Letters to the Family III

Cities and Spaces

by Rudyard Kipling

WHAT would you do with a magic carpet if one were lent you? I ask because for a month we had a private car of our very own—a trifling affair less than seventy foot long and thirty ton weight. “You may find her useful,” said the donor casually, “to knock about the country. Hitch on to any train you choose and stop off where you choose.”

So she bore us over the C.P.R. from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back, and when we had no more need of her, vanished like the mango tree after the trick.

A private car, though many books have been written in it, is hardly the best place from which to study a country, unless it happen that you have kept house and seen the seasons round under normal conditions on the same continent. Then you know how the cars look from the houses; which is not in the least as the houses look from the cars. Then, the very porter’s brush in its nickel clip, the long cathedral-like aisle between the well-known green seats, the toll of the bell and the deep organ-like note of the engine wake up memories; and every sight, smell, and sound outside are like old friends remembering old days together. A piano-top buggy on a muddy, board-sidewalked street, all cut up by the narrow tires; the shingling at the corner of a veranda on a new-built house; a broken snake-fence girdling an old pasture of mulleins and skull-headed boulders; a wisp of Virginia creeper dying splendidly on the edge of a patch of corn; half a dozen panels of snow-fence above a cutting, or even a shameless patent-medicine advertisement, yellow on the black of a tobacco-barn, can make the heart thump and the eyes fill if the beholder have only touched the life of which they are part. What must they mean to the native-born? There was a prairie-bred girl on the train, coming back after a year on the Continent, for whom the pine-belted hills, with real mountains behind, the solemn loops of the river, and the intimate friendly farm had nothing to tell.

“You can do these landscapes better in Italy,” she explained, and, with the indescribable gesture of plains folk stifled in broken ground, “I want to push these hills away and get into the open again! I’m Winnipeg.”

She would have understood that Hanover Road schoolmistress, back from a visit to Cape Town, whom I once saw drive off into thirty miles of mirage almost shouting, “Thank God, here’s something like home at last.”

Other people ricochetted from side to side of the car, reviving this, rediscovering that, anticipating t’other thing, which, sure enough, slid round the next curve to meet them, caring nothing if all the world knew they were home again; and the newly arrived Englishman with his large wooden packing-cases marked “Settlers’ Effects” had no more part in the show than a new boy his first day at school. But two years in Canada and one run home will make him free of the Brotherhood in Canada as it does anywhere else. He may grumble at certain aspects of the life, lament certain richnesses only to be found in England, but as surely as he grumbles so surely he returns to the big skies, and the big chances. The failures are those who complain that the land “does not know a gentleman when it sees him.” They are quite right. The land suspends all judgment on all men till it has seen them work. Thereafter as may be; but work they must because there is a very great deal to be done.

Unluckily the railroads which made the country are bringing in persons who are particular as to the nature and amenities of their work, and if so be they do not find precisely what they are looking for, they complain in print which makes all men seem equal.

The special joy of our trip lay in having travelled the line when it was new and, like the Canada of those days, not much believed in, when all the high and important officials, whose little fingers unhooked cars, were also small and disregarded. To-day, things, men, and cities were different, and the story of the line mixed itself up with the story of the country, the while the car-wheels clicked out, “John Kino—John Kino! Nagasaki, Yokohama, Hakodate, Heh!” for we were following in the wake of the Imperial Limited, all full of Hongkong and Treaty Ports men. There were old, known, and wonderfully grown cities to be looked at before we could get away to the new work out west, and, “What d’you think of this building and that suburb?” they said, imperiously. “Come out and see what has been done in this generation.”

The impact of a Continent is rather overwhelming till you remind yourself that it is no more than your own joy and love and pride in your own patch of garden written a little large over a few more acres. Again, as always, it was the dignity of the cities that impressed—an austere Northern dignity of outline, grouping, and perspective, aloof from the rush of traffic in the streets. Montreal, of the black-frocked priests and the French notices, had it; and Ottawa, of the grey stone palaces and the St. Petersburg-like shining water-frontages; and Toronto, consumingly commercial, carried the same power in the same repose. Men are always building better than they know, and perhaps this steadfast architecture is waiting for the race when their first flurry of newly-realised expansion shall have spent itself, and the present hurrah’s-nest of telephone poles in the streets shall have been abolished. There are strong objections to any non-fusible, bi-lingual community within a nation, but however much the French are made to hang back in the work of development, their withdrawn and unconcerned cathedrals, schools, and convents, and one aspect of the spirit that breathes from them, make for good. Says young Canada: “There are millions of dollars’ worth of church property in the cities which aren’t allowed to be taxed.” On the other hand, the Catholic schools and universities, though they are reported to keep up the old medieval mistrust of Greek, teach the classics as lovingly, tenderly, and intimately as the old Church has always taught them. After all, it must be worth something to say your prayers in a dialect of the tongue that Virgil handled; and a certain touch of insolence, more magnificent and more ancient than the insolence of present materialism, makes a good blend in a new land.

I had the good fortune to see the cities through the eyes of an Englishman out for the first time. “Have you been to the Bank?” he cried. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” “What’s the matter with the Bank?” I asked: for the financial situation across the Border was at that moment more than usual picturesque. “It’s wonderful!” said he; “marble pillars—acres of mosaic—steel grilles—might be a cathedral. No one ever told me.” “I shouldn’t worry over a Bank that pays its depositors,” I replied soothingly. “There are several like it in Ottawa and Toronto.” Next he ran across some pictures in some palaces, and was downright angry because no one had told him that there were five priceless private galleries in one city. “Look here!” he explained. “I’ve been seeing Corots, and Greuzes, and Gainsboroughs, and a Holbein, and—and hundreds of really splendid pictures!” “Why shouldn’t you?” I said. “They’ve given up painting their lodges with vermilion hereabouts.” “Yes, but what I mean is, have you seen the equipment of their schools and colleges—desks, libraries, and lavatories? It’s miles ahead of anything we have and—no one ever told me.” “What was the good of telling? You wouldn’t have believed. There’s a building in one of the cities, on the lines of the Sheldonian, but better, and if you go as far as Winnipeg, you’ll see the finest hotel in all the world.”

“Nonsense!” he said. “You’re pulling my leg! Winnipeg’s a prairie-town.”

I left him still lamenting—about a Club and a Gymnasium this time—that no one had ever told him about; and still doubting all that he had heard of Wonders to come.

If we could only manacle four hundred Members of Parliament, like the Chinese in the election cartoons, and walk them round the Empire, what an all-comprehending little Empire we should be when the survivors got home!

Certainly the Cities have good right to be proud, and I waited for them to boast; but they were so busy explaining they were only at the beginning of things that, for the honour of the Family, I had to do the boasting. In this praiseworthy game I credited Melbourne (rightly, I hope, but the pace was too good to inquire) with acres of municipal buildings and leagues of art galleries; enlarged the borders of Sydney harbour to meet a statement about Toronto’s, wharfage; and recommended folk to see Cape Town Cathedral when it should be finished. But Truth will out even on a visit. Our Eldest Sister has more of beauty and strength inside her three cities alone than the rest of Us put together. Yet it would do her no harm to send a commission through the ten great cities of the Empire to see what is being done there in the way of street cleaning, water-supply, and traffic-regulation.

Here and there the people are infected with the unworthy superstition of “hustle,” which means half-doing your appointed job and applauding your own slapdasherie for as long a time as would enable you to finish off two clean pieces of work. Little congestions of traffic, that an English rural policeman, in a country town, disentangles automatically, are allowed to develop into ten-minute blocks, where wagons and men bang, and back, and blaspheme, for no purpose except to waste time.

The assembly and dispersal of crowds, purchase of tickets, and a good deal of the small machinery of life is clogged and hampered by this unstable, southern spirit which is own brother to Panic. “Hustle” does not sit well on the national character any more than falsetto or fidgeting becomes grown men. “Drive,” a laudable and necessary quality, is quite different, and one meets it up the Western Road where the new country is being made.

We got clean away from the Three Cities and the close-tilled farming and orchard districts, into the Land of Little Lakes—a country of rushing streams, clear-eyed ponds, and boulders among berry-bushes; all crying “Trout” and “Bear.”

Not so very long ago only a few wise people kept holiday in that part of the world, and they did not give away their discoveries. Now it has become a summer playground where people hunt and camp at large. The names of its further rivers are known in England, and men, otherwise sane, slip away from London into the birches, and come out again bearded and smoke-stained, when the ice is thick enough to cut a canoe. Sometimes they go to look for game; sometimes for minerals—perhaps, even, oil. No one can prophesy. “We are only at the beginning of things.”

Said an Afrite of the Railway as we passed in our magic carpet: “You’ve no notion of the size of our tourist-traffic. It has all grown up since the early “Nineties. The trolley car teaches people in the towns to go for little picnics. When they get more money they go for long ones. All this Continent will want playgrounds soon. We’re getting them ready.”

The girl from Winnipeg saw the morning frost lie white on the long grass at the lake edges, and watched the haze of mellow golden birch leaves as they dropped. “Now that’s the way trees ought to turn,” she said. “Don’t you think our Eastern maple is a little violent in colour?” Then we passed through a country where for many hours the talk in the cars was of mines and the treatment of ores. Men told one tales—prospectors’ yarns of the sort one used to hear vaguely before Klondike or Nome were public property. They did not care whether one believed or doubted. They, too, were only at the beginning of things—silver perhaps, gold perhaps, nickel perhaps. If a great city did not arise at such a place—the very name was new since my day—it would assuredly be born within a few miles of it. The silent men boarded the cars, and dropped off, and disappeared beyond thickets and hills precisely as the first widely spaced line of skirmishers fans out and vanishes along the front of the day’s battle.

One old man sat before me like avenging Time itself, and talked of prophecies of evil, that had been falsified. “They said there wasn’t nothing here excep’ rocks an’ snow. They said there never wouldn’t be nothing here excep’ the railroad. There’s them that can’t see yit,” and he gimleted me with a fierce eye. “An’ all the while, fortunes is made—piles is made—right under our noses.”

“Have you made your pile?” I asked.

He smiled as the artist smiles—all true prospectors have that lofty smile—“Me? No. I’ve been a prospector most o’ my time, but I haven’t lost anything. I’ve had my fun out of the game. By God, I’ve had my fun out of it!

I told him how I had once come through when land and timber grants could have been picked up for half less than nothing.

“Yes,” he said placidly. “I reckon if you’d had any kind of an education you could ha’ made a quarter of a million dollars easy in those days. And it’s to be made now if you could see where. How? Can you tell me what the capital of the Hudson Bay district’s goin’ to be? You can’t. Nor I. Nor yet where the six next new cities is going to arise, I get off here, but if I have my health I’ll be out next summer again—prospectin’ North.”

Imagine a country where men prospect till they are seventy, with no fear of fever, fly, horse-sickness, or trouble from the natives—a country where food and water always taste good! He told me curious things about some fabled gold—the Eternal Mother-lode—out in the North, which is to humble the pride of Nome. And yet, so vast is the Empire, he had never heard the name of Johannesburg!

As the train swung round the shores of Lake Superior the talk swung over to Wheat. Oh yes, men said, there were mines in the country—they were only at the beginning of mines—but that part of the world existed to clean and grade and handle and deliver the Wheat by rail and steamer. The track was being duplicated by a few hundred miles to keep abreast of the floods of it. By and by it might be a four-track road. They were only at the beginning. Meantime here was the Wheat sprouting, tender green, a foot high, among a hundred sidings where it had spilled from the cars; there were the high-shouldered, tea-caddy grain-elevators to clean, and the hospitals to doctor the Wheat; here was new, gaily painted machinery going forward to reap and bind and thresh the Wheat, and all those car-loads of workmen had been slapping down more sidings against the year’s delivery of the Wheat.

Two towns stand on the shores of the lake less than a mile apart. What Lloyd’s is to shipping, or the College of Surgeons to medicine, that they are to the Wheat. Its honour and integrity are in their hands; and they hate each other with the pure, poisonous, passionate hatred which makes towns grow. If Providence wiped out one of them, the survivor would pine away and die—a mateless hate-bird. Some day they must unite, and the question of the composite name they shall then carry already vexes them. A man there told me that Lake Superior was “a useful piece of water,” in that it lay so handy to the C.P.R. tracks. There is a quiet horror about the Great Lakes which grows as one revisits them. Fresh water has no right or call to dip over the horizon, pulling down and pushing up the hulls of big steamers; no right to tread the slow, deep-sea dance-step between wrinkled cliffs; nor to roar in on weed and sand beaches between vast headlands that run out for leagues into haze and sea-fog. Lake Superior is all the same stuff as what towns pay taxes for, but it engulfs and wrecks and drives ashore, like a fully accredited ocean—a hideous thing to find in the heart of a continent. Some people go sailing on it for pleasure, and it has produced a breed of sailors who bear the same relation to the salt-water variety as a snake-charmer does to a lion-tamer.

Yet it is undoubtedly a useful piece of water.