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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter56)

2006-09-08 19:55

  CHAPTER LVI Rolf and Skookum At Albany

  The Red Moon (August) follows the Thunder Moon, and in the early part of its second week Rolf and Van, hauling in the barley and discussing the fitness of the oats, were startled by a most outrageous clatter among the hens. Horrid murder evidently was stalking abroad, and, hastening to the rescue, Rolf heard loud, angry barks; then a savage beast with a defunct "cackle party" appeared, but dropped the victim to bark and bound upon the "relief party" with ecstatic expressions of joy, in spite of Rolf's —— "Skookum! you little brute!"

  Yes! Quonab was back; that is, he was at the lake shore, and Skookum had made haste to plunge into the joys and gayeties of this social centre, without awaiting the formalities of greeting or even of dry-shod landing.

  The next scene was —— a big, high post, a long, strong chain and a small, sad dog.

  "Ho, Quonab, you found your people? You had a good time?"

  "Ugh," was the answer, the whole of it, and all the light Rolf got for many a day on the old man's trip to the North. The prospect of going to Albany for Van Cortlandt was much more attractive to Quonab than that of the harvest field, so a compromise was agreed on. Callan's barley was in the stock; if all three helped Callan for three days, Callan would owe them for nine, and so it was arranged.

  Again "good-bye," and Rolf, Quonab, and little dog Skookum went sailing down the Schroon toward the junction, where they left a cache of their supplies, and down the broadening Hudson toward Albany.

  Rolf had been over the road twice; Quonab never before, yet his nose for water was so good and the sense of rapid and portage was so strong in the red man, that many times he was the pilot. "This is the way, because it must be"; "there it is deep because so narrow"; "that rapid is dangerous, because there is such a well-beaten portage trail"; "that we can run, because I see it," or, "because there is no portage trail," etc. The eighty miles were covered in three sleeps, and in the mid-moon days of the Red Moon they landed at the dock in front of Peter Vandam's. If Quonab had any especial emotions for the occasion, he cloaked them perfectly under a calm and copper-coloured exterior of absolute immobility.

  Their Albany experiences included a meeting with the governor and an encounter with a broad and burly river pirate, who, seeing a lone and peaceable-looking red man, went out of his way to insult him; and when Quonab's knife flashed out at last, it was only his recently established relations with the governor's son that saved him from some very sad results, for there were many loafers about. But burly Vandam appeared in the nick of time to halt the small mob with the warning: "Don't you know that's Mr. Van Cortlandt's guide?" With the governor and Vandam to back him, Quonab soon had the mob on his side, and the dock loafer's own friends pelted him with mud as he escaped. But not a little credit is due to Skookum, for at the critical moment he had sprung on the ruffian's bare and abundant leg with such toothsome effect that the owner fell promptly backward and the knife thrust missed. It was quickly over and Quonab replaced his knife, contemptuous of the whole crowd before, during and after the incident. Not at the time, but days later, he said of his foe: "He was a talker; he was full of fear."

  With the backwoods only thirty miles away, and the unbroken wilderness one hundred, it was hard to believe how little Henry van Cortlandt knew of the woods and its life. He belonged to the ultra-fashionable set, and it was rather their pose to affect ignorance of the savage world and its ways. But he had plenty of common-sense to fan back on, and the inspiring example of Washington, equally at home in the nation's Parliament, the army intrenchment, the glittering ball room, or the hunting lodge of the Indian, was a constant reminder that the perfect man is a harmonious development of mind, morals, and physique.

  His training had been somewhat warped by the ultraclassic fashion of the times, so he persisted in seeing in Quonab a sort of discoloured, barbaric clansman of Alaric or a camp follower of Xenophon's host, rather than an actual living, interesting, native American, exemplifying in the highest degree the sinewy, alert woodman, and the saturated mystic and pantheist of an age bygone and out of date, combined with a middle-measure intelligence. And Rolf, tall, blue-eyed with brown, curling hair, was made to pose as the youthful Achilles, rather than as a type of America's best young manhood, cleaner, saner, and of far higher ideals and traditions than ever were ascribed to Achilles by his most blinded worshippers. It recalled the case of Wordsworth and Southey living side by side in England; Southey, the famous, must needs seek in ancient India for material to write his twelve-volume romance that no one ever looks at; Wordsworth, the unknown, wrote of the things of his own time, about his own door? and produced immortal verse.

  What should we think of Homer, had he sung his impressions of the ancient Egyptians? or of Thackeray, had he novelized the life of the Babylonians? It is an ancient blindness, with an ancient wall to bruise one's head. It is only those who seek ointment of the consecrated clay that gives back sight, who see the shining way at their feet, who beat their face against no wall, who safely climb the heights. Henry van Cortlandt was a man of rare parts, of every advantage, but still he had been taught steadfastly to live in the past. His eyes were yet to be opened. The living present was not his —— but yet to be.

  The young lawyer had been assembling his outfit at Vandam's warehouse, for, in spite of scoffing friends, he knew that Rolf was coming back to him.

  When Rolf saw the pile of stuff that was gathered for that outfit, he stared at it aghast, then looked at Vandam, and together they roared. There was everything for light housekeeping and heavy doctoring, even chairs, a wash stand, a mirror, a mortar, and a pestle. Six canoes could scarcely have carried the lot.

  "'Tain't so much the young man as his mother," explained Big Pete; "at first I tried to make 'em understand, but it was no use; so I says, 'All right, go ahead, as long as there's room in the warehouse.' I reckon I'll set on the fence and have some fun seein' Rolf ontangle the affair."

  "Phew, pheeeww —— ph-e-e-e-e-w," was all Rolf could say in answer. But at last, "Wall, there's always a way. I sized him up as pretty level headed. We'll see."

  There was a way and it was easy, for, in a secret session, Rolf, Pete, and Van Cortlandt together sorted out the things needed. A small tent, blankets, extra clothes, guns, ammunition, delicate food for three months, a few medicines and toilet articles —— a pretty good load for one canoe, but a trifle compared with the mountain of stuff piled up on the floor.

  "Now, Mr. van Cortlandt," said Rolf, "will you explain to your mother that we are going on with this so as to travel quickly, and will send back for the rest as we need it?"

  A quiet chuckle was now heard from Big Pete. "Good! I wondered how he'd settle it."

  The governor and his lady saw them off; therefore, there was a crowd. The mother never before had noted what a frail and dangerous thing a canoe is. She cautioned her son never to venture out alone, and to be sure that he rubbed his chest with the pectoral balm she had made from such and such a famous receipt, the one that saved the life but not the limb of old Governor Stuyvesant, and come right home if you catch a cold; and wait at the first camp till the other things come, and (in a whisper) keep away from that horrid red Indian with the knife, and never fail to let every one know who you are, and write regularly, and don't forget to take your calomel Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, alternating with Peruvian bark Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and squills on Sunday, except every other week, when he should devote Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays to rhubarb and catnip tea, except in the full moon, when the catnip was to be replaced with graveyard bergamot and the squills with opodeldoc in which an iron nail had been left for a week.

  So Henry was embraced, Rolf was hand-shaken, Quonab was nodded at, Skookum was wisely let alone, and the trim canoe swung from the dock. Amid hearty cheers, farewells, and "God speed ye's" it breasted the flood for the North.

  And on the dock, with kerchief to her eyes, stood the mother, weeping to think that her boy was going far, far away from his home and friends in dear, cultured, refined Albany, away, away, to that remote and barbarous inaccessible region almost to the shore land of Lake Champlain.

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