Sure enough, the light boat had passed the building, and was now steadily advancing towards the Ark; the persons on board of which were already collecting in the head of the scow to receive their visitor. A single glance sufficed to assure Judith that her sister was right, and that Deerslayer was alone in the canoe. His approach was so calm and leisurely, however, as to fill her with wonder, since a man who had effected his escape from enemies by either artifice or violence, would not be apt to move with the steadiness and deliberation with which his paddle swept the water. By this time the day was fairly departing, and objects were already seen dimly under the shores. In the broad lake, however, the light still lingered, and around the immediate scene of the present incidents, which was less shaded than most of the sheet, being in its broadest part, it cast a glow that bore some faint resemblance to the warm tints of an Italian or Grecian sunset. The logs of the hut and Ark had a sort of purple hue, blended with the growing obscurity, and the bark of the hunter's boat was losing its distinctness in colours richer, but more mellowed, than those it showed under a bright sun. As the two canoes approached each other — for Judith and her sister had plied their paddles so as to intercept the unexpected visiter ere he reached the Ark — even Deerslayer's sun-burned countenance wore a brighter aspect than common, under the pleasing tints that seemed to dance in the atmosphere. Judith fancied that delight at meeting her had some share in this unusual and agreeable expression. She was not aware that her own beauty appeared to more advantage than common, from the same natural cause, nor did she understand what it would have given her so much pleasure to know, that the young man actually thought her, as she drew nearer, the loveliest creature of her sex his eyes had ever dwelt on.
"Welcome — welcome, Deerslayer!" exclaimed the girl, as the canoes floated at each other's side; "we have had a melancholy — a frightful day — but your return is, at least, one misfortune the less! Have the Hurons become more human, and let you go; or have you escaped from the wretches, by your own courage and skill?"
"Neither, Judith — neither one nor t'other. The Mingos are Mingos still, and will live and die Mingos; it is not likely their natur's will ever undergo much improvement. Well! They've their gifts, and we've our'n, Judith, and it doesn't much become either to speak ill of what the Lord has created; though, if the truth must be said, I find it a sore trial to think kindly or to talk kindly of them vagabonds. As for outwitting them, that might have been done, and it was done, too, atween the Sarpent, yonder, and me, when we were on the trail of Hist — " here the hunter stopped to laugh in his own silent fashion — "but it's no easy matter to sarcumvent the sarcumvented. Even the fa'ans get to know the tricks of the hunters afore a single season is over, and an Indian whose eyes have once been opened by a sarcumvention never shuts them ag'in in precisely the same spot. I've known whites to do that, but never a red-skin. What they l'arn comes by practice, and not by books, and of all schoolmasters exper'ence gives lessons that are the longest remembered."
"All this is true, Deerslayer, but if you have not escaped from the savages, how came you here?"
"That's a nat'ral question, and charmingly put. You are wonderful handsome this evening, Judith, or Wild Rose, as the Sarpent calls you, and I may as well say it, since I honestly think it! You may well call them Mingos, savages too, for savage enough do they feel, and savage enough will they act, if you once give them an opportunity. They feel their loss here, in the late skrimmage, to their hearts' cores, and are ready to revenge it on any creatur' of English blood that may fall in their way. Nor, for that matter do I much think they would stand at taking their satisfaction out of a Dutch man."
"They have killed father; that ought to satisfy their wicked cravings for blood," observed Hetty reproachfully.
"I know it, gal — I know the whole story — partly from what I've seen from the shore, since they brought me up from the point, and partly from their threats ag'in myself, and their other discourse. Well, life is unsartain at the best, and we all depend on the breath of our nostrils for it, from day to day. If you've lost a staunch fri'nd, as I make no doubt you have, Providence will raise up new ones in his stead, and since our acquaintance has begun in this oncommon manner, I shall take it as a hint that it will be a part of my duty in futur', should the occasion offer, to see you don't suffer for want of food in the wigwam. I can't bring the dead to life, but as to feeding the living, there's few on all this frontier can outdo me, though I say it in the way of pity and consolation, like, and in no particular, in the way of boasting."
"We understand you, Deerslayer," returned Judith, hastily, "and take all that falls from your lips, as it is meant, in kindness and friendship. Would to Heaven all men had tongues as true, and hearts as honest!"
"In that respect men do differ, of a sartainty, Judith. I've known them that wasn't to be trusted any farther than you can see them; and others ag'in whose messages, sent with a small piece of wampum, perhaps, might just as much be depended on, as if the whole business was finished afore your face. Yes, Judith, you never said truer word, than when you said some men might be depended on, and other some might not."
"You are an unaccountable being, Deerslayer," returned the girl, not a little puzzled with the childish simplicity of character that the hunter so often betrayed — a simplicity so striking that it frequently appeared to place him nearly on a level with the fatuity of poor Hetty, though always relieved by the beautiful moral truth that shone through all that this unfortunate girl both said and did — "You are a most unaccountable man, and I often do not know how to understand you. But never mind, just now; you have forgotten to tell us by what means you are here."
"I! — Oh! That's not very onaccountable, if I am myself, Judith. I'm out on furlough."
"Furlough! — That word has a meaning among the soldiers that I understand; but I cannot tell what it signifies when used by a prisoner."
"It means just the same. You're right enough; the soldiers do use it, and just in the same way as I use it. A furlough is when a man has leave to quit a camp or a garrison for a sartain specified time; at the end of which he is to come back and shoulder his musket, or submit to his torments, just as he may happen to be a soldier, or a captyve. Being the last, I must take the chances of a prisoner."
"Have the Hurons suffered you to quit them in this manner, without watch or guard."
"Sartain — I woul'n't have come in any other manner, unless indeed it had been by a bold rising, or a sarcumvention."
"What pledge have they that you will ever return?"
"My word," answered the hunter simply. "Yes, I own I gave 'em that, and big fools would they have been to let me come without it! Why in that case, I shouldn't have been obliged to go back and ondergo any deviltries their fury may invent, but might have shouldered my rifle, and made the best of my way to the Delaware villages. But, Lord! Judith, they know'd this, just as well as you and I do, and would no more let me come away, without a promise to go back, than they would let the wolves dig up the bones of their fathers!"
"Is it possible you mean to do this act of extraordinary self-destruction and recklessness?"
"I ask if it can be possible that you expect to be able to put yourself again in the power of such ruthless enemies, by keeping your word."
Deerslayer looked at his fair questioner for a moment with stern displeasure. Then the expression of his honest and guileless face suddenly changed, lighting as by a quick illumination of thought, after which he laughed in his ordinary manner.
"I didn't understand you, at first, Judith; no, I didn't! You believe that Chingachgook and Hurry Harry won't suffer it; but you don't know mankind thoroughly yet, I see. The Delaware would be the last man on 'arth to offer any objections to what he knows is a duty, and, as for March, he doesn't care enough about any creatur' but himself to spend many words on such a subject. If he did, 'twould make no great difference howsever; but not he, for he thinks more of his gains than of even his own word. As for my promises, or your'n, Judith, or any body else's, they give him no consarn. Don't be under any oneasiness, therefore, gal; I shall be allowed to go back according to the furlough; and if difficulties was made, I've not been brought up, and edicated as one may say, in the woods, without knowing how to look 'em down."
Judith made no answer for some little time. All her feelings as a woman, and as a woman who, for the first time in her life was beginning to submit to that sentiment which has so much influence on the happiness or misery of her sex, revolted at the cruel fate that she fancied Deerslayer was drawing down upon himself, while the sense of right, which God has implanted in every human breast, told her to admire an integrity as indomitable and as unpretending as that which the other so unconsciously displayed. Argument, she felt, would be useless, nor was she at that moment disposed to lessen the dignity and high principle that were so striking in the intentions of the hunter, by any attempt to turn him from his purpose. That something might yet occur to supersede the necessity for this self immolation she tried to hope, and then she proceeded to ascertain the facts in order that her own conduct might be regulated by her knowledge of circumstances.