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The Liveyere

( Originally Published 1905 )



DOCTOR GRENFELL'S patients are of three classes. There is first the "liveyere "—the inhabitant of the Labrador coast—the most ignorant and wretched of them all. There is the Newfoundland "outporter "—the small fisher-man of the remoter coast, who must depend wholly upon his hook and line for subsistence. There is the Labradorman—the Newfoundland fisherman of the better class, who fishes the Labrador coast in the summer season and returns to his home port when the snow begins to fly in the fall. Some description of these three classes is here offered, that the reader may understand the character and condition of the folk among whom Dr. Grenfell labours. surviving only in the hollows and ravines—a sullen, forsaken waste.

Those who dwell on the coast are called "liveyeres " because they say, " Oh, ay, zur, I lives yere ! " in answer to the question. These are not to be confounded with the Newfoundland fishermen who sail the Labrador seas in the fishing season—an adventurous, thrifty folk, bright-eyed, hearty in laughter—twenty-five thousand hale men and boys, with many a wife and maid, who come and return again. Less than four thousand poor folk have on the long coast the "permanent abode " of which the learned work speaks—much less, I should think, from the Strait of Belle Isle to Cape Chid-ley. It is an evil fate to be born there : the Newfoundlanders who went north from their

" As a permanent abode of civilized man," it is written in a very learned if somewhat old-fashioned work, " Labrador is, on the whole, one of the most uninviting spots on the face of the earth." That is putting it altogether too delicately ; there should be no qualification ; the place is a brutal desolation. The weather has scoured the coast —a thousand miles of it—as clean as an old bone : it is utterly sterile, save for a tuft or two of hardy grass and wide patches of crisp moss ; bare gray rocks, low in the south, towering and craggy in the north, every-where blasted by frost, lie in billowy hills between the froth and clammy mist of the sea and the starved forest at the edge of the inland wilderness. The interior is for-bidding; few explorers have essayed adventure there ; but the Indians—an expiring tribe—and trappers who have caught sight of the " height of land " say that it is for the most part a vast table-land, barren, strewn with enormous boulders, scarce in game, swarming with flies, with vegetation knows, no man really knows, that elsewhere the earth is kinder to her children and fairer far than the wind-swept, barren coast to which he is used. They live content, bearing many children, in inclemency, in squalor, and, from time to time, in uttermost poverty —such poverty as clothes a child in a trouser leg and feeds babies and strong men alike on nothing but flour and water. They were born there : that is where they came from ; that is why they live there.

"'Tis a short feast and a long famine," said a northern "liveyere," quite cheerfully; to him it was just a commonplace fact of life.

There are degrees of wretchedness : a frame cottage is the habitation of the rich know the pinch of famine; but some—the really well-to-do—are clear of the over-shadowing dread of it. The " liveyeres " of the north dwell in huts, in lonely coves of the bays, remote even from neighbours as ill-cased as themselves,; there they live and laugh and love and suffer and die and bury their dead—alone. To the south, however, there are little settlements in the more sheltered harbours—the largest of not more than a hundred souls—where there is a degree of prosperity and of comfort ; potatoes are a luxury, but the flour-barrel is always full, the pork-barrel not always empty, and there are raisins in the duff on feast-days ; moreover, there are stoves in the white-washed houses (the northern " liveyere's " stove is more often than not a flat rock), beds to sleep in, muslin curtains in the little windows, and a flower, it may be, sprouting desperately in a red pot on the sill. That is the extreme of luxury—rare to be met with ; and it is at all times open to dissolution by famine.

"Sure, zur, last winter," a stout young fellow boasted, " we had all the grease us wanted ! "

It is related of a thrifty settler named Olliver, however, who lived with his wife and five children at Big Bight, he was a man of superior qualities, as the event makes manifest,—that, having come close to the pass of starvation at the end of a long winter, he set out afoot over the hills to seek relief from his nearest neighbour, forty miles away. But there was no relief to be had ; the good neighbour had already given away all that he dared spare, and something more. Twelve miles farther on he was again denied ; it is said that the second neighbour mutely pointed to his flour-barrel and his family—which was quite sufficient for lliver, who thereupon departed to a third house, where his fortune was no better. Perceiving then that he must depend upon the store of food in his own house, which was insufficient to support the lives of all, he returned home, sent his wife and eldest son and eldest daughter away on a pretext, despatched his three youngest children with an axe, and shot himself. As he had foreseen, wife, daughter, and son survived until the "break-up" brought food within their reach ; and the son was a well-grown boy, and made a capable head of the house thereafter.

The "liveyere" is a fisherman and trapper. In the summer he catches cod ; in the winter he traps the fox, otter, mink, lynx, and marten, and sometimes he shoots a bear, white or black, and kills a wolf. The "planter," who advances the salt to cure the fish, takes the catch at the end of the season, giving in exchange provisions at an incredible profit; the Hudson Bay Company takes the fur, giving in exchange provisions at an even larger profit ; for obvious reasons, both aim (there are exceptions, of course) to keep the "liveyere" in debt—which is not by any means a difficult matter, for the "liveyere" is both shiftless and (what is more to the point) illiterate. So it comes about that what he may have to eat and wear depends upon the will of the "planter" and of the company ; and when for his ill-luck or his ill-will both cast him off—which sometimes happens—he looks starvation in the very face. A silver fox, of good fur and acceptable colour, is the "liveyere's " great catch ; no doubt his most ecstatic nightmare has to do with finding one fast in his trap ; but when, "more by chance than good conduct," as they say, he has that heavenly fortune (the event is of the rarest), the company pays sixty or eighty dollars for that which it sells abroad for $600. Of late, however, the free-traders seem to have established a footing on the coast; their stay may not be long, but for the moment, at any rate, the "liveyere" may dispose of his fur to greater advantage —if he dare.

The earth yields the " liveyere " nothing but berries, which are abundant, and, in midsummer, " turnip tops " ; and as numerous dogs are needed for winter travelling—wolfish creatures, savage, big, famished—no domestic animals can be kept. There was once a man who somehow managed for a season to possess a pig and a sheep ; he marooned his dogs on an island half a mile off the coast ; unhappily, however, there blew an off-shore wind in the night, and next morning neither the pig nor the sheep was to be found; the dogs were engaged in innocent diversions on the island, but there was evidence sufficient on their persons, so to speak, to convict them of the depredation in any court of justice. There are no cows on the coast, no goats,—consequently no additional milk-supply for babies,-who manage from the beginning, however, to thrive on bread and salt beef, if put to the necessity. There are no pigs—there is one pig, I believe, no sheep, no chickens ; and the first horses to be taken to the sawmill on Hamilton Inlet so frightened the natives that they scampered in every direction for their lives whenever the team came near, crying: "Look out ! The harses is comin'!" The caribou are too far inland for most of the settlers ; but at various seasons (excluding such times as there is no game at all) there are to be had grouse, partridge, geese, eider-duck, puffin, gulls, loon and petrel, bear, arctic hare, and bay seal, which are shot with marvellously long and old guns—some of them ancient flintlocks.

Notwithstanding all, the folk are large and hardy—capable of withstanding cruel hardship and deprivation.

In summertime the weather is blistering hot inland; and on the coast it is more often than not wet, foggy, blustering—bitter enough for the man from the south, who shivers as he goes about. Innumerable ice-bergs drift southward, scraping the coast as they go, and patches of snow lie in the hollows of the coast hills—midway between Battle Harbour and Cape Chidley there is a low headland called Snowy Point because the snow forever lies upon it. But warm, sunny days are to be counted upon in August —days when the sea is quiet, the sky deep blue, the rocks bathed in yellow sunlight, the air clear and bracing; at such times it is good to lie on the high heads and look away out to sea, dreaming the while. In winter, storm and intense cold make most of the coast uninhabitable ; the " liveyeres " retire up the bays and rivers, bag and bag-gage, not only to escape the winds and bit-ter cold, but to be nearer the supply of game and fire-wood. They live in little "tilts "—log huts of one large square room, with " bunks " at each end for the women-folk, and a "cockloft" above for the men and lads. It is very cold ; frost forms on the walls, icicles under the " bunks "; the thermometer frequently falls to fifty degrees be-low zero, which, as you may be sure, is exceedingly cold near the sea. Nor can a man do much heavy work in the woods, for the perspiration freezes under his clothing. Impoverished families have no stoves—merely an arrangement of flat stones, with an opening in the roof for the escape of the smoke, with which they are quite content if only they have enough flour to make hard bread for all.

It goes without saying that there is neither butcher, baker, nor candlestick-maker on the coast. Every man is his own bootmaker, tailor, and what not; there is not a trade or profession practiced anywhere. There is no resident doctor, save the mission doctors, one of whom is established at Battle Harbour, and with a dog-team makes a toilsome journey up the coast in the dead of winter, relieving whom he can. There is no public building, no municipal government, no road. There is no lawyer, no constable ; and I very much doubt that there is a parson regularly stationed among the whites beyond Battle Harbour, with the exception of the Moravian missionaries. They are scarce enough, at any rate, for the folk in a certain practical way to feel the hardship of their absence. Dr. Grenfell tells of landing late one night in a lonely harbour where three "couples wanted marrying." They had waited many years for the opportunity. It chanced that the doctor was entertaining a minister on the cruise; so one couple determined at once to return to the 'ship with him. " The minister," says the doctor, "decided that pronouncing the banns might be dispensed with in this case. He went ahead with the ceremony, for the couple had three children already ! "

The "liveyere" is of a sombrely religious turn of mind his creed as harsh and gloomy as the land he lives in; he is superstitious as a savage as well, and an incorrigible fatalist, all of which is not hard to account for : he is forever in the midst of vast space and silence, face to face with dread and mysterious forces, and in conflict with wind and sea and the changing season, which are irresistible and indifferent.

Jared was young, lusty, light-hearted ; but he lived in the fear and dread of hell. I had known that for two days.

"The flies, zur," said he to the sportsman, whose hospitality I was enjoying, was wonderful bad the day."

We were twelve miles inland, fishing a small stream ; and we were now in the " tilt," at the end of the day, safe from the swarming, vicious black-flies.

" Yes," the sportsman replied, emphatic-ally. "I've suffered the tortures of the damned this day ! "

Jared burst into a roar of laughter—as sudden and violent as a thunderclap.

"What you laughing at?" the sports-man demanded, as he tenderly stroked his swollen neck.

"Tartures o' the damned!" Jared gasped. " Sure, if that's all 'tis, I'll jack 'asy about it!"

He laughed louder—reckless levity ; but I knew that deep in his heart he would be infinitely relieved could he believe—could he only make sure—that the punishment of the wicked was no worse than an eternity of fighting with poisonous insects.

"Ay," he repeated, ruefully, "if that's all 'twas, 'twould not trouble me much."

The graveyard at Battle Harbour is in a sheltered hollow near the sea. It is a green spot—the one, perhaps, on the island—and they have enclosed it with a high board fence. Men have fished from that harbour for a hundred years and more--but there are not many graves; why, I do not know. The crumbling stones, the weather-beaten boards, the sprawling ill-worded inscriptions, are all, in their way, eloquent :

" Sarah Combe died the fourth of August, 1881, aged 31 years."

There is another, better carved, somewhat better spelled, but quite as interesting and luminous :

In Memory of John Hill who Died December 30 1890 Aged 34

Weep not dear Parents
For your lost tis my
Eternal gain May
May Crist you all take up
The crest that we
Shuld meat again

These things are, indeed, eloquent—of ignorance, of poverty ; but no less eloquent of sorrow and of love. The Labrador " liveyere" is kin with the whole wide world.



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