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.
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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