'How the devil can you go ahead when I'm stuck?' roared back the
'Shall I try?' 'Oh, go to hell if you want to,' snapped the Russian.
The Nascopie broke through the ice jam to lead the convoy into harbour, and for good measure, on the way home, she sank a submarine. Small wonder that she grew on us almost as though she were human.
On that first Monday morning, however, we were not greatly
impressed. In fact by the time we had finished carrying the heavy mail
boxes and it is extraordinary how heavily a year's mail can weigh we
were not sorry to see the last of her for the day.
We soon made friends around our temporary home. One Saturday
night, a French Canadian family held a wedding reception in the building. Two
or three of us were hanging about so they invited us to join the party. During
the evening, we were approached by a rather unsteady-looking man who,
after casting a glance at a priest standing near by, said in a deep but
penetrating whisper: 'H.B.C. eh? Do you know what that means? ''Here
before Christ,'' that's what it means!'
He told us that he had been trading with the company for over
thirty years. Ian asked him if he had retired and the man roared with laughter.
'Retired?' he shouted. 'I'm never going to retire. They'll find me
one day somewhere along the trail and I hope they'll leave me there.' He
waved his arm round the room then went on.
'This sort of thing's not for me. I only came because she happens
to be a niece. I'll not be down this way again. Victor's my name. They'll know
me up the river. I don't have much in this world but I'm free. I go where I like
when I like and I'm off home in the morning.' He waved his arm and marched
off towards the table where the food was set out. I was often to think about
Victor in the years to come, his boisterous good health, his obvious
contentment with the life he had chosen, and his best clothes, which looked
as if they had not been worn for many a long day.
We met three sisters at the wedding too who had come from
Three Rivers and had made the trip down with their father and mother. They
were good fun and Ian Smith and I and another chap took them out for a
picnic the next day, as they spent the weekend in the city. It was the first
time that I had ever been out with a girl other than my sister, and one of
them, Laurette, said she would write to me. I rashly promised to write and
send her a fur from wherever I was. She did write too but alas did not receive
the promised fur.
By the end of the next week, so far as we could see, the
Nascopie was just about fully laden. We were not surprised to be told to
pack up again in preparation for moving on. Then at the last minute, because
of the shortage of accommodation on the ship, Ian, myself and three others
were told that we were to take passage on another freighter, which was going
up as far north as the Labrador coast and Ungava Bay. Somewhere up there
we should join up again with the Nascopie. This meant that we should be
sailing a few days later.
The evening before we parted we all clubbed together to buy some
beer and had a small party at least we sang songs and were generally very
noisy. Now that we knew that we were to be northerners, an air of easy
comradeship settled over the gathering and it seemed likely that we should
have much to do with each other over the next few years. Such is the
remoteness of life in the Arctic that I was only to see three of the dozen or so
present after that season.
The five of us that were to be left behind went down to the docks
to see the rest of our party depart. Prepared for laughter and banter, we had
not expected the sailing of the little ship to be so stirring. The vessel was
bedecked in pennants, apart from the Red Ensign at the stern and the Blue
Peter at the mainmast. A detachment of the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police, in their scarlet uniforms, was drawn up on the deck for
inspection by a high-ranking officer. There were priests, government officials,
traders, doctors and scientists. In her holds, we knew, were the supplies for
a territory ten times the size of England. We shook hands with our friends.
Some of the ladies farewelling their nearest and dearest cried, while another
group was singing.
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