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- Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 3/31 -


bedrooms, and the room reserved for the old people. Up-stairs were the sleeping and store-rooms. In the hall stood the tall old fashioned house clock, with its long pendulum swinging to and fro with slow and measured beat. Its face had looked upon the venerable sire before his locks were touched with the frost of age. When his children were born it indicated the hour, and it had gone on telling off the days and years until the children were grown. And when a wedding day had come, it had rung a joyful peal through the house, and through the years the old hands had travelled on, the hammer had struck off the hours, and another generation had come to look upon it and grow familiar with its constant tick.

[Illustration: GRANDFATHER'S.]

The furniture was plain and substantial, more attention being given to durability than to style or ornament. Easy chairs--save the spacious rocking-chair for old women--and lounges were not seen. There was no time for lolling on well-stuffed cushions. The rooms were heated with large double box stoves, very thick and heavy, made at Three Rivers; and by their side was always seen a large wood-box, well filled with sound maple or beech wood. But few pictures adorned the walls, and these were usually rude prints far inferior to those we get every day now from the illustrated papers. Books, so plentiful and cheap now-a-days, were then very scarce, and where a few could be found, they were mostly heavy doctrinal tomes piled away on some shelf where they were allowed to remain.

The home we now inhabited was altogether a different one from that we had left in the back concession, but it was like many another to be found along the bay shore. Besides my own family, there were two younger brothers of my father, and two grown-up nieces, so that when we all mustered round the table, there was a goodly number of hearty people always ready to do justice to the abundant provision made. This reminds me of an incident or two illustrative of the lavish manner with which a well-to-do farmer's table was supplied in those days. A Montreal merchant and his wife were spending an evening at a very highly-esteemed farmer's house. At the proper time supper was announced, and the visitors, with the family, were gathered round the table, which groaned, metaphorically speaking, under the load it bore. There were turkey, beef and ham, bread and the favourite short cake, sweet cakes in endless variety, pies, preserves, sauces, tea, coffee, cider, and what not. The visitors were amazed, as they might well be, at the lavish display of cooking, and they were pressed, with well-meant kindness, to partake heartily of everything. They yielded good-naturedly to the entreaties to try this and that as long as they could, and paused only when it was impossible to take any more. When they were leaving, the merchant asked his friend when they were coming to Montreal, and insisted that they should come soon, promising if they would only let him know a little before when they were coming he would buy up everything there was to be had in the market for supper. On another occasion an English gentleman was spending an evening at a neighbour's, and, as usual, the supper table was crowded with everything the kind-hearted hostess could think of. The guest was plied with dish after dish, and, thinking it would be disrespectful if he did not take something from each, he continued to eat, and take from the dishes as they were passed, until he found his plate, and all the available space around him, heaped up with cakes and pie. To dispose of all he had carefully deposited on his plate and around it seemed utterly impossible, and yet he thought he would be considered rude if he did not finish what he had taken, and he struggled on, with the perspiration visible on his face, until in despair he asked to be excused, as he could not eat any more if it were to save his life.

It was the custom in those days for the hired help (the term servant was not used) to sit at the table, with the family. On one occasion, a Montreal merchant prince was on a visit at a wealthy Quaker's, who owned a large farm, and employed a number of men in the summer. It was customary in this house for the family to seat themselves first at the head of the table, after which the hired hands all came in, and took the lower end. This was the only distinction. They were served just as the rest of the family. On this occasion the guest came out with the family, and they were seated. Then the hired men and girls came in and did the same, whereupon the merchant left the table and the room. The old lady, thinking there was something the matter with the man, soon after followed him into the sitting-room, and asked him if he was ill. He said "No." "Then why did thee leave the table?" thee old lady enquired. "Because," said he, "I am not accustomed to eat with servants." "Very well," replied the old lady, "if thee cannot eat with us, thee will have to go without thy dinner." His honour concluded to pocket his dignity, and submit to the rules of the house.

I was sent to school early--more, I fancy, to get me out of the way for a good part of the day, than from any expectation that I would learn much. It took a long time to hammer the alphabet into my head. But if I was dull at school, I was noisy and mischievous enough at home, and very fond of tormenting my sisters. Hence, my parents--and no child ever had better ones--could not be blamed very much if they did send me to school for no other reason than to be rid of me. The school house was close at hand, and its aspect is deeply graven in my memory. My first schoolmaster was an Englishman who had seen better days. He was a good scholar, I believe, but a poor teacher. The school house was a small square structure, with low ceiling. In the centre of the room was a box stove, around which the long wooden benches without backs were ranged. Next the walls were the desks, raised a little from the floor. In the summer time the pupils were all of tender years, the elder ones being kept at home to help with the work. At the commencement of my educational course I was one of a little lot of urchins ranged daily on hard wooden seats, with our feet dangling in the air, for seven or eight hours a day. In such a plight we were expected to be very good children, to make no noise, and to learn our lessons. It is a marvel that so many years had to elapse before parents and teachers could be brought to see that keeping children in such a position for so many hours was an act of great cruelty. The terror of the rod was the only thing that could keep us still, and that often failed. Sometimes, tired and weary, we fell asleep and tumbled off the bench, to be roused by the fall and the rod. In the winter time the small school room was filled to overflowing with the larger boys and girls. This did not improve our condition, for we were mere closely packed together, and were either shivering with the cold or being cooked with the red-hot stove. In a short time after, the old school house, where my father, I believe, had got his schooling, was hoisted on runners, and, with the aid of several yoke of oxen, was taken up the road about a mile and enlarged a little. This event brought my course of study to an end for a while. I next sat under the rod of an Irish pedagogue--an old man who evidently believed that the only way to get anything into a boy's head was to pound it in with a stick through his back. There was no discipline, and the noise we made seemed to rival a Bedlam. We used to play all sorts of tricks on the old man, and I was not behind in contriving or carrying them into execution. One day, however, I was caught and severely thrashed. This so mortified me, that I jumped out of the window and went home. An investigation followed, and I was whipped by my father and sent back. Poor old Dominic, he has long since put by his stick, and passed beyond the reach of unruly boys. Thus I passed on from teacher to teacher, staying at home in the summer, and resuming my books again in the winter. Sometimes I went to the old school house up the road, sometimes to the one in an opposite direction. The latter was larger, and there was generally a better teacher, but it was much farther, and I had to set off early in the cold frosty mornings with my books and dinner basket, often through deep snow and drifts. At night I had to get home in time to help to feed the cattle and get in the wood for the fires. The school houses then were generally small and uncomfortable, and the teachers were often of a very inferior order. The school system of Canada, which has since been moulded by the skilful hand of Dr. Ryerson into one of the best in the world, and which will give to his industry and genius a more enduring record than stone or brass, was in my day very imperfect indeed. It was, perhaps, up with the times. But when the advantages which the youth of this country now possess are compared with the small facilities we had of picking up a little knowledge, it seems almost a marvel that we learned anything. Spelling matches came at this time into vogue, and were continued for several years. They occasioned a friendly rivalry between schools, and were productive of good. The meetings took place during the long winter nights, either weekly or fortnightly. Every school had one or more prize spellers, and these were selected to lead the match; or if the school was large, a contest between the girls and boys came off first. Sometimes two of the best spellers were selected by the scholars as leaders, and these would proceed to 'choose sides;' that is, one would choose a fellow pupil, who would rise and take his or her place, and then the other, continuing until the list was exhausted. The preliminaries being completed, the contest began. At first the lower end of the class was disposed of, and as time wore on one after another would make a slip and retire, until two or three only were left on either side. Then the struggle became exciting, and scores of eager eyes were fixed on the contestants. With the old hands there was a good deal of fencing, though the teacher usually had a reserve of difficult words to end the fight, which often lasted two or three hours. He failed sometimes, and then it was a drawn battle to be fought on another occasion.

Debating classes also met and discussed grave questions, upon such old- fashioned subjects as these:

"Which is the more useful to man, wood or iron?" "Which affords the greater enjoyment, anticipation or participation?" "Which was the greater general, Wellington or Napoleon?" Those who were to take part in the discussion were always selected at a previous meeting, so that all that had to be done was to select a chairman and commence the debate. I can give from memory a sample or two of these first attempts. "Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I rise to make a few remarks on this all important question-- ahem--Mr. President, this is the first time I ever tried to speak in public, and unaccustomed as I am to--to--ahem. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think our opponents are altogether wrong in arguing that Napoleon was a greater general than Wellington--ahem--I ask you, Mr. President, did Napoleon ever thrash Wellington? Didn't Wellington always thrash him, Mr. President? Didn't he whip him at Waterloo and take him prisoner? and then to say that he is a greater general than Wellington--why, Mr. President, he couldn't hold a candle to him. Ladies and Gentlemen, I say that Napoleon wasn't a match for him at all. Wellington licked him every time--and--yes, licked him every time. I can't think of any more, Mr. President, and I will take my seat, Sir, by saying that I'm sure you will decide in our favour from the strong arguments our side has produced."

After listening to such powerful reasoning, some one of the older spectators would ask Mr. President to be allowed to say a few words on some other important question to be debated, and would proceed to air his eloquence and instruct the youth on such a topic as this: "Which is the greater evil, a scolding wife or a smoky chimney?" After this wise the harangue would proceed:--"Mr. President, I have been almost mad a- listening to the debates of these 'ere youngsters--they don't know nothing at all about the subject. What do they know about the evil of a scolding wife? Wait till they have had one for twenty years, and been hammered, and jammed, and slammed, all the while. Wait till they've been scolded because the baby cried, because the fire wouldn't burn, because the room was too hot, because the cow kicked over the milk, because it rained, because the sun shined, because the hens didn't lay, because the butter wouldn't come, because the old cat had kittens, because they came too soon for dinner, because they were a minute late--before they talk about the worry of a scolding wife. Why Mr. President, I'd rather hear the clatter of hammers and stones and twenty tin pans, and nine brass kettles, than the din, din, din of the tongue of a scolding woman; yes,


Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 3/31

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