In June, 2015, my grandmother, Isobel Millen, travelled from her home in Westmount, Quebec by train to Quebec City where she had a week’s lay-over with friends before she continued on to North Sydney, Nova Scotia with another Grenfell volunteer, Allie Baeuer, and chaperone, Mrs. Wakefield. Along the way she encountered a “good-looking sloppy Englishman, who walked passed them “using a tooth-pick!”; “a family quarrel between a horsey woman and a mulish man;” the “earnest” Salvation Army singing hymns with cymbals and drums – “‘how I was saved’, ‘the devil and hell’ and ‘glory hallelujah’. Oh backward men!” And “fresh young men making all sorts of remarks and making it impossible for us to survey the scenery on the land side.” They were rescued by “a nice old ministerial looking man who gave them quite a lengthy lecture.” My grandmother was 20 years old and so very innocent, sheltered, privileged, yet chomping at the bit for adventure, open-minded, extremely bright, tough and courageous, and as I’m slowly discovering, judgmental and superior, truly a woman of her class and generation.
Wednesday night. June 15, 1915. Just after tea
Being full and of a contented mind.
We left the Belmont Hotel (Sydney, N.S.) a little before ten and drove with our nine valises piled high to the wharf where the “Bruce” docks. To see the steel manufactury at Sydney across the harbor was a wonderful sight. The clustering chimneys poured forth smoke against a fiery background of flickering light it was truly impressive.
To tumble into our berths on the Bruce and be off in Dreamland was the work of but a few minutes. I woke at four and feeling the motion of the boat, wondered if I was going to be seasick. But no – I fell asleep again and did not get up till seven. I think I can understand people getting seasick though.
Port au Basque is a bleak place. The brown grass and bare rocks, stunted pines and leaden skies reminded me of a dreary November day at home. The funny little old train did not start till eight, so after getting through customs, we still had time to look around. No one lingered in Port aux Basques – I don’t blame them. Our eight hour journey was lots of fun. The old thing heaved along in jolts with many groans. She slowed up at lunch-time, or methinks there would have been many laps the worse for soup. As it was, to drink your coffee without spilling was a feat. But never mind, the scenery was wonderful. The first thing that caught my eye was a ridge of mountains, patches of snow still in the gullies, whose crests had been rubbed flat by prehistoric glaciers. As we travelled inland the country lost its bleak look – the tuckamore gave way to forests of spruce silver and white birch. Further inland still we saw great warm marigolds gleaming from marshy places and bushes of starry Labrador tea. Every now and then a tumbling stream would fly past in the distance – huge cliffs of red or white. I could go on for hours in this fascinating country.
At Humbermouth (Bay of Islands) our Captain was waiting for us. He is just like the captain of fiction even to blue serge and gold bands. He has the beard, the bronzed face and the kindly blue eyes. He is a dear. We loaded our nine valises and our three trunks onto the freight car that goes by a roundabout way to the wharf, and then clambered on ourselves for the novelty of it. Mrs. Wakefield talked to the Captain. We drank in the scenery and laughed at the foolish freight boys snatching off each other’s caps. We had barely jumped on board ship in the most tom-boyish manner when she started and scared us stiff for we had all expected to have the afternoon to write letters.
Everyone is so nice, we have a pretty young stewardess – we had a motherly old one last night. We had a darling bell-boy at North Sydney and a sweet hack driver. But what seems funny is that I haven’t seen one clean-cut or even decent looking man since I left Quebec. I guess they are all stunted – like their trees – down here. Oh! I didn’t tell about the fussy willow bush I saw just past the furry stage. Imagine that in June! Everything here is at a like stage. Oh the lure of strange places. I think I was born to be a traveller.