Roughing it in the Bush/Chapter XII
THE VILLAGE HOTELEdit
Well, stranger, here you are all safe and sound;
You're now on shore. Methinks you look aghast,—
As if you'd made some slight mistake, and found
A land you liked not. Think not of the past;
Your leading-strings are cut; the mystic chain
That bound you to your fair and smiling shore
Is sever'd now, indeed. 'Tis now in vain
To sigh for joys that can return no more.
Emigration, however necessary as the obvious means of providing for the increasing population of early-settled and over-peopled countries, is indeed a very serious matter to the individual emigrant and his family. He is thrown adrift, as it were, on a troubled ocean, the winds and currents of which are unknown to him. His past experience, and his judgment founded on experience, will be useless to him in this new sphere of action. In an old country, where generation after generation inhabits the same spot, the mental dispositions and prejudices of our ancestors become in a manner hereditary, and descend to their children with their possessions. In a new colony, on the contrary, the habits and associations of the emigrant having been broken up for ever, he is suddenly thrown on his own internal resources, and compelled to act and decide at once; not unfrequently under pain of misery or starvation. He is surrounded with dangers, often without the ordinary means which common-sense and prudence suggest of avoiding them,—because the EXPERIENCE on which these common qualities are founded is wanting. Separated for ever from those warm-hearted friends, who in his native country would advise or assist him in his first efforts, and surrounded by people who have an interest in misleading and imposing upon him, every-day experience shows that no amount of natural sagacity or prudence, founded on experience in other countries, will be an effectual safeguard against deception and erroneous conclusions.
It is a fact worthy of observation, that among emigrants possessing the qualities of industry and perseverance so essential to success in all countries, those who possess the smallest share of original talent and imagination, and the least of a speculative turn of mind, are usually the most successful. They follow the beaten track and prosper. However humbling this reflection may be to human vanity, it should operate as a salutary check on presumption and hasty conclusions. After a residence of sixteen years in Canada, during which my young and helpless family have been exposed to many privations, while we toiled incessantly and continued to hope even against hope, these reflections naturally occur to our minds, not only as the common-sense view of the subject, but as the fruit of long and daily-bought experience.
After all this long probation in the backwoods of Canada, I find myself brought back in circumstances nearly to the point from whence I started, and am compelled to admit that had I only followed my own unassisted judgment, when I arrived with my wife and child in Canada, and quietly settled down on the cleared farm I had purchased, in a well-settled neighbourhood, and with the aid of the means I then possessed, I should now in all probability have been in easy if not in affluent circumstances.
Native Canadians, like Yankees, will make money where people from the old country would almost starve. Their intimate knowledge of the country, and of the circumstances of the inhabitants, enables them to turn their money to great advantage; and I must add, that few people from the old country, however avaricious, can bring themselves to stoop to the unscrupulous means of acquiring property which are too commonly resorted to in this country. These reflections are a rather serious commencement of a sketch which was intended to be of a more lively description; one of my chief objects in writing this chapter being to afford a connecting link between my wife's sketches, and to account for some circumstances connected with our situation, which otherwise would be unintelligible to the reader. Before emigrating to Canada, I had been settled as a bachelor in South Africa for about twelve years. I use the word settled, for want of a better term—for a bachelor can never, properly, be said to be settled. He has no object in life—no aim. He is like a knife without a blade, or a gun without a barrel. He is always in the way, and nobody cares for him. If he work on a farm, as I did, for I never could look on while others were working without lending a hand, he works merely for the sake of work. He benefits nobody by his exertions, not even himself; for he is restless and anxious, has a hundred indescribable ailments, which no one but himself can understand; and for want of the legitimate cares and anxieties connected with a family, he is full of cares and anxieties of his own creating. In short, he is in a false position, as every man must be who presumes to live alone when he can do better.
This was my case in South Africa. I had plenty of land, and of all the common necessaries of life; but I lived for years without companionship, for my nearest English neighbour was twenty-five miles off. I hunted the wild animals of the country, and had plenty of books to read; but, from talking broken Dutch for months together, I almost forgot how to speak my own language correctly. My very ideas (for I had not entirely lost the reflecting faculty) became confused and limited, for want of intellectual companions to strike out new lights, and form new combinations in the regions of thought; clearly showing that man was not intended to live alone. Getting, at length, tired of this solitary and unproductive life, I started for England, with the resolution of placing my domestic matters on a more comfortable footing. By a happy accident, at the house of a literary friend in London, I became acquainted with one to whose cultivated mind, devoted affections, and untiring energy of character, I have been chiefly indebted for many happy hours, under the most adverse circumstances, as well as for much of that hope and firm reliance upon Providence which have enabled me to bear up against overwhelming misfortunes. I need not here repeat what has been already stated respecting the motives which induced us to emigrate to Canada. I shall merely observe that when I left South Africa it was with the intention of returning to that colony, where I had a fine property, to which I was attached in no ordinary degree, on account of the beauty of the scenery and delightful climate. However, Mrs. Moodie, somehow or other, had imbibed an invincible dislike to that colony, for some of the very reasons that I liked it myself. The wild animals were her terror, and she fancied that every wood and thicket was peopled with elephants, lions, and tigers, and that it would be utterly impossible to take a walk without treading on dangerous snakes in the grass. Unfortunately, she had my own book on South Africa to quote triumphantly in confirmation of her vague notions of danger; and, in my anxiety to remove these exaggerated impressions, I would fain have retracted my own statements of the hair-breadth escapes I had made, in conflicts with wild animals, respecting which the slightest insinuation of doubt from another party would have excited my utmost indignation.
In truth, before I became familiarised with such danger, I had myself entertained similar notions, and my only wonder, in reading such narratives before leaving my own country, was how the inhabitants of the country managed to attend to their ordinary business in the midst of such accumulated dangers and annoyances. Fortunately, these hair-breadth escapes are of rare occurrence; but travellers and book-makers, like cooks, have to collect high-flavoured dishes, from far and near, the better to please the palates of their patrons. So it was with my South African adventures; I threw myself in the way of danger from the love of strong excitement, and I collected all my adventures together, and related them in pure simplicity, without very particularly informing the reader over what space of time or place my narrative extended, or telling him that I could easily have kept out of harm's way had I felt so inclined. All these arguments, however, had little influence on my good wife, for I could not deny that I had seen such animals in abundance in South Africa; and she thought she should never be safe among such neighbours. At last, between my wife's fear of the wild animals of Africa, and a certain love of novelty, which formed a part of my own character, I made up my mind, as they write on stray letters in the post-office, to "try Canada." So here we are, just arrived in the village of C—, situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario.
Mrs. Moodie has already stated that we procured lodgings at a certain hotel in the village of C— kept by S—, a truly excellent and obliging American. The British traveller is not a little struck, and in many instances disgusted, with a certain air of indifference in the manners of such persons in Canada, which is accompanied with a tone of equality and familiarity exceedingly unlike the limber and oily obsequiousness of tavern-keepers in England. I confess I felt at the time not a little annoyed with Mr. S—'s free-and-easy manner, and apparent coolness and indifference when he told us he had no spare room in his house to accommodate our party. We endeavoured to procure lodgings at another tavern, on the opposite side of the street; but soon learned that, in consequence of the arrival of an unusual number of immigrants, all the taverns in the village were already filled to overflowing. We returned to Mr. S—, and after some further conversation, he seemed to have taken a kind of liking to us, and became more complaisant in his manner, until our arrangement with Tom Wilson, as already related, relieved us from further difficulty.
I NOW perfectly understand the cause of this apparent indifference on the part of our host. Of all people, Englishmen, when abroad, are the most addicted to the practice of giving themselves arrogant airs towards those persons whom they look upon in the light of dependents on their bounty; and they forget that an American tavern-keeper holds a very different position in society from one of the same calling in England. The manners and circumstances of new countries are utterly opposed to anything like pretension in any class of society; and our worthy host, and his excellent wife—who had both held a respectable position in the society of the United States—had often been deeply wounded in their feelings by the disgusting and vulgar arrogance of English GENTLEMAN and LADIES, as they are called. Knowing from experience the truth of the saying that "what cannot be cured must be endured," we were particularly civil to Mr. S—; and it was astonishing how quickly his manners thawed. We had not been long in the house before we were witnesses of so many examples of the purest benevolence, exhibited by Mr. S— and his amiable family, that it was impossible to regard them with any feeling but that of warm regard and esteem. S— was, in truth, a noble-hearted fellow. Whatever he did seemed so much a matter of habit, that the idea of selfish design or ostentation was utterly excluded from the mind. I could relate several instances of the disinterested benevolence of this kind-hearted tavern-keeper. I shall just mention one, which came under my own observation while I lived near C—.
I had frequently met a young Englishman, of the name of M—, at Mr. S—'s tavern. His easy and elegant manners, and whole deportment, showed that he had habitually lived in what is called the best society. He had emigrated to Canada with 3,000 or 4,000 pounds, had bought horses, run races, entertained many of the wealthy people of Toronto, or York, as it was then called, and had done a number of other exceedingly foolish things. Of course his money was soon absorbed by the thirsty Canadians, and he became deeply involved in debt. M— had spent a great deal of money at S—'s tavern, and owed him 70 or 80 pounds. At length he was arrested for debt by some other party, was sent to the district gaol, which was nearly two miles from C—, and was compelled at first to subsist on the gaol allowance. What greatly aggravated the misfortunes of poor M—, a man without suspicion or guile, was a bitter disappointment in another quarter. He had an uncle in England, who was very rich, and who intended to leave him all his property. Some kind friend, to whom M— had confided his expectations, wrote to England, informing the old man of his nephew's extravagance and hopes. The uncle there-upon cast him off, and left his property, when he died, to another relative.
As soon as the kind-hearted tavern-keeper heard of the poor fellow's imprisonment, he immediately went to see him, and, though he had not the slightest hope of ever being paid one farthing of his claim, Mr. S—, for many months that poor M— lay in gaol, continued to send him an excellent dinner every day from his tavern, to which he always added a bottle of wine; for as Mr. S— remarked, "Poor M—, I guess, is accustomed to live well."
As soon as Mr. S— found that we did not belong to that class of people who fancy they exalt themselves by insulting others, there were no bounds to the obligingness of his disposition. As I had informed him that I wished to buy a cleared farm near Lake Ontario, he drove me out every day in all directions, and wherever he thought farms were to be had cheap.
Before proceeding further in my account of the inhabitants, I shall endeavour to give the reader some idea of the appearance of the village and the surrounding country. Of course, from the existence of a boundless forest, only partially cleared, there is a great sameness and uniformity in Canadian scenery.
We had a stormy passage from Kingston to C—, and the wind being directly ahead, the plunging of the steam-boat between the sharp seas of Lake Ontario produced a "motion" which was decidedly "unconstitutional;" and, for the first time since we left England, we experienced a sensation which strongly reminded us of sea-sickness. The general appearance of the coast from the lake was somewhat uninviting. The land appeared to be covered everywhere with the dense unbroken forest, and though there were some gently sloping hills and slight elevations, showing the margin of extensive clearings, there was a general want of a background of high hills or mountains, which imparts so much interest to the scenery of every country. On reaching C—, however, we found that we had been much deceived as to the features of the country, when viewed at a less distance.
Immediately on the shores of the great lake, the land is generally flat for two or three miles inland; and as the farms are there measured out in long, narrow strips, a mile and a quarter long, and a quarter of a mile wide, the back parts of the lots, which are reserved for firewood, are only visible at a distance. This narrow belt of the primeval forest, which runs along the rear of all the lots in the first line of settlements, or concession as it is here called, necessarily conceals the houses and clearings of the next concession, unless the land beyond rises into hills. This arrangement, however convenient, tends greatly to mar the beauty of Canadian scenery.
The unvarying monotony of rail-fences and quadrangular enclosures, occasions a tiresome uniformity in the appearance of the country, which is increased by the almost total absence of those little graceful ornaments in detail, in the immediate neighbourhood of the homesteads, which give such a charm to English rural scenery.
The day after our arrival, we had an opportunity to examine the town, or rather village, of C—. It then consisted chiefly of one long street, parallel with the shore of the lake, and the houses, with very few exceptions, were built of wood; but they were all finished, and painted with such a degree of neatness, that their appearance was showy, and in some instances elegant, from the symmetry of their proportions. Immediately beyond the bounds of the village, we, for the first time, witnessed the operation of clearing up a thick cedar-swamp. The soil looked black and rich, but the water stood in pools, and the trunks and branches of the cedars were leaning in all directions, and at all angles, with their thick foliage and branches intermingled in wild confusion. The roots spread along the uneven surface of the ground so thickly that they seemed to form a vast net-work, and apparently covered the greater part of the surface of the ground. The task of clearing such a labyrinth seemed utterly hopeless. My heart almost sickened at the prospect of clearing such land, and I was greatly confirmed in my resolution of buying a farm cleared to my hand.
The clearing process, however, in this unpromising spot, was going on vigorously. Several acres had been chopped down, and the fire had run through the prostrate trees, consuming all the smaller branches and foliage, and leaving the trunks and ground as black as charcoal could make them. Among this vast mass of ruins, four or five men were toiling with yoke of oxen. The trees were cut into manageable lengths, and were then dragged by the oxen together, so that they could be thrown up into large log-heaps to burn. The men looked, with their bare arms, hands, and faces begrimed with charcoal, more like negroes than white men; and were we, like some shallow people, to compare their apparent condition with that of the negro slaves in more favoured regions, we should be disposed to consider the latter the happier race. But this disgusting work was the work of freemen, high-spirited and energetic fellows, who feared neither man nor wild beast, and trusted to their own strong arms to conquer all difficulties, while they could discern the light of freedom and independence glimmering through the dark woods before them.
A few years afterwards, I visited C—, and looked about for the dreadful cedar-swamp which struck such a chill into my heart, and destroyed the illusion which had possessed my mind of the beauty of the Canadian woods. The trees were gone, the tangled roots were gone, and the cedar-swamp was converted into a fair grassy meadow, as smooth as a bowling-green. About sixteen years after my first visit to this spot, I saw it again, and it was covered with stone and brick houses; and one portion of it was occupied by a large manufactory, five or six stories high, with steam-engines, spinning-jennies, and all the machinery for working up the wool of the country into every description of clothing. This is civilisation! This is freedom!
The sites of towns and villages in Canada are never selected at random. In England, a concurrence of circumstances has generally led to the gradual formation of hamlets, villages, and towns. In many instances, towns have grown up in barbarous ages around a place of refuge during war; around a fortalice or castle, and more frequently around the ford over a river, where the detention of travellers has led to the establishment of a place of entertainment, a blacksmith's or carpenter's shop. A village or town never grows to any size in Canada without a saw or a grist mill, both which require a certain amount of water-power to work the machinery. Whenever there is a river or stream available for such purposes, and the surrounding country is fertile, the village rapidly rises to be a considerable town. Frame-houses are so quickly erected, and the materials are so easily procured near a saw-mill, that, in the first instance, no other description of houses is to be found in our incipient towns. But as the town increases, brick and stone houses rapidly supplant these less substantial edifices, which seldom remain good for more than thirty or forty years.
Mr. S—'s tavern, or hotel, was an extensive frame-building of the kind common in the country. All the lodgers frequent the same long table at all their meals, at one end of which the landlord generally presides. Mr. S—, however, usually preferred the company of his family in another part of the house; and some one of the gentlemen who boarded at the tavern, and who possessed a sufficiently large organ of self-esteem, voted himself into the post of honour, without waiting for an invitation from the rest of the company. This happy individual is generally some little fellow, with a long, protruding nose; some gentleman who can stretch his neck and backbone almost to dislocation, and who has a prodigious deal of talk, all about nothing.
The taverns in this country are frequented by all single men, and by many married men without children, who wish to avoid the trouble and greater expense of keeping house. Thus a large portion of the population of the towns take all their meals at the hotels or taverns, in order to save both expense and time. The extraordinary despatch used at meals in the United States has often been mentioned by travellers. The same observation equally applies to Canada, and for the same reason. Wages are high, and time is, therefore, valuable in both countries, and as one clerk is waiting in the shop while another is bolting his dinner, it would of course be exceedingly unkind to protract unnecessarily the sufferings of the hungry expectant; no one possessing any bowels of compassion could act so cruelly. For the same reason, every one is expected to take care of himself, without minding his neighbours. At times a degree of compassion is extended by some naturalised old countryman towards some diffident, over-scrupulous new comer, by offering to help him first; but such marks of consideration, except to ladies, to whom all classes in Canada are attentive, are never continued a bit longer than is thought sufficient for becoming acquainted with the ways of the country.
Soon after our arrival at C—, I remember asking a person, who was what the Canadians call "a hickory Quaker," from the north of Ireland, to help me to a bit of very nice salmon-trout, which was vanishing alarmingly fast from the breakfast-table.
Obadiah very considerately lent a deaf ear to my repeated entreaties, pretending to be intently occupied with his own plate of fish; then, transferring the remains of the salmon-trout to his own place, he turned round to me with the most innocent face imaginable, saying very coolly, "I beg your pardon, friend, did you speak to me? There is such a noise at the table, I cannot hear very well."
Between meals there is "considerable of drinking," among the idlers about the tavern, of the various ingenious Yankee inventions resorted to in this country to disturb the brain. In the evening the plot thickens, and a number of young and middle-aged men drop in, and are found in little knots in the different public rooms.
The practice of "treating" is almost universal in this country, and, though friendly and sociable in its way, is the fruitful source of much dissipation. It is almost impossible, in travelling, to steer clear of this evil habit. Strangers are almost invariably drawn into it in the course of business.
The town of C— being the point where a large number of emigrants landed on their way to the backwoods of this part of the colony, it became for a time a place of great resort, and here a number of land-jobbers were established, who made a profitable trade of buying lands from private individuals, or at the government sales of wild land, and selling them again to the settlers from the old country. Though my wife had some near relatives settled in the backwoods, about forty miles inland, to the north of C—, I had made up my mind to buy a cleared farm near Lake Ontario, if I could get one to my mind, and the price of which would come within my limited means.
A number of the recent settlers in the backwoods, among whom were several speculators, resorted frequently to C—; and as soon as a new batch of settlers arrived on the lake shore, there was a keen contest between the land-jobbers of C— and those of the backwoods to draw the new comer into their nets. The demand created by the continual influx of immigrants had caused a rapid increase in the price of lands, particularly of wild lands, and the grossest imposition was often practiced by these people, who made enormous profits by taking advantage of the ignorance of the new settlers and of their anxiety to settle themselves at once.
I was continually cautioned by these people against buying a farm in any other locality than the particular one they themselves represented as most eligible, and their rivals were always represented as unprincipled land-jobbers. Finding these accusations to be mutual, I naturally felt myself constrained to believe both parties to be alike.
Sometimes I got hold of a quiet farmer, hoping to obtain something like disinterested advice; but in nine cases out of ten, I am sorry to say, I found that the rage for speculation and trading in land, which was so prevalent in all the great thoroughfares, had already poisoned their minds also, and I could rarely obtain an opinion or advice which was utterly free from self-interest. They generally had some lot of land to sell—or, probably, they would like to have a new comer for a neighbour, in the hope of selling him a span of horses or some cows at a higher price than they could obtain from the older settlers. In mentioning this unamiable trait in the character of the farmers near C—, I by no means intend to give it as characteristic of the farmers in general. It is, properly speaking, a LOCAL vice, produced by the constant influx of strangers unacquainted with the ways of the country, which tempts the farmers to take advantage of their ignorance.
Where is religion found? In what bright sphere
Dwells holy love, in majesty serene
Shedding its beams, like planet o'er the scene;
The steady lustre through the varying year
Still glowing with the heavenly rays that flow
In copious streams to soften human woe?
It is not 'mid the busy scenes of life,
Where careworn mortals crowd along the way
That leads to gain—shunning the light of day;
In endless eddies whirl'd, where pain and strife
Distract the soul, and spread the shades of night,
Where love divine should dwell in purest light.
Short-sighted man!—go seek the mountain's brow,
And cast thy raptured eye o'er hill and dale;
The waving woods, the ever-blooming vale,
Shall spread a feast before thee, which till now
Ne'er met thy gaze—obscured by passion's sway;
And Nature's works shall teach thee how to pray.
Or wend thy course along the sounding shore,
Where giant waves resistless onward sweep
To join the awful chorus of the deep—
Curling their snowy manes with deaf'ning roar,
Flinging their foam high o'er the trembling sod,
And thunder forth their mighty song to God!