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The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories

The Lamp at Noon

A little before noon she lit the lamp. Demented wind fled keening past the house: a wail through the eaves that died every minute or two. Three days now with out respite it had held. The dust was thickening to an impenetrable fog.
She lit the lamp, then for a long time stood at the window motionless. In dim, fitful outline the stable and oat granary still were visible; beyond, obscuring fields and landmarks, the lower of dust clouds made the farmyard seem an isolated acre, poised aloft above a sombre void. At each blast of wind it shook, as if to topple and spin hurtling with the dust-reel into space.
From the window she went to the door, opening it a little, and peering toward the stable again. He was not coming yet. As she watched there was a sudden rift overhead, and for a moment through the tattered clouds the sun raced like a wizened orange. It shed a soft, diffused light, dim and yellow as if it were the light from the lamp reaching out through the open door.
She closed the door, and going to the stove tried the potatoes with a fork. Her eyes all the while were fixed and wide with a curious immobility. It was the window. Standing at it, she had let her forehead press against the pane until the eyes were strained apart and rigid. Wide like that they had looked out to the deepening ruin of the storm. Now she could not close them.
The baby started to cry. He was lying in a homemade crib over which she had arranged a tent of muslin. Careful not to disturb the folds of it, she knelt and tried to still him, whispering huskily in a singsong voice that he must hush and go to sleep again. She would have liked to rock him, to feel the comfort of his little body in her arms, but a fear had obsessed her that in the dust-filled air he might contract pneumonia. There was dust sifting everywhere. Her own throat was parched with it. The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes. The little cry continued, and with wincing, frightened lips she glanced around as if to find a corner where the air was less oppressive. But while the lips winced the eyes maintained their wide, immobile stare. “Sleep,” she whispered again. “It’s too soon for you to be hungry. Daddy’s coming for his dinner.”
He seemed a long time. Even the clock, still a few minutes off noon, could not dispel a foreboding sense that he was longer than he should be. She went to the door again – and then recoiled slowly to stand white and breathless in the middle of the room. She mustn’t. He would only despise her if she ran to the stable looking for him. There was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman. She must stay quiet and wait. Nothing was wrong. At noon he would come – and perhaps after dinner stay with her awhile.
Yesterday, and again at breakfast this morning, they had quarrelled bitterly. She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.
Tense, she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening. There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright. But only to return – to return and quake among the feeble eaves, as if in all this dust-mad wilderness it knew no other sanctuary.
Then Paul came. At his step she hurried to the stove, intent upon the pots and frying-pan. “The worst wind yet,” he ventured, hanging up his cap and smock. “I had to light the lantern in the tool shed, too.”
They looked at each other, then away. She wanted to go to him, to feel his arms supporting her, to cry a little just that he might soothe her, but because his presence made the menace of the wind seem less, she gripped herself and thought, “I’m in the right. I won’t give in. For his sake, too, I won’t.”
He washed, hurriedly, so that a few dark welts of dust remained to indent upon his face a haggard strength. It was all she could see as she wiped the dishes and set the food before him: the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will. “Hungry?” she asked, touched to a twinge of pity she had not intended. “There’s dust in everything. It keeps coming faster than I can clean it up.”
He nodded. “Tonight, though, you’ll see it go down. This is the third day.”
She looked at him in silence a moment, and then as if to herself muttered broodingly, “Until the next time. Until it starts again.”
There was a dark resentment in her voice now that boded another quarrel. He waited, his eyes on her dubiously as she mashed a potato with her fork. The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance – there remained only a harsh and clenched virility that yet became him, that seemed at the cost of more engaging qualities to be fulfilment of his inmost and essential nature. Whereas to her the same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come. The eyes were hollowed, the lips pinched dry and colourless. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the little vanities of life, and lost them wistfully.
‘‘I’m afraid, Paul,” she said suddenly. “I can’t stand it any longer. He cries all the time. You will go, Paul – say you will. We aren’t living here – not really living –”
The pleading in her voice now, after its shrill bitterness yesterday, made him think that this was only another way to persuade him. He answered evenly, “I told you this morning, Ellen; we keep on right where we are. At least I do. It’s yourself you’re thinking about, not the baby.”
This morning such an accusation would have stung her to rage; now, her voice swift and panting, she pressed on, “Listen, Paul – I’m thinking of all of us – you, too. Look at the sky – what’s happening. Are you blind? Thistles and tumbleweeds – it’s a desert. You won’t have a straw this fall. You won’t be able to feed a cow or a chicken. Please, Paul, say we’ll go away –”
“Go where?” His voice as he answered was still remote and even, inflexibly in unison with the narrowed eyes and the great hunch of muscle-knotted shoulder. “Even as a desert it’s better than sweeping out your father’s store and running his errands. That’s all I’ve got ahead of me if I do what you want.”
“And here –” she faltered. “What’s ahead of you here? At least we’ll get enough to eat and wear when you’re sweeping out his store. Look at it – look at it, you fool. Desert – the lamp lit at noon –”
“You’ll see it come back. There’s good wheat in it yet.”
“But in the meantime – year after year – can’t you understand, Paul? We’ll never get them back –”
He put down his knife and fork and leaned toward her across the table. “I can’t go, Ellen. Living off your people – charity – stop and think of it. This is where I belong. I can’t do anything else.”
“Charity!” she repeated him, letting her voice rise in derision.
“And this – you call this independence! Borrowed money you can’t even pay the interest on, seed from the government – grocery bills – doctor bills –”
“We’ll have crops again,” he persisted. “Good crops – the land will come back. It’s worth waiting for.”
“And while we’re waiting, Paul!” It was not anger now, but a kind of sob. “Think of me – and him. It’s not fair. We have our lives, too, to live.”
“And you think that going home to your family – taking your husband with you –”
“I don’t care – anything would be better than this. Look at the air he’s breathing. He cries all the time. For his sake, Paul. What’s ahead of him here, even if you do get crops?”
He clenched his lips a minute, then, with his eyes hard and contemptuous, struck back, “As much as in town, growing up a pauper. You’re the one who wants to go, it’s not for his sake. You think that in town you’d have a better time – not so much work – more clothes –”
“Maybe –” She dropped her head defencelessly. “I’m young still. I like pretty things.”
There was silence now – a deep fastness of it enclosed by rushing wind and creaking walls. It seemed the yellow lamplight cast a hush upon them. Through the haze of dusty air the walls receded, dimmed, and came again. At last she raised her head and said listlessly, “Go on – your dinner’s getting cold. Don’t sit and stare at me. I’ve said it all.”
The spent quietness in her voice was even harder to endure than her anger. It reproached him, against his will insisted that he see and understand her lot. To justify himself he tried, “I was a poor man when you married me. You said you didn’t mind. Farming’s never been easy, and never will be.”
“I wouldn’t mind the work or the skimping if there was something to look forward to. It’s the hopelessness – going on – watching the land blow away.”
“The land’s all right,” he repeated. “The dry years won’t last forever.”
“But it’s not just dry years, Paul!” The little sob in her voice gave way suddenly to a ring of exasperation. “Will you never see? It’s the land itself – the soil. You’ve plowed and harrowed it until there’s not a root or fibre left to hold it down. That’s why the soil drifts – that’s why in a year or two there’ll be nothing left but the bare clay. If in the first place you farmers had taken care of your land – if you hadn’t been so greedy for wheat every year –”
She had taught school before she married him, and of late in her anger there had been a kind of disdain, an attitude almost of condescension, as if she no longer looked upon the farmers as her equals. He sat still, his eyes fixed on the yellow lamp flame, and seeming to know how her words had hurt him, she went on softly, “I want to help you, Paul. That’s why I won’t sit quiet while you go on wasting your life. You’re only thirty – you owe it to yourself as well as me.”

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The Prophet's Camel Bell

The Prophet's Camel Bell

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Innocent Voyage
May they not just possibly be true, the tales of creatures as splendidly strange as minotaurs or mermaids? Will there be elephants old as forests, white peacocks with crests of azure, jewel-eyed birds as gaudy as the painted birds in the tombs of pharaohs, apes like jesters, great cats dark and secretive as Bast, men who change into leopards at the flick of a claw?
Nothing can equal in hope and apprehension the first voyage east of Suez, yourself eager for all manner of oddities, pretending to disbelieve in marvels lest you appear naïve but anticipating them just the same, prepared for anything, prepared for nothing, burdened with baggage – most of it useless, unburdened by knowledge, assuming all will go well because it is you and not someone else going to the far place (harm comes only to others), bland as eggplant and as innocent of the hard earth as a fledgling sparrow.
There you go, rejoicing, as so you should, for anything might happen and you are carrying with you your notebook and camera so you may catch vast and elusive life in a word and a snapshot. There you go, anxious, as you may well be, for anything might happen and so you furtively reassure yourself with pages from the first-aid book in which it says the best thing to do for snakebite is to keep the patient quiet until the doctor arrives – luckily, you do not notice that it does not tell you what to do if there is no doctor within a hundred miles.
And in your excitement at the trip, the last thing in the world that would occur to you is that the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.
Our voyage began some years ago. When can a voyage be said to have ended? When you reach the place you were bound for, presumably. But sometimes your destination turns out to be quite other than you expected.
We could not have found a better-named ship than the Tigre to carry us away from a sleet-sodden English December and into the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. She was a Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel, and we had crossed the bilious channel and were waiting for her at Rotterdam. She was delayed, and we, almost penniless, walked the slippery streets of the chilly port, turning up our coat collars against the blowing snow and searching near the docks for a sailors’ café where we could afford to eat. We found it in Die Drie Steden, but we also found that English was spoken only in the more expensive restaurants, and we did not have a word of Dutch. Fortunately, wiener schnitzel, that fine old Netherlands dish, was listed on the menu, but we had no luck with dessert. Finally, the impatient waitress beckoned us to the front of the café, past rows of weathered old pipe-sucking mariners who peered and chortled, and we were faced with a glassed-in cabinet containing a selection of pastries.
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “Pick one.”
Slagroomwafel,” the waitress said, as I pointed blindly.
It was a waffle with whipped cream. For seven days, out of pure necessity, we ate nothing but wiener schnitzel and slagroomwafel.
We had plenty of time, during that week of waiting, to wonder where we were going, and why, and what it would be like when we got there. An advertisement in a London newspaper had started the venture.
‘H.M. Colonial Service. Somaliland Protectorate. A vacancy has occurred for a civil engineer to take charge, under the direction of the Director of Public Works, of the construction of approximately 30 earth dams over an area of 6,500 miles. The average maximum capacity of each dam will be 10 million gallons. The Engineer will be required to carry out all reconnaissance and detailed survey, to do all calculations and designs, to be responsible for expenditure and the supervision of staff and plant . . .’
Jack applied for the job and got it. It was no sudden whim on his part. As an engineer, he had felt a certain lack in any job he had in Canada or in England. We lived in an increasingly organized world, a world in which the most essential roads and bridges had already been built. He felt a need to work for once on a job that plainly needed doing – not a paved road to replace a gravel one, but a road where none had been before, a job whose value could not be questioned, a job in which the results of an individual’s work could be clearly perceived, as they rarely could in Europe or America. It may have been a desire to simplify, to return to the pioneer’s uncomplicated struggle. Or it may have been the feeling, strong in all our generation, that life was very short and uncertain, and a man had better do what he could, while he could. Perhaps these feelings were good and sufficient reasons for going to Africa; perhaps they were not. But they could not be shrugged off or ignored indefinitely.
After Jack signed the contract, the Colonial Office informed us regretfully that no accommodation for married couples seemed to be available in Somaliland at the moment, but perhaps Mr. Laurence’s wife would be able to join him in six or eight months. This arrangement did not suit us at all, so Jack explained carefully that his wife, being a hardy Canadian girl, was quite accustomed to life in a tent. In fact, I had never camped out in my life, but fortunately the Colonial Office was convinced by the striking description Jack gave of me as an accomplished woodswoman, a kind of female Daniel Boone, and I was permitted to go.
We had to consult an atlas to discover exactly where we were going. This ignorance was not unusual, we later found. Once we saw a gloomy note in the Protectorate News Sheet commenting on the delays in mail owing to letters having been mis-sorted by the Post Office in England, and explaining that “this arises, no doubt, from the fact that very few people outside this country seem to know where it is.”
What do you take to such an out-of-the-way place, when you have no idea what life will be like there? Tents or topees, evening dress or bush boots, quinine or codeine, candles or sandals? The Colonial Office provided us with a pamphlet designed to set at rest the minds of persons like ourselves. It was firm and clear in its advice. We must take a year’s supply of tinned goods and a portable bath. Fortunately, we were also given the name and address of an administrative officer from Somaliland who was on leave in London. He roared with laughter.
“Pay no attention,” he told us. “Those pamphlets are always half a century out of date.”
The booklet also warned us against “woolly bears,” a ferocious cloth-eating insect. In Somaliland we never once encountered a woolly bear, nor did we ever meet anyone who had heard of them. What a wily pamphleteer, focusing our attention on mythical beasts – had he warned us of the actual difficulties, we might never have gone and so would have been the poorer all our lives.
Even the history we ferreted out from libraries had a limited meaning for us, despite its power to stir the imagination with past glory or disgrace, the tramplings of time over one corner of the earth. We were going to the same country where Sir Richard Burton had gone so long before, when he believed his footsteps were the first that really counted for anything in East Africa and when, disguised as the merchant Haji Abdullah, he preached in his superior Arabic at the Zeilah mosque, and was commended by the local elders, none of whom knew the Qoran as well as he.
But he had come late in the roster of explorers. That desert land was known to the ancient world as Regio Cinnamomifera, when ships from the Far East went there with cinnamon which they exchanged for frankincense and myrrh, greatly valued in those days and sometimes purchased by well-to-do Magi to bestow as gifts. There the forty saints from the Jadramaut landed, proclaiming the Word – There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His Prophet. It was a land of warriors, too, brave cruel men like Mohamed Granye, the Left-handed, the Somali king who in the sixteenth century very nearly conquered all of Ethiopia, until at last he fell to the intruding Portuguese, indomitably armoured, who had come to rescue the Coptic Christian emperor in the belief that he was the fabled Prester John, white knight in the black continent, and who were most perturbed when they discovered he was not.
For many men and women, princes and commoners from the distant forests and from the river lands as far away as the Niger, Somaliland was the end of a bitter journey and the beginning of a lifetime of bondage, for there the Arab slave routes had emerged at the sea, and from there the dhow-loads of slaves had once been shipped across the Gulf of Aden to be sold in the flesh markets of Arabia. In that same land, early this century, Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called Mad Mullah of Somaliland, had fought the British for years and was defeated only when at last his forts were bombed.
We read of these events, and pondered them. But they could not tell us what we would find there now.
At last the Tigre steamed into Rotterdam. About time, too. We were disgruntled and irritable after a week of having been snubbed by hotel clerks who had rapidly discovered our penury. We tramped on board dully, expecting nothing. To our amazement, we found we were the only passengers, and there, spread out before us, was our accommodation – the owner’s suite, an unbelievably spacious three rooms, full of polished brass and green plush and shiny mahogany, and best of all, paid for by the Crown Agents. When we had recovered from the initial shock, we set ourselves to adjust to our altered status.
“We mustn’t act surprised,” Jack said with a grin, as he sprawled luxuriously on the Edwardian velour sofa. “The idea is that we take it all completely for granted.”
But I could not get over the wonder of it, especially the fact that we had our own bathroom. In our year in London, we had lived in a bed-sittingroom and shared a bathroom with so many others that the nightly bath schedule was like a railway timetable.
The Tigre was our home for a month, and we developed a high regard for Norwegians. As passengers, we must have been a nuisance to them, but they never resorted to mere cold politeness. They were warmly friendly, and gave us the run of the ship. We were invited up to the bridge, and allowed to peer through the Captain’s binoculars. We chatted with Johan, the wireless operator, about modern American writers, feeling ashamed that we knew nothing of modern Norwegian writers. Hemingway was his favourite – there was a writer a man could understand.
At night sometimes we went up to the bridge and talked with the second mate while he was on watch. He was a burly, laughing man, who had sailed in the West Indies a great deal. Once he did not see his wife for ten years, he told us. In Montreal, on one occasion, he and a companion smuggled two girls aboard. The men had adjoining cabins, and suddenly through the wall had come an enquiring voice.
“Marie, are you doing any wrong in there?”
“No, Germaine,” was the virtuous reply, “I’m not.”
“Well, then,” called Germaine, “pray forgiveness for me.”
These French-Canadian girls, the second mate said. His laughter went booming out over the dark sea.
We were on the Tigre for Christmas. The Norwegians celebrated mainly on Christmas Eve, when there was a mammoth dinner and gifts all around. Jack was given a bottle of Scotch, while I received a little marzipan pig with a verse attached to it.
To our little sporty guest,
A happy sailors’ julefest!
That evening we sang carols in Norwegian, with the aid of aqua vite and songbooks, although the only word Jack and I could understand was “halleluja.” Johan, who had discovered that Jack’s people came from the Shetland Islands, originally settled by Norsemen, leaped to his feet and proposed a toast.
“To our ancestors and yours – the vikings!”
Skol! ” shouted everyone. It was a fine Christmas.
At Genoa the ship stopped for several days, and we walked on the hills and saw the harsh port town softened by distance, the pink and yellow walls looking clean and pastel although in fact they were dirty and garish, the harbour with the big rusty freighters packed in prow to stern, and the tugboats skimming around like frantic water-beetles. At the Staglieno cemetery, where marble angels loomed like spirits of vengeance among the green-black cypress trees and where the poor rented graves for seven years, we met two Englishmen who said they wondered if they had not been foolish after all to visit sunny Italy in mid-winter. The day was piercingly cold and we were needled by a sharp unceasing wind. We walked along with them to find a place where we could get shelter and a warm drink. The Englishmen had surely read somewhere how the English are expected to behave in foreign lands, for they were loyally true. They ordered tea.
“But first –” one of them said anxiously to the proprietor, “tell me, please – can you really make it properly?”
The Mediterranean, that time of year, was truly the wine-dark sea. High up on the Tigre, whipped by the icy winds, we watched the wild hills of Sicily pass by. At night we saw a far-off red glow in the black sky, Mount Etna in eruption. And sometimes in the darkness we saw a phosphorescence, plankton perhaps, frothing up suddenly in the waves and seeming to run along the surface of the water like sheet lightning. I wrote in my notebook – “for the first time, I can believe we are in southern waters.”
Port Said, and my first view of the mysterious East was a Coca-Cola sign in Arabic. But the dhows were there, too, with their curved prows and triangular sails, shabby little fishing dhows with the nets slung to dry between the masts, and big trading dhows from the ports of the Red Sea and as far away as the Persian Gulf, coming here with their cargoes of dates and millet or marvellously patterned carpets woven in Basra or Sheraz, perhaps, by weavers who learned their craft as children and were said to go blind young over their looms.
We went ashore and walked the crowded and intricate streets where stained mud buildings stood side by side with slick stuccoed apartment blocks in florid pinks and greens. Rows of ragged palms fringed the roads where horse-drawn carriages unbelievably rattled along like old engravings come to life. And the people – merchants waddling slow and easy in long striped robes and maroon fezzes, nimble limping beggars who trailed the tourists, girl children with precociously knowing eyes, self-styled guides who hovered around us like the city’s flies, wizened and hunched labourers wearing only a twist of rag around skinny hips, boys in flapping cotton pyjamas, business men in draped suits and shiny tan shoes, police in sand-coloured breaches and black jack-boots, thin stooped Egyptian women all in black and wearing the thick veil of purdah, westernized Egyptian girls with long black hair and short white skirts and high rhinestoned heels, the conjuring gully-gully men who would clench an empty fist and then open it and presto – there was a live chick.
Bustling up to us came a plump and jazzy character, gabardine-suited, looking like a smaller edition of King Farouk in sunglasses and Panama hat. Port Said was a city of thieves, he informed us. He personally would see to it that we were protected from these undesirables. He called himself Billy the Kid, and told us he could get us anything we wanted for a reasonable price – binoculars, cameras, watches. We thanked him, but declined. He pattered along beside us for a while, and finally departed for greener pastures, singing “Rum And Coca-Cola.” We heard, echoing back to us, a voice jaunty as a sparrow.
“Working for the Yankee dollah!”
In the course of the afternoon, we shed many of his kind. We were a little pleased with ourselves. To avoid the clutches of the sharks and sharpers – that is not such an easy thing. We wandered through bazaars hung with cotton carpets horribly embellished with scarlet pyramids, blue camels, tigers yellow as egg-yolk. We looked at crocodile handbags, some plainly imitation and some possibly genuine, and all manner of cheap jewellery and souvenirs. Then, in a back-street shop apparently unvisited by tourists, we saw inlaid cigarette boxes. The inlay was ivory, the man told us. We were not deceived. We knew it was not ivory but bone. We liked the patterns, however, so we dickered over price and finally bought. We carried that cigarette box around with us for years, and ultimately in its old age it became a crayon box for our children. When it was left outside in the rain, not long ago, a small illusion was shattered. The inlay was not even bone – it was lacquered paper.
Who would ever suspect that the air would be so cold going through the Suez Canal? We put on all the sweaters we owned, wrapped ourselves in coats, and from the Tigre decks we watched the nearby shore where camels were squashing stoically through the beige sand. The water was a deep blue, so strong a colour it looked as though it had been dyed, and the sky, filled with particles of dust, was an astonishing violet. Villages of square clay houses slipped past us, and tattered children, and black cattle, and women in purdah.
The bleak stretches of the Sinai desert, then, and the distant peak of Mount Sinai where Moses received the stone tablets of the Law. And I recalled what I had chanced to read only a short time before.
Jack had foresightedly brought War and Peace, and in Rotterdam he had settled down to read it. But I had gone ill-provided with reading material and had paced the hotel room until I discovered in a dressing-table drawer the ubiquitous Gideons Bible and read for the first time in my life the five books of Moses. Of all the books which I might have chosen to read just then, few would have been more to the point, for the Children of Israel were people of the desert, as the Somalis were, and fragments from those books were to return to me again and again. And there was no water for the people to drink – and the people thirsted. Or, when we were to wonder how the tribesmen could possibly live and maintain hope through the season of drought – In the wilderness, where thou hast seen how that the Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went. Or the verse that remained with me most of all, when at last and for the first time I was myself a stranger in a strange land, and was sometimes given hostile words and was also given, once, food and shelter in a time of actual need, by tribesmen who had little enough for themselves – Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Aden at night. The shore lights seemed frail and wavering in the black vastness of sky and water. This was the parting of the ways, for here we would leave the familiar, the clean and wellventilated world of the Tigre, and move into something entirely different. From now on, we were committed to a land and a life about which we knew nothing.
We leaned over the railing and watched as our crates of books and dishes, our trunks of clothing, were carried off the Tigre and onto the small launch wobbling in the water below. Everything was carried on the heads or the backs of coolies. One very tall labourer, clad only in a loincloth, bent himself and braced his broad bare feet while the others heaved onto his back our largest trunk. His legs were so thin and reed-like, his sweating and trembling body so emaciated, that he looked as though he must buckle and break under the load. No one seemed concerned. The only anxiety was that the trunk might slip off and plunge into the harbour. Goods were more expensive than men, here. There were millions like him, in every city throughout the East, men with names and meanings, but working namelessly and with no more meaning than any other beast of burden. It occurred to me that Markham’s lines were more applicable here now than in Europe.
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings –
With those who shaped him to the thing he is –
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?
The Velho, which had been chugging from Aden to Berbera and back again for more years than anyone knew, was a ship inhabited by ghosts. The presence of Englishmen long dead clung around the saloon, where the bolted-down tables were once glossily veneered but were now chipped, their surfaces ringed with the wet glasses of innumerable greetings and partings. Behind the bar, a gilt and curlicewed mirror reflected leadenly the bottles of gin, orange squash, Rose’s lime juice. The air reeked heavily of tobacco smoke, curried soup, foul dishwater. The brass bar-rail was worn with decades of boots, men leaning there lazily, joyously, on their way to Aden and then home on leave, or heavily, tensely, on their way back to Somaliland again. In some cases, it would have been the other way around, men who went on leave only because it was compulsory, men who could hardly wait to leave London behind and get back to an exile that had become beloved. They were all there that evening, as we sipped our gin-and-lime and reflected on the place and those who had passed this way before us.
A firm of Bombay merchants owned the Velho, which had room for nine first-class passengers, eight second-class and an indefinitely large number of third. She was the flagship of the fleet, our fellow passengers informed us. Her sister ship, the Africa, was not so grand. We found our first-class cabin something of a contrast to our suite on the Tigre. The room was approximately the size of a matchbox, and the Indian clerk who had accompanied us on board had advised us to cram as much of our baggage as possible into the cabin with us.
“Otherwise, sar, you might enquire after it next morning quite in vain, oh my goodness yes.”
The mattresses on the narrow, rough-plank bunks were straw, and of an indescribable skimpiness. The grey hue of the sheets suggested that they had been used for the last dozen voyages or so. I had an unpleasant suspicion that we were not the only living creatures in this cabin. I would have preferred to encounter the bar-room ghosts in any visible form rather than the host of winged and many-legged things which my imagination assured me were ready to attack from every crack in the timbering, every straw in my palliasse. The rustlings and faint scratchings went on all night, and I remained stiff as bronze, open-eyed.
Jack, with his usual calm logic, decided that nothing constructive could be done about the cabin, so he crawled into his bunk and went to sleep immediately. As a result, the next morning he felt fine, ready for anything, while I felt queasy and jangled.
“In this part of the world,” he said, recalling the years he had spent in India during the war, “you have to learn that if you can’t change something, you might as well not worry about it.”
He was right, but it was many months before the time came when I could curl up on the seat of the Land-Rover and quietly conserve myself in sleep, when the road had somehow got lost in the desert and we had no idea where we were. That night on the Gulf of Aden I could not have conceived of a time when the bunks of the Velho would have seemed like the silken beds of a sultan’s palace.
The vessel’s mate had a lean intense face and a flaming beard. His eyes must surely have been penetrating, but they were always concealed behind sunglasses. He stalked silently around the boat not exchanging a word with anyone. Maybe he communicated with the captain, but we never observed them speaking together. The captain was an elderly Scot who had worked in the East for many years. He was dressed meticulously, a contrast to his grubby craft. What had brought him here, to skipper this pint-sized wreck from Aden to Berbera and back to Aden, eternally, under the blazing sun? We would never know. When I talked with him, he spoke of only one thing – his last leave in Scotland. I imagined he must have returned from there only recently.
“Oh no,” he replied, when I asked him. “That was seven years ago, lass.”
The wireless operator was a young Egyptian, a Coptic Christian. He led a lonely life in Aden, for he belonged in neither the Christian nor the Muslim communities there. He was fond of jazz, and homesick for Cairo. When we were a short way off from Aden, he laughed ironically.
“I can hear them now,” he said, “but they can’t hear me.”
His wireless set with its spark-gap transmitter was so antiquated that he could communicate only when the vessel was within a mile or so of shore. As soon as we decently could, without appearing too obvious about it, we went up to have a look at the lifeboats. There did not seem to be very many of them.
Among the Europeans on board were two Army sergeants, reluctantly returning from leave.
“This your first time out?” one of them said, gloomily gloating. “You’ll hate it. Nothing there but a bloody great chunk of desert. It’s got the highest European suicide rate of any colony – know that? Good few blokes living very solitary there in outstations, that’s the reason. They go round the bend.”
Another fellow passenger was a civilian, a member of the administration. He told us, confidentially, to watch out for the Public Works Department.
“It’s really gone beyond a joke,” he said sorrowfully, “the way those p.w.d. fellows look after their own people first. They corner all the best furniture and the most workable plumbing. Shocking.”
When he learned that Jack would be associated with the P.W.D., his manner became slightly withdrawn for a time, but he later grew friendly once more and told us how much better the trip from Aden to Berbera was than the return voyage.
“Going back to Aden,” he said, “the boat’s full of camels. They ride with the Somalis, down on the third-class deck. They bawl and groan the whole time, and the stench is terrible.”
The Somalis crowding the third-class section slept out on the decks that night. They were tall gaunt men, most of them, their features a cross between negroid and Arabian. They wore tunic-like robes called lunghis, knotted around their waists and reaching just below their knees. The cotton materials of their robes were of every shade and variety – splendid plaids, striped or plain, green and magenta and mauve. Around their heads were loosely constructed turbans, pink, white, blue. The few Somali women on board seemed a contrast to the brash, assertive men. They had soft features and enormous liquid brown eyes, and many of them had lighter skins than the men. The young unmarried women wore long robes of many colours, but the married ones were clad in black and red. All wore headscarves that billowed out behind them in the breeze. The women walked so shyly, so lightly, with downcast eyes, that I imagined they must be very meek and gentle creatures.
Beautiful a great many of them certainly were, and gentle they certainly could be when it pleased them. But meek – meek as Antigone, meek as Medea. I did not then know Safia, or Shugri and her mother, or proud Saqa, or the old woman of Balleh Gedid.
Berbera from the water looked beckoning. The sea was calm and turquoise, and the level shoreline was yellow sand. A few palms and pepper trees grew around the town, and the houses appeared pure white, their blemishes concealed by distance. The sharp thin minaret of a mosque rose above the squat dwellings. Beyond the town the blue-brown hills looked softer, less treacherous than they really were. Berbera had no harbour, so we anchored off shore and a government launch came out. Jack went ashore to discover what arrangements, if any, had been made for us, and I stayed on the Velho to guard our belongings. After a while Jack returned, accompanied by a Somali boy.
His name was Mohamed, and he looked about eighteen, a boy of unprepossessing appearance, clad in a purple robe and a clean white shirt, and sporting a small black moustache that looked incongruous on his youthful face. He was to be our houseboy. I felt, uneasily, that he had been hired too quickly. We didn’t know the first thing about him. He might be the most cunning crook in Berbera, for all we knew.
“The P.W.D. foreman knows him,” Jack reassured me, “and thinks he’s probably okay. I’ve only taken him on trial. He’ll do for the moment.”
It still seemed absurd to me. I could not see why we needed anyone so soon. With dwindling patience, Jack tried to explain.
“This isn’t Winnipeg or London. You don’t tote your own luggage here. It just isn’t done. Maybe we don’t agree with the system, but there it is. Another thing – he’ll be useful in the shops. If you buy anything by yourself, before you know what’s what, you’ll likely get cheated by the local merchants.”
Mohamed’s function in the situation, apparently, was to look after our interest, and that day he put on a wonderful display of enthusiasm, for he obviously was anxious to have the job. He carried suitcases, conveyed Jack’s instructions to the Somali coolies, cautioned me as I climbed down into the waiting launch.
“Memsahib – must be you step carefully-carefully –”
The whole performance amused and distressed me. I could not face the prospect of being called “Memsahib,” a word which seemed to have connotations of white man’s burden, paternalism, everything I did not believe in. Furthermore, I was not sure I would be able to cope with servants. We had a series of “hired girls” when I was a child in a prairie town, but they could not have been called servants – they would have been mortally offended at the term. Mohamed’s deference embarrassed me. I need not have worried, however, for he was not humble in that detestable way, nor was any Somali I ever met. But I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Mohamed, employed so hastily and on a temporary basis, was the first person I met and spoke with in Somaliland. It would have surprised me then to know that many months later he would also be the last person we saw when we left.
The launch set out for Berbera, and I held onto my broad-brimmed straw hat and felt the warm salt spray on my arms. Perched on the prow was a Somali coolie, and as the boat rode high, caught in a sudden swell of waves, I saw his face against the sky. It was a face I could not read at all, a well-shaped brown face that seemed expressionless, as though whatever lay behind his eyes would be kept carefully concealed.
I wondered if his was the face of Africa.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Stone Angel

Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.

Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.

Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
Regina Weese.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.

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The Jews of Toronto

A History to 1937
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Lost in the Barrens

Chapter 1
Jamie and Awasin
The month of June was growing old. It had been a year since Jamie Macnair left Toronto, the city of his birth, to take up a new life in the subarctic forests of northern Canada. Beside the shores of Macnair Lake the tamaracks were greening now after the winter’s blackness. Out on the lake great loons cried shrilly. As Jamie squatted in front of the log cabin, helping his uncle bale up the winter’s catch of furs, he tried to remember how he had felt on that day, a year past, when he climbed out of the train at the lonely frontier town called The Pas to meet his uncle.

Jamie’s uncle, Angus Macnair, had been a trader in the arctic, the master of a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea, and finally a trapper who roamed over the broad forests of the north. To Jamie, his uncle was almost a legend, and when the telegram came from him it filled the boy with excitement.


That eagerly awaited letter had brought with it some unhappiness for Jamie. It had reminded him sharply of the tragedy of his parents’ deaths in a car accident seven years ago. And it had made clear something he had never really faced before – that apart from his uncle, whom he had never seen, he was truly alone. During the past seven years he had taken the security of the boarding school for granted. But, reading Angus Macnair’s letter, he realized that it was no real home, and had never been one.

Jamie was nine when his parents died, and Angus Macnair had become his guardian, for he was the boy’s only close relative. It was Angus who had picked the boarding school in Toronto, and it was a good one too, for Angus wanted only the best for his nephew. For seven years Angus had run his trap line with furious energy in order to meet the cost of the school. But in the past two years the fur market had dropped almost out of sight, and the money was nearly at an end.

Angus had explained it in his letter.

“And so you see, Jamie,” he wrote. “I can no longer keep you at the school. You could maybe stay on in Toronto and get a job, but you’re too young for that, and anyhow I hoped you’d rather come with me. It’s long past time we got to know each other. So I took the chance you’d want it this way. Your ticket is in the envelope along with enough money for the trip. And I’ll be waiting, lad, and hoping that you’ll come.”

Angus need have had no doubts. For years past Jamie had loved to read about the north and for years Angus Macnair had been his idol.

In the last week of June, Jamie found himself bundled aboard the Trans-Canada train with the farewells of his school friends still ringing in his ears. For two days the train rolled westward, then it turned abruptly north through the province of Manitoba. The dark jack-pine forests began to swallow up the prairie farmlands and the train rolled on, more slowly now, over the rough roadbed leading to the frontier country.

Five hundred miles and two days north from Winnipeg, the train drew up by a rough wooden platform. Jamie climbed uncertainly down to stand staring at the rough shanties and the nearby forests that threatened to sweep in and engulf the little settlement of The Pas.

A huge, red-bearded man in a buckskin jacket strode forward and caught the boy hard about the shoulders in a bear hug.

“Do ye not know me, Jamie?” he cried. And then, grinning at Jamie’s stammering reply, he tightened his hold on the boy’s shoulder and swung him round.

“You’ve come to meet the north, my lad,” he said, “and I’m thinking you’ll be in love with it before the month is out.”

Angus Macnair had been a good prophet, for during the six-week canoe trip north to Macnair Lake, Jamie had become fascinated by the wild face of this new world. Now, a year later, he was really a part of that world. The year in the forests had swelled his shoulders with new muscles so that he looked taller than his five-foot-eight. Summer suns and winter winds had tanned his face. His blue eyes were sharp and alert under his tousled mat of fair hair.

And the little cabin by the shores of the lake had become his home – his first real home since his parents died.

Built within a stone’s throw of the sandy shore, the cabin was nevertheless almost surrounded by the sheltering forests. No winter gales could reach it, and the log walls, well chinked with moss and clay, were proof against the sharpest frosts. Crouched comfortably among the trees, it looked out through two small windows over a lake that was a glittering expanse of blue in summer and a vast white plain in winter.

Inside, it was divided into two rooms. The largest was the living room. It had two bunks built against the side walls. A potbellied Quebec heater stood in the center of the floor, glowing cherry-red in the winter days. Beside the stove a long, roughhewn table stretched almost across the room and at either end of it stood a big, homemade easy chair upholstered with black-bear hide. Shelves along the rough log walls held guns, a number of wood carvings done by the Indians, and the well-worn rows of Angus’s books. On the split-log floors half a dozen Indian-tanned deer hides made soft rugs.

The tiny kitchen in the rear was cut off from the main cabin by a log partition, and behind the partition Angus cooked the solid and simple meals of the northland.

Although the cabin was four hundred miles from civilization, and two hundred miles from the nearest white man, Jamie had not found it lonely. Not twenty miles away was the settlement of a band of Woodland Cree Indians. These fine and sturdy people had long been Angus Macnair’s best friends and they soon became Jamie’s friends as well. Alphonse Meewasin, headman of the Crees, had been Angus’s stout companion on a hundred journeys and it was only natural that Alphonse’s son, Awasin, should become almost a brother to young Jamie.

In appearance Awasin was Jamie’s opposite. He was lean as a whip, with long black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. His eyes too were black, and they smiled as often as his mouth – and that was very often. For three seasons Awasin had attended the Indian school in far-off Pelican Narrows, so that he could read and speak English almost as well as any city boy. But most of his life had been lived in the heart of the forests and the wilderness was as much a part of him as his own skin.

Jamie and Awasin had taken to each other at once, and Awasin had appointed himself Jamie’s teacher. Quickly Jamie became competent with a paddle and at driving a string of dogs. He learned to shoot well and he learned enough about trapping to earn the money for a .22 rifle of his own. Most important, under the instruction of Awasin and of Angus Macnair, Jamie learned to feel something of the forceful love of life that belongs particularly to those who dwell in the high arctic forests.

It had been a year filled to the brim with new adventures, and as Jamie wound a rawhide strap around a pile of muskrat pelts his imagination was reliving those events. With a start he looked up to see a slim cedar canoe rounding a nearby point.

Awasin was in the bow, waving his paddle in greeting. And in the stern Alphonse stolidly chewed his old pipe as he thrust his paddle into the icy waters of the lake.

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The Curse of the Viking Grave

Chapter 1
Schoolroom in the Bush

On the windswept ice of a lake in northern Manitoba two ravens sat hunched beside the frozen carcass of a caribou. Foxes and wolves had left precious little meat on the bones of the dead animal and the ravens circled each other threateningly while the sound of their harsh, disputing voices echoed across the subarctic silence of the lake.

Shambling through the dark woods along the shore, a wolverine raised his heavy head and listened. The cries of the ravens told him there was food nearby, and so he swung purposefully out on the ice in the direction of the birds.

On the north shore of the lake, where a clump of spruce trees stood thick and tall, a white husky sniffed the frigid air. He caught the musky taint of wolverine and his hackles rose. Throwing back his head he howled a challenge down the lake. At once a dozen other huskies sprang to their feet and joined in the wailing chorus.

Nestled snugly amongst the protecting trees near where the dogs were tethered stood a long, low cabin whose two windows stared owlishly out over Macnair Lake. Inside this cabin Angus Macnair put down a book he had been reading aloud and stepped to the nearest window. He watched the dogs intently for a moment or two, then, with a shake of his red, piratical beard, he turned to face three boys who were watching him expectantly.

“Nay, lads. ’Tisna caribou they dogs is howlin’ after. Wolves maybe . . . or a wolverine. But dinna fuss yersel’s, they caribou wull soon be comin’ back this way and then we’ll hae fresh meat again.”

He settled himself into a chair, picked up the book and continued with the lesson for the day.

Angus Macnair hardly looked the part of a schoolteacher. He was a massive and craggy-faced trapper who had lived in the Canadian northlands since leaving the Orkney Islands at the age of thirteen. The schoolroom was the Macnair cabin, a cluttered and low-ceilinged log structure redolent with the gamey smell from scores of pelts that hung drying from the rafters. Here Angus taught school for three days each week. During the remainder of the week teacher and students were absent from Macnair Lake, tending their traplines which ran for as much as fifty miles to the north, east, west and south.

As Angus continued reading, his nephew Jamie listened from his perch on a log beside the sheet-iron stove. Jamie’s blue­eyed, sharp­featured face, under a mat of unkempt blond hair, was bent over a wooden stretcher balanced on his knees, as with practiced hand he scraped the flesh side of a fox skin with a blunt knife blade.

Next to him, on the edge of a log bunk, sat Awasin Meewasin, the son of the chief of the Cree Indians who lived at nearby Thanout Lake. Awasin was lean and dark, black­eyed and black-haired, and as taut and wiry as a rabbit snare.

The third “student” was by all odds the most striking member of the trio. His amiable, high­cheekboned face would have seemed Oriental had it not been for his wide blue eyes and the tangle of flaming red hair hanging over his forehead. This was Peetyuk. His father had been a wandering English trapper named Frank Anderson. Many years earlier Anderson had gone far out into the open Barrens to the north of Macnair Lake to spend a winter trapping white fox. Here he had met and married an Eskimo woman. Shortly before the birth of his child, Anderson had gone through the spring ice of a lake and had been drowned, leaving his son Peetyuk to be raised by the Eskimos.

The boys were particularly interested in the book Angus was reading them this day. It was a history of the early Norwegian voyages to America made long before the time of Columbus. The chapter Angus had begun that morning described how, about the year 1360, a Viking expedition sailed to Greenland and then on to North America, perhaps by way of Hudson Bay. Then it told of the finding of a strangely inscribed stone at Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898. This stone bore a message in Runic, the ancient writing of the Nordic peoples.

“When the inscription was translated,” Angus continued, “it proved to be a record left by eight Swedes and twenty Norwegians on an exploring journey to the west. The runes told how the party camped one night on an island in a lake. The next day most of them went fishing, leaving ten men to guard the camp. When the fishermen returned they found their comrades dead and covered with blood. The runes also spoke of an additional ten men who had been left to guard the expedition’s ship at a place on the sea fourteen days’ distance from the scene of the massacre. The date carved on the stone was 1362 . . .”

Angus looked up. “Here’s a picture of yon stane, wi’ all its markin’s,” he told the boys. “Aye, Jamie and they look verra like the markin’s on the wee bit o’ lead Jamie and Awasin found awa out on the Barrens last summer. Fetch it to me, Jamie, and we’ll hae a look.”

Jamie jumped to his feet and from a shelf under the rafters brought down a piece of sheet lead about six inches square. The boys clustered around Angus as the trapper laid the little lead plaque on the page opposite the drawing of the Kensington Stone.

“Nae doot about it! The markin’s are the same sort. I wouldna wonder if the cache where ye found yon bit of lead was made by the self­same lot what carved yon stane. Och! ’Tis too bad we canna read the writin’, laddies.”

Jamie’s eyes shone with excitement. “If the writing is the same, then the other stuff we saw at that cache must be Norse too. I’ll bet it’s worth a fortune!”

“A fortune? Aye. But if they things ye found are truly Norse they’re worth a guid deal mair than money, lad. ’Twould maybe help to write a whole new chapter in the history of America. In any case we’ll surely make a trip out to yon place come summertime — though wi’ considerable more care than you two took.”

Jamie and Awasin had the grace to look shame­faced. They were remembering only too vividly their nearly fatal journey of the previous year when they accompanied a Chipeweyan hunting party on a visit to the Barrenlands and discovered the mysterious cache. Through their own willfulness they became separated from the Indians, lost their canoe and most of their gear on a rapid, and were then forced to spend several months struggling desperately to survive the Barrenlands winter. In the end they escaped with their lives only because they were lucky enough to encounter Peetyuk and the Eskimos.*

Angus closed the book and put it carefully on a shelf with the score or so of well­worn volumes which formed his treasured library.

“School’s over for the week,” he told the boys. “Awa’ wi’ ye the noo and do yere chores while I cook up a meal.”

When the boys had gone outside Angus stood at the window for a minute and watched them fondly. Peetyuk was busy chopping birch logs into stove lengths while Jamie and Awasin took turns wielding a long ice­chisel to open a water hole in the frozen lake. As Angus watched he pondered on the circumstances which had brought these three to his once lonely cabin.

Jamie had come to him from a southern Canadian city three years earlier when he lost both his parents in an automobile accident, leaving Angus as his only living relative. During those years Jamie had changed from a rather puny boy to a tough and competent youth who was now almost as much at home in the subarctic forests as was Awasin, who had been born there.

The farthest south Awasin had ever been was to the mission school at Pelican Narrows (a mere two hundred miles away), where he had learned to speak and read good English. But Awasin hungered after knowledge, and when Angus Macnair began schooling Jamie, Awasin easily persuaded his father, Alphonse Meewasin, to let him spend the winter months at the Macnair cabin as one of Angus’s students.

Peetyuk came to join the little group at Macnair Lake as a result of his accidental meeting with Jamie and Awasin in the Barrenlands. The Eskimo band to which Peetyuk’s mother belonged brought the two rescued boys south to safety. When the Eskimos returned to their own country they left Peetyuk in Angus Macnair’s care since they believed it was time for the boy to learn something of the world of his dead father, Frank Anderson.

By the time the woodbox and the water pails were full Angus had lunch ready. It consisted of a savory mess of barley boiled up with dried caribou meat and a slab of fat pork. Big chunks of fresh sourdough bread and pint mugs of sweet black tea went with it.

The boys lingered long over the meal, discussing plans for a summer expedition to the Barrens to revisit the strange stone cache. They might have spent the whole of the short winter afternoon talking about the projected trip if Angus had not recalled them to reality.

“Och, laddies! This is no way to make a catch of fur. Awa’ wi’ ye noo! And see to it ye bring hame a fine load o’ pelts. We’ll be wantin’ the money to pay for new canoes and a’ the other gear we’ll be needin’ for yon trip tae Eskimo Land.”

Setting the example himself, Angus pulled on his big parka, his deerskin mittens and his heavy moccasins. When he shouldered his pack and started for the door, the boys were close behind him.

In his hurry to be the first away Jamie sprinted to his cariole (the narrow toboggan which bush trappers favor), where he dumped his pack before springing to the dog­line to unleash his huskies. He had three dogs. Two were small, rangy beasts which had belonged to his uncle. The third was a huge white husky called Fang — one of two lost Eskimo dogs Awasin and Jamie had found out on the Barrens.

The yard now became a pandemonium of shouting boys and howling dogs. Peetyuk was the first to get his team harnessed, and with a derisive shout of farewell he jumped on the tail end of his long Eskimo sled and went careening off to the southward over the lake ice. Jamie and Awasin got away a few moments later. For a while their teams ran neck and neck, each straining to draw ahead of the other. But when Jamie began shouting “Chaw! Chaw!” his team obediently turned left, swinging toward the eastern side of the lake.

Angus was still methodically hitching up his dogs as the two carioles and the sled raced away from the cabin. He shook his head as he watched the wild progress of the three boys, but he was smiling.

“Juliet, lass,” he said as he tightened his lead dog’s belly strap, “they’re a’ three of them as daft as badgers.”

Juliet whined in reply, then thrust her shoulders against the traces, giving the signal to the other dogs to take a strain. Sedately she led the team out onto the ice and Angus’s cariole turned away on the long northern trail.

The chill silence of a January afternoon settled down over the cabin as a last fugitive wisp of blue smoke curled upward through the old black chimney pipe.

From the eBook edition.

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