Read CHAPTER XII of Canadian Crusoes A Tale of The Rice Lake Plains, free online book, by Catherine Parr Traill, on

“Must this sweet new-blown rose find such, a winter
Before her spring be past?”

The little bark touched the stony point of Long Island. The Indian lifted his weeping prisoner from the canoe, and motioned to her to move forward along the narrow path that led to the camp, about twenty yards higher up the bank, where there was a little grassy spot enclosed, with shrubby trees the squaws tarried at the lake-shore to bring up the paddles and secure the canoe.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an enemy, but doubly so, when that enemy is a stranger to the language in which we would plead for mercy whose God is not our God, nor his laws those by which we ourselves are governed. Thus felt the poor captive as she stood alone, mute with terror among the half-naked dusky forms with which she now found herself surrounded. She cast a hurried glance round that strange assembly, if by chance her eye might rest upon some dear familiar face, but she saw not the kind but grave face of Hector, nor met the bright sparkling eye of her cousin Louis, nor the soft, subdued, pensive features of the Indian girl, her adopted sister she stood alone among those wild gloomy-looking men; some turned away their eyes as if they would not meet her woe-stricken countenance, lest they should be moved to pity her sad condition; no wonder that, overcome by the sense of her utter friendliness, she hid her face with her fettered hands and wept in despair. But the Indian’s sympathy is not moved by tears and sighs; calmness, courage, defiance of danger and contempt of death, are what he venerates and admires even in an enemy.

The Indians beheld her grief unmoved. At length the old man, who seemed to be a chief among the rest, motioned to one of the women who leant against the side of the wigwam, to come forward and lead away the stranger; Catharine, whose senses were beginning to be more collected, heard the old man give orders that she was to be fed and cared for. Gladly did she escape from the presence of those pitiless men, from whose gaze she shrunk with maidenly modesty. And now when alone with the women she hesitated not to make use of that natural language which requires not the aid of speech to make itself understood; clasping her hands imploringly, she knelt at the feet of the Indian woman, her conductress kissed her dark hands and bathed them with her fast flowing tears, while she pointed passionately to the shore where lay the happy home from which she had been so suddenly torn.

The squaw, though she evidently comprehended the meaning of her imploring gestures, shook her head, and in plaintive earnest tone replied in her own language, that she must go with the canoes to the other shore, and she pointed to the north as she spoke. She then motioned to the young girl the same that had been Catharine’s companion in the canoe to bring a hunting knife, which was thrust into one of the folds of the birch-bark of the wigwam. Catharine beheld the deadly weapon in the hands of the Indian woman with a pang of agony as great as if its sharp edge was already at her throat. So young so young, to die by a cruel bloody death! what had been her crime? how should she find words to soften the heart of her murderess? The power of utterance seemed denied she cast herself on her knees and held up her hands in silent prayer; not to the dreaded Indian woman, but to Him who heareth the prayer of the poor destitute who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of men.

The squaw stretched forth one dark hand and grasped the arm of the terror-struck girl, while the other held the weapon of destruction; with a quick movement she severed the thongs that bound the fettered wrists of the pleading captive, and with a smile that seemed to light up her whole face she raised her from her prostrate position, laid her hand upon her young head, and with an expression of good-humoured surprise lifted the flowing tresses of her sunny hair and spread them over the back of her own swarthy hand; then, as if amused by the striking contrast, she shook down her own jetty-black hair and twined a tress of it with one of the fair haired girl’s then laughed till her teeth shone like pearls within her red lips. Many were the exclamations of childish wonder that broke from the other females, as they compared the snowy arm of the stranger with their own dusky skins; it was plain that they had no intention of harming her, and by degrees distrust and dread of her singular companions began in some measure to subside.

The squaw motioned her to take a seat on a mat beside her, and gave her a handful of parched rice and some deer’s flesh to eat; but Catharine’s heart was too heavy; she was suffering from thirst, and on pronouncing the Indian word for water, the young girl snatched up a piece of birch-bark from the floor of the tent, and gathering the corners together, ran to the lake, and soon returned with water in this most primitive drinking vessel, which she held to the lips of her guest, and she seemed amused by the long deep draught with which Catharine slaked her thirst; and something like a gleam of hope came over her mind as she marked the look of kindly feeling with which she caught the young Indian girl regarding her, and she strove to overcome the choking sensation that would from time to time rise to her throat, as she fluctuated between hope and fear. The position of the Indian camp was so placed that it was quite hidden from the shore, and neither could Catharine see the mouth of the ravine, nor the steep side of the mount that her brothers were accustomed to ascend and descend in their visits to the lake shore, nor had she any means of making a signal to them even if she had seen them on the beach.

The long, anxious, watchful night passed, and soon after sunrise, while the morning mists still hung over the lake, the canoes of the Indians were launched, and long before noon they were in the mouth of the river. Catharine’s heart sunk within her as the fast receding shores of the lake showed each minute fainter in the distance. At midday they halted at a fine bend in the river, where a small open place and a creek flowing down through the woods afforded them cool water; and here they found several tents put up and a larger party awaiting their return. The river was here a fine, broad, deep and tranquil stream; trees of many kinds fringed the edge; beyond was the unbroken forest, whose depths had never been pierced by the step of man so thick and luxuriant was the vegetation that even the Indian could hardly have penetrated through its dark swampy glades: far as the eye could reach, that impenetrable interminable wall of verdure stretched away into the far off distance.

On that spot where our Indian camp then stood, are now pleasant open meadows, with an avenue of fine pines and balsams; showing on the eminence above, a large substantial dwelling-house surrounded by a luxuriant orchard and garden, the property of a naval officer, who with the courage and perseverance that mark brave men of his class, first ventured to break the bush and locate himself and his infant family in the lonely wilderness, then far from any beaten road or the haunts of his fellow-men.

But at the period of which I write, the axe of the adventurous settler had not levelled one trunk of that vast forest, neither had the fire scathed it; no voices of happy joyous children had rung through those shades, nor sound of rural labour nor bleating flock awakened its echoes.

All the remainder of that sad day, Catharine sat on the grass under a shady tree, her eyes mournfully fixed on the slow flowing waters, and wondering at her own hard fate in being thus torn from her home and its dear inmates. Bad as she had thought her separation from her father and mother and her brothers, when she first left her home to become a wanderer on the Rice Lake Plains, how much more dismal now was her situation, snatched from the dear companions who had upheld and cheered her on in all her sorrows! But now she was alone with none to love or cherish or console her, she felt a desolation of spirit that almost made her forgetful of that trust that had hitherto always sustained her in time of trouble or sickness. She looked round, and her eye fell on the strange unseemly forms of men and women, who cared not for her, and to whom she was an object of indifference or aversion: she wept when she thought of the grief that her absence would occasion to Hector and Louis; the thought of their distress increased her own.

The soothing quiet of the scene, with the low lulling sound of the little brook as its tiny wavelets fell tinkling over the massy roots and stones that impeded its course to the river, joined with fatigue and long exposure to the sun and air, caused her at length to fall asleep. The last rosy light of the setting sun was dyeing the waters with a glowing tint when she awoke; a soft blue haze hung upon the trees; the kingfisher and dragon-fly, and a solitary loon, were the only busy things abroad on the river; the first darting up and down from an upturned root near the water’s edge, feeding its youngings; the dragon-fly hawking with rapid whirring sound for insects, and the loon, just visible from above the surface of the still stream, sailed quietly on companionless, like her who watched its movements.

The bustle of the hunters returning with game and fish to the encampment roused many a sleepy brown papoose, the fires were renewed, and the evening meal was now preparing, and Catharine, chilled by the falling dew, crept to the enlivening warmth. And here she was pleased at being recognised by one friendly face it was the mild and benevolent countenance of the widow Snowstorm, who, with her three sons, came to bid her to share their camp fire and food. The kindly grasp of the hand, the beaming smile that was given by this good creature, albeit she was ugly and ill-featured, cheered the sad captive’s heart. She had given her a cup of cold water and what food her log-cabin afforded, and in return the good Indian took her to her wigwam and fed, and warmed, and cherished her with the loving-kindness of a Christian; and during all her sojourn in the Indian camp she was as a tender mother over her, drying her tears and showing her those little acts of attention that even the untaught Indians know are grateful to the sorrowful and destitute. Catharine often forgot her own griefs to repay this worthy creature’s kindness, by attending to her little babe and assisting her in some of her homely preparations of cookery or household work. She knew that a selfish indulgence in sorrow would do her no good, and after the lapse of some days she so well disciplined her own heart as to check her tears at least in the presence of the Indian women, and to assume an air of comparative cheerfulness. Once she found Indian words enough to ask the Indian widow to convey her back to the lake, but she shook her head and bade her not think anything about it; and added, that in the fall, when the ducks came to the rice-beds, they should all return, and then if she could obtain leave from the chief, she would restore her to her lodge on the plains; but signified to her that patience was her only present remedy, and that submission to the will of the chief was her wisest plan. Comforted by this vague promise, Catharine strove to be reconciled to her strange lot, and still stranger companions. She could not help being surprised at the want of curiosity respecting her that was shown by the Indians in the wigwam, when she was brought thither; they appeared to take little notice that a stranger and one so dissimilar to themselves had been introduced into the camp, for before her they asked no questions about her, whatever they might do when she was absent, though they surveyed her with silent attention. Catharine learned, by long acquaintance with this people, that an outward manifestation of surprise is considered a want of etiquette and good breeding, or rather a proof of weakness and childishness. The women, like other females, are certainly less disposed to repress this feeling of inquisitiveness than the men, and one of their great sources of amusement, when Catharine was among them, was examining the difference of texture and colour of her skin and hair, and holding long consultations over them. The young girl and her mother, those who had paddled the canoe the day she was carried away to the island, showed her much kindness in a quiet way. The young squaw was granddaughter to the old chief, and seemed to be regarded with considerable respect by the rest of the women; she was a gay lively creature, often laughing, and seemed to enjoy an inexhaustible fund of good humour. She was inclined to extend her patronage to the young stranger, making her eat out of her own bark dish, and sit beside her on her own mat. She wove a chain of the sweet-scented grass with which the Indians delight in adorning themselves, likewise in perfuming their lodges with bunches or strewings upon the floor. She took great pains in teaching her how to acquire the proper attitude of sitting, after the fashion of the Eastern nations, which position the Indian women assume when at rest in their wigwams. The Indian name of this little damsel signified the Snow-bird. She was, like that lively restless bird, always flitting to and fro from tent to tent, as garrulous and as cheerful too as that merry little herald of the spring.

Once she seemed particularly attracted by Catharine’s dress, which she examined with critical minuteness, evincing great surprise at the cut fringes of dressed doeskin with which Indiana had ornamented the border of the short jacket which she had manufactured for Catharine. These fringes she pointed out to the notice of the women, and even the old chief was called in to examine the dress; nor did the leggings and mocassins escape their observation. There was something mysterious about her garments. Catharine was at a loss to imagine what caused those deep guttural exclamations, somewhat between a grunt and a groan, that burst from the lips of the Indians, as they one by one examined them with deep attention. These people had recognised in these things the peculiar fashion and handiwork of the young Mohawk girl whom they had exposed to perish by hunger and thirst on Bare Hill, and much their interest was excited to know by what means Catharine had become possessed of a dress wrought by the hand of one whom they had numbered with the dead. Strange and mysterious did it seem to them, and warily did they watch the unconscious object of their wonder.

The knowledge that she possessed of the language of her friend Indiana, enabled Catharine to comprehend a great deal of what was said; yet she prudently refrained from speaking in the tongue of one, to whose whole nation she knew these people to be hostile, but she sedulously endeavoured to learn their own peculiar dialect, and in this she succeeded in an incredibly short time, so that she was soon able to express her own wants, and converse a little with the females who were about her.

She had noticed that among the tents there was one which stood apart from the rest, and was only visited by the old chief and his granddaughter, or by the elder women. At first she imagined it was some sick person, or a secret tent set apart for the worship of the Great Spirit; but one day when the chief of the people had gone up the river hunting, and the children were asleep, she perceived the curtain of skins drawn back, and a female of singular and striking beauty appeared standing in the open space in front. She was habited in a fine tunic of white dressed doeskin richly embroidered with coloured beads and stained quills, a full petticoat of dark cloth bound with scarlet descended to her ancles, leggings fringed with deer-skin knotted with bands of coloured quills, with richly wrought mocassins on her feet. On her head she wore a coronet of scarlet and black feathers; her long shining tresses of raven hair descended to her waist, each thick tress confined with a braided band of quills dyed scarlet and blue; her stature was tall and well-formed; her large, liquid, dark eye wore an expression so proud and mournful that Catharine felt her own involuntarily fill with tears as she gazed upon this singular being. She would have approached nearer to her, but a spell seemed on her; she shrunk back timid and abashed beneath that wild melancholy glance. It was she, the Beam of the Morning, the self-made widow of the young Mohawk, whose hand had wrought so fearful a vengeance on the treacherous destroyer of her brother. She stood there, at the tent door, arrayed in her bridal robes, as on the day when she received her death-doomed victim. And when she recalled her fearful deed, shuddering with horror, Catharine drew back and shrouded herself within the tent, fearing again to fall under the eye of that terrible woman. She remembered how Indiana had told her that since that fatal marriage-feast she had been kept apart from the rest of the tribe, she was regarded by her people as a sacred character, a great Medicine, a female brave, a being whom they regarded with mysterious reverence. She had made this great sacrifice for the good of her nation. Indiana said it was believed among her own folks that she had loved the young Mohawk passionately, as a tender woman loves the husband of her youth; yet she had hesitated not to sacrifice him with her own hand. Such was the deed of the Indian heroine and such were the virtues of the unregenerated Greeks and Romans!