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 holiday.

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 was Nunu.

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 the drawing-room.

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 of recognition.

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 an offence.

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 upward.

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! 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, worked exquisitely.

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 remarked upon.

"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.