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

Chapter 29.

Playful she turn’d that he might see

The passing smile her cheek put on;

But when she marked how mournfully

His eyes met hers, that smile was gone.

Lalla Rookh.

The occurrences of the last few days had been too exciting, and had made too many demands on the fortitude of our heroine, to leave her in the helplessness of grief. She mourned for her father, and she occasionally shuddered as she recalled the sudden death of Jennie, and all the horrible scenes she had witnessed; but on the whole she had aroused herself, and was no longer in the deep depression which usually accompanies grief. Perhaps the overwhelming, almost stupefying sorrow that crushed poor June, and left her for nearly twenty-four hours in a state of stupor, assisted Mabel in conquering her own feelings, for she had felt called on to administer consolation to the young Indian woman. This she had done in the quiet, soothing, insinuating way in which her sex usually exerts its influence on such occasions.

The morning of the third day was set for that on which the Scud was to sail. Jasper had made all his preparations; the different effects were embarked, and Mabel had taken leave of June, a painful and affectionate parting. In a word, all was ready, and every soul had left the island but the Indian woman, Pathfinder, Jasper, and our heroine. The former had gone into a thicket to weep, and the three last were approaching the spot where three canoes lay, one of which was the property of June, and the other two were in waiting to carry the others off to the Scud. Pathfinder led the way, but, when he drew near the shore, instead of taking the direction to the boats, he motioned to his companions to follow, and proceeded to a fallen tree which lay on the margin of the glade and out of view of those in the cutter. Seating himself on the trunk, he signed to Mabel to take her place on one side of him and to Jasper to occupy the other.

“Sit down here Mabel; sit down there, Eau-douce,” he commenced, as soon as he had taken his own seat. “I’ve something that lies heavy on my mind, and now is the time to take it off, if it’s ever to be done. Sit down, Mabel, and let me lighten my heart, if not my conscience, while I’ve the strength to do it.”

The pause that succeeded lasted two or three minutes, and both the young people wondered what was to come next; the idea that Pathfinder could have any weight on his conscience seeming equally improbable to each.

“Mabel,” our hero at length resumed, “we must talk plainly to each other afore we join your uncle in the cutter, where the Saltwater has slept every night since the last rally, for he says it’s the only place in which a man can be sure of keeping the hair on his head, he does. Ah’s me! What have I to do with these follies and sayings now? I try to be pleasant, and to feel light-hearted, but the power of man can’t make water run up stream. Mabel, you know that the Sergeant, afore he left us, had settled it ‘atween us two that we were to become man and wife, and that we were to live together and to love one another as long as the Lord was pleased to keep us both on ‘arth; yes, and afterwards too?”

Mabel’s cheeks had regained a little of their ancient bloom in the fresh air of the morning; but at this unlooked-for address they blanched again, nearly to the pallid hue which grief had imprinted there. Still, she looked kindly, though seriously, at Pathfinder and even endeavored to force a smile.

“Very true, my excellent friend,” she answered; “this was my poor father’s wish, and I feel certain that a whole life devoted to your welfare and comforts could scarcely repay you for all you have done for us.”

“I fear me, Mabel, that man and wife needs be bound together by a stronger tie than such feelings, I do. You have done nothing for me, or nothing of any account, and yet my very heart yearns towards you, it does; and therefore it seems likely that these feelings come from something besides saving scalps and guiding through woods.”

Mabel’s cheek had begun to glow again; and though she struggled hard to smile, her voice trembled a little as she answered.

“Had we not better postpone this conversation, Pathfinder?” she said; “we are not alone; and nothing is so unpleasant to a listener, they say, as family matters in which he feels no interest.”

“It’s because we are not alone, Mabel, or rather because Jasper is with us, that I wish to talk of this matter. The Sergeant believed I might make a suitable companion for you, and, though I had misgivings about it — yes, I had many misgivings — he finally persuaded me into the idee, and things came round ‘atween us, as you know. But, when you promised your father to marry me, Mabel, and gave me your hand so modestly, but so prettily, there was one circumstance, as your uncle called it, that you didn’t know; and I’ve thought it right to tell you what it is, before matters are finally settled. I’ve often taken a poor deer for my dinner when good venison was not to be found; but it’s as nat’ral not to take up with the worst when the best may be had.”

“You speak in a way, Pathfinder, that is difficult to be understood. If this conversation is really necessary, I trust you will be more plain.”

“Well then, Mabel, I’ve been thinking it was quite likely, when you gave in to the Sergeant’s wishes, that you did not know the natur’ of Jasper Western’s feelings towards you?”

“Pathfinder!” and Mabel’s cheek now paled to the livid hue of death; then it flushed to the tint of crimson; and her whole frame shuddered. Pathfinder, however, was too intent on his own object to notice this agitation; and Eau-douce had hidden his face in his hands in time to shut out its view.

“I’ve been talking with the lad; and, on comparing his dreams with my dreams, his feelings with my feelings, and his wishes with my wishes, I fear we think too much alike consarning you for both of us to be very happy.”

“Pathfinder, you forget; you should remember that we are betrothed!” said Mabel hastily, and in a voice so low that it required acute attention in the listeners to catch the syllables. Indeed the last word was not quite intelligible to the guide, and he confessed his ignorance by the usual —

“Anan?”

“You forget that we are to be married; and such allusions are improper as well as painful.”

“Everything is proper that is right, Mabel; and everything is right that leads to justice and fair dealing; though it is painful enough, as you say, as I find on trial, I do. Now, Mabel, had you known that Eau-douce thinks of you in this way, maybe you never would have consented to be married to one as old and as uncomely as I am.”

“Why this cruel trial, Pathfinder? To what can all this lead? Jasper Western thinks no such thing: he says nothing, he feels nothing.”

“Mabel!” burst from out of the young man’s lips, in a way to betray the uncontrollable nature of his emotions, though he uttered not another syllable.

Mabel buried her face in both her hands; and the two sat like a pair of guilty beings, suddenly detected in the commission of some crime which involved the happiness of a common patron. At that instant, perhaps, Jasper himself was inclined to deny his passion, through an extreme unwillingness to grieve his friend; while Mabel, on whom this positive announcement of a fact that she had rather unconsciously hoped than believed, came so unexpectedly, felt her mind momentarily bewildered; and she scarcely knew whether to weep or to rejoice. Still she was the first to speak; since Eau-douce could utter naught that would be disingenuous, or that would pain his friend.

“Pathfinder,” said she, “you talk wildly. Why mention this at all?”

“Well, Mabel, if I talk wildly, I am half wild, you know, by natur’, I fear, as well as by habit.” As he said this, he endeavored to laugh in his usual noiseless way, but the effect produced a strange and discordant sound; and it appeared nearly to choke him. “Yes, I must be wild; I’ll not attempt to deny it.”

“Dearest Pathfinder! my best, almost my only friend! You cannot, do not think I intended to say that!” interrupted Mabel, almost breathless in her haste to relieve his mortification. “If courage, truth, nobleness of soul and conduct, unyielding principles, and a hundred other excellent qualities can render any man respectable, esteemed, or beloved, your claims are inferior to those of no other human being.”

“What tender and bewitching voices they have, Jasper!” resumed the guide, now laughing freely and naturally. “Yes, natur’ seems to have made them on purpose to sing in our ears, when the music of the woods is silent. But we must come to a right understanding, we must. I ask you again, Mabel, if you had known that Jasper Western loves you as well as I do, or better perhaps, though that is scarcely possible; that in his dreams he sees your face in the water of the lake; that he talks to you, and of you, in his sleep; fancies all that is beautiful like Mabel Dunham, and all that is good and virtuous; believes he never knowed happiness until he knowed you; could kiss the ground on which you have trod, and forgets all the joys of his calling to think of you and the delight of gazing at your beauty and in listening to your voice, would you then have consented to marry me?”

Mabel could not have answered this question if she would; but, though her face was buried in her hands, the tint of the rushing blood was visible between the openings, and the suffusion seemed to impart itself to her very fingers. Still nature asserted her power, for there was a single instant when the astonished, almost terrified girl stole a glance at Jasper, as if distrusting Pathfinder’s history of his feelings, read the truth of all he said in that furtive look, and instantly concealed her face again, as if she would hide it from observation for ever.

“Take time to think, Mabel,” the guide continued, “for it is a solemn thing to accept one man for a husband while the thoughts and wishes lead to another. Jasper and I have talked this matter over, freely and like old friends, and, though I always knowed that we viewed most things pretty much alike, I couldn’t have thought that we regarded any particular object with the very same eyes, as it might be, until we opened our minds to each other about you. Now Jasper owns that the very first time he beheld you, he thought you the sweetest and winningestest creatur’ he had ever met; that your voice sounded like murmuring water in his ears; that he fancied his sails were your garments fluttering in the wind; that your laugh haunted him in his sleep; and that ag’in and ag’in has he started up affrighted, because he has fancied some one wanted to force you out of the Scud, where he imagined you had taken up your abode. Nay, the lad has even acknowledged that he often weeps at the thought that you are likely to spend your days with another, and not with him.”

“Jasper!”

“It’s solemn truth, Mabel, and it’s right you should know it. Now stand up, and choose ‘atween us. I do believe Eau-douce loves you as well as I do myself; he has tried to persuade me that he loves you better, but that I will not allow, for I do not think it possible; but I will own the boy loves you, heart and soul, and he has a good right to be heard. The Sergeant left me your protector, and not your tyrant. I told him that I would be a father to you as well as a husband, and it seems to me no feeling father would deny his child this small privilege. Stand up, Mabel, therefore, and speak your thoughts as freely as if I were the Sergeant himself, seeking your good, and nothing else.”

Mabel dropped her hands, arose, and stood face to face with her two suitors, though the flush that was on her cheeks was feverish, the evidence of excitement rather than of shame.

“What would you have, Pathfinder?” she asked; “Have I not already promised my poor father to do all you desire?”

“Then I desire this. Here I stand, a man of the forest and of little larning, though I fear with an ambition beyond my desarts, and I’ll do my endivors to do justice to both sides. In the first place, it is allowed that, so far as feelings in your behalf are consarned, we love you just the same; Jasper thinks his feelings must be the strongest, but this I cannot say in honesty, for it doesn’t seem to me that it can be true, else I would frankly and freely confess it, I would. So in this particular, Mabel, we are here before you on equal tarms. As for myself, being the oldest, I’ll first say what little can be produced in my favor, as well as ag’in it. As a hunter, I do think there is no man near the lines that can outdo me. If venison, or bear’s meat, or even birds and fish, should ever be scarce in our cabin, it would be more likely to be owing to natur’ and Providence than to any fault of mine. In short, it does seem to me that the woman who depended on me would never be likely to want for food. But I’m fearful ignorant! It’s true I speak several tongues, such as they be, while I’m very far from being expart at my own. Then, my years are greater than your own, Mabel; and the circumstance that I was so long the Sergeant’s comrade can be no great merit in your eyes. I wish, too, I was more comely, I do; but we are all as natur’ made us, and the last thing that a man ought to lament, except on very special occasions, is his looks. When all is remembered, age, looks, learning, and habits, Mabel, conscience tells me I ought to confess that I’m altogether unfit for you, if not downright unworthy; and I would give up the hope this minute, I would, if I didn’t feel something pulling at my heart-strings which seems hard to undo.”

“Pathfinder! Noble, generous Pathfinder!” cried our heroine, seizing his hand and kissing it with a species of holy reverence; “You do yourself injustice — you forget my poor father and your promise — you do not know me!”

“Now, here’s Jasper,” continued the guide, without allowing the girl’s caresses to win him from his purpose, “with him the case is different. In the way of providing, as in that of loving, there’s not much to choose ‘atween us; for the lad is frugal, industrious, and careful. Then he is quite a scholar, knows the tongue of the Frenchers, reads many books, and some, I know, that you like to read yourself, can understand you at all times, which, perhaps, is more than I can say for myself.”

“What of all this?” interrupted Mabel impatiently; “Why speak of it now — why speak of it at all?”

“Then the lad has a manner of letting his thoughts be known, that I fear I can never equal. If there’s anything on ‘arth that would make my tongue bold and persuading, Mabel, I do think it’s yourself; and yet in our late conversations Jasper has outdone me, even on this point, in a way to make me ashamed of myself. He has told me how simple you were, and how true-hearted, and kind-hearted; and how you looked down upon vanities, for though you might be the wife of more than one officer, as he thinks, that you cling to feeling, and would rather be true to yourself and natur’ than a colonel’s lady. He fairly made my blood warm, he did, when he spoke of your having beauty without seeming ever to have looked upon it, and the manner in which you moved about like a young fa’n, so nat’ral and graceful like, without knowing it; and the truth and justice of your idees, and the warmth and generosity of your heart —”

“Jasper!” interrupted Mabel, giving way to feelings that had gathered an ungovernable force by being so long pent, and falling into the young man’s willing arms, weeping like a child, and almost as helpless. “Jasper! Jasper! Why have you kept this from me?”

The answer of Eau-douce was not very intelligible, nor was the murmured dialogue that followed remarkable for coherency. But the language of affection is easily understood. The hour that succeeded passed like a very few minutes of ordinary life, so far as a computation of time was concerned; and when Mabel recollected herself, and bethought her of the existence of others, her uncle was pacing the cutter’s deck in great impatience, and wondering why Jasper should be losing so much of a favorable wind. Her first thought was of him, who was so likely to feel the recent betrayal of her real emotions.

“Oh, Jasper,” she exclaimed, like one suddenly self-convicted, “the Pathfinder!”

Eau-douce fairly trembled, not with unmanly apprehension, but with the painful conviction of the pang he had given his friend; and he looked in all directions in the expectation of seeing his person. But Pathfinder had withdrawn, with a tact and a delicacy that might have done credit to the sensibility and breeding of a courtier. For several minutes the two lovers sat, silently waiting his return, uncertain what propriety required of them under circumstances so marked and so peculiar. At length they beheld their friend advancing slowly towards them, with a thoughtful and even pensive air.

“I now understand what you meant, Jasper, by speaking without a tongue and hearing without an ear,” he said when close enough to the tree to be heard. “Yes, I understand it now, I do; and a very pleasant sort of discourse it is, when one can hold it with Mabel Dunham. Ah’s me! I told the Sergeant I wasn’t fit for her; that I was too old, too ignorant, and too wild like; but he would have it otherwise.”

Jasper and Mabel sat, resembling Milton’s picture of our first parents, when the consciousness of sin first laid its leaden weight on their souls. Neither spoke, neither even moved; though both at that moment fancied they could part with their new-found happiness in order to restore their friend to his peace of mind. Jasper was pale as death, but, in Mabel, maiden modesty had caused the blood to mantle on her cheeks, until their bloom was heightened to a richness that was scarcely equalled in her hours of light-hearted buoyancy and joy. As the feeling which, in her sex, always accompanies the security of love returned, threw its softness and tenderness over her countenance, she was singularly beautiful. Pathfinder gazed at her with an intentness he did not endeavor to conceal, and then he fairly laughed in his own way, and with a sort of wild exultation, as men that are untutored are wont to express their delight. This momentary indulgence, however, was expiated by the pang which followed the sudden consciousness that this glorious young creature was lost to him for ever. It required a full minute for this simple-minded being to recover from the shock of this conviction; and then he recovered his dignity of manner, speaking with gravity, almost with solemnity.

“I have always known, Mabel Dunham, that men have their gifts,” said he; “but I’d forgotten that it did not belong to mine to please the young, the beautiful, and l’arned. I hope the mistake has been no very heavy sin; and if it was, I’ve been heavily punished for it, I have. Nay, Mabel, I know what you’d say, but it’s unnecessary; I feel it all, and that is as good as if I heard it all. I’ve had a bitter hour, Mabel. I’ve had a very bitter hour, lad.”

“Hour!” echoed Mabel, as the other first used the word; the tell-tale blood, which had begun to ebb towards her heart, rushing again tumultuously to her very temples; “surely not an hour, Pathfinder?”

“Hour!” exclaimed Jasper at the same instant; “No, no, my worthy friend, it is not ten minutes since you left us!”

“Well, it may be so; though to me it has seemed to be a day. I begin to think, however, that the happy count time by minutes, and the miserable count it by months. But we will talk no more of this; it is all over now, and many words about it will make you no happier, while they will only tell me what I’ve lost; and quite likely how much I desarved to lose her. No, no, Mabel, ’tis useless to interrupt me; I admit it all, and your gainsaying it, though it be so well meant, cannot change my mind. Well, Jasper, she is yours; and, though it’s hard to think it, I do believe you’ll make her happier than I could, for your gifts are better suited to do so, though I would have strived hard to do as much, if I know myself, I would. I ought to have known better than to believe the Sergeant; and I ought to have put faith in what Mabel told me at the head of the lake, for reason and judgment might have shown me its truth; but it is so pleasant to think what we wish, and mankind so easily over-persuade us, when we over-persuade ourselves. But what’s the use in talking of it, as I said afore? It’s true, Mabel seemed to be consenting, though it all came from a wish to please her father, and from being skeary about the savages —”

“Pathfinder!”

“I understand you, Mabel, and have no hard feelings, I haven’t. I sometimes think I should like to live in your neighborhood, that I might look at your happiness; but, on the whole, it’s better I should quit the 55th altogether, and go back to the 60th, which is my natyve rigiment, as it might be. It would have been better, perhaps, had I never left it, though my sarvices were much wanted in this quarter, and I’d been with some of the 55th years agone; Sergeant Dunham, for instance, when he was in another corps. Still, Jasper, I do not regret that I’ve known you —”

“And me, Pathfinder!” impetuously interrupted Mabel; “do you regret having known me? Could I think so, I should never be at peace with myself.”

“You, Mabel!” returned the guide, taking the hand of our heroine and looking up into her countenance with guileless simplicity, but earnest affection; “How could I be sorry that a ray of the sun came across the gloom of a cheerless day — that light has broken in upon darkness, though it remained so short a time? I do not flatter myself with being able to march quite so light-hearted as I once used to could, or to sleep as sound, for some time to come; but I shall always remember how near I was to being undeservedly happy, I shall. So far from blaming you, Mabel, I only blame myself for being so vain as to think it possible I could please such a creatur’; for sartainly you told me how it was, when we talked it over on the mountain, and I ought to have believed you then; for I do suppose it’s nat’ral that young women should know their own minds better than their fathers. Ah’s me! It’s settled now, and nothing remains but for me to take leave of you, that you may depart; I feel that Master Cap must be impatient, and there is danger of his coming on shore to look for us all.”

“To take leave!” exclaimed Mabel.

“Leave!” echoed Jasper; “You do not mean to quit us, my friend?”

“’Tis best, Mabel, ’tis altogether best, Eau-douce; and it’s wisest. I could live and die in your company, if I only followed feeling; but, if I follow reason, I shall quit you here. You will go back to Oswego, and become man and wife as soon as you arrive — for all that is determined with Master Cap, who hankers after the sea again, and who knows what is to happen — while I shall return to the wilderness and my Maker. Come, Mabel,” continued Pathfinder, rising and drawing nearer to our heroine, with grave decorum, “kiss me; Jasper will not grudge me one kiss; then we’ll part.”

“Oh, Pathfinder!” exclaimed Mabel, falling into the arms of the guide, and kissing his cheeks again and again, with a freedom and warmth she had been far from manifesting while held to the bosom of Jasper; “God bless you, dearest Pathfinder! You’ll come to us hereafter. We shall see you again. When old, you will come to our dwelling, and let me be a daughter to you?”

“Yes, that’s it,” returned the guide, almost gasping for breath; “I’ll try to think of it in that way. You’re more befitting to be my daughter than to be my wife, you are. Farewell, Jasper. Now we’ll go to the canoe; it’s time you were on board.”

The manner in which Pathfinder led the way to the shore was solemn and calm. As soon as he reached the canoe, he again took Mabel by the hands, held her at the length of his own arms, and gazed wistfully into her face, until the unbidden tears rolled out of the fountains of feeling and trickled down his rugged cheeks in streams.

“Bless me, Pathfinder,” said Mabel, kneeling reverently at his feet. “Oh, at least bless me before we part!”

That untutored but noble-minded being did as she desired; and, aiding her to enter the canoe, seemed to tear himself away as one snaps a strong and obstinate cord. Before he retired, however, he took Jasper by the arm and led him a little aside, when he spoke as follows:—

“You’re kind of heart and gentle by natur’, Jasper; but we are both rough and wild in comparison with that dear creatur’. Be careful of her, and never show the roughness of man’s natur’ to her soft disposition. You’ll get to understand her in time; and the Lord, who governs the lake and the forest alike, who looks upon virtue with a smile and upon vice with a frown, keep you happy and worthy to be so!”

Pathfinder made a sign for his friend to depart, and he stood leaning on his rifle until the canoe had reached the side of the Scud. Mabel wept as if her heart would break; nor did her eyes once turn from the open spot in the glade, where the form of the Pathfinder was to be seen, until the cutter had passed a point that completely shut out the island. When last in view, the sinewy frame of this extraordinary man was as motionless as if it were a statue set up in that solitary place to commemorate the scenes of which it had so lately been the witness.

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