The Pioneers

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter XX.

"Away! nor let me loiter in my song, For we have many a mountain-path to tread."--Byron.

As the spring gradually approached, the immense piles of snow that, by alternate thaws and frosts, and repeated storms, had obtained a firmness which threatened a tiresome durability, began to yield to the influence of milder breezes and a warmer sun. The gates of heaven at times seemed to open, and a bland air diffused itself over the earth, when animate and inanimate nature would awaken, and, for a few hours, the gayety of spring shone in every eye and smiled on every field. But the shivering blasts from the north would carry their chill influence over the scene again, and the dark and gloomy clouds that intercepted the rays of the sun were not more cold and dreary than the reaction. These struggles between the seasons became daily more frequent, while the earth, like a victim to contention, slowly lost the animated brilliancy of winter, without obtaining the aspect of spring.

Several weeks were consumed in this cheerless manner, during which the inhabitants of the country gradually changed their pursuits from the social and bustling movements of the time of snow to the laborious and domestic engagements of the coming season, The village was no longer thronged with visitors; the trade that had enlivened the shops for several months, began to disappear; the highways lost their shining coats of beaten snow in impassable sloughs, and were deserted by the gay and noisy travellers who, in sleighs, had, during the winter, glided along their windings; and, in short, everything seemed indicative of a mighty change, not only in the earth, but in those who derived their sources of comfort and happiness from its bosom.

The younger members of the family in the mansion house, of which Louisa Grant was now habitually one, were by no means indifferent observers of these fluctuating and tardy changes. While the snow rendered the roads passable, they had partaken largely in the amusements of the winter, which included not only daily rides over the mountains, and through every valley within twenty miles of them, but divers ingenious and varied sources of pleasure on the bosom of their frozen lake. There had been excursions in the equipage of Richard, when with his four horses he had outstripped the winds, as it flew over the glassy ice which invariably succeeded a thaw. Then the exciting and dangerous "whirligig" would be suffered to possess its moment of notice. Cutters, drawn by a single horse, and handsleds, impelled by the gentlemen on skates, would each in turn be used; and, in short, every source of relief against the tediousness of a winter in the mountains was resorted to by the family, Elizabeth was compelled to acknowledge to her father, that the season, with the aid of his library, was much less irksome than she had anticipated.

As exercise in the open air was in some degree necessary to the habits of the family, when the constant recurrence of frosts and thaws rendered the roads, which were dangerous at the most favorable times, utterly impassable for wheels, saddle-horses were used as substitutes for other conveyances. Mounted on small and sure-footed beasts, the ladies would again attempt the passages of the mountains and penetrate into every retired glen where the enterprise of a settler had induced him to establish himself. In these excursions they were attended by some one or all of the gentlemen of the family, as their different pursuits admitted. Young Edwards was hourly becoming more familiarized to his situation, and not infrequently mingled in the parties with an unconcern and gayety that for a short time would expel all unpleasant recollections from his mind. Habit, and the buoyancy of youth, seemed to be getting the ascendency over the secret causes of his uneasiness; though there were moments when the same remarkable expression of disgust would cross his intercourse with Marmaduke, that had distinguished their conversations in the first days of their acquaintance.

It was at the close of the month of March, that the sheriff succeeded in persuading his cousin and her young friend to accompany him in a ride to a hill that was said to overhang the lake in a manner peculiar to itself.

"Besides, Cousin Bess," continued the indefatigable Richard, "we will stop and see the sugar bush of Billy Kirby; he is on the east end of the Ransom lot, making sugar for Jared Ransom. There is not a better hand over a kettle in the county than that same Kirby. You remember, Duke, that I had him his first season in our camp; and it is not a wonder that he knows something of his trade."

"Hes a good chopper, is Billy," observed Benjamin, who held the bridle of the horse while the sheriff mounted; "and he handles an axe much the same as a forecastleman does his marling-spike, or a tailor his goose. They say hell lift a potash-kettle off the arch alone, though I cant say that Ive ever seen him do it with my own eyes; but that is the say. And Ive seen sugar of his making, which, maybe, wasnt as white as an old topgallant sail, but which my friend, Mistress Pettibones, within there, said had the true molasses smack to it; and you are not the one, Squire Dickens, to be told that Mistress Remarkable has a remarkable tooth for sweet things in her nut- grinder."

The loud laugh that succeeded the wit of Benjamin, and in which he participated with no very harmonious sounds himself, very fully illustrated the congenial temper which existed between the pair. Most of its point was, however, lost on the rest of the party, who were either mounting their horses or assisting the ladies at the moment. When all were safely in their saddles, they moved through the village in great order. They paused for a moment before the door of Monsieur Le Quoi, until he could bestride his steed, and then, issuing from the little cluster of houses, they took one of the principal of those highways that centred in the village.

As each night brought with it a severe frost, which the heat of the succeeding day served to dissipate, the equestrians were compelled to proceed singly along the margin of the road, where the turf, and firmness of the ground, gave the horses a secure footing. Very trifling indications of vegetation were to he seen, the surface of the earth presenting a cold, wet, and cheerless aspect that chilled the blood. The snow yet lay scattered over most of those distant clearings that were visible in different parts of the mountains; though here and there an opening might be seen where, as the white covering yielded to the season, the bright and lively green of the wheat served to enkindle the hopes of the husbandman. Nothing could be more marked than the contrast between the earth and the heavens; for, while the former presented the dreary view that we have described, a warm and invigorating sun was dispensing his heats from a sky that contained but a solitary cloud, and through an atmosphere that softened the colors of the sensible horizon until it shone like a sea of blue.

Richard led the way on this, as on all other occasions that did not require the exercise of unusual abilities; and as he moved along, he essayed to enliven the party with the sounds of his experienced voice.

"This is your true sugar weather, Duke," he cried; "a frosty night and a sunshiny day. I warrant me that the sap runs like a mill-tail up the maples this warm morning. It is a pity, Judge, that you do not introduce a little more science into the manufactory of sugar among your tenants. It might be done, sir, without knowing as much as Dr. Franklin--it might be done, Judge Temple."

"The first object of my solicitude, friend Jones," returned Marmaduke, "is to protect the sources of this great mine of comfort and wealth from the extravagance of the people themselves. When this important point shall be achieved, it will be in season to turn our attention to an improvement in the manufacture of the article, But thou knowest, Richard, that I have already subjected our sugar to the process of the refiner, and that the result has produced loaves as white as the snow on yon fields, and possessing the saccharine quality in its utmost purity."

"Saccharine, or turpentine, or any other 'ine, Judge Temple, you have never made a loaf larger than a good-sized sugar-plum," returned the sheriff. "Now, sir, I assert that no experiment is fairly tried, until it be reduced to practical purposes. If, sir, I owned a hundred, or, for that matter, two hundred thousand acres of land, as you do. I would build a sugar house in the village; I would invite learned men to an investigation of the subject--and such are easily to be found, sir; yes, sir, they are not difficult to find--men who unite theory with practice; and I would select a wood of young and thrifty trees; and, instead of making loaves of the size of a lump of candy, damme, Duke, but Id have them as big as a haycock."

"And purchase the cargo of one of those ships that they say are going to China," cried Elizabeth; "turn your pot ash-kettles into teacups, the scows on the lake into saucers, bake your cake in yonder lime- kiln, and invite the county to a tea-party. How wonderful are the projects of genius! Really, sir, the world is of opinion that Judge Temple has tried the experiment fairly, though he did not cause his loaves to be cast in moulds of the magnitude that would suit your magnificent conceptions."

"You may laugh, Cousin Elizabeth--you may laugh, madam," retorted Richard, turning himself so much in his saddle as to face the party, and making dignified gestures with his whip; "but I appeal to common sense, good sense, or, what is of more importance than either, to the sense of taste, which is one of the five natural senses, whether a big loaf of sugar is not likely to contain a better illustration of a proposition than such a lump as one of your Dutch women puts under her tongue when she drinks her tea. There are two ways of doing everything, the right way and the wrong way. You make sugar now, I will admit, and you may, possibly, make loaf-sugar; but I take the question to be, whether you make the best possible sugar, and in the best possible loaves."

"Thou art very right, Richard," observed Marmaduke, with a gravity in his air that proved how much he was interested in the subject. "It is very true that we manufacture sugar, and the inquiry is quite useful, how much? and in what manner? I hope to live to see the day when farms and plantations shall be devoted to this branch of business. Little is known concerning the properties of the tree itself, the source of all this wealth; how much it may be improved by cultivation, by the use of the hoe and plough."

"Hoe and plough!" roared the sheriff; "would you set a man hoeing round the root of a maple like this?" pointing to one of the noble trees that occur so frequently in that part of the country. "Hoeing trees! are you mad, Duke? This is next to hunting for coal! Poh! poh! my dear cousin, hear reason, and leave the management of the sugar- bush to me. Here is Mr. Le Quoi--he has been in the West Indies, and has seen sugar made. Let him give an account of how it is made there, and you will hear the philosophy of the thing. Well, monsieur, how is it that you make sugar in the West Indies; anything in Judge Temples fashion?"

The gentleman to whom this query was put was mounted on a small horse, of no very fiery temperament, and was riding with his stirrups so short as to bring his knees, while the animal rose a small ascent in the wood-path they were now travelling, into a somewhat hazardous vicinity to his chin. There was no room for gesticulation or grace in the delivery of his reply, for the mountain was steep and slippery; and, although the Frenchman had an eye of uncommon magnitude on either side of his face, they did not seem to be half competent to forewarn him of the impediments of bushes, twigs, and fallen trees, that were momentarily crossing his path. With one hand employed in averting these dangers, and the other grasping his bridle to check an untoward speed that his horse was assuming, the native of France responded as follows:

"Sucre! dey do make sucre in Martinique; mais--mais ce nest pas one tree--ah--ah--vat you call--je voudrois que ces chemins fussent au diable - vat you call--steeck pour la promenade?" "Cane," said Elizabeth, smiling at the imprecation which the wary Frenchman supposed was understood only by himself. "Oui, mamselle, cane." "Yes, yes," cried Richard, "cane is the vulgar name for it, but the real term is saccharum officinarum; and what we call the sugar, or hard maple, is acer saccharinum. These are the learned names, monsieur, and are such as, doubtless, you well understand."

"Is this Greek or Latin, Mr. Edwards?" whispered Elizabeth to the youth, who was opening a passage for herself and her companions through the bushes, "or per haps it is a still more learned language, for an interpretation of which we must look to you."

The dark eye of the young man glanced toward the speaker, but its resentful expression changed in a moment.

"I shall remember your doubts, Miss Temple, when next I visit my old friend Mohegan, and either his skill, or that of Leather-Stocking, shall solve them."

"And are you, then, really ignorant of their language?"

"Not absolutely; but the deep learning of Mr. Jones is more familiar to me, or even the polite masquerade of Monsieur Le Quoi."

"Do you speak French?" said the lady, with quickness.

"It is a common language with the Iroquois, and through the Canadas," he answered, smiling.

"Ah! but they are Mingoes, and your enemies."

"It will be well for me if I have no worse," said the youth, dashing ahead with his horse, and putting an end to the evasive dialogue.

The discourse, however, was maintained with great vigor by Richard, until they reached an open wood on the summit of the mountain, where the hemlocks and pines totally disappeared, and a grove of the very trees that formed the subject of debate covered the earth with their tall, straight trunks and spreading branches, in stately pride. The underwood had been entirely removed from this grove, or bush, as, in conjunction with the simple arrangements for boiling, it was called, and a wide space of many acres was cleared, which might be likened to the dome of a mighty temple, to which the maples formed the columns, their tops composing the capitals and the heavens the arch. A deep and careless incision had been made into each tree, near its root, into which little spouts, formed of the I bark of the alder, or of the sumach, were fastened; and a trough, roughly dug out of the linden, or basswood, was I lying at the root of each tree, to catch the sap that flowed from this extremely wasteful and inartificial arrangement.

The party paused a moment, on gaining the flat, to breathe their horses, and, as the scene was entirely new to several of their number, to view the manner of collecting the fluid. A fine, powerful voice aroused them from their momentary silence, as it rang under the branches of the trees, singing the following words of that inimitable doggerel, whose verses, if extended, would reach from the Caters of the Connecticut to the shores of Ontario. The tune was, of course, a familiar air which, although it is said to have been first applied to this nation in derision, circumstances have since rendered so glorious that no American ever hears its jingling cadence without feeling a thrill at his heart:

"The Eastern States be full of men, The Western Full of woods, sir, The hill be like a cattle-pen, The roads be full of goods, sir! Then flow away, my sweety sap, And I will make you boily; Nor catch a wood mans hasty nap, For fear you should get roily. The maple-tree's a precious one, Tis fuel, food, and timber; And when your stiff days work is done, Its juice will make you limber, Then flow away, etc.

"And whats a man without his glass. His wife without her tea, sir? But neither cup nor mug will pass, Without his honey-bee, sir! Then flow away," etc.

During the execution of this sonorous doggerel, Richard kept time with his whip on the mane of his charger, accompanying the gestures with a corresponding movement of his head and body. Toward the close of the song, he was overheard humming the chorus, and, at its last repetition, to strike in at "sweety sap, and carry a second through, with a prodigious addition to the "effect" of the noise, if not to that of the harmony.

"Well done us!" roared the sheriff, on the same key with the tune; "a very good song, Billy Kirby, and very well sung. Where got you the words, lad? Is there more of it, and can you furnish me with a copy?" The sugar-boiler, who was busy in his "camp," at a short distance from the equestrians, turned his head with great indifference, and surveyed the party, as they approached, with admirable coolness. To each individual, as he or she rode close by him, he gave a nod that was extremely good-natured and affable, but which partook largely of the virtue of equality, for not even to the ladies did he in the least vary his mode of salutation, by touching the apology for a hat that he wore, or by any other motion than the one we have mentioned.

"How goes it, how goes it, sheriff?" said the wood-chopper; "whats the good word in the village?"

"Why, much as usual, Billy," returned Richard. "But how is this? where are your four kettles, and your troughs, and your iron coolers? Do you make sugar in this slovenly way? I thought you were one of the best sugar-boilers in the county."

"Im all that, Squire Jones," said Kirby, who continued his occupation; "Ill turn my back to no man in the Otsego hills for chopping and logging, for boiling down the maple sap, for tending brick-kiln, splitting out rails, making potash, and parling too, or hoeing corn; though I keep myself pretty much to the first business, seeing that the axe comes most natural to me."

"You be von Jack All-trade, Mister Beel," said Monsieur Le Quoi.

"How?" said Kirby, looking up with a simplicity which, coupled with his gigantic frame and manly face, was a little ridiculous, "if you be for trade, mounsher, here is some as good sugar as youll find the season through. Its as clear from dirt as the Jarman Flats is free from stumps, and it has the raal maple flavor. Such stuff would sell in York for candy."

The Frenchman approached the place where Kirby had deposited his cake of sugar, under the cover of a bark roof, and commenced the examination of the article with the eye of one who well understood its value. Marmaduke had dismounted, and was viewing the works and the trees very closely, and not without frequent expressions of dissatisfaction at the careless manner in which the manufacture was conducted.

"You have much experience in these things, Kirby," he said; "what course do you pursue in making your sugar? I see you have but two kettles."

"Two is as good as two thousand, Judge. Im none of your polite sugar-makers, that boils for the great folks; but if the raal sweet maple is wanted, I can answer your turn. First, I choose, and then I tap my trees; say along about the last of February, or in these mountains maybe not afore the middle of March; but anyway, just as the sap begins to cleverly run--"

"Well, in this choice," interrupted Marmaduke, "are you governed by any outward signs that prove the quality of the tree?"

"Why, theres judgment in all things," said Kirby, stirring the liquor in his kettles briskly. "Theres some thing in knowing when and how to stir the pot. Its a thing that must be larnt. Rome wasnt built in a day, nor for that matter Templeton either, though it may be said to be a quick-growing place. I never put my axe into a stunty tree, or one that hasnt a good, fresh-looking bark: for trees have disorders, like creaturs; and wheres the policy of taking a tree thats sickly, any more than youd choose a foundered horse to ride post, or an over heated ox to do your logging?"

"All that is true. But what are the signs of illness? how do you distinguish a tree that is well from one that is diseased?"

"How does the doctor tell who has fever and who colds?" interrupted Richard. "By examining the skin, and feeling the pulse, to be sure."

"Sartain," continued Billy; "the squire aint far out of the way. Its by the look of the thing, sure enough. Well, when the sap begins to get a free run, I hang over the kettles, and set up the bush. My first boiling I push pretty smartly, till I get the virtue of the sap; but when it begins to grow of a molasses nater, like this in the kettle, one mustnt drive the fires too hard, or youll burn the sugar; and burny sugar is bad to the taste, let it be never so sweet. So you ladle out from one kettle into the other till it gets so, when you put the stirring-stick into it, that it will draw into a thread-- when it takes a kerful hand to manage it. There is a way to drain it off, after it has grained, by putting clay into the pans; bitt it isnt always practised; some doos and some doosnt. Well, mounsher, be we likely to make a trade?"

"I will give you, Mister Etel, for von pound, dix sous."

"No, I expect cash for it; I never dicker my sugar, But, seeing that its you, mounsher," said Billy, with a Coaxing smile, "I'll agree to receive a gallon of rum, and cloth enough for two shirts if youll take the molasses in the bargain. Its raal good. I wouldnt deceive you or any man and to my drinking its about the best molasses that come out of a sugar-bush."

"Mr. Le Quoi has offered you ten pence," said young Edwards.

The manufacturer stared at the speaker with an air of great freedom, but made no reply.

"Oui," said the Frenchman, "ten penny. Jevausraner cie, monsieur: ah! mon Anglois! je l'oublie toujours."

The wood-chopper looked from one to the other with some displeasure; and evidently imbibed the opinion that they were amusing themselves at his expense. He seized the enormous ladle, which was lying on one of his kettles, and began to stir the boiling liquid with great diligence. After a moment passed in dipping the ladle full, and then raising it on high, as the thick rich fluid fell back into the kettle, he suddenly gave it a whirl, as if to cool what yet remained, and offered the bowl to Mr. Le Quoi, saying:

Taste that, mounsher, and you will say it is worth more than you offer. The molasses itself would fetch the money,"

The complaisant Frenchman, after several timid efforts to trust his lips in contact with the howl of the ladle, got a good swallow of the scalding liquid. He clapped his hands on his breast, and looked most piteously at the ladies, for a single instant; and then, to use the language oft Billy, when he afterward recounted the tale, "no drumsticks ever went faster on the skin of a sheep than the Frenchmans legs, for a round or two; and then such swearing and spitting in French you never saw. But its a knowing one, from the old countries, that thinks to get his jokes smoothly over a wood- chopper."

The air of innocence with which Kirby resumed the occupation of stirring the contents of his kettles would have completely deceived the spectators as to his agency in the temporary sufferings of Mr. Le Quoi, had not the reckless fellow thrust his tongue into his cheek, and cast his eyes over the party, with a simplicity of expression that was too exquisite to be natural. Mr. Le Quoi soon recovered his presence of mind and his decorum; and he briefly apologized to the ladies for one or two very intemperate expressions that had escaped him in a moment of extraordinary excitement, and, remounting his horse, he continued in the background during the remainder of the visit, the wit of Kirby putting a violent termination, at once, to all negotiations on the subject of trade. During all this time, Marmaduke had been wandering about the grove, making observations on his favorite trees, and the wasteful manner in which the wood-chopper conducted his manufacture.

"It grieves me to witness the extravagance that pervades this country," said the Judge, "where the settlers trifle with the blessings they might enjoy, with the prodigality of successful adventurers. You are not exempt from the censure yourself, Kirby, for you make dreadful wounds in these trees where a small incision would effect the same object. I earnestly beg you will remember that they are the growth of centuries, and when once gone none living will see their loss remedied."

"Why, I dont know, Judge," returned the man he ad dressed; "it seems to me, if theres plenty of anything in this mountaynious country, its the trees. If theres any sin in chopping them, Ive a pretty heavy account to settle; for Ive chopped over the best half of a thousand acres, with my own hands, counting both Varmount and York States; and I hope to live to finish the whull, before I lay up my axe. Chopping comes quite natural to me, and I wish no other employment; but Jared Ransom said that he thought the sugar was likely to be source this season, seeing that so many folks was coming into the settlement, and so I concluded to take the bush on sheares for this one spring. Whats the best news, Judge, consarning ashes? do pots hold so that a man can live by them still? I spose they will, if they keep on fighting across the water."

"Thou reasonest with judgment, William," returned Marmaduke. "So long as the Old Worm is to be convulsed with wars, so long will the harvest of America continue."

"Well, its an ill wind, Judge, that blows nobody any good. Im sure the country is in a thriving way; and though I know you calkilate greatly on the trees, setting as much store by them as some men would by their children, yet to my eyes they are a sore sight any time, unless I'm privileged to work my will on them: in which case I cant say but they are more to my liking. I have heard the settlers from the old countries say that their rich men keep great oaks and elms, that would make a barrel of pots to the tree, standing round their doors and humsteds and scattered over their farms, just to look at. Now, I call no country much improved that is pretty well covered with trees. Stumps are a different thing, for they dont shade the land; and, besides, you dig them--they make a fence that will turn anything bigger than a hog, being grand for breachy cattle."

"Opinions on such subjects vary much in different countries," said Marmaduke; "but it is not as ornaments that I value the noble trees of this country; it is for their usefulness We are stripping the forests, as if a single year would replace what we destroy. But the hour approaches when the laws will take notice of not only the woods, but the game they contain also."

With this consoling reflection, Marmaduke remounted, and the equestrians passed the sugar-camp, on their way to the promised landscape of Richard. The wood-chop-per was left alone, in the bosom of the forest, to pursue his labors. Elizabeth turned her head, when they reached the point where they were to descend the mountain, and thought that the slow fires that were glimmering under his enormous kettles, his little brush shelter, covered with pieces of hemlock bark, his gigantic size, as he wielded his ladle with a steady and knowing air, aided by the back-ground of stately trees, with their spouts and troughs, formed, altogether, no unreal picture of human life in its first stages of civilization. Perhaps whatever the scene possessed of a romantic character was not injured by the powerful tones of Kirbys voice ringing through the woods as he again awoke his strains to another tune, which was but little more scientific than the former. All that she understood of the words were:

"And when the proud forest is falling, To my oxen cheerfully calling, From morn until night I am bawling, Whoa, back there, and haw and gee; Till our labor is mutually ended, By my strength and cattle befriended, And against the mosquitoes defended By the bark of the walnut-trees. Away! then, you lads who would buy land; Choose the oak that grows on the high land, or the silvery pine on the dry land, it matters but little to me."

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