And other Sketches

by Seranus (Susie Frances Harrison)


The Bishop of Saskabasquia.

     I have not a story, properly speaking, to tell about him.  He, my Bishop, is quite unconscious that I am writing about him, and would, I daresay, be quite astonished if he knew that I could find anything that relates to him to write about.  But I will tell you just how I came to do so.  I went to see the “Private Secretary” some months ago.  I had never been a great admirer of clergymen as a sex (vide Frenchman’s classification), and I thoroughly enjoyed the capital performance of so clever a play.  Here, thought I, is a genuine perfectly fair, though doubtless exaggerated, portrait of the young and helpless curate.  I quite lived on that play.  I used to go about, like many another delighted playgoer, I expect, quoting the better bits in it, and they are many, and often laughing to himself at its admirable caricature.  However, to go on with what I am going to tell you, about two months after I had seen the “Private Secretary,” I had occasion to undertake a sea voyage.  I had to go out on business to Canada, and embarked one fine Thursday at Liverpool.  One of the first things you do on board an ocean steamer is to find your allotted place at a table, and the names, etc., of your companions.  I soon found mine, and discovered with a pang that I was six seats from the Captain at the side, between a lady and her daughter I had already met at the North-Western Hotel and did not like, and opposite to the Bishop of Saskabasquia, his wife and sister and three children.  There was no help for it, I must endure the placid small talk, the clerical platitudes, the intolerable intolerance born of a deathless bigotry that would emanate from my vis-a-vis.  What a fuss they made over him, too!  Only a Colonial Bishop after all, but when [page 23] we were all at the wharf, ready to get into the tender, we were kept waiting—we the more insignificant portion of the passengers, mercantile and so on—till “my lord” and his family, nine in number, were safely handed up, with boys and bundles and baggage of every description.
     The Bishop himself was a tall thin man, rather priestly in aspect and careworn.  Mrs. Saskabasquia as I called her all through the voyage and the seven children—seven little Saskabasquians—and Miss Saskabasquia, the aunt, were all merry enough it seemed through dressed in the most unearthly costumes I had ever seen.  Where they had been procured I could not imagine, but they appeared to be made of different kinds of canvas, flannel shirting, corduroy, knitted wool and blankets.  Of course we all mustered at the lunch table that first day, people always do, and affect great brightness and hysterical intellectuality and large appetites.  I took my seat with a resigned air.  There was not a single pretty girl on board.  There were plenty of children, but I did not care much for the society of children.  The lady and her daughter between whom I sat, presumably to hand them the dishes, did not like me any better than I liked them.  They were Canadians, that was easy to discover by their peculiarly flat pronunciation, a detestable accent I hold, the American is preferable.  They were connected with the Civil Service in some way through “papa” who figured much in their conversation and I fancy the mother rather disliked the idea of such close contact with a member of the commercial world.  So much for colonial snobbery.  The lunch was good however, excellent, and we did justice to it.  The Bishop did not appear nor any of his family until we had almost finished.  Then he entered with his wife and the two eldest boys.  The only vacant seats were those opposite me which they took.  I wondered they had not placed him next the Capt, but divined that the handsome brunette and the horsey broker, Wyatt and his wife of Montreal, fabulously rich and popular, had arranged some time before to sit next to the Capt.  My Bishop was perhaps annoyed.  But if so, he did not show it.  He and his wife ate abundantly, it was good to see them.  I involuntarily smiled once when the Bishop sent his plate back the second time for soup, and he caught me.  To my surprise, he laughed very heartily and said to me.
     “I hope you do not think I am forgetting all the other good things to come!  I assure you we are very hungry, are we not, Mary?” [page 24]
     Mrs. Saskabasquia laughed in her turn, and I began to perceive what a very pretty girl she must have been once, and her accent was the purest, most beautiful English.  We seemed to warm up generally around the table as we watched the Bishop eat.  The boys behaved beautifully and enjoyed their meal as well.  Presently we heard a baby crying.  It was evidently the youngest of the seven young Saskabasquians.  The Bishop stopped directly.
     “Go on, go on with your dinner, my dear; I’ll see to him, its only James.  Dropped his rattle and put his finger in his eye, I expect.”
     He jumped up and went, I suppose, to the stateroom.  Mrs. Saskabasquia laughed softly, and when she spoke she rather addressed herself to me.
     “My husband is very good, you know.  And James is such a little monkey, and so much better with him than with anyone else, so I just let him go, but it does certainly look very selfish, doesn’t it?”
     “Not at all,” I responded gallantly. “ I am sure you need the rest quite as much as he does, particularly if the ba—if the little boy is very young and you—that is—“ I was not very clear as to what I was going to say, but she took it up for me.
     “Oh, James is the baby.  He is just six months’ old, you know.”
     “That is very young to travel,” said I.  I began to enjoy the charming confidences of Mrs. Saskabasquia, in spite of myself.
     “Oh, he was only three months old when we left for England, quite a young traveller as you say.  But he is very good, and I have so many to help me.”
     Here the Bishop returned and sat down once more to his lunch.  We had some further conversation, in which I learned that he and his wife had gone out to the North-West just twelve years ago for the first time.  All their children had been born there, and they were returning to work again after a brief summer holiday in England.  They told me all this with the most delightful frankness, and I began to be grateful for my place at the table, as without free and congenial society at meal-time, life on board an ocean steamer narrows down to something vastly uncomfortable.  It was a bright and beautiful afternoon on deck, and I soon found myself walking energetically up and down with the Bishop.  I commenced by asking him some questions as to his work, place [page 25] of residence and so on, and once started he talked for a long time about his northern home in the wilds of Canada.
     “My wife and I had been only married two months when we went out,” said he, with a smile at the remembrance.  “We did not know what we were going to.”     
     “Would you have gone had you known?” I enquired as we paused in our walk to take in a view of the Mersey we were leaving behind.
     “Yes, I think so.  Yes, I am quite sure we would.  I was an Oxford man, country-bred; my father is still alive, and has a small living in Essex.  I was imbued with the idea of doing something in the colonies long after I was comfortably settled in an English living myself, but I had always fancied it would be Africa.  However, just at the time of our marriage I was offered this bishopric in Canada, and my wife was so anxious to go that I easily fell in with the plan.”
     “Anxious to go out there?” I said in much surprise.
     “Ah! you don’t know what a missionary in herself my wife is!  Then, of course, young people never think of the coming events—children and all that you know.  We found ourselves one morning at three o’clock, having gone as far as there was any train to take us, waiting in a barn that served as a station for the buckboard to take us on further to our destination.  Have you been in Canada yourself?  No?  Then you have not seen a buckboard.  It consists of two planks laid side by side, lengthwise, over four antiquated wheels—usually the remains of a once useful wagon.  Upon this you sit as well as you can, and get driven and jolted and bumped about to the appointed goal.  I remember that morning so well,” continued the Bishop.  “It was very cold, being late in November, and at that hour one feels it so much more—3 a.m., you know.  There was one man in charge of the barn; we called him the station-master, though the title sat awkwardly enough upon him.  He was a surly fellow.  I never met such another.  Usually the people out there are agreeable, if slow and stupid.”
     “Slow are they?” said I in surprise.
     “Oh, frightfully slow.  A Canadian labourer is the slowest person in existence, I really believe.  However, this man would not give us any information, except to barely tell us that his buckboard was coming for us shortly.  It was pitch dark of course and the barn was lighted by one oil lamp [page 26] and warmed by a coal stove.  The lamp would not burn well, so my wife unstrapped her travelling bag and with a pair of tiny curved nail scissors did her best with the wick, the man remaining perfectly unmoveable and taciturn all the while.  At four o’clock our conveyance arrived, and would you believe it—both the driver and the station master allowed me to lift my own luggage into it as well as I could?  Would it would not take I told the man in charge I would send for as soon as possible.  There was no sleighing yet, and that drive was the most excruciating thing I ever endured over corduroy roads through wild and dark forests, along interminable country roads of yellow clay mixed with mud till finally we reached the house of the chief member of our society in my district where we were to stay until our own house was ready.”
     “How long did that take you?”  I was quite interested.  This was unlike any other clergyman’s conversation I remembered.
     “O, a matter of eight hours or so.  We had the eggs and bacon—the piece de resistance in every Canadian farmhouse—at about half-past 12, for which we were thankful and—hungry. But now you must excuse me for here come two of the boys.  Now, then, Alick, where’s your mother?  Isn’t she coming on deck with James?  Run and fetch her and you, George, get one of the chairs ready for her.  And get the rugs at the same time Alick, do you hear?”
     I excused myself in turn and watched the family preparations with much amusement.  Mrs. Saskabasquia came up from her state room with a baby in her arms, and a big fellow he was, followed by the other six and their aunt.  The Bishop placed chairs for the two ladies and walked up and down the deck I should think the entire afternoon, first with two children and then with two more and finally with the baby in his arms.  This was a funny sight but still not one to be ridiculed, far from it.  Well, every day showed my new friend in an improved light.  Who was it took all the children, not only his own but actually the entire troop on board up to the bow and down to the stern in a laughing crowd to see this or that or the other?  Now a shoal of porpoises, now a distant sail or an iceberg, now the beautiful phosphorescence or the red light of a passing ship—the Bishop.  Who divined the innate cliquism of life on board ship and cunningly got together an intercourse the very people who wanted to know each other, and even brought into good temper those unfortunate souls who [page 27] thought only of their own dignity and station in life?  The Bishop.  Who organized the Grand Concert and Readings in the saloon, writing the programmes himself, pinning them on the doors, discovering the clever and encouraging the timid when reading from the “Cricket on the Hearth,” and the “Wreck of the Grosvenor,” as I had ever imagined a divine could read?  The Bishop again.  Who might be seen in the mid-day hours when the cabin passengers were asleep, quietly and without ostentation reading or talking to the steerage, ay, and Mrs. Saskabasquia too with her baby on her arm, going about amongst these poor tired folk, many of them with their own babies, not too well fed and not too well washed nor clothed?  Still the Bishop, always the Bishop.  They appeared as if they could not rest without helping on somebody or something, and yet there was in Mrs. Saskabasquia at least, a delightful sense of calm which affected all who came near her.  I used often to sit down by her, she with the inevitable baby on her lap and two or three of the others at her feet on rugs, and she would talk most frankly and unaffectedly of their strange life in Canada.  I learnt that she was the daughter of a clergyman in Essex, and had, of course, been brought up in a refined and charming country home like an English gentlewoman.  What she had had to do in the new world seemed like a dream.
     “What servants do I keep?” she said one day in answer to a question of mine.  “Why, sometimes I am without any.  Then Kathleen and I do the best we can and the children they do the same and my husband takes what we give him!  Indeed, my house is a sort of dispensary you know.  The most extraordinary people come to me for the most extraordinary things.  Now for a bottle of medicine, now for some cast off clothing, now for writing paper and old newspapers or a few tacks.  So we have many wants to relieve besides our own and really, that is good for us you know.  One Xmas dinner was an amusing one.  Roast beef was out of the question, we could’nt get any, and the old woman who usually brought us a turkey came eight miles in the snow to bitterly lament the failure of her turkey crop.  The one she had intended for me had been killed and trussed and then the rats which abound out there, got at it in the night and left not a bone of it!  So I got the poor old thing a warm cup of tea and gave her some thick socks and sent her away relieved, resolved to spread myself on the pudding.  Do you remember Kathleen!”
     And Miss Saskabasquia did and smiled at the remembrance. [page 28]
            “What was it like?”
            “The pudding?  Oh! it was the funniest pudding!  George—no—Ethel, was the baby then and very troublesome.  Yes, you were my dear and cutting teeth.  I was far from strong and in the act of stirring the pudding was taken quite ill and had to give it up.  Kathleen was naturally forced to attend to me and the three children, and only for Henry, we should have had no Xmas dinner at all!  He went to work with a will, stirred it well, put it into the cloth and was just I believe dropping it into the water when the string broke and the poor pudding tumbled into the water!  Of course it was useless, and my husband scarcely knew what to do with himself!  Fancy what he did do, though!  He went to work and made another out of what he could find without telling us.  He’ll tell you about it if you ask him, how puzzled he was at first.  There was some suet over, only not minced, you know.  So he took that just as it was in a lump and buried it in bread crumbs, luckily we had plenty of bread.  Then he broke in the eggs, but when he came to look for the fruit, that was all in the pot of hot water, not a raisin left.  He just ladled them out and put them in a second time.  I think that was delicious of him don’t you?  But he forgot the flour and there was so little sugar seemingly in the bag (he did’nt know where my Xmas stores were kept) that he took fright and would’nt use it but broke up some maple sugar instead, then tied it up and got it safely launched the second time.  And it was not at all bad, though very shapeless and unlike a trim plum pudding, with the holly at the top.”
     And many another tale did she tell me of “Henry’s” ceaseless activity, and courage and patience.  He had learnt three Indian dialects, the patois of he habitant, and the Gaelic of two Scotch settlements, in order to converse freely with his people and understand their wants properly.  He could doctor the body as well as the soul, set a fractured limb, bind a wound, apply ice for sunstroke and snow for chilblains.  He could harness a horse and milk a cow; paddle a canoe and shoot and fish like an Indian, cook and garden and hew and build—indeed there seemed nothing he could not do and had not done, and all this along with the care of his office, as much a missionary one as any could be.  Peril of shipwreck and peril of fire, peril of frost and peril of heat, peril of sickness, pain and death, peril of men, ignorant and wished, of wild beasts and wilder storms—all these he had braved with his wife and little ones for the sake of his convictions added [page 29] to a genuine love of his fellow-man.  I began to consider, and rightly I think, the unknown, obscure Bishop of Saskabasquia one of the most interesting men of the day.
     Our journey, however, could not always last.  Our pleasant chats, our lively table-talk, Mrs. Saskabasquia’s pretty womanly confidences and her husband’s deep-voiced readings from Dickens which he told me were of the utmost moral value to his people, all came to an end.  We all felt sorry to part, yet greatly relieved at seeing the mighty cliff of Quebec draw nearer and nearer with each succeeding hour.  I had been quite ill for the last two days like nearly all the other passengers.  Coming up the Gulf of St. Lawrence that is sometimes the case, and we were a miserable party that Friday, hardly anyone on deck except the irrepressible Bishop and his family and myself.  I was wretched, sick and cold and trembling in every limb, undoubted mal de mer had fastened upon me.  We were standing close by the railing of the promenade deck when a something swept by on the water.  “Child overboard!”  I sang out as loudly as I could.  Instantly the steerage was in a state of commotion—the child was missed.  There didn’t appear to be a sailor on the spot.  The Bishop looked at me, and I looked at the Bishop.  Like lightening he tore off his coat.  I put my hand on his arm.  “Dear sir, you will not do such a thing!”
     “What is it, Henry?”  cried his wife.  “Somebody must.”  “I wish to God I could, sir!”  In another moment he was over.
     How he ever recovered from that awful plunge I don’t know, but a boat was immediately lowered for him  and the child—he had it safe, miraculously enough.  How I cursed my weakness which prevented my going in his place.  But when I saw the two lives saved I was glad I had not gone, for in my weak state I could not have even saved the child.
     I am invited to a Christmas dinner, whenever I like, with the Bishop of Saskabasquia, whom I could as perhaps the finest specimen of healthy Christian manhood I have ever met, and although I can still laugh at the fun of “The Private Secretary” I can say that even among her clergy England can boast of heroes in these latter days as noble and disinterested as in years gone by. [page 30]


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