Yearning for a Friendly Land
NORMA PHILLIPS MUIR
TWO HOURS behind us stretched the long, hot trail of the train which had brought us from the torrid heat of the city to a dock, where trim, red-funneled steamers waited to speed us over the cool waters of the Muskoka lakes.
The last lap of our journey was a two-mile motor run through green woodlands, and over smooth table rocks to the lake-side hotel, and it was while enjoying this drive that I first stumbled upon the little story of life and love which had its birth in the hectic days of the Great War.
Rounding a sudden curve we were faced by a sharp hill, and were forced to give the car its utmost power. We made the grade, and at the top of the hill, sordid and drab against a background of glowing foliage, stood a dizzy tittle tar-paper shack.
"Campers?” I hazarded.
"Maw, that’s Jarge Seaton’s place,” came the answer. "You don't mean that people live there for more than a few weeks, do you?” I persisted.
"All the time,” replied our Jehu laconically.
I looked back at the dingy parody of a home, with its tar-paper walls, its log foundation and its mossy roof. At the rear, close beside a wooden wash-tub, was tied a spindly-legged calf. Bits of tin. short lengths of rope, odds and ends of timber, broken boxes, glass and here and there a little pile of hay littered the “yard.” At the end of the yard an out-building of wormy logs, with straw-covered boards serving as a roof, formed the cow shed which, rough as it appeared, was more fit for an abode than was the crazy shack.
It sounds almost romantic,—the mossy roof, the log foundation and the straw-topped shed—but the logs were worm eaten and falling into decay, the straw gave forth a noxious stench, and the soft green of the moss had long since turned to a discouraged brown.
Our sudden rounding of a second curve, which brought the hotel into view, drove all thoughts of the shabby abode from my mind for the moment, but a couple of days later I passed it again. Then I noted that several fine hens strutted possessively about the littered enclosure. I saw that the fence was made of young birches, unstripped and with the dead, brown leaves still curled upon the driving stems. But what caused me to catch my breath suddenly was the sight of several tomato cans upon the window ledge, and each tomato can boasted a puny, but nevertheless scarlet geranium bloom.
“Surely no woman lives there!” I gasped.
Grubby Rosy Youngster
BEFORE my question could be answered we had passed the front of the shack, and standing in the sunlight I saw a slim young girl, with big eyes and curling hair, and—she was hanging out baby clothes! Between rwo trees there was stretched a frail length of twine and, swaying in the breeze, pendant from the twine, there flapped a forlorn array of tiny socks, and much-mended little shirts.
Close to the girl, clinging to her cotton skirt, was an unsteady toddler of about a year. His rompers were grimy, but his blue eyes sparkled with health and mischief. and his chubby cheeks were rosy beneath the liberal coating of dirt with which he had besmeared himself.
A crackling twig betrayed our presence, and the girl turned quickly toward us, a look of hope brightening her face. Rather timidly she waved to us and, suddenly aware that we had been staring, we passed on with a wave and a smile which brought an answering smile to the girl's white face.
Several days later, bits of her tale having come to my ears from a gossip-loving maid, I planned to pass the little shack again and, if opportunity offered, learn the story first hand. Luck was with me, for as I came to the edge of the fence the little lad spied me, and toddling over shoved a fat fist between the saplings, offering me, shyly, a wilting blue dust flower which he, no doubt, had treasured for some hours.
"Are you sure you don’t want it?” I asked, and a vigorous nod answered me, while the fist essayed to reach nearer to me.
"Would mother let you have a candy?” I asked, but my only answer was a brilliant smile and a loud cry for "Marrrr.”
"Marrrr,” came and, after accepting the candy for the little boy, she asked me if I enjoyed being “up here.”
"Yes, indeed,” I replied, “but I don’t imagine I should like to be here all year round.”
An involuntary shudder passed through her, and then she smiled, rather wanly. “No, you wouldn’t like it here fjj .the winter. The lake is frozen, and the leaves are all gone It is so deadly cold,—and so—so—impossibly
. -oice was low and cultured, and more and more I wondered' "riiat had brought her t0 that lonely little
shack in the Northland of this great Canada of ours.
“Have you spent many Winters here?” I inquired.
"Three,” she replied. “I don’t mind it so much now.
Probably I’m getting used to it, but the first winter was— awful.”
She would have told me more then, but a feeble little wail from inside arrested her, and she turned from me.
“Baby is awake. You’ll excuse me, won’t you?” she asked, and ran into the house, if it may be so glorified in name.
It was a week before I went again, and I was armed with candy as before. She came out immediately she heard my voice, and the baby was in her arms.
“This'is John,” she said, show-
ing him to me, “and Teddy and I think he’s pretty fine, don’t
we, Teddy?” Teddy, the faded blue of his patched rompers glowing bluer in contrast with the reflection of his eyes, clung to her skirts again, and pulled her down so that he too might inspect John’s month-old countenance.
“They certainly look husky,” I remarked. “Evidently the climate is agreeing with them.”
“I haven’t lost a night’s sleep with either of them,” said the young mother proudly, and then she added with a catch in her voice: “I’d give just anything if my mother could see them.”
“Does she live far away—too far to come?” I asked. “Liverpool,” was the reply, “and she’s been accustomed to so much that I couldn’t ask her to come out to us—to this, and let her see me living here.”
Then bit by bit the story came out. Sitting side by side on a box near the rickety birch fence, Teddy lolling beside her and John asleep in her arms, she told me.
“I am what they call a War-Bride,” she smiled, “or at least I was, but by the time you’ve had two babies and spent three Winters here, you’ve nearly forgotten that you ever were anything so carefree and joyous as a bride. George was on leave in Liverpool, and I met him at a dance. A week from the night we met we were engaged, and in three more weeks I was his wife. Then we came out to Canada, and —to this. George had told me that his father owned an estate in Muskoka. I don’t blame George. Technically he is right, but we wouldn’t call this an estate in England,” and a disheartened glance took in the scrubby growth, the boulders and table rocks, and the vast expanse of almost barren land which stretched before our eyes.
“I loved him,” she went on, “and there was the glamor of our courting and our marriage, and I didn’t mind coming out here with him. I didn’t know it would be like this. He said we were near a Port, and Port in England means a place teeming with life, a place where the big ships come and go, where great cargoes are shipped out of England, and cargoes received again. This is so so different. I love it, you know, in a way, the trees and the rocks and the water, but it is so isolated. I had always been accustomed to a good home and to happy times with father and mother and my younger sister. I just can t tell you how I long for my mother and my sister.”
“Haven’t the people been kind to you?” I couldn’t help asking, and at the question a slow flush covered her face
and neck. She hesitated a moment.
“They haven’t been unkind,” she said gently, “but they haven’t been— interested. They are not friends. I am an outsider. I don’t blame the people so very much, for you see George’s people resented the fact that he had married an English girl, and they have had very little to do with me, and naturally their friends follow their example.”
And the Sins of the Fathers
LATER I heard that her husband’s people did not have an enviable reputation. They were not bad or criminal, but they were quarrelsome and had few friends, and so the sins of the first generation were being visited upon the head of this home-sick little girl from across the water, the girl who had given up parents, sister and a good home to come out to a Promised Land.
“But your husband—” I began.
“He is so good to me,” she said, “but—he isn’t—very —mature. He doesn’t stick to one berth long enough to make good at it. He does one thing for a while and then he gives it up because he is tired of it, and you know we’ll never get ahead that way. That’s why I’m insisting on our making a new start.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“George isn’t afraid of work,” she smiled, “but because every one here has known him all his life, and knows his people, they look on him as unreliable, and not quite a man yet. Here he has too much opportunity to change and not enough responsibility.
“So—we are going West next month with the Harvesters,” she concluded quietly. “George has staked his soldier’s claim, and we are going home-steading.”
“But my dear,” I remonstrated, “you know nothing about the West, and it is such a long journey with two babies. Couldn’t you wait until they are a little older?”
“The sooner we go the sooner we’ll begin to gain,” she said firmly. “We’ll never get anywhere here. We’ll just drift along with enough to eat every day and no more, and never any ambition or plan for the future.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two, but I know what I’m doing. Here my husband spends every day with men who have never had any ambition beyond sufficient food and a roof to shelter them. They can do nothing for George but instil into him their lack of ideals and ambition. It is like a disease which I am afraid George may catch, and such a life isn’t good enough for me and my babies. How can I even keep their little bodies clean in that hole?” she cried passionately, pointing toward the shack.
“They say the West gives every man a chance to start with a clean sheet,” she continued. “It’s what you are that counts there, not what you’ve been or what you have. It may be a hard life for a few years, but it’s hard here, and hard without any promise of a brighter future. Maybe,” she added, with tears in her voice, “maybe it won’t be so long, out there, before I can have my mother and sister come to see me, without shocking them with the sight of the filth and poverty of our surroundings. But, do you think I’d let them come and see me and my babies here?”
Perhaps no woman had ever been so interested as I was; perhaps she had reached the limit of loneliness and had to take some one of her own sex into her confidence; perhaps it was because her eyes were glorified by the vision of that “Second Chance” in Canada’s fertile West; or perhaps it was a little of all these combined which caused her to bare her heart to me.
“I Can’t Fight Here”
FOR a moment we were silent. The chickens picked for seed almost at our feet. The calf pulled incessantly at the short length of rope which prevented it from seeking greener pastures, and on the narrow window ledge the scarlet geraniums did their valiant best to bring a note of cheeriness into the dingy square. Tiny blue dust flowers peeped up from beneath the manure which strewed the ground, and the animal stench mingled with the old odor of decaying grain which came from the improvised cow shed.
"I can't fight here; it's so useless," she said, "but out there we'll have our chance and I know we'll make good." I couldn't speak. I looked at her, slim and straight, with her clear blue eyes, curling brown hair, and that purity of skin which is the heritage of the English girl. I thought of her, a child of nineteen, saying good-bye to home and family and coming out to an unknown land with the boy she loved-strong in hope, rich in promisebut, oh, so sordid in realization! I visualized her stunned acceptance of this shack for a home, and the stunned acceptance of this shack for a home, and the plucky fight she must have put up to keep from almost going mad with the disillusionment and the pain of her discovery and reception.
Continued on page 42
Yearning for a Friendly Land
Continued from page 28
And then, as the baby stirred in her arms, I thought of the horror of child birth in so desolate a place—of the long hours of lonely agony while her husband covered slow miles in search of a doctor— and there awoke in my heart a wondering admiration for this girl who had twice known travail in the wilds, without the comfort of a loving woman near her— this girl who, reared in tenderness, almost in luxury, had stuck by “her man” in this place he called home. I was lost in admiration of this girl who, when the time came, could calmly insist upon facing a long, hard journey and the terror of the unknown that they might “get ahead,” that they might breed into their sons a definite plan of life, an ambition for those better things life has to offer the courageous.
“They say that out there folks are very friendly,” she said wistfully. “Do you suppose I’ll get to know any of them befor.e Winter comes?”
“I’m sure you will,” I said, “and I know you’ll succeed out there and be happier than you’ve been here.”
“I guess I sort of gave up trying to make things nice here,” she said. “The
babies came so close together, and it seemed as if it was all I could do to keep them sweet and clean and be sure the food was fit for us to eat. No one came to see us, and even the flowers I tried to grow died. The geraniums wrere the only ones that lived.”
Off to the Land of Hope
WHEN I rose to go a few minutes later she asked if she would see me again before they went, and I gladly answered affirmatively. Two or three times after that visit I talked with her, but we were never alone, and the days sped swiftly until there dawned the one which was to see them bid goodbye to the shack on the hill and take up their trek.
I held John for a fewminutes, kissed Teddy good-bye, and then Mrs. Seaton, taking the baby from me, put out her hand, and thanked me for being so kind to her.
“You do think we’ll make good out there, don’t you, and that the people will make friends?” she asked again.
“I knowyou’ll make good, and as for the people, they say it’s just like one big family out there,” I told her.
Her sweet face, with its big, tired eyes brightened at that, and she said tremulously: “Maybe I’ll see Mothernextyear!” A big lump came up in my throat, and as I put my arm around her shoulder, giving her a quick hug, she lifted her lips to me, as Teddy would to her.
I went down the hill slowly, leaving her standing there in the sunlight, with her baby in her arms, and her little lad at her feet, while in her eyes was the light of determination and hope, and above her head the geraniums nodded encouragement.
They weren’t going until eight o’clock, and about half-past seven I went back, with some toys to amuse Teddy on the journeyand with a wish in my heart to talk again to this quietly courageous girl. But they were gone. The little shack, whose rickety furniture had all been sold, was empty. The geraniums drooped in
their cans, and, by the roadside, waiting the carter’s convenience, was a pitiful trio of possessions—a single packing box, a wicker go-cart, and a battered little tin trunk.
I stood there, and the thought came guiltily to me that we had not been overly anxious to welcome to Canada these English War Brides. We had branded them with the stigma of the word “foreigner” when they were in reality of our own Empire family.
“We’re not afraid of work.” Her words re-echoed in my ears as the slanting rays of the westering sun touched the battered tin trunk with its rusty hinges, and transformed it into a chest of gold, with scarlet hasps of hope.