The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 10.

The Place of Council — Its progress and its people — English hearts — “Sebastopol is taken” — Squibs and crackers — A ship on her beam-ends — Selfishness — A mongrel city — A Scot — Constancy rewarded — Monetary difficulties — Detention on a bridge — A Canadian homestead — Life in the clearings — The bush on fire — A word on farming — The “bee” and its produce — Eccentricities of Mr. Haldimands — A ride on a troop-horse — Scotch patriotism — An English church — The servant nuisance — Richard Cobden.

The people of Toronto informed me, immediately on my arrival in their city, that “Toronto is the most English place to be met with out of England.” At first I was at a loss to understand their meaning. Wooden houses, long streets crossing each other at right angles, and wooden side-walks, looked very unEnglish to my eye. But when I had been for a few days at Toronto, and had become accustomed to the necessarily-unfinished appearance of a town which has only enjoyed sixty years of existence, I fully agreed with the laudatory remarks passed upon it. The wooden houses have altogether disappeared from the principal streets, and have been replaced by substantial erections of brick and stone. The churches are numerous, and of tasteful architecture. The public edifices are well situated and very handsome. King Street, the principal thoroughfare, is two miles in length, and the side-walks are lined with handsome shops. The outskirts of Toronto abound in villa residences, standing in gardens or shrubberies. The people do not run “hurry skurry” along the streets, but there are no idlers to be observed. Hirsute eccentricities have also disappeared; the beard is rarely seen, and the moustache is not considered a necessary ornament. The faded careworn look of the American ladies has given place to the bright complexion, the dimpled smile, and the active elastic tread, so peculiarly English. Indeed, in walking along the streets, there is nothing to tell that one is not in England; and if anything were needed to complete the illusion, those sure tokens of British civilisation, a jail and a lunatic asylum, are not wanting.

Toronto possesses in a remarkable degree the appearances of stability and progress. No town on the Western Continent has progressed more rapidly; certainly none more surely. I conversed with an old gentleman who remembered its site when it was covered with a forest, when the smoke of Indian wigwams ascended through the trees, and when wild fowl crowded the waters of the harbour. The place then bore the name of Toronto — the Place of Council. The name was changed by the first settlers to Little York, but in 1814 its euphonious name of Toronto was again bestowed upon it. Its population in 1801 was 336; it is now nearly 50,000.

Toronto is not the fungus growth, staring and wooden, of a temporary necessity; it is the result of persevering industry, well-applied capital, and healthy and progressive commercial prosperity. Various railroads are in course of construction, which will make it the exporting market for the increasing produce of the interior; and as the migratory Canadian Legislature is now stationary at Toronto for four years, its future progress will probably be more rapid than its past. Its wharfs are always crowded with freight and passenger steamers, by which it communicates two or three times a day with the great cities of the United States, and Quebec and Montreal. It is the seat of Canadian learning, and, besides excellent schools, possesses a university, and several theological and general seminaries. The society is said to be highly superior. I give willing testimony in favour of this assertion, from the little which I saw of it, but an attack of ague prevented me from presenting my letters of introduction. It is a very musical place, and at Toronto Jenny Lind gave the only concerts with which she honoured Canada. A large number of the inhabitants are Scotch, which may account for the admirable way in which the Sabbath is observed.

If I was pleased to find that the streets, the stores, the accent, the manners were English, I was rejoiced to see that from the highest to the lowest the hearts of the people were English also. I was at Toronto when the false despatch was received announcing the capture of Sebastopol and of the Russian army. I was spending the evening at the house of a friend, when a gentleman ran in to say that the church bells were ringing for a great victory! It was but the work of a few minutes for us to jump into a hack, and drive at full speed to the office of the Globe newspaper, where the report was apparently confirmed. A great crowd in a state of eager excitement besieged the doors, and presently a man mounted on a lamp-post read the words, “Sebastopol is taken! The Russian fleet burnt! Eighteen thousand killed and wounded. Loss of the Allies, two thousand five hundred.” This news had been telegraphed from Boston, and surely the trembling tongue of steel had never before told such a bloody tale. One shout of “Hurrah for Old England” burst from the crowd, and hearty English cheers were given, which were caught up and repeated down the crowded streets of Toronto. The shout thrilled through my heart; it told that the flag of England waved over the loyal, true-hearted, and brave; it told of attachment to the constitution and the throne; it told that in our times of difficulty and danger “St. George and merry England” would prove a gathering cry even on the prosperous shores of Lake Ontario. Greater enthusiasm could not have been exhibited on the receipt of this false but glorious news in any city at home. The bells, which a few days before had tolled for the catastrophe of the Arctic, now pealed forth in triumph for the victory of the Alma. Toronto knew no rest on that night. Those who rejoiced over a victory gained over the northern despot were those who had successfully resisted the despotism of a band of rebels. The streets were almost impassable from the crowds who thronged them. Hand-rockets exploded almost into people’s eyes — serpents and squibs were hissing and cracking over the pavements — and people were rushing in all directions for fuel for the different bonfires. The largest of these was opposite the St. Lawrence Hall. It was a monster one of tar-barrels, and lighted up the whole street, paling the sickly flame of the gas-lamps. There was a large and accumulating crowd round it, shouting, “Hurrah for Old England! Down with the Rooshians! Three cheers for the Queen!” and the like. Sky-rockets were blazing high in air, men were rushing about firing muskets, the small swivels of the steamers at the wharfs were firing incessantly, and carts with combustibles were going at full speed along the streets, each fresh arrival being hailed with enthusiastic cheering. There were firemen, too, in their picturesque dresses, who had turned out at the first sound of the bells, and their services were soon put in requisition, for enthusiasm produced recklessness, and two or three shingle-roofs were set on fire by the descent of rockets upon them. This display of attachment to England was not confined to the loyal and aristocratic city of Toronto; at Hamilton, a thriving commercial place, of suspected American tendencies, the town-council was assembled at the time the despatch was received, and instantly voted a sum for an illumination.

From my praise of Toronto I must except the hotels, which are of a very inferior class. They are a poor imitation of those in the States. Russell’s Hotel, at which I stayed for eight days, was a disagreeable contrast to the National Hotel at Detroit, and another of some pretensions, the North American, was said to be even more comfortless. The bedrooms at Russell’s swarmed with mosquitoes; and the waiters, who were runaway slaves, were inattentive and uncivil.

After staying some little time with my friends at Toronto, I went to pay a visit to some friends at Hamilton. The afternoon was very windy and stormy. The lake looked very unpromising from the wharf; the island protected the harbour, but beyond this the waves were breaking with fury. Several persons who came down, intending to take their passage for Hamilton, were deterred by the threatening aspect of the weather, but, not having heard anything against the character of Lake Ontario, I had sufficient confidence in it to persevere in my intention. I said to the captain, “I suppose it won’t be rough?” to which he replied that he could not flatter me by saying so, adding that he had never seen so many persons sick as in the morning. Dinner was served immediately on our leaving the harbour, but the number of those who sat down, at first about thirty, soon diminished to five, the others having rushed in a most mysterious manner to state rooms or windows. For my own part, I cannot say that the allowed excellence of the cuisine tempted me to make a very substantial meal, and I was glad of an excuse for retiring to a state-room, which I shared with a lady who had just taken leave of her three children. This cabin was very prettily arranged, but the movements of things were rather erratic, and my valise gave most disagreeable manifestations of spiritual agency.

The ship was making little way, and rolling and pitching fearfully, and, knowing how very top-heavy she was, I did not at all like the glimpses of raging water which I with difficulty obtained through the cabin windows. To understand what followed it will be necessary for the reader to recollect that the saloon and state-rooms in this vessel formed an erection or deck-house about eight feet high upon the deck, and that the part of the saloon where most of the passengers were congregated, as well as the state-room where I was sitting, were within a few feet of the bow of the ship, and consequently exposed to the fury of the waves. I had sat in my state-room for half an hour, feeling very apathetic, and wishing myself anywhere but where I was, when something struck the ship, and the wretched fabric fell over on her side. Another and another — then silence for a second, broken only by the crash and roar of winds and waters. The inner door burst open, letting in an inundation of water. My companion jumped up, shrieking, “Oh, my children! we’re lost — we’re lost!” and crawled, pale and trembling, into the saloon. The vessel was lying on her side, therefore locomotion was most difficult; but sea-sick people were emerging from their state-rooms, shrieking, some that they were lost — others for their children — others for mercy; while a group of gentlemen, less noisy, but not less frightened, and drenched to the skin, were standing together, with pale and ashy faces. “What is the matter?” inquired my companion, taking hold of one of these men. “Say your prayers, for we are going down,” was the brutal reply. For the first and only time during my American travels I was really petrified with fear. Suddenly a wave struck the hapless vessel, and with a stunning crash broke through the thin woodwork of the side of the saloon. I caught hold of a life-buoy which was near me — a gentleman clutched it from me, for fright makes some men selfish — and, breathless, I was thrown down into the gurgling water. I learned then how quickly thoughts can pass through the mind, for in those few seconds I thought less of the anticipated death-struggle amid the boiling surges of the lake, and of the quiet sleep beneath its gloomy waters, than of the unsatisfactory manner in which those at home would glean the terrible tidings from the accident columns of a newspaper. Another minute, and I was swept through the open door into a state-room — another one of suspense, and the ship righted as if by a superhuman effort. There seemed a respite — there was a silence, broken only by the roar of winds and waves, and with the respite came hope. Shortly after, the master of the ship appeared, with his hat off, and completely drenched. “Thank God, we’re safe!” he said, and returned to his duty. We had all supposed that we had struck on a rock or wreck. I never knew the precise nature of our danger beyond this, that the vessel had been thrown on her beam-ends in a squall, and that, the wind immediately veering round, the fury of the waves had been spent upon her.

Many of the passengers now wished the captain to return, but he said that he should incur greater danger in an attempt to make the harbour of Toronto than by proceeding down the open lake. For some time nothing was to be seen but a dense fog, a storm of sleet which quite darkened the air, and raging waves, on which we mounted sometimes, while at others we were buried between them. In another hour the gale had completely subsided, and, after we had changed our drenched habiliments, no token remained of the previous storm but the drowned and dismantled appearance of the saloon, and the resolution on my own mind never to trust myself again on one of these fearful lakes. I was amused to observe that those people who had displayed the greatest symptoms of fear during the storm were the first to protest that, “as for them, they never thought there was any danger.” The afternoon, though cold, was extremely beautiful, but, owing to the storm in the early part of our voyage, we did not reach Hamilton till nightfall, or three hours after our appointed time.

I do not like these inland lakes, or tideless fresh-water seas, as they may more appropriately be termed. I know Lake Ontario well; I have crossed it twice, and have been up and down it five times. I have sojourned upon its shores, and have seen them under the hot light of an autumn sun, and underneath a mantle of wintry snow; but there is to me something peculiarly oppressive about this vast expanse of water. If the lake is rough, there are no harbours of refuge in which to take shelter — if calm, the waters, though blue, pure, and clear, look monotonous and dead. The very ships look lonely things; their hulls and sails are white, and some of them have been known in time of cholera to drift over the lake from day to day, with none to guide the helm. The shores, too, are flat and uninteresting; my eyes wearied of following that interminable boundary of trees stretching away to the distant horizon.

Yet Lake Ontario affords great advantages to both Canada and the United States. The former has the large towns of Hamilton, Toronto, and Kingston on its shores, with the exporting places of Oakville, Credit, and Cobourg. The important towns of Oswego and Rochester, with smaller ones too numerous to name, are on the American side. This lake is five hundred miles round, and, owing to its very great depth, never freezes, except just along the shores. An immense trade is carried on upon it, both in steamers and sailing vessels. A ship-canal connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, thereby overcoming the obstacle to navigation produced by the Falls of Niagara. This stupendous work is called the Welland Canal.

At Hamilton I received a most cordial welcome from the friends whom I went to visit, and saw something of the surrounding country. It is, I think, the most bustling place in Canada. It is a very juvenile city, yet already has a population of twenty-five thousand people. The stores and hotels are handsome, and the streets are brilliantly lighted with gas. Hamilton has a peculiarly unfinished appearance. Indications of progress meet one on every side — there are houses being built, and houses being pulled down to make room for larger and more substantial ones — streets are being extended, and new ones are being staked out, and every external feature seems to be acquiring fresh and rapid development. People hurry about as if their lives depended on their speed. “I guess” and “I calculate” are frequently heard, together with “Well posted up,” and “A long chalk;” and locomotives and steamers whistle all day long. Hamilton is a very Americanised place. I heard of “grievances, independence, and annexation,” and, altogether, should have supposed it to be on the other side of the boundary-line.

It is situated on a little lake, called Burlington Bay, separated from Lake Ontario by a narrow strip of sandy shingle. This has been cut through, and, as two steamers leave the pier at Hamilton at the same hour every morning, there is a daily and very exciting race for the first entrance into the narrow passage. This racing is sometimes productive of very serious collisions.

The town is built upon very low and aguish ground, at the foot of a peculiar and steep eminence, which the inhabitants dignify with the name of the Mountain. I ascended this mountain, which might better be called a molehill, by a flight of a hundred and thirty steps. The view from the top was very magnificent, but, as an elevated building offered us one still more extensive, we ascended to the roof by six flights of steps, to see a camera obscura which was ostentatiously advertised. A very good camera obscura might have been worth so long an ascent in a house redolent of spirits and onions; but after we had reached the top, with a great expenditure of toil and breath, a ragged, shoeless little boy very pompously opened the door of a small wooden erection, and introduced us to four panes of coloured glass, through which we viewed the town of Hamilton, under the different aspects of spring, summer, autumn, and winter!

Dundurn Castle, a handsome, castellated, baronial-looking building, the residence of the present Premier, Sir Allan M’Nab, is near Hamilton, and it has besides some very handsome stone villa residences. There I saw, for the first and only time in the New World, beautifully kept grass lawns, with flower-beds in the English style. One very fine morning, when the maple-leaves were tinted with the first scarlet of the fall, my friends took me to see Ancaster and Dundas; the former, an old place, very like some of our grey, quiet Lancashire villages — the latter a good type of the rapid development and enterprising spirit which are making Canada West to rival the States in rapidity of progress. There were bridges in course of construction — railway embankments swarming with labourers — macadamised roads succeeding those of corduroy and plank — snake-fences giving place to those of posts and rails, and stone walls — and saw and grist mills were springing up wherever a “water privilege” could be found. Laden waggons proceeded heavily along the roads, and the encouraging announcements of “Cash for wheat,” and “Cash for wool,” were frequently to be seen. The views were very fine as we skirted the Mountain, but Canadian scenery is monotonous and rather gloomy; though the glorious tints of the American fall give the leaves of some of the trees the appearance rather of tropical flowers than of foliage.

Ancaster is an old place, outstripped by towns of ten years’ existence, as it has neither a port nor a river. There was an agricultural show, and monster pumpkins and overgrown cabbages were displayed to admiring crowds, under the shadow of a prodigious union jack.

Dundas, a near neighbour of Ancaster, has completely eclipsed it. This appears to be one of the busiest little places in Canada West. It is a collection of woollen-mills, grist-mills, and iron-foundries; and though, in my preformed notions of political economy, I had supposed manufactures suited exclusively to an old country, in which capital and labour are alike redundant, the aspect of this place was most thriving. In one of the flour-mills the machinery seemed as perfect as in the biscuit factory at Portsmouth — by some ingenious mechanism the flour was cooled, barrelled, and branded with great celerity. At an iron-foundry I was surprised to find that steam-engines and flour-mill machinery could not be manufactured fast enough to meet the demand. In this neighbourhood I heard rather an interesting anecdote of what steady perseverance can do, in the history of a Scot from the shores of the Forth.

This young man was a pauper boy, and was apprenticed to the master of an iron-foundry in Scotland, but ran away before the expiration of his apprenticeship, and, entering a ship at Glasgow, worked his passage across to Quebec. Here he gained employment for some months as a porter, and, having saved a little money, went up to the neighbourhood of Lake Simcoe, where he became a day labourer. Here he fell in love with his master’s daughter, who returned his affection, but her father scornfully rejected the humble Scotchman’s suit. Love but added an incentive to ambition; and obtaining work in a neighbouring township, he increased his income by teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic in the evenings. He lived penuriously, denied himself even necessaries, and carefully treasured his hoarded savings. Late one evening, clothed almost in rags, he sought the house of his lady-love, and told her that within two years he would come to claim her hand of her father, with a waggon and pair of horses.

Still in his ragged clothing, for it does not appear that he had any other, he trudged to Toronto, and sought employment, his accumulated savings sewn up in the lining of his waistcoat. He went about from person to person, but could not obtain employment, and his waggon and horses receded further and further in the dim perspective. One day, while walking along at the unfinished end of King Street West, he saw something glittering in the mud, and, on taking it up, found it to be the steel snap of a pocket-book. This pocket-book contained notes to the amount of one hundred and fifty dollars; and the next day a reward of five-and-twenty was offered to the finder of them. The Scotchman waited on the owner, who was a tool manufacturer, and, declining the reward, asked only for work, for “leave to toil,” as Burns has expressed it. This was granted him; and in less than four months he became a clerk in the establishment. His salary was gradually raised — in the evenings he obtained employment in writing for a lawyer, and his savings, judiciously managed, increased to such an extent, that at the end of eighteen months he purchased a thriving farm in the neighbourhood of London, and, as there was water-power upon it, he built a grist-mill. His industry still continued successful, and just before the two years expired he drove in a light waggon, with two hardy Canadian horses, to the dwelling of his former master, to claim his daughter’s hand; though, be it remembered, he had never held any communication with her since he parted from her in rags two years before. At first they did not recognise the vagrant, ragged Scotch labourer, in the well-dressed driver and possessor of the “knowing-looking” equipage. His altered circumstances removed all difficulty on the father’s part — the maiden had been constant — and soon afterwards they were married. He still continued to prosper, and add land to land; and three years after his marriage sent twenty pounds to his former master in Scotland, as a compensation for the loss of his services. Strange to say, the son of that very master is now employed in the mill of the runaway apprentice. Such instances as this, while they afford encouragement to honest industry, show at the same time the great capabilities of Canada West.

At Hamilton, where the stores are excellent, I made several purchases, but I was extremely puzzled with the Canadian currency. The States money is very convenient. I soon understood dollars, cents, and dimes; but in the colonies I never knew what my money was worth. In Prince Edward Island the sovereign is worth thirty shillings; in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia twenty-five; while in Canada, at the time of my visit, it was worth twenty-four and four pence. There your shilling is fifteen pence, or a quarter-dollar; while your quarter-dollar is a shilling. Your sixpence is seven pence-half-penny, or a “York shilling;” while your penny is a “copper” of indeterminate value apparently. Comparatively speaking, very little metallic money is in circulation. You receive bills marked five shillings, when, to your surprise, you can only change them for four metallic shillings. Altogether in Canada I had to rely upon people’s honesty, or probably on their ignorance of my ignorance; for any attempts at explanation only made “confusion worse confounded,” and I seldom comprehended anything of a higher grade than a “York shilling.” From my stupidity about the currency, and my frequent query, “How many dollars or cents is it?” together with my offering dirty crumpled pieces of paper bearing such names as Troy, Palmyra, and Geneva, which were in fact notes of American banks which might have suspended payment, I was constantly taken, not for an ignoramus from the “Old Country,” but for a “genuine Down–Easter.” Canadian credit is excellent; but the banking system of the States is on a very insecure footing; some bank or other “breaks” every day, and lists of the defaulters are posted up in the steamboats and hotels.

Within a few days after my resolution never again to trust myself on Lake Ontario, I sailed down it, on a very beautiful morning, to Toronto. The royal mail steamer Arabian raced with us for the narrow entrance to the canal which connects Burlington Bay with the main lake, and both captains “piled on” to their utmost ability, but the Arabian passed us in triumph. The morning was so very fine, that I half forgot my dislike to Lake Ontario. On the land side there was a succession of slightly elevated promontories, covered with forests abounding in recent clearings, their sombre colouring being relieved by the brilliant blue of the lake. I saw, for the only time, that beautiful phenomenon called the “water-mirage,” by which trees, ships, and houses are placed in the most extraordinary and sometimes inverted positions. Yet still these endless promontories stretched away, till their distant outlines were lost in the soft blue haze of the Indian summer. Yet there was an oppressiveness about the tideless water and pestilential shore, and the white-hulled ships looked like deserted punished things, whose doom for ages was to be ceaseless sailing over these gloomy waters.

At Toronto my kind friend Mr. Forrest met me. He and his wife had invited me some months before to visit them in their distant home in the Canadian bush; therefore I was not a little surprised at the equipage which awaited me at the hotel, as I had expected to jolt for twenty-two miles, over corduroy roads, in a lumber-waggon. It was the most dashing vehicle which I saw in Canada. It was a most unbush-like, sporting-looking, high, mail phaëton, mounted by four steps; it had three seats, a hood in front, and a rack for luggage behind. It would hold eight persons. The body and wheels were painted bright scarlet and black; and it was drawn by a pair of very showy-looking horses, about sixteen “hands” high, with elegant and well-blacked harness. Mr. Forrest looked more like a sporting English squire than an emigrant.

We drove out of Toronto by the Lake shore road, and I could scarcely believe we were not by the sea, for a heavy surf was rolling and crashing upon the beach, and no land was in sight on the opposite side. After some time we came to a stream, with a most clumsy swing bridge, which was open for the passage of two huge rafts laden with flour. This proceeding had already occupied more than an hour, as we were informed by some unfortunate détenus. We waited for half an hour while the raftmen dawdled about it, but the rafts could not get through the surf, so they were obliged to desist. I now reasonably supposed that they would have shut the bridge as fast as possible, as about twenty vehicles, with numerous foot-passengers, were waiting on either side; but no, they moved it for a little distance, then smoked a bit, then moved it a few inches and smoked again, and so on for another half-hour, while we were exposed to a pitiless north-east wind. They evidently enjoyed our discomfiture, and were trying how much of annoyance we would bear patiently. Fiery tempers have to be curbed in Canada West, for the same spirit which at home leads men not to “touch their hats” to those above them in station, here would vent itself in open insolence and arrogance, if one requested them to be a little quicker in their motions. The fabric would hardly come together at all, and then only three joists appeared without anything to cover them. This the men seemed to consider un fait accompli, and sat down to smoke. At length, when it seemed impossible to bear a longer detention with any semblance of patience, they covered these joists with some planks, over which our horses, used to pick their way, passed in safety, not, however, without overturning one of the boards, and leaving a most dangerous gap. This was a favourable specimen of a Canadian bridge.

The manners of the emigrants who settle in Canada are far from prepossessing. Wherever I heard torrents of slang and abuse of England; wherever I noticed brutality of manner, unaccompanied by respect to ladies, I always found upon inquiry that the delinquent had newly arrived from the old country. Some time before I visited America, I saw a letter from a young man who had emigrated, containing these words: “Here I haven’t to bow and cringe to gentlemen of the aristocracy — that is, to a man who has a better coat on than myself.” I was not prepared to find this feeling so very prevalent among the lower classes in our own possessions. The children are an improvement on their parents, and develop loyal and constitutional sentiments. The Irish are the noisiest of the enemies of England, and carry with them to Canada the most inveterate enmity to “Sassenach” rule. The term “slang-whangers” must have been invented for these.

After some miles of very bad road, which once had been corduroy, we got upon a plank-road, upon which the draught is nearly as light as upon a railroad. When these roads are good, the driving upon them is very easy; when they are out of repair it is just the reverse. We came to an Indian village of clap-board houses, built some years ago by Government for some families of the Six Nations who resided here with their chief; but they disliked the advances of the white man, and their remnants have removed farther to the west. We drove for many miles through woods of the American oak, little more than brushwood, but gorgeous in all shades of colouring, from the scarlet of the geranium to deep crimson and Tyrian purple. Oh! our poor faded tints of autumn, about which we write sentimental poetry! Turning sharply round a bank of moss, and descending a long hill, we entered the bush. There all my dreams of Canadian scenery were more than realised. Trees grew in every variety of the picturesque. The forest was dark and oppressively still, and such a deadly chill came on, that I drew my cloak closer around me. A fragrant but heavy smell arose, and Mr. Forrest said that we were going down into a cedar swamp, where there was a chill even in the hottest weather. It was very beautiful. Emerging from this, we came upon a little whitewashed English church, standing upon a steep knoll, with its little spire rising through the trees; and leaving this behind, we turned off upon a road through very wild country. The ground had once been cleared, but no use had been made of it, and it was covered with charred stumps about two feet high. Beyond this appeared an interminable bush. Mr. Forrest told me that his house was near, and, from the appearance of the country, I expected to come upon a log cabin; but we turned into a field, and drove under some very fine apple-trees to a house the very perfection of elegance and comfort. It looked as if a pretty villa from Norwood or Hampstead had been transported to this Canadian clearing. The dwelling was a substantially built brick one-storied house, with a deep green verandah surrounding it, as a protection from the snow in winter and the heat in summer. Apple-trees, laden with richly-coloured fruit, were planted round, and sumach-trees, in all the glorious colouring of the fall, were opposite the front door. The very house seemed to smile a welcome; and seldom have I met a more cordial one than I received from Mrs. Forrest, the kindly and graceful hostess, who met me at the door, her pretty simple dress of pink and white muslin contrasting strangely with the charred stumps which were in sight, and the long lines of gloomy bush which stood out dark and sharp against the evening sky.

“Will you go into the drawing-room?” asked Mrs. Forrest. I was surprised, for I had not associated a drawing-room with emigrant life in Canada; but I followed her along a pretty entrance-lobby, floored with polished oak, into a lofty room, furnished with all the elegances and luxuries of the mansion of an affluent Englishman at home, a beautiful piano not being wanting. It was in this house, containing every comfort, and welcomed with the kindest hospitality, that I received my first impressions of “life in the clearings.” My hosts were only recovering from the fatigues of a “thrashing-bee” of the day before, and, while we were playing at bagatelle, one of the gentlemen assistants came to the door, and asked if the “Boss” were at home. A lady told me that, when she first came out, a servant asked her “How the boss liked his shirts done?” As Mrs. Moodie had not then enlightened the world on the subject of settlers’ slang, the lady did not understand her, and asked what she meant by the “boss,” — to which she replied, “Why, lawk, missus, your hubby, to be sure.”

I spent some time with these kind and most agreeable friends, and returned to them after a visit to the Falls of Niagara. My sojourn with them is among my sunniest memories of Canada. Though my expectations were in one sense entirely disappointed on awaking to the pleasant consciousness of reposing on the softest of feathers, I did not feel romance enough to wish myself on a buffalo robe on the floor of a log-cabin. Nearly every day I saw some operation of Canadian farming, with its difficulties and pleasures. Among the former is that of obtaining men to do the work. The wages given are five shillings per diem, and in many cases “rations” besides. While I was at Mr. Forrest’s, two men were sinking a well, and one coolly took up his tools and walked away because only half a pound of butter had been allowed for breakfast. Mr. Forrest possesses sixty acres of land, fifteen of which are still in bush. The barns are very large and substantial, more so than at home; for no produce can be left out of doors in the winter. There were two hundred and fifty bushels of wheat, the produce of a “thrashing bee,” and various other edibles. Oxen, huge and powerful, do all the draught-work on this farm, and their stable looked the very perfection of comfort. Round the house “snake-fences” had given place to those of post and rail; but a few hundred yards away was the uncleared bush. The land thus railed round had been cleared for some years; the grass is good, and the stumps few in number. Leaving this, we came to the stubble of last year, where the stumps were more numerous, and then to the land only cleared in the spring, covered thickly with charred stumps, the soil rich and black, and wheat springing up in all directions. Beyond this there was nothing but bush. A scramble through a bush, though very interesting in its way, produces disagreeable consequences.

When the excitement of the novelty was over, and I returned to the house, I contemplated with very woeful feelings the inroad which had been made upon my wardrobe — the garments torn in all directions beyond any possibility of repair, and the shoes reduced to the consistency of soaked brown paper with wading through a bog. It was a serious consideration to me, who at that time was travelling through the West with a very small and very wayworn portmanteau, with Glasgow, Torquay, Boston, Rock Island, and I know not what besides upon it. The bush, however, for the time being, was very enjoyable, in spite of numerous bruises and scratches. Huge pines raised their heads to heaven, others lay prostrate and rotting away, probably thrown down in some tornado. In the distance numbers of trees were lying on the ground, and men were cutting off their branches and burning them in heaps, which slowly smouldered away, and sent up clouds of curling blue smoke, which diffused itself as a thin blue veil over the dark pines.

This bush is in dangerous proximity to Mr. Forrest’s house. The fire ran through it in the spring, and many of the trees, which are still standing, are blackened by its effects. One night in April, after a prolonged drought, just as the household were retiring to rest, Mr. Forrest looked out of the window, and saw a light in the bush scarcely bigger or brighter than a glow-worm. Presently it rushed up a tall pine, entwining its fiery arms round the very highest branches. The fire burned on for a fortnight; they knew it must burn till rain came, and Mr. Forrest and his man never left it day or night, all their food being carried to the bush. One night, during a breeze, it made a sudden rush towards the house. In a twinkling they got out the oxen and plough, and, some of the neighbours coming to their assistance, they ploughed up so much soil between the fire and the stubble round the house, that it stopped; but not before Mr. Forrest’s straw hat was burnt, and the hair of the oxen singed. Mrs. Forrest meanwhile, though trembling for her husband’s safety, was occupied in wetting blankets, and carrying them to the roof of the house, for the dry shingles would have been ignited by a spark. On our return, it was necessary to climb over some “snake” or zigzag fences about six feet high. These are fences peculiar to new countries, and though very cheap, requiring neither tools nor nails, have a peculiarly untidy appearance. It is not thought wise to buy a farm which has not enough bush or growing timber for both rails and firewood.

In clearing, of which I saw all the processes, the first is to cut down the trees, in which difficult operation axes of British manufacture are rendered useless after a few hours’ work. The trees are cut about two feet above the root, and often bring others down with them in their fall. Sometimes these trees are split up at the time into rails or firewood; sometimes dragged to the saw-mills to be made into lumber; but are often piled into heaps and burnt — a necessary but prodigal waste of wood, to which I never became reconciled. When the wood has been cleared off, wheat is sown among the stumps, and then grass, which appears only to last about four years. Fire is put on the tops of these unsightly stumps to burn them down as much as possible, and when it is supposed, after two or three years, that the roots have rotted in the ground, several oxen are attached by a chain to each, and pull it out. Generally this is done by means of a “logging bee.” I must explain this term, as it refers neither to the industrious insect nor the imperial bee of Napoleon. The very name reminds me of early rising, healthy activity, merriment, and a well-spread board.

A “bee” is a necessity arising from the great scarcity of labour in the New World. When a person wishes to thrash his corn, he gives notice to eight or ten of his neighbours, and a day is appointed on which they are to meet at his house. For two or three days before, grand culinary preparations are made by the hostess, and on the preceding evening a table is loaded with provisions. The morning comes, and eight or ten stalwart Saxons make their appearance, and work hard till noon, while the lady of the house is engaged in hotter work before the fire, in the preparation of hot meat, puddings, and pies; for well she knows that the good humour of her guests depends on the quantity and quality of her viands. They come in to dinner, black (from the dust of a peculiar Canadian weed), hot, tired, hungry, and thirsty. They eat as no other people eat, and set all our notions of the separability of different viands at defiance. At the end of the day they have a very substantial supper, with plenty of whisky, and, if everything has been satisfactory, the convivial proceedings are prolonged till past midnight. The giver of a “bee” is bound to attend the “bees” of all his neighbours. A “thrashing bee” is considered a very “slow affair” by the younger portion of the community. There are “quilting bees,” where the thick quilts, so necessary in Canada, are fabricated; “apple bees,” where this fruit is sliced and strung for the winter; “shelling bees,” where peas in bushels are shelled and barrelled; and “logging bees,” where the decayed stumps in the clearings are rooted up by oxen. At the quilting, apple, and shelling bees there are numbers of the fair sex, and games, dancing, and merrymaking are invariably kept up till the morning.

In the winter, as in the eastern colonies, all outdoor employments are stopped, and dancing and evening parties of different kinds are continually given. The whole country is like one vast road, and the fine, cold, aurora-lighted nights are cheery with the lively sound of the sleigh-bells, as merry parties, enveloped in furs, drive briskly over the crisp surface of the snow. The way of life at Mr. Forrest’s was peculiarly agreeable. The breakfast-hour was nominally seven, and afterwards Mr. Forrest went out to his farm. The one Irish servant, who never seemed happy with her shoes on, was capable of little else than boiling potatoes, so all the preparations for dinner devolved upon Mrs. Forrest, who till she came to Canada had never attempted anything in the culinary line. I used to accompany her into the kitchen, and learned how to solve the problem which puzzled an English king, viz. “How apples get into a dumpling.” We dined at the mediaeval hour of twelve, and everything was of home raising. Fresh meat is a rarity; but a calf had been killed, and furnished dinners for seven days, and the most marvellous thing was, that each day it was dressed in a different manner, Mrs. Forrest’s skill in this respect rivalling that of Alexis Soyer. A home-fed pig, one of eleven slaughtered on one fell day, produced the excellent ham; the squash and potatoes were from the garden; and the bread and beer were from home-grown wheat and hops. After dinner Mr. Forrest and I used to take lengthy rides, along wild roads, on horses of extraordinary capabilities, and in the evening we used to have bagatelle and reading aloud. Such was life in the clearings. On one or two evenings some very agreeable neighbours came in; and in addition to bagatelle we had puzzles, conundrums, and conjuring tricks. One of these “neighbours” was a young married lady, the prettiest person I had seen in America. She was a French Canadian, and added to the graces of person and manner for which they are famed a cleverness and sprightliness peculiarly her own. I was very much pleased with the friendly, agreeable society of the neighbourhood. There are a great many gentlemen residing there, with fixed incomes, who have adopted Canada as their home because of the comforts which they can enjoy in an untaxed country, and one in which it is not necessary to keep up appearances. For instance, a gentleman does not lose caste by grooming his own horse, or driving his own produce to market in a lumber-waggon; and a lady is not less a lady, though she may wear a dress and bonnet of a fashion three years old.

I was surprised one morning by the phenomenon of some morning-callers — yes, morning-callers in a Canadian clearing. I sighed to think that such a pest and accompaniment of civilisation should have crossed the Atlantic. The “callers” of that morning, the Haldimands, amused me very much. They give themselves great airs — Canada with them is a “wretched hole;” the society is composed of “boors.” In a few minutes they had asked me who I was — where I came from — what I was doing there — how I got to know my friends — and if I had come to live with them. Mr. Haldimands, finding I came from England, asked me if I knew a certain beautiful young lady, and recounted his flirtations with her. Dukes, earls, and viscounts flowed from his nimble tongue — “When I was hunting with Lord this,” or “When I was waltzing with Lady that.” His regrets were after the Opera and Almack’s, and his height of felicity seemed to be driving a four-inhand drag. After expatiating to me in the most vociferous manner on the delights of titled society, he turned to Mrs. Forrest and said, “After the society in which we used to move, you may imagine how distasteful all this is to us” — barely a civil speech, I thought. This eccentric individual was taking a lady, whom he considered a person of consequence, for a drive in a carriage, when a man driving a lumber-waggon kept crossing the road in front of him, hindering his progress. Mr. Haldimands gradually got into a towering passion, which resulted in his springing out, throwing the reins to the lady, and rushing furiously at the teamster with his fists squared, shouting in a perfect scream, “Flesh and blood can’t bear this. One of us must die!” The man whipped up his horses and made off, and Mr. Haldimands tried in vain to hush up a story which made him appear so superlatively ridiculous.

We actually paid some morning visits, and I thought the society very agreeable and free from gossip. One of our visits was paid to the family of one of the oldest settlers in Canada. His place was the very perfection of beauty; it was built in a park formed out of a civilised wood, the grounds extending to the verge of a precipice, looking from which I saw the river, sometimes glittering in the sunshine, sometimes foaming along in a wood — just realising Mrs. Moodie’s charming description of the Otonabee. Far below, the water glittered like diamond sparks among the dark woods; pines had fallen into and across it, in the way in which trees only fall in America, and no two trees were of the same tint; the wild vine hung over the precipice, and smothered the trees with its clusters and tendrils; and hurriedly in some places, gently in others, the cold rivulet flowed down to the lake, — no bold speculator having as yet dared to turn the water privilege to account.

My first ride was an amusing one, for various reasons. My riding-habit was left at Toronto, but this seemed not to be a difficulty. Mrs. Forrest’s fashionable habit and white gauntlet-gloves fitted me beautifully; and the difficulty about a hat was at once overcome by sending to an obliging neighbour, who politely sent a very stylish-looking plumed riding-hat. There was a side-saddle and a most elegant bridle; indeed, the whole equipment would not have disgraced Rotten Row. But, the horse! My courage had to be “screwed to the sticking point” before I could mount him. He was a very fine animal — a magnificent coal-black charger sixteen hands high, with a most determined will of his own, not broken for the saddle. Mr. Forrest rode a splendid bay, which seldom went over six consecutive yards of ground without performing some erratic movement. My horse’s paces were, a tremendous trot, breaking sometimes into a furious gallop, in both which he acted in a perfectly independent manner, any attempts of mine to control him with my whole strength and weight being alike useless. We came to the top of a precipice overlooking the river, where his gyrations were so fearful that I turned him into the bush. It appeared to me a ride of imminent dangers and hair-breadth escapes. By this beauteous river we came to a place where rain and flood had worn the precipice into a steep declivity, shelving towards another precipice, and my horse, accustomed to it, took me down where an English donkey would scarcely have ventured. Beauty might be written upon everything in this dell. I never saw a fairer compound of rock, wood, and water. Above was flat and comparatively uninteresting country; then these precipices, with trees growing out wherever they could find a footing, arrayed in all the gorgeous colouring of the American fall. At the foot of these was a narrow, bright-green savannah, with fine trees growing upon it, as though planted by some one anxious to produce a park-like effect. Above this, the dell contracted to the width of Dovedale, and through it all, the river, sometimes a foaming, brawling stream, at others fringed with flowers, and quiescent in deep, clear pools, pours down to the lake. After galloping upon this savannah we plunged into the river, and, after our horses had broken through a plank-bridge at the great risk of their legs, we rode for many miles through bush and clearing, down sandy tracks and scratching thickets, to the pebbly beach of Lake Ontario.

The contrast between the horses and their equipments, and the country we rode through, was somewhat singular. The former were suitable for Hyde Park; the latter was mere bush-riding — climbing down precipices, fording rapid rivers, scrambling through fences and over timber, floundering in mud, going through the bush with hands before us to push the branches from our faces, and, finally, watering our horses in the blue, deep waters of Lake Ontario — yet I never enjoyed a ride along the green lanes of England so much as this one in the wild scenery of Canada.

The Sundays that I spent at Mr. Forrest’s were very enjoyable, though the heat of the first was nearly insupportable, and the cold of the last like that of an English Christmas in bygone years. There are multitudes of Presbyterians in Western Canada, who worship in their pure and simple faith with as much fervency and sincerity as did their covenanting forefathers in the days of the persecuting Dundee; and the quaint old Psalms, to which they are so much attached, sung to the strange old tunes, sound to them as sweet among the backwoods of Canada as in the peaceful villages of the Lowlands, or in the remote Highland glens, where I have often listened to their slow and plaintive strains borne upon the mountain breezes. “Are ye frae the braes of Gleneffar?” said an old Scotchwoman to me; “were ye at our kirk o’ Sabbath last, ye would na’ ken the difference.”

The Irishman declaims against the land he has forsaken — the Englishman too often suffers the remembrance of his poverty to sever the tie which binds him to the land of his birth — but where shall we find the Scotchman in whose breast love of his country is not a prominent feeling? Whether it be the light-haired Saxon from the South, or the dark-haired, sallow-visaged Celt from the Highlands, driven forth by the gaunt hand of famine, all look back to Scotland as to “their country” — the mention of its name kindles animation in the dim eye of age, and causes the bounding heart of youth to leap with enthusiasm. It may be that the Scotch emigrant’s only remembrance is of the cold hut on the lone hill-side, where years wore away in poverty and hunger, but to him it is the dearest spot of earth. It may be that he has attained a competence in Canada, and that its fertile soil produces crops which the heathery braes of Scotland would never yield — no matter, it is yet his home! — it is the land where his fathers sleep — it is the land of his birth; his dreams are of the “mountain and the flood” — of lonely lochs and mountain-girded firths; and when the purple light on a summer evening streams over the forest, he fancies that the same beams are falling on Morven and the Cuchullins, and that the soft sound pervading the air is the echo of the shepherd’s pipe. To the latest hour of his life he cherishes the idea of returning to some homestead by a tumbling burnie. He never can bring himself to utter to his mountain land, from the depths of his heart, the melancholy words, “Che til na tuille.[“We return no more.”]

The Episcopal church was only two miles from us, but we were most mercilessly jolted over a plank-road, where many of the planks had made a descent into a sea of mud, on the depth of which I did not attempt to speculate. Even in beautiful England I never saw a prettier sight than the assembling of the congregation. The church is built upon a very steep little knoll, the base of which is nearly encircled by a river. Close to it is a long shed, in which the horses are tethered during service, and little belligerent sounds, such as screaming and kicking, occasionally find their way into church. The building is light and pretty inside, very simple, but in excellent taste; and though there is no organ, the singing and chanting, conducted by the younger portion of the congregation, is on a par with some of the best in our town churches at home. There were no persons poorly clad, and all looked happy, sturdy, and independent. The bright scarlet leaves of the oak and maple pressed against the windows, giving them in the sunlight something of the appearance of stained glass; the rippling of the river was heard below, and round us, far, far away, stretched the forest. Here, where the great Manitou was once worshipped, a purer faith now reigns, and the allegiance of the people is more firmly established by “the sound of the church-going bells” than by the bayonets of our troops. These heaven-pointing spires are links between Canada and England; they remind the emigrant of the ivy-mantled church in which he was first taught to bend his knees to his Creator, and of the hallowed dust around its walls, where the sacred ashes of his fathers sleep.

There is great attachment to England among those who are protected by her laws, and live under the shadow of her standard of freedom. In many instances, no remembrances of wrongs received, of injuries sustained, of hopeless poverty and ill-requited toil, can sever that holiest, most sacred of ties, which binds, until his latest breath, the heart of the exile to his native land.

The great annoyance of which people complain in this pleasant land is the difficulty of obtaining domestic servants, and the extraordinary specimens of humanity who go out in this capacity. It is difficult to obtain any, and those that are procured are solely Irish Roman Catholics, who think it a great hardship to wear shoes, and speak of their master as the “boss.” At one house where I visited, the servant or “help,” after condescending to bring in the dinner, took a book from the chiffonier, and sat down on the sofa to read it. On being remonstrated with for her conduct, she replied that she “would not remain an hour in a house where those she helped had an objection to a young lady’s improving her mind!” At an hotel at Toronto, one chambermaid, pointing to another, said, “That young lady will show you your room.” I left Mr. Forrest’s even for three days with great regret, and after a nine miles drive on a very wet morning, and a water transit of two hours, found myself at Toronto, where as usual on the wharf I was greeted by the clamorous demand for “wharfage.” I found the Walrences and other agreeable acquaintances at Russell’s hotel, but was surprised with what I thought rather a want of discrimination on the part of all; I was showing a valuable collection of autographs, beginning with Cromwell, and containing, in addition to those of several deceased and living royal personages, valuable letters of Scott, Byron, Wellington, Russell, Palmerston, Wilberforce, Dickens, &c. The shades of kings, statesmen, and poets, might almost have been incited to appear, when the signature of Richard Cobden was preferred before all.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31