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A Mountain Woman Elia W. Peattie

Two Pioneers

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Father de Smet would not at any time have called Ninon a scarlet woman. But when he ate the dish of soup or tasted the hot corn-cakes that she invariably invited him to partake of as he passed her little house, he refrained with all the charity of a true Christian and an accomplished epicure from even thinking her such. And he remembered the words of the Saviour, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone."

To Father de Smet's healthy nature nothing seemed more superfluous than sin. And he was averse to thinking that any committed deeds of which he need be ashamed. So it was his habit, especially if the day was pleasant and his own thoughts happy, to say to himself when he saw one of the wild young trappers leaving the cabin of Mademoiselle Ninon: "He has been for some of the good woman's hot cakes," till he grew quite to believe that the only attractions that the adroit Frenchwoman possessed were of a gastronomic nature.

To tell the truth, the attractions of Mademoiselle Ninon were varied. To begin with, she was the only thing in that wilderness to suggest home. Ninon had a genius for home-making. Her cabin, in which she cooked, slept, ate, lived, had become a boudoir.

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The walls were hung with rare and beautiful skins; the very floor made rich with huge bear robes, their permeating odors subdued by heavy perfumes brought, like the spices, from St. Louis. The bed, in daytime, was a couch of beaver-skins; the fireplace had branching antlers above it, on which were hung some of the evidences of the fair Ninon's coquetry, such as silken scarves, of the sort the voyageurs from the far north wore; and necklaces made by the Indians of the Pacific coast and brought to Ninon by -- but it is not polite to inquire into these matters. There were little moccasins also, much decorated with porcupine-quills, one pair of which Father de Smet had brought from the Flathead nation, and presented to Ninon that time when she nursed him through a frightful run of fever. She would take no money for her patient services.

"Father," said she, gravely, when he offered it to her, "I am not myself virtuous. But I have the distinction of having preserved the only virtuous creature in the settlement for further usefulness. Sometimes, perhaps, you will pray for Ninon."

Father de Smet never forgot those prayers.

These were wild times, mind you. No use to keep your skirts coldly clean if you wished to be of help. These men were subduing a continent. Their primitive qualities came out. Courage, endurance, sacrifice, suffering without complaint, friendship to the death, indomitable hatred, unfaltering hope, deep-seated greed, splendid gayety -- it takes these things to subdue a continent. Vice is also an incidental, -- that is to say, what one calls vice. This is because it is the custom to measure these men as if they were governed by the laws of civilization, where there is neither law nor civilization.

This much is certain: gentlemen cannot conquer a country. They tried gentlemen back in Virginia, and they died, partly from lack of intellect, but mostly from lack of energy. After the yeomen have fought the conquering fight, it is well enough to bring in gentlemen, who are sometimes clever lawmakers, and who look well on thrones or in presidential chairs.

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A Mountain Woman
Elia W. Peattie

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