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

Chapter 20.

Wandering, I found on my ruinous walk,

By the dial stone, aged and green,

One rose of the wilderness, left on its stalk,

To mark where a garden had been.

CAMPBELL.

It was not only broad daylight when Mabel awoke, but the sun had actually been up some time. Her sleep had been tranquil, for she rested on an approving conscience, and fatigue contributed to render it sweet; and no sound of those who had been so early in motion had interfered with her rest. Springing to her feet and rapidly dressing herself, the girl was soon breathing the fragrance of the morning in the open air. For the first time she was sensibly struck with the singular beauties, as well as with the profound retirement, of her present situation. The day proved to be one of those of the autumnal glory, so common to a climate that is more abused than appreciated, and its influence was every way inspiriting and genial. Mabel was benefitted by this circumstance; for, as she fancied, her heart was heavy on account of the dangers to which a father, whom she now began to love as women love when confidence is created, was exposed.

But the island seemed absolutely deserted. The previous night, the bustle of the arrival had given the spot an appearance of life which was now entirely gone; and our heroine had turned her eyes nearly around on every object in sight, before she caught a view of a single human being to remove the sense of utter solitude. Then, indeed, she beheld all who were left behind, collected in a group around a fire which might be said to belong to the camp. The person of her uncle, to whom she was so much accustomed, reassured Mabel; and she examined the remainder with a curiosity natural to her situation. Besides Cap and the Quartermaster, there were the Corporal, the three soldiers, and the woman who was cooking. The huts were silent and empty; and the low but tower-like summit of the blockhouse rose above the bushes, by which it was half concealed, in picturesque beauty. The sun was just casting its brightness into the open places of the glade, and the vault over her head was impending in the soft sublimity of the blue void. Not a cloud was visible, and she secretly fancied the circumstance might be taken as a harbinger of peace and security.

Perceiving that all the others were occupied with that great concern of human nature, a breakfast, Mabel walked, unobserved, towards an end of the island where she was completely shut out of view by the trees and bushes. Here she got a stand on the very edge of the water, by forcing aside the low branches, and stood watching the barely perceptible flow and re-flow of the miniature waves which laved the shore; a sort of physical echo to the agitation that prevailed on the lake fifty miles above her. The glimpses of natural scenery that offered were very soft and pleasing; and our heroine, who had a quick eye for all that was lovely in nature, was not slow in selecting the most striking bits of landscape. She gazed through the different vistas formed by the openings between the islands, and thought she had never looked on aught more lovely.

While thus occupied, Mabel was suddenly alarmed by fancying that she caught a glimpse of a human form among the bushes that lined the shore of the island which lay directly before her. The distance across the water was not a hundred yards; and, though she might be mistaken, and her fancy was wandering when the form passed before her sight, still she did not think she could be deceived. Aware that her sex would be no protection against a rifle bullet, should an Iroquois get a view of her, the girl instinctively drew back, taking care to conceal her person as much as possible by the leaves, while she kept her own look riveted on the opposite shore, vainly waiting for some time in the expectation of the stranger. She was about to quit her post in the bushes and hasten to her uncle, in order to acquaint him of her suspicions, when she saw the branch of an alder thrust beyond the fringe of bushes on the other island, and waved towards her significantly, and as she fancied in token of amity. This was a breathless and a trying moment to one as inexperienced in frontier warfare as our heroine and yet she felt the great necessity that existed for preserving her recollection, and of acting with steadiness and discretion.

It was one of the peculiarities of the exposure to which those who dwelt on the frontiers of America were liable, to bring out the moral qualities of the women to a degree which they must themselves, under other circumstances, have believed they were incapable of manifesting; and Mabel well knew that the borderers loved to dwell in their legends on the presence of mind, fortitude, and spirit that their wives and sisters had displayed under circumstances the most trying. Her emulation had been awakened by what she had heard on such subjects; and it at once struck her that now was the moment for her to show that she was truly Sergeant Dunham’s child. The motion of the branch was such as she believed indicated amity; and, after a moment’s hesitation, she broke off a twig, fastened it to a stick and, thrusting it through an opening, waved it in return, imitating as closely as possible the manner of the other.

This dumb show lasted two or three minutes on both sides, when Mabel perceived that the bushes opposite were cautiously pushed aside, and a human face appeared at an opening. A glance sufficed to let Mabel see that it was the countenance of a red-skin, as well as that of a woman. A second and a better look satisfied her that it was the face of the Dew-of-June, the wife of Arrowhead. During the time she had travelled in company with this woman, Mabel had been won by the gentleness of manner, the meek simplicity, and the mingled awe and affection with which she regarded her husband. Once or twice in the course of the journey she fancied the Tuscarora had manifested towards herself an unpleasant degree of attention; and on those occasions it had struck her that his wife exhibited sorrow and mortification. As Mabel, however, had more than compensated for any pain she might in this way unintentionally have caused her companion, by her own kindness of manner and attentions, the woman had shown much attachment to her, and they had parted, with a deep conviction on the mind of our heroine that in the Dew-of-June she had lost a friend.

It is useless to attempt to analyze all the ways by which the human heart is led into confidence. Such a feeling, however, had the young Tuscarora woman awakened in the breast of our heroine; and the latter, under the impression that this extraordinary visit was intended for her own good, felt every disposition to have a closer communication. She no longer hesitated about showing herself clear of the bushes, and was not sorry to see the Dew-of-June imitate her confidence, by stepping fearlessly out of her own cover. The two girls, for the Tuscarora, though married, was even younger than Mabel, now openly exchanged signs of friendship, and the latter beckoned to her friend to approach, though she knew not the manner herself in which this object could be effected. But the Dew-of-June was not slow in letting it be seen that it was in her power; for, disappearing in a moment, she soon showed herself again in the end of a bark canoe, the bows of which she had drawn to the edge of the bushes, and of which the body still lay in a sort of covered creek. Mabel was about to invite her to cross, when her own name was called aloud in the stentorian voice of her uncle. Making a hurried gesture for the Tuscarora girl to conceal herself, Mabel sprang from the bushes and tripped up the glade towards the sound, and perceived that the whole party had just seated themselves at breakfast; Cap having barely put his appetite under sufficient restraint to summon her to join them. That this was the most favorable instant for the interview flashed on the mind of Mabel; and, excusing herself on the plea of not being prepared for the meal, she bounded back to the thicket, and soon renewed her communications with the young Indian woman.

Dew-of-June was quick of comprehension; and with half a dozen noiseless strokes of the paddles, her canoe was concealed in the bushes of Station Island. In another minute, Mabel held her hand, and was leading her through the grove towards her own hut. Fortunately the latter was so placed as to be completely hid from the sight of those at the fire, and they both entered it unseen. Hastily explaining to her guest, in the best manner she could, the necessity of quitting her for a short time, Mabel, first placing the Dew-of-June in her own room, with a full certainty that she would not quit it until told to do so, went to the fire and took her seat among the rest, with all the composure it was in her power to command.

“Late come, late served, Mabel,” said her uncle, between mouthfuls of broiled salmon; for though the cookery might be very unsophisticated on that remote frontier, the viands were generally delicious — “late come, late served; it is a good rule, and keeps laggards up to their work.”

“I am no laggard, Uncle; for I have been stirring nearly an hour, and exploring our island.”

“It’s little you’ll make o’ that, Mistress Mabel,” put in Muir; “that’s little by nature. Lundie — or it might be better to style him Major Duncan in this presence” (this was said in consideration of the corporal and the common men, though they were taking their meal a little apart)—“has not added an empire to his Majesty’s dominions in getting possession of this island, which is likely to equal that of the celebrated Sancho in revenues and profits — Sancho, of whom, doubtless, Master Cap, you’ll often have been reading in your leisure hours, more especially in calms and moments of inactivity.”

“I know the spot you mean, Quartermaster; Sancho’s Island — coral rock, of new formation, and as bad a landfall, in a dark night and blowing weather, as a sinner could wish to keep clear of. It’s a famous place for cocoanuts and bitter water, that Sancho’s Island.”

“It’s no’ very famous for dinners,” returned Muir, repressing the smile which was struggling to his lips out of respect to Mabel; “nor do I think there’ll be much to choose between its revenue and that of this spot. In my judgment, Master Cap, this is a very unmilitary position, and I look to some calamity befalling it, sooner or later.”

“It is to be hoped not until our turn of duty is over,” observed Mabel. “I have no wish to study the French language.”

“We might think ourselves happy, did it not prove to be the Iroquois. I have reasoned with Major Duncan on the occupation of this position, but ‘a wilfu’ man maun ha’ his way.’ My first object in accompanying this party was to endeavor to make myself acceptable and useful to your beautiful niece, Master Cap; and the second was to take such an account of the stores that belong to my particular department as shall leave no question open to controversy, concerning the manner of expenditure, when they shall have disappeared by means of the enemy.”

“Do you look upon matters as so serious?” demanded Cap, actually suspending his mastication of a bit of venison — for he passed alternately from fish to flesh and back again — in the interest he took in the answer. “Is the danger pressing?”

“I’ll no’ say just that; and I’ll no’ say just the contrary. There is always danger in war, and there is more of it at the advanced posts than at the main encampment. It ought, therefore, to occasion no surprise were we to be visited by the French at any moment.”

“And what the devil is to be done in that case? Six men and two women would make but a poor job in defending such a place as this, should the enemy invade us; as, no doubt, Frenchman-like, they would take very good care to come strong-handed.”

“That we may depend on — some very formidable force at the very lowest. A military disposition might be made in defence of the island, out of all question, and according to the art of war, though we would probably fail in the force necessary to carry out the design in any very creditable manner. In the first place, a detachment should be sent off to the shore, with orders to annoy the enemy in landing; a strong party ought instantly to be thrown into the blockhouse, as the citadel, for on that all the different detachments would naturally fall back for support, as the French advanced; and an entrenched camp might be laid out around the stronghold, as it would be very unmilitary indeed to let the foe get near enough to the foot of the walls to mine them. Chevaux-de-frise would keep the cavalry in check; and as for the artillery, redoubts should be thrown up under cover of yon woods. Strong skirmishing parties, moreover, would be exceedingly serviceable in retarding the march of the enemy; and these different huts, if properly piqueted and ditched, would be converted into very eligible positions for that object.”

“Whe-e-e-w-, Quartermaster! And who the d —-l is to find all the men to carry out such a plan?”

“The king, out of all question, Master Cap. It is his quarrel, and it’s just he should bear the burthen o’ it.”

“And we are only six! This is fine talking, with a vengeance. You could be sent down to the shore to oppose the landing, Mabel might skirmish with her tongue at least, the soldier’s wife might act chevaux-de-frise to entangle the cavalry, the corporal should command the entrenched camp, his three men could occupy the five huts, and I would take the blockhouse. Whe-e-e-w! you describe well, Lieutenant; and should have been a limner instead of a soldier.”

“Na, I’ve been very literal and upright in my exposition of matters. That there is no greater force here to carry out the plan is a fault of his Majesty’s ministers, and none of mine.”

“But should our enemy really appear,” asked Mabel, with more interest than she might have shown, had she not remembered the guest in the hut, “what course ought we to pursue?”

“My advice would be to attempt to achieve that, pretty Mabel, which rendered Xenophon so justly celebrated.”

“I think you mean a retreat, though I half guess at your allusion.”

“You’ve imagined my meaning from the possession of a strong native sense, young lady. I am aware that your worthy father has pointed out to the Corporal certain modes and methods by which he fancies this island could be held, in case the French should discover its position; but the excellent Sergeant, though your father, and as good a man in his duties as ever wielded a spontoon, is not the great Lord Stair, or even the Duke of Marlborough. I’ll not deny the Sergeant’s merits in his particular sphere; though I cannot exaggerate qualities, however excellent, into those of men who may be in some trifling degree his superiors. Sergeant Dunham has taken counsel of his heart, instead of his head, in resolving to issue such orders; but, if the fort fall, the blame will lie on him that ordered it to be occupied, and not on him whose duty it was to defend it. Whatever may be the determination of the latter, should the French and their allies land, a good commander never neglects the preparations necessary to effect a retreat; and I would advise Master Cap, who is the admiral of our navy, to have a boat in readiness to evacuate the island, if need comes to need. The largest boat that we have left carries a very ample sail; and by hauling it round here, and mooring it under those bushes, there will be a convenient place for a hurried embarkation; and then you’ll perceive, pretty Mabel, that it is scarcely fifty yards before we shall be in a channel between two other islands, and hid from the sight of those who may happen to be on this.”

“All that you say is very true, Mr. Muir; but may not the French come from that quarter themselves? If it is so good for a retreat, it is equally good for an advance.”

“They’ll no’ have the sense to do so discreet a thing,” returned Muir, looking furtively and a little uneasily around him; “they’ll no’ have sufficient discretion. Your French are a head-over-heels nation, and usually come forward in a random way; so we may look for them, if they come at all, on the other side of the island.”

The discourse now became exceedingly desultory, touching principally, however, on the probabilities of an invasion, and the best means of meeting it.

To most of this Mabel paid but little attention; though she felt some surprise that Lieutenant Muir, an officer whose character for courage stood well, should openly recommend an abandonment of what appeared to her to be doubly a duty, her father’s character being connected with the defence of the island. Her mind, however, was so much occupied with her guest, that, seizing the first favorable moment, she left the table, and was soon in her own hut again. Carefully fastening the door, and seeing that the simple curtain was drawn before the single little window, Mabel next led the Dew-of-June, or June, as she was familiarly termed by those who spoke to her in English, into the outer room, making signs of affection and confidence.

“I am glad to see you, June,” said Mabel, with one of her sweetest smiles, and in her own winning voice — “very glad to see you. What has brought you hither, and how did you discover the island?”

“Speak slow,” said June, returning smile for smile, and pressing the little hand she held with one of her own that was scarcely larger, though it had been hardened by labor; “more slow — too quick.”

Mabel repeated her questions, endeavoring to repress the impetuosity of her feelings; and she succeeded in speaking so distinctly as to be understood.

“June, friend,” returned the Indian woman.

“I believe you, June — from my soul I believe you; what has this to do with your visit?”

“Friend come to see friend,” answered June, again smiling openly in the other’s face.

“There is some other reason, June, else would you never run this risk, and alone. You are alone, June?”

“June wid you, no one else. June come alone, paddle canoe.”

“I hope so, I think so — nay, I know so. You would not be treacherous with me, June?”

“What treacherous?”

“You would not betray me, would not give me to the French, to the Iroquois, to Arrowhead?”

June shook her head earnestly.

“You would not sell my scalp?”

Here June passed her arm fondly around the slender waist of Mabel and pressed her to her heart with a tenderness and affection that brought tears into the eyes of our heroine. It was done in the fond caressing manner of a woman, and it was scarcely possible that it should not obtain credit for sincerity with a young and ingenuous person of the same sex. Mabel returned the pressure, and then held the other off at the length of her arm, looked her steadily in the face, and continued her inquiries.

“If June has something to tell her friend, let her speak plainly,” she said. “My ears are open.”

“June ‘fraid Arrowhead kill her.”

“But Arrowhead will never know it.” Mabel’s blood mounted to her temples as she said this; for she felt that she was urging a wife to be treacherous to her husband. “That is, Mabel will not tell him.”

“He bury tomahawk in June’s head.”

“That must never be, dear June; I would rather you should say no more than run this risk.”

“Blockhouse good place to sleep, good place to stay.”

“Do you mean that I may save my life by keeping in the blockhouse, June? Surely, surely, Arrowhead will not hurt you for telling me that. He cannot wish me any great harm, for I never injured him.”

“Arrowhead wish no harm to handsome pale-face,” returned June, averting her face; and, though she always spoke in the soft, gentle voice of an Indian girl, now permitting its notes to fall so low as to cause them to sound melancholy and timid. “Arrowhead love pale-face girl.”

Mabel blushed, she knew not why, and for a moment her questions were repressed by a feeling of inherent delicacy. But it was necessary to know more, for her apprehensions had been keenly awakened, and she resumed her inquiries.

“Arrowhead can have no reason to love or to hate me,” she said. “Is he near you?”

“Husband always near wife, here,” said June, laying her hand on her heart.

“Excellent creature! But tell me, June, ought I to keep in the blockhouse to-day — this morning — now?”

“Blockhouse very good; good for women. Blockhouse got no scalp.”

“I fear I understand you only too well, June. Do you wish to see my father?”

“No here; gone away.”

“You cannot know that, June; you see the island is full of his soldiers.”

“No full; gone away,"— here June held up four of her fingers — “so many red-coats.”

“And Pathfinder? would you not like to see the Pathfinder? He can talk to you in the Iroquois tongue.”

“Tongue gone wid him,” said June, laughing; “keep tongue in his mout’.”

There was something so sweet and contagious in the infantile laugh of an Indian girl, that Mabel could not refrain from joining in it, much as her fears were aroused by all that had passed.

“You appear to know, or to think you know, all about us, June. But if Pathfinder be gone, Eau-douce can speak French too. You know Eau-douce; shall I run and bring him to talk with you?”

“Eau-douce gone too, all but heart; that there.” As June said this, she laughed again; looked in different directions, as if unwilling to confuse the other, and laid her hand on Mabel’s bosom.

Our heroine had often heard of the wonderful sagacity of the Indians, and of the surprising manner in which they noted all things, while they appeared to regard none; but she was scarcely prepared for the direction the discourse had so singularly taken. Willing to change it, and at the same time truly anxious to learn how great the danger that impended over them might really be, she rose from the camp-stool on which she had been seated; and, by assuming an attitude of less affectionate confidence, she hoped to hear more of that she really desired to learn, and to avoid allusions to that which she found so embarrassing.

“You know how much or how little you ought to tell me, June,” she said; “and I hope you love me well enough to give me the information I ought to hear. My dear uncle, too, is on the island, and you are, or ought to be, his friend as well as mine; and both of us will remember your conduct when we get back to Oswego.”

“Maybe, never get back; who know?” This was said doubtingly, or as one who lays down an uncertain proposition, and not with a taunt, or a desire to alarm.

“No one knows what will happen but God. Our lives are in His hands. Still, I think you are to be His instrument in saving us.”

This passed June’s comprehension, and she only looked her ignorance; for it was evident she wished to be of use.

“Blockhouse very good,” she repeated, as soon as her countenance ceased to express uncertainty, laying strong emphasis on the last two words.

“Well, I understand this, June, and will sleep in it to-night. Of course I am to tell my uncle what you have said?”

The Dew-of-June started, and she discovered a very manifest uneasiness at the interrogatory.

“No, no, no, no!” she answered, with a volubility and vehemence that was imitated from the French of the Canadas; “no good to tell Saltwater. He much talk and long tongue. Thinks woods all water, understand not’ing. Tell Arrowhead, and June die.”

“You do my dear uncle injustice, for he would be as little likely to betray you as any one.”

“No understand. Saltwater got tongue, but no eyes, no ears, no nose — not’ing but tongue, tongue, tongue!”

Although Mabel did not exactly coincide in this opinion, she saw that Cap had not the confidence of the young Indian woman, and that it was idle to expect she would consent to his being admitted to their interview.

“You appear to think you know our situation pretty well, June,” Mabel continued; “have you been on the island before this visit?”

“Just come.”

“How then do you know that what you say is true? My father, the Pathfinder, and Eau-douce may all be here within sound of my voice, if I choose to call them.”

“All gone,” said June positively, smiling good-humoredly at the same time.

“Nay, this is more than you can say certainly, not having been over the island to examine it.”

“Got good eyes; see boat with men go away — see ship with Eau-douce.”

“Then you have been some time watching us: I think, however, you have not counted them that remain.”

June laughed, held up her four fingers again, and then pointed to her two thumbs; passing a finger over the first, she repeated the words “red-coats;” and touching the last, she added, “Saltwater,” “Quartermaster.” All this was being very accurate, and Mabel began to entertain serious doubts as to the propriety of her permitting her visitor to depart without her becoming more explicit. Still it was so repugnant to her feelings to abuse the confidence this gentle and affectionate creature had evidently reposed in her, that Mabel had no sooner admitted the thought of summoning her uncle, than she rejected it as unworthy of herself and unjust to her friend. To aid this good resolution, too, there was the certainty that June would reveal nothing, but take refuge in a stubborn silence, if any attempt were made to coerce her.

“You think, then, June,” Mabel continued, as soon as these thoughts had passed through her mind, “that I had better live in the blockhouse?”

“Good place for woman. Blockhouse got no scalp. Logs t’ick.”

“You speak confidently, June; as if you had been in it, and had measured its walls.”

June laughed; and she looked knowing, though she said nothing.

“Does any one but yourself know how to find this island? Have any of the Iroquois seen it?”

June looked sad, and she cast her eyes warily about her, as if distrusting a listener.

“Tuscarora, everywhere — Oswego, here, Frontenac, Mohawk — everywhere. If he see June, kill her.”

“But we thought that no one knew of this island, and that we had no reason to fear our enemies while on it.”

“Much eye, Iroquois.”

“Eyes will not always do, June, This spot is hid from ordinary sight, and few of even our own people know how to find it.”

“One man can tell; some Yengeese talk French.”

Mabel felt a chill at her heart. All the suspicions against Jasper, which she had hitherto disdained entertaining, crowded in a body on her thoughts; and the sensation that they brought was so sickening, that for an instant she imagined she was about to faint. Arousing herself, and remembering her promise to her father, she arose and walked up and down the hut for a minute, fancying that Jasper’s delinquencies were naught to her, though her inmost heart yearned with the desire to think him innocent.

“I understand your meaning, June,” she then said; “you wish me to know that some one has treacherously told your people where and how to find the island?”

June laughed, for in her eyes artifice in war was oftener a merit than a crime; but she was too true to her tribe herself to say more than the occasion required. Her object was to save Mabel, and Mabel only; and she saw no sufficient reason for “travelling out of the record,” as the lawyers express it, in order to do anything else.

“Pale-face know now,” she added. “Blockhouse good for girl, no matter for men and warriors.”

“But it is much matter with me, June; for one of those men is my uncle, whom I love, and the others are my countrymen and friends. I must tell them what has passed.”

“Then June be kill,” returned the young Indian quietly, though she evidently spoke with concern.

“No; they shall not know that you have been here. Still, they must be on their guard, and we can all go into the blockhouse.”

“Arrowhead know, see everything, and June be kill. June come to tell young pale-face friend, not to tell men. Every warrior watch his own scalp. June woman, and tell woman; no tell men.”

Mabel was greatly distressed at this declaration of her wild friend, for it was now evident the young creature understood that her communication was to go no further. She was ignorant how far these people consider the point of honor interested in her keeping the secret; and most of all was she unable to say how far any indiscretion of her own might actually commit June and endanger her life. All these considerations flashed on her mind, and reflection only rendered their influence more painful. June, too, manifestly viewed the matter gravely; for she began to gather up the different little articles she had dropped in taking Mabel’s hand, and was preparing to depart. To attempt detaining her was out of the question; and to part from her, after all she had hazarded to serve her, was repugnant to all the just and kind feelings of our heroine’s nature.

“June,” said she eagerly, folding her arms round the gentle but uneducated being, “we are friends. From me you have nothing to fear, for no one shall know of your visit. If you could give me some signal just before the danger comes, some sign by which to know when to go into the blockhouse, how to take care of myself.”

June paused, for she had been in earnest in her intention to depart; and then she said quietly, “Bring June pigeon.”

“A pigeon! Where shall I find a pigeon to bring you?”

“Next hut; bring old one; June go to canoe.”

“I think I understand you, June; but had I not better lead you back to the bushes, lest you meet some of the men?”

“Go out first; count men, one, two, t’ree, four, five, six”— here June held up her fingers, and laughed —“all out of the way — good; all but one, call him one side. Then sing, and fetch pigeon.”

Mabel smiled at the readiness and ingenuity of the girl, and prepared to execute her requests. At the door, however, she stopped, and looked back entreatingly at the Indian woman. “Is there no hope of your telling me more, June?” she said.

“Know all now, blockhouse good, pigeon tell, Arrowhead kill.”

The last words sufficed; for Mabel could not urge further communications, when her companion herself told her that the penalty of her revelations might be death by the hand of her husband. Throwing open the door, she made a sign of adieu to June, and went out of the hut. Mabel resorted to the simple expedient of the young Indian girl to ascertain the situation of the different individuals on the island. Instead of looking about her with the intention of recognizing faces and dresses, she merely counted them; and found that three still remained at the fire, while two had gone to the boat, one of whom was Mr. Muir. The sixth man was her uncle; and he was coolly arranging some fishing-tackle at no great distance from the fire. The woman was just entering her own hut; and this accounted for the whole party. Mabel now, affecting to have dropped something, returned nearly to the hut she had left, warbling an air, stooped as if to pick up some object from the ground, and hurried towards the hut June had mentioned. This was a dilapidated structure, and it had been converted by the soldiers of the last detachment into a sort of storehouse for their live stock. Among other things, it contained a few dozen pigeons, which were regaling on a pile of wheat that had been brought off from one of the farms plundered on the Canada shore. Mabel had not much difficulty in catching one of these pigeons, although they fluttered and flew about the hut with a noise like that of drums; and, concealing it in her dress, she stole back towards her own hut with the prize. It was empty; and, without doing more than cast a glance in at the door, the eager girl hurried down to the shore. She had no difficulty in escaping observation, for the trees and bushes made a complete cover to her person. At the canoe she found June, who took the pigeon, placed it in a basket of her own manufacturing, and, repeating the words, “blockhouse good,” she glided out of the bushes and across the narrow passage, as noiselessly as she had come. Mabel waited some time to catch a signal of leave-taking or amity after her friend had landed, but none was given. The adjacent islands, without exception, were as quiet as if no one had ever disturbed the sublime repose of nature, and nowhere could any sign or symptom be discovered, as Mabel then thought, that might denote the proximity of the sort of danger of which June had given notice.

On returning, however, from the shore, Mabel was struck with a little circumstance, that, in an ordinary situation, would have attracted no attention, but which, now that her suspicions had been aroused, did not pass before her uneasy eye unnoticed. A small piece of red bunting, such as is used in the ensigns of ships, was fluttering at the lower branch of a small tree, fastened in a way to permit it to blow out, or to droop like a vessel’s pennant.

Now that Mabel’s fears were awakened, June herself could not have manifested greater quickness in analyzing facts that she believed might affect the safety of the party. She saw at a glance that this bit of cloth could be observed from an adjacent island; that it lay so near the line between her own hut and the canoe as to leave no doubt that June had passed near it, if not directly under it; and that it might be a signal to communicate some important fact connected with the mode of attack to those who were probably lying in ambush near them. Tearing the little strip of bunting from the tree, Mabel hastened on, scarcely knowing what her duty next required of her. June might be false to her, but her manner, her looks, her affection, and her disposition as Mabel had known it in the journey, forbade the idea. Then came the allusion to Arrowhead’s admiration of the pale-face beauties, some dim recollections of the looks of the Tuscarora, and a painful consciousness that few wives could view with kindness one who had estranged a husband’s affections. None of these images were distinct and clear, but they rather gleamed over the mind of our heroine than rested in it, and they quickened her pulses, as they did her step, without bringing with them the prompt and clear decisions that usually followed her reflections. She had hurried onwards towards the hut occupied by the soldier’s wife, intending to remove at once to the blockhouse with the woman, though she could persuade no other to follow, when her impatient walk was interrupted by the voice of Muir.

“Whither so fast, pretty Mabel?” he cried; “and why so given to solitude? The worthy Sergeant will deride my breeding, if he hear that his daughter passes the mornings alone and unattended to, though he well knows it is my ardent wish to be her slave and companion from the beginning of the year to its end.”

“Surely, Mr. Muir, you must have some authority here?” Mabel suddenly arrested her steps to say. “One of your rank would be listened to, at least, by a corporal?”

“I don’t know that, I don’t know that,” interrupted Muir, with an impatience and appearance of alarm that might have excited Mabel’s attention at another moment. “Command is command; discipline, discipline; and authority, authority. Your good father would be sore grieved did he find me interfering to sully or carry off the laurels he is about to win; and I cannot command the Corporal without equally commanding the Sergeant. The wisest way will be for me to remain in the obscurity of a private individual in this enterprise; and it is so that all parties, from Lundie down, understand the transaction.”

“This I know, and it may be well, nor would I give my dear father any cause of complaint; but you may influence the Corporal to his own good.”

“I’ll no’ say that,” returned Muir in his sly Scotch way; “it would be far safer to promise to influence him to his injury. Mankind, pretty Mabel, have their peculiarities; and to influence a fellow-being to his own good is one of the most difficult tasks of human nature, while the opposite is just the easiest. You’ll no’ forget this, my dear, but bear it in mind for your edification and government. But what is that you’re twisting round your slender finger as you may be said to twist hearts?”

“It is nothing but a bit of cloth — a sort of flag — a trifle that is hardly worth our attention at this grave moment. If —”

“A trifle! It’s no’ so trifling as ye may imagine, Mistress Mabel,” taking the bit of bunting from her, and stretching it at full length with both his arms extended, while his face grew grave and his eye watchful. “Ye’ll no’ ha’ been finding this, Mabel Dunham, in the breakfast?”

Mabel simply acquainted him with the spot where and the manner in which she had found the bit of cloth. While she was speaking, the eye of the Quartermaster was not quiet for a moment, glancing from the rag to the face of our heroine, then back again to the rag. That his suspicions were awakened was easy to be seen, nor was he long in letting it be known what direction they had taken.

“We are not in a part of the world where our ensigns and gauds ought to be spread abroad to the wind, Mabel Dunham!” he said, with an ominous shake of the head.

“I thought as much myself, Mr. Muir, and brought away the little flag lest it might be the means of betraying our presence here to the enemy, even though nothing is intended by its display. Ought not my uncle to be made acquainted with the circumstance?”

“I no’ see the necessity for that, pretty Mabel; for, as you justly say, it is a circumstance, and circumstances sometimes worry the worthy mariner. But this flag, if flag it can be called, belongs to a seaman’s craft. You may perceive that it is made of what is called bunting, and that is a description of cloth used only by vessels for such purposes, our colors being of silk, as you may understand, or painted canvas. It’s surprisingly like the fly of the Scud’s ensign. And now I recollect me to have observed that a piece had been cut from that very flag.”

Mabel felt her heart sink, but she had sufficient self-command not to attempt an answer.

“It must be looked to,” Muir continued, “and, after all, I think it may be well to hold a short consultation with Master Cap, than whom a more loyal subject does not exist in the British empire.”

“I have thought the warning so serious,” Mabel rejoined, “that I am about to remove to the blockhouse, and to take the woman with me.”

“I do not see the prudence of that, Mabel. The blockhouse will be the first spot assailed should there really be an attack; and it’s no’ well provided for a siege, that must be allowed. If I might advise in so delicate a contingency, I would recommend your taking refuge in the boat, which, as you may now perceive, is most favorably placed to retreat by that channel opposite, where all in it would be hid by the islands in one or two minutes. Water leaves no trail, as Pathfinder well expresses it; and there appears to be so many different passages in that quarter that escape would be more than probable. I’ve always been of opinion that Lundie hazarded too much in occupying a post so far advanced and so much exposed as this.”

“It’s too late to regret it now, Mr. Muir, and we have only to consult our own security.”

“And the king’s honor, pretty Mabel. Yes, his Majesty’s arms and his glorious name are not to be overlooked on any occasion.”

“Then I think it might be better if we all turned our eyes towards the place that has been built to maintain them instead of the boat,” said Mabel, smiling; “and so, Mr. Muir, I am for the blockhouse, intending to await there the return of my father and his party. He would be sadly grieved at finding we had fled when he got back successful himself, and filled with the confidence of our having been as faithful to our duties as he has been to his own.”

“Nay, nay, for heaven’s sake, do not misunderstand me, Mabel!” Muir interrupted, with some alarm of manner; “I am far from intimating that any but you females ought to take refuge in the boat. The duty of us men is sufficiently plain, no doubt, and my resolution has been formed from the first to stand or fall by the blockhouse.”

“And did you imagine, Mr. Muir, that two females could row that heavy boat in a way to escape the bark canoe of an Indian?”

“Ah, my pretty Mabel, love is seldom logical, and its fears and misgivings are apt to warp the faculties. I only saw your sweet person in the possession of the means of safety, and overlooked the want of ability to use them; but you’ll not be so cruel, lovely creature, as to impute to me as a fault my intense anxiety on your own account.”

Mabel had heard enough: her mind was too much occupied with what had passed that morning, and with her fears, to wish to linger longer to listen to love speeches, which in her most joyous and buoyant moments she would have found unpleasant. She took a hasty leave of her companion, and was about to trip away towards the hilt of the other woman, when Muir arrested the movement by laying a hand on her arm.

“One word, Mabel,” said he, “before you leave me. This little flag may, or it may not, have a particular meaning; if it has, now that we are aware of its being shown, may it not be better to put it back again, while we watch vigilantly for some answer that may betray the conspiracy; and if it mean nothing, why, nothing will follow.”

“This may be all right, Mr. Muir, though, if the whole is accidental, the flag might be the occasion of the fort’s being discovered.”

Mabel stayed to utter no more; but she was soon out of sight, running into the hut towards which she had been first proceeding. The Quartermaster remained on the very spot and in the precise attitude in which she had left him for quite a minute, first looking at the bounding figure of the girl and then at the bit of bunting, which he still held before him in a way to denote indecision. His irresolution lasted but for this minute, however; for he was soon beneath the tree, where he fastened the mimic flag to a branch again, though, from his ignorance of the precise spot from which it had been taken by Mabel, he left it fluttering from a part of the oak where it was still more exposed than before to the eyes of any passenger on the river, though less in view from the island itself.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cooper/james_fenimore/pathfinder/chapter20.html

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