The Chainbearer - Or, The Little Page Manuscripts
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The date of the scenes in this story, the fourth instalment of the Littlepage Manuscripts, is immediately after the War of the Revolution, in which most of the characters had taken part. The account purports to be written by Major Mordaunt Littlepage, son of Cornelius Littlepage, of Satanstoe, and Anneke Mordaunt, of Lilacsbush. The scenes are laid partly on the family estates in Westchester, and partly at Ravensnest and Mooseridge, northeast of Albany, in what is now Washington County, New York. Chainbearer, the title to the book, is derived from the sobriquet of a Dutch surveyor named Andries Coejemans (Queemans), who had been a captain in Cornelius Littlepage's regiment, and under whom Mordaunt Littlepage had served as ensign.
THE Chainbearer was of a respectable Dutch family that has given its name to a place of some little note on the Hudson (Coeymans), but, as was apt to be the case in the good old time of the colony, his education was no great matter. He had made up his mind to be a surveyor; but having no head for mathematics, after making one or two notable blunders in the way of his profession, had quietly sunk to the station of a chainbearer, in which capacity he was well known to all of his craft in the colony, and in which he had an unrivaled reputation. Humble as was his occupation, it required honesty, and neither landlord nor tenant, buyer nor seller, need be uneasy about being fairly dealt by so long as Andries Coejemans held the forward end of the chain. He had acquired great skill, too, in all subordinate matters connected with his calling: he was a capital woodsman, a good hunter, and had acquired most of the habits that such pursuits would be likely to give a man.
At the beginning of the Revolution Andries, like most of those who sympathized with the colonies, took up arms. When my father's regiment was raised, those who could bring recruits to its colors received commissions of a rank proportioned to services in this respect. Andries presented himself early with a squad of chainbearers, hunters, trappers, runners, guides, etc., and was made a lieutenant, and, being the oldest of his rank in the corps, was soon promoted to a captaincy. He never rose any higher.
Andries spoke English pretty well, but was decidedly Dutch in his dialect. The fact that Washington had practised the art of a surveyor for a short time in his youth was a source of great exultation to him. Once, while we were before York-town, Captain Coejemans, seeing the Commander-in-chief ride past our encampment, cried out: "T'ere, Mortaunt, my poy—t'ere goes his Excellency! It would be t'e happiest tay of my life, coult I only carry chain while he survey't a pit of a farm in this neighborhoot."
I was six years at Princeton; nominally, if not in fact, and was graduated at nineteen. This was the year Comwallis surrendered, and I served at the siege as an ensign in Captain Coejemans' company. I formed a strong attachment for the old man, who was every hour of sixty-seven, though as hale, hearty, and active as any officer in the corps; and when we were disbanded at the peace, I actually parted from him with tears in my eyes. Andries had a niece, an orphan, the only child of a half-sister, who was dependent on him. But, fortunately, she had been cared for by a friend of her mother's, a Mrs. Stratton, who kept a school and who had the means and the inclination to care for her. The death of this lady in 1783 had thrown his niece again on his protection. Her name, as he pronounced it, was Dus Malbone, though I afterward discovered that Dus was a Dutch diminutive for Ursula. Her father, Robert Malbone, was an Eastern man of good family, but a spendthrift. Both he and his wife died within a few months of each other. Dus had a half-brother, Frank, Bob Malbone having married twice, but he was in the army and his pay scarcely sufficed to meet his own wants. So Dus came to live with the old chainbearer, and it was easy to see that he loved her better than any other being on earth.
When I returned home after a two years' absence in the army, I found my mother and grandmother, Aunt Mary Wallace, and my younger sister Kate. My older sister Anneke, six years my senior, who was married early in the war, was Mrs. Kettletas, who resided in Dutchess County. My mother's father, Herman Mordaunt, had died in England while on a visit to a relative, Sir Harry Bulstrode, and my paternal grand-father, General Evans Littlepage, had died of smallpox contracted in camp at the close of the war. His widow, my grand-mother, still lived at Satanstoe, having resisted all attempts to induce her to come to Lilacsbush.
One May morning Kate and I rode over to Satanstoe to see my grandmother and to meet at dinner some of the Bayards, of the Hickories. I had not known these people, for my Grandfather Mordaunt had had some legal difficulties with them, and I had regarded them as a sort of hereditary strangers. But on our ride over I gathered from my sister that the two families were now not only firm friends, but that there was a prospect of a still closer relation, Thomas, or Tom Bayard, as he was called, being desirous to marry Kate, who was alike desirous to have my opinion of the young man. Close questioning elicited also the fact of the existence of a Priscilla or Pris Bayard, who, I discovered, had been selected as a proper wife for me.
In the porch of the house at Satanstoe stood my dear old grandmother and Tom Bayard, to receive us. The first glance at the latter told me he was a "proper man"; and by the second I got the pleasing assurance that he had no eye, just then, but for Kate. There was a slight color in his cheek which said to me, "I mean to get your sister"; yet I liked his manner.
Miss Priscilla Bayard, for some unexplained reason, did not come to the porch to greet her friend. We found her in the drawing-room, in truth a charming girl, with fine dark eyes, glossy hair, a graceful form, and an ease of manner that denoted perfect familiarity with the best company in the land. Her reception of me was gracious, though I fancied it was not entirely free from the consciousness of having heard her own name associated with mine. This wore off, however, and she soon became entirely herself; and a very charming self it was, I was forced to admit. In the cool of the evening we had a pleasant walk on the Neck, Priscilla and I together, of course, and I also saw her several times during the days following, but I confess I was never more at a loss to understand a character than I was that of this young woman. It is scarcely necessary to say I remained heart-whole under such circumstances, notwithstanding the obvious wishes of my friends and the young lady's great advantages.
When my grandmother said to me, "Mordaunt, we all wish you to fall in love as soon as you can, and to marry Priscilla Bayard as soon as she will consent to have you," I asked, "Do you not think one connection of this sort, between families, quite enough ? "
She looked surprised and said : "I do not know what more you can wish than to get such a girl."
A little later, when Miss Bayard joined us, my grandmother said: "Mordaunt is about to quit us for the whole summer, Miss Bayard. He is going to a part of the world I dread to think of."
I though Miss Bayard looked startled, as she asked: "Is Mr. Littlepage going to travel?"
This led me to explain about our property at Ravensnest and Mooseridge, whither I had already sent the Chainbearer to have the surveys made, and that it was my intention to go thither as soon as the season would permit.
Priscilla appeared interested, and I thought her color increased a little as she asked:
"Did you ever see the Chainbearer's niece, Dus Mal-bone?"
The question surprised me, for, though I had never seen Ursula, the uncle had talked so much about her that I almost fancied her an intimate acquaintance.
"Where, in the name of all that is curious, did you ever hear of such a person!" I exclaimed.
"We were schoolfellows," she explained, "and something even more--we were, and I trust still are, very good friends. I like Dus exceedingly."
"This is odd! Will you allow me to ask one question? Curiosity will get the better of my manners: is Dus Malbone a lady—the equal of such a person as Miss Priscilla Bayard?"
"In some respects she is greatly the superior of any young woman I know. Her family, I have always heard, was very good on both sides; she is poor, poor even to poverty, I fear, now. Poor Dus, she had much to support, in . the way of poverty, even while at school, where she was a dependent. I never knew a nobler-minded girl than Ursula Malbone, though few persons understand her, I think."
A summons to breakfast ended our conversation and no more was said about the Chainbearer and his marvelous niece, Dus Malbone.
When I reached Ravensnest that spring, I found the whole population assembled to raise the frame of a new church or meeting-house, under the superintendence of the agent, Jason Newcome. I had gone thither unannounced, and the Chain-bearer did not see me until he stepped upon the frame. As soon as he spied me he strode across the timbers with the step of a man accustomed to tread among dangers, though he was threescore and ten, grasped my hand, and with a tear twinkling in his eye, exclaimed :
"Mortaunt, my poy, you're heartily welcome. You haf come as t'e cat steals upon t'e mice."
"Yes, my excellent old friend, and most happy am I to meet you again. If you will go with me to the tavern, we can talk more at our ease."
"Enough for t'e present, young comrate. Pusiness is standing still for t'e want of my hant. Let us get up t'ese frame, when I am your man for a week or a year."
The whole assemblage now took a hand in the raising of the heavy frame, under the command of a boss, who watched the process and gave the proper commands. "All together now —heave!" he shouted, as the great mass gradually rose up. When all were staggering under the weight, I, who was near the centre of the frame, noticed that a stud had fallen a little to one side, where it would be of no use. The boss saw it at the same time and shouted, like one in agony, "Heave, men—for your lives, heave!"
At this critical juncture, a young woman darted out of the anxious crowd, seized the stud, and placed it in its proper position alongside of the post. But an inch was wanted to gain its support. I called on the fainting men to heave. They obeyed, and I saw that true-eyed, firm-handed girl place the prop precisely where it was wanted.
I had caught only a glimpse of the maiden whose intelligence, decision, and presence of mind had done so much for us in the risk we ran, but she appeared the loveliest being of her sex I had ever laid eyes on. I looked for her as soon as I was disengaged, but the lovely vision had vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.
"Come, Morty, my poy," said Chainbearer, as soon as our help was no longer needed, "I will take you to a roof under which you will pe master."
"You do not mean the Nest?"
"T'at, and no ot'ter. Frank Malpone, Dus, and I have made it headquarters since we haf peen here."
"Come on, old Andries. We will walk thither. Jaap and the wagoner can follow with the trunks. Where is the Indian you used to call Sureflint?"
"He has gone aheat, to let your visit pe known."
We walked on for near an hour, till we came to Ravensnest, a large log cabin built for defense, with no opening on the exterior except the door. As we reached the gate a form glided through the opening and Susquesus or Sureflint, as he was sometimes called, stood by my side. I had hardly greeted him when there arose within the strains of a full, rich, female voice, singing Indian words to a familiar melody. In the magic of that voice I forgot fields and orchards, forgot Chainbearer and Sureflint, and could think of nothing but the extraordinary circumstance of a native girl's possessing such a knowledge of our music. The Indian seemed entranced, but old Andries smiled, and when the last strain had ended, beckoned me to enter, saying simply, " Dus."
"Dus!" I repeated to myself. "This, then, is Dus, and no Indian girl; Chainbearer's Dus; Priscilla Bayard's Dus. But how came Dus-how came Miss Ursula—your niece," I asked aloud, "to understand an Indian dialect?"
"She is a perfect mocking-pird—she imitates all she hears. Go in, Mortaunt, and shake t'e gal's hand. She knows you well enough, name and natur'."
I went in and found myself in the presence of the fair, golden-haired girl of the incident at the raising. On my entrance she rose and gravely answered my bow with a profound courtesy.
"T'is wilt never do," said Andries, in his strongest Dutch accent, "t'is wilt never do, ast petween two such olt frients. Come hit'er, Dus, gal, and gif your hant to Mortaunt Littlepage, who is a sort of son of my own."
This was my introduction to Dus Malbone. After that we saw each other daily, both at Ravensnest and at Mooseridge, whither I followed the surveyors. Is it any wonder that I soon learned to love her? In the few weeks that we had been together Dus had wound herself around my heart in a way that defied all attempts of mine to extricate it even had I the wish to do so. To me she appeared all that man could wish, and I saw no impediment to a union in the circumstances of her poverty. Her family and education were quite equal to my own, and I had fortune enough for both. Guided by the impulse of a generous and manly passion, one evening I poured out my whole soul to her. I could see that she was strongly agitated; but, after a brief pause, she gave me her answer in the following words, uttered with a tremor and sensibility that gave them tenfold weight.
"For this unexpected, and I believe sincere declaration, Mr. Littlepage, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. But, I am not my own mistress—my faith is plighted to another—my affections are with my faith; and I cannot accept offers which, so generous, demand the most explicit reply—"
I heard no more, but rushed from her presence and plunged into the forest.
For the first half-hour after leaving Ursula I was unconscious whither I was going or of what I was about. I thought of nothing, felt for nothing, but that the faith of Dus was plighted to another. At last I threw myself on a fallen tree and fell into a troubled sleep. When I awoke, it was daylight. At first I felt stiff and sore, but this soon wore off, leaving me refreshed and calm. To my great surprise, I found that a blanket had been thrown over me, and as this could only have come from a friendly hand, I looked around to see who this secret friend could be. The mystery was soon explained. A fine spring broke out of the hillside not far away, and beside it stood the Onandago leaning on his rifle and motionless as one of the trees beside him. I touched him before he looked up.
"Who own mill here?" he asked.
"There is no mill near us, Susquesus."
"Know mill when hear him. Saw talk loud. Hear him in night. Ear good in night."
And you thought you heard a saw, from this place, in the night ? "
"Sartain—know well—hear plain enough. Out here; find him dere."
"I will go in search of it, Sureflint," I said, "if you will bear me company."
"Sartain. Find stream first—den find mill. Got ear—got eye—no hard to find him."
We soon found the stream, a tributary of the Hudson, and saw that many boards were floating down its current. The next bend in the river brought into view half a dozen men and lads at work in the water, and on the margin of a basin under some low cliffs, the sawmill itself. Here was ocular proof that squatters were systematically at work, plundering the forests of their most valuable trees, and setting law and right at defiance.
We watched them awhile, keeping ourselves concealed.
"Did you ever see any of these men before, Susquesus?"
"T'ink have. Despret squatter, dat ole man; call himself T'ousandacre—say he always own t'ousand acre when he want to find him."
"But this is not his property, but mine—or rather, that of my father and Colonel Follock."
"Best not say so. If he t'ink you spy, p'raps he shoot you."
"Well, I shall run the risk, for I am hungry. Stay you here, and let me go on alone."
Sureflint was not to be dropped. He said nothing, but when I started he stepped quietly in front and led the way to the party of squatters.
"So it's you, Trackless," exclaimed old Thousandacres. "I didn't know but it might be a sheriff. Who's your friend?"
"Ole young frien'—know his fader. Live in wood now, like us, in summer. Shoot deer."
"He's wilcome. All's wilcome to these parts but the landlord. Have you seen anything of the Chainbearer, and his lawless surveyors, in the woods this summer? I hear he's at his old tricks ag'in."
"Sartain. He measure General Littlepage farm. Who your landlord, eh?"
"Waal, I s'pose it's this same Littlepage, and a desp'rate rogue all agree in callin' him."
I felt a strong disposition to resent this, but a glance from the Indian's eye cautioned me.
"Waal, breakfast must be ready, by this time. Let's go up and see what Miss Thousandacres can do for us. You, and your fri'nd behind you, there, is wilcome to what we have, sitch as it is."
"Miss Thousandacres" was a sharp-featured, keen, gray-eyed old woman, the mother of fourteen children, of whom twelve survived. She had an anxious, distrustful, watchful air, like that of the dam that is overseeing the welfare of her cubs. Her welcome to her board was neither hearty nor otherwise, it being so much a matter of course for the American to share his meal with the stranger that little was said or thought of the boon.
After the meal I was questioned closely by the old man in regard to my name and antecedents. I at first told him my name was Mordaunt, which was true, but this did not satisfy him and at the suggestion of Zephaniah, he asked for my given name. I then, disdaining deception, acknowledged my identity. Thousandacres, enraged, cried out: "If you or your gin'ral father think that Aaron Thousandacres is a man to have his territories invaded by the inemy, and keep his hands in his pockets the hull time, he's mistaken. We'll see if we can't find lodgin' for you as well as board."
I looked round for Susquesus and his rifle, but he had disappeared. I stood there, alone and unarmed, in the center of six athletic men, and surrounded by the whole brood of the squatter, young and old, male and female, some looking de-fiance, others troubled, and all anxious.
Thousandacres suddenly demanded, "What has become of the redskin? Nathaniel, Moses, Daniel, to your rifles and on the trail. Bring him in, if you can, with a hull skin; if you can't, an Injin more or less won't be heeded in the woods."
The result of the conference, in which all participated, was that I was imprisoned in the storehouse, a log structure with no opening but the door, the crevices between the logs being sufficient for air and light. In the course of the afternoon the three sons returned with Susquesus, who was shut up with me. "This is a sore disappointment," I said. "I was sure you would let Chainbearer know where I am."
"Why t'ink different now, eh? S'pose no want to come, no come. Trackless moccasin leave no trail."
"Tell me all about it, Susquesus. Why did you go off?"
"Run away 'cause no good to stay here. Go about two mile in wood—meet Jaap—tell him whole story and send him back to huts. Want to come back help friend—so get took prisoner."
The next morning I was surprised to see Chainbearer enter the settlement. He was met by Thousandacres and the two had a long discussion, ending in a scuffle, in which Chainbearer got the better of the squatter and threw him so heavily as to render him unconscious for a time. Chainbearer was working at the door of our prison with the object of releasing us, when he was seized from behind and thrust in to keep us company.
I learned from him that as soon as Jaap had brought the news of my incarceration, Frank Malbone had started for Ravensnest for the sheriff, and that he himself, with Jaap and Dus, had come to my aid. Dus had remained in the wood in the care of Jaap. As soon as Thousandacres had recovered himself a family council was called and we were all brought before it. Chainbearer took the chief part in the discussion which followed, defending the title of the owners against Thousandacres's claims of possession, but without satisfying the latter, who concluded by ordering him back to the store-house. As no attention seemed to be paid to me, I quietly slipped into the woods and went to where I understood I should find Dus and Jaap.
I can never forget the look with which the frank, noblehearted girl met me. It almost led me to hope that my ears had deceived me and that I was, after all, an object of interest to her.
"Let us quit this spot at once, dearest Ursula," I cried. "It is not safe for you to remain near that family of wretches."
"And leave Uncle Chainbearer in their hands?" she asked reproachfully.
"If your safety demands it, yes. A design exists among those wretches to seize you, and to make use of your fears to secure the aid of your uncle in extricating them from the con-sequences of this discovery of their robberies."
"Mordaunt Littlepage," she said seriously, "have you forgotten my words when we last parted? The man to whom my faith is plighted, and to whom my time and services are devoted, so long as one or both of us live, is Uncle Chainbearer, and no other. If you had not rushed from me in the manner you did, I might have told you this, Mordaunt."
"Dus!—Ursula!—beloved—have I then no preferred rival?"
"No man has ever spoken to me of love but one rude squatter and yourself."
"Here she is! Here both they are, father!" was a cry that aroused us from our Elysium; and in a moment we were surrounded by Thousandacres and his sons.
We were marched back to the clearing, where Dus was given in charge to Tobit's wife and I was returned to the store-house, where Chainbearer and Susquesus still were. I told the old man of my interview with Dus and of my determination to make her my wife, but to my surprise he expressed no delight at the announcement.
"Mortaunt—I wish to Heafen you had nefer said this! Nut'in would make me so happy as to see you t'e huspant of Dus, supposin' it coult come to pass, ant wrong pe tone to no one; put it cannot pe so. No—no—Mortaunt Littlepage, t'e owner of Ravensnest, ant t'e heir of Mooseritge, ant of Satanstce, ant of Lilacsbush, is not a suitaple match for Dus Malpone!" As night began to close in, Tobit and his brethren called
Chainbearer and myself to come forth, leaving Susquesus behind. We were taken to the house, in the larger room of which Thousandacres had determined to hold his court.
Chairs were given us and we took our seats in the midst of a grave and attentive circle. Thousandacres opened the conference with a suggestion of peace.
"It's time this matter atween us, Chainbearer," he began, "should be brought to suthin' like an eend. It keeps the b'ys from lumberin', and upsets my 'hull family."
Thousandacres continued in a moderate tone, expressing his desire for some sort of a compromise, to which Chainbearer replied at length, rather for the sake of gaining time, for he hoped for the arrival of Frank Malbone and the sheriff to relieve us from the situation. After a long discussion of the rights and wrongs of the case, as he viewed them, Thousandacres at last made a definite proposition that Chainbearer should give Dus to his son Zephaniah in marriage. Neither Chainbearer nor Dus at first understood the nature of the squatter's proposition. But when the old man realized fully what was meant, he threw his arm around Dus, and said: "May God forget me, when I forget the tuty I owe to her. She shalt never marry a squatter--she shalt nefer marry any man t'at is not of a class, ant feelin's, hapits, ant opinions, fit to pe t'e huspant of a laty!"
While a shout of derision went up from that rude crew, Thousandacres shouted:
"Beware, Chainbearer! beware how you aggravate us; natur' can't and won't bear everything."
"I want nut'in of you or yours, T'ousandacres," calmly replied the old man. "I'll leaf you here, in your misteets and wicked t'oughts. Stant asite, for I'll stay wit' you no longer."
Thousandacres roared like a maddened bull, and became hoarse with menaces as Chainbearer, his arm around Dus, moved toward the open door. The crowd made way for him and I thought for a moment that he would prevail, when a rifle flashed and Chainbearer fell. A profound stillness prevailed. No one spoke; no one attempted to quit the place; no one moved. It was never known who fired that shot.
Late that night, when Dus and I were watching beside Chainbearer, and Thousandacres was sitting beside the fire, loud shouts arose without and the reports of several rifles were heard. A man came rushing in. "God be praised! you at least are safe," cried Frank Malbone. "But my dear sister?"
"Is unharmed, watching beside her uncle's dying bed. Is anyone hurt without?"
"That's more than I can tell you. The squatters took to flight. We have a posse of near thirty men."
Just then we were startled by a heavy groan. We turned instinctively to the chimney, where Thousandacres was still sitting. But his form had sunk lower in his chair, and his chin hung upon his breast. He had been shot through the body, three inches above the hips.
But little more remains to be told. We gave Thousandacres a decent burial, and I permitted his widow to remove all the personal property on the place. Chainbearer's body was borne to Ravensnest. As the mournful procession drew near, a number of persons came out to meet us, and I recognized among them my dear parents, Colonel Follock, my sister Kettletas, Aunt Mary Wallace, Tom and Pris Bayard, and lastly, my dear and venerable grandmother. We learned afterward that when Frank Malbone went back for help he had despatched a messenger to my father to inform him of my peril. Fortunately, the whole family were at Fishkill on a visit and had immediately hastened to Ravensnest, arriving in time to greet us.
All my family were more than pleased to receive Dus as my affianced wife as soon as they knew her, excepting my grandmother, who insisted that I ought at least to give Priscilla Bayard an opportunity to refuse me. But even she was finally satisfied that my offer would have been in vain when she heard that Pris had been engaged all the time to Frank Malbone.