Letters to the Family VI

The Fortunate Towns

by Rudyard Kipling

AFTER Politics, let us return to the Prairie which is the High Veldt, plus Hope, Activity, and Reward. Winnipeg is the door to it—a great city in a great plain, comparing herself, innocently enough, to other cities of her acquaintance, but quite unlike any other city.

When one meets, in her own house, a woman not seen since girlhood she is all a stranger till some remembered tone or gesture links up to the past, and one cries: “It is you after all.” But, indeed, the child has gone; the woman with her influences has taken her place. I tried vainly to recover the gawky, graceless city I had known, so unformed and so insistent on her shy self. I even ventured to remind a man of it. “I remember,” he said, smiling, “but we were young then. This thing,” indicating an immense perspective of asphalted avenue that dipped under thirty railway tracks, “only came up in the last ten years—practically the last five. We’ve had to enlarge all those warehouses yonder by adding two or three stories to ’em, and we’ve hardly begun to go ahead yet. We’re just beginning.”

Warehouses, railway-sidings, and such are only counters in the White Man’s Game, which can be swept up and re-dealt as the play varies. It was the spirit in the thin dancing air—the new spirit of the new city—which rejoiced me. Winnipeg has Things in abundance, but has learned to put them beneath her feet, not on top of her mind, and so is older than many cities. None the less the Things had to be shown—for what shopping is to the woman showing off his town is to the right-minded man. First came the suburbs—miles on miles of the dainty, clean-outlined, wooden-built houses, where one can be so happy and so warm, each unjealously divided from its neighbour by the lightest of boundaries. One could date them by their architecture, year after year, back to the Early ’Nineties, which is when civilisation began; could guess within a few score dollars at their cost and the incomes of their owners, and could ask questions about the new domestic appliances of to-day.

“Asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks came up a few years ago,” said our host as we trotted over miles of it. “We found it the only way to fight the prairie mud. Look!” Where the daring road ended, there lay unsubdued, level with the pale asphalt, the tenacious prairie, over which civilisation fought her hub-deep way to the West. And with asphalt and concrete they fight the prairie back every building season. Next came the show-houses, built by rich men with an eye to the honour and glory of their city, which is the first obligation of wealth in a new land.

We twisted and turned among broad, clean, tree-lined, sunlit boulevards and avenues, all sluiced down with an air that forbade any thought of fatigue, and talked of city government and municipal taxation, till, in a certain silence, we were shown a suburb of uncared-for houses, shops, and banks, whose sides and corners were rubbed greasy by the shoulders of loafers. Dirt and tin cans lay about the street. Yet it was not the squalor of poverty so much as the lack of instinct to keep clean. One race prefers to inhabit there.

Next a glimpse of a cold, white cathedral, red-brick schools almost as big (thank goodness!) as some convents; hospitals, institutions, a mile or so of shops, and then a most familiar-feeling lunch at a Club which would have amazed my Englishman at Montreal, where men, not yet old, talked of Fort Garry as they remembered it, and tales of the founding of the city, of early administrative shifts and accidents, mingled with the younger men’s prophecies and frivolities.

There are a few places still left where men can handle big things with a light touch, and take more for granted in five minutes than an Englishman at home could puzzle out in a year. But one would not meet many English at a lunch in a London club who took the contract for building London Wall or helped bully King John into signing Magna Charta.

I had two views of the city—one on a gray day from the roof of a monster building, whence it seemed to overflow and fill with noises the whole vast cup of the horizon; and still, all round its edge, jets of steam and the impatient cries of machinery showed it was eating out into the Prairie like a smothered fire.

The other picture was a silhouette of the city’s flank, mysterious as a line of unexplored cliffs, under a sky crimson—barred from the zenith to the ground, where it lay, pale emerald behind the uneven ramparts. As our train halted in the last of the dusk, and the rails glowed dull red, I caught the deep surge of it, and seven miles across the purple levels saw the low, restless aurora of its lights. It is rather an awesome thing to listen to a vanguard of civilisation talking to itself in the night in the same tone as a thousand-year-old city.

All the country hereabouts is riddled with railways for business and pleasure undreamed of fifteen years ago, and it was a long time before we reached the clear prairie of air and space and open land. The air is different from any air that ever blew; the space is ampler than most spaces, because it runs back to the unhampered Pole, and the open land keeps the secret of its magic as closely as the sea or the desert.

People here do not stumble against each other around corners, but see largely and tranquilly from a long way off what they desire, or wish to avoid, and they shape their path accordingly across the waves, and troughs, and tongues, and dips and fans of the land.

When mere space and the stoop of the high sky begin to overwhelm, earth provides little ponds and lakes, lying in soft-flanked hollows, where people can step down out of the floods of air, and delight themselves with small and known distances. Most of the women I saw about the houses were down in the hollows, and most of the men were on the crests and the flats. Once, while we halted a woman drove straight down at us from the sky-line, along a golden path between black ploughed lands. When the horse, who managed affairs, stopped at the cars, she nodded mysteriously, and showed us a very small baby in the hollow of her arm. Doubtless she was some exiled Queen flying North to found a dynasty and establish a country. The Prairie makes everything wonderful.

They were threshing the wheat on both sides or the track as far as the eye could see. The smoke of the machines went up in orderly perspective alongside the mounds of chaff—thus: a machine, a house, a mound of chaff, a stretch of wheat in stocks—and then repeat the pattern over the next few degrees of longitude. We ran through strings of nearly touching little towns, where I remembered an occasional shack; and through big towns once represented by a name-board, a siding, and two troopers of the North-West Police. In those days men proved that Wheat would not grow north of some fool’s line, or other, or, if it did, that no one would grow it. And now the Wheat was marching with us as far as the eye could reach; the railways were out, two, three hundred miles north, peopling a new wheat country; and north of that again the Grand Trunk was laying down a suburban extension of a few thousand miles across the Continent, with branches perhaps to Dawson City, certainly to Hudson Bay.

“Come north and look!” cried the Afrites of the Railway. “You’re only on the fringe of it here.” I preferred to keep the old road, and to gape at miracles accomplished since my day. The old, false-fronted, hollow-stomached Western hotels were gone; their places filled by five-storey brick or stone ones, with Post Offices to match. Occasionally some overlooked fragment of the past still cleaved to a town, and marked it for an old acquaintance, but often one had to get a mile away and look back on a place—as one holds a palimpsest up against the light—to identify the long overlaid lines of the beginnings. Each town supplied the big farming country behind it, and each town school carried the Union Jack on a flagstaff in its playground. So far as one could understand, the scholars are taught neither to hate, nor despise, nor beg from, their own country.

I whispered to a man that I was a little tired of a three days’ tyranny of Wheat, besides being shocked at farmers who used clean bright straw for fuel, and made bonfires of their chaff-hills. “You’re ’way behind the times,” said he. “There’s fruit and dairying and any quantity of mixed farming going forward all around—let alone irrigation further West. Wheat’s not our only king by a long sight. Wait till you strike such and such a place.” It was there I met a prophet and a preacher in the shape of a Commissioner of the Local Board of Trade (all towns have them), who firmly showed me the vegetables which his district produced. They were vegetables too—all neatly staged in a little kiosk near the station.

I think the pious Thomas Tusser would have loved that man. “Providence,” said he, shedding pamphlets at every gesture, “did not intend everlasting Wheat in this section. No, sir! Our business is to keep ahead of Providence—to meet her with mixed farming. Are you interested in mixed farming? Psha! Too bad you missed our fruit and vegetable show. It draws people together, mixed farming does. I don’t say Wheat is narrowing to the outlook, but I claim there’s more sociability and money in mixed farming. We’ve been hypnotised by Wheat and Cattle. Now—the cars won’t start yet awhile—I’ll just tell you my ideas.”

For fifteen glorious minutes he gave me condensed essence of mixed farming, with excursions into sugar-beet (did you know they are making sugar in Alberta?), and he talked of farmyard muck, our dark mother of all things, with proper devotion.

“What we want now,” he cried in farewell, “is men—more men. Yes, and women.”

They need women sorely for domestic help, to meet the mad rush of work at harvest time—maids who will help in house, dairy, and chicken-run till they are married.

A steady tide sets that way already; one contented settler recruiting others from England; but if a tenth of that energy wasted on “social reform” could be diverted to decently thought out and supervised emigration work (“Labour” does not yet object to people working on the land) we might do something worth talking about. The races which work and do not form Committees are going into the country at least as fast as ours. It makes one jealous and afraid to watch aliens taking, and taking honestly, so much of this treasure of good fortune and sane living.

There was a town down the road which I had first heard discussed nigh twenty years ago by a broken-down prospector in a box-car. “Young feller,” said he, after he had made a professional prophecy, “you’ll hear of that town if you live. She’s born lucky.”

I saw the town later—it was a siding by a trestle bridge where Indians sold beadwork—and as years passed I gathered that the old tramp’s prophecy had come true, and that Luck of some kind had struck the little town by the big river. So, this trip, I stopped to make sure. It was a beautiful town of six thousand people, and a railway junction, beside a high-girdered iron bridge; there was a public garden with trees at the station. A company of joyous men and women, whom that air and that light, and their own goodwill, made our brothers and sisters, came along in motors, and gave us such a day as never was.

“What about the Luck?” I asked.

“Heavens!” said one. “Haven’t you heard about our natural gas—the greatest natural gas in the world? Oh, come and see!”

I was whirled off to a roundhouse full of engines and machinery-shops, worked by natural gas which comes out of the earth, smelling slightly of fried onions, at a pressure of six hundred pounds, and by valves and taps is reduced to four pounds. There was Luck enough to make a metropolis. Imagine a city’s heating and light—to say nothing of power—laid on at no greater expense than that of piping!

“Are there any limits to the possibilities of it?” I demanded.

“Who knows? We’re only at the beginning. We’ll show you a brick-making plant, out on the prairie, run by gas. But just now we want to show you one of our pet farms.”

Away swooped the motors, like swallows, over roads any width you please, and up on to what looked like the High Veldt itself. A Major of the Mounted Police, who had done a year at the (Boer) war, told us how the ostrich-farm fencing and the little meercats sitting up and racing about South Africa had made him homesick for the sight of the gophers by the wayside, and the endless panels of wire fencing along which we rushed. (The Prairie has nothing to learn from the Veldt about fencing, or tricky gates.)

“After all,” said the Major, “there’s no country to touch this. I’ve had thirty years of it—from one end to the other.”

Then they pointed out all the quarters of the horizon—say, fifty miles wherever you turned—and gave them names.

The show farmer had taken his folk to church, but we friendly slipped through his gates and reached the silent, spick-and-span house, with its trim barn, and a vast mound of copper-coloured wheat, piled in the sun between two mounds of golden chaff. Every one thumbed a sample of it and passed judgment—it must have been worth a few hundred golden sovereigns as it lay, out on the veldt—and we sat around, on the farm machinery, and, in the hush that a shut-up house always imposes, we seemed to hear the lavish earth getting ready for new harvests. There was no true wind, but a push, as it were, of the whole crystal atmosphere.

“Now for the brickfield!” they cried. It was many miles off. The road fed by a never-to-be-forgotten drop, to a river broad as the Orange at Norval’s Pont, rustling between mud hills. An old Scotchman, in the very likeness of Charon, with big hip boots, controlled a pontoon, which sagged back and forth by current on a wire rope. The reckless motors bumped on to this ferry through a foot of water, and Charon, who never relaxed, bore us statelily across the dark, broad river to the further bank, where we all turned to look at the lucky little town, and discuss its possibilities.

“I think you can see it best from here,” said one.

“No, from here,” said another, and their voices softened on the very name of it.

Then for an hour we raced over true prairie, great yellow-green plains crossed by old buffalo trails, which do not improve motor springs, till a single chimney broke the horizon like a mast at sea; and thereby were more light-hearted men and women, a shed and a tent or two for workmen, the ribs and frames of the brick-making mechanism, a fifteen foot square shaft sunk, sixty foot down to the clay, and, stark and black, the pipe of a natural-gas well. The rest was Prairie—the mere curve of the earth—with little grey birds calling.

I thought it could not have been simpler, more audacious or more impressive, till I saw some women in pretty frocks go up and peer at the hissing gas-valves.

“We fancied that it might amuse you,” said all those merry people, and between laughter and digressions they talked over projects for building, first their own, and next other cities, in brick of all sorts; giving figures of output and expenses of plant that made one gasp. To the eye the affair was no more than a novel or delicious picnic. What it actually meant was a committee to change the material of civilisation for a hundred miles around. I felt as though I were assisting at the planning of Nineveh; and whatever of good comes to the little town that was born lucky I shall always claim a share.

But there is no space to tell how we fed, with a prairie appetite, in the men’s quarters, on a meal prepared by an artist; how we raced home at speeds no child could ever hear of, and no grown-up should attempt; how the motors squattered at the ford, and took pot-shots at the pontoon till even Charon smiled; how great horses hauled the motors up the gravelly bank into the town; how there we met people in their Sunday best, walking and driving, and pulled ourselves together, and looked virtuous; and how the merry company suddenly and quietly evanished because they thought that their guests might be tired. I can give you no notion of the pure, irresponsible frolic of it—of the almost affectionate kindness, the gay and inventive hospitality that so delicately controlled the whole affair—any more than I can describe a certain quiet half-hour in the dusk just before we left, when the company gathered to say good-bye, while young couples walked in the street, and the glare of the never-extinguished natural-gas lamps coloured the leaves of the trees a stage green.

It was a woman, speaking out of the shadow, who said, what we all felt, “You see, we just love our town,”

“So do we,” I said, and it slid behind us.