A Good Old Times Winter in Quebec
( Originally Published 1907 )
THE only real outlet from Quebec in winter in the "good old times" was by diligence or private sleigh along the shores of the St. Lawrence to Montreal. This involved a journey of several days duration in favorable weather, and of unknown length of time should an Easterly snowstorm prevail. Should the traveller's journeying take him into the Eastern Townships the St. Lawrence must be crossed, and if there wag no ice-bridge, he abandoned himself to the care of some hardy canoeman with a fervent prayer that no worse fate than a ducking in the icy waters of the river would be his. After much battling with the floes of ice driven about by tide and wind, a landing might be effected on the opposite shores either up or down the river, and the half-frozen traveller consigned to some benevolent habitant to thaw out and place upon his road. Sessions of Parliament were opened in November and lasted until March. Many of the legislators came to Quebec just before the close of navigation in their own bateaux or schooners, and, with a prudent economy, lived aboard their craft, which were moored in the St. Charles about where the Lake St. John R.R. station now is. They brought their own provisions and firewood with them and there they remained until navigation opened in the spring. They dressed in the homespun of the country, smoked their clay pipes, and drank large quantities of rum. Possessed of good hard sense, legislation suffered little at their hands, and they took time to it.
The Governor gave large state balls and dinners at the Chateau, quarreled with the legislature to keep his liver active, organized tandem drives to tilt- Falls of Montmorency, and patronized private theatricals gotten up among the officers of the garrison. These latter gentlemen, to while away the tedium of the long winter, showed themselves possessed of a rare ingenuity for extracting amusement from the situation. Sir John Sherbrooke thus questions a young officer of engineers who has been reported to him :
"So sir, you're there are you? I understand that you sat up very late last night, sir, and you and your riotous companions were disturbing all the people by your mad pranks. How comes it, sir, that you whitewashed the undertaker's hearse, and his horse too, and how dare you, sir, shave the tail of one of his black horses, and go and tie the long hair on the staff surgeon's rat-tailed gray pony. And I hear you have taken down a pawnbroker's sign, and hung up a long wooden spout instead, and not satisfied with this you sent a mid-wife to poor old Miss—"
And so too the lives of the quiet, peaceable citizens were kept active through the madcap frolics of these gay young cavaliers, and in place of the morning paper, over the breakfast cup of coffee, they discussed the pranks of these mischief-loving sons of Mars. The beautifully whitewashed house of the leading baker in the city receives a coat of tar one dark snowy night, and the baker upon discovering the transformation cries out : "Oh! le diable, le diable a noirci notre maison!" Town and barracks are in frequent collision, inspired no doubt by the too evident kindness which Lizette showed to the wearer of the Queen's livery, inciting Jean-Baptiste to a show of teeth, but usually ending in his discomfiture.
Haughty Lady Dalhousie was walking through the streets after a thaw accompanied by her young children, when one of them in attempting to jump across a dirty drain fell into it. A young officer who was passing by hauled the youngster out, and was proceeding to wipe the mud and filth off it with his handkerchief when her ladyship exclaimed : "How dare you, sir, touch a child of mine in that manner!" "Oh!" exclaimed he, "there is no harm in the world done," and replacing the youngster in the drain he gave it a roll and quietly pursued his way.
After the season of navigation closed, the merchants, freed from the cares of business, gave themselves up to a period of enjoyment and entertainments. The Beefsteak Club held frequent convivial gatherings, the Club des Bois made pilgrimages to Valcartier under the guidance of Nicholas Vincent, the chief of the Lorette Hurons, and high carnival reigned in their respective camps. Under the chaperonage of some sprightly dame, gay parties of young people made excursions to various of the parishes and danced away the long nights at some favourite rendezvous. Sliding on the cone at Montmorency, a never-failing source of pleasure to the more daring and adventurous, attracted large parties, and contemporary prints show groups scattered about the ice partaking of substantial tiffin even though the temperature probably marked 10° below zero.
The common people, in their tight warm little houses, also welcomed winter as a period of rest and recreation, and some of their simple games and amusements are told elsewhere in this volume.