The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea, by James Fenimore Cooper

Chapter 17.

His still refuted quirks he still repeats;

New-raised objections with new quibbles meets,

Till sinking in the quicksand he defends,

He dies disputing, and the contest ends.

COWPER.

As the soldier’s wife was sick in her berth, Mabel Dunham was the only person in the outer cabin when Jasper returned to it; for, by an act of grace in the Sergeant, he had been permitted to resume his proper place in this part of the vessel. We should be ascribing too much simplicity of character to our heroine, if we said that she had felt no distrust of the young man in consequence of his arrest; but we should also be doing injustice to her warmth of feeling and generosity of disposition, if we did not add, that this distrust was insignificant and transient. As he now took his seat near her, his whole countenance clouded with the uneasiness he felt concerning the situation of the cutter, everything like suspicion was banished from her mind, and she saw in him only an injured man.

“You let this affair weigh too heavily on your mind, Jasper,” said she eagerly, or with that forgetfulness of self with which the youthful of her sex are wont to betray their feelings when a strong and generous interest has attained the ascendency; “no one who knows you can, or does, believe you guilty. Pathfinder says he will pledge his life for you.”

“Then you, Mabel,” returned the youth, his eyes flashing fire, “do not look upon me as the traitor your father seems to believe me to be?”

“My dear father is a soldier, and is obliged to act as one. My father’s daughter is not, and will think of you as she ought to think of a man who has done so much to serve her already.”

“Mabel, I’m not used to talking with one like you, or saying all I think and feel with any. I never had a sister, and my mother died when I was a child, so that I know little what your sex most likes to hear —”

Mabel would have given the world to know what lay behind the teeming word at which Jasper hesitated; but the indefinable and controlling sense of womanly diffidence made her suppress her curiosity. She waited in silence for him to explain his own meaning.

“I wish to say, Mabel,” the young man continued, after a pause which he found sufficiently embarrassing, “that I am unused to the ways and opinions of one like you, and that you must imagine all I would add.”

Mabel had imagination enough to fancy anything, but there are ideas and feelings that her sex prefer to have expressed before they yield them all their own sympathies, and she had a vague consciousness that these of Jasper might properly be enumerated in the class. With a readiness that belonged to her sex, therefore, she preferred changing the discourse to permitting it to proceed any further in a manner so awkward and so unsatisfactory.

“Tell me one thing, Jasper, and I shall be content,” said she, speaking now with a firmness which denoted confidence, not only in herself, but in her companion: “you do not deserve this cruel suspicion which rests upon you?”

“I do not, Mabel!” answered Jasper, looking into her full blue eyes with an openness and simplicity that might have shaken stronger distrust. “As I hope for mercy hereafter, I do not!”

“I knew it — I could have sworn it!” returned the girl warmly. “And yet my father means well; — but do not let this matter disturb you, Jasper.”

“There is so much more to apprehend from another quarter just now, that I scarcely think of it.”

“Jasper!”

“I do not wish to alarm you, Mabel; but if your uncle could be persuaded to change his notions about handling the Scud: and yet he is so much more experienced than I am, that he ought, perhaps, to place more reliance on his own judgment than on mine.”

“Do you think the cutter in any danger?” demanded Mabel, quick as thought.

“I fear so; at least she would have been thought in great danger by us of the lake; perhaps an old seaman of the ocean may have means of his own to take care of her.”

“Jasper, all agree in giving you credit for skill in managing the Scud. You know the lake, you know the cutter; you must be the best judge of our real situation.”

“My concern for you, Mabel, may make me more cowardly than common; but, to be frank, I see but one method of keeping the cutter from being wrecked in the course of the next two or three hours, and that your uncle refuses to take. After all, this may be my ignorance; for, as he says, Ontario is merely fresh water.”

“You cannot believe this will make any difference. Think of my dear father, Jasper! Think of yourself; of all the lives that depend on a timely word from you to save them.”

“I think of you, Mabel, and that is more, much more, than all the rest put together!” returned the young man, with a strength of expression and an earnestness of look that uttered infinitely more than the words themselves.

Mabel’s heart beat quickly, and a gleam of grateful satisfaction shot across her blushing features; but the alarm was too vivid and too serious to admit of much relief from happier thoughts. She did not attempt to repress a look of gratitude, and then she returned to the feeling which was naturally uppermost.

“My uncle’s obstinacy must not be permitted to occasion this disaster. Go once more on deck, Jasper; and ask my father to come into the cabin.”

While the young man was complying with this request, Mabel sat listening to the howling of the storm and the dashing of the water against the cutter, in a dread to which she had hitherto been a stranger. Constitutionally an excellent sailor, as the term is used among passengers, she had not hitherto bethought her of any danger, and had passed her time since the commencement of the gale in such womanly employments as her situation allowed; but now that alarm was seriously awakened, she did not fail to perceive that never before had she been on the water in such a tempest. The minute or two which elapsed before the Sergeant came appeared an hour, and she scarcely breathed when she saw him and Jasper descending the ladder in company. Quick as language could express her meaning, she acquainted her father with Jasper’s opinion of their situation; and entreated him, if he loved her, or had any regard for his own life, or for those of his men, to interfere with her uncle, and to induce him to yield the control of the cutter again to its proper commander.

“Jasper is true, father,” added she earnestly; “and if false, he could have no motive in wrecking us in this distant part of the lake at the risk of all our lives, his own included. I will pledge my own life for his truth.”

“Ay, this is well enough for a young woman who is frightened,” answered the more phlegmatic parent; “but it might not be so excusable in one in command of an expedition. Jasper may think the chance of drowning in getting ashore fully repaid by the chance of escaping as soon as he reaches the land.”

“Sergeant Dunham!”

“Father!”

These exclamations were made simultaneously, but they were uttered in tones expressive of different feelings. In Jasper, surprise was the emotion uppermost; in Mabel reproach. The old soldier, however, was too much accustomed to deal frankly with subordinates to heed either; and after a moment’s thought, he continued as if neither had spoken. “Nor is brother Cap a man likely to submit to be taught his duty on board a vessel.”

“But, father, when all our lives are in the utmost jeopardy!”

“So much the worse. The fair-weather commander is no great matter; it is when things go wrong that the best officer shows himself in his true colors. Charles Cap will not be likely to quit the helm because the ship is in danger. Besides, Jasper Eau-douce, he says your proposal in itself has a suspicious air about it, and sounds more like treachery than reason.”

“He may think so; but let him send for the pilot and hear his opinion. It is well known that I have not seen the man since yesterday evening.”

“This does sound reasonably, and the experiment shall be tried. Follow me on deck then, that all may be honest and above-board.”

Jasper obeyed, and so keen was the interest of Mabel, that she too ventured as far as the companion-way, where her garments were sufficiently protected against the violence of the wind and her person from the spray. Here maiden modesty induced her to remain, though an absorbed witness of what was passing.

The pilot soon appeared, and there was no mistaking the look of concern that he cast around at the scene as soon as he was in the open air. Some rumors of the situation of the Scud had found their way below, it is true; but in this instance rumor had lessened instead of magnifying the danger. He was allowed a few minutes to look about him, and then the question was put as to the course which he thought it prudent to follow.

“I see no means of saving the cutter but to anchor,” he answered simply, and without hesitation.

“What! out here in the lake?” inquired Cap, as he had previously done of Jasper.

“No: but closer in; just at the outer line of the breakers.”

The effect of this communication was to leave no doubt in the mind of Cap that there was a secret arrangement between her commander and the pilot to cast away the Scud; most probably with the hope of effecting their escape. He consequently treated the opinion of the latter with the indifference he had manifested towards that of the former.

“I tell you, brother Dunham,” said he, in answer to the remonstrances of the Sergeant against his turning a deaf ear to this double representation, “that no seaman would give such an opinion honestly. To anchor on a lee shore in a gale of wind would be an act of madness that I could never excuse to the underwriters, under any circumstances, so long as a rag can be set; but to anchor close to breakers would be insanity.”

“His Majesty underwrites the Scud, brother, and I am responsible for the lives of my command. These men are better acquainted with Lake Ontario than we can possibly be, and I do think their telling the same tale entitles them to some credit.”

“Uncle!” said Mabel earnestly; but a gesture from Jasper induced the girl to restrain her feelings.

“We are drifting down upon the breakers so rapidly,” said the young man, “that little need be said on the subject. Half an hour must settle the matter, one way or the other; but I warn Master Cap that the surest-footed man among us will not be able to keep his feet an instant on the deck of this low craft, should she fairly get within them. Indeed I make little doubt that we shall fill and founder before the second line of rollers is passed.”

“And how would anchoring help the matter?” demanded Cap furiously, as if he felt that Jasper was responsible for the effects of the gale, as well as for the opinion he had just given.

“It would at least do no harm,” Eau-douce mildly replied. “By bringing the cutter head to sea we should lessen her drift; and even if we dragged through the breakers, it would be with the least possible danger. I hope, Master Cap, you will allow the pilot and myself to prepare for anchoring, since the precaution may do good, and can do no harm.”

“Overhaul your ranges, if you will, and get your anchors clear, with all my heart. We are now in a situation that cannot be much affected by anything of that sort. Sergeant, a word with you aft here, if you please.”

Cap led his brother-in-law out of ear-shot; and then, with more of human feeling in his voice and manner than he was apt to exhibit, he opened his heart on the subject of their real situation.

“This is a melancholy affair for poor Mabel,” said he, blowing his nose, and speaking with a slight tremor. “You and I, Sergeant, are old fellows, and used to being near death, if not to actually dying; our trades fit us for such scenes; but poor Mabel! — she is an affectionate and kind-hearted girl, and I had hoped to see her comfortably settled, and a mother, before my time came. Well, well! we must take the bad with the good in every v’y’ge; and the only serious objection that an old seafaring man can with propriety make to such an event is, that it should happen on this bit of d —— d fresh water.”

Sergeant Dunham was a brave man, and had shown his spirit in scenes that looked much more appalling than this; but on all such occasions he had been able to act his part against his foes, while here he was pressed upon by an enemy whom he had no means of resisting. For himself he cared far less than for his daughter, feeling some of that self-reliance which seldom deserts a man of firmness who is in vigorous health, and who has been accustomed to personal exertions in moments of jeopardy; but as respects Mabel he saw no means of escape, and, with a father’s fondness, he at once determined that, if either was doomed to perish, he and his daughter must perish together.

“Do you think this must come to pass?” he asked of Cap firmly, but with strong feeling.

“Twenty minutes will carry us into the breakers; and look for yourself, Sergeant: what chance will even the stoutest man among us have in that caldron to leeward?”

The prospect was, indeed, little calculated to encourage hope. By this time the Scud was within a mile of the shore, on which the gale was blowing at right angles, with a violence that forbade the idea of showing any additional canvas with a view to claw off. The small portion of the mainsail actually set, and which merely served to keep the head of the Scud so near the wind as to prevent the waves from breaking over her, quivered under the gusts, as if at each moment the stout threads which held the complicated fabric together were about to be torn asunder. The drizzle had ceased; but the air, for a hundred feet above the surface of the lake, was filled with dazzling spray, which had an appearance not unlike that of a brilliant mist, while above all the sun was shining gloriously in a cloudless sky. Jasper had noted the omen, and had foretold that it announced a speedy termination to the gale, though the next hour or two must decide their fate. Between the cutter and the shore the view was still more wild and appalling. The breakers extended nearly half a mile; while the water within their line was white with foam, the air above them was so far filled with vapor and spray as to render the land beyond hazy and indistinct. Still it could be seen that the latter was high — not a usual thing for the shores of Ontario — and that it was covered with the verdant mantle of the interminable forest.

While the Sergeant and Cap were gazing at this scene in silence, Jasper and his people were actively engaged on the forecastle. No sooner had the young man received permission to resume his old employment, than, appealing to some of the soldiers for aid, he mustered five or six assistants, and set about in earnest the performance of a duty which had been too long delayed. On these narrow waters anchors are never stowed in-board, or cables that are intended for service unbent, and Jasper was saved much of the labor that would have been necessary in a vessel at sea. The two bowers were soon ready to be let go, ranges of the cables were overhauled, and then the party paused to look about them. No changes for the better had occurred, but the cutter was falling slowly in, and each instant rendered it more certain that she could not gain an inch to windward.

One long, earnest survey of the lake ended, Jasper gave new orders in a similar manner to prove how much he thought that the time pressed. Two kedges were got on deck, and hawsers were bent to them; the inner ends of the hawsers were bent, in their turns, to the crowns of the anchors, and everything was got ready to throw them overboard at the proper moment. These preparations completed, Jasper’s manner changed from the excitement of exertion to a look of calm but settled concern. He quitted the forecastle, where the seas were dashing inboard at every plunge of the vessel, the duty just mentioned having been executed with the bodies of the crew frequently buried in the water, and walked to a drier part of the deck, aft. Here he was met by the Pathfinder, who was standing near Mabel and the Quartermaster. Most of those on board, with the exception of the individuals who have already been particularly mentioned, were below, some seeking relief from physical suffering on their pallets, and others tardily bethinking them of their sins. For the first time, most probably, since her keel had dipped into the limpid waters of Ontario, the voice of prayer was, heard on board the Scud.

“Jasper,” commenced his friend, the guide, “I have been of no use this morning, for my gifts are of little account, as you know, in a vessel like this; but, should it please God to let the Sergeant’s daughter reach the shore alive, my acquaintance with the forest may still carry her through in safety to the garrison.”

“’Tis a fearful distance thither, Pathfinder!” Mabel rejoined, the party being so near together that all which was said by one was overheard by the others. “I am afraid none of us could live to reach the fort.”

“It would be a risky path, Mabel, and a crooked one; though some of your sex have undergone even more than that in this wilderness. But, Jasper, either you or I, or both of us, must man this bark canoe; Mabel’s only chance will lie in getting through the breakers in that.”

“I would willingly man anything to save Mabel,” answered Jasper, with a melancholy smile; “but no human hand, Pathfinder, could carry that canoe through yonder breakers in a gale like this. I have hopes from anchoring, after all; for once before have we saved the Scud in an extremity nearly as great as this.”

“If we are to anchor, Jasper,” the Sergeant inquired, “why not do it at once? Every foot we lose in drifting now would come into the distance we shall probably drag when the anchors are let go.”

Jasper drew nearer to the Sergeant, and took his hand, pressing it earnestly, and in a way to denote strong, almost uncontrollable feelings.

“Sergeant Dunham,” said he solemnly, “you are a good man, though you have treated me harshly in this business. You love your daughter?”

“That you cannot doubt, Eau-douce,” returned the Sergeant huskily.

“Will you give her — give us all — the only chance for life that is left?”

“What would you have me do, boy, what would you have me do? I have acted according to my judgment hitherto — what would you have me do?”

“Support me against Master Cap for five minutes, and all that man can do towards saving the Scud shall be done.”

The Sergeant hesitated, for he was too much of a disciplinarian to fly in the face of regular orders. He disliked the appearance of vacillation, too; and then he had a profound respect for his kinsman’s seamanship. While he was deliberating, Cap came from the post he had some time occupied, which was at the side of the man at the helm, and drew nigh the group.

“Master Eau-douce,” said he, as soon as near enough to be heard, “I have come to inquire if you know any spot near by where this cutter can be beached? The moment has arrived when we are driven to this hard alternative.”

That instant of indecision on the part of Cap secured the triumph of Jasper. Looking at the Sergeant, the young man received a nod that assured him of all he asked, and he lost not one of those moments that were getting to be so very precious.

“Shall I take the helm,” he inquired of Cap, “and see if we can reach a creek that lies to leeward?”

“Do so, do so,” said the other, hemming to clear his throat; for he felt oppressed by a responsibility that weighed all the heavier on his shoulders on account of his ignorance. “Do so, Eau-douce, since, to be frank with you, I can see nothing better to be done. We must beach or swamp.”

Jasper required no more; springing aft, he soon had the tiller in his own hands. The pilot was prepared for what was to follow; and, at a sign from his young commander, the rag of sail that had so long been set was taken in. At that moment, Jasper, watching his time, put the helm up; the head of a staysail was loosened forward, and the light cutter, as if conscious she was now under the control of familiar hands, fell off, and was soon in the trough of the sea. This perilous instant was passed in safety, and at the next moment the little vessel appeared flying down toward the breakers at a rate that threatened instant destruction. The distances had become so short, that five or six minutes sufficed for all that Jasper wished, and he put the helm down again, when the bows of the Scud came up to the wind, notwithstanding the turbulence of the waters, as gracefully as the duck varies its line of direction on the glassy pond. A sign from Jasper set all in motion on the forecastle, and a kedge was thrown from each bow. The fearful nature of the drift was now apparent even to Mabel’s eyes, for the two hawsers ran out like tow-lines. As soon as they straightened to a slight strain, both anchors were let go, and cable was given to each, nearly to the better-ends. It was not a difficult task to snub so light a craft with ground-tackle of a quality better than common; and in less than ten minutes from the moment when Jasper went to the helm, the Scud was riding, head to sea, with the two cables stretched ahead in lines that resembled bars of iron.

“This is not well done, Master Jasper!” angrily exclaimed Cap, as soon as he perceived the trick which had been played him; “this is not well done, sir. I order you to cut, and to beach the cutter without a moment’s delay.”

No one, however, seemed disposed to comply with this order; for so long as Eau-douce saw fit to command, his own people were disposed to obey. Finding that the men remained passive, Cap, who believed they were in the utmost peril, turned fiercely to Jasper, and renewed his remonstrances.

“You did not head for your pretended creek,” added he, after dealing in some objurgatory remarks that we do not deem it necessary to record, “but steered for that bluff, where every soul on board would have been drowned, had we gone ashore.”

“And you wish to cut, and put every soul ashore at that very spot!” Jasper retorted, a little drily.

“Throw a lead-line overboard, and ascertain the drift!” Cap now roared to the people forward. A sign from Jasper sustaining this order, it was instantly obeyed. All on deck watched, with nearly breathless interest, the result of the experiment. The lead was no sooner on the bottom, than the line tended forward, and in about two minutes it was seen that the cutter had drifted her length dead in towards the bluff. Jasper looked gravely, for he well knew nothing would hold the vessel did she get within the vortex of the breakers, the first line of which was appearing and disappearing about a cable’s length directly under their stern.

“Traitor!” exclaimed Cap, shaking a finger at the young commander, though passion choked the rest. “You must answer for this with your life!” he added after a short pause. “If I were at the head of this expedition, Sergeant, I would hang him at the end of the main-boom, lest he escape drowning.”

“Moderate your feelings, brother; be more moderate, I beseech you; Jasper appears to have done all for the best, and matters may not be so bad as you believe them.”

“Why did he not run for the creek he mentioned? — why has he brought us here, dead to windward of that bluff, and to a spot where even the breakers are only of half the ordinary width, as if in a hurry to drown all on board?”

“I headed for the bluff, for the precise reason that the breakers are so narrow at this spot,” answered Jasper mildly, though his gorge had risen at the language the other held.

“Do you mean to tell an old seaman like me that this cutter could live in those breakers?”

“I do not, sir. I think she would fill and swamp if driven into the first line of them; I am certain she would never reach the shore on her bottom, if fairly entered. I hope to keep her clear of them altogether.”

“With a drift of her length in a minute?”

“The backing of the anchors does not yet fairly tell, nor do I even hope that they will entirely bring her up.”

“On what, then, do you rely? To moor a craft, head and stern, by faith, hope, and charity?”

“No, sir, I trust to the under-tow. I headed for the bluff because I knew that it was stronger at that point than at any other, and because we could get nearer in with the land without entering the breakers.”

This was said with spirit, though without any particular show of resentment. Its effect on Cap was marked, the feeling that was uppermost being evidently that of surprise.

“Under-tow!” he repeated; “who the devil ever heard of saving a vessel from going ashore by the under-tow?”

“This may never happen on the ocean, sir,” Jasper answered modestly; “but we have known it to happen here.”

“The lad is right, brother,” put in the Sergeant; “for, though I do not well understand it, I have often heard the sailors of the lake speak of such a thing. We shall do well to trust to Jasper in this strait.”

Cap grumbled and swore; but, as there was no remedy, he was compelled to acquiesce. Jasper, being now called on to explain what he meant by the under-tow, gave this account of the matter. The water that was driven up on the shore by the gale was necessarily compelled to find its level by returning to the lake by some secret channels. This could not be done on the surface, where both wind and waves were constantly urging it towards the land, and it necessarily formed a sort of lower eddy, by means of which it flowed back again to its ancient and proper bed. This inferior current had received the name of the under-tow, and, as it would necessarily act on the bottom of a vessel which drew as much water as the Scud, Jasper trusted to the aid of this reaction to keep his cables from parting. In short, the upper and lower currents would, in a manner, counteract each other.

Simple and ingenious as was this theory, however, as yet there was little evidence of its being reduced to practice. The drift continued; though, as the kedges and hawsers with which the anchors were backed took the strains, it became sensibly less. At length the man at the lead announced the joyful intelligence that the anchors had ceased to drag, and that the vessel had brought up! At this precise moment the first line of breakers was about a hundred feet astern of the Scud, even appearing to approach much nearer as the foam vanished and returned on the raging surges. Jasper sprang forward, and, casting a glance over the bows, he smiled in triumph, as he pointed exultingly to the cables. Instead of resembling bars of iron in rigidity, as before, they were curving downwards, and to a seaman’s senses it was evident that the cutter rose and fell on the seas as they came in with the ease of a ship in a tides-way, when the power of the wind is relieved by the counteracting pressure of the water.

“’Tis the under-tow!” he exclaimed with delight, fairly bounding along the deck to steady the helm, in order that the cutter might ride still easier. “Providence has placed us directly in its current, and there is no longer any danger.”

“Ay, ay, Providence is a good seaman,” growled Cap, “and often helps lubbers out of difficulty. Under-tow or upper-tow, the gale has abated; and, fortunately for us all, the anchors have met with good holding-ground. Then this d —— d fresh water has an unnatural way with it.”

Men are seldom inclined to quarrel with good fortune, but it is in distress that they grow clamorous and critical. Most on board were disposed to believe that they had been saved from shipwreck by the skill and knowledge of Jasper, without regarding the opinions of Cap, whose remarks were now little heeded.

There was half an hour of uncertainty and doubt, it is true, during which period the lead was anxiously watched; and then a feeling of security came over all, and the weary slept without dreaming of instant death.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:40