnant to me; and it was only after reflection that I came to view the whole affair as I ought, and to pass to the credit of the noble-minded girl, and this without any drawback, an act that did her so much honor. I wish to represent myself as no better or no wiser, or more rational than I was; and, I fancy, few young men of my age and habits would hear with much delight, at first, that the girl he himself felt impelled to love had been thus employed; while, on the other hand, few would fail to arrive at the same conclusions, on reflection, as those I reached myself.

The discourse with Andries Coejemans was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Frank Malbone into the court. This was my first meeting with my young surveyor, and the Chainbearer introduced us to each other in his usual hearty and frank manner. In a minute we were acquainted; the old man inquiring as to the success of the settlers in getting up their "meetin'-us."

"I staid until they had begun to place the rafters," answered young Malbone, cheerfully, "and then I left them. The festivities are to end with a ball, I hear; but I was too anxious to learn how my sister reached home-I ought to say reached the 'Nest-to remain. We have little other home now, Mr. Littlepage, than the hut in the woods, and the roof your hospitality offers."

"Brother soldiers, sir, and brother soldiers in such a cause, ought to have no more scruples about accepting such hospitalities, as you call them, than in offering them. I am glad, however, that you have adverted to the subject, inasmuch as it opens the way to a proposition I have intended to make; which, if accepted, will make me your guest, and which may as well be made now as a week later."

Both Andries and Frank look surprised; but I led them to a bench on the open side of the court, and invited them to be seated, while I explained myself. It may be well to say a word of that seat in passing. It stood on the verge of a low cliff of rocks, on the side of the court which had been defended by palisades, when the French held the Canadas, and the remains of which were still to be seen. Here, as I was told before we left the spot, Dus, my pretty chainbearer, with a woman's instinct for the graceful and the beautiful, had erected an arbor, principally with her own hands, planted one of the swift-growing vines of our climate, and caused a seat to be placed within. The spot commanded a pleasing view of a wide expanse of meadows, and of a distant hill-side, that still lay in the virgin forest. Andries told me that his niece had passed much of her leisure time in that arbor, since the growth of the plant, with the advance of the season, had brought the seat into the shade.

Placing myself between the Chainbearer and Malbone, I communicated the intention I had formed of making the latter my agent. As an inducement to accept the situation, I offered the use of the 'Nest house and the 'Nest farm, reserving to myself the room or two that had been my grandfather's, and that only at the times of my annual visits to the property. As the farm was large, and of an excellent quality of land, it would abundantly supply the wants of a family of modest habits, and even admit of sales to produce the means of purchasing such articles of foreign growth as might be necessary. In a word, I laid before the listeners the whole of my plan, which was a good deal enlarged by a secret wish to render Ursula comfortable, without saying anything about the motive.

The reader is not to suppose I was exhibiting any extraordinary liberality in doing that which I have related. It must not be forgotten that land was a drug in the State of New York in the year 1784, as it is to-day on the Miami, Ohio, Mississippi, and other inland streams. The proprietors thought but little of their possessions as the means of present support, but rather maintained their settlements than their settlements maintained them looking forward to another age, and to their posterity, for the rewards of all their trouble and investments.[10]

It is scarcely necessary to say my proposals were gladly accepted. Old Andries squeezed my hand, and I understood the pressure as fully as if he had spoken with the eloquence of Patrick Henry. Frank Malbone was touched; and all parties were perfectly satisfied. The surveyor had his field-inkstand with him, as a matter of course, and I had the power of attorney in my pocket ready for the insertion of the Chainbearer's name, would he accept the office of agent. That of Malbone was written in its stead; I signed; Andries witnessed; and we left the seat together, Frank Malbone, in effect, temporarily master of the house in which we were, and his charming sister, as a necessary consequence, its mistress. It was a delicious moment to me, when I saw Dus throw herself into her brother's arms and weep on his bosom, as he communicated to her the joyful intelligence.

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