The Alpine Path-5

When I was fifteen I had my first ride on a railway train, and it was a long one. I went with Grandfather Montgomery to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where Father had married again and was then living. I spent a year in Prince Albert and attended the High School there.

It was now three years since I had suffered so much mortification over "Evening Dreams." By this time my long‑paralyzed ambition was beginning to recover and lift its head again. I wrote up the old Cape Leforce legend in rhyme and sent it down home to the Patriot, no more of the Examiner for me!

Four weeks passed. One afternoon Father came in with a copy of the Patriot. My verses were in it! It was the first sweet bubble on the cup of success and of course it intoxicated me. There were some fearful printers' errors in the poem which fairly made the flesh creep on my bones, but it was my poem, and in a real newspaper! The moment we see our first darling brain‑child arrayed in black type is never to be forgotten. It has in it some of the wonderful awe and delight that comes to a mother when she looks for the first time on the face of her first born.

During that winter I had other verses and articles printed. A story I had written in a prize competition was published in the Montreal Witness, and a descriptive article on Saskatchewan was printed in the Prince Albert Times, and copied and commented on favourably by several Winnipeg papers. After several effusions on "June" and kindred subjects appeared in that long‑suffering Patriot, I was beginning to plume myself on being quite a literary person.

But the demon of filthy lucre was creeping into my heart. I wrote a story and sent it to the New York Sun, because I had been told that it paid for articles; and the New York Sun sent it back to me. I flinched, as from a slap in the face, but went on writing. You see I had learned the first, last, and middle lesson ‑ "Never give up!"

 

 

The next summer I returned to Prince Edward Island and spent the following winter in Park Corner, giving music lessons and writing verses for the Patriot. Then I attended the Cavendish school for another year, studying for the Entrance Examination into Prince of Wales College. In the fall of 1803 I went to Charlottetown, and attended the Prince of Wales College that winter studying for a teacher's license.

I was still sending away things and getting them back. But one day I went into the Charlottetown post office and got a thin letter with the address of an American magazine in the corner. In it was a brief note accepting a poem, "Only a Violet." The editor offered me two subscriptions to the magazine in payment. I kept one myself and gave the other to a friend, and those magazines, with their vapid little stories, were the first tangible recompense my pen brought me.

"It is a start, and I mean to keep on," I find written in my old journal of that year. "Oh, I wonder if I shall ever be able to do anything worth while in the way of writing. It is my dearest ambition."

 

 

After leaving Prince of Wales College I taught school for a year in Bideford, Prince Edward Island. I wrote a good deal and learned a good deal, but still my stuff came back, except from two periodicals the editors of which evidently thought that literature was its own reward, and quite independent of monetary considerations. I often wonder that I did not give up in utter discouragement. At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself, as I crept away to hide the poor, crimpled manuscript in the depths of my trunk. But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said "I will succeed." I believed in myself and I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragement and rebuff, I knew I would "arrive" some day.

 

 

In the autumn of 1895 I went to Halifax and spent the winter taking a selected course in English literature at Dalhousie College. Through the winter came a "Big Week" for me. On Monday I received a letter from Golden Days, a Philadelphia juvenile, accepting a short story I had sent there and enclosing a cheque for five dollars. It was the first money my pen had ever earned; I did not squander it in riotous living, neither did I invest it in necessary boots and gloves. I went up town and bought five volumes of poetry with it ‑ Tennyson, Byron, Milton, Longfellow, Whittier. I wanted something I could keep for ever in memory of having "arrived."

On Wednesday of the same week I won the prize of five dollars offered by the Halifax Evening Mail for the best letter on the subject, "Which has the greater patience ‑ man or woman?"

My letter was in the form of some verses, which I had composed during a sleepless night and got up at three o'clock in the wee sma' hours to write down. On Saturday the Youth's Companion sent me a cheque for twelve dollars for a poem. I really felt quite bloated with so much wealth. Never in my life, before or since have I been so rich!

 

 

After my Dalhousie winter I taught school for two more years. In those two years I wrote scores of stories, generally for Sunday School publications and juvenile periodicals. The following entry from my journal refers to this period:

I have grubbed away industriously all this summer and ground out stories and verses on days so hot that I feared my very marrow would melt and my gray matter be hopelessly sizzled up. But oh, I love my work! I love spinning stories, and I love to sit by the window of my room and shape some 'airy fairy' fancy into verse. I have got on well this summer and added several new journals to my list. They are a varied assortment, and their separate tastes all have to be catered to. I write a great many juvenile stories. I like doing these, but I should like it better if I didn't have to drag a 'moral' into most of them. They won't sell without it, as a rule. So in the moral must go, broad or subtle, as suits the fibre of the particular editor I have in view. The kind of juvenile story I like best to write ‑ and read, too, for the matter of that ‑ is a good, jolly one, "art for art's sake," or rather "fun for fun's sake," with no insidious moral hidden away in it like a pill in a spoonful of jam!

It was not always hot weather when I was writing. During one of those winters of school teaching I boarded in a very cold farmhouse. In the evenings, after a day of strenuous school work, I would be too tired to write. So I religiously arose an hour earlier in the mornings for that purpose. For five months I got up at six o'clock and dressed by lamplight. The fires would not yet be on, of course, and the house would be very cold. But I would put on a heavy coat, sit on my feet to keep them from freezing and with fingers so cramped that I could scarcely hold the pen, I would write my "stunt" for the day. Sometimes it would be a poem in which I would carol blithely of blue skies and rippling brooks and flowery meads! Then I would thaw out my hands, eat breakfast and go to school.

When people say to me, as they occasionally do, "Oh, how I envy you your gift, how I wish I could write as you do," I am inclined to wonder, with some inward amusement, how much they would have envied me on those dark, cold, winter mornings of my apprenticeship.

 

 

Grandfather died in 1898 and Grandmother was left alone in the old homestead. So I gave up teaching and stayed home with her. By 1901 I was beginning to make a "livable" income for myself by my pen, though that did not mean everything I wrote was accepted on its first journey. Far from it. Nine out of ten manuscripts came back to me. But I sent them out over and over again, and eventually they found resting places. Another extract from my journal may serve as a sort of milestone to show how far I had travelled.

 

March 21, 1901

Munsey's came to‑day with my poem "Comparisons" in it, illustrated. It really looked nice. I've been quite in luck of late, for several new and good magazines have opened their portals to this poor wandering sheepkin of thorny literary ways. I feel that I am improving and developing in regard to my verses. I suppose it would be strange if I did not, considering how hard I study and work. Every now and then I write a poem which serves as a sort of landmark to emphasize my progress. I know, by looking back, that I could not have written it six months, or a year, or four years ago, any more than I could have made a garment the material of which was still unwoven. I wrote two poems this week. A year ago, I could not have written them, but now they come easily and naturally. This encourages me to hope that in the future I may achieve something worth while. I never expect to be famous. I merely want to have a recognized place among good workers in my chosen profession. That, I honestly believe, is happiness, and the harder to win the sweeter and more lasting when won.

In the fall of 1901 I went again to Halifax and worked for the winter on the staff of the Daily Echo, the evening edition of the Chronicle. A series of extracts from my journal will tell the tale of that experience with sufficient fulness.

 

11 November, 1901

I am here alone in the office of the Daily Echo. The paper is gone to press and the extra proofs have not yet begun to come down. Overhead, in the composing room, they are rolling machines and making a diabolical noise. Outside of the window the engine exhaust is puffing furiously. In the inner office two reporters are having a wrangle. And here sit I ‑ the Echo proof‑reader and general handy‑man. Quite a 'presto change' from last entry!

I'm a newspaper woman!

Sounds nice? Yes, and the reality is very nice, too. Being of the earth, it is earthy, and has its drawbacks. Life in a newspaper office isn't all 'beer and skittles' any more than anywhere else. But on the whole it is not a bad life at all! I rather like proof‑reading, although it is tedious. The headlines and editorials are my worst thorns in the flesh. Headlines have a natural tendency to depravity, and the editor‑in‑chief has a ghastly habit of making puns over which I am apt to come to grief. In spite of all my care 'errors will creep in' and then there is the mischief to pay. When I have nightmares now they are of headlines wildly askew and editorials hopelessly hocussed, which an infuriated chief is flourishing in my face.

The paper goes to press at 2.30, but I have to stay till six to answer the 'phone, sign for wires, and read extra proofs.

On Saturdays the Echo has a lot of extra stuff, a page of 'society letters' among the rest. It usually falls to my lot to edit these. Can't say I fancy the job much, but the only thing I positively abhor is 'faking' a society letter. This is one of the tricks of newspaperdom. When a society letter fails to turn up from a certain place ‑ say from Windsor ‑ in due time, the news editor slaps a Windsor Weekly down before me and says blandly, 'fake up a society letter from that, Miss Montgomery.'

So poor Miss Montgomery goes meekly to work, and concocts an introductory paragraph or so about 'autumn leaves' and 'mellow days' and 'October frosts,' or any old stuff like that to suit the season. Then I go carefully over the columns of the weekly, clip out all the available personals and news items, about weddings, and engagements, and teas, etc., hash them up in epistolary style, forge the Windsor correspondent's nom de plume ‑ and there's your society letter! I used to include funerals, too, but I found the news editor blue‑pencilled them. Evidently funerals have no place in society.

Then I write a column or so of giddy paragraphs for Monday's Echo. I call it "Around the Tea‑Table," and sign it "Cynthia."

My office is a back room looking out on a back yard in the middle of the block. I don't know that all the Haligonian washerwomen live around it, but certainly a good percentage of them must, for the yard is a network of lines from which sundry and divers garments are always streaming gaily to the breezes. On the ground and over the roof cats are prowling continually, and when they fight, the walls resound with their howls. Most of them are lank, starved‑looking beasties enough, but there is one lovely gray fellow who basks on a window sill opposite me and looks so much like 'Daffy' that, when I look at him, I could squeeze out a homesick tear if I were not afraid that would wash a clean spot on my grimy face. This office is really the worst place for getting dirty I ever was in.

 

November 18, 1901

Have had a difficult time trying to arrange for enough spare minutes to do some writing. I could not write in the evenings, I was always too tired. Besides, I had to keep my buttons sewed on and my stockings darned. Then I reverted to my old practice, and tried getting up at six in the morning. But it did not work, as of yore. I could never get to bed as early as I could when I was a country 'schoolma'am' and I found it impossible to do without a certain amount of sleep.

There was only one alternative.

Hitherto, I had thought that undisturbed solitude was necessary that the fire of genius might burn and even the fire for pot‑boiling. I must be alone, and the room must be quiet. I could never have even imagined that I could possibly write anything in a newspaper office, with rolls of proof shooting down every ten minutes, people coming and conversing, telephones ringing, and machines being thumped and dragged overhead. I would have laughed at the idea, yea, I would have laughed it to scorn. But the impossible has happened. I am of one mind with the Irishman who said you could get used to anything, even to being hanged!

All my spare time here I write, and not such bad stuff either, since the Delineator, the Smart Set and Ainslies' have taken some of it. I have grown accustomed to stopping in the middle of a paragraph to interview a prowling caller, and to pausing in full career after an elusive rhyme, to read a lot of proof, and snarled‑up copy.

 

Saturday, December 8, 1901

Of late I've been Busy with a capital B. 'Tending to office work, writing pot‑boilers, making Christmas presents, etc., mostly etc.

One of the "etcs." is a job I heartily detest. It makes my soul cringe. It is bad enough to have your flesh cringe, but when it strikes into your soul it gets on your spiritual nerves terribly. We are giving all the firms who advertise with us a free "write‑up" of their holiday goods, and I have to visit all the stores, interview the proprietors, and crystallize my information into two "sticks" of copy. From three to five every afternoon I potter around the business blocks until my nose is purple with the cold and my fingers numb from much scribbling of notes.

 

Wednesday, December 12, 1901

It is an ill wind that blows no good and my disagreeable assignment has blown me some. The other evening I went in to write up the Bon Marche, which sets up to be the millinery establishment of Halifax, and I found the proprietor very genial. He said he was delighted that the Echo had sent a lady, and by way of encouraging it not to weary in well doing he would send me up one of the new walking hats if I gave the Bon Marche a good write‑up. I rather thought he was only joking, but sure enough, when the write‑up came out yesterday, up came the hat, and a very pretty one it is too.

 

Thursday, December 20, 1901

All the odd jobs that go a‑begging in this office are handed over to the present scribe. The very queerest one up to date came yesterday.

The compositors were setting up, for the weekly edition, a story called 'A Royal Betrothal,' taken from an English paper, and when about half through they lost the copy. Whereupon the news‑editor requested me to go and write an 'end' for the story. At first I did not think I could. What was set up of the story was not enough to give me any insight into the solution of the plot. Moreover, my knowledge of royal love affairs is limited, and I have not been accustomed to write with flippant levity of kings and queens.

However, I fell to work and somehow got it done. To‑day it came out, and as yet nobody has guessed where the 'seam' comes in. If the original author ever beholds it, I wonder what he will think.

I may remark, in passing, that more than ten years afterward I came across a copy of the original story in an old scrapbook, and was much amused to discover that the author's development of the plot was about as different from mine as anything could possibly be.

 

Thursday, December 27th, 1901

Christmas is over. I had been rather dreading it, for I had been expecting to feel very much the stranger in a strange land. But, as usual, anticipation was discounted by realization. I had a very pleasant time although not, of course, so wildly exhilarating as to endanger life, limb or nerves, which was, no doubt, just as well.

I had a holiday, the first since coming here, and so was haunted all day by the impression that it was Sunday. I had dinner at the Halifax with B. and spent the afternoon with her. In the evening we went to the opera to see The Little Minister. It was good but not nearly so good as the book. I don't care for dramatized novels. They always jar on my preconceptions of the characters. Also, I had to write a criticism of the play and cast for the Chronicle and I dislike that very much.

 

Saturday, March 29, 1902

This week has been a miserable one of rain and fog and neuralgia. But I've lived through it. I've read proofs and dissected headlines and fought with compositors and bandied jokes with the marine editor. I have ground out various blameless rhymes for a consideration of filthy lucre, and I've written one real poem out of my heart.

I hate my "pot‑boiling" stuff. But it gives me the keenest pleasure to write something that is good, a fit and proper incarnation of the art I worship. The news‑editor has just been in to give me an assignment for to‑morrow, bad 'cess to him. It is Easter Sunday, and I have to write up the 'parade' down Pleasant Street after church, for Monday's Echo.

 

Saturday, May 3, 1902

I spent the afternoon "expurgating" a novel for the news‑editor's use and behoof. When he was away on his vacation his substitute began to run a serial in the Echo called "Under the Shadow." Instead of getting some A.P.A. stuff as he should have done, he simply bought a sensational novel and used it. It was very long and was only about half done when the news‑editor returned. So, as it would run all summer, in its present form, I was bidden to take it and cut mercilessly out all unnecessary stuff. I have followed instructions, cutting out most of the kisses and embraces, two‑thirds of the love‑making, and all the descriptions, with the happy result that I have reduced it to about a third of its normal length, and all I can say 'Lord, have mercy on the soul of the compositor who has set it up in its present mutilated condition.'

 

Saturday, May 31, 1902

I had a good internal laugh to‑night. I was in a street car and two ladies beside me were discussing the serial that had just ended in the Echo. 'You know,' said one, 'it was the strangest story I ever read. It wandered on, chapter after chapter, for weeks, and never seemed to get anywhere; and then it just finished up in eight chapters, licketty‑split. I can't understand it!'

I could have solved the mystery, but I didn't.

 


                                       

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