HAVING met some notable
woman, Queen or Court lady, and been charmed by her graciousness, and
having recounted some of the qualities which are component of that
grace, one's thoughts turn naturally to memory of her adorning jewels.
It is like that with Quebec.
jewels are Les lies de Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The
earliest French navigators seeing the islands for the first time were so
impressed with their beauty, they called them, in the poetic language so
natural to those gentlemen-explorers of the sixteenth century, "The
Necklace". Time has substantiated the courtly compliment. For that is
just what they are— Canada's "Necklace of Pearls" on the bosom of the
The pearls of the
Necklace are small, and there are not many of them, only six or seven in
all, but each is of the finest quality, handsomely strung together on
long threads of creamy sea sand— embryo pearls-to-be perhaps—circling to
partly enclose an indicated rather than attained roadstead where
navigation may find a little shelter from the fury that at times strides
about the Gulf.
The Madeleine Islands,
though in the path of passing ships, are seldom approached directly
except by the staunch little sea-boat of the "Pro Patria", "Lady Sybil",
or "Amelia" type, that once a week brings and takes the mails, freight
and such passengers as chance affords.
The "Amelia" is a
rugged character, a wayward "bird of passage", at one with the unbroken
spirit of the Islands she serves. We do not know what Madeleine would do
without her. Variations which she chooses to make in the matter of
"first ports of call" on the weather wisdom of her skipper, but add to
the charm of voyaging in her to these remote objectives.
Coming thus to the "Magdalens"
from Pictou, it is in the early morning, when the summer sun tips above
the Eastern horizon of waters, that one beholds the first speck of land.
Unfolding before you as the Amelia proceeds, a curiously rounded beehive
hill appears above a stretch of land tapering to a long sand-spit edged
with curling sea-wrack. Approaching yet nearer, other fair, rounded,
treeless hills complement the first. These hills, exclamatory remarks of
fellow passengers soon enlighten one, are "Les Demoiselles". They, with
the sand-bars, miles in length, are the chief physical characteristics,
as it later turns out, of these remote islands.
Then, after coasting
miles along, the Amelia picks up an opening between a sand-bar and an
island and comes alongside the Government pier at Havre Aubert on
Pleasant Bay, Amherst Island.
Of course, we "put up"
at Shea's Hotel. It sounds very commonplace, as names go, but Shea's is
the heart of the Madeleines. The proprietors are three, (or is it four?)
unmarried sisters of what may be briefly summed up as "the land-mark
type". Their father before them kept a cottage boarding-house, so the
past is theirs as well as every detail of present-day island life. In
addition to her work at the "hotel", Miss Mary keeps a little shop on
the shingle between Mount Gridley and Amherst and Miss Johanna, beside
bringing the palatable food from the kitchen to the table, is the
"Shea's", too, is the
rendezvous of all the "drummers'' of Canadian trade on these islands. So
that although the Islands have no newspapers, one is here in daily touch
with a remarkable ebb and flow of world news, all the more vivid and
impressive because of the dramatic, human touches which each raconteur
puts into the telling.
But the Madeleines are
places where the out-of-doors is constantly offering attractions to win
one to wander near and far. The views everywhere reward one's walks.
There is, too, a daily excuse to hunt mushrooms on the smooth rounded
hills and grassy cliffs which few find themselves able to resist. In
this intimate way one comes to know La Demoiselle.
La Demoiselle appeals
to the imagination. It is one of those rare spots which remains a
high-light of memory. One never forgets climbing over it, following the
sheep-paths, feasting on its insular and marine outlook, or watching the
rare sunsets, almost tropical in their richness, which are the lord of
the day's parting salute to these sea children.
"La Demoiselle" was the
expressive name given this hill by those same early French adventurers
who first called the whole group the "Necklace". They had the
imagination and fancy which pictured the land as a woman, and these fair
hills, as the pulsing breasts of the sea-maiden sunning herself, with
her sand-spit body awash in the waves. O Canadian sculptor behold a
"figure" to hand in Les Madeleines.
Not the least
attractive feature of the scenery are the ashesof-roses colours acquired
by some parts of the cliffs, especially those west of la Demoiselle.
These colours are wonderfully effective when, contrasted against the
gray sea, or the velvet greenness of the cliff grass. It was while
rambling along these cliffs a few summers ago that Seumas O'Brien,
author and sculptor, happened by chance upon an outcropping of clay of
so fine a nature that he later took some back with him to "Shea's" and
there, in a little studio improvised in the vacant cottage that was the
former hotel, he soon had several charming "figures" to his credit,
among them, "The Head of a Child" and "An Irish Troubadour", one of
those quaint Irish figures of village and road who entertain with
stories to the accompaniment of an old fiddle.
The inhabitants of the
Madeleines are of Acadian-French descent. The life which centres in the
scattered cottages reveals unspoiled the Acadian spinning-wheel, the
ponderous loom, and handicraft that takes the raw wool direct from the
sheep's back grazing out in the eye of the wind on Les Demoiselles, and
converts it into homespun garment, sock, or tapis.
The handiwork of the
Madeleine spinners and weavers reaches its highest achievement in the
catalogue or bedspread. Not alone is the work fine but the favourite
white ground forms just the right contrast needed to bring out the sweet
colours employed in the motif. Not even in the heart of Quebec have we
seen any weaving to compare with these catalogues of the Madeleines.
They catch added character, it often seems, from the looms on which they
are made. At Havre Maison, on Alright Island, we once happened on a
Madame weaving at an old loom made from the flotsam and jetsam pieces of
wood which had at different times been salvaged from the sea—here an
upright out of an old mast, there a bar from a broken oar. Madame, with
shuttle from the same source, rudely shaped, in her hand, was working as
under the fire of inspiration, her bobbins and wools all scattered about
her on boxes and on the floor, the while the attic window by which she
sat looked out upon the barachois or lagoon enclosed by sand, and beyond
that to the far-stretching gray waters of the Gulf.
In Left lies de
Madeleine, catalogues and tapis are heirlooms. Once at Grindstone Island
an old gentleman seeing our interest in these fruits of the Island
looms, bade his daughter take us into the attic and show us those which
his mother had made. There were several sea chests full. And each was of
sufficient beauty to justify the old gentleman's pride in them.
Wool is an
indispensable raw material in the home economy of the housewives whom
circumstances have set down on these islands so far removed from marts
of the "ready-made". That is largely the reason why so many sheep are
seen everywhere, there being seldom a family but owns one or more. And
what fine, clean wool it is! And what excellent flavoured mutton comes
to the Shea table via a boat-market from Entry Island.
The chief industry of
the Madeleines is mackerel fishing, with cod running it a closc second,
and lobstering employing a number of old-timers whose day of fishing is
The waters about the
Madeleines are the magnets of sealers in the Spring. But it is mackerel
which chiefly magnetizes the life and sketches the characters especially
clinker-built, skiff-like boats are here, boats with long and graceful
lines, eager in sailing but of sufficient "beam" to carry the "catch".
These harbour in haven-pools which seem to have been scooped out of the
waves for just such a purpose. One of these little harbours is called La
Bassin, a name which speaks for itself.
The waters about the
Madeleines have a curious way of throwing up a sand-bar some distance
away from, and parallel with, the beach itself, between the bar and the
beach there being a long strip of water of differing widths. This lagoon
is called a barachois, and each island seems to have at least one of
these. The mackereling appears to centre around the Barachois, perhaps
because there is something in the set of the Gulf currents which brings
the marine food of the mackerel in their direction, or because the
mackerel-boat, with the Barachois behind her, is never without a way of
retreat in case of being overtaken by a squall. So, wishing to catch the
atmosphere, one has to go down to the Barachois at dusk when the boats
begin to come in. Then are seen women coming from all directions in
their two-wheeled island-carts with flashing lanterns casting a flare
and flicker of light, now brilliant, now dim to extinguishment, as the
horses step into a rut or sink in the yielding sand.
The boats, one or two
at a time, come hurrying in from the Barachois, unstepping their masts
and sails and simultaneously burying their bows in the wet and heavy
sand of the landwash. Then is witnessed, a spirited bit of action to be
seen nowhere else in Canada. The women pass the supper they have brought
to the men, and while these hungrily consume their evening meal on the
sands, Mesdames having taken the horses out of the carts, hook the
traces on to the boats and before M'sieu can come to their aid, first
one and then another has "clucked" to her horses, the reins in the
strong hands are taut, the horses are straining and floundering in the
shifting sand, madame or sturdy demoiselle skillfully keeping her own
feet and admonishing "les chevals" with a commanding "Marche done!"
"Marche done!" which would make any horse obey. Thus is attained the
lively progression of the boat up the beach, to the appointed place of
safety above the reach of the high tide, however angrily, through the
night waves may curl and foam.
If you come here in the
early morning, as many as sixty or seventy boats stand gunwale to
gunwale on different parts of the long beach, answering the roll call of
a great industry.
But it is on the north
shore of Amherst, about the sand bar joining Amherst with Grindstone and
partly enclosing Basque Harbour, that one sees still other groups and
figures essentially of the Madeleines. Women and children, horses and
carts, and dog-carts here appear far out from land, afoot in the low
water that washes for miles the undersea sandbanks. Women and children
and lassies with Breton caps, stand ankle-deep in the water with
hand-made three-pronged forks, like the trident of a sea-god, in hand,
digging and digging clams for bait, piling them into the receiving
baskets and pails, and thence into the waiting carts—the carts in which
island horses doze between the shafts, the rising tide lapping their
fetlocks. It is a rare sight this clam-digging in the Madeleine
barachois! And so far as we know one not duplicated anywhere in America.
It occurs only at low-tide and it is therefore possible to pass any
number of times at full tide and not see anything of it. But should it
once be chanced upon, it will never be forgotten. Never was there a
"piece" with so much atmosphere and action. While the tide is still
ebbing the women wade far out to the edge of the clam line and begin
their uncovering of the mollusc harvest. Even after the tide turns and
begins to come in, they still hold their own with a bold front,
retreating a few inches only, at a time. Atmospheric indeed is the
effect produced by all these people, the horses in the two-wheeled
carts, and the tiny dog-carts, when they are half shrouded in a soft wet
fog creeping in from sea. Then it is as though Nature wished to
reiterate that 'tis she who is the Great Artist, composing Aquamarines
that no mere human artist can ever hope to touch.
Sometimes the low tide
happens at night. And at dusk one meets the women driving in their
carts, the lighted lanterns beside them, lanterns which later in the
evening will appear to one looking off to the barachois like so many
amphibious fire-flies dancing above the waves and lighting up the
restless waters and the night gloom with a ghastly flare.
This night-scene is of
even rarer quality than that screened by the day. Certainly this is
exclusively a Madeleine canvas.
But the clamming is a
serious industry. On it hangs the success or failure of the
mackerel-fishing. Only so can M'sieu start out in the little boat early
in the morning to fish. Only so can the "Mackerel from the Madeleines"
arrive in Halifax to keep busy caulkers and brine-boys, and keep flowing
the stream of Canadian export trade in fish.
But not until one
passes on the highway at Grindstone some morning when it is too rough
for the "Amelia" to make her call at Etang du Nord, and mets the
procession of island-carts with their loads of barrels going overland to
the public wharf on the lea-side of the island, does one carry any idea
of the vast number of "Number Ones" which actually go out from here to
Halifax, and thence, to the tables of the world.
It is on "shipping
days" that one realizes that Madeleine, no less than Evangeline, is a
sport, risking all her business success on the turn of the "barrel".
But fish is
everywhere—a summer trade. And summers pass all too swiftly. It is in
winter that Madeleine is thrown in upon herself; cut off from the world
by the ice for six months of the year.
It is then the Mesdames
of the islands—Amherst, Grindstone, Alright, Coffin, Grosse lie and
Entry—settle down to the loom, take the old spinning wheels between
their knees; and make the Catalognes, the Catalognes, the equals of
which are seen nowhere else in all Quebec. It is in winter the island-artizans
choose and blend the colours that make the prettiest "couverts" to use
and to lay away in the old sea-chests.
In winter, spinning by
the window, madame looks out upon long endless stretches of
ice-imprisoned sea, solid masses of the Gulf ice that closes navigation
and separates herself and family from habitant families ashore. Yet
because "the Sea" is in their blood not one of these Islanders would
change places with the people ashore. "What of adventure," inquire they,
"is there in inland lives compared with ours, literally held in the
sea's hand? Main, non." The Amelia makes her last trip a few days before
Christmas. But even so, although no one can get off the islands after
that, news still comes and goes by way of the Telegraph Cable and "Miss
Johanna" becomes a figure in the limelight, as operator.
Lying to the North and
somewhat apart from the main pearls of "The Necklace" are "The Bird
On the largest of these
a lighthouse stands, an aid to navigation. It is a very lonely spot and
no one except the lighthouse keeper and his family live there. But these
desolate rocks have a claim on Romance through the thousands of wild
sea-birds, who in summer make them their habitat and nesting-place.
These seabirds, chiefly the beautiful cafe au lait coloured gannet, have
three major haunts in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, at these "Bird Rocks",
at Perce Rock and at Bonaventure Island off the Perce-Gaspe shore.
The first signs of
human life the lighthouse keeper sees in the spring are brought by the
Sealing ships coming into the Gulf after seals that frequent the ice
Usually the keeper of
the Bird Rock Light is a Madeleiner from Grindstone or House Harbour.
Once, spending a week at Havre Maison we boarded with a widow whose
husband had been a keeper of this lighthouse. Graphic indeed were her
tales of the weirdness, loneliness and yet fascination of the life. She
told, too, what happiness was theirs on seeing the first birds coming in