A CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE
Having lived all his fourteen years in New York City, making occasional visits to his grandfather’s house in Connecticut, Horace Mason had often sighed for an adventure, and lamented because life in the eastern part of the country is so tame and uninteresting. It had certainly never occurred to him that the chance for a pretty thrilling adventure existed in the quiet country neighborhood in which his grandfather lived.
About a week before Christmas Horace’s mother took him to his grandfather’s farm for the holidays—he had seldom been there in winter.
The weather became remarkably cold and rough, but Horace found pleasure in walking about woods and pastures in rubber boots and ulster, and noting how odd the familiar scenes looked when covered with snow and ice, instead of dressed in green.
A tree was to be set up on Christmas Eve in the old homestead; but Uncle John, on the afternoon of the twenty-third, brought in for the celebration a rather scraggly little red cedar, brown rather than green, which Horace deemed totally unfit for the dignity of a Christmas celebration.
“Why didn’t you get a fir balsam, with a nice even top to it?” Horace asked his uncle.
“Don’t grow around here.”
“But there are some over in the Big Swamp,” said Horace.
“Never noticed ’em,” said Uncle John.
Horace said nothing to this, because he was aware that he had often noticed things about the region, in the way of trees, plants and birds, which were apparently quite unobserved by the residents.
“You won’t be offended if I go after one to-morrow, will you, Uncle John?”
“Bless your heart, no!”
The next morning a blizzard raged. Horace, looking out, saw nothing but the whirling fine snow; the wind rattled all the shutters on the old house; it shook the building to its very foundations.
Horace thought it would be great fun to go out into this storm, with ulster, high rubber boots, and cap over his ears, looking for a Christmas tree in the Big Swamp. It did not occur to him that he needed to get his mother’s permission for the expedition, and it certainly did not occur to her that the boy would start out in such a storm.
Shortly after breakfast he took an ax from the wood-shed, and was gone. On the way he thought for a time that he must turn back—the storm buffeted him so terribly, and the cold, in spite of his warm coverings, was so intense. But he fought his way along, and at last came to the borders of the swamp, a flat tract of perhaps a hundred acres, lying in a hollow between hills.
In the spring this level expanse was mostly covered with water, up through which grew many low red maples, some scattered firs and cedars, and a jungle of alders. Horace had often wished that he might explore the gloomy depths of this swamp, but in midsummer mosquitoes and pools forbade. Now, with the ground and the pools frozen, he had no doubt he could pass through the swamp from end to end.
He left the wood road, and plowed through the deep snow along the margin of the swamp, looking out for firs. But he could see nothing more than a rod or two away. The storm did not diminish, and all about him the snow seemed extraordinarily deep. He sank into it up to his knees, and sometimes it was deeper still. He walked thus a long way on the edge of the swamp woodland, not caring to plunge into the swamp until he should have spied out a balsam.
At last he saw, through the cloud of snow, the tapering head of an unmistakable fir balsam. He struck into the swamp after it, parting the alder branches with the ax held with both hands before him, and sinking two or three inches deeper into the snow.
The fir proved to be too irregular for a Christmas tree. Then, through the snow, he saw another farther in the swamp. He penetrated to that, and found one side of it lacking. Beyond were other firs, and he fought his way deeper and deeper into the swamp.
He discovered now a circumstance that aided him somewhat in working his way through the jungle. The matted alders seemed to lean away in masses from the hummocks of earth upon which they grew, in such a way as to make crooked arched-over passageways, which, Horace thought, were curiously like the paths moles make under matted grass. He had often amused himself in summer digging out these mole-paths, and wondering why the crooked ways were constructed.
These avenues through the alder thickets, away down in the bottom of a swamp quite impenetrable without them, often came to an abrupt end. Then Horace, floundering on hands and knees in the deep snow, sometimes thrusting his foot down into a watery depth, had to break his way with his ax through to another opening.
He found the seclusion somewhat interesting. Down here there was no wind, and his clothing and his laborious exercise made him warm—even uncomfortably so. He lay a few minutes on his back, in a place where he could look up through an opening in the branches, and marveled at the sight of the stormy maelstrom overhead.
The whirling snow looked black. For a moment the current of it seemed flowing like a river all one way; then it appeared to turn, to cross itself, and to twist about in a circle, from which it soon disentangled itself, to resume its swift and steady march in one direction.
All at once it occurred to Horace to ask himself, Which direction was that? He thought first that he could not get lost in the swamp so long as he could see which way the snow was driving; but a chill ran over him when he reflected that he had not noticed, in his eagerness all the morning to be out in the storm, which way the wind was blowing. He tried now to think which way it had come as he walked to the swamp, but all he could recall was that the storm seemed to be coming from all directions at once.
He started up with a sudden alarm; and then, noticing the deep track he had made as he floundered to the place where he lay now, he began to laugh. To get out of the swamp, he had only to follow his tracks back.
He had come in here to find a nice young fir for a Christmas tree, and he was bound to get one. As he sat up, preparatory to rising, he saw that the snow, sifting down straight and steady from the eddying masses above the tops of the alders, had covered his coat and trousers with a deposit half an inch thick. And the minute of inaction had made him feel cold and stiff. He must be stirring.
He plowed along farther into the swamp. Coming out on the surface of one of the pools, he was rejoiced to see some balsam tops that seemed not more than a rod or two from the other edge of the pool. He struck through to them, but found here not even a mole-path; he had to cut and slash with his ax to get to the trunks of the firs.
Although the butts were five or six inches thick, the tops seemed tapering and even, and he set about cutting down one of the trees. Very soon he had the trunk cut in two, and it settled down into the snow; but fall it certainly could not, so dense was the growth all about it. He had to drag the butt through the bushes, still fighting his way with the ax, until the tree lay nearly flat on the ground; and then he found that the shape did not suit him at all.
He left this fir on the ground and went plowing after another.
Before long, traversing one of the tunnels under the alders, he came upon the very fir he wanted—a beautiful, even little tree, thick and green. He cut it down eagerly; but in another moment he found that it was as impracticable to drag that bushy-headed young tree through the alder jungle as it would have been to move a house through the same wilderness. Horace had literally to carve a way for it. He slashed and chopped and worked the tree along a rod or two, and this took him at least half an hour.
Horace sat down, quite out of breath, on the butt of the little tree to think it over. How could he get the tree out? He pondered a good while, and began to feel very cold, and then looked up to see if the storm was still raging violently. It certainly was. The space above the treetops was black with clouds of snow.
Then, chancing to look away in the direction from which he had come, he noticed that his tracks were already filled with snow! Horace jumped up, quite willing to leave his Christmas tree behind, and dragging his ax, rushed through the tunnel toward the pool that he had crossed less than an hour before. The track disappeared completely before he had reached this small open space. Although the alder branches were so thick, they held up very little of the snow. Leafless and wiry, they afforded little surface for the hard snow to cling to.
Nevertheless, Horace found his way to the pool, and there the storm struck him full in the face. It was blinding. He could no longer see the fir tops that had beckoned him on an hour ago! Every track that he had made in coming in was completely obliterated!
Perhaps if he beat round the outskirts of the pool he could find the tracks where he came in, among the bushes on the other side. So he began to walk round and round the little open space, searching in vain for the tracks, and finding nothing but those by which he had just come out of the alders where he had cut the tree; and even these tracks were rapidly being covered.
He began to feel decidedly queer, for he had not the slightest idea now which was the way out of the swamp. But he must be able to reach some place where he could see the woods; and once out of the swamp and into these, he could easily enough find his way back to the house.
So for more than an hour—it seemed longer to him, but he had left his watch at home, and had no way of telling the time—he dragged himself through the tunnels under the alders, or slashed to right and left with his ax. He struggled and grew desperate, and never once did he catch sight of anything that looked like the woods or the margin of the swamp.
The snow grew deeper and deeper, and made the arching tops of his mole-paths lower and lower, while the labor of floundering and dragging himself through them became more terrible. Once he felt a thrill of relief upon coming on a track which he knew must be his own. He supposed that it was the track by which he had come into the jungle in the morning, strangely left uncovered by some better protection than the thicket had provided elsewhere. So he started back on it quite joyfully. And he followed it until he came to the trunk of a little maple-tree which he knew he had cut down not fifteen minutes before to clear a path.
Then he knew he was winding about and had crossed his own tracks. If he followed them farther, they would simply bring him back to where he stood now.
Meanwhile he had grown very faint—he was almost too badly scared to be aware that he was hungry.
But he felt that it must be afternoon; and on such a day, and at this time of year, the darkness would fall by half past three. He felt himself hopelessly lost—and abandoned, too, for why did not the people at the house miss him, and know that, having gone after a Christmas tree, he must be lost in the Big Swamp? Why did they not send after him?
They must come! But if he sat down and waited for them he would get chilled. Already, in spite of his efforts, he felt a numbness creeping over him. The sense of it filled him with horror. He hurled himself against the bushes; he threw himself on his hands and knees, and worked his way through the narrow passages. His mind went over and over various futile schemes for tracing his way.
All at once he stopped and pondered. If he was really going round in a ring when he thought he was going straight, could it be possible that he would go straight if he tried to go round in a ring? And if he found his way back to his track and made a ring, why not start out anew and deliberately add another ring to that? Enough circles made thus, placed side by side, would reach at last the edge of the swamp.
He went back on his tracks, and was pleased to find that the snow had not yet covered them so deeply but that he could find the place where he had branched off from the ring he had made.
Walking back on this a few steps, Horace went off to the left, purposely intending to make another circle and come back to this one. But after threading and pushing his way a long time, he convinced himself that he was not returning to it; no more tracks did he find. Did this mean that he was now following a straighter line, or merely that he was making a larger circle, and going entirely round the inner one?
A terrible fear of the snow and the earth came over him, and he could not bear to get down on his hands and knees to follow the tunnels under the bushes. But he was too weak to fight his way upright through the thicket. His brain reeled as he strained his eyes for the five-hundredth time for some sign of the trees of the woods.
It reeled still more when it seemed to him that he saw something large and black and shapeless through the gloom—some strange and threatening object descending upon him.
The boy was so weak and tired and dazed by the long beating about and the everlasting swirl of the storm above his head, that he could not bring his reason to bear upon the consideration of the question what this thing might be. It seemed to dash forward at him, and the formless black mass then divided as if it were the mouth of a crocodile, and then it drew back; it shook angrily from side to side; now it dashed at him again, and opened its terrible mouth.
Horace felt himself swooning in horror, and he knew that if he fainted here it would be the last of him. Oh, why had not his mother sent for him?
Then a thought of shame came over him, that he should be fainting with terror over something that could not be real.
Out of this shame grew a resolution, and suddenly the resolution mended his reason, and enabled him to see that this terrible shapeless object was a great pine-tree, whose dark branches were waving and bending and opening in the storm, seen dimly through the thick snow.
Then he was at the edge of the woods! He tore through the bushes, and came out on the clear space about the tree, and rushed up to it. He dropped the ax and put his arms round the tree. Now he had to pull himself together to save himself from swooning with joy. But in another minute he felt much better. He had no idea on which side of the swamp he was, but that did not matter. He could find his way well enough now.
After a little search, he found that he was exactly on the opposite side of the swamp from that on which he had gone in. And as he was skirting the edge of it, feeling fearfully hungry as well as weak, he saw, growing quite within his reach, a fine young fir-tree.
Then he remembered that he had dropped the ax at the foot of the pine-tree, and he had to go back and get it before he could cut down the little tree. But he did cut it down, and staggered home with it, weak but triumphant.
He found that it was three o’clock, and his mother was very much agitated, and Uncle John had gone away, by the road, to the Big Swamp about half an hour before. The boy had been so much accustomed to going off by himself that his mother had not worried until he had failed to return for the midday meal. Nor had she any idea what sort of a place the Big Swamp was.
When Uncle John got it through his somewhat slow head that Horace had in all probability actually gone there, he, too, had become alarmed, and after slow preparations, had started. Horace had missed him by coming home across the pastures.
But Uncle John was brought home in an hour by the hired man, and as Horace felt much better after a good meal and a rest, the tree that he had brought was dressed, and the Christmas festival merrily celebrated by its aid.