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Джеймс Фенимор Купер
The Lake Gun and other Stories

The Lake Gun and other Stories
Джеймс Фенимор Купер

The Lake Gun is a satirical short story by James Fenimore Cooper first published in 1850. The title of the story comes from a mysterious loud exploding sound coming from Seneca Lake, called “The Lake Gun” by European American settlers to the area, and known today as the Seneca Guns. These sounds remain unexplained to this day, with no clear or agreed-upon cause.

James Fenimore Cooper

The Lake Gun and other Stories

© T8RUGRAM, оформление, 2018

© Original, 2018

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The Lake Gun

The Seneca is remarkable for its “Wandering Jew,” and the “Lake Gun.” The first is a tree so balanced that when its roots are clear of the bottom it floats with its broken and pointed trunk a few feet above the surface of the water, driving before the winds, or following in the course of the currents. At times, the “Wandering Jew” is seen off Jefferson, near the head of this beautiful sheet; and next it will appear anchored, as it might be, in the shallow water near the outlet.

For more than half a century has this remnant of the forest floated about, from point to point, its bald head whitening with time, until its features have become familiar to all the older inhabitants of that region of country. The great depth of the Seneca prevents it from freezing; and summer and winter, springtime and autumn, is this wanderer to be observed; occasionally battling with the ice that makes a short distance from the shore, now pursuing its quiet way before a mild southern air in June, or, again, anchored, by its roots touching the bottom, as it passes a point, or comes in contact with the flats. It has been known to remain a year or two at a time in view of the village of Geneva, until, accustomed to its sight, the people began to think that it was never to move from its berth any more; but a fresh northerly breeze changes all this; the “Jew” swings to the gale, and, like a ship unmooring, drags clear of the bottom, and goes off to the southward, with its head just high enough above water to be visible. It would seem really that his wanderings are not to cease as long as wood will float.

No white man can give the history of this “Jew.” He was found laving his sides in the pure waters of the Seneca by the earliest settlers, and it may have been ages since his wanderings commenced. When they are to cease is a secret in the womb of time.

The “Lake Gun” is a mystery. It is a sound resembling the explosion of a heavy piece of artillery, that can be accounted for by none of the known laws of nature. The report is deep, hollow, distant, and imposing. The lake seems to be speaking to the surrounding hills, which send back the echoes of its voice in accurate reply. No satisfactory theory has ever been broached to explain these noises. Conjectures have been hazarded about chasms, and the escape of compressed air by the sudden admission of water; but all this is talking at random, and has probably no foundation in truth. The most that can be said is, that such sounds are heard, though at long intervals, and that no one as yet has succeeded in ascertaining their cause.

It is not many lustrums since curiosity induced an idler, a traveler, and one possessed of much attainment derived from journeys in distant lands, first to inquire closely into all the traditions connected with these two peculiarities of the Seneca, and, having thus obtained all he could, to lead him to make the tour of the entire lake, in the hope of learning more by actual personal observation. He went up and down in the steamboat; was much gratified with his trip, but could see or hear nothing to help him in his investigation. The “Gun” had not been heard in a long time, and no one could tell him what had become of the “Wandering Jew.” In vain did his eyes roam over the broad expanse of water; they could discover nothing to reward their search. There was an old man in the boat, of the name of Peter, who had passed his life on the Seneca, and to him was our traveler referred, as the person most likely to gratify his curiosity. Fuller (for so we shall call the stranger for the sake of convenience) was not slow to profit by this hint, and was soon in amicable relations with the tough, old, freshwater mariner. A half-eagle opportunely bestowed opened all the stores of Peter’s lore; and he professed himself ready to undertake a cruise, even, for the especial purpose of hunting up the “Jew.”

“I haven’t seen that ere crittur now” – Peter always spoke of the tree as if it had animal life – “these three years. We think he doesn’t like the steamboats. The very last time I seed the old chap he was a-goin’ up afore a smart norwester, and we was a-comin’ down with the wind in our teeth, when I made out the ‘Jew,’ about a mile, or, at most, a mile and a half ahead of us, and right in our track. I remember that I said to myself, says I, ‘Old fellow, we’ll get a sight of your countenance this time.’ I suppose you know, sir, that the ‘Jew’ has a face just like a human?”

“I did not know that; but what became of the tree?”

“Tree,” answered Peter, shaking his head, “why, can’t we cut a tree down in the woods, saw it and carve it as we will, and make it last a hundred years? What become of the tree, sir; – why, as soon as the ‘Jew’ saw we was a-comin’ so straight upon him, what does the old chap do but shift his helm, and make for the west shore. You never seed a steamer leave sich a wake, or make sich time. If he went half a knot, he went twenty!”

This little episode rather shook Fuller’s faith in Peter’s accuracy; but it did not prevent his making an arrangement by which he and the old man were to take a cruise in quest of the tree, after having fruitlessly endeavored to discover in what part of the lake it was just then to be seen.

“Some folks pretend he’s gone down,” said Peter, in continuation of a discourse on the subject, as he flattened in the sheets of a very comfortable and rather spacious sailboat, on quitting the wharf of Geneva, “and will never come up ag’in. But they may just as well tell me that the sky is coming down, and that we may set about picking up the larks. That ‘Jew’ will no more sink than a well-corked bottle will sink.”

This was the opinion of Peter. Fuller cared but little for it, though he still fancied he might make his companion useful in hunting up the object of his search. These two strangely-assorted companions cruised up and down the Seneca for a week, vainly endeavoring to find the “Wandering Jew.” Various were the accounts they gleaned from the different boatmen. One had heard he was to be met with off this point; another, in that bay: all believed he might be found, though no one had seen him lately – some said, in many years.

“He’ll turn up,” said Peter, positively, “or the Seneca would go down bows foremost. We shall light on the old chap when we least expect it.”

It must be confessed that Peter had many sufficient reasons for entertaining these encouraging hopes. He was capitally fed, had very little more to do than to ease off, or flatten in a sheet, the boat being too large to be rowed; and cigars, and liquors of various sorts were pretty much at his command, for the obvious reason that they were under his care. In delivering his sentiments, however, Peter was reasonably honest, for he had the most implicit faith, not only in the existence of this “Jew,” but in the beneficent influence of his visits. His presence was universally deemed a sign of good luck.

Fuller passed most of the nights in a comfortable bed, leaving Peter in the boat; sometimes asking for lodgings in a farm-house, and, at others, obtaining them in an inn. Wherever he might be, he inquired about the “Wandering Jew” and the “Lake Gun,” bent on solving these two difficult problems, if possible, and always with the same success. Most persons had seen the former, but not lately; while about one in ten had heard the latter. It occurred to our traveler that more of the last were to be found nearer to the northern than to the southern end of the lake.

The cruise continued a fortnight in this desultory manner, with the same want of success. One morning, as Fuller was returning to the boat, after passing the night in a farm-house, he was struck by the statue-like appearance of a figure which stood on the extreme point of a low, rocky promontory, that was considerably aside from any dwelling or building. The place was just at the commencement of the hill country, and where the shores of the Seneca cease to offer those smiling pictures of successful husbandry that so much abound farther north. A somber, or it might be better to say a sober, aspect gave dignity to the landscape, which, if not actually grand, had, at least, most of the elements that characterize the noble in nature.

But Fuller, at the moment, was less struck with the scenery, charming as that certainly was, than with the statue-like and immovable form on the little promontory. A single tree shaded the spot where the stranger stood, but it cast its shadows toward the west, at that early hour, leaving the erect and chiseled form in clear sun-light. Stimulated by curiosity, and hoping to learn something that might aid him in his search from one as curious as himself, Fuller turned aside, and, instead of descending to the spot where Peter had the boat ready for his reception, he crossed a pleasant meadow, in the direction of the tree.

Several times did our traveler stop to gaze on that immovable form. A feeling of superstition came over him when he saw that not the smallest motion, nor relief of limb or attitude, was made for the ten minutes that his eye had rested on the singular and strange object. At he drew nearer, however, the outlines became more and more distinct, and he fancied that the form was actually naked. Then the truth became apparent: it was a native of the forest, in his summer garb, who had thrown aside his blanket, and stood in his leggings, naked. Phidias could not have cut in stone a more faultless form; for active, healthful youth had given to it the free and noble air of manly but modest independence.

“Sago,” said Fuller, drawing near to the young Indian, who did not betray surprise or emotion of any sort, as the stranger’s foot-fall came unexpectedly on his ear, using the salutation of convention, as it is so generally practiced between the two races. The Indian threw forward an arm with dignity, but maintained his erect and otherwise immovable attitude.

“Oneida?” demanded Fuller, while he doubted if any young warrior of that half-subdued tribe could retain so completely the air and mien of the great forests and distant prairies.

“Seneca,” was the simple answer. The word was uttered in a tone so low and melancholy that it sounded like saddened music. Nothing that Fuller had ever before heard conveyed so much meaning so simply, and in so few syllables. It illuminated the long vista of the past, and cast a gloomy shadow into that of the future, alluding to a people driven from their haunts, never to find another resting-place on earth. That this young warrior so meant to express himself – not in an abject attempt to extort sympathy, but in the noble simplicity of a heart depressed by the fall of his race – Fuller could not doubt; and every generous feeling of his soul was enlisted in behalf of this young Indian.

“Seneca,” he repeated slowly, dropping his voice to something like the soft, deep tones of the other; “then you are in your own country, here?”

“My country,” answered the red man, coldly, “no; my FATHER’S country, yes.”

His English was good, denoting more than a common education, though it had a slightly foreign or peculiar accent. The intonations of his voice were decidedly those of the Indian.

“You have come to visit the land of your fathers?”

A slight wave of the hand was the reply. All this time the young Seneca kept his eye fastened in one direction, apparently regarding some object in the lake. Fuller could see nothing to attract this nearly riveted gaze, though curiosity induced him to make the effort.

“You admire this sheet of water, by the earnest manner in which you look upon it?” observed Fuller.

“See!” exclaimed the Indian, motioning toward a point near a mile distant. “He moves! may be he will come here.”

“Moves! I see nothing but land, water, and sky. What moves?”

“The Swimming Seneca. For a thousand winters he is to swim in the waters of this lake. Such is the tradition of my people. Five hundred winters are gone by since he was thrown into the lake; five hundred more must come before he will sink. The curse of the Manitou is on him. Fire will not burn him; water will not swallow him up; the fish will not go near him; even the accursed axe of the settler can not cut him into chips! There he floats, and must float, until his time is finished!”

“You must mean the ‘Wandering. Jew?’”

“So the pale-faces call him; but he was never a Jew. ‘Tis a chief of the Senecas, thrown into the lake by the Great Spirit, for his bad conduct. Whenever he tries to get upon the land, the Spirit speaks to him from the caves below, and he obeys.”

“THAT must mean the ‘Lake Gun?’”

“So the pale-faces call it. It is not strange that the names of the red man and of the pale-faces should differ.”

“The races are not the same, and each has its own traditions. I wish to hear what the Senecas say about this floating tree; but first have the goodness to point it out to me.”

The young Indian did as Fuller requested. Aided by the keener vision of the red man, our traveler at length got a glimpse of a distant speck on the water, which his companion assured him was the object of their mutual search. He himself had been looking for the “Jew” a week, but had asked no assistance from others, relying on the keenness of his sight and the accuracy of his traditions. That very morning he had first discovered the speck on the water, which he now pointed out to his companion.

“You think, then, that yonder object is the ‘Wandering Jew?’” asked Fuller.

“It is the Swimming Seneca. Five hundred winters has he been obliged to keep in the chilled waters of the lake; in five hundred more the Manitou will let him rest on its bottom.”

“What was the offense that has drawn down upon this chief so severe a punishment?”

“Listen to our traditions, and you shall know. When the Great Spirit created man, He gave him laws to obey, and duties to perform – “

“Excuse me, Seneca, but your language is so good that I hardly know what to make of you.”

An almost imperceptible smile played about the compressed lip of the young Indian, who, at first, seemed disposed to evade an explanation; but, on reflection, he changed his purpose, and communicated to Fuller the outlines of a very simple, and, by no means, unusual history. He was a chief of the highest race in his tribe, and had been selected to receive the education of a pale-face at one of the colleges of that people. He had received a degree, and, yielding to the irrepressible longings of what might almost be termed his nature, he no sooner left the college in which he had been educated, than he resumed the blanket and leggings, under the influence of early recollections, and a mistaken appreciation of the comparative advantages between the civilized condition, and those of a life passed in the forest and on the prairies. In this respect our young Seneca resembles the white American, who, after a run of six months in Europe, returns home with the patriotic declaration in his mouth, that his native land is preferable to all other lands. Fuller soon understood the case, when both reverted to their common object in coming thither. The young Seneca thereupon resumed his explanation.

“These laws of the Great Spirit,” continued the Seneca, “were not difficult to obey so long as the warrior was of a humble mind, and believed himself inferior to the Manitou, who had fashioned him with His hands, and placed him between the Seneca and the Cayuga, to hunt the deer and trap the beaver. But See-wise was one of those who practiced arts that you pale-faces condemn, while you submit to them. He was a demagogue among the red men, and set up the tribe in opposition to the Manitou.”
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