The Prairie/Chapter XXII
The clouds and sunbeams o'er his eye,
That once their shades and glories threw,
Have left, in yonder silent sky,
No vestige where they flew.
A stillness, as deep as that which marked the gloomy wastes in their front, was observed by the fugitives to distinguish the spot they had just abandoned. Even the trapper lent his practised faculties, in vain, to detect any of the well-known signs, which might establish the important fact that hostilities had actually commenced between the parties of Mahtoree and Ishmael; but their horses carried them out of the reach of sounds, without the occurrence of the smallest evidence of the sort. The old man, from time to time, muttered his discontent, but manifested the uneasiness he actually entertained in no other manner, unless it might be in exhibiting a growing anxiety to urge the animals to increase their speed. He pointed out in passing, the deserted swale, where the family of the squatter had encamped, the night they were introduced to the reader, and afterwards he maintained an ominous silence; ominous, because his companions had already seen enough of his character, to be convinced that the circumstances must be critical indeed, which possessed the power to disturb the well regulated tranquillity of the old man's mind.
"Have we not done enough," Middleton demanded, in tenderness to the inability of Inez and Ellen to endure so much fatigue, at the end of some hours; "we have ridden hard, and have crossed a wide tract of plain. It is time to seek a place of rest."
"You must seek it then in Heaven, if you find yourselves unequal to a longer march," murmured the old trapper. "Had the Tetons and the squatter come to blows, as any one might see in the natur' of things they were bound to do, there would be time to look about us, and to calculate not only the chances but the comforts of the journey; but as the case actually is, I should consider it certain death, or endless captivity, to trust our eyes with sleep, until our heads are fairly hid in some uncommon cover."
"I know not," returned the youth, who reflected more on the sufferings of the fragile being he supported, than on the experience of his companion; "I know not; we have ridden leagues, and I can see no extraordinary signs of danger:—if you fear for yourself, my good friend, believe me you are wrong, for—"
"Your grand'ther, were he living and here," interrupted the old man, stretching forth a hand, and laying a finger impressively on the arm of Middleton, "would have spared those words. He had some reason to think that, in the prime of my days, when my eye was quicker than the hawk's, and my limbs were as active as the legs of the fallow-deer, I never clung too eagerly and fondly to life: then why should I now feel such a childish affection for a thing that I know to be vain, and the companion of pain and sorrow. Let the Tetons do their worst; they will not find a miserable and worn out trapper the loudest in his complaints, or his prayers."
"Pardon me, my worthy, my inestimable friend," exclaimed the repentant young man, warmly grasping the hand, which the other was in the act of withdrawing; "I knew not what I said—or rather I thought only of those whose tenderness we are most bound to consider."
"Enough. It is natur', and it is right. Therein your grand'ther would have done the very same. Ah's me! what a number of seasons, hot and cold, wet and dry, have rolled over my poor head, since the time we worried it out together, among the Red Hurons of the Lakes, back in those rugged mountains of Old York! and many a noble buck has since that day fallen by my hand; ay, and many a thieving Mingo, too! Tell me, lad, did the general, for general I know he got to be, did he ever tell you of the deer we took, that night the outlyers of the accursed tribe drove us to the caves, on the island, and how we feasted and drunk in security?"
"I have often heard him mention the smallest circumstance of the night you mean; but—"
"And the singer; and his open throat; and his shoutings in the fights!" continued the old man, laughing joyously at the strength of his own recollections.
"All—all—he forgot nothing, even to the most trifling incident. Do you not—"
"What! did he tell you of the imp behind the log and of the miserable devil who went over the fall—or of the wretch in the tree?"
"Of each and all, with every thing that concerned them. I should think—"
"Ay," continued the old man, in a voice, which betrayed how powerfully his own faculties retained the impression of the spectacle, "I have been a dweller in forests, and in the wilderness for three-score and ten years, and if any can pretend to know the world, or to have seen scary sights, it is myself! But never, before nor since, have I seen human man in such a state of mortal despair as that very savage; and yet he scorned to speak, or to cry out, or to own his forlorn condition! It is their gift, and nobly did he maintain it!"
"Harkee, old trapper," interrupted Paul, who, content with the knowledge that his waist was grasped by one of the arms of Ellen, had hitherto ridden in unusual silence; "my eyes are as true and as delicate as a humming-bird's in the day; but they are nothing worth boasting of by starlight. Is that a sick buffaloe, crawling along in the bottom, there, or is it one of the stray cattle of the savages?"
The whole party drew up, in order to examine the object, which Paul had pointed out. During most of the time, they had ridden in the little vales in order to seek the protection of the shadows, but just at that moment, they had ascended a roll of the prairie in order to cross into the very bottom where this unknown animal was now seen.
"Let us descend," said Middleton; "be it beast or man, we are too strong to have any cause of fear."
"Now, if the thing was not morally impossible," cried the trapper, who the reader must have already discovered was not always exact in the use of qualifying words, "if the thing was not morally impossible, I should say, that was the man, who journeys in search of reptiles and insects: our fellow-traveller the Doctor."
"Why impossible? did you not direct him to pursue this course, in order to rejoin us?"
"Ay, but I did not tell him to make an ass outdo the speed of a horse: —you are right—you are right," said the trapper, interrupting himself, as by gradually lessening the distance between them, his eyes assured him it was Obed and Asinus, whom he saw; "you are right, as certainly as the thing is a miracle. Lord, what a thing is fear! How now, friend; you have been industrious to have got so far ahead in so short a time. I marvel at the speed of the ass!"
"Asinus is overcome," returned the naturalist, mournfully. "The animal has certainly not been idle since we separated, but he declines all my admonitions and invitations to proceed. I hope there is no instant fear from the savages?"
"I cannot say that; I cannot say that; matters are not as they should be, atween the squatter and the Tetons, nor will I answer as yet for the safety of any scalp among us. The beast is broken down! you have urged him beyond his natural gifts, and he is like a worried hound. There is pity and discretion in all things, even though a man be riding for his life."
"You indicated the star," returned the Doctor, "and I deemed it expedient to use great diligence in pursuing the direction."
"Did you expect to reach it, by such haste? Go, go; you talk boldly of the creatur's of the Lord, though I plainly see you are but a child in matters that concern their gifts and instincts. What a plight would you now be in, if there was need for a long and a quick push with our heels?"
"The fault exists in the formation of the quadruped," said Obed, whose placid temper began to revolt under so many scandalous imputations. "Had there been rotary levers for two of the members, a moiety of the fatigue would have been saved, for one item—"
"That, for your moiety's and rotaries, and items, man; a jaded ass is a jaded ass, and he who denies it is but a brother of the beast itself. Now, captain, are we driven to choose one of two evils. We must either abandon this man, who has been too much with us through good and bad to be easily cast away, or we must seek a cover to let the animal rest."
"Venerable venator!" exclaimed the alarmed Obed; "I conjure you by all the secret sympathies of our common nature, by all the hidden—"
"Ah, fear has brought him to talk a little rational sense! It is not natur', truly, to abandon a brother in distress; and the Lord He knows that I have never yet done the shameful deed. You are right, friend, you are right; we must all be hidden, and that speedily. But what to do with the ass! Friend Doctor, do you truly value the life of the creatur'?"
"He is an ancient and faithful servant," returned the disconsolate Obed, "and with pain should I see him come to any harm. Fetter his lower limbs, and leave him to repose in this bed of herbage. I will engage he shall be found where he is left, in the morning."
"And the Siouxes? What would become of the beast should any of the red imps catch a peep at his ears, growing up out of the grass like to mullein-tops?" cried the bee-hunter. "They would stick him as full of arrows, as a woman's cushion is full of pins, and then believe they had done the job for the father of all rabbits! My word for it out they would find out their blunder at the first mouthful!"
Middleton, who began to grow impatient under the protracted discussion, interposed, and, as a good deal of deference was paid to his rank, he quickly prevailed in his efforts to effect a sort of compromise. The humble Asinus, too meek and too weary to make any resistance, was soon tethered and deposited in his bed of dying grass, where he was left with a perfect confidence on the part of his master of finding him, again, at the expiration of a few hours. The old man strongly remonstrated against this arrangement, and more than once hinted that the knife was much more certain than the tether, but the petitions of Obed, aided perhaps by the secret reluctance of the trapper to destroy the beast, were the means of saving its life. When Asinus was thus secured, and as his master believed secreted, the whole party proceeded to find some place where they might rest themselves, during the time required for the repose of the animal.
According to the calculations of the trapper, they had ridden twenty miles since the commencement of their flight. The delicate frame of Inez began to droop under the excessive fatigue, nor was the more robust, but still feminine person of Ellen, insensible to the extraordinary effort she had made. Middleton himself was not sorry to repose, nor did the vigorous and high-spirited Paul hesitate to confess that he should be all the better for a little rest. The old man alone seemed indifferent to the usual claims of nature. Although but little accustomed to the unusual description of exercise he had just been taking, he appeared to bid defiance to all the usual attacks of human infirmities. Though evidently so near its dissolution, his attenuated frame still stood like the shaft of seasoned oak, dry, naked, and tempest-driven, but unbending and apparently indurated to the consistency of stone. On the present occasion he conducted the search for a resting-place, which was immediately commenced, with all the energy of youth, tempered by the discretion and experience of his great age.
The bed of grass, in which the Doctor had been met, and in which his ass had just been left, was followed a little distance until it was found that the rolling swells of the prairie were melting away into one vast level plain, that was covered, for miles on miles, with the same species of herbage.
"Ah, this may do, this may do," said the old man, when they arrived on the borders of this sea of withered grass. "I know the spot, and often have I lain in its secret holes, for days at a time, while the savages have been hunting the buffaloes on the open ground. We must enter it with great care, for a broad trail might be seen, and Indian curiosity is a dangerous neighbour."
Leading the way himself, he selected a spot where the tall coarse herbage stood most erect, growing not unlike a bed of reeds, both in height and density. Here he entered, singly, directing the others to follow as nearly as possible in his own footsteps. When they had paused for some hundred or two feet into the wilderness of weeds, he gave his directions to Paul and Middleton, who continued a direct route deeper into the place, while he dismounted and returned on his tracks to the margin of the meadow. Here he passed many minutes in replacing the trodden grass, and in effacing, as far as possible, every evidence of their passage.
In the mean time the rest of the party continued their progress, not without toil, and consequently at a very moderate gait, until they had penetrated a mile into the place. Here they found a spot suited to their circumstances, and, dismounting, they began to make their dispositions to pass the remainder of the night. By this time the trapper had rejoined the party, and again resumed the direction of their proceedings.
The weeds and grass were soon plucked and cut from an area of sufficient extent, and a bed for Inez and Ellen was speedily made, a little apart, which for sweetness and ease might have rivalled one of down. The exhausted females, after receiving some light refreshments from the provident stores of Paul and the old man, now sought their repose, leaving their more stout companions at liberty to provide for their own necessities. Middleton and Paul were not long in following the example of their betrothed, leaving the trapper and the naturalist still seated around a savoury dish of bison's meat, which had been cooked at a previous halt, and which was, as usual, eaten cold.
A certain lingering sensation, which had so long been uppermost in the mind of Obed, temporarily banished sleep; and as for the old man, his wants were rendered, by habit and necessity, as seemingly subject to his will as if they altogether depended on the pleasure of the moment. Like his companion he chose therefore to watch, instead of sleeping.
"If the children of ease and security knew the hardships and dangers the students of nature encounter in their behalf," said Obed, after a moment of silence, when Middleton took his leave for the night, "pillars of silver, and statues of brass would be reared as the everlasting monuments of their glory!"
"I know not, I know not," returned his companion; "silver is far from plenty, at least in the wilderness, and your brazen idols are forbidden in the commandments of the Lord."
"Such indeed was the opinion of the great lawgiver of the Jews, but the Egyptians, and the Chaldeans, the Greeks, and the Romans, were wont to manifest their gratitude, in these types of the human form. Indeed many of the illustrious masters of antiquity, have by the aid of science and skill, even outdone the works of nature, and exhibited a beauty and perfection in the human form that are difficult to be found in the rarest living specimens of any of the species; genus, homo."
"Can your idols walk or speak, or have they the glorious gift of reason?" demanded the trapper, with some indignation in his voice; "though but little given to run into the noise and chatter of the settlements, yet have I been into the towns in my day, to barter the peltry for lead and powder, and often have I seen your waxen dolls, with their tawdry clothes and glass eyes—"
"Waxen dolls!" interrupted Obed; "it is profanation, in the view of the arts, to liken the miserable handy-work of the dealers in wax to the pure models of antiquity!"
"It is profanation in the eyes of the Lord," retorted the old man, "to liken the works of his creatur's, to the power of his own hand."
"Venerable venator," resumed the naturalist, clearing his throat, like one who was much in earnest, "let us discuss understandingly and in amity. You speak of the dross of ignorance, whereas my memory dwells on those precious jewels, which it was my happy fortune, formerly, to witness, among the treasured glories of the Old World."
"Old World!" retorted the trapper, "that is the miserable cry of all the half-starved miscreants that have come into this blessed land, since the days of my boyhood! They tell you of the Old World; as if the Lord had not the power and the will to create the universe in a day, or as if he had not bestowed his gifts with an equal hand, though not with an equal mind, or equal wisdom, have they been received and used. Were they to say a worn out, and an abused, and a sacrilegious world, they might not be so far from the truth!"
Doctor Battius, who found it quite as arduous a task to maintain any of his favourite positions with so irregular an antagonist, as he would have found it difficult to keep his feet within the hug of a western wrestler, hemmed aloud, and profited by the new opening the trapper had made, to shift the grounds of the discussion—
"By Old and New World, my excellent associate," he said, "it is not to be understood that the hills, and the valleys, the rocks and the rivers of our own moiety of the earth do not, physically speaking, bear a date as ancient as the spot on which the bricks of Babylon are found; it merely signifies that its moral existence is not co-equal with its physical, or geological formation."
"Anan!" said the old man, looking up enquiringly into the face of the philosopher.
"Merely that it has not been so long known in morals, as the other countries of Christendom."
"So much the better, so much the better. I am no great admirator of your old morals, as you call them, for I have ever found, and I have liv'd long as it were in the very heart of natur', that your old morals are none of the best. Mankind twist and turn the rules of the Lord, to suit their own wickedness, when their devilish cunning has had too much time to trifle with His commands."
"Nay, venerable hunter, still am I not comprehended. By morals I do not mean the limited and literal signification of the term, such as is conveyed in its synonyme, morality, but the practices of men, as connected with their daily intercourse, their institutions, and their laws."
"And such I call barefaced and downright wantonness and waste," interrupted his sturdy disputant.
"Well, be it so," returned the Doctor, abandoning the explanation in despair. "Perhaps I have conceded too much," he then instantly added, fancying that he still saw the glimmerings of an argument through another chink in the discourse. "Perhaps I have conceded too much, in saying that this hemisphere is literally as old in its formation, as that which embraces the venerable quarters of Europe, Asia, and Africa."
"It is easy to say a pine is not so tall as an alder, but it would be hard to prove. Can you give a reason for such a belief?"
"The reasons are numerous and powerful," returned the Doctor, delighted by this encouraging opening. "Look into the plains of Egypt and Arabia; their sandy deserts teem with the monuments of their antiquity; and then we have also recorded documents of their glory; doubling the proofs of their former greatness, now that they lie stripped of their fertility; while we look in vain for similar evidences that man has ever reached the summit of civilisation on this continent, or search, without our reward, for the path by which he has made the downward journey to his present condition of second childhood."
"And what see you in all this?" demanded the trapper, who, though a little confused by the terms of his companion, seized the thread of his ideas.
"A demonstration of my problem, that nature did not make so vast a region to lie an uninhabited waste so many ages. This is merely the moral view of the subject; as to the more exact and geological—"
"Your morals are exact enough for me," returned the old man, "for I think I see in them the very pride of folly. I am but little gifted in the fables of what you call the Old World, seeing that my time has been mainly passed looking natur' steadily in the face, and in reasoning on what I've seen, rather than on what I've heard in traditions. But I have never shut my ears to the words of the good book, and many is the long winter evening that I have passed in the wigwams of the Delawares, listening to the good Moravians, as they dealt forth the history and doctrines of the elder times, to the people of the Lenape! It was pleasant to hearken to such wisdom after a weary hunt! Right pleasant did I find it, and often have I talked the matter over with the Great Serpent of the Delawares, in the more peaceful hours of our out-lyings, whether it might be on the trail of a war-party of the Mingoes, or on the watch for a York deer. I remember to have heard it, then and there, said, that the Blessed Land was once fertile as the bottoms of the Mississippi, and groaning with its stores of grain and fruits; but that the judgment has since fallen upon it, and that it is now more remarkable for its barrenness than any qualities to boast of."
"It is true; but Egypt—nay much of Africa furnishes still more striking proofs of this exhaustion of nature."
"Tell me," interrupted the old man, "is it a certain truth that buildings are still standing in that land of Pharaoh, which may be likened, in their stature, to the hills of the 'arth?"
"It is as true as that nature never refuses to bestow her incisores on the animals, mammalia; genus, homo—"
"It is very marvellous! and it proves how great He must be, when His miserable creatur's can accomplish such wonders! Many men must have been needed to finish such an edifice; ay, and men gifted with strength and skill too! Does the land abound with such a race to this hour?"
"Far from it. Most of the country is a desert, and but for a mighty river all would be so."
"Yes; rivers are rare gifts to such as till the ground, as any one may see who journeys far atween the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi. But how do you account for these changes on the face of the 'arth itself, and for this downfall of nations, you men of the schools?"
"It is to be ascribed to moral cau—"
"You're right—it is their morals; their wickedness and their pride, and chiefly their waste that has done it all! Now listen to what the experience of an old man teaches him. I have lived long, as these grey hairs and wrinkled hands will show, even though my tongue should fail in the wisdom of my years. And I have seen much of the folly of man; for his natur' is the same, be he born in the wilderness, or be he born in the towns. To my weak judgment it hath ever seemed that his gifts are not equal to his wishes. That he would mount into the heavens, with all his deformities about him, if he only knew the road, no one will gainsay, that witnesses his bitter strivings upon 'arth. If his power is not equal to his will, it is because the wisdom of the Lord hath set bounds to his evil workings."
"It is much too certain that certain facts will warrant a theory, which teaches the natural depravity of the genus; but if science could be fairly brought to bear on a whole species at once, for instance, education might eradicate the evil principle."
"That, for your education! The time has been when I have thought it possible to make a companion of a beast. Many are the cubs, and many are the speckled fawns that I have reared with these old hands, until I have even fancied them rational and altered beings—but what did it amount to? the bear would bite, and the deer would run, notwithstanding my wicked conceit in fancying I could change a temper that the Lord himself had seen fit to bestow. Now if man is so blinded in his folly as to go on, ages on ages, doing harm chiefly to himself, there is the same reason to think that he has wrought his evil here as in the countries you call so old. Look about you, man; where are the multitudes that once peopled these prairies; the kings and the palaces; the riches and the mightinesses of this desert?"
"Where are the monuments that would prove the truth of so vague a theory?"
"I know not what you call a monument."
"The works of man! The glories of Thebes and Balbec—columns, catacombs, and pyramids! standing amid the sands of the East, like wrecks on a rocky shore, to testify to the storms of ages!"
"They are gone. Time has lasted too long for them. For why? Time was made by the Lord, and they were made by man. This very spot of reeds and grass, on which you now sit, may once have been the garden of some mighty king. It is the fate of all things to ripen, and then to decay. The tree blossoms, and bears its fruit, which falls, rots, withers, and even the seed is lost! Go, count the rings of the oak and of the sycamore; they lie in circles, one about another, until the eye is blinded in striving to make out their numbers; and yet a full change of the seasons comes round while the stem is winding one of these little lines about itself, like the buffaloe changing his coat, or the buck his horns; and what does it all amount to? There does the noble tree fill its place in the forest, loftier, and grander, and richer, and more difficult to imitate, than any of your pitiful pillars, for a thousand years, until the time which the Lord hath given it is full. Then come the winds, that you cannot see, to rive its bark; and the waters from the heavens, to soften its pores; and the rot, which all can feel and none can understand, to humble its pride and bring it to the ground. From that moment its beauty begins to perish. It lies another hundred years, a mouldering log, and then a mound of moss and 'arth; a sad effigy of a human grave. This is one of your genuine monuments, though made by a very different power than such as belongs to your chiseling masonry! and after all, the cunningest scout of the whole Dahcotah nation might pass his life in searching for the spot where it fell, and be no wiser when his eyes grew dim, than when they were first opened. As if that was not enough to convince man of his ignorance; and as though it were put there in mockery of his conceit, a pine shoots up from the roots of the oak, just as barrenness comes after fertility, or as these wastes have been spread, where a garden may have been created. Tell me not of your worlds that are old! it is blasphemous to set bounds and seasons, in this manner, to the works of the Almighty, like a woman counting the ages of her young."
"Friend hunter, or trapper," returned the naturalist, clearing his throat in some intellectual confusion at the vigorous attack of his companion, "your deductions, if admitted by the world, would sadly circumscribe the efforts of reason, and much abridge the boundaries of knowledge."
"So much the better—so much the better; for I have always found that a conceited man never knows content. All things prove it. Why have we not the wings of the pigeon, the eyes of the eagle, and the legs of the moose, if it had been intended that man should be equal to all his wishes?"
"There are certain physical defects, venerable trapper, in which I am always ready to admit great and happy alterations might be suggested. For example, in my own order of Phalangacru—"
"Cruel enough would be the order, that should come from miserable hands like thine! A touch from such a finger would destroy the mocking deformity of a monkey! Go, go; human folly is not needed to fill up the great design of God. There is no stature, no beauty, no proportions, nor any colours in which man himself can well be fashioned, that is not already done to his hands."
"That is touching another great and much disputed question," exclaimed the Doctor, who seized upon every distinct idea that the ardent and somewhat dogmatic old man left exposed to his mental grasp, with the vain hope of inducing a logical discussion, in which he might bring his battery of syllogisms to annihilate the unscientific defences of his antagonist.
It is, however, unnecessary to our narrative to relate the erratic discourse that ensued. The old man eluded the annihilating blows of his adversary, as the light armed soldier is wont to escape the efforts of the more regular warrior, even while he annoys him most, and an hour passed away without bringing any of the numerous subjects, on which they touched, to a satisfactory conclusion. The arguments acted, however, on the nervous system of the Doctor, like so many soothing soporifics, and by the time his aged companion was disposed to lay his head on his pack, Obed, refreshed by his recent mental joust, was in a condition to seek his natural rest, without enduring the torments of the incubus, in the shapes of Teton warriors and bloody tomahawks.
- They who have read the preceding books, in which, the trapper appears as a hunter and a scout, will readily understand the allusions.
James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie, Intro, Author Intro, Ch.1, Ch.2, Ch.3, Ch.4, Ch.5, Ch.6, Ch.7, Ch.8, Ch.9, Ch.10, Ch.11, Ch.12, Ch.13, Ch.14, Ch.15, Ch.16, Ch.17, Ch.18, Ch.19, Ch.20, Ch.21, Ch.22, Ch.23, Ch.24, Ch.25, Ch.26, Ch.27, Ch.28, Ch.29, Ch.30, Ch.31, Ch.32, Ch.33, Ch.34