Winter Life in Quebec
( Originally Published 1907 )
A FAIR American visitor to Quebec last Summer said to me, "How do you manage to live here in Winter?" "Madam", I replied with mock gravity, "as soon as the last tourist has departed, we all take to the woods, build ourselves igloes and go into hibernation. We do this because of the scarcity of Americans, upon whom we mainly subsist, but we're going to change all that by bringing the American here in winter. No igloe hibernation once they arrive."
"Really," she answered, "come to think of it, I have been devoured with kindness since my arrival, and if a winter visit should have half the warmth of welcome that has made my summer stay so agreeable I'll come back next winter to get thawed out the first cold spell we have in New York."
From a residence now of sixteen years in Quebec, I dare the statement that it is now the most alive little city on the continent in the winter season. When the last ship goes down to the sea at the end of November, and the first big snow storm has covered the ground to a depth of five or six inches, the city and country awaken to a new life. With the close of navigation much of the commercial activity of the city ceases and people give themselves up to the enjoyment of the winter with the ardor of children let loose for a long holiday. The clear cold begets outdoor activity, and the amusements of the day and night are mainly those that take men and women into the open air.
The little low red cariole with its high back and great piles of rich warm furs, drawn by a tough little Canadian horse, gaily bedecked with bright ribbons and bells, is very much in evidence at all hours. If it is Darby and Joan, Darby drives while Joan nestles alongside with her pretty pink cheeks and bright eyes alone visible amidst the fur wraps. Age relinquishes the reins to the cocher who is a gorgeous spectacle in a very tall long black fur hat and a huge cape of the same fur. He sits in front on a high seat that is called the knifeboard. The cabbies in Quebec are famous for their superb winter turnouts, as well as for their historical romances, which they rattle off to all newcomers as historical truths. Coachy pulls up before the Wolfe Monument and pointing to it with his whip, say, "Ere's where a 'ero fell." "You don't say so," replies his fare, an American, "did it hurt him?" "'Urt him!" answers coachy with an intonation of surprise, "why 'ell it killed 'im.
Closed rinks and open rinks with their brass bands claim the patronage of the skaters, of whom there are large numbers in the city. Quebecers are said to be the best skate waltzers in the world. Certainly there is no more enlivening sight than to sit in one of the comfortable furlined boxes at the rink, and watch two or three hundred young people dancing either a two-step or a waltz to the enlivening music of Mr. Vezina's well-trained band. Before leaving the rink a call is to be made at the quarters of the Curling Club, which has a connecting rink of its own. Here the roarin' game goes on for sixteen hours of the day. Unless some important match is being played the visitor is almost certain of the courtesy of a "stane." As a rule this is the undoing of the novice : He or she will want more and more, and take to haunting the rink to the exclusion of all else. It is one of the most fascinating games to either watch or play, and as noisy as you please to make it. Hockey is the young people's game, and the older folks, delight if one was to judge from the attendance and the enthusiasm of the latter on a match night. Nothing draws so well as hockey, and the announcement of a match between Montreal and Quebec creates quite a flutter of excitement. There is a good deal of rough play in the game at times, and when hockey sticks and heads get into collision it reminds one of a Donnybrook Fair. The lady spectators always enjoy this phase of the game.
We have dined with some American friends at the Chateau, and are discussing our cigars when we hear the sound of big drum and the pipes. We hastily don overcoats and caps and are just in time to see a Snowshoe Club pass by with lighted torches, snowshoes hung over backs. It is the club's march out to its club house, a few miles distant from the city. At the toll-bar, the city's limit, snowshoes will be strapped on and a course laid across fields to the rendezvous. We are to be the guests of the Club to-night, but we drive to the club-house, and arrive just as the fun is beginning. Our coming is the signal for "line up boys" from the president. In an instant thirty stalwart fellows. in club uniform form a double line and before my American friend real izes what is happening he is picked up, tossed up and sent down the line and then back again, stood upon his feet and then is calmly asked by the president how he likes it. "Gosh!" he exclaims breathlessly, " I must take time to think."
Banjos, mandolins and guitars are pulled out of their cases or bags, and a concert is in order. Songs, French and English, are sung with choruses by the crowd. "Rose au Bois" appears a favorite and is repeated.
Then comes "pie-crust," the invention of the club. It is worthy of its genius. A man stands with his face to the wall. A second embraces him, burying his head in the first man's shoulders. Another and another take grips until a long thin line extends well into the room, heads all well down and grips securely taken. Then, as in leap frog, from the far end of the room a man takes a run, puts his hands on the shoulders of the last man of the thin line, gets as far forward on it as he can, straddling and hanging on for grim death. Another and another fellow until by sheer weight the thin under line goes down, or the uppers topple off. And so the game is decided.' Light refreshments are served, and as the aurora flashes out of the north, snow-shoes are again put on, the pipes skreel, the big drum sounds a bang, and the march home is begun.
"Gosh!" again exclaims my American friend, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world,"
Quebec has a large number of snow-shoe clubs. Ladies are frequent guests of the clubs, and then an impromptu dance is in order.
Kent House sliding or tobogganing parties at Montmorenci Falls are also quite the vogue among Quebecers or the many winter visitors to the city. Mine host of the Kent House puts up an excellent dinner, for which the drive in the keen air of eight miles lends good appetite. From the verandah an excellent view of the slides is to be had as they are lighted by electricity. Turn in the other direction, and the Falls in the moonlight are beautiful beyond description.
Among the many interesting winter sights of Quebec are the open air markets, to which come the habitant women from miles around in their quaint berlines, with their still quainter looking loads. It is a strange assortment of paper flowers alongside of some strings of sausage ; home-made wool socks and mits strung over the back of a solidly frozen small pig which stands upon its feet as naturally as in life; turkey-gobblers perching beside hens and looking quite gallant, were it not that they are stripped of all but their tail feathers, hares white as snow and apparently ready for flight, but they too are frozen, and perch upon round white cakes which we discover is frozen milk. As the good dames who preside over these curious loads are French, all bargaining is con-ducted in that tongue, and as French vivacity never freezes, a market morning presents a pretty lively scene.
To quote from one of my own books, "The past is ever close to the present in this ancient strong-hold," or rather I should have said, the present is ever receding into the middle ages, and you are merely a spectator from some far-away Altruria. Convents, monasteries and churches jostle barrack and magazine, and the Citadel stands sentinel over them all. The call of trumpet, the roll of drums are answered by peels from bells of churches and convents and the chimes of gay cariole horses. Nuns in solemn sober procession, priests clad in soutane, monks in strange garb, soldiers in gay trappings, habitants in odd furs make up the street life of yore. Big guns and little guns, pyramids of shot and shell, massive walls and great stone gates, ditches and embankments recall the period of sieges, assaults, repulse and conquest. There is a confusion of little narrow dark streets that run up and down hill and round corners and bringing up abruptly against convent or barrack wall, or opening into vistas of a dazzling plain of snow with background of sombre spruce-clad mountains, or a long reach of the St. Lawrence with its great ice-floes moving up or down with the current. Over all, the brightest of winter suns and an unclouded blue sky. Quebec is certainly the most picturesque and interesting of northland cities.