List Of Contents | Contents of Roughing it in the Bush, by Susanna Moodie
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

  Hast sternly pour'd on our devoted heads
  The poison'd phials of thy fiercest wrath.

The early part of the winter of 1837, a year never to be forgotten
in the annals of Canadian history, was very severe. During the
month of February, the thermometer often ranged from eighteen to
twenty-seven degrees below zero. Speaking of the coldness of one
particular day, a genuine brother Jonathan remarked, with charming
simplicity, that it was thirty degrees below zero that morning, and
it would have been much colder if the thermometer had been longer.

The morning of the seventh was so intensely cold that everything
liquid froze in the house. The wood that had been drawn for the
fire was green, and it ignited too slowly to satisfy the shivering
impatience of women and children; I vented mine in audibly grumbling
over the wretched fire, at which I in vain endeavoured to thaw
frozen bread, and to dress crying children.

It so happened that an old friend, the maiden lady before alluded
to, had been staying with us for a few days. She had left us for
a visit to my sister, and as some relatives of hers were about to
return to Britain by the way of New York, and had offered to convey
letters to friends at home, I had been busy all the day before
preparing a packet for England.

It was my intention to walk to my sister's with this packet,
directly the important affair of breakfast had been discussed;
but the extreme cold of the morning had occasioned such delay
that it was late before the breakfast-things were cleared away.

After dressing, I found the air so keen that I could not venture
out without some risk to my nose, and my husband kindly volunteered
to go in my stead.

I had hired a young Irish girl the day before. Her friends were only
just located in our vicinity, and she had never seen a stove until
she came to our house. After Moodie left, I suffered the fire to die
away in the Franklin stove in the parlour, and went into the kitchen
to prepare bread for the oven.

The girl, who was a good-natured creature, had heard me complain
bitterly of the cold, and the impossibility of getting the green
wood to burn, and she thought that she would see if she could not
make a good fire for me and the children, against my work was done.
Without saying one word about her intention, she slipped out through
a door that opened from the parlour into the garden, ran round to
the wood-yard, filled her lap with cedar chips, and, not knowing
the nature of the stove, filled it entirely with the light wood.

Before I had the least idea of my danger, I was aroused from the
completion of my task by the crackling and roaring of a large fire,
and a suffocating smell of burning soot. I looked up at the kitchen
cooking-stove. All was right there. I knew I had left no fire in the
parlour stove; but not being able to account for the smoke and the
smell of buring, I opened the door, and to my dismay found the stove
red hot, from the front plate to the topmost pipe that let out the
smoke through the roof.

My first impulse was to plunge a blanket, snatched from the
servant's bed, which stood in the kitchen, into cold water. This I
thrust into the stove, and upon it threw cold water, until all was
cool below. I then ran up to the loft, and by exhausting all the
water in the house, even to that contained in the boilers upon the
fire, contrived to cool down the pipes which passed through the
loft. I then sent the girl out of doors to look at the roof, which,
as a very deep fall of snow had taken place the day before, I hoped
would be completely covered, and safe from all danger of fire.

She quickly returned, stamping and tearing her hair, and making a
variety of uncouth outcries, from which I gathered that the roof
was in flames.

This was terrible news, with my husband absent, no man in the house,
and a mile and a quarter from any other habitation. I ran out to
ascertain the extent of the misfortune, and found a large fire
burning in the roof between the two stove pipes. The heat of the
fires had melted off all the snow, and a spark from the burning pipe
had already ignited the shingles. A ladder, which for several months
had stood against the house, had been moved two days before to the
barn, which was at the top of the hill, near the road; there was no
reaching the fire through that source. I got out the dining-table,
and tried to throw water upon the roof by standing on a chair placed
upon it, but I only expended the little water that remained in the
boiler, without reaching the fire. The girl still continued weeping
and lamenting.

"You must go for help," I said. "Run as fast as you can to my
sister's, and fetch your master."

"And lave you, ma'arm, and the childher alone wid the burnin'

"Yes, yes! Don't stay one moment."

"I have no shoes, ma'arm, and the snow is so deep."

"Put on your master's boots; make haste, or we shall be lost before
help comes."

The girl put on the boots and started, shrieking "Fire!" the whole
way. This was utterly useless, and only impeded her progress by
exhausting her strength. After she had vanished from the head of
the clearing into the wood, and I was left quite alone, with the
house burning over my head, I paused one moment to reflect what
had best be done.

The house was built of cedar logs; in all probability it would be
consumed before any help could arrive. There was a brisk breeze
blowing up from the frozen lake, and the thermometer stood at
eighteen degrees below zero. We were placed between the two extremes
of heat and cold, and there was as much danger to be apprehended
from the one as the other. In the bewilderment of the moment, the
direful extent of the calamity never struck me; we wanted but this
to put the finishing stroke to our misfortunes, to be thrown naked,
houseless, and penniless, upon the world. "What shall I save first?"
was the thought just then uppermost in my mind. Bedding and clothing
appeared the most essentially necessary, and without another
moment's pause, I set to work with a right good will to drag all
that I could from my burning home.

While little Agnes, Dunbar, and baby Donald filled the air with
their cries, Katie, as if fully conscious of the importance of
exertion, assisted me in carrying out sheets and blankets, and
dragging trunks and boxes some way up the hill, to be out of the
way of the burning brands when the roof should fall in.

How many anxious looks I gave to the head of the clearing as the
fire increased, and the large pieces of burning pine began to fall
through the boarded ceiling, about the lower rooms where we were at
work. The children I had kept under a large dresser in the kitchen,
but it now appeared absolutely necessary to remove them to a place
of safety. To expose the young, tender things to the direful cold
was almost as bad as leaving them to the mercy of the fire. At last
I hit upon a plan to keep them from freezing. I emptied all the
clothes out of a large, deep chest of drawers, and dragged the empty
drawers up the hill; these I lined with blankets, and placed a child
in each drawer, covering it well over with the bedding, giving to
little Agnes the charge of the baby to hold between her knees, and
keep well covered until help should arrive. Ah, how long it seemed

The roof was now burning like a brush-heap, and, unconsciously, the
child and I were working under a shelf, upon which were deposited
several pounds of gunpowder which had been procured for blasting a
well, as all our water had to be brought up hill from the lake. This
gunpowder was in a stone jar, secured by a paper stopper; the shelf
upon which it stood was on fire, but it was utterly forgotten by me
at the time; and even afterwards, when my husband was working on the
burning loft over it.

I found that I should not be able to take many more trips for goods.
As I passed out of the parlour for the last time, Katie looked up at
her father's flute, which was suspended upon two brackets, and

"Oh, dear mamma! do save papa's flute; he will be so sorry to
lose it."

God bless the dear child for the thought! the flute was saved; and,
as I succeeded in dragging out a heavy chest of cloths, and looked
up once more despairingly to the road, I saw a man running at full
speed. It was my husband. Help was at hand, and my heart uttered a
deep thanksgiving as another and another figure came upon the scene.

I had not felt the intense cold, although without cap, or bonnet,
or shawl; with my hands bare and exposed to the bitter, biting air.
The intense excitement, the anxiety to save all I could, had so
totally diverted my thoughts from myself, that I had felt nothing
of the danger to which I had been exposed; but now that help was
near, my knees trembled under me, I felt giddy and faint, and dark
shadows seemed dancing before my eyes.

The moment my husband and brother-in-law entered the house, the
latter exclaimed,

"Moodie, the house is gone; save what you can of your winter stores
and furniture."

Moodie thought differently. Prompt and energetic in danger, and
possessing admirable presence of mind and coolness when others yield
to agitation and despair, he sprang upon the burning loft and called
for water. Alas, there was none!

"Snow, snow; hand me up pailsful of snow!"

Oh! it was bitter work filling those pails with frozen snow; but
Mr. T--- and I worked at it as fast as we were able.

The violence of the fire was greatly checked by covering the boards
of the loft with this snow. More help had now arrived. Young B---
and S--- had brought the ladder down with them from the barn, and
were already cutting away the burning roof, and flinging the flaming
brands into the deep snow.

"Mrs. Moodie, have you any pickled meat?"

"We have just killed one of our cows, and salted it for winter

"Well, then, fling the beef into the snow, and let us have the

This was an admirable plan. Wherever the brine wetted the shingles,
the fire turned from it, and concentrated into one spot.

But I had not time to watch the brave workers on the roof. I was
fast yielding to the effects of over-excitement and fatigue, when my
brother's team dashed down the clearing, bringing my excellent old
friend, Miss B---, and the servant-girl.

My brother sprang out, carried me back into the house, and wrapped
me up in one of the large blankets scattered about. In a few minutes
I was seated with the dear children in the sleigh, and on the way to
a place of warmth and safety.

Katie alone suffered from the intense cold. The dear little
creature's feet were severely frozen, but were fortunately restored
by her uncle discovering the fact before she approached the fire,
and rubbing them well with snow.

In the meanwhile, the friends we had left so actively employed at
the house succeeded in getting the fire under before it had
destroyed the walls. The only accident that occurred was to a poor
dog, that Moodie had called Snarleyowe. He was struck by a burning
brand thrown from the house, and crept under the barn and died.

Beyond the damage done to the building, the loss of our potatoes and
two sacks of flour, we had escaped in a manner almost miraculous.
This fact shows how much can be done by persons working in union,
without bustle and confusion, or running in each other's way. Here
were six men, who, without the aid of water, succeeded in saving a
building, which, at first sight, almost all of them had deemed past
hope. In after years, when entirely burnt out in a disastrous fire
that consumed almost all we were worth in the world, some four
hundred persons were present, with a fire-engine to second their
endeavours, yet all was lost. Every person seemed in the way; and
though the fire was discovered immediately after it took place,
nothing was done beyond saving some of the furniture.

Our party was too large to be billetted upon one family. Mrs. T---
took compassion upon Moodie, myself, and the baby, while their uncle
received the three children to his hospitable home.

It was some weeks before Moodie succeeded in repairing the roof,
the intense cold preventing any one from working in such an exposed

The news of our fire travelled far and wide. I was reported to have
done prodigies, and to have saved the greater part of our household
goods before help arrived. Reduced to plain prose, these prodigies
shrink into the simple, and by no means marvellous fact, that
during the excitement I dragged out chests which, under ordinary
circumstances, I could not have moved; and that I was unconscious,
both of the cold and the danger to which I was exposed while working
under a burning roof, which, had it fallen, would have buried both
the children and myself under its ruins.

These circumstances appeared far more alarming, as all real danger
does, after they were past. The fright and over-exertion gave my
health a shock from which I did not recover for several months, and
made me so fearful of fire, that from that hour it haunts me like a
nightmare. Let the night be ever so serene, all stoves must be shut
up, and the hot embers covered with ashes, before I dare retire to
rest; and the sight of a burning edifice, so common a spectacle in
large towns in this country, makes me really ill. This feeling was
greatly increased after a second fire, when, for some torturing
minutes, a lovely boy, since drowned, was supposed to have
perished in the burning house.

Our present fire led to a new train of circumstances, for it was
the means of introducing to Moodie a young Irish gentleman, who was
staying at my brother's house. John E--- was one of the best and
gentlest of human beings. His father, a captain in the army, had
died while his family were quite young, and had left his widow with
scarcely any means beyond the pension she received at her husband's
death, to bring up and educate a family of five children. A
handsome, showy woman, Mrs. E--- soon married again; and the poor
lads were thrown upon the world. The eldest, who had been educated
for the Church, first came to Canada in the hope of getting some
professorship in the college, or of opening a classical school.
He was a handsome, gentlemanly, well-educated young man, but
constitutionally indolent--a natural defect which seemed common to
all the males of the family, and which was sufficiently indicated
by their soft, silky, fair hair and milky complexions. R--- had
the good sense to perceive that Canada was not the country for him.
He spent a week under our roof, and we were much pleased with his
elegant tastes and pursuits; but my husband strongly advised him to
try and get a situation as a tutor in some family at home. This he
afterwards obtained. He became tutor and travelling companion to
the young Lord M---, and has since got an excellent living.

John, who had followed his brother to Canada without the means of
transporting himself back again, was forced to remain, and was
working with Mr. S--- for his board. He proposed to Moodie working
his farm upon shares; and as we were unable to hire a man, Moodie

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: