OVER PRAIRIE TRAILS
By Frederick Philip Grove
Introductory 1 Farms and Roads 2 Fog 3 Dawn and Diamonds 4 Snow 5 Wind and Waves 6 A Call for Speed 7 Skies and Scares
A few years ago it so happened that my work—teaching school—kept me during the week in a small country town in the centre of one of the prairie provinces while my family—wife and little daughter—lived in the southern fringe of the great northern timber expanse, not very far from the western shore of a great lake. My wife—like the plucky little woman she is—in order to round off my far-from-imperial income had made up her mind to look after a rural school that boasted of something like a residence. I procured a buggy and horse and went "home" on Fridays, after school was over, to return to my town on Sunday evening—covering thus, while the season was clement and allowed straight cross-country driving, coming and going, a distance of sixty-eight miles. Beginning with the second week of January this distance was raised to ninety miles because, as my more patient readers will see, the straight cross-country roads became impassable through snow.
These drives, the fastest of which was made in somewhat over four hours and the longest of which took me nearly eleven—the rest of them averaging pretty well up between the two extremes—soon became what made my life worth living. I am naturally an outdoor creature—I have lived for several years "on the tramp"—I love Nature more than Man—I take to horses—horses take to me—so how could it have been otherwise? Add to this that for various reasons my work just then was not of the most pleasant kind—I disliked the town, the town disliked me, the school board was sluggish and unprogressive, there was friction in the staff—and who can wonder that on Fridays, at four o'clock, a real holiday started for me: two days ahead with wife and child, and going and coming—the drive.
I made thirty-six of these trips: seventy-two drives in all. I think I could still rehearse every smallest incident of every single one of them. With all their weirdness, with all their sometimes dangerous adventure—most of them were made at night, and with hardly ever any regard being paid to the weather or to the state of the roads—they stand out in the vast array of memorable trifles that constitute the story of my life as among the most memorable ones. Seven drives seem, as it were, lifted above the mass of others as worthy to be described in some detail—as not too trivial to detain for an hour or so a patient reader's kind attention. Not that the others lack in interest for myself; but there is little in them of that mildly dramatic, stirring quality which might perhaps make their recital deserving of being heard beyond my own frugal fireside. Strange to say, only one of the seven is a return trip. I am afraid that the prospect of going back to rather uncongenial work must have dulled my senses. Or maybe, since I was returning over the same road after an interval of only two days, I had exhausted on the way north whatever there was of noticeable impressions to be garnered. Or again, since I was coming from "home," from the company of those for whom I lived and breathed, it might just be that all my thoughts flew back with such an intensity that there was no vitality left for the perception of the things immediately around me.
ONE. Farms and Roads
At ten minutes past four, of an evening late in September, I sat in the buggy and swung out of the livery stable that boarded my horse. Peter, the horse, was a chunky bay, not too large, nor too small; and I had stumbled on to him through none of my sagacity. To tell the plain truth, I wanted to get home, I had to have a horse that could stand the trip, no other likely looking horse was offered, this one was—on a trial drive he looked as if he might do, and so I bought him—no, not quite—I arranged with the owner that I should make one complete trip with him and pay a fee of five dollars in case I did not keep him. As the sequence showed, I could not have found a better horse for the work in hand.
I turned on to the road leading north, crossed the bridge, and was between the fields. I looked at my watch and began to time myself. The moon was new and stood high in the western sky; the sun was sinking on the downward stretch. It was a pleasant, warm fall day, and it promised an evening such as I had wished for on my first drive out. Not a cloud showed anywhere. I did not urge the horse; he made the first mile in seven, and a half minutes, and I counted that good enough.
Then came the turn to the west; this new road was a correction line, and I had to follow it for half a mile. There was no farmhouse on this short bend. Then north for five miles. The road was as level as a table top—a good, smooth, hard-beaten, age-mellowed prairie-grade. The land to east and west was also level; binders were going and whirring their harvest song. Nobody could have felt more contented than I did. There were two clusters of buildings—substantial buildings—set far back from the road, one east, the other one west, both clusters huddled homelike and sheltered in bluffs of planted cottonwoods, straight rows of them, three, four trees deep. My horse kept trotting leisurely along, the wheels kept turning, a meadow lark called in a desultory way from a nearby fence post. I was "on the go." I had torn up my roots, as it were, I felt detached and free; and if both these prosperous looking farms had been my property—I believe, that moment a "Thank-you" would have bought them from me if parting from them had been the price of the liberty to proceed. But, of course, neither one of them ever could have been my property, for neither by temperament nor by profession had I ever been given to the accumulation of the wealth of this world.
A mile or so farther on there stood another group of farm buildings—this one close to the road. An unpainted barn, a long and low, rather ramshackle structure with sagging slidedoors that could no longer be closed, stood in the rear of the farm yard. The dwelling in front of it was a tall, boxlike two-story house, well painted in a rather loud green with white door and window frames. The door in front, one window beside it, two windows above, geometrically correct, and stiff and cold. The house was the only green thing around, however. Not a tree, not a shrub, not even a kitchen garden that I could see. I looked the place over critically, while I drove by. Somehow I was convinced that a bachelor owned it—a man who made this house—which was much too large for him—his "bunk." There it stood, slick and cold, unhospitable as ever a house was. A house has its physiognomy as well as a man, for him who can read it; and this one, notwithstanding its new and shining paint, was sullen, morose, and nearly vicious and spiteful. I turned away. I should not have cared to work for its owner.
Peter was trotting along. I do not know why on this first trip he never showed the one of his two most prominent traits—his laziness. As I found out later on, so long as I drove him single (he changed entirely in this respect when he had a mate), he would have preferred to be hitched behind, with me between the shafts pulling buggy and him. That was his weakness, but in it there also lay his strength. As soon as I started to dream or to be absorbed in the things around, he was sure to fall into the slowest of walks. When then he heard the swish of the whip, he would start with the worst of consciences, gallop away at breakneck speed, and slow down only when he was sure the whip was safe in its socket. When we met a team and pulled out on the side of the road, he would take it for granted that I desired to make conversation. He stopped instantly, drew one hindleg up, stood on three legs, and drooped his head as if he had come from the ends of the world. Oh yes, he knew how to spare himself. But on the other hand, when it came to a tight place, where only an extraordinary effort would do, I had never driven a horse on which I could more confidently rely. What any horse could do, he did.
About two miles beyond I came again to a cluster of buildings, close to the corner of the crossroads, sheltered, homelike, inviting in a large natural bluff of tall, dark-green poplars. Those first two houses had had an aristocratic aloofness—I should not have liked to turn in there for shelter or for help. But this was prosperous, open-handed, well-to-do middle class; not that conspicuous "moneyedness" that we so often find in our new west when people have made their success; but the solid, friendly, everyday liberality that for generations has not had to pinch itself and therefore has mellowed down to taking the necessities and a certain amount of give and take for granted. I was glad when on closer approach I noticed a school embedded in the shady green of the corner. I thought with pleasure of children being so close to people with whom I should freely have exchanged a friendly greeting and considered it a privilege. In my mental vision I saw beeches and elms and walnut trees around a squire's place in the old country.
The road began to be lined with thickets of shrubs here: choke cherry bushes, with some ripe, dried-up black berries left on the branches, with iron-black bark, and with wiry stems, in the background; in front of them, closer to the driveway, hawthorn, rich with red fruit; rosebushes with scarlet leaves reaching down to nearly underfoot. It is one of the most pleasing characteristics of our native thickets that they never rise abruptly Always they shade off through cushionlike copses of smaller growth into the level ground around.
The sun was sinking. I knew a mile or less further north I should have to turn west in order to avoid rough roads straight ahead. That meant doubling up, because some fifteen miles or so north I should have to turn east again, my goal being east of my starting place. These fifteen or sixteen miles of the northward road I did not know; so I was anxious to make them while I could see. I looked at the moon—I could count on some light from her for an hour or so after sundown. But although I knew the last ten or twelve miles of my drive fairly well, I was also aware of the fact that there were in it tricky spots—forkings of mere trails in muskeg bush—where leaving the beaten log-track might mean as much as being lost. So I looked at my watch again and shook the lines over Peter's back. The first six miles had taken me nearly fifty minutes. I looked at the sun again, rather anxiously I could count on him for another hour and a quarter—well and good then!
There was the turn. Just north of it, far back from both roads, another farmyard. Behind it—to the north, stretched out, a long windbreak of poplars, with a gap or a vista in its centre. Barn and outbuildings were unpainted, the house white; a not unpleasing group, but something slovenly about it. I saw with my mind's eye numerous children, rather neglected, uncared for, an overworked, sickly woman, a man who was bossy and harsh.
The road angles here. Bell's farm consists of three quartersections; the southwest quarter lends its diagonal for the trail. I had hardly made the turn, however, when a car came to meet me. It stopped. The school-inspector of the district looked out. I drew in and returned his greeting, half annoyed at being thus delayed. But his very next word made me sit up. He had that morning inspected my wife's school and seen her and my little girl; they were both as well as they could be. I felt so glad that I got out of my buggy to hand him my pouch of tobacco, the which he took readily enough. He praised my wife's work, as no doubt he had reason to do, and I should have given him a friendly slap on the shoulder, had not just then my horse taken it into his head to walk away without me.
I believe I was whistling when I got back to the buggy seat. I know I slapped the horse's rump with my lines and sang out, "Get up, Peter, we still have a matter of nearly thirty miles to make."
The road becomes pretty much a mere trail here, a rut-track, smooth enough in the rut, where the wheels ran, but rough for the horse's feet in between.
To the left I found the first untilled land. It stretched far away to the west, overgrown with shrub-willow, wolf-willow and symphoricarpus—a combination that is hard to break with the plow. I am fond of the silver grey, leathery foliage of the wolf-willow which is so characteristic of our native woods. Cinquefoil, too, the shrubby variety, I saw in great numbers—another one of our native dwarf shrubs which, though decried as a weed, should figure as a border plant in my millionaire's park.
And as if to make my enjoyment of the evening's drive supreme, I saw the first flocks of my favourite bird, the goldfinch. All over this vast expanse, which many would have called a waste, there were strings of them, chasing each other in their wavy flight, twittering on the downward stretch, darting in among the bushes, turning with incredible swiftness and sureness of wing the shortest of curves about a branch, and undulating away again to where they came from.
To the east I had, while pondering over the beautiful wilderness, passed a fine bluff of stately poplars that stood like green gold in the evening sun. They sheltered apparently, though at a considerable distance, another farmhouse; for a road led along their southern edge, lined with telephone posts. A large flock of sheep was grazing between the bluff and the trail, the most appropriate kind of stock for this particular landscape.
While looking back at them, I noticed a curious trifle. The fence along my road had good cedar posts, placed about fifteen feet apart. But at one point there were two posts where one would have done. The wire, in fact, was not fastened at all to the supernumerary one, and yet this useless post was strongly braced by two stout, slanting poles. A mere nothing, which I mention only because it was destined to be an important landmark for me on future drives.
We drove on. At the next mile-corner all signs of human habitation ceased. I had now on both sides that same virgin ground which I have described above. Only here it was interspersed with occasional thickets of young aspen-boles. It was somewhere in this wilderness that I saw a wolf, a common prairie-wolf with whom I became quite familiar later on. I made it my custom during the following weeks, on my return trips, to start at a given point a few miles north of here eating the lunch which my wife used to put up for me: sandwiches with crisply fried bacon for a filling. And when I saw that wolf for the second time, I threw a little piece of bacon overboard. He seemed interested in the performance and stood and watched me in an averted kind of way from a distance. I have often noticed that you can never see a wolf from the front, unless it so happens that he does not see you. If he is aware of your presence, he will instantly swing around, even though he may stop and watch you. If he watches, he does so with his head turned back. That is one of the many precautions the wily fellow has learned, very likely through generations of bitter experience. After a while I threw out a second piece, and he started to trot alongside, still half turned away; he kept at a distance of about two hundred yards to the west running in a furtive, half guilty-looking way, with his tail down and his eye on me. After that he became my regular companion, an expected feature of my return trips, running with me every time for a while and coming a little bit closer till about the middle of November he disappeared, never to be seen again. This time I saw him in the underbrush, about a hundred yards ahead and as many more to the west. I took him by surprise, as he took me. I was sorry I had not seen him a few seconds sooner. For, when I focused my eyes on him, he stood in a curious attitude: as if he was righting himself after having slipped on his hindfeet in running a sharp curve. At the same moment a rabbit shot across that part of my field of vision to the east which I saw in a blurred way only, from the very utmost corner of my right eye. I did not turn but kept my eyes glued to the wolf. Nor can I tell whether I had stirred the rabbit up, or whether the wolf had been chasing or stalking it. I should have liked to know, for I have never seen a wolf stalking a rabbit, though I have often seen him stalk fowl. Had he pulled up when he saw me? As I said, I cannot tell, for now he was standing in the characteristic wolf-way, half turned, head bent back, tail stretched out nearly horizontally. The tail sank, the whole beast seemed to shrink, and suddenly he slunk away with amazing agility. Poor fellow—he did not know that many a time I had fed some of his brothers in cruel winters. But he came to know me, as I knew him; for whenever he left me on later drives, very close to Bell's corner, after I had finished my lunch, he would start right back on my trail, nose low, and I have no doubt that he picked up the bits of bacon which I had dropped as tidbits for him.
I drove and drove. The sun neared the horizon now It was about six o'clock. The poplar thickets on both sides of the road began to be larger. In front the trail led towards a gate in a long, long line of towering cottonwoods. What was beyond?
It proved to be a gate indeed. Beyond the cottonwoods there ran an eastward grade lined on the north side by a ditch which I had to cross on a culvert. It will henceforth be known as the "twelve-mile bridge." Beyond the culvert the road which I followed had likewise been worked up into a grade. I did not like it, for it was new and rough. But less did I like the habitation at the end of its short, one-mile career. It stood to the right, close to the road, and was a veritable hovel. [Footnote: It might be well to state expressly here that, whatever has been said in these pages concerning farms and their inhabitants, has intentionally been so arranged as not to apply to the exact localities at which they are described. Anybody at all familiar with the district through which these drives were made will readily identify every natural landmark. But although I have not consciously introduced any changes in the landscape as God made it, I have in fairness to the settlers entirely redrawn the superimposed man-made landscape.] It was built of logs, but it looked more like a dugout, for stable as well as dwelling were covered by way of a roof with blower-thrown straw In the door of the hovel there stood two brats—poor things!
The road was a trail again for a mile or two. It led once more through the underbrush-wilderness interspersed with poplar bluffs. Then it became by degrees a real "high-class" Southern Prairie grade. I wondered, but not for long. Tall cottonwood bluffs, unmistakably planted trees, betrayed more farms. There were three of them, and, strange to say, here on the very fringe of civilization I found that "moneyed" type—a house, so new and up-to-date, that it verily seemed to turn up its nose to the traveller. I am sure it had a bathroom without a bathtub and various similar modern inconveniences. The barn was of the Agricultural-College type—it may be good, scientific, and all that, but it seems to crush everything else around out of existence; and it surely is not picturesque—unless it has wings and silos to relieve its rigid contours. Here it had not.
The other two farms to which I presently came—buildings set back from the road, but not so far as to give them the air of aloofness—had again that friendly, old-country expression that I have already mentioned: here it was somewhat marred, though, by an over-rigidity of the lines. It is unfortunate that our farmers, when they plant at all, will nearly always plant in straight lines. The straight line is a flaw where we try to blend the work of our hands with Nature. They also as a rule neglect shrubs that would help to furnish a foreground for their trees; and, worst of all, they are given to importing, instead of utilising our native forest growth. Not often have I seen, for instance, our high-bush cranberry planted, although it certainly is one of the most beautiful shrubs to grow in copses.
These two farms proved to be pretty much the last sign of comfort that I was to meet on my drives to the north. Though later I learned the names of their owners and even made their acquaintance, for me they remained the "halfway farms," for, after I had passed them, at the very next corner, I was seventeen miles from my starting point, seventeen miles from "home."
Beyond, stretches of the real wilderness began, the pioneer country, where farms, except along occasional highroads, were still three, four miles apart, where the breaking on few homesteads had reached the thirty-acre mark, and where a real, "honest-to-goodness" cash dollar bill was often as scarce as a well-to-do teacher in the prairie country.
The sun went down, a ball of molten gold—two hours from "town," as I called it. It was past six o'clock. There were no rosy-fingered clouds; just a paling of the blue into white; then a greying of the western sky; and lastly the blue again, only this time dark. A friendly crescent still showed trail and landmarks after even the dusk had died away. Four miles, or a little more, and I should be in familiar land again. Four miles, that I longed to make, before the last light failed...
The road angled to the northeast. I was by no means very sure of it. I knew which general direction to hold, but trails that often became mere cattle-paths crossed and criss-crossed repeatedly. It was too dark by this time to see very far. I did not know the smaller landmarks. But I knew, if I drove my horse pretty briskly, I must within little more than half an hour strike a black wall of the densest primeval forest fringing a creek—and, skirting this creek, I must find an old, weather-beaten lumber bridge. When I had crossed that bridge, I should know the landmarks again.
Underbrush everywhere, mostly symphoricarpus, I thought. Large trunks loomed up, charred with forest fires; here and there a round, white or light-grey stone, ghostly in the waning light, knee-high, I should judge. Once I passed the skeleton of a stable—the remnant of the buildings put up by a pioneer settler who had to give in after having wasted effort and substance and worn his knuckles to the bones. The wilderness uses human material up...
A breeze from the north sprang up, and it turned strangely chilly I started to talk to Peter, the loneliness seemed so oppressive. I told him that he should have a walk, a real walk, as soon as we had crossed the creek. I told him we were on the homeward half—that I had a bag of oats in the box, and that my wife would have a pail of water ready... And Peter trotted along.
Something loomed up in front. Dark and sinister it looked. Still there was enough light to recognize even that which I did not know. A large bluff of poplars rustled, the wind soughing through the stems with a wailing note. The brush grew higher to the right. I suddenly noticed that I was driving along a broken-down fence between the brush and myself. The brush became a grove of boles which next seemed to shoot up to the full height of the bluff. Then, unexpectedly, startlingly, a vista opened. Between the silent grove to the south and the large; whispering, wailing bluff to the north there stood in a little clearing a snow white log house, uncannily white in the paling moonlight. I could still distinctly see that its upper windows were nailed shut with boards—and yes, its lower ones, too. And yet, the moment I passed it, I saw through one unclosed window on the northside light. Unreasonably I shuddered.
This house, too, became a much-looked-for landmark to me on my future drives. I learned that it stood on the range line and called it the "White Range Line House." There hangs a story by this house. Maybe I shall one day tell it...
Beyond the great and awe-inspiring poplar-bluff the trail took a sharp turn eastward. From the southwest another rut-road joined it at the bend. I could only just make it out in the dark, for even moonlight was fading fast now. The sudden, reverberating tramp of the horse's feet betrayed that I was crossing a culvert. I had been absorbed in getting my bearings, and so it came as a surprise. It had not been mentioned in the elaborate directions which I had received with regard to the road to follow. For a moment, therefore, I thought I must be on the wrong trail. But just then the dim view, which had been obstructed by copses and thickets, cleared ahead in the last glimmer of the moon, and I made out the back cliff of forest darkly looming in the north—that forest I knew. Behind a narrow ribbon of bush the ground sloped down to the bed of the creek—a creek that filled in spring and became a torrent, but now was sluggish and slow where it ran at all. In places it consisted of nothing but a line of muddy pools strung along the bottom of its bed. In summer these were a favourite haunting place for mosquito-and-fly-plagued cows. There the great beasts would lie down in the mud and placidly cool their punctured skins. A few miles southwest the creek petered out entirely in a bed of shaly gravel bordering on the Big Marsh which I had skirted in my drive and a corner of which I was crossing just now.
The road was better here and spoke of more traffic. It was used to haul cordwood in late winter and early spring to a town some ten or fifteen miles to the southwest. So I felt sure again I was not lost but would presently emerge on familiar territory. The horse seemed to know it, too, for he raised his head and went at a better gait.
A few minutes passed. There was hardly a sound from my vehicle. The buggy was rubber-tired, and the horse selected a smooth ribbon of grass to run on. But from the black forest wall there came the soughing of the wind and the nocturnal rustle of things unknown. And suddenly there came from close at hand a startling sound: a clarion call that tore the veil lying over my mental vision: the sharp, repeated whistle of the whip-poor-will. And with my mind's eye I saw the dusky bird: shooting slantways upward in its low flight which ends in a nearly perpendicular slide down to within ten or twelve feet from the ground, the bird being closely followed by a second one pursuing. In reality I did not see the birds, but I heard the fast whir of their wings.
Another bird I saw but did not hear. It was a small owl. The owl's flight is too silent, its wing is down-padded. You may hear its beautiful call, but you will not hear its flight, even though it circle right around your head in the dusk. This owl crossed my path not more than an inch or two in front. It nearly grazed my forehead, so that I blinked. Oh, how I felt reassured! I believe, tears welled in my eyes. When I come to the home of frog and toad, of gartersnake and owl and whip-poor-will, a great tenderness takes possession of me, and I should like to shield and help them all and tell them not to be afraid of me; but I rather think they know it anyway.
The road swung north, and then east again; we skirted the woods; we came to the bridge; it turned straight north; the horse fell into a walk. I felt that henceforth I could rely on my sense of orientation to find the road. It was pitch dark in the bush—the thin slice of the moon had reached the horizon and followed the sun; no light struck into the hollow which I had to thread after turning to the southeast for a while. But as if to reassure me once more and still further of the absolute friendliness of all creation for myself—at this very moment I saw high overhead, on a dead branch of poplar, a snow white owl, a large one, eighteen inches tall, sitting there in state, lord as he is of the realm of night...
Peter walked—though I did not see the road, the horse could not mistake it. It lay at the bottom of a chasm of trees and bushes. I drew my cloak somewhat closer around and settled back. This cordwood trail took us on for half a mile, and then we came to a grade leading east. The grade was rough; it was the first one of a network of grades which were being built by the province, not primarily for the roads they afforded, but for the sake of the ditches of a bold and much needed drainage-system. To this very day these yellow grades of the pioneer country along the lake lie like naked scars on Nature's body: ugly raw, as if the bowels were torn out of a beautiful bird and left to dry and rot on its plumage. Age will mellow them down into harmony.
Peter had walked for nearly half an hour. The ditch was north of the grade. I had passed, without seeing it, a newly cut-out road to the north which led to a lonesome schoolhouse in the bush. As always when I passed or thought of it, I had wondered where through this wilderness-tangle of bush and brush the children came from to fill it—walking through winter-snows, through summer-muds, for two, three, four miles or more to get their meagre share of the accumulated knowledge of the world. And the teacher! Was it the money? Could it be when there were plenty of schools in the thickly settled districts waiting for them? I knew of one who had come to this very school in a car and turned right back when she saw that she was expected to live as a boarder on a comfortless homestead and walk quite a distance and teach mostly foreign-born children. It had been the money with her! Unfortunately it is not the woman—nor the man either, for that matter—who drives around in a car, that will buckle down and do this nation's work! I also knew there were others like myself who think this backwoods bushland God's own earth and second only to Paradise—but few! And these young girls that quake at their loneliness and yet go for a pittance and fill a mission! But was not my wife of their very number?
I started up. Peter was walking along. But here, somewhere, there led a trail off the grade, down through the ditch, and to the northeast into the bush which swallows it up and closes behind it. This trail needs to be looked for even in daytime, and I was to find it at night! But by this time starlight began to aid. Vega stood nearly straight overhead, and Deneb and Altair, the great autumnal triangle in our skies. The Bear, too, stood out boldly, and Cassiopeia opposite.
I drew in and got out of the buggy; and walking up to the horse's head, got ahold of the bridle and led him, meanwhile scrutinizing the ground over which I stepped. At that I came near missing the trail. It was just a darkening of the ground, a suggestion of black on the brown of the grade, at the point where poles and logs had been pulled across with the logging chain. I sprang down into the ditch and climbed up beyond and felt with my foot for the dent worn into the edge of the slope, to make sure that I was where I should be. It was right, so I led the horse across. At once he stood on three legs again, left hindleg drawn up, and rested.
"Well, Peter," I said, "I suppose I have made it easy enough for you: We have another twelve miles to make. You'll have to get up." But Peter this time did not stir till I touched him a flick with my whip.
The trail winds around, for it is a logging trail, leading up to the best bluffs, which are ruthlessly cut down by the fuel-hunters. Only dead and half decayed trees are spared. But still young boles spring up in astonishing numbers. Aspen and Balm predominate, though there is some ash and oak left here and there, with a conifer as the rarest treat for the lover of trees. It is a pitiful thing to see a Nation's heritage go into the discard. In France or in England it would be tended as something infinitely precious. The face of our country as yet shows the youth of infancy, but we make it prematurely old. The settler who should regard the trees as his greatest pride, to be cut into as sparingly as is compatible with the exigencies of his struggle for life—he regards them as a nuisance to be burned down by setting wholesale fires to them. Already there is a scarcity of fuel-wood in these parts.
Where the fires as yet have not penetrated too badly, the cutting, which leaves only what is worthless, determines the impression the forest makes. At night this impression is distinctly uncanny. Like gigantic brooms, with their handles stuck into the ground, the dead wood stands up; the underbrush crowds against it, so dense that it lies like huge black cushions under the stars. The inner recesses form an almost impenetrable mass of young boles of shivering aspen and scented balm. This mass slopes down to thickets of alder, red dogwood, haw, highbush cranberry, and honeysuckle, with wide beds of goldenrod or purple asters shading off into the spangled meadows wherever the copses open up into grassy glades.
Through this bush, and skirting its meadows, I drove for an hour. There was another fork in the trail, and again I had to get out and walk on the side, to feel with my foot for the rut where it branched to the north. And then, after a while, the landscape opened up, the brush receded. At last I became conscious of a succession of posts to the right, and a few minutes later I emerged on the second east-west grade. Another mile to the east along this grade, and I should come to the last, homeward stretch.
Again I began to talk to the horse. "Only five miles now, Peter, and then the night's rest. A good drink, a good feed of oats and wild hay, and the birds will waken you in the morning."
The northern lights leaped into the sky just as I turned from this east-west grade, north again, across a high bridge, to the last road that led home. To the right I saw a friendly light, and a dog's barking voice rang over from the still, distant farmstead. I knew the place. An American settler with a French sounding name had squatted down there a few years ago.
The road I followed was, properly speaking, not a road at all, though used for one. A deep master ditch had been cut from ten or twelve miles north of here; it angled, for engineering reasons, so that I was going northwest again. The ground removed from the ditch had been dumped along its east side, and though it formed only a narrow, high, and steep dam, rough with stones and overgrown with weeds, it was used by whoever had to go north or south here. The next east-west grade which I was aiming to reach, four miles north, was the second correction line that I had to use, twenty-four miles distant from the first; and only a few hundred yards from its corner I should be at home!
At home! All my thoughts were bent on getting home now. Five or six hours of driving will make the strongest back tired, I am told. Mine is not of the strongest. This road lifted me above the things that I liked to watch. Invariably, on all these drives, I was to lose interest here unless the stars were particularly bright and brilliant. This night I watched the lights, it is true: how they streamed across the sky, like driving rain that is blown into wavy streaks by impetuous wind. And they leaped and receded, and leaped and receded again. But while I watched, I stretched my limbs and was bent on speed. There were a few particularly bad spots in the road, where I could not do anything but walk the horse. So, where the going was fair, I urged him to redoubled effort. I remember how I reflected that the horse as yet did not know we were so near home, this being his first trip out; and I also remember, that my wife afterwards told me that she had heard me a long while before I came—had heard me talking to the horse, urging him on and encouraging him.
Now I came to a slight bend in the road. Only half a mile! And sure enough: there was the signal put out for me. A lamp in one of the windows of the school—placed so that after I turned in on the yard, I could not see it—it might have blinded my eye, and the going is rough there with stumps and stones. I could not see the cottage, it stood behind the school. But the school I saw clearly outlined against the dark blue, star-spangled sky, for it stands on a high gravel ridge. And in the most friendly and welcoming way it looked with its single eye across at the nocturnal guest.
I could not see the cottage, but I knew that my little girl lay sleeping in her cosy bed, and that a young woman was sitting there in the dark, her face glued to the windowpane, to be ready with a lantern which burned in the kitchen whenever I might pull up between school and house. And there, no doubt, she had been sitting for a long while already; and there she was destined to sit during the winter that came, on Friday nights—full often for many and many an hour—full often till midnight—and sometimes longer...
Peter took me north, alone, on six successive trips. We had rain, we had snow, we had mud, and hard-frozen ground. It took us four, it took us six, it took us on one occasion—after a heavy October snowfall—nearly eleven hours to make the trip. That last adventure decided me. It was unavoidable that I should buy a second horse. The roads were getting too heavy for single driving over such a distance. This time I wanted a horse that I could sell in the spring to a farmer for any kind of work on the land. I looked around for a while. Then I found Dan. He was a sorrel, with some Clyde blood in him. He looked a veritable skate of a horse. You could lay your fingers between his ribs, and he played out on the first trip I ever made with this newly-assembled, strange-looking team. But when I look back at that winter, I cannot but say that again I chose well. After I had fed him up, he did the work in a thoroughly satisfactory manner, and he learnt to know the road far better than Peter. Several times I should have been lost without his unerring road sense. In the spring I sold him for exactly what I had paid; the farmer who bought him has him to this very day [Footnote: Spring, 1919.] and says he never had a better horse.
I also had found that on moonless nights it was indispensable for me to have lights along. Now maybe the reader has already noticed that I am rather a thorough-going person. For a week I worked every day after four at my buggy and finally had a blacksmith put on the finishing touches. What I rigged up, was as follows: On the front springs I fastened with clamps two upright iron supports; between them with thumbscrews the searchlight of a wrecked steam tractor which I got for a "Thank-you" from a junk-pile. Into the buggy box I laid a borrowed acetylene gas tank, strapped down with two bands of galvanized tin. I made the connection by a stout rubber tube, "guaranteed not to harden in the severest weather." To the side of the box I attached a short piece of bandiron, bent at an angle, so that a bicycle lamp could be slipped over it. Against the case that I should need a handlight, I carried besides a so-called dashboard coal-oil lantern with me. With all lamps going, it must have been a strange outfit to look at from a distance in the dark.
I travelled by this time in fur coat and cap, and I carried a robe for myself and blankets for the horses, for I now fed them on the road soon after crossing the creek.
Now on the second Friday of November there had been a smell of smoke in the air from the early morning. The marsh up north was afire—as it had been off and on for a matter of twenty-odd years. The fire consumes on the surface everything that will burn; the ground cools down, a new vegetation springs up, and nobody would suspect—as there is nothing to indicate—that only a few feet below the heat lingers, ready to leap up again if given the opportunity In this case I was told that a man had started to dig a well on a newly filed claim, and that suddenly he found himself wrapped about in smoke and flames. I cannot vouch for the truth of this, but I can vouch for the fact that the smoke of the fire was smelt for forty miles north and that in the afternoon a combination of this smoke (probably furnishing "condensation nuclei") and of the moisture in the air, somewhere along or above the lake brought about the densest fog I had ever seen on the prairies. How it spread, I shall discuss later on. To give an idea of its density I will mention right here that on the well travelled road between two important towns a man abandoned his car during the early part of the night because he lost his nerve when his lights could no longer penetrate the fog sufficiently to reach the road.
I was warned at noon. "You surely do not intend to go out to-night?" remarked a lawyer-acquaintance to me at the dinner table in the hotel; for by telephone from lake-points reports of the fog had already reached the town. "I intend to leave word at the stable right now," I replied, "to have team and buggy in front of the school at four o'clock." "Well," said the lawyer in getting up, "I would not; you'll run into fog."
And into fog I did run. At this time of the year I had at best only a little over an hour's start in my race against darkness. I always drove my horses hard now while daylight lasted; I demanded from them their very best strength at the start. Then, till we reached the last clear road over the dam, I spared them as much as I could. I had met up with a few things in the dark by now, and I had learned, if a difficulty arose, how much easier it is to cope with it even in failing twilight than by the gleam of lantern or headlight; for the latter never illumine more than a limited spot.
So I had turned Bell's corner by the time I hit the fog. I saw it in front and to the right. It drew a slanting line across the road. There it stood like a wall. Not a breath seemed to be stirring. The fog, from a distance, appeared to rise like a cliff, quite smoothly, and it blotted out the world beyond. When I approached it, I saw that its face was not so smooth as it had appeared from half a mile back; nor was it motionless. In fact, it was rolling south and west like a wave of great viscosity. Though my senses failed to perceive the slightest breath of a breeze, the fog was brewing and whirling, and huge spheres seemed to be forming in it, and to roll forward, slowly, and sometimes to recede, as if they had encountered an obstacle and rebounded clumsily. I had seen a tidal wave, fifty or more feet high, sweep up the "bore" of a river at the head of the Bay of Fundy. I was reminded of the sight; but here everything seemed to proceed in a strangely, weirdly leisurely way. There was none of that rush, of that hurry about this fog that characterizes water. Besides there seemed to be no end to the wave above; it reached up as far as your eye could see—now bulging in, now out, but always advancing. It was not so slow however, as for the moment I judged it to be; for I was later on told that it reached the town at about six o'clock. And here I was, at five, six and a half miles from its limits as the crow flies.
I had hardly time to take in the details that I have described before I was enveloped in the folds of the fog. I mean this quite literally, for I am firmly convinced that an onlooker from behind would have seen the grey masses fold in like a sheet when I drove against them. It must have looked as if a driver were driving against a canvas moving in a slight breeze—canvas light and loose enough to be held in place by the resistance of the air so as to enclose him. Or maybe I should say "veiling" instead of canvas—or something still lighter and airier. Have you ever seen milk poured carefully down the side of a glass vessel filled with water? Well, clear air and fog seemed to behave towards each other pretty much the same way as milk in that case behaves towards water.
I am rather emphatic about this because I have made a study of just such mists on a very much smaller scale. In that northern country where my wife taught her school and where I was to live for nearly two years as a convalescent, the hollows of the ground on clear cold summer nights, when the mercury dipped down close to the freezing point, would sometimes fill with a white mist of extraordinary density. Occasionally this mist would go on forming in higher and higher layers by condensation; mostly however, it seemed rather to come from below. But always, when it was really dense, there was a definite plane of demarcation. In fact, that was the criterion by which I recognised this peculiar mist. Mostly there is, even in the north, a layer of lesser density over the pools, gradually shading off into the clear air above. Nothing of what I am going to describe can be observed in that case.
One summer, when I was living not over two miles from the lakeshore, I used to go down to these pools whenever they formed in the right way; and when I approached them slowly and carefully, I could dip my hand into the mist as into water, and I could feel the coolness of the misty layers. It was not because my hand got moist, for it did not. No evaporation was going on there, nor any condensation either. Nor did noticeable bubbles form because there was no motion in the mass which might have caused the infinitesimal droplets to collide and to coalesce into something perceivable to my senses.
Once, of a full-moon night, I spent an hour getting into a pool like that, and when I looked down at my feet, I could not see them. But after I had been standing in it for a while, ten minutes maybe, a clear space had formed around my body, and I could see the ground. The heat of my body helped the air to redissolve the mist into steam. And as I watched, I noticed that a current was set up. The mist was continually flowing in towards my feet and legs where the body-heat was least. And where evaporation proceeded fastest, that is at the height of my waist, little wisps of mist would detach themselves from the side of the funnel of clear air in which I stood, and they would, in a slow, graceful motion, accelerated somewhat towards the last, describe a downward and inward curve towards the lower part of my body before they dissolved. I thought of that elusive and yet clearly defined layer of mist that forms in the plane of contact between the cold air flowing from Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the ambient air of a sultry summer day. [Footnote: See Burroughs' wonderful description of this phenomenon in "Riverby."]
On another of the rare occasions when the mists had formed in the necessary density I went out again, put a stone in my pocket and took a dog along. I approached a shallow mist pool with the greatest caution. The dog crouched low, apparently thinking that I was stalking some game. Then, when I had arrived within about ten or fifteen yards from the edge of the pool, I took the stone from my pocket, showed it to the dog, and threw it across the pool as fast and as far as I could. The dog dashed in and tore through the sheet. Where the impact of his body came, the mist bulged in, then broke. For a while there were two sheets, separated by a more or less clearly defined, vertical layer of transparency or maybe blackness rather. The two sheets were in violent commotion, approaching, impinging upon each other, swinging back again to complete separation, and so on. But the violence of the motion consisted by no means in speed: it suggested a very much retarded rolling off of a motion picture reel. There was at first an element of disillusion in the impression. I felt tempted to shout and to spur the mist into greater activity. On the surface, to both sides of the tear, waves ran out, and at the edges of the pool they rose in that same leisurely, stately way which struck me as one of the most characteristic features of that November mist; and at last it seemed as if they reared and reached up, very slowly as a dying man may stand up once more before he falls. And only after an interval that seemed unconscionably long to me the whole pool settled back to comparative smoothness, though without its definite plane of demarcation now. Strange to say, the dog had actually started something, a rabbit maybe or a jumping deer, and did not return.
When fogs spread, as a rule they do so in air already saturated with moisture. What really spreads, is the cold air which by mixing with, and thereby cooling, the warmer, moisture-laden atmosphere causes the condensation. That is why our fall mists mostly are formed in an exceedingly slight but still noticeable breeze. But in the case of these northern mist pools, whenever the conditions are favourable for their formation, the moisture of the upper air seems to be pretty well condensed as dew It is only in the hollows of the ground that it remains suspended in this curious way. I cannot, so far, say whether it is due to the fact that where radiation is largely thrown back upon the walls of the hollow, the fall in temperature at first is very much slower than in the open, thus enabling the moisture to remain in suspension; or whether the hollows serve as collecting reservoirs for the cold air from the surrounding territory—the air carrying the already condensed moisture with it; or whether, lastly, it is simply due to a greater saturation of the atmosphere in these cavities, consequent upon the greater approach of their bottom to the level of the ground water. I have seen a "waterfall" of this mist overflow from a dent in the edge of ground that contained a pool. That seems to argue for an origin similar to that of a spring; as if strongly moisture-laden air welled up from underground, condensing its steam as it got chilled. It is these strange phenomena that are familiar, too, in the northern plains of Europe which must have given rise to the belief in elves and other weird creations of the brain—"the earth has bubbles as the water has"—not half as weird, though, as some realities are in the land which I love.
Now this great, memorable fog of that November Friday shared the nature of the mist pools of the north in as much as to a certain extent it refused to mingle with the drier and slightly warmer air into which it travelled. It was different from them in as much as it fairly dripped and oozed with a very palpable wetness. Just how it displaced the air in its path, is something which I cannot with certainty say. Was it formed as a low layer somewhere over the lake and slowly pushed along by a gentle, imperceptible, fan-shaped current of air? Fan-shaped, I say; for, as we shall see, it travelled simultaneously south and north; and I must infer that in exactly the same way it travelled west. Or was it formed originally like a tremendous column which flattened out by and by, through its own greater gravity slowly displacing the lighter air in the lower strata? I do not know, but I am inclined to accept the latter explanation. I do know that it travelled at the rate of about six miles an hour; and its coming was observed somewhat in detail by two other observers besides myself—two people who lived twenty-five miles apart, one to the north, one to the south of where I hit it. Neither one was as much interested in things meteorological as I am, but both were struck by the unusual density of the fog, and while one saw it coming from the north, the other one saw it approaching from the south.
I have no doubt that at last it began to mingle with the clearer air and to thin out; in fact, I have good testimony to that effect. And early next morning it was blown by a wind like an ordinary fog-cloud all over Portage Plains.
I also know that further north, at my home, for instance, it had the smell of the smoke which could not have proceeded from anywhere but the marsh; and the marsh lay to the south of it. That seemed to prove that actually the mist was spreading from a common centre in at least two directions. These points, which I gathered later, strongly confirmed my own observations, which will be set down further on. It must, then, have been formed as a layer of a very considerable height, to be able to spread over so many square miles.
As I said, I was reminded of those mist pools in the north when I approached the cliff of the fog, especially of that "waterfall" of mist of which I spoke. But besides the difference in composition—the fog, as we shall see, was not homogeneous, this being the cause of its wetness—there was another important point of distinction. For, while the mist of the pools is of the whitest white, this fog showed from the outside and in the mass—the single wreaths seemed white enough—rather the colour of that "wet, unbleached linen" of which Burroughs speaks in connection with rain-clouds.
Now, as soon as I was well engulfed in the fog, I had a few surprises. I could no longer see the road ahead; I could not see the fence along which I had been driving; I saw the horses' rumps, but I did not see their heads. I bent forward over the dashboard: I could not even see the ground below It was a series of negatives. I stopped the horses. I listened—then looked at my watch. The stillness of the grave enveloped me. It was a little past five o'clock. The silence was oppressive—the misty impenetrability of the atmosphere was appalling. I do not say "darkness," for as yet it was not really dark. I could still see the dial of my watch clearly enough to read the time. But darkness was falling fast—"falling," for it seemed to come from above: mostly it rises—from out of the shadows under the trees—advancing, fighting back the powers of light above.
One of the horses, I think it was Peter, coughed. It was plain they felt chilly. I thought of my lights and started with stiffening fingers to fumble at the valves of my gas tank. When reaching into my trouser pockets for matches, I was struck with the astonishing degree to which my furs had been soaked in these few minutes. As for wetness, the fog was like a sponge. At last, kneeling in the buggy box, I got things ready. I smelt the gas escaping from the burner of my bicycle lantern and heard it hissing in the headlight. The problem arose of how to light a match. I tried various places—without success. Even the seat of my trousers proved disappointing. I got a sizzling and sputtering flame, it is true, but it went out before I could apply it to the gas. The water began to drip from the backs of my hands. It was no rain because it did not fall. It merely floated along; but the droplets, though smaller, were infinitely more numerous than in a rain—there were more of them in a given space. At last I lifted the seat cushion under which I had a tool box filled with ropes, leather straps and all manner of things that I might ever be in need of during my nights in the open. There I found a dry spot where to strike the needed match. I got the bicycle lantern started. It burned quite well, and I rather admired it: unreasoningly I seemed to have expected that it would not burn in so strange an atmosphere. So I carefully rolled a sheet of letter paper into a fairly tight roll, working with my back to the fog and under the shelter of my big raccoon coat. I took a flame from the bicycle light and sheltered and nursed it along till I thought it would stand the drizzle. Then I turned and thrust the improvised torch into the bulky reflector case of the searchlight. The result was startling. A flame eighteen inches high leaped up with a crackling and hissing sound.
The horses bolted, and the buggy jumped. I was lucky, for inertia carried me right back on the seat, and as soon as I had the lines in my hands again, I felt that the horses did not really mean it. I do not think we had gone more than two or three hundred yards before the team was under control. I stopped and adjusted the overturned valves. When I succeeded, I found to my disappointment that the heat of that first flame had partly spoiled the reflector. Still, my range of vision now extended to the belly-band in the horses' harness. The light that used to show me the road for about fifty feet in front of the horses' heads gave a short truncated cone of great luminosity, which was interesting and looked reassuring; but it failed to reach the ground, for it was so adjusted that the focus of the converging light rays lay ahead and not below. Before, therefore, the point of greatest luminosity was reached, the light was completely absorbed by the fog.
I got out of the buggy, went to the horses' heads and patted their noses which were dripping with wetness. But now that I faced the headlight, I could see it though I had failed to see the horses' heads when seated behind it. This, too, was quite reassuring, for it meant that the horses probably could see the ground even though I did not.
But where was I? I soon found out that we had shot off the trail. And to which side? I looked at my watch again. Already the incident had cost me half an hour. It was really dark by now, even outside the fog, for there was no moon. I tried out how far I could get away from the buggy without losing sight of the light. It was only a very few steps, not more than a dozen. I tried to visualize where I had been when I struck the fog. And fortunately my habit of observing the smallest details, even, if only subconsciously, helped me out. I concluded that the horses had bolted straight ahead, thus missing an s-shaped curve to the right.
At this moment I heard Peter paw the ground impatiently; so I quickly returned to the horses, for I did not relish the idea of being left alone. There was an air of impatience and nervousness about both of them.
I took my bicycle lantern and reached for the lines. Then, standing clear of the buggy, I turned the horses at right angles, to the north, as I imagined it to be. When we started, I walked alongside the team through dripping underbrush and held the lantern with my free hand close down to the ground.
Two or three times I stopped during the next half hour, trying, since we still did not strike the trail, to reason out a different course. I was now wet through and through up to my knees; and I had repeatedly run into willow-clumps, which did not tend to make me any drier either. At last I became convinced that in bolting the horses must have swerved a little to the south, so that in starting up again we had struck a tangent to the big bend north, just beyond Bell's farm. If that was the case, we should have to make another turn to the right in order to strike the road again, for at best we were then simply going parallel to it. The trouble was that I had nothing to tell me the directions, not even a tree the bark or moss of which might have vouchsafed information. Suddenly I had an inspiration. Yes, the fog was coming from the northeast! So, by observing the drift of the droplets I could find at least an approximate meridian line. I went to the headlight, and an observation immediately confirmed my conjecture. I was now convinced that I was on that wild land where two months ago I had watched the goldfinches disporting themselves in the evening sun. But so as not to turn back to the south, I struck out at an angle of only about sixty degrees to my former direction. I tried not to swerve, which involved rough going, and I had many a stumble. Thus I walked for another half hour or thereabout.
Then, certainly! This was the road! The horses turned into it of their own accord. That was the most reassuring thing of all. There was one strange doubt left. Somehow I was not absolutely clear about it whether north might not after all be behind. I stopped. Even a new observation of the fog did not remove the last vestige of a doubt. I had to take a chance, some landmark might help after a while.
I believe in getting ready before I start. So I took my coal-oil lantern, lighted and suspended it under the rear springs of the buggy in such a way that it would throw its light back on the road. Having the light away down, I expected to be able to see at least whether I was on a road or not. In this I was only partly successful; for on the rut-trails nothing showed except the blades of grass and the tops of weeds; while on the grades where indeed I could make out the ground, I did not need a light, for, as I found out, I could more confidently rely on my ear.
I got back to my seat and proceeded to make myself as comfortable as I could. I took off my shoes and socks keeping well under the robe—extracted a pair of heavy woollens from my suitcase under the seat, rubbed my feet dry and then wrapped up, without putting my shoes on again, as carefully and scientifically as only a man who has had pneumonia and is a chronic sufferer from pleuritis knows how to do.
At last I proceeded. After listening again with great care for any sound I touched the horses with my whip, and they fell into a quiet trot. It was nearly seven now, and I had probably not yet made eight miles. We swung along. If I was right in my calculations and the horses kept to the road, I should strike the "twelve-mile bridge" in about three-quarters of an hour. That was the bridge leading through the cottonwood gate to the grade past the "hovel." I kept the watch in the mitt of my left hand.
Not for a moment did it occur to me to turn back. Way up north there was a young woman preparing supper for me. The fog might not be there—she would expect me—I could not disappoint her. And then there was the little girl, who usually would wake up and in her "nightie" come out of bed and sleepily smile at me and climb on to my knee and nod off again. I thought of them, to be sure, of the hours and hours in wait for them, and a great tenderness came over me, and gratitude for the belated home they gave an aging man...
And slowly my mind reverted to the things at hand. And this is what was the most striking feature about them: I was shut in, closed off from the world around. Apart from that cone of visibility in front of the headlight, and another much smaller one from the bicycle lamp, there was not a thing I could see. If the road was the right one, I was passing now through some square miles of wild land. Right and left there were poplar thickets, and ahead there was that line of stately cottonwoods. But no suggestion of a landmark—nothing except a cone of light which was filled with fog and cut into on both sides by two steaming and rhythmically moving horseflanks. It was like a very small room, this space of light—the buggy itself, in darkness, forming an alcove to it, in which my hand knew every well-appointed detail. Gradually, while I was warming up, a sense of infinite comfort came, and with it the enjoyment of the elvish aspect.
I began to watch the fog. By bending over towards the dashboard and looking into the soon arrested glare I could make out the component parts of the fog. It was like the mixture of two immiscible liquids—oil, for instance, shaken up with water. A fine, impalpable, yet very dense mist formed the ground mass. But in it there floated myriads of droplets, like the droplets of oil in water. These droplets would sometimes sparkle in a mild, unobtrusive way as they were nearing the light; and then they would dash against the pane and keep it dripping, dripping down.
I leaned back again; and I watched the whole of the light-cone. Snow white wisps would float and whirl through it in graceful curves, stirred into motion by the horses' trot. Or a wreath of it would start to dance, as if gently pulled or plucked at from above; and it would revolve, faster towards the end, and fade again into the shadows behind. I thought of a summer in Norrland, in Sweden, in the stone-and-birch waste which forms the timberline, where I had also encountered the mist pools. And a trip down a stream in the borderland of the Finns came back with great vividness into my mind. That trip had been made in a fog like this; only it had been begun in the early morning, and the whole mass of the mist had been suffused with the whitest of lights. But strange to say, what stood out most strikingly in the fleeting memory of the voyage, was the weird and mocking laughter of the magpies all along the banks. The Finnish woods seemed alive with that mocking laughter, and it truly belongs to the land of the mists. For a moment I thought that something after all was missing here on the prairies. But then I reflected again that this silence of the grave was still more perfect, still more uncanny and ghostly, because it left the imagination entirely free, without limiting it by even as much as a suggestion.
No wonder, I thought, that the Northerners in their land of heath and bog were the poets of elves and goblins and of the fear of ghosts. Shrouds were these fogs, hanging and waving and floating shrouds! Mocking spirits were plucking at them and setting them into their gentle motions. Gleams of light, that dance over the bog, lured you in, and once caught in these veils after veils of mystery, madness would seize you, and you would wildly dash here and there in a vain attempt at regaining your freedom; and when, exhausted at last, you broke down and huddled together on the ground, the werwolf would come, ghostly himself, and huge and airy and weird, his body woven of mist, and in the fog's stately and leisurely way he would kneel down on your chest, slowly crushing you beneath his exceeding weight; and bending and straightening, bending and stretching, slowly—slowly down came his head to your throat; and then he would lie and not stir until morning and suck; and after few or many days people would find you, dead in the woods—a victim of fog and mist...
A rumbling sound made me sit up at last. We were crossing over the "twelve-mile bridge." In spite of my dreaming I was keeping my eyes on the look-out for any sign of a landmark, but this was the only one I had known so far, and it came through the ear, not the eye. I promptly looked back and up, to where the cottonwoods must be; but no sign of high, weeping trees, no rustling of fall-dry leaves, not even a deeper black in the black betrayed their presence. Well, never before had I failed to see some light, to hear some sound around the house of the "moneyed" type or those of the "half way farms." Surely, somehow I should be aware of their presence when I got there! Some sign, some landmark would tell me how far I had gone!... The horses were trotting along, steaming, through the brewing fog. I had become all ear. Even though my buggy was silent and though the road was coated with a thin film of soft clay-mud, I could distinctly hear by the muffled thud of the horses' hoofs on the ground that they were running over a grade. That confirmed my bearings. I had no longer a moment's doubt or anxiety over my drive.
The grade was left behind, the rut-road started again, was passed and outrun. So now I was close to the three-farm cluster. I listened intently for the horses' thump. Yes, there was that muffled hoof-beat again—I was on the last grade that led to the angling road across the corner of the marsh.
Truly, this was very much like lying down in the sleeping-car of an overland train. You recline and act as if nothing unusual were going on; and meanwhile a force that has something irresistible about it and is indeed largely beyond your control, wafts you over mile after mile of fabled distance; now and then the rumble of car on rail will stop, the quiet awakens you, lights flash their piercing darts, a voice calls out; it is a well known stop on your journey and then the rumbling resumes, you doze again, to be awakened again, and so on. And when you get up in the morning—there she lies, the goal of your dreams-the resplendent city...
My goal was my "home," and mildly startling, at least one such mid-nightly awakening came. I had kept peering about for a landmark, a light. Somewhere here in those farmhouses which I saw with my mind's eye, people were sitting around their fireside, chatting or reading. Lamps shed their homely light; roof and wall kept the fog-spook securely out: nothing as comfortable then as to listen to stories of being lost on the marsh, or to tell them... But between those people and myself the curtain had fallen—no sign of their presence, no faintest gleam of their light and warmth! They did not know of the stranger passing outside, his whole being a-yearn with the desire for wife and child. I listened intently—no sound of man or beast, no soughing of wind in stems or rustling of the very last leaves that were now fast falling... And then the startling neighing of Dan, my horse! This was the third trip he made with me, and I might have known and expected it, but it always came as a surprise. Whenever we passed that second farm, he stopped and raising his head, with a sideways motion, neighed a loud and piercing call. And now he had stopped and done it again. He knew where we were. I lowered my whip and patted his rump. How did he know? And why did he do it? Was there a horse on this farmstead which he had known in former life? Or was it a man? Or did he merely feel that it was about time to put in for the night? I enquired later on, but failed to discover any reason for his behaviour.
Now came that angling road past the "White Range Line House." I relied on the horses entirely. This "Range Line House" was inhabited now—a settler was putting in winter-residence so he might not lose his claim. He had taken down the clapboards that closed the windows, and always had I so far seen a light in the house.
It seemed to me that in this corner of the marsh the fog was less dense than it had been farther south, and the horses, once started, were swinging along though in a leisurely way, yet without hesitation. Another half hour passed. Once, at a bend in the trail, the rays from the powerful tractor searchlight, sweeping sideways past the horses, struck a wetly glistening, greyish stone to the right of the road. I knew that stone. Yes, surely the fog must be thinning, or I could not have seen it. I could now also dimly make out the horses' heads, as they nodded up and down...
And then, like a phantom, way up in the mist, I made out a blacker black in the black—the majestic poplars north of the "Range Line House." Not that I could really see them or pick out the slightest detail—no! But it seemed to my searching eyes as if there was a quiet pool in the slow flow of the fog—as the water in a slow flowing stream will come to rest when it strikes the stems of a willow submerged at its margin. I was trying even at the time to decide how much of what I seemed to divine rather than to perceive was imagination and how much reality. And I was just about ready to contend that I also saw to the north something like the faintest possible suggestion of an eddy, such as would form in the flowing water below a pillar or a rock—when I was rudely shaken up and jolted.
Trap, trap, I heard the horses' feet on the culvert. Crash! And Peter went stumbling down. Then a violent lurch of the buggy, I holding on—Peter rallied, and then, before I had time to get a firmer grasp on the lines, both horses bolted again. It took me some time to realize what had happened. It was the culvert, of course; it had broken down, and lucky I was that the ditch underneath was shallow. Only much later, when reflecting upon the incident, did I see that this accident was really the best verification of what I was nearly inclined to regard as the product of my imagination. The trees must indeed have stood where I had seemed to see that quiet reach in the fog and that eddy...
We tore along. I spoke to the horses and quietly and evenly pulled at the lines. I think it must have been several minutes before I had them under control again. And then—in this night of weird things—the weirdest sight of them all showed ahead.
I was just beginning to wonder, whether after all we had not lost the road again, when the faintest of all faint glimmers began to define itself somewhere in front. And... was I right? Yes, a small, thin voice came out of the fog that incessantly floated into my cone of light and was left behind in eddies. What did it mean?...
The glimmer was now defining itself more clearly. Somewhere, not very far ahead and slightly to the left, a globe of the faintest iridescent luminosity seemed suspended in the brewing and waving mist. The horses turned at right angles on to the bridge, the glimmer swinging round to the other side of the buggy. Their hoofs struck wood, and both beasts snorted and stopped.
In a flash a thought came. I had just broken through a culvert—the bridge, too, must have broken down, and somebody had put a light there to warn the chance traveller who might stray along on a night like this! I was on the point of getting out of my wraps, when a thinner wave in the mist permitted me to see the flames of three lanterns hung to the side-rails of the bridge. And that very moment a thin, piping voice came out of the darkness beyond. "Daddy, is that you?" I did not know the child's voice, but I sang out as cheerily as I could. "I am a daddy all right, but I am afraid, not yours. Is the bridge broken down, sonny? Anything wrong?" "No, Sir," the answer came, "nothing wrong." So I pulled up to the lanterns, and there I saw, dimly enough, God wot, a small, ten-year old boy standing and shivering by the signal which he had rigged up. He was barefooted and bareheaded, in shirt and torn knee-trousers. I pointed to the lanterns with my whip. "What's the meaning of this, my boy?" I asked in as friendly a voice as I could muster. "Daddy went to town this morning," he said rather haltingly, "and he must have got caught in the fog. We were afraid he might not find the bridge." "Well, cheer up, son," I said, "he is not the only one as you see; his horses will know the road. Where did he go?" The boy named the town—it was to the west, not half the distance away that I had come. "Don't worry," I said; "I don't think he has started out at all. The fog caught me about sixteen miles south of here. It's nine o'clock now If he had started before the fog got there, he would be here by now." I sat and thought for a moment. Should I say anything about the broken culvert? "Which way would your daddy come, along the creek or across the marsh?" "Along the creek." All right then, no use in saying anything further. "Well, as I said," I sang out and clicked my tongue to the horses, "don't worry; better go home; he will come to-morrow" "I guess so," replied the boy the moment I lost sight of him and the lanterns.
I made the turn to the southeast and walked my horses. Here, where the trail wound along through the chasm of the bush, the light from my cone would, over the horses' backs, strike twigs and leaves now and then. Everything seemed to drip and to weep. All nature was weeping I walked the horses for ten minutes more. Then I stopped. It must have been just at the point where the grade began; but I do not know for sure.
I fumbled a long while for my shoes; but at last I found them and put them on over my dry woollens. When I had shaken myself out of my robes, I jumped to the ground. There was, here, too, a film of mud on top, but otherwise the road was firm enough. I quickly threw the blankets over the horses' backs, dropped the traces, took the bits out of their mouths, and slipped the feed-bags over their heads. I looked at my watch, for it was my custom to let them eat for just ten minutes, then to hook them up again and walk them for another ten before trotting. I had found that that refreshed them enough to make the remainder of the trip in excellent shape.
While I was waiting, I stood between the wheels of the buggy, leaning against the box and staring into the light. It was with something akin to a start that I realized the direction from which the fog rolled by: it came from the south! I had, of course, seen that already, but it had so far not entered my consciousness as a definite observation. It was this fact that later set me to thinking about the origin of the fog along the lines which I have indicated above. Again I marvelled at the density of the mist which somehow seemed greater while we were standing than while we were driving. I had repeatedly been in the clouds, on mountainsides, but they seemed light and thin as compared with this. Finland, Northern Sweden, Canada—no other country which I knew had anything resembling it. The famous London fogs are different altogether. These mists, like the mist pools, need the swamp as their mother, I suppose, and the ice-cool summer night for their nurse...
The time was up. I quickly did what had to be done, and five minutes later we were on the road again. I watched the horses for a while, and suddenly I thought once more of that fleeting impression of an eddy in the lee of the poplar bluff at the "White Range Line House." It was on the north side of the trees, if it was there at all! The significance of the fact had escaped me at the time. It again confirmed my observation of the flow of the fog in both directions. It came from a common centre. And still there was no breath of air. I had no doubt any longer; it was not the air that pushed the fog; the floating bubbles, the infinitesimally small ones as well as those that were quite perceptible, simply displaced the lighter atmosphere. I wondered what kept these bubbles apart. Some repellent force with which they were charged? Something, at any rate, must be preventing them from coalescing into rain. Maybe it was merely the perfect evenness of their flow, for they gathered thickly enough on the twigs and the few dried leaves, on any obstacles in their way. And again I thought of the fact that the mist had seemed thinner when I came out on the marsh. This double flow explained it, of course. There were denser and less dense waves in it: like veils hung up one behind the other. So long as I went in a direction opposite to its flow, I had to look through sheet after sheet of the denser waves. Later I could every now and then look along a plane of lesser density...
It was Dan who found the turn off the grade into the bushy glades. I could see distinctly how he pushed Peter over. Here, where again the road was winding, and where the light, therefore, once more frequently struck the twigs and boughs, as they floated into my cone of luminosity, to disappear again behind, a new impression thrust itself upon me. I call it an impression, not an observation. It is very hard to say, what was reality, what fancy on a night like that. In spite of its air of unreality, of improbability even, it has stayed with me as one of my strongest visions. I nearly hesitate to put it in writing.
These boughs and twigs were like fingers held into a stream that carried loose algae, arresting them in their gliding motion. Or again, those wisps of mist were like gossamers as they floated along, and they would bend and fold over on the boughs before they tore; and where they broke, they seemed like comets to trail a thinner tail of themselves behind. There was tenacity in them, a certain consistency which made them appear as if woven of different things from air and mere moisture. I have often doubted my memory here, and yet I have my very definite notes, and besides there is the picture in my mind. In spite of my own uncertainty I can assure you, that this is only one quarter a poem woven of impressions; the other three quarters are reality. But, while I am trying to set down facts, I am also trying to render moods and images begot by them...
We went on for an hour, and it lengthened out into two. No twigs and boughs any longer, at last. But where I was, I knew not. Much as I listened, I could not make out any difference in the tramp of the horses now I looked down over the back of my buggy seat, and I seemed to see the yellow or brownish clay of a grade. I went on rather thoughtlessly. Then, about eleven o'clock, I noticed that the road was rough. I had long since, as I said, given myself over to the horses. But now I grew nervous. No doubt, unless we had entirely strayed from our road, we were by this time riding the last dam; for no other trail over which we went was quite so rough. But then I should have heard the rumble on the bridge, and I felt convinced that I had not. It shows to what an extent a man may be hypnotised into insensibility by a constant sameness of view, that I was mistaken. If we were on the dam and missed the turn at the end of it, on to the correction line, we should infallibly go down from the grade, on to muskeg ground, for there was a gap in the dam. At that place I had seen a horse disappear, and many a cow had ended there in the deadly struggle against the downward suck of the swamp...
I pulled the horses back to a walk, and we went on for another half hour. I was by this time sitting on the left hand side of the side, bicycle lantern in my left hand, and bending over as far as I could to the left, trying, with arm outstretched, to reach the ground with my light. The lantern at the back of the buggy was useless for this. Here and there the drop-laden, glistening tops of the taller grasses and weeds would float into this auxiliary cone of light—but that was all.
Then no weeds appeared any longer, so I must be on the last half-mile of the dam, the only piece of it that was bare and caution extreme was the word. I made up my mind to go on riding for another five minutes and timed myself, for there was hardly enough room for a team and a walking man besides. When the time was up, I pulled in and got out. I took the lines short, laid my right hand on Peter's back and proceeded. The bicycle lantern was hanging down from my left and showed plainly the clayey gravel of the dam. And so I walked on for maybe ten minutes.
Suddenly I became again aware of a glimmer to the left, and the very next moment a lantern shot out of the mist, held high by an arm wrapped in white. A shivering woman, tall, young, with gleaming eyes, dressed in a linen house dress, an apron flung over breast and shoulders, gasped out two words, "You came!" "Have you been standing here and waiting?" I asked. "No, no! I just could not bear it any longer. Something told me. He's at the culvert now, and if I do not run, he will go down into the swamp!" There was something of a catch in the voice. I did not reply I swung the horses around and crossed the culvert that bridges the master ditch.
And while we were walking up to the yard—had my drive been anything brave—anything at all deserving of the slightest reward—had it not in itself been a thing of beauty, not to be missed by selfish me—surely, the touch of that arm, as we went, would have been more than enough to reward even the most chivalrous deeds of yore.
THREE. Dawn and Diamonds
Two days before Christmas the ground was still bare. I had a splendid new cutter with a top and side curtains; a heavy outfit, but one that would stand up, I believed, under any road conditions. I was anxious to use it, too, for I intended to spend a two weeks' holiday up north with my family. I was afraid, if I used the buggy, I might find it impossible to get back to town, seeing that the first heavy winter storms usually set in about the turn of the year.
School had closed at noon. I intended to set out next morning at as early an hour as I could. I do not know what gave me my confidence, but I firmly expected to find snow on the ground by that time. I am rather a student of the weather. I worked till late at night getting my cutter ready. I had to adjust my buggy pole and to stow away a great number of parcels. The latter contained the first real doll for my little girl, two or three picture books, a hand sleigh, Pip—a little stuffed dog of the silkiest fluffiness—and as many more trifles for wife and child as my Christmas allowance permitted me to buy. It was the first time in the five years of my married life that, thanks to my wife's co-operation in earning money, there was any Christmas allowance to spend; and since I am writing this chiefly for her and the little girl's future reading, I want to set it down here, too, that it was thanks to this very same co-operation that I had been able to buy the horses and the driving outfit which I needed badly, for the poor state of my health forbade more rigorous exercise. I have already said, I think, that I am essentially an outdoor creature; and for several years the fact that I had been forced to look at the out-of-doors from the window of a town house only, had been eating away at my vitality. Those drives took decades off my age, and in spite of incurable illness my few friends say that I look once more like a young man.
Besides my Christmas parcels I had to take oats along, enough to feed the horses for two weeks. And I was, as I said, engaged that evening in stowing everything away, when about nine o'clock one of the physicians of the town came into the stable. He had had a call into the country, I believe, and came to order a team. When he saw me working in the shed, he stepped up and said, "You'll kill your horses." "Meaning?" I queried. "I see you are getting your cutter ready," he replied. "If I were you, I should stick to the wheels." I laughed. "I might not be able to get back to work." "Oh yes," he scoffed, "it won't snow up before the end of next month. We figure on keeping the cars going for a little while yet." Again I laughed. "I hope not," I said, which may not have sounded very gracious.
At ten o'clock every bolt had been tightened, the horses' harness and their feed were ready against the morning, and everything looked good to me.
I was going to have the first real Christmas again in twenty-five years, with a real Christmas tree, and with wife and child, and even though it was a poor man's Christmas, I refused to let anything darken my Christmas spirit or dull the keen edge of my enjoyment. Before going out, I stepped into the office of the stable, slipped a half-dollar into the hostler's palm and asked him once more to be sure to have the horses fed at half-past five in the morning.
Then I left. A slight haze filled the air, not heavy enough to blot out the stars; but sufficient to promise hoarfrost at least. Somehow there was no reason to despair as yet of Christmas weather.
I went home and to bed and slept about as soundly as I could wish. When the alarm of my clock went off at five in the morning, I jumped out of bed and hurried down to shake the fire into activity. As soon as I had started something of a blaze, I went to the window and looked out. It was pitch dark, of course, the moon being down by this time, but it seemed to me that there was snow on the ground. I lighted a lamp and held it to the window; and sure enough, its rays fell on white upon white on shrubs and fence posts and window ledge. I laughed and instantly was in a glow of impatience to be off.
At half past five, when the coffee water was in the kettle and on the stove, I hurried over to the stable across the bridge. The snow was three inches deep, enough to make the going easy for the horses. The slight haze persisted, and I saw no stars. At the stable I found, of course, that the horses had not been fed; so I gave them oats and hay and went to call the hostler. When after much knocking at last he responded to my impatience, he wore a guilty look on his face but assured me that he was just getting up to feed my team. "Never mind about feeding," I said "I've done that. But have them harnessed and hitched up by a quarter past six. I'll water them on the road." They never drank their fill before nine o'clock. And I hurried home to get my breakfast...