Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
He giveth snow like wool; he scattereth the hoar frost like ashes.
JOB xxxviii. 29, 30; PSALM cxlvii. 16.
Winter was fairly come at last. A black frost had bound the earth for many days; and at length a peculiar sensation, almost a smell of snow in the air, indicated an approaching storm. The snow fell at first in a few large unwilling flakes, that fluttered slowly and heavily to the earth, where they lay like the foundation of the superstructure that was about to follow. Faster and faster they fell--wonderful multitudes of delicate crystals, adhering in shapes of beauty which outvied all that jeweller could invent or execute of ethereal, starry forms, structures of evanescent yet prodigal loveliness--till the whole air was obscured by them, and night came on, hastened by an hour, from the gathering of their white darkness. In the morning, all the landscape was transfigured. The snow had ceased to fall; but the whole earth, houses, fields, and fences, ponds and streams, were changed to whiteness. But most wonderful looked the trees--every bough and every twig thickened, and bent earthward with its own individual load of the fairy ghost-birds. Each retained the semblance of its own form, wonderfully, magically altered by its thick garment of radiant whiteness, shining gloriously in the sunlight. It was the shroud of dead nature; but a shroud that seemed to prefigure a lovely resurrection; for the very death-robe was unspeakably, witchingly beautiful. Again at night the snow fell; and again and again, with intervening days of bright sunshine. Every morning, the first fresh footprints were a new wonder to the living creatures, the young-hearted amongst them at least, who lived and moved in this death-world, this sepulchral planet, buried in the shining air before the eyes of its sister-stars in the blue, deathless heavens. Paths had to be cleared in every direction towards the out-houses, and again cleared every morning; till at last the walls of solid rain stood higher than the head of little Johnnie, as he was still called, though he was twelve years old. It was a great delight to him to wander through the snow-avenues in every direction; and great fun it was, both to him and his brother, when they were tired of snowballing each other and every living thing about the place except their parents and tutor, to hollow out mysterious caves and vaulted passages. Sometimes they would carry these passages on from one path to within an inch or two of another, and there lie in wait till some passer-by, unweeting of harm, was just opposite their lurking cave; when they would dash through the solid wall of snow with a hideous yell, almost endangering the wits of the maids, and causing a recoil and startled ejaculation even of the strong man on whom they chanced to try their powers of alarm. Hugh himself was once glad to cover the confusion of his own fright with the hearty fit of laughter into which the perturbation of the boys, upon discovering whom they had startled, threw him. It was rare fun to them; but not to the women about the house, who moved from place to place in a state of chronic alarm, scared by the fear of being scared; till one of them going into hysterics, real or pretended, it was found necessary to put a stop to the practice; not, however, before Margaret had had her share of the jest. Hugh happened to be looking out of his window at the moment--watching her, indeed, as she passed towards the kitchen with some message from her mother; when an indescribable monster, a chaotic mass of legs and snow, burst, as if out of the earth, upon her. She turned pale as the snow around her (and Hugh had never observed before how dark her eyes were), as she sprang back with the grace of a startled deer. She uttered no cry, however, perceiving in a moment who it was, gave a troubled little smile, and passed on her way as if nothing had happened. Hugh was not sorry when maternal orders were issued against the practical joke. The boys did not respect their mother very much, but they dared not disobey her, when she spoke in a certain tone.
There was no pathway cut to David's cottage; and no track trodden, except what David, coming to the house sometimes, and Hugh going every afternoon to the cottage, made between them. Hugh often went to the knees in snow, but was well dried and warmed by Janet's care when he arrived. She had always a pair of stockings and slippers ready for him at the fire, to be put on the moment of his arrival; and exchanged again for his own, dry and warm, before he footed once more the ghostly waste. When neither moon was up nor stars were out, there was a strange eerie glimmer from the snow that lighted the way home; and he thought there must be more light from it than could be accounted for merely by the reflection of every particle of light that might fall upon it from other sources.
Margaret was not kept to the house by the snow, even when it was falling. She went out as usual--not of course wandering far, for walking was difficult now. But she was in little danger of losing her way, for she knew the country as well as any one; and although its face was greatly altered by the filling up of its features, and the uniformity of the colour, yet those features were discernible to her experienced eye through the sheet that covered them. It was only necessary to walk on the tops of dykes, and other elevated ridges, to keep clear of the deep snow.
There were many paths between the cottages and the farms in the neighbourhood, in which she could walk with comparative ease and comfort. But she preferred wandering away through the fields and toward the hills. Sometimes she would come home like a creature of the snow, born of it, and living in it; so covered was she from head to foot with its flakes. David used to smile at her with peculiar complacency on such occasions. It was evident that it pleased him she should be the playmate of Nature. Janet was not altogether indulgent to these freaks, as she considered them, of Marget--she had quite given up calling her Meg, "sin' she took to the beuk so eident." But whatever her mother might think of it, Margaret was in this way laying up a store not only of bodily and mental health, but of resources for thought and feeling, of secret understandings and communions with Nature, and everything simple, and strong, and pure through Nature, than which she could have accumulated nothing more precious.
This kind of weather continued for some time, till the people declared they had never known a storm last so long "ohn ever devallt," that is, without intermission. But the frost grew harder; and then the snow, instead of falling in large adhesive flakes, fell in small dry flakes, of which the boys could make no snaw-ba's. All the time, however, there was no wind; and this not being a sheep country, there was little uneasiness or suffering occasioned by the severity of the weather, beyond what must befall the poorer classes in every northern country during the winter.
One day, David heard that a poor old man of his acquaintance was dying, and immediately set out to visit him, at a distance of two or three miles. He returned in the evening, only in time for his studies; for there was of course little or nothing to be done at present in the way of labour. As he sat down to the table, he said:
"I hae seen a wonnerfu' sicht sin' I saw you, Mr. Sutherlan'. I gaed to see an auld Christian, whase body an' brain are nigh worn oot. He was never onything remarkable for intellec, and jist took what the minister tellt him for true, an' keepit the guid o't; for his hert was aye richt, an' his faith a hantle stronger than maybe it had ony richt to be, accordin' to his ain opingans; but, hech! there's something far better nor his opingans i' the hert o' ilka God-fearin' body. Whan I gaed butt the hoose, he was sittin' in's auld arm-chair by the side o' the fire, an' his face luikit dazed like. There was no licht in't but what cam' noo an' than frae a low i' the fire. The snaw was driftin' a wee aboot the bit winnock, an' his auld een was fixed upo't; an' a' 'at he said, takin' no notice o' me, was jist, 'The birdies is flutterin'; the birdies is flutterin'.' I spak' till him, an' tried to roose him, wi' ae thing after anither, bit I micht as weel hae spoken to the door-cheek, for a' the notice that he took. Never a word he spak', but aye 'The birdies is flutterin'.' At last, it cam' to my min' 'at the body was aye fu' o' ane o' the psalms in particler; an' sae I jist said till him at last: 'John, hae ye forgotten the twenty-third psalm?' 'Forgotten the twenty-third psalm!' quo' he; an' his face lighted up in a moment frae the inside: 'The Lord's my shepherd,--an' I hae followed Him through a' the smorin' drift o' the warl', an' he'll bring me to the green pastures an' the still waters o' His summer-kingdom at the lang last. I shall not want. An' I hae wanted for naething, naething.' He had been a shepherd himsel' in's young days. And so on he gaed, wi' a kin' o' a personal commentary on the haill psalm frae beginnin' to en', and syne he jist fell back into the auld croonin' sang, 'The birdies is flutterin'; the birdies is flutterin'.' The licht deed oot o' his face, an' a' that I could say could na' bring back the licht to his face, nor the sense to his tongue. He'll sune be in a better warl'. Sae I was jist forced to leave him. But I promised his dochter, puir body, that I would ca' again an' see him the morn's afternoon. It's unco dowie wark for her; for they hae scarce a neebor within reach o' them, in case o' a change; an' there had hardly been a creatur' inside o' their door for a week."
The following afternoon, David set out according to his promise. Before his return, the wind, which had been threatening to wake all day, had risen rapidly, and now blew a snowstorm of its own. When Hugh opened the door to take his usual walk to the cottage, just as darkness was beginning to fall, the sight he saw made his young strong heart dance with delight. The snow that fell made but a small part of the wild, confused turmoil and uproar of the ten-fold storm. For the wind, raving over the surface of the snow, which, as I have already explained, lay nearly as loose as dry sand, swept it in thick fierce clouds along with it, tearing it up and casting it down again no one could tell where--for the whole air was filled with drift, as they call the snow when thus driven. A few hours of this would alter the face of the whole country, leaving some parts bare, and others buried beneath heaps on heaps of snow, called here snaw-wreaths. For the word snow-wreaths does not mean the lovely garlands hung upon every tree and bush in its feathery fall; but awful mounds of drifted snow, that may be the smooth, soft, white sepulchres of dead men, smothered in the lapping folds of the almost solid wind. Path or way was none before him. He could see nothing but the surface of a sea of froth and foam, as it appeared to him, with the spray torn from it, whirled in all shapes and contortions, and driven in every direction; but chiefly, in the main direction of the wind, in long sloping spires of misty whiteness, swift as arrows, and as keen upon the face of him who dared to oppose them.
Hugh plunged into it with a wild sense of life and joy. In the course of his short walk, however, if walk it could be called, which was one chain of plungings and emergings, struggles with the snow, and wrestles with the wind, he felt that it needed not a stout heart only, but sound lungs and strong limbs as well, to battle with the storm, even for such a distance. When he reached the cottage, he found Janet in considerable anxiety, not only about David, who had not yet returned, but about Margaret as well, whom she had not seen for some time, and who must be out somewhere in the storm--"the wull hizzie." Hugh suggested that she might have gone to meet her father.
"The Lord forbid!" ejaculated Janet. "The road lies ower the tap o' the Halshach, as eerie and bare a place as ever was hill-moss, wi' never a scoug or bield in't, frae the tae side to the tither. The win' there jist gangs clean wud a'thegither. An' there's mony a well-ee forbye, that gin ye fell intill't, ye wud never come at the boddom o't. The Lord preserve's! I wis' Dawvid was hame."
"How could you let him go, Janet?"
"Lat him gang, laddie! It's a strang tow 'at wad haud or bin' Dawvid, whan he considers he bud to gang, an' 'twere intill a deil's byke. But I'm no that feared aboot him. I maist believe he's under special protection, if ever man was or oucht to be; an' he's no more feared at the storm, nor gin the snaw was angels' feathers flauchterin' oot o' their wings a' aboot him. But I'm no easy i' my min' aboot Maggy--the wull hizzie! Gin she be meetin' her father, an' chance to miss him, the Lord kens what may come o' her."
Hugh tried to comfort her, but all that could be done was to wait David's return. The storm seemed to increase rather than abate its force. The footprints Hugh had made, had all but vanished already at the very door of the house, which stood quite in the shelter of the fir-wood. As they looked out, a dark figure appeared within a yard or two of the house.
"The Lord grant it be my bairn!" prayed poor Janet. But it was David, and alone. Janet gave a shriek.
"Dawvid, whaur's Maggie?"
"I haena seen the bairn," replied David, in repressed perturbation. "She's no theroot, is she, the nicht?"
"She's no at hame, Dawvid, that's a' 'at I ken."
"Whaur gaed she?"
"The Lord kens. She's smoored i' the snaw by this time."
"She's i' the Lord's han's, Janet, be she aneath a snaw-vraith. Dinna forget that, wuman. Hoo lang is't sin' ye missed her?"
"An hour an' mair--I dinna ken hoo lang. I'm clean doitit wi' dreid."
"I'll awa' an' leuk for her. Just haud the hert in her till I come back, Mr. Sutherlan'."
"I won't be left behind, David. I'm going with you."
"Ye dinna ken what ye're sayin', Mr. Sutherlan'. I wad sune hae twa o' ye to seek in place o' ane."
"Never heed me; I'm going on my own account, come what may."
"Weel, weel; I downa bide to differ. I'm gaein up the burn-side; baud ye ower to the farm, and spier gin onybody's seen her; an' the lads 'll be out to leuk for her in a jiffey. My puir lassie!"
The sigh that must have accompanied the last words, was lost in the wind, as they vanished in the darkness. Janet fell on her knees in the kitchen, with the door wide open, and the wind drifting in the powdery snow, and scattering it with the ashes from the hearth over the floor. A picture of more thorough desolation can hardly be imagined. She soon came to herself, however; and reflecting that, if the lost child was found, there must be a warm bed to receive her, else she might be a second time lost, she rose and shut the door, and mended the fire. It was as if the dumb attitude of her prayer was answered; for though she had never spoken or even thought a word, strength was restored to her distracted brain. When she had made every preparation she could think of, she went to the door again, opened it, and looked out. It was a region of howling darkness, tossed about by pale snow-drifts; out of which it seemed scarce more hopeful that welcome faces would emerge, than that they should return to our eyes from the vast unknown in which they vanish at last. She closed the door once more, and knowing nothing else to be done, sat down on a chair, with her hands on her knees, and her eyes fixed on the door. The clock went on with its slow swing, tic--tac, tic--tac, an utterly inhuman time-measurer; but she heard the sound of every second, through the midst of the uproar in the fir-trees, which bent their tall heads hissing to the blast, and swinging about in the agony of their strife. The minutes went by, till an hour was gone, and there was neither sound nor hearing, but of the storm and the clock. Still she sat and stared, her eyes fixed on the door-latch. Suddenly, without warning it was lifted, and the door opened. Her heart bounded and fluttered like a startled bird; but alas! the first words she heard were: "Is she no come yet?" It was her husband, followed by several of the farm servants. He had made a circuit to the farm, and finding that Hugh had never been there, hoped, though with trembling, that Margaret had already returned home. The question fell upon Janet's heart like the sound of the earth on the coffin-lid, and her silent stare was the only answer David received.
But at that very moment, like a dead man burst from the tomb, entered from behind the party at the open door, silent and white, with rigid features and fixed eyes, Hugh. He stumbled in, leaning forward with long strides, and dragging something behind him. He pushed and staggered through them as if he saw nothing before him; and as they parted horror-stricken, they saw that it was Margaret, or her dead body, that he dragged after him. He dropped her at her mother's feet, and fell himself on the floor, before they were able to give him any support. David, who was quite calm, got the whisky bottle out, and tried to administer some to Margaret first; but her teeth were firmly set, and to all appearance she was dead. One of the young men succeeded better with Hugh, whom at David's direction they took into the study; while he and Janet got Margaret undressed and put to bed, with hot bottles all about her; for in warmth lay the only hope of restoring her. After she had lain thus for a while, she gave a sigh; and when they had succeeded in getting her to swallow some warm milk, she began to breathe, and soon seemed to be only fast asleep. After half an hour's rest and warming, Hugh was able to move and speak. David would not allow him to say much, however, but got him to bed, sending word to the house that he could not go home that night. He and Janet sat by the fireside all night, listening to the storm that still raved without, and thanking God for both of the lives. Every few minutes a tip-toe excursion was made to the bedside, and now and then to the other room. Both the patients slept quietly. Towards morning Margaret opened her eyes, and faintly called her mother; but soon fell asleep once more, and did not awake again till nearly noon. When sufficiently restored to be able to speak, the account she gave was, that she had set out to meet her father; but the storm increasing, she had thought it more prudent to turn. It grew in violence, however, so rapidly, and beat so directly in her face, that she was soon exhausted with struggling, and benumbed with the cold. The last thing she remembered was, dropping, as she thought, into a hole, and feeling as if she were going to sleep in bed, yet knowing it was death; and thinking how much sweeter it was than sleep. Hugh's account was very strange and defective, but he was never able to add anything to it. He said that, when he rushed out into the dark, the storm seized him like a fury, beating him about the head and face with icy wings, till he was almost stunned. He took the road to the farm, which lay through the fir-wood; but he soon became aware that he had lost his way and might tramp about in the fir-wood till daylight, if he lived as long. Then, thinking of Margaret, he lost his presence of mind, and rushed wildly along. He thought he must have knocked his head against the trunk of a tree, but he could not tell; for he remembered nothing more but that he found himself dragging Margaret, with his arms round her, through the snow, and nearing the light in the cottage-window. Where or how he had found her, or what the light was that he was approaching, he had not the least idea. He had only a vague notion that he was rescuing Margaret from something dreadful. Margaret, for her part, had no recollection of reaching the fir-wood, and as, long before morning, all traces were obliterated, the facts remained a mystery. Janet thought that David had some wonderful persuasion about it; but he was never heard even to speculate on the subject. Certain it was, that Hugh had saved Margaret's life. He seemed quite well next day, for he was of a very powerful and enduring frame for his years. She recovered more slowly, and perhaps never altogether overcame the effects of Death's embrace that night. From the moment when Margaret was brought home, the storm gradually died away, and by the morning all was still; but many starry and moonlit nights glimmered and passed, before that snow was melted away from the earth; and many a night Janet awoke from her sleep with a cry, thinking she heard her daughter moaning, deep in the smooth ocean of snow, and could not find where she lay.
The occurrences of this dreadful night could not lessen the interest his cottage friends felt in Hugh; and a long winter passed with daily and lengthening communion both in study and in general conversation. I fear some of my younger readers will think my story slow; and say: "What! are they not going to fall in love with each other yet? We have been expecting it ever so long." I have two answers to make to this. The first is: "I do not pretend to know so much about love as you--excuse me--think you do; and must confess, I do not know whether they were in love with each other or not." The second is: "That I dare not pretend to understand thoroughly such a sacred mystery as the heart of Margaret; and I should feel it rather worse than presumptuous to talk as if I did. Even Hugh's is known to me only by gleams of light thrown, now and then, and here and there, upon it." Perhaps the two answers are only the same answer in different shapes.
Mrs. Glasford, however, would easily answer the question, if an answer is all that is wanted; for she, notwithstanding the facts of the story, which she could not fail to have heard correctly from the best authority, and notwithstanding the nature of the night, which might have seemed sufficient to overthrow her conclusions, uniformly remarked, as often as their escape was alluded to in her hearing,
"Lat them tak' it They had no business to be oot aboot thegither."