Roughing it in the Bush
“A nose, kind sir! Sure mother Nature,
With all her freaks, ne’er formed this feature.
If such were mine, I’d try and trade it,
And swear the gods had never made it.”
After reducing the log cabin into some sort of order, we contrived, with the aid of a few boards, to make a bed-closet for poor Tom Wilson, who continued to shake every day with the pitiless ague. There was no way of admitting light and air into this domicile, which opened into the general apartment, but through a square hole cut in one of the planks, just wide enough to admit a man’s head through the aperture. Here we made Tom a comfortable bed on the floor, and did the best we could to nurse him through his sickness. His long, thin face, emaciated with disease, and surrounded by huge black whiskers, and a beard of a week’s growth, looked perfectly unearthly. He had only to stare at the baby to frighten her almost out of her wits.
“How fond that young one is of me,” he would say; “she cries for joy at the sight of me.”
Among his curiosities, and he had many, he held in great esteem a huge nose, made hollow to fit his face, which his father, a being almost as eccentric as himself, had carved out of boxwood. When he slipped this nose over his own (which was no beautiful classical specimen of a nasal organ), it made a most perfect and hideous disguise. The mother who bore him never would have recognised her accomplished son.
Numberless were the tricks he played off with this nose. Once he walked through the streets of ——, with this proboscis attached to his face. “What a nose! Look at the man with the nose!” cried all the boys in the street. A party of Irish emigrants passed at the moment. The men, with the courtesy natural to their nation, forbore to laugh in the gentleman’s face; but after they had passed, Tom looked back, and saw them bent half double in convulsions of mirth. Tom made the party a low bow, gravely took off his nose, and put it in his pocket.
The day after this frolic, he had a very severe fit of the ague, and looked so ill that I really entertained fears for his life. The hot fit had just left him, and he lay upon his bed bedewed with a cold perspiration, in a state of complete exhaustion.
“Poor Tom,” said I, “he has passed a horrible day, but the worst is over, and I will make him a cup of coffee.” While preparing it, Old Satan came in and began to talk to my husband. He happened to sit directly opposite the aperture which gave light and air to Tom’s berth. This man was disgustingly ugly. He had lost one eye in a quarrel. It had been gouged out in the barbarous conflict, and the side of his face presented a succession of horrible scars inflicted by the teeth of his savage adversary. The nickname he had acquired through the country sufficiently testified to the respectability of his character, and dreadful tales were told of him in the neighbourhood, where he was alike feared and hated.
The rude fellow, with his accustomed insolence, began abusing the old country folks.
The English were great bullies, he said; they thought no one could fight but themselves; but the Yankees had whipped them, and would whip them again. He was not afear’d of them, he never was afear’d in his life.
Scarcely were the words out of his mouth, when a horrible apparition presented itself to his view. Slowly rising from his bed, and putting on the fictitious nose, while he drew his white nightcap over his ghastly and livid brow, Tom thrust his face through the aperture, and uttered a diabolical cry; then sank down upon his unseen couch as noiselessly as he had arisen. The cry was like nothing human, and it was echoed by an involuntary scream from the lips of our maid-servant and myself.
“Good God! what’s that?” cried Satan, falling back in his chair, and pointing to the vacant aperture. “Did you hear it? did you see it? It beats the universe. I never saw a ghost or the devil before!”
Moodie, who had recognised the ghost, and greatly enjoyed the fun, pretended profound ignorance, and coolly insinuated that Old Satan had lost his senses. The man was bewildered; he stared at the vacant aperture, then at us in turn, as if he doubted the accuracy of his own vision. “’Tis tarnation odd,” he said; “but the women heard it too.”
“I heard a sound,” I said, “a dreadful sound, but I saw no ghost.”
“Sure an’ ’twas himsel’,” said my lowland Scotch girl, who now perceived the joke; “he was a-seeken’ to gie us puir bodies a wee fricht.”
“How long have you been subject to these sort of fits?” said I. “You had better speak to the doctor about them. Such fancies, if they are not attended to, often end in madness.”
“Mad!” (very indignantly) “I guess I’m not mad, but as wide awake as you are. Did I not see it with my own eyes? And then the noise—I could not make such a tarnation outcry to save my life. But be it man or devil, I don’t care, I’m not afear’d,” doubling his fist very undecidedly at the hole. Again the ghastly head was protruded—the dreadful eyes rolled wildly in their hollow sockets, and a yell more appalling than the former rang through the room. The man sprang from his chair, which he overturned in his fright, and stood for an instant with his one-eyeball starting from his head, and glaring upon the spectre; his cheeks deadly pale; the cold perspiration streaming from his face; his lips dissevered, and his teeth chattering in his head.
“There—there—there. Look—look, it comes again!—the devil!—the devil!”
Here Tom, who still kept his eyes fixed upon his victim, gave a knowing wink, and thrust his tongue out of his mouth.
“He is coming!—he is coming!” cried the affrighted wretch; and clearing the open doorway with one leap, he fled across the field at full speed. The stream intercepted his path—he passed it at a bound, plunged into the forest, and was out of sight.
“Ha, ha, ha!” chuckled poor Tom, sinking down exhausted on his bed. “Oh that I had strength to follow up my advantage, I would lead Old Satan such a chase that he should think his namesake was in truth behind him.”
During the six weeks that we inhabited that wretched cabin, we never were troubled by Old Satan again.
As Tom slowly recovered, and began to regain his appetite, his soul sickened over the salt beef and pork, which, owing to our distance from ——, formed our principal fare. He positively refused to touch the sad bread, as my Yankee neighbours very appropriately termed the unleavened cakes in the pan; and it was no easy matter to send a man on horseback eight miles to fetch a loaf of bread.
“Do, my dear Mrs. Moodie, like a good Christian as you are, give me a morsel of the baby’s biscuit, and try and make us some decent bread. The stuff your servant gives us is uneatable,” said Wilson to me, in most imploring accents.
“Most willingly. But I have no yeast; and I never baked in one of those strange kettles in my life.”
“I’ll go to old Joe’s wife and borrow some,” said he; “they are always borrowing of you.” Away he went across the field, but soon returned. I looked into his jug—it was empty. “No luck,” said he; “those stingy wretches had just baked a fine batch of bread, and they would neither lend nor sell a loaf; but they told me how to make their milk-emptyings.”
“Well, discuss the same;” but I much doubted if he could remember the recipe.
“You are to take an old tin pan,” said he, sitting down on the stool, and poking the fire with a stick.
“Must it be an old one?” said I, laughing.
“Of course; they said so.”
“And what am I to put into it?”
“Patience; let me begin at the beginning. Some flour and some milk—but, by George! I’ve forgot all about it. I was wondering as I came across the field why they called the yeast milk-emptyings, and that put the way to make it quite out of my head. But never mind; it is only ten o’clock by my watch. I having nothing to do; I will go again.”
He went. Would I had been there to hear the colloquy between him and Mrs. Joe; he described it something to this effect:—
Mrs. Joe: “Well, stranger, what do you want now?”
Tom: “I have forgotten the way you told me how to make the bread.”
Mrs. Joe: “I never told you how to make bread. I guess you are a fool. People have to raise bread before they can bake it. Pray who sent you to make game of me? I guess somebody as wise as yourself.”
Tom: “The lady at whose house I am staying.”
Mrs. Joe: “Lady! I can tell you that we have no ladies here. So the old woman who lives in the old log shanty in the hollow don’t know how to make bread. A clever wife that! Are you her husband?” (Tom shakes his head.)—“Her brother?”—(Another shake.)—“Her son? Do you hear? or are you deaf?” (Going quite close up to him.)
Tom (moving back): “Mistress, I’m not deaf; and who or what I am is nothing to you. Will you oblige me by telling me how to make the mill-emptyings; and this time I’ll put it down in my pocket-book.”
Mrs. Joe (with a strong sneer): “Mill-emptyings! Milk, I told you. So you expect me to answer your questions, and give back nothing in return. Get you gone; I’ll tell you no more about it.”
Tom (bowing very low): “Thank you for your civility. Is the old woman who lives in the little shanty near the apple-trees more obliging?”
Mrs. Joe: “That’s my husband’s mother. You may try. I guess she’ll give you an answer.” (Exit, slamming the door in his face.)
“And what did you do then ?” said I.
“Oh, went of course. The door was open, and I reconnoitred the premises before I ventured in. I liked the phiz of the old woman a deal better than that of her daughter-in-law, although it was cunning and inquisitive, and as sharp as a needle. She was busy shelling cobs of Indian corn into a barrel. I rapped at the door. She told me to come in, and in I stepped. She asked me if I wanted her. I told her my errand, at which she laughed heartily.”
Old woman: “You are from the old country, I guess, or you would know how to make milk-emptyings. Now, I always prefer bran-emptyings. They make the best bread. The milk, I opine, gives it a sourish taste, and the bran is the least trouble.”
Tom: “Then let us have the bran, by all means. How do you make it?”
Old woman: “I put a double handful of bran into a small pot, or kettle, but a jug will do, and a teaspoonful of salt; but mind you don’t kill it with salt, for if you do, it won’t rise. I then add as much warm water, at blood-heat, as will mix it into a stiff batter. I then put the jug into a pan of warm water, and set it on the hearth near the fire, and keep it at the same heat until it rises, which it generally will do, if you attend to it, in two or three hours’ time. When the bran cracks at the top, and you see white bubbles rising through it, you may strain it into your flour, and lay your bread. It makes good bread.”
Tom: “My good woman, I am greatly obliged to you. We have no bran; can you give me a small quantity?”
Old woman: “I never give anything. You Englishers, who come out with stacks of money, can afford to buy.”
Tom: “Sell me a small quantity.”
Old woman: “I guess I will.” (Edging quite close, and fixing her sharp eyes on him.) “You must be very rich to buy bran.”
Tom (quizzically): “Oh, very rich.”
Old woman: “How do you get your money?”
Tom (sarcastically): “I don’t steal it.”
Old woman: “Pr’aps not. I guess you’ll soon let others do that for you, if you don’t take care. Are the people you live with related to you?”
Tom (hardly able to keep his gravity): “On Eve’s side. They are my friends.”
Old woman (in surprise): “And do they keep you for nothing, or do you work for your meat?”
Tom (impatiently): “Is that bran ready?” (The old woman goes to the binn, and measures out a quart of bran.) “What am I to pay you?”
Old woman: “A York shilling.”
Tom (wishing to test her honesty): “Is there any difference between a York shilling and a shilling of British currency?”
Old woman (evasively): “I guess not. Is there not a place in England called York?” (Looking up and leering knowingly in his face.)
Tom (laughing): “You are not going to come York over me in that way, or Yankee either. There is threepence for your pound of bran; you are enormously paid.”
Old woman (calling after him): “But the recipe; do you allow nothing for the recipe?”
Tom: “It is included in the price of the bran.”
“And so,” said he, “I came laughing away, rejoicing in my sleeve that I had disappointed the avaricious old cheat.”
The next thing to be done was to set the bran rising. By the help of Tom’s recipe, it was duly mixed in the coffee-pot, and placed within a tin pan, full of hot water, by the side of the fire. I have often heard it said that a watched pot never boils; and there certainly was no lack of watchers in this case. Tom sat for hours regarding it with his large heavy eyes, the maid inspected it from time to time, and scarce ten minutes were suffered to elapse without my testing the heat of the water, and the state of the emptyings; but the day slipped slowly away, and night drew on, and yet the watched pot gave no signs of vitality. Tom sighed deeply when we sat down to tea with the old fare.
“Never mind,” said he, “we shall get some good bread in the morning; it must get up by that time. I will wait till then. I could almost starve before I could touch these leaden cakes.”
The tea-things were removed. Tom took up his flute, and commenced a series of the wildest voluntary airs that ever were breathed forth by human lungs. Mad jigs, to which the gravest of mankind might have cut eccentric capers. We were all convulsed with laughter. In the midst of one of these droll movements, Tom suddenly hopped like a kangaroo (which feat he performed by raising himself upon tip-toes, then flinging himself forward with a stooping jerk), towards the hearth, and squinting down into the coffee-pot in the most quizzical manner, exclaimed, “Miserable chaff! If that does not make you rise nothing will.”
I left the bran all night by the fire. Early in the morning I had the satisfaction of finding that it had risen high above the rim of the pot, and was surrounded by a fine crown of bubbles.
“Better late than never,” thought I, as I emptied the emptyings into my flour. “Tom is not up yet. I will make him so happy with a loaf of new bread, nice home-baked bread, for his breakfast.” It was my first Canadian loaf. I felt quite proud of it, as I placed it in the odd machine in which it was to be baked. I did not understand the method of baking in these ovens; or that my bread should have remained in the kettle for half an hour, until it had risen the second time, before I applied the fire to it, in order that the bread should be light. It not only required experience to know when it was in a fit state for baking, but the oven should have been brought to a proper temperature to receive the bread. Ignorant of all this, I put my unrisen bread into a cold kettle, and heaped a large quantity of hot ashes above and below it. The first intimation I had of the result of my experiment was the disagreeable odour of burning bread filling the house.
“What is this horrid smell?” cried Tom, issuing from his domicile, in his shirt sleeves. “Do open the door, Bell (to the maid); I feel quite sick.”
“It is the bread,” said I, taking the lid of the oven with the tongs. “Dear me, it is all burnt!”
“And smells as sour as vinegar,” says he. “The black bread of Sparta!”
Alas! for my maiden loaf! With a rueful face I placed it on the breakfast table. “I hoped to have given you a treat, but I fear you will find it worse than the cakes in the pan.”
“You may be sure of that,” said Tom, as he stuck his knife into the loaf, and drew it forth covered with raw dough. “Oh, Mrs. Moodie! I hope you make better books than bread.”
We were all sadly disappointed. The others submitted to my failure good-naturedly, and made it the subject of many droll, but not unkindly, witicisms. For myself, I could have borne the severest infliction from the pen of the most formidable critic with more fortitude than I bore the cutting up of my first loaf of bread.
After breakfast, Moodie and Wilson rode into the town; and when they returned at night brought several long letters for me. Ah! those first kind letters from home! Never shall I forget the rapture with which I grasped them—the eager, trembling haste with which I tore them open, while the blinding tears which filled my eyes hindered me for some minutes from reading a word which they contained. Sixteen years have slowly passed away—it appears half a century—but never, never can home letters give me the intense joy those letters did. After seven years’ exile, the hope of return grows feeble, the means are still less in our power, and our friends give up all hope of our return; their letters grow fewer and colder, their expressions of attachment are less vivid; the heart has formed new ties, and the poor emigrant is nearly forgotten. Double those years, and it is as if the grave had closed over you, and the hearts that once knew and loved you know you no more.
Tom, too, had a large packet of letters, which he read with great glee. After re-perusing them, he declared his intention of setting off on his return home the next day. We tried to persuade him to stay until the following spring, and make a fair trial of the country. Arguments were thrown away upon him; the next morning our eccentric friend was ready to start.
“Good-bye!” quoth he, shaking me by the hand as if he meant to sever it from the wrist. “When next we meet it will be in New South Wales, and I hope by that time you will know how to make better bread.” And thus ended Tom Wilson’s emigration to Canada. He brought out three hundred pounds, British currency; he remained in the country just four months, and returned to England with barely enough to pay his passage home.
Son of the isles! rave not to me
Of the old world’s pride and luxury;
Why did you cross the western deep,
Thus like a love-lorn maid to weep
O’er comforts gone and pleasures fled,
‘Mid forests wild to earn your bread?
Did you expect that Art would vie
With Nature here, to please the eye;
That stately tower, and fancy cot,
Would grace each rude concession lot;
That, independent of your hearth,
Men would admit your claims to birth?
No tyrant’s fetter binds the soul,
The mind of man’s above control;
Necessity, that makes the slave,
Has taught the free a course more brave;
With bold, determined heart to dare
The ills that all are born to share.
Believe me, youth, the truly great
Stoop not to mourn o’er fallen state;
They make their wants and wishes less,
And rise superior to distress;
The glebe they break—the sheaf they bind—
But elevates a noble mind.
Contented in my rugged cot,
Your lordly towers I envy not;
Though rude our clime and coarse our cheer,
True independence greets you here;
Amid these forests, dark and wild,
Dwells honest labour’s hardy child.
His happy lot I gladly share,
And breathe a purer, freer air;
No more by wealthy upstart spurn’d,
The bread is sweet by labour earn’d;
Indulgent heaven has bless’d the soil,
And plenty crowns the woodman’s toil.
Beneath his axe, the forest yields
Its thorny maze to fertile fields;
This goodly breadth of well-till’d land,
Well-purchased by his own right hand,
With conscience clear, he can bequeath
His children, when he sleeps in death.