"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward."--ROBERT BROWNING.
SHORTLY after Mr. Bompas was accepted by the Church Missionary Society, he went to Salisbury Square and inquired how far it was to his mission-field, and the length of time required for the journey. When told it was about 8,000 miles, and that he was hardly likely to reach it that year, a smile passed over his face as he replied, "I see I must start with a small bag."
After he learned more about the country, a longing entered into his heart to start as soon as possible, and reach Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River, by Christmas Day. Was such a thing possible? No one before had ever done it in winter, and was it likely that the young, ardent missionary would be the first to accomplish the task? With this determination in view, Mr. Bompas was not long in making preparations for his journey, and on June 30, 1865, he left London for Liverpool, where he boarded the steamer Persia, bound for New York.
He travelled in company with the Rev. J. P. and Mrs. Gardiner and family and Miss M. M. Smith, who were going to the Red River. There were many passengers, mostly Americans, and for these an effort was made to hold service the first Sunday, but the captain refused to give his permission. On the following Sunday, however, they were more successful, and service was held in the saloon, attended by crew and passengers. Tracts were also distributed among the sailors, "accompanied by religious conversation."
Reaching New York on July 12, two days were spent at the Astor House Hotel, where they had the exciting experience of viewing a disastrous fire right across the street, when a large block of buildings, including Barnum's Museum, was destroyed. From New York they proceeded to Niagara by the Hudson River and New York Central Railway. On the way Mr. Bompas spent one night at Rochester, to see Captain Palmer, of the American Telegraph Company.
"He informed me," wrote Mr. Bompas, "that a party of explorers were already on their way to Fort Yukon from Sidkar, on the Pacific coast, with the view of carrying out the company's contract entered into with the Russian Government for laying a telegraph line through Siberia and across Behring's Strait, to join existing lines in America. Should the Atlantic cable prove successful, the Yukon line would, I suppose, complete the circuit of the globe." [Sitka, until recently the capital of Alaska.]
Mr. Bompas considered the American railways rather noisy and jostling, and the large saloon carriages, holding about sixty people, less pleasant than the English style. At the same time, he thought the general arrangements were "good and expeditious," and admired the system of communication throughout the train and the "booking through luggage by duplicate 'cheques' or metal badges."
Leaving Niagara, Chicago was reached by way of Detroit. Here were seen "many soldiers returning from the war, some of them wounded, and most looking pale and sickly, reminding one too plainly of the many who never returned." From Chicago they went by rail to La Crosse, and thence by steamer to St. Paul. Here Dr. Schultz, a Red River merchant, and afterwards Sir John Schultz, Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, was met, who conveyed their heavy luggage across the plains in his ox-train, and proved in many ways of great assistance.
At St. Cloud the first difficulty presented itself. Since the fearful Sioux massacre of 1862 people were in great dread all over the country, and they found it impossible to get anyone to convey then* on towards Red River. After much trouble and delay, they were forced to procure a conveyance for themselves. Before leaving St. Cloud they were told time and time again to beware of the Indians, who were always prowling around. "But," said one informant, "they will respect the English flag, and I advise you to take one along." Such a thing the party did not possess. But Mr. Bompas was equal to the occasion, so, procuring some red and white cotton, he soon formed quite a respectable banner, which was fastened to a small flagstaff erected on the cart. Some distance out on the prairie* mounted Indians appeared in sight, and, like the wind, one warrior swept down to view the small cavalcade. Beholding the flag of the clustered crosses, he gazed for a time upon the little band, and, moving away, left them unmolested.
"On the whole, however," said Mr. Bompas, "we travelled without special discomfort, Dr. Schultz acting as guide. The charge of the horses, making fires, cooking, encamping, driving, etc., of course, threw much work upon us, being without a servant."
Reaching the Red River in safety, Mr. Bompas was much pleased with the whole general appearance.
"The houses," he wrote, "are cleanly and cheerful, and new ones are being built. The settlement extends altogether about twenty-five miles down the banks of the river. In this distance there are five churches. The three which I saw are well built and spacious. The schoolrooms, also, and parsonages are of good size. Mr. Cowley was just removing into a new house of a very substantial character."
Here Mr. Bompas did not have long to wait, for the boats of the great Hudson Bay Company were * Dr. Schultz was overtaken some distance out on the prairie. ready to start on their long Northern journey, and he was to go with them. There were four boats, called a "brigade," each rowed by seven or eight men, "mostly Salteaux Indians, heathen, and unable to speak English--a tribe much averse to Christianity."
Then northward fled that fleet of boats, across great inland lakes, over hard portages where the freight had to be carried, past the Company's posts, mission-stations, and Indian encampments, where services were held when possible.
But winter was rapidly closing in upon them, and threatening the daring voyagers. Sixty-three days had they been out from the Red River Settlement when Portage la Loche was reached on October 12, and there they found they were too late to meet any boat going farther north. Here was a difficult situation, but Mr. Bompas was not to be defeated. Engaging a canoe and two French half-breeds, he pushed bravely forward. The journey was a hard one. In some places they had to battle with drifting ice, and the water froze to their canoe and paddles. Still they pressed on, all day long contending with running ice, and the bleak cold wind whistling around them, and freezing the water upon their clothes. At night there was the lonely shore, the camp-fire, the scanty meal, and the cold ground covered with brush for a bed. The next day up and on again--the same weary work, the same hard fight. Such was the struggle for eight long days, till Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, was reached.
Here Mr. Christie, the officer in charge of the post, gave him a hearty welcome; here the warm stove sent out its cheerful glow; and here, too, were to be found many comforts for months, if he would only stay and rest. But no, it was ever up and on. Never before had such a man stood within the fort. Who could conquer that northern stream at such a season? But the missionary only smiled, and asked for canoe and men. They were given a large craft and three Indian lads.
And once more that dauntless herald of the Cross sped northward. For several days the trim canoe cut the water, driven by determined arms. Then winter swept down in all its fury. The river became full of floating ice, jamming, tearing, and impeding their canoe. Axes were brought to bear. They would cleave a passage: the missionary must not be stopped. How they did work! The ice-chips flew. The spray dashed and drenched them, and then encased their bodies with an icy armour. Colder and colder it grew, and the river became a solid mass from bank to bank. The canoe was dragged ashore, and placed en cache on the bank with their baggage. All around was the pitiless wild. It was a dreary sight to this intrepid traveller, with winter upon him, the bleak wilderness surrounding him, and very little food. The enthusiasm of a less ardent spirit would have been completely dampened. But Mr. Bompas was made of sterner stuff, and without delay he and his companions pushed forward through the forest.
On and on they travelled by a circuitous route, through brushwood and thickets, with clothes torn, hands and faces scratched and bleeding, and uncertain where they were. Night shut down and wrapped them in its gloomy mantle. All the next day they struggled forward, without food, and again night overtook them. Still they staggered on, and just when wearied to the point of exhaustion the lights of Fort Resolution, on Great Slave Lake, gleamed their welcome through the darkness.
It was necessary for the traveller to remain here until the ice in the lake became firm enough to cross with dogs and snow-shoes. Mr. Lockhart, the Company's officer, offered his hospitality, and during the delay Mr. Bompas continued busy "in the preparation," as he tells us, u of letters for the winter express, which is dispatched hence to the south in December, and also in practising walking with snow-shoes, in preparation for my journey forward."
After remaining at Fort Resolution about a month, "Mr. Lockhart kindly dispatched him across the lake on snow-shoes, with two men and a sledge of dogs." Ice was found drifting in the open lake, and they were obliged to lengthen their course by following the shore very closely. "However, by God's help," wrote Mr. Bompas, "we arrived safely at the next post (Big Island) in five days, when I was again hospitably entertained by the officer in charge, Mr. Bird."
Here, again, he waited anxiously for the men from Fort Simpson with the winter packet of mails. They arrived on December 13, and four days later started for Fort Simpson, and the missionary with them. Could they make the fort by Christmas Day? That was the question. Only a short time remained in which to do it. Day after day they sped forward. Saturday came, and still they were on the trail, and the next would be Christmas Day. One hundred and seventy-seven days had passed since leaving London; and was he to lose, after all, and so very near his destination? But still the dogs raced forward, nearer and nearer, till--oh, joy! on Christmas morning the fort hove into sight. There was the flag floating from its tall staff; there were the men crowding around to give their welcome, and among them stood that dauntless pioneer, the Rev. W. W. Kirkby, with great surprise upon his face, as Mr. Bompas rushed forward and seized him by the hand.
Great was Mr. Bompas's delight in having accomplished the journey, and reached the fort on that blessed day in time for the morning service, and thankfully he wrote:
"As I had especially wished to arrive by Christmas, I could not but acknowledge a remarkable token that our lives are indeed in God's hand. It is hardly needful to say how warm a welcome I received from Mr. Kirkby. When I heard what a trying time he had passed through last fall in consequence of the epidemic sickness among the Indians, I felt very glad to have persevered in my efforts to reach him this winter."
No less enthusiastically did Mr, Kirkby write to the Church Missionary Society on June 3, 1866:
"You will imagine, better than I can tell, what a delight and surprise the unexpected arrival of Mr. Bompas was to us. He reached us in health and safety on Christmas morning, making the day too doubly happy by his presence and the glad tidings that he brought. He was a Christmas-box indeed, and one for which we thank "God with a full heart. The entire unexpectedness of his coming caused us to see in it more of the loving-kindness of our God. Such a thing as an arrival here in winter is never thought of, nor had it ever before occurred. After the boats leave here in the fall, we have no visitors from without the district until now, when the waters are open again. Our dear brother deserves the greatest credit for the way in which he persevered in getting to us, and the accomplishment of his journey speaks much for his energy and determination. A more auspicious day, too, he could not have had for his arrival. He was just in time for morning service, so that we had, at once, the happiness of partaking of the Holy Communion together. Then followed the Indian service, in which he expressed much delight; and in the evening, like good S. Marsden of old, he began his work by preaching from St. Luke ii. 10. He remained with us until Easter, and then went on with the packet-men to Great Bear Lake, where I trust God is doubly blessing him.
"Fancy! it is not yet a year since he left England, and in that short time he has travelled so far, entered upon his work, and acquired enough of the language to be able to tell to the Indians, in their own tongue, the wonderful works of God. I admire that way of doing things exceedingly, and would accord all honour to him who thus performs his Master's work."