Three hundred years seems a gulf of time in the life of a nation. Just three ticks of the clock whose seconds are centuries have brought us from the founding of Quebec to the present hour; from the day in which Champlain, searching for a place suitable for his settlement, could find nothing better than “the point of Quebec covered with nut trees,” to the day in which we celebrate his deed and the deeds of those who came before and followed after him. The nut trees are gone; huge wharfs and warehouses have usurped their pleasant shade, and all is changed save the glorious sweep of the river, the established contour of the rock, and the line of distant mountains drawing back to the horizon. It is a great stage, adorned with noble properties, and might well call to the men who had attained so far: “Here am I, garnished for your drama: let the play be worthy of the setting.” And, upon the whole, it has been, from the time when Champlain laid axe to the nut trees, until Montcalm and Wolfe and Carleton battled about the heights.
Since then the scene has changed, and in days of peace, for the most part, and fruitfulness always, we have progressed so far as to be upon the threshold of we know not what advance, so far that Champlain’s little shelter has become one of the first ports in the world.
Here, then, upon the third tick of the clock, by our reckoning, we look up from the absorbing task of nation-building when every one seems drugged with the idea that material progress means every desirable thing; we try to cast the film from our eyes and reconstruct the older, romantic time when the great clock had but ticked one. It is well to do so, for a bit of play now and then in the midst of work sweetens the work and puts heart into it. Especially for such a [page 100] young people as ours, it is wise to perpetuate old deeds and to treasure what is, after all, our chief possession—the actions of those who were all unconsciously framing our destiny. Our lives should be blown through and through by historical memories and national ideals, otherwise we live in a fen country without vistas, or in stifling air, like old people in a workhouse. This is what civilization means in its highest sense. A state might boast of impeccable laws and enjoy the smoothest, most improved methods in the art of living, but it would be a poor, dead thing without the memory of great men and great actions. Connection with the past by roots of legend and tradition, the record of actual events, struggles, triumphs, varied as the complex interests of men are varied: these give meaning and colour to current life. In a highly civilized state, accompanying the actions of each day and year, there is the shadowy, intangible, but ever-present drama of the past, existing not only in manners, forms, and precedent, but in definite characters that project their force into life, and feed the imagination with instances of resource and fortitude. Let a man anywhere perform some great deed for his country, every force in the nation seems to conspire to keep him alive; legend surrounds him with simple glory, a whole literature elaborates and heightens the light upon his life until, in truth, he never dies.
Peculiarly rich is our heritage in the memories of the early navigators and explorers who groped their way along our coasts and founded our cities unerringly on the points of natural vantage amid the nut trees or the maples, drew their grotesque charts that always had a truthful line somewhere, and wrote their simple but amazing narratives. Is it any wonder that they saw signs and portents in the great deep or the dense forest? Now we rush upon the Atlantic and only see five suns rise and set before the pilot comes aboard; never for long out of touch with land, we go spangled with lights and lulled with music and effeminate comforts. Then, with a few barrels of biscuit and salt meat and a few kegs of water, they sailed away into the unknown, seeking persistently the unknown, preferring before all else the unfurrowed water and the uncharted shore. They saw monsters in the sea and grappled enchanted islands, but they required the childlike faith that led them into error to meet with stern temper the demons that were out against them, the demons of tempest and hunger. It was a faith, first of all in a Power above them, which was well aware how many biscuits they had aboard [page 101] and that the water was foul, and, next, a faith in themselves. They all had that faith in measure, and employed it fully, and, as it is the quality which perpetuated their effort, it is undeniably the quality we praise when we throw up our caps and make holiday in their honour. We begin to be civilized when we celebrate and cherish the past, and allow the recurrence of anniversaries and centennials to have their will of us, and revivify our national life, win us away from the local and immediate, and lead us to think of what went before and comes after.
Maybe, at some future days, the European airships shall float up from the purple steep of Cap Tourmente, wheel above the gray, rock-built city, and sink, controlled, from level to level until they settle upon their nests like vast birds weary with a long flight. Far below shall lie the great river, laving its eternal channel, and, as long as the memory of great deeds shall last, there shall shine like ghosts the fleets of admirals and captains and merchantmen. The forgetfulness of men may obscure them, the delight of new inventions and a complex power over nature may undervalue them, but whenever even one remembers, the little barks of Cartier, Champlain, and Frontenac shall ride blithely in the roadway; their shallops shall cling like limpets to the rocks; the gaunt, black hulls of Saunders shall move mysteriously up and down with the tide; the line of Wolfe’s Highlanders shall tear their way up, up through the bushes; the heroes of Montcalms’ regiments shall tramp forth from the gate and form imperturbably in the cool morning light.
It is our good fortune, perhaps, that the past of heroic adventure looks nearer to us than it will to those others, our descendants, who may enjoy mastery of the air and many another unimagined mastery, but let us pass on to them, the faith that we got from our founders and those who wore out their lives for us.
Their faith was in themselves and in a Power which was omnipresent and interested personally in their endeavours. But if there is a destiny for nations, that faith may have been a prevision of our greatness among the peoples; we might almost overhear them say: “It is a small thing thus to cement with the bones and blood of our bodies the foundation of so mighty a state.” Then let us hearken and be worthy. [page 102]