Over Prairie Trails recalls Grove’s solitary and often perilous journeys by horse and wagon over 30-odd miles of Manitoba countryside that separated him and his wife during a year of hardship. Grove brings before the reader’s eye a landscape by turns magical and menacing, whose ever-changing moods demand of the traveller the utmost courage, resourcefulness, and endurance.
Published in 1922, this memoir assured Frederick Philip Grove a place among the pioneers of Canadian realism.
About the authors
Frederick Philip Grove was a Canadian author and translator best known for his fictional works exploring the Canadian west. Born in Germany as Felix Paul Greve, Grove emigrated to Canada as an adult following his imprisonment for fraud in 1903 and a self-imposed exile from Germany from 1904-1906. Settling in Manitoba, Grove formally changed his name and undertook a series of teaching positions in rural areas before devoting himself to writing full time starting in the early 1920s. Among Grove’s most memorable works are Fruits of the Earth, Settlers of the Marsh, and A Search for America. Grove died in Ontario in 1948 after suffering a stroke in 1946.
Patrick Lane, considered by most writers and critics to be one of Canada's finest poets, was born in 1939 in Nelson, BC. He grew up in the Kootenay and Okanagan regions of the BC Interior, primarily in Vernon. He came to Vancouver and co-founded a small press, Very Stone House, with bill bissett and Seymour Mayne. He then drifted extensively throughout North and South America. He worked at a variety of jobs, from labourer to industrial accountant, but much of his life was spent as a poet. He was also the father of five children and grandfather of nine. He won nearly every literary prize in Canada, from the Governor General's Literary Award to the Canadian Authors Association Award to the Dorothy Livesay Prize. In 2014, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada, an honour that recognizes a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree. His poetry and fiction have been widely anthologized and translated into many languages. His more recent books include Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010 (Harbour Publishing, 2010), The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane (Harbour Publishing, 2011), Washita (Harbour Publishing, 2014; shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award), Deep River Night (McClelland & Stewart, 2018) and a posthumous collection, The Quiet in Me (Harbour Publishing, 2022). Lane spent the later part of his life in Victoria, BC, with his wife, the poet Lorna Crozier. He died in 2019.
Excerpt: Over Prairie Trails (by (author) Frederick Philip Grove; afterword by Patrick Lane)
Farms and Roads
At ten minutes past four, of an evening late in September, I sat in the buggy and swung out of the livery stable that boarded my horse. Peter, the horse, was a chunky bay, not too large, nor too small; and I had stumbled on to him through none of my sagacity. To tell the plain truth, I wanted to get home, I had to have a horse that could stand the trip, no other likely looking horse was offered, this one was – on a trial drive he looked as if he might do, and so I bought him – no, not quite – I arranged with the owner that I should make one complete trip with him and pay a fee of five dollars in case I did not keep him. As the sequence showed, I could not have found a better horse for the work in hand.
I turned on to the road leading north, crossed the bridge, and was between the fields. I looked at my watch and began to time myself. The moon was new and stood high in the western sky; the sun was sinking on the downward stretch. It was a pleasant, warm fall day, and it promised an evening such as I had wished for on my first drive out. Not a cloud showed anywhere. I did not urge the horse; he made the first mile in seven and a half minutes, and I counted that good enough.
Then came the turn to the west; this new road was a correction line, and I had to follow it for half a mile. There was no farmhouse on this short bend. Then north for five miles. The road was as level as a table top – a good, smooth, hard-beaten, age-mellowed prairie-grade. The land to east and west was also level; binders were going and whirring their harvest song. Nobody could have felt more contented than I did. There were two clusters of buildings – substantial buildings – set far back from the road, one east, the other one west, both clusters huddled homelike and sheltered in bluffs of planted cottonwoods, straight rows of them, three, four trees deep. My horse kept trotting leisurely along, the wheels kept turning, a meadow lark called in a desultory way from a nearby fence post. I was “on the go.” I had torn up my roots, as it were, I felt detached and free; and if both these prosperous looking farms had been my property – I believe, that moment a “Thank-you” would have bought them from me if parting from them had been the price of the liberty to proceed. But, of course, neither one of them ever could have been my property, for neither by temperament nor by profession had I ever been given to the accumulation of the wealth of this world.
A mile or so farther on there stood another group of farm buildings – this one close to the road. An unpainted barn, a long and low, rather ramshackle structure with sagging slidedoors that could no longer be closed, stood in the rear of the farm yard. The dwelling in front of it was a tall, boxlike two-story house, well painted in a rather loud green with white door and window frames. The door in front, one window beside it, two windows above, geometrically correct, and stiff and cold. The house was the only green thing around, however. Not a tree, not a shrub, not even a kitchen garden that I could see. I looked the place over critically, while I drove by. Somehow I was convinced that a bachelor owned it – a man who made this house – which was much too large for him – his “bunk.” There it stood, slick and cold, unhospitable as ever a house was. A house has its physiognomy as well as a man, for him who can read it; and this one, notwithstanding its new and shining paint, was sullen, morose, and nearly vicious and spiteful. I turned away. I should not have cared to work for its owner.
Peter was trotting along. I do not know why on this first trip he never showed the one of his two most prominent traits – his laziness. As I found out later on, so long as I drove him single (he changed entirely in this respect when he had a mate), he would have preferred to be hitched behind, with me between the shafts pulling buggy and him. That was his weakness, but in it there also lay his strength. As soon as I started to dream or to be absorbed in the things around, he was sure to fall into the slowest of walks. When then he heard the swish of the whip, he would start with the worst of consciences, gallop away at breakneck speed, and slow down only when he was sure the whip was safe in its socket. When we met a team and pulled out on the side of the road, he would take it for granted that I desired to make conversation. He stopped instantly, drew one hindleg up, stood on three legs, and drooped his head as if he had come from the ends of the world. Oh yes, he knew how to spare himself. But on the other hand, when it came to a tight place, where only an extraordinary effort would do, I had never driven a horse on which I could more confidently rely. What any horse could do, he did.
About two miles beyond I came again to a cluster of buildings, close to the corner of the crossroads, sheltered, homelike, inviting in a large natural bluff of tall, dark-green poplars. Those first two houses had had an aristocratic aloofness – I should not have liked to turn in there for shelter or for help. But this was prosperous, open handed, well-to-do middle class; not that conspicuous “moneyedness” that we so often find in our new west when people have made their success; but the solid, friendly, everyday liberality that for generations has not had to pinch itself and therefore has mellowed down to taking the necessities and a certain amount of give and take for granted. I was glad when on closer approach I noticed a school embedded in the shady green of the corner. I thought with pleasure of children being so close to people with whom I should freely have exchanged a friendly greeting and considered it a privilege. In my mental vision I saw beeches and elms and walnut trees around a squire’s place in the old country.
The road began to be lined with thickets of shrubs here: choke cherry bushes, with some ripe, dried-up black berries left on the branches, with iron-black bark, and with wiry stems, in the background; in front of them, closer to the driveway, hawthorn, rich with red fruit; rosebushes with scarlet leaves reaching down to nearly underfoot. It is one of the most pleasing characteristics of our native thickets that they never rise abruptly. Always they shade off through cushion-like copses of smaller growth into the level ground around.
The sun was sinking. I knew a mile or less further north I should have to turn west in order to avoid rough roads straight ahead. That meant doubling up, because some fifteen miles or so north I should have to turn east again, my goal being east of my starting place. These fifteen or sixteen miles of the northward road I did not know; so I was anxious to make them while I could see. I looked at the moon – I could count on some light from her for an hour or so after sundown. But although I knew the last ten or twelve miles of my drive fairly well, I was also aware of the fact that there were in it tricky spots – forkings of mere trails in muskeg bush – where leaving the beaten log-track might mean as much as being lost. So I looked at my watch again and shook the lines over Peter’s back. The first six miles had taken me nearly fifty minutes. I looked at the sun again, rather anxiously. I could count on him for another hour and a quarter – well and good then!
There was the turn. Just north of it, far back from both roads, another farmyard. Behind it – to the north, stretched out, a long windbreak of poplars, with a gap or a vista in its centre. Barn and outbuildings were unpainted, the house white; a not unpleasing group, but something slovenly about it. I saw with my mind’s eye numerous children, rather neglected, uncared for, an overworked, sickly woman, a man who was bossy and harsh.
The road angles here. Bell’s farm consists of three quarter-sections; the southwest quarter lends its diagonal for the trail. I had hardly made the turn, however, when a car came to meet me. It stopped. The school-inspector of the district looked out. I drew in and returned his greeting, half annoyed at being thus delayed. But his very next word made me sit up. He had that morning inspected my wife’s school and seen her and my little girl; they were both as well as they could be. I felt so glad that I got out of my buggy to hand him my pouch of tobacco, which he took readily enough. He praised my wife’s work, as no doubt he had reason to do, and I should have given him a friendly slap on the shoulder, had not just then my horse taken it into his head to walk away without me.
I believe I was whistling when I got back to the buggy seat. I know I slapped the horse’s rump with my lines and sang out, “Get up, Peter, we still have a matter of nearly thirty miles to make.”
The road becomes pretty much a mere trail here, a rut-track, smooth enough in the rut, where the wheels ran, but rough for the horse’s feet in between.
To the left I found the first untilled land. It stretched far away to the west, overgrown with shrub-willow, wolf-willow and symphoricarpus – a combination that is hard to break with the plow. I am fond of the silver grey, leathery foliage of the wolf-willow which is so characteristic of our native woods. Cinquefoil, too, the shrubby variety, I saw in great numbers – another one of our native dwarf shrubs which, though decried as a weed, should figure as a border plant in my millionaire’s park.
And as if to make my enjoyment of the evening’s drive supreme, I saw the first flocks of my favourite bird, the goldfinch. All over this vast expanse, which many would have called a waste, there were strings of them, chasing each other in their wavy flight, twittering on the downward stretch, darting in among the bushes, turning with incredible swiftness and sureness of wing the shortest of curves about a branch, and undulating away again to where they came from.
To the east I had, while pondering over the beautiful wilderness, passed a fine bluff of stately poplars that stood like green gold in the evening sun. They sheltered apparently, though at a considerable distance, another farmhouse; for a road led along their southern edge, lined with telephone posts. A large flock of sheep was grazing between the bluff and the trail, the most appropriate kind of stock for this particular landscape.
While looking back at them, I noticed a curious trifle. The fence along my road had good cedar posts, placed about fifteen feet apart. But at one point there were two posts where one would have done. The wire, in fact, was not fastened at all to the supernumerary one, and yet this useless post was strongly braced by two stout, slanting poles. A mere nothing, which I mention only because it was destined to be an important landmark for me on future drives.
We drove on. At the next mile-corner all signs of human habitation ceased. I had now on both sides that same virgin ground which I have described above. Only here it was interspersed with occasional thickets of young aspen boles. It was somewhere in this wilderness that I saw a wolf, a common prairie-wolf with whom I became quite familiar later on. I made it my custom during the following weeks, on my return trips, to start at a given point a few miles north of here eating the lunch which my wife used to put up for me: sandwiches with crisply fried bacon for a filling. And when I saw that wolf for the second time, I threw a little piece of bacon overboard. He seemed interested in the performance and stood and watched me in an averted kind of way from a distance. I have often noticed that you can never see a wolf from the front, unless it so happens that he does not see you. If he is aware of your presence, he will instantly swing around, even though he may stop and watch you. If he watches, he does so with his head turned back. That is one of the many precautions the wily fellow has learned, very likely through generations of bitter experience. After a while I threw out a second piece, and he started to trot alongside, still half turned away; he kept at a distance of about two hundred yards to the west, running in a furtive, half guilty-looking way, with his tail down and his eye on me. After that he became my regular companion, an expected feature of my return trips, running with me every time for a while and coming a little bit closer till about the middle of November he disappeared, never to be seen again. This time I saw him in the underbrush, about a hundred yards ahead and as many more to the west. I took him by surprise, as he took me. I was sorry I had not seen him a few seconds sooner. For, when I focused my eyes on him, he stood in a curious attitude: as if he was righting himself after having slipped on his hindfeet in running a sharp curve. At the same moment a rabbit shot across that part of my field of vision to the east which I saw in a blurred way only, from the very utmost corner of my right eye. I did not turn but kept my eyes glued to the wolf. Nor can I tell whether I had stirred the rabbit up, or whether the wolf had been chasing or stalking it. I should have liked to know, for I have never seen a wolf stalking a rabbit, though I have often seen him stalk fowl. Had he pulled up when he saw me? As I said, I cannot tell, for now he was standing in the characteristic wolf-way, half turned, head bent back, tail stretched out nearly horizontally. The tail sank, the whole beast seemed to shrink, and suddenly he slunk away with amazing agility. Poor fellow – he did not know that many a time I had fed some of his brothers in cruel winters. But he came to know me, as I knew him; for whenever he left me on later drives, very close to Bell’s corner, after I had finished my lunch, he would start right back on my trail, nose low, and I have no doubt that he picked up the bits of bacon which I had dropped as tidbits for him.
I drove and drove. The sun neared the horizon now. It was about six o’clock. The poplar thickets on both sides of the road began to be larger. In front the trail led towards a gate in a long, long line of towering cottonwoods. What was beyond?
It proved to be a gate indeed. Beyond the cottonwoods there ran an eastward grade lined on the north side by a ditch which I had to cross on a culvert. It will henceforth be known as the “twelve-mile bridge.” Beyond the culvert the road which I followed had likewise been worked up into a grade. I did not like it, for it was new and rough. But less did I like the habitation at the end of its short, one-mile career. It stood to the right, close to the road, and was a veritable hovel.* It was built of logs, but it looked more like a dugout, for stable as well as dwelling were covered by way of a roof with blower-thrown straw. In the door of the hovel there stood two brats – poor things!
The road was a trail again for a mile or two. It led once more through the underbrush-wilderness interspersed with poplar bluffs. Then it became by degrees a real “high-class” Southern Prairie grade. I wondered, but not for long. Tall cottonwood bluffs, unmistakably planted trees, betrayed more farms. There were three of them, and, strange to say, here on the very fringe of civilization I found that “moneyed” type – a house, so new and up-to-date, that it verily seemed to turn up its nose to the traveller. I am sure it had a bathroom without a bathtub and various similar modern inconveniences. The barn was of the Agricultural-College type – it may be good, scientific, and all that, but it seems to crush everything else around out of existence; and it surely is not picturesque – unless it has wings and silos to relieve its rigid contours. Here it had not.
The other two farms to which I presently came – buildings set back from the road, but not so far as to give them the air of aloofness – had again that friendly, old-country expression that I have already mentioned: here it was somewhat marred, though, by an over-rigidity of the lines. It is unfortunate that our farmers, when they plant at all, will nearly always plant in straight lines. The straight line is a flaw where we try to blend the work of our hands with Nature. They also as a rule neglect shrubs that would help to furnish a foreground for their trees; and, worst of all, they are given to importing, instead of utilising our native forest growth. Not often have I seen, for instance, our high-bush cranberry planted, although it certainly is one of the most beautiful shrubs to grow in copses.
These two farms proved to be pretty much the last sign of comfort that I was to meet on my drives to the north. Though later I learned the names of their owners and even made their acquaintance, for me they remained the “halfway farms,” for, after I had passed them, at the very next corner, I was seventeen miles from my starting point, seventeen miles from “home.”
Beyond, stretches of the real wilderness began, the pioneer country, where farms, except along occasional highroads, were still three, four miles apart, where the breaking on few homesteads had reached the thirty-acre mark, and where a real, “honest-to-goodness” cash dollar bill was often as scarce as a well-to-do teacher in the prairie country.
The sun went down, a ball of molten gold – two hours from “town,” as I called it. It was past six o’clock. There were no rosy-fingered clouds; just a paling of the blue into white; then a greying of the western sky; and lastly the blue again, only this time dark. A friendly crescent still showed trail and landmarks after even the dusk had died away. Four miles, or a little more, and I should be in familiar land again. Four miles, that I longed to make, before the last light failed. . . .
The road angled to the northeast. I was by no means very sure of it. I knew which general direction to hold, but trails that often became mere cattle-paths crossed and crisscrossed repeatedly. It was too dark by this time to see very far. I did not know the smaller landmarks. But I knew, if I drove my horse pretty briskly, I must within little more than half an hour strike a black wall of the densest primeval forest fringing a creek – and, skirting this creek, I must find an old, weather-beaten lumber bridge. When I had crossed that bridge, I should know the landmarks again.
Underbrush everywhere, mostly symphoricarpus, I thought. Large trunks loomed up, charred with forest fires; here and there a round, white or light-grey stone, ghostly in the waning light, knee-high, I should judge. Once I passed the skeleton of a stable – the remnant of the buildings put up by a pioneer settler who had to give in after having wasted effort and substance and worn his knuckles to the bones. The wilderness uses human material up. . . .
A breeze from the north sprang up, and it turned strangely chilly. I started to talk to Peter, the loneliness seemed so oppressive. I told him that he should have a walk, a real walk, as soon as we had crossed the creek. I told him we were on the homeward half – that I had a bag of oats in the box, and that my wife would have a pail of water ready. . . . And Peter trotted along.
Something loomed up in front. Dark and sinister it looked. Still there was enough light to recognize even that which I did not know. A large bluff of poplars rustled, the wind soughing through the stems with a wailing note. The brush grew higher to the right. I suddenly noticed that I was driving along a broken-down fence between the brush and myself. The brush became a grove of boles which next seemed to shoot up to the full height of the bluff. Then, unexpectedly, startlingly, a vista opened. Between the silent grove to the south and the large, whispering, wailing bluff to the north there stood in a little clearing a snow white log house, uncannily white in the paling moonlight. I could still distinctly see that its upper windows were nailed shut with boards – and yes, its lower ones, too. And yet, the moment I passed it, I saw through one unclosed window on the northside light. Unreasonably I shuddered.
This house, too, became a much-looked-for landmark to me on my future drives. I learned that it stood on the range line and called it the “White Range Line House.” There hangs a story by this house. Maybe I shall one day tell it. . . .
Beyond the great and awe-inspiring poplar-bluff the trail took a sharp turn eastward. From the southwest another rut-road joined it at the bend. I could only just make it out in the dark, for even moonlight was fading fast now. The sudden, reverberating tramp of the horse’s feet betrayed that I was crossing a culvert. I had been absorbed in getting my bearings, and so it came as a surprise. It had not been mentioned in the elaborate directions which I had received with regard to the road to follow. For a moment, therefore, I thought I must be on the wrong trail. But just then the dim view, which had been obstructed by copses and thickets, cleared ahead in the last glimmer of the moon, and I made out the back cliff of forest darkly looming in the north – that forest I knew. Behind a narrow ribbon of bush the ground sloped down to the bed of the creek – a creek that filled in spring and became a torrent, but now was sluggish and slow where it ran at all. In places it consisted of nothing but a line of muddy pools strung along the bottom of its bed. In summer these were a favourite haunting place for mosquito-and-fly-plagued cows. There the great beasts would lie down in the mud and placidly cool their punctured skins. A few miles southwest the creek petered out entirely in a bed of shaly gravel bordering on the Big Marsh which I had skirted in my drive and a corner of which I was crossing just now.
The road was better here and spoke of more traffic. It was used to haul cordwood in late winter and early spring to a town some ten or fifteen miles to the southwest. So I felt sure again I was not lost but would presently emerge on familiar territory. The horse seemed to know it, too, for he raised his head and went at a better gait.
A few minutes passed. There was hardly a sound from my vehicle. The buggy was rubber-tired, and the horse selected a smooth ribbon of grass to run on. But from the black forest wall there came the soughing of the wind and the nocturnal rustle of things unknown. And suddenly there came from close at hand a startling sound: a clarion call that tore the veil lying over my mental vision: the sharp, repeated whistle of the whip-poor-will. And with my mind’s eye I saw the dusky bird: shooting slantways upward in its low flight which ends in a nearly perpendicular slide down to within ten or twelve feet from the ground, the bird being closely followed by a second one pursuing. In reality I did not see the birds, but I heard the fast whir of their wings.
Another bird I saw but did not hear. It was a small owl. The owl’s flight is too silent, its wing is down-padded. You may hear its beautiful call, but you will not hear its flight, even though it circles right around your head in the dusk. This owl crossed my path not more than an inch or two in front. It nearly grazed my forehead, so that I blinked. Oh, how I felt reassured! I believe tears welled in my eyes. When I come to the home of frog and toad, of gartersnake and owl and whip-poor-will, a great tenderness takes possession of me, and I should like to shield and help them all and tell them not to be afraid of me; but I rather think they know it anyway.
The road swung north, and then east again; we skirted the woods; we came to the bridge; it turned straight north; the horse fell into a walk. I felt that henceforth I could rely on my sense of orientation to find the road. It was pitch dark in the bush – the thin slice of the moon had reached the horizon and followed the sun; no light struck into the hollow which I had to thread after turning to the southeast for a while. But as if to reassure me once more and still further of the absolute friendliness of all creation for myself – at this very moment I saw high overhead, on a dead branch of poplar, a snow white owl, a large one, eighteen inches tall, sitting there in state, lord as he is of the realm of night. . . .
Peter walked – though I did not see the road, the horse could not mistake it. It lay at the bottom of a chasm of trees and bushes. I drew my cloak somewhat closer around and settled back. This cordwood trail took us on for half a mile, and then we came to a grade leading east. The grade was rough; it was the first one of a network of grades which were being built by the province, not primarily for the roads they afforded, but for the sake of the ditches of a bold and much needed drainage-system. To this very day these yellow grades of the pioneer country along the lake lie like naked scars on Nature’s body: ugly, raw, as if the bowels were torn out of a beautiful bird and left to dry and rot on its plumage. Age will mellow them down into harmony.
Peter had walked for nearly half an hour. The ditch was north of the grade. I had passed, without seeing it, a newly cut-out road to the north which led to a lonesome schoolhouse in the bush. As always when I passed or thought of it, I had wondered where through this wilderness-tangle of bush and brush the children came from to fill it – walking through winter-snows, through summer-muds, for two, three, four miles or more to get their meagre share of the accumulated knowledge of the world. And the teacher! Was it the money? Could it be when there were plenty of schools in the thickly settled districts waiting for them? I knew of one who had come to this very school in a car and turned right back when she saw that she was expected to live as a boarder on a comfortless homestead and walk quite a distance and teach mostly foreign-born children. It had been the money with her! Unfortunately it is not the woman – nor the man either, for that matter – who drives around in a car, that will buckle down and do this nation’s work! I also knew there were others like myself who think this backwoods bushland God’s own earth and second only to Paradise – but few! And these young girls that quake at their loneliness and yet go for a pittance and fill a mission! But was not my wife of their very number?
I started up. Peter was walking along. But here, somewhere, there led a trail off the grade, down through the ditch, and to the northeast into the bush which swallows it up and closes behind it. This trail needs to be looked for even in daytime, and I was to find it at night! But by this time starlight began to aid. Vega stood nearly straight overhead, and Deneb and Altair, the great autumnal triangle in our skies. The Bear, too, stood out boldly, and Cassiopeia opposite.
I drew in and got out of the buggy; and walking up to the horse’s head, got ahold of the bridle and led him, meanwhile scrutinizing the ground over which I stepped. At that I came near missing the trail. It was just a darkening of the ground, a suggestion of black on the brown of the grade, at the point where poles and logs had been pulled across with the logging chain. I sprang down into the ditch and climbed up beyond and felt with my foot for the dent worn into the edge of the slope, to make sure that I was where I should be. It was right, so I led the horse across. At once he stood on three legs again, left hindleg drawn up, and rested.
“Well, Peter,” I said, “I suppose I have made it easy enough for you. We have another twelve miles to make. You’ll have to get up.” But Peter this time did not stir till I touched him a flick with my whip.
The trail winds around, for it is a logging trail, leading up to the best bluffs, which are ruthlessly cut down by the fuel-hunters. Only dead and half decayed trees are spared. But still young boles spring up in astonishing numbers. Aspen and balm predominate, though there is some ash and oak left here and there, with a conifer as the rarest treat for the lover of trees. It is a pitiful thing to see a Nation’s heritage go into the discard. In France or in England it would be tended as something infinitely precious. The face of our country as yet shows the youth of infancy, but we make it prematurely old. The settler who should regard the trees as his greatest pride, to be cut into as sparingly as is compatible with the exigencies of his struggle for life – he regards them as a nuisance to be burned down by setting wholesale fires to them. Already there is a scarcity of fuel-wood in these parts.
Where the fires as yet have not penetrated too badly, the cutting, which leaves only what is worthless, determines the impression the forest makes. At night this impression is distinctly uncanny. Like gigantic brooms, with their handles stuck into the ground, the dead wood stands up; the underbrush crowds against it, so dense that it lies like huge black cushions under the stars. The inner recesses form an almost impenetrable mass of young boles of shivering aspen and scented balm. This mass slopes down to thickets of alder, red dogwood, haw, highbush cranberry, and honeysuckle, with wide beds of goldenrod or purple asters shading off into the spangled meadows wherever the copses open up into grassy glades.
Through this bush, and skirting its meadows, I drove for an hour. There was another fork in the trail, and again I had to get out and walk on the side, to feel with my foot for the rut where it branched to the north. And then, after a while, the landscape opened up, the brush receded. At last I became conscious of a succession of posts to the right, and a few minutes later I emerged on the second east-west grade. Another mile to the east along this grade, and I should come to the last, homeward stretch.
Again I began to talk to the horse. “Only five miles now, Peter, and then the night’s rest. A good drink, a good feed of oats and wild hay, and the birds will waken you in the morning.”
The northern lights leaped into the sky just as I turned from this east-west grade, north again, across a high bridge, to the last road that led home. To the right I saw a friendly light, and a dog’s barking voice rang over from the still, distant farmstead. I knew the place. An American settler with a French sounding name had squatted down there a few years ago.
The road I followed was, properly speaking, not a road at all, though used for one. A deep master ditch had been cut from ten or twelve miles north of here; it angled, for engineering reasons, so that I was going northwest again. The ground removed from the ditch had been dumped along its east side, and though it formed only a narrow, high, and steep dam, rough with stones and overgrown with weeds, it was used by whoever had to go north or south here. The next eastwest grade which I was aiming to reach, four miles north, was the second correction line that I had to use, twenty-four miles distant from the first; and only a few hundred yards from its corner I should be at home!
At home! All my thoughts were bent on getting home now. Five or six hours of driving will make the strongest back tired, I am told. Mine is not of the strongest. This road lifted me above the things that I liked to watch. Invariably, on all these drives, I was to lose interest here unless the stars were particularly bright and brilliant. This night I watched the lights, it is true: how they streamed across the sky, like driving rain that is blown into wavy streaks by impetuous wind. And they leaped and receded, and leaped and receded again. But while I watched, I stretched my limbs and was bent on speed. There were a few particularly bad spots in the road, where I could not do anything but walk the horse. So, where the going was fair, I urged him to redoubled effort. I remember how I reflected that the horse as yet did not know we were so near home, this being his first trip out; and I also remember, that my wife afterwards told me that she had heard me a long while before I came – had heard me talking to the horse, urging him on and encouraging him.
Now I came to a slight bend in the road. Only half a mile! And sure enough: there was the signal put out for me. A lamp in one of the windows of the school – placed so that after I turned in on the yard, I could not see it – it might have blinded my eye, and the going is rough there with stumps and stones. I could not see the cottage, it stood behind the school. But the school I saw clearly outlined against the dark blue, star-spangled sky, for it stands on a high gravel ridge. And in the most friendly and welcoming way it looked with its single eye across at the nocturnal guest.
I could not see the cottage, but I knew that my little girl lay sleeping in her cosy bed, and that a young woman was sitting there in the dark, her face glued to the window-pane, to be ready with a lantern which burned in the kitchen whenever I might pull up between school and house. And there, no doubt, she had been sitting for a long while already; and there she was destined to sit during the winter that came, on Friday nights – full often for many and many an hour – full often till midnight – and sometimes longer . . .
* It might be well to state expressly here that, whatever has been said in these pages concerning farms and their inhabitants, has intentionally been so arranged as not to apply to the exact localities at which they are described. Anybody at all familiar with the district through which these drives were made will readily identify every natural landmark. But al though I have not consciously introduced any changes in the landscape as God made it, I have in fairness to the settlers entirely redrawn the superimposed man-made landscape.