The Deerslayer, by James Fenimore Cooper

Chapter 18

“Thus died she; never more on her

Shall sorrow light, or shame. She was not made

Through years or moons the inner weight to bear,

Which colder hearts endure till they are laid

By age in earth; her days and pleasure were

Brief but delightful — such as had not stayed

Long with her destiny; but she sleeps well

By the sea-shore whereon she loved to dwell.”

Byron. Don Juan, IV, lxxi.

The young men who had been sent out to reconnoitre, on the sudden appearance of Hetty, soon returned to report their want of success in making any discovery. One of them had even been along the beach as far as the spot opposite to the ark, but the darkness had completely concealed that vessel from his notice. Others had examined in different directions, and everywhere the stillness of night was added to the silence and solitude of the woods.

It was consequently believed that the girl had come alone, as on her former visit, and on some similar errand. The Iroquois were ignorant that the ark had left the castle, and there were movements projected, if not in the course of actual execution, by this time, which also greatly added to the sense of security. A watch was set, therefore, and all but the sentinels disposed themselves to sleep. Sufficient care was had to the safe keeping of the captive, without inflicting on him any unnecessary suffering; and, as for Hetty, she was permitted to find a place among the Indian girls in the best manner she could. She did not find the friendly offices of Hist, though her character not only bestowed impunity from pain and captivity, but it procured for her a consideration and an attention that placed her, on the score of comfort, quite on a level with the wild but gentle beings around her. She was supplied with a skin, and made her own bed on a pile of boughs a little apart from the huts. Here she was soon in a profound sleep, like all around her.

There were now thirteen men in the party, and three kept watch at a time. One remained in shadow, not far from the fire, however. His duty was to guard the captive, to take care that the fire neither blazed up so as to illuminate the spot, nor yet became wholly extinguished, and to keep an eye generally on the state of the camp. Another passed from one beach to the other, crossing the base of the point, while the third kept moving slowly around the strand on its outer extremity, to prevent a repetition of the surprise that had already taken place that night. This arrangement was far from being usual among savages, who ordinarily rely more on the secrecy of their movements, than or vigilance of this nature; but it had been called for by the peculiarity of the circumstances in which the Hurons were now placed. Their position was known to their foes, and it could not easily be changed at an hour which demanded rest. Perhaps, too, they placed most of their confidence on the knowledge of what they believed to be passing higher up the lake, and which, it was thought, would fully occupy the whole of the pale-faces who were at liberty, with their solitary Indian ally. It was also probable Rivenoak was aware that, in holding his captive, he had in his own hands the most dangerous of all his enemies.

The precision with which those accustomed to watchfulness, or lives of disturbed rest, sleep, is not the least of the phenomena of our mysterious being. The head is no sooner on the pillow than consciousness is lost; and yet, at a necessary hour, the mind appears to arouse the body, as promptly as if it had stood sentinel the while over it. There can be no doubt that they who are thus roused awake by the influence of thought over matter, though the mode in which this influence is exercised must remain hidden from our curiosity until it shall be explained, should that hour ever arrive, by the entire enlightenment of the soul on the subject of all human mysteries. Thus it was with Hetty Hutter. Feeble as the immaterial portion of her existence was thought to be, it was sufficiently active to cause her to open her eyes at midnight. At that hour she awoke, and leaving her bed of skin and boughs she walked innocently and openly to the embers of the fire, stirring the latter, as the coolness of the night and the woods, in connection with an exceedingly unsophisticated bed, had a little chilled her. As the flame shot up, it lighted the swarthy countenance of the Huron on watch, whose dark eyes glistened under its light like the balls of the panther that is pursued to his den with burning brands. But Hetty felt no fear, and she approached the spot where the Indian stood. Her movements were so natural, and so perfectly devoid of any of the stealthiness of cunning or deception, that he imagined she had merely arisen on account of the coolness of the night, a common occurrence in a bivouac, and the one of all others, perhaps, the least likely to excite suspicion. Hetty spoke to him, but he understood no English. She then gazed near a minute at the sleeping captive, and moved slowly away in a sad and melancholy manner. The girl took no pains to conceal her movements. Any ingenious expedient of this nature quite likely exceeded her powers; still her step was habitually light, and scarcely audible. As she took the direction of the extremity of the point, or the place where she had landed in the first adventure, and where Hist had embarked, the sentinel saw her light form gradually disappear in the gloom without uneasiness or changing his own position. He knew that others were on the look-out, and he did not believe that one who had twice come into the camp voluntarily, and had already left it openly, would take refuge in flight. In short, the conduct of the girl excited no more attention that that of any person of feeble intellect would excite in civilized society, while her person met with more consideration and respect.

Hetty certainly had no very distinct notions of the localities, but she found her way to the beach, which she reached on the same side of the point as that on which the camp had been made. By following the margin of the water, taking a northern direction, she soon encountered the Indian who paced the strand as sentinel. This was a young warrior, and when he heard her light tread coming along the gravel he approached swiftly, though with anything but menace in his manner. The darkness was so intense that it was not easy to discover forms within the shadows of the woods at the distance of twenty feet, and quite impossible to distinguish persons until near enough to touch them. The young Huron manifested disappointment when he found whom he had met; for, truth to say, he was expecting his favourite, who had promised to relieve the ennui of a midnight watch with her presence. This man was also ignorant of English, but he was at no loss to understand why the girl should be up at that hour. Such things were usual in an Indian village and camp, where sleep is as irregular as the meals. Then poor Hetty’s known imbecility, as in most things connected with the savages, stood her friend on this occasion. Vexed at his disappointment, and impatient of the presence of one he thought an intruder, the young warrior signed for the girl to move forward, holding the direction of the beach. Hetty complied; but as she walked away she spoke aloud in English in her usual soft tones, which the stillness of the night made audible at some little distance.

“If you took me for a Huron girl, warrior,” she said, “I don’t wonder you are so little pleased. I am Hetty Hutter, Thomas Hutter’s daughter, and have never met any man at night, for mother always said it was wrong, and modest young women should never do it; modest young women of the pale-faces, I mean; for customs are different in different parts of the world, I know. No, no; I’m Hetty Hutter, and wouldn’t meet even Hurry Harry, though he should fall down on his knees and ask me! Mother said it was wrong.”

By the time Hetty had said this, she reached the place where the canoes had come ashore, and, owing to the curvature of the land and the bushes, would have been completely hid from the sight of the sentinel, had it been broad day. But another footstep had caught the lover’s ear, and he was already nearly beyond the sound of the girl’s silvery voice. Still Hetty, bent only on her own thoughts and purposes, continued to speak, though the gentleness of her tones prevented the sounds from penetrating far into the woods. On the water they were more widely diffused.

“Here I am, Judith,” she added, “and there is no one near me. The Huron on watch has gone to meet his sweetheart, who is an Indian girl you know, and never had a Christian mother to tell her how wrong it is to meet a man at night.”

Hetty’s voice was hushed by a “Hist!” that came from the water, and then she caught a dim view of the canoe, which approached noiselessly, and soon grated on the shingle with its bow. The moment the weight of Hetty was felt in the light craft the canoe withdrew, stern foremost, as if possessed of life and volition, until it was a hundred yards from the shore. Then it turned and, making a wide sweep, as much to prolong the passage as to get beyond the sound of voices, it held its way towards the ark. For several minutes nothing was uttered; but, believing herself to be in a favourable position to confer with her sister, Judith, who alone sat in the stern, managing the canoe with a skill little short of that of a man, began a discourse which she had been burning to commence ever since they had quitted the point.

“Here we are safe, Hetty,” she said, “and may talk without the fear of being overheard. You must speak low, however, for sounds are heard far on the water in a still night. I was so close to the point some of the time while you were on it, that I have heard the voices of the warriors, and I heard your shoes on the gravel of the beach, even before you spoke.”

“I don’t believe, Judith, the Hurons know I have left them.”

“Quite likely they do not, for a lover makes a poor sentry, unless it be to watch for his sweetheart! But tell me, Hetty, did you see and speak with Deerslayer?”

“Oh, yes — there he was seated near the fire, with his legs tied, though they left his arms free, to move them as he pleased.”

“Well, what did he tell you, child? Speak quick; I am dying to know what message he sent me.”

“What did he tell me? why, what do you think, Judith; he told me that he couldn’t read! Only think of that! a white man, and not know how to read his Bible even! He never could have had a mother, sister!”

“Never mind that, Hetty. All men can’t read; though mother knew so much and taught us so much, father knows very little about books, and he can barely read the Bible you know.”

“Oh! I never thought fathers could read much, but mothers ought all to read, else how can they teach their children? Depend on it, Judith, Deerslayer could never have had a mother, else he would know how to read.”

“Did you tell him I sent you ashore, Hetty, and how much concern I feel for his misfortune?” asked the other, impatiently.

“I believe I did, Judith; but you know I am feeble-minded, and I may have forgotten. I did tell him you brought me ashore. And he told me a great deal that I was to say to you, which I remember well, for it made my blood run cold to hear him. He told me to say that his friends — I suppose you are one of them, sister?”

“How can you torment me thus, Hetty! Certainly, I am one of the truest friends he has on earth.”

“Torment you! yes, now I remember all about it. I am glad you used that word, Judith, for it brings it all back to my mind. Well, he said he might be tormented by the savages, but he would try to bear it as becomes a Christian white man, and that no one need be afeard — why does Deerslayer call it afeard, when mother always taught us to say afraid?”

“Never mind, dear Hetty, never mind that, now,” cried the other, almost gasping for breath. “Did Deerslayer really tell you that he thought the savages would put him to the torture? Recollect now, well, Hetty, for this is a most awful and serious thing.”

“Yes he did; and I remember it by your speaking about my tormenting you. Oh! I felt very sorry for him, and Deerslayer took all so quietly and without noise! Deerslayer is not as handsome as Hurry Harry, Judith, but he is more quiet.”

“He’s worth a million Hurrys! yes, he’s worth all the young men who ever came upon the lake put together,” said Judith, with an energy and positiveness that caused her sister to wonder. “He is true. There is no lie about Deerslayer. You, Hetty, may not know what a merit it is in a man to have truth, but when you get — no — I hope you will never know it. Why should one like you be ever made to learn the hard lesson to distrust and hate!”

Judith bowed her face, dark as it was, and unseen as she must have been by any eye but that of Omniscience, between her hands, and groaned. This sudden paroxysm of feeling, however, lasted but for a moment, and she continued more calmly, still speaking frankly to her sister, whose intelligence, and whose discretion in any thing that related to herself, she did not in the least distrust. Her voice, however, was low and husky, instead of having its former clearness and animation.

“It is a hard thing to fear truth, Hetty,” she said, “and yet do I more dread Deerslayer’s truth, than any enemy! One cannot tamper with such truth — so much honesty — such obstinate uprightness! But we are not altogether unequal, sister — Deerslayer and I? He is not altogether my superior?”

It was not usual for Judith so far to demean herself as to appeal to Hetty’s judgment. Nor did she often address her by the title of sister, a distinction that is commonly given by the junior to the senior, even where there is perfect equality in all other respects. As trifling departures from habitual deportment oftener strike the imagination than more important changes, Hetty perceived the circumstances, and wondered at them in her own simple way. Her ambition was a little quickened, and the answer was as much out of the usual course of things as the question; the poor girl attempting to refine beyond her strength.

“Superior, Judith!” she repeated with pride. “In what can Deerslayer be your superior? Are you not mother’s child — and does he know how to read — and wasn’t mother before any woman in all this part of the world? I should think, so far from supposing himself your superior, he would hardly believe himself mine. You are handsome, and he is ugly —”

“No, not ugly, Hetty,” interrupted Judith. “Only plain. But his honest face has a look in it that is far better than beauty. In my eyes, Deerslayer is handsomer than Hurry Harry.”

“Judith Hutter! you frighten me. Hurry is the handsomest mortal in the world — even handsomer than you are yourself; because a man’s good looks, you know, are always better than a woman’s good looks.”

This little innocent touch of natural taste did not please the elder sister at the moment, and she did not scruple to betray it. “Hetty, you now speak foolishly, and had better say no more on this subject,” she answered. “Hurry is not the handsomest mortal in the world, by many; and there are officers in the garrisons —” Judith stammered at the words —“there are officers in the garrisons, near us, far comelier than he. But why do you think me the equal of Deerslayer — speak of that, for I do not like to hear you show so much admiration of a man like Hurry Harry, who has neither feelings, manners, nor conscience. You are too good for him, and he ought to be told it, at once.”

“I! Judith, how you forget! Why I am not beautiful, and am feeble-minded.”

“You are good, Hetty, and that is more than can be said of Harry March. He may have a face, and a body, but he has no heart. But enough of this, for the present. Tell me what raises me to an equality with Deerslayer.”

“To think of you asking me this, Judith! He can’t read, and you can. He don’t know how to talk, but speaks worse than Hurry even; — for, sister, Harry doesn’t always pronounce his words right! Did you ever notice that?”

“Certainly, he is as coarse in speech as in everything else. But I fear you flatter me, Hetty, when you think I can be justly called the equal of a man like Deerslayer. It is true, I have been better taught; in one sense am more comely; and perhaps might look higher; but then his truth — his truth — makes a fearful difference between us! Well, I will talk no more of this; and we will bethink us of the means of getting him out of the hands of the Hurons. We have father’s chest in the ark, Hetty, and might try the temptation of more elephants; though I fear such baubles will not buy the liberty of a man like Deerslayer. I am afraid father and Hurry will not be as willing to ransom Deerslayer, as Deerslayer was to ransom them!”

“Why not, Judith? Hurry and Deerslayer are friends, and friends should always help one another.”

“Alas! poor Hetty, you little know mankind! Seeming friends are often more to be dreaded than open enemies; particularly by females. But you’ll have to land in the morning, and try again what can be done for Deerslayer. Tortured he shall not be, while Judith Hutter lives, and can find means to prevent it.”

The conversation now grew desultory, and was drawn out, until the elder sister had extracted from the younger every fact that the feeble faculties of the latter permitted her to retain, and to communicate. When Judith was satisfied — though she could never be said to be satisfied, whose feelings seemed to be so interwoven with all that related to the subject, as to have excited a nearly inappeasable curiosity — but, when Judith could think of no more questions to ask, without resorting to repetition, the canoe was paddled towards the scow. The intense darkness of the night, and the deep shadows which the hills and forest cast upon the water, rendered it difficult to find the vessel, anchored, as it had been, as close to the shore as a regard to safety rendered prudent. Judith was expert in the management of a bark canoe, the lightness of which demanded skill rather than strength; and she forced her own little vessel swiftly over the water, the moment she had ended her conference with Hetty, and had come to the determination to return. Still no ark was seen. Several times the sisters fancied they saw it, looming up in the obscurity, like a low black rock; but on each occasion it was found to be either an optical illusion, or some swell of the foliage on the shore. After a search that lasted half an hour, the girls were forced to the unwelcome conviction that the ark had departed. Most young women would have felt the awkwardness of their situation, in a physical sense, under the circumstances in which the sisters were left, more than any apprehensions of a different nature. Not so with Judith, however; and even Hetty felt more concern about the motives that might have influenced her father and Hurry, than any fears for her own safety.

“It cannot be, Hetty,” said Judith, when a thorough search had satisfied them both that no ark was to be found; “it cannot be that the Indians have rafted, or swum off and surprised our friends as they slept?”

“I don’t believe that Hist and Chingachgook would sleep until they had told each other all they had to say after so long a separation — do you, sister?”

“Perhaps not, child. There was much to keep them awake, but one Indian may have been surprised even when not asleep, especially as his thoughts may have been on other things. Still we should have heard a noise; for in a night like this, an oath of Hurry Harry’s would have echoed in the eastern hills like a clap of thunder.”

“Hurry is sinful and thoughtless about his words, Judith,” Hetty meekly and sorrowfully answered.

“No — no; ’tis impossible the ark could be taken and I not hear the noise. It is not an hour since I left it, and the whole time I have been attentive to the smallest sound. And yet, it is not easy to believe a father would willingly abandon his children!”

“Perhaps father has thought us in our cabin asleep, Judith, and has moved away to go home. You know we often move the ark in the night.”

“This is true, Hetty, and it must be as you suppose. There is a little more southern air than there was, and they have gone up the lake —” Judith stopped, for, as the last word was on her tongue, the scene was suddenly lighted, though only for a single instant, by a flash. The crack of a rifle succeeded, and then followed the roll of the echo along the eastern mountains. Almost at the same moment a piercing female cry rose in the air in a prolonged shriek. The awful stillness that succeeded was, if possible, more appalling than the fierce and sudden interruption of the deep silence of midnight. Resolute as she was both by nature and habit, Judith scarce breathed, while poor Hetty hid her face and trembled.

“That was a woman’s cry, Hetty,” said the former solemnly, “and it was a cry of anguish! If the ark has moved from this spot it can only have gone north with this air, and the gun and shriek came from the point. Can any thing have befallen Hist?”

“Let us go and see, Judith; she may want our assistance — for, besides herself, there are none but men in the ark.”

It was not a moment for hesitation, and ere Judith had ceased speaking her paddle was in the water. The distance to the point, in a direct line, was not great, and the impulses under which the girls worked were too exciting to allow them to waste the precious moments in useless precautions. They paddled incautiously for them, but the same excitement kept others from noting their movements. Presently a glare of light caught the eye of Judith through an opening in the bushes, and steering by it, she so directed the canoe as to keep it visible, while she got as near the land as was either prudent or necessary.

The scene that was now presented to the observation of the girls was within the woods, on the side of the declivity so often mentioned, and in plain view from the boat. Here all in the camp were collected, some six or eight carrying torches of fat-pine, which cast a strong but funereal light on all beneath the arches of the forest. With her back supported against a tree, and sustained on one side by the young sentinel whose remissness had suffered Hetty to escape, sat the female whose expected visit had produced his delinquency. By the glare of the torch that was held near her face, it was evident that she was in the agonies of death, while the blood that trickled from her bared bosom betrayed the nature of the injury she had received. The pungent, peculiar smell of gunpowder, too, was still quite perceptible in the heavy, damp night air. There could be no question that she had been shot. Judith understood it all at a glance. The streak of light had appeared on the water a short distance from the point, and either the rifle had been discharged from a canoe hovering near the land, or it had been fired from the ark in passing. An incautious exclamation, or laugh, may have produced the assault, for it was barely possible that the aim had been assisted by any other agent than sound. As to the effect, that was soon still more apparent, the head of the victim dropping, and the body sinking in death. Then all the torches but one were extinguished — a measure of prudence; and the melancholy train that bore the body to the camp was just to be distinguished by the glimmering light that remained. Judith sighed heavily and shuddered, as her paddle again dipped, and the canoe moved cautiously around the point. A sight had afflicted her senses, and now haunted her imagination, that was still harder to be borne, than even the untimely fate and passing agony of the deceased girl.

She had seen, under the strong glare of all the torches, the erect form of Deerslayer, standing with commiseration, and as she thought, with shame depicted on his countenance, near the dying female. He betrayed neither fear nor backwardness himself; but it was apparent by the glances cast at him by the warriors, that fierce passions were struggling in their bosoms. All this seemed to be unheeded by the captive, but it remained impressed on the memory of Judith throughout the night. No canoe was met hovering near the point. A stillness and darkness, as complete as if the silence of the forest had never been disturbed, or the sun had never shone on that retired region, now reigned on the point, and on the gloomy water, the slumbering woods, and even the murky sky. No more could be done, therefore, than to seek a place of safety; and this was only to be found in the centre of the lake. Paddling in silence to that spot, the canoe was suffered to drift northerly, while the girls sought such repose as their situation and feelings would permit.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37