The second interview was more intimidating. I had to wait half an
hour in an ante-room before I was called in to the departmental manager's
office. It was a splendid office with a thick red carpet and leather armchairs.
The manager gave me a very earnest talk. There wasn't any Mr Hudson's
Bay, he said, so that every hard-working apprentice had a thick carpet and
leather chaired suite within his sights, or at the very least a chief trader's
certificate to hang on the wall, if he could survive forty years in the
Eventually the talking was over and they produced the official
contract, now with all the details filled in. I was to bind myself for five years to
the company, serving wherever they might decide to send me. They would
keep me and pay me 10 s. (50p) per week, though should I rise above the
apprentice level during the period, some modest increase in salary could be
The terms did not appear unduly harsh. The money did seem to
be a little on the short side even for those depressed days, but that was a
fairly common complaint at the time, so I signed the document and even light-
heartedly agreed to become a competent bookkeeper and typist during the
few weeks of waiting before they shipped me off to Canada. Such is the
foolish optimism of youth.
One immediate benefit arising from my decision became quickly
obvious. I was no longer an inconspicuous monitor of my school. An aura
compounded of snow, ice, dogs and polar bears separated me from my fellow
boys, even those who had reached the dizzy heights of the First XV. To my
astonishment, this also actually clouded the vision of some of the masters. I
exploited this situation to the full so that my last few weeks were the
happiest of my years at the school.
My housemaster, for some reason or another, was the last to hear
of my new status, and when he called me in to go over my end-of-term report
he appeared to think that I was still just an ordinary schoolboy. It seemed
that my progress in scripture had only been rated as 'fair'. He did not feel it to
be satisfactory that the word 'fair' should appear on the report of one of his
monitors and he might feel it necessary to demote me.
I quickly set his mind at rest by telling him my news. A curious
expression came over his face when he heard that I was off to the wilds,
rather as though I had opened some door in his mind that had been closed
for a very long time. He wrote to me in the Arctic several times and I later
heard that my replies had been read out at prayers, a signal mark of
At the end of term a special train came to the school station to
pick up the boys travelling to London or beyond. The train left just after 6 a.m.
in order to avoid the morning rush, so it was very early one spring morning
that I discarded my school uniform and, puffed up with sufficient false pride to
still any lurking doubts, set off to prepare myself for my life among the
Some years previously, an old great-uncle of ours had died,
leaving my siblings and me £52 each. As I was shortly to become an earner
in my own right, I dipped into this money to equip myself for my new life and
at once purchased a colourful shirt, riding breeches and a horsy jacket. This
gave me, on such occasions as I actually appeared in public in my new
outfit, a sufficiently bizarre appearance to cause one of the more spiteful of
our neighbours to remark: 'He looks quite colonial already, doesn't he?'
My mother, still under forty years old, had hardly dared to even
think about the day when she would finally be released to live again, and now
suddenly it was within sight. Already she and my sister were filling up the
forms necessary to obtain an assisted passage to New Zealand, where they
would join my brothers.
Shortly after my arrival home, an important-looking letter came
from the Hudson's Bay Company. It reminded me rather sternly that I had
undertaken to achieve competence in bookkeeping and typing before leaving
England, and warned me that I would have to produce certificates to avoid
being left behind on the quayside. A visit one afternoon to an established
business college in the town indicated that this was not going to be as easy
as it sounded. They smiled pityingly and showed us the door. We journeyed
round all the other colleges in the town. The answer was always the same.
They did not undertake to turn out typists and bookkeepers in a matter of
weeks. Finally, to my horror, mother unearthed a girls' college willing to
attempt the impossible task.
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