Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter XXIV
[For the poem that heads this chapter, I am indebted to my brother, Mr. Strickland, of Douro, C.W.]
Dark, heavy clouds were gathering in the west,
Wrapping the forest in funereal gloom;
Onward they roll'd, and rear'd each livid crest,
Like Death's murk shadows frowning o'er earth's tomb.
From out the inky womb of that deep night
Burst livid flashes of electric flame.
Whirling and circling with terrific might,
In wild confusion on the tempest came.
Nature, awakening from her still repose,
Shudders responsive to the whirlwind's shock,
Feels at her might heart convulsive throes,
And all her groaning forests to earth's bosom rock.
But hark!—What means that hollow, rushing sound,
That breaks the death-like stillness of the morn?
Red forked lightnings fiercely glare around,
Sharp, crashing thunders on the winds are borne,
And see yon spiral column, black as night,
Rearing triumphantly its wreathing form;
Ruin's abroad, and through the murky light—
Drear desolation marks the spirit of the storm.
The 19th of August came, and our little harvest was all safely housed. Business called Moodie away for a few days to Cobourg. Jenny had gone to Dummer, to visit her friends, and J. E— had taken a grist of the new wheat, which he and Moodie had threshed the day before, to the mill. I was consequently left alone with the children, and had a double portion of work to do. During their absence it was my lot to witness the most awful storm I ever beheld, and a vivid recollection of its terrors was permanently fixed upon my memory.
The weather had been intensely hot during the three preceding days, although the sun was entirely obscured by a blueish haze, which seemed to render the unusual heat of the atmosphere more oppressive. Not a breath of air stirred the vast forest, and the waters of the lake assumed a leaden hue. After passing a sleepless night, I arose, a little after day-break, to superintend my domestic affairs. E— took his breakfast, and went off to the mill, hoping that the rain would keep off until after his return.
"It is no joke," he said, "being upon these lakes in a small canoe, heavily laden, in a storm."
Before the sun rose, the heavens were covered with hard-looking clouds, of a deep blue and black cast, fading away to white at their edges, and in the form resembling the long, rolling waves of a heavy sea—but with this difference, that the clouds were perfectly motionless, piled in long curved lines, one above the other, and so remained until four o'clock in the afternoon. The appearance of these clouds, as the sun rose above the horizon, was the most splendid that can be imagined, tinged up to the zenith with every shade of saffron, gold, rose-colour, scarlet, and crimson, fading away into the deepest violet. Never did the storm-fiend shake in the face of a day a more gorgeous banner; and, pressed as I was for time, I stood gazing like one entranced upon the magnificent pageant.
As the day advanced, the same blue haze obscured the sun, which frowned redly through his misty veil. At ten o'clock the heat was suffocating, and I extinguished the fire in the cooking-stove, determined to make our meals upon bread and milk, rather than add to the oppressive heat. The thermometer in the shade ranged from ninety-six to ninety-eight degrees, and I gave over my work and retired with the ones to the coolest part of the house. The young creatures stretched themselves upon the floor, unable to jump about or play; the dog lay panting in the shade; the fowls half-buried themselves in the dust, with open beaks and outstretched wings; all nature seemed to droop beneath the scorching heat.
Unfortunately for me, a gentlemen arrived about one o'clock from Kingston, to transact some business with my husband. He had not tasted food since six o'clock, and I was obliged to kindle the fire to prepare his dinner. It was one of the hardest tasks I ever performed; I almost fainted with the heat, and most inhospitably rejoiced when his dinner was over, and I saw him depart. Shortly after, my friend Mrs. C— and her brother called in, on their way from Peterborough.
"How do you bear the heat?" asked Mrs. C—. "This is one of the hottest days I ever remember to have experienced in this part of the province. I am afraid that it will end in a hurricane, or what the Lower Canadians term 'l'orage.'"
About four o'clock they rose to go. I urged them to stay longer. "No," said Mrs. C—, "the sooner we get home the better. I think we can reach it before the storm breaks."
I took Donald in my arms, and my eldest boy by the hand, and walked with them to the brow of the hill, thinking that the air would be cooler in the shade. In this I was mistaken. The clouds over our heads hung so low, and the heat was so great, that I was soon glad to retrace my steps.
The moment I turned round to face the lake, I was surprised at the change that had taken place in the appearance of the heavens. The clouds, that had before lain so motionless, were now in rapid motion, hurrying and chasing each other round the horizon. It was a strangely awful sight. Before I felt a breath of the mighty blast that had already burst on the other side of the lake, branches of trees, leaves, and clouds of dust were whirled across the lake, whose waters rose in long sharp furrows, fringed with foam, as if moved in their depths by some unseen but powerful agent.
Panting with terror, I just reached the door of the house as the hurricane swept up the hill, crushing and overturning everything in its course. Spell-bound, I stood at the open door, with clasped hands, unable to speak, rendered dumb and motionless by the terrible grandeur of the scene; while little Donald, who could not utter many intelligible words, crept to my feet, appealing to me for protection, while his rosy cheeks paled even to marble whiteness. The hurrying clouds gave to the heavens the appearance of a pointed dome, round which the lightning played in broad ribbons of fire. The roaring of the thunder, the rushing of the blast, the impetuous down-pouring of the rain, and the crash of falling trees were perfectly deafening; and in the midst of this uproar of the elements, old Jenny burst in, drenched with wet, and half-dead with fear.
"The Lord preserve us!" she cried, "this surely is the day of judgment. Fifty trees fell across my very path, between this an' the creek. Mrs. C— just reached her brother's clearing a few minutes before a great oak fell on her very path. What thunther!—what lightning! Misthress, dear!—it's turn'd so dark, I can only jist see yer face."
Glad enough was I of her presence; for to be alone in the heart of a great forest, in a log hut, on such a night, was not a pleasing prospect. People gain courage by companionship, and in order to re-assure each other, struggle to conceal their fears.
"And where is Mr. E—?"
"I hope not on the lake. He went early this morning to get the wheat ground at the mill."
"Och, the crathur! He's surely drowned. What boat could stan' such a scrimmage as this?"
I had my fears for poor John; but as the chance that he had to wait at the mill till others were served was more than probable, I tried to still my apprehensions for his safety.
The storm soon passed over, after having levelled several acres of wood near the house and smitten down in its progress two gigantic pines in the clearing, which must have withstood the force of a thousand winters. Talking over the effects of this whirlwind with my brother, he kindly sent me the following very graphic description of a whirlwind which passed the town of Guelph in the summer of 1829.
[Written by Mr. Strickland, of Douro.] "In my hunting excursions and rambles through the Upper Canadian forests, I had frequently met with extensive wind-falls; and observed with some surprise that the fallen trees lay strewn in a succession of circles, and evidently appeared to have been twisted off the stumps. I also remarked that these wind-falls were generally narrow, and had the appearance of a road, slashed through the forest. From observations made at the time, and since confirmed, I have no doubt that Colonel Reid's theory of storms is the correct one, viz., that all wind-storms move in a circular direction, and the nearer the centre the more violent the force of the wind. Having seen the effects of several similar hurricanes since my residence in Canada West, I shall proceed to describe one which happened in the township of Guelph during the early part of the summer of 1829.
"The weather, for the season of the year (May), had been hot and sultry, with scarcely a breath of wind stirring. I had heard distant thunder from an early hour in the morning, which, from the eastward, is rather an unusual occurrence. About 10 A.M., the sky had a most singular, and I must add a most awful appearance, presenting to the view a vast arch of rolling blackness, which seemed to gather strength and density as it approached the zenith. All at once the clouds began to work round in circles, as if chasing one another through the air. Suddenly the dark arch of clouds appeared to break up into detached masses, whirling and mixing through each other in dreadful commotion. The forked lightning was incessant, accompanied by heavy thunder. In a short time, the clouds seemed to converge to a point, which approached very near the earth, still whirling with great rapidity directly under this point; and apparently from the midst of the woods arose a black column, in the shape of a cone, which instantly joined itself to the depending cloud. The sight was now grand, and awful in the extreme. Picture to your imagination a vast column of smoke, of inky blackness, reaching from the earth to heaven, gyrating with fearful velocity—bright lightnings issuing from the vortex—the roar of the thunder—the rushing of the blast—the crash of timber—the limbs of trees, leaves and rubbish, mingled with clouds of dust, whirling through the air;—you then have a faint idea of the scene.
"I had ample time for observation, as the hurricane commenced its devastating course about two miles from the town, through the centre of which it took its way, passing within fifty yards of where a number of persons, myself among the rest, were standing, watching its fearful progress.
"As the tornado approached, the trees seemed to fall like a pack of cards before its irresistible current. After passing through the clearing made around the village, the force of the wind gradually abated, and in a few minutes died away entirely.
"As soon as the storm was over, I went to see the damage it had done. From the point where I first observed the black column to rise from the woods and join the cloud, the trees were twisted in every direction. A belt of timber had been levelled to the ground about two miles in length, and about one hundred yards in breadth. At the entrance of the town it crossed the river Speed, and uprooted about six acres of wood, which had been thinned out, and left by Mr. Galt (late superintendent of the Canada Company), as an ornament to his house.
"The Eremosa road was completely blocked up for nearly half-a-mile, in the wildest confusion possible. In its progress through the town the storm unroofed several houses, levelled many fences to the ground, and entirely demolished a frame barn. Windows were dashed in; and, in one instance, the floor of a log house was carried through the roof. Some hair-breadth escapes occurred; but, luckily, no lives were lost.
"About twelve years since a similar storm occurred in the north part of the township of Douro, but was of much less magnitude. I heard an intelligent settler, who resided some years in the township of Madoc, state that, during his residence in that township, a similar hurricane to the one I have described, though of a much more awful character, passed through a part of Marmora and Madoc, and had been traced, in a north-easterly direction, upwards of forty miles into the unsurveyed lands; the uniform width of which appeared to be three quarters of a mile.
"It is very evident, from the traces which they have left behind them, that storms of this description have not been unfrequent in the wooded districts of Canada; and it becomes a matter of interesting consideration whether the clearing of our immense forests will not, in a great measure, remove the cause of these phenomena."
A few minutes after our household had retired to rest, my first sleep was broken by the voice of J. E—, speaking to old Jenny in the kitchen. He had been overtaken by the storm, but had run his canoe ashore upon an island before its full fury burst, and turned it over the flour; while he had to brave the terrors of the pitiless tempest-buffeted by the wind, and drenched with torrents of rain. I got up and made him a cup of tea, while Jenny prepared a rasher of bacon and eggs for his supper.
Shortly after this, J. E— bade a final adieu to Canada, with his cousin C. W—. He volunteered into the Scotch Greys, and we never saw him more; but I have been told that he was so highly respected by the officers of the regiment that they have subscribed for his commission; that he rose to the rank of lieutenant; accompanied the regiment to India, and was at the taking of Cabul; but from himself we never heard again.
The 16th of October, my third son was born; and a few days after, my husband was appointed pay-master to the militia regiments in the V. District, with the rank and full pay of captain.
This was Sir George Arthur's doing. He returned no answer to my application, but he did not forget us.
As the time that Moodie might retain this situation was very doubtful, he thought it advisable not to remove me and the family until he could secure some permanent situation; by so doing, he would have a better opportunity of saving the greater part of his income to pay off his old debts.
This winter of 1839 was one of severe trial to me. Hitherto I had enjoyed the blessing of health; but both the children and myself were now doomed to suffer from dangerous attacks of illness. All the little things had malignant scarlet fever, and for several days I thought it would please the Almighty to take from me my two girls. This fever is so fatal to children in Canada that none of my neighbors dared approach the house. For three weeks Jenny and I were never undressed; our whole time was taken up nursing the five little helpless creatures through the successive states of their alarming disease. I sent for Dr. Taylor; but he did not come, and I was obliged to trust to the mercy of God, and my own judgment and good nursing. Though I escaped the fever, mental anxiety and fatigue brought on other illness, which for nearly ten weeks rendered me perfectly helpless. When I was again able to creep from my sick bed, the baby was seized with an illness, which Dr. B— pronounced mortal. Against all hope, he recovered, but these severe mental trials rendered me weak and nervous, and more anxious than ever to be re-united to my husband. To add to these troubles, my sister and her husband sold their farm, and removed from our neighbourhood. Mr. — had returned to England, and had obtained a situation in the Customs; and his wife, my friend Emilia, was keeping a school in the village; so that I felt more solitary than ever, thus deprived of so many kind, sympathising friends.
A SONG OF PRAISE TO THE CREATOREdit
Oh, thou great God! from whose eternal throne
Unbounded blessings in rich bounty flow,
Like thy bright sun in glorious state alone,
Thou reign'st supreme, while round thee as they go,
Unnumber'd worlds, submissive to thy sway,
With solemn pace pursue their silent way.
Benignant God! o'er every smiling land.
Thy handmaid, Nature, meekly walks abroad,
Scattering thy bounties with unsparing hand,
While flowers and fruits spring up along her road.
How can thy creatures their weak voices raise
To tell thy deeds in their faint songs of praise?
When, darkling o'er the mountain's summit hoar,
Portentous hangs the black and sulph'rous cloud,
When lightnings flash, and awful thunders roar,
Great Nature sings to thee her anthem loud.
The rocks reverberate her mighty song,
And crushing woods the pealing notes prolong.
The storm is pass'd; o'er fields and woodlands gay,
Gemm'd with bright dew-drops from the eastern sky,
The morning sun now darts his golden ray,
The lark on fluttering wing is poised on high;
Too pure for earth, he wings his way above,
To pour his grateful song of joy and love.
Hark! from the bowels of the earth, a sound
Of awful import! From the central deep
The struggling lava rends the heaving ground,
The ocean-surges roar—the mountains leap—
They shoot aloft,—Oh, God! the fiery tide
Has burst its bounds, and rolls down Etna's side.
Thy will is done, great God! the conflict's o'er,
The silvery moonbeams glance along the sea;
The whispering waves half ripple on the shore,
And lull'd creation breathes a prayer to thee!
The night-flower's incense to their God is given,
And grateful mortals raise their thoughts to heaven.