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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 29999

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"He stepped before the monarch's chair,

And stood with rustic plainness there,

And little reverence made;

Nor head, nor body, bowed nor bent,

But on the desk his arm he leant,

And words like these he said."

-Marmion.

* * *

While the squatter was thus occupied in arranging his toilet, previously to taking his morning meal, I had a moment of leisure to look about in. We had ascended to the level of the mill, where was an open, half-cleared space, of some sixty acres in extent, that was under a rude cultivation. Stubs and stumps abounded, and the fences were of logs, showing that the occupancy was still of recent date. In fact, as I afterward ascertained, Thousandacres, with his family of hopeful sons and daughters, numbering in all more than twenty souls, had squatted at that spot just four years before. The mill-seat was admirable, nature having done for it nearly all that was required, though the mill itself was as unartificial and makeshift as such a construction very well could be. Agriculture evidently occupied very little of the time of the family, which tilled just enough land "to make a live on't," while everything in the shape of lumber was "improved" to the utmost. A vast number of noble pines had been felled, and boards and shingles were to be seen in profusion on every side. A few of the first were being sent to market, in order to meet the demands of the moment, in the way of groceries; but the intention was to wait for the rise of the little stream, after the fall rains, in order to send the bulk of the property into the common artery of the Hudson, and to reap the great reward of the toil of the summer and spring.

I saw, also, that there must be additions to this family, in the way of marriage, as they occupied no less than five cabins, all of which were of logs, freshly erected, and had an air of comfort and stability about them, that one would not have expected to meet where the title was so flimsy. All this, as I fancied, indicated a design not to remove very soon. It was probable that some of the oldest of the sons and daughters were married, and that the patriarch was already beholding a new generation of squatters springing up about him. A few of the young men were visible, lounging about the different cabins, and the mill was sending forth that peculiar, cutting, grating sound, that had so distinctly attracted the attention of Susquesus, even in the depth of the forest.

"Walk in, Trackless," cried Thousandacres, in a hearty, free manner, which proved that what came easily went as freely; "walk in, fri'nd; I don't know your name, but that's no great matter, where there's enough for all, and a wilcome in the bargain. Here's the old woman, ready and willing to sarve you, and looking as smiling as a gal of fifteen."

The last part of the statement, however, was not precisely accurate. "Miss Thousandacres," as the squatter sometimes magnificently called his consort, or the dam of his young brood, was far from receiving us with either smiles or welcomes. A sharp-featured, keen, gray-eyed, old woman, her thoughts were chiefly bent on the cares of her brood; and her charities extended little beyond them. She had been the mother of fourteen children herself, twelve of which survived. All had been born amid the difficulties, privations and solitudes of stolen abodes in the wilderness. That woman had endured enough to break down the constitutions and to destroy the tempers of half a dozen of the ordinary beings of her sex; yet she survived, the same enduring, hard-working, self-denying, suffering creature she had been from the day of her bloom and beauty. These two last words might be supposed to be used in mockery, could one have seen old Prudence, sallow, attenuated, with sunken cheeks, hollow, lack-lustre eyes, and broken-mouthed, as I now saw her; but there were the remains of great beauty, notwithstanding, about the woman; and I afterward learned that she had once been among the fairest of the fair, in her native mountains. In all the intercourse I subsequently had with her family, the manner of this woman was anxious, distrustful, watchful, and bore a strong resemblance to that of the dam that is overseeing the welfare of her cubs. As to her welcome at the board, it was neither hearty nor otherwise; it being so much a matter of course for the American to share his meal with the stranger, that little is said or thought of the boon.

Notwithstanding the size of the family of Thousandacres, the cabin in which he dwelt was not crowded. The younger children of the settlement, ranging between the ages of four and twelve, appeared to be distributed among all the habitations indifferently, putting into the dishes wherever there was an opening, much as pigs thrust themselves in at any opening at a trough. The business of eating commenced simultaneously throughout the whole settlement, Prudence having blown a blast upon a conch-shell, as the signal. I was too hungry to lose any time in discourse, and set to, with the most hearty good-will, upon the coarse fare, the moment there was an opportunity. My example was imitated by all around our own particular board, it being the refined and intellectual only, who habitually converse at their meals. The animal had too great a preponderance among the squatters, to leave them an exception to the rule.

At length, the common hunger was appeased, and I could see that those who sat around began to examine me with a little more curiosity than they had previously manifested. There was nothing in the fashion of my attire to excite suspicion, perhaps, though I did feel some little concern on account of its quality. In that day, the social classes were broadly distinguished by dress, no man even affecting to assume the wardrobe of a gentleman, without having certain pretensions to the character. In the woods, however, it was the custom to throw aside everything like finery, and I wore the hunting-shirt already mentioned, as my outer garment. The articles most likely to betray my station in life were beneath this fortunate covering, and might escape observation. Then our party was small, consisting, besides the parents and the two guests, of only one young man, and one young woman, of about the ages of two-and-twenty and sixteen, whom the mother addressed as Zephaniah and Lowiny, the latter being one of the very common American corruptions of some fine name taken from a book-Lavinia, quite likely.[14] These two young persons deported themselves with great modesty at the table, old Thousandacres and his wife, spite of their lawless lives, having maintained a good deal of the ancient Puritan discipline among their descendants, in relation to things of this nature. Indeed, I was struck with the singular contrast between the habitual attention that was paid by all in the settlement to certain appearances of the sort, and that certainty which every one must have possessed that they were living daily in the commission of offences opposed not only to the laws of the land, but to the common, inherent convictions of right. In this particular, they exhibited what is often found in life, the remains of ancient habits and principles, existing in the shape of habits, long after the substance that had produced them had disappeared.

"Have you asked these folks about Chainbearer?" said Prudence abruptly, as soon as the knives and forks were laid down, and while we still continued in our seats at the table. "I feel a consarn of mind, about that man, that I never feel about any other."

"Near fear Chainbearer, woman," answered the husband. "He's got his summer's work afore him, without coming near us. By the last accounts, this young Littlepage, that the old rogue of a father has sent into the country, has got him out in his own settlement; where he'll be apt to keep him, I calcerlate, till cold weather sets in. Let me once get off all the lumber we've cut, and sell it, and I kear very little about Chainbearer, or his master."

"This is bold talk, Aaron; but jist remember how often we've squatted, and how often we've been driven to move. I s'pose I'm talking afore fri'nds, in sayin' what I do."

"No fear of any here, wife. Trackless is an old acquaintance, and has as little relish for law-titles, as any on us; and his fri'nd is our fri'nd." I confess, that I felt a little uncomfortable, at this remark; but the squatter going on with his conversation, there was no opportunity for saying anything, had I been so disposed. "As for moving," continued the husband, "I never mov'd, but twice, without getting pay for my betterments. Now I call that a good business, for a man who has squatted no less than seventeen times. If the worst comes to the worst, we're young enough to make an eighteenth pitch. So that I save the lumber, I keer but little for your Littlepages or Greatpages; the mill is no great matter, without the gear; and that has travelled all the way from Varmount, as it is, and is used to moving. It can go farther."

"Yes, but the lumber, Aaron! The water's low now, and you can never get it to market, until the rivers rise, which mayn't be these three months. Think how many days' labor that lumber has cost you, and all on us, and what a sight of it there would be to lose!"

"Yes, but we wunt lose it, woman," answered Thousandacres, compressing his lips, and clenching his hands, in a way to show how intensely he felt on the subject of property himself, however dishonestly acquired. "My sweat and labor be in them boards; and it's as good as sap, anyday. What a man sweats for, he has a right to."

This was somewhat loose morality, it is true, since a man might sweat in bearing away his neighbor's goods; but a portion of the human race is a good deal disposed to feel and reason on principles but little more sound than this of old Thousandacres.

"Wa-a-ll," answered the woman, "I'm sure I don't want to see you and the b'ys lose the fruits of your labors; not I. You've honestly toiled and wrought at 'em logs, in a way I never seed human beings outdo; and 'twould be hard," looking particularly at me, "now that they've cut the trees, hauled 'em to mill, and sawed the boards, to see another man step in and claim all the property. That could never be right, but is ag'in all justice, whether Varmount or York. I s'pose there's no great harm in jist askin' what your name may be, young man?"

"None in the world," I answered, with a self-command that I could see delighted the Onondago. "My name is Mordaunt."

"Mordaunt!" repeated the woman, quickly. "Don't we know suthin' of that name?-Is that a fri'ndly name, to us Varmounters?-How is it, Aaron? you ought to know."

"No, I hadn't ought to, for I never heerd tell of any sich name afore. So long as 'tisn't Littlepage, I kear nothin' about it."

I felt relieved at this reply, for I will own, that the idea of falling into the power of these lawless men was far from pleasant to me. From Thousandacres, down to the lad of seventeen, they all stood six feet in their stockings; and a stouter, more broad-shouldered, sinewy race, was not often seen. The idea of resisting them by force, was out of the question. I was entirely without arms; though the Indian was better provided; but no less than four rifles were laid on brackets in this one cabin; and I made no doubt that every male of the family had his own particular weapon. The rifle was the first necessary of men of this stamp, being as serviceable in procuring food as in protecting them from their enemies.

It was at this moment that Prudence drew a long sigh, and rose from table in order to renew her domestic labors. Lowiny followed her motions in submissive silence, and we men sauntered to the door of the cabin, where I could get a new view of the nature of those "betterments" that Thousandacres so highly prized, and of the extent of the depredations that had been committed on Colonel Follock and my father. The last were by no means insignificant; and, at a later day, they were estimated, by competent judges, to amount to fully a thousand dollars in value. Of course these were a thousand dollars totally lost, inasmuch as redress, in a pecuniary sense, was entirely out of the question with men of the stamp of Thousandacres and his sons. This class of persons are fond of saying, "I'll guarantee," and "I'll bind myself" to do this or that; but the guarantee and obligation are equally without value. In fact, those who are the least responsible are usually the freest with such pledges.

"This is a handsome spot," said Thousandacres, whose real name was Aaron Timberman. "This is a handsome spot, Mr. Mordaunt, and one it would go kind o' hard to give it up at the biddin' of a man who never laid eye on't. Be you any way acquainted with law?"

"A very little; no more than we all get to be as we move along through life."

"You've not travelled far on that journey, young man, as any one can see by your face. But you've had opportunities, as a body can tell by your speech, which isn't exactly like our'n, out here in the woods, from which I had kind o' thought your schoolin' might be more than common. A body can tell, though his own l'arnin amounts to no great matter."

This notion of Aaron's, that my modes of speech, pronunciation, accent, and utterance had come from the schools, was natural enough, perhaps; though few persons ever acquire accuracy in either, except in the familiar intercourse of their childhood. As for the "common schools" of New York, they are perpetuating errors in these respects, rather than correcting them; and one of the largest steps in their improvement would be to have a care that he who teaches, teaches accurately as to sounds, as well as to significations. Under the present system, vicious habits are confirmed by deliberate instruction and example rather than corrected.

"My schooling," I answered modestly enough, I trust, "has been a little better than common, though it has not been good enough, as you see, to keep me out of the woods."

"All that may be inclination. Some folks have a nat'ral turn for the wilderness, and it's workin' agin' the grain, and nearly useless, to try to make settlement-bodies of 'em. D'ye happen to know what lumber is likely to bring this fall?"

"Everything is looking up since the peace, and it is fair to expect lumber will begin to command a price, as well as other property."

"Wa-a-l, it's time it should! During the whull war a board has been of little more account than a strip of bark, unless it happened to be in the neighborhood of an army. We lumbermen have had an awful time on it these last eight years, and more than once I've felt tempted to gi'n in, and go and settle down in some clearin', like quieter folks; but I thought as the 'arth is to come to an eend, the war must certainly come to an eend afore it."

"The calculation was a pretty safe one; the war must have truly made a

dull time to you; nor do I see how you well got along during the period it lasted."

"Bad enough; though war-times has their windfalls as well as peace-times. Once, the inimy seized a sight of continental stores, sich as pork, and flour, and New England rum, and they pressed all the teams, far and near, to carry off their plunder, and my sleigh and horses had to go along with the rest on 'em. Waal, go we did; and I got as handsome a load as ever you seed laid in a lumber-sleigh; what I call an assortment, and one, too, that was mightily to my own likin', seein' I loaded it up with my own hands. 'Twas in a woody country, as you may spose, or I wouldn't have been there; and, as I know'd all the byroads, I watched my chance, and got out of the line without being seen, and druv' as straight to my own hum' as if I'd just come from tradin' in the nearest settlement. That was the most profitablest journey I ever tuck, and what is more, it was a short one."

Here old Thousandacres stopped to laugh, which he did in as hearty, frank a manner as if his conscience had never known care. This story, I fancy, was a favorite one with him, for I heard no less than three other allusions to the exploit on which it was based, during the short time our communication with each other lasted. I observed the first smile I had seen on the face of Zephaniah, appear at the recital of this anecdote; though I had not failed to notice that the young man, as fine a specimen of rustic, rude, manly proportions as one could wish to see, had kept his eyes on me at every occasion, in a manner that excited some uneasiness.

"That was a fortunate service for you," I remarked, as soon as Aaron had had his laugh; "unless, indeed, you felt the necessity of giving back the property to the continental officers."

"Not a bit of it! Congress was poor enough, I'm willin' to own, but it was richer than I was, or ever will be. When property has changed hands once, title goes with it; and some say that these very lands, coming from the king, ought now to go to the people, jist as folks happen to want 'em. There's reason and right, I'm sartain, in the idee, and I shouldn't wonder if it held good in law, one day!"

Alas! alas! for poor human nature again. Seldom does man commit a wrong but he sets his ingenuity to work to frame excuses for it. When his mind thus gets to be perverted by the influence of his passions, and more especially by that of rapacity, he never fails to fancy new principles to exist to favor his schemes, and manifests a readiness in inventing them, which, enlisted on the side of goodness, might render him a blessing instead of a curse to his race. But roguery is so active, while virtue is so apt to be passive, that in the eternal conflict that is waged between them, that which is gained by the truth and inherent power of the last is, half the time, more than neutralized by the unwearied exertions of the first! This, I fear, may be found to contain the weak spot of our institutions. So long as law represents the authority of an individual, individual pride and jealousy may stimulate it to constant watchfulness; whereas, law representing the community, carries with it a divided responsibility, that needs the excitement of intolerable abuses ere it will arouse itself in its own vindication. The result is merely another proof that, in the management of the ordinary affairs of life, men are usually found to be stronger than principles.

"Have you ever had occasion to try one of your titles of possession in a court of law, against that of a landholder who got his right from a grant?" I asked, after reflecting a moment on the truth I have just narrated.

Thousandacres shook his head, looked down a moment, and pondered a little in his turn, ere he gave me the following answer:

"Sartain," he said. "We all like to be on the right side, if we can; and some of our folks kind o' persuaded me I might make out, once, ag'in a reg'lar landlord. So I stood trial with him; but he beat me, Mr. Mordaunt, just the same as if I had been a chicken, and he the hawk that had me in his talons. You'll never catch me trusting myself in the claws of the law ag'in, though that happened as long ago as afore the old French war. I shall never trust to law any more. It may do for them that's rich, and don't kear whether they win or lose; but law is a desp'rate bad business for them that hasn't got money to go into it, right eend foremost."

"And should Mr. Littlepage discover your being here, and feel disposed to come to some arrangement with you, what conditions would you be apt to accept?"

"Oh! I'm never ag'in trade. Trade's the spirit of life; and seein' that Gin'ral Littlepage has some right, as I do s'pose is the case, I shouldn't want to be hard on him. If he would keep things quiet, and not make a fuss about it, but would leave the matter out to men, and they men of the right sort, I shouldn't be difficult; for I'm one of that kind that hates lawsuits, and am always ready to do the right thing; and so he'd find me as ready to settle as any man he ever had on his lands."

"But on what terms? You have not told me the terms."

"As to tarms, I'd not be hard, by any means. No man can say old Thousandacres ever druv' hard tarms, when he had the best on't. That's not in my natur', which runs altogether toward reason and what's right. Now you see, Mordaunt, how matters stand atween this Littlepage and myself. He's got a paper title, they tell me, and I've got possession, which is always a squatter's claim; and a good one 'tis, where there's plenty of pine and a mill-seat with a handy market!"

Here Thousandacres stopped to laugh again, for he generally indulged in this way, in so hearty and deep a tone, as to render it difficult to laugh and talk in the same breath. As soon as through, however, he did not forget to pursue the discourse.

"No, no man that understands the woods will gainsay them advantages," added the squatter; "and of all on 'em am I now in the enj'yment. Wa-a-l, Gin'ral Littlepage, as they call him about here, has a paper title; and I've got possession. He has the courts on his side, I'll allow; but here are my betterments-sixty-three as large acres chopped over and hauled to mill, as can be found in all Charlotte, or Washington, as they tell me the county is now called."

"But General Littlepage may not fancy it an improvement to have his land stripped of its pine. You know, Thousandacres, as well as I do, that pine is usually thought to greatly add to the value of lands hereabouts, the Hudson making it so easy to get it to market."

"Lord! youngster, do you think I hadn't all that in my mind, when I made my pitch here? You can't teach old bones where it's best to strike the first blow with an axe. Now I've got in the creek" (this word is used, in the parlance of the state, for a small river, nine times in ten); "now I've got in the creek, on the way to the Hudson, in the booms below the mill, and in the mill-yard yonder, a hundred and twenty thousand feet of as handsome stuff as ever was cribbed, or rafted; and there's logs enough cut and hauled to make more than as much more. I some sort o' think you know this Littlepage, by your talk; and, as I like fair dealin's, and what's right atween man and man, I'll just tell you what I'll do, so that you can tell him, if you ever meet, and the matter should come up atween you, as sich things sometimes do, in all talk like, though a body has no real consarn in the affair; and so you can tell this gin'ral that old Thousandacres is a reasonable man, and is willing to settle on these tarms; but he won't gi'n a grain more. If the gin'ral will let me get all the lumber to market peaceably, and take off the crops the b'ys have put in with their own hands, and carry off all the mill-gear, and take down the doors and windows of the houses, and all the iron-work a body can find about, I'm willing to agree to quit 'arly enough in the spring to let any man he chooses come into possession in good season to get in spring grain, and make garden. There them's my tarms, and I'll not abate on one on 'em, on no account at all. But that much I'll do for peace; for I do love peace and quiet, my woman says, most desp'ately."

I was about to answer this characteristic communication-perfectly characteristic as to feelings, one-sided sense of right, principles, and language-when Zephaniah, the tall son of the squatter, suddenly laid a hand on his father's arm, and led him aside. This young man had been examining my person, during the whole of the dialogue at the door of the cabin, in a way that was a little marked. I was disposed at first to attribute these attentions to the curiosity natural to youth, at its first meeting with one who might be supposed to enjoy opportunities of ascertaining the newest modes of dress and deportment. Rustics, in America, ever manifest this feeling, and it was not unreasonable to suppose that this young squatter might have felt its influence. But, as it soon appeared, I had altogether mistaken my man. Although both he and his sister, Lowiny, had never turned their eyes from my person, I soon discovered that they had been governed by totally opposing feelings.

The first intimation I got of the nature of the mistake into which I had fallen, was from the manner of Thousandacres, as soon as his son had spoken to him, apart, for a single minute. I observed that the old squatter turned suddenly, and began to scrutinize my appearance with a scowling, but sharp eye. Then he would give all his attention to his son; after which, I came in for a new turn of examination. Of course, such a scene could not last a great while, and I soon felt the relief of being, again, face to face with the man whom I now set down for an enemy.

"Harkee, young man," resumed Thousandacres, as soon as he had returned and placed himself directly before me, "my b'y, Zeph, there, has got a suspicion consarning you, that must be cleared up, fairly atween us, afore we part. I like fair dealin's, as I've told you more than once, already, and despise underhandedness from the bottom of my heart. Zeph tells me that he has a kind o' suspicion that you're the son of this very Littlepage, and have been sent among us to spy us out, and to l'arn how things stood, afore you let on your evil intentions. Is it so, or not?"

"What reason has Zeph for such a suspicion?" I answered, with such coolness as I could assume. "He is a perfect stranger to me, and I fancy this is the first time we have ever met."

"He agrees to that, himself; but mankind can sometimes see things that isn't put directly afore their eyes. My son goes and comes, frequently, between the Ravensnest settlement and our own, though I don't suppose he lets on any great deal about his proper hum'. He has worked as much as two months, at a time, in that part of the country, and I find him useful in carrying on a little trade, once and awhile, with 'Squire Newcome."

"You are acquainted, then, with Mr. Jason Newcome, or 'Squire Newcome, as you call him?"

"I call him what's right, I hope!" answered the old man sharply. "He is a 'squire, and should be called a 'squire. Give the devil his due; that's my principle. But Zephaniah has been out a considerable spell this summer to work at Ravensnest. I tell him he has a gal in his eye, by his hankering so much after the 'Nest folks, but he won't own it; but out he has been, and he tells me this Littlepage's son was expected to come into the settlement about the time he last left there."

"And you are acquainted with 'Squire Newcome?" I said, pursuing the subject as its points presented themselves to my own mind, rather than following the thread of the squatter's discursive manner of thinking; "so well acquainted as to trade with him?"

"Sartain; well acquainted, I may say. The 'Squire tuck (took) all the lumber I cut 'arly in the spring, rafting and selling it on his own account, paying us in groceries, women's cloth, and rum. He made a good job of it, I hear tell, and is hankerin' round a'ter what is now in the creek; but I rather think I'll send the b'ys off with that. But what's that to the purpose? Didn't you tell me, young man, that your name is Mordaunt?"

"I did; and in so saying I told no more than the truth."

"And what may you call your given name? A'ter all, old woman," turning to the anxious wife and mother, who had drawn near to listen, having most probably been made acquainted with the nature of her son's suspicions-"a'ter all the b'y may be mistaken, and this young man as innocent as any one of your own flesh and blood."

"Mordaunt is what you call my 'given name,'" I answered, disdaining deception, "and Littlepage--" The hand of the Indian was suddenly placed on my mouth, stopping further utterance.

It was too late, however, for the friendly design of the Onondago, the squatters readily comprehending all I had intended to say. As for Prudence, she walked away; and I soon heard her calling all her younger children by name, to collect them near her person, as the hen gathers its chickens beneath the wing. Thousandacres took the matter very differently. His countenance grew dark, and he whispered a word to Lowiny, who departed on some errand with reluctant steps, as I thought, and eyes that did not always look in the direction she was walking.

"I see how it is! I see how it is!" exclaimed the squatter, with as much of suppressed indignation in his voice and mien as if his cause were that of offended innocence; "we've got a spy among us, and war-time's too fresh not to let us know how to deal with sich folks. Young man, what's your arr'nd down here, in my betterments, and beneath my ruff?"

"My errand, as you call it, Thousandacres, is to look after the property that is intrusted to my care. I am the son of General Littlepage, one of the owners of this spot, and the attorney of both."

"Oh! an attorney, be you?" cried the squatter, mistaking the attorney in fact for an attorney at law-a sort of being for whom he necessarily entertained a professional antipathy. "I'll attorney ye! If you or your gin'ral father thinks that Aaron Thousandacres is a man to have his territories invaded by the inimy, and keep his hands in his pockets the whull time, he's mistaken. Send 'em along, Lowiny, send along the b'ys, and let's see if we can't find lodgin's for this young attorney gin'ral, as well as board."

There was no mistaking the aspect of things now. Hostilities had commenced in a certain sense, and it became incumbent on me for the sake of safety to be on the alert. I knew that the Indian was armed; and, determined to defend my person if possible, I was resolved to avail myself of the use of his weapon should it become necessary. Stretching out an arm, and turning to the spot where Susquesus had just stood, to lay hold of his rifle, I discovered that he had disappeared.

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