A Wilderness Romance by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

At the south end of Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, stands Noon Mark, a shapely peak thirty-five hundred feet above the sea, which, with the aid of the sun, tells the Keene people when it is time to eat dinner. From its summit you look south into a vast wilderness basin, a great stretch of forest little trodden, and out of whose bosom you can hear from the heights on a still day the loud murmur of the Boquet. This basin of unbroken green rises away to the south and southeast into the rocky heights of Dix’s Peak and Nipple Top,–the latter a local name which neither the mountain nor the fastidious tourist is able to shake off. Indeed, so long as the mountain keeps its present shape as seen from the southern lowlands, it cannot get on without this name.

These two mountains, which belong to the great system of which Marcy is the giant centre, and are in the neighborhood of five thousand feet high, on the southern outposts of the great mountains, form the gate-posts of the pass into the south country. This opening between them is called Hunter’s Pass. It is the most elevated and one of the wildest of the mountain passes. Its summit is thirty-five hundred feet high. In former years it is presumed the hunters occasionally followed the game through; but latterly it is rare to find a guide who has been that way, and the tin-can and paper-collar tourists have not yet made it a runway. This seclusion is due not to any inherent difficulty of travel, but to the fact that it lies a little out of the way.

We went through it last summer; making our way into the jaws from the foot of the great slides on Dix, keeping along the ragged spurs of the mountain through the virgin forest. The pass is narrow, walled in on each side by precipices of granite, and blocked up with bowlders and fallen trees, and beset with pitfalls in the roads ingeniously covered with fair-seeming moss. When the climber occasionally loses sight of a leg in one of these treacherous holes, and feels a cold sensation in his foot, he learns that he has dipped into the sources of the Boquet, which emerges lower down into falls and rapids, and, recruited by creeping tributaries, goes brawling through the forest basin, and at last comes out an amiable and boat-bearing stream in the valley of Elizabeth Town. From the summit another rivulet trickles away to the south, and finds its way through a frightful tamarack swamp, and through woods scarred by ruthless lumbering, to Mud Pond, a quiet body of water, with a ghastly fringe of dead trees, upon which people of grand intentions and weak vocabulary are trying to fix the name of Elk Lake. The descent of the pass on that side is precipitous and exciting. The way is in the stream itself; and a considerable portion of the distance we swung ourselves down the faces of considerable falls, and tumbled down cascades. The descent, however, was made easy by the fact that it rained, and every footstep was yielding and slippery. Why sane people, often church-members respectably connected, will subject themselves to this sort of treatment,–be wet to the skin, bruised by the rocks, and flung about among the bushes and dead wood until the most necessary part of their apparel hangs in shreds,–is one of the delightful mysteries of these woods. I suspect that every man is at heart a roving animal, and likes, at intervals, to revert to the condition of the bear and the catamount.

There is no trail through Hunter’s Pass, which, as I have intimated, is the least frequented portion of this wilderness. Yet we were surprised to find a well-beaten path a considerable portion of the way and wherever a path is possible. It was not a mere deer’s runway: these are found everywhere in the mountains. It is trodden by other and larger animals, and is, no doubt, the highway of beasts. It bears marks of having been so for a long period, and probably a period long ago. Large animals are not common in these woods now, and you seldom meet anything fiercer than the timid deer and the gentle bear. But in days gone by, Hunter’s Pass was the highway of the whole caravan of animals who were continually going backward; and forwards, in the aimless, roaming way that beasts have, between Mud Pond and the Boquet Basin. I think I can see now the procession of them between the heights of Dix and Nipple Top; the elk and the moose shambling along, cropping the twigs; the heavy bear lounging by with his exploring nose; the frightened deer trembling at every twig that snapped beneath his little hoofs, intent on the lily-pads of the pond; the raccoon and the hedgehog, sidling along; and the velvet-footed panther, insouciant and conscienceless, scenting the path with a curious glow in his eye, or crouching in an overhanging tree ready to drop into the procession at the right moment. Night and day, year after year, I see them going by, watched by the red fox and the comfortably clad sable, and grinned at by the black cat,–the innocent, the vicious, the timid and the savage, the shy and the bold, the chattering slanderer and the screaming prowler, the industrious and the peaceful, the tree-top critic and the crawling biter,–just as it is elsewhere. It makes me blush for my species when I think of it. This charming society is nearly extinct now: of the larger animals there only remain the bear, who minds his own business more thoroughly than any person I know, and the deer, who would like to be friendly with men, but whose winning face and gentle ways are no protection from the savageness of man, and who is treated with the same unpitying destruction as the snarling catamount. I have read in history that the amiable natives of Hispaniola fared no better at the hands of the brutal Spaniards than the fierce and warlike Caribs. As society is at present constituted in Christian countries, I would rather for my own security be a cougar than a fawn.

There is not much of romantic interest in the Adirondacks. Out of the books of daring travelers, nothing. I do not know that the Keene Valley has any history. The mountains always stood here, and the Au Sable, flowing now in shallows and now in rippling reaches over the sands and pebbles, has for ages filled the air with continuous and soothing sounds. Before the Vermonters broke into it some three-quarters of a century ago, and made meadows of its bottoms and sugar-camps of its fringing woods, I suppose the red Indian lived here in his usual discomfort, and was as restless as his successors, the summer boarders. But the streams were full of trout then, and the moose and the elk left their broad tracks on the sands of the river. But of the Indian there is no trace. There is a mound in the valley, much like a Tel in the country of Bashan beyond the Jordan, that may have been built by some pre-historic race, and may contain treasure and the seated figure of a preserved chieftain on his slow way to Paradise. What the gentle and accomplished race of the Mound-Builders should want in this savage region where the frost kills the early potatoes and stunts the scanty oats, I do not know. I have seen no trace of them, except this Tel, and one other slight relic, which came to light last summer, and is not enough to found the history of a race upon.

Some workingmen, getting stone from the hillside on one of the little plateaus, for a house-cellar, discovered, partly embedded, a piece of pottery unique in this region. With the unerring instinct of workmen in regard to antiquities, they thrust a crowbar through it, and broke the bowl into several pieces. The joint fragments, however, give us the form of the dish. It is a bowl about nine inches high and eight inches across, made of red clay, baked but not glazed. The bottom is round, the top flares into four comers, and the rim is rudely but rather artistically ornamented with criss-cross scratches made when the clay was soft. The vessel is made of clay not found about here, and it is one that the Indians formerly living here could not form. Was it brought here by roving Indians who may have made an expedition to the Ohio; was it passed from tribe to tribe; or did it belong to a race that occupied the country before the Indian, and who have left traces of their civilized skill in pottery scattered all over the continent?

If I could establish the fact that this jar was made by a prehistoric race, we should then have four generations in this lovely valley:-the amiable Pre-Historic people (whose gentle descendants were probably killed by the Spaniards in the West Indies); the Red Indians; the Keene Flaters (from Vermont); and the Summer Boarders, to say nothing of the various races of animals who have been unable to live here since the advent of the Summer Boarders, the valley being not productive enough to sustain both. This last incursion has been more destructive to the noble serenity of the forest than all the preceding.

But we are wandering from Hunter’s Pass. The western walls of it are formed by the precipices of Nipple Top, not so striking nor so bare as the great slides of Dix which glisten in the sun like silver, but rough and repelling, and consequently alluring. I have a great desire to scale them. I have always had an unreasonable wish to explore the rough summit of this crabbed hill, which is too broken and jagged for pleasure and not high enough for glory. This desire was stimulated by a legend related by our guide that night in the Mud Pond cabin. The guide had never been through the pass before; although he was familiar with the region, and had ascended Nipple Top in the winter in pursuit of the sable. The story he told doesn’t amount to much, none of the guides’ stories do, faithfully reported, and I should not have believed it if I had not had a good deal of leisure on my hands at the time, and been of a willing mind, and I may say in rather of a starved condition as to any romance in this region.

The guide said then–and he mentioned it casually, in reply to our inquiries about ascending the mountain–that there was a cave high up among the precipices on the southeast side of Nipple Top. He scarcely volunteered the information, and with seeming reluctance gave us any particulars about it. I always admire this art by which the accomplished story-teller lets his listener drag the reluctant tale of the marvelous from him, and makes you in a manner responsible for its improbability. If this is well managed, the listener is always eager to believe a great deal more than the romancer seems willing to tell, and always resents the assumed reservations and doubts of the latter.

There were strange reports about this cave when the old guide was a boy, and even then its very existence had become legendary. Nobody knew exactly where it was, but there was no doubt that it had been inhabited. Hunters in the forests south of Dix had seen a light late at night twinkling through the trees high up the mountain, and now and then a ruddy glare as from the flaring-up of a furnace. Settlers were few in the wilderness then, and all the inhabitants were well known. If the cave was inhabited, it must be by strangers, and by men who had some secret purpose in seeking this seclusion and eluding observation. If suspicious characters were seen about Port Henry, or if any such landed from the steamers on the shore of Lake Champlain, it was impossible to identify them with these invaders who were never seen. Their not being seen did not, however, prevent the growth of the belief in their existence. Little indications and rumors, each trivial in itself, became a mass of testimony that could not be disposed of because of its very indefiniteness, but which appealed strongly to man’s noblest faculty, his imagination, or credulity.

The cave existed; and it was inhabited by men who came and went on mysterious errands, and transacted their business by night. What this band of adventurers or desperadoes lived on, how they conveyed their food through the trackless woods to their high eyrie, and what could induce men to seek such a retreat, were questions discussed, but never settled. They might be banditti; but there was nothing to plunder in these savage wilds, and, in fact, robberies and raids either in the settlements of the hills or the distant lake shore were unknown. In another age, these might have been hermits, holy men who had retired from the world to feed the vanity of their godliness in a spot where they were subject neither to interruption nor comparison; they would have had a shrine in the cave, and an image of the Blessed Virgin, with a lamp always burning before it and sending out its mellow light over the savage waste. A more probable notion was that they were romantic Frenchmen who had grow weary of vice and refinement together,–possibly princes, expectants of the throne, Bourbon remainders, named Williams or otherwise, unhatched eggs, so to speak, of kings, who had withdrawn out of observation to wait for the next turn-over in Paris. Frenchmen do such things. If they were not Frenchmen, they might be honest-thieves or criminals, escaped from justice or from the friendly state-prison of New York. This last supposition was, however, more violent than the others, or seems so to us in this day of grace. For what well-brought-up New York criminal would be so insane as to run away from his political friends the keepers, from the easily had companionship of his pals outside, and from the society of his criminal lawyer, and, in short, to put himself into the depths of a wilderness out of which escape, when escape was desired, is a good deal more difficult than it is out of the swarming jails of the Empire State? Besides, how foolish for a man, if he were a really hardened and professional criminal, having established connections and a regular business, to run away from the governor’s pardon, which might have difficulty in finding him in the craggy bosom of Nipple Top!

This gang of men–there is some doubt whether they were accompanied by women–gave little evidence in their appearance of being escaped criminals or expectant kings. Their movements were mysterious but not necessarily violent. If their occupation could have been discovered, that would have furnished a clew to their true character. But about this the strangers were as close as mice. If anything could betray them, it was the steady light from the cavern, and its occasional ruddy flashing. This gave rise to the opinion, which was strengthened by a good many indications equally conclusive, that the cave was the resort of a gang of coiners and counterfeiters. Here they had their furnace, smelting-pots, and dies; here they manufactured those spurious quarters and halves that their confidants, who were pardoned, were circulating, and which a few honest men were “nailing to the counter.”

This prosaic explanation of a romantic situation satisfies all the requirements of the known facts, but the lively imagination at once rejects it as unworthy of the subject. I think the guide put it forward in order to have it rejected. The fact is,–at least, it has never been disproved,–these strangers whose movements were veiled belonged to that dark and mysterious race whose presence anywhere on this continent is a nest-egg of romance or of terror. They were Spaniards! You need not say buccaneers, you need not say gold-hunters, you need not say swarthy adventurers even: it is enough to say Spaniards! There is no tale of mystery and fanaticism and daring I would not believe if a Spaniard is the hero of it, and it is not necessary either that he should have the high-sounding name of Bodadilla or Ojeda.

Nobody, I suppose, would doubt this story if the moose, quaffing deep draughts of red wine from silver tankards, and then throwing themselves back upon divans, and lazily puffing the fragrant Havana. After a day of toil, what more natural, and what more probable for a Spaniard?

Does the reader think these inferences not warranted by the facts? He does not know the facts. It is true that our guide had never himself personally visited the cave, but he has always intended to hunt it up. His information in regard to it comes from his father, who was a mighty hunter and trapper. In one of his expeditions over Nipple Top he chanced upon the cave. The mouth was half concealed by undergrowth. He entered, not without some apprehension engendered by the legends which make it famous. I think he showed some boldness in venturing into such a place alone. I confess that, before I went in, I should want to fire a Gatling gun into the mouth for a little while, in order to rout out the bears which usually dwell there. He went in, however. The entrance was low; but the cave was spacious, not large, but big enough, with a level floor and a vaulted ceiling. It had long been deserted, but that it was once the residence of highly civilized beings there could be no doubt. The dead brands in the centre were the remains of a fire that could not have been kindled by wild beasts, and the bones scattered about had been scientifically dissected and handled. There were also remnants of furniture and pieces of garments scattered about. At the farther end, in a fissure of the rock, were stones regularly built up, the rem Yins of a larger fire,–and what the hunter did not doubt was the smelting furnace of the Spaniards. He poked about in the ashes, but found no silver. That had all been carried away.

But what most provoked his wonder in this rude cave was a chair I This was not such a seat as a woodman might knock up with an axe, with rough body and a seat of woven splits, but a manufactured chair of commerce, and a chair, too, of an unusual pattern and some elegance. This chair itself was a mute witness of luxury and mystery. The chair itself might have been accounted for, though I don’t know how; but upon the back of the chair hung, as if the owner had carelessly flung it there before going out an hour before, a man’s waistcoat. This waistcoat seemed to him of foreign make and peculiar style, but what endeared it to him was its row of metal buttons. These buttons were of silver! I forget now whether he did not say they were of silver coin, and that the coin was Spanish. But I am not certain about this latter fact, and I wish to cast no air of improbability over my narrative. This rich vestment the hunter carried away with him. This was all the plunder his expedition afforded. Yes: there was one other article, and, to my mind, more significant than the vest of the hidalgo. This was a short and stout crowbar of iron; not one of the long crowbars that farmers use to pry up stones, but a short handy one, such as you would use in digging silver-ore out of the cracks of rocks.

This was the guide’s simple story. I asked him what became of the vest and the buttons, and the bar of iron. The old man wore the vest until he wore it out; and then he handed it over to the boys, and they wore it in turn till they wore it out. The buttons were cut off, and kept as curiosities. They were about the cabin, and the children had them to play with. The guide distinctly remembers playing with them; one of them he kept for a long time, and he didn’t know but he could find it now, but he guessed it had disappeared. I regretted that he had not treasured this slender verification of an interesting romance, but he said in those days he never paid much attention to such things. Lately he has turned the subject over, and is sorry that his father wore out the vest and did not bring away the chair. It is his steady purpose to find the cave some time when he has leisure, and capture the chair, if it has not tumbled to pieces. But about the crowbar? Oh I that is all right. The guide has the bar at his house in Keene Valley, and has always used it.

I am happy to be able to confirm this story by saying that next day I saw the crowbar, and had it in my hand. It is short and thick, and the most interesting kind of crowbar. This evidence is enough for me. I intend in the course of this vacation to search for the cave; and, if I find it, my readers shall know the truth about it, if it destroys the only bit of romance connected with these mountains.