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Romantic Canada
Chapter XVI Romance of the Two-Wheeled Cart

TWO wheels are both leisurely and elegant. No doubt it was these considerations which in the beginning of Time decided Romance on riding in a two-wheeled cart. We cannot imagine Romance anything but leisurely. She lives where time stands still, yet paradoxically hitches to the wheels of Progress. It is true we cannot imagine the automobile or even the aeroplane without a four-wheel carriage. But it is equally difficult to think of either of these as leisurely. They are the symbols of speed and utility in a commercial age. Nevertheless, despite the new order of this age of speed, Romance, though not utterly ignoring car and plane, continues to ride in her old cart—

"Jiggity jog, jiggity jog!"

Bad roads, or no roads at all, never betray the ox or Dobbin into the ditch. "Get out and get under" is a song not in the two-wheeler's repertoire. Yet of course the slow-coach misses, as by a great gulf, the thrills which are the auto's and aeroplane's very own. So, between two or four, for the time being, honours are easy.

Yet to the two-wheeler must go the honour of pioneering transportation. With it began all life in Canada. And there are parts of the Dominion where two-wheels are still a people's dependence. All Eastern Canada still pins faith to the two-wheel cart, whether it be Quebec or dear old Nova Scotia or the far-away Islands of the Gulf. Big wheel or little wheel, or whether "cheval, chien or la boeuf" produces the motor power, Romance, in the East, still rides in the two-wheel cart.

It appears on every road. Where there are no roads it must go along as if there were one. Unless a forest obstructs no lesser obstacle can ever hope to turn one of these old carts from its objective.

One may tramp a country road in Quebec without seeing a sign of life. Then presently a speck heaves in sight on the distant horizon. Long before it can be "made out" intuition says, "It is a two-wheel cart".

As it comes towards you, its own individuality becomes more and more evident. You can distinguish it perhaps for the cart of the old woman from Saint Fereol who comes down once or twice a week to sell her pickings of wild framboise or mountain raspberries to berry-hungry Pilgrims-to-the-shrine-of-bonne-Saint Anne. For, shrewd old woman that she is, she knows that even "pilgrims" must eat.

This old weather-beaten French-woman and her cart from the hill country are well-known characters of the Beaupre road; and every woman having anything from a farm to sell, hails madame as she drives along, so that when this particular cart arrives in the town every village housewife is agog at her door to see what madame has brought them to-day "pour diner". And as for the cart itself, it overflows with beets and carrots, potatoes, maple sugar, a jar or two of honey; and, from the mass, struggling chickens gasping for breath. But "des oeufs et framboise" are all carefully protected under layers of cool leaves. Some morning we engage to ride back with madame when she has sold all her berries and what-not. We sit, one on the board beside the fat figure of madame, the other, on a box among the empty berry pails in the body of the cart. We ask madame how she got so many tins? "Du lard, mesdames, du lard", she responds quickly. Looking^bout on the heap of lard tins, it seems to us as if the mountain folk must buy lard just to get the tins for their berries.

At first the springless cart is a little too much of a good thing, but we soon get used to the jolting and then forget it in speculating on the sights and sounds of the road. That whirr and buzz is not bees but a spinning wheel at work. We look in at an open door and there is madame at the wheel. She and the market woman exchange a hearty bon jour. The houses are fairly close on this road. Scarely one is passed before another heaves in sight.

In some yards the hay-cart goes into the barn with a full load. In another there is heard the heavy thud, thud of the loom. From our high seat we can see right into the room where madame is at work, shuttle in hand, bobbins in basket, balls of yarn on the floor.

Then behind us comes the honk of an automobile. Neither Dobbin nor madame seems to have heard. Their sang froid is in no wise disturbed by the speeding motorist or the cloud of dust in which he envelops our cart as he flies past. It is not until we turn off the main highway, where the catcher-up-of-dust motor meant little more to madame than a summer whirlwind, that she and Dobbin rouse themselves to an interest in the road.

The road here does two things. It goes off into deep woods and it begins to climb up and up. Madame gets down on her side of the cart. Simultaneously we fall out of it behind. Dobbin gets a drink at a cool spring. We wash hands and faces.

The old woman cries "Alles, allez", and Dobbin once more takes to the road, now leafy and sylvan but steep and winding, urged along with many an admonitory "march", done" from madame. This shade is very grateful to both Dobbin and his mistress after the hot morning in town vending berries.

It is such a road as the motorist down there would never think of attempting. There is now a look about Dobbin at one end and madame at the other of the worn leather harness and reins, and a something about the lines of the old weathered cart which bespeak the satisfaction of the master. Down there, the Ford had the road to himself. He flew over it. But up here, this perpendicularity belongs to this trio of the old, belongs to the two- wheel cart and the old French market woman.

Just for a moment down there, our heart went back on our conveyance. Our allegiance weakened. We said, "Oh, for a car!" But up here in this "land of the sky", where the road comes out on the mountainous brow of 'Tite de Cap and the gray St. Lawrence lies far below like a silver ribbon, the blue mountains of Northern New England against the southern sky, and away behind to the West, a smoke in the sky that is Quebec, our faith in the cart returns with smashing convincingness. The two-wheel cart's the thing!

When madame begins to stop in front of cottage gates to pay out of her deep pocket the proceeds of each morning sale and we hand out to eager hands the right number of lard tins going to repeat their mission as berry containers, to our minds nothing is wanting in the Romance which weaves itself about the scene and the figure of the old cart and its mistress.

But we must not ride forever in this mountain-climbing and thrifty "hope of the hills". Other carts are calling. Let us drift down stream on the bosom of the St. Lawrence, far out where it is "The Gulf", away past Prince Edward Island to the Magdalens. In this corner of Quebec the two-wheel cart is practically the only means of land transportation. These Island carts, like the islands themselves, overflow with originality and character. They are soft and full of the sea's wetness as they come toward us along the treeless, island-landscape. We notice, too, a difference in the horse. The Magdalens cart is drawn by an island pony. Mares are accompanied by shaggy colts, all legs, running beside the mothers, or following behind the cart, noses over the tail-board. When the load is a long mackerel boat going into winter quarters, after a season's fishing on a distant beach, it is indeed a strange procession, the up-hill-and-down road causing it now to heave in sight and now to disappear as if the boat still rode the mobile crests and valleys of the Gulf.

But the most romantic of all the carts is the procession across the long barachois, a winding procession crossing the sands—cart after cart—a Canadian caravan of the desert. All sorts of weird and bizarre shapes of dusk and distance and creeping sea-fog add to the romance of this strange train.

What takes the caravan into the desert? Not the trade in rich silks and carpets of far eastern looms or the bringing of precious stones from one mart to another, but a trade just the same—an individual and romantic trade peculiar to the Magdalens —the culling of the clam, the tiny, hard, white mollusc with as pretty lights in it as the pearl when it comes wet from the under- seas sand-home out there where the wet sea-fog begins in the eye of the wind.

One may think the path-finding lead-cart of this caravan has nothing to do. But try to find your own way across these sands and you will soon be glad to follow along behind any old cart that heaves in sight, even if it is navigated by an old cow in harness. Out here the sea-wind licks up the sand and fills in and levels off landmarks just as the Scirocco levels off the shifting dunes of old Egypt.

Over there, there is the instinct of the camel, the desert knowledge of the man, and the light of the stars to guide—but out here on the sands of the Magdalens it is a woman's hand that holds the reins of the lead horse. Her cart may be made of bits of driftwood and in the half-barrel tub, in the waist of this semi-sea craft, a rusty three-pronged homemade digging fork, and a lantern by her side, may be the only gauges to a rising tide.

Could your eye follow the long caravan winding its way across the sands at night, lantern after lantern, a Will o' the wisp line of light and black figures in whose path lies the sinister quicksand, you must easily fall under the spell of this wet and mystical wraith of the night which, coming nearer, resolves itself into a succession of carts coming from or bound to the clamming.

Like light comedy, sunny and bright and tenderly human by contrast with the night caravan of the barachois is the scene of children of the Islands playing in the two-wheel cart next morn- ing in the home yard. Elder brother plays Dobbin. Two garcons and a habitant maid occupy the driver's seat. Mother in Breton cap and ample apron gives confidence to the baby who fain would ride too, but fears the big adventure. Another year, however, and he will ride with the boldest. . . .

At Perce the two-wheel cart is a beach character. Sometimes "le clieval", but just as often "le boeuf", comes swinging along over the beach shingles and sand with the cart for codfish heads. Nowhere but among coastal folk is the codfish head either available or prized as garden fertilizer. Tradition says that our forefathers learned the value of the buried codfish as fertilizer from the Indians. The fish-guano of trade is ground into a powder. But old-timers of the seacoast let nature do her own pulverizing. They bury or half bury the heads which are now the only part of the fish spared to the land. Every old woman's turnip or potato bed hereabouts rests on a but partly concealed foundation of heads. Every afternoon when the boats come in from sea with fish you can watch the old men and boys coming with their carts to spear up with pitchforks the residue of the splitting-tables. And when it is not heads that are up, it is a load of seaweed they are after. The sea can always contribute something with which to make or enrich a garden.

Between the Government pier and the renowned Perce Rock, after a heavy bit of weather from the North, the beach is strewn with a carpet of algae rich in the chemicals "good for the garden". Truly there are "subjects" galore awaiting the artist in Canada!

All these carts mentioned are big and are found anywhere on the coast. The dog-cart is tiny and is especially of Quebec. For three hundred years the dog-cart has been reigning in Quebec. When one hears the habitant talk of "le cliien", one may be quite sure the subject is the dog which draws a cart. There is no other dog known thus generally to the whole countryside. Most of these little carts are homemade affairs, and, strange to say, unlike the larger carts, usually have springs. Many of the seats in these tiny carts are built up, so that the driver sits above his "horse". Many of the carts are fitted with iron foot-rests which fall below the body of the cart. This arrangement is handy when the driver happens to be a tall man. The driver and rider in a dogcart is not always a child as might be supposed. In Quebec labourers ride to their work of a morning in a dog-cart. Sometimes the load is as much as the dog can navigate, but having deposited his master at mill or factory he is free to roam all day until closing time, when he must be on hand to carry his master home again. For many miles they come, these little carts and but for the dog how would the workman get to his work? The dogcart is by no means a toy. It serves a phase of Canadian life and helps along Canadian business.

Another phase of the dogcart life is seen at noon when from all around the countryside dogcarts foregather bringing to the workmen hot dinners the wives have cooked. It is a sight to behold when thirty or forty of these little wagons dash along the Saint Gregoire highway at noon bound for the cotton mill at Montmorenci Falls. The driver in each cart is now a small boy and, dinner or no dinner, there is sure to be a race as to who gets there first. The dogs look as if they enjoyed the sport as much as the boys. Coming back, the children take their time, there being no hurry to get back to home and play with the empty pail.

In many parts of Quebec the dogcart is often enough the perambulator of the smallest member of the "grande famille". Older children, in these cases, usually go ahead of the dog which follows drawing in his tiny cart the little monarch of the household and the road. On all boyish adventures the dog comes in, with the cart. Of course, there are dogs and dogs, even here. Some are finer and sturdier than others and none are thoroughbred but all are suitable for their work in the little cart. And it is surprising what loads they can pull. All the carts are constructed so that little weight comes on the dog.

Such scenes along the Quebec highway where dogcarts may even be seen taking a bag of mail from train to post office, carry one back to similar scenes in old France and Belgium. But in the outlying districts the dogcart's chief use is for bringing in firewood, in some instances from the handy pile in the yard, but usually in the form of boughs from the scrub of the sea-coast, or the distant hills.

The highest form of the two-wheeler, however, though perhaps not any more picturesque than its humbler brethren, is of course the caleche. The caleche was the earliest voiture of seigneury times. It had a period of great popularity. Jaunty in line, it swayed with every rut, in the day of the bad road. Then the more elaborate four-wheeler was brought in from both England and France and the caleche fell into disuse, soon almost entirely disappearing from the Quebec highway. A few lone remnants of former glory now appear daily before the Hotel Frontenac, picking up an occasional "fare". Someone with enough of the romantic spirit left will wish to see Quebec, city of the Intendents, revert to the vehicle used in that day. Nevertheless, though the caleche has practically died out, even at this moment, darkest in its history, there comes word that it is to have its renaissance; one more proof that Romance still lives in the hearts of modern life; one more proof that the two-wheel cart of Romance is still a prime favourite with this old world, which is more than ever a-wheel.

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