Roughing it in the Bush

Chapter VIII: John Monaghan

“Dear mother Nature! on thy ample breast
Hast thou not room for thy neglected son?
A stern necessity has driven him forth
Alone and friendless. He has naught but thee,
And the strong hand and stronger heart thou gavest,
To win with patient toil his daily bread.”

A few days after the old woman’s visit to the cottage, our servant James absented himself for a week, without asking leave, or giving any intimation of his intention. He had under his care a fine pair of horses, a yoke of oxen, three cows, and a numerous family of pigs, besides having to chop all the firewood required for our use. His unexpected departure caused no small trouble in the family; and when the truant at last made his appearance, Moodie discharged him altogether.

The winter had now fairly set in—the iron winter of 1833. The snow was unusually deep, and it being our first winter in Canada, and passed in such a miserable dwelling, we felt it very severely. In spite of all my boasted fortitude—and I think my powers of endurance have been tried to the uttermost since my sojourn in this country—the rigour of the climate subdued my proud, independent English spirit, and I actually shamed my womanhood and cried with the cold. Yes, I ought to blush at evincing such unpardonable weakness; but I was foolish and inexperienced, and unaccustomed to the yoke.

My husband did not much relish performing the menial duties of a servant in such weather, but he did not complain, and in the meantime commenced an active inquiry for a man to supply the place of the one we had lost; but at that season of the year no one was to be had.

It was a bitter, freezing night. A sharp wind howled without, and drove the fine snow through the chinks in the door, almost to the hearth-stone, on which two immense blocks of maple shed forth a cheering glow, brightening the narrow window-panes, and making the blackened rafters ruddy with the heart-invigorating blaze.

The toils of the day were over, the supper things cleared away, and the door closed for the night. Moodie had taken up his flute, the sweet companion of happier days, at the earnest request of our homesick Scotch servant-girl, to cheer her drooping spirits by playing some of the touching national airs of the glorious mountain land, the land of chivalry and song, the heroic North. Before retiring to rest, Bell, who had an exquisite ear for music, kept time with foot and hand, while large tears gathered in her soft blue eyes.

“Ay, ’tis bonnie thae songs; but they mak’ me greet, an’ my puir heart is sair, sair when I think on the bonnie braes and the days o’lang syne.”

Poor Bell! Her heart was among the hills, and mine had wandered far, far away to the green groves and meadows of my own fair land. The music and our reveries were alike abruptly banished by a sharp blow upon the door. Bell rose and opened it, when a strange, wild-looking lad, barefooted, and with no other covering to his head than the thick, matted locks of raven blackness that hung like a cloud over his swarthy, sunburnt visage, burst into the room.

“Guidness defend us! Wha ha’e we here?” screamed Bell, retreating into a corner. “The puir callant’s no cannie.”

My husband turned hastily round to meet the intruder, and I raised the candle from the table the better to distinguish his face; while Bell, from her hiding-place, regarded him with unequivocal glances of fear and mistrust, waving her hands to me, and pointing significantly to the open door, as if silently beseeching me to tell her master to turn him out.

“Shut the door, man,” said Moodie, whose long scrutiny of the strange being before us seemed upon the whole satisfactory; “we shall be frozen.”

“Thin faith, sir, that’s what I am,” said the lad, in a rich brogue, which told, without asking, the country to which he belonged. Then stretching his bare hands to the fire, he continued, “By Jove, sir, I was never so near gone in my life!”

“Where do you come from, and what is your business here? You must be aware that this is a very late hour to take a house by storm in this way.”

“Thrue for you, sir. But necessity knows no law; and the condition you see me in must plade for me. First, thin, sir, I come from the township of D——, and want a masther; and next to that, bedad! I want something to ate. As I’m alive, and ’tis a thousand pities that I’m alive at all at all, for shure God Almighty never made sich a misfortunate crather afore nor since; I have had nothing to put in my head since I ran away from my ould masther, Mr. F——, yesterday at noon. Money I have none, sir; the divil a cent. I have neither a shoe to my foot nor a hat to my head, and if you refuse to shelter me the night, I must be contint to perish in the snow, for I have not a frind in the wide wurld.”

The lad covered his face with his hands, and sobbed aloud.

“Bell,” I whispered; “go to the cupboard and get the poor fellow something to eat. The boy is starving.”

“Dinna heed him, mistress, dinna credit his lees. He is ane o’ those wicked Papists wha ha’ just stepped in to rob and murder us.”

“Nonsense! Do as I bid you.”

“I winna be fashed aboot him. An’ if he bides here, I’ll e’en flit by the first blink o’ the morn.”

“Isabel, for shame! Is this acting like a Christian, or doing as you would be done by?”

Bell was as obstinate as a rock, not only refusing to put down any food for the famished lad, but reiterating her threat of leaving the house if he were suffered to remain. My husband, no longer able to endure her selfish and absurd conduct, got angry in good earnest, and told her that she might please herself; that he did not mean to ask her leave as to whom he received into his house. I, for my part, had no idea that she would realise her threat. She was an excellent servant, clean, honest, and industrious, and loved the dear baby.

“You will think better of it in the morning,” said I, as I rose and placed before the lad some cold beef and bread, and a bowl of milk, to which the runaway did ample justice.

“Why did you quit your master, my lad?” said Moodie.

“Because I could live wid him no longer. You see, sir, I’m a poor foundling from the Belfast Asylum, shoved out by the mother that bore me, upon the wide wurld, long before I knew that I was in it. As I was too young to spake for myself intirely, she put me into a basket, wid a label round my neck, to tell the folks that my name was John Monaghan. This was all I ever got from my parents; and who or what they were, I never knew, not I, for they never claimed me; bad cess to them! But I’ve no doubt it’s a fine illigant gintleman he was, and herself a handsome rich young lady, who dared not own me for fear of affronting the rich jintry, her father and mother. Poor folk, sir, are never ashamed of their children; ’tis all the threasure they have, sir; but my parents were ashamed of me, and they thrust me out to the stranger and the hard bread of depindence.” The poor lad signed deeply, and I began to feel a growing interest in his sad history.

“Have you been in the country long?”

“Four years, madam. You know my masther, Mr. F——; he brought me out wid him as his apprentice, and during the voyage he trated me well. But the young men, his sons, are tyrants, and full of durty pride; and I could not agree wid them at all at all. Yesterday, I forgot to take the oxen out of the yoke, and Musther William tied me up to a stump, and bate me with the raw hide. Shure the marks are on me showlthers yet. I left the oxen and the yoke, and turned my back upon them all, for the hot blood was bilin’ widin me; and I felt that if I stayed it would be him that would get the worst of it. No one had ever cared for me since I was born, so I thought it was high time to take care of myself. I had heard your name, sir, and I thought I would find you out; and if you want a lad, I will work for you for my kape, and a few dacent clothes.”

A bargain was soon made. Moodie agreed to give Monaghan six dollars a month, which he thankfully accepted; and I told Bell to prepare his bed in a corner of the kitchen. But mistress Bell thought fit to rebel. Having been guilty of one act of insubordination, she determined to be consistent, and throw off the yoke altogether. She declared that she would do no such thing; that her life and that all our lives were in danger; and that she would never stay another night under the same roof with that Papist vagabond.

“Papist!” cried the indignant lad, his dark eyes flashing fire, “I’m no Papist, but a Protestant like yourself; and I hope a deuced dale better Christian. You take me for a thief; yet shure a thief would have waited till you were all in bed and asleep, and not stepped in forenint you all in this fashion.”

There was both truth and nature in the lad’s argument; but Bell, like an obstinate woman as she was, chose to adhere to her own opinion. Nay, she even carried her absurd prejudices so far that she brought her mattress and laid it down on the floor in my room, for fear that the Irish vagabond should murder her during the night. By the break of day she was off; leaving me for the rest of the winter without a servant. Monaghan did all in his power to supply her place; he lighted the fires, swept the house, milked the cows, nursed the baby, and often cooked the dinner for me, and endeavoured by a thousand little attentions to show the gratitude he really felt for our kindness. To little Katie he attached himself in an extraordinary manner. All his spare time he spent in making little sleighs and toys for her, or in dragging her in the said sleighs up and down the steep hills in front of the house, wrapped up in a blanket. Of a night, he cooked her mess of bread and milk, as she sat by the fire, and his greatest delight was to feed her himself. After this operation was over, he would carry her round the floor on his back, and sing her songs in native Irish. Katie always greeted his return from the woods with a scream of joy, holding up her fair arms to clasp the neck of her dark favourite.

“Now the Lord love you for a darlint!” he would cry, as he caught her to his heart. “Shure you are the only one of the crathers he ever made who can love poor John Monaghan. Brothers and sisters I have none—I stand alone in the wurld, and your bonny wee face is the sweetest thing it contains for me. Och, jewil! I could lay down my life for you, and be proud to do that same.”

Though careless and reckless about everything that concerned himself, John was honest and true. He loved us for the compassion we had shown him; and he would have resented any injury offered to our persons with his best blood.

But if we were pleased with our new servant, Uncle Joe and his family were not, and they commenced a series of petty persecutions that annoyed him greatly, and kindled into a flame all the fiery particles of his irritable nature.

Moodie had purchased several tons of hay of a neighbouring farmer, for the use of his cattle, and it had to be stowed into the same barn with some flax and straw that belonged to Uncle Joe. Going early one morning to fodder the cattle, John found Uncle Joe feeding his cows with his master’s hay, and as it had diminished greatly in a very short time, he accused him in no measured terms of being the thief. The other very coolly replied that he had taken a little of the hay in order to repay himself for his flax, that Monaghan had stolen for the oxen. “Now by the powers!” quoth John, kindling into wrath, “that is adding a big lie to a dirthy petty larceny. I take your flax, you ould villain! Shure I know that flax is grown to make linen wid, not to feed oxen. God Almighty has given the crathers a good warm coat of their own; they neither require shifts nor shirts.”

“I saw you take it, you ragged Irish vagabond, with my own eyes.”

“Thin yer two eyes showed you a wicked illusion. You had betther shut up yer head, or I’ll give you that for an eye-salve that shall make you see thrue for the time to come.”

Relying upon his great size, and thinking that the slight stripling, who, by-the-bye, was all bones and sinews, was no match for him, Uncle Joe struck Monaghan over the head with the pitchfork. In a moment the active lad was upon him like a wild cat, and in spite of the difference of his age and weight, gave the big man such a thorough dressing that he was fain to roar aloud for mercy.

“Own that you are a thief and a liar, or I’ll murther you!”

“I’ll own to anything whilst your knee is pressing me into a pancake. Come now—there’s a good lad—let me get up.” Monaghan felt irresolute, but after extorting from Uncle Joe a promise never to purloin any of the hay again, he let him rise.

“For shure,” he said, “he began to turn so black in the face, I thought he’d burst intirely.”

The fat man neither forgot nor forgave this injury; and though he dared not attack John personally, he set the children to insult and affront him upon all occasions. The boy was without socks, and I sent him to old Mrs. R——, to inquire of her what she would charge for knitting him two pairs of socks. The reply was, a dollar. This was agreed to, and dear enough they were; but the weather was very cold, and the lad was barefooted, and there was no other alternative than either to accept her offer, or for him to go without.

In a few days, Monaghan brought them home; but I found upon inspecting them that they were old socks new-footed. This was rather too glaring a cheat, and I sent the lad back with them, and told him to inform Mrs. R—— that as he had agreed to give the price for new socks, he expected them to be new altogether.

The avaricious old woman did not deny the fact, but she fell to cursing and swearing in an awful manner, and wished so much evil to the lad, that, with the superstitious fear so common to the natives of his country, he left her under the impression that she was gifted with the evil eye, and was an “owld witch.” He never went out of the yard with the waggon and horses, but she rushed to the door, and cursed him for a bare-heeled Irish blackguard, and wished that he might overturn the waggon, kill the horses, and break his own worthless neck.

“Ma’am,” said John to me one day, after returning from C—— with the team, “it would be betther for me to lave the masther intirely; for shure if I do not, some mischief will befall me or the crathers. That wicked owld wretch! I cannot thole her curses. Shure it’s in purgatory I am all the while.”

“Nonsense, Monaghan! you are not a Catholic, and need not fear purgatory. The next time the old woman commences her reprobate conduct, tell her to hold her tongue, and mind her own business, for curses, like chickens come home to roost.”

The boy laughed heartily at the old Turkish proverb, but did not reckon much on its efficacy to still the clamorous tongue of the ill-natured old jade. The next day he had to pass her door with the horses. No sooner did she hear the sound of the wheels, than out she hobbled, and commenced her usual anathemas.

“Bad luck to yer croaking, yer ill-conditioned owld raven. It is not me you are desthroying shure, but yer own poor miserable sinful sowl. The owld one has the grief of ye already, for ‘curses, like chickens, come home to roost’; so get in wid ye, and hatch them to yerself in the chimley corner. They’ll all be roosting wid ye by-and-by; and a nice warm nest they’ll make for you, considering the brave brood that belongs to you.”

Whether the old woman was as superstitious as John, I know not; or whether she was impressed with the moral truth of the proverb—for, as I have before stated, she was no fool—is difficult to tell; but she shrunk back into her den, and never attacked the lad again.

Poor John bore no malice in his heart, not he; for, in spite of all the ill-natured things he had to endure from Uncle Joe and his family, he never attempted to return evil for evil. In proof of this, he was one day chopping firewood in the bush, at some distance from Joe, who was engaged in the same employment with another man. A tree in falling caught upon another, which, although a very large maple, was hollow and very much decayed, and liable to be blown down by the least shock of the wind. The tree hung directly over the path that Uncle Joe was obliged to traverse daily with his team. He looked up, and perceived, from the situation it occupied, that it was necessary for his own safety to cut it down; but he lacked courage to undertake so hazardous a job, which might be attended, if the supporting tree gave way during the operation, with very serious consequences. In a careless tone, he called to his companion to cut down the tree.

“Do it yourself, H——,” said the axe man, with a grin. “My wife and children want their man as much as your Hannah wants you.”

“I’ll not put axe to it,” quoth Joe. Then, making signs to his comrade to hold his tongue, he shouted to Monaghan, “Hollo, boy! you’re wanted here to cut down this tree. Don’t you see that your master’s cattle might be killed if they should happen to pass under it, and it should fall upon them.”

“Thrue for you, Masther Joe; but your own cattle would have the first chance. Why should I risk my life and limbs, by cutting down the tree, when it was yerself that threw it so awkwardly over the other?”

“Oh, but you are a boy, and have no wife and children to depend upon you for bread,” said Joe, gravely. “We are both family men. Don’t you see that ’tis your duty to cut down the tree?”

The lad swung the axe to and fro in his hand, eyeing Joe and the tree alternately; but the natural kind-heartedness of the creature, and his reckless courage, overcame all idea of self-preservation, and raising aloft his slender but muscular arm, he cried out, “If it’s a life that must be sacrificed, why not mine as well as another? Here goes! and the Lord have mercy on my sinful sowl!”

The tree fell, and, contrary to their expectations, without any injury to John. The knowing Yankee burst into a loud laugh. “Well, if you arn’t a tarnation soft fool, I never saw one.”

“What do you mane?” exclaimed John, his dark eyes flashing fire. “If ’tis to insult me for doing that which neither of you dared to do, you had better not thry that same. You have just seen the strength of my spirit. You had better not thry again the strength of my arm, or, may be, you and the tree would chance to share the same fate;” and, shouldering his axe, the boy strode down the hill, to get scolded by me for his foolhardiness.

The first week of March, all the people were busy making maple sugar. “Did you ever taste any maple sugar, ma’am?” asked Monaghan, as he sat feeding Katie one evening by the fire.

“No, John.”

“Well, then, you’ve a thrate to come; and it’s myself that will make Miss Katie, the darlint, an illigant lump of that same.”

Early in the morning John was up, hard at work, making troughs for the sap. By noon he had completed a dozen, which he showed me with great pride of heart. I felt a little curious about this far-famed maple sugar, and asked a thousand questions about the use to which the troughs were to be applied; how the trees were to be tapped, the sugar made, and if it were really good when made?

To all my queries, John responded, “Och! ’tis illigant. It bates all the sugar that ever was made in Jamaky. But you’ll see before to-morrow night.”

Moodie was away at P——, and the prospect of the maple sugar relieved the dulness occasioned by his absence. I reckoned on showing him a piece of sugar of our own making when he came home, and never dreamt of the possibility of disappointment.

John tapped his trees after the most approved fashion, and set his troughts to catch the sap; but Miss Amanda and Master Ammon upset them as fast as they filled, and spilt all the sap. With great difficulty, Monaghan saved the contents of one large iron pot. This he brought in about nightfall, and made up a roaring fire, in order to boil in down into sugar. Hour after hour passed away, and the sugar-maker looked as hot and black as the stoker in a steam-boat. Many times I peeped into the large pot, but the sap never seemed to diminish.

“This is a tedious piece of business,” thought I, but seeing the lad so anxious, I said nothing. About twelve o’clock he asked me, very mysteriously, for a piece of pork to hang over the sugar.

“Pork!” said I, looking into the pot, which was half full of a very black-looking liquid; “what do you want with pork?”

“Shure an’ ’tis to keep the sugar from burning.”

“But, John, I see no sugar!”

“Och, but ’tis all sugar, only ’tis molasses jist now. See how it sticks to the ladle. Aha! But Miss Katie will have the fine lumps of sugar when she awakes in the morning.”

I grew so tired and sleepy that I left John to finish his job, went to bed, and soon forgot all about the maple sugar. At breakfast I observed a small plate upon the table, placed in a very conspicuous manner on the tea-tray, the bottom covered with a hard, black substance, which very much resembled pitch. “What is that dirty-looking stuff, John?”

“Shure an ’tis the maple sugar.”

“Can people eat that?”

“By dad, an’ they can; only thry it, ma’arm.”

“Why, ’tis so hard, I cannot cut it.”

With some difficulty, and not without cutting his finger, John broke a piece off, and stuffed it into the baby’s mouth. The poor child made a horrible face, and rejected it as if it had been poison. For my own part, I never tasted anything more nauseous. It tasted like a compound of pork grease and tobacco juice. “Well, Monaghan, if this be maple sugar, I never wish to taste any again.”

“Och, bad luck to it!” said the lad, flinging it away, plate and all. “It would have been first-rate but for the dirthy pot, and the blackguard cinders, and its burning to the bottom of the pot. That owld hag, Mrs. R——, bewitched it with her evil eye.”

“She is not so clever as you think, John,” said I, laughing. “You have forgotten how to make the sugar since you left D——; but let us forget the maple sugar, and think of something else. Had you not better get old Mrs. R—— to mend that jacket for you; it is too ragged.”

“Ay, dad! an it’s mysel’ is the illigant tailor. Wasn’t I brought up to the thrade in the Foundling Hospital?”

“And why did you quit it?”

“Because it’s a low, mane thrade for a jintleman’s son.”

“But, John, who told you that you were a gentleman’s son?”

“Och! but I’m shure of it, thin. All my propensities are gintale. I love horses, and dogs, and fine clothes, and money. Och! that I was but a jintleman! I’d show them what life is intirely, and I’d challenge Masther William, and have my revenge out of him for the blows he gave me.”

“You had better mend your trousers,” said I, giving him a tailor’s needle, a pair of scissors, and some strong thread.

“Shure, an’ I’ll do that same in a brace of shakes,” and sitting down upon a ricketty three-legged stool of his own manufacturing, he commenced his tailoring by tearing off a piece of his trousers to patch the elbows of his jacket. And this trifling act, simple as it may appear, was a perfect type of the boy’s general conduct, and marked his progress through life. The present for him was everything; he had no future. While he supplied stuff from the trousers to repair the fractures in the jacket, he never reflected that both would be required on the morrow. Poor John! in his brief and reckless career, how often have I recalled that foolish act of his. It now appears to me that his whole life was spent in tearing his trousers to repair his jacket.

In the evening John asked me for a piece of soap.

“What do you want with soap, John?”

“To wash my shirt, ma’am. Shure an’ I’m a baste to be seen, as black as the pots. Sorra a shirt have I but the one, an’ it has stuck on my back so long that I can thole it no longer.”

I looked at the wrists and collar of the condemned garment, which was all of it that John allowed to be visible. They were much in need of soap and water.

“Well, John, I will leave you the soap, but can you wash?”

“Och, shure, an’ I can thry. If I soap it enough, and rub long enough, the shirt must come clane at last.”

I thought the matter rather doubtful; but when I went to bed I left what he required, and soon saw through the chinks in the boards a roaring fire, and heard John whistling over the tub. He whistled and rubbed, and washed and scrubbed, but as there seemed no end to the job, and he was a long washing this one garment as Bell would have been performing the same operation on fifty, I laughed to myself, and thought of my own abortive attempts in that way, and went fast asleep. In the morning John came to his breakfast, with his jacket buttoned up to his throat.

“Could you not dry your shirt by the fire, John? You will get cold wanting it.”

“Aha, by dad! it’s dhry enough now. The divil has made tinder of it long afore this.”

“Why, what has happened to it? I heard you washing all night.”

“Washing! Faith, an’ I did scrub it till my hands were all ruined intirely, and thin I took the brush to it; but sorra a bit of the dirth could I get out of it. The more I rubbed the blacker it got, until I had used up all the soap, and the perspiration was pouring off me like rain. ‘You dirthy owld bit of a blackguard of a rag,’ says I, in an exthremity of rage, ‘You’re not fit for the back of a dacent lad an’ a jintleman. The divil may take ye to cover one of his imps;’ an’ wid that I sthirred up the fire, and sent it plump into the middle of the blaze.”

“And what will you do for a shirt?”

“Faith, do as many a betther man has done afore me, go widout.”

I looked up two old shirts of my husband’s, which John received with an ecstacy of delight. He retired instantly to the stable, but soon returned, with as much of the linen breast of the garment displayed as his waistcoat would allow. No peacock was ever prouder of his tail than the wild Irish lad was of the old shirt.

John had been treated very much like a spoiled child, and, like most spoiled children, he was rather fond of having his own way. Moodie had set him to do something which was rather contrary to his own inclinations; he did not object to the task in words, for he was rarely saucy to his employers, but he left the following stave upon the table, written in pencil upon a scrap of paper torn from the back of an old letter:—

“A man alive, an ox may drive
Unto a springing well;
To make him drink, as he may think,
No man can him compel.


A Canadian ballad

The waves that girt my native isle,
The parting sunbeams tinged with red;
And far to seaward, many a mile,
A line of dazzling glory shed.
But, ah, upon that glowing track,
No glance my aching eyeballs threw;
As I my little bark steer’d back
To bid my love a last adieu.

Upon the shores of that lone bay,
With folded arms the maiden stood;
And watch’d the white sails wing their way
Across the gently heaving flood.
The summer breeze her raven hair
Swept lightly from her snowy brow;
And there she stood, as pale and fair
As the white foam that kiss’d my prow.

My throbbing heart with grief swell’d high,
A heavy tale was mine to tell;
For once I shunn’d the beauteous eye,
Whose glance on mine so fondly fell.
My hopeless message soon was sped,
My father’s voice my suit denied;
And I had promised not to wed,
Against his wish, my island bride.

She did not weep, though her pale face
The trace of recent sorrow wore;
But, with a melancholy grace,
She waved my shallop from the shore.
She did not weep; but oh! that smile
Was sadder than the briny tear
That trembled on my cheek the while
I bade adieu to one so dear.

She did not speak—no accents fell
From lips that breathed the balm of May;
In broken words I strove to tell
All that my broken heart would say.
She did not speak—but to my eyes
She raised the deep light of her own.
As breaks the sun through cloudy skies,
My spirit caught a brighter tone.

“Dear girl!” I cried, “we ne’er can part,
My angry father’s wrath I’ll brave;
He shall not tear thee from my heart.
Fly, fly with me across the wave!”
My hand convulsively she press’d,
Her tears were mingling fast with mine;
And, sinking trembling on my breast,
She murmur’d out, “For ever thine!”


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