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Chapter 23

CHAPTER 23

"But though the beast of game The privilege of chase may

claim; Though space and law the stag we lend Ere hound we

slip, or bow we bend; Whoever recked, where, how, or when

The prowling fox was trapped or slain?"--Lady of the Lake

It is unusual to find an encampment of the natives, like

those of the more instructed whites, guarded by the presence

of armed men. Well informed of the approach of every

danger, while it is yet at a distance, the Indian generally

rests secure under his knowledge of the signs of the forest,

and the long and difficult paths that separate him from

those he has most reason to dread. But the enemy who, by

any lucky concurrence of accidents, has found means to elude

the vigilance of the scouts, will seldom meet with sentinels

nearer home to sound the alarm. In addition to this general

usage, the tribes friendly to the French knew too well the

weight of the blow that had just been struck, to apprehend

any immediate danger from the hostile nations that were

tributary to the crown of Britain.

When Duncan and David, therefore, found themselves in the

center of the children, who played the antics already

mentioned, it was without the least previous intimation of

their approach. But so soon as they were observed the whole

of the juvenile pack raised, by common consent, a shrill and

warning whoop; and then sank, as it were, by magic, from

before the sight of their visitors. The naked, tawny bodies

of the crouching urchins blended so nicely at that hour,

with the withered herbage, that at first it seemed as if the

earth had, in truth, swallowed up their forms; though when

surprise permitted Duncan to bend his look more curiously

about the spot, he found it everywhere met by dark, quick,

and rolling eyeballs.

Gathering no encouragement from this startling presage of

the nature of the scrutiny he was likely to undergo from the

more mature judgments of the men, there was an instant when

the young soldier would have retreated. It was, however,

too late to appear to hesitate. The cry of the children had

drawn a dozen warriors to the door of the nearest lodge,

where they stood clustered in a dark and savage group,

gravely awaiting the nearer approach of those who had

unexpectedly come among them.

David, in some measure familiarized to the scene, led the

way with a steadiness that no slight obstacle was likely to

disconcert, into this very building. It was the principal

edifice of the village, though roughly constructed of the

bark and branches of trees; being the lodge in which the

tribe held its councils and public meetings during their

temporary residence on the borders of the English province.

Duncan found it difficult to assume the necessary appearance

of unconcern, as he brushed the dark and powerful frames of

the savages who thronged its threshold; but, conscious that

his existence depended on his presence of mind, he trusted

to the discretion of his companion, whose footsteps he

closely followed, endeavoring, as he proceeded, to rally his

thoughts for the occasion. His blood curdled when he found

himself in absolute contact with such fierce and implacable

enemies; but he so far mastered his feelings as to pursue

his way into the center of the lodge, with an exterior that

did not betray the weakness. Imitating the example of the

deliberate Gamut, he drew a bundle of fragrant brush from

beneath a pile that filled the corner of the hut, and seated

himself in silence.

So soon as their visitor had passed, the observant warriors

fell back from the entrance, and arranging themselves about

him, they seemed patiently to await the moment when it might

comport with the dignity of the stranger to speak. By far

the greater number stood leaning, in lazy, lounging

attitudes, against the upright posts that supported the

crazy building, while three or four of the oldest and most

distinguished of the chiefs placed themselves on the earth a

little more in advance.

A flaring torch was burning in the place, and set its red

glare from face to face and figure to figure, as it waved in

the currents of air. Duncan profited by its light to read

the probable character of his reception, in the countenances

of his hosts. But his ingenuity availed him little, against

the cold artifices of the people he had encountered. The

chiefs in front scarce cast a glance at his person, keeping

their eyes on the ground, with an air that might have been

intended for respect, but which it was quite easy to

construe into distrust. The men in the shadow were less

reserved. Duncan soon detected their searching, but stolen,

looks which, in truth, scanned his person and attire inch by

inch; leaving no emotion of the countenance, no gesture, no

line of the paint, nor even the fashion of a garment,

unheeded, and without comment.

At length one whose hair was beginning to be sprinkled with

gray, but whose sinewy limbs and firm tread announced that

he was still equal to the duties of manhood, advanced out of

the gloom of a corner, whither he had probably posted

himself to make his observations unseen, and spoke. He used

the language of the Wyandots, or Hurons; his words were,

consequently, unintelligible to Heyward, though they seemed,

by the gestures that accompanied them, to be uttered more in

courtesy than anger. The latter shook his head, and made a

gesture indicative of his inability to reply.

"Do none of my brothers speak the French or the English?" he

said, in the former language, looking about him from

countenance to countenance, in hopes of finding a nod of

assent.

Though more than one had turned, as if to catch the meaning

of his words, they remained unanswered.

"I should be grieved to think," continued Duncan, speaking

slowly, and using the simplest French of which he was the

master, "to believe that none of this wise and brave nation

understand the language that the'Grand Monarque' uses when

he talks to his children. His heart would be heavy did he

believe his red warriors paid him so little respect!"

A long and grave pause succeeded, during which no movement

of a limb, nor any expression of an eye, betrayed the

expression produced by his remark. Duncan, who knew that

silence was a virtue among his hosts, gladly had recourse to

the custom, in order to arrange his ideas. At length the

same warrior who had before addressed him replied, by dryly

demanding, in the language of the Canadas:

"When our Great Father speaks to his people, is it with the

tongue of a Huron?"

"He knows no difference in his children, whether the color

of the skin be red, or black, or white," returned Duncan,

evasively; "though chiefly is he satisfied with the brave

Hurons."

"In what manner will he speak," demanded the wary chief,

"when the runners count to him the scalps which five nights

ago grew on the heads of the Yengeese?"

"They were his enemies," said Duncan, shuddering

involuntarily; "and doubtless, he will say, it is good; my

Hurons are very gallant."

"Our Canada father does not think it. Instead of looking

forward to reward his Indians, his eyes are turned backward.

He sees the dead Yengeese, but no Huron. What can this

mean?"

"A great chief, like him, has more thoughts than tongues.

He looks to see that no enemies are on his trail."

"The canoe of a dead warrior will not float on the Horican,"

returned the savage, gloomily. "His ears are open to the

Delawares, who are not our friends, and they fill them with

lies."

"It cannot be. See; he has bid me, who am a man that knows

the art of healing, to go to his children, the red Hurons of

the great lakes, and ask if any are sick!"

Another silence succeeded this annunciation of the character

Duncan had assumed. Every eye was simultaneously bent on

his person, as if to inquire into the truth or falsehood of

the declaration, with an intelligence and keenness that

caused the subject of their scrutiny to tremble for the

result. He was, however, relieved again by the former

speaker.

"Do the cunning men of the Canadas paint their skins?" the

Huron coldly continued; "we have heard them boast that their

faces were pale."

"When an Indian chief comes among his white fathers,"

returned Duncan, with great steadiness, "he lays aside his

buffalo robe, to carry the shirt that is offered him. My

brothers have given me paint and I wear it."

A low murmur of applause announced that the compliment of

the tribe was favorably received. The elderly chief made a

gesture of commendation, which was answered by most of his

companions, who each threw forth a hand and uttered a brief

exclamation of pleasure. Duncan began to breathe more

freely, believing that the weight of his examination was

past; and, as he had already prepared a simple and probable

tale to support his pretended occupation, his hopes of

ultimate success grew brighter.

After a silence of a few moments, as if adjusting his

thoughts, in order to make a suitable answer to the

declaration their guests had just given, another warrior

arose, and placed himself in an attitude to speak. While

his lips were yet in the act of parting, a low but fearful

sound arose from the forest, and was immediately succeeded

by a high, shrill yell, that was drawn out, until it equaled

the longest and most plaintive howl of the wolf. The sudden

and terrible interruption caused Duncan to start from his

seat, unconscious of everything but the effect produced by

so frightful a cry. At the same moment, the warriors glided

in a body from the lodge, and the outer air was filled with

loud shouts, that nearly drowned those awful sounds, which

were still ringing beneath the arches of the woods. Unable

to command himself any longer, the youth broke from the

place, and presently stood in the center of a disorderly

throng, that included nearly everything having life, within

the limits of the encampment. Men, women, and children; the

aged, the inform, the active, and the strong, were alike

abroad, some exclaiming aloud, others clapping their hands

with a joy that seemed frantic, and all expressing their

savage pleasure in some unexpected event. Though astounded,

at first, by the uproar, Heyward was soon enabled to find

its solution by the scene that followed.

There yet lingered sufficient light in the heavens to

exhibit those bright openings among the tree-tops, where

different paths left the clearing to enter the depths of the

wilderness. Beneath one of them, a line of warriors issued

from the woods, and advanced slowly toward the dwellings.

One in front bore a short pole, on which, as it afterwards

appeared, were suspended several human scalps. The

startling sounds that Duncan had heard were what the whites

have not inappropriately called the "death-hallo"; and each

repetition of the cry was intended to announce to the tribe

the fate of an enemy. Thus far the knowledge of Heyward

assisted him in the explanation; and as he now knew that the

interruption was caused by the unlooked-for return of a

successful war-party, every disagreeable sensation was

quieted in inward congratulation, for the opportune relief

and insignificance it conferred on himself.

When at the distance of a few hundred feet from the lodges

the newly arrived warriors halted. Their plaintive and

terrific cry, which was intended to represent equally the

wailings of the dead and the triumph to the victors, had

entirely ceased. One of their number now called aloud, in

words that were far from appalling, though not more

intelligible to those for whose ears they were intended,

than their expressive yells. It would be difficult to

convey a suitable idea of the savage ecstasy with which the

news thus imparted was received. The whole encampment, in a

moment, became a scene of the most violent bustle and

commotion. The warriors drew their knives, and flourishing

them, they arranged themselves in two lines, forming a lane

that extended from the war-party to the lodges. The squaws

seized clubs, axes, or whatever weapon of offense first

offered itself to their hands, and rushed eagerly to act

their part in the cruel game that was at hand. Even the

children would not be excluded; but boys, little able to

wield the instruments, tore the tomahawks from the belts of

their fathers, and stole into the ranks, apt imitators of

the savage traits exhibited by their parents.

Large piles of brush lay scattered about the clearing, and a

wary and aged squaw was occupied in firing as many as might

serve to light the coming exhibition. As the flame arose,

its power exceeded that of the parting day, and assisted to

render objects at the same time more distinct and more

hideous. The whole scene formed a striking picture, whose

frame was composed of the dark and tall border of pines.

The warriors just arrived were the most distant figures. A

little in advance stood two men, who were apparently

selected from the rest, as the principal actors in what was

to follow. The light was not strong enough to render their

features distinct, though it was quite evident that they

were governed by very different emotions. While one stood

erect and firm, prepared to meet his fate like a hero, the

other bowed his head, as if palsied by terror or stricken

with shame. The high-spirited Duncan felt a powerful

impulse of admiration and pity toward the former, though no

opportunity could offer to exhibit his generous emotions.

He watched his slightest movement, however, with eager eyes;

and, as he traced the fine outline of his admirably

proportioned and active frame, he endeavored to persuade

himself, that, if the powers of man, seconded by such noble

resolution, could bear one harmless through so severe a

trial, the youthful captive before him might hope for

success in the hazardous race he was about to run.

Insensibly the young man drew nigher to the swarthy lines of

the Hurons, and scarcely breathed, so intense became his

interest in the spectacle. Just then the signal yell was

given, and the momentary quiet which had preceded it was

broken by a burst of cries, that far exceeded any before

heard. The more abject of the two victims continued

motionless; but the other bounded from the place at the cry,

with the activity and swiftness of a deer. Instead of

rushing through the hostile lines, as had been expected, he

just entered the dangerous defile, and before time was given

for a single blow, turned short, and leaping the heads of a

row of children, he gained at once the exterior and safer

side of the formidable array. The artifice was answered by

a hundred voices raised in imprecations; and the whole of

the excited multitude broke from their order, and spread

themselves about the place in wild confusion.

A dozen blazing piles now shed their lurid brightness on the

place, which resembled some unhallowed and supernatural

arena, in which malicious demons had assembled to act their

bloody and lawless rites. The forms in the background

looked like unearthly beings, gliding before the eye, and

cleaving the air with frantic and unmeaning gestures; while

the savage passions of such as passed the flames were

rendered fearfully distinct by the gleams that shot athwart

their inflamed visages.

It will easily be understood that, amid such a concourse of

vindictive enemies, no breathing time was allowed the

fugitive. There was a single moment when it seemed as if he

would have reached the forest, but the whole body of his

captors threw themselves before him, and drove him back into

the center of his relentless persecutors. Turning like a

headed deer, he shot, with the swiftness of an arrow,

through a pillar of forked flame, and passing the whole

multitude harmless, he appeared on the opposite side of the

clearing. Here, too, he was met and turned by a few of the

older and more subtle of the Hurons. Once more he tried the

throng, as if seeking safety in its blindness, and then

several moments succeeded, during which Duncan believed the

active and courageous young stranger was lost.

Nothing could be distinguished but a dark mass of human

forms tossed and involved in inexplicable confusion. Arms,

gleaming knives, and formidable clubs, appeared above them,

but the blows were evidently given at random. The awful

effect was heightened by the piercing shrieks of the women

and the fierce yells of the warriors. Now and then Duncan

caught a glimpse of a light form cleaving the air in some

desperate bound, and he rather hoped than believed that the

captive yet retained the command of his astonishing powers

of activity. Suddenly the multitude rolled backward, and

approached the spot where he himself stood. The heavy body

in the rear pressed upon the women and children in front,

and bore them to the earth. The stranger reappeared in the

confusion. Human power could not, however, much longer

endure so severe a trial. Of this the captive seemed

conscious. Profiting by the momentary opening, he darted

from among the warriors, and made a desperate, and what

seemed to Duncan a final effort to gain the wood. As if

aware that no danger was to be apprehended from the young

soldier, the fugitive nearly brushed his person in his

flight. A tall and powerful Huron, who had husbanded his

forces, pressed close upon his heels, and with an uplifted

arm menaced a fatal blow. Duncan thrust forth a foot, and

the shock precipitated the eager savage headlong, many feet

in advance of his intended victim. Thought itself is not

quicker than was the motion with which the latter profited

by the advantage; he turned, gleamed like a meteor again

before the eyes of Duncan, and, at the next moment, when the

latter recovered his recollection, and gazed around in quest

of the captive, he saw him quietly leaning against a small

painted post, which stood before the door of the principal

lodge.

Apprehensive that the part he had taken in the escape might

prove fatal to himself, Duncan left the place without delay.

He followed the crowd, which drew nigh the lodges, gloomy

and sullen, like any other multitude that had been

disappointed in an execution. Curiosity, or perhaps a

better feeling, induced him to approach the stranger. He

found him, standing with one arm cast about the protecting

post, and breathing thick and hard, after his exertions, but

disdaining to permit a single sign of suffering to escape.

His person was now protected by immemorial and sacred usage,

until the tribe in council had deliberated and determined on

his fate. It was not difficult, however, to foretell the

result, if any presage could be drawn from the feelings of

those who crowded the place.

There was no term of abuse known to the Huron vocabulary

that the disappointed women did not lavishly expend on the

successful stranger. They flouted at his efforts, and told

him, with bitter scoffs, that his feet were better than his

hands; and that he merited wings, while he knew not the use

of an arrow or a knife. To all this the captive made no

reply; but was content to preserve an attitude in which

dignity was singularly blended with disdain. Exasperated as

much by his composure as by his good-fortune, their words

became unintelligible, and were succeeded by shrill,

piercing yells. Just then the crafty squaw, who had taken

the necessary precaution to fire the piles, made her way

through the throng, and cleared a place for herself in front

of the captive. The squalid and withered person of this hag

might well have obtained for her the character of possessing

more than human cunning. Throwing back her light vestment,

she stretched forth her long, skinny arm, in derision, and

using the language of the Lenape, as more intelligible to

the subject of her gibes, she commenced aloud:

"Look you, Delaware," she said, snapping her fingers in his

face; "your nation is a race of women, and the hoe is better

fitted to your hands than the gun. Your squaws are the

mothers of deer; but if a bear, or a wildcat, or a serpent

were born among you, ye would flee. The Huron girls shall

make you petticoats, and we will find you a husband."

A burst of savage laughter succeeded this attack, during

which the soft and musical merriment of the younger females

strangely chimed with the cracked voice of their older and

more malignant companion. But the stranger was superior to

all their efforts. His head was immovable; nor did he

betray the slightest consciousness that any were present,

except when his haughty eye rolled toward the dusky forms of

the warriors, who stalked in the background silent and

sullen observers of the scene.

Infuriated at the self-command of the captive, the woman

placed her arms akimbo; and, throwing herself into a posture

of defiance, she broke out anew, in a torrent of words that

no art of ours could commit successfully to paper. Her

breath was, however, expended in vain; for, although

distinguished in her nation as a proficient in the art of

abuse, she was permitted to work herself into such a fury as

actually to foam at the mouth, without causing a muscle to

vibrate in the motionless figure of the stranger. The

effect of his indifference began to extend itself to the

other spectators; and a youngster, who was just quitting the

condition of a boy to enter the state of manhood, attempted

to assist the termagant, by flourishing his tomahawk before

their victim, and adding his empty boasts to the taunts of

the women. Then, indeed, the captive turned his face toward

the light, and looked down on the stripling with an

expression that was superior to contempt. At the next

moment he resumed his quiet and reclining attitude against

the post. But the change of posture had permitted Duncan to

exchange glances with the firm and piercing eyes of Uncas.

Breathless with amazement, and heavily oppressed with the

critical situation of his friend, Heyward recoiled before

the look, trembling lest its meaning might, in some unknown

manner, hasten the prisoner's fate. There was not, however,

any instant cause for such an apprehension. Just then a

warrior forced his way into the exasperated crowd.

Motioning the women and children aside with a stern gesture,

he took Uncas by the arm, and led him toward the door of the

council-lodge. Thither all the chiefs, and most of the

distinguished warriors, followed; among whom the anxious

Heyward found means to enter without attracting any

dangerous attention to himself.

A few minutes were consumed in disposing of those present in

a manner suitable to their rank and influence in the tribe.

An order very similar to that adopted in the preceding

interview was observed; the aged and superior chiefs

occupying the area of the spacious apartment, within the

powerful light of a glaring torch, while their juniors and

inferiors were arranged in the background, presenting a dark

outline of swarthy and marked visages. In the very center

of the lodge, immediately under an opening that admitted the

twinkling light of one or two stars, stood Uncas, calm,

elevated, and collected. His high and haughty carriage was

not lost on his captors, who often bent their looks on his

person, with eyes which, while they lost none of their

inflexibility of purpose, plainly betrayed their admiration

of the stranger's daring.

The case was different with the individual whom Duncan had

observed to stand forth with his friend, previously to the

desperate trial of speed; and who, instead of joining in the

chase, had remained, throughout its turbulent uproar, like a

cringing statue, expressive of shame and disgrace. Though

not a hand had been extended to greet him, nor yet an eye

had condescended to watch his movements, he had also entered

the lodge, as though impelled by a fate to whose decrees he

submitted, seemingly, without a struggle. Heyward profited

by the first opportunity to gaze in his face, secretly

apprehensive he might find the features of another

acquaintance; but they proved to be those of a stranger,

and, what was still more inexplicable, of one who bore all

the distinctive marks of a Huron warrior. Instead of

mingling with his tribe, however, he sat apart, a solitary

being in a multitude, his form shrinking into a crouching

and abject attitude, as if anxious to fill as little space

as possible. When each individual had taken his proper

station, and silence reigned in the place, the gray-haired

chief already introduced to the reader, spoke aloud, in the

language of the Lenni Lenape.

"Delaware," he said, "though one of a nation of women, you

have proved yourself a man. I would give you food; but he

who eats with a Huron should become his friend. Rest in

peace till the morning sun, when our last words shall be

spoken."

"Seven nights, and as many summer days, have I fasted on the

trail of the Hurons," Uncas coldly replied; "the children of

the Lenape know how to travel the path of the just without

lingering to eat."

"Two of my young men are in pursuit of your companion,"

resumed the other, without appearing to regard the boast of

his captive; "when they get back, then will our wise man say

to you 'live' or 'die'."

"Has a Huron no ears?" scornfully exclaimed Uncas; "twice,

since he has been your prisoner, has the Delaware heard a

gun that he knows. Your young men will never come back!"

A short and sullen pause succeeded this bold assertion.

Duncan, who understood the Mohican to allude to the fatal

rifle of the scout, bent forward in earnest observation of

the effect it might produce on the conquerors; but the chief

was content with simply retorting:

"If the Lenape are so skillful, why is one of their bravest

warriors here?"

"He followed in the steps of a flying coward, and fell into

a snare. The cunning beaver may be caught."

As Uncas thus replied, he pointed with his finger toward the

solitary Huron, but without deigning to bestow any other

notice on so unworthy an object. The words of the answer

and the air of the speaker produced a strong sensation among

his auditors. Every eye rolled sullenly toward the

individual indicated by the simple gesture, and a low,

threatening murmur passed through the crowd. The ominous

sounds reached the outer door, and the women and children

pressing into the throng, no gap had been left, between

shoulder and shoulder, that was not now filled with the dark

lineaments of some eager and curious human countenance.

In the meantime, the more aged chiefs, in the center,

communed with each other in short and broken sentences. Not

a word was uttered that did not convey the meaning of the

speaker, in the simplest and most energetic form. Again, a

long and deeply solemn pause took place. It was known, by

all present, to be the brave precursor of a weighty and

important judgment. They who composed the outer circle of

faces were on tiptoe to gaze; and even the culprit for an

instant forgot his shame in a deeper emotion, and exposed

his abject features, in order to cast an anxious and

troubled glance at the dark assemblage of chiefs. The

silence was finally broken by the aged warrior so often

named. He arose from the earth, and moving past the

immovable form of Uncas, placed himself in a dignified

attitude before the offender. At that moment, the withered

squaw already mentioned moved into the circle, in a slow,

sidling sort of a dance, holding the torch, and muttering

the indistinct words of what might have been a species of

incantation. Though her presence was altogether an

intrusion, it was unheeded.

Approaching Uncas, she held the blazing brand in such a

manner as to cast its red glare on his person, and to expose

the slightest emotion of his countenance. The Mohican

maintained his firm and haughty attitude; and his eyes, so

far from deigning to meet her inquisitive look, dwelt

steadily on the distance, as though it penetrated the

obstacles which impeded the view and looked into futurity.

Satisfied with her examination, she left him, with a slight

expression of pleasure, and proceeded to practise the same

trying experiment on her delinquent countryman.

The young Huron was in his war paint, and very little of a

finely molded form was concealed by his attire. The light

rendered every limb and joint discernible, and Duncan turned

away in horror when he saw they were writhing in

irrepressible agony. The woman was commencing a low and

plaintive howl at the sad and shameful spectacle, when the

chief put forth his hand and gently pushed her aside.

"Reed-that-bends," he said, addressing the young culprit by

name, and in his proper language, "though the Great Spirit

has made you pleasant to the eyes, it would have been better

that you had not been born. Your tongue is loud in the

village, but in battle it is still. None of my young men

strike the tomahawk deeper into the war- post--none of

them so lightly on the Yengeese. The enemy know the shape

of your back, but they have never seen the color of your

eyes. Three times have they called on you to come, and as

often did you forget to answer. Your name will never be

mentioned again in your tribe--it is already forgotten."

As the chief slowly uttered these words, pausing

impressively between each sentence, the culprit raised his

face, in deference to the other's rank and years. Shame,

horror, and pride struggled in its lineaments. His eye,

which was contracted with inward anguish, gleamed on the

persons of those whose breath was his fame; and the latter

emotion for an instant predominated. He arose to his feet,

and baring his bosom, looked steadily on the keen,

glittering knife, that was already upheld by his inexorable

judge. As the weapon passed slowly into his heart he even

smiled, as if in joy at having found death less dreadful

than he had anticipated, and fell heavily on his face, at

the feet of the rigid and unyielding form of Uncas.

The squaw gave a loud and plaintive yell, dashed the torch

to the earth, and buried everything in darkness. The whole

shuddering group of spectators glided from the lodge like

troubled sprites; and Duncan thought that he and the yet

throbbing body of the victim of an Indian judgment had now

become its only tenants.

James Fenimore Cooper