Read The Pioneers Online

Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers (8 page)

“Draw up in the quarry—draw up, thou king of the Greeks; draw into the quarry, Agamemnon, or I shall never be able to pass you. Welcome home, cousin 'duke—welcome, welcome, black-eyed Bess. Thou seest, Marmaduke, that I have taken the field with an assorted cargo to do thee honor. Monsieur Le Quoi has come out with only one cap; Old Fritz would not stay to finish the bottle; and Mr. Grant has got to put the ‘lastly' to his sermon, yet. Even all the horses would come—by the by, Judge, I must sell the blacks for you immediately; they interfere, and the nigh one is a bad goer in double harness. I can get rid of them to——”
“Sell what thou wilt, Dickon,” interrupted the cheerful voice of the Judge, “so that thou leavest me my daughter and my lands. Ah! Fritz, my old friend, this is a kind compliment, indeed, for seventy to pay to five-and-forty. Monsieur Le Quoi, I am your servant. Mr. Grant,” lifting his cap, “I feel indebted to your attention. Gentlemen, I make you acquainted with my child. Yours are names with which she is very familiar.”
“Velcome, velcome, Tchooge,” said the elder of the party, with a strong German accent. “Miss Petsy vill owe me a kiss.”
“And cheerfully will I pay it, my good sir,” cried the soft voice of Elizabeth; which sounded, in the clear air of the hills, like tones of silver, amid the loud cries of Richard. “I have always a kiss for my old friend, Major Hartmann.”
By this time the gentleman in the front seat, who had been addressed as Monsieur Le Quoi, had arisen with some difficulty, owing to the impediment of his overcoats, and steadying himself by placing one hand on the stool of the charioteer, with the other he removed his cap, and bowing politely to the Judge, and profoundly to Elizabeth, he paid his compliments.
“Cover thy poll, Gaul, cover thy poll,” cried the driver, who was Mr. Richard Jones; “cover thy poll, or the frost will pluck out the remnant of thy locks. Had the hairs on the head of Absalom been as scarce as thine, he might have been living to this day.” The jokes of Richard never failed of exciting risibility, for he uniformly did honor to his own wit; and he enjoyed a hearty laugh on the present occasion, while Mr. Le Quoi resumed his seat with a polite reciprocation in his mirth. The clergyman, for such was the office of Mr. Grant, modestly, though quite affectionately, exchanged his greetings with the travelers also, when Richard prepared to turn the heads of his horses homeward.
It was in the quarry alone that he could effect this object, without ascending to the summit of the mountain. A very considerable excavation had been made in the side of the hill, at the point where Richard had succeeded in stopping the sleighs, from which the stones used for building in the village were ordinarily quarried, and in which he now attempted to turn his team. Passing itself was a task of difficulty, and frequently of danger, in that narrow road; but Richard had to meet the additional risk of turning his four-in-hand. The black civilly volunteered his services to take off the leaders, and the Judge very earnestly seconded the measure with his advice. Richard treated both proposals with great disdain:
“Why, and wherefore, cousin 'duke?” he exclaimed, a little angrily. “The horses are gentle as lambs. You know that I broke the leaders myself, and the pole horses are too near my whip to be restive. Here is Mr. Le Quoi, now, who must know something about driving, because he has rode out so often with me; I will leave it to Mr. Le Quoi whether there is any danger.”
It was not in the nature of the Frenchman to disappoint expectations so confidently formed; although he sat looking down the precipice which fronted him, as Richard turned his leaders into the quarry, with a pair of eyes that stood out like those of lobsters. The German's muscles were unmoved, but his quick sight scanned each movement. Mr. Grant placed his hands on the side of the sleigh, in preparation for a spring, but moral timidity deterred him from taking the leap that bodily apprehension strongly urged him to attempt.
Richard, by a sudden application of the whip, succeeded in forcing the leaders into the snowbank that covered the quarry; but the instant that the impatient animals suffered by the crust, through which they broke at each step, they positively refused to move an inch further in that direction. On the contrary, finding that the cries and blows of their driver were redoubled at this juncture, the leaders backed upon the pole horses, who, in their turn, backed the sleigh. Only a single log lay above the pile which upheld the road, on the side towards the valley, and this was now buried in the snow. The sleigh was easily forced across so slight an impediment; and before Richard became conscious of his danger, one half of the vehicle was projected over a precipice, which fell, perpendicularly, more than a hundred feet. The Frenchman, who, by his position, had a full view of their threatened flight, instinctively threw his body as far forward as possible and cried, “Ah! Mon cher monsieur Deeck! Mon Dieu! Que faites vous!”
“Donner and blitzen, Richart,” exclaimed the veteran German, looking over the side of the sleigh with unusual emotion. “Put you will preak ter sleigh and kilt ter horses.”
“Good Mr. Jones,” said the clergyman, “be prudent, good sir—be careful.”
“Get up, obstinate devils!” cried Richard, catching a bird's-eye view of his situation, and, in his eagerness to move forward, kicking the stool on which he sat—“Get up, I say—Cousin 'duke, I shall have to sell the grays too; they are the worst broken horses—Mr. Le Quaw!” Richard was too much agitated to regard his pronunciation, of which he was commonly a little vain; “Monsieur Le Quaw, pray get off my leg; you hold my leg so tight that it's no wonder the horses back.”
“Merciful Providence!” exclaimed the Judge. “They will be all killed!”
Elizabeth gave a piercing shriek, and the black of Agamemnon's face changed to a muddy white.
At this critical moment, the young hunter, who during the salutations of the parties had sat in rather sullen silence, sprang from the sleigh of Marmaduke to the heads of the refractory leaders. The horses, who were yet suffering under the injudicious and somewhat random blows of Richard, were dancing up and down with that ominous movement that threatens a sudden and uncontrollable start, still pressing backwards. The youth gave the leaders a powerful jerk, and they plunged aside and re-entered the road in the position in which they were first halted. The sleigh was whirled from its dangerous position, and upset with the runners outwards. The German and the divine were thrown, rather unceremoniously, into the highway, but without danger to their bones. Richard appeared in the air, describing the segment of a circle of which the reins were the radii, and landed at the distance of some fifteen feet, in that snowbank which the horses had dreaded, right end uppermost. Here, as he instinctively grasped the reins, as drowning men seize at straws, he admirably served the purpose of an anchor. The Frenchman, who was on his legs in the act of springing from the sleigh, took an aerial flight also, much in the attitude which boys assume when they play leapfrog, and flying off in a tangent to the curvature of his course, came into the snowbank head foremost, where he remained, exhibiting two lathy legs on high, like scarecrows waving in a cornfield. Major Hartmann, whose self-possession had been admirably preserved during the whole evolution, was the first of the party that gained his feet and his voice.
“Ter deyvel, Richart!” he exclaimed, in a voice half serious, half comical. “Put you unloat your sleigh very hantily.”
It may be doubtful whether the attitude in which Mr. Grant continued for an instant after his overthrow was the one into which he had been thrown, or was assumed, in humbling himself before the power that he reverenced, in thanksgiving at his escape. When he rose from his knees, he began to gaze about him, with anxious looks, after the welfare of his companions, while every joint in his body trembled with nervous agitation. There was some confusion in the faculties of Mr. Jones also; but as the mist gradually cleared from before his eyes, he saw that all was safe, and, with an air of great self-satisfaction, he cried, “Well—that was neatly saved, anyhow!—It was a lucky thought in me to hold on the reins, or the fiery devils would have been over the mountain by this time. How well I recovered myself, 'duke! Another moment would have been too late; but I knew just the spot where to touch the off-leader; that blow under his right flank and the sudden jerk I gave the rein brought them round quite in rule, I must own myself.”
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“Thou jerk! Thou recover thyself, Dickon!” he said. “But for that brave lad yonder, thou and thy horses, or rather mine, would have been dashed to pieces—but where is Monsieur Le Quoi?”
“Oh! Mon cher Juge! Mon ami!” cried a smothered voice. “Praise be God, I live; vill you, Mister Agamemnon, be pleas come down ici, and help me on my leg?”
The divine and the Negro seized the incarcerated Gaul by his legs and extricated him from a snowbank of three feet in depth, whence his voice had sounded as from the tombs. The thoughts of Mr. Le Quoi, immediately on his liberation, were not extremely collected; and when he reached the light, he threw his eyes upwards, in order to examine the distance he had fallen. His good humor returned, however, with a knowledge of his safety, though it was some little time before he clearly comprehended the case.
“What, monsieur,” said Richard, who was busily assisting the black in taking off the leaders; “are you there? I thought I saw you flying towards the top of the mountain just now.”
“Praise be God, I no fly down into the lake,” returned the Frenchman, with a visage that was divided between pain, occasioned by a few large scratches that he had received in forcing his head through the crust, and the look of complaisance that seemed natural to his pliable features. “Ah! Mon cher Mister Deeck, vat you do next? Dere be noting you no try.”
“The next thing, I trust, will be to learn to drive,” said the Judge, who had busied himself in throwing the buck, together with several other articles of baggage, from his own sleigh into the snow. “Here are seats for you all, gentlemen; the evening grows piercingly cold, and the hour approaches for the service of Mr. Grant: we will leave friend Jones to repair the damages, with the assistance of Agamemnon, and hasten to a warm fire. Here, Dickon, are a few articles of Bess's trumpery that you can throw into your sleigh when ready; and there is also a deer of my taking that I will thank you to bring. Aggy! remember that there will be a visit from Santa Claus
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tonight.”
The black grinned, conscious of the bribe that was offered him for silence on the subject of the deer, while Richard, without in the least waiting for the termination of his cousin's speech, began his reply:
“Learn to drive, sayest thou, cousin 'duke? Is there a man in the county who knows more of horseflesh than myself? Who broke in the filly that no one else dare mount; though your coachman did pretend that he had tamed her before I took her in hand; but anybody could see that he lied—he was a great liar, that John—what's that, a buck?”—Richard abandoned the horses and ran to the spot where Marmaduke had thrown the deer. “It is a buck! I am amazed! Yes, here are two holes in him, he has fired both barrels and hit him each time. Ecod! How Marmaduke will brag! He is a prodigious bragger about any small matter like this now; well, to think that 'duke has killed a buck before Christmas! There will be no such thing as living with him—they are both bad shots though, mere chance—mere chance; now, I never fired twice at a cloven foot in my life—it is hit or miss with me—dead or runaway:—had it been a bear, or a wildcat, a man might have wanted both barrels. Here! you Aggy! How far off was the Judge when this buck was shot?”
“Eh! Massa Richard, maybe a ten rod,” cried the black, bending under one of the horses with the pretense of fastening a buckle, but in reality to conceal the grin that opened a mouth from ear to ear.
“Ten rod!” echoed the other. “Why, Aggy, the deer I killed last winter was at twenty—yes! If anything it was nearer thirty than twenty. I wouldn't shoot at a deer at ten rod: besides, you may remember, Aggy, I only fired once.”
“Yes, Massa Richard, I 'member 'em! Natty Bumppo fire t'oder gun. You know, sir, all 'e folk say Natty kill him.”
“The folks lie, you black devil!” exclaimed Richard in great heat. “I have not shot even a gray squirrel these four years, to which that old rascal has not laid claim, or someone else for him. This is a damned envious world that we live in—people are always for dividing the credit of a thing in order to bring down merit to their own level. Now they have a story about the Patent
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that Hiram Doolittle helped to plan the steeple to St. Paul's, when Hiram knows that it is entirely mine; a little taken from a print of its namesake in London, I own; but essentially, as to all points of genius, my own.”
“I don't know where he come from,” said the black, losing every mark of humor in an expression of admiration, “but eb'ry body say, he wonnerful hansome.”
“And well they may say so, Aggy,” cried Richard, leaving the buck and walking up to the Negro with the air of a man who has new interest awakened within him. “I think I may say, without bragging, that it is the handsomest and the most scientific country church in America. I know that the Connecticut settlers talk about their Westherfield meetinghouse: but I never believe more than half what they say, they are such unconscionable braggers. Just as you have got a thing done, if they see it likely to be successful, they are always for interfering; and then it's ten to one but they lay claim to half, or even all of the credit. You may remember, Aggy, when I painted the sign of the bold dragoon for Captain Hollister, there was that fellow who was about town laying brick dust on the houses came one day and offered to mix what I call the streaky black, for the tail and mane, and then, because it looks like horsehair, he tells everybody that the sign was painted by himself and Squire Jones. If Marmaduke don't send that fellow off the Patent, he may ornament his village with his own hands for me.” Here Richard paused a moment, and cleared his throat by a loud hem, while the Negro, who was all this time busily engaged in preparing the sleigh, proceeded with his work in respectful silence. Owing to the religious scruples of the Judge, Aggy was the servant of Richard, who had his services for a
time,
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and who, of course, commanded a legal claim to the respect of the young Negro. But when any dispute between his lawful and his real master occurred, the black felt too much deference for both to express any opinion. In the meanwhile, Richard continued watching the Negro as he fastened buckle after buckle, until, stealing a look of consciousness towards the other, he continued, “Now, if that young man who was in your sleigh is a real Connecticut settler, he will be telling everybody how he saved my horses, when, if he had let them alone for half a minute longer, I would have brought them in much better, without upsetting, with the whip and rein—it spoils a horse to give him his head. I should not wonder if I had to sell the whole team, just for that one jerk he gave them.” Richard paused, and hemmed; for his conscience smote him a little for censuring a man who had just saved his life. “Who is the lad, Aggy—I don't remember to have seen him before?”

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