- Transcriber's note: Inconsistent hyphenation and unusual spelling in the original document have been preserved. The illustration captions, listed only at the front of the original text, have been added to the illustrations for the benefit of the reader. One obvious typographical error was corrected in this text, but not the dialect. For details, please see the end of this document. -
LE PETIT NORD
Annals of a Labrador Harbour
ANNE GRENFELL and KATIE SPALDING
Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company The Riverside Press Cambridge 1920 Copyright, 1920, by Houghton Mifflin Company All Rights Reserved
A friend from the Hub of the Universe, in a somewhat supercilious manner, not long ago informed one of our local friends that his own home was hundreds of miles to the southward. "'Deed, sir, how does you manage to live so far off?" with a scarcely perceptible twinkle of one eye, was the answer.
If home is the spot on earth where one spends the larger part of one's prime, and where one's family comes into being, then for over a quarter of a century "Le Petit Nord" of this book has been my home. With the authors I share for it and its people the love which alone keeps us here. Necessity has compelled me to perform, however imperfectly, functions usually distributed amongst many and varied professions, and the resultant intimacy has become unusual. As, therefore, I read the amusing experiences herein narrated, I feel that the "other half," who know us not, will love us better even if we are not exactly as they. That is not our fault. They should not live "so far off."
The incidents told are all actual, but the name of every single person and place has been changed to afford any hypersensitive among the actors the protection which pseudonymity confers. We here who have been permitted a glimpse of these pages feel that we really owe the authors another debt beyond the love for the people to which they have testified by the more substantial offering of long and voluntary personal service.
WILFRED T. GRENFELL, M.D.
AN AWFUL NIGHT FOR A SINNER Frontispiece
SAD SEASICK SOULS STREWN AROUND 20
THE HERRING OF HIGH ESTATE 29
"HAVE YOU A PLUG OF BACCY, SKIPPER?" 40
RHODA'S RANDY 42
TOPSY'S AMBITION IS TO BECOME LIKE A FAT PIG 53
TOPSY WAS CREEPING FROM BED TO BED WITH THE CARVING-KNIFE 54
THE PROPHET OF DOOM 59
ANANIAS HAS BROKEN YET ANOTHER WINDOW 61
NOT FAT, BUT FINE AND HEARTY 68
DELILAH BAWLING 70
MRS. UNCLE LIFE FOUND THE LEADER OF THE TEAM IN HER BED 92
"TEACHER, I HAVE A PAIN" 95
THE YOHO 100
THEY ATE THE ENTIRE BOOT 108
HE HAD TAKEN THE STRANGER IN 117
HE FROZE HIS TOE IN BED 127
A LONG WAY ON THE HEAVENWARD ROAD 131
THE SEVENTH SON 140
ITS ACTION WAS PROMPT AND POWERFUL 141
IT WAS HIS LAST BULLET 153
A PUFFIN GHETTO 180
THE BEAR BIT HIS LEG OFF 189
From drawings by Dr. Grenfell
LE PETIT NORD
ANNALS OF A LABRADOR HARBOUR
Off the Narrows, St. John's
The Far North calls and I am on my way:— There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail. There gloom the dark broad seas. * * * * * The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks.
Why write as if I had taken a lifelong vow of separation from the British Isles and all things civilized, when after all it is only one short year out of my allotted span of life that I have promised to Mission work? Your steamer letter, with its Machiavellian arguments for returning immediately and directly from St. John's, was duly received. Of my unfitness for the work there is no possible doubt, no shadow of doubt whatever, and therein you and I are at one. But you will do me the justice to admit that I put very forcibly before those in charge of the Mission the delusion under which they were labouring; the responsibility now lies with them, and I "go to prove my soul." What awaits me I know not, but except when the mighty billows rocked me, not soothingly with gentle motion, but harshly and immoderately. I have never wavered in my decision; and even at such times it was to the bottom of Father Neptune that I aspired to travel rather than to the shores of "Merrie England."
The voyage so far has been uneventful, and we are now swaying luxuriously at anchor in a dense fog. This I believe is the usual welcome accorded to travellers to the island of Newfoundland. There is no chart for icebergs, and "growlers" are formidable opponents to encounter at any time. Therefore it behoves us to possess our souls in patience, and only to indulge at intervals in the right to grumble which is by virtue of tradition ours. We have already been here a day and a half, and we know not how much longer it will be before the curtain rises and the first act of the drama can begin.
These boats are far from large and none too comfortable. We have taken ten days to come from Liverpool. Think of that, you who disdain to cross the water in anything but an ocean greyhound! What hardships we poor missionaries endure! Incidentally I want to tell you that my fellow passengers arch their eyebrows and look politely amused when I tell them to what place I am bound. I ventured to ask my room-mate if she had ever been on Le Petit Nord. I wish you could have seen her face. I might as well have asked if she had ever been exiled to Siberia! I therefore judge it prudent not to thirst too lustily for information, lest I be supplied with more than I desire or can assimilate at this stage. I shall write you again when I board the coastal steamer, which I am credibly informed makes the journey to St. Antoine once every fortnight during the summer months. Till then, au revoir.
Run-by-Guess, June 15
I landed on the wharf at St. John's to be met with the cheering information that the steamer had left for the north two days before. This necessitated a delay of twelve days at least. Will all the babies at the Orphanage be dead before I arrive on the scene of action? Shall I take the next boat back and be in England before the coastal steamer comes south to claim me? Conflicting emotions disturb my troubled soul, but "on and always on!"
The island boasts a railroad of which the rural inhabitants are inordinately proud. Just prior to my arrival a daily service had been inaugurated. Formerly the passenger trains ran only three times a week. There are no Sunday trains. As I had so much time to spare, I decided that I could not do better than spend some of it in going across the island and thus see the Southern part of the country, catching my boat at Come-by-Chance Junction on the return journey. Truth compels me to add that I find myself a sadder and wiser woman. I left St. John's one evening at six o'clock, being due to arrive at our destination at eight o'clock the following night. There is no unpleasant "hustle" on this railway, and you may wait leisurely and humbly for a solid hour while your very simple meal is prepared. If you do not happen to be hungry, this is only a delightful interlude in the incessant rush of modern life, but if perchance Nature has endowed you with a moderate appetite, that one hour seems incurably long.
All went well the first night, or at least my fellow passengers showed no signs of there being anything unusual, so like Brer Rabbit, I lay low and said nothing. At noon the following day a slightly bigger and more prolonged jolt caused the curious among us to look from the window. The engine, tender, and luggage van were derailed. As the speed of the trains never exceeds twenty-five miles an hour, such little contretemps which occur from time to time do not ruffle the serenity of those concerned. Resigning myself to a delay of a few hours, I determined to alight and explore the country. But alas! I had no mosquito veiling, and to stand for a moment outside without this protection was to risk disfigurement for life. So I humbly yielded to adverse circumstances and returned to try and read, the previous bumping having made this out of the question. But the interior was by this time a veritable Gehenna, and no ventilation could be obtained, as the Company had not thought it necessary to provide their windows with screens. For twenty-five hours we remained in durance vile, until at last the relief train lumbered to our rescue and conveyed us to Run-by-Guess, our destination.
Northward Bound. On board June 25
If you could have been present during the return journey from Run-by-Guess your worst prophecies would have seemed to you justified. The railroad is of the genus known as narrow-gauge; the roadbed was not constructed on the principles laid down by the Romans. In a country where the bones of Mother Earth protrude so insistently, it is beating the devil round the stump to mend the bed with fir branches tucked even ever so solicitously under the ties. That, nevertheless, was an attempt at "safety first" which I saw.
Towards morning a furious rain and wind storm broke over us. Before many minutes I noticed that my berth was becoming both cold and damp. Looking up I made out in the dim dawn a small but persistent stream pouring down upon me. I had had the upper berth pushed up so as to get the air! Again the train came to an unscheduled stop. By this time assorted heads were emerging from behind the curtains, and from each came forcible protests against the weather. There was nothing to be done but to sit with my feet tucked up and my arms around my knees, occupying thus the smallest possible space for one of my proportions, and wait developments. Ten minutes later, after much shouting outside my window, a ladder was planted against the car, and two trainmen in yellow oilskins climbed to the roof. I noted with satisfaction that they carried hammers, tacks, and strips of tin. A series of resounding blows and the almost immediate cessation of the descending floods told how effective their methods had proved. Directly afterwards the startled squeak of the engine whistle, as if some one had trodden on its toe, warned us that we were off once more.
We landed (you will note that the nautical phraseology of the country has already gripped me) in the same storm at Come-by-Chance Junction. But the next morning broke bright and shining, as if rain and wind were inhabitants of another planet. It is quite obvious that this land is a lineal descendant of Albion's Isle. Now I am aboard the coastal steamer and we are nosing our way gingerly through the packed floe ice, as we steam slowly north for Cape St. John. Yes, I know it is Midsummer's Day, but as the captain tersely put it, "the slob is a bit late."
The storm of two days ago blowing in from the broad Atlantic drove the great field of leftover pans before it, and packed them tight against the cliffs. If we had not had that sudden change in the weather's mind yesterday, we should not be even as far along as we now find ourselves.
You can form no idea of one's sensations as the steamer pushes her way through an ice jam. For miles around, as far as the eye can reach, the sea is covered with huge, glistening blocks. Sometimes the deep-blue water shows between, and sometimes they are so tightly massed together that they look like a hummocky white field. How any one can get a steamer along through it is a never-ending source of amazement, and my admiration for the captain is unstinted. I stand on the bridge by the hour, and watch him and listen to the reports of the man on the cross-trees as to the prospects of "leads" of open water ahead. Every few minutes we back astern, and then butt the ice. If one stays below decks the noise of the grinding on the ship's side is so persistent and so menacing that I prefer the deck in spite of its barrels and crates and boxes and smells. Here at least one would not feel like a rat in a hole if a long, gleaming, icy, giant finger should rip the ship's side open down the length of her. As we grate and scrape painfully along I look back and see that the ice-pan channel we leave behind is lined with scarlet. It is the paint off our hull. The spectacle is all too suggestive for one who has always regarded the most attractive aspect of the sea to be viewed from the landwash.
Of course the scenery is beautiful—almost too trite to write—but the beauty is lonesome and terrifying, and my city-bred soul longs for some good, homely, human "blot on the landscape." There are no trees on the cliffs now. I understand, however, that Nature is not responsible for this oversight. The people are sorely in need of firewood, and not being far-seeing enough to realize what a menace it is to the country to denude it so unscientifically, they have razed every treelet. Nature has done her best to rectify their mistake, and the rocky hills are covered with jolly bright mosses and lichens.
Naturally, there are compensations for even this kind of voyage, for no swell can make itself felt through the heavy ice pack. We steam along for miles on a keel so even that only the throb of our engines, and the inevitable "ship-py" odour, remind one that the North Atlantic rolls beneath the staunch little steamer.
The "staunch little steamer's" whistle has just made a noise out of all proportion to its size. It reminded me of an English sparrow's blatant personality. We have turned into a "tickle," and around the bend ahead of us are a handful of tiny whitewashed cottages clinging to the sides of the rocky shore.
I cannot get used to the quaint language of the people, and from the helpless way in which they stare at me, my tongue must be equally unintelligible. A delightful camaraderie exists; every one knows every one else, or they all act as if they did. As we come to anchor in the little ports, the men from the shore lash their punts fast to the bottom of the ship's ladder, and clamber with gazelle-like agility over our side. If you happen to be leaning curiously over the rail near by, they jerk their heads and remark, "Good morning," or, "Good evening," according as it is before or after midday. This is an afternoon-less country. The day is divided into morning, evening, and night. Their caps seem to have been born on their heads and to continue to grow there like their hair, or like the clothing of the children of Israel, which fitted them just as well when they came out of the wilderness as when they went in. But no incivility is meant. You may dissect the meaning and grammar of that paragraph alone. You have had long practice in such puzzles.
Seventy-five miles later
We are out of the ice field and steaming past Cape St. John. This was the dividing line between the English and French in the settlement of their troubles in 1635. North of it is called the French or Treaty Shore, or as the French themselves so much more quaintly named it, "Le Petit Nord." It is at the north end of Le Petit Nord that St. Antoine is located.
The very character of the country and vegetation has changed. It is as if the great, forbidding fortress of St. John's Cape cut off the milder influences of southern Newfoundland, and left the northern peninsula a prey to ice and winds and fog. The people, too, have felt the influence of this discrimination of Nature. There is a line of demarcation between those who have been able to enjoy the benefits of the southern island, and those who have had to cope with the recurrent problems of the northland. I cannot help thinking of the change this shore must have been from their beloved and smiling Brittany to those first eager Frenchmen. The names on the map reveal their pathetic attempts to stifle their nostalgie by christening the coves and harbours with the familiar titles of their homeland.
I fear in my former letter I made some rather disparaging remarks about certain ocean liners, but I want to take them all back. Life is a series of comparisons and in retrospect the steamer on which I crossed seems a veritable floating palace. I offer it my humble apologies. Of one thing only I am certain—I shall never, never have the courage to face the return journey.
The time for the steamer to make the journey from Come-by-Chance to St. Antoine is from four to five days, but when there is much ice these days have been known to stretch to a month. The distance in mileage is under three hundred, but because of the many harbours into which the boat has to put to land supplies, it is really a much greater distance. There are thirty-three ports of call between St. John's and St. Antoine, most of which are tiny fishing settlements consisting of a few wooden houses at the water's edge. This coast possesses scores of the most wonderful natural harbours, which are not only extremely picturesque, but which alone make the dangerous shore possible for navigation. As the steamer puts in at Bear Cove, Poverty Cove, Deadman's Cove, and Seldom-Come-By (this last from the fact that, although boats pass, they seldom anchor there), out shoot the little rowboats to fetch their freight. It is certainly a wonderfully fascinating coast, beautifully green and wooded in the south, and becoming bleaker and barer the farther north one travels. But the bare ruggedness and naked strength of the north have perhaps the deeper appeal. To those who have to sail its waters and wrest a living from the harvest of the sea, this must be a cruel shore, with its dangers from rocks and icebergs and fog, and insufficient lighting and charting.
Apart from the glory of the scenery the journey leaves much to be desired, and the weather, being exceedingly stormy since we left the ice field behind, has added greatly to our trials. The accommodations on the boat are strictly limited, and it is crowded with fishermen going north to the Labrador, and with patients for the Mission Hospital. As they come on in shoals at each harbour the refrain persistently runs through my head, "Will there be beds for all who come?" But the answer, alas, does not fit the poem. Far from there being enough and to spare, I know of two at least of my fellow passengers who took their rest in the hand basins when not otherwise wanted. Tables as beds were a luxury which only the fortunate could secure. Almost the entire space on deck is filled with cargo of every description, from building lumber to live-stock. While the passengers number nearly three hundred, there are seating accommodations on four tiny wooden benches without backs, for a dozen, if packed like sardines. Barrels of flour, kerosene, or molasses provide the rest. Although somewhat hard for a succession of days, these latter are saved from the deadly ill of monotony by the fact that as they are discharged and fresh taken on, such vantage-points have to be secured anew from day to day; and one learns to regard with equanimity if not with thankfulness what the gods please to send.
There are many sad, seasick souls strewn around. If cleanliness be next to godliness, then there is little hope of this steamer making the Kingdom of Heaven. One habit of the men is disgusting; they expectorate freely over everything but the ocean. The cold outside is so intense as to be scarcely endurable, while the closeness of the atmosphere within is less so. These are a few of the minor discomforts of travel to a mission station; the rest can be better imagined than described. If, to the Moslem, to be slain in battle signifies an immediate entrance into the pleasures of Paradise, what should be the reward of those who suffer the vagaries of this northern ocean, and endure to the end?
My trunk is lost. In the excitement of carpentering incidental to the cloudburst, the crew of the train omitted to drop it off at Come-by-Chance. I am informed that it has returned across the country to St. John's. If I had not already been travelling for a fortnight, or if Heaven had endowed me with fewer inches so that my clothing were not so exclusively my own, the problem of the interim till the next boat would be simpler.
I have had my first, and I may add my last, experience of "brewis," an indeterminate concoction much in favour as an article of diet on this coast. The dish consists of hard bread (ship's biscuit) and codfish boiled together in a copious basis of what I took to be sea-water. "On the surface of the waters" float partially disintegrated chunks of fat salt pork. I am not finicking. I could face any one of these articles of diet alone; but in combination, boiled, and served up lukewarm in a soup plate for breakfast, in the hot cabin of a violently rolling little steamer, they take more than my slender stock of philosophy to cope with. Yet they save the delicacy for the Holy Sabbath. The only justification of this policy that I can see is that, being a day of rest, their stomachs can turn undivided and dogged attention to the process of digestion.
Did I say "day of rest"? The phrase is utterly inadequate. These people are the strictest of Sabbatarians. The Puritan fathers, whom we now look back upon with a shivery thankfulness that our lot did not fall among them, would, and perhaps do, regard them as kindred spirits. But they are earnest Christians, with a truly uncomplaining selflessness of life.
By some twist of my brain that reminds me of a story told me the other day which brings an old legend very prettily to this country. It is said that when Joseph of Arimathea was hounded from place to place by the Jews, he fled to England taking the Grail with him. The spot where he settled he called Avalon. When Lord Baltimore, a devout Catholic, was given a huge tract of land in the south of this little island, he christened it Avalon in commemoration of Joseph of Arimathea's also distant journey. To the disgrace of the Protestants, the Catholic exiles arrived in the "land of promise" only to discover that the spirit of persecution was rampant in this then far-off colony.
Evidently the people of the country think that every man bound for the Mission is a doctor, and every woman a nurse. If my Puritan conscience had not blocked the way, I could have made a considerable sum prescribing for the ailments of my fellow passengers. One little thin woman on board has just confided to me, "Why, miss, I found myself in my stomach three times last week"—and looked up for advice. As for me, I was "taken all aback," and hastened to assure her that nothing approaching so astonishing an event had ever come within the range of my experience. I hated to suggest it to her, but I have a lurking suspicion that the catastrophe had some not too distant connection with the "brewis." By the way, all right-minded Newfoundlanders and Labradormen call it "bruse."
Also by the way, it is incorrect to speak of Newfoundland. It is Newfoundland. Neither do you go up north if you know what you are about. You go "down North"; and your friend is not bound for Labrador. She is going to "the Labrador," or, to be more of a purist still, "the Larbadore." Having put you right on these rudiments—oh! I forgot another: "Fish" is always codfish. Other finny sea-dwellers may have to be designated by their special names, but the unpretentious cod is "t' fish"; and the salutation of friends is not, "How is your wife?" or, "How is your health?" But, "How's t' fish, B'y?" I like it. It is friendly and different—a kind of password to the country.
I am glad that I am not coming here as a mere traveller. The land looks so reserved that, like people of the same type, you are sure it is well worth knowing. So when, perhaps, I have been able to discover a little of its "subliminal self," the tables will be turned, and you will be eager to make its acquaintance. Then it will be my chance to offer you sage and unaccepted advice as to your inability to cope with the climate and its entourage. I too shall be able to prophesy unheeded a shattered constitution and undermined nerves. To be sure, old Jacques Cartier had such a poor opinion of the coast that he remarked it ought to have been the land God gave to Cain. But J.C. has gone to his long rest. After the length of this letter I judge that you envy him that repose, so I release you with my love.
St. Antoine Orphanage at last Address for one year July 6
I have at last arrived at the back of beyond. We should have steamed right past the entrance of our harbour if the navigation had been in my hands. You make straight for a great headland jutting out into the Atlantic, when the ship suddenly takes a sharp turn round an abrupt corner, and before you know it, you are advancing into the most perfect of landlocked harbours. A great cliff rises on the left,—Quirpon Point they call it,—and clinging to its base like an overgrown limpet is a tiny cottage, with its inevitable fish stage. Farther along are more houses; then a white church with a pointed spire, and a bright-green building near by, while across the path is a very pretty square green school. Next are the Mission buildings in a group. Beyond them come more small houses—"Little Labrador" I learned later that this group is called, because the people living there have almost all come over from the other side of the Straits of Belle Isle.
The ship's ladder was dropped as we came to anchor opposite the small Mission wharf. The water is too shallow to allow a large steamer to go into it, but the hospital boat, the Northern Light, with her draft of only eight feet, can easily make a landing there. We scrambled over the side and secured a seat in the mail boat. Before we knew it four hearty sailors were sweeping us along towards the little dock. Here, absolutely wretched and forlorn, painfully conscious of crumpled and disordered garments, I turned to face the formidable row of Mission staff drawn up in solemn array to greet us. As the doctor-in-charge stepped forward and with a bland smile hoped I had had a "comfortable journey," and bade me welcome to St. Antoine, with a prodigious effort I contorted my features into something resembling a grin, and limply shook his outstretched hand. To-morrow I mean to make enquiries about retiring pensions for Mission workers!
No one had much sympathy with me over the loss of my trunk. They laughed and said I would be fortunate if it appeared by the end of the summer. You had better send me a box by freight with some clothing in it; I otherwise shall have to live in bed, or seek admission to hospital as a "chronic."
How perfectly dear of you to have a letter awaiting me at the Orphanage. Regardless of manners I fell to and devoured it, while all the "little oysters stood and waited in a row." Like the walrus, with a few becoming words I introduced myself as their future guardian, but never a word said they. As, led by a diminutive maid, I passed from their gaze I heard an awe-struck whisper, "IT'S gone upstairs!"
In answer to my questions the little maid informed me that the last mistress had left by the boat I had just missed, and that since then the children had been in her charge, with such help and supervision as the various members of the Mission staff could give. I therefore felt it was "up to me" to make a start, and I delicately enquired when the next meal was due. An exhaustive exploration of the larder revealed two herrings, one undoubtedly of very high estate. As the children looked fairly plump, I concluded that they had only been on such meagre diet since the departure of the last "mistress." The barrenness of the larder suggested a fruitful topic of conversation with which to win the confidence of these staring, open-mouthed children, and I therefore tenderly asked what they would most like to eat, supposing IT were there. One and all affirmed that "swile" meat was a delicacy such as their souls loved—and repeated questions could elucidate no further. Subsequently, on making enquiries of one of the Mission staff, I thought I detected a look which led me to suppose that I had not yet acquired the correct pronunciation of the word. We dined off the herring of lowly origin, and consigned the other to the garbage pail. Nerve as well as skill, I can assure you, is required to divide one herring into thirty-six equal parts. There is no occasion for alarm. I have not the slightest intention of starving these infants. To-morrow I go on a foraging expedition to the Mission commissariat department (there must be one somewhere), and then the fat years shall succeed the lean ones.
To-night I am too tired to do more, and there is a quite absurd longing to see some one's face again. The coming year looks very long and very dreary, and although I know I shall grow to love these children, yet, oh, I wish they did not stare so when one has to blink so hard to keep the tears from falling.
Morning! And the children may stare all they like. I no longer need to repress youthful emotions. All the same it is a trifle disconcerting. I had chosen, as I thought, a very impressive portion of Scripture for Prayers, and the children were as quiet as mice. But they never let their eyes wander from me for a single moment, until I began to feel I ought at least to have a smut on the tip of my nose.
The alluring advertisement of Newfoundland, as "the coolest country on the Atlantic seaboard in the summer," is all too painfully true. It is very, very cold at present, and the sun, if sun there be, is safely ensconced behind an impenetrable bank of fog. If this is summer weather, what will the winter be!
I started to write this to you in the morning, but the day has been one long series of interruptions. The work is all new to me and not exactly what I expected, but the spice of variety is not lacking. I find it very hard to understand these children and it is evident from their faces that they fail to comprehend my meaning. Yet I have a lurking suspicion that when it is an order to be obeyed, their desire to understand is not overwhelming. The children are supposed to do the work of the Home under my superintendency, the girls undertaking the housework and the boys the outside "chores." Apparently from all I hear my predecessor was a strict disciplinarian, an economical manager, an expert needlewoman, and everything I should be and am not. The sewing simply appalls me! I confess that stitching for three dozen children of all sizes had not entered into my calculations as one of the duties of a "missionary"! Yet of course I realize they must be clad as well as taught. What a pity that the climate will not allow of a simple loin cloth and a string of beads. And how infinitely more becoming. Then, too, how much easier would be the food problem were we dusky Papuans dwelling in the far-off isles of the sea. This country produces nothing but fish, and we have to plan our food supplies for a year in advance. How much corn-meal mush will David eat in twelve months? And if David eats so much in twelve months, how much will Noah, two months younger, eat in the same period of time? If one herring satisfies thirty-six, how many dozen will a herring and a half feed? Picture me with a cold bandage round my head seeking to emulate Hoover.
A little mite has just come to the door to inform me that her dress has "gone abroad." Seeing my mystified look, she enlightened me by holding up a tattered garment which had all too evidently "gone abroad" almost beyond recall. Throwing the food problem to the winds I set myself with a businesslike air to sew together the ragged threads. A second knock brought me the cheerful tidings that the kitchen fire had languished from lack of sustenance. Now I had previously in my most impressive tones commanded one of the elder boys to attend to this matter, and he had promptly departed, as I thought, to "cleave the splits." Searching for him I found this industrious youth lying on his back complacently contemplating the heavens. To my remonstrance he somewhat indignantly remarked that he was only "taking a spell." A really magnificent and grandiloquent appeal to the boy's sense of honour and a homily on the dignity of labour were abruptly terminated by shrill cries resounding from the house. Rushing in, I was informed that Noah was "bawling" (which fact was perfectly evident), having jammed his fingers in trying to "hist" the window. In this country children never cry; they always "bawl."
I foresee that the life of a Superintendent of an Orphan Asylum is not a simple one, and that I shall be in no danger of being "carried to the skies" on a "flowery bed of ease." Certain I am that there will only be opportunity to write to you at "scattered times"; so for the present, fare thee well.
Sunday, August 4
You see before you, or you would if my very obvious instead of merely my astral body were in your presence, a changed and sobered being. I have made the acquaintance of the Labrador fly, and he has made mine. The affection is all on his side. Mosquito, black fly, sand fly—they are all alike cannibals. You have probably heard the old story about the difference between the Labrador and the New Jersey mosquito? The Labrador species can be readily distinguished by the black patch between his eyes about the size of a man's hand. Of the lot I prefer the mosquito. He at least is open about his evil intentions. The black fly darts at you quietly, settles down on an un-get-at-able spot, and sucks your blood. If I did not find my appetite so unimpaired, I should fancy this morning I was suffering from an acute attack of mumps.
Mumps is at the moment in our midst, and as is generally the case has fallen on the poorest of the community. In this instance it is a widow by the name of Kinsey, who has six children, and lives in a miserable hovel. More of her anon. Her twelve-year-old boy comes to the Home daily to get milk for the wretched baby, whom we had heard was down with the disease. When he came this morning I told him to stay outdoors while we fetched the milk, because I knew how sketchy are the precautions of his ilk against carrying infection. "No fear, miss," he assured me. "The baby was terrible bad last night, but he's all clear this morning."
But to return to the Kinsey parent. She had eight children. The Newfoundlanders are a prolific race, and life is consequently doubly hard on the women. Her husband died last fall, leaving her without a sou, and no roof over her head. The Mission gave her a sort of shack, and took two of her kiddies into the Home. The place was too crowded at the time to take any more. The doctor then wrote to the orphanages at the capital presenting the problem, and asking that they take a consignment of children. The Church of England Orphanage, of which denomination the mother is a member, was full; and the other one, which has just had a gift of beautiful buildings and grounds, "regretted they could not take any of the children, as their orphanage was exclusively for their denomination." The mother did not respond to the doctor's ironic suggestion that she should "turncoat" under the press of circumstances.
They tell a story here about Kinsey, the late and unlamented. Last spring a steamer heading north on Government business sighted a fishing punt being rowed rapidly towards it, the occupant waving a flag. The captain ordered, "Stop her," thinking that some acute emergency had arisen on the land during the long winter. A burly old chap cased in dirt clambered deliberately over the rail.
"Well, what's up?" asked the captain testily. "Can't you see you're keeping the steamer?"
"Have you got a plug or so of baccy you could give me, skipper? I hasn't had any for nigh a month, and it do be wonderful hard."
The captain's reply was unrepeatable, but for such short acquaintance it was an accurate resume of the character of the applicant. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is all very well, but it depends on the mortuis; and that man's wife and children had been short of food he had "smoked away."
I have the greatest admiration for the women of this coast. They work like dogs from morning till nightfall, summer and winter, with "ne'er a spell," as one of them told me quite cheerfully. The men are out on the sea in boats, which at least is a life of variety, and in winter they can go into the woods for firewood. The women hang forever over the stove or the washtub, go into the stages to split the fish, or into the gardens to grow "'taties." Yet oddly enough, there is less illiteracy among the women than among the men.
Such a nice girl is here from Adlavik as maid in the hospital. Rhoda Macpherson is her name. She told me the other day that one winter the doctor of the station near her asked the men to clear a trail down a very steep hill leading to the village, as the dense trees made the descent dangerous for the dogs. Weeks went by and the men did nothing. Finally three girls, with Rhoda as leader, took their axes every Sunday afternoon and went out and worked clearing that road. In a month it was done. The doctor now calls it "Rhoda's Randy."
Yesterday afternoon I was out with my camera. (Saturday you will note. I have learned already that to be seen on Sundays in this Sabbatarian spot, even walking about with that inconspicuous black box, is anathema.) A crowd of children in a disjointed procession had collected in front of the hospital, and the patients on the balconies were delightedly craning their necks. A biting blast was blowing, but the children, clad in white garments, looked oblivious to wind and weather. It was a Sunday-School picnic. A dear old fisherman was with them, evidently the leader.
"What's it all about?" I asked.
"We've come to serenade the sick, miss. 'Tis little enough pleasure 'em has. Now, children, sing up"; and the "serenade" began. It was "Asleep in Jesus," and the patients loved it! I got my picture, "sketched them off," as the old fellow expressed it.
In the many weeks since I saw you—and it seems a lifetime—I have forgotten to mention one important item of news. Every properly appointed settlement along this coast has its cemetery. This place boasts two. With your predilection for epitaphs you would be content. The prevailing mode appears to be clasped hands under a bristling crown; but all the same that sort of thing makes a more "cheerful" graveyard than those gloomily beautiful monuments with their hopeless "[Greek: chairete]" that you remember in the museum at Athens. There is one here which reads:
Memory of John Hill who Died December 30th. 1889
Weep not, dear Parents, For your loss 'tis My etarnal gain May Christ you all take up the Cross that we Should meat again.
The spelling may not always be according to Webster, but the sentiments portray the love and hope of a God-fearing people unspoiled by the roughening touch of civilization.
I must to bed. Stupidly enough, this climate gives me insomnia. Probably it is the mixture of the cold and the long twilight (I can read at 9.30), and the ridiculous habit of growing light again at about three in the morning. I am beginning to have a fellow feeling with the chickens of Norway, poor dears!
I want to violently controvert your disparaging remarks about this "insignificant little island." Do you realize that this same "insignificant little island" is four times bigger than Scotland, and that it has under its dominion a large section of Labrador? If, as the local people say, "God made the world in five days, made Labrador on the sixth, and spent the seventh throwing stones at it," then a goodly portion of those stones landed by mischance in St. Antoine. Indeed, Le Petit Nord and Labrador are so much alike in climate, people, and conditions that this part of the island is often designated locally as Labrador (never has it been my lot to see a more desolate, bleak, and barren spot). The traveller who described Newfoundland as a country composed chiefly of ponds with a little land to divide them from the sea, at least cannot be impeached for unveracity. In this northern part even that little is rendered almost impenetrable in the summer-time by the thick under-brush, known as "tuckamore," and the formidable swarms of mosquitoes and black flies. All the inhabitants live on the coast, and the interior is only travelled over in the winter with komatik and dogs.
No, I am not living in the midst of Indians or Eskimos. Please be good enough to scatter this information broadcast, for each letter from England reveals the fear that I am in imminent danger of being scalped alive or buried in an igloo. There are a few scattered Eskimos on Le Petit Nord, but for the most part the inhabitants are whites and half-breeds. The Indians live almost entirely in the interior of Labrador and the Eskimos around the Moravian stations. I am living amongst the descendants of the fishermen of Dorset and Devon who came out about two hundred years ago and settled on this coast for the cod-fishery. Those who live in the south are comparatively well off, but many in the north are in great poverty and often on the verge of starvation.
When I look about me and see this poverty, the ignorance born of lack of opportunity, the suffering, the dirt, and degradation which are in so large a measure no fault of these poor folk, I am overwhelmed at the wealth of opportunities. Here at least every talent one has to offer counts for double what it would at home.
Thousands of fishermen come from the south each spring to take part in the summer's fishery. The Labrador "liveyeres," who remain on the coast all the year round, often have only little one-roomed huts made of wood and covered with sods. In the winter the northern people move up the bays and go "furring." Both the Indians and Eskimos are diminishing in numbers, and the former at the present time do not amount to more than three or four thousand persons—and of these the Montagnais tribe make up more than half. The Moravian missionaries have toiled untiringly amongst the Eskimos, and assuredly not for any earthly reward. They go out as young men and practically spend their whole life on the coast, their wives being selected and sent out to them from home!
The work of this Mission is among the white settlers. In the Home we have only one pure Eskimo, a few half-breeds (Indians and Eskimo), and the remainder are of English descent. Almost all are from Labrador.
I often fancy that I must surely have slept the sleep of Rip Van Winkle. When he woke he found that the world had marched ahead a hundred years. With me the process is reversed. I am almost inclined to yield a grudging agreement to the transmigrationalists, and believe that I am re-living one of my former existences. For the part of the country in which I have awakened is a generation or so behind the world in which we live. There is no education worthy of the name, in many places no schools at all, and in others half-educated teachers eking out a miserable existence on a mere pittance. This is chiefly due to the antediluvian custom of dividing the Government educational grant on a denominational basis. A large proportion of the people can neither read nor write. There are no roads, no means of communication, no doctors or hospitals (save the Mission ones), no opportunities for improvement, no industrial work, practically no domestic animals, and on Labrador, taxation without representation! There is only one hospital provided by the Government for the whole of this island, and that one is at St. John's, which is inaccessible to these northern people for the greater part of the year. No provision whatever is made by the Government for hospitals for the Labrador. Again the only ones are those maintained by this Mission. Lack of education, lack of opportunity, and abundance of overwhelming poverty make up the lot of the majority of people in this north part of the country. Little wonder from their point of view, that one youth, returning to this land after seeing others, declared that the man he desired above all others to shoot was John Cabot, the discoverer of Newfoundland.
You complain that I have told you almost nothing about these children, and you want to know what they are like. And I wish you to know, so that you will stop sending dolls to Mary who is sixteen, and cakes of scented soap to David who hates above all else to be washed. I find these children very difficult in some ways; many of them are mentally deficient, but it appears that no provision is made by the Government for dealing with such cases, and so there is nothing to do but take them in or let them starve. Some are very wild and none have the slightest idea of obedience when they first arrive.
One girl I have christened "Topsy," and I only wish you could see her when she is in one of her tantrums, which she has at frequent intervals. With her flashing black eyes, straight, jet-black hair, square, squat shoulders, she looks the very embodiment of the Evil One. She is twelve, but shows neither ability nor desire to learn. Her habits are disgusting, and unless closely watched she will be found filling her pockets with the contents of the garbage pail—and this in spite of the fact that we are no longer dining off one herring. She says that her ambition in life is to become like a fat pig! Last night, when the children were safely tucked in bed and I had sat down to write to you, piercing shrieks were heard resounding through the stillness of the house. A tour of investigation revealed Topsy creeping from bed to bed in the darkness, pretending to cut the throats of the girls with a large carving-knife which she had stolen for this purpose. To-day Topsy is going around with her hands tied behind her back as a punishment, and in the hope that without the use of her hands we may have one day of peace at least. Poor Topsy, kindness and severity alike seem unavailing. She steals and lies with the greatest readiness, and one wonders what life holds in store for her.
We have just admitted three children, so we now number more than the three dozen. One little mite of five was found last winter in a Labrador hut, deserted, half-starved, and nearly frozen to death. She was kept by a kindly neighbour until the ice conditions allowed of her being brought here. The other two, brother and sister, were found, the girl clothed in a sack, her one and only garment, and the boy in bed, minus even that covering. This is the type of child who comes to us.
The doctor in charge has just paid me a visit. He says there is an epidemic of smallpox in the island, and he wants all the children to be vaccinated. The number of cases of smallpox this year in this "insignificant little island" is greater pro rata than in any other country of the world. So two o'clock this afternoon is the time set apart for the massacre of the innocents.
The laugh is against me! Two of our boys fell ill with a mysterious sickness, and tenderly and carefully were they nursed by me and fed with delicate portions from the king's table. I later learned with much chagrin that "chewing tobacco" (strictly forbidden) was the cause of this sudden onset. My sense of humour alone saved the situation for them!
The Children's Home August 19
In response to my frantic cables your box reached here safely, but it has not reached me. Picture if you can my amazed incredulity yesterday to see an exact replica of myself as I once was, walking on the dock. I rubbed my eyes and stared. Yes, it was my purple gown. My first impulse was to jerk it off the culprit, but I decided on more diplomatic tactics. A very little detective work elucidated the mystery. You had addressed the box in care of the Mission, thinking doubtless, in your far-sighted, Scotch way, that if sent to an individual, the said individual would have duty to pay. Knowing all too well the chronic state of my pocket-book, you anticipated untoward complications. Now, none of the Mission staff pay duties. The contents of the box were mistaken for reinforcements for the charity clothing store, and to-day my purple chambray gown, "to memory dear," walks the street on another. Sic transit. I should add that one of the modernists of our harbour has chosen it. The old conservatives regard our collarless necks and abbreviated skirts with horror. What with the loss en route of several necessary articles of apparel, and the discovery of this further depletion of my wardrobe, I regard the oncoming winter with some misgivings.
One of the crew on the Northern Light, alias the Prophet, so-called because he is spirit brother to the Prophet of Doom, took a keen relish in my discomfiture, or I fancied he did. He it was who put the question in the doctor's Bible class, "Is it religious to wear overalls to church?" The house officer had carefully saved a pair of clean khaki trousers to honour the Sunday services, but in the local judgment they were no fit garment for the Lord's house. Local judgment, I may add, was not so drastic in its strictures on boudoir caps. Some very pretty ones came to service on the heads of the choir, but the verdict was a unanimously favourable one. A nomadic Ladies' Home Journal was responsible for their origin.
"Out of the mouths of babes," etc. I have been trying to teach the little ones the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians. Whilst undressing Solomon the other night I had occasion, or it seemed to me that I had, to speak somewhat sharply to one of the others. When I turned my attention again to Solomon, he enunciated solemnly in his baby tones, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am become as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal."
You complain most unjustly that I do not give a chronological account of events. I give you the incidents which punctuate my days, and as for the background, nothing could be simpler than to fill it in.
To divert your mind from such adverse criticism, let me tell you that there is a strong suspicion abroad that I am a devout adherent of the Roman Church. Rumours of this have been coming to me from time to time, but I determined to withhold the news till its source was less in question. Now I have it on the undeniable authority of the Prophet. I have candles, lighted ones, on the dining-room table at dinner. Post hoc, propter hoc—and what further proof is needed!
Ananias has broken yet another window. When I questioned him as to when the deed had been committed, he replied politely, but mournfully, that he really could not tell me how many YEARS ago it was, as if I were seeking to unearth some long undiscovered crime.
The other day Topsy had the misfortune to fall out of bed and hit her two front teeth such a violent blow on the iron bar of the cot beside hers that bits of ivory flew about the dormitory. This necessitated a prompt matutinal visit to Dr. B., the dentist. As we waited our turn in the Convalescent Room, I overheard one patient-to-be remark to his neighbour, "They do be shockin' hard on us poor sailors. They says I've got to take a bath when I comes into hospital. Why, B'y, I hasn't had a bath since my mother washed me!"
The ethics of dentistry here are so mixed that one needs a Solomon to disentangle them. Mrs. "Uncle Life"—her husband is Uncle Eliphalet—recently had all her teeth pulled out, or, to be more accurate, all her remaining teeth. As the operation involved considerable time, labour, and novocaine, she was charged for the benefit of the hospital. When two shining sets, uppers and lowers, were ready for her, she was as pleased as a boy with his first jack-knife; but not so Uncle Life. He considered it a work of supererogation that not only must one pay to have the old teeth removed, but for the new ones to replace them.
Did I ever write you about our chambermaid's feet—the new one? Her name is Asenath, and she is so perfectly spherical that if you were to start her rolling down a plank she could no more stop than can those humpty-dumpty weighted dolls. 'Senath's temper is exemplary, and her intentions of the best; in fact, she will turn into a model maid.
But the process of turning is in progress at the moment. It began with our cook, a pattern of neatness and all the virtues, coming into my office and complaining, "One of us'll have to go, miss."
"What? Which?" I enquired, dazed by the abruptness of this decision, and wondering whether she were referring to me.
"This morning, miss, you know how hot it was? Well, 'Senath comes into the kitchen and says to me, 'Tryphena, I finds my feet something wonderful.' 'Wash them, and change your stockings,' I says. 'Wash them! Why, Tryphena, I'se feared to do that. I might get a chill as would strike in.'"
In a few well-chosen sentences I have explained to 'Senath the basic rules of hygiene and of this house regarding water and its uses. She has decided to stay and accept the inevitable weekly bath, but she warns me fairly that if she goes "into a decline," I must take the responsibility with her parents!
With your zeal for gardens, and your attachment to angle-worms—which you will recall I do not share—you would be interested in our efforts along these lines—the gardens, not the worms. In this climate a garden is a lottery, and in ten seasons to one a spiteful summer frost will fall upon the promising potatoes and kill the lot just as they are ripening. The Eskimos at the Moravian stations put their vegetal charges to bed each night with long covers over the rows. The other day, in an old journal about the country, I came upon this passage, and it struck me "How history does repeat itself." It runs: "The soyle along the coast is not deep of earth, but bringing forth abundantly peason small, peason which our countrymen have sowen have come up faire, of which our Generall had a present acceptable for the rarenesse, being the first fruits coming up by art and industrie in that desolate and dishabited land." I can assure you that the sight of a "peason," however small, if it did not come out of a tin can, would be an acceptable offering to your friend. Even in summer we get no fresh vegetables or fruits with the exception of occasional lettuce or local berries. The epitome of this spot is a tin! In the same old journal Whitbourne goes on to say that "Nature had recompensed that only defect and incommoditie of some sharpe cold by many benefits—with incredible quantitie and no less varietie of kindes of fish in the sea and fresh water, of trouts and salmons and other fish to us unknowen."
I have eaten fish (interspersed liberally with tinned stuff) and drunken fish and thought and spoken and dreamt fish ever since I arrived. But don't pity me for imaginary hardships. I like fish better than I do meat, and for that matter our winter meat supply is walking past my window this minute. He goes by the name of "Billy the Ox"; and I am informed that as soon as it begins to freeze, he is to be killed and frozen in toto, for the winter consumption of the staff, patients, and children. So our winter is not to consist of one long Friday.
You already know the worst about my leanings to Papacy; but to-day I propose to set your mind at rest on an idea with which you have hypnotized yourself—namely, that I am going to die of malnutrition during what you are pleased to term the "long Arctic winter." I have no intention of starving, and as for the "long Arctic winter," I do not believe there is any such beast, as the farmer said when he looked at the kangaroo in the circus.
I was sitting by my window quietly sewing the other day (that sentence alone should reveal to you how many miles I have travelled from your tutelage) when I overheard one of the children stoutly defending what I took at first to be my character. The next sentence disabused me—it was my figure under discussion.
"She's not fat!" averred Topsy. "I'll smack you if you says it again."
"Well," muttered David, the light of reason being thus forcibly borne in upon him, "she may not be 'zactly fat, but she's fine and hearty."
If this is the case, and my mirror all too plainly confirms the verdict, and the summer has not waned, what will the "last estate of that woman be," after the winter has passed over her? They tell me that every one here puts on fat in the cold weather as a kind of windproof jacket. I enclose a photograph of me on landing, so you may remember me as I was.
No, you need not worry either over communications in the winter. You really ought to have an intimate acquaintance with our telegraph service, after you have, so to speak, subsidized it during the past three months. It runs in winter as well as summer; and I see no prospect of its closing if you keep it on such a sound financial basis. Moreover, the building is devoted to the administration of the law in all its branches. One half of it is the post and telegraph office, while the other serves as the jail. The whole structure is within a stone's throw of the church and school, as if the corrective institutions of the place believed in intensive cultivation. But to return to the jail. The walls are very thin, and every sound from it can be plainly heard in the telegraph office adjoining. Friday morning the operator, a capable and long-suffering young woman, came over to complain to the doctor that she really found it impossible to carry out the duties of her office, if the feeble-minded Delilah Freak was to be incarcerated only six inches distant from her ear. It seems that Delilah spends her days yelling at the top of her lungs, and Miss Dennis states that she prefers to take telegraphic messages down in competition with the mail steamer's winch rather than with Delilah's "bawling."
I know all about competition in noises after trying to write in this house. The ceilings are low and thin, and the walls are near and thin, and the children are omnipresent and not thin, and their wants and their joys and their quarrels are as numerous as the fishes in the sea, and there you have the problem in a nutshell.
Now I must "hapse the door," and hie me to bed. As a matter of fact the people here are far too honest for us to lock the doors. Such a thing as theft is unheard of. Some may call it uncivilized. I call it the millennium!
I believe that the writer who described the climate of this country as being "nine months snow and three months winter" was not far from the truth. In June the temperature of our rooms registered just above freezing point, in July we were enveloped in continuous fog, and in August we are having snow.
Such a tragic event has occurred. Our lettuce has been eaten by the Mission cow! You know how hard it is to get anything to grow here. Well, after having nearly killed ourselves in making a square inch of ground into something resembling a bed, we had watched this lettuce grow from day to day as the little green shoots struggled bravely against the frost and cold. Then a few nights ago I was awakened by the tinkle of a bell beneath my window. Hastily flinging on wrapper and shoes I fled to save our one and only ewe lamb. But all the morning light revealed was a desperate cold in the head, and an empty bed from which the glory had departed.
Topsy has just been amusing herself by turning on the corridor taps to watch the water run downstairs! Oh! Topsy,
"'Tis thine to teach us what dull hearts forget How near of kin we are to springing flowers."
News has just reached us that the mail boat from St. Barbe to St. Antoine has gone ashore on the rocks and is a total wreck. Happily no lives were lost, but unhappily wrecks are of such frequent occurrence on this dangerous coast as to excite little comment.
Drusilla, aged five, has been to my door to enquire if the children may play with their dolls in the house. I believe in open-air treatment, so I replied with kindness, but firmly withal, that "out of doors" was the order of the day. I was a little electrified to hear her return to the playroom and announce that "Teacher says you are to go out, every darned one of you!" I was equally electrified the other day to overhear Drusilla enquiring of her fellow philosophers which they liked the best, "Teacher, the Doctor, or the Lord Jesus Christ."
In the midst of writing to you I was called away to interview a young man from the other side of the harbour. He wanted me to give him some of the milk used in the Home, for his baby, as at the hospital they could only furnish him with canned milk, guaranteed by the label, he claimed, to give "typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever"!
It is a windy, rainy night, and I have told Topsy, who has a cold, that she cannot come with us to church. After a wild outburst of anger she was heard to mutter that "Teacher wouldn't let her go to church because she was afraid she would get too good."
The fall of the year is coming on and the evenings are made wonderful by two phenomena—the departure of the cannibalistic flies, and the Northern lights. Twice at home I remember seeing an attenuated aurora and thinking it wonderful. No words can describe this display on these crisp and lovely nights. There is a tang and snap in the air, and the earth beneath and the heavens above seem vibrating with unearthly life. The Eskimos say that the Northern lights are the spirits of the dead at play, but I like to think of them, too, as the translated souls of the icebergs which have gone south and met a too warm and watery death in the Gulf Stream. Certainly all the colours of those lovely monarchs of the North are reflected dimly in the heavens. The lights move about so constantly that one fancies that the soul of the berg, freed at last from its long prison, is showing the astonished worlds of what it is capable. The odd thing was that when I first saw them on a clear night, the stars shone through them, only they looked like Coleridge's "wan stars which danced between."
I can vouch for the truth of another "sidelight," though from only one experience. One night last week, clear and frosty, I had just gone to my room at about eleven o'clock when the doctor called me to come out and "hear the lights." I thought surely I must have misunderstood, but on reaching the balcony and listening, I could distinctly hear the swish of the "spirits" as they rushed across the sky. It sounds like a diminished silk petticoat which has lost its blatancy, but retains its personality.
Little did I realize at the time my good fortune in arriving here in daylight. It seems that it is the invariable habit of all coastal steamers to reach here at night, and dump the dumbly resenting passengers in the darkness into the tiny punts which cluster around the ship's side. Since my arrival every single boat has appeared shortly before midnight, or shortly after. In either case it means that the men of the Mission must work all night landing patients and freight, and the next day there is a chastened and sleepy community to meet the forthcoming tasks. It is especially hard on the hospital folk, for the steamer only takes about twenty hours to go to the end of her run and return, and they try and send those cases which do not have to be admitted back by the same boat on her southern journey. This means an all-night clinic. But I can say to the credit of the patients and staff that I have never heard one word of complaint. That is certainly a charming feature about this life. There are plenty of things to growl about, but one is so reduced to essentials that the ones selected are of more importance than those which afford such fruitful topics in civilization.
I have just overheard Gabriel informing the other children that "Satan was once an angel, but he got real saucy, so God turned him out of heaven." Paradise Lost in a sentence!
The night after the audible lights a furious rain and wind storm broke over us. No wonder the trees have such a struggle for existence, if these storms are frequent. They do not last long, but they are the real thing while they are in progress. I used to smile when I was told that the Home was riveted with iron bolts to the solid bedrock, but that night when I lay wide awake, combating an incipient feeling of mal de mer as my bed rocked with the force of the gale, I thanked the fates for the foresight of the builders. Never before had I believed in the tale of the church having been blown bodily into the harbour; but during those wild hours of darkness I was certain at each succeeding gust that we were going to follow its example.
Dawn—a pale affair looking out suspiciously on the chastened world—broke at last, and I "histed" my window (to quote the estimable 'Senath). The rain had stopped. The cheated wind was whistling around the corners of the old wooden buildings, and taking out its spite on any passers-by who must venture forth to work. The harbour, usually so peaceful and so sheltered, was lashed into a cauldron of boiling white foam, and the rocks were swept so clean that they at least had "shining morning faces."
I dressed quickly and ran down to the wharf to enquire as to the health of the Northern Light. The first person I met was the Prophet. He was positively elate. If I were a pantheist I should think him a relative of the northeast wind. The storm of the previous night had been exactly to his liking. All his worst prognostications had been fulfilled, and quite a bit thrown in par dessus le marche. He told me that a tiny, rickety house across the harbour had first been unroofed, and then one of the walls blown in. It is a real disaster for the family, for they are poor enough without having Kismet thus descend upon them.
The hospital boat had held on safely, but several little craft were driven ashore. Naturally the children love the aftermath of such an event, for the world is turned for them into one large, entrancing puddle, bordered with embryo mud pies.
Topsy again! I am informed that she has tried to convert her Sunday best into a hobble skirt, reducing it in the process to something hopelessly ludicrous. It can never, never be worn again.
My arm aches and I cannot decide whether it is from much orphan scrubbing or from much writing, but in either case I must bid you au revoir.
Last night I was awakened by a terrific noise proceeding from the lower regions. Armed with my umbrella, the only semblance of a stick within reach, I descended on a tour of investigation. Opening the larder door I beheld six huge dogs, and devastation reigning supreme. These dogs are half wolf in breed, and very destructive, as I can testify. When I wildly brandished my umbrella, which could not possibly have harmed them, they jumped through the closed window leaving not a pane of glass behind. This, I suppose, is merely a nocturnal interlude to break the monotony of life in a country which boasts no burglars.
The children attend the Mission school, and yesterday Topsy was sent home in dire disgrace for lying and cheating. She is not to be permitted to return until she is willing to confess and apologize. She thereupon tried to commit suicide by swallowing paper pellets, and in the night the doctor had to be called in to prescribe. She is white and wan to-day, but when I went in to bid her good-night I found her thrilling over a new prayer which she had learned, and which she repeated to me with deep emotion:
"Little children, be ye wise, Speak the truth and tell no lies. The LORD'S portion is to dwell Forever in the flames of hell."
I want to tell you something about our babies. They are four in number. David, aged five, considers himself quite a big boy, and a leader of the others. His father was frozen to death in Eskimo Bay some years ago whilst hunting food for his family. Although David is always boasting of his strength and the superior wisdom of his years, yet he is really very tiny for his age. He is a delightful little optimist, who announces cheerfully after each failure to do right that he is "going to be good all the time now," to which we add the mental reservation, "until next time." He is the proud possessor of a Teddy bear. This long-suffering animal was a source of great pleasure until a short time ago when David started making a first-hand investigation to find out where the "squeak" came from—an investigation which ended disastrously for the bear, however it may have furthered the cause of science.
Last month I went to Nameless Cove to fetch to the Home a little boy of three, of whom I have already written you. Nameless Cove is about twelve miles west of St. Antoine. I have never seen such a wretched hovel—a one-roomed log hut, completely destitute of furniture. The door was so low I had to bend almost double to enter. A rough shelf did duty for a bed, upon which lay an old bedridden man, while at the other end lay a sick woman with a child beside her, and crouched below was an idiot daughter. Altogether nine persons lived in this hut, eight adults and this one boy. Ananias is an illegitimate child, and has lived with these grandparents since his mother lost her reason and was removed to the asylum at St. John's. The child was almost destitute of clothing, and covered with vermin. He has the face of a seraph, and a voice that lisps out curses with the fluency of a veteran trooper. Ananias is David's shadow; he follows him everywhere, and echoes all his words as if they were gems of wisdom, far above rubies. Indeed, when David has ceased speaking, one waits involuntarily for Ananias to begin in his shrill treble tones. He is a hopeless child to correct, for when you imagine you are scolding him very severely, and you look for the tears of penitence to flow, he puts up his little face with an angelic smile, and lisps, "Tiss me."
Drusilla, whose slight acquaintance you have already made, is three and comes from Savage Cove. The father has gradually become blind and the mother is crippled. Drusilla keeps us all on the alert, for we never know what she will be doing next. On Sunday mornings she is put to rest with the other little ones while we are at church. On returning last Sunday I found that she had secured a box of white ointment (thought to be quite beyond her reach), and with her toothbrush painted one side of the baby's face white, which with her other rosy cheek gave her the appearance of a clown. Not content with portrait painting, Drusilla then turned her energies to house decoration, the result attained on the wall being entirely to the satisfaction of the artist, as was evidenced by the proud smile with which our outcry was greeted.
The real baby is Beulah, just two years, and she exercises her gentle but despotic sway over all, from the least to the greatest. She is continually upsetting the standard of neatness which was once the glory of this Home, by sprawling on the floors, dragging after her a headless doll with sawdust oozing from every pore. A dilapidated bunny and several mangled pictures complete the procession. It is hopeless to protest, for she just looks as if she could not understand how any one could object to such priceless treasures. She awakens us at unconscionable hours in the morning, when all reasonable beings are still sleeping the sleep of the just, and keeps up a perpetual chatter interspersed with highly dangerous gymnastic feats upon her bed.
Can you find any babies throughout the British Isles to match mine?
Since last I wrote you we have had a very strenuous time in the Home; the entire family has been down with measles. Then when that was over and the children well, the sewing maid, whom I had engaged shortly after my arrival, gave notice, shook the dust from her feet, and I was left single-handed. It took the whole of my time to keep these forty-odd infants fed, clothed, and washed, and I had no leisure to write to you even at "scattered times." It seemed to me that the appetites of these enfants terribles grew abnormally, that their clothes rent asunder with lightning-like rapidity, and that they fell into mud heaps with even greater facility than usual. It was sometimes a delicate problem to decide which of many pressing duties had the prior claim. Whether to try and feed the hungry (the kitchen range having sprung a leak), to start to repair two hundred odd garments (the weekly mend), or to resuscitate one of the babies (just rescued from the reservoir). At such times I would wonder if I were somewhere near attaining to that state of experience when I should be able to appreciate your alluring phrase, "the fun of mothering an orphanage."
I must begin and tell you now about the children we have received since my last letter. Mike, aged eight, came to us from St. Barbe Hospital, as he had no home to which he could return. Incidentally it takes the entire staff to keep this boy moderately tidy, for he and his garments have an unfortunate inclination to part asunder, and we are kept in constant apprehension for the credit of the Orphanage. But Mike, whether with his clothes or without, always turns up smiling and on excellent terms with himself, entirely regardless of the mental torture we endure as he comes into view. Indeed, the wider apart are his garments, the broader is his smile. He weeps quietly each night as we wash him, for that is a work of supererogation for which he has at present no use.
Deborah and her brother Gabriel were here when I came. Their ages are eleven and five, and they come from the far north. Deborah was in the Mission Hospital at Iron Bound Islands for some time as the result of a burning accident. While trying to lift a pan of dog-food from the stove she upset the scalding contents over her legs. Her elder brother had to drive her eighteen miles on a komatik to the hospital, and the poor child must have suffered greatly. Gabriel is a very naughty, but equally lovable child. He is never out of mischief, but he is always very penitent for his misdeeds—afterwards! His bent is towards theology, and he speaks with the authority of an ancient divine on all matters pertaining thereto, and with an air of finality which brooks no argument. When some one was being given the priority in point of age over me, he was heard to indignantly exclaim that "Jesus and Teacher are the oldest people in the world." He is no advocate for the equality of the sexes, and closes all discussion on equal rights by explaining that "God made the boys and Jesus the girls."
Our fast-coming winter is sending its harbingers, seen and unseen, into our harbour. Chief among these one notices the assertiveness of the dogs. All through the summer they slink pariah-like about the place, eating whatever they can pick up, and seeking to keep their miserable existence as much in the background as possible. Now the winter is approaching, and it is "their little day." Mrs. Uncle Life can testify to the fact that they are not wholly suppressed when it is not "their little day." Last summer she found no less important a personage than the leader of the team in her bed. Her newly baked "loaf" was lying on the pantry shelf before the open window. Whiskey (this place is strictly prohibition, but every team boasts its "Whiskey") leaped in, made a satisfying banquet off her bread, and then forced open the door into her bedroom adjoining the pantry. He found it a singularly barren field for adventure, but after his unaccustomed hearty meal the bed looked tempting. He was found there two hours later placidly asleep.
The children are looking forward to Christmas and are already writing letters to Santa Claus, which are handed to me with great secrecy to mail to him. I once watched the little ones playing at Christmas with an old stump of a bush to which they attached twigs as gifts and gravely distributed them to one another. When I saw one mite handing a dead twig to a smaller edition of himself, and announcing in a lordly fashion that it was a PIANO, I realized what Father Christmas was expected to be able to produce.
My world is transformed into fairyland. Light snow has fallen during the night, and every "starigan," every patch of "tuckamore" is "decked in sparkling raiment white." As I was dressing I looked out of my window, and for the first time in my life saw a dog team and komatik passing.
The day was full of adventure. For the children the snow meant only rejoicing; but as the highway was as slippery as glass, and the older folk had not yet got their "winter legs," there were many minor casualties. Mrs. Uncle Life, aged seventy and small and spherical, solved the problem of the hills by sitting down and sliding. She commended the method to me, saying that it served very well on week days, but was lamentably detrimental to her Sunday best.
Ananias is developing fast and bids fair to rival Topsy. He has a mania for eating anything and everything, and what he cannot eat, he destroys. Within the past few weeks he has swallowed the arm of his Teddy bear, half a cake of soap, and a tube of tooth-paste. He has also bitten through two new hot-water bottles. During the short time he has been here he has broken more windows than any other child in the Home. If he thinks politeness will save the day, he says in the sweetest way possible, "Excuse me, Teacher, for doing it"; but if he sees by my face that retribution is swift and sure, he says in the most pathetic of tones, "Teacher, I have a pain."
I must make you acquainted with our "Yoho." Every well-regulated fishing village has one, but we have to thank our neighbour, the Eskimo, for the picturesque name. In our more prosaic parlance it is plain "ghost." Many years ago when the Mission was in need of a building in which to accommodate some of its workers, it purchased a house belonging to a local trader by the name of Isaac Spouseworthy. This made an admirable Guest House; but it has since fallen into disuse for its original purpose, and is being employed as a temporary repository for the clothing sent for the poor, till the fine new storehouse shall have been built. This old Guest House has been selected by our local apparition as a place of visitation. It is affirmed, on the incontrovertible testimony of the Prophet and no inconsiderable following, that the spirit returns of an evening to the old house he built forty years ago, to wander through the familiar rooms. The villagers see lights there nightly; and though all our investigation has failed to reveal any presence (barring the rats), bodily or otherwise, the bravest of them would hesitate many a long minute before he would enter the haunted spot after nightfall. Rumour has it that the Guest House is built on the site of an old French cemetery. Our "irrepressible Ike" therefore cannot lack for society, though how congenial it is cannot be determined. Judging from the records of the ceaseless rows between the French and English on Le Petit Nord, there must be some lively nights in ghostland.
The doctor suggested that if a burglar wished to steal the clothing, this spook would be his most effective accomplice, but such tortuous psychology has failed to satisfy the fishermen. To them we seem callous souls, to whom the spirit world is alien. This ghostly encroachment on our erstwhile quiet domain has had more than one inconvenient result. The Mission is very short of houses for its workmen, and was planning to rebuild and put in order a part of this now haunted domicile for one family. The man for whom it was destined now refuses to live there, as his children have vetoed the idea. In this land the word of the rising generation is law, and this refusal is therefore final.
The children of this North Country are given what they wish and when and how. Naturally the results of such a policy are serious. There are many cases of hopeless cripples about here who refused to go to hospital for treatment when their trouble was so slight that it could have been rectified. Now the children must look forward to a life of disability through their parents' short-sightedness. But when I think of what it means to these poor women to have perhaps ten children to care for, and all the rest of the work of the house and garden on their shoulders, I cannot wonder that their motto is "peace at any price."
Spirits might be called the outstanding feature of our harbour, for the Piquenais rocks at the very entrance are the abode of another familiar revenant. The Prophet assures me that thirty years ago a vessel and crew were wrecked there, and on every succeeding stormy evening since that day, the captain, with creditable perseverance, waves his light on that wind-and surf-swept rock. In this instance the prophetical authority is in dispute, for there are those who assert that the light is shown by fairies to toll boats to their doom on the foggy point. The more scientifically minded explain the mysterious light as a defunct animal giving out gas. It must be a persistent gas which can retain its efficacy for thirty long and adventurous years.
In the course of these researches several interesting points of natural history and science have been elucidated. Doubtless you do not know that all cats are related to the devil, but you can readily see the brimstone in their fur if you have the temerity to rub them on a dusky evening. Neither has it come to your attention that under no consideration must you allow the water in which potatoes have been washed to run over your hands. In the latter event, warts innumerable will result.
Our cook has just come in with the news that supper is not to be forthcoming. 'Senath was left in charge while Tryphena went on an errand for me. Left-over salad was to have formed the basis of the evening meal, but the said basis has now disintegrated, 'Senath having placed the dish in a superheated oven. The nature of the resultant object is indeterminate, but uneatable. I solace myself that sanctified starvation will be beneficial to my "fine and hearty" figure.
We have suffered again with the dogs. One of the children's birthdays fell on Saturday, and we decided to give the whole "crew" ice-cream to fittingly celebrate the event. It was made in good time and put out to keep cool in what we took to be a safe spot. The party preceding the piece de resistance was in full swing when an ominous disturbance was detected from the direction of the woodshed. Investigation revealed two angry dogs alternately snarling at each other and devouring the last lick of the treat. The catholicity of canine taste was no solace to the aggrieved assembly.
The children have lately been making excursions into the theological field. The latest problem brought to me for settlement was, "Does God live in the Methodist Church?" Truly a two-horned dilemma. If I said "yes" the anthropomorphic teaching was undoubted; while if the answer were in the negative I should be guilty of fostering the abominable denominational spirit which ruins this land. My reply must have been unconvincing, for I overheard the children later deciding, the Methodist Church having been barred as a place of residence, that the attic was the only remaining possibility. It is the one spot in the Home unvisited by them, and therefore "unseen."
Unseemly altercations have summoned me to the kitchen, and I return to close this over-long chronicle. I was met there by Tryphena, a large sheet in her hands, and an accusing expression on her face which stamped her as a family connection of the Prophet's.
"It's not my fault, miss," she began.
"No, Tryphena? Well, whose is it, and what is it?"
"Look at that sheet, miss, a new one. 'Senath was ironing, and had folded it just ready to put away. Then she suddenly wants a drink, so she goes off leaving the iron in the middle of the sheet. Half an hour later she remembers. When she got back, of course the iron had burnt its way straight through all the layers."
Aside from destruction, in what direction would you say that 'Senath's forte did lie?
I have received your letter with its pointed remarks about the long delays of the mail-carrier. I consider them both unnecessary and unkind. But as David would say, "I am going to be good all the time now."
We have this moment returned from church, to which the children love to go; it is the great excitement of the week. They sit very quietly, except Topsy, but how much they understand I cannot say. The people sing with deliberation, each syllable being made to do duty for three, to prolong the enjoyment—or the agony—according as your musical talent decides. Frequently there is no one to play the instrument, and the hymns are started several times, until something resembling the right pitch is struck. Sometimes a six-line hymn will be started to a common metre tune, and all goes swimmingly until the inevitable crash at the end of the fourth line. But nothing daunted, we try and try again. I have supplied our smiling-faced cherubs with hymn books in order that
"Their voices may in tune be found Like David's harp of solemn sound"
—excuse the adaptation. This morning the service was particularly dreary. Hymn after hymn started to end in conspicuous failure, followed by an interminable discourse on the sufferings of the damned. But we ended cheerfully by warbling forth the joys of heaven—
"Where congregations ne'er break up And Sabbaths never end!"
Last week we had a thrilling event; one of the girls formerly in this Home was married, and we all went to the wedding, even the little tots who are too young for regular services. They afterwards told me they would like to go on Sundays, so I imagine they think the marriage ceremony a regular item of Divine worship. Alas! I almost disgraced myself when the clergyman solemnly announced to the intending bride and bridegroom that the holy estate of matrimony had been "ordained of God for the persecution of children"!
* * * * *
How you would have laughed to see me the other night. The steamer arrived at midnight, and as we were expecting some children I went down to meet them. There were three little boys, Esau, Joseph, and Nathan, eight, six, and four years of age. I bore them in triumph to the bathroom, feeling that even at that late hour cleanliness should be compulsory. But I soon desisted from my purpose and as quickly as possible bundled the dirty children into my neat, snowy beds! They kicked, they fought, they bit, they yelled and they swore! All my sleeping innocents awoke at the noise and added their voices to the confusion. I momentarily expected an in-rush of neighbours, and a summons the following day for cruelty to children.
Uriah has come to inform me that he cannot "cleave the splits," as his "stomach has capsized." I felt it incumbent to administer a dose of castor oil, thinking that might be sufficient punishment for what I had reason to believe was only a dodge to escape work. It was hard for me to give the oil, but harder still to have the boy look up after it with a quite cherubic smile, and ask if it were the same oil as Elisha gave the widow woman!
Whatever can survive in this land of difficulties survives with a zeal and vitality which only proves the strength of the obstacles overcome. The flies, the mosquitoes, and the rats are proofs. We have none of your meek little wharf rats here. Ours are brazen imps, sleek and shameless, undaunted by cats or men. Their footmarks are as big as those of young puppies (withal not too well-fed puppies), and their raids on man and beast alike ally them with the horde Pandora loosed. Each day the toll mounts. One morning Miss Perrin, the head nurse, awakened to find one of her prize North Labrador boots gnawed to the rim. All that remained to tell the tale was the bright tape by which it was hung up, and the skin groove through which the tape threads.
On the next occasion of their public appearance the night nurse was summoned by agonized shrieks to the children's ward. A large rodent had climbed upon Ishimay's bed and bitten her. There were the marks of his teeth in her hand, and the blood was dripping. Nor do they limit their depredations to the hospital. The barn man turned over a bale of hay last week and disclosed no less than twenty-seven rats young and old, fat and lean, though chiefly fat. I rejoice to record that this galaxy at least has departed Purgatory-wards. The dentist left a whole bag of clean linen on the floor of his bedroom. The morning following he found that the raiders had eaten their way through the sack, cutting a series of neat round holes in each folded garment as they progressed. The scuffling and the squealing and the scraping and the gnawing and the scratching of rats in the walls and cupboards are worse than any phalanx of "Yohos" ever summoned from spookland! Oh! Pied Piper of Hamelin, why tarry so long!
The last boat of the season has come and gone and now we settle down to the real life of the winter. Plans innumerable are under way for winter activities, and the children are on tiptoe over the prospect of approaching Christmastide. Their jubilations fill the house, and writing is even more difficult than usual.
For days before the last steamer finally reached us there were speculations as to her coming. Rumour, a healthy customer in these parts, three times had it that she had gone back, having given up the unequal contest with the ice. As all our Christmas mail was aboard her, the atmosphere was tense. Then came the news from Croque that she was there, busily unloading freight. Six hours later her smoke was sighted, and from the yells my bairns set up, you would have thought that the mythical sea serpent was entering port. She butted her way into the standing harbour ice as far as she could get, and promptly began discharging cargo. Teams of dogs sprang up seemingly out of the snow-covered earth, and in a mere twinkling our frozen and silent harbour was an arena of activity. The freight is dumped on the ice over the ship's side with the big winch, and each man must hunt for his own as it descends. Some of the goods are dropped with such a thud that the packages "burst abroad." This is all very well if the contents are of a solid and resisting nature; but if butter, or beans, or such like receive the shock, most regrettable results ensue.