The Real Lord Strathcona
Two very different estimates of Lord Strathcona have found their way into print. His official biographer, inclining to that curious heresy which has always haunted the hagiographer, conveys the impression that his saint not only never sinned but that, like a miraculous piece of perfect clock-work wound up to go right forever, he was mechanically incapable of sinning. That a pioneer, a railway-builder, a Canadian politician, a man who had to do much rough work among very rough people, should, by the very nature of the case, have been almost unavoidably compelled at times to own the principle that "all is fair in love and war"—and big business—and should occasionally have been driven to follow and take cover under Luther's broad banner and device, the pecca fortiter, does not seem to occur to this silken Euphemist. As we turn over his many pages we are conscious all through of assisting at an apotheosis. The "devil's advocate" is not heard. We see nothing but the eagle soaring from the funeral-pyre. Our paragon, it seems, must be sans peur et sans reproche. There is not a blot on his 'scutcheon, scarcely, indeed, a dint upon his sword. He moves without once faltering through all obstructions, which to this conquering virtue are but shadows, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, straight as an arrow to his exalted goal, a huge fortune and the heaven on earth of the House of Lords. Never for a moment does he stop or stumble in his ascent. He can do no wrong. His garments are "unspotted by the world." "without spot or wrinkle or any such thing." From the time that praise was ordained out of his suckling lips and an eleemosynary twopence out of his infant hand for the joy of a needy bereaved family in Forres, throughout his weary days in Labrador, and the storms, anxieties, hairbreadth escapes, and triumphs of Red River, Ottawa and Craigellachie, all along the long bee-lines of a road to that great day when he, a Peer of the Realm among his peers, waxing bold to bring the mellow and to him familiar light of trans-Atlantic freedom to bear upon the obscurantist marriage law of England, eloquently pleaded the cause of the deceased wife's sister at Westminster in the gilded chamber of the most august Senate in the world—from first to last, amid all these chequered scenes of trial and temptation, he never, by this way of it, made one false step; never did what he ought not to have done or left undone what it had behoved him to do. He was always wise, always strenuous; impeccably and transparently honourable in all his dealings. His life is a record of sheer perfection written in a monochrome of spotless white. He was the Bayard of the fur-trade, the whole propulsion of the Canadian Pacific railway, the only-begotten Canadian Lord High Commissioner, our Lady of the Snow's unique, most lady-like, Grand Old Man.
Such is the one picture, not unlike the famous statues, seen at our exhibitions, moulded in butter, scarcely more exciting and but little more weatherproof. There is another one. We may find it in a book called the Life and Times of Lord Strathcona, written with a lurid zest by Mr. Preston, once the organizer of the Liberal party in the Province of Ontario, and afterwards Canadian Commissioner of Emigration in London. The writer ought to know the events he describes and the actors in them from the inside. He was "himself a great part of these things." He lived through most of them, not merely as a highly interested spectator with entrée behind the scenes, but sustaining a rôle of his own upon the stage, not a very lofty part, it is true, and one too notoriously not likely to be of conspicuous innocency, but at least a responsible and important one. All the more astonishing is the account by this organizer of the Liberal party of the life and times and character of the man whom he depicts as the disorganizer not only of that party but of the whole public life of Canada. No one can say that his picture is not interesting and exciting. Milton alone could match this tableau of blue ruin and general damnation. To look at it scorches one's very shoe-leather. Like the fat boy in Pickwick, this Canadian Danté of ours is bent on making our flesh creep. He overdoes it. We cannot take him seriously. 'Tis too bad to be true. We end by laughing in his face, just as we laugh at Victor Hugo, the only other romancer who has pulled a horrid face at us through anything like the same sort of mysterious horse-collar.
Yet violent and incoherent as Mr. Preston's picture is, it is infinitely richer in suggestion than the carefully documented mass of insipid perfection which is adumbrated in the unlighted and uncorrelated facts dumped down before us in the other case. What does our liberally-organizing friend of virtue, this most angelic Michael Angelo of ours, give us then? Not a living figure, in spite of all the too lively excitement. Rather at bottom a pure generality, a full-length catalogue of the points of the "Unspeakable Scot." A baleful dog-star or cur-constellation that never hastes and never rests. Far-seeing, sagacious, as self-restrained as self-seeking, slow to wrath but no less incapable of true forgiveness than of true love, "grippy" as the grave; and moving with the cold persistent massive infinitely retarded but undeviating process of death or a glacier from endless leagues away to a fixed goal, quite definitely imaged and calculated with precision, from the start. But above all, absolutely self-seeking, and shrinking from nothing whatever; with a single eye to power and pelf. And then, deadliest of all, all this under the fairest mask of persuasive and convincing reasonableness, patience, justice, kindliness, and a hospitality "bounteous as mines of India." Nay, he has much reality of these sweet dispositions in natural endowment of the blood, and heartiest most unaffected pleasure in the act of turning them, as this "mildest-mannered man, that ever cut a throat or scuttled ship" invariably did, with strictest economy, unerring adroitness, and quite successfully simulated spontaneity, to the furtherance of those vile and utterly selfish ends which he never lost sight of for one instant. We see him here always behind the scenes; he is never in the open save to dissemble, pulling the strings of his puppets whether they know it or not. His puppets, not to count the chubby English dupes, are all the Canadian politicians of his time on both sides of the House. He saw to it that they caught his plague. Bribes were his vehicles for the germs of the virus. Bribes, coarse or fine, in every shape and form. Cash down it might be, cheques, shares in railway stock, diamond necklaces to wives or paramours, fat wads to campaign funds; loans on I.O.U.'s, sometimes, with an eternally blasting magnanimity, remitted—and at the same time blazoned abroad—in his last will and testament; dinners, assiduous flatteries, long blockades of inexhaustible civilities and delicate observances.
Are we then to believe that before these well-wreathed horns and hoofs from the Western prairies got entrance there, Canada was the abode of unsullied innocency, a political Garden of Eden! There had been no Grand Trunk railway, much less an Intercolonial! Never a whole-souled French-Canadian voter, pure as his ancient fleur-de-lys, never a seraphic corner-street loafer in Halifax or Toronto and the small Ontario towns, who had not lifted both his snowy virgin hands to Heaven in child-like prayer, and strained their utmost force, until the knuckles were even whiter than the palms, in the dewy passion of his maiden heart to bring Confederation in! Ere she knew that grimy Smith, Canada knew nothing. Now, alas! she is little better than one of the wicked. In those halcyon days before yet the infernal machinations had begun, the Dominion Parliament sat upon its hill not as meretricious Babylon on her seven guilty mounds, but rather like the Court of Heaven ere the Arch-Rebel sowed discord on high. George Brown, the only mentionable Scot, twin in grace of the one other Alexander Mackenzie, Richard Cartwright, Edward Blake, the sweetly-budding Wilfrid Laurier, were there, resplendent Liberals, wrapped in the seemingly impenetrable armour of their virtue, at the right hand of the Throne to the eye of faith even when in dreary Opposition's darkest and chilliest shade. Even the Coryphæi of the dingier celestial breed, Sir John Macdonald, Sir Charles Tupper, Sir Georges Etienne Cartier, had not yet developed to any visible extent their latent tails and claws and paws. How soon the scene was changed and what a change was there! It was not a demon of pride, the closer vice to virtue, that had slunk in among those bowers of bliss. "The least erected spirit who fell" was equal to the felonious task. Mammon it was that insinuated his sleek and supple coils among the wings and harps and, line by line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, succeeded at last in training the very Archangels, to say nothing of the mortal constituencies they represented up there, the mere rank and file of Heaven, to eat his gold-dust and accept his gold-bricks out of his hand. And the fulness of this filthy lucre bodily entered there on the thirtieth day of March, 1871, and took his seat among the sons of God under the grey top-hat of Donald A., the member for Selkirk.
That plausible gentleman was already on that black day an old hand at his insidious arts. Long ago, according to his veracious historian, the smooth-spoken Tempter, in whose mouth no butter could possibly melt, had hopelessly corrupted those guileless lambkins the directors and officers of the Hudson's Bay Company. It was the unqualifiable "sneck-draw" Smith that taught them to skin the trusting Red Man who skinned their beavers for them. As we have seen, their treatment of the Indians was not immaculate but it was the very best thing about them, and in any case they had fixed and settled it quite unchangeably more than a century before Smith was born. When the transfer of the Company's lands to Canada took place, Smith, who is falsely alleged to have been by that time an old resident of the North-West—though in point of notorious fact he had never once set foot there till the whole transaction was supposed to be completed and the consequent muddle handed over to him for disentanglement—Smith, the diabolical illuminated gambler on indubitable tips, in the wild panic which then broke out in London bought up all the shares that went a-begging there—pure fiction—and secured an overwhelming interest in the Company which he thenceforth owned without conditions, body and soul. It is true that Smith did at one time acquire a controlling share in his old employer's stock, but that was long after and quite another story! He and his brother-factors, it is darkly shadowed forth, in order to gain their private ends, went mad and bit the Métis who made the Riel Rebellion. Later, Smith tried vehemently but vainly to get Archbishop Taché to declare them free from complicity in it. "If only the documents in St. Boniface Palace," hints Mr. Preston, "could be brought to light!" If only they could, why then it might not be very nice for the memory of Archbishop Taché. How Smith could be touched by such revelations we cannot divine. No doubt he was wise and saw a long way ahead. Like Goethe's Mephistopheles he knew much, but shared in so far the limitations of that cunning spirit that he did not know everything. He had a long arm, too, to work wonders from afar, but he was not omnipresent—at least not quite so much so as to be shut out from all capacity of benefiting by an alibi. When these strifes and plots were hatching on the Red River he was more than a thousand miles away in Montreal sitting on quite other eggs.
It was, however, in the sphere of railway enterprise that these weird depths of foresight were first fully revealed. From the first—one gets the impression, from his cradle—Smith had determined that he and no other should build the Canadian Pacific road. Other people weakly guessed the builders would come to fill a pauper's grave. Smith knew better. He had seen the billions that were in it in a crystal globe when he was three years old, and ear-marked them for his own. Sir Hugh Allan? Slight man, he should not touch a stiver! It was Smith that blew his little candle out. Smith was at the back of McMullen. Perhaps it was he who picked with his own hands the lock of the desk which hugged the famous telegram. And then who killed Cock Robin? It was that sparrow Smith that upset Sir John's government, though he knew full well that Mackenzie would not and could not prosecute the work of eliciting the C. P. R. worms. What of that? The heathen Chinee of Caucasian poker had an ace, a whole pack of aces, up his sleeve. He could wait. It was his way to make haste at leisure. "Time" for him was always "of an endless length." His gift of baneful omniscience enabled him to foresee that he would not have too long to wait. Poor Alexander would soon go, Sir John come back; Donald A. in the revolving process of the suns should rat back again to his old leader's side, and, in spite of deadly natural resentments over previous desertion, work the wires of his dummies from the coulisses and collar their whole catch of sturgeon for himself. And so he calmly went his majestic way, reaching out to left and right and picking up in his stride such preliminary whets and cocktails and unconsidered trifles as the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railway which he stole from the unworldly simple-minded Dutch bondholders as lightly as one would kiss the nurse and extract the child's handkerchief out of its perambulator.
What chance had a plunging Irishman like Edward Blake against that slippery, supple Sandy, that miraculously long-headed John Heelandman? The railway was finished, the last spike was driven home and with it the last nail in the coffin of Canadian innocence. Alas! poor babe! It had played by cool Siloam's spring, among lilies and green pastures, a spotless child. Now the maiden has grown up, but O! so much farther off from Heaven. What can she do but hang her head and suspend her harp on a willow tree? There she sits weeping like Niobe by the irridescent ooze of Babel's streams which have lost all their likeness to Bethesda ever since that ill-omened hour when the black angel came to trouble them. A scene of woe, truly! Nothing for her eye to rest on but fat Stygian mud and sour mosquito-breeding peat of the unlovely mere; nothing to hear but a confusion of wrangling Babylonian tongues.
Among all these tongues is there one more absurdly forked than the one in the head of that amateur of political guilelessness, the late organizer of the Liberal party? And yet it can distill unction at least, if not sweetness or light. With a rudimentary perception of the crying need from the artistic if not from the veraciously historical point of view, the gall is not unmixed with oil. The picture is not all shadow. There are some high lights. The Scots' Machiavelli and prescient pirate, the incredibly villainous figure of this memorial portrait stripped bare as it stands before us and fixed in the immortal nakedness of its soul by the genius of our Canadian Sargent, is also a Pecksniff endowed with a lubricating grace so sweet that it is almost rapture to be kicked downstairs by him. The victims that walked his plank had first all Heaven brought down into their breasts by the dulcet snuffle of this mellifluous Captain Kidd. Ruthless fleecer of the abhorred shears as he was, the sucking lambs bleated to be pushed into his pen, resigning their woolly treasures unto the gentle shepherd's hand with baas of pure delight. Donald A. was Satan pure, but the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman and a very smooth-spoken one, a benevolent patriarchal old sweet-faced Sir. "Let us prey" is his word. "George Stephen, hae ye saanded the sugar? Hae ye bought the Globe, that ill-tongued Liberal rag? Hae ye pit traicle in the Red Man's tabawkey?" "Aye, Sir." "Then come in to preyers!" The great caricaturist himself is not always proof against the "liart haffets" of this David Deans so decently worshipful and so sweetly grave, or altogether deaf to the Zion melodies of his "Cottar's Saturday Night." He seems, indeed, at times to forget his stern duty to put his victim in the penitential stocks and set him up on the cutty-stool before the congregation. Scenes of exceedingly intimate communion diversify, in the most charming if not too probable way this pictured page. You can see Strathcona and his biographer hobnobbing together over the sea-coal fire and a pewter pint of stout in the library at Knebworth or in the solid dingy opulence of the High Commissioner's office with its piles of priceless tin-boxes in Victoria Street, thick as thieves for all the world and nodding together like a pair of old viziers in some Arabian Night. This painter had some very private sittings, it seems. What did these two talk about! They had come to the age when it is a joy to go over the past. One loves to fancy them like two superannuated war-horses in a green paddock that still hear the trumpet in reminiscent dreams and cock their ears! They had given and taken kicks and blows, no doubt. Now in the hush of evening surely they bore no malice. Plainly enough, Strathcona did not. The other had the better memory, if not so good a judgment! What would one not give to hear those conversations! They would throw light on much. We should understand this picture better.
We have seen the only two full-length portraits of our subject. Notice that while differing so widely in every other respect they agree in one. Both exceed life-size. They cover a whole staircase wall with their rendering of a superman. In the one the face has no warts, in the other it is all one wart, but both are colossal. That is to say, neither possesses the degree of verisimilitude which is dispensable even to the freest imaginative art. In spite of triumphant democracy and socialist theories of progress by mass movements, it is certain men cannot go on without leaders. But they must not be too far ahead of us, or tower too high above us. If our leaders were more than head and shoulders taller than the next tallest of the common herd they could not even lead because none could follow. Steps and stairs are needed, a graduated hierarchy of natural human power, conductive intermediaries between the high peaks —never quite solitary—that are the first to take the morning, and the plains, still lying nightbound in sluggish custom at the foot, long after those summits have been lighted by the dawn. Fortunately that is what we get. In the world of man as in the world of nature we do not find Chimborazos among mole-hills. If we did the labour of the mountains could only bring forth mice. Strathcona's case was no exception. He did not suddenly spring up alone. He was led up to and accompanied. We have seen that heroes lived before this king of men. The North-Westers and Selkirk paved the way and blazed the trail for him. His best praise is that he took up the torch from them and brought to a relative completion their destined work—to make a Canada from sea to sea and make it British. Besides predecessors he had contemporaries who were quite a match for him. There were strong men around him as there had been giants before him. And in that range of hills immediately about him among which be undoubtedly ranked as an eminence, he was not, I think, the tallest eminence. Even among his Scottish compeers in Canada one at least distinctly overtopped him. Everybody, I suppose, would now admit that, in spite of all his faults, partly, indeed, it may be because of them, not only the most magnetic but on the whole the greatest man we have yet produced in Canada was Sir John Macdonald. Some, indeed, go so far in reduction as to think that Strathcona's own district in Scotland has contributed to us a bigger man than Strathcona. He, they say, was not our royal stag from Speyside. His cousin George Stephen had more and handsomer tines, though he was not such a master of mise en scene, had less of an instinct for showing off his antlers, and did not snuff the air upon the hillside with such an artistry in exhibition. The most difficult, conspicuous and momentous achievement in which either of these men ever took part was, they say, the Canadian Pacific railway. And in that, George Stephen was facile princeps, leaving his kinsman from Forres quite out of sight in the rear.
This is the view that seems to be popular among those who might naturally be expected to know most about the vexed question, among the leading spirits in our greatest corporation, the Canadian Pacific railway itself. They will tell you that the real builder and maker of their famous road and its world-renowned dividends was not Strathcona but Mount Stephen. It was Cousin George that shamed Donald into the venture and kept him at it, and signed cheques for him, which the latter objecting to, George spoke up: "Very well, I will meet the little bill meis niminibus." George, above all, was the Æolus who raised the needful but reluctant wind. It was he who went to London and soothed the desperately recalcitrant capitalists there. Once, for instance, he had an interview with the Barings, and was told to go slow and not kilt up his country's coats to Heaven knows where, and strip her to the shanks before she had come of age to put her own hair up, not to speak of raising each particular bristle on the head of a Conservative London banker. He promptly gave the Barings a bit of his mind, pommeled them into profound respect if not for his still dubious railway scheme, at least for his own transparent good faith and glowing force of genius, and ended by carrying away with him from that inexorable office a swingeing cheque to flourish in the face of scoffers, the wily brakesmen, that is to say, of the Grand Trunk who were doing their very best all this time to put a spoke in his wheel. Donald suo more came in at the death. His chief contribution by way of vigorous action was the driving of the far-trumpeted last spike. Nobody thought anything of it at the time. The only assistants besides the ceremonial operator, who wears an air of admirable gravity and determination, and the cloud of navvy witnesses, as you can see in the well-disseminated photograph, were William Van Horne and Sandford Fleming, neither of them as yet in spurs or dubbed Sir Knight. Van Horne had clearly made up his mind not to make a function of that symbolic and historic scene. He had seen too much of the evil omen of touching iron without any contact with wood, which in some cases makes the better lightning rod, in the Northern Pacific railway; for after a glorious splurge of the same sort that highly advertised corporation had gone up the chimney. Hence the very quiet, small, and strictly family character of the interesting party. It was not till much later that the formality was elevated, like Berenice's hair, among the constellations, by the inventive genius of Donald A. Smith, the supplanter and Jacob of that plain man then dwelling quietly in his tent and keeping his breath to cool his succulent bowl of red porridge there. Donald had, in the meantime, come honestly to believe that what everybody was constantly telling him and what he had always been inclined to suspect himself, was true, that he had done it all or most of it. He had changed under the spell of that flattering unction in the interval of years, his old copy-book device of Perseverantia, "Dogged does it," into the less pedestrian Agmina Duco, "In the van," and so, kindling to a flash of the really considerable talent he possessed of clinching things in a picturesque and pregnant emblem, he conceived the brilliant idea, in spite of Herald's Colleges, of fixing that spike rampant in gules and azure among the more commonplace trophies of his lordly crest. Nothing was ever made to go so far—in the form of diamond-tipped scarf-pins sown broadcast among female relations, sisters, cousins, aunts and lady admirers who were thus stamped as his own by a peculiar mark of favour. So many true relics were never made out of the Holy Rood or the jawbone of a mastodon, promoted martyr. But in sober reality Donald had not led the C. P. R. van, or even ridden in the observation car. He abode with the baggage in the rear, showing much perseverantia! It was George that led, Van Horne that followed next over rock and muskeg manfully, then Mr. Angus, then MacIntyre and then Donald, playing not a primary nor perhaps even a quaternary part, bending like Issachar under useful panniers stuffed with plump old stockings and what he always loved to deal about him, good things to eat and drink. ... There is a rock in the Grant country called Craigellachie which has given its gallant name to the very noblest of all the Strathspeys that ever lifted in the dance a Highland head with pride, furnished the great clan of the Grants too, with which both Smith and Stephen could claim affinity, with its blood-stirring war-cry: "Stand fast, Craigellachie!" The story goes that one or other of these cousins—both good at need—addressed to the other at a dizzy moment a telegram, a sharp blare of Roland's horn, with just that one word "Craigellachie" inscribed upon it. The C. P. R. say it was not Strathcona that sent that telegram. He got it from Mount Stephen and ceased to quake. Who is right, then? Those good men of our C. P. R., the very best we have, or the lugubrious scriptural and most magnifying Preston? Or are both right and both wrong and to what extent? This modest writer will not presume to determine with precision. No small amount of brooding, however, on such evidence as he has been able to reach inclines him to the following conclusions. Sir Donald Smith's contribution was, on the whole, more of the passive sort. It was less immediately originative and impelling than is generally supposed, and indeed than Lord Strathcona, as old age grew upon him, came more or less definitely and consciously to be prone to suppose. The fact is, at the inception he shared the reasonable opinion of many men that in theory, if it should prove by any means possible to do that entirely indispensable and unavoidable piece of work in the best way one could think of, in that case the work should not and could not, being an enterprise of such tremendous magnitude, be undertaken by any syndicate of private persons, but ought to be not only fathered by the State but carried out and permanently operated upon the support and pledge of its utmost resources, and that consequently all the resulting benefits should accrue and be forever secured to the Canadian people. Even long after he and his associates had broken their eggs and made considerable omelette out of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba road it never occurred to him—perhaps he was just the last man to give admission to such a wild thought—that there was the slightest obligation upon himself and those friends of his to dash upon the stage in a patriotic frenzy like railroad dervishes and throw those fortunes into the breach by making themselves responsible for a second and really more colossal task which neither Canada nor England nor any company of rich men in Great Britain or on the spot had the courage to regard as anything but a foolhardy speculation, one, indeed, that might be counted upon with certainty to ruin any man, break any country and any individuals who should be insane enough to burn, not their fingers but their whole body and bones, by meddling with it for one moment. The man could be brave enough. But his was also a very cool head indeed, in perfect control of unusually well-regulated affections, quite willing to serve his country hut distinctly averse to suicide, especially so in a case where there was no reasonable prospect at all that the holocaust of himself and all his friends and relations would be of the smallest use to his country. Who first thought of forming the Company which actually did rise to the audacious venture, it would be hard to say. It may well have been George Stephen. He, at least, did more than any one else to raise the necessary breeze of funds, and to steer the frail canoe like an old North-Wester through cliffs and breakers, tempests and dead calms, crags and currents, the Scyllas and Charybdises that menaced shipwreck dreadful as any Mackenzie faced on the same road from Lachine to the Pacific. As for Donald Smith, what we can claim for him with some confidence is this. First, after labouring for many years in vain, he succeeded at last in turning his cousin's serious attention to the West. Second, being on the spot, and keenly interested for his own sake, the Hudson's Bay Company's, the North-West's, Canada's and the Empire's sake, in making the prairies accessible, he first conceived or first effectively assimilated the idea of linking Fort Garry and the Canadian Red River with the Great Northern system, and bringing the portion of it most vital to the purpose, namely, the St. Paul and Pacific railway, under the ownership of a group of Canadians; and then ended by persuading George Stephen to join that group. That was, as it turned out, the decisive stroke. It was Smith that sewed that stitch in time which issued in the fashioning of our Canadian toga virilis and connective tissue. He hit the iron which his own breath had blown to the right heat. And so in a very real sense he was "in the van," a pioneer; the "efficient cause" of the C. P. R. in this important connotation of the term that but for him in all human probability George Stephen would not have troubled about the West; would have given the first hard steps a very wide berth; would have kept his skirts clear of Canadian railways; and so the C. P. R. would never have been built with his help and would, therefore, as far as we can see, have had to wait a weary while before it would ever get built at all. That is Strathcona's second indisputable claim; he knew the past of those regions as no one else did, broke ground for the future, and roped the right man in to back him and forge ahead in front of him. And the third is like unto it. Once in, Donald stood like a rock, like the Grants' rock Craigellachie. He was a good sidesman. He never quailed. "If this goes wrong, George," he is reported to have said on one occasion after he had produced a timely subsidy from the reserves of his capacious sleeve, "you and I must not be found with a single copper on us." Through rain and shine, through flood and evil report, he was staunch with all he had and all he was, at lowest "the Scot who bled with Wallace" in that great breathless fight—and would have continued to bleed with him to the last drop of his hard-earned money, though perhaps, alas! that was dearer to him even than the vital stream which ran in his veins itself.
Why, then, draw invidious distinctions? Let that pair grow and flourish intertwined together in our records as in their life-work they were not divided. Strathcona is dead. Mount Stephen is dead. Lord Mount Stephen has many claims on the gratitude of his countrymen, but in the somewhat unnecessary, foolish and odious comparison between the departed comrades he should never have been degraded to a rival from the lifelong friend he was. Donald
It was in Fort Garry about eleven o'clock at night, just after an election had given up its returns in dead and living. The ballot-boxes had shown that the French half-breeds had taken the money but failed to deliver the goods. Their venal and fugacious votes had not fallen for the candidate who had shaken a plentiful supply of acorns into the trough for them. As Donald A. was carrying back from the polls the weight of his sagacity and sorrow, a deeply disappointed and disillusioned man, there at the gate he found MacTavish, one of his factors, who had held the Fort in his chief's absence, and had been too much engaged in calculating election expenses to go to the polls himself. The man had also dined well, if not altogether wisely. "How goes it, Donald A.?" he asked his thoughtful principal. "I am sorry to say, Mr. MacTavish, that a majority of the intelligent electorate of my late Selkirk constituency have, in the exercise of their undoubted privilege and right to choose the most fit and proper person available for the purpose of representing them in the Dominion Parliament, seen fit to reject my own humble though hitherto not unacceptable person." MacTavish knew to a fraction how much currency in Hudson's Bay Company notes, denominations reducible as far as one-quarter of a dollar, had been rained down upon that stony ground. He had been counting it all day. No wonder, then, that his words burnt blue. He burst forth in vituperation which can best be translated thus: "Sons of a teeth-gnashing she-hound! Generation of vipers! Gotten by a sea-cook, blasted by the all-dreaded thunderstone! a prey to the unquenchable Salamander-worm in the galley fires of Gehenna's kitchen, amid congenial cockroaches for ever and ever, Amen!" "Are they not, Mr. MacTavish, are they not?" echoed to this litany the response of Donald A. as he strode through the gateway. MacTavish was sobered in a moment. It was the first time anyone had ever known the late member of Parliament take part in such an unparliamentary commination service. Smith never forgot the parson as whose clerk for the nonce he had extemporised—or the Athanasianly confulminated flock. Mactavish did well thenceforth. But though Silver Heights was still kept up, the philanthropic activities of Sir Donald were for ever after diverted to Montreal from Winnipeg. Hence, many tears in Winnipeg and joy as over one returned in Montreal!
I have another real anecdote, a yet unpublished incident to a similar effect, which I owe to Mr. Stewart, of Montreal. Mr. Stewart was in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company in Fort Garry, whither he had gone with Garnet Wolseley an eighteen-year-old soldier—much to the opening out of his way in life and his better acquaintance with Manitoba No. 1 Hard. Donald A. was his well-beloved superior, and an excellent subject for his quite remarkable gift of vocal and personal mimicry. It happened just at the time when this youthful recording angel acted as factotum on the premises of the old Fort that the then governor-general of Canada, no less a person than Macallum More, the Marquis of Lorne himself, was expected and that, with much eagerness by the only man on the continent who knew how to do him well, that princely Amphitryon, the chief commissioner of the Hudson's Bay Company. By way of making sure well ahead, Donald A., attended by his loyal and observant follower, slipped down into the well-stocked but low-roofed, dimly lighted, and promisingly cobwebby cellars, the former as usual in his tall grey beaver, the latter bearing the candle in his hand and keeping. his good ears open.
"There, Mr. Stewart," pointing to one of the bins," I think we will take some chablis and these two dozen of claret. And what have we here? Let me see, please. Hold the candle a little closer and lower, pray. Liebfraumilch, I do declare! Just the thing for Her Excellency and Royal Highness the Princess Marchioness Louise, who doubtless has many memories of the Rhine, though her rearing was closer to the vine of Hampton Court, and by marriage tradition she may be not unimbued with Glensharlie's mountain starlight dripping dews, withdrawn as these are ordinarily from Royal eyes! A dozen of that, I think, may well suffice! 'Tis an acquired taste. Ah! shall we ever have the high privilege, I wonder, of entertaining in our wide North-West the true and topmost crown of her colonial Dominions, that royal Nonpareille of all the domestic no less than of all the gubernatorial virtues, the Majesty of our Princess's Empress mother? But let us return to what we may perhaps be permitted to designate as the immediate flock of muttons we are gathering from these pens. We must round up at all hazards some extra-dry ones with the brand of the bereaved Clicquot on their gilded muzzles. If my memory does not play me false, we shall find them over there in that spider-frequented corner."
And hereupon, forgetting for a moment where he was, in the general flush of loyal emotion and the excitement of transition to his climax, he suddenly raised and threw back with something of a "gushing impulse," like Wordsworth's swan, his head and the hat on it, which, being high and, therefore, knocked off by a jutting beam of the humble ceiling, fell upon Stewart's candle and extinguished it. Reader, did he say what you or I would have been sure to say, just under the mosquito-bite of that annoying little bathos? Heaven forbid! This great and faultless being did indeed react. He was stung into one of the very few of his authentically recorded jokes.
"Ha! Ha! Mr. Stewart," he gaily laughed, "we have doused the glim. Our researches and collations must wait. Where was Donald A. when the light went out? Please go upstairs if, in this half-light, you can find the way. Redintegrate the ray of our tiny but indispensable glow-worm. I will sit in darkness, meantime, meditating my sins till you return."
And so he waited till Stewart got his breath back, took his inward notes, lighted the candle once more and brought it below again. Then the congenial work went on. The dry champagne, the priceless old crusted port, the noble golden sherry which had tossed upon the Bay of Biscay and lain becalmed among the floes of the Arctic Straits, the kummel, benedictine and chartreuse, the rich brown unground coffee beans from Java, and all the other fragrant flowery crowns of that Lucullus feast, were duly picked out, sorted, and assembled in a well-dusted shining battalion. The man was a notable husband of his Penates, as careful in the choice of his wine as of his words. A guest's palate was to him a shrine, a grove of hushed meditation.
Surely then, you will say, such unfailing courtesy, punctiliously hospitable, or at lowest studiously respectful, to everybody, could scarcely have made enemies if it could not always attach warm friends. Don't you remember the Athenian citizen who cast his potsherd for the banishment of Aristides simply because he was so fed up with hearing that moral pedant called "the just?" And yet Athens, though it did not come up to St. Paul's standard, was a good deal more bitten with the passion for excellence than Montreal is, and could much more easily forgive distinction To us, as indeed to all the Anglo-Saxon race, comfortable mediocrity is dear. We do not love distinction. Smith was, for the most part, a normal plain man, such as most readily inspires our confidence. He had paid his debt of frankincense to our dowdy Nemesis, and had elaborately schooled himself to the languors and flatnesses of our parliamentary eloquence. But the inarticulate artist that was in him did not escape his toll of penalties to the dominant abhorrence of imagination, the widely-diffused illiteracy and self-complacent rusticity of our civilization. The one point of him where you could see the thunder-bolt smoke most was just his really fine manners. These, with some "virtue, freedom, power," were his most conspicuous endowment and the peak that most repelled. For, though to some a lure, they were to others more impenetrable and isolating in their lubricant defensiveness than crocodile's scales. To those robust and primitive sons of Nature, the Hannibal Chollops with whom he had latterly a good deal to do, they were a rock of offense. The suave inaccessibility was too much for them. He never became really one of them, a known quantity claspable to the heart. He was too sweet to be quite wholesome, they shrewdly suspected. The sailor's criticism of the too fine gentleman hit his nail on the head for them. The excess of his politeness rose to blood-heat on their thermometers.
There was something in it, too. A few redeeming vices would not have been unwelcome. He was too smooth. The crowning grace of really noble manners, a certain amount of wholesome plainness stamped upon the gold, was certainly to seek, the touch of bare, nature which reconciles and gives some jagged edges to superiority for the assurance of a sober certainty of waking bliss. Who really knew this man? He was a Labrador enigma. Up to three minutes before the twelfth hour, as Sir John and Tupper once discovered, you could not tell what he was going to do. Perhaps he could not himself. He had to grow unconsciously, like many men of action, till under some external shock he precipitated, often to his own surprise. What did he think and feel about the things that really matter? What was his religion? After all, one may suspect, nothing very individual that he could have put in words. He had no such bursting accumulations of lyric, outward striving thought, or thrilling stings and stounds of lyrical emotion as must erupt or choke him. We may suspect that his real working creed was of rather a Scotch type. That is to say, it laid great stress upon the fact that godliness has the promise of this life as well as of that which is to come, on the injunction to be diligent in business, fervent in spirit, if not so much upon the clause "serving the Lord," and above all upon that great commandment and solemn warning: "He that provideth not for his own is worse than an infidel." The Proverbs of Solomon would probably represent fairly enough the extreme limit of his religious aspirations and ideals. At least he was not bigoted. He came to see, he once told Dr. Fleming of St. Columba's Church, that a Roman Catholic is not necessarily excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven—which was quite a stretch of liberality for a native of the County of Elgin, born and educated there in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
He loved the solitude of a crowd, a privacy of mild light, from which he shone benevolently on all alike and upon no one in particular. He loved to see happy faces about him and plenty of them. Thorough-bred Scot as he was, he had none of that uneasy itch for the general diffusion of a conscientiously gratuitous gloom which is apt to brood over his nation like an immemorially endemic plague or the first of a month of wet days.
In short our High Commissioner, if, as I have laboured to show, he had the qualities of his defects, must he admitted also to have had the defects of his qualities. And if he was stronger than most of us to work up virtues out of his necessities and hardships, he did not altogether escape some marks even from the malignity of his outward fortunes. Strathcona never quite strained off the lees of Labrador. The shroud of portentous mystery, the solemn, rather unlovely secretiveness, the exasperating dilatoriness and apparent incapacity to make up the mind, perhaps partly because there was so much of it, still more because its gestations were so obscure, became mechanically inveterate and deepened with old age. Poor Mr. Chipman of the Hudson's Bay Company, often summoned in hot haste from a thousand miles away and kept for nine days dining and discussing things in general in the house on Dorchester Street —before which the poor old coachman might have to drive his horses round and round for bitter winter hours—and never a word said by his unfathomably amiable host, so devoted to the delights of harmlessly improving conversation, to indicate that there was any knot at all worth the expense of the machine and hot-foot messenger's long journey to untie—Sir William Peterson, too, kept for years in a realizing sense of dependence, hanging in air, and effectually shut out from playing the rôle of academic Oliver Twist or daughter of the horse-leech by means of the linked enigma longdrawn out of the prospects for permanent maintenance and endowment which sister Margaret's Royal Victoria College had reason to look forward to—these among others could tell sad tales, sitting on the ground, of their own sore experiences of all that.
The autocratic habit, too—that also rooted in the fogs of his Arctic years, the winter of his young discontent-—grew upon him; the suspicion that he had been himself after all the one and only source of all good to Canada, and that he had established forever the right of an exclusive monopoly to wear the mask with the high forehead as Guide, Philosopher, and Friend; a queer resentment, more and more definitely underlined towards the close, of all plans, however excellent and well-meant for the advancement of her interests, that did not originate in the office of the eternal and irreplaceable old Man of the Sea. A sad spectacle to the eye of reason, that rather dizzy perch, however congenial to the official cockroaches that clustered upon it like bats around their chief.
Just one more mole—this time, thank Goodness! mere hypertrophy of healthy tissue—and then for harbour and for home! This, on the whole noble, Highland flesh was heir to a nature prone to revenge. It was not his fault that his mind took singularly sharp and lasting impressions of things. That was his natural quality, a good and rare one. But in several clear cases he did give evidence of the defect of that as well as of other qualities. Strathcona could not forget, even if he wanted to. And therefore it was harder for him than it is for most of us, whose facility here is mere lassitude and liviousness, to forgive.
But it is a mean business, this counting up of stains and blemishes in a great record and a venerable figure. For Strathcona is, in a very real sense, the father of us all; we are all sons and daughters who have entered into the heritage he won for us. If anyone ever was so, he was pater patriæ. He was one of a noble band and not the least noble among them. When shall we look upon their like again! He needs no letters of commendation. His associates were his letters of commendation and he was theirs. We shall certainly not look upon his like again. Whether he was a great man or not I will not take it upon myself to say, but surely none was ever quite so much of a representative man. What a typical Aberdonian Scot he was, how he summed up his natural North of Scotland, we have seen. And it is certain that none ever was, or in future ever can be, so representative of Canada. He repeated in his own person and work, after a fashion which must, remain unique, every stage of his adopted country's life from the rudest and earliest to that highest which he did so much to bring to birth. Quite idle to ask which of the group he worked with was the ablest man, which did most for Canada! The popular imagination makes no mistakes in that use of its eyes by which it picks out the figures canonized by it and handed down with a halo on their brows for everlasting memory. That old man was Canada, Canada in the flesh. The whole history of our country, from the mink-trap and birch-bark canoe down to the grain-elevator and the ocean-liner, lived and breathed and moved and walked about visibly under the tall grey beaver hat which, with its wearer and his experiences, is gone forever and cannot possibly be repeated. The mould in which he was made is broken. He was the last of his type. He was young Canada in overalls counting muskrat tails at Lachine, a place whose prophetic name he and George Stephen, both merchants of Montreal, following in the tracks and fulfilling the task of merchants of Montreal long dead, Henry, Mackenzie, the North-Westers, at long last, in the fulness of the days, victoriously, against great odds, proved not only a name of good omen, though given in derision, but a true name. He was adolescent Canada in Labrador, wringing the most that might be out of rocks, and fogs, and ice, and making the frozen wilderness to blossom like the rose. Mature and militant Canada he was at Red River contending in the fateful travail hour of Confederation with Riel and the half-savage past in its last recalcitrations; triumphant Canada, the Canada that is and is to be, in London, Aberdeen, Glencoe. And finally, unlike some of his peers with whom too envious critics insist on comparing him to his disadvantage, he went on to the very end, he never paused in his high career; as he never hasted, so he never rested, but ran his race quite to its close like a strong man rejoicing, with torch in hand, until he dropped.
In London he died and lies buried. The port he sailed from Westward Ho upon his first voyage was the fit port to set out from upon his last, far over the still ocean of Eternity. There in the metropolis of a mighty Empire,
What is the lesson of his life? The old story, I think, the lesson of the Parable. This man can scarcely be said truly to have received the maximum endowment of five talents. His talents were of silver not of gold. The warp and woof of him were hardly of the very finest human texture. But he made the most of his natural gifts. He did not bury his single talent in a napkin. He set it out at Usury, and rubbed it by good wear till it shone bright and breedful of all wealth and poison as Aladdin's lamp. So he came to have and therefore much was given to him. The "five cities" interested him mainly as leading to the "ten" behind them. His appetite for service grew by what it fed upon. Every goal was with him the spring-board to a higher leap. The intellectual powers he was born with, by no means extraordinary either in force or delicacy as they were when he received them—that is just what makes his example and achievement so inspiring to young Canadians— were nourished and consolidated by his indefatigable and ceaseless exercise. He was tough and tireless, always driving ahead, "forgetting the things that were behind" and pressing steadily forward "towards the mark of the prize of the high calling," the shining goal which he reached. Far indeed from perfect, and made of the same shrinking, quivering, frail material of flesh as the rest of us, he was not spared his growing pains. But he grew all the same—by an uncommonly laborious and slow process. He always stuck to his last and, what was still better, to his guns. In the end that obstinate bombardment silenced the many smaller noises, and won a decisive victory, peace with honour and a quiet close. He had several mottoes, "Perseverantia" and the more ambitious and dubious "Agmina Duco". But after all he had a right to both. And perhaps the Aberdonian one of Marischal College might have been as appropriate as any: "They say? What say they? Let them say!"
"My friend, all speech and rumour is vain, foolish, and untrue. Work, genuine work, that alone remaineth, eternal as the Almighty World-Builder and Lawgiver Himself! Do thou that; and let fame and the rest of it go prating." These words of their great countryman I should choose to inscribe upon the headstone of our Apostolic Succession in the making of the North-West, and with it of that greater Canada and of the British Empire which is their monument. Let them stand over Vérendrye, Mackenzie, Selkirk, Stephen and Strathcona.