Off The Rocks
“That Bit o’ Line”
Little Prince Pomiuk
“The Copper Store”
When we let our Pilot go
“The Joy of Their Lord”
Uncle Silas: Fisherman
Peter Wright: Mail Carrier
Uncle Rube’s Net
She hath done what she could
Not My Will, but Thine
How Santa Clause came to Cape St. Anthony
List of Illustrations
Dwellers in Labrador.
Steamship Strathcona, showing boats of visitors and patients.
Crew of the Mission Steamship Strathcona.
Eskimos visiting Little Prince Pomiuk.
Fish store, Labrador.
A neighbor’s house in winter.
Montagnais Indians and Dog team.
Summer fisherman’s house in Labrador.
Dawn (in spring).
Santa Claus’s gift to the Hospital.
It is impossible to write a formal introduction to this book.
I remember the wild northern shores from which these stories come; gray rocks; dark little forests; restless, changeful seas. There is no introduction to that land, no guide book, no cicerone. Sailing over the sombre blue of waves that never quite forget the fierce cold of winter, you approach the sheer and silent coast, tranquil, reserved, impassive alike to roaring wind and caressing sunlight. You enter a little harbor, sheltered by naked islands. All that it has to offer you is yours at once: the rounded gray slopes of stone, the long recumbent hills, the black rocks breaking the water, a river valley, perhaps, marked by evergreen woods, a few wooden houses clustered along the edge of the sea and blending almost imperceptibly with the landscape. This is all; but over this scene, so cool and quiet in color, so open in its large outlines. Nature is weaving her spell of wonder and mystery, with lights of morning and evening, now opaline and seductive, now clear as crystal, a spell so deep that it subdues the heart, and makes one feel as if that bare and lonely beauty were the only reality, and all the richer, softer regions of earth were but dreams and illusions.
I remember also some of the people who spend their lives under that wide enchantment of the double wilderness; homely, rugged folk who cling to their habitations among the rocks with an infinite, pathetic patience, as if the world had no better home to offer them; courageous, hardy fishermen who come back year after year to these wind-vexed, uncertain waters, as if there were no safer fields where they could glean their scanty harvest. Men and women of the plain human kind, these – no pretense and no formality – rather silent in their ways, for the most part, but frank, kindly, helpful, ready to meet you without an introduction.
I remember a night last winter when I sat beside my study fire in the small hours, listening to the man who has given his life to the service of these people – a brave, steady, quiet voice, telling of difficulties overcome, and dangers faced, and victories won against the black odds of ignorance and disease, making rather light of peril and hardship so far as his own part was concerned, brightening the darkest scenes with touches of irrepressible humor, giving pictures of human character and conduct so real and vivid that they warmed the heart with sympathy, and bearing testimony not to be doubted of the power of plain religion to comfort and save plain folk in time of trouble. It was like hearing a report from one of the messengers who went out in the beginning, when Christianity was young and simple and fearless, to tell men about Jesus of Nazareth and help them for his sake.
Here, in these stories, I see again that wild, unforgettable coast, those little-speaking, much-enduring fishermen and “liveyeres;” I hear again the strong, manly, tranquil voice of Wilfred Grenfell telling the things that befell him and his friends. What does such a book need of an introduction?
You who love Nature, not trimmed and embroidered, but in the largeness and mystery of her wild charm; you who love humanity, not disguised and trained for the stage, but frankly living its own life and expressing its primitive feelings; you who know a man when you see him, and like him best when he does things; you who feel that religion is just as real as Nature, just as real as humanity, and that brave adventures may be achieved in the name of Christ, – this book is for you. This is the real thing.
HENRY VAN DYKE.
Avalon, January 1, 1906.
Peter Wright: Mail Carrier
Amidst the scattered and scanty settlements of our northern climate the great problems of the outside world afford little interest to our people. Thus, speaking to one man about the great victory of the Japanese over the Baltic fleet, and expecting that so great a victory would be of interest anywhere, I was not surprised when my auditor turned around and asked: “Who be those Japans, Doctor?” as if they lived in a part of Labrador. The irregularity of our communications with the outside world certainly affords us some excuse; but the difficulty in giving schooling to the children is another potent factor. We are therefore, better acquainted with events no longer current, so that when I asked a man a while ago if he knew who was the greatest man in England he replied cheerfully: “Yes, sur; I guess he be Mister Bright.” Even the factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at one of their large posts receives only one mail a year from the outside world. He has his daily paper put on his table every morning. But his information is always exactly one year old.
It is little wonder, therefore, if our main interests are in ourselves and our own doings, and if we know, perhaps, more details about our neighbors than is good for either us or them. Indeed, few things happen along our shore which do not soon fly from mouth to mouth, and, as everywhere else, human characters cannot always stand such a test. Our gatherings for public worship can only be irregular and infrequent, and a man’s godliness cannot be judged by his adherence to conventional rules. I have known the peripatetic parson himself to be actually caught trouting on Sunday morning, in blissful ignorance of the heinous offense he was committing! “For t’ parson was adrift in t’ weekdays.” You may imagine how he startled the village by arriving on the Sabbath, trout pole in hand, a fine string of speckled beauties dangling by his side.
So in our minds we, who see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep, and have no doubt of His oversight of our affairs, grade our Christians by the way they do their daily work, and by their answer to the call of duty. rather than by the standards which usually prevail.
All this is my excuse for telling you the story of our little mail carrier, Peter Wright, who in spite of an occasional dereliction we grade here as one of our best men. In the ordinary acceptance of the word Pete could not be called an athlete, body, soul or spirit. Yet his prodigies of endurance and devotion to duty have taught us at least to appraise highly both a strong will and a loyal heart among the essential assets of the true athlete. When it was his duty or when simple love in Christ’s sense demanded it, Pete was an athlete, “sure enough.”
In a burst of confidence Peter once informed me: “I t’inks I is fifty-eight years of age, Doctor.” And this was before Dr. Osier frightened us from becoming sixty. I know he stands only five feet three inches in his stockings. He weighs one hundred and fifteen pounds, or rather less now, for he seems to be growing smaller year by year. He is perfectly erect, has piercing, deep-set eyes with heavy eyebrows. He answers questions almost as an automatic machine responds to a penny in the slot, shutting up with a snap. In this he is unlike his neighbors, whose attention readily wanders during any prolonged conversation. Pete never was a gossip. He was born and reared on our coast, though of English descent He is unmarried. In his early days his attention was given to fishing and to hunting like the rest of us. But years and years ago, to us it seems in the dim vistas of the past, he was appointed one of Her Majesty’s mail carriers, and that position he has held ever since. Some think him a special creation for that purpose.
The mails come to our village from the nearest point on the recently-built railway line more than one hundred miles away to the south of us, until that road is closed by the struggling trains getting buried in the winter snows. Then they come all around the island by carriers, and reach us from the north and west.
Some of the carriers drive large teams of dogs. Cithers, like Pete, having steep hills to climb and dense woods to go through, prefer “shank’s pony” For they can then make short cuts, dodging, as it were, from drogue to drogue of trees, any can cross ice-covered bays that would not be safe for dogs. When the sea permits it, our letters come by steamer, and then Pete has only to row along thirty miles of coast between her ports of call. This he does cross-handed and alone in his tiny punt, the roaring surf of the open Atlantic rolling in on the cliff being all he has to speak to.
The distance for each carrier varies. Pete’s is about one hundred miles “on the round.” Now this task would involve no special fortitude or heroism in a country where houses are frequent and where roads exist; where rivers are bridged and arms of the sea have ferries; where dense woods have paths and trackless barrens are “poled;” where travellers going to and fro keep communication open and afford a chance of help to any one overtaken by accident. Nor would it be such a task if “people wasn’t lookin’ for you reg’lar,” so that you could choose your weather for travelling. But Pete’s round possesses none of these facilities. There is no road at all. There are no bridges and no ferries. Scarcely any one ever travels the paths except where a solitary trapper crosses them in his fur rounds. Houses in places are as far as twenty miles apart. There are mountains to climb and rivers to cross, bogs to navigate or circumnavigate, impenetrable barren uplands and large lakes. From the beginning to the end of winter the whole circuit is hidden under a deep covering of snow which obliterates all landmarks. It gets deeper and more deceptive as the months pass by, and in the dark short days of January it is one wilderness of white. When May comes and brings spring to those in more genial dimes, here the rivers are fretting dangerously at their winter bonds, and any unexpected moment may find their freedom again. The lakes are subtly undermining the bridges we have used all winter. They are still so like the trusty ones that we have become familiar with that the unwary will be caught. Meanwhile the ponderous mantle of the winter sea is breaking up and, suddenly yielding to the persuasion of the strong westerly winds, has more than once broken from the land while the traveller has been crossing the wide mouth of some bay. So he and his have gone seaward on a craft that seldom, if ever, brings him back home again. All that we know when one of these accidents overtakes us is that “Jack was seen at, but never reached the goal he was making for.” For the rest – as to what happened – no one will be one whit the wiser.
Yet this is Pete Wright’s regular beat. Year after year this small solitary man has compassed this round ten to twelve times every winter. Regular as clockwork, he turns up at each of his appointed stations once a fortnight. The man comes and goes like a meteor.
We were pitying ourselves one night as we turned into our comfortable sleeping bags on the floor of our host’s tilt. Pitying ourselves because it had been a heavy day on our dogs, and it was nearly ten o’clock before we reached shelter. When I woke in the morning, as the gray dawn was stealing in through the little window, I thought I heard a movement by the stove. There seemed something almost uncanny about it, till I made out what it was, and could distinguish a tiny, erect figure sitting bolt upright, where none had been over-night. It proved to be Peter Wright. He had arrived about two in the morning, noiselessly stationed himself by the stove and, recharging it, had gone straight off to sleep, sitting on the settle, without a word to any one, as satisfied as if he were in a feather bed. Now this place was where three carriers meet The one from the westward was late, and Pete did not get his mails handed over until nine in the evening. He had thirty miles to his next station and the temperature was 20 below zero. At ten he rose to go. “What, Pete, never going to leave at this time of night are you?”
“Why, sure,” he replied. “With a moon like this ’tis better in the woods than when them skeeters (mosquitoes) are about. So long, Doctor” and with that he went out absolutely alone. A good day’s travel is thirty miles. On a sick call he has covered forty-five miles. “I only counts on two and one-half miles an hour; but I find I soon kills out them that travels four for the first day or two.”
Pete carries nothing with him but his precious mails. These, at times, weigh sixty pounds and over when he sets out, and the heavier they are the prouder he is of them. On one occasion, the southern carrier having been late, Pete had only two unstamped local letters to carry, and when we met him by the way he was almost too ashamed to stop and speak to us, though many men would say: “Us gets the same pay for the round and has less to carry.” And yet others: “It ain’t worth our going at all for two letters. Us’ll let them two bide over till next mail.” Not so Pete. Though some think his only a humble work, to him it was always a post for which he, Pete Wright, was responsible. No one else would do it if he left it undone, and therefore must he go if there were no letters at all. But he felt it a sort of lack of confidence, due possibly to some fault of his own, that he should have so little entrusted to him.
I can remember one other occasion on which he was even more crestfallen. On our southern journey we met him one night joyfully staggering along under a huge weight of mail matter to the same tilt at which we were preparing to stay the night, so we, being the largest recipients of letters in our district, were anticipating over tea the opening of the mail bags afterward.
At last the seal was broken, the twine cut, and there fell out on the floor an innumerable number of the same kind of packages. They proved to be simply one large consignment of patent medicine advertisements. If we had had faith in the testimonials to their extraordinary value, we should only have been left the more sorry. For it was as impossible for us to get any of that elixir vitae as to get strawberries and cream. Meanwhile, Pete had left one bag behind because he was physically unable to “spell” the two on his back at once. The mails are carried m waterproof bags and so slung over the back as to bring the main weight high up between the shoulders. Pete never carries either compass or waterproof covering, though in spring he arrives sometimes in fog as thick as pea soup or drenched to the skin by what he calls with a contemptuous smile only a “sou’westerly mild.”
He has arrived after midnight, only his deep-set eyes visible, his handkerchief tied over his mouth and frozen there, so that it would take full ten minutes to thaw it off, up to which time he could not utter a single word. He carries nothing to eat but a cake of hard bread (or ship’s biscuit), as that does not freeze like soft bread. But these later years, having fewer teeth left, he has to moisten the aforesaid biscuit before he can demolish it. Now, when lakes are frozen to the bottom and rivers arc twenty feet under snow, this is no easy task. So Pete has to depend more and more on his knowledge of boiling springs, for he never yet was “nish” (tender) enough to stop and boil the kettle when he could melt snow for water. Indeed, he never carries an axe, though no traveller who thinks of personal comfort would ever venture out in this country in winter without one. For an axe means a fire, a tilt for shelter and a hot drink, if one happens to be overtaken in the woods, as the writer has been.
“But after March comes in, I does carry soft bread,” he confided to me. It was a kind of indulgence he allowed himself after the back of the work was broken.
It was only by chance I discovered that Pete possessed any frailties common to our kind. For my hostess once told me she occasionally persuaded him to accept dough boys, “with a little chopped pork and molasses pounded in to prevent ’em freezing, and Pete says they gives a won’erful light to his eyes.” But in spite of these, and even a rare slice of boiled pork, he is forced to be a man of moderation. For his two meals a day, morning and evening, are far apart, and often enough consist only of dry bread and tea innocent of either milk or sugar.
Our folk regard one thing about him as doubtful. He travels every day, considering the imperious call of the mail superior to that for Sunday rest. We might understand this when there are “sealed” letters (magic word) in his bag. But as they usually are only of the class that contains ‘I hope you finds this well, as it leaves me at present, thank God,’ we are a little fearful for Pete’s moral welfare. As a rule Pete responds to the mail as an arrow to a bowstring, though “However hard pushed I is. Doctor, I always tries to get two hours’ sleep in the twenty-four.” And he once said to me, half apologetically, “I don’t reckon, Doctor, when a man has an easy mind that five or six hours is too much.”
Peter smokes, by doctor’s orders, after each of his two meals. “I finds it does me good on times,” he says. But he admits that he finds the pipe at night “sweet enough.” Tobacco was originally ordered him for a kind of asthma he suffered from; but I more than fear that that can no longer be blamed for the continuance of the habit. If he were to exceed the prescribed two pipes, he says, “It does me harm, I know.”
Pete’s two inseparable friends are his small knobbed stick, which he cut himself in the woods, and his snow rackets. Large and round they are, not built for speed, but to keep him up. “The least sink breaks my step,” he says, “and that soon tells. No, I never takes them off, not even on hard ice. You see, I was always terrible on rackets from a boy.”
Pete is a man we all love. For Pete seems to love every one. He is always ready to oblige, and never happier than when the space on his back, ordinarily monopolized by his official bundle, permits him to carry a 10 pound tub of butterine, or a couple of gallon jars of molasses, just to oblige. It isn’t for the filthy lucre alone that Pete works. His magnificent remuneration is ten dollars a trip, and out of this when there is more than he can carry he must hire another man to “spell what’s over.” It is lucky for Pete he does not have to pay hotel bills as he journeys from place to place. There would be little left of the salary beyond enough for “skin boots” if he were charged for meals. But there are no hotel bills on the coast, and we are incapable of an idea so original as to ask Pete to pay for anything.
So, by his never-failing cheerfulness, his high sense of responsibility to his humble position, and his absolute self-forgetfulness, Pete has endeared himself to the whole coast. And when his race is run and he, in common with all of us, can carry only his record with him, we shall all expect him to hear from the Master, the righteous Judge, “Well done.” He says he has been a little nervous of late about pack of wolves which followed the western carrier, for “yon see I only has my old stick to help me.” But some of us slyly wink when the wolf story comes up, for we pity the wolf that would try to digest so indestructible a phenomenon as Peter Wright, mail carrier.