BURNING THE FALLOW
By Susanna Moodie
The day was sultry, and toward noon a strong wind sprang up that
roared in the pine tops like the dashing of distant billows, but
without in the least degree abating the heat. The children were
lying listlessly upon the floor, and the girl and I were
finishing sunbonnets, when Mary suddenly exclaimed, "Bless us,
mistress, what a smoke!"
I ran immediately to the door, but was not able to distinguish
ten yards before me. The swamp immediately below us was on fire,
and the heavy wind was driving a dense black cloud of smoke
directly toward us.
"What can this mean?" I cried. "Who can have set fire to
fallow?" As I ceased speaking, John Thomas stood pale and
trembling before me. "John, what is the meaning of this fire?"
"Oh, ma'am, I hope you will forgive me; it was I set fire to it,
and I would give all I have in the world if I had not done it."
"What is the danger?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that we shall all be burnt up," said John,
beginning to whimper. "What shall we do?"
"Why, we must get out of it as fast as we can, and leave the
house to its fate."
"We can't get out," said the man, in a low hollow tone, which
seemed the concentration of fear; "I would have got out of it if
I could; but just step to the back door, ma'am, and see."
Behind, before, on every side, we were surrounded by a wall of
fire, burning furiously within a hundred yards of us, and cutting
off all possibility of retreat; for, could we have found an
opening through the burning heaps, we could not have seen our way
through the dense canopy of smoke; and, buried as we were in the
heart of the forest, no one could discover our situation till we
were beyond the reach of help.
I closed the door, and went back to the parlor. Fear was knocking
loudly at my heart, for our utter helplessness destroyed all hope
of our being able to effect our escape. The girl sat upon the
floor by the children, who, unconscious of the peril that hung
over them, had both fallen asleep. She was silently weeping;
while the boy who had caused the mischief was crying aloud.
A strange calm succeeded my first alarm. I sat down upon the step
of the door, and watched the awful scene in silence. The fire was
raging in the cedar swamp immediately below the ridge on which
the house stood, and it presented a spectacle truly appalling.
From out of the dense folds of a canopy of black smoke--the
blackest I ever saw--leaped up red forks of lurid flame as high
as the tree tops, igniting the branches of a group of tall pines
that had been left for saw logs. A deep gloom blotted out the
heavens from our sight. The air was filled with fiery particles,
which floated even to the doorstep-while the crackling and
roaring of the flames might have been heard at a great distance.
To reach the shore of the lake, we must pass through the burning
swamp, and not a bird could pass over it with unscorched wings.
The fierce wind drove the flames at the sides and back of the
house up the clearing; and our passage to the road or to the
forest, on the right and left, was entirely obstructed by a sea
of flames. Our only ark of safety was the house, so long as it
remained untouched by the fire.
I turned to young Thomas, and asked him how long he thought that
would be. "When the fire clears this little ridge in front,
ma'am. The Lord have mercy on us then, or we must all go."
I threw myself down on the floor beside my children, and pressed
them to my heart, while inwardly I thanked God that they were
asleep, unconscious of danger, and unable by their cries to
distract our attention from adopting any plan which might offer
to effect their escape.
The heat soon became suffocating. We were parched with thirst,
and there was not a drop of water in the house, and none to be
procured nearer than the lake. I turned once more to the door,
hoping that a passage might have been burnt through to the water.
I saw nothing but a dense cloud of fire and smoke--could hear
nothing but the crackling and roaring of flames, which were
gaining so fast upon us that I felt their scorching breath in my face.
"Ah," thought I,--and it was a most bitter thought,--"what
my beloved husband say when he returns and finds that his poor
wife and his dear girls have perished in this miserable manner?
But God can save us yet."
The thought had scarcely found a voice in my heart before the
wind rose to a hurricane, scattering the flames on all sides into
a tempest of burning billows. I buried my head in my apron, for I
thought that all was lost, when a most terrific crash of thunder
burst over our heads, and, like the breaking of a waterspout,
down came the rushing torrent of rain which had been pent up for
so many weeks.
In a few minutes the chipyard was all afloat, and the fire
effectually checked. The storm which, unnoticed by us, had been
gathering all day, and which was the only one of any note we had
that summer, continued to rage all night, and before morning had
quite subdued the cruel enemy whose approach we had viewed with
--From "Roughing it in the Bush."
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