A Little Town and a Little Girl


Strange characters came to little Victoria. It seemed as if people who could not fit in anywhere else arrived here sooner or later till Victoria poked, bulged and hollowed over queer shapes of strange people, as a snake, swallowing its food whole, looks lumpy during digestion. Victoria had some hard lumps to digest.

Sometimes they came, hurried by a firm push from behind given by relatives in the Old Country, around whose necks they had hung too heavily for many years, and who said, “Now that travel is so easy, why not, dear? . . . Door to door without a stop! . . . Such an adventure! Victoria is a crown colony, not Canadian—try it, darling!” So the “darlings” whose lives from birth had been humdrum, especially since the rest of the family had married and left the old home to them and nothing for its upkeep, nibbled at the thought, grabbed for the word “adventure”, sold up and sailed. Relatives saw them off, calling them “old sports”, begging them to write—they, who had never had anything to write about in their whole lives were now launched proudly into adventure.

Sometimes it was a bachelor brother and spinster sister of the glued-together type of family remnants.

After the whistle shrieked every mile of water washed the old land away fainter and fainter and hurried them into the unknown. They began to ache—such vast quantities of water! Such vast quantities of land! The ache grew and grew. By and by they saw the western forests and the little town of Victoria drowned in silent loneliness; there was then no describing how they felt. They rented uncomfortable, mean little cottages or shacks and did with incompetent hands what well-trained Old Country servants had all their lives done for them. Too late! Turning back was impossible; the old home was sold, its price already seeping away too fast. There were many of these sad people in Victoria, shuddering when they saw a Western funeral, thinking of the cosiness of Old Country churchyards.

There were maiden aunts, who had attached themselves to the family circle of a married brother and who undertook the diction and deportment of his children, bitterly regretting the decision of Brother to migrate to Canada, but never for one moment faltering in their duty to Brother’s family, standing between his children and colonialism. The Maiden Aunts swallowed their crosses with a difficult gulp. Auntie’s job was discounted in the New World; Canadian-born children soon rebelled at her tyranny. She sank into a wilted, homesick derelict, sniffling by the fireside while the mother learned more or less to work with her own hands, so that she could instruct what Auntie called her “heathen help” in kitchen low art. Auntie herself refused to acknowledge base presences such as cook-stoves and wash-tubs.

In our family there were no maiden aunts. Our delicate little Mother had six living children and three dead ones and, with the help of her older daughters and the Chinese boy, Bong, we managed very comfortably without aunts. Many a useless servant-dependent woman from the Old Country was shown by my mother how to use her own hands and her own brain in her Canadian home with no other help than green Chinese boys.

In Toronto Street over James’ Bay way there lived a most astonishing family, consisting of two brothers, Fat O’Flahty and Lean O’Flahty and a sister, Miss O’Flahty. All were above middle age. They built a shanty entirely of driftwood which they gathered and hauled from the beach. They might be seen any hour of the day or night trundling logs home on a wheel-barrow, taking long rests on its handle while they smoked a pipe. The brothers never sawed the driftwood but used it any length, just as it came out of the sea—mostly longish, round tree trunks rubbed smooth by rocks and sea on their long swims, where from no one knew.

The O’Flahty’s house looked like a bonfire heaped ready for lighting. The only place where the wood of the entire shanty was half-way level was at the ground and even there it was bumpy. The up ends of all the logs higgledy-piggledied into the sky, some logs long, some short. The door was made of derelict planks gathered on the beach, too, and the roof was of anything at all—mostly of tin cans. It had a stovepipe sticking through the top. The fence round the O’Flahty’s small piece of ground was built to match the house.

The O’Flahtys had lived in this strange house for some years when Mother heard that Miss O’Flahty was very ill. She sent us post haste down, with some soup. We knocked on the gate which was padlocked. Fat O’Flahty came and let us in. We walked on a plank up to the door which was also padlocked.

“She’s bad,” he said and led the way into the shanty.

It was nearly dark and very smoky. In the centre of the one room stood a jumble of drift logs standing upright to make a little room. Fat O’Flahty moved two logs aside and, when we were accustomed to the dark, we saw a white patch lying in the corner. It was Miss O’Flahty’s face. Her bed was made of logs too. It was built on the floor and had no legs. There was no space for us to step inside Miss O’Flahty’s bedroom. There was scarcely room for even our looks to squeeze in.

Fat O’Flahty behind my sister said, “Does she look awful sick?” and Lean O’Flahty, peering behind Fat with some of the soup in a tin cup, said also, “Does she seem turrible bad?” Their voices were frightened. Lean O’Flahty held the tin cup of soup towards the sick woman. The dim patch of white face in the corner shook a feeble “No.” The brothers groaned.

Miss O’Flahty died. Lean and Fat had her embalmed and put her into a handsome casket. She rode to the Outer Wharf in the same wheel-barrow which had lugged their building wood from the beach. The brothers trundled it. We were down at the Outer Wharf, seeing Auntie away by the San Francisco boat. “Ouch! It’s a coffin!” squealed Auntie as her cloak brushed it. Fat and Lean O’Flahty were sitting one on either handle of the barrow, crying. When all were aboard, the brothers, each with a fist in his eye and with loud sniffs, wheeled the coffin down between decks and the O’Flahty family disappeared. Next time we passed down Toronto Street their crazy house was gone too.

Another human derelict was Elizabeth Pickering—she wore a bright red shawl and roamed the streets of Victoria, intoxicated most of the time. Occasionally she sobered briefly and went to the kindly Bishop to ask help. The Bishop handed her over to his maiden sister who specialized in correction. Elizabeth would settle herself comfortably, drawing a chair to the fire to toast her toes and doze till she became thirsty again. Then, with a great yawn, she would reach for the little packages the Bishop’s wife had put near her on the table. Regardless of whether Aunt Cridge had finished her lecture on drink or not she would rise with a sympathetic, “Feelin’ yer rheumatics today, baint ye, pore soul? Me and you suffers the same—its crool!”

Old Teenie was another familiar figure of our school days. Teenie was half-negro—half crazy. Her hut was on Fort Street in the centre of a rough field and lay a little below street level. Boys used to throw stones onto her tin roof and then run away. Out came old Teenie, buzzing mad as a whole nest of wasps. Muttered awfulnesses came from her great padded bonnet. It shook, her tatters shook, so did wisps of grey hair and old Teenie’s pair of tiny black fists.

I don’t know who looked after Teenie. She scoured with stick and sack the ditches and empty lots, putting oddments into her sack, shaking her stick at everyone, muttering, always muttering.

Nobody questioned where these derelicts came from. They were taken as much for granted as the skunk-cabbages in our swamps.

Victoria’s queer people were not all poor, either—there were doddering old gentlemen. I can remember them driving about Victoria in their little buggies—the fatter the man, the smaller the buggy! They had old nursemaid horses who trundled them as faithfully as any mammy does her baby in its pram. Every day, wet or fine, the horses aired their old men on Dallas Road. Knowing that their charges slept through the entire outing, the faithful creatures never moved from the middle of the road nor changed from a slow walk. The public also knew by the lolling heads and slack reins that the old men slept and gave their buggies right of way. Street traffic was not heavy, time no object. Chaises, gentlemen’s high dog-carts passed the nursemaid horses briskly. The dog-carts paused at road-house bars and again overtook the patient plodding horses who walked their charges to a certain tree on Foul Bay Road, circled it and strolled home again just as the old men’s Chinese cooks put their dinner on the table. The old horses were punctual to the dot.

One of these old men was very fond of children. When he met us, if he happened to be awake, he pulled up with a wheezy “Whoa”, meant both for us and for his horse. Taking a screw of paper from his pocket he bent over the wheel and gave us each a lollipop and a smile. He was so ugly that we were afraid, but Mother, who knew who he was told us he loved children and that it was all right. If, however, we saw his buggy coming in time we hid until it was past; he was such a very ugly old man!

A family we knew had one of those “Papa’s-sister” Aunts who took it upon herself to be a corrector of manners not only for her own nieces but for young Canadians in general. In fact she aspired to introduce elegance into the Far West. This elegant and energetic lady walked across Beacon Hill at seven-thirty on fine summer mornings, arriving at our house in time for family prayers and breakfast. In spite of her erect carriage she could flop to her knees to pray as smart as any of us. That over, she kissed us all round, holding each at arm’s length and with popping, piercing eyes, criticized our tooth-brushing, our hair ribbons, our finger nails, recommended that we eat more porridge or less, told Mother to give us no raw fruit at all, always to stew it, no stone fruit at all, no candy, told us never to ask for second helps, but wait to be invited, had us do a little English pronouncing, then, having made us late, said, “Hurry! hurry! Lateness is unpardonable, dears! Ladies are never late.”

Then there were Brother Charlie and Sister Tilly, evidently sworn each to see other into the grave. This pair minced up Birdcage Walk like elderly fowls, holding their heads each a little to one side—Charlie so that Tilly’s lips could reach his deaf ear, Tilly so that she might direct her shriek straight into Charlie’s drum. The harder she shrieked the higher she squeaked. Charlie, on the other hand, was far too gentlemanly to speak in public places above a whisper which he could not hear himself, so he felt it safest always to say “Yes, yes, dear Tilly” or “Exactly so, Tilly dear” when he should often have said, “No, Tilly, certainly not!”

Brother and sister whispered and squeaked up Birdcage Walk where they lived. They hopped up the two steps to the inset door of their cottage and cooed themselves in.

“Yes, yes, dear Tilly, yes!”


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This work (The Book of Small by Emily Carr) is free of known copyright restrictions.