At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: August 13, 1892


       The frequenters at the Mermaid Inn, desiring an outing, decided to seek the cool and nerve-bracing breezes of the Valley of the Gatineau. This river, which flows from the north on the Quebec side, is the largest affluent of the Ottawa, and, in stateliness of sweep and grandeur of scenery, is a rival of the larger river. The Gatineau is about 300 miles long and, strange to state, its source is in close neighborhood to that of the Ottawa, the land between making almost an immense island. The Gatineau is geologically one of the oldest of streams, and runs with sullen stateliness or angry surge along an immense valley or gorge, winding in and out down through the spurs of the Laurentian hills. The scenery along the banks, seen from the gliding train, grows more lonely in its grandeur as the titanic solitude through which it flows is entered. Deciding to take a flying trip with one of the farthest hamlets as our destination, we left the C.P.R. station at Ottawa at 5.15 on Saturday afternoon, on the single train that runs daily over the Gatineau Valley Railway. The run to our destination occupied two hours, but at least half the time was spent in stoppages at the intermediate stations for purposes of local traffic. The first stoppage after leaving Ottawa was at Hull, on the Quebec bank, where we branched off on to the Gatineau Valley Railway, and where the man who smokes the pipe of peace at the Mermaid Inn got on board. After a rapid run of some miles we at last struck the valley of the famous stream, and not as it peacefully enters the Ottawa did it appear, gliding imperceptibly between green banks and gleaming villages, but dark, sullen and tortuous, its black tides shot swiftly between great, frowning shoulders of primitive rock, which rose in hill after hill, steep and overhanging, crowned with virgin forests, and threw their desolate shadows on its sombre tides. There came over the soul an indescribable sense of the eternal wintry desolation that seemed a part of the wild and angry stream that for ages has swept through these inhospitable defiles of the lonely hills.
       At the Cascades, where there are some beautiful rapids and falls, we met a picnic party from Ottawa who were making ready to embark in their homeward-bound train. They seemed to have overrun the quaint little hamlet, with its white houses and gleaming spires. At another place, Kirk's Ferry, we could have crossed the river and have visited a famous cave some miles back in the mountains. There was a large number of passengers on the train when we left Ottawa, prominent among whom was the Roman Catholic archbishop, who, with his fine, portly person, dark, swarthy visage, and the peculiar tuft or plume on his large, soft-brimmed hat, looked very much like a happy, old-time cavalier. But when we reached our destination there remained but our own party of five and another party, who were bound for the same place and whose presence filled our minds with sad forebodings as to the sufficiency of accommodation. After the swaying train had swept with a long, shrill and resounding raucous scream round a sharp curve, filling the cool and gloomy air with far-off echoes, we gradually slowed up at a little station-house of a Swiss style of architecture. Headed by our chaplain, who "kenned the country," we did not wait for importunate porters and jostling 'busses, for there were none, but, dropping from the rear of the car, we raced for the house of entertainment. Mine host of the inn was of the longed-for type as to outward appearance, but he evidently was distressed by superfluous custom, for he did not greet us with the effusive heartiness that our hungry stomachs desired, but surveyed us with a passing contempt, as of a fisherman who had an overplus of fish on the bank and is careless as to how many he will carry home in basket.
       Our chaplain, with commendable courage, ignored the evident unconcern, walked forward and said: "How do you do, Mr. ———, I stayed here once before, but I suppose you don't remember me." "No, I don't," blurted our the king of the situation, and, turning his back, he unceremoniously retreated to his bar, which, from all appearances, was a favored resort of his. This was decidedly discouraging, but, with still hopeful hearts and aching stomachs, some of us entered the house and proceeded to await patiently the serving of the evening meal, while others promenaded outside. The hamlet was composed of one store and a meeting-house, and the hotel was a modest little structure, situated in a beautiful stop on the banks of the Gatineau. Across the road from the house, beneath a steep bank overgrown with foliage, the stream swept past, dark and still, and bearing on its sullen breast many logs that, forever, morning, noon and night, float down from their ancient solitudes to play an important, if a passive, part in the great business and bustle of the outside world. On the opposite bank of the river rise the wild, rugged, fir-clad hills, overshadowing the locality with their sombre desolation. Here, at night, the stars come out and the mists creep down, filling the sombre silence fold on fold, wrapping the stately hills and the sullen river, the scanty patches of oat fields and the clustering, tiny hamlet in a luminous gloom, where, under and between all, the never-resting river, like a haunted soul, bearing its burden of saw logs and tumultuous song, runs without cessation to the outer world. After over an hour of anxious waiting on our part, and scarcely apologetic grumblings on the part of our host, the most adventurous of us invaded the dining room in a body, and the meal began. We had certainly no reason to complain of the fare, with which the table was crowded from end to end. It is true the boiled park was over fat, the butter was slightly rancid, but for the rest there was abundance of what the locality afforded. We were a jolly and hungry party, and from the chaplain, who occupied the head of the table, to a small boy, who was mostly stomach and who seemed bound by some gruesome oath to put himself outside of as many of the viands as possible, all seemed to appreciate the digestibles, when suddenly, like an uncalled-for skeleton at the feast, the most original and independent of hosts appeared and delivered himself of the following remarkable statement:—"Say, if you folks has had enough, you'd better get out, as there's some more as wants yer places." There was a second's silence at this most unexpected command, and even the hungry boy paused in the process of a quick swallow, with his mouth open. "Of course," continued this most inhospitable of hosts, "I don't want any of yez to leave if ye ain't satisfied, but if yer satisfied yer had better get out." At this there was a long and ironic laugh, but a number seemed suddenly to realise that they were "satisfied," and the table was soon empty. That night when we retired to bed this strange host did his best to make some of us sleep three in a bed, but we prevailed on him to reduce us to two in a double-bedded room, and with the window and door open we managed to exist.
       Next day we communed with nature in that glorious region. We crossed the ferry, bribing the infant shock-headed and bare-legged charon who ran the concern with our spare coppers, and having piled our coats in a safe place struck out over a shaded wood road, filled with the delightful reverie and glamor and an August morning. We climbed many hills in this shaded, winding old wood road, revelling in rich, luscious raspberries by the wayside, and filling the sun-drenched, hazy August air with our shouts and laughter. The birds sang with indescribable sweetness, and ever now and again we heard, sweeter than all, the far-off haunting song of the hermit thrush from some illusive solitude. Near at hand the rat-tat of the wood-pecker vied with the shrill cadence of the high-bred locust, who seemed to voice the heat that filled the summer world. After leaving the woods, there burst on our view a wide vista of farm land and valley cradled in magnificent hills that stretched off and out to the ends of the world. Crossing this bit of country land we climbed the ragged sides of a small mountain of probably 1,000 feet in height, and got a splendid view of the surrounding country. North, south, east and west lay the great region of the Laurentide hill, with the Valley of the Gatineau winding in between. Here and there we could see a lake, or the glimpse of a lake, out between the hills, or a gleaming curve of the river as it widened into view. After devouring this magnificent view, and as many blueberries as we could pick, we named this majestic peak by the sacred name of the Mermaid Mountain, and building a small cairn of stones on the loftiest summit we descend, leaping like goats in glad exhilaration.
       That night two of us were left to the tender mercies of our peculiar host, the rest having gone farther to perhaps "fare worse." One of us desired to make up for the day's fatigue with a glass of Brading's stout before retiring, and having procured that special brand of seductive intoxicant had retired to a sitting room to enjoy it quietly, when suddenly the door opened and in walked an aged servitor of mine host. "Say," he said, "I want that glass, so you'd better hurry up." It goes without saying that the guest "hurried up."
       We two lonely ones retired with at least the consolation that we should have a bed apiece in our double room, but the latest of us had hardly lain himself away comfortably for the night, with the light blown out and the window open, when the door opened and our unconquerable host appeared with a lamp in his hand. He looked at us both meditatively for a moment, and then said, "Ye'll both have to sleep together. I want one of them beds." As there was probably no denying this strange statement, the writer of this chronicle suggested that his companion come into his bed; and it is needless to write that the transfer was soon made, the astute host of the inn carrying the bed clothes and the light off with him.
       The next morning we were up bright and early, and were soon whirring on our return trip, leaving behind us our strange host, with his most eccentric, but persuasive manner of managing his guests, and with him the strong, bracing airs, the lonely hills, and the grand, majestic breast of the upper Gatineau, with its silent, stately tides and wintry solitudes.

       For such of the readers of this column as might not otherwise meet with it, I insert here Mr. Swinburne's fine sonnet on the Centenary of Shelley, printed in The Athenæum of July 30.

Now, a hundred years agone among us came
Down from some diviner sphere of purer flame,
       Clothed in flesh to suffer, maimed of wings to soar,
One whom hate once hailed as now love hails by name;
       Chosen of love as chosen of hatred. Now no more
       Ear of man may hear, or heart of man deplore.
Aught of dissonance or doubt that mars the strain,
       Raised at last of love, where love sat mute of yore.

Fame is less than love, and love is more than gain,
       When the sweetest souls and strongest, fallen in flight,
       Slain and stricken, as it seemed, in base men's sight,
Rise and lighten on the graves of foemen slain,
       Clothed about with love of all men, as with light,
       Suns that set not, stars that know not day from night.