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 backwoods.
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 expected.
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 distinction.
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 Eskimos.
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.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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