A Little Town and a Little Girl

Father’s Store

Victoria was like a lying-down cow, chewing. She had made one enormous effort of upheaval. She had hoisted herself from a Hudson’s Bay Fort into a little town and there she paused, chewing the cud of imported fodder, afraid to crop the pastures of the new world for fear she might lose the good flavour of the old to which she was so deeply loyal. Her jaws went rolling on and on, long after there was nothing left to chew.

Government Street was the main street of the town. Fort Street crossed it and at the cross, in a little clump, stood most of the shops. On Yates, View and Broad Streets were a few lesser shops, several livery stables and a great many saloons. On Bastion Street stood the Courthouse and the Jail. Down on Wharf Street, facing the Harbour, were the wholesale houses. Fisgard, Cormorant and Johnson Streets were Chinatown. At the tail ends of all these streets were dwelling houses set in gardens where people grew their own flowers and vegetables.

The rest of Victoria was higgledy-piggledy. It was the cows who laid out the town, at least that portion of it lying beyond the few main streets. Cow hooves hardened the mud into twisty lanes in their meanderings to and fro—people just followed in the cows’ footsteps.

When the first settlers cut up their acreage, the resulting lots were all shapes and sizes. Owners made streets and lanes over the property anywhere that seemed convenient at the moment.

My father was a wholesale importer of provisions, wines and cigars. His store was down on Wharf Street among other wholesale places. The part of Wharf Street where Father’s store stood had only one side. In front of the store was a great hole where the bank of the shoreline had been dug out to build wharves and sheds. You could look over the top of these to the Songhees Indian Reserve on the opposite side of the Harbour. To one side of the hole stood the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store—a long, low building of red brick with a verandah. The Indians came across the Harbour in their dugout canoes to trade at the store. They squatted on the verandah, discussing new-bought goods, or their bare feet pattered up and down the board walks of Wharf Street. They were dressed in gay print dresses, plaid shawls and bright head handkerchiefs. Once I saw Father’s man take out case after case of beautiful cluster Malaga raisins and pour them into the outspread shawls and handkerchiefs of the jabbering Indians, who held out their hands and stuffed their mouths, giving grunts of delight.

I asked Father, “Why do you give all these raisins to the Indians?”

He replied, “They are maggoty, the whole lot of them—but Indians love raisins and don’t mind maggots at all.”

At the opposite side of the Wharf Street hole stood the Customs House, close to the water’s edge. Made of red brick, it was three storeys high and quite square. The Customs House steps were very dignified,—high and wide-spread at the bottom. Underneath the steps was the Gregorys’ door.

Gregory was an Old Country gardener. His wife was very homesick as well as really ill. The Gregorys were the caretakers of the Customs House. In front of their rooms they had a beautiful little garden, sheltered by a brick wall. Sometimes Mother sent Mrs. Gregory things and Mrs. Gregory gave us beautiful posies of flowers in exchange. On the lower floor of the Customs House, where the Gregorys had their quarters, there was a wide hall which ran straight through the building. The wind roared down this passage from a great doorway opening onto the Harbour. Furious that the Gregorys’ door under the steps was not big enough to let it all out at once, it pounded and bellowed at all the doors down the hall as it passed them. The waves came dashing up the slip and rushed through the door and into the hall. I used to think that ships sailed right into the Gregorys’ hall-way to do their customs business and I begged to go to see Mrs. Gregory on any excuse whatever, always hoping to meet a ship sailing down the hall-way. I was much disappointed that I never struck a tide high enough to bring a ship in. Once I thought I was going to but when no more than two waves had washed in through the great doors Mr. Gregory rushed out, shut and barred them.

The inside of Father’s store was deep and dark. Cases, crates, and barrels stood piled one on top of another right up to the ceiling, with just a narrow lane running down the middle and ending in what was called “the yard”—not a yard at all, only a strong, rough board shed filled with “empties” and cats. There were no windows; the cats crawled in and out of the “empties” hunting for rats, their eyes shining in the black. Slits of daylight cut between the boards of the shed walls, and shadows thrown by a sputtering gas jet made it all spooky and unreal—different from the solid, comfortable feel of the outer store, crammed with provisions.

Father had every colour of cat. He took fresh milk in a bottle from home every morning to them; he said a diet of straight rat was not healthy for cats. Only one of them was a comfortable, particular cat and came to sit by the stove in Father’s office. The rest were just wholesale cats.

Father’s office was beside the open front of his big store and in it Father sat in front of a large, square table covered with green baize; on it in front of him was a cupboard full of drawers and pigeon-holes. He sat in a high-backed wicker armchair. His beard was white and, after he went bald, he wore a black skull cap. A fat round stove, nearly always red hot, was between Father’s table and the long, high desk where his men stood or sat on high stools doing their books when they were not trundling boxes on a truck. There was an iron safe in one corner of the office with a letter press on top and there were two yellow chairs for customers to sit on while Father wrote their orders in his book. Everything was dozened in Father’s store: his was not a business that sold things by pinches in paper bags. High along the wall ran four long shelves holding glass jars of sample English sweets—all pure, all wholesome, all English. The labels said so.


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