It might have been a little past midnight or more when Denham was awoke by a gentle hand laid upon his shoulder, and starting up in bed found his sister standing by his side, her little bare feet and white night-dress but half concealed by a heavy cloak which she had hastily thrown round her shoulders. Her white face and trembling limbs in one moment roused in the lad a spirit and courage far beyond his years. There was clearly some danger at hand, and his gentle sister, woman-like, was terrified at its approach; now was the time for him to support and aid, if possible to protect her.
"What is amiss, dear Minnie?" he asked, with a calmness which helped Minnie to regain a portion of her own. While he was speaking he was quickly slipping on shoes and trowsers, that he might be ready for action in case of any emergency. Confidence and courage are happily almost as infectious as their reverse, and Minnie's cheeks lost a little of their deathly whiteness and her limbs a little of their uncontrollable agitation when she saw Denham's readiness and coolness.
"Come into my room," she said, "I have something to shew you."
"And I've something to shew you," he said, with a little oddity of expression, which almost made Minnie smile, despite her terrified excitement, as he pointed to her little white toes, which both looked and were half frozen. "Whatever may be the matter, it cannot be made better by your catching cold."
That little practical, commonplace observation about so every-day a matter as 'catching cold' wonderfully helped on Minnie's restoration to her usual state of calm and thoughtful self-possession. She drew a long sigh of relief as she consciously felt the strained excitement, of her mood relax.
"Oh, Denham, perhaps it is not as bad as I fancied. But to confess the honest truth, I was so scared that I just leaped out of bed and rushed to you without waiting to think at all. It's a wonder how I got hold of this cloak. But I shall soon be brave now I've got hold of you."
If Denham himself had felt courageous before, doubly so did he feel after that little speech of his sister's. While thus speaking they had mounted into the little upper room, where Minnie slept with Ella and little Harry, Mary and Jessie occupying a portion which was boarded off from the rest; while Denham and Mr. Holford slept downstairs. And here the cause of Minnie's alarm became at once apparent Through the window, which looked westward,--away from the river and in the direction of John Kirkpatrick's farm,--a lurid, smoky glare might be distinctly seen, and from time to time, as the wind, which had only partially abated, swept through the forest, a tongue of flame might be seen for a moment leaping up so that its jagged point could be seen above the intervening pine and cedar-trees.
"What do you think it is, Minnie?" said her brother, after having surveyed the scene for a minute or so. "Is it an accident to Kirkpatrick's farm? or the forest fired by Indians? or possibly--can it be?--a signal of distress from the Kirkpatricks?"
"None of these, Denham. I know not why, but I feel convinced that this has to do with the visit of that evil-faced man who came here to-night. Denham," she added, in a frightened whisper, "it's the rebels!"
By one of those strange presentiments which sometimes seem sent by a merciful Providence as forewarnings, she had divined the terrible truth. A cold thrill of horror shot through Denham's heart. There are few people who, finding themselves "in a strait" between the perils of raging and deadly elements and those of wicked and infuriated men, would not with eager earnestness make David's choice,--" Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, and let us not fall into the hand of man."
Denham made no reply for a moment. He would not increase his sister's alarm by adding his convictions and fears to hers. Then he said, "In any case, Minnie, there is some mischief near, and we must be prepared. Get yourself and the children dressed, darling, while I wake Mary and Jessie, and see to the guns and the fastenings."
Amid all her alarm Minnie could not but feel a fond admiration of the manliness, thoughtfulness, and promptness which the necessities of this trying moment had suddenly called forth in her boy-brother.
"You are a stay and support indeed to me, Denham," she said, earnestly. For one moment their lips met in a kiss, heartfelt on both sides, before they unclasped their hands and turned from the window, where they had been standing side by side looking at the fire, to attend to the few little precautionary measures which lay within their power. How often in after years did Denham think with tender remembrance of that hasty but fond kiss, and that tight clasp of loving hands before they parted on that eventful night!
Hardly had they had time to rouse the other sleepers, when a hurried rapping was heard at the house-door, and a moment afterwards a voice, raised high in plaintive entreaty, begged them "for the love of God" to let the speaker in.
"Sure and that is the voice of my John's wife," exclaimed Mary; "do go down, Master Denham, there's a dear boy, and undo the door for her,--or stay, I'll run myself as you're busy with that gun."
For Denham was just in the act of reaching down a double-barrelled gun from the hooks upon which it had been slung up. The next moment they heard the good woman hastily unfastening the door to let in her daughter-in-law. Thin they heard a footstep enter the lower room, rather a heavy footstep for young Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who was a light-footed Canadian lass, then a scream from old Mary, and immediately afterwards a coarse, brutal laugh which rang horribly through the little house.
"Caught in the trap, old gal," exclaimed a voice as loud and coarse as the laugh.
Little Ella joined her screams to those of poor old Mrs. Kirkpatrick, and for a moment Denham felt as if his wits were altogether forsaking him. The heavy footsteps swarmed in one after another,--it was but too clear that that entreating voice had been a cruel and too successful stratagem on the part of a numerous band of assailants, whose very manner of seeking admission betokened that they came with evil purposes. One man advanced to the foot of the little flight of narrow and steep stairs, which almost, after the fashion of a ladder, formed the only mode of access to the loft rooms.
"You there,--you children of the rascally William Holford," said a harsh, slow-speaking voice, which Minnie and Denham immediately recognised as that of their evening visitor, "come down peaceably and directly. We have the old woman tightly pinioned, and if you give us any trouble or offer any resistance, we shall put a knife across her throat in one moment."
A hurried consultation ensued between the brother and sister.
"They have us doubly in their power, Minnie," whispered Denham. "Poor Mary is in their hands, and they will not scruple, upon the least provocation on our part, to carry out their threat of murdering her; and besides this, the house can be fired in a moment if we anger them.
"Right, Denham. Conciliation is our only chance, and we must use that to the utmost for the sake of the children and the servants. Do you go down, and I will follow as soon as I have got my dress on." For, ever thinking of others before herself, Minnie had been busy in dressing little Harry and helping Ella, to the neglect of herself.
Before Denham could obey her suggestion, a voice from the window-side of the apartment startled them.
"Now then, young lady,"--with a scornful emphasis on the word 'lady,'--"there's not so much as a sparrow to see you in the woods, and its thither you're bound; so you needn't put on more nor you have on already."
The man had mounted upon the ladder, which he had espied leaning against the wood-shed, and was gazing insolently in at the window while speaking. Little Harry, who had not hitherto clearly understood the reason of sister Minnie's waking him up from his comfortable bed and dressing him at that unusual hour, now joined his tears and cries to those of poor Ella; and Denham, uncertain whether under this fresh insult to adhere to their plan of conciliation, grasped his gun in the momentary impulse to fire at this man at least, whatever he might do with the rest. He was not left to his own choice in the matter, however: while their attention had been directed to the window-side of the room, Samuel Lount with a couple of others, having slipped off their heavy boots, had made their way unperceived up the loft stairs, and three stalwart men were more than a match for a lad of twelve and two girls; for of course poor little Ella and Harry counted for nothing in the struggle. It seemed to the terrified captives the work but of a moment to drag them down-stairs and out into the dark night, to tear them apart from each other, and lead them off by separate paths into the snowy pine-forest. Vainly did Minnie strive to writhe herself free from the rude arm which grasped her waist and urged her unwillingly forward. Vainly did Denham fight and struggle with his powerful captor, who carried the slight boy in his brawny arms as easily as Denham himself might have carried Harry, and strode over the farm-fields in an opposite direction, and from thence still farther into the unenclosed laud beyond. Vainly did both beseech and pray, with all the arguments and entreaties they could think of, for mercy and gentle usage. The men were deaf to everything they said, and dragged them over the deep snow farther and farther from each other and from their home, out into the desolate darkness.
"Here, take the young un with yer," said the ruffian who had hold of Minnie, pausing at last, as he thrust little Harry into her arms, and prepared to make off, leaving her, bewildered and half naked, in the trackless forest; for beyond muffling her head as well as her shoulders in the cloak which she had herself thrown on when first aroused by the fire, the men had dragged her from her room and out of the house in just the same attire she was in when Denham warned her of the risk of catching cold. Minnie made a last effort at self-preservation by appealing to the man's better feelings--if he had any.
"Have you no children of your own?" she pleaded. "Would it not break your heart to think that they were out, houseless and unprotected, in such a night as this? Especially such a little one as this," she added, looking at Harry.
The man made no answer but a surly grunt, and, began to move off. Minnie had reckoned on what this fellow did not possess, namely, some latent sparks of charity and compassion.
"At least will you not tell me where my other brother and my little sister are?" exclaimed Minnie in despair, calling after him.
"You'll meet them in the wood if you look long enough," he shouted back, with a mocking laugh. "I'd come with yer,--William Holford's children deserve that we should shew 'em all the attention we can,--but I reckon supper is ready at the farm by now, and I'm hungry. I wish you a pleasant walk."
His voice was lost in the distance and in the howling-wind, as he ended his mocking speech, and Minnie was alone with her little brother in the pine-wood. Piercingly bitter was the wind that swept steadily down from the north over the frozen snow. There was no escaping from is keen edge even for a moment, it blew with such a steady, untiring malignity. The snow lay knee-deep upon the rugged ground, and even though the storm was past, continual dropping of frozen snow-flakes fell sharply on Minnie's head from the over-laden boughs of the trees above her. She clasped little Harry closely in her arms,--he would have been buried in the snow had she allowed him to try and walk, as the brave little fellow asked her to do,--and gathering the cloak as tightly as possible around them both, she began to creep forward in the hope--poor child! there was the bitterest misery of it, she had no hope when she asked herself what was indeed her plan or hope in going onward, she was suddenly brought to a stand by this desperate conviction. To go back was indeed to fall into the hands of the very ruffians who had just cast her forth, but to go forward into the intricacies of the forest was only to plunge yet farther away from all human aid whatever. If she could only find the path to her Uncle Henry's house, she might escape both the rebels and the cold, but in the black gloom of midnight, in a pine-forest and no moon up, the impossibility of this was too apparent to give her so much as a moment's comfort. She raised her voice and shouted her brother Denham's name. Again and again she did this, but the moaning of the wind and the clashing of the branches were the only sounds that made answer. Had she been alone she would have sat down on the ground where she was, and committing herself to God's keeping, made no further effort to escape from her perilous position; but for the sake of the child in her arms she again began to struggle onwards, that he might have the chance, all faint as that chance was, of reaching some shelter before the cold had seriously affected him. Oh that terrible wind! How it numbed the poor girl's limbs, how it nipped them sharply, and yet more sharply, until the excruciating pain was almost more than she could bear without tears. She waded on through the deep snow nevertheless, now and then raising her voice as before in that hopeless cry,--"Denham! help, Denham!" A verse came somewhat quaintly into her mind,--"Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward;" and albeit that the application was by no means exact, it came upon Minnie, as such sudden thoughts in seasons of great trial often do, with all the stern for of a personal admonition. Yes, heedless of pain, heedless of the toil of the way, and the uncertainty of the end, "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward." And so she struggled on, staying herself upon that one thought, that He who went before them with the fiery cloud, went before her. too, though not so visibly.
"Minnie," whispered the frightened child in her arms, "will those men come after us any more?'
"No, darling; I think not. Are you cold?"
"No, Minnie, hardly at all. But you are, I knew, by the sound of your voice. Let me walk, darling Min, I'm too big for you to carry."
"Hush, my pet; the snow is too deep for you to get through: and we must go on, we must not stand still. Harry, darling, do you know that we are in great danger?" she added, in a low, sweet voice, that awed but did not frighten the little fellow. "We are both in great danger of dying, Harry. I am afraid I cannot find the track to Uncle Henry's house, and we shall be lost in the forest, if I cannot find it; and then either the wolves may come upon us, or the snow may freeze us. I want you to lie quite still, and to say your little evening prayers, Harry, for yourself and for me."
"Yes, Minnie." And the little boy, lying quite still as she had told him to do, began whispering his prayers to himself. His sister's quiet voice, and the safe feeling of her warm arms round him, prevented him from feeling the fear he otherwise would at the prospect of wolves and frost; and the specially calming occupation which she had set him, kept his little mind peacefully employed, and suggested all the thoughts which could most inspire him with fortitude and courage. As for Minnie herself, she was learning by sharp experience what a terrible capacity the body has for feeling pain, and for transmitting its own sensations of weakness and agony to the mind. With all her resolution and all her bravery, she could not keep back the tears which fell down her cheeks, and froe as they fell. Her limbs felt heavy as lead, so that she could scarcely drag them after her; and the searching pain which she was enduring tortured every part of her with sharp anguish. "By Thine agony and passion; by Thy precious death and burial, good Lord, deliver us!" The words escaped from her lips almost unawares, wrung from her by the extremity of her suffering, which made her instinctively take refuge in prayer, and fly for aid to Him who was the "Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief."
The next moment site felt almost ashamed to have used such solemn words wily because she was in bodily pain,--the more so that the pain was suddenly and considerably abated. She did not know that it was "the bitterness of death" through which she had been passing,--that the strug1e was over now, the glory quite secure, the rest already begun. Fainter and fainter grew her steps, heavier and yet more numb her limbs, less and still less the bitter aching. And now the last fatal symptom of death by cold stole over her,--an unconquerable, irresistible desire to sleep, a desire which the most resolute will has no power long to combat, since it is the result of disease, set up in the very organ through which alone the will can act upon the rest of the body. She knew, of course, as every one does, the cause of this sleepiness, and its probable result; and she fought against it as long as she could, ever murmuring to herself her little watchword, "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward." But it was all of no avail. Dimmer and dimmer grew her consciousness, her feet refused to obey her; and instinctively clasping little Harry yet more tightly in her arms, she sank down upon the soft snow. One faint thought glimmered through her waning consciousness, a thought of how there had come to the children of Israel, at last, a time of "going forward" which had taken them out of the weary wilderness, and brought them to the land of Canaan, and to their promised rest. It was the last movement of her oppressed brain, and it left a faint, sweet smile upon her pale, sleeping lips.
"Minnie dear, Minnie," said little Harry, moving uneasily in her still arms, "did you hurt yourself when you slipped down? The snow's so soft, I don't think you did. But, Min, darling, do tell me,--do speak to me." There was no answer; only the clasp of the gentle arms relaxed a little, as the boy fidgeted about to get a look at her face.
"She must have gone to sleep," said the child, a little ruefully; "and now, perhaps, the wolves will come and eat us while she is asleep." He would have cried at this really alarming idea, but that he was afraid of "waking poor Minnie, who must be so tired with carrying him so far in the snow." The little lad, fully dressed himself, closely wrapped in the big cloak from the keen wind, and well away from the snow, was comparatively quite warm, and never dreamt--poor innocent child!--that cold, and not fatigue; had caused his sister's sleep, nor yet what kind of sleep it was. Anxious always to obey Minnie to the full extent of his capability, and to please her as much as he could, he said his prayers again, and then nestling himself up closely upon her quiet bosom, the little fellow also fast asleep. But his was the healthy sleep of an over-excited child.