WALT MASON February 1 1919


WALT MASON February 1 1919



A FEW miles north of Oshawa, Ontario, there is a village called Columbus, named after a foreigner who went through the motions of discovering America. A mile west of Columbus there used to stand a nameless hamlet of fifteen or twenty houses, clustered about an old red woolen mill.

It was here I was born and spent the first fifteen years of my career. I have forgotten many things that happened since then, but every incident of that long vanished period is branded on my memory. I can see the old mill with its slatted belfry, and the general store hard by with its warped shutters, and the boarding house, and the unassuming cottages, as though I beheld them yesterday. But it is more than forty years since I went away to seek my fortune, and that hamlet is no more. It has been sown to salt, like Jerusalem. It has dispersed and wandered far away, and the place that knew it once shall know it no more. There is nothing there now but fresh air and scenery.

This is one of the griefs of my old age. You have read the story of “The Man Without a Country?” Doubtless you have wept over his misfortunes. I am the man without a birthplace, and would appreciate a few of your tears. It would be a great joy to me to go back and see that little old hamlet, but it isn’t there to see. Long years ago the mill was dismantled, and the machinery taken away, and then there was no further excuse for the village. Pi’osperous farmers of the surrounding country bought the cottages and put them on roller skates, and hauled them away, to be used as granaries or cow stables. The house I was born in took a hike over the hills to a distant farm, where it still stands; in use, I am told, as a henhouse.

> All this is so tragic to me that I haven’t the courage to return and visit those scattered houses, associated with boyhood memories. I couldn’t walk into my own old home, and think beautiful things in the presence of a lot of setting hens and noisy roosters. Sentiment would be impossible under such conditions.

TPHE world has changed a great deal since I lived a mile west of Columbus. Then there were no electric lights, or telephones, or automobiles, or moving pictures. The tallow candle was reluctantly giving place to the kerosene lamp. No daily newspapers penetrated into our lonely community; big events might happen in the outside world, but tne news would have long white whiskers before it reached us. Everybody went to bed early, and beat the sun rising, and should have been healthy and wealthy and wise.

It was a most orderly and decorous country. People worked hard, and went to church Sundays, and paid their taxes, and life was much like clockwork. Exciting happenings were so rare that the identification of a sheep-killing dog created a great and lasting sensation.

But boy nature at that time was much like boy nature now. Boyhood craves excitement and detests the humdrum. There were perhaps a dozen lads of my age in the neighborhood, and our great dissipation was the reading of dime novels. This pastime was strictly verboten. To be caught reading such literature meant a session in the woodshed with an indignant parent, armed with a strap or a barrel stave.

But the novels were smuggled in, one way or another, and eagerly devoured. Most of them treated of mysterious avengers who went through the woods potting Indians. The Leatherstocking tales of Cooper had established a fashion that endured for very many years; and the cheap literature of the time was largely engaged with beautiful “females” who rode palfreys, and with majestic Indians who spoke in rounded periods, and with equally majestic white heroes who wore hunting shirts of buckskin, and carried long rifles, and spoke a dialect that was never beard in the earth or the waters under the earth.

As a result of such a helpful course of reading, the boys were impatient to

Walt Mason has, perhaps, more followers than any other poet living—for many millions read his stories in verse every day at breakfast. The career of the newspaper bard has been a picturesque one and it will be news to many that it began in Canada. Yes, Uncle Walt is a Canadian, one that this country can well be proud of, for he has fought his way to fame in the face of tremendous odds and his pen preaches always the gospel of good fellowship and truth. The editor extracted a promise from him some time ago to write of his early impressions of Canada and he herewith fulfils his pledge. His impressions, as the reader will see, were brief—but they were LURID'.-THE EDITOR.

grow up, so they could go to the woods and establish private graveyards for the Indians. I well remember how I used to lie awake at night picturing myself as a dread avenger roaming the forest aisles, only pausing now and then to add a Mohican or Huron to my string.

THE eyes of our desires were turned to the north.

Up there was the forest, vast and mysterious. Even yet I feel a sort of thrill when the forest is mentioned. It was the enchanted land to the boys of forty years ago. The literature of the time was full of it—not only the dime novels, but books of all kinds. Even in the school readers there were many stories reflecting the tragedy and mystery of the woods. There was the story of the woodman who went to his day’s work, leaving his dog Bandy at home, much against Randy’s will. On his way . home the woodman was attacked by wolves, and would have been slain, but for good old Bandy. This superdog had a hunch that something unpleasant was happening in the timber, so went to his master’s i-escue. He saved the master, but was so badly chewed up himself that he expired.

The master put a headstone over his grave, on which was inscribed the epitaph :

“Beneath this stone there lies at rest Bandy, of all good dogs the best.”

I am quoting this story from memory, after more than forty years, and may be wrong in some of the details, but the substance is con-ect. Then there was the tragic poem of “The Lost Hunter,” beginning:

“Numbed by the piercing, freezing air.

And burdened by his game,

The hunter, struggling with despair,

Dragged on his shivering frame.”

That was my favorite poem in my schooldays. I had it by heart and always was suffering for a chance to recite it. Friday afternoons at Dryden’s school were given over to declamations and kindred exercises. I he teacher had to rope me down to keep me from rearing up and reciting “The Lost Hunter.”

There were so many blood-curdling stories of wolves, in the books and in the mouths of the graybeards, that I never think of the Canadian forest without seeming to hear “The wolf’s long howl from Onalaska’s shore, as Campbell so rhythmically put it.

I never saw the forest I am talking about. But in my young days it was a living thing to me. I don t know how far away it was. It was “up north,’ up in the bleak mysterious north, a wonderful place infested by wolves and bears and other wild animals, and of course by Indians.

NOW and then a settler would drift down from the woods,.and sit around the store for an evening or two, and tell heartbreaking stories, and then drift back again, to the shadows and the silence of the woods.

One visitor of this description was named Engle. He was clearing a piece of land somewhere in the woods. The trees were so close together ho had to pry himself between them with a crowbar, and he thought tha; in the course of ninety or a hundred years he’d have enough ground cleared for a potato patch. He had a most discouraged and pessimistic air, but he was a great hero to the boys.

He wore a cap about the size of a bushel basket, made of the fur of some animal and the tail hung down his back. He also had a great accumulation of red whiskers, and with his cap and whiskers he looked like a bonfire from a distance.

He had relatives in our neighborhood, and so remained several days and spent his evenings in the store telling yarns. When he realized that the boys were feverishly interested in backwoods stories, he did his best to supply the demand. He found that we were especially interested in wolves, and governed himself accordingly. You’d have thought that he invented wolves, he knew so much about them. He had a

slow, careful way of talking, and he left the impression that his great aim was accuracy. He didn’t want to tell anything that wouldn’t stand the acid test for truth.

My memory of Engle and his stories couldn’t be clearer if I had heard him last night, instead of nearly half a century ago. One of his yarns treated of a woman who was traveling with her children in a sleigh, drawn by two horses. She was making good time when she heard a most disagreeable racket behind her: looking back, she saw about a million wolves chasing the rig. Here Engle paused and corrected himself. He should have said ten thousand, not a million. She whipped up the horses, but they were tired, having traveled about five hundred miles that day, in snow up to their ears, and the wolves continued to gain. Presently they were right behind the sleigh, gnashing their teeth and making themselves a positive annoyance. With great presence of mind the woman threw her youngest child to them, and they stopped long enough to devour the youngster, and the horses forged ahead.

But a five-year-old child doesn’t last long with a big bunch of wolves, especially when there are no side dishes; and before long the brutes were slavering and howling around the sled again. The woman saw that drastic steps would have to be taken once more; so she threw overboard young Alexander Augustus, a promising lad of six years. She hated to do it, being a woman of refinement, but in great emergencies the rules of etiquette cannot always be observed. Again the wolves were delayed while they polished off Alexander Augustus, but the relief was only temporary. In a few minutes they* were howling behind the sled again, demanding further refreshment''. Continued on page 52

Confirmed from page 32

The unfortunate woman saw that half measures wouldn’t do, so she gathered up Reginald Adolphus, aged nine, and threw him to the beasts.. So she continued, sacrificing her children, until finally the horses staggered into a settlement, and she was saved. But all her children had been fed to the wolves. When she told her story she was taken before a magistrate who had his headquarters there. This magistrate, after learning the facts, said that no penalty could be severe enough for her, but, unfortunately, the law didn’t cover such a case, and she could not be punished. Hearing this, a woodman who had been standing by, stepped up to her and split her head open with his ax.

Engle told this story with many dramatic pauses, and as though it had all happened in his own neighborhood. He called the children by name, as though he had held them on his knee in their tender infancy; he hinted that the wicked mother was distantly related to his wife. He spoke of the magistrate as though the latter slept in his woodshed. The story had all the earmarks of that truth which, crushed to earth, will rise again, and it made a profound impression.

Long years afterward I learned that the story, minus the Engle frills, has been a Russian folk tale for a hundred years or more. It has flourished in one form or another in every country where there are wolves.

ENGLE dearly loved to point a moral.

His stories were all calculated to instruct and improve.

His forest cabin, he said, was about fifteen miles from the nearest store. When he had occasion to go shopping he had to go on foot, and it was a weary walk, for there was no road, and the trees were so close together they overlapped. One winter day he set. forth to buy some things he needed, and when he was passing the cabin of a neighbor, the housewife came to the door, and begged him, if he was going to the settlement, to get her ten cents’ worth of ground red pepper. He cheerfully promised to do so, and went his way.

He bought the things he needed and started for home. He had walked three or four miles, when he remembered that he hadn’t bought the pepper for the woman. His first impulse was to let the matter slide. It was getting late in the day; the sky was overcast, and a storm threatening. He had twelve miles to walk to get home. But he was a man with a conscience. He had promised the woman to get her ten cents’ worth of red pepper. And a promise with him was a sacred thing. Better perish in the storm

fulfilling a pledge than reach home in safety, with a twisted conscience.

So he went back and bought the pepper, and resumed the weary journey home. Night overtook him before he was half way home. The trees wengroaning in a blast that promised a fearful night. And above the howling of the winds he could hear a moreterrifying sound: the hunting cali of the wolves. And presently the*were ali around him, gaunt, and gray, with gleaming teeth and burning eyes. He hoisted himself up into a tree that extended friendly branches to him. Once in the tree he realized that he was not much better oil. The wolves were squatting around directly under him, and were prepared to wait there until spring, if necessary. They had no pressing engagements demanding their presence elsewhere. Mr. Engle reflected that it might be three weeks before anybody came along that way, and by that time he’d have chilblains in his feet, and would be badly cramped from sitting upon an unupholstered branch so long. The situation was serious, and Engle almost despaired.

He began reviewing the events of his life, as one will when facing the dread hour. He had done many things he regretted; but, on the other hand, he had accomplished some good. Surely the recording angel would give him credit for walking back three miles to get that pepper. The pepper! It gave him an idea. He got the little package out of his belt and shook the fiery stuff down among the wolves. It got into their eyes and mouths, and they went crazy. They rolled around ar.d yelled and bit chunks out of each other, and finally rushed away like mad things, probably looking for a first aid station.

In this manner did Engle save his life by keeping a promise. Let us all profit from the lesson.

’FUESE are old tales, and they have A nothing to do with any of the great events of this present time. They are old tales of a Canada that is gone. The great woods that were once but a brief journey from Lake Ontario blue waters, have been made into paper pulp. Summer resorts are furnishing entertainment to the tired business man, where once the lonely settler rested by his log fire and heard the howlin^ of the wolves on winter nights. Motor boats whizz along the streams that once knew nothing swifter than the bark canoe.

When I think of Canada I think of the lonely places, the melancholy woods and the wild things that infested them. And so my Canada is vastly different from the one on the map. My Canada is a winter night’s dream, and the real Canada becomes great under sunny skies.