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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 30304

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"The lawless herd, with fury blind,

Have done him cruel wrong;

The flowers are gone, but still we find,

The honey on his tongue."

-Cowper.

* * *

There I stood alone and unarmed, in the centre of six athletic men-for Lowiny had been sent to assemble her brothers, a business in which she was aided by Prudence's blowing a peculiar sort of blast on her conch-and as unable to resist as a child would have been in the hands of its parent. As a fruitless scuffle would have been degrading, as well as useless, I at once determined to submit, temporarily at least, or so long as submission did not infer disgrace, and was better than resistance. There did not seem to be any immediate disposition to lay violent hands on me, however, and there I stood, a minute or two, after I had missed Sureflint, surrounded by the whole brood of the squatter, young and old, male and female; some looking defiance, others troubled, and all anxious. As for myself, I will frankly own my sensations were far from pleasant; for I knew I was in the hands of the Philistines, in the depths of a forest, fully twenty miles from any settlement, and with no friends nearer than the party of the Chainbearer, who was at least two leagues distant, and altogether ignorant of my position as well as of my necessities. A ray of hope, however, gleamed in upon me through the probable agency of the Onondago.

Not for an instant did I imagine that long-known and well-tried friend of my father and the Chainbearer false. His character was too well established for that; and it soon occurred to me, that, foreseeing his own probable detention should he remain, he had vanished with a design to let the strait in which I was placed be known, and to lead a party to my rescue. A similar idea probably struck Thousandacres almost at the same instant; for, glancing his eye around him, he suddenly demanded-

"What has become of the redskin? The varmint has dodged away, as I'm an honest man! Nathaniel, Moses, and Daniel, to your rifles and on the trail. Bring the fellow in, if you can, with a whull skin; but if you can't, an Injin more or less will never be heeded in the woods."

I soon had occasion to note that the patriarchal government of Thousandacres was of a somewhat decided and prompt character. A few words went a great way in it, as was now apparent; for in less than two minutes after Aaron had issued his decree, those namesakes of the prophets and law-givers of old, Nathaniel, and Moses, and Daniel, were quitting the clearing on diverging lines, each carrying a formidable, long, American hunting-rifle in his hand. This weapon, so different in the degree of its power from the short military piece that has become known to modern warfare, was certainly in dangerous hands; for each of those young men had been familiar with his rifle from boyhood; gunpowder and liquor, with a little lead, composing nearly all the articles on which they lavished money for their amusement. I trembled for Susquesus; though I knew he must anticipate a pursuit, and was so well skilled in throwing off a chase as to have obtained the name of the Trackless. Still, the odds were against him; and experience has shown that the white man usually surpasses the Indian even in his own peculiar practices, when there have been opportunities to be taught. I could do no more, however, than utter a mental prayer for the escape of my friend.

"Bring that chap in here," added old Thousandacres, sternly, the moment he saw that his three sons were off; enough remaining to enforce that or any other order he might choose to issue. "Bring him into this room, and let us hold a court on him, sin' he is sich a lover of the law. If law he likes, law let him have. An attorney, is he? I warnt to know! What has an attorney to do with me and mine, out here in the woods?"

While this was in the course of being said, the squatter, and father of squatters, led the way into his own cabin, where he seated himself with an air of authority, causing the females and younger males of his brood to range themselves in a circle behind his chair. Seeing the folly of resistance, at a hint from Zephaniah I followed, the three young men occupying the place near the door, as a species of guard. In this manner we formed a sort of court, in which the old fellow figured as the investigating magistrate, and I figured as the criminal.

"An attorney, be you!" muttered Thousandacres, whose ire against me in my supposed, would seem to be more excited than it was against me in my real character, "B'ys, silence in the court; we'll give this chap as much law as he can stagger under, sin' he's of a law natur'. Everything shall be done accordin' to rule. Tobit," addressing his oldest son, a colossal figure of about six-and-twenty, "you've been in the law more than any on us, and can give us the word. What was't they did with you, first, when they had you up in Hampshire colony; the time when you and that other young man went across from the Varmount settlements to look for sheep? A raft of the critturs you did get atween you, though you was waylaid and robbed of all your hard 'arnin's afore you got back ag'in in the mountains. They dealt with you accordin' to law, 'twas said; now, what was the first thing done?"

"I was tuck [taken] afore the 'squire," answered Tobit Thousandacres, as he was often called, "who heerd the case, asked me what I had to say for myself, and then permitted me, as it was tarmed; so I went to jail until the trial came on, and I s'pose you know what come next, as well as I do."

I took it for granted that what "come next" was anything but pleasant in remembrance, the reason Tobit did not relish it even in description, inasmuch as sheep-stealers were very apt to get "forty save one" at the whipping-post, in that day, a species of punishment that was admirably adapted to the particular offence. We are getting among us a set of soi-disant philanthropists, who, in their great desire to coddle and reform rogues, are fast placing the punishment of offences on the honest portion of the community, for the especial benefit of their élèves. Some of these persons have already succeeded in cutting down all our whipping-posts, thereby destroying the cheapest and best mode of punishing a particular class of crimes that was ever intended or practised. A generation hence our children will feel the consequences of this mistaken philanthropy. In that day, let those who own fowl-houses, pig-pens, orchards, smoke-houses, and other similar temptations to small depredations, look to it, for I am greatly mistaken if the insecurity of their movables does not give the most unanswerable of all commentaries on this capital misstep. One whipping-post, discreetly used, will do more toward reforming a neighborhood than a hundred jails, with their twenty and thirty days' imprisonment.[15] I have as much disposition to care for the reformation of criminals as is healthful, if I know myself; but the great object of all the punishments of society, viz., its own security, ought never to be sacrificed to this, which is but a secondary consideration. Render character, person and property as secure as possible, in the first place, after which, try as many experiments in philanthropy as you please.

I am sorry to see how far the disposition to economize is extending itself in the administration of American justice generally. Under a government like that of this country, it is worse than idle, for it is perfectly futile to attempt to gratify the imagination by a display of its power through the agency of pomp and representation. Such things, doubtless, have their uses, and are not to be senselessly condemned until one has had an opportunity of taking near views of their effects; though useful, or the reverse, they can never succeed here. But these communities of ours have it in their power to furnish to the world a far more illustrious example of human prescience, and benevolent care, by their prompt, exact, and well-considered administration of justice-including the cases both in the civil and the criminal courts. With what pride might not the American retort, when derided for the simplicity of his executive, and the smallness of the national expenditure in matters of mere representation, could he only say-"True, we waste nothing on mere parade; but, turn to the courts, and to the justice of the country; which, after all, are the great aim of every good government. Look at the liberality of our expenditures for the command of the highest talent, in the first place; see with what generous care we furnish judges in abundance, to prevent them from being overworked, and to avoid ruinous delays to suitors; then turn to the criminal courts, and into, first, the entire justice of the laws; next, the care had in the selection of jurors; the thorough impartiality of all the proceedings; and, finally, when the right demands it, the prompt, unerring, and almost terrific majesty of punishment." But to return to something that is a good deal more like truth:-

"Yes, yes," rejoined Thousandacres, "there is no use in riling the feelin's, by talking of that" (meaning Tobit's sufferings, not at the stake, but at the post)-"a hint's as good as a description. You was taken afore a magistrate, was you-and he permitted you to prison-but he asked what you had to say for yourself, first? That was only fair, and I mean to act it all out here, accordin' to law. Come, young attorney, what have you got to say for yourself?"

It struck me that, alone as I was, in the hands of men who were a species of outlaws, it might be well to clear myself from every imputation that, at least, was not merited.

"In the first place," I answered, "I will explain a mistake into which you have fallen, Thousandacres; for, let us live as friends or foes, it is always best to understand facts. I am not an attorney, in the sense you imagine-I am not a lawyer."

I could see that the whole brood of squatters, Prudence included, was a good deal mollified by this declaration. As for Lowiny, her handsome, ruddy face actually expressed exultation and delight! I thought I heard that girl half suppress some such exclamation as-"I know'd he wasn't no lawyer!" As for Tobit, the scowling look, replete with cat-o'-nine-tails, actually departed, temporarily at least. In short, this announcement produced a manifest change for the better.

"No lawyer a'ter all!" exclaimed Thousandacres-"Didn't you say you was an attorney?"

"That much is true. I told you that I was the son of General Littlepage, and that I was his attorney, and that of Colonel Follock, the other tenant in common of this estate; meaning that I held their power of attorney to convey lands, and to transact certain other business in their names."

This caused me to lose almost as much ground as I had just gained, though, being the literal truth, I was resolved neither to conceal, nor to attempt to evade it.

"Good land!" murmured Lowiny. "Why couldn't the man say nothin' about all that?"

A reproving look from Prudence, rebuked the girl, and she remained silent afterward, for sometime.

"A power of attorney, is it!" rejoined the squatter. "Wa-a-l, that's not much better than being a downright lawyer. It's having the power of an attorney, I s'pose, and without their accursed power it's little I should kear for any of the breed. Then you're the son of that Gin'ral Littlepage, which is next thing to being the man himself. I should expect if Tobit, my oldest b'y, was to fall into the hands of some that might be named, it would go hard with him, all the same as if t'was myself. I know that some make a difference atween parents and children, but other some doesn't. What's that you said about this gin'ral's only being a common tenant of this land? How dares he to call himself it's owner, if he's only a common tenant?"

The reader is not to be surprised at Thousandacre's trifling blunders of this sort; for, those whose rule of right is present interest, frequently, in the eagerness of rapacity, fall into this very kind of error; holding that cheap at one moment, which they affect to deem sacred at the next. I dare say, if the old squatter had held a lease of the spot he occupied, he would at once have viewed the character and rights of a "common tenant," as connected with two of the most important interests of the country. It happened now, however, that it was "his bull that was goring our ox."

"How dares he to call himself the owner of the sile, when he's only a common tenant, I say?" repeated Thousandacres, with increasing energy, when he found I did not answer immediately.

"You have misunderstood my meaning. I did not say that my father was only a 'common tenant' of this property, but that he and Colonel Follock own it absolutely in common, each having his right in every acre, and not one owning one half while the other owns the other; which is what the law terms being 'tenants in common,' though strictly owners in fee."

"I shouldn't wonder, Tobit, if he turns out to be an attorney, in our meaning, a'ter all!"

"It looks desp'rately like it, father," answered the eldest born, who might have been well termed the heir at law of all his progenitor's squatting and fierce propensities. "If he isn't a downright lawyer, he looks more like one than any man I ever seed out of court, in my whull life."

"He'll find his match! Law and I have been at loggerheads ever sin' the day I first went into Varmount, or them plaguy Hampshire Grants. When law gets me in its clutches, it's no wonder if it gets the best on't; but, when I get law in mine, or one of its sarvants, it shall be my fault if law doesn't come out second best. Wa-a-l, we've heerd the young man's story, Tobit. I've asked him what he had to say for himself, and he has g'in us his tell-tell'd us how he's his own father's son, and that the gin'ral is some sort of a big tenant, instead of being a landlord, and isn't much better than we are ourselves; and it's high time I permitted him to custody. You had writin's for what they did to you, I dares to say, Tobit?"

"Sartain. The magistrate give the sheriff's deputy a permittimus, and on the strength of that, they permitted me to jail."

"Ye-e-es-I know all about their niceties and appearances! I have had dealin's afore many a magistrate, in my day, and have onsuited many a chap that thought to get the best on't afore we begun! Onsuiting the man that brings the suit, is the cleanest way of getting out of the law, as I knows on; but it takes a desp'rate long head sometimes to do it! Afore I permit this young man, I'll show writin's, too. Prudence, just onlock the drawer--"

"I wish to correct one mistake before you proceed further," interrupted I. "For the second time, I tell you I am no lawyer, in any sense of the word. I am a soldier-have commanded a company in General Littlepage's own regiment, and served with the army when only a boy in years. I saw both Burgoyne and Cornwallis surrender, and their troops lay down their arms."

"Good now! Who'd ha' though

t it!" exclaimed the compassionate Lowiny. "And he so young, that you'd hardly think the wind had ever blown on him!"

My announcement of this new character was not without a marked effect. Fighting was a thing to the whole family's taste, and what they could appreciate better, perhaps, than any other act or deed. There was something warlike in Thousandacres' very countenance and air, and I was not mistaken in supposing he might feel some little sympathy for a soldier. He eyed me keenly; and whether or not he discovered signs of the truth of my assertion in my mien, I saw that he once more relented in purpose.

"You out ag'in Burg'yne!" the old fellow exclaimed. "Can I believe what you say? Why, I was out ag'in Burg'yne myself, with Tobit and Moses, and Nathaniel and Jedediah-with every male crittur' of the family, in short, that was big enough to load and fire. I count them days as among my very best, though they did come late, and a'ter old age had made some head ag'in me. How can you prove you was out ag'in Burg'yne and Cornwallis?"

I knew that there was often a strange medley of soi-disant patriotic feeling mixed up with the most confirmed knavery in ordinary matters, and saw I had touched a chord that might thrill on the sympathies of even these rude and supremely selfish beings. The patriotism of such men, indeed, is nothing but an enlargement of selfishness, since they prize things because they belong to themselves, or they, in one sense, belong to the things. They take sides with themselves, but never with principles. That patriotism alone is pure, which would keep the country in the paths of truth, honor, and justice; and no man is empowered, in his zeal for his particular nation, any more than in his zeal, for himself, to forget the law of right.

"I cannot prove I was out against Burgoyne, standing here where I am, certainly," I answered; "but give me an opportunity, and I will show it to your entire satisfaction."

"Which rijiment was on the right, Hazen's or Brookes's, in storming the Jarmans? Tell me that, and I will soon let you know whether I believe you or not."

"I cannot tell you that fact, for I was with my own battalion, and the smoke would not permit such a thing to be seen. I do not know that either of the corps you mention was in that particular part of the field that day, though I believe both to have been warmly engaged."

"He warnt there," drawled out Tobit, in his most dissatisfied manner, almost showing his teeth, like a dog, under the impulse of the hatred he felt.

"He was there!" cried Lowiny, positively; "I know he was there!"

A slap from Prudence taught the girl the merit of silence; but the men were too much interested to heed an interruption as characteristic and as bootless as this.

"I see how it is," added Thousandacres; "I must permit the chap a'ter all. Seein', however, that there is a chance of his having been out ag'in Burg'yne, I'll permit him without writin's, and he shan't be bound. Tobit, take your prisoner away, and shut him up in the store'us'. When your brothers get back from their hunt a'ter the Injin, we'll detarmine among us what is to be done with him."

Thousandacres delivered his orders with dignity, and they were obeyed to the letter. I made no resistance, since it would only have led to a scuffle, in which I should have sustained the indignity of defeat, to say nothing of personal injuries. Tobit, however, did not offer personal violence, contenting himself with making a sign for me to follow him, which I did, followed in turn by his two double-jointed brothers. I will acknowledge that, as we proceeded toward my prison, the thought of flight crossed my mind; and I might have attempted it, but for the perfect certainty that, with so many on my heels, I must have been overtaken, when severe punishment would probably have been my lot. On the whole, I thought it best to submit for a time, and trust the future to Providence. As to remonstrance or deprecation, pride forbade my having recourse to either. I was not yet reduced so low as to solicit favors from a squatter.

The jail to which I was "permitted" by Thousandacres was a storehouse, or, as he pronounced the word, a "store'us," of logs, which had been made of sufficient strength to resist depredations, let them come from whom they might, and they were quite as likely to come from some within as from any without. In consequence of its destination, the building was not ill-suited to become a jail. The logs, of course, gave a sufficient security against the attempts of a prisoner without tools or implements of any sort, the roof being made of the same materials as the sides. There was no window, abundance of air and light entering through the fissures of the rough logs, which had open intervals between them; and the only artificial aperture was the door. This last was made of stout planks, and was well secured by heavy hinges, and strong bolts and locks. The building was of some size, too-twenty feet in length at least-one end of it, though then quite empty, having been intended and used as a crib for the grain that we Americans call, par excellence, corn. Into this building I entered, after having the large knife that most woodsmen carry taken from my pocket; and a search was made on my person for any similar implement that might aid me in an attempt to escape.

In that day America had no paper money, from the bay of Hudson to Cape Horn. Gold and silver formed the currency, and my pockets had a liberal supply of both, in the shape of joes and half-joes, dollars, halves, and quarters. Not a piece of coin, of any sort, was molested, however, these squatters not being robbers, in the ordinary signification of the term, but merely deluded citizens who appropriated the property of others to their own use, agreeably to certain great principles of morals that had grown up under their own peculiar relations to the rest of mankind, their immediate necessities and their convenience. I make no doubt that every member of the family of Thousandacres would spurn the idea of his or her being a vulgar thief, drawing some such distinctions in the premises as the Drakes, Morgans, Woodes, Rogers, and others of that school drew between themselves and the vulgar every day sea-robbers of the seventeenth century, though with far less reason. But robbers these squatters were not, except in one mode and that mode they almost raised to the dignity of respectable hostilities, by the scale on which they transacted business.

I was no sooner "locked-up" than I began a survey of my prison and the surrounding objects. There was no difficulty in doing either, the opening between the logs allowing of a clear reconnoissance on every side. With a view to keeping its contents in open sight, I fancy, the "store'us" was placed in the very centre of the settlement, having the mills, cabins, barns, sheds, and other houses, encircling it in a sort of hamlet. This circumstance, which would render escape doubly difficult, was, notwithstanding, greatly in favor of reconnoitring. I will now describe the results of my observations. As a matter of course, my appearance, the announcement of my character, and my subsequent arrest, were circumstances likely to produce a sensation in the family of the squatter. All the women had gathered around Prudence, near the door of her cabin, and the younger girls were attracted to that spot, as the particles of matter are known to obey the laws of affinity. The males, one boy of eight or ten years excepted, were collected near the mill, where Thousandacres, apparently, was holding a consultation with Tobit and the rest of the brotherhood, among whom, I fancy, was no one entitled to be termed an angel. Everybody seemed to be intently listening to the different speakers, the females often turning their eyes toward their male protectors, anxiously and with long protracted gazes. Indeed, many of them looked in that direction, even while they gave ear to the wisdom of Prudence herself.

The excepted boy had laid himself, in a lounging, American sort of an attitude, on a saw-log near my prison, and in a position that enabled him to see both sides of it, without changing his ground. By the manner in which his eyes were fastened on the "store'us" I was soon satisfied that he was acting in the character of a sentinel. Thus, my jail was certainly sufficiently secure, as the force of no man, unaided and without implements, could have broken a passage through the logs.

Having thus taken a look at the general aspect of things, I had leisure to reflect on my situation, and the probable consequences of my arrest. For my life I had no great apprehensions, not as much as I ought to have had under the circumstances; but it did not strike me that I was in any great danger on that score. The American character, in general, is not blood-thirsty, and that of New England less so, perhaps, than that of the rest of the country. Nevertheless, in a case of property the tenacity of the men of that quarter of the country was proverbial, and I came to the conclusion that I should be detained, if possible, until all the lumber could be got to market and disposed of, as the only means of reaping the fruit of past labor. The possibility depended on the escape or the arrest of Sureflint. Should that Indian be taken, Thousandacres and his family would be as secure as ever in their wilderness; but on the other hand, should he escape, I might expect to hear from my friends in the course of the day. By resorting to a requisition on 'Squire Newcome, who was a magistrate, my tenants might be expected to make an effort in my behalf, when the only grounds of apprehension would be the consequences of the struggle. The squatters were sometimes dangerous under excitement, and when sustaining each other, with arms in their hands, in what they fancy to be their hard-earned privileges. There is no end to the delusions of men on such subjects, self-interest seeming completely to blind their sense of right; and I have often met with cases in which parties who were trespassers, and in a moral view, robbers, ab origine, have got really to fancy that their subsequent labors (every new blow of the axe being an additional wrong) gave a sort of sanctity to possessions, in the defence of which they were willing to die. It is scarcely necessary to say that such persons look only at themselves, entirely disregarding the rights of others; but one wonders where the fruits of all the religious instruction of the country are to be found, when opinions so loose and acts so flagrant are constantly occurring among us. The fact is, land is so abundant, and such vast bodies lie neglected and seemingly forgotten by their owners, that the needy are apt to think indifference authorizes invasions on such unoccupied property; and their own labor once applied, they are quick to imagine that it gives them a moral and legal interest in the soil; though in the eye of the law, and of unbiased reason, each new step taken in what is called the improvement of a "betterment" is but a farther advance in the direction of wrong-doing.

I was reflecting on things of this sort, when, looking through the cracks of my prison, to ascertain the state of matters without, I was surprised by the appearance of a man on horseback, who was entering the clearing on its eastern side, seemingly quite at home in his course, though he was travelling without a foot-path to aid him. As this man had a pair of the common saddle-bags of the day on his horse, I at first took him for one of those practitioners of the healing art who are constantly met with in the new settlements, winding their way through stumps, logs, morasses and forests, the ministers of good or evil, I shall not pretend to say which. Ordinarily, families like that of Thousandacres do their own "doctoring"; but a case might occur that demanded the wisdom of the licensed leech; and I had just decided in my own mind that this must be one, when, as the stranger drew nearer, to my surprise I saw that it was no other than my late agent, Mr. Jason Newcome, and the moral and physical factotum of Ravensnest!

As the distance between the mill that 'Squire Newcome leased of me, and that which Thousandacres had set up on the property of Mooseridge, could not be less than five-and-twenty miles, the arrival of this visitor at an hour so early was a certain proof that he had left his own house long before the dawn. It was probably convenient to pass through the farms and dwellings of Ravensnest on the errand on which he was now bent, at an hour of the night or morning when darkness would conceal the movement. By timing his departure with the same judgment, it was obvious he could reach home under the concealment of the other end of the same mantle. In a word, this visit was evidently one, in the objects and incidents of which it was intended that the world at large should have no share.

The dialogues between the members of the family of Thousandacres ceased, the moment 'Squire Newcome came in view; though, as was apparent by the unmoved manner in which his approach was witnessed, the sudden appearance of this particular visitor produced neither surprise nor uneasiness. Although it must have been a thing to be desired by the squatters, to keep their "location" a secret, more especially since the peace left landlords at leisure to look after their lands, no one manifested any concern at discovering this arrival in their clearing of the nearest magistrate. Any one might see, by the manner of men, women, and children, that 'Squire Newcome was no stranger, and that his presence gave them no alarm. Even the early hour of his visit was most probably that to which they were accustomed, the quick-witted intellects of the young fry causing them to understand the reason quite as readily as was the case with their seniors. In a word, the guest was regarded as a friend rather than as an enemy.

Newcome was some little time, after he came into view, in reaching the hamlet, if the cluster of buildings can be so termed; and when he did alight, it was before the door of a stable, toward which one of the boys now scampered, to be in readiness to receive his horse. The beast disposed of, the 'squire advanced to the spot where Thousandacres and his elder sons still remained to receive him, or that near the mill. The manner in which all parties shook hands, and the cordiality of the salutations generally, in which Prudence and her daughters soon shared, betokened something more than amity, I fancied, for it looked very much like intimacy.

Jason Newcome remained in the family group some eight or ten minutes, and I could almost fancy the prescribed inquiries about the "folks" (anglice, folk), the "general state of health," and the character of the "times," ere the magistrate and the squatter separated themselves from the rest of the party, walking aside like men who had matters of moment to discuss, and that under circumstances which could dispense with the presence of any listeners.

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