'Shall I go ahead, sir?' shouted the captain.
'How the devil can you go ahead when I'm stuck?' roared back the Russian.
'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.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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