Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XVI.

     The raptures of a conqueror's mood
     Rushed burning through his frame;
     The depths of that green solitude
     Its torrents could not tame,
     Though stillness lay, with eve's last smile,
     Round those far fountains of the Nile
                               --MRS HEMANS.

When the bee-hunter and Corporal Flint thus went forth in midnight, from the "garrison" of Castle Meal (Chateau au Miel), as the latter would have expressed it, it was with no great apprehension of meeting any other than a four-footed enemy, notwithstanding the blast of the horn the worthy corporal supposed he had heard. The movements of the dog seemed to announce such a result rather than any other, for Hive was taken along as a sort of guide. Le Bourdon, however, did not permit his mastiff to run off wide, but, having the animal at perfect command, it was kept close to his own person.

The two men first moved toward the grove of the Kitchen, much to Hive's discontent. The dog several times halted, and he whined, and growled, and otherwise manifested his great dislike to proceed in that direction. At length so decided did his resistance become, that his master said to his companion:

"It seems to me best, corporal, to let the mastiff lead us. I have never yet seen him so set on not going in one way, and on going in another. Hive has a capital nose, and we may trust him."

"Forward," returned the corporal, wheeling short in the direction of the dog; "one thing should be understood, however, Bourdon, which is this--you must act as light troops in this sortie, and I as the main body. If we come on the inimy, it will be your duty to skrimmage in front as long as you can, and then fall back on your resarves. I shall depend chiefly on the baggonet, which is the best tool to put an Injin up with; and as he falls back, before my charge, we must keep him under as warm a fire as possible. Having no cavalry, the dog might be made useful in movements to the front and on our flanks."

"Pooh, pooh, corporal, you're almost as much set in the notions of your trade as Parson Amen is set in his idees about the lost tribes. In my opinion there'll be more tribes found in these openings before the summer is over than we shall wish to meet. Let us follow the dog, and see what will turn up." Hive was followed, and he took a direction that led to a distant point in the openings, where not only the trees were much thicker than common, but where a small tributary of the Kalamazoo ran through a ravine, from the higher lands adjacent into the main artery of all the neighboring watercourses. The bee-hunter knew the spot well, having often drank at the rivulet, and cooled his brow in the close shades of the ravine, when heated by exertions in the more open grounds. In short, the spot was one of the most eligible for concealment, coolness, and pure water, within several miles of Castle Meal. The trees formed a spacious grove around it, and, by means of the banks, their summits and leaves answered the purpose of a perfect screen to those who might descend into the ravine, or, it would be better to say, to the bottom. Le Bourdon was no sooner satisfied that his mastiff was proceeding toward the great spring which formed the rivulet at the head of the ravine mentioned, than he suspected Indians might be there. He had seen signs about the spot, which wore an appearance of its having been used as a place of encampment--or for "camping out," as it is termed in the language of the west--and, coupling the sound of the horn with the dog's movements, his quick apprehension seized on the facts as affording reasonable grounds of distrust. Consequently he resorted to great caution, as he and the corporal entered the wood which surrounded the spring, and the small oval bit of bottom that lay spread before it, like a little lawn. Hive was kept close at his master's side, though he manifested a marked impatience to advance. "Now, corporal," said the bee-hunter in a low tone, "I think we have lined some savages to their holes. We will go round the basin and descend to the bottom, in a close wood which grows there. Did you see that?"

"I suppose I did," answered the corporal, who was as firm as a rock. "You meant to ask me if I saw fire?"

"I did. The red men have lighted their council fire in this spot, and have met to talk around it. Well, let 'em hearken to each other's thoughts, if they will; we shall be neither the better nor the worse for it."

"I don't know that. When the commander-in-chief calls together his principal officers, something usually comes of it. Who knows but this very council is called in order to take opinions on the subject of besieging or of storming our new garrison? Prudent soldiers should always be ready for the worst."

"I have no fear, so long as Peter is with us. That chief is listened to by every red-skin; and while we have him among us there will be little to care for. But we are getting near to the bottom and must work our way through these bushes with as little noise as possible. I will keep the dog quiet."

The manner in which that sagacious animal now behaved was truly wonderful. Hive appeared to be quite as much aware of the necessity of extreme caution as either of the men, and did not once attempt to precede his master his own length. On one or two occasions he actually discovered the best passages, and led his companions through them with something like the intelligence of a human being. Neither growl nor bark escaped him; on the contrary, even the hacking breathing of an impatient dog was suppressed, precisely as if the animal knew how near he was getting to the most watchful ears in the world.

After using the greatest care, the bee-hunter and the corporal got just such a station as they desired. It was within a very few feet of the edge of the cover, but perfectly concealed, while small openings enabled them to see all that was passing in their front. A fallen tree, a relic of somewhat rare occurrence in the openings of Michigan, even furnished them with a seat, while it rendered their position less exposed. Hive placed himself at his master's side, apparently trusting to other senses than that of sight for his information, since he could see nothing of what was going on in front.

As soon as the two men had taken their stations, and began to look about them, a feeling of awe mingled with their curiosity. Truly, the scene was one so very remarkable and imposing that it might have filled more intellectual and better fortified minds with some such sensation. The fire was by no means large, nor was it particularly bright; but sufficient to cast a dim light on the objects within reach of its rays. It was in the precise centre of a bit of bottom land of about half an acre in extent, which was so formed and surrounded, as to have something of the appearance of the arena of a large amphitheatre. There was one break in the encircling rise of ground, it is true, and that was at a spot directly opposite the station of le Bourdon and his companion, where the rill which flowed from the spring found a passage out toward the more open ground. Branches shaded most of the mound, but the arena itself was totally free from all vegetation but that which covered the dense and beautiful sward with which it was carpeted. Such is a brief description of the natural accessories of this remarkable scene.

But it was from the human actors, and their aspects, occupations, movements, dress, and appearance generally, that the awe which came over both the bee-hunter and the corporal had its origin. Of these, near fifty were present, offering a startling force by their numbers alone. Each man was a warrior, and each warrior was in his paint. These were facts that the familiarity of the two white men with Indian customs rendered only too certain. What was still more striking was the fact that all present appeared to be chiefs; a circumstance which went to show that an imposing body of red men was most likely somewhere in the openings, and that too at no great distance. It was while observing and reflecting on all these things, a suspicion first crossed the mind of le Bourdon that this great council was about to be held, at that midnight hour, and so near his own abode, for the purpose of accommodating Peter, whose appearance in the dark crowd, from that instant, he began to expect.

The Indians already present were not seated. They stood in groups conversing, or stalked across the arena, resembling so many dark and stately spectres. No sound was heard among them, a circumstance that added largely to the wild and supernatural aspect of the scene. If any spoke, it was in a tone so low and gentle, as to carry the sound no farther than to the ears that were listening; two never spoke at the same time and in the same group, while the moccasin permitted no footfall to be audible. Nothing could have been more unearthly than the picture presented in that little, wood-circled arena, of velvet- like grass and rural beauty. The erect, stalking forms, half naked, if not even more; the swarthy skins; the faces fierce in the savage conceits which were intended to strike terror into the bosoms of enemies, and the glittering eyes that fairly sparkled in their midst, all contributed to the character of the scene, which le Bourdon rightly enough imagined was altogether much the most remarkable of any he had ever been in the way of witnessing.

Our two spectators might have been seated on the fallen tree half an hour, all of which time they had been gazing at what was passing before their eyes; with positively not a human sound to relieve the unearthly nature of the picture. No one spoke, coughed, laughed, or exclaimed, in all that period. Suddenly, every chief stood still, and all the faces turned in the same direction. It was toward the little gateway of the rill, which being the side of the arena most remote from the bee-hunter and the corporal, lay nearly in darkness as respected them. With the red men it must have been different, for they all appeared to be in intent expectation of some one from that quarter. Nor did they have to wait long; for, in half a minute, two forms came out of the obscurity, advancing with a dignified and deliberate tread to the centre of the arena. As these newcomers got more within the influence of the flickering light, le Bourdon saw that they were Peter and Parson Amen. The first led, with a slow, imposing manner, while the other followed, not a little bewildered with what he saw. It may be as well to explain here, that the Indian was coming alone to this place of meeting, when he encountered the missionary wandering among the oaks, looking for le Bourdon and the corporal, and, instead of endeavoring to throw off this unexpected companion, he quietly invited him to be of his own party.

It was evident to le Bourdon, at a glance, that Peter was expected, though it was not quite so clear that such was the fact as regarded his companion. Still, respect for the great chief prevented any manifestations of surprise or discontent, and the medicine-man of the pale-faces was received with as grave a courtesy as if he had been an invited guest. Just as the two had entered the dark circle that formed around them, a young chief threw some dry sticks on the fire, which blazing upward, cast a stronger light on a row of as terrifically looking countenances as ever gleamed on human forms. This sudden illumination, with its accompanying accessories, had the effect to startle all the white spectators, though Peter looked on the whole with a calm like that of the leafless tree, when the cold is at its height, and the currents of the wintry air are death-like still Nothing appeared to move him, whether expected or not; though use had probably accustomed his eye to all the aspects in which savage ingenuity could offer savage forms. He even smiled, as he made a gesture of recognition, which seemed to salute the whole group. It was just then, when the fire burned brightest, and when the chiefs pressed most within its influence, that le Bourdon perceived that his old acquaintances, the head-men of the Pottawattamies, were present, among the other chiefs so strangely and portentously assembled in these grounds, which he had so long possessed almost entirely to himself.

A few of the oldest of the chiefs now approached Peter, and a low conversation took place between them. What was said did not reach le Bourdon, of course; for it was not even heard in the dark circle of savages who surrounded the fire. The effect of this secret dialogue, however, was to cause all the chiefs to be seated, each taking his place on the grass; the whole preserving the original circle around the fire. Fortunately, for the wishes of le Bourdon, Peter and his companions took their stations directly opposite to his own seat, thus enabling him to watch every lineament of that remarkable chief's still more remarkable countenance. Unlike each and all of the red men around him, the face of Peter was not painted, except by the tints imparted by nature; which, in his case, was that of copper a little tarnished, or rendered dull by the action of the atmosphere. The bee-hunter could distinctly trace every lineament; nor was the dark roving eye beyond the reach of his own vision. Some attention was given to the fire, too, one of the younger chiefs occasionally throwing on it a few dried sticks, more to keep alive the flame, and to renew the light, than from any need of warmth. One other purpose, however, this fire did answer; that of enabling the young chiefs to light the pipes that were now prepared; it seldom occurring that the chiefs thus assembled without smoking around their council-fire.

As this smoking was just then more a matter of ceremony than for any other purpose, a whiff or two suffices for each chief; the smoker passing the pipe to his neighbor as soon as he had inhaled a few puffs. The Indians are models of propriety, in their happiest moods, and every one in that dark and menacing circle was permitted to have his turn with the pipe, before any other step was taken. There were but two pipes lighted, and mouths being numerous, some time was necessary in order to complete this ceremony. Still, no sign of impatience was seen, the lowest chief having as much respect paid to his feelings, as related to his attention, as the highest. At length the pipes completed their circuit, even Parson Amen getting, and using, his turn, when a dead pause succeeded. The silence resembled that of a Quaker meeting, and was broken only by the rising of one of the principal chiefs, evidently about to speak. The language of the great Ojebway nation was used on this occasion, most of the chiefs present belonging to some one of the tribes of that stock, though several spoke other tongues, English and French included. Of the three whites present, Parson Amen alone fully comprehended all that was said, he having qualified himself in this respect, to preach to the tribes of that people; though le Bourdon understood nearly all, and even the corporal comprehended a good deal. The name of the chief who first spoke at this secret meeting, which was afterward known among the Ojebways by the name of the "Council of the Bottom Land, near to the spring of gushing water," was Bear's Meat, an appellation that might denote a distinguished hunter, rather than an orator of much renown.

"Brothers of the many tribes of the Ojebways," commenced this personage, "the Great Spirit has permitted us to meet in council. The Manitou of our fathers is now among these oaks, listening to our words, and looking in at our hearts. Wise Indians will be careful what they say in such a presence, and careful of what they think. All should be said and thought for the best. We are a scattered nation, and the time is come when we must stop in our tracks, or travel beyond the sound of each other's cries. If we travel beyond the hearing of our people, soon will our children learn tongues that Ojebway ears cannot understand. The mother talks to her child, and the child learns her words. But no child can hear across a great lake. Once we lived near the rising sun. Where are we now? Some of our young men say they have seen the sun go down in the lakes of sweet water. There can be no hunting-grounds beyond that spot; and if we would live, we must stand still in our tracks. How to do this, we have met to consider.

"Brothers, many wise chiefs and braves are seated at this council- fire. It is pleasant to my eyes to look upon them. Ottawas, Chippeways, Pottawattamies, Menominees, Hurons, and all. Our father at Quebec has dug up the hatchet against the Yankees. The war-path is open between Detroit and all the villages of the red men. The prophets are speaking to our people, and we listen. One is here; he is about to speak. The council will have but a single sense, which will be that of hearing."

Thus concluding, Bear's Meat took his seat, in the same composed and dignified manner as that in which he had risen, and deep silence succeeded. So profound was the stillness, that, taken in connection with the dark lineaments, the lustrous eyeballs that threw back the light of the fire, the terrific paint and the armed hands of every warrior present, the picture might be described as imposing to a degree that is seldom seen in the assemblies of the civilized. In the midst of this general but portentous calm, Peter arose. The breathing of the circle grew deeper, so much so as to be audible, the only manner in which the intensity of the common expectation betrayed itself. Peter was an experienced orator, and knew how to turn every minutiae of his art to good account. His every movement was deliberate, his attitude highly dignified--even his eye seemed eloquent.

Oratory! what a power art thou, wielded, as is so often the case, as much for evil as for good. The very reasoning that might appear to be obtuse, or which would be over looked entirely when written and published, issuing from the mouth, aided by the feelings of sympathy and the impulses of the masses, seems to partake of the wisdom of divinity. Thus is it, also, with the passions, the sense of wrong, the appeals to vengeance, and all the other avenues of human emotion. Let them be addressed to the cold eye of reason and judgment, in the form of written statements, and the mind pauses to weigh the force of arguments, the justice of the appeals, the truth of facts: but let them come upon the ear aided by thy art, with a power concentrated by sympathy, and the torrent is often less destructive in its course, than that of the whirlwind that thou canst awaken!

"Chiefs of the great Ojebway nation, I wish you well," said Peter, stretching out his arms toward the circle, as if desirous of embracing all present. "The Manitou has been good to me. He has cleared a path to this spring, and to this council-fire. I see around it the faces of many friends. Why should we not all be friendly? Why should a red man ever strike a blow against a red man? The Great Spirit made us of the same color, and placed us on the same hunting-grounds. He meant that we should hunt in company; not take each other's scalps. How many warriors have fallen in our family wars? Who has counted them? Who can say? Perhaps enough, had they not been killed, to drive the pale-faces into the sea!"

Here Peter, who as yet had spoken only in a low and barely audible voice, suddenly paused, in order to allow the idea he had just thrown out to work on the minds of his listeners. That it was producing its effect was apparent by the manner in which one stern face turned toward another, and eye seemed to search in eye some response to a query that the mind suggested, though no utterance was given to it with the tongue. As soon, however, as the orator thought time sufficient to impress that thought on the memories of the listeners had elapsed, he resumed, suffering his voice gradually to increase in volume, as he warmed with his subject.

"Yes," he continued, "the Manitou has been very kind. Who is the Manitou? Has any Indian ever seen him? Every Indian has seen him. No one can look on the hunting-grounds, on the lakes, on the prairies, on the trees, on the game, without seeing his hand. His face is to be seen in the sun at noonday; his eyes in the stars at night. Has any Indian ever heard the Manitou? When it thunders, he speaks. When the crash is loudest, then he scolds. Some Indian has done wrong. Perhaps one red man has taken another red man's scalp!"

Another pause succeeded, briefer, and less imposing than the first, but one that sufficed to impress on the listeners anew, the great evil of an Indian's raising his hand against an Indian.

"Yes, there is no one so deaf as not to hear the voice of the Great Spirit when he is angry," resumed Peter. "Ten thousands of buffalo bulls, roaring together, do not make as much noise as his whisper. Spread the prairies, and the openings, and the lakes, before him, and he can be heard in all, and on all, at the same time.

"Here is a medicine-priest of the pale-faces; he tells me that the voice of the Manitou reaches into the largest villages of his people, beneath the rising sun, when it is heard by the red man across the great lakes, and near the rocks of the setting sun. It is a loud voice; woe to him who does not remember it. It speaks to all colors, and to every people, and tribe, and nation.

"Brothers, that is a lying tradition which says, there is one Manitou for a Sac, and another for the Ojebway--one Manitou for the red man, and another for the pale-face. In this, we are alike. One Great Spirit made all; governs all; rewards all; punishes all. He may keep the happy hunting-grounds of an Indian separate from the white man's heaven, for he knows that their customs are different, and what would please a warrior would displease a trader; and what would please a trader would displease a warrior. He has thought of these things, and has made several places for the spirits of the good, let their colors be what they may. Is it the same with the places of the spirits of the bad? I think not. To me it would seem best to let them go together, that they may torment one another. A wicked Indian and a wicked pale-face would make a bad neighborhood. I think the Manitou will let them go together.

"Brothers, if the Manitou keeps the good Indian and the good pale- face apart in another world, what has brought them together in this? If he brings the bad spirits of all colors together in another world, why should they come together here, before their time? A place for wicked spirits should not be found on earth. This is wrong; it must be looked into.

"Brothers, I have now done; this pale-face wishes to speak, and I have said that you would hear his words. When he has spoken his mind, I may have more to tell you. Now, listen to the stranger. He is a medicine-priest of the white men, and says he has a great secret to tell our people--when he has told it, I have another for their ears too. Mine must be spoken when there is no one near but the children of red clay."

Having thus opened the way for the missionary, Peter courteously took his seat, producing a little disappointment among his own admirers, though he awakened a lively curiosity to know what this medicine-priest might have to say on an occasion so portentous. The Indians in the regions of the great lakes had long been accustomed to missionaries, and it is probable that even some of their own traditions, so far as they related to religious topics, had been insensibly colored by, if not absolutely derived from, men of this character; for the first whites who are known to have penetrated into that portion of the continent were Jesuits, who carried the cross as their standard and emblem of peace. Blessed emblem! that any should so confound their own names and denunciatory practices with the revealed truth, as to imagine that a standard so appropriate should ever be out of season and place, when it is proper for man to use aught, at all, that is addressed to his senses, in the way of symbols, rites, and ceremonies! To the Jesuits succeeded the less ceremonious and less imposing priesthood of America, as America peculiarly was in the first years that followed the Revolution. There is reason to believe that the spirit of God, in a greater or less degree, accompanied all; for all were self- denying and zealous, though the fruits of near two centuries of labor have, as yet, amounted to little more than the promise of the harvest at some distant day. Enough, however, was known of the missionaries, and their views in general, to prepare the council, in some small degree, for the forthcoming exhibition.

Parson Amen had caught some of the habits of the Indians, in the course of years of communication and intercourse. Like them he had learned to be deliberate, calm, and dignified in his exterior; and, like them, he had acquired a sententious mode of speaking.

"My children," he said, for he deemed it best to assume the parental character, in a scene of so great moment, "as Peter has told you, the spirit of God is among you! Christians know that such has he promised to be always with his people, and I see faces in this circle that I am ready to claim as belonging to those who have prayed with me, in days that are long past. If your souls are not touched by divine love, it does not kill the hope I entertain of your yet taking up the cross, and calling upon the Redeemer's name. But, not for this have I come with Peter, this night. I am now here to lay before you an all-important fact, that Providence has revealed to me, as the fruit of long labor in the vineyard of study and biblical inquiry. It is a tradition--and red men love traditions--it is a tradition that touches your own history, and which it will gladden your hearts to hear, for it will teach you how much your nation and tribes have been the subject of the especial care and love of the Great Spirit. When my children say, speak, I shall be ready to speak."

Here the missionary took his seat, wisely awaiting a demonstration on the part of the council, ere he ventured to proceed any further. This was the first occasion on which he had ever attempted to broach, in a direct form, his favorite theory of the "lost tribes." Let a man get once fairly possessed of any peculiar notion, whether it be on religion, political economy, morals, politics, arts, or anything else, and he sees little beside his beloved principle, which he is at all times ready to advance, defend, demonstrate, or expatiate on. Nothing can be simpler than the two great dogmas of Christianity, which are so plain that all can both comprehend them and feel their truth. They teach us to love God, the surest way to obey him, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Any one can understand this; all can see how just it is, and how much of moral sublimity it contains. It is Godlike, and brings us near the very essence of the Divinity, which is love, mercy, and truth. Yet how few are content to accept the teachings of the Saviour in this respect, without embarrassing them with theories that have so much of their origin in human fancies. We do not mean by this, however, that Parson Amen was so very wrong in bestowing a part of his attention on that wonderful people, who, so early set apart by the Creator as the creatures of his own especial ends, have already played so great a part in the history of nations, and who are designed, so far as we can penetrate revelation, yet to enact their share in the sublime drama of human events.

As for the council, its members were moved by more than ordinary curiosity to hear what further the missionary might have to say, though all present succeeded admirably in suppressing the exhibition of any interest that might seem weak and womanly. After a decent delay, therefore, Bear's Meat intimated to the parson that it would be agreeable to the chiefs present to listen to him further.

"My children, I have a great tradition to tell you," the missionary resumed, as soon as on his feet again; "a very great and divine tradition; not a tradition of man's, but one that came direct from the Manitou himself. Peter has spoken truth; there is but one Great Spirit; he is the Great Spirit of all colors, and tribes, and nations. He made all men of the same clay." Here a slight sensation was perceptible among the audience, most of whom were very decidedly of a different opinion, on this point of natural history. But the missionary was now so far warmed with his subject as to disregard any slight interruption, and proceeded as if his listeners had betrayed no feeling. "And he divided them afterward into nations and tribes. It was then he caused the color of his creatures to change. Some he kept white, as he had made them. Some he put behind a dark cloud, and they became altogether black. Our wise men think that this was done in punishment for their sins. Some he painted red, like the nations on this continent." Here Peter raised a finger, in sign that he would ask a question; for, without permission granted, no Indian would interrupt the speaker. Indeed, no one of less claims than Peter would hardly have presumed to take the step he now did, and that because he saw a burning curiosity gleaming in the bright eyes of so many in the dark circle.

"Say on, Peter," answered the missionary to this sign; "I will reply."

"Let my brother say why the Great Spirit turned the Indian to a red color. Was he angry with him? or did he paint him so out of love?"

"This is more than I can tell you, friends. There are many colors among men, in different parts of the world, and many shades among people of the same color. There are pale-faces fair as the lily, and there are pale-faces so dark, as scarcely to be distinguished from blacks. The sun does much of this; but no sun, nor want of sun, will ever make a pale-face a red-skin, or a red skin a pale-face."

"Good--that is what we Indians say. The Manitou has made us different; he did not mean that we should live on the same hunting- grounds," rejoined Peter, who rarely failed to improve every opportunity in order to impress on the minds of his followers the necessity of now crushing the serpent in its shell.

"No man can say that," answered Parson Amen. "Unless my people had come to this continent, the word of God could not have been preached by me, along the shores of these lakes. But I will now speak of our great tradition. The Great Spirit divided mankind into nations and tribes. When this was done, he picked out one for his chosen people. The pale-faces call that favorite, and for a long time much-favored people, Jews. The Manitou led them through a wilderness, and even through a salt lake, until they reached a promised land, where he permitted them to live for many hundred winters. A great triumph was to come out of that people--the triumphs of truth and of the law, over sin and death. In the course of time--"

Here a young chief rose, made a sign of caution, and crossing the circle rapidly, disappeared by the passage through which the rill flowed. In about a minute he returned, showing the way into the centre of the council to one whom all present immediately recognized as a runner, by his dress and equipments. Important news was at hand; yet not a man of all that crowd either rose or spoke, in impatience to learn what it was!

Return to the Oak Openings Summary Return to the James Fenimore Cooper Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson