"IT is a long eight miles, this. What say you, Minnie?"
"I am not tired, papa, thank you," was the reply which, answering the spirit rather than the letter of the question, came, in the sweetest of girl-voices, out of the centre of a round mass of buffalo-robes occupying a back seat in a small ox-sleigh which was slowly making its way along the ups and downs of a Canadian back-country road. It was winter time,--the early February of the year 1837,--and the pure unbroken snow covered the ground with a dazzling robe on every side. The sun lay low upon the horizon, glinting aslant with cold beams upon the snow-crystals which tired the eye with their soft but colourless monotony, and throwing long dark shadows from every snow-swathed tree and bit of rising ground, while far, far overhead the clear light blue of the winter sky stretched its wide span unflecked by a single cloud. Very still and very chill was the scene,--the absolute hush of nature broken only by the rustling of the oxen's feet and the slipping of the sleigh as the travellers made their way over the covered track.
"I wonder, papa, if this is a type of what, our life is to be in this new land and new work," said the sweet girl-voice again alter a few minutes' silence.
"Wherefore should it be, my superstitious and over-impressionable little daughter?" answered the elder traveller, a world of fatherly kindness mingling with his accent of slight reproof. "If you start to your work in this omen-finding mood, you will lose both hope and faith. I will suggest another association of ideas,--'He giveth forth His ice like morsels;' 'O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.' And for ever they do it; winter after winter with the freshness of perpetual recurrence, and on mountain-peaks innumerable where the everlasting snow abides with all the majesty of changeless constancy."
A small hand pushed aside the heavy buffalo-robe just enough to let a pair of gravely smiling eyes, and a little bit of softly flushed cheek, make answer that the gentle admonition was understood and heeded. Silence fell again upon the occupants of the small sleigh, for they had been travelling the whole of the day, and weariness and cold are apt to assert their power over the mental faculties in an indirect but very irresistible way.
The short winter day waned and faded soon, and twilight deepening into the absolute shadows of night, made the lonely scene, wrapped in its thick white shroud, yet more weird and death-like. It was not much wonder that Minnie Holford felt the cold strike through as it were to her spirits, and benumb her hopefulness; these surroundings seemed but an unfriendly welcome to a new home.
But presently a fresh influence came over the landscape. The broad, full moon stole up the sky, which already wore its lesser jewelry with flashing brilliancy. These paled a little when she was well up; but the white-branched trees, and the uneven track, and the wide fields of snow, shone out in the full flood of silver light with a sparkling beauty that was strangely and solemnly gay. Each crystal point, each tiny icicle, multiplied the radiance and sent it on with compound interest, while the sharp, black shadows standing out in clearly-lined contrast to all this glitter of moonlight and snow, made resting-points of pleasant mystery in which the eye might seek relief.
"How gloriously beautiful!" exclaimed Minnie. "As I am on the search for omens," she added, with a little tone of frank self-accusation, "I may as well take the full benefit of this, so lustrously written on earth and sky 'At eventime it shall be light.'"
It was Mr. Holford's turn to give an answering smile of ready acquiescence.
A little way further their path took them through the heart of the primaeval forest. The moonlight splendour lighted up its dim arches, the wind swept with mournful and majestic cadence through the lofty pines, the stars peered down between the leafless branches, and again Minnie's admiration was aroused, in spite of weariness and fatigue, by the novel and beautiful scenes through which they were travelling.
"You will soon learn to love Canada, I hope," said her father, observing her pleasure in the forest beauty. "If you like it in its winter dress, how much more will you like it in the summer."
"Do you set me the example of loving it, papa?" asked the daughter, a little archly.
"I have not tried it yet under the best aspect, separated as I have been from you and the rest of my darlings. But even as it is, during the year that I have been getting ready for you all, I have grown very fond of our new home. It is a noble country, this Canada,--worthy of being the daughter of our glorious England. There are those who complain, and agitate, and grumble in both provinces, and murmur all kinds of disloyalty against the dear old mother-country, but these are people who would grumble anywhere and everywhere."
"Have they any ground for their murmurings, papa?"
"Oh, there are some things perhaps that need setting to rights, but where in this faulty world are there not? Some day I will put you up to all the abuses of your new country, my daughter, but just now we are nearing our home, and you are too cold and tired to benefit by a political lecture."
They had at length emerged from the belt of forest, and having crossed the top of a steepish hill, were descending into a small piece of cleared land. Halfway down the slope a cheerful light gleamed out from a low, but not unpicturesque log-house, whilst beyond, growing clearer and clearer as they slowly wended towards the farm, might be heard the rush and dash of water foaming and chafing over rocks and stones.
"Guess the young woman's glad to be to hum," observed the driver of the sleigh, with more acuteness of observation than purity of English.
Minnie had been sorely puzzled during the whole of the journey whether to be amused or offended at this man's manner and remarks. Her father had done his best to prepare her for the familiarity of the many Yankees whom she would encounter in Canada, but though prepared for it she was not yet accustomed to it, and it jarred uncomfortably upon her, as it does upon most English ears and notions of propriety. Now, however, in her gladness at the prospect of speedy warmth and rest, she answered him merrily enough after his own fashion,--"Guess I am, Ichabod, and many thanks to you and your oxen for fixing us right off so finely.--There, papa," she added in a lower voice, "Ichabod will think I was born and bred under the Stars and Stripes. I shall have made a friend of him perhaps for life by that bit of Yankee slang."
Mr. Holford smiled at his daughter's girlish vivacity. Little did either think how strangely in after days their fate would be connected with this American sleigh-driver.
Long before they reached the door of the farmhouse, they could perceive the fire stirred to a brighter glow, and as the tired oxen drew up in front of it, the door was opened by an elderly woman, who received the cramped and wearied Minnie from her father's arms at the threshold, and led her into a little room where blazed and crackled one of these same cheerful fires. She was so numbed in hands and feet, despite her fur cloakings, that she could scarcely move, and her eyes felt almost blinded by the flicker and dance of the wood flames after the cold stillness of the outer light. She sat down in the rocking-chair set ready for her with a little sigh of relief.
"What a nice chair, nurse, and I'm just so tired," she said simply, like a weary child.
"Sure, Miss," said Mary, busying herself the while with unfastening the necessary but rather cumbersome wraps in which the young girl was enveloped, "and that's just the best thanks you could have given me. But you're so late I had nigh covered the fires up and gone to bed, only my Jessie--she's grown a sharp girl since you saw her, Miss--said 'no,' and I mostways does as she says."
It was a face well in keeping with the sweet, low-toned voice, and the quick light motions of the little hand and foot, which was revealed when the protective mufflings of robe, hood and cloak were thrown aside. A face of rare sweetness and refinement rather than of startling beauty. Its charm came, upon the whole, rather from within than from without. It was the great store of simple-hearted and unselfish feeling shining quietly in the calm blue eyes, which made them as beautiful to look at as evening stars, rather than any extraordinary brilliancy that they possessed. It was the air of more than ordinary refinement and graceful intelligence expressed by the harmonious lines of the small head and youthful face, which gave them their charm rather than any absolute statuesque perfection.
"Jessie! so Jessie is here, is she? is my foster-sister Rose? Is she well?"
"She is in service in Montreal, Miss Minnie. She is quite well, and so is John. John is grown quite a tall fellow since we left the old country. He is married, Miss, and got the sweetest baby. And Rose, she is to be married soon. I don't know whether I like it quite, for you see, Miss, he is one of them French descended folk who live down the river. But then to be sure, Jessie, she is keeping company with a right down Englishman who lives close by here. And they are both good girls as ever stepped. Ah, I'll soon be left alone now by both of them;--and sure I'm speaking to myself alone even now."
At this stage of her little family history the good old nurse paused, the last sentence going off hastily into silence, on tiptoe as it were, for she suddenly became aware that between the length of the days' journey and the cold of it, contrasted with the present warmth and rest, her pretty foster-child had dropped into a quiet doze.
"Bless her," murmured her quondam nurse, "she is just the same innocent babe in the look of her lace and her pretty ways as she was eighteen years ago." And stooping down, the tall and hale old dame lifted the slight girl in her arms almost as easily as she might have done those said "eighteen years ago," and bore her into an adjoining room, where another cheery fire gleamed and flickered upon a small uncurtained bed, homely enough and hard-looking, but withal scrupulously clean and white. And not until the morning sun shone through the uncurtained and unshuttered window full upon her face, did the weary girl awake to the comforts and discomforts--for both are to be found there--of her Bush-home. Naturally of a buoyant and hopeful disposition, except when depressed by fatigue or illness, the former were the most quickly espied by her cheerful eyes when they opened fresh and invigorated by a good night's rest to the novelties of a Bush breakfast and a log-house.
"Your uncle will not arrive with the young ones for some hours yet, Minnie," observed her father, as they concluded their meal of home-made hot cakes and milk.
"Meanwhile I will see that the boxes are unpacked, and things put in order for them," responded Minnie. And oh, papa, can you spare half-an-hour to take me down to the river. The first thing that I heard when I woke this morning was its rushing noise, and I can see the beautiful spray from my bedroom window. And, papa," she added, all in one breath, "where is the church? I must see that soon."
Mr. Holford's face clouded. "My dear child, where are your thoughts? Do you think it is possible that every ten or twelve farms cleared out in this remote bush should be so fortunate as to have a church and a pastor attached to them, as in our bonnie, long-established England? No, dear girl, it is the sorest loss of living in the Bush, and, one of the 'contra's' that weighed most strongly in my mind when, on the loss of my property, I first began to debate with myself whether I should follow out this emigration plan."
"That was the reason I never got an answer from you, papa, when I enquired about the schools and church. But have we none within reach of our farm?"
"I did not like to run the risk of setting you against the place before you saw it, my child, by telling you of a want which I knew you would feel so greatly. There is a church at Peterborough, and in the better weather we can sometimes make an expedition thither. In time, I hope we may be able to get a church and a clergyman nearer at hand, and thus enjoy the benefit of full Church rites. Meanwhile I shall look to you, dear Minnie, to help me in supplying this terrible want as far as may be to the young ones, though we can do it but partially and feebly. And now go, put on your snow-shoes and your wraps, and I will shew you the beautiful Otonabee."
Minnie hastened to obey him. But not a little of her eager gladness was gone. In their English home, where Mr. Holford, before the loss of his property, had held an influential position, both he and his eldest daughter had been the rector's right hand in all schemes for the good of the parish. Mr. Holford was an earnest and consistent Churchman, and had carefully imbued his daughter with the same principles, so that a home where she would have to live without enjoying even the weekly, to say nothing of the daily, services of the Church, and would have to be content with perhaps only an Easter Communion, once a-year, seemed to her a very dismal and unhomelike abode indeed. It was with a heavy sigh that she glanced at her cherished little drawing of Weston parish church, which she had bestowed for safety's sake in her dressing-case, and sadly wondered who was filling her place in her own accustomed seat that morning within its hallowed walls, for it was the Feast of the Purification. Her father's voice cut short her musings, and in the exhilarating sensation of walking over the snow, through the fresh, not to say frosty air, her church griefs were for the moment laid aside. Beautiful, even in the ice-bound winter-time, vas the rushing Otonabee. No frost could lay its subduing band upon its leaping waters, no cruel ice-king bind it in deathlike trance. Overhung with fantastic frostwork and glittering icicles, and surrounded by the beautiful but deathlike snow which lay thick upon its shores and upon every little islet in its course, it still hurried and danced along between the rocky banks, as gay and impetuous as in the blithe summer time.
"It keeps up a brave heart in the midst of difficulties," observed Minnie, quaintly.
"Guess as how it makes more nor half its difficulties for itself," said a peculiar drawling voice close beside her. "I've seen folks as managed that 'ere way too. But I never see'd that it wor the better for them anyway."
"Nay, Ichabod," said Minnie, laughing, "but it is the poor river's bed that makes its difficulties for it, and so it is perhaps very often with the people."
"And who wor it made the bed, if it worn't the river itself. No, no, 'tis the river makes the bed, and then the bed makes the river. And so it be with a sight of folks. And you'll make a sick bed for yourself if you stand gaping at the river in the snow, and then the sick bed will make you--sorry." With which pithy application of his theoretical analogy Ichabod walked back to his oxen.
In due time and in perfect safety the "young ones" arrived, under he careful escort of an uncle who owned a farm not far from his brother-in-law's grant of land, and who had indeed been one of Mr. Holford's chief inducements to settling in Upper Canada. And Minnie's time was so completely taken up with the care of them, and with assisting and directing old Mary in the management of household matters, that she found no more time for "gaping at" the river, or anything else, for a while.