The Cherokee's Threat by N. P. Willis
At the extremity of a green lane in the outer skirt of
the fashionable suburb of New-Haven, stood a rambling
old Dutch house, built, probably, when the cattle
of Mynheer grazed over the present site of the town.
It was a wilderness of irregular rooms, of no describable
shape in its exterior, and from its southern balcony,
to use an expressive gallicism, gave upon the bay.
Long Island Sound, the great highway from the northern
Atlantic to New York, weltered in alternate lead
and silver (oftener like the brighter metal, for the climate
is divine) between the curving lip of the bay,
and the interminable and sandy shore of the island
some six leagues distant, the procession of ships and
steamers stole past with an imperceptible progress, the
ceaseless bells of the college chapel came deadened
through the trees from behind, and (the day being one
of golden Autumn, and myself and St. John waiting
while black Agatha answered the door-bell) the sun-steeped
precipice of East Rock with its tiara of blood-red
maples flushing like a Turk's banner in the light,
drew from us both a truant wish for a ramble and a
In a few minutes from this time were assembled in
Mrs. Ilfrington's drawing-room the six or seven young
ladies of my more particular acquaintance among her
pupils—of whom one was a new-comer, and the object
of my mingled curiosity and admiration. It was the
one day of the week when morning visiters were admitted,
and I was there in compliance with an unexpected
request from my friend, to present him to the
agreeable circle of Mrs. Ilfrington. As an habitue in
her family, this excellent lady had taken occasion to
introduce to me a week or two before, the new-comer
of whom I have spoken above—a departure from the
ordinary rule of the establishment, which I felt to be a
compliment, and which gave me, I presumed, a tacit
claim to mix myself up in that young lady's destiny as
deeply as I should find agreeable. The new-comer
was the daughter of an Indian chief, and her name
The transmission of the daughter of a Cherokee
chief to New-Haven, to be educated at the expense of
the government, and of several young men of the same
high birth to different colleges, will be recorded among
the evidences in history that we did not plough the
bones of their fathers into our fields without some feelings
of compunction. Nunu had come to the seaboard
under the charge of a female missionary, whose pupil
she had been in one of the native schools of the west,
and was destined, though a chief's daughter, to return
as a teacher to her tribe, when she should have mastered
some of the higher accomplishments of her sex.
She was an apt scholar, but her settled melancholy
when away from her books, had determined Mrs. Ilfrington
to try the effect of a little society upon her,
and hence my privilege to ask for her appearance in
As we strolled down in the alternate shade and sunshine
of the road, I had been a little piqued at the
want of interest and the manner of course with which
St. John had received my animated descriptions of the
personal beauty of the Cherokee.
"I have hunted with the tribe," was his only answer,
"and know their features."
"But she is not like them," I replied with a tone of
some impatience; "she is the beau-ideal of a red skin,
but it is with the softened features of an Arab or an
Egyptian. She is more willowy than erect, and has
no higher cheek-bones than the plaster Venus in your
chambers. If it were not for the lambent fire in her
eye, you might take her in the sculptured grace of her
attitudes, for an immortal bronze of Cleopatra. I tell
you she is divine!"
St. John called to his dog and we turned along the
green bank above the beach, with Mrs. Ilfrington's
house in view, and so opens a new chapter of my story.
I have seen in many years wandering over the world,
lived to gaze upon, and live to remember and adore—a
constellation, I almost believe, that has absorbed all
the intensest light of the beauty of a hemisphere—yet
with your pictures coloured to life in my memory, and
the pride of rank and state thrown over them like an
elevating charm—I go back to the school of Mrs. Ilfrington,
and (smile if you will!) they were as lovely
and stately, and as worthy of the worship of the world.
I introduced St. John to the young ladies as they
came in. Having never seen him except in the presence
of men, I was a little curious to know whether
his singular aplomb would serve him as well with the
other sex, of which I was aware he had had a very
slender experience. My attention was distracted at
the moment of mentioning his name to a lovely little
Georgian, (with eyes full of the liquid sunshine of the
south,) by a sudden bark of joy from the dog who had
been left in the hall; and as the door opened, and the
slight and graceful Indian girl entered the room, the
usually unsocial animal sprung bounding in, lavishing
caresses on her, and seemingly wild with the delight
In the confusion of taking the dog from the room, I
had again lost the moment of remarking St. John's
manner, and on the entrance of Mrs. Ilfrington, Nunu
was sitting calmly by the piano, and my friend was
talking in a quiet undertone with the passionate Georgian.
"I must apologise for my dog," said St. John, bowing
gracefully to the mistress of the house; "he was
bred by Indians, and the sight of a Cherokee reminded
him of happier days—as it did his master."
Nunu turned her eyes quickly upon him, but immediately
resumed her apparently deep study of the abstruse
figures in the Kidderminster carpet.
"You are well arrived, young gentlemen," said
Mrs. Ilfrington; "we press you into our service for a
botanical ramble, Mr. Slingsby is at leisure, and will be
delighted I am sure. Shall I say as much for you,
Mr. St. John?" St. John bowed, and the ladies left
the room for their bonnets, Mrs. Ilfrington last.
The door was scarcely closed when Nunu re-appeared,
and checking herself with a sudden feeling at the
first step over the threshold, stood gazing at St. John,
evidently under very powerful emotion.
"Nunu!" he said, smiling slowly and unwillingly,
and holding out his hands with the air of one who forgives
She sprang upon his bosom with the bound of a leveret,
and, between her fast kisses broke the endearing
epithets of her native tongue—in words that I only understood
by their passionate and thrilling accent. The
language of the heart is universal.
The fair scholars came in one after another, and we
were soon on our way through the green fields to the
flowery mountain side of East Rock, Mrs. Ilfrington's
arm and conversation having fallen to my share, and
St. John rambling at large with the rest of the party,
but more particularly beset by Miss Temple, whose
Christian name was Isabella, and whose Christian charity
had no bowels for broken hearts.
The most sociable individuals of the party for a
while were Nunu and Last, the dog's recollections of
the past seeming, like those of wiser animals, more
agreeable than the present. The Cherokee astonished
Mrs. Ilfrington by an abandonment of joy and frolic
which she had never displayed before, sometimes fairly
outrunning the dog at full speed, and sometimes sitting
down breathless upon a green bank, while the
rude creature overpowered her with his caresses. The
scene gave rise to a grave discussion between that well-instructed
lady and myself upon the singular force of
childish association—the extraordinary intimacy between
the Indian and the trapper's dog being explained
satisfactorily, to her at least, on that attractive principle.
Had she but seen Nunu spring into the bosom of
my friend half an hour before, she might have added a
material corollary to her proposition. If the dog and
the chief's daughter were not old friends, the chief's
daughter and St. John certainly were!
As well as I could judge by the motions of two people
walking before me, St. John was advancing fast
in the favor and acquaintance of the graceful Georgian.
Her southern indolence was probably an apology in
Mrs. Ilfrington's eyes for leaning heavily on her companion's
arm, but, in a momentary halt, the capricious
beauty disembarrassed herself of the light scarf that
had floated over her shoulders, and bound it playfully
around his waist. This was rather strange on a first
acquaintance, and Mrs. Ilfrington was of that opinion.
"Miss Temple!" said she, advancing to whisper a
reproof in the beauty's ear.
Before she had taken a second step, Nunu bounded
over the low hedge, followed by the dog with whom
she had been chasing a butterfly, and springing upon
St. John, with eyes that flashed fire, she tore the scarf
into shreds, and stood trembling and pale, with her feet
on the silken fragments.
"Madam!" said St. John, advancing to Mrs. Ilfrington,
after casting on the Cherokee a look of surprise
and displeasure, "I should have told you before, that
your pupil and myself are not new acquaintances.
Her father is my friend. I have hunted with the tribe,
and have hitherto looked upon Nunu as a child. You
will believe me, I trust, when I say, her conduct surprises
me, and I beg to assure you, that any influence
I may have over her, will be in accordance with your
own wishes exclusively."
His tone was cold, and Nunu listened with fixed lips
and frowning eyes.
"Have you seen her before since her arrival?"
asked Mrs. Ilfrington.
"My dog brought me yesterday the first intelligence
that she was here. He returned from his morning
ramble with a string of wampum about his neck, which
had the mark of the tribe. He was her gift," he added,
patting the head of the dog and looking with a
softened expression at Nunu, who drooped her head
upon her bosom and walked on in tears.
The chain of the Green Mountains, after a gallop of
some five hundred miles from Canada to Connecticut,
suddenly pulls up on the shore of Long Island Sound,
and stands rearing with a bristling mane of pine-trees,
three hundred feet in air, as if checked in midcareer
by the sea. Standing on the brink of this bold precipice,
you have the bald face of the rock in a sheer
perpendicular below you; and, spreading away from
the broken masses at its foot, lies an emerald meadow
inlaid with a crystal and rambling river, across which,
at a distance of a mile or two, rise the spires of the
university from what else were a thick serried wilderness
of elms. Back from the edge of the precipice
extends a wild forest of hemlock and fir, ploughed on
its northern side by a mountain torrent, whose bed of
marl, dry and overhung with trees in the summer,
serves as a path and guide from the plain to the summit.
It were a toilsome ascent but for that smooth
and hard pavement, and the impervious and green
thatch of pine-tassels overhung.
The kind mistress ascended with the assistance of
my arm, and St. John drew stoutly between Miss
Temple and a fat young lady with an incipient asthma.
Nunu had not been seen since the first cluster of hanging
flowers had hidden her from our sight as she bounded
The hour or two of slanting sunshine, poured in upon
the summit of the precipice from the west, had been
sufficient to induce a fine and silken moss to show its
fibres and small blossoms above the carpet of pine-tassels,
and, emerging from the brown shadow of the
wood, you stood on a verdant platform, the foliage of
sighing trees overhead, a fairies' velvet beneath you,
and a view below, that you may as well (if you would
not die in your ignorance) make a voyage to see.
We found Nunu lying thoughtfully near the brink
of the precipice and gazing off over the waters of the
sound, as if she watched the coming or going of a
friend under the white sails that glanced upon its bosom.
We recovered our breath in silence, I alone
perhaps of that considerable company gazing with admiration
at the lithe and unconscious figure of grace
lying in the attitude of the Grecian hermaphrodite on
the brow of the rock before us. Her eyes were moist,
and motionless with abstraction, her lips just perceptibly
curved in an expression of mingled pride and sorrow,
her small hand buried and clenched in the moss, and
her left foot and ankle, models of spirited symmetry,
escaped carelessly from her dress, the high instep
strained back, as if recovering from a leap with the
tense control of emotion.
The game of the coquettish Georgian was well played.
With a true woman's pique, she had redoubled
her attentions to my friend from the moment that she
found it gave pain to another of her sex; and St. John,
like most men, seemed not unwilling to see a new altar
kindled to his vanity, though a heart he had already
won, was stifling with the incense. Miss Temple was
very lovely: her skin of that teint of opaque and patrician
white, which is found oftenest in Asian latitudes,
was just perceptibly warmed toward the centre of the
cheek with a glow like sunshine through the thick white
petal of a magnolia: her eyes were hazel with those
inky lashes which enhance the expression a thousand
fold either of passion, or melancholy; her teeth were
like strips from the lily's heart; and she was clever,
captivating, graceful, and a thorough coquette. St.
John was mysterious, romantic-looking, superior, and
just now the only victim in the way. He admired, as
all men do, those qualities, which to her own sex, rendered
the fair Isabella unamiable, and yielded himself,
as all men will, a satisfied prey to enchantments of
which he knew the springs were the pique and vanity
of the enchantress. How singular it is that the highest
and best qualities of the female heart are those with
which men are the least captivated!
A rib of the mountain formed a natural seat a little
back from the pitch of the precipice, and here sat Miss
Temple, triumphant in drawing all eyes upon herself
and her tamed lion, her lap full of flowers which he
had found time to gather on the way, and her fair
hands employed in arranging a bouquet, of which the
destiny was yet a secret. Next to their own loves,
ladies like nothing on earth like mending or marring
the loves of others; and, while the violets and already
drooping wild flowers were coquettishly chosen or rejected
by those slender fingers, the sun might have
swung back to the east like a pendulum, and those
seven-and-twenty misses would have watched their
lovely schoolfellow the same. Nunu turned her head
slowly around at last, and silently looked on. St. John
lay at the feet of the Georgian, glancing from the flowers
to her face, and from her face to the flowers, with
an admiration not at all equivocal. Mrs. Ilfrington sat
apart, absorbed in finishing a sketch of New-Haven;
and I, interested painfully in watching the emotions of
the Cherokee, sat with my back to the trunk of a hemlock,
the only spectator who comprehended the whole
extent of the drama.
A wild rose was set in the heart of the bouquet at
last, a spear of riband-grass added to give it grace and
point, and nothing was wanting but a string.
Reticules were searched, pockets turned inside out,
and never a bit of riband to be found. The beauty
was in despair.
"Stay!" said St. John, springing to his feet. "Last!
The dog came coursing in from the wood, and
crouched to his master's hand.
"Will a string of wampum do?" he asked, feeling
under the long hair on the dog's neck, and untying a
fine and variegated thread of many-colored beads,
The dog growled, and Nunu sprang into the middle
of the circle with the fling of an adder, and seizing the
wampum as he handed it to her rival, called the dog
and fastened it once more around his neck.
The ladies rose in alarm; the belle turned pale and
clung to St. John's arm; the dog, with his hair bristling
on his back, stood close to her feet in an attitude of defiance,
and the superb Indian, the peculiar genius of
her beauty developed by her indignation, her nostrils
expanded and her eyes almost showering fire in their
flashes, stood before them, like a young Pythoness,
ready to strike them dead with a regard.
St. John recovered from his astonishment after a
moment, and leaving the arm of Miss Temple, advanced
a step and called to his dog.
The Cherokee patted the animal on the back, and
spoke to him in her own language; and, as St. John
still advanced, Nunu drew herself to her fullest height,
placed herself before the dog, who slunk growling from
his master, and said to him as she folded her arms,
"the wampum is mine!"
St. John colored to the temples with shame.
"Last!" he cried, stamping with his foot, and endeavoring
to frighten him from his shelter.
The dog howled and crept away, half crouching
with fear toward the precipice; and St. John shooting
suddenly past Nunu, seized him on the brink, and held
him down by the throat.
The next instant a scream of horror from Mrs. Ilfrington,
followed by a terrific echo from every female
present, started the rude Kentuckian to his feet.
Clear over the abyss, hanging with one hand by an
aspen sapling, the point of her tiny foot just poising on
a projecting ledge of rock, swung the desperate Cherokee,
sustaining herself with perfect ease, but with all
the determination of her iron race collected in calm
concentration on her lips.
"Restore the wampum to his neck!" she cried,
with a voice that thrilled the very marrow with its subdued
fierceness, "or my blood rest on your soul!"
St. John flung it toward the dog, and clasped his
hands in silent horror.
The Cherokee bore down the sapling till its slender
stem cracked with the tension, and rising lightly with
the rebound, alit like a feather upon the rock. The
subdued Kentuckian sprang to her side; but, with scorn
on her lip and the flush of exertion already vanished
from her cheek, she called to the dog, and with rapid
strides took her way alone down the mountain.
Five years had elapsed. I had put to sea from the
sheltered river of boyhood; had encountered the storms
of a first entrance into life; had trimmed my boat,
shortened sail, and with a sharp eye to windward, was
laying fairly on my course. Among others from whom
I had parted company, was Paul St. John, who had
shaken hands with me at the university-gate, leaving
me, after four years' intimacy, as much in doubt as to
his real character and history as the first day we met.
I had never heard him speak of either father or mother;
nor had he, to my knowledge, received a letter
from the day of his matriculation. He passed his vacation
at the university. He had studied well, yet
refused one of the highest college-honors offered him
with his degree. He had shown many good qualities,
yet some unaccountable faults; and, all in all, was an
enigma to myself and the class. I knew him clever,
accomplished, and conscious of superiority, and my
knowledge went no farther.
It was five years from this time, I say, and in the
bitter struggles of first manhood, I had almost forgotten
there was such a being in the world. Late in the
month of October, in 1829, I was on my way westward,
giving myself a vacation from the law. I embarked on
a clear and delicious day in the small steamer which
plies up and down the Cayuga Lake, looking forward
to a calm feast of scenery, and caring little who were
to be my fellow passengers. As we got out of the little
harbor of Cayuga, I walked astern for the first time,
and saw the not very unusual sight of a group of Indians
standing motionless by the wheel. They were
chiefs returning from a diplomatic visit to Washington.
I sat down by the companion-ladder, and opened
soul and eye to the glorious scenery we were gliding
through. The first severe frost had come, and the
miraculous change had passed upon the leaves, which
is known only in America. The blood-red sugar-maple,
with a leaf brighter and more delicate than a
Circassian's lip, stood here and there in the forest like
the sultan's standard in a host, the solitary and far-seen
aristocrat of the wilderness; the birch, with its
spirit-like and amber leaves, ghosts of the departed
summer, turned out along the edges of the woods like
a lining of the palest gold; the broad sycamore and
the fan-like catalpa, flaunted their saffron foliage in the
sun, spotted with gold like the wings of a lady-bird;
the kingly oak, with its summit shaken bare, still hid
its majestic trunk in a drapery of sumptuous dies like
a stricken monarch, gathering his robes of state about
him to die royally in his purple; the tall poplar, with
its minaret of silver leaves, stood blanched like a coward
in the dying forest, burdening every breeze with
its complainings; the hickory, paled through its enduring
green; the bright berries of the mountain-ash
flushed with a sanguine glory in the unobstructed sun;
the gaudy tulip-tree, the sybarite of vegetation, stripped
of its golden cups, still drank the intoxicating light of
noonday in leaves than which the lip of Indian shell
was never more delicately teinted; the still deeper-died
vines of the lavish wilderness, perishing with the nobler
things whose summer they had shared, outshone them
in their decline, as woman in her death is heavenlier
than the being on whom in life she leaned; and alone
and unsympathizing in this universal decay, outlaws
from nature, stood the fir and the hemlock, their frowning
and sombre heads, darker and less lovely than ever
in contrast with the death-struck glory of their companions.
The dull colors of English autumnal foliage, give
you no conception of this marvellous phenomenon.
The change here, too, is gradual. In America it is
the work of a night—of a single frost! Ah, to have
seen the sun set on hills, bright in the still green and
lingering summer, and to wake in the morning to a
spectacle like this! It is as if a myriad of rainbows
were laced through the tree-tops—as if the sunsets of
a summer—gold, purple and crimson—had been fused
in the alembic of the west, and poured back in a new
deluge of light and color over the wilderness. It is as
if every leaf in those countless trees had been painted
to outflush the tulip—as if, by some electric miracle,
the dies of the earth's heart had struck upward, and
her crystals and ore, her sapphires, hyacinths and rubies,
had let forth their imprisoned dies to mount
through the roots of the forest, and like the angels that
in olden time entered the bodies of the dying, reanimate
the perishing leaves, and revel an hour in their bravery.
I was sitting by the companion-ladder, thinking to
what on earth these masses of foliage could be resembled,
when a dog sprang upon my knees, and, the
moment after, a hand was laid on my shoulder.
"St. John? Impossible!"
"Bodily!" answered my quondam classmate.
I looked at him with astonishment. The soigne man
of fashion I had once known, was enveloped in a kind
of hunter's frock, loose and large, and girded to his
waist by a belt; his hat was exchanged for a cap of
rich otter-skin; his pantaloons spread with a slovenly
carelessness over his feet, and altogether there was
that in his air which told me at a glance that he had
renounced the world. Last had recovered his leanness,
and after wagging out his joy, he couched between my
feet, and lay looking into my face as if he was brooding
over the more idle days in which we had been acquainted.
"And where are you bound?" I asked, having answered
the same question for myself.
"Westward with the chiefs!"
"For how long?"
"The remainder of my life."
I could not forbear an exclamation of surprise.
"You would wonder less," said he, with an impatient
gesture, "if you knew more of me. And by the
way," he added, with a smile, "I think I never told
you the first half of the story—my life up to the time
I met you."
"It was not for the want of a catechist," I answered,
setting myself in an attitude of attention.
"No! and I was often tempted to gratify your curiosity;
but from the little intercourse I had with the
world I had adopted some precocious principles, and
one was, that a man's influence over others was vulgarism,
and diminished by a knowledge of his history."
I smiled, and as the boat sped on her way over the
calm waters of the Cayuga, St. John went on leisurely
with a story which is scarce remarkable enough to
merit a repetition. He believed himself the natural
son of a western hunter, but only knew that he had
passed his early youth on the borders of civilization,
between whites and Indians, and that he had been more
particularly indebted for protection to the father of
Nunu. Mingled ambition and curiosity had led him
eastward while still a lad, and a year or two of the
most vagabond life in the different cities, had taught
him the caution and bitterness for which he was so remarkable.
A fortunate experiment in lotteries supplied
him with the means of education, and with singular
application in a youth of such wandering habits, he had
applied himself to study under a private master, fitted
himself for the university in half the usual time, and
cultivated in addition the literary taste which I have
"This," he said, smiling at my look of astonishment,
"brings me up to the time when we met. I came to
college at the age of eighteen, with a few hundred
dollars in my pocket, some pregnant experience of the
rough side of the world, great confidence in myself and
distrust of others, and, I believe, a kind of instinct of
good manners, which made me ambitious of shining in
society. You were a witness of my debut. Miss
Temple was the first highly educated woman I had
ever known, and you saw the effect on me!"
"And since we parted?"
"Oh, since we parted, my life has been vulgar
enough. I have ransacked civilized life to the bottom,
and found it a heap of unredeemed falsehoods. I do
not say it from common disappointment, for I may say
I succeeded in every thing I undertook."
"Except Miss Temple," I said, interrupting, at the
hazard of wounding him.
"No. She was a coquette, and I pursued her till
I had my turn. You see me in my new character now.
But a month ago, I was the Apollo of Saratoga, playing
my own game with Miss Temple. I left her for a
woman worth ten thousand of her—but here she is."
As Nunu came up the companionway from the cabin,
I thought I had never seen a breathing creature so exquisitely
lovely. With the exception of a pair of brilliant
moccasins on her feet, she was dressed in the usual
manner, but with the most absolute simplicity. She
had changed in those five years from the child to the
woman, and, with a round and well-developed figure,
additional height, and manners at once gracious and
dignified, she walked and looked the chieftan's daughter.
St. John took her hand, and gazed on her with
moisture in his eyes.
"That I could ever put a creature like this," he
said, "into comparison with the dolls of civilization!"
We parted at Buffalo—St. John with his wife and
the chiefs to pursue their way westward by Lake Erie,
and I to go moralizing on my way to Niagara.