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Chapter I. The City on the Plain

Not far from the centre of the American Continent, midway between the oceans east and west, midway between the Gulf and the Arctic Sea, on the rim of a plain, snow swept in winter, flower decked in summer, but, whether in winter or in summer, beautiful in its sunlit glory, stands Winnipeg, the cosmopolitan capital of the last of the Anglo Saxon Empires,--Winnipeg, City of the Plain, which from the eyes of the world cannot be hid. Miles away, secure in her sea-girt isle, is old London, port of all seas; miles away, breasting the beat of the Atlantic, sits New York, capital of the New World, and mart of the world, Old and New; far away to the west lie the mighty cities of the Orient, Peking and Hong Kong, Tokio and Yokohama; and fair across the highway of the world's commerce sits Winnipeg, Empress of the Prairies. Her Trans-Continental railways thrust themselves in every direction,--south into the American Republic, east to the ports of the Atlantic, west to the Pacific, and north to the Great Inland Sea.

To her gates and to her deep-soiled tributary prairies she draws from all lands peoples of all tribes and tongues, smitten with two great race passions, the lust for liberty, and the lust for land.

By hundreds and tens of hundreds they stream in and through this hospitable city, Saxon and Celt and Slav, each eager on his own quest, each paying his toll to the new land as he comes and goes, for good or for ill, but whether more for good than for ill only God knows.

A hundred years ago, where now stands the thronging city, stood the lonely trading-post of The Honourable, The Hudson's Bay Company. To this post in their birch bark canoes came the half-breed trapper and the Indian hunter, with their priceless bales of furs to be bartered for blankets and beads, for pemmican and bacon, for powder and ball, and for the thousand and one articles of commerce that piled the store shelves from cellar to roof.

Fifty years ago, about the lonely post a little settlement had gathered--a band of sturdy Scots. Those dour and doughty pioneers of peoples had planted on the Red River their homes upon their little "strip" farms--a rampart of civilization against the wide, wild prairie, the home of the buffalo, and camp ground of the hunters of the plain.

Twenty-five years ago, in the early eighties, a little city had fairly dug its roots into the black soil, refusing to be swept away by that cyclone of financial frenzy known over the Continent as the "boom of '81," and holding on with abundant courage and invincible hope, had gathered to itself what of strength it could, until by 1884 it had come to assume an appearance of enduring solidity. hitherto accessible from the world by the river and the railroad from the south, in this year the city began to cast eager eyes eastward, and to listen for the rumble of the first trans- continental train, which was to bind the Provinces of Canada into a Dominion, and make Winnipeg into one of the cities of the world. Trade by the river died, but meantime the railway from the south kept pouring in a steady stream of immigration, which distributed itself according to its character and in obedience to the laws of affinity, the French Canadian finding a congenial home across the Red River in old St. Boniface, while his English-speaking fellow- citizen, careless of the limits of nationality, ranged whither his fancy called him. With these, at first in small and then in larger groups, from Central and South Eastern Europe, came people strange in costume and in speech; and holding close by one another as if in terror of the perils and the loneliness of the unknown land, they segregated into colonies tight knit by ties of blood and common tongue.

Already, close to the railway tracks and in the more unfashionable northern section of the little city, a huddling cluster of little black shacks gave such a colony shelter. With a sprinkling of Germans, Italians and Swiss, it was almost solidly Slav. Slavs of all varieties from all provinces and speaking all dialects were there to be found: Slavs from Little Russia and from Great Russia, the alert Polak, the heavy Croatian, the haughty Magyar, and occasionally the stalwart Dalmatian from the Adriatic, in speech mostly Ruthenian, in religion orthodox Greek Catholic or Uniat and Roman Catholic. By their non-discriminating Anglo-Saxon fellow- citizens they are called Galicians, or by the unlearned, with an echo of Paul's Epistle in their minds, "Galatians." There they pack together in their little shacks of boards and tar-paper, with pent roofs of old tobacco tins or of slabs or of that same useful but unsightly tar-paper, crowding each other in close irregular groups as if the whole wide prairie were not there inviting them. From the number of their huts they seem a colony of no great size, but the census taker, counting ten or twenty to a hut, is surprised to find them run up into hundreds. During the summer months they are found far away in the colonies of their kinsfolk, here and there planted upon the prairie, or out in gangs where new lines of railway are in construction, the joy of the contractor's heart, glad to exchange their steady, uncomplaining toil for the uncertain, spasmodic labour of their English-speaking rivals. But winter finds them once more crowding back into the little black shacks in the foreign quarter of the city, drawn thither by their traditionary social instincts, or driven by economic necessities. All they ask is bed space on the floor or, for a higher price, on the home-made bunks that line the walls, and a woman to cook the food they bring to her; or, failing such a happy arrangement, a stove on which they may boil their varied stews of beans or barley, beets or rice or cabbage, with such scraps of pork or beef from the neck or flank as they can beg or buy at low price from the slaughter houses, but ever with the inevitable seasoning of garlic, lacking which no Galician dish is palatable. Fortunate indeed is the owner of a shack, who, devoid of hygienic scruples and disdainful of city sanitary laws, reaps a rich harvest from his fellow-countrymen, who herd together under his pent roof. Here and there a house surrendered by its former Anglo-Saxon owner to the "Polak" invasion, falls into the hands of an enterprising foreigner, and becomes to the happy possessor a veritable gold mine.

Such a house had come into the possession of Paulina Koval. Three years ago, with two children she had come to the city, and to the surprise of her neighbours who had travelled with her from Hungary, had purchased this house, which the owner was only too glad to sell. How the slow-witted Paulina had managed so clever a transaction no one quite understood, but every one knew that in the deal Rosenblatt, financial agent to the foreign colony, had lent his shrewd assistance. Rosenblatt had known Paulina in the home land, and on her arrival in the new country had hastened to proffer his good offices, arranging the purchase of her house and guiding her, not only in financial matters, but in things domestic as well. It was due to Rosenblatt that the little cottage became the most populous dwelling in the colony. It was his genius that had turned the cellar, with its mud floor, into a dormitory capable of giving bed space to twenty or twenty-five Galicians, and still left room for the tin stove on which to cook their stews. Upon his advice, too, the partitions by which the cottage had been divided into kitchen, parlour, and bed rooms, were with one exception removed as unnecessary and interfering unduly with the most economic use of valuable floor space. Upon the floor of the main room, some sixteen feet by twelve, under Rosenblatt's manipulation, twenty boarders regularly spread their blankets, and were it not for the space demanded by the stove and the door, whose presence he deeply regretted, this ingenious manipulator could have provided for some fifteen additional beds. Beyond the partition, which as a concession to Rosenblatt's finer sensibilities was allowed to remain, was Paulina's boudoir, eight feet by twelve, where she and her two children occupied a roomy bed in one corner. In the original plan of the cottage four feet had been taken from this boudoir for closet purposes, which closet now served as a store room for Paulina's superfluous and altogether wonderful wardrobe.

After a few weeks' experiment, Rosenblatt, under pressure of an exuberant hospitality, sought to persuade Paulina that, at the sacrifice of some comfort and at the expense of a certain degree of privacy, the unoccupied floor space of her boudoir might be placed at the disposal of a selected number of her countrymen, who for the additional comfort thus secured, this room being less exposed to the biting wind from the door, would not object to pay a higher price. Against this arrangement poor Paulina made feeble protest, not so much on her own account as for the sake of the children.

"Children!" cried Rosenblatt. "What are they to you? They are not your children."

"No, they are not my children, but they are my man's, and I must keep them for him. He would not like men to sleep in the same room with us."

"What can harm them here? I will come myself and be their protector," cried the chivalrous Rosenblatt. "And see, here is the very thing! We will make for them a bed in this snug little closet. It is most fortunate, and they will be quite comfortable."

Still in Paulina's slow-moving mind lingered some doubt as to the propriety of the suggested arrangement. "But why should men come in here? I do not need the money. My man will send money every month."

"Ah!" cried the alert and startled Rosenblatt, "every month! Ah! very good! But this house, you will remember, is not all paid for, and those English people are terrible with their laws. Oh, truly terrible!" continued the solicitous agent. "They would turn you and your children out into the snow. Ah, what a struggle I had only last month with them!"

The mere memory of that experience sent a shudder of horror through Rosenblatt's substantial frame, so that Paulina hastened to surrender, and soon Rosenblatt with three of his patrons, selected for their more gentle manners and for their ability to pay, were installed as night lodgers in the inner room at the rate of five dollars per month. This rate he considered as extremely reasonable, considering that those of the outer room paid three dollars, while for the luxury of the cellar accommodation two dollars was the rate.

Ralph Connor