"But who in this wild wood
May credit give to either eye, or ear?
From rocky precipice or hollow cave,
'Midst the confused sound of rustling leaves,
And creaking boughs, and cries of nightly birds,
Returning seeming answer!"
— Joanna Baihie, "Rayner: A Tragedy," II.L3-4, 6-g.
Fear, as much as calculation, had induced Hetty to cease paddling, when she found that her pursuers did not know in which direction to proceed. She remained stationary until the Ark had pulled in near the encampment, as has been related in the preceding chapter, when she resumed the paddle and with cautious strokes made the best of her way towards the western shore. In order to avoid her pursuers, however, who, she rightly suspected, would soon be rowing along that shore themselves, the head of the canoe was pointed so far north as to bring her to land on a point that thrust itself into the lake, at the distance of near a league from the outlet. Nor was this altogether the result of a desire to escape, for, feeble minded as she was, Hetty Hutter had a good deal of that instinctive caution which so often keeps those whom God has thus visited from harm. She was perfectly aware of the importance of keeping the canoes from falling into the hands of the Iroquois, and long familiarity with the lake had suggested one of the simplest expedients, by which this great object could be rendered compatible with her own purpose.
The point in question was the first projection that offered on that side of the lake, where a canoe, if set adrift with a southerly air would float clear of the land, and where it would be no great violation of probabilities to suppose it might even hit the castle; the latter lying above it, almost in a direct line with the wind. Such then was Hetty's intention, and she landed on the extremity of the gravelly point, beneath an overhanging oak, with the express intention of shoving the canoe off from the shore, in order that it might drift up towards her father's insulated abode. She knew, too, from the logs that occasionally floated about the lake, that did it miss the castle and its appendages the wind would be likely to change before the canoe could reach the northern extremity of the lake, and that Deerslayer might have an opportunity of regaining it in the morning, when no doubt he would be earnestly sweeping the surface of the water, and the whole of its wooded shores, with glass. In all this, too, Hetty was less governed by any chain of reasoning than by her habits, the latter often supplying the place of mind, in human beings, as they perform the same for animals of the inferior classes.
The girl was quite an hour finding her way to the point, the distance and the obscurity equally detaining her, but she was no sooner on the gravelly beach than she prepared to set the canoe adrift, in the manner mentioned. While in the act of pushing it from her, she heard low voices that seemed to come among the trees behind her. Startled at this unexpected danger Hetty was on the point of springing into the canoe in order to seek safety in flight, when she thought she recognized the tones of Judith's melodious voice. Bending forward so as to catch the sounds more directly, they evidently came from the water, and then she understood that the Ark was approaching from the south, and so close in with the western shore, as necessarily to cause it to pass the point within twenty yards of the spot where she stood. Here, then, was all she could desire; the canoe was shoved off into the lake, leaving its late occupant alone on the narrow strand.
When this act of self-devotion was performed, Hetty did not retire. The foliage of the overhanging trees and bushes would have almost concealed her person, had there been light, but in that obscurity it was utterly impossible to discover any object thus shaded, at the distance of a few feet. Flight, too, was perfectly easy, as twenty steps would effectually bury her in the forest. She remained, therefore, watching with intense anxiety the result of her expedient, intending to call the attention of the others to the canoe with her voice, should they appear to pass without observing it. The Ark approached under its sail, again, Deerslayer standing in its bow, with Judith near him, and the Delaware at the helm. It would seem that in the bay below it had got too close to the shore, in the lingering hope of intercepting Hetty, for, as it came nearer, the latter distinctly heard the directions that the young man forward gave to his companion aft, in order to clear the point.
"Lay her head more off the shore, Delaware," said Deerslayer for the third time, speaking in English that his fair companion might understand his words — "Lay her head well off shore. We have got embayed here, and needs keep the mast clear of the trees. Judith, there's a canoe!"
The last words were uttered with great earnestness, and Deerslayer's hand was on his rifle ere they were fairly out of his mouth. But the truth flashed on the mind of the quick-witted girl, and she instantly told her companion that the boat must be that in which her sister had fled.
"Keep the scow straight, Delaware; steer as straight as your bullet flies when sent ag'in a buck; there — I have it."
The canoe was seized, and immediately secured again to the side of the Ark. At the next moment the sail was lowered, and the motion of the Ark arrested by means of the oars.
"Hetty!" called out Judith, concern, even affection betraying itself in her tones. "Are you within hearing, sister — for God's sake answer, and let me hear the sound of your voice, again! Hetty! — dear Hetty."
"I'm here, Judith — here on the shore, where it will be useless to follow me, as I will hide in the woods."
"Oh! Hetty what is't you do! Remember 'tis drawing near midnight, and that the woods are filled with savages and wild beasts!"
"Neither will harm a poor half-witted girl, Judith. God is as much with me, here, as he would be in the Ark or in the hut. I am going to help my father, and poor Hurry Harry, who will be tortured and slain unless some one cares for them."
"We all care for them, and intend to-morrow to send them a flag of truce, to buy their ransom. Come back then, sister; trust to us, who have better heads than you, and who will do all we can for father."
"I know your head is better than mine, Judith, for mine is very weak, to be sure; but I must go to father and poor Hurry. Do you and Deerslayer keep the castle, sister; leave me in the hands of God."
"God is with us all, Hetty — in the castle, or on the shore — father as well as ourselves, and it is sinful not to trust to his goodness. You can do nothing in the dark; will lose your way in the forest, and perish for want of food."
"God will not let that happen to a poor child that goes to serve her father, sister. I must try and find the savages."
"Come back for this night only; in the morning, we will put you ashore, and leave you to do as you may think right."
"You say so, Judith, and you think so; but you would not. Your heart would soften, and you'd see tomahawks and scalping knives in the air. Besides, I've got a thing to tell the Indian chief that will answer all our wishes, and I'm afraid I may forget it, if I don't tell it to him at once. You'll see that he will let father go, as soon as he hears it!"
"Poor Hetty! What can you say to a ferocious savage that will be likely to change his bloody purpose!"
"That which will frighten him, and make him let father go — " returned the simple-minded girl, positively. "You'll see, sister; you'll see, how soon it will bring him to, like a gentle child!"
"Will you tell me, Hetty, what you intend to say?" asked Deerslayer. "I know the savages well, and can form some idee how far fair words will be likely, or not, to work on their bloody natur's. If it's not suited to the gifts of a red-skin, 'twill be of no use; for reason goes by gifts, as well as conduct."
"Well, then," answered Hetty, dropping her voice to a low, confidential, tone, for the stillness of the night, and the nearness of the Ark, permitted her to do this and still to be heard — "Well, then, Deerslayer, as you seem a good and honest young man I will tell you. I mean not to say a word to any of the savages until I get face to face with their head chief, let them plague me with as many questions as they please I'll answer none of them, unless it be to tell them to lead me to their wisest man — Then, Deerslayer, I'll tell him that God will not forgive murder, and thefts; and that if father and Hurry did go after the scalps of the Iroquois, he must return good for evil, for so the Bible commands, else he will go into everlasting punishment. When he hears this, and feels it to be true, as feel it he must, how long will it be before he sends father, and Hurry, and me to the shore, opposite the castle, telling us all three to go our way in peace?"
The last question was put in a triumphant manner, and then the simple-minded girl laughed at the impression she never doubted that her project had made on her auditors. Deerslayer was dumb-founded at this proof of guileless feebleness of mind, but Judith had suddenly bethought her of a means of counteracting this wild project, by acting on the very feelings that had given it birth. Without adverting to the closing question, or the laugh, therefore, she hurriedly called to her sister by name, as one suddenly impressed with the importance of what she had to say. But no answer was given to the call.