By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July, 8, 1933
“I was out for a drive Sunday,” said Jim, “and near Bronte I hear there is a great cave where William Lyon Mackenzie hid in his flight to the United States when the rebellion of 1837 blew up.”
“It would be nice to go exploring caves,” I said.
“That must have been a great adventure,” said Jim. “Only the pioneers would know about the cave. Maybe the Indians had told the pioneers, and along came Mackenzie in the night, with the Redcoats hunting him high and low, with £1,000 on his head, and some pioneer in his little log cabin hearing a rap on the door…”
“William Lyon Mackenzie,” I put in, “was dressed as a woman at that time. You know that gas station at Trafalgar, on the Dundas Highway? Well, sir, back of that gas station is an old roughcast tavern, a hundred and thirty-seven years old. It was a stage coach headquarters, and there Mackenzie came in the night, exhausted, and they dressed him in women’s clothes and hid him in an upstairs room while the soldiers who were hunting for him sat eating and drinking down in the tavern.”
“Well, then,” said Jim, “some pioneer down the Twelve Mile Crick heard a rap on his door and there stood Mackenzie in his women’s clothes, exhausted, beaten, bitter, alone. So they took him out across the little clearing and through the bush to this great cave on the hillside of the Twelve Mile. And he hid there until the posse of Redcoats on horseback came down the wild road.”
“You make it real,” I said.
“And the troop would stay out in the road while one Redcoat rode in,” went on Jimmie, “to shout out to the settler if they had seen a man, a little, fiery man with glittering eyes, come by. And the pioneer, with all his children locked in the roothouse for fear they might speak, would shake his head patriotically and say no, he had not seen any such a man come by this way.”
“Let’s go out there,” I said to Jimmie. “Let’s visit that cave. You don’t know what we might see in there. Or meet, for that matter. It is nearly a hundred years since Mackenzie hid there. Maybe the spirit of Mackenzie would appear to us.”
“They say it is a hard cave to get into,” said Jim. “It is on an estate called Woodlands; it used to be the homestead where Sir Thomas White was born and raised.”
“I’d like to spend a night in it,” I said.
So Jim and I got overalls and flashlights and pickaxes in case of trouble, and we drove out to the lovely Woodlands farm. On the way we stopped at the tavern at Trafalgar. All the gas station men knew about it was that it was very old and that Governor Simcoe used to stop there on his journeys by stage coach between York, Niagara and London.
The gas station men took us inside. The floors are of pine boards twenty-six inches wide, and the timbers are hand hewn. Upstairs the rooms are tiny, not much larger than pantries, with little low roofs. There is a front stairs and a back stairs and a most mysterious trap door stairs. It is mostly empty now. But if you stop and hold your breath you can hear very small sounds, such as spirits would make as they came to look at you, intruding in their private place.
Where Mackenzie Hid
“What a lovely bit of yesterday!” said Jimmie, eyeing the broad boards, the little sloping ceilings, the doorframes made by hand a century and a quarter ago by Canadians.
“Is there no record of which room William Lyon Mackenzie hid in?” we asked.
But the boys at the gas station did not know about that. They only knew about Governor Simcoe, which shows they are Tories.
We went from room to room and Jimmie finally decided it was the little room on the west side, looking out over the fields-toward the Sixteen Mile Crick, which Mackenzie would have to cross at dawn on a fallen tree before he could get to the Bronte creek, the Twelve Mile, to hide in his great cave.
The Mackenzie cave is hard to find. Even to-day it would be a good place to hide from the soldiers.
As Jimmie and I went through the deep woods, filled with flowers, we began to feel the spell of the past, and several times we saw Indians and Redcoats slipping from tree to tree, watching us as we advanced to the hundred foot high banks of the Twelve Mile.
A path leads steeply down to the Mackenzie cave. A path worn mostly by a century of boyhood.
On a shelf of the steep and sheer bank of the Twelve Mile Crick, which you pass on the long bridge over the Dundas Highway, we found the Mackenzie cave.
Its entrance is just a split in the great limestone rocks. Just a huge mouth, slightly open, as if the cliff were holding its breath.
“Or as if it were smiling,” said Jimmie, as we rested at the cave mouth and peered into the dim and forbidding entrance.
At first sight, the entrance to the Mackenzie cave appears too small for a person to enter. In fact, a big man would have trouble even crawling on end like a worm. It is about two feet high and fifteen feet wide, a wide grin of an entrance.
“Somehow,” said Jimmie, “I don’t like the way the edges of this cave mouth turn up. It looks a little leery to me.”
I shot my flashlight into the gloom and saw twenty feet in large limestone rock blocking the passage, but over it appeared the deeper shadows of an inner room.
“Look overhead,” said Jim. “Millions of tons of damp earth and rock. What if our talking and moving around in there were to dislodge some little pebble and the whole thing collapse on us?”
“William Lyon Mackenzie wasn’t afraid of it,” I said.
“He had soldiers after him, dead or alive.”
It was bright summer sunshine outside. But a cold breath came softly out of the great mouth.
“Hello, in there,” I shouted. “Anybody in?”
My voice echoed queerly.
“Let’s come out some other day with a gang of us,” said Jim. “Just in case. Suppose anything happened, who would know we were here?
“Hello, anybody in there?” I shouted. Around us lay the bright summer stillness. Inside lay shadow, gloom and chill.
“I’ll go in here as far as that rock.” I said to Jim. “I’ll see what lies beyond.”
You lie down flat and work your knees and elbows until you reach the rock. By the time you get that far the roof over your head rises, and you can stand in a stooping position.
The soft trickle of a little stream of ice-cold water makes an eerie sound as you gaze into the dim shadows ahead, still faintly lighted by the day,
An Unearthly Sound
“Come and see, it’s a big room,” I called.
Jim, being larger, had a lot of trouble but presently got beside me at the barrier of rock. We shot our flashlights ahead and their beams were lost against an extraordinary darkness.
Beyond us, twenty feet further, lost in inky dark, was a huge cavern, its ceiling and walls marbled with stalactite traceries, like dull ice, from which dripped thousand trickles of water.
The vaulted ceiling was twelve feet high, and the chamber was perhaps fifteen feet in diameter.
Along the low, rock-roofed passage, with icy drops falling on our necks, we crept, and stared at the ghostly room.
“Unless they smoked him out,” whispered Jimmie, “they never would have got him.”
My flashlight began to flicker.
“That looks like a pool there,” said Jim. “That whole chamber is floored with a pool of water.”
We were not near enough to see the bottom of the cavern, and just as we started forward to get a view of it, our hearts froze with an unearthly sound.
Jim’s flashlight clattered from his hand and went out. Mine, grasped tightly in my hands, flickered and faded.
We gripped each other. “OoooooOOOOOhhhhh!”
Softly and terribly, the low moan came from the darkness ahead.
An icy drop fell on my neck. Jim and I clutched convulsively. My flashlight, calmly, quietly, went out.
“Get your flashlight!” I whispered soundlessly to Jim. Lingering, he let go of me and I heard him pawing around on the rocks.
Something went splash ahead of us.
We clinched again.
“Get your flashlight!” I whispered tensely.
Dimly, a little daylight filtered behind us and Jim started toward it, on all fours.
“Wooooo!” came the low howl.
They say in a theatre panic, it is terrible to see everybody trying to get through the one small exit. It is terrible to see two gentlemen trying to get out the same exit of a Mackenzie cave. I don’t know whether it was my elbow or Jim’s knee that caused the jam, but before we knew it, we were jammed headfirst in that tunnel, panting for breath.
“Back up!” I shouted.
“You go forward a bit!” roared Jimmie.
But backwards or forwards we were stuck.
“Don’t struggle too hard!” warned Jim. You might dislodge something and down all this would co-ome!”
Patiently we wriggled and backed and shoved and wormed, without avail.
“Jimmie, we’re stuck!” I announced hopelessly.
“We’ll have to stay here until we shrink with hunger,” said Jim. “When we lose weight, about the third or fourth day, one of us can work out.”
“And maybe we’ll have enough strength to climb that hill out there for help!”
We lay still.
“What would that be in there?” asked Jim.
“What else could it be?” I retorted.
Ahead of us we could see the glimmer of day. Our feet lay stretched behind us in that cavern filled with ghostly hooting.
Icy water dripped on our heads, our hands.
“Gentlemen,” said a voice behind us, “can I be of assistance?”
We lay stiff.
“You seem to be struck,” went on the voice. It was old and dry and soft.
“Perhaps,” it went on, “if I were to take hold of one of you by the heels and pull?”
“Yaw!” we yelled, kicking our heels frantically behind us.
A strong hand seized me by the foot. Then it caught my other foot and I felt myself being dragged backwards.
“Jimmie!” I shouted. “Hold me! Hold me!”
“Is it pulling?” demanded Jim.
“All right, a ghost can’t pull,” said Jim. “Let him pull.”
The Force behind pulled and yanked, this way and that, and I felt myself giving. Suddenly the jam was broken. As I backed up, hands took hold of my shoulders.
“Don’t be alarmed, gents,” said the ghost. But Jimmie was vanishing like a groundhog out the tunnel.
“Who are you?” I gasped.
“Just a homeless man,” said the ghost. “I knew of this cave when I was a boy, so I just came up here for a day or two. It makes a good home for a hobo, doesn’t it?”
“Why did you go woo at us?” I demanded.
“I didn’t want any other residents in here,” said the ghost. “You seemed scared, so I did the natural thing.”
He located Jimmie’s flashlight and turned it on. I beheld a small, grizzled-haired man of about fifty, in ill-fitting old garments. His eyes were steel gray and brilliant. His hair was long and he had side-burns growing in front of his ears. He had a quaint look, if you understand me.
“Come into the big room and have a look around,” he said. There was a Scotch accent.
“Yoo-hoo, Jimmie.” I called. “Come on in, it’s all right.”
“I’ll stay here now I’m out,” called Jim faintly.
The little man smiled and led me into the big cavern.
Under the marbled and icy dome, with its wavering lines of stalactite drawn down the curving walls, lay a pure pool of water, six feet square. It seemed bottomless. In it you could make out sticks and logs that had been thrown in by people trying to see how deep it was.
“Did you ever see so pure a pool?” asked the little man.
“There might be some relics of William Lyon Mackenzie in there,” I said. “He was here, you know, in his flight to the States.”
“Was he, indeed?” said the little man.
“And if we dug around in that pool, might find something, preserved all this hundred years, some old papers, a pistol perhaps, some secret thing.”
“He threw nothing in there,” said the little man.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I have scraped around it and found nothing,” said the little man with a whimsical smile.
I began to feel uneasy.
“Well,” I said, “it’s beautiful. It is strange and eerie and beautiful. I guess I’ll be going now.”
“Oh, stay a while. Smoke a pipe. Don’t rush away.”
The little man had such large lapels on his old coat.
“I don’t mind certain kinds of visitors,” said he.
He had a wide, grim mouth that was sweet when he smiled.
“It all depends,” he said. “It all depends.”
In the shadows cast off those ghostly walls, I thought suddenly that I saw he was wearing a skirt!
“Well, sir, I must be going,” I said huskily. “I really must!”
“Good-day to you, then,” said he. “And don’t believe all you hear. And don’t take any plugged shillings.”
He handed me Jimmie’s flashlight. I bowed down and worked out the passage, lay down and wormed through the tunnel, and all of a heap, came out to the dazzling sunlight where Jim was crouched down watching me emerge.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jim. “Who was it?”
“I don’t know.” I said.
And the fact is, I don’t.
Editor’s Notes: William Lyon Mackenzie is well known to students of Canadian history.