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An essay by Rupert Brooke

Quebec And The Saguenay

Title:     Quebec And The Saguenay
Author: Rupert Brooke [More Titles by Brooke]

The boat starts from Montreal one evening, and lands you in Quebec at six next morning. The evening I left was a dull one. Heavy sulphurous clouds hung low over the city, drifting very slowly and gloomily out across the river. Mount Royal crouched, black and sullen, in the background, its crest occluded by the darkness, appearing itself a cloud materialised, resting on earth. The harbour was filled with volumes of smoke, purple and black, wreathing and sidling eastwards, from steamers and chimneys. The gigantic elevators and other harbour buildings stood mistily in this inferno, their heads clear and sinister above the mirk. It was impossible to decide whether an enormous mass of pitchy and Tartarian gloom was being slowly moulded by diabolic invisible hands into a city, or a city, the desperate and damned abode of a loveless race, was disintegrating into its proper fume and dusty chaos. With relief we turned outwards to the nobility of the St Lawrence and the gathering dark.

On the boat I fell in with another wanderer, an American Jew, and we joined our fortunes, rather loosely, for a few days. He was one of those men whom it is a life-long pleasure to remember. I can record his existence the more easily that there is not the slightest chance of his ever reading these lines. He was a fat, large man of forty-five, obviously in business, and probably of a mediocre success. His eyes were light-coloured, very small, always watery, and perpetually roving. The lower part of his face was clean-shaven and very broad; his mouth wide, with thin, moist, colourless lips; his nose fat and Hebraic. He was rather bald. He had respect for Montreal, because, though closed to navigation for five months in the year, it is the second busiest port on the coast. He said it had Boston skinned. The French he disliked. He thought they stood in the way of Canada's progress. His mind was even more childlike and transparent than is usual with business men. The observer could see thoughts slowly floating into it, like carp in a pond. When they got near the surface, by a purely automatic process they found utterance. He was almost completely unconscious of an audience. Everything he thought of he said. He told me that his boots were giving in the sole, but would probably last this trip. He said he had not washed his feet for eight days; and that his clothes were shabby (which was true), but would do for Canada. It was interesting to see how Canada presented herself to that mind. He seemed to regard her as a kind of Boeotia, and terrifyingly dour. "These Canadian waiters," he said, "they jes' _fling_ the food in y'r face. Kind'er gets yer sick, doesn't it?" I agreed. There was a Yorkshire mechanic, too, who had been in Canada four years, and preferred it to England, "because you've room to breathe," but also found that Canada had not yet learnt social comfort, and regretted the manners of "the Old Country."

We woke to find ourselves sweeping round a high cliff, at six in the morning, with a lively breeze, the river very blue and broken into ripples, and a lot of little white clouds in the sky. The air was full of gaiety and sunshine and the sense of the singing of birds, though actually, I think, there were only a few gulls crying. It was the perfection of a summer morning, thrilling with a freshness which, the fancy said, was keener than any the old world knew. And high and grey and serene above the morning lay the citadel of Quebec.

Is there any city in the world that stands so nobly as Quebec? The citadel crowns a headland, three hundred feet high, that juts boldly out into the St Lawrence. Up to it, up the side of the hill, clambers the city, houses and steeples and huts, piled one on the other. It has the individuality and the pride of a city where great things have happened, and over which many years have passed. Quebec is as refreshing and as definite after the other cities of this continent as an immortal among a crowd of stockbrokers. She has, indeed, the radiance and repose of an immortal; but she wears her immortality youthfully. When you get among the streets of Quebec, the mediaeval, precipitous, narrow, winding, and perplexed streets, you begin to realise her charm. She almost incurs the charge of quaintness (abhorrent quality!); but even quaintness becomes attractive in this country. You are in a foreign land, for the people have an alien tongue, short stature, the quick, decided, cinematographic quality of movement, and the inexplicable cheerfulness, which mark a foreigner. You might almost be in Siena or some old German town, except that Quebec has her street-cars and grain-elevators to show that she is living.

The American Jew and I took a _caleche_, a little two-wheeled local carriage, driven by a lively Frenchman with a factitious passion for death-spots and churches. A small black and white spaniel followed the _caleche_, yapping. The American's face shone with interest. "That dawg's Michael," he said, "the hotel dawg. He's a queer little dawg. I kicked his face; and he tried to bite me. Hup, Michael!" And he laughed hoarsely. "Non!" said the driver suddenly, "it is not the 'otel dog." The American did not lose interest. "These little dawgs are all alike," he said. "Dare say if you kicked that dawg in the face, he'd bite you. Hup, Michael!" With that he fell into deep thought.

We rattled up and down the steep streets, out among tidy fields, and back into the noisily sedate city again. We saw where Wolfe fell, where Montcalm fell, where Montgomery fell. Children played where the tides of war had ebbed and flowed. Mr Norman Angell and his friends tell us that trade is superseding war; and pacifists declare that for the future countries will win their pride or shame from commercial treaties and tariffs and bounties, and no more from battles and sieges. And there is a part of Canadian patriotism that has progressed this way. But I wonder if the hearts of that remarkable race, posterity, will ever beat the harder when they are told, "Here Mr Borden stood when he decided to double the duty on agricultural implements," or even "In this room Mr Ritchie conceived the plan of removing the shilling on wheat." When that happens, Quebec will be a forgotten ruin.... The reverie was broken by my friend struggling to his feet and standing, unsteady and bareheaded, in the swaying carriage. In that position he burst hoarsely into a song that I recognised as 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' We were passing the American Consulate. His song over, he settled down and fell into a deep sleep, and the _caleche_ jolted down even narrower streets, curiously paved with planks, and ways that led through and under the ancient, tottering wooden houses.

But Quebec is too real a city to be 'seen' in such a manner. And a better way of spending a few days, or years, is to sit on Dufferin Terrace, with the old Lower Town sheer beneath you, and the river beyond it, and the citadel to the right, a little above, and the Isle of Orleans and the French villages away down-stream to your left. Hour by hour the colours change, and sunlight follows shadow, and mist rises, and smoke drifts across. And through the veil of the shifting of lights and hues there remains visible the majesty of the most glorious river in the world.

From this contemplation, and from musing on men's agreement to mark by this one great sign of the Taking of the Heights of Quebec, the turning of one of the greatest currents in our history, I was torn by a journey I had been advised to make. The boat goes some hundred and thirty miles down the St Lawrence, turns up a northern tributary, the Saguenay, goes as far as Chicoutimi, ninety miles up, and returns to Quebec. Both on this trip, and between Quebec and Montreal, we touched at many little French villages, by day and by night. Their _habitants_, the French-Canadian peasants, are a jolly sight. They are like children in their noisy content. They are poor and happy, Roman Catholics; they laugh a great deal; and they continually sing. They do not progress at all. As a counter to these admirable people we had on our boat a great many priests. They diffused an atmosphere of black, of unpleasant melancholy. Their faces had that curiously unwashed look, and were for the most part of a mean and very untrustworthy expression. Their eyes were small, shifty, and cruel, and would not meet the gaze.... The choice between our own age and mediaeval times is a very hard one.

It was almost full night when we left the twenty-mile width of the St Lawrence, and turned up a gloomy inlet. By reason of the night and of comparison with the river from which we had come, this stream appeared unnaturally narrow. Darkness hid all detail, and we were only aware of vast cliffs, sometimes dense with trees, sometimes bare faces of sullen rock. They shut us in, oppressively, but without heat. There are no banks to this river, for the most part; only these walls, rising sheer from the water to the height of two thousand feet, going down sheer beneath it, or rather by the side of it, to many times that depth. The water was of some colour blacker than black. Even by daylight it is inky and sinister. It flows without foam or ripple. No white showed in the wake of the boat. The ominous shores were without sign of life, save for a rare light every few miles, to mark some bend in the chasm. Once a canoe with two Indians shot out of the shadows, passed under our stern, and vanished silently down stream. We all became hushed and apprehensive. The night was gigantic and terrible. There were a few stars, but the flood slid along too swiftly to reflect them. The whole scene seemed some Stygian imagination of Dante. As we drew further and further into that lightless land, little twists and curls of vapour wriggled over the black river-surface. Our homeless, irrelevant, tiny steamer seemed to hang between two abysms. One became suddenly aware of the miles of dark water beneath. I found that under a prolonged gaze the face of the river began to writhe and eddy, as if from some horrible suppressed emotion. It seemed likely that something might appear. I reflected that if the river failed us, all hope was gone; and that anyhow this region was the abode of devils. I went to bed.

Next day we steamed down the river again. By daylight some of the horror goes, but the impression of ancientness and desolation remains. The gloomy flood is entirely shut in by the rock or the tangled pine and birch forests of these great cliffs, except in one or two places, where a chine and a beach have given lodging to lonely villages. One of these is at the end of a long bay, called Ha-Ha Bay. The local guide-book, an early example of the school of fantastic realism so popular among our younger novelists, says that this name arose from the 'laughing ejaculations' of the early French explorers, who had mistaken this lengthy blind-alley for the main stream. 'Ha! Ha!' they said. So like an early explorer.

At the point where the Saguenay joins the St Lawrence, here twenty miles wide, I 'stopped off' for a day, to feel the country more deeply. The village is called Tadousac, and consists of an hotel and French fishermen, to whom Quebec is a distant, unvisited city of legend. The afternoon was very hot. I wandered out along a thin margin of yellow sand to the extreme rocky point where the waters of the two rivers meet and swirl. There I lay, and looked at the strange humps of the Laurentian hills, and the dark green masses of the woods, impenetrable depths of straight and leaning and horizontal trees, broken here and there by great bald granite rocks, and behind me the little village, where the earliest church in Canada stands. Away in the St Lawrence there would be a flash as an immense white fish jumped. Miles out an occasional steamer passed, bound to England perhaps. And once, hugging the coast, came a half-breed paddling a canoe with a small diamond- shaped sail, filled with trout. The cliff above me was crowned with beds of blue flowers, whose names I did not know. Against the little gulfs and coasts of rock at my feet were washing a few white logs of driftwood. I wondered if they could have floated across from England, or if they could be from the _Titanic_. The sun was very hot, the sky a clear light blue, almost cloudless, like an English sky, and the water seemed fairly deep. I stripped, hovered a while on the brink, and plunged. The current was unexpectedly strong. I seemed to feel that two- mile-deep body of black water moving against me. And it was cold as death. Stray shreds of the St Lawrence water were warm and cheerful. But the current of the Saguenay, on such a day, seemed unnaturally icy. As my head came up I made one dash for the land, scrambled out on the hot rocks, and lay there panting. Then I dried on a handkerchief, dressed, and ran back home, still shivering, through the woods to the hotel.

[The end]
Rupert Brooke's essay: Quebec And The Saguenay