"Isabel Ecclestone Mackay" (1875-1928) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 237-246.
Mrs. Isabel Ecclestone Mackay is one of the cleverest writers we have. She is a Vancouver lady, one whose work both in prose and verse is finding a high place in the United States and in England. In prose she displays a keen, analytical mind, a genius for new ideas, and a style that is easy and convincing. In poetry she has a philosophic turn, an artful and subtle conception of a circumstance. On the other hand, as a writer in a beautiful lyrical style, she has few superiors in these days.–'Canadian Magazine.'
It is perhaps not too much to say that no other Canadian writer is producing work equal in strength, beauty and balance, to that of Mrs. Mackay.–'Toronto Daily News,'–editorially.
Mrs. Mackay has a sensitive ear for the music of words and an instinctive feeling for rhythm. She has both imagination and humour and a keen appreciation of the wonderful and the beautiful.–JOHN MARKEY, editor of the 'Sentinel-Review,' Woodstock, Ontario.
TO her teachers and classmates, in the Woodstock schools, she was known as 'Bell MacPherson,' and many remember vividly her eager, glowing face,–her warm, sensitive heart. She was so ready to work, so ambitious to achieve, so happy to have pleased. These qualities, together with the natural tendency to write, have given her the proud position she holds to-day. There has been another strong motive force in her career, since her marriage,–her love of children. 'There is nothing so sweet as a baby,' she will tell you, and indeed the Madonna passion has inspired and coloured much of her prose, and not a little of her verse.
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay was born in Woodstock, Ontario, November 25th, 1875,–a daughter of Donald McLeod MacPherson, a native of Scotland, and his wife, Priscilla Ecclestone, of England. She was educated in the local public schools and Collegiate Institute. In April, 1895, she married Mr. P. J. Mackay, Court Stenographer, and is now the mother of three interesting daughters,–Phyllis, Margaret, and Janet Priscilla.
Mrs. Mackay's work has appeared in Cassel's, Harper's, Scribners', Independent, McClure's, St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, Red Book, Life, Ainslee's, Smart Set, Metropolitan, Canadian Magazine, and other periodicals of note. In 1904, she published a book of verse, Between the Lights, but most of her magazine verse, since, has been of much higher quality,–in originality of thought, constructive imagination, and artistic expression. Her two poems, 'Marguerite de Roberval,' and 'The Passing of Cadieux'–each of which won for the author, $100.00, in the Globe's prize-poem competitions–stand out for their excellence of treatment of those historic themes. Serial stories of merit from her pen have appeared in the Canadian Courier and the Canadian Home Journal, and in 1912, Cassell & Co. brought out, The House of Windows, a novel, of which The Athenæum said: 'Possesses a charm of fresh straightforwardness; the pictures of life are vivid and well drawn'; and the London Times: 'An enjoyable tale, of much fresh, wholesome sentiment'.
Mrs. Mackay has recently completed a new novel, 'Yesterday's Servant,' which will be published soon. A second volume of her poems may also be looked for at an early date.
LAST night he lay within my arm,
So small, so warm, a mystery
To which God only held the key–
But mine to keep from fear and harm!
Ah! He was all my own, last night,
With soft, persuasive, baby eyes,
So wondering and yet so wise,
And hands that held my finger tight.
Why was it that he could not stay–
Too rare a gift? Yet who could hold
A treasure with securer fold
Than I, to whom love taught the way?
As with a flood of golden light
The first sun tipped earth's golden rim,
So all my world grew bright with him
And with his going fell the night–
O God, is there an angel arm
More strong, more tender than the rest?
Lay Thou my baby on his breast,
To keep him safe from fear and harm!
THEIR looks for me are bitter,
And bitter is their word–
I may not glance behind unseen,
I may not sigh unheard!
So fare we forth from Babylon,
Along the road of stone;
And none looks back to Babylon
Save I–save I alone!
My mother's eyes are glory-filled,
Save when they fall on me;
The shining of my father's face
I tremble when I see.
For they were slaves in Babylon,
And now they're walking free–
They leave their chains in Babylon,
I bear my chains with me!
At night a sound of singing
The vast encampment fills;
It sweeps the nearing hills–
But no one sings of Babylon,–
Their home of yesterday–
And no one prays for Babylon,
And I–I dare not pray!
Last night the Prophet saw me,
And while he held me there
The holy fire within his eyes
Burned all my secret bare.
'What! Sigh you so for Babylon?'
(I turned away my face)
'Here's one who turns to Babylon,
Heart-traitor to her race!'
I follow and I follow,
My heart upon the rack!
I follow to Jerusalem–
The long road stretches back
To Babylon, to Babylon!
And every step I take
Bears farther off from Babylon
A heart that cannot break!
O THE long days and nights! The days that bring
No sunshine that my shrinking soul can bear,
The nights that soothe not. All the airs of France,
Soft and sun-steeped, that once were breath of life,
Now stir no magic in me. I could weep–
Yet can I never weep–to see the land
That is my land no more! For where the soul
Doth dwell and the heart linger, there
Alone can be the native land, and I have left
Behind me one small spot of barren earth
That is my hold on heav'n!
You bid me tell
My story? That were hard. I have no art
And all my words have long been lost amid
The greater silences. The birds–they knew
My grief, nor did I feel the need of speech
To make my woe articulate to the wind!
If my tale halts, know 'tis the want of words
And not the want of truth.
'Twas long, you say?
Yes, yet at first it seemed not long. We watched
The ship recede, nor vexed them with a prayer.
Was not his arm about me? Did he not
Stoop low to whisper in my tingling ear?
The little Demon-island was our world,
So all the world was ours–no brighter sphere
That swung into our ken in purple heaven
Was half so fair a world! We were content.
Was he not mine? And I (he whispered this)
The only woman on love's continent!
How can I tell my story? Would you care
To hear of those first days? I cannot speak
Of them–they lie asleep so soft within
My heart a word would wake them? I'll not speak that word!
There came at last a golden day
When in my arms I held mine own first-born,
And my new world held three. And then I knew,
Mid joy so great, a passion of despair!
I knew our isle was barren, girt with foam
And torn with awful storm. I knew the cold,
The bitter, cruel cold! My tender babe,
What love could keep him warm? Beside my couch
Pale famine knelt with outstretched, greedy hand,
To snatch my treasure from me. Ah, I knew,
I knew what fear was then!
We fought it back,
That ghost of chill despair. He whom I loved
Fought bravely, as a man must fight who sees
His wife and child defenceless. But I knew–
E'en from the first–the unequal strife would prove
Too long, the fear too keen! It wore his strength
And in his eyes there grew the look of one
Who grapples time, and will not let it go,
Yet feels it slipping, slipping–
Ah, my dear!
I saw you die, and could not help or save–
Knowing myself to be the awful care
That weighed thee to thy grave!
The world held two
Now–one so frail and small, and one made strong
By love and weak by fear. That little life!
It trembled in my arms like some small flame
Of candle in a stealthy draught that blows
And blows again–one never knows from whence,
Yet feareth always– till at last, at last,
A darkness falls! So came the dark to me–
And it was night indeed!
Beside my love
I laid my lovely babe. And all fear fled;
For where joy is there only can fear be.
They fear not who have nothing left to fear!
. . . . .
So that is all my tale. I lived, I live
And shall live on, no doubt. The changeful sky
Is blue in France, and I am young–think you
I am still young! Though joy has come and passed
And I am gazing after with dull eyes!
One day there came a sail. It drew near
And found me on my island, all alone–
That island that had once held all the world–
They succoured me and bought me back again
To sunny France, and here I falter through
This halting tale of mine. And now 'tis told
I pray you speak of it no more!
If I would sleep o' nights my ears must close
To that sad sound of waves upon the beach,
To that sad sound of wind that waileth so!
To visions of the sun upon the sea
And green, grass-covered mounds, bleak, bleak, but still
With early flowers clustering here and there!
[When the Sieur de Roberval, appointed Viceroy of Canada by Francis I., sailed for his new possessions, he took with him his niece, the lovely and high-spirited Marguerite de Roberval. A cavalier of Picardy, who loved her, but was too poor to ask her hand in marriage, joined the company as a volunteer, but on the voyage out the affection of the young people was discovered by de Roberval, who was so enraged that he devised a terrible punishment. Near Newfoundland was a solitary island, called the Isle of Demons, because of the strange wailings of the wind over the rocks, and here Marguerite was abandoned. Her lover, however, succeeded in escaping his guards, and swam to shore. They built such shelter as they could, and this is the first European family home of which we know in Canada. After some years Marguerite was rescued by a fishing boat and restored to France, but not until both husband and child were dead. The poem contains her story, told by herself, upon her arrival in France.–Author's Note.]
THAT man is brave who at the nod of fate
Will lay his life a willing offering down,
That they who loved him may know length of days;
May stay awhile upon this pleasant earth
Drinking its gladness and its vigour in,
Though he himself lie silent evermore,
Dead to the gentle calling of the Spring,
Dead to the warmth of Summer; wrapt in dream
So deep, so far, that never dreamer yet
Has waked to tell his dream. Men there may be
Who, careless of its worth, toss life away,
A counter in some feverish game of chance,
Or, stranger yet, will sell it day by day
For toys to play with; but a man who knows
The love of life and holds it dear and good,
Prizing each moment, yet will let it go
That others still may keep the precious thing–
He is the truly brave!
This did Cadieux,
A man who loved the wild and held each day
A gift from Le Bon Dieu to fill with joy
And offer back again to Him who gave
(See, now, Messieurs, his grave!) We hold it dear
The story you have heard–but no? 'Tis strange,
For we all know the story of Cadieux!
He was a Frenchman born. One of an age
That glitters like a gem in history yet,
The Golden Age of France! 'Twould seem, Messieurs,
That every country has a Golden Age?
Ah well, ah well!–
But this Cadieux, he came
No one knew whence, nor cared, indeed, to know.
His simple coming seemed to bring the day,
So strong was he, so gallant and so gay–
A maker of sweet songs; with voice so clear
'Twas like the call of early-soaring bird
Hymning the sunrise; so at least 'twould seem
Mehwatta thought–the slim Algonquin girl
Whose shy black eyes the singer loved to praise.
She taught him all the soft full-throated words
With which the Indian-warriors woo their brides,
And he taught her the dainty phrase of France
And made her little songs of love, like this:
'Fresh is love in May
When the Spring is yearning,
Life is but a lay,
Love is quick in learning.
'Sweet is love in June:
All the roses blowing
Whisper 'neath the moon
Secrets for love's knowing.
'Sweet is love alway
When life burns to embers,
Hearts keep warm for aye
With what love remembers!'
Their wigwam rose beside the Calumet
Where the great waters thunder day and night
And dawn chased dawn away in gay content.
Then it so chanced, when many moons were spent,
The brave Cadieux and his brown brothers rose
To gather up their wealth of furs for trade;
And in that moment Fate upraised her hand
And, wantonly, loosed Death upon the trail,
Red death and terrible–the Iroquois!
(Oh, the long cry that rent the startled dawn!)
One way alone remained, if they would live–
The Calumet, the cataract–perchance
The good Saint Anne might help!
'In God's name, go!
Push off the great canoe, Mehwatta, go!–
Adieu, petite Mehwatta! Keep good cheer.
Say thou a prayer; beseech the good Saint Anne!–
For two must stay behind to hold the way,
And shall thy husband fail in time of need?
And would Mehwatta's eyes behold him shamed?–
Adieu!'–Oh, swift the waters bear them on!
Now the good God be merciful! ....
Cadieux and one Algonquin, and they played
With a bewildered foe, as children play,
Crying 'Lo, here am I!' and then 'Lo, here!' 'Lo, there!'
Their muskets spoke from everywhere at once–
So swift they ran behind the friendly trees,
They seemed a host with Death for General–
And the fierce foe fell back.
But ere they went
Their wingèd vengeance found the Algonquin's heart.
Cadieux was left alone!
Ah, now, brave soul,
Began the harder part! To wander through
The waking woods, stern hunger for a guide;
To see new life and know that he must die;
To hear the Spring and know she breathed 'Adieu'! ...
One wonders what strange songs the forest heard,
What poignant cry rose to the lonely skies
To die in music somewhere far above
Or fall in sweetness back upon the earth–
The requiem of that singer of sweet songs!
They found him–so–with cross upon his heart,
His cold hand fast upon this last Complaint–
'Ends the long trail–at sunset I must die!
I sing no more–O little bird, sing on
And flash bright wing against a brighter sky!
'Sing to my Dear, as once I used to sing;
Say that I guarded love and kept the faith–
Fly to her, little bird, on swifter wing.
'The world slips by, the sun drops down to-night–
Sweet Mary, comfort me, and let it be
Thy arms that hold me when I wake to light!'
[In the early days there came to the region of the Upper Ottawa–to Allumette and Calumet–a voyager by the name of Cadieux. He was more than an ordinary adventurer, for not only could he fight and hunt with the most expert, but he could make sweet songs, words and music, and sing them, too, in a way that was good to hear. So thought, at any rate, a pretty Indian maiden of the Algonquin Ottawas, whom he won for his wife. Their wigwam stood near to the Great Fall of the Calumet. After the season's hunting, Cadieux and his Indian friends were preparing to go to Montreal with their accumulation of furs, when, of a sudden, the alarm was given of the approach, through the woods, of a war party of their deadly enemies, the Iroquois. There was but one means of escape. The canoe was to be committed to the cataract, while someone remained to hold the Iroquois at bay. Cadieux and a single Algonquin remained. The Iroquois finally withdrew, but not before the Algonquin was killed. Cadieux, left alone, wandered for a time in the woods until he became exhausted. Returning at last to Petit-Rocher, and feeling his end approach, he made for himself a grave, and set up a rustic cross to sanctify his departure. His friends, returning to search for him, found him in his grave, partly covered with leaves and branches, the cross beside him, and his hands closed on his last song, "La Complainte de Cadieux."
The Lament is still sung by the French-Canadians, and the grave of Cadieux is still an object of veneration.–Author's Note.]