Fire! Fire!

At 10 o’clock that Saturday night (September 27th) I went my rounds as usual to see that all was well. Earlier in the evening we had fancied that we smelt burning, but it was accounted for by the matron, who said that she had put some old rags into the washhouse stove. Everything seemed to be safe and comfortable, and at 11 p.m. I retired to rest.

About 3 o’clock in the morning Mrs. Wilson and myself were simultaneously awakened by the running to and fro of the boys in the dormitory overhead, and the shouting of the schoolmaster. We were both up in an instant. I lighted a candle, put on a few clothes, and opened the door leading into the nursery. The cause of alarm was immediately apparent. Flames were leaping up at the back of the house, seeming to come from the cellar, which was entered by a staircase from the outside, just under the nurseries. Every one now was crying “Fire!” and all seemed to be rushing about frantically. Mrs. Wilson called to the servants to wrap our children in blankets, and escape with them. I ran from the nursery to the kitchen, where was a door that led out to the back; there I found Cryer and Frost vainly endeavouring to stifle the flames by throwing on buckets of water. It was raining in torrents. Not a soul was at hand to help us. I sent Cryer and Frost to the river for more water. It was pitch dark, and the river a considerable distance off, so that by the time they returned, the flames had made great headway. It was evidently too late to save the building. Mrs. Wilson and the servants had collected the children; I caught up one of them, and we all ran to the church through the vestry. I rang the church bell hard for some minutes; still no one came. The children were wrapped in blankets, all four of them ill with coughs; the youngest, Mabel Laurie, very ill with inflammation of the lungs. I ran back to the wash-house; the flames now were leaping up madly, and lighting all the country round. I collected the Indian children in the garden, and counted them over; two were missing. Frost said he was sure they were all out; but we could not tell. We shouted into the burning building; afterwards we found that they were all right. I ran into my study, keeping my head low to avoid the smoke, unlocked three or four drawers, and rapidly collected important papers; then, half smothered, groped my way back to the hall. Mrs. Wilson had followed me, and held the door closed while I was in to keep the fire from drawing outwards; the staircase was on fire, and my hair and whiskers were singed. All our watches, jewellery, &c., were lost. My wife had collected and put them together in a basket on the floor, but it was too late to save it. Some of the Indians had now arrived, and I told them to save what they could, but every room was full of flame and smoke. The harmonium in the dining-hall might have been saved, but no one thought of it; it had only been brought in the day before, and was a gift from a lady in England. The church was now in danger; it was only 20 feet from the burning building; where should we go? We took up the children, and ran back to the farm buildings. It was still drenching with rain; the fire looked terrible, and we feared it would reach us even here. We must beat another retreat. Should we go to the Jesuit priest? He was a hospitable man, and would surely give us shelter. “Take up the children again,” I said, “we must go at once.” My wife persisted in carrying little Laurie, the youngest; I took the other little girl, and the servants carried the two boys. Thus we went through the pelting rain, the women with only shawls wrapped round them; my wife in her dressing-gown and slippers. I hastened on to the priest’s house, and after a good deal of loud knocking succeeded in rousing him. He expressed the greatest sympathy, and invited us in. The rain had drenched us to the skin. I left Mrs. Wilson in charge of the priest’s housekeeper, and ran back for the other children. If I did give way at all it was just now when, for the moment, I was alone. I felt that all my hopes and prospects were dashed; still I could pray, and God was not far off. I was comforted. Man might fail me, but God would not. If anything, it was good to feel every earthly prop give way, and to cling alone to the Mighty One.

On the road I met the servants with two of the children. The flames were advancing on the barn; they had already seized on some out-buildings which lay between, and a pile of cordwood. Archie, our eldest boy, of four years old, was sitting under the fence, not crying, but a smile was on him lips, his blue eyes gazing calmly on the flames, his sunny locks wet with the falling rain. I took him up, and ran back with him to the priest’s house. “Naughty fire to burn down papa’s house,” he said. “Papa, shall we go away in the big boat now our house is burnt?” Leaving the little fellow safely with his mother, I returned quickly to see after my Indian children. The Indians, had already taken some of them away to their houses, and the rest I sent into an empty log house which Shunk had occupied. Then I turned my attention to the church. The people were standing round doing nothing. I saw the church was in imminent danger; part of the bell-tower had caught, and the roof was smoking with the heat. I called aloud to the Indians to bring wet blankets and put them on the roof, then I seized a rail, told some of the Indians to do the same, and together we pushed over the burning end-wall of the doomed building, and it fell with a crash into the glowing embers. Thus the church was saved.

When I got back to the priest’s house I found Mrs. Wilson very ill; but the housekeeper, a kind-hearted French woman, was doing all she could for her. The sexton, an Indian, came to know if he should ring the bell for service. I was scarcely aware it was Sunday, but I said, “Yes and I would come myself.” I had no hat, but the priest lent me his fur cap, also his boots. I would not go into the reading-desk, but knelt in the church, and read the Litany. All the people seemed greatly affected. I spoke a few words to them, comparing our position to that of the Israelites when, on setting forth, full of hope and joy, on their road to the Promised Land, found their way suddenly barred before them by the Red Sea. I told them that the events that had happened seemed sad and distressing to us, but who were we that we should understand God’s purposes? We must believe that it was all for the best; we must wait on God; He would make the way clear for us. If it were His will, no doubt these ruins would be built up again, and we should all rejoice once more. Buhkwujjenene then said a few words, and spoke very feelingly. When this little service was over, I returned to the priest’s house, and sat down at his table to write a telegram. There was telegraphic communication with the outer world through the United States, the wires having been extended to the American Sault only a few months previously; thus I was enabled to telegraph to England. I wrote, “All is burned down; no lives lost; nothing saved.” The priest, who had been most kind throughout, sent it for me to the telegraph office, thirteen miles off. He sent also at the same time for the doctor and medicines, and a message to our friends at the Sault telling of our sad plight.

We now determined to go as soon as possible to Collingwood by the steamship _Cumberland_, which was due on her way down. Poor little Laurie was very ill, and we anxiously awaited the arrival of the doctor. During the afternoon, I poked through the ashes with a stick, and found the remains of our watches and two sovereigns welded together. We also collected a quantity of silver, all welded together, scarcely a spoon or fork retaining its shape; still it was valuable, and I disposed of it afterwards in Toronto. Among the chief valuables destroyed were our piano, recently brought from England, the harmonium, a library of 500 volumes, and all our stores for the winter which had just been laid in. The whole loss was estimated at about L1300. The carpenters had only been out a day or two, and I was intending to insure the building the following week.

Missions, Ojibway,

Wilson, Rev. Edward F. Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians. London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge. 1886.

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