The Last of the Mohicans by James F Cooper

CHAPTER 1

“Mine ear is open, and my heart prepared:
The worst is wordly loss thou canst unfold:–
Say, is my kingdom lost?”–Shakespeare

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that
the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before
the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious
boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces
of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who
fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against
the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the
mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more
martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the
practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty;
and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so
dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption
from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their
vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant
monarchs of Europe.

Perhaps no district throughout the wide extent of the intermediate
frontiers can furnish a livelier picture of the cruelty and fierceness
of the savage warfare of those periods than the country which lies
between the head waters of the Hudson and the adjacent lakes.

The facilities which nature had there offered to the march of the
combatants were too obvious to be neglected. The lengthened sheet of
the Champlain stretched from the frontiers of Canada, deep within the
borders of the neighboring province of New York, forming a natural
passage across half the distance that the French were compelled to
master in order to strike their enemies. Near its southern termination,
it received the contributions of another lake, whose waters were so
limpid as to have been exclusively selected by the Jesuit missionaries
to perform the typical purification of baptism, and to obtain for it
the title of lake “du Saint Sacrement.” The less zealous English thought
they conferred a sufficient honor on its unsullied fountains, when they
bestowed the name of their reigning prince, the second of the house of
Hanover. The two united to rob the untutored possessors of its wooded
scenery of their native right to perpetuate its original appellation of
“Horican.”*

* As each nation of the Indians had its language or its
dialect, they usually gave different names to the same
places, though nearly all of their appellations were
descriptive of the object. Thus a literal translation of the
name of this beautiful sheet of water, used by the tribe
that dwelt on its banks, would be “The Tail of the Lake.”
Lake George, as it is vulgarly, and now, indeed, legally,
called, forms a sort of tail to Lake Champlain, when viewed
on the map. Hence, the name.

Winding its way among countless islands, and imbedded in mountains, the
“holy lake” extended a dozen leagues still further to the south. With
the high plain that there interposed itself to the further passage of
the water, commenced a portage of as many miles, which conducted the
adventurer to the banks of the Hudson, at a point where, with the usual
obstructions of the rapids, or rifts, as they were then termed in the
language of the country, the river became navigable to the tide.

While, in the pursuit of their daring plans of annoyance, the restless
enterprise of the French even attempted the distant and difficult
gorges of the Alleghany, it may easily be imagined that their proverbial
acuteness would not overlook the natural advantages of the district we
have just described. It became, emphatically, the bloody arena, in which
most of the battles for the mastery of the colonies were contested.
Forts were erected at the different points that commanded the facilities
of the route, and were taken and retaken, razed and rebuilt, as victory
alighted on the hostile banners. While the husbandman shrank back from
the dangerous passes, within the safer boundaries of the more ancient
settlements, armies larger than those that had often disposed of the
scepters of the mother countries, were seen to bury themselves in these
forests, whence they rarely returned but in skeleton bands, that were
haggard with care or dejected by defeat. Though the arts of peace were
unknown to this fatal region, its forests were alive with men; its
shades and glens rang with the sounds of martial music, and the echoes
of its mountains threw back the laugh, or repeated the wanton cry,
of many a gallant and reckless youth, as he hurried by them, in the
noontide of his spirits, to slumber in a long night of forgetfulness.

It was in this scene of strife and bloodshed that the incidents we
shall attempt to relate occurred, during the third year of the war
which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that
neither was destined to retain.

The imbecility of her military leaders abroad, and the fatal want of
energy in her councils at home, had lowered the character of Great
Britain from the proud elevation on which it had been placed by the
talents and enterprise of her former warriors and statesmen. No longer
dreaded by her enemies, her servants were fast losing the confidence
of self-respect. In this mortifying abasement, the colonists, though
innocent of her imbecility, and too humble to be the agents of her
blunders, were but the natural participators. They had recently seen a
chosen army from that country, which, reverencing as a mother, they
had blindly believed invincible–an army led by a chief who had been
selected from a crowd of trained warriors, for his rare military
endowments, disgracefully routed by a handful of French and Indians, and
only saved from annihilation by the coolness and spirit of a Virginian
boy, whose riper fame has since diffused itself, with the steady
influence of moral truth, to the uttermost confines of Christendom.* A
wide frontier had been laid naked by this unexpected disaster, and more
substantial evils were preceded by a thousand fanciful and imaginary
dangers. The alarmed colonists believed that the yells of the savages
mingled with every fitful gust of wind that issued from the interminable
forests of the west. The terrific character of their merciless enemies
increased immeasurably the natural horrors of warfare. Numberless recent
massacres were still vivid in their recollections; nor was there any
ear in the provinces so deaf as not to have drunk in with avidity the
narrative of some fearful tale of midnight murder, in which the natives
of the forests were the principal and barbarous actors. As the credulous
and excited traveler related the hazardous chances of the wilderness,
the blood of the timid curdled with terror, and mothers cast anxious
glances even at those children which slumbered within the security of
the largest towns. In short, the magnifying influence of fear began to
set at naught the calculations of reason, and to render those who should
have remembered their manhood, the slaves of the basest passions. Even
the most confident and the stoutest hearts began to think the issue
of the contest was becoming doubtful; and that abject class was hourly
increasing in numbers, who thought they foresaw all the possessions of
the English crown in America subdued by their Christian foes, or laid
waste by the inroads of their relentless allies.

* Washington, who, after uselessly admonishing the European
general of the danger into which he was heedlessly running,
saved the remnants of the British army, on this occasion, by
his decision and courage. The reputation earned by
Washington in this battle was the principal cause of his
being selected to command the American armies at a later
day. It is a circumstance worthy of observation, that while
all America rang with his well-merited reputation, his name
does not occur in any European account of the battle; at
least the author has searched for it without success. In
this manner does the mother country absorb even the fame,
under that system of rule.

When, therefore, intelligence was received at the fort which covered the
southern termination of the portage between the Hudson and the lakes,
that Montcalm had been seen moving up the Champlain, with an army
“numerous as the leaves on the trees,” its truth was admitted with more
of the craven reluctance of fear than with the stern joy that a warrior
should feel, in finding an enemy within reach of his blow. The news had
been brought, toward the decline of a day in midsummer, by an Indian
runner, who also bore an urgent request from Munro, the commander of
a work on the shore of the “holy lake,” for a speedy and powerful
reinforcement. It has already been mentioned that the distance between
these two posts was less than five leagues. The rude path, which
originally formed their line of communication, had been widened for the
passage of wagons; so that the distance which had been traveled by the
son of the forest in two hours, might easily be effected by a detachment
of troops, with their necessary baggage, between the rising and setting
of a summer sun. The loyal servants of the British crown had given to
one of these forest-fastnesses the name of William Henry, and to the
other that of Fort Edward, calling each after a favorite prince of the
reigning family. The veteran Scotchman just named held the first, with
a regiment of regulars and a few provincials; a force really by far
too small to make head against the formidable power that Montcalm was
leading to the foot of his earthen mounds. At the latter, however,
lay General Webb, who commanded the armies of the king in the northern
provinces, with a body of more than five thousand men. By uniting the
several detachments of his command, this officer might have arrayed
nearly double that number of combatants against the enterprising
Frenchman, who had ventured so far from his reinforcements, with an army
but little superior in numbers.

But under the influence of their degraded fortunes, both officers and
men appeared better disposed to await the approach of their formidable
antagonists, within their works, than to resist the progress of their
march, by emulating the successful example of the French at Fort du
Quesne, and striking a blow on their advance.

After the first surprise of the intelligence had a little abated, a
rumor was spread through the entrenched camp, which stretched along the
margin of the Hudson, forming a chain of outworks to the body of the
fort itself, that a chosen detachment of fifteen hundred men was to
depart, with the dawn, for William Henry, the post at the northern
extremity of the portage. That which at first was only rumor,
soon became certainty, as orders passed from the quarters of the
commander-in-chief to the several corps he had selected for this
service, to prepare for their speedy departure. All doubts as to the
intention of Webb now vanished, and an hour or two of hurried footsteps
and anxious faces succeeded. The novice in the military art flew from
point to point, retarding his own preparations by the excess of his
violent and somewhat distempered zeal; while the more practiced veteran
made his arrangements with a deliberation that scorned every appearance
of haste; though his sober lineaments and anxious eye sufficiently
betrayed that he had no very strong professional relish for the, as yet,
untried and dreaded warfare of the wilderness. At length the sun set in
a flood of glory, behind the distant western hills, and as darkness drew
its veil around the secluded spot the sounds of preparation diminished;
the last light finally disappeared from the log cabin of some officer;
the trees cast their deeper shadows over the mounds and the rippling
stream, and a silence soon pervaded the camp, as deep as that which
reigned in the vast forest by which it was environed.

According to the orders of the preceding night, the heavy sleep of the
army was broken by the rolling of the warning drums, whose rattling
echoes were heard issuing, on the damp morning air, out of every vista
of the woods, just as day began to draw the shaggy outlines of some tall
pines of the vicinity, on the opening brightness of a soft and cloudless
eastern sky. In an instant the whole camp was in motion; the meanest
soldier arousing from his lair to witness the departure of his comrades,
and to share in the excitement and incidents of the hour. The simple
array of the chosen band was soon completed. While the regular and
trained hirelings of the king marched with haughtiness to the right of
the line, the less pretending colonists took their humbler position
on its left, with a docility that long practice had rendered easy.
The scouts departed; strong guards preceded and followed the lumbering
vehicles that bore the baggage; and before the gray light of the morning
was mellowed by the rays of the sun, the main body of the combatants
wheeled into column, and left the encampment with a show of high
military bearing, that served to drown the slumbering apprehensions of
many a novice, who was now about to make his first essay in arms. While
in view of their admiring comrades, the same proud front and ordered
array was observed, until the notes of their fifes growing fainter in
distance, the forest at length appeared to swallow up the living mass
which had slowly entered its bosom.

The deepest sounds of the retiring and invisible column had ceased to
be borne on the breeze to the listeners, and the latest straggler had
already disappeared in pursuit; but there still remained the signs
of another departure, before a log cabin of unusual size and
accommodations, in front of which those sentinels paced their rounds,
who were known to guard the person of the English general. At this spot
were gathered some half dozen horses, caparisoned in a manner which
showed that two, at least, were destined to bear the persons of females,
of a rank that it was not usual to meet so far in the wilds of the
country. A third wore trappings and arms of an officer of the staff;
while the rest, from the plainness of the housings, and the traveling
mails with which they were encumbered, were evidently fitted for the
reception of as many menials, who were, seemingly, already waiting
the pleasure of those they served. At a respectful distance from this
unusual show, were gathered divers groups of curious idlers; some
admiring the blood and bone of the high-mettled military charger,
and others gazing at the preparations, with the dull wonder of vulgar
curiosity. There was one man, however, who, by his countenance and
actions, formed a marked exception to those who composed the latter
class of spectators, being neither idle, nor seemingly very ignorant.

The person of this individual was to the last degree ungainly, without
being in any particular manner deformed. He had all the bones and joints
of other men, without any of their proportions. Erect, his stature
surpassed that of his fellows; though seated, he appeared reduced within
the ordinary limits of the race. The same contrariety in his members
seemed to exist throughout the whole man. His head was large; his
shoulders narrow; his arms long and dangling; while his hands were
small, if not delicate. His legs and thighs were thin, nearly to
emaciation, but of extraordinary length; and his knees would have
been considered tremendous, had they not been outdone by the broader
foundations on which this false superstructure of blended human orders
was so profanely reared. The ill-assorted and injudicious attire of the
individual only served to render his awkwardness more conspicuous. A
sky-blue coat, with short and broad skirts and low cape, exposed a long,
thin neck, and longer and thinner legs, to the worst animadversions
of the evil-disposed. His nether garment was a yellow nankeen, closely
fitted to the shape, and tied at his bunches of knees by large knots of
white ribbon, a good deal sullied by use. Clouded cotton stockings, and
shoes, on one of the latter of which was a plated spur, completed the
costume of the lower extremity of this figure, no curve or angle of
which was concealed, but, on the other hand, studiously exhibited,
through the vanity or simplicity of its owner.

From beneath the flap of an enormous pocket of a soiled vest of embossed
silk, heavily ornamented with tarnished silver lace, projected an
instrument, which, from being seen in such martial company, might have
been easily mistaken for some mischievous and unknown implement of war.
Small as it was, this uncommon engine had excited the curiosity of most
of the Europeans in the camp, though several of the provincials
were seen to handle it, not only without fear, but with the utmost
familiarity. A large, civil cocked hat, like those worn by clergymen
within the last thirty years, surmounted the whole, furnishing dignity
to a good-natured and somewhat vacant countenance, that apparently
needed such artificial aid, to support the gravity of some high and
extraordinary trust.

While the common herd stood aloof, in deference to the quarters of Webb,
the figure we have described stalked into the center of the domestics,
freely expressing his censures or commendations on the merits of the
horses, as by chance they displeased or satisfied his judgment.

“This beast, I rather conclude, friend, is not of home raising, but is
from foreign lands, or perhaps from the little island itself over the
blue water?” he said, in a voice as remarkable for the softness and
sweetness of its tones, as was his person for its rare proportions; “I
may speak of these things, and be no braggart; for I have been down at
both havens; that which is situate at the mouth of Thames, and is named
after the capital of Old England, and that which is called ‘Haven’, with
the addition of the word ‘New’; and have seen the scows and brigantines
collecting their droves, like the gathering to the ark, being outward
bound to the Island of Jamaica, for the purpose of barter and traffic
in four-footed animals; but never before have I beheld a beast which
verified the true scripture war-horse like this: ‘He paweth in the
valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed
men. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle
afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting’ It would seem
that the stock of the horse of Israel had descended to our own time;
would it not, friend?”

Receiving no reply to this extraordinary appeal, which in truth, as it
was delivered with the vigor of full and sonorous tones, merited some
sort of notice, he who had thus sung forth the language of the holy
book turned to the silent figure to whom he had unwittingly addressed
himself, and found a new and more powerful subject of admiration in the
object that encountered his gaze. His eyes fell on the still, upright,
and rigid form of the “Indian runner,” who had borne to the camp the
unwelcome tidings of the preceding evening. Although in a state of
perfect repose, and apparently disregarding, with characteristic
stoicism, the excitement and bustle around him, there was a sullen
fierceness mingled with the quiet of the savage, that was likely to
arrest the attention of much more experienced eyes than those which now
scanned him, in unconcealed amazement. The native bore both the tomahawk
and knife of his tribe; and yet his appearance was not altogether that
of a warrior. On the contrary, there was an air of neglect about his
person, like that which might have proceeded from great and recent
exertion, which he had not yet found leisure to repair. The colors
of the war-paint had blended in dark confusion about his fierce
countenance, and rendered his swarthy lineaments still more savage
and repulsive than if art had attempted an effect which had been thus
produced by chance. His eye, alone, which glistened like a fiery star
amid lowering clouds, was to be seen in its state of native wildness.
For a single instant his searching and yet wary glance met the wondering
look of the other, and then changing its direction, partly in cunning,
and partly in disdain, it remained fixed, as if penetrating the distant
air.

It is impossible to say what unlooked-for remark this short and silent
communication, between two such singular men, might have elicited from
the white man, had not his active curiosity been again drawn to other
objects. A general movement among the domestics, and a low sound of
gentle voices, announced the approach of those whose presence alone
was wanted to enable the cavalcade to move. The simple admirer of the
war-horse instantly fell back to a low, gaunt, switch-tailed mare, that
was unconsciously gleaning the faded herbage of the camp nigh by; where,
leaning with one elbow on the blanket that concealed an apology for a
saddle, he became a spectator of the departure, while a foal was quietly
making its morning repast, on the opposite side of the same animal.

A young man, in the dress of an officer, conducted to their steeds two
females, who, as it was apparent by their dresses, were prepared to
encounter the fatigues of a journey in the woods. One, and she was
the more juvenile in her appearance, though both were young, permitted
glimpses of her dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue
eyes, to be caught, as she artlessly suffered the morning air to blow
aside the green veil which descended low from her beaver.

The flush which still lingered above the pines in the western sky was
not more bright nor delicate than the bloom on her cheek; nor was the
opening day more cheering than the animated smile which she bestowed on
the youth, as he assisted her into the saddle. The other, who appeared
to share equally in the attention of the young officer, concealed her
charms from the gaze of the soldiery with a care that seemed better
fitted to the experience of four or five additional years. It could be
seen, however, that her person, though molded with the same exquisite
proportions, of which none of the graces were lost by the traveling
dress she wore, was rather fuller and more mature than that of her
companion.

No sooner were these females seated, than their attendant sprang lightly
into the saddle of the war-horse, when the whole three bowed to Webb,
who in courtesy, awaited their parting on the threshold of his cabin and
turning their horses’ heads, they proceeded at a slow amble, followed
by their train, toward the northern entrance of the encampment. As they
traversed that short distance, not a voice was heard among them; but
a slight exclamation proceeded from the younger of the females, as the
Indian runner glided by her, unexpectedly, and led the way along the
military road in her front. Though this sudden and startling movement
of the Indian produced no sound from the other, in the surprise her veil
also was allowed to open its folds, and betrayed an indescribable look
of pity, admiration, and horror, as her dark eye followed the easy
motions of the savage. The tresses of this lady were shining and black,
like the plumage of the raven. Her complexion was not brown, but it
rather appeared charged with the color of the rich blood, that seemed
ready to burst its bounds. And yet there was neither coarseness nor
want of shadowing in a countenance that was exquisitely regular, and
dignified and surpassingly beautiful. She smiled, as if in pity at her
own momentary forgetfulness, discovering by the act a row of teeth that
would have shamed the purest ivory; when, replacing the veil, she bowed
her face, and rode in silence, like one whose thoughts were abstracted
from the scene around her.