"I thought I should have killed myself with laughing, Deerslayer," the beauty abruptly but coquettishly commenced, "when I saw that Indian dive into the river! He was a good-looking savage, too," the girl always dwelt on personal beauty as a sort of merit, "and yet one couldn't stop to consider whether his paint would stand water!"
"And I thought they would have killed you with their we'pons, Judith," returned Deerslayer; "it was an awful risk for a female to run in the face of a dozen Mingos!"
"Did that make you come out of the cabin, in spite of their rifles, too?" asked the girl, with more real interest than she would have cared to betray, though with an indifference of manner that was the result of a good deal of practice united to native readiness.
"Men ar'n't apt to see females in danger, and not come to their assistance. Even a Mingo knows that."
This sentiment was uttered with as much simplicity of manner as of feeling, and Judith rewarded it with a smile so sweet, that even Deerslayer, who had imbibed a prejudice against the girl in consequence of Hurry's suspicions of her levity, felt its charm, notwithstanding half its winning influence was lost in the feeble light. It at once created a sort of confidence between them, and the discourse was continued on the part of the hunter, without the lively consciousness of the character of this coquette of the wilderness, with which it had certainly commenced.
"You are a man of deeds, and not of words, I see plainly, Deerslayer," continued the beauty, taking her seat near the spot where the other stood, "and I foresee we shall be very good friends. Hurry Harry has a tongue, and, giant as he is, he talks more than he performs."
"March is your fri'nd, Judith; and fri'nds should be tender of each other, when apart."
"We all know what Hurry's friendship comes to! Let him have his own way in everything, and he's the best fellow in the colony; but 'head him off,' as you say of the deer, and he is master of everything near him but himself. Hurry is no favorite of mine, Deerslayer; and I dare say, if the truth was known, and his conversation about me repeated, it would be found that he thinks no better of me than I own I do of him."
The latter part of this speech was not uttered without uneasiness. Had the girl's companion been more sophisticated, he might have observed the averted face, the manner in which the pretty little foot was agitated, and other signs that, for some unexplained reason, the opinions of March were not quite as much a matter of indifference to her as she thought fit to pretend. Whether this was no more than the ordinary working of female vanity, feeling keenly even when it affected not to feel at all, or whether it proceeded from that deeply-seated consciousness of right and wrong which God himself has implanted in our breasts that we may know good from evil, will be made more apparent to the reader as we proceed in the tale. Deerslayer felt embarrassed. He well remembered the cruel imputations left by March's distrust; and, while he did not wish to injure his associate's suit by exciting resentment against him, his tongue was one that literally knew no guile. To answer without saying more or less than he wished, was consequently a delicate duty.
"March has his say of all things in natur', whether of fri'nd or foe," slowly and cautiously rejoined the hunter. "He's one of them that speak as they feel while the tongue's a-going, and that's sometimes different from what they'd speak if they took time to consider. Give me a Delaware, Judith, for one that reflects and ruminates on his idees! Inmity has made him thoughtful, and a loose tongue is no ricommend at their council fires."
"I dare say March's tongue goes free enough when it gets on the subject of Judith Hutter and her sister," said the girl, rousing herself as if in careless disdain. "Young women's good names are a pleasant matter of discourse with some that wouldn't dare be so open-mouthed if there was a brother in the way. Master March may find it pleasant to traduce us, but sooner or later he'll repent.
"Nay, Judith, this is taking the matter up too much in 'arnest. Hurry has never whispered a syllable ag'in the good name of Hetty, to begin with-"
"I see how it is — I see how it is," impetuously interrupted Judith. "I am the one he sees fit to scorch with his withering tongue! Hetty, indeed! Poor Hetty!" she continued, her voice sinking into low, husky tones, that seemed nearly to stifle her in the utterance; "she is beyond and above his slanderous malice! Poor Hetty! If God has created her feeble-minded, the weakness lies altogether on the side of errors of which she seems to know nothing. The earth never held a purer being than Hetty Hutter, Deerslayer."
"I can believe it — yes, I can believe that, Judith, and I hope 'arnestly that the same can be said of her handsome sister."
There was a soothing sincerity in the voice of Deerslayer, which touched the girl's feelings; nor did the allusion to her beauty lessen the effect with one who only knew too well the power of her personal charms. Nevertheless, the still, small voice of conscience was not hushed, and it prompted the answer which she made, after giving herself time to reflect.
"I dare say Hurry had some of his vile hints about the people of the garrisons," she added. "He knows they are gentlemen, and can never forgive any one for being what he feels he can never become himself."
"Not in the sense of a king's officer, Judith, sartainly, for March has no turn thataway; but in the sense of reality, why may not a beaver-hunter be as respectable as a governor? Since you speak of it yourself, I'll not deny that he did complain of one as humble as you being so much in the company of scarlet coats and silken sashes. But 't was jealousy that brought it out of him, and I do think he mourned over his own thoughts as a mother would have mourned over her child."
Perhaps Deerslayer was not aware of the full meaning that his earnest language conveyed. It is certain that he did not see the color that crimsoned the whole of Judith's fine face, nor detect the uncontrollable distress that immediately after changed its hue to deadly paleness. A minute or two elapsed in profound stillness, the splash of the water seeming to occupy all the avenues of sound; and then Judith arose, and grasped the hand of the hunter, almost convulsively, with one of her own.
"Deerslayer," she said, hurriedly, "I'm glad the ice is broke between us. They say that sudden friendships lead to long enmities, but I do not believe it will turn out so with us. I know not how it is-but you are the first man I ever met, who did not seem to wish to flatter — to wish my ruin — to be an enemy in disguise — never mind; say nothing to Hurry, and another time we'll talk together again."
As the girl released her grasp, she vanished in the house, leaving the astonished young man standing at the steering-oar, as motionless as one of the pines on the hills. So abstracted, indeed, had his thoughts become, that he was hailed by Hutter to keep the scow's head in the right direction, before he remembered his actual situation.