IT was a dark, stormy night. The wind whistled and howled around the little farm-house by the Otonabee as if it would raze it from its foundations and cast it into the foaming rapids of the river, then whirled away through the pine-forest shrieking as it went, and tearing the tops of the trees with remorseless hand.
Denham had just piled up the wood-fire, to a cheerful blaze, and drawn Minnie's chair close between that and the table on which stood her large house-wifely basket, overflowing with little socks and stockings, torn pinafores to be carefully patched for the hundredth time, and shirts of Denham's with the buttons off. It had been a moot point between this young gentleman and his sister whether she should be allowed to add his faulty linen to her weekly task of mending, Denham contending that it was quite enough that she should have to work for the children, and that he ought to be on her hands no longer, but rather, in Bush fashion, should learn to turn his hand to anything, and make and mend for himself. But Minnie would not hear of it, and her objections carried the day. "It was all very well for him to do such a little job just once or twice for practice," she said; "she did not like boys to be utterly helpless in such matters, but Denham would not always live in the Bush, and if he wanted a little change in the evening time from his Latin and mathematics, drawing or cabinet-making was a much more useful and fitting recreation for him. And besides, she should lose just the portion of her needlework she liked the best if she had not his things to do." And so the point was settled, and Denham's thoughtful anxiety to save his sister's toil could only find vent by making him take a scrupulous care about the unnecessary rending of his garments which no other motive could have induced him to do. She had not yet come down from the little upper room, (for their house boasted a second story, albeit that it was more after the fashion of a loft than a sleeping-chamber,) where she was putting little Harry to bed, when a somewhat imperative rap at the door made Denham hasten to open it. On such a night as this it was excusable in any one, be he who he might, to be somewhat hasty in demanding admittance. A tall man entered, the moment the door was opened, letting in with him a gust of snow and wind which made Denham involuntarily shiver. The stranger was very tall,--it might be six feet or more. He had a long, melancholy-looking face, a sallow complexion, and very thick, black eyebrows, which gave a lowering look to his heavy eyes; eyes that rested in a slow, fixed manner upon any one whom he chanced to look at, in a way that was peculiarly unpleasant.
"It is a mighty cold flight," he said, slowly, as he walked towards the fire, eyeing Denham in the meantime in the fixed manner we have described.
Denham set a chair for the stranger with an air of innate courtesy which gave a grace to all that the boy did.
"You must be almost frozen if you have travelled far through such a storm as this," he observed.
"I have not come far," said the slow-speaking stranger, "but a little distance in this wind is enough to chill the blood."
There was a little pause. Denham did not like to make more enquiries for fear of seeming impertinently curious, and there was something in his guest's gloomy and sinister aspect which checked the ready flow of ordinary chit-chat. Denham was not sorry when Minnie's entrance relieved him from the weight of the stranger's leaden eyes, which now turned slowly upon her with the same intent gaze.
"You are the children of William Holford, I believe?"' he observed, interrogatively, after Minnie had offered refreshments which were apparently very acceptable to the traveler.
"And your father is away?" he added, on receiving from Minnie an affirmative reply to his first query.
Minnie did not feel called upon to state the nature of the occupation which took Mr. Holford from home, and therefore she gain imply answered, "Yes."
"Long away?" said the catechetical stranger.
"Some little time," replied Minnie, shortly, annoyed at the cold stare and persistent questionings of their unprepossessing guest. "Now Ella, dear," she said, turning to her little sister, "get your work. I am going to work also, while Denham reads to us."
Denham immediately took the hint, and thawing his seat to the light, opened his book, and turned the leaves quickly to find his place. Before he could do so the sallow-faced man interposed another question.
"When does your father come home?"
"Perhaps he wants to see him," thought Minnie to herself, taking herself to task at the same moment for the feelings of dislike and irritation that were momentarily gaining ground in her usually charitable and kindly mind towards this man. She answered his question by another, however:--"Do you want to see him, Sir? You can leave any message or note with me that you please."
"Ah! you don't know, then, when he is coming back," observed the man, with an air of quiet satisfaction which made his heavy visage yet more unpleasing. Minnie, who was by nature somewhat nervous and timid, could gladly have walked out into the wind and snow to have avoided the pertinacious glare of his great black eyes as he made this last. remark. She controlled herself, however, and merely repeating, "I can give him any message you like to leave;" signed to her brother to begin his reading, hoping by that act to induce the stranger either to state his errand, if he really had any, or to go away if he had only stepped in for refreshment and a temporary shelter from the storm.
"I shall not trouble you," said the stranger, rising; nor shall I trouble you longer with my presence."
His long legs carried him almost in a single stride from the fireside to the door; he opened it, and was gone. Minnie would fain have said something courteous as a parting speech, that at least her guest might have a pleasant last reminiscence, but he was gone before she had time to say anything. His last movement was the quickest that he had made during the whole of his visit.
"What an odious man!" exclaimed little Ella, as the door closed upon the obnoxious visitor. "You turned quite white, Minnie, when he stared at you so rudely."
"Did I? Certainly I have seldom before seen any one whom I disliked so much at first sight. I hope I was not rude to him?" she added, appealing to Denham.
"You could not be rude if you tried," answered her brother. "Even when you answer any one briefly, you do it with a tone of voice and a little gentle lighting up of your dear eyes which turns it into the sweetest courtesy."
"Hush, Denham," said Minnie, laughing and blushing, as she laid her finger on his lips, "what a flatterer you are, you will turn my head; there is no getting an honest opinion out of you. But now let us think no more of this disagreeble man. Read to us, dear Denham, and let us forget him."
How much more Minnie's dislike and timidity might have been aroused had she known that the stranger who had been sitting by her fireside was none other than Samuel Lount, the blacksmith, of Yonge-street, the notorious rebel leader and the sworn ally of Mackenzie, Fletcher, Lloyd, and the other demagogues more especially connected with the affair of Montgomery's Tavern, it is impossible to say; but even as it was, all Denham's reading and all Ella's merry prattle failed entirely to restore her equanimity, or to drive froth her mind a shuddering recollection of those heavy, sinister eyes, and that coldly impertinent questioning voice. She did her best, however, to conceal her uncomfortable feelings from her brother and sister, and the evening wore away as usual. The Evensong was duly said, the fires were covered up, the fire-arms were loaded,--for in that lonely place and in these unsettled times it was a matter of mere ordinary precaution to do thus much,--and all retired to bed.