Chapter VIII. The Sugaring-Off
 

The sugar time is, in many ways, the best of all the year. It is the time of crisp mornings, when "the crust bears," and the boys go crunching over all the fields and through the woods; the time, too, of sunny noons and chilly nights. Winter is still near, but he has lost most of his grip, and all his terror. For the earth has heard the call of spring from afar, and knows that soon she will be seen, dancing her shy dances, in the sunny spaces of the leafless woods. Then, by and by, from all the open fields the snow is driven back into the fence corners, and lies there in soiled and sullen heaps. In the woods it still lies deep; but there is everywhere the tinkle of running water, and it is not long till the brown leaf carpet begins to show in patches through the white. Then, overhead, the buds begin to swell and thrill with the new life, and when it is broad noon, all through the woods a thousand voices pass the glad word that winter's day is gone and that all living things are free. But when night draws up over the treetops, and the shadows steal down the forest aisles, the jubilant voices die down and a chill fear creeps over all the gleeful, swelling buds that they have been too sure and too happy; and all the more if, from the northeast, there sweeps down, as often happens, a stinging storm of sleet and snow, winter's last savage slap. But what matters that? The very next day, when the bright, warm rays trickle down through the interlacing branches, bathing the buds and twigs and limbs and trunks and flooding all the woods, the world grows surer of its new joy. And so, in alternating hope and fear, the days and nights go by, till an evening falls when the air is languid and a soft rain comes up from the south, falling all night long over the buds and trees like warm, loving fingers. Then the buds break for very joy, and timid green things push up through the leaf-mold; and from the swamps the little frogs begin to pipe, at first in solo, but soon in exultant chorus, till the whole moist night is vocal, and then every one knows that the sugar time is over, and troughs and spiles are gathered up, and with sap-barrels and kettles, are stored in the back shed for another year.

But no rain came before the night fixed for the sugaring-off. It was a perfect sugar day, warm, bright, and still, following a night of sharp frost. The long sunny afternoon was deepening into twilight when the Camerons drove up to the sugar-camp in their big sleigh, bringing with them the manse party. Ranald and Don, with Aunt Kirsty, were there to receive them. It was one of those rare evenings of the early Canadian spring. The bare woods were filled with the tangled rays of light from the setting sun. Here and there a hillside facing the east lay in shadow that grew black where the balsams and cedars stood in clumps. But everywhere else the light fell sweet and silent about the bare trunks, filling the long avenues under the arching maple limbs with a yellow haze.

In front of the shanty the kettles hung over the fire on a long pole which stood in an upright crutch at either end. Under the big kettle the fire was roaring high, for the fresh sap needed much boiling before the syrup and taffy could come. But under the little kettle the fire burned low, for that must not be hurried.

Over the fire and the kettles Ranald presided, black, grimy, and silent, and to Don fell the duty of doing the honors of the camp; and right worthily did he do his part. He greeted his mother with reverence, cuffed his young brother, kissed his little sister Jennie, tossing her high, and welcomed with warm heartiness Mrs. Murray and her niece. The Airds had not yet come, but all the rest were there. The Finlaysons and the McKerachers, Dan Campbell's boys, and their sister Betsy, whom every one called "Betsy Dan," redheaded, freckled, and irrepressible; the McGregors, and a dozen or more of the wildest youngsters that could be found in all the Indian Lands. Depositing their baskets in the shanty, for they had no thought of fasting, they crowded about the fire.

"Attention!" cried Don, who had a "gift of the gab," as his mother said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the program for this evening is as follows: games, tea, and taffy, in the order mentioned. In the first, all must take part; in the second, all may take part; but in the third, none need take part."

After the laughter and the chorus of "Ohs" had subsided, Don proceeded: "The captains for the evening are, Elizabeth Campbell, better known as 'Betsy Dan,' and John Finlayson, familiar to us all as 'Johnnie the Widow,' two young people of excellent character, and I believe, slightly known to each other."

Again a shout went up from the company, but Betsy Dan, who cared not at all for Don's banter, contented herself with pushing out her lower lip at him with scorn, in that indescribable manner natural to girls, but to boys impossible.

Then the choosing began. Betsy Dan, claiming first choice by virtue of her sex, immediately called out, "Ranald Macdonald."

But Ranald shook his head. "I cannot leave the fire," he said, blushing; "take Don there."

But Betsy demurred. "I don't want Don," she cried. "Come on, Ranald; the fire will do quite well." Betsy, as indeed did most of the school-girls, adored Ranald in her secret heart, though she scorned to show it.

But Ranald still refused, till Don said, "It is too bad, Betsy, but you'll have to take me."

"Oh, come on, then!" laughed Betsy; "you will be better than nobody."

Then it was Johnnie the Widow's choice: "Maimie St. Clair."

Maimie hesitated and looked at her aunt, who said, "Yes, go, my dear, if you would like."

"Marget Aird!" cried Betsy, spying Marget and her brothers coming down the road. "Come along, Marget; you are on my side--on Don's side, I mean." At which poor Marget, a tall, fair girl, with sweet face and shy manner, blushed furiously, but, after greeting the minister's wife and the rest of the older people, she took her place beside Don.

The choosing went on till every one present was taken, not even Aunt Kirsty being allowed to remain neutral in the coming games. For an hour the sports went on. Racing, jumping, bear, London bridge, crack the whip, and lastly, forfeits.

Meantime Ranald superintended the sap-boiling, keeping on the opposite side of the fire from the ladies, and answering in monosyllables any questions addressed to him. But when it was time to make the tea, Mrs. Cameron and Kirsty insisted on taking charge of this, and Mrs. Murray, coming round to Ranald, said: "Now, Ranald, I came to learn all about sugar-making, and while the others are making tea, I want you to teach me how to make sugar."

Ranald gladly agreed to show her all he knew. He had been feeling awkward and miserable in the noisy crowd, but especially in the presence of Maimie. He had not forgotten the smile of amusement with which she had greeted him at the manse, and his wounded pride longed for an opportunity to pour upon her the vials of his contempt. But somehow, in her presence, contempt would not arise within him, and he was driven into wretched silence and self- abasement. It was, therefore, with peculiar gratitude that he turned to Mrs. Murray as to one who both understood and trusted him.

"I thank you for the books, Mrs. Murray," he began, in a low, hurried voice. "They are just wonderful. That Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, oh! they are the grand books." His face was fairly blazing with enthusiasm. "I never knew there were such books at all."

"I am very glad you like them, Ranald," said Mrs. Murray, in tones of warm sympathy, "and I shall give you as many as you like."

"I cannot thank you enough. I have not the words," said the boy, looking as if he might fall down at her feet. Mrs. Murray was greatly touched both by his enthusiasm and his gratitude.

"It is a great pleasure to me, Ranald, that you like them," she said, earnestly. "I want you to love good books and good men and noble deeds."

Ranald stood listening in silence.

"Then some day you will be a good and great man yourself," she added, "and you will do some noble work."

The boy stood looking far away into the woods, his black eyes filled with a mysterious fire. Suddenly he threw back his head and said, as if he had forgotten Mrs. Murray's presence, "Yes, some day I will be a great man. I know it well."

"And good," softly added Mrs. Murray.

He turned and looked at her a moment as if in a dream. Then, recalling himself, he answered, "I suppose that is the best."

"Yes, it is the best, Ranald," she replied. "No man is great who is not good. But come now and give me my lesson."

Ranald stepped out into the bush, and from a tree near by he lifted a trough of sap and emptied it into the big kettle.

"That's the first thing you do with the sap," he said.

"How? Carry every trough to the kettle?"

"Oh, I see," laughed Ranald. "You must have every step."

"Yes, indeed," she replied, with determination.

"Well, here it is."

He seized a bucket, went to another tree, emptied the sap from the trough into the bucket, and thence into the barrel, and from the barrel into the big kettle.

"Then from the big kettle into the little one," he said, catching up a big dipper tied to a long pole, and transferring the boiling sap as he spoke from one kettle to another.

"But how can you tell when it is ready?" asked Mrs. Murray.

"Only by tasting. When it is very sweet it must go into the little kettle."

"And then?"

Her eager determination to know all the details delighted him beyond measure.

"Then you must be very careful indeed, or you will lose all your day's work, and your sugar besides, for it is very easy to burn."

"But how can you tell when it is ready?"

"Oh, you must just keep tasting every few minutes till you think you have the syrup, and then for the sugar you must just boil it a little longer."

"Well," said Mrs. Murray, "when it is ready what do you do?"

"Then," he said, "you must quickly knock the fire from under it, and pour it into the pans, stirring it till it gets nearly cool."

"And why do you stir it?" she asked.

"Oh, to keep it from getting too hard."

"Now I have learned something I never knew before," said the minister's wife, delightedly, "and I am very grateful to you. We must help each other, Ranald."

"Indeed, it is little I can do for you," he said, shyly.

"You do not know how much I am going to ask you to do," she said, lightly. "Wait and see."

At that moment a series of shrieks rose high above the shouting and laughter of the games, and Maimie came flying down toward the camp, pursued by Don, with the others following.

"Oh, auntie!" she panted, he's going to--going to--" she paused, with cheeks burning.

"It's forfeits, Mrs. Murray," explained Don.

"Hoot, lassie," said Mrs. Cameron; "it will not much hurt you, anyway. They that kiss in the light will not kiss in the dark."

"She played, and lost her forfeit," said Don, unwilling to be jeered at by the others for faint-heartedness. "She ought to pay."

"I'm afraid, Don, she does not understand our ways," said Mrs. Murray, apologetically.

"Be off, Don," said his mother. "Kiss Marget there, if you can--it will not hurt her--and leave the young lady alone."

"It's just horrid of them, auntie," said Maimie, indignantly, as the others went back to their games.

"Indeed," said Mrs. Cameron, warmly, "if you will never do worse than kiss a laddie in a game, it's little harm will be coming to you."

But Maimie ignored her.

"Is it not horrid, auntie?" she said.

"Well, my dear, if you think so, it is. But not for these girls, who play the game with never a thought of impropriety and with no shock to their modesty. Much depends on how you think about these things."

But Maimie was not satisfied. She was indignant at Don for offering to kiss her, but as she stood and watched the games going on under the trees--the tag, the chase, the catch, and the kiss-- she somehow began to feel as if it were not so terrible after all, and to think that perhaps these girls might play the game and still be nice enough. But she had no thought of going back to them, and so she turned her attention to the preparations for tea, now almost complete. Her aunt and Ranald were toasting slices of bread at the big blazing fire, on forks made out of long switches.

"Let me try, auntie," she said, pushing up to the fire between her aunt and Ranald. "I am sure I can do that."

"Be careful of that fire," said Ranald, sharply, pulling back her skirt, that had blown dangerously near the blaze. "Stand back further," he commanded.

Mamie looked at him, surprise, indignation, and fear struggling for the mastery. Was this the awkward boy that had blushed and stammered before her a week ago?

"It's very dangerous," he explained to Mrs. Murray, "the wind blows out the flames."

As he spoke he handed Maimie his toasting stick and retired to the other side of the fire, and began to attend to the boiling sap.

"He needn't be such a bear," pouted Maimie.

"My dear," replied her aunt, "what Ranald says is quite true. You cannot be too careful in moving about the fire."

"Well, he needn't be so cross about it," said Maimie. She had never been ordered about before in her life, and she did not enjoy the experience, and all the more at the hands of an uncouth country boy. She watched Ranald attending to the fire and the kettles, however, with a new respect. He certainly had no fear of the fire, but moved about it and handled it with the utmost sang-froid. He had a certain grace, too, in his movements that caught her eye, and she wished he would come nearer so that she could speak to him. She had considerable confidence in her powers of attraction. As if to answer her wish, Ranald came straight to where her aunt and she were standing.

"I think it will be time for tea now," he said, with a sudden return of his awkward manner, that made Maimie wonder why she had ever been afraid of him. "I will tell Don," he added, striding off toward the group of boys and girls, still busy with their games under the trees.

Soon Don's shout was heard: "Tea, ladies and gentlemen; take your seats at the tables." And speedily there was a rush and scramble, and in a few moments the great heaps of green balsam boughs arranged around the fire were full of boys and girls pulling, pinching, and tumbling over one another in wild glee.

The toast stood in brown heaps on birch-bark plates beside the fire, and baskets were carried out of the shanty bulging with cakes; the tea was bubbling in the big tin tea-pail, and everything was ready for the feast. But Ranald had caught Mrs. Murray's eye, and at a sign from her, stood waiting with the tea-pail in his hand.

"Come on with the tea, Ranald," cried Don, seizing a plate of toast.

"Wait a minute, Don," said Ranald, in a low tone.

"What's the matter?"

But Ranald stood still, looking silently at the minister's wife. Then, as all eyes turned toward her, she said, in a gentle, sweet voice, "I think we ought to give thanks to our Father in heaven for all this beauty about us and for all our joy."

At once Ranald took off his hat, and as the boys followed his example, Mrs. Murray bowed her head and in a few, simple words lifted up the hearts of all with her own in thanksgiving for the beauty of the woods and sky above them, and all the many gifts that came to fill their lives with joy.

It was not the first time that Ranald had heard her voice in prayer, but somehow it sounded different in the open air under the trees and in the midst of all the jollity of the sugaring-off. With all other people that Ranald knew religion seemed to be something apart from common days, common people, and common things, and seemed, besides, a solemn and terrible experience; but with the minister's wife, religion was a part of her every-day living, and seemed to be as easily associated with her pleasure as with anything else about her. It was so easy, so simple, so natural, that Ranald could not help wondering if, after all, it was the right kind. It was so unlike the religion of the elders and all the good people in the congregation. It was a great puzzle to Ranald, as to many others, both before and since his time.

After tea was over the great business of the evening came on. Ranald announced that the taffy was ready, and Don, as master of ceremonies, immediately cried out: "The gentlemen will provide the ladies with plates."

"Plates!" echoed the boys, with a laugh of derision.

"Plates," repeated Don, stepping back to a great snowbank, near a balsam clump, and returning with a piece of "crust." At once there was a scurry to the snowbank, and soon every one had a snow plate ready. Then Ranald and Don slid the little kettle along the pole off the fire, and with tin dippers began to pour the hot syrup upon the snow plates, where it immediately hardened into taffy. Then the pulling began. What fun there was, what larks, what shrieks, what romping and tumbling, till all were heartily tired, both of the taffy and the fun.

Then followed the sugar-molding. The little kettle was set back on the fire and kept carefully stirred, while tin dishes of all sorts, shapes, and sizes--milk-pans, pattie-pans, mugs, and cups--well greased with pork rind, were set out in order, imbedded in snow.

The last act of all was the making of "hens' nests." A dozen or so of hens' eggs, blown empty, and three goose eggs for the grown-ups, were set in snow nests, and carefully filled from the little kettle. In a few minutes the nests were filled with sugar eggs, and the sugaring-off was over.

There remained still a goose egg provided against any mishap.

"Who wants the goose egg?" cried Don, holding it up.

"Me!" "me!" "me!" coaxed the girls on every side.

"Will you give it to me, Don, for the minister?" said Mrs. Murray.

"Oh, yes!" cried Maimie, "and let me fill it."

As she spoke, she seized the dipper, and ran for the kettle.

"Look out for that fire," cried Don, dropping the egg into its snowbed. He was too late. A little tongue of flame leaped out from under the kettle, nipped hold of her frock, and in a moment she was in a blaze. With a wild scream she sprang back and turned to fly, but before she had gone more than a single step Ranald, dashing the crowd right and left, had seized and flung her headlong into the snow, beating out the flames with his bare hands. In a moment all danger was over, and Ranald lifted her up. Still screaming, she clung to him, while the women all ran to her. Her aunt reached her first.

"Hush, Maimie; hush, dear. You are quite safe now. Let me see your face. There now, be quiet, child. The danger is all over."

Still Maimie kept screaming. She was thoroughly terrified.

"Listen to me," her aunt said, in an even, firm voice. "Do not be foolish. Let me look at you."

The quiet, firm voice soothed her, and Maimie's screams ceased. Her aunt examined her face, neck, and arms for any signs of fire, but could find none. She was hardly touched, so swift had been her rescue. Then Mrs. Murray, suddenly putting her arms round about her niece, and holding her tight, cried: "Thank God, my darling, for his great kindness to you and to us all. Thank God! thank God!"

Her voice broke, but in a moment, recovering herself, she went on, "And Ranald, too! noble fellow!"

Ranald was standing at the back of the crowd, looking pale, disturbed, and awkward. Mrs. Murray, knowing how hateful to him would be any demonstrations of feeling, went to him, and quietly held out her hand, saying: "It was bravely done, Ranald. From my heart, I thank you."

For a moment or two she looked steadily into his face with tears streaming down her cheeks. Then putting her hands upon his shoulders, she said, softly:

"For her dear, dead mother's sake, I thank you."

Then Maimie, who had been standing in a kind of stupor all this while, seemed suddenly to awake, and running swiftly toward Ranald, she put out both hands, crying: "Oh, Ranald, I can never thank you enough!"

He took her hands in an agony of embarrassment, not knowing what to do or say. Then Maimie suddenly dropped his hands, and throwing her arms about his neck, kissed him, and ran back to her aunt's side.

"I thought you didn't play forfeits, Maimie," said Don, in a grieved voice. And every one was glad to laugh.

Then the minister's wife, looking round upon them all, said: "Dear children, God has been very good to us, and I think we ought to give him thanks."

And standing there by the fire, they bowed their heads in a new thanksgiving to Him whose keeping never fails by day or night. And then, with hearts and voices subdued, and with quiet good nights, they went their ways home.

But as the Cameron sleigh drove off with its load, Maimie looked back, and seeing Ranald standing by the fire, she whispered to her aunt: "Oh, auntie! Isn't he just splendid?"

But her aunt made no reply, seeing a new danger for them both, greater than that they had escaped.