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

Chapter 9.

Now, my co-mates and partners in exile,

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet

Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?

Here feel we but the penalty of Adam.

As You Like It.

Sergeant Dunham made no empty vaunt when he gave the promise conveyed in the closing words of the last chapter. Notwithstanding the remote frontier position of the post they who lived at it enjoyed a table that, in many respects, kings and princes might have envied. At the Period of our tale, and, indeed, for half a century later, the whole of that vast region which has been called the West, or the new countries since the war of the revolution, lay a comparatively unpeopled desert, teeming with all the living productions of nature that properly belonged to the climate, man and the domestic animals excepted. The few Indians that roamed its forests then could produce no visible effects on the abundance of the game; and the scattered garrisons, or occasional hunters, that here and there were to be met with on that vast surface, had no other influence than the bee on the buckwheat field, or the humming-bird on the flower.

The marvels that have descended to our own times, in the way of tradition, concerning the quantities of beasts, birds, and fishes that were then to be met with, on the shores of the great lakes in particular, are known to be sustained by the experience of living men, else might we hesitate about relating them; but having been eye-witnesses of some of these prodigies, our office shall be discharged with the confidence that certainty can impart. Oswego was particularly well placed to keep the larder of an epicure amply supplied. Fish of various sorts abounded in its river, and the sportsman had only to cast his line to haul in a bass or some other member of the finny tribe, which then peopled the waters, as the air above the swamps of this fruitful latitude are known to be filled with insects. Among others was the salmon of the lakes, a variety of that well-known species, that is scarcely inferior to the delicious salmon of northern Europe. Of the different migratory birds that frequent forests and waters, there was the same affluence, hundreds of acres of geese and ducks being often seen at a time in the great bays that indent the shores of the lake. Deer, bears, rabbits, and squirrels, with divers other quadrupeds, among which was sometimes included the elk, or moose, helped to complete the sum of the natural supplies on which all the posts depended, more or less, to relieve the unavoidable privations of their remote frontier positions.

In a place where viands that would elsewhere be deemed great luxuries were so abundant, no one was excluded from their enjoyment. The meanest individual at Oswego habitually feasted on game that would have formed the boast of a Parisian table; and it was no more than a healthful commentary on the caprices of taste, and of the waywardness of human desires, that the very diet which in other scenes would have been deemed the subject of envy and repinings got to pall on the appetite. The coarse and regular food of the army, which it became necessary to husband on account of the difficulty of transportation, rose in the estimation of the common soldier; and at any time he would cheerfully desert his venison, and ducks, and pigeons, and salmon, to banquet on the sweets of pickled pork, stringy turnips, and half-cooked cabbage.

The table of Sergeant Dunham, as a matter of course, partook of the abundance and luxuries of the frontier, as well as of its privations. A delicious broiled salmon smoked on a homely platter, hot venison steaks sent up their appetizing odors, and several dishes of cold meats, all of which were composed of game, had been set before the guests, in honor of the newly arrived visitors, and in vindication of the old soldier’s hospitality.

“You do not seem to be on short allowance in this quarter of the world, Sergeant,” said Cap, after he had got fairly initiated into the mysteries of the different dishes; “your salmon might satisfy a Scotsman.”

“It fails to do it, notwithstanding, brother Cap; for among two or three hundred of the fellows that we have in this garrison there are not half a dozen who will not swear that the fish is unfit to be eaten. Even some of the lads, who never tasted venison except as poachers at home, turn up their noses at the fattest haunches that we get here.”

“Ay, that is Christian natur’,” put in Pathfinder; “and I must say it is none to its credit. Now, a red-skin never repines, but is always thankful for the food he gets, whether it be fat or lean, venison or bear, wild turkey’s breast or wild goose’s wing. To the shame of us white men be it said, that we look upon blessings without satisfaction, and consider trifling evils as matters of great account.”

“It is so with the 55th, as I can answer, though I cannot say as much for their Christianity,” returned the Sergeant. “Even the major himself, old Duncan of Lundie, will sometimes swear that an oatmeal cake is better fare than the Oswego bass, and sigh for a swallow of Highland water, when, if so minded, he has the whole of Ontario to quench his thirst in.”

“Has Major Duncan a wife and children?” asked Mabel, whose thoughts naturally turned towards her own sex in her new situation.

“Not he, girl; though they do say that he has a betrothed at home. The lady, it seems, is willing to wait, rather than suffer the hardships of service in this wild region; all of which, brother Cap, is not according to my notions of a woman’s duties. Your sister thought differently.”

“I hope, Sergeant, you do not think of Mabel for a soldier’s wife,” returned Cap gravely. “Our family has done its share in that way already, and it’s high time that the sea was again remembered.”

“I do not think of finding a husband for the girl in the 55th, or any other regiment, I can promise you, brother; though I do think it getting to be time that the child were respectably married.”

“Father!”

“’Tis not their gifts, Sergeant, to talk of these matters in so open a manner,” said the guide; “for I’ve seen it verified by experience, that he who would follow the trail of a virgin’s good-will must not go shouting out his thoughts behind her. So, if you please, we will talk of something else.”

“Well, then, brother Cap, I hope that bit of a cold roasted pig is to your mind; you seem to fancy the food.”

“Ay, ay; give me civilized grub if I must eat,” returned the pertinacious seaman. “Venison is well enough for your inland sailors, but we of the ocean like a little of that which we understand.”

Here Pathfinder laid down his knife and fork, and indulged in a hearty laugh, though in his always silent manner; then he asked, with a little curiosity in his manner —

“Don’t, you miss the skin, Master Cap? don’t you miss the skin?”

“It would have been better for its jacket, I think myself, Pathfinder; but I suppose it is a fashion of the woods to serve up shoats in this style.”

“Well, well, a man may go round the ‘arth and not know everything. If you had had the skinning of that pig, Master Cap, it would have left you sore hands. The cratur’ is a hedgehog!”

“Blast me, if I thought it wholesome natural pork either!” returned Cap. “But then I believed even a pig might lose some of its good qualities up hereaway in the woods.”

“If the skinning of it, brother, does not fall to my duty. Pathfinder, I hope you didn’t find Mabel disobedient on the march?”

“Not she, not she. If Mabel is only half as well satisfied with Jasper and Pathfinder as the Pathfinder and Jasper are satisfied with her, Sergeant, we shall be friends for the remainder of our days.”

As the guide spoke, he turned his eyes towards the blushing girl, with a sort of innocent desire to know her opinion; and then, with an inborn delicacy, which proved he was far superior to the vulgar desire to invade the sanctity of feminine feeling, he looked at his plate, and seemed to regret his own boldness.

“Well, well, we must remember that women are not men, my friend,” resumed the Sergeant, “and make proper allowances for nature and education. A recruit is not a veteran. Any man knows that it takes longer to make a good soldier than it takes to make anything else.”

“This is new doctrine, Sergeant,” said Cap with some spirit. “We old seamen are apt to think that six soldiers, ay, and capital soldiers too, might be made while one sailor is getting his education.”

“Ay, brother Cap, I’ve seen something of the opinions which seafaring men have of themselves,” returned the brother-in-law, with a smile as bland as comported with his saturnine features; “for I was many years one of the garrison in a seaport. You and I have conversed on the subject before and I’m afraid we shall never agree. But if you wish to know what the difference is between a real soldier and man in what I should call a state of nature, you have only to look at a battalion of the 55th on parade this afternoon, and then, when you get back to York, examine one of the militia regiments making its greatest efforts.”

“Well, to my eye, Sergeant, there is very little difference, not more than you’ll find between a brig and a snow. To me they seem alike: all scarlet, and feathers, and powder, and pipeclay.”

“So much, sir, for the judgment of a sailor,” returned the Sergeant with dignity; “but perhaps you are not aware that it requires a year to teach a true soldier how to eat?”

“So much the worse for him. The militia know how to eat at starting; for I have often heard that, on their marches, they commonly eat all before them, even if they do nothing else.”

“They have their gifts, I suppose, like other men,” observed Pathfinder, with a view to preserve the peace, which was evidently in some danger of being broken by the obstinate predilection of each of the disputants in favor of his own calling; “and when a man has his gift from Providence, it is commonly idle to endeavor to bear up against it. The 55th, Sergeant, is a judicous regiment in the way of eating, as I know from having been so long in its company, though I daresay militia corps could be found that would outdo them in feats of that natur’ too.”

“Uncle;” said Mabel, “if you have breakfasted, I will thank you to go out upon the bastion with me again. We have neither of us half seen the lake, and it would be hardly seemly for a young woman to be walking about the fort, the first day of her arrival, quite alone.”

Cap understood the motive of Mabel; and having, at the bottom, a hearty friendship for his brother-in-law, he was willing enough to defer the argument until they had been longer together, for the idea of abandoning it altogether never crossed the mind of one so dogmatical and obstinate. He accordingly accompanied his niece, leaving Sergeant Dunham and his friend, the Pathfinder, alone together. As soon as his adversary had beat a retreat, the Sergeant, who did not quite so well understand the manoeuvre of his daughter, turned to his companion, and, with a smile which was not without triumph, he remarked —

“The army, Pathfinder, has never yet done itself justice in the way of asserting its rights; and though modesty becomes a man, whether he is in a red coat or a black one, or, for that matter, in his shirt-sleeves, I don’t like to let a good opportunity slip of saying a word in its behalf. Well, my friend,” laying his own hand on one of the Pathfinder’s, and giving it a hearty squeeze, “how do you like the girl?”

“You have reason to be proud of her, Sergeant. I have seen many of her sex, and some that were great and beautiful; but never before did I meet with one in whom I thought Providence had so well balanced the different gifts.”

“And the good opinion, I can tell you, Pathfinder, is mutual. She told me last night all about your coolness, and spirit, and kindness — particularly the last, for kindness counts for more than half with females, my friend — and the first inspection seems to give satisfaction on both sides. Brush up the uniform, and pay a little more attention to the outside, Pathfinder, and you will have the girl heart and hand.”

“Nay, nay, Sergeant, I’ve forgotten nothing that you have told me, and grudge no reasonable pains to make myself as pleasant in the eyes of Mabel as she is getting to be in mine. I cleaned and brightened up Killdeer this morning as soon as the sun rose; and, in my judgment, the piece never looked better than it does at this very moment.”

“That is according to your hunting notions, Pathfinder; but firearms should sparkle and glitter in the sun, and I never yet could see any beauty in a clouded barrel.”

“Lord Howe thought otherwise, Sergeant; and he was accounted a good soldier.”

“Very true; his lordship had all the barrels of his regiment darkened, and what good came of it? You can see his ‘scutcheon hanging in the English church at Albany. No, no, my worthy friend, a soldier should be a soldier, and at no time ought he to be ashamed or afraid to carry about him the signs and symbols of his honorable trade. Had you much discourse with Mabel, Pathfinder, as you came along in the canoe?”

“There was not much opportunity, Sergeant, and then I found myself so much beneath her in idees, that I was afraid to speak of much beyond what belonged to my own gifts.”

“Therein you are partly right and partly wrong, my friend. Women love trifling discourse, though they like to have most of it to themselves. Now you know I’m a man that do not loosen my tongue at every giddy thought; and yet there were days when I could see that Mabel’s mother thought none the worse of me because I descended a little from my manhood. It is true, I was twenty-two years younger then than I am to-day; and, moreover, instead of being the oldest sergeant in the regiment, I was the youngest. Dignity is commanding and useful, and there is no getting on without it, as respects the men; but if you would be thoroughly esteemed by a woman, it is necessary to condescend a little on occasions.”

“Ah’s me, Sergeant, I sometimes fear it will never do.”

“Why do you think so discouragingly of a matter on which I thought both our minds were made up?”

“We did agree, if Mabel should prove what you told me she was, and if the girl could fancy a rude hunter and guide, that I should quit some of my wandering ways, and try to humanize my mind down to a wife and children. But since I have seen the girl, I will own that many misgivings have come over me.”

“How’s this?” interrupted the Sergeant sternly; “did I not understand you to say that you were pleased? — and is Mabel a young woman to disappoint expectation?”

“Ah, Sergeant, it is not Mabel that I distrust, but myself. I am but a poor ignorant woodsman, after all; and perhaps I’m not, in truth, as good as even you and I may think me.”

“If you doubt your own judgment of yourself, Pathfinder, I beg you will not doubt mine. Am I not accustomed to judge men’s character? and am I often deceived? Ask Major Duncan, sir, if you desire any assurances in this particular.”

“But, Sergeant, we have long been friends; have fi’t side by side a dozen times, and have done each other many services. When this is the case, men are apt to think over kindly of each other; and I fear me that the daughter may not be so likely to view a plain ignorant hunter as favorably as the father does.”

“Tut, tut, Pathfinder! You don’t know yourself, man, and may put all faith in my judgment. In the first place you have experience; and, as all girls must want that, no prudent young woman would overlook such a qualification. Then you are not one of the coxcombs that strut about when they first join a regiment; but a man who has seen service, and who carries the marks of it on his person and countenance. I daresay you have been under fire some thirty or forty times, counting all the skirmishes and ambushes that you’ve seen.”

“All of that, Sergeant, all of that; but what will it avail in gaining the good-will of a tender-hearted young female?”

“It will gain the day. Experience in the field is as good in love as in war. But you are as honest-hearted and as loyal a subject as the king can boast of — God bless him!”

“That may be too; but I’m afeared I’m too rude and too old and too wild like to suit the fancy of such a young and delicate girl as Mabel, who has been unused to our wilderness ways, and may think the settlements better suited to her gifts and inclinations.”

“These are new misgivings for you, my friend; and I wonder they were never paraded before.”

“Because I never knew my own worthlessness, perhaps, until I saw Mabel. I have travelled with some as fair, and have guided them through the forest, and seen them in their perils and in their gladness; but they were always too much above me to make me think of them as more than so many feeble ones I was bound to protect and defend. The case is now different. Mabel and I are so nearly alike, that I feel weighed down with a load that is hard to bear, at finding us so unlike. I do wish, Sergeant, that I was ten years younger, more comely to look at, and better suited to please a handsome young woman’s fancy.”

“Cheer up, my brave friend, and trust to a father’s knowledge of womankind. Mabel half loves you already, and a fortnight’s intercourse and kindness, down among the islands yonder will close ranks with the other half. The girl as much as told me this herself last night.”

“Can this be so, Sergeant?” said the guide, whose meek and modest nature shrank from viewing himself in colors so favorable. “Can this be truly so? I am but a poor hunter and Mabel, I see, is fit to be an officer’s lady. Do you think the girl will consent to quit all her beloved settlement usages, and her visitings and church-goings, to dwell with a plain guide and hunter up hereaway in the woods? Will she not in the end, crave her old ways, and a better man?”

“A better man, Pathfinder, would be hard to find,” returned the father. “As for town usages, they are soon forgotten in the freedom of the forest, and Mabel has just spirit enough to dwell on a frontier. I’ve not planned this marriage, my friend, without thinking it over, as a general does his campaign. At first, I thought of bringing you into the regiment, that you might succeed me when I retire, which must be sooner or later; but on reflection, Pathfinder, I think you are scarcely fitted for the office. Still, if not a soldier in all the meanings of the word, you are a soldier in its best meaning, and I know that you have the good-will of every officer in the corps. As long as I live, Mabel can dwell with me, and you will always have a home when you return from your scoutings and marches.”

“This is very pleasant to think of, Sergeant, if the girl can only come into our wishes with good-will. But, ah’s me! It does not seem that one like myself can ever be agreeable in her handsome eyes. If I were younger, and more comely, now, as Jasper Western is, for instance, there might be a chance — yes, then, indeed, there might be some chance.”

“That for Jasper Eau-douce, and every younker of them in or about the fort!” returned the Sergeant, snapping his fingers. “If not actually a younger, you are a younger-looking, ay, and a better-looking man than the Scud’s master —”

“Anan?” said Pathfinder, looking up at his companion with an expression of doubt, as if he did not understand his meaning.

“I say if not actually younger in days and years, you look more hardy and like whipcord than Jasper, or any of them; and there will be more of you, thirty years hence, than of all of them put together. A good conscience will keep one like you a mere boy all his life.”

“Jasper has as clear a conscience as any youth I know, Sergeant, and is as likely to wear on that account as any in the colony.”

“Then you are my friend,” squeezing the other’s hand, “my tried, sworn, and constant friend.”

“Yes, we have been friends, Sergeant, near twenty years before Mabel was born.”

“True enough; before Mabel was born, we were well-tried friends; and the hussy would never dream of refusing to marry a man who was her father’s friend before she was born.”

“We don’t know, Sergeant, we don’t know. Like loves like. The young prefer the young for companions, and the old the old.”

“Not for wives, Pathfinder; I never knew an old man, now, who had an objection to a young wife. Then you are respected and esteemed by every officer in the fort, as I have said already, and it will please her fancy to like a man that every one else likes.”

“I hope I have no enemies but the Mingos,” returned the guide, stroking down his hair meekly and speaking thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to do right, and that ought to make friends, though it sometimes fails.”

“And you may be said to keep the best company; for even old Duncan of Lundie is glad to see you, and you pass hours in his society. Of all the guides, he confides most in you.”

“Ay, even greater than he is have marched by my side for days, and have conversed with me as if I were their brother; but, Sergeant, I have never been puffed up by their company, for I know that the woods often bring men to a level who would not be so in the settlements.”

“And you are known to be the greatest rifle shot that ever pulled trigger in all this region.”

“If Mabel could fancy a man for that, I might have no great reason to despair; and yet, Sergeant, I sometimes think that it is all as much owing to Killdeer as to any skill of my own. It is sartainly a wonderful piece, and might do as much in the hands of another.”

“That is your own humble opinion of yourself, Pathfinder; but we have seen too many fail with the same weapon, and you succeed too often with the rifles of other men, to allow me to agree with you. We will get up a shooting match in a day or two, when you can show your skill, and when Mabel will form some judgment concerning your true character.”

“Will that be fair, Sergeant? Everybody knows that Killdeer seldom misses; and ought we to make a trial of this sort when we all know what must be the result?”

“Tut, tut, man! I foresee I must do half this courting for you. For one who is always inside of the smoke in a skirmish, you are the faintest-hearted suitor I ever met with. Remember, Mabel comes of a bold stock; and the girl will be as likely to admire a man as her mother was before her.”

Here the Sergeant arose, and proceeded to attend to his never-ceasing duties, without apology; the terms on which the guide stood with all in the garrison rendering this freedom quite a matter of course.

The reader will have gathered from the conversation just related, one of the plans that Sergeant Dunham had in view in causing his daughter to be brought to the frontier. Although necessarily much weaned from the caresses and blandishments that had rendered his child so dear to him during the first year or two of his widowerhood, he had still a strong but somewhat latent love for her. Accustomed to command and to obey, without being questioned himself or questioning others, concerning the reasonableness of the mandates, he was perhaps too much disposed to believe that his daughter would marry the man he might select, while he was far from being disposed to do violence to her wishes. The fact was; few knew the Pathfinder intimately without secretly believing him to be one of extraordinary qualities. Ever the same, simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear, and yet prudent, foremost in all warrantable enterprises, or what the opinion of the day considered as such, and never engaged in anything to call a blush to his cheek or censure on his acts, it was not possible to live much with this being and not feel respect and admiration for him which had no reference to his position in life. The most surprising peculiarity about the man himself was the entire indifference with which he regarded all distinctions which did not depend on personal merit. He was respectful to his superiors from habit; but had often been known to correct their mistakes and to reprove their vices with a fearlessness that proved how essentially he regarded the more material points, and with a natural discrimination that appeared to set education at defiance. In short, a disbeliever in the ability of man to distinguish between good and evil without the aid of instruction, would have been staggered by the character of this extraordinary inhabitant of the frontier. His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and nature of the forest in which he passed so much of his time; and no casuist could have made clearer decisions in matters relating to right and wrong; and yet he was not without his prejudices, which, though few, and colored by the character and usages of the individual, were deep-rooted, and almost formed a part of his nature. But the most striking feature about the moral organization of Pathfinder was his beautiful and unerring sense of justice. This noble trait — and without it no man can be truly great, with it no man other than respectable — probably had its unseen influence on all who associated with him; for the common and unprincipled brawler of the camp had been known to return from an expedition made in his company rebuked by his sentiments, softened by his language, and improved by his example. As might have been expected, with so elevated a quality his fidelity was like the immovable rock; treachery in him was classed among the things which are impossible; and as he seldom retired before his enemies, so was he never known, under any circumstances that admitted of an alternative, to abandon a friend. The affinities of such a character were, as a matter of course, those of like for like. His associates and intimates, though more or less determined by chance, were generally of the highest order as to moral propensities; for he appeared to possess a species of instinctive discrimination, which led him, insensibly to himself, most probably, to cling closest to those whose characters would best reward his friendship. In short, it was said of the Pathfinder, by one accustomed to study his fellows, that he was a fair example of what a just-minded and pure man might be, while untempted by unruly or ambitious desires, and left to follow the bias of his feelings, amid the solitary grandeur and ennobling influences of a sublime nature; neither led aside by the inducements which influence all to do evil amid the incentives of civilization, nor forgetful of the Almighty Being whose spirit pervades the wilderness as well as the towns.

Such was the man whom Sergeant Dunham had selected as the husband of Mabel. In making this choice, he had not been as much governed by a clear and judicious view of the merits of the individual, perhaps, as by his own likings; still no one knew the Pathfinder so intimately as himself without always conceding to the honest guide a high place in his esteem on account of these very virtues. That his daughter could find any serious objections to the match the old soldier did not apprehend; while, on the other hand, he saw many advantages to himself in dim perspective, connected with the decline of his days, and an evening of life passed among descendants who were equally dear to him through both parents. He had first made the proposition to his friend, who had listened to it kindly, but who, the Sergeant was now pleased to find, already betrayed a willingness to come into his own views that was proportioned to the doubts and misgivings proceeding from his humble distrust of himself.

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