Editor’s Note: This post begins a series on Westborough folktales.
[From p. 10: “The legend of this pond was written by Hon. Horace Maynard for the ‘Horae Collegianae,’ published by the undergraduates of Amherst, in 1838. He says it was told to him ‘by an old Indian, the last of his tribe.’ This was probably old Andrew Brown, of whom more hereafter. With some omissions, it is as follows: —”]
“‘And this is my wedding-night,’ said the beautiful lano, as she stood contemplating her lithe and graceful form, mirrored in the glassy rivulet which forms the outlet of the Hobomak. Her beads and wampum were most daintily entwined about her neck and arms; her hair hung negligently on her shoulders, confined only by a fillet of wildflowers; a neatly wrought moccasin concealed a wanton little foot and ankle; and a mantle of bear-skin completed her attire. She was the belle of her tribe, and, like all belles, an incorrigible coquette. All the young warriors had in turn sued for her hand, and all had been rejected except the chief, Sassacus. He had remained a long time unsusceptible to her charms; or, if he had been moved, his emotions were kept locked up within his own breast. Even when he had inwardly re- solved to wed the proud and volatile creature, he refrained from communicating his sentiments, but adopted a course of policy which has succeeded in bringing many a flirt into the arms of her lover since those times. Somebody has said, — caustically enough, to be sure, — that if the suitor would cease to pursue his mistress, she would turn and give chase to him. Whether this be truth, or a mere epigram intended for effect, our regard for the sex will not allow us to decide; such, certainly, was the experience of Sassacus. He stood aloof from the fair one till she began to pine in secret for his love. Often would she watch him as he sat in council, or joined in the wild measures of the war-dance. She fed upon his looks till he became her soul’s ideal of beauty, — such steadfast limbs, such a massive chest, such a noble gait, such a lofty, commanding brow! All her arts of fascination had failed; and a sigh of mingled vexation and despair would escape from the very bottom of her heart, as she saw him from day to day sporting with the other and less beautiful maidens of the tribe.
“The keen-eyed chief let none of these things escape his notice; and when he had sufficiently humbled the proud spirit of the girl, he changed his demeanor. By a few trifling presents and an occasional flattering word he kindled a feeble spark of hope in the breast of the fair despondent, but, at the same time, without allowing her to presume on his affection. In this way he inveigled her completely into his power, and extorted a full confession of love, before he had given her the least proof of his ow^n attachment. He now began to play the lover in real earnest. Having stipulated with the parents of the maid for the price of her ransom, and all the other preliminaries being duly settled, he made preparation for the marriage festival. lano had reached the very pinnacle of happiness. Her step was the lightest among the maidens as they tripped it through the glades of the forest; her canoe danced gayest as they glided cheerily over the water. She longed for the hour when the priest should bind herself and her lover in the mystic girdle. And what betrothed damsel will not sympathize? Thus she stood by the brook meditating her approaching happiness, now readjusting her ornaments, and studying the effect; now patting the water with her tiny foot, and watching the ripples as they circled out of sight, till the sun had dropped behind the hills, and night had begun to fling her gray shadows over the earth. In the ecstasy of her joy her disposition for frolic returned. She had never ventured to play her pranks upon the stern Sassacus, but the temptation was too great to be resisted; she could not give up her maiden freedom without one more act of enjoyment. ‘The young men are assembling,’ she continued, soliloquizing; ‘I hear them laugh. I’ll give them the slip for one night.’
“The wedding-party had indeed assembled. The warriors were there, each with all the scalps and wolf-locks he and his ancestors had ever taken from the foe or secured in the chase. These trophies marked their rank more truly than the purest heraldic emblazonry; and, reckoned by this rule, Sassacus was found abundantly deserving the post of chief. He was the bravest of his nation; no arrow was more certain in its flight, whether winged at man or beast; and no tomahawk cleft its victim with a more deadly aim than his. On this occasion he was decked with unusual splendor. The string of fish-bones — the insignia of royalty — depended from his neck ; a triangular breast-plate, wrought from the fangs of the catamount, adorned his front; shells of small turtles dangled from his ears ; a circlet, into which were fastened the tails of rattlesnakes, entwined his brow, making music as he walked ; a tuft of eagle feathers crowned his head; while over his left shoulder was carelessly thrown a robe of wolf-skins, fringed with human scalps, a few of which were still green from the head of the fallen Pequot. Thus arrayed, he took his seat at the sacred fire, and on either side of him his warriors, according to rank. The seat at his right hand was vacant.
“‘Where is Wequoash?’” inquired he, glancing his eye over the company. As no one could answer him, all remained silent. He then propounded the question to each one in turn, and, by way of reply, he got an abundance of conjecture and much information touching the precious whereabouts of the missing; but, as far as any valuable, or in the least available, intelligence was concerned, his inquiries ended just where they began. The person in question was the second in rank to Sassacus, and his rival in war. For a long time he had been the avowed, and, as he supposed, the accepted, lover of the fair lano. The wreath that decked her brow his hand had woven; the fur robes that covered her lovely form were the spoils of his bow. In secret, indeed, she had cherished his hopes, intending to accept him at last should she fail in attracting Sassacus, though in public she had always treated him with the same cold indifference which marked her conduct towards the rest of her admirers. Thus fed, his passion increased in strength and violence, till it was too late to check its growth or to transfer it to another object. . . . In his anguish he had vowed eternal hate, and now awaited with his native indifference a favorable opportunity to wreck his purposed vengeance. By rank he was expected to be present at the marriage and to assist at the customary sacrifices, and the ardor with which he had superintended the preparations made his absence appear strange and unaccountable.
“On the north shore of the Hobomak is a plain stretching away to the distance of several miles, skirted on the western side by a high range of hills, whose declivities, lined as they are with jutting masses of rock and a few scattering old trees, are, even at this day, sufficiently solemn and gloomy.” The most prominent of this range is Boston hill, so called, because it was supposed to be as thickly populated with rattlesnakes as Boston with people. “Here and there yawns a cavern whose frightful depths few have courage or inclination to penetrate, so are left to be the abode of serpents and toads, and all such creatures as flee the face of man. Among these dismal haunts Wequoash, desirous to appear at the wedding signalized by some recent achievement, had been searching all day for the lurking-place of a panther which for a long time had infested the neighborhood. After an active and patient search, he found a crevice between two overhanging rocks that opened wider and deeper than the rest, and plunged into it without hesitation. On reaching the bottom he descried a narrow passage which branched off in a lateral direction under the base of the hill. Along this he crept upon his hands and knees for several hundred feet, till at length it terminated in a spacious cavern, the size of which, perfectly dark as it was, he found it difficult to determine. In this perplexity he gave a shrill cry, to try the effect of the reverberations. A low, faint echo died along the distant walls, followed by the hoarse growl of a wild beast. The experienced ear of the Indian instantly told him that he had hit upon the object of his search, and, directing a glance to another part of the vault, he discovered the eyes of the animal glaring like meteors in the midst of the surrounding darkness. . . .
“Wequoash quickly saw that he was discovered. He could perceive the gleaming eyes gradually making towards him, till, crouching within a few feet, the animal appeared on the point of making the fatal spring. It was a moment requiring all the nerve for which he was distinguished even among his own stout-hearted race. He had left his bow behind him, not supposing that he should require its service in the bosom of the hills; and his tomahawk, hanging at his side, was his only weapon of attack or defence. To move from his position, in a place with which he was wholly unacquainted, would be attended with great hazard, and to retreat through the narrow aperture by which he had entered would expose him to the attack of his foe at still greater disadvantage. Amidst these perplexities the cool-headed Indian formed his plan of action as deliberately as if the merest trifle had been staked upon the issue. Seizing his hatchet from his belt, he hulled it with an instinctive aim, and bounded from the floor of the cave. In his descent he fell prostrate upon the body of the beast. The deadly missile had cleft his skull, and, by vaulting from his position, the hunter avoided the fatal spring which the creature sometimes makes upon its enemies, in the agonies of death. With much effort he drew his booty to the mouth of the cavern, and, throwing it over his shoulder, commenced his return, night having long since fallen.
“The volatile lano could not resist the temptation to play the truant to her betrothed, and to disappoint, for one night at least, the assembled youth of the tribe. At the farther extremity of the Hobomak was a huge old willow, mantled by an enormous wild grape-vine whose branches depended so as to form a beautiful natural arbor. Thither she was fond of retiring with one or two of her companions, and they, in honor of her, had named it lano’s bower. In this charmed retreat she determined to pass the night, even at the risk of forever alienating her lover. So, unmooring her canoe, she stepped into the toppling thing, and darted from the shore. Away, away it flew dancing over the water, so light as scarcely to leave a ripple on the tranquil surface. Before she had reached the middle, the harvest-moon arose and threw its full-orbed light directly upon her. Hearing the sound of a light, stealthy footstep, and fearing that she should be discovered, she turned her canoe towards the nearest shore, and took refuge under the shadows of the overhanging trees.
“Wequoash was hastening homeward with his game, anxious lest he should be too late to participate in the cheer of the festival ; for it ill assorted with his ideas of manliness, as well as with his dark system of policy, to appear wanting in merriment and good-nature on an occasion so joyous to his rival and so humiliating to himself. As he neared the shore of the pond he descried a canoe skimming gracefully over the water, the moonbeams glancing from the paddle as it rose in light and even strokes, which the rower would now and then suspend, and look cautiously about her as if suspecting danger.
“‘It is the canoe of the False-hearted,’ said he to himself; ‘no other of our girls can dip her oars so lightly.’ She was alone, and he could wish for no more favorable opportunity to accomplish the pent-up purpose of his breast. The demon of vengeance had seized fast hold upon him, and every other consideration was forgotten. Seeing her approach the shore, he cast off his hunting-dress, dropped into the water a little before the bark, and swam softly beneath the surface till he was within a few feet of it. Just then the vigilant fugitive let fall her paddle, and applied her ear close to the water that she might detect more readily the footsteps of her pursuers, little dreaming that so deadly a foe lurked at the very bow of her skiff. To seize her by her floating tresses and drag her down required but little effort. A thrilling shriek of agony, a few frantic struggles, and all was over. She sunk like lead when released from the powerful grasp of the warrior. The canoe he dragged to a little distance, threw into it a large stone, which secured it firmly at the bottom, thus obliterating every trace of his victim. He regained the shore, resumed his dress, bore away his game to a place of concealment, and, plunging into the forest, quickly was out of sight.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“The maidens who had been appointed to escort the bride into the presence of her lord sent one of their number with a message that lano had disappeared a little before sunset, and could nowhere be found. A suspicion flashed across every mind that her disappearance was some way connected with the absence of Wequoash. All knew the strength of his former attachment and suspected the depth of his disappointment, and they were well assured that his haughty and irascible spirit would never brook an injury. Seizing their hatchets and bows, Sassacus and his young men sprang off into the woods to discover, if possible, the delinquent bride. Long and diligent was their search; every glade and dell was explored, but all to no purpose. Her canoe was gone, and no traces of it or of her could be found. Silent and dejected, they returned to the scene of their festivity; all but Sassacus. He came not. For hours they awaited him, indulging a feeble hope that he had been more successful; but even this, faint as it was, was dashed by the approach of the chief, wearing a look of despair. He had seen his bride unmoor her skiff, and, guessing her intention, had run along the shore, keeping parallel with the course, intending to surprise the fair fugitive by seizing her in his arms just as she should spring to the land. She had eluded his sight by rowing under the cover of the woods on the opposite shore, and he began to fear she had given him the slip, after all his vigilance, when a narrow opening in the trees let in the moonbeams upon her, enough to project the out- line of her form. All at once he saw her drop her oar, bend her ear to the water in the act of listening, then sink heavily beneath the wave. He remembered the heartless sacrifice, and his native superstition overcame him. His bride had perished by the unseen power of the Evil Spirit.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“After two days had elapsed, Wequoash had appeared in the village bearing the body of the panther. He was received by the aged and the children, the women and the warriors, with yells of delight; for his burden explained the cause of his absence, and, as usually happens when men find they have been indulging in groundless suspicions, their regard for him rose to a higher pitch than before. On learning the miserable fate of lano, he was smitten with deep apparent grief; he smote his breast, and uttered the most frantic exclamations, like one distracted. Recovering at length, he applied himself with unwearied assiduity to console the unhappy Sassacus, and by degrees the chief became more and more cheerful, till he appeared to have quite forgotten his sorrow. His gladness was but temporary, for heaviness and depression of spirits again stole over him, which terminated soon after with his life. Wequoash had now obtained complete revenge; his rival and his false-hearted mistress were both sleeping in the arms of death, and no one suspected his agency in destroying them. He assumed the command of the tribe, and having mourned a decent interval over the dead body of his predecessor, he sought to obliterate his memory from the minds of the people by leading them out to battle against the brave Narragansetts. Since, among savages, personal prowess is the only basis of distinction, his bravery and address in war soon rendered him a universal favorite.
‘”The thirteenth moon had just begun to wane when Wequoash, returning one evening from a hunting expedition, seated himself upon a fallen tree near the shore of the Hobomak, and not far from the spot where, the year before, he had taken such vengeance upon the solitary maiden. . . . As he sat thus in troubled contemplation, a flame appeared streaming from the water just over the place where the bones of the maiden slept, and casting upon everything around a blue mephitic light, of all, the most fearful. Presently a canoe arose, and floated straight towards him, as if animated by an invisible agency. Urged by an irresistible influence, he entered it, and was wafted directly to the strange illumination, which gradually resolved into a form like the form of the murdered lano, only the expression was more sad and pensive. The spirit gazed intently upon him for a long time, unable as he was to resist the fascination; then, uttering a piercing shriek, melted away from his sight. He fell in a state of insensibility; on recovering, he found himself lying by the fallen tree, suffering from extreme exhaustion, and with much difficulty crept home before morning.
“Another revolution of the seasons brought another similar night. The lightnings gleamed vividly in the far-off horizon; the fireflies flitted over the morass; stillness reigned; the blue flame arose; the skiff came to the shore; the chieftain was again impelled to embark; the sorrowful form of the dead again appeared before him, and, exclaiming ‘Only once more,’ again vanished into the abyss of waters.
“Deep melancholy now pervaded the mind of Wequoash. For days he would roam the forest without food, and shunning the faces of his fellow-men. . . . In this manner the year wore away, and the fatal night returned. This time he assembled the tribe by the shore, and, in a long and pathetic harangue, disclosed to them how that it was by his hand the canoe of lano had sunk; how that he had poisoned the sorrowing Sassacus under the pretence of administering exhilarating draughts. He then recounted his interviews with the unavenged spirit of the injured girl, and darkly alluded to the fate that there awaited him. Petrified with fear, they saw him enter the approaching canoe, and move passively to the mysterious flame. A form arose, but it was not the form of lano. Her gentle spirit could not come for vengeance. It was the form of Sassacus, dark, terrific, confounding. ‘This is my hour,’ it said. Wequoash drew his robe closer about him, and folded his arms in token of resignation. A black cloud hovered over him; a vivid flash, a stunning thunder-peal, a few big rain-drops, — all was over; thick darkness succeeded; the chieftain was seen no more.
“The season was afterwards celebrated by the tribe for many generations, and a song was composed, which the maidens sung at their marriage festivals, — a mournful thing, descriptive of the character and fortunes of the rival chiefs and the too-much-loved lano. Whenever they crossed the Hobomak, they each carried a stone and sunk it at the fatal spot, till at length the pile rose above the water. It has since fallen away by the action of the waves, but even now it may be seen when the surface is perfectly tranquil. A mysterious dread still attaches to it, and if the fisherman chance to strike it with his oar, he hurries away as from a place to be avoided.”
Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!
Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.