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- Lost in the Backwoods - 4/37 -
While the children slept in peace and safety, what terrors had filled the minds of their distracted parents! what a night of anguish and sorrow had they passed!
When night had closed in without bringing back the absent children, the two fathers, lighting torches of fat pine, went forth in search of the wanderers. How often did they raise their voices in hopes their loud halloos might reach the hearing of the lost ones! How often did they check their hurried steps to listen for some replying call! But the sighing breeze in the pine tops, or sudden rustling of the leaves caused by the flight of the birds startled by the unusual glare of the torches, and the echoes of their own voices, were the only sounds that met their anxious ears. At daybreak they returned, sad and dispirited, to their homes, to snatch a morsel of food, endeavour to cheer the drooping hearts of the weeping mothers, and hurry off, taking different directions. But, unfortunately, they had little clue to the route which Hector and Louis had taken, there being many cattle-paths through the woods. Louis's want of truthfulness had caused this uncertainty, as he had left no intimation of the path he purposed taking when he quitted his mother's house. He had merely said he was going with Hector in search of the cattle, giving no hint of his intention of asking Catharine to accompany them; he had but told his sick sister that he would bring home strawberries and flowers, and that he would soon return. Alas! poor, thoughtless Louis! how little did you think of the web of woe you were then weaving for yourself, and all those to whom you and your companions were so dear! Children, think twice ere ye deceive once.
Catharine's absence would have been quite unaccountable but for the testimony of Duncan and Kenneth, who had received her sisterly caresses before she joined Hector at the barn; and much her mother marvelled what could have induced her good, dutiful Catharine to have left her work and forsaken her household duties to go rambling away with the boys, for she never left the house when her mother was absent from it without her express permission. And now she was gone,--lost to them perhaps for ever. There stood the wheel she had been turning; there hung the untwisted hanks of yarn, her morning task; and there they remained week after week, and month after month, untouched,--a melancholy memorial to the hearts of the bereaved parents of their beloved.
It were indeed a fruitless task to follow the agonized fathers in their vain search for their children, or to paint the bitter anguish that filled their hearts as day passed after day, and still no tidings of the lost ones. As hope faded, a deep and settled gloom stole over the sorrowing parents, and reigned throughout the once cheerful and gladsome homes. At the end of a week the only idea that remained was, that one of these three casualties had befallen the lost children,--death, a lingering death by famine; death, cruel and horrible, by wolves or bears; or, yet more terrible, with tortures by the hands of the dreaded Indians, who occasionally held their councils and hunting-parties on the hills about the Rice Lake, which was known only by the elder Perron as the scene of many bloody encounters between the rival tribes of the Mohawks and Chippewas. Its localities were scarcely ever visited by the settlers, lest haply they should fall into the hands of the bloody Mohawks, whose merciless disposition made them in those days a by-word even to the less cruel Chippewas and other Indian nations.
It was not in the direction of the Rice Lake that Maxwell and his brother-in-law sought their lost children; and even if they had done so, among the deep glens and hill passes of what is now commonly called the Plains, they would have stood little chance of discovering the poor wanderers. After many days of fatigue of body and distress of mind, the sorrowing parents sadly relinquished the search as utterly hopeless, and mourned in bitterness of spirit over the disastrous fate of their first-born and beloved children. "There was a voice of woe, and lamentation, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were not."
The miserable uncertainty that involved the fate of the lost ones was an aggravation to the sufferings of the mourners. Could they but have been certified of the manner of their deaths, they fancied they should be more contented; but, alas! this fearful satisfaction was withheld
"Oh, were their tale of sorrow known, 'Twere something to the breaking heart; The pangs of doubt would then be gone, And fancy's endless dreams depart."
But let us quit the now mournful settlement of Cold Springs, and see how it really fared with the young wanderers.
When they awoke, the valley was filled with a white creamy mist, that arose from the bed of the stream (now known as Cold Creek), and gave an indistinctness to the whole landscape, investing it with an appearance perfectly different to that which it had worn by the bright, clear light of the moon. No trace of their footsteps remained to guide them in retracing their path, so hard and dry was the stony ground that it left no impression on its surface. It was with some difficulty they found the creek, which was concealed from sight by a lofty screen of gigantic hawthorns, high-bush cranberries, poplars, and birch trees. The hawthorn was in blossom, and gave out a sweet perfume, not less fragrant than the "May," which makes the lanes and hedgerows of "merrie old England" so sweet and fair in May and June.
At length their path began to grow more difficult. A tangled mass of cedars, balsams, birch, black ash, alders, and _tamarack_ (Indian name for the larch), with a dense thicket of bushes and shrubs, such as love the cool, damp soil of marshy ground, warned our travellers that they must quit the banks of the friendly stream, or they might become entangled in a trackless swamp. Having taken copious and refreshing draughts from the bright waters, and bathed their hands and faces, they ascended the grassy bank, and, again descending, found themselves in one of those long valleys, enclosed between lofty sloping banks, clothed with shrubs and oaks, with here and there a stately pine. Through this second valley they pursued their way, till, emerging into a wider space, they came among those singularly picturesque groups of rounded gravel-hills, where the Cold Creek once more met their view, winding its way towards a grove of evergreens, where it was again lost to the eye.
This lovely spot was known as Sackville's Mill-dike. The hand of man had curbed the free course of the wild forest stream, and made it subservient to his will, but could not destroy the natural beauties of the scene.
Fearing to entangle themselves in the swamp, they kept the hilly ground, winding their way up to the summit of the lofty ridge of the oak hills, the highest ground they had yet attained; and here it was that the silver waters of the Rice Lake in all its beauty burst upon the eyes of the wondering and delighted travellers. There it lay, a sheet of liquid silver, just emerging from the blue veil of mist that hung upon its surface and concealed its wooded shores on either side. All feeling of dread, and doubt, and danger was lost for the time in one rapturous glow of admiration at the scene so unexpected and so beautiful as that which they now gazed upon from the elevation they had gained. From this ridge they looked down the lake, and the eye could take in an extent of many miles, with its verdant wooded islands, which stole into view one by one as the rays of the morning sun drew up the moving curtain of mist that enveloped them; and soon both northern and southern shores became distinctly visible, with all their bays, and capes, and swelling oak and pine crowned hills.
And now arose the question, "Where are we? What lake is this? Can it be the Ontario, or is it the Rice Lake? Can yonder shores be those of the Americans, or are they the hunting-grounds of the dreaded Indians?" Hector remembered having often heard his father say that the Ontario was like an inland sea, and the opposite shores not visible unless in some remarkable state of the atmosphere, when they had been occasionally discerned by the naked eye; while here they could distinctly see objects on the other side, the peculiar growth of the trees, and even flights of wild fowl winging their way among the rice and low bushes on its margin. The breadth of the lake from shore to shore could not, they thought, exceed three or four miles; while its length, in an easterly direction, seemed far greater,--beyond what the eye could take in. [Footnote: The length of the Rice Lake, from its head-waters near Black's Landing to the mouth of the Trent, is said to be twenty-five miles; its breadth, from north to south, varies from three to six.]
They now quitted the lofty ridge, and bent their steps towards the lake. Wearied with their walk, they seated themselves beneath the shade of a beautiful feathery pine, on a high promontory that commanded a magnificent view down the lake.
"How pleasant it would be to have a house on this delightful bank, overlooking the lake!" said Louis. "Only think of the fish we could take, and the ducks and wild fowl we could shoot; and it would be no very hard matter to hollow out a log canoe, such a one as I have heard my father say he has rowed in across many a lake and broad river below, when he was lumbering."
"Yes, it would, indeed, be a pleasant spot to live upon," said Hector, "though I am not quite sure that the land is as good just here as it is at Cold Springs; but all those flats and rich valleys would make fine pastures, and produce plenty of grain, too, if cultivated."
"You always look to the main chance, Hec," said Louis, laughing; "well, it was worth a few hours' walking this morning to look upon so lovely a sheet of water as this. I would spend two nights in a wigwam,--would not you, ma belle?--to enjoy such a sight."
"Yes, Louis," replied his cousin, hesitating as she spoke; "it is very pretty, and I did not mind sleeping in the little hut; but then I cannot enjoy myself as much as I should have done had my father and mother been aware of my intention of accompanying you. Ah, my dear, dear parents!" she added, as the thought of the anguish the absence of her companions and herself would cause at home came over her. "How I wish I had remained at home! Selfish Catharine! foolish, idle girl!"
Poor Louis was overwhelmed with grief at the sight of his cousin's tears; and as the kind-hearted but thoughtless boy bent over her to soothe and console her, his own tears fell upon the fair locks of the weeping girl, and dropped on the hand he held between his own.
"If you cry thus, cousin," he whispered, "you will break poor Louis's heart, already sore enough with thinking of his foolish conduct."
"Be not cast down, Catharine," said her brother cheeringly; "we may not be so far from home as you think. As soon as you are rested, we will set out again, and we may find something to eat; there must be strawberries on these sunny banks."
Catharine soon yielded to the voice of her brother, and drying her eyes, proceeded to descend the sides of the steep valley that lay to one side of the high ground where they had been sitting.
Suddenly darting down the bank, she exclaimed, "Come, Hector! come,
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