The Chainbearer; or The Littlepage Manuscripts (1845)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 10-25.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[This is the second volume in a trilogy, preceded by Satanstoe and followed by The Redskins.]

[1] Mordaunt, or Mordy, Littlepage, the narrator, the only surviving son of Cornelius and Anneke Mordaunt Littlepage [central characters in Satanstoe], participates — as do his father and paternal grandfather — in various battles culminating in Independence. Mordy's maternal grandfather, a Tory, dies during a visit to England; his paternal grandfather, General Evans Littlepage, dies of smallpox at the end of the Revolutionary War, and the General's friend Brom Follock (Abraham Van Valkenburgh) is killed and scalped by Indians while returning to quarters after a week-long drunken carouse. The surviving members of the family are at last reinstated at Lilacsbush, one of the family's estates along the Hudson River, following the war.

[2-6] After his graduation from Nassau College [later Princeton], Mordy is assigned the responsibility of subdividing the two extensive family patents northeast of Albany, Mooseridge and Ravensnest; the subdivision is to be effected by his selling parcels of Mooseridge and leasing parcels of Ravensnest to land-hungry Yankees. Mordy's older sister, Anneke, is happily married to Mr. Kettletas; Mordy's spirited younger sister, Kate, has been courted and won by Tom Bayard. Mordy, uncomfortable under the family pressure — especially from his grandmother — urging him to marry Priscilla Bayard, Tom's sister, whose manner seems to Mordy both insincere and dominating, is determined not to be rushed. Pris Bayard's fulsome praises of Dus (Ursula) Malbone, the niece of Andries Coejemans (Chainbearer), and Pris's knowledgeability of the land-settlement situation in upstate New York arouse Mordy's curiosity and prompt Mordy's grandmother to express doubt that a young girl reared by a chainbearer under such circumstances could in any respect be ladylike. Motivated both by duty and by interest, Mordy takes Jaap Satanstoe, his personal slave, with him and sets out for his work on the land patents. On the sloop Mordy takes to Albany are a number of landseekers, readily identifiable by their axes and their packs of settlers' effects: these men soon learn through Jaap the errand on which Mordy is engaged, and within the week the sloop requires to reach Albany, all the would-be settlers have determined to lease land at Ravensnest, reserving their small cash holdings for purchase of various farmstead necessities.

[7] Mordy leaves Albany for the patents immediately upon his arrival there, stopping at the log tavern near Ravensnest. Apprised of his identity, Mrs. Tinkum, garrulous squatter landlady of the tavern, expresses to Mordy her disappointment that the Littlepages did not side with the British and thus lose their patents following the colonists' victory. By her comments about Chainbearer, Mordy discerns that the unschooled but diligent surveyor — Mordy's superior officer during the recent war — is one of the few truly high-principled men in the area, and he voices this view to Mrs. Tinkum, prompting a derisive remark about the unwarranted pride of Chainbearer's niece. Mordy, disgusted by the landlady's vulgarity, leaves the tavern and strikes out for Ravensnest, to be followed by Jaap when the latter has finished eating. En route, Mordy hears a girl's beautiful singing in Onondago; subsequently he sees an Indian emerging from the wooded area of the singing, but he is unable to see the singer herself. [8] The Indian proves to be Susquesus, a longtime friend of the Littlepage family [the details of the friendship are furnished in Satanstoe], and the two walk together to Ravensnest, talking of both past and present land-settlement problems. Susquesus owns no property and envisions being reduced to broom-making for a living; Mordy resolves that Susquesus and Chainbearer (a friend of both Mordy and Susquesus) will each have enough land for self-support.

[9] An overview of Ravensnest shows Mordy the small hamlet, 'Nest Village, with its mill seats and scattered, well-cultivated farmsteads, surrounded by virgin hardwood forest. When Mordy and Susquesus arrive in the village, Jason Newcome, Yankee owner of the mill seats as well as local agent for the Littlepages, is conducting an election to determine the denomination of the church to be established in the village; the building itself is already under construction. Mordy, unidentified, observes Newcome's tactics with keen interest: Newcome clearly supports majority rule and maneuvers adroitly to achieve the appearance of majority rule. By degrees eliminating those eligible to vote against his own preference in the matter, Newcome manages to muster sufficient support for the Congregational denomination. Newcome, made suddenly aware — by Jaap's arrival — of Mordy's identity, is decidedly embarrassed but is reassured that Mordy had just arrived. Mordy determines to keep a watchful eye on his opportunistic agent and to replace him as soon as possible.

[10] The denomination of the church being decided, the settlers complete the church building, with both Chainbearer and Mordy aiding in the difficult and dangerous business of putting the roof into position. At the moment when it appears that the roof must collapse upon the builders, a young woman sees the danger and supports a prop herself, averting the falling of the roofbeam. [11-12] Mordy and Chainbearer walk to the fort at Nesthouse, where Mordy hears the same girl singing and learns she is not an Indian, as he had supposed from the language, but Dus Malbone, of whose gentle breeding and intellect he has heard from her former schoolmate Priscilla Bayard; the orphaned Dus is the daughter of Chainbearer's half-sister, and is totally dependent upon her half-uncle for her support. Distressed to learn that Dus herself has performed the arduous labor of carrying chain for Chainbearer (who cannot afford to hire such help), and observing that the girl has indeed excellent breeding as well as a tender interest in her half-brother Frank Malbone's opportunity for advancement, Mordy transfers the position of agent at Ravensnest from Jason Newcome to Frank Malbone, placing the latter in sufficiently sound circumstances to court the girl he has long loved, Priscilla Bayard.

[13] Jason Newcome, acceding graciously enough to his replacement by Malbone, engages in a long and wordy wrangle with Mordy as to the former's right to own the mill seats he has developed, succeeding at last in his real objective: a renewal of the lease for three lives at a very low rent. The rest of the tenants at Ravensnest opt also to renew their leases rather than to purchase land at Mooseridge, a decision perplexing to Mordy.

[14] A visit by Chainbearer, Dus, Susquesus, and Mordy to a pigeon roost on Mooseridge patent occupied by millions of birds affords the author an opportunity to express his distrust of rule by the majority, a lengthy diatribe frequently broken by comments on the marvel of the birds. [15] Shortly after the pigeon hunt, Jaap, Susquesus, and Chainbearer go to find and mark the graves of the surveying party murdered and scalped during the original surveying of the patent [the grisly murders are recounted in Satanstoe], Mr. Traverse, Pete, and the others. While they are gone, Mordy seeks out Dus and declares his love for her, a love she says she cannot accept because she is pledged to another whose identity she does not reveal (the pledge is later revealed as that of her loyalty to Chainbearer). [16] Distraught by Dus's rejection of his suit, Mordy plunges into the forest, wanders until exhausted, and then sleeps; he wakes to find that Susquesus has covered him with a blanket. At Susquesus's report that he heard a sawmill, the two go to locate it. Since none of Mooseridge has been sold, the mill is an illegal operation and must be investigated.

[17] The lumber thief proves to be an old Vermont squatter named Aaron Timberman, commonly called Thousandacres, one to reckon with. After some amiable conversation, during which Mordy identifies himself only as Mordaunt, the squatters become suspicious and confine both Susquesus and Mordy in the impregnable storehouse, to protect the lumber the squatter and his family have labored to mill. [18] Susquesus escapes but is presumably recaptured. [19] Meanwhile, Jason Newcome, the purchaser of the lumber, comes secretly, and he and Thousandacres bargain (within Mordy's hearing) over the price to be paid by Newcome. Common terms are not reached, and Newcome leaves hastily as three of Thousandacres' sons appear in the clearing with the recaptured Susquesus. [19] Susquesus, placed in the storehouse with Mordy, tells Mordy he has reported the capture to Jaap and then allowed himself to be recaptured, to allay Thousandacres' suspicions. [20] After a bitter struggle, Chainbearer, suddenly appearing on the scene, is throttled by Thousandacres but throws him, and then is imprisoned in the storehouse by Thousandacres' boys. Dus, Mordy is told, has accompanied her uncle and is standing guard with Jaap in the woods while Frank and the rest go to secure arrest warrants from Jason Newcome.

[21] Dus has sent a note to Zephaniah Thousandacres by Chainbearer, a note he passes out to the young man through a chink in the log wall. Zephaniah, unable to read Dus's elegant handwriting, asks Mordy to read it to him; in it, Dus urges Zephaniah to keep the peace between Chainbearer and old Thousandacres and to ensure the protection of Major Littlepage. Zephaniah refuses, on Mordy's petition, to allow the prisoners to escape, despite an offer of fifty acres of land of his own. When Zephaniah is called away for a family conference, Lowiny (Lavinia) Thousandacres, one of Aaron's daughters, comes near the storehouse and at Mordy's request carries a note to Dus urging her to return to safety. Lowiny is gone for more than an hour, on the pretext of berry-picking. In the meantime, Zephaniah releases Susquesus to roam in the clearing, under restrictions the Indian promises to observe. Neither Chainbearer nor Mordy is to be released, a circumstance prompting sharp words from Chainbearer.

[22] At last the two prisoners are led to Thousandacres' hut. The argument that ensues between Thousandacres and Chainbearer is heated and acrimonious, and results in Chainbearer's being reconfined in the storehouse. Under cover of the bustle, Lowiny assists Mordy into the cellar, searched thoroughly by the Thousandacre boys without Mordy's being detected thanks to his own assiduous assistance in the search under cover of the shadow deliberately cast by Lowiny into the cellar area. [23] As they go outside to look for Mordy, Lowiny advises him to run and hide in the mill, which he does. Thousandacres and his sons meet in the mill to discuss the feasibility of various plans for disposing of their troublesome prisoners and of safeguarding their lumber, but they do not detect Mordy in the loft. After they leave, Lowiny urges Mordy to flee to Dus and safety. Mordy finds Jaap and then Dus, and Mordy and Dus confess their love for one another. While they are still talking, they are surprised by Tobit, Zephaniah, and Lowiny Thousandacres. [24] Mordy and Dus are captured; Dus is put into the custody of Tobit's wife, and Mordy is returned to the storehouse. There Mordy and Chainbearer discuss Mordy's suit for Dus's hand, and Chainbearer declares she is too far beneath him for a suitable marriage. While they are still discussing this point, Thousandacres' sons come to fetch the two for another council in Thousandacres' hut; Susquesus is left behind.

[25] The council begins amicably enough, and Dus is brought to join the group. After a long preamble, Thousandacres proposes to bring peace between his family and Chainbearer by marrying Dus to Zephaniah, a proposal Chainbearer greets with scorn and indignation. He starts to lead Dus out of the house; a rifle cracks, and Chainbearer falls. [26] Dus moves immediately to his side, and Thousandacres and his wife Prudence are the only ones who remain in the room with the grieving girl and her uncle. Suddenly, more shots are heard; a posse led by an under-sheriff and including Frank Malbone has come to rescue Mordy Littlepage. In the excitement, old Thousandacres is shot — by Susquesus, Mordy suspects — and Prudence hastens to him. [27] The rest of the Thousandacres family escape under cover of darkness except for Lowiny, who remains to comfort Dus and caution Mordy against exposing himself to Tobit. In a conversation between Jason Newcome and Mordy, Newcome realizes that Mordy may have overheard from the storehouse the conversation the old squatter had had with Newcome concerning the purchase of the lumber, a matter of embarrassment to the erstwhile agent but one on which his curiosity and anxiety are never satisfied. Frank Malbone, on learning of Mordy's capture, had posted a letter to Mordy's parents, a circumstance that will require earlier disclosure of Mordy's plan to marry Dus than he intended, but Mordy is determined to declare the facts, as he tells Dus in a brief conversation. She then goes inside the hut to offer last prayers for old Thousandacres; Frank and Mordy kneel during the prayer, but Prudence Thousandacres and her daughter Lowiny remain upright, disdaining formalistic prayer. Not long afterwards, Chainbearer extracts a promise from Dus that she will not marry Mordy Littlepage against his family's wishes; Mordy will not make that pledge. [28] Meanwhile, Thousandacres dies, still sullen and fierce in his resentment, and unshriven. [29] The following morning, Chainbearer dies peacefully. Thousandacres is interred on his squatter property; Chainbearer is taken to Ravensnest for burial. As Mordy has promised Prudence Thousandacres, all the family members' personal property is packed into a boat that is set adrift downriver from the mill, and she is gracious enough to acknowledge its receipt. Neither the members of the Thousandacres family nor Jason Newcome is prosecuted for losses incurred through the squatters' lumbering.

[30] Mordy's family proves warm and responsive to Dus as Mordy's prospective bride, and they are soon married. Subsequently, Pris Bayard marries Frank Malbone, the culmination of a courtship of several years standing but awaiting Frank's improved financial circumstances, the consequence of a substantial inheritance from a Malbone relative; Kate Littlepage marries Tom Bayard. All three marriages are happy and fruitful ones, attended by bequests on one side and another that remove all cause of financial worry. Lowiny, after several years as Dus's household servant, is suitably married to a respectable Ravensnest tenant. The death of Chainbearer is not forgotten, but he is felt to be safe with the Lord.

Ravensnest becomes the site for Mordy and Dus's new home, as Mordy's parents have urged. Not far from that home live Susquesus and Jaap, comrades in their later years.

Priscilla Bayard, Thomas Bayard, Captain Bogert, Captain Andries Coejemans, Major Hosmer, Anneke Littlepage Kettletas, Mrs. Light, Anna Cornelia Mordaunt Littlepage, General Evans Littlepage, Mrs. Evans Littlepage, Katrinke Littlepage, Major Mordaunt Littlepage, Francis Malbone, Ursula Malbone, Jason Newcome, Mrs. Jason Newcome, Jacob Satanstoe, Mrs. Jacob Satanstoe, Susquesus, Aaron Timberman, Daniel Timberman, Lavinia Timberman, Moses Timberman, Nathaniel Timberman, Prudence Timberman, Tobit Timberman, Mrs. Tobit Timberman, Zephaniah Timberman, Tim Trimmer, Major Dirck Van Valkenburgh, Mary Wallace, Willis.