Chapter XII. A March Evening in Eden
 

At length we were fast at the Maizeville Landing, although long after the usual hour of arrival. I was anxious indeed to learn whether John Jones would meet us, or whether, believing that we would not come in such a storm, and tired of waiting, he had gone home and left us to find such shelter as we could.

But there he was, looking in the light of the lanterns as grizzled as old Time himself, with his eyebrows and beard full of snow- flakes. He and I hastily carried the three younger children ashore through the driving snow, and put them in a corner of the storehouse, while Merton followed with his mother.

"Mr. Jones," I exclaimed, "you are a neighbor to be proud of already. Why didn't you go home and leave us to our fate?"

"Well," he replied, laughing, "'twouldn't take you long to get snowed under to-night. No, no; when I catch fish I mean to land 'em. Didn't know but what in such a buster of a storm you might be inclined to stay on the boat and go back to the city. Then where would my bargain be?"

"No fear of that. We're in for it now--have enlisted for the war. What shall we do?"

"Well, I vow I hardly know. One thing first, anyhow--we must get Mrs. Durham and the kids into the warm waiting-room, and then look after your traps."

The room was already crowded, but we squeezed them in, white from scarcely more than a moment's exposure to the storm. Then we took hold and gave the deck-hands a lift with my baggage, Merton showing much manly spirit in his readiness to face the weather and the work. My effects were soon piled up by themselves, and then we held a council.

"Mrs. Durham'll hardly want to face this storm with the children," began Mr. Jones.

"Are you going home?" I asked.

"Yes, sir. I'd rather travel all night for the sake of being home in the morning."

"To tell the truth I feel the same way," I continued, "but reason must hold the reins. Do you think you could protect Mrs. Durham and the children from the storm?"

"Yes, I think we could tuck 'em in so they'd scarcely know it was snowin', and then we could sled your things up in the mornin'. 'Commodations on the landin' to-night will be pretty crowded."

"We'll let her decide, then."

When I explained how things were and what Mr. Jones had said, she exclaimed, "Oh, let us go home."

How my heart jumped at her use of the word "home" in regard to a place that she had never seen. "But, Winifred," I urged, "do you realize how bad a night it is? Do you think it would be safe for Mousie?"

"It isn't so very cold if one is not exposed to the wind and snow," she replied, "and Mr. Jones says we needn't be exposed. I don't believe we'd run as much risk as in going to a little hotel, the best rooms of which are already taken. Since we can do it, it will be so much nicer to go to a place that we feel is our own!"

"I must say that your wishes accord with mine."

"Oh, I knew that," she replied, laughing. "Mr. Jones," she added, sociably, "this man has a way of telling you what he wishes by his looks before asking your opinion."

"I found that out the day he came up to see the place," chuckled my neighbor, "and I was half a mind to stick him for another hundred for being so honest. He don't know how to make a bargain any more than one of the children there. Well, I'll go to the shed and get the hosses, and we'll make a pull for home. I don't believe you'll be sorry when you get there."

Mr. Jones came around to the very door with the rockaway, and we tucked my wife and children under the buffalo robes and blankets till they could hardly breathe. Then we started out into the white, spectral world, for the wind had coated everything with the soft, wet snow. On we went at a slow walk, for the snow and mud were both deep, and the wheeling was very heavy. Even John Jones's loquacity was checked, for every time he opened his mouth the wind half filled it with snow. Some one ahead of us, with a lantern, guided our course for a mile or so through the dense obscurity, and then he turned off on another road. At first I hailed one and another in the black cavern of the rockaway behind me, and their muffled voices would answer, "All right." But one after another they ceased to answer me until all were fast asleep except my wife. She insisted that she was only very drowsy, but I knew that she was also very, very tired. Indeed, I felt myself, in a way that frightened me, the strange desire to sleep that overcomes those long exposed to cold and wind.

I must have been nodding and swaying around rather loosely, when I felt myself going heels over head into the snow. As I picked myself up I heard my wife and children screaming, and John Jones shouting to his horses, "Git up," while at the same time he lashed them with his whip. My face was so plastered with snow that I could see only a dark object which was evidently being dragged violently out of a ditch, for when the level road was reached, Mr. Jones shouted, "Whoa!"

"Robert, are you hurt?" cried my wife.

"No, are you?"

"Not a bit, but I'm frightened to death."

Then John Jones gave a hearty guffaw and said:

"I bet you our old shanghai rooster that you don't die."

"Take you up," answered my wife, half laughing and half crying.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"I'm here. Haven't the remotest idea where you be," replied Mr. Jones.

"You are a philosopher," I said, groping my way through the storm toward his voice.

"I believe I was a big fool for tryin' to get home such a night as this; but now that we've set about it, we'd better get there. That's right. Scramble in and take the reins. Here's my mittens."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to 'light and smell out the road. This is equal to any blizzard I've read of out West."

"How far have we to go now?"

"Half a mile, as nigh as I can make out;" and we jogged on again.

"Are you sure you are not hurt?" Mousie asked me.

"Sure; it was like tumbling into a feather bed."

"Stop a bit," cried Mr. Jones. "There's a turn in the road here. Let me go on a little and lay out your course."

"Oh, I wish we had stayed anywhere under shelter," said my wife.

"Courage," I cried. "When we get home, we'll laugh over this."

"Now," shouted Mr. Jones, "veer gradually off to the left toward my voice--all right;" and we jogged on again, stopping from time to time to let our invisible guide explore the road.

Once more he cried, "Stop a minute."

The wind roared and shrieked around us, and it was growing colder. With a chill of fear I thought, "Could John Jones have mistaken the road?" and I remembered how four people and a pair of horses had been frozen within a few yards of a house in a Western snow-storm.

"Are you cold, children?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm freezing," sobbed Winnie. "I don't like the country one bit."

"This is different from the Eden of which we have been dreaming," I thought grimly. Then I shouted, "How much farther, Mr. Jones?"

The howling of the wind was my only answer. I shouted again. The increasing violence of the tempest was the only response.

"Robert," cried my wife, "I don't hear Mr. Jones's voice."

"He has only gone on a little to explore," I replied, although my teeth chattered with cold and fear.

"Halloo--oo!" I shouted. The answering shriek of the wind in the trees overhead chilled my very heart.

"What has become of Mr. Jones?" asked my wife, and there was almost anguish in her tone, while Winnie and Bobsey were actually crying aloud.

"Well, my dear," I tried to say, reassuringly, "even if he were very near to us we could neither see nor hear him."

Moments passed which seemed like ages, and I scarcely knew what to do. The absence of all signs of Mr. Jones filled me with a nameless and unspeakable dread. Could anything have happened to him? Could he have lost his way and fallen into some hole or over some steep bank? If I drove on, we might tumble after him and perish, maimed and frozen, in the wreck of the wagon. One imagines all sorts of horrible things when alone and helpless at night.

"Papa," cried Merton, "I'll get out and look for Mr. Jones."

"You are a good, brave boy," I replied. "No; you hold the reins, and I'll look for him and see what is just before us."

At that moment there was a glimmer of light off to the left of us.