19th Century

A Canadian Tale of Horror | Anonymous

The identity of this story’s author remains unknown but it was originally published in Reynolds’s Miscellany on 27 August 1864.[1] It tells the story of the dangers that awaited itinerant pedlars in Canada while traversing the then colony’s lonelier backwoods during the Victorian era. This would not be the last story of danger in the Canadian backwoods that this ‘Canadian Pedlar’ published for Reynolds’s Miscellany published several other tales by this person in the 1860. The story has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo.

A Canadian log house from Strickland’s Backwoods of Canada

An Hour of Terror: A Canadian Pedlar’s Story

It was seven years ago in November, that the adventure which I am about to relate befell me. I was travelling on foot through that part of Canada East known as the French Country. It lies about one hundred miles away from the boundary, down towards the St. Lawrence. The inhabitants of this region are almost entirely of French descent, and they bear not the best name for honesty and morality that can be applied to them.

My stock-in-trade consisted almost entirely of jewellery; and I found a ready sale for it wherever I went. I had been advised to take this route while in some of the towns that border on Vermont, and was also advised to engage a French youth as an interpreter, to accompany me. I acted upon this advice, and found in Louis Montough—a bright little fellow of fifteen years—a good salesman, and a companion that soon became devotedly attached to me.

For a few weeks we did a good business, and my stock began to run low; while the money I had taken in exchange had accumulated into a large sum, and I began to wish it was in a place of safety. I was very careful not to expose it to view, for I well knew that there were scores around me who would not hesitate to take my life, and also that of Louis, for one half the amount I carried on my person.

Early one cloudy morning we left the village where we had been staying 2 couple of days, and get out for the next town of importance, which was distant about twenty miles. I learned that our way would lie through a very sparsely populated tract; and that, indeed, the fast half of the distance would be through a forest, in the midst of which stood a small tavern, bearing the somewhat repulsive name of the Dead Wolf. I asked of my informant the character of the house, and found that a live wolf would have been a more appropriate cognomen, as it had the reputation of being kept by a man who would not hesitate to commit any crime, if by so doing he could put gold in his pocket. I further learnt that he had always with him one or two choice spirits, as bad as himself.

These particulars I learnt the night before I set out; and I determined to take so early a start as to be able to pass the Dead Wolf by a little past noontime. As I have said, the morning was cloudy when I left the tavern where I had been staying, and set out on my long walk with Louis for a companion. The sky was overcast; and before ten o’clock it began to mist, which soon turned into small but visible drops of rain. But we did not mind this, only as it served to increase our speed a little; for, unless it came down harder, half a day would not wet us through to the skin. It must have been nearly noon, when we came to a place where the road branched in widely different directions. There was no board to guide us, and we were at a loss which road to take, as one seemed to be as much travelled as the other, and we could not conjecture in what direction lay the village to which we were bound. Not a habitation could be seen on either road, and the last one we had passed was at least two miles back. There was nothing to do but rush ahead blindly, which we did, trusting to chance to guide us aright.

Through the lonesome forest we passed; and we had gone at least three miles, when we came upon a vacant space, in the midst of which stood a log cabin. At the first sight, I thought that we were approaching the Dead Wolf, but upon a nearer approach we could not perceive the sign that we supposed it to have. But perhaps it had not such an article. I did not wish to call, but must do so, to ascertain if I was on the right road to the place of my destination.

I rapped loudly at the door, and when an old woman, whose colour could hardly be told on account of the dirt, made her appearance, Louis inquired as to our whereabouts. In two things we were disappointed. This was not the Dead Wolf, and we were on the wrong road. Very comforting assurance was this, I thought, as I began to retrace my steps through the forest and rain, back to where the road branched off. Three weary miles it was, and two good hours were lost in the blunder we had made.

Just as we struck into the other road, to our dismay, the rain began to pour down in torrents; and in less than half an hour we were wet to the skin, I had no means of determining the time, as my watch had stopped; but I imagined that it must be two o’clock. It might be later.

On we went through the mud and rain, with the lonesome forest on either side, through which the strong easterly wind was sighing and moaning as if pitying our forlorn condition; and sometimes I could imagine that its voices were telling me to turn back, but still we pushed onward as best we could.

Your or five miles were passed in this manner.

Suddenly it became dark, and I said to Louis, “It will rain harder soon, it grows so dark.”

“Ain’t it night, sir?”

“Not this three hours yet, Louis. Think of the long way that we have got to go before we rest.”

“We have come a good distance, and the days are short now,” he observed.

“It isn’t night yet,” said I, decidedly.

But in spite of my words I was afraid that it was; and my fears were well-grounded, for it grew darker every moment, and I was obliged to confess that it was night-fall but where the day had gone I was at a loss to determine,

The most fearful forebodings took possession of my mind.

Here we were wet to the skin, and a cold November night fast coming on. To stay out of doors was impossible; yet no human habitation was near, except the Dead Wolf.

On we went in the fast increasing darkness. I must confess that the terrors of the Dead Wolf grew less and Iess,—and I don’t know but that I should have welcomed any human habitation, even had I known that it was a den of murderers. It was, therefore, with feelings of relief, if not of joy, that I saw a light gleaming brightly ahead, through the forest trees, and I knew that it must proceed from the tavern. It was not so dark but that, as we passed the corner of the house, we could see on a board that run from the tavern to a tree, the words, Dead Wolf, in letters of white on a black ground. We were bearding the lion in his den.

It was not a bad-looking man that bade us welcome, in French, as we entered the house. He did not look to be past forty, and was what the world would call handsome—and with that politeness for which the French are celebrated. In spite of all that I had heard, I was at once favourably impressed towards him.

Before a huge fire we dried our garments; and as we listened to the heavy beat of the rain without, thanked our stars that we had found so good an abiding place—safe from the fury of the tempest that was howling so drearily without; and when, an hour later, we had partaken of a good, substantial supper, our comfort was increased to the utmost.

If we had any doubts still existing as to our security from danger, they were dissipated when the landlord told me that his partner and their only servant had gone to a village some twenty miles away, and would not return for two or three days. There was no more danger to be apprehended, for were we not two to one?—and I felt pretty certain that I alone was a match for the landlord, to say nothing of the help Louis might be able to afford should I be in danger.

The evening passed away pleasantly, for my host could talk English very well, and I found him to be a very agreeable companion. At last I signified that I would like to retire to rest. With many apologies for his poor sleeping accommodations, the landlord led us up a rude ladder to the unfinished loft, over the bar-room, which contained two beds. Wishing me a good night’s rest, he went out and closed the rude door, and I heard him descend the ladder into the bar-room. I then made my preparations for sleep, such as were everywhere my custom. My revolver I placed beneath my pillow; my money was in a belt around my waist, where I carried it day and night. I placed my portmanteau beneath the edge of the bed, near my head, where it could hardly be moved without my knowledge. With these precautions I threw myself upon the bed, and was soon asleep.

What time in the night it was I know not, but I awoke with a start, and a terrible sense of impending evil hanging over me. I listened intently, but could hear no sound save the rain beating on the roof. It was in vain that I tried to tranquillize myself and sleep again. I found such a proceeding entirely impossible, and I laid and listened to the rain, the regular breathing of Louis, and—was I mistaken?—the low hum of voices in the barroom. I raised myself upon my elbow, and listened intently. No, I was not mistaken. I could plainly hear the sound of voices in the room below—and they were the voices of men. A terrible fear darted through my mind. Had the landlord deceived me as to his being alone in the house, as regarded men, or had they returned unexpectedly? And still, they might be late travellers, who, like myself, sought shelter from the storm. I would see, for I could not sleep till I knew for a certainty the object of the conversation below.

I rose cautiously from the bed, and crawled on my hands and knees to where the light came up through a narrow crack in the rough single floor from the barroom beneath. As silent as a phantom I glided along, and at last reached a position where I could apply my eye to the crevice. One look, and the blood chilled in my veins, and I could feel the hair rising upon my head.

Directly beneath me stood three persons. One of them was the landlord, and he held in his hand a dark lantern. Close beside him stood a man, dark and fierce looking, perhaps ten years his senior; in his right hand he held a long knife, the edge of which he was closely examining. The remaining one of the group also grasped a knife, which he was slowly drawing back and forth across the palm of his left hand, to give itan edge. My heaven! were those knives intended for the breasts of myself and Louis? Yes; for the next moment words from the lips of the landlord confirmed it.

“Don’t be in a hurry, Pictou. Let us make sure that they are both asleep; it will save trouble. I always hate to have a fuss in doing these things.”

“Of course they are asleep before this time. But to make sure, you had better go up and see,” replied the one with the longest knife.

I heard footsteps ascending the ladder, and silently made my way back to the bed; and when I knew that the landlord was listening, I made a noise as if I were turning over in bed. This had the desired effect; for a moment after I heard him descend the ladder, and in a low voice communicate the fact to his companions that one or both of us was awake. Ina moment the light faded from the crack in the floor, and all was still in the room below.

What was to be done? That was the question I asked myself as I sat there in the darkness, with the rain beating loudly upon the roof close to my head. How was I to escape from the certain death that awaited me, at the hands of the assassins below?

As I sat thus for a moment, almost stupefied. A movement of Louis told me that he was awake. I bent down close to his ear, and placing my hand over his mouth, so as to prevent any exclamation of alarm, I apprized him, in a low whisper, of our dangerous situation. The boy never flinched. He showed more fortitude than I had done.

“We must escape from here quickly,” he said, raising himself up in bed, and commencing to put on his garments,

“But how is that to be done? We cannot pass through the bar-room, Louis; and we cannot escape from here unless we do,” I said in a whisper as low as his own.

“By the window. There is one there, fastened up with a board. I saw it when we came to bed.”

A ray of hope dawned upon me. There might yet be a chance of escape. Softly I crossed the chamber, and by the sense of feeling, found the window. It was filled with a wide board, across which ran two bars, fastened on either side, thus rendering the board immoveable. There was no place in which the hands could be inserted—and if there had been, it would have taken the strength of a giant to have wrenched the bars from their places. It was apparent that the builders of the house intended to have a glass window inserted here, but from some cause it had not been done; and to secure the aperture against the admission of wind and rain, the board had been put in and securely fastened in its place. In a low whisper I made known this dilemma to Louis, who had crept to my side.

“Cut them off with your knife; it won’t take but a little while, I will watch at the door.”

Yes, that was the only thing to be done, I set about my task, and Louis crept back to the door, to watch the coming of our enemies.

My knife was dull, and the wood was hard; so I made but slow progress. The moments went on, and at last one of the bars was cut in two. One-fourth of my task was done—for each bar had to be cut twice.

Hark! What sound was that? Someone coming up the stairs—a pause at the door. Then I heard the bedstead creak as if some one was turning thereon. Louis had learnt his part well.

A moment later, and the footsteps descended the ladder, and all was quiet again.

Never before had I worked so hard; but now it was for life. Life was the stake, and the shelter of the forest was the boon I coveted. Again the battle raged between dull steel and wood.

Oh, that terrible hour! It seemed an age to me. Thrice did the assassin come to the door, and thrice did Louis play his part. But I well knew they would not wait much longer. Why should they, when they were so much the strongest?

At length the last bar was cut through and removed from its place, and it was but the work of a moment to remove the board. Ah! never did the air of heaven seem so sweet, as when a dash of rain struck me full in the face. It seemed as though even then I was free from danger. The cold gust of wind sweeping across the chamber apprized Louis that I had effected my object, and he was soon at my side, having the thoughtfulness to take my portmanteau from its place under the bed as he came.

How far it was to the ground was the next question to be determined. I put forth my hand, aimlessly, and to my great joy it rested upon the roof of a shed, which seemed to slope off towards the ground. This was unexpected good luck, and in a few moments I was upon it, in the pelting storm. Loujs quickly followed me, and cautiously we felt our way down to the eaves, which we found to be within a few feet of the ground; and in less time than it takes me to tell it, we were upon the earth.

It was dark—so dark that we could not see our hand when placed six inches before our eyes. After a few minutes of groping about, however, we succeeded in finding the road, along which we sped as fast as it was possible for men fleeing for their lives to go.

It was just as we were leaving the open space and about to enter the forest, that we heard a dull shout behind us, and glancing back, we saw a bright light streaming from the window through which we had made our exit. Our escape was thus early discovered.

A mile or more we dashed along the road, and then sought shelter in the forest. From our dark covert we heard footsteps pass and repass, and doubted not that our would-be assassins were in pursuit of us.

The morning came at last; and cold, wet, and stiff we entered on the road and sped along towards the village, which we reached about ten o’clock. I told my story to the proper authorities, and in company with the officers went back to the Dead Wolf, which we found silent and deserted. They had probably anticipated our visit, and left for parts unknown.

[1] Anon. ‘An Hour of Terror: A Canadian Pedlar’s Story’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 27 August 1864, 150.