AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER I.

THE YOUNG MASTER OF PINE TOWERS.

 


IT was a May morning in 1825—spring-time of the year, late spring-time of the century.  It had rained the night before, and a warm pallor in the eastern sky was the only indication that the sun was trying to pierce the gray dome of nearly opaque watery fog, lying low upon that part of the world now known as the city of Toronto, then the town of Little York.  This cluster of five or six hundred houses had taken up a determined position at the edge of a forest then gloomily forbidding in its aspect, interminable in extent, inexorable in its resistance to the shy or to the sturdy approaches of the settler.  Man versus nature—the successive assaults of perishing humanity upon the almost impregnable fortresses of the eternal forests—this was the struggle of Canadian civilization, and its hard-won triumphs were bodied forth in the scattered roofs of these cheap habitations.  Seen now through soft gradations of vapoury gloom, they took on a poetic significance, as tenderly intangible as the romantic halo which the mist of years loves to weave about the heads of departed pioneers, who, for the most part, lived out their lives in plain, grim style, without any thought of posing as “conquering heroes” in the eyes of succeeding generations. [Page 9]
     From the portico of one of these dwellings, under a wind-swayed sign which advertised it to be a place of rest and refreshment, stepped a man of more than middle age, whose nervous gait and anxious face betokened a mind ill at ease.  He had the look and air of a highly respectable old servitor,—one who had followed the family to whom he was bound by ties of life-long service to a country of which he strongly disapproved, not because it offered a poor field for his own advancement, but because, to his mind, its crude society and narrow opportunities ill became the distinction of the Old World family to whose fortunes he was devoted.  Time had softened these prejudices, but had failed to melt them; and if they had a pardonable fashion of congealing under the stress of the Canadian winter, they generally showed signs of a thaw at the approach of spring.  At the present moment he had no thought, no eyes, for anything save a mist-enshrouded speck far off across the waters of Lake Ontario.  All the impatience and longing of the week just past found vent through his eyes, as he watched that pale, uncertain, scarcely visible mote on the horizon.  As he reached the shore the fog lifted a little, and a great sunbeam, leaping from a cloud, illumined for a moment the smooth expanse of water; but the new day was as yet chary of its gifts.  It was very still.  The woods and waves alike were tranced in absolute calm.  The unlighted heavens brooded upon the silent limpid waters and the breathless woods, while between them, with restless step, and heart as gloomy as the morning, with secret, sore misgiving, paced the old servant, his attention still riveted upon that distant speck.  The sight of land and home to the gaze of a long absent wanderer, wearied with ocean, is not more dear than the first glimpse of the approaching sail to watching eyes on shore. 
     Was it in truth the packet vessel for whose coming he had yearningly waited, or the dark wing of a soaring bird, [Page 10] or did it exist only in imagination?  The tide of his impatience rose anew as the dim object slowly resolved itself into the semblance of a sail, shrouded in the pale, damp light of early morning.  Unwilling to admit to his usually grave unimpressible self the fact that he was restless and disturbed, he reduced his pace to a dignified march, extended his chosen beat to a wider margin of the sandy shore, and, parting the blighted branches of a group of trees, that bore evidence of the effect of constant exposure to lake winds, he affected to examine them critically.  But the hand that touched the withered leaves trembled, and his sight was dimmed with something closely resembling the morning’s mist.  When he again raised his eyes to that white-sailed vessel it looked to his hopeless gaze absolutely becalmed.  The slow moments dragged heavily along.  The mantle of fog was wholly lifted at last, and the lonely watcher was enveloped in the soft beauty of the morning.  A light cloud hung motionless, as though spell-bound, above the mute and moveless trees, while before him the dead blue slopes of heaven were unbroken by a single flying bird, the wide waste of water unlighted, save by that unfluttering sail.
     And now, like a visible response to his silent but seemingly resistless longing, a boat was rapidly pushed away from the larger craft, and the swift flash and fall of the oars kept time to the pulsing in the old man’s breast.  Again ensued that inglorious conflict between self-respecting sobriety of demeanour and long suppressed emotion, which ended only when the boat grated on the sand, and a blonde stalwart youth leaped ashore.  The old man fell upon his neck with tears and murmured ejaculations of gratitude and welcome; but young impatient hands pushed him not ungently aside, and a youthful voice, high and intense from anxiety, urgently exclaimed:
     “My mother!  How is my mother?” [Page 11]
     “She yet breathes, thank God.  She has been longing for your coming as a suffering saint longs for heaven.  She must see you before she dies!”
     The young man turned a little aside with down-bent head.  His positive blue eyes looked almost feverishly bright; and the lip, on which he had unconsciously bitten hard, now released from pressure, quivered perceptibly; but with the unwillingness or inability of youth to admit the inevitableness of a great grief he burst forth with:
      “Is that all you have to say to me?”  And then, as his keen eye noticed the tears still undried upon the cheeks of the old man, he sighed heavily.  “Can nothing be done?  Is there no help?  It doesn’t seem possible!”  He ground his heel heavily into the sand.  “Say something, Tredway,” he entreated, “anything with a gleam of hope in it.”
     Tredway shook his head.  “The only hope that remains is that you will reach home in time to receive her last words.  This is the second time that I have come down expecting to meet you.”
     The young fellow with his erect military air and noticeably handsome face betrayed a remote consciousness that he was perhaps worth the trouble of coming after twice.  As they together hastened up from the beach the younger of the two briefly narrated the cause of his delay—a delay occasioned by stress of weather on the Atlantic, and the state of the roads in the valley of the Mohawk, on the journey from the seaboard.  He had lost not an hour, the young man said, in obeying the summons of his father, the Commodore, to quit England and return to his Canadian home ere his much-loved mother passed from the earth.
     Eager to reach that home, which was on the shores of Lake Simcoe, the young Cadet bade the old servitor hasten to get their horses ready when they would instantly set forth.  As they were about to mount, the younger of the two was accosted by an old friend, now an attaché of Government [Page 12] House, who, learning of the arrival of the packet, and expecting the young master of Pine Towers, had strolled down to the landing-place to welcome the newcomer and ask him to partake of the Governor’s hospitality.  The young man, however, begged his friend to have him excused, and with dutiful messages of respect for the Governor and his household, and a cordial adieu to his former boon-companion, he rapidly set off for home, closely followed by his attendant.
     Coming up the old military road, cut out between York and Holland Landing by His Majesty’s corps of Queen’s Rangers, under the régime of Governor Simcoe, both horsemen fell into a brief silence, broken by sorrowful inquiries from the younger man regarding the subject which lay so close to the heart of each.  “Dying!” he exclaimed in deep sadness, and with the utter incapacity of young and ardent life to conceive the reality of death.  “And my own mother.  It seems natural enough for other mothers to die—but mine!  Heaven help us!  We never know the meaning of grief until it comes to our own threshold.”
     The old steward viewed with a desolate stare the May landscape, brightly lit with sunshine and boom, and said wearily:
      “But what can one expect in this wretched, half-civilized country?  Now in England—”
     His voice lingered long upon that fondly loved word, and his young master concluded the sentence with,
     “There would be little hope, but in this ‘brave new world,’ where the odour of the woods is a tonic, and the air brings healing and balm, how can death exist?  Ah, Tredway, this is a beautiful country!”
     “To me there is but one beautiful country—that is England.” Again there was that lingering intonation.
     Edward Macleod gave vent to a short melancholy laugh. The allurements of an old civilization were over-ripe to his [Page 13] taste.  Promise appealed to his imagination; fulfillment was a dull fact.  Along with the unmistakable evidences of birth and breeding in his person, there was in his fresh youth and buoyancy something joyously akin to the vigorous young life about him.
     “England,” said Tredway, with his disapproving regard fixed upon the wilderness around, “is a garden.”
     “And I take no delight in gardens,” declared Edward. “I was never intended for a garden statue.  This long day’s journey under the giant trees of the wild, unconquered woods seems to gratify some savage instinct of my nature.  The old country is well adapted to keep alive old customs, old notions, old traditions; but for me I am a Canadian, my mind is wearied with over-much civilization.  I hate the English love of land for land’s sake.  That line of hills, swelling in massive curves, and crowned, not with a tottering ruin, serving to hang some legendary romance or faded rag of superstition upon, but with stately trees—that is my idea of the beautiful.”
     He struck into a sharp gallop, his bright head above the dark blue military cloak forming a picturesque feature in the woodland, and the flying heels of his spirited horse seeming to add a rattling chorus of applause to his patriotic sentiments.  The old retainer ambled along in his wake, but more slowly.  His idea of the beautiful was not quite so recklessly defiant.  Presently, for he was still jaded from the effects of his long journey on the previous day, he relaxed his attempt at speed, and soon lost sight of his companion altogether.  The vision of waving cloak and flying steed vanished in the green aisles of the forest.
     Along the Oak Ridges—situate some thirty miles from York—which the two horsemen now neared, a Huguenot settlement had been formed about the close of the eighteenth century.  The settlers were French officers of the noblesse order, who, during the French Revolution, [Page 14] when the royalist cause became desperate, emigrated to England, thence to Canada, where, by the bounty of the Crown, they were given grants of land in this portion of the Province of Upper Canada. Here many of these émigrés had made clearings on the Ridges, and reared chateaux for themselves and their households after the manner of their ancestral homes in Languedoc and Brittany.  Into the grounds of one of these mansions had the younger horseman disappeared to pay his hurried respects to the stately dame who was its owner, and who, with her fair daughter, were intimate friends of the Macleod family.
     Almost before the old man had time to wonder what mad freak had kept his young master so long from the beaten road, he was at his side again.
     “I have been trying to get a glimpse of my little friend, Hélène,” he said, in explanation of his absence, “but the DeBerczy mansion is as empty as a church on Monday.  They still go to Lake Simcoe in summer, I suppose.  But what does this early flight portend?”
     “It was caused solely by the serious nature of your mother’s illness.  Madame and Mademoiselle have been now five weeks at ‘Bellevue.’”
     The young man’s face darkened, or rather lost the brightness that habitually played upon it, like gleams of sunshine on a stream, which, when disappearing, show the depth of the tide beneath.
     “You would scarcely know the young lady now,” continued Tredway.  “The difference between fifteen and eighteen is the difference between childhood and womanhood.”
     “I suppose she has grown like a young forest tree, and holds her graceful head almost as high.”
     “She is well grown, and very beautiful, but not bewitching like your sister Rose.”
     “Ah!  dear little Rose!  But she, too, I doubt not, is a [Page 15] bud no longer.  It’s odd how much easier it is for a girl to be a woman than for a boy to become a man.”  There was something vaguely suggestive of regret in the gesture with which young Macleod lightly brushed his short upper lip, whose hirsute adornment was not, in its owner’s estimation, all that it ought to have been.  “I was twenty-one last winter.   Do I look very young?” he inquired, with the natural anxiety of a man who has recently escaped the ignominy of being in his teens.
     “You look altogether too young,” dryly returned the ancient servitor, “to appreciate the worth of a country where old customs, old ideas, and old traditions are respected.”
     “Then may youth always be mine!” exclaimed Edward, looking round him with the glow in his heart, sure to be felt by the devout worshipper of Nature in the large and beautiful presence of her whom he adores.  The region about him, esteemed the epitome of dreariness in winter, held now in its depths a vast luxury of vegetation.  The wild vines ran knotted and twisted about the trunks and branches of multitudinous trees, and the fallen logs were draped with moss, lichens, and delicate ferns.  Passing through this boundless wilderness, they seemed to look into a succession of woodland chambers, thickly carpeted with wild flowers, gorgeously festooned with creeping and parasitical plants hanging from the branches, and secured in their leafy seclusion by walls of abundant foliage.  In one of these natural parlours they paused for their mid-day repast—mid-day in the world without, but here, where only vagrant gleams of the spring sun pierced the forest solitudes, gloomy with spruce and pine, there was a sense of morning in the air.  This appearance was heightened by the delicate curtains of cobweb, strung with shining pearls, which still might be seen after the fog at early dawn.  There was no sound except sometimes that of an invisible bird, singing in the [Page 16] upper air, or when a partridge, roused by approaching steps, started from the hollow, and rapidly whirring away directly before them was again startled into flight when they overtook it.
     The road they followed cut straight through the forest, and, disdaining
to enclose the hills in graceful curves, attacked and surmounted them in the direct fashion common to our forefathers, when they encountered obstacles of any serious nature.  The absence of human sight or voice gave a strangeness to the sound of their own utterances, and there were frequent lapses into that sad silence which fell upon them as naturally as the gloom from the overshadowing boughs above.  The old attendant who viewed every member of the family whom he served and loved just as the first man regarded the world at his first glimpse of it—that is, as an extension of his own consciousness—was deeply moved at the sight of his young master’s sombre face.  Edward’s heart, indeed, ached painfully.  The perpetual repetition of this luxuriance of young fresh life in the woods of May was a constant reminder of a life that until lately had been as vigorously beautiful, and now perhaps had passed away from this world forever.
     Leaving their weary horses at Holland Landing, they took boat down the river and bay, desiring to hasten their arrival at the family mansion, nearly opposite to what is now the prettily situated town of Barrie.  Edward sat apart and gazed long and silently at the waving tree lines, dark against a luminous, cool, gray sky, with its scattered but serene group of clouds.  All his desire for home and for her who was the sunshine of it had resolved itself into a yearning that gnawed momentarily at his heart.  Instead of the fair sky and landscape and silent waterways of his New World home, he saw or rather felt, the hush of a dim chamber, whose wasted occupant had travelled far into the valley of the shadow of death.  His wet eyes, looking abroad [Page 17] upon the outer world, were as the eyes of those who see not.  The afternoon sunshine paled and thinned, but beneath the chill of the spring day there lay a warm hint of the untold tenderness of midsummer.  Unconsciously to himself the prophecy brought a feeling of comfort to his heart, in its reminder of the glory of that summer to which his mother might even now be passing—“the glory that was to be revealed.”
     It was early twilight when Edward Macleod reached his beautiful home overlooking Kempenfeldt Bay.  The broad, solid-built house, with its commanding position, and spacious verandas, seemed just such a mansion as an old naval officer, who was reduced to the insipid necessity of a life on shore, would choose to dwell in.  One might almost be tempted to call it a fine piece of marine architecture, in some of its fanciful reminders of an ocean vessel.  Its solitariness, its pointed turrets and gables, its proud position on what might be termed the topmost wave of earth in that region, the flying flag at its summit, and the ample white curtains that fluttered sail-like in the open windows, all heightened the resemblance.  From its portal down to the bay, extended a noble avenue of hardwood trees—oak, walnut and elm—never planted by the hand of man.  Their gracious lives the woodman had spared, and now, with their outstretched branches, catching the faint evening breeze, they seemed to breathe a sad benediction upon the returning youth, who walked hurriedly and tremblingly beneath them.
     As he stepped from their leafy shadow upon the sunset-gilded lawn, he was startled by an apparition which seemed suddenly to take shape from a sweet-scented thicket of lilacs now in profuse bloom at the rear of the house.  A dark, lissome creature, beautiful as a young princess, but a princess in the disguise of a savage, darted past him.  So sudden was the appearance, and so swift the flight of this [Page 18] dusky Diana, speeding through the blossoming shrubs of spring, that his mind retained only a general impression of a face, perfect-featured and olive-tinted, and a form robed in a brilliant and barbarous admixture of scarlet, yellow, and very dark blue.
     But the next moment every sensation and emotion gave way to overwhelming and profound grief, for his sister Rose, hurrying to meet him, threw herself into his arms with an abandon of sorrow that seemed to leave no room for hope.  The fatal question burned a moment on his lips, then died away unuttered, leaving them pale as ashes, and a big tear fell upon the bright head of the girl whom he now believed to be with himself motherless.  But in a moment his father took his hand in a tense, strong grasp, and drew him quickly forward.  “She yet breathes,” he whispered, “but is unable to recognize any of us.  Heaven grant she may know you.  For days past her moan has been, ‘I cannot die until I see my son, until I see my first-born.’”
     His voice broke as they entered the chamber of death.  The young man, feeling strangely weak and blind, sat down beside the bed, for the awful hush of this darkened room weighed heavily upon him.  As in a terrible dream he saw the sorrowing forms of his younger brother and sister, crouching at his feet, poor Rose drooping in the doorway, his father’s trembling hands grasping a post of the high, old-fashioned bedstead, and, on the other side of the bed a youthful stranger, whose black dress and very black hair divinely framed a face and throat of milky whiteness.  These objects left but a weak impression upon his dulled senses, for all his soul was going out in resistless longing towards the fast-ebbing life that seemed to be slipping away from his feeble grasp.  He stroked the little bloodless hand, and kissed repeatedly the wasted cheek, uttering at the same time low murmurs of entreaty that she would look upon him once more before she died.  All in vain. [Page 19] Utterly still and unresponsive as death itself, she lay before him.  “Dear mother,” he implored, “it is your son, your own Edward that calls you.  Can you not hear?  Will you not come back to me a single moment?  Ah, I cannot let you go; I cannot, I cannot!”  His voice sank in a passionate murmur of grief.  “You will look at me once, will you not?  Oh, mother, mother, mother!”
     He had fallen to his knees, with his face on the pillow close to hers, and his last words smote upon her ear like the inarticulate wail of an infant whose life must perish along with the strong sustaining life of her who gave it birth.  The head turned ever so slightly, the eyelids quivered faintly and lifted, and her eyes looked fully and tenderly upon her son.  Then, with a mighty effort, she raised one transparent hand, and brought it feebly, flutteringly, higher and higher, until it lay upon his cheek.  A strange faint light of unearthly sweetness played about her lips.  It was a light as sweet and beautiful as her own life had been, but now it paled and faded—brightened again—flickered a moment—and then went out forever.
     The sad sound of children weeping broke the silence of the death-chamber.  Edward still knelt, and Rose was bowed with grief; but the old Commodore’s courageous voice sounded as though wrung from the depths of his sorely-stricken heart:
     “The Lord gave, and the Lord—” his tongue failed him, but after a momentary struggle he continued in shaking tones—“and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed—”
     He could say no more.
     Surely the blessing that, for choking sobs, could not find utterance on earth, was heard in heaven, and abundantly returned upon the brave and desolate spirit of him who strove to pronounce it. [Page 20]