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- Lost in the Backwoods - 2/37 -
Hector and Louis were fourteen--strong, vigorous, industrious, and hardy, both in constitution and habits. The girls were turned of twelve. It is not with Mathilde that our story is connected, but with the two lads and Catharine. With the gaiety and _naivete_ of the Frenchwoman, Catharine possessed, when occasion called it into action, a thoughtful and well-regulated mind, abilities which would well have repaid the care of mental cultivation; but of book-learning she knew nothing beyond a little reading, and that but imperfectly, acquired from her father's teaching. It was an accomplishment which he had gained when in the army, having been taught by his colonel's son, a lad of twelve years of age, who had taken a great fancy to him, and had at parting given him a few of his school-books, among which was a Testament without cover or title-page. At parting, the young gentleman recommended its daily perusal to Duncan. Had the gift been a Bible, perhaps the soldier's obedience to his priest might have rendered it a dead letter to him; but as it fortunately happened, he was unconscious of any prohibition to deter him from becoming acquainted with the truths of the gospel. He communicated the power of perusing his books to his children Hector and Catharine, Duncan and Kenneth, in succession, with a feeling of intense reverence; even the labour of teaching was regarded as a holy duty in itself, and was not undertaken without deeply impressing the obligation he was conferring upon them whenever they were brought to the task. It was indeed a precious boon, and the children learned to consider it as a pearl beyond all price in the trials that awaited them in their eventful career. To her knowledge of religious truths young Catharine added an intimate acquaintance with the songs and legends of her father's romantic country; often would her plaintive ballads and old tales, related in the hut or the wigwam to her attentive auditors, wile away heavy thoughts.
It was a lovely sunny day in the flowery month of June. Canada had not only doffed that "dazzling white robe" mentioned in the songs of her Jacobite emigrants, but had assumed the beauties of her loveliest season; the last week in May and the first three of June being parallel to the English May, full of buds and flowers and fair promise of ripening fruits.
The high sloping hills surrounding the fertile vale of Cold Springs were clothed with the blossoms of the gorgeous scarlet castilegia coccinea, or painted-cup; the large, pure, white blossoms of the lily-like trillium grandiflorum; the delicate and fragile lilac geranium, whose graceful flowers woo the hand of the flower-gatherer only to fade almost within his grasp: the golden cypripedium or moccasin flower, so singular, so lovely in its colour and formation, waved heavily its yellow blossoms as the breeze shook the stems; and there, mingling with a thousand various floral beauties, the azure lupine claimed its place, shedding almost a heavenly tint upon the earth. Thousands of roses were blooming on the more level ground, sending forth their rich fragrance, mixed with the delicate scent of the feathery ceanothus (New Jersey tea). The vivid greenness of the young leaves of the forest, the tender tint of the springing corn, was contrasted with the deep dark fringe of waving pines on the hills, and the yet darker shade of the spruce and balsams on the borders of the creeks, for so our Canadian forest rills are universally termed. The bright glancing wings of the summer red-bird, the crimson-headed woodpecker, the gay blue-bird, and noisy but splendid plumed jay might be seen among the branches; the air was filled with beauteous sights and soft murmuring sounds.
Under the shade of the luxuriant hop-vines that covered the rustic porch in front of the little dwelling, the light step of Catharine Maxwell might be heard mixed with the drowsy whirring of the big wheel, as she passed to and fro guiding the thread of yarn in its course. And now she sang snatches of old mountain songs, such as she had learned from her father; and now, with livelier air, hummed some gay French tune to the household melody of her spinning-wheel, as she advanced and retreated with her thread, unconscious of the laughing black eyes that were watching her movements from among the embowering foliage that shielded her from the morning sun.
"Come, ma belle cousine," for so Louis delighted to call her. "Hector and I are waiting for you to go with us to the 'Beaver Meadow.' The cattle have strayed, and we think we shall find them there. The day is delicious, the very flowers look as if they wanted to be admired and plucked, and we shall find early strawberries on the old Indian clearing."
Catharine cast a longing look abroad, but said, "I fear I cannot go to-day; for see, I have all these rolls of wool to spin up, and my yarn to wind off the reel and twist; and then, my mother is away."
"Yes, I left her with mamma," replied Louis, "and she said she would be home shortly, so her absence need not stay you. She said you could take a basket and try and bring home some berries for sick Louise. Hector is sure he knows a spot where we shall get some fine ones, ripe and red." As he spoke Louis whisked away the big wheel to one end of the porch, gathered up the hanks of yarn and tossed them into the open wicker basket, and the next minute the large, coarse, flapped straw hat, that hung upon the peg in the porch, was stuck not very gracefully on Catharine's head and tied beneath her chin, with a merry rattling laugh, which drowned effectually the small lecture that Catharine began to utter by way of reproving the light-hearted boy.
"But where is Mathilde?"
"Sitting like a dear good girl, as she is, with sick Louise's head in her lap, and would not disturb her for all the fruit and flowers in Canada. Marie cried sadly to go with us, but I promised her and Louise lots of flowers and berries if we get them, and the dear children were as happy as queens when I left."
"But stay, cousin, you are sure my mother gave her consent to my going? We shall be away chief part of the day. You know it is a long walk to the Beaver Meadow and back again," said Catharine, hesitating as Louis took her hand to lead her out from the porch.
"Yes, yes, ma belle," said the giddy boy quickly; "so come along, for Hector is waiting at the barn. But stay, we shall be hungry before we return, so let us have some cakes and butter, and do not forget a tin cup for water."
Nothing doubting, Catharine, with buoyant spirits, set about her little preparations, which were soon completed; but just as she was leaving the little garden enclosure, she ran back to kiss Kenneth and Duncan, her young brothers. In the farm-yard she found Hector with his axe on his shoulder. "What are you taking the axe for, Hector? you will find it heavy to carry," said his sister.
"In the first place, I have to cut a stick of blue beech to make a broom for sweeping the house, sister of mine, and that is for your use, Miss Kate, and in the next place, I have to find, if possible, a piece of rock elm or hickory for axe handles: so now you have the reason why I take the axe with me."
The children left the clearing and struck into one of the deep defiles that lay between the hills, and cheerfully they laughed and sung and chattered, as they sped on their pleasant path, nor were they loath to exchange the glowing sunshine for the sober gloom of the forest shade. What handfuls of flowers of all hues, red, blue, yellow, and white, were gathered, only to be gazed at, carried for a while, then cast aside for others fresher and fairer. And now they came to cool rills that flowed, softly murmuring, among mossy limestone, or blocks of red or gray granite, wending their way beneath twisted roots and fallen trees; and often Catharine lingered to watch the eddying dimples of the clear water, to note the tiny bright fragments of quartz or crystallized limestone that formed a shining pavement below the stream. And often she paused to watch the angry movements of the red squirrel, as, with feathery tail erect, and sharp scolding note, he crossed their woodland path, and swiftly darting up the rugged bark of some neighbouring pine or hemlock, bade the intruders on his quiet haunts defiance; yet so bold in his indignation, he scarcely condescended to ascend beyond their reach. The long-continued, hollow tapping of the large red-headed woodpecker, or the singular subterranean sound caused by the drumming of the partridge striking his wings upon his breast to woo his gentle mate, and the soft whispering note of the little tree-creeper, as it flitted from one hemlock to another, collecting its food between the fissures of the bark, were among the few sounds that broke the noontide stillness of the woods; but to such sights and sounds the lively Catharine and her cousin were not indifferent. And often they wondered that Hector gravely pursued his onward way, and seldom lingered as they did to mark the bright colours of the flowers, or the sparkling of the forest rill, or the hurrying to and fro of the turkeys among the luxuriant grass.
"What makes Hec so grave?" said Catharine to her companion, as they seated themselves upon a mossy trunk to await his coming up; for they had giddily chased each other till they had far outrun him.
"Hector, sweet coz, is thinking perhaps of how many bushels of corn or wheat this land would grow if cleared, or he may be examining the soil or the trees, or is looking for his stick of blue beech for your broom, or the hickory for his axe handles, and never heeding such nonsense as woodpeckers, and squirrels, and lilies, and moss, and ferns; for Hector is not a giddy thing like his cousin Louis, or--"
"His sister Kate," interrupted Catharine merrily. "But when shall we come to the Beaver Meadow?"
"Patience, ma belle, all in good time. Hark! was not that the ox-bell? No; Hector whistling." And soon they heard the heavy stroke of his axe ringing among the trees; for he had found the blue beech, and was cutting it to leave on the path, that he might take it home on their return: he had also marked some hickory of a nice size for his axe handles, to bring home at some future time.
The children had walked several miles, and were not sorry to sit down and rest till Hector joined them.
He was well pleased with his success, and declared he felt no fatigue. "As soon as we reach the old Indian clearing, we shall find strawberries," he said, "and a fresh cold spring, and then we will have our dinner."
"Come, Hector,--come, Louis," said Catharine, jumping up, "I long to be gathering the strawberries; and see, my flowers are faded, so I will throw them away, and the basket shall be filled with fresh fruit instead, and we must not forget petite Marie and sick Louise, or dear Mathilde. Ah, how I wish she were here at this minute! But there is the opening to the Beaver Meadow."
And the sunlight was seen streaming through the opening trees as they approached the cleared space, which some called the "Indian clearing," but is now more generally known as the little Beaver Meadow. It was a pleasant spot, green, and surrounded with light bowery trees and flowering shrubs, of a different growth from those that belong to the dense forest. Here the children found, on the hilly ground above, fine ripe strawberries, the earliest they had seen that year, and soon all
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