Summary and Analysis
The mood is very glum when Deerslayer rejoins the group on the ark, and he delays explaining his mission until the end of the meal. Deerslayer receives a gift from Judith: Tom Hutter's gun, Killdeer. He explains the terms which the Mingos offer: Chingachgook can pass safely through the blockade to return to his tribe's territory; Hist must remain to accept a Mingo as her husband; and the two girls, though retaining their personal possessions, will live with the Mingos. Tom Hutter's valuables will go to the Mingos. The conditions are rejected by all the besieged refugees, as Deerslayer had hoped and expected. He has, however, performed his duty by delivering the message without attempting to prejudice anyone's individual decision.
Angry and resentful because of his rejection by Judith, Hurry Harry feels no necessity to risk his own life in defense of the girls. He has offered to take Judith with him to safety, but she has refused to accompany him. Deerslayer rows in a canoe with Hurry Harry to the shore in the darkness, and the apparently final conversation between the two rivals shows again the wide divergence in their concept of life and duty. Deerslayer persuades Hurry Harry to go first to a nearby garrison so that the girls may be rescued before any Mingo assault on the ark. Deerslayer, sure that his own doom is sealed, rows back alone to the ark, sad and pensive.
Judith has been waiting for Deerslayer to return because she wants to examine all the contents of the chest while the others (Chingachgook, Hist, and Hetty) are asleep. Although Deerslayer is reluctant to open the chest, he finally consents to help Judith. She finds in the chest almost a hundred letters and reads them for more than an hour.
Some of Judith's questions about Tom Hutter's and her own past are revealed by the letters. Judith's mother had married Floating Tom after being rejected by her lover — the girls' father — and her life had been one of continual misfortune and sadness. Tom Hutter's real name was Thomas Hovey, and a copy of the proclamation for his arrest proves that he was a pirate. The names of Judith's mother and father remain a mystery.
After the investigation of the chest, Deerslayer and Judith converse about their respective futures. Judith, for all practical purposes, proposes to Deerslayer. His first refusal is based on his code: She could never truly love and respect a man who showed his dishonesty by violating the terms of the furlough. When this argument fails to dissuade Judith, Deerslayer refers to their different stations in life: He is unable to read, and she is educated above the usual level of pioneer women; he dislikes the civilized settlements, and she enjoys the social activities of populated places; he is plain, and she is very beautiful. Parrying his responses, Judith insists that the reasons given by Deerslayer are exactly the qualities that attract her and would attract any reasonable girl. Deerslayer, as Judith concludes, would be a faithful and loving husband, the ideal of any girl.
The "imagination" and the "reason," as Deerslayer characterizes his dilemma, struggle in his mind, and he momentarily weakens, thinking of the happy life he might have with Judith as his wife. But he poses one telling question: If a possible rival, elegantly dressed and very cultured, stood next to him, would not Judith, because of her inclinations, training, and experience, select the newcomer as her mate? Defeated by Deerslayer's obvious reference to her past attachments with officers of the nearby garrison, Judith abandons the discussion. She has not surrendered, however, and she remains awake thinking of a bold, new plan to win Deerslayer.
The revelation of the Mingos' demands is made in the theatrical tradition of melodrama: Deerslayer calmly states the terms of surrender, and the person addressed replies quickly and vehemently in the negative. The dialogue is very romantic and idealistic on the part of all the participants. All the traits of the chivalric code — honor, loyalty, duty are repeated in the speeches. Only Hurry Harry, reverting to his villainous role after a brief flirtation with repentance because of Tom Hutter's death and burial, is realistically drawn as he makes his decision to flee. His reasons are practical and self-centered: what has he to gain by staying with these people who dislike him? — especially Judith. Although the others disapprove of his flight, Hurry Harry's escape will ironically be the means by which they survive and by which Cooper can solve his plot complications happily.
Anyway, Cooper provides his readers with advance notice of Deerslayer's salvation when he remarks after Judith's gift of Killdeer to the hero: "Killdeer . . . which subsequently became so celebrated in the hands of the individual who was now making a survey of its merits." These ubiquitous clues of Cooper about the coming actions and problems should be very carefully noted.
Cooper insists upon the sensitive, ill-defined nature of Hetty's feelings for Hurry Harry which, because of her limited intelligence, are not love and passion. Hetty had observed, before anyone else, Hurry Harry's attraction to Judith, an ironic and tragic reflection of her own tenderness. Cooper's use of Hetty's sensitivities is another romantic idea because the emotions (pity, sorrow, and sympathy) are uppermost in any study of Hetty.
Deerslayer, however, returns to the center of the stage and slowly dominates the action through his defense of the code of the American epic hero. He explains three elements of his code to Judith: "nat'ral gifts," "a white man's duties," and "conscience." He has two opponents in these chapters: Hurry Harry whom he shows to disadvantage easily; and Judith who, because of her superior intelligence, puts Deerslayer to a psychological trial, the emotional and mental equivalent to his promised ordeal at the hands of the Mingos. The confrontation between Deerslayer and Judith is a conflict between love and duty, feelings and reason. Here, for the first time, Deerslayer noticeably weakens; he is tempted and almost falls. The hero shows his anxiety, fears, and tension about his moral obligations shortly after he leaves Hurry Harry at the end of Chapter 23. He reflects upon the contrast between the bright sunlight shining on Glimmerglass when he first viewed the lake so enthusiastically a few days previously, and the present aspect of the lake, darkened by the shadowy night, so acute a reflection of his own melancholy mood. Thus Deerslayer, alone and "sighing heavily," betrays very human and understandable feelings in addition to the repeated expositions of his code.
What finally saves Deerslayer from conquest by Judith is Cooper's insistence throughout the romance that his hero is a "simple, untaught but highly moral being." Judith's brilliance and polished speech (almost triumphant over the lesser abilities of Deerslayer) finally lose out to the simplicity, honesty, and innate goodness of the primitive man, living close to God in nature. In the name of a higher devotion, Deerslayer consequently avoids a commitment to marriage and rejects Judith. It seems clear after this point that Deerslayer will never succumb to Judith and that Cooper has definitively set his hero on the path of epic heroism, physical in terms of his defiance of Indian torture, and moral in his sacrifice of normal human relationships with the opposite sex.