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Chapter 11


A PEOPLE AT HOME


An up-country proverb says, 'She was bidden to the wedding and set down
to grind corn.' The same fate, reversed, overtook me on my little
excursion. There is a crafty network of organisations of business men
called Canadian Clubs. They catch people who look interesting, assemble
their members during the mid-day lunch-hour, and, tying the victim to a
steak, bid him discourse on anything that he thinks he knows. The idea
might be copied elsewhere, since it takes men out of themselves to
listen to matters not otherwise coming under their notice and, at the
same time, does not hamper their work. It is safely short, too. The
whole affair cannot exceed an hour, of which the lunch fills half. The
Clubs print their speeches annually, and one gets cross-sections of many
interesting questions--from practical forestry to State mints--all set
out by experts.

Not being an expert, the experience, to me, was very like hard work.
Till then I had thought speech-making was a sort of conversational
whist, that any one could cut in at it. I perceive now that it is an Art
of conventions remote from anything that comes out of an inkpot, and of
colours hard to control. The Canadians seem to like listening to
speeches, and, though this is by no means a national vice, they make
good oratory on occasion. You know the old belief that the white man on
brown, red, or black lands, will throw back in manner and instinct to
the type originally bred there? Thus, a speech in the taal should carry
the deep roll, the direct belly-appeal, the reiterated, cunning
arguments, and the few simple metaphors of the prince of commercial
orators, the Bantu. A New Zealander is said to speak from his diaphragm,
hands clenched at the sides, as the old Maoris used. What we know of
first-class Australian oratory shows us the same alertness, swift
flight, and clean delivery as a thrown boomerang. I had half expected in
Canadian speeches some survival of the Redskin's elaborate appeal to
Suns, Moons, and Mountains--touches of grandiosity and ceremonial
invocations. But nothing that I heard was referable to any primitive
stock. There was a dignity, a restraint, and, above all, a weight in it,
rather curious when one thinks of the influences to which the land lies
open. Red it was not; French it was not; but a thing as much by itself
as the speakers.

So with the Canadian's few gestures and the bearing of his body. During
the (Boer) war one watched the contingents from every point of view,
and, most likely, drew wrong inferences. It struck me then that the
Canadian, even when tired, slacked off less than the men from the hot
countries, and while resting did not lie on his back or his belly, but
rather on his side, a leg doubled under him, ready to rise in one surge.

This time while I watched assemblies seated, men in hotels and
passers-by, I fancied that he kept this habit of semi-tenseness at home
among his own; that it was the complement of the man's still
countenance, and his even, lowered voice. Looking at their footmarks on
the ground they seem to throw an almost straight track, neither splayed
nor in-toed, and to set their feet down with a gentle forward pressure,
rather like the Australian's stealthy footfall. Talking among
themselves, or waiting for friends, they did not drum with their
fingers, fiddle with their feet, or feel the hair on their faces. These
things seem trivial enough, but when breeds are in the making everything
is worth while. A man told me once--but I never tried the
experiment--that each of our Four Races light and handle fire in their
own way.

Small wonder we differ! Here is a people with no people at their backs,
driving the great world-plough which wins the world's bread up and up
over the shoulder of the world--a spectacle, as it might be, out of some
tremendous Norse legend. North of them lies Niflheim's enduring cold,
with the flick and crackle of the Aurora for Bifrost Bridge that Odin
and the Aesir visited. These people also go north year by year, and drag
audacious railways with them. Sometimes they burst into good wheat or
timber land, sometimes into mines of treasure, and all the North is
foil of voices--as South Africa was once--telling discoveries and making
prophecies.

When their winter comes, over the greater part of this country outside
the cities they must sit still, and eat and drink as the Aesir did. In
summer they cram twelve months' work into six, because between such and
such dates certain far rivers will shut, and, later, certain others,
till, at last, even the Great Eastern Gate at Quebec locks, and men must
go in and out by the side-doors at Halifax and St. John. These are
conditions that make for extreme boldness, but not for extravagant
boastings.

The maples tell when it is time to finish, and all work in hand is
regulated by their warning signal. Some jobs can be put through before
winter; others must be laid aside ready to jump forward without a lost
minute in spring. Thus, from Quebec to Calgary a note of drive--not
hustle, but drive and finish-up--hummed like the steam-threshers on the
still, autumn air.

Hunters and sportsmen were coming in from the North; prospectors with
them, their faces foil of mystery, their pockets full of samples, like
prospectors the world over. They had already been wearing wolf and coon
skin coats. In the great cities which work the year round,
carriage--shops exhibited one or two seductive nickel-plated sledges, as
a hint; for the sleigh is 'the chariot at hand here of Love.' In the
country the farmhouses were stacking up their wood-piles within reach of
the kitchen door, and taking down the fly-screens, (One leaves these
on, as a rule, till the double windows are brought up from the cellar,
and one has to hunt all over the house for missing screws.) Sometimes
one saw a few flashing lengths of new stovepipe in a backyard, and
pitied the owner. There is no humour in the old, bitter-true stovepipe
jests of the comic papers.

But the railways--the wonderful railways--told the winter's tale most
emphatically. The thirty-ton coal cars were moving over three thousand
miles of track. They grunted and lurched against each other in the
switch-yards, or thumped past statelily at midnight on their way to
provident housekeepers of the prairie towns. It was not a clear way
either; for the bacon, the lard, the apples, the butter, and the cheese,
in beautiful whitewood barrels, were rolling eastwards toward the
steamers before the wheat should descend on them. That is the fifth act
of the great Year-Play for which the stage must be cleared. On scores of
congested sidings lay huge girders, rolled beams, limbs, and boxes of
rivets, once intended for the late Quebec Bridge--now so much mere
obstruction--and the victuals had to pick their way through 'em; and
behind the victuals was the lumber--clean wood out of the
mountains--logs, planks, clapboards, and laths, for which we pay such
sinful prices in England--all seeking the sea. There was housing, food,
and fuel for millions, on wheels together, and never a grain yet shifted
of the real staple which men for five hundred miles were threshing out
in heaps as high as fifty-pound villas.

Add to this, that the railways were concerned for their own new
developments--double-trackings, loops, cutoffs, taps, and feeder lines,
and great swoops out into untouched lands soon to be filled with men. So
the construction, ballast, and material trains, the grading machines,
the wrecking cars with their camel-like sneering cranes--the whole plant
of a new civilisation--had to find room somewhere in the general rally
before Nature cried, 'Lay off!'

Does any one remember that joyful strong confidence after the war, when
it seemed that, at last, South Africa was to be developed--when men laid
out railways, and gave orders for engines, and fresh rolling-stock, and
labour, and believed gloriously in the future? It is true the hope was
murdered afterward, but--multiply that good hour by a thousand, and you
will have some idea of how it feels to be in Canada--a place which even
an 'Imperial' Government cannot kill. I had the luck to be shown some
things from the inside--to listen to the details of works projected; the
record of works done. Above all, I saw what had actually been achieved
in the fifteen years since I had last come that way. One advantage of a
new land is that it makes you feel older than Time. I met cities where
there had been nothing--literally, absolutely nothing, except, as the
fairy tales say, 'the birds crying, and the grass waving in the wind.'
Villages and hamlets had grown to great towns, and the great towns
themselves had trebled and quadrupled. And the railways rubbed their
hands and cried, like the Afrites of old, 'Shall we make a city where
no city is; or render flourishing a city that is dasolate?' They do it
too, while, across the water, gentlemen, never forced to suffer one
day's physical discomfort in all their lives, pipe up and say, 'How
grossly materialistic!'

I wonder sometimes whether any eminent novelist, philosopher, dramatist,
or divine of to-day has to exercise half the pure imagination, not to
mention insight, endurance, and self-restraint, which is accepted
without comment in what is called 'the material exploitation' of a new
country. Take only the question of creating a new city at the junction
of two lines--all three in the air. The mere drama of it, the play of
the human virtues, would fill a book. And when the work is finished,
when the city is, when the new lines embrace a new belt of farms, and
the tide of the Wheat has rolled North another unexpected degree, the
men who did it break off, without compliments, to repeat the joke
elsewhere.

I had some talk with a youngish man whose business it was to train
avalanches to jump clear of his section of the track. Thor went to
Jotunheim only once or twice, and he had his useful hammer Miolnr with
him. This Thor lived in Jotunheim among the green-ice-crowned peaks of
the Selkirks--where if you disturb the giants at certain seasons of the
year, by making noises, they will sit upon you and all your fine
emotions. So Thor watches them glaring under the May sun, or dull and
doubly dangerous beneath the spring rains. He wards off their strokes
with enormous brattices of wood, wing-walls of logs bolted together, and
such other contraptions as experience teaches. He bears the giants no
malice; they do their work, he his. What bothers him a little is that
the wind of their blows sometimes rips pines out of the opposite
hill-sides--explodes, as it were, a whole valley. He thinks, however, he
can fix things so as to split large avalanches into little ones.

Another man, to whom I did not talk, sticks in my memory. He had for
years and years inspected trains at the head of a heavyish grade in the
mountains--though not half so steep as the Hex[4]--where all brakes are
jammed home, and the cars slither warily for ten miles. Tire-troubles
there would be inconvenient, so he, as the best man, is given the
heaviest job--monotony and responsibility combined. He did me the honour
of wanting to speak to me, but first he inspected his train--on all
fours with a hammer. By the time he was satisfied of the integrity of
the underpinnings it was time for us to go; and all that I got was a
friendly wave of the hand--a master craftsman's sign, you might call it.

[Footnote 4: Hex River, South Africa.]

Canada seems full of this class of materialist.

Which reminds me that the other day I saw the Lady herself in the shape
of a tall woman of twenty-five or six, waiting for her tram on a street
corner. She wore her almost flaxen-gold hair waved, and parted low on
the forehead, beneath a black astrachan toque, with a red enamel
maple-leaf hatpin in one side of it. This was the one touch of colour
except the flicker of a buckle on the shoe. The dark, tailor-made dress
had no trinkets or attachments, but fitted perfectly. She stood for
perhaps a minute without any movement, both hands--right bare, left
gloved--hanging naturally at her sides, the very fingers still, the
weight of the superb body carried evenly on both feet, and the profile,
which was that of Gudrun or Aslauga, thrown out against a dark stone
column. What struck me most, next to the grave, tranquil eyes, was her
slow, unhurried breathing in the hurry about her. She was evidently a
regular fare, for when her tram stopped she smiled at the lucky
conductor; and the last I saw of her was a flash of the sun on the red
maple-leaf, the full face still lighted by that smile, and her hair very
pale gold against the dead black fur. But the power of the mouth, the
wisdom of the brow, the human comprehension of the eyes, and the
outstriking vitality of the creature remained. That is how _I_ would
have my country drawn, were I a Canadian--and hung in Ottawa Parliament
House, for the discouragement of prevaricators.


Rudyard Kipling

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