FROM Yokohama to Montreal is a long day’s journey, and the forepart is uninviting. In three voyages out of five, the North Pacific, too big to lie altogether idle, too idle to get hands about the business of a storm, sulks and smokes like a chimney; the passengers fresh from Japan heat wither in the chill, and a clammy dew distils from the rigging. That gray monotony of sea is not at all homelike, being as yet new and not used to the procession of keels. It holds a very few pictures and the best of its stories—those relating to seal-poaching among the Kuriles and the Russian rookeries—are not exactly fit for publication. There is a man in Yokohama who in a previous life burned galleons with Drake. He is a gentleman adventurer of the largest and most resourceful—by instinct a carver of kingdoms, a ruler of men on the high seas, and an inveterate gambler against Death. Because he supplies nothing more than sealskins to the wholesale dealers at home, the fame of his deeds, his brilliant fights, his more brilliant escapes, and his most brilliant strategy will be lost among sixty-ton schooners, or told only in the mouths of drunken seamen whom none believe. Now there sits a great spirit under the palm trees of the Navigator Group, a thousand leagues to the south, and he, crowned with roses and laurels, strings together the pearls of those parts. When he has done with this down there perhaps he will turn to the Smoky Seas and the Wonderful Adventures of Captain——. Then there will be a tale to listen to.
But the first touch of dry land makes the sea and all upon it unreal. Five minutes after the traveller is on the C.P.R, train at Vancouver there is no romance of blue water, but another kind—the life of the train into which he comes to grow as into life aboard ship. A week on wheels turns a man into a part of the machine. He knows when the train will stop to water, wait for news of the trestle ahead, drop the dining-car, slip into a siding to let the West-bound mail go by, or yell through the thick night for an engine to help push up the bank. The snort, the snap and whine of the air-brakes have a meaning for him, and he learns to distinguish between noises—between the rattle of a loose lamp and the ugly rattle of small stones on a scarped embankment—between the “Hoot! toot!” that scares wandering cows from the line, and the dry roar of the engine at the distance-signal. In England the railway came late into a settled country fenced round with the terrors of the law, and it has remained ever since just a little outside daily life—a thing to be respected. Here it strolls along, with its hands in its pockets and a straw in its mouth, on the heels of the rough-hewn trail or log road—a platformless, regulationless necessity; and it is treated even by sick persons and young children with a familiarity that sometimes affects the death-rate. There was a small maiden aged seven, who honoured our smoking compartment with her presence when other excitements failed, and it was she that said to the conductor, “When do we change crews? I want to pick water-lilies—yellow ones.” A mere halt she knew would not suffice for her needs; but the regular fifteen-minute stop, when the red-painted tool-chest was taken off the rear car and a new gang came aboard. The big man bent down to little Impudence—“Want to pick lilies, eh? What would you do if the cars went on and took mama away, Sis?” “Take the, next train,” she replied, “and tell the conductor to send me to Brooklyn. I live there.” “But s’pose he wouldn’t?” “He’d have to,” said Young America. “I’d be a lost child.”
Now, from the province of Alberta to Brooklyn, U.S.A., may be three thousand miles. A great stretch of that distance is as new as the day before yesterday, and strewn with townships in every stage of growth from the city of one round house, two log huts, and a Chinese camp somewhere in the foot-hills of the Selkirks, to Winnipeg with her league-long main street and her warring newspapers. Just at present there is an epidemic of politics in Manitoba, and brass bands and notices of committee meetings are splashed about the towns. By reason of their closeness to the Stages they have caught the contagion of foul-mouthedness, and accusations of bribery, corruption, and evil-living are many. It is sweet to find a little baby-city, with only three men in it who can handle type, cursing and swearing across the illimitable levels for all the world as though it were a grown-up Christian centre.
All the new towns have their own wants to consider, and the first of these is a railway. If the town is on a line already, then a new line to tap the back country; but at all costs a line. For this it will sell its corrupted soul, and then be very indignant because the railway before which it has grovelled rides rough-shod over the place.
Each new town believes itself to be a possible Winnipeg until the glamour of the thing is a little worn off, and the local paper, sliding down the pole of Pride with the hind legs of despair, says defiantly: “At least, a veterinary surgeon and a drug store would meet with encouragement in our midst, and it is a fact that five new buildings have been erected in our midst since the spring.” From a distance nothing is easier than to smile at this sort of thing, but he must have a cool head who can keep his pulse level when just such a wildcat town—ten houses, two churches, and a line of rails—gets “on the boom,” The reader at home says, “Yes, but it’s all a lie.” It may be, but—did men lie about Denver, Leadville, Ballarat, Broken Hill, Portland, or Winnipeg twenty years ago—or Adelaide when town lots went begging within the memory of middle-aged men? Did they lie about Vancouver six years since, or Creede not twenty months gone? Hardly; and it is just this knowledge that leads the passer-by to give ear to the wildest statements of the wildest towns. Anything is possible, especially among the Rockies where the minerals lie over and above the mining towns, the centres of ranching country, and the supply towns to the farming districts. There are literally scores upon scores of lakelets in the hills, buried in woods now, that before twenty years are run will be crowded summer resorts. You in England have no idea of what “summering” means in the States, and less of the amount of money that is spent on the yearly holiday. People have no more than just begun to discover the place called the Banff Hot Springs, two days west of Winnipeg. In a little time they will know half-a-dozen spots not a day’s ride from Montreal, and it is along that line that money will be made. In those days, too, wheat will be grown for the English market four hundred miles north of the present fields on the west side; and British Columbia, perhaps the loveliest land in the world next to New Zealand, will have her own line of six thousand ton steamers to Australia, and the British investor will no longer throw away his money on hellicat South American republics, or give it as a hostage to the States. He will keep it in the family as a wise man should. Then the towns that are to-day the only names in the wilderness, yes, and some of those places marked on the map as Hudson Bay Ports, will be cities, because—but it is hopeless to make people understand that actually and indeed, we do possess an Empire of which Canada is only one portion—an Empire which is not bounded by election-returns on the North and Eastbourne riots on the South—an Empire that has not yet been scratched.
Let us return to the new towns. Three times within one year did fortune come knocking to the door of a man I know. Once at Seattle, when that town was a gray blur after a fire; once at Tacoma, in the days when the steam-tram ran off the rails twice a week; and once at Spokane Falls. But in the roar of the land-boom he did not hear her, and she went away leaving him only a tenderness akin to weakness for all new towns, and a desire, mercifully limited by lack of money, to gamble in every one of them. Of all the excitements that life offers there are few to be compared with the whirl of a red-hot boom; also it is strictly moral, because you do fairly earn your “unearned increment” by labour and perspiration and sitting up far into the night—by working like a fiend, as all pioneers must do. And consider all that is in it! The headlong stampede to the new place; the money dashed down like counters for merest daily bread; the arrival of the piled cars whence the raw material of a city—men, lumber, and shingle—are shot on to the not yet nailed platform; the slashing out and pegging down of roads across the blank face of the wilderness; the heaving up amid shouts and yells of the city’s one electric light—a raw sizzling arc atop of an unbarked pine pole; the sweating, jostling mob at the sale of town-lots; the roar of “Let the woman have it!” that stops all bidding when the one other woman in the place puts her price on a plot; the packed real-estate offices; the real-estate agents themselves, lost novelists of prodigious imagination; the gorgeous pink and blue map of the town, hung up in the bar-room, with every railroad from Portland to Portland meeting in its heart; the misspelled curse against “this dam hole in the ground” scrawled on the flank of a strayed freight-car by some man who had lost his money and gone away; the conferences at street corners of syndicates six hours established by men not twenty-five years old; the outspoken contempt for the next town, also “on the boom,” and, therefore, utterly vile; the unceasing tramp of heavy feet on the board pavement, where stranger sometimes turns on stranger in an agony of conviction, and, shaking him by the shoulder, shouts in his ear, “By G—d! Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it glorious? ”and last, the sleep of utterly worn-out men, three in each room of the shanty hotel: “All meals two dollars. All drinks thirty-five cents. No washing done here. The manager not responsible for anything.” Does the bald catalogue of these recitals leave you cold? It is possible; but it is also possible after three days in a new town to set the full half of a truck-load of archbishops fighting for corner lots as they never fought for mitre or crozier. There is a contagion in a boom as irresistible as that of a panic in a theatre.
After a while things settle down, and then the carpenter, who is also an architect, can lay his bare arms across the bar and sell them to the highest bidder, for the houses are coming up like toadstools after rain. The men who do not build cheer those who do, in that building means backing your belief in your town—yours to you and peculiarly. Confound all other towns whatsoever. Behind the crowd of business men the weekly town paper plays as a stockwhip plays on a mob of cattle. There is honour, heaped, extravagant, imperial for the good—the employer of labour, the builder of stores, the spender of money; there is abuse, savage and outrageous, for the bad, the man who “buys out of the town,” the man who intends to go, the sitter on the fence; with persuasion and invitation in prose, verse, and zincograph for all that outside world which prefers to live in cities other than Ours.
Now the editor, as often as not, begins as a mercenary and ends as a patriot. This, too, is all of a piece with human nature. A few years later, if Providence is good, comes the return for judicious investment. Perhaps the town has stood the test of boom, and that which was clapboard is now Milwaukee brick or dressed stone, vile in design but permanent. The shanty hotel is the Something House, with accommodation for two hundred guests. The manager who served you in his shirt-sleeves as his own hotel clerk, is gorgeous in broadcloth, and needs to be reminded of the first meeting. Suburban villas more or less adorn the flats, from which the liveliest fancy (and fancy was free in the early days) hung back. Horse-cars jingle where the prairie schooner used to stick fast in the mud-hole, scooped to that end, opposite the saloon; and there is a Belt Electric Service paying fabulous dividends. Then, do you, feeling older than Methuselah and twice as important, go forth and patronise things in general, while the manager tells you exactly what sort of millionaire you would have been if you had “stayed by the town.”
Or else—the bottom has tumbled out of the boom, and the town new made is dead—dead as a young man’s corpse laid out in the morning. Success was not justified by success. Of ten thousand not three hundred remain, and these live in huts on the outskirts of the brick streets. The hotel, with its suites of musty rooms, is a big tomb; the factory chimneys are cold; the villas have no glass in them, and the fire-weed glows in the centre of the driveways, mocking the arrogant advertisements in the empty shops. There is nothing to do except to catch trout in the stream that was to have been defiled by the city sewage. A two-pounder lies fanning himself just in the cool of the main culvert, where the alders have crept up to the city wall. You pay your money and, more or less, you take your choice.
By the time that man has seen these things and a few others that go with a boom he may say that he has lived, and talk with his enemies in the gate. He has heard the Arabian Nights retold and knows the inward kernel of that romance, which some? little folk say is vanished. Here they lie in their false teeth, for Cortes is not dead, nor Drake, and Sir Philip Sidney dies every few months if you know where to look. The adventurers and captains courageous of old have only changed their dress a little and altered their employment to suit the world in which they move. Clive came down from Lobengula’s country a few months ago protesting that there was an empire there, and finding very few that believed. Hastings studied a map of South Africa in a corrugated iron hut at Johannesburg ten years ago. Since then he has altered the map considerably to the advantage of the Empire, but the heart of the Empire is set on ballot-boxes and small lies. The illustrious Don Quixote to-day lives on the north coast of Australia where he has found the treasure of a sunken Spanish galleon. Now and again he destroys black fellows who hide under his bed to spear him. Young Hawkins, with a still younger Boscawen for his second, was till last year chasing slave-dhows round Tajurrah; they have sent him now to the Zanzibar coast to be grilled into an admiral; and the valorous Sandoval has been holding the “Republic” of Mexico by the throat any time these fourteen years gone. The others, big men all and not very much afraid of responsibility, are selling horses, breaking trails, drinking sangaree, running railways beyond the timberline, swimming rivers, blowing up tree-stumps, and making cities where no cities were, in all the five quarters of the world. Only people will not believe this when you tell them. They are too near things and a great deal too well fed. So they say of the most cold-blooded realism: “This is romance. How interesting!” And of over-handled, thumb-marked realism: “This is indeed romance!” It is the next century that, looking over its own, will see the heroes of our time clearly.
Meantime this earth of ours—we hold a fair slice of it so far—is full of wonders and miracles and mysteries and marvels, and, in default, it is good to go up and down seeing and hearing tell of them all.