Read CHAPTER XIII of A Countess from Canada A Story of Life in the Backwoods, free online book, by Bessie Marchant, on


“Are you ready, Mary?”

“In one minute, Father.  Let me see:  three bags, a valise, a hold-all, a portmanteau, two hatboxes, a camping sack, a case of books, and a handbag.  Oh dear, what a collection of things to look after!  How I wish we were like the dogs, dear creatures, which grow their own clothes and have only their tails to hold up, or to wag in sign of amity!”

The speaker was a girl of perhaps twenty, although she had one of those quiet reserved faces which render difficult a correct guessing of the age.  She was standing in the porch of the Bellevue Hotel, Temiskaming, and was garbed as if for rough travel, in coat and skirt of heather-brown cloth, faced with brown leather, with a brown hat on her head, and brown boots on her feet which reached well above the ankle.  Indeed her attire was so trim, and so exceedingly suitable for rough work, that everyone at the first glance decided she must be English.

“I fancy you would not care to wear the same coat always, nor yet to wag the same tail,” laughed her father, a genial-looking man of fifty, who was dressed with equal fitness for rough travel, and was just now intent on hurrying his daughter to the lake boat, which was getting up steam at a little distance.

“Like it or not, I expect it is what I shall be reduced to by the end of the summer,” laughed Mary Selincourt, as she watched the various bags and bundles being piled on to a barrow by the hotel porter.

“Well, look your last on civilization and come along, for that boat won’t wait much longer,” said Mr. Selincourt, adding with a laugh:  “unless indeed you are beginning to repent, in which case it is not too late to change your mind and go back to Miss Griffith.”

“Thank you!  I never change my mind unless it is about the weather, and I wouldn’t turn back on this journey on any account whatever.”

“Not if I turned back myself?” he enquired, as they went on board the boat.

“No; unless, of course, you were ill, in which case, I suppose, my sense of duty would oblige me to stop, even while my inclination was dragging me, with both hands, as near to the North Pole as a woman may hope to get,” she said, with a nervous catching of her breath which showed some agitation behind.

“But James Bay isn’t the North Pole,” objected Mr. Selincourt.

“It is nearer though than this, I suppose.  And this is better than Montreal,” she answered, then turned to talk to a gentleman who had come on board before them, and was bound for a fishing camp higher up the lake.

Lake Temiskaming is thirty miles long, and they reached its end in the evening.  But, as Mr. Selincourt had made arrangements to keep the boat for use as a floating hotel until the next morning, their first night in the wilds was a very comfortable one.

At dawn next morning everyone was astir.  Three river boats were landed; these were made light enough for portage work, and strong enough for weight carrying.  With them were landed some men engaged at a point farther down the lake, who had undertaken to work the boats up the Abbitibbi River to Hannah Bay.  The men, although there were plenty of them, looked askance at the luggage which had to be unladen from the steamer and packed into the boats.  They were thinking of the portages, and the numberless times those bags, bales, bundles, and boxes would have to be carried over miles of portages on their shoulders.  But the pay was good, quite twice what they could have earned in any other direction, and as they were too wise to quarrel with their daily bread, which in this case was only biscuit, they accepted the burdens in silence.

Mr. Selincourt and Mary travelled always in the second boat with the personal luggage which had surrounded Mary in the hotel porch, while the boat which went in front and the one which came after were laden with the heavier luggage.  For many days after this their journey went on.  Sometimes they would make not more than seven or eight miles in a day when the portages were bad, and on one record day the total distance covered was only four miles.  The weather was well-behaved as a whole, although occasionally the rain came down at a pour.  Being so early in the summer, the rivers were very full, so there was never any danger of running aground, although they had to face many risks in going down the rapids, when they had crossed the height of land on a ten-mile portage, and began to descend the Mattagami River.  The longest journey must come to an end at last, however, and one hot afternoon late on in June the three boats skirted the last headland of James Bay, and caught sight of the flag flying from the staff above the fish shed.

“Father, look, there is my flag!” cried Mary, in great excitement.  “Don’t you remember I made an especial flag for the fleet, and sent it up by Mr. Ferrars?  Why, how nice it looks, and somehow I feel Just as if I were coming home.”

“That is how I feel,” responded Mr. Selincourt.  “It is pretty country too, but it makes me feel downright bad to think of all these square miles of territory going to waste, so to speak, with no one but a few Indians for population, and then to remember the land hunger in England and

But Mary had put her hands over her ears, and cried:  “Oh, if you love me, spare me hearing any more about that land hunger just now!  I am very sorry for all the poor people who want to own three acres and a cow, but can’t afford the luxury; only just for a little while I want to forget them, and to enjoy all this beauty without any drawbacks if I can.”

“I am afraid you will find the drawbacks, though, in spite of your eagerness to escape them,” said Mr. Selincourt, who had been quietly examining Seal Cove through a glass.  Then he handed the glass to Mary, and said in a tone too low for the boatmen to hear:  “If I mistake not, the first drawback is there on the shore, mending a net.”

Mary took the glass and looked through it for a couple of minutes without speaking; then she gave it back, saying, with a shudder:  “What a horrid-looking man!”

“Rather a low type by the look of him.  But you must not judge all the population by your first glimpse of it.  Because one man is a rogue does not prevent all the rest being honest,” Mr. Selincourt said, putting the glass to his eye to get another look at the place they were approaching.

“Will our hut be down here on the shore?” asked Mary, who was straining her eyes for a first glimpse of the house they were to live in.

“No; Graham, who was one of the directors of the old company, you know, told me I should be wise to have it built farther up the river, at Roaring Water Portage, as it is so much more sheltered there than down here on the coast.”

“Ah! that was real wisdom, for if we make up our minds to stay the winter, a sheltered position may make a great difference in our comfort,” she said quickly, then stretched out her hand for the glass to have another look.

“You still think you want to spend next winter so far north?” said her father, in a questioning tone.

“Why not?” she replied, with a weary note coming into her voice.  “One place is as good as another, only this would be better than some, if only there is work of some sort to do.”

“We shall see how we like it,” he answered, then was silent, gazing at the scene before him, which was looking its fairest on this June afternoon.

The man mending nets on the shore, who was no other than Oily Dave, had by this time become aware of the approaching boats, and was rushing to and fro in a great state of bustle and excitement.  They could hear him calling to someone out of sight, and the sound of his raucous voice only served to deepen the unpleasant impression given by his appearance.

“Father, don’t say much to that man, I don’t like him,” Mary said in a low tone; and Mr. Selincourt nodded in reply, as the boats drew in to the landing by the fish shed, and Oily Dave came hurrying forward to greet them.

“Where is Mr. Ferrars?” asked Mr. Selincourt, and for all that he was a genial, kindly man, thinking evil of none, he could not keep a hard note out of his voice as he gazed at the mean, shifty face of Oily Dave.

“He’s away somewhere, over to Fort Garry, or perhaps he’s crossed to Akimiski Island.  The fleet have been mostly round that way this week past.  Shall I show you round a bit, sir?  I’m the acting manager, formerly sole manager.”  Oily Dave contrived to throw a withering emphasis on the latter adjective, and roiled up his eyes in a manner meant to imply injured innocence, which, however, only expressed low-down meanness and cunning.

“Ah, yes, I remember Mr. Graham spoke of you!” replied the new owner, in a strictly non-committal tone.  “But why did you say you are acting manager?  I only appointed Mr. Ferrars.”

Oily Dave contracted his features into an unpleasant grin.  “It takes them as knows these waters to understand the fishing of them, sir, and your grand drawing-room, bandbox manager would have been pretty hard put to it many a time to know what to do for the best, if it hadn’t been for Oily Dave, which is me.”

“I see,” remarked Mr. Selincourt in a calm and casual tone, then continued with quiet authority:  “Please tell Mr. Ferrars when he comes back that I have arrived, and ask him if he will come up to Roaring Water Portage as soon as it is convenient for him to do so.”

“Wouldn’t you like me to come and guide you up the river?” demanded Oily Dave, his jaw dropping in a crestfallen manner, for he had thought what a fine chance he would have of getting ahead of Jervis Ferrars.

“No, thank you, we have travelled too many strange waters these last few days to need guidance up the last two miles of our Journey.  It is two miles, is it not?”

“Nearer three, sir, but we mostly call it two, because it sounds better,” said Oily Dave.  Then he took his greasy old hat off with a flourish to Mary, and the boats started on again up the main channel of the river.

There was plenty to interest the travellers now on the left bank of the river; the fish shed showed a weather-beaten front to the broad waters of the bay, while beyond it, perched on a high bluff, was a fanny brown house, with a strange-looking wing built out at the side.

“Feather, look at that house, and the queer building at the side; what is it?” cried Mary, who was flushed and eager; for to her this entrance to Roaring Water River was like coming into her kingdom, although it was not land her father owned in these parts, but water, or at least the privilege to fish in the water, and the right to cut the timber needed for the making of his boats.

“It looks uncommonly like part of an old boat.  Well, if it is Astor M’Kree’s work, it would seem as if I have got a man who will make the best use of the materials at hand,” Mr. Selincourt replied, in a tone of satisfaction.

“Here comes a woman; oh, please, we must stop and speak to her!” said Mary, as a slatternly figure emerged from the house on the bluff, and came running down the steep path to the water’s edge, gesticulating and shouting.

“Welcome, sir, and welcome, Miss, to Seal Cove!” cried Mrs. Jenkin in a breathless tone.  “We are all most dreadfully delighted to have you here, and you will be sure to come and have tea with me on your first spare afternoon,” she panted, in hospitable haste, the sun shining down on her dusty, unkempt hair, and revealing the rags in her dress.

Mr. Selincourt looked at his daughter in quiet amusement; but Mary rose to the occasion in a manner worthy of the country in which she was living, and answered with sweet graciousness: 

“Oh!  I will be sure to come; thank you so much for asking me:  but I have got to get my house straight, you know, and that may take me a few days, so perhaps I will drop down the river some morning while it is cool, and let you know how I am getting on.  Then you must promise to come and see me.”

“Oh, I’ll come!  I shall be just delighted!  You won’t mind if I bring the babies, will you?  There are only three of them, and the oldest isn’t five yet; so when I go out I’m forced to take them with me, don’t you see,” Mrs. Jenkin said, smiling at the young lady from England, and serenely oblivious of the defects in her own toilet.

“I shall be charmed to entertain the babies, and I will be sure to come and see you very soon,” called Mary, as the boat moved on, leaving Mrs. Jenkin smiling and waving from the bank.

“What a nice little woman, and how friendly and kind in her manner!” exclaimed Mary, whereat Mr. Selincourt laughed.

“Has Canada bewitched you already?  What is to become of class distinctions if you are just going to hobnob with anyone who may happen along?” he asked, his eyes twinkling with fun, for he was quoting from her own past utterances.

Mary reddened, but she laughed too, then said apologetically:  “It sounds the most fearful snobbery to even mention class distinctions in these wilds, where the only aristocracy that counts is nobility of endeavour.  But I could not reckon myself that woman’s superior, Father, because under the same circumstances I might have been even more untidy and down-at-heel than she is.”

“It is hard to realize that you could be untidy under any conditions, but perhaps you might be if you had all the work of a house and the care of three babies on your hands,” Mr. Selincourt replied with a shake of his head.  Then he applied himself to a careful study of the river banks, which were mostly solitary, although at intervals rough loghouses showed among the trees.

“Listen to that noise; we are getting near to some rapids,” Mary said, putting up her hand.

“Near to the end of our journey as well, for we stop below the portage,” Mr. Selincourt said, and then the boat swept round the bend, and they saw before them a long, straight stretch of river, with houses visible at the far end where the milky hue of the water showed the river boiling over the rocks.

“So that is Roaring Water Portage!  Well, the place is as pretty as the name is musical.  I am very glad,” Mary said with a deep sigh of content, and then she sat in silence while the boats swept up the last stretch of river, and the long, long journey was done.

The boatmen drew to the left bank, leaving the store and its outbuildings on the right.  Oily Dave had told them that their house stood to the left of the falls, and although they did not see it at the first moment of landing, the well-trodden path up from the water’s edge showed that it must be near at hand.

“There it is.  But it does not look a bit new.  Oh, I am glad!” exclaimed Mary, as a long, low hut came in sight, with glass windows and an unpainted front door, which just now stood wide open, while two small girls occupied the doorstep, and were making dolls’ bonnets from leaves and plaited grass.

“I’m afraid that is not our house; someone is living there,” said Mr. Selincourt:  and the two small girls, becoming at this moment aware of the approach of strangers, sprang to their feet and fled into the house, casting the millinery away as they went.

“I’m afraid so too; but at least we can go and enquire where our house is to be found,” Mary answered.

Then they walked up to the door and knocked, and immediately a slight, girlish figure came into view, with a small girl clinging to either hand.

“Can you tell us where Mr. Selincourt’s house is to be found?” asked Mary, wondering why the girl had such sad eyes, and what relation she could be to the two little ones.

“This is Mr. Selincourt’s house.  I came over this afternoon to see that everything was in right order, that is all,” the sad-eyed girl or was she a woman? explained, drawing back for Mary to enter.

Miss Selincourt entered, put her bag on the table, and gazed round with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

“What a charming room!  I think I should have been ready to weep if this had not been our house.  Are you Mrs. M’Kree?” she asked doubtfully, for, although the girl looked so young, she had just heard one of the children whisper, “Mummy.”

“No, I am Mrs. Burton, and I come from the store across the river.  Mrs. M’Kree lives farther up the river, above the second portage, so it is not easy for her to come down every day, and I have kept the house open for her.”

“It is very kind of you!” exclaimed Mary gratefully, realizing that here was a very different specimen of womanhood, from the good-natured slattern who had greeted her at Seal Cove.

“We have to be kind to each other in these wilds, or we should be badly off sometimes,” Mrs. Burton rejoined.  Then she said timidly:  “We are very glad to welcome you, and we all feel that you have conferred a great favour on us by coming to stay here this summer.”

Something like an awkward lump got into Mary’s throat then.  She had come the long, toilsome journey solely for her own pleasure, and to be near her father, yet here was one thanking her for the privilege her coming conferred on these lone dwellers in the solitudes.  She was rarely a creature of impulse, and always prided herself on the way she kept her head; but the sweet friendliness of the sad-eyed little woman touched her mightily, and stooping forward she kissed Mrs. Burton warmly, then promptly apologized, being properly ashamed of her forwardness.

“Oh, please forgive me!  I really could not help it, and you you looked so kind!” she said ruefully.

Mrs. Burton laughed, although she looked rather embarrassed, then she said gently:  “I am afraid you must be very tired.  If you will sit down I will quickly get you some tea.”

“Please don’t trouble.  Father and I are quite used to doing things for ourselves, and I can make a kettle boil over my spirit lamp while the men are bringing the luggage up from the boats,” Mary said hastily, feeling that she simply could not have this gentle, refined woman waiting upon her,

But for all her gentleness Mrs. Burton could be firm when she chose, and she replied quietly:  “I should not think of going away until I had seen you with a meal ready prepared.  The fire is all ready for lighting in the stove, and that will save your spirit lamp, and you are in the wilderness now, remember, where spirit is difficult to obtain.”

The two little girls trotted after their mother.  Mary tried to make friends with them, but they were not used to strangers, so showed her only averted faces and pouting red lips, which made her understand that their friendship must be left to time.

When the luggage had been brought up from the boat, Mrs. Burton had the kettle boiling, and then she sent one of the men across with a boat to the store, giving him a message for Miles, which resulted in a basket of fresh fish coming over at once.  These, delicately broiled over a fire of spruce chips, and served piping hot, made, as Mr. Selincourt observed, a supper fit for a king.

Mrs. Burton stayed with her small daughters to share the meal, and if she thought ruefully of the family over the river, who would have to cook their own supper, and also go without the fish which had been intended for them, she said nothing about it, One must always suffer something in the give-and-take of life, and there were plenty of canned goods at the store which might serve at a pinch.

“Now I must go,” she said, when the supper dishes had been washed.  “It is time that Beth and Lotta went to bed, while my father will be wearying for me if I am too long away.”

“Your father?” broke from Mary in surprise, then she stopped abruptly, realizing that her acquaintance with Mrs. Burton was too short for over-much curiosity.

“I am a widow,” the little woman answered, with the simple dignity which became her so well.  “I live with my father, or did; but now, strictly speaking, it is he, poor man, who lives with us, and Katherine earns the living for us all.”

“Katherine is your sister?” asked Mary, and now there was tender sympathy in her tone, and she was understanding why Mrs. Burton’s eyes were so sad.

“Katherine is my younger sister, and she is just wonderful,” the little woman said, with love and admiration thrilling her tones.  “She has done a man’s work all the winter, and she is keeping the business together as well as poor Father could have done.”