Roughing it in the Bush

Chapter III: Our Journey Up the Country

Fly this plague-stricken spot! The hot, foul air
Is rank with pestilence—the crowded marts
And public ways, once populous with life,
Are still and noisome as a churchyard vault;
Aghast and shuddering, Nature holds her breath
In abject fear, and feels at her strong heart
The deadly pangs of death.

Of Montreal I can say but little. The cholera was at its height, and the fear of infection, which increased the nearer we approached its shores, cast a gloom over the scene, and prevented us from exploring its infected streets. That the feelings of all on board very nearly resembled our own might be read in the anxious faces of both passengers and crew. Our captain, who had never before hinted that he entertained any apprehensions on the subject, now confided to us his conviction that he should never quit the city alive: “This cursed cholera! Left it in Russia—found it on my return to Leith—meets me again in Canada. No escape the third time.” If the captain’s prediction proved true in his case, it was not so in ours. We left the cholera in England, we met it again in Scotland, and, under the providence of God, we escaped its fatal visitation in Canada.

Yet the fear and the dread of it on that first day caused me to throw many an anxious glance on my husband and my child. I had been very ill during the three weeks that our vessel was becalmed upon the Banks of Newfoundland, and to this circumstance I attribute my deliverance from the pestilence. I was weak and nervous when the vessel arrived at Quebec, but the voyage up the St. Lawrence, the fresh air and beautiful scenery were rapidly restoring me to health.

Montreal from the river wears a pleasing aspect, but it lacks the grandeur, the stern sublimity of Quebec. The fine mountain that forms the background to the city, the Island of St. Helens in front, and the junction of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa—which run side by side, their respective boundaries only marked by a long ripple of white foam, and the darker blue tint of the former river—constitute the most remarkable features in the landscape.

The town itself was, at that period, dirty and ill-paved; and the opening of all the sewers, in order to purify the place and stop the ravages of the pestilence, rendered the public thoroughfares almost impassable, and loaded the air with intolerable effluvia, more likely to produce than stay the course of the plague, the violence of which had, in all probability, been increased by these long-neglected receptacles of uncleanliness.

The dismal stories told us by the excise-officer who came to inspect the unloading of the vessel, of the frightful ravages of the cholera, by no means increased our desire to go on shore.

“It will be a miracle if you escape,” he said. “Hundreds of emigrants die daily; and if Stephen Ayres had not providentally come among us, not a soul would have been alive at this moment in Montreal.”

“And who is Stephen Ayres?” said I.

“God only knows,” was the grave reply. “There was a man sent from heaven, and his name was John.”

“But I thought this man was called Stephen?”

“Ay, so he calls himself; but ’tis certain that he is not of the earth. Flesh and blood could never do what he has done—the hand of God is in it. Besides, no one knows who he is, or whence he comes. When the cholera was at the worst, and the hearts of all men stood still with fear, and our doctors could do nothing to stop its progress, this man, or angel, or saint, suddenly made his appearance in our streets. He came in great humility, seated in an ox-cart, and drawn by two lean oxen and a rope harness. Only think of that! Such a man in an old ox-cart, drawn by rope harness! The thing itself was a miracle. He made no parade about what he could do, but only fixed up a plain pasteboard notice, informing the public that he possessed an infallible remedy for the cholera, and would engage to cure all who sent for him.”

“And was he successful?”

“Successful! It beats all belief; and his remedy so simple! For some days we all took him for a quack, and would have no faith in him at all, although he performed some wonderful cures upon poor folks, who could not afford to send for the doctor. The Indian village was attacked by the disease, and he went out to them, and restored upward of a hundred of the Indians to perfect health. They took the old lean oxen out of the cart, and drew him back to Montreal in triumph. This ‘stablished him at once, and in a few days’ time he made a fortune. The very doctors sent for him to cure them; and it is to be hoped that in a few days he will banish the cholera from the city.”

“Do you know his famous remedy?”

“Do I not?—Did he not cure me when I was at the last gasp? Why, he makes no secret of it. It is all drawn from the maple-tree. First he rubs the patient all over with an ointment, made of hog’s lard and maple-sugar and ashes, from the maple-tree; and he gives him a hot draught of maple-sugar and ley, which throws him into a violent perspiration. In about an hour the cramps subside; he falls into a quiet sleep, and when he awakes he is perfectly restored to health.” Such were our first tidings of Stephen Ayres, the cholera doctor, who is universally believed to have effected some wonderful cures. He obtained a wide celebrity throughout the colony.(1)

(1) A friend of mine, in this town, has an original portrait of this notable empiric—this man sent from heaven. The face is rather handsome, but has a keen, designing expression, and is evidently that of an American, from its complexion and features.

The day of our arrival in the port of Montreal was spent in packing and preparing for our long journey up the country. At sunset, I went upon deck to enjoy the refreshing breeze that swept from the river. The evening was delightful; the white tents of the soldiers on the Island of St. Helens glittered in the beams of the sun, and the bugle-call, wafted over the waters, sounded so cheery and inspiring, that it banished all fears of the cholera, and, with fear, the heavy gloom that had clouded my mind since we left Quebec. I could once more hold sweet converse with nature, and enjoy the soft loveliness of the rich and harmonious scene.

A loud cry from one of the crew startled me; I turned to the river, and beheld a man struggling in the water a short distance from our vessel. He was a young sailor, who had fallen from the bowsprit of a ship near us.

There is something terribly exciting in beholding a fellow-creature in imminent peril, without having the power to help him. To witness his death-struggles—to feel in your own person all the dreadful alternations of hope and fear—and, finally, to see him die, with scarcely an effort made for his preservation. This was our case.

At the moment he fell into the water, a boat with three men was within a few yards of the spot, and actually sailed over the spot where he sank. Cries of “Shame!” from the crowd collected upon the bank of the river, had no effect in rousing these people to attempt the rescue of a perishing fellow-creature. The boat passed on. The drowning man again rose to the surface, the convulsive motion of his hands and feet visible above the water, but it was evident that the struggle would be his last.

“Is it possible that they will let a human being perish, and so near the shore, when an oar held out would save his life?” was the agonising question at my heart, as I gazed, half-maddened by excitement, on the fearful spectacle. The eyes of a multitude were fixed upon the same object—but not a hand stirred. Every one seemed to expect from his fellow an effort which he was incapable of attempting himself.

At this moment—splash! a sailor plunged into the water from the deck of a neighbouring vessel, and dived after the drowning man. A deep “Thank God!” burst from my heart. I drew a freer breath as the brave fellow’s head appeared above the water. He called to the man in the boat to throw him an oar, or the drowning man would be the death of them both. Slowly they put back the boat—the oar was handed; but it came too late! The sailor, whose name was Cook, had been obliged to shake off the hold of the dying man to save his own life. He dived again to the bottom, and succeeded in bringing to shore the body of the unfortunate being he had vainly endeavoured to succour. Shortly after, he came on board our vessel, foaming with passion at the barbarous indifference manifested by the men in the boat.

“Had they given me the oar in time, I could have saved him. I knew him well—he was an excellent fellow, and a good seaman. He has left a wife and three children in Liverpool. Poor Jane!—how can I tell her that I could not save her husband?”

He wept bitterly, and it was impossible for any of us to witness his emotion without joining in his grief.

From the mate I learned that this same young man had saved the lives of three women and a child when the boat was swamped at Grosse Isle, in attempting to land the passengers from the Horsley Hill.

Such acts of heroism are common in the lower walks of life. Thus, the purest gems are often encased in the rudest crust; and the finest feelings of the human heart are fostered in the chilling atmosphere of poverty.

While this sad event occupied all our thoughts, and gave rise to many painful reflections, an exclamation of unqualified delight at once changed the current of our thoughts, and filled us with surprise and pleasure. Maggie Grant had fainted in the arms of her husband.

Yes, there was Tam—her dear, reckless Tam, after all her tears and lamentations, pressing his young wife to his heart, and calling her by a thousand endearing pet names.

He had met with some countrymen at Quebec, had taken too much whiskey on the joyful occasion, and lost his passage in the Anne, but had followed, a few hours later, in another steam-boat; and he assured the now happy Maggie, as he kissed the infant Tam, whom she held up to his admiring gaze, that he never would be guilty of the like again. Perhaps he kept his word; but I much fear that the first temptation would make the lively laddie forget his promise.

Our luggage having been removed to the Custom-house, including our bedding, the captain collected all the ship’s flags for our accommodation, of which we formed a tolerably comfortable bed; and if our dreams were of England, could it be otherwise, with her glorious flag wrapped around us, and our heads resting upon the Union Jack?

In the morning we were obliged to visit the city to make the necessary arrangements for our upward journey.

The day was intensely hot. A bank of thunderclouds lowered heavily above the mountain, and the close, dusty streets were silent, and nearly deserted. Here and there might be seen a group of anxious-looking, care-worn, sickly emigrants, seated against a wall among their packages, and sadly ruminating upon their future prospects.

The sullen toll of the death-bell, the exposure of ready-made coffins in the undertakers’ windows, and the oft-recurring notice placarded on the walls, of funerals furnished at such and such a place, at cheapest rate and shortest notice, painfully reminded us, at every turning of the street, that death was everywhere—perhaps lurking in our very path; we felt no desire to examine the beauties of the place. With this ominous feeling pervading our minds, public buildings possessed few attractions, and we determined to make our stay as short as possible.

Compared with the infected city, our ship appeared an ark of safety, and we returned to it with joy and confidence, too soon to be destroyed. We had scarcely re-entered our cabin, when tidings were brought to us that the cholera had made its appearance: a brother of the captain had been attacked.

It was advisable that we should leave the vessel immediately, before the intelligence could reach the health-officers. A few minutes sufficed to make the necessary preparations; and in less than half an hour we found ourselves occupying comfortable apartments in Goodenough’s hotel, and our passage taken in the stage for the following morning.

The transition was like a dream. The change from the close, rank ship, to large, airy, well-furnished rooms and clean attendants, was a luxury we should have enjoyed had not the dread of cholera involved all things around us in gloom and apprehension. No one spoke upon the subject; and yet it was evident that it was uppermost in the thoughts of all. Several emigrants had died of the terrible disorder during the week, beneath the very roof that sheltered us, and its ravages, we were told, had extended up the country as far as Kingston; so that it was still to be the phantom of our coming journey, if we were fortunate enough to escape from its head-quarters.

At six o’clock the following morning, we took our places in the coach for Lachine, and our fears of the plague greatly diminished as we left the spires of Montreal in the distance. The journey from Montreal westward has been so well described by many gifted pens, that I shall say little about it. The banks of the St. Lawrence are picturesque and beautiful, particularly in those spots where there is a good view of the American side. The neat farm-houses looked to me, whose eyes had been so long accustomed to the watery waste, homes of beauty and happiness; and the splendid orchards, the trees at that season of the year being loaded with ripening fruit of all hues, were refreshing and delicious.

My partiality for the apples was regarded by a fellow-traveller with a species of horror. “Touch them not, if you value your life.” Every draught of fresh air and water inspired me with renewed health and spirits, and I disregarded the well-meant advice; the gentlemen who gave it had just recovered from the terrible disease. He was a middle-aged man, a farmer from the Upper Province, Canadian born. He had visited Montreal on business for the first time. “Well, sir,” he said, in answer to some questions put to him by my husband respecting the disease, “I can tell you what it is: a man smitten with the cholera stares death right in the face; and the torment he is suffering is so great that he would gladly die to get rid of it.”

“You were fortunate, C——, to escape,” said a backwood settler, who occupied the opposite seat; “many a younger man has died of it.”

“Ay; but I believe I never should have taken it had it not been for some things they gave me for supper at the hotel; oysters, they called them, oysters; they were alive! I was once persuaded by a friend to eat them, and I liked them well enough at the time. But I declare to you that I felt them crawling over one another in my stomach all night. The next morning I was seized with the cholera.”

“Did you swallow them whole, C——?” said the former spokesman, who seemed highly tickled by the evil doings of the oysters.

“To be sure. I tell you, the creatures are alive. You put them on your tongue, and I’ll be bound you’ll be glad to let them slip down as fast as you can.”

“No wonder you had the cholera,” said the backwoodsman, “you deserved it for your barbarity. If I had a good plate of oysters here, I’d teach you the way to eat them.”

Our journey during the first day was performed partly by coach, partly by steam. It was nine o’clock in the evening when we landed at Cornwell, and took coach for Prescott. The country through which we passed appeared beautiful in the clear light of the moon; but the air was cold, and slightly sharpened by frost. This seemed strange to me in the early part of September, but it is very common in Canada. Nine passengers were closely packed into our narrow vehicle, but the sides being of canvas, and the open space allowed for windows unglazed, I shivered with cold, which amounted to a state of suffering, when the day broke, and we approached the little village of Matilda. It was unanimously voted by all hands that we should stop and breakfast at a small inn by the road-side, and warm ourselves before proceeding to Prescott.

The people in the tavern were not stirring, and it was some time before an old white-headed man unclosed the door, and showed us into a room, redolent with fumes of tobacco, and darkened by paper blinds. I asked him if he would allow me to take my infant into a room with a fire.

“I guess it was a pretty considerable cold night for the like of her,” said he. “Come, I’ll show you to the kitchen; there’s always a fire there.” I cheerfully followed, accompanied by our servant.

Our entrance was unexpected, and by no means agreeable to the persons we found there. A half-clothed, red-haired Irish servant was upon her knees, kindling up the fire; and a long, thin woman, with a sharp face, and an eye like a black snake, was just emerging from a bed in the corner. We soon discovered this apparition to be the mistress of the house.

“The people can’t come in here!” she screamed in a shrill voice, darting daggers at the poor old man.

“Sure there’s a baby, and the two women critters are perished with cold,” pleaded the good old man.

“What’s that to me? They have no business in my kitchen.”

“Now, Almira, do hold on. It’s the coach has stopped to breakfast with us; and you know we don’t often get the chance.”

All this time the fair Almira was dressing as fast as she could, and eyeing her unwelcome female guests, as we stood shivering over the fire.

“Breakfast!” she muttered, “what can we give them to eat? They pass our door a thousand times without any one alighting; and now, when we are out of everything, they must stop and order breakfast at such an unreasonable hour. How many are there of you?” turning fiercely to me.

“Nine,” I answered, laconically, continuing to chafe the cold hands and feet of the child.

“Nine! That bit of beef will be nothing, cut into steaks for nine. What’s to be done, Joe?” (to the old man.)

“Eggs and ham, summat of that dried venison, and pumpkin pie,” responded the aide-de-camp, thoughtfully. “I don’t know of any other fixings.”

“Bestir yourself, then, and lay out the table, for the coach can’t stay long,” cried the virago, seizing a frying-pan from the wall, and preparing it for the reception of eggs and ham. “I must have the fire to myself. People can’t come crowding here, when I have to fix breakfast for nine; particularly when there is a good room elsewhere provided for their accommodation.” I took the hint, and retreated to the parlour, where I found the rest of the passengers walking to and fro, and impatiently awaiting the advent of breakfast.

To do Almira justice, she prepared from her scanty materials a very substantial breakfast in an incredibly short time, for which she charged us a quarter of a dollar per head.

At Prescott we embarked on board a fine new steam-boat, William IV., crowded with Irish emigrants, proceeding to Cobourg and Toronto.

While pacing the deck, my husband was greatly struck by the appearance of a middle-aged man and his wife, who sat apart from the rest, and seemed struggling with intense grief, which, in spite of all their efforts at concealment, was strongly impressed upon their features. Some time after, I fell into conversation with the woman, from whom I learned their little history. The husband was factor to a Scotch gentleman, of large landed property, who had employed him to visit Canada, and report the capabilities of the country, prior to his investing a large sum of money in wild lands. The expenses of their voyage had been paid, and everything up to that morning had prospered them. They had been blessed with a speedy passage, and were greatly pleased with the country and the people; but of what avail was all this? Their only son, a fine lad of fourteen, had died that day of the cholera, and all their hopes for the future were buried in his grave. For his sake they had sought a home in this far land; and here, at the very onset of their new career, the fell disease had taken him from them for ever—here, where, in such a crowd, the poor heart-broken mother could not even indulge her natural grief!

“Ah, for a place where I might greet!” she said; “it would relieve the burning weight at my heart. But with sae many strange eyes glowering upon me, I tak’ shame to mysel’ to greet.”

“Ah, Jeannie, my puir woman,” said the husband, grasping her hand, “ye maun bear up; ’tis God’s will; an sinfu’ creatures like us mauna repine. But oh, madam,” turning to me, “we have sair hearts the day!”

Poor bereaved creatures, how deeply I commiserated their grief—how I respected the poor father, in the stern efforts he made to conceal from indifferent spectators the anguish that weighed upon his mind! Tears are the best balm that can be applied to the anguish of the heart. Religion teaches man to bear his sorrows with becoming fortitude, but tears contribute largely both to soften and to heal the wounds from whence they flow.

At Brockville we took in a party of ladies, which somewhat relieved the monotony of the cabin, and I was amused by listening to their lively prattle, and the little gossip with which they strove to wile away the tedium of the voyage. The day was too stormy to go upon deck—thunder and lightening, accompanied with torrents of rain. Amid the confusion of the elements, I tried to get a peep at the Lake of the Thousand Isles; but the driving storm blended all objects into one, and I returned wet and disappointed to my berth. We passed Kingston at midnight, and lost all our lady passengers but two. The gale continued until daybreak, and noise and confusion prevailed all night, which were greatly increased by the uproarious conduct of a wild Irish emigrant, who thought fit to make his bed upon the mat before the cabin door. He sang, he shouted, and harangued his countrymen on the political state of the Emerald Isle, in a style which was loud if not eloquent. Sleep was impossible, whilst his stentorian lungs continued to pour forth torrents of unmeaning sound.

Our Dutch stewardess was highly enraged. His conduct, she said, “was perfectly ondacent.” She opened the door, and bestowing upon him several kicks, bade him get away “out of that,” or she would complain to the captain.

In answer to this remonstrance, he caught her by the foot, and pulled her down. Then waving the tattered remains of his straw hat in the air, he shouted with an air of triumph, “Git out wid you, you ould witch! Shure the ladies, the purty darlints, never sent you wid that ugly message to Pat, who loves them so intirely that he manes to kape watch over them through the blessed night.” Then making us a ludicrous bow, he continued, “Ladies, I’m at yer sarvice; I only wish I could get a dispensation from the Pope, and I’d marry yeas all.” The stewardess bolted the door, and the mad fellow kept up such a racket that we all wished him at the bottom of the Ontario.

The following day was wet and gloomy. The storm had protracted the length of our voyage for several hours, and it was midnight when we landed at Cobourg.

(Written at midnight on the river St. Lawrence)

There’s rest when eve, with dewy fingers,
Draws the curtains of repose
Round the west, where light still lingers,
And the day’s last glory glows;
There’s rest in heaven’s unclouded blue,
When twinkling stars steal one by one,
So softly on the gazer’s view,
As if they sought his glance to shun.

There’s rest when o’er the silent meads
The deepening shades of night advance;
And sighing through their fringe of reeds,
The mighty stream’s clear waters glance.
There’s rest when all above is bright,
And gently o’er these summer isles
The full moon pours her mellow light,
And heaven on earth serenely smiles.

There’s rest when angry storms are o’er,
And fear no longer vigil keeps;
When winds are heard to rave no more,
And ocean’s troubled spirit sleeps;
There’s rest when to the pebbly strand,
The lapsing billows slowly glide;
And, pillow’d on the golden sand,
Breathes soft and low the slumbering tide.

There’s rest, deep rest, at this still hour—
A holy calm,—a pause profound;
Whose soothing spell and dreamy power
Lulls into slumber all around.
There’s rest for labour’s hardy child,
For Nature’s tribes of earth and air,—
Whose sacred balm and influence mild,
Save guilt and sorrow, all may share.

There’s rest beneath the quiet sod,
When life and all its sorrows cease,
And in the bosom of his God
The Christian finds eternal peace,—
That peace the world cannot bestow,
The rest a Saviour’s death-pangs bought,
To bid the weary pilgrim know
A rest surpassing human thought.


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