List Of Contents | Contents of In the Wilderness, by Charles Dudley Warner
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

with an Indian squaw; although he found little satisfaction in his
act of heroism, unless it was talked about at Versailles.

When our trampers come, late in the afternoon, to the bank of a
lovely lake where they purpose to enter the primitive life,
everything is waiting for them in virgin expectation.  There is a
little promontory jutting into the lake, and sloping down to a sandy
beach, on which the waters idly lapse, and shoals of red-fins and
shiners come to greet the stranger; the forest is untouched by the
axe; the tender green sweeps the water's edge; ranks of slender firs
are marshaled by the shore; clumps of white-birch stems shine in
satin purity among the evergreens; the boles of giant spruces,
maples, and oaks, lifting high their crowns of foliage, stretch away
in endless galleries and arcades; through the shifting leaves the
sunshine falls upon the brown earth; overhead are fragments of blue
sky; under the boughs and in chance openings appear the bluer lake
and the outline of the gracious mountains.  The discoverers of this
paradise, which they have entered to destroy, note the babbling of
the brook that flows close at hand; they hear the splash of the
leaping fish; they listen to the sweet, metallic song of the evening
thrush, and the chatter of the red squirrel, who angrily challenges
their right to be there.  But the moment of sentiment passes.  This
party has come here to eat and to sleep, and not to encourage Nature
in her poetic attitudinizing.

The spot for a shanty is selected.  This side shall be its opening,
towards the lake; and in front of it the fire, so that the smoke
shall drift into the hut, and discourage the mosquitoes; yonder shall
be the cook's fire and the path to the spring.  The whole colony
bestir themselves in the foundation of a new home,--an enterprise
that has all the fascination, and none of the danger, of a veritable
new settlement in the wilderness.  The axes of the guides resound in
the echoing spaces; great trunks fall with a crash; vistas are opened
towards the lake and the mountains.  The spot for the shanty is
cleared of underbrush; forked stakes are driven into the ground,
cross-pieces are laid on them, and poles sloping back to the ground.
In an incredible space of time there is the skeleton of a house,
which is entirely open in front.  The roof and sides must be covered.
For this purpose the trunks of great spruces are skinned.  The
woodman rims the bark near the foot of the tree, and again six feet
above, and slashes it perpendicularly; then, with a blunt stick, he
crowds off this thick hide exactly as an ox is skinned.  It needs but
a few of these skins to cover the roof; and they make a perfectly
water-tight roof, except when it rains.  Meantime busy hands have
gathered boughs of the spruce and the feathery balsam, and shingled
the ground underneath the shanty for a bed.  It is an aromatic bed:
in theory it is elastic and consoling.  Upon it are spread the
blankets.  The sleepers, of all sexes and ages, are to lie there in a
row, their feet to the fire, and their heads under the edge of the
sloping roof.  Nothing could be better contrived.  The fire is in
front: it is not a fire, but a conflagration--a vast heap of green
logs set on fire--of pitch, and split dead-wood, and crackling
balsams, raging and roaring.  By the time, twilight falls, the cook
has prepared supper.  Everything has been cooked in a tin pail and a
skillet,--potatoes, tea, pork, mutton, slapjacks.  You wonder how
everything could have been prepared in so few utensils.  When you
eat, the wonder ceases: everything might have been cooked in one
pail.  It is a noble meal; and nobly is it disposed of by these
amateur savages, sitting about upon logs and roots of trees.  Never
were there such potatoes, never beans that seemed to have more of the
bean in them, never such curly pork, never trout with more Indian-
meal on them, never mutton more distinctly sheepy; and the tea, drunk
out of a tin cup, with a lump of maple-sugar dissolved in it,--it is
the sort of tea that takes hold, lifts the hair, and disposes the
drinker to anecdote and hilariousness.  There is no deception about
it: it tastes of tannin and spruce and creosote.  Everything, in
short, has the flavor of the wilderness and a free life.  It is
idyllic.  And yet, with all our sentimentality, there is nothing
feeble about the cooking.  The slapjacks are a solid job of work,
made to last, and not go to pieces in a person's stomach like a
trivial bun: we might record on them, in cuneiform characters, our
incipient civilization; and future generations would doubtless turn
them up as Acadian bricks.  Good, robust victuals are what the
primitive man wants.

Darkness falls suddenly.  Outside the ring of light from our
conflagration the woods are black.  There is a tremendous impression
of isolation and lonesomeness in our situation.  We are the prisoners
of the night.  The woods never seemed so vast and mysterious.  The
trees are gigantic.  There are noises that we do not understand,--
mysterious winds passing overhead, and rambling in the great
galleries, tree-trunks grinding against each other, undefinable stirs
and uneasinesses.  The shapes of those who pass into the dimness are
outlined in monstrous proportions.  The spectres, seated about in the
glare of the fire, talk about appearances and presentiments and
religion.  The guides cheer the night with bear-fights, and catamount
encounters, and frozen-to-death experiences, and simple tales of
great prolixity and no point, and jokes of primitive lucidity.  We
hear catamounts, and the stealthy tread of things in the leaves, and
the hooting of owls, and, when the moon rises, the laughter of the
loon.  Everything is strange, spectral, fascinating.

By and by we get our positions in the shanty for the night, and
arrange the row of sleepers.  The shanty has become a smoke-house by
this time: waves of smoke roll into it from the fire.  It is only by
lying down, and getting the head well under the eaves, that one can
breathe.  No one can find her "things"; nobody has a pillow.  At
length the row is laid out, with the solemn protestation of intention
to sleep.  The wind, shifting, drives away the smoke.

Good-night is said a hundred times; positions are readjusted, more
last words, new shifting about, final remarks; it is all so
comfortable and romantic; and then silence.  Silence continues for a
minute.  The fire flashes up; all the row of heads is lifted up
simultaneously to watch it; showers of sparks sail aloft into the
blue night; the vast vault of greenery is a fairy spectacle.  How the
sparks mount and twinkle and disappear like tropical fireflies, and
all the leaves murmur, and clap their hands!  Some of the sparks do
not go out: we see them flaming in the sky when the flame of the fire
has died down.  Well, good-night, goodnight.  More folding of the
arms to sleep; more grumbling about the hardness of a hand-bag, or
the insufficiency of a pocket-handkerchief, for a pillow.  Good-
night.  Was that a remark?--something about a root, a stub in the
ground sticking into the back.  "You couldn't lie along a hair?"---
"Well, no: here's another stub.  It needs but a moment for the
conversation to become general,--about roots under the shoulder,
stubs in the back, a ridge on which it is impossible for the sleeper
to balance, the non-elasticity of boughs, the hardness of the ground,
the heat, the smoke, the chilly air.  Subjects of remarks multiply.
The whole camp is awake, and chattering like an aviary.  The owl is
also awake; but the guides who are asleep outside make more noise
than the owls.  Water is wanted, and is handed about in a dipper.
Everybody is yawning; everybody is now determined to go to sleep in
good earnest.  A last good-night.  There is an appalling silence.  It
is interrupted in the most natural way in the world.  Somebody has
got the start, and gone to sleep.  He proclaims the fact.  He seems
to have been brought up on the seashore, and to know how to make all
the deep-toned noises of the restless ocean.  He is also like a war-
horse; or, it is suggested, like a saw-horse.  How malignantly he
snorts, and breaks off short, and at once begins again in another
key!  One head is raised after another.

"Who is that?"

"Somebody punch him."

"Turn him over."

"Reason with him."

The sleeper is turned over.  The turn was a mistake.  He was before,
it appears, on his most agreeable side.  The camp rises in
indignation.  The sleeper sits up in bewilderment.  Before he can go
off again, two or three others have preceded him.  They are all
alike.  You never can judge what a person is when he is awake.  There
are here half a dozen disturbers of the peace who should be put in
solitary confinement.  At midnight, when a philosopher crawls out to
sit on a log by the fire, and smoke a pipe, a duet in tenor and
mezzo-soprano is going on in the shanty, with a chorus always coming
in at the wrong time.  Those who are not asleep want to know why the
smoker doesn't go to bed.  He is requested to get some water, to
throw on another log, to see what time it is, to note whether it
looks like rain.  A buzz of conversation arises.  She is sure she
heard something behind the shanty.  He says it is all nonsense.
"Perhaps, however, it might be a mouse."

"Mercy! Are there mice?"


"Then that's what I heard nibbling by my head.  I shan't sleep a
wink! Do they bite?"

"No, they nibble; scarcely ever take a full bite out."

"It's horrid!"

Towards morning it grows chilly; the guides have let the fire go out;
the blankets will slip down.  Anxiety begins to be expressed about
the dawn.

"What time does the sun rise?"

"Awful early.  Did you sleep?

"Not a wink.  And you?"

"In spots.  I'm going to dig up this root as soon as it is light

"See that mist on the lake, and the light just coming on the Gothics!
I'd no idea it was so cold: all the first part of the night I was

"What were they talking about all night?

When the party crawls out to the early breakfast, after it has washed

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: