Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter XIV.

      Hope in your mountains, and hope in your streams,
        Bow down in their worship, and loudly pray;
      Trust in your strength, and believe in your dreams,
        But the wind shall carry them all away.

The week which succeeded the arrival of our party at Chateau au Miel, or Castle Meal, as le Bourdon used to call his abode, was one of very active labor. It was necessary to house the adventurers, and the little habitation already built was quite insufficient for such a purpose. It was given to the females, who used it as a private apartment for themselves, while the cooking, eating, and even sleeping, so far as the males were concerned, were all done beneath the trees of the openings. But a new chiente was soon constructed, which, though wanting in the completeness and strength of Castle Meal, was sufficient for the wants of these sojourners in the wilderness. It is surprising with how little of those comforts which civilization induces us to regard as necessaries we can get along, when cast into the midst of the western wilds. The female whose foot has trodden, from infancy upward, on nothing harder than a good carpet-who has been reared amid all the appliances of abundance and art, seems at once to change her nature, along with her habits, and often proves a heroine, and an active assistant, when there was so much reason to apprehend she might turn out to be merely an encumbrance. In the course of a life that is now getting to be well stored with experience of this sort, as well as of many other varieties, we can recall a hundred cases of women, who were born and nurtured in affluence and abundance, who have cheerfully quitted the scenes of youth, their silks and satins, their china and plate, their mahogany and Brussels, to follow husbands and fathers into the wilderness, there to compete with the savage, often for food, and always for the final possession of the soil!

But in the case of Dorothy and Blossom, the change had never been of this very broad character, and habit had long been preparing them for scenes even more savage than that into which they were now cast. Both were accustomed to work, as, blessed be God! the American woman usually works; that is to say, within doors, and to render home neat, comfortable, and welcome. As housewives, they were expert and willing, considering the meagreness of their means; and le Bourdon told the half-delighted, half-blushing Margery, ere the latter had been twenty-four hours in his chiente, that nothing but the presence of such a one as herself was wanting to render it an abode fit for a prince! Then, the cooking was so much improved! Apart from cleanliness, the venison was found to be more savory; the cakes were lighter; and the pork less greasy. On this subject of grease, however, we could wish that a sense of right would enable us to announce its utter extinction in the American kitchen; or, if not absolutely its extinction, such a subjection of the unctuous properties, as to bring them within the limits of a reasonably accurate and healthful taste. To be frank, Dorothy carried a somewhat heavy hand, in this respect; but pretty Margery was much her superior. How this difference in domestic discipline occurred, is more than we can say; but of its existence there can be no doubt There are two very respectable sections of the civilized world to which we should imagine no rational being would ever think of resorting in order to acquire the art of cookery, and these are Germany and the land of the Pilgrims. One hears, and reads in those elegant specimens of the polite literature of the day, the letters from Washington, and from various travellers, who go up and down this river in steamboats, or along that railway, gratis, much in honor of the good things left behind the several writers, in the "region of the kock"; but, woe betide the wight who is silly enough to believe in all this poetical imagery, and who travels in that direction, in the expectation of finding a good table! It is extraordinary that such a marked difference does exist, on an interest of this magnitude, among such near neighbors; but, of the fact, we should think no intelligent and experienced man can doubt. Believing as we do, that no small portion of the elements of national character can be, and are, formed in the kitchen, the circumstance may appear to us of more moment than to some of our readers. The vacuum left in cookery, between Boston and Baltimore for instance, is something like that which exists between Le Verrier's new planet and the sun.

But Margery could even fry pork without causing it to swim in grease, and at a venison steak, a professed cook was not her superior. She also understood various little mysteries, in the way of converting their berries and fruits of the wilderness into pleasant dishes; and Corporal Flint soon affirmed that it was a thousand pities she did not live in a garrison, which, agreeably to his view of things, was something like placing her at the comptoir of the Cafe de Paris, or of marrying her to some second Vatel.

With the eating and drinking, the building advanced pari passu. Pigeonswing brought in his venison, his ducks, his pigeons, and his game of different varieties, daily, keeping the larder quite as well supplied as comported with the warmth of the weather; while the others worked on the new chiente. In order to obtain materials for this building, one so much larger than his old abode, Ben went up the Kalamazoo about half a mile, where he felled a sufficient number of young pines, with trunks of about a foot in diameter, cutting them into lengths of twenty and thirty feet, respectively. These lengths, or trunks, were rolled into the river, down which they slowly floated, until they arrived abreast of Castle Meal, where they were met by Peter, in a canoe, who towed each stick, as it arrived, to the place of landing. In this way, at the end of two days' work, a sufficient quantity of materials was collected to commence directly on the building itself.

Log-houses are of so common occurrence, as to require no particular description of the one now put up, from us. It was rather less than thirty feet in length, and one-third narrower than it was long. The logs were notched, and the interstices were filled by pieces of the pine, split to a convenient size. The roof was of bark, and of the simplest construction, while there was neither door nor window; though one aperture was left for the first, and two for the last. Corporal Flint, however, was resolved that not only a door should be made, as well as shutters for the windows, but that the house should, in time, be picketed. When le Bourdon remonstrated with him on the folly of taking so much unnecessary pains, it led to a discussion, in which the missionary even felt constrained to join.

"What's the use--what's the use?" exclaimed le Bourdon a little impatiently, when he found the corporal getting to be in earnest in his proposal. "Here have I lived, safely, two seasons in Castle Meal, without any pickets or palisades; and yet you want to turn this new house into a regular garrison!"

"Aye, Bourdon, that was in peaceable times; but these is war times. I've seen the fall of Fort Dearborn, and I don't want to see the fall of another post this war. The Pottawattamies is hostile, even Peter owns; and the Pottawattamies has been here once, as you say yourself, and may come ag'in."

"The only Pottawattamie who has ever been at this spot, to my knowledge, is dead, and his bones are bleaching up yonder in the openings. No fear of him, then."

"His body is gone," answered the corporal; "and what is more the rifle is gone with it. I heard that his rifle had been forgotten, and went to collect the arms left on the field of battle, but found nothing. No doubt his friends have burned, or buried, the chief, and they will be apt to take another look in this quarter of the country, having l'arnt the road."

Boden was struck with this intelligence, as well as with the reasoning, and after a moment's pause, he answered in a way that showed a wavering purpose.

"It will take a week's work, to picket or palisade the house," he answered, "and I wish to be busy among the bees, once more."

"Go to your bees, Bourdon, and leave me to fortify and garrison, as becomes my trade. Parson Amen, here, will tell you that the children of Israel are often bloody-minded and are not to be forgotten."

"The corporal is right," put in the missionary; "the corporal is quite right. The whole history of the ancient Jews gives us this character of them; and even Saul of Tarsus was bent on persecution and slaughter, until his hand was stayed by the direct manifestation of the power of God. I can see glimmerings of this spirit in Peter, and this at a moment when he is almost ready to admit that he's a descendant of Israel."

"Is Peter ready to allow that?" asked the bee-hunter, with more interest in the answer than he would have been willing to allow.

"As good as that-yes, quite as good as that. I can see, plainly, that Peter has some heavy mystery on his mind; sooner, or later, we shall learn it. When it does come out, the world may be prepared to learn the whole history of the Ten Tribes!"

"In my judgment," observed the corporal, "that chief could give the history of twenty, if he was so minded,"

"There were but ten of them, brother Flint--but ten; and of those ten he could give us a full and highly interesting account. One of these days, we shall hear it all; in the mean time, it may be well enough to turn one of these houses into some sort of a garrison."

"Let it, then, be Castle Meal," said le Bourdon; "surely, if any one is to be defended and fortified in this way, it ought to be the women. You may easily palisade that hut, which is so much stronger than this, and so much smaller."

With this compromise, the work went on. The corporal dug a trench four feet deep, encircling the "castle," as happy as a lord the whole time; for this was not the first time he had been at such work, which he considered to be altogether in character, and suitable to his profession. No youthful engineer, fresh from the Point, that seat of military learning to which the republic is even more indebted for its signal successes in Mexico, than to the high military character of this population-no young aspirant for glory, fresh from this useful school, could have greater delight in laying out his first bastion, or counter-scarp, or glacis, than Corporal Flint enjoyed in fortifying Castle Meal. It will be remembered that this was the first occasion he was ever actually at the head of the engineering department Hitherto, it had been his fortune to follow; but now it had become his duty to lead. As no one else, of that party, had ever been employed in such a work on any previous occasion, the corporal did not affect to conceal the superior knowledge with which he was overflowing. Gershom he found a ready and active assistant; for, by this time, the whiskey was well out of him; and he toiled with the greater willingness, as he felt that the palisades would add to the security of his wife and sister. Neither did Parson Amen disdain to use the pick and shovel; for, while the missionary had the fullest reliance in the fact that the red men of that region were the descendants of the children of Israel, he regarded them as a portion of the chosen people who were living under the ban of the divine displeasure, and as more than usually influenced by those evil spirits, whom St. Paul mentions as the powers of the air. In a word, while the good missionary had all faith in the final conversion and restoration of these children of the forests, he did not overlook the facts of their present barbarity, and great propensity to scalp. He was not quite as efficient as Gershom, at this novel employment, but a certain inborn zeal rendered him both active and useful. As for the Indians, neither of them deigned to touch a tool. Pigeonswing had little opportunity for so doing, indeed, being usually, from the rising to the setting sun, out hunting for the support of the party; while Peter passed most of his time in ruminations and solitary walks. This last paid little attention to the work about the castle, either knowing it would, at any moment, by an act of treachery, be in his power to render all these precautions of no avail; or, relying on the amount of savage force that he knew was about to collect in the openings. Whenever he cast a glance on the progress of the work, it was with an eye of great indifference; once he even carried his duplicity so far, as to make a suggestion to the corporal, by means of which, as he himself expressed it, in his imperfect English-- "Injin no get inside, to use knife and tomahawk." This seeming indifference, on the part of Peter, did not escape the observation of the bee-hunter, who became still less distrustful of that mysterious savage, as he noted his conduct in connection with the dispositions making for defence.

Le Bourdon would not allow a tree of any sort to be felled anywhere near his abode. While the corporal and his associates were busy in digging the trench, he had gone to a considerable distance, quite out of sight from Castle Meal, and near his great highway, the river, where he cut and trimmed the necessary number of burr-oaks for the palisades. Boden labored the more cheerfully at this work, for two especial reasons. One was the fact that the defences might be useful to himself, hereafter, as much against bears as against Indians; and the other, because Margery daily brought her sewing or knitting, and sat on the fallen trees, laughing and chatting, as the axe performed its duties. On three several occasions Peter was present, also, accompanying Blossom, with a kindness of manner, and an attention to her pretty little tastes in culling flowers, that would have done credit to a man of a higher school of civilization.

The reader is not to suppose, however, because the Indian pays but little outward attention to the squaws, that he is without natural feeling, or manliness of character. In some respects his chivalrous devotion to the sex is, perhaps, in no degree inferior to that of the class which makes a parade of such sentiments, and this quite as much from convention and ostentation, as from any other motive. The red man is still a savage beyond all question, but he is a savage with so many nobler and more manly qualities, when uncorrupted by communion with the worst class of whites, and not degraded by extreme poverty, as justly to render him a subject of our admiration, in self-respect, in dignity, and in simplicity of deportment. The Indian chief is usually a gentleman; and this, though he may have never heard of Revelation, and has not the smallest notion of the Atonement, and of the deep obligations it has laid on the human race.

Amid the numberless exaggerations of the day, one of particular capacity has arisen connected with the supposed character of a gentleman. Those who regard all things through the medium of religious feeling, are apt to insist that he who is a Christian, is necessarily a gentleman; while he can be no thorough gentleman, who has not most of the qualities of the Christian character. This confusion in thought and language, can lead to no really useful result, while it embarrasses the minds of many, and renders the expression of our ideas less exact and comprehensive than they would otherwise be.

We conceive that a man may be very much of a Christian, and very little of a gentleman; or very much of a gentleman, and very little of a Christian. There is, in short, not much in common between the two characters, though it is possible for them to become united in the same individual. That the finished courtesies of polished life may wear some of the aspects of that benevolence which causes the Christian "to love his neighbor as himself," is certainly true, though the motives of the parties are so very different as to destroy all real identity between them. While the moving principle of a gentleman is self-respect, that of a Christian is humility. The first is ready to lay down his life in order to wipe away an imaginary dishonor, or to take the life of another; the last is taught to turn the other cheek, when smitten. In a word, the first keeps the world, its opinions and its estimation, ever uppermost in his thoughts; the last lives only to reverence God, and to conform to his will, in obedience to his revealed mandates. Certainly, there is that which is both grateful and useful in the refined deportment of one whose mind and manners have been polished even in the schools of the world; but it is degrading to the profoundly beautiful submission of the truly Christian temper, to imagine that anything like a moral parallel can justly be run between them.

Of course, Peter had none of the qualities of him who sees and feels his own defects, and relies only on the merits of the atonement for his place among the children of light, while he had so many of those qualities which depend on the estimate which man is so apt to place on his own merits. In this last sense, this Indian had a great many of the essentials of a gentleman; a lofty courtesy presiding over all his intercourse with others, when passion or policy did not thrust in new and sudden principles of action. Even the missionary was so much struck with the gentleness of this mysterious savage's deportment in connection with Margery, as at first to impute it to a growing desire to make a wife of that flower of the wilderness. But closer observation induced greater justice to the Indian in this respect Nothing like the uneasiness, impatience, or distrust of passion could be discerned in his demeanor; and when Parson Amen perceived that the bee-hunter's marked devotion to the beautiful Blossom rather excited a benevolent and kind interest in the feelings of Peter, so far at least as one could judge of the heart by external appearances, than anything that bore the fierce and uneasy impulses of jealousy, he was satisfied that his original impression was a mistake.

As le Bourdon flourished his axe, and Margery plied her needles, making a wholesome provision for the coming winter, the mysterious Indian would stand, a quarter of an hour at a time, immovable as a statue, his eyes riveted first on one, and then on the other. What passed at such moments in that stern breast, it exceeds the penetration of man to say: but that the emotions thus pent within barriers that none could pass or destroy, were not always ferocious and revengeful, a carefully observant spectator might possibly have suspected, had such a person been there to note all the signs of what was uppermost in the chiefs thoughts. Still, gleamings of sudden, but intense ferocity did occasionally occur; and, at such instants, the countenance of this extraordinary being was truly terrific. Fortunately, such bursts of uncontrollable feeling were transient, being of rare occurrence, and of very short duration.

By the time the corporal had his trenches dug, le Bourdon was prepared with his palisades, which were just one hundred in number, being intended to enclose a space of forty feet square. The men all united in the transportation of the timber, which was floated down the river on a raft of white pine, the burr-oak being of a specific gravity that fresh water would not sustain. A couple of days, however, sufficed for the transportation by water, and as many more for that by land, between the place of landing and Castle Meal. This much accomplished, the whole party rested from their labors, the day which succeeded being the Sabbath.

Those who dwell habitually amid the haunts of men, alone thoroughly realize the vast importance that ought to be attached to the great day of rest. Men on the ocean, and men in the forest, are only too apt to overlook the returns of the Sabbath; thus slowly, but inevitably alienating themselves more and more from the dread Being who established the festival, as much in his own honor as for the good of man. When we are told that the Almighty is jealous of his rights, and desires to be worshipped, we are not to estimate this wish by any known human standard, but are ever to bear in mind that it is exactly in proportion as we do reverence the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth that we are nearest, or farthest, from the condition of the blessed. It is probably for his own good, that the adoration of man is pleasing in the eyes of God.

The missionary, though a visionary and an enthusiast, as respected the children of Israel, was a zealous observer of his duties. On Sundays, he never neglected to set up his tabernacle, even though it were in a howling wilderness, and went regularly through the worship of God, according to the form of the sect to which he belonged. His influence, on the present occasion, was sufficient to cause a suspension of all labor, though not without some remonstrances on the part of the corporal. The latter contended that, in military affairs, there was no Sunday known, unless it might be in peaceable times, and that he had never heard of intrenchments "resting from their labors," on the part of either the besieger or the besieged. Work of that sort, he thought, ought to go on, day and night, by means of reliefs; and, instead of pausing to hold church, he had actually contemplated detailing fatigue parties to labor through, not only that day, but the whole of the succeeding night.

As for Peter, he never offered the slightest objection to any of Parson Amen's sermons or prayers. He listened to both with unmoved gravity, though no apparent impression was ever made on his feelings. The Chippewa hunted on the Sabbaths as much as on any other day; and it was in reference to this fact that the following little conversation took place between Margery and the missionary, as the party sat beneath the oaks, passing a tranquil eventide at midsummer.

"How happens it, Mr. Amen," said Margery, who had insensibly adopted the missionary's sobriquet, "that no red man keeps the Sabbath-day, if they are all descended from the Jews? This is one of the most respected of all the commandments, and it does not seem natural"-- Margery's use of terms was necessarily influenced by association and education-"that any of that people should wholly forget the day of rest."

"Perhaps you are not aware, Margery, that the Jews, even in civilized countries, do not keep the same Sabbath as the Christians," returned the missionary. "They have public worship on a Saturday, as we do on a Sunday. Now, I did think I saw some signs of Peter's privately worshipping yesterday, while we were all so busy at our garrison. You may have observed how thoughtful and silent the chief was in the middle of the afternoon."

"I did observe it," said the bee-hunter, "but must own I did not suspect him of holding meeting for any purposes within himself. That was one of the times when I like the manners and behavior of this Injin the least."

"We do not know--we do not know--perhaps his spirit struggled with the temptations of the Evil One. To me he appeared to be worshipping, and I set the fact down as a proof that the red men keep the Jewish Sabbath."

"I did not know that the Jews keep a Sabbath different from our own, else I might have thought the same. But I never saw a Jew, to my knowledge. Did you, Margery?"

"Not to know him for one," answered the girl; and true enough was the remark of each. Five-and-thirty years ago, America was singularly not only a Christian but a Protestant nation. Jews certainly did exist in the towns, but they were so blended with the rest of the population, and were so few in number, as scarcely to attract attention to them as a sect. As for the Romanists, they too had their churches and their dioceses; but what untravelled American had then ever seen a nun? From monks, Heaven be praised, we are yet spared; and this is said without any prejudice against the denomination to which they usually belong. He who has lived much in a country where that sect prevails, if a man of a particle of liberality, soon learns that piety and reverence for God, and a deep sense of all the Christian obligations, can just as well, nay better, exist in a state of society where a profound submission to well-established dogmas is to be found, than in a state of society where there is so much political freedom as to induce the veriest pretenders to learning to imagine that each man is a church and a hierarchy in his own person! All this is rapidly changing. Romanists abound, and spots that half a century since, appeared to be the most improbable place in the world to admit of the rites of the priests of Rome, now hear the chants and prayers of the mass-books. All this shows a tendency toward that great commingling of believers, which is doubtless to precede the final fusion of sects, and the predicted end.

On the Monday that succeeded the Sabbath mentioned, the corporal had all his men at work, early, pinning together his palisades, making them up into manageable bents, and then setting them up on their legs. As the materials were all there, and quite ready to be put together, the work advanced rapidly; and by the time the sun drew near the western horizon once more, Castle Meal was surrounded by its bristling defences. The whole was erect and stay-lathed, waiting only for the earth to be shovelled back into the trench, and to be pounded well down. As it was, the palisades offered a great increase of security to those in the chiente, and both the females expressed their obligations to their friends for having taken this important step toward protecting them from the enemy. When they retired for the night, everything was arranged, so that the different members of the party might know where to assemble within the works. Among the effects of Gershom, were a conch and a horn; the latter being one of those common instruments of tin, which are so much used in and about American farm-houses, to call the laborers from the field. The conch was given to the men, that, in case of need, they might sound the alarm from without, while the horn, or trumpet of tin, was suspended by the door of the chiente, in order that the females might have recourse to it, at need.

About midnight, long after the whole party had retired to rest, and when the stillness of the hours of deepest repose reigned over the openings, the bee-hunter was awoke from his sleep by an unwonted call. At first, he could scarce believe his senses, so plaintive, and yet so wild, was the blast. But there could be no mistake: it was the horn from the chiente, and, in a moment, he was on his feet. By this time, the corporal was afoot, and presently all the men were in motion. On this occasion, Gershom manifested a readiness and spirit that spoke equally well for his heart and his courage. He was foremost in rushing to the assistance of his wife and sister, though le Bourdon was very close on his heels.

On reaching the gate of the palisade, it was found closed, and barred within; nor did any one appear, until Dorothy was summoned, by repeated calls, in the well-known voice of her husband. When the two females came out of the chiente, great was their wonder and alarm! No horn had been blown by either of them, and there the instrument itself hung, on its peg, as quiet and mute as if a blast had never been blown into it The bee-hunter, on learning this extraordinary fact, looked around him anxiously, in order to ascertain who might be absent. Every man was present, and each person stood by his arms, no one betraying the slightest consciousness of knowing whence the unaccountable summons had proceeded!

"This has been done by you, corporal, in order to bring us together, under arms, by way of practice," le Bourdon at length exclaimed.

"False alarms is useful, if not overdone; especially among raw troops," answered Flint, coolly; "but I have given none to-night. I will own I did intend to have you all out in a day or two by way of practice, but I have thought it useless to attempt too much at once. When the garrison is finished, it will be time enough to drill the men to the alarm-posts."

"What is your opinion, Peter?" continued le Bourdon. "You understand the wilderness, and its ways. To what is this extr'or'nary call owing? Why have we been brought here, at this hour?"

"Somebody blow horn, most likely," answered Peter, in his unmoved, philosophical manner. "'Spose don't know; den can't tell. Warrior often hear 'larm on war-path."

"This is an onaccountable thing! If I ever heard a horn, I heard one to-night; yet this is the only horn we have, and no one has touched it! It was not the conch I heard; there is no mistaking the difference in sound between a shell and a horn; and there is the conch, hanging at Gershom's neck, just where it has been the whole night."

"No one has touched the conch--I will answer for that," returned Gershom, laying a hand on the shell, as if to make certain all was right.

"This is most extr'or'nary! I heard the horn, if ears of mine ever heard such an instrument!"

Each of the white men added as much, for every one of them had distinctly heard the blast. Still neither could suggest any probable clue to the mystery. The Indians said nothing; but it was so much in conformity with their habits for red men to maintain silence, whenever any unusual events awakened feelings in others, that no one thought their deportment out of rule. As for Peter, a statue of stone could scarcely have been colder in aspect than was this chief, who seemed to be altogether raised above every exhibition of human feeling. Even the corporal gaped, though much excited, for he had been suddenly aroused from a deep sleep; but Peter was as much superior to physical, as to moral impressions, on this occasion. He made no suggestion, manifested no concern, exhibited no curiosity; and when the men withdrew, again, to their proper habitation, he walked back with them, in the same silence and calm, as those with which he had advanced. Gershom, however, entered within the palisade, and passed the remainder of the night with his family.

The bee-hunter and the Chippewa accidentally came together, as the men moved slowly toward their own hut, when the following short dialogue occurred between them.

Is that you, Pigeonswing?" exclaimed le Bourdon, when he found his friend touching an elbow, as if by chance.

"Yes, dis me--want better friend, eh?"

"No, I'm well satisfied to have you near me, in an alarm, Chippewa. We've stood by each other once, in troublesome times; and I think we can do as much, ag'in."

"Yes; stand by friend--dat honor. Nebber turn back on friend; dat my way."

"Chippewa, who blew the blast on the horn?--can you tell me that?"

"Why don't you ask Peter? He wise chief--know eb-beryt'ing. Young Injin ask ole Injin when don't know--why not young pale-face ask ole man, too, eh?"

"Pigeonswing, if truth was said, I believe it would be found that you suspect Peter of having a hand in this business?"

This speech was rather too idiomatic for the comprehension of the Indian, who answered according to his own particular view of the matter.

"Don't blow horn wid hand," he said--"Injin blow wid mout', just like pale-face."

The bee-hunter did not reply; but his companion's remark had a tendency to revive in his breast certain unpleasant and distrustful feelings toward the mysterious savage, which the incidents and communications of the last two weeks had had a strong tendency to put to sleep.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.