Day followed day with duties and chores, and evening came upon them before they knew it. Rosalie had never “been so rested and happy.
“Especially,” said Mr. Pumblechook, ”be grateful to them which brought you up by hand … Joe always aided and comforted me when he could in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy if there was any. There being plenty of gravy today, he spooned into my plate at this point about half a pint,” read Rosalie.
“What a kind man Jo was,” said the little old lady. “He was right inside. I suppose millions of readers have loved Jo, and he’s more real to them than any man they ever met.”
“But old Pumblechook was a wind-bag,” said Rosalie. “There was a man in our village something like Pumblechook on a small scale.”
“There’s a man like Pumblechook in every village. He was a thorough humbug and a hypocrite. I’ve always wanted to slap him or stick him out on the end of the royals to tie down the gaskets, with the foot-ropes swaying under his feet and the sail rearing and flapping in half a gale of wind on the North Atlantic. That would have blown the hypocrisy out of him. But go on, go on, Rosalie. I like the sound of your voice.”
Rosalie read on for a page or two till some new topic struck the little old lady’s attention.
“You read clearly, Rosalie,” she said, “and place the emphasis in the right places.”
“I taught my pupils to read distinctly,” said Rosalie, “and so perhaps I learned myself. But you know in this little while I’ve been away from home and listened to other people, I hear in my voice a queer little upward lilt at the end of my sentences. Do you notice it?”
“Of course I do,” said the little old lady. “I’ve got an ear. But that is pleasant somehow. Everything is nice about you, Rosalie, I can’t find any fault in you. You’ve got what people call charm, and that’s a very lovely and a very dangerous thing to possess.”
“Have I?” laughed Rosalie. “You’re a flatterer. Well, perhaps I have a little but in another month I’d have lost it. I suppose that queer little lilt in my voice comes from the fact that I’m by nature a French speaker—not Parisian French, of course—and that my first language was French. I only began to learn English when I was eight or nine.”
“You can speak French, Rosalie?”
“Of course, and write it more correctly than I speak.”
The little old lady laughed aloud in her happiness: “I can speak French, too. I wasn’t born a French speaker, but I learned it in foreign ports. I had to learn it to help Mat, I’ll tell you all about that someday.”
“Oh, I’m glad, that will make us still better friends.”
I’ll tell you, Rosalie, after we get through with Mr. Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ we’ll read a French book together in French. Only you’ll have to read slowly at first for I’ve hardly heard a word of French in thirty years. I could rattle it off when I was twenty-five. Will we read a French book together?”
“They’re said to be very wicked,” said Rosalie.
“They are, I’ve read some terrible ones that the sailors brought aboard. The French are hipped on wine and women. Give a French sailor a bottle of wine and a fat cocotte and he asks for no more. But in fairness I ought to say that English sailors are like that, too, only the English drink rum. But there must be some decent French books that are not too sweet and namby-pamby, there must be somebody like a French Dickens.”
“Maybe,” said Rosalie, “Balzac perhaps, though the priest always advised young girls against his books.”
“Fie on the medicine men, they read these books themselves, and chuckle over them, only they don’t want you to know. Once long ago on the sea, I read a French book called ‘Les Miserables’. There were kind people in it. And another called ‘An Iceland Fisherman’. The people who wrote those were no fools or evil men. We could send away and get them.”
“Les Miserables is one of my favourites,” exclaimed Rosalie, “the story of the saintly bishop and the good convict. I have already read that twice. There’s no need to send away for a copy for I have it in my basket. It will be fun, we’ll be two scholars reading in a foreign language.”
“Yes, it’s great to know languages, I know a little of four, but I suppose the important thing is to be able to think correctly in one. Come now, we’re both such awful talkers the winter will be over before we get through with ‘Great Expectations’.”
In mid December deep snow came, two feet of shining snow, and the trees began to creak and groan and complain in the frost as if they needed oiling. It was beautiful without, but a bleak beauty as the snow swirled about in each gust of wind. The evening kitchen by comparison was cosier than ever.
Rosalie and the little old lady bundled up and shovelled wide tracks to barn, wood pile and spring hole. Now each day ice must be broken on the spring, for strange to say, a cow will never break the thinnest ice with her nose. It is good for cows to get the air once a day even in the coldest weather, at any rate that is what the little old lady told Rosalie. Cows and hens and pigs need fresh air, just like people, and the little old lady insisted on flinging the barn doors open for a little every day and then bedding the animals down in plenty of straw litter.
Rosalie stood at the window and looked out at the veil of snow that swirled in the wind, just as day was dying; “We’ll have to dig again tomorrow. The Snow God is filling up our paths and trenches. I believe he likes to tease us.”
“You have to use your arms and wits in this world. You can’t depend on miracles and snow doesn’t get dug “by thinking about it. I’m glad we don’t have to wade out to an outside toilet.”
“I am too,” said Rosalie, “I’ve had enough of that.”
“Your skin sticks fast to the seat on a frosty morning.”
“Oh, old lady, don’t let’s talk about it.”
“I won’t, Rosalie, but you know, Rosalie, sometimes coarse things are comical.”
“They certainly are,” said Rosalie, “and when they’re really comical and make you laugh they do no harm to anyone. I have heard that some women talk about coarser things than men when they’re by themselves.”
“Maybe they do, some. I’ve pumped those senoritas and madames no end in foreign ports. Once a woman slips down, she slips pretty far.
“I must tell you a little country story before we begin to read, if you think you can stand it.”
“I love your stories, little old lady.”
“Well, you see in the back country—not in our village—but in the backwoods, when I was a little girl the people had no toilets at all, neither indoors nor out, even many of the little hinterland schoolhouses had no outhouses, and men, women and children had to take to the woods or barns to perform their natural functions.”
“It must have been chilly in weather like this,” remarked Rosalie. “I never knew anything as bad as that.”
“It was chilly, bitter chilly, and quick they were about it I expect. Well, there was a long, lanky backwoodsman named Angus McGinnis, who lived on the North Range, and by some hook or crook he pulled himself out of the woods and went over to the States—perhaps he went as a sailor man and deserted in port—and there he learned the carpenter’s trade and married an American women. When he was over fifty and had saved some money, he inherited the rocky old homestead and came home with his family to live there. As soon as he got home he set about repairing and fixing up the old house and barn, and perhaps on the insistence of the American wife, he built himself an outdoor toilet, a toilet with five seats like steps, one large over-size for adults, one smaller for young men and women, one still smaller for growing boys and girls, one for children, and a tiny one for infants. What a talk that made in the backwoods countryside! Everyone laughed at him for bringing new Yankee ideas into the country, and one rustic wit named him, ‘Proud-ass McGinnis’.”
Rosalie had to break into laughter.
“And do you know, Rosalie, that name stuck to him until he died, and he died an old man, well over eighty. In fact, he became very proud of the name, and he made a will and asked to have ‘Proud-ass McGinnis’ carved on his grave stone, but the minister would have none of it.”
“Old Lady, it may be coarse but it’s comical,” said Rosalie, “especially when told by you. Things change slowly, don’t they, now everyone has toilets. Perhaps old Mr. McGinnis was a pioneer.”
“He was,” said the little old lady as she stuffed a piece of wood in the stove. “He was the true pioneer of the fancy outdoor toilet, and I’m the pioneer of the indoor toilet in these parts. It’s only a bit of a job pumping the tank.”
“Not much,” said Rosalie, “I can fill it in twenty minutes. But now, Old Lady, tell me some more about you and Mat on the sea—it seems more real somehow than even Mr. Dickens. You left me in mid-ocean on your way to Antwerp, staring at the Great Eastern.”
The little old lady settled herself back in her cushioned rocking chair, began to rock gently and sway a little as if with the movement of a ship. “We had no great excitement that I remember after we passed the Great Eastern, but I decided as soon as I got my sea legs that I was going to learn all I could about a ship, so I could be Mat’s partner and helper. That’s what a wise woman does, she becomes a partner to her man.
“Everyday when I went on deck I got Mat or the first mate to teach me something, the names of spars and yards and sails and sheets, braces and halyards, upper and lower top-sails, t’gallant, royals, sky sails, studding sails—though we were close-hauled all the time on that voyage and you only carry studding sails when you’re running free—stay sails, spanker, jibs. Of course, I had known some of these things from the time when I was a girl, for I’d grown up in a ship-building village where everybody talked ships. But I didn’t know much about rigging for while they built and launched the hulls above the bridge, they always towed them down to deep tide-water to ship the spars and set the yards. Do you know that conundrum, Rosalie, ‘Why is a ship called she?’ ”
“No,” said Rosalie, “but I can try to guess. I always like conundrums. I suppose it’s something improper.”
“Because she’s a hooker?” ventured Rosalie.
“Because she’s got braces. Oh no, that would be a man. Perhaps because she can’t keep straight without ballast.”
“Not bad, but that’s not the answer. It’s because her rigging is worth more than her hull.”
“That’s what men say,” laughed Rosalie.
“Then I began to peer into the binnacle over the steersman’s shoulder, to see what course he was holding her on. A little north of west we sailed on, close-hauled, day after day. So one night in the cabin Mat said to me, ‘You’d better learn the compass points, Kitty, and he gave me a card and I set to work. It only took me a couple of days to master it and learn it thoroughly, and I sang it off to Mat even as I can sing it to you, for anything thoroughly learned, in youth is rarely forgotten. North, north by east, north northeast, northeast by north, northeast . . .
“Mat laughed, when I had gone clear round, the circle, ‘we’ll make a sailor man of you yet, Kitty. I’ll have to buy you some dungarees and sea boots,’ said he. Oh, we were so happy on that first voyage across the rough Atlantic, so happy in the little kingdom we ruled all by ourselves. Men and women should have common adventures together. We had no trouble with our crew for they were all Nova Scotians, mostly local boys, who knew that Mat was a first-class sailor man. Then one day on deck, when I was peeping and peering into the binnacle, Mat said to the steersman, a boy from home: ‘Let Kitty, I mean the Missus, take the wheel for a minute.’ What a thrill to hold a big ship on her course, with all sail set and a fresh wind blowing. The sails slap, the spars bend, the wind sings through the rigging, white-capped rollers push past, and the great ship plunges through the waters, till the staring figurehead is buried in foam above its breasts. Of course, Mat kept one hand on me and one hand on the wheel spokes, too. For when you begin to steer a ship, you steer too much, just as I’ve heard a person does in learning to drive a car. You can’t hold her all the time on the lubber’s line, that’s the black mark up and down the fixed case of the compass, that’s supposed to line up with the ship’s stem. You can’t hold her exactly on the lubber line, you can only manage an average of the course. Do you understand this, Rosalie?”
“Nearly all. You see I grew up among boats and fishermen, but they don’t pay much attention to compasses. They go by local marks, and coming home in the fog they know where they are when Mother Carey’s Chickens leave them. They always trail the fishing boats.”
“It sounds like the rule of early Nova Scotian navigation. You sail due south till the butter’s used up and then steer west and hit Trinidad.”
“You’ll have to teach me the compass, said. Rosalie. Maybe I’ll end up on a ship.”
“They steer by degrees now I hear. No, you won’t end up on a ship, though you’ll cross a great sea and you’ll be clad in white.”
“Goodness, Old lady,” said Rosalie, “you give me goose-flesh all over when you turn prophetess.”
“Old people, very old people like me, who have lived life, can see both backwards and forwards. Time, as we measure it in our poor way, is just a matter of watches and clocks and the sun coming up, and that’s a fraud too, for the sun doesn’t come up at all, instead the earth turns on its own axis. Come now, it’s getting late, a game of rummy and then to bed. You’re getting too good, Rosalie, you’ve made twenty-five cents off me in the 1ast two nights.”