The Prairie/Chapter XV

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The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper
Chapter XV

              So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
              That after-hours with sorrow chide us not!
                                                   —Shakspeare.

It is proper that the course of the narrative should be stayed, while we revert to those causes, which have brought in their train of consequences, the singular contest just related. The interruption must necessarily be as brief as we hope it may prove satisfactory to that class of readers, who require that no gap should be left by those who assume the office of historians, for their own fertile imaginations to fill.

Among the troops sent by the government of the United States, to take possession of its newly acquired territory in the west, was a detachment led by a young soldier who has become so busy an actor in the scenes of our legend. The mild and indolent descendants of the ancient colonists received their new compatriots without distrust, well knowing that the transfer raised them from the condition of subjects, to the more enviable distinction of citizens in a government of laws. The new rulers exercised their functions with discretion, and wielded their delegated authority without offence. In such a novel intermixture, however, of men born and nurtured in freedom, and the compliant minions of absolute power, the catholic and the protestant, the active and the indolent, some little time was necessary to blend the discrepant elements of society. In attaining so desirable an end, woman was made to perform her accustomed and grateful office. The barriers of prejudice and religion were broken through by the irresistible power of the master-passion, and family unions, ere long, began to cement the political tie which had made a forced conjunction, between people so opposite in their habits, their educations, and their opinions.

Middleton was among the first, of the new possessors of the soil, who became captive to the charms of a Louisianian lady. In the immediate vicinity of the post he had been directed to occupy, dwelt the chief of one of those ancient colonial families, which had been content to slumber for ages amid the ease, indolence, and wealth of the Spanish provinces. He was an officer of the crown, and had been induced to remove from the Floridas, among the French of the adjoining province, by a rich succession of which he had become the inheritor. The name of Don Augustin de Certavallos was scarcely known beyond the limits of the little town in which he resided, though he found a secret pleasure himself in pointing it out, in large scrolls of musty documents, to an only child, as enrolled among the former heroes and grandees of Old and of New Spain. This fact, so important to himself and of so little moment to any body else, was the principal reason, that while his more vivacious Gallic neighbours were not slow to open a frank communion with their visiters, he chose to keep aloof, seemingly content with the society of his daughter, who was a girl just emerging from the condition of childhood into that of a woman.

The curiosity of the youthful Inez, however, was not so inactive. She had not heard the martial music of the garrison, melting on the evening air, nor seen the strange banner, which fluttered over the heights that rose at no great distance from her father's extensive grounds, without experiencing some of those secret impulses which are thought to distinguish the sex. Natural timidity, and that retiring and perhaps peculiar lassitude, which forms the very groundwork of female fascination, in the tropical provinces of Spain, held her in their seemingly indissoluble bonds; and it is more than probable, that had not an accident occurred, in which Middleton was of some personal service to her father, so long a time would have elapsed before they met, that another direction might have been given to the wishes of one, who was just of an age to be alive to all the power of youth and beauty.

Providence—or if that imposing word is too just to be classical, fate —had otherwise decreed. The haughty and reserved Don Augustin was by far too observant of the forms of that station, on which he so much valued himself, to forget the duties of a gentleman. Gratitude, for the kindness of Middleton, induced him to open his doors to the officers of the garrison, and to admit of a guarded but polite intercourse. Reserve gradually gave way before the propriety and candour of their spirited young leader, and it was not long ere the affluent planter rejoiced as much as his daughter, whenever the well known signal, at the gate, announced one of these agreeable visits from the commander of the post.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the impression which the charms of Inez produced on the soldier, or to delay the tale in order to write a wire-drawn account of the progressive influence that elegance of deportment, manly beauty, and undivided assiduity and intelligence were likely to produce on the sensitive mind of a romantic, warm-hearted, and secluded girl of sixteen. It is sufficient for our purpose to say that they loved, that the youth was not backward to declare his feelings, that he prevailed with some facility over the scruples of the maiden, and with no little difficulty over the objections of her father, and that before the province of Louisiana had been six months in the possession of the States, the officer of the latter was the affianced husband of the richest heiress on the banks of the Mississippi.

Although we have presumed the reader to be acquainted with the manner in which such results are commonly attained, it is not to be supposed that the triumph of Middleton, either over the prejudices of the father or over those of the daughter, was achieved without difficulty. Religion formed a stubborn and nearly irremovable obstacle with both. The devoted man patiently submitted to a formidable essay, father Ignatius was deputed to make in order to convert him to the true faith. The effort on the part of the worthy priest was systematic, vigorous, and long sustained. A dozen times (it was at those moments when glimpses of the light, sylphlike form of Inez flitted like some fairy being past the scene of their conferences) the good father fancied he was on the eve of a glorious triumph over infidelity; but all his hopes were frustrated by some unlooked-for opposition, on the part of the subject of his pious labours. So long as the assault on his faith was distant and feeble, Middleton, who was no great proficient in polemics, submitted to its effects with the patience and humility of a martyr; but the moment the good father, who felt such concern in his future happiness, was tempted to improve his vantage ground by calling in the aid of some of the peculiar subtilties of his own creed, the young man was too good a soldier not to make head against the hot attack. He came to the contest, it is true, with no weapons more formidable than common sense, and some little knowledge of the habits of his country as contrasted with that of his adversary; but with these homebred implements he never failed to repulse the father with something of the power with which a nervous cudgel player would deal with a skilful master of the rapier, setting at nought his passados by the direct and unanswerable arguments of a broken head and a shivered weapon.

Before the controversy was terminated, an inroad of Protestants had come to aid the soldier. The reckless freedom of such among them, as thought only of this life, and the consistent and tempered piety of others, caused the honest priest to look about him in concern. The influence of example on one hand, and the contamination of too free an intercourse on the other, began to manifest themselves, even in that portion of his own flock, which he had supposed to be too thoroughly folded in spiritual government ever to stray. It was time to turn his thoughts from the offensive, and to prepare his followers to resist the lawless deluge of opinion, which threatened to break down the barriers of their faith. Like a wise commander, who finds he has occupied too much ground for the amount of his force, he began to curtail his outworks. The relics were concealed from profane eyes; his people were admonished not to speak of miracles before a race that not only denied their existence, but who had even the desperate hardihood to challenge their proofs; and even the Bible itself was prohibited, with terrible denunciations, for the triumphant reason that it was liable to be misinterpreted.

In the mean time, it became necessary to report to Don Augustin, the effects his arguments and prayers had produced on the heretical disposition of the young soldier. No man is prone to confess his weakness, at the very moment when circumstances demand the utmost efforts of his strength. By a species of pious fraud, for which no doubt the worthy priest found his absolution in the purity of his motives, he declared that, while no positive change was actually wrought in the mind of Middleton, there was every reason to hope the entering wedge of argument had been driven to its head, and that in consequence an opening was left, through which, it might rationally be hoped, the blessed seeds of a religious fructification would find their way, especially if the subject was left uninterruptedly to enjoy the advantage of catholic communion.

Don Augustin himself was now seized with the desire of proselyting. Even the soft and amiable Inez thought it would be a glorious consummation of her wishes, to be a humble instrument of bringing her lover into the bosom of the true church. The offers of Middleton were promptly accepted, and, while the father looked forward impatiently to the day assigned for the nuptials, as to the pledge of his own success, the daughter thought of it with feelings in which the holy emotions of her faith were blended with the softer sensations of her years and situation.

The sun rose, the morning of her nuptials, on a day so bright and cloudless, that Inez hailed it as a harbinger of future happiness. Father Ignatius performed the offices of the church, in a little chapel attached to the estate of Don Augustin; and long ere the sun had begun to fall, Middleton pressed the blushing and timid young Creole to his bosom, his acknowledged and unalienable wife. It had pleased the parties to pass the day of the wedding in retirement, dedicating it solely to the best and purest affections, aloof from the noisy and heartless rejoicings of a compelled festivity.

Middleton was returning through the grounds of Don Augustin, from a visit of duty to his encampment, at that hour in which the light of the sun begins to melt into the shadows of evening, when a glimpse of a robe, similar to that in which Inez had accompanied him to the altar, caught his eye through the foliage of a retired arbour. He approached the spot, with a delicacy that was rather increased than diminished by the claim she had perhaps given him to intrude on her private moments; but the sounds of her soft voice, which was offering up prayers, in which he heard himself named by the dearest of all appellations, overcame his scruples, and induced him to take a position where he might listen without the fear of detection. It was certainly grateful to the feelings of a husband to be able in this manner to lay bare the spotless soul of his wife, and to find that his own image lay enshrined amid its purest and holiest aspirations. His self-esteem was too much flattered not to induce him to overlook the immediate object of the petitioner. While she prayed that she might become the humble instrument of bringing him into the flock of the faithful, she petitioned for forgiveness, on her own behalf, if presumption or indifference to the counsel of the church had caused her to set too high a value on her influence, and led her into the dangerous error of hazarding her own soul by espousing a heretic. There was so much of fervent piety, mingled with so strong a burst of natural feeling, so much of the woman blended with the angel, in her prayers, that Middleton could have forgiven her, had she termed him a Pagan, for the sweetness and interest with which she petitioned in his favour.

The young man waited until his bride arose from her knees, and then he joined her, as if entirely ignorant of what had occurred.

"It is getting late, my Inez," he said, "and Don Augustin would be apt to reproach you with inattention to your health, in being abroad at such an hour. What then am I to do, who am charged with all his authority, and twice his love?"

"Be like him in every thing," she answered, looking up in his face, with tears in her eyes, and speaking with emphasis; "in every thing. Imitate my father, Middleton, and I can ask no more of you."

"Nor for me, Inez? I doubt not that I should be all you can wish, were I to become as good as the worthy and respectable Don Augustin. But you are to make some allowances for the infirmities and habits of a soldier. Now let us go and join this excellent father."

"Not yet," said his bride, gently extricating herself from the arm, that he had thrown around her slight form, while he urged her from the place. "I have still another duty to perform, before I can submit so implicitly to your orders, soldier though you are. I promised the worthy Inesella, my faithful nurse, she who, as you heard, has so long been a mother to me, Middleton—I promised her a visit at this hour. It is the last, as she thinks, that she can receive from her own child, and I cannot disappoint her. Go you then to Don Augustin; in one short hour I will rejoin you."

"Remember it is but an hour!"

"One hour," repeated Inez, as she kissed her hand to him; and then blushing, ashamed at her own boldness, she darted from the arbour, and was seen for an instant gliding towards the cottage of her nurse, in which, at the next moment, she disappeared.

Middleton returned slowly and thoughtfully to the house, often bending his eyes in the direction in which he had last seen his wife, as if he would fain trace her lovely form, in the gloom of the evening, still floating through the vacant space. Don Augustin received him with warmth, and for many minutes his mind was amused by relating to his new kinsman plans for the future. The exclusive old Spaniard listened to his glowing but true account of the prosperity and happiness of those States, of which he had been an ignorant neighbour half his life, partly in wonder, and partly with that sort of incredulity with which one attends to what he fancies are the exaggerated descriptions of a too partial friendship.

In this manner the hour for which Inez had conditioned passed away, much sooner than her husband could have thought possible, in her absence. At length his looks began to wander to the clock, and then the minutes were counted, as one rolled by after another and Inez did not appear. The hand had already made half of another circuit, around the face of the dial, when Middleton arose and announced his determination to go and offer himself, as an escort to the absentee. He found the night dark, and the heavens charged with threatening vapour, which in that climate was the infallible forerunner of a gust. Stimulated no less by the unpropitious aspect of the skies, than by his secret uneasiness, he quickened his pace, making long and rapid strides in the direction of the cottage of Inesella. Twenty times he stopped, fancying that he caught glimpses of the fairy form of Inez, tripping across the grounds, on her return to the mansion-house, and as often he was obliged to resume his course, in disappointment. He reached the gate of the cottage, knocked, opened the door, entered, and even stood in the presence of the aged nurse, without meeting the person of her he sought. She had already left the place, on her return to her father's house! Believing that he must have passed her in the darkness, Middleton retraced his steps to meet with another disappointment. Inez had not been seen. Without communicating his intention to any one, the bridegroom proceeded with a palpitating heart to the little sequestered arbour, where he had overheard his bride offering up those petitions for his happiness and conversion. Here, too, he was disappointed; and then all was afloat, in the painful incertitude of doubt and conjecture.

For many hours, a secret distrust of the motives of his wife caused Middleton to proceed in the search with delicacy and caution. But as day dawned, without restoring her to the arms of her father or her husband, reserve was thrown aside, and her unaccountable absence was loudly proclaimed. The enquiries after the lost Inez were now direct and open; but they proved equally fruitless. No one had seen her, or heard of her, from the moment that she left the cottage of her nurse.

Day succeeded day, and still no tidings rewarded the search that was immediately instituted, until she was finally given over, by most of her relations and friends, as irretrievably lost.

An event of so extraordinary a character was not likely to be soon forgotten. It excited speculation, gave rise to an infinity of rumours, and not a few inventions. The prevalent opinion, among such of those emigrants who were over-running the country, as had time, in the multitude of their employments, to think of any foreign concerns, was the simple and direct conclusion that the absent bride was no more nor less than a felo de se. Father Ignatius had many doubts, and much secret compunction of conscience; but, like a wise chief, he endeavoured to turn the sad event to some account, in the impending warfare of faith. Changing his battery, he whispered in the ears of a few of his oldest parishioners, that he had been deceived in the state of Middleton's mind, which he was now compelled to believe was completely stranded on the quicksands of heresy. He began to show his relics again, and was even heard to allude once more to the delicate and nearly forgotten subject of modern miracles. In consequence of these demonstrations, on the part of the venerable priest, it came to be whispered among the faithful, and finally it was adopted, as part of the parish creed, that Inez had been translated to heaven.

Don Augustin had all the feelings of a father, but they were smothered in the lassitude of a Creole. Like his spiritual governor, he began to think that they had been wrong in consigning one so pure, so young, so lovely, and above all so pious, to the arms of a heretic: and he was fain to believe that the calamity, which had befallen his age, was a judgment on his presumption and want of adherence to established forms. It is true that, as the whispers of the congregation came to his ears, he found present consolation in their belief; but then nature was too powerful, and had too strong a hold of the old man's heart, not to give rise to the rebellious thought, that the succession of his daughter to the heavenly inheritance was a little premature.

But Middleton, the lover, the husband, the bridegroom—Middleton was nearly crushed by the weight of the unexpected and terrible blow. Educated himself under the dominion of a simple and rational faith, in which nothing is attempted to be concealed from the believers, he could have no other apprehensions for the fate of Inez than such as grew out of his knowledge of the superstitious opinions she entertained of his own church. It is needless to dwell on the mental tortures that he endured, or all the various surmises, hopes, and disappointments, that he was fated to experience in the first few weeks of his misery. A jealous distrust of the motives of Inez, and a secret, lingering, hope that he should yet find her, had tempered his enquiries, without however causing him to abandon them entirely. But time was beginning to deprive him, even of the mortifying reflection that he was intentionally, though perhaps temporarily, deserted, and he was gradually yielding to the more painful conviction that she was dead, when his hopes were suddenly revived, in a new and singular manner.

The young commander was slowly and sorrowfully returning from an evening parade of his troops, to his own quarters, which stood at some little distance from the place of the encampment, and on the same high bluff of land, when his vacant eyes fell on the figure of a man, who by the regulations of the place, was not entitled to be there, at that forbidden hour. The stranger was meanly dressed, with every appearance about his person and countenance, of squalid poverty and of the most dissolute habits. Sorrow had softened the military pride of Middleton, and, as he passed the crouching form of the intruder, he said, in tones of great mildness, or rather of kindness—

"You will be given a night in the guard-house, friend, should the patrol find you here;—there is a dollar,—go, and get a better place to sleep in, and something to eat!"

"I swallow all my food, captain, without chewing," returned the vagabond, with the low exultation of an accomplished villain, as he eagerly seized the silver. "Make this Mexican twenty, and I will sell you a secret."

"Go, go," said the other with a little of a soldier's severity, returning to his manner. "Go, before I order the guard to seize you."

"Well, go I will;—but if I do go, captain, I shall take my knowledge with me; and then you may live a widower bewitched till the tattoo of life is beat off."

"What mean you, fellow?" exclaimed Middleton, turning quickly towards the wretch, who was already dragging his diseased limbs from the place.

"I mean to have the value of this dollar in Spanish brandy, and then come back and sell you my secret for enough to buy a barrel."

"If you have any thing to say, speak now," continued Middleton, restraining with difficulty the impatience that urged him to betray his feelings.

"I am a-dry, and I can never talk with elegance when my throat is husky, captain. How much will you give to know what I can tell you; let it be something handsome; such as one gentleman can offer to another."

"I believe it would be better justice to order the drummer to pay you a visit, fellow. To what does your boasted secret relate?"

"Matrimony; a wife and no wife; a pretty face and a rich bride: do I speak plain, now, captain?"

"If you know any thing relating to my wife, say it at once; you need not fear for your reward."

"Ay, captain, I have drove many a bargain in my time, and sometimes I have been paid in money, and sometimes I have been paid in promises; now the last are what I call pinching food."

"Name your price."

"Twenty—no, damn it, it's worth thirty dollars, if it's worth a cent!"

"Here, then, is your money: but remember, if you tell me nothing worth knowing, I have a force that can easily deprive you of it again, and punish your insolence in the bargain."

The fellow examined the bank-bills he received, with a jealous eye, and then pocketed them, apparently well satisfied of their being genuine.

"I like a northern note," he said very coolly; "they have a character to lose like myself. No fear of me, captain; I am a man of honour, and I shall not tell you a word more, nor a word less than I know of my own knowledge to be true."

"Proceed then without further delay, or I may repent, and order you to be deprived of all your gains; the silver as well as the notes."

"Honour, if you die for it!" returned the miscreant, holding up a hand in affected horror at so treacherous a threat. "Well, captain, you must know that gentlemen don't all live by the same calling; some keep what they've got, and some get what they can."

"You have been a thief."

"I scorn the word. I have been a humanity hunter. Do you know what that means? Ay, it has many interpretations. Some people think the woolly-heads are miserable, working on hot plantations under a broiling sun—and all such sorts of inconveniences. Well, captain, I have been, in my time, a man who has been willing to give them the pleasures of variety, at least, by changing the scene for them. You understand me?"

"You are, in plain language, a kidnapper."

"Have been, my worthy captain—have been; but just now a little reduced, like a merchant who leaves off selling tobacco by the hogshead, to deal in it by the yard. I have been a soldier, too, in my day. What is said to be the great secret of our trade, can you tell me that?"

"I know not," said Middleton, beginning to tire of the fellow's trifling: "courage?"

"No, legs—legs to fight with, and legs to run away with—and therein you see my two callings agreed. My legs are none of the best just now, and without legs a kidnapper would carry on a losing trade; but then there are men enough left, better provided than I am."

"Stolen!" groaned the horror-struck husband.

"On her travels, as sure as you are standing still!"

"Villain, what reason have you for believing a thing so shocking?"

"Hands off—hands off—do you think my tongue can do its work the better, for a little squeezing of the throat! Have patience, and you shall know it all; but if you treat me so ungenteelly again, I shall be obliged to call in the assistance of the lawyers."

"Say on; but if you utter a single word more or less than the truth, expect instant vengeance!"

"Are you fool enough to believe what such a scoundrel as I am tells you, captain, unless it has probability to back it? I know you are not: therefore I will give my facts and my opinions, and then leave you to chew on them, while I go and drink of your generosity. I know a man who is called Abiram White.—I believe the knave took that name to show his enmity to the race of blacks! But this gentleman is now, and has been for years, to my certain knowledge, a regular translator of the human body from one State to another. I have dealt with him in my time, and a cheating dog he is! No more honour in him than meat in my stomach. I saw him here in this very town, the day of your wedding. He was in company with his wife's brother, and pretended to be a settler on the hunt for new land. A noble set they were, to carry on business —seven sons, each of them as tall as your sergeant with his cap on. Well, the moment I heard that your wife was lost, I saw at once that Abiram had laid his hands on her."

"Do you know this—can this be true? What reason have you to fancy a thing so wild?"

"Reason enough; I know Abiram White. Now, will you add a trifle just to keep my throat from parching?"

"Go, go; you are stupified with drink already, miserable man, and know not what you say. Go; go, and beware the drummer."

"Experience is a good guide"—the fellow called after the retiring Middleton; and then turning with a chuckling laugh, like one well satisfied with himself, he made the best of his way towards the shop of the suttler.

A hundred times in the course of that night did Middleton fancy that the communication of the miscreant was entitled to some attention, and as often did he reject the idea as too wild and visionary for another thought. He was awakened early on the following morning, after passing a restless and nearly sleepless night, by his orderly, who came to report that a man was found dead on the parade, at no great distance from his quarters. Throwing on his clothes he proceeded to the spot, and beheld the individual, with whom he had held the preceding conference, in the precise situation in which he had first been found.

The miserable wretch had fallen a victim to his intemperance. This revolting fact was sufficiently proclaimed by his obtruding eye-balls, his bloated countenance, and the nearly insufferable odours that were even then exhaling from his carcass. Disgusted with the odious spectacle, the youth was turning from the sight, after ordering the corpse to be removed, when the position of one of the dead man's hands struck him. On examination, he found the fore-finger extended, as if in the act of writing in the sand, with the following incomplete sentence, nearly illegible, but yet in a state to be deciphered: "Captain, it is true, as I am a gentle—" He had either died, or fallen into a sleep, the forerunner of his death, before the latter word was finished.

Concealing this fact from the others, Middleton repeated his orders and departed. The pertinacity of the deceased, and all the circumstances united, induced him to set on foot some secret enquiries. He found that a family answering the description which had been given him, had in fact passed the place the day of his nuptials. They were traced along the margin of the Mississippi, for some distance, until they took boat and ascended the river to its confluence with the Missouri. Here they had disappeared like hundreds of others, in pursuit of the hidden wealth of the interior.

Furnished with these facts, Middleton detailed a small guard of his most trusty men, took leave of Don Augustin, without declaring his hopes or his fears, and having arrived at the indicated point, he pushed into the wilderness in pursuit. It was not difficult to trace a train like that of Ishmael, until he was well assured its object lay far beyond the usual limits of the settlements. This circumstance, in itself, quickened his suspicions, and gave additional force to his hopes of final success.

After getting beyond the assistance of verbal directions, the anxious husband had recourse to the usual signs of a trail, in order to follow the fugitives. This he also found a task of no difficulty, until he reached the hard and unyielding soil of the rolling prairies. Here, indeed, he was completely at fault. He found himself, at length, compelled to divide his followers, appointing a place of rendezvous at a distant day, and to endeavour to find the lost trail by multiplying, as much as possible, the number of his eyes. He had been alone a week, when accident brought him in contact with the trapper and the bee-hunter. Part of their interview has been related, and the reader can readily imagine the explanations that succeeded the tale he recounted, and which led, as has already been seen, to the recovery of his bride.

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