Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A night on the ice


A man and a horse with a woman on its back attempt to swim to the shore of a turbulent river full of floating ice.

Shortly after my arrival in Canada, a severe accident, received on a shooting expedition, caused me to be placed for a time under the hospitable roof of the stipendiary magistrate of Tircouaga, one of the prospective cities of the far west; and during the severe illness that followed, I could not have received more kindness had I been in my own home. When I left the woods the tints of autumn were flushing them with crimson and orange, as if their leaves had suddenly burst into blossom; but ere I looked on them again their glories had all vanished beneath the stern sway of the northern winter, with its train of biting frosts and deep snows, while the broad winding Tircouaga river, which I had last seen so blue and wavy, was now hushed and stilled by the universal ice-fetter.

To me, but recently arrived from England, it seemed strange how, amid so wild a solitude, this advent of a six or seven months’ winter could be welcomed as I saw it by those around me. I did not yet know that winter was the only season when the bonds of their isolation were loosened, nor that the snow was the magician smoothing the difficulties of social intercourse in a district where neighbours dwelt miles apart, and the roads between them were mere lanes cut through the primeval forest, and abounding in holes, and ruts, and stumps of trees.

As soon as I was sufficiently recovered, I was the companion of Mr. Norton and his daughters in all these exchanges of courtesy; and if I cared little for the visiting, I greatly enjoyed the drives in the swiftly-gliding sleigh over the gleaming snow; while, instead of leaves, the trees above our heads were hung with icicles, sparkling and flashing in the sunshine, like the ruby and emerald fruit and foliage of eastern story; and the long rhythmical chimes of our sleigh bells echoing through the arches of the trees, were the only sounds, save our own laughter, that broke the silence of those ancient woods.

We went to merrymakings, too—real backwoods “frolics”—held in rude barns, whose decorations were essentially rustic, but where the warmth of the hospitality compensated for every deficiency; the friend of a guest was kindly welcomed, the passing traveller was pressed to stay, and the wandering merchant, with his stores of finery and news, was received with delight, especially by the fair sex. Then the home-coming was almost as merry; the long strings of sleighs with their bells sounding cheerily through the midnight woods, and the joyous leave-takings of the occupants as each went his separate way.

On one occasion we had been to one of these festivities, some six or seven miles beyond the Tircouaga, and were returning home in two light one-horse sleighs, the first containing Mr. Norton and his elder daughter, the second her sister and myself. The night was calm and beautiful in its dim snow-light, and the red glow of the northern streamers above our heads flashed and leaped and quivered in a thousand brilliant coruscations; while strangely and sweetly through the grey old woods sounded the clear girlish voices of the sisters, as from the different sleighs they sang in alternate stanzas one of the quaint old ballads of the middle ages. At length we reached the banks of the Tircouaga, which lay between us and our home, a mirror of ice, and we at once commenced its passage. As we swept quickly on, it seemed to me that some other sound mingled with the firm footfalls of the horses, and the chime of their bells—a low threatening murmur like the echo of a distant tempest. But Mr. Norton drove gaily on, as if he either heard it not, or thought nothing of it, and I dismissed it from my mind, until as we drew near the centre of the river, strange dark spots, like cloud-shadows, began to fleck its gleaming surface.

The next instant one appeared right on Mr. Norton’s path, and too close for him to avoid. With a long leap the horse bounded over it, and as the sleigh was drawn quickly after, there was a plash that told it had struck against water. I could see Mr. Norton spring hurriedly up.

“Back, back, for your lives!” he cried to us; “the ice is breaking up!”

I turned to follow his directions, but it was too late—two or three such spots lay between us and the bank. I looked around; they were rapidly appearing on every side; and then I remembered to have heard that the ice of the Tircouaga, like that of several other Canadian rivers, was treacherous in consequence of hot springs in the bed of the river, which at times burst forth; and that particularly in the early part of the winter the morning would see the river covered with ice, of which before evening not a trace would remain.

Perceiving how matters were, Mr. Norton bade us follow him, and quickly, for that not a moment was to be lost; and then dashed off at a rapid pace for the opposite bank, leaping the chasms, and speeding lightly on over the frozen portions, as if he hoped by swiftness to diminish the danger; and with the same breathless speed we hastened on in his rear.

Meanwhile, larger and more numerous grew those dark blue spaces, and longer and more frequent our horses’ leaps. At length there came a chasm mine could not venture. I looked eagerly round for some more favourable spot; but as my eye glanced onward, it fell on constantly-widening water, until it had gone the circuit; and, with a sensation of surprise and horror, I perceived that we stood upon an ice island, from which the surrounding ice was rapidly retreating. I looked after Mr. Norton; but, unsuspicious of what had happened, he was still making his way with arrowy speed across the ice; so I felt we were left to our own efforts for escape, and my utter inexperience rendered the chances few indeed, unless we should again draw near enough to the main ice to leap the space between; and none can tell how anxiously I watched each movement of our raft as it began to yield to the influence of the current. But each fathom that we were swept down the river seemed to bear us an equal distance from its icy borders, and we soon found ourselves floating on a comparatively open space of water, and surrounded by numerous ice-islets.

I could almost have echoed poor Annie’s cry of agony when the certainty of our position burst upon her, so fearful was it. Alone at midnight, on a fragment of ice, floating down a rapid river whose future course I knew not, while on each side stretched tracts of crumbling ice, and beyond them rose banks of inaccessible steepness! What could exceed the desolation of such a position, and what hope could it leave to us of life? While, to complete our misery, we had not even the power to struggle against our fate, but must passively await its coming.

How deeply I pitied my young companion, as she sat there weeping such bitter tears. It was hard for her to part with life, after sixteen years of such bright and joyous experience as hers had been; hard to lay it down thus suddenly and fearfully, absent from all she loved, and yet harder the unresolvable fears for her father’s and sister’s safety which our own danger had awakened. I tried to utter words of consolation as I wrapped the poor girl in the buffalo robes from the chill night air that our inaction rendered doubly cold. She looked a sad contrast to the bright creature of the last few hours, whose joyous ballad-strains were yet lingering in my ears. But when the first shock was over, poor Annie struggled bravely with her grief, and during the remainder of that long, dreary night of peril she sat calmly by my side, the most patient and resigned companion man ever had in danger.

Meanwhile, the river was bearing us swiftly on past rocky headlands, and dark pine forests, waving above lofty cliffs, on to yet wilder and sterner regions, where it seemed even the red man would scarce pitch his wigwam. Sometimes the river swept us smoothly along on its broad bosom, at others it contracted into narrower limits, and hurried on with a quicker current; and as our frail raft was swayed about by the broken water, we oft-times thought either that it would part, or we be swept from its slippery surface, while every now and then our poor horse beat the ice wildly with his hoof, and, as he recognised its unsoundness, his long shrill cries of distress and terror rang far and wide over the river, and quivered through the dismal woods beyond.

Day at length broke upon us, still floating down that lonely river, between its frowning banks, and on our raft, whose limits were now small indeed. Death seemed close upon us in one of his most repulsive forms, and we no longer pretended blindness to his coming, but spoke together as they should whose hour was at hand.

Suddenly the river took an abrupt bend, and, aided by the waters of another river, which here fell into it, spread almost to the dimensions of a lake; but still it was bordered by those monotonous, wall-like banks, shutting out every hope. At length we sighted something like a chasm dividing the cliff down to the water’s edge. I sprang to my feet in a moment. Here was at least a chance of life—the first that during all those wretched hours had presented itself—and I resolved at once to profit by it.

Without a moment’s delay the horse was cast loose from the shafts, and Annie was tied securely to his back, then with a few words of encouragement and hope to the poor young girl, doomed to so many hardships and dangers, I took the halter in my hand, and sending the horse into the water, leaped in myself, and then commenced swimming to the shore.

But the struggle was a long and arduous one, for we were more than a mile from the land, and both the horse and I were cramped and stiffened with cold. Many a time I thought the effort was in vain, and that neither the horse nor I would ever reach the shore, that to my weariness seemed to recede as we advanced. Moreover, the current pressed strongly against us, striving to sweep us down beyond our goal, against the steep rocky barrier that lined the water. Fortunately the hot springs had raised the temperature of the water, for poor Annie’s girlish form was almost hidden in it, as the waves gurgled and surged around her, sometimes even sweeping above her head. But the young girl’s courage rose with the occasion, and she bore unmurmuringly this new phase of suffering.

But they strive hard whose prize is life, and after more than an hour of hope, and doubt, and fear, we reached the land we had never hoped to tread again. As we emerged from the water the wintry wind pierced through our saturated clothing, with an icy chill that threatened to freeze them on us. Providentially, in our need, we found a settler’s house near at hand, where we obtained dry clothes, refreshment, and the loan of a horse and sleigh, in which we were soon speeding along the road to Tircouaga. As we proceeded, fresh fears for her father’s and sister’s fate assailed poor Annie, which were only set at rest when she found herself in their arms.

Since then, the chances of a soldier’s life have brought me through many adventures, but none have left so deep an impression on my mind, as that long and terrible night upon the ice; nor shall I ever cease to remember with deep affection and esteem the young girl who was my gentle and heroic companion in its suffering and danger.

Andrew Mitchell.