That night I said goodbye to my grandmother. She seemed much
affected. She said that she wished that she had had more money so that we
could have stayed in England and not gone so far away, but the family
fortunes had dwindled and there was nothing she could do. She gave me a
little package wrapped up in tissue paper. It contained two spoons and a fork,
silver with her family crest stamped on the handles. This was to remind me of
all those people who had stared down on my childhood, and how well some
of them had acquitted themselves.
Mother and I set off for London early the next morning, my sister
having already gone back to her job in Bristol. We stayed at an old-fashioned
hotel, and went to a theatre, and after breakfast the next morning made our
way quietly to the ten o'clock rendezvous at Euston station. I remember
thinking back to our first parting, on the day that mother had taken me down
to start school. The tears had streamed down my face then and she had tried
to console me by saying that it would only be a few weeks before the
holidays. This time the tears streamed down her face as we began to move,
and I did not know what to say.
Five years suddenly seemed a very, very long time.
I remember little about the voyage across the Atlantic. Being a summer
passage, it was calm and uneventful I suppose, with little to do except eat,
sleep and play deck games until we reached the St Lawrence river and had
our first glimpse of our future homeland. We had a brief run ashore at
Quebec, just enough to say that we had set foot in Canada, then the next
day docked at Montreal, where our posts would be assigned.
Our accommodation on the ship had seemed almost luxurious, so
our temporary home in the city was something of a let-down. The public
rooms were sparsely furnished with trestle tables and wooden chairs and
there was little attempt to reach any standard of comfort, but the people who
ran the place were good-hearted souls, who kept our spirits up with an ample
supply of good plain food.
The Hudson's Bay Company offices in Montreal were in McGill
Street, and though half our number had taken the train westward, there
seemed to be quite a crowd of us milling about in the comparatively small
office space. We met the men in charge of our areas and most of the
apprentices were told where they would be going. Another boy, Ian Smith,
and I were 'odd men out' for whom a home would be found during the course
of the summer travels.
To relieve the congestion, a party of us were sent down to the
docks to work on the Nascopie, the ship that the archdeacon had told us
about at school, now loading up for her annual trip with the year's supply for
the distant posts.
After the majestic liner which had carried us so smoothly across
the Atlantic, the Nascopie seemed very small and insignificant. Her decks
only just rose above the level of the wharf, whereas the liner had towered up
above the dockside. Her paintwork was dark and workmanlike whereas the
Duchess had gleamed and dazzled in white. None the less, many of us were,
in the years to come, to form an affection for the little ship which no ocean
liner could ever have inspired. Sometimes she was naughty. In rough weather
there were few tricks that were beyond her, particularly when coming down
the Labrador coast with only a few light bales of furs in her holds. She would
then creak and groan in the most alarming manner, but survived the worst
hammerings the North Atlantic and the Arctic seas could serve up, to return
each year, like a faithful friend, to keep us company for a few hours or a day
or so in our northern solitude.
More than once the Nascopie took on a double duty, when lesser
craft than she gave up the unequal struggle against fog and ice. The old ship
had been built during or just before the First World War, and was one of the
finest steel icebreakers ever constructed. During the war, she was employed
smashing the ice in the White Sea, and according to all reports was well
ahead of the Russians in this field. Once, in a convoy in heavy ice, the huge
Russian icebreaker leading the convoy got stuck. The Nascopie bustled up
alongside and hailed the Russian.
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