Roughing it in the Bush

Chapter II: Quebec

Queen of the West!—upon thy rocky throne,
In solitary grandeur sternly placed;
In awful majesty thou sitt’st alone,
By Nature’s master-hand supremely graced.
The world has not thy counterpart—thy dower,
Eternal beauty, strength, and matchless power.

The clouds enfold thee in their misty vest,
The lightning glances harmless round thy brow;
The loud-voiced thunder cannot shake thy nest,
Or warring waves that idly chafe below;
The storm above, the waters at thy feet—
May rage and foam, they but secure thy seat.

The mighty river, as it onward rushes
To pour its floods in ocean’s dread abyss,
Checks at thy feet its fierce impetuous gushes,
And gently fawns thy rocky base to kiss.
Stern eagle of the crag! thy hold should be
The mountain home of heaven-born liberty!

True to themselves, thy children may defy
The power and malice of a world combined;
While Britain’s flag, beneath thy deep blue sky,
Spreads its rich folds and wantons in the wind;
The offspring of her glorious race of old
May rest securely in their mountain hold.

On the 2nd of September, the anchor was weighed, and we bade a long farewell to Grosse Isle. As our vessel struck into mid-channel, I cast a last lingering look at the beautiful shores we were leaving. Cradled in the arms of the St. Lawrence, and basking in the bright rays of the morning sun, the island and its sister group looked like a second Eden just emerged from the waters of chaos. With what joy could I have spent the rest of the fall in exploring the romantic features of that enchanting scene! But our bark spread her white wings to the favouring breeze, and the fairy vision gradually receded from my sight, to remain for ever on the tablets of memory.

The day was warm, and the cloudless heavens of that peculiar azure tint which gives to the Canadian skies and waters a brilliancy unknown in more northern latitudes. The air was pure and elastic, the sun shone out with uncommon splendour, lighting up the changing woods with a rich mellow colouring, composed of a thousand brilliant and vivid dyes. The mighty river rolled flashing and sparkling onward, impelled by a strong breeze, that tipped its short rolling surges with a crest of snowy foam.

Had there been no other object of interest in the landscape than this majestic river, its vast magnitude, and the depth and clearness of its waters, and its great importance to the colony, would have been sufficient to have riveted the attention, and claimed the admiration of every thinking mind.

Never shall I forget that short voyage from Grosse Isle to Quebec. I love to recall, after the lapse of so many years, every object that awoke in my breast emotions of astonishment and delight. What wonderful combinations of beauty, and grandeur, and power, at every winding of that noble river! How the mind expands with the sublimity of the spectacle, and soars upward in gratitude and adoration to the Author of all being, to thank Him for having made this lower world so wondrously fair—a living temple, heaven-arched, and capable of receiving the homage of all worshippers.

Every perception of my mind became absorbed into the one sense of seeing, when, upon rounding Point Levi, we cast anchor before Quebec. What a scene!—Can the world produce such another? Edinburgh had been the beau ideal to me of all that was beautiful in Nature—a vision of the northern Highlands had haunted my dreams across the Atlantic; but all these past recollections faded before the present of Quebec.

Nature has lavished all her grandest elements to form this astonishing panorama. There frowns the cloud-capped mountain, and below, the cataract foams and thunders; wood, and rock, and river combine to lend their aid in making the picture perfect, and worthy of its Divine Originator.

The precipitous bank upon which the city lies piled, reflected in the still deep waters at its base, greatly enhances the romantic beauty of the situation. The mellow and serene glow of the autumnal day harmonised so perfectly with the solemn grandeur of the scene around me, and sank so silently and deeply into my soul, that my spirit fell prostrate before it, and I melted involuntarily into tears. Yes, regardless of the eager crowds around me, I leant upon the side of the vessel and cried like a child—not tears of sorrow, but a gush from the heart of pure and unalloyed delight. I heard not the many voices murmuring in my ears—I saw not the anxious beings that thronged our narrow deck—my soul at that moment was alone with God. The shadow of His glory rested visibly on the stupendous objects that composed that magnificent scene; words are perfectly inadequate to describe the impression it made upon my mind—the emotions it produced. The only homage I was capable of offering at such a shrine was tears—tears the most heartfelt and sincere that ever flowed from human eyes. I never before felt so overpoweringly my own insignificance, and the boundless might and majesty of the Eternal.

Canadians, rejoice in your beautiful city! Rejoice and be worthy of her—for few, very few, of the sons of men can point to such a spot as Quebec—and exclaim, “She is ours!—God gave her to us, in her beauty and strength!—We will live for her glory—we will die to defend her liberty and rights—to raise her majestic brow high above the nations!”

Look at the situation of Quebec!—the city founded on the rock that proudly holds the height of the hill. The queen sitting enthroned above the waters, that curb their swiftness and their strength to kiss and fawn around her lovely feet.

Canadians!—as long as you remain true to yourselves and her, what foreign invader could ever dare to plant a hostile flag upon that rock-defended height, or set his foot upon a fortress rendered impregnable by the hand of Nature? United in friendship, loyalty, and love, what wonders may you not achieve? to what an enormous altitude of wealth and importance may you not arrive? Look at the St. Lawrence, that king of streams, that great artery flowing from the heart of the world, through the length and breadth of the land, carrying wealth and fertility in its course, and transporting from town to town along its beautiful shores the riches and produce of a thousand distant climes. What elements of future greatness and prosperity encircle you on every side! Never yield up these solid advantages to become an humble dependent on the great republic—wait patiently, loyally, lovingly, upon the illustrious parent from whom you sprang, and by whom you have been fostered into life and political importance; in the fulness of time she will proclaim your childhood past, and bid you stand up in your own strength, a free Canadian people!

British mothers of Canadian sons!—learn to feel for their country the same enthusiasm which fills your hearts when thinking of the glory of your own. Teach them to love Canada—to look upon her as the first, the happiest, the most independent country in the world! Exhort them to be worthy of her—to have faith in her present prosperity, in her future greatness, and to devote all their talents, when they themselves are men, to accomplish this noble object. Make your children proud of the land of their birth, the land which has given them bread—the land in which you have found an altar and a home; do this, and you will soon cease to lament your separation from the mother country, and the loss of those luxuries which you could not, in honor to yourself, enjoy; you will soon learn to love Canada as I now love it, who once viewed it with a hatred so intense that I longed to die, that death might effectually separate us for ever.

But, oh! beware of drawing disparaging contrasts between the colony and its illustrious parent. All such comparisons are cruel and unjust;—you cannot exalt the one at the expense of the other without committing an act of treason against both.

But I have wandered away from my subject into the regions of thought, and must again descend to common work-a-day realities.

The pleasure we experienced upon our first glance at Quebec was greatly damped by the sad conviction that the cholera-plague raged within her walls, while the almost ceaseless tolling of bells proclaimed a mournful tale of woe and death. Scarcely a person visited the vessel who was not in black, or who spoke not in tones of subdued grief. They advised us not to go on shore if we valued our lives, as strangers most commonly fell the first victims to the fatal malady. This was to me a severe disappointment, who felt an intense desire to climb to the crown of the rock, and survey the noble landscape at my feet. I yielded at last to the wishes of my husband, who did not himself resist the temptation in his own person, and endeavored to content myself with the means of enjoyment placed within my reach. My eyes were never tired of wandering over the scene before me.

It is curious to observe how differently the objects which call forth intense admiration in some minds will affect others. The Scotch dragoon, Mackenzie, seeing me look long and intently at the distant Falls of Montmorency, drily observed,—

“It may be a’ vera fine; but it looks na’ better to my thinken than hanks o’ white woo’ hung out o’re the bushes.”

“Weel,” cried another, “thae fa’s are just bonnie; ’tis a braw land, nae doubt; but no’ just so braw as auld Scotland.”

“Hout man! hauld your clavers, we shall a’ be lairds here,” said a third; “and ye maun wait a muckle time before they wad think aucht of you at hame.”

I was not a little amused at the extravagant expectations entertained by some of our steerage passengers. The sight of the Canadian shores had changed them into persons of great consequence. The poorest and the worst-dressed, the least-deserving and the most repulsive in mind and morals, exhibited most disgusting traits of self-importance. Vanity and presumption seemed to possess them altogether. They talked loudly of the rank and wealth of their connexions at home, and lamented the great sacrifices they had made in order to join brothers and cousins who had foolishly settled in this beggarly wooden country.

Girls, who were scarcely able to wash a floor decently, talked of service with contempt, unless tempted to change their resolution by the offer of twelve dollars a month. To endeavour to undeceive them was a useless and ungracious task. After having tried it with several without success, I left it to time and bitter experience to restore them to their sober senses. In spite of the remonstrances of the captain, and the dread of the cholera, they all rushed on shore to inspect the land of Goshen, and to endeavour to realise their absurd anticipations.

We were favoured, a few minutes after our arrival, with another visit from the health-officers; but in this instance both the gentlemen were Canadians. Grave, melancholy-looking men, who talked much and ominously of the prevailing disorder, and the impossibility of strangers escaping from its fearful ravages. This was not very consoling, and served to depress the cheerful tone of mind which, after all, is one of the best antidotes against this awful scourge. The cabin seemed to lighten, and the air to circulate more freely, after the departure of these professional ravens. The captain, as if by instinct, took an additional glass of grog, to shake off the sepulchral gloom their presence had inspired.

The visit of the doctors was followed by that of two of the officials of the Customs—vulgar, illiterate men, who, seating themselves at the cabin table, with a familiar nod to the captain, and a blank stare at us, commenced the following dialogue:—

Custom-house officer (after making inquiries as to the general cargo of the vessel): “Any good brandy on board, captain?”

Captain (gruffly): “Yes.”

Officer: “Best remedy for the cholera known. The only one the doctors can depend upon.”

Captain (taking the hint): “Gentlemen, I’ll send you up a dozen bottles this afternoon.”

Officer: “Oh, thank you. We are sure to get it genuine from you. Any Edinburgh ale in your freight?”

Captain (with a slight shrug): “A few hundreds in cases. I’ll send you a dozen with the brandy.”

Both: “Capital!”

First officer: “Any short, large-bowled, Scotch pipes, with metallic lids?”

Captain (quite impatiently): “Yes, yes; I’ll send you some to smoke, with the brandy. What else?”

Officer: “We will now proceed to business.”

My readers would have laughed, as I did, could they have seen how doggedly the old man shook his fist after these worthies as they left the vessel. “Scoundrels!” he muttered to himself; and then turning to me, “They rob us in this barefaced manner, and we dare not resist or complain, for fear of the trouble they can put us to. If I had those villains at sea, I’d give them a taste of brandy and ale that they would not relish.”

The day wore away, and the lengthened shadows of the mountains fell upon the waters, when the Horsley Hill, a large three-masted vessel from Waterford, that we had left at the quarantine station, cast anchor a little above us. She was quickly boarded by the health-officers, and ordered round to take up her station below the castle. To accomplish this object she had to heave her anchor; when lo! a great pine-tree, which had been sunk in the river, became entangled in the chains. Uproarious was the mirth to which the incident gave rise among the crowds that thronged the decks of the many vessels then at anchor in the river. Speaking-trumpets resounded on every side; and my readers may be assured that the sea-serpent was not forgotten in the multitude of jokes which followed.

Laughter resounded on all sides; and in the midst of the noise and confusion, the captain of the Horsley Hill hoisted his colours downwards, as if making signals of distress, a mistake which provoked renewed and long-continued mirth.

I laughed until my sides ached; little thinking how the Horsley Hill would pay us off for our mistimed hilarity.

Towards night, most of the steerage passengers returned, greatly dissatisfied with their first visit to the city, which they declared to be a filthy hole, that looked a great deal better from the ship’s side than it did on shore. This, I have often been told, is literally the case. Here, as elsewhere, man has marred the magnificent creation of his Maker.

A dark and starless night closed in, accompanied by cold winds and drizzling rain. We seemed to have made a sudden leap from the torrid to the frigid zone. Two hours before, my light summer clothing was almost insupportable, and now a heavy and well-lined plaid formed but an inefficient screen from the inclemency of the weather. After watching for some time the singular effect produced by the lights in the town reflected in the water, and weary with a long day of anticipation and excitement, I made up my mind to leave the deck and retire to rest. I had just settled down my baby in her berth, when the vessel struck, with a sudden crash that sent a shiver through her whole frame. Alarmed, but not aware of the real danger that hung over us, I groped my way to the cabin, and thence ascended to the deck.

Here a scene of confusion prevailed that baffles description. By some strange fatality, the Horsley Hill had changed her position, and run foul of us in the dark. The Anne was a small brig, and her unlucky neighbour a heavy three-masted vessel, with three hundred Irish emigrants on board; and as her bowspirit was directly across the bows of the Anne, and she anchored, and unable to free herself from the deadly embrace, there was no small danger of the poor brig going down in the unequal struggle.

Unable to comprehend what was going on, I raised my head above my companion ladder, just at the critical moment when the vessels were grappled together. The shrieks of the women, the shouts and oaths of the men, and the barking of the dogs in either ship, aided the dense darkness of the night in producing a most awful and stunning effect.

“What is the matter?” I gasped out. “What is the reason of this dreadful confusion?”

The captain was raging like a chafed bull, in the grasp of several frantic women, who were clinging, shrieking, to his knees.

With great difficulty I persuaded the women to accompany me below. The mate hurried off with the cabin light upon the deck, and we were left in total darkness to await the result.

A deep, strange silence fell upon my heart. It was not exactly fear, but a sort of nerving of my spirit to meet the worst. The cowardly behaviour of my companions inspired me with courage. I was ashamed of their pusillanimity and want of faith in the Divine Providence. I sat down, and calmly begged them to follow my example.

An old woman, called Williamson, a sad reprobate, in attempting to do so, set her foot within the fender, which the captain had converted into a repository for empty glass bottles; the smash that ensued was echoed by a shriek from the whole party.

“God guide us,” cried the ancient dame; “but we are going into eternity. I shall be lost; my sins are more in number than the hairs of my head.” This confession was followed by oaths and imprecations too blasphemous to repeat.

Shocked and disgusted at her profanity, I bade her pray, and not waste the few moments that might be hers in using oaths and bad language.

“Did you not hear the crash?” said she.

“I did; it was of your own making. Sit down and be quiet.”

Here followed another shock, that made the vessel heave and tremble; and the dragging of the anchor increased the uneasy motion which began to fill the boldest of us with alarm.

“Mrs. Moodie, we are lost,” said Margaret Williamson, the youngest daughter of the old woman, a pretty girl, who had been the belle of the ship, flinging herself on her knees before me, and grasping both my hands in hers. “Oh, pray for me! pray for me! I cannot, I dare not, pray for myself; I was never taught a prayer.” Her voice was choked with convulsive sobs, and scalding tears fell in torrents from her eyes over my hands. I never witnessed such an agony of despair. Before I could say one word to comfort her, another shock seemed to lift the vessel upwards. I felt my own blood run cold, expecting instantly to go down; and thoughts of death, and the unknown eternity at our feet, flitted vaguely through my mind.

“If we stay here, we shall perish,” cried the girl, springing to her feet. “Let us go on deck, mother, and take our chance with the rest.”

“Stay,” I said; “you are safer here. British sailors never leave women to perish. You have fathers, husbands, brothers on board, who will not forget you. I beseech you to remain patiently here until the danger is past.” I might as well have preached to the winds. The headstrong creatures would no longer be controlled. They rushed simultaneously upon deck, just as the Horsley Hill swung off, carrying with her part of the outer frame of our deck and the larger portion of our stern. When tranquillity was restored, fatigued both in mind and body, I sunk into a profound sleep, and did not awake until the sun had risen high above the wave-encircled fortress of Quebec.

The stormy clouds had all dispersed during the night; the air was clear and balmy; the giant hills were robed in a blue, soft mist, which rolled around them in fleecy volumes. As the beams of the sun penetrated their shadowy folds, they gradually drew up like a curtain, and dissolved like wreaths of smoke into the clear air.

The moment I came on deck, my old friend Oscar greeted me with his usual joyous bark, and with the sagacity peculiar to his species, proceeded to shew me all the damage done to the vessel during the night. It was laughable to watch the motions of the poor brute, as he ran from place to place, stopping before, or jumping upon, every fractured portion of the deck, and barking out his indignation at the ruinous condition in which he found his marine home. Oscar had made eleven voyages in the Anne, and had twice saved the life of the captain. He was an ugly specimen of the Scotch terrier, and greatly resembled a bundle of old rope-yarn; but a more faithful or attached creature I never saw. The captain was not a little jealous of Oscar’s friendship for me. I was the only person the dog had ever deigned to notice, and his master regarded it as an act of treason on the part of his four-footed favourite. When my arms were tired with nursing, I had only to lay my baby on my cloak on deck, and tell Oscar to watch her, and the good dog would lie down by her, and suffer her to tangle his long curls in her little hands, and pull his tail and ears in the most approved baby fashion, without offering the least opposition; but if any one dared to approach his charge, he was alive on the instant, placing his paws over the child, and growling furiously. He would have been a bold man who had approached the child to do her injury. Oscar was the best plaything, and as sure a protector, as Katie had.

During the day, many of our passengers took their departure; tired of the close confinement of the ship, and the long voyage, they were too impatient to remain on board until we reached Montreal. The mechanics obtained instant employment, and the girls who were old enough to work, procured situations as servants in the city. Before night, our numbers were greatly reduced. The old dragoon and his family, two Scotch fiddlers of the name of Duncan, a Highlander called Tam Grant, and his wife and little son, and our own party, were all that remained of the seventy-two passengers that left the Port of Leith in the brig Anne.

In spite of the earnest entreaties of his young wife, the said Tam Grant, who was the most mercurial fellow in the world, would insist upon going on shore to see all the lions of the place. “Ah, Tam! Tam! ye will die o’ the cholera,” cried the weeping Maggie. “My heart will brak if ye dinna bide wi’ me an’ the bairnie.” Tam was deaf as Ailsa Craig. Regardless of tears and entreaties, he jumped into the boat, like a wilful man as he was, and my husband went with him. Fortunately for me, the latter returned safe to the vessel, in time to proceed with her to Montreal, in tow of the noble steamer, British America; but Tam, the volatile Tam was missing. During the reign of the cholera, what at another time would have appeared but a trifling incident, was now invested with doubt and terror. The distress of the poor wife knew no bounds. I think I see her now, as I saw her then, sitting upon the floor of the deck, her head buried between her knees, rocking herself to and fro, and weeping in the utter abandonment of her grief. “He is dead! he is dead! My dear, dear Tam! The pestilence has seized upon him; and I and the puir bairn are left alone in the strange land.” All attempts at consolation were useless; she obstinately refused to listen to probabilities, or to be comforted. All through the night I heard her deep and bitter sobs, and the oft-repeated name of him that she had lost.

The sun was sinking over the plague-stricken city, gilding the changing woods and mountain peaks with ruddy light; the river mirrored back the gorgeous sky, and moved in billows of liquid gold; the very air seemed lighted up with heavenly fires, and sparkled with myriads of luminous particles, as I gazed my last upon that beautiful scene.

The tow-line was now attached from our ship to the British America, and in company with two other vessels, we followed fast in her foaming wake. Day lingered on the horizon just long enough to enable me to examine, with deep interest, the rocky heights of Abraham, the scene of our immortal Wolfe’s victory and death; and when the twilight faded into night, the moon arose in solemn beauty, and cast mysterious gleams upon the strange stern landscape. The wide river, flowing rapidly between its rugged banks, rolled in inky blackness beneath the overshadowing crags; while the waves in mid-channel flashed along in dazzling light, rendered more intense by the surrounding darkness. In this luminous track the huge steamer glided majestically forward, flinging showers of red earth-stars from the funnel into the clear air, and looking like some fiery demon of the night enveloped in smoke and flame.

The lofty groves of pine frowned down in hearse-like gloom upon the mighty river, and the deep stillness of the night, broken alone by its hoarse wailings, filled my mind with sad forebodings—alas! too prophetic of the future. Keenly, for the first time, I felt that I was a stranger in a strange land; my heart yearned intensely for my absent home. Home! the word had ceased to belong to my present—it was doomed to live for ever in the past; for what emigrant ever regarded the country of his exile as his home? To the land he has left, that name belongs for ever, and in no instance does he bestow it upon another. “I have got a letter from home!” “I have seen a friend from home!” “I dreamt last night that I was at home!” are expressions of everyday occurrence, to prove that the heart acknowledges no other home than the land of its birth.

From these sad reveries I was roused by the hoarse notes of the bagpipe. That well-known sound brought every Scotchman upon deck, and set every limb in motion on the decks of the other vessels. Determined not to be outdone, our fiddlers took up the strain, and a lively contest ensued between the rival musicians, which continued during the greater part of the night. The shouts of noisy revelry were in no way congenial to my feelings. Nothing tends so much to increase our melancholy as merry music when the heart is sad; and I left the scene with eyes brimful of tears, and my mind painfully agitated by sorrowful recollections and vain regrets.

The strains we hear in foreign lands,
No echo from the heart can claim;
The chords are swept by strangers’ hands,
And kindle in the breast no flame,
Sweet though they be.
No fond remembrance wakes to fling
Its hallowed influence o’er the chords;
As if a spirit touch’d the string,
Breathing, in soft harmonious words,
Deep melody.

The music of our native shore
A thousand lovely scenes endears;
In magic tones it murmurs o’er
The visions of our early years;—
The hopes of youth;
It wreathes again the flowers we wreathed
In childhood’s bright, unclouded day;
It breathes again the vows we breathed,
At beauty’s shrine, when hearts were gay
And whisper’d truth;

It calls before our mental sight
Dear forms whose tuneful lips are mute,
Bright, sunny eyes long closed in night,
Warm hearts now silent as the lute
That charm’d our ears;
It thrills the breast with feelings deep,
Too deep for language to impart;
And bids the spirit joy and weep,
In tones that sink into the heart,
And melt in tears.


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